1:58 pm Feb. 6, 20123
The Stonewall rebellion of 1969 has, in popular consciousness, attained mythical status as the "beginning" of the gay movement in America. Author Christopher Bram would like to push the date back a couple decades, where he finds pioneers sitting in front of typewriters rather than battling cops on the streets of Greenwich Village.
"The gay revolution began as a literary revolution," Bram writes in the introduction to his new book Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. He goes on to lay out a persuasive narrative, starting shortly after World War II, about the impact that gay writers have had on American culture—not just on the gay community, but for the country as a whole. "Directly and indirectly," Bram concludes in his epilogue, "this loose conspiracy of writers opened doors in the imaginations of both gay people and straight people."
The notion that writers like Tennessee Williams or Allen Ginsberg were important cultural figures isn't new, nor is it particularly new to point out their homosexuality. But Bram places them in a context where they're rarely found: immersed in a personal and professional network of fellow gay writers and thinkers.
"By telling these stories and talking about gay life, which nobody had done before, these writers put it out there, got people talking about it, in a way that ultimately led to change," Bram told me in an interview. "We went from a time when homosexuality was illegal in all 48 states—and nobody really knew anybody gay, it was sort of a secret identity—to this time when we're talking about it constantly, discussing gay marriage."
His concise literary history—more episodic than comprehensive or canonical—is broken down by decade, each section focusing on several prominent playwrights, authors, and poets. He starts in 1948, when the release of the Kinsey Report was followed within days by Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar and Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms. "A new age seemed to have begun," Bram writes.
In the 1950s, James Baldwin and Christopher Isherwood (as well as Williams and Ginsberg) started publishing. Their careers continued to bloom in the 1960s, as playwrights Edward Albee and Mart Crowley added their voices. The 1970s saw a major boom in gay publishing as novelists like Armistead Maupin, Larry Kramer, and the authors in the loosely-knit Violet Quill group (most notably Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, and Felice Picano) scored their first successes. Then the floodgates opened for subsequent writers, particularly in response to the AIDS epidemic—everyone from playwright Charles Ludlam in the 1980s to novelist Michael Cunningham in the 1990s.
Over the course of fifty years, gay identity had been transformed from something that was simply not addressed in literature, to something that was addressed primarily in code, to something that was addressed forthrightly, in a way that aimed not just to give comfort to an identity group but to change the way Americans think.
"Writers were the first ones who got the subject out there," said Bram, "with novels and with plays and with poems."
It wasn't just that these writers were creating popular plays and books; decades ago, writers also loomed far larger in American popular culture, frequently serving as cover stars of national magazines like Newsweek, and appearing on national television, where their influence spread far beyond their actual readership.
"The writers didn't do it by themselves, but they started it, and it's a nice surprise to realize it at this time when we think books aren't as important in modern life as they once were," Bram said. "For the longest time, books and plays were the only game in town for gay people for telling our stories."
Much of the literary history Bram recounts takes place in New York City, where Bram – a native of the Norfolk, Va., area— has lived since 1978. (Unsurprisingly, a large proportion of that history centers on Greenwich Village, where Bram has lived since the following year with his partner, filmmaker Draper Shreeve.)
"New York has always attracted people in the arts, and it's always attracted gays," he said. "So inevitably, you get a lot of gay writers living here."
This trend tends to feed on itself, as well. Bram moved to the city at a time when the gay literary scene—and the gay scene in general—was booming.
"I told myself I was coming here because I thought all writers have to live in New York," Bram said. "On an unconscious level, I came here to get laid—to meet some real gay people and have a good time. But both those things brought me to New York."
Bram is, in his own right, one of the most significant gay authors in America today. His nine novels—from his 1987 debut Surprising Myself to his most recent, Exiles in America—run the gamut of subject matter, from AIDS to international spies to the war on terror. Father of Frankenstein, his 1995 novel inspired by the life of film director James Whale, was turned into the Oscar-winning 1998 film Gods and Monsters. His personal and critical essays have been widely published (many are collected in his 2009 book Mapping the Territory). Yet aside from a handful of personal asides— watching Vidal sparring with William F. Buckley (who called him a "queer" and threatened to punch him in the face) during televised coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention; or publishing his first story in the gay magazine Christopher Street—Bram leaves himself out of Eminent Outlaws.
Part of this is, frankly, modesty; writers don't often place themselves in pantheons. But partly, it's also a question of chronology: Bram's history ends just around the time that he was beginning his career in the 1980s.
"I'm the younger brother of the most recent generation I write about," he said, meaning writers like Kramer and Maupin, as well as the Violet Quill set. Other authors of his generation are also left out of the chronology—such writers as Paul Russell, Mark Merlis, and Michael Nava.
Also left out of Bram's history: women.
Bram says his original concept for the book included lesbian writers, but his editor advised him to focus on gay men.
"He was right," said Bram. "I was able to find a clear coherent narrative with just the men, and it would have been a lot harder if I'd included the women."
There is a "parallel narrative" about lesbian writers, he said, but it is less clearly defined and has less continuity, with a more "stop and start quality" than the men's story: "With the women, it's a more tangled, more ambivalent story."
Bram's narrative is often surprising from today's vantage point—and not just the unfathomably homophobic vitriol that otherwise respectable literary critics put into print in places like Commentary and Harper's. What seems perhaps even more unlikely than mainstream critics' homophobia, in retrospect, is the number of books with gay themes that became mainstream bestsellers decades ago—from Baldwin's Another Country to Vidal's Myra Breckinridge. Such a feat eludes even the most prominent gay authors in America today. But Bram is quick to point out two important caveats.
First, the sales figures that pushed a book onto the bestseller list were simply much smaller in those days. As he points out in Eminent Outlaws, sales of 30,000 copies were enough to push The City and the Pillar onto the list in 1948, but Maupin's 2000 novel The Night Listener sold more than three times as many copies without making the list. "It took far fewer sales to make the bestseller list than it does now," Bram said. "The nature of the bestseller list has changed."
Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, Bram argues that a book's appearance on the bestseller list did not necessarily mean that it was reaching a diverse audience.
"With gay books by James Baldwin and Gore Vidal that were bestsellers in the past, it's usually assumed that they were crossover hits, and succeeded with straight audiences as well as gay audiences, but we just don't know if that's true," he said. "I'll make a bet that a huge percentage of those readers were gay, and there was nothing else for them to read, so they gobbled up Myra Breckinridge. I assume most of the readers were gay."
Nonetheless, even if just a few thousand gay readers were sufficient to push Myra Breckinridge—Vidal's 1968 novel with a transgender heroine—onto the bestseller lists, that was also enough to get Vidal on television talk shows, where he reached millions who hadn't actually bought his books.
"What has changed is the role books play in American culture—that definitely has diminished," said Bram. Gone are the days of Capote shmoozing with Norman Mailer on David Susskind's television show, or Baldwin appearing on the cover of Time.
While there are many more gay-themed books published today, Bram thinks a few key things haven't changed. Straight readers still largely shy away from books with gay content, and straight critics are still scratching their heads.
"Now, no, they can't be Philip Roth complaining about ‘ghastly pansy rhetoric,' as he wrote [in 1965 in The New York Review of Books] about Edward Albee, but today they simply don't say anything," said Bram.
So while the homophobic vitriol directed at gay literature has declined, it has been replaced by a broad silence instead; even as gay writers publish more books than ever, critical response is at a low ebb. "For many straight critics, gay life is still a foreign world to them. Critics still dismiss gay books. They're just more polite today."
Christopher Bram will appear, in conversation with novelist Rakesh Satyal and playwright Mart Crowley, on Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Barnes and Noble, 82nd St. and Broadway on the Upper West Side. His book hits bookstore shelves tomorrow.
More by this author:
- Carol Kane's talents are trapped in a play about Bette Davis that's like 'Dolores Claiborne' on barbiturates
- 'The Flick' is an unimaginably long, boring play