Rechy archive illustrates our society’s changing views on the LGTBQIA community.

In honor of Pride Month 2022, I wanted to give a behind-the-scenes look at the John Rechy papers which I’m currently processing. 

John Rechy is a native El Pasoan who is recognized as a pioneer LGBTQ author. In 1963 he published his landmark novel City of Night, a fictionalized account of his experiences as a sex worker (or in his terms: a “hustler”) on the streets of New York and Los Angeles in the 1950s. The novel was one of the first that dealt frankly with queer life without moralizing it. Readers were drawn to the vivid world of hustlers, drag queens, and other “sexual outlaws” that Rechy depicted. It was an instant bestseller and has been in print ever since. 

The collection includes multiple drafts of all 18 of his books, handwritten journals, photographs, early queer publications, and so much more. However, what struck me while going through almost sixty years of reviews of Rechy’s works, were the brutal and homophobic reviews of his early work from major publications. Intellectually, I know that attitudes about queerness in the 1960s left a lot to be desired, but seeing The New York Review of Books title their review “Fruit Salad,” is still shocking (leading to a tense relationship between Rechy and the NYRB that lasted decades), while the Miami Herald went with the title “Depraved Wander In ‘Night'”. A review in Psychiatric Quarterly lamented that he “offers nothing in the way of explaining how he became a homosexual.” Even most of the positive reviews can be seen as exercises in back-handed compliments.  

While these are uncomfortable to read now, these reviews really highlight just how far we’ve come discussing queerness, and that’s truly something to celebrate during this Pride Month – fifty-seven years after the publication of City of Night.  

(One notable exception is this review in the Houston Post by Rechy’s fellow Wittliff author, Larry McMurtry.) 

Larry McMurtry review in the Houston Post. June 9, 1963 (with Rechy’s annotation).

Rechy continues to write books that delve into subcultures that range from regulars of leather bars to immigrants struggling to make it in Los Angeles. So much of the current conversation about queerness concerns the representation of queer life, and Rechy has been at the forefront of that for decades.  

As for the critics now? After winning the prestigious PEN-USA-West Lifetime Achievement award in 1997, the New York Review of Books published a letter announcing the prize with the headline “Congratulations!” This is high praise indeed, especially considering that the NYRB is not known for the superfluous use of exclamation points.

Keep scrolling for some highlights from the collection.