Ives the Non-Homophobe

The myth of a homophobic Charles Ives has gained traction, to the point that it sometimes seems that if a person knows only two things about Ives, one is that he wrote music and the other is that he hated gays. I alluded to this in my post about Ives the other day, and I received the usual questions. Let me set a couple of things straight.

The image of Ives as homophobe rests on two pillars: Ives’s abandonment of Henry Cowell after the latter was sent to San Quentin on a homosexual morals charge; and his regular use of effeminacy as an insult, calling people he didn’t like “sissies” and “old women in pants.”

To take the first charge: In 1997, during the Henry Cowell Centennial Conference at Lincoln Center, there was an exhibition of Cowell’s correspondence. One exhibit was a letter from Charles Ives, written to Cowell at San Quentin. It was warm, supportive, sympathetic, with no hint of disapproval. As I recall, it was written in Ives’s handwriting, which was odd, because by the late 1930s his wife Harmony was writing most of his letters for him. A bunch of American music scholars and I stood around wondering at this letter, which so flew in the face of the legend that Ives cut Cowell as a friend after the homosexual incident. We theorized that perhaps it wasn’t Ives who had trouble with Cowell’s homosexuality, but Harmony – which would explain why this was a rare Ives letter not in her handwriting. I have never yet seen this written about – perhaps some Ives scholar is saving it for a new book – but thus fell down to dust one leg of the Ives homophobia myth.

Parenthetically, I’ve always wondered why this myth reflected so much worse on Ives than on Cowell. After all, Cowell was charged with corrupting the morals of a minor, and I think most of my friends and acquaintances would agree that having sex with an underage person is a bad thing (at least morally bad), regardless of the sexual orientation involved. Why couldn’t Ives (or Harmony) have very reasonably disapproved of Cowell seducing a minor, if he had believed that’s what happened, without a charge of homophobia? Why is it assumed that Ives would have felt just dandy about Cowell and a 16-year-old girl? As it happens, Cowell seems to have been, if not completely innocent, more innocent than charged, and got screwed over by a vindictive DA. In any case, he was later given a full pardon, and the evidence against him was acknowledged as faulty. In my experience, everyone seems willing to believe poor Cowell was innocent – yet Ives continues to be blamed for an abandonment that, according to the evidence I’ve seen, never happened. In any case, Cowell remained Ives’s friend and wrote a fine biography of him in 1954, and if Ives didn’t do anything Cowell couldn’t forgive him for, I don’t see that the rest of the world has any business not forgiving him as well.

The second case is more difficult to make, and many will not be convinced by it – but I’m going to make it anyway. Like Ives, I grew up in a culture in which charges of effeminacy were a standard insult. In Texas in the 1960s, we called guys we didn’t like “sissies,” “girlie-men,” taunted them by saying they should be wearing a dress. This had nothing to do with homophobia. It had to do with our own fears of failing to live up to the unrealistic image of manhood impressed on our insecure imaginations, and to overcompensate we ascribed such failure to our enemies. (Ives, whose father was an impecunious musician in a family of solid businessmen, was probably acutely susceptible to this psychology.) For one thing, we were so ignorant of homosexuality that we thought it might be a one-in-a-million condition, something we would never encounter. I went into college talking this way, found that homosexuals were far more common than I’d been led to believe, and learned with a shock that the way I was used to expressing myself might be misinterpreted as disparaging gays. Of course, I cleaned up my speech immediately – I had no desire to offend any group of people for being who they were, and many of my new friends were gay. Calling people “sissies” was admittedly a graceless and ugly way of expressing ourselves – but to label it homophobia is to retrofit an anachronistic standard into a culture that wouldn’t have understood the charge. (Why hasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger been vilified as homophobic for his “girlie-men” comment? What did Ives say worse than that?) Nor was it misogynistic: in the macho John Wayne world I grew up in, men were supposed to be men, and women – rather idealized and installed on pedestals – women. It was an unfortunate world in a lot of ways, and I suffered from it and continue to. But homophobia and misogyny played no conscious part in it.

Thus it was that when I read Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata at age 14, nothing about its language jarred me – that’s how people I knew talked. One of the wonderful things about Ives’s prose writing is how much of the vernacular slips into his high-toned philosophical discourse. The unfortunate flip side of this is that some of that vernacular, in hindsight and from the point of view of a civil rights era, now has a nasty ring to it. Since I come from a part of the country whose enlightenment level creeps along more slowly than the average, my upbringing in the 1950s was probably on some kind of cultural par with Ives’s in the 1880s. Ives called critics “sissies” and “Rollos” when they were hidebound and conventional in their thinking – which are not characteristics associated with gays. In any case, if you’re going to charge Ives with being a homophobe, then you might as well charge me with having been one for the first 20 years of my life, and I alone know how misguided such an interpretation would be.

Ives assigned the royalties for his Third Symphony to Lou Harrison, who conducted its premiere in 1946 (and gave him half of the Pulitzer Prize money he won from the work). I don’t know how “out” Lou was by that point, but I find it difficult to believe that Ives was in complete ignorance of his sexual orientation. In short, I have never seen any evidence that Charles Ives ever in his life discriminated against a gay person, or insulted one, or avoided one, or even that he hated gays. He did hate people who were intellectually timid and conventional, and in disparaging them he employed an old-fashioned vernacular idiom that no educated person would ever use today, because it now sounds homophobic. That’s unfortunate. Ives’s music enjoyed a big surge in popularity in the 1960s, and a lot of people who thought it undeserved have picked away at Ives’s minor personal faults with a tenacious schadenfreude that seems all out of proportion. Ives’s alleged homophobia should not be one of the first things anyone learns about Ives. In fact, it needn’t be brought up at all – unless someone has some evidence.


  1. says

    Leta Miller and Rob Collins have written about Ives’ letter to Cowell in the Autumn 2005 issue of American Music (pp. 473-492). It’s worth looking up online.

  2. Kay says

    Fascinating post, very well written and beautifully constructed. I agree with you on both charges by the way! The idea that Ives was a homophobe is bizarre, even if one takes into account the vocabulary he sometimes used (standard words for people in small town America)