We’ve been intending to mention it before – it’s been out for a few months now – but, better late than never, Christopher Bram’s – Eminent Outlaws – The Gay Writers That Changed America (gay males, it should be pointed out – no women authors are covered in the book – his original concept included lesbian writers, but his editor advised him against it – “He was right”, Bram now concedes, “I was able to find a clear coherent narrative with just the men and it would have been a lot harder if I’d included the women”. There is, he believes, a “parallel narrative” in lesbian literature (but less clearly defined, and with more of a “stop-and-start quality”) – “With the women, it’s a more tangled, more ambivalent story”. Allen is, of course, one of the “eminent outlaws”, but the dominant figures in the first part of the book are Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams and Christopher Isherwood. The voices of Edmund White, Armistead Maupin, Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner and Michael Cunningham, carry the narrative in the second part of the book. And narrative (tho’ non-fiction) it is. An accomplished novelist himself, Bram is adept at integrating the various strands in his tale. As one (representative) reviewer, Stan Persky, puts it, Eminent Outlaws is thoroughly readable, as well as useful and timely. It brings together what had been little more than scattered anecdotes and half-forgotten memories, and it appears at pretty much the right moment”.
Persky, (a poet),’s detailed and “personal” review in the L.A Review of Books is a remarkable piece and bears further quoting. Especially, as it relates to Allen:
“I can recall Ginsberg”, he writes, “whom I knew since I was a teenager, reciting Hart Crane for us, and, when we were in Paris, (c.1960), directing me to the English translation of Jean Genet‘s “Our Lady of the Flowers“, which was still sold at the Kroch and Brentano’s Paris branch from under the counter. The absence of homosexual taboos was of course only an indirect feature of the new poetry, but what it meant for younger gay writers was not simply a social sanctuary but an educational site where the history of literature that was informally taught to neophytes included, in their appropriate place, gay poets. One learned from Jack Spicer in San Francisco about Rimbaud and Garcia Lorca (Spicer’s “After Lorca” appeared in 1957, only a year after Ginsberg’s “Howl”). At San Francisco State College where I studied in the early ’60’s, I remember writing essays about Whitman as a gay poet long before it was an acceptable scholarly topic. Not only were you not alone, you were part of an historical tradition”.
Regarding “Howl” – “Bram rightly emphasizes “what Ginsberg and others have said – this was a coming-out poem. There is nothing coy about the homosexual imagery. It’s also a poem about politics, America, culture, capitalism, and an emerging Beat Generation, but, as Bram observes, it’s the homosexual thematic that tends to be downplayed in critical accounts”
Persky goes on – “Bram has his doubts about the quality of much of Ginsberg’s poetry, but not about his role as a gay public figure. It’s a point that deserves to be underscored. For more than a decade prior to the Stonewall demonstrations of ’69…Ginsberg was the sole artist, or public figure of any sort, to present himself openly as a gay man, one engaged in cultural and political affairs as much as sexual politics. When people publicly asked him why there were so many homosexual references in his poetry, he replied. “Because I am a homosexual”.
Jack Edson, in his review for Buffalo Rising, likewise gives a personal account:
“Whenever we read a collective biography like this book, I think we all come away with a favorite personality from the group. Mine would be Allen Ginsberg, the late American Jewish hipster poet, probably most remembered for his shocking poem, “Howl”. When I think of Ginsberg, I think back to a certain afternoon in 1970 during my sophomore year at Canisius College when Allen Ginsberg presented a poetry reading for all the students. We probably had heard his name before, but really didn’t know what we were in for in his poetry reading. I can remember it as if it were yesterday – this hairy guy playing his squeeze-box with his pony-tailed companion ringing bells as he sang “The Nurses Song” of William Blake. Ginsberg repeated the refrain of that poem many times that afternoon and I often play it over in my mind and it reassures me – “And all the hills echo-ed”.”
Brad Gooch too, in The Daily Beast, is thrown back to memories:
“Once a month or so, during the 1970’s, I had dinner at Joe LeSueur‘s teeny East Village apartment – dinner was all gay guys, crammed into a little living room. Allen Ginsberg (living nearby) had nailed the issue in an elegy for the poet Frank O’Hara when he wrote of his gift for “deep gossip”. That was the lingua franca of the after-dinner dish sessions at LeSueur’s, bleary data dumps that were actually history lessons, full of information passed only by word-of-mouth, because the subjects were too marginal or the material too outre’
Kevin Killian in the San Francisco Chronicle notes Bram’s limitations – “Bram’s taste is catholic but doesn’t extend to the experimental, so you don’t hear much in Eminent Outlaws about William Burroughs, John Cage, Samuel R Delany, James Purdy, Alfred Chester, Harold Brodkey, Robert Duncan, John Wieners, Paul Bowles, James McCourt, and others” (the list could go on). That said, he concedes, “All in all, though, Eminent Outlaws is a worthy account, jam-packed with anecdotes, gossip and aplomb, of a tumultuous time in U.S. history as refracted by its books and dramatics”.
The book received not one but two New York Times book reviews – here and here.