A few months ago, the Another Look Book Club event discussed Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The May 28 event was moderated by the English department’s Hilton Obenzinger, well known for his “How I Write” series of conversations with authors (available on iTunes here). He was joined by English Professor Mark McGurl and Assistant Professor of English Claire Jarvis.
Enjoy these excerpts from the discussion, offered by one of the top-ranked English and creative writing departments in the nation:
HILTON OBENZINGER When Gentlemen Prefer Blondes came out in 1925, it was a complete sensation. High modernist authors like William Faulkner loved it. Some loved it with a little bit of condemnation mixed in: Wyndham Lewis criticized the book – and then compared it to Gertrude Stein a few years later. This was the first time a book featured a vernacular female voice that seemed to ramble on. Some people thought it was a parody of stream-of-consciousness writing. That’s why it electrified some of the modernist scene. Here was this completely naïve-sounding voice, uneducated Lorelei from Arkansas, who had all kinds of incredible insights into the world through her naïveté. This is part of a long tradition in American literature going back before Huckleberry Finn, as well as part of the tradition of the confidence game, which is what she is playing. She is playing it in order to fool men out of their money. The men she meets have enough money so that they can lose it and still have plenty. There’s no crime here, even though there’s plenty of criminal activity. She is a swindler. A swindler through sex.
MARK MCGURL Probably the first thing we say about the modernist novel is that it is interested in the representation of consciousness of thought through a stream-of-consciousness narrative, which is more or less original to the period. Loos’s particular use of the diary form seemed to be sharing that fascination. As Lorelei says, “I mean I seem to be thinking practically all the time.” Loos’s novel is clearly annexing that fascination with the mind, with consciousness, with broader questions about the status of the intellect in the early 20th century.
Many of the major figures of the period were very concerned, and perhaps with good reason, that the domain of culture was becoming more and more filled up with morons, with stupid people who seemed to be asserting themselves in the cultural realm in ways that some people found very disturbing. So in a sense, Loos wrote this book for her friend, H.L. Mencken – clearly the most important relationship hovering in the background of this novel – as a kind of rebuke. He was a big intellectual, but he seemed to like dumb girls, which frustrated her very much as an intelligent girl. He coined the famous term “booboisie,” for a whole class of people that he saw running rampant in early 20th century American culture – and here in the person of Lorelei was one of the booboisie, someone Loos would describe as representing the “lowest possible mentality of the nation.”
If that’s what she wanted to represent, why did she choose to write in first person? This seems to me to be a crucially interesting choice. It produces this whole familiar problematic of the “unreliable narrator.” Didn’t this complicate the distance Loos apparently wanted to create between herself as author, and Lorelei as character? There is meant to be maximum distance between the two – Loos smart; Lorelei dumb. But when you launch off into a first person narration, hour after hour as you’re writing this you’re saying “I… I… I… I… I…” In the process of writing this novel, the project of distancing herself clearly got complicated. So much so that it’s just not clear that Lorelei is in any way a successful representation the “lowest possible mentality of our nation.”
Sure, she’s a poor speller, that’s unambiguous, but even her bad spellings have this genius to them on occasion. She’s smart in a curious way, very canny in getting what she wants. But there’s something stranger, a double-voicedness in this narrator. Anita Loos and her character share one voice, but if you look at it closely, these voices combine and intertwine in a way that makes them very difficult to separate. The effect is fascinating, interesting in the same way that high modernist experiments are also interesting.
CLAIRE JARVIS If you were to refer to a “gentlemen” in the 19th century novel, you would be mean a man with a specific social status, someone of the gentry, someone who owned land and had property. When Lorelei uses the word, she means “man.” She doesn’t mean anything about status.
The men she communicates with most openly are men who, like her, are grifters – men who are in dire straits, who need to shift for themselves. She interacts with two other groups of men, besides these comrades-in-arms: One is the men who are who are rich. Then we get the sexual threats, men who are rich, but not rich enough for Lorelei. She is wary of these men, because they can’t give her anything – they can’t give her any money, they can only ruin her. Lorelei doesn’t care about ruination when it’s for money. She just doesn’t want to do it for free.
Loos makes a great alteration in what is actually very old plot – the courtesan’s diary. Think of characters like the 19th-century Harriette Wilson; there are tons of others. What a courtesan’s diary would do is name names. It could be used for two purposes. One, if you lost favor with the mark, you could exploit the connection with these wealthy men to get blackmail money. Two, if the man passed away, you could sell it on the open market. The courtesan’s diary was a canny way of turning personal information into money. This is a fictional version of that.
By introducing the scenario writer at the end of the novel, right when as Lorelei marries, she allows this courtesan to have a marriage and still be a mistress. She is able to be a wife and, it turns out, a mother, and still maintain her connection to the demimonde. This is Loos’s great achievement in fiction. In most of the history of the novel, you could go one or the other. You couldn’t have both.
HILTON OBENZINGER Lorelei knew how to play it one way or the other; she’s quite shrewd. What actually is of value? If you think it’s pearl, if you think it’s diamond – well, then it is. That’s how the commercial commodity exchange works. Remember the pet rock? It was a joke. “Here’s a rock, here’s your instructions for the care and handling of the rock.” And it sold! People knew it was a joke, but they still bought it. That’s hearkens back to a lot in American culture about the con game.
[Question from audience: "Do you think she’s a psychopath or a sociopath?"]
I think she’s just a path. You have to be shifty in a new country. Before the civil war, in the Southwest Literature – meaning Alabama, Mississippi, the old Southwest – a character named Captain Simon Suggs said, “You have to be shifty in a new country.” That’s what it meant to be conning your way through. She’s just doing what she has to do in order to survive. If she didn’t, she would have simply been raped in Little Rock – and who knows what would have happened then. She would have gone to jail for murder – and who knows what would have happened then. Every step of the way is simply an act of survival, with a great deal of shrewdness. Now the society, and the way it’s depicted, is completely whacked out. There are very few genuinely serious people who are not after money. You don’t have characters who really want to discover the truth about the world, or dismiss all of this money-grubbing stuff, or say “I will marry for love.” You have a completely different universe here. And she’s trying to survive in that universe.