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American Quarterly 57.2 (2005) 385-410
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"Was It Right to Love Her Brother's Wife So Passionately?":
Lesbian Pulp Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950–1965
At last, lesbians! . . . I read every one of these mass-market paperbacks I could get my hands on. . . . I was driven, searching for my nourishment like a starveling, grabbing at any crumb that looked, tasted, or smelled digestible.
No matter how embarrassed and ashamed I felt when I went to the cash register to buy these books [lesbian pulps], it was absolutely necessary for me to have them. I needed them the way I needed food and shelter for survival.
U.S.–centered scholars typically see the lesbian literary landscape in the fifty years between the publication of The Well of Loneliness in 1928 and the explosion of lesbian-feminist publishing in the early 1970s as a vast, uninhabitable desert best traversed only quickly, with one foot heavy on the gas. In fact, however, at least from 1950 to 1965, this period was flooded with lesbian fiction in the form of lesbian pulp novels, mass-market paperbacks with explicitly lesbian themes and sensationalized covers that enjoyed widespread distribution and millions in sales. Certain segments of contemporary academic and lesbian culture have appreciated these books and even republished them as historical, campy, or sexy fictions (and quite a few refrigerators bear magnets displaying pulp covers). Yet, the genre's undeniably homophobic and voyeuristic appeal to a heterosexual male audience intent on enjoying the "queer loves" of the "twilight woman" ties this image of lesbianism to heterosexual pornography. Hence, most scholars have ignored these books precisely because of their "low-brow" and often homophobic characteristics. As the above epigraphs attest, however, these nonliterary, often homophobic books mattered intensely to some women of the time. They supplied a nourishment that Lynch and Allegra, among others, found necessary to their survival—lesbian representation. [End Page 385]
For many lesbians in the 1950s and early 1960s, lesbian pulps engendered profoundly mixed feelings. For instance, Donna Allegra, a working-class black lesbian from New York City, writes, "I look back now and see where those books and their ideas rotted my guts and crippled my moral structure," but also: "In nothing and nowhere else in the world I live[d] in could I have seen the possibility of a lesbian happily-ever-after, when I was a teen, outside of [these pulps]."3 While Allegra's harsh indictment seems reason enough to never touch another pulp, the idea of pulps as the only location for a "lesbian happily-ever-after" leads me to speculate about the place of reading homophobic texts in lesbian identity formation. The 1950s were a time when most lesbians could not access any stories about themselves, much less positive ones, since lesbianism was mostly invisible in popular culture. When it was conceptualized at all in the 1950s, homosexuality was a crime, sin, or illness; many homosexuals thought of themselves as "flawed individuals" or people with "a homosexual problem." In this difficult context, lesbian pulps were crucial "survival literature," in Joan Nestle's evocative phrase, coveted and treasured for their sometimes positive and sometimes awful but decidedly lesbian and decidedly available representation.4
While Allegra's comments demonstrate these contradictory feelings on an autobiographical level, the 1994 landmark lesbian literary anthology, Chloe Plus Olivia: An Anthology of Lesbian Literature from the Seventeenth Century to the Present, is a prime example of the ambivalence lesbian pulps elicit on a scholarly level—dismissed, yet foundational. It is the first of its kind, an 812-page lesbian literary canon.5 Lillian Faderman names pulps as the first lesbian fiction she read in the very first sentences of the introduction:
In 1956, as a teenager, I began to consider myself a lesbian. Almost as soon as I claimed that identity, being already enamored of books, of course I looked around for literary representations that...