Eminent Outlaws

Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed AmericaEminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America by Christopher Bram

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What makes this history of gay literature so effective is Christopher Bram’s cogent and effective commentary on books, people and events. At the beginning he says he excluded his own oeuvre as this would have been self-serving; this made me wonder if he simply balked at turning his kiss-and-tell approach on his own role in this narrative. However, it was only towards the end that I realised, and appreciated, what Bram has done: he is the proverbial Greek chorus, elucidating, championing, lambasting, praising (and even excoriating).

He writes in the Acknowledgements:

Without being aware of it, I spent much of my life preparing to write this book. I came of age during a remarkable period of American history – the Sixties and Seventies – reading many of the novels, poems, and plays discussed here when they first came out.

The book is divided into five parts: the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s and after. In each part, Bram examines the major writers and works of the time period, together with an incisive analysis of the cultural context. However, the parts are not discontinuous, with Bram telling a seamless story, with characters moving into the wings when new ones take the stage, and then reappearing when their own stories intersect with those of others.

This makes for a surprisingly incestuous and ribald narrative, as many of the writers and personalities here were either involved with each other romantically and/or professionally, or were engaged in protracted intrigues, catfights, literary and/or personal feuds (this is particularly true of the 1950s to 1960s, when giants like Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and James Baldwin bestrode the literary landscape). Bram is not afraid to step into the fray with his own (often droll and acerbic) observations.

He writes:

This is not an all-inclusive, definitive literary history. I do not include everyone of value or importance. Nor am I putting together a canon of must-read writers. I am writing a large-scale cultural narrative, and I include chiefly those authors who help me tell that story – and who offer the liveliest tales.

Bram also adds: “The story of these men has never been told as a single narrative before, which is surprising.” And what a story it is, chockablock with epiphanies and tragedies, comedy and melancholy, eroticism and anger. I was shocked at what the nascent gay community faced in the 1950s and 1960s in particular. (One has to bear in mind that homosexuality was only declassified as a psychological disorder in the US in 1973.)

However, this is by no means a grim book. Bram humanises all the writers, playwrights and poets he describes, warts and all (some with more warts than others, of course), and places them in their socio-cultural context, as well as considering their overall role and status in the overall evolution of gay literature (even though Bram shies away from using the ‘c’ word, the aggregate effect here is to produce something of a gay canon, which is by no means a bad thing for new gay people to discover, or older ones to revisit).

My only quibble is that the part dealing with the 1990s and beyond is the sketchiest section of a very full and nuanced book. Bram does touch briefly on the end of the gay midlist after 2008, and the uncertainty introduced by ebooks, but points to the plethora of small presses, blogs and independent publishers in the 2000s, and the quantity and quality of extraordinary LGBT literature that continues to be written, published and, most importantly, read.

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