By Mark McNease
I was recently introduced by a mutual friend to Drewey Wayne Gunn, Professor Emeritus , Texas A&M University–Kingsville. Professor Gunn has long been interested in recovering forgotten works of gay literature and has produced a treasure trove of guidebooks in his effort to acknowledge the many authors who, while largely ignored or forgotten, paved the way for the richness and variety we now enjoy in gay literature.
His books include the upcoming Gay American Novels, 1870 – 1970 (McFarland, 2016), as well as Gay Novels of Britain, Ireland, and the Commonwealth, 1881 – 1981 (McFarland, 2014), 1960s Gay Pulp Fiction, edited with Jaime Harker (Massachusetts, 2013), The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film (Scarecrow, 2013), and The Golden Age of Gay Literature, editor (MLR, 2009).
I had the pleasure of asking Professor Gunn ‘6 Questions’ about his books, his passion for forgotten works, and how he thinks we can best keep our literary heritage alive. – Mark McNease/Editor
MM: Thank you for answering ‘6 Questions.’ First off, as a mystery writer myself with a number of gay mystery writer friends, I immediately noticed your title The Gay Male Sleuth in Print and Film. When and how did you become interested in the subject?
WG: When I retired in 2001, I finally had the time to read whatever I wanted. I had been a Joseph Hansen fan back in the 70s and 80s; now I was intrigued to explore other gay detectives. Using Amazon’s search feature (which was far superior a decade ago), I discovered there had been a virtual explosion I had missed. I avidly caught up on Michael Nava, Richard Stevenson, R. D. Zimmerman, John Morgan Wilson, and all the other wonderful books that had been published by Alyson and St. Martin’s. In short order I had read about a hundred novels. Once a student, always a student: I wanted to bring some order to what I was discovering. That desire led directly to The Gay Male Sleuth.
MM: I’d love to get some of your takeaways from researching and writing that book, including mention of The Heart in Exile, “the first recognized gay novel” (described by the New York Times as a “Sensitive and deeply perceptive portrayal of the homosexual and his underworld.”
WG: There was one great discovery after another for me. Certainly Rodney Garland’s The Heart in Exile was one of them. Talk about a pioneering work: it left Vidal and Baldwin so far behind. Yet when GMP reprinted it, would you believe that Neil Barlett in his foreword felt that he had to apologize for the novel? Neil Barlett, of all people! Unless one makes a case for the play Rope, Heart is the first gay murder mystery with a gay sleuth (and in this case, a gay victim). It is a remarkable survey of the gay scene in London just after World War II. Though not the first (Prime Stevenson’s Imre has that honor), it is a gay romance. It has as its hero a psychiatrist who, by necessity of the times, is closeted but who has no hang-ups about his sexuality. It has been criticized because that hero does not speak kindly of flamboyantly effeminate gays, but such criticism does not take into account that what he is opposed to is their obviousness simply because they attract police raids on any bars they frequent. Why do we blithely accept Sherlock Holmes’s misogyny but feel we must put down Garland’s hero for acknowledging the need for camouflage?
So many great mysteries followed Garland’s lead. In a column for Lambda Literary Review (for which I reviewed gay mysteries for ten years) I listed my ten favorite gay mystery series and my ten favorite standalones. Such a list is always idiosyncratic, plus it is limited by the artificial number one assigns oneself, but in looking back at the column I find that I would modify the lists only to include more recent series such as those by David Lennon and Marshall Thornton. It is an eclectic list. But I try to judge a work in part by the constraints under which the author had to work to get it published in the first place. I would wager that most readers have never heard of a third of the works I list, would even have a hard time finding some of them. It’s a sad state of affairs when we lose any part of our heritage through neglect. But publishing is a complex web of presses, critics, markets, consumers, and copyright laws.
MM: After The Gay Male Sleuth, you moved first onto gay pulp fiction. How did that come about?
WG: Once I started compiling The Gay Male Sleuth, I wanted it to be as comprehensive as I could make it. So I turned to various sources, including the World Catalog. A number of pulps popped up as a result. Then I met Chris Eckhoff, a Brooklyn dealer who specialized in paperback originals, and he added still more titles to my reading list. Reading the pulps—and unless I note otherwise, I read every title that I list in my bibliography—took me back to the late 1960s when I first discovered them on the paperback racks in a convenience store just a few blocks from where I taught. I think Fruit of the Loom by “Ricardo Armory” was the first pulp I bought. I had never read anything like it. It was joyfully sexy, campy, upbeat, funny, complete with a happy ending—everything that The City and the Pillar, Giovanni’s Room, and A Single Man were not. (At this time Maurice had yet to be published.) Now, in the new century in the process of recovering pulp mysteries, I realized that the pulps were the first serious attempt to chronicle all aspects of the gay scene. Yet they are rather universally sneered at (read Felice Picano’s Art and Sex in Greenwich Village) or collected only for their covers, not their contents. Michael Bronski and Susan Stryker took them seriously, but both have moved on to other concerns. Carrying on their efforts, I edited two collections of essays, The Golden Age of Gay Fiction and, with Ole Miss professor Jaime Harker, 1960s Gay Pulp Fiction.
MM: One of the things that makes your work unique is your dedication to forgotten works and authors. Can you address the value of that and why you believe it’s important?
WG: Why would one want to lose so many good reads? One of many things that I liked about my training at both Wake Forest College (now University) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was that we read not only the major literary figures but also the minor ones who were writing at the same time. That gave me the knowledge that context is always important. Sure, one can appreciate Shakespeare’s plays in and of themselves, but how much more one appreciates them if one has read plays by Marlowe, Webster, Middleton, Ford, Jonson, and other Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. It’s the same with gay literature. Forster shines all the more if you have read Alan Dale, Forrest Reid, Henry Blake Fuller, and the like. And in the process one can discover that some of these writers (just as with those Elizabethan dramatists) are worth reading in themselves. I am still amazed that Fuller’s Bertram Cope’s Year, Rose Macaulay’s The Lee Shore, Clarkson Crane’s The Western Shore, and Forman Brown’s Better Angel are not better known. All four are indelibly imprinted now on my mind, yet not a one is even mentioned in Gregory Woods’s A History of Gay Literature. The men barely show up in Claude Summers’s The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage. Yet what a pity to miss out on these early twentieth-century works!
When lesbian critics began their work, they set out immediately to recover lesbian works, including lesbian pulp fiction published during the 1950s. Gay male critics, for some reason, seem ashamed to depart from the high road. As a result they have been more intent on outing established figures from Charles Brockden Brown through Jack London and beyond than in recovering marginalized books. Particularly in the immediate years following Stonewall, critics were hampered by political agendas that dismissed works that did not meet current activist standards. (How Gore Vidal escaped their disdain continues to amaze me. What other important gay writer has been so uniformly negative in his portrayal of gay men?) So writers such as Jay Little, when noticed at all, were reduced to being fantasy romance writers, and such a campy work as Milton Rebow’s Oh Dear! was completely dismissed. The latter is one of the funniest novels I have read, yet I would wager that almost no gay reader today has heard of it. Even a writer one might think would be recovered and praised—Ward Thomas, whose novel Stranger in the Land ends with the gay protagonist committing the perfect murder to dispatch his would-be blackmailer—has been forgotten. A myth has grown that all pre-Pride novels had unhappy endings. That’s pure nonsense. Even before the pulp explosion beginning in 1965, there were more than a score novels whose heroes found some degree of happiness. When one adds in just the late 1960s pulps, the number jumps to nearly five hundred.
The so-called Violet Quill members have especially irritated me, though Andrew Holleran does seem to be moving away from their elitism (and George Whitmore did praise the stories by Phil Andros—i.e., Samuel Steward). As late as 2009, in a review of John Rechy’s autobiography for The New York Review of Books, Edmund White was still promoting the claim that “gay fiction”—“if by that one means unapologetic novels written by gays primarily for gay readers and consequently devoid of the earlier strategy of a let-me-be-your-Virgil-though-this-underworld narrator”—was “invented” by him and his peers. So much for the pulps. So much indeed for some ninety years of sporadic but openly gay novels that had preceded White.
Sure, we should enjoy the great landmarks of gay fiction. Personally, I love Maurice, Reflections in a Golden Eye, A Single Man, The Charioteer, Rushes, Fadeout. But that does not mean that we cannot equally get pleasure from Look Down in Mercy, The Heart in Exile, Sam, The Why Not. By ignoring lesser known writers we are losing part of our history. When I compiled Gay Novels of Britain, Ireland and the Commonwealth, 1881–1981 and Gay American Novels, 1870–1970, I vowed to make no distinction between widely esteemed works of literature and those that had, for whatever reason, been marginalized, as long as the work helped the reader understand the formation and evolution of a gay identity. The results are summaries of 511 works of fiction ranging from the super well known such as Brideshead Revisited to the totally ignored Starborn.
MM: Given the depth of your research, are there authors you think were especially influential, even if they’re now unknown? Who do you think led the way for later writers, and why?
WG: Obviously mainstream writers from Henry James and Oscar Wilde on, have had the greater impact simply because they are well known. From the “unknown” list, I suspect Robert Scully’s The Scarlet Pansy was more influential than has been acknowledged. A number of similar tropes found there show up in later works, and it apparently went through more printings than one would have expected. Scully has yet to be identified, though several critics have speculated that he was Robert McAlmon. (By the way, steer clear of the Badboy “reprint”; it has been rewritten to make the work pornographic.) From the “unacknowledged” list, John Dos Passos’s inventive structure for U.S.A. had an obvious influence (John Horne Burns’ The Galley, Alfred Hayes’s All Thy Conquests). I wonder if his generally negative depiction of gays had any impact on gay writers. And what will be the ultimate assessment of Patrick Dennis? Even though there is not a gay character in the novel, Auntie Mame was the first “gay” novel for many people of my generation. Like lesbian readers of lesbian pulp fiction at the time, I just ignored the final chapters in which Patrick finds a girlfriend.
MM: In a world that often forgets its heritage, including its literary heritage, what can be done to rescue and recognize authors – and the significance of their works – before they’re completely lost?
WG: Good question, and I’m afraid I don’t have an answer. First we need to get their names out. But the well known, most respected critics are not helping on that score. In his Queer History of the United States Michael Bronski (whose anthology Pulp Friction worked hard to recover forgotten books) ignored the 1960s pulps and focused instead on physical culture magazines. Christopher Bram’s Eminent Outlaws is quite informative about the writers who are always cited in histories of gay literature (Williams, Vidal, Baldwin, Rechy, et al.), but on the evidence of his book he has never heard of Forman Brown or Lonnie Colman. He mentions Joseph Hansen only in relation to his review of A Single Man. Neither writer acknowledges Song of the Loon, which is almost always brought up as the more remarkable example of pulp fiction.
Then we need to make them available when possible. A copy of Rex Stout’s Forest Fire goes for around $100; I have never seen a copy of Kenilworth Bruce’s Goldie for sale, and almost no library has it. Valancourt Books is making a valiant effort to recover and reprint lost works, but their best seller has been an example of Victorian pornography. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain should be a part of anyone’s collection of gay literature, but one would have hoped that its buyers would be as enthusiastic about reading the other novels that Valancourt is publishing. Broadview Press and Arsenal Pulp Press have both reprinted almost forgotten works. Thirty years ago Alyson Press and GMP were also recovering lost “classics.” But most gay critics seem incapable of approving any gay writer who has not been validated by straight critics’ acceptance first. A model for recovery that we need to examine is that used by lesbian critics, who had no compunction about praising 1950s gay lesbian pulps, but how does one convince gay critics of that? And until they are convinced that marginalized works are worth bringing more into the center, how can we expect publishers and readers to embrace such works? For that matter, we need more gay critics who will point out the obvious, such as the fact that Maurice is a major novel, rather than the cowed bunch who feel they must apologize for its existence as if it damages A Passage to India. The scene between Maurice and Scudder in the British Museum is one of the great moments in gay literature.
I am still haunted by two contrasting sessions I attended at the Modern Language Association conference thirty years ago. One was mostly attended by lesbian teachers. They were so at ease with each other, sitting almost on top of each other and actively engaging with the panel. The other was a special session on Walt Whitman attended almost entirely by men, most of whom had to be gay. As each man entered the room, he carefully left an empty seat between himself and any other man on the same row. Then as the room filled to capacity, they all sat—so unlike the women—very straight, making sure that no part of their bodies touched another male’s. Allen Ginsberg attended the session, but no one recognized him, at least not visibly. Until gay critics learn to relax—and there are a number now who have—we’re going to continue to get one article after another about the gay Melville and the gay Conrad when we need equal scrutiny of the gay Lonnie Coleman and the gay Francis King.
About Wayne Gunn:
Growing up on a North Carolina farm, Wayne was an avid 4-Her, recipient of the 1957 state Citizenship Award and still a member of the 4-H Honor Club. After receiving his degrees, he began his teaching career in Texas. His first books surveyed the American and British expatriate scenes in Mexico; he published the first comprehensive bibliography of Tennessee Williams’s works. Wayne has also taught in Denmark and France, where he met his partner of twenty-one years. Together they translated A Lover’s Cock and Other Gay Poems by Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. That translation led to Wayne’s recent collaboration with William Maltese on a fictional account of the poets’ tumultuous love affair, Ardennian Boy. A Lambda Literary finalist, it is currently being translated into French.