Tag: sexuality

Sherwood Anderson, “Nobody Knows” (1917)

night shadow edward hopper

From the Met: “In this print, the viewer is given a bird’s-eye perspective of a city street corner. Hopper has evoked an entire world with just a few elements: a storefront, a fire hydrant, and a lone walking man who is about to cross the looming shadow of a streetlight that lies across his path. The setting that inspired Hopper was an actual location in New York, which the artist also used for his oil painting New York Corner (also known as Corner Saloon, 1913; Museum of Modern Art, New York). It is a downtown street near the riverfront, marked by a simple brick building with a painted sign; yet as ordinary as this place may be, Hopper has made it seem mysterious and even threatening through the use of dark tonalities and strong compositional devices. The viewer becomes a voyeur, watching the unaware pedestrian, and a possible narrative of the man’s destination at this late hour (when even the saloon is closed) extends beyond the single moment of the image. Hopper’s sensibility in such a work as Night Shadows forecasts the film noir style of the 1940s, with its shadowy lighting and its narratives of crime, guilt, and betrayal. Although the imagery of Night Shadows is characteristic of Hopper’s work, this etching is unusual in his oeuvre in one respect. He normally printed his own works, in very small numbers; in this case, however, a commercial printer “steel-faced” the etching plate of Night Shadows for longer wear, and printed a large edition of several hundred images. The resulting etchings were included in a folio titled “American Etchings,” published in the December 1924 issue of the New Republic.”

George Willard “set forth upon an adventure.” He leaves the Winesburg Eagle office in the evening to meet Louise Trunnion on a date, who’d sent him a one-line letter: “I’m yours if you want me.” She’s gossiped about around town. A loose woman. “In his heart there was no sympathy for her.” It’s a lugubrious evening of shadows and flitting glances, but also a walk through town, giving the reader an increasingly sharp picture of Winesburg’s shops, its streets, its people–all those people who won’t know. They go toward a field. All is as suggestive as unwitting flirts. Unsure at first, he becomes more daring until his boldest advance: “There won’t be anyone know anything.” I’m reminded of the lines in Roth’s Human Stain:

philip roth nobody knows

George can’t know anything. The girl doesn’t know anything. He treats her with the indifference of not knowing, but rather wanting, and wanting one thing: to fuck, even if “she must have rubbed her nose with her finger after she had been handling some of the kitchen pots.” He’s not interested in what she needs, starting with not being made to feel inferior to the boor. Afterward he walks around town unable to contain himself, wanting “more than anything else to talk to some man,” to boast without having to boast. He’s just lost his virginity, a transaction, nothing more: “She hasn’t got anything on me. Nobody knows.” Again a proleptic echo of the Roth line: “For all that the world is full of people who go around believing they’ve got you or your neighbor figured out, there really is no bottom to what is not known. The truth about us is endless. As are the lies.” Easy to judge though, especially from the post-sexual envelope of the MeToo era, that turning of the tables on the Salem trials, albeit with a bit more evidence on the judges’ side.

The story was not published in a magazine.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Two” (1976)

isaac bashevis singer transgender gay two story

(Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. )

A transgender boy, Zissel, wants to be a girl, acts like a girl, dresses like a girl when he can, “spent most of his time with girls and enjoyed their ways and their games.” Singer details the agonies of the transgender soul: Zissel “suffered anxiety and all kinds of doubts. He already was convinced that to be a male was unworthy and that the signs of manhood were a disgrace.” His family finds him a bride. Meanwhile he falls in love with a boy, Ezriel, who is also headed for marriage. Both marriages fail: Zissel writes Ezriel that his marriage “caused him heartache and shame.” Finally Ezriel steals his wife’s dowry and jewels, dresses as a woman, and flees from town to meet Ezriel at a hotel, where they spend a night before moving and setting up house in Lublin, where they lived several years. When the money ran out Ezriel set up shop but got no customers. Zissel became a bath successful attendant, and the household’s only support. Ezriel gets fat and depressed, again an aspect of the life of a repressed gay man but not fully explored here. Singer’s focus is on Zissel, who develops affection for a 17-year-old virgin about to be married, a woman, and eventually falls in love with her, to her consternation. Zissel and Ezriel fight, come to blows. One night when Zissel and Reizl, the girl, who by then is married, are alone at the bathhouse, he rapes her. They drown. The secret is out. When townsmen find out, they rush Ezriel’s home and bludgeon him to death: just like a stoning by the Taliban.

Zissel’s desire for a woman is never explained and seems more like a device than a natural development though nothing says a transgender person can’t be bisexual: the story is about the fluidity of sex, not its dogmas–and the dogmas triggered as a consequence of the fluidity of sex, when uncovered. The title of the story is perfectly revealing: two boys, two natures, two love stories, two fates, and so on. (He wrote another story called “Two” later in his career.) This was written before transgender was a common word. The word is never used, nor are transsexual, gay, homosexual: part of the purity and truth of of the story is its avoidance of these trap-words that ultimately mean as little as racial or ethnic denominators.

The ending is moving, a hope:

isaac bashevis singer transgender gay two story

The New Yorker, December 20, 1976