Notes to Elly Bulkin: Jews, Blacks, and Lesbian Teens in the 1940s


[1] Alan M. Wald contends that “the Left of the antifascist crusade . . . had initially helped her to form a humanizing artistic vision” (Wald, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Anti-Fascist Crusade [Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007], 257).

I use the term “lesbian” as Del Martin and Phyllis Lyons defined it during the early days of the lesbian-feminist movement: “A lesbian is a woman whose primary erotic, psychological, emotional and social interest in a member of her own sex, even though that interest may not be overtly expressed” (Lesbian/Woman [New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972], 1).  While the term has many definitions, I think this one is consistent with its usage during the 1930s to 1950s, the period I cover in this article.

[2] In 1985, I spent several days in the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University looking through the Jo Sinclair Collection.  I spent most of my time there reading through the 1942 draft of The Changelings, which Sinclair called “The Long Moment.”  In 1987, The Women’s Review of Books asked me to submit a 2,000-word review of The Changelings, but I declined because I wanted to write a longer piece that, as I wrote at the time, “gives background which places her in literary/political/social/sexual context.”  In 1989, I briefly considered developing what is now Part One into an article about Sinclair for Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends.  I did not work on the article for 30 years, getting back to it only after Jonathan Katz contacted me about writing a biographical overview of Sinclair/Seid for OutHistory.

[3] Sinclair is clear about her lesbian identity and that of her group of Black and white friends in her letter to Barbara Smith, December 19, 1994. I am grateful to Barbara for having shared this letter with me in 2002.  For consistency, I use Ruth Seid’s pen name, Jo Sinclair, to refer to the author.

[4] In her memoir, Sinclair describes how “Ruth Seid became Jo Sinclair with her first published story, in early 1936” (Sinclair, The Seasons: Death and Transfiguration, A Memoir [Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1993], 2).  When she wanted to submit a story to Esquire magazine, which only published male writers, “with much care, over a few weeks, she had created Jo—chuckling at the thought that it could be used by men or  women. And Sinclair sounded much better with Jo than Seid. (Besides which, she admired writers like Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair.)” (The Seasons, 5).  She does not mention that she substituted for her own family name one that is clearly not Jewish.

[5] Jo Sinclair, Wasteland (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1946; reprinted Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1987).  All page citations in parentheses refer to the 1987 edition.  Wasteland spent several months on the best seller list (Elisabeth Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid [1913-1995],” in Contemporary Jewish-American NovelistsA Bio-Critical Sourcebook, eds. Joel Shatzky and Michael Taub [Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1997], 381).

[6] For a discussion of Anna Teller that addresses issues such as memory, gender, heteronormativity, and the “secular Jewishness and Communism of two generations on two continents,” see Alan M. Wald, American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War [Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012], 238-249).

[7] Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1983), 597-604, 627-628.

[8] The push for positive images makes sense for historically oppressed, denigrated, and marginalized people, but it can constrain writers and other artists.  The pioneering lesbian magazine, The Ladder (1956-1972), for example, featured positive images of lesbians in its fiction, as did Naiad Press, publisher of more than 500 works of lesbian fiction since 1973.  Speaking of contemporary Jewish lesbian fiction, Rebecca Alpert comments that these stories “do not describe our lives as they are but as we see them and as we want them to be (my emphasis) (Alpert, Like Bread on the Seder Plate: Jewish Lesbians and the Transformation of Tradition [New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1997], 152).  Jewish lesbian writer Sarah Schulman, who published her first novel in 1984, has talked about “escaping from the tyranny of positive images that had started to dominate grassroots feminist publishing at the time” (Schulman, “Introduction to New Edition: Here and Yet, Not There,” After Dolores [New York: E.P. Dutton, 1988; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013]), 7).  In my introduction to Lesbian Fiction: An Anthology, I wrote: “While some lesbian writers have spoken of a continuing pressure from periodical editors to write stories that present lesbians in a uniformly positive light, the stories in this volume seem to me to present us in ways that are fundamentally realistic, most often stubbornly refusing to ignore the complexities of our lives, and occasionally describing us in our less admirable moments” (Bulkin, ed., Lesbian Fiction: An Anthology [Watertown, MA: Persephone Press, 1981), xxxii).

[9] “Fiction Best Sellers,” April 14, 1946.

[10] Jo Sinclair, The Changelings (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1955; reprinted Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1985). All page citations in parentheses refer to the 1985 edition.  Alan M. Wald notes that “the book gives the time as 1945, but sometimes suggests several years after the end of the war” (Wald, Trinity of Passion, 253).

[11] Nellie McKay, “Afterword” in Sinclair, The Changelings, 323-337; Johnnetta B. Cole and Elizabeth H. Oakes, “On Racism and Ethnocentrism,” in Sinclair, The Changelings, 339-347.

[12] The quote about “this Nazi thing” is from Michael R. Beschloss, The ConquerorsRooseveltTruman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 273.  The reference to Jews as “lower than animals” is from Eric Lichtblau, “Surviving the Nazis, Only to Be Jailed by America,” The New York Times (February 7, 2015), SR3.

[13] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976), 91-109.

[14] Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 598.

[15] Cherríe Moraga and Barbara Smith, "Lesbian Literature: A Third World Feminist Perspective," Radical Teacher 24 (1980), 95. Smith says: “The hardest to find book which dealt with racial issues was actually by a white woman writer: The Changelings, by Jo Sinclair, written in the 1950s. We had only three copies of the book to pass among thirty people. Because of that process we ended up talking about the book last as opposed to where it actually appeared on the syllabus. And that was a really great book to end on since my class was almost entirely white.” 

[16] Moraga and Smith, "Lesbian Literature: A Third World Feminist Perspective," 95.

[17] Letter from Sinclair to Barbara Smith, December 8, 1994.  Sinclair sent this short, handwritten letter, explaining that she would give her “friend” a handwritten draft of a longer letter for her to type (the December 19 letter). 

[18] Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994. 

[19] See, for example, Eric J. Sundquist, Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009); Alan M. Wald, Trinity of Passion: The Literary Left and the Anti-Fascist Crusade, 250-259; Tyler T. Schmidt, Desegregating Desire: Race and Sexuality in Cold War American Literature (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2013), 194-203, 210-220; and Cole and Oakes, “On Racism and Ethnocentrism,” in Sinclair, The Changelings, 341.

[20] Sinclair started working on the final draft in 1953. Sandberg describes the 1954 draft as “essentially . . . identical to the last rewrite” (Elisabeth Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography” [doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, 1985], 102.)

[21] Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 144 fn1.

[22] I have not been back to the Jo Sinclair Collection and have, therefore, not read other documents, including those opened to the public after her death in 1995. 

[23] In the 1942 draft, Vincent’s first name is the gender-ambiguous “Frances,” not the definitively female “Judith” of The Changelings.  Sandberg, Schmidt, and Wald, who base their discussions of The Changelings in part on Sinclair’s papers in the Mugar Library, do not address the question of why Sinclair chose the name “Vincent” for her protagonist.  I can only speculate.  I see two (not mutually exclusive) possibilities.  Sinclair writes in The Seasons that she put art by Vincent Van Gogh on her walls as soon as she could afford it (41) and, as an avid gardener, especially loved ornamental sunflowers.  She quotes Helen Buchman, with whom she lived for many years, as saying about them, “They’re Van Gogh flowers. And you’ve been crazy about your Vincent for years” (33).  Elsewhere in her memoir, a depressed Sinclair, having just had a play rejected, writes about her personal affinity for the Dutch painter, “So I went out and planted more Van Goghs, to touch a season of hope again, to touch poor mad Vincent with my kind of love for his genius, loneliness, and unhappiness—and his insistence on working (Don’t think of his suicide.)”(256).  It also seems possible that Sinclair chose the name of her protagonist in part because of poet, socialist, and tomboy Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was called “Vincent” by family and close friends.  Millay wrote openly bisexual poetry as early as 1917.  She was arrested at the Boston “death watch” demonstration opposing the 1927 execution of Italian American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti.  As she wrote afterwards, "Some of us have been thinking and talking too long without doing anything. Poems are perfect; picketing, sometimes, is better."  (“Edna St. V. Millay, Found Dead at 58,” The New York Times [October 20, 1950]). Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 145.  Schmidt, Desegregating Desire; Wald, Trinity of Passion

[24]  Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 145 fn7. 

[25] The poem is John Whitcomb Riley’s “The Prayer Perfect.”  Sinclair writes: “Why a strange sort of sentimental-poem-prayer out of a book? Not sure. The Jewish God and prayers (Orthodox) belonged to my father, to men and sons, and neither Pa nor the Hebrew made strength for me—or warmth.  Only the music did—the chanting and singing I love to this day. So I guess I had to find me my own prayer-meaning; and in a library book, of course—they were so holy to that kid. Has nothing to do with being Jewish or not. I’ve always been glad to be a Jew. That’s one ghetto I didn't have to smash” (The Seasons, 116-117).

[26] Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 146 fn11.

[27] Sandberg notes that Debbie in Wasteland is reading a book that has “the same plot” as The Changelings, with Jews and Italians leaving their neighborhood as Black people start moving to it (Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 72).  As Sinclair writes about Debbie, “‘Any idea what we were trying to escape from,’ she asked [Jake] softly. ‘Was it really the Negroes? Or was it fear; and of course we pinned the word Negro to the fear, didn’t we? Did we really think the Negro would contaminate us, or was it some old, secret nightmare we could name nigger now? And run from? It’s easier to run away from something with a name, isn’t it? . . . . That’s what the novel is about . . . I’d like to have written it.” (Wasteland, 207.) 

[28] Jo Sinclair statement, Box 35, Folder 9, Sinclair Collection, as quoted in Schmidt, Desegregating Desire, 198. 

[29] Letter from Sinclair to Sandberg, June 11, 1984; as quoted in Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 145 fn7.  Sinclair writes in this letter that Clara was not modeled on Virginia Houston, her close Black friend, who was, like Clara, a Catholic.  Elsewhere, Sinclair mentions that her “closest friend,” also a Black lesbian, “had been born a Catholic, now admired Jesuit priests for their minds” (Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994).

[30] Vincent says about her nickname, “It means the black alley cat. You know, one of those tough cats in the street? It’s a compliment. . . . but not just any cat. One of those tough-guy cats who’s the best fighter, the best climber” (131).

[31] In the 1942 draft, Vincent is the character who imagines girls armed against male violence: “a thousand girls marching, very straight and not smiling, carrying guns in their hands. She saw them shooting, their faces very strong and hard and never smiling. They looked like her, blond short hair shining in the sunlight and their eyes blue” (7).

[32] In his discussion of Wasteland, Katz writes, “The ideology expressed was integrationist—the stress was placed on the individual’s and minority group’s need for affirmation within the context of a universal humanity. . . . Affirmation of self or of the ‘minority’ was linked, not with individual or group uniqueness, but with the realization that those called ‘abnormal,’ ‘sick,’ ‘crippled,’ or ‘queer’ were fully as valuable, as much a part of a common humanity, as any others.  This integrationist ideal was accepted at the time by most progressive and radical thinkers as holding the most promise for a humane society.  Not until the mid-1960s would militant Black leaders fundamentally question the goal of ‘integration,’ and stress the positive value of a minority’s affirming its own unique culture, its difference from and opposition to the dominant, oppressive society” (Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 598).

[33] Schmidt, Desegregating Desire, 216.

[34] Schmidt, Desegregating Desire, 216. Toni Morrison makes this point in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 56. 

[35] Wald sees Jules as a leftist writer and says that the novel “recalls traditional left-wing literature not only in its argument for the need to put together an interracial alliance but also in the revolutionary role envisioned for political art.”  Jules’ “red notebook” enables him to pass on ”his legacy of literary radicalism . . . to a new generation of changelings who can carry forward the radical tradition” (Trinity of Passion, 254-255).  Schmidt comments that, “through Vincent’s assessment that ‘this girl had just made the poems real. She had put people’s faces in them, and crying and cursing’ (130), Sinclair offers a critique of social protest or other literary forms that espouse high-minded political ideals divorced from the real violence and tangible emotions of people disenfranchised by those injustices” (Desegregated Desire, 200). 

[36] Sinclair has Clara describe her great-grandfather’s conversion to Catholicism and view of his master in ways I found rather cringe-worthy.  Clara tells Vincent, “See, he was a slave but he was crazy about his master.  His master was a Catholic so my great-grandfather decided he’d be one, too. . . . See, not every master freed his slaves. This guy who owned my great-grandfather, he was a wonderful man. A real Catholic, my father says. He freed all his slaves. Even gave them money and helped them come up North. My grandfather was named after him” (245).  Since Vincent describes Clara in this scene as having just stepped out of “the pages of history books,” it’s unsettling to consider that her first lesson about the institution of enslavement focuses on a “master” who was reportedly “a wonderful man.”

[37] Vincent imagines “a hundred white faces in the main hall, all turning, all staring at her as she met Clara, all watching as she pushed the button that squirted the water while Clara leaned to drink. She felt a little scared” (249).

[38] Schmidt maintains that trauma in The Changelings is “necessary for social change” (Desegregating Desire, 193).  He views Sinclair as focusing on “the psychological intricacies of racial prejudice” and stressing “not only the physical danger of crossing racial boundaries but the recurrent emotional trauma of pushing against social protocols” (Desegregating Desire, 199).

[39] On Barney, see Shari Benstock, Women of the Left Bank: Paris 1900-1940 (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986).  On Stein, see Janet Malcolm, “Gertrude Stein’s War: The Years in Occupied France,” The New Yorker; June 2, 2003, and Allen Ellenzweig, “Auntie Semitism at the Met,” Tablet, May 8, 2012.

[40] Sinclair interweaves Jewish identity, anti-Semitism, and class in both the 1942 draft and published novel, and her handling of them remains fairly consistent as she moved from that draft to publication in 1955.  Sandberg discusses some differences between the 1940 and 1942 drafts in “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 102-121.

[41] For a discussion of the Communist Party (USA) and Black people/racism in the 1930s and 1940s, see, for example, Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists during the Great Depression (Chapel, Hill, NC, University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Erik S. McDuffie, Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011); Mark Naison, Communists in Harlem during the Depression (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1983); and Wald, Trinity of Passion, 46-73, 108-145.  For accounts of their disaffection from Communism by two Black novelists, see Chester Himes’ Lonely Crusade (1947) and Richard Wright’s The Outsider (1953).  Himes was a co-worker and friend of Sinclair’s while they worked on the WPA in Cleveland, and Wright was very supportive of Sinclair’s 1946 Wasteland.

Sinclair’s first paid story, published in Esquire, was “Children at Play” (1938), which she describes as being about “little kids being bombed in the Spanish Civil War” (The Seasons, 5).  One of the four main characters in her unpublished novel “They Gave Us a Job” (1940) is a Jewish Spanish Civil War veteran (Wald, Trinity of Passion, 252).

[42] Although the Communist Party in the 1930’s was silent regarding homosexuality, it generally took direction from the Soviet Union.  As John D’Emilio writes, “By the 1930s Stalin had reversed the policy of tolerance toward homosexuality that had characterized Soviet Communism during its early years in power, and he was persecuting homosexuals with a vengeance” (Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 [Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1983, 1998], 59).  The Communist Party changed its constitution in 1938 to forbid membership by lesbians and gay men (Bettina Aptheker, “Queer Commie Radicals,” Wellesley Centers for Women Online [2014].)  Ward notes that the Communist Party made exceptions to its recruitment guidelines, which prohibited homosexuals, “especially if the individuals could ‘pass’ as heterosexuals or did not draw attention to themselves (for example, by being arrested) or if they were famous and of unquestionable political zeal . . .” (American Night, 119).  Sinclair, with her short hair and “mannish look,” could not “pass.” The reference to “mannish looks” is from Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid (1913-1995),” 381. 

[43] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 257. Wald notes that “the Left . . . did not defend homosexuals and anti-McCarthy forces were implicated in homophobic smear tactics” (American Night, 350 fn46).  Bettina Aptheker is currently doing research on the topic of "Queering the History of the American Left: 1940s-1980s.”  See Aptheker, “Keeping the Communist Party Straight: 1940s to 1980s,” New Politics Vol. XII, No. 45 (Summer 2008), 22-27.

[44] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 253.  Wald, who interviewed Sinclair’s friend Dan Levin, writes that “Levin met periodically with Sinclair, who talked earnestly of her uncertainty about her sexual orientation” (Trinity of Passion, 242).

[45] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 253.  Sinclair “lived in an upstairs suite, separate from the family” (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid [1913-1995],” 377).

[46] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 250.  Sinclair also published in The Fight against War and Fascism (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 18).  The Fight was a magazine of “the American League Against War and Fascism, an organization formed in 1933 by the Communist Party USA and pacifists united by their concern as Nazism and Fascism rose in Europe.  In 1937, the name of the group was changed to the American League for Peace and Democracy” (“Fight!—Listing of Issues”).

[47] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 251.

[48] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 251.

[49] The Seasons, 48.  This is the only time Sinclair uses the word “Communism” in her memoir.  (The complete quote is, Helen “loathed communism and fascism almost fanatically, and even the idea of Zionism: to her, a kind of ghettoization.”)  Wald considers Sinclair’s Anna Teller, which contains “so many precise details about the Communist experience in the United States,” as “a substitute for what she could never tell in her autobiography” (American Night, 245) and as a “novel reassessing her experiences with Communism” (Trinity of Passion, 239). 

[50] Sinclair, The Seasons, 112.

[51] Sinclair, The Seasons, 234.  Sinclair met Virginia Houston in the early 1930s (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 212).

[52] Sinclair, The Seasons, 66, 68.  Sinclair writes that she also has her friend Grace check her drafts “from ‘a sociology-universal viewpoint’” (The Seasons, 68).  Sinclair writes about Virginia, “She thinks the theme of ‘The Changelings’ will be ‘forever’—Negroes moving into an area, and the whites running. ‘And even if your book’s the great American novel, baby, it won’t change that black-white garbage.’ But then she patted my cheek. ‘All right, honey, write your book. Just don't phony it up. Hear?’” (The Seasons, 114).

[53] Sinclair, Wasteland, 146.

[54] Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994. 

[55] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 249, 252.  Seid recalls her friendship with Himes during their time at the WPA in Michel Fabre and Edward Margolies, The Several Lives of Chester Himes (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1997), 43.

[56] Fabre and Margolies, The Several Lives of Chester Himes , 43; Richard Wright, “Wasteland Uses Psychoanalysis Deftly,” PM Magazine (February 17, 1946), 8.  In The Seasons, Sinclair quotes both the Wright review, which describes Wasteland as “a monumental psychological study in family relations” (139), and a letter to her from Wright, which praises her “honesty, suffering, knowledge,” and says, “You have said about the Jewish family what I’ve been trying to say about Negro families. And you said it well, poetically” (140).  

[57] Sinclair, “Noon Lynching,” New Masses (September 22, 1936), 16-17. The publication of “Noon Lynching” helped Sinclair get her WPA job working on the Cleveland Foreign Language Newspaper Digest (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid [1913-1995],” 376).  Sinclair also wrote an unpublished 1937 story about a Jewish woman being lynched by a KKK-like fascist mob, which was reminiscent of the 1915 lynching in Georgia of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank (Schmidt, Desegregating Desire, 186-187).

[58] Schmidt, Desegregating Desire, 184-185.  “Future Outlook League,” Ohio History Central. The Future Outlook League initially sued (but then did not pursue) the periodical Ken for libel after Sinclair’s piece appeared (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 24-25).  The article was about “a Negro strong-arm organization designed to force the employment of colored help upon the white owners of stores patronized by blacks” (Sandberg, 24 [Box 31, Mugar Collection]).  Sandberg describes this article as being “the only time that Jo Sinclair is critical of a black organization in her writing” (24).

[59] Schmidt, Desegregated Desire, 185; Sinclair, The Seasons, 67, 279.  In the early 1950s, Langston Hughes described Karamu as “the ‘nearest thing’ there was to a black theater in the United States” (Brian Dolinar, The Black Cultural Front: Black Writers and Artists of the Depression Generation [Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi], 2012), 86). 

[60] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 252.  

[61] Dolinar, The Black Cultural Front, 134.  Jo Sinclair, “I, Too, Sing America,” Common Ground (Autumn, 1942), 99-107.  Sinclair, The Seasons, 67.  Two white sociologists, Rowena and Roger Jelliffe, founded Karamu House (originally the Neighborhood Association Settlement House) in 1915.  Karamu produced more than 20 plays by Black playwrights during the 1930s (Henry D. Miller, Theorizing Black Theatre: Art Versus Protest in Critical Writings, 1898-1965 [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010], 112). Dolinar writes that “Karamu was able to succeed where other black little theaters failed because this white couple could attract money from the business elite in Cleveland.  While Rowena handled the artistic side of Karamu, directing most all of the plays there, Roger Jelliffe took care of the finances” (Dolinar, The Black Cultural Front, 87). While they were enthusiastic supporters of FDR and the New Deal, they were “members of the Cleveland Committee for the Joint Defense of the Scottsboro Boys and had friends who were in the local chapter of the Communist Party” (Dolinar, The Black Cultural Front, 87).

[62] Schmidt, 186. Jo Sinclair, “Songs My Mother Taught Me (A Sermon),” The Crisis (May 1942), 158-159, 174.

[63] Sinclair, The Seasons, 215.

[64] Sinclair, The Seasons, 110.

[65] A play by Sinclair, The Long Moment (the same title as the 1942 and 1946 drafts of The Changelings) premiered in 1950 at the Cleveland Play House after being turned down by Karamu (The Seasons, 69).  For a summary of the play, see Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 91-95.  The Cleveland Press, a daily paper, described it as “highly controversial,” as well as “sold out” (The Seasons, 71). According to the local Black weekly, The Call and Post, “This is the first play to be produced at the Play House using Negroes in major roles” (The Seasons, 71).  As Sinclair writes, “I was really happy about the editorial in the Negro weekly: ‘With the opening of this play, a new chapter will be written in race relations in Cleveland . . . . Bringing together a cast of interracial proportions signals an approach bordering on the theme of ‘practicing what we preach’ . . .“ (The Seasons, 72).  The Call and Post also notes its “turn from use of dialect and casting of stereotyped impressions of Negroes . . . “ (The Seasons, 72).  The play never got produced, as Sinclair had hoped, in New York City, perhaps as a result of a review by Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times drama critic, which describes it as “rough and strained apprentice-work, . . . [that] seldom achieves the flow and unity of a work of art,” though he does acknowledge that the playwright “had stuck a pin into a sensitive area of American life . . .” (The Seasons, 72).

[66] Sinclair wrote in 1984 that, when she reread this first draft in the early 1950s, she “knew a great deal more than the idealistic, naïve Jo of 1931. About me, Negroes and Jews, writing and life of course” (Letter from Sinclair to Sandberg [June 11, 1984], as quoted in Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 103-104).  In their afterword to The Feminist Press edition of The Changelings, “On Racism and Ethnocentrism,” Cole and Oakes raise an important critique of the novel when they “ask why, though many individual characters are presented complexly, all the black characters, including Clara, are not? Why are the black characters, with the possible perfunctory presentation of Clara, almost invisible?” (346)  As they respond to their own question, “We can only assume . . . that Sinclair intended the black characters to be invisible as part of her presentation of the psyche of racism. As she demonstrates through the novel, racist perceptions are based on the ignorance of their object. Racist perceptions include, paradoxically, ‘seeing’ black people as invisible” (346-347).

[67] All page numbers are from the 1942 draft, “The Long Moment,” which is housed in the Jo Sinclair Collection at the Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University.

[68] Letter from Sinclair to Sandberg (June 11, 1984), as quoted in Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 145 fn7.

[69] It’s quite possible that Clara’s father was among those angrily turned away while apartment-hunting on Vincent’s street.  After one such encounter with a Black man seeking housing, “Mrs. Golden came in slamming the screen door hard.  ‘You know what he had the nerve to tell me?’ she said indignantly. ‘That he works in the main post office—inside job!’” (86).  Since Clara tells Vincent about her father talking about “What a big shot he is in the post office,” it’s likely that he has an inside job (130).

[70] Letter from Sinclair to Barbara Smith, December 19, 1994.  Sinclair was probably especially aware of the intersection of race, class, and Black professional families, because, as she wrote about her closest social circle in this letter, “That group of Black women, and the few white Lesbians with them, were all college-educated. I was a graduate of a commercial high school, trained to be a typist, file clerk, bookkeeper. My friends had been trained to be social workers (three), a librarian, teachers (two), a pharmacist, and an optometrist. My closest friend was a policewoman, who’d majored in social work and taken a job with the Negro Blind in Cleveland; but eventually, and realistically, she had chosen the cop job for money enough to care for [her] widowed mother and self in a big house with old, lovely family furnishings. Mother was a marvelous cook, had been a teacher in her youth” (Letter from Sinclair to Barbara Smith, December 19, 1994).  She also wrote in her memoir about her long-time friend Virginia Houston, “I wanted her to write a book about her family. One grandfather a slave, one grandmother Indian and French, plenty of white blood in the family; mounting to class: her mother a teacher before she married a lawyer and politician in Detroit; her sister, Suzanne, a teacher, still in Detroit” (The Seasons, 109, my emphasis).

[71] Negro Yearbook: An Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro (Tuskegee Institute, AL: Negro Yearbook Publishing Company, 1913), 291.  The Negro Leader (Uniontown, Alabama) was established in 1909.

[72] Mark Cole, “‘I, Too, Am America’: Karamu House and African-American Artists in Cleveland,” in Transformations in Cleveland Art, 1796-1946: Community and Diversity in Early Modern America, eds. William H. Robinson and David Steinberg (Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1996), 151.

[73] Alain Locke, “Enter the New Negro,” Survey Graphic, March 1925. 

[74] We might also consider Sinclair’s 1942 draft within the context of the novels (1930-1935) published by white leftist women about interracial relationships and organizing after the 1929 Communist-led Gastonia, North Carolina textile mill strikes (Suzanne Sowinska, “Writing Across the Color Line: White Women Writers and the ‘Negro Question’ in the Gastonia Novels,” in Radical Revisions: Rereading 1930s Culture, eds. Bill Mullen and Sherry Lee Linkon [Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996], 120-143).  As Sowinska says, these novels, written after the Communist Party’s dictum to address the “Negro Question,” were “literary responses to white racism in the 1930s” (123) and “some of the first examples of cross-class/cross-race alliances in American literature” (139); for these and other left-wing political people, “novel writing constituted a form of activism” (139).

[75] In the context of her “group of Black women, and the few white Lesbians with them,” Sinclair writes, “I sat in on some of those [church] services, learned a lot more about fascinating and ‘different’ phases of life I’d known nothing about.  The cop [her “closest friend”] had been born a Catholic, now admired Jesuit priests for their minds. I’d been born a Jew, no longer accompanied my parents to synagogue but was still a very engaged believer, who wrote ragingly about anti-Semitism, past and present, and the continuing war between Blacks and whites in America. The two had always seemed to go together to this writer and Jew.  Good bridges to many, many other injustices in my world” (Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994).

[76] Sinclair, The Seasons, 116-117.

[77] In The Changelings, Sinclair writes, “As Vincent stood between her father and the Grandmother, battered by their conflict, she sensed the long moment between generations, the hurt of it, the way it could go on, endlessly, like a clock stopped by a senseless, groping hand” (181).

[78] “Most of us believe that The Price of Salt is the first lesbian novel with a happy ending . . . The first unadulterated happy ending actually belongs to a novel published more than a decade earlier: Torchlight to Valhalla by Gale Wilhelm (Random House, 1938; reissued by Naiad Press, 1985)” (Katherine V. Forrest, “Introduction,” Lesbian Pulp Fiction: The Sexually Intrepid World of Lesbian Paperback Novels 1950-1965, ed. Forrest [Berkeley, CA: Cleis Press, 2005], xv).  Jane Rule describes Torchlight to Valhalla as standing “virtually alone in its unambiguous [positive] resolution” of the two women’s relationship (Rule, Lesbian Images [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975] 186).

[79] Unsigned review of Gale Wilhelm’s Torchlight to ValhallaKirkus Review, August 9, 1938.

[80] All quotations in this paragraph are from Sinclair’s letter to Barbara Smith, December 19, 1994. 

[81] Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994. 

[82] Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994. 

[83] Wald discusses Sinclair’s “selective” omissions about her early left-wing politics in American Night, 247.  Consistent with Wald’s point, Sinclair does not elaborate at all in her 1994 letter to Barbara Smith when she mentions “politics” (just a single unexplained word) as one of the “new and wondrous things” she’d learned about from her first group of friends, although she provides concrete examples of the poetry, songs, and Black theater that she’d learned about. 

[84] According to Sandberg, who had access for her 1985 dissertation to the unpublished manuscript of The Seasons, Sinclair began writing her memoir in 1969 and had a “final typescript” in 1972 (“Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 215-216). 

[85] The quote about downplaying sexuality is from Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid (1913-1995),” 377.  Sandberg is considerably less circumspect in this posthumous article than she had been in her 1985 dissertation.  The reference to “a hospitalized Helen” is from Sinclair, The Seasons, 134.

[86] Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 67. The word “lesbian” appears in the psychiatrist’s notes in Wasteland, 41.

[87] Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid (1913-1995),” 379.

[88] Sandberg suggests that, having had an important lesbian character in Wasteland, she had “resolved the need to pursue stereotyping and sexual preference [sic] in the later versions of The Changelings” (“Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 136-137). 

[89] As Monica Bachmann has discussed, Sinclair also received numerous private responses after Wasteland’s publication—fan letters from women and men, and she responded to some of them.  (Bachmann, “‘Someone like Debby’: (De)Constructing a Lesbian Community of Readers,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3 [November 3, 2000], 377-388). 

Bachmann’s research was possible because of the lifting, after Sinclair’s death, of access restrictions on 43 boxes of her papers at the Mugar Memorial Library (380).  Five months after the book first appeared, Sinclair received a letter from a high school classmate asking “if you are not Ruth Seid” (379).  One woman welcomed Sinclair’s depiction of Debby at a time when people “get a horrified expression” at hearing the word “lesbian” (383) (although most fans used not that word, but vague phrases like “Debby’s problematic identity” [383]).  Another woman asked Sinclair to settle the debate among her friends: was Debby “LESBIAN in the full sense . . . [or] only that she is of mannish characteristics?” (384)  One man hoped that Wasteland “will be a helpful and guiding influence for the empty, groping, tormented people . . . who have been unable to adjust themselves to life” (385).  As one woman wrote, “After finishing Wasteland and seeing a picture of you, I feel that you will understand” (381). 

In addition, Sinclair heard from a teenager, Joan Mandell, who wrote about how “distressing” life was, “particularly when you’re trying to grow into something which you consider decent and dignified and honest, yet is generally looked down upon and made dirty by the world at large”; the correspondence between them refers to “numerous telephone calls between them” (382).  Sinclair moved in with Joan (Mandell) Sofer in 1973, a decade after Helen Buchman’s death, and they lived together in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania until Sinclair’s death in 1995 (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid [1913-1995],” 378).  The dedication of The Seasons reads: “For Joan Sofer/Who took me through revisions of the book—and of life.”

[90] W. McNeil Lowry, “Of Being and Belonging,” Review of WastelandThe New York Times (February 17, 1945), 5.  Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 164, 597.  An excerpt from the review is in Book Review Digest, 1946.

[91] The “never in bad taste” quote is from Richard Plant’s review in the New Republic, and the quote about Wasteland’‘s “implications” is from the unsigned New Yorker review.  Book Review Digest, 1946. 

[92] Sinclair’s lesbian stories and sketches, which were “mostly written,” according to Sandberg, “in the late thirties” (“Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 48), communicate unrelieved misery.  Addressed to “Women of the world,” Sinclair’s “Letters Written On The Walls Of A Public Rest Room,” for example, is a plea for understanding, rather than hate: expressing a desire “terribly to be dead” and praying, “God, please make me a boy” (“a boy is strong and wonderful and beautiful”), while the speaker, lamenting “this mass of flesh that ties me to hell,” can only feel “a little beautiful inside” and hopes to be “reborn” as “a person who will be happy.”  Several stories feature a white lesbian named Ronnie who lives in a Black neighborhood and is, in some of them, paired with women with traditionally female names.  In “Three,” Ronnie tries unsuccessfully to get Mary not to leave her for a man: wondering “What will you do when your soul gets to starving and weeping?”; though there is no indication of Mary’s race, the repeated references to Ronnie’s “white hands” raise the possibility that Mary is Black.  “Two Women,” in which Ronnie is friends with her pregnant, light-skinned Black neighbor Ella, touches on Ronnie’s feelings about never being a mother, and on Ella’s anger at the white man who got her pregnant (“Why should I suffer for a man?”); while Ella and Ronnie are at the hospital, where the baby is born dead, Ella’s skin color, which she shares with the baby, and “none of the racial characteristics,” keep the nurses from moving her to “a black room.” (I am grateful to Barbara Smith for sending me copies of these stories from the Mugar Memorial Library in 1997.)  “Psychopathic Case,” another of Sinclair’s “Ronnie” stories, features Ronnie at the age of 10 praying, “Dear lord, kind Lord, gracious Lord, make me happy by making me as a man” (“Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 38-39); the first few words of Ronnie’s prayer are the same as those in “The Prayer Perfect” by John Whitcomb Riley that Vincent uses in The Changelings and that Sinclair cites multiple times in The Seasons (68, 117, 119, 128, 142, 147, 208, 219, 236, 243). 

Sandberg notes in her discussion of Sinclair’s “adolescent and (homo)erotic pieces” that “Sinclair had read Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, and his condemnation of homosexuality as abnormal seems to have inspired the tormented tone of these early stories more than the non-judgmental observations of Havelock Ellis” (“Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 42).  Near the end of her life, Sinclair writes about having “read some” of Ellis and Freud, but comments that she “shook her head,” apparently rejecting their views of homosexuality, and proposing to write a novel that would not reflect the “torment and pain” of The Well of Loneliness (letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994).

[93] Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994. 

[94] The reference to Sinclair’s ”mannish looks” is from Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid (1913-1995),” 381.  The quote that begins with the words “hurt and self-disgust” is from Sinclair, The Seasons, 87.  The reference to “old close ones” is from Sinclair’s letter to Smith, December 19, 1994. 

[95] “Sinclair, Jo,” in Anna Rothe (ed.), Current Biography: Who’s News and Why, 1947 (New York, NY: H.W. Wilson. Co., 1947), 559. 

[96] Susan E. Cayleff, Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996); Carolyn Gage, “Me, Babe, and Prying Open the Lesbian Closets of Women Athletes,” On the Issues Magazine (June 29, 2012). 

[97] Wald, Trinity of Passion, 242.

[98] Sinclair was undoubtedly aware, during the period between drafts, of the incredible furor—book banning, court cases, and editorial attacks—that greeted the 1944 publication of Strange Fruit, a best-selling novel by Lillian Smith, a Southern white woman (and, revealed publicly after her death, a lesbian).  The novel is about an interracial heterosexual relationship leading to pregnancy and an abortion, and the lynching of a young Black man.  The purported rationale for the protests was “obscenity.”  The novel also includes, peripherally, a lesbian relationship involving two white women. 

[99] Sinclair, The Seasons, 1-2.  Sinclair refers repeatedly in The Seasons to being short of money and needing and repaying loans (46, 93, 110, 172, 185, 216, 245).  Sandberg notes that her only college education involved her 1941 attendance at playwriting and radio writing classes at Cleveland College, made possible by grants of $21 and $30 (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 27). 

[100] Sinclair, The Seasons, 93.  Sandberg mentions that the Buchman family was experiencing “financial problems” in 1952 and 1953 (“Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid [1913-1995],” 379).

[101] In his discussion of Sinclair’s Anna Teller (1960), Wald mentions in American Night the “mystery” (241) of sexuality involving several characters, including Anna: “The love of Anna Teller’s life turns out to be a woman, Margit Varga, a Jewish Hungarian friend, who plays a passive and subordinate ‘wifely’ role” (240).  After noting Sinclair’s inability to “fully dramatize lesbians in the Cold War; coded language, desires, and relationships [that] seem to mask the gay identity of characters . . . ,” Wald writes: “Most striking for Anna Teller are the frequent and various uses of the term ‘queer.’ Research indicates that the term emerged around 1500 from Scottish to mean strange, peculiar, and off-center; 1922 was the first time that ‘queer’ was used in the United States to refer to homosexuals, and it became a noun only in 1935.  In Anna Teller, ‘queer’ is used well over thirty times, sometimes to modify feelings (‘queer despair,’ ‘queer loneliness,’ ‘queer dread,’ ‘queer hurt’) but also in more suggestive phrases (‘in the queer mirror,’ ‘She always was queer,’ ‘the queer little girl,’ and ‘queer hesitancy in her voice’) (248). 

[102] Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 215-216. 

[103] The quoted phrases describing Helen are from The Seasons (88, 30, 11).  In addition to acting for a time as Sinclair’s “therapist,” Helen, who “had grown up in wealth” (The Seasons, 47), taught the working-class writer assorted ways in which she could better function in a white middle-class world.  For a perspective on these class issues, see Florence Howe, “Working Class Consciousness in Jo Sinclair’s The Seasons,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 1 and 2 (1995), 101-106.

[104] Sinclair, The Seasons, 43. Sinclair explains that Helen "knew something: I would never go to an actual psychiatrist, but I needed a doctor desperately" (85).

[105] The reference to “labels” is from Jo Sinclair, letter to Sandberg, July 23, 1984, as quoted in Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 61.  In a note to the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Barbara Bradley writes, “A couple of weeks ago my dear old friend Jo Sinclair (Ruth Seid) sent me your Newsletter, which I thought excellent and extremely interesting” (undated [1978-1981], LHA, “Lesbian Bars” file). 

[106] An old friend of Sinclair’s wrote in the margin of a letter to the Lesbian Herstory Archives that “Jo Sinclair has been working on a strictly lesbian novel for the past 2-3 years,” apparently beginning in the mid/late 1970s (Bradley to the Lesbian Herstory Archives).  In the conclusion to her 1985 dissertation, Sandberg mentions Sinclair’s “book-in-progress, about ‘mainland’ (Sinclair’s word for ‘straightland’ or the world of heterosexuals). . . . In this last novel, she returns to the lesbianism which she so courageously presented in her first novel, Wasteland” (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair: Toward a Critical Biography,” 205).  In a biographical essay published after Sinclair’s death, Sandberg writes, “For twenty years, she had been working on a new novel that she was calling Mainland, her name for ‘‘straightland” (Sinclair to Sandberg, phone call) (Sandberg, “Jo Sinclair, Pseudonym for Ruth Seid [1913-1995],” 380). 

[107] Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994. 

[108] Letter from Sinclair to Smith, December 19, 1994.  Jonathan Katz cites these two works, as well as Robert Duncan’s essay “The Homosexual in Society,” as outstanding works of the 1940s (Katz, Gay/Lesbian Almanac, 161).