May 12, 2019

Gather the Faces of Men: Homophobia in American Literature Class

When I was a junior in college, I took courses in "The Modern British Novel", "The American Renaissance," and  "Modern American Literature," plus German, French, and Spanish Literature.  And I forever afterwards restricted my literature consumption to the pre-modern (I should have known from my freshman-year class in Fiction Writing).  The professor of the Amer Lit class chose the texts that most jubilantly proclaimed the absence of gay people from the world.

1. John Updike, "A and P." A teenage boy is working in small-town supermarket: “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.” He goes on to describe their bodies in detail. Why do men never walk in with their shirts off?

2. Alan Dugan, "Tribute to Kafka for Someone Taken." He is at a party, when the police arrive. “I take one last drink,” he writes, “A last puff on a cigarette, a last kiss at a girl. . . .”   Why is there never a last kiss at a boy?

3. Carl Sandburg, "Stars, Songs, Faces": "Gather the faces of women" through our lives, and then, as we prepare to die, “Loosen your hands, let go and say goodbye.” Why are men's faces not worth gathering, or letting go?

Was there no glimpse of same-sex desire or love in these authors?

Not much. Carl Sandburg  evokes "the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of youth, half-naked, sweating," but his world is overwhelmingly that of “slender supple girls with shapely legs."

Men are described only in their connection to women: the Shovel-Man, who dreamed of by “a dark-eyed woman in the old country,” or Jack, who “married a tough woman and they had eight children,” or a Polish boy, “out with his best girl” on a Saturday night. Men only and always long for women.

John Updike writes endlessly about men noticing women, kissing women, and marrying women.   “We are all Solomons lusting for Sheba’s salvation,” says the narrator of “Lifeguard.”

There is a drag queen in "A Bar in Charlotte Amelie," but he is a lonely, pathetic creature, and he never expresses any same-sex interest.

In Updike's magnum opus about alienated suburban heterosexuals, Rabbit Run (1960),  Rabbit (played by James Caan in the movie version) wonders why his friend Tothero likes to watch him undress.  Could he be queer?  He wonders in horror.  No -- it's a nostalgic pleasure, a memory of all the times he used to watch boys undress in the locker room when he was young. that means Tothero isn't gay?

Alan Dugan was “the poet of masturbation,” endlessly describing his straight desires and exploits, with no mention of men except for barroom cronies.

His “Night Song for a Boy” is not about a boy, but about his depression over his failure to get enough women.

In old age, Dugan has a homoerotic dream about a dead friend, but in perhaps the most homophobic line in any poem since Catullus, he is horrified at the thought that his dream self might be “an impotent homosexual necrophiliac,” and longs for the “right” sort of dreams, dreams about women, again.

Every selection on the syllabus of that long-ago class came from an author who obsessed over heterosexual passion and erased nearly every trace of same-sex love from the world.  Their descriptions of men are bare and lifeless, as if too trivial to mention amid the endless paragraphs devoted to girls’ legs.

There were gay writers in mid-20th century America to choose from: Truman Capote, John Cheever, Robert Duncan, Thom Gunn, Allen Ginsburg, Amiri Baraka, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal. But I never heard of any of them in Modern American Literature class.

See also: Carl Sandburg's Two Gay References


  1. Wait, Dugan did know Kafka was disgusted by women, right?

    1. Amerika was the first Kafka novel I read, so it remains special to me. (Despite being the "least Kafka" Kafka work.)

      It also was a revelation to me. I'm bi, so I had a somewhat simplistic view of sexual orientation: Gay guys, I assumed, weren't disgusted by women so much as simply not aroused. Straight guys, some might be simply not aroused by men, but most are but repress it. When accounting for that, sexual orientation becomes (my statistical obsession in all things) a modal (or perhaps skewed) distribution.

      Kafka showed me I was wrong about gay men, but the last decade means I might still be right about straight men.

    2. I've never seen a naked lady in real life, but occasionally I glimpse them in a movie or in a painting, and I definitely get a gut reaction of "Gross! Disgusting!" Probably because it's unexpected. After seeing uncountable thousands of people with pecs and penises, you unconsciously expect everyone to look like that, so a body without them looks deformed.

  2. Marty Tothero – Rabbit's former basketball coach. He was popular in high school but got dismissed from his job due to a "scandal" This brings another angle or why he might like watching Rabbit undress.

  3. Who doesn't want to look at James Caan taking off his clothes?


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