Part One (1985)
“we all did know exactly who and what we were”
Jo Sinclair (describing herself and the friends she made in the 1930s)
This article about Jo Sinclair is in three parts.
Part One is my 1985 draft (with added endnotes) of an unfinished article on Jo Sinclair’s The Changelings, a 1955 novel that The Feminist Press had just reprinted. This includes minor changes that I made recently in response to edits a friend sent me nearly three decades ago.
I wrote Part Two, which is about The Changelings, and Part Three, which is about the 1942 draft of that novel, in 2015.
Part One (1985)
I was hooked easily on the work of Jo Sinclair, the androgynous pen name of Ruth Seid. Not from reading The Changelings (1955), but from her earlier novel, Wasteland (1946). I’d first heard about them from Black lesbian-feminist Barbara Smith at a 1979 National Women's Studies Association panel on “Voices of the Lesbian Community.” I looked for both, but I found that The Changelings was not just out of print; it was unavailable in my large public library and off the shelves of even the most well-stocked used-bookstores.
Wasteland was much easier to find. And, about 20 pages into it, I couldn’t miss the obvious similarities between the dustjacket photo of the author, with short, light hair and tailored jacket, and the description of Debbie, a minor but pivotal character who, her brother Jake says, “looked like a little, tough Dutch boy” with her “milk-white hair” (28). So I was hardly surprised years later to discover that, in the first draft of Wasteland, Debbie, the Jewish lesbian, was named Ruthie, or that Jake was modeled on Sinclair’s own brother. Both Debbie and Sinclair worked in the WPA and published fiction in New Masses, a radical left magazine of the Thirties. Both published stories with Black characters.
But Wasteland is not about Debbie, the committed Jew, the unmistakable lesbian. It is about Jake and his progress through the psychoanalysis he had entered at Debbie’s suggestion. In the course of it, he deals with his self-hatred as a Jew and, quite remarkably for a book both published in 1946 and widely acclaimed, he comes to accept his sister’s lesbianism. His acceptance of his own Jewish identity and her lesbianism marks his growing emotional strength, his steps beyond his despair, and his sense of living in a wasteland that dogged him at the book’s beginning. Finally, he is willing to let the people in his office know that he is “Jake Braunowitz,” a Jew, not “John Brown,” just another ”regular American.” Finally, he is able to invite Debbie to go to meet his co-workers and let them know who his sister is.
But the changes are slow. Earlier Jake had thought:
Yes, he’d always felt funny about her. He thought that was a feeling of shame, too. The way she looked like a boy, her hair cut short that way. He used to look at her and keep out of her way. He used to think, My God, if the fellows at the office saw her they’d laugh like hell. They’d look at me and say, “Jesus, Brown, what kind of a thing is that? You mean that’s your sister?” (28)
And when Jake read her first published story, his response was immediate:
It was as peculiar as she was. I didn't know what to think, what to say to her. It was about colored people. Why the hell she should write about colored people! And I kept thinking, See, she’s different even in a thing like this! See, your lousy family, even when they get into a magazine they’re different than other writers!” (31)
Debbie was, he thought, “part of everything that made me feel different from the rest of the world” (32).
As a Jewish lesbian myself, a radical, a writer of articles on lesbian literature, anti-Semitism, and racism, I knew Jake would have found me equally unfathomable, an equal embarrassment.
But Debbie has been pretty much lost to us and, to a large extent, so has her creator. Debbie falls between the cracks of the mainstream Jewish community, lesbian feminists, Jewish feminism, left political movements. She is too Jewish for some, too queer for others, too radical, too female.
Sinclair has suffered a similar fate. For twenty years, she published articles and stories in such periodicals as Chicago Jewish Forum, The Crisis (NAACP), American Judaism, Jewish Spectator, and Common Ground, a popular front magazine of the early Forties whose pages she shared with writers like Shalom Asch, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Lillian Smith. Her work was anthologized in a number of 1940’s books and subsequently appeared in A Treasury of American Jewish Stories (1958) and On Being Jewish: American Jewish Writers from Cahan to Bellow (1974). She published four novels: Wasteland (1946), which won the $10,000 Harper Prize for Fiction; Sing at My Wake (1951), an exploration of the marriage of two white non-Jews; The Changelings (1955); and Anna Teller (1960), the story of an immigrant Jewish family as its elderly matriarch, who had survived the Nazis, escapes 1956 Hungary and joins her son’s family in Detroit. Since then, only silence from her.
The onset of the second wave of feminism in the late Sixties, the emergence of lesbian-feminism during that period, and the growth of a Jewish-feminist movement have neither unearthed Sinclair’s work nor earned her belated recognition. With the exception of excerpts and discussion of Wasteland in Jonathan Katz’ 1983 Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary, her writing has been absent from anthologies of our foremothers, and not mentioned in articles about lesbian, feminist, or specifically Jewish-feminist writing.
Part of the problem can, no doubt, be attributed to the difficulty of finding most of Sinclair’s work. But more important, at a time when U.S. literature was experiencing an explosion of Jewish male writing—Bellow, Roth, Malamud—she filled her novels with strong, multifaceted female characters. A few years before Bellow’s Augie March was proclaiming himself “an American, Chicago-born,” Sinclair continued to write with the honed sense of perpetual outsiderhood that comes from the intersection of class, sex, religion/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and politics. The literary establishment, Jewish and not, could want little from her. She was, most definitely, not one of the boys.
In addition, part of the problem, I think, is that Sinclair’s writing does not fit into the “positive images only” school of Jewish, lesbian, and feminist literature. It makes people uncomfortable. The main character in Wasteland spends most of the book feeling rotten about being a Jew. The Changelings is partly the story of the coming-of-age of Vincent, a 13-year-old Jewish tomboy, whose block is “changing”—going from white to Black—at the same time she is becoming friends with Clara, a Black girl. It is also the story of working-class Jews and Italians whose language and actions frequently reflect strong opposition to Blacks moving onto their street. Sinclair is, I have been told by one Jewish feminist, “too honest”: better she should have written novels about Jewish life in Yiddish, so “the goyim” couldn't read them. So Jewish feminists have not necessarily welcomed the prospect of The Changelings coming back into print; Barbara Smith, raised like Sinclair in Cleveland, approached a few feminist publishers before finding one willing to reprint it.
It has been the fate of The Changelings to have been both unread and misunderstood. Unread, however, is not the same as unacclaimed: The Changelings received both the Ohioana Award for Best Fiction of 1955 and the Jewish Book Council of America’s 1956 award for the best novel. Nonetheless, it sold only 5,000 copies, never appeared in paperback, and was out of print by the end of 1957. If, as I suspect, Wasteland benefited from its time of publication (immediate post-war Christian guilt about and/or renewed interest in Jews), The Changelings suffered because of when it first appeared. In the years when all-too-many Americans saw integration of the races as a Communist plot, and the red-baiting of Senator Joe McCarthy continued beyond his 1957 death, few publishers would have defined as a priority publishing a book about racism written by a woman of suspect early political sympathies. In the years immediately following Brown v. Board of Education (1954), most of the white northern liberals who comprised Sinclair’s natural readership preferred to see racism as a southern problem, and white flight as something best thought of as little as possible.
While The Changelings’ publication history might be best understood with reference to the mid-Fifties, the book can only be read accurately in the context of the era in which it is actually set—the mid-Forties. Unfortunately, The Feminist Press’ back-cover copy assures the reader that “the time is the early 1950s,” despite the statement (213) that the novel’s present is 1945, and despite the Jewish characters’ repeated references to “Palestine,” a usage that would only have preceded the 1948 establishment of Israel. In this edition’s two afterwords, Nellie McKay also identifies the novel’s setting as the 1950s, and Johnnetta B. Cole and Elizabeth H. Oakes write of racism and ethnocentrism with little reference to historical periods.
Yet, as with any socially-based fiction, the time period is crucial to our expectations of the characters and our understanding of the world in which they operate. Although she began work on it in the Thirties and made many revisions, Sinclair finally chose to set her novel at a time when whites were under no legal—or commonly held moral—imperative to live, or even sit, alongside Black people. 1945 was, after all, the year before the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in interstate travel (a ruling it took many years and much blood to implement). Fair housing laws were nearly two decades in the future—and it was accepted practice for deeds to contain covenants forbidding sale to both “non-Caucasians” and “members of the Hebrew race.” No less significantly, 1945 was also the year when news clips of the Nazi concentration camps first shocked most U.S. citizens, the year when General George Patton, who saw the camps at closer range, likened “this Nazi thing” to “a Democratic and Republican election fight” and privately described the Jews as “lower than animals.” It was a year in which the level of fear and uncertainty among Jews
was far more intense than it was a decade later. Sinclair set The Changelings in
the summer of this year.