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American Literature: Lesbian, 1900-1969  
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Societal Attitudes

The best known literary lesbian of the twentieth century is of course Stephen Gordon, the hero of British writer Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness (1928). Hall's widely publicized obscenity trial evinced a bigoted general attitude of scorn for lesbians that had a chilling effect on many American lesbian and bisexual writers, especially expatriates like H.D. Though H.D. was writing explicitly lesbian fiction, none of it was published until after her death. Unpublished until 1992 in "The Cutting Edge: Lesbian Life and Literature" series, Paint It Today serves as "the repressed political unconscious of her Asphodel and Madrigal," "countering an androcentric social construction of desire" by proposing a "lesbian matrix of sister-love." This daring probing of myths of psychology has been overshadowed by H.D.'s more conventionally palatable Tribute to Freud, in print since 1956.

Similarly, Lifting Belly (1953), Gertrude Stein's delicious celebration of lesbian sexuality was not published until after her death, while Tender Buttons (1914), her experimental poems collected under the cunningly titled pun on tend-her-buttons, was published but subjected to ruthless critical ridicule.

As Stimpson points out, when Hall "represents the lesbian as scandal and the lesbian as woman-who-is-man," she is "making an implicit, perhaps unconscious pact with her culture" as the "lesbian writer who rejects both silence and excessive coding" and claims her "right to write for the public in exchange for adopting the narrative of damnation."

A 1939 novel such as Diana Frederic's Diana, which presents a "kind of lesbian chauvinism" ("a stupid girl would probably never ascertain her abnormality if she were potentially homosexual....No woman could adjust herself to lesbianism without developing exceptional qualities of courage") is quite the exception in its championing of lesbian life and desire, even as it plainly acknowledges the larger culture's homophobic suppressions.

Yet Shari Benstock contends that if the "critics who confer canonization" took seriously Blanche Wiesen Cook's claim that Virginia Woolf's "Imagination was fueled by Sapphic erotic power," then "they would be forced to redefine modernism in ways that acknowledge its Sapphic elements." If this "erotic power were theorized as Sapphic modernism," not only for Woolf but for Djuna Barnes, H.D., and Stein, it could profoundly change not only our notions about modernist art, but also redefine the erotic in relation to the creative sources for all art."

Understanding lesbian literary experimentation and its challenges to aesthetic, cultural, and historic concepts will, therefore, remap literary history and reconfigure its intellectual values, including that invested in the "Author."

Literary Collaboration

Three traditions of literary history have particularly hindered our appreciation of lesbian literary collaborations: tradition of the autonomous male genius producing works of classic literature; women's symbolic function for men as a passive female muse; and the correlation between creative production and procreative reproduction. This conventional symbology linking heterosexual desire and poetic inspiration has made collaborations between women writers alien to literary history.

Various female collaborations remain insufficiently examined: the "" of Sarah Orne Jewett and Annie Fields that proved a mainstay for the former's literary production; Willa Cather's forty-year partnership with Edith Lewis that provided the writer with the stability and freedom necessary to create; Elizabeth Bishop's founding of a literary magazine at Vassar with Mary McCarthy, whose best-selling novel The Group (1963) "showed that lesbianism could be an acceptable, even admirable subject," as well as Bishop's long relationships with Lota Costellat de Macedo Soares and Alice Methfessel; and, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar explore in " 'She Meant What I Said' : Lesbian Double Talk," the collaborative lesbian literary relationships like those between Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, H.D. and Bryher, and Stein and Toklas are striking markers of the endeavors of expatriate American and British women writers in the early twentieth century.

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