John Lauritsen is “an independent scholar” who has “the freedom to tell the truth as I see it, without concerns for career or ‘collegiality.’”
His first contribution to gay studies was 1974’s The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864-1935), which he wrote with David Thorstad. Lauritsen has since written on a variety of topics before he specialized on the English Romantic poets of the early 19th century, a period that Will and Ariel Durant called, “next to the age of Elizabeth I, the brightest flowering in the four centuries of English poetry.”
In “The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein,” Lauritsen argued that this book was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, not by his second wife Mary, and that “male love is the dominant theme of Frankenstein.” Lauritsen also edited new editions of Shelley’s translations of Plato’s “The Banquet” and Aeschylus’s “Oresteia and Prometheus Bound,” while at the same time arguing that Shelley was gay, or at least bisexual. All these books were published by Lauritsen’s own Pagan Press, which he founded in 1982 to “publish books of interest to the intelligent gay man.”
Much has been written about the same-sex love affairs of George Gordon, Lord Byron, to convince most people of that poet’s bisexuality. On the other hand, Shelley scholars still defend their poet’s heterosexuality, since he died while he was still in his twenties and is best remembered for his two marriages to Harriet Westbrook and Mary Godwin. In Lauritsen’s new book, “The Shelley-Byron Men: Lost Angels of a ruined paradise” the two romantic poets are revealed as centers of a literary group devoted to “male love” and “the homoerotic ethos of Ancient Greece.”
Along with their friends - Thomas Medwin, Edward John Trelawny and Edward Ellerker Williams - the poets settled in Pisa, Italy (1822), where they met daily in Byron’s Renaissance palace for literary discussions that lasted well into the night.
“For too long, biographers have falsified the love lives of the Shelley-Byron Men. The time has come to bring them into the light of day,” Lauritsen noted. “It is my contention that these five men - Byron, Shelley, Medwin, Williams, and Trelawny - along with Thomas Love Peacock and Thomas Jefferson Hogg in England - were drawn together by sexual affinities, that they discussed male love, and endeavored to liberate it.”
That those men lived in exile in Italy is no surprise to Lauritsen: sodomy was then a capital offense in England while in Italy, as with other countries influenced by the Napoleonic Code, it was legal. Williams was Shelley’s “inseparable companion” and, according to Lauritsen, most likely his lover. The two youths died together in a boating accident in the Gulf of Spezia on July 8, 1822. The Shelley-Byron Men were together for just half a year.
In “The Shelley-Byron Men: Lost Angels of a ruined paradise,” Lauritsen does not try to “prove” that Shelley, Byron, et al were “gay” in the modern sense of the word. Instead, Lauritsen argued “that male love represented an important part of their lives and works, with male love understood as comprising love, sex, and friendship.”
Like Walt Whitman later in the century, these men worked for the emancipation of male love, even if they themselves were not “liberated” as we understand that term today. Though much of their work was censored or destroyed after their deaths, “some of their research, translations, and argumentation (if such there were) went into a Uranian underground to surface later in the works of others.”
They realized, as the Action Committee of a gay united front in Germany declared in 1921, that “in the final analysis, justice for you will be the fruit only of your own efforts. The liberation of homosexuals can only be the work of homosexuals themselves.” This is liberating work that we must continue every day.
The “Shelley-Byron Men” may be purchased at Amazon.com or directly from the publisher, Pagan Press (paganpressbooks.com).