Plato to Wilde to Ginsberg:
Compiling an Anthology
of Gay Literature

By Lawrence Biemiller

New York -- Byrne Fone grew up gay before libraries and bookstores had gay-literature sections, before publishing houses had "Stonewall Inn" imprints, before professors acknowledged to students that Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare wrote about men loving men, or that Whitman and Auden were guilty of "the sin not to be named among Christians," as one of Whitman's reviewers called it.

It wasn't easy, growing up in a world where no one ever mentioned a topic you had a million questions about. "There was not a time before I was gay," Mr. Fone says. "I knew from the very beginning. And in everything I read, I looked for me." The first openly gay book he remembers reading was Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar, but that was much later. "The Hardy Boys -- that's your answer," he says, sipping iced tea in a Soho coffee house on a blazing summer afternoon. "That was the first gay book I ever read. I made it a gay book."

Ever since, Mr. Fone says, he has been "fascinated by the idea of gay literature." He was fascinated enough to teach the first gay-lit course at the City University of New York's City College, in 1974-75, and fascinated enough to write scholarly works about Whitman and about homosexuality and homophobia in English and American literature. He also wrote short stories of his own, even a murder mystery -- published under an alias -- about the first openly gay President of the United States. Now Mr. Fone, an emeritus professor of English at City College, has carried his fascination to its logical conclusion: He has assembled more than 800 pages' worth of poems, essays, and excerpts into the brand-new Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature: Readings from Western Antiquity to the Present Day. It was published in May by the Columbia University Press.

"I felt gay literature deserved its own Norton Anthology," says Mr. Fone, who has come to Soho this afternoon to give a reading with six gay poets at a small art gallery on Prince Street. In gay bookstores, he says, "I saw all around me on the shelves little anthologies, but none with the scope I had in mind." Several publishers told his agent that no one would read such a volume, but Columbia thought it would make a good addition to the press's list of lesbian-and-gay-studies titles.

It doesn't take long to see that Mr. Fone is perfectly suited to such a project. A large man with a white mustache, he's comfortable discussing the most serious scholarly pursuits, such as his definitive edition of the autobiography of Colley Cibber, a theater producer active in England at the beginning of the 18th century. ("A book of considerable value," Mr. Fone says, "but hardly a best seller.") He's just as comfortable feigning starry-eyed innocence and an accent to claim that when he came to Manhattan in 1960, he was "just a little girl from a coal-mining town in West Virginia." (The truth is more prosaic, he is quick to say: He was raised in upstate New York and moved here to get a Ph.D. in English from New York University.)

He happily describes himself as a "detail queen" who is "incapable of not buying books" -- he owns "many thousands" of gay titles, a number of them rare. He is apparently indefatigable even in retirement: His next book, Homophobia: A History, is already finished and is set for publication in 1999; he is at work now on the book after that, a "rather large" novel. When he's not writing, he's helping his partner run their antiques business in Hudson, N.Y.

The new volume is not his first anthology -- that was Hidden Heritage: History and the Gay Imagination, which appeared in 1978 "to no acclaim," he says. The Columbia book, however, is reported to be selling well, even though "anthologies tend not to get reviewed," he notes. At least one book club has already picked it up, and another is considering it. "I would hope it could be used in any gay-literature course," Mr. Fone says. "I would hope it would go in every library in America."

The volume includes much that is expected, such as excerpts from the long letter that Oscar Wilde wrote in Reading Prison to Alfred Douglas, and from E.M. Forster's novel Maurice. There are poems by Catullus, Byron, Housman, Genet, and Ginsberg. But there are also surprises -- in the coarse language of Martial's epigrams (quite freely translated -- who would have expected Yiddish slang here?); in forgotten American novels like A Scarlet Pansy, from 1933; in beautiful poems by the Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca and the Cuban poet Emilio Ballagas ("If he asks about me, trace on the ground/a cross of silence and ashes ...").

There are also surprising omissions -- no Thomas Mann, for instance, and no Paul Monette -- but one cannot fit everything into a single volume. "I came up with a potential table of contents for a book 5,000 pages long," Mr. Fone says. "I ended up having to cut it down to just the Western tradition, although I had some wonderful stuff from other traditions. I also had to deal primarily with male concerns -- I'm not so well read in lesbian literature." Even after cutting and cutting, he turned in "a huge submission -- 1,300 or 1,400 pages," which the press's editors helped him trim further.

Some people, he knew, would object to a "gay" anthology's including works by writers who lived long before contemporary notions of homosexuality evolved (the word "homosexual" itself dates only to 1869). But he was determined to survey "what was written over time by people we would now describe as homosexual," and to explain any anachronisms in introductory notes. Beyond that was "the question of permissions and the cost of them -- some things I quite frankly couldn't afford," he says. Many of the living poets whose verse is included contributed their work, as did many of the scholars who provided translations of various texts. Mr. Fone himself wrote almost all of the introductions, which together make up a concise history of gay literature and life.

"Hordes and hordes of gay people, both younger and older, have been deprived of a chance to have a historic memory because academe, until the past few decades, hasn't recognized that there is a gay history," Mr. Fone says. "Nor have most people recognized that the monuments of gay history are to be found in gay literary history. Nations and peoples have their great monuments, but gay people have no space that is specifically ours. Gay books are our monuments -- the most inclusive of all monuments."

For the crowded art-gallery reading, Mr. Fone and the poet Perry Brass have rounded up five other poets whose work is also included in the last section of the anthology, which deals with the years after the 1969 Stonewall riots. Mr. Fone opens the reading with some lines from the Greek poet Strato, and from there the evening cavorts and dances, and sometimes crawls in shame, across the centuries of words. Walter Holland reads a Shakespeare sonnet, No. 57 ("Being your slave, what should I do but tend/Upon the hours and times of your desire?"), only to be followed by Mr. Fone's reading of an 1810 account of "The Trying and Pillorying of the Vere Street Club." Four of its members, convicted of solicitation, were pelted with dung and brickbats in the pillory for an hour, then driven through London "so thickly covered with filth, that a vestige of the human figure was scarcely discernible."

"Homophobia is never really very silent," Mr. Fone says that evening over dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant. "It's the shadow text for gay literature" -- and, at the same time, a catalyst for much of its strength. The anthology is the record of a swinging pendulum: Periods of repression, he says, have always followed periods of visibility. "An entire culture has been built and rebuilt and rebuilt over the centuries," says Mr. Fone, while a handsome, dark-eyed busboy silently cruises his dinner companion, as if to start unfolding yet another story. "Over the centuries we have been there, one way or another."

Copyright © 1998 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published July 10, 1998.