Joint Obituary of Crompton and Karlinsky
Two giants of gay scholarship, Louis Crompton and Simon Karlinsky, passed away last week in the Bay Area of California.
Louis Crompton was born in 1925 in the province of Ontario, Canada. During his 34 years of teaching in the English Department of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Professor Crompton specialized in English literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He made his mark first with his 1969 book on Shaw the Dramatist.
In 1970 he gave one of the first interdisciplinary courses in gay studies at an American university. At that time such offerings were controversial, especially in the Midwest, and the course provoked a discussion in the state legislature. Professor Crompton was advised that it would be wise to cease giving the course. Undeterred, Lou decided to pursue scholarship in the field through articles and books.
In 1978 Crompton achieved a major “scoop” with his publication (in the Journal of Homosexuality) of Jeremy Bentham’s essay “Offenses against One’s Self: Pederasty,” which had languished since the British thinker first wrote it in 1785, Bentham also figures in his monograph Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-century England (1985).
Striving to keep gay issues prominent, Crompton was continually and faithfully active in the Modern Language Association. In 1978 the Association began the Crompton-Noll award, administered through the gay and lesbian caucus of the MLA. The award pays tribute to Professors Crompton and Dolores Noll (the latter of Kent State University). I first met Lou through our common work in the National Committee for Sexual Civil Liberties, headed by Arthur Warner.
Homosexuality and Civilization (2003), his magnum opus, required 19 years in the writing, even more in the gestation. Working with the utmost patience through the records documenting same-sex love, Louis Crompton tackled the Herculean task of chronicling the history of homosexuality in Europe and parts of Asia from Homer to the eighteenth century. In a series of pithy accounts, the author detailed the "rich and terrible" stories of men and women who have been immortalized, celebrated, shunned or executed for the special attention they paid to members of their own sex. Two chapters on China and Japan are a welcome complement to the usual Eurocentric focus. In the context of world history, Crompton's comparative study reveals the anomaly of Judeo-Christian aversion to homosexuality.
Rejecting the social-construction approach that flourished under the aegis of Michel Foucault, Crompton went directly to the sources, triumphantly showing how much could be accomplished by applying the well-established methodology of the historian. Defying the current fashion that holds that gay history began only about 1700--or even as late as 1869--this book triumphantly affirms the unity of gay history. Even in the West, which has seen a major affliction of antihomosexual sentiment, the pattern is one of affimation, retreat, and renewed affirmation.
Simon Karlinsky was born in 1924 to a Russian-Jewish family living in Manchuria. He came to America when he was 14. His father, who was sympathetic to the Soviet Union, wisely decided not to return there. Simon and I sometimes compared notes about growing up in a far-Left family, finding our bearings to a saner view as young adults.
At first it seemed that Simon Karlinsky would make his mark as a composer. His “Five Piano Pieces” is still occasionally performed. But his superb linguistic skills impelled him to become a professor of Russian philology, a topic he pursued in many years of teaching in the Department of Slavic Languages at the University of California, Berkeley.
Karlinsky’s masterpiece is his Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol of 1976. Through careful readings of the Ukrainian writer’s most famous works, Karlinsky argues that Gogol's homosexual orientation—which Gogol himself could not accept or forgive in himself—may provide the missing key to the riddle of Gogol's personality. This work is no simple excercise in “outing” but a subtle exploration of the possibility that sexual repression may be the key to understanding this tormented personality--a personality that is responsible for some of the most brilliant works of world literature.
Karlinsky also published and edited books by and about Marina Tsvetaeva, Zinnaida Gippius, Edmund Wilson, and Vladimir Nabokov. I am proud to have published his article on Russia in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.
Louis Crompton and Simon Karlinsky were beacons of sanity against the backdrop of the painful birth of gay studies. Yet the exemplary work of Crompton and Karlinsky points up two problems--two categories of growing pains, as it were--that have afflicted the emerging field of gay studies.
Here is the first of these issues. Not unlike ethnic groups who have suffered discrimination, gay and lesbian people have sought to bolster their collective self-esteem by compiling lists of famous homosexuals from various walks of life. This approach has the effect of focusing on the elite to the neglect of the life circumstances of most gay men and lesbians across the centuries. Another difficulty is highlighted by the opening paragraph of the Wikipedia List of such persons. “This is a referenced overview list of notable gay, lesbian or bisexual people, who have either been open about their sexuality of for which reliable sources exist. Famous people who are simply rumored to be gay, lesbian or bisexual, are not listed.”
This distinction--between the ascertained cases and those who are merely rumored to be such--is not easy to establish. The reason is that in the past, and even today, many individuals have found it prudent to remain in the closet. The protective gear they donned was intended to thwart hostile efforts at outing. Later, they served as an obstacle to friendly efforts.
In some instances gay scholars have been unable to resist outing figures who probably could not be outed because they were not gay in the first place. Consider the case of Abraham Lincoln, the subject of an ingenious book by my late friend Clarence Tripp. This book has been available for four years now. The overwhelming consensus among Lincoln scholars is that Tripp did not prove his case, and Lincoln was not gay. Still, the allegation is believed by many gay and lesbian people. Such shanghaiing creates a gulf between “straight” scholarship and gay scholarship, tending to discredit the latter.
The other problem is the way in which Queer Theory has elbowed its way to the forefront of our studies. Regarded by some as a branch of gender studies, Queer Theory became prominent in the early 1990s. Heavily influenced by the work of Michel Foucault, this approach claims to be a kind of hermeneutics fostering “queer readings” of all sorts of texts.
The word queer is itself problematic because its advocates have not succeeded in divesting it of its negative charge. The reference is also unclear. Are “queers” simply gay, lesbian, and bisexual people? Or does the term embrace all sorts of groups and individuals who have been regarded as eccentric and deviant”
To judge from the work produced so far, most contributions to Queer Theory have been rhetorical. The method permits its practitioners to dispense with empirical research, and simply reprocess their often rather banal ideas in an arcane jargon that gives the appearance, but not the reality of novelty.
Under attack by Larry Kramer and others, Queer Theory is now fading. Yet the damage that this fad has done will not soon disappear.
The only peers that come to mind of Louis Crompton and Simon Karlinsky are scholars in their sixties and seventies. To be sure, HIV/AIDS has taken its toll. But devastating in their own way are the two pseudo-sciences I have just discussed: indiscriminate outing of past figures, and the bluster of Queer Theory.
I have said enough about Crompton and Karlinsky to demonstrate the enduring value of their work. Something else must be added, something that at one time we took for granted, but can no longer. Both of these scholars were superbly r e l i a b l e. When they ascertained that something was a fact, they certified that it was. When doubt remained, they indicated that as well. Let us hope that the passing of Crompton and Karlinsky does not signal a fatal decline of the integrity of gay scholarship. In fact I think that we can recover from the two blights I have mentioned. From time to time I will review works that show that their authors have successfully eluded the lure of shoddy methodology.