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  • "She is herself a poem":Caresse Crosby, Feminine Identity, and Literary History
  • Beth Widmaier Capo

When Gertrude Stein immortalized those American expatriates living in Paris during the 1920s as "a Lost Generation," she was referencing the sense of alienation characterizing that cohort of artists and writers.1 Despite intense interest in the modernist period, the publisher, editor, and writer Caresse Crosby has remained lost, remembered as an object of beauty, a "poem," rather than as an active agent, a poet.2 This article will explore Crosby's ultrafeminine self-presentation, its benefits and disadvantages to her career, and her literary legacy.

Although many modernists rebelled against aesthetic tradition in their work, they often reinforced misogynistic social norms. Critics followed suit, instituting a gendered hierarchy of artistic production. As scholar Suzanne Clark has demonstrated, "[T]he modernist revolution turned away from ordinary language and everyday life," resulting in the "gendering of intellectuality" that devalued the feminine at the expense of a masculine experimental style (3). Other feminist scholars have recovered the work of many women erased by the modernist ambivalence that resulted in the "persistent gendering as feminine of that which is devalued" (Huyssen 53). Our understanding of modernism has expanded with scholarship on women writers and editors, salon culture, lesbian sexuality, and the role of gender within modernism.3 In the act of recovering Crosby, we find a case study in the subversive potential of feminine performance during modernism and the sociohistorical conditions that interpreted that femininity. Kay Boyle described Crosby as "distressingly feminine" (qtd. in Conover, Caresse Crosby 14), but there is little doubt that Crosby's performance of the feminine was a source of power during her life. Yet this enactment of the feminine subsequently erased her substantial contributions to literary modernism.

Judith Butler's notion of performativity provides a lens for investigating how Crosby constituted a gendered identity. Gender operates as a circuit such that the effect of performing gender is to produce and maintain the regulatory practice of gender (Gender Trouble 24). Thus Crosby's performance of a stereotypically "feminine" role maintains the system by which she is evaluated and categorized. Subjects are not free to choose participation in this system; Butler explains, "The 'activity' of this gendering cannot, strictly speaking, be a human act or expression, a willful appropriation, and it is certainly not a question of taking on a mask" (Bodies that Matter 7). However, the inadequacy of the binary system creates a space for play.4 If, as [End Page 30] Butler contends, "[g]ender is an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts," then we can read Crosby's naming practices, appearance, poetry, and self-described behavior as the means through which she performed femininity (Gender Trouble 140). The modernist period was a time of changing ideas about women, and Crosby presents an interesting blend of the old and new. She was one part "Angel in the House," a consummate hostess who nurtured other artists, and one part "New Woman," sexually liberated and fully invested in a productive public life.

Unlike Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and other better-known modernist women, Crosby was heterosexual and married. Although her marriage itself was in many ways unconventional, her sexuality and marital status place Crosby in a traditional feminine role. Her husband Harry's published diary, Shadows of the Sun, reveals his interpretation of the relationship in traditional terms, with Caresse as the feminine—beautiful, sexually desirable, and pure—to his masculine. This is evident in the terms he uses to describe their relationship: "What is sweeter than honey (Caresse) / What is stronger than a lion (Harry)" (228).5 Although they could afford servants, she was his domestic angel. As Harry wrote in 1924, "The house without C was dirty and desolate, now it is bright and delicate. No more cold meals, no more untidiness, no more disorder" (58). In this stereotypical relationship, Caresse Crosby was "too pure and decent and refined" for the movie business, and Harry's role was to protect her: "We'll talk it over but I shouldn't let you go round with a movie crowd under any circumstances" (Harry Crosby...


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