Nearly a century after it was banned, Gertrude Beasley’s (AM 1918) memoir of her Texas upbringing reaches a new generation of readers.
In 1928 a young writer named Gertrude Beasley sailed from London to New York and was never heard from again. She left behind only one book, My First Thirty Years (Contact Editions, 1925). Beasley’s memoir of her often-abusive Texas childhood earned praise from the era’s literati—H. L. Mencken called it “sharp and tremendously effective”—but it also attracted powerful enemies. The book was banned in Britain, destroyed by US Customs, and hunted down by the Texas Rangers.
Still, the few copies that survived were enough to keep Beasley’s (AM 1918) literary legacy alive. Among Texas writers in the know, her name circulated long after she disappeared from the public eye. Larry McMurtry, the author of another Texas classic, Lonesome Dove (Simon and Schuster, 1985), spearheaded a 1989 limited-edition reissue of My First Thirty Years; literary critic Don Graham excerpted the memoir’s first several pages in Lone Star Literature: A Texas Anthology (W. W. Norton, 2003).
Beasley stood out for the strength of her writing and for her personal tenacity. Born into poverty, she made a new life for herself through education—and risked everything she’d worked for to tell the truth about her experiences in print.
For all its merit, My First Thirty Years was, until very recently, a difficult book to find. The 1925 first edition sells for hundreds of dollars, and only 500 copies of the 1989 reissue were published. Nina Bennett, AB’07, a Dallas-based independent scholar, ran into this problem after reading Beasley’s excerpt in Lone Star Literature. The small taste of My First Thirty Years she encountered (“It just makes your hair stand on end,” she says) left her searching for more. She eventually tracked down a 1989 copy, but the fact that it was so hard to find, that “a voice that captures this complexity and fierceness was banned, was silenced—I just couldn’t get over it.”
She found an ally in her mother-in-law, Dominique Raccah, the publisher of Sourcebooks, who agreed to reissue My First Thirty Years. The new edition, released this past fall during Banned Books Week, includes a foreword by Bennett. The daunting task of editing fell to Nina’s sister-in-law Marie Bennett, CER’16, who cleaned up the manuscript, confirming spellings and definitions of long-gone Texas slang and introducing section breaks into Beasley’s mostly unbroken narrative.
The rereleased edition was greeted with a wave of enthusiastic press—a reception Beasley never got to enjoy in her lifetime. Indeed, even before My First Thirty Years was initially published, Beasley knew her book had a target on its back. When her publisher, Paris-based Contact Editions, attempted to mail the page proofs to Beasley in England, the package was intercepted by Scotland Yard, which threatened to prosecute Beasley for distributing obscene materials. In her home country, the Comstock Act of 1873 made it illegal to possess or disseminate “immoral” publications, putting her at risk there too. That she went forward with the publication despite these dangers is a testament to her courage and to how much she must have believed in her own work.
Beasley’s would-be censors were correct in pointing out that the book contained discussions of sex and sexuality, but as Mencken put it, “only a Comstock, reading it, would mistake it for an attempt at pornography.” My First Thirty Years describes, in viscerally upsetting detail, subjects such as marital rape, child sexual abuse, and bestiality.
But it was what happened. Beasley’s early years were a catalog of horrors—her father physically abused her mother and brothers, her brothers sexually abused her, and her mother, worn down by 13 children, could do little to intervene. The family’s circumstances improved slightly when Beasley’s parents divorced, though poverty remained the defining force in their lives. Beasley, as the book’s second half relates, found an escape in her schooling, eventually earning a master’s degree in education from the University and starting a career in journalism.
What saves the book from being unrelentingly grim is the keenness of Beasley’s observations. She relates her traumas frankly and arrestingly and makes no apologies for feeling fury at the circumstances of her upbringing, writing, “I shall protest against having been brought into the world without any heritage—mental, moral, or physical—to my dying day.” While the book in many ways traces a redemptive arc, Beasley resists tidy conclusions and fairy-tale endings. She finishes My First Thirty Years “as happy as a person of my temperament is capable of being” but longing for a romantic love she never found.
Her book also stands as a fascinating historical artifact: Beasley recounts getting an invitation to visit social worker Jane Addams at Hull House and attending lectures by socialist activist Emma Goldman and birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, who had “a beautiful voice and manner, and discussed her subject in a scientific way.” Having witnessed her mother experience one unwanted pregnancy after another, Beasley embraced Sanger’s message and later wrote for her publication Birth Control Review.
My First Thirty Years clearly reached some readers—enough to be reviewed in publications including the New Yorker and the American Mercury—but most US-bound copies were seized and destroyed by Customs. The copies that managed to reach Texas were snatched up by law enforcement with particular urgency, Bennett writes in her foreword—not only because of the graphic material, but because of an offhand mention of the governor’s mother-in-law having an affair with a Baptist preacher at Beasley’s childhood church.
Before long Scotland Yard made good on its threats to Beasley: in 1927 she was arrested and spent the next year in the psychiatric ward of a London hospital. The British authorities agreed to release her only if she left the country.
During the voyage to New York she wrote a letter to the US State Department, claiming she was being persecuted and her career destroyed. Was it an accurate account of the censorship she was facing or proof she was unwell? It may have been some of both. Whatever it signified, that letter is the last word from Gertrude Beasley.
The 1989 edition of My First Thirty Years revitalized the mystery of Beasley’s disappearance, but it was not solved until 2008. A librarian at Beasley’s alma mater, Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas (called Simmons College in Beasley’s day), discovered via census records that Beasley had been committed to Central Islip Psychiatric Institution on Long Island soon after arriving in New York. She remained there until her death in 1955 from pancreatic cancer.
Bennett finds it hard to ignore the irony of My First Thirty Years, which made Beasley and then undid her. “It’s a profound tragedy,” Bennett reflects. “This book is both her peak life achievement and the cause of her downfall.” Beasley’s commitment to honesty, especially about women’s experiences, came at a terrible price. The British philosopher Bertrand Russell was prescient when he described her writing as “truthful, which is illegal.”
On the book’s first page, Beasley writes, with characteristic starkness, “It is perfectly clear to me that life is not worth living, but it is also equally clear that life is worth talking about.” It’s hard not to wonder what else, given more time, she might have said.
An excerpt from My First Thirty Years
By Gertrude Beasley, AM 1918
A year or two passed at this place and my father having found everything wrong with the land, stock, water, people, government, and whatnot in Mitchell County, it was decreed that the Beasley family, now consisting of fourteen people, a man and his wife and six sons and six daughters, must move again. This time the whole family was to be taken “prospecting” as my father did not know where we would “settle.” There was quarreling over signing the deed of sale as my mother did not want to move, but finally this transaction was agreed to and signed, and all was made ready for travelling. Everything was sold, the place, the stock, that is cows, pigs, and the horses not needed for travel, the sale amounting to $3,300 as I remember it. I recall the day we started; it was for me another experience with a mixture of feelings. Because my mother was unhappy at going, I too did not wish to appear too eager, and when my father asked if I did not like “moving” when I climbed up beside him on one of the big wagons, I wanted, I think, to wear an expression like my mother’s and to deny that I did, but I hear my answer now in my mind’s ear the almost invariable, “Yes, Sir.” I always felt the least bit of warmth when he addressed his children as “son” or “daughter,” the girls, from the baby to the oldest one, were always “daughter” unless he happened to be in one of his rages. So when on this morning he spat his tobacco far and, reflectively, took down the reins from the brake of the double sideboard wagon, climbed up to the high seat and asked, “Daughter, don’t you like travelling?” I can well guess what my answer must have been.
Our caravan made quite a long train, for there were some three wagons and a hack besides a few extra horses; one wagon had a grub box attached and all the necessary utensils for camping, all having bed springs arranged at the top of the sideboards, being the beds for my mother and father, the girls and the babies; while the older boys slept on the tent which they used as a sort of sleeping bag. When we were getting packed up for the moving I felt a sharp pain of sadness, as I often did from the time I was conscious; this time it was in connection with putting away in the bottom of the wagon all the old schoolbooks with the exception of one or two which were left in the wagon as sort of play things and which I soon grew tired of. The wind was blowing, that is a sandstorm was raging, I think, at the time packing was being done; I sometimes feel a chill when the picture comes to my mind.
For a whole year my father “drug” his family around, as my mother termed it, travelling towards the South-west and covering a course of several hundred miles before we had finished. There was camping in the open; black skillets and pans were hauled out and placed over a blazing fire or over an outdoor stove, if we remained in a place long enough for such an arrangement; a large jar full of sourdough was produced for making the bread, sometimes baked, sometimes prepared as pan cakes; and other requisites as to food were had. Nothing was ever quite happy in those days in spite of many pictures of scenes and experiences which appear to give some pleasure; there was always some mixing of fear, embarrassment, shame, or sadness in practically everything which came to me. One of the scenes which I recall, as our covered wagons made their way to the Southwest, was the country about the town called Paint Rock, where the riverbanks and hills were of red sandstone. I re-member the many questions, “How far is it to Paint Rock?” etc., asked of those whom we passed in the road, and that my father sometimes halted the caravan for an hour or two, standing with his foot on the axle of the wheel, spitting his tobacco far, and exchanging comments of the country and asking questions. He would stand there in his high boots, big gray Stetson hat and talk, while my mother would be hissing and quarreling in the next wagon, and wondering why we did not move on, and why on earth any decent white man wanted to drag his family around the country in such a fashion. And she would sometimes add with sniffs or slurs or sneers or tears that at least she was “not raised that way.”
At some one of these places, I remember we stayed for several weeks. Here an old man who was referred to as an infidel used to come to our wagons to talk. There was talk of a god or the lack of a god, as the case may be, and then this old man was always predicting the world’s destruction and saying that a comet or something was going to destroy the world, all of us. This was a great terror for me which was made all the more real because there was no one in this whole lot of thirteen people to whom I cared to confide my fears. I simply kept silent wondering how this thing would ever turn out, would fire begin to rain on the earth someday? And in the evening I would climb into the big wagon to go to bed and would lie there seeing great red blazes, the whole heavens one great rolling fire, trembling sometimes for hours with the most intense terror which racked and exhausted me until I was able to sleep. The slightest excitement sent me off into the wildest imaginations and yet there was no one among us who could do more than interpret the primer or the most elementary book, not to speak of imaginative stories.
For some weeks we were camped in a great grove of trees below San Angelo, a beautiful country with streams and green pastures and pecan groves. My father talked of buying some land here, and I remember my mother dressed up to go out and talk with the landowner about it, but my father declared the man was trying “to skin” him out of all his money and so the matter closed. We frequently met other “campers” who visited us and whom we sometimes visited; occasionally some townswoman would invite us to come and talk. Once when my mother went out to see a neighbor, she chose me to go with her. In secret I wished terribly that the people would think that I was the only child my mother had, and I think if I had been more intimate with my mother I should loved to have told her to make believe in some clever way that I made up the sum total of her progeny and that considering everything by and large we were very extraordinary people; it seemed to me very fitting that she should have just one child, myself; the picture was complete when she and I walked off together. That same time we almost stumbled on a rattlesnake and I was frightened almost into a convulsion. I recall distinctly that something sympathetic came out of my mother when she saw my terror, it was either what she said then or what she said afterwards to the family, that made me know that she sympathized with my tears on coming so near to the ugly, hissing snake.
Here my second brother quarreled with my father; there were a few loud words and earsplitting curses ex-changed; my brother now about seventeen threatened to leave. All of this, but nothing happened.
Travelling through all that beautiful stretch of country towards the southwest of Texas, passing groves and banks and rocky streams and hills and great stretches of pastures and fields, we came at last to a little town, as yet not much more than a post office and a few stores. Somewhere near this town, Eldorado, in Tom Green County where we were camping, I remember that my father and brothers brought many good things to eat to the camp, among them being honey, which was brought in in gallon pails, former receptacles for molasses. Some-times it was wild honey which they had actually found themselves and sometimes they bought of others who had “smoked out a honey tree.” It seems to me now that there was always plenty to eat during these days of journeying and camping—rabbit, cottontail, the young of which is more delicious than chicken; meat such as veal, beef, and pork which they secured from time to time; and a few times there was venison, the meat of wild deer. In those days, food was frightfully delicious to me and the wild meat, fish, honey, syrup, and occasionally milk which was brought to the camp together with the hot bread, cooked in the open, and the steaming coffee, seems to me now everything which hungry people require.
Here my father saw a chance to earn some money; at least so he said (but my mother afterwards declared that he wanted to stay in Eldorado because there were plenty of saloons) and so he secured a small house for the family, he himself working part of the time in a blacksmith shop, and later he and the older boys using the teams for working the road. My mother also did not wish to be idle; besides there were three daughters old enough to do considerable work and all were anxious for pin money. One day I went with her to a large house, near the town, where a ranchman lived. The dwelling appeared to me of colossal size inasmuch as there were two stories with big windows and a large roof, the white painting and the window blinds giving it a certain dignity. There was a large yard and garden and a small pasture where two young spotted deer were playing, a pair of most adorable creatures. But with this I could not be proud and natural; my heart and nervous system were cramped.
There was some stifling embarrassment; my mother was going to talk with the woman of the house about doing her washing. I remember how I hated to go out to the backyard where a great pile of dirty clothes was lying; afterwards my mother complained that she was treated like a servant and I think she changed her customer, for cowboys about the country used to bring their shirts, cuffs, and collars to be laundered, most of the work being done by my older sisters. My father objected to this work, if I remember correctly, and cursed and swore, though he swore about so many happenings, that it is difficult for me to differentiate as to the occasions; my second brother also put in a word of protest. But my mother replied that my father never gave her money, moreover she never knew what funds he possessed. Besides, “all work was honorable,” a phrase which she used in talking the matter over with my sisters. I liked seeing these cowpunchers come to the house, but I hated the reason for their coming.
There was a great dance hall in the town where young and old met almost every Saturday evening for the usual promenades, square dances, the waltz, schottische, and two-step, this being my first observation of two young people dancing together. The floor was waxed and so slippery that it gave one a fright to walk on it. I think it was the Fourth of July dancing which my mother al-lowed us to see. There was much whispering between her and my oldest sister about how some of the young women of the town and surrounding country behaved, and about the shamelessness of girls who wore their dancing frocks so low at the front as to show a part of their breasts. Then there was horse racing, swearing, and whisky drinking, all of which were special contributions to the life in Eldorado.
In the midst of all this an evangelist appeared to tell the people of their wickedness. They made a great tent and the people came for days and days to listen to his descriptions of how God damned people’s souls and how it was necessary to repent and the like. One Sunday afternoon, after a long day of feasting and preaching, the parson called on the people to testify, that is he would point out this one and that one saying, “And what is your cross, Sister? Or Brother, what is your cross?” A woman testified and said she had lost her husband who had recently died, and that she had two sons whom she wished to bring up for the Lord, but it was very difficult. This was her cross. While she was saying this in a loud tremulous voice with tears in her eyes, my face was also streaming with tears which I caught up quickly as soon as I saw the preacher was pointing towards the place near the rostrum where my father with a few other men with skep-tical faces were squatting. That is, he was apparently sit-ting on the heel of one boot with the hands on the opposite knee, perhaps whittling a piece of a tree or playing with his hat. At this age (about eight years) or even before, I had begun to feel embarrassment for practically every member of the family, and my father was no exception, for I felt ashamed of what he might say when the time came for the finger to be pointed at him. “Brother, what is your cross?” asked the evangelist. My father deposited a great mouthful of tobacco juice in the soft dirt before him and said simply, “Sir, all trials and temptations.” This astonished me for I had never heard him talk about trials and temptations in my life; in fact, I had never heard anyone use such words. Afterwards my mother sneered—-in secret, of course—-about his words, and insinuated that it was all hypocrisy, that the Beasleys were all like that; for example “ole Doctor Beasley” (my father’s father) would go to church and Sunday School, pray and testify in public, and then go home and beat his wife.