Howl, Homosexuality, and the Hocken

Earlier this year, I paid a visit to Dunedin’s Hocken Library to view some of the Charles Brasch items which are housed there. The majority of the material was what I had expected to find, such as newspaper clippings about general current events, photographs of Brasch’s home, and letters to his literary contacts. Yet during my visit a few unexpected discoveries jumped out at me from within the numerous stacks of material. I was deeply saddened by the material within two folders titled “Homosexuality and the Law”, and “Homosexual Law Reform”; newspaper clippings and items relating to the shocking homophobia inherent in twentieth century New Zealand culture. 

Brasch lived from 1909 to 1973, which means he was never around to witness the turbulent passing of the gay law reform bill in 1986. During Brasch’s lifetime, New Zealand society was very much a discriminatory one bent on denying gay men the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the majority. Living in 2016, I think it becomes increasingly more-and-more difficult to comprehend the suppression and struggles which homosexual people faced in the twentieth century, a time period which saw the death of persecuted Oscar Wilde, and the struggles of prominent gay beat poet Allen Ginsberg. 

The newspaper clippings which I discovered at the Hocken brought to light the culture in which Brasch was forced to live. “Lords vote for new homosexual law” read the headline of a carefully cut out newspaper article, from the Manchester Guardian Weekly, dating 1965. Another article, from New Zealand, concerned the murder of a gay man by a group of youths at night. Brasch followed these stories closely, as seen in his numerous clippings of related articles and handwritten annotations. We will never know the exact extent to which these events resonated with Brasch himself, but the meticulous way in which he followed the cases in the papers provides us with some indication.

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Clipping from the Manchester Guardian Weekly, 27th May 1965, annotated by Brasch.

Alan Roddick, Brasch’s literary executor, refused to allow Brasch’s inclusion in an anthology of gay New Zealand writers, due to the fact that Brasch himself never openly identified as gay during his lifetime. However, these careful newspaper clippings from the Hocken show that gay rights were a clear area of interest and concern for Brasch, during a time when being openly gay without facing persecution was not an option. The need which Brasch felt to keep his own sexuality private may be additionally reflected in an earlier draft for his poem, “The Islands”, which contained the line “None knows with whom he will lie down at night.” As Alan pointed out when visiting our class earlier this year, this line was later changed to “where he will”, a much less personal and potentially provocative alternative.

Ginsberg’s Howl, and three items by Wilde, can be found within the Brasch collection itself. One could easily assume that Brasch picked up these books for their value as important works of modernist literature. Yet I cannot help but wonder if these items held additional significance for Brasch as links of solidarity with other writers facing isolation from and discrimination by society.

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Brasch’s copy of Essays and Lectures by Oscar Wilde.

Certainly it becomes clear that while the modernist movement was one rich in new liberal understandings of human nature, homosexual law reforms would arrive much later—long after many key modernist writers of the twentieth century had ceased writing. These days we have J. K. Rowling publicly declaring that Dumbledore is gay. Only a few decades ago, one of New Zealand’s greatest literary figures only had the freedom to trim articles from newspapers and wait for the world to change.

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