Gay Literary Style, Part II


Walt Whitman. Daguerreotype (ca. 1853). Oscar Lion Collection. New York Public Library.

A comparison of Adams's self-consciously Wildean style with that of his friend, the artist Wesley Lea, is instructive. Lea's celebration of working men in rural America and his frank sexuality are closer to the style of Walt Whitman and his celebration of the manly love of comrades than Adams's imitation of fin-de-siècle aestheticism.


Dear Leo,

Having been here a week, I have set up a studio, and I am ready for a steady summer of work. I shall play, too, with the boys. I never seem to get tired of them. They are a never ending source of delight, with their refreshing young personalities. We play ball, go fishing at night, and most delightful of all, wrestle by the hour after sun down.

It suddenly occurs to me that Vermont is part of America. I have never thought of it as such before. I like to bum around with the ill reputes of the town, (male of course), and I have been listening to their talk. They have a temperament as rich and powerful in quality as a lad from Louisiana, or a guy from the far west. Aside from these flighty association[s], I have been with few people, and I enjoy the isolation. It can make the individual more self sufficient. (Wesley Lea to Leo Adams, May 27, 1938.)


Wesley Lea, "Vermont Landscape." Lithograph (ca. 1938). Leo Adams Papers. New York Public Library.

Dear Leo,

...But my greatest triumph, in my own mind, is that of being excepted [sic] by the men, as a man, and on their terms. It is strange that I should enjoy the esteem of halfwits and imbeciles, those local laborers who are good for nothing else but hard labor. My sense of triumph is that I am excepted [sic] by them and I am also an enthusiastic cocksucker, as you know.

But perhaps my triumph is really that of being sought for by a handsome jack, aged 20, who is my partner, sawing and chopping and lugging heavy timbers. But I do know that my affair of his making is a stimulation divine. I promise to send you a photo of him, as soon as I have one printed. (Wesley Lea to Leo Adams, October 21, 1938.)


There is something else about Leo Adams's "fairly interesting style" that suggests that the two ways of reading his letters––the historical and the literary––are not such separate pursuits after all. His passive voice, oblique speech, euphemisms, the delaying and withholding of information, and the formality with which he addresses even his closest friends are symptomatic of a social speech pathology that has evolved into a style. It is as if Adams, acting as his own editor and archivist, has internalized the institutional codes that read his desires as perverse. Today we might diagnose this effect as "internalized homophobia." Merle Macbain could write that he had "slept with at least 300 women" and that he was "still capable of becoming fairly intoxicated with the thrill of kissing a certain virgin"––that he could imagine himself "committing rape" even.[6] Leo Adams, on the other hand, ends a letter "Be patient and some day I will tell you of my loves."[7] He never does. But there is also something liberating in his archness. His style is adaptive, and like all language, its development is social and political in nature. But while it develops within an oppressive relationship to power, the mere fact of its development is evidence of resistance to power. Gay men developed a unique language to give voice to "the love that dare not speak its name."




6. See Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, January 1932.

7. Leo Adams to Merle Macbain, July 28, 1930.