My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey by Charles Rowan Beye (2012)
I usually find memoir more fascinating than fiction. My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey is no exception. I heard a piece on NPR about this book and called the bookstore immediately; the number is in my cell’s emergency contacts Some people order food-to-go—I call in for books.
Charles Rowan Beye, now in his eighties, writes about the innumerable friendships, fun and utter sexual pleasures of life. There are two other main branches of Beye’s tree of life (besides sex): family and teaching.
I have come to expect tragedy and angst, disaster and HIV diagnoses when reading memoir by gay men. Beye is a healthy, retired professor of Classical Greek. He writes of his emotional growth, turmoil, and development as a man, a father, and a husband (to two wives and a husband). He scrutinizes his experiences, acknowledges his failings and illustrates the power of memoir for the writer as he reveals understandings found in hindsight.
Beye’s professorial tone is evident in his slightly stilted sentence structure as well as in the details he selects about his life long coming of age. Everything he includes in this work has a purpose. There are moral, sexual, and educational points throughout. As a teenager he found that his gregarious nature, humor and fellatio thwarted danger, especially from town bullies. Beye discovered a deep longing in men for sexual satisfaction and expression, even in the smallest towns of Iowa where he spent his youth. Beye was endowed with money as well as an insatiable libido. He had public and boarding school experiences so he learned early on how to cross the economic and social borders. Despite my anxiety that some great harm would suddenly occur during encounters in cities or in bars deep in the depths of Iowan cornfields, none did. He led a charmed life because he is so charming.
The sexual content is a lot of fun and the writing about it is filled with intention. I’m not just being a voyeuristic when I say this. Well, maybe a little… Beye explains in the introduction, “I mention the sex act only because it reflects in some way on the psychology or life circumstances of one of the two people involved” (11).
Beye found sexual explorations with men engaging and exciting. He married women twice in efforts to fulfill the heteronormative social contract and establish a career as an academic. He and his second wife had four children before the Stonewall riots in June of 1969 made the general population aware that gay people were also seeking liberation from unjust harassment by police or the public. There was a national awakening: Blacks, Women, Vietnam and Queers wanted change.
But Beye wasn’t among the street kids and queens on Christopher Street those hot June nights. He didn’t care for Provincetown and the Castro in San Francisco was too much. His circle included Athens, Rome, Brookline, New York City and the home life he created for his kids wherever they were. He astounded the Greek and Italian women when he cooked and cleaned and got the kids to school during his sabbatical stays. No Nellie Queen nor Butch Bear he. He missed the protests because he was working, cooking, taking care of house and kids. He had to play the straight guy, the wonderful neighbor, the chair of the department.
I always wondered how my gay boy friends could have encounters and not get tangled up emotionally. I aspired to this behavior with no luck at all. I always felt a responsibility or found myself taunted by the puritan refrain “you made your bed now you have to lie in it.” I never figured out how to just leap out of hot sheets and start a new day without commitment. The joke, “What does a lesbian bring on the second date? A moving truck!” was too true among my peers. The fact that women are considered sluts or whores when having sex for fun didn’t necessarily hold me back. It was more a lack of time, creativity, and probably courage. I just couldn’t figure out how to slip a quickie in to my day so easily. To think I could have inspired Raunch Culture decades earlier than those Ariel Levy describes in Female Chauvinist Pigs—the gay girl version! Oh, I could have been a contender if I had lived in a city, had more to drink, gone off with more cutie-pies.
A lifetime is not too long to wait for one’s prince or princess. After his second wife and he filed for divorce, with the kids pretty well on their way, career established and retirement just ahead, Mr. Right arrives. There are only a few pages commenting on this bliss of his third marriage. They legally married after being together for eighteen years and one hundred and forty-four days. The book ends in this glow of contentment.
My eyes popped a few time during some particularly engaging sexual encounters and one could romp with Beye and call it a good book about growing up gay in the Midwest Forties and a queer in a long career in Greek Classicism. However, the theme I found equally, if not more, captivating was the professor learning from his students. Four such life-altering events anchor the narrative. Each epiphany involved particularly smart students and insight he discovered through coursework and each resulted in a book, which was terrific for tenure and new job opportunities. The final epiphany occurred while he was the Distinguished Professor of Classics at Lehman College, and as far as I can tell, resulted in this memoir rather than another academic tome. After a forty-year career in the classics Beye met the diverse youth of the Bronx: contemporary society in the epic tradition. Beye lost his verve for the classics as he worked with students struggling to construct meaningful lives in tragic surroundings. The glorification of war and the idealization of manipulation and devastation no longer held any glory. “The literature of antiquity is all seen from the perspective of the ruling class; its characters are exploiters, controllers, conquerors” (240), Beye concedes.
This Odyssey includes no super sexy superheroes (despite how handsome Beye’s photos). However, a teacher who is also a learner is a true hero to me. Beye learns constantly from his students and finally comes to see the wreckage of power and betrayal (true epic formula) in contemporary social dynamics among students and communities. This realization topples his love of the ancient perspective and heightens his awareness of his own fallacies and feats. Epic indeed.
Books by Charles Rowan Beye
- Odysseus: A Life
- The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Epic Tradition
- Ancient Greek Literature and Society
- Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil
- La tragedia greca: guida storica e critica
- Ancient Greek society and literature
- My Husband and My Wives: A Gay Man’s Odyssey