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American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969  
 
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Long before the 1969 Stonewall riots and the launching of the contemporary gay liberation movement, twentieth-century gay and bisexual male American writers had produced notable literature about the subject.

Overview

There was frank and affirmative gay male American writing from the century's start, but it was usually published abroad or by marginal presses or remained private and unpublished. As the century advanced, there were marked increases in both the amount of frank gay male American writing and the amount of it issued by mainstream publishers.

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This pattern became unmistakable in the 1940s, when, among other firsts, books clearly concerned with homosexuality became best-sellers. A relative burst in published gay male American writing then followed in the 1950s, and this was in turn followed by what in context amounted to a flood of work in the pre-Stonewall 1960s.

But this increased public depiction of homosexuality was usually tinged with misery, when it was not totally bleak. It was as if gay male writers in these years were subject to a rule of concessiveness (either explicit or tacit), in which the price of greater public access was the confirming of homosexual stereotypes.

None of these patterns was seamless, however--for example, some relatively positive portrayals emerged from mainstream publishers early in the century, and some stereotypical ones appeared from independent presses; in addition, some amazingly positive depictions appeared in the decades just before Stonewall.

At least three general points need to be underscored about this remarkable body of material. First, it adds to the growing knowledge that, despite its epochal quality, Stonewall was not a self-generated event--it was preceded not only by earlier homosexual political organizing but by a mounting body of persistent gay male American writing.

Second, it implies that one of the greatest fears of the widespread reading public (and, by extension, of the society at large) was the prospect of encountering a non-stereotypical homosexual whose lot was no more restricted and troubled than an average heterosexual's.

Third, though a few works within it received marked publicity, as a consistent and purposeful whole this body of writing was invisible to the general public, and as in every other potentially enabling aspect of their experience, gay readers and writers during this period had to be self-relying and self-inventing in finding and learning from this literature. Because of homosexuality's continuing official "unspeakableness" for most of the century, no public commentator before Stonewall studied and organized this material into a discussible entity from which gay readers might benefit.

1900-1909

The frankest and most affirmative gay male American work in the century's first decade was Imre: A Memorandum (1906), a little-known melodramatic novel by the equally little-known Edward I. Prime-Stevenson (1868-1942), an expatriate who wrote as "Xavier Mayne." In Imre, which is structured as a "memorandum" sent to the author by a British friend, Oswald pursues Imre, a Hungarian soldier, while summering in his country, and the book ends with Imre's reciprocating Oswald's love: "I love thee as thou lovest me. I have found the friendship which is love, the love which is friendship." Imre reflects an interest in gay history as well--the two men have a long conversation about great earlier homosexuals.

Two years later, Stevenson expanded on this concern with The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism as a Problem in Social Life (1908), a 641-page discussion of earlier homosexual figures and of sexologists and recent homosexual liberation pioneers, such as Karl Ulrichs, John Addington Symonds, and Edward Carpenter. Both books show the constraints of their time. Issued pseudonymously, they were published privately, abroad (in Italy), and in small printings.

Other noteworthy, if less blunt, work of this decade included the most nearly frank, accepting, and political homosexual fiction by Henry James (1843-1916), his 1900 story "The Great Good Place." In this coded tale, a harried bachelor novelist, based on James himself, falls asleep and imagines an all-male "cloister" of "brothers" who "recognise each other as such," a "scene of . . . new consciousness" that is dubbed "The Great Good Place," as well as "liberty-hall" and the site of "The Great Want Met."

"The Great Good Place," whose last sentence is "It was all right," may be the closest James came to defiance of the recent Wilde scandal and reflects the more open homosexual desire he let himself show in later life, as in his attachments to Hedrick Andersen, Jocelyn Persse, and Hugh Walpole.

Three years later, Charles Warren Stoddard (1843-1909), who also worked chiefly in the nineteenth century, published his little-known autobiographical San Francisco novel, For the Pleasure of His Company: An Affair of the Misty City (1903). Occasional homosexual allusions dot this diffuse book, which is chiefly concerned with the career woes of a young writer, Paul Clitheroe.

Paul's closest relationships are with two men (one of whom tells him, "I love you better than any fellow I ever met. You understand me," while the other "encircles him in the warm manly pressure of his arms"), and the novel ends with Paul jumping ship to join "three naked islander chiefs" who happen by in a boat. Paul also discusses "girl-boys" with a female friend.

Stoddard is somewhat more overt in his 1904 The Island of Tranquil Delights, a collection of South-Sea tales resembling his earliest work. In "Kane-Aloha," he is "touched to the quick" by the title youth and hopes the story will give "pleasure to the careful student of the Unnatural History of Civilization."

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Writing under the pseudonym "Richard Meeker," Forman Brown (above) was among the first Americans to publish a frank gay novel (Better Angel, 1933). Portrait by Stathis Orphanos.
  
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