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Self-Censorship: The Twentieth Century

Gertrude Stein's frankest lesbian work is her first completed novel, Q.E.D. (1903), about a love triangle in which she was enmeshed with two other women medical students at Johns Hopkins. Stein "forgot" about the manuscript after completing it, but "rediscovered" it among her papers in 1932. Q.E.D. remained suppressed until after Stein's death, however; a slightly altered version appeared in 1950, and its full original text was not published until 1971.

The best-known example of self-withholding by a twentieth-century homosexual writer is probably E. M. Forster's 1914 Maurice, which, as he indicates in his "Terminal Note," Forster felt was unpublishable at the time because of the legal situation for homosexuals in England then; Maurice was finally published in 1971, a year after Forster's death.

When D. H. Lawrence published Women in Love in 1920, he omitted a "Prologue" he had written for the novel in 1916, in which Rupert Birkin's homosexuality is much more prominent than in the final version--for example, "It was for men that he felt the hot, flushing roused attraction which a man is supposed to feel for the other sex." The "Prologue" was finally printed, separately, in 1963.

The most famous sexual transposition in twentieth-century Western literature involves Albertine of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, who first appears in Part II of the novel, Within a Budding Grove (1918). Unlike in the simple pronoun-substitutions, Albertine is not just a camouflaged male, nor should her relationship with the narrator be seen as a homosexual one in disguise.

But Proust did tell André Gide in 1921 that the Albertine strand of the Remembrance is a transposition of his homosexual experience, and scholars have noted the many emotional and factual parallels between Marcel's pursuit of Albertine and Proust's relationship with his chauffeur/secretary, Alfred Agostinelli; echoes of Proust's affair with the composer Reynaldo Hahn have also been cited.

Among the papers Nigel Nicholson found carefully preserved after the death of his mother, Vita Sackville-West, is a frank autobiographical lesbian manuscript of 1920-1921, detailing her affair with Violet Trefusis and defending "the psychology of people like myself"; it appears as Parts I and III of Nicholson's 1973 Portrait of a Marriage.

While only hinting at his homosexuality in his best-selling fiction (such as the story "Adolescence" in Good-Bye Wisconsin [1928]), Glenway Wescott kept a frank homosexual journal from 1937 until the 1950s. Focusing extensively on Wescott's relationships with lovers and fellow homosexual artists, including Monroe Wheeler, George Platt Lynes, and Paul Cadmus, the manuscript was not published until 1990, under the title Continual Lessons.

Governmental, Institutional, and Commercial Censorship

Gaps especially exist in our knowledge of earlier government, institutional, and commercial censorship of homosexual writing. Frank homosexual works may have been among the materials consigned to Savonarola's "Bonfires of Vanities" in the 1490s and to other public burnings of offensive materials in the Renaissance.

We do know that in 1689 two British booksellers were convicted of obscenity for selling the Earl of Rochester's Sodom: or, The Quintessence of Debauchery (first published in Antwerp in 1684), where the is almost entirely male-male.

Additionally, John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or Fanny Hill, which has some frank homosexuality among its chiefly heterosexual adventures, was banned as obscene upon its publication in 1749.

However, from our present knowledge, signs of a concerted tradition of government, institutional, or commercial censorship of homosexual writing do not appear in the West until approximately the mid-nineteenth century, almost 400 years after the traditions of editorial censorship and self-censorship among homosexual writers first become evident.

The Nineteenth Century

An arguable symbol of this turn is the 1857 conviction of Charles Baudelaire and his publisher for an "outrage aux bonnes moeurs" with his Les fleurs du mal, resulting in a fine and the mandated removal of six poems from the book (a ban that was not officially lifted until 1949).

Baudelaire seems to have been heterosexual, and only a few homosexual poems (all concerning lesbianism) appear amid the book's mainly heterosexual materials. But homosexuality seems to have been a chief issue in the book's prosecution since the ban involved a much larger proportion of homosexual than heterosexual pieces--three of the six proscribed poems involve frank lesbianism ("Lesbos" and "Damned Women") or the suggestion of bisexuality or ("Jewels").

A related case of commercial censorship occurred in England in the next decade, of a book strongly influenced by Baudelaire, Algernon Charles Swinburne's 1866 Poems and Ballads. The publisher voluntarily withdrew Poems and Ballads from circulation a month after it appeared, in response to hostile reviewers and a campaign to indict it for obscenity led by a Christian Socialist spokesman; here the ire was directed almost entirely at the book's homosexual poems (again all involving lesbianism) and at those suggesting male bisexuality.

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