Saturday, February 18, 2012

Eminent Outlaws

I've just begun reading Christopher Bram's new book Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America (Twelve, 2012). It's a fun read, and I should have known better than to start reading it early in the evening. I kept reading twenty or thirty pages, putting it down, and then thinking, "Hm, I'll just read a little more." Next thing I knew I was over halfway through its 306 pages, it was three in the morning, and I stopped reading reluctantly. I'll probably finish it today.

That's probably just me. Bram and I are almost the same age, and we're both readers ... oh, and we're also both gay. So we read pretty much the same books, and we have similar tastes. He's also read a lot of the same critical and biographical material on these writers as I have, so the historical narrative had few surprises for me. Reading Eminent Outlaws is like a long chatty comparing-notes session with another serious reader.

Of course, we disagree on some minor points. He has a somewhat different take on the great Foucault question, and I wonder if he's actually read Foucault. I really disagree with his claim that "Queer theorists imagined a wonderful arcadian past where men and women simply did what they did and only their actions were judged, not their souls" (311). I've read enough queer theory to know that's not true, even when you take into account that the judgment of the actions in Christendom was extremely harsh. What he says there reminds me of what a lot of my non-Foucauldian contemporaries believed: that somewhere in the past -- ancient Greece, the Islamic world, Latin America -- society had not been corrupted by Judeo-Christian homophobia and the love of men for boys was celebrated. (This attitude is epitomized for me by Arthur Evans's Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture [Fag Rag Books, 1978], which as I recall managed to argue both that classical Athens was a totally gay-friendly society and that Socrates was executed for having sex with other men, because of cultural homophobia.) Still, I agree with Bram that "gay people today, whatever they call themselves, occupy a very broad spectrum of desires, personas, and self-definitions. The names are only approximations, anyway" (x). The men he's writing about all lived after 'the invention of the homosexual', so it's appropriate to discuss them under that rubric.

Similarly, on page 194 Bram writes:
Most straight people, and many gay people, especially those who came of age more recently, don't understand how momentous and difficult coming out was to men and women of this generation. It seems so obvious now, so banal. But the straight world made coming out important and dangerous. They despised homosexuals so much that the homosexuals responded with either total silence or the clever argument of Gore Vidal and others that there was no such thing as a homosexual -- if only people understood that gay identity was a social fiction, then antigay feeling would go away. Yet it wasn't until huge numbers of men and women took the banal and embarrassing step of naming themselves and sharing the name with their families that not just culture but the whole body politic began to change, shifting forward a few inches.
I don't remember that queers of my generation thought any such thing. I think Bram underestimates the influence of Alfred Kinsey on our understanding, but then I might overestimate it from having lived so long in Bloomington, the home of his research. Kinsey was opposed to both biological determinism and to psychoanalytic theories of sexuality, but the biggest impact his work had that I remember was its revelation that sex between men (as well as most other stigmatized sexual behavior) was far more common than most people had realized. Queers of my generation argued, not that "gay identity was a social fiction" but that it was common and therefore okay; not a very strong argument. This claim was taken to the extreme of claiming that Kinsey had proved that everybody is basically bisexual, or that sexuality is distributed on a bell curve, with most people bisexual and only a few either exclusively homosexual or heterosexual. Kinsey didn't prove any such thing, but this was a powerful myth.

But nowadays gay people believe that if only people understood that gay people are a separate breed, the slaves of our genes, driven to commit sodomy and listen to Lady Gaga by our biological difference, then antigay feeling would go away. I don't believe that antigay feeling is based on any assumptions about the nature of gayness; rather, I believe that beliefs about the nature of gayness are invented to justify the antigay feeling. Or the progay feeling, which as I indicated, is compatible both with biological determinism and radical anti-essentialism. I admit, though, that from what I've seen the most popular defense is to wail that we are born this way and can't help ourselves -- a claim that has deep historical roots.

One criticism I've seen made of Eminent Outlaws concerns its male focus. Bram makes the usual excuses: "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" (x). To give him his due, he does mention female writers, like Mary Renault and Patricia Nell Warren, who contributed to the gay male canon: Renault for her historical novels of classical Greece, Warren for her breakthrough novel The Front Runner (Morrow, 1974), about the love between a gay track coach and his star runner, and he points out (174) the impact that poetry had on lesbian culture. That the full story would be too "complicated" is not a very good excuse, but I can sympathize. He might have mentioned that lesbian writing flourished as an alternative canon, often involving small presses and self-publication; few of the major writers found their way into the mainstream houses in the US. Adrienne Rich, for example, won recognition before she came out. (Notice how she's de-gayed in this bio. And this one.)

A better explanation would lie in this book's subtitle, the words "changed the world." The literary establishment is predominantly male, and was even more so when Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, and the other post-WWII writers Bram discusses built their careers. They worked in the mainstream; even Allen Ginsberg, whose work was first published by small presses, and William Burroughs, whose first published novel was a pulp paperback, achieved nationwide notoriety as part of the legal campaign against obscenity laws. Women writers, regardless of their sexual orientation, were rarely allowed to have such impact on "the world." (Gertrude Stein, of an earlier generation, was an exception because of her male identification and connections to famous male artists; Bram barely mentions her, but she's chronologically outside his scope anyway.)

The women's movement changed the world, however, and the work of women writers, including lesbians, gained a prominence and even legitimacy that's new in history -- against intense resistance that continues to this day. But then, gay male visibility also faces such resistance. But few if any of the writers Bram discusses had much to say about feminism, or about women's writing. Christopher Isherwood met Virginia Woolf once or twice -- her publishing house put out his first novels, in fact -- but he was more influenced by E. M. Forster, who was uncomfortable with Woolf's feminism. Carson McCullers barely features in Eminent Outlaws, despite her connections to several of Bram's principals and her relevance to his subject. And there have been some important books focusing on lesbian writers to the exclusion of gay male ones, starting with Jane Rule's Lesbian Images (The Crossing Press, 1975); it's arguable that gay men and lesbians have different, somewhat parallel literary traditions, though some knowledgeable people, like Terry Castle, might beg to differ. Thanks to the lesbians I've known, my exploration of queer literature since the 1970s has always included the work of women.

Since Bram didn't aim to write a scholarly book (which would probably have legitimized an even narrower focus), he can probably be excused for taking the easy way out. Eminent Outlaws will be a good introduction to the post-World War II gay male canon for people, especially young ones, who didn't grow up with it. But someone ought to take a look at the bigger picture.