TITLE: From A Whisper to A Riot: The Gay Writers Who Crafted an American Literary Tradition
AUTHOR: Adam W. Burgess
226 pages, Kindle Direct, ISBN 9781797500072 (paperback, e-book)
DESCRIPTION: (from Goodreads): For many decades, the two dominant areas of study for gay literature in America have centered on the periods of Stonewall Riots and the AIDS crisis. These examinations are critical and understandably exhaustive; however, the abundance of attention paid to studies within them further explains why less attention has been given to literature published before these momentous events. The truth is, the gay literary tradition in America is much longer and richer than we have acknowledged.
In this extensively-researched academic text, queer studies scholar Adam W. Burgess, Ph.D., examines the genesis of the gay literary tradition in the United States, which developed between 1903-1968. Burgess employs close literary analysis of critical but lesser known texts alongside sociocultural and historical perspectives in order to explain how and why gay authors managed to write and published in a time that was openly hostile to homosexuality and homosexual themes.
From A Whisper to A Riot contributes a critical missing component to the study of gay literature in the United States. It covers a range of authors, from Charles Warren Stoddard and Henry Blake Fuller to James Baldwin and Mart Crowley. The book is a must-read for academics, students, and scholars of American literature, history, and LGBT Studies.
MY RATING: Four out of Five stars
MY THOUGHTS: Adam Burgess’ From A Whisper to A Riot is a well-reasoned argument for the development of a deeper body of criticism and analysis of American gay fiction, and especially that work by known gay authors, that comes after Oscar Wilde but pre-dates Stonewall.
This is not an exhaustive index of every pre-Stonewall novel published in America that centers gay characters. That type of work would be valuable as well, but Burgess here is more concerned with the dearth of critical writing about such works: what might, without too much hyperbole, be considered the erasure of several decades worth of works which can be either uncomfortable reads (due to societal attitudes), inscrutable (due to the need to express homosexual aspects in carefully “coded” language to avoid censorship laws), or both. Using a relatively small selection of novels and one play, all originally published between 1903 and 1968, Burgess proposes an easily-followable methodology for such criticism. As such, Burgess’ first (and hopefully not last) exploration of the topic is not a breezy overview; he does some heavy lifting in dissecting works such as Edward Prime-Stevenson’s Imre: A Memorandum, Forman Brown’s Better Angel, Charles Warren Stoddard’s For The Pleasure of His Company, and Henry Blake Fuller’s Bertram Cope’s Year. Burgess also explores the popular-at-the-time Gay Pulp Novel genre and the harm it did in perpetuating the stereotype of gay men as perverted and effeminate and often suicidal. This is not an easy aspect of the gay American literary tradition to explore, bringing as it does so many triggering topics to the fore. Burgess handles them with delicacy and academic remove.
Burgess divides his analysis into four topics: how character displacement (for instance, sending an American character overseas to explore his sexuality) eased skittish readers into accepting the narrative; how the pulps perpetuated harmful stereotypes as opposed to the novels that preceded and followed the genre; how coding was used to signal a character’s homosexuality and actions in order to subvert obscenity laws; and how the novels handle the intersectionality of gender and sexuality. I think each section could probably be a more detailed book on its own, allowing for an even more detailed and nuanced analysis of the concerns brought up. I found the “coding” and “pulp” chapters to be more interesting than the “displacement” and “intersectionality” chapters, but your mileage may vary. Either way, I think the reader is likely to come away, as I have, with a lengthy list of previously-unfamiliar (to me) books to add to the To Be Read list.
Burgess does also acknowledge that some American gay fiction of the period has already been subject to deeper critical analysis (works by Truman Capote, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal for instance). He doesn’t ignore it, but also doesn’t re-hash it.
Tracking the movement of gay-centered (and more broadly, queer-centered) fiction from “the love that dare not speak its name” (a whisper) to “society-changing” (a riot) is not the easiest of tasks, but Burgess makes an excellent start with this volume.