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American Writers on the Left  
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The topic of gay, lesbian, and bisexual "Writers on the Left" in mid-twentieth-century U.S. literature is potentially a large and rich field for inquiry although scholarship still remains in its infancy. Research is complicated by the combined effects of modern anti-communism and homophobia.

In Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Lillian Faderman documents how homosexuals became special targets of persecution along with leftists during the Cold War years. Thus, many writers learned to obscure both their sexual orientation and their political identity in memoirs, interviews, and autobiographical statements. This habit of mind continued even after the cultural climate of the country liberalized in the 1960s.

The expression "Writers on the Left" derives from Daniel Aaron's famous 1961 book by that name. The category traditionally refers to creative writers and literary critics drawn to Marxist-oriented parties and social movements between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the appearance of a New Left in the early 1960s.

For the most part, such writers were variously associated with Communism, although some important ones, such as the famous gay film critic Parker Tyler (1904-1974) and the bisexual poet John Brooks Wheelwright (1897-1940), were drawn to Trotskyism. The Communist party was officially closed to homosexuals, but many rank and file activists, prominent fellow travelers, and even some national party leaders, such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), had same-sex relationships.

Pressures to Hide Sexual Orientation

Few gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers of this generation chose to publicly state their sexual orientation; several even had long-term heterosexual marriages. A homosexual identity is rarely claimed in their creative or critical writing; on the contrary, a number of left-wing writers known to have same-sex relations depicted homosexuals negatively in their fiction and drama.

Thus, it is difficult to document sexual orientation and hard to find the appropriate terminology to describe writers, most of whom might have denied that they had same-sex relations or at least declined to accept the identifications used today.

Labels are also problematic because some gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers may suspect that their literary output will be classified and judged by sexual orientation alone. Such a concern parallels that of many left-wing writers who refuse to accept political designations such as "Communist" out of fear that they, too, will be simplistically labeled and dismissed.

Thus, although many writers were, in fact, pro-Communist and had same-sex relationships, few would accept characterization as "Gay Communist writers" or "Lesbian Communist writers."

The apprehension of gay, lesbian, and bisexual Marxist writers that information about their sexuality and politics may be used to discredit or oversimplify their lives and works is well-founded.

An example of a left-wing writer whose sexuality was employed for dramatically different purposes when her sexual orientation (which she tried to hide) and politics became a matter of public record is Josephine Herbst (1892-1969). Her most highly regarded work is a trilogy of novels based on the saga of the Trexler family, Pity Is not Enough (1933), The Executioner Waits (1934), and Rope of Gold (1939), although she published significant journalism, biography, and fiction from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Herbst had been omitted, like most radical women writers, from biographical consideration in all the pioneering studies of the Literary Left, but the posthumous discovery of a packet of letters that she wished to have destroyed caused her to become the subject of Elinor Langer's Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell (1984). This is a fascinating biography that, among other things, candidly describes Herbst's lesbian relationships with the radical muralist Marion Greenwood and other women.

Since no evidence of official Communist party membership for Herbst could be found, Langer chooses to depict Herbst as an independent-minded but loyal fellow traveler. Herbst's sexuality is discussed from the perspective of the concerns of contemporary feminists; it is marked by a frustration and lack of satisfaction due to the sexism of the Left as well as the dominant culture.

In contrast, a more recent study, Stephen Koch's Double Lives (1993), uses mostly the same sources to denounce Herbst as a political and sexual degenerate. She is depicted as a Soviet agent whose sexual hedonism leads to her being seduced into a lesbian affair that ruins her marriage. Neither book treats seriously Herbst's art, where one might possibly glean greater insight into her motives, character, and personality.

However, a recent work of Marxist-feminist theory, Paula Rabinowitz's Labor and Desire (1991), considers Rope of Gold in light of the affair with Greenwood, which the novelist fictionalizes as a heterosexual relationship between the heroine, Victoria Chance, and a rarely seen German revolutionary in exile, Kurt Becher. Rabinowitz suggests that, though social pressure may have caused Herbst to transform her lesbian lover into a man in this autobiographical novel, the treatment of the character Becher as nearly always offstage, "hidden from view," "repressed in the text," and "felt as a presence primarily in his absence," links him to Herbst's feelings about the repression of lesbianism in our culture.

The case of Herbst creates a dilemma for scholars. If one frankly describes the politics and sexual orientation of writers, there is the danger of abuse by anti-communists, , and others who tend to oversimplify. If one demurs, then the actual record of political commitment among writers with same-sex relations remains obscure and unwritten.

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Top: A portrait of leftist poet and novelist Claude McKay by Carl Van Vechten.
Above: A portrait of Harold Norse, the author of a book that describes 1930s gay leftist poets and scholars at Brooklyn College, by Stathis Orphanos.

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