Friday, September 9, 2016

Back in the Day

by Jean Roberta

What are the chances? In March 2016, the prolific Sarah Schulman got a big novel published. In October 2016, the slightly-less prolific but also well-known novelist and science writer Lucy Jane Bledsoe will have a work of historical fiction published, based on the life of her aunt, after whom she was named. Both books are set in the 1950s, and both are at least partly set in Greenwich Village when it was really “bohemian.” Both authors are major lesbian writers who were born in the postwar America they describe, and both writers discuss their personal connections to their subject-matter. I was lucky enough to get review copies of both books from The Gay & Lesbian Review.

The Cosmopolitans
(New York: the Feminist Press)

This thick paperback by Sarah Schulman is loosely based on a nineteenth-century French novel, Cousin Bette by Honore de Balzac, and it occupies the same social space as James Baldwin’s Another Country (1962), which broke new ground by showing black and white, gay and straight characters interacting as approximate equals. Schulman’s two major characters, Bette and Earl, are social outsiders who live in exile from their original families and who have little in common aside from being tenants in the same building. Bette was disowned by her family in the 1920s after being jilted by a dishonest lover, and Earl, as a man-loving actor and a “Negro” from the South, can’t find a safe space anywhere. Their friendship (“for life,” as Bette points out to an interloper) is a type of relationship rarely seen in current fiction, now that “community” no longer refers to physical space. The purity of this bond shines against the grit of working-class urban life.

Despite the grit, the late-fifties arrival of television advertising, in the form of an ad-woman who dresses like Jayne Mansfield and speaks in snappy one-liners, introduces a note of social satire. Bette is dazzled but not fooled by this character, who inspires her to manipulate new circumstances to secure what she wants, which is simply the return of her friendship with Earl. To get him back in her life, Bette must arrange the breakup of his disastrous affair with a na├»ve young wannabe actress from Bette’s well-heeled family who can’t understand why Earl “loses” sexual interest in her, or why he would be desperate enough to regard her as a social life-raft.

As the author explains in an afterword on style, this novel was influenced by the “kitchen-sink” realism of the 1950s, yet the dialogue sometimes suggests vintage Hollywood and grand opera. (Schulman has explained that this novel was originally conceived as a play, and it has an “intermission.”) Characters express their emotional truth with startling eloquence, much as the author does in her non-fiction on moral issues. The reader is reminded that art, “realistic” or otherwise, is usually better-organized than life, which is why both fiction and advertising can hold our attention.

A Thin Bright Line (Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press)

This novel takes place in some of the same territory, but its realist style has a harder edge. This is a fictional reconstruction of the last decade in the life of the author’s lesbian aunt, for whom she was named: Lucybelle Bledsoe from small-town Arkansas. In a lengthy postscript, the author outlines her methods of discovering as much evidence as she could about a remarkable science editor and possible novelist (although her novel was never found) who died in a house fire at age forty-three, in 1966.

The possibility that the original Lucy Bledsoe was murdered is troubling and not completely beyond reason, considering contemporary government policy regarding “homosexuals” (not to mention women with access to classified information) as security risks in the “Cold War” of the United States vs. the Soviet Union. However, the author Lucy Bledsoe has chosen to accept the official verdict, that the fire was an accident, and that the only smokescreen might have come from a smoldering cigarette. This approach allows her to focus on her aunt’s life rather than her death. It seems likely that the original Lucy Bledsoe would prefer to be remembered that way.

The result is a tightly-plotted, suspenseful novel which would be absorbing even if all the characters were completely fictional. This is the stuff of the lesbian paperbacks of yesteryear, complete with coded conversations, blackmail, and love that is all the sweeter because it comes with such a high price. There are convincing cameo appearances by actual writers of the time, including Valerie Taylor and Lorraine Hansberry, and references to Lucy’s idols: fiction-writer Willa Cather and science-writer Rachel Carson.

The story is told in a no-nonsense third-person voice, but Lucy’s personality comes through in her words and her actions. She appears thin and pale, straightforward and logical, with diverse skills: she earned a Masters Degree in Literature from Columbia University, dropped out of a Ph.D. program, and spent much of her working life editing reports by geologists and other scientists.

As an independent person and a closeted member of an outlawed community, the original Lucy Bledsoe has no qualms about spending time in Chicago with an appealing black ("colored," "negro") woman who runs her own taxi company (thanks to her training as a mechanic during the War) and who loves to take photos. However, when Lucy shows up at a bar in Stella’s neighborhood, looking for her, the presence of a white woman attracts a degree of attention that makes Stella uncomfortable. Police harassment is a fact of life that makes it necessary for Stella to pay regular bribes just to stay in business.

Aside from de facto segregation, does Stella have any other reason for running hot-and-cold with Lucy? Well, yes, and to make things more complicated, there is a spy in Lucy’s workplace who gets paid to report on her. Fun times.

The thin bright line of the title is a glow on the horizon which promises future discoveries about the nature of the earth, as well as a future in which lesbians like her niece could live openly, without fear. The semi-transparent brilliance of ice is a kind of motif in this novel, in which Lucy’s work on a project in the Arctic foreshadows the author’s repeated trips to Antarctica, and her use of that continent as a setting for fiction.

In both novels, a dazzlingly clear light is shone into dark corners. Queer life in the pre-Stonewall era has rarely been presented this movingly or well.


  1. These sound like great works, Jean. I like the 40's-50's beat era memoirs although the beat novels themselves can go either way for me. Have enjoyed reading Anais Nin's Diary as well as a huge biography of William Burroughs.

  2. I agree. Thanks for shining the light on these.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Daddy X and Lisabet. I remember seeing a review of that big bio of William Burroughs - something else I need to read, since I read Naked Lunch many years ago, and then watched the movie version (which some said could never be made) for the Saskatchewan Film Classification Board. It's interesting to compare actual fiction written in a certain era and modern work that is set back then. no matter how much period flavour a current author throws in, or how diligently researched the work is, no one can really go back to the past, so there is always a kind of double perspective in historical fiction. My mother's stories about hanging out with her artsy high school friends (all Jewish)in New York in the 1930s seemed to have a kind of heartbreaking innocence because none of them could predict WW2, let alone the Holocaust. Nowadays, we know what happened next.

  4. These both do sound fascinating. The Village in the 50s has a strong hold on my imagination. By the time I got there in the late 60s (only sporadically, pretty much as a tourist) it was interesting times, to say the least, but I felt a nostalgia for the earlier times that I never actually knew.

  5. Awesome reviews, Jean. Thanks so much. The Thin Bright Line appeals to me a lot more, but I think that's because the way you describe the style matches my taste better. Great recommendations!


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