“Late Victorians” by Richard Rodriguez (1990)

Richard Rodriguez is a contemporary American writer who often causes controversy for his frank stances on gay culture, politics, and Mexican-American culture. Rodriguez won the 1997 George Foster Peabody Award for his NewsHour essays on American life.

Richard Rodriguez was born on July 31, 1944 to a Mexican immigrant family in San Francisco, California. Growing up in Sacramento, Rodriguez only spoke Spanish until he went to Catholic school at the age of six.

He graduated from the Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento. Rodriguez then received his B.A. from Stanford University, his M.A. from Columbia University, and was a PhD candidate in English Renaissance Literature at University of California, Berkeley. Due to his minority status, Rodriguez was often considered a “scholarship boy” throughout his academic career. This preferential treatment led Rodriguez to pursue a career in writing rather than an academic one.

His first book, Hunger of Memory, was published in 1981 and chronicled Rodriguez’s life and intellectual development as a product of Mexican immigration to the United States. Rodriguez received critical acclaim for the book, yet he also received extreme criticism and backlash from members of the Mexican-American community in the United States. Because of his different stances on bilingual education and affirmative action, many Mexican Americans considered Rodriguez a traitor.

However, Rodriguez’s third book, Days of Obligation, published in 1991, allowed readers access to his more personal side. As a result, many became less critical of his ideas. “Late Victorians,” published in Days of Obligation, allowed Rodriguez to identify himself publicly as homosexual. The book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.

Today, Rodriguez is writing a book on the relationship between Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the desert. Rodriguez’s work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, Time, and Mother Jones.

Essay’s Form

“Late Victorians” appears as a mosaic personal essay – constructing a solid theme through bits and pieces of different subjects. Although the essay focuses on the main idea of the development and stereotype of the gay culture in San Francisco, it also serves to portray a unique history and portrait of the city.

Rodriguez takes inspiration from many things in “Late Victorians.” He reaches into deep history in the beginning of the essay, quoting St. Augustine and, quite contrastingly, Elizabeth Taylor. These quotes serve to provide the underlying theme or message that the essay tries to convey: true or forever happiness cannot exist.

He artfully switches from personal anecdotes spanning personal beliefs and history to observations of city streets and activities, then to an architectural history of San Francisco homes. More importantly, he explores the history of the gay scene in San Francisco: both its perception and how AIDS affected many lives.

His detached and scattered essay style reflects how Rodriguez felt at the time. He observes the gay people in San Francisco adapting and changing with life, yet remains stoic and unable to relate. The essay’s form directly reflects on Rodriguez’s troubled mind as he contemplates the way that gay people are viewed and his own perception of the situation.

Essay’s Immediate Context

“Late Victorians” first appeared in the October 1990 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s is known for its mostly left-wing perspective on many issues, ranging from literature and culture to politics and finance. The historical significance of “Late Victorians” was immediately apparent. In 1990, AIDS was a powerful and destructive force, especially on the gay community, and the gay population was ardently trying to find its place in society.

In Harper’s, the essay contained the subheading: “San Francisco, AIDS, and the homosexual stereotype.” The illustrations accompanying the article were pictures of Victorian houses and of streets in San Francisco, especially the oft-mentioned Castro Street. The essay appeared to give readers a detailed and in-depth glimpse of the true pressures and hardships that homosexuals had to deal with in the troubling times of a changing San Francisco and an AIDS epidemic.

Aside from giving readers insight into the gay community in San Francisco and providing an apt retelling of a certain time in history, Rodriguez also exposes the anxiety and confusion that occurs when an individual is trying to come to terms with his or her sexuality. Rodriguez portrays himself as a silent, inward-looking outcast in the bursting world of vibrant gay culture in San Francisco, and undoubtedly many readers suppressing their own sexual preferences in communities intolerant of homosexuality could relate.

Essay’s Subsequent Appearance

“Late Victorians”, one of Rodriguez’s most popular essays, was published in his book, Days of Obligation, and in Harper’s. The essay was included in Phillip Lopate’s highly regarded anthology The Art of the Personal Essay, in which Lopate heralds Rodriguez for being “one of the most distinctive and impressive voices in contemporary American essay writing.” Lopate also goes on to say that Rodriguez uniquely depicts a certain culture and city as “he detaches himself from the sentimental clichés and comforts of group identity…while at the same time castigating himself for remaining an observer.”

The cover of Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father, in which “Late Victorians” appears. Rodriguez comes out as gay in this book.

After its publication in Harper’s in 1990, the audience held mostly criticism and dismay for Rodriguez’s brazen and different views on homosexuality and AIDS. This may have had to do with a previously published article by Joseph Epstein in the 1970 issue of Harper’s, in which Epstein declares, “If I had the power to do so, I would wish homosexuality off of the face of this earth,” and other similar statements. Many readers felt that Rodriguez portrayed a single-minded and stereotypical portrait of the gay community that raised the stereotypes presented in Epstein’s article.

One reader, Dana Gorbea-Leon, of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, condemned Rodriguez for stating that homosexuals choose to not have children and to pursue careers in decoration.

Gorbea-Leon’s response to Rodriguez:

What we are against is not nature but society’s narrow view of who and what we are. Moreover, homosexuals are not barren; we are neither sterile nor childless. Many of us are fathers and mothers, and although some of us may not choose to do so, we are capable of having children. The argument that homosexuals can’t be parents is as simpleminded as the argument that homosexuals are destructive to family values… And really, Mr. Rodriguez, “plumage” and “lampshades”? Do you mean by this that homosexuals are governed only by questions of style? We are doctors and lawyers, baseball umpires and football players, garage mechanics and government employees; we are interested in the texture and substance of our lives; we have little or no interest in “plumage” or “lampshades” or the rule of style.”

Others were a little more lenient on Rodriguez. While still admonishing him for pigeonholing homosexuals and suggesting blame for the AIDS epidemic, some readers recognized Rodriguez’s personal Catholic and Mexican history and found it easier to understand his point of view, allowing that it came from a highly strict and rigid upbringing. Reader Scott Tucker said that Rodriguez has “Roman Catholic hang-ups” which force him to create misguided and wrong impressions on the gay community.

Yet Tucker also recognizes that Rodriguez exemplifies extreme bravado by exposing his radical ideas and coming out as a conflicted gay man himself. Tucker writes, “Rodriguez ends by distancing himself as a “barren skeptic”–a brilliant tactical self- presentation. He remains the dandy-ish observer, a gay guide to the ghetto without being pushy about it–self-deprecatory, serviceable, and tame.”

Rodriguez’s “Late Victorians” also served as inspiration for Italian-American composer Mark Adamo’s symphonic cantata “Late Victorians,” produced in 1994. Adamo was so moved by Rodriguez’s essay and his depiction of the AIDS epidemic that Adamo crafted the piece around the words of the essay. The cantata includes a narrator speaking sections of Rodriguez’s essay while a woman also sings Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

Despite its mixed reception, “Late Victorians” remains an important essay in contemporary American writing because of Rodriguez’s candid and often harshly true portrayal of the contradictory and strange representation of the gay culture in San Francisco during the 1980’s. It serves as a model for those wishing to write cohesive and meaningful mosaic essays that serve to stand the test of time.

Selected Bibliography

“Amazon.com: Adamo: Late Victorians; Regina Coeli; Alcott Music; Overture to Lysistrata: Pulley, Sullivan, Levalier, Mark Adamo, Alimena, Eclipse Chamber Orchestra: Music.” Amazon.com: Online Shopping for Electronics, Apparel, Computers, Books, DVDs & More. Amazon, 2009. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://www.amazon.com/Adamo-Victorians-Regina-Overture-Lysistrata/dp/B002QEXBUO>.

Lopate, Phillip. “Late Victorians.” The Art of the Personal Essay: an Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. New York: Anchor , Doubleday, 1995. 755-70. Print.

“Mark Adamo.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, 24 Apr. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Adamo>.

Rodriguez, Richard. “Late Victorians: San Francisco, AIDS, and the Homosexual Stereotype.” Harper’s Oct. 1990: 57-66. Print.

“Richard Rodriguez.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, 19 Oct. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Rodriguez>.

Image of Richard Rodriguez, credit Narrative Magazine:  http://www.narrativemagazine.com/files/imagecache/258×258/authors/images/richard_rodriguez_2_0.jpg

Image of Days of Obligation:  http://images.betterworldbooks.com/014/Days-of-Obligation-Rodriguez-Richard-9780140096224.jpg

Text and images: Renée Jacques.