| Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook
Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest, Collected and edited by Will Fellows; University of Wisconsin Press; 322 pages; $14.95.
Modern gay life is largely an urban phenomenon. To this day most gay communities flourish in cities large and cosmopolitan enough to allow for alternative lifestyles. Our history abounds with the experiences of young gay men from the country who were only able to come out and be themselves after they moved to the city. Even Will Fellows, who "was born in 1957 and grew up on a Wisconsin dairy farm that has been in the family for more than a century", has lived in cities for all of his adult life.
Still, as the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the country but you can't take the country out of the farm. Fellows himself, he admits, "tended to feel like an outsider in the gay communities of the cities in which I have lived. ... In an effort to gain a better understanding of what I bring to the experience of being gay as a result, perhaps, of my farm upbringing," Fellows looked for books that reflected his own life. Needless to say, most gay literature "neglects the experiences and perspectives of gay men who grew up in farm families."
Lacking a book that told about the gay rural experience, Fellows went ahead and wrote one. Farm Boys: Lives of Gay Men from the Rural Midwest, "is about the lives of gay men who grew up on farms in the mid-western United States during the twentieth century. I have done this work in the interest of promoting a fuller appreciation of the varied origins of, and perspectives within, the population of gay men in the U.S." Fellows found his farm boys by placing ads for his Gay Farm Boys Project in selected gay journals. 120 men responded to Fellows's query. After he whittled down the cranks - including one man who wanted Fellows to find him "a real cute farm boy" - Fellows interviewed 75 men. Less than half of those interviews were revised by the author and appear in Farm Boys.
The farm boys in Farm Boys were born between 1909 and 1967. Fellows divided them in three groups, based on the years they came of age. The first group came of age between the mid-1920s and the mid-1960s, when "there was little change ... in the kind or quantity of information about homosexuality accessible to a farm boy coming of age in the Midwest." The second group came of age between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s: "The blossoming of America's sexual revolution and counterculture movements". The third group came of age between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, a period which "saw major mass-media attention to homosexuality, in print and on television."
Times change, even on the farm. As a rule, the men in the second and third groups came out at an earlier age, and were less likely to marry, than their predecessors. Still, almost half of Fellow's farm boys used pseudonyms, and quite a few had not come out to their parents. As a rule, the men in all three groups shared a respect for tradition and a conservatism and stability that is almost unheard of in the major urban ghettoes. On the other hand, rates of AIDS and HIV are apparently low, at least by big city standards.
It should be pointed out that many of the men featured in Farm Boys have chosen to live their gay adult lives in big cities, away from the constraints of rural life. Whether born in 1909 or 1969, many of the subjects in this book have had to deal with the perils of rural life: strict or violent parents, grueling work and the strictures of the Catholic or Protestant faiths. Still, for better or for worse, these men were shaped by their midwestern, rural upbringing, one which they carried with them when they moved to the gay metropolis. "In certain ways," said Richard Kilmer, in his interview, "growing up on a farm and moving to the city was like being from a different country and moving to the United States."
"I've lived in the Twin Cities, and I think so many gay men's lives there are so superficial," says Jahred Boyd, who lives on a farm near Webster, Minnesota. "They are so concerned about things that don't really matter, like where they live and what they wear. I'm real content with where I live, and if I have a clean tee-shirt and jeans on, I'm fine". Men like Boyd makes Farm Boys interesting reading, especially for city boys who don't know which end of a cow to milk. There stories are sometimes funny - some of the boys' sexual experiences with barnyard animals are a hoot - often sad and always interesting. All in all, however, what struck me the most about Farm Boys was how much I was able to relate to the farm boys, in spite of our different backgrounds. Rural Minnesota and Little Havana are not so far apart after all, and what makes these lives special is that they echo our own lives, while at the same time remain true to their own times and place.
ONE HUNDRED BEST NOVELS(?)
As you already know, the editorial board of the Modern Library (Random House) recently picked the 100 best novels published in the English language since 1900. All the members of the editorial board (except one) are white men; so it's no surprise that the top hundred novels favored "dead white males." There were only nine titles by white women; six by men of color; and none by women of color. Where are Zora Neale Hurston, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison or Alice Walker?
Though Gore Vidal was part of the editorial board, novels with lesbian or gay content did not do well in the Modern Library's list. Even authors who we know were gay are represented by their non-gay material: James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain (# 39); E. M. Forster's A Passage to India (# 25), Howard's End (# 38) and A Room with a View (# 79). Still, lesbians and gay men were present, albeit slightly, in the Top 100 list. According to The Lesbian in Literature by Barbara Grier or The Male Homosexual in Literature by Ian Young, the following "Top 100" novels have lesbian or gay relevance:
1 Ulysses by James Joyce (minor gay character)
4 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (minor lesbian and gay characters)
12 The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (minor gay character)
15 To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf 15 (minor lesbian character)
17 The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCuller (minor gay character)
21 Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow (minor gay character)
23 U.S.A. Trilogy by John Dos Passos (minor gay character)
24 Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (minor gay character)
28 Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (minor gay and lesbian characters)
38 Howard's End by E. M. Forster (latent lesbian character)
42 Deliverance by James Dickey (minor gay character)
43 Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (minor lesbian and gay)
44 Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley (latent lesbian character)
48 The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence (minor lesbian and gay characters)
49 Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence (major gay character)
50 Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (minor lesbian character)
51 The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer (minor gay character)
53 Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (minor gay character)
62 From Here to Eternity by James Jones (minor gay character)
63 The Wapshot Chronicles by John Cheever (minor gay character)
64 The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (minor gay character)
70 The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durell (major lesbian and gay)
80 Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (minor gay character)
81 The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow (minor gay character)
Also worth mentioning (in my opinion) are I, Claudius by Robert Graves (# 14); On the Road by Jack Kerouac (# 55); and The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (# 97).