America through a Gay Glass, Darkly

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The American PeopleThe American People Volume One:
Search for My Heart

by Larry Kramer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
775 pages, $40.

 

Larry Kramer’s first novel, Faggots, appeared in 1978. Its hero was a sleek gay hunk named Fred Lemish. On the eve of his fortieth birthday, Fred embarks on a quest. He makes the rounds of New York City’s sleazier hot spots—the baths, the kink clubs—to find as much sex as he can before tipping symbolically into middle age. But this isn’t what Fred really wants. He’s tired of mindless sex. In fact, he yearns for romance. Fred wants to settle down with a particular guy he likes, and lead a life of domestic tranquility.

Faggots sold like hotcakes. Heterosexuals saw it as exotic anthropology, many gays enjoyed the attention, and everyone gasped at the lurid sex scenes. But a sizable chunk of the gay public hated the story’s moralistic tone. Who was Kramer to pass judgment on those exercising newfound sexual freedoms? Some of his friends shunned him. The local grocery on Fire Island declared him a persona non grata; acquaintances crossed the street to avoid saying hello.

Then the plague hit. The gay world darkened. And Larry Kramer became a prophet.

He went to work on his second novel, and time passed. Reports surfaced every now and then: the new book was to be titled The American People. It was about AIDS, and it was about the exclusion of gays from history books. More time passed, but the project remained a mystery. The only fact anyone seemed to know for sure: it would be a tome.

Almost four decades after Kramer’s novelistic debut, his follow-up has at last arrived—part of it, that is. Search for My Heart is Volume One of the two-volume The American People. At 880 pages it is indeed a fatty. Fred Lemish reappears as the protagonist. Once again he takes the reader on a sex tour, this time with a wider focus. Fred has become an expert on the history of sex in North America. He begins with monkeys in prehistoric Florida and closes with carnal politics in 1950s Washington, D.C. He is telling the story of “the underlying condition,” also known as the AIDS virus. But it isn’t just a medical tale.

Search for My Heart tackles the primordial American theme of assimilation. This is Great American Novel territory, a saga of outsiders working their way in. They’re homosexuals, these outsiders, along with Jews and others. It’s not a success story, I’m afraid. It’s a struggle: a guts-splattered phantasmagoria of loathing and murder, occasionally softened by beams of sunshine. Is that a surprise, coming from Larry Kramer? Perhaps not. However, it’s only volume one. And a final prefatory comment about this book: it’s savagely, laugh-out-loud funny. Who would ever have imagined that?

Kramer looks back and asks: “What happened?” Enter Fred Lemish, historian—or as he refers to himself, Your Roving Historian (YRH for short). Fred acknowledges that he initially brought limited experience to this role. But that didn’t stop him from thinking big. He enlisted the help of professionals, notably Dr. Sister Grace Hooker, Nobel-winning expert on infectious disease, and Dame Lady Hermia Bledd-Wrench, world authority on plagues. Dr. Israel Jerusalem, also a Nobelist, came on board to provide insight into sexuality. This book is full of medical luminaries with fancy names who labor at super-elite institutions and publish in all the best places, such as The New England Journal of Evil. Does one get the feeling that Fred and his alter ego are intellectually sniffy?

Fred also sought the help of professional historians. Here he ran into trouble on finding that historians knew little about gay people. Actually, gay history didn’t seem to exist at all. Fred conducted his own research, collecting information from disparate sources as best he could. He learned that, in fact, the American past teemed with gay life. But it was invisible. In part this was because gay people had been systematically killed off, ever since Jamestown days in the early 1600s. Fred provides exceptionally gory details about one massacre after another, all of them thoroughly covered up.

The censorship extended to the lives of famous men who liked men sexually. It’s a lengthy list that includes George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Meriwether Lewis, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Mark Twain, Chester Arthur, General George Custer, and others. Moreover, Fred learned that many of these guys’ sex lives got mixed up in skullduggery of one kind or another. Yes, it was dangerous to be gay. What a relief to read that “homosexuality does not appear to be woven into” the assassination of President McKinley, at least. Whew! Others weren’t so lucky. For example, John Wilkes Booth had a habit of murdering boy actors after raping them, possibly because he had unresolved issues with his badly deformed penis, which bent to one side at almost a ninety-degree angle.

How good is Fred’s evidence? On Benjamin Franklin he cites biographer Stacy Schiff. When Franklin served as American envoy to Paris, according to Schiff, he made “regular late-afternoon visits to a white, canvas-covered barge” on the Seine. Adds Schiff: “Franklin was surely unaware that it was the city’s premier gay bathhouse.” Fred finds this hard to swallow. Didn’t Franklin “notice all the naked men cruising on the river?” That’s a good question. “This bathhouse stuff,” Fred declares, “is of monstrous historical importance. Schiff has a case of what YRH calls Ron Chernowitis, of Doris Kearns Goodwinism, denying a truth writ so large she should choke on it.” You do have to wonder: how did Schiff shrug off Franklin’s daily gay-bathhouse regime?

Or take Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark, who mapped the Louisiana Purchase. “Lewis, a lifelong bachelor for whom the company of other men is more congenial than real life, is … very much in love with Clark. … This love will eventually destroy him.” Fred upbraids Lewis’ biographer, Stephen Ambrose, for failing to see this. “How can any sentient person read anything about Lewis without realizing the man was gay? Not a little bit, not just sometimes, but totally and wholly gay?”

Then there was Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain to his millions of fans. Clemens extolled the “stalwart, muscular, dauntless young men” of the Nevada mining country, “none but erect, bright-eyed, quick moving, strong-handed young giants … a splendid population.” Fred notes that these men outnumbered women eighteen to one. Clemens was the lifelong close friend of a travel writer named Charles Warren Stoddard, “as flamboyantly gay as they came.” Fred quotes Clemens: “Charles is tender and he touches me in spirit as well as body.” Fred has a lot to say about Clemens’ gay love life. But the great author’s “well-received” biographer, Ron Powers, is silent on the subject. Indeed, Clemens’ “undoubted homosexuality has never been explored by any of his biographers.”

Wait a second! the hardheaded reader might exclaim. Is any of this really proven? Isn’t it all just innuendo, and rather outlandish at that? Maybe it’s a good thing that Fred Lemish remains a novelistic creature. He isn’t, after all, an actual historian. Precisely, says Lemish. “God save us from the heterosexual historian!”

This is a good place to take a step back and ponder the fact that the evaluation of historical evidence has always been a mysterious business. It’s not nearly as clear-cut a process as one might like. Here’s an example: Fred modestly omits from his narrative an exchange between Larry Kramer and the late historian David Herbert Donald. It culminated with Kramer remarking that Donald was a “dried old heterosexual prune at Harvard.”

The accusation so impressed Donald that he quoted it in his final book, We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends, in which Donald sought to refute claims that Abe and his friend Joshua Speed were sexual lovers. A line of evidence that Donald cited was this: in the American 19th century, gay sex affairs “were not merely infrequent; they were against the law.” Donald went further, pointing out that the historical record contains love letters between 19th-century male adolescents: “The letters between such male lovers are full of references to sleeping together, kisses, caresses, and open longing for each other. There can be no doubt that these were erotic relationships, but with rare exceptions, they do not appear to have been sexual relationships.” Oh really? And what is this based upon?

These letters don’t support Donald’s claim that gay sex was rare in the days of Lincoln, but they very strongly favor the opposite conclusion. Notes between teenage “lovers” talking about bedtime and kisses and caresses and open longings? If that isn’t what we call a “smoking gun,” what is?

What would it take to persuade straight historians that Sam Clemens had gay affairs in the Wild West? We could start by pointing to the lopsided male-female population ratio and talk about typical sexual behavior in hyper-male environments such as prisons or the open seas. Next, review Clemens’ tributes to lads’ beauty in the Nevada mining camps. Work up to attested intimacies between Clemens and Charles Stoddard and other men. Would that put homosexuality on the table for these historians? Probably not.

But why not? How can evidence add up to such different things for the gay eye and the straight? At one level the answer is obvious: in some circumstances gay observers know what to look for, straight ones not so much. The same applies to evidence concerning any particular background: natives have a keener sense of their own kind. But this cliché doesn’t take us very far. Fred Lemish points to something more serious: the fact that straight scholars can’t even get the implications of a gay bathhouse in Paris.

If Search for My Heart were a movie, it would undoubtedly receive the most restrictive rating. How restrictive do ratings get? This movie would rate off the charts. Imagine crashing dreamscapes painted by a psychotic Marc Chagall. Imagine scenes too fiendish to film, too hardcore to show. For instance: “Dr. Dye then severs the penis, the scrotum and testicles. He flips the body over and eviscerates the various canals utilized in anal sex from the kid’s rear end. He labels the parts and freezes them and locks them in a thermal chest.”

Extreme as this is, Kramer goes there with a certain logic in mind. He’s making the case that America from earliest times foreshadowed its response to AIDS, and indeed facilitated the development of AIDS. He wants to show that America was capable of such things. Our founders were uglier than we imagine. White America hated Indians, blacks, Jews, gays, hated the incoming frail and helpless and diseased, loathed the weirdoes from backwater Europe. Fondly though we cherish Ellis Island, there was mass murder from day one. We perfected internment camps at secret locations in Idaho and exported them to the Nazis. We assembled high-tech lists of “those deemed worthy of riddance.” After World War II we imported German scientists and their mad new medical formulas, projects that Rockefeller and Ford had seeded. Within it all an entity has lurked: the virus, one gathers. It tirelessly observes, and learns.

Without using the lingo, Kramer suggests something quite plausible: that history is a series of post-traumatic stress disorders. His portrait of postwar Washington revises the notion of that era’s triumphalism, darkening it to reflect a people who can’t fathom the atrocities they’ve committed. They don’t remember their past very well—including the war they’ve just fought—because it’s just too horrible. As to building Auschwitz prototypes in Idaho: let’s see how that theme plays out in Volume Two.

A stylistic element deserves a word. Characters have fantastical names: Horatio Dridge, Anushkus Rattlefield, Evvilleena Stadtdotter, Hadrianna Totem, the Masturbov tribe. Also, many real names take new forms. Yale is “Yaddah,” The New York Times is The New York Truth, Glaxo Wellcome is now “Greeting.” Substitutions like these pervade the story, giving it the air of an alternate world co-captained by George Orwell and Ronald Firbank. The effect is whimsical, which concentrates the horror. Or does it dilute the horror? Readers will have different reactions. The odd names help with keeping track of who’s who—and this book contains a cast of thousands.

My favorite character is a boy named Daniel Jerusalem. Daniel is the least crazy person here, the dreamiest, the wittiest. At age thirteen he gets a crush on Mordy Masturbov, whose titanically rich father owns Masturbov Gardens, an apartment complex where the Jerusalems live thriftily in suburban Washington. Daniel says this about Mordy:

Mordecai Masterbov is the first person I know I want to fall in love with and have love me back. I want to touch him all over. He has skin like marble. He has skin like velvet. He has skin I desperately want to touch. He looks like the Greek statues in the Mellon Gallery downtown, which I pretend is where I live, walking regally down the majestic staircases in the empty mammoth halls, going into rooms to stare at Roman and Greek men with lost penises.

Daniel gets into all kinds of situations with Mordecai and an amusingly self-possessed girl named Claudia. They discover things in ever-proliferating tunnels under the ever-expanding Masturbov Gardens outside the rapidly growing capital of booming 1950s America. What lovely, disturbing adventures they have; but little do they know what’s in store. At halftime in this brilliantly written story, neither do we. Whatever is coming, it clearly will be astounding.

 

Lewis Gannett is completing a book on the early love life of Abraham Lincoln.

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