Were Some Pirates Poofters?

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:23

    Were a lotof pirates poofters? Or to put that more politely: Was there much homosexualactivity in pirate society? On the surfaceit seems one of those Pope-Polish questions. Gay historian B.R. Burg, in hisclassic, and controversial, Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition (originallypublished by NYU Press in 1983), simply assumed that of course there was, and offered no-nonsense analogies: Is there homosexual activity in prison? In theNavy? In the Army? Among Catholic priests? In the Boy Scouts? At David Barton? All right,I added that last one. His point was that anywhere you find an exclusively malesociety you find (a) gay men attracted to the milieu (that the priesthood andthe military are great social networks for gay men is well-known and well-documented)and (b) other men who, deprived of female companionship, become "situationalhomosexuals," like in prison.

    So was therehomosexual activity in "this roving cruising Life" as one of DanielDefoe's pirates calls it? As an Esquire hed quipped in response to Burg's work,"They All Said Athwart, Didn't They?" Or, as a female colleague ofmine put it, "You know how you men are. Alone at sea, months at a time?After a while that knothole's all wore out and you're gonna start eyeing eachother."

    Burg, Esquire,my friend-and the Village People, Saturday Night Live, Captain Pissgumsand Winston Churchill-all notwithstanding, English professor Hans Turley saysit's not so simple as that. Indeed, nothing is simple or straightforwardin his new book, except maybe the nice title, Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash(also from NYU Press, 198 pages, $30). While he seems to accept thatpremise of piratical homosexual activity as obvious and a given, he never justcomes out and says it. Instead, he discusses at great length the "implicithomoeroticism" in pirate literature and lore. He posits that while piratesociety was obviously what scholars call homosocial, there's surprisingly scantdirect evidence that it was also homosexual. In truth, he says, there's verylittle reliable evidence about how pirates lived in any respect. Guys like Blackbeardand Captain Kidd didn't leave diaries. Everything we know about them was writtenby outsiders, from balladeers and pamphleteers to government propagandists andnovelists like Defoe. Sources and motives, even in the best of pirate "histories,"are open to considerable question. One of the most often-sourced, Charles Johnson'sA General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates(1724), doesn't distinguish between real and wholly fictional pirates-and "CharlesJohnson" may have been a pseudonym for Defoe.

    In sum,Turley argues, we can't speak with real authority about the pirate at all, butonly about the pirate as we know him in the literature-what he calls, coiningone of those awful late-90s pomo deconstructionist terms, the "piraticalsubject." And that figure ain't your typical foppish sodomite mincing acrossthe stage in a Restoration farce. If the pirate we see in the literature isimplicitly queer, he's a big, bearded, "hypermasculine," murdering,marauding, thieving wild man of a queer, a radical, a rebel and "deviant"from his contemporary British society in every sense. He was the "hostishumani generis, the common enemy against all mankind." And isn't itintriguing, Turley muses, that a figure so outlaw and outlandish, so rogue andreviled, should also fascinate us, be so romantic and erotically charged, thatfor 300 years now he's been the center of so much myth, legend and story?

    Burg's bookand Turley's illustrate the shift in gay academic politics between the first-generationgay studies of the early 80s and the deeply entrenched queer theory at the endof the 90s. It's the difference between straightforward modern scholarship andconvoluted postmodern theorizing-the distance between an earlier gay scholarshipthat sought to "normalize" and mainstream gayness versus next-generationqueer theory celebrating the deviance and "transgression" of queerness.You might say that Burg was an assimilationist, Turley's a separatist.

    Burg waswriting at the dawn of gay studies (Jonathan Katz's landmark Gay AmericanHistory had only come out in '76; Burg's book capped research begun in '75),a time when scholars were working overtime to find pre-19th-century examplesof gay culture peacefully existing within the mainstream. The operant theorywas that for the bulk of history homosexuality was far more accepted and acceptablethan it became in the 19th and 20th centuries, when, due to various social pressures,the whole notion of hetero vs. homo gets invented and homosexuality suddenlybecomes this shocking vice that "dare not speak its name."

    I'm inclinedto believe Burg was exaggerating when he claimed that "[s]eventeeth-centuryEnglishmen on all status levels were remarkably indulgent with homosexuality..."He argued that though by the beginning of the 19th century sodomy or buggery(interchangeable terms) would become a capital crime, for the 200 years priorhomosexual behavior raised few eyebrows in British society. In the legal systemit was treated as a far lesser crime deserving of far softer punishment thanother sexual misbehaviors, such as rape. In an era when you could be hangedor burned alive for anything from petty thievery to papist beliefs, a buggeryconviction earned you "[t]he least severe of all punishments availableto English judges, sentencing to the pillory... [S]odomy was simply anothercrime, another work of the devil with little inherent capacity to evoke passionatedetestation."

    Certainlythe ruling classes had been long acquainted with homosexuality, from James I'snotoriously poofter court to Charles II's luxuriant excesses. Burg cites Restorationcomedies like the 1680 farce Sodom or the Quintessence of Debauchery,in which Boloxinion, King of Sodom, decrees anal intercourse for all males,and The Successful Pyrate of 1713, about sailors on a female-less island,with characters named Jollyboy, Lesbia and Sir Gaudy Tulip. Buggery might bederided or looked askance upon, but not, Burg argued, treated with the utterrevulsion that would later accrue to it.

    Meanwhile,Burg argued that on the lowest rungs of British society in the 1600s and 1700slots of surplus boys were produced who, unable to find gainful employment orservitude, were likely to aggregate in roving, all-male packs of vagrants, beggars,thieves-and pirates and buccaneers. On board ship-whether in the King's navyor as rogue pirates-the exclusively male company (females were literally considereda curse; Blackbeard tended to strangle those he captured and cast their bodiesinto the sea to avoid bad luck) attracted lifetime gays in large numbers, andconverted others. European women were also scarce in the Caribbean colonieswhere pirates made their home ports, reinforcing the likelihood of homosexualactivity. "All Sodom's Sins are Centered in thy heart," a colonialwrote of Barbados in 1710.

    Writingalmost two decades later, Turley brusquely dismisses Burg's entire thesis inone sentence (he calls it "popular" but "problematic") and,I think, two brief footnotes. Yet his counterargument is far from a clear one,and often swings too uncomfortably far into deconstructionist obscurantism tobe very persuasive. Here's an example; he's discussing seamen in the Britishnavy at the time of the pirates: Becausewomen were absent from shipboard life does not mean that sailors were "homosexually"inclined. On the contrary, the social structure on board these vessels waspart of the whole economic enterprise of England, and it would do little good to try to theorize a homoerotic paradigm for nonpirate sailors. If we imaginea piratical subject, however-a merging of the economic criminal and the culturaltransgressor who "declares war against all mankind"-we should beable to understand the implicit link between homoeroticism and piracy. Pirates,in other words, were not bound by any social conventions except their own. Pardon me,but that's doggerel. Notice how blithely he glides in this brief passage fromseeming to address conditions in the real world (Was there or was there notany homosexual activity on board these ships?) to a soup of pomo deconstructionistfancy, in which suddenly we're supposed to "theorize a homoerotic paradigm"and "imagine a piratical subject" and "cultural transgressor"(that most beloved of late-90s academic heroes) who allows us to make that "implicitlink" and (as Love once eloquently sang) bloop blip blip bloop blip blip.

    After readingthis passage a dozen or so times I've decided that what Turley may be sayingis that there could not have been homosexuals in the British navy, because the"homoerotic paradigm" was exclusively the property of his belovedculture-transgressing piratical figures, because...well, because that's theway he wants to "imagine" it. That's the kind of deconstructionistshite that's been deployed to confuse, bore and depress university studentsthrough the last decade, turning their minds into quasi-"radicalized"mush.

    The wholebook isn't as dopey as that passage, although it is often as dull and hard toread. The pirates themselves come to Turley's aid-whether real or fictionalized,they're such great, bizarre characters. (Turley bluffly dismisses another bookof pirate lore, one of my all-time favorites, Philip Gosse's 1932 The Historyof Pirates. It may not meet Turley's scholarly standards, but it's one fuckloadof a lot more fun to read. It takes an academic to turn out a book about piratesthat reads as cold as this one.)

    Take Blackbeard,"the Fury from Hell." Sexually conflicted, capable of mad brutalityand yet so careful and dainty with that famous beard, which "he was accustomedto twist...with Ribbons, small Tails, after the Manner of our Ramellies Wigs,and turn them about his Ears..." Blackbeard had all sorts of difficultieswith his wives, of which he was said to have 14 or more, scattered all overthe Atlantic. Burg speculated the obvious, that he was queer and the wives were"beards." Turley, characteristically, is cloudier in his judgment.In one of the few sexually explicit scenes in golden-era pirate lit, cited byboth Burg and Turley-and, well, everyone who writes about pirates-Johnson notedof Blackbeard that "...it was his Custom to invite five or six of his mostbrutal Companions to come ashore, and he would force her [his wife] to prostituteher self to them all, one after another, before his Face." Bigamy, voyeurism,sadism and a gang bang all in one-think he was overcompensating much?

    Althoughthey were great heroic or antiheroic characters, most pirates were, crucially,working-class antiheroes, and tended to express their grandest, mostpoetic urges in organic, pragmatic ways that are awfully likable. In one ofthe great, Miltonic scenes of pirate legend, Blackbeard turns to some of hiscrew and says, "Come...let us make a Hell of our own, and try how longwe can bear it." He meant that literally: As Johnson relates, they "wentdown into the Hold, and closing up all the Hatches, fill'd several Pots fullof Brimstone, and other combustible Matter." Blackbeard lit them up, andthe competition was to see who could stand it the longest. Who do you thinkwon?

    In a similarlydown-to-earth gesture (Turley says it's probably apocryphal), when the youngCaptain Kidd decides to become a pirate, before he sails off he goes ashoreand buries his Bible in the sand-an unambiguous and yet poetic signal to God and man that he was choosing Bad over Good.

    Then again,in a very enlightening bit, Turley examines the court records from Kidd's eventualtrial and conviction and finds, instead of damn-yer-eyes defiance and I'll-see-ye-in-Hellbravado, a rather frightened and worried man wheedling the judge over detailsof trial procedure. On the morning of his execution, the chaplain was appalledto find Kidd drunk and unrepentant at first. Then the hangman's rope broke thefirst time they dropped him, and in the awful moments before they strung a newrope and hung him right, Kidd confessed his sins and begged God's forgiveness.

    That's areal guy, not one of Turley's piratical constructs, and the more interestingfor it. Afterwords Met a niceguy, Viktor Allen, broadcaster, actor, toured with some classic Living Theaterback in the day. For the last two years he does a talk show, Chelsea Journal,on channel 67 (RCN channel 110), kind of Charlie Rose without, I suppose, CharlieRose's fee. I'm a guest this Sunday, July 18, at 5:30. Rememberlast week I speculated about a Struwwelpeter renaissance? More evidence: Thisweek's Economist has an article about the Tiger Lillies' "junk opera"version, Shockheaded Peter, which is planned to come to New York in thefall. The article deadpans that Lillies frontman Martyn Jacques is "a Britishcomposer," failing to mention that he's known as "the criminal castrato"and earlier "compositions" include songs about fucking bugs and sheepand poxy whores. Can the Struwwelpeter-inspired fashion spread in Black Bookbe long in arriving? James Wolcott's"Brill's Bully Pulpit" in the August Vanity Fair isthe replacement article editor Graydon Carter ordered up after he spiked stafferJennet Conant's piece on the same topic. (Conant resigned.) The conspiracistversion was that Conant was too rough on Brill and media heavy Barry Diller.The countering word from VF was simply that Conant's piece was a B effortthat covered no new ground, so Carter spiked it (he'd killed a couple othersof hers in the preceding year) and reassigned the story. I didn'tsee Conant's piece-copies circulated, but not to me-but I wouldn't say Wolcott'sredo is more than a B either. If Carter sent Wolcott out to do a hatchet jobon Brill he didn't hand him the sharpest ax in the shed. The piece is entertainingly nasty in the particulars, but it's not what you'd call incisive or sweeping,and it breaks no new ground, either.

    True, onthe personality level Wolcott paints an unflattering portrait of Brill as asocial-climbing, overachieving mook from Queens whose primary motivation isto make the preppie overlords pay for the snubbings he feels he's endured-"theRudy Giuliani of the print trade." But Wolcott never comes out and speaksdirectly to the core hypocrisy of Brill and Brill's Content. It's notremotely an expose or deep analysis, just a witty media critique, all surfacebarbs that may hurt Brill's feelings but won't have any serious effect-and mayonly give him more fodder for his I'm-pissing-off-the-big-guys spin. In theend, Wolcott doesn't think anything about Brill's Content that you andI don't think.

    Still, thereis his spiky humor, which at least makes it fun to read: Shunnedby the media elite since his debut issue, Brill has attempted to turn theircold shoulders to his advantage by repositioning himself as a populist executive,a Steve Forbes with Glengarry Glen Ross gonads. Like DavidFoster Wallace's fiction, Brill's Content annotates itself so anal-retentivelythat any semblance of inner life suffocates under a heap of hypertext. There aresome zingy insults, including a reference to Todd Gitlin's "fortune-cookienon sequiturs ('Juicy gossip serves as social cement')," a "white-noiseQ and A with J.F.K. Jr. (trying to get good quotes from him is like checkinga burro for gold teeth)" and calling the New York Post's John Podhoretz"that junior auxiliary gasbag."

    On the levelof media critique, Wolcott does make a couple of good points. One is that "...thehybrid nature of the magazine-part public-affairs journal, part consumer guide;part yenta, part swinger-makes finding a hit formula difficult. The more thatBrill's Content tries to make itself pop and accessible, the more itresembles Frankenstein's monster trying to dance. It can't help planting itsfoot too hard." And another is: Lackinga political point of view, Brill's Content bags small game for minorinfractions and lets bigger ogres roam free... Like George, Brill'sContent covers its beat as if it had no stake in the outcome. But in abattle of ideas, a partisan struggle, who roots for the referee? Despite itstitle, Brill's Content isn't really concerned with content, but withprocess, corporate branding, and inside baseball. Mean andsmart as it is, Wolcott's piece isn't a home run-he pokes the beast but failsto slay it. What does it mean that even Time is biting back at Brill(as Alex Kuczynski reported in this Monday's New York Times)-that Brillis, you know, "having an impact" on the industry (a spin he can sellto naive subscribers), or just that everybody's sick of his bullshit and feelingit's safe to fire back?