Friday, March 09, 2018

Born Today in 1895, Author, Publisher Robert McAlmon

Robert McAlmon was born today, March 9, in 1895. He was an American author, poet, and publisher.

A  connoisseur of the Parisian nightlife, Robert McAlmon was a fixture of the Lost Generation’s expatriate community in Paris in the 20s and 30s. McAlmon took Hemingway out to the bullfights in Spain that he would immortalize in The Sun Also Rises and he typed proofs of James Joyce’s monumental novel Ulysses

As a bisexual man in what most presumed to be a marriage of convenience to lesbian poet Bryher (H.D.’s longtime partner), McAlmon was one of the first American writers to depict the queer subculture of American expatriates. 

McAlmon was born in Clifton, Kansas, the youngest of 10 children of an itinerant Presbyterian minister. He was admitted to the University of Minnesota in 1916, but only spent one semester there before enlisting in the United States Army Air Corps in 1918. At the conclusion of World War I, he returned to university (1917–1920), this time at the University of Southern California. He attended classes intermittently until 1920, when he moved to Chicago and then New York City, where he worked as a nude model at art school. 

Once in New York, he collaborated with William Carlos Williams on the Contact Review, which did not last for long, but published poetry by Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, H. D., Hilda Doolittle, Kay Boyle and Marsden Hartley. The next year, he moved to Paris after marrying the wealthy and lesbian English writer Annie Winifred Ellerman, better known as Bryher. McAlmon typed and edited the handwritten manuscript of Ulysses by James Joyce, with whom he had a friendship.

McAlmon became a prolific writer after the move, with many of his stories and poems based on his experiences as a youth in South Dakota.

Having published his book of short stories A Hasty Bunch with James Joyce's printer Maurice Darantière in Dijon in 1922, he founded the Contact Publishing Company in 1923 using his father-in-law's money. Lasting until 1929, Contact Editions brought out books by Bryher (Two Selves), H. D.'s Palimpsest, Mina Loy's Lunar Baedecker, Ernest Hemingway's first book Three Stories & Ten Poems (1923), poems by Marsden Hartley, William Carlos Williams (Spring and All, 1923), Emanuel Carnevali's only book during his lifetime (The Hurried Man), prose by Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein (The Making of Americans, 1925), Mary Butts (Ashe of Rings), John Herrmann (What Happens), Edwin Lanham (Sailors Don't Care), Robert Coates (The Eater of Darkness), Texas schoolteacher Gertrude Beasley's My First Thirty Years and Saikaku Ihara's Quaint Tales of Samurais. McAlmon paid for the publication of The Ladies Almanackby Djuna Barnes.

One of McAlmon's most important and best-received works is Village: As It Happened Through a Fifteen Year Period (1924) which presents a bleak portrait of an American town. The book shows his love for Eugene Vidal (Eugene Collins in the book), Gore Vidal's father, with whom he grew up in Madison, South Dakota, which is documented in Gore Vidal's mid-90s memoir, Palimpsest.

Other works include the short story collection A Companion Volume (1923), the autobiographical novel Post-Adolescence (1923), Distinguished Air (Grim Fairy Tales) (1925), the poetry collections The Portrait of a Generation (1926) and Not Alone Lost (1937), the 1,200 line epic poem North America, Continent of Conjecture (1929), and his memoir Being Geniuses Together: An Autobiography (1938).

In Distinguished Air: Grim Fairy Tales, he detailed the exploits of Berlin’s cabarets and in the recently rediscovered The Nightinghouls of Paris, he dished on the queer affairs of the writers that inhabited the bistros and bars of Montparnasse during the famed expatriate period. 

McAlmon returned to the United States in 1940, residing in El Paso, Texas, where he sought treatment for a pulmonary ailment. He died at Desert Hot Springs, California, almost unknown in his native country, 16 years later. 

McAlmon is heavily featured in the book Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco about the golden age of Paris in the 1920s when writers and artists flocked to the city.

His social circle and friendship with Ernest Hemingway is discussed in the novel The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

In 2007, his fictionalized memoir The Nightinghouls of Paris was published, based on the experiences of Glassco and his friend Graeme Taylor with McAlmon in Paris. The previously unpublished book was based on a typescript held by Yale's archives.

An epistolary novel about McMalmon and his expatriate adventures and final years in California, Letters from Oblivion, was published by Edward Lorusso in 2014.

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