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literature

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McAlmon, Robert (1896-1956)  
 
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Published in 1925, with McAlmon's funding, by William Bird's Three Mountain Press, Distinguished Air: Grim Fairy Tales was immediately hailed by Joyce, Pound, and other leading modernist writers as the author's most important book, and it retains that reputation today. Pound ardently promoted Distinguished Air among his acquaintances, and Joyce arranged for it to be translated into French and published in the magazine 900. Although Bird printed only 115 copies, the book quickly became widely known in avant-garde circles.

The esteem in which the book was regarded by creative individuals on both sides of the Atlantic is suggested by the fact that the prominent American modernist painter Charles Demuth commemorated it in a watercolor, Distinguished Air (1930, inscribed "For 'Distinguished Air' by Robert McAlmon"). Most of Demuth's watercolors that reference literary works were conceived as illustrations for publications. However, there is no documentation of an edition in which this image would have fit. Rather than visualizing a specific incident, Demuth sought to convey the free morality of the stories through an image of an art gallery, a setting not utilized by McAlmon. In the watercolor, an abstract but distinctly phallic sculpture is being studied attentively by several individuals, including a provocatively dressed woman and a male couple (cruised by a supposedly "straight" man).

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The characters of Distinguished Air seem larger than life because they refuse to be restrained by conventional morality. As Edward N. S. Lorusso has stated, McAlmon's drag queen character "Miss Knight jumps off the page as an outrageously comic figure." Resolutely honest, Miss Knight makes no effort to hide her addictions to drugs and alcohol, and she thus seems to be superior to those who pride themselves on their adherence to normative patterns of behavior. Often revealing the rough masculine edges underneath her drag persona, Knight notes in a description of an encounter "I can act like a real lady when I needs to, but that night I talked like rough trade."

Characters in the other Grim Fairy Tales of Distinguished Air also freely recount anonymous sexual encounters. For instance, in "Distinguished Air," Foster (probably based on Marsden Hartley) acknowledges that he is "too married to the pissoir" but declares "one must have a tea engagement now and then." The collection also has the distinction of offering some of the first depictions of gay bars in American fiction.

Although he participated eagerly in the decadent nightlife of Berlin, McAlmon was distressed by the poverty that compelled middle-class Germans to support themselves by selling sexual favors and drugs. Like the characters in his stories, he ultimately felt oppressed by the mood of the city and abandoned it. Trying to convey his experiences in Berlin with honesty and without moralizing judgments, McAlmon emphasized that he did not intend the conclusions of the stories to be interpreted as indictments of the lifestyles of the characters.

Nevertheless, some recent queer commentators have maintained that the stories embody McAlmon's self-loathing and that they constitute a harsh critique of queer life. Thus, for example, Richard Zeikowitz asserts that McAlmon reinforces the superiority of standards through his emphasis upon such "negative terms" as "casual sex; gender abnormality; unproductive lifestyle." However, straight and queer characters in McAlmon's stories share many patterns of behavior, including, for instance, heavy drinking and casual sex. Thus, one might say, that McAlmon envisioned queers as participating fully in the panorama of a decadent world, rather than occupying a separate space in it. Ultimately, it seems no more reasonable to interpret McAlmon's stories as an indictment of queer life than it would be to regard F. Scott Fitzgerald's contemporaneous novels as a condemnation of heterosexuality.

Building upon the critical (if not financial) success of Distinguished Air, McAlmon published a book of poetry, entitled The Portrait of a Generation in the spring of 1926. Included in this volume, "The Revolving Mirror" is considered one of his most important poems. Utilizing a montage of many different narrative voices, "Mirror" eloquently conveys the disorder and emotional emptiness of mechanized society.

The Portrait of a Generation was the only work by McAlmon to be reviewed in a mainstream American periodical. The qualities of the poems that appealed to Pound and McAlmon's other modernist associates disconcerted William Rose Benét. In The Saturday Review of Literature, Benét declared that the book was "tiring because it is so tired" and condemned the pessimism and lax sexual morality that pervaded it. As McAlmon predicted, this harsh review in a widely read magazine effectively closed off opportunities to secure publication in his native country.

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