Categorically Famous
Literary Celebrity and Sexual Liberation in 1960s America
Guy Davidson


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

While recognizing the historical contingency of sexual identity categories, the Introduction argues against the standard queer theoretical view that these categories operate as forms of social coercion. It is proposed that an examination of the 1960s careers of three celebrity writers—James Baldwin, Susan Sontag, and Gore Vidal—puts in doubt the reflexive valorization of instability, indeterminacy, and opacity that has come to dominate queer studies. Though each of these writers had complicated relations to sexual liberation generally and homosexual liberation specifically, their work contributed importantly to the increasing publicization of gay life that characterized the 1960s and that was an important precondition of gay and lesbian liberation. Close attention to their careers necessitates a rethinking of queer theory's critique of gay and lesbian openness.

1 James Baldwin and Celebrity Shame
chapter abstract

This chapter argues that Baldwin transmuted the matter of homosexuality—defined as shameful by American culture—into literary success. Drawing on recent scholarship on the theoretical and political implications of shame, and examining a wide range of Baldwin's writings, the chapter suggests that shame was at the heart of both Baldwin's celebrity performance and his representation of homosexuality and that consideration of the operation of this affect helps in understanding Baldwin's complicated relation to gay identity and the liberatory politics that formed around it. The chapter concludes with a close analysis of Baldwin's 1954 essay on André Gide, "The Male Prison," which, it is suggested, presents an image of queer solidarity that anticipates the sense of community that was crucial for gay liberation and that is also played out in audience relations with Baldwin—despite his own overt opposition to gay identity and his distance from the gay subculture.

2 Baldwin and the Celebrity Novel
chapter abstract

This chapter continues the investigation of relations between Baldwin's celebrity embodiment of queerness and the formation of a recognizably contemporary form of politicized gay identity, homing in on Another Country (1962) and addressing in a less sustained fashion Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (1968). The chapter proposes that the novels are an apt focus for Baldwin's considerations of celebrity and sexuality in the public sphere because the novel is a mode in which the relations between public and private are in particularly charged tension. The two novels are viewed as "celebrity novels," not only because they feature celebrity or proto-celebrity protagonists but also because they are extensions of Baldwin's celebrity persona, in which what he insisted is the private matter of homosexuality is paradoxically bodied forth.

3 Susan Sontag's Impersonal Stardom
chapter abstract

This chapter discusses Susan Sontag's 1960s work and media image in relation to the discourse of stardom. Referring to her photographed image, her essays of the 1960s, and her novel The Benefactor (1963), the chapter works with and against film-star studies to develop an account of Sontag's queer iconicity. The chapter argues that Sontag's star effect solicits eroticized audience attention in the very act of seeming to repel it through her vaunted "impersonality." The effect is produced by the overlap between the general operations of star construction and the impersonal aloofness of her prose. Through the queer allure of her image and her groundbreaking 1960s essays, Sontag helped promote unorthodox sexual identities and attitudes, even as she avoided association with lesbianism.

4 From Camp to Counterculture
chapter abstract

This chapter argues against long-standing queer arguments that Sontag saw camp and the gay subculture as apolitical and that her views were homophobically tinged. Concentrating on her famous essay "Notes on 'Camp'" (1964), other key Sontag essays from the 1960s, and their contemporaneous reception, the chapter argues that Sontag contradictorily elaborates a view of gay subcultural expression as apolitical and aestheticized and discloses an investment in sexuality itself—and arguably queer sexuality above all—as a form of freedom. Picking up on the liberatory hints within "Camp" and other essays, the chapter considers how Sontag as a celebrity intellectual helped disseminate ideas about the sexual revolution and consequently set the coordinates of what came to be known as the "counterculture."

5 The Moment of Myra Breckinridge
chapter abstract

This chapter discusses how Gore Vidal's satirical best-selling novel Myra Breckinridge (1968) helped usher in gay liberation, even while manifesting aspects of antiliberationist critique. It argues that the novel's ambivalent perspective toward the emergent gay-liberation discourse is inextricably related to the category of celebrity with which Vidal also had a complicated relationship. While Vidal reveled in his fame, he was also critical of celebrity culture, and Myra Breckinridge is one of his most trenchant and extended critiques, even as it is animated by his own fannish relation to 1940s Hollywood and its stars. Yet Myra became a media event, and the eponymous narrator-heroine, like Vidal, became a kind of celebrity, albeit a virtual one. The chapter argues that Myra the novel and Myra the virtual celebrity enabled Vidal both to acknowledge his investment in same-sexuality and deflect his connection to gay identity.

6 Gore Vidal's Sexuality in the Public Sphere
chapter abstract

This chapter focuses on a heated moment in a live TV debate of 1968, in which the right-wing pundit William Buckley called Gore Vidal a "queer." I argue that this moment is a staging post in both the development of open media talk about the homosexuality of celebrities and in the unfolding of gay liberation. The moment was widely described by contemporaneous commentators as "embarrassing," and this chapter argues that thinking about the social and political implications of embarrassment is helpful in understanding how 1960s American culture positioned homosexuality and how queer theory responds to the overt representation of gay identity. The chapter argues that queer theory, because of its "knowingness" about sexuality, is unable to adequately register the revelatory, political force of openness demonstrated by Buckley's embarrassing outburst.

Afterword: Visibility, Revisited; or, Delete the Closet?
chapter abstract

The Afterword focuses on the relations between celebrity and queer sexual liberation in contemporary culture to demonstrate the continuities and changes in the publicization of queerness since the 1960s. It argues that the hypervisibility of culture-industry celebrities has become an important arena for the exercise of sexual visibility. While the dispensation of the open secret that pertained during the pre–gay liberation period has largely been displaced by the injunction to decloset oneself, the seemingly hard-to-shake logic of sexual identity persists, despite ubiquitous arguments that the hetero/homo binary has lost its hegemonic power to organize people's relations to their sexualities. Arguing against the queer theoretical position that visibility is a ruse of power, the Afterword contends that the persistence and popularity of acts of celebrity coming-out indicates the ongoing urgency and vibrancy of the project of sexual liberation.