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Isherwood, Christopher (1904-1986)  
 
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A major Anglo-American novelist and a pioneer in the gay liberation movement, Christopher Isherwood created gay characters whose homosexuality is a simple given, an integral part of the wholeness of personality and an emblem of their common humanity.

Born into a distinguished Cheshire family on August 26, 1904, Christopher Isherwood was educated at Repton School and Corpus Christi, Cambridge. After leaving Cambridge without a degree in 1925, he renewed his friendship with W. H. Auden, his former classmate at St. Edmund's preparatory school.

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For over ten years, the two shared an unromantic relationship in which sex gave their friendship an added dimension. Two years his junior, Auden cast Isherwood in the role of literary mentor and soon introduced him to a fellow Oxford undergraduate, Stephen Spender. The trio formed the nucleus of what would later be called The Auden Gang, the angry young writers who dominated the English literary scene of the 1930s.

From 1930 to 1933, Isherwood lived in Berlin, where he felt released from the social and sexual inhibitions that stifled his development in England. Immersing himself in the bohemian world of male prostitutes, he lived almost anonymously in shabbily genteel and working-class areas of the city and began translating his experience of the demimonde into what would eventually become the unsurpassed portrait of pre-Hitler Germany, the Berlin stories.

By collaborating with Auden on three avant-garde plays and by supporting various left-wing causes, Isherwood gained a reputation for ideological commitment. But partly because of his growing awareness of himself as a homosexual, he deeply distrusted communism, and he became more and more dissatisfied with the emptiness of left-wing rhetoric.

In 1939, he and Auden emigrated to the United States. Settling permanently in Los Angeles, Isherwood began writing film scripts, and in 1940, under the influence of a Hindu monk and surrogate father, converted to Vedantism, a philosophy that would influence all of his later work. He became a U.S. citizen in 1946.

In 1953, he fell in love with an eighteen-year-old college student, Don Bachardy, who was to achieve independent success as an artist. The relationship proved to be the most enduring union of Isherwood's life.

Isherwood's relationship with Bachardy is the subject of Guido Santi and Tina Mascara's luminous documentary, Chris & Don: A Love Story, released theatrically in 2008 and on DVD in 2009.

In his 1971 biography of his parents, Kathleen and Frank, he explicitly revealed his homosexuality, which was more fully explored in his 1976 autobiography Christopher and His Kind.

During the 1970s, Isherwood was an active participant in the burgeoning American gay liberation movement. By the time of his death on January 4, 1986, he had become a deeply revered icon of contemporary Anglo-American gay culture, a courage-teacher who vigorously protested the "heterosexual dictatorship" and unashamedly expressed solidarity with his "kind."

The Influence of His Homosexuality on Isherwood's Art

Isherwood's homosexuality had a major influence on his art. His interest in certain psychological predicaments and in recurring character types and themes, especially such mythopoeic types as the Truly Weak Man, the Truly Strong Man, and the Evil Mother, and such obsessions as war, The Test, the struggle toward maturity, and the search for a father, may all be directly or indirectly related to his homosexuality.

Certainly, Isherwood's fascination with the antiheroic hero, his rebellion against bourgeois respectability, his empathy with the alienated and the excluded, and his ironic perspective are all intertwined with his awareness of himself as a homosexual.

Moreover, homosexuality, even when suppressed or disguised for legal or artistic reasons, is a crucial presence in the novels, an indispensable aspect of the myth of the outsider that Isherwood cultivated so assiduously. Isherwood sees the homosexual as a faithful mirror of the human condition and a symbol both of individuality and of the variousness of human possibilities.

The Early Novels

Homosexuality features in the early novels in many guises, from the repressed passions of All the Conspirators (1928) to the fuller depictions of homosexual characters and situations in The Memorial (1932), where Edward Blake is never able to escape the impact of the loss in World War I of his best friend; and from the coyly comic portrait of Baron Kuno von Pregnitz, whose secret fantasies revolve around English schoolboy adventure stories, in The Last of Mr. Norris (1935) to the spoiled homosexual idyll of Peter Wilkinson and Otto Nowak in Goodbye to Berlin (1939).

In these early works, Isherwood presents homosexuality unapologetically and without the self-consciousness and melodrama that mark contemporaneous treatments of the issue. He refrains from sensationalizing the gay subculture; he deftly defuses and domesticates aspects of gay life that lesser writers might have rendered as decadence or depravity; and he reveals considerable insight into the dynamics of gay relationships.

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Top: A 1950 portrait of Christopher Isherwood by Carl Van Vechten.
Above: A more recent portrait of Christopher Isherwood (left) with Don Bachardy, his long-time companion, by Stathis Orphanos.

  
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