By Silas Polkinghorne
Paperback cover from the University collection.
Desire in the Shadows, Forbidden Sex, The Loving and The Daring – these are some of the titles in the University’s collection of queer paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s now on display in a new virtual exhibition.
Passions Uncovered: Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Pulps features literature that deals with the hidden or part-time lives of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, often set in Greenwich Village in New York City. “It’s always called ‘in the shadows,’ or ‘in the twilight world’ – something that’s not seen,” said Neil Richards, a retired University librarian who helped launch the exhibition.
Many people are interested in the paperback covers, which are lurid and over-the-top with a campy, retro feel. “People like to collect them, especially since they often have people in undress,” Richards said. “But other people actually get around to reading the text, and if you read the text critically, they are a good source of information about gay and lesbian life in the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, before gay liberation.”
He says the books show there was literature with gay and lesbian themes before the gay liberation movement that began in the late 1960s. “Some people think that the ‘50s were very traditional — everybody lived in the suburbs. And if you look at these things from the ‘50s, it shows that there was information about gays and lesbians.”
The paperbacks were mainstream and mass marketed, so “every page is not heavy breathing,” Richards said. Print runs began with 100,000 copies, and some of the books sold millions of copies from newsstands and drugstore racks.
“These show that there were lots of people trying to live gay lives … in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
For gay and lesbian people living outside of large cities at the time, the pulp paperbacks were the only source of information about their community. “It is sort of like life imitating art,” Richards said. “They read these things and they use the same vocabulary to describe it as their own experience.”
The Library’s set of queer paperbacks numbers more than 200 — some donated and others purchased from dealers or in eBay auctions — and is one of the largest and most diverse collections at a Canadian university, Richards said. On the whole, the Library’s collection of gay and lesbian literature is probably the biggest university collection in Canada, he added.
The online exhibition – part of the U of S Library website Saskatchewan Resources for Sexual Diversity – will be launched Oct. 6 at 2:30 p.m. in Special Collections, Room 301 in the Main Library.
Visit the exhibition at http://library2.usask.ca/srsd/pulps/.