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In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation's imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater. James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic. Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist. And the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to gay experience and sensibility, and changed our literary culture.
But the change was only beginning. A new generation of gay writers followed, taking more risks and writing about their sexuality more openly. Edward Albee brought his prickly iconoclasm to the American theater. Edmund White laid bare his own life in stylized, autobiographical works. Armistead Maupin wove a rich tapestry of the counterculture, queer and straight. Mart Crowley brought gay men's lives out of the closet and onto the stage. And Tony Kushner took them beyond the stage, to the center of American ideas.
With authority and humor, Christopher Bram weaves these men's ambitions, affairs, feuds, loves, and appetites into a single sweeping narrative. Chronicling over fifty years of momentous change-from civil rights to Stonewall to AIDS and beyond.
Eminent Outlaws is an inspiring, illuminating tale: one that reveals how the lives of these men are crucial to understanding the social and cultural history of the American twentieth century.
Table of Contents
The gay revolution began as a literary revolution.
Before World War II, homosexuality was a dirty secret that was almost never written about and rarely discussed. Suddenly, after the war, a handful of homosexual writers boldly used their personal experience in their work. They were surprisingly open at first, then grew more circumspect after being attacked by critics and journalists. But they were followed by other writers who built on what they had initiated. The world was changing and the new authors could be more open; their openness produced further change. A third set of writers took even greater liberties, treating their sexuality as equal to straight sexuality, no better and no worse.
This book is the history of fifty years of change shaped by a relay race of novelists, playwrights, and poets—men who were first treated as outlaws but are now seen as pioneers and even 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.
Beginning with figures as different as Gore Vidal, Allen Ginsberg, and James Baldwin, these men are wonderful characters in their own right: smart, articulate, energetic, ambitious, stubborn, and even brave. They were often brilliantly funny. They were never boring. They could also be competitive, combative, self-destructive, and confused. Their lives were not always exemplary. A career in the arts can make anyone crazy ("We Poets in our youth begin in gladness," wrote William Wordsworth, "But thereof come in the end despondency and madness"), but to tell gay stories in the Fifties and Sixties (and later, too) guaranteed further hardship. Not only was it difficult just to get published or produced, but success often led to literary attacks that ran from brutal insult to icy condescension.
This is a collection of war stories, but it's also a collection of love stories. There are intense friendships between the writers themselves. There is also a wide variety of sex and romance. These were passionate men who used desire in different ways, ranging from the fiercely unromantic to the affectionate and vulnerable. Almost all lived in couples at one time or another, but only a few were monogamous. Gay couples often do openly what many straight couples do in secret. Or, as social critic Michael Bronski puts it, "Gay people are just like straight people. But straight people lie about who they really are."
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.
The story of these men has never been told as a single narrative before, which is surprising. Contemporary critics often complain that literature is no longer culturally important, yet it played a huge role in the making of modern gay life. Teachers used to tell us that only bad art is political ("Thou shalt not… commit/A social science," wrote W. H. Auden), but I believe that good art can lay the groundwork for social change. Ernest Hemingway, of all people, indicated why when he said a writer must learn to recognize "what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel, and had been taught to feel." Which is what all gay people, not just writers, must learn before they can create their own lives. This book is about a few authors who decided to write about what they really felt, even when it made their working life more difficult.
A few words about words: I sometimes use gay to describe books and people in times when the word was not yet fully in use. It was preferable to the words that were common then, such as pervert, homo, pansy, and faggot. People might argue that a man who called himself a pansy in 1950 had a different identity from one who called himself queer in 1995. But gay people today, no matter what they call themselves, occupy a very broad spectrum of desires, personas, and self-definitions. The names are only approximations, anyway.
I am primarily a novelist, a gay novelist, but I deliberately left myself out of this story. It would've been impossible to talk about my own work without sounding self-serving. However, my own books can't help casting a shadow. I won't pretend to be objective here: work that I admire is often work that influenced me or that I feel a kinship with.
This is not an all-inclusive, definitive literary history. I do not include everyone of value or importance. Nor am I putting together a canon of must-read writers. I am writing a large-scale cultural narrative, and I include chiefly those authors who help me tell that story—and who offer the liveliest tales.
My models were literary histories that mix criticism with biography, social history, good gossip, and a strong point of view. My favorite works in this line include Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson, Exile's Return by Malcolm Cowley, and The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell. Enjoyable in themselves, these books always leave me eager to read or reread a half-dozen other books when I am done. I hope this history has the same effect on its readers.
Into the Fifties
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
The second atom bomb fell on Nagasaki, the war ended, and nineteen-year-old Eugene Gore Vidal came home to New York. The boyish prep school graduate had served as a warrant officer on an army ship in the Aleutians, a sort of seagoing sergeant. He was now stationed out on Long Island before being discharged. He brought with him a manuscript he had begun writing in training camp, a Hemingway-like novel titled Williwaw about shipboard life.
He spent his weekends in the city, staying in the back bedroom of his father and stepmother's huge apartment on Fifth Avenue, working on the novel during the day and visiting Times Square at night. There he met other men in uniform in the male-only half of the busy bar at the Astor Hotel or in the movie theaters crowded along Forty-second Street. He would take his new acquaintances to a nearby bathhouse or hotel for sex. Young Vidal assumed he would eventually marry, but now he only wanted to make up for all the fun he had missed in boarding school and the army. He was not interested in love. He would later insist that the only man he ever loved was a classmate at St. Albans, Jimmie Trimble, who died on Iwo Jima.
His blind grandfather, Senator T. P. Gore of Oklahoma, spoke of setting him up in New Mexico after college in a political career. The grandson wasn't particularly interested in college, however, and thought there'd be plenty of time for politics later. His father, Eugene Vidal Sr., an airline pioneer who had been on the cover of Time, did not push him in any particular direction. The son soon dropped his first name to avoid being confused with his father.
He sold his novel to Dutton before the end of 1945. The editorial staff liked the personable, confident fellow and made him a part-time editor. He started work on a new novel and began ballet lessons to remedy the rheumatoid arthritis developed after frostbite in the Aleutians. He prowled the city for literary events as well as for sex. Meeting the scholar/translator Kimon Friar at the Astor Hotel Bar, he decided Friar wasn't his type but went to hear him lecture at the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y. There he met an exotic woman with a foreign accent, an Elizabethan hat, and an opera cape: Anaïs Nin. She was already famous for the diaries that she showed friends and hoped to publish one day. She had left Paris with her husband, Hugo, at the start of the war and had recently broken with her lover, Henry Miller, deciding he was too old. Nin herself was forty-two.
Vidal visited her regularly at her fifth-floor walk-up on West Thirteenth Street in Greenwich Village, across the street from the Food Trades Vocational High School, a building that forty years later housed the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center. The apartment was an old-fashioned studio with a skylight an artist friend painted with the signs of the zodiac. Nin surrounded herself with young male artists, including poet Robert Duncan, already author of "The Homosexual in Society" published in 1944 in Politics magazine, and a poetry-writing undergraduate from Amherst, James Merrill (who was briefly Kimon Friar's boyfriend). She loved their attention, but her real love was for her career. She coaxed Vidal into getting her a two-book contract at Dutton. When her next book, Ladders to Fire, received a bad review in the New York Times, Vidal and Merrill wrote letters to the editor protesting its unfairness. (Both letters appear to have been written on the same typewriter—Nin's.) Nin was a little in love with Vidal, or rather, she loved the idea of Vidal being in love with her. They seem to have gone to bed together, but it's unclear if they actually had sex.
It was at a Nin party that Vidal first met a petite, effeminate Southerner with the voice of a strangled child. "How does it feel to be an infant terrible?" asked Truman Capote, badly mangling the French phrase. He looked as if he were twelve, but he was actually a year older than Vidal. He had spent part of his childhood in Alabama before joining his mother in Westchester and attending high school there. He was briefly a copy boy at the New Yorker. He had begun to publish short stories in magazines like Mademoiselle, starting with an elegantly written ghost story, "Miriam." He had just signed a book contract with Random House. (Nin in her diary describes Capote at this time as "painfully timid… he seemed fragile and easily wounded." It's hardly the image of him we have now, but perhaps Nin saw something invisible to others.) Vidal and Capote had much in common: Southern roots, no college, and impossible mothers both named Nina. But Capote made Vidal uneasy. Despite ballet class, Vidal was a stiff, somewhat patrician fellow who could drop an occasional camp phrase only among friends. He found Capote much too flamboyant, too bent on using homosexuality to draw attention to himself. And he recognized a rival. Nevertheless, the two young men were friendly enough during the first year they knew each other, Vidal going so far as to take Capote with him to the Everard Baths. It's amusing to picture the pair wandering the mildewed corridors with towels around their waists, Capote talking incessantly. He loved to tell stories about himself and others, and he didn't care if the stories were true or not. He was never very interested in sex with strangers. He was delighted that night to meet a Southern friend who'd seen the out-of-town tryouts of Private Lives with Tallulah Bankhead. Vidal happily ditched the two and went off to get laid.
The following summer, while at Yaddo, Capote met his first real love, Newton Arvin, a short, bald English professor from Smith College. Arvin wasn't anyone's physical ideal, but he adored Capote, read his prose, recommended books to him, and encouraged his writing. The two men were devoted to each other—for a while.
One afternoon in the oak-paneled Gramercy Park Tavern near the Dutton offices, Vidal began to tell a fellow editor about the homosexual men he had been "noticing" in New York. The editor, who knew nothing about Vidal's private life, suggested he write about this strange new world in his next book.
Vidal worked quickly in his early years, even though he wrote in longhand in pencil. He felt distracted in New York, however, and moved down to Guatemala for a few months in 1947. He finished his new novel, The City and the Pillar, before his second book, In a Yellow Wood, had come out. He showed the manuscript to Nin when she visited Guatemala. She hated it. She said she disapproved of its flat style but she could not have been happy with the character named Maria Verlaine, an exotic woman with a foreign accent who surrounds herself with homosexual men and seduces the gay hero. "I think you are everything, man, woman, and child," says Maria. " 'I could kiss you,' he said, and he did. He kissed the Death Goddess."
Vidal dedicated the book to "J.T."—Jimmie Trimble.
In June, Life magazine ran a photo spread, "Young U.S. Writers." A smallish photo of Vidal accompanied smallish photos of Jean Stafford and others, but the front photo, four times as big as the rest, was of a debonair Capote, who had not yet published his first book.
Dutton was both nervous and excited about Vidal's new novel. They didn't want to publish it too close to his second book, for fear they'd glut the market with Vidal. The author was nervous, too, but his chief worry was that other writers would scoop him on this subject. Sure enough, that fall 1947, The Gallery by John Horne Burns was published with its strong chapter about a gay bar in Naples, followed by End as a Man by Calder Willingham, about sadosexual doings in a Southern military academy like the Citadel. The topic was in the postwar air.
In the first week of January 1948, a curious medical book appeared in stores, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male by Alfred Kinsey, Clyde Martin, and Wardell Pomeroy. Soon known as simply "the Kinsey Report," the volume was mostly charts and tables representing a ten-year-long survey. Yet the book instantly attracted attention with its evidence of how much sex and how many different kinds were actually taking place in the United States. It sold 225,000 copies by the end of the year, almost as many as Crusade in Europe by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
A few days after the Kinsey Report appeared, The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal came out. One week after that saw the publication of Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.
A new age seemed to have begun.
The two novels could not have been more different. The City and the Pillar is written in a direct, sometimes pulpy prose that Vidal later claimed was modeled on James T. Farrell but is actually closer to the drugstore paperbacks of the era. Seventeen years later Vidal revised the book, changing the language a little and the ending a lot and making the overall meaning clearer. City tells the tale of Jim Willard, a teenager who has sex with his best friend, Bob Ford, on a campout after graduation from high school. Jim journeys through life, meeting other men and having sex with them but remaining in love with Bob. He meets a heartless writer like an early version of Vidal and a woman like Nin and goes with them to Guatemala. Then the war comes and Jim joins the merchant marine. After the war Jim meets Bob again, but Bob angrily rejects him. " 'You're a queer,' he said, 'you're nothing but a damned queer!' " In a fit of rage Jim murders Bob. The ending is as purple as the Biblical title (which refers to Lot's wife becoming a pillar of salt when she looks back at the city of Sodom). Yet the rest of the novel is often tartly matter-of-fact, offering sharp snapshots of American gay life in Hollywood and New York in the 1940s.
The prose of Other Voices is very different, colorful yet precise, a high Southern rhetoric that's been trimmed and tamed. It can be florid in patches, especially in the last chapters where it turns hallucinogenic, yet it's always fresh and readable. For example, here's the boy protagonist, Joel, riding in a mule-drawn wagon late at night, the driver fast asleep:
He listened content and untroubled to the remote, singing-saw noise of night insects.
Then presently the music of a childish duet came carrying over the sounds of the lonesome countryside: "What then does the robin do, poor thing…" Like specters he saw them hurrying in the moonshine along the road's weedy edge. Two girls. One walked with easy grace, but the other moved as jerky and quick as a boy…
Soon the girls are walking alongside the wagon, a pair of twins named Idabel and Florabel. The three children sing together: "their voices pealed clear and sweet, for all three were sopranos…. Then a cloud crossed over the moon and in the black the singing ended."
This is the story of Joel Knox, a precocious child of thirteen who, after the death of his mother, is sent to live with the father he's never met in Skully's Landing, a small hamlet in Alabama. Not much happens there, but the mood and sense of place and lovely prose are enough to carry the reader. The book suggests a children's story at first, a fairy tale set in a realistic 1930s South. But this rural life is hardly pastoral or wholesome. The father is crippled and silent. Joel's only companions are the black servants, Jesus Fever and his daughter Zoo, the twins Idabel and Florabel, a spooky stepmother, Miss Amy, and the effete yet genial Cousin Randolph. The fairy tale grows darker and more sinister as it progresses—as do the longer tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Randolph tells Joel the story of Joel's mother and father and Randolph's love for a Mexican boxer. When relatives from New Orleans come to fetch Joel, Miss Amy sends them away without letting Joel know they've been there. The boy is left exiled in the dream world of Skully's Landing.
The book was dedicated to Newton Arvin.
Readers nowadays find Other Voices elusive and mysterious, but when it was published people projected one particular meaning onto the mystery, chiefly because of the jacket photo of the author. This is the famous Harold Halma shot of young Capote supine on a sofa, facing the camera with his baby bangs and seductive gaze. "Honey… you stay away from him," a young wife was overheard telling her husband in a coffee shop in Cambridge. The photo made some readers think this novel could only be about one subject: its author's homosexuality. A magazine editor told friends the book was "the faggots' Huckleberry Finn."
Reviewers who ignored the sexual implications tended to give the book good reviews. "A short novel which is as dazzling a phenomenon as has burst on the literary scene in the last ten years," said the Chicago Tribune. The sexual critics almost all leaped to negative conclusions. "The book is immature and its theme is calculated to make the flesh crawl," said Time magazine. "The distasteful trappings of its homosexual theme overhang it like Spanish moss." Carlos Baker, future biographer of Hemingway, said in the New York Times Book Review, "The story of Joel Knox did not need to be told except to get it out of the author's system." Diana Trilling in the Nation began by praising the book but claimed it was an apology for homosexuality, that it argued that men became gay only because of their early experiences. In a loony leap of logic, she indignantly asked, "Is no member of society, then, to be held accountable for himself, not even Hitler?" (Trilling was fascinated with the subject at this time, reviewing almost every gay novel that came along, in contrast to her husband, Lionel, who rarely mentioned homosexuality. Even in his review of the Kinsey Report, he had much to say about premature ejaculation but little about Topic H.)
The reviews of City and the Pillar were equally blunt and dismissive, and without the sugar of Capote's many good notices. The Times Book Review said, "Presented as the case history of a standard homosexual, his novel adds little that is new to a groaning shelf." As early as 1948, the mainstream nervously dismissed the subject as old hat. Other reviewers called the book "disgusting," "sterile," and "gauche." The two or three good reviews were couched in sociological terms. "Essentially it's an attempt to clarify the inner stresses of our time, of which the increase in homosexuality and divorce are symptoms," wrote Charles Rolo in the Atlantic. "It should be added that Mr. Vidal has not neglected to provide an entertaining story."
One of the unkindest pieces was in the first issue of the Hudson Review, which was managed by a close female friend. Vidal hoped to publish there himself. Someone writing under the pseudonym J. S. Shrike (the cynical editor in Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West), discussed City and Other Voices and Sexual Behavior in the Human Male together under the heading "Recent Phenomena." (Novels were reviewed under "Recent Fiction.") "Aside from its sociological demonstrations, Mr. Vidal's book is undistinguished. It is humorless, and most of its scenes are faked, as are the house interiors, the natural landscapes, and all the characters." (How can a writer do anything but "fake" a house interior?) It's a shrilly moralistic review, dressing its disgust in social-worker jargon, reading old clichés into Kinsey and the two novelists. Shrike says that, "Mr. Vidal's hero is irrevocably corrupted by his initial adolescent experience; Mr. Capote creates suspense by threatening the seduction of a thirteen year old boy." (It's bizarre how many of these reviewers assume that Randolph, the lover of a Mexican boxer, is plotting to seduce an androgynous little boy.) Shrike prefers Capote's prose to Vidal's yet does not like him much, either. "It is obvious that Mr. Capote has talent, but it is not a promising talent; it is a ruined one."
Vidal later said that the review that hurt most was one that wasn't written: Orville Prescott, critic for the daily Times, had praised Williwaw, but reportedly told friends that Vidal's new book disgusted him so much he would never read or review Vidal again. For the rest of his life, Vidal used this unwritten review as evidence of how antigay critics had blocked his career. Yet Prescott reviewed Capote in the Times, a mixed review but one that closed with "Many a first novel is sounder, better balanced, more reasonable than Other Voices. But few are more artistically exciting, more positive proof of the arrival of a new writer of substantial talent." Whatever put Prescott off City and the Pillar, it was not just its subject.
City ended up selling 30,000 copies in hardcover. Other Voices sold 26,000. (One needed to sell fewer books to be a best seller in the 1940s, and both books spent several weeks on best-seller lists.) These were not the only novels with gay content to appear that year. There was also The Welcome by Hubert Creekmore, about two men in love in a small Southern town. (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 Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer came out that summer, with a homosexual villain, General Cummings, the army commander. The June issue of Partisan Review contained "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck, Honey" by Leslie Fiedler, the notorious essay where Fiedler first argued that homosexual race-mixing was a major theme in American literature, with white heroes fleeing to the wilderness "in the arms of their dusky lovers": Huck and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg, Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook. The essay included brief discussions of Vidal and Capote. Fiedler argued that this emphasis on homosexuality was a failing in American books, yet he discussed it with mischievous calm and no hysterical righteousness.
Years later Vidal would talk as if City had destroyed his career. It didn't. His next four novels sold 10,000 copies each, not bad for the hardcover book slump of the early Fifties—a temporary side effect of the flood of new, twenty-five-cent paperbacks. He said he wasn't reviewed again in the daily New York Times for the next fifteen years—and he wasn't, but his work was regularly covered in the Times Book Review, and he was the subject of feature stories in the daily Times. He turned to writing for TV and then to theater and the movies not because publishing was closed to him, but because the other fields paid so much better. Also his fiction now required more time and effort. He came to dislike the quick, gray style of the first books and took more pains with his language. I believe he was emulating Capote. He could never admit it, of course, but Capote wrote better prose and Vidal resented him for it. The closest he came to admitting as much was in a letter to his British editor, John Lehman: "Most people seem to be born knowing their way through literature, the young lions at least, like Truman," said Vidal, adding that he had spent the last four years working on his own style.
But the reception of City and the Pillar left him badly shaken. In an earlier letter to Lehman, a year after the book appeared, he said, "I am back amongst my people ready to lead them to the new Sodom, out of this pillar-marked wilderness," but he was only joking. He was more careful in the future, more cagey. He would not write at length about gay life again for another twenty years, when he returned to it in Myra Breckinridge, his wonderfully mad fantasy about camp, gender, and the movies.
There is no denying that City and the Pillar changed his career. Yet the older Vidal often contradicts himself in how he talks about the experience. The mature man of letters, the unflappable Mr. Know-it-all of interviews and essays, speaks as if he were born wise. In his autobiography, Palimpsest, he insists that he knew exactly what was at stake when he published City: he was saying good-bye to politics and probably hurting his future as a novelist. But how many twenty-two-year-olds have that kind of foresight? Fiction writers, even those who work autobiographically, often assume readers will think they are making things up. For legal reasons, reviewers could not accuse Vidal of being homosexual yet they certainly implied it. The reaction to City caught the young novelist completely off guard. He hadn't guessed he would out himself so nakedly. His journal for this period is the one piece of writing he refused to show his biographer, Fred Kaplan. His blind grandfather, the Senator, didn't read the novel, of course. Vidal says neither of his parents finished it. One suspects his father's reaction must have stung as much as the reviews. (Vidal was already at war with his mother, and his sexuality gave her new ammunition.) Whatever the exact cause of his hurt, the experience stamped Vidal for the rest of his life, affecting him more personally than he could admit. He protected himself by insisting the book was better than it was, then going back and revising it in 1965. He was a much better writer in 1965 than he'd been in 1948, yet he revised the book in the voice of his younger, more callow, pulpier self.
Capote, too, was disappointed with the reception of his book, but he'd been hoping for success along the lines of Gone with the Wind. No matter what an author gets, he or she wants more. Capote moved on and did not look back, but he did not write directly about homosexuality again for almost thirty years. He was silent about it in print, neither professing nor denying his own sexuality when he used himself as a character. He let his very public persona fill in the blank for readers.
Vidal and Capote do not appear to have ever compared notes or commiserated with each other over their early treatment by critics. It's a weakness to confess an injury, and one can never admit hurt to a competitor, even when he has suffered something similar.
Of course there were gay men and women in the United States before the Second World War. There was even some fiction with gay characters before 1947. But none of the great gay American writers—Henry James, Willa Cather, Hart Crane, Thornton Wilder—ever wrote directly about gay life. Walt Whitman celebrated the love of comrades, but later denied he meant anything sexual. Gertrude Stein touched on same-sex love in Tender Buttons, but in obscure, experimental prose. A few young writers published books with avant-garde presses, such as Better Angel by Forman Brown (1933), but the rest was silence. The truth of the matter is such books were often banned and seized. It was hard enough to print the truth about heterosexual love.
- On Sale
- Feb 2, 2012
- Page Count
- 384 pages