1962-72: ALMA ROUTSONG;
Writing and Publishing Patience and Sarah
"I felt I had found my people."
from Jonathan Katz, GAY AMERICAN HISTORY
According to Alma Routsong, author (under the pen name Isabel Miller) of the Lesbian novel Patience and Sarah, her book was not written with any conscious political aim. Yet her work clearly captures and expresses, in fictional form, that Lesbian-feminist consciousness developing in America in the 1960s. Although its author's intention was simply to write the love story of two women, her work is important in that Lesbian literary-political tradition - - the Lesbian defense in fictional form. As such, the writing of Patience and Sarah constituted an act of Lesbian resistance. The following interview makes clear how Routsong's experience as a woman and Lesbian was central in shaping the consciousness expressed in her book - - and in inspiring its conception, writing,and publication.
Alma Routsong's novel, which she first published herself under the title A Place for Us (1967), relates the story of Patience White and Sarah Dowling, detailing the development of their love against the background of a hostile, puritanical, New England farm community in 1816. The two women alternately narrate their own story, as each experiences it. Their words have a naive simplicity, belying the sophisticated wisdom of their thought. The language of the novel is the perfect verbal equivalent of those "primitive" paintings of which, in the book, Patience White is the creator. The novel has a lovely unity of style and content, but quite apart from its literary quality (always a matter of subjective judgment), Patience and Sarah - - inspired as it was by two women who actually lived and farmed together in Greene County, New York, about 1820 - - suggests how knowledge of American Lesbian history may serve the culture of a people in search of its past.
Although reliable generalizations are elusive at this early stage of research, it appears that fiction by Lesbians has played a special role in the resistance to that oppression denying Lesbians existence altogether, or presenting only the most negative image of women-loving women. The Gay male and Lesbian resistance differ in that the Lesbian defense more often took the form of literature (the novel, short story, or poetry). Thus while Radclyffe Hall's and Alma Routsong's novels vary totally in viewpoint, they both may be seen as contributions to a literary-political genre - - the Lesbian fiction-defense. Given the special import of Lesbian literature, it is no accident that the major early work in Lesbian studies is Jeannette H. Foster's Sex Variant Women in Literature (1956). First published privately by Foster, this bibliographical-historical survey was itself a pioneering, invaluable contribution to the American Lesbian resistance. Other bibliographies of Lesbian-relevant literature by Marion Zimmer Bradley and Barbara Grier (Gene Damon, pseud.) point to an early appreciation among Lesbians of the importance of fictional sources for the study of women-loving women.
On January 20, 1975, Alma Routsong spoke with the present author about the genesis of Patience and Sarah.