John D'Emilio, "Pulp Madness," 1950 - 1970
This essay appeared in the Windy City Times, July 23rd, 2008, under the headline: "Chicago Gay History: Pulp Madness." Copyright (c) by John D'Emilio 2008. All rights reserved.
Of all the topics I cover in my gay-studies classes, a candidate for favorite is the lesbian pulp novel. In the 1950s and 1960s, publishers released them by the hundreds. The name stems from the low-grade paper stock on which they were printed, but “pulp” came to symbolize something else as well: the cheap and tawdry. Pulp novels carried the scent of shame and scandal. On one hand, they were very visible in this era of the closet. You could find them at drugstores and newsstands across the country. On the other hand, you wouldn't want to be seen reading one. Part of what attracts me to the pulp novel is that it lets students see that things aren't just one thing or the other, good or bad, anti-gay or pro-gay. Instead, the past—like the present—is complicated and contradictory. We spend time looking at a Power Point presentation of lots of these paperback covers. The titles seem to say it all: By Love Depraved; Degraded Women; Forbidden; The Damned One; Satan's Daughter; The Evil Friendship. “Strange” is used as a modifier for every possible noun: Strange Passions, Strange Seduction, Strange Lust, Strange Thirsts. Copywriters seemed to work from a very abridged dictionary. Warped, tormented, unnatural, twisted: the words all make the same point. Lesbian is bad, bad, bad.
Of course, these novels weren't primarily meant for lesbians. The intended buyers were all those so-called “one-handed” readers—heterosexual men turned on by the thought of lesbians making love. Their numbers were large enough to propel skyward the sales figures for many pulps. Indeed, lots of these books were written by heterosexual men who knew that the readers were likely to be other heterosexual men.
So what's to study here? Isn't the lesbian pulp craze just another example of how the 1950s were the worst time to be queer? Well, not entirely. The pulp genre also opened an opportunity for lesbian writers. Pulp publishing was like a small crack in the wall of oppression, and some lesbians found a way to slip through. Writers like Ann Bannon, Marion Zimmer Bradley ( writing under the pseudonym “Miriam Gardner” ) , Paula Christian and March Hastings were able to manipulate the genre and win the loyalty of lesbian readers.
Leaving behind sensationalism and refusing to pander to male sensibilities, they worked to create believable scenarios populated by characters that a female reader might identify with. Sometimes, the publisher cooperated. A novel by March Hastings, published in 1960, had the title “The Unashamed,” revealing a bit of pride and self-respect. The cover illustration showed two women in a pose and with facial expressions that suggested tenderness and love.
Still, lesbian authors couldn't entirely abandon the formulaic plots, especially in the more repressive 1950s. They worked within constraints and, as a reader today will quickly discover, these are not tales of a lesbian-feminist utopia.
One of the most important of these lesbian writers of pulp fiction was Valerie Taylor, who lived here in Chicago for more than two decades and, in the 1960s and 1970s, was quite an “out and proud” activist. Taylor wrote almost a dozen novels in the course of her career. Two of them, published in the 1950s, are very revealing of both the limits and the possibilities of the pulp genre.
Whisper Their Love, Taylor's first novel with lesbian content, was published in 1957. It tells the story of Joyce, a working-class girl from small-town Illinois who has just arrived at a college for white women in North Carolina. Family dysfunction trails her: Joyce was illegitimate, never knew her father, and was raised by a puritanical aunt while her mother, Mimi, was a traveling sales woman. At college, her roommate Mary Jean, who goes all the way with a boyfriend, sets Joyce up on a date, but Joyce rebuffs the young man's aggressive advances. On a visit to Chicago to attend Mimi's wedding to her boss, Joyce loses her virginity to her mother's fiancé the night before the wedding. Traumatized, she returns to school where the dean, Edith Bannister, comforts her ... and takes her to bed.
Edith is a lesbian. She has a circle of lesbian and gay friends in town, takes Joyce to parties and clubs, and introduces her to the grim realities of gay life at the time. Secrecy is imperative, because society does bad things to queers. Tell no one, she warns, or else jobs will be lost and lives ruined. Edith herself had had an affair with a teacher when she was in high school, told a friend, and the result was expulsion from school and suicide for the teacher.
Meanwhile ( there are always meanwhiles in these novels ) , Mary Jean has gotten pregnant, and Joyce helps her procure an abortion from a kindly old doctor in town. But then Mary Jean gets pregnant again, and this time commits suicide. Joyce breaks up with Edith, and is rescued from a life of both lesbianism and mean heterosexual men by John, the nephew of the abortionist, who is a Korean war vet, intends to become a doctor, knows psychology, is understanding of Joyce's lesbian interlude, and promises not to have sex with Joyce until she wants to. Presumably they live happily ever after.
Okay, I know this plot summary is not making you rush to your computer to buy a used copy online. And lesbians at the time were probably not too thrilled at the plot's final destination either. But, really, it's a pretty absorbing read, and I was struck by the implied feminism of much of the plot. Girls on the edge of womanhood in the 1950s had it hard. Life could be treacherous. Men were not women's best friends.
Taylor's next novel was Girls in 3-B. It tells the story of Annice, Pat and Barby, three high school graduates from downstate Illinois, as they come to Chicago together to make their way in the world. Even more than Whisper Their Love, this book charts the path of young white women in the 1950s; one could easily assign it in a women's history or social history course. Annice, an aspiring poet, hooks up with a heartless young beatnik who gets her pregnant and abandons her; Pat has an unrequited crush on her handsome boss, who takes women to bed and then moves on; Barby, who was raped at age 13 by the banker in her small town, is forced into bed by the superintendent of their Hyde Park apartment building.
But all turns out well for each of them. Annice is rescued by a nice young man who will marry her despite the pregnancy. Pat is courted by a Polish Catholic office boy, who respects her when she says no and takes her to Sunday mass with his parents. And Barby meets Ilene, a supervisor at work who has recently broken up with her female lover of several years. Barby doesn't know what a lesbian is, but she knows she's attracted to Ilene and curious about her. Their courtship starts with lunch dates and moves on to an affair that is sweet and tender and without emotional upheaval, and the reader knows that Barby has found a relationship that will be good for her. It's hard to imagine that there were many such portraits in the 1950s of a young woman's introduction to lesbian love.
If the truth be told, I read these two novels less because of a fascination with the pulp genre ( it's the covers that grab me ) , and more because I started to become fascinated by Valerie Taylor. She's an extraordinarily interesting figure, a woman who deserves a biographer. But more on Taylor next time.