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literature

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Ackerley, J. R. (1896-1967)  

A twentieth-century British editor who fostered the careers of a number of important gay writers, J. R. Ackerley also wrote a small but significant body of gay literature that includes memoirs and drama.

From 1935 until 1959, Joe Randolph Ackerley edited The Listener, BBC's weekly literature and arts journal, so skillfully and so eclectically, that he came to be recognized as "one of the most brilliant editors of his generation." Under his editorship, the journal counted not only E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Herbert Read, and Clive Bell among its regular contributors, but also such new talents as W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and Stephen Spender. Spender commented that Ackerley "cared immensely about what books were reviewed--and by whom--and what poems he published. He encouraged young writers."

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Ackerley's output as a writer himself was small: one play, one novel, three autobiographical works, and a handful of poems. Their candor, frankness, and honesty often upset readers and friends alike, so much so that Forster once said, "I wish I could give him a good smack." Ackerley's aesthetic, however, was far closer to the aims of the socially conscious 1930s and 1940s than to modernist detachment. Late in life, he explained his assumptions to Spender thus: "to speak the truth, I think that people ought to be upset, and if I had a paper I would upset them all the time. I think that life is so important and, in its workings, so upsetting that nobody should be spared."

When Ackerley died in 1967, readers knew him for The Prisoners of War (1923), a psychological drama based on his own experiences as a German prisoner of war that critiques the British officer class and code and maturely treats homosexual themes and ties, and perhaps for Hindoo Holiday (1932), a journal of his months in India while private secretary to a maharajah. In addition, his two "dog books," My Dog Tulip (1956) and We Think the World of You (1960), had their champions and demonstrated that Ackerley found his much longed-for Ideal Friend among animals, rather than men.

The posthumous publication of My Father and Myself (1968), however, necessitated a complete reconsideration of Ackerley's significance. The book--simultaneously a coming-out story; a meditation on masculinity, paternity, and sonship; a chronicle of a Victorian family coping with the twentieth century; and a record of mutual deceptions--certainly merits Truman Capote's comment that it is "the most original autobiography I have ever read" and Diana Trilling's judgment that it is "the simplest, most directly personal report of what it is like to be a homosexual that . . . has yet been published."

Ackerley tells of the familiar sexual temptations in the British public school, his wartime adventures in "Boom Ravine," his unsuccessful attempts to create direction in his writing, and his quest for an Ideal Friend. He richly details his attractions to lower- and working-class men and uniformed men and describes the general gay milieu of the 1920s and 1930s.

Epiphany came with his father's death in 1929 when Ackerley read two letters, dating from 1920 and 1927, in which his father told his son of a "secret family"--his long-time mistress, three daughters, and a comfortable home in Castelnau. Up to this point, Ackerley felt that his father, a prosperous fruit importer, had a life complete in "the steady regularity of its domestic rhythms" and was more than a little puzzled by and even contemptuous of his homosexual son.

With coincidences that art often denies itself, life in a Hammersmith flat confronts Ackerley with a portrait of Count James Francis de Gallatin, who, evidence suggests, may well have been his father's lover when his father was a member of the Household Cavalry. A somewhat melancholy tone informs My Father and Myself, because of Ackerley's regret over his lack of communication with his father, created largely by social convention, British reticence, and his own uncertainties over the standing of the homosexual in British society.

David Leon Higdon

     

    
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    Bibliography
   

Parker, Peter. Ackerley: A Life of J. R. Ackerley. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Higdon, David Leon  
    Entry Title: Ackerley, J. R.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 12, 2008  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/ackerley_jr.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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