Book Review: The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess

By Tara McDowell

Tara McDowell’s The Householders: Robert Duncan and Jess is a deftly sketched portrait of a late-twentieth century gay couple and the inspiring way they ‘salvaged’ themselves a home with influences from their creative practice, politics and the people who inspired them.

The book examines the relationship of Robert Duncan and Jess Collins, a writer and artist in a well-structured manner. In other words, this isn’t a romp through their San Francisco world. Instead, it’s a careful and detailed examination of how a couple, rejected the dangers of being so open about their sexuality in conservative America and created something special to inspire many today, from creatives to modern LGBT+ couples. Tara McDowell heaps the attention traditionally awarded to heterosexual couples rather than offering up a more salacious take or overly deferential.

We see all their quirks and foibles in addition to how well the couple complemented each other. This is not only within the household and artistically as first mentioned, but we learn tidbits on how Duncan was the more business-minded of the two. Duncan “doggedly promoted Jess’s work […] attempting to drum up sales and shows alike”.

The book does struggle however, to sketch out as clear a portrait of Jess. Even in its title, Jess feels secondary to Duncan. McDowell does try to craft a thorough portrait of the pair, particularly through their personality differences – “Jess as the reclusive housewaif, Duncan as the socially hungry poet-wanderer”. This applies to their art as Jess was much more reluctant to speak for his art, instead letting the images speak for themselves.

Though, the inclusion of Jess’s captivating collages in the book make up for this lack of information on Jess. The author is rigorous in providing evidence for her statements generally, but the images themselves suffice to strengthen her arguments.

While she offers some analysis on the collages – helpful for the less artistically-minded reader – Jess’s collages critiquing gender roles, particularly those of women, demonstrate McDowell’s earlier points on Jess as a proto-feminist without preaching.

In fact, even when McDowell more definitively shares her interpretation, she goes beyond obvious first assumptions. The book has a tricky tension between the fact the pair’s household subverts a “normal” heteronormative household at the time as such an openly gay couple and at times the pair “were conscious of occupying” “the highly gendered roles of the American household”.

As mentioned earlier, Jess may have been the “housewaif” by his own letters, but from McDowell’s close analysis of Duncan’s poetry, she uncovers how this wasn’t a “passive” role but a forceful guardian and Jess is reported to have policed who could enter their home. While there is a tinge of a critique on this “exclusionary” attitude thanks to the first-person quotes from friends, McDowell is careful not to offer too much judgement.

Although here, she occasionally weakens her own argument by not interrogating key points such as Duncan’s infidelities when Jess remained in the home. The author seems to more positively see the house as the key method for the pair to overcome unfaithfulness.

Whereas, to use one of McDowell’s own parallels to the 1950s image of a waiting housewife and Duncan as the man on a business trip, her discussion fails to acknowledge how Duncan can appear more like a philanderer. It could be suggested that Duncan was comfortable in the knowledge that his marriage will stay together for the sake of the kids (or house) that he and Jess shared. Even McDowell’s acknowledgement of Duncan’s privilege of retaining a relationship and financial support from his family in comparison to the estranged Jess, is significant.

It was a decades-long relationship but modern readers may wonder how much freedom Jess had to leave – similar to many wives at the time!

Interestingly for today’s reader, the writer prefers to stress how unique the pair were and give an important context. The book intrigues as it informs us that there may have been LGBT+ couples housing together, yet Duncan and Jess feel unique.

This, with how Duncan and Jess combined so many facets of their lives, often leaves the reader in wonder – not how did an LGBT+ couple manage this, rather how did any couple manage to create so unified a household until their deaths, especially against the background of the twentieth century’s many changes?

McDowell aptly points out that many of their issues like “the rise of authoritarianism” and environmental concerns have had a “troubling resurgence in contemporary life.” As promised, their story resonates today.

Ultimately however, as McDowell also promises, you close the last chapter feeling that the book is “last, but not least, a love story” for all couples.

© Daljinder Johal 2019

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