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literature

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Wilhelm, Gale (1908-1991)  

In the 1930s, Gale Wilhelm contributed significantly to the lesbian literary heritage by publishing two novels in which lesbianism was presented unapologetically.

Wilhelm was born April 26, 1908, in Eugene, Oregon, the daughter of Ethel Gale Brewer and Wilson Price Wilhelm. She was educated in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, and--except for 1935 when she lived in New York City and worked as associate editor of Literary America--lived on the West Coast, primarily in the San Francisco Bay area.

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Wilhelm lived for ten years with Helen Hope Rudolph Page, a great-grandniece of Stephen A. Douglas, who was associated with Carl Sandburg's four-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln and had literary connections.

From 1948 on, for the last forty-three years of her life, Wilhelm had a happy relationship with a second lover, who has chosen to remain anonymous, with whom she lived in Berkeley. Wilhelm died on July 11, 1991, at age eighty-three, having lived most of her life in some comfort on an independent income.

In the ten years between 1935 and 1945, Wilhelm published a few poems, several short stories, and six brief novels; however, she spent the last forty-six years of her life without further literary production, perhaps because she was too content to write, as has been suggested, or because reviews of her work had become increasingly unappreciative.

Early reviews of Wilhelm's work celebrate her as a talented, promising writer, comparing her with Hemingway and Woolf, but later commentaries suggest that she has not realized the potential of her early novels. The lesbian subject matter of two of her novels elicited some negative responses, but there was also a good deal of positive reinforcement in the reception of this work.

We Too Are Drifting (1935) tells the story of woodcut artist Jan Morale's struggle to extricate herself from a destructive sexual attachment to bisexual Madeline and of her delicately conducted romance with the younger and more innocent Victoria. The tone is bittersweet, for in the end, Jan must watch as Victoria goes away with her family and the young man they have chosen for her.

The triangle is complicated by Kletkin, a sculptor whose feeling for Jan inspires an award-winning statue of Hermaphroditus before his tragic death. Wilhelm suggests a genetic etiology for homosexuality when she portrays Jan's disgraced, dead twin brother as effeminate.

Wilhelm's writing is characterized by what Jeannette Foster has called "meticulous restraint," a minimalist style of understated yet powerfully felt emotions, accentuated by the absence of quotation marks and the sparseness of other punctuation.

Wilhelm's second novelette, No Letters for the Dead (1936), again addresses unconventional, even sensational, subject matter in the tragic story of Paula, who becomes a prostitute to support herself while her lover is in prison, writing him cheerful letters to disguise her plight.

Torchlight to Valhalla (1938) returns to the subject of love between women in the coming-out story of Morgen, a twenty-one-year-old novelist who loses the artist father who has raised her, is unsuccessfully courted by a suitable young man, and finally finds herself in her love with seventeen-year-old Toni. This ending, by implying the possibility of happiness in lesbian relations, stands in clear contrast to the poignancy with which We Too Are Drifting concludes.

Wilhelm's final three books abandon the subject of lesbian sexuality. Bring Home the Bride (1940), Time Between (1943), and Never Let Me Go (1945), are mannered and precious. This last-named work disappointed those who expected her earlier efforts to result in a more considerable accomplishment. Her last novel was described, not unfairly, as shallow.

Despite a disappointing career, Wilhelm contributed significantly to the lesbian literary heritage in We Too Are Drifting and Torchlight to Valhalla by presenting lesbian relations unapologetically.

In these works, she makes no effort to explain or justify or plead a cause (as had done Radclyffe Hall so recently) but presents her characters enmeshed in very human, often confused relations, attached to each other through not always the most admirable of emotions or motivations. For this, Wilhelm has always been treasured by a small group of loyal readers.

Harriette Andreadis

     

    
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   Related Entries
  
literature >> Foster, Jeannette Howard

In Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956), author, poet, translator, and librarian Jeannette Howard Foster established the groundwork for research into lesbian literature.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

literature >> Hemingway, Ernest

Ernest Hemingway, himself sexually insecure, included negative, even abusive portrayals of gay men in his fiction.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


    Bibliography
   

Foster, Jeannette H. Sex Variant Women in Literature. 1956. Tallahassee: Naiad Press, 1985.

Warfel, Harry R. American Novelists of Today. New York: American Book Company, 1951.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Andreadis, Harriette  
    Entry Title: Wilhelm, Gale  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 28, 2004  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/wilhelm_g.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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