Fifteen from 1984: Gay History Week 14: George Stambolian
This post was submitted by Philip Clark, former TNG history and books columnist.
This summer, I was doing research in the George Fisher papers at Cornell University. Fisher was an airline steward who, as a side job, ran a massive gay mail-order bookselling operation, Elysian Fields, from 1972 until near the time of his death from AIDS in 1990.
In the course of working my way through boxes of letters, catalogs, and flyers from Fisher’s business, one of them caught my attention. It advertised the autumn 1984 reading series at the New York City outlet of the bookstore A Different Light. Every week for 15 weeks between September 11th and December 18th, A Different Light hosted a free reading by a different gay or lesbian literary figure. What was amazing was the sheer quality of this assemblage of talent. I highly doubt that any similar reading series could be launched in one city in the U.S. in 2010 – not one with such frequency and consistency of talent.
Let’s return to the fall of 1984. Each week, we’ll look at that week’s novelist, poet, playwright, and critic. What had they done by 1984? What have they done since?
Week 14: George Stambolian
In a reading series full of poets, novelists, dramatists, and performers, George Stambolian stands out for being best known in a supporting role: as an editor and scholar, one of the leading proponents of gay literature in the United States. Many of the best gay novelists of the 1970s through the 1990s owe a huge debt to him for laying the groundwork that would allow their writing to thrive.
Stambolian came from a strongly academic background, attending Dartmouth as an undergraduate and eventually earning a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. His particular area of expertise was French literature; he was a Proust expert whose earliest books were Marcel Proust and the Creative Encounter (1972) and Twentieth-Century French Fiction (1975). By the mid-1970s, Stambolian was a tenured professor in French at the all-girls’ Wellesley College, and his interest in gay literature caused him to expand his course offerings, teaching a seminar on gay fiction. This made him one of the initial wave of academics involved in gay and lesbian studies in the United States, during the early days of the gay liberation movement.
Combined interests in French and gay literature caused him to co-edit, with Elaine Marks, the book Homosexualities and French Literature (1979), which is still considered a major text in the development of gay literary studies. (The preface was written by Richard Howard, Week 1 in this series.) The interviews and essays contained in the book asked such essential and continued questions as how large a part an author’s homosexuality plays in his or her work and whether a homosexual literary imagination actually exists.
By this time, Stambolian was heavily involved in gay urban culture in New York City. Gay novelist Andrew Holleran (Dancer from the Dance), in an appreciation of Stambolian written in Christopher Street in 1992, recalls seeing him in clubs like The Flamingo and The Saint, going to the gay bathhouses, and attending operas at the Metropolitan. Stambolian parlayed his familiarity with gay subcultures into his next book, Male Fantasies/Gay Realities (1984), a collection of ten interviews with various gay “types,” including a “self-made man,” a handsome man, a masochist, and a romantic. This book probed the collective psyche of the late 1970s/early 1980s gay male community through intense focus on the roles gay men found themselves playing within that community. It is this book that Stambolian was promoting at A Different Light.
Stambolian’s last major publishing project was an extension of his support of gay literature, the Men on Men anthology series. These were collections of short stories and novel excerpts by some of the best gay writers of the 1980s and early 1990s, including Sam D’Allesandro, Dennis Cooper, Allan Gurganus, Edmund White, Kevin Killian, Christopher Bram, and Robert Ferro. (After Ferro’s death from AIDS, Stambolian helped establish the Ferro-Grumley Foundation, named after Ferro and his late partner, writer Michael Grumley; the foundation continues to support gay literature and award gay writers to this day.) Stambolian would edit four volumes in the award-winning series before his death from AIDS complications late in 1991; future volumes would be edited mostly by David Bergman and continue until 2000.
What may be most remarkable now is that the Men on Men series was released by a major publishing imprint, Plume; this was in the brief golden period, now gone, when major publishers took gay literature seriously. None so seriously as Stambolian himself, though. Andrew Holleran remembered the last time he visited with Stambolian, not long before his death, and the sheer energy with which George raved about a new fiction discovery (British playwright Neil Bartlett’s brilliant Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall), talked about arranging for the book’s American release, discussed “academic studies of gender and homosexuality in fiction” and a story by Balzac, and read aloud from the new volume of Men on Men. Would that there were more like Stambolian in the world today.
Recommended reading: Of Stambolian’s own writing, Male Fantasies/Gay Realities is probably the most accessible and interesting to those without a particular academic background. The Men on Men volumes that he edited, while somewhat the typical mixed anthology bag, are also worth seeking out because the individual stories or excerpts can often lead current readers to a full novel or novelist they might not otherwise have known about.
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