Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
Leesa Charlotte: …and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode, we’ll be diving into the sexy diaries of a 19th century queer marine, Philip Van Buskirk. But before that, Alyse is here to do some Fact or Fiction. So, Alyse, let’s do this.
Alyse Knorr: Alright!
EB: Good to see you.
AK: Good to see you. So–“yo, ho, yo, ho, a pirate’s life for me.”
LC: Oh, I didn’t realize we were gonna get a song.
EB: I know.
AK: Fact or fiction?
EB: Just like, is that song a pirate song?
LC: Ugh, so hard because like, that specific song or like shanties in general?
AK: You can interpret and and specify however you want about this question.
LC: Okay, alright. I’m gonna say that songs, yes. Yo, ho, pirate’s life for me, no.
EB: Alright, alright. Good answer. I am gonna have to say I agree that they definitely sang songs on the ship. People just–people like to sing. That’s just like, people were born to sing. All three of us, especially, you know.
EB: But it is true. I could go on a huge rant about that. Did you know that only–it’s a very small percentage, but like 2% of the population is actually tone deaf.
LC: Oh, really?
EB: Yeah, like 98% of the population like can sing. We just–we’re not like, they only really encourage people to sing if they’re like, “Wow, your voice is incredible.” But every person, like most people can sing. That’s just like a rant about music.
AK: I was talking to a friend about this the other day because she said she was tone deaf and I was like, no, tone deaf means you’re not hitting the correct pitches. Like, I think people say it when they mean like I’m not confident or I don’t sing well or beautifully.
AK: No, no, you’re singing the right notes.
EB: Exactly. Most people are not actually tone deaf and yeah, people always say like, “I’m tone deaf. I can’t even carry a tune.” It’s like, you can. Like people are meant to sing, like our vocal cords are created to make music. So pirates definitely sang, yeah.
LC: When you get everyone together like to sing Happy Birthday, usually people all like find the, you know, find the octave.
EB: Oh, I don’t know who you’re singing with, because no, they don’t.
LC: I was gonna say, I don’t think so. They sing it at their own tune.
AK: My wife’s family, they sing the blessing. They go, “Be present at our table, Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These morsels blessed and grant that we might feast in paradise with thee, amen.” But, they do it in harmony. Like five part harmony.
LC: I love that so much.
EB: Yeah, that’s not my family. But that’s amazing. Honestly, that’s a dream. That is a dream.
AK: Yeah, it’s amazing. Yeah.
EB: But I will say as we go on yo, ho, yo, ho, a pirate’s life for me–I have to say it is a song from pirates. And the way I’ll have to try to figure out how we know that that song is–well, let’s say it’s from the Golden Age of Piracy. Okay? And it was orally just sung throughout the years until it got to the point where everyone was like, oh, yeah, that is a pirate song from the 16th century.
EB: That’s my yes on that.
AK: Great. Okay.
EB: And my very long-winded music explanation as well.
AK: I mean, I’ve already sung twice on this podcast. So I feel like I’m taking up a lot of oral space right now.
LC: Truthfully, Ellie and I sing all the time, so…
EB: Yes, it’s okay. We appreciate it.
LC: Alright, so tell us, what’s the truth?
EB: Is that song a real pirate song?
AK: This is another one of those where it’s like, partly fact, partly fiction, ultimately, I’m gonna say fact, to be controversial. So it’s fiction in the sense that, you know, it’s the song that Disney World uses on their ride Pirates of the Caribbean, right. And that’s like where it became most popular. And mostly it came from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, where all of our pirate lore comes from. There was this song in there called the Dead Man’s Chest. And it has the line, “15 men on the Dead Man’s Chest, yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.” And so that’s sort of the fictional part of it, is that it comes from pop culture, and then it was like perpetuated by pop culture. But a lot of people do think that–so they would have been singing all over on the ship because it helped them keep in time with each other for like hoisting sails, and it kept their spirits buoyed when they were, you know, really, really tired.
LC: I have a question about that, because I heard that that was–like so when the whole sea shanty craze happened, I think we started to talk about it, that that was appropriated from African cultures because they used to have work songs, and that when they came on the slave ships, they had work songs and that it was appropriated from–or was it a thing that was already around?
AK: So like, it’s possible that multiple communities across the globe would have had work songs, right, like the ancient Greeks probably had worked on their huge ships where they were rowing, right? Like, it helps people keep time, it helps people keep their spirits alive. We have to remember that, like, these pirates included a lot of Africans. So they might have brought some of their specific African works onto the ships. But I think that around the world, even cultures that were never in contact with each other had work songs. I might be wrong about that, but like, this is what I’ve read from a couple different sources. And then, they were also drunk on the ship the whole time. So you sing a lot when you’re drunk.
LC: Especially us, yes.
AK: And so people think that “yo ho,” would be like a way to like, like, yoHO, yoHO, would have been like a way to kind of like, stay in rhythm with certain like pulley and ropes, and then the “pirate’s life for me” part, I’m going to claim that’s truth because that’s just the general pirate attitude that we’ve talked about all season, like they were deciding to do this very alternative kind of life. And they didn’t think there was any other better way to live. They loved the freedom that being a pirate came with and they were like–they had made these choices to just live an alternative lifestyle. So I think that the spirit of the song is very, very truthful.
EB: I love it. But yeah, we’ll never really know if that exact song was there. It’s not like they had recording devices.
AK: Yeah, no, that sounds made up, but like there’s elements of it that are true.
EB: That does make me happy to know that like pirates are just singing, drinking. Like that is the pirate’s life.
LC: That is my life too, to be honest.
EB: Leesa lives the pirate’s life.
LC: I live a pirate life, just singing and drinking my way through life.
EB: Thank you so much, Alyse, for sharing this Fact or Fiction with us.
EB: Also, anyone who’s listening, share some of your favorite shanties as we’re talking about shanties.
LC: Oh, please.
EB: You know we love them.
LC: We do.
EB: But we got to dive into the episode. Thank you so much Alyse, for hanging out.
AK: See ya.
EB: And telling us more about all these shanties.
LC: And we’re back. So, pretty exciting topic today, Ellie. We’re talking about Philip Van Buskirk.
EB: I’m so excited because he is such a queer icon, I think.
LC: Yeah, he wasn’t a pirate, which is why Ellie’s words–Ellie’s like…
EB: Yeah, I was like, he’s not a pirate…but, I mean, to be like–we have all of these diaries. So we have so much like scandalous details of his sex life, which–
LC: I love it.
EB: We’re here for.
LC: We need a full episode for sex diaries. That’s just the rules. We don’t make them. Sex diaries get their own episode.
LC: We talked to expert Matthew Knip about Van Buskirk. And he was lovely. And I’ll let him take it from here.
Matthew Knip: Well, Philip Van Buskirk was a son of a Maryland Secretary of State, middle of the 19th century, who at the age of 12, in the year 1846, after his father committed suicide, his mother was left without the means to support him. So she enrolls him in the Marines. And she spent the foreseeable future dependent on him and for him to help her out. Because he was the son of a Maryland Secretary of State, he was both upper class and literate, but bankrupt and fallen, quote unquote, into the working class, right. So when he gets on ship, in 1851, he starts recording in a confessional diary, a diary like, you know, the Puritan confessional diaries, his inner life, his thoughts, his secrets, his deeds, and he really thinks of the diary as kind of a place where, if he’s doing his work correctly, his spiritual work, he’s going to record everything, which causes him a great deal of anxiety and pain, worry that others might see the diary, and a need to conceal it and hide it. And he goes to great lengths to conceal it. Sometimes it gets found, the first edition was thrown overboard. I have some other sailors where it rests amongst the fishes of the sea, he says. But he’s recording his deepest secrets and his fears, but not only his own, what makes it really interesting is that he is recording what he sees and what he hears from everybody else as well, right? So over the course of 50 years, he writes a diary that grows to be more than 30 volumes. What BR Burg, or Barry Burg calls, quote, “the most extensive record of introspection ever kept by an American,” end quote. So it’s this massive collection of diaries. And they’re kept in the Special Collections Library at the University of Washington library, which was the only way you could access them, that or microfilm, for a very long time. The first seven years are now on our website at the CUNY Graduate Center in the Commons, where we’ve transcribed those first years and we also have microfilm so you can see the original pages, the original handwriting and stuff. Now Buskirk had no interest in war or world leaders or events around him. He was very interested in the everyday. And he was on the Perry expedition to Japan. He was in China. He served in the Civil War. The guy got around, he was all over the place. But mostly he’s keeping elaborate charts of what he ate, what he drank. And he keeps charts of these things in relationship to how many times he masturbates and how many times he has nocturnal emissions. Because through the reading of Reformed literature, anti-onanist, anti-masturbation tracks, right, he has come to believe, self-identify, self-nominate, as an onanist. And this is the greatest problem of his life. And it’s what he seeks to impart. It’s what he seeks to resolve by keeping a diary, is to reduce his nocturnal emissions, and to reduce his incidences of masturbation, which to him means alone or with another, or in groups. Because masturbation in the world of these ships was initiatory, other sailors introduced younger sailors into the practice. It was public, it was publicly practiced. And it was communal, it was often done in groups. So Van Buskirk keeps falling into that, he can’t stop masturbating. And he records all of this with a great deal of anxiety and fear, shame, embarrassment in his diary, which, you know, it’s just one reason why he’s so credible, because some historians have accused him of kind of being a gay guy and making notches on his post, right, about the number of guys that he slept with. But that’s a total misreading. He’s deeply ashamed of these things, which he reads as moral failures, failure to live up to the ego ideals that his mother, his family, and his class position have put upon him.
EB: Wait, Leesa, what’s an onanist?
LC: So an onanist is just someone who masturbates. So today, I learned that I am an own onanist, as I’m sure we all are.
EB: Everyone is an onanist.
LC: We hope.
EB: Please, if you’re not an onanist, take the time to become an onanist today. This is a sponsored PSA from the onanists of America.
LC: I just can’t imagine writing a diary entry every time I masturbated. Like, what do you say? Just like, I masturbated.
EB: Yeah. Well, and Philip was also writing about it, and also all of his feelings about it, which is like we’re in the Victorian era.
LC: It’s very lesbian of him.
EB: Yeah, right.
LC: So many feelings.
EB: There’s a lot of shame around sex. So it is like very interesting to have this piece of literature that somebody recorded, talking about their feelings about sex during the time.
LC: Yeah, just generally, like, I just feel like I haven’t recorded enough data in my life, even though we’re kind of like recording our whole lives on social media all the time. But the fact that this turned out to be like a significant resource for historians studying maritime sexuality is super cool. And we’re going to hear a bit more about that.
MK: So the diaries grant a real window, a real kind of open window, you know, a deep description into working class men, what they’ve thought about sex, because he’s writing down what he says, what he does, what his peers say, what they’re doing, their behavior, their thinking, how the culture around them influenced their thinking and behavior, how the literature he’s passing around, this anti-onanist literature, affected him and affected others. And it’s a fascinating window into this culture, before the world got split into two by the arrival of sexuality, right? Before heterosexuality, before homosexuality, right? These concepts, these ideas, the hetero or homo, are meaningless to these guys, they never mentioned them, they never talk about them. There’s no sense in the diaries anywhere, of anybody having an identity that somehow was attached to object choice. That’s delible and lasting. Sex is always a temptation that anyone in the working class can fall into at any time. And it doesn’t matter how many times you have it. When you go into port, you go back to your girlfriends and your wife. So there’s an amazing fluidity in this culture and an amazing lack of sexual identity, which is startling. And when we get to the sections where you asked me to share a couple of favorite passages, we’re going to look at one of those really close that kind of foregrounds that reality. So Van Buskirk, because he’s this deeply interpolated onanist, right, laced with shame and foreboding and–the reform literature taught that if you masturbated, it was going to affect your health, your children’s health, your spouse’s health, all the way to the health of the nation, right. So it put a lot of weight on people’s shoulders. And Van Buskirk was an acolyte on bended knee, he read this stuff, he believed it, he internalized it. And it scared the bejesus out of him, right. So he’s focusing a great deal of energy on trying to reform himself, but also running around ship handing out pamphlets, trying to convince everybody else that they shouldn’t be masturbating either. And in that culture, in that space, this is fodder for public conversation, right, under the boom cover, where men are looking for sex with other men, talking about who’s available, talking about who they did, who they want to do. So he’s running around passing out this literature, and this is the working class. According to Van Buskirk, almost none of them could read or write. And they were decidedly not interested in his reformist zeal, in his messages. In fact, you know, their hero was Davy Crockett, they desired sexual release, they thought it was good for them. And we’re going to see that in the passages later also. So Van Buskirk, really as a man out of place, a man without a home, in a working class world where his identifications, his self understanding is completely formed by middle class notions of self-control, thrift, self-improvement, and the working class sailors around him are kind of not into that. So he keeps a diary about all of this stuff, a diary that he never intended anyone to read. Occasionally, he’ll let somebody else read it, but he’ll like cover up passages and make them promise not to go there. Stuff like that. The stuff that he considers really deeply shameful.
EB: So this is like when I was in high school, and I read my sister’s diary–sorry. But you know, if you’re writing a diary, you have to know someone’s gonna find it. You know, like, if you have a sign on the front, that’s like, please do not read. Like, I feel like people just want to read it more. Like that’s how it goes.
LC: Also, like, you don’t know what’s going to happen many years in the future. I definitely–like my parents must have my teenage diaries. I used to, like, keep a diary pretty consistently as a kid. And also like me and my best friend used to write each other letters every single day. Every day. We went to school together, and we would write each other a 10 page letter in the time between going home from school and going to school the next day. What the fuck are we talking about? We were only 14 years old.
EB: You’re like, there’s nothing that happened in that time. No, for my college graduation, my grandmother printed out all of the emails that I sent her over the years. And I do not know what I was thinking. I was telling my grandmother very, like–I was like, so I went on a date with this boy the other night, he’s pretty hot if I do say so myself. I’m like, what are you talking about to your grandmother, Ellie? Like, why are you doing this? But like you have it, right? Like, there is even more documented now. Like, Instagram stories are going to be like the relics that people are studying in hundreds of years, which is so crazy.
LC: So interesting. I used to actually send emails when I first moved overseas, I used to be pretty diligent about like sending emails back to like my close friends. Also, just because otherwise, you just end up having the same conversation like every time you talk to them. I’m not really good at keeping in touch on the phone. Anyway, but I haven’t been doing that. I’ve been thinking about doing it lately. And you know, maybe I need to document my life in this way.
EB: Yeah, so that people can see it. But I’m curious, right? Sailors are throwing his diaries overboard. So how did those survive?
MK: I have not done a lot of research in this area, but I know that the University of Washington Libraries acquired them around 1902. It was shortly after he stopped writing and shortly after he died. And I think the secret is that–or the details of this acquisition–have something to do with the fact that he never married, so he had no immediate spouse, he had no children. He only had relatively distant relatives. And Van Buskirk wrote voluminously and copiously, and while, you know, I have said that his concerns were very focused on his own personal anxieties. He did reference all these other things, right, what he ate, where he was, the weather, who was in charge. He was on the Perry expedition, he made notes about that. He wrote voluminously about his experiences in China. So there are boxes and boxes of them, right. So the relatives, the distant relatives of his, inherited these and his friends, and they were all like, you know, who reads their cousin’s diaries, right? Especially somebody who’s kind of a social misfit, right, and never really fit in, never married, never had kids, he died unknown, right and like, okay–maybe these diaries will be important to somebody some way for some reason, so they bunch ’em all up and they ship ’em off to the University of Washington libraries, I suspect pretty unsure, pretty unclear about the kind of sexual contents that are in there. So what have these diaries taught us about sexuality at sea in this time period? Some of the things that we learned from these diaries are that there were a variety of same-sex behavior that was commonplace between working class members of the Navy at the time. Masturbation, which they called shaking or giving a yank ’em or going ‘taut for taut,’ in groups, in pairs, which they did with and for and to each other. Masturbation, which was initiatory, communal–initiatory, in the sense that the older members would teach the younger members. I remember Van Buskirk entered the Navy at 12, while he was a Marine serving in the Navy as a drummer. But anyway, it was initiative, it was communal, and it was public, and it was talked about, right. So it’s this fascinating, kind of public sexual culture. Also, these sailors coupled, they didn’t just masturbate together, but they formed intimate relationships with each other, that were clearly, from the evidence of the diaries, they were reciprocal, they were interracial, and they were not reliably violent or coercive. They were publicly acknowledged and structural. They could be durable and loving, even when they were asymmetrical in other ways, like age or rank, status. In fact, some people, including some people on your podcast, have used the word “rape” to describe these relationships, and Van Buskirk does say that young boys can be coerced in these relationships. But he says that once. And then he fills thousands and thousands of pages of complaint about how boys have no interest in avoiding these relationships, how they come under his protective wings, and he doesn’t have sex with them or he does sometimes, but not always. He falls in love with young, innocent boys that he thinks are pure, and that he thinks he can protect. But inevitably, he discovers that these boys are having sex with other men. And then he has to break off his relationship because they’re no longer up to his standards of friendship. So while he does say that they’re sometimes coerced, the bigger problem is that they’re all having sex all the time. And that’s exactly what they want to be doing. And they want to be entering into these relationships. And in one instance he even records a couple that exchanged gold rings. This is not unusual, right? I mean, this is not unique to Van Buskirk, we see the same thing in the Pacific Northwest. In Peter Bogue’s work with quote unquote “hobo culture,” right with the punks and the older men, these relationships having a reciprocality where they each get something from each other, right. Another thing we learned from the diaries is that these sailors didn’t really feel any need to restrict their sexual behavior to private spaces. They were happy to take advantage of private spaces, but it wasn’t necessary. Living before sexuality split the world in two, sailors were also free of the foreclosures associated with modern sexual identities. So to the extent that we see anxieties forming around same-sex intimacy, in the diaries, these anxieties are reformist, moral, and religious. They’re not identitarian. So these men who had sex with other men and boys, boys that had sex with men and other boys, didn’t feel that these relationships had anything to do with how they felt about themselves as men. It didn’t make them a different kind of man. In fact, it made them just common men. It didn’t mark them as having an identity in their own self understanding, or in the understanding of others, including the upper class sailors who knew this was happening, saw it happening, and turned a blind eye. And then these men who had sex with boys and men and boys who had sex with men and boys, you know, when they went into port, went into port and had sex with prostitutes, but also brought boys back, sold themselves, prostituted themselves for cash or for coffee. It was a lively sexual world, according to Van Buskirk. It’s hard to know about other ships, but it’s not hard to know about other working class environments that are predominantly male-male, the Pacific Northwest, agricultural, lumbering, mining spaces, prison ships. George Baxter Grundy wrote a really interesting letter to Her Majesty’s Government complaining about the men who have sex with boys and even, quote unquote, marry each other and consider themselves married. And the evidence is not from Van Buskirk alone.
EB: So if all this was so common, then what was Van Buskirk’s hang up and shame around masturbation? It all comes down to ejaculation, which Matthew talks about next.
MK: Living before sexuality, right, before the turn of the century, and before we had homo and hetero identities, these sailors were really–they were remarkably free of the kind of foreclosures that we associate with modern identities, right? This idea that I’m gay, that means I don’t have sex with women. Or if I’m straight, that means I don’t have sex with people of my same sex or my same gender, right? Those foreclosures that kind of, “Ew,” that kind of, “I don’t do that,” that the kind of rejection that’s in the psyche, right? So I mentioned the anxieties that form around same-sex intimacy, they weren’t those kinds of modern fears of being considered different or abnormal or perverse. They were about moral and religious objections, right. Even while Van Buskirk says, “I love sensual pleasure, but I will not fornicate, because I love God.” Not because I’m afraid it’ll make people think I’m gay or a homo or queer or anything like that. I will not fornicate because it will kill my health, it’ll destroy my future marriage, my future children, God will frown upon me. I’ll be banished from good society and from the hosts of heaven, who will lock me out of the gate. That kind of thing, right? Well, how does one stop one’s nocturnal emissions? I mean, he can’t, right, but he believed you could, because he wrote all of his nonsense saying that he could, right, that he was morally responsible, right? The center of the crime is not the dream, the passion, the touching, the kissing, the hugging–the center of the crime is ejaculation, right? Which is the weakening of the system because it’s the loss of all its vital fluid. So you’re literally, you know, ejaculating away your health and your future. Oh, and he agonizes over it. He’s like a gay guy in the closet, you know, just self-loathing and hating, and as a gay guy in a closet or a lesbian in the closet, he is terrified. He doesn’t tell anyone. He doesn’t go to doctors. He doesn’t describe his problem with them, because he’s too ashamed of it. He really thinks it’s something that he brought upon himself, because he started this habit of masturbating and having nocturnal emissions when he was too young, and it’s just spiraled out of control.
LC: This is just really heartbreaking. Like, okay, so it’s the point where you stop policing like how people feel, like people have bad impulses, right? So it’s really sad that like, even though he’s not having like, I don’t know–even though he’s just masturbating thinking about men, he still feels guilty. Like, that’s horrible.
EB: Yeah. And it’s also just like, I think a thing that a lot of people still deal with today of like, you see people who are in like, mixed sexuality marriages, right, where they’re like, “Well, I am gay. Like, I think gay thoughts. I would like to have gay sex. However, like, I have so much shame about it, I’m choosing to live a life that I don’t actually want to live.” Right? And it’s like–yeah, it’s also interesting to think about. Matthew was saying, it’s not that Van Buskirk hated himself for being gay, or even having relationships with men. It was specifically the ejaculation that he considered the sin, because of all of the literature he’d been reading. They had a completely different conception of sexuality back then in those settings, just like in season one, how differently the Greeks viewed sexuality from how we view it.
MK: What’s really interesting here, right, is how unassimilable the way these guys think about sexuality and identity is to our modern way of thinking about it, right? Joe pays lip service to reform literature and upper class values to Van Buskirk, while paying no attention to them in his real life. But notice how he says that he likes women too well to masturbate. I mean, this is of a page with reform literature, right, that if you masturbate, you’re going to damage yourself, you’re going to damage the health of your family, and therefore, you’re going to spiral down into this well of sensuality, from which you can never recover, right? So Joe is afraid to masturbate by himself, because what he really doesn’t want and what he fears is the center of the crime, which is ejaculation, because that’s what harms you, right? But he has no problem doing it with other men, as long as he himself doesn’t ejaculation, doesn’t come, right. There is nowhere in the thousands of pages in this journal where it is suggested that men hugging, kissing, any of those kinds of intimacies is problematic, other than the center of the crime. So Van Buskirk–historians always wondered to what degree this reform literature influenced those who read it, right. Did they read it and believe it, did they read it and reject it? We get all kinds of different responses here from different sailors in different environments, right? But we see that Van Buskirk is a pretty pious, tortured soul because of it, right? Because of his reading of Reform literature. And that piety and that self-righteousness, you know, interferes in all of his relationships and leaves him feeling lonely, neglected, shameful, and isolated for years. So these sailors lived in a world that was both homosocial and homoerotic, which wasn’t reliably hostile to queer potentialities, and they didn’t have really any interest in notions of abstract civic fraternity or national ideals. Van Buskirk is attempting to professionalize his peers by going around trying to get them to conform to upper class standards. And he just fails time and again, and he’s ridiculed for it all the time. He thinks they respect him for his unswerving commitment to his high lofty ideals and his moral convictions. But that’s just not true.
LC: Seems like a really weird line to draw.
EB: Yes, but the literature, it seems like he was reading a lot that that was where the line was drawn.
LC: Anyway, can we hear some of these diaries? I really want to hear them.
EB: Yes. The first passage is about chickenships, where older sailors would be in relationships with younger sailors who they called their chickens. So we’re going to hear about that now.
MK: So the beginning of the diaries talk about how Van Buskirk is interested in cleaning up and helping two guys maintain a friendship with each other–Joseph and the imp. And he starts off thinking that Joseph is a remarkably innocent, religiously trained, Episcopalian, upper class, good boy. And that the imp just an evil working class guy out to destroy Joseph. So he finds a relationship with these two guys. And at a certain point, they end up sleeping together, Joseph and Van Buskirk start sleeping together. And a quartermaster has kind of a judgmental conversation with him, teasing, kind of judgmental nosing into Van Buskirk’s business, trying to figure out what’s going on. So this entry from the diary, it starts with Van Buskirk’s notes and then there’s a conversation, okay? He says, “Suspicious conduct. Since the 17th of this month, I have every night shared my palate with Joe, and this conduct is food for scandal. A quartermaster, quick to criminate, attacked me the other day with, ‘Well, you lays along the side of boys nights now, do you?’ Upon which ensued the following dialogue.” This is Van Buskirk. “‘Of late days I raise a chicken to be sure, what next?’ Quartermaster says, ‘Why ain’t you ashamed of yourself to have a boy alongside of you all night?’ Van Buskirk says, ‘Not exactly, considering who the boy is, and that nothing bad results from our sleeping together.’ Quartermaster: ‘Who the boy is? Why that boy would, blank blank blank, a jackass.’ Van Buskirk: ‘I don’t care if he would, blank blank blank blank, a jackass. I know that he don’t, blank blank blank blank, me. Every night passed with me by the boy is a night spent in innocence. When he sleeps with me, he is out of harm’s way. If he didn’t sleep with me, he’d certainly sleep with somebody else. And in that case, bad consequences might indeed result.’ Quartermaster: ‘Oh, hell, now do you mean to say that you sleeps alongside boys all nights and don’t do nothing?’ And Buskirk: ‘Well, now you may as well drop the subject. I see you are a little more interested than you ought to be. You are jealous.'” Yeah, he’s a moralist, right, and an onanist, and he’s trying to teach and catechize and lead and not being very successful at it. So he’s snuggled up to Joe and he thinks he’s protecting Joe. But Joe gets tired of his platonic company and departs for another guy who Van Buskirk believes is a little more willing to put out. Of course, this tweaks Van Buskirk. So here’s another entry: “Boy, Joe and me. This afternoon, I put into his hands Richaron’s Physiology and directed his attention to the section on habit. And the narrative therein continued of the wretched shepherd boy.” It’s a story about a shepherd boy who masturbated so much that his penis shredded to bits, fell off, and he ended up dying as a result. One of these spectacular stories that Reform literature put in to scare people who masturbated, right. “After Joe had read awhile, he stopped and asked, ‘Buskirk, why do you give me such as this to read?’ To which I answered, ‘Because you are not fit to read anything else.’ And this good boy, question mark, unhesitatingly followed at my answer with, ‘Buskirk, you are mistaken in me, indeed you are. I like women too well to do that to myself.'” Notice he says, “I like women too well to commit onanism by myself, alone.” Right? “‘I acknowledged doing it for other men. But, upon my word, I haven’t done it to myself since I’ve been in the ship, except once.’ ‘Silence, silence,’ said I, ‘I know already the whole extent of your iniquity, but I’d rather that you would deny your claims than confess so shamelessly, so shut up.'”
EB: Oh, poor Phil. It makes me so sad, it actually makes me really sad. Our shanty today is actually about Van Buskirk’s breakup with Joseph, which makes for a really good breakup song. Not gonna lie. Our next passage is about something we’ve been chatting about a little bit: ejaculation.
MK: Seems that everybody who writes about Van Buskirk points to this passage sooner or later. It’s a conversation that Van Buskirk has with an older sailor by the name of Old White, or that’s his nickname anyway. And Old White is a–you’ll notice in this passage, that he’s an ardent defender of the man-boy or man-man practice of chickenship, right? He thinks this is a good thing. He thinks that if men don’t come, if men don’t ejaculate, biles and pimples and pus will come out all over them, that you have to ejaculate, or you’ll become sick. A diametrically opposed perspective, right, working class perspective, versus Van Buskirk’s upper class perspective, alright. So here’s Van Buskirk: “Conversation last night with an old sailor on the subject of manual pollution. Van Buskirk: ‘Well, White, what’s your opinion of those men who have to do with boys? If you were king, wouldn’t you kill every one of them?’ White: ‘Yes, every fellow that lives ashore and does that, that in italics, I’d shoot them, yes by, I’d shoot them.’ Van Buskirk: ‘And if you had a navy, wouldn’t you kill every man in it found guilty of that, in italics again.’ White: ‘No, what can a feller do? Three years at sea and hardly any chance to have a woman. I tell you, drummer, a feller must do so, in italics. Biles and pimples and corruption will come out all over his body if he don’t.’ Van Buskirk: ‘White, you have given me your opinion, candidly and openly. I’ll be equally and candid with you. And then in italics, if I were king, I would kill every man at sea or ashore found guilty of this dreadful practice. And I would never have mercy. See here, have you ever read any books on the subject?’ White: ‘No.’ Van Buskirk: ‘Well, you are most damnedly mistaken about this practice being healthy, exclamation point, and in italics, I’ll lend you a little book tomorrow that tells you all about it.’ White: “Thank ye, I’ll read it.'” Well, we have reason to doubt that Old White ever read it, ever paid any attention to it, right? It doesn’t come up again in the journals. So you see the tension between working class sailors who desire sexual release, believe it’s healthy for them, and Van Buskirk was running around, wagging his finger, pointing at everyone, and chastising people for their man on boy and man on man actions.
LC: Shout out to Old White, who knows where it’s at.
EB: Old White is the healthiest of all of the pirates. To be fair, if Philip read contemporary literature, he would be like, “Oh, Old White might have been right.”
LC: Yes. So here’s another passage about Van Buskirk and how he was really tortured about sex on the ship.
MK: So Van Buskirk believes that he is respected for the purity of his morals. “It is thought of me that I am too proud, too high minded, to do any mean, groveling thing. But one sailor knows better.” And that’s the Yeoman. The Yeoman, quote, “knows me to have done mean and detestable things,” end quote, by which he doesn’t mean rape or acquiescence to power. He means that he submitted to passion and desire and he failed the sublimation that his mother and his class ideals expect of him, and he fell into what he refers to as “the dirtiest immorality.” The dirtiest immorality of the trinity of pleasures that sailors routinely participated in, according to Van Buskirk: rum, tobacco, and quote, “the occasional indulgence of unnatural commerce with boys,” end quote, that constitute to Van Buskirk the sailor’s irresistible heaven. So here he says, he writes this about the Yeoman. “He took me in an hour of weakness, and after violating nature in my own person, found it easy then to have me violate nature in his person.” Note the kind of reciprocity. Van Buskirk hates the Yeoman for seducing him, but total reciprocity back and forth.
EB: Sounds like a place I want to be, the trinity of pleasure.
LC: I mean, I love it.
EB: It’s the pirate’s life for you, Leesa.
LC: Yeah, exactly, it’s the pirate’s life for me.
EB: And Van Buskirk fell into the pirate’s life. Eventually, he succumbed to the trinity of pleasures.
LC: We all should. We’re only here for a short time.
EB: We should live it up.
LC: We should have all the pleasures.
EB: You’re right.
LC: Anyway, in very exciting news, you can actually go and read these diaries online, like the actual handwritten photocopies of the originals, which is just super exciting.
MK: They’re not found in the archive because families and people whose reputations wanted and needed to be protected threw this stuff away. Can you imagine what we would have if this stuff hadn’t been destroyed? One thing that I would like to encourage your listeners to do is, if they’re curious in knowing more about Van Buskirk, the first seven years of the diary have been transcribed and are on our website. Also at the website, which is vanbuskirk.commons.gc.cuny.edu. It’s easy to find if you just put my last name in, Knip and Van Buskirk. There, you will find a complete transcription, typed out version of the first seven years of the diaries, along with scans of those seven years of the diaries, you can actually see his handwriting and what the diaries actually looked like. And you can read them, because especially the early years are remarkably legible. Van Buskirk, I think he used porcelain and chalk. And he would write out his thoughts. And then he would transcribe them into a journal on which he’d very carefully put in all these lines. And so his handwriting, for the first couple of years, right, is immaculate, and it’s fun to read and fun to see and it’s fun to see, you know, how we get so upset because he capitalizes and he italicizes and he’s out to really make his points, kind of the way I think you heard me when I was reading, kind of trying to get that across.
EB: In the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
Jamie Goodall: The least representative, probably the pirates in Peter Pan. They’re so fanciful, especially Captain Hook, he’s so over the top, if you will. You take all the stereotypes of pirates and put them together and that’s the image that you get, is something like Captain Hook.
Natasha Sutton Williams: Lesbian Pirates is about two badass bitches who take on the 18th century patriarchy. And the show is based on the real life lesbian pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, and it’s an irreverent musical comedy.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on Thursday the 21st of April.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts.
LC: You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte, in partnership with Three Springs Media. Our audio engineering is by Sarah Gabrielli. Our production assistant is Thea Smith and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guest this week, Matthew Knip. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website.
LC: You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: Here’s our sea shanty for this week. Like we said before it is a beautiful breakup shanty, written and performed by Alyse, and produced by Joshua.