renee vivien woman of the wolf coverDuring that great burst of feminist scholarship in the 1960’s and 70’s that set out to reevaluate the traditional literary canon there was a concerted effort to translate the work of obscure turn of the century author/poet Renée Vivien into English. And I’m glad they did. For if Vivien is remembered today, it is less for anything she wrote than for her lifestyle and the legends that sprung up around it: her turbulent affair with Natalie Clifford Barney, the flamboyantly androgynous dress immortalized in now-iconic photographs of the couple, as well as her death at the age of 32 that still remains somewhat of a mystery (though whatever the actual cause it was undeniably exacerbated by alcoholism and anorexia). Sadly, focusing solely on her admittedly fascinating life does a great disservice to legitimate literary accomplishment. 

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

Renée Vivien and Natalie Barney, c. 1900

And yet, despite the effort of several prominent scholars and the general interest in that time period and cultural milieu, Vivien has tended to remain a footnote of the period. A major footnote, but a footnote nonetheless. And frankly, it’s not hard to see why. Which is not a knock on Vivien or her writing in the least—I immensely enjoyed the various stories collected in this slim volume. But only several stories in it was obvious to me that Vivien is an author who resolutely resists canonization; despite Karla Jay’s resolute attempt in the introduction in spinning these as proto-feminist tales, even she must ultimately concede that “if judged from a contemporary lesbian/feminist perspective, some of Vivien’s work might appear embarrassing” for the reader in search of strong politically and socially progressive sentiments. Instead, these stories take their cues from the Decadent Movement, much more along the lines of Oscar Wilde’s hermetic Salomé (my review here) than The Yellow Wallpaper. Of her immediate peers, Djuna Barnes might be said to be exploring similar terrain—indeed, I was often reminded of Barnes’s own short story collection Spillway and Other Stories—but resolutely resisting literary modernism to an extent that exceeds even the ever-iconoclastic (and similarly underread) Barnes comes at a steep price: these are stories that refuse to slide neatly onto university syllabi. 

The vignettes that comprise Vivien’s various stories—most which strive for a mythic quality, often reworking actual Biblical and/or classical sources—are feverish, hallucinogenic, and, quite often, downright bizarre. The actions of her characters rarely act and react according to any obvious logic, and her setting are a surreal mishmash of Victorian cultural and imperial imagery and stereotypes (one story, for example, is supposedly set in the American wilderness, but revolves around a wild tiger). 

The unabashed irreality of these stories, however, are also their finest quality. They remind me of exotic tropical flowers that can only be cultivated in a hothouse—valued not for their longevity but for the spectacular effect of their short-lived blossoming.

Work Cited:

Vivien, Renée. The Woman of the Wolf, and Other Stories. Trans. Karla Jay and Yvonne M. Klein. New York: Gay Presses of New York, 1983. 


Book Review: PHALLOS by Samuel R. Delany

cover of phallos by samuel delany“A tale of a tale,” to cite Delany’s own characterization, thus situating his text within the tradition of self-reflexive literature associated so closely with Borges; declaring it a phallus-obsessed Ficciones is inevitably reductive but sketches out the general textual landscape. Just like the Argentinian master, Delany unapologetically takes it as a given that literary esoterica and other epistemological pursuits can be just as thrilling as an adventure yarn or mystery story. For Phallos is indeed a mystery at heart, albeit unconventionally so.

A brief opening note outlines the experience of a young potential reader who, after failing to track down a copy of an obscure erotic novel called “Phallos” by an anonymous author, is forced to resign himself instead a lengthy synopsis posted on the internet by an obscure academic residing in Moscow, Idaho. This summary is what constitutes the main text of Phallos.

Thus two different intertwined narrative strands immediately come into play. The first is story (re)constructed via the synopsis, revolving around a man named Neoptolomus and his relentless pursuit across the ancient Roman world in search of a sacred statue of a phallus stolen from a temple he happened to be visiting on business. As it turns out, his ensuing journeying has the happy bonus of creating endless sexual opportunity, and with each new area ventured to Neoptolomus quickly and without fail manages to fall into bed with one or more of the (male) locals.

Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany

But remember this all isn’t actually the story itself: it’s merely an approximation of another text, a framing device. Soon digressions, personal references, and especially footnotes soon begin appearing, the latter quickly taking on the life of their own as they record the feedback of two of the academic’s friends. Also fans and scholars of “Phallos,” they begin to describe what they think should be reported in the synopsis, and chide the author on what is omitted, which in turn relate additional micro-narratives… on and on, endlessly. Delightfully so, in my opinion.

Delany is celebrated for his extensive knowledge on a range of subjects, which he interjects into his writing. Phallos is no different, and operates as a clever dramatization of Lacan’s influential formulation of the phallus, where he located a differentiation between a (literal) penis and a symbol of power. What for the French psychoanalyst was psychological in nature, however, Delany renders tangible in the form of the phallic statue and all that it symbolizes for those who encounter it.

But if Lacan isn’t your thing—and in all honestly it’s not really mine either—no need to get tangled up in these aspects of the text, especially when there is so much else to savor and enjoy. For one, despite the fact that all of the explicit sexual material has been edited out (the author worries over issues of hosting sexually explicit material on a university website), I found much of Phallos to still be a surprisingly sexy read. Delany is masterful at conveying titillating solely through inference, and goes a long way in demonstrating how it’s not necessarily the explicitness of material that is inherently arousing, but all of the factors orbiting around it such as context, power dynamics, novelty, spontaneity, unexpectedness, and the particularities of a person, situation, etc, when encountered at a specific moment in time. I also ended up being quite touched by Neoptolomus’s constant discovery and affirmation of the polymorphous quality of love, sex, and desire: “with each of my adventures,” he muses at one point, “I had thought I’d learned a lesson about love, only to discover, with the next, I’d merely learned a lesson about a lover.” And to claims Neoptolomus as a democratic lover would be an understatement: his bedfellows encompass all races, ages, nationalities, and takes no mind of class status, level of education, sexual proclivities, or even orthodox standards of attractiveness.  It’s constantly a pleasure to encounter how our protagonist discovers beauty and sexual fulfillment simply by being open to their possibility.


attic red figure kylix greek pottery displaying gay erotic scenes

Red-figured kylix adorned with scenes featuring activities and configurations of the type alluded to and celebrated throughout “Phallos.”

I’m not sure if the novella of Phallos is republished here in its original form, or has been altered in this “enhanced and revised edition,” which is essentially a scholarly edition of the text. Addended at the end is an “Afterward” as well as three scholarly essays—they’re all very academic in nature (that is, highly theoretical and employ the terminology of the academy), and I found lots of interest while perusing them without getting too caught up in the intricacies of their arguments. I’m glad they’re included as they affirm that a text like Phallos merits such close scholarly attention, though I also think it would have been nice to also include at least one analysis immediately accessible to the casual reader.

In the end what I found so wonderful about Phallos is that it essentially invites the reader to embrace the text as a kind of sophisticated variation on the “choose your own adventure” formula. Delany seems to intentionally avoid ever dictating how the text should be read or understood, placing that control (literally) into the reader’s hands. Skip over the extensive footnotes, or dig into the minutiae. Ponder over the broad philosophical questions that are slyly invoked, or simply be entertained by a quick-paced erotic adventure tale. Admire the intricate narrative construction, or marvel at the meticulous historical detail. It’s up to you.

Works Cited

Delany, Samuel R. Phallos: Enhanced and Revised Edition. Ed. Robert Reid-Pharr. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2013. Print.

Book Review: THE FAREWELL SYMPHONY by Edmund White

Farewell Symphony Edmund WhiteEvery year or so I dutifully find myself undertaking yet another Edmund White novel, even though I’m well aware it will likely prove to be a frustrating experience for me. What exactly compels this constant return? Mostly because I’m compelled by the manner in which White’s distinctive form of “autofiction” revels in the minute observations that capture the particularities of lived life. His writing is structured by a principle of accumulation as he amasses vast catalogs of the little thingshabits and objects and sounds and garments and slang words and bodies— that are individually experienced but in retrospect seem to become so many synecdoches standing in for an entire era. Thus when White writes that “no single song was long enough to sustain our drug-induced frenzy so the disc-jockey often went from one record to an identical cut in another copy of the same record, thereby doubling our pleasure,” he records the kind of vivid offhand details that are usually forgotten yet capture the unique texture of a particular moment in time. 

White explicitly makes this an integral aspect of his autofiction. In a passage toward the end of The Farewell Symphony that deeply resonated with me, the novel’s unnamed narrator admits that “official history—elections, battles, legal reforms—didn’t interest” him, and that he “didn’t want to be a historian but rather an archaeologist of gossip.” Major historical and cultural events commence at the peripheries of the narrative, but always seem to remain just out of sight, shifting emphasis instead upon interactions between intimates and friend groups and larger social communities, carefully enumerating all the private little stories and jokes we tell and retell to each other.

And yet such sumptuousness of details can become too decadent, even overindulgentI always reach a point, usually around the ¾ mark, when it feels like everything really should have been wrapped up already (it makes me empathize with the enervated partygoers in Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel, compelled to linger long after the fête has reached its end). Endless aggregation of detail, even when meticulously managed, inevitably comes at the cost of narrative momentum, and a sense of inertia and stasis sets in. Which is strange effect, considering how The Farewell Symphony is crammed with so much activity.

Alfred Corn, Edmund White, and David Kalstone in Venice, 1974

L to R: Alfred Corn, Edmund White, and David Kalstone in Venice, 1974. (Via Chroma Journal)

At the same time I appreciate how the unnamed narrator allows space for other individuals and personalities to temporarily “take over” the narrative for stretches, brandishing it for their own purposes. Like so many specters summoned via memory’s ability of conjuration, the novel often evokes something closer to a memoir of a community than an individual, and each lovingly-crafted portrait becomes a kind of (futile) attempt at keeping their eventual loss at abeyance.  

The novel, in the end, fashions itself into a lamentation for an entire generation of gay men that was quickly and brutally decimated by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s. In the novel’s closing pages White alludes to Haydn’s Symphony No. 45—more commonly known as “The Farewell Symphony”—a piece famous for its unorthodox conclusion that entails musicians to “get up [and] leave the stage” one by one “blowing out their candles as they go.” “In the end,” he explains, “just one violinist is playing.” It turns out to be a remarkably poignant metaphor for the final third of the novel, when most of the vivid presences who had been wandering in and out of the narrative unexpectedly fall sick and pass away with a shocking, almost surreal celerity. But like Haydn, White opts for quiet exits, with the deaths of even the most significant characters announced in passing statements. Such a tactic might be accused of sidestepping the devastating gravity of the situation, but the effect ultimately effectively conveys the heavy weight of absence. And in the end it is White himself who is left alone on the stage, playing wistfully until, finally, all lapses into silence.

[My thoughts on White’s memoir Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014) can be found here.]

Works Cited

White, Edmund. The Farewell Symphony. New York City: Vintage, 1998. Print.

upcoming academic conference presentation

pamla logoThought I would break this period of extended radio silence (*sigh*) to mention that I will be presenting some research from my thesis at this year’s annual PAMLA conference. It will be taking place in Portland, OR, from November 6-8, and I present on a panel during the first session on Saturday morning. If anybody reading this is also attending, please stop by and say hello!

Here’s the info and my presentation abstract. Additional information (including abstracts for the full panel), can be found here.

pamla header

Cruising at the Intersection: The Queer Collaborative Authorship of The Young and Evil
Jesse Ataide, San Francisco State University

“What kind of discoveries are made possible when two gay men confront each other?” Christopher Hennessy asks, “with the acknowledgment of a shared sexual desire lurking there?” This paper considers how queer content in Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s 1933 novel The Young and Evil reflect a strategy of “cooperative discourse” that compels a reconsideration now only of the concept of authorship, but also how friendship, intimacy, and creative cooperation can function between queer men.”

My paper on Samuel M. Steward’s detective fiction was very well received at PAMLA 2013, and so I’m very much looking forward to presenting again this year!

Book Review: LADIES ALMANACK by Djuna Barnes

[To continue celebrating Djuna Barnes this week and because I was thinking about it in light of a film adaptation currently in the works, I’ve decided to revisit and expand this review which was originally posted on Goodreads.]

“‘The Night-Life of Love,’ said Saint Musset, ‘burns I think me in the slightly muted Crevices of all Women who have been a little sprung with continual playing of the Spring Song, though I may be mistaken, for be it known, I have not yet made certain on this point.'”

Ladies Almanack cover Djuna Barnes illustration

Even after more than eight decades critics and scholars still squabble over what exactly Djuna Barnes was trying to accomplish with her Ladies Almanack. Is it an affectionate satire? An exuberant celebration? A sly denunciation? A parodic exercise in self-loathing?

Of course, this is Djuna Barnes we are talking about, so it’s probably all of these things, though perhaps “none of the above” gets even a bit closer to the heart of the matter. But these tensions touch upon exactly the thing that most compels me most about Barnes’s text—it somehow can manage to encompass nearly all interpretations one could possible pose, but stakes itself definitively to none of them. Which makes it a superlative example of one of my academic interests: the conveyance of queer content through “queered” form.

Djuna Barnes Natalie Barney

Photograph of Djuna Barnes and Natalie Clifford Barney, c. 1930.

The Almanack is deliberately constructed to work simultaneously on two different levels, with different sets of meaning available to different communities of readers. For the uninitiated the text can come off as a rather bewildering–perhaps even incomprehensible–take on medieval hagiography, with its mock-reverent depiction of Dame Evangeline Musset and her seemingly limitless benevolence toward young women in need.

Some readers, however, might also pick up that Dame Musset’s munificence is not purely altruistic in nature, but extends to a more sensual dimension that involves the women’s “Hinder Parts, and their Fore Parts, and in whatsoever Parts did suffer them most” (Barnes 6). But Barnes herself readily admitted that her Almanack was more than anything intended for “the private domaine” [sic], to be “distributed to a very special audience” (cited Lanser 164); that “special audience” was first and foremost Natalie Clifford Barney, as well as the many members of the lesbian-centric coterie that assembled around her in Paris. And not only was Barney & co. the audience that would be able to understand the layers of meaning shrouded within the narrative, they comprised of the subject matter themselves, as the text’s expansive cast of characters all had real-life counterparts that were being wittily caricatured (see below).

djuna barnes ladies almanack key

Key to the characters of Ladies Almanack I once made for a seminar presentation.

Privately printed and distributed, it’s interesting to consider how the Ladies Almanack was part of a spontaneous(?) flowering of literature published in 1928 that prominently featured same-sex desire–and sometimes dared even more–between women, including Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen, and, perhaps most importantly in a purely historical sense, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (for a good consideration of the importance of the year 1928 to feminist and/or lesbian texts I highly recommend Bonnie Kime Scott’s important 1995 study Refiguring Modernism, Volume I: The Women of 1928).

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration

Original illustration by Djuna Barnes for Ladies Almanack

It is particularly enlightening to contrast Ladies Almanack to the latter of these novels, for not only does Hall, along with her longtime partner Una, Lady Troubridge, make appearances within Barnes’s text, but it throws into sharp relief Barnes’s own aim and approach in regards to both content and aesthetics. On the most obvious level, Barnes’s obscure, archaic utilization of language and form in the Almanack is a far cry from Hall’s unambiguously presented apologia-cum-petition. But unlike the wealthy Hall who could use her artistocratic lineage and social privilege to withstand public backlash, Susan Snaider Lanser writes that for Barnes, penniless and an American expatriate, it was “better to shroud [the overtly lesbian content] in obscurity, generating a prose whose meanings dissolve beneath a torrent of difficult words and sentences” (166).

As such, Ladies Almanack can’t just be considered an example of willful high modernist obfuscation; at the same time, its stylistic choices can’t just be solely marked up as a method for eluding censorship either. Rather, it’s something between, I’d argue, an alchemical concoction that attempts to avoid simply shoehorning queer–and intensely personal and private–topics and desires into traditional novelistic forms (The Well of Loneliness again, which can make for a rough reading experience today in its relentless proselytizing), with the purpose of beginning to articulate a new means of expression altogether. Barnes accomplishes this by queerly cherry-picking elements from a variety of sources both historical and modernist, which makes it a kind of anomaly, much like her much more well-known Nightwood, within high modernist literature, of which she was one of the most prominent (if perpetually undervalued) figures.

All these factors–and many others I’m necessarily sidestepping at present–lead to a text that is at once both outdated and undateable, and as playfully and deliberately enigmatic today as it must have been in 1928.

And hell, it’s just an awful lot of fun.

djuna barnes ladies almanack illustration 2

Djuna Barnes’s original illustration of Dame Musset’s funeral. Let’s just say it’s this is not the bleak scene you might assume it is…


Barnes, Djuna. Ladies Almanack. (1928). Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1992. Print.

Lanser, Susan Sniader. “Speaking in Tongues: Ladies Almanack and the Discourse of Desire.” Silence and Power: A Reevaluation of Djuna Barnes. Ed. Mary Lynn Broe. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1991. 156-68. Print.

Book Review: INSIDE A PEARL: MY YEARS IN PARIS by Edmund White

Edmund White Inside a PearlI was quite charmed for about the first hundred pages or so–and then I realized there was about 150 pages still to go. By the last fifty pages or so I was finding it something of a chore to finish, even if I always found the content itself of interest. Which means, unfortunately, that Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris is a case of constantly-diminishing returns.

In my critical writing I always try my best to take the object of analysis at hand on its own terms, attempting to come to terms with what it is, rather than what I want it to be. But in this particular case I can’t seem to get away from complaining about what it seems this book could and should have been: a sparkling and witty little rumination on issues of expatriation and experiencing a particular historic moment through the people who inhabit it. Certainly, all of these elements are present in Inside a Pearl, but as it turns out the most interesting moments of the book are not the familiar (and intriguing but not-so-familiar) names on endless parade, but White’s personal observations on the complicated cultural relationship between France and America.

“The French in general didn’t seem to like such American tales of painful childhoods, White observes at one point, describing an American-born boyfriend who would regale all listeners with tales of his perceived childhood traumas. But “‘everyone had a wretched childhood,’ they’d say airily. ‘We must just get on with it.’ Or they’d say ‘Pas de confessions! (‘No confessions!’).” If this exchange comes off as a bit facile and even a bit smug, White goes on to note shortly thereafter: “anyone French my age would have lived through World War II from start to finish as well as the grim period afterward of material shortages and moral recriminations. How could any American spanking saga or Oedipal epic compare with the chilblains and lost limbs and bombings and concentration camps the Europeans endured?” (14).

edmund white in paris

White in Paris, 1986

It is with observations such as these that Inside a Pearl is at its very best: there’s a certain warmth and  generosity in the way White situates the American and French (and sometimes British) cultures next to each other that both acknowledges the reasoning behind such impulses even while never overlooking the humor such cultural friction inevitably causes. I could have read much more of White’s commentary along these lines, employing his personal experiences and namedropping as anecdotal evidence for his cultural observations, rather than tenuously fastening them upon the ceaseless amassing of proper nouns.

Or perhaps the book I am looking for is White’s own The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris? But if so, doesn’t that make this book more than a bit redundant?

Marie-Claude de Brunhoff theatres immobiles

A study of de Brunhoff’s art

I also would have been intrigued to read an account focusing on the individual who looms most prominently throughout the book: White’s best friend, affectionately known by her initials “MC.” Indeed, the first line of the book announces her central importance to everything that follows: “I discovered France through Marie-Claude de Brunhoff” (1), and there are stretches of Inside a Shell that read like a love story–not a love story between lovers, however, but on between intimate friends. I particularly loved an anecdote near the end of the book that describes the way they would lit a fire in the fireplace at her summer home and they would spend hours sitting together on “matching couches,” sometimes even with “a matching book”–a  beautiful evocation of intimacy of a particular sort between close friends that frankly doesn’t get represented nearly enough in literature. Perhaps it is for this reason that Brunhoff, an elegant hostess, creator of “Cornell-type boxes” (though, as he quickly notes, “it was impolitic to mention Cornell to her”) and enigmatic individual in general, is the only “name” in this book that feels like a portrait of an actual person rather than a citation (75).

An author of White’s stature who is specifically acclaimed as a master of autobiographical or autobiographically-inflected fictional forms should instinctually know that “and then I met, and then I went” is an untenable narrative structure to hang nearly 250 pages upon. Even the most fascinating of lives–and White’s certainly falls under that category–can’t possibly sustain the reader’s interest when rendered in such a ponderous way. In the end Inside a Pearl is endlessly readable and from moment-to-moment often quite fascinating, but somehow it always feels like a dutiful record instead of an account that captures what it is to vitally alive.

Inside a Pearl: My Life in Paris is available from Bloomsbury Publishing.


White, Edmund. Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris. New York City: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Book Review: SPILLWAY AND OTHER STORIES by Djuna Barnes

spillway cover djuna barnes

“You see,” she continued, “some people drink poison, some take the knife, others drown. I take you.”

As anybody familiar with the singular artistic vision of Djuna Barnes is well aware, reading anything she wrote is like entering a type of parallel universe—one that resembles our own in many ways, but also one that is no longer able to repress and erase what is odd or sad or grotesque, particularly in regards to the human condition. As an astute commentator much smarter than me has noted, reading Barnes is to enter a textual space “in which the normative becomes, for once in history, the excluded, the taboo, and the unmentionable” (Boone 235).

Barnes was a prolific artist and her written work encompasses journalism, interviews, novels, plays, poetry, criticism, and a copious amount of wittily irascible letters exchanged with just about all of the great cultural luminaries of the 20th century (unfortunately a collection has yet to emerge, so for now one can catch glimpses of them in the countless biographies and commentaries detailing the modernist era).

Spillway Djuna Barnes First EditionShe was also, of course, a short story writer, and this was my first extended encounter with her short-form fiction work. Once one becomes familiar with Barnes’s baroque style and bleak worldview it is difficult to not immediately recognize her writing, which helps in being able to contextualize these stories with all of the other modes she expressed herself in. But I also found them different in a crucial way as well, for if her novels and longer fiction feel like a meander through a shape-shifting dream world, the short stories operate quite differently. Within these little slips of short stories–many no more than several pages long–Barnes is somehow able to contract and compress entire cosmos of feeling, affect, experiences, and histories (of both a personal and cultural nature) into the space of several pages.

Not that this ever seems the case at the beginning of each story. Barnes’s general technique is to introduce several eccentric characters, establish a setting and then embroider these elements in a delicate meshwork of commentary and observations that are unexpected and incisive and beautiful. Often they hardly seem like “stories” at all, but rather character sketches, all evocative description and not much else. But that impression is deceptive, for almost like clockwork in the closing lines something inevitably happens—a snippet of dialogue perhaps, or a turn of phrase—and suddenly everything comes together in a brief flash of insight. It’s not exactly that everything seems to “fall into place,” or it is like a puzzle with an “aha!” conclusion, or even that it feels like an epiphany, but somehow everything always seemed to come together in the very last moment, almost improbably, suddenly making (some kind of) sense of everything that came before

barnes a night among the horses

“Spillway” was earlier published as “A Night Among the Horses”

But “sense” isn’t even the right word, as it’s something more ambiguous and indescribable than that. But whatever it is it’s extremely potent: there were several times upon reaching the end of a story that I had to set the book down for a few minutes, blown away by an unexpected wave of emotion that just coursed through me. How? I likely wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Why? Glancing back through the stories now, I can’t exactly tell anymore. And yet somehow, fleetingly, in the moment of reading these stories they would somehow reveal an emotional coherence, and often to devastating effect.

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for me to become fully convinced that Barnes is one of the great short story writers, even if she is rarely anthologized, and I’d be quite surprised if she’s ever included as a “how-to” example in a guide to writing a “good” short story. Because by any standards these stories shouldn’t work. But somehow they do, and the results are unlike just about anything else I’ve ever encountered or had the great pleasure to read.

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


Spillway was originally published in 1923 under the title A Book, and a new edition was published in 1929 under title: A Night Among the Horses.


Barnes, Djuna. Spillway and Other Stories. 1923. New York City: Harper & Row, 1972.

Boone, Joseph Allen. Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998.

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.