After reading this book, I imagine my fellow reviewers asked the same question as I did—how on earth am I supposed to digest this?
For one, historians don’t often review novels and yet this book can’t easily be described as one. A history? Eh, somewhat, but the loads of fictional accounts prevent this labeling. After pondering it over, I’ve come to the realization that I need to approach this book in an entirely different manner.
Confronting a work produced by someone like Larry Kramer is a daunting task. A giant in AIDS activism and American literature, he has had a momentous impact, for better or worse, on how we think about sex, disease, politics, and the media. Despite feeling like we know what to expect from him, Kramer still manages to surprise.
The novel takes readers through a whirlwind of history, everything from Lewis and Clark to Gettysburg. An early story revolves around a mysterious pox disease that stigmatizes the infected, drawing obvious parallels to the AIDS crisis. In every story, Kramer rejects our American puritanical impulses, forcing us to consider the sexual lives of people in the past in his famously blunt style.
What’s sure to put most people off is his queering of the American presidency—sorry, Obama, you were not the first gay president. Kramer contends that Jackson, the drunk Pierce, the forever bachelor Buchanan, and everyone’s beloved Lincoln were fairies. We even get a quite detailed description of the Union-savior’s sexual encounters with Joshua Speed and a whole section on the curvature of John Wilkes Booth’s penis, all of which are sure to ruffle some feathers.
Despite all this, by making the public consider earlier Americans not as strict moralists but as sexually driven humans, we get a fuller picture of nineteenth-century century life. Kramer doesn’t hide the grim parts of America’s past. Any excitement a reader might have hearing hushed aspects of private sexual encounters is tampered by honest retellings of lynching and horrendous violence against Blacks. It’s a vivid reminder that the past we uncover is not always rosy.
In The American People, Kramer does something that we historians ought to consider: he searches for queer history beyond the parameters of the twentieth century, even if some of it is rooted in fiction.
George Chauncey dared to push the boundaries with Gay New York despite plenty of historians’ saying it could not be done. Why are we so afraid of making sense of our history through our own lenses? Obviously we’ll encounter some problems. How do we define queer over time? What about those pesky or absent sources?
Sure, our deviant sex lives can’t easily be found in our sources, but perhaps this requires our field to temporarily drop our old methods and pursue new ones. Fiction, it seems, can expose much about fact. Without this, our communities would never have a history older than the photograph. So, let’s get to work, and in Kramer’s words, “God save us from the heterosexual historian!”
Eric Gonzaba is currently a doctoral student in American history at George Mason University. He received his BA in history and political science from Indiana University in 2012 and a MA in history and women/gender studies from George Mason University in 2014. Eric is the creator of Wearing Gay History, an online digital archive which explores the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities in the Midwest through t-shirts.