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literature

Alpha Index:  A-B  C-F  G-K  L-Q  R-S  T-Z

Subjects:  A-B  C-E  F-L  M-Z

     
American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969  
 
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1910-1919

The most venturesome American gay male publication of the teens was Bertram Cope's Year (1919), by Henry Blake Fuller (1857-1929), best known for his realistic Chicago fiction of the 1890s. Following Fuller's more frank and daring portrait of homosexuality in his 1896 one-act play "At Saint Judas's," Bertram Cope's Year focuses on the young college instructor Cope as he is pursued by several characters, including some women, an older man, Basil Randolph, and a school friend, Arthur Lemoyne, who comes to live with Cope in mid-year.

Randolph's attraction to Cope is nearly transparent (he imagines Cope sharing his apartment as "a young knight, escaped from some 'Belle Dame sans Merci'"), as is the homosexuality of the Bertram-Arthur relationship ("Lemoyne, softening, pressed his hand on Cope's own"). But Fuller later wrote that he had had to be "careful" in Bertram Cope's Year, and in that spirit he casts a final uncertainty over the characters' feelings.

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Still, Bertram Cope's Year was rejected by every publisher and had to be issued privately at Fuller's own expense, and the book went almost unnoticed, with only one critic remarking that Fuller had "essay[ed] a delicate theme." As the first published novel by a nationally known American writer to deal near frankly and exclusively with homosexuality, Bertram Cope's Year deserves greater exposure and discussion.

Hart Crane (1899-1932) published some early poems with strong homosexual implication in this decade--for example, "C33" (1916), an homage to Oscar Wilde named after Wilde's prison identification number, and "Modern Craft" (1918), where Crane cites his "modern love . . . charred at the stake in younger times." Crane also "came out" as homosexual in a December 27, 1919, letter to the critic Gorham Munson.

1920-1929

The frankest, most extensive, and most revealing American gay male writing of the 1920s did not reach public view until the 1970s. This is the correspondence between the critic F. O. Mattheissen (1902-1950) and his lover, the painter Russell Cheney (1881-1945), begun shortly after they met in 1924 and continuing for twenty-one years.

With half of its 3,000 letters clustered in the 1920s, the Mattheissen-Cheney correspondence offers a unique and moving portrait of two gay men trying to understand themselves positively as homosexual and to create a devoted relationship without public models and support. A selection appeared as Rat & the Devil (the two men's nicknames for each other) in 1978, but the majority remain unpublished and would be a treasury of information for readers of gay history.

Hart Crane's letters of the 1920s continue to contain frank homosexual statements; these have been published posthumously, but only in part. Crane's first book, White Buildings, appeared in 1926, but its homosexual content is veiled--for example, the six-part "Voyages" is for his lover, Emil Opffer, but the gender of the beloved "you" is not specified. Crane's frankest gay poem of this decade, the 1920 "Episode of Hands" (in which "the two men smiled into each other's eyes") was not published until 1948.

Two authors provided the most candid published American gay male writing of the 1920s. Robert McAlmon (1896-1956) dealt with homosexuality in much of his work of these years--for example, there are homosexual personae in two of his poetry collections, Explorations (1921) and The Portrait of a Generation (1926); homosexuality is clearly implied in his portrait of Marsden Hartley as the character Brander Ogden in his roman à clef Post-Adolescence (1923); and his story "One More to Set Her Up," from A Companion Volume (1923), may be the first frank portrait of a "fag hag" in American fiction.

McAlmon's most extended homosexual work, his 1925 collection Distinguished Air (Grim Fairy Tales), focuses on gay and lesbian characters in post-war Berlin and includes the first gay and lesbian bar scenes in American fiction. McAlmon separates himself from his homosexual characters, however, and their fate is usually portrayed as despairing. Furthermore, all McAlmon's work was published abroad and by small presses, chiefly by his own pioneering Contact Press.

At least equally startling is the little-known The Western Shore (1925), by the forgotten Clarkson Crane (1894-1971). In this novel about Berkeley in 1919, one chief character is a homosexual English instructor, Philip Burton, who is presented remarkably frankly for the period--for example, characters speculate openly about Burton's "tendencies in love" and whether he is "queer."

Burton is strongly drawn to a freshman, Milton Granger, who Crane suggests is also homosexual. Most notably, Burton is not dealt a tragic fate, and the novel had a mainstream publisher, Harcourt, Brace. More needs to be known about the author and reception of this risky work.

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964) also did much of his writing in the 1920s. Van Vechten's flamboyant work is often read homosexually, but it typically only teases the reader with the subject. For example, in The Blind Bow-Boy (1923) the hero is called a "sissy" as a child, and the motto on another male character's stationery is "A thing of beauty is a boy for ever," but both are presented as manifestly heterosexual.

However, Van Vechten's letters, which have been published only in part and which include correspondence with many fellow homosexuals, are more frank, as when he joked with Langston Hughes in 1964 that "you and I have been through so many new Negroes that we are a little tired of it all."

Countee Cullen (1903-1946) and Langston Hughes (1902-1967) also began publishing in the 1920s, but mostly kept their homosexuality out of their work, with exceptions such as Cullen's "Tableau" (from Color, 1925), which can also be read as paean to interracial brotherhood, and Hughes's "Café: 3 A.M." (from Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951), a portrait of a raid on a gay bar.

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