Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 14: "Certain Tendencies": Queer Berlin

Academic journal article Spatial Practices

CHAPTER 14: "Certain Tendencies": Queer Berlin

Article excerpt

As Sinclair Lewis's Prussian count lead the American Dodsworths on an everlengthening tour of Weimar Berlin's nightlife, he urged them on to a last spot where "[s]uch curious men hang out" to "dance with one another," a Berlin scene one "must see" (300). "Here, in a city in which, according to the sentiment of the American comic weeklies, all males were thick as pancakes and stolid as plowhorses," Sam and Fran Dodsworth face "a mass of delicate young men with the voices of chorus girls, dancing together" or "whispering in corners." In a space of "young men with scarves of violet and rose, wearing bracelets and heavy symbolic rings," Sam's eye instinctively picks out "a girl in lavender chiffon," only to realize "from the set of her shoulders" that she "is a man." Gaping, "fists half clenched," Sam feels the "thick, reddish hair on the back of his hands" bristling as he experiences a "fear of something unholy," reassured only as Fran draws "nearer his stalwartness," she herself "equally aghast" (301). Using "[s]uch curious men" to break standard nineteenth-century American stereotypes of German masculinity, Lewis simultaneously adds a contrasting touch of masculinity to an otherwise increasingly impotent American protagonist, a technique American authors would find useful for the greater part of the twentieth century.

Katharina Gerstenberger has traced literary Berlin's history as "an erotic site," first delineating, then pushing the boundaries of sexual convention (14-24), and Robert Beachy has called Berlin the birthplace of modern gay identity. American writers were quick to incorporate images of a city often not only on the western world's frontier, but seen as being on the frontiers of sexual convention. Even by 1911, in Berlin's "bars and all-night resorts," even "the dullest observer" could find "that pride in perversity which Berlin no longer" took "the least pains to dissemble" (Pollard 1911b: 197). "Berlin's Chief of Police," Pollard wrote, who "did not know the identity of Tilla Durieux, presumably also knows nothing" of Berlin's night life.1 Otherwise, Pollard reasoned, he might have investigated "certain tendencies in that night life recalling the Round Table and Eulenberg [sic], and the Harden case" (1911b: 199).2 Even before Robert McAlmon's Miss Knight or Djuna Barnes's Frau Mann arrived in Weimar Germany's capital, Pollard's book suggests, Berlin was becoming known to American travelers in Europe for the open secret of its "pride in perversity," even if early literary references to it remained, like Pollard's, politely (and snidely) veiled. By 1922, Claude McKay would be visiting the cabarets which had sprouted "like mushrooms under the Socialist-Republican régime, some of which seemed to express the ultimate in erotomania," where "youngsters of both sexes, the hectic pleasure-chasers of the Berlin of that epoch" were busy "methodically exploiting the nudist colony indoors, which was perhaps more exciting than the outdoor experiments" (156).

In Paris, Jean Méral writes, sex in the American novel, "masked by more conventional monuments" prior to the First World War, became visible in the twentieth century as a space to visit, claiming "its rightful place on the map of the city" (113). "In the history of American literature," he writes, "Paris is closely linked with the first fictional attempts to deal [with] the subject of [American] homosexuality" (223). Méral cites Gore Vidal's The Judgment of Paris (1952) and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room (1956). Yet Robert McAlmon's frank depictions of gay life in Berlin were penned before Gore Vidal or James Baldwin were old enough to grasp a pen, and Sinclair Lewis portrayed Weimar Berlin's gay life nearly as nonchalantly as did Nabokov. Isherwood would make it famous two decades before homosexuality was to become a central theme in American literature set in Paris, and I.A.R. Wylie, providing the lens through which many early twentieth-century American readers would read Germany and German culture, is today popularly assumed to have been a lesbian. …

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