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American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall  
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AIDS Narratives

A number of important writers have emerged since the Violet Quill and the New Narrative writers--authors who have emerged in the face of AIDS. Any list is only partial. Among the finest was Allen Barnett, who died of the disease about a year after the appearance of his only volume The Body and Its Dangers (1990). Paul Russell and Peter McGehee also died early in their promising careers.

The black novelist, poet and scholar Melvin Dixon, who recently died of AIDS, wrote two fine novels Trouble the Waters (1989) and Vanishing Rooms (1991) before his death. Another black writer of distinction is Randall Kenan, whose novel A Visitation of Spirits (1989) and collection of interlocking short stories Let The Dead Bury Their Dead (1992) record the lives of the blacks of Tims Creek, North Carolina, in sometimes magic ways.

Harlan Greene's two novels Why We Never Danced the Charleston (1984) and What the Dead Remember (1991) chronicle the white South around Charleston. Another Southern writer Allan Gurganus is the best-selling author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) and the volume of short stories White People (1991).

Stephen McCauley's two novels of the bitter-sweet lives of young men struggling to escape adulthood, The Object of My Affection (1987) and The Easy Way Out (1991), have established him as a writer of enormous potential and craft; while Michael Cunningham's Home at the End of the World (1990), about young men trying to establish a family undermined by the horrors of AIDS, has received a great deal of notice.

Joe Keenan has made a reputation for himself as a comic novelist with Blue Heaven (1988) and Putting on the Ritz (1991). David B. Feinberg's mordant humor can be found in his novel Eighty-Sixed (1989) and its sequel Spontaneous Combustion (1991), both dealing with AIDS. Ethan Mordden has acquired a following for his comic works. Matthew Stadler wrote the delicate and haunting Landscape: Memory (1990), set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.

Perhaps no gay writer of the post-AIDS generation has gotten more attention than David Leavitt, whose novels The Lost Language of Cranes (1986), which has subsequently been made into a television movie, and Equal Affections (1989) followed the success of his first volume of short stories, Family Dancing (1985). Leavitt's work adds to the typical New Yorker short story of understated upper middle-class suburban life the theme of homosexuality, a theme that has always been implicit in this subgenre.


The situation for poetry after the Stonewall Riots was very different, as mentioned earlier. Several important poets had written works with explicitly gay content before Stonewall, and the issue of how autobiographical a work should be was not as problematic for poets, who work from a long tradition of highly personal lyrics, as it was for fiction writers. Consequently, poets did not have the same problems establishing a network and distribution system that fiction writers had.

It is easy to speculate why poetry had an easier time of articulating gay experience than had prose. In the first place, the highly metaphorical nature of poetry insulates poetic disclosure. Also because poetry has a smaller, better-educated cadre of readers than does prose, it met with a more sophisticated and less-shockable readership, and therefore poets felt freer to address homosexual material.

In addition, the tradition of lyric poetry in general permitted writers to deal with more explicit sexual material. Because of Walt Whitman, gay American writers have from the outset found poetry a congenial medium for expressing their thoughts.

Moreover, the confessional poets of the late 1950s and 1960s--Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, for example--had so prepared readers for "shocking" material about suicide, drugs, and other forms of unauthorized sexual behavior, that homosexuality seemed not particularly unusual. Finally, Allen Ginsberg's candid and popular works, particularly Howl (1955), set the stage for other poets to be equally candid.

Gay American poets can be roughly--but only roughly--divided into two camps: formalists and free verse writers. There is a strongly formalist element to some gay poetry, particularly that influenced by W. H. Auden, the great Anglo-American poet, who taught by example several generations of Americans.

Erudite, witty, and controlled, Auden's poetry could dig into the unseemly parts of the human psyche and reveal the sexual--often homosexual--basis of affection. As Richard Howard said in an elegy addressed to Auden: "After you, because of you, / all songs are possible."

Perhaps the most important poet to follow in Auden's footsteps has been James Merrill in whose epic The Changing Light at Sandover (1982) Auden plays a major role. In The Changing Light at Sandover, Merrill and his longtime lover David Jackson come in contact, while playing with a Ouija board, with several voices from the dead.

In the first volume, The Book of Ephraim (1976), the controlling voice is one of the Emperor Tiberius's minions. In Mirabell (1978), the speaker becomes a peacock. But in the final version, the controlling voice is Auden, who reveals the lessons of the cosmos to his two old friends.

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