America’s Most Influential Books by Gay or Lesbian Authors

 

Herman MelvilleThe Library of Congress currently has an exhibit titled Books that Shaped America. As I strolled past the glass display cases on a recent afternoon, I was struck by how many of these highly influential works were written by gay men or lesbians.

Herman Melville is the earliest of the gay authors represented in the exhibit. He wrote Moby Dick in 1851. His tale of the Great White Whale and the crazed Captain Ahab—who declares he’ll chase the whale “round perdition’s flames before I give him up”—is so well known that even people who’ve never read the book are familiar with the basic plot.

Next in chronological order comes poet Walt Whitman. The publication of the first slim edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 was the debut of a masterpiece that shifted the course of AmericanWalt Whitman literary history. Refreshing and bold in theme as well as style, the book underwent many revisions during Whitman’s lifetime. By his death in 1892, Leaves of Grass was a thick volume that represented Whitman’s vision of America over the second half of the 19th century.

One of the few lesbians who’s included in the exhibit is Emily Dickinson. Although her book Poems was published in 1890, in fact, relatively few of her nearly 1,800 poems made it into print during her lifetime. What’s more, the ones that were published had been heavily edited to conform to the poetic conventions of their time. Still, Dickinson’s idiosyncratic structure and rhyming schemes were sufficiently in tact to inspire later poets. A complete edition of her unedited work wasn’t published until 1955.

Langston HughesThe earliest gay person of color with a presence in the exhibit is Langston Hughes. A poet whose work was part of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes entered a poem in a contest organized by Opportunity magazine. The work won first place in the competition, and, after the awards ceremony, writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten approached Hughes about putting together a book of his verse. Van Vechten then helped Hughes secure a contract with Knopf. The Weary Blues was released in 1925 and laid the foundation for Hughes’s literary career.

Probably the shortest of the 88 books include in the exhibit is Goodnight Moon, written by the bisexual author Margaret Wise Brown. This children’s book, which first appeared in 1947, has been a favorite among tiny folks and their parents for generations. Included in the material at the Library of Congress is the statement, “Goodnight Moon has been referred to as the perfect bedtime book.”

One of the works that I was surprised to find in the exhibit was Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. I don’t question the significance of the work, but I think of it as a play rather than a book. Streetcar, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1948, shocked Broadway audiences with its stunning look at a clash of cultures. The two main characters are Blanche DuBois, a fading southern belle whose genteel pretensions thinly mask alcoholism and delusions of grandeur, and Stanley Kowalski, a symbol of the northern urban and industrial working class.

 
Tennessee Williams appears on David Frost in rare appearance.

Allen Ginsberg is also included in the Library of Congress exhibit. His collection of poetry, Howl, was published in 1956. The work established Ginsberg as an important voice of the Beat Generation. Because of the boldness of the poem’s language and subject matter, it was at the center of a high-profile obscenity trial. Howl was exonerated after literary experts testified to its redeeming social value. Ginsberg’s work had enormous impact on the youth culture of the 1960s.

 
Following the trial against Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1957 for publishing "Howl", William F. Buckley, the conservative pundit, invited Allen Ginsberg to read "Howl" on Firing Line in the 1960s.

Probably the exhibit’s most influential book vis-à-vis race was written by a gay man. James Baldwin released The Fire Next Time in 1963. It consists of two lengthy essays, one being a letter to his nephew on the role of race in American history and the other being a discussion of how religion and race influence each other. Baldwin’s angry prose in The Fire Next Time is balanced by James Baldwinhis overall belief that love and understanding can overcome strife.

A second children’s book selected by the Library of Congress is also written by a gay author. Maurice Sendak published Where the Wild Things Are in 1963. The plot revolves around a boy named Max who’s sent to his room with nothing to eat but then not only sails to where the wild things are but also becomes their king. When Sendak was honored for his book, he said, “It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood–the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things–that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have.”

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966, is considered one of the greatest true-crime books ever written. Capote said the non-fiction novel, which revolves around the murder of a Kansas family, was an attempt to establish a serious new literary form. Although In Cold Blood relates factual events, it employs the techniques of fictional narrative.

 
Truman Capote in a rare movie appearance in "Murder by Death"

Randy Shilts’s signature work, And the Band Played On, also tells a real story. The 1987 best seller showed readers how the government’s initial indifference to AIDS allowed its spread into an epidemic. Shilts’s investigation has been compared to other works that led to increased efforts toward public safety, such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

 
Clip from the HBO production of "And the Band Played On" where Matthew Modine playing an official from the Center for Disease Control attempts to pursuade Congress about the seriousness of the AIDS eqpidemic during the 1980s.


I was pleased that all of these books by members of the LGBT community found their places in the Library of Congress exhibit—much of the content is available online at the institution’s website. At the same time, though, I was disappointed that none of the material about any of these books included the fact that their authors were gay or lesbian.

I can understand why this aspect of many of the authors’ lives might not be included. But with others, this fact seems highly relevant. One of the reasons Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was taken to court on obscenity charges, for example, was because it included statements such as “America, I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel” and “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.”

Even more egregious, in my opinion, is the omission of Randy Shilts’s homosexuality in the description of his book about AIDS. There’s no question that the author became interested in the Rodger Streitmatterdisease because it was killing so many of his friends in San Francisco, where his day job was reporting on the gay community for the San Francisco Chronicle. And so, Shilts’s own sexual orientation absolutely should have been mentioned as part of the exhibit.

By Rodger Streitmatter
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