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The American Isherwood

The American Isherwood

James J. Berg
Chris Freeman
Foreword by Stephen McCauley
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 352
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  • Book Info
    The American Isherwood
    Book Description:

    Novelist, memoirist, diarist, and gay pioneer Christopher Isherwood left a wealth of writings. Known for his crisp style and his camera-like precision with detail, Isherwood gained fame for hisBerlin Stories, which served as source material for the hit stage musical and Academy Award-winning filmCabaret. More recently, his experiences and career in the United States have received increased attention. His novelA Single Manwas adapted into an Oscar-nominated film; his long relationship with the artist Don Bachardy, with whom he shared an openly gay lifestyle, was the subject of an award-winning documentary, Chris & Don: A Love Story; and his memoir,Christopher and His Kind, was adapted for the BBC.

    Isherwood's colorful journeys took him from post-World War I England to Weimar Germany to European exile to Golden Age Hollywood to Los Angeles in the full flower of gay liberation. After the publication of his diaries, which run to more than one million words and span nearly a half century, it is possible to fully assess his influence. This collection of essays considers Isherwood's diaries, his vast personal archive, and his published works and offers a multifaceted appreciation of a writer who spent more than half of his life in southern California. James J. Berg and Chris Freeman have brought together the most informative scholarship of the twenty-first century to illuminate the craft of one of the singular figures of the twentieth century. Isherwood, the American, emerges from the shadow of his English reputation to stake his claim as a significant force in late twentieth-century American culture whose legacy continues in the twenty-first century.

    Contributors: Joshua Adair, Murray State U; Jamie Carr, Niagara U; Robert L. Caserio, Pennsylvania State U; Niladri Chatterjee, U of Kalyani, India; Lisa Colletta, American U of Rome; Lois Cucullu, U of Minnesota; Mario Faraone; Peter Edgerly Firchow; Rebecca Gordon Stewart; William R. Handley, U of Southern California; Jaime Harker, U of Mississippi; Sara S. Hodson, Huntington Library; Carola M. Kaplan, California State U, Pomona; Benjamin Kohlmann, U of Freiburg, Germany; Victor Marsh, U of Queensland; Tina Mascara; Stephen McCauley; Paul M. McNeil, Columbia U; Guido Santi, College of the Canyons, California; Kyle Stevens, Brandeis U.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4336-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-xii)
  3. FOREWORD: Outside the Frame
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    Stephen McCauley

    Charm is among the most elusive and hard to define qualities a person can possess. It’s also one of the rarest, but never mind. As with many other things in life—art, pornography, bad hair—most of us feel we know charm when we see it, even if we can’t explain it in the abstract. One definition I especially like is Richard Avedon’s. He describes charm as “the ability to be truly interested in other people.” Coming from someone who made a career of taking pictures of others, there’s perhaps an element of the self-congratulatory in this, but still, it’s...

  4. INTRODUCTION: An American Outsider
    (pp. xvi-xxii)

    One of Christopher Isherwood’s most memorable characters, George, his “single man,” is a college professor whose life has certain significant parallels with his creator’s life: fifty-eight years old, gay, Los Angeles transplant from England, Santa Monica resident, lover of literature and handsome young men. But George was also a hypothetical creation—and the hypothesis was, “what would life be like after a longtime partnership has ended?” In fiction, George’s lover Jim dies suddenly in a car crash; in real life, Christopher and his lover Don Bachardy were having major relationship troubles.

    Despite these autobiographical resonances, one significant irony is that...


    • [I Introduction]
      (pp. 1-4)

      The American Isherwoodbegins with the author’s best work and most productive decade,A Single Manand the 1960s. Many readers and scholars consider the short novel his masterpiece, and Isherwood himself was not shy about using that term for it: “I am almost certain that it is my masterpiece; by which I mean my most effective, coherent statement, artwork, whatever you want to call it.”¹ Written in the middle of Isherwood’s American period, in 1962–63, the novel is his first to focus on a homosexual protagonist, George, a college professor. This alone would put it in the forefront...

    • 1 A Single Man and the American Maurice
      (pp. 5-24)

      In the documentary filmChris & Don: A Love Story(2007), home movies show a young-looking Christopher Isherwood and a boyish Don Bachardy in swimsuits at Will Rogers State Beach in the early 1950s.¹ That footage operates in the film as the locus of the pair’s trysting. Out of their surfside camaraderie on a sunny beach grew a friendship that turned amorous and lasted until Isherwood’s death in 1986. I begin with this romantically charged “beach” sequence that grounds the film’s love story to make a larger claim about E.M. Forster’s 1913 homosexual novelMauriceand its publication history. Contrary...

    • 2 Labor of Love: Making Chris & Don
      (pp. 25-36)

      Chris & Don: A Love Storyis a feature-length documentary film focusing on the thirty-year relationship between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. The film was four years in the making and solidified our partnership as filmmakers and our relationship as a couple. We met a few months prior to beginning this project, so in a sense, we adopted Chris and Don as role models, and we were inspired by their commitment to each other and, above all, to their work and creativity.

      Don was our muse in deciding to embark on this journey because he is unlike anyone we’ve ever...

    • 3 Working through Grief in the Drafts of A Single Man
      (pp. 37-48)

      During a particularly turbulent period in his relationship with Don Bachardy, in which a breakup seemed imminent, Christopher Isherwood wrote multiple drafts of the novel that was to becomeA Single Man.In these drafts, he recounts a journey from shock to resignation, as he contemplates the loss of his beloved life partner. Engaging in an artistic process that parallels the psychoanalytic process Sigmund Freud alludes to in “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through,” Isherwood proceeds from pain and incomprehension through an increasing understanding of personal crisis and novelistic potential to ultimate insight and artistic realization. In contemplating the loss of...

    • 4 Writing the Unspeakable in A Single Man and Mrs. Dalloway
      (pp. 49-62)

      When asked in a 1973 interview by Carola M. Kaplan if he had Virginia Woolf’sMrs. Dallowayin mind while composingA Single Man,Christopher Isherwood affirms, albeit briefly, this novel as one influence on his narrative form.¹ In his diary in the early 1960s, however, he unquestionably praises Woolf’s novel as “one of the most truly beautiful novels or prose poems or whatever that I have ever read. It is prose written with absolute pitch, a perfect ear. You could perform it with instruments. Could I write a book like that and keep within the nature of my own...

    • 5 A Whole without Transcendence: Isherwood, Woolf, and the Aesthetics of Connection
      (pp. 63-78)

      A “single” self is the starting point for the seemingly narrow canvas of what Christopher Isherwood referred to in his diary as his “novelette,”A Single Man.I say “seemingly narrow” because the novel begins and ends in a single day with George, a character who can be taken to represent, when read in conjunction with Isherwood’s diaries, the author’s experiences, prejudices, and perceptions. YetA Single Manis a more encompassing novel than either its title or the critical commentary on it suggests. Now an indispensable text in the canons of gay literature and of Los Angeles fiction,A...

    • 6 Ford Does Isherwood
      (pp. 79-94)

      Explicating film scholar André Bazin, Colin MacCabe claims that “the cinema promotes a new form of adaptation in which the relation to the source text is part of the appeal and the attraction of the film.”¹ I believe that such textual layers and multiple affective registers are especially significant in the case ofA Single Man,Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel about a man, George, mourning the death of his lover, Jim, adapted for the screen in 2009 by fashion designer Tom Ford. Between the two authors’ two Georges—both of whom are thus present in the film—lies the emergence...

    • 7 A Real Diamond: The Multicultural World of A Single Man
      (pp. 95-102)

      Describing the relationship between novels and history, Jill Lepore suggests that “the novelist is the better historian . . . because headmitsthat he is partial, prejudiced, and ignorant, and because he has not forsaken passion.”¹ There is no better novelist-historian than Christopher Isherwood, who wrote passionately and from a highly subjective point of view about the world around him.

      Isherwood lived in Berlin in the early 1930s and in Southern California in the 1940s and after. He is recognized as a sharp-eyed chronicler of his time and place. InGoodbye to Berlin,first published in the 1930s, he...


    • [II Introduction]
      (pp. 103-106)

      That Isherwood settled in Los Angeles for the last half of his life is part coincidence, part intention, and part temperament. He originally traveled to L.A. to see the American West after a dismal New York winter, to seek out his old friend the mystic writer Gerald Heard, and to see if he could get work in the film studios. Through Heard, he came to know Swami Prabhavananda. Aside from Bachardy, Isherwood was never closer or more devoted to anyone than he was to Prabhavananda.

      The American Isherwood is the Vedantic Isherwood. Isherwood approached Vedanta, at least in the beginning,...

    • 8 Isherwood and the Psycho-geography of Home
      (pp. 107-120)

      When Isherwood arrived in the United States in 1939, he was close to what might be termed a “nervous breakdown.” He was already enjoying his first taste of success as a writer, yet fame could not paper over the cracks undermining his sense of security. The crisis was not only psychological in nature; his ontology—his sense of who he was in relation to the wider order of being in the world—had been thoroughly destabilized and he was, in effect, falling apart.

      Since May 1933, he and his young German lover Heinz Neddermeyer had been moving restlessly from one...

    • 9 Isherwood and Huxley: The Novel as Mystic Fable
      (pp. 121-138)

      We have yet to settle the role played by novels in Christopher Isherwood’s attitudes toward mysticism. His statements about his fiction’s relation to religion are not the whole story of the ties that Isherwood’s novels—and the novelistic genre itself—might have to mystical experience.

      My Guru and His Discipleis the story of a compromised religious conversion. Isherwood was unable to consummate his relation to Atman—the Reality of the mystics—by becoming a Hindu monastic. When Isherwood in August 1945 ended his two years of protomonastic life, under the direction of Swami Prabhavananda at the Vedanta Society Center...

    • 10 Down Where on a Visit? Isherwood’s Mythology of Self
      (pp. 139-154)

      In the 1950s, as Christopher Isherwood continued to struggle with elements ofThe World in the Evening,he notes in his “Writing Notebook” that he has a new idea for a story, one that after several years of editing, revisiting, and revising would be published in 1962 asDown There on a Visit.Although ostensibly the narrative ofDown There on a Visitmay seem greatly removed from Isherwood’s original concept of a “conducted tour” through a Hell-like Purgatory of the “temporarily self-detained” (“Writing Notebook,” Huntington Library, CI 1158, 58), an examination of Isherwood’s unpublished notes alongside the final novel...

    • 11 A Phone Call by the River
      (pp. 155-170)
      PAUL M. McNEIL

      On November 8, 1940, Isherwood became an initiate of Vedanta, one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy. Under the tutelage of his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, he devoted himself to study and ultimately sealed himself off from the world at the Vedanta Center of Southern California, in an effort to realize the “ideal of moksa, or man’s release from his involvement in the phenomenal world and the realization by him of the identity of his essential self with the cosmic reality.”¹ This central teaching of Vedanta challenged Isherwood, given his inability to repudiate the physical world. In fact, all the...

    • 12 “Give me devotion . . . even against my will”: Christopher Isherwood and India
      (pp. 171-178)

      Honesty is always elusive. The nature of language is such that full expression of oneself in words is impossible. Writers deserve our admiration because they are engaged in a battle that they can never win. They constantly chafe at the boundaries of language. They can only expand the boundaries of language but can never escape it. Partial truths are all that can be eventually put on the page. Christopher Isherwood seems to have attempted all his life to put on the page as much of the truth about himself as possible. However, even now, after all his diaries have been...

    • 13 Spiritual Searching in Isherwood’s Artistic Production
      (pp. 179-192)

      Floating on a straw is very much like goose-stepping on thin ice: a dangerous occupation that doesn’t allow any room for error and offers only a small chance of success. This somewhat curious notion comes from Isherwood’s “Afterword” to his pamphletAn Approach to Vedanta(1963), and it is appropriate to introduce the main issue of this essay. Isherwood describes the long road that brought him to Vedanta and explains that the contact with Swami Prabhavananda was for him above all a relationship through which he looked for a “still centre” in life and art. He tries to reply to...


    • [III Introduction]
      (pp. 193-198)

      Isherwood’s first decade in the United States was dominated by the Second World War, his discovery of and devotion to Vedanta, and a rather turbulent love life. As the passage above indicates, Isherwood was caught in a raid on a gay bar in December 1949, at a time when the LAPD was at its most virulently homophobic. Although he thinks he should have been braver and more oppositional, the reality is that this was a common experience. His anxiety over the whole situation is suggestive of a greater sense of tension, and even fear, pervasive among Isherwood and his fellow...

    • 14 Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward
      (pp. 199-214)

      The story of Christopher Isherwood and Edward Upward’s friendship has been told a number of times. According to the most familiar account, both writers shared a period of intense artistic creativity in the early and mid-1920s during which they collaborated on the stories about Mortmere (also known as “the Other Town”), a grotesque fantasy world they had invented during their school days at Repton. Isherwood went up to Cambridge in 1923, one year after Upward, and the frequently violent and sadistic stories about Mortmere came to be modeled increasingly on the academic cosmos of the university town and its caste...

    • 15 Huxley and Isherwood: The California Years
      (pp. 215-226)

      When Christopher Isherwood arrived in Los Angeles by bus from New York in the summer of 1939, his primary concern was to talk to Gerald Heard about his decision to become a pacifist at a time when it looked very much as if a new world war was about to break out. When the long-anticipated war actually erupted only a few months later, Isherwood remained firmly committed to his newfound pacifist convictions, perhaps in part because they had been recently reaffirmed by Heard, but he nevertheless offered to return to Britain to help in some unspecified, nonmilitary capacity. (The British...

    • 16 The Celebrity Effect: Isherwood, Hollywood, and the Performance of Self
      (pp. 227-242)

      When Christopher Isherwood settled in Hollywood at the end of 1939, he was aware that the event signaled a change in his writing, as well as in his life. After a difficult move to America and an unhappy few months in New York, he wrote to his mother on December 5, “Slowly, I am getting around to the idea of writing again. But, it won’t be anything like what I’ve done so far. Philosophical, probably, and deeply religious! Very obscure. Full of dreams and visions. It sounds awful, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s only a reaction to movie work.”¹

      Although Isherwood...

    • 17 A Writer at Work: The Isherwood Archive
      (pp. 243-258)

      Every collection of personal papers reveals the intangible, subtle aspects of an individual’s way of thinking or acting that cannot be discerned through his or her publications or public persona. Christopher Isherwood’s archive is no exception. Acquired in 1999 by the Huntington Library from his life partner Don Bachardy, with later additions from various sources, the papers have already seen extensive research use. The four thousand–item collection affords deep insight into every facet of Isherwood’s life and writings, including such topics as gay rights, Vedanta, pacifism, Hollywood, and the film industry. This essay will discuss some of the unique...

    • 18 Pulp Isherwood: Cheap Paperbacks and Queer Cold War Readers
      (pp. 259-272)

      In 1954, after the publication ofThe World in the Evening,Christopher Isherwood wrote Stephen Spender that “I have lots and lots of fan-mail of the type you can guess. I believe if I gave the word, right now, I could start a queer revolution; they are just longing for a Hitler, poor dears.”¹ To compare a scattered group of queer readers to Nazis was a particularly unsympathetic rhetorical move in 1954, but Isherwood quickly made it clear that he didn’t quite mean it; indeed, the existence of American gay readers both surprised and moved him: “I don’t mean that...

    • 19 Not Satisfied with the Ending: Connecting The World In The Evening to Maurice
      (pp. 273-290)

      Few books have been so poorly received by friends and critics alike as Christopher Isherwood’sThe World in the Evening(1954). Remarkable for its stylistic and thematic departures from his earlier works, the work was almost unanimously dismissed as a failure and continues to be marginalized by critics and readers. Katherine Bucknell’s “Who Is Christopher Isherwood?” asserts that “ the book is marred both by repressed anger about the difficulties of trying to write as a homosexual and by psychological inaccuracies.”¹ This poor evaluation may be the result of a combination of elements: Bob Wood and Charles Kennedy, important secondary...

    (pp. 291-294)
    (pp. 295-298)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 299-305)