“Shared Secrets: The Queer World of Newbery Medalist Charles J. Finger” By: Elizabeth Findley Shores
“Shared Secrets: The Queer World of Newbery Medalist Charles J. Finger”
Author: Elizabeth Findley Shores
Publisher: Univ of Arkansas Press
The Complicated Life of an Award-Winning Author
Elizabeth Shores is a hard-working, hard-researching author with two previous volumes, both with Alabama connections: a study of the botanist Roland McMillan Harper and “Earline’s Pink Party,” which deals with “The Social Rituals and Domestic Relics of a Southern Woman,” and is set in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
“Shared Secrets” is very different.
The subject of her study is Charles Finger, who started life as an Englishman, a student at the Regent Street Polytechnic Institute in London. There he reveled in the Literary Society, which discussed contemporary writing, paying special attention to writers such as Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. Those two writers were known to be gay, but then, and later, Finger and his cohorts steadily see gayness in many other writers: Jack London, Sir Richard Burton, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Richard Halliburton, the painter Grant Wood and many others were thought to be gay or bisexual.
These men, many of them married, were perhaps closeted, each to his own degree. In an atmosphere of secrecy about sexual orientation, gay men might well perceive gayness in others. Sailors in fiction were often thought to suggest homoeroticism and, in real life, were “commonly understood to be open to gay encounters.”
In London, Finger began writing short pieces for publication. There were 21 London daily newspapers, so a free-lance writer could work hard and earn a living.
Finger, however, decided to move to the USA and came by way of Chile. He sailed to Patagonia and there worked at many odd jobs, sometimes on ranches, sometimes teaching music, and then to Texas, New York City, Ontario, Canada, Mexico; he was a restless soul. Shores suggests sometimes he left a place with a broken heart and, other times, perhaps “to escape harassment or even arrest.”
Although Finger steadily praised male comradeship, fellowship, friendship, and “understanding,” all key code words, and often disparaged marriage, he married Nellie Ferguson and, in time, they had five children.
Finger bought property in the Ozarks, outside Fayetteville, Arkansas, hoping to make it into a working farm and an artists’ colony. He named his place Gayeta.
Over the years, Finger would write steadily, voluminously, in many ways successfully, specializing in children’s books, novels for young adults—many of them illustrated successfully by the artist Paul Honore’, adventure stories, sometimes autobiographical and always over the top. He published innumerable articles, travel pieces, essays of every kind. Finger won the Newbery Prize for his children’s book, “a set of ostensible folktales set in Patagonia,” “Tales from Silver Lands,” in 1925.
Finger became acquainted with Carl Sandburg, H. L. Mencken, and many others.
He ran a little magazine entitled “All’s Well.” Shores spends considerable time on this part of his literary life because, she argues, the magazine was a kind of secret society. The readers were his friends, and a lot of the personal, editorial writing was coded for the coterie of “understanding” readers.
Finger became friendly with Henry McCauley Bankhead, Tallulah’s uncle, and had a long, surely sexual relationship with Army major George Maddox. Maddox also got married, also unhappily, but the two managed to meet alone in various cities and the two families spent a lot of time together. Shores does not speculate on what their wives thought. Finger’s memoir, “Seven Horizons,” barely mentions his wife Nellie, an omission which his daughter Helen resented.
Shores is so diligent in documenting every assertion, that the prose does not flow. But this is a scholarly book, in the Queer Studies series.
Still, Finger was a most unusual fellow with a wildly varied life story, well worth telling.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.