Why So Easy on Gore Vidal?
To the Editor:
After reading Andrew Holleran’s review [May-June issue] of Michael Mewshaw’s memoir, Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal, and watching the Vidal documentary The United States of Amnesia for the second time, I find it difficult to feel much sympathy for this notorious iconoclast who’s credited with bringing masculine homosexual characters into mainstream American fiction. Despite a long, colorful life and a successful career as a writer, public intellectual, raconteur, political commentator, television personality, and occasional actor, Vidal ultimately could not escape the drunken, depressed, arrogant, bullying persona that he had always feared becoming—and had transformed himself into.
From the start, he loved being related to the political legacy of the Gore family and stood in awe of his maternal grandfather, a U.S. senator, but he despised the mother who connected him to that legacy. Years later, after two unsuccessful runs for Congress, he concluded that he could not be elected to public office. In the end, he often resembled the drunk and vindictive Nina Gore far more than he did his creative and optimistic father, Eugene L. Vidal. He claims to have moved to Rome so as to write and “not become alcoholic”; but his love of parties coupled with an endless capacity for righteous indignation, atheistic cynicism, and quite probably a genetic predisposition, conspired to hasten his descent into that chronic condition.
His oft-stated contention that “sex is not something you are, it is something you do” insured a lack of real intimacy in his life. Notwithstanding his 53-year relationship with Howard Austin, Vidal could never accept being thought of as a homosexual, let alone being called “gay.” And despite his huge success as a writer of fiction, drama, personal essays, and social commentary, he apparently derived little happiness or satisfaction from any of his work.
I will always love much of the fiction he wrote (Julian, Burr, Lincoln, and the iconic Myra Breckenridge are particular favorites), and his essays are often brilliant. But it’s hard to feel much of anything except sadness for Gore Vidal as a person.
James Kunkler, San Luis Obispo, CA
Why So Easy on Larry Kramer?
To the Editor:
Lewis Gannett gives Larry Kramer’s The American People altogether too much credence [in the May-June issue]. The point is not whether all those famous Americans were really gay. The book isn’t a history, and it’s billed as a novel. As such, it’s totally unreadable, like a run-on sentence, an endless sophomoric rant.
Gannett no doubt extends the courtesy of serious consideration to this book because of Larry Kramer’s iconic stature as a gay activist. But the novelist intends to offend and succeeds for the wrong reasons. His first novel, Faggots, sold well because it shocked people. Forty years later, we aren’t shocked by obsessive rumination on assholes, shit, bloody vivisections, etc. And the premise that all our forefathers are sodomites, although pleasant, is hardly proven. Instead, the author dares us to “Prove me wrong!”
Kramer’s protagonist, Fred Lemish, is described in the third person, but the author keeps intruding in the first person to fling insults at the reader. “I hate faggots,” he writes. Really? The use of silly names (Dr. Sister Grace Hooker, Lady Hermia Bledd-Wrench, Israel Jerusalem), repetitive gratuitous capitalization (“Your Roving Histor- ian,” “The Underlying Condition”), and long-winded philosophical asides resemble nothing so much as satire in a college humor magazine—except it’s not funny.
In Kramer’s defense, perhaps the book really is a giant put-on, and not the cumbersome doorstop that it seems.
Raymond Mungo, Signal Hill, CA
The Price of Assimilation: 3 Replies
To the Editor:
In the May-June issue, the article by Dolores Klaich [“The Price of Going Mainstream”] might give the impression that the 1969 radical mission statement of New York’s Gay Liberation Front represented the general attitude of gays at that time. In his interview, the much younger Ryan Conrad expresses a similar viewpoint.
As one who was not connected to the movement’s leadership but was a “rank and file” participant in demonstrations, I wasn’t even aware at that time that such a manifesto existed. As far as I knew, our “agenda” was mainly just “Stop beating us up and throwing us in jail.” Neither I nor anyone I knew wanted to tear down society. We wanted to own a piece of it and to do so without disguise. Ms. Klaich is of course correct in saying that radical change was espoused by a core of activists, but it would be a mistake to assume this was representative of the community at large at that time, and it certainly is not representative today.
The issue that seems to attract the most criticism by those on the radical fringe of queer liberation has been the drive for marriage equality. Ms. Klaich quotes the derisive comments of John Waters in this regard. While Waters makes interesting films, I cannot imagine him as a source of sound advice on how to structure one’s life. As far as I can see, his views on marriage are relevant only to himself.
The assumption made by those early radicals and by activists such as Ryan Conrad today—that marriage is inherently patriarchal, oppressive, and miserable—is nonsense. Marriage, like all relationships, is what any two participants make of it. I suppose in this world of infinite possibilities, a patriarchal gay marriage could be constructed, but it is not an easy thing to imagine.
After twenty years of marriage to my dear husband Mike, there is still no one else I would rather wake up next to in the morning, and I rest much easier knowing that he’s covered by my health insurance and that no hospital could deny me the right to be by his side in time of emergency. I will gladly forego radical ideological theory in exchange for such solid accomplishments—ones that have practical value in real life. (Granted, in the better world that we all hope for and work toward, some of these advantages, such as health care, would be available to all.)
Conrad criticizes the single-minded focus on just one agenda item, marriage equality. I would argue that it is that very specific agenda that has allowed us to focus resources, mobilize support, and present comprehensible objectives—goals that can be understood by the public at large. I would add that it’s the lack of specificity and organizational discipline that has caused other movements, such as the “Occupy” movements, to fail to achieve concrete results.
Mr. Conrad presents societal concerns of great importance, such as our failing legal and correctional system. Radical demolition, as opposed to reform, of the institutions that have evolved over centuries is not generally desirable—or likely to occur. Mr. Conrad might reflect on the fact that revolutions invariably devour their own children.
Tobias Grace, Trenton, NJ
To the Editor:
I have just received and read the latest edition of the magazine and was fascinated by the arguments put forth by Ryan Conrad of Against Equality and Dolores Klaich in her article “The Price of Going Mainstream.” Both Conrad and Klaich argue that much has been lost with accommodation to the mainstream definition of marriage and imply that we should abandon the fight for marriage equality altogether because marriage is inherently an unjust arrangement, privileging those who marry over those who remain single.
But wouldn’t a more “radical” solution be to open marriage up so that it didn’t confer this narrow privilege? Why should we accept the heterosexual view that marriage is only between two people? If you accept the premise that marriage is not solely for purposes of procreation (as when an elderly couple marries), then why does it have to involve only two people of any gender?
Historically, there’s little doubt but that marriage was primarily an economic institution, allowing the transfer of assets from one generation to the next. Love had little to do with it. It was William Blackstone who said that when a man and a woman marry, they become one—and that one is the man. Even if we do not believe that any longer (and I suspect that many men still do!) what benefit is civil marriage? We do not need more children in the world. In any case, mainstream society seems to be becoming more and more accepting of non-marital arrangements.
What would be wrong for the lesbian and gay communities to push for the abolition of civil benefits of marriage as a privileged institution? If there were no financial benefits associated with marriage and no rules on who can marry whom, the traditional family (whatever that is or was) would give way to multiple options, and people could make their own decisions. There would be chaos for a while, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with that. If I want to have a mutually agreeable relationship with one, two, or three men or women, what does it matter?
It should be clear to anyone looking at the present state of marriage in this country that it is not working very well. Marriages end in divorce when the relationship is not mutually beneficial to those involved. The reality is that what may work one year might not work so well down the road—so why commit to something that’s harming both parties? I agree with both Conrad and Klaich that we need to think outside of the box. Do lesbian and gays simply want be part of the mainstream, or simply abandon it altogether? If so, why?
James G. Marshall, Rhinebeck, NY
To the Editor:
The title of Dolores Klaich’s piece, “The Price of Going Mainstream,” got my attention, because the question she raises has shaped much of what I’ve done in the past ten years. I’m glad Ms. Klaich writes of our successes, but she also notes that the pendulum swings both ways, and we should always be on our guard.
I am more interested in looking forward and urge readers to think about how we can support and preserve our culture. I was heartened, not saddened, by something Ms. Klaich wrote: “These days, bookstores shelves are groaning with gay- and lesbian-themed books of every description: academic studies, literary and not so literary novels, poetry, chapbooks, mysteries, memoirs…” It is incumbent on each GLBT generation to pass our history and culture on to the next, and our artists, musicians, and writers need all the support they can get so they can continue to enrich and shape our culture and the larger culture, as well.
Two days ago I talked with people who operate the largest book distribution companies in the country. They asked why I was starting a new gay publishing company with Don Weise, one of our finest editors. I replied to the effect that I want to support our writers because I worry that as we become part of the mainstream, we will lose our identity.
Chuck Forester, San Francisco