Sexual Privacy and Literary Biography

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FOR A CENTURY or more, it seemed impossible for literary biography to acknowledge a subject’s homosexuality, and this was due in part to the reticence of some writers to allow an accurate record of their private life to circulate. Before his death, for example, Henry James systematically burned all of his private papers and encouraged friends to destroy any letters that he had written to them. W. H. Auden specified that no biography be written of him (an injunction that numerous biographers have since ignored).

A desire to maintain one’s privacy is understandable, particularly in periods when draconian legal measures punished homosexual activities or when any suggestion of personal unorthodoxy could permanently derail a writer’s career. From a later perspective, however, the protective re-fashioning of oneself as heterosexual that was undertaken by certain writers seems cowardly and, in some cases, farcical.  Walt Whitman might celebrate in his poems the joys of “adhesiveness” with other men, but when the activist John Addington Symonds inquired too closely into his private life, Whitman protested that he’d sired six illegitimate children (no evidence of whom has ever been found). And, as W. Somerset Maugham’s biographer Ted Morgan has confirmed, Maugham deliberately fed false information concerning his sexuality to his first biographer, Richard Cordell, much to the latter’s subsequent exasperation. Yet when even Liberace could win a libel suit against a journalist who hinted that he was gay, it was dangerous for a biographer to challenge such claims to heterosexuality, at least while the subject was still living.

More troublesome has been the reticence of many subjects’ executors and/or descendants.

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