Leavitt, David 1961–
Leavitt, David 1961–
PERSONAL: Born June 23, 1961, in Pittsburgh, PA; son of Harold Jack (a professor) and Gloria (a home-maker; maiden name, Rosenthal) Leavitt. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1983.
ADDRESSES: Office—Department of English, University of Florida, 4008 Turlington Hall, P.O. Box 117310, Gainesville, FL 32611-7310. E-mail—dleavitt\@ufl.edu.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Willets Prize for fiction, Yale University, 1982, for "Territory"; O. Henry Award, 1984, for "Counting Months"; nomination for best fiction, National Book Critics Circle, 1984, and PEN/Faulkner Award for best fiction, PEN, 1985, both for Family Dancing; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1985; Visiting Foreign Writer, Institute of Catalan Letters, Barcelona, Spain, 1989; Guggenheim fellow, 1990; Literary Lion, New York Public Library.
Family Dancing (short stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.
The Lost Language of Cranes (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1986.
Equal Affections (novel), Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1989.
A Place I've Never Been (short stories), Viking (New York, NY), 1990.
While England Sleeps (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1993, reprinted with a new preface by the author, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1995.
(Editor, with Mark Mitchell) Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.
(With Mark Mitchell) Italian Pleasures, Chronicle Books (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
Arkansas: Three Novellas (includes "The Term Paper Artist," "The Wooden Anniversary," and "Saturn Street"), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
(Editor and author of introduction, with Mark Mitchell) Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1997.
The Page Turner (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.
Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2000.
(Editor and author of introduction, with Mark Mitchell) E.M. Forster, Selected Stories, Penguin (New York, NY), 2001.
(With Mark Mitchell) In Maremma: Life and a House in Southern Tuscany, Counterpoint (Washington, DC), 2001.
The Marble Quilt (stories), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 2001.
Florence, a Delicate Case, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2002.
Collected Stories, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2003.
The Body of Jonah Boyd (novel), Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2004.
Contributor to periodicals, including Esquire, Harper's, New Yorker, New York Times Book Review, New York Times Magazine, and Village Voice.
ADAPTATIONS: The Lost Language of Cranes was adapted for film by the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), 1991. The Page Turner was adapted for film by Spanish director Ventura Pons, as Food of Love, 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: Lauded for his insightful and empathetic characterizations, author David Leavitt has gained recognition as as one of the leaders of the gay literature movement in the United States. According to Daniel J. Murtaugh in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "While Leavitt has converted the experiences of gay men and women into a matter of interest for the mainstream reader, he remains one of the most poignant and subjective tellers of what it means to be gay and how a gay person survives in a world of family, education, or business not necessarily receptive to sexual difference." Leavitt published his first story, "Territory," in the New Yorker at the age of twenty-one. The story of a mother and her homosexual son, it was the first of its kind to be published in that magazine, and it created "a small stir in the city's more conservative circles," according to an Interview writer. Leavitt also published pieces in other periodicals, including Esquire and Harper's, and in 1984 published his first book, a collection of short stories titled Family Dancing.
Family Dancing showcases Leavitt's insights into some of the more offbeat, troubling aspects of domestic life. Among the stories noted by critics are "Radiation," about a slowly dying cancer victim, "Out Here," which concerns sibling guilt, and "Aliens," in which a young girl believes herself to be an extraterrestrial creature. "Territory" is included in this collection, and several other works in the volume also address homosexual concerns, including "Dedicated," and "Out Here," in which one of the characters is a lesbian.
Family Dancing earned acclaim as an impressive debut volume. Newsweek's David Lehman, hailing the 1980s boom in short-story writing, called Leavitt's book "a first collection of unusual finesse," and Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times that Family Dancing is "an astonishing collection" with "the power to move us with the blush of truth." In a review for the Washington Post, Dennis Drabelle praised Leavitt as "remarkably gifted," and reserved particular commendation for his tales of homosexuality. Leavitt, Drabelle contended, "captures the deep-rooted tensions between adult gays and their families and the efforts of childless gays to carve out families among their peers." Drabelle concluded that Leavitt's insights had "only just been tapped."
Leavitt devotes his first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, to an in-depth depiction of homosexual life. While the main character's romantic experiences are rather typical—he falls in love, loses his lover, and finds a more suitable mate—a subplot involving the protagonist's father delves into traumas specific to homosexuality. The father is a married man who spends Sunday afternoons indulging in his passion for patronizing pornography theaters. After learning that his son is a homosexual, he too makes his own difficult confession.
The Lost Language of Cranes chronicles more than just the elements of a homosexual life, however. It also addresses more universal issues regarding love and traces the hope, pain, ecstasy, and suffering that are all a part of romantic involvement. Other issues explored in the novel include the notion of family life, as Leavitt delineates the tensions and disappointments of the family as it is altered by the son's and the father's revelations. In addition, the anguish of the wife and mother is also evoked through her increased withdrawal from familial crises. Her disappointment, together with the father's anguish and the son's alternately exhilarating and crushing experiences with love, adds another dimension to Leavitt's work.
The Lost Language of Cranes garnered much critical acclaim. Susan Wood wrote in the Washington Post that Leavitt's novel "has much to recommend it," and Philip Lopate noted in the New York Times Book Review that the book is "readable and literate." An enthusiastic reviewer for Chicago's Tribune Books described the novel as "well-written and frankly interesting," and added that "Leavitt's style is compelling, and the subject matter … is equally elucidative." Similarly, Dorothy Allison wrote in the Village Voice that "Leavitt catches beautifully the terror and passion of new love" and shows a profound understanding of love's "tentativeness." She further declared that The Lost Language of Cranes "places David Leavitt firmly among the best young authors of his generation," and concluded that his novel gave her "new hope for modern fiction."
Critics of The Lost Language of Cranes were especially impressed with Leavitt's skill in portraying compelling characters and his ability to evoke the tension and turmoil, as well as the fulfillment and ecstasy, of love. The reviewer for Tribune Books declared that Leavitt "opens up the gay world to readers" and added that the narrative is "mature, quick-paced and fascinating." Likewise, Allison wrote that the novel's various characters are "so fully realized" that she found herself "tense with fear for each of them." Allison commended Leavitt for his artistry in evincing such a response from readers. "It is David Leavitt's strength that he could inspire that kind of fear in me and win me back when his characters did not find true love or happiness," Allison noted. "At every moment I believed in them, and these days that is so rare as to suggest genius."
Leavitt's second novel, Equal Affections, which Listener reviewer John Lahr called a "tale of the extraordinariness of ordinary family suffering," centers around Louise Cooper, who is dying of cancer, and the members of her family who must deal with this reality. Louise's husband, Nat, is a computer visionary whose visions have never amounted to much. Her son Danny is a gay lawyer living in bland, immaculate monogamy in the suburbs with Walter, who has not fully committed to the relationship. Daughter April is a famous folk singer who "discovers" her true lesbian nature and turns her singing to feminist issues. Louise's bitterness over lost opportunities, her crisis of faith, and her impending death color her interactions with her husband and family. As Louise's twenty-year bout with cancer draws to a close, the family deals with this strain as well as their individual problems: Nat is having an affair with another woman, Danny endures Walter's Internet philandering, and April is artificially inseminated with donor sperm from a culturally aware San Francisco homosexual.
Equal Affections received mixed reviews. Acknowledging her disappointment in Leavitt's first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, Beverly Lowry wrote in the New York Times Book Review that, in contrast, Equal Affections "does not compromise itself with easy answers. It is a gritty, passionate novel that should settle the question of David Leavitt's abilities…. He has the talent for a lifelong career." Lahr called the novel "adroit," while a New York writer found it to be "limp, dreary business." Washington Post Book World contributor Alan Hollinghurst praised Leavitt's characterizations, but observed that the "emotional drama … is distinctly soggy. Leavitt's characters are notoriously lachrymose, but here there's really too much tearful sentiment, spunky goodness and curtain-line corniness: this is a sleepie that turns into a weepie." London Observer correspondent Candia McWilliam was more enthusiastic, terming Equal Affections an "attentive, unsparing book."
In Leavitt's second collection of short stories, A Place I've Never Been, most of his tales focus on gay characters dealing with relationships. "When You Grow to Adultery" finds the protagonist leaving an old lover for a new one, and in "My Marriage to Vengeance," a les-bian character's former lover marries a man. In the title story, a woman finally realizes that her gay friend Nathan is too wrapped up in his own self-pity to contribute to their friendship. A mother tests the limits of her AIDS-stricken son's waning strength in "Gravity," and a heterosexual couple who have lost their respective spouses to cancer begin an affair in "Spouse Night."
Many critics praised A Place I've Never Been. Charles Solomon in the Los Angeles Times Book Review called Leavitt's writing "fine, polished prose that is refreshingly free of the drip-dry nihilism of his Brat Pack contemporaries." James N. Baker declared in Newsweek that Leavitt "is not an oracle nor is he a groundbreaker…. He remains what he has always been: a writer of conventional stories who casts an incisive, ironic eye on families and lovers, loyalty and betrayal." Reviewer Harriet Waugh wrote in the Spectator: "Short stories, unlike novels, have to be perfect. A Place I've Never Been … very nearly is." In her New York Times Book Review piece on the work, Wendy Martin called A Place I've Never Been a "fine new collection of short fiction," and Clifford Chase described Leavitt's short fiction as "at once wrenching and satisfying" in his review for the Village Voice Literary Supplement.
Leavitt's third novel, While England Sleeps, is set in the 1930s against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, and follows the love story between Brian Botsford, a literary aristocrat, and Edward Phelan, a lower-class ticket-taker on the London Underground. Brian ends the affair, and in an attempt to deny his homosexuality marries a woman whom his wealthy aunt thinks is suitable. Distraught, Edward joins the fight in Spain, but he soon deserts the military and lands in prison. Brian follows his lover to Spain and secures Edward's release, but Edward dies of typhoid on the voyage home.
While England Sleeps borrowed a segment of its plot from British poet Stephen Spender's 1948 autobiography, World within World, a fact first revealed by Bernard Knox in his review for the Washington Post. Leavitt admitted using an episode from Spender's life as a springboard for his novel and wrote in the New York Times Magazine that he had initially included an acknowledgment to Spender, "but had been advised by an in-house lawyer at Viking to omit the reference." He also defended his book on the basis that it is an historical novel and maintained that it "diverged from Spender's account in many more ways than it converged with it." Spender brought suit in London against Leavitt for copyright infringement. Viking agreed to withdraw the book until Leavitt revised the manuscript according to some seventeen points cited in the Spender suit; once this had been done, however, Viking declined to publish the revised version. However, in the fall of 1995, Houghton Mifflin released the new version with an added preface by Leavitt that addresses the book's legal controversy.
Despite the controversy, the Los Angeles Times short-listed While England Sleeps for its fiction prize after it had been withdrawn from its initial publication, and While England Sleeps continued to receive much publicity from reviewers. In a New York Times review, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt lauded Leavitt's authentic portrayal of the prewar European era and his depiction of the region's divergent social classes. In the scenes that take place in Spain, Lehmann-Haupt added, "the theme of sexual deception is chillingly replicated in the way the Communist leaders treat their followers." Lehmann-Haupt concluded that While England Sleeps should be credited for climbing "out of its preoccupation with sex and [making] a significant comment on the political issues of its time." Conversely, Jeremy Treglown noted in the Times Literary Supplement that "style is one thing about which Spender hasn't complained, yet the book's main offence lies in its novelet-tishness." D.T. Max observed in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "A careful reading of World within World shows Spender's charge of plagiarism to be over the top—all the novel's words seem Leavitt's own—but a charge of laziness would be far harder to disprove, and the knowledge of it mars an otherwise graceful, romantic novel."
In his next foray into short fiction, Arkansas: Three Novellas, Leavitt once again explores issues of gay love and life, this time mixing directly autobiographical elements into the work. In "The Term Paper Artist," a young writer—named David Leavitt—tries to break through a case of writer's block caused by an accusation of plagiarism by an English poet. In an interview with Celestine Bohlen in the New York Times, Leavitt described his intent with this novella: "It is so common to write autobiographical fiction in which your own experience is thinly disguised. I thought it could be very interesting to do the opposite with a story where even a tiny amount of research into my life would prove it did not happen … and thereby turn the convention inside out." The volume's other two novellas, "The Wooden Anniversary" and "Saturn Street," both deal with characters whose lovers have died and who are struggling with moving on with their lives. "The Wooden Anniversary" is set in Italy, where Leavitt himself now lives.
Although Arkansas received some favorable critical reception, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani termed the work "disappointing," criticizing the author's handling of sexual events as "repetitious, tiresome and sophomoric" and noting that "this sort of adolescent writing is unworthy of the richly talented Mr. Leavitt."
The Marble Quilt, published in 2001, reestablished Leavitt's critical standing as an author of short fiction, even as he experimented with "different formats and styles," according to Booklist reviewer Michael Spinella. "The Infection Scene" balances a story about the petulant Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, young lover to nineteenth-century writer Oscar Wilde and later that same man's downfall, with a modern-day tragedy about AIDS; "The Black Box" finds two men drawn together as one mourns the recent loss of a lover in a tragic plane crash; and "The List" follows the gossip-ridden e-mail dialogue among a group of gay academics. The title story, about a murdered man whose life, as narrated by his former boyfriend during a police inquiry, is shown to be rife with contradictions, "is infused with an anger that exists … just below its dense writerli-ness," noted a Publishers Weekly contributor, adding that in The Marble Quilt Leavitt "achieves an electric narrative energy."
Leavitt's 1998 novel, The Page Turner, deals with the dual themes of love and ambition. Aspiring concert pianist Paul Porterfield, the book's narrator, is given the chance to turn pages for renowned artist Richard Kennington during a concert in California. The two men meet a few months later in Italy and begin a brief affair that is halted by Kennington's loyalty to a longtime partner and by Paul's realization that his talent does not equal Kennington's. The book also explores Paul's milieu in New York City and his mother's struggle to come to terms with the dissolution of her marriage. In her New York Times review of the book, Kakutani maintained that the novel "represents something of a rediscovery of the methods and ambitions of Family Dancing. It is by no means a perfect novel … but … it intermittently shimmers with the magical talent that first announced itself a decade and a half ago." Elizabeth Gleick also praised The Page Turner in the New York Times Book Review as "a perfectly enjoyable read" and "a portrait of the aspiring artist as a young man." Gleick continued: "Love and striving for selfhood may be inseparable, but in this novel the author achieves clarity, even flashes of poetry, only when grappling with the turning points in an artistic life."
The "artistic life" also informs Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, Leavitt's roman à clef about the New York publishing world. The central character of this novel, Martin Bauman, is a youthful prodigy who publishes a groundbreaking short story with gay themes in an important literary magazine—and who thereafter has to struggle with his disillusion at the venality of the publishing business and with the dire predictions of his demanding college instructor, Stanley Flint. Martin Bau-man "gives every appearance of being an extended, merciless excoriation of Leavitt's younger self—depicted here as a boy with a propensity for cheating on exams, a coddled yet chronically needy child-man not above betraying the people he loves when they prove insufficiently forthcoming with their reassurance," wrote Laura Miller in the New York Times Book Review. Miller added: "The pettiness of writers is so disheartening because, at its best, the experience of reading is so sublime; naturally, we expect better of the people who can engineer such a miracle. That Leavitt depicts his own generation of 'hot' young writers as not just preoccupied with reputation but also apparently indifferent to the alchemy of reading itself may be the most damning thing of all." A Publishers Weekly reviewer felt that the New York literary scene "is given a sound drubbing in this comedy of egos and coming-of-age tale…. Readers hip to the New York book biz will be tickled throughout by Leavitt's thinly veiled satiric references to various literary institutions." Kakutani, writing in the New York Times, found the book to be "as poignant and funny an account of literary apprenticeship as that found in the opening pages of William Styron's Sophie's Choice."
In The Body of Jonah Boyd Judith "Denny" Denham reflects on a significant Thanksgiving dinner, thirty years before, at the house of her then employer/lover and his family. Sometime throughout the evening one of the members of the party, novelist Jonah Boyd, irretrievably misplaces his most recent manuscript, setting him off on a path of despair. "Leavitt drops you into this family, allows you to muck around in its glorious dysfunction, and then extracts you in an ingenious way," explained Henry Goldblatt in a review for Entertainment Weekly. Marc Kloszewski in Library Journal commented that The Body of Jonah Boyd is a "generally breezy and humorous book whose charms outweigh any flaws; many readers will enjoy it," while Ray Olson of Booklist acknowledged, "Followers of Leavitt's career may note that his nemesis, plagiarism, figures in here, while homosexuality, formerly prevalent in his fiction, does not, and conclude that this is his best novel."
In addition to his own writing, Leavitt has edited several well-received works with his companion, Mark Mitchell. The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, for instance, consists of pieces that focus on gay men and includes a wide variety of writers, both contemporary and historical, among them Larry Kramer, D.H. Lawrence, Graham Greene, Christopher Isherwood, Edna O'Brien, and James Purdy. Writing in the New Statesman & Society, Richard Canning bemoaned the omission of non-American and non-English writers as well as pre-1900 writers, questioning the inclusion of pieces that seem at odds with the authors' stated criteria. "Leavitt's preference for 'self-contained, autonomous works' rather than novel extracts is shelved for particular favourites." Nonetheless, Canning recommended the anthology as "no less comprehensive than any work subject to such criteria could be." Peter Parker in the Observer similarly questioned the scope of the pieces included, noting that the volume reflects Leav-itt's own writing terrain—conservative, mainstream, "suburban-sensitive"—at the expense of angrier or more explicitly sexual literature. But Peter Parker, while admitting some reservations about inclusion criteria in his Times Literary Supplement review, commended Leavitt and Mitchell for choosing "so many stories of such high literary quality."
Leavitt and Mitchell also edited Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914. The anthology includes excerpts from novels, stories, and obscure manuscripts that depict gay passion, sometimes in veiled form due to cultural taboos and censorship. According to Robert Dawidoff in the Advocate, the pieces, though of other eras and in some cases previously unknown to readers, "are often hauntingly familiar, partly because they have been incorporated into the gay literature we know but also because they concern the same uncomfortable and confused feelings gays experience even now." Dawidoff concluded that the book "belongs in every gay library…. It is like a time capsule, carefully secreted in the cornerstone of our gay foundation and now restored to us as a reminder and a treasure."
Leavitt's success has made him one of the few mainstream writers whose work deals primarily with homosexual themes. As Martin explained in the New York Times Book Review: "Leavitt has the wonderful ability to lead the reader to examine heterosexist assumptions without becoming polemical. In prose that is often spare and carefully honed, he sensitizes us to the daily difficulties of homosexual life—of negotiating public spaces, for example, where holding hands or a simple embrace becomes problematic." She added: "Leavitt's insight and empathy serve … to enlighten, to make us realize that human sexuality is a continuum of possibilities that encompasses the subtle as well as the sensational."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 130: American Short Story Writers since World War II, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.
Advocate, October 19, 1993, pp. 51-55; December 28, 1993, p. 76; February 17, 1998, Robert Dawidoff, review of Pages Passed from Hand to Hand: The Hidden Tradition of Homosexual Literature in English from 1748 to 1914, p. 53; March 31, 1998, Robert L. Pela, review of The Page Turner, p. 74.
Booklist, February 15, 1998, Ray Olson, review of The Page Turner, p. 982; August, 2000, Donna Seaman, review of Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, p. 2074; September 2, 2001, Michael Spinella, review of The Marble Quilt, p. 51; April 1, 2004, Ray Olson, review of The Body of Jonah Boyd, p. 1348.
Entertainment Weekly, April 30, 2004, Henry Goldblatt, review of The Body of Jonah Boyd, p. 171.
Esquire, May, 1985.
Harper's, April, 1986.
Interview, March, 1985.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1998, review of The Page Turner.
Library Journal, June 1, 1995; February 1, 1998, David Azzolina, review of Pages Passed from Hand to Hand, p. 86; February 15, 1998, Roger W. Durbin, review of The Page Turner, p. 170; September 1, 2000, Brian Kenney, review of Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, p. 250; July, 2001, review of The Marble Quilt, p. 128; May 1, 2004, Marc Kloszewski, review of The Body of Jonah Boyd, p. 140.
Listener, June 15, 1989, John Lahr, review of Equal Affections, p. 25.
London Review of Books, May 23, 1991, pp. 22-23.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 5, 1989, p. 6; August 4, 1991, p. 1991; October 3, 1993, pp. 3, 12.
National Review, December 27, 1993, p. 72.
New Republic, April 6, 1998, Denis Donoghue, review of Pages Passed from Hand to Hand, p. 36.
New Statesman & Society, November 12, 1993, p. 38; March 11, 1994, p. 41.
Newsweek, January 14, 1985; February 13, 1989, p. 78; September 3, 1990, p. 66; November 8, 1993, p. 81.
New York, January 30, 1989; October 18, 1993, pp.139-140.
New York Times, October 30, 1984; October 14, 1993, p. C20; February 20, 1994, p. D14; February 25, p. B1; March 11, 1997, p. B2; March 27, Michiko Kakutani, "Ambition, Manipulation and a Misguided Mother"; September 29, 2000, Michiko Kakutani, "The Writing Life: Never Unexamined, Often Nasty."
New York Times Book Review, September 2, 1984; October 5, 1986; February 12, 1989, p. 7; August 26, 1990, p. 11; October 3, 1993, p. 14; September 4, 1994, p. 10; April 26, 1998, Elizabeth Gleick, "On the Other Side of Arrival"; October 8, 2000, Laura Miller, "Who's Who?"
New York Times Magazine, July 9, 1989, pp. 28-32; April 3, 1994, p. 36.
Observer (London, England), May 28, 1989, p. 46; February 6, 1994, p. 21.
Partisan Review, winter, 1994, pp. 80-95.
Publishers Weekly, August 24, 1990, pp. 47-48; February 21, 1994; February 2, 1998, review of The Page Turner, p. 79; August 7, 2000, review of Martin Bauman; or, A Sure Thing, p. 74; July 30, 2001, review of The Marble Quilt, p. 56.
Spectator, March 9, 1991, Harriet Waugh, review of A Place I've Never Been, p. 28.
Time, November 8, 1993, p. 27.
Times Literary Supplement, June 9-15, 1989, p. 634; October 29, 1993, p. 20; February 4, 1994, p. 20.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), September 21, 1986.
Village Voice, October 14, 1986, Dorothy Allison, review of The Lost Language of Cranes.
Village Voice Literary Supplement, December, 1990, Clifford Chase, review of A Place I've Never Been, pp. 10-11.
Washington Post, November 19, 1984; March 2, 1985; October 7, 1986; February 17, 1994, p. A1.
Washington Post Book World, January 22, 1989, p. 4; October 7, 1990, p. 7; September 12, 1993, p. 5.
PureFiction.com, http://www.purefiction.com/ (December 12, 2000), interview with Leavitt.