Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Jean Desbordes by Jean Cocteau

Jean Desbordes (c.1928) Jean Cocteau (French, 1889-1963)   Ink wash, watercolor and pastel on paper
Jean Desbordes (c.1928)
Jean Cocteau (French, 1889-1963)  
Ink wash, watercolor and pastel on paper


Friday, June 23, 2023

Why Such a Strong Reaction? : Mary Jane Ward's Review of Fritz Peters' The World Next Door

TOP ROW: The World Next Door, New York : Farrar, Straus, 1949 with author, Fritz Peters. BOTTOM ROW: Author, Mary Jane Ward and her novel, The Snake Pit, New York : Random House, 1946.
TOP ROW: The World Next Door, New York : Farrar, Straus, 1949
with author, Fritz Peters. BOTTOM ROW: Author, Mary Jane Ward
and her novel, The Snake Pit, New York : Random House, 1946.
The World Next Door, Fritz Peters' freshman novel, was released on September 15, 1949 and was well received by the majority of reviewers. While some, particularly those from more conservative outlets, took issue with the gay aspect of the story, the consensus was that Fritz Peters had begun what could prove to be an extraordinary literary career.  In fact, the book's dustjacket highlighted advance praise from Jean Stafford, Eudora Welty and others.1 When some of the country's top editors and columnists were asked in late 1949 about the best writers to have emerged in the post-war period, Fritz Peters was mentioned alongside other notables such as Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and John Horne Burns, to name a few.2

Reviews of The World Next Door often referenced and compared it to Mary Jane Ward's landmark The Snake Pit from 1946 due to its focus on the patient experience within a psychiatric hospital. While some reviewers suggested that it held its own against the standard-bearer of psychiatric novels, others thought that it was in fact superior. When The New York Times Book Review published its review of The World Next Door penned by Ms. Ward it became the talk of the literary world.3, 4 It was much discussed because it was so out of step with the consensus view of the work. In order to understand the source of this scathing review, one must first try to understand Mary Jane Ward's experience publishing her own novel based on her stay in a psychiatric hospital.

Excerpt from Nightmare Revisited, Mary Jane Ward's review of Fritz Peters' The World Next Door.  New York Times, Sept. 18, 1949, p.BR6
Excerpt from Nightmare Revisited, Mary Jane Ward's
review of Fritz Peters' The World Next Door.4
The Snake Pit
, based on the author's own experience in psychiatric care, was quite successful after it was published, becoming a Book of the Month Club selection, and by 1948 being made into a successful film starring Olivia de Havilland. But it didn't find its way to being published easily. Ms. Ward struggled to publish for some time before the Snake Pit was picked up. Once published, her work was praised by Karl Menninger of The Menninger Clinic and she embarked on speaking tours—engaging psychiatric professionals with the aim of improving equity of conditions and treatment for patients of all races and classes. Ward had a platform and was affecting significant change. 

For all of the issues that Ward hoped to change in psychiatric care, she saw those doctors and staff providing treatment as generally good people trying to do good work. Peters' novel provides insight into the male experience, and the experience at a military hospital in the post World War II years in particular—a very different situation than the one Ward described.

Unlike, Ms. Ward, Fritz Peters appeared to become an overnight success—blurbed by major authors and also drawing attention to the shortcomings of psychiatric care at that time. The World Next Door, based on Peters' own experience, sees its protagonist, David Mitchell admit during the course of his treatment that he had a previous homosexual experience. Because patient records were available to staff of all levels on the ward, it became common knowledge. This knowledge was used against him by ward staff, culminating in a sexual assault. But because the word of a psychiatric patient can't be trusted, his accusation wasn't believed by the doctors.

Did Mary Jane Ward simply not find plausible the idea of staff behaving in this way? Or did Ward find Peters' characterization of hospital staff as not only unfeeling but as potentially sexually predatory a threat to all of the work that she had done in recent years to improve the patient experience? Was this simply a case of sour grapes for Peters' writing in a genre that she had dominated? Or was it more about the relative ease with which the literary establishment welcomed Peters' work after Ward had struggled for years to get published?  Was his relative ease of being published down to sexism? One thing is for sure, Peters certainly struck a nerve.

This post is meant to highlight an anomalous review of Fritz Peters' The World Next Door, while giving the reader a sense of how the book was generally received and what Peters' literary future was perceived to hold. Mary Jane Ward's The Snake Pit is an extraordinary work and remains a favorite of early Cold War era psychiatric novels. Both authors and their novels, which offer different perspectives on a common theme, are well worth a read.

1  Bixbi, G. (1980, Win.). Blurbs: Welty on Fritz Peters. Eudora Welty Newsletter, 4(1), p.2-6
2  Babcock, F. (1950, Jan. 1). Among the Authors. Chicago Daily Tribune, p.F6.
3  Kilgallen, D. (1949, Nov. 3). Voice of Broadway. Olean Times-Herald (Olean, NY), p.18.
4  Ward, M. J. (1949, Sept. 18). Nightmare Revisited. New York Times Book Review, p.6.

Friday, June 9, 2023

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

The Welcome by Hubert Creekmore

The Welcome by Hubert Creekmore ; New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948
New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948
Don returns home to Ashton, Mississippi after having left for New York and struggling there in the Depression of the 1930s. His mother needs him to care for her after his father's death and now that he's back, wants to monopolize his time to the exclusion of his friends and love interests. His best friend, Jim, had married Doris before Don left Ashton, thus closing off their relationship. Upon his return, unresolved feelings and societal expectations come to the fore. Can Don and Jim simply be friends after having loved one another in the past? Are they still interested in being friends?  How do they handle the expectation to marry and have children? Is it fair to any woman for a gay man to marry her?

Set during the 1930s in a small town, it is an environment where everyone knows everyone else's business while everyone simultaneously believes that their struggles are their own inner secret. Creekmore highlights the significant social changes during the interwar years and how various characters have adjusted at different speeds and to different levels. What do men's friendships look like? What is an acceptable level of closeness between men? What is the role of women? Must they marry? What does it say about them if they don't.

Tray, a childhood friend to both Don and Jim is seen by some as basic—certainly not among the elite of the town. He, on the other hand, accepts everyone for who they are and is depicted as both the everyman as well as the sage advisor to both of his friends. Tray offers these wise words that speak to the theme of the book and speak to the individual struggles of all of the characters: "If only people could forgive each other for loving." 

Written in close third person, the reader comes to understand how each character thinks of their place in the world and the few options they perceive themselves to have. Particularly in Part One, as the author introduces the characters, he uses that close third to excellent effect by focusing a chapter on a particular character, introducing another character during the action of the chapter who then leaves by the end only to show up as the focus of the subsequent chapter. It's a skillful way of creating the community of Ashton and assisting the reader in understanding the characters' relationships to one another. 

Creekmore doesn't rely on simple resolutions either—such as killing off one or both of the gay protagonists which might have been more typical of the time. Likewise he also doesn't give us a happily ever after ending. The lives he presents are complex and allowing the characters to be complicated, with difficult choices to make, results in a story that feels real— both relatable and believable. 

The Welcome by Hubert Creekmore ; Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 2023
Jackson : University Press
of Mississippi, 2023

After being out of print and virtually unfindable for decades, Phillip Gordon has shepherded a 2023 reissue through The University Press of Mississippi to which he has also provided an introduction. Gordon places The Welcome within the context of what little is known about Creekmore's life, particularly his friendship with Eudora Welty. For those interested in early gay literature, especially as regards life in the rural south, Mr. Gordon has done the world a great service by reviving this lost gem.

Bibliographies & Ratings: Cory (IV); Garde (Primary 73, **); Mattachine Review (IV); Young (848,*)

Bibliographies & Ratings II: Austen (116); Gunn (American 41a); Levin (80); Slide (15)

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

In Memoriam by Alice Winn

In Memoriam by Alice Winn ; New York : Knopf, 2023
New York : Knopf, 2023
It's 1914 and Henry Gaunt and Sydney Ellwood, still in boarding school, follow the news from the war with excitement, including the heroic deaths of their friends. Gaunt, half German, enlists as a way to limit the anti-German sentiment he and his family might experience and to leave behind the feelings for Ellwood that he can't acknowledge, much less act upon. Ellwood, also silently pining for Gaunt soon follows.

The author uses a variety of forms, including letters and issues of the school newspaper, The Preshutian, to follow Gaunt, Ellwood and their friends through the actions of the war, including the horrors of the Somme and the deaths of many. 

Boarding school novels set in the 1920s often discuss the 'Old Boys'—those former students who fought in World War I and sometimes return for cricket matches against the current students.  Winn has flipped this by constructing a boarding school novel that highlights the youth and excitement of the students but then follows them into the war. What is glorified in bravery by the school and its students is a horror laid bare through their experience of the war. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023