A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition 
by Gregory Woods.
Yale, 448 pp., £24.95, February 1998, 0 300 07201 5
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In his essay ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, Borges wrote that the Argentine writer, and the South American writer, by virtue of being distant and close at the same time, had more ‘rights’ to Western culture than anyone in any Western nation. He went on to explore the extraordinary contribution of the Jewish artist to Western culture and of the Irish writer to English literature. For them, he argued, it was ‘enough, the fact of being Irish and different, to be innovators within English culture’. Similarly, Jewish artists ‘work within the culture and at the same time do not feel tied to it through any special devotion’. His essay was written around 1932, a long time before any clear view emerged of the gay writer’s place in literary tradition, and before the idea emerged that Irish, Jewish or gay (or, later, South American) writing was itself the centre rather than the periphery renewing the centre.

Borges was, in many ways, a conservative man, and a cautious critic. He would have been interested in the notion that many or most of the figures who recreated modern writing were gay, or Irish, or Jewish: Melville, Whitman, Hopkins, James, Yeats, Kafka, Woolf, Joyce, Stein, Beckett, Mann, Proust, Gide, Firbank, Lorca, Cocteau, Auden, Forster, Cavafy. But he would have been slightly unsettled, I think, by the thought of the gay element in this list, and by the idea that in place of ‘Irish’ or ‘Jewish’ or ‘Argentine’ in his essay on tradition, you could put the word ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’. He would also, I think, be disturbed by the idea that you could find enough traces, or indeed direct evidence, in the work of, say, Shakespeare and Marlowe and Bacon to declare them, too, part of the gay tradition, the secret dotted line that runs right through Western literature. Yet, like most writers, Borges was obsessed with what came before him, with the books and writers – Quixote, the gaucho Martín Fierro, Flaubert, Kipling – that represented his own secret dotted line to the past. He could not have done without them.

It is easy to argue about the uncertain Irishness of certain writers. Was Sterne Irish? Was Oliver Goldsmith Irish? Was Robert Tressell Irish? Is Iris Murdoch Irish? But the argument about who was gay and who was not and how we know is more difficult. How can someone be gay if, as in the case of Gogol, there is no direct evidence? Yet if you trawl through Gogol’s stories with grim determination, you will find a hidden world of signs and moments, fears and prejudices, and these can be interpreted as evidence of his homosexuality.

Why bother? Why should this matter? It matters because as gay readers and writers become more visible and confident, and gay politics more settled and serious, gay history becomes a vital element in gay identity, just as Irish history does in Ireland, or Jewish history among Jewish people. It is not simply a question of finding obscure traces of a gay presence in the past, although there is that as well, but of including writers – Whitman is a good example – who were clearly and explicitly gay, and whose homosexuality, ignored by most critics and teachers, has a considerable bearing on their work. Straight critics have tended to write about gay writers as though they were straight, or as though it did not matter which they were. Lionel Trilling published a book on E.M. Forster’s fiction in 1944. In 1972, he wrote to Cynthia Ozick that

it wasn’t until I had finished my book on Forster that I came to the explicit realisation that he was homosexual. I’m not sure whether this was because of a particular obtuseness on my part or because … homosexuality hadn’t yet formulated itself as an issue in the culture. When the realisation did come, it at first didn’t seem of crucial importance, but that view soon began to change.

The gay past in writing is sometimes explicit and sometimes hidden, while the gay present is, for the most part, only explicit. Soon in the Western world being gay will no longer involve difficulty and discrimination. In some places, especially cities, this is the case even now, to the extent that the phrase ‘post-gay’ is slowly becoming current. Therefore, how we read the past, and read into the past, and judge the past are likely to become matters of more open debate. The temptation to make anachronistic judgments and ask anachronistic questions is hard to avoid. Why didn’t Thomas Mann come out? Why didn’t Forster publish Maurice in 1914, when he wrote it? Why didn’t the American critic F.O. Matthiessen write a history of gay American writing? How come Lionel Trilling didn’t realise that Forster was gay? And why are gay lives presented as tragic in so much writing? Why can’t gay writers give gay men happy endings, as Jane Austen gave heterosexuals? Why is gay life often presented as darkly sensational?

The actions and attitudes of the past, even the recent past, remain almost unimaginable now, things have changed so quickly. As recently as 1970 the essayist Joseph Epstein could write the following in Harper’s magazine:

Private acceptance of homosexuality, in my experience, is not to be found, even among the most liberal-minded, sophisticated and liberated people. Homosexuality may be the one subject left in America about which there is no official hypocrisy … Cursed without clear cause, afflicted without apparent cure, they are an affront to our rationality, living evidence of our despair of ever finding a sensible, an explainable design to the world.

And if one of his four sons turned out to be gay, he continued, he ‘would know them condemned to a state of permanent niggerdom among men, their lives, whatever adjustments they might make to their condition, to be lived out as part of the pain of the earth’.

In a chapter entitled ‘The Pink Triangle’, Gregory Woods writes:

After the ‘liberation’ of the camps by the Allies, those survivors who wore the pink triangle – denoting that they had been imprisoned as homosexuals – were treated as common criminals who had deserved their in-carceration. Many were transferred to prisons proper to serve out their terms … The pink triangle was left off Holocaust memorials … The Nazis had introduced a stricter version of the anti-homosexual law in Paragraph 175 of the German penal code in 1935. Unlike other Nazi laws, this was not repealed at the end of the war.

Other communities who have been oppressed – Jewish people, say, or Catholics in Northern Ireland – have every opportunity to work out the implications of their oppression in their early lives. They hear the stories; they have the books around them. Gay people, on the other hand, grow up alone; there is no history. There are no ballads about the wrongs of the past, the martyrs are all forgotten. It is as though, in Adrienne Rich’s phrase, ‘you looked into the mirror and saw nothing.’ Thus the discovery of a history and a heritage has to be made by each individual as part of the road to freedom, or at least knowledge, but it also has serious implications for readers and critics who are not particularly concerned about gay identity, and it also has serious dangers.

Let us begin with Whitman; he is the easiest. His poem ‘When I Heard at the Close of the Day’ is written in one sentence. Even though the narrator hears how his ‘name had been received with plaudits in the capitol’, the poem tells us, it is still not a happy night for him, but ‘when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy’ and the poem ends:

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me
under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams
his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast –
and that night I was happy.

This is only one of Whitman’s explicitly gay love poems. It is easy to imagine F.O. Matthiessen and his lover Russell Cheney reading it in the Twenties. Since they had no role models and no sense of being part of any tradition it was the sort of work which was important for them. Matthiessen wrote: ‘Of course this life of ours is entirely new – neither of us knows a parallel case. We stand in the middle of an uncharted, uninhabited country. That there have been other unions like ours is obvious, but we are unable to draw on their experience. We must create everything for ourselves. And creation is never easy.’

During the years when Matthiessen explored this ‘uncharted, uninhabited country’, he taught at Harvard and wrote The American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, published in 1941, which became the most influential book on the subject. (His omission of Emily Dickinson has, in recent years, damaged the book’s canon-forming status.) His essay on Whitman is more than a hundred pages long. He writes with great subtlety about Whitman’s language, the tension between the vernacular and the abstract, the practical and the transcendental. He writes about the influences on Whitman, including opera and painting, and about the influence of Whitman on others, including Henry James – who read Whitman, he told Edith Wharton, in ‘a mood of subdued ecstasy’ – and Hopkins, who wrote: ‘I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman’s mind to be more like my own than any man living.’ ‘Hopkins must have been referring,’ Matthiessen writes, ‘to Whitman’s homosexuality and his own avoidance of this latent strain in himself.’ In a footnote, he quotes in full and without comment an explicitly homosexual letter from Whitman to a friend.

Fifty pages earlier, Matthiessen has also referred to Whitman’s homosexuality. He is writing about a passage at the beginning of Song of Myself:

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-strip’t heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.

Matthiessen’s commentary is vaguely disapproving of the tone of this passage. ‘In the passivity of the poet’s body,’ he writes, ‘there is a quality vaguely pathological and homosexual.’ It is a sentence which, fifty years or more after it was written, burns on the page. Pathological and homosexual. Jonathan Arac, who edited Matthiessen’s letters, wrote that ‘to create the centrally authoritative critical identity of American Renaissance, much had to be displaced, or scattered, or disavowed.’ Matthiessen was aware of this. In January 1930 he wrote to his boyfriend: ‘My sexuality bothers me, feller, sometimes when it makes me aware of the falseness of my position in the world. And consciousness of my falseness seems to sap my confidence of power. Have I any right to live in a community that would so utterly disapprove of me if it knew the facts? I hate to hide when what I thrive on is absolute directness.’

‘For most of his students and younger colleagues,’ the Dictionary of American Biography says, ‘Matthiessen’s homosexuality was suggested, if at all, only by the fact that his circle was more predominantly heterosexual than was usual in Harvard literary groups at the time and that he was unusually hostile to homosexual colleagues who mixed their academic and sexual relations.’ In 1950, five years after the death of his lover, and shortly before he was due to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee – he was also a left-wing activist – Matthiessen jumped from the 12th floor of a Boston hotel and killed himself. He was 48.

In our search for a gay heritage, it is easy to lay claim to Whitman and show how deeply influential his homosexuality was on the way he used language in his poems, but what do we do about Matthiessen? He lived two lives, and he was not alone in that; he felt deeply uncomfortable about his homosexuality and that of others, and he was not alone in that either. This is not to say that these choices were imposed on him: of course he had a choice. But it would have been difficult: it would have taken heroic courage, and there was something about Matthiessen’s intelligence which was deeply suspicious of the heroic. What we have are his letters and journals and his critical work: the tone of one is clearly gay (and open and loose); the tone of the other is brilliant and academic and discloses nothing, except his fear of homosexuality. This fear belongs to us all: it is something that almost every gay person has felt at some level, at some age, in some place. The gay past is not pure (as the Irish past can often seem too pure); it is duplicitous and slippery, and it requires a great deal of sympathy and understanding.

The gay past, then, contains silence and fear as well as Whitman’s poems and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and this may be why the work of Kafka continues to interest gay readers so much, and why it is so easy to find a gay subtext in Kafka’s novels and stories. Some critics go further, however. ‘It is only when one reads the totality of Kafka’s writings,’ Ruth Tiefenbrun has written,

that it becomes apparent that the predicament of all his heroes is based on the fact that they are all homosexuals … Since Kafka spent his entire lifetime deliberately concealing his homosexuality, it is not at all surprising that there are relatively few overt references to homosexuality in his personal letters, diaries, notebooks, or in his creative works … Kafka shares with his fellow deviants their most distinctive trait: their simultaneous need to conceal themselves and to exhibit themselves.

Gregory Woods in A History of Gay Literature considers Ruth Tiefenbrun’s theories too reductive of Kafka’s genius, but convincing in relation to his work. ‘The question we have to ask ourselves,’ he writes, ‘is whether, in order to appreciate the texts in question as gay literature, we have to accept a largely speculative narrative about the author’s life … In short, why should a text not be its own proof of the readings one performs upon it?’ The argument then moves from what Kafka meant, to what Kafka really meant, to what we mean when we read Kafka.

I think we mean a great deal. The stories and novels dramatise the lives of isolated male protagonists who are forced to take nothing for granted, who are in danger of being discovered and revealed for who they really are (‘Metamorphosis’), or who are unfairly whispered about (‘Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.’), or whose relations with other men are full of half-hidden and barely-hidden and often clear longings (‘Description of a Struggle’ or certain scenes in The Castle). ‘No other writer of our century,’ Irving Howe has written, ‘has so strongly evoked the claustral sensations of modern experience, sensations of bewilderment, loss, guilt, dispossession … The aura of crisis hanging over Kafka’s life and work is at once intimately subjective, his alone, and austerely impersonal, known to all of us.’ The aura of crisis arises of course from Kafka’s being a German-speaking Jew in Prague, a genius in a bourgeois world and, for gay readers at least, if not for Irving Howe, a homosexual. This is not to suggest that gay readers want Kafka to be read as a gay writer only, although some do, but as a figure whose work was sufficiently affected by his homosexuality for various parts of it to be read as a parable about a gay man in a hostile city, as well as a non-believing Jewish man, as well as a 20th-century man.

Gregory Woods has a brilliant reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four which casts some doubt on this reading of Kafka. He sees Winston and Julia’s illicit, furtive love affair, and the efforts of Orwell’s thought police to do away with sex and sexuality, as an account of the lives of gay men in London in 1948, the year the novel was written. Woods quotes passages like this: ‘He wished that he were walking through the streets with her just as they were doing now but openly and without fear, talking of trivialities and buying odds and ends for the household. He wished above all that they had some place where they could be alone together without feeling the obligation to make love every time they met.’ And comments: ‘Gay readers may recognise this as a murmur from the closet. Which brings us to the point.’

Woods’s point is this: ‘whenever I read Nineteen Eighty-Four I cannot help imagining, between its lines, the spectral presence of another novel, a gay novel called “Nineteen Forty-Eight”, in which two young Londoners called Winston and Julian fall in love with each other and struggle to sustain their relationship under the continuous threat of blackmail, exposure and arrest.’ He realises, of course, that neither Orwell nor his straight readers had any idea that the novel could be read in this way. ‘What read as a futuristic nightmare to the heterosexual reader must have seemed to the homosexual reader somewhat paranoid and ignorant, because so close to the reality of homosexual life in England at the time – but showing no sign that Orwell was aware of this fact.’

The gay reader, then, especially the reader schooled in the world before Stonewall, moves subjectively among texts which deal with forbidden territory, secrecy, fear. While there is some evidence in Kafka’s work that he may have been desperately trying both to hide his sexuality and at the same time deal with it, there is no such evidence in Orwell’s work and, indeed, his biographers are clear and convincing on the matter of his heterosexuality in a way that Kafka’s are not. Nonetheless, as Woods emphasises, the reader is the one who makes the difference.

In her Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes: ‘it was only close to the end of the 19th century that a cross-class homosexual role and a consistent, ideologically full thematic discourse of male homosexuality became entirely visible, in developments that were publicly dramatised in – though far from confined to – the Wilde trials.’ Kosofsky Sedgwick is careful not to push the matter further, but other writers – Woods calls them ‘Post-Foucauldian’ – have taken the view that until the time of the Wilde trial there wasn’t really a concept of homosexuality, even among those sexually attracted to their own sex: there were homosexual acts, but because of the lack of a visible discourse, it is difficult to know, until Wilde, what this meant, even to the individuals involved. Gregory Woods writes about Théophile Gautier’s novel Mademoiselle de Maupin, published in 1835, in which the hero d’Albert realises that he loves a man and considers the implications of that:

This is how a Frenchman came out to himself (and to his closest friend) in 1835. Note that he believes his life has fundamentally changed. He is not simply disturbed at the thought that he has, just this once and temporarily, been physically aroused by a man’s body, nor even by that thought’s implication, that he could act on that arousal and make love with the male body in question. No, the issue goes much deeper than that, and is a question of the essence of his personality, rather than just a fleeting physical aberration.

This, as Woods points out, would later be called ‘homosexuality’. It can still be argued that what Woods describes in Gautier’s novel has happened to people since the beginning of time (or, perhaps more accurately, the beginning of people). Those to whom it happened were, it seems, generally sensible enough to keep it to themselves, or, indeed, to keep it away from themselves, until recent years, and ostensibly fall in with whatever sexual mores their society insisted on (in Greece and Rome relations between men of the same age and exclusive homosexuality were quite different from relations between men and boys).

Any indication given by anyone about homosexual feelings between the fall of the Roman Empire and the trial of Oscar Wilde is of enormous interest, which is why some 16th-century texts in English, such as the first 126 Sonnets, are important gay texts, as are certain scenes in Shakespeare’s plays. Woods points first to the plays and asks us to consider Antonio in The Merchant of Venice as gay and, more convincingly, Achilles and Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida; and then quotes the passage from Othello where Iago recounts being in bed with Cassio (nothing special about that, Woods emphasises) and hearing him say ‘Sweet Desdemona’ and then:

would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry ‘O sweet creature!’ and then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots,
That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg
Over my thigh, and sighed and kissed, and then
Cried ‘Cursèd fate that gave thee to the Moor!’

Why, Woods asks, does Iago not push Cassio away? He does not, however, want to insist on Iago being merely a gay protagonist (that is, if he is a gay protagonist). He is really building up to the fun he is going to have with the Sonnets. He has most fun with Sonnet 20:

A woman’s face with Nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false woman’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth.
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition thee of me defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Helen Vendler points out that ‘the individual letters of the word “h-e-w-s” (the Quarto spelling) or “h-u-e-s” [are] in as many lines as possible’ in Sonnet 20. She also notes the ‘unique case’ of feminine rhymes throughout the sonnet. Woods writes that there has been considerable embarrassment among critics about this sonnet. In 1840 D.L. Richardson wrote: ‘I could heartily wish that Shakespeare had never written it.’ In 1963 H.M. Young argued that Sonnet 20 ‘simply could not have been written by a homosexual’. How, he asked, could the one thing which Nature added – a penis – be ‘nothing’ to the poet if the poet were homosexual. ‘It would … have been the one thing absolutely essential.’ Not necessarily. Gregory Woods, quite rightly, points out: ‘There is, after all, a lot more to a boy than his penis. What about his arse?’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, he writes, reminds us that ‘here again as elsewhere in the Sonnets, “nothing” denotes, among other things, female genitals.’ Thus, as Woods writes, the youth is ‘chiefly admired for the promise of his backside’.

Woods sobers up a bit a few paragraphs later and points out that the sonnet, whether we like it or not, sexualises its object and ‘constitutes a reflexive statement of the poet’s coming out to himself’. The reader has a right, I think, to be uneasy about the use of a term like ‘coming out’ about Shakespeare and Sonnet 20, and I presume that Woods is doing this deliberately. In his chapter on Shakespeare, he quotes critics who are laden down with prejudice about homosexuality. ‘Much is at stake,’ he writes. ‘A national poet is at far greater risk of censorious distortion than any merely good writer who happens to work in a national language.’ He cites Eric Partridge in Shakespeare’s Bawdy in 1968 beginning his argument against Shakespeare’s homosexuality with the phrase ‘Like most other heterosexual persons, I believe . . .’ – Woods makes nonsense of Partridge’s arguments. He goes on to quote Shakespeare’s biographer Hesketh Pearson: ‘Homosexualists have done their utmost to annex Shakespeare and use him as an advertisement of their own peculiarity. They have quoted Sonnet 20 to prove he was one of themselves. But Sonnet 20 proves conclusively that he was sexually normal.’ Hallet Smith said of Sonnet 20: ‘The attitude of the poet toward the friend is one of love and admiration, deference and possessiveness, but it is not at all a sexual passion’; Robert Giroux that the feelings in the poems ‘do not represent the feelings of an active homosexual’; Peter Levi that ‘homosexual love was to Elizabethans inevitably chaste.’

Pull the other one, Peter. No one watching Marlowe’s Edward II could have felt for one moment that the relationship between Edward and Gaveston was a chaste relationship; nor could anyone watching Edward transfer his affection to Spenser Junior in the play have failed to accept and understand that Edward preferred men. Mortimer Senior, in a speech in the play, seems to believe that Edward’s relationship with Gaveston was in a long tradition, but that he would grow out of it:

And seeing his mind so dotes on Gaveston,
Let him without controlment have his will.
The mightiest kings have had their minions:
Great Alexander loved Hephaestion;
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept;
And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped; And not kings only, but the wisest men.
The Roman Tully loved Octavius;
Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades.
Then let his grace, whose youth is flexible,
And promiseth as much as we can wish,
Freely enjoy that vain light-headed earl,
For riper years will wean him from such toys.

‘The sight of the instrument,’ Harry Levin wrote, referring to the red-hot spit which is shoved up Edward’s arse at the end of the play, ‘would have been enough to raise an excruciating shudder in the audience; and subtler minds may have perceived, as does William Empson, an ironic parody of Edward’s vice.’ Woods has no time for this idea of subtler minds. It is, he writes, clear-cut: Lightborn ‘pretends to seduce the faggot king, and then gives him what every faggot needs: a red-hot poker up the arse’. Any audience would have understood this.

The first 126 Sonnets are, for the most part, filled with a desire which is artful and playful and almost light: Marlowe’s version of homosexual love was much darker. Edward is foolish and capricious; his gay lover comes to a sticky end. Edward’s punishment, in all its horrifying melodrama, would have instilled fear in any member of the audience who had ever had sex with another man. It is, perhaps, the most politically incorrect moment in Elizabethan drama. It does not, to say the least, portray homosexual love in a positive light – the positive light of Shakespeare, and Twelfth Night in particular.

For gay writers and readers, this has become an important issue. The literature gay men produced in the Seventies, Woods writes, often gave gay readers ‘role models for use in the pursuit of the kinds of happiness that post-liberation gay life was meant to consist of’. Foucault, too, realised that happiness for homosexuals was a serious transgression and remarked: ‘People can tolerate two homosexuals they see leaving together, but if the next day they’re smiling, holding hands and tenderly embracing one another, then they can’t be forgiven. It is not the departure for pleasure that is intolerable, it is the waking up happy.’ Woods goes on: ‘Gay critics made gay writers self-conscious about their sense of appropriate endings. No central gay character could be murdered or commit suicide, even if for reasons clearly represented as being other than homosexuality itself, for fear of enforcing the myth of the tragic queer.’ (A modern version of Edward II would then have had Lightborn handing Edward a box of Quality Street or a bottle of Calvin Klein aftershave at the end of the play.)

As early as 1913 when he began Maurice, E.M. Forster was acutely conscious of this. He began the book when a friend of Edward Carpenter’s, George Merrill, touched his backside ‘gently and just above the buttocks. I believe he touched most people’s. The sensation was unusual and I still remember it, as I remember the position of a long vanished tooth. It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.’ He went to Harrogate, where his mother was taking the cure, ‘and immediately began to write Maurice’:

The general plan, the three characters, the happy ending for two of them, all rushed into my pen. And the whole thing went through without a hitch. It was finished in 1914.

A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood. I dedicated it ‘To a Happier Year’ and not altogether vainly. Happiness is its keynote – which by the way . . . has made the book more difficult to publish. If it ended unhappily, with a lad dangling from a noose or with a suicide pact, all would be well . . . but the lovers get away unpunished and consequently recommend crime.

More than forty years later, Forster was still concerned about the ending of the book, and he rewrote it, leaving it happy, but more plausible. (The lovers no longer live together in a woodcutter’s hut.)

The idea that gay writing has a tendency to deal in the tragic and the unfulfilled, a tendency which Forster and writers after Stonewall sought to counteract, has echoes in Irish writing, which seems at its most content when there is a dead father or a dead child (Leopold Bloom’s father committed suicide; his son is dead) and domestic chaos. No Irish novel ends in a wedding. Images of domestic bliss occur in novels like The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper (1989), only to be mercilessly destroyed. The strongest images in Irish fiction, drama and poetry are of brokenness, death, destruction. The plays are full of shouting, the poetry is full of elegy, the novels are full of funerals.

There is something heroic in Forster’s refusal in Maurice to insist that Scudder does not get arrested, or hang himself, or go to Buenos Aires. Instead, he meets Maurice again and says: ‘And now we shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished.’ Yet somehow it isn’t satisfying, any more than it would be if Leopold Bloom had been happily married and was wandering around Dublin leading his son by the hand. It would be heartening and hopeful, and politically correct, but it would not fulfil another truth which has nothing to do with hope or politics. This truth may change, of course, as gay lives change and Ireland changes; and then unhappy endings, dead children and mad old fathers may seem tagged on for reasons which have nothing to do with the truth which art requires.

In the meantime it seems to me that the two best books by gay writers published in the Nineties (and among the best published by any writers in any category during this period) take the form of elegies for gay men who died of Aids. They are Thom Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats and Mark Doty’s My Alexandria. Both books portray a world which Forster would have marvelled at, where gay happiness – pace Foucault – is the norm.

If endlessness offered itself to me today
I don’t think I’d have done anything


Doty writes. There are images in both books of gay life as much as gay death: lovers and friends, gay sex and gay society. But there is an elegiac edge to every line, every moment of life described has a sense of a sad ending; the freedom of gay life is seen both as an extraordinary gift and as a tragedy. Gregory Woods quotes the Economist reviewer acknowledging that he or she was unimpressed by Gunn’s 1982 collection The Passages of Joy, because ‘it deals with homosexuality happily,’ whereas The Man with Night Sweats, published ten years later, ‘has given his poetry more life and more raw human vigour than it ever had before’. Woods thinks that Gunn’s two collections before The Man with Night Sweats are ‘equally good’. I don’t agree with this; the poems in the recent volume are outstanding, not for their ‘life’ or ‘raw human vigour’, whatever that is, but for the play between the wounded elegiac voice and the poems’ formal, almost impersonal tone. And maybe also because they satisfy in me an urge to have gay lives represented as tragic, an urge which I know I should repress.

Gunn’s Collected Poems, which includes work published between 1954 and 1992, is a unique document. It is interesting to watch an English poet become an American poet, and a poet steeped in the rhythms and methods of the 16th century in England bask in the glories of the 20th century in California, and a poet nurtured on the iambic pentameter playing with syllabics, but it is fascinating also to see a gay poet in the Fifties and early Sixties finding strategies simultaneously to expose and disguise his own sexuality. It is tempting to read ‘Carnal Knowledge’, for example, as simply about a gay man in bed with a woman:

I am not what I seem, believe me, so
For the magnanimous pagan I pretend~
Substitute a forked creature as your friend.
When darkness lies without a roll or stir
Flaccid, you want a competent poseur.
I know you know I know you know I know.

‘The danger of biography, and equally of autobiography,’ Gunn has written

is that it can muddy poetry by confusing it with its sources . . . In my early twenties I wrote a poem called ‘Carnal Knowledge’, addressed to a girl, with a refrain making variations on the phrase ‘I know you know’. Now anyone aware that I am homosexual is likely to misread the whole poem, inferring that the thing ‘known’ is that the speaker would prefer to be in bed with a man. But that would be a serious misreading, or at least a serious misplacement of emphasis. The poem, actually addressed to a fusion of two completely different girls, is not saying anything as clear-cut as that. A reader knowing nothing about the author has a much better chance of understanding it.

Yet when Gunn was asked in an interview with Tony Sarver, whether the Gay Movement had helped him as a writer, he said:

Yes, very much I think. In my early books I was in the closet. I was discreet in an Audenish way. If a poem referred to a lover, I always used ‘you’. I figured it didn’t matter, it didn’t affect the poetry. But it did. Later I came out, and Ian Young included me in his Male Muse anthology, so that I’d officially gone public. Now, I wouldn’t have expected it to make so much difference as it did. In the title poem of ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’ [written between 1973 and 1974] I end up in bed with a man, and I wrote this quite naturally, without a second thought. Ten years ago, I doubt if the incident would have appeared in the poem. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to end in that way.

Gunn’s Collected Poems enacts the experience of many gay men all over the Western world. In the tone of those 16th-century poems which have been important for Gunn – Wyatt’s elegies on the death of friends, for example – there is a sense of restriction about what can be said, and that restriction offers the poem a tension and an inner drama. Gunn’s early work strives for a neutral, almost impersonal tone, a respect for restriction, as well as a knotted eloquence. I love what’s hidden between the lines of these early poems. But then watching Gunn describe with a freedom that is quite new – the Greeks and Romans generally wrote poems about boys – what it is like to be in bed with another man in, say, ‘Jack Straw’s Castle’ is, from the gay point of view, like being there for the Annunciation:

So humid, we lie sheetless – bare and close,
Facing apart, but leaning ass to ass.
And that mere contact is sufficient touch,
A hinge, it separates but not too much.
An air moves over us, as calm and cool
As the green water of a swimming pool.

What if this is the man I gave my key
Who got in while I slept? or what if he,
Still, is a dream of the same man?
No, real.
Comes from outside the castle, I can feel.
The beauty’s in what is, not what may seem.
I turn. And even if he were a dream
– Thick sweating flesh against which I lie curled –
With dreams like this, Jack’s ready for the world.

‘Something extraordinary began happening to [Henry] James in the mid-1890s, and more frequently in the next decade,’ Fred Kaplan wrote in his biography of James. He began to fall in love with young men. ‘James’s sexual self-consciousness,’ Kaplan continued, ‘seemed either impossibly innocent or embarrassingly explicit.’ ‘I want in fact more of you,’ he wrote to Morton Fullerton, one of the young men. ‘You are dazzling . . . you are beautiful; you are more than tactful, you are tenderly, magically tactile. But you are not kind. There it is. You are not kind.’

There is no evidence that James had a physical relationship with any of these men. In Henry James: The Young Master, however, Sheldon Novick gives an oddly convincing account of an affair that James may have had with Oliver Wendell Holmes, the future Supreme Court judge, in 1865 when he was 22 and Holmes 24. Novick goes on to show how James strove to match Holmes with his cousin Minny Temple: echoes of Kate Croy and Madame Merle withholding an interesting and useful fact from an innocent young American woman about to fall in love.

James watched the fall of Oscar Wilde with considerable interest. His own plays had been performed in the same theatres as Wilde’s during the same few years and he was, with good reason, jealous of Wilde’s success. He was horrified by the trial and the sentence, but refused to sign a petition for Wilde, suggesting that it would not have the slightest effect. He was fascinated, too, by the life of John Addington Symonds, about whom he heard regularly from Edmund Gosse, and when there was some suggestion that Symonds might be homosexual, he told Gosse that he was ‘devoured with curiosity as to this further revelation. Even a postcard (in covert words) would relieve the suspense.’ In 1893 Gosse gave him one of the 50 copies of Symonds’s privately printed A Problem in Modern Ethics, which made a case for homosexuality on the basis of its moral acceptability and aesthetic value. When a two-volume biography of Symonds appeared after his death, James read it ‘with singular interest . . . There ought to be a first-rate article – a really vivid one – about him – he is a subject that would so lend itself. But who’s to write it? I can’t; though I should like to.’

In 1892, James had dinner with ‘the morally-alienated wife of the erratic John Addington’ and this gave him the idea for his story ‘The Author of Beltraffio’, in which a young American visits a famous author whose wife is repelled by the moral tone of his work. ‘He could not control the expression of his deepest feelings in his art,’ Kaplan wrote. ‘Two of his powerful short stories, “The Author of Beltraffio” and “The Pupil” express the homoerotic sensuality that had no other outlet.’

The problem is that they don’t. It is astonishing how James managed to withhold his homosexuality from his work. It is also astonishing how bad some of the stories are, how fey and allusive and oddly incomplete, even stories written during the years he was working on the great last novels. Thanks to a series of hints about Rome and Greece and Florence it is possible for the reader to believe that Mark Ambient, the author in ‘Beltraffio’, has dealt with gay subjects in his masterpiece, which is why his wife is so upset. It is also possible to believe that the American narrator, who admires Ambient so much, is gay. But it is equally possible that Ambient’s book is not about gay subjects and that the narrator is not gay. Mark Ambient is married and has an extremely beautiful young son. It is possible that his wife fears for her son because of his father’s sexuality. But in the story she is merely afraid that the son will read his father’s work. And because the son is so young, this is not credible. So, too, with ‘The Pupil’. Pemberton has come to work for the Moreen family to tutor their precocious and sickly (and quite incredible) son. The family doesn’t pay him, but he stays on because he loves the boy. There is no suggestion that he fancies the boy or that he is gay. You can read that into the story if you like, but it is not in the text.

James could have altered the entire meaning of these two stories by adding a few sentences, or even a few words. But then he would have had to start again. By choosing not to add these words, he left himself with no opportunity to dramatise the scene he imagined since he could not even make it clear. He was, in his life and his work, so deliberate, so careful to control, that he could have left out anything he chose from his fiction. ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ and ‘The Pupil’ are interesting in that he came close to losing that control, but lost the stories instead.

Critics will not give up on James. He was gay; therefore he must have written stories which, if we read them carefully and deeply, will yield evidence of this. On the subject of Miles’s expulsion from his school in The Turn of the Screw, Woods asks: ‘And was what each boy whispered not only to boys he liked but about the very topic of liking boys?’ And then replies: ‘These can only be suspicions.’ Why bother asking the question? The reason The Turn of the Screw works is that several possibilites are allowed to breathe fully in the story: the narrator may be mad, utterly unreliable or Peter Quint may have truly and even sexually corrupted Miles, or both. A gay subtext is not hinted at and then withdrawn as it is in the ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ or ‘The Pupil’; it is fully allowed. What makes this easier is that the gay subtext offers images of pure evil, whereas the nice narrator and the genius in ‘The Author of Beltraffio’ would both have to be gay; as would the nice teacher and the sickly boy in ‘The Pupil’. It should be remembered that in 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Bill was passed which offered two years’ hard labour for private consensual homosexual acts. It is not difficult to imagine Henry James’s attitude towards hard labour.

In the three James stories mentioned, young boys with striking looks, young angels, die at the end. Perhaps in 1910 and 1911, when James was in analysis with a disciple of Freud, he found out what he meant when he wrote these stories, but he left us no clue. (Thomas Mann’s family could not understand why he used his adored grandson as a model for the child he so cruelly killed off in Doctor Faustus.) A fourth story of James’s, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, which comes very close to being a masterpiece, has also been interpreted as having a gay theme.

In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has an interesting essay on James and ‘The Beast in the Jungle’. It is possible, she writes, that critics believed that James himself translated ‘lived homosexual desires, where he had them, into written heterosexual ones so thoroughly and so successfully that the difference makes no difference, the transmutation leaves no residue.’ She herself, on the other hand, believes that James ‘often, though not always, attempted such a disguise or transmutation, but reliably left a residue both of material that he did not attempt to transmute and of material that could be transmuted only rather violently and messily’.

When, in ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, May Bartram meets John Marcher, she remembers the ‘secret’ he has told her ten years earlier. ‘You said you had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen.’ Eve Kosofsky writes: – I would argue that to the extent that Marcher’s secret has a content, the content is homosexual.’

I would argue, on the other hand, that Marcher’s secret clearly has a content and the content is possibly homosexual. The problem with the story is that the ‘secret’ itself, the ‘something rare and strange’ sounds laughable when we hear it first, a heavy-handed self-dramatisation which Marcher’s character in the story takes a while to recover from. The reader has a right to expect, as the years go by, either that Marcher’s secret will turn out to be a delusion in which May Bartram has all along encouraged him, or that some catastrophe will actually befall him before the story ends. It is as though some traces of Kafka had arrived in Lamb House. (James first thought of the story in 1901.) There are only two characters in the story, both isolated, oddly neurotic; and before she dies May intimates that she knows what the ‘secret’ is, and it refers to something that has already happened. After her death, Marcher, too, realises, vaguely, what it is about. He has failed to love; he has been unable to love. Clearly, he has been unable to love May Bartram, as James was unable to love Constance Fenimore Woolson; and it is open to readers whether or not they believe that May has understood all along something Marcher cannot entertain. He may have failed to love her because he was gay. And because he could not deal with his own sexuality, he failed to love any body. This, Kaplan points out, is ‘an embodiment of James’s nightmare vision of never having lived, of having denied love and sexuality’.

The story becomes much darker when you know about James’s life – something that almost never happens with the novels. You realise that the catastrophe the story led you to expect was in fact the very life that James chose to live, or was forced to live. ‘In all his work,’ Leon Edel wrote, ‘there is no tale written with greater investment of personal emotion.’ In ‘The Beast in the Jungle’, James’s solitary existence is shown in its most frightening manifestation: a life of pure coldness. The story includes the sentence: ‘He had been a man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.’ Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes: ‘The denial that the secret has a content – the assertion that its content is precisely a lack – is a stylish and “satisfying” Jamesian formal gesture.’ But it is not a stylish or satisfying formal gesture. It is, ostensibly, about a man who realises that his failure to love has been a disaster; but it is also, for readers familiar with Edel’s or Kaplan’s biographies of James, and readers willing to find clues in the text itself, about a gay man whose sexuality has left him frozen in the world. It is, in all its implications, a desolate and disturbing story, James’s ‘most modern tale’, according to Edel. ‘No passion had ever touched him for this was what passion meant. He had seen outside of his life, not learned it from within.’

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Vol. 21 No. 4 · 18 February 1999

Colm Tóibín (LRB, 21 January) highlights the tendency towards tragedy, mourning and elegy in the history of gay writing. Mark Doty’s poetry, however, revises this ‘tradition’, rather than sitting neatly within it. The artful transcendence of traditional elegy is rejected, and the poems’ conclusions are far more open-ended, even playful. Doty, a man living with HIV, often emphasises bodily transformation rather than transcendence, and there is a hopefulness in his shape-shifting images. Metaphor is so important to Doty because it twists, turns and refuses to be static.

But Tóibín is correct to note the difficulty readers continue to have with the idea of a gay happy ending. Even the 1993 hit play Beautiful Thing, Jonathan Harvey’s poignant vision of two working-class teenagers who find love on a South London council estate, is a fairy-tale of wish-fulfilment, the sort of thing that only happens somewhere over the rainbow. What Doty manages to do is present contemporary gay life in a way that doesn’t make it seem deterministically tragic or the stuff of saccharine fantasy.

Mark Turner
London N1

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