January 14, 2020

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University discover a lost copy of an early essay on gay rights


In 1873 John Addington Symonds, an English essayist and poet, wrote “A Problem in Greek Ethics,” an essay celebrating the Greeks’ liberal approach to sexuality in contrast to Victorian England where homosexuality was illegal. Because of the inflammatory nature of his argument, Symonds privately printed a mere ten copies of his essay and gave it to a few trusted colleagues. In the years since, scholars have gone through great lengths to recover the five remaining copies. However, Johns Hopkins University curator Gabrielle Dean got quite the surprise when she happened upon a sixth copy while collecting materials for an ongoing exhibition titled “Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds” at the Johns Hopkins’ Eisenhower Library.

John Addington Symonds by Evelyn Teenant

Katherine J. Wu reports at Smithsonian Magazine that this particular copy was sent by Symonds to Sir Richard Burton, a British explorer and scholar who wrote a meditation on same-sex relationships. It is likely that the copy bounced around private collections before being discovered by Dean on a rare book dealer’s site. When the physical copy arrived, it bore annotations and edits from Symonds, who had not stopped working on the essay and considered the work to still be in progress. Rachel Wallach writes in the Hub that besides being a key text in the modern gay rights movement, Symonds’s essay was also one of the first English-language analyses of ancient Greek sexuality. Shane Butler, director of Johns Hopkins’ Classics Research Lab, tells Wallach “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.”

Now, if you’re not a classicist or especially knowledgeable about the very early days of the gay rights movement, you may be wondering who John Addington Symonds was. He was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde and perhaps influenced Wilde’s later writing against the criminalization of sodomy. Symonds lived a bit of a double life, marrying and fathering four children while carrying on several same-sex relationships, something he wrote about frankly in his memoirs. In addition to penning foundational texts about homosexuality, Symonds is perhaps best known for his seven-volume cultural history of the Italian Renaissance. He was also published four books of poetry and many of his sonnets described homosexual desire. Symonds was the focus of the current iteration of Dean and Butler’s course Classics Research Lab in an effort to offer a deeper understanding of this long-neglected writer.

If you happen to find yourself in the Baltimore area, “Queer Connections” is on view until March 13, 2020.



Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.