What the book fails to do is demonstrate that the gay writers under discussion changed America in any significant way. Not until halfway through the book does Bram tell us why these authors matter: “[T]his early gay presence, often between the lines, was excitedly noticed and seized upon by audiences of gay men and woman.” Perhaps, but that fact is not demonstrated. The only thing Eminent Outlaws proves is that gay writers did exist, and that some of them became major cultural figures. Exactly how these writers changed the country’s social and political mores is left unsaid. Instead, it is simply assumed. But how many Americans read Gore Vidal’s novels? How many could pick Edmund White out of a lineup?
Yes, artists are the antennae of the race, as Ezra Pound famously put it. But in an age when actual antennae were on top of televisions in every home in the country, writers could not compete for impact. None of this is to say men like Capote had no influence—surely they did, as a pebble thrown into a lake creates ripples. But what exactly their influence was is never revealed in Bram’s book. Certainly the book’s subtitle is never justified. He makes a provocative claim that storytelling “played a larger role for us than it did for the civil rights movement or even the women’s movement.” But no evidence is provided for this claim.
Equally questionable is Bram’s decision to exclude lesbians from his literary history. He explains this decision as resulting from a need to “simplify an already complicated story,” and the fact that lesbian literature had “its own dynamic and history.” Yes and no. Certainly the history of gay American men and women, and gay men and women writers, is not identical. But the strands reinforced each other, and cannot really be separated in any meaningful way. When it comes to homosexuals’ struggle to achieve mainstream acceptance, lesbians have been as important as gay men. Surely Gertrude Stein and Susan Sontag mattered as much as Gore Vidal did—in fact, it would be worth exploring why early lesbian writers were often been more explicitly political than their male counterparts. Bram’s decision feels like a literal attempt to write lesbians out of their history. Including them would make the story more complicated, yes, but it would also be more accurate.
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