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Novel: Gay Male  
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Gray has caused certain young men to leave England in disgrace and appears to be blackmailing others. He becomes a world-weary aesthete about whose fair self hovers a faint air of corruption. Wilde underlines the kinds of sins Dorian commits, or causes others to commit, by the character's very name: An alternative form of "Doric," it alludes to the homosexual-warrior society of ancient Greece.

Wilde's novel, written some time before he met his lover and nemesis, Lord Alfred Douglas, was a succès de scandale. If The Picture of Dorian Gray did not influence André Gide, Thomas Mann, and others, it at least set a precedent for their treatment of homosexuality as at once alluring and fatal, in works like Gide's The Immoralist (1902) and Mann's Death in Venice (1912); Mann's son Klaus wrote a gay novel, Mephisto, in 1936.

Wilde the man provided still another opening. With an irony he no doubt appreciated, it was Wilde's life, not his art, that brought issues of homosexuality before the public in his famous trial of 1895 and his subsequent imprisonment and exile.

The Nineteenth-Century American Novel

Meanwhile, on the American side of the Atlantic, mainstream fiction and fiction were by some accounts nearly congruent.

In Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler has identified a recurrent pattern of the friendship of two men, usually of contrasting ethnicity, outside the normal bounds of society: Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans (1826), Huck and Jim in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1885), and most notably, Ishmael and Queequeg in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851).

The picture of the New England "isolato," Ishmael, and Queequeg, the denizen of Rokovoko, cozily in bed together at the Spouter Inn is thought-provoking.

But Melville's plainest tale of fatal love between men is his novella Billy Budd, left in manuscript at Melville's death in 1891. Impressed aboard the Bellipotent, the handsome sailor Billy is the object of the repressed emotions of the master-at-arms, Claggart, who, Melville tells us, could have loved Billy "but for fate and ban."

The repressed feelings transmute into hatred and jealousy, and Claggart brings Billy up on charges; Billy, speechless with rage and surprise, strikes out, killing Claggart. Captain Vere, who also loves Billy in his own strait-laced way, observes that Claggart was "struck dead by an angel of God--and yet the angel must hang." And so he does.

Melville's novella concentrates many issues--innocence versus experience, authority versus freedom, justice versus law--but the cause of them all is sexual attraction; Melville pointedly emphasizes Billy's physical beauty and Claggart's sensitivity to it. Behind the novella's action is Melville's own experience in the all-male world of a ship. (The novella is dedicated to Jack Chase, one of Melville's real-life sailor heroes).

A key mediating figure in the development of gay literature on either side of the Atlantic was not a novelist but a poet, Walt Whitman. He met Oscar Wilde on the latter's visit to the United States in 1882 and was an influence on Edward Carpenter, who in turn later became a major influence on E. M. Forster and Maurice.

Whitman's quite frank celebrations of male-male love and camaraderie (more acceptable, it seems, in free verse than in prose fiction) provided both a touchstone and an encouragement to many later writers.

The Earlier Twentieth-Century English Novel

Carpenter was a Cambridge don who gave up his academic post and moved to the north of England where he practiced a communal life, vegetarianism, and the values of craftsmanship and simplicity as celebrated by writers like Thoreau and William Morris. His justification of homosexuality, or a way of life, as he called it, was considerably influenced in expression by Whitman.

When E. M. Forster visited Carpenter and his working-class lover George Merrill in late 1913, he was inspired to write a homosexual novel and set to work at once on Maurice, as he explains in the "Terminal Note" to that novel. Forster did not intend to publish the book, at least not during his mother's lifetime, and it was not in fact published until the year after his own death in 1970.

Despite its publication date, Maurice is very much a novel of turn-of-the-twentieth-century England: pastoral in quality, leisurely in pace, reticent in expression. Forster's protagonist, Maurice Hall, is presented as normal in every respect except the crucial one of sexual orientation. When his first lover, Clive Durham, somewhat improbably turns straight at the age of twenty-four, Maurice is devastated, but eventually finds happiness in the arms of one of Durham's gamekeepers, Alec Scudder.

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