Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Exceptions That Prove the Rule

I'm glad to report that succeeding articles in The Brokeback Book have been much better than David Leavitt's opening clunker. Even Daniel Mendelssohn, whose The Elusive Embrace: Desire and the Riddle of Identity (Knopf, 1999) annoyed me so much a decade ago, wrote a very smart review of the film for the New York Review of Books that is reprinted here. After that, Mun-hou Lo's "Backs Unbroken: Ang Lee, Forbearance, and the Closet" is a very interesting look at the concepts of repression and forbearance in Chinese culture, comparing Brokeback Mountain to Lee's earlier films The Wedding Banquet and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in their treatment of this theme. James Morrison's "Back to the Ranch Ag'in: Brokeback Mountain and Gay Civil Rights" covers a lot of ground, including male romances in American literature as analyzed by the critic Leslie Fiedler, and the role of nature in the story and the film.

But now I'm in the middle of Chris Freeman's "'Jack, I Swear': Some Promises to Gay Culture from Mainstream Hollywood," which centers on the talismanic shirts from the film, bought by a gay collector in 2008. Freeman writes at one point:
What we know, as viewers with some historical and critical distance from this imaginary but all too real scenario, is that a life together for lovers like Jack and Ennis was almost unimaginable, particularly in the West of legend [111].
I guess it depends partly on what you mean by "lovers like Jack and Ennis" and "unimaginable." We know of quite a few male couples who lived together in US history, though we can rarely be sure that they were lovers, for very good reasons. To me that means that a life together for two men is quite imaginable, even if they didn't bugger each other on the front porch of the old homestead every Saturday night. In James Fenimore Cooper's novel The Pioneers, set in the 1780s, the aged Deerslayer and Chingachook (called Mohegan) live together in a cabin. In Cooper's Red Rover, two male friends, partners since they survived a shipwreck together, have raised a foundling to adulthood. In The Pilot, two seamen "wind up living together in a remote cabin deep in the North American wilderness" (Chris Packard, Queer Cowboys [Palgrave Macmillan, 2006], 34). Abraham Lincoln shared not just a room but a bed with Joshua Speed for four years after his arrival in Springfield, Illinois. The fantasy of two male friends running a ranch together recurs in movie Westerns of the 1940s and 1950s, and is referred to in John Steinbeck's short novel Of Mice and Men. I'm not claiming that any of these couples were sodomitical, but that's not the point: the point is that two loving friends could and did live together, not just in the wilderness but in town, without exciting suspicion. (Incidentally, Patricial Nell Warren gives a much more nuanced and informed account of this phenomenon in her essay "Real Gay Cowboys and Brokeback Mountain", included in The Brokeback Book.)

(I haven't mentioned female couples here because of the male-to-male focus of Brokeback Mountain, but of course there's a long tradition of women living together too.)

Freeman goes on:
Domestic gay life in big cities wasn't a great deal different: an urban gay male couple during the early 1960s, when the film's first summer is set, was a rare thing. In his memoir My Lives, author Edmund White notes that when he first moved to New York in 1962 and lived with his lover, "two men living together was still a new thing in those days -- at least we knew only one other couple" [112].
Freeman then cites the Only Gays In The Village of Los Angeles, Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy -- "and in their case, the exception proved the rule that it was almost never done" (112). Bachardy and Isherwood stood out because of Isherwood's fame as a writer, the thirty-year difference in their ages, and their refusal to pretend that they weren't a couple; they were an exception to the rule of the closet, not to a supposed rule of male couples not living together. (It would have been nearly impossible for them to try to pass as roommates, given the age difference.) Even in Los Angeles, there had been the earlier case of Cary Grant and Randoph Scott, who lived together openly as bachelors in the 1930s -- so blatant that they were latent. Again, the nature of their relationship remains controversial, but the point is that two men could and did live together; there was nothing "unimaginable" about it.

It's always dangerous to overgeneralize from what "we knew," especially in a city as big as New York. There were several famous male couples living in New York during the 1960s, among them Gore Vidal and Howard Austen, William Flanagan and Edward Albee, Paul Cadmus and Jon Andersson, Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell, Truman Capote and Jack Dunphy, and others less famous, such as the diarist Donald Vining and his partner Richmond Purinton. There were others; these are just some examples I can remember off the top of my head. Those who weren't famous mostly aren't recorded, so it's easy to pretend they didn't exist. But it might have been easier for the obscure than for the famous to live together openly.

I admit that there was plenty of social pressure against same-sex couples living together, but the fact remains that a good many people defied it or worked around it. Once again I find myself wondering why gay people are so often determined to erase our history.