The Beginning of Gay Lit: Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler's The Young And Evil

The 1932 novel which marked the birth of a genre.

 

Charles Henri Ford was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, in 1908. His middle name was originally spelt with a ‘y’ but he changed it in later life, having wearied of being constantly asked if he was related to the automobile tycoon. His father owned hotels, and Charles’ childhood was spent on the road. He never settled for long in any one school and was frequently expelled, but he managed to stay in one of them long enough to edit a journal called The Brass Monkey. At the age of twenty he borrowed a hundred dollars and founded a poetry magazine, Blues. In search of material for an expatriate edition of the magazine he wrote to Gertrude Stein in Paris; she responded favourably, and the two began a correspondence. Stein loved flattery, Ford was happy to oblige her, and by the time Ford arrived in Paris in 1931 all doors were open to him. He quickly established himself in the expatriate community: as well as meeting for the first time erstwhile contributors to Blues, Kay Boyle, Richard Thoma and Harry Crosby among them, he struck up friendships with Natalie Barney, Paul Bowles and René Crevel. He moved in with Djuna Barnes, and by way of rent typed up part of the manuscript of her novel Nightwood. In 1933, the same year that The Young and Evil was published by the Obelisk Press (pictured left), Gertrude Stein’s An Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas appeared. Ford’s cultivation of her had not been in vain. She wrote:  

     ‘Of all the little magazines which as Gertrude Stein loves to quote, have died to make verse free, perhaps the youngest and freshest was the Blues. Its editor Charles Henri Ford has come to Paris and he is young and fresh as his Blues and also honest which also is a pleasure. Gertrude Stein thinks that he and Robert Coates alone among the young men have an individual sense of words.’ (1)

     Before arriving in Paris, Ford had spent most of 1930 in New York with Parker Tyler, a poet, a contributor to Blues who eventually became its co-editor. Parker introduced Ford to New York’s underground gay scene. The drag balls of Harlem and the speakeasies of Greenwich Village would provide the backdrop for their collaboration the following year on The Young and Evil.

     Underground pornography aside, gay literature was a genre that barely existed in 1932; that which did was either cryptic to the point of invisibility or relentlessly self-loathing. But Ford was perfectly well adjusted to himself and saw no reason for either secrecy or shame. He saw no reason for proselytising, either, with the refreshing result  that The Young and Evil is neither a plea for understanding, nor a cry for help, nor a call to arms. For all its modernist trappings the novel is a conventional one, building a picture of homosexual life in New York at the beginning of the 1930s  through a series of loosely connected scenes: lovers’ fights and reconciliations, open assignations with poets and drag queens, secret assignations with married men, cruisings, beatings, arrests, and wild Harlem parties where gay men of all races come together to celebrate rather that hide their status as outsiders. The fuel of the book is Prohibition hooch, its drive the drive of youth well lived. That the youths concerned are almost exclusively male and wearing mascara had the result of depriving New York of this sight of itself until 1975, when The Young and Evil appeared in an American edition for the first time.

     By January 1932 Ford and Tyler’s novel was finished, and at first was called Jump Back. Jump Back was knocked back by Liveright, Cape and Gollancz, but Gertrude Stein was evangelically enthusiastic, and she sent the manuscript to her agent William Bradley. Sharing her enthusiasm, on 5 August he sent the manuscript, by now entitled The Young and Evil, to Jack Kahane, proprietor of an obscure new English-language imprint called the Obelisk Press.

                                      

(Charles Henri Ford, photographed by Cartier-Bresson: Paris, 1935)

     The manuscripts for The Young and Evil and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, which Bradley had sent Kahane in October 1932, put the fledgling publisher on the spot. Unlike the wealthy proprietors of the Paris expatriate imprints of the 1920s, Kahane had resolved to run the Obelisk Press as a proper business. Proper businesses must turn a profit, and in order for a publishing house to turn a profit it must sell books. Kahane the businessman knew that in this context a good book was one which sold, but Kahane the lover of literature was determined to use the finances generated by his business to give a home to books of great literary merit which would almost certainly sell slowly, but which were unpublishable anywhere else. Well, here were two. Reluctant to risk a prosecution that would destroy the company almost before it had begun, but also reluctant to pass up the chance of bringing literary respectablility to his imprint which until then had published pulp and little else, Kahane entered into protracted and complex contractual negotiations with Bradley, which were primarily designed to give him time to think.

     The Young and Evil's oblique style made it uncuttable, and both its cast and its milieu were unacceptable to the mainstream readership of the 1930s. The fact that the book’s characters occasionally use words like ‘fuck’ and ‘cocksucker’ -- and the fact that, when they acknowledge their existence at all, they refer to women by the generic term ‘cunt’ -- was the least of Kahane’s problems. The characters wear make-up and women’s clothes; they have sex with strangers; they sleep three to a bed -- and they’re happy. Kahane could not even present The Young and Evil as a cautionary tale. The book’s tone is exuberantly unapologetic: no-one dies, no-one is punished, no-one repents. The complete absence of editorial moralising is The Young and Evil's most revolutionary attribute, and gave Kahane his biggest headache.

     His best hope of avoiding prosecution lay in the opacity of the book’s ostentatiously modernist style. Textual experimentation and stylistic tropes borrowed none too subtly from Stein and Djuna Barnes obscure the more visceral action of the book: maiden aunts and masturbators alike would be confounded. Kahane suggested to Bradley an expensive limited edition, signed by the authors, that would sell slowly to a small but rarefied elite and pass under the radar of the authorities. Ford, who conducted the negotiations on behalf of both himself and Tyler (pictured, right), agreed to this, but insisted Kahane also issue a trade edition ‘..of one or two thousand copies..’ as well, or give Ford the right to arrange for such an edition to be published elsewhere. (2) This was a naive bluff -- there was nowhere else for Ford to go -- but somehow it resulted in Kahane publishing both a limited and a trade edition, even though the existence of the latter rendered the former pointless. Kahane also asked for translation rights and an option on future books, but Ford refused. (3) Although he was to write two more novels during the 1930s they were never published, and slowly he began to feel his future lay in poetry, not prose. He anticipated no need of protection from censorship in the future, and since there was no other reason to commit himself to an obscure publishing house in Paris, he declined to do so. The relationship between Ford and Kahane would prove to be a one-book stand.           

     By November 1932 contracts were signed, and by the end of the following February Ford had corrected the proofs. But by March, Kahane was worrying again. Keen both to make a pre-emptive bid to establish the book’s artistic credentials as a defence against prosecution, and to push sales, Kahane wrote to Bradley: ‘I want to prepare a prospectus for Ford’s book which should consist of about 200 or 300 words [of] descriptive matter, as full of selling points as possible. Do you think you could get any intelligent friend of the author, such as Djuna Barnes, to do this? I don’t feel myself frightfully competent to write about it in as convincing a manner as should be done.’ (4) Barnes provides a puff on the book’s front flap; the unsigned blurb is probably her work, too.

      The Obelisk Press edition of The Young and Evil was published in August 1933. There were fifty copies of the limited edition, signed by the authors and priced at 200 francs. Estimates of the size of the trade edition range from one thousand, Obelisk’s usual print run, to two thousand five hundred. The book suffered the usual casualties in transit: five hundred copies were destroyed by British customs, and shipments to the United States were intercepted and turned back. (5) (The book is one of the scarcer Obelisk titles today, suggesting that the print run was probably at the smaller end of the various estimates). By February 1934, six months after publication, The Young and Evil had sold seventy-nine copies of the trade edition, and two of the limited edition; the next six months saw sales drop to fifty-three. (6) Kahane had succeeded in avoiding the attention of the French authorities; unfortunately, the reading public were equally oblivious.

     In 1932, Djuna Barnes had introduced Ford to the Russian artist Pavel Tchelitchev. By 1934 they were a couple, and the relationship was to last until Tchelitchev’s death in 1957. (Tchelitchev’s illustrations for The Young and Evil  were used in a 1988 edition of the novel). Ford’s first collection of poetry was published in 1936, and in 1940 he and Tyler founded another magazine, View. Reflecting Ford’s new and abiding passion, View was a forum for surrealist painters and writers, and ran until 1947. During the 1950s Ford largely dropped from view, but after the death of Tchelitchev he resurfaced as a painter and photographer, published two more collections of poetry in the late 1960s and, as a result of his association with Andy Warhol’s Factory, made two films. He met the nineteen-year-old Indra Tamang in Katmandu in 1972, and the two were to remain together for the next thirty years until Ford’s death in Manhattan in 2002, at the age of ninety-four.

     Charles Henri Ford turned his hand to many art forms, but never established a reputation at the forefront of any of them. If he is remembered at all now it is as a facilitator for others rather than as a creator in his own right. But this is to shortchange him. In The Young and Evil he and Parker Tyler can lay strong claim to have created a new literary genre : a gay literature, stripped of moralising and miserabilism, which proved to be more than thirty years ahead of its time.


NOTES:

1. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Penguin 1987 ed., p. 260.
2. Letter from WIlliam Bradley to JK, 1 October 1932, HRC.
3. ibid.
4. Letter from JK to William Bradley, 20 March 1933, HRC.
5. Hugh Ford, Published in Paris, pub. Garstone Press 1975, pp. 357-359.
6. Accounts submitted by JK to William Bradley, 20 February 1934, HRC.

This essay first appeared in Obelisk: A History of Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press [LUP: 2007]. To find out more, or to order a copy, click here. To see our copy of The Young and Evil, click here.


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