Gay Memory

Edmund White. The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide. Volume 19, Issue 6. Nov/Dec 2012.

When I was a kid, I was always puzzled by those passages in the Bible that simply presented genealogies of otherwise unknown people, all those series of begats that seemed so mysterious and unnecessary. But after all I’ve lived through in the last fifteen years I understand the imperative need to record names, to keep lists of the dead, to inscribe something about them on a quilt or on the page or on a gravestone. I’ve come to see that those lists of names, which I used to skip over in the Old Testament and in Homer, far from being some annoying caprice on the part of those first authors (themselves unnamed, paradoxically), are the essence of literature.

We are all here to do honor to the memory of our friends. A few of them were writers, even fewer published; but most of them, like people everywhere, even the most powerful, are in danger of being swallowed up by oblivion unless we do something to name them, to record their quirks, even their faults, cull a bit of their wisdom, memorialize their pain, do justice to their struggle, capture their moments of bliss.

I suppose since most gay people were not brought up by gay families, and most gay families do not bring up queer children, there is very little of the usual handing down of traditions from mother to child, from grandfather to granddaughter. Worse, since so much of gay socializing is still based on the mating game, there is less inter-generational contact in our world than there is in theirs. When I was teaching at Brown in 1990 and ’91, for instance, most of my lesbian and gay students had never before met and talked with an older gay person. In Paris, where I live now, I’m turned away from most gay bars for being too old.

Of course I realize that there are projects all over the country for preserving the archives of gay men who have died from AIDS. I know that in smaller towns gays and lesbians of all ages socialize with one another—partly out of necessity, perhaps, since there’s often only one bar in town, but eventually out of genuine enthusiasm, in most cases. I also know that the lesbian community tends to be a lot less ageist than the gay male community. Nevertheless, I insist that even if normal lines of communication were open between the generations, AIDS has presented us with a major rupture in that transmission, one that we writers are called upon to compensate for.

Because so many men of my generation are dead, I frequently talk to guys in their twenties and thirties who ask me about what Brad Gooch was referring to with the title of his new novel, The Golden Age of Promiscuity, which is also a book about the much-maligned Robert Mapplethorpe and is an effort to defend him against the trivializing and demonizing that he underwent in the recent Patricia Morrisroe biography [Mapplethorpe: A Biography, 1995]. People want to know not only about the sexual spree of the 1970’s, say, but also about the lesbian and gay communes of that decade, or the beginning of lesbian and gay publishing, or the representation of queers in the movies. More subtly, they want to untangle the exact relationship that obtained back then between feminism and gay liberation, or between black liberation and gay liberation. Or they want to know about the successful fight in the early 1970’s to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Or they want to find out about the early days of the Gay Academic Union.

Fortunately, we are living through a vigorous period in the production of serious and adventurous lesbian and gay history writing. The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in New York, headed by one of the great gay historians, Martin Duberman; Joan Nestle’s Lesbian Herstory Archives; the creation of a new lesbian and gay study center in San Francisco, the first ever in a public library, which will house the papers of Randy Shuts and Harvey Milk; the important collection of contemporary lesbian and gay manuscripts being assembled at Yale, where the late, much lamented historian John Boswell taught and wrote with such passion and brilliance about gays in the Middle Ages; the continuing achievements of the pioneer gay historian Jonathan Katz, who has never been affiliated with an institution and who has supported himself with odd jobs all these years as he has written his volumes of gay American history and his recent book on “the invention of heterosexuality”—these are just a few of the names that spring to mind. The late Randy Shuts did studies that have already become the history of gays in the military, as did Marianne Humphries and Allan Bérubé. George Chauncey produced a fascinating history of “Gay New York” as it was at the beginning of the [20th] century. Richard Plant has written about gays in the concentration camps.

And then there are all the biographies of lesbian and gay artists, thinkers, doers: books that not only depict the homosexual life of earlier periods but also give us heroes and heroines or even villainsin any event populate the past with familiar faces where before there had been nothing but blank picture frames. There have been recent biographies of Djuna Barnes, for instance, and Willa Cather and Marguerite Yourcenar and Mary Renault. In the last two years there have been four new biographies of Thomas Mann. I just read Tony Heilbut’s excellent biography of Mann, in which he talks openly about Mann’s largely unconsummated homosexuality and the real-life background for Death in Venice.

If I mention my own biography of Jean Genet, I do so only because it is the one I know the best. To me, there was nothing more fascinating than tracing out the evolution of Genet’s attitude towards homosexuality, for instance, from his youthful shame and defiance in the 1930’s and his total lack of solidarity with other gay men, to the point that he encouraged fellow thieves to rob and beat up gay men- to the very different attitude he assumed in the 1970’s, when he concluded that homosexuality could predispose someone towards revolutionary politics. He was sufficiently irritated by the Black Panthers’ repeated references to their white male enemies (especially Nixon) as “faggots” or “punks” that he made strong objections, which caused his ally, Panther leader Huey Newton, to issue his ground-breaking essay, “The Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements, August 15, 1970.” Newton said that “through reading and through my life experience and observations” he knew “that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in our society.” Newton called for the freedom for each person “to use his body in whatever way he wants.” He said that although some homosexuals were not revolutionary, others were: “maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary. When we have revolutionary conferences, rallies and demonstrations, there should be full participation of the gay liberation movement and the women’s liberation movement.” I can remember when Newton issued that statement, but until I did research for my biography I had no idea that Genet had influenced Newton’s thinking.

What I’m trying to suggest is that since there is little direct, inter-generational oral transmission of gay culture, we writers whether we are poets or novelists or historians or biographers or sociologists- have a crucial mission to keep our culture alive, especially since AIDS has wiped out most of the male members of a key generation, the very Stonewall generation that legitimized the idea of such a culture in the first place. And, of course, I’m also acknowledging that, since Stonewall, an immense part of the past has been recovered and brought to light, a past that had never been known at all to earlier generations because few people were researching queer history and no one was publishing it. I’m thinking of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, for instance, of Dover’s Greek Homosexuality.

More narrowly, I want to discuss our need to remember and celebrate the earlier writers who have influenced us. Acknowledging our debt to them does credit to them, but also to us, since tracing out our spiritual heritage gives us a weight, a tradition, a resonance that all alone we do not possess. I think it must help a visionary, experimental lesbian novelist like Carole Maso to know that she is part of a tradition of like-minded women such as Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and the poet Elizabeth Bishop, especially in a period as vulgarly commercial and unadventurous as our own. I know that Alan Hollinghurst is quick to honor his descent from such writers as Ronald Firbank and E. M. Forster. Before Hollinghurst published The Swimming Pool Library, serious gay male fiction of great artistry had almost died out in England; luckily Hollinghurst could look back to the 1910’s and 20’s and take up where Firbank’s Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli and Forster’s gay stories and Maurice left off. Certainly the pleasure for me of editing The Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction was to bring to readers works such as Denton Welch’s story “When I was Thirteen” and Henry James’ “The Pupil,” or the love scene from James Baldwin’s Just Above my Head- fiction that either had never been read in a gay context or that had mysteriously remained unknown.

But for me the most important gay writer of the past has always been Christopher Isherwood, whom I had the chance to meet in the late 1970’s and who became my friend in the early 1980’s. I was lovers in 1978 with Christopher Cox, another member of my writers’ group, the Violet Quill, and he was working for the famous composer and musical critic, Virgil Thomson, who was already up in his eighties at that point. Anyway, Virgil had lived in France for fifty years and was a great cook and had written two operas with Gertrude Stein and seemed to know everyone. When Isherwood came to New York with his lover, the much younger American artist Don Bachardy, Virgil naturally invited them to dinner—and somehow Chris and I were also invited.

Isherwood was as inspiring as a man as he was as a writer. So many writers I’ve met I’ve liked- in fact I agree with Proust that writers are the best company- but most of them don’t resemble their writing very closely. But Isherwood had the same graceful sense of humor linked to the same unvarnished truth telling that I’d always admired in his writing. His response to flattery, for instance, was a great roar of laughter; there was not a pretentious bone in his body. When I had been a teenager and in my early twenties, there were very few gay books that crossed my path. I now know of course that there were quite a few important gay books in print, including Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and the novels of John Home Burnes, but the only ones I came across were the journals of André Gide and his memoir, If It Die, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, John Rechy’s City of Night, which I read in installments in little magazines as it was coming out, and Isherwood’s groundbreaking novel, A Single Man.

What was remarkable about Isherwood’s book was that, unlike Rechy’s or Jean Genet’s fiction, it wasn’t about marginal people—hustlers, pimps, thieves—but rather about an Englishman, a professor living in Los Angeles whose lover has recently died and who seeks solace with another expatriate, an Englishwoman, who lives nearby. There is no effort to apologize for homosexuality or to place it in a medical context, no plea for compassion from the heterosexual reader, no suggestion that a gay man’s life is more or less rewarding than that of his heterosexual colleagues and neighbors. The protagonist has his problems, including a nagging feeling that when he drives his car or teaches his classes he’s a robot, but these problems are not linked to his condition as a homosexual.

If I mention this novel of the early 1960’s now, thirty years later, I do so because I wish to remember Isherwood’s contribution. Not only did he write gay fiction and memoirs of an extreme lucidity and eloquence, but he also shed before anyone else the excess baggage of shame, psychoanalysis, and religion. How he managed to be so many steps ahead of everyone else is the question, but I would hazard that he must have been affected by two factors: his contact with the first gay liberation movement in Berlin in the 1920’s, the movement of Magnus Hirschfeld that was wiped out by the Nazis; and his later contact with the homophile culture that sprang up in southern California after the war, the period of ONE magazine, the burgeoning gay world that had been born during the war and that was nurtured by beach hedonism. To be sure, Isherwood did not admit in print that he himself was gay until his 1970 memoir about his parents, Kathleen and Frank, but he had already written superb gay fiction in such books as Down There on a Visit, The World in the Evening, and A Meeting by the River, as well as his masterpiece, A Single Man.

Before I met Isherwood I had been writing very differently. I can see my own work as a gradual and uneven movement away from a totally imagined kind of writing with an emphasis on a strict formal organization and an invented content and an ironic tone, toward an autobiographical fiction that generates its sparks, if it does, through its tone of veracity and sincerity and its conformity to the natural trajectory of a life, my life. Nabokov had been my first great influence, and my first two novels, Forgetting Elena and Nocturnes for the King of Naples, were written under his spell. Elena is a very coded novel, but already in Nocturnes there was some homosexual content, partially autobiographical but largely wish-fulfillment.

Then I met Isherwood and I wrote a nonfiction book, States of Desire: Travels in Gay America. In it, I began to experiment with a technique that Isherwood had pioneered- a gradual selfdisclosure, a flirtatious unveiling of the self, but in my case I was coy not because I was afraid of complete candor but because I was searching for a device that would make the reader want to continue reading what was necessarily an episodic, fragmented travelogue. What Isherwood responded to in this book, however, was its political content, which he emphasized in his very generous blurb. The year was 1 980 and we’d just lived through the Anita Bryant days; Isherwood was supremely aware of the full extent of religious bigotry and homophobia in the United States and he knew just how lethal these sentiments could be.

I suppose all my work could be seen as existing in a dialectical relationship between Nabokov and Isherwood, and the relationship has never been a simple one. Nabokov cannot be pegged as an irresponsible aesthete; his brother was gay and died in the Nazi camps, and his wife was Jewish, which caused the Nabokovs to flee Germany for France and eventually the States. His hatred of fascism is evident in Bend Sinister, Invitation to a Beheading, in many short stories, and in the scornful details about bullies and despots in all of his postwar work. Nor can Isherwood be read as merely a political activist; he was at least as influenced by quietist Vedanta philosophy as by progressive politics, and his work was sober and reserved in the English tradition of E. M. Forster. Moreover, at a certain moment I felt Isherwood’s understatement and control were linked to an internalized homophobia, a desire to appear masculine in the stiff-upper-lip English fashion.

Fifteen years ago, when I was still making pronouncements about the gay sensibility, I declared that the true gay style is elaborate, even overwrought and highly metaphorical. My theory was that a chaste style like Hemingway’s (or in our day Raymond Carver’s) that spells nothing out and leaves everything up to the reader’s interpretation is a style appropriate only to the dominant culture; the reader can only draw the conclusions he or she has already learned, and those conclusions are necessarily conservative or at least familiar. An elaborate style that spells everything out like Proust’s or that re-imagines everything through extended metaphors like Genet’s is appropriate to queers, since they want the reader to think new thoughts and feel her or his way into entirely new moral and psychological sympathies.

But a lot has happened in the last fifteen years. Gay and lesbian life has been mainstreamed and even our values have become less separatist; I suppose the fact that gay marriage and adoption by lesbians and gay have become the current hot issues shows the full extent of our real or attempted integration. Moreover, the very growth of gay culture- an expansion that can be sampled by looking at the growth of the gay bibliography in any bookstore or by the success of Out Write, for instance- this growth means that our literature can explain less, can lower its voice, can speak casually.

At least it can speak casually to the converted, to an audience that is already gay or sympathetic. Genre fiction, humorous fiction, small-press fiction and nonfiction can address themselves to sophisticated lesbian and gay readers without seducing or explaining. Most of the year I live in France, and if a recent visit to the States has taught me anything, it’s that homophobia is still raging in the U.S. I was appalled to discover how homosexual marriage and the possibility that Hawaii might legalize it have become a political football for the Christian Right. On C-Span at the time of the Iowa Caucus I watched one Republican candidate after another enter a church during an anti-gay rally and publicly sign a pledge to protect heterosexual marriage and family values against the satanic specter of homosexual marriage. One speaker even dug up a 1972 radical gay text that had called for multiple gay marriages! Horrors! Every time the word lifestyle was uttered in ominous tones, I knew exactly who was being evoked.

When I think of launching a mainstream lesbian or gay novel before such a nation, I remind myself that every effect must be calculated or at least conscious. I at least certainly intend to make my work as honest and in-their-face as it’s been since I first published The Joy of Gay Sex in 1976. 1 do not subscribe to the conservative, assimilationist, low-profile principles of books such as A Place at the Table or Virtually Normal. I do not want to melt into the crowd, because I know the crowd wants to lynch us. I do not want to disassociate the gay movement from drag queens and leather boys, partly because I don’t want to be one of those dull normals- I identify too closely with drags and once used to be a leather boy -but mainly because I know that bigoted straights hate a middle-class gay man or woman much more than they hate a drag queen. Straight people made La Cage Aux Folles a huge hit; straight people are worked up to a frenzy about homosexual marriage. Because middle-class gay life is more objectionable to straights than is marginal lesbian and gay life, a book such as Isherwood’s A Single Man will always be more disturbing to straight readers than Our Lady of the Flowers. I am calling for defiance, for self-assertion, but I want every lesbian and gay author to be aware of the consequences and to know that we’re playing a dangerous games with high stakes.

My excitement has carried me far from my subject, which is memory. I suppose I was led into this political excursus inevitably by the memory of Isherwood, who even now, ten years after his death, is my model, my interlocutor, my sparring partner. But if I think about my artistic and personal debts, I must not forget my contemporaries either, especially the members of the Violet Quill. The group itself met less than a dozen times in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, but our informal, friendly contacts preceded the club by many years (Robert Ferro and Andrew Holleran were college friends in the 1960’s; George Whitmore and I met at a reading in the mid-70’s and were briefly lovers; Ferro and Michael Grumley were lovers, as were Chris Cox and I), and even today I remain in close contact with Felice Picaño and Holleran, the only other members who are still alive.

This group has been resented and attacked by other gay writers partly because of its very success. What’s important to remember is that, before 1978, the modern gay literary movement scarcely existed. A few nonfiction books, such as Dennis Altman’s The Homosexualization of America (1982), C. A. Tripp’s The Homosexual Matrix (1975), and Don Teal’s The Gay Militants ( 1 97 1 ), had been published, as well as that landmark feminist work, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (1970); but gay male fiction became a recognizable movement only in 1978 with the publication of Larry Kramer’s Faggots, Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, and my own Nocturne for the King of Naples, the least noticed of the three and the most modest seller. (On the West Coast the first volume of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City and Paul Monette’s Taking Care of Mrs. Carroll were published in the same year). Suddenly American critics and readers were being asked to take notice of gay male fiction that wasn’t apologetic, that showed (at least in Kramer, Maupin, and Holleran’s books) not just a gay man or a gay couple but a whole gay population with its bars, its dialect, its folkways, and its watering places. Kramer was even confident enough to criticize the gay community for its promiscuity rather than apologize, as earlier books had done, for our very existence.

Soon Ferro, in The Family of Max Desir and Second Son, was able to take up the theme of the gay son’s fight to be accepted on his own terms, with his male lover by his side, by his conservative Italian- American family. Grumley in a posthumous novel, Life Drawing, broached the delicate subject of black and white men together. Chris Cox, who became an editor at Ballantine, published many gay writers, including the haunting fairy tales written by Patrick Merla, for many years the editor of The New York Native. Our friend Vito Russo read to us at one of our meetings excerpts from the book he was writing, The Celluloid Closet, about the depiction of lesbians and gays in the movies. Our friend, the editor Michael Denneny, brought out an oral history of a contemporary gay love affair called Lovers. George Whitmore was one of the first journalists to give real-life accounts of the first PWA’s before he himself died of AIDS. Now Picaño has given us a sweeping epic about the 1970’s and 80’s before and after the onset of AIDS in his novel Like People in History. I’ve just read Holleran’s new novel [The Beauty of Men, 1996], which is a dark, powerful account of the loneliness and isolation of a survivor, someone who has left New York, outlived his friends and parents, and now must make do with radically diminished expectations.

I hope this brief overview of the work of the Violet Quill members will dispel the notion that all we could think about was Fire Island and tricking; if that is the image we projected, the stigma is due to Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, which is clearly the most beautiful gay novel of our time and the one most likely to be read a hundred years from now. Our enemies suggest that we represented an arrogant New York hegemony, but we just happened to live in New York; that we crowded our rivals out of the field, but the field didn’t exist before we came along; that we used our cunning and power-mongering and money to get where we got, but I was a humble ghost-writer writing college textbooks, Whitmore was a secretary, Ferro and Grumley were very poor, Picaño tells me he is still just hanging on by a thread, and most of us were in our late thirties before we had even a first small taste of success.

I’m certainly not complaining, since I’m grateful that I’ve been able to live by my pen, even if I have to flesh out my income with journalism assignments and teaching. I know how privileged I am. I’m sure all of us in the Violet Quill are grateful that we were able to make our mark; so many writers of our generation were struck down by AIDS before they could get a book published or find their voice. If you think of the great writers in history, we would remember almost none of them if they’d died before age forty, yet that has been the fate of so many gay writers of our time, of my generation and younger.

Which returns me to my theme of memory. The other day I was at a party for Salman Rushdie and there I was introduced to the parents of a student of mine at Brown who died two years ago from AIDS while he was still in his twenties. His name was John Russell, and he left behind a marvelous play, Stupid Kids, that will finally be put on next year in New York. As everyone else at the party was gawking at Rushdie or calculating the risk they were running by being in the same room with him, the Russells and I were oblivious to our surroundings. We were weeping and hanging on to each other and smiling because we knew that John’s work would have its moment in the sun, even if it was just the brief neon sun of a New York theatrical season.