“The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel” by Bayard Taylor and edited and annotated by L.A. Fields— Rediscovering a Lost Classic

Taylor, Bayard. “The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel” edited by L.A. Fields, Lethe Press; Annotated edition , 2018.

Rediscovering a Lost Classic

Amos Lassen

There is some discussion as to whether Bayard Taylor wrote the first American gay novel. L.A. Fields says that this is indeed the first, a nineteenth century book “Joseph and His Friend” that is often unknown to contemporary readers of queer fiction. Author and researcher L.A. Fields wants to change that with her new book, “The Annotated Joseph and His Friend: The Story of America’s First Gay Novel”. She supplies notes to each chapter that move from the private life of the man who inspired the story (Fitz-Greene Halleck), through the secrets of its author (Taylor), noting especially his private love for and public rivalry with poet Walt Whitman. The notes expand on Whitman’s unique position in gay and American history: especially on the coming-out letters Whitman called ”avowals” from such people as Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde. There are notes about Whitman’s witnessing of the Civil War, the Lincoln presidency, and his lover’s attendance at Ford’s Theater the night of Lincoln’s assassination; as well as Whitman’s own understanding and defense for writing honestly about the love of men. This study combines Taylor’s original 1870 novel with American history, contemporary anecdote, and curiosities from a more secret history. A new topic is positioned behind every chapter, providing the background that shows just how important this novel was at the time, how rare it is now, and how daring it’s always been to tell the truth. I do have the odd sense of wondering if it was so important to its time, why do we not know more about it or at least heard of its existence. I am not arguing either for or against the book’s standing but I am curious as to why I had not heard of it except in passing at a very scholarly seminar on early American LGBT literature.

Nonetheless, it is very good that we now have this to refer to and as an annotated edition. We must congratulated writer L.A. Fields on her effort. However, if this is such an important book, I cannot help but wonder why it was not picked up by a major publishing house.

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