Queer Eye for the 50s Guy

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.)

As it became increasingly clear that my project, dubbed Pulp Friction by my editor, held the possibility of forging a new way of looking at pre-Stonewall gay literature, I stepped up my efforts to find more of these books. Feeling a little bit like Nancy Drew in The Secret of the Queer Plot, I followed up on every clue. A friend who is writing about labor history in Chicago mentioned that I might want to look at novels by Willard Motley. A few days later, I found a copy of his 1947 novel Knock on Any Door on the dollar cart at Boston’s Brattle Book Shop. The book tells the story of Nick Romano, a Chicago kid who is born poor, goes bad, and ends up a cop killer. A best-seller when it was published, it was made into a popular 1949 movie with John Derek and Humphrey Bogart. When I began reading Knock on Any Door, I was amazed. Along with being a thief, Johnny is a hustler, and one of the book’s other main characters is a gay man who pays him for sex and takes care of him. The novel is infused with a gay sensibility — you can’t beat Motley’s lush, erotic descriptions of male beauty — and the character of Grant Holloway, Nick’s john, is the moral center of the story. A little research turned up the fact that Motley was gay, African American, and a leftist. He wrote four novels, two of which were best-sellers. He was considered a major American writer in the 1950s; today he is nearly forgotten.

From Knock on Any Door, I naturally went to Motley’s other books. The flyleaf advertisement on Let No Man Write My Epitaph for “other books you will enjoy” led me to Theodora Keogh’s 1950 The Double Door, about a married gay man who leads a double life. After some hunting, I finally found a copy on eBay. I read her 1952 novel Street Music, which also has overt gay male themes, and her 1949 Meg, a story with lesbian overtones, about a rich New York girl who joins a street gang. I knew even less about Keogh than I did about Motley, so I did a quick Internet search and learned that Keogh, the granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt, had been a highly respected novelist who became famous for her “daring” themes.

Following the flyleaf advertisements on books became a great way to find other gay male pulps. Charles Gorham’s 1961 novel McCaffrey (about a gay hustler), for instance, led me to Stuart Engstrand’s The Sling and the Arrow, a 1947 novel that deals with what we would now call transgenderism. It details the life of a man who dresses his wife as a boy and urges her to have an affair with the Coast Guard captain with whom he is in love. The plot sounds tacky, but it’s actually well written, empathetic, and insightful. Engstrand, it turns out, was also a noted postwar novelist.

Another great way I found gay pulp was to scan the blurbs on book jackets. During a visit to a used-book store in New York City, for instance, I happened to pick up, more out of curiosity than instinct, a copy of Frederick Buechner’s 1949 novel A Long Day’s Dying. Aside from a handsome (and very fey) author photo, the most striking thing about the book was who had endorsed it. On the jacket flaps was high praise from Leonard Bernstein, Christopher Isherwood, Carl Van Vechten, Isabel Bolton, and John Horne Burns — a who’s who of queer celebrities. A Long Day’s Dying is about a group of bohemian friends of various sexual persuasions. It’s moving and shocking — beware the pet monkey with the straight-edged razor — perhaps all the more so because Buechner is now a prominent Episcopalian theologian.

My search quickly yielded certain patterns: Any paperback from the 1950s with purple haze on the cover turned out to be queer; cover tag lines that mentioned “strange marriage” or “the twilight world” were homo as well. Thomas Hal Phillip’s The Bitterweed Path didn’t even try to hide its content. While its cover featured a handsome, well-built, shirtless man and a beautiful woman in an embrace on the floor of a barn, the back cover explained (correctly) that it was a novel of an “unusual triangle”: a father, his son, and the son’s best friend. (Phillip, still living, wrote parts of Robert Altman’s film Nashville.) Indeed, many of these books did not hide their queer content. The cover of a paperback edition of Charles Jackson’s 1946 The Fall of Valor features a close-up of a woman’s face as she glances back to see her husband lighting the cigarette of another man. The tag line above the image reads, “the powerful story of a man’s conflicting loves.”

Relying on these methods, plus instinct and plain old snooping, I discovered, in the end, 273 novels published by mainstream presses between 1940 and 1969 with substantive gay male characters, plots, or themes. Some of these were by (then) famous writers. A.J. Conin’s startling 1950 novel The Spanish Gardener, for example, details the loving, erotic relationship between a 12-year-old boy and his father’s gardener. Grace Zaring Stone’s 1951 novel The Grotto explores the psyche of a woman dealing with her son’s homosexuality. Some of these books were by authors who never published again. Ralph Leveridge’s 1951 book Walk on the Water is a beautiful story of soldiers trapped in trenches on a South Seas island during World War II and how they relate to a gay man who is the center of their group.

Richard Brooks’ 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole was the basis for the 1951 film Crossfire, a hallmark Hollywood film exposing anti-Semitism. But when I read the novel, it turned out to be not just about anti-Semitism, but also about homophobia. The filmmakers had changed the story’s murder of a homosexual, a pivotal scene, into the murder of a Jewish man.

After reading The Brick Foxhole I discovered that, while all of these novels deal, to varying degrees, with homophobia and gay men’s lives, many also deal with other identity-based political issues. The Brick Foxhole addresses racism, queer-hating, woman-hating, and anti-Semitism. In fact, it is a near-perfect analysis of how an entrenched postwar masculinity was the cause of “what was wrong with America.” It is a very radical novel that should be — were it not forgotten — at the heart of a canon of radical U.S. literature. A book such as Ward Thomas’ 1949 Stranger in the Land — which details the life of a closeted gay teacher in a small New England town being blackmailed by a man with whom he is sleeping — builds its moral argument against gay oppression by making lengthy parallels with the situation of Jews in Hitler’s Germany. This specific parallel between the social plight of homosexuals and anti-Semitism also fuels John Rae’s 1961 The Custard Boys, a British novel about a small village in England dealing with Jewish war refugees as well as a burgeoning, and very active, homoeroticism among young schoolboys. After one of the boys dies because of the town’s intense homophobia, the novel’s message is inescapable.

Racial prejudice is, of course, present in James Baldwin’s 1961 Another Country, and it is present in many other novels as well. Lonnie Coleman’s 1958 The Southern Lady is a brilliant novel about the closeting of queerness — it is called “passing” here — as well as race, as its plot turns on the “secret” past of its narrator and its title character. Charles Wright’s 1963 The Messenger, about an African American bike messenger who also hustles, draws on the legacy of Baldwin’s work but has a clear narrative and political voice of its own. Loren Wahl’s The Invisible Glass — its title comes from a quote by W.E.B. Du Bois — is an amazing novel set in occupied Italy at the end of the war, about a gay white lieutenant who falls in love with his heterosexual African American jeep driver. The book deals with both racism and homophobia in the Army — the Italian peasants they meet are relatively free of both — and is powerful and illuminating. The men end up having sex (it is love for one, friendship for the other) and while the book ends tragically, it is a stirring indictment of intolerance.

So what did all this research add up to? Well, it is clear that these novels — and I keep finding more — were an accepted part of postwar U.S. literary culture. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. World War II radically altered the lives of Americans, especially with regard to issues of sex and gender. Traditional ideas were turned on their heads. During the war, women performed and excelled at many “male” jobs; the brave fighting men on the battlefield and on ships began to understand what it meant to be vulnerable and emotionally open to (and sometimes physically intimate with) other men. The idea of what it meant to “be a man” was radically challenged at the war’s end as men moved from the battlefield to the office.

This challenge took place on the movie screen, where James Dean and Marlon Brando showed Americans that “real men” could have emotions and cry. On stages and on television, Elvis showed the country that a “real man” could move his hips and shake his pelvis in sexual ways as no (white) man had ever before dared to do in public. In literature, novels began portraying a world in which the options offered to “real men” were far more complicated than ever before. Even highly praised war novels such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity are filled with discussions and episodes concerning homosexuality. Male homosexuality, I discovered, was not a hidden topic in the 1950s. It was hotly debated, both openly and quietly, in many ways.

But what are we to make of the other political trends that run through these works? Just as the homosexual themes of many of these books were lost (perhaps even on purpose, because they were too threatening), so were their other radical themes as well. We have come to think that anti-Semitism was addressed only in social-problem novels like Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement (in which the “Jew” is really an Episcopalian pretending to be Jewish) or in novels by Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud. Few readers know of any ’50s African American writers other than Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright. Interestingly, Willard Motley, who was an African-American bestselling author, mostly wrote about white working-class Italians and Poles in Chicago, a fact that has caused him to disappear from many critical studies of “black American writers” in the 1950s and 1960s. As with “gay writing” after 1969 — when the gay movement made enough of a cultural impact to create a genre — these books don’t fit easily into any category.

In 1969, with the dawn of the modern gay movement, gay liberationists claimed the right to create a new literature. They called it “gay” literature, thus separating it from everything that came before it. No matter how sympathetic, varied, insightful, smart, or sincere these pre-Stonewall novels may have been, they were seen, by this modern movement, as old-fashioned, out of date, and self-hating. Within a few years, as new books came out, most of the earlier titles were consigned to the dustbin of history.

I think this is also — to varying degrees — what happened to the other themes in these novels. The Custard Boys and Stranger in the Land could easily have been remembered as “Jewish novels” or books about anti-Semitism, but they are not. With few exceptions, U.S. literature with a political message garners little respect. It is mainly taught in college courses with titles like “U.S. Protest Literature” or relegated to footnotes in anthologies.

In uncovering these titles — and finding enormous joy in reading and writing about them — I’ve rediscovered an interesting piece of political and progressive history. But I’ve also been led to new ways of thinking about the present. The gay movement — except for its earliest years when it was truly a “liberation movement” in the most expansive sense — has never been eager to broaden its vision to connect with other political groups. What I learned through this project was that these connections were being made in the 1940s and the 1950s. The Brick Foxhole presents a world in which homophobia and anti-Semitism are interlocked with racism and the hatred of women. It is a vision that grew out of the most progressive politics of the postwar period, and one that is sorely missing now.

From Z Magazine (June 2003), a hard-hitting monthly analyzing and commenting on politics and culture from leftist perspectives. Begun fifteen years ago by Michael Albert and Lydia Sargent, two founders of South End Press, Z’s nearly ad-free pages air the views of dissident thinkers such as Holly Sklar, Norman Solomon, Noam Chomsky, and Vandana Shiva. Subscriptions: $30/yr. (11 issues) from 18 Millfield St., Woods Hole, MA 02543; www.zmag.org

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