A collection of pulp fiction titles centering on lesbian characters and lesbianism.
A collection of eighty-five pulp fiction titles dealing with lesbian characters and lesbianism. Parts of this collection are extremely fragile and should be handled with care. The collection is arranged chronologically by date of publication.
Collection arranged by date of publication into one series.
Biographical / Historical:
Between 1950 and 1965, over 500 distinct lesbian pulp novels were published in the US. These novels were exceptionally influential on lesbian communities in a time where LGBT media was extremely limited. Sold at the counters of grocery stores and in other common shops, these novels became a tangible way for many women to interact with a community they would otherwise have been unable to access. Some of the best loved books were the work of lesbian or bisexual women, many of whom—such as the influential Artemis Smith (Dr. Annselm L.N.V. Morpurgo) and Ann Bannon (Ann Weldy)— went on to become vocal activists and scholars in LGBT matters. Authors of this genre generally used pseudonyms for publication, which helped conceal their identity both as writers of explicit content and potentially as lesbians. Pseudonyms frequently crossed or confused the author's gender, such as in the case of Kay Addams (male author Orrie Hitt), Randy Salem (lesbian author Pat Perdue), and March Hastings (lesbian author Sally Singer). Some writers chose to use multiple pseudonyms, such as Gilbert Fox (published under Dallas Mayo and Paul Russo, among others), and some chose to use a separate name for each genre of pulp novel which they produced. This practice had the benefit of concealing some authors' outright connection to lesbian culture but was also a practice of pulp more generally. Because pulp was poor quality literature, due primarily to the constraints of cheap publishing and quick production, writers often intended these novels to be their introduction to large publishing houses. Authors would begin by writing pulp and then, once they had become accustomed to the industry, would move onto more serious works without having trashy pulp as part of their reputation.
The majority of lesbian pulp novels are original stories created for mass production by American writers. A few key exceptions to this rule existed. The first was reproductions of older lesbian literary works, including Radclyffe Hall's influential The Well of Loneliness (original 1928), Lillian Hellman's script for the play The Children's Hour (original 1934), and Anna Elisabet Weirauch's The Scorpion (original 1919, published in German). The other exception is international works, which would be translated and printed in pulp for the US. Tereska Torrès's Women's Barracks (1950), the novel which started the lesbian pulp genre, was translated from its original French for its mass production in America. Other translated works include Lucie Marchal's, The Mesh (original French, published as pulp in 1959), Francoise Mallet's The Loving and the Daring (original French, also known in English as The Illusionist, published as pulp in 1952), and Torrès's By Cecile (1963). Many of these republished works are among the most favorable to lesbians, as they reflect personal experiences of the author or are canonical entries into broader lesbian literature. While many of the best-regarded novels in the genre were written by lesbian or bisexual women, the bulk of what was produced by American publishers was by male authors for a male audience. Considered perverse erotica, lesbian pulps were written and marketed towards male gratification.
These pulp novels occupy a conflicted space in lesbian culture. Because they were published and distributed en masse, these books became a way for closeted lesbian and bisexual women in areas where there were no strong LGBT communities to find self-recognition and connection with others. Some found the books changing how they thought of their sexuality, particularly if they had only experienced straight relationships. However, buying and keeping these books could be taboo, despite their general popularity. Purchasers often tried to buy lesbian pulps as covertly as possible, and many took advantage of the disposable quality of pulp and abandoned or destroyed the books when they had finished reading them. Publishers were willing to produce lesbian novels because they were an extremely profitable genre, but the US Post Office refused to deliver "explicit" materials, including any promotion of lesbian relationships—regardless of the actual sexual content within. Authors circumvented this issue by creating narratives which appeared to condemn lesbianism. Characters would frequently be killed, go insane, convert back to heterosexuality, or be otherwise fatally punished in the conclusion of the book. In others, the entire novel's plot would include a pervasive element of shame or corruption when a young woman would be manipulated into a lesbian relationship. Compounding these issues is the trite or formulaic nature of the plots, which were often a product of the hastened publishing schedule and low budget for production. These factors create difficulty for many in the current lesbian community to relate to the condemning nature of the genre, particularly as many works of far better quality in both writing and representation have appeared in recent decades.
The cover artwork of these novels is another important aspect. Although there were some strong communities of LGBT women, particularly in urban areas, many had difficulty finding or accessing them. Particularly for those who lived in rural areas or with deep homophobia, the covers of pulp novels would be the first time they saw themselves reflected in popular culture. Lesbian pulp covers usually contained a depiction of two or more women, at least one of whom was exhibiting an identifiable lesbian desire. Common themes included women undressing in private or in communal rooms, women ignoring men in favor of gazing at another woman's body, or women in the midst of a romantic encounter. These covers generally teased at the sexual content within the books, which was typical of all pulp romances. Every identified artist for this collection's covers is a man. Although some women did paint for pulp novels and magazines, they would be frequently relegated to less controversial subjects, such as demure heterosexual romances, and in the rare case horrors, mysteries, and thrillers. Many of the artists for the lesbian novels also produced for many other pulp publications. Artists would receive the covers as an assignment from their publishing company, often without any contact with the author. Because of the tight production schedule, they would often be working off skimming the book's contents, its (publisher-generated) title, or in the lucky case a plot synopsis. Due to this, although some covers hint at community subgroups such as butch and femme aesthetics, they are generally inaccurate to the fashion of real lesbian communities.
Some cover artists of the novels remain unidentified, which can be for a multitude of reasons. First, in the early 1950s many pulp publishers did not allow artists to keep the rights to their work, and so the paintings were considered the sole property of the company. Some publishers would even reuse covers, as is the case for Kay Addams's Warped Desire (1960) and Richard Villanova's Her Woman (1962). Although artists were eventually given more rights, many were unable to claim important works as their intellectual property. Second, because of the controversial nature of the genre, many artists chose not to include specific covers in their portfolio. Like the authors, pulp was sometimes considered a way to launch a more extensive fine arts career, although successful artists often committed to long-term work in the industry. It was far more acceptable to use works from other pulp genres like mystery and horror as promotional and professional material. Paul Rader is one of the few artists who was able and willing to sign his covers. Many pulp illustrators were fresh graduates of New York art schools, but Rader entered the industry later in life. Rader's work was exceptionally suited to the demands of romance and lesbian pulps, because he was notably better at depicting "sexy" bodies than painting for other genres, like sci-fi. When Midwood Books was founded in 1957, he was one of the first to paint for them and quickly became a favorite of the publisher. Six of the novels in this collection have covers that can be attributed to Rader.
Lesbian pulps were the backdrop to an extensive fight over the right to produce and sell explicit content. The publication of Women's Barracks is famous as the event which precipitated the formation of the House Select Committee on Current Pornographic Materials from 1952-1953. The Committee ultimately accomplished little in restricting pulp novels, but it did cause editorial changes to the book (the addition of a disapproving narrator) and demonstrated political attitudes towards the genre. In 1956, a bookseller was punished with 30 days of imprisonment for selling copies of Mark Tryon's Sweeter than Life, republished after the lawsuit as The Twisted Loves of Nym O'Sullivan. This case was eventually appealed to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Smith v. California (1959) decision, which voided the California law preventing the sale of "obscene" content on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment right to free speech. Over the course of the 1960s, lawsuits continued to erode the restrictions on explicit content. Rather than boost the lesbian pulp genre, however, this caused its collapse.
The expansion of publishers' rights meant that the Postal Service could no longer deny delivering lesbian-friendly or pornographic novels on content alone. However, mass publishers were not willing to print works which portrayed lesbianism positively or which increased the amount of graphic content. Smaller presses and collectives began to emerge, which were able to siphon the market for pulps with novels that were better written and more satisfying for their audiences. Unable and unwilling to meet this new competition, publishers like Midwood and Beacon-Signal turned towards the other genres of pulp fiction. The year 1965 marks the end of the lesbian pulp era. Though lesbian fiction had improved in quality, smaller presses were unable to reach the same closeted and isolated women that pulps appealed to as they were considerably limited in their geographic distribution by the size of their operations and the cost of shipping. For many lesbians who had relied on pulps in lieu of community, their access to LGBT content became incredibly restricted in the coming decades. However, lesbian pulp fiction incentivized a new generation of writers to produce better literature through the 1970s and 80s. Publishing houses like Naiad Press were established, which were able to support the ambition of these new authors. Although genuine pulp manufacture had ceased, these presses would continue to reprint the most influential lesbian pulps for the next generation to enjoy. (Written by Sara Kunkemueller.)
Blakemore, Erin. "Pulp Fiction Helped Define American Lesbianism," Jstor Daily, 2019. Accessed through https://daily.jstor.org/pulp-fiction-helped-define-american-lesbianism/.
Fonesca, Sarah. "Reality Is a Drag: I'd Rather Live in Lesbian Pulp Fiction," them, Mar. 2019. Accessed through https://www.them.us/story/lesbian-pulp-fiction.
Frost, Natasha. "The Lesbian Pulp Fiction That Saved Lives," Atlas Obscura, May 2018. Accessed through https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/lesbian-pulp-fiction-ann-bannon.
Hermes, Joke. "Sexuality in Lesbian Romance Fiction," Feminist Review, no. 42, Autumn 1992, pp. 49-66. Accessed through https://www.jstor.org/stable/1395129.
Keller, Yvonne. "'Was It Right to Love Her Brother's Wife so Passionately?': Lesbian Pulp Novels and U.S. Lesbian Identity, 1950-1965," American Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 2, Jun. 2005, pp. 385-410. Accessed through https://www.jstor.org/stable/40068271.
Munroe, Lynn. "The Notebooks of Paul Rader," Lynn Munroe Books, n.d. Accessed through http://lynn-munroe-books.com/list64/RaderHome/RaderNotebooks-home.htm.
Rabinowitz, Paula. "Slips of the Tongue: Uncovering Lesbian Pulp," American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street, Princeton University Press, 2014, pp. 184-205. Accessed through https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7zvdxq.11.
Many cover artists for this collection identified through:
"Pulp Covers: The Best of the Worst," n.d. Accessed through pulpcovers.com.
Saunders, David. "Alphabetical Index of Pulp Artists," Wild American Field Guide to Pulp Artists, n.d. Accessed through https://www.pulpartists.com/index.html.
Collection purchased from Swann Auction Galleries, New York, New York in September 2021. Funds for purchase provided by the Jackson Fund, NMAH.
Collection is open for research.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions. Portions of this collection are extremely fragile; any photocopying must first be approved by the on-site reference archivist.
Access to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections is by appointment only. Visit our website for more information on scheduling a visit or making a digitization request. Researchers interested in accessing born-digital records or audiovisual recordings in this collection must use access copies.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival records: 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, Smithsonian Institution.
This collection is temporarily closed to researchers due to archival processing and digitization. Contact Reference Services for more information.
The Clement Greenberg papers, 1937-1983. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art.
Claire Falkenstein papers, circa 1914-1997, bulk 1940-1990. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the Getty Foundation.
The papers of painter Joan Semmel measure 5.9 linear feet and span the dates of 1949-2013 with the bulk of the material dated circa 1960s-2013. The papers reflect her career and activities as a painter, writer, feminist, and educator through biographical materials, correspondence, interviews, writings, project files, teaching files, printed material, and photographic materials.
Scope and Contents:
The papers of painter Joan Semmel measure 5.9 linear feet and span the dates of 1949-2013 with the bulk of the material dated circa 1960s-2013. The papers reflect her career and activities as a painter, writer, feminist and educator through biographical materials, correspondence, interviews, writings, project files, teaching files, printed material, and photographic materials.
Among the biographical materials are awards, educational records,and audiovisual recordings about Joan Semmel and her work.
Professional correspondence concerns exhibitions, publication permissions, panel discussions, symposia, and visiting artist and summer school appointments. Also included are letters of recommendation for colleagues and students. A scattering of personal letters are from novelist David Markson and José Antonio, both of whom had personal relationships with Semmel. There are also a few letters from friends of a purely social nature and a few letters concerning routine personal affairs.
There are two interviews with Joan Semmel on video recordings, one was conducted for a television broadcast and the other is unidentified.
Writings by Semmel include the manuscript, illustrations, research material, and letters relating to her unpublished book about women's erotic art. Also found are articles, artist's statements, and notes for talks about her work. The writings about Semmel consist of several student papers.
Project files relate to two exhibitions curated by Semmel, Contemporary Women: Consciousness and Content (1977) at The Brooklyn Museum of Art School and Private Worlds (2000). One file is related to a project in which Semmel was involved to document the role and status of women in the arts.
Scattered teaching files concern a course about contemporary women artists developed and taught by Semmel for the women's studies program at Rutgers University, circa 1978. Also documented are summer programs at Skowhegan and Sommerakademie in Austria where Semmel served as an instructor.
Binders (now unbound) of printed materials were compiled by Semmel consisting of exhibition catalogs and announcements for solo and group shows, reviews, posters, and miscellaneous printed matter.
Photographs of people include Joan Semmel, friends and colleagues. Among the individuals pictured are: writer David Markson, painter John Hardy, José Antonio Nieto; and feminist artists: Judy Bernstein, Mary Beth Edelson, Eunice Golden, Nancy Grossman, Harmony Hammond, Miriam Schapiro, Sylvia Sleigh, and May Stevens. There are slides, photographs, color photocopies and digital images of Semmel's paintings. Of particular interest are photographs, photocopies of photographs, and digital images that served as source material for paintings, including portrait commissions.
The collection is arranged in 8 seres:
Series 1: Biographical Materials, 1949-2013 (Box 1; 0.6 linear feet)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1973-2013 (Boxes 1-2; 1.2 linear feet)
Series 3: Interviews, circa 1970s-1986 (Box 2; 0.2 linear feet)
Series 4: Writings, 1970s-2009 (Box 3; 0.7 linear feet)
Series 5: Project Files, 1972-2000 (Box 3; 3 folders)
Series 6: Teaching Files, 1970s-2000 (Box 3; 0.4 linear feet)
Series 7: Printed Material, circa 1960s-2013 (Boxes 4-6, OV 8; 2.2 linear feet)
Series 8: Photographic Materials, circa 1965-2013 (Boxes 6-7; 0.6 linear feet)
Biographical / Historical:
Joan Semmel (1932- ) is an abstract painter working in New York City and Easthampton, N. Y. Semmel's work explores erotic themes and the female body. She taught painting at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University from 1978-2000.
Born in New York City in 1932, Joan Semmel studied at the Cooper Union, the Art Students League of New York, and received her BFA in 1963 and MFA in 1972 from Pratt Institute. Semmel moved to Spain in 1963 and exhibited her abstract expressionist work in galleries and museums there before returning to New York in 1970.
Upon Semmel's return to New York, she became involved in the feminist art movement. One of the original Guerrilla Girls, Semmel was involved with several feminist activist art groups devoted to gender equality in the art world. Semmel spent years researching a book about women's erotic art. At the same time, her painting style shifted to incorporate more figurative imagery and she began working on series that explored the themes of the female body, desire, and aging. Each series consisted of 10-30 paintings, produced over several years, among them First and Second Erotic Series, Self Images, Portraits, Figure in Landscape, Gymnasium, Locker Room, Overlays, and Mannequins.
In addition to her teaching career at Rutgers University as a tenured Professor of Painting, Semmel taught briefly at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, Skowhegan, and the Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg, Germany. Over the years she served as a visiting artist, critic, and lecturer at many colleges, and participated in numerous symposia, panel discussions and conferences. She has received several grants and awards including Macdowell Colony and Yaddo residencies.
Semmel has exhibited widely and prolifically in the United States, Spain, the Netherlands, and South America, in addition to curating two exhibitions, Contemporary Women: Consciousness and Content (1977) at The Brooklyn Museum of Art School and Private Worlds - Art in General (2000). Her work is represented in the permanent collections of many museums including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Chrysler Museum, Guild Hall, Museum of Women in the Arts, Parrish Art Museum, and Vassar College Museum.
Joan Semmel continues to live and work in New York City and Easthampton, NY.
Donated by Joan Semmel in 2014.
Use of original material requires an appointment. Use of archival audiovisual recordings with no duplicate access copy requires advance notice.
Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C. Research Center. Use of archival audiovisual recordings with no duplicate access copy requires advance notice. Contact Reference Services for more information.
Lucy R. Lippard papers, 1930s-2007, bulk 1960s-1990s. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Funding for the processing of this collection was provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art