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Perhaps the best way to approach Christopher Isherwood in America: Middlebrow Queer (University 0f Minnesota Press) by Jaime Harker is one idea at a time. The second half of Harker’s subtitle—Queer—of course refers to Queer Studies, a field in which “queer” has begun to mean so many things it may soon mean little to nothing at all. In Harker’s case, and in this book, queer in part refers to the fact that
Isherwood insisted on using the term “queer” to describe his own sexuality, embracing the pejorative to emphasize his own distance and dissent from mainstream culture. Isherwood’s conversion to Hinduism enhances this convergence with queer theory, because Hinduism refutes the notion of a unified autonomous self as false masks of identity that obscure a deeper complexity and chaos. This rejection allies Isherwood with queer critiques of identity categories as disciplinary regimes.
The first half of the subtitle refers to a field I was previously unaware of, Middlebrow Studies. Here is Harker on the beginnings of Middlebrow Studies:
The term “middlebrow” emerged as a pejorative during the interwar period, as Isherwood was beginning his writing career; it can mean middle class, mediocre, reactionary, melodramatic, feminine, sentimental. Indeed, middlebrow is used as shorthand for conservative mainstream …. I use the term “middlebrow” because of its role in American literary history …. New York intellectuals like Dwight Macdonald and Clement Greenberg rallied against the “middlebrow” in the late 1940s and early 1950s for “fatal readability,” and one can see the result of this critical invective in Isherwood’s negative book reviews during the period.
Isherwood, in other words, received bad reviews for his first American novel, The World in the Evening, because it was too middlebrow (i.e., too readable, and worse yet, too reactionary, too easy to identify with for those who wanted to make the world a better place for downtrodden homosexuals and other minorities).
Harker begins Christopher Isherwood in America: Middlebrow Queer—a study part biography, part history and part literary criticism—where Isherwood’s career left off. That would be around 1976 when, with the publication of memoirs like Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood “embraced the defiant spirit of gay liberation” and became for his readers “a link to a hidden of history of gay men and a rebellious rebuke to the pre-Stonewall closet.” He has been regarded ever since as a literary granddaddy of gay rights.
Harker clearly shows how much more complicated it all gets—how Isherwood, on closer analysis, wanted to have his cake and eat it too: he wanted to champion homosexuality in a way that went beyond the sentimentality of other middlebrow novels with tragic endings (e.g., Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar) but he could also be maddeningly evasive, refusing to consider that homosexuals were a minority analogous to blacks in interviews conducted as late as 1965. Harker speculates that “When he lost [his lover] Heinz to the German war machine, Isherwood rethought his allegiance to abstract political systems.” Moreover, she recounts how conflicted Isherwood was when “masculine” writers like John Dos Passos snubbed him, responding defiantly but at the same time remaining determined to be recognized by them.
Isherwood did get acceptance in America, and he did find a new voice despite the homophobic Cold War culture he’d opted to live in. Acceptance came when The World in the Evening and his other 60s novel were reprinted in paperback in a format Isherwood amusingly referred to as “fagtrash”: “The salacious covers of these paperbacks,” Harker writes, “were the most visible aspect of the paperback explosion in Cold War America” because “publishers used magazine distributors, not bookstores, and so [“fagtrash” paperbacks] were available through drugstores and newsstands.” This led many readers, mostly gay men, to correspond with Isherwood. A gesture the author responded to in kind.
Harker argues that such intimate contact and identification with a reading audience is an essential ingredient of middlebrow literature and that, along with Isherwood’s own extensive reading list of “fagtrash” fiction, led to his better and later American novels. This happy development was further facilitated by the many contacts Isherwood made in America—writers and intellectuals like Glenway Wescott, Lincoln Kirstein, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, John Rechy and Speed Lamkin, to name a few—all of whom help to make Isherwood in America a gossipy as well as an academic read.
The 1960s themselves helped to loosen Isherwood up: minorities coalesced around issues of race, sex and sexuality; and the autobiographical “I” that critics and Isherwood himself had long seen as his drawback, became de rigueur thanks to New Journalism and writers like Tom Wolfe. Then there was Pop Art and—get ready, here comes another idea—camp. Isherwood had long been interested in camp but he had a rather elevated conception of it, as is demonstrated by this often quoted passage from The World in the Evening: “You can’t camp about something you’re not taking seriously.” But with the artistic and intellectual changes of the 60s, and his own work on screenplays, Isherwood was more able to bring American culture into his stories, going so far as to incorporate his love of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels into his masterpiece, A Single Man..
Harker is at her best when conducting close readings of Isherwood’s novels based on an interesting array of sources—drafts of his novels, a discarded novel, his correspondence with his readers, his diaries and his notebooks. Very interestingly, Isherwood also kept a list of books he’d read, and Harker works with this list as well. A professor at the University of Mississippi and the author of America in the Middlebrow: Women’s Novels, Progressivism and Middlebrow Authorship between the Wars, Harker even demonstrates a sense of a humor and a light touch that is often surprising in an academic. Harker hits muddier waters when she brings in the academic languages of Queer and Middlebrow and Fan Studies, which tend to be hermetic languages academics use when speaking to other academics—phrases like “prototypic metronormative”—and which tend to obfuscate and exclude far more than they tend to clarify and include. Still, as Harker herself points out by quoting Isherwood scholar James Berg, “for most critics studying the overall arc of American literature in the twentieth century, Isherwood simply does not appear,” making this book a viable contribution to what I’m sure Harker and her ilk would call “Isherwood Studies.”
Christopher Isherwood in America: Middlebrow Queer
by Jaime Harker
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816679140, 216 pp.