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Smuggler

A Memoir of Gay Male Literature


[clock] 30-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Fall 2014

 

“Then what are you complaining about?”
      “About hypocrisy. About lies. About
misrepresentation. About that smuggler’s
behavior to which you drive the uranist.”

André Gide, Corydon, Fourth Dialogue

1.

I remember my first kiss with absolute clarity. I was reading on a black chaise longue, upholstered with shiny velour, and it was right after dinner, the hour of freedom before I was obliged to begin my homework. I was sixteen. 

It must have been early autumn or late spring, because I know I was in school at the time, and the sun was still out. I was shocked and thrilled by it, and reading that passage, from a novel by Hermann Hesse, made the book feel intensely real, fusing Hesse’s imaginary world with the physical object I was holding in my hands. I looked down at it, and back at the words on the page, and then around the 

Smuggler: A Memoir of Gay Male Literature

room, which was empty, and I felt a keen and deep sense of discovery and shame. Something new had entered my life, undetected by anyone else, delivered safely and surreptitiously to me alone. To borrow an idea from André Gide, I had become a smuggler. 

It wasn’t, of course, the first kiss I had encountered in a book. But this was the first kiss between two boys, characters in Beneath the Wheel, a short, sad novel about a sensitive student who gains admission to an elite school, but then fails, quickly and inexorably, after he becomes entwined in friendship with a reckless, poetic classmate. I was stunned by their encounter—which most readers, and almost certainly Hesse himself, would have assigned to that liminal stage of adolescence before boys turn definitively to heterosexual interests. For me, however, it was the first evidence that I wasn’t entirely alone in my own desires. It made my loneliness seem more present to me, more intelligible and tangible, and something that could be named. Even more shocking was the innocence with which Hesse presented it: 

An adult witnessing this little scene might have derived a quiet joy from it, from the tenderly inept shyness and the earnestness of these two narrow faces, both of them handsome, promising, boyish yet marked half with childish grace and half with shy yet attractive adolescent defiance.

Certainly no adult I knew would have derived anything like joy from this little scene—far from it. Where I grew up, a decaying Rust Belt city in upstate New York, there was no tradition of schoolboy romance, at least none that had made it to my public high school, where the hierarchies were rigid, the social categories inviolable, the avenues for sexual expression strictly and collectively policed by adults and youth alike. These were the early days of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, when recent gains in visibility and political legitimacy for gay rights were being vigorously countered by a newly resurgent cultural conservatism. The adults in my world, had they witnessed two lonely young boys reach out to each other in passionate friendship, would have thrashed them before committing them to the counsel of religion or psychiatry. 

But the discovery of that kiss changed me. Reading, which had seemed a retreat from the world, was suddenly more vital, dangerous, and necessary. If before I had read haphazardly, bouncing from adventure to history to novels and the classics, now I read with focus and determination. For the next five years, I sought to expand and open the tiny fissure that had been created by that kiss. Suddenly, after years of feeling almost entirely disconnected from the sexual world, my reading was finally spurred both by curiosity and Eros. 

From an oppressive theological academy in southern Germany, where students struggled to learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, to the rooftops of Paris during the final days of Adolf Hitler’s occupation, I sought in books the company of poets and scholars, hoodlums and thieves, tormented aristocrats bouncing around the spas and casinos of Europe, expat Americans slumming it in the City of Light, an introspective Roman emperor lamenting a lost boyfriend, and a middle-aged author at the height of his powers and the brink of exhaustion. These were the worlds, and the men, presented by Gide, Jean Cocteau, Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, James Baldwin, Thomas Mann, and Robert Musil, to name only those whose writing has lingered with me. Some of these authors were linked by ties of friendship. Some of them were themselves more or less openly homosexual, others ambiguous or fluid in their desires, and others, by all evidence, bisexual or primarily heterosexual. It would be too much to say their work formed a canon of gay literature—but for those who sought such a canon, their work was about all one could find. 

And yet, in retrospect, and after rereading many of those books more than thirty years later, I’m astonished by how sad, furtive, and destructive an image of sexuality they presented. Today, we have an insipid idea of literature as self-discovery, and a reflexive conviction that young people—especially those struggling with identity or prejudice—need role models. But these books contained no role models at all, and they depicted self-discovery as a cataclysmic severance from society. The price of survival, for the self-aware homosexual, was a complete inversion of values, dislocation, wandering, and rebellion. One of the few traditions you were allowed to keep was misogyny. And most of the men represented in these books were not willing to pay the heavy price of rebellion and were, to appropriate Hesse’s phrase, ground beneath the wheel.

The value of these books wasn’t anything wholesome they contained, or any moral instruction they offered. Rather, it was the process of finding them, the thrill of reading them, the way the books themselves, like the men they depicted, detached you from the familiar moral landscape. They gave a name to the palpable, physical loneliness of sexual solitude, but they also greatly increased your intellectual and emotional solitude. Until very recently, the canon of literature for a gay kid was discovered entirely alone, by threads of connection that linked authors from intertwined demimondes. It was smuggling, but also scavenging. There was no internet, no “customers who bought this item also bought,” no helpful librarians steeped in the discourse of tolerance and diversity, and certainly no one in the adult world who could be trusted to give advice and advance the project of limning this still mostly forbidden body of work. 

The pleasure of finding new access to these worlds was almost always punctured by the bleakness of the books themselves. One of the two boys who kissed in that Hesse novel eventually came apart at the seams, lapsed into nervous exhaustion, and then one afternoon, after too much beer, he stumbled or willingly slid into a slow-moving river, where his body was found, like Ophelia’s, floating serenely and beautiful in the chilly waters. Hesse would blame poor Hans’s collapse on the severity of his education, and a lamentable disconnection from nature, friendship, and congenial social structures. But surely that kiss, and that friendship with a wayward poet, had something to do with it. As Hans is broken to pieces, he remembers that kiss, a sign that at some level Hesse felt it must be punished.

Hans was relatively lucky, dispensed with chaste, poetic discretion, like the lover in a song cycle by Franz Schubert or Robert Schumann. Other boys who found themselves enmeshed in the milieu of homoerotic desire were raped, bullied, or killed, or lapsed into madness, disease, or criminality. They were disposable or interchangeable, the objects of pederastic fixation, or the instrumental playthings of adult characters going through aesthetic, moral, or existential crises. Even the survivors face, at the end of these novels, the bleakest of futures: isolation, wandering, and a perverse form of aging in which the loss of youth is never compensated with wisdom.

One doesn’t expect novelists to give us happy endings. But looking back on many of the books I read during my age of smuggling, I’m profoundly disturbed by what I now recognize as their deeply entrenched homophobia. I wonder if it took a toll on me, if what seemed a process of self-liberation was inseparable from infection with the insecurities, evasions, and hypocrisy stamped into gay identity during the painful, formative decades of its nascence in the last century. I wonder how these books will survive, and in what form: historical documents, symptoms of an ugly era, cris de coeur of men (mostly men) who had made it only a few steps along the long road to true equality? Will we condescend to them, and treat their anguish with polite, clinical detachment? I hesitate to say that these books formed me, because that suggests too simplistic a connection between literature and character. But I can’t be the only gay man in middle age who now wonders if what seemed a gift at the time—the discovery of a literature of same-sex desire just respectable enough to circulate without suspicion—was in fact more toxic than a youth of that era could ever have anticipated.

 

2.

Before the mid-1990s, when the internet began to collapse the distinction between cities, suburbs, and everywhere else, books were the most reliable access to the larger world, and the only access to books was the bookstore or the library. The physical fact of a book was both a curse and a blessing. It made reading a potentially dangerous act if you were reading the wrong things, and of course, one had to physically find and possess the book. But the mere fact of being a book, the fact that someone had published the words and they were circulating in the world, gave a book the presumption of respectability, especially if it was deemed “literature.” There were, of course, bad or dangerous books in the world—and self-appointed guardians who sought to suppress and destroy them—but decent people assumed that these were safely contained within universities. 

I borrowed my copy of Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel from the library, so I can’t be sure whether it contained any of the small clues that led to other like-minded books. At least one copy I have found in a used bookstore does have an invaluable signpost on the back cover: “Along with Heinrich Mann’s The Blue Angel, Emil Strauss’s Friend Death, and Robert Musil’s Young Törless, all of which came out in the same period, it belongs to the genre of school novels.” Perhaps that’s what prompted me to read Musil’s far more complicated, beautifully written, and excruciating schoolboy saga. Hans, shy, studious, and trusting, led me to Törless, a bolder, meaner, more dangerous boy.

Other threads of connection came from the introductions, afterwords, footnotes, and the solicitations to buy other books found just inside the back cover. When I first started reading independently of classroom assignments and the usual boy’s diet of Rudyard Kipling, Jonathan Swift, Alexandre Dumas, and Jules Verne—reading without guidance and with all the odd detours and byways of an autodidact—I devised a three-part test for choosing a new volume: First, a book had to have a black or orange spine, then the colors of Penguin Classics, which someone had assured me was a reliable brand; second, I had to be able to finish the book within a few days, lest I waste the opportunity of my weekly visit to the bookstore; and third, I had to be hooked by the narrative within one or two pages. That is certainly what led me, by chance, to Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, a rather slight and pretentious novel of incestuous infatuation, gender slippage, homoerotic desire, and surreal distortions of time and space. I knew nothing of Cocteau, but was intrigued by one of his line drawings on the cover, which showed two androgynous teenagers, and a summary which assured it was about a boy named Paul, who worshipped a fellow student. 

I still have that copy of Cocteau. In the back, there was yet more treasure, a whole page devoted to advertising the novels of Gide (The Immoralist is described as “The story of man’s rebellion against social and sexual conformity”) and another to Genet (The Thief’s Journal is “a voyage of discovery beyond all moral laws; the expression of a philosophy of perverted vice, the working out of an aesthetic degradation”). These little précis were themselves a guide to the coded language—“illicit, corruption, hedonism”—that often, though not infallibly, led to other enticing books. And yet one might follow these little broken twigs and crushed leaves only to end up in the frustrating world of mere decadence, Wagnerian salons, undirected voluptuousness, the enervating eccentricities of Joris-Karl Huysmans, or the chaste, coy allusions to vice in Wilde.

Finally, there were a handful of narratives that had successfully transitioned into open and public respectability, even if always slightly tainted by scandal. If the local theater company still performed Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, who could fault a boy for reading The Picture of Dorian Gray? Conveniently, a 1982 Bantam Classics edition contained both, and also the play Salomé. Wilde’s novel was a skein of brilliant banter stretched over a rather silly, Gothic tale, and the hiding-in-plain-sight of its homoeroticism was deeply unfulfilling. Even then, too scared to openly acknowledge my own feelings, I found Wilde’s obfuscations embarrassing. More powerful than anything in the highly contrived and overwrought games of Dorian was a passing moment in Salomé when the Page of Herodias obliquely confesses his love for the Young Syrian, who has committed suicide in disgust at Salomé’s licentious display. “He has killed himself,” the boy laments, “the man who was my friend! I gave him a little box of perfumes and earrings wrought in silver, and now he has killed himself.” It was these moments that slipped through, sudden intimations of honest feeling, which made plowing through Wilde’s self-indulgence worth the effort.

Then there was the most holy and terrifying of all the publicly respectable representations of homosexual desire, Mann’s Death in Venice, which might even be found in one’s parents’ library, the danger of its sexuality safely ossified inside the imposing façade of its reputation. A boy who read Death in Venice wasn’t slavering over a beautiful Polish adolescent in a sailor’s suit, he was climbing a mountain of sorts, proving his devotion to culture. 

But a boy who read Death in Venice was receiving a very strange moral and sentimental education. Great love was somehow linked to intellectual crisis, a symptom of mental exhaustion. It was entirely inward and unrequited, and it was likely triggered by some dislocation of the self from familiar surroundings, to travel, new sights and smells, and hot climates. It was unsettling and isolating, and drove one to humiliating vanities and abject voyeurism. Like so much of what one found in Wilde (perfumed and swaddled in cant), Gide (transplanted to the colonial realms of North Africa where bourgeois morality was suspended), or Genet (floating freely in the postwar wreckage and flotsam of values, ideals, and norms), Death in Venice also required a young reader to locate himself somewhere on the inexorable axis of pederastic desire. 

In retrospect I understand that this fixation on older men who suddenly have their worlds shattered by the brilliant beauty of a young man or adolescent was an intentional, even ironic repurposing of the classical approbation of Platonic pederasty. It allowed the “uranist”—to use the pejorative Victorian term for a homosexual—to broach, tentatively and under the cover of a venerable and respected literary tradition, the broader subject of same-sex desire. While for some, especially Gide, pederasty was the ideal, for others it may have been a gateway to discussing desire among men of relatively equal age and status, what we now think of as being gay. But as an eighteen-year-old reader, I had no interest in being on the receiving end of the attentions of older men; and as a middle-aged man, no interest in children. 

The dynamics of the pederastic dyad—like so many narratives of colonialism—also meant that in most cases, the boy was silent, seemingly without an intellectual or moral life. He was pure object, pure receptivity, unprotesting, perfect and perfectly silent in his beauty. When Benjamin Britten composed his last opera, based on Mann’s novella, the youth is portrayed by a dancer, voiceless in a world of singing, present only as an ideal body moving in space. In Gide’s Immoralist, the boys of Algeria (and Italy and France) are interchangeable, lost in the torrents of monologue from the narrator, Michel, who wants us to believe that they are mere instruments in his long, agonizing process of self-discovery and liberation. In Genet’s Funeral Rites, a frequently pornographic novel of sexual violence among the partisans and collaborators of Paris during the liberation, the narrator/author even attempts to make a virtue of the interchangeability of his young objects of desire: “The characters in my books all resemble each other,” he says. He’s right, and he amplifies their sameness by suppressing or eliding their personalities, dropping identifying names or pronouns as he shifts between their individual stories, often reducing them to anonymous body parts.

By reducing boys and young men to ciphers, the narrative space becomes open for untrammeled displays of solipsism, narcissism, self-pity, and of course self-justification. These books, written over a period of decades, by authors of vastly different temperaments and sexualities, are surprisingly alike in this claustrophobia of desire and subjugation of the other. Indeed, the psychological violence done to the male object of desire is often worse in authors who didn’t manifest any particular personal interest in same-sex desire. For example, in Musil’s Confusions of Young Törless, a gentle and slightly effeminate boy named Basini becomes a tool for the social, intellectual, and emotional advancement of three classmates who are all, presumably, destined to get married and lead entirely heterosexual lives. One student uses Basini to learn how to exercise power and manipulate people in preparation for a life of public accomplishment; another tortures him to test his confused spiritual theories, a stew of supposedly Eastern mysticism; and Törless turns to him, and turns on him, simply to feel something, to sense his presence and power in the world, to add to the stockroom of his mind and soul. 

We are led to believe that this last form of manipulation is, in its effect on poor Basini, the cruelest. Later in the book, when Musil offers us the classic irony of the bildungsroman—the guarantee that everything that has happened was just a phase, a way station on the path of authorial evolution—he explains why Törless “never felt remorse” for what he did to Basini: 

For the only real interest [that “aesthetically inclined intellectuals” like the older Törless] feel is concentrated on the growth of their own soul, or personality, or whatever one may call the thing within us that every now and then increases by the addition of some idea picked up between the lines of a book, or which speaks to us in the silent language of a painting[,] the thing that every now and then awakens when some solitary, wayward tune floats past us and away, away into the distance, whence with alien movements tugs at the thin scarlet thread of our blood—the thing that is never there when we are writing minutes, building machines, going to the circus, or following any of the hundreds of other similar occupations.

The conquest of beautiful boys, whether a hallowed tradition of all-male schools or the vestigial remnant of classical poetry, is simply another way to add to one’s fund of poetic and emotional knowledge, like going to the symphony. Today we might be blunter: To refine his aesthetic sensibility, Törless participated in the rape, torture, humiliation, and emotional abuse of a gay kid. 

And he did it in a confined space. It is a recurring theme (and perhaps cliché) of many of these novels that homoerotic desire must be bounded within narrow spaces, dark rooms, private attics, as if the breach in conventional morality opened by same-sex desire demands careful, diligent, and architectural containment. The boys who beat and sodomize Basini do it in a secret space in the attic above their prep school. Throughout much of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, two siblings inhabit a darkly enchanted room, bickering and berating each other as they attempt to displace unrequited or forbidden desires onto acceptable alternatives. Cocteau helpfully gives us a sketch of this room—a few wispy lines that suggest something that Henri Matisse might have painted—with two beds, parallel to each other, as if in a hospital ward. Sickness, of course, is ever present throughout almost all of these novels as well: The cholera that kills Aschenbach in Death in Venice, the tuberculosis which Michel overcomes and to which his hapless wife succumbs in The Immoralist, and the pallor, ennui, listlessness, and fevers of Cocteau. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, a later, more deeply ambivalent contribution to this canon of illness and enclosure, takes its name from the cramped, cluttered chambre de bonne that contains this desire, with the narrator keenly aware that if what happens there—a passionate relationship between a young American man in Paris and his Italian boyfriend—escapes that space, the world of possibilities for gay men would explode. But floods of booze, perhaps alcoholism, and an almost suicidal emotional frailty haunt this space, too. 

Often, it is the author’s relation to these dark spaces that gives us our only reliable sense of how he envisioned the historical trajectory of being gay. In Cocteau’s novel, the room becomes a ship, or a portal, transporting the youth into the larger world of adult desires. The lines are fluid, but there is a possibility of connection between the perfervid world of contained sexuality and the larger universe of sanctioned desires. In Baldwin, the young Italian proposes the two men keep their room as a space apart, a refuge for secret assignations, even as his American lover prepares to reunite with his fiancée and return to a life of normative sexuality. They could continue their relationship privately, on the side, a quiet compromise between two sexual realms. But Musil’s attic, essentially a torture chamber, is a much more desperate space, a permanent ghetto for illicit desire.

Even those among these books that were self-consciously written to advance the cause of gay men, to make their anguish more comprehensible to a reflexively hostile straight audience, leave almost no room—no space—for many openly gay readers. The parallels with colonial discourse are troubling: The colonized “other,” the homosexual making his appeal to straight society, must in turn pass on the violence and colonize and suppress yet weaker or more marginal figures on the spectrum of sexuality. Thus, in the last of Gide’s daring dialogues in defense of homosexuality, first published piecemeal then together commercially as Corydon in 1924—a tedious book full of pseudoscience and speculative extensions of Darwinian theory—the narrator contemptuously dismisses the unmanly homosexual: “If you please, we’ll leave the inverts aside for now. The trouble is that ill-informed people confuse them with normal homosexuals. And you understand, I hope, what I mean by ‘inverts.’ After all, heterosexuality too includes certain degenerates, people who are sick and obsessed.”

Along with the effeminate, the old and the aging are also beneath contempt. The casual scorn in Mann’s novella, for an older man whom Aschenbach encounters on his passage to Venice, is almost as horrifying as the sexual abuse and mental torture of young Basini in Musil’s novel. Among gay men, Mann’s painted clown is one of the most unsettling figures in literature, a “young-old man” whom Mann calls a “repulsive sight.” He apes the manners and dress of youth, but has false teeth and bad makeup, luridly colored clothing, and a rakish hat, and is desperately trying to run with a younger crowd of men: “He was an old man, beyond a doubt, with wrinkles and crow’s feet round eyes and mouth; the dull carmine of the cheeks was rouge, the brown hair a wig.” Mann’s writing rises to a suspiciously incandescent brilliance in his descriptions of this supposedly loathsome figure. For reasons entirely unnecessary to the plot or development of his central characters, Baldwin resurrects Mann’s grotesquerie, in a phantasmagorical scene that describes an encounter between his young American protagonist and a nameless old “queen” who approaches him in a bar:

The face was white and thoroughly bloodless with some kind of foundation cream; it stank of powder and a gardenia-like perfume. The shirt, open coquettishly to the navel, revealed a hairless chest and a silver crucifix; the shirt was covered with paper-thin wafers, red and green and orange and yellow and blue, which stormed in the light and made one feel that the mummy might, at any moment, disappear in flame.

This is the future to which the narrator—and by extension the reader if he is a gay man—is condemned. Unless, of course, he succumbs to disease or addiction. At best, there is a retreat from society, perhaps to someplace where the economic differential between the Western pederast and the colonized boy makes an endless string of anonymous liaisons economically feasible. Violent death is the worst of the escapes. Not content with merely parodying older gay men, Baldwin must also murder them. In a scene that does gratuitous violence to the basic voice and continuity of the book, the narrator imagines in intimate detail events he has not actually witnessed: the murder of a flamboyant bar owner who sexually harasses and extorts the young Giovanni (by this point betrayed, abandoned, and reduced to what is, in effect, prostitution). The murder happens behind closed doors, safely contained in a room filled with “silks, colors, perfumes.” 

  

3.

If I remember with absolute clarity the first same-sex kiss I encountered in literature, I don’t remember very well when my interest in specifically homoerotic narrative began to wane. But again, thanks to the physicality of the book, I have an archaeology more reliable than memory. As a young reader, I was in the habit of writing the date when I finished a book on the inside front cover, and so I know that sometime shortly before I turned twenty-one, my passion for dark tales of unrequited desire, sexual manipulation, and destructive Nietz- schean paroxysms of self-transcendence peaked then flagged. That was also the same time that I came out to friends and family, which was prompted by the complete loss of hope that a long and unrequited love for a classmate might be returned. Logic suggests that these events were related, that the collapse of romantic illusions and the subsequent initiation of an actual erotic life with real, living people dulled the allure of Wilde, Gide, Mann, and the other authors who were loosely in their various orbits. 

It happened this way: For several years I had been drawn to a young man who seemed to me curiously like Hans from Hesse’s novel. Physically, at least, they were alike: “Deep-set, uneasy eyes glowed dimly in his handsome and delicate face; fine wrinkles, signs of troubled thinking, twitched on his forehead, and his thin, emaciated arms and hands hung at his side with the weary gracefulness reminiscent of a figure by Botticelli.” But in every other way, my beloved was an invention. I projected onto him an elaborate but entirely imaginary psychology, which I now suspect was cobbled together from bits and pieces of the books I had been reading. He was sad, silent, and doomed, like Hans, but also cold, remote, and severe, like Törless, cruelly beautiful like all the interchangeable sailors and hoodlums in Genet, but also intellectual, suffering, and mystically connected to dark truths from which I was excluded. When I recklessly confessed my love to him—how long I had nurtured it and how complex, beautiful, and poetic it was—he responded not with anger or disgust, but impatience: “You can’t put all this on me.”

He was right. It took me only a few days to realize it intellectually, a few weeks to begin accepting it emotionally, and a few years not to feel fear and shame in his presence. He had recognized in an instant that what I had felt for years, rather like Swann for Odette, had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t even love, properly speaking. I can’t claim that it was all clear to me at the time, that I was conscious of any connection between what I had read and the excruciating dead end of my own fantasy life. I make these connections in retrospect. But the realization that I would never be with him because he didn’t in fact exist—not in the way I imagined him—must have soured me on the literature of longing, torment, and convoluted desire. And the challenge and excitement of negotiating a genuine erotic life rendered so much of what I had found in these books painfully dated and irrelevant. 

I want to be rigorously honest about my feelings for this literature, whether it distorted my sense of self, and even, perhaps, corrupted my imagination. The safe thing to say is that I can’t possibly find an answer to that, not simply because memory is unreliable, but because we never know whether books implant things in us, or merely confirm what is already there. In Young Törless, Musil proposes the idea that the great literature of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and William Shakespeare is essentially a transitional crutch for young minds, a mental prosthesis or substitute identity during the formlessness of adolescence: “These associations originating outside, and these borrowed emotions, carry young people over the dangerously soft spiritual ground of the years in which they need to be of some significance to themselves and nevertheless are still too incomplete to have any real significance.”

It’s important to divorce the question of how these books may have influenced me from the malicious accusations of corruption that have dogged gay fiction from the beginning. In the course of our reading lives, we will devour dozens, perhaps hundreds, of crude, scabrous, violent books, with no discernible impact on our moral constitution. And homosexual writers certainly didn’t invent the general connection between sexuality and illness, or the thin line between passion and violence, or sadism and masochism, or the sexual exploitation of the young or defenseless. And the mere mention of same-sex desire is still seen in too many places around the world today as inherently destructive to young minds. Gide’s Corydon decried the illogic of this a century ago: “And if, in spite of advice, invitations, provocations of all kinds, he should manifest a homosexual tendency, you immediately blame his reading or some other influence (and you argue in the same way for an entire nation, an entire people); it has to be an acquired taste, you insist; he must have been taught it; you refuse to admit that he might have invented it all by himself.”

And I want to register an important caveat about the literature of same-sex desire: It is not limited to the books I read, the authors I encountered, or the tropes that now seem to me so sad and destructive. In 1928, E. M. Forster wrote a short story called “Arthur Snatchfold” that wasn’t published until 1972, two years after the author’s death. In it, an older man, Sir Richard Conway, respectable in all ways, visits the country estate of a business acquaintance, where he has a quick, early-morning sexual encounter with a young delivery man in a field near the house. Later, as Sir Richard chats with his host at their club in London, he learns that the liaison was seen by a policeman, the young man was arrested, and the authorities sent him to prison. To his great relief, Sir Richard also learns that he himself is safe from discovery, that the “other man” was never identified, and despite great pressure on the working-class man to incriminate his upper-class partner, he refused to do so. 

“He [the delivery man] was instantly removed from the court and as he went he shouted back at us—you’ll never credit this—that if he and the old grandfather didn’t mind it why should anyone else,” says Sir Richard’s host, fatuously indignant about the whole affair. Sir Richard, ashamed and sad but trapped in the armor of his social position, does the only thing he can: “Taking a notebook from his pocket, he wrote down the name of his lover, yes, his lover who was going to prison to save him, in order that he might not forget it.” It isn’t a great story, but it is an important moment in the evolution of an idea of loyalty and honor within the emerging category of homosexual identity. I didn’t discover it until years after it might have done me some good. 

Forster’s story is exceptional because only one man is punished, and he is given a voice—and a final, clear, unequivocal protest against the injustice. The other man escapes, but into shame, guilt, and self-recrimination. And yet it is the escapee who takes up the pen and begins to write. We might say of Sir Richard what we often say of our parents as we come to peace with them: He did the best he could. And for all the internalized homophobia of the authors I began reading more than thirty years ago, I would say the same thing. They did the best they could. They certainly did far more than privately inscribe a name in a book. I can’t honestly say that I would have had even Sir Richard’s limited courage in 1928.

But Forster’s story, which he didn’t dare publish while he was alive, is the exception, not the rule. It is painful to read the bulk of this early canon, and it will only become more and more painful, as gay subcultures dissolve, and the bourgeois respectability that so many of these authors abandoned yet craved becomes the norm. In Genet, marriage between two men was the ultimate profanation, one of the strongest inversions of value the author could muster to scandalize his audience and delight his rebellious readers. The image of same-sex marriage was purely explosive, a strategy for blasting apart the hypocrisy and pretentions of traditional morality. Today, it is becoming commonplace. 

I wonder if these books will survive like the literature of abolition, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—marginal, dated, remembered as important for its earnest, sentimental ambition, but also a catalog of stereotypes. Or if they will be mostly forgotten, like the nineteenth-century literature of aesthetic perversity and decadence that many of these authors so deeply admired? Will Gide and Genet be as obscure to readers as Huysmans and the Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore-Lucien Ducasse)? 

I hope not, and not least because they mattered to me, and helped forge a common language of reference among many gay men of my generation. I hope they survive for the many poignant epitaphs they contain, grave markers for the men who were used, abused, and banished from their pages. Let me write them down in my notebook, so I don’t forget their names: Hans, who loved Hermann; Basini, who loved Törless; the Page of Herodias, who loved the Young Syrian; Giovanni, who loved David; and the all rest, unnamed, often with no voice, but not forgotten. 

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Eric N's picture
Eric N · 1 year ago

Thank you for writing this. Your experience mirrors much of my experience, and I now have a new psychological understanding thanks to your perspective.

Somehow on my journey, I did find (or muster up the courage to purchase) a Gordon Merrick gay romance novel somewhere along the way - perhaps at age 17 or so (maybe 1982?) - but again it wasn't exactly a positive hopeful message.  It seemed to underscore the illicit and shameful homosexual sex act - but it was steamy!  

Cheers and thanks again.

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Fred Robinson's picture
Fred Robinson · 1 year ago

Often overlooked is E. F, (Edward Frederic) Benson, 1867-1940.  Benson was the son of an archbishop of Canterbury, and wrote a number of clearly homoerotic novels, som of which, like DAVID BLAIZE based on hos school experiences, both before and during his time at Cambridge.  He is best known for the "Lucia" series of novels that ended with Benson's untimely death in 1940.  It is obvious from the final novel that he left his readers prepared for more.

This series is littered with witty utterances and observations, a clever satire of upper class town dwellers, ratheer than the London smart set,which does not escale his pen unscathed.  Primaily, however, the cast of characters is replete with androgynous people. The main male character is the epitome of the asexual closet queen, the women who love him and the men who sneer at him.

The series experienced a revival of sorts during the 70s and 80s with the introduction of a television series based on them and called "MAPP &  LUCIA."  Casting, however, for those who had already read the novels, was unfortunate, and dear Geraldine McEwan developed a most unreal high-pitched conversational voice.

These novels of Benson are wonderful and reflective o the attitudes prevalent in Britain durin the periods covered.  They reflect those attitudes, though never in a cynical or outright hostile manner. In short, Benson, himself  hoosexual, used these novels, I think, as a confident way of writing positively about gay or andeogynous people in society as worthy of knowing, no matter how silly that society at large regarded their oddities.   

There exist today a number of societies devoted to Benson and his work.  The most notable is The Tilling Society, headquartered in Rye, the town where Benson lived a good bit of his adult life and which he used as a model for he fictional town of  Tilling, on the south coast of England.

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Ivan W's picture
Ivan W · 1 year ago

A beautiful piece of thinking and writing.  John Rechy's "City of Night" didn't come under consideration possibly because its literary reputation doesn't compare to the works Kennicott cites.  But that sprawling, elegiac series of sexual adventures fits the overall thrust of the works examined here in the way its wandering anti-hero, who as a hustler is hardly typical of most gay young men, discovers color and freedom and a kind of joy in the dark corners of gay life from California to New York to New Orleans, yet finally rejects love when its possibility is presented.  Gayness in the novel seems to carry a built-in flight from closeness.  Why, then, did "City of Night" mean so much to gay men of my generation, born during and just after WWII?  Why did the protagonist's sexual outlawry strike us a bold, hopeful, courageous, when we could never lead his itinerant life?  The novel helped a lot of us face who we were and nurture our gayness, knowing that we largely still had to keep it hidden -- but we had each other, the book said, if only we could find one another.  I'd love for Kennicott to take up later works like "The Boys in the Band", "Brokeback Mountain" and the novels of David Leavitt to see how they suggested new, if cautious, options for gay openness.  And I fervently wish he'd throw "City of Night" into the mix.  This is s fine article and I'd love to read more.

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