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 (The City and the Pillar) or self-destruction (Giovanni’s Room). 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 profoundly wrong. I had always believed — indeed, this is a view still held by many gay and mainstream critics — 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, which had 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 barely read and 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 highly 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. (Interestingly, 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 Windy City writer Willard Motley. A few days later, I serendipitously found a copy of his 1947 novel Knock on Any Door on the dollar cart at Boston’s venerable 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, who was gay, African-American, and a leftist, 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 the Signet edition of 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 couldn’t find the book in any area libraries — 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 Google search of her name 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 like High Trash, but it’s actually well written, empathetic, and insightful. Engstrand, it turns out, was also a noted postwar novelist.
Another great way to find a gay pulp was simply 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 veritable who’s who of 1950s queer literati. This book had to have gay content, I thought, and it did. 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, intuition, and plain old snooping, I discovered, in the end, 273 novels (they are listed in an appendix to Pulp Friction) published by mainstream presses between 1940 and 1969 that contained 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.
Even after realizing that conventional wisdom about pre-Stonewall gay fiction was completely wrong, I was still surprised by what I found. Richard Brooks’s 1945 novel The Brick Foxhole, for instance, 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 rather about homophobia. The filmmakers had changed the story’s pivotal episode of the murder of a homosexual into the murder of a Jewish man.
SO WHAT DID all this research add up to? Well, I believe I stumbled upon a new way of looking at postwar American literature. It is clear that the novels I write about in my book Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps — and I keep finding more that I haven’t written about — were simply an accepted part of postwar US literary culture. And 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. And the very 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, America suddenly 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 America that "real men" could have emotions and even 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. And 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.
So how were these novels lost? Why don’t we know about them now? It’s simple. The authors and 1950s-era readers of these "gay" pulps didn’t think of them that way. They were simply books. Sure, gay men — along with lots of other readers — bought them, but the category of a "gay novel" did not exist until 1969, when it was invented by the new gay- liberation movement. In the 1940s, 1950s, and pre-Stonewall 1960s, these books were just that — books. They may have been about homosexual men, but no one conceived them as written for, by, and about a specialized audience. Amazingly, it appears, homosexuality was one of many topics about male gender and sexuality that could be discussed at mid century.
What happened in 1969 with the dawn of the modern gay movement was that, 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. So no matter how sympathetic, varied, insightful, smart, or sincere these pre-Stonewall novels may have been, they were — in the eyes of myself and my comrades in the early movement — old-fashioned, out of date, and self-hating. Within a few years, as new books came out, most of these titles were consigned to the dustbin of history, only to be refigured as campy postcards and refrigerator magnets decades later.
In uncovering these titles — and finding enormous joy in reading and writing about them — an interesting piece of gay history has been rediscovered. But it’s also led to new ways of thinking about the present. Maybe we are finally past the stage of needing "gay" literature and moving into a society where discussion of these ideas can once again become broader and fuller, involving everyone and changing our world.
Michael Bronski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.