Nudist Fiction of the 1930s

The information for this post derives entirely from an unexpected source: Mark Storey’s Cinema au Naturel: A History of Nudist Film. I say “unexpected” not because of the author, who is an absolutely outstanding naturist scholar and one of the talented and generous folks who keep N magazine humming along, but rather because I did not expect to find a several-page long survey of nudist fiction of the 1930s in a book about film. Storey explains his motives for including this overview: “The list of 1930s ‘nudist’ literature is impressive, and helps explain why American society was ready for nudist cinema” (118).

Storey’s work is thorough and engaging, and I am making my way through it slowly with much attention to detail. I strongly recommend it. For my purposes here, I’m going to give the titles, genres, authors, years (when known), and an ‘elevator pitch’ summary for each work of fiction, poetry, or theater. I’m culling this information from pages 117-124, a section that also includes analysis of non-fiction and magazine publishing from the era. I’ve included cover photos (non-linking) for the books available on Amazon.

Barely Proper (a play) by Tom Cushing (Charles Cyprian Strong), 1931, about “a young Englishman’s misadventures meeting his German fiancee’s nudist parents” (118). (For more information about this pay and its production history see Storey’s Theatre au Naturel: A Collection of Naturist Plays.)

The Nude Deal (poetry) by Art Eastman, “a short book of humorous poetry and sketches playfully lampooning nudists” (118).

Bare Living (novel) by Elmer Davis and Guy Holt, 1933, a comic novel in which “nudists look emotionally abnormal, and nudist park owners appear like profit-seeking gurus” (118).

The New Crusade (novel) by Anthony Gibbs, 1932, about “an aged oligarch who is almost successful in foisting the cult of nudism onto London citizenry” (118).

Murder Among the Nudists (mystery novel) by Peter Hunt, 1934, “the account of a double homicide at a nudist camp in Connecticut” (118).

The Seven Lady Godivas (“illustrated book for adults”) by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel), 1939, about “a family of naked sisters who each must learn a truth about horses before they can marry their respective beaus among the seven Peeping brothers” (118). (My note: A perennial favorite! I admit I had no idea it was published in the 1930s – I would have guessed more recently.)

Yesterday’s Sin (novel) by H. A. Keller, 1934, in which a young woman who grew up in a nudist camp moves to New York City and is subjected to many questions about nudism. Storey provides the following evaluation: “Although a cheap romance novel, Yesterday’s Sin provides one of the more insightful discussions written by non-nudists in the 1930s of nudism and society’s response to it” (119).

The Bishop’s Jaegers (“low-brow comic novel”) by Thorne Smith, 1932, in which a group of lost ferry passengers is held naked against their will at a beachfront nudist community “and do their best to avoid associating with the naked lunatics exercising, dancing, and offering no end of speeches on how morally upright everyone should be” (119).

Nymph Errant (novel) by James Laver, 1932, about a young woman who goes on a series of “Candide-like adventures” including a stay at a German “‘nudist colony.'” Says Storey, “The reader is left with the idea that nudism marries an intolerant philosophy with a rigid practice of romantic naturalism” (119). A follow-up note: This novel is the source for the Cole Porter musical of the same name.

Storey concludes this survey by affirming that books on nudism “generally received good reviews in the early 1930s from mainstream periodicals like the Saturday Review of Literature, the New York Times Herald Tribune Books, and the New York Times Book Review. The literary treatments of nudism–whether in fiction or nonfiction–were consistently assessed as inoffensive accounts of an interesting and important movement or fad” (121).

I think it’s very interesting to see what kinds of plots were being used, and what kinds of biases Storey has identified among the writers. Looking at current nudist and naturist fiction in comparison, I’d say much has changed regarding the variety and amount of offerings, and yet some plots or approaches from all those decades ago remain quite popular today.

6 thoughts on “Nudist Fiction of the 1930s”

  1. Amazing what was available back in that era.I found a copy of The Seven Lady Godivas.It treated nudity in a positive light,especially given the times.I’ve heard a performance of Barely Proper on The Naturust Living Show podcast.It’s quite humorous.Another good view of naturism in that era.Interesting article.

    1. Thanks for checking in, Scott! I thought I was up-to-date on The Naturist Living Show podcast but I don’t remember a performance of Barely Proper. I’m sure I can find it – thanks for the note!

    1. Hi Fred, thanks for your comment! That first link in Fred’s message above (for other folks reading this) goes to information about a production of Disrobed, which they say has been “adapted and updated” from Tom Cushing’s Barely Proper. Very interesting! And thanks also for the link to the Creator Showcase. I will read the guidelines and let you know!

  2. Having read the books listed except Nude Deal, I think all are worth reading (although some primarily for what they indicate about attitudes rather than for enjoyment as quality writing).

    Note that Cole Porter’s musical of Nymph Errant included a scene and song about nudism, which was dropped for staging at the time, but restored for the concert performance in 1989 recorded on the CD whose cover is shown above. (On the subject of covers, that shown for Murder Among The Nudists is of a recent publication which appears to violate the original text’s copyright.)

    To those who find this of interest, I offer more 1930s titles:

    1932 Ellery Queen, The Egyptian Cross Mystery (detective)

    1934 H E Bates, The Revelation (short story)

    1934 E R Punson, Death Among the Sunbathers (detective)

    1934 Thorne Smith (again), The Glorious Pool (humour)

    1935 John Wyndham (writing as John Beynon), The Secret People (SF)

    1937 H E Bates, Breeze Anstey (short story)

    1939 Gladys Mitchell, Printer’s Error (detective)

    These additions don’t all deal explicitly with nudism/naturism by name, but all feature non-sexual nudity.

    Something I find interesting is that in most of these 1930s tales, nudism may be regarded by non-nudist characters as strange, unusual, eccentric or – sometimes – a bit risque, but rarely as in any way disreputable. Yet at least some of the nudists keep quiet about their nudism.

    I believe both French and German authors published fiction featuring naturism in the 1930s, but none of this was translated into English. (Louis-Charles Royer wrote a lot, mainly erotica, but from his 1930s output only the non-fiction Let’s Go Naked was translated. Kienne de Mongeot was also prolific, but again not translated.)

    Some of these titles, and those Will details, are freely available in current printings, or at reasonable prices second-hand. Others are deemed “collectable”, and priced accordingly. Copyright means none of Storey’s or my suggestions are available from Project Gutenberg.

    Oh, final point. Do buy Mark Storey’s books – I heartily endorse Will’s recommendation.

    Enjoy! (I hope.)

    1. Tim, thank you so much for another outstanding contribution to this blog. I know Paul, Robert and I are grateful for all our comments, because they help turn the site into more of a community. And now, anyone interested in this topic has an even more robust list of nudist titles from the 1930s! Thanks for sharing your invaluable reading knowledge of these works on this format.

      Your conclusion about “nudism may be regarded by non-nudist characters as strange, unusual, eccentric or – sometimes – a bit risque, but rarely as in any way disreputable” certainly matches Storey’s sense of the literature from the 1930s, as well. And I think this is also seen in Cole Porter’s lyrics. Here is a post (http://www.nudescribe.com/2011/09/anything-goes.html) I wrote about his lyrics to the title song for his musical Anything Goes, which include the line “When every night the set that’s smart is / intruding in nudist parties / in studios, / Anything Goes!” And here is a video for the short song “Sweet Nudity,” the one you mention that was cut and later restored to his musical Nymph Errant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBcTex5KzuM

      I found and included the original cover image for Murder Among the Nudists in place of the other. 😉

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