restricted access Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity (review)
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Reviewed by
Robert J. Corber. Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity. Durham: Duke UP, 1997. 240 pp.

In this intensely readable, if occasionally maddeningly repetitious study, Robert Corber takes issue with, among others, a number of recent feminist-inspired gay critics who read key works by Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and James Baldwin as self-hating and homophobic. In his “counter narrative,” Corber proposes that, although the paranoia of the fifties may have necessitated their remaining closeted longer than they might otherwise have chosen, these writers actually took an “oppositional” stance to the dominant political and social ideology long before Stonewall energized the Gay Movement. In the postwar era, when a Fordist reorganization of the economy preached the value of commodity consumption over production and of loyalty over initiative, leading to a “domestication of masculinity,” and when the research findings of Alfred Kinsey suggested that gay men did not differ significantly from straight, resulting in the construction of homosexuals as security risks, the anxiety of straight white males crystalized in a Cold War agenda that attempted to render the “gay body illegible” and to “expel it from the realm of representation.” Corber sees this tension as underlying even Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), which romanticizes an outmoded entrepreneurial model that would challenge the white collar ethos, masculinizes “America’s symbolic significance” by blaming women for men’s dissatisfaction, and fetishizes the “phallic power” of the proletarian worker.

Against the background of varied writings by C. L. R. James and C. Wright Mills, Norman Mailer and Eldridge Cleaver, Leo Bersani and Donald Corey, Richard Chase and Lionel Trilling, Corber focuses his extended cultural analysis first onfilm noir and then on three print texts: Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), Vidal’s The City and the Pillar (1946), and Baldwin’s Another Country (1962). He argues that film noir, by emphasizing visual style over the strong narrative line associated with classic Hollywood cinema, and by deploying a camp aesthetic through which the gay male subculture could “regain visibility,” promoted a “homosexualization” of the spectator. Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), for example, presents Lydecker as a gay man who refuses to occupy a passive position and “dares to return the male gaze,” thus [End Page 415] threatening to homosexualize the gaze not only of the hard-boiled detective, Mark, but of the audience as well.

Arguing against those who would see Vidal’s text either as a gay coming-of-age novel that helps the reader accept his own sexuality or as an essentializing of homosexuality as a minority like racial and ethnic ones, Corber suggests that its protagonist Jim Willard refuses to occupy the “feminine subject position assigned to homosexuals by patriarchal society” and insists on a nonhierarchally arranged relationship that “allows mutual access to pleasure.” By being simultaneously homosexual and masculine and adopting a gay macho style, Jim can “transcend gender by performing it” and help undercut a categorization of homosexuality as gender inversion and unnatural acts. Corber’s discussion of Baldwin’s novel as a blending of Jamesian narrative with social protest literature that foregrounds racial, ethnic, and sexual identity rather than class provides a fine example of a reading that sends one back to the work with fresh eyes. By refusing to allow certain of his characters (Richard, Ida, Leona) to function as “centers of intelligence,” Baldwin, Corber contends, not only reclaims James from a theory and practice of the novel that was “heretofore regarded as deeply homophobic,” but furthermore “promotes political solidarity” by demonstrating the inadequacy of white liberal views of difference.

Corber reserves his most intricate argument for Williams’s play. His reading perhaps exaggerates Big Daddy as too consciously conniving in the use of a homosexual relationship as a means for capital-accumulation; at the same time, it may be overly sanguine about Brick as disrupting the patriarchal order and making restitution for his father’s betrayal by successfully remaining in the closet through leaving unresolved the question of his own sexual identity and refusing to enter into a transaction to inherit the land by producing an heir. Yet Corber’s...