One of the most exciting things about our Special Collection of Biographies is the opportunity to discover wonderful writers that are often hard to come across in other places. In honour of LGBT+ History Month, I’ll focus on four brilliant autobiographical voices of the mid twentieth century who were once well known but who have sadly faded from view (they should all be household names, in my opinion)! All were gay, and given the times in which they wrote, references to their sexuality are woven through their work in very different ways, from oblique and coded “in jokes”, to more direct engagements with their experiences of relationships against the background of a bigoted society. They would not have wanted their work to be defined soley as representing their sexuality, as would not be the case with heterosexual writers – but they write about their sexuality in ways that tell us a lot about the society they inhabited and the experience of LGBT people within it.
I first discovered Denton Welch’s heartbreaking, hilarious voice in his memoir A Voice Through A Cloud, posthumously published in 1950, which describes his cycling accident aged 20 – he sustained injuries that changed his life and led to his death at 33. In Maiden Voyage and In Youth is Pleasure, Welch smuggles in references to his sexuality which though necessarily hidden in plain sight, are full of joy and a commitment to self-expression. He delights in meeting men under the radar of tediously conventional relatives (and it is important to remember the huge risks men ran at the time, when persecutory laws meant blackmail and prosecution were constant dangers). Under a stylish and often very funny surface is a narrative of courageous self-affirmation: Welch is always uncompromisingly himself. He was also a wonderful painter, and his idiosyncratic voice was admired by figures such as Edith Sitwell, William Burroughs and Alan Bennett. His diaries from 1942 to 1948 are a unique record of a Bohemian world.
R. Ackerley joined the BBC in 1928 and helped set up the influential Talks Department. From 1935 to 1959 he was literary editor of The Listener, the BBC magazine which was a cultural institution.
He was a man of great learning and, like Welch, a wonderful writer. We have volumes of his diaries and correspondence – and the memoirs Hindoo Holiday (1932), describing his time serving as an Indian Maharaja’s secretary and My Dog Tulip (1956) about his relationship with his beloved dog Queenie. We Think the World of You (1960) is a novel, but was based on his own passionate relationship, across the class divide, with a petty criminal who remained married; they were very different characters and significant hearbreak accrued from their irresolvable tensions, but Ackerley writes with subtlety and honesty about their affair, and his surprising friendship with his lover’s wife. He also wrote about the extraordinarily strange story of his father (who had another hidden family – the daughter of this secret menage, Diana Petrie, wrote a fabulous book about it, which we also have in the collection) – as well as a moving memoir of his troubled, exasperating but adored sister.
The American poet and novelist May Sarton wrote 13 volumes of memoir, between 1959 and 1996, all of which we have in our collection (one with a beautiful personal inscription in her handwriting). They are vivid immersions in her experience of the natural world, and in the patterns and processes of her own intellectual and emotional life. Her love for Judith Matlack is a subject she returns to often. Sarton wrote movingly about the courage it took to portray lesbian characters in her novels, which in the 60s were studied by feminist academics. She declared her hope that she not be looked upon predominantly as a lesbian writer, but simply as a writer who engaged with the universal themes of human love. But it is undeniable that her writing about erotic love between women was enormously important in giving it parity with heterosexual love stories and letting tenderness and lyricism challenge concealment and shame.
Lorraine Hansberry is probably the best known of these four writers, due to recent revivals of her seminal play A Raisin in the Sun, with which she became the first African American woman to have a play performed on Broadway at the age of just 29. She was a key figure in the pan-African intellectual movement, and had friendships with other giants of the African-American artistic and political scene such as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes. James Baldwin was a close friend and devotee and declared her work to be ground breaking, and Martin Luther King was an admirer who expected her to inspire future generations. She inspired Nina Simone with her play To be Young, Gifted and Black, which is also the title of her autobiography.
Hansberry married a man, Robert Nemiroff, and did not reveal her true sexuality due to anxiety about the hostility she might face. However, as she moved into her thirties, she moved towards coming out, describing herself as “committed to this homosexuality thing” – this wasn’t straightforward in the early 60s, but Hansberry had relationships with women and a circle of gay friends. She expressed the resolution to “create my life—not just accept it” – tragically, she shared Welch’s fate of dying in her early 30s. Huge though her achievements were, it is tantalising to think what more she might have achieved, and what her searing intelligence might have added to debates on racial and sexual politics as the decades moved on.
The struggle for equality for LGBT+ people is far from over, and the fight against prejudice must continue. But these four writers shed light on the huge pressures on gay people in the twentieth century to keep their true voices silent and their true loves hidden, and how people of artistic genius negotiated these pressures. I hope you will enjoy getting to know them better through our collection.
Claudia, Central Library Basement Biography Store