Patricia Highsmith was born in Texas in 1921. She spent her adult life in France and Switzerland. She is the author of classics such as Strangers on a Train and Nothing That Meets the Eye. The book, The Price of Salt (Carol) was published in 1953, under the pen name, Claire Morgan. The book was turned down by many publishers because of its exploration of homosexual themes. The author of more than 20 books, Highsmith also won many awards such as the O. Henry Memorial Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award. She died in Switzerland on February 4, 1995.
In the 1950s America was in the middle of the most conservative periods in the twentieth century. This was the time in which much of American politics was focused on containing the spread of communism. Being gay or a lesbian was extremely difficult and dangerous. The Cold War was also going on after World war two and the relationship between the United states and Soviet Union was a tense one. This was the time of the ‘Lavender scare’, which refers to the witch hunting and mass firing of homosexual people from their jobs by the United states government, claiming that they were “security risks” who were vulnerable to Soviet Blackmail. Ironically this persecution of homosexual people brought more visibility to the LGBT community.
Hence many gay and lesbian rights organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Billties began in the early 1950s. Women in the post war years were expected to marry and raise a family, and confine to the gender roles of society. But surprisingly a treasure of cheap paperback novels that later become known by its paper: pulp fiction become popular. A lot of these pulp fiction carried stories of women who love other women. Although these would usually end tragically– suicide, mental breakdown, or heartbreak– these novels were valuable to the becoming of a lesbian cult classic.
One of the main reasons for the appeal of the book – The price of Salt – was that it had a happy ending, as against most of the books about lesbianism around this time. In her afterword, Patricia Highsmith writes about her inspiration for the book. She talks about an experience she had while working in a department store that inspired her to write the book. “It flowed from the end of my pen as if from nowhere,” Highsmith wrote. She also admitted a specific inspiration: a “blondish woman in a fur coat”, who had walked into the store she worked at and immediately caught her eye.
There was another inspiration for the character of Carol: Highsmith’s former lover Virginia Kent Catherwood, who went through a divorce and lost custody of her child, after a recording made of her in a hotel bedroom with another woman was used in the court against her. This detail was also part of the main theme of them book. Even though the book gave Highsmith extreme popularity she remained indecisive about the book. In particular, she was worried about what her 84-year-old grandmother, Willie-Mae, would think of it. This made her very anxious, though her courage and openness about her sexuality were real and admirable.