Dr. Fay Etrange in peace and War.
The novel's omniscient narrator tells the story of protagonist Fay Etrange, presented as a highly sympathetic character for all the surface frivolity of her world. The novel opens with Fay dying in the arms of her lover on a World War I battlefield. For once, due to the chaos of the battlefield. Fay could openly express her desire and devotion. The narrator then goes back to Fay's life story, starting with her childhood as a strong and brilliant boy in Kuntzville (hmm ...), in the hills of Pennsylvania. He eventually became a physician especially skilled in obstetrics. Turn-of-the-century Kuntzville is a place of almost primordial innocence as compared to the capitals of America and Europe where the adult Fay displays her hermaphroditic beauty. The feminine pronoun is always used to identify her and her male friends.
The book takes place in the first twenty years of the 20th century in New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, London, Berlin, and Paris, where Fay, a brilliant cross-dresser, camps it up with a brittle artificiality, having absorbed the wit and fashion of the idle aristocracy. Fay exists in a world that equals in sensuous pleasures the high-hat, black-tie society of many period romance novels. She and her friends are endearing and capable of all the clever dissoluteness of the bright young people of the Jazz Age. The gay members never assume that they're "normal" but also don't engage in much self-analysis on the matter, preferring to enjoy the chic restaurants, orgiastic parties, famous bars and theaters, and elegant cruise boats where they rub shoulders (and more) with the aristocracy of two continents.
Fay's life is a glitz carnival, and the names of her friends are those of a dazzling side show: Billy Pickup, a playboy; Henry Voyeur and Percy Chichi, philosophical observers; Teddy Wemys Cocke, one of Fay's lovers; Bobby Dike, a "collar and tie woman"; and the La Butsch family of high-living party animals. They're not ashamed of being gay, transvestite, or lesbian, and are as proud of their hedonism as they are of their freedom of expression. Scully's characters offer a subversive challenge to the straight world by enjoying without guilt the things that world sneeringly attributed to "inverts."
With an equal mixture of sweetness and empathy for the working class. Fay seduces boxers, cops, ball players, and sailors. However, in the interest of quietly maintaining their subversive identity, she and her friends allow themselves to be treated with contempt. When one of Fay's friends, Sissy Beach, volunteers for the Navy, "she" is told that her lisp disqualifies her. "Young man ... you wouldn't even make a first-class Yeo-manette." Sissy breaks into "hot, scalding tears": "I think you are the meanest old things. So there!" Sissy becomes a song-and-dance entertainer at various Navy Yards--lots of sailors! Is this subversion of the norm, or a backhanded, even heartbreaking, tolerance of it? The writer suggests that poor Sissy is not only cruelly excluded from loving her country, but as a result is selling herself cheaply to its favored citizens. As in the rest of the novel, there's no sentimentality or preaching, and the humor is often bitterly ironic, if not despairing.
The final chapter provides as good an ending as that of A Farewell to Arms. The location changes from chic Berlin cafes to the chaos of the battlefield, where all are equal in the shadow of death, and Fay's flamboyance is unconditionally accepted by her lover Frank and ignored by the other soldiers. After all, as a battlefield physician she is essential. Dr. Etrange, unlike Sissy Beach, is able to do her "bit." And she does, saving many lives amid the bloodbath. Campy artifice disappears, and "cruising" evolves into relationship. Our hero dies happy, not because of patriotic platitudes about "God and country" (poor Sissy!), but because she's in the arms of the man she loves, having saved Frank's life with her medical skills and then having taken the bullet meant for him
If "Robert Scully" is a pseudonym, it quite possibly hides the identity of the expatriate short story writer and poet Robert McAlmon. In the mid-20's he published many Modernist notables under his Contact Editions imprint, devoted to books that would be considered pornographic or too esoteric for sale in England or America.
Scholar-archivist Hugh Hagius has carefully assembled the evidence. Fay, he writes, is "a composite of McAlmon's best friends, Marsden Hartley and William Carlos Williams, and the character Mason Linberg is based on McAlmon himself." Fay was a physician, as was William Carlos Williams, who, like Fay, attended a Philadelphia medical school. McAlmon married the poet Bry-her (Annie Winifred Ellerman), who was clearly having an affair with H.D. (Hilda Doolittle). McAlmon later maintained that he was bisexual and wished intimacy with his wife, but she refused. The conversation at the marriage of Mason Linberg to Mar-jorie Bull Dike closely resembles the conversation (as reported by William Carlos Williams) at the McAlmon-Bryher nuptial and the following shipboard party. Mason states himself, and his friends echo his assertion, that he and Marjorie had a "marriage of convenience" made to allow both man and woman to navigate in social and literary circles without their homosexuality making them notorious.
A final roman a clef feature is the modeling of Marjorie's appearance on that of Radclyffe Hall, including the facial scar. Although A Scarlet Pansy is set in the first two decades of the 20th century, Hagius proves it could not have been written before The Well of Loneliness appeared in 1928. Hagius conjectures that McAlmon, whose reputation with his Modernist friends had declined by the early 1930's, finally sold Pansy to Samuel Roth to publish under his William Faro imprint. The agreement, the contract suggests, would have included royalties, and Faro was not an underground operation, as Hagius thought. The book did not have to be sold underground, due to the resourcefulness of its publisher.
Roth's career was that of a typical middleman in the entertainment industry, specializing, beginning in 1930, in mass market publishing. In 1921, he visited England as an unpaid newspaper correspondent, where he met many Modernist poets and men of letters, notably Ezra Pound, and possibly McAlmon. However, after failing to find British publishers for his poems and novel, Roth decided to focus on erotica in order to make money to support his family. Therefore he published parts of Ulysses, without waiting for possible permission. Sylvia Beach and Joyce published an unprecedented International Protest against Roth's actions in 1927, making him a literary pariah. Thereafter, his underground erotica publishing increased and included various pirated editions of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Ulysses. After serving prison sentences in New York and Philadelphia, he founded William Faro, Inc., in 1930.
Roth was an astute commentator on show business and Broadway popular culture. The Faro advertisements show how gossip about "strange careers" and "secret lives" captured the eyes and ears of the hoi polloi in the first years of the Depression. He relied heavily on mail order and the same points of sale as did other "sex pulp" publishers: drugstores, bookstores, and department stores. The term "sex pulp" denotes a novel with titillating but not explicit sexual content. Pulp magazines of the interwar period specialized in such stories. They flirt with the illicit by featuring gigolos or show girls, enjoying themselves by partying, traveling, appearing on stage or screen, meeting celebrities, and dressing glam-orously. Despite the sensation and titillation, conventional romantic sentiments are essential to the genre. Thus A Scarlet Pansy begins, "Fay Etrange lay dying on a battlefield in France, dying in the arms of the man she loved." It ends with the same sentence, with the addition of the words, "the last man she loved."
One reason that Pansy was one of Roth's most popular books is that "the pansy craze"--tourists slumming in clubs where gay people put on outrageous and intensely creative shows--was still alive in the early 1930's. Roth tailored his advertisements to extend their prurient spectatorship to his book. There were several novels about the gay or lesbian urban milieu before the one he published. Roth's advertisement mentions The Well of Loneliness: Blair Niles' Strange Brother (1931) is another. Just as contact between whites and blacks increased in the interwar years with the scintillating pleasures of uptown, contact between the gay and straight cultures became greater with the pansy craze. Roth understood one thing above all: people buy affordable books about their own fantasies in lucrative quantities, even during the Great Depression. In fact, Roth reissued the book in both abridged and complete form throughout the period 1945-57.
A Scarlet Pansy is a Modernist project. The exploration of taboo sexual behavior, the sense of imprisonment hidden behind a glittering surface, the concealment of subversive beauty beneath a burlesque of high society cavorting, the use of a popular or "low" genre because of its ability to challenge conventional morality, and the embodiment of that challenge in language that newsstand and lending library readers use while initiating those readers into an illicit slang--all are exemplary of Modernist writing. Although necessarily more venal, Samuel Roth was as much a Modernist publisher as was his friend Thomas Seltzer, who courageously brought D. H. Lawrence to American readers in the early 1920's. A story combining wit, creative self-fashioning, and both the insights and tragic limitations of the social outcast appealed to him strongly. More than an opportunistic publisher of sex pulps, he was, perhaps above all, a man with an uncanny ability to recognize that good contemporary writing could be valuable for popular audiences.
Jay A. Gertzman is the author of Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940.
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|Title Annotation:||ART MEMO; A Scarlet Pansy|
|Author:||Gertzman, Jay A.|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2010|
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