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Isherwood, Christopher (1904-1986)  
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Isherwood's Masterpiece: A Single Man

The need for community is also an issue in A Single Man (1964), Isherwood's masterpiece. The protagonist, George, a late-middle-aged and lonely expatriate Briton grieving at the death of his lover of many years, is the most fully human of all Isherwood's gay characters. He shares the alienation and anger of Bob Wood and Ambrose, but he is more central and rounded than they. Indeed, George emerges in the novel as an Everyman figure, with whom anyone can identify.

In addition, A Single Man more fully develops the context of gay oppression than do the earlier novels and places it within a still larger context of spiritual transcendence. Dealing with universal themes of commitment and grief, alienation and isolation, the book concretely explores the gay sensibility and masterfully balances worldly and religious points of view.

It regards the assertions of individual uniqueness and of minority consciousness as indispensable worldly and political goals, but it finally subsumes them in the Vedantic idea of the oneness of life. In making concrete this resolution, the novel presents a sustained and moving portrait of male homosexual love.

The minority consciousness of A Single Man helps make possible the balance the novel strikes between assertions of tribal identity and a wider view in which differences are merely circumstantial and insignificant. But another reason for Isherwood's minority consciousness is clearly political. To portray homosexuals as simply another tribe in a nation comprising many different tribes is both to soften the stigma linked to homosexuality and to encourage solidarity among gay people.

And by associating the mistreatment of homosexuals with the discrimination suffered by other minorities in America, Isherwood legitimizes the grievances of gay people at a time when homosexuals were not recognized either as a genuine minority or as valuable members of the human community. Presaging the gay liberation movement, A Single Man presents homosexuality as simply a human variation that should be accorded value and respect and depicts homosexuals as a group whose grievances should be redressed.

A Meeting by the River

Isherwood's last novel, A Meeting by the River (1967), is set in a Hindu monastery on the banks of the Ganges and incorporates most directly the religious values that more obliquely inform A Single Man and the other late novels. The slight plot pivots on the unsuccessful attempt of a bisexual movie producer to dissuade his younger brother from taking final vows as a swami.

The producer, Patrick, is among the most unpleasant characters in all of Isherwood's fiction; he is attracted toward a vision of homosexual union "in which two men learn to trust each other so completely that there's no fear left and they experience and share everything together in the flesh and in the spirit," but he retreats to a cowardly and hypocritical conformity.

Still, there is hope for Patrick. The union of the brothers at the end of the book is the consummation of their long searches for symbolic brotherhood. These quests lead one to the glimpse of a Whitmanesque ideal of gay love and the other to the achievement of spiritual brotherhood in a monastery. Finally revealing the commonality within the two very different siblings, the novel offers the concept of brotherhood as a means of escaping the imprisoning ego.


More forthrightly than any other major writer of his generation, Isherwood embraced the contemporary gay liberation movement. That allegiance was altogether appropriate, for his novels--all written before the Stonewall riots that traditionally date the beginning of the movement--incorporate gay liberation perspectives, especially the need for solidarity among homosexuals and the recognition of homosexuals as an aggrieved minority.

Isherwood's greatest achievement, however, is in creating gay characters--preeminently George in A Single Man--whose homosexuality is a simple given, an integral part of the wholeness of personality, and in placing those characters in situations and contexts where their homosexuality functions as an emblem of their common humanity.

Claude J. Summers

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Although largely invisible to the general public, a large body of twentieth-century gay male literature by American authors was published prior to Stonewall, some of it positive but most of it tinged with misery or bleakness as the price of being published and disseminated.

literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

After Stonewall, gay male literature became focused as a movement, aided by the development of gay newspapers, magazines, and quarterlies and the founding of serious gay and lesbian bookstores.

literature >> Overview:  Autobiography, Gay Male

In its first century of existence, gay male autobiography has become increasingly more open, frank, and unapologetic.

social sciences >> Overview:  Berlin

Notable in the twentieth century both for its pioneering efforts in homosexual emancipation and for the subsequent Nazi persecution of homosexuals, Berlin is now a major participant in the struggle to gain legal recognition of gay relationships.

literature >> Overview:  Camp

Combining elements of incongruity, theatricality, and exaggeration, camp is a form of humor that helps homosexuals cope with a hostile environment.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

social sciences >> Overview:  Germany

While Germany, until recently, never officially accepted or welcomed members of the glbtq community, German culture and homosexuality have a long and significant history.

social sciences >> Overview:  Los Angeles

The glbtq history of Los Angeles, the U.S.'s second largest metropolis, is replete with cultural, social, and political firsts.

literature >> Overview:  Novel: Gay Male

Since World War II, the gay male novel has progressively flourished in England and especially in America.

literature >> Overview:  Travel Literature

Travel has afforded gays and lesbians both freedom from the restraints of their own cultures and the erotic stimulus of exotic sexual customs and partners.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom II: 1900 to the Present

Twentieth-century efforts to reform British law and public opinions about homosexuality met with mixed results, but at the beginning of the twenty-first century the United Kingdom has emerged as a leader in recognizing the rights of its glbtq citizens.

social sciences >> Altman, Dennis

Australian political scientist and self-described "international activist-academic" Dennis Altman has studied both the glbtq political movement and the globalization of sexual identities.

literature >> Auden, W. H.

One of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden found that his gayness led him to new insights into the universal impulse to love and enlarged his understanding of all kinds of relationships.

arts >> Bachardy, Don

American artist Don Bachardy, the long-time companion of novelist Christopher Isherwood, has achieved renown in his own right for his nudes and celebrity portraits, which honestly convey the personalities of his sitters.

arts >> Ford, Tom

Heralded as the savior of men's fashion, openly gay designer Tom Ford has both tapped into and assisted the fundamental change in men's attitude towards their appearance; he has since become a film director.

literature >> Hollinghurst, Alan

Noted for his elegant prose style and subtle representations of moral ambiguities, Alan Hollinghurst has in recent years emerged as Great Britain's most significant contemporary gay novelist.

arts >> Kert, Larry

Gay actor and singer Larry Kert introduced some of the most memorable songs in American musical theater.

literature >> Lehmann, John

One of the most distinguished and discerning British men of letters of the mid-twentieth century, John Lehmann is best known as an editor and publisher.

arts >> Mann, Erika

Writer, actress, and intellectual refugee from the Third Reich, Erika Mann was one of the twentieth century's most intriguing nonconformists, noted especially for her anti-fascist cabaret satire.

literature >> McAlmon, Robert

American publisher and writer Robert McAlmon made significant contributions to twentieth-century literature, both by publishing avant-garde writers and by depicting a queer subculture in his own works.

literature >> Norse, Harold

Often categorized as a Beat writer, poet and memoirist Harold Norse created a body of work that uses everyday language and images to explore and celebrate both the commonplace and the exotic.

arts >> Orphanos, Stathis (b.1940), and Sylvester, Ralph (b.1934)

Publishers Stathis Orphanos and Ralph Sylvester, partners in life as well as business, are best known for their beautifully produced limited edition books; in addition, Orphanos is acclaimed for his photographs of celebrities and male nudes.

arts >> Perkins, Anthony

In his personal life, American actor Anthony Perkins often seemed as tortured as the troubled characters he played on film, hiding--and perhaps despising--his true nature while desperately seeking happiness and "normality."

literature >> Roditi, Edouard

Poet, translator, literary and art critic, and short story writer, Edouard Roditi was associated with most of the twentieth-century's avant-garde literary movements from Surrealism to post-modernism.

literature >> Spender, Sir Stephen

In his poetry and his autobiography, Stephen Spender wrote about his homosexual experiences in his early life.

arts >> Teske, Edmund

American photographer Edmund Teske created a distinct and inventive body of work that embraced multiple styles and subjects, from somber urban vistas to intimate, often eroticized, portraits.

literature >> Wescott, Glenway

American writer Glenway Wescott is author of a series of critically esteemed novels, but may be best known for his central position in New York's artistic and gay communities of the 1950s and 1960s.

literature >> Wheeler, Monroe

Publisher, book designer, and museum director, Monroe Wheeler was a leading figure in New York artistic and gay communities of the 1950s and 1960s, alongside his partner of sixty-eight years, the writer Glenway Wescott. 


Berg, James J. and Chris Freeman, eds. The Isherwood Century: Essays on the Life and Work of Christopher Isherwood. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.

Finney, Brian. Christopher Isherwood: A Critical Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Fryer, Jonathan. Isherwood: A Biography of Christopher Isherwood. London: New English Library, 1977.

Funk, Robert W. Christopher Isherwood: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979.

Heilbrun, Carolyn C. Christopher Isherwood. Columbia Essays on Modern Literature 53. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

Hynes, Samuel L. The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s. London: Bodley Head, 1976.

King, Francis. Christopher Isherwood. Writers and Their Work 240. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1979.

Lehmann, John. Isherwood: A Personal Memoir. New York: Holt, 1987.

Piazza, Paul. Christopher Isherwood: Myth and Anti-Myth. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Schwerdt, Lisa M. Isherwood's Fiction: The Self and Technique. London: Macmillan, 1989.

Summers, Claude J. Christopher Isherwood. New York: Ungar, 1980.

_____. Gay Fictions: Wilde to Stonewall. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Wilde, Alan. Christopher Isherwood. Twayne's United States Authors Series 173. New York: Twayne, 1971.


    Citation Information
    Author: Summers, Claude J.  
    Entry Title: Isherwood, Christopher  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 29, 2010  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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