Gay American Autobiography, Writings from Whitman to Sedaris, is an anthology I’d been meaning to tackle for a while. Edited by Towson University professor and author David Bergman, the book features life writings primarily from professionals, but also from a handful of writers he characterizes as “not especially literary.”
What the personal stories, letters, and journals have in common is their focus on uniquely gay experiences, such as coming out and same-sex lust and love. The anthology reads chronologically, beginning with the journals of Henry David Thoreau in the mid-1800s and ending with a performance piece by poet Justin Chin published in 2005.
In an NPR interview last November, Bergman stated, “I wanted people who made me go— wow.” The wow factor in this collection comes from its breadth as well as the candor of its writings.
As a student, I had studied Thoreau. As a teacher, I had taught his writings to my students, yet I was not acquainted with the celibate who mused “my friend must be my tent companion.” And later, “in the presence of my friend I am ashamed of my fingers and toes. I have no feature so fair as my love for him.”
A subsequent selection is from Claude Hartland (the pen name of a man who wanted to both remain anonymous and examine his improper feelings in 1896, thus his “clawed heart”) seeking medical help for his sexual “affliction.”
Samuel M. Steward’s Chapters from an Autobiography details his desire to sleep with Lord Alfred Douglas in 1937 because Douglas had slept with Oscar Wilde. When Steward, in his twenties, finally gets Douglas, age sixty-seven, into bed, he is linking himself through sex to Wilde, a name that “had a magic all its own for us who had to live without the benefits of liberation or exposure of our wicked lives.”
An excerpt from the memoir Young Man from the Provinces gives insight into Alan Helms, who in the late 1950s was both a Rhodes Scholar finalist and “the most famous piece of ass of [his] generation,” according to author Edmund White.
More modern entries delve into riskier territory—rape, physical abuse, sex with a twin brother, the complications of AIDS, and suicide. Yet the inclusion of contemporary writers such as Michael Klein, David Wojnarowicz, David B. Feinberg, and Essex Hemphill never feels gratuitous.
Instead, this variety of gay experience reveals the commonality of men who are Hispanic, Jewish, Chinese, black and white, and who are artists, writers and performers. In their own words, these men unflinchingly detail their private histories. In doing so, they are shedding light on a larger history that has been mainly unread, until now.