Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Oscar Browning, Esperanto, and Homosexuality

La unua geja Esperantisto?
The Wikipedia entry on Oscar Browning mentions Virginia Woolf (Mr. Browning is mentioned, unfavorably, in her work) but not Esperanto. This omission should not stand. Further, there is no entry in the Esperanto Wikipedia on Browning, even though there is ample evidence that he deserves an entry there.[1]

Browning was a Victorian-era educator (which lead to Woolf disfavoring him[2]) associated with Cambridge University. The 1907 Universala Kongreso was at Cambridge, and the history shows that Oscar Browning took part in it. In 1905, he had likely just recently taken up an interest in Esperanto, but that was enough for him to give a lecture on the subject. One of the nice aspects of lecturing about Esperanto in 1905 is that, unless Dr. Zamenhof were in the audience, you likely knew more about it than anyone else in the room.

Dr. Zamenhof was not present at the lecture on Esperanto that Oscar Browing gave at Cambridge on December 9, 1905, which was reported on in the December 10, 1905 Omaha Daily Bee. The article notes that it comes by “Special Cablegram to the Bee,” but I suspect this was some service that delivered these items to quite a variety of newspapers and not that the Bee had their own Cambridge reporter.
New Language Finds Converts in Many Places in the United Kingdom
LONDON, Dec 9.—(Special Cablegram to the Bee.)—Esperanto continues to grow at a rapid rate through the United Kingdom. It is the boast of the advocates of the new language that it is already possible for a stranger, no matter what his nationality, to travel in almost any part of Great Britain and find students of Esperanto and make himself understood.

Just by way of illustration of the hold which the language is gaining on the empire, two incidents which have happened in Cambridge may be mentioned. One of these incidents concerns the university, the other the town.

Mr. Oscar Browning has just delivered a lecture upon Esperanto at the university. It was listened to by a large audience, and although Mr. Browning declared that it was his twenty-eighth lecture, each time upon a different language, he considered that it was more useful than any of the lectures which had preceded it.

Dr. G. Cummingham, an Esperanto enthusiast, announces that he had succeeded in making arrangement for the instruction in Esperanto of the local police in the town of Cambridge.
There are these stories about police forces getting trained in Esperanto. Even as a supporter of Esperanto, I have to ask, “what for?” Did police forces in 1905 encounter vast hoards of unruly Esperanto-speaking tourists? Did local governments fear that the Esperantists would be trouble? It doesn’t seem likely.

It’s clear, however, that Oscar Browning took to Esperanto. At the 1907 Universala Kongreso, Browning took a part in an Esperanto play based on a scene from The Pickwick Papers, and
the renowned Prof. Oscar Browning declared Esperanto a necessity, … making the statement that many of the facility who could not take an active part in the congress were in full sympathy with the movement.[3]
This was at the end of Browning’s Cambridge days. Wikipedia notes that he retired in 1908 and from 1914 onward lived in Italy. Wikipedia also notes that in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf paints “an unsavory picture of Browing’s sexual proclivity for young men.” It’s worthwhile to actually quote Woolf here:
Mr Oscar Browning was wont to declare ‘that the impression left on his mind, after looking over any set of examination papers, was that, irrespective of the marks he might give, the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man’. After saying that Mr Browning went back to his rooms — and it is this sequel that endears him and makes him a human figure of some bulk and majesty — he went back to his rooms and found a stable-boy lying on the sofa —’a mere skeleton, his cheeks were cavernous and sallow, his teeth were black, and he did not appear to have the full use of his limbs. That’s Arthur” [said Mr Browning]. “He’s a dear boy really and most high-minded. —-The two pictures always seem to me to complete each other. And happily in this age of biography the two pictures often do complete each other, so that we are able to interpret the opinions of great men not only by what they say, but by what they do.
While it seems clear that Browning was gay, it’s not so clear that his partners were on the mode of “Arthur.” The painter Simeon Solomon was certainly one of Browning’s lovers.[4] It seems unusual for Virginia Woolf to be denigrating homosexuality, since just about everyone she hung out with was gay or bisexual. She herself had an affair with Vita Sackville-West, who was not related to Winifred Sackville Stoner, no matter what American Esperantist alleged.

Mr. Browning died in 1923, or about fifty-four years too early to be one of the founding members (in 1977) of the Ligo de Samseksemaj Geesperantistoj, the organization for LGBT (“GLATa,” in Esperanto) Esperanto speakers.[5]

In 1905, it was somewhat easy to be the first [whatever] Esperantist, since there hadn’t been a lot of chances for someone else to fill the spot. We may have here the first gay Esperanto speaker. If he wasn’t the first, he’s likely the earliest Esperanto speaker for who can be verified as a gay person. So here’s to Oscar Browning, the first gay Esperantist.

Update: This was republished on February 13, 1906 in the Hopkinsville Kentuckian under the title "Growth of Esperanto."

The image at the top of the post is taken from an 1888 Vanity Fair illustration of Browning. It is in the public domain.

  1. If no enterprising Esperantist starts this, then I may have to take up the challenge.  ↩
  2. Though Wikipedia says possibly unjustly.  ↩
  3. The Chicago Alumni Magazine of October 1907, slightly abridged, as the original talked about two professors, but it was easy to take the Browning part alone.  ↩
  4. Noted here. Solomon was all of three years younger than Browning, but was already dead by the time the Omaha Daily Bee was writing about Browning.  ↩
  5. It's a bit of wordplay. Glata means "smooth" in Esperanto. ↩

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