David Leavitt Essay - Critical Essays

David Leavitt American Literature Analysis

Although he is regarded as one of the leading lights of gay literature, Leavitt explores universal themes, and it would do him a great disservice to portray his writing as being of interest only to a limited audience. Indeed, he confronts head-on the problems faced by homosexuals in a heterosexual world, but he also explores feelings of alienation common to all people as the result of such conditions as mental and physical illness, shame, despair, physical unattractiveness, geographical dislocation, and career choice.

Leavitt often tackles this theme of separateness within the milieu of family life. Many of his works describe the precarious equipoise of collective harmony tentatively achieved in even the closest families while they also adroitly reveal the turmoil underlying the placid surface of everyday life. Both The Lost Language of Cranes and Equal Affections, for example, present characters shaped by apparently strong family relationships, yet those characters are ultimately defined more by what sets them apart from one another than by what binds them together.

This insight into family relations informs many of Leavitt’s short stories as well, particularly in his first collection, Family Dancing. In “The Lost Cottage,” for example, a family’s attempts to re-create their annual summer vacation six months after the parents have separated fail abysmally. The family gamely behaves as if a good time were being had by all, but the charade ends when Lydia, the mother, discovers that her estranged husband has settled his new girlfriend into a nearby motel. Lydia agonizingly declares to her family, “I will always love your father. And he doesn’t love me. And never will.” The children, including the gay son, Mark, whose simultaneous role as family insider and observant outsider is highlighted in the narrative, come to realize the depths of their mother’s despair and the fact that they are helpless to assuage her pain.

The title story, “Family Dancing,” also features a broken family in which the ties, for better or worse, remain strong. Suzanne Kaplan, who has a new marriage, a new figure, and a new life since her first husband, Herb, left her for another woman, throws a large family party to celebrate her “new self” and her son’s prep-school graduation. As the party guests admiringly watch a celebratory “family dance” performed by Suzanne and Herb and their son and daughter, the reader, who has been allowed a glimpse beneath the surface, knows that all is not well. Suzanne is still painfully in love with Herb, who no longer loves her; Herb’s show of devotion for his ungainly daughter hides his repulsion for her unattractiveness; and their son, Seth, has yet to inform them of his homosexuality.

Leavitt often explores the effect of illness, such as cancer or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), on an individual’s relation to family. In “Radiation,” a mother named Gretl takes two of her three children to a radiation therapy center while she has her treatments. The staff and patients chat cheerfully about new lawn furniture, children play games and read children’s magazines, and patients joke about the hospital gowns they must wear, belying the life-and-death purpose of the center. The mother’s life begins to be defined by her illness, as she realizes that the pain, suffering, and humiliation she now accepts as normal would have been unthinkable only a few months earlier. She cries alone in her room, unreachable in her grief, unable to accept sympathy or comfort even from her family.

Sometimes, when he or she is endowed with intelligence and imagination, an outsider can derive some compensation out of alienation from others. Such separateness offers, for example, opportunities for self-reflection and self-definition. In the story “My Marriage to Vengeance” from the collection A Place I’ve Never Been, the narrator, a lesbian named Ellen, reluctantly attends the wedding of her former lover Diana, who is marrying a man so that she can have a so-called normal life and “not have to die inside trying to explain who it is [she’s] with.” Though the experience of seeing her former lover get married causes her considerable pain, Ellen takes some comfort in the thought that Diana will be “contemplating a whole life of mistakes spinning out from one act of compromise” while she herself, even in her present state of abandonment, has an authentic life, “harder but better.”

For the literary artist, like Leavitt himself, looking at the world from the outside cultivates the essential skills of observation. In his novel Martin Bauman, the title character, much of whose story parallels Leavitt’s own early career, is cut off from others by virtue of his sexual orientation and his interior life; his separateness is a key ingredient in his desire to write, to put into words what he sees but that others, by virtue of their active but unconscious participation in the moment, cannot. Although it can be argued that he himself shares the same raw ambition characteristic of his compatriots, the novel’s narrator nonetheless hits the mark time and again in his efforts to capture the tireless machinations and shameless self-promotion of those caught up in the inbred publishing world of New York in the 1980’s.

In essence, Leavitt has developed a well-deserved reputation as a prose stylist who often mines autobiographical material to validate the contention that there is something universal in the particular and that each individual situation speaks to the general human condition.


First published: 1982 (collected in Family Dancing, 1984)

Type of work: Short story

A son introduces his gay lover to his mother for the first time.

“Territory,” the opening story in Family Dancing, revolves around the first meeting between the two most important people in Neil Campbell’s life: his mother, Barbara, and his lover, Wayne. Although the action revolves around Barbara and Wayne’s meeting, the most richly detailed and emotionally powerful relationship in the story, as in much of Leavitt’s work, is between mother and son. Barbara has been a devoted mother, PTA member, volunteer at school, and active member of the Coalition of Parents of Lesbians and Gays. Neil’s father is “a distant sort,” often away on business and emotionally absent even when home, so it is Barbara to whom Neil feels emotionally bound.

Neil is flooded with memories as his lover’s arrival forces him to reconcile the boy his mother knew with the man whom Wayne loves. As he nervously awaits the visit, he remembers the day he “came out” to his mother and “felt himself shrunk to an embarrassed adolescent, hating her sympathy, not wanting her to touch him.” He also recalls the Gay Pride parade his mother attended to show her support, succeeding only in embarrassing Neil and inflicting pain upon herself.

The story revolves around simple events: Wayne’s introduction to Barbara, their first dinner together, and a trip to a theater. The meaning, however, lies not in the events themselves but rather, as is the case in the fiction of Henry James, in the small gestures. When Wayne takes Neil’s hand at dinner, Barbara’s almost imperceptible reaction speaks volumes about her discomfort in their presence. Later, when Neil...

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