The young men would gaze into each other's eyes. They might hold hands. One of them would fall ill, and his friend would murmur caring nothings at the bedside. It was a familiar scenario in 19th-century American fiction and, like the English school story, it often ended in pathos, or in the marriage of one friend to the other's sister.
The master of the subgenre was Bret Harte, who found international fame with touching but slightly ironic stories of friendships formed in the California gold rush. A variant is to be found in Horatio Alger's "rags to riches" stories, in which successful men would feel an unaccountable interest in their juniors: "I wish he were here with me tonight. Why didn't I urge him to come with me ... I don't know what gives me such an interest in that boy, but I'd sooner do him a good turn than any man I know."
We know in the wake of Michel Foucault and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick not to impose an anachronistic homo-hetero binary on material that dates from before that binary came into place. Before the Oscar Wilde trials and the emergence of sexology, same-sex intimacy was perhaps a more fluid and emotional business. A romantic friendship did not necessarily mean a "sexual" interest, and same-sex acts did not come from or result in the identity of "the homosexual".
The danger, though, is then to stabilise and idealise the past as a benign place, as "more innocent", or non-sexual, or only insignificantly sexual. Axel Nissen leaps clumsily and censoriously to this conclusion. He tells us about "our current preoccupation with genital desire", our need to orient our relationships around "body-and-mind expanding sexual encounters".
Nissen's late 19th century is, by contrast, a pleasant place in which men may or may not have sex, but would not be overly concerned about it either way. If we do not find accounts of sex, this may be due not to "reticence" or "prudery", but to lower levels of "self-consciousness and self-examination in connection with the sexual life".
And yet there were plenty of injunctions in the period against all but a particular kind of marital, procreative sex. Even if "the homosexual" was not firmly in place as an identity, sex between men was often a dangerous and unnameable business. Nissen describes some of the fiction of male-male intimacy as "naughty", "risque", and "coded". If there was not much concern with sex and with sexual correctness, what was being "coded" and why?
Nissen tells us that the past is "thick, like molasses, and like molasses it is dark and sweet"; he dresses his discussions with present-day erotic catchphrases - "Go Sister, Soul Sister", "Sex in the City" and "Boys to Men". He is drawn to the past as a nicer, less genital place, and yet he is also primly enchanted with history as an implicitly erotic narrative. His past is an "innocent, pre-Freudian age", but also a place of "titillation" and double narratives. Inevitably, these confusions prevent him from seeing what is in front of his eyes. Henry James' Basil Ransome is offered to us as a "Virginian hunk", although James himself describes Basil as "sallow" and "shabby", with "sedentary shoulders". The relationship between Mark Twain's Huck and Jim is classed as a "paean" to romantic friendship, although Nissen never manages to explain what is "romantic" about it.
Nissen brings to light some curious and largely forgotten authors and texts, and he attempts re-readings of several familiar classics. Unfortunately, though, his frequent and contradictory dealings in category and generalisation prevent him from doing justice to the material.
Manly Love: Romantic Friendship in American Fiction
By Axel Nissen. University of Chicago Press. 240pp, £31.00. ISBN 9780226586663. Published 18 September 2009