'Eminent Outlaws': Writers who sparked gay revolution
"Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America," Christopher Bram, Twelve; 372 pages -------- When Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater, first read "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's sprawling 1985 play about the early days of the AI...
"Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America," Christopher Bram, Twelve; 372 pages
When Joseph Papp, founder of the Public Theater, first read "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's sprawling 1985 play about the early days of the AIDS crisis, he thought it was a mess. "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."
Papp's language echoes some of my feelings about Christopher Bram's new book, "Eminent Outlaws," a critical and biographical survey of America's gay writers in the second half of the 20th century.
This book is not a mess, exactly. It's argumentative and often resonant, and lit from below by a gossipy wit. But its power 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.
Bram is a novelist, best known for "Father of Frankenstein" (1995), which became the film "Gods and Monsters." With "Eminent Outlaws" he has filled a gap in our critical literature.
It's hard to believe that this story -- about the tangled lives of men like Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Edward Albee, Edmund White, Armistead Maupin, Tony Kushner and Kramer -- has not been combed and braided into a single narrative before. Lesbian literature is not dealt with here; Bram is probably correct to suggest that "it needs its own historian."
This country's gay revolution, Bram notes, "began as a literary revolution," far more so than did the civil rights or women's movements. America's literary past is filled with brilliant, closeted gay and very possibly gay writers: Henry James, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Hart Crane. But the story Bram sets out to tell commences in the late 1940s.
"Before World War II," he says, "homosexuality was a dirty secret that was almost never written about and rarely discussed."
The year everything changed, he persuasively argues, was 1948. That year the first of the Kinsey Reports appeared. So did two groundbreaking gay-themed works of fiction: "The City and the Pillar," by Vidal, and "Other Voices, Other Rooms," by Capote. The men would become bitter rivals.
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 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.
From this perch Bram leaps into a wider pool of writers. As he moves forward, he offers potted biographies of many, and perhaps too much plot summary of their best books. But he's mostly good company, making alert distinctions, arguing for lesser-known books and, every few pages, simply nailing a phrase. He describes the poet James Merrill as resembling a "suave extraterrestrial."
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 Vidal skeet shooting with John F. Kennedy in 1958 and debating how to jump his bones. We are reminded that Vidal described Baldwin as a cross between Bette Davis and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Baldwin is a significant figure in this book; Bram cuts his career on an interesting bias, pinning him to the page as a gay writer first and a black one only second. Baldwin was rarely dull. He began a 1959 review of Langston Hughes' "Selected Poems," in The New York Times Book Review, this way: "Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts -- and depressed that he has done so little with them."
After Norman Mailer called Baldwin "too charming a writer to be major," Baldwin replied by offering up what the black jazz musicians Mailer loved said of him: "They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic."
The author is good throughout on homophobia, real and perceived, in the book world and the media. When The Los Angeles Times reviewed Christopher Isherwood's novel "A Single Man" in 1964, its headline announced, "Disjointed Limp Wrist Saga." Bram revisits Philip Roth's 1965 review of Edward Albee's play "Tiny Alice" in The New York Review of Books. Roth bemoaned Albee's "ghastly pansy rhetoric and repartee," wanting a more open play "in which the homosexual hero is presented as a homosexual, and not disguised."
Bram is not the most dexterous critic you will ever encounter. On back-to-back pages you will find cliches like "richly observed," "deeply felt" and "expertly crafted." The fires of his arguments are rarely well banked; more than once he says halfhearted things like, "Some people love it; I don't." But he persuades you to keep reading.
If "Eminent Outlaws" has two overlapping central figures, they are Vidal and White, productive writers who, in their heyday, went everywhere and seemed to know everyone. They are this book's connectors, to borrow Malcolm Gladwell's term. They are the humming through lines in a book that's better than it sometimes seems to be.