- Gay America
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
800 Pages; Print, $40.00
“I have no idea why there is so little literature on early homosexuality,” intones Dame Lady Hermia Bledd-Wrench, one of several improbably named characters in Larry Kramer’s The American People, Volume 1. “God knows homosexuals have been here forever.” Kramer is hardly the first homosexual to feel the oppressive absence of gay people in history. Oscar Wilde—the very model of the modern homosexual—grappled with it, too. In “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” published in Blackwoods Magazine in 1889, three men drive themselves to madness in attempts to identify the homoerotic subject of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Stymied by a dearth of evidence but utterly convinced of the theory’s truth, they forge proof. In a text equal parts literary history and imaginative fiction, Wilde asks questions central to gay historiography: when chronicling a people that have for so long been hidden, excised, canceled out, how do you fill the omissions and gaps? How do you voice a history that, until very recently, has been characterized by its silence?
Kramer’s solution? Fill the silence with noise. Weighty in theme and in literal weight, the 775-page The American People is hell-bent on painstakingly, even painfully demonstrating that gay people have always been there, at the center of American history and American identity. Like Wilde’s “W. H.,” Kramer’s text straddles fiction and fact; the book is a history of the American people that’s also a novel titled The American People. And like Wilde’s characters, Kramer undergirds his true theory (for surely, gays must have been there all along) with manufactured evidence. Jamestown, the first permanent settlement in America, also “comprised the first homosexual community in the New World.” Meriwether Lewis pines for William Clark, while John Wilkes Booth enjoys an ill-fated threesome with Abraham Lincoln. In The Normal Heart (1985), Kramer issued an honor roll of homosexuals—Plato and Aristotle, Michelangelo and da Vinci, Melville and Marlowe—to stress that gays have always been there, “all through history we’ve been there.” The American People recenters national identity towards much the same purpose, writing national myths along queer lines.
The American People is at once a gay history, an American history, and a history of HIV, which is referred to throughout as The Underlying Condition. (It’s also a history of national homophobia— which, as Kramer would stress, is America’s truest Underlying Condition.) In interweaving and collapsing the three, the book also questions what it means to practice history – and “history does require a lot of history,” as the book observes in its final pages. The American People iterates history as polyphonic, often arbitrary, weighted with inaccuracies and above all inconsistent. History is “a host of insistent narrators attempting to be heard.” Two pages later, it’s “a singular affair.” “History is a story,” declares one character; “real history is not a story,” protests another. The American People is scattered, digressive, and messy, which may be frustrating, but there’s at least good reason for it: history is indeed a mess. What’s puzzling is that, despite all the variance and incoherence of history, gay identity here is so constant. How can we not see, asks the book in exasperation, that the characters of Mark Twain are gay? How can “any sentient person read anything” about Meriwether Lewis without realizing he was gay—“not a little bit, not just sometimes, but totally and wholly gay?” But if history is so messy, so subjective, shouldn’t the history of sexuality be, too? Queer experience is so difficult to reconstitute precisely because it is so various and so subjective. Checking presidents off like tickboxes (Washington and Jackson and Pierce and Lincoln and Buchanan and Garfield and Nixon, respectively gay and gay and gay and gay and gay and gay and gay) doesn’t do justice to the actual complexity of gay history.
That inconsistency is frustrating. And there are many reasons to find this book...