Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Queerness in Hidden Spaces: Clifford Orr’s Influences on the Literary Sphere of Dartmouth

One hundred years ago, queer folk like Clifford “Kip” Orr, member of the class of 1922, didn’t have spaces to safely and openly write about their identities or tell stories with openly queer characters. Today, we know Orr’s sexuality because of Brendan Gill, one of Orr’s colleagues from later in his life. In his memoir Here at the New Yorker, Gill writes “Alcoholic and homosexual, Kip took terrible chances with his life, and it became a wonder that he wasn’t murdered; more than once, he was rolled, beaten up, and left for dead in some dirty doorway in the Village, and yet he survived to die sadly in the small college town where for a little while, he had known good fortune.”

While we don’t see explicit mentions of Orr’s sexuality in his papers found at Rauner, we can see two things: his manuscript for his mystery novel “The Dartmouth Murders” and the letters he wrote to his parents while a student at Dartmouth. His letters in particular tell a story about the good fortune Gill mentioned.

His senior year, Orr was president of the Dartmouth Players, a theater group made of all male students. While primarily a director, Orr himself did occasionally step in as one of the “chorus girls” when another actor couldn’t be in a specific performance. In one such incident, which he describes in a letter to his mother in May 1921, he went on in another man’s place in a show at Northampton. On the note of his female garb, he says “According to George I looked loke the herione of any movie western comedy — the girl the cowboy loves.”

He also made a mark on two of the campus’s literary magazines, namely The Bema and The Dartmouth Literary Magazine, which he and two others founded together towards the end of his senior year. Orr was an official member of the literary staff of The Bema for a majority of its ninth and tenth volumes, from October 1920 to May 1922. In the Carnival number from Volume X, Bema staff showed their appreciation for Orr by nominating him to the Hall of Fame because “he is not a typical Dartmouth man,” and because “for four years he has worked quietly for the good of the college without desiring glory.” He would have served as Editor-in-Chief if not for already being president of the Dartmouth Players.

In another letter, from April 1922, Orr writes about his hopes for the new publication: “It is something I have wanted to do for the last year or too, as I feel the BEMA is inadequate and too much of a compromise to mediocre taste,” he says. “The REVIEW will make no compromise and will take a definitive stab at increasing undergraduate literary appreciation and creation.” In the next letter, Orr writes to his mother about the publication of the first number of the literary magazine as “a hard thing to do […] particularly when its policy allows no compromise with public taste.”

After reading these letters, it is not surprising to find that The Bema only began to publish fiction that seemed to suggest the possibility of non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality while Orr was on the magazine’s official literary staff. Volume IX of The Bema, for example, features work such as the anonymously published story “The Alley of Twilight,” which tells the story of a woman queered by her lack of interest in men. Sexuality also comes into play in one of Orr’s own pieces, “Relatives,” which tells the story of Kenneth, a student who must watch as his roommate and other fellow students rejoice during his own mother’s vaudeville performance. While this story explains Kenneth’s discomfort by the fact that the men around him are celebrating his mother, it could act as a metaphor for the experience of being uncomfortable in a room where you seem to be the only man not attracted to a woman.

Once the literary magazine began in 1922, these sorts of stories seemed to move there. Such stories include another one of Orr’s, “The Damn Fool,” where Orr embodies a non-gendered narrator writing about the death of their husband.

Unfortunately, the literary magazine only lasted for just over a year. It merged with The Bema in 1923, and even the consolidated publication left print in 1925. However, the last volume seems to be the queerest of them all. Under the supervision of Editor-in-Chief Herbert S. Talbot, who was a very frequent contributor to Orr’s literary magazine, The Bema’s last run published several stories that seem to hint at the psychological turmoil that comes with hiding one’s queerness. Talbot’s own story “The Brown-Haired Girl” is one of these stories.

So what happened? Circulation began to dwindle; they ran out of money. Did they become too controversial? Too close to queer? Also in 1925, the Dartmouth Players began casting women as the female leads, likely because of the campus conversation about whether the act of playing a female character was having an effeminizing effect on the male actors. Was that merely a coincidence? Even the archives likely won’t answer this question.

To read Orr’s letters with his parents, come in to Rauner and ask for collection MS-532, box 1.

If you’re interested in reading the fiction stories mentioned here or even in finding some more, ask for The Bema, Volumes 9 – 13, D.C. History LH1.D3 B4, and The Dartmouth Literary Magazine, D.C. History LH1.D3 D264.

Posted for Sabrina Eager '23, recipient of the Dartmouth Library's Historical Accountability Student Research Fellowship for the 2022 Summer term. The Historical Accountability Student Research Program provides funding for Dartmouth students to conduct research with primary sources on a topic related to issues of inclusivity and diversity in the college's past. For more information, visit the program's website

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