Queer Places:
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Cimitero Comunale Griante, Provincia di Como, Lombardia, Italy

William Henry Hurlbert and the 'Diary of a Public Man' - The New York TimesWilliam Henry Hurlbert (July 3, 1827—September 4, 1895) was an American journalist and the possible author of “The Diary of a Public Man,” published in the North American Review in 1879. His responsibility for the Diary—once dubbed the “most gigantic” problem of uncertain authorship in American historical writing—was carefully concealed and has only recently been established.

Hurlbert was born in Charleston, South Carolina. His father, Martin Luther Hurlbut, a Unitarian minister and schoolmaster from Massachusetts, resettled in South Carolina in 1812 and lived there for most of the next two decades.[2] The elder Hurlbut remained a self-conscious Yankee who nonetheless owned slaves. Hurlbert's mother, Margaret Ashburner Morford Hurlbut, his father's second wife, was a native of Princeton, New Jersey. Hurlbert's parents moved to Philadelphia in 1831, where his father founded a successful school.[3] Fragmentary evidence suggests that Hurlbert's childhood was difficult and intense. The gifted son plainly was his father's star pupil, adept in rhetoric, foreign languages, and classical literature. One may surmise that he was pushed to excel. His subsequent decision to change the way he spelled the family name may have distanced him from an overly demanding paterfamilias.[4] Martin Luther Hurlbut died unexpectedly in 1843. William and his mother and sisters promptly returned to South Carolina. There the precocious sixteen-year-old came under the influence of his half brother, Stephen Augustus Hurlbut, an aspiring lawyer and politician who was over a decade William's senior. Stephen—who later moved to Illinois, became an ally of Abraham Lincoln’s, and served as a Union general during the Civil War—was attempting in the early 1840s to carve out a niche in Charleston society. He persuaded William to study for the Unitarian ministry.[5] When Hurlbert enrolled at Harvard College in 1845, he had spent his most recent two years in Charleston and was regarded as a Southerner. He earned an undergraduate degree in 1847 and a divinity degree in 1849. Following college he traveled extensively in Europe. His personal charm, his gifts as a linguist, and his ability of “acquiring knowledge as if by magic” enabled him to pass easily as “a Frenchman in France, an Italian in Italy, [and] a Spaniard in Spanish countries.”[6] He served a brief stint as a Unitarian minister in Salem, Massachusetts, where he was said to be “extremely popular and very much admired as a preacher.”[7]

While studying at Harvard's divinity school, Thomas Wentworth Higginson forged a romantic friendship with a younger student, William Henry Hurlbert. This relationship, according to Higginson's wife and biographer, was a loving one, though it was misteriosly "destined to end in sorrow." Despite his friendship with William Henry Hurlburt and all that meant to him, he was Walt Whitman's fiercest Boston critic.

In 1876 Hurlbert became the World’s editor-in-chief. He answered to Thomas A. Scott, who hoped that owning a newspaper might improve his chances of getting a federal subsidy for the Texas & Pacific Railroad. Subsequently, Scott sold the World to Jay Gould, who also acquired Scott's interest in the Texas & Pacific.[12] However talented, Hurlbert was ill-suited to edit a newspaper. His circle of elite friendships and his rarefied aesthetic sensibilities distanced him from the mass public. He did little to make the paper popular. Instead its circulation dwindled and it lost money. In early 1883, Gould threatened to sell the World, but Hurlbert asked for a reprieve while attempting to put it “on a paying basis.” He fired many editors and reporters, but did not succeed for long in staving off the inevitable. A few months later, Joseph Pulitzer bought the World from Gould. Unlike Hurlbert, Pulitzer knew how to attract readers.[13]

One of the high points for gay men in Boston was the 1882 visit of Oscar Wilde during his tour of the US. Julia Ward Hove, but then the presiding doyen of Boston aristocratic society, hosted a brunch in his honor with guests such as Isabella Stewart Gardner. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Civil War hero and prominent women's rights advocate, publicly attacked Howe for hosting Wilde, prompting her to take to the press to defend herself and her guest. Higginson's opposition wasn't because he was straight; he was madly in love with journalist William Hurlburt despite being married. The two had a relationship at Harvard in the 1840s, and it seems that Higginson spent the rest of life trying to rekindle the affair. Higginson's wife was an invalid and as her health deteriorated, he sought out Hurlburt even more. Unfortunately, Hurlburt rejected his advances. To make matters worse, Hurlburt and Wilde hit it off and the two spent private time together. This may have sparked jealousy in Higginson as Hurlburt had a notorious reputation as a womanizer and a flirt with men.

Wilde and Hurlbut in New York and later in Washington were mutually attracted to each other as intensely as Wilde and Higginson in Boston were not, and all the intensity that made Higginson so formidable an abolitionist burst out in jealous rage against Wilde. At a stag dinner honoring Wilde hosted by Hurlbut at the Merchants’ Club in New York, “the first homeward-bound carriage left the portals long after midnight.” Higginson was, of course, excluded from these festive evenings, as he was not privy to more intimate outings between Samuel Ward, Julia Ward Howe’s brother, his beloved Hurlbut, and the “unmanly” Wilde. Thus, Higginson’s attack on Wilde’s aesthetic style may have been a more personal and complicated reaction, a jealousy bound up with Higginson’s own homoerotic and suppressed identity.

Demonstrating that being gay was no obstacle to striaght marriage in these years, Hurlburt eventually married at 60 while Higginson married twice. Thomas Wentworth Higginson had two children by his second wife. Wives and children took second place, however, to masculine charms—in particular, those of William H. Hurlbut: “a young man so handsome in his dark beauty,” wrote Higginson, “slender, keen-eyed, raven-haired” and so on. But he did not stop there, insisting on his passionate love for Hurlbut: I never loved but one male friend with a passion—and for him my love had no bounds—all that my natural fastidiousness and cautious reserve kept from others I poured on him; to say that I would have died for him was nothing. I lived for him; it was easy to do it, for there never was but one such person … . To me, moreover, he was always noble and sweet, he loved me truly and generously.

Eventually Hurlbut refused even to reply to the monthly letters Higginson would not stop writing him. “Give too much love to the dearest and fairest and oh! What sad dissatisfactions,” confided Higginson to his journal, feeling only slightly less trapped, one imagines, than his friend. Though one of Higginson’s biographers does assert he sent no note of congratulation when Hurlbut married, Higginson, though long estranged from Hurlbut, never spoke ill of his friend and remained, in one scholar’s view, “ever hopeful,” though so many years later it is hard to know the details.

One biographer of Higginson, James W. Tuttleton, calls Hurlbut “a breaker of many female hearts and the disappointer of many high hopes” generally, his life in the end “destroyed by personal licentiousness and social scandal.” Tilden Edelstein calls his life “scandalous.” But both affirm the unusualness of Hurlbut and Higginson’s friendship. Tuttleton says, “Their relationship had been a curious one … . Higginson was half in love with him,” while Edelstein reports one observer as saying the letters that passed between Higginson and Hurlbut were “more like those between man and woman than between two men.” After the era’s fashion, Higginson wrote a book about it, but thinly veiled, and Tuttleton goes so far as to assert “the genesis of Higginson’s only novel, Malbone, was Higginson’s youthful disillusionment with a divinity school friend of the 1840’s, William Hurlbut.”

After losing control of the World, Hurlbert lived abroad. He published books on Ireland and France, each of which used the format of a travel diary to offer his opinions on current politics.[19] His last years were marred by a humiliating scandal. Hurlbert denied that he had written a sheaf of salacious letters to his London mistress, actress Gladys Evelyn, but a British court indicted him for perjury in 1891, and Hurlbert fled incognito to Italy, where he died in 1895 during a visit to Cadenabbia, Italy, after falling down a steep flight of stone steps.[20]

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