Book Review: BETTER ANGEL by Richard Meeker

better angelI was only several pages into Richard Meeker’s sensitive queer coming-of-age novel when it occurred to me that what I was reading was the flipside to Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young and Evil, the novel I am currently in the process of writing my M.A. thesis on. Both novels were published in 1933 and both are often considered among the handful of texts that received publication in the first years of the 1930’s as the so-called “Pansy Craze” swept New York City and “book publishers race[d] to satisfy the public’s growing interest in the gay scene” (Chauncey 324).

Despite a shared historical context, however, in many ways the two novels couldn’t be more different from each other. If the direct literary antecedents of Ford and Tyler’s exuberant, highly experimental depiction of the various sexual hijinks of several bohemian queers can be traced to the rather hermetic queer “high modernism” of Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein, then Better Angel, with its adherence to classical narrative conventions, forthright prose style, and candid appeal to a likely skeptical readership, is certainly within the tradition of Radclyffe Hall’s great queer populist classic The Well of Loneliness (1928).

Much like Hall’s novel, Better Angel reads like barely-concealed autobiography (something that it was eventually confirmed to be). The narrative begins when Kurt Gray is thirteen years old , an only child growing up in a rural small town. He is a shy, often lonely young boy, more inclined toward reading, music, and daydreaming than sports or the other activities the preoccupy his male peers. His is inevitably ostracized for this difference, which is a source of great anxiety and emotional trauma:

“…at last, hesitantly, perhaps in a flood of tears, he would admit that the boys at school had teased him about his fair skin: ‘Where’d ya buy yer paint, sissy? Sissy! Sissy!’–when, with a body shaking and hands clenched, eyes strangely dark in his white face, he would sob, ‘Why–Mom–why, why, why? Why can’t they leave me alone?’” (8)

Sadly, Kurt’s harrowing experiences don’t read today like a quaint situation from of a now long-distant past; instead, they will likely resonate deeply with many contemporary queer readers in regards to memories of merciless schoolyard bullying (it certainly did for this one). At his indignant mother’s suggestion, Kurt slowly begins to believe that his differences should not be regarded as a mark of shame but as a sign of his intellectual superiority–and as he ages the outer stoicism he has carefully developed begins to be perceived as scholarly excellence, and he begins to be regarded as an aspiring composer of great potential. His talent becomes his ticket for escaping his small town (first to university in New York) and eventually to Europe (on an academic scholarship), where he embarks on a journey of self-discovery, aided by a close friendship he develops with his classmate Chloe, his first tentative sexual experiences with her tempestuous brother Derry, and embarking on a relationship with the quietly intense David.

Torment (Better Angel) - Richard Meeker

In the 1950’s the novel was reissued on paperback under the title “Torment”

What is particularly notable is how Kurt manages to accomplish this outside of the usual narrative tropes and historical trajectories common in queer stories of this era: he moves to New York City but deliberately avoids both the Village’s bohemian queer underworld and the queer enclaves embedded within the city’s vast theatrical and entertainment industries. Indeed, when the much more experienced David informs him of the social and sexual networks available to him, Kurt viscerally recoils, and instead throws himself into a world of aesthetic and egalitarian idealism, based on Platonic and other classical value systems (indeed, the Greek myth of Herekles and his favored youth Hylas plays a significant part in both the opening and conclusion of the narrative).

And, to his great credit, Kurt manages to succeed at his aims. Through the sheer force of his quiet self-will and self-control, he manages to construct a space for himself–and his personal happiness–outside of the more familiar currents of urban pre-Stonewall queer life. By the end of the novel, Kurt is dreaming of bucolic domestic living, renovating a rural farm for him and David to occupy while he teaches music at a progressive boy’s school in Connecticut.

Torment Cover Detail - Richard Meeker

“Torment” Cover Detail

Kurt’s personal idealism and self-restraint (which, admittedly, sometimes seems to border on the unnecessarily repressive), however, might turn out to be the source of his narrative preservation. Better Angel has been proposed as the first American queer-themed novel where the protagonist does not end in tragedy, whether it is enforced isolation, a rebuke their sexual orientation and past behavior, or even death; significantly, even in the 1950’s The Mattachine Society characterized Kurt as “perhaps the healthiest homosexual in print” (quoted Slide 128).

If earlier I drew parallels between Better Angel and The Well of Loneliness’s seemingly implicit intentions to be accessible to a general readership in terms of content, style, and tone, the great difference between the two texts is that contra Hall’s tendency to make Well a grand apologia, Angel rarely indicates any aspiration to be more than an earnestly told tale with the more modest intention, expressed in the epilogue appended many years later that it would reach “a good many of those who… would understand an appreciate it” (Forman 286).

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Harry Burnett, Forman Brown, and Richard Brandon (l. to r.)

Like most of the “Pansy Craze” novels of the early 1930’s, Better Angel did not receive much attention in the press at the time of its initial publication, and it was reprinted in the 1950’s under the more dramatic but less appropriate title Torment (Slide 128). Happily, the author was later able to attest that from the beginning “the book did rather well, and to my delight, reached a good many of those who, as I hoped, would understand and appreciate it” (Brown 286). Richard Meeker, as it turns out, was the pseudonym for Forman Brown, who, along with Harry Burnett (who the character of Derry is based on) and Richard “Roddy” Brandon (David’s textual equivalent), established the Yale Puppeteers, a puppet theater group which become renowned for its collaborations with Elsa Lanchester (Slide 128-9). I plan to devote a future post to Brown and his rather remarkable reemergence and belated recognition as the author of Better Angel, but what is worth noting here is that the three men together formed a partnership–creatively and otherwise, from all indications–thus extending the narrative of Kurt, David, and Derry beyond the novel’s ambiguous concluding chapter.

According to Brown, many critics assumed that it was impossible for Kurt to enjoy a happy ending. However, the story his own life story, he insists, “demonstrate[s] how wrong a critic can be” (287). Such sentiments serve as a lovely–and unexpected–coda to this delicately rendered, still-underappreciated book.

Works Cited

Brown, Forman. “Epilogue (and Surprise Ending) for the New Edition.” Better Angel. 1933. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York City: Basic, 1994.

The Mattachine Society. “Mission Statement and Membership Pledge (1951).” We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics. Ed. Mark Blasius and Shane Phelan. New York: Routledge, 1997. 283-85.

Meeker, Richard. Better Angel. 1933. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1987.

Slide, Anthony. Lost Gay Novels: A Reference Guide to Fifty Works from the First Half of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harrington Park, 2003.

GOING SOMEWHERE by Max Ewing

Title PageMax Ewing’s effervescent Going Somewhere (1933), as fizzy as the champagne that had been newly (re)legalized the year of its publication, is primarily remembered today as one of a handful of novels published in the publication industry’s efforts to capitalize on the “Pansy Craze” of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The placement of Ewing’s text within this category can considered something of a historical coincidence, however, as the text deals directly with queer subject matter only in several brief, ultimately fleeting passages, something in marked contrast to other “Pansy Craze” novels, almost all which uniformly foreground queer characters and/or experiences.

Rather, in style, content, and tone, the novel is much more in line with the type of breezy high-society romps that Carl Van Vechten specialized in throughout the 1920’s. Van Vechten’s novels are themselves endlessly queer affairs, of course, though more in regards to sensibility and milieu than in regards to any type of sustained reference or focus on queer individuals or behaviors. Going Somewhere employs a similar approach, which is no surprise since Van Vechten was Ewing’s mentor and close friend.

ewing - van vechten

Max Ewing by Carl Van Vechten (c. 1934)

Throughout Going Somewhere Ewing draws upon the subtle radicalness of Van Vechten’s ouevre in regards to the endlessly ingenious ways that discourses and social structures surrounding class, gender, and race are ultimately upended through humor, irony, and a sparkling camp sensibility. Under the guise of bohemian “eccentricity,” an endless variety of “subversive” behavior is paraded about and celebrated to the point that it becomes nothing less than the status quo. Of course, this accurately reflects actual historical realities, for as George Chauncey writes in Gay New York, “popular resistance to Prohibition seemed to undermine the respect for all forms of the law,” and this defiance in turn initiated a kind of domino effect where suddenly “many normally law-abiding citizens” began to question the moral authority of not only the law, but of social structures and conventions of all kinds (306-7). The liminal social and ethical spaces generated by the widespread rebellion against Prohibition in the 1920’s and into the early 1930’s is exactly the topsy-turvy–that is, rather queer–world that the narrative of Going Somewhere operates in.

Upon the introduction of Napier Knightsbridge into the narrative, Ewing’s novel suddenly seems poised to embark on the “life-narrative” type of narrative trajectory usually associated with queer novels of the era. Handsome, witty, artistic, urbane, and a self-professed aficionado of the Russian Ballet–all potential signifiers of male queerness in the early twentieth century–he makes a splash in British society by penning a ditty inspired by the “epidemic of sailor [costume] parties” sweeping the London social season that year. It quickly becomes a hit.

One doesn’t necessarily have to be aware of the prominent position that the matelot–British slang for “sailor”–has long held in gay iconography to sense the not-so-subtle queer sexual undertones to the song:

“I’m matelot-mad
To be matelot-had,
Though I’m dying to be good I guess I’m living to be bad,
‘cause I’ve got that matelot madness now;
I’m matelot-allured
I never get inured,
Thought it may be a disease, still I’m reluctant to be cured,
I’ve got that matelot-madness now!
I love to be around where lots of matelots abound,
So let me know if any ship of battle goes aground,
I rave about a matelot,
I crave a naval battle, oh
I’m absolutely matelot-mad!” (24-5, italics in the original)

Napier, who everyone affectionately calls “Naps,” continues his rather queer adventures when he decides to abandon Europe and try his luck in New York City. Travelling on the transatlantic ocean liner Lethargic, he eventually ends up sharing a cabin with a certain Victor Zukor, who receives a memorable entrance into the narrative: “on the floor of the stateroom sat a dark-haired young giant surrounded by magazines. He was stripped to the waist and as Napier came in he smiled in a friendly fashion. His smile was of the kind Napier had never seen except in tooth-paste advertisements” (42).

Napier is soon is informed that his cabinmate has recently been coronated “Mr. America” in a male beauty pageant, and has just concluded a tour of Europe at the expense of Muscle magazine. He blithely informs Napier that he caused “a frenzy” in Berlin, where he led a parade organized in his honor “wear a zebra-skin cache-sexe, a gift from the Berlin branch office of Muscle” (45). Once Napier adjusts to Victor’s habit of doing his early morning daily exercise regimen in the nude, they settle into an ambiguously cozy friendship that can be read as constantly fluctuating between the fraternal and the flirty–it’s impossible to know what exactly to make, for example, of Victor’s insistence that Napier “feel [his] gluteus minimus” let alone his remark that “the best way to develop that muscle is to get someone else and do a mutual” (47).

Later, after being taken up by the highest echelons of New York City society, Napier embarks on an even more ambiguously queer relationship. The Van Dongen twins, Anna and Annesley, “twenty-five years old, and heirs to one of the most staggering Fifth Avenue fortunes” causes one character to gasp and admit “she had never in all her life seen two such ravishingly beautiful people” (82). Sister and brother, their “handsome faces looked like reproductions of each other” (82).  Not long after Napier falls completely under their spell as well. In an aside very revealing about Napier’s sexual desires, the reader is told that as “the weeks went by [Napier] dreamed each night of the beautiful Van Dongen twins. In his waking hours he tried to decide which one of them he preferred. Sometimes he even thought it was Anna” (183). The implication being, of course, that the majority of the time his preference generally tended toward Annesley. This creates an uneasy romantic triangle–for it is constantly reiterated that the twins always want the same things, and Napier is no exception–which is only resolved when the king of Trans-Urania (queer paradise?) allows the trio to marry each other (thus “queering” the institution of marriage itself, making the 21st century fetishization of gay marriage seem positively retrograde). In a “brief bashful speech” the three jointly declare that they are the happiest couple in the world.

I cite these several incidents as evidence that Napier can be read as a queer character, not as a narrative synopsis. Though there always seems to be the potential that Napier will emerge as the story’s primary character, in the end his trajectory is only one of many threads braided into the overall narrative. He is just one small element of the larger, intricately wrought social ecosystem that Ewing meticulously constructs throughout Going Somewhere

ewing cocteau

Max Ewing Reading Cocteau

Going Somewhere is Ewing’s only novel, published, and, according to the brief overview provided on the description page for the Beineke Library’s Max Ewing Collection, the book “received positive reviews but did not gain him a reputation as a successful novelist.” An accomplished photographer, artist, and composer–he was certainly a multitalented man–while in college he had began corresponding with Van Vechten, and upon visiting New York City in 1923, he quickly established himself as a member of what the older author “had begun to call the jeunes gens assortis,” a “group of young handsome gay men whom he collected around him” for friendship, mentorship, and patronage (White 152). Tragically, Ewing would take his own life just a year after the publication of Going Somewhere.

Long out of print, for decades the only copies available of Going Somewhere remained its limited first edition from 1933 (this was the edition that I had access to). Anachronistic cover notwithstanding, in a happy turn of events Turtle Point Press has made this novel available to readers once again.

Works Cited

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York City: Basic, 1994.

Ewing, Max. Going Somewhere. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1933.

White, Edward. The Tastemaker: Carl Van Vechten and the Birth of Modern America. New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.