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American Literature: Lesbian, 1900-1969  
 
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Lesbian literature throughout the first two-thirds of the twentieth century has exploited the "outlaw" status of the lesbian. We can trace this phenomenon from early experiments with narrative (Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs), to modernist questionings of genre and technique (Djuna Barnes's Nightwood, Gertrude Stein's Lifting Belly, and H. D. [Hilda Doolittle]'s posthumously published Paint It Today), to the literatures of affirmation and political activism written and supported by lesbian publishers Barbara Grier, Judy Grahn, and the Daughters of Bilitis.

Thus, as Bonnie Zimmerman observes, lesbian critics and critics of lesbian texts often pose questions about identity and literary creativity: "How, for example, does the lesbian's sense of outlaw status affect her literary vision? Might lesbian writing, because of the lesbian's position on the boundaries, be characterized by a particular sense of freedom and flexibility or, rather, by images of violently imposed barriers, the closet? Or, in fact, is there a dialectic between freedom and imprisonment that is unique to lesbian writing?"

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The year 1900 marks the fin-de-siècle, as the turn from the nineteenth century to the twentieth witnessed the pathologizing of homosexuality by the medical profession, while 1969 heralds the Stonewall rebellion, widely received as the originary moment of the gay and lesbian liberation movements.

Though Stonewall is certainly a marker for lesbians, the formation of lesbian presses and periodicals that emerged during the period from the 1940s through the 1970s was as much a result of the women's liberation movement as of that monumental event of gay liberation. Stonewall, of course, bolstered a lesbian literary movement well underway and, by making gay and lesbian worlds more visible, provided a desperately needed antidote to the expressed by some of the women's movement's key leaders (such as Betty Friedan).

Defining "Lesbian" and "Lesbianism"

Concomitant with the repression of the lesbian within feminist struggles for liberation are debates over what and who count as lesbian and when a situation or character is lesbian. As Catharine Stimpson and other lesbian critics, theorists, and writers have reminded us, lesbian is still a term to which one attaches oneself at great risk. To be unambiguously visible as lesbian is to challenge the conventions of heterosexual patriarchy on which legal and social orders rest, and therefore position oneself to be received as threatening, menacing, disruptive to the foundations of culture and society.

Thus many lesbian writers have deftly encoded expressions of lesbian desire and portrayals of lesbian figures; constricted by literary traditions, they have turned to experimental forms as they attempted to create literature whose very subject matter is new and revolutionary simply because of the fact that lesbian love has been denied as a vital reality of the human heart.

Whatever form it assumes--poetry, prose fiction, political treatise, autobiography, biography, history, criticism, theory--lesbian literature, as Monique Wittig has argued and Marilyn Farwell reiterated, occupies a "space which is 'not-woman,' which is not dependent on the categorization of difference that resides in the dualisms of man and woman. . . . Lesbian is a word that denotes, then, a new positioning of female desire, of the lover and the beloved, of the subject and object."

This extends even to familiar roles like that of "butch" and "femme" in lesbian pulp fiction, too quickly dismissed by some as a failure of lesbian imagination. As Elizabeth Meese, drawing on the analyses of Judith Roof and Joan Nestle, observes, "Butch-femme relationships are complex erotic statements, not phony heterosexual replicas"; for example, refusing "analogy to the heterosexual gender roles of masculine and feminine," the butch lesbian creates "an original style to signal to other women what she [is] capable of doing-taking erotic responsibility."

Zami, Audre Lorde's biomythography, describes 1950s Greenwich Village lesbians passing around pulp paperbacks that proliferated during this period such as The Price of Salt (1952) by Claire Morgan [Patricia Highsmith] and Odd Girl Out (1957) and Women in the Shadows (1959) by Ann Bannon. Literature that promised entry into an outcast world of "twilight" love, these novels were, as Lillian Faderman remarks, "generally cautionary tales: 'moral' literature that warned females that lesbianism was sick or evil and that if a woman dared to love another woman she would end up lonely and suicidal."

Yet many lesbians avidly read these novels that "could be picked up at newsstands and corner drugstores, even in small towns" because they "helped spread the word about lesbian lifestyles" and offered public images of lesbian "romance and charged eroticism."

By the late 1960s, lesbian literature had been tremendously emboldened by the gay and women's liberation movements and, in contrast to these tales of the outcast, offered more and more stories of a proud and affirmative community bent on changing public discourse and conventional society's reception of lesbian life.

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Ann Bannon, Djuna Barnes, and Gertrude Stein.

  
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