The Overflowing of Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation of the American Republic (review)
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The Overflowing of Friendship: Love Between Men and the Creation of the American Republic. By Richard Godbeer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 254. $35 cloth)

Richard Godbeer follows his earlier studies of sexuality in early America with this impressively erudite study of male friendship, as expressed in letters, journals, and other literary forms, from the Puritan days to the early republic of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. He does not proceed exactly chronologically, [End Page 121] but instead his five chapters center on different ways in which male-male friendships were conceived.

Godbeer begins with an engagingly written and persuasive introduction that pulls back from the overstated readings of others who always see sex in the language of intimacy. He tries to explain the value of male intimacy on its own terms, even when expressed physically, and to separate it, on the one hand, from sodomy, and on the other, from the soulless "platonic" relationships that in American culture eschewed any physicality in an attempt to spiritualize relations. Godbeer is looking for a middle ground, and he finds it by attending closely to the texts he considers.

As a literary critic, there are times when I would like to tweak Godbeer for a reading that seems to me less attuned to nuance than it might be, but at the same time I must admit that the examples he chooses are engaging and the ways in which he discusses them are without exception compelling. In the first chapter, he describes relations among three men of late-eighteenth-century Philadelphia whose letters and journals are rich in the details of male affection. Godbeer talks at length about the love these men feel for each other, and he shows at the same time how this love was perceived by those around them and how it functioned within the culture of sensibility that flourished at the time.

In a second chapter, Godbeer explores these same questions in a larger context, and he attempts to show exactly how friendship functioned in the development of young men with intellectual aspirations. Daniel Webster's letters to his friends George Herbert and Thomas Merrill are full of the language of love, expressed even in physical terms. Godbeer admits that it is impossible to tell, in these cases and in others he examines, "whether such feelings ever translated into erotic attraction or expressed themselves in the form of sexual relations" (p. 56). I agree, but in cases where the language is as hot and heavy as in any love letters between men and women, I wish that Godbeer might try positing the sexual, if only to see what sense it makes of the other details he uncovers—like relations to [End Page 122] other friends, to families, and even to women and marriage.

His third chapter takes us back to the Puritans and the ways in which male love and Christianity are mutually imbricated. This is a rich and fascinating chapter, which reopens some of the Puritan language to a new understanding of the place of male intimacy in the colonies. His fourth chapter catapults us forward again to the American Revolution, and although he starts with George Washington and his lovingly paternal attitude to his comrades, he very quickly discusses the intriguing case of Alexander Hamilton, whose love of his friend John Laurens is expressed so beautifully in letters that it is difficult not to believe that it is love in all its forms. Since Laurens was killed in a late battle of the Revolution, we have to agree with Godbeer that we will never know in what ways this relationship might have developed after the war.

This is a splendid study that should be useful to students at every level and to scholars in the field. I know that it will be useful in my own work, and I will recommend it to scholars in literary as well as historical fields. We should all be grateful to Richard Godbeer for such a thoughtful and careful study.

George E. Haggerty

George E. Haggerty is distinguished professor of English at the University of California, Riverside. His most recent...


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