Amid the wave of persecution that characterized much of 1950s America, a respected New York publishing house surprisingly published a novel dealing with an explicitly homosexual theme. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the author of the novel was a southerner—a young Mississippian, Thomas Hal Phillips.
Born near Corinth in 1922, Phillips published six novels and several short stories and had a lucrative career as a Hollywood screenwriter, actor, and film consultant. Phillips earned a bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State University in 1943 and immediately joined the US Navy. After serving in both North Africa and Europe during World War II, Phillips entered the master’s program in creative writing at the University of Alabama. His thesis later became his first published novel, The Bitterweed Path (1950).
Like most of Phillips’s novels, The Bitterweed Path deals with the coming of age of a young, southern man. Darrell Barclay, the son of a poor sharecropper and Klansman, becomes attached to a wealthy plantation owner, Malcolm Pitt, and his son, Roger. Throughout his life Darrell must adjust to the love that he feels for the Pitts and the love that he receives from them. The love between Darrell and Roger is distorted by feelings of brotherhood (a common symbol of homosexual desire for Mississippians of Phillips’s generation), while the love between Malcolm and Darrell is also the love between a father and child. All of the main characters, like generations of Mississippi men, choose marriage, and their homosexual desires are represented as commonplace. As a so-called highbrow novel of the time, The Bitterweed Path contains no explicit sexual material but explicitly deals with the homoerotic relationships. Phillips handles these relationships with the delicate facility of language for which he received much praise.
Phillips subsequently published four more novels in rapid succession: The Golden Lie (1951), Search for a Hero (1952), Kangaroo Hollow (1954), and The Loved and Unloved (1955). Kangaroo Hollow, published in Britain but not made available in the United States until 2000, constituted Phillips’s only other exploration of explicit homoeroticism. Search for a Hero, a subtle and ironic war narrative, was Phillips’s most critically successful novel.
Phillips received significant awards and fellowships from the literary community, including Rosenwald, Fulbright, and Guggenheim Fellowships and the O. Henry Prize for his short story, “The Shadow of an Arm.” After the early 1950s, however, Phillips retreated from the literary world. He ran two failed gubernatorial campaigns for his brother, served as president of a life insurance company, and served as the first head of the Mississippi Film Commission, a capacity in which he worked on films such as Ode to Billy Joe, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Walking Tall II, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Phillips also worked on many Robert Altman pictures, in particular Nashville, for which he wrote and recorded the “Hal Phillip Walker” segments.
Phillips returned to writing novels with 2002’s Red Midnight, about a young man paroled from prison and living in rural Mississippi after World War II.
- John Howard, Men Like That: A Southern Queer History (1999)
- James B. Lloyd, ed., Lives of Mississippi Authors, 1817–1967 (1981)
- Mississippi Writers and Musicians website, www.mswritersandmusicians.com
- University Press of Mississippi website, www.upress.state.ms.us