Monday, March 20th, 2023

Hiding (successfully!) in plain sight

For the Pleasure of His Company

An Affair of the Misty City, Thrice Told

by Charles Warren Stoddard

Published by Forgotten Books

Published May 6, 2017
(Reprint Edition)
Fiction (subgenre)
270 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

July 29, 2017.

Contrary to the claims made for the 1987 Gay Sunshine edition of For the Pleasure of His Company, Charles Warren Stoddard’s novel, first published in 1903, is not “the first relatively open American novel with homosexual themes.” That would be Bayard Taylor’s 1870 Joseph and His Friend: A Story of Pennsylvania; aimed at (among other categories of readers) those “who believe in the truth and tenderness of man’s love for man, as of man’s love for woman” (Taylor’s preface). There is no indication that physical sex is part of the “perfect friendship” between Philip and Joseph, though that “perfect friendship” is also referred to as “love.”

In 1903, as in 1870 or 1947 (with the publication date of John Horne Burns’ The Gallery), “any American writer who chose to touch on homoerotic themes was obliged to be vague in order to be published” (Roger Austen). The weak-willed, physically attractive if less than “manly” young poetaster who is the main character of Pleasure, which Stoddard labeled his “confession,” Paul Clitheroe, defies the conventional expectations of Society and had a “heart full of longing; he craved sympathy and love; he gave both freely—far too freely, as he discovered on a certain few occasions” (33).

Over the bumpy course of the novel, Paul has two intense relationships with other young men with whom he shares beds as well as spending days in close intimacy. The first is a charlatan from the American South, Foxlair, who skips out on debts in Oakland (“Arcadia”) and steals prized possessions of Paul’s when he decamps from Paul’s Eyrie (on the long-ago leveled Rincon Hill of northeastern San Francisco) a few steps ahead of creditors.

Foxlair is only the first of the characters—including Paul Clitheroe twice—to do a disappearing act over the course of the novel.

The second of the three “books” of the novel centers on (stilted) dialogue with the tomboyish Juno, who prefers to be addressed as “Jack.” Neither of them wants to marry; both want to write (she to revolutionize, he to prettify). She provides the occasion for Paul to wonder why boyish girls are regarded with delight while girlish boys are regarded with horror. Juno/Jack says she does not know but suggests that it might be because the girlish boy “has lost the charm of his sex, that is manliness; and the tom-boy has lost the defect of hers—a kind of selfish dependence” (98). Paul does not accept or reject this possible explanation, changing the subject to the unpopularity among women of women who are most prized by men.

In the third book, Paul’s conversations with the fag hag who fixes up young men with other young men, called by her coterie “Little Mama,” take up more space than his conversations with the handsome actor she has chosen for him, Grattan Field, whom she calls “Roscius” (after the Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus, a favorite of Sulla) who has “a strong, beautiful face” (whatever that might denote!). Before Mama can introduce them, they are “locked in an embrace… [that presents] the tableau of earthly felicity.” She exclaims they “are to be brothers and love one another with brotherly love” (which was probably read by most in 1903 as nonsexual, and as code by those using fraternity as a cover for same-sex sex).

Paul had been “strongly attracted by the youthful fairness of his figure; the richness of his singularly well-modulated voice; the airy elasticity of his step; the joyous and soaring freedom of his spontaneous gesticulation” (133). This catalog is suggestive of effeminacy, but not explicitly erotic. After a late supper following one of Roscius’s stage performances, “Little Mama had suggested that Paul spend the night with Roscius; Roscius graciously extended the hospitality of his chamber and they shared it together” (140), which is also open to being read as euphemistic about sexual congress, or as “innocent” (sexless) shelter. Paul was “the most natural of the three.” To the delight of Little Mama, he and Roscius met repeatedly after their first night.

After a flare-up of insecurity, Paul is comforted in “the warm manly pressure of the arms [Roscius’s] that encircled” him. “All at once he began to love that wildly impulsive, strangely contradictory, utterly ungoverned and ungovernable nature.” In this obfuscatory effusion of ink, the word “love” stands out. This contretemps and its reconciliation “proved to be the sealing of a bond of intimacy that knit them closer and closer every hour, leading Mama, the prioress (also referred to as “pope”) of the “Order of Young Knighthood,” to proclaim the couple her “Jewels” (143).

A misunderstanding tears their “passion” to tatters, and Paul tells Mama that “I could not love him as I have loved him” any more (though the reader is in the dark about the content of that passionate now extinguished love. (170)

The book ends with a voyage back to the South Seas and Paul leaving his San Francisco (Misty City) friends and the yacht that transported him to get into a canoe with three “savages.” This flight to Tahiti, Samoa, or Tonga was one that Foxlair proposed Paul accompany him on just before Foxlair vanished from the San Francisco Bay Area. After telling Paul “I love you better than any fellow I ever met,” Foxlair reassured him that “once on the other side of the sea we are all right, no one can touch us” (40-41), though both of these statements could be explained away (“fellow” not “person”; immunity from legal proceedings for Foxlair’s debts and scams rather than for congress with each other).

What the “brotherly” comrades do, beyond adhering, is unclear. The relative chronology of the three “books” is unclear. (The middle one is based on Stoddard’s time in Italy, after having left San Francisco). Whether Paul is otherwise “effeminate” in the old sense of enjoying the company of women or in the more modern sense of lacking in conventional masculinity is unclear. (Stoddard himself was regarded by Ambrose Bierce and others as unmanly and sought the company of robustly masculine youth throughout his vagabond life.)

On 2 March, 1869, Stoddard wrote Walt Whitman of his joys in spending nights with supple Polynesians: “I have done wonders in my intercourse with these natives. For the first time I act as my nature prompts me. It would not answer in America, as a general principle—not even in California, where men are tolerably bold” (“intercourse” had a nonsexual meaning—interaction—in the 19th century, though it seems very likely that the narrower—if deniable— sexual meaning was apt).

Stoddard thought about writing a sequel about Paul in the company of handsome young Polynesian men but did not, though earlier effusions about Polynesian Naturvölk were gathered in another 1987 Gay Sunshine Press book, Cruising the South Seas. (In addition to the out-of-print Gay Sunshine edition of For the Pleasure, there is a new, blurry facsimile of the 1903 original printing available.) He also did not get around to writing “The Confessions of an Unnaturalist” (Austen xli), though he concluded his 1904 collection of autobiographical stories The Island of Tranquil Delights with the statement that “I shall not have written in vain if I, for a few moments only, have afforded interest of pleasure to the careful student of the Unnatural History of Civilization.”

Although Stoddard’s only novel was not praised when it was published, although the homoeroticism in it was ignored or missed by such critics as wrote about the book. I would agree with the Overland Monthly reviewer Austen (149) quotes, who noted the lack of “ease of diction.” He further complained that “the action is tedious, lagging, it does not give the impression of inevitableness, nor of sincerity.”

A plot is hard to find in Pleasure, or even a chronology to locate the three “books” in a progression of time, but I think that both in the portrait of Bohemian poetasters and in the infatuations (or more) of the idealized, younger version of the author, there is some sincerity beneath the obfuscations and effusions.

Rudyard Kipling, who had intense relationships with younger men himself (such as Wolcott Balestier) and who suggested the title Stoddard gave the book (but not the confusing singular nouns of the subtitle, “an affair”; the singular “his” in the title is, presumably, Paul), was concerned that it would be misunderstood, though Kipling’s real concern may have been that it would be understood—as homoerotic or even as homosexual (Austen, 138).

Austen, Roger. 1991. Genteel Pagan: The Double Life of Charles Warren Stoddard, edited by John W. Crowley. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Additional References

Austen, Roger, 1977. Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Lynch, Michael 1985. “’Here Is Adhesiveness’: From Friendship to Homosexuality.” Victorian Studies 29:67-96.

Stoddard, Charles Warren. 1903. For the Pleasure of His Company: An Affair of the Misty City. San Francisco: A. M. Robertson.

—. 1904. The Island of Tranquil Delights: A South-Sea Idyl and Others. Boston: H.B. Turner

Sueyoshi, Amy. 2012. Queer Compulsions: Race, Nation, and Sexuality in the Affairs of Yone Noguchi. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

©2017 by Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.