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 fiancée’s nudist parents” (118). (For more information about this play 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.