“So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein” by Jeff Solomon— Understanding Capote and Stein

Solomon, Jeff. “So Famous and So Gay: The Fabulous Potency of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein”, University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Understanding Capote and Stein

Amos Lassen

Having spent most of my life involved with literature and the philosophy of literature, I am amazed that I never recognized the similarities between two of the most famous gay writers of our time, Gertrude Stein and Truman Capote. But I do have a confession to make here. I believe that my appreciation for Capote comes from my having been a New Orleanian for the first thirty years if my life and the fact that he and Tennessee Williams are the “saints” of New Orleans literature. As for Stein, my appreciation came from simply reading and appreciating her writing so much that as a graduate student in philosophy and literature, I decided to channel my research into her contributions to our literary world. That all came to a full stop several years ago when it was discovered that she had been a Nazi collaborator so that she could save her and Alice B. Toklas’s lives and Stein soon found herself to be no longer a part of my world.

Disregarding that last fact, I am fascinated by Jeff Solomon’s new study in which he looks at how and why, in a time of homophobia and closeted homosexuality, Stein and Capote, two openly gay writers become mass-market celebrities. They achieved this while other gay public figures were censored. Writer Solomon “traces the construction and impact of the writers’ public personae from a gay-affirmative perspective. He historically situates archival material to explain how the writers expressed homosexuality and negotiated homophobia through the fleeting depiction of what could not be directly written”.

Solomon balances biographical accounts with readings of a number of their works and he presents us with some very interesting and intelligent insights into the ways in which both writers achieved cultural prominence in spite of the homophobia that kept other openly gay writers of the period away from mainstream literary culture. Not only is this daring, it is profoundly interesting. Neither author should have become famous yet they did so between the Oscar Wilde trial and Stonewall at a time when homosexuality meant criminality and perversion. They were both openly and exclusively gay and built their reputations on works that directly featured homosexuality and a queer aesthetic.

Celebrating lesbian partnership, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” was published in 1933 and celebrates the lesbian partnership of Stein and Toklas. It gave Stein, a Jewish lesbian intellectual avant-garde American expatriate, international stardom and a mass-market readership. Then just some fifteen years later,” Capote published Other Voices, Other Rooms”, a novel of explicit homosexual sex and love, and he not only became famous but his fame itself became famous. Through original archival research, Solomon traces the construction and impact of the writers’ public personae from a gay-affirmative perspective. He then historically situates author photos, celebrity gossip, and other ephemera to explain how Stein and Capote expressed homosexuality and negotiated homophobia what could not be directly written in ways that other gay writers of the time (i.e. Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and James Baldwin) could not manage. Solomon shows what Capote’s and Stein’s literary debuts (“Other Voices, Other Rooms” and “Three Lives”), held for queer readers in terms of gay identity and psychology and for the gay who followed them.

Solomon has built quite an archive of literature, reviews, biographies, photographs, and interviews and through these, he examines the gayness, strangeness, and celebrity that combusted to create the queer manifestations of Truman Capote and Gertrude Stein. We see Stein’s and Capote’s

strategies for politicizing questions of sexual identity that included the manufacture of public personae as queerly flamboyant ‘geniuses’ and the exploitation of their author photos. He stretches each writer’s scope and boundaries.

Below is the Table of Contents:

Prologue: Beneath the Mask

Introduction: Stein and Capote in Theory

Part I

  1. Young, Effeminate, and Strange: The Debut of Truman Capote
  2. Capote, Forster, and the Trillings: Homophobia and Literary Culture at Mid-Century

Part II

  1. Gertrude Stein, Opium Queen: Notes on a Mistaken Embrace
  2. Gertrude Stein in Life and TIME: A Respectable Commodity
  3. Three Lesbian Lives: A Map of Same-Sex Passion

Coda: Janet Malcolm and Woody Allen Adrift in the Past




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