Gay Identity in Literature Analysis

Historical Context

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Considerable scholarship has been dedicated to homosexuality in history and culture. One of the main controversies in gay studies has centered on two schools of thought, essentialist and social constructionist. The essentialist position maintains that the characteristics of gay identity have remained constant, so that, for example, same-sex behavior in ancient Greece and in the United States in the 1990’s would have some fundamental similarities. The social constructionist view, on the other hand, argues that particular practices are historically specific; therefore, their meanings change according to the time and place in which they occur. Most of the scholarship exploring gay identity in American literature has emerged out of the constructionist school, and the standard position has been that homosexuality was repressed until at least the end of World War II, when it began to be more in the public consciousness, culminating in the Stonewall riots, an uprising of gay people against a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in New York in June, 1969.

Historian George Chauncey has expanded and complicated the constructionist reading of gay American history. In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (1994), Chauncey argues that a sharp dichotomy between the homosexual and the heterosexual emerged in the twentieth century, suggesting that same-sex relationships in earlier times should not be thought of in a context that came later. Thus, “homoerotic” texts of the nineteenth century do not necessarily imply that their writers were expressing homosexual identity or that they themselves were what would come to be known as gay. Perhaps the most important implication of Chauncey’s work is that critics should not be making the claim that such “homoerotic” writers were heterosexual, since that identity, like its counterpart, is a twentieth century phenomenon, and since the meanings of both identities are interdependent.

The Nineteenth Century

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What can be learned from representations of same-sex eroticism and desire in pre-twentieth century texts? Clearly, some prominent writers placed tremendous importance on same-sex love. Literary critics, beginning with Leslie Fiedler (Love and Death in the American Novel, 1960), have found a tradition of male homoerotic bonding in American literature. Fiedler located that tradition in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841) and especially in Queequeg’s “marriage” to Ishmael in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). This kind of study, because it tends to desexualize the homosexual into the homoerotic, cannot be considered affirmative of a gay tradition in American literature.

Other scholars have suggested that Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, and Horatio Alger, among many others, should be included in any discussion of gay American literature. Although the sexual identity of these writers is not certainly homosexual, what is clear is that male attachments structured their lives and writing in significant ways. Critics may therefore argue that such facts should not be “explained” by critics invested in “protecting” these figures.

Walt Whitman

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The central figure in gay American literature is Walt Whitman. More than half of Robert K. Martin’s The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry (1979) is focused on Whitman. Martin argues persuasively that many poets and other writers who followed Whitman consciously looked to him as a father-figure, spiritual and sexual mentor, and even as a kind of lover.

Much of Whitman’s poetry, especially Leaves of Grass (1855), stresses the importance of a highly sexualized and eroticized body and the centrality of “adhesiveness,” Whitman’s term for male same-sex behavior. Whitman’s vision, which affirmed the values of America and democracy, placed its faith in the love of men for each other. He celebrated that dynamic in his writing, even in his impassioned Civil War writing, which contains elements of love and physical contact with the soldiers on both sides.

British writers John Addington Symonds and Oscar Wilde identified closely with the sentiments they found in Whitman’s work. Wilde visited Whitman in the 1880’s, and Symonds corresponded with him, trying to tease admissions out of him. One may argue that the chief aspect of Whitman’s sexual identity in terms of gay American literature is that readers and writers alike identify with him and with the importance he placed on the love between men.

The Early Twentieth Century

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In Chauncey’s account, New York City, which he takes as prototypical rather than typical, had a thriving gay subculture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Hamilton Lodge held drag balls as early as the 1870’s. Times Square, Harlem, and Greenwich Village were known gay hangouts, where “fairies” were flamboyantly visible. This view is rather different from the typical understanding that homosexuality was closeted until the 1960’s.

The literature of this period depicts gay identity. The poetry of Hart Crane, especially “Voyages” (1926) and The Bridge (1930), reflects the visibility and the growing public presence of gay people and gay concerns. Crane’s poetry exhibits a conflicted position regarding homosexuality; he maintains a spiritual view of love and its redemptive power, but sees himself as exiled as a gay artist. Whitman served as a helpful forefather, however, whose vision of brotherhood partly relieved some of Crane’s anxieties. “Cape Hatteras” (1930), which Crane referred to as his “ode to Whitman,” took its epigraph from Whitman’s “Passage to India,” suggesting the value of Whitman to Crane’s work.

A different gay tradition and identity in American writing of this period can be found in the work of some of the key figures in the Harlem Renaissance. Flourishing in the 1920’s, black writers reflected the sexual and cultural diversity of their milieu. Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen, Alain Locke, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, and the white novelist Carl Van Vechten have all been identified as writers for whom homoerotic attraction and homosexuality were crucial. Nugent’s impressionistic short story, “Smoke, Lillies, and Jade”—concerning the seduction of a Latin lover—was first published in Fire!!, a periodical edited by Thurman, in 1926. An autobiographical work, Nugent’s story owes debts to Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and has been included in the controversial film Looking for Langston (1989), in which gay black filmmaker Isaac Julien uses Hughes as a symbol of the secrecy associated with homosexuality in the Harlem Renaissance.

Gay Identities at Midcentury

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The 1930’s, it may be argued, began a more repressive time for gay people in America. It certainly seems that gay representations in literature and film disappeared during this time, though Allan Berube has suggested, in Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (1990), that military paranoia about gay and lesbian soldiers actually helped solidify that identity in American culture. Likewise, increased mobility and urbanization lead to the development of gay communities and organizations, such as the Mattachine Society, in the early 1950’s.

The most important and visible gay writer of the midcentury was Allen Ginsberg. His epic poem Howl (1956) uses homosexuality as a catalyst for social protest and as a scathing critique of the reactionary politics of McCarthyite America. While the position of exile was troubling for Crane, Ginsberg and his fellow Beat writers embraced outsider status. In “Supermarket in California,” Ginsberg addresses Whitman directly, and also invokes the Spanish gay poet Federico García Lorca. Howl was involved in an obscenity trial, a landmark case in which the poem was found to have literary value. William S. Burroughs, one of Ginsberg’s fellow Beats, wrote disturbing portraits of gay sexuality and drug use in his novels Queer (written, 1952; published, 1985) and Naked Lunch (1959).

Many recognizable American writers of this period were...

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Stonewall and After

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The Stonewall Inn riots, which began on the evening of gay icon Judy Garland’s funeral, mark the beginning of the Gay Pride movement. Increased visibility and public activism reverberated in gay literature. Gay presses began to emerge, as did magazines catering to gay audiences. Important writers in the 1970’s and early 1980’s include Edmund White, Felice Picano, and Robert Ferro, who comprised the Violet Quill writers’ group in New York. Playwright Harvey Fierstein had critical and commerical success with his Torch Song Trilogy (1979) and La Cage aux folles (1983).

This boon in the decade after Stonewall was a time of great achievement. Writers such as Larry Kramer and Paul Monette began to emerge as important figures, but their work, like the lives of most gay men in the 1980’s and after, has become centered on AIDS, the pandemic that has changed the face of gay identity in literature and culture as much as any other phenomenon.


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Suggested Readings

Bergman, David. Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. A clearly written, accessible survey of nineteenth and twentieth century gay writers and critics. Chapters on race, AIDS, and families.

Clum, John. Acting Gay: Male Homosexuality in Modern Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. A thorough study of gay issues in drama, including the codes in which homosexuality was represented during more repressive times.

Esquibel, Catriona Rueda. With Her Machete in Her Hand: Reading Chicana Lesbians. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. This exhaustive study of the development of Chicana literature traces its origins and progression from the 1980s to today. Esquibel looks at a range of genres, including long fiction, short fiction, and drama, written by Chicana and Chicano authors about lesbian culture. Some themes she examines are childhood friendships, activism, lesbian relationships, and cultural history. This is an excellent book for anyone interested in lesbian studies and Chicana writing.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., a Documentary. 1976. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. Attempts to recover the buried history of lesbians and gays in America.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979. A careful and thoughtful early work on American poetry and poets. Especially good on Whitman, Crane, Duncan, and Merrill. Traces the importance of Whitman on writers of the twentieth century.

Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Schwarz examines the work of four leading writers from the Harlem Renaissance—Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent—and their sexually nonconformist or gay literary voices.

Summers, Claude J. Gay Fictions, Wilde to Stonewall: Studies in a Male Homosexual Literary Tradition. New York: Continuum, 1990. Concerned with the critical and historical debates about a gay “tradition.” Important figures include Vidal, Capote, Williams, Baldwin, and Isherwood.

Yingling, Thomas E. Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Successor to Martin’s study; focuses on Crane, but also has insights into the gay critic F. O. Matthiessen and his book American Renaissance (1941).