Was Robert Gould Shaw a Peeping Tom?

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working away at constructing Robert Gould Shaw’s early life. I don’t know how much time I will spend on it in the biography, but I am looking for anything that might help me better understand his later development during the war.

Luckily, his letters have been digitized by Harvard University and are easily accessible. I have to say that it is a pleasure working with Shaw’s letters, which are beautifully written. It’s a nice break from some of the letter and diary collections that I’ve had to work with in the past.

Today I came across a very interesting passage in a letter that Shaw wrote to his mother while he was studying in Hanover, Germany in 1855. Rather that have me describe it why don’t you read it for yourself.

The words covered up at the end are likely, “observe them quite” and the letter trails off with, “at my leisure without their seeing me. Two new opera songstresses live there too.” Again, this was written to his mother.

I don’t know what to make of this right now. I don’t know of any other examples like this from young men from Shaw’s social class.

One thing that emerges in Shaw’s overseas letters is his conviction that he had been abandoned by his parents. He clearly did not want to remain on his own away from his family. On more than one occasion he pleaded with his mother for permission to return home. Perhaps this was his way of convincing her that the development of his moral character would be undermined the longer he remained in Europe. I really don’t know.

Feel free to share any thoughts you might have about how to interpret this unusual passage.

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16 comments… add one
  • Meg Groeling Nov 12, 2019 @ 16:23

    Oh my!

  • David T. Dixon Nov 12, 2019 @ 17:22

    Kevin, As I mentioned on Twitter, this type of revelation prompts questions not only of how to interpret the passage, but also whether or not it is significant to your theses concerning Shaw. I have come across such passages in all three of my book-length biography projects. In the first one, a private confession late in life that my subject was a closet atheist was included in the text because it bears directly on his world view and religion is so important to politics. In retrospect, however, i should have spent a little more time analyzing this.

    In my second book, a famous peer and rival made repeated salacious remarks about my subject’s sexual orientation (in 1852 no less). The evidence I had on him pointed strongly in the opposite direction; yet, I had no proof that his sexual orientation had any bearing on his outlook or actions, so I consigned it to an end note. A previous scholar had made claims about my subject based on this one source, so I felt I needed to rebut and add context in the notes.

    In the third book (currently writing), my subject wrote an unusual letter to his physician. After showing it to two M.D.s, they both concluded that my subject had contracted venereal disease. I left that out of the short journal article as irrelevant and will likely leave it out of the book as well, as I have no other mention of it and it did not affect his ability to father 18 children! This same subject did secretly marry a 14-year-old girl against the wishes of both sets of parents. That also was not in the journal article but definitely will be in the book , not because it was so unusual at the time, but because it speaks to facets of the subject’s character and his emotional nature, both critical to my thesis in that book.

    My advice would be to not spend much time on it in a university press book about a second-tier historical character, as it may come across as extraneous or discursive.If you subsequently discover that Shaw was a sex offender or a serial philanderer, then perhaps it is worth including, but that is not likely.

    I am trying to learn that not every small detail of a biography subject’s life is as interesting to readers as it is to me, unless we are talking about a president where every small detail seems relevant.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 12, 2019 @ 17:30

      I appreciate the comment, but I do think this passage is very relevant to understanding Shaw within a social and gender context. More specifically, it may have been a way for Shaw to signal to his mother that he was remaining chaste while overseas.

      • David T. Dixon Nov 12, 2019 @ 17:40

        Let me know if there is anything at the Huntington that might be relevant as i am a reader there and can get there easily. It’s a treasure trove.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2019 @ 1:29

          Thank you.

  • gdbrasher Nov 12, 2019 @ 17:50

    Wait, so you’re saying an 18 year old dude enjoyed the site of pretty girls? How scandalous!

    He was an attractive teen on the prowl in Paris. The only thing unusual about this is that he is telling his mom, but as you know, they had a particularly close and open relationship, and this is just him being playful. Shaw was probably a pretty big ladies man, which is why his parents felt he was not as committed to abolitionism as they were. Get back to us when you get to the juicy stuff with Charlotte Forten. 🙂

    • Kevin Levin Nov 13, 2019 @ 1:30

      Hi Glenn,

      Thanks for chiming in. This is certainly a reasonable interpretation, though from what I’ve seen so far he doesn’t talk much about women in these early letters with his mother. In fact, it’s the first reference I’ve come across.

    • Ken Noe Nov 13, 2019 @ 5:37

      Sure, young men of his generation often wrote home about encountering pretty women. What stands out to me is that he freely admits–to his mother–that he’s using his opera glasses to look in women’s windows “across the square.” As Peter Venkman said, you don’t see that every day.

  • Billy Wetherington Nov 13, 2019 @ 6:12

    We are fascinating creatures. (Well, maybe not me.) When we look closely at anyone we find they are just as much fallen angels as they are risen animals. Seeing the movie Glory probably taints our ability to just behold the man. The Civil War was a revolutionary change in being an American and how we perceived ourselves as a group as well as individuals. How we lived as a people and how we lived as individuals; they definitely affect both our personal and our national history.

  • John R Parrish Nov 14, 2019 @ 9:17

    I still shudder at the thought, that an upstanding officer, who was buried in a communal grave with his soldiers, can be disrespected by football players kneeling at the flag… And in our “modernizing” of history, none of you will talk about it…

  • David Doggett Nov 14, 2019 @ 11:46

    This is so mundane and meaningless, it doesn’t seem to matter whether it goes in your book or not. People sitting clothed at a street window expect to be seen. Opera glasses across a plaza would not even offer much of an up close look. People in New York City routinely keep powerful binoculars and telescopes at their windows to check out people in high rise windows across the street. Everyone expects to be seen at open street windows. Shaw is certainly not a “peeping Tom,” which is generally taken to mean a voyeur or stalker, who goes on other people’s private property, and peeps secretly in off street windows.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 14, 2019 @ 12:15

      I appreciate the feedback. Don’t make too much of the blog title. I do think there is a good deal to unpack here given that he included this in a letter to his mother. He may have been trying to communicate any number of things to her.

    • CH Jones Nov 15, 2019 @ 16:12

      Wow David. Remind me not to move in across the plaza from you. Sheesh.

      • David Doggett Nov 17, 2019 @ 10:07

        Kevin, I see no problem in using this in a discussion about Shaw’s relationship and communications with his mother, just not as a “peeping Tom.”

        CH Jones, one word – curtains. OK, two – blinds. If you are not an exhibitionist, why would you be worried? Your personal attack is out of place here.

        • Kevin Levin Nov 17, 2019 @ 12:28

          It’s just a blog title.

  • Neil Hamilton Nov 14, 2019 @ 14:51

    Poor man!

    No internet, no TV, no radio, no iPhone, no XBOX, no Facebook, and no dating site.

    What the heck was he supposed to do?

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