How HMH Author Jan Morris Made History With a Memoir About Being Transgender

In the United States, we celebrate Pride Month in June as a time to recognize the LGBTQ+ community and its members' contributions to our society. June was selected to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in which members of the LGBTQ+ community fought back against police harassment in New York City in 1969. 2019 is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion, which was led in part by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, who were activists and openly transgender in a time before the term was more commonly used.

Let’s look back 45 years to 1974—just five years after the events at the Stonewall Inn—to one of HMH’s biggest firsts: when the English journalist and travel writer Jan Morris stunned the literary world with her bestselling memoir, Conundrum, now widely considered to be a classic. It was the first mainstream memoir about being transgender.

It’s interesting to see how much changed—as well as how much did not—about how trans people were greeted and treated in the intervening decades. You may have noticed the word “transsexualism” on the cover, a word that is no longer used—and is, in fact, frowned upon. In 1974, when the book was published, the whole field of gender theory was about 20 years in the future, so when Morris wrote in the book that “gender is more important than sex,” she was one of the first people to articulate a difference between gender and sexuality. This helped to open up our language to new ideas and ways of expression. 

The very idea of people changing the gender they were assigned at birth was almost unheard of when Conundrum came out, especially in what was then called “polite society,” and it’s one reason the book caused such a big splash. Another was that Morris was well known as a writer, especially for being brave and adventurous—or as the profile of her in The New York Times Magazine at the time of Conundrum’s publication put it, with a degree of amazement: “His whole career and reputation had created an aura of glamorous and successful masculinity.” Morris had been an officer in a cavalry regiment at the end of World War II and into the early 1950s. He climbed 22,000 feet up Mt. Everest to scoop the rest of the world on the day Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit. After more than 10 years reporting all over the world for The Times of London and The Guardian, Morris turned to writing books about the many places he’d traveled, writing she continues to do today.  

Conundrum was heavily promoted by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich—the name of the company prior to its acquisition of Houghton Mifflin—and both the book and Morris received much publicity. I dug through our archives to find clippings of newspaper ads from the time.  There are several for Conundrum there, including this one that appeared in The New York Times Book Review one month after publication:

It belongs with this letter from HBJ to Morris explaining the layout of that ad. (I especially like the comment Morris added in the lower left about inserting one missing comma—because aren’t commas something we all ponder when reviewing our writing?)

Here’s another ad from the time period, this one promoting Morris’s appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, which was considered one of the more intellectual of the nighttime talk shows:

And here’s an ad about Morris’s book being back in stock:

Jan Morris is now 92 years old. She lives in Wales, and she’s still writing. Conundrum was the last book of hers that HBJ published, except for some revised editions of the travel books written before her transition. I don’t know why that is; I was hoping to find some evidence in our files about it, but there’s nothing there (one more archival mystery to solve one day!).

But it’s no mystery that this book is an important part of LGBTQ+ history as well as an important part of the story of humankind.  

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