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A Queer Look at the Modern Library’s 100 Best English Language Novels

A Queer Look at the Modern Library’s 100 Best English Language Novels

Author: Steven Cordova

July 3, 2012

Reading exactly 95 of the Modern Library’s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the Twentieth Century is a project I’ve often had to defend and—now that I look back on it—I’ve had to defend it on two fronts. The first front is largely situated in my mind, that foggy place where, right from the start, I’ve been vaguely aware of the controversy the list generated. Many raised their fists in protest, complaining the list didn’t include enough writers of color or enough women writers. Modern Library invited Radcliffe Publishing Course to draw up a rival list. But all the brouhaha aside, I have found that many of the books on the Modern Library list—however poorly they may acknowledge the multiculturalism of sex or race and ethnicity—are chock full of gay content, introducing me to queer characters whom I may never have met if were not for my decision to read as many of the ‘100-Best novels’ as I possibly could….Indeed, some of the novels on the list were even penned by gay, lesbian and bisexual authors.

A word about the other front on which I’ve found I had to defend my reading project: Outside of my head, in the bold light of the real world, my friend and fellow gay poet Rigoberto Gonzalez once pronounced my reading endeavors “corny”; and in her gentle, motherly way, the excellent poet Maria Melendez still tries to get me to read more contemporary Latino fiction. I’ve largely resisted her urgings (for now), just as I’ve largely turned the other chek to Rigoberto’s insults (for now), for more reasons than GLBT concerns. I stuck to the Modern Library list because, one, to be honest, I always like to think I go against the grain; and two, because, back in 1998, when the list came out, I ticked off the novels I’d already read and I got as high as the number 19. Dizzy with my own erudition, I thought I may as well forge ahead, climbing to ever higher heights. And as I forged ahead, I realized the list was giving me, three, a firm foundation in 20th century English and American literature. Prior to the list’s release, my reading as a budding independent scholar had been scattershot. The list focused my aim. Finally, I will even go so far as admitting that my cloudy little 33-year-old mind, eclipsed as it was by AIDS, was irresistibly attracted to titles like The Death of the Heart, Darkness at Noon, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Death Comes for the Archbishop—all novels I’d never read and, in many cases, novels I was only dimly aware of.

Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburgh, Ohio (1919) is number 24 on the list and its relevance here came as no surprise because I’d already read a discussion of its gay-relevant chapter, “Hands,” in some book or some article somewhere about gay literature. Similarly, Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927; number 61 on the list)  came as no shocker because it is contained on more than one 100-best gay novels list. (If you haven’t noticed, we are a list-crazy society.) But while I previously knew something about Cather having been a gender-bending lesbian, I didn’t know about the homosocial relationship at the very center of Death Comes for the Archbishop, a case of male bonding between two French Missionaries which can be read as a gay.

More surprisingly, as far as books written by American authors were concerned, were the queer characters I encountered in John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicles (1937; number 63) and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953; number 30). Cheever was bisexual and his “breakthrough” novel, Falconer, is contained on The Publishing Triangle’s 100 Best Gay Novels list. It is also discussed in Robert Drake’s The Gay Canon: Great Books Every Gay Man Should Read. The Wapshot Chronicles, however, is not on any 100-best gay list I’ve come across despite the boldness with which it treats the subject of homosexuality. “And now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale,” the novel’s omniscient narrator forewarns us, “and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip.” The warning admittedly appears more than three-quarters of the way through a novel that contains many other storylines, so I guess I can see easily understand why The Wapshot Chronicles is not contained on any 100-best gay novel lists I’ve located.

It is somewhat harder—harder for me, at least—to forgive the complete omission, on every gay list I’ve encountered, of Go Tell It On the Mountain. Baldwin was gay and homosexuality appears (or so I’ve learned) in many of his writings, which is of course why his novel Giovanni’s Room is contained on most 100 best gay lists. But where the gay heroes in Giovanni’s Room are white, the gay hero in Go Tell It On the Mountain, John, is black. John, the novel’s central character, and Elisha, a minor character, are both adolescent members of the same sexually repressive Baptist church in Harlem, and John’s sexual and humanistic conflict, including his attraction to Elisha, as well as his eventual and climactic break away, is told in terms that Biblically marry the secular to the religious—as, for instance, when, after a bout of wrestling, the infinitely more pious Elisha tells the infinitely more prodigal John,

And boy, some of them [sinners] is real nice girls, I mean beautiful girls, and when you got so much [religious feeling] that they don’t tempt you then you know you saved sure enough. I just look at them and I tell them Jesus saved me one day, and I’m going to go all the way with Him. Ain’t no woman, no, nor no man neither going to make me change my mind.

Two of the other gay-relevant novels written by Americans on the Modern Library list are Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948; number 51) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957; number 55). I’ve yet to read The Naked and the Dead but understand that its two homosexual characters are, one, a villain and, two, comic relief, and both are characterizations which Mailer would later express regret for in his famous 1955 essay “The Homosexual Villain.” On the Road is harder to sum up. Was Kerouac gay? No. But then he wasn’t exactly straight either. And besides the male bonding that takes place between Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in On the Road, one of its openly gay characters, Carlo Marx, is based on Allen Ginsburg. Many of the passages that blatantly concern homosexuality were, in addition, edited out of the 1957 edition of On the Road by Kerouac himself, but they can be found On the Road: The Original Scroll.

The sexually complex Paul Bowles, author of The Sheltering Sky (1949; number 97 on the list) married the equally complex writer Jane Bowles. But despite the fact that Bowles’ intimate relationships were with men, homosexuality is only hinted at in his work–the short story “Pages from Cold Point” being the notable exception–and the recurrent theme of Bowles’ large oeuvre is not  sexual passion, but sexual and emotional ennui. Similarly, Carson McCullers, author of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940 and number 17 on the list), married the same man twice, but rumors about both her and her husband’s bisexuality abound. There is also speculation that McCullers was asexual and that she rendered The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’s central character a deaf/mute rather than a gay man because, as a deaf-mute, his love for his male friend, Antonapoulos, would fly under the radar of 1940s mores. McCullers, moreover, was known for dressing in loose-fitting men’s clothes (indeed, Mick, The Heart’s hero, is a tom-boy) and McCullers’ small but remarkable oeuvre is filled with sexually ambiguous characters who are just as often tortured souls.

This brings us, finally, to Henry James’ The Ambassadors, which seems as good place a to end this essay as any because, while James was an American, the plot of The Ambassadors moves us from America to Europe. And on that Transcontinental note, I hereby hope to follow up this essay with more discussions of the Europeans’ gay-interest novels on the Modern Library list. Those novels, should anyone care to read ahead, are The Way of All Flesh, To the Lighthouse, Howard’s End, Dance to the Music of Time, Women In Love, Pale Fire, Of Human Bondage, The Alexandra Quartet, Kim, Brideshead Revisited and The Death of the Heart.

Steven Cordova photo

About: Steven Cordova

Steven Cordova is the 2012 first-place winner of the International Reginald Shepherd Memorial Poetry Prize. His first full-length poetry collection, Long Distance, appeared in 2010 from Bilingual University Press. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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