‘Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America’ by Christopher Bram

Christopher Bram opens the introduction to this informative and highly entertaining overview of gay male writing since World War Two with, “The gay revolution began as a literary revolution.” Later, he elaborates on this thesis:

{B}etween 1948 and 2000, a tiny literary species, a handful of books and plays that appeared only now and then to abuse or silence, grew into a lively ecology of many animals, hundreds of titles that came out every year and sometimes won national praise and prizes. The world changed too, but the literature itself was an agent of that change, feeding it and reporting it, serving both as cause and effect.

Eminent Outlaws (the title is a mash-up of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians and John Rechy’s The Sexual Outlaw) is a briskly paced and much needed exploration of how gay male literature created that change. Beginning with Gore Vidal, the “godfather of gay literature in spite of himself” who, post-Stonewall, becomes more like a Moses who “pointed us in a new direction, but he could not go there himself,” Bram explores how literature shined a light on the previously unspoken of world of gay men. The work of Vidal, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood and James Baldwin were not only guides to that world for courageous heterosexual readers, but also gave gay men their first glimpses of themselves in mainstream print and onstage.

Moving decade by decade into the current century, from The Boys in the Band through The Violet Quill to Michael Cunningham, Bram gives a précis of each author’s important works, and discusses the intersection between their lives, American literature, and concurrent social movements. Along the way he also makes a strong case for the importance of the imagination and the written word in advancing those movements, something the more politically oriented has forgotten at times. He also helps to bring much needed reconsideration of the importance of some figures that are not as well-known as they should be, such as the campy comic genius Charles Ludlum and his influence on the work of Tony Kushner and others.

Reading Eminent Outlaws, one can’t help but be shocked at how virulently anti-gay many reviewers and critics were, particularly in the supposedly more permissive 1960s—especially, and, perhaps a bit confusingly, theater critics. Bram also notes how homophobia continues to limit the consideration of gay writers’ work, from many critics’ preference for Baldwin’s essays over his more sexuality-centered fiction, to how often the gayness of Allen Ginsburg and his most famous poem “Howl,” which Bram calls “a coming out poem,” gets ignored.

Edmund White becomes the overarching ‘godfather’ figure in the second half of the book, in much the way that Vidal is a touchtone in the first half, as Bram covers the rise and fall of the gay bookstore, literary responses to the devastation of AIDS, the work of Armistead Maupin, Larry Kramer, and the gay presence on stage, from The Normal Heart to Angels in America. He even manages to leave the reader hopeful about the future of gay literature during this current time of turbulence and uncertainty in the publishing world. Author of nine novels including Father of Frankenstein (basis for the film Gods and Monsters), Bram continually manages to be personal yet balanced in his assessments of writers of the past and present, as well as deliciously gossipy. Eminent Outlaws is reminiscent of a gay version of the documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, with a practitioner of the art looking back at its history, his influences and his peer. This fleet yet solid literary history was so engrossing that I even read through the footnotes, not wanting stop listening to Bram’s entertaining voice or for the book to end.

History is made not simply with events, but by remembering those events, a double drumbeat like a heartbeat. History can be written not only with books but with ceremonies. Yet a real event read about in a newspaper is not always more important than a fictional one in a novel or a play or a poem

Eminent Outlaws focuses on writers of fiction and for the stage, only briefly covering a few poets other than Ginsburg—Frank O’Hara, Mark Doty, James Merrill, and Thom Gunn. The absence of writers of color other than Baldwin is also noticeable–Randall Keenan’s black gay take on southern literature in A Visitation of Spirits and Let The Dead Bury Their Dead, could have been mentioned, for example, although most out minority fiction writers during most of the years covered by the book have made more of a mark with short fiction or poetry. A number of minority writers, such as Rakesh Saytal and Michal Nava, are mentioned as he comes closer to the more diverse contemporary scene.

As delicious as your favorite desert but far less ruinous to your waistline, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America, should, in fact, come with a warning label: “Do not start this book unless you have time to finish it in one sitting.” I hope someone is working on a lesbian sister for this divine history.


Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America
By Christopher Bram
Hardcover, 9780446563130, 384pp.
February 2012