American Renaissance with Scott Bane

Hello!

Today we meet Scott Bane and we’re talking about the book that launched a life-saving journey for him: American Renaissance by F.O. Matthiessen.

Scott is a Program Officer at the John A. Hartford Foundation and author of A Union Like Ours: The Love Story of F.O. Matthiessen and Russel Cheney.

Imagine coming across a book in a New York Times Book Review that introduces you to a writer whose little told life-long love story with his partner happened right in your hometown years before you lived there. After reading American Renaissance, Scott began a years-long journey to bring that love story to life.

Connect with Scott

Website: scott-bane.com

Russell Cheney gallery: russellcheney.com

Buy American Renaissance and A Union Like Ours

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To purchase American Renaissance visit: https://bookshop.org/a/82376/9780195007596

To purchase A Union Like Ours visit: https://bookshop.org/a/82376/9781625346377

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Host/Founder: J.P. Der Boghossian
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Permission to use clips from Author Talk “A Union Like Ours: The Love Story of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney” provided by Scott Bane.
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Transcript

[theme music]

J.P. Der Boghossian: Hey everyone. My name is J.P. Der Boghossian. I’m the founder of the Queer Armenian Library, an essayist, and a Lambda Literary Fellow, and your listening to the podcast that asks LGBTQ guests: What’s the queer book that saved your life?

And what does saved mean? It can mean a lot of different things, perhaps it’s a book that gave you the language to come out, or it was the book that helped you begin your gender transition, or it helped you navigate homophobia in your family, or reconcile with your faith tradition, or process internalized homophobia, or it helped you heal from an abusive relationship, or sometimes, like today, it reveals a queer love story that took place in your neck of the woods.

These are the books that help us live authentically, in our truth, and steer us to find our place in the world. And I want you to read them. Because the books we talk about the show, and maybe the one in this very episode? It might just be what you need to be reading right now.

Welcome to This Queer Book Saved My Life.

[theme music ends]

Scott Bane: On the fourth day of the voyage, Matthiessen decided to speak more candidly about sex. Presumably he felt a spark of attraction to Cheney. Later after an evening of star-gazing on deck, Matthiessen brought Cheney into his cabin to give him a good-night snack of a pear. Then he summoned all his courage and jumped in.

Quote, “I know it won’t make any difference to our friendship, but there’s one thing I got to tell you,” he said by way of awkward preface. Referring to his days at the Hackley School, he declared, “I was sexually inverted. Of course, I have controlled it since.”

Matthiessen described the miraculous moment that followed, “The munching of the pear died away. There was perhaps half a minute of the most freighted silence I’ve ever felt. Then in a far away voice, I had never heard, came the answer. ‘My god feller, you’ve turned me upside down. I’m that way too.’”

J.P. Der Boghossian: We’re listening to a reading from the book A Union Like Ours: The Love Story of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney. So, “sexually invert” was another way of saying gay back in the early 20th century. As for feller, it’s kind of like, well, our version of dude, or man, or pal.

The author of A Union Like Ours is our guest today: Scott Bane.

Scott Bane: My pronouns are he, him, and I have an eclectic background. I’m a program officer at the John A. Hartford Foundation that focuses on health and aging. I’ve worked in other charitable foundations before that, and I’ve always been a writer in my avocation or my spare time. and it has been an avocational pursuit.

Our episode today is in two chapters. Part I: A love letter at the breakfast table?

[Parisian music]

Scott: I was reading the New York Times one morning at the breakfast table that I share with my then partner David, now husband, and was reading a book review of a book about gay men at Harvard entitled The Crimson Letter.

J.P.: And it was in The Crimson Letter that Scott discovered the book that saved his life: American Renaissance by F.O. Matthiessen.

Actually, the full title is American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman. And, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Published in 1941, it is a book of literary scholarship that is now considered a classic analysis of America’s five great writers of the 19th century: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman.

Now, as a literary nerd, I’m all for an academic literary book. But, this show is about life-saving books. So, what was Scott seeing in it? Well, two things. The first was how The Crimson Letter described American Renaissance that piqued Scott’s curiosity. The second was where the book was written.

Scott Bane: It characterized American Renaissance as a love letter from Matthiessen to Cheney. And I was like, oh, come on, you’ve got to be kidding. That just, you know, it’s just like, what do you mean? A book of scholarship, a love letter? No, that’s not right. But it made me curious enough to go and check out the book at my local public library. And when I did opening it up to the very first page, in the author’s acknowledgement, it’s place stamped Kittery, Maine. And my parents’ first house was in Kittery, Maine. And I was like, oh my God, this is, what does Kittery, Main have to do with this story? And that got me started.

[Parisian music ends]

[Sounds of birds, fog horn, waves]

J.P. Der Boghossian: Kittery Maine. It is just over 1 hour north of Boston, on the Atlantic, just across the border from Portsmouth New Hampshire. It was incorporated in 1647. And it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, incorporated town in Maine. Fun fact: The Treaty of Portsmouth which formally ended the Russo-Japanese War was signed in 1905 in Kittery’s naval shipyard.

Matthiessen published American Renaissance in 1941. The population of Kittery at that time was 5,374. And it was here, he lived with Cheney.

Scott Bane: It’s funny, sort of, in the journey of the book and various articles I’ve written about Matheson and Cheney, there was an editor of The Gay and Lesbian Review who asked me, “So do you have a connection to Harvard?” I was like, no, no. I’m a city university boy. My connection to this story comes through place. And that as I say in my book, and I quickly learned, Kittery, Maine was the one true home that Mathiessen and Cheney shared together.

J.P.: Here’s my conversation with Scott.

[Sounds of birds, waves, fog horn fade]

J.P.: So, if I had found a book by this titan of scholarship, I mean Matthiessen basically created an academic discipline, American Studies, and if I had found out that he had lived in my backyard, and was gay married, it would have blown my mind. I don’t associate queerness with where my Dad’s family lives or where my mom’s family lives. It was invisible. Completely. So, what was that experience like for you? There was your lived experience of that place, and then finding out there had been this incredible gay relationship just X miles away from where you lived.

Scott: I think that it gave me a kind of ownership of that place as a gay man that I had not possessed. Certainly I learned more about it. I don’t know if I’ve written, but I visited local historical societies that I had driven past 10,000 times and never set foot in. And now suddenly there were things there that mattered to me, because there was a little local, newspaper called the Kittery Press, and this paper is not going to be available digitally anytime soon I guarantee you, but they had copies and so and Matheson had articles that appeared in there and there were articles that appeared about the two of them and it was it was fascinating.

J.P.: Did you know Matthessien prior to reading about him in the Times? You’re shaking your head, so did you not know anything about him?

Scott: I did not. And I was kind of annoyed by that because I had my pre-Civil War American Lit class and had gotten along well with my professor and we had a very cordial relationship. But I guess I never quite got to this. Oh, and I even asked her if she would recommend some supplemental books to read, and she recommended a book by one of Matheson’s colleagues at Harvard, Perry Miller, I don’t recall the specific title, but she didn’t recommend Matheson. And, you know, it took that article or that review in the New York Times to set this chain of events in motion.

J.P.: Take me through reading it the first time, what was that like?

Scott: Well, I’ll start with the image I have. I was, I was, I was working in philanthropy and. My job had summer hours, which meant it was closed on Fridays, which was a really nice perk. And I would go, I would take a little sand chair, you know, one of those little lawn chairs. I would take that to Central Park, and I would sit in Sheep’s Meadow. No, not Sheep’s Meadow. I would sit in Strawberry Fields, which is the… which is the portion of the park that Yoko Ono created in memory of John Lennon after he was shot outside the Dakota apartment building, which is right at West 72nd Street and Central Park West. And I would sit and read this book. And I see myself with a pencil in my mouth, because of course I chewed on pencils. And…and loving it. He wrote the kind of cultural history that I liked so much as an undergraduate, really the intersection of literature and history. I mean, Matheson taught in the History and Literature Department at Harvard, which still exists. And I… I love that.

And then there were little breadcrumbs through the forest about American Renaissance being a queer book. I would say my favorite chapter in the book was the chapter or the section on Melville. I would also say that Melville is probably my favorite. 19th century American writer out of all those famous writers you listed at the beginning. I think Melville’s kind of the best. And Matheson discusses this definitely queer story Billy Budd in that chapter and reading that I thought, oh my god, he gets it. He gets it. It’s the book was published in 1941. He’s writing in the mid to late 1930s. He gets it. He actually sees this and he’s willing to trace that line in literary scholarship.

Oh, and can I add one thing? Just the other thing that was really interesting to me about him is that Matheson, he was a political activist on behalf of organized labor. So he was really good on socioeconomic equality. And it was so interesting to me that he was so good on that. but would not go near the homosexuality in a more self-assertive way, such as we take for granted now, and kind of coming out and all of that. Sort of he just would not go there. And yet he was so good on the things that I think we as a society are less good on now.

J.P.: Hmm. Hm-him. I do want to explore that, but first. The breadcrumbs. I want to hear more about the breadcrumbs. So, you read American Renaissance described Matthiessen’s love letter to Cheney. Were you starting to see that as you were reading American Renaissance?

Scott: Sure. I mean, I think that I, you know, to the to the title of your podcast, this queer book saved my life, not only the substance of American Renaissance, but also the. chain of events, it started in motion, is what I mean by this queer book saved my life. So that American Renaissance led me to a book of correspondence between Matheson and Cheney that was published in 1978 entitled Rat and the Devil, the Journal Letters of F.O. Mathiessen and Russell Cheney. Again, one of the amazing things about Matheson and Cini’s relationship is how incredibly well documented it is. During their lifetimes, they exchange roughly 3,100 letters with each other.

J.P. WOW!

[Parisian music]

Scott Bane:
Yeah, wow is right.

J.P.: Yale University’s Beinecke Library currently holds Matthiessen’s papers. Interestingly though, as Scott told me, when Matthiessen died he left his and Cheney’s house not to a family member, but to Lewis Hyde, a Skull and Bones brother. And Lewis Now, Lewis, a straight guy working in finance, ends up collecting the 3,100 gay love letters, editing them, and publishing them with a small press in Connecticut. That book is Rat & The Devil: Journal Letters of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney. Now, Rat and the Devil. I asked Scott, why is it called Rat and the Devil.

[Parisian music ends]

Scott: Rat and the Devil were Matthiessen and Cheney’s nicknames, both of them were in Skull and Bones, which is this very prestigious secret society at Yale. And Rat and the Devil were their Skull and Bones nicknames. Apparently people who were in Skull and Bones and this is I have this from a book about skull and bones that was written in the 90s I think it was the 90s. Alexandra Robbins Secrets of the Tomb. Cheney was rad and Matthiessen was devil and apparently devil, little devil is a name reserved for the shortest member of that, of the particular cohort of… Skull and Bones members. So Matthiessen was little devil for his class. At least that’s what I’ve pieced together based on based on what evidence I was able to find.

I totally brought some props such as a copy of American Renaissance, but I did not bring Rat in the Devil, of course. But I mean, one of the letters that I’m thinking of is he writes to Cheney early on. That there, and I’m paraphrasing, but that there have been other unions like ours, which is where I take the title of my book, that there have been other unions like ours throughout history is obvious. But we cannot learn from them. We must create everything ourselves, and creation is never easy. I was like, oh my god, that’s gorgeous.

J.P.: I was reading in the prologue to your book that you were seeing parallels between your relationship and theirs. Can you share more about that?

Scott: Matthiessen and Cheney were 20 years apart and my husband David and I are 15 years apart. So that too was another point of congruence with their story. It’s like, oh, I kind of get this.

J.P.: Longtime listeners know that I’m in a poly relationship, but what they probably don’t know is that my partners are 24 and 25 difference between us. So, my question is, how have you navigated that and how did you see it coming up in the letters between Matthiessen and Cheney?

Scott: Oh, sure. Well, I’ll work backwards with your questions. How did I see it come up in the letters? The main thing is that Matthiessen seemed much more idealistic. So for example, at one point in the letters, Matthiessen wants to, he’s in love, and he wants to tell his friends about his relationship with Cheney. he’s in love and that love will not be denied and he is going to tell their friends about it and Cheney is much more worldly and more experienced and presumably more aware of the legal consequences of doing something like that, were this to become public knowledge? And he’s like, whoa, not so fast there. And in the end, Matthiessen did tell some of their friends and they had. which I write about in my book, kind of varying reactions, some of them were supportive, even though it was the… mid to late 1920s.

And in terms of my own relationship, I think that our age difference has become less of a difference as we’ve both gotten older. I think it was more pronounced when I was younger. David describes some story, I can’t remember what it is right now, but there was some cultural reference that I asked a question along the lines of, what’s Watergate? It wasn’t quite that, it wasn’t quite that bald, but it was something like that. And it’s like, oh my God, what have I gotten myself into? But that’s, and that’s become less pronounced over the years. And I think as… We have accumulated more shared experiences. It’s just become less of an issue.

[serene piano music]

J.P.: Part two of our story starts in just a few seconds. First, though, if you want to buy F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renaissance and Scott’s A Union Like Ours, you can purchase them at our Bookshop. We actually have Scott’s book on sale right now. In addition to queer books, we’re also selling new releases from Lauren Groff, Naomi Klein, and Nicholas Sparks. We’ve got this year’s best sellers, plus banned books, and critically acclaimed LGBTQ books. Almost all of them are on sale right now. As they say, which is true, some of these deals won’t last. Visit bookshop.org/shop/thisqueerbook.

And now, part two of our story: Do the dead choose their biographers?

[Jazzy Parisian music]

J.P.: Is there anything more romantic in the whole world than….writing? Has any career been more romanticized than writing? Nobody sits in their car, in rush hour, trapped on the 494, and thinks about sitting in a cafe on Paris’ west bank, a coffee and croissant in front of them, and then opening up their laptop to work on a profit and loss statement. No. It’s writing! It’s always writing! I often worry that I’m more in love with the idea and process of writing, than actually writing. But that’s a story for a different day. My question for Scott was, as someone who thought of writing as an avocation, what about this story compelled him to write about Matthiessen and Cheney, to get his book about them out into the world?

Scott: I’ve described it as kind of like a mosquito buzzing around my head. I want to write, I want to write, I want to write, go away, go away, go away. And it kept coming back. And I should say I also do a lot of writing in my day job. Philanthropy is a very heavy writing field is one of the things I like about it. And But anyhow, so I wanted to write, but I didn’t know what.

And then learning about Matthiesen and Cheney’s story, a big part of it was no one had really told the story of their relationship. There, Matthiesen was a scholar, so there have been scholarly books about him, which certainly reference his relationship with Cheney, but just the story of their relationship, the love story, had not been written or told. And so that was appealing.

And… And I also don’t want to make it seem like it was crystal clear to me right from the beginning. In the early days of this, I was sending emails to former professors in college asking if I needed to go back to graduate school. And they’re like, no, you don’t need to go back to graduate school. And so it took a while to figure out what was the book I could write. And it finally focused in on the relationship, the love story, especially as it relates to living in Maine.

J.P.: I love the question you ask in the prologue: do the dead choose their biographers? Tell me more about how you answer that question!

Scott: Well, on the most basic level, part of that is just being a little cheeky to capture a reader’s attention, just because it seems so far-fetched. But another part of it is… I’m an unlikely person to write their story. As I said, I’ve spent my professional life working in philanthropy. I went to law school. I certainly had the love and appreciation of the story, and of literature, and of history, and certainly of the place. but just all those factors came together that really led me to ask that slightly cheeky question.

[jazzy Parisian music]

J.P.: Scott’s worked on this project for many years. In the early days, he went up to New Haven, Yale, to begin his research by reading and sifting through Matthiessen’s letters. He joked with me that some people go to Jamaica for vacation, and he goes to New Haven Connecticut. But, he goes for the adrenaline rush, to come across that piece of writing that is magical in that it opens up your eyes to something new. There is one letter in particular that was just that. The Oxford letter. Matthiessen wrote it at Oxford University when he was there as a Rhodes Scholar. But in it, he’s describing how when we was in prep school, he would come into New York City, going to movie theaters to meet men, and to discover who he was. So much of our history hasn’t been written down for a variety of reasons. But here was a first-hand account of gay life, for a young gay man in the 1920s. What it looked like, felt like. I had to kind of keep reminding myself as I was prepping for this conversation with Scott, that Matthissen and Cheney had this was open secret of a relationship in the 30s and 40s. And maybe that’s my own bias as I think of that time period as a worse time than what we have today. And yet, here was this absolutely lovely, charming, and devoted marriage. Of course, as Scott writes, there was a reason for that: privilege.

[music fades]

Scott: There are some extenuating circumstances of this. I mean, they were both from incredibly privileged backgrounds. They, I mean, Matthiessen was a professor at Harvard, Cheney had a trust fund. I mean, as I, the point I make in the book, in my book, that neither of them depended on the local economy in Maine for a job, you know, so it was a pretty very unique set of circumstances, which is not to say that they didn’t have their own struggles and heartbreaks, I mean, they did too. But sort of like what you alluded to, part of my fascination with their story. and is or part of let me start that again part of my fascination with their story is that they did it they loved one another and they figured out a way to be together and as i alluding to that letter that i referenced earlier we must make everything up that’s really part of a lot of the American experience.

J.P. Der Boghossian: Absolutely. You know, I will, I never get upset about rich gays. Yeah, no, we, get all the money now, right? But where I’m going with that point, though, is how there is this use of capitalism to enforce heterosexuality. Matthiessen and Cheney were able to have that freedom, if you will, because of their independence, essentially, from all of the evils of capitalism. But where I want to head with this is about Mathiessen’s politics. Today, we’ve got a lot of gilded age behavior going on, you know, we essentially have robber barons. I mean the day that we’re recording this, our most infamous robber baron, the ex-president just got arrested and indicted in Miami. Tell us about Matthiesen’s politics?

Scott: He was very interesting to me politically in part, well for two reasons, one his… support for socio-economic equality, or greater socio-economic equality, and he was really clear about it, that what we need as a society is a quality of opportunity. And he was really good on the, and again, sort of, he was this incredibly privileged person that it was so interesting to me that he was so good on these issues. So that was one part of it.

The other thing that was interesting to me about him is that, he actually got out there and advocated for the things he believed, that he wasn’t content to simply write about it, although he did do a lot of writing about his political interest and causes, but he actually got out there and protested and went on investigations into, I’m thinking of there was a minor strike in, he and Cheney spent a lot of time in Santa Fe. Cheney, as a painter, loved Santa Fe. the mid 1930s in Gallup, New Mexico. And Matthiessen got together with a band of reporters and lawyers and they went out to investigate so what actually happened.

So he was really committed in that way. And in the days following the aftermath of World War II and the… early days of… fears of communism. Matthiessen declared himself a socialist and spent time in Eastern Europe teaching students at the Salzburg seminar in American civilization. So he did things. Now that said, I think his politics became more strident after Cheney died in 1945, but he was very committed and willing to spend his time pursuing his ideals.

J.P.: Folks ask, what do I do with my privilege. Matthiessen is a really great example for that. What do you feel would be Matthiessen and Cheney’s advice to us in terms of queer love in the 21st century, now so many decades after they’ve lived, what do you think their advice would be to us?

Scott: The first phrase that comes to my mind is, go for it. Life is short. And if you find someone you fall in love with, go for it. And nurture that flame, nurture that relationship as much as you can, because it’s very precious. and will be over before you know it.

[Clair de Lune plays]

J.P.: Earlier this year, Scott returned to Kittery Maine. He gave a talk about his book, and Matthiessen and Cheney, at the local public library in their hometown.

You can connect with Scott online through his website scott-bane.com where you can read an except of A Union Like Ours. To purchase your own copy, and to buy Matthiessen’s American Renaissance visit bookshop.org/shop/thisqueerbook

Also, and I highly recommend this, you can view Cheney’s paintings online at russellcheney.com. When you’re there, go to the Gallery, select portraits. On the top row, at the end, is Cheney’s portrait of Matthiessen, with their cat…Pansy Littlefield.

[theme music]

J.P.: That’s our show for today. I’ll see you back here in two weeks for our next new episode.

Our podcast is executive produced by Jim Pounds. Our associate producers are Archie Arnold, Natalie Cruz, Jonathan Fried, Paul Kafer, Nicole Olilla, Joe Parrazo, Bill Shea, and Sean Smith. Our Patreon subscribers are Steven D, Steven Flam, Thomas Mckna, and Gary Nygaard.

Permission to use clips from Author Talk “A Union Like Ours: The Love Story of F. O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney” provided by Scott Bane.

Our soundtrack and sound effects are provided through royalty-free licenses. Please visit thisqueerbook.com slash music for track names and artists.

We’re on social media, you can find us on Facebook, or on Instagram, we’re at thisqueerbook, but we’re no longer on Twitter.

As always, you can connect with us through our website, thisqueerbook.com, and if you want to be on the show, fill out the form on the home page!

And until our next episode, see you queers and allies in the bookstores.

[theme music ends]