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War Literature  
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In Lonnie Coleman's novel Ship's Company (1955), the vignette entitled "The Theban Warriors" concerns the seduction of the ostensibly straight narrator by Montgomery, an unusually self-assured and unapologetically gay shipmate. But aside from the naval setting, the story is hardly concerned with war.

Russell Thacher's The Captain (1951) is set during the war in the Pacific, but the relatively positive presentation of the homosexual affair between Esposito and Gilchrist plays a secondary role in the novel as a whole.

Escaping the Categories

In the 1960s, a handful of plays and novels dealt with the relationship between homosexuality and war in intriguing ways that escape the categories so far discussed here.

Sanford Friedman's Totempole (1965) features an army love affair between its protagonist and a North Korean doctor war prisoner.

Homosexuality has a profound if somewhat implausible connection to the motivation behind war in Norman Mailer's Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967). The novel associates the homosexual desire that enters into the friendship between its all-American main characters, D. J. and Tex, with the need to exert power over others, and so suggests that the title's question can be answered with reference to the difficulty that heterosexual men have in dealing with latent homosexuality.

Equally original and even more distressing, Anthony Burgess's The Wanting Seed (1962) is a dystopian vision of England in some unspecified, amoral future as it moves through the phases of a cycle driven by a perpetual overpopulation crisis.

At first, homosexuality is officially encouraged and heterosexuals suffer persecution, but a strange sterility soon blights the world and leads to an anarchic phase of cannibalism and indiscriminate heterosexual copulation. A new government restores order and addresses the crisis by declaring war on an unnamed (in fact, nonexistent) enemy and massacring its own armies in staged trench battles strongly reminiscent of World War I.

Burgess presents homosexuality and war as equally disturbing solutions to overpopulation.

John Osborne's play A Patriot for Me (1965) is set in Eastern Europe in 1890 and concerns an ambitious officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, Redl, who insists on being careless with his homosexual affairs, even though his superiors have arranged a marriage for him. The theme is familiar: Homosexuality is tolerated by the military only as long as it remains hidden.

In Martin Sherman's 1979 play Bent, the Nazi program to exterminate homosexuals and Jews works first to debase but ultimately to embolden its gay hero. After Max's unsuccessful attempt to elude the authorities, a Nazi officer forces him to participate in the torture of his lover, Rudi.

Max is sent to a concentration camp where he pretends to be Jewish rather than wear the pink triangle, but he falls in love with Horst, a prisoner who does wear it. When Horst is killed, Max touches him for the first time, puts on his jacket emblazoned with the pink triangle, and commits suicide by walking into the electrified fence.

The most important fictional account of homoeroticism in the Vietnam War is the epistolary novel by Charles Nelson, The Boy Who Picked the Bullets Up (1981). This lively work offers a picaresque, though finally shattering, account of the sexual adventures of a young medic who is sent to Vietnam.

Matthew Parfitt

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literature >> Overview:  Elegy

A poetic response to the death of a greatly loved person, the elegy has had since classical times a homoerotic component.

literature >> Overview:  Romantic Friendship: Male

Critics use the term male romantic friendship to describe strong attachments between men in works ranging from ancient epics and medieval romances to Renaissance plays, Gothic novels, westerns, and war movies.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

literature >> Overview:  The Western

A distinctive American narrative genre that has developed over more than two centuries, the Western is now consumed worldwide; characteristically depicting homosocial relationships, it is also frequently suffused with homoeroticism.

literature >> Burns, John Horne

American novelist John Horne Burns used his outsider status as a homosexual to critique America's class-coded heterosexist morality and its ethnocentrism and marketplace mentality.

literature >> Byron, George Gordon, Lord

The bisexual Lord Byron treated many of his homosexual love affairs in his poetry, encoding them by the use of classical references or by purporting that they were affairs with women.

social sciences >> Ellis, Havelock

Henry Havelock Ellis--British psychologist and writer--was one of the first modern thinkers to challenge Victorian taboos against the frank and objective discussion of sex.

literature >> Forster, E. M.

One of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century and a tireless defender of humane values, Forster deserves a special place in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Gilgamesh

The ancient Sumerian poem Gilgamesh is structured around the love that the heroic male couple Gilgamesh and Enkidu have for each other.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

literature >> Housman, A. E.

A. E. Housman's poetry is inextricably rooted in homosexual experience and consciousness and is also a significant reflector of gay history.

literature >> Lawrence, D. H.

For his time, D. H. Lawrence was a maverick in his open and adventurous discussion of all sexual issues and especially homosexuality, both male and female.

literature >> Lawrence, T. E.

Although he chose celibacy, Lawrence of Arabia formed close romantic attachments to young men.

literature >> Mann, Klaus

Klaus Mann's vision of homosexuality is marked by loneliness and alienation, and his fiction is characterized by melancholic hopelessness.

literature >> Melville, Herman

The most important American novelist of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville reflects his homosexuality throughout his texts.

literature >> Owen, Wilfred

English war poet Wilfred Owen combined the homoeroticism latent in the elegy tradition with precise observation of the horror of trench warfare.

literature >> Plutarch

No ancient is more instructive about pederasty than the Greek biographer and essayist Plutarch.

literature >> Proust, Marcel

Marcel Proust is the author of A la recherche du temps perdu, one of the major achievements of Modernism and a great gay novel.

social sciences >> Redl, Alfred

The fascinating story of Colonel Alfred Redl, an Austro-Hungarian Army Chief of Counterintelligence who was blackmailed into spying for Russia in the years before World War I, has had a significant legacy for homosexuals.

literature >> Renault, Mary

After five novels which included suggested lesbianism, Mary Renault turned to open male homosexuality in the last nine, which included The Charioteer and eight celebrated historical novels set in ancient Greece.

literature >> Sassoon, Siegfried

For war poet and memoirist Siegfried Sassoon, the grueling years of World War I left an indelible impression of devastation and futility that colored his entire life.

literature >> Sherman, Martin

Best known for his groundbreaking play Bent, iconoclastic playwright and screenwriter Martin Sherman has created an impressive body of work.

literature >> Spender, Sir Stephen

In his poetry and his autobiography, Stephen Spender wrote about his homosexual experiences in his early life.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

literature >> Vogel, Bruno

Bruno Vogel's experiences as a soldier during World War I and as a homosexual in a society hostile to any open expression of same-sex love shaped his political and aesthetic vision.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


Cady, Joseph. "Drum Taps and Nineteenth-Century Male Homosexual Literature." Walt Whitman: Here and Now. Joann P. Krieg, ed. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985.

Frontain, Raymond Jean. "Ruddy and Goodly to Look at Withal: Drayton, Cowley and the Biblical Model for Renaissance Hom(m)osexuality." Cahiers Elizabethains 36 (1989): 11-24.

Fussell, Paul. "Soldier Boys." The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Halperin, David M. "Heroes and Their Pals." One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays On Greek Love. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Martin, Robert K. Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Meyers, Jeffrey. "T. E. Lawrence: Seven Pillars of Wisdom." Homosexuality and Literature, 1890-1930. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1977. 114-130.

Silkin, Jon. Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War. London: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Stambolian, George, and Elaine Marks, ed. Homosexualities and French Literature: Cultural Contexts/Critical Texts. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1979.

Summers, Claude J. Gay Fictions: Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Taylor, Martin, ed. Lads: Love Poetry of the Trenches. London: Constable, 1989.

Woods, Gregory. Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-Eroticism and Modern Poetry. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.


    Citation Information
    Author: Parfitt, Matthew  
    Entry Title: War Literature  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated June 6, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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