“Categorically Famous: Literary Celebrity and Sexual Liberation in 1960s America” by Guy Davidson— Baldwin, Sontag, Vidal

Davidson, Guy. “Categorically Famous: Literary Celebrity and Sexual Liberation in 1960s America”, Stanford University Press, 2019.

Baldwin, Sontag, Vidal

Amos Lassen

As far as I know, “Categorically Famous” is the first book length study of the relationships between the celebrity of literature and queer sexuality. We look at James Baldwin, Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal as celebrities and their relation to the LGBT liberation movement of the 1960s. While none of these three writers ever “came out” or were publicly out as we know the term “out’ today yet all there in their own way contributed “through their public images and their writing to a greater openness toward homosexuality that was an important precondition of liberation.”  Their fame was not only important, it was crucial. We had to deal with the idea that people saw homosexuals as an oppressed minority and as individuals with psychological problems. Writer Guy Davidson here challenges scholarly orthodoxies and asks us to think again about the usual opposition to liberation and to gay and lesbian visibility within queer studies as well as standard definitions of celebrity.

I find that when I think back to how it was and then look around while living in Massachusetts, I am stunned by the progress that has been made and sometimes I just need to pinch myself.  The conventional ban on openly discussing the homosexuality of public figures back then meant that media reporting at that time did not focus on protagonists’ private lives. Yet, the careers of these “semi-visible” gay celebrities really need to be seen as an important and crucial halfway point between the days of “the open secret” and today’s post-liberation era in which queer people, celebrities very much included, are enjoined to come out.

Last night I was at a reading at my local bookstore (yes there are still some) and there were two readers, a lovely female with a novel about straight female MFA students and a gay writer with his novel about Tennessee Williams and his lover Frank Merlo. There was a full house of what I think was basically straight readers. Each writer spoke about his/her book and then asked each other questions and then opened the floor. The reception for both novels was the same, the praise for the gay novel was a bit higher simply because it had been out longer and more had read it. Otherwise it was an evening about sexuality without mentioning it. And it was wonderful!!!!

What we really have here is a detailed look at how it was before Stonewall, after Stonewall and after marriage equality. We get new information about liberation and the celebrities who helped make it happen. I love this book because I love that Davidson has found new and important things to say three literary icons and queer politics. I would love to see the look on Gore Vidal’s face as he reads this. (But then I knew him and have stories).

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