The Love That Dared to Write Its Name
Christopher Bram, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (2012).
More than one teenager growing up prior to the gay movement, as I did, at some point believed (or feared) that he had personally invented homosexuality. Certainly, there was scant public evidence that it existed and, if it did, it was sick. Worse, in high school life, the mere suspicion that you were a queer or a fruit or a fag was total social death. That’s still true in some North American high schools today. Once you reached legal drinking age, you could explore a furtive world of gay bars, but they were subject to random reputation-wrecking police raids. If you happened to be in the military (I did a hitch in the American Navy), you had to operate with the discretion of “special forces” troops and, even then, you flirted with dishonourable discharge if not brig time. It’s difficult to convey, a half-century later, what a dirty, dangerous secret homosexuality once was.
So, when Christopher Bram begins his history of contemporary gay writing in the U.S., Eminent Outlaws, with the bold declaration that “the gay revolution began as a literary revolution,” it has an odd ring. A revolution sparked by mere words? After all, as gay poet W.H. Auden put it, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” Bram’s novel claim (offhand, I can’t recall anyone else having made it) at first glance seems dubious, but upon reflection, it turns out to be surprisingly accurate.
Much more than the concurrent civil rights, women’s, students’ or anti-war movements of the 1950s to mid-1970s — though all generated significant writing — the gay movement was unusually dependent on books, journalism, theatre, and screenwriting to spread its message, both to others and itself. That was so for a very simple reason. Unlike women, African-Americans, and other activists, homosexuals, except for the stereotyped sub-culture of flamboyant “queens,” were mostly invisible to each other, and even to themselves.
The only tolerant sanctuaries available to young gays were to be found in the world of art and a handful of ghettoized occupations. Still, “the love that dare not speak its name,” to recall the phrase associated with Oscar Wilde, began, after World War II, to write that name in fugitive books and hastily scribbled notes. Bram’s account, combining social history and literary criticism, “is the history of fifty years of change shaped by a relay race of novelists, playwrights and poets,” and their writing, as Bram says, “was the catalyst for a social shift as deep and unexpected as what was achieved by the civil rights and women’s movements.” Surprisingly, “the story of these men has never been told as a single narrative before.” The one near-predecessor to Bram’s work is Reed Woodhouse’s Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995 (1998), a book of feisty and intelligent readings, though less concerned with the social narrative than Bram’s history.
Bram, 59, is a gay novelist probably best known for Father of Frankenstein (1995), which became the acclaimed movie Gods and Monsters. Given his story-telling talents, it’s perhaps not surprising that Eminent Outlaws is thoroughly readable, as well as useful and timely. It brings together into coherent form what had been little more than scattered anecdotes and half-forgotten memories, and it appears at pretty much the right momet. The largely successful struggle for gay equal rights in North America and parts of Europe has turned into “post-gay,” while its history remains within the living memory of an elder generation. (It should be duly noted that in other, darker places of the earth, homosexuality is still subject to punishment up to and including death.)
Eminent Outlaws is unpretentious, appropriately gossipy (lots of who slept with whom), and while unburdened by literary Theory (with a capital T) is punctuated by shrewd judgments about books and writers. The last may merely be a way of saying that I mostly agree with Bram’s opinions about such writers as Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood and Edmund White. Of necessity Bram is selective (he’s not writing an encyclopedic survey), he isn’t attempting to establish a gay canon (although he’s not shy about telling us what he thinks is good), and he properly doesn’t attempt to take on lesbian writing in the same era (which requires its own history and historian).
The story, which stretches from just after WWII to the near-present, begins with Gore Vidal. In 1946, the handsome young military veteran from a well-heeled, prominent political family (his grandfather was a U.S. senator), precociously published, at age 19, an early WWII novel, Williwaw. It was hardly of the stature of the blockbuster war novels of a few years later, Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948) and James Jones’s From Here to Eternity (1951), but sufficiently interesting to attract the attention of the New York publishing world and to land its author an editor’s job. Vidal circulated in the bohemian literary circle of Anais Nin, an experimental writer whose name was associated with that of the scandalous Henry Miller. Later at night, Vidal followed his own scandalous inclinations in the gay zones of Times Square. It was at Nin’s salon that he met other young (and gay) writers, including Truman Capote and poets James Merrill and Robert Duncan.
In conversations with friends and editors, Vidal discussed the phenomenon of a gayer post-war society and was encouraged to write about it. Nineteen forty-eight, the same year as Mailer published his bestselling war novel, was a sort of annus “mahr-velous,” if not mirabilis, for the public discussion of homosexuality. Within short order, Vidal published his unambiguously gay novel, The City and the Pillar; Truman Capote’s homo-suggestive debut work, Other Voices, Other Rooms appeared (as did the suggestive Capote himself); an influential essay by literary critic Leslie Fiedler, “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey” argued that homoerotic, interracial and intergenerational relationships were deeply embedded in the core of American literature; and perhaps most important of all, sexology researcher Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male, which reported that as many as a third of American men had had homosexual experiences. In terms of social impact, it was Kinsey’s controversial findings that reached the largest segment of the general public.
Early gay writing and writing about gays had a double function. It told gay readers – the people who bought books by Vidal, Capote and, shortly, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) — that while they might be invisible, they weren’t just making it up. For gay readers, those early novels had the function of newspapers, presenting dispatches from the front. Second, all of these works provided the occasion for larger circulation mainstream media to talk about homosexuality as a phenomenon and/or “problem,” thus generating public awareness. This was one of those instances where all publicity, good or bad, was good publicity.
Vidal’s City and the Pillar is not a great book, marred as it is by what Christopher Isherwood called the “Tragic Homosexual Myth” (Vidal revised it a couple of decades later), but Bram credits it with putting the issue of homosexuality on the literary table as well as authentically describing proto-gay life. It was greeted with mixed reviews, or in the case of the New York Times’ book pages, conspicuously ignored, and Vidal retrospectively regarded it as near career-suicide. Nonetheless, it as well as Capote’s book sold enough copies to put them both on the Times bestseller list for a few weeks.
It was only somewhat later, after success as a TV and Hollywood screenwriter, that Vidal developed into a first-rate historical novelist, and the country’s pre-eminent essayist of the era, writing pieces that frequently discussed homosexuality and its bigoted opponents in waspish but always witty tones. Vidal took the interesting position that there was no such thing as homosexuals, only homosexual acts. His point is technically true — our identity shouldn’t be reduced to our identification with our sexual preferences — but at least for a time, during the period of “gay liberation” and the subsequent AIDS epidemic, homosexuality was so high up on the list of many gay men’s identifications that it provided an identity, as well as energetic arguments about whether there were gay writers or just writers who happened to be gay. Vidal objected to the watertight binary definitions of gay and straight, pointing out that desire was far more bisexually fluid than was generally allowed, as Kinsey had demonstrated in his surveys of sexual behaviour.
Bram next focuses on Allen Ginsberg and his remarkable book of poems, Howl (1956), which announces its Whitmanic scope in its famed opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” Bram rightly emphasizes “what Ginsberg and others have said: this was a coming-out poem. There is nothing coy about the homosexual imagery.” It’s also a poem about politics, America, culture, capitalism and an emerging “Beat Generation,” but as Bram observes, it’s the homosexual thematic that tends to be downplayed in critical accounts.
Yet, for its early readers and for the subsequent censorship trial that unsuccessfully tried to ban the book as obscene, Ginsberg’s open declaration of homosexuality as a legitimate sexual desire was a large part of what made it shocking, and distasteful to many. John Hollander, an established poet of the day, called it “a dreadful little volume,” and proto-neoconservative critic Norman Podhoretz, writing in the pages of The New Republic, used Howl to attack the Beat Generation for embracing “homosexuality, jazz, dope addiction and vagrancy,” in order to rebel for solely nihilistic purposes, a notion popularised by the James Dean movie, Rebel Without A Cause (1955).
Bram has his doubts about the quality of much of Ginsberg’s poetry, but not about his role as a gay public figure. It’s a point that deserves to be underscored. For more than a decade prior to the Stonewall demonstrations — those several nights of resistance to police harassment by the patrons of a New York gay bar in 1969 that are now seen as the official commencement of “gay liberation” — Ginsberg was the sole artist, or public figure of any sort, to present himself openly as a gay man, one engaged in cultural and political affairs as much as sexual politics. When people publicly asked him why there were so many homosexual references in his poetry, he replied, “Because I’m a homosexual.”
As the 1960s unfolded, the extent of Ginsberg’s influence grew. He addressed himself to an emerging youth culture (including a massive protest movement), presenting gay desire as something “hip,” or “cool,” as we would say today. For the Sixties generation, gathering at political rallies and attending Ginsberg’s own poetry readings, he was a role model for an alternative idea of living one’s life, one that included the right to sexual preference.
There’s another gay-relevant context in which to discuss both Ginsberg and post-war American poetry that Bram doesn’t quite get around to, but which is worth mentioning. Ginsberg was singular as an “out” cultural leader, but he was simultaneously part of a movement known by the title of its 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry, a book edited by the discreetly gay Don Allen at Grove Press. The movement consisted of overlapping circles of poets across the U.S. who saw themselves as writing a new kind of oppositional verse that put them in sharp contrast to the American poetry “establishment” and its institutions. Among its many characteristics, the New American Poetry was gay-friendly, and many of its prominent figures were gay. In addition to Ginsberg and other Beat writers, a group of San Francisco poets, led by Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, as well as circles of New York and Boston poets, including John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, and John Weiners, were substantially gay, and the aforenamed gay poets were as prominent as heterosexual poets in the movement.
The absence of homosexual taboos was of course only an indirect feature of the new poetry, but what it meant for younger gay writers was not simply a social sanctuary but an educational site where the history of poetry that was informally taught to neophytes included, in their appropriate place, gay poets. I can recall Ginsberg, who, along with his partner Peter Orlovsky, I knew since I was a teenager, reciting Hart Crane for us and, when we were in Paris (c. 1960), directing me to the English translation of Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, which was still sold at the Kroch and Brentano’s Paris branch from under the counter. Similarly, one learned from Jack Spicer in San Francisco about Rimbaud and Garcia Lorca (Spicer’s After Lorca appeared in 1957, only a year after Ginsberg’s Howl). At San Francisco State College, where I studied in the early 60s, I remember writing essays about Whitman as a gay poet long before it was an acceptable scholarly topic. Not only were you not alone, you were part of an historical tradition. This literary oasis of sanity in an otherwise sex-panicked American landscape saved me, I think, from the hours of psychiatric treatment described by writers like Edmund White and historian Martin Duberman.
Bram devotes considerable attention to the theatre world, especially postwar gay playwrights Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, whose writing dominated the American theatre (itself a milieu suffused in a gay ambience) from World War II to the mid-60s. Their work didn’t directly address gay issues, but they were read by both gay theatre-goers and anti-gay critics as covertly registering gay nuances. There was even a mid-60s backlash from critics, that Bram carefully charts, complaining that Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962) and other works simply tricked out their secretly gay protagonists in heterosexual drag. As Bram describes the dilemma, “Gay writers could not win for losing. If they wrote about gay life, they weren’t universal. But if they wrote about straight life, they were distorting what they despised or didn’t understand.” The canard about Albee’s Virginia Woolf wasn’t put to rest until Mike Nichols’ 1966 film version of the play, when famously heterosexual actors Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor easily persuaded viewers that Albee’s play wasn’t merely a matter of homosexual bitchery.
Not until Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band (1968) did gay threatre come out, a year before the Stonewall riots. The first explicitly gay play was controversial, even among many gays who regarded its tones of camp and bitterness as a distorted portrait of gay existence. Still, it enjoyed a thousand-performance run. For those of us living outside New York’s theatre district, we only became aware of Crowley’s play through William Friedkin’s 1970 film version. Bram offers a substantial and deserved nod of recognition to Crowley, but I recall the movie of Boys in the Band being unfavorably contrasted with a better film the following year, gay director John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), in which Peter Finch plays a middle-aged, middle-class Jewish doctor in England having an affair with a mid-20ish bisexual artist who is simultaneously involved in a part-time relationship with Glenda Jackson. Bram doesn’t mention Bloody Sunday, a made-in-England film that lies outside his U.S.-bounded purview. The movie featured the first ever homosexual screen kiss between Finch and actor Murray Head, a gasp-producing moment that sucked the air out of many movie theatres. Later asked about the kiss, the heterosexual Finch quipped, “I did it for England.”
The other pre-gay movement literary work of special note is Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964). Bram is particularly good on the transplanted-to-California British-born Isherwood (1904-1986), who emerges as one of the quiet heroes of this narrative. Isherwood’s 1939 book of linked stories, Goodbye to Berlin, about the rise of Nazism in Germany, was already understood by gay readers as a gay-inscribed text. But it wasn’t until A Single Man, about a day in the life of a gay middle-aged, British-born professor teaching in a California college, still mourning the recent death of his long-time companion, that gay writing produced, at least arguably, a literary masterpiece. Like the later Sunday Bloody Sunday, Isherwood’s novel doesn’t succumb to the Tragic Homosexual Myth, but instead presents a gay man living an interesting if mundane life that doesn’t require a sensationalized denouement to fulfil any imagined moral requirements. Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Times headlined its review of the book, “Disjointed Limp Wrist Saga,” which says more about the anti-gay temper of the times than Isherwood’s elegant prose.
Bram, as do I, thinks that Isherwood is underrated, compared, say, to his famous friend, poet W.H. Auden. Bram makes a strong case not only for A Single Man, but especially for Isherwood’s previous gay-themed novel, Down There On A Visit (1962), as unjustly neglected. Bram also favourably and extensively discusses Isherwood’s post-gay lib memoir of 1930s Berlin, Christopher and His Kind (1976), in which Isherwood is able to talk openly about what really happened in the gay bars of Berlin.
Another virtue of Bram’s history is his tracking of the interwoven friendships and rivalries of the authors he’s writing about. The relationships, both intellectual and occasionally sexual, between Vidal, Williams, Capote, Isherwood and others are carefully traced. For example, Isherwood’s late Berlin memoir was greeted at the time with a finely crafted review-essay in The New York Review of Books by Gore Vidal, who had known and worked with Isherwood in the sometimes acidic vineyards of Hollywood, and was the writer to whom Isherwood had dedicated his Single Man. One footnote to the Isherwood-Vidal friendship is that it was Isherwood who in 1948 provided a blurb for Vidal’s City and the Pillar, but at the same time wrote Vidal a private letter criticizing not the book’s subject matter, but its unnecessary melodrama.
The central literary figure of the post-1969 era in Bram’s account of gay writing is clearly Edmund White, a young writer who was present at the Stonewall riots. Whereas Vidal, Ginsberg, Baldwin, Capote and their heterosexual counterparts, Mailer, Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller were all born in the 1920s, White (b. 1940) represented a new generation whose work was rooted in the political and cultural upheavals of the 1960s. Writers like Baldwin, Vidal, and Capote had multi-faceted roles and concerns, and were only peripherally involved in the new gay movement, but White and many of his contemporaries could plausibly be seen as primarily gay writers, with respect to the subject matter of their work. Of the older writers, Ginsberg and Isherwood, both of whom embraced the gay movement, were exceptional.
The flourishing of gay fiction in the 1970s and ‘80s was dependent, as Bram demonstrates, upon a national infrastructure of gay bookstores, newspapers, and the interest of a literate readership, all of which burgeoned as an organized gay political movement quickly developed. If at first gay writing was news from the front that assured its readers that they existed, gay writing in the ‘70s addressed the question of what gay existence meant. Bram tags 1978 as his candidate for gay writing’s miraculous year. It saw the publication of Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Larry Kramer’s Faggots, Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and an early experimental novel by Edmund White.
Kramer’s book, a fairly crude satire directed against the sexual promiscuity of gay culture itself, “an erotic novel that denounces sex,” as Bram puts it, was the most confrontational of the books that year, and its author soon turned out to be equally volatile, to good and bad effect. I think that, in literary terms, Holleran’s Dancer, an elegiac portrait of desire in the all-night gay club-and-beach scene of New York and nearby Fire Island, is the best of these books, though Bram is inclined to award the palm to Maupin, whose Tales of the City began life as a Dickensian serialized novel in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle, eventually growing into a best-selling multi-volume saga. As for White, his best work lay just ahead of him.
White, whose day job was at Time-Life Books and who had written a couple of artsy early novels, discovered himself, oddly enough, as the co-author, with his former psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Silverstein, of a sex guide, The Joy of Gay Sex (1977). The book, a follow-up to Alex Comfort’s Joy of Sex, was a success, part of the general “Sexual Revolution” of the period, as well as evidence of a large, untapped gay reading market, something proved by the sales of the following year’s novels. As for White, he followed up his sex guide writing with a gay travelogue, States of Desire (1980), followed by an autobiographical coming-of-age novel, A Boy’s Own Story (1982). Between his early artistic experiments and his commercial writing, White melded the two into a distinctive style, at once beautiful, and yet effective at moving the story along. It was a style that gay readers first, and then others, quickly identified as one of the recognizable literary voices of his generation. White’s gay-coming-of-age book drew favourable comparison with J.D. Salinger’s classic adolescent novel, Catcher in the Rye.
Over the next quarter-century, White’s autobiographical story – to which he added The Beautiful Room Is Empty (1988), The Farewell Symphony (1997), and The Married Man (2000) — grew into the defining gay Bildungsroman of his generation; his lengthy stay in Paris in the 1980s yielded a massive biography of French gay writer Jean Genet which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award; and along the way, there were volumes of short stories, essays, and memoirs (the best of which, I think, is My Lives (2005)). Although Bram offers some thoughtful reservations about White’s sizeable oeuvre, and appears to be more drawn to the work of Armistead Maupin and playwright Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Angels in America (1993), I suspect that when all is said and read, White will be judged to be the major writer to have emerged from the gay movement.
The concluding sections of Bram’s account are understandably more diffuse than the earlier part of the book. There’s a substantial survey of the politics, culture and sheer horror of the AIDS epidemic as it affected the gay community. Much of the literary side of the story is given over to the political and theatrical activities of Larry Kramer, the author of Faggots, whose “manic, high-octane, punching-in-all-directions voice,” as Bram describes it, for the next several years outshouted everyone engaged in the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, to recall the name of the New York AIDS organization that Kramer helped found at the outset of the epidemic. Nonetheless, Bram gives Kramer his due as a crusading gay journalist, political activist, and the author of The Normal Heart, the widely-seen AIDS play that galvanized public attention about the illness that struck like a plague.
There’s also an epilogue to bring us up to the present. In Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, one of the characters advises writers to “keep the chapters short… no one has a very long attention span anymore, and that’s why the world is so unhappy.” If that was true in the ditzy disco days of the late 1970s, you can imagine what the state of mind of the digitalized present is like. Gay readers moved on from novels to Facebook and YouTube, just like everyone else. The gay bookstores mostly shut down (but so have other bookstores). The gay newspapers that survived became less political, more social, and the Gay Pride parades have become ethnic celebrations, fully integrated into the local tourist industry. If the gay movement started out as a revolutionary proposal about human relationships, its success has mellowed it into something closer to the Rotary Club. What most gays wanted, it transpired, was what everybody else wanted, marriages, mortgages and good credit ratings. It can be argued that homosexuals are almost the only category of Americans who take marriage completely seriously these days. No wonder gay marriage drives “social conservatives” crazy. Finally, somebody more Family Values than thou. Still, gay normality is better than the terrifying pre-gay equality period.
Although the initial reviews of Eminent Outlaws were generally favourable, they struck me as slightly grudging in their praise. The notable exception is a generous Washington Post review by Isherwood biographer, Peter Parker, who likes Bram’s “breezy” combination of lit-crit and social history, and his “pleasantly relaxed and always very readable style.” My favourite New York Times regular reviewer, Dwight Garner, finds his reaction to Bram’s book similar to that of theatre producer Joseph Papp’s first reading of Larry Kramer’s play about AIDS, The Normal Heart: “This is one of the worst things I’ve ever read,” Papp said, but the play so moved him that he added, “and I’m crying.” Garner appreciates Bram’s “often resonant” arguments, “lit from below by a gossipy wit.” The book’s power, he says, “is less sentence by sentence than cumulative. You don’t realize how much the details of these writers’ books and difficult lives have touched you until the book’s final chapters.”
John Leland, author of Why Kerouac Matters, writing in the Times Book Review section is dubious about what he sees as “mainly a reverie for a time past, seen through a romantic lens.” Leland lists a score of writers Bram misses or slights, finds his view of gay culture rather naïve, and chides Bram for inexplicably not connecting gay lit “to the broader sexual revolution.” (The last charge is simply a mistake; Leland missed Bram’s direct comment in the text about general changes to sexual mores.) He grants that Bram’s book deserves “a prominent place” in the window of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the first gay bookstore in New York, but cattily adds, “alas, the store closed in 2009 — once vitally necessary, now made obsolete by its own success.” The implication is that Bram’s book is similarly unnecessary.
I’m not quite sure why there’s less generosity than might be expected. Perhaps it’s because Bram isn’t a professional literary historian, or that he doesn’t offer up the sort of theory that is currently found in Cultural Studies programs. Leland thinks Bram underplays the possible worth of the writing itself in favour of its role in political triumphs. As for Leland’s claim about missing significant writers, Bram makes clear at the outset that he’s not doing a who’s who catalogue. The only substantial absence that I would argue ought to be remedied is that of Dennis Cooper. Cooper and a group of like-minded “transgressive” writers who were briefly known as the “New Narrative” group (c. 1990), represented the singular strain of experimental prose in gay writing. Cooper himself explored DeSadean subject matter that a lot of people found more than distasteful. But writing is not merely a matter of taste, but a question of quality and importance, and there’s a case to be made for Cooper. All in all, Bram covers most of the ground, and does so intelligently.
Now that the story is mostly history, how does it feel for those who remember it as life? Well, in one sense, for those of us who were participants, it turns out that an adolescent’s imagining of having personally invented homosexuality is not so far from the truth. Those isolated teenagers — and a thousand books, a thousand demonstrations, and a million like-minded agemates — really did invent a different kind of public homosexuality that significantly changed American society. But it’s also true that the past is Another Country (to recall the title of a James Baldwin novel) glimpsed from across the River Styx. To have lived through, within a single lifetime, the transformation of the understanding of the concepts and realities of women, black people, and gays must be something like what it felt like to live through the Reformation in the early 16th century. Or perhaps gay writing of a particular period is akin to the writing of Eastern European dissidents before the collapse of communism. Once the regime changed, there was gradual freedom and attention turned to normal life. There are still books, movies, and even TV sitcoms with gay characters, but there is less necessity for specifically gay writing, and there is a general diminishment of a public attention span that makes reading possible. What remains is what Wilde said about moral or immoral books. There’s no such thing, only books that are well-written, or badly-written.
Berlin, March 18, 2012