Matthiessen, F. O.

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MATTHIESSEN, F. O. (b. 19 February 1902; d. 1 April 1950), literary scholar, political activist.

Trained at Yale and Harvard Universities as a scholar of European Renaissance literature, Francis Otto Matthiessen became one of the preeminent scholars of American literature of his generation. His American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), which established the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville as evidence of a genuinely American literature in the mid-nineteenth century, remains a critical touchstone for American literary historians and students. American Renaissance serves as the title not only for countless college and university courses, but also for numerous studies of antebellum American literature. In addition to being recognized for his influential literary criticism, which includes one of the first studies of T. S. Eliot (1935) and books on Henry James and the James family, Sarah Orne Jewett, and Theodore Dreiser, Matthiessen exemplifies for LGBT and queer studies scholars, students, and teachers a tradition of political activism and persistent attention to the world outside the "ivy-covered walls" of the academy. Matthiessen may have written about—some would even say, produced—a distinctly American literary tradition, but he was also always concerned with issues beyond the boundaries of the literary.

Although he spent nearly his entire career teaching history and literature at Harvard (1930–1950), among Matthiessen's lesser-known writings are essays in news magazines calling attention to the plight of Mexican American coal miners in the American Southwest, which he visited in the 1930s. Likewise, as one of the founders of the Harvard Teachers' Union, and as a Christian socialist (a descriptive phrase he sometimes used to encapsulate his guiding beliefs), Matthiessen lobbied repeatedly on behalf of labor and in support of fair and comprehensive union representation. In 1948 he seconded the nomination of Henry Wallace at the national Progressive Party Convention. In the late 1940s, Matthiessen helped to found the Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization—what some called an "intellectual Marshall Plan"—which he hoped would serve as an opportunity to discuss with Europeans the possibilities of American culture and democracy and "to enact anew the chief function of culture and humanism, to bring man again into communication with man" (From the Heart of Europe, 1948, p. 13).

In 1923, while aboard the ocean liner Paris en route to England as a Rhodes scholar, Matthiessen met the painter Russell Cheney; for the next twenty years, they were partners and shared their lives across America and Europe, at homes in Boston and in Kittery, Maine, and in a voluminous correspondence. These letters (selected and published posthumously in 1978 by Louis Hyde in Rat and the Devil) chronicle the lives of two gay men in the first half of the twentieth century and reveal a side of Matthiessen not typically visible in the literary criticism. If, from our point of view, American Renaissance treats five authors all of whose sexual orientations have been the subjects of scrutiny among modern LGBT critics, sexual orientation is not, by and large, a category that Matthiessen addresses either openly or favorably in his book. Indeed, in a famous passage from American Renaissance treating section five of "Song of Myself," Matthiessen disparages Whitman's "regressive, infantile fluidity": "In the passivity of the poet's body," he writes, "there is a quality vaguely pathological and homosexual"(p. 535). Among its other effects, this discussion marks the virtual impossibility in 1941 of publicly discussing homosexual themes or content in other than pejorative terms.

In Matthiessen and Cheney's private correspondence, however, one finds another Matthiessen, urging Cheney to come to terms with his sexual orientation, and insisting upon its naturalness: "No, accept it, just the way you accept the fact that you have two legs," he writes. In part, Matthiessen's life with Cheney demonstrates the public/private divide within which sexual minorities in the immediate pre–and post–World War II years often lived. In the same letter to Cheney (7 February 1925), Matthiessen makes clear a distinction between the rest of the world and those "close friends" with whom he thinks it safe to share the fact of their relationship. Within these constraints Cheney and Matthiessen forged a remarkable, long-standing relationship of tremendous mutual support.

Five years after Cheney's death, when Matthiessen committed suicide in April 1950, his suicide note mentioned a range of concerns and motives. Among these, the increasing East/West tensions of an incipient Cold War played a role, as did the demand some months before that he, like so many others, justify his political beliefs and activism before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Although Cheney is not mentioned in the note, a few years earlier Matthiessen had memorialized him when he described, upon returning to Salzburg, "a city of ghosts….I am pierced with the realization of howmuch [Russell] taught me to see, of how life shared with him took on more vividness than I have ever felt in any other company." But at the last, Matthiessen worried that he could no longer "continue to be of use to my profession and my friends." To the very end, then, his attention was directed toward a larger, worldly sense of usefulness, and of participation in the central debates of his place and time. This may remain his central, crucial lesson for LGBT and queer readers and writers today.


Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Corburn, Robert J. Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Grossman, Jay. "The Canon in the Closet: Matthiessen's Whitman, Whitman's Matthiessen." American Literature 70, no. 4 (December 1998): 799–832.

Hyde, Louis, ed. Rat and the Devil: Journal Letters of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978.

Matthiessen, F. O. Russell Cheney, 1881–1945: A Record of His Work. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.

Jay Grossman

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