- Picturing Same-Sex Marriage in the Antebellum United States:The Union of "Two Most Excellent Men" in Longstreet's "A Sage Conversation"
Augustus Baldwin Longstreet's short story "A Sage Conversation" appears at first glance to be an astonishingly modern tale. It assembles an elaborate social tableau that has at its center "George Scott and David Snow; two most excellent men, who became so much attached to each other that they actually got married."1 The story was included in the author's 1835 collection Georgia Scenes, Characters, Incidents &c. in the First Half Century of the Republic, an early and formative contribution to the tradition of American humor. Longstreet's volume went on to enjoy not only widespread popularity in its day but also an ongoing fascination for latter-day literary critics, as evidenced by the scholarly edition published in 1998 by the University of Georgia Press. Georgia Scenes has attracted a significant body of criticism and continues to find readers today. In fact, "A Sage Conversation" was one of two Longstreet stories reprinted in its entirety by the editors of the second edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (1985), appearing again in the third (1989) and fourth (1994) editions, before being excluded from the fifth (1998).2
Remarkably, however, critics have overlooked the question of how to situate "A Sage Conversation" in relation to the history of sexuality; indeed, David Rachels, editor of the Georgia edition, has complained that the story, even though it "may be the best of the Georgia Scenes," nonetheless "is certainly the most misunderstood because critics have been unwilling to [End Page 197] recognize its sexual content."3 To a modern reader, part of what makes the story so strange is its failure to exhibit the nervous laughter of one tiptoeing around a forbidden subject. Longstreet's narrator broaches his theme of two men marrying in a cheery tone and renders the nonprocreative character of such a marriage as the punchline of a humorous account of the lives of antebellum rural white Southerners. Longstreet's complex and multilayered joke about two men who marry one another in "A Sage Conversation" provides an artifact of a profoundly different moment from our own in the long, intersecting histories of marriage and sexuality in the United States, if situated within a properly contextualized reading.
Longstreet's tale took place in a nineteenth-century world where there was no discussion about codifying same-sex marriage in law, and yet he was not the only antebellum American to mention the possibility of two men marrying. In the most influential antebellum American treatise on the law of marriage and divorce, Joel Prentiss Bishop mentioned and dismissed the possibility matter-of-factly: "Marriage between two persons of one sex could have no validity, as none of the ends of matrimony would be thereby accomplished."4 This view might appear familiar to modern eyes, given that contemporary opponents of same-sex marriage continue to emphasize the importance of childbearing, but as the tone and underlying logic of Bishop's analysis reveal, that familiarity is deceptive. Bishop made this observation in a chapter on procreative impediments to marriage, which by his accounting would arise if the wife could not bear children, if either spouse had "such malformation [of the genitals] as precludes intercourse," or if the husband were impotent, which would render the marriage fraudulent if he proceeded while already "knowing of [the] defect" and would constitute "breach of an implied warranty" if he did not know.5 Bishop dwelt on possible physical impediments on the wife's side, recommending a court-ordered examination of her genitals.6 This brief example from the legal realm points toward a crucial insight for Longstreet's story: in a world whose reigning "commonsensical" ideas about marriage were so profoundly different from our own, the very concept of two men marrying was imagined, spoken about, and written about in ways radically unfamiliar to us.
Though Georgia Scenes may be read today primarily by specialists in Southern U.S. literature, the book was one of the more remarkable dynamos of nineteenth-century American literature. Longstreet's sketches appeared...