Letters to the Editor

Published in: September-October 2008 issue.


Correction and Tribute

Editor’s Note: More than one reader wrote in to report that we ran the wrong picture with our tribute to the late Jonathan Williams in the May-June issue. They were kind enough to supply some correct photos, one of which is shown here. In addition, one letter-writer saw fit to add the following obituary:

Jonathan Williams (1929–2008): Poet, Publisher, Polymath

Poet, publisher, editor, photographer, essayist, archivist, critic, scholar, and wit, Jonathan Chamberlain Williams was one of the generation of poets, artists, and musicians who came out of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in the 1950’s. A prolific writer, his dozens of beautifully produced books of elegant verse and critical appreciation merged the arcane and the folksy while publicizing an array of idiosJonathan Williamsyncratic talents and overlooked geniuses. An editor and publisher of great discernment, Williams was for over half a century proprietor of the Jargon Society, one of North America’s leading literary presses and publisher of artists as diverse as Buckminster Fuller, Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, Harold Norse, Robert Duncan, James Broughton, and Joe Brainard. A Kentucky colonel and a Guggenheim fellow, Jonathan Williams was perhaps the last of the great poet–polymaths. His interests and knowledge ranged from folk art, blues, and botany to wine, white trash cooking, and the Appalachian landscape that he enthusiastically hiked. In the early 1970’s, Williams was one of the first poets of his generation to come out in print, contributing to the gay literary anthologies In Homage to Priapus in 1970 and The Male Muse in 1973. Jonathan Williams died in late March at Scaly Mountain, North Carolina. He is survived by his long-time partner and companion, the poet Thomas Meyer.

Ian Young, Toronto


Keynes’ Coded Diaries

To the Editor:

When I read Evan Zimroth’s comments on the Sex Diaries of John Maynard Keynes (July-August 2008), I couldn’t help but believe he [she!] was making something complicated out of something that was quite simple. I doubt that the second diary code was very complicated at all. I think Zimroth basically had it right but tried to read too much into the annotations.

I think C, A, and W did stand for Cock, Ass (or anal), and Wanking. Which party did what doesn’t matter other than that Keynes was recording the type of activity engaged in by the parties (cock sucking, anal play or intercourse, and masturbation). The quarterly number, I suspect, was simply the number of times during that quarter that he “got off.” I think only an academic mind would associate the numbers 65 to 104 with a grade. During the ninety or so days in any quarter, that was the number of times he reached orgasm.

In my experience, it is not unusual for young men to track this this type of activity, and those numbers are quite reasonable for a sexually active gay man. Perhaps the only difference with Keynes is the number of years that he tracked it.

Paul R. Hird (Randy), Hereford, AZ


Desiring Arabs Author Objects to Review

To the Editor:

It is surprising to me that a professor at a respectable institution would write an ad hominem and irresponsible review of another scholar’s book like the one Vernon Rosario wrote of my book Desiring Arabs in the May–June issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide. Dr. Rosario is of course free to disagree with the book academically and to lay out all his disagreements and criticisms for the reader, but to do so through defamation is utterly unprofessional and betrays an anti-academic political agenda that he clearly shares with Campus Watch whose files he consults directly or indirectly to write his review.

In his introduction to the review, Mr. Rosario knowingly neglects all the academic reviews of my first book, Colonial Effects (which was based on my dissertation which won the Middle East Studies Association’s Malcolm Kerr Award for the best dissertation in 1998), and cites instead a Jordanian secret police agent who does not know English and who wrote a short piece on my book (which he could not and did not read) in a Jordanian government-owned and -run Arabic newspaper (to which I published a response, but Mr. Rosario seems not to know that) because Campus Watch and its associate Martin Kramer put that article (after they translated it) in the public domain without including my response. In doing so, Mr. Rosario is not practicing scholarly critique but yellow journalism. Indeed, such defamation does not constitute “background research” on his part but a malicious act of character assassination. It is a pity that a scholar has to rely on information provided by the most anti-scholarship and anti-university organization (Campus Watch) in order to defame another scholar with whom he disagrees. Rather than contextualize my academic production within the campaign launched by Campus Watch and allied organizations to deny me and other scholars our academic freedom (a very well documented affair in the academic and popular press since 2002), Mr. Rosario opts instead to ally himself with the McCarthyist attacks on the university and on academics and uses defamatory claims made by Campus Watch against me that he then presents to the reader as “background research.”

My book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question has also received laudatory reviews in academic journals with not one single negative review anywhere; but you would not know this when you read Mr. Rosario’s account. Instead of citing these academic reviews, Mr. Rosario cites the editors of the New York tabloid The Daily News (which he does not name), which attacked an article that I published in Cultural Critique (which he mistakenly thinks is a criticism of my book), as a scholarly judgment.

As for Desiring Arabs, which won the prestigious Lionel Trilling award, it has been praised by the most major scholars in the field (including Joan Scott, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Talal Asad, Marnia Lazreg, Khaled El-Rouayheb, Anne Norton, Rosalind Morris, Anton Shammas, et al.) and rave academic reviews are coming in every month (they are all available on the Amazon webpage of the book), even though some in the right-wing press have criticized the book as Mr. Rosario does (though left-wing writers in the gay press have also praised it, as has Bill Andriette in The Guide). Mr. Rosario need not agree with all (or any of) the positive academic reviews of my three books, nor need he agree that the awards my books received are well deserved, but it would behoove any honest scholar to cite them as part of his background research. To do so, however, would have demonstrated to the reader that my books are not controversial at all in academe, and that the extent that I am said to be “controversial” at all, I am so for the New York tabloid press and for Campus Watch, and now for some right-wing gay newspapers upset with my book. I will not discuss the massive misreading of Desiring Arabs in which Mr. Rosario engages in his review except to say that such a misreading can only be a deliberate exercise in dishonesty, scholarly carelessness, or a genuine blindness to the nature of arguments made by scholars he deems ideological enemies. None of these possibilities are the mark of responsible scholarship.

It is regrettable that a respectable publication like The Gay & Lesbian Review / Worldwide, would publish Mr. Rosario’s review of my book, even though its defamatory claims are culled from the archives of Campus Watch. It is of equal concern to me that The Gay & Lesbian Review / Worldwide chose a scholar with no knowledge whatsoever of the Arab World (a term he mistakenly believes includes “Persians”!) to review a book about the region. Amazingly, Mr. Rosario seems also to be not up to date on the current academic debate within the discipline of Queer Theory. He is under the strange impression that the field is still engaged in the “essentialism versus constuctivism” debate (within which he places my book), which in fact had effectively ended almost two decades ago—at least since the publication of Eve Sedgwick’s classic The Epistemology of the Closet in 1990. But if Mr. Rosario is ignorant of the fields of Queer Theory and Middle East Studies, what then is the basis on which he was chosen to review my book?

Joseph Massad, Associate Professor, Columbia University


Vernon A. Rosario Replies:

As I pointed out in my review of Desiring Arabs, Prof. Massad is a passionate scholar who stirs controversy in every corner. I anticipated he might to react to my essay, which he has done with characteristic vigor. I am sorry he has misinterpreted my review of his book as a personal and political assault. My brief introductory paragraph was meant not to evaluate his career, but to highlight the inflammatory reactions to his work—as he further details. Hopefully, other readers of my essay appreciated that I largely agreed with Prof. Massad’s central thesis that some gay activists and analysts are too facile in squeezing all manifestations of male same-sex love into the Western construct of homosexual identity. This is indeed a point that has been made for more than a couple of decades by anthropologists; in 1935 Margaret Mead, writing about Papua New Guinea, cautioned against using “homosexuality” as a cross-cultural category.

My kudos to Prof. Massad for his many laurels, including the Lionel Trilling Award (selected by Columbia undergrads to honor a Columbia author), which was awarded after my manuscript had gone to press. If my review and our interchange here incites the broad readership of the Review to explore Prof. Massad’s scholarly work, I’ll have served everyone well.

Vernon A. Rosario, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UCLA


Editor Replies:

Since the writer impugns my editorial judgment in accepting Dr. Rosario’s review, I’d like to respond as well. I addressed in the last issue a similar letter by an author who didn’t like a review. So, one more time: is it really an editor’s job to prevent a reviewer from expressing an opinion about a book? Isn’t this what reviewers are supposed to do—even in this age of “the gentleman’s B” and the polite pass—namely, to offer an honest appraisal of a book as he or she calls it?

Of course a review must be responsible and well-reasoned to pass muster; this is where an editor comes in. I happen to be a pretty hands-on editor, and on rereading Rosario’s lengthy review of Desiring Arabs, I find it a model of moderation. I can’t for the life of me see what what would prompt so passionate a reaction. While noting that Dr. Massad’s earlier books have been controversial, Rosario’s treatment of this new book is always respectful and ends with these words: “In any case, his monograph is built on a tremendous historical and literary scholarship and offers a provocative foray into same-sex sexuality in the Arab world.” What’s more, the review is not “ad hominem” at any point: it never refers to the author’s personal life or characteristics but only to his professional writing.

Clearly, I’m missing something here. Since Dr. Massad never actually specifies what the review contained that he didn’t like, I’m at a near total loss. He repeatedly accuses Rosario of “defamation,” but I have no idea to what this refers; or what “Campus Watch” is and why we should mistrust it. Indeed the letter seems oddly generic to me, as if an all-purpose response to critics rather than a reply to the review at hand.

As for the assignment of books to reviewers, it would indeed be a luxury if a small publication like ours had at its disposal an army of specialists able to cover every minute subdiscipline in the academy. Alas, such is not the case. Dr. Rosario, who happens to hold two doctorates from Harvard (MD and PhD), is an intellectual with broad interests who has contributed to this publication frequently and brilliantly over the years.


An Artist’s Right to Privacy

To the Editor:

With regard to Cassandra Langer’s Guest Opinion piece in the May–June 2008 issue, two points of fact were in error regarding the Jasper Johns: Gray exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art held earlier this year. First, the painting she referred to as showing a penis is not Johns’ Target With Four Faces (1955) but rather Target With Plaster Casts, created the same year. Second, at the beginning of her Q&A with Jonathan Katz, she asks if “Johns’ non-presentation of self” as a gay man “may have affected younger artists like Andy Warhol?” Johns, having been born in 1930, is in fact younger than Warhol, the latter having been born in 1928.

Jonathan Katz, having written extensively about the early relationship between Johns and Rauschenberg, is, as the editorial comment states, “an advocate for the public recognition of gay and lesbian artists’ sexual orientation when it has directly influenced their work.” I understand his desire to make sure that our national museums and cultural institutions inform their audiences when works by gay or lesbian artists refer to some aspects of their orientation. But isn’t that ultimately the choice of the artist rather than the exhibit’s curator or its exhibiting venue? In the case of a deceased artist, it seems to me the decision should fall to the artist’s estate. But aren’t we all entitled to deal with our sexual orientation the way we choose, especially when the circumstances of our work, whatever they may be, are not interfering with anyone else’s choice and not harmful to anyone?

As as an educator, Katz certainly wants this information available and publicly confirmed for students, especially for GLBT youth, to provide them with historical accuracy in their learning. But so much has been written, specifically about Johns and Rauschenberg, that verifies their relationship. For example, in his 1980 book, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World of Our Time, Calvin Tompkins writes: “They were more than friends, of course; they were deeply involved with one another, both intellectually and emotionally, and the intensity of what passed between them filled up their life.” Neither artist ever denied that statement. Is it necessary for us to know whether they ever had sex together?

David B. Boyce, New Bedford, MA


Jonathan D. Katz Replies:

It is indeed hardly necessary to know whether Johns and Rauschenberg had sex together. But that formulation repeats a homophobic and truly tired assumption that queer identification is about sex. I have spent my life trying to underscore the degree to which such identifications are instead cognitive structures of fundamental importance to the development of an artist’s work and, through that, of our contemporary culture. (At the most basic level, note the homology between the closet and our ubiquitous postmodern suspicion of the authentic, expressive authorial voice.) So I’m not interested in merely “claiming” artists like Johns or Rauschenberg as gay. I’m rather trying to show how their gayness everywhere affected their art, and how that art structured our avant-garde culture such that it’s plausible to state that American art is at a basic level queer.


Where Was Pater During the Wilde Trials?

To the Editor:

“Tory Rebels in an Age of Prudery” by Martha Miller in the July-August 2008 issue, a review of Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and Politics of Queer History, contains a monstrous howler that brings disrepute on the reviewer, the author, and the editors at Harvard University Press. Miller states, “Having witnessed firsthand [my emphasis]the price of sexual nonconformity during the trials of Oscar Wilde, Pater’s response was not to rail against Wilde’s imprisonment or related inequities but, in Love’s estimation, to offer only a ‘weak refusal,’” whatever that means. While Love, her editors, and the reviewer may indeed be well informed about the other three authors discussed—Willa Cather, Radclyffe Hall, and Sylvia Townsend—they should have realized that Pater, their token male, died in 1894, a year before Oscar’s trials.

A little-noticed masterpiece, Michael Kaylor’s Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater, and Wilde (Masaryk University Press, 2006), gives the fullest account of how Pater, whom critics had denounced for homosexual activity as well as for publications of his that seemed to advocate it, had (like Walt Whitman in his old age) long been taking greater precautions. As Kaylor documents, he repeatedly tried to restrain Wilde, the admirer who had dubbed Pater’s History of the Renaissance a “golden book.” But Wilde disregarded admonitions until Pater wrote a devastating review of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Pater/Wilde mistake is symptomatic of a general decline in standards at university presses. Worse, it points to the dominance of political correctness in publishing. Those connected to Love’s book could not have been familiar with any relevant scholarship, such as H. Montgomery Hyde’s classic The Trials of Oscar Wilde (1962). One must therefore ask why. The answer is that Kaylor, like Hyde and others, violate a taboo. Kaylor documents the pederastic leanings of Pater and other Uranians not only in detail, but also with sympathy, even though, as elite white males, they neglected and often denigrated women. That approach systematically puts him and his kind out of circulation, and his Uranian subjects out of favor.

Love’s blunder is but one example of how the politically correct, if they can’t suppress scholarly work they disagree with, ignore it, undermining the quest for truth. In the mid-90’s, after a furor ensued when critics discovered that males had written a number of entries accredited to females, Garland shredded all unsold copies of Wayne Dynes’ Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, of which I was an associate editor, despite the fact that it had won four national awards. When John Lauritsen self-published The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (Pagan Press, 2007)—reviewed favorably in these pages [November–December 2007 issue]—crediting authorship to Percy Bysshe Shelley instead of to Mary, feminists and their “lesbyterian” allies went berserk, and mainstream authorities shuddered. Although iconoclasts like Camille Paglia praised the book, sales remain disappointing.

To counter this trend, I’ve established a website (www.WilliamAPercy.com) to publicize those who don’t demonize “the Eight P’s”: promiscuity, public sex, pederasty, pornography, prostitution, paraphernalia, poètes maudits, and “planters” (dead males who made Western Civilization and most others).

William A. Percy, Boston