Patrick Horrigan's 'American Scholar' — A painful past, present opportunity, and an uncertain future

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday May 21, 2024
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Patrick Horrigan's 'American Scholar' — A painful past, present opportunity, and an uncertain future

In the afterword to his novel, "American Scholar," author Patrick Horrigan (who taught literature for 25 years at LIU Brooklyn) notes that it was a historical coincidence that inspired him to write his book.

He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University on the literary critic F.O. Matthiessen (1902-1950). In his thesis, he "pondered the relationship between Matthiessen's published work (especially the indispensable "American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman") and salient features of his biography, his left-leaning politics, his homosexuality, his struggles with depression, his suicide."

During the course of his writing, Horrigan became romantically involved with an independent scholar, a socialist, and the victim of chronic, ultimately suicidal depression, much like Matthiessen. He decided to explore this serendipity of his intellectual and personal life in fictional terms, rather than a memoir, believing fiction can "give us access to the significant truths of our experience."

Horrigan's gamble paid off, because his novel is one of the five nominated Best Gay Fiction books for this year's Lambda Literary award, an honor well deserved.

It's 2016, near the upcoming presidential election. Professor and writer James Fitzgerald has just finished a reading from his latest novel, "American Scholar," (about Matthiessen's relationship with his older lover Russell Cheney) when he's approached by a woman, the sister of James's first boyfriend, Gregory Lenda, dead twenty-five years and dedicatee of his book.

She gives him an unsent letter from Gregory, who still haunts him. James seemingly has a happy life, teaching American literature, resides in a lovely Brooklyn townhouse with Fran, his husband, of thirteen years (with whom he had a fight over whether to have children, right before the reading, which he doesn't attend), but also has a young, playful boyfriend named Snyder.

Author Patrick E. Horrigan  

James flashbacks to 1987 at Columbia University where at 25, he's starting his PhD program and when he first met Gregory, at an academic gay men's study group. Gregory is far more experienced with the gay scene at that time than James. With their flirtatious banter and mutual love of Barbara Streisand, they quickly begin dating, though James worries he might not be smart or handsome enough for Gregory. "Jimmy didn't want to be desired only for his intelligence or his kindness. He wanted a real boyfriend. He wanted someone who wanted him physically, intellectually, emotionally. He wanted someone to feel the same butterflies about him he was now feeling about Gregory."

Gregory struggles with his demanding demeanor and severe mood swings, but is brilliant and charismatic, an intellectual mentor as well as a lover. During this period, James's political and social consciousness as a gay man develops ("Gregory taught him a lot about identifying and fighting injustice and how to make that almost a way of life") as he and his friends cope with the AIDS pandemic "at a time when there's a lot of people trying to use the epidemic against gay people and turn back the clock on gay liberation."

What does it mean to be a gay man in the 1980s? James becomes increasingly obsessed with Matthiessen, even dragging Gregory to see Matthiessen's Boston home, where he committed suicide a few years after Cheney's death.

Emotional fulfillment
After his reading, James spends the night walking around the city thinking about his next book, rather than trying to repair his relationship with Fran. He's especially disturbed that he hurt Gregory by not attending Bill's (Gregory's best friend's) memorial —he died of AIDS— despite Gregory pleading him to be there. He will stop by the Little White Farmhouse in midtown Manhattan, wanting to revisit Gregory's room and the place where he died.

He will make the connection between Matthiessen's life and his academic and emotional fulfillment, paralleling aspects of James's and Gregory's partnership. Horrigan cites passages from Matthiessen's letters to Cheney, admiring their fearlessness contending with serious personal challenges, including addiction, chronic disease, and mental illness. How will Gregory's letter shape James's present challenges?

This novel of ideas (with references to Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and James Baldwin) is a study of a gay man having a mid-life crisis and how past decisions have impacted the present, particularly how someone you once loved can influence your life decades after they died. James has never come to terms with the loss of Gregory, probably the love of his life, but now must do so, otherwise he can't move ahead personally or professionally. He misses that great passion, nurturing its memory, but if he can't reconcile it to his current life, he risks destroying the life he's built with Fran.

Angst and uncertainty
The writing here is straight-forward, not literary and it's easy to delineate the different eras, which also includes the 1930s and 1940s when Matthiessen and Cheney were together. Anyone who survived the AIDS crisis will appreciate the book's emphasis on how memory can both nurture and enslave us, as well as pull us now into new directions which may or may not be emotionally healthy for us. Horrigan is superb in recreating the angst and uncertainty of the 1980s and the threat it posed of stopping, even reversing, the advances LGBTQ people had made during the 1970s.

Readers will care about all the characters even when they act carelessly and selfishly. His book enriches our knowledge of the gay past, not in an arcane academic manner, but in a way that informs our turbulent present. Horrigan is a worthy Lammy nominee, intertwining history, literature, and politics into engrossing love stories with an attempt to overcome trauma ("a procession of shadows") in the past through self-examination in the present with lyrical storytelling.

Note: For those who want to explore the historical background of "American Scholar," we heartily recommend the excellent dual biography of a remarkable early 20th-century relationship, "A Union Like Ours: The Love Story of F.O. Matthiessen and Russell Cheney," by Scott Bane. Bright Leaf/University of Massachusetts Press, $24.95, recently released in paperback.

'American Scholar,' a Novel by Patrick E. Horrigan. Lethe Press, $20.

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