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date: 14 June 2024

Gay Literature: Poetry and Prosefree

Gay Literature: Poetry and Prosefree

  • Edward Halsey Foster


  • North American Literatures
  • Fiction
  • 20th and 21st Century (1900-present)
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing
  • Poetry

Queer theory, a subject of much controversy among academics and literary critics in recent decades, raises crucial questions regarding the reception and creation of literary texts. Advocates of queer theory claim that both heterosexuality and homosexuality are socially constructed and that there is nothing “natural” about any sexual identity. Literary works traditionally seen as expressions of their authors' feeling or presence, as is the case with lyric poems, must now be reconceived as political discourse. The individual and his or her writings are no longer considered to be “essentially” gay or straight but instead are components in a broad political discourse. Queer theory is by no means universally accepted—its critics include such well-known scholars as Rictor Norton (b. 1945) and the best-selling author Camille Paglia (b. 1947)—but the vast majority of academic literary studies of gay writers follow its dictates.

For some, this legitimizes homosexuality by classifying it as a variant of the same forces that produce heterosexuality. Homosexuality can be seen as created and imposed by the culture rather than as something chosen. The same conclusions, however, can be used to marginalize gay writings by making them seem merely one of many lesser discourses in the complexities of human sexual expression. The plays of Tennessee Williams (1911–1983) would accordingly have less direct significance for heterosexuals than the plays of Arthur Miller (b. 1915). Queer theory may bestow certain privileges and vindications, but it also marginalizes gay writing.

Bisexuality has been viewed within gay studies as distinct from homosexuality, and bisexuals have found themselves excluded from gay events and organizations although a great many “gay icons” from Socrates to Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde were married and fathered children. Another divisive issue has involved the question of whether lesbians and gay men should be categorized as part of the same social and political reality. The word “homosexual” initially referred to men, but in its general use it has been extended to include women. The same problem surrounds the use of the word “gay,” and some writers accordingly use “gay men” and “lesbians.” Further, even the word “homosexual” is fraught with problems: it is often believed, incorrectly, that it originated as a medico-scientific term to classify homosexuality as a disease.

The word “homosexual” was, in fact, created in the late nineteenth century as an English equivalent for German Homosexualtät, which first appeared in print in 1869 in a pamphlet arguing against the Prussian legal code that prescribed punishments for men who engaged in same-sex relations. “Homosexual” was used for the first time in A Problem in Modern Ethics (1891) by the British poet and essayist John Addington Symonds (1840–1893). Symonds was content with his homosexual orientation and did not intend the word in its later medicalized sense. He argued that homosexuality was natural and ingrained within the individual—essential, in effect, to his identity.

In this essay, “homosexual” and “gay” are used interchangeably to refer to both men and women who are sexually drawn to members of their own sex. Neither word is used in a historically specific sense, so that Walt Whitman (1819–1892) is called “homosexual,” although in all likelihood he never heard the term.


In the introduction to the first volume of his Histoire de la sexualité (1976; English translation, History of Sexuality, 1978), Michel Foucault argues that homosexuality is an invention of the late nineteenth century. Before then, he claims, there were homosexual acts and desires, but the nineteenth century reconceived these as aspects and expressions of a certain kind of person. “As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes,” writes Foucault,

sodomy was a category of forbidden acts…. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality…. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.

(p. 43)

Foucault's argument has found a home in an incalculable number of dissertations, essays, and books interpreting and reinterpreting American literary figures from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) to Gertrude Stein (1874–1946) and Hart Crane (1899–1932) to William S. Burroughs (1914–1997) and Kathy Acker (1944–1997). Although Foucault's point of view is by no means universally accepted, it dominates gay studies today. Adopting his position, critics have argued, for example, that Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) were not, strictly speaking, homosexuals, at least in the sense that medical and psychological establishments understood that “condition” or “species” in the twentieth century. Similarly, critics have insisted that it is anachronistic to speak of “Greek homosexuality” in Plato's Athens; the “species” could not exist, they say, without its “discourse.”

Male-male and female-female sexual relations occurred in antiquity, but Foucault was speaking of a particular modern medical and psychological perception. Whether the individual is born homosexual or his or her homosexual desires are socially constructed, it is clear that medico-scientific theories of homosexuality as a curable disease were an invention of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Homosexuality in plays by Tennessee Williams is differently understood, for example, than it is in poems by Walt Whitman, and the difference is largely rooted in medico-scientific considerations rather than ethical or political ones. In Williams, homosexuality is not primarily a moral problem, nor can it be reduced to certain kinds of acts; it pervades an individual's character, often with tragic consequences.

As religion and art progressively lost their authority as sources of truth to science in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, those who felt same-sex desire within themselves turned to science, particularly psychology, for explanations. Psychoanalysis, the popularity of which crested in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, claimed that homosexuals were abnormal but that, with the guidance of psychiatrists, they could be “cured.” In Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), the central character, Brick, has had a homosexual relationship with his friend Skipper. Brick's wife, Maggie, then seduced Skipper, who killed himself, perhaps out of guilt (the exact motivation is not clear). If the play were written now, one might expect Brick to abandon Maggie, but as written by Williams, who was homosexual, the opposite happens, and the play ends “happily” when Maggie announces that she is pregnant. Brick has been “cured”; he is now a good husband on the way to being a father. Audiences in the 1950s might have been uncomfortable with homosexuality, and Williams, whatever his private life, allowed them to leave the theater with their prejudices intact.

Williams said that in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof he “meant for the audience to discover how people erect false values by not facing what is true in their natures, by having to live a lie” (Ross, 1986, p. 40), but it appears that a lie is exactly what Brick chooses. When his father suggests that Brick and Skipper were intimate, Brick angrily replies that his father is suggesting something “unnatural,” and it would appear that the audience is supposed to agree. Other plays by Williams are equally disturbing in this regard, notably Suddenly Last Summer (1958), in which the character Sebastian Venable is consumed, literally, by the young boys he has seduced. In A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Blanche tells of a young man who killed himself when he was caught in a homosexual affair.

Repeatedly, Williams portrays homosexual life as threatened by violence, either from society or from some inner psychological flaw; his homosexuals are saturated with guilt and self-loathing. They manifest within themselves the homophobia that was then endemic in American culture. In the rare instances where homosexuals appear in movies of that time, they tend to be psychopaths, vampires, or older people preying on the innocent young. One recalls things as various as Ernest Hemingway's dismissive attitude toward homosexuals in his books, the “pansies” played for laughs in Hollywood films of the 1920s and 1930s, and Hart Crane's joyous announcement—having, he believed, fallen in love with a woman—that he was not homosexual after all.

A century earlier, Walt Whitman was able to show homosexuality as normal and healthy. He had known violent prejudice, for Americans then were no more enlightened than they would be a century later, and antisodomy laws, though rarely enforced, prescribed penalties ranging from imprisonment to death. There is a credible tradition, reported by David S. Reynolds in Walt Whitman's America (1995), that Whitman was tarred and feathered in 1841 by the townsfolk of Southold, Long Island, for having had sexual relations with boys in the local school where he taught.

A few years later, the pseudoscience of phrenology led Whitman to believe that his attraction to men, which phrenologists called “adhesiveness,” was not necessarily a bad thing; indeed, it was quite normal, and he was well supplied with this characteristic. In 1870, distraught over the degree to which he was sexually drawn to Peter Doyle, he referred to “this diseased, feverish, disproportionate adhesiveness” (Reynolds, 1995, p. 250), but this was unusual: elsewhere, he celebrated love of men for each other, making it seem a root cause of democracy. Adhesiveness (as opposed to “amativeness,” which involved love between men and women) was, he wrote in Democratic Vistas (1871), “love that fuses, ties, and aggregates, making the races comrades, and fraternizing all” (p. 981).

Phrenology claimed that an individual's adhesiveness was biological, not chosen by the individual or created by society. Adhesiveness was natural, and any social or political action that arose from it would, therefore, be natural also. Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas:

It is to the development, identification, and general prevalence of that fervid comradeship (the adhesive love, at least rivaling the amative love, hitherto possessing imaginative literature, if not going beyond it), that I look for the counterbalance and offset of our materialistic and vulgar American democracy, and for the spiritualization thereof. Many will say it is a dream and will not follow my inferences: but I confidentially expect a time when there will be seen running through it like a half-hid warp through all the myriad audible and visible worldly interests of America, threads of manly friendship, fond and loving, pure and sweet, strong and life-long, carried to degrees hitherto unknown, not only giving tone to individual character and making it unprecedentedly emotional, muscular, heroic and refined, but having the deepest relation to general politics. I say democracy infers such loving comradeship as its most inevitable twin or counterpart, without which it will be incomplete, in vain and incapable of perpetuating itself.

(pp. 981–982)

As he said in “For You O Democracy” (1860),

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies.I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other's necks, By the love of comrades.

Whitman's politics of comrades and the twentieth century's medico-scientific notions about homosexuality could hardly be further apart. Although American literature in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century almost always implies the medico-scientific definition whenever homosexuality enters the text, Whitman had his own successors, from Bliss Carman (1861–1929) and Richard Hovey (1864–1900) to Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) to Langston Hughes (1902–1967) and Gerrit Lansing (b. 1928). Although these writers published at a time when homophobia was endemic, they never apologized for their sexual identity.

Romantic Friendship

The immediate precursors to Whitman's homage to adhesiveness were romantic notions of friendship between men and between women. John W. M. Hallock investigates one especially intense relationship in his biography of Fitz-Greene Halleck (1790–1867), The American Byron (2000), whom he views as a homosexual drawn to the younger poet Joseph Rodman Drake (1795–1820). Hallock finds no evidence of a specifically sexual relationship between the two men, but their friendship was evidently intense, especially on Halleck's side, as revealed in his elegy on Drake, which includes lines such as “And I, who woke each morrow, / To clasp thy hand in mine” (Hallock, p. 43).

Early-nineteenth-century American literature has abundant examples of similarly intense romantic friendships. Emily Dickinson's poems such as Her breast is fit for pearls have received intense scrutiny from scholars, refuting the long-held belief that her life embodied the “tragedy” of a woman who failed to find a man on whom she could depend. The Master letters were long considered evidence of her devotion to one possible male companion until Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson (1985) showed that they are actually literary constructions rather than revelations of an impassioned surrender to some mysterious man. Recent biographers have seen more than romantic friendship in Dickinson's relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert, and believe that when Dickinson referred to her friend as a “lover,” she meant it literally.

Emerson's transcendent definition of friendship—for example, “The essence of friendship is entireness, a total magnanimity and trust”—is reflected in the discussion of friendship by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). For him friendship was basically a spiritual union, but in his poem Friendship, he describes two friends as “sturdy oaks”: “Above they barely touch, but undermined / Down to their deepest source, / Admiring you shall find / Their roots are intertwined / Insep'rably.”

Given Thoreau's notorious prudishness and the reservations about sex he expressed in Walden, it is uncertain whether he intended to imply any physical or genital relationship in these line, but Walter Harding has presented compelling evidence for seeing Thoreau's relationships with men as more important to him than his relationships with women. No one, however, has yet found evidence that these friendships were physically intimate.

The Evils of Sex

Thoreau was a disciple of health reform movements advanced by such popular lecturers and writers as Sylvester Graham (1795–1821), remembered today mostly for his crackers but in his day a celebrity who could pack auditoriums. Graham preached the need for sexual restraint, describing in lurid tones the horrors that he believed awaited libertines. His Lecture to Young Men (1834), one of the era's most widely printed and influential works, claimed that he had heard of schools where “almost every boy…practiced the filthy vice [masturbation]; and many of them went to the still more loathsome and criminal extent of an unnatural commerce with each other!”

Graham was not being homophobic in the modern sense; it was his belief, and largely the belief of the age, that overindulgence in sexual behaviors of any kind led to debility and early death. Indeed, he and his followers warned Americans that intercourse in marriage should not occur more than once a month, because male-female relationships could have the same destructive effects as relationships between men. Graham and his legions of disciples were so hugely respected that it is not surprising to find the otherwise quite sensible Thoreau prescribing chastity for those who, like himself, did not choose marriage; he was simply repeating a truism of the day. Friendship of any sort had to be redirected toward high moral and spiritual communion.

Graham's importance to popular beliefs about sexuality in the nineteenth century should warn us against general or facile observations about similarities between attitudes toward homosexuality in our own day and in Thoreau's. Whitman was a clear exception at the time. His notions about male friendship were rooted in what passed for science in his day, but the phrenologists, like Graham and other health reformers, were no libertines. Adhesiveness was a spiritual matter, not an invitation to genital promiscuity, and Whitman's troubled awareness of his physical desires for other men indicate a person who could be as disturbed by sexual relationships as was Thoreau.

Idealistic theories about friendships mark the first American novels about passionate same-sex relationships, Joseph and His Friend (1870) by Bayard Taylor (1825–1878) and Two College Friends (1871) by Frederic W. Loring (1848–1871), but in the fiction of Herman Melville (1819–1891) and Henry James (1843–1916) one finds references and themes that suggest a much more modern understanding of intimacies between people of the same sex. Melville's works are as iconic in gay canons as Whitman's, and there is even a Gay Herman Melville Reader (2002) as well as a scholarly industry devoted to queer-theory readings of their works. The most persuasive and respected of these is Epistemology of the Closet (1990) by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (b. 1950), which provides close readings of James's The Beast in the Jungle (1902) and Melville's Billy Budd (1891, published 1924). Sedgwick sees James as a homosexual who rarely dealt openly with male intimacy but whose work focuses on “homosocial” (her term) situations that occur when, for example, two men struggle for the attention of a woman; emotions are directed by each man more strongly toward his competitor than toward their shared object of desire.

Billy Budd is a very different matter, for, Sedgwick writes, “every impulse of every person in this book that could at all be called desire could be called homosexual desire, being directed by men exclusively toward men” (p. 92). She concludes that Billy Budd and The Picture of Dorian Gray are “overarching gateway texts of our modern period” (p. 48). They announce the arrival of the homosexual as a modern entity, radically other than whatever it was Dickinson, Halleck, or Whitman variously imagined themselves to be.

Billy Budd incarnates the vision of the beautiful sailor that became central to homosexual ideals in the twentieth century. His “position” among the crew, wrote Melville,

was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the highborn dames of the court…. Cast in a mould peculiar to the finest physical examples of those Englishmen in whom the Saxon strain would seem not at all to partake of any Norman or other admixture, he showed in face that humane look of reposeful good nature which the Greek sculptor in some instances gave to his heroic strong man, Hercules.

Billy's ambiguous sexuality, that is, suggests both the feminine “rustic beauty” (in effect a man in drag) and Hercules, the Greek hero whose friendship with Hylas was often cited in the nineteenth century as an instance of ideal male-male relations.

Although Sedgwick considers Billy Budd to be suffused with homosexual desires, she points out that there is only one homosexual in the modern sense in the story: Claggart, who has the self-loathing of those who have internalized homophobia, and who is “depraved because he is, in his desires, a pervert,” or “homosexual” (Sedgwick, 1990, p. 96), although the word, as Sedgwick reminds us, had not yet taken root in the language when Melville wrote. In short—and the distinction is of fundamental importance—the “homosexual” or “pervert” like Claggart exists as a political entity. The desire that Billy elicits in the other sailors is a different matter, “pure” and injurious to none.

Melville's early works include many close friendships between men. Although these may be seen as instances of the idealized friendship characteristic of the age, Moby-Dick (1851) involves what must have seemed for its time an explicit validation of male intimacy far beyond friendship. In chapter 94, “A Squeeze of the Hand,” Ishmael joins other sailors using their hands to squeeze lumps of spermaceti into a liquid:

I squeezed that sperm until I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it…. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,—Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all around; nay, let us squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.

The sensuality Melville evokes here must have been disturbing to men like Sylvester Graham, and it reminds us of the perils critics face when dealing with cultural change. Some things apparently stay the same.

The Aesthete

The revolution in sensibility seen in À Rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907)—in which the most powerful of all sensual experiences for the central character is his sexual relationship with a young man—and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) had little resonance in American fiction until Ralph Adams Cram (1863–1942) published The Decadent (1893), which deals with a bohemian male enclave in fin-de-siècle Boston. In none of these works is there any specific description of homosexual relationships; that would have been much too daring for the time. Aesthetes gloried explicitly in the amoral; as Wilde wrote in his preface to Dorian Gray, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written” (p. 5). Such statements were supposed to shock, and they did; they were not things that decent, moral men were supposed to say.

Walter Pater (1839–1894) concluded his Studies in the Renaissance (1873) with an adulatory essay on the eighteenth-century art historian Johann Winckelmann, of whom Pater wrote, “[H]is affinity with Hellenism was not merely intellectual, that the subtle threads of temperament were inwoven in it, is proved by his romantic, fervent friendships with young men” (pp. 102–103). Pater's coupling of Winckelmann's taste with same-sex desire found its most influential exponent in Oscar Wilde. Ultimately the term “aesthete” became a byword for “homosexual.”

Wilde's influence on American writing can be traced to the early 1890s, when the Boston firm of Copeland and Day began publishing his works to the outrage of critics and the delight of some young men. Shirley Everton Johnson (1870–1910), in his novel The Cult of the Purple Rose (1902), traced the effect of Wilde's books on Harvard undergraduates. Wilde had made the green carnation a symbol by which homosexual men could identify one another. As one character in The Green Carnation (1894) by Robert Hitchens (1864–1950) says, all the men wearing this flower at a certain gathering have “the same walk, or rather waggle, the same coyly conscious expression, the same wavy motion of the head” (p. 17). In Johnson's novel, the equally unnatural purple rose supplants the green carnation as a symbol, but the effect is the same, a secret code by which people can identify one another.

The many homosexual American poets in the early twentieth century who were aesthetes included Amy Lowell (1874–1925), Wilbur Underwood (1876–1935), Donald Evans (1884–1921), George Sylvester Viereck (1884–1962), John Gould Fletcher (1886–1950), Clark Ashton Smith (1893–1961), and Samuel Greenberg (1883–1917), whose poems Hart Crane emulated in his own early work. Among these, Viereck, whom his biographer Elmer Gertz called “the high priest of the Wilde cult in America” (Gertz, 1978, p. 77), was at the time the most famous—far more so than contemporaries like Wallace Stevens or Ezra Pound. A German sympathizer during World War I, Viereck was imprisoned for sedition during World War II. Transformed into a pariah by the American government and press, he never regained his reputation, and his works have passed into oblivion. In 1907, however, the Saturday Evening Post identified him as “[t]he most widely discussed young literary man in America today” (Gertz, p. 75). That year he published his most popular novel, The House of the Vampire, in which vampirism is a code for homosexuality, and Nineveh and Other Poems, much of which involves sexual passion of a thoroughly fin-de-siècle stamp. Viereck knew Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), an early German “sexologist” and defender of male-male love, and based Children of Lilith on Hirshfeld's definition of homosexuality as a “transitional sex,” merging the masculine with the feminine. “Perversion,” Viereck claimed, “is what the other fellow does” (Gertz, p. 226).

In contrast to Viereck's once massive reputation and current oblivion is Gertrude Stein, little known in her own day but as important as any of her generation now. In contrast to aesthetes who subverted conventional morality by creating alternative codes of behavior and values, Stein subverted language, finding ways to express things in print that the censorious public would have considered immoral had they been able to decode what she was saying. In Tender Buttons (1914), the slight elision of one image, sound, or letter into another allows things to be said that a conventionally moral reader might have found offensive: “PEELED PENCIL, CHOKE. Rub her coke.”

Stein subverted the linguistic authority through which the paternalistic, heterosexual culture of her day defined itself. The revolution made possible through her work was more radical than anything that had preceded it. Even the terms in which early homosexual writers found their sexuality confirmed—Whitman's “adhesiveness,” for example—were drawn out of an older linguistic structure of authority and oppression. Stein had studied psychology under William James (1842–1910) and believed, with him, that one's identity preceded language. She believed, therefore, that language should catch up with experience rather than expect experience to conform to language. “As I say a noun is a name of a thing,” she wrote in her essay “Poetry and Grammar” in Lectures in America, “and therefore slowly if you feel what it is inside that thing you do not call it by the name by which it is known.”

Stein's thinking about language had profound implications for homosexual writers. It burrowed into the very depths of language to suggest, among other things, that social prejudice may be the product of language rather than something necessarily derived from feeling. But at the same time, language could encourage certain feelings by giving them names while ignoring others or naming them only with pejorative connotations. Unlike Foucault, Stein did not see society as necessarily or desirably the product of language. In her world, the individual could choose not to be guided by official terminology, and in fact, in the deepest sense never was.


Homosexual writing in the United States crested in the period from the end of World War II until the beginning of the gay liberation movement in 1969. Major gay and lesbian novelists, playwrights, and poets took places next to the most applauded mainstream writers, but homophobia was rampant. Public attitudes toward homosexuals are suggested by an incident in the early 1940s when John Crowe Ransom (1888–1974), who had accepted a poem by Robert Duncan (1919–1988) for the Kenyon Review, withdrew his offer after Duncan published an essay in another journal on homosexuality. Ransom complimented Duncan for having taken such a bold stand—although actually the essay is impartial, arguing that homosexuality is no better, if no worse, than any other kind of life—but insisted that the poem scheduled for the Review might now be read as “homosexual advertisement” (Faas, 1983, p. 151). Astonishing though Ransom's act seems today, homosexuality at this time was still treated throughout the country as criminal behavior, and until 1973 it was considered a mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association.

Homosexual writers in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Hart Crane, avoided public expression of their sexuality. Modernism had been preeminently a heterosexual movement, marked in some writers—E. E. Cummings and Ernest Hemingway, for example—by the strident hatred and fears that characterize homophobia. Novels by homosexual writers—Nightwood (1936) by Djuna Barnes (1892–1982) and My Ántonia (1918) by Willa Cather (1873–1947)—were exceptions. Recent critics have tried to locate homosexual strains in the works of such modernists as T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940), but the evidence is slight, and in any case, in a literature dominated by Ezra Pound (1885–1972), William Faulkner (1897–1962), and Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953), gay and lesbian concerns had little room.

The postwar generation, in contrast, witnessed the emerged of major gay playwrights, including Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee (b. 1928), and William Inge (1913–1973), and highly regarded novels with homosexual themes and situations, such as Two Serious Ladies (1943) by Jane Bowles (1917–1973), The Member of the Wedding (1946) by Carson McCullers (1917–1967), The City and the Pillar (1948) by Gore Vidal (b. 1925), Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948) by Truman Capote (1924–1984), The Sheltering Sky (1949) by Paul Bowles (1910–1999), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith (1921–1995), Giovanni's Room (1956) by James Baldwin (1924–1987), City of Night (1964) by John Rechy (b. 1935), Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) by Hubert Selby Jr. (b. 1928), Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing (1965) by May Sarton (1912–1995), and Naked Lunch (1959) by William S. Burroughs. Of these, Burroughs was the most radical. Like Stein, he sought to disrupt conventional values by subverting the language itself. In his works beginning in the late 1950s, he often used the “cut-up method” devised by the writer Brion Gysin (1916–1986). In the cut-up method, a printed text is sliced in half vertically and the lines on the two halves are then realigned so that one has a new text that, surprisingly, at times “makes sense.” Authority (in the sense of who creates a work) is called into question; the cut-up method suggests that the real author is the language, not the person who speaks or writes it.

Burroughs considered language to be a “virus” that changed the body of the person in which it lodged. The individual became a conformist, whether he willed it or not, and a dominant mentality, embedded in the language, eliminated even the possibility of difference and independence. Burroughs sought to disrupt language and convention, and his ideas and techniques, such as the cut-up method, had considerable importance for gay or lesbian writers like Kathy Acker.

There were celebrated poets in the 1920s and 1930s who were homosexual—Hart Crane, W. H. Auden (1907–1973), and Edwin Denby (1903–1983), for instance—but “gayness” as a subject rarely emerged in their poetry. The situation from 1945 to 1969 changed markedly. Well-known homosexual poets included Madeline Gleason (1903–1979), Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979), William Bronk (1918–1999), Robert Duncan (1919–1988), James Schuyler (1923–1991), Robin Blaser (b. 1925), Jack Spicer (1925–1965), Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997), James Merrill (1926–1995), Frank O'Hara (1926–1966), John Ashbery (b. 1927), Thom Gunn (b. 1929), Richard Howard (b. 1929), Adrienne Rich (b. 1929), Jonathan Williams (b. 1929), and Ronald Johnson (1935–1998). The so-called School of Boston, which provided one of the avant-garde's responses in the 1960s to the mainstream works of Robert Lowell (1917–1977) and Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), was almost entirely gay, including such poets as John Weiners (1934–2002), Gerrit Lansing, and Stephen Jonas (1920–1970).

Gayness as a subject enters at points into the work of most of these writers, but that aside, there is nothing essentially gay about their poetry. There is no specific formal element that can be called gay. There are traces of aestheticism in the wit and verbal brilliance of poets as various as Merrill, O'Hara, and Bronk, and Whitman's politics are echoed in Lansing and Duncan, his poetics in Ginsberg. But these are things that had as powerful an effect on heterosexual writers. The one thing that the works of all these poets have in common—although this is also not necessarily or essentially gay—is that they are immensely subversive, socially and often linguistically, of the status quo. They extend a tradition of dissidence rooted in works from Thoreau to Stein. But what, one might ask, would happen if homosexuality were somehow “normalized” or merged into the status quo?

That was the lesson gay writers soon learned with the success of the gay liberation movement following the Stonewall riots in 1969.

A Final Chapter?

The gay liberation movement and the gradual public awareness that homosexuality was not the disease the psychiatric establishment had claimed led to a deluge of “coming-out” stories, in which the author narrates her or his progress from “the closet” to an open life as a gay woman or man. Most of these stories, in retrospect, seem embarrassingly self-indulgent, but they include a few highly regarded works like Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) and A Boy's Own Story (1982) by Edmund White (b. 1940). Usually, if not always, these works are upbeat and optimistic, as if nothing at this point could bring back the claustrophobic and repressive gay world of early generations.

The AIDS crisis changed that, and in works like Angels in America (1993) by Tony Kushner (b. 1956) and Borrowed Time (1988) by Paul Monette (1945–1995), gay writing became somewhat more somber but also emotionally richer. At the same time, critics asked if there is anything essentially gay about works by homosexuals. Numerous anthologies of gay writing—Stephen Coote's The Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse (1983), Carl Morse and Joan Larkin's Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time (1989), and Edmund White's Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (1991), to cite three of the most respected—present no evidence that “gay writing” is essentially more than writing about gay life. Word of Mouth: An Anthology of Gay American Poetry (2000), edited by the poet Timothy Liu (b. 1965), carefully documents a range of poetic traditions from the formalist to the highly experimental without finding any that grew from a basically gay aesthetic: “Of course there are poems that overtly flaunt their sexuality,” Liu concludes, “but there are so many quieter poems (and poets) who might elude the most finely tuned gaydar [sensitivity to others' gay identity].” Robert Duncan, he noted, “could easily be read as either flamboyant or utterly closeted depending on what poems one chose to represent him with” (p. xviii).

The number of openly gay writers today far exceeds the number in any earlier generation, but there is none who seems destined to inherit the mantle of Whitman or Stein. Younger gay poets include writers as various as Audre Lorde (1934–1992), Joan Larkin (b. 1939), Marilyn Hacker (b. 1942), Aaron Shurin (b. 1947), Olga Broumas (b. 1949), Eileen Myles (b. 1949), Dennis Cooper (b. 1953), Mark Doty (b. 1953), and Carl Phillips (b. 1959), but where is a writer who can subvert the language as Stein did? Her ambitions are simply not to be found.

The same can be said of fiction writers. Among recent admired experimental works of gay fiction are My Mother: Demonology (1993) by Kathy Acker, Jack the Modernist (1985) by Robert Glück, The Letters of Mina Harker (1998) by Dodie Bellamy (b. 1951), and Shy (1989) by Kevin Killian (b. 1952). Each explores and disrupts narrative conventions, but none makes the claims to universality that Whitman did in “To the East and to the West”:

I believe the main purport of These States is to found a superb friendship, exalté, previously unknownBecause I perceive it waits, and has always been waiting, latent in all men.

More characteristic than Whitman's claims for a universal brotherhood would be the comment by Lark, the central figure in The Beauty of Men by Andrew Holleran (b. 1943): “Our sexual lives are utterly solitary after all…; sometimes they cause other people to adhere to us for brief moments, or even lifetimes.… Sometimes they do not” (p. 268). In place of Whitman's brash optimism, there seems now to be no great tradition, no single community, but rather what Melville in Moby-Dick called “Isolatoes…not acknowledging the continent of men, but each Isolato living on a separate continent of his own” (p. 121).

One of the first modern novels to deal with a homosexual figure sympathetically and realistically—A Single Man (1964) by the Anglo-American novelist Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986)—suggested the same. The thirty-two years that separate Isherwood's and Holleran's books were so fired with crisis—the gay liberation movement and then AIDS—that the fundamental flaw in homosexual culture, namely, that it has been profoundly a culture for and of the young, has not received as much attention as it should. Isherwood and Holleran make clear that homosexual culture in America depends on fleeting images of youth rather than on deep psychological attachments. Melville's isolatoes exemplify Emersonian self-reliance, but homosexuality in Isherwood's and Holleran's works is seen all too accurately as a rite of passage into a diminished sexual and emotional maturity that no culture should wish on its members.

At the same time that gay identity has affected commercial venues from television to jeans, it may also have lost the convictions that made Whitman's poetry possible. Gay literature—as suggested by the commercial success of gay novels such as A Boy's Own Story (1978) by Edmund White, The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) by David Leavitt (b. 1961), and the series of novels Tales of the City, begun by Armistead Maupin (b. 1944) in 1976—has entered the mainstream. The homophobia with which early writers had to battle has certainly not vanished, remaining in some parts of the country as virulent and violent as ever, but elsewhere gay life and values have been integrated into so much of the culture at large that they have often ceased to operate as an oppositional force. There are gay novelists, gay poets, and gay journals, but they are no longer likely to shock as they once did. Assimilation has its social and economic dividends, but it remains to be seen whether it provides ground as fertile for new directions in American literature as marginalization did in the past.

Further Reading

  • Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison, Wis., 1991. Gay self-representation from early closeted and coded works to open expression in the post-Stonewall era.
  • Buckley, J. F. Desire, the Self, the Social Critic: The Rise of Queer Performance within the Demise of Transcendentalism. Selinsgrove, Pa., 1997. A study of transcendentalism's advocacy of self-reliance and corresponding rhetoric critical of conventional American social values.
  • de Lauretis, Teresa, ed. Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities. Bloomington, Ind., 1991.
  • Dillard, Gavin Geoffrey. A Day for a Lay: A Century of Gay Poetry. New York, 1998. Includes poets from around the world but with substantial representation of Americans.
  • Faas, Ekbert. Young Robert Duncan. Santa Barbara, Calif., 1983.
  • Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men. New York, 1981. Highly respected and influential work in feminist and gay studies, concerned with “romantic friendships” between women since the Renaissance.
  • Fone, Byrne. A Road to Stonewall: Male Homosexuality and Homophobia in English and American Literature, 1750–1969. New York, 1995. Fone is one of the principal scholars in queer studies.
  • Fone, Byrne. Homophobia: A History. New York, 2000.
  • Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York, 1978. Foucault's discussion of the formation of the modern homosexual sensibility in this book was the single most influential factor in the formation of queer theory.
  • Gertz, Elmer. Odyssey of a Barbarian: The Biography of George Sylvester Viereck. Buffalo, N.Y., 1978.
  • Hallock, John W. M. The American Byron: Homosexuality and the Fall of Fitz-Greene Halleck. Madison, Wis., 2000. A biographical and critical study of a minor American poet; but Hallock's portrait of the era affects our understanding of attitudes toward homosexuality, and discrimination toward homosexual writers, in the antebellum United States.
  • Holleran, Andrew. The Beauty of Men: A Novel. New York, 1997.
  • Jacose, Annamarie. Queer Theory: An Introduction. New York, 1997.
  • Koestenbaum, Wayne. Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration. New York, 1989. Explores the relations between, among others, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot in joint “homosocial” literary undertakings.
  • Lassell, Michael, and Elena Georgiou, eds. The World In Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave. New York, 2000. Anthology of works by forty-six younger homosexual poets.
  • Levin, James. The Gay Novel in America. New York, 1991. General survey with emphasis on canonical texts.
  • Martin, Robert. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Rev. ed. Iowa City, 1998. Centers on canonical poets; expanded edition includes analysis of a few younger writers.
  • McRue, Robert. Queer Renaissance: Contemporary Literature and the Reinvention of Lesbian and Gay Identities. New York, 1997. Analysis of post-Stonewall writers.
  • Morse, Carl, and Joan Larkin, eds. Gay and Lesbian Poetry in Our Time: An Anthology. New York, 1989. Sweeping anthology of works by ninety-four poets from the mid-twentieth century.
  • Norton, Rictor. The Myth of the Modern Homosexual: Queer Theory and the Search for Cultural Unity. London, 1998. Forceful arguments for the “essentialist” position.
  • Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae. New York, 1990.
  • Paglia, Camille. Sex, Art, and American Culture: Essays. New York, 1992. Miscellaneous essays often attacking postmodernist and queer theories, by the author of the equally controversial Sexual Personae (New York, 1990).
  • Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America. New York, 1995.
  • Ross, Don. Williams in Art and Morals: An Anxious Foe of Untruth. In Conversations with Tennessee Williams, edited by Albert J. Devlin. Jackson, Miss., 1986.
  • Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, Calif., 1990. Drawing on Foucault, this book, with extensive analyses of Melville and James, among others, is one of the key texts in queer studies.
  • Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York, 1964. The essay “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” is among the first to consider a specifically gay discourse.
  • Turner, William B. A Genealogy of Queer Theory. Philadelphia, 2000. Good introductory survey of queer theory in academic contexts.
  • Woods, Gregory. A History of Gay Literature. New Haven, Conn., 1998. Woods deals with the full range of homosexual literature from Gilgamesh to the present, but he includes much detailed discussion of American writing.