May 29th, 2015

An Unknown Woman, by Alice Koller (1981)

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alicekoller“When a woman asks to be alone,” Jessamyn West wrote in Hide and Seek, “… alone, alone, truly alone … a woman feels wicked, unloving, defying God and man alike.” If this is true, then Alice Koller could be considered America’s wickedest woman. Since the day in October 1962 when she packed her few belongings and a German Shepherd puppy named Logos into her car and set out for Nantucket Island, she has pursued, nurtured, relished, contemplated, and celebrated solitude to an extent no writer of our time could match.

An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery is her account of the three months she spent in a rented summer house out by the shore, walking along the beach, reflecting on her life, and trying to achieve some understanding of the most fundamental questions any human can ask of herself: Who am I? What am I here for? What do I want from my life?

At the time she decided to take the few hundred dollars she had in the world and head someplace remote, isolated (and cheap), Koller had already been struggling to exist for almost twenty years. After finishing high school in Ohio, she accepted a chance to act and study as part of the acting company based at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. She soon grew disenchanted with acting, though, and began attending the University of Chicago. At a time when few women were going into graduate schools, she determined to carry on with her studies. Relying on countless low-paying clerical jobs, she eventually worked her way through to earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at Radcliffe (now merged into Harvard) in 1959, at the age of 34.

She quickly discovered, however, that her doctorate meant little in an academic world still overwhelmingly dominated by men. When she asked one of her professors for advice on getting a job, he dismissed her with a curt reply: “You’re too late,” which likely referred more to her age than the time in the academic year. And so, after thirteen years of study, she found herself taking the same kind of low-paid work as she had as an undergrad. To add to her woes, she’d watched her second long-term serious romantic relationship end with the man abruptly leaving to marry another woman.

“I don’t have a life,” she concludes, looking at herself in the mirror. “I don’t live anywhere. I perch.” “It has to stop,” she decides. “Can’t I just stop, right now, and try to figure out what I’m doing? What I should be doing?” And so, after a little hunting, she finds a house outside Siasconset on Nantucket Island she can afford to rent for at least three months (due to the off-season). She also decides she needs a dog “To warn me about strangers,” and buys a puppy she names Logos in tribute to the philosophy she has spent the last decade studying: “Logos: the rational principle of the universe, the Word, reasoned discourse.”

On her very first day in the house on Nantucket, her search for answers begins with a very practical question (albeit a question few men in the same situation would ever ask): “What will I look like now that no one I know will see me?” And yet her answer (“Color will matter”) starts Koller on her way. “It’s my first clear judgment, my judgment. A very tiny step I take. How will knowing that I trust my eye for color take me to knowing how I want to live my life? The chasm stretches beneath me.”

It would be easy to dismiss An Unknown Woman as the epitome of navel-gazing. A week into her stay, she writes:

Wanting. What have I wanted? No. What have I wanted? Not right yet. What have I wanted?

When I read this, I immediately thought of the Beyond the Fringe sketch parodying the recollections of Bertrand Russell and the absurdity of logic as a philosophical discipline. Russell recounts a visit to his fellow philosopher, G. E. Moore:

… there was Moore seated by the fire with a basket upon his knees.

“Moore,” I said, “do you have any apples in that basket?”

“No,” he replied, and smiled seraphically, as was his wont.

I decided to try a different logical tack. “Moore,” I said, “do you then have some apples in that basket?”

“No,” he replied, leaving me in a logical cleft stick from which I had but one way out.

“Moore,” I said, “do you then have apples in that basket?”

“Yes,” he replied. And from that day forth, we remained the very closest of friends.

All jesting aside, though, there is a great difference between playing with semantics about a basket of apples and digging into the root of your own identity. Koller calls the thinking she is doing “a kind of fighting”: “I’m defending, and laying siege, all at once.” “I’m even the prize,” she jokes, “But I’m also the only one who’d want it.”

Inevitably (perhaps), excavation of one’s identity reaches the strata of one’s family and childhood. In Koller’s case, it leads to the realization that what she has been pursuing for much of her life is the approval of a mother who gave her little attention and even less love growing up: “She’s been an obstacle to be gotten around in everything I do, everything I’ve ever done.”

From this discovery, she begins to assemble a sense of self owing to no one else’s choices but her own. She starts a list of moments in recent memory that have given her as much of a “sense of fullness” as sitting with Logos’ head in her lap, scratching behind his ears, and eliciting a low moan of satisfaction. In four hours, she comes up with thirty moments. And from this list, she develops an understanding of what she truly seeks from life: “What I’ll want to do will have to have this same quality of … what? Fitting me.”

And so she sets out for her new life. After three months, she is not broke, thanks to a bit of work she landed analyzing a technical report for some research firm in Connecticut, but close to it. She has no firm job prospect and will have to camp out once again in some friend’s house. “And yet I know some few things,” she concludes. “I love Logos. I must have him with me.” And “This ocean matters to me.” With these things and “the idea that other things may join with these,” she heads back to the mainland. “They are all the self I have. But they are mine.”

It would be pleasant to think that this new foundation enabled Koller to launch herself into great personal and professional success, but the truth is that it more likely condemned her to a life on the margins of society. She turned the journal she had kept on the island into a book, but it was rejected by thirty different publishers over the course of thirteen years, most often for being “too personal,” until it found a receptive editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The book became something of a grass-roots best-seller, racking up sales of over 500,000 copies, mostly in its Bantam paperback edition, over the next five years.

In 1991, Koller followed up with The Stations of Solitude (1990), which reviewed her experience on Nantucket in light of her life and thoughts since leaving the island. She had a brief stint teaching at the University of California Santa Barbara, but no long-term teaching jobs. As Diane M. Quilty Litchfield put it in her Masters thesis on Koller’s work, “One Woman’s Construction of Self and Meaning: A qualitative study of the life of Alice Koller” (link), “Indeed, her employment was so sporadic that she often lived through the generosity of her friends or on welfare.” Or, as Koller herself wrote, “During … twenty-five years, I have moved sixteen times … I forage for my living where the food supply is.”

And yet, Koller resolutely embraces and champions her choice to pursue a life driven more by introspection than material comforts: “I essay to write my thinking. I am a philosopher studying my own mind. And when I look outward at the natural world, I essay to write my seeing and hearing and touching.”

In 2008, at the age of 83, Alice Koller bought her own domain name and set up her own website, alicekoller.com, on which she solicits “patrons” for a work in progress titled “Meditation on Being a Philosopher.” It appears that she’s been renewing her domain name registration annually since then. It’s up for renewal again in a few weeks, so I’ll have to check if she’s still keeping it going … a few months short of her 90th birthday.

Whether “Meditations” gets finished or not, Alice Koller has been our closest counterpart to Henry David Thoreau — indeed, has devoted more years to the principle that only an examined life truly matters than Thoreau drew breath. And for that, in my view, she deserves to be celebrated as an American original.


An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery, by Alice Koller
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981

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May 26th, 2015

“The Palace-Burner,” from Poems by Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt

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communefire

The Palace-Burner

[Paris, 1871]
A Picture in a Newspaper.

She has been burning palaces. “To see
The sparks look pretty in the wind!” Well, yes
And something more. But women brave as she
Leave much for cowards, such as I, to guess.

But this is old, so old that everything
Is ashes here, the woman and the rest.
Two years are oh! so long. Now you may bring
Some newer pictures. You like this one best?

You wish that you had lived in Paris then?
You would have loved to bum a palace, too?
But they had guns in France, and Christian men
Shot wicked little Communists like you.

You would have burned the palace? — Just because
You did not live in it yourself! Oh! why
Have I not taught you to respect the laws?
You would have burned the palace would not I?

Would I? … Go to your play. . . . Would I, indeed?
I? Does the boy not know my soul to be
Languid and worldly, with a dainty need
For light and music? Yet he questions me.

Can he have seen my soul more near than I?
Ah! in the dusk and distance sweet she seems,
With lips to kiss away a baby’s cry,
Hands fit for flowers, and eyes for tears and dreams.

Can he have seen my soul? And could she wear
Such utter life upon a dying face:
Such unappealing, beautiful despair:
Such garments soon to be a shroud with grace?

Would I burn palaces? The child has seen
In this fierce creature of the Commune here,
So bright with bitterness and so serene,
A being finer than my soul, I fear.

from Poems, by Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt
London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1894

Available on the Internet Archive: Link

Most of the poems in this two-volume collection, taken from over a half-dozen previous books by Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt, a Kentucky-born poet who lived from 1836 to 1919, fall into the same category of delicate, decorative, and deadly-dull poetry that American and British men and women of the Victorian era produced in brain-numbing quantities. Romantic poetry utterly devoid of passion and utterly unworthy of rediscovery.

And then there are a few like this, in which the poet acknowledges that the firebrand Communiste is “a bring finer than my soul,” suggesting that a life spent writing delicate, decorative poems is not perhaps the fullest realization of her potential. They’re like little whispers of sedition — whispers it might have taken another hundred years for anyone to really hear.

This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

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May 21st, 2015

Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey, by Jessamyn West (1973)

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Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Hide and Seek'
The next two books I’m featuring here — Jessamyn West’s Hide and Seek and Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery — are set a continent apart but share a strong common bond with that American classic, Thoreau’s Walden. In all three, the writer sets aside time and chooses a location with the conscious intent to do nothing else but be alone and think — but in each, where she starts and where she finishes are markedly different.

In Hide and Seek West, a novelist, poet and short-story writer with a number of best-selling and highly acclaimed books — the best known being The Friendly Persuasion (1945), which was made into a successful film starring Gary Cooper in 1956 — picked a bluff high above the Colorado River and a two-room trailer as her spot, bidding farewell to her husband Max in the opening scene and retiring to the trailer to spend three months alone. “Alone, alone!” she exults. “For those who relish it, a word sweeter than muscatel to a wino.”

“Solitude has always excited me,” West writes, and her three months out in the Arizona desert gave her plenty of time to reflect. Ironically, for someone seeking time alone, she managed to fill many of her thoughts with memories of other people. Her family, in particular. Her parents moved with their three children from Indiana to Whittier, California, to join a group of Quakers settled there when Jessamyn was six. (Her mother was a Milhous, so West was related to Richard Nixon. His father, Frank, was one of her Sunday school teachers, but West has little good to say for her cousin’s politics.)
paige
Though her father held down a steady job with a railroad and made a success of the stake he took in a small farm outside Yorba Linda, West’s parents were fairly non-conformist for their time. Her father would burst into hymns, singing out at full volume while doing chores, and her mother placed little value on things like curtains and cleaning up around the house. They had a laissez-faire attitude towards certain conventions: “As children we were permitted to do pretty much as we liked in the matter of keeping the dirt down.” They loved camping and made a bold cross-country trip back to visit family in Indiana in their Paige automobile in 1920, when such travel usually involved paying a farmer or two to get hauled out of some mudhole.

Yet as much as she loved her family, West always knew that, deep down, she was a solitary. At the age of four, she commanded a great big washtub as her private domain, and when her father bought a piano, she turned the crate it came in into a sanctuary: “At that age I did not know that I got into the box or the tub or later the room or the trailer in search of box bliss.”

In a family, in society, being a solitary has something of a stigma, particular if you’re female: “When a woman asks to be alone, not alone like Garbo, who asked only for a little privacy out of sight of her fans, but alone, alone, truly alone, separated from mother and father, husband and children, a woman feels wicked, unloving, defying God and man alike.” So, when she was 18, enjoying her first experience of work and living on her own, she had to feign illness to get out of going along on another family camping trip.

Coming to understand her own identity was the great revelation of West’s girlhood. Walking home from the Yorba Linda library one autumn evening, she said out loud to herself, “You are M. J. West”:

This is how I thought of myself in those days, for my name is Mary Jessamyn, and I was in love with what was spare and cut to the bone. It was as if I had told myself a great piece of news. When I said those words, then I noticed the heavy clotting of the Milky Way, and the brow of the hill, a dark curve against the starlit sky. M. J. West noticed them. Who had been noticing them before, because I hadn’t lived starless until the age of thirteen or fourteen, I don’t know; but on that night I knew who was doing the seeing: M. J. West.

She recognizes that this identity came at a cost, the cost of some of the connections that bound her to other people in her life. In a moving passage of reflection, she writes,

I have sometimes thought that I would like not to be young but to see myself, my parents, brothers, and sister when we were all young together. I have thought that I would; but given the chance, I’m not sure I would take it. The sight might drive me crazy with sorrow or self-pity. What would it be like to see that girl (knowing, as I would, how soon some of us would vanish from sight) choosing time after time to be with Mary J. Holmes’ English Orphans or Tarzan or David Copperfield rather than with them? What if I saw myself bullying my little sister? Sowing the seeds that made her say before she died, “I have resented you all my life.” What if I recognized the reason it was impossible for me to say even once in my life to my father, “Papa, I love you.”

I’ve focused on West’s memories of her family, but there is much, much more to Hide and Seek: celebrations of the Western landscape; appreciations and clear-eyed criticisms of her model, Thoreau; memories of the teachers who influenced her, a lovely and funny recollection of a trip to the Indiana settings of The Friendly Persuasion in 1944; and descriptions of the lost and stray characters she meets while seeking solitude out in the desert. West achieves a fine balance of poetry and plain speaking that makes her a most enjoyable narrator: “The grass never looks greener to me on the other side of the fence. It often is, of course. The name for the person with this kind of eyesight is ‘stick-in-the-mud.'”

I have to thank Tillie Olsen, who recommended in one of her reading lists reprinted in later editions of her classic meditation on the woman writer, Silences.


Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey, by Jessamyn West
New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973

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May 18th, 2015

The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, by Josephine Herbst (1991)

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starchedblueskyofspainThough one of the most acclaimed of contemporary American novelists when she was writing in the 1930s, Josephine Herbst published just two books after 1941, and her last book, New Green World, a biography of early American naturalist John Bartram, in 1954, fifteen years before she died at the age of 76.

By the time she had turned 60, she was already struggling to survive. Her marriage to novelist John Herrmann ended in 1940 after he discovered that Herbst was in love with another woman. Her work during World War Two for the Office of the Coordinator of Information on a precursor to the Voice of America came to an end when the couple’s involvement with the Communist Party in the 1930s was investigated. (Herrmann was later shown to be not just a public Communist but a covert Soviet agent, but Herbst’s politics were never anything but open and stubbornly self-determined.) What little money she had went for essentials and she often relied on the kindness of friends to get by. And she turned to the bottle for relief more than did her good.

When Saul Bellow and his friends Jack Ludwig and Keith Botsford decided to launch their own literary magazine, The Noble Savage, Bellow reached out to Herbst and offered her some money for a piece recalling her experiences in Madrid and around the Republican front lines during the Spanish Civil War. The resulting essay, “The Starched Blue Sky of Spain,” was long — forty pages — and resolutely unromantic about a conflict that had long been romanticized, thanks to the work of Hemingway and others. Hemingway himself was shown in all his glory and selfishness: “he wanted to be the war writer of his age, and he knew it and went toward it,” but also took advantages of the services a master go-fer, Sid Franklin, who managed to keep his suite at the Hotel Florida stocked with eggs, butter, champagne, and even partridge. (For more on Hemingway’s residence at the hotel, see Amanda Vaill’s recent book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.)

A second essay, “A Year of Disgrace,” appeared in The Noble Savage issue 2, and recalled how she met and fell in love with Herrmann in Paris in 1924, moved back to the U.S., where they lived for a while in an old farmhouse in Connecticut, then moved to Greenwich Village. In its own way, it was a skeptical look back at a time that had itself become romanticized (by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others). She and Herrmann welcomed many friends to the sparse hospitality of their farmhouse, but Herbst was less than thrilled about the many nights the men spent tipping back jugs of applejack in the barn into the wee hours. At the same time, she still felt a rush of emotion when thinking of the lively talks and the celebrations of art that she was able to share with fellow writers and neighbors such as John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, poet Genevieve Taggard, and Catholic activist Dorothy Day:

But it was a mark of the time and the place that a first encounter might last all night, overflowing from the speakeasy to the street, from the street to someone’s room, to pitch you finally into a dawn exhilarated, oddly at peace, for wasn’t it of engagements like this, long talks and walks, that you had dreamed in the midwest town before the war when the sky had pressed above your head like a burnished brass bowl and the long secretive dark express trains zipped into the horizon? You had dreamed of it as surely as you had dreamed of love.

Herbst went another eight years before publishing another article. In 1968, “Yesterday’s Road,” a melancholy memoir of her investigation as a Communist sympathizer — and of her disillusionment with the Party based on her experiences in Spain and as a guest of the Soviet government at a writers’ congress in Moscow in 1930, appeared in the third issue of Theodore Solotaroff’s remarkable literary magazine in popular paperback form, the New American Review. Less than a year later, she was dead of lung cancer.

Over twenty years later, these three pieces, along with an unpublished essay on her memories of growing up in Iowa and of an unforgettable family expedition to the Oregon coast in 1901, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” was collected as The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs by HarperCollins, with an introduction by the novelist Diane Johnson. In Johnson’s words, “it was only in her sixties that in turning to this life as a subject, she found her real tone”:

Where most of us revise the past as we move forward through the present, Josephine Herbst retains something like total recall for the visual details of what her circle wore and ate and did….

… in her last essays, things had begun to come into perspective, and hers was a remarkable perspective, honed in remarkable times.

And, indeed, in commenting elsewhere on the then-contemporary fiction of the 1950s, Herbst would write, “What seems to be missing is a sense of the world. The world around us.”

Of the four essays, the first in order and chronology, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” is, in my opinion, by far the best of a very, very good lot — really, something of a masterpiece. I have a habit of dog-earing pages with passages I want to remember or quote, and there are so many in this piece that I could, without a little self-control, easy find myself reprinting nearly the entire piece. It has so many different facets: the simple pleasures of life in Sioux City, Iowa at the turn of the century and the disparate feelings of isolation and small-mindedness; the contrast between her father, the failed businessman, and her uncle, a highly successful pharmacist, businessman and Rotarian — and, at the same time, her uncle’s own sense of being haunted by the ghost of the father who died in the Civil War before his child was born; the excitement of discovering the world of books and writing and the mystifying experience of developing sexuality (“My body was speaking a language I was too ignorant to interpret”). As a work of lyrical yet honest autobiography, I think it ranks with one of my favorite books, James McConkey’s stunningly beautiful Court of Memory.

The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs is, sadly, itself long out of print since it was reissued by the Northeastern University Press in 1999. Herbst’s only work currently in print, according to Amazon, is Pity Is Not Enough (1933), the first of three novels (the others are The Executioner Waits (1934) and Rope of Gold (1939)) about the rise and decline of an Iowa family, the Trexlers. And you can find her very rare novella based on the life of Nathanael West, “Hunter of Doves,” in e-book formats in this recent piece on this site. I also recommend reading Hilton Kramer’s fine memoir, “Who was Josephin Herbst?” from the New Criterion (Link).


The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, by Josephine Herbst
New York City: HarperCollins, 1991


 

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