Who was John Henry Mackay?

Liz Highleyman | August 15, 2007

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.

Mackay audited classes at three universities but 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 before settling in Berlin in the early 1890s.

During this period, Mackay published dramas, novellas, and poetry, including 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. In 1901, he 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.

Mackay's Books of Nameless Love included essays, lyric poems, a propaganda tract, and the autobiographical novel, Fenny Skaller. 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. "This love is precisely a love like your love," Mackay wrote to a friend, "sexual of course, but not only sexual, and not a vice or an illness or a crime." Unlike the Sagitta works, 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. Despite these challenges, Mackay published the complete series as a single volume in 1913. More than a decade later, he completed The Hustler (1926), a novel about young male prostitutes in Berlin.

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.

For further reading:

  • Bauer, J. Edgar. 2005. "On the Nameless Love and Infinite Sexualities: John Henry Mackay, Magnus Hirschfeld, and the Origins of the Sexual Emancipation Movement." Journal of Homosexuality (Vol. 50, No. 1).

  • Kennedy, Hubert. 1983, 2002. Anarchist of Love: The Secret Life of John Henry Mackay (Mackay Society/Peremptory Publications).

  • Riley, Thomas A. 1972. Germany's Poet-Anarchist: John Henry Mackay (Revisionist Press).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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