Golden Age of American Gay Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

New works by several popular and critically acclaimed writers, including Gore Vidal, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams, began to popularize gay sensibility by portraying gay lives and loves realistically and sympathetically.

Summary of Event

Gay themes are largely absent from American fiction prior to the “golden age” of 1947-1948, and the few earlier novels that mention homosexuality are riddled with stereotypes and literary flaws. Typically, these early works relegate their gay characters to minor roles and portray them unsympathetically, usually describing homosexuality as an illness that renders gay characters incapable of forming fulfilling relationships. In some works, gay characters are depicted as villainous figures who prey upon “normal” young men. The most scorn is reserved for characters with feminine Femininity;gay literature and characteristics, who are typically portrayed as unhappy, unsuccessful, and morally repugnant. [kw]Golden Age of American Gay Literature (1947-1948) [kw]American Gay Literature, Golden Age of (1947-1948) [kw]Gay Literature, Golden Age of American (1947-1948) [kw]Literature, Golden Age of American Gay (1947-1948) Literature;gay [c]Literature;1947-1948: Golden Age of American Gay Literature[0370] [c]Publications;1947-1948: Golden Age of American Gay Literature[0370] Vidal, Gore Capote, Truman Williams, Tennessee

Three works that appeared in 1947-1948 altered this literary landscape dramatically: Gore Vidal’s novel The City and the Pillar City and the Pillar, The (Vidal) (1948, revised 1965), Truman Capote’s novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), Other Voices, Other Rooms (Capote) and, to a lesser extent, Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire Streetcar Named Desire, A (Williams) (pr., pb. 1947) marked a change in several ways. The City and the Pillar was the first American novel by a prominent writer in which homosexuality was a central theme and gay characters were portrayed as multidimensional human beings. Perhaps most significantly, its gay main character, Jim Willard, is physically attractive in a typically masculine way. Athletic, strong, and square-jawed, to a mainstream audience Jim compared favorably with more feminine gay characters who had been derided as “pansies” and “fairies.” Jim’s portrayal as “normal” in both appearance and outward behavior lent support to the novel’s theme that the taboo on homosexuality was an unnecessary burden preventing people from living their lives to the fullest. Vidal depicts Jim’s awakening sexuality and his several love affairs with both sympathy and realism, presenting for the first time in American literature a fully developed gay character whose only “abnormality” is that he is not free to be himself in mainstream culture.

Truman Capote.

(Library of Congress)

Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms introduced homosexual themes to the Southern gothic genre in the story of Joel Knox, a thirteen-year-old New Orleans boy sent to a rural southern town, Skully’s Landing, to live with a father he has never known. When he arrives, Joel learns that his father is paralyzed and capable only of saying a few words, so Joel is left in the care of his ineffectual stepmother and her cross-dressing, homosexual cousin Randolph. In this bizarrely nightmarish situation, Randolph’s lavish compliments and sexual advances are the only tenderness available to Joel. However, like Randolph’s gender and sexual identity, the novel’s ending is deeply ambiguous: Joel ultimately rejects Randolph and leaves Skully’s Landing, presumably to return to New Orleans. The ambiguity lies in Joel’s sexuality: Having come of age and rejected Randolph, it is still unclear whether Joel has also rejected Randolph’s sexual orientation. Critics are divided on this point; what really matters is not Joel’s sexual orientation but that he has begun creating his own destiny by walking away from the gothic horror of Skully’s Landing.

Other Voices, Other Rooms is groundbreaking in its introduction of homosexual themes to the standard Southern gothic genre and the coming-of-age story. Although the main gay character, Randolph, is portrayed as a predatory and effeminate gay man, the story ultimately is Joel’s story, and his grappling with his own emerging sexuality introduces an original and pioneering theme to the coming-of-age genre.

Homosexuality is also a significant theme in Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. The play’s main character, Blanche DuBois, is best characterized as an aging Southern belle who has witnessed the loss of her family’s plantation as well as the suicide of her husband, a gay poet. “Her fundamental regret…is not that she happened to marry a homosexual [but that] she brought on the boy’s suicide by her unqualified expression of disgust.” Blanche’s reminiscence about discovering the truth of her husband’s sexual orientation highlights the tragedy of both lost love and her failure to extend love in the way it was needed.

There was something different about the boy…tenderness which wasn’t like a man’s.…He came to me for help…and all I knew was I’d failed him in some mysterious way.…[O]n the dance-floor—unable to stop myself—I’d suddenly said—“I saw! I know! You disgust me!”

Although critics disagree about the extent to which Blanche is culpable for her husband’s suicide, one thing remains clear: Her regret about failing to accept her husband’s homosexuality was a new perspective in American literature and marks one of the first calls for tolerance.

Significance

The golden age of gay literature, as heralded by the three works discussed here, had both an immediate and a long-term effect on American attitudes toward homosexuality and its depiction in literature. All three works were widely reviewed and received mixed critical reception. Without a doubt, these works paved the way for the pioneering gay literature that was to come in the following decades.

Although some contemporary reviewers expressed moral repugnance, several prescient critics welcomed the openness with which these works treated the variety of human sexuality. Perhaps most indicative of these works’ future impact was Richard McLaughlin’s review of Vidal’s The City and the Pillar in the Saturday Review (“Precarious Status,” January 10, 1948). With great insight, McLaughlin noted that Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (commonly known as the Kinsey Report), also published in 1948, supported the naturalism with which Jim Willard’s love affairs were described.

And with the help of the astounding revelations in the first report of the Kinsey group, a great many more people are soon going to be forcefully enlightened on the variety and changes in the American sex patterns and, furthermore, the necessity for greater public and private tolerance of the vast differences in the sex habits of Americans.…Mr. Vidal…launches on his own…campaign against those same myths and delusions.…It should…prove to be a happy juxtaposition for both publications.

The publication of these three literary works in 1947-1948 marked a turning point in American literature: With the publication of important works by prominent and gifted writers, gay themes came out of the closet and into mainstream literature. Literature;gay

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berkman, Leonard. “The Tragic Downfall of Blanche DuBois.” Modern Drama 10, no. 2 (December, 1967): 249-257.
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    xlink:type="simple">Bloom, Harold. Truman Capote. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
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    xlink:type="simple">Capote, Truman. Other Voices, Other Rooms. New York: Random House, 1948.
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    xlink:type="simple">Levin, James. The Gay Novel in America. New York: Garland, 1991.
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    xlink:type="simple">Mengeling, Marvin E. “Other Voices, Other Rooms: Oedipus Between the Covers.” In The Critical Response to Truman Capote, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir and John C. Waldmeir. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paller, Michael. Gentlemen Callers: Tennessee Williams, Homosexuality, and Mid-Twentieth-Century Broadway Drama. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
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    xlink:type="simple">Phillips, Gene D. “Blanche’s Phantom Husband: Homosexuality on Stage and Screen.” Louisiana Literature: A Review of Literature and Humanities 14, no. 2 (Fall, 1997): 36-47.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Summers, Claude Jay. “The City and the Pillar as Gay Fiction.” In Gore Vidal: Writer Against the Grain, edited by Jay Parini. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vidal, Gore. The City and the Pillar. New York: Dutton, 1948.
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    xlink:type="simple">_______. Gore Vidal, Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings. Edited by Donald Weise. San Francisco, Calif.: Cleis Press, 1999.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. New York: New Directions, 1947.

July 4, 1855: Whitman Publishes Leaves of Grass

May 25, 1895: Oscar Wilde Is Convicted of Gross Indecency

1924: Gide Publishes the Signed Edition of Corydon

1939: Isherwood Publishes Goodbye to Berlin

1956: Baldwin Publishes Giovanni’s Room

1963: Rechy Publishes City of Night

June, 1971: The Gay Book Award Debuts

1974: The Front Runner Makes The New York Times Best-Seller List

1975: First Novel About Coming Out to Parents Is Published

1980-1981: Gay Writers Form the Violet Quill

May, 1987: Lambda Rising Book Report Begins Publication

June 2, 1989: Lambda Literary Award Is Created

1993: Monette Wins the National Book Award for Becoming a Man

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