Christopher Bram, perhaps best known for writing the book for which the film “Gods & Monsters” was based, and Edmund White, probably the most respected gay author of our time (he wrote the groundbreaking A Boy’s Own Story about growing up gay in the Midwest) will both be reading from their new works at the Free Library tonight (Feb. 16).
Bram’s Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America goes where few others have – into the public and private lives of well-known gay male scribes like Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and others who have made headlines during the 20th century, weaving their professional life stories into a fascinating pastiche of rebellion, creativity and, at times, addiction and failure.
While many other nonfiction books about these writers have spun the usual stories – complete with all the sordid tales of back room love affairs and struggles with fame at a time when being closeted was often the expectation – Bram manages to convey not only these struggles, but also the impact each of the writers has had on both gay literature and American culture. Never before have we read such a compelling book that relates the men and their work to each other, but that also considers how they influenced the course of American history and the arts.
The book puts not only the past into perspective, but also the present.
“At a time when homosexuality was illegal in 48 states, a handful of writers dared to tell tales about the way they lived,” says Bram. “They stuck their necks out and took a lot of abuse. But they made public what had been a dirty, criminal secret. They cleared the way for so much of what followed. Too often, gay literature is discussed as if it didn’t begin until after gay liberation arrived with the Stonewall riots. No, these writers broke the silence before gay liberation and set the stage for it.”
The book charts the course of these writers’ lives and works starting in the years following World War II. It follows them through the Eisenhower years and later as the sexual revolution and civil rights movement flourished and moves into the decadent 70s and, finally, into the era of AIDS when the catalyst for many – like Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner – was to somehow make sense of the plague that nonsensically ended the lives of their friends and peers.
The book is about risk taking on all levels. For someone like James Baldwin, finding freedom as an ex-pat in Paris inspired his most famous works about being black and gay. While for Allen Ginsberg, the beats gassed up his own countercultural approach to America. Later, Armistead Maupin would weave a rich tapestry of gay life, creating some of the most beloved characters we’ve ever known in his Tales of the City series. Bram explores each – drawing important parallels that help us understand where gay literature has come from and where it may be headed. He also addresses the rise of gay bookstores in America and their current struggles as more people look to other outlets for a sense of “community.”
“For 30 years or more, gay and lesbian bookstores were an invaluable part of our culture, giving people a place to meet as well as offering a great way for writers and readers to find each other,” explains Bram. “They guaranteed a market for gay and lesbian books. In the past 10 years, however, the institution has been affected by several things. The internet changed the way books are sold and these stores are no longer as important as they once were. A few gay bookstores managed to hold on, but the 2008 recession put many of the remaining ones out of business.”
For anyone who says gay lit is dead, they obviously haven’t read this smart, insightful study of the intellectual process that informs the lives of the artist. And that these artists happen to be gay is quintessential in understanding that of the cultural outlaw in America.
“Legacy suggests that it’s over,” says Bram, “but in fact this work is still going on. Most of the recent generation of writers are still writing, and doing first-rate work: Maupin, White, Kushner and others. The older writers are still being read and reread and even rediscovered. Just a few years ago, not one but two different movies were still made about Capote writing In Cold Blood. …Meanwhile, we see the influence of gay books and plays in popular culture, especially on television. The matter-of-fact gay presence in inclusive shows like Six Feet Under, Ugly Betty and Glee continues a tradition begun by Isherwood in Goodbye to Berlin and Maupin in Tales of the City.”
Jack Holmes & His Friend, a new novel by White, also addresses the concept of the gay as both outlaw and game changer. Set just as the cultural storm would change life in the 1960s, the novel is centered on two men: one straight and one gay. Jack Holmes (gay) and Will Wright (straight) become co-workers at a publishing company, navigating the world of arts and letters and finding ways to come to terms with their feelings for each other.
The fact that this friendship story is set at a time when many gay men sought refuge in secretive bars and in one-night-stands gives the book a certain clarity about pre-Stonewall life. White, known for drawing upon his own personal experiences to write even his novels, notably crafts Holmes as a closeted midwestern writer who – after a good deal of pain and pleasure – “finds himself” after years of living in denial about being gay. In many ways the book regurgitates much of the self-loathing that’s been the expectation of many other gay works from and set during this time period (and for good reason – life wasn’t easy for gay people) but it’s curious that White would go here after publishing several memoirs that express his own self-acceptance and gritty honesty about sex, life and love – including City Boy.
But as we anticipate the return of the influential and retro-styled TV series Mad Men, many readers may be interested in the nuances of this smart book. In the beginning, it expertly captures 1950s and 60s New York through the story of Holmes, a man who maddeningly falls in love with his straight friend in a semi-corporate and competitive world. And like Bram’s nonfiction study, the novel also follows an important cultural map through gay liberation and the sexual revolution – well into the AIDS era where a new set of fates must be confronted by both characters.
The books are parallel in many ways. Bram talks at length about White in Eminent Outlaws and White masterfully crafts characters that seem to be stitched from the same thread as many of the most famous gay figures in American literary history. Both are expert explorations into friendship and professional and sexual desires during the 20th century. And both inspire important conversations about the arts and identity in the U.S.
Last year, White also published a collection of essays Sacred Monsters that features more than 20 essays about artists and writers like Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Martin Amis and others. Not all of them are gay, of course, but White’s own gay sensibility provides a fascinating examination of the arts across both cultural geography and even craft. The subjects range from painters and musicians to fellow writers and figureheads.
At least 15 of the subjects are gay, bisexual or closeted. But even the heterosexuals he writes about – like Amis, Vladimir Nabokov and Edith Wharton – all seem to have taken an unconventional approach to sexuality. “They all wrote extensively and convincingly about passion,” says White in his preface, “and often as not they pictured it as more destructive than affirmative.”
Bram and White, Feb. 16, 7:30 p.m., Free Library, 1901 Vine Street, 215-686-5322.