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"Immaculate manhood": The City and the Pillar, Giovanni's Room, and the straight-acting gay man.

Eight years separate the publication of Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar (1948) and James Baldwins Giovanni's Room (1956), but the novels share a great deal in common. Both tell the story of a white American man who serves in the Army, travels widely, and comes to realize that he is sexually attracted to men. In both novels, the protagonist experiences a deep and lasting attraction to another man, and in both cases this attraction ends disastrously. In the original 1948 edition of The City and the Pillar, Jim Willard murders Bob Ford, the man he has loved since high school, when Bob rejects his sexual advances; in the revised edition of 1965, Jim rapes Bob instead of murdering him. (1) And David, the protagonist of Giovanni's Room, denies his love for the Italian bartender Giovanni, an act which sends Giovanni into a downward spiral that ends with his execution for murder. Crucial to understanding why these stories of same-sex love end horrifically is yet another similarity, that both Vidal and Baldwin center their novels around what was, at mid-twentieth century, a new social type: the masculine gay man.

Historian George Chauncey argues that "the hetero-homosexual binarism, the sexual regime now hegemonic in American culture"--presuming the gender of one's sexual partner to constitute proof of an inner quality called hetero- or homosexuality--"is a stunningly recent creation" (13) emerging only in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Prior to this, an older regime--dating to at least the 1890s in New York City, especially among the working class--defined a man's sexual normality or abnormality not by the gender of his sexual partner(s), but by his gender performance.

Under this older regime, men could have sex with men and remain "normal" so long as they conformed to masculine codes of dress, styling, and bodily comportment, and were careful to take only the ostensibly "active" (penetrative) role in sex with other men. Men who took the "passive" role in sex with other men were known as fairies. Masculine-appearing men, Chauncey argues, could thus have certain kinds of sexual contact with fairies and not be seen as abnormal or unmanly. In terms of "defining the deviant" (22) what mattered was gender performance, not sexual object choice.

What Chauncey calls "the ascendancy of gay"--first as a code word for homosexual and, later, as the name for an identity--"reflected, then, a reorganization of sexual categories and the transition from an early twentieth-century culture divided into 'queers' and 'men' on the basis of gender status to a late-twentieth-century culture divided into 'homosexuals' and 'heterosexuals' on the basis of sexual object choice" (22). Furthermore, Chauncey points out that "the transition from one sexual regime to the next was an uneven process, marked by significant class and ethnic differences" (13). (2)

So while the gay man--who can have any kind of sexual contact with other men and retain a masculine gender performance--may seem more familiar to contemporary readers than the fairies Chauncey describes, he was a new social type at mid-century. Vidal's Jim and Baldwin's David are representatives of this new type; both are masculine men who hate effeminate men. Jim Willard is a tennis jock who prides himself on routinely being mistaken for straight and sees effeminate gay men as "strange womanish creatures" (66). (3) David sleeps with both women and men but finds that effeminate gay men "made me uneasy; perhaps in the same way that the sight of monkeys eating their own excrement turns some people's stomachs. They might not mind so much if monkeys did not--so grotesquely--resemble human beings" (27). Borrowing a term from contemporary gay male discourse, we can say that both Jim and David are "straight-acting" gay men: gay men who appear and act masculine, who take pride in differing from heteronormative straight men only in the matter of their sexual object choice.

The term "straight-acting" does not appear in either The City and the Pillar or Giovanni's Room, and I am not aware of either Vidal or Baldwin ever having used it in an interview. The precise origin of the term is difficult to date. As of this writing (July 2011), it does not appear in The Oxford English Dictionary. It does, however, appear frequently in gay male subculture, particularly in gay male personal ads, and has since at least the mid-1990s. In his study of the discourse found on the website, Jay Clarkson defines "a straight-acting gay identity" as being "positioned in opposition to cultural stereotypes of gay men that conflate femininity with homosexuality" (192). The straight-acting gay man regards effeminacy as abnormal and strives to distance himself from any association with it. (4)

While both The City and the Pillar and Giovanni's Room center on a straight-acting gay man, the texts represent contrasting attitudes toward that figure and towards effeminacy. Together, these two novels illustrate how central effeminacy and its meanings, have been to gay male literary fiction in the US, even in its early stages. In The City and the Pillar, it is better for a gay man to be a murderer than a queen; in Giovanni's Room, in contrast, the straight-acting gay man is an object of critique, and David's obsessive investment in maintaining an "immaculate" (30) masculinity (untainted by femininity is a primary source of the ruination he inflicts on himself and on others. Published during a period when "gay" was a relatively new way of organizing and describing male same-sex desire, both of these novels consider the relationship between male homosexuality and effeminacy; Vidal constructs "normality" as a rejection of effeminacy, while Baldwin suggests how gay men who ignore the liberating potential of effeminacy will pay a steep price for doing so.

The City and the Pillar: Jim Willard vs. "strange, womanish creatures"

Although literary historians agree that The City and the Pillar is by no means the first American novel to focus on a portrayal of male-male desire, (5) they still afford it a special place in their histories of gay male publishing. The critical consensus is this: The City and the Pillar was not the first American novel about male-male desire, but a number of factors--its sexual explicitness, its sexually mature (and sexually active) protagonist, its authors celebrity status and literary reputation, and its sales figures--made it both remarkable and difficult for the mainstream reading public to ignore. (6)

Literary historians have also emphasized the way the novel seeks to normalize homosexuality, to detach it from the associations with mental illness, sexual perversion, and criminality that had stigmatized it in America since at least the 1930s. (7) Stephen Adams writes that "Vidal committed the heresy of choosing a clean-cut all-American boy as his protagonist," and that consequently "the public were shocked by the projection of the sheer ordinariness of homosexuality" (17). Similarly, James Levin argues that "a great achievement [of The City and the Pillar] was the first candid presentation of some scenes of the gay world" and that Vidal presents a "more middle class, less frivolous public gay world [that] is far more likely to be one into which respectable men may venture" (76-77). Editorial material in The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature also highlights the novels normalizing impulse: "The City and the Pillar asserts that gay men are not women in disguise nor, indeed, even very special.... Vidal's book carried the normalizing of homosexuality into respectable fiction and would in turn be the model for much of the normalizing fiction to follow" (Fone 690).

This consensus echoes Vidal's own description of his intent. In a 1974 interview he says: "Up until then [the novel's publication], homosexuality in literature was always exotic. I wanted to deal with an absolutely ordinary, all-American, lower-middle-class young man and his world. To show the dead-on 'normality' of the homosexual experience" (Clarke 39). In more sensationalistic terms, he expresses this idea in his introduction to the revised 1965 edition:
   Until [the novel's publication], American novels of "inversion"
   dealt with transvestites or lonely bookish boys who married
   unhappily and pined for Marines. I broke that mold. My two lovers
   in this novel were athletes so drawn to the entirely masculine
   that, in the case of one, Jim Willard, the feminine was simply
   irrelevant to his passion to unite with his other half, Bob Ford.

How exactly is this normalization accomplished? As Vidal's starkly opposing "athletes so drawn to the entirely masculine" to "transvestites or lonely bookish boys" makes clear, The City in the Pillar attempts to normalize male homosexuality by detaching it from any association with effeminacy. And some critics have repeated Vidal's definitional move: remember, for example, that The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature counts The City and the Pillar as a normalizing text because it "asserts that gay men are not women in disguise."

Jim Willard is completely devoid of any hint of effeminacy, a high school jock "popular because he was the school's tennis champion and all athletes were admired" (12). And even when Jim briefly assumes the feminized role of kept boy for closeted Hollywood film star Ronald Shaw, Vidal carefully preserves Jim's masculinity, as when Shaw tells Jim "I also didn't think you could be made. You don't seem the type" to be seduced by another man, and Jim feels "pleased" (70). After Shaw introduces Jim to LA's underground gay male subculture, Jim maintains a psychic distance from other gay men, whom he finds effeminate:
   [Jim] made no connection between what he and Bob had done [the sex
   they have in high school] and what his new acquaintances did. Too
   many of them behaved like women. Often after he had been among
   them, he would study himself in the mirror to see if there was any
   trace of the woman in his face or manner; and he was always pleased
   that there was not. Finally, he decided that he was unique. (66)

Effeminacy does fascinate Jim, but only in a negative sense. It compels attention because Jim sees it as an unnatural aberration:
   as Jim got more and more involved in [LA's gay] world, he found
   himself fascinated by the stories they [effeminate gay men] told of
   their affairs with one another. He could not imagine himself doing
   the things they said they did. Yet he wanted to know about them, if
   only out of a morbid desire to discover how what had been so
   natural and complete for him could be so perfectly corrupted by
   these strange womanish creatures.

As Jim spends more and more time in urban gay subcultures across America, he comes to realize that "for every one [man] who lived openly with men, there were ten who married, had children, lived a discreet, ordinary life, only occasionally straying into bars or Turkish baths, particularly at five o'clock, that hour between office and home when the need for relief is particularly urgent" (164). Unsurprisingly, "these masculine, rather tense men appealed to Jim, who disliked the other sort he met through Shaw ... he was repelled by the queens."

Jim's resistance to effeminacy also makes life in a gay community impossible: "For a time, he hoped that if he saw enough of the queens, he might begin to like their society and be happy in it. But this was not possible.... Jim dropped out of the gay world, preferring to haunt those bars where he could find young men like himself" (164). Gay, for Jim, means effeminate, and for him effeminacy is doubly cursed: it is a turn-off in other men, and impermissible in himself. This doubled prohibition is so strong that Jim continues to heed it, even when doing so makes him an outcast; he is too gay for the straight world, but the gay world is, for Jim, too effeminate to be habitable.

Chauncey suggests that many mid-century men adopted the term gay because it was a more masculine alternative to fairy or sissy. But this is not good enough for Jim, who works to distinguish his own desires from those other gay men. During his original, idyllic sexual encounter with Bob in high school, Jim looks at Bob's body and "felt as if he were looking at an ideal brother, a twin, and he was content" (24). (8) Later, when Jim experiences gay urban subcultures, he elaborates this ideal of twin brother, coming to feel that "the idea of being in love with a man was both ludicrous and unnatural; at the most a man might find his twin, like Bob, but that was rare and something else again" (72). He believes that "all homosexuals talked constantly of love" (83) between men, but because such talk revolts Jim, what he himself desires with another man must have another name: brotherhood, the search not for a lover but for a "twin" (72).

Jim's inability to make peace with a gay culture that he perceives as overly effeminate is certainly in keeping with Vidal's view that sexual desire is a matter of behavior, not identity: "If there is such a thing as a homosexual identity, you must then admit that there is such a thing as a heterosexual identity.... Since I don't recognize such a thing as a heterosexual personality how can I define or detect a homosexual personality?" (qtd. in Behrendt 50). As Robert Corber puts it, Vidal insists "on using the term homosexual as an adjective rather than a noun" (139). In Vidal's view, that is, one can participate in a homosexual act, but one cannot be a homosexual, because there is no such thing; participation in specific kinds of sexual acts has, for him, no bearing on personality or identity. Vidal attributes this view to Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956), whose ground-breaking Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published the same year as The City and the Pillar. In his memoir Palimpsest (1995), Vidal recalls having been interviewed about his sex life by Kinsey in 1948 in New York City: "even then," Vidal recalls, "I did not believe in fixed sexual categories; and finally, Kinsey appears not to have believed in them either" (103). Again, this rejection of sexual categories illuminates why Jim, who sleeps with men, rejects gay culture (on the grounds that it is too effeminate).

Although Jim is many decades too early to cruise for men on the Internet, Clarkson's description of the straight-acting gay men he studied otherwise applies to him quite closely: these men "see their [masculine] gender identities as the only normal identities for all men, gay or straight," use "virtual space ... as a substitute for the 'gay scene' that they see as overly feminine," and "continue to model their version of masculinity on the images of the working-class man" (204).

Publishing a novel centered around such a gay protagonist in 1948 was without a doubt a radical move on Vidal's part, and a deeply courageous one. Prior to The City and the Pillar, Vidal had published two well-received war novels; his first, Williwaw (1946), Donald Pease notes, was "along with Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, of 1948 ... often cited at that time as the best novel of new generation of American writers" (72). Although Vidal knew exactly how deeply taboo any discussion of homosexuality was at that time, in his third novel he wrote explicitly about homosexuality, portraying his protagonist in a sympathetic light. For having done so, he paid a considerable price. As Pease observes, after the publication of The City and the Pillar, many newspapers simply refused to review, or even advertise, anything that Vidal wrote, sending him into a "ten-year exile from literature," during which he "worked primarily in television, writing original scripts and dramatic adaptations" (79).

At a time in the US when male homosexuality was associated with gender inversion, as radical as representing homosexuality directly was making a gay man masculine. Corber rightly praises The City and the Pillar for "undermin[ing] the set of narratives available for representing gay male experience, narratives that reduced gay male identity to a form of gender inversion" (136). Given how universal this discourse about gay men was in 1948, The City and the Pillar was doing immensely difficult work: redefining male homosexuality in a way that revealed "that masculinity was not a monolithic entity but a contested terrain in which different modes of masculinity competed for dominance" (158).

In doing this, Corber suggests, Vidal's novel articulates a sexual politics even more radical than those of Donald Webster Cory, "the leading proponent of gay and lesbian rights in the 1950s" (135). (9) Cory argued that homosexuals deserved recognition and status as a minority group within the US (similar to racial or religious minorities) because "the fact of being homosexual, and therefore belonging to a group, is as involuntary as if it were inborn" and thus homosexuality was "virtually as ineradicable as if it involved the color of one's skin or the shape of one's eyes" (5). Corber argues that Cory thus "sacrificed the ability to interrogate the discourses and practices that gendered sexuality" (157), a mode of critique that The City and the Pillar valuably sustains. That is, Cory argued that male homosexuality was an inborn and immutable component of identity, whereas Vidal's novel represents homosexuality as more fluid, taking different forms and meanings in different men.

I agree with Corber on the point that The City and the Pillar--published at a time when it was widely assumed that male homosexuality always equaled effeminacy and vice versa--aims to decouple questions of (homo) sexuality from questions of gender performance, thus opening up a wider range of possibilities for what "gay man" might mean. But to say that the novel expands possibilities for gay male identity is not the same thing as saying that the novel values all modes of gay male gender presentation equally. It does not. The City and the Pillar makes its case that Jim Willard can be both gay and masculine (and therefore normal) only by associating most other gay men with effeminacy (which is figured as abnormality). Rather than challenging mainstream culture's denigration of effeminacy, that is, The City and the Pillar seeks to normalize both Jim Willard's homosexuality and his masculinity by contrasting them to effeminate gay men who are themselves characterized as "strange womanish creatures."

In addition to maintaining a "pure" masculine gender performance, Jim's notion of normality includes an implicit attachment to whiteness. There are no major characters of color in The City and the Pillar, and the novel could almost be said to be completely whitewashed: in all of his travels, Jim never has any substantive interaction with non-white people, and even when he travels to Mexico, he interacts only with his white traveling companions (one of whom, Maria, has gone to Mexico in the first place because she has inherited a plantation there).The one exception to this whitewashing is the setting of the sexual encounter with Bob, which becomes so central to Jim's sense of self. Vidal sets this scene in an abandoned cabin which "had been the home of a onetime slave, recently dead" and which "stood deserted now" (14). This cabin, on the bank of the Potomac River, is a place where "more than once Bob had brought girls" and which now housed "tramps" who passed through the area, "as well as lovers" (23). By setting Jim and Bob's love scene in the former home of a former slave in a book otherwise devoid of people of color, Vidal implicitly links blackness with both illicit sexuality (the cabin is a place for premarital sex and gay sex) and deviant, non-heteronormative lifestyles (the cabin provides temporary housing for vagabonds, who live outside of a middle-class nuclear family structure). Both Jim and Bob can visit the cabin from time to time, but their whiteness allows them to come and go; it was once the home of a black man, but Jim and Bob have the (white) privilege to invade and abandon it as they please.

Vidal never critiques either Jim's attachment to whiteness or his attachment to heteronormative masculinity. He attributes the novel's violent ending not to these attachments but to Jim's clinging to the past, emphasizing in a 1960 interview the title's Biblical allusion--to Lot's wife, who gazes back on Sodom and Gomorrah and is turned into a pillar of salt--and insisting that the novel is "not 'about' homosexuality. The actual theme is ... if one continues always to look back, to relate everything to a first affair, one is emotionally, even humanly destroyed. The pillar of salt" (Walter 7).

Like Vidal, the novel's critics also see Jim's over-abundant masculinity as precisely what makes him both normal and/or valuable. In Corber's reading, for example, "the gay macho style" Jim embodies "represents the use of an oppositional form of masculinity that first emerged in the fifties as a means of staging a desire that does not conform to the domesticated values of the white suburban middle class" (146). Corber situates this reading within the context of the US's mid-twentieth century shift from an industrial to a post-industrial/consumer economy, arguing that "in the 1950s a model of masculinity that stressed domesticity and cooperation gradually became hegemonic" and that "men were no longer encouraged to show initiative or to exert their independence from the domestic sphere. Rather, they were expected to define themselves through their identities as consumers--an expectation hitherto confined to women--and to take an active role in child-rearing" (5-6). For him, Jim resists this type of masculinity by refusing to get a corporate job, marry, and/or devote himself to fathering a nuclear family.

Certainly Jim lives an adult life that contests Cold War notions of conformity, marriage, and the nuclear family, and in this sense, he is outside the US mainstream. But I question Corber's assertion that "Jim does not identify fully with either masculinity or femininity" (153). As I've tried to show, Jim dislikes anyone and anything he sees as feminine. Corber does cite a passage from the 1948 edition of the novel in which Jim thinks that "his homosexuality was not the result of negation, of hatred and fear of women; it came, rather, from a most affirmative love" (271). But if we consider the full context of this citation, it becomes clear that Jim does indeed fear women. During an argument Jim has with Paul Sullivan, a gay writer Jim is involved with, Sullivan accuses Jim of being "afraid of women" and "afraid of their bodies":
   Jim was taken aback. Sullivan was attacking him and he realized
   that what he said was true: he was afraid, their bodies did
   frighten him. But there was one thing Sullivan didn't know about
   and that was Bob; because of Bob everything Sullivan said was
   false; his homosexuality was not the result of negation, of hatred
   or fear of women; it came, rather, from a most affirmative love. He
   thought of Bob and this gave him the assurance to combat Sullivan.

   "Maybe you're right, but I don't think so. I don't like women,
   that's true, and I guess I don't really care for the way they're
   built, but I don't dislike them as people." (271)

Vidal here refutes the homophobic canard that male homosexuality stems from woman-hating, but while Jim's homosexuality may not derive from misogyny, he does express misogynist sentiments. He likes women as people (a notably ungendered category), but admits their gendered bodies do make him uneasy. (10)

Claiming that Jim does not "identify fully with masculinity," Corber convincingly demonstrates how Jim resists the kind of masculinity that became hegemonic in the 1950s. Cold War masculinity is best typified, Corber suggests, by what sociologists called "the organization man," the corporate worker who "depended less on personal ambition and individual initiative than on respect for authority, loyalty to one's superiors, and an ability to get along with others--all qualities traditionally associated with femininity" (6). It is certainly true that Jim loathes organization men, as Corber's deft reading of Jim's strained relationship with his own father (the epitome of the organization man) demonstrates. But as Corber himself points out, many US men in the Cold War era resisted the rise of organization man masculinity precisely because it was understood to be feminizing. The mode of masculinity that Jim rejects in The City and the Pillar is thus a mode he sees as suspiciously feminized. Jim adopts a marginalized masculinity--and is attracted to men who embody this--precisely because he sees it as a genuine, truly masculine alternative to the feminized mode of organization man masculinity. Jim's rejection of organization man masculinity is thus actually yet another instance of his rejecting what he perceives as feminine.

There is much to honor about The City and the Pillar, especially its pioneering representation of homosexuality and its efforts to detach homosexuality from mental illness. At a time when mainstream US culture was deeply hostile to both homosexuality and effeminacy, it worked hard to redefine homosexuality in a more positive light. But we shouldn't lose sight of how it undertook this redefinition by further denigrating effeminacy.

Giovanni's Room: truth from the mouths of flaming princesses

Like Jim Willard, David, the protagonist of Giovanni's Room, is a straight-acting gay man. As a teenager, David enjoys his first sexual experience with a boy named Joey, but wakes the next morning to find that his own body "suddenly seemed gross and crushing" and his desire for Joey "seemed monstrous" (9). Most importantly, he fears that desiring other men will destroy his own masculinity: "above all, I was suddenly afraid. It was borne in on me: But Joey is a boy ... [his] body seemed the black opening of a cavern in which I would be tortured till madness came, in which I would lose my manhood." This pattern--attraction to other men, sex with them, shame, fear, and denial of same-sex attraction until it eventually reoccurs--repeats itself throughout David's adult life.

Unlike Jim Willard, David has sex with women. Finding himself in Paris after the end of World War II and his discharge from the Army, David is on the verge of marrying Hella, an American woman. But when Hella leaves on a long trip to Spain, David finds himself alone under "under a foreign sky, with no one to watch, no penalties attached" (5) and drifts back towards Paris's gay subculture. In The City and the Pillar, Jim Willard distances himself mentally from LA's gay subculture even as he participates in it, and David makes the same move in Paris:
   Most of the people I knew in Paris were, as Parisians sometimes put
   it, of le milieu [the city's gay subculture] and, while this milieu
   was certainly anxious enough to claim me, I was intent on proving,
   to them and to myself, that I was not of their company. I did this
   by being in their company a great deal and manifesting towards all
   of them a tolerance which placed me, I believed, above suspicion.

David attempts to have it both ways: he wants to play the role of the cosmopolitan straight man who is worldly enough not to mind gay men and gay bars, but who certainly isn't gay himself.

His struggling to keep his mental distance from the gay subculture in which he is increasingly participating in has everything to do with David's fear and loathing of men who have sex with men. Describing a Parisian gay bar, David says that its clientele is made up of three types, "the usual, knife-blade lean, tight-trousered boys" who work as male prostitutes, the "paunchy, bespeckled gentlemen with avid, sometimes despairing eyes" who solicit them, and "les folks," extremely effeminate gay men who "always dressed in the most improbable combinations ... always called each other 'she' ... [and] looked like a peacock garden and sounded like a barnyard" (27). In David's eyes effeminate men are either criminal (the prostitutes), pathetic (the men soliciting the prostitutes), or sub-human (the animalistic les folks, whose name means either lunatic or buffoon). From the point of view of middle-class, white, presumably-heterosexual manhood--which is to say from David's point of view--none of these roles are acceptable.

David thus finds himself in the same dilemma that Jim Willard does in The City and the Pillar: He is sexually attracted to men, which draws him towards gay culture, but as he sees it all available forms of identity based around same-sex desire involve renunciations of his manhood. Identifying with any category based on same-sex desire would, he thinks, involve going back to that "black opening of a cavern" that he sensed the morning after his first same-sex experience, the cavern "in which I would lose my manhood" (9). David wants to sleep with men, but he wants to do so while retaining the privilege that comes along with being a middle-class white man.

That Baldwin was African American while all characters in Giovanni's Room are white has been a stumbling block for some critics but a point of origin for some compelling readings of the novel. Summarizing older critical response to the novel, Marlon Ross observes that: "While the novel has gained a central place in (white) gay culture and is often a focus of (white) gay studies, in the context of African American literary and cultural studies, historically it has been alternatingly dismissed or ignored altogether, stumblingly acknowledged or viciously attacked" (16). A number of more recent readings (Ross's most certainly among them) have, however, engaged the operation of both race and sexuality in the novel in fascinating ways. (11)

Trudier Harris demonstrates that blackness actually functions as a very present absence in "Baldwin's so-called raceless novel" (18), arguing that David, "without specific references to black people, or any encounters with them, uses the terminology of the cultural myths attached to them to define what he envisions as being outside, filthy, and dirty if he were to give in to his homosexual proclivities" (24). This is why, for example, David's imagination figures homosexuality as a "black opening of a cavern." David behaves throughout the novel like a plantation master, Harris suggests, using the bodies of women and darker men (Giovanni is Italian, and noticeably darker than David) for his pleasure in private without ever treating them as equals in public. Robert Reid-Pharr's reading of Giovanni's Room agrees that "the question of blackness, precisely because of its very apparent absence, screams out at the turn of every page" (125) and notes that David constantly tries "to claim both Giovanni's labor power and his sex ... [Giovanni is] at once both the brutalized black male slave and the sexualized black female slave" (129). Harris and Reid-Pharr thus help to illuminate the ways David's attachment to a "pure" masculinity unsullied by even the hint of femininity is connected to his attachment to a "pure" whiteness that allows him to use and abandon darker bodies without being tainted by them.

Despite his obsession with such purity, David has to make adjustments. Down on his luck financially, David calls on Jacques, "an aging, Belgian-born, American businessman" known locally for "his big apartment, his well-meant promises, his whiskey, his marijuana, [and] his orgies" (23). David is mildly revolted by the effeminate Jacques, but in desperate need of money, he is willing to play on Jacques's attraction to him, flirting slightly with Jacques in exchange for his loaning him money and buying him dinner and drinks.

It is in Jacques's company that David enters a gay bar and meets Giovanni, a beautiful Italian bartender. David is unable to resist his attraction to Giovanni; the two of them hit it off immediately, go to an after-hours club and then to the shabby room Giovanni rents, where they have sex for the first time. In the weeks that follow, David and Giovanni live together openly. But living with another man does nothing to assuage David's dread of effeminacy. In fact, being with Giovanni aggravates it. Throughout their time together, David worries about his masculine identity; the paradox of how to both be a man and be with one consumes his thoughts. For a brief time, David tries to resolve this dilemma by embracing a traditionally feminine role: "I invented in myself a kind of pleasure in playing the housewife after Giovanni had gone to work" (88). But this pleasure does not last, and he soon concludes: "I am not a housewife--men never can be housewives."

Eventually, when Hella returns to Paris, David sees a relationship with her as a means of reclaiming heteronormative masculinity, and decides his relationship with Giovanni "would be something that had happened to me once" (94). Even though when he daydreams "the face that glowed insistently before [him] was not her face but his" (95), David chooses the appearance of heteronormative masculinity over the reality of his love for Giovanni: "I hoped to burn out, through Hella, my image of Giovanni and the reality of his touch" (122). In doing so, he chooses the privilege that white middle-class masculinity provides, the privilege of normality. The stakes of this choice are made explicit when, unable to sleep, David roams around Paris, agonizing about whether he should be with Hella or with Giovanni. As he roams, David looks at middle-class French houses where
   the French nation was clearing away the dishes, putting little
   Jean-Pierre and Marie to bed, scowling over the eternal problems
   of the sou, the shop, the church, the unsteady State. Those
   walls, those shuttered windows held them in and protected them
   against the darkness and the long moan of this night. Ten years
   hence, little Jean Pierre or Marie might find themselves out here
   beside the river and wonder, like me, how they had fallen out of
   the web of safety. What a long way, I thought, I've come--to be
   destroyed.... I wanted children. I wanted to be inside again, with
   the light and the safety, with my manhood unquestioned, watching
   my woman put my children to bed. (104)

David loves Giovanni, but being with him means being expelled from "the web of safety" afforded by white middle-class heteronormative masculinity. To be a man inside this web is to be in power, a patriarch (David fantasizes about "my woman" and "my children"). But to find oneself outside of this web, is to be worse than powerless; it is, for David, to be invisible, unthinkable. Unable to locate himself outside the safety of "normality," he leaves Giovanni and makes plans to marry Hella.

During his breakup with Giovanni, David's words reveal his fundamental attachment to appearing masculine and thus normal. "What kind of life can two men have together, anyway?" (142), he asks Giovanni, and accuses Giovanni of wanting to feminize him:
   All this love you talk about--isn't it just that you want to be
   made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer
   and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and
   wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable
   closet of a room and kiss you when you come through that door
   and lie with you at night and be your little girl.

The climactic, italicized "girl" makes clear that for David there is no position more unbearable than being feminine. When Giovanni responds that he is "not trying to make you a little girl. If I wanted a little girl, I would be with a little girl," David cannot hear him. "I'm a man," David says, "a man! What do you think can happen between us?" Although Giovanni can imagine an answer to that question, David cannot.

In abandoning him, David confirms Giovanni's accusation that David has never "loved anyone," because he "want[s] to be clean" (141): "You think you came here covered with soap," Giovanni continues, "and you think you will go out covered with soap--and you do not want to stink, not even for five minutes, in the meantime." Giovanni is talking here about sex, but David is concerned less with sexual purity per se than with the purity of his gender performance and the way others perceive it. David leaves Giovanni not because they have sex, but because living openly with him imperils what Jacques earlier calls "that immaculate manhood which is [David's] pride and joy" (30).

David's abandonment of him sets Giovanni into a downward spiral. Finally when Guillaume, the gay bar owner, is found murdered, Giovanni is charged with the murder, quickly convicted, and sentenced to execution. Hearing this, David grows distant from Hella and returns to gay bars; when Hella finds him in one and ends their relationship. David has thus damaged both of his potential partners. Chronologically, the book actually ends where it begins: David's narration starts on the night before Giovanni's execution, and most of the book is narrated with David looking back on his actions, from a position where he can realize how his attachments to heteronormative masculinity and whiteness have proved so destructive.

This realization marks a major difference between David and Jim Willard. Similarly, where in The City and the Pillar effeminate men remain targets for hostility, in Giovanni's Room they often serve as the voice of truth, routinely shattering David's self-deceptions. When it becomes clear that David and Giovanni are attracted to one another, Jacques tells David, "[Giovanni] is very fond of you.... But this doesn't make you happy or proud, as it should. It makes you frightened and ashamed" (56). And he urges David to renounce that shame:
   "Love him," said Jacques, with vehemence, "love him and let him
   love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?
   And how long, at the best, can it last? since you are both
   men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure
   you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas!, in the dark. And
   if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty--they will
   be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising
   your flesh and his. But you can make your time together
   anything but dirty; you can give each other something which
   will make both of you better--forever--if you will not be
   ashamed, if you will only not play it safe." (57)

Offered by an aging, effeminate queen David considers repulsive, these words are the very antithesis of Jim Willard's dismissal of the idea of the love between men in The City and the Pillar. Jacques asserts not only that love between men exists, but that it is transformative, a redemptive force, "something which will make both of you better--forever." And anything which would name it otherwise--including straight-acting gay identities which dismiss love between men as being overly feminine--partakes of the wider societal homophobia working to erase love between men or name it as shameful.

In The City and the Pillar, love between men is precisely what Jim Willard loathes. Defining it as impossible, he has to name his desire for Bob Ford with another word altogether. Where Vidal's novel represents Jim as normal precisely because he is masculine, in Giovanni's Room, David's clinging attachments to both heteronormative masculinity and to whiteness are finally severely condemned. Giovanni's Room is "not so much about homosexuality," Baldwin suggests in a 1980 interview, as it is about Baldwin about "what happens if you are so afraid that you finally cannot love anybody." (Binder 206). Jim Willard and David think rejecting effeminacy means that they are strong, but Baldwin's novel represents the fear of effeminacy as a kind of cowardice.

Prior to the publication of Giovanni's Room, Baldwin had already condemned American men's attachment to hypermasculinity in general, mentioning The City and the Pillar in particular. In his "Preservation of Innocence"--published in 1949, a year after The City and the Pillar and seven years before Giovanni's Room--he finds that the idea that "men must recapture their status as men and that women must embrace their function as women" manifests a "rigidity of attitude" that puts "to death any possible communion" between people (597). "Having once listed the bald physical facts," Baldwin argues, "no one is prepared to go further and decide, of our multiple human attributes, which are masculine and which are feminine." To recognize "this complexity" is, Baldwin says, "the signal of maturity; it marks the death of the child and the birth of the man."

To Baldwin's dismay, the popular detective fiction of the 1940s catered to an attachment to rigid gender roles by giving America "that mindless monster, the tough guy" (597). And in such fiction, sinister homosexuals always come to "sordid and bloody end[s]" in order to protect the "immaculate manliness" (599) of the tough guy hero. Worse, Baldwin suggests, so many novels "concerned with homosexuality" replicate this very move, their gay protagonists meeting violent ends so the threat their gayness poses to the innocence of American masculinity can be nullified. Baldwin mentions The City and the Pillar in this context, observing that its ending, like the violent endings of other novels about homosexuals, is "compelled by a panic which is close to madness" (599) and that such novels "are wholly unable to recreate or interpret any of the reality or complexity of human experience" (600). Baldwin's critique of Vidal's novel here is focused on its violent ending, which, as I've argued, is triggered by Jim's rigid attachment to a very narrow definition of masculinity. It is this rigid attachment--this preoccupation with preserving an "immaculate manhood" untainted by even a hint of the feminine--Baldwin names as a pathology, first in "Preservation of Innocence" and later in Giovanni's Room.

If maintaining immaculate manhood is the central preoccupation of straight-acting gay masculinity, the present absence of blackness throughout Giovanni's Room reminds us that immaculate masculinity is necessarily enmeshed in conceptions of immaculate whiteness. In Baldwins work, as McBride reminds us, "whenever we are speaking of race, we are always already speaking about gender, sexuality, and class" ("Straight" 58), but that equation is reversible. Masculinity and whiteness both define normative states, prized by the straight-acting gay man in a bid to offset the ostensible abnormality of his sexuality. Baldwin critiques Vidal's novel on just this score, just as he holds to account his own protagonist's allegiance to dominant cultural categories of normality.

As an African American reared under American segregation, Baldwin knew all too well that an investment in racial, or gender "purity" is a phobic reaction to what is perceived as impure. Just as the myth of white purity requires the myth of the black male beast (and his exorcism through the violence of lynching), Baldwin knew that the myth of masculine purity requires its own abjected inverse: the faggot, the queer, the sissy. Thus, as Mae Henderson argues, Giovanni's Room illuminates how "the creation of the authentically (hypo)masculine national subject necessitates the production of the inauthentic, sterile, effeminate, non(re) productive homosexual subject" (302)--an abjected subject prompting in ostensibly normal men the exorcising violence of homosexual panic. While Vidal presents Jim Willard as fully human and worthy of respect precisely because his masculinity is pure and untainted, then, the mess Baldwin's David makes of his life indicts both the desire for purity inherent in straight-acting gay male identity and the violence inherent in that desire.

In Giovanni's Room, this critique comes out of the mouth of queens. As we've seen, Jacques is the one with the courage to tell David to love Giovanni, but he is hardly the only effeminate man in the novel with wisdom and insight. Guillaume, the gay bar owner, for example, warns Giovanni that David is "just an American boy, after all, doing things in France which [he] would not dare to do at home, and that [he] would leave [Giovanni] very soon" (108), a prediction that sadly turns out to be true. Similarly insightful is another effeminate man David encounters in the gay bar the night he meets Giovanni. David's description of this queen manifests his disgust but also suggests the man's power:
   It looked like a mummy or a zombie ... it walked on its toes,
   the flat hips moved with a dead, horrifying lasciviousness.... It
   glittered in the dim light; the thin, black hair was violent with
   oil, combed forward, hanging in the bangs; the eyelids gleamed
   with mascara, the mouth raged with lipstick. The face was white
   and thoroughly bloodless with some kind of foundation cream;
   it stank of powder and a gardenia-like perfume. The shirt, open
   coquettishly to the navel, revealed a hairless chest and a silver
   crucifix; the shirt was covered with round, paper-thin wafers,
   red and green and orange and yellow and blue, which stormed
   in the light and made one feel that the mummy might, at any
   moment, disappear in flame. A red sash was around the waist, the
   clinging pants were a surprisingly somber grey. He wore buckles
   on his shoes.... His hands, I noticed, with an unbelieving shock,
   were very large and strong ... he did not seem real. (39)

Loathing the man's effeminacy, David initially refuses to acknowledge him as human, seeing the queen as an "it" rather than as a "he," a mummy or a zombie, rather than a person. And David is clearly revolted by the feminine details of the man's styling. Although David associates effeminacy with weakness, with the passivity of a mummy or a zombie, his descriptive language at the same time associates the man's effeminacy with an intense, possibly dangerous power. The queen's hair is "violent with oil," his mouth "raged with lipstick," and the decorative wafers on his shirt "stormed in the light," threatening to burst into flame.

The queen's fascinating power is not limited to matters of styling. Like Jacques and Guillaume, he is able to read David, to know him better than David knows himself. Unbidden, the queen engages David in conversation, warning him that Giovanni is "very dangerous" for a "for a boy like you" (40). Shocked by both the queen's appearance and his conversational boldness, David tells him to "Go to hell," and the queen offers a prophetic reply:
   "Oh, no," he said, "I go not to hell," and he clutched his crucifix
   with one large hand. "But you, my dear friend--I fear that you
   shall burn in a very hot fire.... You will be very unhappy.
   Remember that I told you so." And he straightened, as though he
   were a princess and moved, flaming, away through the crowd.

In Giovanni's Room, then, it is the cadre of queens and les folles and flaming princesses who see and speak the high price of "immaculate" manhood. While its straight-acting protagonist rejects what he sees as their weakness, it is these effeminate men in the novel who are strong enough to be honest about who and what they are, even in the face of a massively homophobic and heteronormative culture.

Works cited

Adams, Stephen. The Homosexual as Hero in Contemporary Fiction. London: Vision, 1980.

Austen, Roger. Playing the Game: Hie Homosexual Novel in America. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1977.

Baldwin, James. Giovanni's Room. 1956. New York: Dell, 2000.

--. "Preservation of Innocence." 1949. James Baldwin: Collected Essays. New York: Library of America, 1998. 594-600.

Behrendt, Jorg. Homosexuality in the Work of Gore Vidal. Hamburg, Germany: Lit Verlag, 2002.

Binder, Wolfgang. "James Baldwin, an Interview." Conversations with James Baldwin. Ed. Fred L. Stanley and Louis H. Pratt. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 1989.190-209.

Bronski, Michael. Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic, 1994.

Clarke, Gerald. "The Art of Fiction L: Gore Vidal." Conversations with Gore Vidal. Ed. Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole. Jackson: UP of Mississippi. 36-59.

Clarkson, Jay. '"Everyday Joe' versus 'Pissy, Bitchy, Queens': Gay Masculinity on" Journal of Men's Studies. 14.2 (2006): 191-207.

Corber, Robert J. Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity. Durham: Duke UP, 1997.

Cory, Donald Webster. The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach. 1951. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Ferguson, Roderick A. "The Parvenu Baldwin and the Other Side of Redemption: Modernity, Race, Sexuality, and the Cold War." McBride. 233-61.

Fone, Byrne R.S., ed. The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature: Readings from Western Antiquity to the Present Day. New York: Columbia UP, 1998.

Gifford, James. Dayneford's Library: American Homosexual Writing, 1900-1913. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1995.

Harris, Trudier. "Slanting the Truth: Homosexuality, Manhood, and Race in James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room." South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2002.18-30.

Henderson, Mae G. "James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room: Expatriation, 'Racial Drag,' and Homosexual Panic." Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology. Ed. E. Patrick Johnson and Mae G. Henderson. Durham: Duke UP, 2005. 298-322.

Holland, Sharon Patricia. "(Pro)Creating Imaginative Spaces and Other Queer Acts: Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits and its Revival of James Baldwin's Absent Black Gay Man in Giovanni's Room." McBride. 265-88.

Howard, John. Men Like That: A Southern Queer History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Levin, James. The Gay Novel in America. New York: Garland, 1991.

McBride, Dwight A., ed. James Baldwin Now. New York: New York UP, 1999.

--. "Straight Black Studies." Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality. New York: New York UP, 2005. 35-58.

Peabody, Richard, and Lucinda Ebersole, eds. Conversations with Gore Vidal. Jackson: U of Mississippi P, 2005.

Pease, Donald E. "Citizen Vidal and Mailer's America." Raritan 11.4 (1992): 72-98.

Reid-Pharr, Robert F. "Tearing the Goat's Flesh: Homosexuality, Abjection, and the Production of a Late-Twentieth-Century Black Masculinity." Black Gay Man: Essays. New York: New York UP, 2001. 99-134.

Ross, Marlon B. "White Fantasies of Desire: Baldwin and the Racial Identities of Sexuality." McBride 13-55.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: U of California P, 1990.

--. "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys." Tendencies. Durham: Duke UP, 1993. 154-64.

Slide, Anthony. Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2003.

Summers, Claude J. "Sagarin, Edward (Donald Webster Cory) (1913-1986)." glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. 2004. 23 May 2012.

Vidal, Gore. The City and the Pillar. New York: Dutton, 1948.

--. The City and the Pillar. 1965. New York: Vintage, 2003.

--. Introduction. The City and The Pillar. 1965. New York: Vintage, 2003. xi-xix.

--. Palimpsest: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1995.

Walter, Eugene. "Conversations with Gore Vidal." Peabody and Ebersole 3-15.


(1.) Vidal originally intended the book to end with rape, but his publisher insisted on murder. The change from murder to rape in Vidal's revised 1965 edition thus restores his original intention for the novel. For more information on The City and The Pillars publication history, see Byrne Fone, 690-91.

(2.) Chauncey's study focuses on New York City, but the mid-twentieth-century transition between sexual classification regimes was not limited to New York, the North, or even to large urban centers. Historian John Howard, studying Mississippi from roughly the end of World War II to the dawn of the AIDS crisis, finds that "throughout the twentieth century, queer sexuality continued to be understood as both acts and identities, behaviors and beings" (xviii). Howard does not suggest that the normal man/fairy dichotomy Chauncey describes existed in mid-twentieth century Mississippi, but his work does indicate that some men felt that having sex with men was an exterior sign of an interior essence called a sexuality, while other men understood same-sex sexual encounters as isolated incidents of behavior which had little to do with their identity or lasting sense of self.

(3.) Unless otherwise indicated, all citations from The City and the Pillar are taken from the revised 1965 edition.

(4.) Far from being a mere sub-cultural curiosity, the straight-acting gay man is, for some scholars of sexuality, central to their understanding of contemporary male homosexuality. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick points out that for many scholars of sexuality, "what is presumed to define modern homosexuality 'as we understand it'" is the "straight-acting and--appearing gay male," a figure marked by his stark "gender intransitivity" (46). And in "How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay," she points out that the straight-acting gay man has been central to what she calls "revisionist psychoanalysis, including ego psychology" (155) in the US since 1973. That is, since 1973, the American Psychiatric Association has no longer classified homosexuality as a mental illness, but it has continued to classify effeminacy as an unhealthy disorder: "Revisionist analysts seem prepared to like some gay men, but the healthy homosexual is one who ... acts masculine" (156). Furthermore, Sedgwick argues that this valorization of the straight-acting gay man has also been foundational to many modes of gay liberationist politics. In working for the "depathologization of an atypical sexual object-choice" (homosexuality), that is, some gay men have also participated in the "new pathologization of an atypical gender identification" (effeminacy); Sedgwick argues that this move pursues the normalization of homosexuality at the expense of the continued stigmatization of effeminacy (158).

(5.) For more on the history of American writing concerned with male-male desire before the 1948 publication of The City and the Pillar, see Austen, Bronski, Fone, Gifford, Levin, and Slide.

(6.) For more on the reception of The City and the Pillar by gay critics and literary historians, see Austen: "Only with the publication of Vidal's The City and the Pillar in 1948 did there emerge a main character whose gayness was not camouflaged by his being too young, too old, sexually ambivalent, frightened, silly, or pathological. Though hesitant to admit it to himself, Jim Willard turns out to be definitively gay, and thus The City and the Pillar is the most forthright novel of the decade" (118); Levin: "Vidal's status made it impossible for critics to ignore this novel as they had previous ones in which homosexual behavior was central" (75-76); Adams: the novel's "'lurid' reputation assured it the status of a best-seller, thus making it one of the first homosexual novels to reach a vast audience" (15); and Fone (690-91).

(7.) For a discussion of the ways in which same-sex desire had been highly visible (and often well-integrated into wider heterosexual culture) in New York City as early as the late nineteenth century, see Chauncey, in particular, his twelfth chapter, which details how a vibrant and visible gay culture was systematically excluded from the city's public life beginning in the 1930s. For more on the history of gay and lesbian identity formation and the histories of American homophobia, see D'Emilio, and Howard.

(8.) For Vidal's views on same-sex desire; his now infamous claim that there are no homosexuals, only homosexual acts; and his lifelong erotic fascination with twins, see Behrendt, especially pp. 45-60.

(9.) "Donald Webster Cory" was the pen-name of Dr. Edward Sagarin (1913-1986), a professor of sociology and criminology whom Claude Summers calls "the Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde of the American homophile movement." Sagarin was a member of the Matachine Society, and his The Homosexual in America anticipated "the change of consciousness and the collective response among homosexuals that would not fully materialize until after the Stonewall Riots of 1969" (Summers). But in the 1960s, Sagarin parted ways with more liberal activists who rejected the idea that homosexuals were inherently sick. For more on Sagarin's life, see Summers.

(10.) This fight about whether Jim does or does not hate women does not occur in the revised 1965 edition of the novel. In its place is a breakup scene in which Sullivan tells Jim "there is something wrong with two men living together, a man and a woman too, for that matter. Unless they have children, it's pointless" (178). Jim agrees, saying "We're too selfish," and the two men part ways (179).

(11.) In addition to Ross's reading of Giovanni's Room, also see Ferguson; Henderson; Holland; McBride, "Straight Black Studies"; and Reid-Pharr.
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Date:Dec 22, 2013
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