Reading Material

"[Lady Chatterley's Lover] is, to say the least, a powerful aphrodisiac and I have it on the personal testimony of one who lisps that its descriptions of the normal sex act could do more than the arts of psychoanalysis to make an erring homo renounce his red tie and begin annoying women."––Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, October 12, 1929.[1]

In the early-to-mid twentieth century, before the existence of an active gay press or bookstores, gay men and lesbians necessarily relied on word of mouth and the sharing of books and periodicals among circles of friends for gay-themed reading material.

Leo Adams's letters are a rich source of information about what he and his friends were reading from the late 1920s to the years immediately following World War II––a period that witnessed significant changes in both the quantity and the style of popular gay and lesbian literature.

Adams's most remarkable correspondent in this regard is Merle Macbain, editor of The Greater Chicago Magazine in the late 1920s, and later a Commander in the United States Navy, who served as a technical adviser in the 1955 film Mister Roberts. Perhaps most remarkable about their literary relationship is that Macbain, a straight, married man who boasts of having slept "with at least 300 women," takes such an active interest in Leo Adams's gay reading list.[2]

In many ways, Macbain was a more progressive––more queer, even––reader than Adams, whose taste in imaginative literature ran towards The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post. As the passage quoted at the top of this page suggests [re lisps, red ties, and the term "homo"], Macbain was familiar with the language and codes of the emerging queer subculture of the late 1920s. The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest use in print of 'homo' in this sense in Max Lief's 1929 novel Hangover (New York: Horace Liveright, 1929). Macbain's usage seems to be quite avant guarde. The red necktie had, by the 1920s, become a recognized signifier of homosexual identity, also suggesting that the border between gay subculture and mainstream popular culture was porous.[3]


Radclyffe Hall's 'The Well of Loneliness'
First British Edition, 1928

Adams did read Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness and recommended it to Macbain. That letter is not among Adams's papers, but Macbain's reply, with his tongue-in-cheek critical commentary, is:


My dear Leo:

Yes – I have read “Well of Loneliness” and I am willing to testify that if Miss Radcliffe [sic] Hall can love like she can write she is certainly not sex starved. From beginning to end the book is a rhythmic pleasure, and approaching it as I did from a wholesomely normal and purely impersonal viewpoint I probably appreciated it even more than you did.

Yours as ever / Merely Merle[4]


Macbain was not alone among straight readers who enjoyed Hall's ground-breaking lesbian novel. The Well of Loneliness incited an obscenity trial in the United Kingdom and was subsequently banned in Britain. The publisher of the first American edition (New York: Covici Friede, 1928) successfully fought an obscenity charge and the book sold over 100,000 copies in the U.S. in its first year.

Adams and Macbain also shared a taste for a certain kind of "sophisticated sentimentality" in poetry and shared their findings through their correspondence. In the following passage, Macbain responds to a selection forwarded by Adams early in 1932, including a clipping from a back issue of The New Yorker:


Charles Henri Ford
'The New Yorker'
August 20, 1927 


Dear Leo:

Your poetry, in the selection of which you show a sure instinct for the exact type of sophisticated sentimentality that I permit myself to approve of, is well received. The one with the "vermillion moon" and lips "as white as suicide" is of the stuff that poetry is made of though the author Charles Henri Ford is unknown to me. There seems now to be a small group of nascent versifiers preparing to take the place of the "New Voices" which somehow never fulfilled their promise.[5]

The poem Macbain refers to is Charles Henri Ford's "Interlude." It is not surprising that Adams, as an avid New Yorker reader, would have stumbled upon Ford's poem. What is remarkable (although probably more so as a happy accident than as a bit of conscious foresight) is that Adams should single out the first published piece by the man who would go on to co-author, with Parker Tyler, The Young and Evil, a modernist roman-a-clef about their lives amidst the gay subculture of Greenwich Village in New York City in the early 1930s.[6]



Illustration by Arthur Zaidenberg from a 1932 American edition of J. K. Huysmans' A rebour published in New York by Hartsdale House

Later in the same letter Macbain demonstrates his familiarity (and his assumption of Adams's familiarity) with two texts that would, even more so than America's own Walt Whitman, cast their influence on the development of gay American fiction and the gay literary imagination in the early twentieth century:


At present I am reading Huysmans' "Against the Grain". I presume you have read it but if not you should. It was written for you. Dorian Grey [sic] is an inadequate imitation of this ultra-sophisticated story which was written first. [7]


Several editions of an anonymous English translation of J. K. Huysman's 1884 novel A rebour (Against the Grain), with an introduction by the sexologist Havelock Ellis (who also wrote the "appreciation" in Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness) were available in the U.S. by the early 1930s, including a 1930 Modern Library edition. Oscar Wilde himself suggested the connection between The Picture of Dorian Gray and A rebour in a letter to an unidentified correspondent dated April 1892:


The book in Dorian Gray is one of many books I have never written, but it is partly suggested by Huysmans's A Rebours...It is a fantastic variation on Huysmans's over-realistic study of the artistic temperament in our inartistic age.[8]


In the OutHistory exhibit page titled "Wilde, Whitman, and the Gay Literary Style" I discuss further the trans-Atlantic influences of Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman on gay literary culture and demonstrate some of that influence in Leo Adams's letters. Here, it is important to note that, after his 1895 conviction for "gross indecency," Wilde's name became almost synonymous with homosexuality. Alan Sinfield has gone so far as to argue that the "dominant twentieth-century queer identity" is constructed "mainly out of elements that came together at the Wilde trials: effeminacy, leisure, idleness, immorality, luxury , insouciance, decadence and aestheticism."[9]

Walt Whitman's induction into the gay canon, on the other hand, came in fits and starts. While he was being hailed in England and Western Europe as the great poet of the manly love of comrades, the American author Harrison Reeves remarked in 1913 "It is rather odd that homosexuals, at least in America, do not regard Whitman as one of themselves or brag about him."[10]


Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle in the mid 1860s. Courtesy of ARTstore Digital Library

As late as 1932 the question of Whitman's sexuality was quite open in the U.S., and the subject of correspondence between Adams and Macbain:



Drop everything and read "Expression in America" by Ludwig Lewisohn a great and exciting record of American literature illuminated by Freudian psychology. You will be especially interested in the chapter on Whitman with its emphatic statement on a point that interested you years ago.[11]


The "emphatic statement" Macbain refers to is this: "I purpose, then, in regard to Walt Whitman, to sweep away once and for all the miasma that clouds and dims all discussion of him and his work. He was a homosexual of the most pronounced and aggressive type."[12] Forty years after Whitman's death, and nearly a decade before F. O. Matthiessen would situate Whitman at the center of the gay American literary tradition, the first major American critic outs him.

  1. Leo Adams Papers, New York Public Library.
  2. Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, January 1932. Leo Adams Papers, New York Public Library (hereafter cited by name and date only).
  3. See, among others, George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 522; and Shaun Cole, "Macho Man: Clones and the Development of a Masculine Stereotype," Fashion Theory 4 (2000), 126
  4. Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, February 18, 1929
  5. Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, February 1932 (undated).
  6. Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, The Young and Evil (Paris: Obelisk Press, 1933).
  7. Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, February 1932
  8. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis, Eds. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (New York: Henry Holt, 2000), 524.
  9. Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment (London: Cassell, 1994), 11-12.
  10. Quoted in Hendrik Marinus Ruitenbeek, Homosexuality and Creative Genius (New York: Astor-Honor, 1967), 126.
  11. Merle Macbain to Leo Adams, December 2, 1932.
  12. Ludwig Lewisohn, Expression in America (New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1932), 199. Emphasis mine.