The Politics of Gay Pulp Fiction




W

hen
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 junky pulp novels with titles like

The Tormented,
The Divided Path

,

Lost on Twilight Road

, and

Finistere

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” or “A Homosexual Looks
at Himself”—for years, and anthologizing 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 it didn’t take long before
my research 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. 


But
the more I read, the more I found novels like 1959’s

Sam

,
by Lonnie Coleman, with 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 its 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
bestselling

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 non-mainstream and non-literary 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
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 bestseller 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 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
Grant Holloway, Nick’s john, is the moral center of the work.
A little research turned up the fact that Motley was gay, African
American, and a leftist. He wrote four novels, two of which were
bestsellers. 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 is leading
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 the 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 trashy,
but it’s actually well written, empathetic, and insightful.
Engstrand, it turns out, was also a noted postwar novelist. 


Another
great way to find gay pulp was to scan the blurbs on book jackets
from the 1950s. 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 Isabel Bolton,
John Horne Burns, Leonard Bernstein, Christopher Isherwood, and
Carl Van Vechten—a who’s who of 1950s queer literati.
A

Long Day’s Dying

deals with 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 Phillips’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” between a father, his son, and the son’s best
friend. (Thomas, 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. Cronin’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
Sea island during World War II and how they relate to a gay man
who is the center of their group. Gerald Tesch’s 1956 novel

Never the Same Again

examines with enormous sympathy the
relationship of a 13-year-old boy with an older man in a small Midwestern
town.


Richard
Brooks’s 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 not to be about anti-Semitism, but about homophobia. The filmmakers
had changed the story’s pivotal episode of the murder of a
homosexual into the murder of a Jewish man. 


It
was after I had read

The Brick Foxhole

that I discovered
that, while all of these novels deal with, to varying degrees, homophobia
and gay men’s lives, many of these novels also dealt with other
identity-based political issues.

The Brick Foxhole

was not
simply about anti-Semitism, but addressed racism, queer-hating,
and woman-hating as well. In fact, it is a near-perfect analysis
of how an entrenched post-war 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. writing. A book such as Ward Thomas’s 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. It is, as far as I can tell, one of the first U.S. novels
to mention specifically Dachau and Auschwitz as death camps. 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
school boys. After one of the boys dies because of the town’s
intense homophobia, the novels message is inescapable. John Horne
Burns’s 1949

Lucifer With a Book

—set in a private,
Andover- like boys school in New England—also presents us with
a clear message of how homophobia is part and parcel to anti-Semitism
and racism. 


Racial
prejudice is, of course, present in James Baldwin’s 1961

Another
Country

, but it also 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

is about an African-American bike messenger
who also hustles. It 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 books 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
in the trenches 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. 


During
this period, the U.S. found itself in the midst of a great public
discussion of what it meant to be a man or a woman. This discussion
took place on the movie screen, where James Dean and Marlon Brando
showed the U.S. 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’s

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 often a very public topic
that 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 only addressed 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. Except
for Richard Wright, few readers know of any post-war African-American
writers. 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. 



I

n
1969, with the dawn of the modern gay movement, along with many
other things, 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 these 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

or

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 is not
given very much 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—an interesting piece of political and
progressive history has been rediscovered. But it’s also led
to me to new ways of thinking about the present. The gay movement—except
for its first year when it was truly a “liberation movement”
in the most expansive sense—has never been very eager to broaden
its vision to connect with other political groups. What I learned
here 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 post-war period, and one that is, for many, sorely missing
now.










Michael Bronski’s
latest book is P



ulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age
of Gay Male Pulps.