10 most hated books.
For more than a hundred years, authors who have dared to write openly about homosexuality have faced book banning, public censure, and obscenity trials. The opposition is just as real today as it was in Walt Whitman's time, when his vividly homoerotic collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, was banned in Boston in 1881. The district attorney called it "obscene." Of course, it went on to be accepted as a literary masterwork. But Leaves of Grass is still vulnerable to censorship in 1997, not in the courts but in schools and libraries, where the prosecutors aren't lawyers but teachers and parents and their buzzword isn't obscene but inappropriate.
Censorship has grown epidemic over the past 20 years. There are hundreds of titles listed in the Chicago-based American Library Association's yearly Banned Books Resource Guide, including dozens of gay or gay-themed books that have lately suffered bannings. What's surprising is how many of them are now considered classics, in both gay and mainstream culture. Here are ten of those banned books. This is not a definitive list of works but rather a sampling of (mostly) novels that have been key to the emergence of a gay culture and tradition in America. The important thing to remember is that they've all been attacked, either in the courtroom or, more recently, the classroom.
1. LEAVES OF GRASS
It's easy to see now how Whitman must have shocked his Victorian-era readers with poems such as "Spontaneous Me," in which he celebrates "love-thoughts, love-juice, love-odor, love-yielding, love-climbers, and the climbing sap." In fact, New England critic, orator, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson tried to talk Whitman into dropping some passages, including "the limpid liquid within the young man." Whitman refused to change a word. So he battled with publishers, including the Boston company that issued the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. When the local district attorney got nervous, Whitman withdrew the book. Later he found a sympathetic publisher in Philadelphia, where, because of the Boston publicity, his poems sold like crazy.
2. THE WELL Of LONELINESS
British novelist Radclyffe Hall, a lesbian herself, studied early-20th-century sexual psychologist Havelock Ellis in order to write her 1928 novel of lesbian love. It was a cult success and a public scandal. "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel," one London critic wrote. He wasn't angered by Hall's purple prose but rather by her tale of "tragic invert" Stephen Gordon, a "mannish" woman who has helpless crushes on women and horses and who sees herself as a Christlike figure of sacrifice for all homosexuals. "Rockets of pain," she thinks, "shot up and burst, dropping scorching tears of fire on the spirit--her pain, all welded together into one great consuming agony."
That doesn't sound very sexy. Yet at Hall's obscenity trial the prosecuting attorney said "a pure woman" or a teenage boy reading about marriage between women would surrender to "libidinous thoughts." After the book was banned in England, Hall lost her first American publisher, though her second fought and eventually won an obscenity trial.
In America, Gordon was reviled not so much as lesbian but rather as "thwarted in the development of her emotional life." That might have pleased Virginia Woolf, who along with fellow Bloomsbury group novelist and discreet homosexual E.M. Forster testified in support of Hall's book. Privately, however, Forster said that lesbianism disgusted him, and Woolf called lesbians, dismissively, "these people." Of course, she was having a love affair with writer Vita Sackville-West at the time, and using her as the model for the ambisexual hero/heroine of her gender-bending novel Orlando.
3. THE CITY AND THE PILLAR
Gore Vidal's third novel is about a preppy-boy tennis pro who just happens to have sex with guys on two coasts. It came out in 1948, after Vidal had already impressed the New York literary establishment with his first book, Williwaw, one of the first World War II novels. Williwaw made him famous and got his photograph in Life magazine. No one noticed when his second book, In a Yellow Wood, about Manhattan's publishing world, hinted at homosexuality. But The City and the Pillar shocked everyone, not just because the clean-cut war-hero novelist wrote about gay sex but because he treated homosexuality as simply an activity rather than a personality trait.
"I wanted," Vidal says, in an afterword to the 1965 reissue of the novel, to "show the 'naturalness' of homosexual relations, as well as making the point that there is of course no such thing as a homosexual." The word homosexual, he writes, "is an adjective describing a sexual action, not a noun describing a recognizable type." Nonetheless, critics responded to the book as if it were an advertisement in favor of fags. Vidal didn't face obscenity trials or public burnings, but he later claimed that he was unable to get New York critics to review his next several books. It was de facto censorship. Unable to make a living writing novels, he went to Hollywood and worked on Ben-Hur, where he helped give the film's script a homosexual subtext.
4. HOWL AND OTHER POEMS
Radical boy-loving Buddhist poet Allen Ginsberg was openly gay before the term was invented. Born in 1926 in Newark, N.J., he figured out he was homosexual by the time he went to New York City's Columbia University in the early 1940s. He was briefly the lover of Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarity, the presumably heterosexual hero of fellow beat writer Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road. (According to Ginsberg, he also had sex with Kerouac, under Manhattan's West Side Highway.) When Howl and Other Poems was published in 1956, Ginsberg was 30. But he eulogized a generation that had crashed and burned while still in its 20s, including men "who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy." Copies of the book were seized by the San Francisco police, and Ginsberg faced a trial on obscenity charges. The judge found in Ginsberg's favor, saying, "I do not believe that Howl is without redeeming social importance." Of course, the trial made the book, and Ginsberg, famous, and Kerouac complained that people now referred to him as "the guy Howls dedicated to."
5. NAKED LUNCH
William S. Burroughs, another of Ginsberg's lovers--and author of numerous stories, screeds, and stunning monologues--is most famous for this 1959 novel about junkies and gay thugs and the per verse rhythms of Burroughs's mind. It first appeared in segments in 1958 in the Chicago Review, a literary journal backed by the University of Chicago. The second excerpt so upset a Chicago gossip columnist that he ran a column against it. Maybe he was responding to sentences such as "Sharp protein odor of semen fills the air" and to this paragraph: "Two boys jacking off under railroad bridge. The train shakes through their bodies, ejaculate them, fades with distant whistle. Frogs croak. The boys wash semen off lean brown stomachs." That's not too far from Whitman. But the university canceled future installments, and after that it was difficult for Burroughs to find an American publisher. So the book first came out in Paris in 1959. When it was finally published in this country, in 1962, Burroughs was tried on obscenity charges in Los Angeles in 1965 and soon thereafter in Boston. Burroughs won both trials.
6. ANOTHER COUNTRY
James Baldwin hardly wrote a book that hasn't been banned, denounced, censored, tried for obscenity, dismissed as smut, or accused of propagating race hatred. As a homosexual and the most famous African-American essayist for nearly 30 years following World War II, he was doubly scrutinized. His best-known "gay" book, Giovanni's Room, is about an American man engaged to be married who falls in love with an Italian barman in Paris. It appeared in 1956 and met with surprisingly little public outcry. Another Country, published in 1962, was more controversial, however, even though it's less explicitly gay. It follows the reactions of five people of various races, classes, and sexual impulses to a young man's death. Scenes of interracial and homosexual sex inflamed readers in New Orleans, where it was banned from public libraries in 1963. The book was returned to the shelves only after a year of legal battles. But Baldwin continued to get letters from readers like a Montana State University teacher who in 1968 said he'd been called a "smut peddler" for assigning the novel to his students.
It may seem odd to follow Baldwin with an early-20th-century British novelist like Forster. But Forster's "homosexual" novel was first published in 1971, when Baldwin's career had passed its height and a. year after Forster's death. The story of a love affair between an upper-middle-class British man and a gamekeeper, Maurice was written in 1913. Forster knew better than to publish it, however, especially considering how Oscar Wilde had been imprisoned for homosexuality in 1895. So in an act of self-censorship Forster withheld the book. Ironically, Maurice had as hard a time in the 1990s in New England as it might have had in England during Forster's life time. In 1995 the school board in New Ipswich, N.H., fired a high school English teacher for refusing to drop this and another book from a class reading list. So Forster's work has been subjected to a new wave in censorship, when books are spared public obscenity trials but are just as effectively prohibited in the more private arena of classrooms and libraries.
8. THE EDUCATION OF HARRIET HATFIELD
May Sarton is probably best known to gay men and lesbians for an earlier novel, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing which was published in 1965. It's about Hilary Stevens, a 70-year-old poet and novelist who has loved both men and women and who befriends a young man, her gardener, who confides his homosexuality. But Mrs. Stevens created less furor in the mid '60s than Harriet Hatfield did in the mid '90s: It was the other book involved in the firing of the New Hampshire teacher.
Harriet Hatfield was Sarton's last novel, published in 1989, six years before her death. It deals with a 60-year-old woman who opens a feminist bookstore in Boston and tries to bridge the gap between the gay and straight communities. Harriet is hardly as threatening to readers as the raging queers of Ginsberg's and Burroughs's work or even as avid as Hall's lesbian martyr, Stephen Gordon. Indeed, Harriet rejects the term lesbian because, she says, it "seems primarily sexual." At its harshest the book is conciliatory. Still, it was too provocative for some parents in New Hampshire, and it was banned along with Maurice because of its gay content.
9. THE COLOR PURPLE
Though Alice Walker isn't considered a "gay" writer, her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel is at least in part a love story between two women. Though their affair was notoriously muted in Steven Spielberg's 1985 movie version--and though in the book they engage in the tamest imaginable sex scenes--Walker's novel has caused more public controversy than almost any other recent work of fiction. In 1984 it was challenged as inappropriate reading for an Oakland, Calif., high school honors class because of its "sexual and social explicitness"--surely code words for, among other things, homosexual content. Hayward, Calif., school trustees rejected it in 1985 because of language and "explicit sex scenes." It has been fought as inappropriate for high school children in Connecticut, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming and challenged on a school reading list in Florida as recently as 1995.
10. MICHAEL WILLHOITE'S DADDY'S ROOMMATE, AND LESLEA NEWMAN'S GLORIA GOES TO GAY PRIDE AND HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES
Here are books that reflect a new era, both in the way in which kids are affected by books about gay characters and in public resistance to them. Willhoite's and Newman's books are written for grammar school-aged children. They show regular moms and dads who happen to be gay going about their daily business. With the possible exception of Gloria Goes to Gay Pride, in which Gloria meets homosexuals in a festive mood, the books' gay people are so low-key as to seem innocuous. Perhaps that's what is so stirring to school boards in those parts of the country where the books have been repeatedly rejected as "inappropriate" for grammar-school reading lists. Willhoite's and Newman's writing takes the radical step of showing that homosexuality can be dull. It comes full circle from Whitman's queer raptures.
If you follow the course of this list from Leaves of Grass to Daddy's Roommate, you'll see how the "banned book" about homosexual love has changed from a parlor-room shocker about sensuality to an apparently bland playroom text about learning how different people live. And just as the offending text has changed, so has the campaign against it, from state obscenity trials to local Parent-Teacher Association meetings.
"The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book," Whitman said in 1860, little imagining how radically social standards of what is "dirty" would change. What was obscene is now "inappropriate." And what startles now is not Whitman's dripping "love-sap" or Hall's plea, "Give us also the right to our existence," or Ginsberg's "ass of lone delight" but simply the aspect of three women, two moms and a little girl, sitting around a kitchen table eating breakfast.
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|Title Annotation:||gay and lesbian literature censorship|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Jun 24, 1997|
|Previous Article:||Staying in focus.|
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