Crafting Hermaphroditism: Gale Wilhelm’s Lesbian Modernism in We Too Are Drifting
This article argues for a renewed interest in forgotten modernist lesbian author Gale Wilhelm through an examination of her 1935 novel We Too Are Drifting. Aimed at a wide readership, Wilhelm’s novel differs from the work of high-modernist lesbians like Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes with its middlebrow sensibilities. Furthermore, it presents the hermaphrodite as a new metaphor for conceptualizing lesbian identity in contrast to the dominant model of the invert espoused by Radclyffe Hall’s famous The Well of Loneliness. Without engaging in explicit politics, entering into clinical considerations of sexual psychology, or including gratuitously titillating scenes that the public had come to expect with the subject of lesbianism, Wilhelm’s revolutionary gesture needs to be gauged differently: it assumes the lesbian’s right to define her own existence as the a priori condition for writing about lesbian love by focusing on how lesbian artists use visual media to express their identities and desires.
With backing from a major publishing house, advertising in the premier literary sections of major periodicals, and generally favorable reviews, Gale Wilhelm’s 1935 novel We Too Are Drifting sought to make lesbian culture and sexuality visible to a wide American literary audience. Few books aimed at a mass audience had previously presented this subject without sensationalism, moralistic platitudes, or apology. While lesbian-themed works from high-modernist American authors writing in the same era, such as Djuna Barnes, H. D., or Gertrude Stein, have been canonized and continue to receive the attention of the literary and academic community, Gale Wilhelm’s more middlebrow modernist work has garnered considerably less attention. After her subsequent novels from the 1940s failed to live up to the promise of her two previous lesbian-themed works, We Too Are Drifting and Torchlight to Valhalla (1938), Wilhelm ceased writing and dropped out of literary society altogether. Her work was most recently reprinted in its entirety in 1984 by the lesbian-owned and -run publisher Naiad Press, which featured a brief autobiographical note from an elderly Wilhelm after the publishers were able to track her down several decades after she disappeared from the public.
Part of the reason for Wilhelm’s obscurity is the difficulty of fitting her within the popular narratives of LGBT literary history. Wilhelm’s work contrasts with the depictions of lesbian identity in contemporaneous works and even with novels written decades into the future. Unlike Stein, Barnes, and H. D., whose lesbian-themed works rarely found their way outside of the literary elite or even into the US during the 1930s, Wilhelm’s work actively pursued a larger audience. Her [End Page 45] work is comparable with that of these lesbian expatriates in the sense that she was equally interested in probing the psychology of lesbian desire, but her voice contrasts with their high-modernist experimental rhetoric. Wilhelm’s literary voice instead speaks in a pared-down, Hemingwayesque modernist style whose sparse language and blunt descriptions captured the psyche of a wide American audience. Yet Wilhelm’s novels stand out from previous homosexual-themed literature aimed at a nonelite readership, which wished either to titillate with racy subject matter or provide ideological commentary on the rising visibility of and public fascination with homosexuality and the queer underworld. Furthermore, Wilhelm’s novels do not revolve around the now-clichéd tropes of the isolated struggle with sexuality or the plea for tolerance or acceptance as a pitiable minority. Rather, Wilhelm’s work eschews explicit politics and avoids entering the scientific debate over the origins of homosexuality by constructing a lesbian narrative that takes the lesbian subject’s right to exist as an a priori assumption. This does not mean that her lesbian characters do not find difficulties in articulating their gender and sexual identities or integrating into society. Instead, as I argue in my close reading of We Too Are Drifting, Wilhelm stresses the importance of the lesbian as a self-constructing character rather than one patterned after a clinical model. In an era when the term “lesbian” had yet to replace the concept of the “invert,” with its rigid definition of homosexuality as a man trapped in a woman’s body, Wilhelm offers the symbol of the hermaphrodite as an intermediate figure of gender and sexual fluidity. By placing the discourse of hermaphroditism in the context of the art world and casting her protagonist, the androgynous Jan Morale, as a woodcut artist, Wilhelm grants the lesbian artist the agency to craft her own gender and sexual characteristics. In turn, the language of hermaphroditism gives Wilhelm a discourse for detailing the complex gender and sexual dynamics of lesbian relationships that the dominant psychological model of inversion generalized.
Wilhelm’s Hermaphroditism of the Soul
In terms of its plotting, We Too Are Drifting is centered on the convention of a love triangle in which the protagonist, Jan Morale, is torn between two lovers: a married woman named Madeline who conducts her affair in semi-secret and Victoria, a young college student whose parents are unaware of her potentially Sapphic desires. Jan’s relationships with both women are strained by the compulsory heterosexuality foisted onto her two lovers. The burden of Madeline’s secretiveness leads her to violent outbursts, while Victoria worries about the expectations of her family, who intend her eventually to marry the man to whom she has been engaged through college. While both romantic relationships are doomed to fail, Jan’s most meaningful relationship is arguably with fellow artist Kletkin, a married male who exhibits a possibly sexual attraction to Jan. Kletkin is the closest thing that the reserved Jan has to a confidant and, by virtue of their similar artistic endeavors, they are able to communicate personal issues [End Page 46] (including those resulting from gender and sexual identity) through their work that Jan would not normally speak aloud. Yet, just as Jan watches her relationship with Madeline collapse and eventually watches Victoria depart from her life on a train, her relationship with Kletkin also suffers a tragic fate when he is bucked from a horse and killed. All three of these relationships are mediated through art: Kletkin understands Jan’s vision; Victoria admires her work; and Madeline is a fixture in the social milieu of the art world.
Drawing on the history of the hermaphrodite in Western art, the novel introduces Jan’s hermaphroditism in a reference to the myth of Hermaphroditus, articulated through Kletkin’s point of view:
She had fine hands with hard muscles over the bones and the bones small but not too small. He had always wanted to model her right hand holding a tool. Matter of fact, he said suddenly, I’d like to do you entirely. Oh Lord yes! He jumped up and rammed his other hand down under his belt. His eyes got bright and wild again. The cigarette bobbed up and down in the center of his mouth. Look, Jan! Hermaphroditus! You’re lying on your belly looking down into the pool. This’s before, see? You get it, Jan? He stared at Jan as if he were seeing her for the first time and said, You’re long and narrow and just right to the soles of your feet. Why didn’t I think of this years ago?(Wilhelm 1984, 27)
Wilhelm focuses on the gender amorphousness of hands under an artist’s gaze. Jan’s hands combine signifiers of masculinity and femininity in their appearance of a strength that falls short of menace due to their small size. Jan’s hands gained their muscular strength from her practice as a woodcut artist, but they owe their size to biology. The hermaphroditic nature of her hands is derived both from biology and from an identity that she chooses to live and exercise according to her own desire for artistic production. Throughout the narrative, Wilhelm calls constant attention to the hands of her characters as the means for the varying performances of gender because of the hand’s flexibility of form and its employment as a tool of creativity and destruction. She maintains a steady focus on the conduct of hands, making direct reference to them more than 150 times in only 117 pages. In this respect, Wilhelm’s technique of repetition recalls that of Gertrude Stein in that both repeat nearly identical phrases and images in their prose as a way to highlight their characters’ conscious and unconscious fixations. Repetition reflects the depth of a concept’s importance while simultaneously omitting any kind of explicit judgment on the part of the narrator other than observation.
For Kletkin, Jan’s hands take on the character of a fetish, where the fixation on a part of the body divorced from the subject functions as an idealized synecdoche for the whole. By desiring to sculpt her hand holding a tool Kletkin sublimates sexual desire, the wish to see Jan grab something phallic. By “tool” he most likely means the spitzsticker she uses to carve her woodcuts (Wilhelm 1984, 27). The tool that he wishes for Jan to hold is not, then, his but her own phallus, her tool for artistic production that he then reproduces in the form of a sculpture. As this erotic fixation is sublimated into artistic production, Wilhelm shows how [End Page 47] creating art is in and of itself a sexual act. Art reproduces life not as a facsimile but as an offspring concocted through the artist’s erotic desire. By wishing to reproduce Jan in an act of exercising mastery over the phallus, Kletkin’s desire belies the queer nature of artistic reproduction. He sexualizes the masculine performance of Jan’s hand but, as he realizes the homoeroticism of this fixation, he disperses this desire across the whole of her body, which retains the softness of her androgyny.
Through the discourse of art, Wilhelm employs and repurposes the image of the hermaphrodite as a starting point for exploring different permutations of gender and sexual identity among the lesbians of the novel. This symbolism of the hermaphrodite recalls Michel Foucault’s famous description of the birth of the homosexual in the nineteenth century: “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul” (1990, 43). Today, the term “hermaphrodite” is rarely used and has largely been replaced by “intersex”, whose initial “I” represents a distinctly defined identity category in the formula GLBTQIA, which emphasizes the gender and sexual diversity of our contemporary queer community. However, at the time Wilhelm was writing, such a specific definition that separates sexual and gender identities was in its incipient stages, and what are now conceived as discrete identities were often confounded with one another. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries hermaphroditism was often used to explain why two women would have sexual relations with one another: thus, Aphra Behn metaphorically referred to hermaphroditism in her poem “To the Fair Clarinda” to hint at a same-sex relationship (Donoghue 1993, 199). As Elizabeth Reis notes, with the emergence of medical studies of sex in the nineteenth century, this conflation of the lesbian with the hermaphrodite continued:
By the end of the nineteenth century, ‘psychosexual,’ ‘mental,’ or ‘psychical’ hermaphroditism were all terms doctors used to describe patients who admitted to same-sex desire. . . . Hermaphroditism became a term that could be used to describe either a physical condition (with or without homosexuality) or a psychological one involving same-sex desire.(Reis 2009, 66)
Thus, Wilhelm wrote at a time when hermaphroditism informed the yet-to-be-widely used term “lesbian,” and the associative gap between hermaphroditism and lesbianism was much shorter than our present-day, much clearer distinction between “lesbian” and “intersex.”
Wilhelm recognized in the concept of the hermaphrodite the same “gender trouble” wrought on the binary system of sex and gender, with the potential for disruption that modern-day queer theorists recognize in transgender and intersex identities. As Geertje Mak reveals in a study of the medical treatment of hermaphroditism in the early twentieth century, doctors argued over whether or not gender should be determined by the individual’s own “sex-gender consciousness” or by medical and anatomical evaluations by the doctor (2005, 87). The early twentieth-century hermaphrodite not only signified a crisis in [End Page 48] how we diagnose and determine gender and sex, but also raised the question as to whether such a distinction was entirely subjective. This disruptive power of the hermaphrodite from a century ago echoes the same power to redefine basic assumptions of humanity that Judith Butler grants trans and intersex individuals:
The struggle to rework the norms by which bodies are experienced is thus crucial not only to disability politics, but to the intersex and transgendered movements as they contest forcibly imposed ideals of what bodies ought to be like. The embodied relation to the norm exercises a transformative potential. To posit possibilities beyond the norm or, indeed, a different future for the norm itself, is part of the work of fantasy when we understand fantasy as taking the body as a point of departure for an articulation that is not always constrained by the body as it is. If we accept that altering these norms that decide normative human morphology gives differential “reality” to different kinds of humans as a result, then we are compelled to affirm that transgendered lives have a potential and actual impact on political life at its most fundamental level, that is, who counts as a human, and what norms govern the appearance of “real” humanness.(Butler 2004, 28)
Because gender and sex are so deeply rooted in our humanity, trans and intersex subjectivities demand that we re-examine what constitutes humanity if we are to recognize their humanity.
Yet, before I invest Wilhelm’s early work with too much radical potential, it is important to recognize that her vision of hermaphroditism is based on its literary and aesthetic portrayals and not on its embodied existence. As Iain Moreland reminds us:
Intersex bodies have genetic, hormonal, and anatomic configurations that cannot be adequately apprehended by hegemonic discourses of sexual difference. Their genitalia have tended to be called “ambiguous,” which does not mean they intermittently change shape into other body parts, or that they vacillate in and out of the universe.(Moreland 2005, 335)
Moreland’s argument that ambiguity does not mean amorphousness reveals the limit of Wilhelm’s use of hermaphroditism as a metaphor. For Wilhelm, the hermaphrodite does not merely signal the co-presence of biological signifiers of masculinity and femininity, but also the ability to control and manipulate their appearance through performance. The body becomes a performative vessel for gender as an element of identity that underscores and accentuates the power dimensions of relationships between characters in the novel.
In applying this concept of gender performativity to Wilhelm’s early work I borrow from Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, which argues that gender behavior is not an innate disposition, but a learned behavior that we often unconsciously perform. As Butler says, “gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed” (1999, 24). While gender identity is obviously not a conscious choice made by a previously unsexed, objective individual, I also want to call attention to the fact that minority groups that have historically been marginalized outside of the dominant paradigms of gender expectations have exhibited a particular consciousness of the performative aspects of gender due to [End Page 49] the necessity to “pass” as “straight.” In We Too Are Drifting it is apparent that the novel’s lesbian characters are aware of certain codes of gender performance, yet at the same time Wilhelm notes how they unconsciously signify themselves by calling attention to repetitive acts. Knowing that she is outside of the normative framework of heterosexuality, Wilhelm’s lesbian subject is more conscious of the tactical employment of gender in her everyday life and thus more sensitive to the power dynamics of gender signification in their interpersonal relationships.
We Too Are Drifting uses classical aesthetics as a method of viewing and evaluating the human body, the better to illuminate how social conventions compel the individual to style their own body as if it were itself a work of art. Kletkin does not notice the androgynous features of Jan’s body until it visually performs hermaphroditism by adopting a pose that has come to signify the hermaphrodite in Western art. This impression leads him to see how her current bodily position, lying on the ground as his model, mimics the bodily position of Hermaphroditus in the myth most famously retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In this scene, Hermaphroditus leans into the pool of water in which lives the Naiad, Salmacis, who is overcome with lust for him. In the myth, Salmacis’s lust for the boy effects his hermaphroditism. Her desire drives Salmacis to wrap herself around his body and eventually become bonded with him in the form of one body, both male and female, when the gods grant her wish that they never physically part from one another. Classical scholar Vanda Zajko argues that “Ovid’s myth provides an etiological narrative of complex sexuality that originates in but transcends antiquity to provide a critique of what Judith Butler (2004, 65) has called the ‘idealized gender dimorphism’” (2009, 175). In the context of the relationship between Kletkin and Jan, Kletkin’s desire for the masculine traits of a woman’s body results in the production of a hermaphrodite as a statue that displaces homoerotic desire onto a female body. As Jan lies naked, posing for the sculpture, the narrative describes Jan’s body from Kletkin’s perspective:
It was a strong face but it was blank as a mask. Her eyes were dark gray and you could look a long way into them, they had marvelous depth and when she looked at you, you imagined she was seeing twice as much as anybody else did. She was thirty years old but she looked like a boy half that age until she looked at you. It was queer, you couldn’t find a thing in her face but when she looked at you, you knew her hard young boy’s body was a lie.(Wilhelm 1984, 38)
This “lie” is the crux of Jan’s hermaphroditism. It would be inaccurate to define her as either a man or a woman based on her body, and thus she is not “inverted” in the sense of being a man in a woman’s body or a woman in a man’s body. Therefore, this lie is not any lie that Jan herself is telling, but instead the lie is based on the paucity of any adequate discourse or terms by which to label her body. Just like Ovid’s myth, Jan’s performative, amorphous gender and sexuality exposes the logical inconsistencies within society’s idealized gender dimorphism by demonstrating that its own reasoning and discourse cannot determine a “truth” for her body, so it must call it a “lie.” [End Page 50]
By using Jan the artist as the object around which art is styled, Wilhelm calls attention to the mutually informing relationship between the projection of aesthetic desires and social conventions onto the body and the way that the body in turn influences our tastes. Placing the gaze of the artist into the object itself, we become aware of the power that the object itself can exercise as it is replicated into art. As an artist, Jan defines herself in opposition to a model. Posing for the statue brings her a certain discomfort since she must surrender the gaze and power of depiction over to Kletkin and become his object. As she poses, Jan argues with him:
If you make a mess of it, Jan said, I’ll come up here some night with a mallet and make powder out of it.
Kletkin shook his head. I won’t make a mess out of it. What’d you get your hair cut for?
I just thought of it, Jan said.
Well, from now on, don’t, Kletkin said. Yesterday it was just right.(Wilhelm 1984, 36)
Although she jokes about destroying the statue if it does not flatter her, Jan does appropriate some degree of control over her depiction by cutting her hair and accordingly forcing Kletkin to choose between physical accuracy or inventing his own fantasy image from Jan’s body. As a living object of art, Jan’s haircut becomes elevated from a mere act of fashion to an act of artistic production, thus turning her own body into an object of her own artistic mastery. Upon the completion of the statue, Jan deems the statue a “lie, but a damned beautiful one”: “There’s nothing like that in me” (100). While Jan examines the physical differences between herself and the statue—most notably, the absence of breasts—her pronouncement of the statue as a “lie” ultimately reinforces Kletkin’s earlier thought of Jan’s hard, young man’s body as a lie. In both Jan and Kletkin’s judgment, the hermaphroditic appearance of the body as a lie does not entail the concealment of some essential truth, but rather that the body as a purely physical object cannot fully explain the gender and sexuality of the individual inhabiting it.
Furthermore, casting Jan as Hermaphroditus has metaphorical implications extending throughout the novel concerning the nature of Kletkin and Jan’s differently gendered desires. As Vanda Zajko writes, “the fused figure of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus can be regarded as prototypical of the processes of sexual desire in all of their manifestations, dramatizing the urgent need for, and the ultimate failure of, every attempt of a human being to assuage the metaphysical sense of isolation at his or her core” (2009, 194). For Kletkin, Hermaphroditus signifies the impossibility of fusing together elements of a sexual desire that can never be fulfilled; for Jan, as we will see later, the comparison to Hermaphroditus represents the desire to be permanently fused with and completed by another person, which she will try and fail at, first with the passing of her twin brother and later with her breakup with Victoria. For Wilhelm, Hermaphroditus stands [End Page 51] not just as a figure of sexual and gender ambiguity and fluidity, but also as an illusory ideal of finding permanent psychic wholeness with another person and avoiding the melancholia that guides Jan’s artistry.
Contextualizing Wilhelm’s Middlebrow Modernism in Lesbian Literary History
Now that I have established both the defining characteristics of Wilhelm’s model of hermaphroditism and her literary voice, it is necessary to evaluate this narrativization of lesbian gender and sexuality within the context of the dominant literary and psychological paradigms of her era. With the publication of We Too Are Drifting in 1935, Random House took out partial-page ads in the New York Times Review of Books, the Saturday Review of Literature, and the New York Herald Tribune. Exhibiting a clear senstivity to an unfolding literary market, the Saturday Review ad pronounced Wilhelm’s debut novel “better than The Well of Loneliness” (August 30, 1935, 17). This particular quotation would stick with the novel for some time, appearing on the cover of reprints as late as 1946. By the time Wilhelm’s debut was published, Radclyffe Hall’s famous 1928 book had been the only lesbian novel to reach a wide portion of America. Its notoriety initially came courtesy of an alarmist review by James Douglas of Britain’s Sunday Express, who deemed it a “book that must be suppressed” and sensationally proclaimed that he would “rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel” (Doan 2001, 2). Subsequently, Hall’s book fueled controversy over obscenity laws in both England and America and kindled an unprecedented level of public discussion over the visibility of lesbian sexuality in the public sphere. Using a detailed investigation of the obscenity trial as the first chapter in her book Fashioning Sapphism, Laura Doan asserts that
the real significance of the banning of The Well was that the resulting publicity for the first time provided the public with one clear and identifiable image—not just a word—of the “lesbian” and that over the next few decades a “stylized or stereotypical” lesbian . . . would emerge on the political landscape.(Doan 2001, 30)
With its subsequent banning in England and its successful fight against censorship in New York and the Customs Court a year later, The Well of Loneliness became the precedent to which all subsequent lesbian novels have been compared, supplying characters that would become the archetypes that the public took to be definitions of authentic lesbian identity.
In a brief mention of Wilhelm’s novel in their survey of lesbian literature from the 1920s to the present, Angela Weir and Elizabeth Wilson consider the influence of Hall’s “mannish invert” on subsequent depictions of lesbian protagonists, including Jan Morale:
In the lesbian novel of the period written by lesbians, the “mannish” lesbian “invert” also appears, most notoriously in Radclyffe Hall and her heroine Stephen Gordon. Yet in some ways The Well of Loneliness is rather old-fashioned—it reads stylistically, for example, as an Edwardian middlebrow novel—and in some other [End Page 52] novels the lesbian appeared, by contrast, as an androgynous figure. Gale Wilhelm’s We Too Are Drifting, published in 1935, not only features the “new” androgynous heroine, but is much more modernist in style.(Weir and Wilson 1992, 105)
Weir and Wilson rightly identify Hall’s and Wilhelm’s different lesbian models as the product of an evolution in modernist writing. Although both present their characters as distinct products of modernity, Hall’s work is preoccupied with legitimizing Stephen’s identity by depicting her as fully in conformity with turn-of-the-century theories of inversion, including Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1897) by Havelock Ellis and Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. As Hall’s biographer Diana Souhami writes:
With disconcerting ease, Hall embraced their contentious theories about “congenital sexual inversion.” She took bits of their writing that appealed to her, mixed these with Catholicism, spiritualism—she was a member of the Society for Psychical Research—and oddball ideas on endocrinology, and came up with a theory of lesbian identity that has startled and dismayed readers of her classic novel down through the decades.
The formal, Edwardian tone of Hall’s work endeavored to mimic the scientific rhetoric of turn-of-the-century sexology in order to emphasize Stephen as a perfect case study of the invert model of homosexuality.1 Thus, in the turn from Hall’s rigidly defined invert to Wilhelm’s androgyny, there was a necessity to shift away from Edwardian rhetoric to Wilhelm’s less traditional style of modernism in order to articulate lesbian subjects that did not adhere to the expectations of the inversion model.
Hall’s narrative also maintains a class distinction in order to establish the legitimacy and respectability of her educated, morally upstanding invert, who deserved tolerance against the still-lingering Victorian fear of the sexually deviant underclasses. Scott Herring notes in Queering the Underworld that, “alongside her queer shame, Stephen also has an ingrained class bias that she hates losing, and her disgust with identifying with an underworld body is as much socioeconomic as it is sexual” (2007, 170). Hall’s literary rhetoric and anthropological gaze on the queer underground sought to make Stephen’s inversion legible to an upper-class sense of respectability by grounding her condition in scientific discourse and endowing her with a bourgeois worldview. This concern with class consciousness and homosexuality coincided in the late 1920s and early 1930s with what George Chauncey termed the “pansy craze,” in which heterosexual audiences began attending drag balls and gay nightclubs, fascinated by the spectacle of inversion on stage in the queer underground (1994, 301). There was a tension between Hall’s class-conscious invert and the growing popular-culture image of the sexually transgressive invert of the urban underworld. In contrast to this binary, Wilhelm’s Jan Morale is not placed within the upper echelon of society (though she does have the privilege to travel among the crowd of the art world), nor is she a resident of the queer underground of America. Rather, Wilhelm situates Jan between classes and constructs a narrative of a more middle-class, middlebrow lesbian, which in turn frees her from having to confine her exploration of gender [End Page 53] and sexuality to fit the signification of class anxieties or the expectations of the invert as spectacle.
As I argue for renewed interest in Gale Wilhelm as a representative of a widely overlooked history of pre-Stonewall middlebrow, lesbian modernists, it is necessary to acknowledge the contestations and ambiguities in using the terms “middlebrow” and “lesbian modernism.” In their introduction to Middlebrow Moderns, Linda Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith emphasize the difficulty of pinning down a strict definition or location of the “middlebrow”:
The term middlebrow defies single or simple definition. As it came of age in the twentieth century and flowered in the 1920s, it has most often been defined by what it is not: lacking the cachet and edginess of high culture, the middlebrow has often been perceived as in want of the authenticity of the low.
In America the Middlebrow, Jamie Harker recognizes the historically negative connotation of the “middlebrow”:
In common usage, “middlebrow” is an invective that dismisses writing that is neither trash nor art, but somewhere, uncomfortably, in between. Depending on the context, “middlebrow” can mean “middle class,” “effeminate,” “polluted by commerce,” “mediocre,” or “sentimental.”(Harker 2007, 16)
As we can tell from this description, certain sexist and class-conscious biases have played a role in the historical dismissal of works branded “middlebrow” as pandering to the devalued female and middle-class readerships. In the past few decades, work by Joan Rubin (1992) and Janice Radway (1997) has re-examined the feminist and politically conscious elements of women’s middlebrow literature that had previously been ignored. It is within this context of reevaluating the middlebrow of women’s literature for its critical potential that I examine Gale Wilhelm’s more middlebrow lesbian consciousness as productive of models for expressing same-sex desire among the “middlebrow” of American women that are lacking in high modernism.
Yet what does it mean to be a “lesbian modernist”? Emphasizing a wide expanse for the term, Karla Jay argues,
lesbian modernists encoded lesboerotic content and language and foregrounded issues of gender identification in content as well as in experimental language. These writers sometimes lulled us with conventional forms, persuading us to read works that undermined the power system and transformed the gender roles that allow the system to operate. In other words, some lesbian modernists hid revolutionary sexual themes in traditional genres. Others experimented with form and language but used them to attack patriarchy and the traditional literature it endorsed. If we shift the definition of modernism in this way, the works of Willa Cather, Radclyffe Hall, Natalie Clifford Barney, Renee Vivien, and Elizabeth Bowen, among others, seem more related to modernism than we have been led to believe.(Jay 1995, 73)
According to Jay, “lesbian modernism” can include those like Stein and Barnes who are pillars of high-modernist innovation, along with Hall, Barney, and [End Page 54] Vivien, who wrote in traditional styles for the upper classes but retained a commitment to exploring lesbian themes despite the censure of the broader public. Thus, the relationship between “high” and “middlebrow” modernism and the place of individual lesbian writers within these is fraught with contestation. Yet it is the slipperiness of this terminology that allows for broader inclusion. Gale Wilhelm has something in common with all of these writers and her early work bears resemblance to all of these terms. She looked to an audience within the general reading public, yet her uncompromising model of lesbian subjectivity places her in the revolutionary company of the high modernists. Wilhelm did not explicitly set out to contest Hall’s model or writing style. But because of the ubiquity of Hall’s narrative paradigm—which was written in a different culture, with a different class consciousness, and in a different literary style—Wilhelm’s drastically distinct voice, her middle-class setting, and the alternative vision of lesbian sexuality and gender identity in these early novels could not but sound as an antidote.
Hall’s figuration of Stephen Gordon as not just the embodiment of lesbian identity and culture, but also as a lesbian subject exhibiting all the traits of her physiological state according to medical and psychological studies, was not lost on the American literary reviewers who compared Wilhelm’s novel to Hall’s. A critic signed only as “G. G. B.” in the Saturday Review of Literature marks Wilhelm’s depiction of lesbian identity as a departure from Hall’s: “The little book makes no pretense to the pseudo-scientific with moralistic interpolations which made The Well of Loneliness so heavy, and neither fish nor fowlish” (G. G. B. 1935, 13). In the New York Times Review of Books, Stanley Young states a similar preference for Wilhelm’s lack of a clinical gaze on her characters:
Unlike her predecessors, she has managed not to argue the matter psychologically or to hold up any general plea for the invert except that which is naturally inherent in her choice of subject. We simply see the thing which is Sapphic intimacy happen in the overwrought loves of Jan, Madeline, and Victoria.(Young 1935, 6)
Furthermore, Young declares, “the present work goes further than the medical brochure and the document. It has moments of poetry. It indicates talent” (6). It appears as though Random House itself encouraged this antipsychological interpretation of the text when it reproduced a quotation from the Boston Transcript in the half-page advertisement it placed in the Saturday Review, deeming Wilhelm’s work “a novel about love among women, treating it not as a cruel problem, or an occasion for profound psychological probing, but simply and tenderly as any other love story” (M. L. S. 1935, 17). All three of these reviews applaud Wilhelm’s novel for its lack of an explicit political or moralistic message, along with her presentation of characters as complex individuals instead of medical case studies. Whereas Hall’s work was deliberately conceived as a social intervention and often erroneously blamed as a publicity stunt for the expressed purpose of making a political statement instead of a serious literary work, Wilhelm’s novel was reviewed as a refreshing departure from politics and clinical discourse since she was more interested in literary merit than social commentary. [End Page 55]
Although Wilhelm’s sparse literary style was not always favorably reviewed, her aspirations toward a modernist literary voice were also noted. In her pioneering account of the history of lesbian literature Sex Variant Women in Literature, published in 1956, the Kinsey Institute–trained Jeannette H. Foster deems Wilhelm a “stylistic disciple of Ernest Hemingway,” arguing that “her prose had a lean economy worthy of her master, and the grudging acclaim her novel received would certainly have been warmer and more voluminous except for her subject” (1985, 314). In a review in the Nation, Alice Beal Parsons also suggests Wilhelm’s similarity to Hemingway, commenting that Wilhelm’s narrative of “youngsters struggling to be great and different” evokes a “Hemingway method of depicting passion” (1935, 221). Young further echoes this invocation of Hemingway’s modernist style, “although using all the spare methods of the Hemingway group, she enhances the stripped sentence with a poetic realism high in connotative power” (1935, 6). Jan Morale exhibits a Hemingway-like level of reserve and emotional distance as she avoids self-conscious social commentary or penetrating insight into the psychology of her focal character beyond what can be signified by surface gestures and terse dialogue. Yet the comparison of Wilhelm’s prose to Hemingway’s work suggests more than a simple similarity between their equally sparse use of description and laconic dialogue; it appears to code Hemingway’s narrative as an essentially masculine voice and suggests that Wilhelm’s development of a lesbian narrative must naturally follow such a voice given the presupposition of the inversion model of the lesbian. The noneuphemistic, unapologetic depiction of lesbian characters by a lesbian author reproduces inflections of a male narrative perspective.
Although she does not explicitly call on their shared lesbian identities, Parsons exhibits a desire to place Wilhelm in proximity to other lesbian voices when her further comparison of Wilhelm to Hemingway invokes Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather:
Miss Cather writes competently turned sentences, Miss Wilhelm writes a sloppy, would-be modernistic mélange in which, quite unconsciously I suspect, she imitates Hemingway on one page and Virginia Woolf on another, and seeks originality by the tried and true device of avoiding quotation marks and being very bold and stripped and most confusingly simple(Parsons 1935, 222).
Parsons situates Wilhelm’s prose in a dichotomy between the brusque masculinity of Hemingway and the more intricate styles of Cather and Woolf. Although it cannot be determined to what degree Parsons was aware of the lesbian identities and themes present in Woolf’s and Cather’s work, there is nonetheless an identification of queerness in all three writers and a desire to categorize Wilhelm amongst other authors concerning whom there had yet to be any serious study or criticism as lesbian writers. I would like to suggest that for these critics, with the lack of a corpus of lesbian literary criticism, Hemingway becomes a surrogate figure for conceptualizing Wilhelm’s literary style. His aggressively masculine voice and persona approximate the masculinity that some reviewers assumed would define the perspective of the female “invert.” These reviews praise [End Page 56] Wilhelm for not adhering to Hall’s strict clinical depiction of the invert, yet they cannot escape the discourse of inversion completely as they describe Wilhelm as essentially Hemingway in a woman’s body.
On the whole, Wilhelm’s contemporaneous reviewers show an interest in what we might identify within current discourse as her more queer elements. They laud her for depicting lesbian characters that do not adhere to the confining terms of inversion like Hall’s, much the way a queer literary critic would examine a lesbian novel not for its cataloging of lesbian identity but for how normative constructs of any sexual identity are subverted or destabilized. Wilhelm’s lesbian subjects signify a desire to move away from the dominant construction of the invert espoused by Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and Henry Havelock Ellis, and toward a vision of lesbian identity less defined by ideology or scientific research and more informed by the everyday experiences of lesbian women. The most subversive aspect of Wilhelm’s portrayal of lesbian subjects is her normalization of the subject itself. Unlike Radclyffe Hall’s invocation of the sexologists who conceived of the homosexual as a genetic aberration that deserved tolerance and pity, Wilhelm proclaims the normality of her lesbian subjects not through an impassioned plea or persuasive argument, but by simply asserting the normality of lesbian sexuality as an a priori condition of the narrative. As unconventional as her novel was perceived to be, Hall’s advocacy of the inversion model actually stabilizes the binary opposition of male and female sex and gender by simply reassigning them. Wilhelm’s lesbians vacillate between masculinity and femininity in terms of personality, social role, and gender identity, lacking an ideological allegiance with any existing psychological model of homosexuality.
Wilhelm’s novel examines and experiments with the possibilities of this nascent lesbian identity by redefining the lesbian body and intellect away from biological determinist discourses and toward a vision of ambiguity and performativity where gender becomes fluid and contextual instead of essential and predetermined. In the place of clinical discourse of the invert, Wilhelm offers the hermaphrodite as a subject that comprises both male and female psychological and physical features. This metaphor of hermaphroditism does not intend to create a subject that is half-male, half-female or both male and female at the same time; instead, it reforms the body as a point of malleability that denatures the rigidity of sex and gender and questions these distinctions. For Wilhelm, the tractability of gender and sexuality is symbolized through the production of visual art. Casting Jan as both the model for her colleague Kletkin’s statue of Hermaphroditus and as a woodcut artist whose cold demeanor can only be penetrated through analysis of her art, Wilhelm stresses that lesbian subjectivity is not wholly defined by scientific theory but is also self-constructed and always in a state of becoming. Unlike Hall’s Stephen Gordon, who consistently attempts to make herself transparent to the scientific gaze on inversion, Wilhelm’s Jan Morale avoids this Foucaultian incitement toward confession by remaining understated in her speech and by letting her art speak [End Page 57] for itself. As a woman of few words, Jan is not unreflective but is instead tactically avoiding transparency. While Stephen Gordon confesses according to a cultural script, Jan Morale problematizes all discourses of inversion, preferring to etch her identity into her prints on her own terms instead of explaining herself.
The Self-Construction of Identity and Reproduction Through Art
I would like to argue that in We Too Are Drifting Wilhelm uses Jan’s artistic production as a woodcut artist as a way to investigate the place of this nascent lesbian identity within modernity. The first reference to Jan’s work with woodcuts comes in the context of a fight with Madeline after Jan rebuffs her advances. Attempting to end her romantic liaisons with Madeline, Jan shouts, “It goes on and on, and except for the dirty satisfaction we manage to squeeze out of our bodies, it’s nothing. I hate it. When’re you going to understand how much I hate it?” (Wilhelm 1984, 22–23). Crying, Madeline hides the tears behind her hands, replying to Jan, “You’re not human . . . you’re something carved out of wood, you sit there and you’re wooden. You haven’t a grain of feeling. There’s no place in you for gratitude or tenderness or any of those things. You’re not human” (23). Madeline has her trysts with Jan in semi-secrecy and expects Jan to appreciate the time and attention she affords for her, while Jan expresses frustration that, as a confirmed lesbian, her relationship with Madeline can never grow beyond a random series of sexual dalliances. Jan eventually capitulates to Madeline’s emotional outpouring and embraces, thus setting up a constant relationship of manipulation where Jan breaks Madeline down with her frigidity and Jan wears out under the strain of Madeline’s tears.
By describing Jan in terms identical to her art, Wilhelm begins her strategy of slowly peeling back Jan’s rough exterior and investigating her psyche as it is revealed through her own artistic process. When previously describing her as something carved out of wood, Madeline implies that Jan occupies the same state of existence as her artistic medium. The process of creating a woodcutting remains constant as a metaphor for how Jan constitutes herself as a lesbian subject and how others perceive her throughout the narrative. Wilhelm depicts Jan’s work on a woodblock as an unconscious unison of mind and body, carving out both her artistic visions and personal desires in the wood:
Her hands were sure and strong under the light and her thoughts kept turning back and away from her work. . . . Jan thought of all the people out there who didn’t know Victoria and were poor. Her hands and her mind had a beautiful miraculous knowledge of what she wanted done. Out in the dark a boat whistled from the center of its heart and said Victoria and somewhere there were quick running steps and someone knocking on a door somewhere, someone with anxious knuckles was knocking and knocking. Jan frowned and lifted the point of the scorper carefully and said, Yes? and suddenly her hands and arms and shoulders fell apart with weariness.(Wilhelm 1984, 53) [End Page 58]
This seamless integration of mind and body in Jan’s art merges manual skill and artistic vision into a semiconscious act of artistry. The nature of Jan’s artistic production in turn mirrors the production of her personal identity: the physical element of her bodily manners and behaviors is integrated with the psychological element of her distinct sense of gender and sexual feelings.
While it appears that Jan’s emotional coldness evidences a lack of care for maintaining an ideal identity, this drive toward fashioning the self finds its outlet in the production of the woodblocks themselves. In the art of woodcutting, the exhibited piece of art is not the block, but the prints that the block produces. In this respect, the art that is shown to the public is not the object Jan works directly with and carves but a secondary impression of the object. Just as the print indirectly evidences the work that Jan has produced, so too does Wilhelm acknowledge the block as an indirect reflection of Jan herself: “Her work had a great leanness and simplicity, a pure and definite meaning. This was her reputation” (Wilhelm 1984, 106). It would appear as though Wilhelm crafts this statement ironically: that such a frigidly detached and enigmatic character as Jan could produce art with clarity and accessibility. Jan constitutes herself through her craftsmanship, whittling out an image from a surface that will reproduce an impression of herself, but without revealing to public display the original object that made these reproductions. Just as Jan’s exhibited art is a mere impression of the actual object she engages, her social interactions and expressions of gender and sexuality are reserved, basic impressions of an inward state that cannot be revealed.
Wilhelm’s decision to cast Jan as a woodcut artist connects her with the very beginning of modernity as a departure from tradition in the production of art. In his classic essay on the mass production of art, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Techological Reproducibility,” written the same year as Wilhelm’s novel, Walter Benjamin (2002) presents the art of woodcuts as one of the earlier infinitely reproducible forms of artistic production that would later influence photography and film. Thus Jan’s art is an archetypical product of modernity, insofar as her ability to make an infinite number of prints mirrors the logic of the industrialized mass production of goods and the arrival of forms of art such as photography and film that can be reproduced and disseminated across the public sphere. Just as there is not one singular, original version of these commodities that encapsulates what Benjamin termed its “aura,” there is no singular, authentic doer behind Jan’s expressions of gender and sexuality. This anti-auratic representation of Jan’s gender and artistic identities recalls Judith Butler’s famous axiom that “gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original” (1993, 313). Furthermore, Benjamin stresses that mechanical reproduction of art is important to the democratization of art and the dissemination of ideas across the mass public. Jan straddles both the upper classes and the masses. She inhabits the rarified air of the art world, but at the same time embodies the modernist spirit of capitalist mass production and consumption by creating infinitely reproducible art. As a subject of capitalist modernity, Jan reproduces herself not as one in a lineage of heterosexual mothers [End Page 59] in the domestic sphere but through commercial interactions in the public sphere, where her artistic vision and cultivated image as an artist are embedded into the commodities she produces and circulates in the market.
Wilhelm sets the love triangle between Jan, Madeline, and Victoria that comes to characterize the balance of the novel around each of Jan’s lovers’ orientation toward her art. Madeline’s negative identification of Jan with the frozen, wooden aspect of her art is contrasted with Jan’s burgeoning romance with the young student Victoria, whose attraction to Jan begins as a result of prior familiarity with her work. Early in their romance, Victoria confesses that she pursued Jan’s acquaintance due to her prominence as an artist:
It’s awfully funny now, but I thought all the time you were a man. Marky, that’s my friend who has dozens of your prints, Marky did too. I mean, we took it for granted that you were. They don’t seem the sort of thing a woman would do somehow and, well, we simply took it for granted.
Of course, Jan said. People almost always do. My name’s Janice but I haven’t used it for so long it doesn’t seem to belong to me at all.
Jan suits you, Victoria said.
Jan put out her cigarette. Just as Vic doesn’t suit you.(Wilhelm 1984, 52)
In this relationship between Jan and Victoria, we see that the circulation of her art on the market as a commodity precedes a knowledge of the artist as a woman. Distinct elements of her identity are embedded into the content of her work but, because they are separate from the woman herself, these elements are open to the interpretation and tastes of the market. As Victoria’s interpretation of the art attempts to reinscribe the artist’s authentic aura back into the copied print, there is a certain level of misrecognition of the artist’s presence insofar as she assumed Jan to be a man. Yet this form of misrecognition is not a simple mistake of gender identity. While it errs in assuming a fully heterosexual male identity, it accurately reads the masculine aspects of Jan’s character. It is only through the misrecognition of gender identity that the reality of Jan’s gender identity can be realized.
Misrecognition as a symptom of understanding the complexities of gender speaks to the difficulties of the modernist era’s discourse on homosexuality. The precise terms, categories, and discourses that we employ today were in a state of becoming in Wilhelm’s era. Thus, gender and sexual identity becomes a constant balance between affirmation and disavowal. The hermaphrodite as a stand-in for the yet-to-be-codified term “lesbian” lies somewhere in the midst of this process. Just as Jan’s body and the statue of Hermaphroditus are “lies” that reveal the beauty and truth of their subject, so too is the misreading of Jan as a man a “lie” that reveals the truth of her subjectivity that evaded linguistic determination. Victoria’s admiration for the masculine artistic aura of the prints is unproblematically transferred from the hypothetical body of a man and onto the real body of the woman who produced them. The masculine aura that kindled her desire for the artist is not diminished when it is revealed that it resides in the [End Page 60] body of a female artist. Instead, Victoria comes to realize that it is possible for a woman to possess the kinds of traits she desires and admires. Jan can fully embody the hallowed figure of the “artist” in both the cultural assumptions about a male artist and a female artist. This is confirmed when Jan relates why she has decided to inhabit the androgyny of her name. In choosing to go by “Jan” and remarking that “Janice” doesn’t belong to her anymore, Jan identifies against the rigidity of a name associated with only women. Yet she does not choose to refer to herself by a man’s name either, unlike Hall’s Stephen Gordon, whose archetypical embodiment of the invert uses a strictly male name to refer to the identity that inhabits a female body. Instead, Jan deliberately chooses the hermaphroditic possibilities of a name that allows her to be Jan the man and Jan the woman simultaneously. This is not to say she wishes to take on the full identity of a man or a woman, but that she has the ability to perform masculinity or femininity as it suits her interests as an artist, a lover, and a colleague. The name “Jan” signifies a full refusal to be essentialized, since it opens up the possibility of passing as either gender should it suit her interests.
Mechanical Reproduction as Melancholia
Although Wilhelm’s narrative has resisted any direct comment on contemporaneous research in sexology or academic studies of lesbian culture, the closest she comes to engaging the discourse of the biological or social origins of homosexuality is in a few brief passages in which Jan reveals she had a twin brother who may also have been gay. Later into their romance, Jan invites Victoria to her studio to view her prints, where she takes an interest in Jan’s most introspective print, “Six Flowers”:
It was a grave in moonlight with a single bouquet lying under the little cross at the head of the mound. She stared at it for a long time, feeling the cold and stillness in it. It’s so terribly like a grave, she said in a low voice, I mean it has that feeling, the moonlight and the stillness and the flowers. Just one person remembered to take flowers.
Jan closed the portfolio and lit a cigarette. Exactly, she said, looking at Victoria. It was my brother’s grave and it was my bouquet because there was no one else to remember to put one there.
Oh, Victoria said quickly, almost whispering, I’m so sorry.
Jan looked at her. No, she said. My brother was hanged for doing something you wouldn’t understand at all.(Wilhelm 1984, 67; emphasis in original)
Earlier in the text, Jan has an involuntary memory of a moment as a child with her twin brother in which she beats up a neighborhood child who attempted to rob her brother of a dime. Without relating the content of the memory, Jan randomly speaks the name of her twin brother to Kletkin, stating, “Michael was soft” (48). Kletkin recalls that Jan had not spoken the name of her twin in five years and that she threatened to break their friendship if he had ever mentioned [End Page 61] him. Jan further laments, “I always fought battles for him. It was all right when we were little, but when he got big enough to carry me around on one arm it was different” (48). In response, Kletkin states that Michael was “born soft” and that “you could make a big circus tent out of all the skirts he hid himself behind” (48). These two moments are the only time in the text that Wilhelm furnishes any information about Jan’s twin, leaving both the connotations of “soft” and the reason for his hanging as a mystery.
Wilhelm’s subtle nod to the theory that homosexuality is an inherited, genetic trait places her in accord with Krafft-Ebing and Ellis and anticipates the trends of future research into homosexuality such as Franz Kallmann’s oft-cited 1952 study of homosexual identical and fraternal twins (McKnight 1997, 47). However, Wilhelm’s choice of an effeminate twin brother instead of an identical or fraternal twin sister for Jan suggests a desire not to simply endorse a genetic cause of homosexuality as a dictated path for how the individual will express their homosexuality. Instead, growing up with an effeminate twin brother allows for an account of how a homosexual child grows into their gender and sexual identity. While genetics may be the root of Jan’s homosexual identity, the unique circumstance of having a twin brother influences how Jan’s gender and sexual identity shaped her into a specific lesbian subject. While studies like Kallmann’s used identical male twins as though they were biological clones that proved the inflexibility of genetics, Wilhelm’s pairing of a twin homosexual brother and sister places a limitation on the reach of genetics. Jan and Michael are not clones, but are still biologically similar. While they might be said to share a genetic cause of their homosexuality, their expression of same-sex desire takes wildly different forms, due not just to their sex difference but also due to the social expectations of the female versus the male gender.
Wilhelm’s homosexual subject is both a biological truth and a social construction. These two factors are not conceived as a contradiction, but instead mutually inform one another. Although Wilhelm implies that there is a genetic cause for homosexuality, her depiction of the widely varying gender identities inhabited by homosexual subjects also reminds us that genetics do not explain the entirety of homosexuality; social factors also play a part in shaping homosexual identity. Jan’s intensely close relationship with her brother implies a complimentary relationship with another body and personality that helped to define her own identity as she matured. Because her “soft” brother exhibited none of the masculine behavior expected of a young boy, Jan took it upon herself to supplement that part of his identity and perform it for him through the act of protection. Jan’s innate care for the self that is naturalized in her mind as physical strength extends past her own body and into her brother’s. She grows up with stewardship over two bodies: one biologically male and one biologically female. Yet, upon maturation, she realizes that this is a socially unacceptable arrangement for an adult, highlighting this belief with their physical difference in size; that is to say, a physically larger person should exhibit a more domineering personality. [End Page 62]
Michael’s death by hanging functions as an intensely traumatic event that Jan chooses to repress in name and discourse, but she attempts to express it in the form of her art prints. The structure of trauma mirrors the structure of printmaking in the form of repetition compulsion. The subject of trauma repeats the traumatic experience over and over, not just in the mind but also unconsciously through actions. Jan compulsively repeats the traumatic experience of her brother’s death by making copies of his grave. She attempts to exert mastery over the event by taking the power into her own hands to etch the image into a wooden block and constantly restaging and repeating his death every time she chooses to make a print of the image. Furthermore, this traumatic event symbolizes more than just the death of a loved relative; it signifies a death of a certain part of herself. Jan grew up constantly supplementing her brother’s perceived lack of masculinity, while at the same time she understood that his softness signified a certain femininity which she lacked. As supplements for one another, Jan and Michael tenuously functioned as a completed subject—the complementary yin and yang of masculinity and femininity fused into a singular sibling unit. Apart, she is a woman who lacks femininity and he is a man who lacks masculinity, but together they form a psychically whole individual, dispersed into two bodies. Together they were the conceptually whole hermaphrodite. With such an intensely bonded relationship with her twin brother, Jan grows up without the assumed atomized, individual notion of male and female subjects encapsulated by their assigned gender roles, but instead with the expectation of a certain hermaphroditism formed by her relationship with her twin. Jan mourns the death of part of her self and memorializes the traumatic moment in which her own subjectivity was radically redefined and she became, for the first time, a completely discrete, atomized individual in a single body. In this twin metaphor, Wilhelm engages a model of lesbian subjectivity in which the individual child grows up with a simultaneous identification with the body of her own sex as well as that of a male; yet the child must at some point experience the trauma of merging the split identification into the vessel of her own singular body and then navigate the feelings of two genders through it.
The Melancholia of Goodbye
While all of Jan’s remaining affection for Madeline is effectively extinguished by the end of the novel, Jan must also, more painfully, sever her ties with Victoria once the girl leaves with her fiancée and family to get married eventually. In the final scene of the novel, Wilhelm depicts Jan waving goodbye to Victoria when she departs on a train:
She didn’t look at Dan. Dan and Jan. She hadn’t thought of that before. It would be a simple thing to confuse the names on the tip of your tongue and say one when you meant the other. Victoria was smiling and looking very beautiful and looking at all the faces and beyond them, but she didn’t see Jan. [End Page 63]
At the last moment the men stood back and the girls swarmed around Victoria and kissed her carefully because of their mouths and hers and said Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye! and Victoria smiled at them and at the porter and stepped up and waved and her eyes were looking everywhere. The train was moving. Jan stood with her hands in the pockets of her trench-coat and her fists pressed into her groins. The train was moving and Dan was with Victoria on the steps and their hands were waving and Victoria’s eyes were looking everywhere, the train was moving and the shed was echoing with the sound of the train moving and the voices of the girls saying, Good-bye, good-bye!(Wilhelm 1984, 116)
In this scene, we see the culmination of Wilhelm’s reformulation of the lesbian in two forms: the linguistic play of “Jan” and “Dan” as interchangeable signifiers of gender (recalling the earlier “Jan” and “Vic” conversation) and the motif of the hands waving goodbye as a performative expression of gender. Heather Love describes this scene as “a classic moment of the exclusion and abjection of the committed lesbian, who stands looking on at a joyful public ritual of heterosexual and familial intimacy. Jan is not only replaced by Dan in this scene, but her very existence is blotted out” (2009, 406). Love focuses almost entirely on the conclusion of the novel, presenting it as a novel about endings; that is, the desire of a committed lesbian character must necessarily end because there is no place in heteronormative society for her desire to flourish and evolve. All of these endings seem to be more specific about separation and how Jan processes or represses feelings of having a part of herself split off. At the moment when she realizes the similarity between her name and Dan’s, Jan understands that in Victoria’s mind, Jan and Dan became fused as a whole, the hermaphroditic object of desire that must now be split.
The melancholia of having split from her twin upon his death informs the split from a psychical whole that occurs as Victoria is shuttled out of her life, in that in both instances she must grieve the loss of unacceptable objects of attachment. As David Eng writes in response to Freud’s notion that melancholia comes about from the refusal to relinquish a lost object, “melancholia functions to regulate, to normalize, and to designate a sphere of prevailing gender norms and acceptable attachments. At the same time, it also delimits a sphere of unacceptable objects and abjected identifications” (2000, 1278). Jan must mourn the breakup in silence alone at the train station because a protracted state of melancholia signifies the unacceptable queerness of her attachment to Victoria, much like the way she veils mourning for her queer, possibly criminal brother behind the symbolism of her art. For the queer subject, melancholia must conceal what it cannot heal.
While Heather Love views this replacement of “Jan” with “Dan” as an erasure of her existence, I add that, along with exchanging the opposition of a homosexual life for a heterosexual lifestyle, there is a sudden realization that previously could not be put into words: the inflexible constriction of desire into the oppositional logic that groups biologically male with masculinity and biologically female with femininity. This linguistic transference of genders, of which Jan is not aware [End Page 64] until this moment, plays upon the previous scene in which Victoria admits she had thought Jan was a man. As we learn later, Victoria’s own parents, who are unaware of her lesbian dalliances, refer to her as “Vic,” thus endowing her with the same form of androgynous nickname that Jan selected for herself. In the context of her relationship with Jan, she inhabits the full femininity of Victoria, while with Dan she can take on the ambiguity of Vic without any suspicion of her lesbian attractions.
That one could so easily say “Dan” when one meant “Jan” and vice versa illustrates that the desires felt for Jan or Dan are not mutually exclusive—one homosexual and one heterosexual—but are in fact symptoms of a general desire for certain personality traits. “Jan” cannot be “Dan” in the logic of heteronormativity and the social imperative to sexually reproduce, but “Jan” may be able to be “Dan” in the unconscious domain of desire, where logic and negation are only a secondary apparatus to channel desire toward an object, and have no say in its actual production. The extended narrative that leads up to this conclusion represent Wilhelm’s conjectures to depict a lesbian subject in which “Jan” can be “Dan” and still remain her own “Jan.” This functions both as a method for understanding Jan’s psyche as a lesbian and also as a possible social paradigm in which lesbian desire can be realized and developed instead of merely consisting of a series of tragic endings. While this arrangement could be understood in theory, the tragedy is its inability to be enacted. Although Victoria previously asked Jan to come with her fiancé and family on the trip, attempting to merge “Dan” and “Jan” into the same familial setting, Jan refuses, having accepted since their first date that the relationship would end. In this respect, the relationship blossomed and wilted with the melancholy of its ending always in sight and always guiding it. As the train shuttles Victoria away, she must make do with the insufficiency of Dan, who does not possess the artistry and femininity of Jan, while Jan in turn must once again restage and repeat the loss of someone who had penetrated her psyche and sense of self, the same way she had with Michael and then with Kletkin’s death after the horse-riding accident. Wilhelm ends the novel with Victoria waving goodbye to friends on the platform, signifying that she is excited about her departure, while Jan stands in the distance with her hands in fists placed in her pockets, refusing to acknowledge her passing by not waving goodbye. We are left to assume that if Jan refuses to admit her melancholia in a social interaction, she will eventually restage it in her art.
This essay began by contrasting Radclyffe Hall’s dominant lesbian model of the invert with Gale Wilhelm’s more ambiguous and androgynous vision of hermaphroditism. While Hall’s work might be said to be truer to the modern era’s scientific and psychological construction of female same-sex desire, Wilhelm’s work emphasizes the everyday, lived experience of her lesbian characters. I would argue that Wilhelm’s fiction is no less invested and interested [End Page 65] in the psychology of lesbian sexuality and gender expression, but instead of conceptualizing it from the clinical or academic gaze that labels and diagnoses, Wilhelm’s narrative prioritizes how the subject makes sense of herself through the powers of her own creative expression. By mediating same-sex desire and gender identity through art, Wilhelm places agency back into the hands of the subject herself and conceptualizes the lesbian subject not as something already defined and labeled but as a being who is always in a state of becoming.
It is in this respect that Gale Wilhelm both fits in yet contrasts with other American lesbian modernists who wrote more high-modernist works abroad. While the works of Gertrude Stein and H. D. used stream of consciousness to present the full range of affective and cognitive experiences of their lesbian subjects, Wilhelm experimented in the opposite direction by granting Jan Morale the bare minimum of words and giving her readers few objective declarations of interiority. While Djuna Barnes experimented with time and geography in Nightwood to construct a diasporic model of lesbian identity that resisted social imperatives and any sense of fixity, Wilhelm’s narrative is realistically linear and her characters find themselves having to articulate themselves through the restraints of compulsory heterosexuality and the material demands of everyday existence. Through the model of hermaphroditism, Wilhelm resembles the experimentalism of these other writers in conceptualizing a state of lesbian subjectivity that is ambiguous, contextual, and performative. Yet Wilhelm’s narrative is also painfully realistic, highlighting the fact that even visionary artists like Jan Morale, who can explore gender and sexuality through their art and tactically employ gender identity, are nonetheless constrained by the real life existence of lesbian identity and culture in America.
Chase Dimock earned his doctorate in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He currently teaches at Southeast Missouri State University. His article on Robert McAlmon appeared in Paris in American Literatures: On Distance as a Literary Resource (2013) and his articles on Yoko Tawada and Kurban Said are forthcoming.