Biography 23.1 (2000) 257-259
[Access article in PDF]
Paul Robinson's Gay Lives epitomizes the recent trend in gay studies to supplement our knowledge of gay history through literary works. During the nineties we have received a huge bounty of academic work detailing the lives and works of such Victorian "gay" literary figures as John Addington Symonds, Walter Pater, Henry James, and of course, Oscar Wilde. Robinson's purpose is to analyze the lives of the gay writers who, from the Victorian period to the 1980s, "make attraction to their own sex a central theme of their autobiographies" (ix) The thoroughness of his analyses makes this work especially useful as a crucial disseminator of gay social history, both to academics and to curious students of all ages. His lucid prose and his willingness to summarize even the most basic of contemporary academic controversies--the "essentialist" versus "constructionist" debate, for example--make his study accessible to the widest possible audience.
In his Introduction, Robinson wisely takes time to explain the rationale of his choices, especially why he chose not to include lesbians, and why he limited his choices to works by British (six), French (three), and American (five) writers. He asserts three major themes--"identity," "masculinity," and "solidarity"--although his greatest emphasis by far is on the first. He tends to view masculinity, his second theme, as many of these writers themselves did: through a conventional lens, rather than allowing for a more androgynous, free-flowing take on gender. But that's a minor quibble when juxtaposed to the complex, sensitive analyses he gives us of these men's views of their "identity," analyses so detailed as to make us occasionally wish that he did not rake quite so thoroughly through the texts.
Since all fourteen men are white, Robinson wisely adds an epilogue which emphasizes African Americans and Latinos, though he never mentions Asians. Using Samuel Delany and Richard Rodriguez as archetypal models of these respective races, he concludes that in America it is much easier for blacks to accept their homosexuality and lead unconventional lives, an over-simplified conclusion which may be true for certain writers, but which is at least suspect as far as the general population is concerned.
To use Robinson's own term, the criticism to which his study is most vulnerable is "presentism": judging the past by the standards of today. In other words, try as he might to be objective, Robinson cannot help but sympathize with writers like Christopher Isherwood, who could accept themselves as unequivocally homosexual. He finds it hard to resist being [End Page 257] critical of writers like Isherwood's friend, Stephen Spender, who as a young man enthusiastically embraced homosexuality, but who ultimately balked at the idea of having sex with men. Robinson also tends to side with men who sought and established long-term relationships, even though a strong recent countermovement in the gay subculture honors as a legitimate lifestyle those who, for whatever reasons, do not have such a relationship. On the other hand, rather than viewing these tendencies as a prejudice, it is probably more useful for us to see them as categories or yardsticks, which make it easier for us to make comparisons. To his credit, Robinson includes some details of his own life, especially when analyzing such contemporaries as Andrew Tobias, Martin Duberman, and Paul Monette, giving us a sense of where he is coming from on these issues. Yet he might have expressed a bit more compassion for those of his subjects who could not benefit, or took a long time to benefit, from the more liberating environment of the post-Stonewall period.
Robinson wisely begins with that vastly underrated Victorian literary figure John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). Though married and the father of four children, as a result of his intensive study of Greek culture, Symonds finally decided to break with the Oxford model that encouraged...