Spring Fire by Vin Packer (Marijane Meaker), a Lesbian Pulp Classic
By Francis Booth | On | Comments (0)
1952 was something of an annus mirabilis for the lesbian coming of age novel, seeing the paperback republication of Diana, the original publication of both Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt and Spring Fire by Vin Packer, a pseudonym used by Marijane Meaker. This analysis and synopsis is excerpted from Girls in Bloom by Francis Booth, reprinted by permission.
Meaker wrote about Highsmith in her late memoir Highsmith of 2003; they were on and off lovers in a stormy relationship for many years; Highsmith was much older and more established when Meaker finally plucked up courage to walk up to her in L’s bar.
“Pat had become my idol. Although we were both reviewed in Anthony Boucher’s mystery column in the New York Times, she was published in hardcover by Harper Brothers. As Vin Packer, I was one of Gold Medal Books’ mystery/suspense paperback ‘tough guys,’ and, as Ann Aldrich, a softcover reporter on lesbian life.”
Lesbian paperbacks and the lure of cheap pulp novels
Meaker’s Spring Fire, published under the Vin Packer pseudonym, has the distinction of being the first lesbian paperback-original novel (The Price of Salt was issued as a Bantam paperback in 1953, but this was after the release of the hardback). “Serious” books had mostly been published in hardback and quite expensive; if they were likely to be popular they would later be republished in a cheaper paperback version.
This idea held in the publishing world for a very long time. But in the early 1950s Fawcett Publications had the idea of publishing good books in original paperbacks under an imprint called Gold Medal Books, edited by Dick Carroll. The difference was that paperbacks were affordable by almost anyone.
As far as the censors were concerned, anything that happened between the covers of a relatively expensive, limited-run, hardback book was only likely to be read by the mature, educated middle-classes – people like themselves indeed. The censors were therefore quite relaxed about them; high-priced hardbacks would not be likely to deprave or corrupt the pillars of society who would be the only people to read them.
But when books were so cheap as to be disposable, cheap enough to be bought in large quantities by the impressionable, undereducated working classes, or even – heaven forbid – by young people, the censors got much more twitchy. As Anne Weldy, Meaker’s protégée, whose lesbian pulp novel Odd Girl Out, published under the pseudonym Anne Bannon, put it:
“They were sold on the shelves of news stands, available in train stations and airports. Anywhere that you could buy magazines, pulp fiction was available as well. It was kind of an ephemeral literature. People would pick up a paperback novel to read on the train, on their way to work, keep it for a day or two until they finished it and then throw it away…
Readers who weren’t likely to go into bookstores or didn’t have one in their hometown could walk into their drug store and pick up a lesbian novel… Anybody could find them, so you didn’t have to go into the library and request access to the rare and naughty books they held in the back.”
A lot of people did pick up Spring Fire: it sold nearly one and half million copies in its first year of publication; even a well-reviewed, popular hardback might only sell in the low thousands. Publishers were prepared to take a risk with censorship when the costs were relatively low; they knew that if the censors were to seize a book it would be pulped – the origin of the term pulp fiction: fiction published knowing that it might end up being pulped.
At the same time, these cheap paperbacks did not attract the attention of serious reviewers and therefore often escaped the attention of the censors. Anne Weldy said:
“How did we get away with it, those of us writing these books? No doubt it had a lot to do with the fact that we were not even a blip on the radar screens of the literary critics. Not one ever reviewed a lesbian pulp paperback for the New York Times Review of Books, the Saturday Review, The Atlantic Monthly. We were lavishly ignored, except by the customers in the drugstores, airports, train stations, and new stands who bought our books of the kiosk by the millions.”
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No happy endings allowed; racy covers preferred
Marijane Meaker had been one of Dick Carroll’s secretaries at Gold Medal Books; she read books on his behalf and gave him notes. ‘I very often finished reading a new manuscript thinking: I could do that.’ Meaker showed Carroll a novel she had been writing about a girls’ boarding school.
“‘You might have a good story there,’ Dick said, ‘but you have to do two things. The girls would have to be in college, not boarding school. And, you cannot make homosexuality attractive. No happy ending … your main character can’t decide she’s not strong enough to live that life,’ Dick said. ‘She has to reject it knowing that it’s wrong. You see, our books go through the mails. They have to pass inspection.
If one book is considered censurable, the whole shipment is sent back to the publisher. If your book appears to proselytize for homosexuality, all the books sent with it to distributors are returned. You have to understand that. I don’t care about anybody’s sexual preference. But I do care about making this line successful.’”
In those days, authors had very little say in the matter of titles or covers. Meaker had wanted to call it Sorority Girl but Carroll thought that was not racy enough. “I don’t want it to have an unhappy title like The Well of Loneliness,” Meaker said, referring to the only explicitly lesbian novel (by Radclyffe Hall) to have been published by a mainstream publisher, in 1928.
Anne Weldy was one of those whose life was transformed by Meaker/Aldrich’s We Walk Alone, 1955 and We, Too, Must Love, 1958. In her introduction to a reissue of both books, Weldy praised Meaker as a founding sister.
“If you were a lesbian in the 1950s, you were probably married, with children. Or solitarily drudging in the hinterlands . . . Could you be the only woman on the planet with tender feelings for other women? Were you evil? Cursed? Or merely sick? . . . And then a miracle happened. In the drugstore, the train station, the bus stop, the newsstand, you came across a rack of pulp paperbacks. Among the cowboy tales, the cops-and-robbers, and the science fiction, there began to be books about lesbians. Suddenly, you had a name, an identity, and a community of unknown sisters.”
Introducing Susan (Mitch) Mitchell
The central character of Spring Fire, Susan (Mitch) Mitchell is rich. “She was not lovely and dainty and pretty, but there was a comeliness about her that suggested some inbred strength and grace.” She has been to several different boarding schools over a period of six years with no apparent romantic or any other kind of interest in or from other girls.
But because of her wealth, her wardrobe and her cool car, the Tri Epsilon sorority is very keen to have her when she first goes to college.
“An absolute must for Tri Epsilon. The Mitchell girl is 17. Her father is a widower and millionaire. There are no other children. The Mitchell girl owns a brilliant red convertible, Buick, latest model … Susan has been educated in the best private schools. She is not beautiful, but she is wholesome and a fine athlete … Edward Mitchell’s reputation is above reproach. They are definitely nouveaux riches, but their social prestige in Seedmore is tiptop. Susan has a fabulous wardrobe.”
Obviously, the sorority has a very shallow view of its members but Mitch is keen to join anyway; as one of the senior member says: “The purpose of a sorority is to help a girl grow, and if Susan needs our help, it will be our privilege to give it to her.”
A forced first encounter
Susan does have more than one coming of age moment with the sorority, the first of which is meeting and sharing a room with the beautiful Leda, to whom Mitch is attracted at first sight; this seems to be her first same-sex attraction. However, before the relationship has time to go anywhere, she is assigned a date by her sorority with the appalling Bud. Left alone with Mitch by Leda and her date Jake, Bud does not waste time in preliminaries.
“His mouth came on hers and she could feel the roughness of his beard. At first she tried to push him back and she struggled desperately. Then she let him kiss her. ‘Ever been kissed – hard?’ Mitch makes it very clear that she does not want him to go any further, but Bud does not listen.
Fighting desperately with him, she could not stop his hands from pulling her skirt up. A thin wail escaped from her mouth and she began to heighten it into a loud moaning sound.”
Mitch has no Mamma and a very liberal father but has never had sex before, either with a boy or with a girl. The next time he tries it with her she resists but he grabs her arms. “Damn you and your damn innocence!” He shouts drunkenly. Mitch fights back; “grabbing the china vase on the table, she brought it down on his head, and left him staggering back against the wall.”
This public humiliation of a senior fraternity member has to be put right: the fraternity threaten the sorority that unless Mitch invites Bud to their next party and makes it up with him, the sorority will be ostracized. Reluctantly, Mitch agrees, if only because Leda is so unsympathetic: her mother had her when she was very young and did not let the young Leda stand in the way of her seeing men; it is implied that some of her mother’s boyfriends were more interested in the daughter than the mother.
In Greek mythology, Leda is raped by Zeus in the form of a swan; Meaker may have had in mind Yeats’ poem about that rape, which emphasizes its brutality and the power men hold so casually over women.
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
But, at the end of the poem, Yeats implies that a woman may gain in knowledge from this brutality.
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Leda certainly has gained in knowledge from her experiences, as well as in cynicism and bitterness. When Mitch tells Leda that everything seems “so dirty and nasty,” Leda is incensed. “I bet you still think babies grow under cabbage leaves. Well, they don’t. I’ve got news, Mitch, they don’t grow under any goddam cabbage leaves. I had to learn it! I had to learn it the hard way!”
Getting her into the basement at the party, Bud appears to drug Mitch. She comes close to passing out and Bud starts to undress her: “Very softly, almost too softly for her to hear her own words, she said, ‘No,’ but her eyes saw the circles and there was a new feeling in her body when he touched her and she could feel her clothes being pulled.”
She cannot move as he rapes her while she is “down in the mire of pitch black and the quicksand sucking her in and her whole head dizzy and the pain.” Afterwards, he tells her to get dressed, but she tells him to go to hell. He has no remorse. “Look, take a hot bath. You’re not hurt. Go up and take a hot bath and keep your mouth shut.”
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Spring Fire on Amazon*
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A lesbian coming of age
Mitch manages to get back to her room; when Leda comes in she realizes something has happened, and this time she is sympathetic and sleeps in Mitch’s bed with her. But when they both wake up at five o’clock in the morning, sympathy turns to something else.
Mitch has her first experience of heterosexual sex – bad, very bad – and lesbian sex – good, very good – on the same night. But things with Leda do not go unequivocally well. Leda tells Mitch that she is not a lesbian – “I’ve got bisexual tendencies, but by God, I’m no damn Lesbian” – and could not could not love Mitch if she were.
Meanwhile, Leda continues to see Jake, of whom Mitch becomes very jealous. “I may be a little uncertain about it, but men come first with me. What do you think we are – engaged to be married?” Mitch protests. “You said you loved me. Maybe I don’t understand –“ Leda tells Mitch that she had “better get to know men too,” to hide her true sexuality.
Mitch does in fact get to know a man: Charlie, a nice, kind and nerdy young man, the opposite of Bud. He is too shy to initiate sex with her, so she starts things off; although ‘it still was not the way it was with Leda,’ and she feels ‘empty and aimless,’ she goes ahead anyway. ‘He was sweet and shy and he loved her. If it was not now, then when?’
But Charlie cannot do it, even though he has come prepared. “Listen, Susan, I’ve never touched a girl. Honestly, never once in my life. I – I have something in my wallet.” But in the end, he feels Mitch’s coldness.
In the circumstances, Charlie can’t do it; she offers to put on her sweater and let him take his time but he still cannot do it and she drives him back to town in the Buick, the normal roles of driver and passenger reversed, with him crouching, embarrassed in the back seat. That is the end of Charlie, and indeed any further attempts at relationships with men.
The inevitable tragic ending
We already know that we are going to be in for an unhappy ending; the publisher demanded it. The setup for the fall is a letter that Mitch writes to Leda, a Dear Jane letter telling Leda that she loves her, but is calling it off. Reading the letter, Leda decides she cannot be without Mitch and they make love; unfortunately two of their sorority cohorts open the door and see them.
Leda attempts to blame Mitch for forcing her into it, showing the sorority mother the letter. Things then appropriately take on the mythic dimensions of a Greek tragedy; in the Greek myth Leda is associated with the goddess Nemesis; in this story she nearly becomes Mitch’s nemesis. Leda is involved in a car accident and appears to have brain damage.
The truth about the letter then comes out and Leda is seen as the real villain, following which she has a complete mental breakdown; Mitch forgives her but does not attempt to go back to her. As if this is not unhappy enough to satisfy the publishers, the last sentence of the book is: “she didn’t hate her at all, and she knew then that she had never really loved her.”
More about Spring Fire by Vin Packer
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Contributed by Francis Booth,* the author of several books on twentieth-century culture:
Amongst Those Left: The British Experimental Novel 1940-1960 (published by Dalkey Archive); Everybody I Can Think of Ever: Meetings That Made the Avant-Garde; Girls in Bloom: Coming of Age in the Mid-Twentieth Century Woman’s Novel; Text Acts: Twentieth Century Literary Eroticism; and Comrades in Art: Revolutionary Art in America 1926-1938
Francis has also published several novels: The Code 17 series, set in the Swinging London of the 1960s and featuring aristocratic spy Lady Laura Summers; Young adult fantasy series The Watchers; and Young adult fantasy novel Mirror Mirror. Francis lives on the South Coast of England. He is currently working on High Collars and Monocles: Interwar Novels by Female Couples.
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