Thursday, June 18, 2009

On Gay Poets James Allen Hall's and Christopher Hennessey's Curious Class Politics

No doubt gay men need to take part of the blame for their weak resistance of Proposition 8. I would argue a significant reason for this failure resulted from a lack of insight into the economic power of the Church of Latter Day Saints, which effectively harnessed money to organize an effective conservative campaign.

This gay male resistance to class-based inquiry surfaced in aggressive critique of some benign speculative comments about the economic status of Paul Monette.

Recently I was surprised to find that some brief statements I made in an interview caused some readers to become “a bit offended.”

Here is what I said:

“I wish I could tell you something like Paul Monette’s Becoming a Man impacted me. But it didn’t. He was wealthy. And it’s good that you mention class, as Monette’s “coming out” memoir did bother me a little, when I first read it. His sentences reflected his privilege; they were clean and neat. I just couldn’t connect. I liked being poor. It meant I could act up and people would blame it on my trashy parents. There are many writers I like and admire—big names like James Merrill and Edmund White—who were part of the early gay ‘canon.’ But it was hard not to notice that much of this work came from a fairly privileged background. I think as social progress continues to move forward, we’ll see more memoirs that reflect economic backgrounds where it’s been historically more difficult to be openly gay.”

Queer poet Christopher Hennessey posted that excerpt from an interview on his blog. James Allen Hall responded:

"Monette isn't uppercrust, though he does get to go to some good schools (Andover and then to Yale). That memoir's sentences are about beauty, which may have its roots in a certain sense of class, but to say that the syntax is a symptom of Monette's class is just essentialist and wrong (at the same time). Monette worked for Andover and was a day student -- something that marked him among his peers as lower class and for which others mocked him. He worked as a grocery bag boy in the summers. And when he graduated from Yale (a school he was pressured not to accept by the Andover headmaster because he was not of the right class), he got a job teaching English, traveling between two schools to make a living. Sure, the prose is sometimes breezy about that work, but would we really rather he bemoan how tough it was? I'm a bit offended at Steve's recollection and sweeping misinterpretation of Monette's work."

Christopher Hennessey then echoed Hall’s claims:

“I too remember Monette's writing as beautiful but not as with an agenda that Fellner's attributes to it.”

I do not want to belabor this point: I respect Hall and Hennessey. You need to go no further than my blog for that evidence.

This doesn’t, though, insulate their public statements from critique. I am concerned about their desire to silence class-based inquires of gay male writers.

To best honor their arguments, I will enumerate my grievances:

1.) Both Hennessey and Hall use the word “beauty” or “beautiful” for aggressive reasons. At best, it is their attempt to guard aesthetics from the political. Their choice of words indicates a common middle-class gay male refusal: to self-reflect about their own complicity in national economic inequalities. Which allows them to avoid addressing and then attempting to change that inequality. Gay males shouldn’t used their queerness to deny their own investment in a corrupt capitalist system. They must accept their privilege (their maleness and middle-class position), rejecting a holistic victim status. My pretty much diluted and tangential comment inspired them to react in a common way: to inquire about class automatically precludes an attack against beauty. Was I preaching Marxism? And what if I was?

2.) Hennessey doesn’t seem to be able to juxtapose politics with the “beautiful.” It’s either one or the other. As he himself says, “I, too, remember Monette’s writing as beautiful but not as with an agenda.” I’m not sure why he must insist on this either/or dichotomy.

3.) Hall is a little more generous. As he puts it, “the memoir’s sentences are about beauty, which may have its roots in a certain sense of class.” But Hall still deprivileges class, the political. Begrudgingly, Hall conditionally admits class “may” have an influence.

4.) In Hall’s commentary this is the most confounding statement: “the memoir’s sentences are about beauty.” For a variety of reasons, the strange use of the verb “are” concerns me. Is he claiming that Monette’s “Becoming a Man” functions as a treatise for beauty? Is he claiming that Monette self-reflectively comments about his own sentences “as beautiful”? Or is he, perhaps, insisting that the diction, syntax etc etc. make the narrative less about political content and more about the pure sound or construction of the sentence? I’m confused. Except for the fact that he wants to pretty much safeguard “beauty” against any aggressive political critique.

5.) In a peculiar way, Hennessey uses the word “agenda.” I was surprised that he would invoke a word often used by anti-gay crusaders: queer male teachers want to convert our children, queer men want special rights in their demand for inclusion in discrimination statements, etc. etc.

6.) And is an “agenda” necessarily bad thing? I would make the claim that any narrative has an “agenda.” What else is a reader supposed to do but evaluate the narrative’s intention? Is a biographical reading of a story a worthless one?

6.) I have no choice but to ask why Hennessey and Hall feels such a need to depoliticize Monette’s story. What is their own personal and economic investment in advancing such defensive resentment?

Hennessey and Hall both attempted to marginalize my comments about class. To make speculative analysis about class-related issues doesn’t in any way taint beauty. Should art not engage the soul and the mind? Are Hall and Hennessey unconsciously (or consciously) promoting an anti-intellectual agenda?

(I prefer to use the term “magic” instead of beauty, but I’ll discuss that in a later post.)

This is the ultimate problem with Hennessey's and Hall’s comments: they loosely parallel the way in which gay men failed to take into consideration the economic power of The Mormon Church in the battle of Proposition 8.

Gay men failed to speculate about the Mormon church’s economic power and its possible consequences. If we continue to ignore class-based commentary in various areas, even in the realm of poetic dialogue, gay men will continue to fail themselves.

Insulating ourselves from speculative class-based inquiry ensures a failure of equality in federal law and a comprehensive discussion of poetry.

A very minor point: if you read my initial comments I never once declare that Monette is “uppercrust.” At most I say he is “privileged” and “fairly privileged.” I don’t see how anyone can see a Yale graduate otherwise. Perhaps Yale had a booming Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) program that I’m unaware of.


  1. Ivy League IS upper-class. There are scholarships, but they're a minority, so far as I know. And not all the Ivy League schools are the same, some are more "privileged" than others. I spent a summer at Cornell, studying language on a grant.

    That said, I disagree with you to an extent. "Beauty" to me is a word that does not denote class or political/economic status: there is no inherent politics to the word, unless one believe that there is inherent politics to everything. Perhaps there is: but there is also the sense of relative application or overtness of politics within concepts. I don't think Hennessey's points about beauty are particularly a denial of class awareness; I think they say that class isn't relevant to beauty.

    And that's a fair argument: One doesn't have to be born upper-class to be able to appreciate beauty; or lower-class either. One doesn't have to be well-educated at the best universities to know appreciate beauty. Advantage may provide access to the schooling that allows one to articulate WHY one appreciates beauty: but that is education in critical analysis, which is a separate thing entirely from the appreciation of beauty.

    Aesthetic awareness is not class-based. Where class might affect it is, as I say, in the access to the training that allows one to articulate one's aesthetic viewpoint.

    So unless you really believe that class politics are inherent to every aspect of life, I think you're reading more into Monette's case than maybe is necessary.

    having said that, I DO agree that class is under-discussed. We like to believe that we live in a classless democratic society, but that is manifestly untrue.

    For my own part, I think all sides of this discussion have made some relevant points. The truth may lie in a terrain near the middle.

  2. Gosh, sometimes I feel like the majority of American literature was written by the rich and privileged (with notable exception).

    My poetics class read through the major poetics essays of the 20th century. The bios almost all said, "Such and such poet went to [list Ivy League school here, but probably Harvard]."