31 January 2014

Thomas Hal Phillips: The Bitterweed Path (1950; repr. 1996)

The Bitterweed Path (1950) by Thomas Hal Phillips (1922–2007) is an interesting book in the history of homosexual literature. It features in Anthony Slide's Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century (Routledge: 2003), which includes novels published from 1917 to 1950, and not necessarily written by authors who were gay.

Phillips was born in Corinth, Mississippi, and he was gay, and the Introduction to The Bitterweed Path (dated Atlanta, Georgia, 1995) is by John Haywood (author of Men Like That: A Southern Queer History: University Of Chicago Press (2001). Howard met Phillips in his later years, and mentions that he was not the kind of person who used expressions such as 'homosexual', 'gay' or 'lesbian': Phillips was from a different era, one in which homosexuality was not only different but also illegal, and this novel is a rare example – for the time – of an imaginative homosocial work with strong homoerotic undertones.

The Bitterweed Path is Thomas Hal Phillips's first novel, and his only novel to deal with a homosexual theme. It is set in rural Mississippi and essentially concerns the relationship between sharecroppers's son Darrell Barclay, the landowner Malcolm Pitt, and his son Roger. Phillips was consciously drawing on the Biblical story of David and Jonathan, which included Jonathan's father Saul's great admiration for David the giant-slayer. Phillips believed that this story could be interpreted in many ways, and so interpreted it in his own way.

Phillips's representation of the David and Jonathan story is of course essentially homosexual, but muted, although that in no way limits its importance in the history of the genre.

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