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Gay Artists in Modern American Culture: An Imagined Conspiracy (Caravan Book) Hardcover – September 10, 2007

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Editorial Reviews


The accomplishments of Gay Artists are many. . . . Highly recommended for scholars--and also for non-academics--who have interests in twentieth-century American culture, in queer studies, and in studies of modern U.S. empire. . . . It should become a vital reference for those studying how these three interconnected subjects collided. . . . Gay Artists recently won the 2008 LGBT Award for Nonfiction from the Lambda Literary Foundation. It deserves to pick up several more.--American Studies

Gay Artists in Modern American Culture uncovers a forgotten Cold War gay renaissance.--American Literary History

This book examines a new series of discourse about gay men who were prominent in the field of the arts and letters and is a valuable contribution to cultural history in the United States.--Journal of the History of Sexuality

Masterfully investigates how gay artists--mostly male--came to define modern American culture while navigating the restrictions imposed by Cold War homophobia.--Journal of Cold War Studies


This is an important and utterly fascinating history of the idea that gay men have exerted a disproportionate and perhaps conspiratorial influence over the arts, particularly theater and modern music. Sherry takes an idea with which many people are at least vaguely familiar--and about which they often have strong opinions, if not much knowledge--and provides a fuller analysis of its scope, sources, and meanings than anyone imagined possible.--George Chauncey, author of Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World |[An] insightful new book. . . . In five thoroughly researched chapters, [Sherry] shows how homophobia . . . is not a monolithic repressive force, but a complex web of power relations that have shifted from Truman's time to Nixon's to our own. Sherry is one of the few scholars to read anti-gay rants as a strain of American conspiracy thinking. . . . This book challenges the idea that history is made by individuals and tells a history of power relations and movements.--San Francisco Chronicle|Sherry traces the connections between Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Rock Hudson, and others, exploring their victimization by--and propogation of--America's anticommunist culture of fear.--The Advocate|An important book, deserving of a central place not only in gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender studies, but also in academia and at the American table.--Multicultural Review|[A] fascinating new book.--Chicago Sun-Times|Sherry excavates the forgotten battlefields of 1950s and '60s arts discourse and its very public accusations of homosexual conspiracy, takeover, and charlatanism--beside which recent identity politics may seem genteel. With astute analysis and exemplary clarity, this book reveals how U.S. artists provided the face of the Cold War 'homosexual menace' at home even as their work was deployed to represent all-American anticommunist muscle abroad.--Nadine Hubbs, author of The Queer Composition of America's Sound: Gay Modernists, American Music, and National Identity|An extended and often brilliant discussion of gay musicians, dramatists, dancers, and writers from the late 1940s through the 1960s.--Rain Taxi|A first-rate contribution to American cultural history.--Journal of American History|As an in-depth look at the critical reaction to major American artists, Sherry's study compares favorably to other academic studies. . . . Recommended.--CHOICE|[Sherry] provides fresh thinking about the aesthetic portions of the homosexual world.--New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • Series: Caravan Book
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press; First Edition edition (September 10, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0807831212
  • ISBN-13: 978-0807831212
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.3 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,281,483 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Killian HALL OF FAME on October 2, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
At first I was reading this book rather grudgingly due to what I perceived as its flaw, the almost total absence of West Coast-based artists among his case studies. In fact I still don't know why that would be, the book is about "Modern American Culture" not "Modern Upper East Side Culture," nevertheless there it is, and what's here is almost bewilderingly good in all the best ways. It takes up a topic you thought you knew all about, and it brings to light the documents themselves that force you to see the whole "conspiracy" in a different light.

AN IMAGINED CONSPIRACY shows us the intricate web of enemies any gay artist had to deal with in the 1940s and the 1950s, and perhaps in response the art of the men in question became more and more patriotic and American. Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" was praised for its universal qualities. Rock Hudson became the most manly and appealing of all movie stars, while Aaron Copland saw his composition "Fanfare for the Common Man" become a second national anthem. The most riveting and heterosexually erotic musical, "West Side Story" was composed by an entire troupe of gay artists including Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. Sherry shows us how the State Department and other proponents of American imperialism cynically pushed forward these cultural products as weapons in the Cold War with Russia and the hated Red Menace of communism, and until such time as these tactics ceased to matter, the artist were protected to a certain extent from public exposure.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Michael on December 15, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Gay Artists in Modern American Culture is a well-researched look at the history of an idea: that an organized group of gay males had overtaken American culture, high and low, and was using it to undermine American values at home and America's standing abroad. The book is full of insights that may surprise the uninitiated, for example, the idea that the "closet" is a mostly 60's-era creation that gay men were already out of during the 20's and 30's. The sheer number of gay men on the list of mid-20th century American artists is also astonishing - nearly every major composer and most of the playwrights, a good number of visual artists and a healthy smattering of authors, architects, and social critics. Also notable, the book exposes how views once confined to arcane psychoanalytic theory slowly entered the mainstream, both right and left, which distorted the public's previously condescending, but not vicious, views on gay men (and women, to an extent). It's a complicated, but truly new (for me) explanation of history.

Despite these strengths, the book disappoints on a few levels. One, it suffers from the defect of most social histories: to discuss general trends and other abstractions precisely requires a new and jargon-filled language. Also, to do so can require you to skip other real examples in the service of your general thesis, leading to some eye-glazing passages. I say this with the huge caveat of having only skimmed the chapter "Barber at the Met" - an entire chapter on a real example. Lastly, once the book enters the 1980's, the author is clearly not discussing his expertise and most of the ideas are rather banal and no longer focusing on artists as much as an ill-defined gay culture. That said, the book is worth checking out, especially for its many pithy quotes and its dissection of the McCarthy-era "Lavender Scare."
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7 of 11 people found the following review helpful By SWAMP FOX on August 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I found very little to like about this book.

First, the focus is not on "gay artists" but on a few gay composers and musicians, including
Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Giancarlo Menotti. The discussion of these individuals is incredibly repetitious.

Second, the book is based on elevating ridiculous and outmoded ideas, such as that there was some kind of conspiracy of gays to promote themselves at the expense of straight artists, and that gays were tolerated because of the need of Cold War Washington to demonstrate its superiority in all areas, including the arts. The idea is bogus. Sherry is something of an expert on the Cold War (he won a Bancroft Prize) and is far afield here.

Third, Sherry's modus operandi is to quote extensively from dated books by gays and homophobes and then to shoot down his straw men with his own brilliant critiques. There is no reason why anyone should care about these ridiculous writers 20-40 years later, much less about Sherry's ripostes. The book is therefore heavy on impenetrable jargon.

The only tolerable part of the book is a chapter on composer, Samuel Barber, but why Sherry thinks it matters that Barber composed a very bad opera, "Anthony and Cleopatra," for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera building in 1996 escapes me. At least the chapter on Barber is a straight forward story free of the empty rhetoric that Sherry finds so compelling.

If you have not lived through the decades when being gay was considered a mental illness, or
had to deal with petulant attacks on gays by ignorant people such as Midge Dictor and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., I suppose you might learn something from the book, but there are better books on the same topics.
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