February 19th - June 12th, 2010

Monday, January 18, 2010

from Code Word: Ray, by Kate Erin Dempsey

The focus on cryptography in radio serials during Johnson’s childhood reflected the climate of fear and suspicion of the WWII and the Cold War period. Long before the infamous witch-hunt of Senator McCarthy, a feeling of uncertainty caused citizens to be suspicious of everyone around them. Communism was felt to be the largest threat to national security but it took very little political conviction to earn a spot on one of the blacklists or a FBI file. Homosexuals (or “sexual deviants” to use the term of the time) were one of the key groups targeted. Senator McCarthy was certain that homosexuals were likely to be spies because of their susceptibility to blackmail in order to hide what he saw as their “perversion.” Gays were expunged from the government as well as from many private companies. Right wing stumpers depicted homosexuality as “an epidemic infecting the nation, actively spread by Communists to sap the strength of the next generation.”14
The repercussions of this sentiment played out in all areas of life. In the name of national security, post offices turned over to the police the names of those receiving suspicious mail such as gay-targeted magazines. Inspectors also baited gays by joining pen pal clubs often used by homosexuals to meet one another. If the posers found “proof” of someone’s homosexuality, they traced the victim’s mail to identify others.15 In the midst of this homophobic climate Johnson struggled with his sexuality, seeking answers first in Christian Science and then Jungian psychology. His use of the postal system for the NYCS mocks the type of surveillance prevalent at the time by continually confusing the distinction between public and private, as well as the roles of author, middleman and recipient. Tracing Johnson’s mail would have been a full time job. Whether or not Johnson’s intentions in forming the NYCS were at all political, he could not have been immune to the cultural angst. Historians Claire A. Culleton and Karen Leick stress the importance of remembering that, “the [FBI]’s oppressive measures and its continuous surveillance were part and parcel of writers’ and artists’ everyday lives during these years. As such, the culture of American modernism was irrevocably charged with paranoia, censorship, and equivocation.”16

14 Kathy Peiss, Christina Simmons and Robert A. Padgug, eds., Passion and Power: Sexuality in History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 228, 233.
15 Ibid., 230.
16 Claire A. Culleton and Karen Leick, ed. Modernism of File: Writers, Artists, and the FBI, 1920-1950
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 17.