the pages of noir: a list for the noir reader

The Pages of Noir: The Novels that Became Film Noir

Big Sleep Vintage Book Cover  In a Lonely Place Vintage Book Cover  Nightmare Alley Vintage Book Cover

After several conversations with a friend about film noir and the various literary texts that helped inspire and then quickly developed a symbiotic relationship with the cinematic style that retrospectively became recognized as noir, I started compiling a list of novels (as well as a few short stories, theatrical plays, and the occasional radio play) that was adapted for the screen by Hollywood during the noir heyday of the 1940’s and 50’s.  It was initially for my own reference, but thought others might be interested as well.

This list, I’m well aware, is far from exhaustive, especially as I have intentionally decided to focus on literary texts that are still potentially available to a reader today (so, a printing within the last 30 years or so).  The vast majority of noirs germinated from some kind of literary antecedent, but many seem to have vanished upon their initial printings, and now the films they inspired often serve as the only continued testament to their existence.  Additionally, in the past decades the renewed interest in both film noir and the hard-boiled detective, urban mystery and pulp genres have led to the publication of a number of anthologies collecting long-unavailable short stories, and those stories are at present very much underrepresented on this list, and will hopefully be added sometime at a future date.

Also, purists will undoubtedly spot many dubious inclusions on this list, ranging from non-American films to films made before or after the historical period recognized as producing pure film noir, and the only defense I can offer is that I chose to embrace the fuzzy, impossible-to-define nature of the term “film noir” and opted to include the occasional precedents and several successors of note that might be of reading interest (without delving into neo-noir, which I felt would quickly take me too far afield).  Tips and suggestions of titles to add, editions and republications I should be aware of, etc. would be very much appreciated.

And most importantly, happy reading!

The Pages of Noir: The List

A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene – This Gun for Hire (1942, Tuttle)

The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett – The Asphalt Jungle (1950, Houston)

The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing – The Big Clock (1948, Farrow)

The Big Heat by William P. McGivern – The Big Heat (1953, Lang)

The Big Knife (play) by Clifford Odets – The Big Knife (1955, Aldrich)

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler – The Big Sleep (1946, Hawks)

Black Alibi by Cornell Woolrich – The Leopard Man (1943, Tourneur)

The Black Angel by Cornell Woolrich – The Black Angel (1946, Neill)

The Black Path of Fear by Cornell Woorich – The Chase (1946, Ripley)

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding – The Reckless Moment (1949, Lang) (later adapted into The Deep End (2001, McGehee and Siegel))

Build My Gallows High by Geoffrey Homes – Out of the Past (1947, Tourneur)

Bunny Lake is Missing by Evelyn Piper – Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger)

La Chienne (Poor Sap or The Bitch) by Georges de La Fouchardière – La Chienne (1931, France, Renoir) and Scarlet Street (1945, Lang)

Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham – Christmas Holiday (1944, Siodmak)

Clean Break by Lionel White – The Killing (1956, Kubrick)

Criss-Cross by Don Tracy – Criss Cross (1949, Siodmak)

Dark Passage by David Goodis – Dark Passage (1947, Daves)

Deadline at Dawn by Cornell Woolrich – Deadline at Dawn (1946, Clurman)

Detective Story (theatrical play) by Sidney Kingsley – Detective Story (1951, Wyler)

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain – Double Indemnity (1944, Wilder)

The High Window by Raymond Chandler – Time to Kill (Leeds, 1942) and The Brasher Doubloon, (1947, Brahm)

The Fallen Sparrow by Dorothy B. Hughes – The Fallen Sparrow (1943, Wallace)

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler – Murder, My Sweet (1944, Dmytryk)

The G-String Murders by Gypsy Rose Lee – Lady of Burlesque (1943, Wellman)

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett – The Glass Key (1935, Tuttle) and The Glass Key (1942, Heisler)

I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane – I, the Jury (1953, Essex)

I Wake Up Screaming by Steve Fisher – I Wake Up Screaming (1941, Humberstone)

If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King – The Lady from Shanghai (1947, Welles)

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes – In a Lonely Place (1950, Ray)

The Killers and Other Short Stories. by Ernest Hemingway – The Killers (1946, Siodmak)

Kiss Me, Deadly by Mickey Spillane – Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Aldrich)

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye by Horace McCoy – Kiss Tomorrow Goodybe (1950, Douglas)

Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley – Knock on Any Door (1949, Ray)

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler – Lady in the Lake (1947, Montgomery)

Laura by Vera Caspary – Laura (1944, Preminger)

Leave Her to Heaven by Ben Ames Williams – Leave Her to Heaven (1945, Stahl)

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett – The Maltese Falcon (1931, Del Ruth) and Satan Met a Lady (1936, Dieterle) and The Maltese Falcon (1941, Houston)

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain – Mildred Pierce (1945, Curtiz)

Night and the City by Gerald Kersh – Night and the City (1950, Dassin)

Night Has a Thousand Eyes: a novel of suspense by Cornell Woolrich – Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948, Farrow)

The Night of The Hunter by Davis Grubb – The Night of the Hunter (1955, Laughton)

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham – Nightmare Alley (1947, Goulding)

Phantom Lady by Cornell Woolrich (as William Irish) – Phantom Lady (1944, Siodmak)

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain – Ossessione (1943, Italy, Visconti) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946, Garnett)

Rear Window (originally “It Had to be Murder”) by Cornell Woolrich – The Window (1949, Tetzlaff) and Rear Window (1954, Hitchcock)

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett – Roadhouse Nights (1930, Henley)

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes – Ride the Pink Horse (1947, Montgomery)

Serenade by James M. Cain – Serenade (1956, Mann)

Sorry, Wrong Number by Lucille Fletcher – Sorry, Wrong Number (1948, Litvak)

The Spiral Staircase: Some Must Watch by Ethel Lina White – The Spiral Staircase (1945, Siodmak)

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith – Strangers on a Train (1951, Hitchcock)

Sweet Smell of Success (play) by Clifford Odets – Sweet Smell of Success (1957, Mackendrick)

They Drive by Night by A.I. Bezzerides – They Drive By Night (1940, Walsh)

Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson – They Live By Night (1949, Ray)

Thieves’ Market by A.I. Bezzerides – Thieves’ Highway (1949, Dassin)

The Woman in the Window (originally Once Off Guard) by J.H. Wallis – The Woman in the Window (1944, Lang)

Woman in the Window Vintage Book Add

Cross-posted at Goodreads

Read So Far:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (review)
The High Window by Raymond Chandler (review)
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

early, honorable failure

Novel Cover

Thoughts on Flesh is Heir: An Historical Romance by Lincoln Kirstein

To say Lincoln Kirstein was a man of many talents is a massive understatement, but it seems pretty clear from his single published novel that creative fiction cannot be counted as one of them. Written when Kirstein was in his mere twenties and drawn heavily from his own life experiences, it is primarily of interest for what it reveals about its author than as any kind of satisfying reading experience. Kirstein, gutted by the patronizingly lukewarm (at best) reaction he received upon publication, gave up his aspirations to be a novelist and decided instead to devote his considerable energies to a seemingly harebrained idea of establishing a ballet company in America to rival Europe and Russia’s best.

The rest, as they say, is history. So maybe all good balletomanes, and fans of the vast amount of erudite scholarly writing on art Kirstein subsequently wrote, owe a debt of gratitude to this apparently “lost” and forgotten novel. Because without its failure, who knows what young Kirstein would have decided to do instead?

As for the novel itself: quite frankly, it is deathly dull (or at least what I managed to get through was). The prose is characteristically elegant but utterly lifeless—I dutifully plodded through the first chapter, an extended vignette set in an upper-class New England boarding school, and admitted defeat (afterwards I focused solely on several chapters pertinent to something I was researching). Really, the idea of this novel is more interesting than its actuality—it is fascinating to consider that its author, the brilliant upstart editor of Hound & Horn and considered to be at the forefront of literary modernism and all things new and avant-garde, would himself write a novel that could, at best, be charitably described as amiably antiquated. Really, it’s essentially of the quality that would have been expected of a bright, artistic but relatively unexceptional young man of a certain means during the second half of the 19th century. But in the 1930’s? This sad little book didn’t have a chance.

But it is, ultimately, this dissonance that intrigues me, and it does serve as an early indicatation one of the great contradictions that would mark all of Kirstein’s subsequent work: a man whose taste in art and aesthetics was essentially neoclassic, and yet who defended adamantly and often brilliantly to a generally skeptical American public all that was modern and experimental and new. As Flesh is Heir makes abundantly clear, this seemingly incongruous dynamic was there right from the very beginning.

And, truth be told, I do expect to return and read the whole thing someday. Only this time with properly adjusted expectations and a bountiful reserve of patience, of course.

Review of Novel from Vintage Newspaper

Crossposted at Goodreads

observation

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec

An experiment, and one ultimately doomed to failure; its failure, however, is also its greatest strength.  It’s essentially an extended list of details (“some cars dive into the parking lot./ an 86 [bus] passes by.  A 70 passes by,” etc, etc), something that would seem to make for a rather dull read.

But I found it one of the most invigorating reading experiences I’ve had in a long while.  Not particularly, I admit, because of the text itself, but in the way that it suddenly made me breathlessly attuned to my surroundings, conscious of the tiny details of a particular time and a particular space that are easily (usually?) overlooked, ignored.  I read this slenderest of texts as I sat at the small table in the front bay windows of a cafe I discovered last week and have returned to several times since, looking out on a side street that heretofore had seemed tranquil and practically empty (at least by San Francisco standards), but as I read it suddenly seemed bristling with activity, and I became hyper-aware of the pedestrians criss-crossing my direct field of vision, casually walking dogs, pushing strollers or talking on phones, of the wind occasionally causing the overhanging expanses of tree leaves to shudder uncontrollably, of the slightest glimpse of figures appearing in windows of the facing row of houses…

And for that all-too-brief hour or so, the “infraordinary”—Perec’s term for “the markings and manifestations of the everyday that consistently escape our attention as they compose the essence of lives”—suddenly seemed quite extraordinary.

I didn’t think of taking a photo myself, but I’m glad someone else did!  I was at the table on the opposite window, however, and when I’ve been there there hasn’t been so much activity outside… I have no idea what the white stuff is on the window though.  Photo by sparkle glowplug, found on flickr.

Review crossposted at Goodreads

marilyn monroe (finally) speaks for herself

Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters by Marilyn Monroe
Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, eds.

To be honest, I had never noticed how prominently books feature in Marilyn Monroe iconography, but now that it’s been pointed out, it’s almost impossible to miss.

Apparently, this was no accident, for as Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment ask in their introduction to this volume, do we know of any other actresses from the period who “sometimes took pains to be photographed reading or holding a book?”  And this wasn’t merely a ploy to counter a fast-crystalizing reputation as an airhead, a dumb blonde, a beautiful face with nothing substantial behind it.  As Buchtal and Comment note, Monroe was “passionately fond of literature.”

And what did she read?  Oh, just UlyssesSwann’s Way.  Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln.  The personal library she left behind included titles by Milton, Flaubert, Dreiser, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Ellison, Beckett. Never graduating from high school and embarrassed of the fact, as a blossoming starlet she began taking night classes at UCLA in literature and art history (attested to in detailed notes on Italian Renaissance art included in this volume).  She cultivated friendships with Sandburg, Edith Sitwell, Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, to say nothing of her famous marriage to one of America’s foremost playwrights which would certainly have exposed her to the mid-century intelligentsia and literati.

In the decades since her death, it has become widely accepted to think of “Marilyn Monroe” in terms of a binary: Marilyn Monroe/Norma Jeane Baker.  The luscious blonde sex goddess/the emotionally and mentally fragile woman behind the glamour and wide smile and come-hither gaze.  But with this collection, bringing together a recently unearthed assortment of journals, notes and letters, upsets that binary.  Certainly not the Marilyn of the silver screen, not quite the tragic, victimized off-screen Norma Jeane, a complex woman instead emerges: one who certainly was beautiful, glamorous, and sexy, one who was also emotionally scarred from a traumatic childhood, but one who was also curious and creative and introspective and literary.  A woman who actively pursued a creative and artistic life.  A woman who was by no means “just a dumb blonde.”


It’s not that I read every line of this book; in fact, after a while I read very little, instead opting to look at the carefully reproduced pages, studying the erratic handwriting, scattershot layout and curious spelling mistakes (Marilyn probably had some form of dyslexia).  It’s not that the poetry is good, and is probably of interest mostly to those willing to dutifully scour it for clues to her psyche and psychological makeup (I am definitely not one of those people).  To be honest, most of this is the type of scrawling that should be read by nobody but its creator; coming from different circumstances, this is not stuff that would be fit to publish.  But, of course, legends and icons are a different situation altogether.

Because really the quality, even the content itself is beside the point: this is Marilyn/Norma Jeane in her own words, speaking for herself.  And it’s been a long time coming.

literary left bank ladies

Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900 – 1940 by Shari Benstock

As I said in my initial Goodreads status update tracking my progress reading this book, “I had intended to skim, but that quickly proved to be an impossibility,” as almost instantly I was engrossed by this group of utterly fascinating women—fiercely intelligent, unapologetically complex, sometimes contradictory, but each in their own diverse ways dedicated to the artistic life, in the process often turning in very real ways life itself into an artistic statement.  Utilizing both biography and literary analysis—and demonstrating how often these factors intimately intertwine—Benstock attempts to sketch the ambiguous boundaries of the vibrant Parisian Left Bank community as it functioned during the first four decades of the twentieth century.

Benstock’s task is an admittedly daunting one: the first comprehensive study of its kind, it is not particularly surprising that as the chapters progress one begins to get the impression that Benstock is struggling to retain control of her material in light of its obvious potential to branch out infinitely, and the first few chapters function as marvelous portraits of a number of women and/or pairings (romantic, professional and often both at once), most particularly those dedicated to Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner, Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, Djuna Barnes, Natalie Barney and the coterie of women circling her.  Once she gets to the substantial chapter on H.D., however (included in this study rather tenuously as she intensely disliked Paris and actively avoided spending time there), Benstock is attempting to weave into this histiocultural narrative the stories and accomplishments of a number of individuals, and often these attempts fail to do their subjects justice.  Aside from H.D.’s odd inclusion in this study and much space devoted to Colette (undoubtedly a crucial player in this world, but not an expatriate), exactly who and what is excluded is also rather curious: Radclyffe Hall and The Well of Loneliness barely warrant a few passing mentions, and a number of names listed on the cover (Kay Boyle, Caresse Crosby, Maria Jolas and Solita Solano and several others) collectively receive less analysis than, say, the paintings of Romaine Brooks, a topic supposedly outside the scope of study.

But such problems are minor compared to what Benstock does accomplish, which on the one hand is bringing these various women’s life stories to vivid life, and on the other providing a much-needed countering voice to the heterosexual masculine (and extremely romanticized) depiction of the expatriate life as depicted in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the text which has almost singlehandedly defined this period in the popular imagination.  Benstock also does important work in being part of the movement to reexamine and completely reinterpret the literary work of Stein, Barnes, Barney, H.D., Nancy Cunard and others, proclaiming their central importance in any analysis of the Modernist literary movement, defying the condescending marginalization this work has traditionally received by creating spaces of “alternative Modernisms.”  What I most appreciated, however, was how Benstock directly confronts the ways in which the writing of these women resists easy canonical assimilation, and attempts to take into account the ways in which very little of the collective artistic output that was created present a clear, unproblematic case studies for feminist study and discourse.  Benstock recognizes this, and it makes her analysis and the portrait of a place and time all the more richly observed.

The documentary Paris Was a Woman (Greta Schiller, UK, 1995) provides a nice cliffnote-type accompaniment to this (admittedly hefty) volume, with archival footage, photographs and films which provide a brief but tantalizing taste of the period (with Benstock and several other scholars she prominently quotes throughout Women of the Left Bank providing context and analysis).  Not an adequate substitute by any stretch of the imagination, but a nicely realized introduction and/or supplement.

Excerpt on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on YouTube:

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads.

innocence(?)

Mine-Haha or On the Bodily Education of Young Girls by Frank Wedekind

Even just a cursory glance over various analyses of Wedekind’s short novella shows that interpretations tend to be just as conflicted and baffled as my own.  Because, well, this text is just weird.  Really, really weird.

The story, revolving around an unorthodox boarding school young girls become mysteriously initiated into, places each girl into a hierarchical “family” of seven other girls, and over the next seven years rigorously trains them in ballet and to play instruments.  By their sixth and seventh years, the girls, teetering on the edge of puberty, are then employed by the school to perform in elaborate nightly performances to help finance the institution, and judging from both Wedekind’s detailed descriptions of the performances as well as the vocal reactions of the audience, the plays are selected for their “tastefully” lascivious plotlines and elements.  The girls, unable to comprehend the double entendre of the actions they are performing, are then ushered out of the school once the menstruation process is about to begin.

If this sounds like boarding school erotica–if not actual pornography–countless descriptions and actions, often presented as asides, do little to dispel such a charge (i.e. “if you missed even a small step, you felt the cane on your legs, a sensation that trickled up to the back of your neck.  Gertrud always smiled when she beat us”).  Or such scenes of swimming in the stream, with “hundreds of girls… undressing ready to sunbathe” (they swim naked, of course), or the narrator’s remembrance of her role as one of the peasant girls in her first performance, in which she remembers that they “had nothing to do but lie on the steps and display [their] naked upper bodies and calves.”  Umm, yeah.  Creepy.

But just when one has pretty much written off Mine-Haha as esoteric smut (albeit beautifully written, extremely fascinating smut), Wedekind switches gears, and suddenly giving the entire story a liberal, even feminist slant: the description of the performance features prominently its main female dancer trapped in a cage, railing against the injustice of her situation, and it retrospectively echos a brief moment earlier in the narrative when the narrator and several other girls stand at the large, barred iron front gate of their school in which they note the “heavy bolt” that prevents their access to the mysterious world beyond.  While nothing is ever explicitly stated, it is clear, however, that more is involved now than an elaborate fantasy.

This squares with Wedekind’s reputation, then, as one of the most vehement and articulate critics of European bourgeois culture in late 19th century, particularly in regards to its repressive stance in regards to sex and sexuality (one of the reasons why Spring Awakening still seems so audacious and modern, capturing such a huge American audience over the last few years).  And so that becomes the pièce de résistance of weirdness—suddenly what has seemed so queasily porno-ish is now being positioned as a progressive, utopian social vision.  It’s an odd dynamic that the novella is never able to resolve (though really, Wedekind might not even have realized it was something that needed to be resolved), and that’s what created such a conflicted, unmoored reaction in me.

Which brings me to why I even read this in the first place.  As it turns out, several years ago a French film director took the contradictions and ambiguities of Mine-Haha and transformed them into a masterful film.  Among other things, in Innocence (2004), Lucile Hadzihalilovic completely reworked this material, positioning it as a dreamy, evocative metaphor for female sexual maturation, though she is careful to retain many of the ambiguities and complications that marks Wedekind’s novella, leaving them eerily unresolved as well (which caused its own minor controversy when the film was released).  As such, placing literary and cinematic texts next to each other creates a fascinating dialogue, their uneasy reflection in each other resolving some issues and questions but opening up even more.

Which, it must be admitted, is exactly as I was hoping for, as I’m writing on this topic for my thesis, and I was hoping to use this novella and adaptation as a key example.  And now I can.

Memories of a Movie:

Review Cross-posted at Goodreads

reading adventures, 2008

So yes, I’m pretty damn proud of this list, if I may say so myself.  After the dismal reading year that was 2007 (exactly 13 titles), it was my New Years Resolution last year that I was going to double that number over the course of 2008.  Well, I accomplished that, and then some.  And already on course in 2009 to go way above and beyond that…

But more than that, last year I feel in love with reading again–and that, of course, is the most important thing.

* denotes a poetry collection

The Trojan Women – Euripides
Homosexuality and Civilization – Louis Crompton
The Picture of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
The Blithedale Romance – Nathaniel Hawthorne
Three Sisters – Anton Chekhov
The Celluloid Closet – Vito Russo
Beowulf 
Ecclesiastes 
Movie Wars – Jonathan Rosenbaum
Autobiography of Red* – Anne Carson
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho* – Anne Carson
As You Like It – William Shakespeare
Moving Places: A Life at the Movies – Jonathan Rosenbaum
The Beauty of the Husband* – Anne Carson
A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
Uncensored: Views and (Re)Views – Joyce Carol Oates
The Wasteland and Other Poems – T.S. Eliot
Kora and Ka (with Mira-Mare) – h.d.
Les enfants terribles – Jean Cocteau
Sexual Personae – Camille Paglia
Sex, Art and American Culture – Camille Paglia
The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
The White Paper – Jean Cocteau
Say Uncle: Poems* – Kay Ryan
The Bell – Iris Murdoch
Vamps and Tramps – Camille Paglia
The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates: 1973 – 1982 – Joyce Carol Oates
The Profane Art: Essays and Reviews – Joyce Carol Oates
Catcher in the Rye (re-read)- J.D. Salinger
With Love and Squalor: 14 Writers Respond to J.D. Salinger – K. Kotzen and T. Beller, eds.
Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall – Richard Barrios
Dancing Ledge – Derek Jarman
Something Bright, Then Holes* – Maggie Nelson
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
Seven Notebooks: Poems* – Campbell Mcgrath
The Art of Memoir: Then, Again – Sven Birkerts
The Holy Innocents: A Romance – Gilbert Adair
Sea Change* – Jorie Graham
Stroke: Poems* – Sidney Wade
A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930 – 1960 – Jeanine Basinger
Rock Harbor* – Carl Phillips
Art and Sex in Greenwich Village: A Memoir of Gay Literary Life after Stonewall – Felice Picano
Watching the Spring Festival: Poems* – Frank Bidart
The Lost Saranac Interviews: Forgotten Conversations with Famous Writers – Joe David Bellamy, ed. 
Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist – Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
Against Interpretation – Susan Sontag
Arkansas: Three Novellas – David Leavitt
The Tether* – Carl Phillips
The Witches – Roald Dahl
Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles – Katie Roiphe
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Franweiler – E.L. Konigsburg
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
An Acceptable Time – Madeleine L’Engle
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

The books immediately ushered onto my “most-loved” list: Autobiography of Red, Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, Brideshead Revisited, Against Interpretation, Little Women.

Honorable Mentions: As You Like It, Sexual Personae, Les enfants terribles, The Name of the Rose, Say Uncle: Poems.

not-so-sentimental education

In his thoughts on the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So a few months back, my friend Lin made a comment about the infamous Anita Byrant pie-in-the-face incident that forced me to confront my ignorance of gay history—I had no idea who she was! It subsequently became one of my New Years resolutions was to educate myself on the subject, if only because it has long been my vague impression that the lamentation from some quarters that the homosexual community is no longer politically engaged can be primarily attributed to (and I’m pointing a finger squarely at myself) here) not possessing even a passing awareness of our history. And as one not content with indulging in such willful ignorance, I started off by reading:

Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilizations is an illuminating survey from the farthest reaches of human civilization through the Enlightenment, and while obviously an impossibility, while reading it Crompton’s book it certainly seems to be an exhaustive analysis of the subject. As such, there is so much that could be expounded on in great length, but instead I’ll stick to a few sadly scattered thoughts:

—I went into the book with a few general tidbits gleaned from elsewhere about the general acceptance of homosexuality in ancient Greece as well as their penchant for pederastic relationships, but what I wasn’t expecting was the sheer wealth of information that has survived from ancient times regarding male/male relationships (unfortunately, except for Sappho, information on lesbians is almost nil). As almost all of it comes through the surviving art, in a lot of ways the book comes off as a general survey of the era’s literature as most of the major players (and many, many more minor ones) of the period are in some way included. I used that I used it as an excuse to justify not reading something specifically GRE-approved in my preparation of said test.

—Not that I thought the Middle Ages was a garden party for anyone involved, but I honestly wasn’t expecting the overwhelming intensity of the rising Christian church’s demonization of homosexuals over the course of several hundred years. Any natural disaster was the cause of rounding up homosexuals for public burning in an attempt to convince God that said area was not the modern equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah (whose development as a potent, effective symbol of decadent, shameful homosexuality is analyzed in length in the chapter Crompton devotes to ancient Hebraic culture), and the degree and widespread intensity of torture is head-spinning (gruesome public castration—which you weren’t expected to survive—was the most common prelude to burning, to the delight of thousands). But even more disheartening than the gleeful hate of the masses is the downright loathing espoused in book after book, pamphlet after pamphlet, sermon after sermon by the philosophers, theologians, preachers and priests of the time. I know it’s become commonplace in academic circles to move away from the term “Dark Ages” in describing this particular time in history—but for homosexuals, it’s still the most apt label imaginable.

—One of the most valuable elements of Homosexuality and Civilization is the chapters on ancient Asia—and not just because it provided a much-needed break from the atrocities of Medieval Europe. Spending time with ancient China and Japan we encounter literally a completely different world occurring simultaneously with the Middle Ages in Europe, for with the exception of cycles of particularly fervent following of Confucian philosophy, homosexuality was generally an issue that was at least tolerated, and at some times and places, actively embraced. And for those of us whose major source of information on samurai life is through the films of Kurosawa, how surprising it is to find that a pederastic system startlingly similar to that of ancient Greece was a rather basic element of samurai culture! In the rich history of both the Chinese royal and education systems as well as Japanese theater Crompton discovers much to explore—and what’s all the more amazing is that Crompton admits he’s only touched the tip of the iceberg as much still remains untranslated (and therefore unavailable) to Western scholarship.

—The chapters on the European royal courts and its many sexually dubious monarchs are great fun to read as the “enlightened” noble classes viewed homosexuality (of both sexes) to be almost commonplace among the elite of the population, and therefore discussed it frankly in their private with a great deal of wit (I laughed out loud during several passages). And the book ends with the inspiring writings of British reformer Jeremy Bentham whose progressive ideas on equality remain stunningly progressive even for a so-called “enlightened” society as modern day America.

I can’t remember the last time I got so quickly through a 500 page book. And aside from the sheer amount of information he provides, what makes the book so endlessly fascinating is the nuance Crompton allows in his approach—he rarely can be accused of resorting to generalizations (and in the cases he can it’s very clearly the result of space constraints) and he has a very keen sense of the variation caused by such factors as location, socio-economic status and gender. There’s also an admirable fairness in Crompton’s approach—even while dealing with worst atrocities at the hands of so-called Christians he also makes clear in his conclusion that the religion cannot be completely condemned out of hand. And, of course, it helps that he’s an engaging wordsmith and a remarkably fluid writer, something that’s not always a given when approaching academic texts. A book of tremendous value—and as should be obvious, one the deserves to be widely read.

diving back into theory lately…

“Far from being an expression of natural differences, exclusive gender identity is the suppression of natural similarities. It requires repression: in men, of whatever is the local version of ‘feminine’ traits; in women, of the local definition of ‘masculine’ traits. The division of the sexes has the effect of repressing some of the personality characteristics of virtually everyone, men and women. The same social system which oppresses women in its relations to exchange, opresses everyone in its insistence upon a rigid division of personality” (p. 782).

“The suppression of the homosexual component of human sexuality, and by collary, the oppression of homosexuals, is therefore a product of the same system whose rules and relations oppress women…” (p. 782).

-Gayle Rubin, The Traffic of Women

“In this fictive England, she [Bertha Mason] must play out her role, act out of transformation of her ‘self’ into the fictive Other, set fire to the house and kill herself, so that Jane Eyre can become the feminist individualist heroine of British fiction.”

-Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism


The McEven Sisters, Thomas Sully