While we have always been intellectually aware that gay and lesbian life existed before 1969, we have developed so much emotional attachment to the meanings of the Stonewall rebellion over the years that most of what happened before that watershed event falls into a fog of unknowing. Michael Bronski, a local culture critic with an international reputation, set out recently to redress some of that unknowing by digging up some of this ignored history. Inspired by the refrigerator magnets and other such tchotchkas that reproduce the covers of pulp paperback novels of the 1950s and '60s, Bronski expected to find that much of the pre-Stonewall gay literature existed only in that format. He was in for a big surprise.
Bay Windows talked with Bronski recently about "Pulp Friction," the new book he has pulled together of excerpts from that substantial literature. Bronski will be participating in a group reading from this book and answering questions about it this Sunday evening, April 6, at Candyland in Jamaica Plain; and on Wednesday, April 16, at the Boston Public Library. [Information below]
Asked about the genesis of the book, Bronski started laying out his initial assumptions. "When I first began thinking about the book, I worked on the assumption that there were probably very few gay male novels published before Stonewall, and that the few that were all had negative, tragic endings. These were ideas that were in my head since before I came out, which was actually a year or two before Stonewall. These were ideas that I just carried along with me, which is not too surprising, because everybody else also believed in them. To my enormous surprise, when I started researching this book, both of these myths turned out to be overwhelmingly false.
"Of course, since I had been reading from a very young age, I was aware of a few gay novels, such as Gore Vidal's 'The City and the Pillar,' 'Another Country' and 'Giovanni's Room' by James Baldwin,and 'Reflections in a Golden Eye' by Carson McCullers. But I never imagined that there was a cohesive body of gay male literature that existed before Stonewall. In fact, I discovered close to 200 titles, from mainstream publishers rather than pulp, which have essential gay male content that is central to them. Besides those books by authors whom we still know about, there were many others by others who have fallen into obscurity, like Lonnie Coleman or Harrison Dowd or Stuart Engstrand, all of which were enormously popular in cloth and paper editions before Stonewall."
A coherent culture
Bronski was excited to discover not only a larger number of serious books than he had imagined, but also that they formed a coherent literary sub-culture. "When you look at it, it's not just that I happened to find a lot of books from the period. If you look at the bibliographic essay at the end of 'Pulp Friction,' you will see that there is a growth of content and theme, and a development of the historical and social contexts for all of these books. Not only does this prove that there was an extraordinarily vibrant gay male literary culture before Stonewall, but it also shows that in many ways there was a very vigorous public discussion about homosexuality during that time. I'm talking about the period from during World War II right up to the Stonewall riots."
Asked why he thought there was such a great outpouring of gay-themed literature in this period, Bronski opines that "a huge amount of this really has to do with the effect of the war. I would say that as many as a third of these novels feature men who have come back from the war, who are now adjusting to civilian life, and figuring out what it means to be a gay man in America. One of the themes that runss through all of these books is not just about homosexuality, but what constitutes masculinity in America, about what it means to be a man. You really begin to see all kinds of ways that the topic of homosexuality comes up in a lot of different novels. Norman Mailer's 'The Naked and the Dead' has a fear of and attraction towards homosexuality woven all through the text, as does James Jones' 'From Here to Eternity.' What I found, in fact, was that from 1940 to 1970, American literary culture was pretty much drenched with male homosexuality."
Bronski then goes on to talk about the second myth his research exploded. "The other myth, that all the novels have unhappy suicidal endings is not really true either, although many of the books don't exactly have 'happily ever after' endings. In 'Finestere' by Fritz Peters, the 16-year-old protagonist does kill himself at the end, but if you've read the book you know that this is clearly because he is not getting along with his parents, and his step-father is coming on to him, which he doesn't know how to deal with, and his lover has just left him under pressure from his parents. The novel is really about homophobia, not about the hopelessness of homosexuality. But in book after book, like 'Sam' by Lonnie Coleman, the protagonist might be dumped by a horrible boyfriend but then meet a nice doctor and live happily ever after."
Bronski also thinks that there is something suspect about the demand for happy endings and positive role models. "I was talking with Christopher Bram recently about this whole issue of happy endings or the lack thereof in early gay novels, and he [asked] "How many really great novels actually have happy endings?" If you set aside Jane Austen, you can take your pick of 'Anna Karenina,' 'Madame Bovary,' 'War and Peace,' 'Middlemarch.' It is not great literature, but the second rate, that mostly gives us happy endings.
"The whole notion that literature has to be positive or to promote positive images seems to have been foisted on us by Hollywood culture. But promoting positive images is not as likely to present us with great literature as much as complicated, complex characters living through complex situations and making human choices. The books that have been widely acknowledged as great gay literature, like 'Giovanni's Room' or 'Death in Venice' or Edmund White's 'A Boy's Own Story' and 'The Beautiful Room Is Empty' don't have happy endings."
Asked why this literature has fallen into obscurity if it was so popular in its time, Bronski comes up with a couple of reasons. "One reason that this culture has become invisible to us is the difference in the way we look at literature then and now. After Stonewall, when we were trying to create an identity for ourselves, we thought of our stories and novels as gay and lesbian fiction. But the novels written from 1940 to 1969 looked at itself as American writing that dealt with gay issues or homosexual characters. It's a political consciousness that changes. It's not about quality, just about how it's conceptualized.
"Also, because the gay liberation movement wanted to feel that it had invented a whole new gay and lesbian culture, it wrote off these earlier novels, and even hid their existence in some cases, in order to celebrate a whole new gay literature."
Bronski was also excited to discover the many ways this pre-Stonewall literature contributed to the development of gay consciousness. From among many of the developments he discusses in his introductions to the various sections of the book, he highlights the story of H. Lynn Womack. "In 1955 Lynn Womack starts the Guild Press and begins to publish hardcover novels, some of which were published earlier, like 'Invisible Glass,' an incredible novel about an interracial gay relationship in Italy during the war. He publishes a novel from England called 'The Leather Boys,' by Eliot George, a pseudonym for Gillian Freeman, an up-and-coming novelist. He publishes a reprint from the '30s from a small publisher called the Panyurge Press, which is actually a reprint of an 1893 novel called 'Strange Love,' a historical romance with gay characters.
"But what he does that is really amazing is to actually start a gay book club, from which you can order these and other books that also have gay content. This was around 1963 or '64. I have one of the catalogs, which has about 200 titles in it. So he's actually working up a whole little industry based on publishing and selling through the mails gay-themed fiction. It's things like this that laid the foundation that the Gay Liberation movement built upon, but that that movement chose to ignore in celebrating its own creations."
There are two celebrations of the publication of 'Pulp Friction.'
The first is on April 6, at Candyland @ The Milky Way, 405 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain. Doors open at 7:30 pm; readings are 8-10 pm; dancing is 10:30 pm-1 am. 21+. $7 for the show / $5 after for dancing. Readers for the April 6 event include Toni Amato, Charlie-girl Anders, Scott Heim, Sue, Hyde, J*me, Michael Lowenthal, Abe Rybeck, and Ron Suresha. Info: www.truthserum.org and 617-524-3740.
The 2nd celebration takes place April 16 at the Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St., Boston. Door open at 7 pm sharp; the event is free. Readers for the April 16 event include Rick Berlin, Tom Cole, Mary Davies, Talia Kingsbury, John Kuntz, Stephen McCauley, and Neil Miller. Info: www.truthserum.org and 617-536-5400.