Sunday, April 8, 2012

Writers and Access to Privilege

Jane Austen, Member
of the Landed Gentry
Due to the advent of Adrienne Rich's recent passing, I have been thinking quite a bit about how status, money and access to the political power that comes with it greases the wheels to public creative expression. Since Rich's death I have learned that her father was a physician, medical researcher and professor at John Hopkins University. Her mother was a concert pianist and composer. 

While engaged in processing gift books for the library, I came across Rita Mae Brown's biography, "Rita Will." I always thought Brown was a bit of a snob. One of the main things I remember about her opus, "Rubyfruit Jungle," was that there was only one Jewish family in her Southern town and they smelled bad. She also openly criticized lesbians who weren't "good-looking" enough, I assume, by her arbitrary white, gentile, southern standards. So admittedly, I never found the woman endearing to say the least. But after viewing the personal photographs of Rita herself in her riding gear and at fox hunts, I realize that she was not just upper-middle class, but part and parcel of the one percent. 

Even Jane Austen was a member of the landed gentry. I come across queer writers every day like William Burroughs, Christopher Isherwood, James Merrill and Edmund White, all from illustrious backgrounds. With lesbians it tends to be less apparent, but overall lesbians have enjoyed far less success in the literary world. Elizabeth Bishop hailed from a wealthy Massachusetts family, but Mary Oliver had a modest upbringing in Maple Heights, Ohio. And Dorothy Alison is a notable exception to this rule with her ground-breaking work, "Bastard Out of Carolina," but, I believe, she remains relatively unknown to the straight literary world.

Having access to status and power doesn't guarantee creative success but it provides the freedom and time to pursue passions that, in their early stages, will be less than profitable. The ambience of privilege also provides something intangible but critically important to creative ventures: role models of successful people pursuing their dreams and, in the vast majority of cases, the socially-sanctioned and nurtured self-esteem to do the same.