Thesis Update: Notes from the Archive

This blog is long overdue for an update—and a #jessewritesathesis update in particular. In brief: I’m chipping away at it! Progress doesn’t accumulate nearly as quickly as I’d like, of course, but I now have several docs that hold quite a bit of writing. Still learning to avert—or rather, manage—the crippling inner editor who insists that every sentence or phrase be “perfect” before moving to the next, but things are slowly improving.

ransom center exteriorThe most important development which specifically warrants an update post, however, is that after many years of hoping and scheming I was finally able to do some actual archival research for this thesis. Two weeks ago I spent three days at the University of Austin’s Harry Ransom Center sifting through their extensive holdings on both Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler, and it just couldn’t have been a better experience. I was constantly impressed with how the Ransom Center and their staff were able to balance a (rightful) sense of protection over the remarkable material in their possession and an obvious commitment to access. As someone currently suspended somewhere between the categories of scholar and student, it was heartening to see that alongside the scholars were what seemed to be a constant stream of undergraduate students accessing and perusing material.

[That said, even though the Center is extremely generous in allowing users to take as many photos of the material as they want, one must sign a strict confidentiality agreement that forbids sharing it without written permission. So unfortunately I can’t provide any images to accompany the things I mention below. Just an FYI—I’m not being stingy!]

What did I find? Well, that three days was hardly enough to even pretend that I’d managed to scratch the surface in regards to what’s available for discovery in both of these archives. It’s been very heartening to see both Ford and Tyler receiving increasing scholarly interest over the last year or so—something itself I should do a write-up one of these days—which leads me to assume that eyes are starting to get on this material (indeed, I was told someone had been working with the Ford material the week before I arrived), but it was also IMMEDIATELY clear that this is a “story”—indeed, multiple stories—that needs, is even demanding, to be told. Though I was forced to do a lot of scanning/speed-reading, Ford’s prolific correspondence (of which this is only a partial holding; there also seems to be much held at Yale’s Beinecke Library, to say nothing of holdings in archives of his countless correspondents) offers so much first-person documentation of modernism, American expatriatism, the pre-Stonewall queer experience, and early twentieth century American/European culture in general—in addition offering perspectives that have been generally kept to the peripheries of historical accounts of these eras and communities.

djuna barnes letter

Image of a typical Djuna Barnes letter found online [NOT from the Ransom Center collection]

Perhaps the single most personally satisfying experience was the several hours spent poring over the collection of Djuna Barnes’s letters, most written between 1933 and 1936. Some were typed, but the majority were handwritten—itself a thrill (though it took a little while to acclimate to her distinctive handwriting!). I was able to answer some questions I had regarding Barnes’s involvement with the manuscript and initial publication of The Young and Evil, as well as Ford’s contact with Nightwood. I was also able to get quite a bit of insight into Barnes and Ford’s brief but intense romantic partnership, a chapter not widely known, probably because it complicates the most common narratives regarding both figures (and Barnes’s life and career in particular). A long term goal is to carve out of my thesis a publishable article on this specific topic.

Other highlights: several draft fragments from The Young and Evil that provide insight into Ford and Tyler’s collaborative process, as well as facsimile copies of Ford’s correspondence with Gertrude Stein which helped illuminate her involvement with the text.

And finally, more information which only led to more mystery: one of the central enigmas that has emerged during my research is the figure of Kathleen Tankersley Young, a poet and critic initially associated with the Harlem Renaissance and appeared in a number of the “little magazines” of the period. As well as taking on a kind of mentorship role and co-editor credit for Ford’s literary magazine Blues, she is important to The Young and Evil, not only as the novel’s dedicatee but appearing as the text’s only major female character. From her poetry I had started to suspect that she is actually a more crucial influence on Ford and Tyler than even Barnes and Stein; reading through her letters has only confirmed this.

Yet despite all these fascinating connections (and others—she went on to found a minor but admired publication company before a tragic and mysterious early death) Young currently remains more or less invisible—indeed, the several mentions of her currently out there (mostly in studies and compilations of women connected to the Harlem Renaissance) can only mention that practically nothing is known about her. Indeed, I’ve yet to come across a photograph of her. I was cautiously hoping an image of some kind would emerge somewhere in Ford’s material, but that ended up not being the case (at least in what I was able to go through)—though I sense that a dramatic pencil sketch of a female face on one of her letters might be a portrait of her. I’m  now more curious than ever about this fascinating, unknown figure; if anybody reading this happens to have ANY information on Young, please get in touch with me! (My info is in the “About” section.)

The Ransom Center actually shared on their Instagram account a snippet from one of letters from Young that I was able to look at, making it (I presume) ok to share here. I’ll also include below a few other images taken outside the restricted Reading Room.

It’s taken the two weeks since to simply organize and upload the notes and images (nearly 250 of them!) that I took over the course of the three days. Now it’s time to dive back into the writing—something I’m taking on again with a renewed sense of excitement and engagement. Wish me luck!

kty letter to chf ransom centerransom center jacques cocteauoscar wilde ransom center windowransom center leon bakst ballet russes costume

Top to bottom:

  1. Letter from Kathleen Tankersley Young to Charles Henri Ford (1928), posted on the Ransom Center Instagram account
  2. The eyes of Jean Cocteau from the interior of Ransom Center
  3. “Apparition” of Oscar Wilde on the exterior of the Ransom Center
  4. Original costume designed by Léon Bakst for Narcisse, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe (1911)

 

 

Book Review: LOLLY WILLOWES by Sylvia Townsend Warner

lolly-willowes-warner-nyrb-editionWarner’s prose sparkles and snaps like a gin and tonic in an elegant cut glass tumbler, her humor the slice of lime contributing the essential dash of sharp acidity. Warner proves to be a most devious hostess, however: seemingly invited to a pleasantly amusing afternoon garden party, it’s only as the sun begins to set that it suddenly begins to dawn—this is actually a Witch’s Sabbath! What a marvelously devious sleight of hand.

And perhaps more than ever 2017 is the time for stories about waking up from the drowsiness of lives cocooned by social expectations and respectability politics and be pointed toward modes of being that are idiosyncratically imagined and intentionally pursued. Part 1 is all charming, “quintessentially” English eccentricities—a broad assortment of kooky extended family members, whimsical family heirlooms hoarded in drawing rooms, teatime and other daily rituals, and the like; this is the life of one Laura Willowes, quietly sloughed into a life of genteel spinsterhood, and cloistered in the tiny spare room in a brother’s family home in London. She slowly transforms into docile “Aunt Lolly” after being christened as such by a baby niece—her identity is so nondescript that even she doesn’t quite register her very name is no longer her own.

NPG P183; Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton

Sylvia Townsend Warner by Cecil Beaton, 1930 (via National Portrait Gallery)

This all changes when an otherwise inauspicious guide book makes its way into Laura’s possession. Suddenly Part 2 sets off in an unforeseen direction as Laura announces she will be moving to the isolated rural village that is the subject of her book. Her family attempts all means at their disposal—including emotional blackmail and financial threats—to undermine her resolve; Laura nevertheless persists and promptly lets a room of her own, ready to begin a new life distinctly, if somewhat tentatively, her own.

If this was the story of Lolly Willowes, it would still be of note as a showcase for Warner’s remarkable facility with language and sinuous approach to syntax; it’s additionally exceptional as an early feminist fable making a persuasive and poignant case for female agency (Warner’s novel predates Woolf’s landmark A Room of One’s Own by several years). But the author envisions much, much more for her text and hurtles headlong into the utterly startling Part 3. While I suspect most readers will know, as I did, the general trajectory of the narrative, I think the less known the better so will leave it at that. What a lovely defense of demanding and then enacting a life lived fully and deliciously and—take the term in whatever sense you prefer—queerly too.

“Laura had brought her sensitive conscience into the country with her, just as she had brought her umbrella, though so far she had not remembered to use either.”

& even more scholarship

Unfortunately updates to this blog for the foreseeable future will (likely) be few and far between. But it’s for a good reason: work on my thesis has resumed!

It’s been slow going, and progress occurs more on some days than others, but I’ve been working hard to develop daily writing habits that finally seem to be paying off (key to this has been joining an online academic writing group, which I should write about here). And overall it has just felt great to note the expanding page count of an initial chapter draft. Also exciting is that a trip to do archival research is going to happen sometime next spring.

In the meantime, just wanted to note that I have posted another paper up on my academia.edu account. I’ve always been proud of this particular piece of scholarship, which was initially written for a seminar on American autobiographical writing, and then was slightly revised for submission to my graduate program’s annual peer-reviewed published journal.

The paper focuses on several texts by Samuel M. Steward (particularly the 1984 novel  Parisian Lives, the sociological study Understanding the Male Hustler, and the memoir Chapters from an Autobiography) and attempts to grapple with a number of thorny issues, including the nature of autobiography, what happens when autobiography is fictionalized, and the historical necessity for queer individuals to employ pseudonyms and falsify specific details regarding their identity even when dealing with life writing. And all of these issues become particularly fascinating within the context of Steward’s intentionally unorthodox oeuvre.

So if interested, here’s a direct link to The “Strange Mimesis” of Queer Autobiography: Subversive Pseudonyms in Samuel M. Steward’s Autobiographical Writing. (Yet another too-long title that now makes me cringe!)

IotD: The Unexpected Collaboration of Alice B. Toklas and Picasso

Needlepoint might not be what most think of when they think of modernist art, but we’ve actually featured it here before. Below are two examples of Alice B. Toklas’s needlepoint, taken from designs by Pablo Picasso.

alice b toklas picasso needlepoint chairsalice b toklas picasso needlepoint chair 1alice b toklas picasso needlepoint chair 2

Juliet Clark from SFMOMA has a really nice write-up that prominently features these two chairs, including a lengthy excerpt from The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that relates the series of events that led to their creation.

The two chairs, before Toklas transformed them, can actually be glimpsed in the famous Man Ray portrait of the two women in their shared home at 27, rue de Fleurus (Alice is sitting in one of them):

man ray portrait stein toklas

Yet another reason to (re)consider Toklas as an accomplished artist in her own right.

Provenance:

Alice B. Toklas (from a design by Pablo Picasso)
Two armchairs, fabric and wood
Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Man Ray, c. 1922
Gelatin silver print
Source: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

 

 

more scholarship

I recently uploaded another paper on my academia.edu account, a polished up and slightly revised version of a presentation I made at the 2010 MPCA/ACA (Midwest Pop Culture Association / Midwest American Culture Association) conference held in Minneapolis, MN.

It’s on Twilight. Yes, the YA vampire series that was all the rage a few years ago.

And why post about such a thing here?

Well, because the whole purpose of the presentation was to consider how many of the preoccupations exhibited on this site relate to this text and the character of Edward Cullen. I briefly outline the history of the vampire as a queer metaphor, contextualize the fetishization of beauty (and marble statues!) in the Victorian “cult of beauty” movement, consider the “sad young man” figure and the prominence of “twilight” in pre-Stonewall representations of gay life as identified in the work of Richard Dyer, and finally the ambiguous on-and-offscreen persona of Robert Pattinson and the nuanced ways his star-text might be interpreted by a contemporary gay audience member. What’s even more fascinating? That I don’t think any of these dynamics were intended by author Stephenie Meyer!

This whole project started off as a bit of an in-joke between friends, and then it turned out to be perhaps the single most warmly received piece of scholarship I’ve yet produced (funny how that works). It’s not at all the paper I would write if I was undertaking it again today, but I still have a great deal of affection for it, which is why I’ve decided to dig it back out after all this time and send it out into the world.

So if interested, take a look at the rather cumbersomely titled That Ever-Elusive Object of Desire: Gay Spectatorships and Male Objectification in “Twilight”.

 

IotD: George Platt Lynes Needlepoint

George Platt Lynes needlepoint of Jared French design

The design is a copy of his friend Jared French’s painting Elemental Play (1946).

A closer look at the intricate handiwork:

As well as the original version of Elemental Play:

Jared French Elemental PlayPlatt Lynes recreated the overall composition of French’s painting almost exactly, but along with some alteration in the color scheme, there are several fascinating minor divergences as well. Consider, for example, that Platt Lynes added genitals to the male figure on the left—perhaps not surprising considering how closely associated the photographer has become with his erotic art.

In his tripartite biography Intimate Companions David Leddick records that Platt Lynes took up needlepoint during the six year period (1937 – 1943) he lived with Glenway Wescott and Monroe Wheeler in an unconventional ménage à trois arrangement. Leddick also includes a photo of another example of Platt Lynes’s needlepoint, also designed by French (perhaps the subject of a future post.)

A lesser known but nonetheless fascinating expression of the great photographer’s extensive creative oeuvre.

The cushion is currently for sale; price unknown.

Provenance:

George Platt Lynes (from a design by Jared French)
Needlepoint in wool
Source: Kylix Collection

Jared French, c. 1946
Source: The Red List

Works Cited

Leddick, David. Intimate Companions: A Triography of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, and Their Circle. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.

Book Review: TWO SERIOUS LADIES by Jane Bowles

two serious ladies cover jane bowlesBy the time I felt like I was finally getting a handle on this bitter, black-hearted little novel, it was all over. As I quickly discovered, to make the acquaintance of these titular two ladies is to be initiated into a state of perpetual disorientation; I was not, I’ll frankly admit, adequately prepared, even if Bowles’s novel frequently brought to mind the work of her contemporaries Djuna Barnes and Flannery O’Connor, two favorites of mine.

All three authors have an uncanny ability to distill unsettling visions of the world into terrifying portraits of individuals who, by simply defying the “natural” order of things, unleash an aura of chaos and existential anarchy around everything they do. Yet turmoil is often the source of humor, and I’d say the work of all three is funny—albeit in bleak, dark ways. But where Barnes and O’Connor employ violence (both emotional and physical) and grotesquerie to elicit the kind of laugh that transforms into a horrified gasp before it manages to escape the throat, Bowles’s approach is more akin to screwball comedy, a comedy of manners where the main players have decided to redefine what “manners” entail, upending the world around them (ie “until recently [Miss Goering] had never followed too dangerously far in action any course which she had decided upon as being the morally correct one”). That said, these forms of comedies depend on a sense of order and decorum reestablishing itself by the resolution, typically with a romantic pairing reinstating the “unruly” female safely back into the social order. Not so with Two Serious Ladies: it’s instead a whirligig of despair whose last words offer no sense of solace. Instead it feels like a temporary stopgap in an inevitably continuing story destined for misery and destruction.

janes bowles by carl van vechten

Bowles portrait by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

But also, in the meantime, a sense of escape, even freedom. Perhaps?

Aware of the general outline of Bowles’s biography (sadly, an infamously tragic one), one of the things I was curious was if she would be working in the grand queer tradition of taking up a certain term to signify covert lifestyles and behaviors, and there does seem to be some evidence to support such a reading. In the novel’s first few pages Miss Gamelon inexplicably moves in with Miss Goering—indeed, I assumed these would be the two “serious” ladies—and immediately entwine themselves into an incredibly intense codependent relationship; Mrs. Copperfield has a similar impulse toward Pacifica, noting that the Panamanian prostitute “takes everyone quite seriously” as she takes “Pacifica’s hand in her own.” I’ll be paying closer attention to this on inevitable (at some point) repeat readings, but whatever inflection one wants to read into them, it is undeniable that there are not only more than just two serious ladies populating Bowles’s novel, and, furthermore, all take their relationships with other ladies very, very seriously.

Jane Bowles, Truman Capote by Cecil Beaton, Marruecos, 1949

Jane Bowles & Truman Capote (Marruecos, 1949) by Cecil Beaton

Barnes’s rueful observation the she was “the most famous unknown in the world” also resonates with Bowles’s own legacy, having long been regarded as one of the great, undersung prose stylists of the twentieth century, inspiring an almost cult-like veneration from writers who achieved a much larger degree of fame than she ever managed to (Tennessee Williams’s proclamation that Two Serious Ladies is “his favorite book” and that he “can’t think of a modern novel that seems more likely to become a classic” continues to adorn current reprints of the novel; Truman Capote, John Ashbery, and Bowles’s own husband Paul were vocal supporters). Millicent Dillon has more recently described how “one soon begins to know the sound of a Jane Bowles sentence, its odd jumps, the way in which it continuously confounds expectations, the way in which secrets are withheld and as suddenly revealed.”

Perhaps Bowles does reveal some secrets throughout the tangled trajectories of the two serious ladies of Two Serious Ladies, but it seems more defined by its resolution to always remain something of an enigma, restless and on edge. And while I can’t say I actually much enjoyed the process of reading this novel, I nonetheless sense that it’s going to join the small cadre of texts I find myself returning to on occasion, almost inexplicably, trying to scratch some kind of deep itch it has created. To try and discover answers to some of the unnerving existential questions it poses—even if I never really expect to ever actually find them.

Works Cited

Bowles, Jane. Two Serious Ladies. 1943. New York City: Ecco, 2014.

Dillon, Millicent. “Jane Bowles: Experiment as Character.” Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction. Ed. Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1989.

Further Reading

 

Book Review: UTOPIA PARKWAY: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JOSEPH CORNELL by Deborah Solomon

utopia parkway solomon“Straight” biography (ha, ha) is something I very rarely take up in my reading—I prefer memoirs, personal diaries, and journals whenever possible—and it’s even more rare for me to actually read a bio all the way through, opting instead to read chapters or sections specific to my interests. I had fully expected this to be more or less my experience with Utopia Parkway, currently the only biography available on the life of nonconformist artist Joseph Cornell, but I quickly became so engrossed in the specifics of Cornell’s life that I ended up reading the whole thing. Oddly, it’s probably the closest I’ve experienced to a “page turner” in a good while, and frankly, I could hardly put it down.

Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46

Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall), ca. 1945–46

Art critic and journalist Deborah Solomon certainly had her work cut out for her by taking on this subject. All accounts and analyses of Cornell’s life I’ve otherwise encountered seem to struggle with accounting for his utter unconventionality, and in some accounts he can come off as a whimsical, almost child-like recluse under the domineering thumb of his “dear Mama,” others reify him as a kind of hermit willfully wandering on the fringes of art and society, and yet others emphasize the creepy, voyeuristic aspect of his life, a man whose largely repressed sexual urges were the engine behind his work as he struggled to dominate, at least representationally, the various female figures he venerated as muses. As Solomon demonstrates, Cornell was an extremely complex individual, and all of the above characterizations might contain elements of truth but nonetheless fail to capture the whole. Her portrait of the artist documents all of the individual facets of personality, and demonstrate how they shift and permutate with even the slightest alteration of perspective.

Cornell emerges as an endlessly baffling bundle of contradictions throughout Utopia Parkway, but to Solomon’s immense credit she does a remarkable job of not simply accounting for these “quirks” but regards them from an empathetic perspective that makes them understandable. This is largely achieved by continuously insisting on contextualizing Cornell’s life and the art that it inspired within larger social, cultural, and artistic movements, rather than even attempt to “figure him out,” pathologizing or even diagnosing such an enigmatic subject (though, perhaps inevitably, the study is not completely free from such impulses, especially in the later sections).

joseph cornellOne reviewer on Goodreads found this book “kind of a downer, about a sad and very limited life,” a description that rather took me aback, because as we find out through Utopia Parkway, Cornell’s life seems anything but—what is remarkable is how rich of a life he seemed capable of creating for himself, largely within the carefully controlled confines of his own home. Despite any reclusive tendencies, he managed to know just about everyone (from Duchamp to Breton to to Marianne Moore to Toumanova to Sontag to Yoko Ono and just about anybody who’s anybody in between). Which is ultimately what proves to be so inspiring: so many life stories of famous people and artists in particular seem to involve extensive travels, glittering parties, heartbreak and ecstasy in equal ,alternating measure, all of the glamorous, easily romanticized trappings of what many of us to constitute the stuff of “REAL living”—especially when it comes to those we consider geniuses or exceptional individuals in some way. Cornell points to possible alternatives, and how richness of the mind, creativity and great accomplishment can take other forms as well.*

This probably isn’t the ideal place to start one’s explorations of Cornell’s work—it’s much more enriching when one at least has some idea of some of the work Solomon constantly alludes to—but an essential resource for anybody who is already a fan.

*I wrote this review long before encountering Benjamin Kahan’s Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life (2013), but I suspect that this fascinating study would be a very productive place to start such a reevaluation, something I allude to in my thoughts on the book itself.

[This is a revision of a review that was originally posted on Goodreads.]

Works Cited

Kahan, Benjamin. Celibacies: American Modernism & Sexual Life. Durham: Duke UP, 2013.

Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. Boston: MFA Publications, 2004. Print.

IotD: Charles Henri Ford Writes Joseph Cornell from Italy

Over the last few days I’ve spent some time digging into the wonderfully expansive online holdings of the Joseph Cornell Papers maintained by the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art website. Cornell sustained a lively correspondence with Ford, Parker Tyler, and a number of individuals pertinent to this site, and as the intricate networks formed by the queer modernists is a topic of particular interest to me, I plan to start featuring these visual traces and mementos that offer small, illuminating glimpses into various social connections.

To start off, this lively (and very legible–not always a given!) postcard from Ford to Cornell sent in 1954. Ford’s humorous indication of his “room” in the Italian town of Frascati certainly is in line with his sly, wicked sense of humor:

Charles Henri Ford postcard of Frascati to Joseph Cornell (front)

Charles Henri Ford postcard of Frascati to Joseph Cornell (back)

Deborah Solomon reports in her biography of Cornell that Ford and Cornell “began corresponding in 1939, after Ford wrote to Cornell to propose that they collaborate on a volume of poems and collages.” Cornell was apparently flattered by the suggestion, but “saw little possibility of an artistic partnership” demurring to Ford in a letter due to his “total lack of interest in psychoanalysis and the current preoccupation with sex.” But even if a full collaborative effort never came to fruition, Cornell’s nonetheless provide Ford a whimsical cover for his poetry collection ABC‘spublished in 1940.

The reference to author Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen) in this note is an interesting one, as Solomon’s records that “when Ford gave [Cornell] a copy of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, he inscribed the book: ‘Joseph, these were written for you.'”

Ford’s indispensable published journal Water from a Bucket indicates that he and Tchelitchew (Pavlik)’s time in Frascati stretched into early 1956. I particularly like this uncharacteristically fanciful musing–the sole entry for November of 1954:

I took a terrace walk and saw the most brilliant falling star–I always make the same wish: Love.

A sentiment that seems, quite honestly, much more in line with Cornell’s romantic sensibility than Ford’s bawdier, unsentimental impulses.

 

Provenance:
General Correspondence: Ford, Charles Henri, 1939-1970
Joseph Cornell Papers, 1804-1986
Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Works Cited

Ford, Charles Henri. Water from a Bucket: A Diary, 1948-1957. New York City: Turtlepoint, 2001.

Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.