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English Literature: Twentieth-Century  
page: 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  

Writers Publicly Silent about Their Homosexuality

Although it has been argued that the first part of the twentieth century's culture is dominated by attempts to keep homosexuality hidden, obviously the literary culture of the post-war years made homosexuality a matter of prominent public interest and controversy. But for every writer like Firbank and Hall, who wear their eros on their sleeves, an equal number of homosexual writers in the period maintain public silence about their sex lives, and dramatize homosexual themes indirectly, if at all.

Maugham, Forster, Compton-Burnett, and Coward

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965), the novelist and playwright whose plays dominate the English stage in the century's first third, omits mention of his homosexual loves in his 1938 memoir.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970), author of five distinguished novels between 1905 and 1924, powerfully represents a frustrated homoerotic attachment, confused by class distinctions, between the two male protagonists of The Longest Journey (1907). But in 1914, Forster wrote and suppressed Maurice, a sexually explicit narrative of happy homosexual love (which was not published until 1971).

The brilliant novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett (1884-1969) represents traditional family life exclusively in her work, in a style whose aesthetic impersonality seems far removed from the author's personal longtime relation, if not homoerotic, with a female companion.

The plays of Noël Coward (1899-1973) rivaled Maugham's in popularity, but Coward, an actor, composer and entertainer as well as a writer, kept his homosexual life under wraps.

Nevertheless, these writers express their suppressed love, after all, in a tendency to thematize persons and situations who oppose a cultural status quo depicted as shabby and tyrannical.

Forster's novels exalt feminism and oppose imperialism. In such plays as The Circle (1921) and The Constant Wife (1926), Maugham subverts pieties about conventional marriage and about sexual ethics. Maugham's fiction sides with mystical renegades or victims of imperialism in a way that inflects the classic intermediate type and pathic suffering once more.

Compton-Burnett's novels exhibit savagery as the heart of patriarchy and heterosexual family values as a form of horror.

Coward comes closer to the subject of homosexuality than the others. The Vortex (1925) assigns to one of its minor figures, an elderly "male spinster," the role of an authoritative social critic; the play also suggests that unresolved homosexual panic causes the hero's drug addiction. Post-Mortem (1934), an indictment of the waste and hypocrisy of World War I, suggests the dignity of homoerotic love among soldiers. Design for Living (1936) bravely celebrates bisexual aspects of eros.

Both Coward's and Maugham's plays, not incidentally, develop the forms and themes of Oscar Wilde's theater. In sum, given the content of these writers' works, the displacement of public utterance of their author's sexuality comes near to being an equally subversive mode of expression and self-exposure.

The Emergence of Openly Homosexual Writers

Because of the prominence in the culture at large of both open and covert representations of homosexuality, young men and women growing up and becoming writers during the first third of the century begin to consider their homosexual erotic lives as part of an increasingly established cultural tradition, no longer frighteningly unexampled.

Auden and Isherwood

Consequently, the circle of poets, writers, and political activists emerging from Oxford around 1930, with Auden and Isherwood at their center, appear to take their homosexuality for granted--sufficiently at least to enable them, in a way that renews Bentham-like matter-of-factness about sexual desire and pleasure, to retreat from heroic figuring of homosexuality per se.

Moreover, the impulse to subordinate homosexual desires and interests to arguably more comprehensive political ideologies--socialism, communism, liberalism, fascism--becomes strong among homosexual writers as World War II approaches.

Auden's The Ascent of F6 (1936), a verse play written with Isherwood, mocks the ambitions of a would-be hero whose character is based on T. E. Lawrence. Perhaps in line with suspicions of heroic claims made for a sexual orientation, Auden in the 1950s reintroduces Rolfe to readers by describing the ambition and ethical grandeur of Corvo's heroes, and of Corvo himself, as symptomatic of "the paranoid homosexual."

Auden's intention to be beyond paranoia, to make no special historical or political case exclusively for homosexuality, results from a desire to find a common ground in poetry for the discussion of public issues, in a way that makes the daily life and speech of all citizens, whatever their differences, the central measure of relevance.

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