Content warning: The following article contains discussion of sexual assault and incest.
Gertrude Beasley was not one to mince words.
“Thirty years ago, I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in a sexual act of rape, being carried during the prenatal period by an unwilling and rebellious mother, finally bursting from the womb only to be tormented in a family whose members I despised or pitied, and brought into association with people who I should never have chosen.”
If she were a man, the University of Chicago graduate could have well been a literary icon. She was a firecracker of a writer, a patron saint of radical truth in the eyes of her contemporaries, and the kind of woman that made the U.S. and U.K. governments afraid of her putting pen to paper. But shortly after publishing her first book in 1925, a memoir of her young life titled “My First Thirty Years,” she disappeared. The book went out of print and wasn’t available outside certain academic libraries – save for a 500 copy republication by the Book Club of Texas in 1986 – for 96 years. Thanks to a few women with lucky connections and a love for Beasley, “My First Thirty Years” was republished late last year, making it widely available to the public for the first time in history.
Beasley’s memoir holds a mirror up to the rural South’s treatment of poor women by describing her own experiences of abuse with the reflective eye of an avowed feminist and socialist, and her refusal to self-censor was an impulse that eventually landed her in jail. She was harassed, arrested and stricken from the literary tradition for writing unabashedly about topics then considered obscene and taboo.
“She absolutely refused social convention and how society said women should act and think, and which parts of her life that a woman should value,” Beasley enthusiast Nina Bennett (A.B., ‘07) said. “She totally rejected that in the most aggressive terms possible and she wasn't wealthy, she wasn't married. You're allowed to be eccentric if you're rich, or part of a particular class of people or have certain powerful backers. And she had none of those.”
She was unprecedented, and therefore dangerous. Not only was Beasley a woman, candidly talking about sexual violence in the age of obscenity laws and a culture of victim blaming, she was making claims about the very nature of sexual abuse. Rape within a marriage was not considered as such until the 1970s, when it became a major issue in the women’s movement. Beasley’s use of the term, not just in the opening paragraph but repeatedly to describe her father’s abuse of her mother, shows that she was lightyears ahead of her time in how she thought about consent. And that’s just the first few sentences.
The book spans Beasley’s traumatic early memories of growing up on the Texas plains to her years as a student at the University of Chicago to the start of her career as a foreign correspondent. Most of the book’s initial negative reception, along with much of the later praise, deals with the first portion in which Gertrude’s recounts the sexual and physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her family members.
“I think the attitude would've been that the only thing worse than letting yourself be raped or letting yourself have incest committed upon you would be to write about it, right?” Celia Marshik, a Professor of 20th Century Literature, said in an interview with The Maroon, “What she's doing that's so shocking is telling the story and telling it very straightforwardly.”
Marshik, a scholar of feminist moderninst studies who wrote an essay on “My First 30 Years,” and teaches at Stony Brook University. She lives about 12 miles away from Central Islip, NY, where Beasley spent the last thirty years of her life in Central Islip Psychiatric Hospital. She stumbled upon Beasley while researching censorship in the modernist era and became ”obsessed with her.” She was shocked that even before the book was published, Beasley and her publisher were harassed over rumours of its content and for sending copies of her writing through the mail.
“I just thought it was so unbelievable that a woman who hadn't even published a book yet was really being persecuted, you know, because of the story she wanted to tell,” she said.
Her article, “Sexual violence as founding narrative: Edna Gertrude Beasley’s My First Thirty Years,” looks at Beasley’s life story as an important text in the study of sexuality. For Marshik, Beasley started as an afterthought in her book “British Modernism and Censorship,” but she remained a point of influence in her studies and she retained a personal interest in the author’s life.
“It was just a tiny footnote in my book, because my book is really about British authors, but she was always there. And she was particularly there because she spent the second half of her life in a mental institution just down the road from me,” she said.
Marshik’s essay focuses on Beasley’s descriptions of incest, undiscussed at the time and especially significant because she and many of the people she mentions were alive when the book was published. A scholar of modernism, Marshik has stressed repeatedly that Beasley was not a major part of that movement because she was excluded from it by the male-dominated literary establishment.
“There are novels about incest that come out much, much later in the 20th century and the authors are really celebrated for breaking the silence,” Marshik said. “Here's somebody who's breaking the silence in the 1920s, and it's important that we listened to her story. I don't think she had much of an impact on the literary tradition because just not enough people got to her — she's kind of in her own little box, but it wasn't for lack of trying.”
Bennett was at the center of the republication project. She came across the first ten pages of “My First 30 Years” after moving to Dallas and picking up an anthology of Texas literature to better understand the state’s identity. She was drawn in by Beasley’s uncompromising attitude and immediately hungered to read the rest of the book, which she was able to do because her husband is a professor at Southern Methodist University and has access to the academic library.
Bennett’s mother-in-law founded the Naperville based publishing company Sourcebooks, and it remains family owned. When she brought Beasley up during a family Zoom call, Bennett and her sister and law, Marie Bennett, decided to use the industry connection to finally give the author a platform.
In an interview with the Maroon, Bennett observed that in the last five years, the publishing industry has responded to broader social conversations such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the #MeToo movement by making a conscious effort to publish marginalized voices.
“Publishers right now are really trying to be very thoughtful about how to hand the microphone over to folks who have not historically had a microphone and let them speak for themselves, so that's why I felt that it was really important to get her voice out there,” Bennett said. “This is remedying a past injustice, and it will never fully remedy the injustice because I can't give her her career back, right? The best that I can do is I can give her her voice back. It felt important for me to do that for Gertrude.”
As a fellow UChicago graduate, Bennett sees the institution’s culture reflected in Beasley’s forceful argumentative style.
“I think that [the university] gave her intellectual rigor,” Bennett said, “She becomes a much more powerful opponent and in that sense, she becomes much more threatening because she’s able to not just get angry, but get angry about very specific things and make well honed arguments as to why those things are not okay.”
In her book, Beasley recalls a conversation with her first boss out of graduate school in which she quoted a professor whom she often clashed with, but ultimately learned from and admired.
“He said I was extremely critical; I had written articles criticizing almost every phase of school work in the whole state. But, I protested, criticism is the chief aim of higher learning; Professor Parker at the University of Chicago held that the chief aim of a University was to make students critically minded.”
Bennett wrote the forward for the new edition, providing an empathetic retelling of Beasley’s life beyond the bounds of the book. In the final paragraph of the book, in 1920, Beasley embarks a ship to Japan and reveals a secret wish to meet someone abroad.
“Her narration ends when she leaves the United States and from that point— from Bellingham, Washington, she's on a boat and she ends up on a ship going to Asia,” Bennett said. “She's left behind her career as a teacher, and is just starting on her career as a foreign correspondent. That is the last time that she comes back to the United States until she's deported from the UK and ends up locked up in Long Island Psychiatric Center. So, in many senses, [the premise of the book] is like ‘My First 30 Years,’ but it's also like her life in America is within the pages of the book.
After leaving the U.S, Gertrude made her way across Asia, stopping first in Japan, then China and Korea before disobeying the American embassy and sneaking into Moscow soon after the formation of the Soviet Union. At least one of Beasley’s articles from this period in Russia was published in Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review and in her foreword, Bennett quotes her as saying that tsarist sympathizers were “as sterile and emasculated, socially and intellectually, as the average Southerner in America.”
Eventually, Beasley ended up in London, where she wrote the memoirs that became “My First Thirty Years.” By this point, she was making herself known in literary circles, spending her time with other American expats, and starting to make waves. Her book was picked up by Robert McAlmon’s Contact Editions, a small Parisian publishing company that also published Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein’s debut works. In fact, McAlmon compared Beasley to Stein in his 1938 memoir, where he notes that they were some of his most stubborn writers and calls them “megalomaniacs with an idea that to know them was to serve them without question in all their demands.”
In 1925, the proofs of “My First Thirty Years” were intercepted by British authorities on their way to their author and seized for obscene content. At the time, both the UK and US had laws against sending “lascivious information” through the mail, and organizations like the British National Vigilance Association were pushing for stricter enforcement. Not long after, “My First Thirty Years” arrived in the U.S. and was found to be in violation of federal anti-obscenity laws. A couple of copies slipped through the cracks, some ending up in Texas and others in the hands of curious literary types like H.L. Menken, who published a lengthy and glowing review in The New Yorker.
Beasley’s story was heavily suppressed, but it by no means went unnoticed. Under the surface of popular culture, big name writers were reading her, though not all were fans. Bennett recently discovered a letter from Ernest Hemingway to Ezra Pound, in which Hemingway responds to Pound praising Beasley’s writing for trying to discredit American exceptionalism. He acknowledges the importance of Beasley’s documentation and admits to having enjoyed McAlmon’s work documenting his own life, but denies that documenting is a real form of literary art. Pound is biased towards her, he argues, because he hates the U.S. as much as she does. Hemingway writes:
“I recognize the value of both [McAlmon] and [Beasley]. That would bring me to my other major bone i.e. your hatred of These or Those United States. You give [Beasley] credit beyond her due simply because she shows up U.S.A. Why get excited about U.S.A? … [Beasley] is a documenter. [McAlmon], when he is at his best, is a documenter too.”
Bennett finds his dismissal of Beasley’s artistic merits to fit his reputation as being at times critical and self-involved.
“Just so fucking Hemingway, you know?” Bennett said. “No one is good except for me ever. Yeah, it really absolutely was circulating under the radar with various literati and in Texas it caused a huge kerfuffle partly because she names names in her book.”
One of the many names that Beasley mentions is that of the then-Texas governor’s mother in law, who she accuses of having an affair with the preacher at her childhood church. It’s believed that this is why her book was pulled off the shelves in her home state. Texas Monthly recently published a letter calling it “the worst kept secret in Texas political and literary circles” that “My First Thirty Years” was disappearing under orders from Texas politicians.
Meanwhile in London, it took two years for Scotland Yard to find a viable reason to arrest Beasley, and in the end, it had nothing to do with her writing. She ended up being deported on a technicality, for not having the proper stamps on her passport identifying her as foreign national. More than likely, it had more to do with organizations like the NVA having a vested interest in seeing her thrown out of the country.
She never recovered from this. Once she arrived in the U.S, Beasley refused to get off the ship and wrote a paranoid letter to the Secretary of State claiming that people in Texas and British authorities were trying to “destroy me as a writer and a personality and have me put to death.”
“She went along and basically said, ‘People are trying to get me,’ sounding very paranoid, but is it paranoia if 10 days after the ship docks in Manhattan, she is locked away in the Islip Psychiatric Center, and is never let back out again?” Bennett said. “Her body is still there. She was buried 34 years later.”
Historians don’t know what exactly caused the fear and confusion evident in her letter, but Marshik believes that her living conditions after the release of “My First Thirty Years” were severe enough to alter her mental state.
“The line in the letter that really breaks my heart is when she says, ‘I was doing good work in the direst of poverty,’” Marshik said. “At some point I think she was literally so hungry she couldn’t think straight.”
From that point on, Beasley was never heard from again. Marshik has spent years trying to track down records of her time at Central Islip with no success. “My First Thirty Years” went out of circulation and we have no way of knowing what she wrote while committed, if anything at all. As Bennett puts it in the foreword, “She could not have been silenced more effectively.”
It’s hard to say what could’ve become of her if she had been allowed to keep living, writing and traveling as she had wanted to. Bennett envisions her becoming a sort of Martha Gellhorn, the pioneering war correspondent who reported on virtually every major world conflict that took place during her career. Gellhorn was the only woman to land at Normandy beach on D-Day and she wrote about the Vietnam War for the Atlantic into her sixties.
“I could very much see Gertrude bringing the same hard nosed critiques, but instead of limiting those critiques to warzones, turning them back on her own society and basically calling out complacency because that's what she did so well in her memoir, right?” Bennett said. “She does it in Texas, where she calls out the complacency of this relatively small West Texas town and their religious institutions and their education institutions. She calls out basically what normal society looks like, she holds up a mirror and is like, ‘Guys, this is gross.’”
“My First 30 Years” is a memoir, but its value runs so much deeper than just documentation. It is also a powerful testimony, a manifesto, a debunking of a romanticized image of the West that is so often coddled in “frontier” literature. It is a success story and a feminist relic and it is finally being read after a century of suppression.
On Dec. 8, the Chicago American Writers Museum hosted a virtual talk on Beasley featuring Marshik and both Nina and Marie Bennett. This was the first time that Marshik and the Bennetts had met, although the three of them are almost certainly the world’s most qualified experts on Beasley as well as her most devoted supporters.
Ahead of the event, Nina said she was excited to “hang out with other people who think this woman's story is important,” adding that there have been so few times in the last 100 years where that has been the case, where people who cared about Gertrude could gather in the same place.
“Honestly,” she said, “I don't know if that has ever happened.”
Between questions posed by Nina and submitted by audience members, the conversation covered a lot of ground while still managing to feel like only the foundation of a long dialogue about Beasley. The three women discussed“My First Thirty Years” as a way to examine childhood trauma, to demonstrate the misogyny of modernism, and to start a conversation about believing women in memoir, among other avenues of analysis.
“There are so many different entry points,” Bennett said in her opening remarks. “There are so many places to latch on and get excited. Here was a woman who refused to fit in. Here was a book that told extremely uncomfortable truths you weren’t allowed to say, frankly then or now. Here was a story of erasure – not a witch hunt because there was no hunt, just witch burning.”
Something Bennett has discovered while doing interviews since the book’s rerelease is that Beasley’s surviving work is vast and interesting from any point of view that can appreciate talent and iconoclasm.
“[The book] is appealing to so many different people who love to read and people who love authors in all of their iconoclastic flamboyance.”