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literature

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Mordden, Ethan (b. 1947)  

Ethan Mordden is perhaps best known for his four volumes of short fiction comprising the series of interconnected "Buddies" stories set in New York City, which have, since their first publication over twenty years ago, gained classic status in gay literature. These "tales of gay Manhattan" are, as the critic Reed Woodhouse observed, principally "paeans to friendship," that is, friendships between men, in the "post-Stonewall gay world."

Mordden is also the author of four additional novels and over twenty works of nonfiction on musicals, theater, opera, and film.

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Ethan Mordden was born on January 27, 1947 in Pennsylvania and raised there, as well as in Venice, Italy and Long Island. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B. A. in History. Shortly after graduation, he moved to New York City. His publishing career began in 1976 with the study of the Broadway musical, Better Foot Forward: The History of American Musical Theatre.

His fiction first began appearing in the early 1980s in the pioneering literary magazine Christopher Street as a regular column called "Is There a Book in This?" As Mordden has explained, he was originally hired by Chuck Ortleb and Tom Steele, the publishers of Christopher Street, to write a monthly arts review column. However, over drinks one evening, Mordden began telling the two publishers stories about his "eccentric and colorfully picturesque" family. Ortleb and Steel were so entertained by these stories they immediately decided to change the arts review column to an autobiographically-oriented one instead.

Mordden's first articles for Christopher Street were journalistic recollections of his family, but they gradually developed into semi-fictionalized accounts of his life as a young gay man in New York City. These stories are narrated by Bud, Mordden's apparent alter ego. Bud is a gay man in his thirties, living in Manhattan; he is well educated, culturally sophisticated, militantly gay, and surrounded by a group of gay male friends who form a kind of "family." For Mordden, creating such a family is essential for many gay men, as they can help to build "a stable environment . . . somewhere you get accepted for what you are without qualifications."

As Michael Schwartz has perceptively discerned in his bio-bibliographical essay on Mordden, these stories are also "taxonomic": they are concerned, both explicitly and implicitly, with what is, and is not, meant by the word "gay." Thus, Mordden's obsessive interest in what "gay" means is both the subject of his tales and an indirect statement about what gay "tales" ought to be.

Mordden's first Christopher Street pieces were collected and published as I've a Feeling We're Not in Kansas Anymore: Tales from Gay Manhattan (1985), which was followed by Buddies (1986), and Everybody Loves You: Further Adventures of Gay Manhattan (1988).

Mordden set aside the series for some nine years before returning to it with Some Men Are Lookers (1997). These stories find Bud and his band of friends attempting to confront the challenges of long-term relationships and the anxieties of aging.

Mordden's first novel, the semi-autobiographical One Last Waltz (1986), concerns a family of four Irish-American brothers, one of whom is gay.

Under the pseudonym "M. J. Verlaine," Mordden published A Bad Man Is Easy to Find (1991), a collection of eleven short stories, many of which first appeared in The New Yorker, about heterosexual life in Manhattan. Mordden has explained that since at this point in his fiction writing career he had only amassed a gay audience, he believed that if he published the stories under his own name he would disappoint his current readers and not be able to attract new ones.

Mordden is also the author of the epic account of gay liberation and the development of gay culture, How Long Has This Been Going On? (1995). Populated by a diverse cast of characters--both male and female--the novel begins in Los Angeles in 1949 and concludes in New York City at the 1991 Gay Pride Parade.

His most recent work of fiction is The Venice Adriana (1998), a novel about gay identity, the love of opera, and the cult of the diva. Set in the early 1960s, the novel centers around Mark Trigger, a young American sent to Venice to ghostwrite the autobiography of the legendary Greek-American soprano Adriana Grafanas (whose character is modeled on the illustrious Maria Callas).

In 1994, Mordden edited Waves: An Anthology of New Gay Fiction, a selection of short stories from such noted writers as Michael Cunningham, Scott Heim, Jim Provenzano, and John Weir. In his introduction, Mordden designates the writers in this collection the "Third Wave" of gay male writers (the "First Wave" being the 1970s Violet Quill aesthetes and the "Second Wave" the 1980s AIDS realists).

Mordden has written nonfiction works on opera, including Opera in the Twentieth Century: Sacred, Profane, Godot (1978), Demented: The World of the Opera Diva (1984), and Opera Anecdotes (1985).

He has also written well-received studies of American film, such as Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies (1988), Movie Star: A Look at the Women Who Made Hollywood (1983), and Medium Cool: The Movies of the 1960s (1990).

He has also written extensively on the American theater, particularly Broadway musicals, with Broadway Babies: The People Who Made the American Musical (1983), Rodgers & Hammerstein (1992), and The Happiest Corpse I've Ever Seen: The Last Twenty-five Years of the Broadway Musical (2004).

Mordden currently lives in Manhattan.

Craig Kaczorowski

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Canning, Richard. Hear Us Out: Conversations with Gay Novelists. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Pela, Robert L. "Some Men Are Lookers: Book Reviews." The Advocate (June 24, 1997): 54.

Schwartz, Michael. "Ethan Mordden." Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Emmanuel S. Nelson, ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993. 282-290.

Tedhams, David P. "A Novel With a Diva Problem." The Washington Post (May 28, 1998): B08.

Woodhouse, Reed. Unlimited Embrace: A Canon of Gay Fiction, 1945-1995. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Kaczorowski, Craig  
    Entry Title: Mordden, Ethan  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2005  
    Date Last Updated February 11, 2005  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/mordden_e.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2005, glbtq, inc.  
 

 

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