Authors: David Leavitt

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017


June 23, 1961

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


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.

Author Works Short Fiction: Family Dancing, 1984 A Place I’ve Never Been, 1990 Arkansas: Three Novellas, 1997 The Marble Quilt: Stories, 2001 Collected Stories, 2003 Long Fiction: The Lost Language of Cranes, 1986 Equal Affections, 1989 While England Sleeps, 1993, revised 1995 The Page Turner, 1998 Martin Bauman: Or, A Sure Thing, 2000 The Body of Jonah Boyd, 2004 The Indian Clerk, 2007 The Two Hotel Francforts, 2013 Nonfiction: Italian Pleasures, 1996 (with Mark Mitchell) In Maremma: Life and a House in Southern Tuscany, 2001 (with Mitchell) Florence: A Delicate Case, 2002 The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer, 2006 Edited Texts: The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, 1994 (with Mark Mitchell) Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914, 1997 (with Mitchell) Selected Stories, 2001 (of E. M. Forster; with Mitchell) Bibliography Bleeth, Kenneth, and Julie Rivkin. “The ‘Imitation David’: Plagiarism, Collaboration, and the Making of a Gay Literary Tradition in David Leavitt’s ‘The Term Paper Artist.’” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 116 (Winter, 2001): 1349–1363. Analyzes Leavitt’s novella as a response to Steven Spender’s accusations of plagiarism in While England Sleeps. Bohlen, Celestine. “Writer on the Rebound: This Time, He Takes Liberties with His Own Life.” The New York Times, February 25, 1997, p. C11. Notes that while Leavitt’s book While England Sleeps was pulled from the presses after the English poet Stephen Spender filed a plagiarism suit because of sexual suggestions concerning his autobiography, Leavitt’s story “The Term Paper Artist” features a character called David Leavitt who has gone home to his father’s house to brood over a vengeful English poet’s accusation of plagiarism. Heller, Dana. Family Plots: The De-Oedipalization of Popular Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. One chapter analyzes The Lost Language of Cranes in terms of its positioning of female characters within the family framework as it is reimagined in a homosexual context. Iannone, Carol. “Post Counter-Culture Tristesse.” Commentary 84 (February, 1987): 57–61. Iannone’s article discusses representative themes of Leavitt’s work, including his short stories and his first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes. Klarer, Mario. “David Leavitt’s ‘Territory’: René Girard’s Homoerotic ‘Trigonometry’ and Julia Kristeva’s ‘Semiotic Chora.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Winter, 1991): 63–76. Argues that the mother-son-lover triangle in the story “Territory” calls for two different theoretical frames for analysis: René Girard’s “erotic triangle” in his 1965 book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, and Julia Kristeva’s theory of a “semiotic territory” in her 1984 book Revolution in Poetic Language. Leavitt, David. “Interview with David Leavitt.” Interview by Jean Ross. In Contemporary Authors, vol. 122, edited by Hal May and Susan M. Trosky. Detroit: Gale Research, 1988. Leavitt, in a telephone interview transcript, discusses his writing habits, his training in creative writing at Yale University, the Family Dancing collection, and his novel The Lost Language of Cranes. Also reflects on his brief editorial assistant’s position at a New York publishing house. Leavitt, David. “Interview with David Leavitt.” Interview by Sam Staggs. Publishers Weekly 237 (August 24, 1990): 47–49. In this interview, Leavitt refers to his collection of stories A Place I’ve Never Been as the first book of “the middle years” of his career; Staggs claims the stories in Leavitt’s collection reveal the maturity that his earlier work hinted at, with several excellent stories exploiting the theme of Americans in Europe. Leavitt, David. “The New Lost Generation.” Esquire 103 (May, 1985): 85–88. In an autobiographical remembrance of adolescence in California, Leavitt compares the activist, socially conscious late 1960s generation with that of his own “Yuppie” era. Leavitt, David. “New Voices and Old Values.” The New York Times Book Review, May 12, 1985, 1, 26–27. In a lengthy review of several books by contemporary authors, including Marian Thurm, Peter Cameron, Meg Wolitzer, Elizabeth Tallent, and Amy Hempel, Leavitt cites similarity of themes in their handling of crises in the traditional family and reveals as well elements of his own work and concerns. Leavitt, David. “The Way I Live Now.” The New York Times Magazine, July 9, 1989, 28–29, 32, 80–82. Leavitt, in a personal revelation about his homosexuality, discusses the way in which AIDS has affected his life. He also discusses his involvement with ACT UP, the radical AIDS activist organization, and his views of that organization’s necessity and positive influence. Lilly, Mark. Gay Men’s Literature in the Twentieth Century. Washington Square: New York University Press, 1993. A full chapter is devoted to a discussion of The Lost Language of Cranes in the larger context of “coming out” narratives. Lo, Mun-Hou. “David Leavitt and the Etiological Maternal Body.” Modern Fiction Studies 41 (Fall/Winter, 1995): 439–465. Discusses the figure of the mother in some stories from David Leavitt’s debut collection, Family Dancing; comments on Leavitt’s obsessive interest in the specter of the strong mother, even as this interest can take the form only of looking everywhere except directly at the relationship between maternity and homosexuality. White, Edmund. “Out of the Closet, onto the Bookshelf.” The New York Times Magazine, June 16, 1991, 22–24. White writes about the 1980s generation of openly homosexual writers and how the AIDS epidemic has both decimated their ranks and at the same time created a maturity of creative writing as writers react to the disease and its threat.

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