American literature in the 20th Century is a gold mine of rich ore all over the map; novels, drama, screen plays, poetry, essays, gay, straight, lesbian, feminist, ethnic and on and on. A reader’s paradise. Christopher Bram’s very readable window into the emergence of gay men’s literature starting after the 2nd World War is a must read for anyone who wants to grasp what was going one. “Eminent Outlaws” because when they started out, the “Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name” was a crime in all 50 states. By the end of the century each of these writers was an eminent respected master in each of their fields: Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Alan Ginsberg and others. Their lives crisscrossed and were inter-twined in a complex literary adventure. This is the next book on my Bucket List. My Bucket List is to read as many biographies of poets as I can before I die. Bram’s book is not a bio but a window into whole generations of incredibly talented and often troubled gay men who changed the whole American landscape. The focus is mostly novelists (Truman Capote, Gore Vidal) and playwrights (Tennessee William, Tony Kushner.) Ginsberg is the only poet to get lots of attention but they are all here: W.H. Auden, Frank O’Hara, James Merrill, Thom Gunn, Mark Doty and others.
Christopher Isherwood’s “Good Bye Berlin: became the smash movie success “Cabaret.” American’s got a real glimpse inside a drag bar and high end decadence. Behind it, it is the story of Christopher escaping his stuffy English family for cosmopolitan Berlin and ending up in Hollywood where he became an American citizen in 1946.
Tennessee Williams, the flamboyant playwright from Mississippi who gave us, “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” and “Streetcar Named Desire.” These films were box office hits with straight audiences who probably just didn’t get the full picture. And of course, Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” which captured mid-century New York so well. And the novels. Of course, I read Gore Vidal’s “City and the Pillar” when I was quite young. I was struggling with my own sexuality. The tragic ending was not what I needed to hear. Then there was Truman Capote’s fictionalized novel (In Cold Blood) about the tragic 1959 murder of the family in Kansas. (Best seller.) I refused to read it. I don’t want to be entertained by senseless violence. My favorite novel by a gay writer in the last 50 years is “An Arrows Flight” by Mark Merlis which retells the Trojan War in an amazing mix of “ancient headlines and modern myth.” It is a brilliant use of creative imagination. A pure joy to read.
The 1957 obscenity trial for Ginsberg’s over-the-edge long Poem, “Howl” is a pivot point in 20th century literature, not just for gay writers but for all writers. After 1957, Americans could read “Lady Chatterley’s Lover without smuggling a copy through customs hidden in the lining of their suitcase. (Note: Lady Chatterley had her own obscenity trial in NYC in 1960 but the die had been cast with “Howl.” I am fascinated by the trial. It has a feel of high tone literary criticism, not at all about “trash.” First, the defense lawyer with the support of the ACLU agreed to forgo trial-by-jury and leave it up to the judge. This turned out to be a smart move despite the fact that Judge Clayton Horn was a Sunday School teacher. He was also a bit of a scholar who took his responsibilities very seriously. He laid down strict rules. The lawyers could not discuss if the poem was obscene or not; only if it had literary value. Suddenly the trial was not about dirty words but about the nature of literature. The defense brought scholars, teachers, and critics. The prosecutor argued that literary merit was irrelevant if a book was obscene. To the surprise of many, Judge Horn came back with a verdict that if a book has “social redeeming importance,” it is not obscene. He deliberated for two weeks to reach his decision. In that time he read “Ulysses” and studied the 1933 trial the freed James Joyce. This trial highlighted a major shift in America’s relationship to words in books.
And in the 20th Century, there were a lot of words in books.