Wednesday, April 16, 2014

"Paul's Case" by Willa Cather

A note in the back of Reed Woodhouse's surprisingly good, informative, readable and, yes, entertaining critical study Unlimited Embrace led me to Willa Cather's 1905 short story "Paul's Case." This century-old tale of an alienated young man's brief criminal career and its tragic end (a precursor to Salinger's less tragic Catcher in the Rye) remains of interest today largely because Cather's text is a veritable compendium of fin de si├Ęcle homosexual signs. The old gay gang's all here: a red carnation in the buttonhole, dandyish dress, opera, theatre, urban sophistication, outsider status, alienation, criminality, juvenile delinquency, violation of the 'work ethic,' social bounding, a Huysmanian preference for the artificial over the natural, personality as performance, etc., etc., etc. Given the strict censorship that reigned over American magazine fiction 110 years ago, there is of course no explicit mention of sex in the story and hardly a hint of homosexuality, but the semiotic texture of the tale fairly screams Paul's gayness from the top of a Met-worthy soprano's lungs. At one frenetic point in the tale Cather even, rather unfortunately, says of her protagonist, "He burnt like a faggot in a tempest." To our post-Larry Kramer eyes, that looks like a comically obvious wink, but Cather's 1905 usage might have been at least partly innocent. Maybe. Still, we must ask: in a story so drenched in homosexual innuendo, can the word 'faggot' truly be used to mean a stick of wood and only a (phallic) stick of wood? Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, as Sigi said, but not in this story.

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