Book Review: FLESH IS HEIR by Lincoln Kirstein

To say Lincoln Kirstein was a man of many talents is a massive understatement, but it seems pretty clear from his single published novel that creative fiction is not necessarily one of them. Flesh is Heir: an Historical Romance (1932) was written when Kirstein was in his twenties and draws heavily from his life experiences up until that point, and it is primarily of interest for what it reveals about its author than rather than functioning as a satisfying reading experience. The young author, gutted by the patronizingly lukewarm (at best) reaction the novel received upon its publication, gave up his aspirations to be a writer and decided instead to devote his considerable energies to the seemingly harebrained idea of establishing a ballet company in America to rival Europe and Russia’s best. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. He managed to woo George Balanchine to America and founded the Ballet Society, which ultimately become the legendary New York City Ballet, the first major institution of its kind here in America.  So maybe all good balletomanes, and fans of the vast amount of erudite scholarly writing on art Kirstein subsequently wrote, owe a debt of gratitude to this apparently “lost” and forgotten novel. Because without its failure, how long would it have taken for the young Kirstein to realize his talents lay elsewhere? 

Hound & Horn Title Page, 1929

Hound & Horn Title Page, 1929

As for the novel itself: quite frankly, it is deathly dull (or at least what I managed to get through was). The prose is often quite elegant but utterly lifeless—I dutifully plodded through the first chapter, an extended vignette set in an upper-class New England boarding school, and admitted defeat (afterwards I focused solely on several chapters pertinent to a topic I was researching). Really, the idea of this novel is more interesting than its actuality—it is fascinating to consider that its author, the brilliant upstart editor of the Harvard-based literary magazine Hound & Horn and considered to be at the forefront of literary modernism and all things new and avant-garde, would himself write a novel that could, at best, be charitably described as amiably antiquated. Really, it’s essentially of the quality that would have been expected of a bright, artistic but relatively unexceptional young man of a certain means during the second half of the 19th century. But in the 1930’s? This sad little book didn’t have a chance. 

Double Exposure of Lincoln Kirstein, 1930-1 Walker Evans

Double Exposure of Lincoln Kirstein, 1930-1, by Walker Evans

But it is ultimately, I admit, this dissonance that intrigues me, and it does serve as an early indication one of the great contradictions that would mark all of Kirstein’s subsequent work: here is a man whose taste in art and aesthetics were fundamentally aligned with the (neo)classic, and yet he still argued, adamantly and often brilliantly, the virtues of the modern, experimental, and the new to an often skeptical American public. As Flesh is Heir makes abundantly clear, when examined in a retrospective manner, this seemingly incongruous discrepancy can be discerned from the earliest moments of his artistic career.

And, truth be told, I do expect to return and read the whole thing someday. Only this time with properly adjusted expectations and a bountiful reserve of patience. 

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

kirstein flesh is heir newspaper

Works Cited

Kirstein, Lincoln. Flesh Is Heir: An Historical Romance. 1932. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP ; Feffer & Simons, 1975. Print.