A big welcome today to Wayne Goodman as part of his blog tour with Embrace the Rainbow Book Promotions for Better Angels.
Unearthing Forgotten, Historically-significant, LGBTQ Literature
It all began for me while sitting at my piano playing a Tchaikovsky waltz. My repertoire focuses on late 19thCentury-early 20th Century parlor music by Gay, Women, and Black composers.
As I played the lilting tune, it made me wonder what life must have been like in Russia during the 1890s to produce such beautiful music. What an amazing era it must have been. What were the artists like? How did people spend what leisure time they had? Was there a gay culture or community?
Whenever I want to investigate a new topic, my first stop is Wikipedia. While I know it is not the end-all, be-all repository of human knowledge, it comes as close as I could ever want or need. As a starting point, it sent me off to different articles, and before long, I came to understand that St. Petersburg of the late 19th Century was a hub of same-sex couples and their creativity. Lesbianism had never been illegal in Russia, and only the act of anal intercourse between men carried a prison term. Many same-sex couples openly paraded their amours and paramours about town, including members of the royal Romanov family.
No “gay community” as we would know it existed at the time. In fact, the concept of “gay” as an alternative lifestyle did not exist until many years later. Lenin had no issues with homosexuality, but Stalin enacted laws punishing those who engaged in same-sex behaviors. The history of Russian gay culture also got expunged from the Soviet chronicles.
Before the Revolution of 1917, people whom we would identify as LGBTQ today functioned much the same as everyone else, interacting with others with little uproar. Discovering this period of time when same-sex couples existed openly without major discrimination motivated me to write a story about the artists and those around them.
The central characters were two young men who met in the service of the Tsar at the Palace in St. Petersburg in 1880 on the day of an assassination attempt. They slowly become intimates and finally consummate their relationship the day Tsar Alexander II is shot in 1881. In the story, the tapestry of Russian history is a backdrop as they meet some of the gay authors and composers of the time.
“Boromir: Serving the Tsars” is available on Kindle (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01FRMTOTI in the U.S. andhttps://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01FRMTOTI in the U.K.), but it’s only Part I, the reign of Alexander II. I had hoped to continue writing this saga, but there did not seem to be much interest outside of my own, especially with the tensions between the U.S. and Russia lately.
Part of my research for this series uncovered a little-known book called “Wings” by a Silver Age poet named Mikhail Kuzmin. Recognized as the first Russian-language novel that deals positively with a gay topic, it is a fictionalized memoir following the coming-of-age story of Vanya, an orphaned adolescent. The work is fascinating in that I saw it as a window into another, forgotten time. Set in 1906 St. Petersburg, Vanya meets an older man and becomes infatuated with him.
There is an English-language translation available, but I found that a bit flat and mechanical. When I presented “Wings” to a book club, by the time they finally agreed to read it, the book had gone out of print. Because I did not want such an historically-significant story to disappear, I decided to take it upon myself to retell the tale for the 21st Century reader.
Working from the original Russian version and the translation, I took what I enjoyed about the story–the characters, the situations, and the beautiful poetic descriptions–and rewrote it from Vanya’s point of view, rather than as an omnipotent narrator. From this vantage, I could openly discuss the inner workings of a young, gay man in turn-of-the-century Russia, lending more insight into the piece.
Kuzim’s original work is a novella, around 40,000 words, in three sections. It ends abruptly when Vanya has a “coming out” moment. For me, the story needed more, and I added a fourth section, part of which is set in London. This allows for more exploration and some closure.
My version is entitled “Vanya Says, ‘Go!’,” and it is also available on Kindle (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MG20SFF in the U.S. and https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01MG20SFF in the U.K.), as well as in paperback.
The book I have recently published, “Better Angels,” is a retelling of the first American Gay novel, “Joseph and His Friend: A Pennsylvania Story,” by Bayard Taylor. Set in the late 1860s, following the U.S. Civil War, the tale follows 23-year-old Joseph Asten as he wrestles with his attraction to other men and the social norm of marrying. The original work deals with the subject of homosexuality in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge fashion, and I tell Joseph’s story much more openly and unabashedly. Another bold decision I made was to make his love interest an African-American man. Also, the same-sex women’s aspect is brought out more as well.
Taylor originally set out to write a paean to a recently-deceased friend, Fitz-Greene Halleck, a popular poet of his day who was openly homosexual in New England. While “Joseph and His Friend” references a same-sex relationship, the nature of it vastly differs from Halleck’s story, but it is still significant that he made the attempt to elegize his friend.
My next project goes back even further in time. The first English-language Gay novel, “Live and Learn,” by Francis Latham, first printed in 1823, was a gothic tale of luck, love, betrayal and perseverance. Very few copies of it still exist, and the digitized versions are not easy to come by either. Following a month of research and interacting with various libraries and librarians, I was finally able to procure a digital version from a friend who attends one of the universities where a copy resided.
“Live and Learn” seems a bit overblown now, taking up four volumes, it is full of unnecessary and pointless asides and apostrophes by the author. I am attempting to pare it down to its essentials and provide a work more palatable for modern readers while still maintaining the gist of the story and, more than anything, its unique flavor. For now, the working title is “Fortune’s Lot.” Once again, I tell the story from the point of view of the young man struggling with his sexual identity.
There are more works out there that deserve retelling, and I plan to investigate them as potential future projects. If you might have any suggestions or recommendations, please feel free to submit them to me at:firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.
Title: Better Angels
Author: Wayne Goodman
Release Date: June 4th 2017
Genre: Gay Fiction, Retelling, Historical
Joseph Asten, a handsome, 23-year-old farmer living in the Allegheny River Valley shortly after the Civil War, secretly longed for intimacy and love with other men. He devised a misguided plan to marry a woman who knew of his “dual nature” then his life took some unexpected, fateful turns.
Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend: A Pennsylvania Story is considered the first American Gay novel. Originally published in 1869 as a serial in The Atlantic, the author could not relate the story openly and had to use suggestive ways to describe his characters’ activities and motivations. In Better Angels, Goodman retells the tale frankly and candidly, free from antiquated 19th Century cultural restraints. This is the author’s second book revivifying forgotten, historically-significant Queer stories. Previously, in Vanya Says, “Go!,” Goodman updated the first Russian-language Gay novel Wings, by Silver-Age poet Mikhail Kuzmin.
Find Better Angels on Goodreads
Available on Kindle Unlimited
Praise for Better Angels:
“A lovely story, sumptuous in language and ideas with a rich ambience. For people who love a love story, it is thoroughly rewarding.” –Vincent Meis, author of Deluge
“Goodman has turned the pallid prose of travel writer Bayard Taylor into a scintillating trip through 19th Century America. Those who loved James Baldwin’s Another Country and Giovanni’s Room will ﬁnd something of value in Goodman’s latest triumph.” – Kevin Killian, author of Tony Greene Era
“Better Angels is a great read and a wonderful glimpse into a story of the 19th Century that has rarely been told. It writes queerness back into literary history, with an anti-racist spin.” – Dr. Ajuan Mance, author of Before Harlem
“A remarkable literary feat of resurrecting the first American gay novel. With meticulous prose and clever dialogue, Goodman offers a fascinating glimpse into love between American men in the 19th Century.” – Elizeya Quate, author of Face of Our Town
“Better Angels takes another obscure, early Gay novel and brings it back to life, updating language, amplifying the story, and presenting love between men and men, and women and women more directly than it could have been presented when the book was ﬁrst published. Goodman performs a historical service, giving readers a glimpse of Gay life lived 150 years ago.” –Richard May, author of Inhuman Beings
Joseph felt the hum from the multitudinous spirits of life in every nerve and vein, marching triumphantly in a procession through secret passages and summoning the phantoms of sense to their completed chambers. He imagined his mind and soul balanced above a strong pinion as he rode farther and farther from his home.
At once, the great joy of human life filled and thrilled him. All possibilities of action and pleasure and emotion swam before his eyes. He envisioned many of the individual careers he had ever read about in all ages, climates, and conditions of humanity–dazzling pictures of the myriad-sided Earth. All this could be his if he but dared to seize the freedom waiting for his grasp.
He finally accepted that he did feel love for his longtime friend, Elwood Withers, as he himself had described it on their ride to the first gathering at the Warriners. Joseph would rather touch Elwood’s hand, or shirt, more than kissing anyone else. Miss Blessing and Lucy Henderson may have stirred a mild passion in him, but nothing like his constant craving for male companionship. Even with all the buffoonery and loud talk, Elwood had captured Joseph’s heart. Elwood embodied all the things Joseph aspired to be–outgoing, confident, worldly–and it made his brain run to his heels whenever Elwood came into view. However, Elwood professed to be interested in the young women, particularly Miss Elizabeth Henderson. Joseph understood his feelings could not be reciprocated, and he had to accept that his feelings differed from the others. His love for another man made him feel like a lone stalk of corn in a field of waving wheat.
GIVEAWAY: Win a SIGNED copy of Better Angels and 2x ebook copies
About the Author
Wayne Goodman has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of his life (with too many cats). When not writing, he enjoys playing Gilded Age parlor music on the piano, with an emphasis on women, gay, and Black composers.