Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

David, Cook, Brady, & Houlbrook

PURSUANT TO A project tedious to explain, I've been reading up on the history of gay men in England, focusing on the 20th century...and since that is what I have been reading, that is all I have to offer LLL today.  The four names above are not a law firm, but rather the authors of the four books on the topic I've been through.

Hugh David's On Queer Street: A Social History of British Homosexuality 1895-1995 (1997) is a serviceable introduction aimed (I would say) at the general rather than the academic reader, more synthesis than original research. David announces in the beginning that he wants to focus on the lives of ordinary gay men rather than the famous literary ones, but he starts off with the Wilde Trial, then it's Carpenter, Housman, Forster, Auden, Spender, Ackerly...since literary people are a lot likelier than anyone else to leave documentation of their private lives, what is a historian to do? David includes more ordinary sorts of folk once he gets past W W II, though, and provides a fairly detailed picture of the 1950s and 1960s--less so of the 1970s and 1980s, which he seems faintly out of sympathy with, but there's always The Swimming Pool Library.

A Gay History of Britain: Love and Sex Between Men Since the Middle Ages (2007), edited by Matt Cook, didn't look promising--it's published by Greenwood, who are not always choosy--but as an introduction it is more scholarly and more concise than David's book, with chapters by such authorities in the field as Cook himself and Harry Cocks (stop that sniggering in the back, please).  A bit more academically grounded than David's book and a real find.

Books can get a little too academic, however, as is the case, I would say, with Sean Brady's Masculinity and Male Homosexuality in Britain, 1861-1913 (2005).  This one has the unmistakable pong of a dissertation, built around a not wholly articulated quarrel with the "medico-legal" wing of gay history, by which Brady means Foucault and epigones(Weeks and Halperin, I guess?). Foucault's paradigm just will not work in the British context, Brady wants us to know.  Well, okay. Really interesting chapters on John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter, though. I got the feeling Brady really would have preferred to write just about those two men and wound up sidetracked into the anti-Foucault polemic.

And the blue ribbon goes to Matt Houlbrook, Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (2005). Houlbrook has his theory game down--Foucault, Butler, Sedgwick, some sophisticated stuff about public and private space--but the heart of the book is that he spent some real time down in the mildewed precincts of the archive, just like a real historian should: trial records, newspapers, parliamentary proceedings.  It's not a long book, under 300 pages, but it gives a fine-grained sense of the lived geography of being gay man in London between W W I and the Wolfenden Report. And Houlbrook has his own highly original and surprising theses to advance at some points.  The famous police crackdown in the late 1940s and early 1950s? Not so thorough-going and widespread as it is remembered, according to Houlbrook. The breakthrough of the Wolfenden Report and, ten years on, de-criminalization? Easy to turn this into a heroic redemption narrative, but that feels "Whiggish" to Houlbrook, who asks, what (or who) had to be sacrificed to achieve it? An excellent book.

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