Last reviewed: June 2017
June 23, 1961
David Leavitt (LEHV-iht) is thought by some critics to be one of the most promising writers of the so-called Yuppie generation of the 1980s. The son of Harold J. Leavitt, a professor, and Gloria Rosenthal, a housewife, he grew up in Palo Alto, California. He attended Yale University, where he studied creative writing under such editors and writers as John Hollander, Gordon Lish, John Hersey, and Michael Malone. After graduation in 1983, he worked for a year as a reader and an editorial assistant for Viking-Penguin Press in New York, before devoting himself to his writing full time. Leavitt published his first short story in The New Yorker when he was twenty-one years old and still a student at Yale University. The story, “Territory,” which is included in his first book, Family Dancing, created a minor controversy among readers of the magazine because of its focus on homosexuality. The story deals with a young man who brings his gay lover home for a vacation. Although the boy’s mother, still a peace worker in the spirit of the 1960s, accepts his homosexuality intellectually, she has not yet accepted it emotionally. The conflicts arise over such matters as the two men’s sleeping together and showing affection in public. While some conservative readers were dismayed by the story’s theme, more liberal readers praised Leavitt as a spokesperson for a previously suppressed group.
The story is characteristic of one of Leavitt’s principal thematic concerns: the varieties of love and sexual attraction, most often revealed through the crucible of the family. In his first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, the central characters are three family members: a husband who has unhappily concealed his homosexuality throughout the twenty-seven years of his marriage, a gay son who has embarked on his first serious relationship, and a wife and mother who is unprepared and unwilling to face the men’s imminent revelations. While this novel employs one of Leavitt’s basic themes, his short story “Counting Months,” which won an O. Henry prize in 1984, is typical of Leavitt’s technique. Leavitt has admitted in an interview that he learned his craft in a formal way in university classes; “Counting Months,” with its conventional metaphor of a character confronting a grotesque double of herself and its smooth style typical of The New Yorker, is the kind of story that has caused the mixed reception of Leavitt’s work. Whereas critics generally believe that he has a powerful empathetic ability to create believable and recognizable characters typical of the modern urban landscape, at the same time, they lament his overly slick style and his mannered irony.
Much critical attention has been paid to Leavitt’s female characters, particularly the older women for whom he seems to have a genius for empathy. Rose, the wife and mother in The Lost Language of Cranes, and Louise, the cancer-ridden mother of two gay siblings in Equal Affections, for example, can be regarded as the linchpins around which their respective narratives revolve.
A Place I’ve Never Been continues Leavitt’s examination of the complex mosaic of human emotional experience in both its heterosexual and gay variations. In this collection and in the novel While England Sleeps, however, the characters seek confirmation of identity not so much through family as through lovers and friends. In addition, the settings for these short stories have expanded from the indigenous urban locales of his earlier work to accommodate what nineteenth-century American novelist Henry James called the “international theme”: the American confrontation with Europe. Leavitt himself sought residence abroad, first in Barcelona and then in Florence.
Europe is also the setting for Leavitt’s third novel, While England Sleeps. It is essentially the reminiscence of an elderly Hollywood screenwriter and British expatriate named Brian Botsford, who eloquently recalls his love for Edward Phelan, a ticket taker in the London underground in the 1930s. Despite their class differences, the men are drawn together by sexual attraction and their youthful enthusiasm for the Communist Party; the tragic resolution of their relationship unfolds against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War.
The book became the focus of litigation when British poet Sir Stephen Spender threatened to sue Leavitt under the premise that While England Sleeps plagiarized Spender’s own 1951 autobiographical narrative World Within World. The initial Viking edition was recalled, and after seventeen editorial changes, Leavitt re-released his novel with a new publisher. Despite this controversy, Leavitt continues to play a pivotal role in the evolution of American fiction by taking mainstream readers to literary regions not heretofore visited.
In The Page Turner, the issue is less about coming to terms with a character’s homosexuality (although it is an element), as it is about coming to terms with one’s own talents. The “page turner” of the title is an eighteen-year-old pianist named Paul Porterfield who is chosen to turn pages at a concert given by his idol, Richard Kennington. In addition to questions of sexuality, fidelity, and the nature of relationships, Paul must also come to terms with the realization that his talent is not going to take him to the very top; can he cope with being a second-rate pianist? Martin Bauman is a very self-consciously autobiographical novel, turning the spotlight on Leavitt’s early career and the New York literary scene.
After publishing the novel The Body of Jonah Boyd (2004) to mixed reviews, Leavitt returned to nonfiction with the publication of The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (2006). He dealt once more with historical figures for his next work, The Indian Clerk (2007), this time presenting a fictional account of Indian bank clerk Srinvasa Ramanujan's contribution to the field of mathematics with a focus on his time in England working with G. H. Hardy. The Two Hotel Francforts (2013) is set in Lisbon, Portugal, and follows two couples as they await passage to the United States at the beginning of World War II.