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Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America

by Christopher Bram

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1885119,575 (4.21)4
Describes how the trailblazing, post-war gay literary figures, including Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Allen Ginsberg, paved the way for newer generations, including Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, and Edward Albee. In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation's imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater. James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic. Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist. And the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to gay experience and sensibility, and changed our literary culture. But the change was only beginning. A new generation of gay writers followed, taking more risks and writing about their sexuality more openly. Edward Albee brought his prickly iconoclasm to the American theater. Edmund White laid bare his own life in stylized, autobiographical works. Armistead Maupin wove a rich tapestry of the counterculture, queer and straight. Mart Crowley brought gay men's lives out of the closet and onto the stage. And Tony Kushner took them beyond the stage, to the center of American ideas. In this book the author weaves these men's ambitions, affairs, feuds, loves, and appetites into a single narrative. Chronicling over fifty years of momentous change, from civil rights to Stonewall to AIDS and beyond, this is a tale that reveals how the lives of these men are crucial to understanding the social and cultural history of the American twentieth century.… (more)
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Showing 5 of 5
Eminent Outlaws is one juicy anecdote after another that builds up into a sweeping history. I found this book almost gossipy at times, yet incredibly thought-provoking. It reminded me of Randy Shilts' historical "non-fiction novels," except this one is about famous men, not regular people. This book is only about gay male writers, so it doesn't cover any lesbian or gender non-conforming writers. The author Christopher Bram explains that he needed to narrow the scope, because it was already a big topic, and that lesbian literature deserves its own historian. Fair enough, and Bram mentions writers like Audre Lord, M.E. Kerr, Susan Sontag, and Ann Bannon when they enter his story. Eminent Outlaws is also focused solely on literary fiction, poetry, and plays. I was hoping to hear about science fiction legend Samuel R. Delany, and he's mentioned briefly. But Bram didn't try to make his book all things for all people; he stuck to what he is clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about.

Each chapter focuses mostly on one particular writer, but includes material about other writers that keeps the narrative colorful, connected, and flowing. You get to hear about Gore Vidal throughout the entire book because he's so long-lived. The book is divided into decades. My favorite parts were the Fifties and Sixties. It was such a different time, with such virulent homophobia. Reading about Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams especially, I got such a sense of how corrosive and damaging prejudice and self-hatred are, not just to human beings but also to writing. These guys were so talented and yet a lot of what they wrote was so wacko (from my modern-day viewpoint, which is the only one I have.) A lot of this early work sounds interesting historically, but the last thing I want to read is some story about a tortured, unhappy queer person who comes to a bad end (like being eaten by cannibals.) Apparently Christopher Isherwood was the first writer to have non-tragic gay characters who are happy, in The World In The Evening.

One thing that was really striking was that these fellas had such bad shrinks and literary agents! Tennessee Williams' therapist told him to stop having sex with men; James Baldwin's agent told him to burn Giovanni's Room. The only instance of good advice was when Allen Ginsberg, still a nobody, saw a dollar-a-session therapist in Berkeley who told him he should go ahead and live with the guy he liked if he wanted and he didn't have to live as a heterosexual. "You're a nice person; there's always people who will like you," he said. Ginsberg ended up staying with the guy he liked until the end of his life forty years later.

Another thing that I can't stop thinking about is the description of how the magazine Christopher Street opened in 1976, creating a space for a new generation of gay writers. The editors imagined that gay writers would have desks stuffed with unpublished gay-themed work that they could now send to Christopher Street. But in fact all the submissions were newly-written. This makes so much sense to me. Writers aren't morons. Generally we don't write for magazines that don't exist. And that makes me think two things, 1) That is as true today as it ever was. What are the holes in our literature now? What is not getting written? What audiences don't get to read stories that reflect them? Because I'm a YA writer, the first thing that comes to mind is that there is no YA novel about a transgender character that is written by a writer who is transgender. Where are the YA editors who are not just open to transgender stories, but who will go down in history for recruiting and championing the Great American Transgender YA Novel? 2) But some writers ARE that crazy, to write for markets that the publishing industry does not believe exist. That's what all the Eminent Outlaws in this book did. Thanks, guys! Much appreciated. I do get a real sense of "standing on their shoulders."

The section on the Eighties was a big downer, as you can imagine. It's tough to read about all these promising writers dying, or their friends and lovers dying. I was a little surprised at what a negative portrayal Larry Kramer got. Some of the things that he did that Bram described as "shooting himself in the foot" seemed pretty sensible to me (like leaving GMHC, which he had helped found, after not being invited to a meeting that he had made happen.) I also can't understand Bram's critique that Kramer criticized Mayor Koch too early and too often. Seriously? How could that even be possible? Larry Kramer clearly had a harsh, abrasive personality and gave unwarranted bad reviews to other writers. But he doesn't seem any worse in those departments than James Baldwin or Truman Capote, and they were described lovingly. I think maybe it's because unpleasant literary pioneers are cast in a warm glow of forgiveness once they are dead, and their struggles are not our struggles so we can't be so judgmental. Whereas Larry Kramer is a contemporary figure and, I dunno, maybe Bram has seen him at a party being a jerk and he just can't stand the guy.

My favorite part of the Eighties section, and not just because it was peppy and upbeat, was the part about Charles Ludlam. I saw Charles Ludlam as Camille and I saw The Mystery of Irma Vep, and as funny as the parts Bram quotes are, they were even more funny in real life. Those plays were probably the funniest things I have ever seen, so it was a pleasure to read about them.

I learned a lot from this book, like who the Publishing Triangle's Ferro-Grumley awards are named after. (I always figured it was some guy named Ferro-Grumley, but no.) And I learned about a bunch of writers I had never heard of, like Matt Crowley, Melvin Dixon, and Frank O'Hara (I had kind of vaguely heard of him, but had him mixed up in my head with both John O'Hara and Frank O'Connor.) And Eminent Outlaws has made me want to read or re-read some of the novels mentioned in it. I have to say that my least favorite aspect was Bram's literary evaluations, comments like that Gore Vidal was smarter than Tennessee Williams, or what James Baldwin's worst novel was. But I think that's the price you pay to read literary history.

If you've never heard of all these people and you think you'd find this book boring, I really doubt it. I got Eminent Outlaws out of the library at the recommendation of my high school art teacher/Facebook friend. It looked so long and dull that I left it unread and kept renewing it. Only when I could renew it no longer and it was coming due did I crack it open, promising to read at least fifty pages before I gave up. Twenty pages and I was totally sucked in. It's seriously dynamite. Famous people wander in and out of the book, in little incidents like JFK getting cruised, Ian McKellen deciding to come out, Jerome Robbins dancing with Lauren Bacall, Lincoln Kirstein coming up with the title "Breakfast at Tiffany's." I don't have the expertise to judge, but it sure seemed like a solidly-researched, factually-accurate book to me. I think it's a work for the ages. ( )
  jollyavis | Dec 14, 2021 |
This is one of those perfect matches between author and content. Bram knows the subject intimately. His judgments about the writers and their respective novels, poems, plays and stories are measured and well-informed. He looks back to the years just after World War II and the earliest work by Gore Vidal and Tennessee Williams; he assesses the way homophobia shaped the criticism of James Baldwin's novels and Edward Albee's plays; he traces the evolution of writers ranging from Christopher Isherwood to Edmund White; the "de-gayification" by mainstream critics of writers like Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg; and the huge impact of AIDS on the gay male literature, both the content of the stories told by gay writers in the 1980s and 1990s and the way those stories were received by gay and non-gay readers; and also how the transition from AIDS as death sentence to a manageable, chronic disease corresponded to the acceptability to new, mainstream depictions like the "Will & Grace" television show and, perhaps paradoxically, the decline of the importance of gay writing. Along the way, he provides shrewd portraits of the writers named above and others, among them Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin and James Merrill. This is a necessary book, recommended for anyone with an interest in gay men's literature in the second half of the 20th Century. ( )
  STLreader | Aug 15, 2020 |
I found this book very good. I don't read a lot of non fiction but it gave a great history on public perspective of gay history and authors. ( )
  bibliophile_pgh | Dec 14, 2013 |
This is a crafted and sweeping literary theory, with the thesis that gay authors/playwrights helped set the stage for the gay liberation of the late 20th century.

Although might dispute the central tenets of this thesis, the biographical discussion of these novelists and their work is worthy enough reason to start reading.

This chapter of history starts in 1945 and continues to the present. It starts with Vidal and Capote and Isherwood and Baldwin and moves slowly and inexorably to the present day.

The author, a gay writer himself, offers a fine perspective, and allows personal interviews and archives, as well as literary analysis, to define the story.

It says something about the personal bravery of these authors, to say and think and act on what they did, especially in the 40s and 50s. Even the 1960s, which we like to think of as tolerant, was still filled with angry slurs and dismissive reviews. Of course, the author isn't writing biographies of saints. He details the feuds and botched novels and inner demons of the writers portrayed here, but their best qualities are shown as well. Most often it's bravery.

The big gap is that there aren't any lesbians here - the author confesses as much in the introduction (they have their own grand story to tell, and the volume would easily triple in size), and I'd like to get ahold of a companion volume someday.

A good history of American letters, and of the colorful cast who wrote them. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Eminent Outlaws (the title is a mash-up of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and John Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw) is a briskly paced and much needed exploration of how gay male literature created that change. Beginning with Gore Vidal, the “godfather of gay literature in spite of himself” who, post-Stonewall, becomes more like a Moses who “pointed us in a new direction, but he could not go there himself,” Bram explores how literature shined a light on the previously unspoken of world of gay men. The work of Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood and James Baldwin were not only guides to that world for courageous heterosexual readers, but also gave gay men their first glimpses of themselves in mainstream print and onstage...Bram continually manages to be personal yet balanced in his assessments of writers of the past and present, as well as deliciously gossipy. Eminent Outlaws is reminiscent of a gay version of the documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, with a practitioner of the art looking back at its history, his influences and his peer. This fleet yet solid literary history was so engrossing that I even read through the footnotes, not wanting stop listening to Bram’s entertaining voice or for the book to end. ( )
  rmharris | Mar 23, 2012 |
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Describes how the trailblazing, post-war gay literary figures, including Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Allen Ginsberg, paved the way for newer generations, including Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, and Edward Albee. In the years following World War II a group of gay writers established themselves as major cultural figures in American life. Truman Capote, the enfant terrible, whose finely wrought fiction and nonfiction captured the nation's imagination. Gore Vidal, the wry, withering chronicler of politics, sex, and history. Tennessee Williams, whose powerful plays rocketed him to the top of the American theater. James Baldwin, the harrowingly perceptive novelist and social critic. Christopher Isherwood, the English novelist who became a thoroughly American novelist. And the exuberant Allen Ginsberg, whose poetry defied censorship and exploded minds. Together, their writing introduced America to gay experience and sensibility, and changed our literary culture. But the change was only beginning. A new generation of gay writers followed, taking more risks and writing about their sexuality more openly. Edward Albee brought his prickly iconoclasm to the American theater. Edmund White laid bare his own life in stylized, autobiographical works. Armistead Maupin wove a rich tapestry of the counterculture, queer and straight. Mart Crowley brought gay men's lives out of the closet and onto the stage. And Tony Kushner took them beyond the stage, to the center of American ideas. In this book the author weaves these men's ambitions, affairs, feuds, loves, and appetites into a single narrative. Chronicling over fifty years of momentous change, from civil rights to Stonewall to AIDS and beyond, this is a tale that reveals how the lives of these men are crucial to understanding the social and cultural history of the American twentieth century.

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Haiku summary
Once we were outlaws.
Now we are our kid's inlaws.
Window breaks the bird.
(SomeGuyInVirginia)

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