Frederick W. Loring is a long forgotten American author about as obscure as they come. His novel ‘Two College Friends’ (published in 1871) narrates a beautiful story of romantic friendship between two young men and an elderly professor.
Lost for over a century, Loring’s novel was only rediscovered in 1996 by the historian Douglas Shand-Tucci who republished it in the anthology: The Romantic Friendship Reader: Love Stories between Men in Victorian America (Northeastern University Press, 2003). Loring was himself only a young man when he met his own untimely death at the age of 21. He was tragically killed by a band of Apaches while travelling to Arizona.
After reading a copy of Loring’s novel online, I was greatly impressed with its frank portrayal of love between the two young men, especially from a book published during the ‘Victorian’ period, an era particularly known for its prudence. What was even more surprising was the sympathetic Professor who ardently loved the two friends before they volunteered for the Civil War. Loring paints an exceptionally warm and daring picture of an older homosexual man – rare even in modern gay literature.
The novel revolves around two central characters called Ned and Tom. Ned is an orphan of the impetuous and insecure type, while Tom is serene and very handsome. It appears everybody in the novel is aware of Tom’s beauty, even the battle weary republican General Stonewall Jackson bizarrely comments on his good looks later in the book.
Ned is very much in love with Tom, and of course, Tom is devoted to Ned. The old professor is in love with them both and he has their photo on his desk. His most prized possession. A long time ago the professor had fallen in love with a young woman, but after being rejected, he resigned himself to a bachelor lifestyle and to teaching with its dull routine. The young woman in question was Tom’s mother, and after discovering this the professor takes a keen and queer interest in both boys.
While at Harvard the American Civil War begins and Ned enlists as an officer. The professor persuades Tom’s mother to let him sign up too, so the boys can stay together. Their experiences are recalled intermittently in Ned’s journal entries. In one sentimental scene we read how Tom nurses Ned through a terrible fever and stays with him during his leave period. Although he is homesick and hasn’t seen his mother for over a year, he remains at the hospital to care for his beloved friend.
Later in the novel there is a campaign to destroy an enemy bridge and Ned and his men are captured by the formidable general, Stonewell Jackson. After a long discussion Jackson finds he respects and admires Ned’s straightforward, frank attitude. He allows Ned (on his honour not to escape) to stay the night with his sick friend by the water’s edge. As Ned is bathing Tom to ease his temperature, his guard comments: ‘you care for him as you would a gal, don’t you?’ He continues ‘well, he’s poutier than any gal I ever see anywhar’. The guard explains how Ned had given him fruit and Jelly at the hospital even though he was from the enemy camp. The guard wants to return the favour and allows Ned to escape down the river with his sick friend on the boat. Ned takes Tom to safety and returns honourably to the camp the following day to report to the General. Ned explains to General Jackson how Tom is his world. The General admires the fact he returned to face his fate. However Ned is briefed he will be shot at sunrise. They shake hands and Ned is led to a quiet room with writing material to put his affairs in order. He writes a beautiful heart-wrenching letter to the professor and says his farewells. In the morning he is executed, and the novel forward many years to its conclusion. The professor never recovers from Ned’s untimely death and becomes an angry, distant and ruthless pedant. Tom marries and his wife names their first born son after Tom’s soulmate.