Santayana: Genius ofthe Closet
This paper is a work in progress. I have just written a book about the expressive
history ofthe American gay closet which borrows from and features George
Santayana. He was homosexual and closeted, but it has not been clear how
this affected his writings, especially his philosophical books. Finding out is my
project, and I am sketching here how far I've gotten and what I think will be my
direction; therefore I must say at the start that the paper ends but does not conclude.
My being a historian has certain advantages, but it does not figure much in reading
Santayana's philosophical writings and in deciphering his theory of essences. Even
experienced, philosophically trained readers have stumbled trying to define the
doctrine and "realm" as Santayana understood them. I do suggest some analogies
between closet and essence but they are still suggestions.
According to his protege Daniel Cory, Santayana observed, during a 1929
discussion of A. E. Housman's poetry:
"I suppose Housman was really what people nowadays call 'homosexual.'"
"Why do you say that?" I protested at once.
"Oh, the sentiment of his poems is unmistakable," Santayana replied.
There was a pause, and then he added, as if he were primarily speaking to himself:
"I think I must have been that way in my Harvard days — although I was unconscious
of it atthe time."1
Santayana's biographer, John McCormick, rightly dismisses the notion that he
was clueless about his own sexuality:
Santayana may have consciously misled the young man who might become his Boswell; or
Cory, always at pains to present his subject in the best light, may have edited Santayana's
words. It is hardly credible that a man of Santayana's education, urbanity, and circle of
acquaintance could have remained unconscious of his own tendencies until sixty-five.
He knew the Greeks and the homoeroticism which flourished in that and many
succeeding civilizations.2 The colloquy with Cory allows the possibility of a writer
being "read" as gay, a statement that is more specific than Santayana's occasional
philosophical inclusions of homosexuality among the ancients. One wonders if he
thought his own writing could be read as Houseman's was, but must conclude that
he was consciously circumspect and concerned about scandal; the Oscar Wilde trial
remained a caution. Cory certainly knew the old man's orientation; he had been
trading on his attraction to bright and good-looking young men to make his own
way, sincerely but also ambitiously. Santayana would have expected no less, given
his detachment that tips into cynicism. Cory tells this story as if it exonerated him
1 John McCormick (George Santayana: A Biography [New York: Knopf, 1987], 51) actually
redacts the excerpt from Cory's book, leaving out Santayana's "reading" of the poet and
omitting Cory's protest, which says more about Cory than about GS. Daniel Cory, Santayana:
The Later Years: A Portrait With Letters (New York: Braziller, 1963), 41.
2Louis Crompton (Homosexuality and Civilization [Cambridge: Belknap Harvard University
Press, 2003]) gives a good account of this truth. I do not discuss the debates about the nature
of sexuality, especially the dispute between social constructionists and essentialists. I know
that sexuality is socially constructed. I also think it is essential: limited in time and essential