June 2, 2020

Wittliff acquires papers of John Rechy, pioneer of American, LGBTQ and Chicano literature


The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has acquired the complete archive of trailblazing author John Rechy, the special collections library announced this week.

A first generation Mexican‑American born Juan Francisco Rechy in El Paso in 1931, Rechy is the author of 17 books and his work has been translated into approximately 20 languages. He is the first novelist to receive PEN‑Center‑USA’s Lifetime Achievement honor.

Rechy’s first novel, the now-classic “City of Night,” published in 1963, has never gone out of print. Rechy used a stream of consciousness narrative style to tell in first person voice the story of a gay male hustler on a cross-country journey of self-discovery. The novel includes a fictionalized account of the 1959 Cooper Do-nuts Riot in Los Angeles in which gay men and women resisted after police harassment.

Although in 1963 it was one of the first American novels to deal with gay life in a very open, unflinching way, “City of Life” immediately found a mainstream audience — it remained on the New York Times best-seller list for 25 weeks. Rechy has been praised by Gore Vidal as “one of the few original American writers of the last century.” Critic Héctor Calderón called Rechy “one of Mexican‑American literature’s founding authors.”

“I was born in El Paso, Texas, and for years roamed the country,” said Rechy in a press statement. “Having my archives — reflections of a whole life — reside in The Wittliff Collections, so rich in history and modern life captured by a diversity of voices, is, for me and my work, a return home, the grand home where we belong.”

“John Rechy is a literary legend and is one of the greatest writers to come from the American Southwest,” said David Coleman, Wittliff Collections director. “Rechy carefully maintained his literary papers from the very beginning of his career and the breadth and depth of the resulting collection is extraordinary. This archive will nourish the significant and ongoing scholarly interest in Rechy for generations to come.”

The Wittliff Collections also holds the literary papers of Cormac McCarthy, Sandra Cisneros, and many other significant writers associated with Texas and the Southwest.

David Bowie, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits are among the musicians who have acknowledge Rechy’s influence. David Hockney’s 1964 painting “Building, Pershing Square, Los Angeles” was inspired by a passage in “City of Night.” And the novel inspired Gus van Sant to write the screenplay for “My Own Private Idaho.”

John Rechy's "City of Night"

Rechy grew up the youngest of five children of Mexican-born parents; his father had Scottish heritage. Because of his light skin, Rechy was often assumed to be Anglo and  an elementary school teacher “renamed him” John from his birth name Juan. Rechy earned B.A. in English from Texas Western College (now University of Texas at El Paso) and afterwards enlisted in the U.S. Army. He briefly studied writing at the New School for School Research in New York before drifting to Los Angeles where he lives today.

Rechy’s literary archive comprise over 100 boxes and include the original manuscripts and drafts of all of his written work both published and unpublished. Included are the galley proofs on which Rechy virtually rewrote his “City of Night” with pen and pencil on the margins and on typed pasted strips.

Along with Rechy’s voluminous correspondence with other writers — and fully detailed correspondence with his various editors and publishers — there is a singular collection of the author’s prolific early 1960s correspondence with a friend and patron, written while Rechy had returned to complete “City of Night” in his mother’s home in El Paso. This  letters serves as a virtual diary of one of the most significant periods in Rechy’s personal and literary life.

Rechy’s other books have also been widely acclaimed. “The Sexual Outlaw: A Documentary” was listed by the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the 100 most important non‑fiction works of the last century. “The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez” along with other of his books, is widely taught in literature courses. In 2018, “After the Blue Hour,” won Lambda Literary Foundation’s best fiction of the year award.

Anthologized in his 2004 book “Beneath the Skin,” Rechy’s essays and film and book reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, Nation, New York Review of Books, Texas Observer, Dallas Morning News, The New York Times Book Review. They range in subject from groundbreaking investigative reports into conditions at Huntsville Prison and in juvenile detention facilities in El Paso; the military persecution of the GI’s For Peace; early gay protests in Los Angeles before the Stonewall riots; and explorations into the life and death of Marilyn Monroe.

The archive also includes material Rechy created for courses he innovated for writers at USC along with lectures on literature, film and creative writing comprised  he gave at UCLA, USC, Harvard, Yale, among other universities.

From Rechy’s background, there are historical photographs and early press writings, including a pen‑written gold‑embossed invitation from Porfirio Diaz to his grandfather, who was Diaz’s personal physician.

Among Rechy’s personal items in the collection are his classic leather jacket and Tony Lama boots that feature in his writings and that Rechy identifies as part of his attire “back in the day” on the streets. There’s also the author’s Underwood typewriter, rented and later lovingly purchased.

Once the Rechy papers are archivally preserved and processed, they will become available to researchers and selected highlights from the collection will be exhibited at The Wittliff.


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