In this excellent work, David Bergman argues nothing less than that "the canon of American literature has been fashioned in such a way as to give homosexual writers a privileged place." Yet, this privilege has not come without a price. Bergman shows how the works of such lesser known writers as Frances Grierson, Alain Locke, and Tobias Schneedbaum, as well as that of Walt Whitman, F. O. Matthiessen, John Ashbery, James Baldwin, Larry Kramer, and others, reflect the tension between the public and private selves of some of America's finest writers who could, as Bergman quotes Thomas E. Yingling, " 'speak but [not] say.' "
Bergman puts himself in no particular critical camp, using essentialist and constructionist arguments, as well as the nature of otherness and psychoanalytic theory, to create his readings of texts and lives. Because they are not committed to any one school, Bergman's broad-ranging interpretations along with the absolute readability of his prose are blessings to those of us weary of the essentialist/constructionist debate particularly, and unnecessarily dense critical prose generally. While his critical approaches and writing are very sophisticated, Bergman's intelligence and clarity make the book ideal for scholars and students alike.
The chapter on Frances Grierson appears to value Grierson's ideas and ignore the clumsiness of his prose, but Bergman is sympathetic and intelligent in his readings of the man and his work. Much more interesting are Bergman's connections among Whitman, Ashbery, and Richard Howard. I cannot "help but believe, however, that Bergman's greatest service here is his sympathetic interpretations [End Page 497] of the lives of Matthiessen and Baldwin, and his reading of the life and works of Larry Kramer. Bergman rebuts carefully but firmly the homo-hatred in previous interpretations of Matthiessen's writing and death by suicide, and he analyzes sympathetically the struggle Baldwin had in reconciling his work with the demands of black activists who though Baldwin less a man and artist for being gay. This hostility toward Baldwin was unpalatable at the time, and has worn even less well in the passing of years, particularly when one considers, as does Bergman, what black homo-hatred did to Baldwin's fiction.
Perhaps best among these superb essays is Bergman's even-handed but deadly reading of Larry Kramer. He pays just due to Kramer's triumphs in writing and gay activism, but also mercilessly dissects Kramer's internalized homophobia and its effect on his work and life, noting how other gays must inevitably fail Kramer because of his own outrageous and ultimately inhuman demands on them and, finally, himself.
The only criticism one might have of this book is that the essays seem somewhat unconnected despite Bergman's detailed introduction that seeks to unify the collection. Otherwise, I gladly recommend this book without reservation and with a great deal of enthusiasm as a major contribution not only to gay studies but to our understanding of American literature.