A new history of Fire Island looks at its literary, revolutionary and problematic past
Jack Parlett’s history of Fire Island blends anecdotes from illustrious writers’ lives with personal narrative to show how the beach community became a queer mecca.
Jack Parlett’s new book, “Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise,” opens with the serendipitous meeting in 1882, in Camden, New Jersey, between two powerhouses of modern literature: a young Oscar Wilde and the elder Walt Whitman.
But it's not just the men’s brief acquaintance, nor the fact that they both wrote influential queer works of the 19th century, that interests Parlett. It’s that they both, as young men, had a hand in making the Long Island, New York, destination what it is today, even though they walked its beaches decades apart.
Parlett, an English writer and academic, uses many such moments — along with anecdotes from his life and encounters with the island — to illustrate how a sleepy, 19th-century beach community became a modern-day queer mecca for artists, pornographers, revelers and city-weary vacationers.
Author Jack Parlett.Courtesy Jack Parlett“Fire Island is a place where lots of people have different claims to its history — have different experiences of it,” Parlett told NBC News. “I wasn’t interested in setting out to write the singular account. I wanted it to be more meditative.”
Parlett first experienced the island five years ago, when he made a sort of pilgrimage there. He visited the site where the poet Frank O’Hara — whose work, years before, had offered him “what felt like a new, private vocabulary for loving other men” — was killed by a dune buggy in July 1966. In the introduction to the book, Parlett details reaching that point of the beach and listening to a recording of the poet, before ritualistically scrawling his name in the sand.