It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day, for lack of what is found there. - William Carlos Williams
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been reading a lot of “gay fiction,” mostly from the 1940’s and 50’s. Stuff like The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell (1945), Another Country (1962) and Giovanni's Room (1956), both by James Baldwin, The City and the Pillar, by Gore Vidal (1948), and books that aren’t necessarily about the gay, but deal with overtly gay topics (The Color Purple, 1982), or just have a lot of gay subtext (A Separate Peace, 1959).
I think what’s most striking to me about all of these books, and others like them (as opposed to more recent novels about the exigencies of the AIDS crisis like Nightswimmer or Eighty-Sixed, both of which I wrote about here) is the seamless confluence of bitter cynicism and hopeless romanticism. The characters in these books are all generally miserable and desperately homophobic, rarely admitting to themselves what they are, even as they fall in love, and have sex with, other men. It’s a lonely and miserable world, where admitting that you’re “one of them” requires a deliberate removal from society and living in almost communal circumstances in either Hollywood, New York, or New Orleans (especially N.O. if you happened to be both black and gay, a double-whammy). In one scene in The City and the Pillar, three men are in a bar in New Orleans discussing a white boy involved in an abusive relationship with a “negro,” and one of them says, “Of course, I expect being a Negro in America is enough to make anyone neurotic. So this added bit, this extra kick, is nothing to be surprised at. Then of course many of them are truly primitive, and primitives don’t seem to mind what they do if it’s fun.” This is the world of the homosexual in 1940’s America. At least according to the literature.
It’s expected that most men will spend their lives alone, or in unhappy (and obviously unfaithful, and often abusive) relationships with women, all the while pining away for that one boy from their youth, or that one man, that they can’t get out of their head. In The Folded Leaf, two schoolboys go all the way through grammar school and college together, never overtly having sex (though I suppose this was because it was published in 1945), but who slept in the same bed, and often held hands and only double-dated with girls. Naturally at the end one of them marries and the other is so distraught that he kills himself. In The City and the Pillar, one character goes on a years-long, and country-wide, search for his true love, his best friend from high school whom he feels has deserted him. In both James Baldwin novels, gay love is treated as something so pure, and so consuming and intense, that it can only lead to heartbreak, devastation and death (both literal and metaphoric).
As opposed to more modern gay fiction, which always seems to be about how men are pretty much physically and emotionally incapable of committing to one another for more than 5 minutes, these old books seem to be about men who want to commit, sometimes desperately, but because of society, are unable to. They live on the fringes, with their sleazy bars and social codes, and rot from the inside out from bitterness, and eventually always turn on one another for exposing what they “really are.” Which I think is an interesting juxtaposition, and one worth examining to see how much truth there is in these positions, or if that’s just what creates great drama. Is that really how gay life was back in the mid-20th century (I suspect so, though I also suspect there were more men in relationships and moderately happy than these books let on)?
Either way, if you pay too much attention to the literature, it all seems quite bleak and hopeless, but from an anthropological standpoint, it’s fascinating. Gay men may still be so fucked up emotionally, even these days, that they find it impossible to ever have healthy relationships, but at least it is possible. At least they have the option (well, in a lot of places; not everywhere). Which is an important distinction to make, especially if you’re comparing literature. If things were as bad as all that in the 40’s and 50’s, and if all gay men were that hateful and morose, no wonder they all went fucking ballistic after Stonewall. And in the irony of ironies, all that liberation, happiness and fucking of course led to AIDS a scant 12 years later. But as many have theorized, it was AIDS that truly brought about the gay rights movement. Had AIDS never come along, we might all still live in the urban shadows, our whole social life consisting of bars and bathhouses. I don’t think so, nor am I arguing that AIDS was a good thing, but I think eventually (perhaps not as soon as we did) the gays would have grown weary of all that anonymous cock and eventually grown up, even without some kind of horrific impetus. Humans are hard-wired for companionship and love, even biologically (your brain actually does physically change when you’re in love), and I think that will always emerge, no matter how dark the circumstance.
Great fiction and literature, though, has always been about earth-shattering emotions, failed love and death. That’s why we read it, right? Sometimes, though, it all just becomes too much bitterness and anger, and you just want to pick up a nice Michael Chabon novel.