Part Three (2015): The Long Moment (1942 Draft)
The Changelings is pretty remarkable, especially for those of us who find white lesbian foremothers like Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein, who were both wealthy and fascist-leaning, decidedly lacking. But, in many ways, I find The Long Moment, Sinclair’s 1942 draft, even more remarkable—not so much as a piece of fiction but as a literary document that, for me, makes both The Changelings and its author a lot more interesting.
Both the 1942 draft and The Changelings have the same basic story—Black people meeting white resistance when they want to move onto a street where Jewish and Italian Americans live; young people challenging the assumptions about race, sex, and gender expression handed down by their elders; and Vincent, a tomboy who leads a gang, bonding with another teenage girl, and struggling to figure out where she belongs as a tomboy, a sexual outsider, and a Jew. I'm going to focus on the two areas that Sinclair handles in the most dramatically different ways in the 1942 draft and the published novel: first, Black characters and white racism; and, second, sexual identity and gender expression, teenage lesbian love and homophobia.
I’ll begin by placing in political context the Sinclair who wrote the 1942 draft. Like many political people of the Great Depression era, she had personal and literary links to Communists and other leftists. This connection was particularly strong for people attracted to the Communist Party USA’s anti-fascism, especially during the Spanish Civil War, and to the Party’s stated—though unfulfilled—commitment to African American liberation, such as campaigns opposing lynching and evictions and backing Black sharecroppers, and its support of interracial coalitions.
Like many others who strongly opposed fascism and economic and racial injustice during this period but didn’t belong to the Party, Sinclair lived in a decidedly left-wing world, one that did not share the Party’s intolerance toward homosexuality. Cultural historian Alan Wald has documented in convincing fashion the links between Sinclair and the Left that, he maintains, “initially helped her to form a humanizing artistic vision.” According to Dan Levin, the editor of Crossroad, a radical literary magazine, who worked with Sinclair on the WPA’s Cleveland Library Project, Sinclair lived in the late 1930s with a woman who was both a WPA official and a regional representative of a CP project, the League of American Writers. In 1938, Sinclair met Helen Buchman, with whom she lived for 21 years, at the leftist Contemporary Theatre that Helen had founded. In 1942, when she moved in with Helen’s family, including husband Mort and their children, Sinclair “adopted” a family that, by extension, included Mort’s pro-Communist siblings and brother-in-law.
Sinclair not only published fiction in New Masses, the preeminent Communist literary magazine of the period, but, before getting her first story accepted in 1936, had submitted to it a steady stream of pieces, with at least 27 getting rejected. In 1939, Sinclair unsuccessfully sought as her literary agent a CP member who “specialized in representing writers in or close to the Party.” As late as January 1943, she “submitted a novelette about U.S. veterans of the Spanish Civil War to the Communist Party’s International Publishers.” In her public and private papers, Sinclair was circumspect about her early left-wing associations, perhaps influenced by Helen, who, as Sinclair wrote in her memoir The Seasons, “loathed communism and fascism almost fanatically.” Nonetheless, as she looks back on “those WPA years” in this memoir, she sounds positively nostalgic not just for “FDR our god” but for an “exciting, young-revolutionary, young-creative” time. (She sounds similarly nostalgic when she refers to herself and her long-time close friend Virginia Houston, whom she had met in the early 1930s, as “us old activists, black and white.”)
By 1942, before she was thirty, Sinclair had a racially mixed personal and work life and a history of writing about issues of race—although none of this means that her characters, language, plots, or ideas are politically irreproachable. She wrote in her memoir about having “two good friends [who] were Negro—including my dear, sick Virginia,” the friend who regularly checked Sinclair’s work “from a ‘Negro viewpoint.’” Like Debbie in Wasteland, Sinclair had a social circle that included Black women who cared about “a book, poetry, Negroes and jobs . . . . Jews, persecution, the source of hatred.” As she wrote in a 1994 letter:
I met some of my Black friends on a free public tennis court, and they invited me into their group. Later I met other Black (and white) Lesbians on the various WPA projects I worked on for several years, shared lunches and casual talk sometimes, but the first group was the important one, that introduced me to new and wondrous things like the poetry of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen; politics; the songs (records) of Paul Robeson and a few white singers; Black theatre at Karamu House—performed by its Gilpin Players (my first “Emperor Jones”!); “The Well of Loneliness,” and the few lesser novels in print at the time; the dignity and earned power of a word like “Negro” (I still use it, though I know the current name the race prefers). Quite a learning experience for a girl who hadn’t been around much!
Inside and outside this first group, Sinclair hung out regularly with Black people who cared about the arts. As she wrote, “Many of the group wrote poems, or they painted, sketched, had readings and art exhibits—creative ‘fun’—in homes on loan for a Saturday night, or Sunday afternoon after church.” While they were both working for the WPA, she was friends with the Black writer Chester Himes, who was drawn, during this period, to the Communist Party and later became an expatriate and a well-known author of hard-boiled detective novels set in Harlem. Sinclair introduced Himes to Richard Wright’s short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children, published in 1938 (when Wright was still a member of the Party); Himes subsequently convinced Wright, after they’d both moved away from the Party, to write a (very favorable) review of Wasteland.
By 1942, race was already a consistent theme in Sinclair’s fiction, essays, and plays. She wrote several stories about lynching, including her first published story, “Noon Lynching,” in New Masses in 1936, which is about a Black boy taken from his elementary school by the police, who stage a terrifying mock lynching of him before sending him to reform school. Her 1939 article, “Cleveland’s Negro Problem,” published in Ken, a short-lived Popular Front magazine, highlighted the work of the Future Outlook League, a Cleveland organization that consisted at one point of 27,000 members and challenged “the discriminatory hiring practices” of white-owned businesses in Black neighborhoods. As a dramatist, Sinclair wrote plays with interracial casts, including the unpublished “Sun on Negro Bodies,” which was runner-up for a national prize, and a never-produced three-act play, “Jesus Was a Dream,” which was commissioned in 1940 by Karamu House, Cleveland’s settlement house and the home of the oldest African American theater company still in existence in the United States. Her unpublished 1940 novel about the WPA, “They Gave Us a Job,” has a main character modeled on her friend and co-worker Chester Himes. She published in such Black periodicals as Negro Digest and The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Sinclair, who was “frequently around Karamu,” wrote a 1942 article about it, “I, Too, Sing America.” In that same year, when she submitted “Songs My Mother Taught Me (A Sermon)” to The Crisis, editor Roy Wilkins accepted the story despite the concerns he expressed to her about “the language, the grammar, and the colloquial expression,” as well as the plausibility of the central character; Wilkins ran the piece, although Sinclair changed neither the “stilted dialect” nor the characterization.
When Sinclair began in 1953 to write The Changelings and looked back at the 1940 draft, which was called “Now Comes the Black,” she was so horrified at what she had written that she refused to reread either of her two subsequent drafts, including the 1942 draft I'm discussing here. She probably recalled as well the comments on the 1940 draft by McGraw-Hill editor Ed Aswell, who said it was “more of a psychological treatise than a work of fiction.” On October 21, 1953, Sinclair wrote:
I started [a] complete outline of a novel called “The Changelings.” (Amen, amen!) I’ve done a great deal of fragmentary stuff, and fat notes on plot and theme, but this is it. . . . Helen says she’s going to find the comparison fascinating—this and “Now Comes the Black.” That first amateur book (can’t even call it a novel!) by the kid, on which this novel is somewhat based. She reread it last week—the typescript she had bound. Now she’s going to reread that next version, “The Long Moment” [the 1942 draft]. Not me; those oldies would depress me.
Unlike Sinclair, I find the 1942 draft intriguing, not depressing. However unwieldy, it reflects her left politics of the 1930’s and portrays an urban Black community and multiple Black characters, as well as explicitly lesbian characters, in ways that the published noveldoes not. More than a decade and two published novels later, as a mature writer, Sinclair made different choices about the content, focus, and structure of The Changelings than she did when she wrote the 1942 draft. There’s no way of knowing whether, even with judicious cutting of plot and extraneous characters, Sinclair (or anyone else) could have crafted its 663 pages of typescript into a powerful novel.
In the post-war years, Sinclair continued to write about Black characters: her play The Long Moment (the same title as the 1942 and 1946 drafts of The Changelings), is about a young Black musician deciding whether to “pass” as white; it premiered in 1950, received high praise from Cleveland’s “Negro weekly,” and was notable for being the first play at the Cleveland Playhouse with an interracial cast and Black actors in leading roles. When she returned with fresh eyes in 1953 to work on The Changelings, she developed a new outline and wrote a powerful and well-crafted novel that contained only a single (but critical) Black character and described the world from the perspective of the book’s white characters, almost none of whom see Blacks as inherently human and worthy of notice. We don’t know whether these were primarily literary decisions, or reflected qualms about publishing material that, with its greater, positive focus on Black characters, had relatively few precedents in the commercial press.
While the core of The Changelings is the relationship between Vincent and Clara, the Clara of the published novel did not yet exist in 1942, and the central relationship is among three of the street’s young high school classmates. The first chapter of this draft introduces all three of these characters: Vincent; Chester, a member of Vincent’s gang whose family is initially the only Black family living on the street; and Barta, the second girl in Vincent’s gang, who is named after Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the Italian-born anarchist who was tried along with Nicola Sacco at the height of the post-World War I Red Scare and executed in 1927 despite world-wide protests. Neither Barta nor Chester appears in the published novel, where Sinclair used a single character, Clara, to serve as both Vincent’s Black friend and her “girlfriend,” and also knocked several years off these teen characters’ ages. Barta is, as I’ll discuss later, central to the draft’s overtly lesbian theme.
Given the multiple ways in which Sinclair’s personal, political, and literary life intersected with left-wing Black writers and activists, it’s hardly surprising that the 1942 draft contains a range of Black characters. The second chapter of the 1942 draft begins, “There was one Negro family living in Lincoln Court . . . . Emma Savannah [Chester’s mother] was the heart and hands of that family” (27). Emma introduces the white people on the block (the first overview the reader gets) by describing each in terms of her or his racism and relation to Emma and her family. Emma speaks out as well early in Part II, when she talks about vandalism against her home and the racism Chester experiences from some white schoolmates. Sinclair later offered her own critique of Emma: “There was a Mrs. Savannah, but I romanticized the hell out of her (badly).” Yet, giving Emma an early narrating role of political substance in the 1942 draft is significantly different from The Changelings, where, except for Clara, the Black characters are peripheral and silent.
Class-race dynamics in the 1942 draft are complex in ways that are not possible in The Changelings, where the only Black adults we learn about are Clara’s parents, whose jobs (especially her father’s “inside” position at the post office) mark them as part of the Black middle class. In this draft, Sinclair, whose Black lesbian friends were “all college-educated,” included, for example, Leslie John Stephens, a doctor and the grandson of a white doctor. His class, like that of a few other Black characters from professional families, marks him as very different from the working-class Jewish and Italian characters bent on excluding Black families from their street. The resulting tension is clear when, for example, David, who is white, Jewish, and jealous, becomes irate because Freda, a Jew, is interested in a Black man, Paul Calhoun, the son of the Reverend and Mrs. Calhoun. Sinclair describes David as being “all right until he was confronted with a Negro vocabulary as wide as his own, until he was shoved in the face by a Negro’s desire to love not a color but a woman” (410). Freda elopes with Paul, after he has been badly beaten by racists, so they can become “Mr. and Mrs. Calhoun,” and, in response to this violence, his family leaves the ironically named “Lincoln Court.” (In the 1946 draft, Freda plans to elope with Paul, but doesn’t. In The Changelings, Freda, now named Ruth, marries Chip, a working-class Jew.)
Cutting out Black characters meant that Sinclair eliminated from her fiction other hot-button issues besides interracial marriage. In the 1942 draft, Sinclair introduces through the character of Chester’s mentor Dr. Stephens a number of social issues that she does not mention in The Changelings. She raises the issue of colorism in the Black community by describing him as a dark-skinned man whose white and light-skinned family reminded him repeatedly of that fact. By describing Dr. Stephens as a reader of The Negro Leader, an Alabama newspaper, she locates him as part of the Great Migration of Southern Black people to the North and places him in a social, political, and economic context far broader than that of a particular Cleveland street. Three decades before Roe v. Wade, Sinclair also raises, through Dr. Stephens, the issue of abortion. Though he refuses to do an abortion for a Black woman (claiming moral objections), he agrees, when Chester asks him as a personal favor to his “best friend” Vincent, to perform an abortion on her sister. Like some other aspects of the 1942 draft, this was certainly not a topic likely to appeal to either the reading public or commercial publishers.
While Clara’s world in The Changelings is clearly circumscribed before she meets Vincent—encompassing only her street, church, and school (with a brief foray into the Gully)—Emma and others in the 1942 draft are part of Cleveland’s vibrant Black intellectual and artistic community. An excited Chester, for instance, tells Vincent, “I went to a lecture over at the settlement . . . A colored professor gave it. He talked about the new Negro!” (140). The “settlement” is certainly Karamu House, the only unsegregated settlement in Cleveland that served the Black community and a local institution that exhibited the work of Black visual artists and produced plays with Black or interracial casts, including work by Langston Hughes, who came to Cleveland as a teenager. Unlike Clara, who turns 13 early in the novel, Chester, who is about to graduate from high school, is mature enough to attend a lecture appropriate for adults, one that links him not just to Cleveland’s Black community but to politically minded Black people across the country who are discussing the “New Negro,” rising “from social disillusionment to race pride.”
The 1942 draft, unlike The Changelings, recognizes Black political activism. In the published novel, people make progress in relation to another person and almost entirely through psychological change, what Vincent calls “inside stuff” (261). While, in The Changelings, Clara’s formerly enslaved great grandfather had “helped a lot of other slaves run away” (245), Black characters in the 1942 draft organize in the present. Members of Chester’s church initiate a petition to open a housing project to Black people, and the Future Outlook League, which Sinclair had described in a 1939 article, participates in a demonstration against racial segregation with placards that read “Negroes Need Houses” (501).
The draft’s opening pages make clear the racial-sexual dynamic within it. Unlike Vincent’s all-white gang in The Changelings, her gang in the 1942 draft includes Chester, its only Black member. When the gang discusses pilfering, Vincent is practical: “As soon as old man Galucci sees a colored guy he watches twice as hard.” (7). But Icky’s comments reflect nothing but disdain for both Chester and Vincent: “Girls and niggers . . . Sure, a hell of a lot of potatoes we’ll snitch!” (8). Once the gang establishes that Chester is the only member whose family was born in the United States, Icky touches Chester’s cheek, pointing to what he calls “dirty, Black stuff.” (10). With such racism established prior to the pivotal scene where the boys pull down Vincent’s pants to “show” that she is a girl, Chester doesn’t stand up for her, instead siding with the white boys and telling Vincent, “You’re a girl.” (15).
Vincent learns about the Black community through Chester, much as she does through Clara in The Changelings. In addition to telling her about the lecture at Karamu House, he takes her to his church. There, she finds herself “the only white person in that room, but no one was paying any attention to her” (391). This experience enables her to find comfort in her new identification with others:
And all along she had been comparing the strangeness of herself to them, the outcast strangeness of herself, and she had pitied both them and herself, and along with them the cripples and all the weak peoples of the world who were being pushed out of all the Lincoln Courts of the world. She had been pitying all of these and herself, and she had been afraid for all of them and herself—who was one of them.
. . . But there was nothing to pity, she thought, astonished. There was nothing to be afraid about, not weakness, not despair, not dirt. None of it was here. (397)
Soon after this pivotal experience at Chester’s church, she supports him in concrete ways. She joins him in fighting white kids at school who harass him. In the draft’s last 15 pages, she turns down a college scholarship so Chester can get it, explaining, “I'm white. . . . I’ve got a better chance than Chester to get a job and work my way through” (648). And, as she says shortly after, “I’ve got as much chance as anybody else to do what I want. Boy or girl” (649).
Those three words, “boy or girl”—heard over the decades by countless butch lesbians—are central to the 1942 draft. Nothing illustrates the difference between this draft and the published novel quite as starkly as their opening words. The Changelings begins with two sentences: “All that summer, as no white people came to rent the empty, upstairs suites of the Valenti house or the Golden house, tension had mounted in the street. Only Negroes came” (1). The 1942 draft has a radically different beginning. Its first words are: “Vincent knew she was not a boy. She had known it for six years, since the day the boys in her gang had shown her she was only a girl. Since the day before her tenth birthday” (1).
We’ve barely gotten into the 1942 draft, when, on page three, we get this initial description of the butch-femme dynamic between Vincent and Barta:
Barta slipped her arm thro’ Vincent’s and started to skip.
Vincent stiffened and tore her arm out of Barta’s. “Stop acting so dumb!” she cried. “Just like a girl, Jesus Christ!”
Barta’s eyes looked hurt, and Vincent’s heart beat fast. “I don't want to make you cry!” she said, hard inside herself, as hard as all her inside talking always was. She walked on with her fast boy’s stride. I never want to hurt anybody, Barta, honest! It felt nice, your hand on me, it felt so nice, honest, but I can’t let anybody put a finger on me. (3)
But, around 20 pages later, Barta ignores what Vincent had said and touches her again:
[Barta] looked tenderly at the way Vincent’s body was stretched out so that she seemed long and very slim, and the way her hair was so blond and short and in need of combing, how the sunlight seemed to be in it even when it was in shadow, the way it was now.
She stretched out her hand and began timidly to stroke Vincent’s shoulder. At the first touch, she felt Vincent’s body jump away, but she kept on stroking and Vincent lay quiet after that first lunge. Barta’s timidity left her, and the great love and admiration she felt went into her hand so that it was very tender and strengthening as it comforted. (22-23)
In the 1946 draft (the year Wasteland was published), Sinclair dramatically pared down this scene, focusing it not on intense eroticism, but on the more platonic admiration of one girl for another. The 1946 scene reads:
Hesitantly, she stretched out her hand and began stroking Vincent’s shoulder.
When she felt the shoulder quieting, her timidity left her and she kept stroking and patting softly, trying to let Vincent know how much she looked up to her. (22-23; my emphasis)
Various characters in the 1942 draft comment on Vincent’s looks. As part of her initial view of the white people on the street, for example, Emma Savannah expresses an acceptance of her masculine dress and demeanor that is absent from the subsequent draft. As Emma muses:
I’d like to have her for a daughter myself, even looking like a boy like she does . . . . Vincent sounds better for her than Frances [Vincent’s first name in this draft]. She looks like a boy, but her face is soft as any girl’s I ever did see! More the way she walks makes her like a boy. The short hair, so golden. And the clothes she wears, I guess. (34)
Paul Cameron, whose Black family has moved to the street, brings together two of the draft’s central themes, when he says to Vincent’s friend David:
You know damned well if this street didn't have a nigger problem, they’d fasten their claws in that poor, short-haired kid! You know it as well as I do. She’s as different from them as my skin is. You think they’ll swallow any kind of deviation? (407)
The 1942 draft also introduces a scene—gone by the 1946 draft—in which Vincent explores, while she is alone in her house, what it would be like to wear boys’ clothing:
. . . for many times she had visualized herself doing this and she knew all the details. She peeled off her blouse and got into one of [her brother] Saul’s shirts, one he had already worn, that had been tossed carelessly across the chair. She buttoned it hurriedly and rolled up the sleeves that hung long enough to hide her hands. A not unpleasant odor of tobacco and shaving lotion came from her shirt; she did not mind having it close to her for a few moments, the scent seemed a clean one. She picked a blue tie from among the many hanging over the doorknob and tied it around her neck, smoothing the collar of the shirt over it with shaking hands. She tried to knot the tie the way she had seen Chester and Icky do it, but she was too awkward; the knot turned out to be bulgy, and one end of the tie hung down while the other flapped too short. But she did not have enough time to work at it; she was tense against Saul’s possible homecoming.
She found one of his hats on the closet shelf, and put it on her head, pulling the brim down with a strong tug, the way Icky did it when he was wearing his good hat. Yeah, she thought, how would you like me now, Mr. Saul Vincent? If you saw me now, how would you act?
Then she looked into the mirror of the dresser. She could see herself from head to waist. She gave the hat another hard tug, then studied her reflection.
It was amazing. She looked like a soft, young, girlish edition of Saul. But not like a boy! she thought. Like I’m dressed up! I look more like a boy when I'm wearing a skirt and a middy than now.
She kept staring at the mirror at her astounded, soft smooth face. My God, my God, she thought, I look like a girl dressed up in man’s clothing, that’s what! (197)
When Vincent goes out, people immediately pick up on how “like a boy” she looks when “wearing a skirt and a middy”:
On Woodland Avenue she was followed for several blocks by four small Negro boys. They ran after her, laughing and calling out to her.
One of the boys yelled, “Hey, is you a boy or a girl? Yah! A boy in girl’s clothes! Where’s your pants?”
It hurt her intolerably . . . .
. . . . “Girl-boy! Lookit the boy in a dress! Where’s your pants, girl-boy?” (221, not in 1946 draft).
When Vincent walks down a street with Chester, Sinclair writes: “‘Hey Mike,’ the man said in a clear, carrying voice, ‘take a look, will you? What is it, a boy or a girl.’” (222; not in 1946 draft). For her, “the street became like a thousand strange, moving and laughing mouths. Walking before them, she knew a mixed tortured and proud feeling, as if she had taken upon herself voluntarily a disease of some sort” (222-223; not in 1946 draft).
Yet Chester does go out with her, knowing the response that she would get. Sinclair describes Vincent’s thoughts in lyrical terms:
What did they want of her? she asked herself desperately. Boys, men, people. Why should they laugh at her, talk about her? As if she were a cripple. As if she were so different from them that they had to beat her for it. It was not her fault! Why must she be beaten for looking different? Did the world belong to men? And would the men always laugh at her?
But then again there were whole white and soft days when the streets were passageways between fields of women. She knew the soft, cunning voices of them like hands on her. Women stared at her, too. It was like walking, drowning, in the scent of their hair and the perfume they used. The days when the street was flowing with the women, and she among them yet never of them . . . (223; not in 1946 draft)
. . . . He didn't care what she looked like, and he was colored, and she was Jewish, and he was a boy and she was a girl, and he would walk with her in any street in any part of the world. (224; not in 1946 draft)
Vincent tries repeatedly to come to terms with her sexual identity. At one point, she turns to her older friend: “‘David,’ she demanded at that moment, ‘I want to know about me! Can’t you tell me? What’s the matter with me? Is there something wrong?’” (271). But David evades the question. At another time, she says “painfully” to him, “I found the book there . . . It’s about—well, it tells all about certain kinds of people” (447). (In the 1946 draft, Vincent's book is about “religion and beliefs.”)
Her gender-nonconforming look is painfully linked with her being a Jew. Although the teenaged Vincent “all of a sudden . . . began to think about being a Jew” (95) and felt bad “every time [she] read about Jews being whipped and killed, over there in Europe” (97), she faces a clear gender-related obstacle to going to shul. As Vincent comments, “I’ll bet I’d look like hell in a dress, David. . . . Like a dressed-up boy, huh, David? (99). But, even when she imagines a heaven that seems a lot like shul where winged rabbis have her wear boys’ clothes, she wonders, “Why do they do that to her? The clothes don't mean anything: under them is the white pity of the girl’s body” (288). In this dream, wearing boys’ clothes just highlights her sense of being a misfit. As she enters puberty and has her first period, she wants for the first time in a long while to attend shul. When she “was a kid it didn't matter . . .” where she sat, but, as she says, “I’m grown up now, I’d have to sit upstairs with the women now” (345). While her visit to Chester’s church helps connect her to others she sees as outcasts, it also spurs her to ask: “Where do I belong? I’ve got a church, too. I can sit upstairs in shuel [sic] with all the women, and it would be like my hand would be touching all of them” (398). She attempts to resolve the problem by asking her mother to sew a tailored dress for her:
She would wear it on New Year’s Day and on the Day of Atonement. (On the first day of the new year, according to Jewish tradition, do something you want to keep on doing all year. On the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish holidays, dress as a Jew, act like a Jew, belong.) (517)
With this urge to fit in as a Jew, the Vincent of the 1942 draft, who can’t imagine ever forgetting Yiddish (570), is quite different from the Vincent in The Changelings, who understands, but does not speak Yiddish, and shows no inclination ever to wear a dress or step foot in her father's orthodox synagogue.
Despite Vincent’s sometimes tormented sense of herself as an outsider, the 1942 draft has a happy ending for Vincent and Barta. When Barta gives Vincent a watermelon and roman candles for her 16th birthday, Vincent thinks, “It was all in Barta’s eyes when she turned toward her. The thank you, the welcome, and the suddenly rooted safe feel of life” (480). Barta expresses her acknowledgement and acceptance of their relationship by referring to the “long moment,” the draft’s title and its epigraph from John Steinbeck: “. . . people who live in the long moment when the past slips reluctantly into the future”:
“I suppose people have different kinds of long moments,” [Barta] said. “I'm going to be with Vincent during mine, David.”
“Are you, dear?” he said. He felt a sharp relief. It was the first time she had said it in words. He had waited a long time, wondering all along if she would ever know what it was she wanted. And after she knew, how would she react? He had wondered that,
“The rest of my life. Can a moment last all the rest of a person’s life, David?”
He felt deeply happy at the sure tone of her voice. (576)
Had Sinclair published a version of this draft, we would have had that rarest of things, a happy ending to a pre-1950s lesbian novel, one with two immediately identifiable lesbians looking toward a future together. Alone among earlier lesbian novelists in the United States, Gail Wilhelm had pulled off a happy ending in her 1938 Torchlight to Valhalla, a departure from the usual fare before the 1950s: fiction with lesbian characters whose stories end with insanity, suicide, wrenching separation from their beloved, and, my favorite (from D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox), sudden death from a falling tree. As an anonymous reviewer wrote about Wilhelm’s novel in Kirkus Review, a leading publishing industry magazine, “This suggestion of homosexual content has marred some of her previous work. Perhaps eventually she will grow beyond it.” Along with the general homophobia of the period, the response to this Random House novel by Wilhelm might have provided a cautionary tale for writers, as well as for commercial publishers selecting manuscripts to print.
What happened to these very out lesbian and gender-nonconforming themes after the 1942 draft? Sinclair omitted them entirely from the 1946 draft, which she wrote in the same year that Wasteland was published: cutting chunks of narrative that had described in unmistakably sexual terms Vincent and Barta’s attraction to each other. In The Changelings, her decision to change Vincent’s age enabled her to publish a novel whose coded lesbianism would be apparent only to those looking for it. If the Vincent of The Changelings had been about to graduate from high school (as she is in the 1942 draft), the reader could hardly miss seeing Vincent and Clara as girlfriends, not just as girl friends.
We can find multiple explanations for the thematic changes in Sinclair’s post-1942 writing. She provides one reason. In a letter written a few months before her death from cancer, she says, “I would write a novel some day, a book anybody could read easily” (perhaps referring to an explicitly lesbian novel that would require no decoding). It would be “a freedom thing” that was “not like ‘The Well of Loneliness’—nothing crammed with such torment and pain.” But, Sinclair explains, she had intended to write it “some day, when my parents were gone, along with any other old close ones in my life—who might be hurt by the shock of knowing who and what I really was.” Distinguishing between being “rather private” and remaining “in the closet,” she writes,
I did publish ‘Wasteland,’ eventually. And permitted it to be published before my parents were dead. All went well, to my surprise. I suspect that a lot of that ‘well’ came from the Harper Prize of $10,000. That was a lot of money to poor people, and must have stood for prestige, as well.
(As unschooled adult immigrants who were never comfortable with English, they would have had to learn about Wasteland’s content—and the similarity between Debbie and their daughter—through word-of-mouth, not from the book itself.)
Despite Sinclair’s stated rationale, she kept to her public silence about her lesbianism at a point when her parents were dead, as were “all [her] friends—Black and white,” with only her older sister surviving her. Just as she was “selective” in her correspondence and interviews about her early left-wing politics, she was circumspect about her relationship with Helen in her memoir. Begun in 1969 and published in 1993, The Seasons included updated biographical notes by Sinclair that maintain her sense of privacy. In the memoir, she describes the Buchmans (including husband Mort and their two children) as “her ‘adopted’ family to downplay any possible sexuality between Helen and herself,” and mentions a hospitalized Helen insisting that she go out for “liquor, music, sex.” In all of Sinclair’s published work, the word “lesbian” appears once, spoken by the psychiatrist in Wasteland. Only after Sinclair’s death did we learn from the author of the one full-length study of Sinclair that, years after Helen’s death, “Helen’s daughter claimed that her father was so angry at Ruth, presumably from jealousy, that his health might fail him were he to be interviewed. The daughter’s own strained and sometimes severed relationship with Ruth is indicative of tensions in the ménage à trois of her childhood home.”
It’s impossible to separate Sinclair’s post-1942 decisions from the pervasive homophobia in the mainstream literary world and the larger society and from the public responses by critics and readers to Wasteland. In 1946, just as she was working on yet another draft about Vincent, she had to contend, for the first time, with public responses to her fiction and to herself. While the review in The New York Times simply ignored Debbie, Time magazine wrote that Debbie had “made herself the ‘father’ of the family—and a Lesbian to boot.” Some reviewers used phrases that seem to refer to Wasteland’s lesbian subtheme: describing a book that is “never in bad taste” and leaves “no implications . . . unexplained.” Prestigious book award aside, such oblique comments can leave a mark on an author, especially a first-time one who has always been an outsider, one who, only a decade before, had written several unpublished stories and sketches about same-sex longing and gender nonconformity notable for their unrelieved misery. Nearly 60 years after its publication, Sinclair’s described Wasteland as “a sort of wrenching open of the old privacy, a sort of coming out of any closet left in my life.
Becoming a public figure made fair game of a woman who already “felt personally singled out for her mannish looks,” who wrote in her memoir about her own “hurt and self-disgust and bitter, shamed confusion,” and who didn’t want “the old close ones in [her] life . . . [to] be hurt by the shock of knowing who and what [she] really was.” Commenting on the physical resemblance between her and Debbie, the author of one 1947 biographical entry on people in the news noted that Sinclair (a high school track and field star) looked as if she could “swing a mean golf stick,” a not very coded reference to lesbianism. This sports analogy would have been especially clear during a time when the country’s leading female athlete, Babe Didrikson, an Olympic gold medalist who broke multiple track and field world records, was a frequent target of vicious anti-lesbian taunts and comments.
By 1946, Sinclair had both stepped away from any public association with the Left and, once Wasteland received the $10,000 Harper Prize for Fiction, quit her day job to become a freelance writer. As Alan Wald notes, she stopped submitting to the Communist press in 1944, “when she was on the precipice of her entrance into the mainstream literary world with her award-winning novel, Wasteland.” Her drive to make her work more politically palatable to mainstream publishers and readers might also have contributed to a post-1942 muting of lesbian and gender-nonconforming themes, along with other themes that were generally unmarketable, such as the abortion and interracial marriage plotlines in the 1942 draft.
A working-class woman and high school graduate, whose “college” was the Cleveland Public Library, Sinclair needed to support herself, although she did receive multiple loans from her sister Fannie and Helen Buchman. She writes about “running out of money” in the period between her second book (1951) and her third, The Changelings in 1955. By 1946, she undoubtedly knew that making Debbie a secondary character in Wasteland—with her striking visual resemblance to Sinclair and similar politics—was about as far as she could go and still hope for commercial success.
It’s hard not to speculate that the response to Wasteland, and specifically to Debbie, contributed not just to the changes between the 1942 and 1946 drafts, but to the choices Sinclair made when she wrote The Changelings and The Seasons. Her 1993 memoir, which she had begun in 1969, is filled with Sinclair’s devotion and love for Helen Buchman, with whom she lived from 1942 to Buchman’s death in 1963. In it, Sinclair refers to Helen only as “dearest friend,” “my friend-teacher,” and, though Helen was only four years older, “that dearest friend as beloved as a second mother.” Sinclair questions how to write about “the woman, the love between two friends, the lives so completely shared?”—“this particular love . . . that started out as the dependency of one,” as Sinclair began a lay “therapy” with Helen as therapist, “and then became interdependent.”
As late as 1984, when there were vibrant lesbian and gay liberation movements, Sinclair writes that she rejected “labels,” though we know from another source that she had been aware more than a decade earlier of the Lesbian Herstory Archives newsletter. Although she began writing a draft of an explicitly lesbian novel in the 1970s and reported working on it for 20 years, she never published such a work of fiction. A decade after her memoir appeared, only months before her death and at a time when poor health prevented her from typing, she comments in a letter that she and her “friends” had always been “Lesbians.” Such affirmative statements were absent from The Seasons. This memoir also gives almost no sense of the community of Black and white lesbians to which she belonged, and indicates nothing about the pride she felt in having had Wasteland, along with James Baldwin’s “Studies for a New Morality,” called “major documents of homosexual resistance” and “pioneering works affirming the homosexual’s humanity.”
The crushing weight of homophobia in the 1940s and 1950s makes The Changelings, with its baby dykes, as well as Wasteland before it, all the more impressive, all the more courageous. Given that social climate, Sinclair’s literary decisions beginning in 1946 make perfect professional and personal sense. Writing another novel in these decades with a positive lesbian character, even a secondary one, might well have ended her mainstream publishing career and would have made her even more publicly visible as a lesbian. It was too early in the century for a woman with literary aspirations and no steady income to risk being known as a “lesbian writer.”
Yet Sinclair published two lesbian novels that, more than a half-century later, still merit reading. In addition, despite society’s intolerance and her own internal struggles, her 1942 draft is a brief beacon, a point at which a left-wing lesbian writer wrote about the love of two white working-class high school girls, one of them the story’s Jewish protagonist—a butch lesbian who sees connections among sexuality, gender expression, and race. Although she destroyed the 1931 draft that she had written as a teenager, she chose to send the 1942 draft to be archived, along with her other papers—knowing that, as a result, her legacy would include the draft’s teenaged lesbians. As we celebrate The Changelings as an early lesbian, feminist, and anti-racist novel, written by a Jewish lesbian, we can find in the 1942 draft a different voice, one that we have largely lost. And we should honor that voice as well.
I greatly appreciate the criticism and support of those who read an earlier draft of all or part of this article: Jonathan Ned Katz, Joan Nestle, Adrienne Rich (Part One/1989), Barbara Smith, Shawn(ta) Smith-Cruz, and Beth Stephens.