Sam Sacks: "Still Acting Up," Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2015
Readers ‘are just going to have to get used to the frank language of bodily functions,’ Kramer warns
Larry Kramer is still trying to get your attention. The writer-polemicist-activist has been shouting in the wilderness since his 1978 novel, “Faggots,” a pungent attack on the empty hedonism of the gay liberation movement.
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And all through these years he was slowly working on his intended magnum opus, a massive revisionist history of the United States. The first volume of “The American People” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 775 pages, $40), subtitled “Search for My Heart,” has now appeared. It is categorized as a novel but that is mostly to keep the lawyers at bay. It’s a work of fiction as excessive, outrageous, confrontational and crazed as the author’s activism.
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[Fred, the narrator's] project is to reveal the centrality of “the homosexual aspect of human nature” in American history, beginning with the continent’s earliest settlers and ending some time around 1950 (the second volume, presumably, will take us to the present day). This is a “great men” account of the past, but in the scandal-mongering mold of Suetonius. John Winthrop’s homophobic proscriptions in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Fred declares, disguised the passion he felt for his archenemy Roger Williams.George Washington? He had affairs with Alexander Hamilton and Lafayette. Abraham Lincoln’s true love was his longtime friend Joshua Speed. But this bombshell is insufficiently provocative for Mr. Kramer, and Fred notes that Speed once brought the president to a brothel where he had hired the services of an actor named John Wilkes Booth (the dismayed Lincoln left at once, but the encounter sealed his doom). James Garfield,J. Edgar Hoover andJoseph McCarthy all have their bedsheets examined. Nor does Fred neglect literary history: “Mark Twain wrote the first gay American novel and nobody paid any attention to him.”
If your reaction is the logical demand for some verification of Fred’s claims then “The American People” will drive you mad. Mr. Kramer’s “sources” are a promiscuous mixture of the real and invented, rumors, innuendo and wild flights of speculation. The very absence of historical records of homosexuality is marshaled as the proof of its prevalence: “There is little now that was not done then, determined though so many historians are to deny this,” Mr. Kramer writes. Silence is evidence of suppression.
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The sum of this messy composite work is an angry and combative vision of America the closeted and self-hating. It’s hyperbolic, wearisome and frequently obnoxious, but it gets under the skin and its sharpest passages are impossible to forget. Mr. Kramer knows his methods are extreme, but he writes like a man certain of eventual vindication. “I realize this verges on the farcical, if not the absurd,” Mr. Kramer writes. “Be tolerant. Most of history is like this. You just didn’t know it.”