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McAlmon, Robert (1896-1956)  
 
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American publisher and writer Robert McAlmon made significant contributions to twentieth-century literature. As owner of Contact Editions, he was responsible for publishing such important modernist works as Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans (1925), while in his own books of the 1920s, he treated controversial subjects in a straightforward manner.

Most notably, in Distinguished Air: Grim Fairy Tales (1925) McAlmon recorded life in the gay subculture of Berlin with a frankness that was unequaled in the era. Compared to his stories, Christopher Isherwood's later and more famous tales of the city seem almost tame.

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Among expatriates in Paris during the 1920s, McAlmon was regarded as a writer of significant talent and potential. However, he never attained the financial success and critical acclaim that Ernest Hemingway and many of his other associates did. Commercial publishers were unwilling to distribute McAlmon's work, at least in part because of his honest treatment of sexuality.

Compounding his professional difficulties, McAlmon conducted his personal interactions with the same bluntness that distinguished his written work, and he refused to pay homage to influential figures, who might have helped him to attain the acclaim he craved. By the time of his death, his early achievements had been forgotten.

Background and Early Years

The youngest in a family of ten children, Robert Menzies McAlmon was born on March 9, 1896 in Clifton, Kansas. His father, Reverend John Alexander McAlmon, was a conservative Presbyterian minister. During Robert's early childhood, Reverend McAlmon uprooted his family from Kansas to South Dakota, where they moved constantly from one small town to another. In later years, Robert recalled many aspects of his childhood with loathing, maintaining that his father made him feel inferior because of his lack of interest in sports and other supposedly "manly" pursuits.

However, McAlmon's siblings offered strong emotional support, as they would throughout his life, and they encouraged his early interest in reading and other intellectual pursuits. Despite his fascination with books, however, he was not a good student and frequently played hooky from school.

After graduating from high school in 1912, McAlmon spent several years in a variety of temporary jobs, ranging from laying railroad tracks to working as a copywriter in an advertising agency. In 1916, he entered the University of Minnesota, where he quickly became disillusioned with literature courses. He soon followed his mother to California when she moved there after the death of her husband in 1917.

Enlisting in the military in March 1918, McAlmon was assigned to the Air Corps base in San Diego, where he gained publishing experience by editing the camp newspaper for the remainder of World War I. Discharged shortly after the Armistice of 1919, he took courses at the University of Southern California, which he had previously attended briefly in 1917, and edited Ace, a magazine about flying. In March 1919, six of his poems were published in Harriet Monroe's Poetry Magazine, which previously had featured works by T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Placed on academic probation in 1920, McAlmon dropped out of school; after living briefly in Chicago, he settled in New York City's Greenwich Village.

McAlmon quickly became integrated into the Village's vibrant bohemian community and established friendships that would endure for the rest of his life. Although he changed the names of his acquaintances, McAlmon provided a generally accurate and lively account of his experiences in Greenwich Village in the short novel Post Adolescence (1923). Like Peter, the central character of that book, McAlmon supported himself by posing nude for artists at Cooper Union and elsewhere. In describing Peter's work as a model, McAlmon eloquently conveyed his pride and sensuous delight in his own thin, lithe body.

Among those whom McAlmon got to know in Greenwich Village was the modernist painter Marsden Hartley. In describing the "stand in" for Hartley (Brander Ogden) in Post Adolescence, McAlmon mocked his "dowager gestures" and "fierce grandmother's profile" and emphasized the "repellent force" of his "savagely repressed rhapsody of eroticism."

Such remarks suggest that McAlmon--despite his participation in the emerging gay subculture--may have been uncomfortable with transgressions of gender and sexual norms and with his own homosexual desires. However, McAlmon's ambivalent responses to homosexuality need to be understood within the context of a predominantly era in which conceptions of gay identity were still in the process of formulation.

Despite the complexity of McAlmon's feelings regarding Hartley, the two men considered themselves close friends. In their later years, when they were both impoverished and overlooked by most other members of the avant-garde, they offered strong emotional support to one another through their correspondence.

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