BY JEFF SOLOMON
Assistant professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University
Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein should not have been famous. Both secured their reputations between the Wilde trials and Stonewall, when the most widely available understandings of homosexuality were inversion and perversion, and when censorship prevented the public discussion of homosexuality except in terms laced with shame, disapproval, and disgust. Yet both Capote and Stein were exclusively gay, with long-standing domestic partnerships that they made no attempt to hide. Both wrote works that directly discussed homosexuality and had a queer aesthetic. And the homosexuality of both was irreducible from their public reputations. Nonetheless, Capote and Stein were mass-market celebrities, well known even to those who had not read their books and those who did not read fiction at all. They earned scorn as well as praise, but their presence was undeniable. At a time when other gay public figures were persecuted for their sexual orientation and either remained closeted or censored, or had their careers stifled by homophobic scandal, Capote and Stein somehow profited from being gay.
Capote’s and Stein’s successes resulted from an oscillation between what I call the “broadly queer” and the “specifically gay”: between a nonsexual queerness that riveted a mass audience and specific signals of homosexuality that were easily understood by those alerted to their own sexual dissidence. I use these terms to distinguish between homosexuality and other traits, behaviors, and phenomena that are degraded or otherwise viewed and treated as counter to the dominant order.
In the twentieth-century United States, male homosexuals were consistently at the bottom of the male scale, thanks to the inversion model, which views homosexuality as the adoption of behavior typical of the opposite sex. By these lights, gay men aped women, a subordinated class, and such aping left them even less valid and less valuable than women themselves. Nonetheless, male privilege still functioned for gay men, and wealth, fame, and other assets might raise their status. Lesbians both shared in the subordination of women and, thanks again to inversion, received especially bad treatment as social outsiders. The act of aping men might be endearing, as such masquerade strove to increase value and might heighten a woman’s femininity if pitched at the right angle. But if such women extended themselves past the purlieus of cuteness and threatened male privilege—if, for instance, tomboys grew into bull dykes—they were badly punished, unless they had other assets that were sufficiently valued by the hegemonic order to excuse their perversion.
Under this regime in the twentieth-century United States, especially before the women’s and gay rights movements, the specifically gay was almost always broadly queer, but the broadly queer was only sometimes specifically gay. Both Capote—an effeminate, precocious southerner who made a show of his strangeness—and Stein—a large Jewish expatriate who was markedly disinterested in being conventionally attractive and who associated with avant-garde artists—were extraordinarily broadly queer in their appearance, behavior, public persona, and the form and content of their writing. This broad queerness interacted in complex ways with their specific homosexuality and with the trope of the decadent, unconventional artist—one way that queerness may be celebrated, or at least tolerated, by the dominant order.
If such flamboyance were readily available as a form of heterosexual passing, then Capote and Stein would not be so unusual. Yet Stein is the only canonical American lesbian writer before the 1980s who directly references homosexuality in both her public face and her work. Though the greater visibility of male homosexuality led to a greater number of publicly gay writers, Capote is nonpareil in the centrality of homosexuality to his public persona. Many pre-Stonewall writers now regarded as publicly gay, such as Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin, were closeted both in their persona and their work until after gay liberation. Although Williams was more than ten years older than Capote, he was not gay “at large” until after Stonewall. Before the 1970s, Williams’s overtly gay-themed work, such as the 1948 collection One Arm and Other Stories (New York: New Directions), was sold only behind the counter at specialized bookstores in a brown paper wrapper. Male gay writers who refused the closet either found their careers forestalled or did not become mass-market celebrities.
Although they sometimes used their notoriety to advance their careers, Capote and Stein were not masterminds who carefully engineered their public personae. Much of their “fabulous potency” was largely beyond their control, and their success, like most fantastic gifts, came at an appreciable cost. Stein’s eventual mass-market triumph with The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas would trigger writer’s block through 1933 and ’34, a grave debility for a writer as productive as Stein, and would cause her to run to her poodle for existential affirmation, as detailed in the sequel, Everybody’s Autobiography: “I am I because my little dog knows me.” And Capote would never recover from his early stardom, which progressively overshadowed his writing, transforming him from a celebrated author into pure celebrity, and then, perhaps, into freeze-dried celebrity crystals, with no liquid in sight.
Jeff Solomon is author of So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein. Solomon is assistant professor of English and women, gender, and sexuality studies at Wake Forest University.
“Balancing biographical accounts with highly salient readings of a number of their works, So Famous and So Gay offers smart, surprising insights into the ways in which Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein achieved cultural prominence in spite of the homophobia that kept other openly gay writers of the period out of mainstream literary culture. A daring, suggestive, and intensely interesting book.”
—Lisa Ruddick, University of Chicago
“In So Famous and So Gay, Jeff Solomon amasses a treasure trove archive—literature, reviews, biographies, photographs, interviews—from which he examines the gayness, strangeness, and celebrity that combusted to create the queer precocity of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein. At once critically expansive and insightful, this book is also a good story. Like Stein and Capote, Solomon is an engaging stylist in his own right. Read to learn, read to enjoy (imagine that!).”
—Ken Corbett, author of A Murder Over a Girl