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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was John Henry Mackay?
by Liz Highleyman - SGN Contributing Writer

Though he was regarded as an important political philosopher in his day, the work of John Henry Mackay is now largely forgotten, due to his controversial views on individualist anarchism and intergenerational relationships.

Mackay was born in Greenock, Scotland, on February 6, 1864. His father died before Mackay was 2 years old, and the boy and his well-to-do mother then moved to her native Germany. A rebellious child and a poor student, Mackay regarded school as a "torture chamber." Though he audited classes at three universities, he never completed a degree.

After a brief apprenticeship with a publishing house, Mackay moved to London in 1887, where he became acquainted with the radical social movements of the day. Relying on an allowance from his mother, he traveled widely throughout Europe and to the United States, before settling in Berlin in the early 1890s.

During this period, Mackay published dramas, novellas, and poetry, including Children of the Highlands (1885) - his sole work that could "be put without hesitation into the hands of young girls" - and Storm (1888), a popular collection of revolutionary poems that was banned under the German Anti-Socialist Law. In 1891, he achieved instant fame with his novel The Anarchists, which centers on a debate about individualist anarchism versus anarcho-communism. A proponent of the former, Mackay believed communism put the good of society over that of the individual, and could only be achieved through force. His 1898 biography of Max Stirner - author of The Ego and Its Own (1844) - is credited with introducing Stirner's philosophy of individualism to a wide audience. In 1901, Mackay published The Swimmer, regarded as the first literary sports novel.

The death of his mother in 1902 sent Mackay into a deep depression, but also spurred a new project. Writing under the pen-name "Sagitta," Mackay - who was attracted to youths aged 14-17 - spent the next decade advocating for relationships between men and boys, which he dubbed the "nameless love."

These years coincided with the birth of the homosexual emancipation movement in Germany. The earliest Sagitta poems appeared in 1905 in Der Eigene (The Self-Owner), the first magazine to celebrate homosexual love. Mackay sided with the Gemeinschaft der Eigenen ("Community of Self-Owners"), which extolled masculinity, against Magnus Hirschfeld and his Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which conceived of homosexuals as a "third sex" and advocated for an age-of-consent law. But Mackay did not share the Gemeinschaft's misogyny and anti-Semitism, nor its belief that male-male love was superior to heterosexuality.

Mackay's Books of Nameless Love included essays, lyric poems, a propaganda tract, and the autobiographical novel, Fenny Skaller. In the latter, Mackay recounts his struggles accepting his orientation and his fear of discovery. Having never had an erotic interest in women, effeminate homosexuals, or older men, Mackay had a series of unrequited crushes and mutual affairs with teenage boys, beginning when he himself was that age. Believing that a youth's maturity mattered more than his chronological age, Mackay decried "seducers" who exploited boys for sex before they were ready. "This love is precisely a love like your love," Mackay wrote to his friend, the American anarchist Benjamin Tucker, "sexual of course, but not only sexual, and not a vice or an illness or a crime." While the Sagitta works explicitly dealt with same-sex relationships, much of the poetry written under Mackay's own name omitted personal pronouns; indeed, composer Richard Strauss set two of Mackay's love poems to music as a wedding present to his wife.

The earliest Nameless Love works were confiscated in March 1908, and charges were brought against the publisher, who never revealed Sagitta's true identity. After a 19-month trial, the works were found obscene, and Mackay reimbursed the publisher for the fine and court costs. Despite these challenges, Mackay published the complete series as a single volume in 1913. In a foreword to the second edition a decade later, he lamented that his circle of supporters was smaller than he had originally thought, "For basically everyone just understands his own love and any other is foreign to him and unintelligible."

In 1921, Mackay published The Freedom Seeker, a sequel to The Anarchists that was not nearly as successful. A few years later, he completed The Hustler (1926), a novel about young male prostitutes in Berlin, which author Christopher Isherwood confirmed was true-to-life based on his own experience.

In his later years, Mackay lived under increasing financial hardship, particularly after runaway inflation eroded the value of an annuity from his mother. He died of an apparent heart attack in his doctor's office in May 1933, three months after Adolf Hitler came to power. In his will, Mackay stipulated that if the Sagittta works were ever reprinted, they should bear his real name. This was done in 1979, sparking a renewed interest in Mackay among both anarchists and the gay liberation movement.

"I have never suppressed a word in my books out of regard for other people and their prejudices," Mackay wrote in his 1932 memoir, Summing Up. "That crime they will not forgive me...to have spoken the truth in a world of lies."

Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 
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