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”.

 

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IotD: Queer Spaces in “A Night-Club Map of Harlem”

In my internet searching I’ve come across this vivid cartoon map of Harlem several times now, but until today I hadn’t really taken the time to look at what is actually depicted. Frank Jacobs gives a terrific and detailed overview of the map here, and explains that it is the work of Elmer Simms Campbell (1906-1971), “the first African-American cartoonist to be published nationally.” In the bottom right corner it is listed as being “engraved and copyrighted in 1932.”

Elmer Simms Campbell Harlem Map 1932

What I was most curious about was whether or not the map gave any indications of a queer presence in the Harlem of the early 1930’s. The historical importance of Harlem to the queer community is well known; as George Chauncey notes in the ever-essential Gay New York, while Greenwich Village “was considered the city’s most infamous gay neighborhood by outsiders” in the 20’s and 30’s, “many gay men themselves regarded Harlem as the most exciting center of gay life” (227). So is this indicated at all in Campbell’s map?

Daniel Crouch Rare Books has a nice high-quality scan of the map which allows for close(r) inspection. As far as my eyes can tell, nothing queer is obviously conveyed, none of the people or places depicted signal queerness of any kind: the patrons are all heterosexually paired, none of the performers or proprietors—except for one major and well-known exception, described below—don clothing or assume gestures that could be considered suspect. A pairing of two men up in the top left corner might be construed as a covert cruising encounter, but the attributed dialogue (“what’s da numbah?”) is revealed in the description at the bottom as a common reference to gambling. In short, Campbell’s representation of Harlem doesn’t seem to offer up any queer secrets.

However, “a handful of clubs catered to lesbians and gay men,” Chauncey writes, “including the Hobby Horse, Tillie’s Kitchen, and the Dishpan, and other well-known clubs, including Small’s Paradise, welcomed their presence” (252). Two of these, Tillie’s Kitchen and Small’s Paradise, are accounted for by Campbell:

 

Which brings us, finally, to the map’s single overtly queer presence, located literally at the center of Campbell’s map: Gladys Bentley at the piano at the Clam House. Bentley is a fascinating pioneering figure I can’t do justice to here (The Root provides a nice appreciation here though), but, to return once again to Chauncey, Bentley is characterized as “the most visible lesbian” in Harlem at that time, “as famous for her tuxedo, top hat, and girlfriends as for her singing” (252). Here’s how Campbell depicts the notorious entertainer—an imposing and androgynous figure at the piano—alongside a now-iconic photo of her:

According to Chauncey, the Clam House “attracted an interracial audience of literati and entertainers, including many gay and lesbians;” Carl Van Vechten based a character on Bentley in one of his novels. She certainly deserves her own post at some point here at Queer Modernisms, but to close I can’t resist quoting one of her famously ad-libbed songs which she generously adorned with “filthy lyrics” and then “encourag[ed] her audience to join in singing.” As Chauncey records it,  Bentley transformed the standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” into “Alice Blue Gown,” an “ode to anal intercourse:”

And he said ‘Dearie, please turn around!’
And he shoved that big thing up my brown.
He tore it. I bored it. Lord, how I adored it.
My sweet little Alice Blue Gown. (252).

My, my: sounds like a gay ol’ time indeed!

Works Cited:

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

Duly Noted #5: Queer Lady Longevity

Romaine Brooks (February 2, 1972 – December 7, 1970) – 96
Natalie Clifford Barney (October 31, 1876 – February 2, 1972) – 95
Jeanne Galzy (September 30 1883 – May 7, 1977) – 93
Rachilde [Marguerite Vallette-Eymery] (February 11, 1860 – April 4, 1953) – 93
Gisèle Freund (November 19, 1908 – March 31, 2000) – 92
Djuna Barnes (June 12, 1892 – June 18, 1982) – 90
Alice B. Toklas (April 30, 1877 – March 7, 1967) – 89
Bryher [Annie Winifred Ellerman] (September 2, 1894 – January 28, 1983) – 88
Solita Solano
 (1888 – November 22, 1975) – 86/87
Janet Flanner (March 13, 1892 – November 7, 1978) – 86
Mina Loy (27 December 1882 – 25 September 1966) – 83
Colette (28 January 1873 – 3 August 1954) – 81

Queer modernist ladies tended to live loooooong lives. Was it the French air? Or something in the tea served at The Temple of Friendship??

 

Book Review: EMINENT OUTLAWS by Christopher Bram

eminent outlaws bramEntertaining, informative, and endlessly readable, which compensates for a perhaps inevitable thinness. As a survey/overview it likely won’t yield a whole lot–aside from the choice bits of tasteful gossip–to a reader already somewhat aware of the terrain it covers, which is perhaps is why I had more or less the opposite reaction of many here who thought it ran out of steam as it went along; I happen to be know much more about the authors covered early in the book (Baldwin, Vidal, Capote), but not as much about more recent authors, so for me the latter half was more compelling. The highlight, I think, is Bram’s astute analysis and defense of Christopher Isherwood‘s oeuvre, who still remains rather underrated despite a recent recognition of interest in his work (I admit to being startled to find out how many of his novels I had never even heard of). 

Bram’s style is very approachable and lucid, and it’s like listening to a literate and culturally knowledgeable friend hold forth on books, art, and history. I personally was hoping for something more along the lines of Shari Benstock’s magisterial Women of the Left Bank, a more dense undertaking that combines literary analysis with historical scholarship, but I don’t hold my personal expectations against Bram. Because this is clearly intended to be accessible cultural scholarship, and on that level it overall succeeds admirably. And if it gets people, myself included, to pick up the work of more of these authors, well then, all the better. 

[A version of this review was originally posted on Goodreads.]

Works Cited

Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: U of Texas, 1987. Print.

Bram, Christopher. Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. New York: Twelve, 2012. Print.