BALTIMORE — It’s an unassuming little book, bound in olive green leather and stamped with gilt. Seven inches tall and less than 5 inches wide, it’s small enough to be concealed in a coat pocket.
Who would have thought that an 1883 essay with the dry-as-dust title “A Problem in Greek Ethics” could create such a stir?
A curator at Johns Hopkins University recently stumbled across an extremely rare copy of the 19th-century essay by John Addington Symonds that helped lay the foundation for the modern gay rights movement — a copy that for more than 130 years was thought to be lost.
It is now on view at the university, along with some letters, photographs and copies of books from Symonds’ library.
The discovery establishes Hopkins as a national center of Symonds scholarship, a professor said. And it helps resurrect the reputation of a gay rights pioneer whose work inspired the writer Oscar Wilde’s famous defense against charges of “gross indecency.”
“Symonds is unjustly neglected today,” said Shane Butler, director of the university’s Classics Research Lab. “He was very famous in his own lifetime. Both he and Oscar Wilde were household names.
“But even if Symonds was forgotten after he died, his [unsigned] essay wasn’t. Pirated copies were passed hand to hand and read throughout the 20th century. The essay has been enormously influential in the struggle for gay rights.”
The book is the centerpiece of the exhibit, “Queer Connections: The Library of John Addington Symonds,” on view through March 13 at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library, 3400 N. Charles St. Once the exhibit closes, “A Problem in Greek Ethics” will be available in the library’s reading room.
“There’s something sacred about a book like this,” Butler said, “especially for queer students and gay faculty like myself. Just knowing that it’s there and being able to hold it and turn its pages is incredibly moving.”
The essay’s title is misleading, because the “problem” that Symonds describes isn’t intrinsic to Greek ethics. Instead, the author argues that the Victorians had a flawed understanding of the ancient world they professed to revere.
“The book’s premise is that British Victorians based their whole culture on the world of ancient Greece,” said Ryan Warwick, a doctoral student in classics who worked on the exhibit. “But in 19th-century England, homosexuality was illegal — while in ancient Greece, homosexuality was widely accepted and practiced and considered to be the root of their cultural greatness.”
It appears Symonds knew how inflammatory his ideas were. He had his essay printed privately and limited the run to just 10 copies.
“He was afraid it would fall into the wrong hands,” said Gabrielle Dean, curator of rare books and manuscripts for Hopkins’ Sheridan Libraries.
Five copies — all in the collections of libraries in the U.S. and the U.K. — were thought to have survived.
Dean discovered the sixth copy while helping students, in a course she taught with Butler, prepare an exhibit about books that were central to Symonds’ intellectual development.
“I was trying to verify the authenticity of Symonds’ handwriting by comparing the example we had to samples of his handwriting in other books,” Dean said.
“I Googled ‘John Addington Symonds’ handwriting’ and one of the hits was a brand-new listing for ‘A Problem in Greek Ethics’ from a rare book dealer.”
Dean presumes that the sixth copy had been privately owned before it went on the market in the fall. Once she and Butler got over their disbelief at their stroke of luck, they quickly obtained approval from library officials to purchase the book. (They would not disclose the price.)
“I was blown away when Gabrielle showed me the listing,” Butler said. “I assumed there had to be some sort of mistake. The odds of coming across something so incredibly rare are practically zero.”
Butler has been interested in Symonds since he was an undergraduate at Duke University in the early 1990s and found a reprint of “A Problem in Greek Ethics” in a used bookstore in North Carolina.
“I was a young gay man who was just out of the closet and I was a classics major,” he said. “Here was a book about how homosexuality was celebrated in ancient Greece and Rome. I had to have it.”
The more Butler learned about Symonds, the more fascinated he became.
Symonds was one of those larger-than-life personalities common to Victorian England. He was on a first-name basis with the leading thinkers of his day, from the explorer Sir Richard Burton to the poet Walt Whitman.
For his part, Symonds seems to have known since puberty that he was sexually attracted to men. But like other closeted gay men of that era, he married a woman and fathered four daughters. Diagnosed with tuberculosis in his 20s, Symonds later moved his family to Switzerland in the belief that the bracing mountain air would improve his health.
His memoirs describe three significant same-sex relationships: a youthful romance with a choir boy, a long and intense sexual friendship with a former student, and finally, his liaison with the gondolier Angelo Fusato, whom he met on a trip to Venice.
So smitten was Symonds with Fusato that he arranged to hire him as a household employee — a pretext so transparent that even today, Warwick marvels at its outrageousness.
“Why do you need a gondolier on your staff,” Warwick asked, “when you’re living in the mountains of Switzerland?”
The two men lived together for the rest of Symonds’ life. Though he observed appearances for his family’s sake, his sexual orientation seems to have been an open secret.
Dean said that the author Robert Louis Stevenson used his friend Symonds as a partial model for the protagonist in “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” — a novel about a man forced to “hyde” his true nature by leading a double life.
Butler is glad that the lost sixth copy is once again publicly available, given its relevance to today’s LGBTQ community.