The Homophobic Imagination


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Part 3: Scholarship and Homophobia

At the outset of the crucially important task of finding scholarly support for any theories about the homosexual imagination vis-à-vis the homophobic imagination, we must recognize how homophobia has had a detrimental effect upon scholarship itself. In this particular issue of College English we have only obliquely exposed the lack of professional standards exhibited by traditional scholarship on homosexual literature, for at the moment we are concerned with the practical possibilities of teaching what has not become lost, strayed, or stolen, but we must begin to appreciate the extent to which academic publishing, research, and library services have contributed to the excommunication of homosexual literary history.

Overt censorship of course is a major problem, including the kind of irreparable censorship by which a host of medieval and classical manuscripts have been literally destroyed by medieval scholars fearing the contagion of heresy, leaving us with wide gaps in the tradition that can be filled in only with reference to the homophobic tracts and satirical invective that was allowed to remain beside the now illegible page of manuscript covered with tar-pitch. Scholars of course are not guilty for such equally irreparable losses as the pages torn out of Byron's Missolonghi notebook, the pages that Whitman tore out of his notebooks, the two-year segment torn out of Lord Hervey's Memoirs, the early correspondence of Walter Pater destroyed by his sisters, the historical notes and memoirs that Sir Richard Burton's wife threw into the fireplace page by page. Scholars have been guilty, however, of contributing their share to the homophobic attitudes that both permitted and encouraged such wanton destruction, and scholarly critics were busily engaging in vicious homophobic criticism rather than demurring when thousands of rare books and literary artifacts were seized and destroyed by British and American customs agents during the years between the wars, particularly in the 1930s. Modern scholars have been especially guilty of failing to duly appreciate the kind of evidence that these blank spaces indicate, for instead of finding evidence herein of homophobia, the relative absence of such material is taken as proof of the anomaly of homosexual literature.

Scholars have certainly participated in the suppression of homosexually relevant data, and although (we hope) it is no longer common practice to suppress such material, we are often at the mercy of the suppressions that have already occurred. The deletion of the homosexually-relevant information about Sir Francis Bacon's boyfriend Godrick from James Halliwell's 1845 edition of Sir Simonds D'Ewes Autobiography is of course despicable, but the gap has nevertheless been incorporated into all Bacon studies because there exists no other printed edition of D'Ewes's Autobiography. When we multiply this example a thousandfold (which we can do with relative ease in the field of nineteenth-century scholarship), we can see what an immense task it will be to reclaim homosexual literary reality. But such examples continue to multiply even today, while literary executors and scholars and publishers meet behind closed doors to discuss how much can be revealed and how much can be suppressed (scholars of absolute integrity repeatedly confront an incredible range of editorial deceit and backbiting if they want to write an honest study of a homosexual author), with the result that we are continually building our critical judgments upon "official" (i.e. bowdlerized) biographies until fifty or so years after an author's death.

A number of homosexual authors have heterosexualized or de-homosexualized their works prior to or after the first publication: that is, they have engaged in self-censorship in response to the prejudice anticipated or received from their homophobic audience. Stephen Spender, for example, in one of his poems revised the line "I shall always have a boy" to read "I shall always have an affair" (making it more universal or more vague depending on one's viewpoint), and it can be chronologically documented how Whitman progressively de-homosexualized Leaves of Grass after reading press notices in which he was accused of being obscene and corrupt. Insofar as one of the canons of traditional scholarship is that the last revision published in an author's lifetime is to be regarded as the standard and authoritative text upon which to base interpretations and critical judgment, or issue reprints, this particular kind of authorial accommodation to homophobia will be perpetuated as a matter of professional principle, and because of strictly scholarly editorial standards this sort of harm to the homosexual imagination (we are assuming that to be buried is a positive harm) is henceforth irreparable. Scholars and critics at the advanced level of research will of course use a variorum edition, and may take the earlier versions into critical account, though as yet none have attached due significance to homophobia as the cause for revision. But in the classroom learning situation, in which teachers can hardly be held accountable for being familiar with the original versions of all the selections in their anthologies, the loss to students' understanding of the homosexual imagination will continue in spite of all. This self-suppressed homosexual sensibility gradually becomes part of the popular imagination by way of paperback reprints and Selected Works, which of course never reprint or select the earlier non-heterosexualized versions, and this generally reinforces the notion that the homosexual imagination barely exists. Homophobia is remarkably efficient at perpetuating and expanding its influence.

The major scholarly act of suppression is rather difficult to prove, but we suspect there is a conspiracy of silence. The lack of homosexual research and criticism suggests that the field is being deliberately ignored rather than found unfruitful for exploration. The belief that it is not a fit topic for polite research and criticism prevails long after the Victorian age. Certainly this is the reason why homosexual literature is seldom translated for the enlightenment of a foreign people (have you read an English translation of Goethe's West-Easterly Divan?), and the series of asterisks and Latinizations in works by Theocritus and Lucretius and Martial and Lucian et al. is sufficient evidence of homophobia in scholarship. One would gather by reading the daily press that homosexuals do not exist until we appear in court on a morals charge, and in academic publications homosexuals never appear except in special circumstances such as a study of vice in the decadent underworld. We are considered to be exclusively sexual beings and are denied our casual existence. We exist in Rupert Croft Cooke's Feasting with Panthers; we do not exist in Stanley Weintraub's Whistler: A Biography, even though the very same Pre-Raphaelite personages (Wilde, W. E. Henley, Montesquieu, et al.) appear in both of these works. Weintraub mentions the wives and mistresses of various men, but he never mentions their boyfriends — who as a matter of egalitarian principle should be equally acknowledged — and the closest we come to making an appearance is when he refers vaguely to "the trial of Oscar Wilde." Such omissions are difficult to use as an attack on a scholar's professional integrity, but when Weintraub refers to Simeon Solomon as but "an amiable and gentle young artist" we very much suspect that he is being deliberately oblique rather than merely ignorant. Even the best of scholars continue to tell only the truth and nothing but the truth, omitting the whole truth whenever they can possible evade it.

It is understandable within a homophobic scholarly culture that the scholarship which attempts to expurgate homosexual material is itself as suppressed as the tradition under its investigation. The classic example is Havelock Ellis's Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Volume Two: Sexual Inversion, the pioneer in the field. It remains an important work, but it has the kind of publishing history that renders it highly suspect in terms of traditional scholarship: Volume Two, oddly enough, appeared before Volume One; it exists in a more detailed German version; the actual author of its historical and literary content was John Addington Symonds, whose name has been omitted from the title page; the work has been so often censored, suppressed, revised, and expurgated that the only first edition available in the United States is now in the Kinsey Collection at the University of Indiana. John Addington Symonds had the courage to publish A Problem in Greek Ethics, still an important study of homosexual themes in Greek literature, in a private edition of ten copies, but a subsequently expanded edition of 100 copies has not made the work generally accessible. Hans Licht's major study Sittengeschichte Griechenlands (1926-8) consists of three volumes of which the last is virtually unobtainable, and the one-volume English "translation" contains but a pittance of his research. J. Z. Eglinton's Greek Love (1971) became a collector's item nearly upon publication, and it may soon be as "rare" as the two issues of The International Journal of Greek Love which he edited. All of these works — and many others — are quite literally contained in the Private Case and the Cupboard of the British Museum Library — that is, they receive the same classification as pornography and treasonable tracts — where they are accessible only to advanced scholars and can be examined only by sitting at one of the four seats in the North Library embarrassingly marked "Reserved for Special Books." A number of reputable scholars have expressed to us the opinion that a substantial number of works in these two special collections have not even been listed in the British Museum Catalogue of Printed Books.

Both primary works and scholarly works in this field tend to be privately printed and to be distributed by sub rosa publishing houses, not because we think it is fun to work in secret, but because traditional commercial publishers still fear censorship, and because homosexual books are not best sellers (mainly for reasons of repulsion rather than disinterest). Editors of university presses argue that there is not wide enough appeal, then go ahead to publish books on the development of the umlaut.

This certainly is not the ideal research situation. When scholars feel compelled to adopt pseudonyms (such as "Hans Licht," "Noel I. Garde," "J. Z. Eglinton" — though, surprisingly, Timothy D'Arch Smith is a genuine name), we should appreciate the extent to which the work has been hindered by the work-place, both in the larger political sense of a homophobic social institution (it is not surprising, for example, that Montgomery Hyde, author of The Love That Dared Not Speak Its Name, lost his seat as a Member of Parliament, or that Father John McNeil, author of an essay in the National Catholic Observer urging more responsible biblical scholarship vis-à-vis homosexuals, is now the subject of a Vatican Board of Inquiry and faces the possibility of excommunication), and in the narrower sense of homophobic academic circles, where students and professors who engage in such research face the probability not only of being eyed askance and reviled behind their backs, but of being suspended or fired and subtly denied credibility by their more "objective" colleagues. We can say without any qualification that research in this field at the undergraduate level faces insuperable difficulties, and may well be a positive danger: whether one is a new Ph.D. candidate or a full professor, the mere word "homosexual" in a title on a curriculum vitae is a stigma that few careers can withstand.

When we speak of suppression we are speaking also of the broader area of availability, and in this context it is not insignificant that library practice is deliberately and unintentionally homophobic. Cherry cabinets are becoming more a matter of habit than prudery, but there is little serious discussion of what constitutes valid grounds for cages in a library, and even fewer attempts to de-suppress present holdings. High-school libraries, community libraries, and the smaller college and university libraries as a matter of policy refuse to purchase "good gay books," i.e. books with a more objective stance or more informed by the gay liberation movement, and books that are stocked are still finding their way into the categories of Perversion and Pornography. The Task Force on Gay Liberation of the American Library Association provides an invaluable service with its regularly updated "Gay Bibliography," but libraries in practice are woefully slow to acquire even the least expensive items on this relatively short bibliography. By refusing to subscribe to gay newspapers and periodicals, libraries are consigning to oblivion the kind of primary research data, including interviews and memoirs, that scholars of the future will seek in vain in the same way that we presently seek in vain for documentation of homosexual history outside a court setting.

This whole situation is absolutely deplorable, simply insofar as it reveals a pervasive academic dishonesty. But beyond this simple observation, by such attitude and by such means has society lost innumerable kinds of truths and the various kinds of perception by which heterosexuals as well as homosexuals can grow unto themselves. Many traditional scholars will subscribe to the belief that in the past lay our only claim to futurity, and in reference to this some of our contributors have noted that contemporary homosexual literature is often divorced from its tradition: whether we write it or read it or teach it, we will be doing so with the uneasy feeling that it is an anomalous literature, a literature that is somehow bizarre, somehow queer. Homosexual literature is not in the mainstream, not because the mainstream is heterosexual, but because the mainstream is homophobic. This is always the effect of excommunication and taboo, and by such means heterosexual literature and the heterosexual imagination have been peopled by homosexual devils, monsters and nightmares.

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SOURCE: Rictor Norton and Louie Crew, "The Homophobic Imagination: An Editorial", in Rictor Norton and Louie Crew (eds), The Homosexual Imagination, College English, Vol. 36, No. 3 (November 1974), pp. 272-90; copyright 1974 by The National Council of Teachers of English.

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