Armistead Maupin Essay - Critical Essays

Maupin, Armistead


Armistead Maupin 1944–

American journalist and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Maupin's life and career.

Maupin's novels are noted for their witty, realistic dialogue, bizarre plot twists, memorable characters, and the presentation of gay life as an integral part of the broader social milieu. His critically acclaimed six-novel Tales of the City series is set in San Francisco during the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, and follows the lives of numerous characters. Maupin's main themes include homosexuality, alienation and discrimination, religion, sex and drugs, and love and romance. Critics have noted that with the advent of the AIDS crisis, his later works have taken a more serious and somber tone.

Biographical Information

Born and raised in North Carolina, Maupin graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1966. He became a highly decorated soldier during the Vietnam War and was honored by the president of the United States. In the early 1970s he formally disclosed his homosexuality and moved from North Carolina to San Francisco, where he pursued a career in journalism. While writing for the San Francisco Chronicle he created the popular "Tales of the City" newspaper serial about people and life in the Bay Area; the characters became the protagonists of the six novels that comprise the Tales of the City series. Maupin has also written for the stage and screen and, in 1992, published Maybe the Moon, which is a departure from the Tales series.

Major Works

The Tales of the City series—Tales of the City (1978), More Tales of the City (1980), Further Tales of the City (1982), Babycakes (1984), Significant Others (1987), and Sure of You (1989)—are set in San Francisco and follow the lives of Mary Ann Singleton, Michael ("Mouse") Tolliver, Brian Hawkins, Mona, Dede, Jonathan, Mr. Halcyon, and the mysterious Anna Madrigal, who oversees the lives of her tenant "family" at 28 Barbary Lane. In Tales of the City Mary Ann leaves the midwest to make a new life for herself in San Francisco during the 1970s; Michael, a gay neighbor who is currently between lovers, befriends her. Mrs. Madrigal, the landlord, becomes very protective of Mary Ann and all her tenants. Eventually, Michael falls in love with Jonathan, a young doctor and Dede Halcyon's gynecologist. Mrs. Madrigal also takes particular interest in Mona, a new tenant and friend of Michael. More Tales of the City follows Mary Ann and Michael in their search for love on a Mexican cruise ship. Back in San Francisco, Mary Ann and Michael also become embroiled in a bizarre series of circumstances, which involve an amnesia victim and lead to the discovery of a secret Christian cannibal cult that is operating out of Grace Cathedral. As the story draws to a close, Michael and Jonathan permanently get together, and Mrs. Madrigal reveals two very important secrets. In Babycakes, which begins with Queen Elizabeth II's royal visit to San Francisco, Mary Ann has become a successful TV reporter and has married. The mood of Babycakes is decidedly somber, as the AIDS issue is introduced into Michael's life and the rest of the characters at 28 Barbary Lane. As Significant Others begins, Jonathan has died from AIDS, Michael has AIDS, and Mary Ann has become a very popular local talk show hostess; Dede Halcyon, her twin Eurasian children, and her lover Dorothea spend a week at Camp Wimminwood, a summer music camp for lesbians. Meanwhile, Brian, Michael, and Booter are up-river at the Bohemian Grove, which is a summer camp for heterosexual men. In Sure of You, the last novel of the Tales series, 28 Barbary Lane has closed. Mrs. Madrigal goes off to Greece with Mona, but career-minded Mary Ann decides to leave San Francisco, her husband and child, and go to New York City. Maybe the Moon (1992) is a departure from the Tales series and is a first-person narrative about the life of a heterosexual dwarf actress who lives in Los Angeles and pursues a career in films.

Critical Reception

Most commentators on the Tales of the City novels have applauded Maupin as a chronicler and satirist of contemporary American culture and have praised the realism and flow of his dialogue and the way he handles homosexual themes. Furthermore, many have commented favorably on his use of short chapters, outrageous plot twists, and his ability to interweave complicated subplots. Some critics, however, have faulted Maybe the Moon for its weak presentation of the themes of discrimination and alienation, and for its stereotypical portrayal of Los Angeles and the film industry.

Principal Works

Tales of the City (novel) 1978
More Tales of the City (novel) 1980
Further Tales of the City (novel) 1982
Babycakes (novel) 1984
Significant Others (novel) 1987
Sure of You (novel) 1989
28 Barbary Lane: A Tales of the City Omnibus (novels) 1990
Back to Barbary Lane: The Final Tales of the City Omnibus (novels) 1992
Maybe the Moon (novel) 1992

∗These works comprise the Tales of the City series.

†This collection contains Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, and Further Tales of the City.

‡This collection contains Babycakes, Significant Others, and Sure of You.


Publishers Weekly (review date 1 February 1980)

SOURCE: A review of More Tales of the City, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 217, No. 4, February 1, 1980, p. 106.

[In the following review, the critic provides brief synopses of the story lines in More Tales of the City.]

[In More Tales of the City,] things are hopping once again at Anna Madrigal's San Francisco rooming house, and Maupin fills us in on the latest crises in the lives of the Barbary Lane crew. Anna finally reveals that she is not the man she once was, which comes as quite a shock to several of her boarders (one of whom turns out to be her daughter). Mary Ann and Michael set out to find the loves of their lives on a cruise to Mexico. She takes up with an amnesia victim who—as the two eventually discover—lost his memory after becoming involved with an Episcopal cannibal cult. And it looks as though Michael's future will be rosy when he meets Jon, a kind gynecologist. Mona and Brian, two of Anna's more frustrated tenants, find solace in each other at the end of this entertaining, highly dramatic saga, which takes well-aimed pokes at just about every imaginable human lifestyle and personality.

Stephen Harvey (review date 31 August 1982)

SOURCE: A review of Further Tales of the City, in The Village Voice, August 31, 1982, p. 40.

[Harvey was an American film curator and critic. In the following review, he focuses on the characters and plot of Further Tales of the City.]

According to Michael, the Tales of the City trilogy's gay-clone Candide, there are two kinds of people in this world—or at least in San Francisco, which in Armistead Maupin's oeuvre amounts to the same thing. Either you are a Tony, one of those benighted souls who think the city's theme song is the Bennett rendition of "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," or a Jeanette, an aficionado of the blithe and gallant Miss...

(The entire section is 823 words.)

Jacqueline Austin (review date 18 November 1984)

SOURCE: A review of Babycakes, in The New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1984, p. 32.

[In the following review, Austin favorably assesses Babycakes, predicting that the book will win over some of Maupin's critics.]

Queen Elizabeth has arrived in San Francisco; just as Mary Ann Singleton, television reporter, goes to cover the scene, one of the Queen's officers jumps ship. Mary Ann's husband, Brian, doesn't know that he's infertile, but Mary Ann does, so she decides to…. Thus begins Babycakes, and the fourth installment of Armistead Maupin's San Francisco saga careens beautifully on. People who haven't read his Tales of the City, More...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

Tom Spain (essay date 20 March 1987)

SOURCE: "A Talk with Armistead Maupin," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 231, No. 11, March 20, 1987, pp. 53-4.

[In the following excerpted essay, which is based on a conversation with Maupin, Spain discusses Maupin's homosexual themes and attitudes, the AIDS crisis and its effect on his writing, his method for creating characters and plots, and his wide appeal among both heterosexuals and homosexuals.]

It's the Friday before a long holiday weekend in San Francisco, and many of the city's residents are preparing to escape to the country for some time away from their day-to-day concerns. The readers of the San Francisco Examiner, however, will take at least one daily...

(The entire section is 2100 words.)

Harry Baldwin (review date 19 July 1987)

SOURCE: A review of Significant Others, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 19, 1987, p. 15.

[In the following favorable review, Baldwin discusses the development of character and theme in Significant Others.]

First, up popped Tales of the City in 1978, a collection of his serialized newspaper columns chronicling the hopelessly, comically tangled lives of selected fictional soul mates from widely disparate sexual, geographic and social orientations—and all this in a charmed, anything-possible San Francisco. There followed More Tales of, Further Tales, and Babycakes (a communal nickname). Now, almost 10 years later, Armistead Maupin's...

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 8-14 April 1988)

SOURCE: "Crisis in the Beloved City," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4436, April 8-14, 1988, p. 384.

[In the following review of Significant Others, Mars-Jones contends that the story lacks the "inventiveness" and "high camp" of Maupin's earlier pre-AIDS novels.]

Significant Others is the fifth in Armistead Maupin's endearing Tales of the City series of sagas, about high and low life (but never depressingly low life) in San Francisco. In each book, Maupin plants a new generation of plot and character-seedlings, re-pots some mature blooms and thins out some others. He has the literary equivalent, in his wry, easy-going prose, of green...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

Andrew Lumsden (review date 15 April 1988)

SOURCE: "If You Go Down to the Woods Today," in New Statesman, Vol. 115, No. 2977, April 15, 1988, p. 42.

[In the following review of Significant Others, Lumsden describes Maupin's writing as "urbane" and notes his propensity for humorous assessments of both hetero- and homosexuals.]

As I write this review [of Significant Others] I am babysitting—actually, he's nine—while Zak's straight parents go off to court.

And that means that I'm inside the world that Maupin has made peculiarly his own. Listen: at breakfast, just half an hour ago, young Zak gazed at me earnestly—for we haven't met in a couple of years—and said without the...

(The entire section is 609 words.)

Walter Kendrick (essay date October 1989)

SOURCE: "Serial Thriller," in The Village Voice Literary Supplement, No. 79, October, 1989, p. 13.

[An American educator and critic, Kendrick is the author of The Novel-Machine: The Theory and Fiction of Anthony Trollope (1980). In the following essay, he focuses on the development of the characters and themes in Maupin's Tales of the City novels.]

Eleven years and 2000 pages later, Mary Ann Singleton has finally arrived. Way back when, at the beginning of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City (1978), she was a naive Clevelander who'd come to San Francisco for a week's vacation and decided not to go home. Now, at the end of the sixth and final...

(The entire section is 1997 words.)

David Feinberg (review date 22 October 1989)

SOURCE: "Goodnight, Mrs. Madrigal," in The New York Times Book Review, October 22, 1989, p. 26.

[An American novelist, essayist, and critic, Feinberg was a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). His final work, Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone, was published near the time of his death in 1994. In the following review of Sure of You, Feinberg examines the influence of the AIDS crisis on the novel's characters and plot.]

Farewell to 28 Barbary Lane. Sure of You is the sixth and final volume in Armistead Maupin's remarkable Tales of the City series, an extended love letter to a magical San Francisco....

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Tony Clifton (review date 30 October 1989)

SOURCE: "Mainstreaming a Cult Classic," in Newsweek, Vol. 114, No. 18, October 30, 1989, p. 77.

[In the review below, Clifton describes Sure of You as a dark finale to the Tales series set "in a city now haunted by AIDS."]

Armistead Maupin is a jovial fellow, a witty gay writer who can even make wry jokes about AIDS—which he does in his latest book, Sure of You…. There is only one subject that annoys him, irritates the hell out of him, enrages him, in fact. It is the subject of The Closet, and the cowards and traitors still cowering in its darkness.

Sure of You is the sixth—and Maupin says the last—novel in...

(The entire section is 1044 words.)

Adam Block (review date November 1989)

SOURCE: "Out on the Town," in Mother Jones, Vol. 14, No. 9, November, 1989, p. 54.

[In the following review, Block describes the tone of Sure of You as serious, noting the novel's concern with such themes as the AIDS crisis and homosexuality.]

"The thing of calling something a 'black' or a 'gay' or a 'women's' novel: it sounds like some medicine that you've got to take," writer Armistead Maupin says, smiling almost wearily. "And that does a terrible disservice to those of us who are simply trying to tell stories about the real world, simply trying to include the people into the real world where they belong."

There is still a hint of North...

(The entire section is 719 words.)

Charles Solomon (review date 5 November 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, and Significant Others, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 5, 1989, p. 20.

[In the following review, Solomon remarks favorably on the Tales series.]

Bedtime stories for Baby Boomers. Armistead Maupin's continuing saga of life in San Francisco began as a serial in the Chronicle in 1976, and his tongue-in-cheek depiction of the late '70s sex-and drugs singles scene seems as remote today as the misadventures of the Pickwickians.

Although the search for love and security in an increasingly uncertain world remains at the...

(The entire section is 313 words.)

Harriet Waugh (review date 10 February 1990)

SOURCE: "City of the Plain and Not So Plain," in Spectator, Vol. 264, No. 8431, February 10, 1990, pp. 31-2.

[Waugh, the daughter of English novelist Evelyn Waugh, is an English editor, critic, and novelist whose works include Kate's House (1983). In the following review, she examines the Tales novels, focusing on character and theme.]

Armistead Maupin started his fictional—and mainly homosexual—saga of life and times in San Francisco in the Seventies and Eighties as a contemporary serial in the San Francisco Chronicle. In all, there are six novels chronicling the sexual connections and life-styles of the original cast of characters and their...

(The entire section is 815 words.)

Nicci Gerrard (review date 2 March 1990)

SOURCE: "Soap without Suds," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 3, No. 90, March 2, 1990, pp. 36, 38.

[In the following review of Sure of You, Gerrard praises the story as a "bright, funny, engaging and loquacious soap."]

Writers—like Dickens or even Fay Weldon—have written newspaper serials which have then appeared in novel from; others—like Trollope, Anthony Powell, Catherine Cookson—have written novel series. Armistead Maupin has combined both, and become a cult. It is easy to see why. Sure of You, the sixth and final novel in his Tales of the City sequence—written in installments over the years—has a narrative as easy to pick up as...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Tania Glyde (review date 9-15 March 1990)

SOURCE: "From Bath-House to Bleeper," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4536, March 9-15, 1990, p. 258.

[In the following review, Glyde favorably assesses the Tales novels, discussing the difference in tone of the first three volumes with that of the last three.]

The daily column in the form of a story (no rumination allowed): it worked for Dickens, and Armistead Maupin, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, quickly saw an advantage in the agonizing hurry to get each instalment out on time. Current events and absurdities could be skinned and fictionalized immediately. What Maupin calls "defenders of serious journalism" complained, but to no avail....

(The entire section is 820 words.)

Charles Solomon (review date 14 October 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Sure of You, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 14, 1990, p. 14.

[In the review below, Solomon remarks favorably on Sure of You.]

The seventh installment in the popular Tales of the City series continues Armistead Maupin's chronicle of contemporary life in a romanticized San Francisco. Part soap opera, part roman a clef and part ably written contemporary novel, Sure of You is as entertaining as Maupin's earlier books. While Michael Tolliver confronts the permanent terrors of his HIV-positive status, Mary Ann Singleton, who began as the heroine of the books, succumbs to an insidious disease within her soul. She's...

(The entire section is 200 words.)

James Levin (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Politics, Power and Pride," in The Gay Novel in America, Garland Publishing, 1991, pp. 288-89.

[The author of The Gay Novel: The Male Homosexual Image in America (1983), Levin is an American educator, biographer, and nonfiction writer. In the following excerpt, he contends that Tales of the City presents homosexuality as "a single facet of the human persona" and an ordinary part of the social milieu.]

Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City consists of interrelated vignettes that were originally printed as a column in the San Francisco Chronicle. (The work was so commercially successful that it led to six sequels.) Despite the humble...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

Micheline Hagan (review date Fall 1992)

SOURCE: "Out of the Fog," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall, 1992, pp. 5-6.

[In the following review, Hagan compares the themes of Maybe the Moon with those of the Tales novels.]

It's an airy spacious place, a penthouse cresting a Noe Valley hill, that Armistead Maupin calls home. Even on a cloudy San Francisco summer day, the living room glows with light from the expanse of windows looking out over the city—Maupin's home of twenty years. As an avid reader of Tales of the City, I arrived with a bounty of questions regarding his latest novel, in which he strays from his familiar San Francisco cast and setting and moves to...

(The entire section is 1261 words.)

Nora Johnson (review date 29 November 1992)

SOURCE: "Everybody's Beautiful," in New York Times Book Review, November 29, 1992, p. 24.

[Johnson is an American novelist and critic. In the following review of Maybe the Moon, she centers on the theme of discrimination and the protagonist Cady Roth.]

Cadence (Cady) Roth longs to be a real movie star. But she cannot get away from her most famous role, as Mr. Woods, an E.T.- or Yoda-like character—in an electronically controlled rubber suit—in a hit science fiction movie. That this otherwise intelligent person does not understand why other offers are not rolling in is soon apparent to readers of Armistead Maupin's novel Maybe the Moon. Cady is a...

(The entire section is 793 words.)

David L. Ulin (review date 1 December 1992)

SOURCE: "Size Matters," in The Village Voice, Vol. 37, No. 48, December 1, 1992, p. 58.

[In the following review of Maybe the Moon, Ulin contends that the characters are stereotypical and the story fails to mirror real life.]

Back in the late '70's, Armistead Maupin came up with a truly brilliant idea: to write a serial novel, a comedy of manners that would unfold day to day in the pages of a major metropolitan newspaper. It was a very 19th century concept—Dickensian, even—but Maupin's approach seemed completely here-and-now. His intention was to take America's shifting cultural landscape and reflect it in a work that would feature a wide cross-section of...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Edmund White (review date 5 February 1993)

SOURCE: "Larger Than Life," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4688, February 5, 1993, p. 19.

[The author of States of Desire: Travels in Gay America (1980), White is an American educator, novelist, essayist, and critic. In the following review, he describes Maupin's dialogue in Maybe the Moon as "crisp" and discusses the development of both the major and minor characters.]

In the 1960s, it was fashionable to define a work of art as a machine for creating sensations. If so, Maybe the Moon (a deliberately corny title invented by a Hollywood producer in the novel) is an extremely efficient machine for producing sensations of pleasure, suspense,...

(The entire section is 805 words.)

Adam Mars-Jones (review date 25 March 1993)

SOURCE: "Tweak My Nipple," in London Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 6, March 25, 1993, pp. 21-2.

[In the following review of Maybe the Moon, Mars-Jones charges that the story is poorly paced, the characterizations are lackluster, and the themes lack consistently serious treatment.]

Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which started appearing as a newspaper serial in the mid-Seventies, and in volume form a few years later, are little classics of light literature: in their lightness they outweigh any number of more earnest enterprises. Maupin's San Francisco is a carousel lightly disguised as a city, a continuous party where everyone is welcome without any...

(The entire section is 2553 words.)

Armistead Maupin (essay date 8-14 January 1994)

SOURCE: "A Tale of the '70s," in TV Guide Magazine, Vol. 42, No. 2, January 8-14, 1994, pp. 26-8.

[In the following essay, Maupin discusses the creation and development of the Tales of the City series from newspaper serial to novel to television miniseries.]

PBS—famous for such British-made epic dramas as Upstairs, Downstairs; Brideshead Revisited; and The Jewel in the Crown—will broadcast yet another this week: Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, a sweeping period saga whose literary origins can be traced directly to the vegetable department of a San Francisco supermarket.

Let me back up a little.


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Further Reading


Gillespie, Elgy. "Armistead Maupin at Tale's End." San Francisco Review of Books 14, No. 3 (Winter 1989–1990): 18-20.

Discusses Maupin's early life, his military career and work as a reporter, the evolution of the stories that became the Tales of the City, and his views on homosexuality.


Barker, Michael. Review of Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin. Books and Bookmen, No. 35 (August 1984): 22.

Favorable review of Tales of the City.

Biemiller, Lawrence. "Memoirs of a...

(The entire section is 240 words.)