Researchers Recover an Early Copy of a 19th-Century Gay Rights Essay

This once-lost copy of “A Problem in Greek Ethics” is only the sixth of its kind

John Addington Symonds
John Addington Symonds, whose 1873 essay "A Problem in Greek Ethics" helped lay the foundation for the modern gay rights movement Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images

With a title like “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” a text might, at first pass, sound like a Socratic snoozefest. But John Addington Symonds’ 1873 essay, which extolled the ancient Greeks’ liberal views of sexuality, actually helped seed a revolution by paving a literary path for the modern gay rights movement.

Fully aware of the potentially incendiary contents of his work, the English writer capped the first print run of his essay at ten copies, cautiously circulating them among only trusted colleagues. In the century and a half since the work’s 1883 publication, scholars have painstakingly collected the five versions known to survive. Then, Johns Hopkins University curator Gabrielle Dean stumbled upon a long-forgotten sixth.

After decades in the shadows, this rare text now features prominently in an ongoing exhibition, titled “Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds,” at Johns Hopkins’ Eisenhower Library. Once the show wraps up in March, the book will retire to the library’s reading room as a reminder of a scholar, literary critic and poet who championed gay rights early on.

“Symonds is unjustly neglected today,” Shane Butler, director of Johns Hopkins’ Classics Research Lab, tells Mary Carole McCauley of the Baltimore Sun.

Though not as well known today, says Butler, Symonds was once a household name on par with his contemporary and colleague Oscar Wilde.

Symonds wrote boldly in his essay, addressing a societal “problem” associated not with the ancient Greeks, but to the Victorians who revered them. As he noted, the Greeks accepted and even celebrated relationships between men, offering a stark contrast with the values of 19th-century England, where homosexuality was illegal. His essay was the first major English language analysis of ancient Greek sexuality, writes Rachel Wallach for Johns Hopkins’ Hub.

A gay man himself, Symonds led something of a double life. Despite marrying a woman and fathering four daughters, he carried on several same-sex relationships (later detailed in his memoirs) and penned works like “A Problem in Greek Ethics.” His writing, scholars have argued, even influenced Oscar Wilde, who, after exchanging letters with Symonds, went on to argue against the criminality of sodomy “because homosexuality has been a noble pursuit since antiquity,” as Ryan Warwick, a graduate student who worked on the exhibit, tells McCauley.

Speaking with Wallach, Butler says, “The book is a relic from the front lines of some of the first battles over gay rights. It has a kind of sacred character to it.”

Symonds knew the realities of his time. Afraid his essay would fall into the wrong hands, he initially published it discreetly. Several years later, he reworked and reprinted the text in limited numbers. The ten original copies met varying fates. The most recent find, uncovered when Johns Hopkins curators were planning their exhibition, likely spent the last century bouncing around private collections.

Dean, who works for Johns Hopkins’ Sheridan Libraries, was conducting a Google search for samples of Symonds’ handwriting when the text unexpectedly appeared on a rare book dealer’s site.

“I was like, ‘Wait, is this even possible?’” she recounts to Wallach.

After confirming her find, Dean and her colleagues purchased the precious text—just in time for it to join “Queer Connections.”

In the exhibition, the text will be on display alongside two letters exchanged by Symonds and British scholar and explorer Sir Richard Burton, who received the long-lost copy from the author himself. According to the Bauman Rare Books listing found by Dean, Symonds sent Burton his essay after reading the latter’s 14,000-word meditation on same-sex relationships.

“As I mentioned to you that I had written an essay on paederastia among the Greeks, I am going so far upon the path of impudence as to send you a copy of it,” wrote Symonds in the August 1890 missive. “ … You will see that I have treated the subject from a literary & historical point of view, without attending to the psychology & physiology of the phenomenon.”

Symonds’ scrawls and scribbles are dotted across the yellowing pages of his printed essay. Though already bound in olive green leather and stamped with gilt, the book, in Symonds’ eyes, was still a work in progress, and its text remains marked with his underlines and cross-outs. He didn’t know it at the time, but his words would ultimately lay the foundation for a crucial chapter in civil rights history.

“Seeing the physical book was an incredible experience,” Johns Hopkins graduate student Emma Roalsvig tells Wallach. “Holding the physical book from his library, it finally felt like he was a real person and we were going back in time.”

“Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds” is on display at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins University until March 13.

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