A fascinating memoir of the American prison system in the 1940s, amid peak WWII fervor. Extremely problematic given its author, but wonderfully composed and gripping from beginning to end. The “story” spans the 4.5 years that Viereck was imprisoned and touches on a bit of everything, from the court system to wormy food to prison politics to character studies of murderers and thieves. The most shocking details—at least for its 1952 audience—involve semi-explicit accounts of “situational homosexuality.” Or, in other words, when straight men bang each other because there’s no women around.
Before getting locked up, George Sylvester Viereck (1884-1962) was a popular author and famous enough to make headlines. His works included an Oscar Wilde-inspired vampire novel The House of the Vampire (1907) and poetry collections such as The Three Sphinxes (1924). He was a journalist as well and interviewed big names of the era, like Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, George Bernard Shaw, and Adolf Hitler (more on that later).
Sex psychologists Alfred Kinsey and Sigmund Freud were both interested in learning from Viereck’s experiences and connected with him personally. Today most people know, or think they know, about jail sex. Even back then it wasn’t breaking news, but no one had dared write about it so candidly or from this perspective. Actually, it’s still an understudied topic, which is probably why the memoir holds up so well.
Not only did Viereck shed light on a fascinating topic, his book inadvertently inspired an entire new genre: gay pulp fiction.
Though Viereck’s descriptions are never graphic, specifics of the sex acts he observes are quite clear. For the sexually-repressed 1950s gay reader, these images, veiled as they may be, were titillating. It seems likely the publisher was aware of this and embraced it—thus the discreetly sensual nude male on the cover—while also needing to bypass censors and obscenity laws.
The solution was to cloak the memoir in psychology and introduce it as something like a textbook. Also, include blurbs like “The shame and evil that lurk behind bars…” so that it was believed to expose the cruelties of the prison system. No one could claim it promoted homosexuality if all the advertisements spoke ill of such “sexual deviants.”
Many publishers of gay texts copied this tactic well into the 1970s. They would introduce erotic novels with quotes from sex psychologists to create the illusion of academic interest. Indeed many of the “Homosexuality Exposed!” tell-alls of the 1960s and 70s masqueraded as religious tracts while their content read more like pornography.
It’s hard to say if Viereck intended his memoir to be sexy. Some consider his House of the Vampire to be the first “gay vampire” novel because of erotic tension between the two male leads. That interpretation requires a lot of reading between the lines in my opinion, but it’s not outlandish. Possibly Viereck was a closeted homosexual. He writes with what I would call a “gay gaze.” Lingering descriptions of nude men, a constant curiosity about same-sex sex.
Though he never participates in the shower orgies or friendly midnight hands, he’s never opposed to such activities either. He points out that, as an older man in his late 50s, he was not of sexual interest to his fellow prisoners. Perhaps with a tinge of regret? Or perhaps he simply omitted scenes where he did, in fact, participate?
For a book which sells itself as revealing the horrors of the American prison system, he often makes prison life sound like fun. Other inmates are never threatening to him, but rather lively personalities capable of engaging conversation. Descriptions of the food are gross, but could be worse. The stripping away of civil liberties is noteworthy, but again—it doesn’t comes across as particularly cruel.
It’s good that, outside of the publisher’s promotional material, Viereck does not complain much about prison life. It would have sounded particularly grotesque given that his sentence came from being a Nazi propagandist.
Viereck was an American, but his German heritage led him to align politically with Hitler for a time. He claims in this book that he was duped by Hitler’s charisma in the same way that Churchill was in 1938, when Churchill “expressed hope that, if England were ever defeated in war, she would find a Hitler to restore her to her place among nations.”
Still, Viereck’s stance on Nazism seemed to be that he agreed with just about everything except the stuff which was “anti-American or anti-Jewish.” As an editor for Nazi propaganda publications, he claims to have thrown out excerpts of this ideology when he came across them. Personally I don’t buy that. Without anti-American and anti-Jewish sentiments, what’s left of Nazism? That’s as ridiculous as saying the KKK has some good arguments as long as you ignore the racist bits.
You can see why reading Viereck is problematic. There’s no question he was an extremely gifted writer, but it’s hard to look past his atrocious politics which were a major part of his life. His wife of over 25 years divorced him over his beliefs, no doubt due to her being mis-associated with them. One of his two sons died for America by a German grenade, the other also served in WWII and went on to write passionate anti-Nazi texts that explicitly countered his father.
In today’s political climate, I have seen first-hand how seemingly normal people can be brainwashed by a demagogue. Perhaps this is why I also found the book so compelling. The context was WWII, yet I couldn’t help but see parallels between Viereck and January 6th insurrectionists. Would a prison memoir by the “QAnon Shaman” read something like this? With a regretful narrator who hasn’t quite disassociated with his leader, but also recognizes he was a pawn in an evil plan? Would it be worth reading if so?
In any case, politics are only a minor aspect of the book. If one were to actually hunt down a copy of Men Into Beasts (not easy to do) it would likely be to examine a text with interest to gay literary history. Queer pulp fiction was key to self-acceptance for gay men and women in the 1960s and ‘70s. For all its problematic qualities, Viereck’s memoir had a significant role in that development and it’s fascinating to see how its structure was adapted for future uses.
Consider this review less of a book recommendation and more of a historical spotlight on an unusual literary artifact.
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