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Manly Love

Romantic Friendship in American Fiction

The modern idea of Victorians is that they were emotionless prudes, imprisoned by sexual repression and suffocating social constraints; they expressed love and affection only within the bounds of matrimony—if at all. And yet, a wealth of evidence contradicting this idea has been hiding in plain sight for close to a century. In Manly Love, Axel Nissen turns to the novels and short stories of Victorian America to uncover the widely overlooked phenomenon of passionate friendships between men.

Nissen’s examination of the literature of the period brings to light a forgotten genre: the fiction of romantic friendship. Delving into works by Mark Twain, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and others, Nissen identifies the genre’s unique features and explores the connections between romantic friendships in literature and in real life. Situating love between men at the heart of Victorian culture, Nissen radically alters our understanding of the American literary canon. And with its deep insights into the emotional and intellectual life of the period, Manly Love also offers a fresh perspective on nineteenth-century America’s attitudes toward love, friendship, marriage, and sex.

240 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2009

Gay and Lesbian Studies

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: American and Canadian Literature


“This is the most interesting and original study of nineteenth-century American literature and culture that I have read in years. In the wake of Manly Love, the field will never look quite the same. Nissen has trumped nearly every other scholar in recapturing and elucidating some fundamental patterns of American Victorian culture. His engaging, even suspenseful, book transported me into those times more fully than anything I know from outside the period itself, such that his insights attain an emotional as well as intellectual force. This book deserves a sustained standing ovation.”

John W. Crowley, University of Alabama

Manly Love uncovers amazing examples of male romantic friendship in literary classics as well as in hitherto lost literary gems. It is the first comprehensive history of love between men as it was reflected in nineteenth-century American fiction. Axel Nissen engagingly and definitively challenges the historical amnesia which assumes that the transatlantic uproar over the Oscar Wilde case represented the whole story of the American Victorian response to male homoeroticism.”

Lillian Faderman, author of Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present

"Nissen combines historical contextualization with fresh readings of the novels’ identity formations and cultural work in reflecting and defining acceptable masculine intimacies across the homo-social/homosexual divide. In so doing, he offers new angles on familiar texts and the cultural myths that surround them."


"Manly Love is a pleasure to read, full of insights that go beyond the analyses of individual works. . . . [The] book drives home the point that love and friendship between males, with or without sex, is a crucial component of the human experience."

John Lauritsen | Gay and Lesbian Review

Table of Contents



1   What’s the Story? The Fiction of Romantic Friendship, Part I

2   Odds ’n’ Ends: The Fiction of Romantic Friendship, Part II

3   Sex and the City: Cecil Dreeme and the Antebellum Sex/Gender System

4   Compulsory Domesticity: Roderick Hudson, Love, and Friendship in the Gilded Age

5   How the Other Half Loved: A Saloonkeeper’s Daughter in the Company of Women

6   A Tramp at Home: Huckleberry Finn, Romantic Friendship, and the Homeless Man

7   The Other Man: Homofiliation, Marriage, and A Hazard of New Fortunes

Abbreviations         Notes  

Bibliography         Index  

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