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Larry Kramer’s (Or His Publisher’s) Brilliant Idea

Yale educated gay icon Larry Kramer has a new book out claiming, among other things, that George Washington was gay.

What’s so brilliant about that? It’s being published as fiction. From the New York Times:

In the novel, and in conversation, Mr. Kramer criticizes historians and scholars like Stacy Schiff, Ron Chernow and Doris Kearns Goodwin for glossing over homosexuality in American history. If he had had his way, he would simply have called the book a work of history rather than fiction, he said.

“Farrar Straus said call it a novel, that way the lawyers will leave you alone,” he said. “But I believe everything in the book is true. It may look like fiction, but to me, it’s not.”

I don’t think Kramer’s claims are all that absurd. When reading with an open mind his reasons for his conclusions one gets the sense he could be right. However, there’s just not enough “there” to make a non-fiction historical claim to a great deal of what he writes. (I think there’s enough there to make the claims against Baron Von Steuben stick.)

By way of analogy, I’m known for my research that meticulously scrutinizes the claims made about religion and the American Founding. I reject the “Christian America” view. That view holds, among other things, that God was on the side of America, against the British and so directly intervened.

Two notable examples offered to prove God’s intervention include:

1. An incident where George Washington was shot at and nearly missed (and my understanding of the history is that it was, or at least Washington claimed it was, a near miss in the Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent sense); and

2. As my friend John Fea tells it,

On the evening of August 29, following a day of defeat at the so-called Battle of Long Island, the American troops found themselves healing their wounds and trying to regroup. The British army was entrenched in the earth only yards away from the American fortifications on Brooklyn Heights, hoping to deal the final blow to this so-called war for independence. As nightfall came, Washington’s troops began to abandon their posts in order to parade to ferries that would take them across the East River and to the safety of Manhattan. Between 7:00 p.m. and the following morning Washington had evacuated nearly 10,000 Continental troops. The commander was aided by a dense fog that lingered over the East River long enough to shield the American ferries from the sight of the British navy.

Peter Marshall and David Manuel, the authors of a wildly popular work of providential history entitled The Light and the Glory, have argued that the fog was a sign of God’s providence. It was “the most amazing episode of divine intervention in the Revolutionary War.”

Dr. Fea notes a problem with the claim:

Was God’s providence evident in this event? American Christians certainly believed that it was, but I doubt whether many English Christians would have thought so. Who had the better insight into God’s purposes?

Indeed Christianity is a much older religion than America and America is not, according to the creed, the center of the Christian God’s concern.

But still, if one wishes to have faith that Providence sided with America for, among other things, the above mentioned reasons, I can respect that. (The Founding Fathers themselves believed Providence was on their side.) Just don’t write and publish these claims as non-fiction history.

That’s a mistake Larry Kramer’s publishers did not make.

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32 thoughts on “Larry Kramer’s (Or His Publisher’s) Brilliant Idea

  1. In late August, coastal fog would be a norm dawn and dusk due to transpiration, and anyone familiar with conditions in a specific area could pretty accurately predict fog in advance. Sailors and smugglers and farmers and hunters rely on such local knowledge.

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  2. Wow, a near miss with a smooth-bore firearm and some fog in a fog-prone area. That’s pretty miraculous all right.

    I think God’s getting old. In the Old Testament he laid waste to cities and humbled empires. Even in the New Testament he managed to feed multitudes and raise the dead. Why if I didn’t know better, I’d say that the frontier of miracles was retreating away from our capacity to verify them.

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  3. Lots of Americans always seen American history from colonization to the present as part of the Protestant project. Its why I think that the decision to separate religion and state was one of the most radical acts of the Constitution. Not only was it kind of unprecedented in human history that the government would have nothing to do with religion but it went against how a plurality or even majority of Americans saw things more than any other clause in the Constitution.

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  4. Why is it every so often one of these books is published trying to convince folks that some famous person was gay? It is intersting to see this book apply current sexual standards and mores to folks that lived a ways back when things were different. Besides we all know who else really was gay.

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    • I find it of interest mostly because, well, some of them were. Who? Don’t know in lots of cases. Very speculative, and somewhat of a time waster I admit.

      I like seeing the details behind historical figures. Humanizes them, rather than just some mythos built up over the years.

      In the end, dead famous person X was just as human as anyone living today, as prone to mistakes or greatness as any other human. Right person, right spot for sure. Memorable accomplishments? Obviously, if we’re talking about them.

      But, I dunno — too many historical figures get polished up by the passage of time, turned from interesting people to learn from into….almost fictional beings.

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      • I’m sure some historical figures were gay. I read the link and some of the reasoning that Kramer, whom I don’t believe is a historian, uses to declare them gay is weak. You can’t apply todays standards to other eras but that is what he does. I think knowing more details about historical figures makes them more interesting if accurate.

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      • I get that Notme’s complaints come from pure abhorence at the idea that some of the Founding Fathers were homosexual. However a lot of people do go looking at evidence of stuff that would not be considered homoerotic back in the day but has taken on those connotations. The Civil War era allowed for much more physical contact between men than our times but this was not because they were more bi-curious or homosexual leaning.

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        • Saul:

          You don’t get anything. You are purposely misstating were my complaints come from. They come from the lack of any real evidence presented to support the argument that Washington and Lincoln were gay. Read the daily mail linked article, it is laughable. Kramer says that Washington designed uniforms so therefore he was a big queen. I don’t care if Washington was gay but that reasoning is pathetic and smacks of an agenda to find Washington to be gay. What is even sadder is that you seem to agree with my statement that Kramer is judging 18th/19th century mores by today’s standards. If you are going to criticize me at least do it intelligently.

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          • This.

            The people I know who get the most irritated about modern writers who project modern attitudes (and semantics) backwards to lead them to the conclusion that they’ve discovered something new and juicy about historical figures aren’t actually social conservatives. They’re historians.

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  5. It’s an interesting bit of English usage: a near miss is a shot that missed but came close to striking, while a shot that nearly missed did in fact strike, if barely so.

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  6. There is a certain strain of Christianist thought that declares that the U.S. Revolution was not a product of the Enlightenment but a counter-Enlightenment Revolution instead.

    This is obviously incorrect. Washington and Jefferson were not atheists in the modern sense of the world but they were deists and both supported toleration of non-Christian religions. Washington demonstrated this in his famous letter to the Tuoro Synagogue in Rhode Island. Jefferson said he was glad that the United States was welcoming to the Jews.

    The very idea of religious tolerance and freedom is at the heart of the Enlightenment.

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    • It may be incorrect, but less “obviously” so than might at first appear. There were many reasons and factions at play in support for the Revolution. The slaveowners who participated probably didn’t look too kindly on the Enlightenment’s view of the dignity of all humans.

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      • That is a fair point but I don’t think that is quite what the current Christian Revisionists mean on their views. They are looking to go against the specific enlightenment aspects of the Revolution. This includes Jefferson’s most (but obviously hypocritical) enlightenment views which led to the Bill of Rights among other documents.

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  7. I find this post fascinating.
    Not in the least because I myself have authored a great scholarly work of imminent historic insight based on years of research (mostly over cocktails), finding that the giant stone heads on Easter Island are, in fact, gay as a hummingbird.
    My editor told me to publish this masterpiece as a supposed work of “fiction,” over my own lengthy protests (go figure . . . ), in order to keep the lawyers happy (though I don’t see how this could be considering the possibilities for litigation otherwise . . . ).

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