Fellow: Awarded 2009
Field of Study: Folklore and Popular Culture
Competition: US & Canada
Joshua Gamson earned a B.A. from Swarthmore, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. On completing his doctoral degree, he took up an appointment as an assistant then associate professor of sociology at Yale, remaining there for nine years before accepting a position as associate professor of sociology at the University of San Francisco in 2002; he was promoted to professor in 2005. He has contributed scholarly articles to such refereed journals as Social Problems, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Sociological Inquiry, and Gender and Society. His articles and book chapters have been reprinted in forty-some academic publications, and are standard material in college-level sociology classes.
His first two forays into sociological studies accessible to general audiences were Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America (University of California Press, 1994), which was supported by Fellowships from Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity (University of Chicago Press, 1998), which was funded by a Placek Award from the American Psychological Foundation. He had presented and then revisited some of the material in Freaks Talk Back in two articles in The American Prospect (Fall 1994, November-December 1998), a magazine to which he contributed over twenty articles as Senior Correspondent beginning in 1994. Freaks Talk Back won the Kovács Book Award from the Society for Cinema Studies (1999), the American Psychological Association’s Sociology of Culture Section Book Award, and was selected as a Voice Literary Supplement favorite book of 1998. He also published a TV-related “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker, and wrote on popular culture and politics in The Nation and Tikkun.
Nevertheless, he is best known for The Fabulous Sylvester: The Legend, the Music, the Seventies in San Francisco (Henry Holt/Picador, 2005), a study of the life of Sylvester James, who, as Mr. Gamson described him, was “an openly gay, gender-crossing, falsetto-singing African American, and for much of the 1970s a huge star, with twenty-four Top 40 hits.” With this work, Mr. Gamson consciously changed the direction of his writing from accessible sociology to creative nonfiction with a sociological undertone. His carefully constructed mix of biography and cultural history drew on his painstaking archival research and over one hundred in-depth interviews with those who knew Sylvester and the times he reflected and illumined.
The Fabulous Sylvester was a great success, with both readers and critics. The book critic for Newsday, for example, praised it as "Delightful . . . I'm not sure I've ever read an account of a life that has so much sheer joy, raffishness, and humor on each page. . . . As fables go, this is a good one.” It won the 2006 Israel Fishman Book Award (one of the Stonewall Book Awards) for nonfiction from the American Library Association, was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, was a finalist for a 2005 Lambda Literary Award, and led to invitations for Mr. Gamson to participate in the National Steinbeck Center’s Authors’ Table (2006) and the Litquake Festival in San Francisco, and to appearances on NPR’s News and Notes, among other programs.
During his Guggenheim Fellowship term, Joshua Gamson will be completing another biography, this time of Jackie “Moms” Mabley, one of the first and most successful black female standup comedians in America, who parlayed her success in black-circuit clubs during the Harlem Renaissance to become a fixture on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, The Bill Cosby Show, and the well-known talk shows of the time.