Campus & Community

The contingencies of friendship

5 min read

How to talk about making friends – and influence people

You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your friends. Or can you?

In his research, John Stauffer focuses on the difficulties of interracial friendships in American history and literature. (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

One implication of John Stauffer’s current research seems to be that certain types of friendship are determined to a greater extent by political and social forces than we would like to suppose.

Stauffer, who was promoted this past July to a full professorship in the Department of English and American Literature and Language, is writing a book with the working title “Dreaming of Democracy: American Interracial Friendships in History and Literature.”

His research shows that the golden age of interracial friendship in the 19th century took place from the 1840s to the 1860s, a time when radical abolitionists, both black and white, joined forces to defeat slavery. Before that time, interracial friendship hardly existed. After that time, its significance in both life and literature seemed to dwindle into insignificance, before re-emerging after World War II.

According to Stauffer, the waning of interracial friendship as an inspiring ideal coincided with a period in which racism and racial oppression rose dramatically and in which friendship itself lost much of the prestige it once possessed. Extolled by Aristotle as a union of virtuous individuals that enhances the functioning of the state, and by Jesus, who said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” friendship lost its luster among the moderns who regarded the concept as sentimental. It received its death knell from Freud, who believed that friendship was essentially repressed homosexual attraction.

But in 19th century America, friendship was still a force to be reckoned with. In probing its significance, Stauffer has explored some obscure byways and gotten to know some overlooked but compelling figures.

William Apess (1798-1839), for example, a Pequot Indian who was the first American Indian writer to publish an autobiography, wrote regretfully of the impossibility of friendship between Indians and whites. The Indian idea of friendship resembled Aristotle’s in that both saw the relationship as a union between equals, Stauffer said. Since whites were unwilling to put themselves on an equal footing with blacks or American Indians, true friendship between them was out of the question.

There are always exceptions to the rule, and one such was John Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary who lived with the Delawares from 1760 to 1803 and wrote one of the most sympathetic books on American Indians. James Fennimore Cooper read the work with great attention and used many of its details in his “Leatherstocking Tales,” in which he idealized friendships between whites and Indians but set them beyond the borders of civilization.

But Heckewelder aside, Stauffer has concluded that interracial friendships were virtually unknown from the Revolution to the 1830s, owing in part to Enlightenment beliefs in hierarchy and order. Even the early abolitionist societies excluded blacks as members, and free blacks who supported the abolitionist movement seemed to accept this discrimination. But this mind-set began to shift in the 1840s as the movement gained momentum and moral force.

“By the 1840s, ’50s, and ’60s, activists – black, Indian, and white – refused to compromise with sin and embraced the idea of a perfect society, unconcerned with the uprootedness and bloodshed that might result. Despite the fact that slavery was on the rise, there was a flowering of interracial friendships. It was a window that was not to be repeated,” Stauffer said.

Some of the figures who appeared in Stauffer’s earlier book, “The Black Hearts of Men: Radical Abolitionists and the Transformation of Race” (2002), make a reappearance in this study, among them Frederick Douglass, who escaped from slavery to become an abolitionist leader and a famous author and speaker. Stauffer focuses on Douglass’ 1853 novella “The Heroic Slave,” based on the true story of a slave ship rebellion that happened 11 years earlier. Douglass portrays the relationship between the rebellion leader, Madison Washington, and Mr. Listwell, a sympathetic white man who shelters him, as a friendship between equals.

In addition to these more obscure works, Stauffer also focuses on some of American literature’s best-known interracial pairings – the relationships between Ishmael and Queequeg in Melville’s “Moby Dick” and that between Huck and Jim in Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.” For Stauffer, works of literature, whether acknowledged masterpieces or those that have long since sunk into obscurity, are invaluable not only for the pleasure they give but for the insights they can yield into the beliefs and feelings of past generations.

“I think of myself as a cultural historian and critic. I’m interested in understanding culture in its broadest sense, as the interaction between ideology and material forces, and I think the best way to get inside the collective mind is by reading the literature of the period.”

Literature has played a crucial role in Stauffer’s own life. Because his family moved many times during his childhood, Stauffer’s early life lacked a sense of stability, and he filled that void by reading. Later, after attending Duke University on a tennis scholarship and earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, he took a job in financial management, but found little satisfaction in the work.

“I was just miserable, and it was literature that saved me and led me back to graduate school.”

Stauffer earned a master of arts in liberal studies (M.A.L.S.) degree from Wesleyan University in 1991, an M.A. in American Studies from Purdue University in 1993, an M.Phil. in American Studies from Yale in 1996, and a Ph.D. from Yale in 1999. He has been teaching at Harvard since 1999 and in 2003 was the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities.