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Westward Expansion

Prostitutes, Christian Scientists, cross-dressing teachers

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Read excerpts from Myron Brinig’s Singermann and This Man Is My Brother.

Yiddish-spouting, table-thumping Moses Singermann isn’t the only big personality in Singermann, Myron Brinig’s 1929 debut novel. Each of Moses’s children seems to be doing his or her own thing: His eldest son hooks up with a Jew turned proselytizing Christian Scientist; the handsomest of the boys comes under the spell of a lively gentile prostitute who resists domestication; and the pretty daughter falls for a Russian barber who romances her so poetically that he should be wearing a sign that reads I Will Soon Be Dumping You. At least one of the sons is clearly gay: Harry has a secret cache of lipstick and rouge. And given the fact that another son, Louis, spends an awful lot of time fantasizing about what color Christmas ornaments he’ll use in the store windows, I assume he is gay, too. Ultimately though, Brinig just makes Louis artistic and deeply assimilated, which I guess exposes me as an old-school conclusion-jumper. As it turns out, the youngest son, Michael—the character based on Brinig himself—is the one who shares Harry’s inclinations, but that isn’t revealed until This Man Is My Brother, Brinig’s 1932 Singermann sequel.


Brinig in Taos, New Mexico, 1933

As a slice of early 20th century Jewish American life, Singermann is similar, in certain ways, to classic immigrant tales such as Mary Antin’s Promised Land and Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky, with one crucial difference: Brinig’s setting is not the grimy streets of the Lower East Side, but Silver Bow, Montana, a stand-in for Brinig’s hometown, the famously not-scenic Butte. Back when it was first published, a London Times critic mentioned Brinig along with Thomas Wolfe as a rising literary star. But I’d never heard of Brinig until a month ago.

This is odder than it sounds. In the early 1980s, my parents collaborated on an illustrated social history, now in its 11th printing, called Pioneer Jews: A New Life In The Far West. At the time, my parents talked of little else. I’m not sure what my three siblings recall, but to me it’s pretty hard to forget hearing my parents laugh about their weirder entries such as Jew Jess, a Butte-based opium addict and prostitute who was such a compulsive pickpocket she once lifted a lapel pin off of a judge who’d just exonerated her. Dinner conversations at our house were like some all-Jewish version of HBO’s Deadwood: history suddenly felt exciting, dangerous, even crackpot-filled, instead of moldy and airless. True, my parents were researching an earlier period—from the late 16th century through the turn of the 20th—but their interest had always extended to all things Western and Jewish. If a book as authentic-feeling as Singermann had been around when I was growing up, I am sure I would have at least leafed through it. But somehow Brinig never came up.

 

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Myron Brinig was born in Minneapolis on Dec. 22, 1896. Three years later, his family moved to the Big Sky state so his father could open a dry goods business. At 17, he escaped Montana’s unforgiving remoteness, moving to Manhattan to study writing for a couple of years at New York University.


Brinig’s house in Butte, Montana

In 1916, as a junior, he transferred to Columbia, only to be drafted into the army a year later and stationed for the remainder of World War I in Washington state and on the Oregon coast. After he was discharged in late 1918, he took jobs reading scripts for a few film studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey and began writing short stories for literary magazines. He would never return to college or, for that matter, Montana (except for the rare visit to his family). Home was Manhattan, San Francisco, Taos—cities where he felt he could live his life as a gay Jewish intellectual in mere semi-secrecy, unlike Butte, where the closet door was firmly shut.

So why, then, is Harry, the overtly gay sibling, the least interestingly written character in Singermann? Each of the sensitive young man’s five brothers—even the one who prefers to get pummeled until he’s flat-faced rather than admit he’s a third-rate boxer—is drawn with a more self-assured tone and seem to have more life; Brinig even appears to understand them better. On the other hand, the Singermann books are filled with autobiographical touches—Brinig’s father, just like Moses Singermann, was a Romanian émigré with five kids, all of whom were expected to clerk at the family store. One could argue that Harry’s vague rendering is indicative of Brinig wanting to document the true landscape of his life as richly as possible without outing himself in the process.

Or, maybe even as assimilated as he was—Brinig stopped attending synagogue when he went away to college in 1914 and he never had close Jewish friends—he still identified enough with his people to worry how his portrayal of Harry would affect them. After all, Singermann was an almost big-screen rendering of a bustling Western mining town that included in its cast of characters a teenage boy with a passion for cosmetics, and the silk dressing gown-wearing bachelor schoolteacher who hits on him. Or maybe Brinig felt that the Jews who were trying to blend in after relocating to America from all parts of the world felt their accents, customs, and religious beliefs already set them apart enough. According to Earl Ganz, a writing professor at the University of Montana, Brinig eventually created richer portraits of gay characters in novels like Anthony in the Nude (1930) and Footsteps On The Stair (1950), only to pay a price. “The Jews took him for granted,” said Ganz, still able to summon up outrage in his voice. “I think it’s because they knew he was gay. They wouldn’t grant him his existence.”

 

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Brinig was in his 80s when Earl Ganz flew to New York to interview him at his Manhattan apartment. Ganz discovered the Singermann novels in 1981, after a colleague suggested he read them, and transformed himself into the world’s only Brinigologist. Brinig hadn’t written much over the past two decades—he was dropped by his publisher in 1958—and chalked up the loss of his readership to the fact that his literary style had fallen out of fashion. But he still had plenty of gas left in his tank. He offered Ganz a pre-made gin and tonic, ruefully waving a letter confirming that he owned the rights to all 21 of his novels.

Brinig at 37 and 75

By the close of the night, Brinig had charmed Ganz into toting home a rough draft of his memoir in a Bloomie’s shopping bag to give it a rigorous line edit. Ganz eventually abandoned the project—the autobiography, he says, was just a string of dishy anecdotes about Brinig’s celebrity friends—but he facilitated the 1993 reissue of Wide Open Town and, after Brinig’s death in 1991, used the memoir as the foundation for a fictionalized account of Brinig’s life, The Taos Truth Game, published this past year by University of New Mexico Press. Somewhere between the cocktail guzzling and the manuscript hand-off, Brinig had secured himself an escape from complete and utter literary oblivion.

But why was he forgotten in the first place? Thomas Wolfe still has a place on every serious readers’ bookshelf. Did literary styles change so dramatically as to make Brinig’s sentimental Westerns unreadable for an Eisenhower-era audience who enthusiastically consumed the social satires of Kingsley Amis and Mary McCarthy, or, on the pulpier side of things, the terse, bloody mysteries of James M. Cain and Jim Thompson? Still Brinig’s books received upbeat reviews, sold well and—at least with the Singermann series—offered a portrait of what it was like to be Jewish, of immigrant stock, and living in a part of 1930s America that offered unbounded opportunity and aching loneliness in equal portions. In other words, this man surely would have been welcome on my parents’ bookshelves.

As it turns out, Brinig was represented in our household, my parents just never mentioned him. In a recent tour of the family library I found a miniature selection—four out of his 21 novels, including the deeply obscure Flutter Of The Eyelid, a title which roughly describes how long it lasted in bookstores. A woman who believed that someone in Flutter was inspired by her threatened to sue Brinig’s publisher, Farrar & Rinehart. Brinig maintained she was mistaken, but his book was hastily yanked from the shelves anyway. (Exactly which of the crazily willful figures that abound in Flutter the accuser saw herself in is lost to history. My guess, though, would be the character of the nudist evangelist—an unconflicted opportunist and something of a boozer—who decides that an illiterate ship hand she meets is Jesus Christ come to earth.)

Even a tabloid-friendly scandal didn’t affect Brinig’s profile. In the end, nobody much remembered him, good or bad. As for the gay community, when it came to Myron Brinig their intuition failed them. Claude Summers’s Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage mistakenly identifies him as straight but sympathetic to the cause, while the Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature excludes him entirely. An American Jew, writing in the late 1920s and 1930s from experience as far removed from Jewish culture as Butte, Brinig was an entity unto himself. Unable to classify him, most literary scholars simply forgot him.

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Westward Expansion

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