“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden famously announced, shortly after arriving in America in January 1939. Christopher Bram disagrees, and his new book, “Eminent Outlaws,” which breezily combines literary criticism and social history, is subtitled “The Gay Writers Who Changed America.” Bram sees this process starting in January 1948, when two novels, Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” and Truman Capote’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” were published within a week of each other. Alfred Kinsey’s “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male” came out the same month, and when all three books were reviewed together in the Hudson Review, it was not under “Recent Fiction” but in a column headed “Recent Phenomena.”
Many early commentators wrote about what eventually became known as gay fiction as if they were dealing with pathological case studies rather than literature. Bram contends that in an era when homosexuality was more or less invisible, these books “gave journalists an opportunity to discuss a forbidden topic with a wide readership,” which meant that even hostile reviews served a useful purpose. The gradual, though far from universal, shift in attitude toward homosexuality has many causes, but Bram persuasively argues that “literature itself was an agent of . . . change.”
Auden was not someone whose work, in this sense, made a great difference, but other poets were. In Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956), homosexuality becomes “the emblem of all sexuality, which in turn evokes the bodies and minds crushed by society”; James Merrill’s “The Book of Ephraim” (1976) provides “a full-scale portrait of a gay marriage, perhaps the first, complete with domestic routines, friends, living expenses, and in-laws”; and the poems in Thom Gunn’s “The Man With Night Sweats” (1992) “cover the whole gamut of the [AIDS] epidemic, addressing dying friends, personal fear, tainted desire, and grief.” The audience for poetry has always been comparatively small, however, and it is novelists and playwrights who have had more impact.
Christopher Isherwood’s “A Single Man” (1964) is perhaps the first gay novel in the modern sense of that term, in that its homosexual protagonist challenges heterosexual assumptions in terms later made familiar by the gay liberation movement. James Baldwin’s novels are less easy to categorize because his literary rage was as much about race as it was about sexuality — and, as Eldridge Cleaver made clear in his disgraceful 1966 essay “Notes on a Native Son,” the fights for black and gay rights did not necessarily sit comfortably together. The other major figures of the first half of Bram’s book are Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, whose approach to homosexuality in their work tended to be more oblique than that of the novelists. This merely led to them being accused of smuggling homosexual characters into their plays in the guise of heterosexuals.
Stanley Kauffman’s notorious 1966 New York Times article “Homosexual Drama and its Disguises”prompted Mart Crowley to write a play in which there would be no disguises at all. “The Boys in the Band” opened off-Broadway in 1968, a year before the Stonewall Riots, and proved an unexpected success, running for 1,001 performances. Crowley’s portrait of a group of gay men at a birthday party has been widely accused of being retrograde and stereotyped, so it is good to see it given its proper due here. As Bram notes about the 1970 film version of the play, “More people heard about Boys than heard about Stonewall that first year.”
The second half of “Eminent Outlaws” is inevitably less focused than the first, tracing gay writing from the “annus mirabilis” of 1978, which saw the publication of Larry Kramer’s “Faggots,” Andrew Holleran’s “Dancer From the Dance” and Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” through the AIDS crisis, which Bram suggests “gave gay writing a new importance in the culture at large,” to roughly where we are now. Other significant works such as Edmund White’s “A Boy’s Own Story” (1982), hailed not just as a gay classic but a classic tout court, and Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” (1993), resoundingly subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” are treated at length, but the sheer volume of material as time goes on makes the book occasionally seem sketchy.
A novelist rather than an academic, Bram is unabashedly guided by his own literary taste and writes in a pleasantly relaxed and always very readable style. This casual approach leads to some errors of detail, but he properly sifts wheat from chaff and leaves the reader at what he calls the “high tide” of gay literature at the end of the 20th century. As an epilogue makes clear, there has been no melancholy, long, withdrawing roar since then, and it would be nice to think that, having so long striven for visibility, gay writing will eventually cease to stand out as a genre but be quietly absorbed into the mainstream.
The Gay Writers Who Changed America
By Christopher Bram
Twelve. 371 pp. $27.99