Sunday, May 7, 2023
"Desire So big It had to Be brave: Ann Bannon's Lesbian Novels" written in January 1983
It has been three years since I have written on this blog and yet, it is still here and I can see some of you whom I will never know make your way to older postings. Thank you. I am now using the blog to make avialalbe some of my orphan writings that have never been published or have been in books now no longer available. If this helps a young scholar or student or anyone, I am very pleased. Desire So Big It Had To Be Brave: Ann Bannon’s Lesbian Novels Joan Nestle, Jan. 1983 (With gratitude to the Lesbian Herstory Archives and Saskia Scheffer for so quickly finding this unpublished essay. Typed on a typewriter, the mss had the following handwritten across the top: “Ann Bannon. Odd Girl Out, I Am a Woman, woman in the Shadows, Journey to A Woman and Beebo Brinker. All available from Naiad Press Inc., at 3.95$ each.”) Ann Bannon has come home, and I have waited twenty years to greet her. The author of the most read Lesbian paperbacks of the fifties and early sixties has resurfaced thanks to the efforts of Barbara Grier who had the ability to ferret out pieces of our herstory like a Lesbian retriever. When I first heard the news, I felt immediately vindicated for those times I had taken a leap of faith when I had answered, “No, Ann Bannon was not a man” after discussing the Lesbian paperback section of the Lesbian Herstory Archives slide show. I had already met Ann Aldrich (aka Vin Packer), March Hastings (aka Randy Salem) and knew they were part of our community. A staunch and wonderful woman, Valerie Taylor had already visited the Archives bringing with her the censored copy of Whisper Their Love that South Africa had declared too upsetting for their racist shores. I had seen photographs of Paula Christian speaking at one of the Lesbian writers’ conferences in Chicago, and Claire Morgan’s jacket photographs clearly announced her as a woman [retyping this in 2023, of course, we now know much more about Patricia Highsmith]; the only unknown still remaining in the pantheon of Lesbian paperback authors was Ann Bannon. When I was a fem in the fifties looking for Lesbian novels to read, I never questioned who wrote them if they gave me what I wanted: a world I could recognize and sex that I could respond to. Ann Bannon’s books did both. I had read The Well of Loneliness when I was sixteen and loved it as an upper class adventure story. I was fascinated by its European ambiance, its world of villas and mansions with their horse barns, its Paris salons and Welsh ambulance ladies but Stephen and her world were vacation from the realities of life. As a working class daughter of the Bronx who had been making love to Roz J. since I was ten years old, I knew I never stood a chance with Stephen but Beebo—well, maybe. Bannon’s books were of lives I could touch and of places where I walked and in the late fifties, I needed both these books—the emotional grandeur of The Well and the Village bar scenes of the Bannon world. In our archival presentations we have often referred to these early works as ‘survival literature,’ meaning that in their times they gave some of us something we could get anywhere else. Finding, buying and keeping the paperbacks was a political act. Called trash by the literary world and pornography by the commercial world, these books were hidden away on the pulp racks of the more sleezy drugstores. To pick the books out, carry them to the counter and face the other shoppers and the cashier was often tantamount to a coming our declaration. But all across the country, Lesbians were doing it; our need was greater than our shame. The books became parts of the personal caches of Lesbians, lent out only to special friends or to a young woman entering Lesbian life. The appeal of these novels is a complicated cultural issue; they were filled with hidden messages for me, not about depression or self-hatred which I filtered out because I knew it was the societal line and because my desire was greater then my despair, but about women straying off the beaten paths, about a visible sexuality, about a romantic energy, about a bravado that supported me in those young Lesbian years of the fifties. Now Ann Bannon’s five book series is available in an inexpensive Lesbian produced edition that will allow the Lesbian reader of the eighties to recreate an historical journey. The novels revolve around the adventures of three major Lesbian characters, Laura, Beth and Beebo Brinker, the Village butch who earned her living delivering pizzas and running an elevator so she would not have to wear a skirt. The fourth main character is Jack Mann, a friendly protective gay man who offers shelter to all three women at different times throughout the series. The first four books are about the education of Laura and Beth who move from sexual naivete to full Lesbian lust. Scattered throughout the novels are straight women who want a Lesbian experience, confused straight women who just want to be good friends and bisexual women who seem to be able to cause problems in both worlds. These shifting surfaces of women relationships does reflect the unpredictable world of female bonding in the fifties. But I am not getting to the essence of the books, how they start in a college dorm in Illinois, move through Chicago and end up in Greenwich Village, down the stairs of a fictious Lesbian bar called the Cellar, how they capture the sexual tensions of the times without ever using clinically specific words. In I am A Woman, particularly, Bannon creates a relentless world of desire, confusion and risk that is almost physically exhausting to read. The novels help to recreate a social history of pre1970 Lesbian life. In Odd Girl Out (1957) the only word used to refer to deviance ( the term of the time) is ‘homosexual.’ In the next novel, I Am a Woman (1959) Laura learns the terms, ‘gay,’ ‘ butch’ and ‘cruising’, and gets into a fight about the word ‘queer’ with Jack who is baiting her. Little by little, she learns about parts of her culture; she is told , “wear those pants, desert boots or car coat and men’s shirts and you are in business.” Bannon in one of the novels describes in a brief sentence the police clean up campaigns that went on regularly in the Village, “sweeping old dykes off the streets so young housewives would not be offended.” Most of all, Laura learns that there are women places called bars where women flirt with each other, pick each other up and make love. In whatever towns or cities these books were read, they were spreading the information that meant a new hope for trapped and isolated women. Beebo Brinker, the last book written in the series (1962) but out of sequence in the narrative development of the other novels, introduces us to a character we have already met in the earlier books as a passionate, sometimes jaded, sometimes, confused, butch. In this novel we see Beebo as a baby butch who hits the Village after being kicked out of a school in a middle American farm state for being too different. The cover of the original paper back shows a young, tired woman clutching a worn suitcase and leaning against a streetlamp that lights up the street’s name: “Gay Street.” Beebo soon masters her new city and goes on to become a Village regular. We will see her age, grow bitter, do some destructive things (for which Ann apologized in a recent Gay Community News interview) and eventually become a home for both Beth and Laura. There are sad moments, ugly moments in these books; they do not follow the eighties Lesbian feminist script. They were written in a different time by a housewife who hung out in the Village still not sure which one of these characters she was. Not revised memories, the novels are raw data, period pieces that are now finding themselves awake in another time, just as, in a way, the author is. The fifties were not a time that rewarded either difference or desire, The most prevailing literary metaphor for Lesbian life then was walking in the shadows. These novels ironically were blinking lights in that time of judgment; it is a delight to see Ann Bannon’s face in the light of day. Notes: for more information, see Maida Tilchen’s interview, “Ann Bannon: the Mystery Solved” in GCN (January 8, 1983, 8+ and an older article by Andrea Lowenstein, “Sad Stories: A Reflection on the Fiction of Ann Bannon” in GCN (May 24, 1980). Also Naiad press has reprinted some of Valerie Taylor’s early novels.