Next month, as part of a series guest-edited by Mark Doty, Graywolf Press will reissue James White’s uber-lyrical, posthumous 1982 The Salt Ecstasies. This has got me thinking about what may be only an asterisk in recent literary history, but one I view as a particularly shiny one, that is, the review named after White. Begun in 1983 by a gay men’s writing group in Minneapolis, the review was created in honor of their friend, who had died of heart disease in 1981 at age forty-five. The James White Review was part of a second wave of gay literary journals started after the ‘70s and early ‘80s run of groundbreakers like Gay Sunshine and Fag Rag. TJWR gave voice to hundreds of gay poets and writers, including Mark Doty, Thom Gunn, and Andrew Holleran. I got my start there (they published my second or third poem) before I ever dreamed of moving to Minnesota. There were also photographs and drawings, mostly of nude men, some more artistic than others, but anything pornographic was not much harder, so to speak, than today’s Abercrombie and Fitch ads. But the writing ran the gamut of gay men’s lifestyles and subcultures, documenting and constructing gay life from Latin America to Canada.
By the 90s TJWR was said to be the oldest running and largest gay men’s literary journal in the world, with 1,700 subscribers. The maximum distribution was 6,000—not bad for a little magazine, but it was still losing money. One of the founders, Phil Willkie, kept TJWR alive as a labor of love. I had a brief stint on the staff of TJWR, as the editor or managing editor (it was never quite clear) in 1998. I had been hired, in part, to resuscitate the magazine by bringing it into the brave new world of foundation- and grant-supported arts, which meant straightening out the books for a tax-exempt status that had never been applied for in all those years. I soon found out that accounting is most definitely not my forte, and the magazine could not afford to pay me for more than a few hours per week for what was a much bigger job. And, though just five or ten years younger than the founders, I was of a more selfish generation that didn’t do labors of love, or at least not without being paid what we felt we deserved (it wasn’t a fortune, $15 or $20 per hour). And so, after my short tenure, the journal was sold to the D.C.-based Lambda Literary Foundation who suspended publication in 2004.
TJWR sank in part because it couldn’t make the transition into the era of foundations. But neither could it make the transition to the age of the Internet or the mainstreaming of gay culture. The men’s-only world faded, at least in the publishing world outside of porn. It’s hard to find anything on the Internet about TJWR, and there isn’t a single image of James White, but you can still read back copies of TJWR in the special collections of the University of Minnesota, the Quatrefoil Library in St. Paul, and ONE/National Gay and Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. I can’t help wondering if anyone could revive TJWR, not in a nostalgic way, but in a way that would bring it into the world of foundations, the Internet, and a newly defined queer world, or if there is even a need or a place for gay men’s literature on its own.