Jack Parlett’s new book, “Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise”, opens with the chance encounter in 1882, in Camden, New Jersey, between two powers of modern literature: a young Oscar Wilde and Elder Walt Whitman.
But it’s not just the brief acquaintance of the men, nor the fact that they both wrote influential 19th-century queer works, that interests Parlett. It’s that both, as young men, helped make the destination of Long Island, New York what it is today, even as they walked its beaches decades apart.
Parlett, an English writer and academic, uses many of these moments – along with anecdotes from his life and encounters with the island – to illustrate how a sleepy 19th-century seaside community has become a modern queer mecca for artists, pornographers, revelers and city weary vacationers.
“Fire Island is a place where a lot of people have different claims about its history, have different experiences with it,” Parlett told NBC News. “I wasn’t interested in deciding to write the story in the singular. I wanted it to be more meditative ”.
Parlett first lived on the island five years ago, when he made a kind of pilgrimage there. He visited the place where poet Frank O’Hara – whose work, years earlier, had offered him “what seemed like a new private vocabulary for loving other men” – was killed by a dune buggy in July 1966. Nell ‘introduction to in the book, Parlett details reaching that spot on the beach and listening to a recording of the poet, before ritualistically scribbling his name in the sand.
“After a pause, I played a recording of O’Hara reading ‘Ode to Joy’, his metallic but unmistakable voice,” he writes. “At that moment, the swashbuckling utopia of the poem’s first line sounded resonant: ‘We will have everything we want and there will be no more death.’
“What did I want from Fire Island? I went there, in part, to commune with his ghosts, ”continues Parlett. “Just as O’Hara had scribbled James Dean’s name in the sand during a visit on the same weekend in 1955 that the young actor died in California, so in 2017 I went to the Pines to write ‘Frank’ in the sand. “
That summer, Parlett was in New York City to work on a project on American poetry and cruising. As I thought about homosexual sex cultures and the spaces that host them, the visit to Fire Island planted a seed for the newly published work. As she describes it, she felt “a particular alchemy with the place”, which she had experienced in her mind both as a mythical space and as a meeting point for important literary characters.
Beginning with O’Hara and a handful of preselected writers, such as Andrew Holleran, Edmund White, and Felice Piccano, Parlett began researching island residents and notable visitors. And, in the process, he uncovered a new set of influential queer writers who had spent significant chapters of their careers there, including Carson McCullers, Patricia Highsmith, James Baldwin and WH Auden.
“Many of those writers have spent time there, but they haven’t necessarily written about it. So you had to dig to retrace their footsteps on the island, ”Parlett said, adding that unearthing these connections was like falling down a rabbit hole.
As Parlett plunged deeper into the past, conflicting ideas emerged through the writers’ experiences on the island which, at first glance, promised freedom and pleasure. Notorious heavy drinkers like McCullers and Highsmith moved in the same circle as Marty Mann, an early figure in Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization that has often been at odds with the LGBTQ community due to its religious ties.
Baldwin, who visited in the 1950s and 1960s when he was a high-profile civil rights activist, found himself seeking a truce in an almost exclusively white community. Across the generations, writers from Auden to Holleran have observed how bodily fascism influenced the parade of toned and freshly dressed bodies on the island’s beaches and dance floors.
“You can’t talk about Fire Island without talking about how exclusive it is and how exclusive it can be,” said Parlett.
According to the author, any discussion of Fire Island must also include its historic towns: the historic, party-focused Cherry Grove, and the more subdued and affluent Pines. The history of the hamlets is intertwined throughout the book, which traces the development of the areas, starting from a hurricane that hit the island in 1938.
“They are very different places, Cherry Grove and the Pines,” Parlett said. “Sometimes, it can be easy to overestimate these differences or the rivalry between them. But key to any reader’s understanding of place is how they have developed differently, the different types of demographics they have historically addressed, and the different ways people dress or undress. “
Parlett, whose book was published in both the United States and the United Kingdom this month, anticipates that some of his readers will already have an idea of these distinctions, having already made many pilgrimages.
“The stakes will be different for people for whom this is an imaginary space – their own kind of literary tourism – compared to people living in New York and elsewhere for whom this is a truly sacred space and it has been for a long time, ”Parlett said. “The book is for both categories of people.”
“I’m not that member of the Fire Island community with cards in hand. I get there as a stranger, but [one] even for whom these questions matter, “said Parlett.” Fire Island is definitely a place that seems important to me as a queer person. That’s how I found it. ”