Rare piece of queer history found with a simple Google search

milkboys Books & Magazines, History & People 10 Comments

Researchers at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University made the experience that sometimes a small treasure can be hidden in plain sight when a simple Google search led them to a rare document credited with helping to lay the foundation for the gay rights movement.

English writer John Addington Symonds (1840-1893)

Written in 1873 by English poet and historian John Addington Symonds, A Problem in Greek Ethics was an essay questioning why Western culture, which had modeled itself on that of classical Greece, did not embrace and accept homosexuality as the ancient Greeks had supposedly done. Fearing that a work promoting the morality of same-sex relations – which were deemed a criminal offense in 19th century England – might potentially lead to his imprisonment, Symonds had only 10 copies printed in an effort to keep it from falling into the wrong hands. Of these, five had been thought to have survived, now in the collections of libraries in the UK and US.

According to the Baltimore Sun, that assumption was abruptly proven wrong when Gabrielle Dean, a curator at Johns Hopkins, was doing research for an upcoming exhibit called “Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds.”

“I was trying to verify the authenticity of Symonds’ handwriting by comparing the example we had to samples of his handwriting in other books,” she said. “I googled ‘John Addington Symonds’ handwriting’ and one of the hits was a brand-new listing for ‘A Problem in Greek Ethics’ from a rare book dealer.”

She shared the information with Shane Butler, director of the university’s Classics Research Lab, and the two obtained approval to purchase the book for an undisclosed price. Butler said, “I was blown away when Gabrielle showed me the listing… The odds of coming across something so incredibly rare are practically zero.”

Symonds was himself attracted to men, but like most gay men of his era lived a closeted life, with a wife and four children – though his sexual orientation was, at least late in his life, something of an “open secret.” While his name is mostly familiar today only with literary scholars, he was well-known in his time, counting such literary figures as Walt Whitman and Robert Louis Stevenson in his circle of acquaintances, and his writings in A Problem in Greek Ethics seem to have influenced Oscar Wilde in his defense while on trial for “gross indecency.”

Butler says, “Even if Symonds was forgotten after he died, his essay wasn’t. Pirated copies were passed hand to hand and read throughout the 20th century. The essay has been enormously influential in the struggle for gay rights.”

“There’s something sacred about a book like this,” he adds, “especially for queer students and gay faculty like myself. Just knowing that it’s there and being able to hold it and turn its pages is incredibly moving.”

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Comments 10

  1. Must be out of mind. Gay / Homo watering holes / bars are not the inventing of artists nor writers nor actors of renown nor of power. Gay and Homo power is elsewise to ambiguity, how ever some are cute there in.
    Thanks for the show of him. He is NOT a hero. NOT even a bit.

  2. “purchase the book for an undisclosed price”
    Culture has a price now? ;)

    Google searches often return interesting quotes from the 40+ millions books and magazines scanned by Google Books. Not always relevant to the original search, but sometimes opening to other fun areas for the curious researcher…

    At least there won’t be any copyright issues with this book that is now in the public domain, and we should be able to read it soon after it’s scanned.

  3. I learned about John Addington Symonds, “A Problem in Greek Ethics” when I was a teenager and I am now 65 years old. This was no secret to anyone who was familiar with the literary giants who liked boys and frequently referred to this work by Symonds.

  4. This is a book about pederasty in the classical sense or ephebophilia, and what many call “boy love” today. This whole area of sexuality is anathema to the modern “gay rights movement”. And the Baltimore Sun says this was just discovered? Anyone with any knowledge of gay history has known about this work for decades. Amazon in its current listing has had it since 2007 and describes the work as follows:

    “This book is a ground-breaking study of the Greek institution of paiderastia. This was a custom by which adolescent men made alliances with older men of a romantic and sexual nature. The young men in question were the same age as contemporary teen pop stars (approximately from puberty to the Athenian age of majority, 21). And they were treated similarly, as celebrities, showered with gifts and attention, and fought over by lovers. Philosophers such as Plato considered these same-sex unions as a remedy for tyranny, the bedrock of a cultured society, and the purest form of love.

    Rictor Norton discusses the work in 1997 here:

    Never forget what Edmund S. Carpenter has said, since the modern “gay movement” is most guilty of this trait:
    “We use media to destroy cultures, but we first use media
    to create a false record of what we are about to destroy.”
    Edmund S. Carpenter, 1972

  5. Victor and Bradford you misunderstood the article. They didn’t say they just found out about the book lol it was about them finding the very first print of the book of which only TEN ever existed so the odds of randomly finding one so much later were astronomically low.

  6. Johns Hopkins researchers are idiots if they have never heard of this work. As Victor as cited above, it can be found at Rictor Norton’s site. But Rictor Norton is a great scholar and a genius I might add. The fools at Johns Hopkins cannot compete with that!
    But fools with tools are still fools and don’t let your Google fool you!

  7. The main problem with the article is that it says Symonds “liked men”, and that this book has something to do with being “gay”.

    It doesn’t – he liked BOYS.

    The second problem is that it suggests gay sex was accepted in Ancient Greece. It wasn’t: men were allowed to love BOYS.

    1. So sucking a 25-year-old d*ck is a beautiful act of gay love and sucking a 17-year-old d*ck is a disgusting act of paedophilic sickness. Oh, girls, get a grip!!! This is as big a load of shit as blacks can’t be racist.

      1. Bob, you don’t understand what Wordworth is saying. Reread his comment.
        What Wordworth is pointing out is that like the Ancient Greeks, Symonds loved boys. That is what his book is about, boylove. The gay community in general has disowned boylovers. Long live BOYLOVE! As Goethe has said, “Boy Love is as old as humanity”. “Die Knabenliebe sei so alt wie die Menschheit”, sagte Goethe in 1831

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