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July 12, 2017

'Goodnight, Beloved Comrade' gives a voice to an unspoken epistolary love story

Authors are often asked how they choose the subjects they write about. For Dan Murtaugh, Adjunct Professor of English at Johnson County Community College, the path to writing his book began in the stacks of a bookstore, purely by chance.

“I noticed a book with the author’s portrait on the dust jacket,” he said. “The book was ‘The Journals of Denton Welch.’ I purchased the book, and as I read the journals, I was more and more drawn to the writer’s amazing and acute perception of everything around him.”

That lucky find led Murtaugh to write “Goodnight, Beloved Comrade: The Letters of Denton Welch to Eric Oliver,” published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Love affair in England

“Goodnight, Beloved Comrade” is an annotated collection of letters Welch wrote to Eric Oliver, a land boy (an agricultural worker with the Land Army of World War II) who would become a lover and caretaker during the last six years of Welch’s life. 

“I admired his unabashed sexual awareness at a time when there was some risk involved in its expression,” Murtaugh said.

‘A great writer and artist’

Welch died in 1948 at age 33 from complications caused by a bicycle accident when he was 18. Murtaugh describes Welch as “a great writer and artist whose career was cut far too short.”

“His brilliant style and autobiographical subject matter, behind the façade of fiction, have been celebrated by such writers as William S. Burroughs and John Waters,” Murtaugh said.  “One of the reasons for collecting, editing and annotating the letters was to expose more readers of literature to this great writer.”

Researching in Texas

Murtaugh traveled to the University of Texas-Austin, where the original letters are housed in its Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities. He began the process of transcribing the letters, which were marred with tears and ink blots, with the goal of “keeping true to the content.”

Welch’s handwriting and irregular use of punctuation also made the process challenging, Murtaugh said. The annotations were derived from Welch’s four novels, his own short fiction and poetry, and two biographies on Welch.

The book is available as part of the Living Out series, which publishes gay and lesbian autobiographies both contemporary and historical.

Murtaugh has been teaching at JCCC for 16 years. He also teaches history and literature classesat Park University.

For more information

For more on JCCC’s English department, check the department blog or a list of classes offered.