So LGBT History Month continues, and I thought I'd write about LGBT literary history in this diary. Well, specifically G literary history, as written by a G novelist, Christopher Bram. Before I get into the nuts and bolts of what he's doing, let me just say that the book, whose official title is Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers who Changed America (2012), is a WONDERFUL read and very very worth it.
Below the Great Orange Armband, please.
Yes, it's selective, as you'd expect from someone who occupies a place in the gay literary canon himself. His mission?
This book is the history of fifty years of change shaped by a relay race of novelists, playwrights and poets [not so many poets, actually] -- men who were first treated as outlaws but are now seen as pioneers and founding fathers. Their writing was the catalyst for a social shift as deep and unexpected as what was achieved by the civil rights and women's movements.Cool! Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall! Not definitive literary history, not canon-building, but a cultural narrative, initially a history and then a survey of what he (and pretty much I) was reading and what he (and mostly we) liked (I'm three years older than Bram). And about my introductory insistence on G:
This book is about gay male writers and not lesbian writers. I chose this focus reluctantly, but I needed to simplify an already complicated story. Also, lesbian literature has its own dynamic and history. It needs its own historian.
We start in January 1948, with the publication in three successive weeks, of The Kinsey Report, The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal, and Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote. They all sold, and reviewers who ignored the sexual implications were generally kinder to the books than those who didn't. This, incidentally, is a subsidiary theme of this book, the shabby reception of books by gay writers that treated gay themes by mainstream reviewers like Philip Roth, Stanley Kauffman and Elizabeth Hardwick, and this continued into the 1970s. Why January 1948 is important is because the earlier gay writers -- Henry James, Hart Crane, Thornton Wilder -- didn't write about gay subjects.
A chapter on Williams and a chapter on Ginsberg, and then a longer chapter on James Baldwin which a number of reviewers have found remarkable because his gayness trumps his blackness for the purposes of this book. Then we wrap up the 1950s with an analysis of Christopher Isherwood which makes me want to read him even more, and we bring the other writers through the 1950s again. As you see, I'm not being as artful here as I usually am, but fortunately the book was published last year which means a lot of reviews on the net and the reviewers who read the book had some interesting things to riff on. In the 1950s section, for instance, Dwight Garner in the daily New York Times has this insight about 1948:
That year also included the publication of Leslie Fiedler’s frolicsome essay, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” which argued that homosexual fellow-feeling was a central theme in American literature. All this leads Mr. Bram to write: “It’s striking how much gay fiction of this period is set in Dixie, as if the rest of the country could think about perversion only when it spoke with a funny accent.” The phrase “below the Mason-Dixon line” never sounded so tingly.Garner also suggests a way of reading the book:
One way to read “Eminent Outlaws” — a profitable way — is simply as an anthology of sly and sometimes X-rated anecdotes. We get Tennessee Williams and Mr. Vidal skeet shooting with John F. Kennedy in 1958 and debating how to jump his bones. We are reminded that Mr. Vidal described Baldwin as a cross between Bette Davis and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.He's right about that, incidentally, because that content is what makes the book so absolutely delicious to read.
The book then moves into the 1960s. Bram starts with what he calls "The Great Homosexual Theater Scare:" Suddenly Last Summer. Edward Albee and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which Stanley Kauffman decided was a gay play in straight drag. The Boys in the Band. Bram recalls watching Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. have it out on ABC during the 1968 National Conventions as a sixteen-year old and the fact that Buckley became unhinged enough to take the debate to Esquire and then to sue everybody when Esquire let Vidal respond. As for The Boys in the Band, here's Peter Parker in the Washington Post on Bram's treatment of the play:
Stanley Kauffman’s notorious 1966 New York Times article “Homosexual Drama and its Disguises” prompted Mart Crowley to write a play in which there would be no disguises at all. “The Boys in the Band” opened off-Broadway in 1968, a year before the Stonewall Riots, and proved an unexpected success, running for 1,001 performances. Crowley’s portrait of a group of gay men at a birthday party has been widely accused of being retrograde and stereotyped, so it is good to see it given its proper due here. As Bram notes about the 1970 film version of the play, “More people heard about Boys than heard about Stonewall that first year.”Bram's discussion on Isherwood is in this section. It's a remarkably good piece of writing.
Then to the 1970s. This decade had a remarkable year too, 1978: Faggots. Dancer from the Dance. Tales of the City. And a new writer, Edmund White, who wrote a remarkably successful book, The Joy of Gay Sex, among some experimental books (Forgetting Elena, critical success but not many readers). Bram didn't like States of Desire as much as I did but he really enjoyed A Boy's Own Story.
The 1980s? AIDS. Here's Jordan Michael Smith in the Columbia Journalism Review
According to Bram, gays were increasingly being accepted after Stonewall—until AIDS hit. The disease was so intertwined with homosexuality that it was originally called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. “Antigay politicians now used the disease to resist campaigns for tolerance and equality,” Bram writes. While AIDS and the associated public reaction certainly did reverse the normalization of gay life, it did invigorate gay writing, as Bram documents. Works like Angels in America, a play by Tony Kushner, brought the problems of AIDS and homosexuals to mass audiences.And poetry, especially James Merrill, in a nice gossipy chapter that doesn't avoid the great wealth issue (that's Merrill as in Merrill Lynch). And Gore Vidal again, because homophobia among so-called intellectuals didn't go away. Here's Dwight Garner again:
After Midge Decter, in 1980, published a homophobic essay in Commentary magazine, which was edited by her husband, Norman Podhoretz, Mr. Vidal responded with a withering essay titled “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star.”
Seizing on Ms. Decter’s puzzlement over why Fire Island lesbians had “large and ferocious dogs,” Mr. Vidal declared that, if he were a lesbian “and a pair of Podhoretzes came waddling toward me on the beach, copies of Leviticus and Freud in hand, I’d get in touch with the nearest Alsatian dealer pronto.” Mr. Bram’s book is larded with similar long-range sharpshooting.
And Will and Grace on television, which is when everything really changed. Of course Bram leaves people out. He's telling a story and he's picking the most interesting stories to illustrate it, just as I'm telling a story here, and it's almost time for Top Comments, and I still have a class on Charlemagne to write for tomorrow. Fun book! I really liked it, and I didn't have any problems with it; the reviewers who did weren't respecting the editorial choices Bram made even though he points them out clearly in the text.