Of all the Oberlin professors identified as gay by narrators, Frederick B. Artz has been the most widely remarked upon. Known for his acerbic wit and “colorful” mannerisms, Artz taught courses in European intellectual history at Oberlin from 1924 to 1961 and published several significant works of scholarship, including The Mind of the Middle Ages. The late Professor Geoffrey Blodgett called Artz “the most distinguished scholar ever to teach history at Oberlin College.”
He was well known for more than his academic standing. The campus buzzed about Artz and his alleged male lovers as early as the 1930s, according to Bob Diehm (OC 37). Artz was a subject of “Throne Room” gossip in the late forties, and his “long-time friendship” with psychology professor and fellow “bachelor” Raymond Stetson, with whom he shared a house for twenty-six years, was well known.
In the fifties and sixties Artz was also widely, if not universally, thought to be homosexual among gay students and faculty. This was not because Artz was “openly gay” or “out of the closet”—concepts that did not structure gay and lesbian lives until the late 1960s. Rather, Artz seemed to have cultivated a specific cultural style, incorporating a highly affected sophistication and sharp wit, that could easily be read as “queer” by those in the know while simply being considered “odd” or “colorful” by the more naïve.
Artz “gave new meaning to the word ‘arch,’” Jim Mosher (OC 62) recalled. “He had this imperious, bitchy arch-ness that he just loved. Coming from a more worldly background, you’d see it in retrospect as having been gay; I mean, a kind of wry wit, an intellectual preening [with] a Noël Coward-y twist to it.” Allan Spear (OC 58) agreed. “I don’t believe he ever told anybody that he was gay,” Spear said, “but he was certainly a queen.” Artz’s self-designed house was
filled with wonderful works of art that he had collected during, he would always tell you, his forty-second trip to Europe…He would sit on a throne in his very ornate living room, and you would sit on the ottoman in front of him. You were literally sitting at the queen’s feet. And he was very affected, and clearly by the standards of the day a classic queen, so in that sense he lived a flamboyant kind of life.
During Artz’s Oberlin career, gay men were largely considered to be mentally ill, immoral, child molesters, objects of pity, or simply irrelevant. As I detail later in this essay, the ambiguously sophisticated “queer” persona Artz cultivated served to deflect criticism and censure while at the same time inviting recognition from other gay students and faculty.
For instance, George Brenner (pseudonym; OC 50) recalled that gay veterans “would kind of identify [Artz as gay] and be friendly, and he would reciprocate and say, ‘come to tea.’” Out of these interactions emerged a regular “tea” group that met at Artz’s house, which discussed the gay worlds emerging in metropolitan areas and the available gay-themed literature—remarkable for a time when the subject of homosexuality was rarely broached in the classroom outside the context of mental illness or deviancy. Beginning in the 1950s, Artz also tactfully maintained what one professor called an “apostolic” succession of gay student roomers at his house. In this way, Artz discreetly helped anchor and nurture gay campus circles and individuals while also retaining his academic status and—despite malicious comments behind his back—at least the public respect of his colleagues.
Born in 1894 in Dayton, Ohio, Artz’s early recollections were of cranberries and popcorn strung on the Christmas tree, Sunday school, and long summer vacations at Clear Lake, if his self-published pamphlet Memories of Childhood and Youth is any indication. He was in awe of his father, a “remarkable” businessman with a “sunny, good-humored, and outgoing nature,” though he admitted that he inherited his father’s “mysterious periods of nervous depression.”
Artz enrolled at Oberlin in 1912 as a history major. There he began a lifelong friendship with classmate Don Love, best remembered for his twenty-four year tenure as Secretary of Oberlin College (1938-62), and also widely assumed by narrators to have been gay. After graduating in 1916 Phi Beta Kappa, Artz taught for a year at Antioch College and then enlisted with the American Red Cross as an ambulance driver, serving in France until the end of World War I. Artz would meet Professor Stetson in Paris after the war (discussed below) and France was later to be Artz’s special field of academic interest; he returned there and to other European countries thirty-two times in his life.
It was during World War I that Artz began to identify with and act upon his sexual attractions to men, according to George Brenner (pseudonym; OC 50), who remained one of his life-long friends after graduating. Historian George Chauncey has also identified the 1910s and 20s as the period during which the cultural style of the “queer” originated among middle class men. In contrast with the style of the “fairy,” the highly effeminate approach more prevalent in working-class culture, the style of the “queer” was employed as “gay men created a place in middle-class culture by constructing a persona of highly mannered—and ambiguous—sophistication.” (“Queer,” the term these men commonly used to self-identify, wasn’t necessarily considered to be derogatory, Chauncey writes; according to one man in the 1920s, “it just meant you were different.”)
As evidenced by his frequent trips to Europe, his “affected,” “imperious, bitchy arch-ness,” and his ornate living room filled with works of art, antiques, and other status symbols, like the “queers” Chauncey describes, Artz may have had “an acute perception of the degree to which gender and class status were interdependent and mutually constituted in [the] culture.” For example, forms of speech, dress, or behavior that might be ridiculed as effeminate or inappropriate for a “real” man in a working class or perhaps a corporate environment could be valued as worldly or cultured in an academic or “artistic” atmosphere, such as Oberlin. “This made it possible for men to try to recast gay cultural styles that might be read as signs of effeminacy as signs instead of upper-class sophistication,” Chauncey writes. While “the adoption of such styles did not entirely protect queers from ridicule for gender nonconformity…it did allow them to recast, denigrate, and dismiss such ridicule as a sign of lower-class brutishness.”
Artz’s sharp tongue, a central part of his persona, must have also protected him from scorn. Robert Neil (OC 53) remembered Artz “pontificating in grandiose terms on the value of studying history” in his introductory course while pointedly ignoring a freshman boy who was insistently waving his hand in the air. After a few minutes, Neil recalled, “the Great Man looked down and remarked soothingly: ‘It’s all right, young man. You can go without permission in college.’” According to another tale circulating among gay students in the 1950s, Artz spotted a closeted Conservatory professor with wife and daughters marching behind, and remarked to his companion, “There goes proof of the immaculate conception.”
Artz must have also counted on his academic standing at the college to avert criticism or censure. He may have even selected Oberlin for this reason; David Thomas (OC 56) remembered Artz telling him that “[he] chose to be a big frog in a small pond.” Thomas also recalled Artz’s “well-honed epigrams,” “strong sense of style,” and the beautiful daffodils he tended in his garden. “But he wasn’t willowy,” Thomas insisted. “And he was very forceful in his opinions, which were not stupid opinions—on matters of culture, on matters of historical interpretation, matters of politics. He did not hesitate to speak his mind.” In the early 1940s, for example, when campus debate mounted over the proper response to Nazism, Artz spearheaded campaigns and published articles in national journals denouncing fascism.