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literature

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

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Miller, Merle (1919-1986)  
 
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The article was published on January 17, 1971. In it, Miller detailed his life-long struggle with his sexuality, including his failed marriage, and what it means to come to terms with the truth of one's sexual orientation in an exceedingly hostile social environment.

"I dislike being despised," he wrote, "unless I have done something despicable, realizing that the simple fact of being homosexual is all by itself despicable to many people, maybe, as Mr. Epstein says, to everybody who is straight."

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It was a landmark piece of journalism and later described as "the most widely read and discussed essay of the decade."

The New York Times received over two thousand letters in response--more than the newspaper had ever received for a single article.

Letters from gay readers noted, for example, "Nothing I have ever read has helped as much to restore my own self-respect." Others wrote to say that after reading his essay they realized for the first time that "homosexuals were people, too, with feelings, just like anybody else."

Miller's piece was expanded and published later that year as a book, the groundbreaking On Being Different: What it Means to Be a Homosexual (1971).

Miller subsequently became a spokesperson for the nascent gay rights movement.

Penguin Classics republished the book in 2012 with a new foreword by Dan Savage, founder of the "It Gets Better Project," a channel on YouTube that features videos of adult glbtq people who were bullied as teenagers reassuring young people that, however awful their predicament might seem at the time, "it gets better." The journalist and historian Charles Kaiser also wrote a new afterword.

Paul Morton, in an assessment of the book, notes, "Miller had endured many insults by the time he told his story and a quiet anger permeates his prose as he asserts his dignity and refuses any further humiliation."

"If Miller's book is an argument for dignity and acceptance," Morton continues, "it is also an argument against politeness. It is an argument against letting stray homophobic remarks from your liberal friends just go in the interest of keeping the evening pleasant. . . . It is an argument for demanding the part of the territory to which you are entitled. . . . There's a wounded rage in Miller's piece, a fury at having to negotiate this territory in the first place."

Other Works by Merle Miller

During the course of a writing career that spanned several decades, Miller wrote numerous novels, including That Winter (1948), considered to be one of the best books about the postwar readjustment of World War II veterans. His other novels include Island 49 (1945); The Sure Thing (1949); Reunion (1954); A Secret Understanding (1956); A Day in Late September (1963); and the autobiographical A Gay and Melancholy Sound (1961) and What Happened (1972).

A Gay and Melancholy Sound tells the story of Joshua Bland, a former child prodigy, World War II hero, and theatrical producer, who at age 37 decides to commit suicide. But before doing so, he tells his story largely in flashback. A character plagued by self-hatred, he believes himself unlovable and incapable of love.

What Happened, the only novel Miller published after publicly coming out, shares the theme of self-loathing that permeates A Gay and Melancholy Sound, and is similarly autobiographical. But whereas the earlier novel presents its protagonist as heterosexual, the narrator of What Happened is gay. Like Miller, the narrator George Lionel grew up in Iowa during the Depression and fled in search of fame and fortune. Also like Miller, he married briefly and unsuccessfully, and during the McCarthy era was blacklisted.

What Happened offers a vivid picture of the pain of the closet and depicts movingly how oppressive attitudes warp the lives of sensitive people, but it also affirms the beauty and love and courage that can be found in the stubborn desire to resist injustice.

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