Christopher Bram’s “Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America” (Hachette Book Group) may well be the most important book published in 2012; not just for gay readers, but for mainstream Americans who will learn about literary pioneers who withstood having their work unfairly criticized, their careers jeopardized and their reputations ruined for the sake of pursuing their art.
Starting in the 1950s, Bram chronicles how gay male authors had the courage to broach the subject of homosexuality in their works at a time when acts of love between two men were still considered a crime in almost every American state. Sending something with a gay theme through the U.S. mail could have gotten someone arrested. Publishers were reluctant to market any book about gay relationships for fear of being dragged into court for obscenity. And, words like “deviant,” “pervert,” “faggot” and “queer” were mostly used to describe homosexuals. Gayness was seen as something to be cured; it was still considered a mental illness by the psychiatric profession.
Gay men of a certain age may remember going to a public library as a teenager or young man to find books with characters that resonated with them and finding slim pickin’s on the shelves. In fact, Bram points out that when the first gay bookstore opened in New York — this was 1967, mind you — the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop sold only 25 titles, which is a far cry from the countless books available today that are either written by LGBT authors or have LGBT characters.
Bram does with literature what Vito Russo did with film in his excellent book/documentary “The Celluloid Closet.” He traces the history of gay content in American books, beginning with the publication of Truman Capote’s “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” and Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” in the late 1940s.
The author selects ground-breaking novels, essays, plays, screenplays and other forms of literature written by gay men and provides back stories, including personal biographical information about the writers, dollops of gossip, critiques of their work at the time and his own contemporary critiques of many that are now considered classics.
His book evokes anger at the way these works were attacked by peers simply because they were written by gay men or included gay themes. Homophobic reviewers lashed out at them, even as the public accepted masterpieces by such writers as Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. Even as late as 1971, when E. M Forester’s “Maurice” (written in 1913) was published posthumously because he was afraid it would ruin his legacy if printed while he was alive, the dead author still didn’t escape the pejorative judgment of straight writers.
“They were disappointed to learn their hero was a homosexual or they used the fact to claim he’d never been a major writer anyway,” Bram writes about Forester’s critics of the love story between two men.
In many ways, Bram tries to correct the malevolent treatment of these authors (most notably by heterosexual writers like Philip Roth, Stanley Kauffmann and William F. Buckley) with his own honest reviews of their works. He points out the pitfalls of their fiction as well as elevating it with high praise when it is deserved. Moreover, he gives interesting insight to their lives at the time their various works were published, concentrating on their friendships, relationships, rivalries, spirituality and other influences.
Thus, the reader learns more about great men of letters like James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood, Allen Ginsberg, W. H. Auden, Mart Crowley, Frank O’Hara and James Merrill, as well as post-Stonewall successors such as Armistead Maupin, Edmund White and Andrew Holleran.
Even into the late ’70s, when singer Anita Bryant led a Save Our Children crusade against gays, writers still put themselves and their careers at risk by acknowledging their sexual orientation.
“Most straight people, and many gay people, especially those who came of age more recently, don’t understand how momentous and difficult coming out was to men and women of this generation,” Bram writes.
In the ’80s, when writers such as Larry Kramer and Tony Kushner began reacting to the AIDS crisis, the disease seemed to make it permissible, once again, to demonize gay writers.
According to Bram, critic John Simon from New York magazine was overheard to say, “Don’t you sometimes wish that all the faggots in the theater…would get AIDS and die and we’d be rid of them, and we could go on from there.”
Himself a successful, contemporary, gay author, Bram (“The Father of Frankenstein,” “The Notorious Dr. August: His Real Life and Crimes”) is the perfect writer to offer context to the lives and works of the masters who paved the way for him. Young gay men should read this book to understand what these artists endured so that future generations could have the right to express themselves freely; and older gay men should read it to gain a new perspective with which to reread some of their favorite novels, plays and poems, as well as to discover new titles to add to their “must read” lists.
First published by Desert Outlook.