Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America

Image of Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America
Release Date: 
February 2, 2012
Reviewed by: 

“Eminent Outlaws is a highly readable, entertaining gathering of anecdotes, book, theater, and a few film reviews, as well as dollop of family gossip. But it is not the comprehensive, groundbreaking work that this reader was hoping and waiting for. . . . Christopher Bram and his Eminent Outlaws fail as a comprehensive work of history and leave it still up to future generations to fully explore 50 turbulent years of gay cultural experience.”

Perhaps the best place to start in assessing Christopher Bram’s new work, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America is at it’s conclusion, in which our author, in looking back over the work of the gay men included in the pages of his book, states:

“These men continue to speak to us through their poems, plays, novels, and lives. Directly and indirectly, this loose conspiracy of writers opened the door of the imaginations of both gay people and straight people. These eminent outlaws succeeded in rewriting America.”

Lofty sense of purpose, this. And neat turn of phrase: “this loose conspiracy of writers.” But to jump back a bit now to the introduction, in which, by way of giving us more information on the cri de coeur that got him to his keyboard, Bram tells us:

“This book is the history of fifty years of change shaped by a relay race of novelists, playwrights, and poets—men who were first treated as outlaws but are now seen as pioneers and even founding fathers. Their writing was the catalyst for a social shift as deep and unexpected as what was achieved by the civil rights and women’s movements.”

Ah, so. It comes clearer.

And then there is this. After rather wonderfully writing, “This is a collection of war stories, but it’s also a collection of love stories,” the author explains:

“This is a book about gay male writers and not lesbian writers. I chose this focus reluctantly, but I needed to simplify an already complicated story. Also, lesbian literature has its own dynamic and history. It needs its own historian.”

This perhaps explains why in the world from which Bram receives his communiqués, it apparently was not a lesbian, the recently deceased Storme DeLarvarie, who threw the first punch, hitting a policeman square on the jaw during the Stonewall riots.

Then again, according to Christopher Bram, Stonewall wasn’t as influential, certainly not as important to the emergence of gay culture as, say, James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. Just as television’s “Will and Grace” (MTV’s truly groundbreaking “The Real World” and its depiction of cast mate Pedro Zamora’s struggle with AIDS goes unmentioned here) is seen as something of lesser value to shifts in the culture than the publication of Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection.

More important, in that last bit Mr. Bram suggests that lesbian literature “needs its own historian.” While this is most certainly a good suggestion, given the vast differences between the two genres, the implication here is that Christopher Bram has established himself as the historian for gay literature, the oracle from which our understanding of the emergence of the genre and its subsequent absorption into the mainstream will be taken. Which leaves the reader wondering, was this discussed by the whole group? Did I miss a meeting? Shouldn’t this have been put to a vote?

Eminent Outlaws is a beast of a thing to review. On the one hand, the author’s research seems to be limited. Vital names are left off the list of those who contributed both to gay literature and to its inception into the greater, larger cultural mindset over these last few years. Moreover, the tales he tells are those we have all heard and read before, in other, better books, and on television interviews. They are stories so familiar that it is as if our mothers had read them to us at bedtime when we were children.

On the other hand, the author tells these tales so well that it is well worth our time to hear them again.

In Eminent Outlaws, the reader is entertained by the story of Gore Vidal riding in a jeep while Tennessee Williams nearsightedly drives the hither and thither through post-war Italy. And is again amazed at how Larry Kramer moved from star activist very quickly to lone wolf after his own board ousted him during the beginning days of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and AIDS activism. And laughs once more along with Christopher Isherwood when the perhaps jealous Gore Vidal comments, “They’re beginning to believe that Christopher Street is named after you.”

The problem is that while Eminent Outlaws makes for an excellent and enthralling primer, it is nothing more than that. And given the importance and depth of its topic, it could have—and should have—been so much more.

Mr. Bram spends the first part of Eminent Outlaws carving the faces of Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote up on a gay Mount Rushmore. And all well and good. Each is undeniably key to the emergence of gay literature, and through it, of gay culture and the mainstreaming of gay consciousness. About each, it seems that no amount of praise is sufficient, both for the ways they explained the experience of life as a homosexual through the new filters of acceptance and normalcy both through their work and, perhaps just as important, through their appearances of the television talk shows of their era.

But again the author stints. Perhaps in digging into the lives of these men he decided that the heavily pixilated portraits that resulted were too much for the printed page and decided instead to only present the thumbnails. Yet the resultant presentations of these men, their work, and their lives seems rather like a “Saturday Night Live” skit of crazy old drug addled men or fussy old queens who snipe at each other from Johnny Carson’s couch.

This is true not only of the Big Three, but of James Baldwin, who comes and goes from these pages as if he took extended vacations only to return ever less rested; as well as of, God bless him, Larry Kramer, whose one-note character sketch calls for him to scream incessantly, not exactly reflective of the resulting literary and political feats he has accomplished.

Having spent the first slice of the book defending his choices for the first three heads, Christopher Bram then spends a good deal more seeking the fourth to complete his Rushmore motif. But who could possibly stand up to Vidal and Williams and Capote?

After a little thought, Bram settles on novelist Edmund White, about whom he writes:

“If the central figure for the first half of this book is Gore Vidal, an intersection where main roads meet, then the central figure for the second half could be said to be Edmund White. The two writers are quite different yet have much in common. They are both highly literary and well read, write excellent prose, and are fiercely productive. Both lived for many years in Europe; both are fond of hustlers. Yet while Vidal writes best about power, politics and history, White’s strengths are sex, art and—sometimes—love. Each tends to stumble when he enters the other’s domain.”

The reader might have given that last spot to Kramer, who is perhaps too often underrated after having been labeled “difficult,” or to Armistead Maupin, if only to unclench the hands of the East Coast academics from the steering wheel. But what’s done is done. The historian has spoken.

Throughout the second section of the book, the reader is treated to some great stories that evoke great memories. The tale of Mart Crowley and the birth of the Boys in the Band. Gore Vidal and William Buckley “Crypto Nazi-ing” each other live on television while covering the Chicago Democratic Convention. The evolution of Cabaret from Isherwood’s magnificent Goodbye to Berlin. And Isherwood’s breakthrough work, Christopher and His Kind. (Indeed, Isherwood or his friend W. H. Auden might well have hit Rushmore had they been born in America.) And Stonewall, the all-important Stonewall, the moment in which the conception of just who and what a gay man was forever culturally shifted.

Believing this to be the case, the reader’s eyes pop out as he reads an account of the event taken from a letter written by Rushmore’s Edmund White:

“[A] mammoth paddy wagon as big as a school bus, pulled up to the Wall and about ten cops raided the joint. The kids were all shooed into the street; soon other gay kids and straight spectators swelled the ranks to, I’d say about a thousand people. . . . As the Mafia owners were dragged out one by one and shoved into the wagon, the crowd let out Bronx cheers and jeers and clapping. Someone shouted, ‘Gay Power,’ others took up the cry—and then it dissolved into giggles. A few more prisoners—bartenders, hatcheck boys—a few more cheers, someone starts singing, ‘We Shall Overcome.’”

Mr. Bram quotes White’s letter as concluding, “Who know what will happen this weekend, or this week. I’ll keep you posted. Otherwise nothing much.”

In his brief retelling of Stonewall and its implications, the author seems to agree with White’s summation—“otherwise nothing much.” In this, and in much else in his selective retelling of history, Mr. Bram seems to be not only missing the headlines of the story, but missing its meaning as well.

Take, for example, some of the people who, like Stonewall, receive short shrift here. Paul Monette, author of Becoming a Man, Last Watch of the Night, and the exquisite and important Borrowed Time, is barely mentioned in these pages, although it was he, at the height of AIDS hysteria, who spoke to America, from the printed page and over their television screens—via those television talk shows once again—with a voice that was at once weathered by his own suffering and coolly detached and wise.

Or stop for a moment and wonder why no less than John Cheever has been ignored in these pages, although he was recently very much included in Edmund White’s recently published, similarly themed Sacred Monsters. Certainly Cheever’s particular experience wrestling with his sexuality, as written about particularly in his novel Falconer merits some consideration here, if not a place on the sacred mountain.

Even worse and even more surprising is the fact that, although the aforementioned Boys in the Band merits a long (and, admittedly, highly enjoyable) passage, and far lesser known works as Take Me Out are given mention, both actor/playwright/drag queen Harvey Fierstein (he who managed, among so many other things, to break the gender barrier at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade and greet Christmas as Mrs. Santa Claus) and his groundbreaking work Torch Song Trilogy are not even mentioned here, much less given their due.

And where, in these pages, is John Rechy? Or the barely mentioned Allan Gurganis? Or the almost invisible David Leavitt? Patricia Nell Warren and her trashy-but-grand novel of two gay male lovers, The Front Runner, get more mention than any of these more worthy authors of gay literature.

It is bad enough that writers who have identified themselves as or have come to be identified as gay are marginalized in the mainstream. How much worse when a gay writer, acting as historian, decides for himself who is and is not worthy of inclusion here, most especially when faced with the undeniable impact that Harvey Fierstein and others have had?

And let us for a moment consider that the book moves fluidly among many aspects of culture, from poetry to prose to theater to film (and yet again, Annie Proulx and her earth-shifting short story “Brokeback Mountain” and its film version are given one brief mention), and while television is acknowledged as perhaps the most effective medium for cultural change (which allows Mr. Bram to use what was perhaps Gore Vidal’s all time best epithet, “Never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on television.”), the medium itself is given little consideration, other than the aforementioned talk shows and good old “Will and Grace.”

In a culture in which television is the most used medium (at least in those years covered in these pages), didn’t it merit a consideration of its own, along with better identification of the gay men who contributed to that medium?

Indeed, there is a good deal of choppy logic at work in this presentation of what we are given to believe is a rather inclusive, exhaustive history of gay literature. The book enlightens both by what is and what is not included in it. And the author, as our host and historian and storyteller, tells us perhaps more about himself (and certainly his likes and dislikes when he takes it upon himself to state his professorial opinion of the individual works of various authors as it they were fact) than it does about the very history he is supposedly dedicated to recording.

As a result, Eminent Outlaws is a highly readable, entertaining gathering of anecdotes, book, theater, and a few film reviews, as well as dollop of family gossip. But it is not the comprehensive, groundbreaking work that this reader was hoping and waiting for.

That may be The American People, the reportedly 4,000-page manuscript for a “novel” that Larry Kramer has been wrestling with for years now. Or it may be a work that has yet to be conceived. Either way, Christopher Bram and his Eminent Outlaws fail as a comprehensive work of history and leave it still up to future generations to fully explore 50 turbulent years of gay cultural experience.