Richard Amory Discovers a 29-Cent Jackson Novel
If somebody ever dares to write a history of the gay novel and its development in the last fifty years or so, he will have
to save a place of utmost honor for Charles Jackson’s Fall of Valor. Published in 1946, the action is set in
’43, at the height of the war, and reading it today is an exercise in almost unbearably bittersweet nostalgia.
Surprisingly, it survives very well after all those years.
Jackson’s hero is an English professor named John Grandin, who at age 44, has drifted blindly into several impasses
– one in his marriage, another one within himself. The crux of the matter, of course, is his own latent homosexuality,
and the story follows his painfully slow and then blindingly swift recognition of the problem; what he does about it, and
what it does to others. On vacation with his wife in Nantucket, they meet a stunningly handsome Marine animal named Cliff,
a genuine war hero, pathetically anxious to please, na´ve, buddy-buddy, who badly wants to rub Grandin’s back with sun-tan
It seems incredible to us today that a man as sensitive and essentially honest with himself as Grandin could avoid knowing
after 44 years that he was powerfully attracted to other men, but Jackson’s narrative rings true. Those were crazy,
wonderful, mixed-up years when the specter of the Depression was finally past, and it was as if the lid had been taken off,
as if we had all been let out of jail – everyone was on the move, by train to Georgia, on the Hound to Arizona –
old ties were broken, old moralities, and a new hero emerged, the proud, sensually masculine American dogface. The figure
was still rooted in Victorian sentimentality to be sure, with morbid overtones of God-and-Country and Charge-of-the-Last-Brigade,
but on the whole the new national attitude was Carpe Diem, to hell with tomorrow, give the doggies what they want now,
there is so little time.
But gay, no, or at least not in print. It was getting easier to come out in the war years, but by no means as easy as today,
and Grandin’s story doesn’t strike me as atypical in the slightest.
Jackson captures the national man-worship of the forties with almost heartbreaking clarity. Like Grandin, I too pondered
the photographs in Life of war-weary combat troops, and remember the onetime in 1944, aged fifteen, standing in an
Arizona cotton field and watching a trainful of swabbies pass by, some of them lounging shirtless on the platforms, and experiencing
the first, sweet, painful, foreknowledge of my own sexuality. It was pure 1940s. Arizona is a long way from Nantucket, but
Jackson brought the scene back to me with uncanny vividness – the looks, the gestures, the carelessly sensual postures….
Contrary to current practice, there is little physical movement in the book – most of it takes place in the vicinity
of two heads, Grandin’s, and his wife’s. Jackson couldn’t handle stream of consciousness writing or else
he didn’t want to, but his psychological insight was razor-sharp; never obvious, always subtle. Grandin does a lot of
floundering around in the beginning, moving as we all do by fits and starts, but when he starts moving he moves fast, attempting
to seize the day, the man, the hero of the hour, with admirable if helpless honesty.
He fails of course, but that failure too was what the 40s tasted like. It was a licentious era, a time of quickening sexual
awareness when all sorts of unlikely people must have felt homosexual stirrings in their loins, but, ultimately, a time that
had to – was forced to – allow itself only the briefest peek at the possibilities of love between two men, and
even then that peek was apt to be dishonest. Gore Vidal’s City and the Pillar came out several years later and
was like a breath of fresh are, but it had a far more tragic ending than Fall of Valor; Robert Anderson’s Tea
and Sympathy hit the New York stage like a bombshell in the early 50s at the height of the McCarthy era, and though probably
one of the most deceitful treatments of homosexuality ever written (Tome isn’t really queer, thank God – it’s
people like Bill who can fool you), was taken seriously by liberals of the day and worn as a badge of their broad-mindedness.
Jackson didn’t peddle any of that bullshit at all. He was the most honest gay writer of the decade. Within the severe
limitations set for him by the taste and sensibility and publishing canons of the 40s, he makes some powerful statements that
are worth constant repetition today, and were revolutionary at the time:
- Nobody consciously chooses to be a homosexual.
- You can’t equate homosexuality with self-indulgence (How well I remember that one!)
- There is degradation on both sides of the fence.
- There are damned few sexual absolutes, even in the Marine Corps.
At times in our history, the very air around us seems to have a masculine, seminal smell, promoted by every institution
in our society. It is sheer hypocrisy to define it as other than a pervasive, latent homosexuality.
I found my copy in a second-hand store for 29 cents, and if browsing is your thing, keep an eye peeled. It is a collector’s
-- Richard Amory