Patricia Highsmith and her story through the editions of The Price of Salt
By Jameson Kavel (2020)
The Author and Her Works
The Price of Salt is a lesbian love story written by Patricia Highsmith that was first published under the pseudonym Claire Morgan in 1952. Recently famous for her novel, Strangers on a Train, that was released in 1951, Highsmith interestingly chose to distance her name from The Price of Salt and didn’t publish it under her own name until 1991. In the 1950s, millions of readers were able to feel connected to this story and have hope in the outcome. The novel was published a second time in 1984, still under the name Claire Morgan, even though Naiad Press would have given Highsmith more than twice the money if she published under her own name. Still fearful for her job and reputation, Highsmith didn’t publish the novel under her own name until 1991. Highsmith finally took ownership of The Price of Salt because she got to see the reaction to the rumors about her authorship of the novel and she felt like she had nothing to lose.
This novel depicts the story of Therese, a department store worker who is unsatisfied with her current boyfriend, and Carol, a customer who is married and has a daughter. The book follows their love story as they continue to spend more time together, but when Carol’s husband grows suspicious, Carol and Therese’s relationship is placed in jeopardy in addition to Carol’s custody rights of her daughter. Carol decides to part ways with Therese, but eventually, she realizes that she cannot live without Therese. Ultimately, they find their way back to each other and live happily ever after. The Price of Salt is the first lesbian novel with a happy ending (Tolkin, 8). Before this book was published, every ending ended in tragic death, sadness, or mania. If the characters were lesbian, they would never get the romantic ending that romance readers look forward to. This book helped change that, which is one of the reasons it was so popular (Wilson, 397).
The 1984 Edition
In 1984, Naiad Press, one of the first and biggest publishing houses for lesbian literature, offered to republish The Price of Salt. Highsmith chose to publish under the name Claire Morgan again even though Naiad offered her five thousand dollars instead of two thousand dollars to publish under her own name (Wilson, 397).
Left two photos depict the 1952 front and back cover (Morgan) in comparison to the right two photos which depict the 1984 front and back cover (Morgan).
When this book was published, the title page comprised of the title and author in big, red lettering. The cover art was a light grey and white scheme with an open saltshaker in the center. There aren’t any people on the cover like there were on the original 1952 version, and there are no extra words or information on the title page. It can be assumed that by 1984 everyone who would read this book would already know what it is about, and for that reason, Naiad does not need to market the content of the book like it did in 1953 when it promoted “a love society forbids” with two women on the cover (Morgan). On the back, there are two quotes. One of the quotes promotes the book and Naiad Press specifically by thanking them for bringing back a classic lesbian novel. The second quote is a quote from the book itself that portrays the importance and value of all kinds of relationships. In fact, it says that relationships between two men and two women can be perfect, even more so that between a man and a woman. These two quotes draw the reader in by stating the author’s views about relationships which the reader can share and want to learn more about; it draws them into the book and makes them feel accepted. When Morgan says that homosexual relationships can be perfect, it speaks volumes to readers who need to see that hope. The back cover of the original 1952 edition included no such revealing quotations.
Most notably, the 1984 edition has an afterword written by Claire Morgan. In this afterword, she addresses the importance of her novel ending with a happy ending because the time period it was written in warned against homosexuality like it was drugs (Morgan). She also notes that statistics show that 1/10 of people are gay, or so inclined, and delves into the progress of current society (Morgan). She notes that in the 1980’s gay and lesbian people do not have to hide as much as they once did, and there does not appear to be such a bleak outlook (Morgan).
Along these same lines, Highsmith as Morgan writes that if she was releasing the book now in the 80’s, she would have changed characteristics about Carol and Therese. For instance, she says that Therese would have been much more aware and perceptive of her own sexuality from a younger age and would also have been much more ambitious in her work. She would go for what she wants more. Additionally, she says that Therese would be more aware of her sexuality. She wouldn’t have been so confused or unacquainted with her sexuality. Highsmith explains that she wrote the book at a different and more repressive time, and now, with widely available magazines and books about homosexuality, there is greater access so sexual activities and desires start sooner (Morgan). These changes, Highsmith believed, may have made the book slightly better for the 1980 audience, but the novel was still able to connect very well with the readers in the 1950’s nevertheless. Highsmith takes pride in this fact. She is extremely proud that her book that was able to give “several thousand lonely and frightened people something to hang onto” (Morgan).
On the other hand, Highsmith writing as Morgan also states something very interesting in the afterword. She mentions that even though there has been progress made for the gay and lesbian community, “being a homosexual can still cost a person his or her job, depending more on the job than on the person’s behavior or character” (Morgan). The mention of this gives a little bit of specific insight into Highsmith’s own fears. She is still worried that her sexuality will cost her own job; she doesn’t want the focus to be on her sexual orientation instead of her writing ability. She still wants to be a mystery writer; her sexuality isn’t what she wants to be known for. She had reason to be concerned. In 1983, right before the re-publishing of The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith was corresponding with a publisher and writer, Bettina Berch (Wilson, 396). Berch asked Highsmith if she had ever written a book under the name of Claire Morgan (Wilson, 396). Highsmith replied that, “the less said about Claire Morgan the better, esp. in print” (Wilson, 396). This correspondence demonstrates the immense fear that Highsmith had about being outed as Morgan. She was worried that reputation as a mystery writer would be ruined (Wilson, 396). It also explains why she declined the five-thousand-dollar deal and accepted the two-thousand-dollar deal to publish under the name Claire Morgan.
Reception of the 1984 Edition
The publishers tried to keep Highsmith’s identity as Claire Morgan a secret, but in 1984 and 1985, there was a lot of buzz around the novel. People thought that the novel had a “Highsmith touch” (Wilson, 397). Jane Rule, a journalist fascinated by this story, published an article in 1984 to talk about the new publication of The Price of Salt by Claire Morgan. Rule (1984) acknowledged the widespread popularity of the novel and the importance it had on the industry overall. Most interestingly, this article delves into the identity of Patricia Highsmith and explains that at the Library of Congress, Claire Morgan is cross-referenced as Patricia Highsmith (Rule). This statement would effectively prove that Highsmith is the author of The Price of Salt. Furthermore, Rule questions why Highsmith has continued to hide her identity all these years and separate her different works. She concludes that it is a product of Highsmith’s generation but wishes that Highsmith and Morgan could be connected so that readers could find more stories that they enjoy (Rule). This article portrays the fact that people who were invested in this industry could realize, without Highsmith’s direct confirmation, that she was the author of the novel. Highsmith never publicly confirmed these claims in any article or interview, so people were always left with a slight curiosity as well as a hope that one day she would come forward and take ownership of an industry she helped to build.
In 1991, Patricia Highsmith finally decided to publish The Price of Salt under her own name, no pseudonym. She published again with Naiad Press, and this time she chose to have her own name on the cover (Russell).
The 1991 version front and back covers (Highsmith).
On the front of the book, Patricia Highsmith’s name is large and directly under her name are the words, “writing as Claire Morgan” (Highsmith). This enables readers to know that it is in fact the same book with the same author and gives some insight into the greater history of the novel. On the back of the novel, Patricia Highsmith’s name is mentioned again directly below the title of the book along with the words, “revealed for the first time” (Highsmith). The publisher then follows this with a description of the author’s success stating that, “internationally renowned Patricia Highsmith, author of many critically acclaimed suspense novels including the famous Strangers on a Train, is Claire Morgan, the author of The Price of Salt” (Highsmith). Then, it goes into more details about the actual novel’s “timeless” love story (Highsmith). It is evident that the main idea behind this publication is to address that it is Highsmith who wrote this book. Readers are intended to draw the connection between the mystery novelist that they are familiar with and this book that is now in their hands. They are supposed to recognize that both Highsmith and Morgan who are distinctly well-renowned authors of separate fields are in fact the same talented author. It is also evident that it is a big deal.
It is the very first time that this information has been publicly confirmed, and it signifies that Highsmith is taking responsibility for a novel that she wrote years ago. The publication of her novel under her own name was a big step for Highsmith because she had been publicly denying it for decades (Talbot). She reportedly even previously called the novel a “stinking book” in one of her denials in order to try to maintain her cover (Talbot). After she came out with the 1991 edition, she acknowledged that she was shyly pleased with how devoted her readers are and with the success of this book (Talbot). This was also a massive deal for the industry since this novel was the first one to promote the possibility of a happy ending for members of the lesbian and gay community, and now, the very writer of that novel shared who she was with the world. Unfortunately, that information was already circling before she made it known herself, but she still got to solidify these claims on her own terms. She chose to publish under her name.
This was made easier since these whispers were already out in the world; it didn’t come as quite a massive shock. Highsmith was thought to be somewhat reclusive and generally avoid human contact in forms like interviews and publications about her. She didn’t like the personal attention on her or her life (Dupont). One of her friends, Vivien De Bernardi, said that Highsmith believed that the interviews, press, and awards take away from valuable time that could be spent writing (Dupont). Highsmith wasn’t invested in the awards; she didn’t write for the money or the glory. She wrote because she felt she had stories to say. Highsmith knew that by acknowledging The Price of Salt, a lot of press and personal scrutiny could follow. Not a fan of interviews or attention, it was easy to want to shy away from that potential drama. However, when the media began to hint that it was her behind the novel, she got to see that people were not disappointed or upset that she was the author. People were just grateful for a novel that they felt so connected to and wanted to be connected to the author in the same way.
Another factor in her decision to publish her novel under her name was that even though the 1984 version sold a million copies almost forty years after the first publication date, by 1991, Highsmith’s career was looking bleak (Rich). She was trying to publish “’Small g: A Summer Idyll,” but it was rejected by publishers (Rich). Ultimately, it was published after her death, but in the 1990s, her career was beginning to slow down as she got older. Furthermore, she was getting sicker and losing her battle with lung cancer. When combing all these factors, there was really nothing for her to lose. Additionally, with growing acceptance and openness, it was an easier time for Highsmith and the public to feel comfortable with her identity and her ability as a writer regardless of her sexuality.
The Price of Salt had a large impact on the lesbian romance industry and on the lesbian community. The book gave readers a sense of optimism for the future and a storyline they could connect with. Highsmith finally taking ownership of the novel in 1991 proved how much progress Highsmith made because she finally felt like she could acknowledge her previous work. In 1984, Highsmith was still fearful of her reputation as a mystery novelist and how her sexuality would tie into her perceived ability to do that. By 1991, after the whispers, Highsmith saw that people just wanted to know who the real author was so they could connect with the book on a deeper level. No one was upset that she was also the author of mystery novels; in fact, people were impressed by the diversity of her writings. She was also nearing the end of her life and wanted to publicly take responsibility for one of her greatest accomplishments. Overall, the success of the book was never about the true identity of the author, but rather, the identity of the reader themselves and the connection they felt to the novel. Writing as Patricia Highsmith gives the readers one more piece they can connect to even more so than the characters in the novel.
Dupont, Joan. “A Writer’s Legacy: Little Tales of Cats and Snails.” New York Times, last modified September 09, 1997. https://search.proquest.com/usnews/docview/2236791224/citation/D4A21F89D19944A2PQ/1?accountid=10598
Highsmith, Patricia. The Price of Salt. Tallahassee, Florida: Naiad Press, 1991.
Morgan, Claire. The Price of Salt. New York: Bantam Books, 1952.
Morgan, Claire. The Price of Salt. Tallahassee, Florida: Naiad Press, 1984.
Rich, Frank. “American Pseudo.” New York Times, December 12, 1999. https://search.proquest.com/usnews/docview/2234072809/abstract/93D41E6DF34B42A4PQ/1?accountid=10598.
Rule, Jane. “Erotic Relationships: The Price of Salt.” The Globe and Mail, January 21, 1984. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?surl=https://search.proquest.com/docview/386485319?accountid=10598.
Russell, Sue. “The Talented Patricia Highsmith: Lesbian Class Avenger.” Lambda Book Report, 2000. Retrieved from https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/236984615?accountid=10598
Talbot, Margaret. “Patricia Highsmith’s Forbidden Love.”The New Yorker, November 23, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/30/forbidden-love
Tolkin, Michael. “In Memory of Patricia Highsmith: [Home Edition].” Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1995. https://login.proxy.lib.duke.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/293060047?accountid=10598.
Wilson, Andrew. Beautiful Shadow – a Life of Patricia Highsmith. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2010.