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Book Report: Stolen library book opened his eyes

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"Who's Yer Daddy?" edited by Jim Elledge and David Groff (University of Wisconsin Press, $26.95) is a fascinating look at writers and artists who inspired the work of gay writers and artists by the gay writers and artists themselves.

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Thirty-nine essays make up the book and I'll zero in on my favorite essay, "The Tallahtchie Meets the Arve, or Unexpected Gay Influences in the '70s." I choose it because I happen to know the poet who wrote it. His name is Greg Hewett. He used to review books for me at the Star Tribune, taught for a time at UW-River Falls where I now live and currently is a professor of English at Carleton College in Northfield.

I've always known Greg was incredibly bright, but his new essay also establishes his many-sided personality. So who inspired this Fulbright winner, whose four books of poems have won him countless accolades? It all began in Ithaca, N.Y., where he grew up, a closeted teenager ashamed and fascinated by his gayness.

"It was relatively easy to steal library books back then (in the 1970s), but you just wouldn't. You just wouldn't. But I did." It was a lavender bound book, "Jonathan to Gide: The Homosexual in History" from the public library in Ithaca, N.Y. It purported to identify gay people in history."

And why did Greg steal it? Because he didn't want to put his name on the checkout record for fear that someone would see it and brand him a homosexual. So Greg gets the book home, reads it and determines to read books by all the folks listed in his purloined text.

This begins the process that finally sets him free to be the person he is. "Jonathan to Gide" isn't the only inspiration for once Greg gets started all manner of media assault him, including "That Certain Summer," a movie of the week that explicitly showed two men in love, played by Hal Holbrook and Martin Sheen. There was also "McMillan and Wife," which made Greg blush when he heard his mother say that she ..."always liked Rock Hudson until I heard he was queer."

There's also a touching moment when Greg's father, who didn't give a hoot for poetry, found out his son's interest and bought him three seminal anthologies. The essay is full of humor, as when he describes Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman as "the gay Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum" of 19th century literature.

In closing, he writes "the next time I voyage back to Ithaca I will pay tribute to 'Influence' by returning 'Jonathan to Gide' to the library, along with this essay as explanation, as words of contrition and gratitude, and pay a very late late-fee."

What a sensitive and meaningful essay. If only UW-River Falls could have him back. But I don't think Carleton would stand for it.

***

Comedian Redd Foxx used to do a routine about World War II.

Question: If you had to storm a German pillbox with only a handgun, who would you like for company?

Answer: The Chicago White Sox.

Question: Why?

Answer: Because they know the meaning of defeat.

The same could be said for Winston Churchill, according to a fascinating new study by Michael Shelden, "Young Titan: The Making of Winston Churchill" (Simon & Schuster, $30.) Churchill wrote a great deal about his youth as a journalist and adventurer, but stopped that around 1900, when he entered politics. Shelden, a professor at Indiana State, picks up where his subject left off, chronicling his spectacularly early rise and then precipitous fall after his battle plan's failure at Gallipoli in 1915. Shelden writes of Churchill's political pragmatism, his romances with the likes of Ethel Barrymore and Prime Minister Asquith's daughter, his marriage to Clementine. And how he was written off at age 40 as a failure, only to rise again after his exile at Chartwell, so brilliantly covered by William Manchester in "The Last Lion: Alone."

You can't do Churchill without remembering his eloquence, and Shelden provides aplenty: In his first political campaign in 1900, he described a political candidate as one who "is asked to stand, wants to sit, and is expected to lie."

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.

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