Let’s get this out of the way first: Christopher Bram’s, Eminent Outlaws is an important book. His well-written, intelligent history of gay (male) authors in America since World War Two is meticulously researched and will probably be referred to for many years to come. But this book is also a lot of fun. By intertwining the stories of the pioneers–Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Christopher Isherwood and Allen Ginsberg–Mr. Bram constructs a genuine page-turner. As the story progresses and more gay authors are introduced, Mr. Bram deftly handles this more complicated narrative in a way that perhaps only a good novelist could. The result is a volume that is both edifying and entertaining.
Part of what makes this book so entertaining is the strength of Mr. Bram’s literary opinions. The reader never doubts where where Mr. Bram stands. On Gore Vidal:
He could never admit it, of course, but Capote wrote better prose and Vidal resented it.
On Edmund White’s novel, Caracole:
It fails not because it’s straight, but because it’s dry and uninvolving.
On Edmund White’s novel, The Beautiful Room is Empty:
…I find it superior to its predecessor (A Boy’s Own Story), with better characters, stronger narrative and an exciting change in the protaganist.
On Michael Cunningham’s The Hours:
People who love Mrs. Dalloway often think less highly of The Hours.
I was frankly surprised at how consistently I found myself agreeing with Mr. Bram’s strong opinions, but my website shares a trait with Mr. Bram’s book: namely the search for quality literature. I counted only two cases where I disagreed with Mr. Bram’s literary assessments. On the play, Suddenly Last Summer:
Some people like it; I don’t.
I love the play. (Not the movie.) And I also found myself disagreeing with Mr. Bram about Edmund White’s novel, Farewell Symphony. There is a precision to Mr. Bram’s in depth analysis of this novel. And I don’t disagree with it. But Farewell Symphony remains for me a masterpiece. A flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
These are minor quibbles. And I personally don’t believe this book’s goal is to end the discussion on these authors and their works, but rather to begin it.
Eminent Outlaws is a tremendous achievement, because as the twenty-first century begins the number of successful gay authors has increased exponentially. They include: Edward Albee, Mart Crowley, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Stephen McCauley and Tony Kushner. Many of their stories have already come to an end, their lives–and careers–abruptly ended by AIDS. I am thinking in particular of Charles Ludlam and David Feinberg, who I knew personally. It would have been so easy for Mr. Bram to have left them out of this book. Mr. Ludlam’s plays are almost never revived and Mr. Feinberg’s novel, Eigthy-Sixed, is difficult to read today–perhaps because we still have not yet distanced ourselves from the AIDS crisis. But this is a thorough history. And leaving them out would be denying the reader of an essential part of our heritage.
I should also add that I strongly agree with Mr. Bram’s decision to include numerous homophobic, heterosexist reviews from the mainstream (even liberal) publications of the day. It’s easy to forget just how bigoted the attitudes were on homosexuality in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Reading these reviews today made me admire these gay authors all the more.
Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws, The Gay Writers Who Changed America is published by Twelve Books.