Max 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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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.