Biography 25.4 (2002) 545-568
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Performing The "Unnatural" Life:
America's First Gay Autobiography
The first known autobiography written in America by a self-described homosexual man appeared just over a century ago. The author, who was thirty years old when he published the autobiography in 1901, adopted the pseudonym Claude Hartland. A publisher of medical textbooks in Saint Louis, Missouri, printed his book—a slender volume in a green, clothbound edition, which Hartland titled The Story of a Life. The narrative's one-hundred pages detail Hartland's physical symptoms and personal idiosyncrasies as a kind of case history for the benefit of the local medical fraternity, to whom he dedicates the book. Records show that Hartland's memoir actually reached few of those physicians, falling into obscurity for decades until San Francisco's Grey Fox Press reissued it in paperback in 1985, with a foreword by C. A. Tripp. 1 David Bergman, James Gifford, and Jonathan Ned Katz have recently joined Tripp in recovering Hartland's memoir, including it in developing histories of gay and lesbian lives and life writing. 2 This article takes up a number of points from these historians and theorists of sexuality and autobiography to explore more specifically the memoir's original geographic context and professional nature. Revisiting the book's urban setting, reconstructing the medical community as a professional entity receiving Hartland's work, and recreating some of middle America's popular attitudes toward sexuality at the turn of the twentieth century, all serve to clarify the local, and even interpersonal, work Hartland accomplishes in this memoir.
Even at these intimate levels, however, his memoir sounds remote from contemporary gay British autobiographies, which remain more familiar to modern readers. In Britain, John Addington Symonds, Edward Carpenter, Edward Prime-Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde had begun to coin such terms as "intersexes," "simisexualist," "uranian," or more famously, "the love that dare not speak its name." Hartland only seems to have had access to the languages [End Page 545] of medical pathology and Christian morality. The British memoirists seem to have found receptive, if narrow and sharply defined audiences. Hartland addresses professionals who referred to his kind—if at all—as "inverts" or "erotopaths," who saw his behavior as perverse, his life as unnatural. Hartland's work can, however, help critics develop a more nuanced understanding of those more prominent and popular memoirs, by extending our notions of both the literary genres of autobiography and the impact of socioeconomic class on the historical construction of gay and lesbian identities. Oliver S. Buckton has recently noted that the varying modes of "secrecy" in the autobiographies of these relatively wealthy gay English writers result from "an unwillingness to jeopardize the cultural privilege and textualauthority of the Victorian male author" (13). As a working-class Midwesterner who had never finished college, Hartland lacked much of the authority these other writers enjoyed, and possessed fewer means of reaching like-minded audiences. Even as an Anglo-American male who sometimes benefited from his status, Hartland could make a more candid confession than his contemporaries precisely because he had less to lose in terms of personal authority and cultural privilege.
Explaining that at age thirty his life is over, he seems indeed to have little choice but to conform to the medical case history model that his audience of presumably heterosexual physicians expected. Working without any noticeable tradition of gay life writing, he found that the only model available to him led him to construct his personality as pathological, and his stance as penitent. By acting out of strategic self-disclosure as well as desperation, however, Hartland also makes his autobiography a covert advertisement intended for a more exclusive readership. He narrates supposed perversity to a mainstream audience of physicians, while simultaneously winking toward a narrower group who could detect in Hartland's prose a subtler appeal for sympathy. As he elaborately performs a life thought to be "unnatural," Hartland flirts with readers whose lives more closely resembled his own.
A brief survey of Hartland's work...