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San Francisco's forgotten gay poet


Charles Warren Stoddard (1843-1909) suffered for his secrets. From an early age, he knew he had something to hide. He was what his idol and sometime correspondent, Walt Whitman, would call “adhesive”—homosexual. Dreamy and delicately built, he also made a natural poet.

One evening in 1861, he paced along the south side of Clay Street in San Francisco. He lingered at a box belonging to a literary weekly called the Golden Era, and spent a full hour summoning the courage to slide his submission through the slot. When the Era appeared the following Sunday, he bought a copy and leafed breathlessly through it. On the fifth page was his poem, accompanied by an appreciative note from the editors, requesting the anonymous author for more.

Stoddard was seventeen when he published his first poem. By day he worked in a bookstore, dusting the shelves. By night he wrote effusive, sensuous verse that swiftly secured his place as the boy wonder of the San Francisco literary scene. But his writing wasn’t the only thing to recommend him. “More delightful than either his prose or his verse,” William Dean Howells remembered, “was the man himself”—what Howells called his “utter loveableness.” Feminine, with pleading blue eyes and an exuberant laugh, Stoddard possessed a relentlessly endearing quality that made him a beloved companion to many writers. Yet he also had a more melancholy aspect, linked to his submerged homosexuality. He loved being in love, even—or especially—with those who didn’t reciprocate his affections. He came to expect rejection, occasionally to take a kind of pleasure in it. He lived in a world with no words for what he was, where gay love was not only forbidden but invisible—enciphered in metaphor, perhaps, but never plainly discussed.

These torments made him fragile, prone to depression. In 1864, after a brief stint as a college student, he suffered a nervous breakdown and sailed for Hawaii, where his sister lived. He adored it. The lushness of the scenery seemed ideally suited to his aesthetic; the sensuality of the natives helped liberate his own. He explored gay relationships with local boys, beginning a lifelong enchantment with the tropics. When he returned to San Francisco in 1865, he abandoned his studies and committed himself to a literary life. He grew close to Bret Harte, who gave invaluable guidance, and Ina Coolbrith, who advised him to marry—advice she notably never followed herself. In 1867, with Harte’s help, Stoddard published his first book. The response from both West and East was withering: critics on both coasts slammed his poetry as derivative, overblown. The author was devastated. He renounced poetry, converted to Catholicism, and returned to Hawaii.

His Catholic faith and his infatuation with “primitive” cultures of the Pacific belonged to the same impulse. Both offered anti-modern alternatives to the dreary materialism of midcentury America. “I couldn’t be anything else than a Catholic,” he confessed to a friend, “—except—except a downright savage, and I wish to God I were that!”