The Great Dykes of American Literature

What role does being a lesbian play in shaping a writer’s imagination and spirit? Once a closeted lesbian writer dies, do we have the right to “out” her in an attempt to understand her work or to write her biography? If we formal ly “out” a writer in the process of const ructing her biography, are we ghettoizing her literary reputation? Is “fiction” really the process of writing biography or autobiography? Is there a difference between male autobiography and female autobiography? What role does class play in lesbian biography and autobiography? Where are all the biographies of lesbian writers who lived and wrote between Sappho and Gert rude Stein? These are just some of the questions addressed on the even ing of November 17, 1994 at the Graduate Center of CUNY by a panel that included Kate Mil lett, Jill Johnston, Jennifer l_evin, and Gary Fountain, moderated by Joan Nestle. Titled “The Great Dykes of American Literature, Literary Biography and Autobiography – Reclaiming Our Disappearing Lives,” the panel was the first such event cosponsored by CLAGS and The Publishing Triangle (the association of lesbians and gay men in publishing) – and, to the best of our knowledge, the first panel to address this important subject. Gary Fountain, Chairman of the Engl ish Department at Miss Porter’s School, Adjunct Professor in the AIDS Studies Program at St. Joseph Col lege, and author with the late Peter Brazeau of Remembering Elizabeth Bishop, An Oral Biography, set the tone with his reveal ing comments about the subject of that biography. ” El izabeth Bishop was ret icent by nat ure. She wa nted to avoid attention because there were parts of her life that she wa nted to hide, and her lesbianism – or, as she wou ld have insisted, her bisexuality (there were male lovers at various points in her life)was one of them. She certain ly wou ld not have wanted anyth ing to do with th is panel. Based on conversations I had with those who knew her best, Bishop was set against coming out. Although Bishop would have been chagrined about what we know about her,” Fountain conc luded, “We are at a point where the rich biographical record ca lls for a deep dive into Bishop’s own poetry to define her I iterary evasions.” KATE MILLETT Writer Jennifer Levin, author of the novels Water Dancer (nominated for a PEN/Hemingway Award), and The Sea of Light (nominated for the Lambda Fiction Award), ruminated on the role autobiography plays in f ict ion and the role of the techniques of fiction in biography. As Levin said, “There’s a real difference between not letting our lives disappear and calcu latedly deciding how we want our lives remembered. The nagging question is: Is to remember and record selectively the same as serving truth? I doubt it. The most we can preserve is the story of a life.” Critic, biographer, and autobiographer Jill Johnston (Paper Daughter; The Making of Autobiography: A Family Book; Jasper Johns: Privileged Information; Secret Lives in Art: Collected Essays on Art, Literature, and Performance 1984-1994), articulated the feelings of many on the panel and in the audience when she stated that “writi ng and self-creat ion are synonymous … For the contemporary lesbian, the challenge is to speak pol itical truth , to tell the outsider history, to do it in style – and at the same time to gather t hese things into the t itle role of subject, the centra l outlook. We can tell our outsider history f rom the worldview perspective, dropping our outsider sta nce. This is tantamount to dropping the victim postu re.” Kate Mil lett, author of Sexual Politics, Sita, and The Pol itics of Cruelty, and whose latest book is Female Sexual Slavery, offered some provocative reflections on lesbians in relation to class and invisibil ity: “Lesbian ism is tremendously class-sensit ive. Class is enormously sexualized. We have a whole history of lesbianism among upper-class women; they were the ones who showed. Later, lower-class lesbians showed, but much later. What we began with is Sappho to Gertrude Ste in as a perception of ourselves in history. That is, al l the way from long before Christ to around 1920! For me, lesbian writing begins with Violette Leduc -one of the three great French writers. Up to th is point there was no description of these acts – and that was a great empt iness. To be a lesbian writer was to be very, very alone in terms of all literary affi liat ion. It was really to throw yourself out the window in terms of the editors, the agents, the publishers, and all the grownups.