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literature

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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.

Conclusion

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:  Travel Literature

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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

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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.

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literature >> Hollinghurst, Alan

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arts >> Kert, Larry

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literature >> Lehmann, John

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arts >> Mann, Erika

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literature >> McAlmon, Robert

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literature >> Norse, Harold

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

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literature >> Wescott, Glenway

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    Bibliography
   

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 www.glbtq.com/literature/isherwood_c.html  
    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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