Eminent Outlaws: the Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram

This was absolutely fantastic. I stayed up until three in the morning reading this, which okay, a lot of that was insomnia, but it was also an incredibly compelling literary history. I’ve been talking about it to everyone I know, and added what seems like dozens of things to my reading list.

The introduction does recognize the need for a similar project on lesbian writers, but Bram feels that it would widen the scope of this book too far. I need that book in my life, but I also agree that the focus works here. Many of these writers were moving in the same circles, gossiping and influencing each other’s work.

This book covered a lot of canonically writers that I knew very little about. I had never read or thought much about Gore Vidal before this book. I’ve seen some of Tennesse William’s work, but hadn’t studied him. I’m the sort of English major nerd who likes to know things about Big Important writers, even if they aren’t necessarily writers I care about.

The biographical details, including the more gossipy parts, were very enjoyable. There’s something fascinating about Vidal and Truman Capote, two important intellectuals in their time, feuding and being petty about each other. It’s a very humanizing history. It covers their works and influence, but also their romances and relationships with the media. The earliest generation considered here had a very different relationship with the mainstream in a time when it was less acceptable to be openly gay and when public intellectuals meant a lot more. The transition from this to writers who were more open and political about their sexuality is very interesting and well explored here.

In something like this there are always going to be things that get left out. There’s one sentence about Samuel Delany, who’s a fantastic and influential writer, as well as one of my personal favorites. As a part of new wave science fiction Delaney expanded the style of writing that was found in sci-fi, doing something very literary and beautiful. Thomas M. Disch goes unmentioned. I’m used to sci-fi being ignored by more ~literary~ endeavors, but it sucks.

I also don’t know if I’m content with what it makes the Beats. While Ginsberg is an important figure, and obviously gay, the rest of them are just… I don’t know? The vague queerness of Burroughs and Kerouac is a bad fit for a book about gay writers that I don’t remember ever bringing up the idea of bisexuality. This kind of not-straight sexuality is worth exploring; I understand how doesn’t fit neatly in a history of gay writers, but I don’t want to see it erased.

I’m sure other readers would pick up on other omissions. A history that doesn’t leave anyone out is an impossible undertaking. This is just what I was sad find missing.

It was a joy to walk through books I had read and enjoyed, and be reminded of biographies of authors that I used to know. It had been years since I read Christopher Isherwood for school, and I had forgotten that I wanted to read more by him. I remembered how much I love Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which is simply one of the most joyous beautiful lively literary adventures I’ve ever encountered. The next book I read after this was Maupin’s The Night Listener, which absolutely blew me away. I spent a couple weeks last summer reading Edmund White, and hadn’t thought of him much since. I got to think about how great The Normal Heart is. The Normal Heart is so great guys. It might be the only play that got to me when I just read it, where it was just me and the book and my imagination, not seeing it on stage or screen. This book got me really excited to read other books, and plays, and even some poetry.

If you’re into gay history, or literary history, or are looking to add to your to-read list this is a great thing to check out. It’s a really good resource, and can definitely see coming back to it for academic reasons, but it’s also a very enjoyable cultural history.

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