On the Suffocation of the Gay Voice in American Literature


In reading great works of literature, we are sometimes struck by the presence of what could be termed a “gay voice.” It is a voice that resonates with perspective of the sexually-oriented “outsider,” so that we come away with an understanding (and it does not have arrive by way of a literal representation) that “heterosexuality” is, like certain governmental regimes, the subject of some dissonance, if not revolt. Further, it is typically a voice that conveys an ambivalence for the present, a fundamental pessimism (in the philosophical sense) with regard to life, and an understanding that only the most obsessively detailed examination of the past can bring us any sense of reconciliation with a present in which we so obviously do not belong, or at least are not wanted by the more established and powerful elements of society. Though many writers can be said to possess such a voice to greater or lesser degrees, nobody epitomizes the gay voice more than Marcel Proust, although Thomas Mann and Virginia Woolf are also heroic examples from the 20th century.

With this in mind, we would like to ask why no such equivalent master can be said to exist in 20th-century American literature, at least by any popular reckoning. To wit: perhaps you remember last year when The Times Book Review sent out surveys to — in the words of critic A.O. Scott – “a couple of hundred prominent writers, critics, editors and other literary sages, asking them to please identify ‘the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years.’” Topping the list was Toni Morrison’s Beloved, followed by works of Don Delillo (Libra, White Noise) and Cormac McCarthy, and then filled out by the usual suspects such as Updike and Roth, along with a few more obscure volumes (none of which were even remotely gay; not even Michael Cunningham – a writer who comes closest to meeting the parameters we set out above — received a passing mention).

What’s interesting about Scott’s 3849-word (!) essay, however, is that as he progresses back in time to examine trends and influences, the gay voice becomes more prevalent (not that he ever acknowledges it; Scott is much like his colleague Edward Rothstein in the respect that “gayness” never seems to matter to him). Thus in the post-war period, only Naked Lunch (William S. Burroughs) is mentioned as a book of importance, while in the pre-war period Willa Cather is listed. Most impressively, however, of the four 19th-century writers he discusses – Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain – two of them (Hawthorne and Melville) are clear masters of the gay voice.

Not, again, that Scott discusses any of this in gay terms; his attention is focused on the question of race, as if it is the only story worth telling: “It is worth remarking,” he writes, “that the winner of the 1965 Book Week poll, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, arose from a similar impulse to bring the historical experience of black Americans, and the expressive traditions this experience had produced, into the mainstream of American literature. Or, rather, to reveal that it had been there all along, and that race, far from being a special or marginal concern, was a central facet of the American story. On the evidence of Ellison’s and Morrison’s work, it is also a part of the story that defies the tenets of realism, or at least demands that they be combined with elements of allegory, folk tale, Gothic and romance.”

While we are not at all inclined to disagree with Scott’s analysis with regard to Toni Morrison, we are left wondering why he would not mention a similar impulse on the part of gay Americans, particularly when – given writers such as Melville, Hawthorne, and (above all) Henry James – it was a tradition that already existed in the American literary canon! Shouldn’t its absence constantly beg the question of what happened? Supposedly Scott is writing a book about the post-war American novel; we can only hope that he will redeem himself with an honest appraisal of what has been lost in our literary tradition, as well as what has been gained.

Another more recent example underscores the point; just last week in a profile of Hungarian writer Peter Nadas, Times critic Michael Kimmelman tells us that Nadas’ 1986 work The Book of Memories invited comparisons to Proust and Mann and was proclaimed by Susan Sontag to be “the greatest novel written in our time, and one of the great books of the century.” It is a work, Kimmelman explains, that deals “eloquently with the obligations and moral conundrums of memory, private and collective.” All well and good, except that Kimmelman does not once refer to the gay tradition in which Nadas’ book must be located if you’re going to compare it to Proust and Mann. He does not mention that the protagonist of Nadas’ work is – if not “gay” — obsessively in love with another man, or that his political dissonance is shared by a sexual one. Instead (like Scott in this respect) Kimmelman frames the issue of Nadas’ voice exclusively in political terms, i.e., the author’s youth in Hungary under a Soviet-installed regime. He even goes so far as to quote the author when he (i.e., Nadas) posits whether an American (presumably living under a less politically oppressive regime) could ever understand “how deformed the thoughts and actions of someone can become who for years has used their mother tongue for hiding thoughts rather than for expressing them? How meaning slips around in the shadow of words, hissing through the gaps in their definitions?” Has there ever been a clearer enunciation of what it means to be gay in this country? Yet it is not ever acknowledged as such by Kimmelman, who would rather attribute the lack of any American contemporary to Nadas as a function of “American amnesia.”

We are here to tell Kimmelman that it has nothing to do with amnesia, but with a concerted, institutionalized homophobia that has endured for the better part of five centuries and which most recently has been exacerbated by the death of however many tens of thousands of gay men in the United States, countless numbers of whom populated the ranks of the publishing industry, not only as writers, but as agents and editors. These are the men who might have fought (against both homophobia and the more capitalistic pressures that have always been opposed to literary fiction) for a new Proust or James (or for that matter, a Nadas), but whose deaths left a vacuum still filled by those who, by definition, are less sympathetic to the gay voice. Is it any wonder, then, that of the new generation of American literary talents – Franzen, Chabon, Lethem, Eugenides, Sebold – not one can be said to have a gay voice? Or that the biggest-selling literary works about gay men in recent years were written by women (Annie Proulx, Julia Glass)? To attribute this diseased state of affairs to “amnesia” is not only insulting to those of us who understand the ugly and tragic truth, but it perpetuates the myth that the gay voice is something relatively new in the literary canon, dating only to the slender “coming-out” novels of the fifties and sixties, and a justification for its current status as a fringe element of literary fiction or – worst of all – a form of genre fiction.

The truth is in our hands: we, too, have a history of oppression and a corresponding literary tradition that should be taught in the schools to ensure that it will be taken up by future writers and poets! We already have our Toni Morrison, and his name is Henry James and Herman Melville! It is even the criminally marginalized James Purdy, Andrew Holleran and Samuel Delaney! To fight for our civil rights is one thing, but it is equally important to fight for our literary voice in a culture that belongs to us as much as anyone else; our stories are here within us, we shouldn’t have to beg to have them recognized, or apologize to have them told.

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