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American Writers on the Left  
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Connecting Left-Wing Politics and Homosexuality

Fortunately, three recent books on gays and the Left have set a high standard for an open and intelligent discussion of the strong connections between left-wing politics and homosexuality. Eric A. Gordon's Mark the Music (1989) is a superbly researched study of the life and work of composer Mark Blitzstein (1905-1964) that is explicit about his period of Communist party membership and gayness.

Harold Norse's Memoirs of a Bastard Angel: A Fifty Year Literary and Erotic Odyssey (1989) contains information about gay left-wing poets and faculty at Brooklyn College in the late 1930s although the identities of several individuals are masked by the use of pseudonyms.

Stuart Timmons's The Trouble with Harry Hay (1990) explains how Hay's twelve years in the Communist party, to which he was recruited by the gay and Communist actor Will Geer, led to his founding in 1950 of the Mattachine Society, regarded by many as the most significant forerunner of the contemporary gay movement.

The biographical scholarship about the radical politics of other gay, lesbian, or bisexual writers is uneven, usually relying on the writer's own testimony. For example, novelist Paul Bowles (1910-1999) wrote in Without Stopping (1972) that he and fiction writer Jane Bowles (1917-1973) held membership in the Communist party in the late 1930s.

African-American poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) acknowledged that she was a member of the Communist youth group, the Labor Youth League, in the 1950s. African-American poet Countee Cullen (1903-1946) held Communist party membership briefly in the early 1930s. Recent research by Professor Alan Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania indicates that the poet and pioneer filmmaker Willard Maas (1911-1971) held membership in the Communist party and had many same-sex relations although he was also married twice.

Other writers who had same-sex relations were close to the Communist movement but never acknowledged Party membership. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was certainly pro-Communist and possibly a member of Communist organizations. Most famous for A Raisin in the Sun (1959), her last play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (1964), features among the Greenwich Village characters a homosexual who is depicted as narcissistic.

Ella Winter (1898-1980), a famous fellow traveler in cultural circles, had love affairs with women. She was married to radical muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens and then left-wing Hollywood humorist Donald Ogden Stewart. She wrote favorably about the personal life of citizens under Communism in books such as Red Virtue: Human Relationships in the Soviet Union (1933). Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), a poet, novelist, translator, and biographer, was active on the Left throughout her life.

The poet and translator Robert Friend (b. 1913) emigrated to Israel in 1951 when the House Un-American Activities Committee threatened to revoke his passport. Like Harold Norse (b. 1916), Friend attended Brooklyn College where he was associated with the Left, and, also like Norse, eventually addressed his sexual orientation in his later writings.

Another gay poet with a background in the Brooklyn College Left is Chester Kallman (1921-1975), who was the companion of W. H. Auden for thirty-four years; in fact, he and Auden met at an April 6, 1939, gathering of the Communist-led League of American Writers.

William Rollins, Jr. (1898-1950) was an important left-wing novelist in the 1930s whose homosexuality was known to his friends even though he never acknowledged his sexual orientation. Rollins came from a comfortable Boston family and, after joining the American Ambulance Service in World War I, was part of the expatriate circle around Ernest Hemingway and Harold Loeb.

According to the memoir An Ethnic At Large (1978), by his friend and fellow novelist Jerre Mangione, Rollins was a devoted Marxist "convinced that only through socialism could democracy be achieved for all Americans, and that only the Communists had the leadership to bring about the necessary changes." On the other hand, Rollins "could not relinquish his individuality to submit to the discipline of the Communist Party any more than he could resist exercising his sense of humor."

Rollins contributed to the Communist-sponsored cultural journal New Masses, and his 1934 novel, The Shadow Before, was highly regarded by left-wing writers and critics. Although the story concerns a Massachusetts textile strike, many of the events are borrowed from the famous 1929 strike in Gastonia, North Carolina, and Rollins is frequently discussed in scholarship about the six "Gastonia Novels."

The work was praised at length by John Dos Passos in the April 4, 1934, issue of The New Republic for its extraordinary characterization and use of language, and was often cited in Marxist literary discussions of the day for its experimental techniques. Sexual themes with Freudian overtones are omnipresent in the novel as well. Among the factory workers, there is a homosexual Swedish youth, Olsen, who is portrayed unsympathetically even though he is savagely beaten after he reveals his desire for Doucet, a heavy-drinking Frenchman.

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