Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Rat and the Devil

The Gay Love Letters of F. O. Matthiessen

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, Edited by Rictor Norton

Photograph of F. O. Matthiessen Photograph of Russell Cheney

The highly respected cultural historian and Harvard professor F. O. Matthiessen (190250) (pictured above, left), met his future lover the painter Russell Cheney (pictured above, right) aboard an ocean liner in 1924. In short order they became in indissoluble bond, and for twenty years they always lived together for several months each year, although they were often separated from one another when Matthiessen had to do scholarly research or when Cheney's painting took him abroad or his ill health (tuberculosis) took him to sanatoriums. During these periods they wrote more than 3,000 letters, only a tenth of which have been published. Matthiessen's magnum opus was American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, a landmark revaluation of American literature and culture (which was required reading while I was at university). He later became engrossed by the causes of the political left. Cheney was twenty years older than Matthiessen, who was searching for a father, but their relationship can only be called a marriage. There were occasional lapses of infidelity, followed by excoriating confessions. In their correspondence, Cheney adopted the name Rat, and Matthiessen the name Devil. Cheney sketched Matthiessen as a devil at the head of his letters, with horns and forked tail, and sometimes Matthiessen attempted similar caricatures, with less success. Matthiessen was uneasy about the sordid and promiscuous gay subculture, which he avoided; he proudly told his closest friends about his love for Cheney, but they lived in a closet, or at least a cocoon of their own making. Although he told Cheney they were living the life described by Whitman, it is characteristic of his "straight" facade that he never discussed Whitman's gay themes in his critical essays on the poet. He felt that his life with Cheney – stable, monogamous, non-effeminate, largely faithful, all-embracing – was "entirely new – neither of us know of a parallel case. We stand in the middle of an uncharted, uninhabited country. That there have been other unions like ours is obvious, but we are unable to draw on their experience. We must create everything for ourselves. And creation is never easy." Cheney died in 1945 of a heart attack following an asthma attack, age 63. Matthiessen could not bear the loneliness after such intense love and companionship, and killed himself five years later, age 48. It is clear that Matthiessen had posterity in mind as he wrote and that he hoped these letters would become a testimony to gay love and an important resource for other gay couples to draw upon. They should have been published immediately after his death, but the exact nature of his suicidal depression was not made public knowledge and it was felt prudent to delay publication of the letters for almost thirty years.


Paris, le 18 Sept. [1924]

Well, it's true, isn't it? Our union is complete. Love is stronger than death, stronger than sin – even than old habits. . . . I've wanted to pick up and fly (literally not figuratively) over there for a couple of days, before I go down to Venice. There are lots of things to get straight, yet I kid myself – but you said and I agreed that we both have work to do. When you come to me in December this turmoil will be subdued and our feet will follow the pleasant paths of peace together. I can say my prayers like a kid now when I go to bed and get up. I haven't for twenty years – the peace and fulfillment you have brought my soul indeed pass all understanding. . . .
          Now, Boy, I better quit. Some day the first letter I ever had from you will come in. My God, feller, do you happen to realize how short a time ago we waved Max [Foster] good bye on the pier there. And I will go to Venice, and you will go to Oxford. But what's that to us, with December before us. Good bye now. I love you and will live as though you were at my side.


Paris, le Saturday
[Sept. 20, 1924]

Dearest Dev [Devil] –
          Well, you're in for a bad time. . . . Oh, God damn it, Dev, I'm going to say right along everything that comes into my head. I love you better than anyone in the world. I mean it. I put your picture into that empty half of the frame with my mother's picture. I have never filled it before. I have never loved anyone as I loved her before.
          That's the truth so help me God. I love you as I love her and by God. . . . how am I going to tell you. . . . Oh, I haven't "done anything", but I've drunk too much. . . . off on the loose and God damn it, I walked the streets. Me! here I've been living in a fool's paradise. . . .
          Your letter came just as my friend Henry Poor came to take me out for all day. I couldn't read it till I stole the time to do so down in the Museum. Couldn't read the letter, but there it was in my pocket, and I'd slip my hand in and hold it, and a couple of times I'd hold it against my cheek, the sense of being with you strong.
          Finally I did read it, the first part so darn well giving me all those fellers. Tell you the truth, I had it all, all the quality of your relations with each before except the steady growth of you and Mitch [Russel Wheeler Davenport]. But you added a lot and cleared things up. I'm with you that way. When you get here, we'll go into absolutely everything and clear it up. Well, comes the second part of your letter. As I read it in a corner of the Museum, to me it was like being whirled up and down in an elevator. First, when you said how you could walk through the streets, and not be looking at everyone. I did for a day after I left you and now I don't any more – oh, you've got a great feller in your life.
          It's not so though, Boy, I've slipped just so much farther every day – till last night, here I was between one and two, up and down the likely street, like a dead leaf blown before the wind. Well, I didn't speak to anyone or look at anyone, but darn it I was there. I wasn't home in my bed going to sleep with my soul at peace and one with you, as I have every night before. . . .
          Well, I plan to go to Venice, Tuesday night. I wish I had done what I longed to do and gone over for Sunday with you. . . .


Sept. 21 [1924]

          Sunday – the British Museum shut – my eyes a bit tired – my head stuffy – and so a jaunt into the country to Windsor and Eton. . . .
          I carried Walt Whitman in my pocket. That's another thing you've started me doing, reading Whitman. Not solely because it gives me an intellectual kick the way it did last year, but because I'm living it. How about this to characterize our relationship?

"I announce the great individual, fluid as nature, chaste, affectionate, compassionate, fully-armed.
I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold,
And I announce an old age that shall lightly and joyfully meet its translation."

Those rich, embracing adjectives may not sum it all up, but they certainly include a great many of the elements. . . . You may remember our conversation in regard to the homo-sexual fellow I knew who ran a lodging house, and whether I should stay there? Well, I'm not. Before meeting you it might have been a way to gain added sex knowledge, to sublimate simply by being in the presence of another fellow, and also to indulge my prurience.
          Now it would be merely sordid, depressing. So I'm at a Youth Hostel

Write to Your Home Folks

and the two pictures on my wall are of the New York Pennsylvania Station Railroad Y.M.C.A. Basketball Team, and of the Railroad "Y" Quartet and Gospel Team of Columbus, O! . . .
                    Love                               Dvl


Sept. 23, 1924]

. . . Little by little the largeness of what has happened sweeps over me. I thought I realized it all that last night together; but first the intellect sees, and then when it has created its imaginative symbolism it gives the whole man something to live by. I saw very clearly that night and called it a marriage. The imagination has since been working, and I live body and soul in this new relationship.
          Marriage is a mere term; only as a dynamic vivid thing does it dominate life. That is: you can visualize marriage or you can live it. Now I am living it.
          Marriage! What a strange word to be applied to two men! Can't you hear the hell-hounds of society baying full pursuit behind us? But that's just the point. We are beyond society. We've said thank you very much, and stepped outside and closed the door. In the eyes of the unknowing world we are a talented artist of wealth and position and a promising young graduate student. In the eyes of the knowing world we would be pariahs, outlaws, degenerates. This is indeed the price we pay for the unforgivable sin of being born different from the great run of mankind.
          And so we have a marriage that was never seen on land or sea and surely not in Tennyson's poet's dream! It is a marriage that demands nothing and gives everything. It does not limit the affections of the two parties, it gives their scope greater radiance and depth. Oh it is strange enough. It has no ring, and no vows, and no wedding presents from your friends, and no children. And so of course it has none of the coldness of passion, but merely the serene joy of companionship. It has no three hundred and sixty-five breakfasts opposite each other at the same table; and yet it desires frequent companionship, devotion, and laughter. Its bonds indeed form the service that is perfect freedom. . . .
          How many, when reading this, would think so? Ah there's the mockery of it: those gates of society are of iron. And when you're outside, you've got to live in yourself alone, unless – o beatissimus – you are privileged to find another wanderer in the waste land. And perhaps even you think what I have written mawkish? It is infinitely difficult to make the medium of expression adequately clothe your emotions. But I have thought at length on this – between snatches of Goldsmith, and walking in St James Park at sunset. If you dislike it, say so, and I will leave such expression to be conveyed by the touch of my hand. But it is an integral part of me.
                              – Dvl


Hotel Royal Danieli
Venise [sic]
Sept 25 [1924]

Dearest Dev –
          . . . Your last letter! God, I've read it 2 doz times. Would I rather you didn't say things like that? Not on your life. Your saying them is the very essence of my being able to hold that level, which I do not intend to pretend to do. My eyes and thoughts are not controlled, only a thousand times better than two weeks ago. Help me to get there, Boy. Love is stronger than death – "mawkish," hell. What do I carry it round all day and night and read it over and over for? Now I'll switch off my light and lie with the lapping of waves and sudden calls, and bursts of singing below – and you will be very close to me.
          My love to you and good night, my Devil.


[Cassis, France]
Feb 2 [1925]

My Pic,
. . . Oh, gosh, Dev – dear dear Dev – your letters, three of them all at once, came in. You know, feller, I only just begin dimly to see what you mean to me. You haven't got any idea how long it takes for a fact to get to the inner quiet place which is me. I cannot say this or that with my mind and accept it and act on it. I do things, I live, on impulse – and it's months before that impulse comes up to the judgment of some curious inner sense. And Dev, the instinct to look out for doing you harm was so strong, and the diffidence of myself being worthy so strong, I haven't been sure at all. I still do not control random and furtive desires (though here there is nothing to rouse them) and I cannot say as you do, I have given myself wholly to you. Maybe I have, maybe I have not – only the event will show.
          So you must not think I am as good a guy as you are or life a straight path, till we find out what sort of a feller I am anyhow. I will accept what you say about your [closest friends, to whom Matthiessen wished to declare his relationship with Cheney] as true. I know also mine will take it from me, if I can say truthfully all that stuff is over and I center my life in you. I have never said that fully to you, because I don't know, and till I do know and have proved it, I won't say it. Our time together was perfect. I love you more than I do anyone on earth. I know I am not an arrived character; your three letters do a hell of a lot toward arriving me. So as you say, take it easy. Let me go along, and that "spot" which serves Mr Cheney as a mind may know itself sooner or later.
          Dear Dev, dear Pic, bear with me a while. I am old and I tremble at the beauty of what may be mine.


[Oxford, England]
February 5 [1925]

Dearest Rat
          I wonder if you know how perfect these last letters of yours have been? They take me right to the heart of your painting, to the heart of your life. It's just as though we were sitting in the room there together, talking over the new canvas, my hand in yours. Have I any idea how I share in everything you do? Only through knowing that your heart and mind are always with mine.
          It is strange how certain moments of our trip come back and back. Probably the one moment I cherish above all others, the one when I seemed the very closest to you was on that night in Taormina after you had been sick, and I had gotten myself into an unbalanced emotional state imagining that I had been grating on your nerves. We sat on the bed talking the whole thing over until the petty tangle in my brain was unsnarled and I was unbelievably secure once more. Then, after the light was out, we were in each others arms and I said: "I love you, Rat". "Say it again, Devil" you breathed, holding me tight. "I love you, Rat". "Say it again," "I love you." "Say it again." "I love you. I love you". . . .
          Somehow in passionately pouring out those words, and in feeling you just as passionately accept them, my whole soul felt that it had expressed itself. Perhaps I was fully conscious for the first time that you had taken eagerly all that I wanted to give. It's hard for a feller to realize that he is loved as much as he loves. . . .
          Good-bye till to-morrow, dear Heart. God bless you.

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.
SOURCE: Rat and the Devil: Journal Letters of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney, ed. Louis O. Hyde. Copyright © 1978 Louis O. Hyde. Reprinted by permission of Archon Books, North Haven, Connecticut.

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