NOVELIST WHO PLACES HIS GAY CHARACTERS WITHIN THE LARGER CONTEXT OF HUMANITY, 1944

 

A sharp social critic, novelist Armistead Maupin places his gay characters within a large framework of humanity, creating a social history of San Francisco during the tumultuous decades of the 1970s and 1980s.

Maupin is often compared to Charles Dickens: Each wrote originally for serial publication, each frames his art for a popular audience, and each examines critically the social array of his chosen city. Like Dickens’s London, Maupin’s San Francisco is populated by all sorts and conditions of humankind: waifs and scoundrels, high-society hypocrites and burghers complacent in their middle-class ways, and at the center, a group of earnest seekers after a happy life.

That Maupin’s gay and lesbian characters are seeded in this larger social milieu is no accident; Maupin speaks of his intention to “create a large framework of humanity and to place gay characters within that framework.”

The community is Maupin’s theme. His San Francisco is home to interlocking networks of friends, lovers, and enemies. As these groups develop and evolve, some become supportive and nurturing, others hypocritical and stifling. This social awareness marks Maupin’s emergence as a political spokesperson and critic of the Far Right and of the entertainment industry.

Armistead Jones Maupin, Jr. was born to be a Young Republican. Raised in a conservative North Carolina family, he wrote for the Daily Tar Heel while a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After dropping out of law school, he worked at a Raleigh television station where the manager, Jesse Helms, was already gaining notoriety for his conservative television commentaries.

Several tours of duty with the Navy (one in Vietnam) and work on a Charleston newspaper landed him eventually in California, where in 1976 the San Francisco Chronicle began publishing his Tales of the City.

Later revised for book publication (in five separate volumes), these daily columns followed several young residents of 28 Barbary Lane, a house on San Francisco’s Russian Hill. (The series’ sixth and final novel, Sure of You [1989], appeared only in book form.) A woman of eccentric tastes and a mysterious past, Anna Madrigal is both landlady and surrogate parent, supporting her “children” through their searches for happiness.

Mary Ann Singleton, whose arrival in San Francisco inaugurates the series, struggles to balance professional ambitions with commitments to family and friends. Woman-chasing Brian Hawkins and gay Everyman Michael Tolliver pursue parallel quests for love–from the sexual liberation of the late 1970s to the quiet hard-won joys of domesticity in the 1980s.

A sharp social critic, Maupin narrates the interwoven tales of these city-dwellers with a wealth of detail and gentle satire that illuminates the boundaries and beliefs of various communities, most notably in the contrasting descriptions of a womyn’s music festival and the exclusive Bohemian Grove encampment in Significant Others (1987). The series in effect constitutes a social history of two tumultuous decades.

Mirroring the communities it depicts, the series turns bleaker when AIDS enters its characters’ lives. Sharp divisions develop between those who demonstrate “bravery and conspicuous beauty” in battling the disease and those who retreat into piety or indifference. The diverse Barbary Lane “family,” forged through tears and joy, breaks apart, reflecting Maupin’s sense of real-life betrayals of the gay community.

Maybe the Moon (1992), his first post-Tales novel, builds on these themes of community and hypocrisy; its screenwriters, actors, and Hollywood executives struggle for happiness, nurture and betray each other, and find love in the most unexpected places.

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