Eminent Outlaws - The Gay Writers Who Changed America
We know the names--Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Isherwood, James Merrill, Frank O’Hara. We might even deeply admire their work. Yet at a time of relative social progress (though we’re far from out of the woods yet, hence the need for NOH8 and It Gets Better), only the most compelling of narratives could make us want to reach back and experience their troubled lives and times all over again. With "Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America," Christopher Bram provides just such a narrative, in an age when all too many distort or ignore history at their own peril.
Not only is "Eminent Outlaws" the consummate study of the twentieth century’s major gay writers, it’s also a genuinely riveting read. Bram, author of "Father of Frankenstein" (the novel behind the Academy Award-winning movie "Gods and Monsters"), distills encyclopedic knowledge of modern literature, film history, journalism, politics and of course gay culture into just over 300 pages. There seems to be no document--no novel, no play, no movie, no letter, no review, no interview, no diary, no newsreel--that Bram hasn’t dug into to decipher each atom of the lives, careers and societies of each of the writers presented, from precursors like Walt Whitman to contemporary gay literary giants like Michael Cunningham and Tony Kushner. And yet each chapter has the momentum of a first-rate thriller. Written over the course of only two years, "Outlaws" has the cathartic, conversational quality of a scholar attempting to quickly impart the breadth and depth of his knowledge to a captive group of students in one intensive survey course.
No matter how much rejection and suppression each of the men in "Outlaws" suffered at the hands of both liberal and conservative detractors (Bram’s study covers only male writers; in his own words, ""Lesbian literature has its own dynamic and history...it needs its own historian"), nothing could keep their influence from reaching a critical mass of artists, thinkers, and activists who, in sundry ways, went on to press for all forms of liberation for gays and straights alike.
At the same time, Bram’s narrative deals so much with the oppression and insularity of gay life in the twentieth century that, at times, he seems to miss how much more gay-inclusive the mainstream has become in the "post-gay" age. Early in the book, he makes splash statements like "the literary mainstream prefers to see homosexual artists as isolated rebels or criminals, not as members of another tribe." He then goes on to show how this has been true ever since the publication of Truman Capote’s 1948 novel "Other Voices, Other Rooms." In a later analysis of contemporary lit, however, Bram says, "Gay people [are] being treated less like outlaws and more like fellow citizens." How’s that for contradiction? And yet, at the same time, he maintains that "gay fiction is nothing if not midlist," which is not at all the case for Michael Cunningham, Edmund White or Armistead Maupin, all of whom he covers extensively in the book.
That aside, from his accounts of Gore first meeting Truman at the baths in the forties to the ever ornery Larry Kramer forming and then blasting both GMHC and ACT UP, Christopher Bram has laid out a cogent analysis of the lives of the men whose bravery and talent made it more than a little easier for each of us, gay or straight, to be who we really are today.
"Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America"
by Christopher Bram
by Christopher Bram