“A story once told in whispers now frankly, honestly written.”
- Spring Fire’s original cover
Spring Fire is not, as is often claimed, the first lesbian pulp fiction novel ever published (Women's Barracks by Tereska Torres, published in 1950, holds that title), but it was the one that pushed lesbian pulp fiction to become a distinct genre. It’s also an excellent indicator of attitudes at the time towards lesbians and lesbian fiction.
Marijane Meaker, a New Yorker who wrote with the pseudonyms M. E. Kerr and later Ann Aldrich, was working at Gold Medal publishing company when she was approached by Dick Carrol, an editor in charge of Gold Medal, to write a lesbian-themed novel. Meaker agreed to do it and in 1952, under the pseudonym Vin Packer, Spring Fire was published.
The title was chosen because James Michener's The Fires of Spring was coming out around the same time as Meaker's novel and she was hoping to sell some copies by confusion. This was hardly necessary, as the novel went on to sell one and a half million copies in its first print.
Spring Fire told a fairly simple story about two women in college (and in a sorority) who fall in love with each other and have an affair. It uses the standard lesbian stereotypes of butch and femme, and the lesbians in the novel are self-loathing and ashamed. It's often described as a depressing read, as it portrays (probably accurately) college life at this time for these women as painful, full of intolerance and pressure to conform.
(spoilers follow) It also uses the most common plot device in lesbian fiction: the miserable ending. Because the novels had to go through the U.S. Postal Service, they were subject to government censorship. The novels had to be moral, which meant the lesbians in Meaker's book had to be penalized or her books would be seized. These endings, in which the homosexuals in a novel “turned straight” or suffered a terrible punishment, were seen as happy endings: they got what they had coming. In Spring Fire's case, the protagonist renounces love between women as an illness. Leda not only gets in a car crash (automobile accidents were a common punishment for gay character), but also ends up going insane and stuck in an asylum. Mitch, too heartbroken to function, becomes a college drop-out.
Ironically, the tragic ending of Spring Fire probably did more to help lesbian pulp fiction than if the lesbians had lived happily ever after. By using stereotyped characters and punishing them in the end, Meaker's novel slipped through censors. The subsequent success of her novel proved there was a market for lesbian pulp fiction and proved it was possible to publish some without getting severely reprimanded. If it had ended happily, the novels being seized by the U.S. Postal Service and the bad publicity that would have followed likely would have stopped lesbian pulp fiction almost before it began. But because Spring Fire was not seized, it went on to inspire other writers to write lesbian fiction, as well as encouraging publishers to take the risk of publishing it. (spoilers end here)
A notable writer that was inspired by Spring Fire was Ann Bannon, who went on to write the famous lesbian Beebo Brinker chronicles.
"I am quite sure that without Spring Fire and Vin Packer, there would never have been the Beebo Brinker chronicles, nor an author known as Ann Bannon."
- Ann Bannon