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It's unlikely James Joyce was aware of the existence of A Scarlet Pansy. It seems not to have been mentioned in any of the countless books about expatriate Paris, nor in the correspondence of those lampooned in it now held in institutional libraries around the world.

It was published in 1932 by the infamous booklegger and smut-peddler, Samuel Roth. Over the course of a long and marvellously disreputable life Roth was arrested nine times, convicted six, and spent a total of nine years in jail, mostly for obscenity and literary piracy. Roth used many different publishing imprints over the years to cover his tracks: Pansy appeared under that of 'William Faro', a pseudonym Roth also used for such classics as The Intimate Journal of Rudolph Valentino, Loose Shoulder Straps, and A Young Man About to Commit Suicide. Roth's books were sold under the counter to a select clientele. He would keep initial print runs very small to minimise his financial risk in the event of police action, and then rush out a second edition if sales demanded it and the coast was clear. Such was the case with A Scarlet Pansy: the second edition appeared very shortly after the first, as word of both its quality and its subversive nature spread.

The evidence that Robert McAlmon wrote A Scarlet Pansy is overwhelming:

-- The style of Pansy is of a piece with the known, published writing of McAlmon to which he put his name. Of particular interest is his short story Miss Knight, originally published by McAlmon's own Contact Editions in 1925 in the collection A Distinguished Air. The title character, a drag queen, shares both character traits and verbal tics with Fay Etrange, and reads almost as a prototype for the later character.

-- Pansy is written by a writer of considerable skill, one fluent in the Modernist style, and by someone who was intimately acquainted with everyone McAlmon knew.

-- The wedding party scene shares many details with the party thrown for McAlmon and Bryher on the announcement of their wedding.

-- Roth and McAlmon knew each other. Both were working as poets in Greenwich VIllage during the war years; both had poems published by Harriet Monroe's magazine Poetry in 1920; both shared the same enemies, Joyce and Hemingway chief among them. Further, McAlmon was in New York in 1931, the year before Pansy was published. It seems likely the manuscript was delivered during this trip.

-- By 1932, McAlmon had form as a writer of waspish romans à clef. William Carlos Williams, Marsden Hartley and Marianne Moore had all found themselves featuring, barely disguised, as characters in McAlmon's Post-Adolescence (a book in which Edna St. Vincent Millay makes an appearance 'Vera St. Vitus').

-- Most compelling is the evidence provided by John Glassco's Memoirs of Montparnasse, one of the best of all the expatriate memoirs. Glassco and his friend Graeme Taylor had arrived in Paris in 1928, when Glassco was eighteen years old. He and Taylor soon found themselves befriended by McAlmon, and in the summer of 1929 the three went on a writing holiday to Nice:

'We were all working, each on his book. Bob, wearing his hairnet almost constantly, was pouring out reams of a book which he would tell us only the title, Promiscuous Boy...'

In a letter to Sylvia Beach, McAlmon had described the book he was writing:

'....the life of any one of several of the boys about Paris, composite, with other characterizations and episodes therein.'

The book never appeared under the title Promiscuous Boy -- or My Susceptible Friend, Adrian, as it was also known for a while. It seems overwhelmingly likely that this manuscript surfaced three years later as A Scarlet Pansy.

A very early, very rare, and very funny pioneer of literary high-camp: 'The first honest and really complete story of "one of those men"', screams the dustjacket blurb to the second edition (written by the book's publisher, Samuel Roth). This, the true first, is so scarce that the second edition is often mistaken for it -- even Jay Gertzman makes the mistake in his excellent essay on the publication history of this book (see below). There are no copies in any institutional library in the UK, and our copy is the only copy we've seen.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY (to read Jay Gertzman's essay, click on its title):

 

Hagius, Hugh. The Mystery of A Scarlet Pansy: An Underground Gay Novel of the Lost Generation. Unpublished Typescript, 1982.

 

Gertzman, Jay. A Scarlet Pansy Goes to War: Subversion, Schlock, and An Early Gay Classic. Published in The Journal of American Culture, Sept. 2010.

 

Glassco, John. Memoirs of Montparnasse. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970


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