On The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara and a Few Thoughts on Whether Gay Culture Is Really Dead

14Jun08

In which The Gay Recluse files a book report and rambles on.

Recently we finished The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara by Rick Whitaker, a collection of essays about gay writers culled from the past 150 years or so of American/English literature, ranging from titans such as Melville, Wilde and Dickinson to the more obscure Carl van Vechten and Charles Henri Ford. While there’s not much logic behind who is and isn’t included, this for us was part of the appeal; the book is more about Whitaker’s interest in these particular writers as opposed to an encyclopedic survey. We were frequently impressed by Whitaker’s ability to convey his genuine appreciation for the authors included, even when we didn’t quite share his enthusiasm about a particular subject (e.g., the last chapter devolves into a discussion on “spooky magic” and “spirit worlds”). Also moving were Whitaker’s descriptions of meeting authors who subsequently died, in some cases of AIDS. This is ultimately why we would recommend reading it to anyone: you will definitely learn a few things.

But as much as we generally enjoyed Whitaker’s discussion of the authors, we were less convinced by his overarching thesis that gay culture is dead. “During the twentieth century,” he writes, “a subculture came to life — and eventually died out — that we can think of as a gay culture. By gay culture I mean all of the ideas, traditions, gestures, art and style that sprang from the resistance of gay men and women to the oppression they felt from a society that was contemptuous, fearful, and suspicious of those people who threatened the sexual ideals and fantasies of ‘normalcy’ cherished by the mainstream.”

Essentially, Whitaker sets up an inverse correlation between political “liberation” and gay culture, with the latter basically dying out as the former takes hold in our society. And on the most superficial level, who could disagree? Obviously, while there’s still plenty of homophobia and inequality under the law, these do in fact seem to be on the ebb, at least to the extent — as Whitaker points out — that gays no longer need to write “in code” or congregate in insulated urban societies as far away from the mainstream as possible. This is a rather popular viewpoint these days in political circles, with Andrew Sullivan being the most obvious proponent, lauding the death of gay culture — mostly in the form of gay book store and bar closings — as a sign of political/social progress, i.e., “We’re free and don’t need to segregate ourselves!”

As for literature, Whitaker goes on to say, “In the most recent years, gay American writing has necessarily changed in drastic ways…many of our most widely read and admired living authors are openly gay: Michael Cunningham, Dorothy Allison, David Leavitt, Blanche McCrary Boyd, Edmund White, Felice Picano, Fenton Johnson, James McCourt, Rita Mae Brown, Allan Gurganus, Craig Lucas, Mark Matous, Sarah Schulman, Eileen Myles, Terrence McNally, May Sarton, Mark Merlis, and many others. Any ‘gay novel’ written now…is situated within the mainstream, and there is every reason to believe that given good enough marketing and enthusiastic “word of mouth,” the work will reach a portion of the mainstream book-buying audience and attract some attention from the culture at large rather than exclusively from gay men and lesbians.”

While this may be true to the extent that some gay writers have achieved some degree of success, we are less optimistic. For starters, does it seem possible that any of the writers in the above list will be discussed in fifty years in the way Melville and Henry “Hot Bear” James and even Thoreau have been (and will continue to be)? We think not, and to the contrary, would say that the literary establishment — to the extent such a thing can be said to exist — has largely ignored gay writers; we have already documented our views on this and nothing about Whitaker’s book changed our mind. The stark fact remains that no gay novelist — and one writing about gay characters — has been accorded the respect or stature in the post-war literary canon as the same handful of tedious authors who are regularly held up as the best our country has to offer. Ultimately, until the gay story — particularly in the wake of AIDS — is recognized as integral to the American story, gay culture — at least in a literary manifestation — is not nearly as dead as Whitaker likes to assert. It would be more accurate to say that it has yet to be resurrected.

Which of course is to say that gay culture is not necessarily about gay bars or bookstores or singing show tunes, another tenuous (if moving, under the circumstances) assertion Whitaker makes. “There was a time, I remember, when most of us had at least one friend who would take great delight in singing in a full voice along with the original cast soundtrack of Hello, Dolly! or The Girl Who Came To Supper. Most of those friends are gone now, at least mine are, and it’s as if they took gay culture with them when they left us.” Really? We’re not so sure about that. Rather, it seems to us that this is one aspect of gay culture that was obviously decimated in the generation described by Whitaker, but which does not preclude another — and in our view, more important, at least in terms of literature — aspect of gay culture from being recognized — and one that will never die — i.e., the need to turn away from the mainstream, and ultimately life itself. Whitaker almost seems to grasp this when he writes, “All the writers I’ve briefly discussed here have, I believe it’s fair to say, been haunted to some degree by the feeling that they were in some sense or another in exile and apart not only from the masses of people in the world but even from those to whom they were closest and most intimate.”

Obviously, being gay is not the only avenue by which one can arrive at such a state of exile, but the fact remains that it is a very good route, and will continue to be so, particularly since it offers the added benefit of bringing into relief the “unnatural” — i.e., non-reproductive — nature of romantic love, which in turn gives so many of us such an appreciation for the artificial (i.e., the theatrical and ultimately, the city itself) as well as — ultimately — a keen understanding of the futility of life. Beyond the above quote, this kind of pessimism — in the philosophic (Schopenhauer!) sense of the word — is barely touched upon by Whitaker, who instead falls back on platitudes about individuality: “The meaning of life, it seems to me, must be the result, to some extent, of each of us being an individual distinct from every other person.” Which of course — again speaking politically — is one step removed from the f-word — freedom! — and we know where that leads.

For us, by contrast, the meaning of life lies in the fact that we are all — without exception — chained to it while it lasts, and so — for those of us who care to dwell on this most unpleasant of truths — leaves us with at most a few moments of relief and beauty (and comprehension) when and where we can. This to us is the key to understanding why gay writers once ruled the literary canon, and would continue to do so but for the fact that we are living in an era marked by a virulent optimism, which when combined with the deep strains of homophobia in our society has crushed gay — by which we mean American — literature into the insipid and superficial works that have long garnered the most praise, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.

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2 Responses to “On The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara and a Few Thoughts on Whether Gay Culture Is Really Dead”

  1. “The stark fact remains that no gay novelist — and one writing about gay characters — has been accorded the respect or stature in the post-war literary canon as the same handful of tedious authors who are regularly held up as the best our country has to offer.”

    I think this is a little overstated- the gay voice has flourished in a number of post-war literary genres: Tony Kushner, Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, William S. Burroughs(hilarious side-note: his aged and former boyfriend/partner/secretary can still be seen cruising for college boys in downtown Lawrence…if only I had the star-fucking instinct…), and Robert Duncan. These authors are canonical in every sense of the word- completely vital to an understanding of post-war American literature and culture and recognized as such by the academy(Even The Most Evil Man In The World says Kushner is one for the ages).

    In 1800, the number of novels published in Britain exceeded the number of volumes of poetry for the first time. Everyone freaked out! J.S. Mill wrote:

    ” Passing now from childhood, and from the childhood of society, to the grown-up men and women of this most grown-up and unchild-like age, the minds and hearts of greatest depth and elevation are commonly those which take greatest delight in poetry: the shallowest and emptiest, on the contrary, are, at all events, not those least addicted to novel-reading. ”

    Pwned, 19th century novel readers!

    I think a similar tectonic cultural shift is taking place today and people are freaking out, Mill-style. Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize speech:

    “How are we, our minds, going to change with the new internet, which has seduced a whole generation into its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging, etc.”

    For better or for worse, the pulse of 21st century America isn’t going to be measured by the novel. We, as watchdogs/thinking men/commentators(la di da!), should look for the gay voice in a number of new creative genres- film, blogs(ahem), etc., because these are increasingly culturally powerful and valid. How many people under 30 read novels for pleasure? Very few(and virtually no one under 25). How many people watch movies or read blogs for entertainment? Many!

    Maybe the gay voice is absent from novels because American culture is moving past them?

  2. Thanks for reading/commenting, Genghis! I basically agree with you to a certain extent on many fronts, but I still love the novel and therefore am unwilling to let it go. Of the writers you list, I wouldn’t consider any of them great novelists (although Vidal and Baldwin are certainly great thinkers…) in the way Melville and James were (and the way Roth, Updike, Bellow, McCarthy, Pynchon, Delillo, Morrison are regularly held up to be now, with only the latter three/four deserving it in my opinion; all are obvs straight). And just because movies (and blogs?) matter more doesn’t mean that books don’t matter at all, obvsly. What I’m really talking about is a mainstream (i.e., NYT) recognition that the gay story is just as important to the American experience as the African-American story (most obvsly) and other “outsider” stories, which has yet to be the case, e.g., I can never believe that Dancer from the Dance is not regularly listed as a top-ten novel and I’ve never seen it on any list (not that I’m into lists, but you get the idea.) Every year it seems that there’s another hot-shit twenty-something writer (or two) — e.g., Keith Gessen and Company as of late — and when’s the last time one of them was gay? Not JSFoer, not Franzen, not Moody…basically we have Alan Hollinghurst in the UK and Michael Cunningham here, but he’s kind of faded in the past few years. Ultimately, I think AIDS destroyed publishing from both insider/worker (as in agents, editors, writers) and reader perspectives, and it’s something that I think deserves more attention. Which is why I probably tend to overstate the case a bit! Ok, rambling a bit now…off to bed.


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