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Jesse Monteagudo's Book Nook

Same-Sex Love: The Anthologies

The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature: Readings from Western Antiquity to the Present Day, Byrne R.S. Fone, Editor; Columbia University Press; 830 pages; $39.50 hardcover.

Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homo-Sexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914, an anthology edited by Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt; A Marine Original; Houghton Mifflin Company; 458 pages; $30 hardcover; $18 paperback.

Best Gay Erotica 1998, Selected and Introduced by Christopher Bram; Edited by Richard Labonte; Cleis Press; 154 pages; $14.95.

Gay male literature has a long and honored tradition. Though social constructionists argue that male homosexuality, as we know it today, is a recent invention, the fact remains that males have had sex with other males since time immemorial.

Some of those men were writers, and they expressed their same-sex love in poems, plays, essays, novels and letters. This body of literature, which somehow survived censorship and obscurity, was rescued from oblivion by modern gay men who looked to the past to justify and celebrate their sexuality. Iolaus: An Anthology of Friendship, edited by Edward Carpenter in 1902, was only the first of a long line of gay literary collections.

In 1980 Byrne R. S. Fone edited Hidden Heritage: History and the Gay Imagination, an anthology of literary texts dealing with homosexuality.

review817a.gif - 14.10 KEighteen years later, Prof. Fone outdid himself (and everyone else) with The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature: Readings from Western Antiquity to the Present Day. Part of Columbia University's "Between Men~Between Women" lesbian and gay studies series, The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature is perhaps the most complete and comprehensive anthology of gay male literature ever published.

"This anthology offers a chronological survey of writing that represents, interprets, and constructs the experience of love, friendship, intimacy, desire, and sex between men over time - that is, what most readers would call gay male literature. ... It is my hope that this book will reflect the cultural diversity, the historical range, and the rich variety of writing that deals with male homosexuality."

"Cultural diversity?" Though The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature may be the most complete gay literary anthology to date, it is not complete by any means. Except for a short introductory section on Biblical literature and the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the book limits itself to European literature and its derivatives in North and South America.

Even Egypt is solely represented by Constantine Cavafy (1867-1933), an expatriate Greek. Though it might sound politically correct, any gay literary anthology that does not include ancient Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Arab, Sephardic Jewish, African and Native American literature is incomplete, to say the least.

Fone would reply that adding Asian, African and Native American literature to the mix would only double the size of the book, making it unwieldy. Perhaps a second volume, covering "non-Western" gay literature, is in order.

In the meantime, within the confines of western literature, The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature is the best of its kind. Fone has collected some of the best and most-significant works from twenty-five centuries of gay western literature, from the golden age of "Greek Love" to America's "masculine landscapes;" from Homer to Perry Brass.

We have a proud literary heritage. If nothing else, The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature should remind us of it.

Though gay literature is as old as humanity itself, it was not readily available to the (gay) masses until well into the 20th Century. Before then, writings that exposed and celebrated male love were often censored or forced into obscurity.

Some of the early works of gay fiction, especially those that were sexually explicit in nature, were literally "pages passed from hand to hand". The most famous work of 19th Century gay porno-graphy, "Teleny; or The Reverse of the Medal" -- attributed to Oscar Wilde and his circle, though first published in 1893, was only widely disseminated during the 1960's.

There is a lot of 18th and 19th Century gay literature in The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature. Those who want to read more from that period should pick up Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914.

Boyfriends Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt compiled a worthy collection of English and American writings, much superior in fact to Mitchell's flat Penguin Book of International Gay Writing. They certainly did their homework: "we asked friends. We read photocopies of photocopies that scholars and antiquarians sent to us; books of which only one copy existed in one 'special collection.' We did our time at the British Library in London and at the Clarke Library in Los Angeles...." This book is the fruit of their labor.

review817c.gif - 15.46 KIf there is anything wrong with Pages Passed from Hand to Hand is that it leaves us wanting more. Though we do not need another edition of E.M. Forster's Maurice, Howard Overing Sturgis's "Tim: A Story of Eton" (1891) is rare enough and worthy enough to merit more than the eight-page excerpt Mitchell and Leavitt allow it. It certainly deserves better than does Alan Dale's "A Marriage Below Zero" (1889), a homophobic potboiler that the editors thought fit to publish in its entirety.

There is much to enjoy in this anthology. In addition to the usual suspects - a selection from Charles Warren Stoddard's "South Sea Idyls" (1873), John Francis Bloxam's "The Priest and the Acolyte" (1894) - Pages has a few surprises: an excerpt from Owen Wister's classic western "The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains" (1902); stories by Kenneth Grahame and Saki.

If The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature overwhelms us with its size, Pages's lower scope (and price) make it more accessible to many readers. The selections are certainly worth reading for their own sake: as interesting fictions that, in spite of their age and bias, reflect on the gay experience.

review817b.gif - 13.87 KThose who want their gay literature current and sexy should pick up Best Gay Erotica 1998. The third in Cleis's series of quality gayrotic fiction, Best Gay Erotica 1998 has some of the best of its kind, as selected by Christopher Bram and edited by Richard Labonte. The stories are provocative, arousing and, best of all, well-written.

Also recommended is Best Gay Erotica's "sister": Best Lesbian Erotica 1998, selected and introduced by Jenifer Levin and edited by Tristan Taormino.

© 1997-98 BEI