From life in the streets and love in the alleys to fame in the spotlight and an untimely death—raw, biting, and brilliant selections from the personal journals of one of the most uniquely creative artists of the late twentieth century
When his life ended at age thirty-seven—a casualty of the AIDS epidemic that took so many before their time—David Wojnarowicz had long since established himself as one of America’s most vital artists and activists. In the Shadow of the American Dream is a stunning collection of riveting and revealing chapters from Wojnarowicz’s extensive personal diaries—thirty volumes’ worth of memories and lucid observations, some bitter, some sweet—that the author began writing when he was seventeen and continued until his death two decades later. Here is a brilliant chronicle of an artist’s emergence—a young man’s still achingly fresh memories of his unhappy adolescence and his glorious discovery of self. Wojnarowicz recalls his life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with no shame or regret, and shares his hitchhiking journeys across the country. He talks of art and love and sex—embracing who he is fully and accepting his heartbreaking fate without pathos—while providing fascinating glimpses into the vibrant and colorful New York art scene and poignant views of life and death among the AIDS community.
At once frightening and courageous, joyous and disturbing, enlightening and honest, In the Shadow of the American Dream is a treasured addition to the enduring literary legacy of David Wojnarowicz and a true testament to his unique brilliance.
These diary entries span 20 years in the life of visual artist, filmmaker, AIDS activist and writer Wojnarowicz (The Waterfront Diaries; Close to the Knives), beginning in the summer of 1971, when the author was 17, and ending in 1991, about a year before he succumbed to AIDS. The first excerpts tend toward longwinded synopses and inarticulate, if touching, descriptions of budding emotions; a teenage camping trip, full of snake catching and angst, reveals a sensitive, thoughtful young man torn between a love of nature and his longing for urban freedom. In his early 20s, Wojnarowicz hitchhikes across the U.S. and also explores France; his travel journals feature wayward ruminations about art, the senses, sexuality and relationships. Somewhat slapdash and Beat-derivative ("damn just sittin' here typetakkin' with two fingers in a flush and rush to get it all down"), these sections nonetheless evoke Wojnarowicz's admiration for social outcasts and a life without restraint: "I always am consumed in this sense that I should be able to move where and when I desire." This wanderlust finds expression in sexuality when Wojnarowicz returns to New York City; his portrayals of gay men and pickups on the West Side piers during this time are certainly passionate, though sometimes repetitive. The diaries become acute, then touching, and then devastating in the '80s, as Wojnarowicz's career as an artist is stabilized. His relationship with photographer Peter Hujar is poignantly rendered. AIDS haunts these years, and Wojnarowicz responds with compassion and anger: he can be memorably literal ("Guy I was kissing says he found out his diagnosis in '88 or something like that and he's relieved he knows I have this disease") or remarkably lyrical ("Should I count backwards like the Mayans so I never get older? Will the moon in the sky listen to my whispers as I count away?"). As in his excellent collection, Close to the Knives, these sad yet unsentimental stories of his own and others' decline are unforgettable.