In the decades following Stonewall, the coming out story has become not only a personal milestone but a stalwart narrative trope, both on screen and in the lives of celebrities whose careers do not end with the revelation of their sexuality. Yet it was not long ago that “the love that dare not speak its name” characterized stories that could not be told. In this essay, I will consider J. A. Symonds’ posthumous Memoirs and Samuel R. Delany’s remarkable autobiography in the context of earlier attempts to tell such stories to delineate the narrative strategies involved in what could be seen from a contemporary perspective as a historiography of the “unspeakable.” Both The Memoirs of J. A. Symonds and Samuel R. Delany’s The Motion of Light on Water are, among other things, responses to the suppression of male homosexuality in the writers’ respective societies. Both writers seek to describe and to surmount the cognitive dissonance between the lived experience of homosexual and gay men and the complete exclusion of that range of experience from legitimate discourse. These personal histories are at once testimonials concerning the consequences of the “unspeakability” of the writer’s desire and attempts to gloss that unspeakability. But the divergence in Symonds and Delany’s reactions to the spectacle of consummated homosexual desire, as recorded in their respective narratives, illuminates the cultural and political differences in each writer’s conception of the subject and the subject’s relation to experience and history.


KEYWORDS: Samuel R. Delany, queer theory, memoir, J. A. Symonds, marginalized histories

DOI: 10.30395/WSR.202112_15(2).0008