Queer Eye for the 50s Guy

The popular fiction of postwar America was -- are you ready for this? -- gay-friendly

| January / February 2004

When my editor at St. Martin's Press asked me to do an anthology of pre-Stonewall gay male fiction, it seemed like an easy deal: How much could there be? Everyone knew -- or at least I thought I knew -- that the only gay literature that existed before the 1969 Stonewall riots and the advent of gay liberation were a few self-hating novels such as Gore Vidal's 1948 The City and the Pillar and James Baldwin's 1956 Giovanni's Room -- which end in either murder or self-destruction. Or there were trashy pulp novels with titles like The Tormented, The Divided Path, Lost on the Twilight Road, and Finistère that portrayed the worst possible images of gay life. I had been collecting these books -- with their lurid, campy covers and their outrageous cover copy announcing such sweeping themes as "A Surging Novel of Forbidden Love" and "A Homosexual Looks at Himself" -- for years, and making an anthology out of them seemed like it might be fun.

I began the project with a sense of ebullience -- after all, I was getting paid to read campy trash. But my research soon took me in an entirely unexpected direction. After a few weeks of finding and reading as many gay male pulps from the 1950s as I could, I realized that my basic understanding of gay male literary history was wrong. I had always believed that depictions of gay male life and themes were almost completely absent from mainstream publishing before Stonewall. I'd also believed that whatever literature did exist could be characterized as self-loathing. The more I read, the more I found novels like 1959's Sam, by Lonnie Coleman, which featured fully realized gay characters with complicated, productive lives. Sometimes these stories even ended happily. The first few times I found such books, I convinced myself that I'd stumbled onto a cultural quirk -- a novel that had been mostly ignored at the time of publication. But as I continued reading, the facts just didn't support this notion. Coleman, for instance, was a respected postwar novelist who later went on to write the best-selling Beulah Land trilogy in the 1970s. He could hardly be considered an obscure writer. (While many lesbian pulps were published in the 1950s -- the novels of Ann Bannon being the most famous -- these books were all paperback originals, written for a nonmainstream and nonliterary audience.)

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