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II/ Defamiliarizing Home, Modernity, and Modernism

Janet Flanner’s The Cubical City and the Life She Left Behind



Lire le roman de Janet Flanner, The Cubical City (1926), comme un roman à clef jette un éclairage non seulement sur la vie de l’auteur et les difficultés relatives à son coming out, mais aussi, et plus largement, sur l’évolution de l’identité lesbienne au cours de la phase moderniste de l’histoire de la littérature américaine. Le livre de Flanner comporte plusieurs personnages et développements secondaires liés au lesbianisme. Toutefois, il se présente comme une romance répondant en tous points aux conventions hétéronormées. De plus, le roman explore de façon subtile la question du coming out du point de vue des relations mère-fille, sujet rarement abordé par les écrivains, a fortiori pendant la première moitié du XXe siècle. Si l’héroïne du roman se trouve prise au piège du mariage, Flanner était quant à elle parvenue à échapper à ce sort en choisissant de s’expatrier à Paris. Des travaux critiques récents se sont intéressés à la question du lesbianisme dans plusieurs romans à clés publiés en 1928, notamment Ladies Almanack (Djuna Barnes), The Well of Loneliness (Radclyffe Hall) et Orlando (Virginia Woolf).

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1Janet Flanner’s novel, The Cubical City, has not achieved the status among literary scholars that it might, given its similarities with the watershed lesbian roman à clef novels from 1928: The Well of Loneliness (Radcylffe Hall), Ladies Almanack (Djuna Barnes), and Orlando (Virginia Woolf). Flanner (1892-1978), who earned international fame by writing pithy observations about French culture for half a century from 1925-1975 in her “Letter from Paris” columns for The New Yorker, wrote but one novel. Undertaken before her career as a journalist flourished, it was published by Putnam’s Sons in 1926, and reissued by Southern Illinois University Press in 1974. The story of a promiscuous female protagonist with an ambiguous sexual identity, it has heretofore not been acknowledged as a queer novel, but its characters, especially when paired with comments Flanner made to a journalist later in life, suggest that, Flanner, based upon personal experience, was an early proponent of the modern theory that gender and sexuality are innate, non-binary, and irreversible. The masculine femininity and female masculinity, sometimes described by its narrator as androgyny in Flanner’s novel are revolutionary and perhaps even more revealing about queer identity formation than more famous novels of the period which frankly and straightforwardly described lesbian characters.

2Based upon Flanner’s lived experience, her innate understanding of gender and sexuality as expressed upon the pages of her novel demonstrate that Flanner is worthy of being recognized as an early lesbian modernist. Furthermore, Flanner’s novel examines what might have happened to herself, a gender-queer woman, had she elected to live out her life in America instead of expatriating to Paris with her romantic partner Solita Solano, and so it is a lasting testament to how transatlantic expatriation helped establish the evolving body of work that is coming to be defined as lesbian modernism.

3Flanner’s novel complements the study of other lesbian novels of the period in terms of its autobiographical impulses and its queer character development, both of which reveal the author’s own conflicted thoughts regarding transgressive desire and the response to queerness of sexologists and society at large. Flanner’s novel tells a version of realizing her own queer identity without the possibility of expatriation. Ironically, in leaving America, a physical and psychological shift, Flanner was enabled to write the novel itself and to explore the future she escaped. From the safety of the left bank, Flanner constructed what amounts to a cautionary tale for others like her as she imagines how social pressures would have caused her to deny attraction to other women and settle for an unhappy marriage.

4Although The Cubical City was dismissed by its contemporary critics as another formulaic, “new woman” novel (“The ‘New Woman’” 28), it provides a fascinating example of Flanner’s attempts at finding, or inventing, a way to express a desire for which there was only pathologizing or disdainful language, while shielding the lesbian content of the book so it could be published by a mainstream publisher. Flanner’s novel belongs among the now classic lesbian roman à clef novels of the early 20th century because it documents a failed coming out. By placing her character into the milieu of American, mid-western prudishness, she must incorporate the book’s lesbian characters and their transgressive desires into a world of compulsory heterosexuality, where such desires are considered youthful follies but not legitimate identities.

5Flanner’s transatlantic perspective illuminated for her the pervasiveness of puritanical response to queerness in New York City as it contrasted with her new-found freedoms in Paris. Generally speaking, setting is a crucial determinant of openness about queer subjects in early lesbian modernist novels. Barnes’ raucously queer, comic Ladies Almanack is set in Paris, where ladies are publicly paired and pleasured. (Flanner and Solano are represented in Barnes’ book as the journalists Nip and Tuck, lesbians who are as inseparable as their names suggest.) Hall’s protagonist in The Well of Loneliness, Stephen Gordon is misunderstood in her native rural England, but is liberated by her service as a WWI ambulance driver living in London and later Paris. Woolf’s eponymous Orlando, based on the life of Vita Sackville West, encompasses the many travels that wealth and diplomatic assignments afford, and Orlando is rarely self-conscious about her shifting sexuality and gender. The protagonist in Flanner’s The Cubical City, Delia Poole, however, cannot see beyond her native Ohio, her fiancé’s provincial Philadelphia, and her current environs in New York City of the 1920s, where queerness was visible but not acceptable. Stuck in early 20th century America, Delia struggles to navigate the gender and sex inequality inherent in the social mores that dictated how promiscuity was expected of men but ruinous for women, and where queer desires are hidden in public and even denied in private.

Lesbian roman à clef

6Roman à clef, like “New Woman” novels or other ways of categorizing formulaic or predictable work, is frequently dismissed as frivolous or unserious work. It is often understood as an author’s capitalization on his proximity to famous friends or to prurient interest in legitimizing gossip. But, as serious study of other lesbian modernist roman à clef work shows, it also enables a writer to document transgressive and subversive lifestyles without embracing potentially career-ruining behaviors or labels. For example, part of the joy of discovery for some readers of Barnes’ Ladies Almanack has always been in tagging the identities of the “dames” and “ladies” described therein, but for contemporary scholars, the text is also revealing in general about what might have occurred, for instance, behind the thick oak doors that separated Natalie Barney’s lesbian garden tableaux from public scrutiny on the rue Jacob or what might have constituted a lesbian relationship and distinguished it from heteronormative or religious and government-sanctioned unions.

7As Elizabeth English demonstrates in her book Lesbian Modernism, roman à clef was a favored heuristic for early 20th century queer writers. The technique, telling a story based upon the lives of real people of interest and readable as such by those who hold the “key” to unlock those identities, is not exclusively the province of queer writers, but it is featured in the work of other prominent writers whose sexuality has also been recently questioned, such as Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Simone de Beauvoir’s Mandarins, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. These novels have occupied scholars and readers in decoding private references which may also be revealing about the equally private thoughts of their authors and the psychological reality behind their queer novels.

8Roman à clef elements in early queer modernism are important to queer theorists and queer literature scholars because they provide glimpses into the everyday life and consciousness of, in Flanner’s case, lesbians before lesbian identity was squarely established. Sashi Nair has demonstrated how roman à clef was employed by lesbian modernists in examining their own transgressive relationships. Perhaps because it differs in veracity from autobiography, it enabled queer modernist writers to discuss their secret affairs and desires. Flanner’s story is such a fact-based revelation; she has said of The Cubical City that “Like most authors of a first novel, in mine I fell back upon the people I knew best, my family, as my characters” (“Afterward” 431). This impulse to tell a masked version of one’s own life is a common coming out methodology in early lesbian modernist novels, and Flanner’s choice of roman à clef is common to, if not generative of, this tradition. By incorporating her own biography, she can objectively evaluate her decision to leave home, family, culture, and language to emigrate to Paris. Flanner plays out the trajectory of the life she abandoned in New York when she fled with Solano. In The Cubical City, the personal elements of Flanner’s book constitute but one connection between her work and that of other 1920s lesbian modernist writers. She demonstrates her own decreasing secrecy about her queer identity as a Midwestern American, a New Yorker “new woman,” and a Parisian expatriate.

9In Secrecy and Sapphic Modernism, Nair explores lesbian roman à clef as employed by Barnes, Hall, and Woolf and notes that, unlike autobiography, roman à clef employs a third-person narrator who represents the author, even when she is the model for one or more of its characters. The narrator in The Cubical City describes Delia through authorial “objectivity” that is sympathetic to her plight and in agreement with her ideas. Sean Latham argues that roman à clef depends upon readers’ knowledge of intimate details of the author’s life (Latham 11), and Nair would add that decoding lesbian desire in the pages of a Sapphic roman à clef often depends upon knowledge of the author’s circumstances at the time of writing as well as “cultural circumstances governing its production, the kinds of audiences the author imagined, and the circulation of language around lesbian desire and the figure of the female homosexual” (Nair 22). Flanner’s roman à clef, written at precisely the time that she was separating herself from her family and husband to embrace a lesbian lifestyle with Solano in Paris, is an invaluable insight into the early formation of lesbian identity. That Delia does not similarly expatriate herself tells us why Flanner made the difficult decisions she did; she did not want to continue living like Delia.

10In this paper, I am examining the text of The Cubical City to demonstrate evidence of Flanner’s queer subtexts, offer a biographical reading that draws clear connections between Flanner’s plot and her own investment in presenting a queer protagonist in nonjudgmental language, and situate her work as that of a lesbian, modernist, roman à clef writer whose work was published earlier than the 1928, high-modernist works. Thus, this reading will expand our definition of lesbian modernism to include encoded or “ghosted” lesbianism and give us a broader understanding of the ways lesbian desire has been communicated in modernist fiction.

Lesbian modernism

11In telling a veiled version of her personal story, Flanner would not have had any tradition of lesbian modernism to inspire or support her. Yet her life is often included in lists of early 20th century American lesbian writers. A definition of lesbian modernism has been long in coming. Rooted in the mid-20th century cataloging of lesbian plots and characters by pioneering critics Jeanette Foster and Lillian Faderman, lesbian modernism (and Janet Flanner) received widespread critical consideration with the 1986 publication of Shari Benstock’s landmark critical, biographical compilation Women of the Left Bank. Benstock draws upon Faderman’s work to assert that Natalie Barney was “at the center of a community of women committed to producing serious art” (Benstock 10). Benstock gave scholarly attention to the lesbian writings of the French expatriates. Early theorists of lesbian novels needed to assert lesbian stories were also intended for non-lesbian audiences, that they were not simply entertainments for a coterie audience. Around the same time, Terry Castle began exposing lesbian leitmotifs in women’s textual practice, as did Karla Jay and Joanne Glasgow. Laura Doan established a connection between modernist female writers and the work of their contemporary sexologists. All of these critics were laying the groundwork for the serious, critical examination of texts that had been passed over by history.

12It has become apparent that lesbian modernist writers were creating a sub-genre, and it has fallen, as literary classifications do, to contemporary critics to define that in retrospect. Recent books that have broadened the definition of modernisms to include feminine or sentimental writing, such as Rita Felski’s The Gender of Modernity and Suzanne Clark’s Sentimental Modernism have made room for women’s voices in the traditionally male-dominated period of experimentation and introversion that characterizes the Modernist tradition. Work by contemporary scholars such as Deborah Cohler, Jodie Medd, Sashi Nair, and Gay Wachman, have examined the work of modernist lesbian writers and story lines in an attempt to include queerness as one of the many modernisms. In her book, Lesbian Modernism, Elizabeth English defines “lesbian modernism” as “first and foremost [...] those texts that explore relationships and desires of an erotic or romantic nature between women, as well as the subject of modern lesbian identification,” arguing that we might “explore the possibility that the text itself can be thought of as lesbian and/or queer, that is concerned with representing lesbian desire and identity from a ‘queer’ perspective” (17). Flanner’s The Cubical City explores erotic desires between women as Delia repeatedly confronts the notion of lesbian identity and rejects or denies transgressive desires.

13Flanner was expert at hiding and exposing her own lesbian identity by the time she wrote The Cubical City. Closeted from her family and legions of New Yorker readers for virtually all of her life, Flanner was nonetheless well-known in lesbian circles in Paris. She was friends with Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, Natalie Barney, Colette, Margaret C Anderson, and other left bank queer-identified women who consorted together. Thus, to those who knew about her lesbian identification, the book was even more clearly lesbian in its themes.

14The cultural work of letting the invisible lesbian register upon readers’ consciousness is Flanner’s most important contribution to lesbian modernism. Gender and sex are notably separated from one another in the exposition of most of her characters: Men are often submissive and inexperienced, and women are frequently lustful, calculating, and even cruel. Sometimes timid to a fault in her use of language in presenting these ideas, Flanner nevertheless participated in the lesbian modernist roman à clef movement, as close reading of her work reveals.

Gender representation and queer themes in The Cubical City

15The plot of The Cubical City concerns Delia, a young, female theatrical designer in New York City in the 1920s. By substituting one love that dare not speak its name, promiscuity, for homosexuality, Flanner presents the psychological turmoil of coming of age as a queer woman in an ostensibly heterosexual romance story. The book also overtly explores the options available to socially conscious, upwardly mobile bi-sexuals and lesbians of the time. The main characters in Flanner’s book are female, and each simultaneously responds to Delia’s promiscuity as she struggles with her own homosexual desires, deciding whether to deny, sublimate, or accept those feelings. Flanner demonstrates three possible responses to living in interwar New York as a woman with lesbian desires: Mercy’s calculated capitulation to heteronormativity; Nancy’s suppression of her feelings; and Delia’s own self-aware yet ultimately tragic decision to compromise her identity. Flanner’s own decision to flee to Europe was not an option for her characters; these comprise a study of the possible outcomes for queer women in repressed America in the 1920s.

16Flanner points to the concept of the sexual invert in her creation of Delia, the novel’s protagonist. Outwardly female, but exhibiting a sense of identity usually associated with the masculine, Delia is strengthened rather than stereotyped or rejected because of her unconventional persona. Delia’s own gender identity is as incongruous as a nest-tending rooster’s, the image of masculine femininity that opens the novel: atop the Heckscher building outside of Delia’s apartment stands a lighted advertising sign in the shape of a rooster that perennially clings to its nest (Cubical City 3-4).

17A young woman who is attracted to and attractive to nearly all of the women and men she meets, the book’s heterosexually promiscuous protagonist embodies a female masculinity that is rare in a novel of its time. Flanner’s perceptions of gender as fluid and desire as innate are remarkably modern. Flanner neatly separates gender from sex in her descriptions of Delia.

18Delia’s gender is one way that the author accomplishes an even-handed discussion of modern ideas about sexual identification. Delia is aware of her “distinct trace of masculinity” and enjoys it. Flanner approaches gender in much the same way as her close friend Ernest Hemingway would later in the 1940s as he drafted his posthumously published novel Garden of Eden, which is set in the same time period as Flanner’s novel. Valerie Rohy lauds Hemingway’s “estrangement of gender from heteronormative conventions” (Rohy 148) because he imbued his characters with both feminine masculinity and masculine femininity before transgender theory was current. Similarly, Flanner unveils Delia’s feminine masculinity without censure:

Delia liked few women and made no differentiation against any men. It didn’t occur to her to resent being contemptuously likened to what used to be called nature’s kings since she conquered them so easily as private citizens. (Cubical City 29)

19Delia has masculine traits, but she is predominately perceived as feminine, and she “conquers” men by winning their sexual submission, enjoying sexual conquests, and earning more money than most men. Her performance of gender creates impediments in her relationships, and she appears gender dissonant to other characters because of her physicality, man-like promiscuity, and sexualized interactions. This gender dissonance, along with the lesbian-charged language Flanner employs to describe Delia’s relationships with Nancy Burke, Mercy Wellington, and Agatha Poole points to the creation of an early queer heroine.

20Flanner was no scholar of sexology, but her friendships with au courant queer Parisians including Colette, Barney, Germaine Beaumont, Nancy Cunard, and Barnes would have exposed her to concepts and terminology through conversation. As Laura Doan has chronicled, “in the decade after [WWI] lesbianism increasingly became a topic of private and public discussion among the educated, upper classes [in England]” (Doan 24-5). Doan demonstrates that upper class lesbians of means, including Bryher, Hall, and Sackville-West, had access to medical, sexological texts that were supposedly available only to physicians (Doan 133-35), but Flanner had neither the professional connections nor the financial means to access such books herself. Yet, Doan explains that “those too shy or naïve to obtain such works on their own obviously turned to friends, so that sexological knowledge was disseminated second-hand, third-hand, and so on” (Doan 137), resulting in what she calls a sexological “stew” that intermingled the ideas of Carpenter, Havelock Ellis, von Krafft-Ebbing, Freud, etc. into a semi-coherent understanding of current scientific theories of the day. Sashi Nair explains that “many homosexuals [of the 1920s] used sexology to understand themselves” (Nair 11). Flanner likely engaged in talk with her lesbian friends about the new science that described but did not discriminate against them. Medd credits this social milieu with fostering “a more cohesive notion of modern lesbian identity [that was] under elaboration and emergence in the West” (Medd 6). Flanner’s ideas about gender and sexuality cannot be pinned to any specific sexologist of the day, but as Nair demonstrates about Barnes’s and Woolf’s work, it moves away from sexological explanations predicated upon pathology and transgression, toward an objective portrayal of desire.

21Flanner’s understanding of sexology aside, in writing a roman à clef, she drew upon her own experience and perceptions of life. The book repeatedly falls back on “androgyny” to describe Delia’s gender, a term Flanner might have used to describe herself in an age dominated by a binary concept that also paired gender with biological sex. The Oxford English Dictionary documents that androgyny was a medical diagnosis used in the British Medical Journal in 1911. Wittingly or not, Flanner was using current scientific terminology when she labeled her protagonist “androgynous.” When Nancy voices her concerns that Delia will eventually hurt Paul, Flanner writes that Delia’s “eyes looked androgynous” (16). In the sentence that follows this, Delia reflects that “She would never understand women” (17). Her lack of identification with females is revealing. Delia looks like a woman, but thinks and acts from a position of male authority. She is unabashed when other characters confront her with their perceptions, even when they are intended as criticism. Nancy, whose thoughts are inflamed by complex jealousies, intends to wound Delia by calling attention to her masculine behavior. She chastises Delia, saying, “’When once you see something you like, there’s no stopping you. You’re just like a man,’ she added without flattery” (28). Nancy’s statement that Delia is “just like a man” opens up a distinctly lesbian sub-plot in the novel as it hints at Nancy’s jealous attraction to Delia.

22Similarly, men in the novel are intrigued by Delia’s masculine traits. Mr. Goldstein, Paul, and Paul’s Uncle Boyd Jarvis separately compare Delia to men because she earns more money than most males. Her unconventional identity is essential to the plot of the story and its overtly heterosexual and underlying lesbian themes. Delia, who seems to exempt herself from traditional gender expectations, moves through the world like a privileged, genderless being, further isolating her from those sensibilities she dubs female. She believes she can encompass the privileges afforded every person until she is forced to decide between androgyny and social acceptance.

23When Delia seduces Paul, her female masculinity stands in contrasts to his masculine femininity. Paul is cast in a submissive role in contrast to Delia’s urgent desires and predatory behavior. Delia’s boyfriends previously have been characterized by their handsomeness and “[w]eak profiles, soft eyes, susceptible mouths […] [A]nd their kind voices” (23). Paul is exemplary of the gender identity to which Delia is attracted. At dinner on the eve of his departure for the Philippines, Delia is determined to seduce him. As she smiles at him across the table, narration clumsily reveals that, “Her body was hot. All its membered heat hidden by public satin and fur, seemed to be rising to focus privately in her face” (49). Flanner’s peculiar use of “membered” as an adjective calls up its not-yet archaic use as a synonym for “penis,” as if Delia’s anatomy were male. That it is hidden beneath “public satin and fur,” makes the dual-sexed imagery explicit; Delia’s clothing, described in terms that liken it to female genitalia, conceals the lusty anatomy beneath. The somewhat clumsy and archaic, nearly Victorian use of language in Flanner’s work helps to shield its queer revelations from readers. It seems, at times, such as with her use of the word “membered,” that queer revelations are accidental. Roman à clef, again helps readers tie Flanner’s ribald sense of humor to the seemingly accidental diction throughout. Those who hear the text in Flanner’s voice are more certain of its deliberateness.

24Flanner describes Paul as weak prey when the couple is back at Delia’s studio, writing that, “he looked helpless among women and hyacinths” (50). Clinging to Midwestern values of chastity until marriage, Paul tries proposing to Delia before she initiates him sexually, and after she has refused his proposal, Delia is more aroused than before; the narrator reveals that Delia wants to possess Paul sexually without being possessed. Flanner writes, “She wanted Paul more than she had ever wanted anything in her life and all her force was rising to take now what might never be the same again” (81). The “rising force” of Delia’s desire accentuates the rape imagery that describes her seduction of him. Afterwards the suddenly sentimental Paul, mulling over her rejection of his proposal and his passive role, tells Delia, “I love you more than you love me. That is as it should be probably” (82). In the context of the story Paul is a sexually inexperienced young man who plays the submissive counterpart to Delia’s dominance. His character appears very briefly in the book, but it demonstrates that masculine and feminine identities are publicly labeled by sex but privately negotiated.

25Others of Flanner’s characters exhibit nonbinary gender traits. When Goldstein goes to Delia’s apartment to ask to borrow money, the portly old boss turns feminine. Flanner describes him debarking from a cab at Delia’s address: “[…] he felt over his heart with deliberately moving hands and drew forth a cigar, unrobing it of its tinfoil with the tender fingers of a girl idly destroying the petals of a rose” (234-35). Goldstein draws the cigar, traditionally a phallic symbol, from the region of his heart and disrobes it with girlish hands as if it were a flower, another symbol of female genitalia. The rough Goldstein is portrayed in lesbian-like imagery, his masculinity threatened by his pending confrontation with Delia.

26Delia’s feminine appearance fools others frequently, and men who attempt to take the upper hand in arguments are surprised. When Keith has dressed down Delia for her promiscuity, her response first appears to be stereotypically feminine:

For a moment she had been stunned. Then that commonplace rather masculine instinct in Delia which smiled at funny stories, that recalled them, retold them while she worked with her female face as solemn as a nun telling her beads—that risible instinct loosened her mouth, wet her eyes, discovered even her voice and in one of the few times of her life, Delia laughed out loud. (287)

27Flanner plays with the physical similarities between crying and laughing to fool her readers as Keith is tricked. It appears, as Delia loses control of her jaw and tears simultaneously flood her eyes, that her countenance will devolve into sobs, but her sense of ribaldry wins out, and she laughs at Keith’s accusations. Readers might have believed that Keith’s calling out Delia’s promiscuity would change Delia, but her gender identity and sexuality are fixed.

28Delia is in outspoken revolt against heteropatriarchy throughout the novel. When Goldstein assumes that she will leave her job to marry Paul, she is outraged and thinks, “She despised women without courage. She probably despised celibacy and virginity, seeing in them some plaintive timid evasion of energies that everyone felt and should share” (115). Delia embraces the power of desire. She will not judge herself as being either pure or impure. She does not understand why there should be a sexual double-standard. She is queer, even if only in so far as she will not accept the basic heteronormative contract that prizes female chastity. Furthermore, she does not desire marriage as a conclusion to her independence.

29When Delia is confronted with the choices available to her, Flanner imbues the scene with phallic imagery. After Keith’s dressing-down, Delia asks a cab driver to take her past Paul’s home, where, seeing Paul’s mother’s house “changed her as much as if the white door had been that of an operating room and Philadelphia’s common mist a rare altering ether from which she emerged emasculated to find that her youth with its peculiar response was a special organ that was now gone. She would never be the same […]” (299). Delia’s symbolic penectomy leaves her helpless and uncertain. Throughout the passage set in Philadelphia, Flanner’s language evokes images of castration. Stripped of her symbolic masculinity, Delia resigns herself to marriage and a conventional life like that of Paul’s mother. Clumsily, perhaps, Flanner is convinced, more than Delia is, that marriage will force her independent female protagonist into gender conformity. The rebellious Delia will stay in New York and marry a lackluster suitor. Flanner seems to project the life she might have faced had she not fled to Europe. Not only would she have been pressured to stay in an ill-matched marriage, she would have given up the fight for independence and capitulated to figurative castration herself. To survive, she would have had to let society dictate her gender performance and her sexuality.

Lesbian themes in The Cubical City

30While heterosexual marriage is the dismal outcome for a life like Delia’s, lived amid Midwestern mores in less-than-liberated New York, lesbianism, which is often at the edges of the narrative, is not a valid option for a successful American female professional. The Cubical City demonstrates both conscious and unconscious attractions between women. Flanner leaves no doubt that Delia is romantically, even erotically, attractive to other women when she writes about the relationships between minor female characters. She says that chorus girls from Goldstein’s theatres “had offered [Delia] affection that could have been intense” (313). She receives “flowers, sent as tentatives to Delia’s door and bought in gallantry out of small salaries.” Completing the list of symbolic offerings that Delia has rejected are “sweets, as brown as amorous eyes, [and] fondants as white as unrefined teeth” (313). The masculine connotations of “gallantry” and the bodily portents of their proffered gifts confirm the chorus girls’ romantic courtship of Delia. Flanner’s adjectives make these passages erotic. But Delia seems insensible to them.

31Similarly, Delia does not register Mercy Wellington’s attraction to her until she attends Mercy and Compton Keith’s wedding. Flanner gives few clues regarding the history between Mercy and Delia; readers are told, “[i]n Mercy’s presence Delia had always felt devoted, loyal, honest and inferior” (210). At first, this seems like a reasonable response to Mercy’s wealth and sophistication. She appears primly composed, “baited with sooty silk and fur,” a “worldly handsome figure” (47). Although she is depicted as wearing the same accouterments that earlier symbolized Delia’s genitalia, and described as “handsome” over the more feminine word choice, “beautiful,” Mercy remains a paragon of female style. If Delia leans toward what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has called the “trope of inversion,” an outmoded concept of a female body with a mannish core, Mercy is a model for Sedgwick’s “trope of gender separatism,” a “woman-identified woman” whose very femininity reveals female attraction because she is so enraptured by femininity that she wants to surround herself with it (“Willa Cather and Others” 171).

32As Mercy receives guests after her wedding, her mind is “still with Delia intact” (Cubicle City 249). She ponders the heterosexual choice she has solemnized, thinking, “She had been more drawn to Delia, drawn as if with a bond of intimacy and lusty tenderness that united them, than toward anyone she had met in years. Had indeed loved her” (349). Mercy reveals these transgressive desires for the first time just moments after marrying Keith. Mercy’s thoughts disclose that her decision to marry a man is a rational one. Lesbianism is a discarded choice for Mercy, and she is the only woman in the novel who seriously and consciously weighs her homosexual inclinations. While still in the receiving line, she resolves her confusion with finality. Flanner writes: “But loving women, to Mercy, was not practicable” (349).

33Having made the decision to enter a heterosexual marriage, Mercy urges the same upon Delia. Delia is advised to capitulate to heteronormativity because it is “practicable.” Mercy gives Delia advice:

“Don’t forget I married as much on your account, darling, as mine. Or very near it.” … then she drew Delia awkward in the embrace but honest, repentant, admiring in the burst of affection and farewell that met in their rouged lips. “Let it be an object lesson,” she murmured against Delia’s cheek. “Go do likewise. You’ll have to sooner or later. One can’t go on leading one’s life forever. You’ll see what I mean” (348).

34Marriage is the curtailment and culmination of sexual exploration for American women in The Cubical City.

35The attraction between Mercy and Delia, however, throws Delia’s relationship with Keith into a new and potentially revealing light. Was she attracted to him as a covert connection to Mercy? Could Keith have been a socially-acceptable romantic conduit between the two women, just as Paul is between Delia and Nancy? This persistent theme of love triangles between possible lesbians and a heterosexual male partner introduces what Sedgwick has called “homosocial desire” (Epistemology of the Closet 87), the queer women sharing intimacy with one man as a socially-acceptable way of forging a connection with one another. When Mercy marries Keith, Delia is simultaneously freed from her romantic entanglements with both characters.

36Delia’s other potential serious female partner is Nancy, her assistant. Their relationship is a subtle play on “partner” relationships; they work together, but, moreover, they are joined in an unacknowledged romance. Flanner’s language in describing the relationship between Delia and Nancy implies a romantic connection between the women. Critical of Delia’s many assignations, Nancy complains, “You were in love with all of those people once” (Cubicle City 23). Flanner’s choice of noun in that exclamation seems revealing. Why does Nancy say “people” instead of “men”? It may demonstrate her desire to be included on the list of Delia’s lovers. Nancy’s confrontation springs from her own jealousy over Delia’s affairs. Interrupted by Delia’s mother who is innocent of the conflict, the argument is curtailed as Nancy takes her leave, but the parting of Nancy and Delia is pregnant with Nancy’s unspoken lesbian desire:

“Goodbye.” Delia pressed her fingers into Nancy’s, gripped them. And Nancy for a moment, clung. The feel of these belated motions of affection coming after five dry years in which, according to Delia’s reactions, it was perfectly natural they had never even exchanged what could be properly called a kiss, upset her. The well of demonstrativeness in which Nancy’s nature swam, was for a moment troubled. It was as if someone had thrown a stone in it. Then with tightening muscles she moved away and speaking with an effort to Mrs. Poole, made for the door. (219)

37Agatha Poole sheds Midwestern propriety on every scene she enters, so Nancy and Delia part without acknowledging their unspoken desires.

38Agatha is an impediment to lesbian desire while Paul is an agent of chastity. Paul serves as the locus of desire between Delia and Nancy. He is conveniently out of the picture, incommunicative and remote in the Philippines. Paul has not chosen to expatriate himself. He was sent abroad to serve his uncle’s business, and he was reluctant to go. There is no reason to suspect that his expatriation allows him freedoms that Flanner would enjoy or Delia might desire; his character receives little development in the novel. He is a distant, unknown conduit, a connection between the two women that shields their love from public scrutiny. Through Paul, the two women can safely enact a homosocial pact. Both Delia and Nancy swear their devotion to Paul, and as long as each keeps her vow and he remains absent, their celibacy is a compact enforced by and between the two women. Fidelity to the absent Paul guarantees that neither woman will cheat on the other; it binds them together in a tense standoff that preserves their hold over one another without the need to acknowledge it.

39As soon as Delia and Nancy’s relationship has ended, its sexual tensions become explicit to Delia. She thinks, “It’s over … between her and Paul … She was thinking of Nancy” (311). The book’s narrator says that Delia “walked back to the fire and sat down. With a rare choice in comfort, as if she couldn’t put up with any more physical pain, she chose a large breast-like chair and sank on it” (312). Once Delia has lost Nancy, she needs the comfort of a surrogate breast. In seeking such consolation, Delia expresses a need for a lesbian lover and a nurturing mother—both of which she loses when Nancy leaves her and threatens to reveal her promiscuity to Agatha.

40The book’s narration summarizes Nancy and Delia’s covert relationship in retrospect as, “The poverty they had once shared, the work, the pleasant platonic ease they had known with Delia set in the core of it, as guiltless and grateful as the seed in a peach, surrounded with affectionate flesh so honeysweet that it rots before it gets ripe—all that was over. Done” (365). Although Delia dismisses Nancy’s attentions as “maternal” (365), there is no mistaking the clitoral imagery Flanner chose to describe Delia’s position in their relationship. In the final analysis, Flanner describes their partnership in sexual terms. It is readily possible to read Nancy and Delia’s final argument as a break up between lovers. Nancy tells Delia:

“I loved you at first, I adored you. You were worth it then. And I sat to one side watching you give yourself so often for nothing—for a whim, for a moonlight night, for feelings that didn’t count—then I saw you finally become worth just what all free things are worth—nothing!” She snapped her fingers. “Just nothing!” (362-63)

41The tragedy of Delia’s life is that she and Nancy cannot act upon their mutual desire for an openly romantic partnership, not in New York where Delia’s mother comes between them.

42When Delia’s mother moves in with her, and the silence between the suffering daughter and her sympathetic yet suspicious mother constitutes a coming out scenario. Delia’s predicament mirrors a homosexual one: Her mother stands ready to listen, but Delia fears that coming out about her promiscuity will result in rejection. Delia’s agony can only be shared by her mother as long as it remains unnamed. Suzanne Juhasz argues that “heterosexual culture puts pressure on any lesbian to disavow or hide her sexuality.” She elaborates that “who” a lesbian is at heart “has much to do with ‘who’ her mother is and what her mother’s relation to sexual conventions is and has been” (“Lesbian Romance Fiction” 72). Agatha is unequipped to confront the problems of “overgrown flesh” and passion. For Delia, the risk of rejection by her mother prevents her from coming out as promiscuous, gender-queer, or lesbian.

Ghosted lesbian characters

43The Cubical City is an early example of a lesbian modernist novel, not a full-blown specimen, because much of the lesbianism in it is veiled by inference, and it lacks a lesbian plot. None of the women in the book is successfully partnered as part of the story, and the novel’s “happy ending,” is not a lesbian one. The lesbian undercurrent in the book is what Terry Castle has labeled “ghosted” inferences. Delia’s response to Mercy’s wedding reception advice, as well as her own attraction to Nancy, and her entertaining minor characters’ lesbian advances must be inferred. Delia is a ghosted lesbian. “Ghosted” lesbian characters in novels of the period appear, Castle argues, “even when the fact of homosexuality is acknowledged” (Castle 5). Flanner’s presentation of unrequited lesbian desire directed toward Delia acknowledges homosexual desire in the plot of an overtly heterosexual story. Flanner does not explore Delia’s response to feminine flirtations. Delia may be innocent of transgressive desires herself, or she may consider them mere flirtations as she fixates on marriage to restore her name; her “fatal flaw” is heterosexual promiscuity, which leads her to a loveless marriage.

44Flanner’s novel demonstrates that succumbing to heteropatriarchal values may result from the scarcely-acknowledged suppression of homoerotic attraction. Most of the young women in the book stifle lesbian tendencies and choose husbands. None of Flanner’s characters elects to live an openly homosexual life, but lesbian tensions dominate Mercy’s relationship to Delia, Nancy and Delia’s friendship, and Delia’s predicament with her supportive yet ignorant mother.

45The Cubical City quietly raises the specter of lesbianism repeatedly in ways that can be missed or dismissed. Marilyn Farwell has rallied against evolving feminist and queer theories which have ignored lesbian voices and narratives. The literary professions have failed scholars who tried to compile a coherent body of lesbian texts and scholarship. Farwell cites Castle’s complaint that “lesbian fiction [has been] ‘somewhat undertheorized’” because the lesbian narrative “has been treated as a marginal form” (Farwell 5). Flanner would have been well aware of that, and aiming to write mainstream fiction, she subtly wove her lesbian themes into a novel that requires close reading for its full lesbian portent to emerge. Farwell explains that, “The definition of a lesbian narrative, however, has always been in crisis, for unlike other minority literatures, lesbian texts reflect the ability and need of some writers to pass as heterosexual” (Farwell 6). This was Flanner’s situation; she not only wanted to avoid coming out to her family through her novel, but she had high-minded literary goals. She strove to become a famous novelist, not a lesbian novelist, yet that does not exempt her work from the canon of lesbian fiction. Farwell argues that readers are justified in reading the silences in works by lesbian writers as “coded lesbian texts” (7) because that was the messaging available to those authors. Delia’s failure to respond verbally in the pages of the text to the advances of chorus girls, Mercy, and Nancy, does not preclude our making inferences that Delia somehow invited these invitations.

46Flanner may have found it safer or more saleable to convey a lesbian crisis through a plot focused upon shameful heterosexual desire than to create a lesbian heroine. We can only guess why Flanner did not write a more explicitly lesbian plot. Sedgwick’s speculation about why Willa Cather (Flanner’s contemporary) did not write an openly lesbian book poses a question that applies with equal relevance here: “there is no reason why the right artist at the right moment cannot embody […] truths that seem to be, among other things, lesbian truths, directly in the plots of lesbian desire […] [T]hen why not here” (Epistemology of the Closet 175)? Sedgwick suggests that Cather did not publish a lesbian story because of

danger to herself and her own enabling privacy, the danger […] to the early and still fragile development of any lesbian plot as a public possibility for carrying value and sustaining narrative,” and the complexity that is enjoyable both to writer and readers inherent in layering a hidden story beneath an obvious one. (Sedgwick 175)

47For Flanner, writing an overtly queer novel might have sealed her fate, ruined her career as a writer, and decimated her plan to live in Europe on the proceeds of her writing. Still, through the scrim of roman à clef, Flanner gave posterity a glimpse of her internal turmoil in the 1920s.

Transatlantic Escape

48The novel’s conclusion, which centers on a reconciliation between Delia and Paul is also about Delia regaining her mother’s trust and affection. Wineapple, the only critic to write about the ending of The Cubical City, says that “Delia accepts Paul after implicitly acknowledging that she can’t have what she really wants, which is a relationship as passionate and meaningful as those she has had with several women” (72). Flanner, who left her husband and mother behind when she fled to Europe with Solano, pursued a passionate relationship with a woman, rather than settle for the roles of daughter and wife that American society had imposed upon her. Her biographer Brenda Wineapple says that “Janet and Solita doubtless kept the nature of their relationship from Mary Flanner, who asked few questions and delicately ignored that the friendship was more than platonic” (Wineapple 74). Flanner’s protagonist accepts the life Flanner fled from; her misery justifies Flanner’s own escape.

49In true roman à clef fashion, Janet Flanner is the “key” to unlocking the secret identity of Delia Poole and the book’s plot and narration. The chief difference between Flanner and her protagonist is that Flanner expatriated and lived a semi-open life as a lesbian in France for half a century while Delia accepts a much different fate. By writing a novel about a woman who stayed, Flanner is able to role play both outcomes. Much of Flanner’s biography, down to the personal circumstances of her parents and her life as a young bride in New York City, is identical to Delia’s circumstances. Through the veil of fiction, Flanner has provided us with a portrait of the psychological turmoil of coming out as a lesbian woman in the 1920s and she shows that leaving America not only freed her to live the life of her choosing, but enabled her to write semi-openly about the choices she made.

50Like Flanner’s, Delia’s identity evolves. Her move to Manhattan accelerates her understanding that sex and gender were more complicated than her Midwestern upbringing had permitted her to understand. Delia thinks that “there had always been a void between every generation and its offspring, of course, but certainly it seemed uniquely broad now […] [A]nd as though it were an art peculiarly distinguishing their decade, sex had suddenly blossomed into a renaissance” (139). The libertarianism and anonymity of Manhattan freed Flanner from the milieu of her parents’ propriety, but not enough. She had married in the Midwest, yet once in New York, she was intrigued by Neysa McMein, a bi-sexual magazine illustrator whose career and circumstances serve as a model for Delia’s financial independence.

51McMein gave Flanner entrée into the Algonquin Round Table where she met Solita Solano. Flanner’s struggle with her natural inclinations at the time that she began writing The Cubical City is documented in her letters and interviews. These suggest that The Cubical City shows Flanner rationalizing her decision to leave her husband and family. Nearly forty-five years after fleeing New York, Flanner admitted in an interview with fellow American novelist and critic Mary McCarthy that she was “criminal … [N]ot very good to my husband” (Wineapple 45). Still later, in a letter to Natalia Danesi Murray, Flanner recalled the difficult time of her “New York life,” saying that she

was married, and so at sea in my disappointment at not being in love as I had been with women that I had no sense of recording any veracity of any sort, my emotional push toward my lesbic approach to all of life being […] dominant.” (Letter [17 June])

52The relentlessness of same-sex desire, in spite of her attempt to commit to heterosexual marriage, drove Flanner to abandon her husband and follow Solano to Europe.

53Flanner further suggests that homosexuality is innate, undeniable, as she describes her paradoxically natural/alien pull toward homosexuality, writing to Murray:

How strange that I was turned in that direction, the way a branch of a young tree is turned and twisted without pressure from anything outside of its own inclination, acting like a rope or chain though none exists,—no constraint, no pressure from any element except the shaping of my erotic emotions within me which were like an emotional nearness, constantly pressing me into the company of some woman who excited and charmed me […]. (Letter [17 June])

54In this letter, Flanner is recounting her emotional crisis for her lover Murray more than fifty years later, but she insists that it is an accurate memory of her mental state. This letter is an important document in recording the emergence of the lesbian identity in the early twentieth century, and Flanner’s novel is an important accompanying artifact which shows some of the ways that American women wrestled with queer identities. Although Flanner exercised an option she did not leave open to her fictional character, fleeing to start anew in Paris, such a deus ex machina would not do for the ending of her novel. Delia falls into the trap that Flanner side-stepped. Early in her expatriation to Paris, Flanner must have been determined to spell out for herself and others, the fate that would have ensnared her at home: strained family relationships and a loveless marriage.

55Suddenly leaving the country helped Flanner avoid confrontations with family members, but, of course, it could not release her from worrying about how to come out to them. Delia’s psychological turmoil is most noticeable when she wishes she could communicate her problems to her parents. Sitting in the garden in Excelsior with her father, Delia wants to confess her dalliance with Paul; “she wanted to throw out the truth to her family and feel free from the life of secrecy and complaint. After all, what she had done was only what he had done, and her mother had done, and everyone else in the world” (172). Delia’s father seems likely to accept his daughter’s promiscuity, or maybe even lesbianism, but, as would happen to Stephen Gordon’s father, too, he dies before the crisis reaches its crux. Delia is therefore abandoned to her unresponsive mother; perhaps Flanner and Hall believed that their fathers would have understood them or at least confronted them and made their secret desires known.

56We can never completely understand what Flanner, Hall, or other lesbian writers of the time were privately experiencing or thinking, and their reasons for expatriation were many including economic, artistic, and personal ones. It would furthermore be presumptuous to assume that The Cubical City is a veiled lesbian story simply because its author was homosexual. However, female same-sex attraction pervades the book’s narration and provides clues to Flanner’s mind set as she wrote it. Among the compelling reasons to re-read The Cubical City are those which Jean Radford gives for continuing to teach The Well of Loneliness: none of the issues it raises with regard to lesbianism has yet been resolved: religious, social, psychic, and biological conflicts with queerness and promiscuity still haunt society (Radford 99). Each of these abounds in The Cubical City, so that the novel, like Hall’s, gives readers an interior perspective into queer struggles in the 1920s.

Situating The Cubicle City in Present-Day Scholarship

57Because The Cubicle City has been almost completely overlooked for more than 90 years, it is important to demonstrate its connection to present-day recovery work and to show what it adds to the bodies of fiction that present-day scholars are incorporating under the rubrics of lesbian romance and lesbian modernism. Subsumed with less-significant popular novels of the day, The Cubical City represents what Castle calls the “suppressed and ignored […] lesbian contributions to culture” (Castle 5) that are worthy of resuscitation.

58I am arguing that The Cubical City is an important example of lesbian, modernist prose. Its 1926 publication explains why Flanner did not foreground her treatment of lesbian desire. She was understandably reticent about being too forthright in casting Delia as a lesbian instead of the more socially acceptable new woman, one for whom lesbianism was an impractical choice. However, Lillian Faderman has identified the new woman as an early type of lesbian (Faderman178). Faderman argues that, while lesbians in 1920s New York “might have called themselves ‘new women,’ they were not yet bold enough to articulate the connections between feminism and lesbianism such as women of the more radical 1970s did” (Faderman 85). This makes the recovery of early lesbian fiction complicated because books like Flanner’s that were never a critical success are difficult to find today. If not for Flanner’s fame as a New Yorker writer, The Cubical City might have been completely forgotten.

59Nair points out the danger inherent in burying the same-sex desire in a roman à clef story by explaining that “private references, indecipherable to the censors, could also be indecipherable to an imagined, same-sex attracted readership” (Nair 17). It is possible to read The Cubical City without paying much notice to its queer images and characters. The novel’s queer references have escaped critics’ gentle pressure, but once delineated, as I have attempted here, they become impossible to ignore.

60The Cubical City was not resuscitated by Phyllis Betz’s study of lesbian romance novels because, in spite of its being the story of a fraught courtship, it is not a romance novel. Betz, in Lesbian Romance Novels, explains that central to any romance story is the attraction of two characters to one another (Betz 9); she is agreeing with Radford that, in a romance novel, “the heroine struggles for the right to love against all impediments” and “the usual closure of the plot was of course the union of the lovers” (Betz 108). Although Flanner’s novel concerns marriage and partnering, it is about transgressive secrets, not about courtship.

61Delia, then, is the Janet Flanner who stayed the course and did not disrupt her marriage with a whirlwind lesbian romance and sexual emancipation through expatriation. She stands as testament, in her parallel universe of misery, that Flanner made the right choice in running away. She is the reverse of the image, the shadow that reveals its subject. Flanner could write Delia, could even become a lesbian modernist, because she did not remain a Delia herself.

62As Elizabeth English argues, lesbian modernism invites us to, once again, examine our classifications of modernisms. Novels like Flanner’s that “challenge the conventions of hetero-narrative society” (English14) have been ignored in the critical examination of high modernist novels that fit squarely into genre classifications. Nair’s study of The Well of Loneliness, Nightwood, Orlando, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and HER demonstrates that lesbian writers in the early twentieth century frequently couched lesbian themes in roman à clef work. Thus, Flanner’s utilization of this quasi-autobiographical genre makes perfect sense when arguing that The Cubical City is an immediate antecedent to these high modernist works. Similarly, The Cubical City has been omitted from recent theoretical works designed to bolster the reputation and teaching of lesbian literature because those have concentrated mainly on well-known fiction writers of the period: Barnes, Bryher, Hall, H.D., Stein, and Woolf, writers who have long been accepted as the female fringe of the modernist movement. Critical reexamination of works by these women, particularly the autobiographical and roman à clef works of lesbian writers has paved the way for the study of lesser-known novelists whose very boldness in broaching the subjects of gender identification and lesbian desire, however hidden beneath heteropatriarchal story lines, contributes to our understanding of the evolution of the lesbian identity which was being shaped in the West during the modernist period.

63While including The Cubical City as lesbian modernist fiction does not dramatically reset the beginning of the period, dialing it back just two years before the 1928 publication of Barnes’ Ladies Almanack, Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, and Woolf’s Orlando, it does issue an invitation to scholars to consider other works published within the modernist period of late nineteenth though the early mid-twentieth century. The work of writers like Sybille Bedford, Margaret Anderson, and Jane Rule await similar recovery. Much of lesbian history has been lost to reticence and silence, yet lesbian novels of the modernist period offer a unique opportunity for recovery and preservation of that history.

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Rai PETERSON, « Janet Flanner’s The Cubical City and the Life She Left Behind »E-rea [En ligne], 16.2 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2019, consulté le 06 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ball State University
Rai Peterson is an Associate Professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she teaches courses in modernist literature and queer theory. She is writing a biography of Solita Solano. She is currently exploring early twentieth-century print material culture by working with students in immersive learning courses in letterpress printing and hand-sewn book-binding.

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