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The Queer Art of History and Larry Kramer’s The American People

By Ben Miller

kramer-book

“I wouldn’t pay any attention to that. You know how bitchy fags can be.”

– Jennifer North, Valley of the Dolls

Larry Kramer’s The American People: Volume 1: Search For My Heart: A Novel has three colons in its title and two full pages of epigraphs. It’s the first of two volumes (plus, Kramer has promised, additional volumes of cut material and addenda) of a multi-thousand-page epic attempt to place queer people at the center of American history. Perhaps most similar to Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo-Jumbo, it belongs to a category of speculative fiction in which populations whose histories have been violently suppressed and erased fight back with light and anger[1].

Attempting to find queer identity within or despite our erased histories, without anything to guide us, has always required extraordinary effort. Daniel Marshall (et al) write, in an introduction to a recent issue of Radical History Review, that “the drama of existence is a central, compelling narrative or mystery [in queer history], a drama borne out by countless scholars’ efforts to find lost queer things.” Kramer’s fattest target is the violence of that erasure — both the violence of its effects and the violence needed to erase. His overarching narrative is the drama of queer existence and of the queer archive. His narrators regularly pause to marvel at the violence necessary to totally erase queer histories from the mainstream American narrative.

Kramer’s American People are drenched in blood and shit and piss. They fight and fuck and use one another, they struggle for dominance over land and peoples. The story takes us from gay orgies led by George Washington to monkeys swapping AIDS before the dawn of human civilization, from a Jewish family outside Washington, DC to secret Nazi camps in North Dakota. The book is narrated by a rotating cast of fantastically-named individuals: Dame Hermia Bledd Wrench and Dr. Sister Grace Hooker, Dr. Bosco Dripper and Dr. Israel Jerusalem. At its center sits Fred Lemish, Kramer’s longtime literary stand-in, slapping down historians and institutions (Ron Chernow, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Yale, rechristened Yaddah), and outing with varying degrees of evidence dozens of presidents and historical figures. Underneath it all, as a metaphor for the dark heart of all American history, AIDS personified (called “The Underlying Condition”) narrates the book periodically, the shift in narration signaled by a different typeface. One thread of the novel concerns the development of a poppers-like aphrodisiac called the Driggs Ampule, the inventors of which end up running one of the larger contemporary pharmaceutical concerns. Another 200-odd-page-chunk concerns a Jewish boyhood outside Washington, D. C. in the shadow of the Great Depression and World War II. Gay settlers at Jamestown battle religious zealots. Walt Whitman stalks Civil War hospitals, lusting after soldiers. Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed exchange mocking letters about the shape of John Wilkes Booth’s penis. The book is no less ridiculous for being a masterpiece and no less a masterpiece for being completely ridiculous[2].

It feels important to note why this giant weird book feels important to me: why am I reviewing this? Why did I read this, other than to fuel my semi-masochistic desire for books that double as forearm-exercise equipment? Why do I feel compelled by it? Well, I’m gay historian, for one. And a writer. And a (cultural) Jew, with the persecution complex that follows. And the feelings that propel Kramer through his narrative have followed me through most of my various personal and psychic journeys.

Kramer addresses the book, in a note at the beginning, to “you [the queer American people], and us, and our people, and what I devoutly wish us all to stand for, and to be.” I too believe in a queer volksgeist — a unique cultural and social approach, a rainbow lens through which we see the world. I believe this volksgeist is shaped by our sense of outsider-ness, our gender non-conformity, our insistence on questioning. I believe this questioning, and its attendant cultural stance, is our most valuable survival skill and contribution to human affairs. I believe our queer volksgeist is uniquely historical in nature, and that an understanding of who and how we have been in the past is essential to understanding who and how we are now, even though our being and our way of being has changed radically over space and time.

I am not alone in these beliefs. There is a tradition of independent obsessive scholars, of which Kramer with this novel is part, breathing queer light into the historical record. The earliest gay historians worked outside the academy and quietly collected: Jim Kepner, Jonathan Ned Katz, Harry Hay, Mabel Hampton, Joan Nestle, ad infinitum.[3] Their work has been forgotten as queer history has been domesticated and integrated into the academy. There are good reasons why this is so — much of this work is not ‘accurate’ in the way that we demand academic histories must be, although our queer archives and the dramas of existence they both enact and reveal depend on these obsessive collectors. In their writing, this first generation of queer historian-collectors wrote of the history of their spirits rather than the objective histories of their people. They wrote of their volksgeiste, and so does Kramer. (Is the most holistic, the most inclusive vision of this spirit derived from the widest possible reading of these spiritual histories?)

Asking works like Kramer’s novel for strict historical accuracy seems to me to be largely missing the point. These documents are remarkable acts of courage and intelligence, they necessarily scream into a void. Many of them are insightful even if the arguments wouldn’t pass PhD-board muster. ” Wayne Koestenbaum, in The Queen’s Throat: “I have sacrificed objectivity. In its place, I give you objectivity’s opposite: gush, abandon, naiveté.”

Volksgeist, translated literally from German, means “spirit of the people.” Just as in English, this “spirit” can accommodate additional, otherworldly meanings. Kramer writes of queer ghosts who will not go gently. The spirit, the ghost, the ephemeral traces of queerness at the edges of the archive that Kramer drags back and shoves at his readers make me think of José E. Muñoz in “Gesture, Ephemera, and Queer Feeling: “Queerness is rarely complemented by evidence, or at least by traditional understandings of the term. The key to queering evidence, and by that I mean the ways in which we prove queerness and read queerness, is by suturing it to the concept of ephemera. Think of ephemera as trace, the remains, the things that are left, hanging in the air like a rumor.”

So what is a history of ephemera? How do queer or gay spirits and discourses define gay histories? David Halperin, in How To Be Gay, argues that specifically gay “genres of discourse and social interaction” define gay and queer responses to narrative, history, and tragedy — that “the combination of glamour and abjection is connected to gay male culture’s distinctive violation of the generic boundaries between tragedy and comedy, specifically the practice of laughing at situations that are horrifying or tragic.” “Straight culture and gay culture,” Halperin argues, “irrespective of the sexuality of the individuals who happen to participate in those cultures, understand the logic of genre differently and therefore respond dissimilarly to the staging of horrifying or tragic situations.”

There are many queer stories and histories, and there are many queer spirits in which to tell them. What is the logic of Kramer’s genre? As Dan Lopez has argued, Kramer’s book is an attempt to represent “the tragedy of our lost heritage, an oral history decimated by the scores of citizens cut down by AIDS. We lost an entire generation in the ’80s and the ’90s, and with them went countless stories and facts (and, no doubt, stories that were too good not to be considered facts).” The novel, says Lopez, constantly “attempt[s] to imagine a history to replace the one we lost during the ink black days of our recent past.” In a nod to his sentiment, his spirit; Kramer invents, mid-narrative, a “small volume” published in 1929 Ohio about “the role of faggotry in 19th century America,” the first “true history” of early America. Its fictional author, a lawyer and drag queen named Mae Blossom Yangtzee; its title, Garish Grandstanding.

The American People’s over-the-topness is meant with a wink: it laughs with grief in the face of tragedy and erasure. Consider Halperin’s treatment of the Fire Island Widows — Italian-American gay men whose partners had died of HIV, and who staged annual performances of grief by which to remember them. Adopting the style of Italian funerals — in all-black drag, with fans, weeping parodically — the widows, Halperin argues, were performing a mockery of grief simultaneously with a performance of the real thing. “Their grief was at once parodic and real. Their annual appearances…constituted something of a ritual — a public, communal enactment of loss and pain…Gay loss never quite rises to the level of tragedy. No would-be gay tragedian escapes a faint tinge of ridiculousness. The widows had only one way to impose their grief publicly, and that was by embracing the social devaluation of their feelings through a parodic, exaggerated, self-mocking, grotesque, explicitly role-playing, stylized performance.” . Sound familiar? Halperin calls this “suffering in quotation marks — camp works to drain suffering of the pain that it also does not deny.”

“It is no small task to record a history of hate when one is among the hated,” writes Kramer, very early in the novel. “Of course, some [of the voices that make up the book] are fools. It is always particularly important to listen to fools.” A gay history of gay loss will never rise to the level of historical tragedy. No would-be gay tragedian or historian can escape a faint tinge of ridiculousness. Larry Kramer is no exception.

The grotesque, the ridiculous: in Kramer’s America, “The First American People are monkeys who eat each other.” John Winthrop is a monster who kills his own son; the puritanical rules that govern the Massachusetts Bay Colony? “HE MAKES [THEM] UP AS HE GOES ALONG.” Comstock becomes an obsessive masturbator, countless presidents self-hating and gay, violence is exaggerated, shit and filth and piss consumes all. “From here on in,” Kramer writes in a representative passage, “the string of America’s leaders should shame The American People, who voted them in…one is almost worse than the next or the preceding.” A never-ending series of doctors, politicians, pimps, policemen pursue profit on the backs of everyone else. They banish their wives to far-off corners of the house to live in their own filth, they create concentration camps and offshore medical and penal colonies filled with baroque, grotesque, fantastic horrors. Many of the worst villains are closeted gays. Ronald Reagan, renamed Peter Reuster, is making his earliest appearances as the book winds down. The book ends with an account of the holocaust noticeable for its sense of anticlimax. In Kramer’s dark vision, these horrors are not lessened or rendered as acceptable. They are merely the expected, and repeating, evils of power.

Through the book flows a river of ceaseless hate. Kramer’s observers are constantly “marveling at how much human behavior has passed under so many bridges to flow into the swollen river of cascading, accumulating, unattended-to death.” The hate of seemingly everyone, from Jamestown landlords to Puritan patriarchs to a young Ronald Reagan, for queer people. The Civil War looms large in Kramer’s America:

“the whole point about the Civil War is Hate. Men were told to go out and murder each other and there did so with the fervor of righteousness they never knew they possessed. That it was about freeing black people was almost beside the point: most soldiers didn’t care about slavery. It was just an excuse to go out and kill. It’s amazing how many turned out willingly to fight their own. Releasing years, perhaps even centuries, of pent-up energies was the result. Such hate as lay at its rotten core, and in too many hearts —where did all that come from? Did we see this coming, all this hate? Were we warned of it, all this hate?…And does it still remain?”

For Kramer, the two constants of The American People are love and hate; and they spill over at the same time, boiled by the same events, in bubbling diseased flows of semen and blood. Always, the disease waits until love and hate are ripe to help it make the kill. “How could innocence exist in all of this?” Kramer asks. “In the very heart of mankind, man knew what he was doing.”

I question Larry Kramer’s use of “self-hating faggot” as the ultimate category of evil even as I rejoice in his ballsiness. For queers, Scott Bravmann has argued in his book Queer Fictions of the Past, historical representations are “dynamic conversations” that “trouble closure and resolution, valorize instability, and remain suspicious of coherence.” It is this suspicion of coherence and valorization Kramer inhabits the most — unafraid to let clashing stories and narratives trouble the book’s surface. These representations, argues Bravmann, should force “readerly participation” in the selection of the ‘true’ story. But is Kramer offering readers participation in the selection of a story, or just pushing a peripatetic mess of featureless rage? “I am like an appendix. No longer useful but still sticking around and dangerous when irritated,” writes Kramer, or one of his interlocutors, early in the text. One could hardly accuse Kramer’s book of being overly neat, of coming together too well. It hardly even seems to end properly. It performs awkwardly, it spins when the music has stopped. At its climaxes it is glorious. Midway through, Kramer includes the full text of At the Close of the Day, one of Walt Whitman’s most glorious elegies of queerness. It ends:

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was happy.

I wept on the subway.

The book’s biggest failure — and it is a big one — is not one of ambition, but one of lack of ambition: it doesn’t seem to care much about the voices of women and people of color. When Larry Kramer writes women, he sounds like Larry Kramer. When he writes people of color, he has a tendency to slip into cringe-inducing dialect. Shouldn’t a book about the dark violence and hate deep within the soul of the American people care more about this country’s original sin? One section near the beginning, depicting the repeated brutal rapes of a slave named Tortura, reads like torture porn. Many of Kramer’s narrators and subjects with agency are able to carve out moments of resistance and rebellion against the overwhelming power they are confronted with, Tortura does not get that right. “I thought I would cook and clean and make a nice home for nice White man,” she says while being raped by a Black slave named Darkus (seriously, Larry?) for an audience of white plantation owners. Surely Kramer could have dreamed up more queer slaves, could have given such voices agency rather than reducing them to stories told by others, tragic narratives to be regarded from a distance rather than in the first person. Surely characters of color do not deserve to be denied the agency Kramer has worked so hard to restore to the white gay men and women (mostly men) who are his hero/ines. (Surely this connects to the larger patterns of erasure that have led Larry Kramer to be remembered and lionized and Maxine Wolfe and Essex Hemphill, among countless other women and of-color activist-artists in the AIDS movement, to be largely forgotten).

At least Kramer attempts to address his lack of women: first, he narrates much of the book using two of them (the aforementioned Dr. Sister Grace Lee Hooker and Lady Hermia Bledd-Wrench) although these narrators have little by the way of personal lives and, as I said above, all of them tend to sound like Larry Kramer anyway. Second, in a section awkwardly entitled “Women,” he argues that “for many years [The Underlying Condition] remains a plague of men,” then attempts to skip over 200 years of lesbian history in the following page and a half. To be fair, he has one of his female narrators criticize the absence of lesbians, but anticipating criticism is not, in this case, sufficient. How infuriating (and unsurprising) it is that Kramer’s own blind spots prevented this book from presenting the fullest possible indictment of America’s sins. Through these omissions, it participates in them.

Put in other words: the book’s limitation of perspective is its biggest weakness. John Sutherland’s New York Times review, by contrast, suggested that the “embryonic novel” about the Masturbov family developed in the book’s last 200-oddpages could have been extracted as a “manageably short” work “on Edmund White lines.” But that would miss the point entirely. Critics are wrong to insist on neatness from a work dedicated to neatness’s abolition. Kramer’s Black Mass, his dark mirror of a love letter to queer America, isn’t mere speculation or idle gossip. We are compelled to see ourselves everywhere because we’ve been told we’re nowhere. We don’t know who we are or what we’re for because we don’t know what we’ve been. We must fight to historicize ourselves. Insisting on our presence, with whatever tools we have, is part of that project.

Grandma doesn’t tell you, every year sitting around the Haggadah or Christmas tree, about the brave brave trans* women who fought back because they had nothing to lose, about the Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria rebellions, about the Mattachine society, about Karl Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld, Silvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, the Eisenhower-era butches, the gay men in suits with signs, the commie dreamers in the Hollywood Hills, the hundreds of thousands of us who wasted away and died, our government indifferent, our families having disowned us in life made our partners destitute by claiming all our property in death. The tornado-path-like line of destruction left by AIDS split generation from generation and massacred much of that story.

We must have seances, like this book, for our queer spirits and ghosts. These must be informed by our spirit: suffused with humor and rage and bad taste. Our spirits must be staunch and indomitable; even as they are (as they always have been) ignored and misunderstood, clocked for their omissions and not appreciated for their garish grandstanding. I hope that our collective queer spirits can be intersectional ones, can accommodate work from trans* people and lesbians and queer people of color and fight for it with the same fury.

Reading this book, I found myself alternately wanting to put the book under my pillow and throw it across the room. I’ll quote Lady Hermia to close out, she’s addressing Fred Lemish as I address Larry Kramer: “You fuckster! You are so fucksome. I love you very much.”


 

[1] Dan Lopez, writing for Lambda Literary Review, suggested Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas’ The Color of Summer, a book with which I am utterly unfamiliar, as another analogy to this text. His perceptive review, on similar themes to this essay, can be read here: http://www.lambdaliterary.org/features/oped/05/19/larry-kramers-the-american-people/

[2] One of the loudest and most controversial voices in the LGBT movement, Larry Kramer trained as a screenwriter (writing films such as the Ken Russell’s 1969 Women in Love), wrote a Swiftian satirical novel condemning ‘70s gay sex culture called Faggots, and helped found Gay Mens’ Health Crisis and ACT-UP, two crucial elements of the political resistance to federal, state, and local indifference about HIV and AIDS. In recent years, in a series of polemics about AIDS and the lack of queer political power and visibility, his anger has not diminished but his grip on reality has. He has continued to center white gay men in his politics, and has diverted significantly from the scientific consensus on HIV and AIDS treatment and prevention.

[3] Wayne Koestenbaum, in The Queen’s Throat, codes collecting itself as a queer act: “Collecting is a code for homosexual activity and identity. The amoral collector is like the experimenter or the mad scientist, he takes apart the living, has no respect for the integrity of a body or soul, he stays up late, he hoards. Hoarding, Freud speculated, was a character trait affiliated with banality; we don’t have to equate homosexuality with anal sex to understand the persistence of this homophobic equation: to hoard = to be anal = to be gay.”

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2 comments on “The Queer Art of History and Larry Kramer’s The American People

  1. Pingback: New Essay: The Queer Art of History and Larry Kramer’s The American People – Ben Miller

  2. Foot Lumps
    March 1, 2016

    Hi there every one, here every person is sharing such experience, thus it’s nice
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This entry was posted on February 10, 2016 by in Ben Miller, Literature, Thought.

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