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literature

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American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969  
 
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1930-1939

In the 1930s, frank private gay male American writing persisted and increased. Glenway Wescott (1901-1987) only hinted at his homosexuality in his best-selling fiction of the 1920s (for example, the story "Adolescence" in his 1928 Good-Bye Wisconsin), but in 1937 he began a journal that focuses extensively on his relationships with lovers and fellow homosexual artists (for example, Monroe Wheeler, George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus). Continuing through the 1950s and published in 1990 as Continual Lessons, Wescott's journal offers an invaluable portrait of pre-Stonewall American gay male cultural life.

In 1933, Donald Vining (b. 1917) started a journal, which he began publishing in 1979 under the title of A Gay Diary. (Four volumes, covering the years until 1975, have appeared so far.) Less self-reflective than Wescott's, Vining's diary is nonetheless a goldmine of information about earlier American gay male social life, especially during World War II and the immediate post-war years.

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Homosexuality came more clearly into view in the poems of Marsden Hartley (1877-1943) in the 1930s, but this work, too, remained private at the time, not reaching print until after Hartley's death. Among Hartley's noteworthy works is his "Gay World" of the early 1930s (published in his 1945 Selected Poems), where he plays on the "innocent" public meaning of "gay" to make what knowing readers would recognize as a homosexual statement ("It's a gay world after all; I knew it").

Also of note are "K. von F.--1914--Arras-Bouquoi," Hartley's late 1930s elegy for his German lover, Karl von Freyberg, killed in World War I (not published until 1987); and "Cleophas and His Own" and "Three Loving Men" (first published in 1982 and 1987), prose and poetry memorials to Alty and Donny Mason, who drowned off Nova Scotia in 1936 while Hartley was living with their family ("I alone am loving / two consummate men / who will not come again").

Hartley's letters, which include frank correspondence with fellow homosexuals such as Robert McAlmon and Charles Demuth, ought to be published.

Other frank but unpublished work of these years are the eight autobiographical "Johnson" stories that Paul Goodman (1911-1972) wrote in 1932-1933, in which the title character is technically bisexual but where the plainest eroticism is homosexual; the majority did not see print until 1976.

In a major shift, however, in the 1930s, frank private gay male American writing is matched by published work for the first time, a change epitomized by two 1933 novels, The Young and Evil by Charles Henri Ford (b. 1910) and Parker Tyler (1904-1974) and Better Angel by the playwright Forman Brown (b. 1900), who issued the book under the pseudonym "Richard Meeker."

A roman à clef about the authors' experiences in New York in 1930-1931, The Young and Evil echoes Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Djuna Barnes in its stream-of-consciousness presentation of Julian (Ford) and Karel (Tyler)'s adventures and of the city's homosexual subculture (for example, Greenwich Village gay bars, a drag ball in Harlem, a beating and arrest for cruising on Riverside Drive).

Vivid and direct, The Young and Evil implicitly endorses a "feminine" and depressive picture of male homosexuality, however ("You homos . . . got your eyes fixed on the male symbol. . . . You couldn't fall in love with each other").

Brown's Better Angel, which takes its title from Shakespeare's sonnet 144, is The Young and Evil's complement. Less artfully written, it traces the development of Kurt Grey from a lonely and "sensitive" adolescent "set apart from his companions" to a young and successful composer and music teacher involved passionately and happily with another man, David.

With many didactic passages designed to hearten an assumed audience of homosexual readers ("He longed to spread abroad the injustice of it, as a zealot and reformer. . . . Somewhere there must be an honest picture of it all"), The Better Angel can nonetheless allow Kurt and David no more than a "secret" relationship, and one achieved only in opposition to any homosexual subculture, which it sees as a "flayed and slightly nauseous society of 'les hommes-femmes.'"

The publication histories of both novels show the limits frank homosexual writing still faced in America. The Young and Evil had to be published abroad (in Paris), by an alternative press (Obelisk), and British and American customs refused to allow copies into the countries. (A 1960 Olympia Press reprint did make its way into the United States.)

Better Angel found an American publisher, but a marginal one sometimes associated with pulp fiction (Greenberg), and though it went through two printings and thus seems to have found an audience, little is known about its reception, and it soon disappeared from sight.

Other forthright published homosexual work of this decade included some early poems of Paul Goodman, though they appeared in pamphlets he issued himself--for example, "Epode. The New Bus Terminal" (1934), "Ballade to Jean Cocteau" (1937), and "For My Birthday, 1939" (1939).

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