America has done everything to stifle Gertrude Beasley, and she has succeeded, so far. His thesis, My first thirty years, published in Paris in 1925 by the same emigration press that published Ernest Hemingway’s debut, tells uncomfortable truths about growing up like a poor woman in West Texas. It was deemed obscene due to frank discussions about rape, incest and bestiality – not to mention the intimate details of female sexuality – and possibly also because Beasley was a socialist and birth control advocate.
US customs officials seized and destroyed copies when they could. The book was hunted with particular fervor in Texas. In the 1940s, the legislature questioned a bookseller for selling a copy at the University of Texas. Beasley herself was interned, most likely involuntarily, in a New York mental institution shortly after the book’s publication and lived there until her death in obscurity in 1955.
Despite a positive mention in the New Yorker, My first thirty years quickly disappeared from literary history. It was only in recent decades that it has gained a reputation as a lost classic, thanks initially to Larry McMurtry, who in 1987 called it “the best Texan book of its time and wrote an afterword to one. 1989 reprint by a small Texan publisher. Now finally available to a general readership, thanks to the Chicago Area Sourcebooks imprint,
Beasley’s memoir lives up to the praise. The voice that reaches us is shocking, modern and often very funny, brimming with the charms and degradations of an intelligent young woman, determined to transcend her brutal upbringing and expose the hypocrisies of a small town. His friend the philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that the book was “true, which is illegal.” For too many decades, it has been.
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Texas monthly with the title “A Silent Voice of Texan Literature is Finally Heard Again”. Subscribe today.