Books: Borrowed and blue

How do you distinguish gay from straight literature? That's for the reader, not the writer, to judge, argues Peter Parker; A History of Gay Literature: the male tradition by Gregory Woods Yale University Press, pounds 24.95 Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: the hidden tradi tion of homosexual literature in English from 1748-1914 edited by Mark Mitchell and David Leavitt Chatto & Windus, pounds 17.99
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What constitutes gay literature? Now that bookshops have shelves labelled "Lesbian and Gay Interest", and universities offer courses in "queer studies", the answer may seem obvious, but there was a time when people had to look carefully, and often read between the lines, in order to work out which books would reflect their own experience or fantasies. As Gregory Woods (somewhat inelegantly) observes in the introductory chapter of his ambitious book: "In the late 19th century and throughout the 20th, homosexual people have been involved in the retrospective creation of a culture of our own - which is to say, the appropriation of disparate cultural products and producers, and the elaboration of a fiction: that of a continuous `male love' tradition descending to Victorian London (or Paris, Berlin, Vienna or New York) from Periclean Athens and beyond." This "appropriation" occasionally upsets heterosexual critics, who are happy to fling Wilde, Forster and Auden to their gay colleagues, but huff and puff when attempts are made to include less unambiguously aligned authors in the canon - rather as if they were school captains picking the team for an important match.

There is a confusion here between the proven or supposed sexual orientation of the author and what he or she actually wrote. Mitchell and Leavitt include in their anthology an extract from H A Vachell's The Hill: A Romance of Friendship (1905), noting that the author was apparently unaware of its "extravagantly homosexual" tone. To grateful homosexual readers, Vachell's sexuality mattered less than what was on the page.

Indeed, one of the most interesting things about "gay literature" is that it is defined more by readers than by authors, and anthologies have always played a leading part in it. Mitchell and Leavitt's book is the latest in a long list of anthologies containing what might be called "homophilic" literature, with a historical scope that embraces Ancient Greece, the 11th-century Arab world, Ming China and Edwardian Chesterfield, where Edward Carpenter assembled his famous "Anthology of Friendship", Iolaus.

Two principal reasons for constructing a gay literature have been self- discovery and self-defence. "By sympathetic identification with cultural texts which appeared to be affirmative," Woods writes, "homosexual people saw a way to shore up their self-respect in the face of constant moral attack." Lists were compiled "in order to create the sense of `a usable past'". Some used the past less honestly than others, as when Wilde invoked Plato, Michelangelo and Shakespeare when defending himself against charges of gross indecency with male prostitutes. One can hardly blame Wilde for such moral blurring, but one also has some sympathy with the character in John Osborne's A Patriot for Me, who complains: "Michelangelo and Socrates, and Alexander and Leonardo. God, you're like a guild of housewives pointing out Catherine the Great."

The first half of Woods's history is chronological, starting with the Greeks, taking in Rome and the Renaissance, travelling to the Orient, dropping in on pastoral elegists and 18th-century libertines. Thereafter, the book becomes more thematic and more diffuse, at times almost scrappy, but it remains immensely readable and informative, and is greatly enlivened by the author's occasional combativeness and his sharp sense of humour. As in Articulate Flesh, Woods's excellent 1987 book about homoeroticism and modern poetry, several writers get chapters to themselves - there is a particularly good one on Proust - but mostly they find their place in energetic trawls through "Post-War Tragic Fiction", "The Homosexual in Society", "The Age of Antibiotics", and so on.

Some writers - not all minnows - almost fall through Woods's capacious nets. Discussions of E M Forster and Thomas Mann, for instance, are restricted to Maurice and Death in Venice, while the poets of the First World War are allotted a single paragraph. Compare this with an entire chapter on "Black African Poetry", which one suspects was included for political rather than logical reasons since (Woods concedes) none of it could be described as "gay", or at all positive in its depiction of homosexuality. A much more pertinent chapter analyses the black poetry of the Harlem Renaissance.

Mitchell and Leavitt's anthology includes 29 authors, starting from the equivocally mocking Smollett and ending with the resolutely celebratory Forster, but with a generous sampling of rarities in between. Many were published anonymously or pseudonymously, in limited or "private" editions, and in ephemeral or rapidly suppressed magazines. One such was New Field, edited by the future translator of Proust, C K Scott-Moncrieff, while a schoolboy at Winchester. Imagine the reaction of doting parents when they turned to the editor's "Evensong and Morwesong" (1908), which opens: "... `And if we're found out?' asked Maurice. He was still on his knees in the thicket, and, as he looked up to where his companion stood in an awkward fumbling attitude, his face seemed even more than usually pale and meagre in the grey broken light." The magazine was hastily withdrawn and Scott-Moncrieff expelled.

Other welcome exhibits include several chapters from Desert Dreamers (1914), a startlingly frank novel about an Englishman and his Arab guide by Gerald Hamilton, the model for Isherwood's Mr Norris; the whole of Alfred J Cohen's novella, A Marriage Below Zero (1889), narrated by a naive but opinionated young woman who gradually discovers what the reader recognises at once, that her husband is homosexual; and Louis Wilkinson's wicked pastiche of Henry James describing a scene of buggery. Also included are some intriguing examples of passionate friendships from 19th-century America.

The anthology sometimes calls for some fairly determined reading between the lines. Mitchell and Leavitt state that Herman Melville's "I and My Chimney" (1856) "is the source of `the closet' - and of its integrity." Even if this is true, it seems scant reward for reading so leaden a piece of whimsy, and the 46th chapter of Redburn, which the editors note "takes place in a male brothel in London", might have been more enlightening - and indeed enlivening.

A much better case is made for Henry James's "Collaboration", which is ostensibly about art and nationality, but ends with a French poet abandoning his fiancee to work in "the land of dreams - the country of art" with a German composer. Of Saki, the editors comment: "The homosexual element in his work sometimes passes so swiftly, so deftly, that one can almost miss it. But it is, most emphatically, there." Rather less emphatically, one is bound to note, in "Tobermory" (which they choose), than in, say, "Gabriel-Ernest", a tale of a man's involvement with an adolescent werewolf.

The literary quality of this volume is not as consistently high as it was in the editors' previous anthologies of Gay Short Stories and International Gay Writing, and writers such as Saki, James and Willa Cather stand out among the pallid paederastic effusions of H O Sturgis, the Rev E E Bradford and Count Stenbock. This, however, is not really the point. Woods points to a problem about such canons: "Do we make our choices of gay culture according to aesthetic or socio-historical criteria?" The literary merits of J F Bloxham's "The Priest and the Acolyte" (1894) are negligible, and yet it rightly finds its place in the anthology, not only because of its unabashed defence of the relationship between the two protagonists, but because it achieved an extra-literary notoriety when used against Wilde during his trials. (We learn from one of the useful notes that Bloxham ended up as the vicar of Hoxton.)

Technically, "gay literature" begins in 1969, with the birth of the gay rights movement, but both these absorbing and provocative books demonstrate that this was the culmination of a long tradition which may have remained hidden to the majority of readers, but which provided for those who needed it the literary equivalent of the Arcadian greenwood. There, in Forster's words, borrowed by Mitchell and Leavitt as an epigraph: "Two men can defy the world."