Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America
For more than 25 years, Chris Bram has made the vital flux of human relationships his great subject: from the recent novel Exiles in America and its subtle tracings of marriage dynamics and the specter of prejudice, to the political tensions of Marcos-era Philippines and U.S. diplomacy, in Almost History, to the urban grit and glitter of 1970s New York City, in his debut Surprising Myself. He is perhaps most famous for his novel Father of Frankenstein, which was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film, Gods and Monsters. It also happens that his books are about the gay experience. “Gay literature” has long had a tough time having to account for itself, if for no other reason than the general public’s reluctance to read past the first word of that phrase. Nevertheless, Bram is one of (gay) literature’s best; one writer in a long line of writers who have not only artfully mined the subtle complexities of love, but also challenged the stolid social orthodoxies surrounding it. His latest book Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America tells that story. Or as Bram puts it in the very first sentence: “The gay revolution began as a literary revolution.” The book is riveting, provocative, gossipy, generous, funny, and sad. Not so bad for a cultural history. I even read it on the beach.
Scott Cheshire (Rail): First of all, I have to say, I could not put the book down. It reads very much like a novel.
Chris Bram: Well, it is a literary history, but I’m a novelist and I couldn’t help emphasizing story. Some reviewers have asked why I didn’t include x writer or y writer? I was just too busy telling a story to include everyone. It’s as simple as that.
Rail: And you acknowledge this to the reader in the introduction. That this will not be an exhaustive history, but a story with a cast of characters. Do you think of them as characters?
Bram: Definitely. And they are great characters, aren’t they? I started with Gore Vidal, and then we meet Truman Capote, and then Tennessee Williams. And we go on from there, to wherever they take us. It was fun to see who would lead me to whom, and what new characters would appear along the way.
Rail: Did your understanding of the history determine what characters you would follow, or did the characters you chose determine the direction of the story?
Bram: Both. I had most of the cast in mind before I began. But while I was working, I realized here’s a good place to add this person or that person. I sometimes found I had to add someone new to get to someone else. Christopher Isherwood is a major character in the book, yet I confess in the original proposal he wasn’t even there. But when Gore Vidal went to Hollywood, he met Isherwood. And I thought to myself, oh good, I get to add Isherwood.
Rail: And you get Hollywood.
Bram: And I get Hollywood.
Rail: Were there lots of surprises like that?
Bram: There really were. I was surprised by how many of the characters connected in ways I never expected. For instance, I had no idea that Edmund White interviewed Capote.
Rail: The sections on Edmund White were kind of thrilling for me because he is the only writer among the cast I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. But I must say there were a handful of scenes so vivid that I don’t expect I’ll ever forget them. I’m thinking now of Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams shooting skeet with JFK and Jackie. Williams watches Kennedy shoot and whispers in Vidal’s ear: “Get that ass.”
Bram: Isn’t that marvelous? Gore writes about it in one of his great essays on Williams. You know, everybody says Gore is this mean, curmudgeonly person, but he loved Tennessee and he wrote about him beautifully as a writer and as a person. Especially “Some Memories of the Glorious Bird and an Earlier Self.” And they’re really funny pieces too.
Rail: Another one of those moments for me was Gore saying goodbye to his companion, Howard Austen, as Austen is taken away on a gurney. Austen says for the first time in over 50 years—
Bram: “Kiss me.” Isn’t that amazing? Their relationship was very strange and a secret for the longest time. Gore never mentioned him. He would talk about his own sex life but he never mentioned Austen. It was when Armistead Maupin was interviewing Isherwood and they talked about Gore’s companion, and that was the first time I’d ever heard about it. I asked Armistead about it, and it turns out that was the first time it had ever been mentioned in print. And Gore himself eventually writes about that story. It was a strange relationship. Yet the two men were very important to each other.
Rail: You have a great line about their relationship.
Bram: “There are intimacies that have nothing to do with sex.”
Rail: Could you talk some about Allen Ginsberg’s attempt at “normalcy”? I found all of that fascinating and had never read about it before.
Bram: When I came across that, it shocked me. I mean, it really surprised me. After his stay in a mental hospital, he got a 9-5 job, dated girls, and decided he would no longer be gay. The biographies talk about it. Ginsberg himself talked about it. I found a prose poem in his journals with a great quote that goes: “I am shy, go out with girls, I write poetry . . . I want to get a job. Who cares?”
Another strange thing about Ginsberg was that books gave two different dates for the first reading of “Howl.” I had one date and the copy editor flagged it (Thank God for copy editors. I love copy editors.) Apparently someone else had given another date. So I went back to the library and took out every biography of Ginsberg I could find. Different books used one of two different dates. I was amazed. Here is this famous and important event and we don’t know exactly when it took place? Then I was idly Googling one day and somebody had posted the actual announcement for the reading, a photo. It was on a Friday. And I thought to myself of course it was a Friday, because it was the ’50s and even in San Francisco you couldn’t have a beatnik poetry reading with wine on a weeknight. I love the Internet for things like that.
Rail: I love the story about Ginsberg meeting Peter Orlovsky.
Bram: I find that so funny. He meets Orlovsky and falls in love with him but doesn’t want to be gay, so he starts going to this dollar-per-session psychiatrist. The psychiatrist asks him, well, what do you really want? Ginsberg says, I want to live with Peter and write poems, and I’m afraid if I don’t do that I’ll wind up all alone. And the psychiatrist says, oh, but you’re such a nice guy, you’ll always find somebody.
Rail: The book winds up becoming the story of the evolution of the amorphous attack on gays. The goal was always the same, but the reasons for the argument constantly changed. I was especially surprised to see how homophobic the so-called New York artistic and intellectual crowd was.
Bram: That was the biggest shock of all for me. I had known about certain attacks, of course, but overall they was brutal. They rarely hid their contempt. Now it’s coy and you have to read between the lines. But back then if it wasn’t considered just “nasty” subject matter, they simply called it “boring.” Critics were either angry and contemptuous or just plain bored by it all. They said this about Gore’s very first novel, The City and the Pillar. This was back in 1948 and they were already dismissing him, calling it all “old hat.”
Rail: The history shows a surprisingly ugly portrait of Philip Roth.
Bram: Well, I knew about the attack on Edward Albee, but didn’t know about the attacks on black plays. He was this nice, bookish Jewish kid from Newark who wanted to seem more cool than he was, so he would write reviews and express contempt and make fun of an Edward Albee play and how “gay” it was. This was Tiny Alice, which isn’t really gay. Or he would make some smartass remark about a James Baldwin play.
Rail: But it’s not like you demonize him.
Bram: Oh no. Roth wasn’t special in that way. He was just doing what everybody else was doing.
Rail: On my way to meet you I stopped at a drug store, and the cashier asked me if I wanted to donate to the AIDS walk. I thought to myself what a very different world we live in now.
Bram: It’s amazing how recent the epidemic was, and yet it feels so long ago. I lived through some of it, and some of my friends did. And some of my friends didn’t make it through alive. Trying to get a handle on that and tell that story, well, I sometimes found it depressing and difficult to write about.
Rail: But you’re not cynical. You note that some claim gay people have won their rights but lost their literature, but you don’t think that is true.
Bram: No, I don’t. There is plenty of good work getting made. Of course, there was a period when there was a small and guaranteed market for gay books, probably about 5,000 copies in hardcover. Sure, there was a glass ceiling, but there was a market. Publishers knew how to make a profit with that number. That’s not possible anymore, not because of the subject matter, but because the mid-list is gone. Publishing, for the most part, is only looking for the next big book, the next bestseller.
Rail: What do you think of calling it “gay literature”? or “African-American literature”? Some would call it a way of ghettoizing books, and so a bit dangerous. Or is that simply naïve?
Bram: It’s just not how the world is. People don’t read that way. And it’s dangerous only in that some people don’t want to visit other countries. I love to visit other countries when I’m reading. It’s silly to call something straight literature, but I love a good straight novel. How is it going to be different from my own experience? Like when I read the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz. I find its difference—and sameness—really exciting. It’s funny, how in theater, straight audiences will go see a gay play without batting an eye. And it’s like that with TV. But with books it’s different, maybe because book readers are a little old-fashioned.
Rail: And books are much more intimate. You actually inhabit another body.
Bram: That could be it.
Rail: TV is so different now, isn’t it? You devote some time in the book to the sitcom Will and Grace.
Bram: It’s interesting that right around the time that AIDS became a more manageable disease, we get the first successful gay sitcom, Will and Grace. Homosexuality was no longer synonymous with AIDS, and AIDS was no longer a death sentence, and being gay was suddenly a safe subject for comedy.
Rail: Which sort of suggests that maybe America is more afraid of death than gayness.
Bram: Or maybe TV networks were not so afraid of gayness, but of death. But of course there’s a great upside to this, too. I mean, there was a time in the ’80s when if you mentioned somebody was gay, it was just assumed they would die of AIDS.
Rail: What do you make of the resurgence of political anti-gay rhetoric?
Bram: It’s bizarre at this late stage in the game that there is a return of social dogmatism. The frontline has changed. The question used to be, should homosexuality be legal? Now the question is, should homosexual marriage be legal? The football is in a different part of the field.
Rail: I’m curious what your take is on the idea of a literary canon with regard to gay literature. Some critics, I’m thinking particularly of Harold Bloom, have been accused of how should I put it?
Bram: Being a gatekeeper.
Bram: Ed White has a great saying: “Canons are for people who don’t enjoy reading.” In terms of books that should or should not be read, there’s just so much good stuff to read. When I was a kid the best way to make sure I did not read a book was to assign it. But actually, I find Bloom quite inclusive. He certainly loves Tony Kushner.
Rail: In the introduction you explain why there are no lesbian writers included in the book.
Bram: Originally I was going write about women, too. But my editor said you are going to have your hands full just writing about the men. And I confessed that I felt relieved. It simplified things enormously. Also, I had no problems criticizing the men, but I would have felt less confident criticizing the women. I would wonder is this my sexism kicking in? Am I being objective? In fact, I read a lot of women and a lot of lesbians. I know the peaks and some of the valleys, but not like I know the men’s work.
Rail: And I would imagine they ran in very different social circles.
Bram: Oh yes. Another thing, many early lesbian writers, such as Patricia Highsmith and Susan Sontag, did not come out. Whereas so many of the men did.
Rail: Have you given thought to what that book would look like, one that told the history of lesbian American writers?
Bram: Terry Castle would do a terrific job. She is such a good writer and funny. She wrote that amazing piece on Susan Sontag. It was laugh out loud funny, and it really brings Sontag to life. She’d be perfect. A very good storyteller, an excellent critic, and she has a great sense of humor.
Rail: Your book is funny, too.
Bram: Many of these guys were genuinely funny. They recognized their own absurdities and those of other people. They had problems like everybody else and they could laugh at that. They led difficult lives, and had lots of problems with alcohol, with relationships. Maybe the volume is turned up a little bit, but none of their problems were strictly gay problems. They are just like the rest of us, gay and straight. But they could write like angels.
SCOTT CHESHIRE is the author of High As The Horses’ Bridles. He is the interview editor at the Tottenville Review, a co-host of The Workshop podcast, and teaches writing at the Sackett Street Writers' Workshop.