A romantic, random analysis of literary sexual outsiders
Depending on your definition of gay culture, Whitaker may have a point. According to Whitaker, by the end of the 20th century, which he labels “The Gay Century,” the unique subversive gay style, borne of oppression, had evaporated with the advent of hard-won gay liberation and assimilation. He contends that any remnants of queer culture are exploited by big business and mainstreamed into downright wholesome entertainment, a la the NBC hit “Will & Grace,” palatable to the American masses.
Dead? Perhaps “evolved” might be a fairer assessment.
So what constitutes a gay sensibility in literature? It is “original and fresh… clever, scornful of laws, introspective, energetic, and sexy,” says Whitaker. Often there is “…a degree of irony, and wit… and melancholy.”
In his new book, Whitaker examines a smattering of his favorite authors who display a distinct gay sensibility—23 in all—from the iconic (Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, Gore Vidal) to the relatively obscure (Fitz-Greene Halleck, Glenway Wescott, Jane Bowles, David Wojnarowicz, Henri Cole).
And then there’s Frank O’Hara, who lands somewhere in the middle.
The earlier writers that Whitaker appraises, many bisexual, wrote in “code” to telegraph gayness in a politically hostile climate. By the 1990s, characters had unabashedly leapt from their closets. Today, many highly regarded, and top selling, authors are “out” and benefit from their openness. True to form, some authors’ lives were cut short, by suicide or reckless tragedy. Much of their work is informed by New York City.
Like Melville’s elusive whale Moby Dick, the topic of gay literature may be too enormous and wily to tackle, and Whitaker freely admits he has purposely omitted many authors (Henry James, for instance) and taken many liberties. He highlights whatever portions of works that appeal to him, in hopes they might appeal to us.
Rather than focusing on Whitman’s poetry, analyzed to bits elsewhere, Whitaker concentrates on his published letters. In the 1850s, Whitman wrote extensively about his selfless visits to lonely, terminally ill young men languishing in the Broadway Hospital on Pearl Street in New York. His heartbreaking accounts of these men, lost well before their time, remind Whitaker of his own visits to friends and lovers with AIDS more than a century later.
In fact, it’s impossible for Whitaker to separate these masterworks from his own highly charged personal experiences. Between the mini-biographies and numerous passages of gay writer’s works, Whitaker inserts his own welcome musings.
Whitaker reveals that, after a period of wild singlehood, he is now ensconced in a relationship. Some of these queer works, such as the 1940 novel “The Pilgrim Hawk” by Glenway Wescott, have helped guide him through the dizzying throes of intimacy. He sees the hawk in the novel as a symbol of human fault—an object lesson—and concludes, “Everyone’s lover has a pilgrim hawk that gets more attention than it deserves or requires.”
Of Jane Bowles’ novel, “Two Serious Ladies,” Whitaker proclaims it “among the central queer works of literary art” because it captures so eloquently the “state of grace” that can be achieved by being a sexual outsider.
James Purdy’s haunting fiction, much of it centering on the absence of a loving and protective father, reminds Whitaker––and to be sure countless other gay men––of their own fathers’ emotional deficits. Whitaker’s biological father apparently abandoned him before he was born and his surrogate father proved to be sorely lacking in the love-and-protection department.
Gore Vidal’s memoir, “Palimpsest,” takes Whitaker back to the murky period when he was a drug-addled hustler in New York City, trying to please “nervous…rich and untouchable” geriatric male clients. While mostly turning tricks for the cash, he felt a degree of dejection when he couldn’t truly satisfy the customer.
Among the analyses, Whitaker peppers his pages with fun factoids for the gay literati. Did you know that the term “homosexual” first appeared in 1868, in Germany? In 1923, a Vanity Fair magazine story used the term “gay” 139 times, an inside joke for the more sophisticated readers who understood its secondary meaning beyond “cheerful.” Whitaker also posits that “gay” may actually have its origins in the Provençal word “gai”, used to describe a person with same-sex leanings way back in the 13th century.
And no, Whitaker never actually met Frank O’Hara, the prolific New York City poet from the 50s and 60s, who died before Whitaker was born. Yet when he encountered O’Hara’s brooding, bold spirit, in the form of his poetry, it was love at first sight. He sees O’Hara, one of the first to be open about his sexuality, as the quintessential gay writer, exhibiting queer sensibility in spades.
“The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara,” whose very existence proves that queer culture is alive and kicking, is a refreshingly rewarding effort that offers a tantalizing tasting menu of queer literature, served up with a peculiarly personal flourish. The book will prove wholly satisfying for some readers, and for others will whet their appetite for the actual works, so they can experience for themselves the “secret energy” and “exciting linguistic pressure” unique to gay writing of the past.
To get a live taste of Whitaker, who burst on the literary scene a couple of years back with “Assuming the Position” (an autobiography of his hustler days), check him out at the Housing Works Café, 126 Crosby Street, between Prince and Houston, on January 22 at 7 p.m., where he’ll read selections from his work. Whitaker will appear with Schneebaum, whose memoir of his years in Africa, “Keep the River on Your Right,” was made into a film and whose “Wild Man” is being reissued.