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Early Years

Oscar Wilde

Full-length studio portrait of Oscar Wilde, seated.

Oscar Wilde photographed in 1882 by N. Sarony, New York. Met Museum, Gilman Collection

Oscar Wilde, photographed in 1882 by N. Sarony in New York near the beginning of his American tour. Photo from the British Library, Shelfmark Add MS 81783 A.

Oscar Wilde visited America in 1882-83 for a popular lecture tour, during which he spoke about beauty, aesthetics, design, and literature. He stopped in Nebraska, and he spoke on the university campus in Lincoln, where he was hosted by scholar, poet, and English professor George Woodberry; they were both 27 years old. (Woodberry was in the thick of controversy, about to be fired for “religious heresy” and drinking with his students – the local newspaper called Woodberry a “beer-guzzler, a whisky soak, an anti-God professor” — so he took great comfort in Wilde’s visit, according to letters he wrote to his family and friends.)

While in Lincoln, Wilde read some of the English professor’s poetry, and offered his assessment. Woodberry described this moment in a letter to a friend: “’Poetry,’ he had said, “should be neither intellectual nor emotional’ – and so I pleased only in describing external beauty though he had a true ear for music and style of single lines. He praised what I thought commonplace – he did not mind what I thought imagination.”

Part of Wilde’s popularity was due to his affect and style; he was both celebrated and ridiculed in the towns he visited. He was a grand character, and the American West was still wild and roughhewn in some of its outer reaches; a gentleman poet, with a fey demeanor and boyish attire, was bound to arouse attention and suspicion. While the Omaha newspaper took great delight in Wilde’s lecture, the Lincoln newspaper declared him “uninteresting,” even as it described in detail his get-up of knee-breeches and “slippers with buckles.” The article in the Nebraska State Journal perhaps offers another key insight, tipping a hat toward Wilde’s gender defiance: “His massively feminine, but by no means beautiful face, was surmounted, surrounded by luxuriant locks, parted in the middle.”
A reporter for the Omaha Bee newspaper also analyzed Wilde’s gender and sexuality, but did so with a fair amount of fascination. He described his visit to Wilde’s hotel: “He was stretched out lazily upon the bed, with a large bearskin robe drawn over his legs. … The long, dark hair, oval face and small mouth give him a decidedly effeminate appearance, though there was not the slightest visible trace of the sensuality so much alluded to by eastern correspondents.”
The Nebraska State Journal ran a second article specific to Wilde’s visit to campus. In another telling moment, the newspaper noted that Wilde criticized the university architecture and called for a gymnasium where “might be seen models of the old Greek athletes, such splendid examples of physical beauty.”
Wilde is perhaps as famed for his quips and clever remarks as he is for his fiction and poetry; one of his famous sayings was inspired by his visit to Lincoln, and would later prove prescient and poignant. In a letter Wilde wrote to his friend Helena Sickert after the lecture, he described a visit to the prison outside Lincoln, where a warden showed him photographs of those incarcerated there. Wilde’s letter, written thirteen years before he would be sentenced to prison himself, writes of the prisoners: “Poor sad types of humanity in hideous striped dresses making bricks in the sun, and all mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”
Another famous statement associated with Wilde is often used to describe same-sex desire: “The love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde himself didn’t write the euphemism; it is a line from a poem by the young man Wilde fell in love with: Lord Alfred Douglas. It became part of the discussion of Wilde’s case during the trial, which hinged on his affair with Douglas. Wilde was ultimately sentenced to two years hard labor, which proved a kind of death sentence. It took a physical toll that shortened his life; he died in Paris only a few years after his release from prison.
During Wilde’s trial, he again became a topic of discussion in Nebraska newspapers. The Omaha World Herald reported, in 1895: “The Omaha library has no intention of emulating the action of the St. Louis library in taking out the works of Oscar Wilde. Outside of publications from his pen in the different periodicals, there are none of the works of the disgraced author on the shelves of the library, excepting ‘The Happy Prince,’ ‘Intentions’ and ‘Poems,’ none of which are considered of immoral tendency.”
Also in 1895, the Omaha Bee published this curious report from Wyoming; though it’s not about Wilde, it demonstrates the influence of Wilde’s “disgrace,” and how his actions were lending a name to “the love that dare not speak its name” — specifically, Wilde’s own name. “Corporal Henry of D company Eight Infantry, stationed at Fort Russell,” the article reported, “committed suicide this afternoon by shooting himself with an army rifle. … Henry’s comrades accused him of being an Oscar Wilde. The accusation preyed upon him until he decided to end his existence.”

Willa Cather & Louise Pound

“It is manifestly unfair that ‘feminine friendships’ should be unnatural, I agree with Miss De Pue that far.”

Willa Cather to Louise Pound

1892

Much has been made of the observation above, a line from a letter Willa Cather wrote college classmate Louise Pound in 1892. Together, Cather and Pound were English majors at the University of Nebraska, where they were involved with a student literary magazine called The Lasso, among other collegiate projects. And based on letters that Cather wrote Pound (and wrote others about Pound), Cather was clearly infatuated with her. The letters also indicate they spent much time together, and while Pound’s biographers insist she didn’t return Cather’s affection, and their friendship would become strained and end within a few years, their relationship did have some intensity of feeling that would one day provide Cather’s biographers insight into her sexuality.

Portrait of Willa Cather and Louise Pound

Louise Pound (left) and Willa Cather. Image from History Nebraska RG 1951.

Cather’s humble beginnings as a rural Nebraska girl are perhaps made even more interesting when we consider her rejection of gender expectations and conventions; she often signed her letters as William Cather in her teens, and wore her hair in a short, boyish cut. And while it’s been widely reported that she wore trousers, there’s no historical evidence to support such a claim. A local man who knew her in her childhood wrote that she had “masculine habits and dress” but there are no eye-witness accounts of her ever wearing pants. She was part of a child’s acting troupe for which she played the male roles, and so would wear pants accordingly for the performances; but wearing trousers as part of her daily get-up might have been a bit too bold even for Cather.

In a photo of Cather and Pound, circa 1892, Cather (on the right, in the dark hat) is wearing a tailored suit, but it’s not in a masculine style – those flared sleeves are definitely feminine. The hat, however, might be said to have a masculine shape, but throughout her life, Cather wore hats of a wide variety of styles, as did many women. So what’s most telling about Cather’s sexuality is not the cut of her suit; it’s her affection for her classmate.

Regardless of whether or not Pound shared Cather’s perspectives (and those of Miss De Pue, a classmate) on feminine friendship, and despite the conflicts that would strain their own friendship, the two stood side by side as monoliths of companionship many years later on their college campus – in the form of the University of Nebraska’s first high-rise dormitories. These twin buildings, opened in 1963, were named in honor of Cather and Pound. (For reasons unrelated to the women’s thorny relationship, the Cather and Pound dorms were demolished in 2017.)
Louise Pound portrait

Louise Pound as a student at the University. Image from Mari Sandoz Collection, MS 80.

After graduating, Pound went on to become an award-winning athlete and pioneer of the linguistic study of American English. She eventually returned to the university as a professor, where she taught for fifty years. Cather, in her many years after graduating from the University of Nebraska in 1895, became one of the most acclaimed writers of the first half of the 20th century, often ranked alongside Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald as the most influential of American novelists. Even Hemingway and Fitzgerald themselves acknowledged her influence: in an infamous letter, Hemingway criticized her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, One of Ours, mocking it as a cliché-driven portrait of war, in statements that sound like a jealous snit; Fitzgerald wrote her a fan letter as he was composing The Great Gatsby.

A formative article, which then led to a book, on Cather’s sexuality and gender was “‘The Thing Not Named’: Willa Cather as a Lesbian Writer,” by Sharon O’Brien, published in 1984. In this article, she speaks to the challenges of identifying people as lesbian in a time when such self-identification was rare, especially among public figures. She asserts that the line about unnatural feminine friendships in Cather’s college letter to Pound is characteristic of lesbian sensibility.

Though there’s no historical record of Cather ever identifying as lesbian herself, her life partner of 40 years was Edith Lewis, an editor and writer. The leading scholar on Cather’s relationship with Lewis is a professor in the UNL English Department. Dr. Melissa Homestead’s book, The Only Wonderful Things: The Creative Partnership of Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, was published by Oxford University Press in 2021, and is the culmination of 18 years of research.

“I have found abundant evidence that many people implicitly recognized that the partnership between the two women was marriage-like,” Homestead writes in her introduction. “…I have come to believe that rather than living closeted lives, Cather and Lewis lived in one of many ways that women in same-sex relationships in the early twentieth century might have lived.”
Willa Cather portrait

Willa Cather, photographed when she was a student in the early 1890s. Image from History Nebraska, RG1951.

While UNL is home to the Willa Cather Archive and the Cather Project, both of which include scholarship that considers Cather’s sexuality, the university’s English Department had a history of suppressing lesbian scholarship in the 20th century. This brings us to another letter, one written nearly a century after Cather’s love letter to Pound.

Virginia Faulkner and Bernice Slote are credited with advancing Cather scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s, saving Cather from slipping into obscurity after her death. Faulkner was editor of the University of Nebraska Press and Slote was an English professor and an editor of the literary journal, Prairie Schooner.

While it seems likely that Faulkner and Slote were most devoted to Cather’s literature due to the Nebraska connections (both would go on to write and edit many projects focused on Nebraska’s literary landscape), they also lived together in a long relationship that paralleled that of Cather and Lewis. Despite that, and despite Faulkner’s boasting of her own defiance of gender expectation (according to a co-worker, Faulkner would often tell a story about smoking a cigar in a local tearoom), Faulkner spoke in private letters of her opposition to queer interpretations of Cather’s work and life.

In a letter dated March 14, 1980, Faulkner writes frankly about the rigor of these efforts. This letter has been referenced in a few books on Cather, such as in Willa Cather: Double Lives by Hermione Lee and Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism by Joan Acocella, but in neither case is Faulkner’s relationship with Slote mentioned. [The letter is archived in the Virginia Faulkner papers in the Archives & Special Collections of University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries.]

The letter, on UNL letterhead, is addressed to Helen Southwick, Cather’s niece. Faulkner starts the letter by referencing a play about Cather, “a documentary drama,” that has “a lesbian angle,” which Southwick had expressed concerns about. Faulkner says that “all the discussion about [Cather’s] homosexuality” has been going on for 20 years, and she references having heard rumor that “a woman scholar is working on a ‘psychosexual’ study about which I know only that she wasn’t planning to send it to Nebraska because of our ‘conservative’ treatment of Willa Cather.” This is possibly in reference to O’Brien’s research, or to that of lesbian scholar Doris Grumbach, who was also working on a biography of Cather at the time.

Faulkner goes on to write that she has “asked the acquisitions editor [at the University of Nebraska Press] to try to get [the manuscript] so we can at least see what’s going on – and, if her scholarship is defective or incomplete, blow it out of the water.” And not only is she conspiring against that scholar, she’s also planning to confront another scholar about his reference to a woman being “the one great romance of [Cather’s] life.” For that particular approach to intimidation, she’s planning to send him a magazine article about a publisher who was sued for invasion of privacy.
She also goes off on a bit of a rant, claiming (rather outlandishly) that “the homosexual label is attached to nearly every great woman”; she dismisses all this as a sensational angle publishers take for a “quick buck.” She then references Bernice Slote’s research, which she says will identify a man who was the love of Cather’s life and will therefore put an end to lesbian speculation. “Bernice is anxious to be the first to present this truth,” Faulkner writes, “buttressed with deep knowledge and impeccable scholarship.”
On the surface, this letter from Faulkner might not seem scandalous, but it does outline some serious breaches of ethics and protocol. As director of an academic press, Faulkner shouldn’t be using her influence to get an advance look at a manuscript that she intends to condemn and discredit. What makes it all the more grievous is that she has a great deal of personal investment in this effort: not only is she a Cather scholar herself, but so is her partner. And by working to suppress the publications of other scholars, and intimidating still others to keep quiet, both she and Slote stand to benefit, especially as Slote moves forward with her own project that has an opposing perspective on Cather’s romantic history.
The letter also displays some conflicts on Faulkner’s part in regards to Cather’s sexuality. While most of the letter seems intended to communicate to Cather’s niece that Faulkner is working on many fronts to prevent the spread of “gross and unsubstantiated implications and assertions,” she also reveals her own suspicions about Cather’s sexuality when she cites “invasion of privacy.”
Or, Faulkner might have been performing her bluster, for Southwick’s benefit. To keep in good graces with Cather’s family, who controlled literary rights, manuscripts, and letters, Faulkner might have felt the need to insist that she shared Southwick’s aversion to lesbian scholarship on Cather. Faulkner might not have taken any subsequent action at all against the scholars and projects she mentioned in the letter.
In any event, the letter may demonstrate anxieties particular to a lesbian scholar. Threats hung over the heads of gays and lesbians in education in the middle years of the 20th century. Until the 1970s, teachers risked dismissal and arrest, and the institutions that hired them risked fines and other remonstrations. For prominent scholars and educators like Faulkner and Slote rising in the ranks in the 1950s and 60s, two women in a field dominated by men, these threats would likely have informed their professional conduct, as well as their sense of possibility for queer scholarship. Together they sought to elevate and sustain the legacy of Cather’s literature, which was important work, and (inadvertently) building the foundation for later lesbian scholarship on Cather.

Melvin Van den Bark

Excerpt from an article by Jamison Wyatt

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Melvin “Van” Van den Bark was the third son of a factory foreman, though he was frequently known as an “identical twin” to his sister Martha who was sixteen months his junior. He grew up along the eastern edge of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a fledgling bourgeois neighborhood, and he attended Lincoln High School, concentrating on teacher-training coursework. He taught rural school in the Sandhills south of Ainsworth, Nebraska, for one year, and then studied English at the University of Nebraska, graduating with his B.A. in 1922. In 1923, he began graduate coursework in English at the State University of Iowa.

At Iowa he began an extensive study of Nebraska pioneer English, which became his master’s thesis, and he began works of fiction, such as “Two Women and Hog-back Ridge.” Published in the literary journal The Midland, “Two Women” was reprinted in the anthology The Best Short Stories of 1924.

Family obligation arrested Van’s artistic adventure and recalled him to Lincoln. On March 1, 1925, his father died and left behind an ailing, fifty-eight-year-old widow. Van, the twenty-eight-year-old bachelor son, suspended his graduate studies, accepted an English instructorship at the University of Nebraska, and assumed the role of paterfamilias. He would remain in Lincoln for the next sixteen years.
Studio portrait of Melvin Van den Bark

Melvin Van den Bark. Image from Mari Sandoz Collection.

Van returned to Lincoln as both an authority on the short story and a conspicuous bohemian dandy. In his 1925 portrait, he sported an opal-like tie pin and a pencil mustache. In an era of the safety razor, facial hair caused suspicion. As one contemporary critic stated, “in this regimented age the simple possession of a beard is enough to mark as curious any young man who has the courage to grow one.” Still, the university hired Van to teach freshman English at a modest $2,000 salary. He began his instructorship on September 1, 1925, and with a steady income, he could support his mother. During his very first semester, Van developed a course in short story writing through the university’s extension division. Mari Sandoz, who would later become an acclaimed and bestselling author, enrolled in his course, and the two became fast friends. In her unpublished autobiography she wrote:
“I signed up, and will never forgot the fidgety, nervous, yet confident young man who gathered the course together. I came from the he-man country of Old Jules [her homesteading father of Sheridan County, Nebraska], but I had seen delicate male school teacher types, except here was one of independent thought.”
Mari Sandoz

unpublished autobiography

A fidgety and nervous, delicate male school teacher type with independence. Sandoz all but called him queer, and her description evokes the protagonist in “Two Women and Hog-Back Ridge”—that is if we invert Mary Maticka’s gender.

“Two Women” is remarkable to me for two reasons. One:  it is the only extant work of Van’s fiction. Two:  it is an unmistakable autobiographical account of Van’s rural teaching experience and is a clear expression of his queerness. In the story, Van cloaked himself as Mary, a young woman with big eyes, sallow skin, and short black hair (this is an identical description to Van’s World War I draft card). Mary, born in Omaha, belonged to a family of blue-collar laborers and desired a life away from factory drudgery. Instead, she attended high school, took the normal-training course, and traveled deep into the Sandhills to teach at Midvale, Nebraska, a rural community in southern Brown County. For Mary, teaching was not necessarily a profound calling but a means of escape. Once in the Sandhills, however, Mary, like Van, discovered a certain poetry in the “sea of yellow, green, lavender folds:”

Strangely, mysteriously, she seemed to find something of what she wanted: stillness and inaction, that for her was being; a sort of melting out into the nakedness of those hills, swaying there identified with its monotony and melancholy, in an ocean of dreams without a sound.
Melvin Van den Bark

"Two Women and Hog-Back Ridge"

The hills gave both Mary and Van an inner peace; an opportunity to breathe and to discover themselves.
In her quest for self-discovery, Mary walked along Hog-back Ridge, the only named ridge in the country, “its smooth curve drew a longer line across the sky.” Wearing a loose orange jacket she made herself all the more conspicuous as she walked on the ridge in both rain and darkness. The community watched and thought Mary “loose,” “queer,” and “immoral,” save for one woman, Mrs. Lange, who fell in love with her. Mr. Lange, aware of Mary’s effect on his wife, determined to ostracize the schoolmarm: “It wasn’t natural, regular, this silent calling and pointing of the one, this silent answering and changing in the other.” He ordered Mary away and whipped his wife.

Though Van never published any other fiction, and his papers are presumably lost, his legacy lives on through his The American Thesaurus of Slang (1942)—which contains a lengthy section of queer terminology and is still referenced by contemporary lexicographers—and through the works of his students, especially Mari Sandoz.

Despite his popularity with students, and his influence on their writing, his service to the University of Nebraska ended on May 27, 1941. The following day, Van cleaned out his office in Andrews Hall and settled business with the English Department. “Keep a stiff upper lip,” advised the department chair, Dr. Ray Franz. Dazed, he went home and wrote a letter to Sandoz to describe the affair.
In that letter, Van explained the circumstances leading to his dismissal: On the evening of May 26, 1941, Van drove to Grasmick’s Tavern in the red-light district of Lincoln. He decided to read the New Yorker and drink some beer. Six beers later, Van left Grasmick’s for the post office, one block to the north, mailed a letter, and began his walk to his car. Male prostitutes frequently sat on the post office steps and lurked in the shadows of the nearby public restroom, according to unpublished research by criminologist James Melvin Reinhardt. Van wrote to Sandoz:

“I stopped when a man waved a paper bag (lunch of some sort I’ve since decided). Anyway he wanted to go to a cheap hotel for a night’s lodging or to the depot. I offered to take him to the depot.”

In Van’s inebriated state, he likely saw two opportunities: a chance for another drink from the paper bag and a chance for a late-night tryst with a stranger. The restrooms of both bus and train stations were common places where queer men could cruise and have sex. Van and the stranger, however, never reached the depot.

“At the next corner he wanted ‘to take a dump’ in a hurry, so I drove out tenth a ways. Then during that activity, a police car drove up. The rest of the night and next day (yesterday) I spent locked up in a cell that was as barren as any Valin writes about”

“Valin” could possibly be a poor, phonetically spelled variation of Paul Verlaine (1844–1896), a French poet who was arrested and imprisoned after he injured his male lover.

Around three o’clock in the morning, Van and a young Kansas laborer were arrested for immorality. What “immoral” activity they precisely committed is unknown. “I’m not afraid of truth,” Van wrote Sandoz. “But I’ve done nothing that I consider morally reprehensible—nor is there proof otherwise. How I shall hang on to that.”
Proof or no proof, the police called Chancellor Samuel Boucher and sealed Van’s fate. The chancellor demanded his resignation. A few years before, when President Lowell of Harvard discovered that a devoted professor was homosexual, he not only demanded the professor’s resignation, but he told the professor to kill himself. The conversation between Van and Boucher, if it occurred at all, would likely have been as venomous. Van wrote Sandoz that he wished to tell Boucher to go to hell, but Van complied with no protest.

Sandoz was outraged but saw the ordeal as an inevitable witch hunt. Responding to Van’s letter, Sandoz wrote, “I’ve frankly said that your name was on the list with the police ever since the [Lowry] Wimberly affair, your name and others.” Unlike the Wimberly scandal, however, Van’s arrest and resignation were publicly kept quiet. In Sexual Inversion, Havelock Ellis presciently wrote that individuals connected with public schools “appear to view homosexuality with too much disgust to care to pay any careful attention to it. What knowledge they possess they keep to themselves, for it is considered to be in the interests of public schools that these things should be hushed up.” Perhaps Van’s “immorality” was simply too publicly shocking. Humiliated, he borrowed money for gas and drove away from Lincoln never to return.

Howard Greer

Dress design by Howard Greer

Designs by Howard Greer published in the  Lincoln Star Sun, July 22, 1917.

Howard Greer enrolled in the University of Nebraska to become a writer, but after graduation in 1916, and service in the first World War, he embarked on a career as a costume designer for the New York stage. (Greer dressed The Greenwich Village Follies of 1922, which included a ballet based on Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale, “The Nightingale and the Rose.”) He found his way to Hollywood, where he would go on to design costumes for Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and for Ingrid Bergman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, among many other cinema stars in classic films. He also famously hosted parties for the queer elite, according to the book Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (by Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons): “He hired local female impersonators from ‘a queer nightclub that ha[d] just started.’” His elaborate staircase served as a runway for the city’s drag queens impersonating movie stars.

Sketch of hat designed by Howard Greer

In 1951, Greer published his memoir, Designing Male: A Nebraska farm boy’s adventures in Hollywood and with the International Set, in which he wrote of his intentions of going to the university to become a writer:

It took a terrific amount of persuasion, but I convinced Mother that I’d derive greater scholastic benefit from the larger and more sophisticated University of Nebraska, and there I enrolled for my sophomore year. The net result was that I floundered in an even more confusing milieu of student activities and social snobbery and, for the first time, the idea of complete escape assailed me. I’d read so much about Greenwich Village and its artists that could have walked through it blindfolded, and not lose my way. Here I would find my niche and, at the moment it didn’t seem particularly important whether the niche was musician’s, artist’s, writer’s, dancer’s or actor’s. A career as a writer shouldn’t be difficult I assured myself. After all, I’d not only edited the senior yearbook, but I’d written an interview with Billie Burke on one of her appearances in Lincoln, and the local paper had published it. Furthermore, I’d sent a short story, with sketches, to Frank Crowninshield of Vanity Fair, and received in return a check for twenty-five dollars for “the idea suggested by the story and the drawings”.

Or I could climb the ladder of fame on which artists perch. I’d always drawn pictures, and people were most flattering over my copies of Harrison Fisher’s ladies from the covers of the Saturday Evening Post. I might even crash the advertising game, and give Coles Phillips a run for his money. And there were always the magazine serials, and I might make May Wilson Preston look to her laurels. More than anything else I liked to sketch women, with or without clothes, and I drew the feet first and then worked upward. If anyone had looked into his crystal ball at that time and told me that someday I might become a dressmaker, I’d have spit in his eye.

With all Mother’s passion for my attaining a college diploma, I wonder now that she ever allowed me to quit school for something so vague as a dream. Her first-born’s overwhelming determination and obstinacy worked on her resistance like the old Chinese water torture but she gave in, at long last and with obvious misgivings, to my assault upon New York. The one obstacle was the financial backing necessary for such a venture. When Mother agreed to mortgage the old homestead I closed my textbooks and walked out of classrooms forever.

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