“IT’S ALL ABOUT U.S.!”Metropolitan Lovers: the Homosexuality of Cities
Published by University of Minnesota Press
Reviewed by Richard Canning
Looking at the title, I thought: that would be a big subject. Many of the biggest cities that have played host to significant GLBT communities have already attracted full-length books disinterring their queer pasts. George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1995) was certainly the trailblazing work. It covered just a half-century of its subject – 1890-1940 - but showed not only the breadth of material that could be uncovered in such cases, but also the complex interpreting skills required of the author. Available sources range from the legal to the literary, from the medical to the political, and from the sensational popular press to the private memoir, not intended for publication. (Those including the recent past may draw on oral histories too). In many cases, particularly in the centuries in which the closet was rife, deceit, dissimulation and fabrication were commonplace, often vital strategies.
In the past fifteen years or so, the obvious US metropolises have, piecemeal, been picked off: San Francisco (1996), Boston (1999), Philadelphia (2002 and 2004!), L.A. (2006), Chicago (2008). For better or worse, Europe contains most of the other conurbations likely to have generated substantial archives. London and Paris lead the field. The most compelling characteristic of such books, at their best, results from their pluralistic, interdisciplinary character. It’s best summarized as either instability or contingency. Fault-lines emerge. Claims turn out either impossible or implausible. Anecdotes are misremembered, figures long dead reanimated; protagonists’ addresses, origins, even genders get confused. For most of our history, the subjective accounts of same-sex coupling have necessarily been cautious, evasive or indirect. Only religion, the law and medicine have historically accounted for gay men and women directly, and then rarely favorably. When reading Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: a History, I remember thinking: ‘But this is the history of homosexuality.’
It seemed likely from the off, then, that Julie Abraham, a literature professor, may have addressed too large and inchoate a subject here. The fault may lie in the sweeping tenor of her press’s P.R. unit. Hence, this perfectly engaging, reasoned and substantial investigation of GLBT writers - mostly resident in the major American cities - is unhelpfully trailed as if it had global, not national reach, and indeed stretched back to ‘the destruction of Sodom,’ allegedly our first gay city. Abraham’s assiduous pursuit of the meaningfulness of cities in the sexual travails of her literary cast – Jane Jacobs, Henry James, Walter Benjamin and James Baldwin included – has much to recommend it. What it cannot offer – pace the back cover – is a reading of ‘how gay became synonymous with urban – and why it matters for both.’ This book is about literary writing only, which cannot be taken as representative or reliable as social documentation. Abraham’s somewhat forced comparisons to social theorizations of urban growth - the Chicago school, Walter Benjamin and so on - is not the book’s strength.
To pursue that line of enquiry would, paradoxically, have required the careful tracing of a previous, non-urban gay model: the pastoral idyll, probably first manifest in Virgil’s Georgics. It was co-opted in the Renaissance by poets like Richard Barnfield and Edmund Spenser. Contrastingly, visible, high-profile or articulate gay presences in capital cities and especially at court were, at this time, innately high-risk, even if the protagonists had regal entitlement. This is what Marlowe’s cautionary Edward II indicates. It’s true that foreign cities developed reputations for sexual license, pretty much universally: this was the sin that always flourished elsewhere (though there were cities then that seem to have deserved the reputation - Florence and Venice, above all).
Though less pronounced, the mythic rural retreat would impinge on women’s writings too, whether it be in fanciful reconstructions of Sappho’s life, or in the living circumstances of the ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby, two 18th-century Anglo-Irish aristocrats cohabited in a house near the Welsh town which provided their nickname. Nearer the present, Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart (1964) concentrates on how small-town lesbian lives contrast with urbanity.
Male writers got over the alluring shepherd boy, meanwhile, through the Northern hemisphere’s great population movement towards cities (roughly from 1850 to 1914). Still, replacing the rural recluse with urban opportunity involved an uneven period of transition. Scott Herring’s Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History (reviewed by me in GLRW, July/August 2008) shows that the protagonist of Willa Cather’s story ‘Paul’s Case’ (1905) felt, on arriving in New York, that ‘his surroundings explained him’. But Forster’s Maurice (1917; published 1971) exhibited a stubborn, even reactionary harking back to the homosexual pastoral. It was not alone. Forrest Reid’s The Garden God: a Tale of Two Boys (1905) scandalized Henry James with its account of schoolboy protagonist Graham finding his long-sought Greek god in the incarnate form of new friend Harold Brocklehurst. (The same James, though, did somethig to ‘urbanise’ intimate relations between women in 1885’s The Bostonians). A whole genre of writing displaying public school and university homoerotics is a development of the pastoral ideal. Later, even an apparently definitively urban novel like Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) contains its most liberated treatment of homosexuality on the Baltic idyll of Ruegen Island, far from the capital.
Abraham begins with an account of the well-trodden but useful nineteenth-century French proliferation of the GLBT “damned” – Baudelaire’s women, notoriously; Zola’s Nana (1880); men in several Balzac novels, especially the hapless innocent Lucien de Rubempré. Balzac’s bold account of the tragic ruination of Lucien by the criminal Vautrin in Splendeurs et miseres des courtisanes (1847) was hugely influential, including on Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Proust’s Baron de Charlus.
Her consideration of Wilde is less convincing – in part because of generalizations made regarding his background. Nobody claims Dublin to have been at the heart of nineteenth-century Europe. Still, Wilde was not, on his arrival in London society, ‘a young man from the Provinces.’ (He traveled extensively with his family as a child, including to London, a city he also visited frequently while at Oxford). Abraham identifies the duplicity manifest in The Importance of Being Earnest’s Jack (his country name, which he adapts to Ernest for town). But Wilde’s joke is complex. It is not only, as Abraham suggests, that Jack the countryman upholds moral standards, whereas Ernest is obviously as dissolute as the city he inhabits. Rather, Wilde disarms his London audience’s prejudices about the city. In the practice of ‘Bunburying’ (inventing a brother), Jack may in fact be covering over any manner of rural excess.
Similarly, some of the ambiguity in Dorian Gray is overlooked. The novel is described as ‘a prototypical account of the modern homosexuality Wilde would come to represent.’ This argument rests on the Irishman’s subsequent experience of British “justice.” If it were as self-evident as Abraham describes it, there would have been no need for Edward Carson, Queen’s Prosecutor, to be so zealous in his clarification of what that novel “meant” – or rather, implied. As Neil Bartlett’s Who Was That Man? (1988) argues, it is simultaneously true both that everything Wilde wrote is clarified by his gayness and that, in the writings published in his lifetime, Wilde never mentioned homosexuality once.
Next Abraham compares the groundbreaking social studies of gay culture made by German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld with comparable classifying tendencies in the masterpiece of the French novelist Proust. Intriguing as the idea is, it leads to the unhelpful sense that the fiction-writer’s efforts prove inferior (because less definitive) to the relentlessly prescriptive Hirschfeld’s study, The Homosexuality of Men and Women (1913). Yet which author is read today – and why? Likewise, the inventive bringing together of Radclyffe Hall and the “Chicago School” of sociology doesn’t fully come off. They remain chalk and cheese.
At this point, Abraham tires of Europe, barring two Parisian interludes. Radclyffe Hall’s merciless French capital (in The Well of Loneliness, 1928) was entirely fabricated, however - as was James Baldwin’s account in Giovanni’s Room (1956). As Herring recognized, it is truly only Djuna Barnes in English (in 1936’s Nightwood) who allowed Paris a signature presence to her urban protagonists that might be called liberating.
Otherwise, the States dominates. There’s nothing wrong in focusing on one nation’s representation of gay urban life. It might have made Metropolitan Lovers cohere better. Still, the narrowing of focus onto 20th-century American terrain should not go unexplained, especially since American cities tend to function unlike European ones. Abraham does consider apposite texts, like Jane Addams’s autobiographical curiosity, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910). But the most radical changes to the way modern cities accommodated gay desires were effected, arguably, in Europe: through two world wars and social adjustments resulting from them. These wars had much less direct bearing on most American urban lives, for reasons that should be self-evident.
It feels paradoxical that when Baldwin relocated to Paris, he spoke of that city’s welcome ‘total indifference’ to him. That was as likely to relate to his ethnicity as his sexual nature. Was the boot of “identity” politics now, perhaps, on the other foot? That is, if European cultures had for centuries taken the lead in classifying human types (sexual and otherwise), had that process of classification – nurtured in American through the body politic and the Church, but also through the ready acceptance of neo-Freudian psychology – passed effortlessly to the New World? The liberation Baldwin felt in Paris was not the thrill of self- or mutual recognition, but of de-recognition. It was a new version too of the old Pastoral promise of being left alone.
By the 1970s (often seen as a highpoint of gay and lesbian literary expression), novels were ‘about to become less authoritative as accounts of gay and lesbian life,’ in Abraham’s view. There’s space to consider Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance (1978), two works sharing a country-to-town trajectory. But the proliferation of other sources (memoir, film) and the relative liberalization of news coverage and the broadcasting media per se made – Abraham is right - fiction a less vital redoubt for male and female gay readers, even as it came into its own.
At that time, America’s cities also needed economic resuscitation. Edmund White’s States of Desire (1977) celebrated gay men specifically as ‘the worker ants of our reviving cities.’ True or not, here key questions of capital, income and class finally come into play. Rental costs and living expenses had long left those GLBT individuals less able to indulge in costly metropolitan living languishing on the outskirts, in the ’burbs or in the communities and small-towns they grew up in (unless they used youthfulness or beauty as a passport – but that’s another story). Gentrification is about reconstructing the class formulation of entire neighborhoods, after all. Women and ethnic minorities were likely to be driven out by price, not welcomed in. Manuel Castells may, in 1983’s The City and the Grassroots, have thrilled over the prettiness of restored San Franciscan properties, redolent of ‘beauty, comfort and sensuality.’ But, as political responses to more recent changes to New York’s Times Square such Bruce Benderson’s Towards the New Degeneracy (1997) and Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) reveal, there isn’t ever one single model of gentrifying improvement. Gentrification destroys some cultures and traditions even as it builds, and rebuilds, others. The implications for gay men and women will be as various and as race- and class-informed as for the wider populace.
Some poignant late texts close Abraham’s considerations. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City earn a (brief) place, though characterizing them as ‘Balzac with shorter sentences, more graphic sex, and fewer and less-refined cruelties’ rather underplays how multi-faceted and class-aware Maupin’s fictional San Francisco truly is. Likewise, it’s probably a mistake to consider a polyvalent work like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America in just a few sentences.
The emergence of AIDS drastically altered the relationship between gay lives and cities – in America, in particular. The default discretion of many well-off professional gay men, especially, was compromised by tangible symptoms of disability (well-caught in the films Longtime Companion and Philadelphia). At the same time, as the incidence of HIV infection spread beyond prime metropolitan sites and narrowly conceived “at-risk” groups, the epidemic’s destructiveness could, perversely, point to something non-metropolitan GLBTers knew all along: that we’re found everywhere. This, quite properly, is not the province of Abraham’s thoughtful and engaging monograph. Still, how ironic it remains: two essentially non-literary, non-cultural forces over which we, as a subculture, have had limited control, had the biggest impact on contemporary GLBT lives across the planet: the spread of an epidemic and the rise of the internet.
Richard Canning’s anthology of gay male fiction, Between Men 2 (Alyson) is just out, as is his biography of E. M. Forster (London’s Hesperus Press). He teaches at the University of Sheffield, England, where he may be contacted.