Nestle: Blog on History; Dexter and Diana: Voices in the Wind, 1950s-1990s
by Joan Nestle. Copyright © Joan Nestle 2008. All rights reserved
(With this third essay noted author and co-founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives, Joan Nestle continues OutHistory's series of personal meditative blogs on LGBTQ and heterosexual history.)
I have always been interested in the inventive way a colonized community finds subversive force in what may appear as the most meager of offerings. Having come out in the late 1950s, I was an expert at reading between the lines, at finding nutrients in what a later generation would call “trash;” I have in mind here the 1970s and early 1980s lesbian-feminist rejection of the lesbian paperback genre, usually with the derisive comment that the books were written for men by men. These paperbacks have gone through many life times of cultural rejections, translations and rediscovery.
Another starting point for much of this generational cultural tension was, of course, The Well of Loneliness -- scoffed at for its heavy handed Victorian drama and unhappy ending. My subsequent work with the Lesbian Herstory Archives gave me the opportunity to eavesdrop on decades of this kind of conversation—a version of “how could they?”
Thus, it was with great delight sometime in the early 1990s that one day as I sat reading Uncharted Seas, (1937), a rare book that had made its way to our shelves—a paperback book from a French publisher much like Grove Press here, famous for its racy book list—you know the kind of European book I mean, one whose pages have to be cut by hand so the whole book feels as if it is made of cotton, I found the following passage:
Dexter went to her hall closet to get the jug of wine. She stopped before Diana as she poured out two little glasses.
‘You really don’t care much for liquor or smoking, do you, Diana?’
‘Not very much.’ They looked at each other and smiled. Diana looked at her friend trustingly, knowing Dexter would understand happiness without stimulant.
‘I like you in this mood, Diana.’ Dexter sipped her wine and searched the other girl’s face. Then she put down the wine and started the music again.
‘Mind if I rest a bit? I’m so tired.’
Dexter lay down beside Diana, who felt nervous all of a sudden. Diana felt her friend’s pulse with her small strong fingers: it was beating rapidly. As always, the nearness of Dexter gave Diana a certain joyous nervousness.
‘What is it?’
‘Will you be angry with me if I ask you something?’
‘What did you think of The Well of Loneliness? I mean, not for publication.’
In less then ten years after its publication, The Well had become cultural shorthand, a way of defining sexual possibilities in a moment of pillow talk. This passage seemed to me an important and rare moment in lesbian textual anthropology. How is the history of our imaginations tracked? In search of some answers LHA devoted a page of questions in our newsletter to the role of the Well in the lives of our readers—the answered surveys reside at the archives. And one amazing image—the writer sent us a Xerox of a baby picture of herself, bare bottom resting on a stack of books, the top most being The Well. In her accompanying letter, the writer told us that her parents were left-leaning in the thirties and The Well, because of attempts to censor its publication, had become a cause célèbre, a way of asserting political and cultural nonconformity in many American homes.
I have given my life to the archives because it is a place where judgments about what is useful to peoples in stress can be put on hold, where stories of cultural reclamation and complexity have time to develop. I still think of the woman, who sat holding a paperback book from our lesbian survival collection (our name for the 1950s paperback collection) in her hands as she told me that in her youth, fearing her parents would find out about her sexuality, she took her small stack of dearly beloved lesbian paperbacks, drove out of town, and finding a deserted road, systematically tore the pages out of each book and threw them into the wind.
Perhaps the archive is the place where the wind does no damage.