Project Canterbury

Miscellany: John Rathbone Oliver--In Progress

By C. Stillman [Ps.]

From the Duke Gay Alliance Morning Star volume 3, number 2, April 1975

Reproduced with permission.

Most months, the Johns Hopkins Magazine tends to disappear as soon as it arrives, under the constantly rising debris on my desk. Congenital untidiness aside, I suppose I dislike to be reminded of what an ungrateful alumnus I must seem to the treasurers of the annual Hopkins Roll-Call. But recently, in one of those idle moments that Satan delights in sending to academicians, I did manage to scan the January issue of the Magazine attentively enough to notice an account of the early history of the Hopkins residences where, as a first-year graduate student, I had spent one of the most wretched years of my life--lovelorn, overworked, and not the least bit interested in the chronology of Cicero's orations.

There was little in the essay to evoke nostalgia's dulcet torment, though the archivist did devote a fair portion of her space to the first "Warden" of the dorms, an Episcopalian priest and practicing psychiatrist who, in 1923 at the age of 51, had enrolled in the University as a PhD candidate in Greek. A Chippsian figure, it seemed; dispensing first aid when needed and (despite Prohibition) port wine when required, the Warden of Symington looked the other way as students illegally imported pets into the dorms, and spent countless evenings hearing out tales of young woe before the fireplace in his quarters--in the same House where I would endure my unspoken miseries nearly forty years later.

The old closet-queen, I thought to myself in the ready vernacular of our insightful age, I'll have to look at his autobiography some day--and promptly forgot all about him until several Sundays ago, when I was entertaining friends with something rather stronger than port wine before my fireplace.

For some reason, I had got off onto J.H. Shorthouse's Victorian triple-decker, John Inglesant, observing that the author's love-affair with his own hero so collided with the tendentious defense of Anglo-Catholicism in the narrative, etc., etc.--when one of my guests, a priest, interrupted to ask if I had read any of the books of John Rathbone Oliver, a Baltimore psychiatrist and clergyman who had been deposed for homosexuality around the turn of the century, and whose novels seemed to be thinly-veiled projections of his own extraordinary life. Could this be the same man, I wondered, as the Warden of Symington? My friend suggested that I look up a recent article on Oliver in The Living Church (an Episcopalian weekly whose rapidly shrinking contents suggest that the publisher may soon be obliged to choose a less assertive title); and with a bit of checking, I found that the Warden and the novelist were indeed the same.

The article, by the Rev. H. C. Mooney, based on materials gathered over 16 years for a biography of Oliver, was mainly concerned with Oliver's priesthood--his deposition on obscure grounds in 1903, his period of self-exile in Europe, where his past dogged his attempts to gain ordination as a Roman Catholic priest; his decision to adopt a second career in medicine; his return to America and his efforts while on the medical staff at Hopkins to gain reinstatement of his Orders. Much in Mooney's account of Oliver's life seemed to be inferred from the novels, and, with due clerical tact, more was implied than actually stated--indeed, the necessity of reading between the lines was rendered even more difficult by several typographical dislocations in the text; so, with standard reference sources and as many of Oliver's books as I could lay hands on, I set about a bit of reconstruction of my own.

I was intrigued by the coincidence that had led me back to Oliver; I began to be even more struck by the parallels, however superficial, in our situation: living, years apart, in the same House at Hopkins, working in the same field, attending the same parish, both struggling to reconcile the Church and our homosexuality--I even discovered, by resurrecting an old membership booklet of the Tudor and Stuart Club, that we had been members of the same literary society. With one difference: the more I read, the more I was struck by what seems to have been a one-man campaign, armed with the weapons of scholarship, medicine, psychiatry, theology, and a clear-sighted compassion, against (among other things) the ignorance and bigotry towards homosexuality shared by the Church and society at large; and the more I admired a man who--notwithstanding a troubled past and a hard-won public reputation in several delicate areas of public trust--found the courage to assert, in a series of lectures delivered nearly 50 years ago at a major seminary, that homosexual love was as natural and had as much right to expression as heterosexual love--though, of course, the archivist had said nothing of this.

Oliver was born in Albany in 1872 of an affluent and close-knit family of transplanted Bostonians. His father, General Robert Shaw Oliver, would serve as Assistant Secretary of War under both Teddy Roosevelt and Taft, and his son, as we shall see, seems to have inherited something of his father's respect for military tradition. After his graduation from St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., Oliver spent two years studying the piano in Germany before returning to enter Harvard. (It is strange that he gives no indication of an interest in music in his later work, apart from a passing reference in his engaging autobiography, Foursquare (1930); perhaps he grew away from it, perhaps he preferred not to dwell on this particular boyhood ambition.

At any rate, Oliver graduated from Harvard in 1894 summa cum laude and class poet, by now preoccupied with the notion of founding a religious order modeled on the Society of Jesus--attracted, perhaps, by its traditional militance and discipline. But instead he accepted an invitation to teach Classics at St. Paul's, where his admiration for St. Ignatius yielded, as he says, to "other gods and heroes;" it is a period reflected fictionally in his novel Priest or Pagan? (1933), in which a young cleric at a Church prep school is deeply drawn to a handsome young student with whom he spends his evenings reading Greek, in the role of Phoenix to young Achilles; but when the boy is threatened with expulsion for defiling the school chapel, his mentor panicks, attempts to supply a patently false alibi for him--and is dismissed for his mistaken loyalty.

Oliver himself left St. Paul's after only three years to return to Europe with a friend (not further described in Foursquare); during a Holy Week visit to Rome, he toyed with the idea of becoming a Roman Catholic, but his feeling of responsibility for his protégé caused him to delay, and in the Fall of 1897, he entered the General Theological Seminary in New York City; after his graduation in 1900, he was ordained by his uncle, the Bishop of New Jersey, and became a curate at St. Mark's, a leading High Church parish in Philadelphia.

Then, in 1903, there is a sudden hitch in this record of success: Oliver lost his faith, so he tells us, and asked to be deposed from Holy Orders. The truth of what actually happened is difficult to unravel. Oliver says that his interest in monasticism had begun to revive during the second year of his priesthood, and he resigned from his parish duties in preparation for entering "a famous Order or Society" in England (the Society of St. John the Evangelist, I imagine). But by the time for his departure, he hesitated and took a curacy in another parish instead--the name of which he mentions nowhere. Here, he seems to have confronted the painful process of "coming out," and after some months reached such a point of confusion and despair that he was only narrowly prevented from suicide. He resigned his ministry and was deposed shortly thereafter. "There had," he writes of himself, "always been things hat he had wanted to do, not on the sly, but openly and unashamed. Here was his chance; a chance to be absolutely and freely himself."

He returned to Rome to enjoy this freedom, and found himself among a group of similarly-disposed renegade Anglican priests. Unfortunately for biographical interest, neither Foursquare nor Victim and Victor tells us much about this sojourn, or why it ended in yet another disillusionment. We are never free of ourselves for long, and Oliver's life in Rome, I suspect, was too easy, robbed even of the conflict between duty and desire, devoid of the ideal of self-sacrifice he had derived perhaps from his father, certainly from the lives of the saints and from the Iliad (an unexpected source of comfort he came to read and reread every night before going to sleep).

In reaction to this life of aimless indulgence, Oliver entered the Roman Church and began preparations to study for reordination. En route North, he chanced to stop at Innsbruck, where he discovered a congenial group of Americans enrolled at the seminary connected with the university there. He decided to follow their example, but for two years sought the sponsorship of an American bishop in vain. Each time the way seemed clear, some hint of the scandal surrounding his previous deposition caused his supporters to retreat, and he eventually gave up and turned to writing novels he could not sell, to mountain-climbing, and even served briefly as temporary British Vice-Consul in the Tyrol.

At 35, he decided to enroll in the medical school at Innsbruck, and during terms elsewhere in the following years studied in Vienna with Freud. Shortly after his graduation, on the eve of World War I, he enlisted as a Lieutenant of the Medical Corps in the Imperial Austrian Army. Bred to the military, he expected to enjoy a short go at proving himself his father's son. But the war dragged on longer and more tragically than he had anticipated, and in 1915 Oliver suffered a heart-attack and had to be released from service. Returning to New York discouraged and, in his eyes, disgraced again, he received another blow when he was medically disqualified for the US Army Medical Corps. Thanks to his connections, however, he was invited to the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins; a year later, he opened his own private practice in Baltimore, in an office he rented and furnished with money borrowed on an insurance policy. (At the time of his death, Time Magazine would describe him as Baltimore's "No. 1 psychiatrist.") And in 1917, he was appointed chief medical officer of the Supreme Bench of the Court of Baltimore, where he was able to institute a number of important reforms in medical-legal procedure, known as the "Baltimore Plan," which became widely imitated by other cities.

At an age when the average man settles in to enjoy the rewards of an established career, Oliver began to extend his interests in several directions at once. He was appointed Professor of the History of Medicine in the University of Maryland Medical School, and in 1923 enrolled as a graduate student in the Department of Greek at Hopkins. It was then that he became a resident on the Homewood Campus, was soon elected president of the dormitory Board of Governors, and in 1925 received his appointment as "Warden." Even with this exhausting schedule of work, Oliver longed to return to the priesthood. In his first year in Baltimore, he had happened by another "chance" to wander into Mt. Calvary Episcopal Church, near the old Hopkins Buildings downtown on Howard Street, on a Saturday evening when confessions were being heard. Still officially a Roman Catholic, Oliver had no conscious intention of making his penance, but he found himself approaching the stall, unable even to remember the form of confession. "To this day, all that I do remember is that I laid my cheek against that little grating in front of me and said, 'I want to come home I want to come home.'" For the next twelve years Oliver's pleas to be reinstated to the priesthood were rejected by his squeamish bishop, uncertain how to deal with such an extraordinary person with such a colorful past. It was not until 1927 that he was restored, safely aging and in encouraging ill-health, by the Bishop of Albany; each Saturday thereafter until his death, he would leave his book-cluttered suite at Hopkins for the clergy-house at Mt. Calvary to prepare himself for singing the 11:00 o'clock Solemn High Mass on Sunday.

But his reinstatement did not mean that he would remain tactfully silent to injustice. It was perhaps not for nothing that he had hung his old Austrian Army sword over his fireplace; as he says in another connection, "I like a good clean straightforward fight." For the next ten Summers at his vacation retreat in Quebec, he devoted himself to a stream of books and novels in which a major theme is that homosexuality is not a disgraceful aberrance, but a natural condition capable like any other of being redeemed by compassion and by love. Instead of treating the subject in tragic isolation in the manner of Radclyffe Hall and the novels of the genre to follow, Oliver insisted on presenting homosexuality in the context of the whole range of normal human difficulties. And unlike another American homosexual writer, whose fastidiously ironic and direct Bertram Cope's Year (1919) nearly destroyed his career, Oliver appears to have thrived on criticism.

The first novel of this new burst of creativity, Fear (1927), was an attempt to combine religion and psychiatry in the form of a case-study; it was censured for its "vague, ectoplasmic tone" by the Times, but was followed by such a spate of work that one bishop was driven to declare that Oliver should "stop writing all his novels about homosexuality." And no wonder, for in Victim and Victor (1928), a fictional account of his own disgrace and attempts to recover the priesthood, Oliver included a number of scathing portraits of the sort of malicious and faint-hearted clergy who had opposed his restoration. Even the New Republic, despite what it described as Oliver's anachronistic subject, his lame method and lifeless characters, found the book absorbing. So did the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Committee, who publicly acclaimed the book as no potboiler of the moment, but a work "for many years."

Now, the award of the 1928 Pulitzer Prize to Thornton's Wilder's Bridge of San Luis Rey, with its Peruvian setting and its pleasantly decadent cast of characters, had violated the rule that the selection should deal exclusively with American life and represent the highest standard of manners and manhood; as a result, by the time the jury voted on the award for 1929, it had been further stipulated that the winner should "represent the whole atmosphere of American life." Although the majority of the panel favored Oliver's book, they were antagonized by their chairman's tactlessness in anticipating their vote, and Victim and Victor lost by one ballot to Julia Peterkin's Scarlet Sister Mary, a story of a black woman with seven illegitimate children. (By 1930, the phrase "whole atmosphere" had been expanded to "wholesome atmosphere," and the choice of Laughing Boy, Oliver Lafarge's story of American Indian life, set the risible tone for selections to come.)

Life Fear a novel in the form of a case-study, Victim and Victor is comprised of diaries and letters knit together by the narrative of a psychiatrist and professor of anatomy who is working in a mental ward when he first encounters Michael Mann, a deposed priest and ex-convict now earning a meager living as a law clerk. As the doctor tries to rehabilitate Mann by helping him set up a neighborhood center in a slum near the hospital, he finds his own dormant religious feeling awakened by the ex-priest. It is significant of Oliver's view of homosexuality that while the doctor never fully grasps the reason for Mann's deposition, his own faith is restored under Mann's influence: that is, while science may help in creating a workable adjustment to homosexuality, it is not concerned to "cure" it; and in the context of faith, focused on service, homosexuality can even acquire a redeeming power of its own.

In Pastoral Psychiatry and Mental Health, his 1932 Hale Lectures at Seabury-Western Seminary, Oliver develops these ideas even more explicitly. While homosexuality cannot be fully explained by science, it must be dealt with as a fact. Oliver castigates the perpetuation of bias by antiquated laws and social attitudes, and goes so far as to advise parents to regard homosexuality in their children as something innate and to be accepted sensibly. Love between homosexuals, he asserts, may be "just as high, just as ideal as the love of Dante for Beatrice, just as constructive in its results It all lies with them, just as it does with all of us, for what we create out of the rough material of our sexual desires As long as the sexual satisfaction of a secondary reaction, so long as the relationship has possibilities of constructive development Above all, we must remember that we human beings, hampered by our physical bodies, are trying to express with these same bodies the supreme emotion of love: the highest, the most Godlike thing in the universe. Love that is God Himself." (It is disappointing to turn to As the Twig is Bent, a 1939 bestseller by another Hopkins psychiatrist, a homosexual later associated with Duke, who, writing from a non-Christian point of view, warns parents to be on the lookout for homosexual tendencies in their children, and to eradicate them as they might prune a tree.)

In his next two novels, the Tractarian in Oliver gains the upper hand over the storyteller: in Rock and Sand (1930) the superficiality of a group of "civilized" Americans is exposed against the simple goodness of their Quebecois hosts; in Article 32 (1931), an account of the consequences of clerical marriage in several generations of a New England family, he allows his impatience with Low Church provincialism to run riot: of two brothers, one, a homosexual, is saved by Anglo-Catholicism and his preoccupation with science, the other goes to flab in a losing battle for Muscular Christianity.

Priest or Pagan (1933), his most ambitious novel and the one that seems to have meant the most to him, deserves study despite its many failures of tone and technique. Again, much of Oliver's background--as schoolteacher, priest, Warden, doctor, Hellenist, Catholic--is transmuted into the story, about an illegitimate youth whose natural and spiritual fathers spend themselves in a struggle to dominate him. The homosexual note is struck boldly in order to be dismissed, in a remarkable scene in which the young hero faces rape in a hobo camp--for Oliver is here not so much concerned with the sexual aspects of love as he is with its deeper mechanisms: the conflict between the impulse to selfless giving and the daemonic need for possession. In the end, the narcissistic object of their longing eludes both the saintly and the satanic fathers--those two aspects of human love, as of Oliver himself: they are left alone together in a state of dependent conflict, and the novel ends not in resolution but in hope.

In some respects, the book is a poor man's Zauberberg; Fr. Minot and "Hell Fire" are no Naphta and Settembrini, and the exotic Marion Nichols is an even less sympathetic character than plain, dull Hans Castorp. But beyond the careless writing and contrived situations, there is a memorable intensity of feeling here that gives way, unfortunately, to a more conventional piety in his last novel, Greater Love (1936), the story of a mother and son who work among the poor in a gesture of self-imposed penance.

Perhaps Oliver would have been at his best in the essay, for he achieves a style perfectly suited to his matter in his last book, a short monograph privately printed in 1937, Spontaneous Combustion: A Literary Curiosity. Prompted by the bizarre death of Lord Chancellor in Dickens' Bleak House, Oliver wittily surveys spontaneous combustion (of obese, alcoholic women, largely) in 19th-century literature and medical history, and concludes that while in the past the prevalence of impure spirits and open fires may have facilitated the process, today "I do not believe that the most pronounced alcoholic could produce a spontaneous combustion by sitting on a hot radiator We may, therefore, feel more or less assured that if we restrict ourselves to really good Scotch and Rye and avoid open fires and sit on the radiators, we shall not, in all probability, combust spontaneously."

When in 1943 Oliver died at the age of 71, in the care of the Fathers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Time Magazine devoted nearly a full page to his varied career, referring to him as "one of the most unusual and winning personalities of his time." And J. H. Holmes, a founder and vice-president of the American Civil Liberties Union, had said of his Republican friend, "His nature is rich, his life abundant, his sympathies wide and full, his love of men and human things a native grace of his pure spirit."

There are a few seminarians (and academicians) who look for his novels in old book shops, many of his patients and students remember him; but I suspect that Oliver's work will in the long run prove to be of less importance than his example, in a period in which courage consisted not in zaps and drag balls, but in the integrity of a life. We may never have the biography that Fr. Mooney labored over for so long, for in February of this year, while tending store in a country gas station near Bluffton, Ga., along with three others he was gunned to death by a passing thief. But in his brief article he managed to leave us with what he regarded as "Dr. Oliver's great truth": "He had conquered nothing; he had come to understand much and to learn how to use it for God and Man."

And for a former denizen of Gilman Hall, Symington House, Mr. Calvary and Tudor and Stuart, it is pleasant to imagine Oliver on the eve of his retirement as Warden (in 1936) surrounded by his books and family portraits, with a glass in hand of port or something stronger, reading Dickens at a reassuring distance from his open fire.

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