Gregory Woods has undertaken a positively herculean task in writing this history of the gay male tradition in literature. Although he is not the first to attempt such an encompassing study, in the sheer breadth of his coverage and the persuasive force of his critical commentary, he succeeds in a much more comprehensive way than any of his predecessors.
The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage: A Reader’s Companion to the Writers and Their Works, from Antiquity to the Present (1995), one of several volumes edited by Claude J. Summers in the early 1990’s, is certainly a valuable guide, as are the various dictionaries on gay men’s literature available from Greenwood Press and St. James Press; but Woods has produced something much more monumental than an exhaustively annotated bibliography of gay figures and texts. He has effectively identified a new canon, or rather given a penetrating re-reading of the established canon from a gay perspective, and in a series of magisterial essays has created a sense of a usable literary past for gay readers.
Gay readers, in fact, are essential to Woods’s construction of this canon, since it is his contention that gay literature is not simply limited to the productions of gay authors nor confined to literary works containing recognizable gay characters or themes. Although gay literature may begin with an openly gay author writing explicitly about the experience of being gay, Woods proposes that it must finally expand to comprise any literary material that is “amenable to gay readings.” The question then becomes: Can these poems or novels be read as if they were gay poems or novels? This makes the gay reader the locus for determining the canon—a tactful and savvy reader, it should be said, but a gay reader nevertheless. The power to authorize inclusion or exclusion no longer lies solely with the heterosexual critic, hiding behind a mask of disinterestedness and claiming to speak for universal standards and unbiased views, nor with the bookish homosexual critic, wary of pushing beyond the already agreed-upon cadre of “queer” writers (the Christopher Marlowes, Oscar Wildes, and Thom Gunns) and not wishing to appropriate any more than appears seemly. Here Woods borrows from Roland Barthes the notion that a critic’s job is not so much to reveal a work of art’s secret meaning for all time but to construct a way of understanding the work in the critic’s own time. This is what he does, arguing that in the absence of stable definitions and in the presence of destabilizing homophobic prejudices, gay literature is always something in the process of being identified in the critic’s (or the critical reader’s) own time. It exists, he suggests, in the spaces between texts, in the constant readings and rereadings, in the ongoing conversations about what constitutes literature and what constitutes sexuality.
The texts themselves, of course, are there, a matter of record—from ancient Greek pastorals to medieval Arabic elegies, Renaissance dramas to Victorian pornography, modern European novels to African friendship verses and contemporary AIDS journalism. By 1998 it is not difficult to make extensive lists of potential gay texts. Indeed, the first fruits of a new wave of gay publishing in the late 1970’s were the numerous anthologies of gay fiction and collections of gay verse that Woods views as a continuation of the late nineteenth century practice of listing, of gathering into one place, one anthology, the defining texts of homosexuality. It was at that time—when homosexuality was being reconceived as an identity category, a distinct human type—that gay readers needed a tradition, a past that would bring legitimacy and a sustaining mythic dimension to lives that had hitherto been seen largely in sinful, criminal, or pathological terms. Thus a canon began to take shape, beginning, not surprisingly, with Greek classical literature, where myth and history could easily provide a Ganymede or Apollo, a Socrates or Achilles as the foundation of a gay pantheon.
Woods handles these opening chapters on classic Greece and Rome, part of what he calls the “pre-homosexual world,” very carefully, alert to any anachronistic assumptions that might result in distorted analysis. He is, for example, acutely aware that for all of the exuberant pederastic verse in every Greek writer from Theocritus to Pindar, the insistently exalted notions of love between men and boys must be seen in the light of the accompanying gender system that assigns clear active and passive roles to each. Only within that context does the sexual relationship have meaning. The same applies to Latin writers: While it can seem in reading Roman literature that the culture took for granted what is now known as bisexuality—judging beauty by age rather than gender—the celebratory same-sex poetry of Catullus or Martial or even Vergil must be located within the prevailing gender order and its authorized scripts for amorous male conduct. Nevertheless, these works do make clear that same-sex desire is a persistent phenomenon; classic literature is suffused with the...