Review: My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, ed. by Rictor Norton


Reviewed by Hayden Thorne

My Dear Boy is an anthology of gay love letters documenting the heartbreak and joy of love between men for almost two thousand years. Emperor Marcus Arelius, Bo Juyi, Saint Anselm, Erasmus, Michelangelo, Mashida Toyonoshin, Thomas Gray, William Beckford, Walt Whitman, Tchaikovsky, Henry James, Countee Cullen, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg are just a few of the correspondents included, who range from kings and aristocrats, musicians and artists, military men and monks, to farm labourers and herring merchants, political activists and aesthetes, black poets and Japanese actors, drag queens and hustlers.

For more information, visit Mr. Norton’s page.

Rictor Norton’s book is a treasure trove of primary sources for writers, scholars, and casual fans/readers of homosexuality (or homosexual romance) through history. The book’s introduction is long and detailed as Norton explains the purpose of the volume in relation to its place in the study of same-sex love through the centuries. He gives us a quick history lesson on the nature of love letters between men from different periods and countries, which ultimately sets the basis of the book’s contents.

The letters aren’t comprehensive, and one really shouldn’t expect the entire book to be. What we’re given is a rare collection of private exchanges between lovers, a representative “cluster” of letters between men that can certainly serve as starting points for further research or scholarly exploration for writers of historical fiction. They also provide more casual fans of historical gay romance a fascinating glimpse into the private lives of famous figures. Sometimes humorous, sometimes heartbreaking, but always thought-provoking, these letters become one of the most intimate connections – if not the most intimate connection – we can have with past lives.

The sampling of these letters is eclectic, with the contents arranged chronologically. The book begins with exchanges between Marcus Aurelius and Marcus Cornelius Fronto (letters dated circa 139). From there we’re given letters between Erasmus and Servatius (letters dated 1482-1490), Mashida Toyonoshin and Moriwaki Gonkuro (letter dated 1667), Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne (letters dated 1851), and Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg (letters dated 1947), among several others. Photos (mostly artistic male nudes) and portraits are also used for illustration and aesthetics though not all couples are given visuals.

Each “chapter” or cluster of letters has its own introduction. Only very lightly biographical in their discussions of the men involved, these introductions are there mainly to give the letters the necessary historical context in terms of their creation. This book is an invaluable collection, and considering how the letters are merely a representative of a much larger and very complex subculture, one can’t help but wonder how many other love letters exchanged between men – men unknown to fame and fortune, that is – were ultimately lost in history.

Buy the book: Amazon UK, Amazon US

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