Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Eminent Outlaws:" Christopher Bram's Gay Literary Encyclopedia

I didn't do any outside research after this reading, so I don't know if Christopher Bram's Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America is the first, or at least most definitive account of gay/bisexual writers. If it truly is, it begs the question: why hasn't this been done before? The personal and creative lives of gay writers are usually explored within singular memoirs and biographies, and while a more encompassing work like this has to sacrifice some details in the interest of space and variety, it's the sort of book that has the potential to appeal to a variety of of readers and scholars, those interested in gay as well as literary history. Many people in literary criticism often make concrete distinctions between a writer's work and life, but as Bram shows, the identities of gay writers are sometimes impossible to separate from the books, since honest fictional accounts of gay lifestyles have been censored or forced to use metaphors, especially in the early and mid-20th century. Like gay acceptance and consciousness, the literary side has had to overcome discrimination and ridicule to achieve mainstream acceptance and judgement for the content rather than the labels.

In his introduction, Bram makes some important distinctions:

"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 (Bram x)."

"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 (Bram xi)."

Eminent Outlaws is indeed simplified, but I don't mean that in a negative way. It follows a semi-chronological development and bibliography, but gets its dynamic from the mix of textual studies and sociological/biographical/historical explanations (which, in a sort of paradox that I'll get to later, marks the book's success and problems). Bram definitely chooses the liveliest stories, and while he's careful to mention that this isn't a collection of "must-read writers," the names are ones that people should have at least a passing familiarity with--Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Frank O'Hara, et al. He also mentions a few writers who have flown under my literary radar, including Edmund White and Armistead Maupin. There's also the notice that this really is the first definitive history of gay writers, which goes against my initial introduction, but as I said, I find it fascinating that this type of history hasn't been compiled before.

The book opens with the 1950s and Gore Vidal, and along with Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, Vidal makes the most appearances in the decades that follow. In 1948, Vidal published The City and the Pillar, the first obvious book with male homosexuality as the central theme, as well as setting a sort of template for the gay-themed novels that would follow: the act of publishing it was daring, the book found a passionate gay readership, and the reviews either overlooked the sexual content or dismissed it due to the social mores of the time. The history of literary criticism is worthy of its own story, but when applied to gay writers and books, the reviews seem to follow the trajectory of mainstream opinions of homosexuality, from outright contempt to acceptance as the years go on.

"Reviewers who ignored the sexual implications tended to give [The City and the Pillar]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' 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 (Bram 8)."

Even as culture and criticism advanced, some writers, namely James Baldwin, were tossed and torn between conflicting identities. Should Baldwin be remembered as a gay writer or a black writer? Was Tony Kushner's Angels In America specifically about gay life or the AIDS crisis? Bram presents the multiple sides of these issues without making assumptions, but rather presenting the histories and ultimately letting the texts speak for themselves. His best passages, however, are biographical. The research he put into this book is impressive, and the lives of the writers are shown with all of their ups and downs, from romantic struggles to creative blocks. Sometimes these themes come together all at once. For example, Bram presents the fascinating story of the development of Christopher Isherwood's A Single Man, told through both the creative process as well as with the backdrop of Isherwood's relationship with his lover, Don Bachardy. Bram presents a detailed history, and his experience as a novelist makes the best passages read like stories without sacrificing detail or knowledge.

"Like many quarreling couples, they remained each other's best confidant, even when the problem being discussed was the listener. One day at the beach Isherwood complained to Bachardy that the new book was slipping away. Bachardy asked what he really wanted it to be about. Isherwood told him. 'And in no time at all the blindingly simple truth was revealed that the book isn't about the Englishwoman but about the Englishman--me,' Isherwood recorded in his diary. Bachardy suggested he give this woman's problems to someone more like himself, a middle-aged gay man. Isherwood did not hesitate, despite his experience with Down There On a Visit. He immediately went back to his manuscript, retitled it The Englishman, and began again. Indirection hasn't protected him on the last book: he might as well go all the way. He must tell the truth or be silent (Bram 110)."

Eminent Outlaws does have its occasional misses. For the most part, Bram includes citations when he writes about specific passages, but often, a book or story will be discussed critically with no excerpts, forcing the reader to assume that what he says is true. This also leads to a sort of stylistic tug of war throughout the pages, with the occasional shift in tone from academic to general. Also, with the occasional lack of examples, Bram will offer an opinion along the lines of "we now see this [passage or character] as a representation of a gay person." As a gay writer himself, Bram is wonderfully unbiased, but this occasional reliance on assumption slows down an otherwise well-researched history. But for the most part, he can be critical of even the best writers, since no bibliography is composed of brilliance.

The book as a whole works well as an encyclopedia of gay writers, and while there are so many areas and time periods condensed, one can't help but wonder how the complete histories would look. Bram's best chapter, "Dead Poets Society," is a stunning look at writing and the AIDS crisis, and while the details are plentiful, it's clear that this era deserves its own book. Biographies of Gore Vidal and Truman Capote are plentiful, but these men make so many appearances (again, due to their long lives), that they can sometimes overshadow other subjects. Bram's passages on gay playwrights are generally well done, but his analyses of stage performances and dialogues don't translate well to the book. The background information shines, but the reader is occasionally presented with confusing critical assumptions. Take this summary of the meaning of Angels In America:

"So what does this thematic plotline mean? I think it's primarily a shaggy dog story or, more appropriately, a shaggy God story. There is no 'beautiful theory,' which might be for the best since we know from the Soviet Union where beautiful theories can lead. It's a deliberate letdown, a carefully crafted anticlimax (Bram 271)."

Intriguing? Definitely. But, for someone like me who hasn't seen the play, these kinds of thoughts can be shaky. This isn't meant to an attack on Bram, but I get the feeling that his critical eye works best with literature and not theater reviews. Like his own assessment of lesbian literature, this is an area that needs a specific scholar. However, it's an essential part of the overall arc, and Bram at least gives a thorough introduction to the subject.

As someone who studies literature, I recommend this as a unique introduction to a variety of lives, and I can only imagine how some of the passages and understandings would speak to gay readers. This encompassing story is one that has been decades in the making, and as an early volume into these lives and creative styles, it's an admirable achievement. Hopefully some of the smaller stories will eventually be expanded by other writers, and there are countless other voices that didn't make it into this volume. Bram alternates between the academic and the general, and while I feel that I learned some new ideas (my reading list has definitely expanded thanks to the titles mentioned here), Eminent Outlaws would have benefited from a more consistent narrative voice, and perhaps with more pages devoted to certain areas than others. But again, these are essential literary lives, and the entire history presented here succeeds more often than not.

Work Cited:
Bram, Christopher. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. Copyright 2012 by Christopher Bram.

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