America did everything it could to stifle Gertrude Beasley, and it succeeded—until now. Her memoir, My First Thirty Years, published in Paris in 1925 by the same émigré press that carried Ernest Hemingway’s debut, tells uncomfortable truths about growing up a poor woman in West Texas. It was deemed obscene because of frank discussions of rape, incest, and bestiality—not to mention intimate details of female sexuality—and perhaps also because Beasley was a socialist and an advocate for birth control.
U.S. Customs agents seized and destroyed copies when they could. The book was hunted with particular fervor in Texas. In the forties, the Legislature interrogated a book dealer because he sold a copy to the University of Texas. Beasley herself was committed—most likely involuntarily—to a New York mental institution not long 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 faded from literary history. Only in recent decades has it developed a reputation as a lost classic, thanks initially to Larry McMurtry, who in 1987 called it “the finest” Texas book of its era and wrote an afterword to a 1989 reprint by a small Texas publisher. Now finally available to a general readership, thanks to the Chicago-area imprint Sourcebooks,
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 a whip-smart young woman intent on transcending her brutal upbringing and exposing small-town hypocrisies. Her friend the philosopher Bertrand Russell once said the book is “truthful, which is illegal.” For too many decades, it was.
This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Silenced Voice of Texas Literature Is Finally Heard Again.” Subscribe today.