For gay men coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, especially those growing up in rural areas or suburban enclaves, there were few gay role models. Television and film offered little beyond the stereotypes of hairdressers and designers. What positive role models did exist were writers who could be labeled as gay or whose work could be detected as gay-themed: Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Gore Vidal and William Burroughs are some well-known examples. But while gay men were sometimes fully realized characters in these books and plays, they were still depicted as social outcasts, victims or doomed martyrs.
The writers who emerged in the 1970s, after the Stonewall Riots marked a watershed in gay men’s self-perception, transformed the fictional characterization of gay men. Instead of depicting outsiders, writers such as Edmund White, Andrew Holleran and Armistead Maupin created protagonists who moved within a gay community. In evoking this world and this nascent gay image, these writers gave many gay men a new role model, and, in so doing, contributed to the evolution of a lifestyle.
From 1980 to 1981 seven prominent gay writers met together seven or eight times to share their reading and writing with one another. Known informally as the Violet Quill Club, these writers--Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Christopher Cox, Michael Grumley, Robert Ferro, Felice Picano and George Whitmore--shared a desire to portray their gay experiences in print and to write expressly for gay readers without having to explain themselves to a heterosexual audience. Though these desires were prominent in several of these writers’ already published works, the notoriety of the Violet Quill helped change the direction and image of gay literature.
In the introduction to “The Violet Quill Reader,” a new anthology of short stories, essays, novel and diary excerpts by the seven writers, editor David Bergman reflects on how “the very act of representing gay life altered that life, by indicating that it was worthy of depiction, of creative energy. The VQ represented to other gay people a way of living a gay life that might not have otherwise seemed possible to them.”
Bergman has organized this material in a roughly chronological fashion, beginning with Edmund White’s letter to his friends Ann and Alfred Corn, detailing the Stonewall Riots, which he participated in on June 28 and 29, 1969. Included, too, are excerpts from several of the novels that were written and published during the heady disco era of the late 1970s, many of which are set in Manhattan and Fire Island, including White’s “Nocturnes for the King of Naples,” Holleran’s “Dancer From the Dance,” Whitmore’s “The Confessions of Danny Slocum” and Ferro’s “The Family of Max Desir.”
These works were not universally embraced at the time of their original publication; indeed, many of the gay community’s own newspapers and magazines found fault with them. One of the biggest complaints, and one voiced even by the gay news magazine The Advocate, was their persistent concern with the image and attainment of “the beautiful man"--a sort of gay golden dream.
What is often overlooked about these novels, however, and is not specifically addressed in this anthology, is that the narrators of novels written by Violet Quill members are not so much exulting in the era’s fast-paced, excessive lifestyle as straining to keep up with it. In so doing, the authors presented a far more accurate account of gay life than they have been given credit for.
The emergence of AIDS, of course, changed all of this--changed not only the course of gay life, but the course of gay literature. Four members of the Violet Quill have been lost thus far to disease--Cox, Ferro, Grumley and Whitmore--and a fifth, Edmund White, has tested positive for HIV, the virus believed to be the cause of AIDS. In the later selections of this anthology, these writers grapple with the disease in both fiction and nonfiction.
Robert Ferro’s most notable accomplishment was the way he wrote about the effect of his gay life on his family, first describing his coming out to them in “The Family of Max Desir”; then, portraying the impact of his illness on them in his last book, “Second Son.” “In the huge unnaturalness of the world,” he writes in “Second Son,” “the most unnatural thing is the death of a child, which is to say death out of order.”
Death out of order touches many of these works. Included in “The Violet Quill Reader” is Edmund White’s “An Oracle,” one of the first and finest stories to deal with AIDS, a haunting account of an expatriate New Yorker’s search for understanding, reflected through an affair with a young man in Crete. Also included is George Whitmore’s nonfiction account of writing about AIDS while living with the disease in “Bearing Witness,” which was first published in The New York Times Magazine and then in Whitmore’s book, “Someone Was Here: Profiles in the AIDS Epidemic.”
George Whitmore, in fact, is the surprising star of this anthology, both in “Bearing Witness,” an excerpt from his novel “Nebraska,” and in his short story “Getting Rid of Robert.” Bergman notes that the first publication of Whitmore’s story, about the dissolution of the perfect gay couple after one of the partners meets a young man at the baths, created a bitter fight within the Violet Quill--between Whitmore and Robert Ferro. Ferro saw the story as a direct attack on his long-term relationship with Michael Grumley. (Whitmore was the only Violet Quill member to willingly “drop out” of the club.)
In fact, one of the delights of this anthology is that it reveals the ambitions, anxieties, grudges and resentments that catalyzed the members of the club. Felice Picano’s journal, published for the first time here, is particularly gossipy (if repetitive); among the literati of the day making guest appearances are Randy Shilts, Vito Russo, Michael Denneny, William Whitehead, Fran Leibowitz, Taylor Mead, Arthur Bell, Dennis Cooper, Pat Loud and Larry Kramer. Also unpublished until now are Michael Grumley’s journal and the correspondence between Robert Ferro and Andrew Holleran, who met in 1965 when they both attended the University of Iowa’s famous Writers’ Workshop.
Unfortunately, Bergman provides only brief introductory notes to his selections and very little biographical information about the members of the Quill. Absent, too, is any vivid description of the Quill meetings: I, for one, would have liked to hear about the famous desserts that ended the sessions. (Legend has it that as frustrations within the group mounted, its members prepared increasingly elaborate, “dueling desserts.”)
What does emerge from this anthology, however, is what is so striking about gay life: the presence of friendships, often of the type that heterosexual society has difficulty understanding. As Bergman perceptively observes: “Time and again these works indicate how gay friendships often create an alternative to family, a link more compelling than blood. The theme of gay friendship is a theme that, more than any other, separates gay fiction from straight fiction.”
There is little doubt that most of these seven writers would have continued with their successes without the existence of the club. But the importance of the Violet Quill club was in the naming and defining of a new literature. Many other movements have emerged in gay literature; in fact, gay literature itself can now be broken down into many genres. But the Quill was the first really “gay” literary movement. Its achievements remain an important chapter in gay history.