Gay love in Puritan New England subject of Garrard Conley’s debut novel

KSU professor and ‘Boy Erased’ author delves into historical fiction for ‘All the World Beside.’
Garrard Conley is the author of "All the World Beside."
Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Credit: Riverhead Books

Credit: Riverhead Books

Garrard Conley is the author of "All the World Beside." Courtesy of Riverhead Books

Georgia Writers Association director Garrard Conley is the son of a Baptist preacher whose 2016 memoir “Boy Erased” chronicles his parents’ attempt to change his sexual orientation through conversion therapy. It was made into a 2018 movie starring Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe.

Diving into a different aspect of queer Christian suppression, Conley’s debut novel, “All the World Beside,” is an evocative and mystical work of historical fiction that animates a love affair between two men in 18th-century Puritan New England.

“Queer people of all religious backgrounds exist, and history will bear these truths out,” Conley states in the author’s note as he details the research that informed his sensitive and complex narrative. Set during the “Great Awakening,” a time of expanding religious fervor in the American colonies, the novel commences in 1730 in the fictionalized settlement of Cana, Massachusetts.

The story centers on the Rev. Nathaniel Whitfield, a character whose background shares similarities with historical evangelist George Whitefield. Nathaniel is a minister famous for converting 500 souls in a mass revival that led to the founding of Cana. Now tasked with the spiritual growth of the settlement, Nathaniel struggles to reconcile his feelings for Dr. Arthur Lyman and how they impact his relationships with God, family and community.

Nathaniel is expected to usher forth another Great Awakening. Considered the apex of religious enlightenment, it is imagined by Nathaniel’s wife, Catherine, as an event where “the crying lasted several hours, people fell out of the pews and broke into violent paroxysms upon the ground.”

Given the theatrical nature of an awakening, the authenticity of each person’s conversion is confirmed by scrutinizing changes in their behavior over time. This breeds suspicion among neighbors and fosters an environment of judgment and extremism. When another awakening doesn’t materialize, Nathaniel’s benefactors worry the preacher has fallen out of grace with God. As the town’s suspicions are stoked, the Whitfield and Lyman families are subjected to enhanced scrutiny for exhibiting behaviors that deviate from a narrow definition of normalcy.

Resentful of the time Nathaniel spends away from the family, especially after his connection to Arthur becomes evident, Catherine becomes depressed over her alienation from her husband. To pick up Catherine’s slack, their preteen daughter, Sarah, takes charge of domestic duties and is often referred to as the “woman of the house” — a circumstance that causes tongues to wag in Cana.

Arthur’s wife and daughter are also shunned by Cana because they are not an original founding family and are perceived as outsiders, so they seek an alliance with the Whitfield women. Conley uses these female friendships to gently explore, with honesty and sensitivity, how the ripples of intolerance spread throughout the lives of all involved parties.

The relationship between Nathaniel and Arthur breathes life into the cloistered stuffiness of life in Cana. While Nathaniel struggles with his sexuality, Arthur accepts both their connection and his own feelings. Nathaniel pours over the Bible fruitlessly searching for permission to love Arthur. But Arthur has no problem sourcing the divine in their union. He focuses on finding ways to be together and describes their relationship as “not only love but something added to it, something older, ancient, hidden away.”

“All the World Beside” is as much a character-driven examination of the cost of suppression as a compelling dip into spiritual realism. A mystical quality emerges early on as Nathaniel begins to view his infant son, Ezekiel, as the manifestation of his sin and questions if the child is possessed.

Both Whitfield children reveal elements of the supernatural. Sarah has visions, possesses unattainable knowledge and displays an awareness of the divine that is both unnerving and empowering for her to reconcile. She quickly realizes her father’s focus is not on his family or flock but on Cana’s resident doctor.

Her awareness sharpens into dogmatic religiosity and soon it seems Sarah, not Nathaniel, may be the person to lead Cana to their next revival. Despite a professed belief in female equality, the community’s reaction to Sarah as a spiritual leader causes further complications for the Whitfield family.

In contrast to Sarah’s clairvoyance, Ezekiel’s supernatural qualities present as developmental delays. Conley’s depiction of this character captures the soul of misunderstanding and loneliness. As other children experience the awakening, Ezekiel is left to conclude that God has passed him over — as his father is wont to do. Their father-son relationship is indelibly shaped by Nathaniel’s guilt, resulting in confusion for Ezekiel throughout his life.

Conley draws direct parallels between “All the World Beside” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classical Puritan exploration of adultery, “The Scarlet Letter.” The difference is the compassion with which Conley gifts his complicated depiction of forbidden love. While Hawthorne’s story descends into a moral rebuke of religious hypocrisy, Conley’s stays fixed on the human cost of secrets and lies.

In the author’s note, Conley concludes that as Hester’s art transforms her scarlet A from a brand of shame into a symbol of beauty, Conley underwent a similar metamorphosis while writing “Boy Erased.” In crafting “All the World Beside,” he has filtered his personal experiences through an even more suppressive time in history. The result is a contemplative depiction of the endurance required to survive religious intolerance that is probing, redemptive and brimming with compassion for the human race.


“All the World Beside”

by Garrard Conley

Riverhead Books

352 pages, $28


Garrard Conley. In Conversation with Luis Correa. 7 p.m., March 26. Free with registration. Avid Bookshop, 1662 S. Lumpkin St., Athens. 706-850-2843,