In a short prose piece, “Letdown,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1934 and excerpted in Elizabeth Frank’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan recalled how the art lessons she took from a spinster named Miss Cooper opened up a world of culture and civilization to her, until one day when her rapture was broken by the revelation that her teacher was also an ordinary human being:
One afternoon she came out of the kitchen and stood behind me. She had something in her hand that crackled like paper, and when she spoke she mumbled as though her mouth were full. I turned and looked at her; she was standing with a greasy paper bag in one hand and a half-eaten doughnut in the other. Her hair was still beautifully arranged; she still wore the silver and fire-opal ring on the little finger of the right hand. But in that moment she died for me. She died and the room died and the still life died a second death. She had betrayed me. She had betrayed the Hotel Oxford and the replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the whole world of romantic notions built around her. She had let me down; she had appeared as she was: a tired old woman who fed herself for comfort. With perfect ruthlessness I rejected her utterly. And for weeks, at night, in the bedroom of the frame house in Harold Street, I she tears that rose from anger as much as disappointment, from disillusion and from dismay. I can’t remember that for one moment I entertained pity for her. It was for myself that I kept that tender and cleansing emotion. Yes, it was for myself and for dignity and gentility soiled and broken that I shed those tears. At fifteen and for a long time thereafter, it is a monstrous thing, the heart.
In her remarks on this passage, Frank writes,
In the story of Miss Cooper’s fall from grace, Bogan tells us everything essential about the person she had become by the age of fifteen. That person was a full-blown romantic, with the romantic’s despotic requirement that reality conform to her wish, and the romantic’s susceptibility to desolating disappointment. She does not say that Miss Cooper was the first in a line of other infatuations and disillusionments, but she does not need to. It is the idea of “civilization,” and not her personal history, that she seeks to define in her memoir, and what she implies is that without a foundation in sympathy and understanding, the joys of style and taste must forever remain hollow.
I find both Bogan’s memoir and Frank’s remarks examples of stunningly good writing. Indeed, it’s a pity that Bogan never finished the autobiographical work she referred to as her “great long prose piece,” which she turned to over and again through much of her life, although we have, thanks to Ruth Limmer, a close approximation to it in Journey Around My Room (1980). But who wouldn’t want more amazing lines like “At fifteen and for a long time thereafter, it is a monstrous thing, the heart”? Or Frank’s wise conclusion that “without a foundation in sympathy and understanding, the joys of style and taste must forever remain hollow,” which I am almost tempted to adopt as a motto?
When a poor Indian family intended to travel, it seemed to take its entire belongings and move with them and all its family members — as Fa’s babus called them — into the station and camp until the right day and time arrived to take the train. They spread their mats on the platform, slept there, cooked their food over small braziers, washed under the station tap, while the coolies and other passengers and railway officials stepped round or over them; nobody seemed to mind but the platforms were crowded in a babel of noise. Not only humans used the stations: there was always a sacred bull, wandering from camp to camp and calmly helping itself to the food; there were goats, chickens, pigeons, and pye-dogs which were well fed compared to street ones — people threw scraps from trains. The beggar children knew this; people even threw money, perhaps because travelling was so spendthrift anyway that a pice or two more or less did not matter. Beggars were not allowed on the platform — the railways had some rules — but the children bobbed up on the other side of the train and stood between the tracks rubbing their stomachs and wailing, “No mummy. No daddy. No foo-oo-d,” but as they wailed they laughed and pulled faces at us. All along the platform were booths, kiosks, and barrow stalls that sold inviting things, especially hot good-smelling Indian food, but, “Not safe,” said Mam and Aunt Mary. In those days there were no ice-cream barrows but sherbert was sold, and brass trays held sticky Indian sweets. Mam bought oranges and bananas, but not the open figs or dates. There were sellers of green coconuts who would obligingly hack off the top of the nut so that the customer could drink the cool juice, and sellers of soda water, lemonade, and the virulently red raspberryade we always longed to try. There were water-sellers too. Magazines and cheap books printed in English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, were carried round on trays but best of all were the toy barrows that had chip baskets of miniature brass cooking pots and ladles, or bigger baskets of wooden toys painted with bright flowers, and wooden animals and birds, all sizes, painted with flowers too: crimson daisies, green leaves, yellow roses. There were feather dusters and fans, strings of beads of the sort worn by tikka-gharri ponies, and there was always bustle and drama and noise.
“This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone,” write Jon and Rumer Godden at the start of this magical book. At the time the book was published, both women were experienced writers of novels and short stories. Rumer was the more prolific and successful, best known for her 1939 novel, Black Narcissus, and her 1963 best-seller, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita. Jon did not begin publishing until she was over forty, but like Rumer, she set a number of her books in India, including her 1956 novel, The Seven Islands.
Two Under the Indian Sun is a lyrical, funny, and charming recollection of the seven years the sisters spent with their family in Narayanganj, a city on the Shitalakshya River in then-East Bengal (and now Bangladesh). The girls had been sent to live with relatives in England and receive proper English educations in 1913, but a year later, with war about to break out in Europe, they were brought back to the relative safety of India.
And safe India was, particularly from their child’s eyes: “We never felt we were foreigners, not India’s own; we felt at home, safely held in her large warm embrace, content as we were never to be content in our own country.” Their father, referred to as Fa, ran a steamship company based in Narayanganj, and the girls enjoyed the run of a large house with a courtyard and a retinue of cooks, amahs, maids, babus, and other servants. Like many of the better-off Anglo-Indians, the family travelled into the lower reaches of the Himalayas and summered in one of the hill stations like Simla.
They also had the chance to travel up some of the wide, slow rivers on their father’s steamships and were able to experience a considerable part of East Bengal. “We never thought,” they write, “as many people do, that the Bengal landscape was monotonous and dull; each little village, with its thatched roofs among the tall slim coconut palms and dark mango trees against the jewel-bright background of the rice or mustard fields, was beautiful in its own calm way and full of interest.” These trips were among their favorite times. “It was bliss to wake early and lie watching the reflected sunlight dancing on the ceiling, to feel the comfortable beat of the engines beneath us, to listen to the tinkle of the carafe on the washstand, and to know that another whole river day was before us.”
Taught at home by their Aunt Mary, the girls quickly discovered a talent for writing. They competed in devising stories and offered rudimentary criticism to each other as — usually — the sole readers of each other’s work. Only rarely did any of the adults take notice, as in the case of Jon’s carrot saga:
Jon could illustrate her books; she seemed set fair to be that luckiest of combinations, an author who could illustrate her own writing, an artist who could write her own text, and this double talent meant that her books were more exciting that Rumer’s, but most even of Jon’s efforts stayed unnoticed. Occasionally, though, one would soar into attention, as unpredictably and, to us, as inexplicably as any best seller in the real literary world. It happened, for instance, when Jon wrote a novel about a family of carrots, four male carrots called No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4. In spite of their prosaic names they were surprisingly alive characters and, in its miniature way, the book was a complete novel; very often we did not finish ours. There were two villains, a cross cabbage and an apple tree that spitefully rained apples on the carrots’ heads. Then, “Ho, horror!” as the book said, a human boy dug up No. 1 and carried him away, but it was only to scoop him out and hang him up in the window to grow again — as we had done in our London day school. Finally the cabbage was dug up and eaten, the apple tree had its apples picked; No. 1, having grown, was replanted and four more carrots came up in the carrot bed, luckily all females, so that “there were four little carrots more.” It was vividly illustrated and Mam and Fa showed it to their friends. Jon was congratulated, which she half liked and half detested.
Reading Two Under the Indian Sun, one is challenged to tell one author’s voice from the other. The two blend together into an almost seamless narrative, and the only clue to a change is when one of the sisters is named: if it’s Jon, then Rumer is writing, and vice versa. And the book was also something of a unique creation from the publishing standpoint, as it was released under the dual imprints of Knopf, Rumer’s publisher, and Jon’s publisher, Viking. Distributed by Viking and picked up by the Book of the Month Club, it was probably Jon’s best-selling book. It was reissued in the late 1980s by Beech Tree Books, but is now out of print.
from Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden
New York: Alfred A. Knopf and The Viking Press, 1966
Almost as mysterious as our sharp individual preferences in names, are their rise and fall from fashion. When I went to school, more than fifty years ago, Dorothy was the name prevailing, with Gladys, Marjorie and Hilda as runners-up; there were, I believe, six Dorothys in my class. Joan, Vera and Winifred were also quite well represented; and Christine, Ruth, Phyllis, Norah and Olive. Ruth, like David, seems to have surmounted its Old Testament association, to survive as a popular name, whereas Esther, Naomi, Rebecca and Rachel still seem to be bestowed chiefly for Biblical reasons. My greatest friend, when I was about eight years old, was called Naomi, and because I had never encountered the name in any story book, it added to her originality in my eyes (she was the first little girl I had ever seen with a straight bob). Unluckily for me, by her precocious talent for acting she was chosen to play “Alice” in the school theatricals; her Alice was so delicious that the older girls took her up and let her walk round them at rec. (the old phrases insist on being used); they would hail her affectionately as “our little Alice,” and it looked as though my friend Naomi were never coming back to me — until she swallowed a penny and was seriously ill and away from school for several months. When she returned, glamour and dignity alike had fled; she was greeted callously and a little cruelly by Upper and Lower School, with “Hallo, Moneybox!”; while reeling from our own wit, we would beg her to cough up a penny to buy a bun, and keep the halfpenny change.
This paragraph illustrates the primary characteristic of G. B. Stern’s … well, Wikipedia calls them autobiography, but Stern herself once described them as “the ragbag chronicles that apparently I am under some compulsion to write every three or four years.” In the end, she wrote nine of them. Each had some slender connecting thread. Monogram started with objects of memorabilia sitting around her living room; Trumpet Voluntary celebrated “small good things, those that were left to us, that still went on and could not be destroyed” by the war; and this excerpt comes from A Name to Conjure With, which discursed upon the subject of, well, names.
But no matter what Stern chose as a unifying theme, she rarely managed to stay on topic for a whole paragraph, let alone a whole book. It would be close to madness to try to read them through from start to finish. Better to dip into them from time to time — long enough to savor Stern’s irrepressible good humor and endless curiosity, not so long as to want to send her off to the Laurence Sterne School for Getting to the Point.
From A Name to Conjure With, by G. B Stern
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953
Should somebody penetrate the barbed-wire entanglement of my handwriting and read my Rough [draft], it would make little sense to him. He would find bewildering changes of time and place. The people would confound him with sudden new characteristics. Some would change their looks. Some would be whisked away without explanation. Som would put in a late appearance, yet be greeted by the rest as though they had been there from the beginning. He would find, this reader, traces of style followed by no style at all; pedestrian phrases, clichés, straight flat-footed reprting. Here a whole sequence of scenes complete and next some mingy skeleton stuff with a burst of apparently contemptuous hieroglyphs on the blank left-hand page beside it. Nor is the left-hand page reserved for “Exp” (meaning Expand, “X” (meaning Wrong), “//” (meaning much the same as “X” only more so) and “?” (meaning what it says). The left-hand page is likely to be a shambles, taking afterthought insertions for the right-hand page; paragraphs whose position may not be indicated at all. No; a reader would have no more fun with the Rough than the writer is having.
Pen to Paper “should be be firmly forced into the self-confident hands of any enthusiastic amateur who imagines that writing novels is easy,” Noël Coward once wrote. His implication, of course, was that writing a novel is bloody hard and the world might be the better if a few would-be novelists were scared off by an injunction from someone with far more experience at the business.
And experienced she was. At the time Pen to Paper was published, Pamela Frankau had nearly thirty novels to her name, along with an autobiography and a short story collection or two. She was one of that generation of industrious British women writers, now referred to — admiringly or dismissively — as “middlebrows,” who managed to produce at least a novel or two a year for decades on end, until they had as many titles to their credit as a polygamist has grandchildren.
She came by it naturally. Her father, Gilbert Frankau, and his mother, Julia Frankau were themselves prolific novelists, and Pamela got her own start, with Marriage of Harlequin, at the age of 19. As with her father, money needs led her to writing and the comfort of somewhat steady income kept her writing books we can safely call works of craft, not art.
Still, she had her standards, and three of her books — A Wreath for the Enemy, The Winged Horse, and her most popular novel, The Willow Cabin — were reissued as Virago Modern Classics about eight years ago. And she’d had successes in both England and the U.S., earning in the latter the Bronze Star of commercial achievement, selection of one of her novels as a Readers’ Digest condensed book. Which is why she could write with authority on how to write for the two different audiences. (She demonstrates some prescience in writing of America as “the place where umbrage grew wild”: “Never, surely, were so many offended so easily by so little.” And this was back in 1962!)
I long ago realized that I probably didn’t have the stuff of a novelist in me, but it was still a useful learning experience to read Pen to Paper. Frankau doesn’t stint in stressing how much energy and time is involved in writing a novel. In her case, she wrote all her novels out by hand at least twice: the first draft the haphazard hodgepodge she refers to above as the “Rough”; and the second a more painstakingly assembled second draft she called the “Smooth.” She insisted in carving out hours to write almost every day, whether at home or staying as a guest, while on a train or a cross-Atlantic steamship, and with or without inspiration. Although she relates how some of her best ideas came to her, she also admits that a few evaporated before her eyes when she tried to describe them to a friend or transformed over the course of creating the Rough into something completely different. And no matter how well or badly a book finally turned out, she was never truly satisfied: “I believe that in the difference between a writer and a hack, the discontent is all.”
But she does have some encouragement for those who would take on the challenge she’d faced at least thirty times before. In particular, she dismisses the notion that, for a writer, there is no substitute for first-hand experience:
“I never robbed an old-age pensioner: I couldn’t: I don’t know how it feels. It’s too revolting.”
You have, in your time, stolen a piece of toffee; cheated the Customs; conveniently forgotten a debt; pocketed the money you found on a taxi-floor; helped to destroy a reputation; denied a vulnerable person a kindness and seen the look in that person’s eyes….
By the time I am engaged on this kind of experience, I’m well on the way to writing the scene.
In an obituary, Rebecca West — who’d had a fairly erratic friendship with Frankau — judged her a second-rate writer: “None of her novels, though they are better than most, was as good as she was.” So it might be easy to dismiss Pen to Paper as even less worthy of rediscovery than these novels, but I suspect the reverse is true. Although it might not inspire many would-be writers, it certainly provides a candid and self-deprecating inside look at the craft from one who’d spent over thirty years working at it.
Pen to Paper: A Novelist’s Notebook, by Pamela Frankau
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1962
A year ago, I made a public pledge to devote 2015 to covering the works of neglected women writers. I was reacting to Phyllis Rose’s comments in her 2014 book, The Shelf, who was, in turn, reacting to Chris Jackson’s post, “All the Sad Young Literary Women,” which appeared on the Atlantic’s website in 2010. In it, Jackson committed himself “to balance my own reading–consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.” Rose’s reaction to this pledge was to find it “lovable and, could it be legislated, highly effective, solving all kinds of problems, including, probably, the one of respect for women writers.”
Although I have covered the works of numerous women writers on this site, the fact was that, prior to 2015, men and their writings accounted for over 75% of my material. At a minimum, I felt that a year devoted to women would help correct that imbalance, but I also suspected that the experience might pry open my own blinders a little. I grew up in a household where my mom was the only female, and she was the only daughter in a family with ten sons. Living with my wife continues to be a daily learning process, and having my own daughter has been delight, even if it’s occasionally put me in situations for which I’ve had no point of reference as a male … like the day when, as the only parent home, I had help her shop for her first feminine hygiene product. But if I step back and take a look at my studies, my work, and my interests, the fact is that they’ve been dominated by male voices and perspectives.
I didn’t think that respect for women writers was a problem for me, but I would have to say that it’s largely been something I’ve tended to keep from a distance. And spending this last year reading nothing but the words of women has given me respect for something I don’t think I ever really appreciated before. For some weeks, I’ve been mulling over how to express this, and the right words still elude me, but to put it simply, throughout all the books I’ve read this year, the one absolutely consistent difference in perspective I’ve found between the writings of women and those of men is that women never assume that they–or someone like them–is running their world. They may run the household or make their own decisions about where they live, what they do, who they love, but there is always sense of a culture, government, economy, society, and geography controlled by others … meaning men.
Of course, there are many male writers who write from a position of dis-empowerment, whether it’s political, economic, class, or cultural, so that’s not quite the differentiating factor. But Solzhenitsyn, Frederick Douglass, Franz Fanon, or Victor Klemperer were writing against oppression organized and carried out by other men, and implicit in each of their messages was the assumption that a world free of the oppression they opposed would still be a world run by men.
Now, just from observing the informal organizational abilities of my wife and daughter and comparing them to mine or those of my sons, I often wonder why women aren’t running the world. Take, for example, this viral video of a college women’s swimming team goofing around at an airport or, closer home, this music video made a few years ago by some of the girls on our local high school volleyball team during a long bus ride back from the U.K.: how many boys’ teams would have the level of creative inspiration, motivational spirit, and organizational ability to put something like these together? OK, it does happen–but it’s more likely that most of them are just hunkering down, focused in on their iPhones, and killing time. So I support Sheryl Sandberg’s message that more women should “lean in” and take leadership roles, and I hope our first woman President follows our first black President without too many more years’ delay. But this isn’t the world we’re living in yet, and it certainly wasn’t the world in which any of the women I’ve read in the last year lived.
The other significant different in perspective I’ve come to appreciate is that of women’s grasp of the particular. When any of these women imagines a utopia, it is a small world, centered on their own lives, often just involving the freedom to make simple choices or be free of certain narrow social conventions. It’s not a vast, abstract concept peopled by generic bodies with no distinguishing identity. When E. F. Schumacher wrote Small Is Beautiful, it was received as something of a revolutionary message, but women writers have always understood this. And, in truth, attention to the particular almost always makes for more interesting writing.
The final observation I draw from this last year is that there is a wealth of fascinating but forgotten books written by women, and even one year’s exclusive study wasn’t enough to make a serious dent in this trove. I had been planning for some months to focus on the short story in 2016, since short story collections are, more often than not, sales dogs in the publishing world, and, unless included in some anthology, short stories tend to be far more perishable than novels. But as I reviewed the long list of titles I collected a year ago, I realize that I really don’t have a good reason to stop mining this particular vein. I recently bought a fine copy of the four volume edition of Dorothy Richardson’s pioneering novel sequence, Pilgrimage, from John Schulman’s excellent Caliban Book Shop, and the quality of Richardson’s writing captured me with the very first page, and convinced me that I would have to keep going and finish the nearly two thousand that followed it. That no one has made a connection between Richardson’s fictionalized autobiographical sequence and Karl Ove Knausgård’s much-discussed My Struggle series just demonstrated how much the world have forgotten her work.
And so, instead of bringing this experiment to a close with the end of 2015, I’ve decided to extend it for a second year, and to continue devoting these posts to bringing the neglected works of fine women writers to light. Although evidence such as the recent list of the top 200 most-used texts in college curricula published by the Open Syllabus project demonstrates that the work of women writers commands a larger share of the canon that ever before, one only has to look at counterexamples, such as Claire Vaye Watkins’ recent essay for Tin House, “On Pandering,” to see that the balance is still in need of some shifting.
And, of course, I can’t help but feel tremendous empathy for her call for readers to create their own canons:
Let us embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us by some white fucks at Oxford.
I’d like to think that Watkins’ ending manifesto speaks not just to the need to judge the work of women writers without recourse to comparisons with that of males or that of an arbitrary list of books but only based on “what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up.” I can honestly say that not a single book I read during 2015 failed to challenge me and to open me up to perspectives and sensibilities I had never really taken the time to consider. And that is reason enough to keep going.
My mother has pneumonia, and is, I think, dying. After a long struggle with her pride, I managed, this morning, to get her into St. Luke’s. — How I feel, with my pride, I don’t think you can imagine.
What we suffer, what we endure, what we muff, what we kill, what we miss, what we are guilty of, is done by us, as individuals, in private. — I wanted to kill a few interns this morning, and I shall want to kill some nurses tonight, and I know that it is a lousy system that keeps the poor, indigent old from dying as they should. But I still hate your way of doing things. To hell with the crowd. To hell with the meetings, and the public speeches. Life and death occur, as they must, but they are all bound up with love and hatred, in the individual bosom, and it is a sin and a shame to try to organize or dictate them.
Thank you for the poem. I shan’t ever see you again, I suppose,
To Morton Dauwen Zabel
December 23, 1936
The [picture of]Fury came intact, and it is so beautiful that I cried. — I would have written you before this, but my mother took sick the night before last, and today I managed to persuade her to go to the hospital, and it is pneumonia.
If you could have seen the fight she put up, right to the last. But now she is a poor dying woman. I wish I could stop remembering her in her pride and beauty — in her arrogance, that I had to fight so — and now I feel it would have been better if I hadn’t fought at all. Because under it all was so much love, and I had to fight that too.
I’ll write soon, after this is over — after I stop feeling that Lucifer should have won. The damned, niggardly, carroty, begrudging world!
To Morton Dauwen Zabel
December 27, 1936
My mother died yesterday afternoon. — In death she looks terribly scornful and proud, but I think she loved up to the end.
All I could do, last night, was read Yeats’ later poems, on what old age is, and what it does.
Somewhere beyond the curtain
Of distorting days
Lives that lonely thing
That shone before these eyes
Targeted, trod like Spring.
Say a prayer for her. Her name is Mary.
What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970, edited by Ruth Limmer
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973
“I want the truth known,” she said, sitting upright on a sofa, her hands crossed at the wrists, palm upward. “I believe the American people are entitled to the truth and I believe they want to know. Now I will agree that immediately after the assassination, and while President Johnson was taking the place of President Kennedy, let me say in all respect that this was not the time to bring these truths before the public. But after his time in office most people think — I don’t agree, but that’s beside the point — that he is a very powerful President, and the assassination itself has subsided. I think the truth should be leaked now, and if in the leaking they can prove to me that my son was the assassin of President Kennedy, I won’t commit suicide or drop dead. I will accept the facts as a good straight human being. But up until this day they have not shown me any proof and I have things in my possession to disprove many things they say. I understand all the testimony off the cuff is in Washington and will be locked up for seventy-five years. Well, I’ve got news for you. It will not be for seventy-five years, because if today or tomorrow I am dead or killed, what I have in my possession will be known. And I in my lifetime have got to continue what I have been doing, using my emotional stability and speaking out whenever I can. Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Because there was no hiatus between the proclamation of unwavering purpose and the hospitable, colloquial question, and because both were delivered in the same tone and at the same pace, I did not immediately take it in, but in a moment, I did and said I would. (The drinking of coffee in Texas is almost as involuntary as respiration.)
A Mother in History centers on three visits made by Jean Stafford to Marguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, in her little Fort Worth duplex in 1965. Stafford, who was better known as a fiction writer, may have taken the assignment for a piece originally published in McCall’s magazine out of a morbid fascination. Marguerite Oswald was quickly typecast as an eccentric in the media frenzy that followed her son’s assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the job was very much out of Stafford’s line. She had little prior experience as a journalist: it was only after the first day with Marguerite that she thought to rent a tape recorder and even then it took the combined efforts of both women to get it working.
In many ways, A Mother in History is an early and overlooked example of New Journalism. Stafford writes in first person, puts herself into the middle of the story, and makes no effort to hide her opinions:
“And as we all know, President Kennedy was a dying man. So I say it is possible that my son was chosen to shoot him in a mercy killing for the security of the country. And if this is true, it was a fine thing to do and my son is a hero.”
“I had not heard that President Kennedy was dying,” I said, staggered by this cluster of fictions stated as irrefutable fact. Some mercy killing! The methods used in this instance must surely be unique in the annals of euthanasia.
Neither does she disguise the sense of awe and absurdity with which she views Marguerite Oswald. Although Marguerite pronounces her family as “basic and normal” to Stafford, the course of her adult life had been pretty erratic. She had three sons by two different husbands, changed jobs and moved frequently, and dragged Lee Harvey through a dozen schools and over twenty residences before he enlisted in the Marines at 17. As folks in the South might put it, she was about a half bubble off plumb.
And she was a talker. Stafford resorted to the tape recorder after being overwhelmed by Marguerite’s non-stop recitation on the first day, which swerved in and out of past and present, fact and fiction, down-home truths and wildest fantasy. Marguerite keeps a simple but immaculate house, plays the gracious hostess with great Southern charm:
Terms of endearment came naturally to her lips, as they do to those of many Southern women; she could have been the stand-in and the off-stage voice for the woman from who I had bought a rain cape in Neiman-Marcus that morning, who rejected the first one I tried on, saying, “No, honey, that just won’t do. You little dress shows.” A Northerner is at first taken aback, then is seduced, then realizes — sometimes too late — that these blandishments are unconscious and wholly noncommittal and one need not feel obliged to reciprocate by buying the next rain cape. (In this case I did, and it comes nicely below the hems of all my little dresses.)
Despite Lee Harvey’s crimes — which Marguerite variously denies or acknowledges but never recognizes as deliberate — she is proud of Lee and his brothers. “None of them ever entered my home stinko,” she boasts to Stafford. The product of a dysfunctional family herself, Stafford treats Marguerite’s cluelessness with a certain (if there is such a thing) kind sarcasm: “Relatives are often (perhaps more often than not) the last people on earth to know anything about each other.”
Had the term been around in her day, Marguerite would have proclaimed herself an advocate of “truthiness.” Facts were less important than gut feelings. Of Lee Harvey’s Russian wife, Marina, she declares, “Marina seems French to me.” In calling Kennedy a dying man, she declares that he was suffering from Atkinson’s disease, “a disease of the kidneys,” for which there was no cure. (In fact, it was Addison’s disease, which affects the adrenal glands and is — and was in 1963 — treatable.
Marguerite delights in an audience, and considers herself the star of her show, “A Mother in History,” her self-description that gives Stafford the title for the book. Lee Harvey’s act was merely the accident that shoved her into the spotlight. And as Stafford notes, in Marguerite’s “recitative,” “President Kennedy was little more than a deus ex machina, essential but never on stage.”
Stafford quickly realizes that Marguerite needs little prodding to get started, after which she can keep going like an Energizer bunny. After she makes a remark about the difficulty of finding housing in New York City, Stafford quips to her reader, “I agreed, even though by now I knew that she was not interested in any response of any sort to anything.” Still, Marguerite does have a few secrets she prefers to keep to herself:
“My theory is a little different, because I know who framed my son and he knows I know who framed my son”
“Is ‘he’ in Texas now?”
“I can divulge nothing on that score,” she said brusquely, but screwed up her eyes in a cordial grimace to show that she forgave my intrusion into something that was none of my beeswax.
A Mother in History is not a good — in the sense of virtuous — book. Stafford does not go out of her way to protect Marguerite Oswald from herself and clearly build this book around the spectacle of a woman blithely unaware of the possibility that others might consider her ridiculous. A harsh critic could easily dismiss it as both shameless and shameful, an upscale version of Florence Aadland’s The Big Love.
But it is a good — in the sense of absorbing — read. Foreshadowing Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the combination of Marguerite’s mania and Stafford’s sarcasm result in a book that is both fascinating and funny, in a manner worthy of the best black humor of the Sixties.
A Mother in History, by Jean Stafford
New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966
A couple of months ago, the encyclopedically knowledgeable Robert Nedelkoff emailed:
I want to bring a novel by a woman – an extremely and undeservedly neglected novel if there ever was one – to your attention: Life Signs, by Johanna Davis, nee Mankiewicz, published by Atheneum in 1973 and by Dell in paperback the next year, just after she died when she was struck by a taxicab outside her Greenwich Village apartment building at the age of 38.
You can find a reminiscence of her and a short discussion of her one book, written by Gilbert Rogin’s niece, Katie, on the Literary Mothers blog (link). It mentions she came from a “Hollywood family” of writers, but doesn’t specify that she was the daughter of the man who wrote Citizen Kane; the niece of the man who gave us All About Eve; and the aunt of TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. [Nor that her brother Frank ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign and her brother Don won the Harper Prize for his novel, Trial.
I took Robert’s suggestion and ordered a copy of Life Signs. Its opening gives a good clue to the book’s subject and Davis’ wise-cracking tone:
The way Camilla Ryder saw it: somewhere, tucked off in a back cranny of her brain, lived a tiny old lady, retired from active duty as a postal inspector but still interested in keeping her hand in. To this end, she ran a merciless, night and day operation over Camilla’s thoughts, zeroing in on any that seemed even slightly uninhibited with a furious red ink stamp. RETURN TO SENDER. The notion was improbably, if pleasing (Our Lady of the Medulla would wear Supp-Hose and an Orlon sweater set, tint her hair blue and eat off a tray), much like the explanation furnished by Camilla’s older brother for other mysteries of life; it took high school physics to finally rid her of Daniel’s persuasive visions of Lilliputian men striking and extinguishing microscopic matches inside of light bulbs, marching in and out of radios to give their news and spin records.
Camilla lives with her film-maker husband and a baby boy in a Greenwich Village apartment. She is eight months pregnant and her synapses are firing in overdrive. She regularly wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, leading her husband to suggest she see a therapist.
Despite his many affectations of sophistication, the psychiatrist’s advice is basically sound, but Camilla’s brain is in control of a particularly demonic set of little men. Another mom at the local playground sets her up with a beginner supply of amphetamines. Soon, she is having an absurd conversation with her son:
Jacob reached for her hair, making pigeon sounds. “Goo-goo,” he said. “No,” Camilla was firm. “Goo-goo is how babies go. Mommies go cuckoo.” She tucked him into clean rubber pants, and sat him up, and happy golden Kewpie doll she had won without trying. “Koo-koo,” he said. “Mommy koo-koo.” “Right,” said Camilla, unprecedented love coming at her like a flash flood as the pill hit. “Your first sentence, you smart thing. Have a zwieback.”
The novel follows Camilla through four days, until her water breaks and she delivers after a frantic taxi ride to the hospital. Though she promises her husband there will be “No more crazy salad,” within a week, she’s sleepwalking.
There are more than a few parallels between Camilla’s situation and Davis’ own. Married to a film-maker herself, she had had her own breakdown of sorts when her second child was born. Years after her death, her friend Brooke Hayward told People magazine, in an article about Davis’ husband, that “Peter literally took over the role of mother for the children.” “It was Peter who would bathe them, Peter who would pick up the groceries and Peter who often would cook. He’s a family man, and he never was anything but.”
Daughter of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, niece of director Joseph, Davis was known as Josie growing up in Hollywood. As a teenager, her closest friends were Hayward, daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan, Jane Fonda, and Jill Schary, daughter of MGM head of production Dore Schary. If the literary output of this group is any indication, Davis had plenty of the ingredients for a crazy salad of her own: Jill Schary, writing as Jill Robinson, published Bedtime Story, a memoir of drug addiction, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior; Hayward’s own memoir, Haywire, described how she wrestled with the question, “How do you cope with the fact that your parents were unfit for parenting?” Let us not forget that Fonda’s mother Frances committed suicide in a New York sanatarium when Jane was 12, and, as Jonathan Yardley put it in his review of Fonda’s autobiography, for both Jane and her brother Peter, “yearning for their father’s love has been a lifetime’s preoccupation.” And, as her cousin, producer Tom Mankiewicz, revealed in his memoir, My Life as a Mankiewicz, it was Josie who discovered the body of her aunt, actress Rose Stradner, after Stradner committed suicide in 1958. At the time, Josie was 19.
Davis seems to have had the same kind of manic energy, wit, and intelligence as her heroine. In a memorial piece for The New York Times, Richard P. Brickner wrote, “She was the most literary person imaginable, in the sense that she was a natural story-teller and a natural story. She was all alertness, all poised eye, ear, and tongue. She invented incessantly, she read people incessantly, and she narrated incessantly in conversation.” In the People piece on Peter Davis, Anne Rogin, Katie’s mother and Johanna’s roommate at Wellesley College, recalled that, “Josie took stage center when she was in the room or in your life. She was a star, and when you have someone like that, people tend to see you as a satellite.”
In her Times article, Nora Johnson wrote that Camilla and similar women in such novels as Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends (1970), Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), Alix Kate Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), “Have been driven mad not by men, but by the social principles of the patriarchy, so familiar as to be almost invisible. We dwell uncomfortably with those softer, more humanistic principles so hard to tease out and explain or understand, which are historically women’s. These are, besides, unpopular, unworkable, even ridiculous.”
I wouldn’t say that Camilla finds a workable resolution for her own situation. Her story ends before we have the chance to find out. Davis herself may have achieved some resolve by writing Life Signs. Unfortunately, her own story ended too soon, too. She was killed on 25 July 1974 near her apartment in Greenwich Village when two taxis collided in an intersection and one careened onto the sidewalk where she was walking with her 11 year old son, Timothy. Timothy was uninjured but the cab struck Davis and threw her into a mailbox, causing a fatal blow to her head. Davis was survived by Timothy, Nicholas, then 9, and her husband.
Life Signs, by Johanna Davis
New York: Atheneum, 1973
We sit by stone and ivy leaves
For flute and oboe’s disquisition;
The evening, after heat, receives
This gentle Middle West rendition.
The foursquare walls of courtyard cup
Two funnels at their intersection,
The music running down and up
On lukewarm currents of convection,
So that the twin parabola
Of clarinettists’ conversation
May tunnel for mandragora
Or plummet to a constellation.
The body may be earthed or skied,
But mind, extrinsic to seduction,
Spreads out into a thin glass slide,
Incising music’s cones of suction.
Leave those twinkling points to pair
With ground bass in a Bach Invention
Cry me not up to meet them there —
I balance on my disc of air —
In a glass darkly I shall stare
At inklings of a fourth dimension.
fromPoems, 1947-1961, by Elizabeth Sewell
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1962
In his foreword to The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), Sir John Gielgud writes, “I have always felt that Ruth Draper was (with Martha Graham) the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” Yet, despite the fact that her career spanned the eras of sound recordings, radio, films, and television, virtually no trace of her performances now remains aside from a few recordings she made — with some reluctance — in 1954, less than two years before she died. These recordings have recently been remastered and are available at www.drapermonologues.com. Their release led Michael Feingold, writing on TheaterMania.com, to call Draper “America’s Greatest Woman Playwright (Maybe)” and inspired Annette Benning to recreate four of them in a 2014 show at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
One of her performances, before a 1954 meeting of the Community Service Society, is available online at the WNYC Archives. In “Three Generations From the Court of Domestic Relations,” which she first performed in 1919, Draper appears as the 79 year old Anna Abrahams, then as Anna’s daughter, Sadie Greenman (47), and finally, as Rosie Greenman (19), Sadie’s daughter. The three women are speaking with a judge, and it gradually emerges that Rosie is trying to convince the judge to direct that her mother and grandmother be put in a home for elderly women so she and her boyfriend can leave for some small town out West where he’s been promised a job. All we hear is Draper’s voice, of course, but from that alone — her changing accents, diction, vocabulary, emotional tenor — that she transforms completely in the course of a 20-minute performance.
She explained her inspiration in an early — and rare – interview with a Boston reporter in 1925:
I used to know a City Magistrate who presided in the Domestic Relations Court, and he told me I could come and sit with him when I wanted to and see what was going on. That’s where I saw the old Jewish woman. In real life, though, the situation was not the same as it is in the stage sketch. The old woman’s daughter and her granddaughter wanted to have her sent away. I thought that was less interesting than placing the stress on the attitude of the youngest generation, so I built the sketch around the young woman, instead of the old one.
Despite the fact that she played poor women in many of her monologues, Draper was accustomed from birth to the society of the wealthy and famous. Her father was a successful surgeon in New York City and her mother was the daughter of Charles A. Dana, editor and part owner of The New York Sun. She attended an exclusive girls’ school, came out as a debutante in 1902, and was active in the Junior League. She would later use her insider knowledge of society women to devastating effect in such pieces as “The Italian Lesson,” “A Debutante at a Dance,” and “A Cocktail Party.”
But she had shown a flair for performance from a young age, and a family friend, the great Polish pianist Paderewski, encouraged her to pursue her passion: “You must do this professionally,” he told her in 1910. “You must make the decision. It must come from you, from inside.” She began by performing short one-person skits of her own creation at private functions at the homes of society friends around New York, and quickly gained a reputation as something of a phenomenon. Henry Adams saw her perform in Washington, D.C. in 1911 and wrote thereafter, “She is a little genius and quite fascinates me.”
In 1913, she traveled to England, where she appeared at parties hosted by society dames and ladies of the nobility. Her audiences included, on different occasions, King George V and Queen Mary and Prime Minister Henry Asquith. While in London, she became friends with Henry James, who once remarked to her, “My dear young friend, you have woven yourself a magic carpet — stand on it!” James even wrote a sketch for her, though Draper never attempted to perform it. The artist John Singer Sargent made several sketches of her, including the one featured on the cover of The Letters of Ruth Draper, which shows her in costume for the sketch, The Scottish Immigrant at Ellis Island.
She returned home to America just before World War One broke out, and her mother died a few weeks after her arrival. She toured the country performing on behalf of War Relief Benefits, and, for the only time in her career, acted as a member of a full cast in a Cyril Harcourt play, A Lady’s Name. The experience quickly convinced her that she should only perform solo, and in works she had written and conceived herself. In October 1918, she returned to England and then, on the day after Armistice, crossed to France.
For the next eight months, she toured American Army camps, entertaining the troops. She returned to England and resumed making the rounds of private homes, but her experience of performing before the soldiers had given her confidence that her art could appeal to more than just the wealthy and privileged. In January 1920, she booked Aeolian Hall in London for a single performance, and the reviews encouraged her to book it for five more in May 1920. This run rocketed her to success. “She is a hit of the season,” wrote The Observer, and The Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer proclaimed:
The art of Miss Draper stands alone…. To hold an audience enthralled for nearly two hours with this brand of dramatic art, without the aid of properties, music or scenery, is indeed a triumph. There is no doubt that her listeners would cheerfully have allowed Mis Draper to continue indefinitely.
The letters in The Letters of Ruth Draper begin at this point and continue over the course of the next 36 years, up to just two weeks before her death, at the age of 72, in 1956. Throughout these decades, she travelled all over the world, performing constantly. As Morton Dauwen Zabel writes in the memoir that introduces The Art of Ruth Draper: Her Dramas and Characters (1960), which can be found in electronic form on the Internet Archive (link):
She performed wherever her travels took her — in theatres, in halls, in drawing-rooms, in college auditoriums, in a country store in New Mexico, in a ship’s salon. She carried none of the enormous equipment of scenery, lights, costumes, managers, impresarios, and paraphernalia the great Frenchwoman [Sarah Bernhardt] required. She travelled through six continents and over thousands of miles by land, sea, and air without retinue, staff, or company, carrying all the equipment she needed in a few dress-cases or hat-boxes and the most rudimentary of make-up kits.
When the French actor and producer, Lugné-Poe, who assisted Draper in arranging her tours over the next twenty years, first approached her about appearing at his theater, he asked her how many assistants and other cast members she would need. “Non, oh non,” she answered. “Je suis seule. Je n’ai besoin de personne. Seule, moi. Un rideau [curtain], seul.” The simplicity of her needs is demonstrated by a sample of the stage requirements listed in an appendix to The Art of Ruth Draper:
A Class in Greek Poise:
A plain straight chair, and a small plain table.
Christmas Eve on the Embankment at Night:
A plain low wooden bench, if possible of weathered appearance.
A Cocktail Party:
A drawing-room chair with or without arms, and a low coffee-table.
A Dalmatian Peasant in the Hall of a New York Hospital:
A plain straight office chair.
A Debutante at a Dance:
A large roomy upholstered or overstuffed armchair.
Doctors and Diets:
A small rectangular table to serve as a restaurant table, and a straight restaurant chair.
She could … arrive at the theatre twenty to thirty minutes before curtain time. She would glance at her mail, ask her stage manager which “sketches” were on her program for that performance, and then, with the help of her dresser, slip out of her dress or suit, and don her pinkish kimono while she supllemented — really only strengthened — her makeup: a little blue eye-shadow, the minimum of mascara and brown eye pencil and rouge — very little — dark lipstick shaped on with her fingertip, powder with a rabbit’s foot or soft brush. She simply wore her own face — her primary tool of expression. Dark brown wavy hair, large brown eyes compelling, expressive, and all-seeing, skin clear with a tone slightly — very slightly — tawny.
Then into her stage dress: brown or beige lace, a dark brown velvet, always sleeveless, basic, unobtrusive, to which could be added shawls or bits of costume for her characterizations. A final glance in the mirror and she walked quickly out to the wing where her dresser had laid out on a table the “costumes” and props for that performance, put on the necessary items; the curtain rose, and with a final word to whomever she was chatting with, she walked into the stage lights — a different character and personality. No more than that, no rehearsal, no moment of reflection or of gathering herself together.
Despite the fact that she was among the best-paid and most in-demand actresses of her day, Draper was little interested in publicity. The playwright Russel Crouse, who worked as her first press agent, once wrote that, “It was a strange association for she did not want any publicity, refused to see me half the time, and every thing I did to help her sell out, which she did, I did in spite of her.” She would do her part by performing, Warren writes, “but personal interviews, details of her off-stage self, most definitely not!” She once called publicity “only a sham sort of literature, pre-digested by someone else for ‘ready reading.'”
In part, the simple pace of her career kept the scope of her private life limited. Of the hundreds of letters published in The Letters of Ruth Draper, the majority are to a few of her close friends and relatives. But when she did have a great romance, it turned out more dramatic than any of her pieces. In early 1928, while appearing in Rome (among Draper’s talents was an ability to perform with equal facility in English, Italian, French, and German), she met Lauro de Bosis, a poet, scientist, and classical scholar. She was 43, he 26, but they were immediately drawn to each other. De Bosis pursued her in earnest, but Draper was filled with self-doubts. After some weeks together, she returned to the U.S., in some confusion. “My great object is to stop thinking — stop worrying — rejoice in the fact that I am loved — in the wonder of my life with its richness and beauty. I seemingly have everything — yet I can’t grasp it — that’s my trouble.
De Bosis followed her a few months later, taking a post with the Italy-America Society in New York City. He and Draper spent many days together, and when she boarded a ship for a tour of Europe the next spring, de Bosis travelled with her. By late 1929, they were considering marriage, but events intruded on their plans. A passionate anti-Fascist, de Bosis abruptly decided in June 1930 to give up his post and returned to Italy, where he began organizing a resistance group, Alleanza Nazionale. It soon attracted the attention of Mussolini’s police, and while de Bosis was away in New York settling his affairs, they arrested two of his associates, searched his mother’s house, and, upon finding incriminating letters, arrested her, too.
Signora de Bosis was released after she signed a letter to Mussolini denying any sympathies for the anti-Fascist cause, but the situation made it impossible for de Bosis to return to Italy. Instead, he moved to Paris, taking a job as a concierge to survive and working with other exiles to organize support against the regime. Inspired by a bold daylight flight by a fellow radical, Giovanni Bassanesi, during which he scattered anti-Mussolini leaflets over Milan, de Bosis began taking flying lessons and bought himself a small airplane. On 3 October 1931, he took off from Marseilles with less than a full tank of fuel, having told the ground crew that he was headed for Barcelona. Instead, he headed for Rome, where he dropped leaflets and circled the city for half an hour before heading out to sea. He was never seen again.
His fate was unknown for some time. Two weeks after his departure, Draper wondered to a friend “if Lauro should call me up perhaps from Spain, or South America, or Egypt.” By early November, howerver, it was clear that he had crashed somewhere at sea, most likely having run out of fuel somewhere between Italy and Corsica. Though she grieved for the loss, she committed to carry on: “O well, I must grit my teeth and know one can’t recall the past, and have a second chance — with all my weaknessses and failures he loved me — and regretted nothing — that I know. By early January 1932, she was touring again, appearing in a series of twelve one-week engagements throughout Great Britain.
And tour she continued to do, despite the travel restrictions of a world war, for the rest of her life. In the last twelve months before her death, she performed in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Scotland, London, The Hague, Vienna, Italy, and Paris. When she couldn’t cross the Atlantic two or three times a year, as had been her habit, she settled for crossing the U.S. by train, appearing everywhere from Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington. A few weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, she wrote enthusiastically to Corinne Robinson (mother of columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop) from Minot, North Dakota:
We go to such funny places, and now and then to a friend and luxury and comfort, and in spite of the bad hot air I do like trains! I have superb audiences everywhere, and the response is terrific. New people, young people, alert and keen and warm, and it’s very gratifying…. No worry about advertising, no risk, and assured packed house everything with the “best people” in town and, what I love, the youth! The high school and civic auditoriums I simply hate, but that’s where concerts are held, so I have to bear it, but the audiences seem wild with delight, and it’s a wonderful satisfaction.
By the early 1950s, her place in the world of the arts was so respected that she was awarded a CBE in 1951 and invited to give a private performance at a gala dinner at Windsor Castle. As she ended her last piece, The Scottish Immigrant, she slipped and fell flat on her back. “I managed to get up rather gracefully considering the shock,” she wrote her niece, “and the first persons who came forward were the Queen and both Princesses.”
Such exalted recognition did not lessen her appeal, however, as a young Kenneth Tynan wrote in one of his Observer reviews:
I want to declare Miss Draper open to the new generation of playgoers, and to trample on their suspicions, which I once shared, that she might turn out to be a museum-piece, ripe for the dust-sheet and oblivion. She is, on the contrary, about as old-fashioned and mummified as spring, and as I watched her perform her thronging monologues the other night, I could only conclude that this was the best and most modern group acting I had ever seen….
I have an idea that, at the back of her mind, Miss Draper is hoping still to find a company of actors skillful enough to stand up to comparison with the accuracy, tact, and wisdom of her technique. She is actually doing her
contemporaries a great kindness by not exposing them to such a hazard.
The Scottish Immigrant, which Draper first performed in 1912, was also her very last monologue. On December 29, 1956, the fifth night of what was intended to be a four-week season at the Playhouse Theatre, just off Broadway, she complained to her assistant at one point that, “I just went blank — and kept on talking. I never did that before.” She closed the show with her piece about the girl from the Highlands arriving at Ellis Island to join her fiance, rushing off stage at the end, calling out, “Sandy, my Sandy — I’m here!” Afterward, she asked to be driven to see the Christmas lights in the city, then went home for supper. Her maid found her in bed the next morning, dead from a heart attack.
While her work has inspired several generations of performers, including Lily Tomlin, Spaulding Gray, and Julia Sweeney, and continues to be celebrated, her decision to devote herself strictly to live performances has ensured that Ruth Draper will forever be something of a neglected genius. As David Benson remarked in connection with a 2002 BBC Radio 4 tribute to her work:
If you want to be immortal you must be in films – the best theatre dies with its audience and the best telly and even radio disappears after a while. But movies are forever. Ruth Draper made no films, apart from a few experimental tests with Alexander Korda which were never used. It is a great shame, as the audio recordings, brilliant though they are, only give us half the magic of her work. We miss seeing what she did.
The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), edited by Neilla Warren
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979
If I am at all an expert on planning, painful experience rather than astounding success has brought it about. I am learning, however, and I think I can share with you what I have learned, which is basically this: Begin by understanding the purpose of planning.
The purpose of planning is not to hem you in, not to make you toe the line and meet schedules, not to inhibit all those impulses to follow sudden inspirations. The purpose of planning is to eliminate dithering, to free you of small daily decisions and to disengage your mind from concerns other than the one immediately at hand. The purpose of planning is also to assure you, before you begin, that you actually have something substantial worth writing. If you are an impulsive writer constantly beginning with great ideas that somehow dwindle away into nothingness and have to be abandoned, you may need to plan your work, simply to find out whether you have anything there to write. If you can’t put the gist of it into some kind of outline or statement, maybe you don’t have any gist: and it’s better to find this out before you start page one rather than after you finish page twenty.
But all plans should be flexible and roomy. Work should be planned flexibly enough to allow the mind to play and move freely. Time should be planned flexibly enough to allow for diversions and delays. Rigidity and creativity are incompatible. Cast-iron chapter plans and cast-iron schedules for writing them are fine — if you have to be a talented computer. If you are human, something closer to Play-Doh or Silly Putty would be more suitable.
The virtue of planning is that once you have an outline or a schedule made, you can give full attention to the page in front of you, knowing that you have allocated and organized properly for the pages still to come. In other words, plan ahead — and then stop looking ahead.
To Writers, with Love, by Lesley Conger
Boston: The Writer, Inc., 1971
The Department Store: A Novel of Today was German novelist Margarete Böhme’s magnum opus, five hundred pages long and stocked with nearly as many characters as flowed through the doors of the great Berlin store, Müllenmeister’s Emporium, around which the story centers. Böhme is remembered today for her novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Girl) (1905), which purported to be the authentic journal of a young woman forced by circumstances into prostitution. A huge best-seller in its time, it was twice filmed, the second version (1929) directed by G. W. Pabst and starring the iconic American silent film actress, Louise Brooks.
Reviewing the novel in The Bookman, Frederick Taber Cooper found it hard to believe that, “with such a thoroughly virile grasp of the theme, and strong, bold, unflinching portrayal of its dramatic elements,” the book could have been written by a woman:
It contains the life history of a dozen families, in all the various social strata of the Prussian capital, a sweeping and comprehensive bird’s-eye view of German manners and customs, in the social world and half-world alike….
You are not merely made to see the surge and rush of bargain day, the disciplined army of clerks working, like the separate cogs and wheels in some monster machine, driven at full pressure, the eager crowds, pushing, jostling, laughing, frowning, catching the contagion of the hour, yielding to the shopping craze — you not only see all this, but you become actually part of it; you feel yourself caught and drawn along, gasping and breathless, in the very thick of the press, you almost start to take out your own pocket-book and buy recklessly of things that you in no wise want!
The Department Store, an electronic copy of which can be found on the Internet Archive (link), is something of the flip side of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) (1883), in which the great Paris department store, modeled on Le Bon Marché, is portrayed as a symbol of the abundance and extravagance of the Industrial Age at its height, and in which the owner/entrepeneur is won over by the beauty and virtue of one of his shopgirls.
While Böhme’s emporium overflows with just as many goods as Zola’s, its celebration of capitalism is undermined by a sense of corruption and shoddiness. The store’s furniture shines as brilliantly as those in the most exclusive shops, but its manufacture and materials are cheap and unreliable. The underpaid salesgirls spend ten or twelve hours a day standing behind their counters, while shop chiefs keep the stock boys and warehousemen scurrying back and forth without relief. And the shopgirl with whom the young heir to the store falls in love proves craven and unfaithful. While not quite a radical novel, it’s not too many steps from the kind of stories of worker exploitation and organized labor that were just beginning to appear.
The Department Store was one of the very first books reviewed by the young Cicely Fairfield under her new pen name of Rebecca West, in The Freewoman. West made her opinion of department stores plain from the start: “A great department store is an offensive thing, because it pretends that trade is carried on in a dignified manner. The strong towers and wide façades of these immense shops make believe that Commerce has become a god, for whom it is meet to build a temple: whereas, in its present-day development, it is a vampire, to be buried at the cross-roads, with a stake through its heart.”
Unlike The Ladies’ Paradise, which she called “a miracle of sensuous perception,” Böhme’s won West’s respect as “the brooding of a masterful intellect over a social phenomenon.” Where Zola’s heroine is near saintliness in her virtue, Böhme’s leading female character, Agnes Matrei, is “the woman who is the kind of flower that grows in that hot-house: hardly a woman, rather some phantom formed from the unwholesome mist that rises from the marsh by moonlight.” In West’s estimation, the novel was “an absorbingly interesting book.”
Not everyone had such a high opinion of The Department Store, though. Borrowing his metaphor from the book’s subject, The New York Times’ reviewer dismissed it by writing that “In a shop one can get pretty nearly everything under the same roof and carry on a successful business; but the same tactics do not good in writing a novel.”
Having taken up writing as a way to make a living after she divorced her husband in 1900, Margarete Böhme went on to publish a total of forty novels over the space of the next twenty-some years. By the time of her death, however, none of her books were in print, her most famous novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, having been banned from republication by the Nazi Party for its disreputable portrait of German womanhood. It was resurrected a few years ago in both German and English editions featuring stills from Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl.
The Department Store, by Margarete Böhme, translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne
New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1912
In the course of this year of devoting my time to reading and writing about neglected books by women, one genre that has particularly captivated me is the autobiography. Like many men, I find women a subject of endless fascination and every piece of autobiographical writing by a woman seems to be an opportunity to understand just a little better these extraordinary creatures who share my habitat. In my search for lost books, I’ve come across a rich trove of autobiographies and memoirs written by women over the last 150 years, assembling a list of titles that could easily keep me going for another couple of years.
A few women have found autobiography an especially fruitful form and carried on from a first volume for three, four, or even more. I’ve discussed Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs here earlier this year, and will have to find time soon to mention G. B. Stern’s equal number of … well, let’s call them logo-psycho-philosophic-autobiographical rambles for the lack of a precise label. Marie Belloc Lowndes, best remembered for the novel that was the basis of Hitchcock first great silent film, The Lodger, wrote four volumes of autobiography in the last years of her life, while Anthony Powell’s wife, Lady Violet Powell, wrote her four volumes over the span of more than fifty years. But here I want to mention two trilogies of memoirs, both out of print, and both well worth rediscovering.
• Janet Frame
It’s a little astonishing to see that New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiographies are out of print. Frame’s life is a testament to the challenges and rewards of not fitting in. Her behavior as an adolescent was considered eccentric at the time, but in hindsight seems more understandable given what was going on around her (two sisters died of drowning, two brothers regularly suffered epileptic seizures). After a difficult time while attending college, she attempted suicide, and, not long after that, was committed to the psychiatric ward of her local hospital for observation. She spent much of the next eight years in mental hospitals, receiving 200 electroshock treatments. But she also began writing and publishing, starting with short stories, and was saved from a schedule lobotomy when it was announced that her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951), had been selected for the Hubert Church Memorial Award.
Frame left New Zealand in 1956 and lived in England and Europe before returning home in 1963. She published numerous novels and short story collections and her reputation as one of the leading figures in contemporary fiction grew, particularly as she was able to grapple with issues about madness, loneliness, and the destruction of language and meaning. In the late 1970s, she began writing her autobiography, which was published in three volumes between 1982 and 1985: To the Is-Land (1982), Angel at My Table (1984), and Envoy from Mirror City (1985). Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White said the books ranked “amongst the wonders of the world.” When the trilogy was published in a single volumen in 1990, English biographer Michael Holroyd called them “One of the greatest autobiographies written this century.” In his Sunday Times review, Holroyd described the books as, “A journey from luminous childhood, through the dark experiences of supposed madness, to the renewal of her life through writing fiction. It is a heroic story, and told with such engaging tone, humorous perspective and imaginative power.” In the same year, Jane Campion directed a wonderful film, An Angel at My Table, and the two events brought Frame worldwide acclaim.
• Kate Simon
Simon was born Kaila Grobsmith in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw ghetto, came to the U. S. with her family in steerage at the age of 4, and grew up in the Tremont section of the Bronx. After graduating from Hunter College, she went to work as a journalist, and, beginning in the 1950s, as a travel writer. Her first memoir, which recalls in a vivid but utterly unnostalgic manner her experiences growing up, was titled Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood. It was selected as one of the twelve best books of 1982 by The New York Times Book Review and one of the five best of the year by Time. A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence, was published in 1986, and dealt frankly with her early sexual experiences, which included brushes with lesbian faculty members and living with a man outside of marriage–both of which were generally considered shocking and rarely discussed at the time. The last volume, Etchings in an Hourglass (1990), was written as she was suffering from the cancer that took her life, and described her travels and adventures–cultural and sexual–in places such as Mexico, India, Italy, and France. It also dealt with death of her first husband, her sister, her daughter (at the age of 19)–all of brain tumors–and her own, which she referred to as “The Bone Man.” Throughout all three books, Simon is candid, open-minded, self-deprecating, cosmopolitan, and a thoroughly engaging narrator.
Walk on over the leaf-patterned carpet, under the gas lamps, and there is Pickwick and Sam Weller in a huge gilt frame. It hangs above the piano. This is a busy room. There is a “dado” of landscapes near the ceiling. And pictures of landscapes on either side of the great Pickwick. I have a recent yearning for pictorial pictures again. To stand and look far back to distant mountains, to which tiny boats are heading, and on the shore tiny people picnic, while near at hand a family group of peasants — or of wealthy sightseers — gesticulate, smiling or sad, dangling long ribboned hats. patting long-haired, carefully painted dogs. The storytelling picture, the romantic painting — but at least doing something. Not blobs of color.
There are tall vases on the mantel, a shiny black bust of Beethoven on the piano. The chairs have carved legs, flowered seats, curved rockers; antlers sprout from the walls; flowers sprout from flowered vases. The Mexican vase is there. The bookcases have glass doors. Parlors, hallways, living rooms all seem to flow every which way, kept in order by massive sliding doors with square carved panels. There is so much going on in silence!
Josephine Johnson wrote Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places when she was in her sixties, and it’s a memoir constructed around the unusual framework of the seven houses in which she had spent most of her life to that point. The daughter and granddaughter of prosperous St. Louis merchants, she grew up in a household full of sisters and aunts but dominated by strong male figures. She took early to writing, but was astonished to learn she’d won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, Now in November, in 1935.
And despite this success, as she writes in Seven Houses, “I seemed to be waiting to begin to live, and not all the beauty, all the intensity of the words on paper … all the desperate search for reform and change, the bitterness of the depression years, not the love for my sisters nor the tortuous refining of personal philosophy, seemed to be the reality of living that I wanted to find.” Despite establishing herself as a successful writer and growing up around strong women, her outlook was still dominated by the need for a strong male figure: “And then I met Grant Cannon and the waiting to live was over and the real life began.”
Seven Housess was written not long after Johnson published The Inland Island (1969), a book that some have compared to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book very much about the impact of landscape on the writer’s life and perceptions. And, ironically, despite its title, Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places is as much about the landscapes and seasons outside as it is about the things that went on inside. “But there was too much house, too little land,” she writes of a house she shared with Cannon and their children for over ten years. At times, Johnson seems to be struggling to understand where she wants to go with her memoir, but even in its occasional disorientation, Seven Houses is a unique and often moving reflection on life in all its elements.
Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places, by Josephine W. Johnson
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1973
When Barbara Deming published this study of the American dream as portrayed in American films of the 1940s, she had spent over a decade speaking, writing, organizing, marching, and being imprisoned for the causes of racial and sexual equality and non-violent resistance. The same “strange split in consciousness” she saw in some of the movies she had watched and written about twenty years before was now on display at the national and global level: the United States applying all its economic and military power to fight the North Vietnamese at the same time it proclaimed support for the average Joe. “Believe in me or I will have to destroy you!” is how she summed up the philosophy of the Hollywood stereotype she labelled “Success Boy” in the late 1940s. By 1969, she was watching Success Boy becoming a political predilection she felt compelled to resist.
Deming had written by book — subtitled “A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the 40’s” — in the late 1940s, after working as a film analyst for the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1948, during which she estimates she watched a quarter of all Hollywood film features released. While viewing each film, she took extensive notes in shorthand, sometimes directly transcribing onscreen action and dialogue. As a result, her discussion of most films covered is deep and detailed. Unlike a lot of books devoted to films, particularly film noir, this is not a grazer’s guide. After reading her analysis of now well-worn classics such as Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will not only want to see them again, but you will see them through Deming’s eyes–even if not always accepting her interpretation.
“All the characters whom I trace in Running Away From Myself can be seen to be products of a deep crisis of faith.” The 1940s are often seen as the golden age of Hollywood, when many of the mythic figures that came to epitomize American culture–Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Gary Cooper–had their heyday. Deming’s view is considerably less rosy: “Virgil describes Hell to Dante as that blind world in which the good of the intellect has been surrendered. His words could also be used to describe the darkened world of the movie theater.” The act of sitting in a darkened theater–“playing a more passive role than he does in relation to any other art”–makes the viewer more suggestible, more open to manipulation. In these chapters, Deming often reaches over to her fellow moviegoers and challenges them: “What’s really going on here?” she demands.
On the other hand, for someone who so immersed herself in film, Deming is quite removed from the actual business and process of film-making. The fact that there was a whole studio system, with armies of writers, stars often locked into pretty narrow boundaries of roles and images, the need to generate a constant stream of new material to keep people going to theaters two or three times a week, and a strong drive to make movies that set American life and values in contrast to those of Fascism and Communism, is rarely acknowledged. And I have to wonder, after reading Running Away From Myself, whether Deming actually knew anyone directly involved with film-making when she wrote this book. She’s also quite selective in what she does and doesn’t cover. It’s striking that neither of the huge classics from 1946–The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life–are mentioned.
Still, if you love films–and especially if you love to dig into films, to treat them as more than just escapism–Running Away From Myself is a satisfying read. Whether you always agree with Deming’s analysis or not, you cannot argue that she doesn’t consistently reveal how much more is going on than the simple story playing out onscreen.
Running Away From Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the Forties, by Barbara Deming
New York City: Grossman Publishers, 1969
Reading All That Seemed Final, I was often reminded of another multi-player London novel I’ve listened to as audiobooks in the last year–John Lanchester’s Capital. Both books interweave the stories of a cast of characters over the space of roughly one year, switching from one to another from chapter to chapter, and drawing many links between the “Big H” history going around them and the immediate facts and issues of their own lives. And, as with Capital, throughout All That Seemed Final, I kept asking myself: “This is wonderfully entertaining, but is it more than that?”
I was perhaps jaded from having read several reviews that criticized Lanchester’s book for being somewhat superficial, for playing tried-and-true cards like death and bankruptcy for easy emotions. After listening to the book, however, I have to disagree, if only on by the simple litmus test of how much I still recall so much of its story and mood nearly a year later. And–with the exception of a few lightweight characters–I think I will be able to say the same of All That Seemed Final a year from now.
The story opens in the Spring of 1939, just as the flowers in St. James’ Park are beginning to bud and Hitler is invading Czechoslovakia. Colebrook introduces her cast in midstream–hosting a party for charity, heading home on a crowded bus, wondering whether to end an affair or a marriage. Quite a few are on the margins of society–a minor art critic, a shell-shocked veteran clerking in a tobacco firm. If they take note of the headlines about the possibility of war, it is, of course, only to wonder what inconveniences it might bring. “Will they intern my wonderful cook for being Austrian?” frets an aging femme fatale. Those most have memories of the last war, they are (the former soldier aside) as something fought “over there,” leading them to assume the next will also be somewhat distant from their own lives.
Colebrook takes her title from Proust: “Thus the face of things in life changes, the center of empires, the register of fortunes, the chart of positions, all that seemed final, are perpetually remoulded, and during his lifetime a man can witness the completest changes just where those seemed to him the least possible.” And, to the credit of her originality, not all of the changes that come to Colebrook’s characters result simply from the outbreak of war. While the slick and successful painter finds substance and moral fiber within when he joins the Army, the adulterous wife is forced to a decision for reasons quite apart from the events around her. Although all feel themselves to be in a sort of limbo, for some the uncertainty contains more promise than dread. But Colebrook also shows, with great skill, the crushing fear of pain and destruction felt by a few for whom the waiting is the worst ordeal of all.
All That Seemed Final received positive reviews went it came out in the fall of 1941. Writing in The New York Times, Marianne Hauser called it “a fine, clever book, well written and thoroughly convincing.” But timing was against its success: English readers were already caught up in the war and American readers soon had problems of their own to worry about. The book has never been reissued.
Colebrook, who was born and raised in Australia, emigrated to England in the mid-1930s, and felt moved to write the book in frustration with “this callous and rather hopeless disregard of the obvious fact that Europe was again drifting toward open conflict.” It was not until she moved to America in late 1940, however, that she was able to finish the novel. She wrote just one other work of fiction, The Northerner (1948), which was set in rural Australia. She worked as a journalist and, on occasion, as a social worker, in New York City. She published three works of nonfiction, including The Cross of Lassitude (1967), a study of juvenile delinquency. She died in 1991 at the age of 80.
All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company
Sibyl Sue Blue is an undercover cop who wears chartreuse mini-skirts, rouges her knees, smokes cigars, and knows how to take the wind out of an obstreperous Centaurian with a quick sledge-hammer swing of her handbag. Nearing forty, she’s passing as the girlfriend of a high schooler, thanks to a wig, cheek pieces and an occasional dab of skin-tightening cream. Though she carries a torch for her husband Kenneth, who was lost on a failed expedition to the planet Radix some years ago, she’s ready to go after the right man, if she finds him attractive. She reads Thucydides in original Greek while grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch. And she’s a single mother trying to raise a high schooler herself while keeping the streets clear of benzale dealers.
Sibyl Sue Blue can be sold as a long-forgotten cross between Barbarella and Modesty Blaise. It’s fast, violent, sexy, and adventurous, the sort of thing that could easily be translated into a camp but savvy film. There are fights and plenty of them–Sibyl is a walking poster girl for proactive self-defense. There’s a wild ride through a spooky night, with Sibyl and a cohort clinging onto the roof rack of a speeding car. There’s a space ship trip to Radix, during which Sibyl falls in and out of love with its billionaire playboy captain.
And there is a relatively effective attempt to depict a planet-encircling organic intelligence, something Stanislaw Lem had already done in his as-yet (in 1966) untranslated masterpiece, Solaris. But the promise of the novel is undermined by too much scope stuffed into what is basically a whodunnit with exotic trappings. Brown rushes to bring her story to an end in under 200 pages and left out more story construction material than might be safe. Imagine watching Barbarella on fast forward and you might get the idea. A narrative shouldn’t go so fast that the reader is left somewhere between disoriented and disinterested.
Sibyl Sue Blue was Rosel George Brown’s first novel and was originally published as part of Doubleday’s science fiction series. At the time, Brown was living in New Orleans with her husband, Tulane history professor W. Burlie Brown, and their two boys. The couple had met while Rosel was studying Greek as an undergraduate at Sophie Newcomb College, which was associated with Tulane.
Brown began writing short stories in the late 1950s, publishing her first, “From an Unseen Censor,” in Galaxy magazine in 1958, and went on to publish nearly two dozen in similar SF magazines over the next six years. A selection of these were collected in A Handful of Time in 1963. She collaborated with Keith Laumer on Earthblood (1966), and followed soon after with her own Sibyl Sue Blue. Unfortunately, she died less than a year later of lymphoma. Her husband assembled material for a second Sibyl Sue Blue she had been working on prior to her death and sold it to Doubleday, which published it as The Waters Of Centaurus in 1970. One of Brown’s early short stories, “Step IV,” is available online at Project Gutenberg (link).
Sibyl Sue Blue (later reissued as Galatic Sibyl Sue Blue), by Rosel George Brown
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966
The education of myself began one day in March at the University of Chicago. It happened suddenly during the spring term of my junior year. I was eighteen years old and I saw a blinding light. That day I went into the university bookstore and bought two notebooks, one of them to hold a list of books that was beginning to gather in my head. Yesterday a professor had murmured a lovely title, The Golden Treasury, which became my first entry, page 1. The second entry was Bernard Hart’s The Psychology of Insanity, though I have forgotten now why I wanted to read it.
For the second notebook I had no clear plan except to put it to immediate use. When I returned to my room, I thought for a while and then wrote on the inside cover, “Chiefly about Life.” The book, secret and indispensable, became a major part of my education. Thereafter, anything I read, in a book, magazine, or newspaper, was a possible source of material. It might contain powerful and enlightened words that I could copy into my notebook.
Heaven pardon my taste, but at least it was catholic. From Carl Van Vechten’s current popular novel Peter Whiffle, I wrote, “A man with a broad taste in food is inclined to be tolerant in regard to everything,” and believing tolerance to be a good thing, I stopped disliking any food. Out of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s silliest volume, Flappers and Philosophers, I took this: “All life is just a progression toward and then a regression from one phrase, ‘I love you.'” From Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, I noted and learned by heart what happiness is: “Happiness therefore is that estate whereby we attain, so far as possibly may be attained, the full possession of that which simply for itself is to be desired, and containeth in it, after an eminent sort, the contentation of our desires, the highest degree of all our perfection.”
I set down Miltons prayer to the heavenly muse: “What in me is dark/Illumine,” and wrote in large letters from Peer Gynt, “Troll, to thyself be enough.” Occasionally, I even quoted my professors if, like Professor Percy Boynton, they were given to aphorisms: “I dissent from the rather fatuous dictum that all the world loves a lover. Most of us are bored and embarrassed by him.”
It was the first of my notebooks, all chiefly about life. Since that spring I have always kept one to catch the powerful words, wherever they are. When found, I have a note of. Sometimes lately I am aware that time has brought real changes to my mind and to the tone of my selections, which tend to lack there former earnestness and sobriety. Only yesterday, I came across a useful quotation from Max Beerbohm, another definition of what happiness is. He called it “a four-post bed in a field of poppies and mandragora.”
Presented here to introduce Exertos.com, an off-shoot of this site, that is my own electronic equivalent to Helen Bevington’s notebooks: an Internet common-place book whose entries have in common only that I found them interesting and that they can usually be read in a minute or two.
Negative Entropy or
The Third Law of Thermodynamics or
How It is We Keep Alive
We feed on crystals, feast on minerals,
Batten, upon the moon, consume the stars
And through the channels of our love drain off
The sun’s heat and the whole world’s energy.
The crocus and the oak, the elephant,
The long-tailed tit, the taxidermist’s owl,
Our eyes, our hair, our nails, all, all the same
Millions of indistinguishable atoms
Chaos in single numbers, order in milliards.
Only the passionate indestructible pattern
Of the all-but-eternal molecule, carries the key.
Locked in its heart lies the secret
To grow from the acorn the oak,
From the corm the year’s yellow crocus,
From the fertilised cell the elephant,
From the egg the tit or the owl,
From eyes our children’s eyes, from hair their hair
And from our nails their same peculiar nails.
Each greedy of life resists death,
Sucks sustenance from the desert;
Devours the rock and the ruby.
Until we cool to our end
And dying provide new fires
For love and fresh generation.
from The Lightning Struck Tower, by Sheila Shannon
London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1947
A few readers have contacted me to recommend neglected books by women writers for me to consider as part of my theme for this year, and some of the most interesting suggestions have in common the fact that they were all issued as cheap popular paperbacks, and a few as originals. So let me dive into my favorite section in the bookstore, those shelves full of paperbacks from the days before anyone had dreamed up the concept of trade editions.
Bruce Durocher II wrote to recommend this, a comic Western from Lee Hoffman, who was better known as a science fiction writer, but who cut her teeth in the 1960s with a series of Western novels, both silly and serious. Her 1967 novel, The Valdez Horses, won the Spur Award as Best Western Novel from the Western Writers of America. Blackjack Sam, however, was inspired by Ace Books editor Donald Wollheim, who provided the title and left the rest up to her. Well, she started by expanding the title out to, “Being an Absolutely Accurate Account (More or Less) of the Violent Events leading up to the Notorious Showdown at the O’Shea Corral, involving Red Injuns, Proddy Gunslingers, Gambling Gents, Purty Gals and Sundry Other Citizens, and including for the First Time a Genuine Eyewitness Account of said Outrage by a Petrified Participant Therein.” That already gets us to page 3.
Hoffman gets off to a great start, with Sam coming at us through a bedroom window: “When I went out that window, I lost both buttons off the back-flap and there was a bad draft.” It soon becomes clear that if Sam is legendary for anything, it’s bad timing. Had Yiddish been popular on the frontier, he would have been easily recognized as a schlmiel. The Legend of Blackjack Sam is a fast, funny romp, full of wimmen and bushwhackers and old coots. I’m sure it gave some lonely traveling businessmen a good laugh as they sat up reading in some motel somewhere between Omaha and Alamagordo. And paid the rent for Hoffman, who went on to write several others with titles like The Truth About the Cannonball Kid.
Mary Halloran wrote to recommend Lolah Burford’s “revisionist” bodice-rippers, particularly her first, Vice Avenged: A Moral Tale. Burford dedicated the novel to one of the giants of the romance novel, Georgette Heyer, but cautioned that “Here is an eighteenth-century fairy tale, frankly unserious, frankly unrealistic, for a realistic, serious Age.” Frankly unrealistic indeed! It’s basically about a rake — a Mohock, to use a contemporary term from eighteenth century England — who rapes a young woman of good family on a bet and then suffers the consequences. He writes to her father, admitting what he’s done, and in return, Father makes him marry the girl and then has her brothers kidnap and take the groom off to a private imprisonment in France. After various adventures, the rake returns, takes up the girl and their young son, and all ends well. It’s rather arch and intentionally artificial, as if Burford wanted us to know all along that her tongue was set firmly in cheek. At the time it was published, it was considered rather good, but to me, it was neither fish nor fowl: not original enough to be truly memorable, not conventional enough to satisfy most serious romance novel fans. Burford wrote a number of books after, and from the looks of them, each moved a little closer to the standard elements of mainstream bodice-rippers.
After the release of Eric Meyer’s Uncle Mame, I thought I was pretty up to speed on the circle of satirical books about New York’s society dames and denizens penned by Edward Everett Tanner II under the pseudonyms of Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, but I didn’t know that his wife — a bona-fide dame herself — had written her own. Miss Bannister’s Girls is the group portrait of the class of 1940 from Miss Bannister’s School (basely on “Miss Chapin’s School for Girls and Kindergarten for Boys and Girls,” which Mrs. Tanner attended and which still operates today as the Chapin School). In spirit and approach, it’s very much the sorority sister to Harvey Smith’s The Gang’s All Here, which I mentioned here back in 2009: mocking its subjects from an insider’s perspective but without going so far as to lose friends. The pokes are gentle, none so hard as to leave a bruise.
It would be hard not to also draw a parallel with another group portrait of a class of privileged East Coast society girls, Mary McCarthy’s huge best-seller The Group. Like McCarthy, Louise Tanner was a Vassar grad (’44 to McCarthy’s ’33), but there the resemblance between their works ends. McCarthy loved not just to stick the knife into her subjects, but usually couldn’t resist giving it one last twist. And her girls are so darned earnest and serious there’s barely a smile to be found in the whole book. To be honest, to me it now seems painfully dated. In contrast, Miss Bannister’s Girls is still a hoot. McCarthy was considered daring for featuring a lesbian among her classmates. Tanner’s token gay is out there and loving it, living in a Connecticut farmhouse full of pictures of “big, splashy Negro girls stripped to the waist” and recovering from an injury suffered while playing Falstaff on stage. One of the cover blurbs on the Macfadden Books paperback edition says the book is “Dipped in the same acid bath” as McCarthy’s. If there’s any acid here, it’s lactic. Miss Bannister’s Girls is comic, coy, and completely charming.
Len Finch recommended this odd work by Madelaine Duke, who originally published it under the pseudonym Maxim Donne. It’s a satirical science fiction-cum-secret agent story, set in the distant future of 1979, in a world dominated by white, mostly European, and exclusively male, capitalists. While the boys play nation- and world-running, Mrs. Connie Munster and her ladies quietly — even graciously — go about arranging the assassinations of those in danger of taking the game a little too seriously. A wealthy philanthropist who goes around funding hospitals and opening children’s schools, Mrs. Munster manages to collect a Nobel Peace Prize while discussing the next hit with her ladies over, yes, claret and sandwiches.
I found it an intriguing but not particularly well-written book. Naturally, any dystopia set thirty-some years ago always has a certain retro charm about it, but the characters and plotting were just too stiff to bring out the comedy. The farce was false. But Duke herself seems more interesting than her book. Born in Switzerland and trained as a chemist, she somehow got involved with the Allied effort to round up German scientists after the end of World War Two, an experience she wrote about in her first book, Top Secret Mission (1954). She went on to write books about other spies, including Slipstream (1955), about her brother, Anthony Duke, who worked as a “false” double agent, and No Passport: the Story of Jan Felix (1957), about the work of S.O.E. agent “Captain Hilton” (Hans Felix Jeschke). She then turned to fiction, with novels with titles like Ride the Brooding Wind (1961), before taking a couple turns at science fiction. A few years after she turned out This Business of Bomfog (Bomfog stands for “Brotherhood-of-Man-Fatherhood-of-God”), which also took shots at the notion that the world was somehow better off with men in charge. After these flopped, she turned out a series of mystery novels featuring physician-turned detective Dr. Norah North, in which, in the words of one encyclopedia of mystery fiction, “Duke overloaded on plots and then had difficulty coordinating their conclusions.”
This was recommended by pseudonym emailer “greadership,” who called it “a dystopian novel that ranks with the best of Ursula Le Guin.” The Blue Chair was, somewhat unusually for that time (I can say this because I was regularly scouring the shelves for new paperbacks back then) as an original Avon paperback, and it was Thompson’s first book.
The story in The Blue Chair would probably resonate with readers now much more than it did when first published. It’s set in a world in which America is run by white people waited on by people of color from the Third World. Medical science has advanced to the point where immortality is possible, but to keep its possible complications from spiraling out of control, it’s also made available only to a selected portion of the population. Poet Eve Harmon is not eligible, since she had two children instead of one, but her son Jason is high enough in the power structure to bend the rules for her and her husband John is a senior researcher working on new ways to extend life. But Eve is not interested in fighting for that option. Instead, she spends her hours sitting in her comfy blue chair as her cancer spreads, allowing herself to pass in and out of a mental fog that takes her back through her life and relationships. The ironic message of the book is that Eve gains the greater satisfaction and joy from accepting the end of her life than do John or Jason from knowing theirs can go on forever.
This Dell edition of Maxine Kumin’s The Passions of Uxport, a “probing novel of marriages and matings,” features a man and woman moments before doing something unsuitable for supermarket shelf display. The back blurb compares it to Updike’s novel of group sex, Couples, and John Cheever’s novel of suburban obsessions and murder, Bullet Park. You can bet that lust, adultery, and who knows what other steamy, sweaty things will be found inside.
I knew Maxine Kumin as a poet and vaguely knew she had written some novels, and would never have picked up this book if not for her name on it.
But as Bo Diddley sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. Here is the opening sentence of The Passions of Uxport: “At the time of his arrest, Ernie Makkinen had just come upon a well-developed Irish setter, two or three days dead, lying on its side, eyes fixed on what must have been the last object it had seen–a beer can suspended in a clump of frost-blackened goldenrod.”
“Crows had cleaned the spilled guts up to the limits of the matted hair of the dog’s flanks,” Kumin goes on, and “A crew of beetles was busily at work under its tail.” Ernie, we quickly learn, is a holy fool convinced that God has assigned him the task of collecting all the roadkill from the highways of New England and giving it a proper burial.
We are a long way from a casual hop in the sack here.
Now, sex and its consequences is certainly an element in this novel. Although we start with poor, mad Ernie and his truck full of rotting carcasses, adultery does eventually wander in, as does an unwanted pregnancy and even an old man’s sexual fantasy. But Kumin might better have titled this The Frustrations of Uxport, because this is mostly a book about people struggling with some of the crappy things that come their way: the anger of teens trying to break away from parents, the arrest of someone they know and trust, the death of a child.
At the center of the book are two couples living in Uxport, a suburb somewhere on the northwest side of Boston. Hallie and Mellon got married in college when she got pregnant, and their twins are about to head off to college. Sukey and Martin met and fell in love while experiencing Europe on $5 a day and, despite their very different interests and personalities, have a cozy little family with their young daughter, Binky. By the time the book is ended, they will all have been raked over the coals in one way or another and have managed, for the most part, to survive.
But what’s most memorable about The Passions of Uxport is not so much the story as the detours. The book is of moderate length–about 350 pages–but it reads like something twice the length. Kumin is comfortable with wandering away from center stage to spend time exploring the odd corners of the set, discovering the lives of the bit players, as in this aside, which appears in the midst of the most dramatic scene in the book:
(Later, Joan Mixter, whose maiden name had been Shadwell–it was a Shadwell who had founded the Et Ux Club and died at the age of eighty-three, choking on a fishbone at the annual Dry Fly banquet–confessed to the same confusion of sounds that had confounded Hallie. She had been standing in the next aisle over between the Pepperidge Farm cookies and the sesame cocktail crunchies when Ernie erupted, and although she had always known Harriet Peake was of Jewish extraction, hence rendering the otherwise impeccable Mellon ineligible for club membership, she was rooted to the floor in horror. A can of Strongheart live had thereupon grazed her shin, raising an ugly lump, but she was not one of those who rushed forward to subdue the poor mad soul. Yet the Shadwells were not unaccustomed to such outbursts, for Joan had had a twin whose youthful hallucinations involving the Virgin Mary had been held responsible for her early decline. When she pined away and died at the age of nineteen, her name, which had been Agatha, died with her until this day, when it flew back into Joan Mixter’s head. Poor Agatha! she thought with charity–the Agatha she had killed in hundreds of adolescent dreams until death had kindly come and done its own murdering.)
I am just in awe of this paragraph, which wanders all over the place, is funny and bizarre and touching, has nothing whatsoever to do with the main scene, yet manages to be more striking than it.
And also illustrates the problem with The Passion of Uxport: what is best about the book–most interesting, most unexpected, most moving–is not the story but the things that happen in the margins. Ernie and his roadkill epiphanies. Iris, the aging secretary Mellon has a one-night stand with. John Ventury, the construction site supervisor whose prescription glasses constantly remind him of all he yearned for when he was a poor and hungry kid. Aram Ramabedian, the dry cleaner whose heart is breaking over his dead wife and his mentally handicapped son. Even Hallie and Mellon’s dreams and fantasies are more interesting than their lives.
In other words, while The Passion of Uxport is not a particularly good novel, it is full of particularly good reading. In the end, that’s what matters more, anyway, but that’s also what guarantees a book will be dismissed by reviewers and quickly forgotten.
Which is why we shouldn’t let the reviewers make our decisions for us. You can miss the heart-broken dry cleaner and the saintly collector of run-over Irish setters.
The Passions of Uxport, by Maxine Kumin
New York: Harper and Row, 1968
A long time ago (by the Internet clock), I mentioned the efforts of Karen DeCrow, one-time president of the National Organization for Women, to get a publisher interested in reissuing Small World, a 1951 novel written by Carol Deschere. DeCrow sent a letter to dozens of publishers, urging them to take another look at Deschere’s book. As DeCrow wrote,
Twelve years before publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), Carol Deschere wrote a novel which could have spurred the feminist revolution, had enough women read it. In Small World, a simply written and simply plotted novel, Deschere tells us the story of a bright, educated, and cultured woman who leads the life of a middle-class housewife. Her husband is kind and generous, her children are intelligent and obedient, her home is stylish and comfortable.
Her world, however, is so small that it revolves totally around food, clothing, furniture, and an occasional outreach of interest to music, art, and literature. The novel takes place during one of the critical periods in American history: World War II had just ended, the alliances of nations in the world were dramatically shifting, capitalism as an economic system was being seriously questioned for the first time in a century, and the seeds of the Cold War period were being developed in the United States. Yet Kay Hiller, the hero of the novel, does not deal with these issues, despite the fact that she is both bright and intellectual.
Given my decision to focus on books by women this year, I didn’t hesitate when I spotted a copy of Small World for a little less than the starting price of $48 that I found back in 2008.
I have to confess that I felt a bit mislead by DeCrow’s take on the book. Yes, it’s true that this is a book about the life of a housewife–her home, family, and neighbors–with little sense of the big world beyond, but DeCrow seems to have found the book more interesting as an example of the limitations experienced by women like Deschere than as a piece of writing. In reality, if there is any tone that prevails in Small World, it’s one of joy, not frustration.
Small World is a thinly-fictionalized account of about ten years in the life of Deschere and her husband, Ralph Berendt. It follows the couple from their decision to move from New York City to Ithaca (more centrally located for Ralph’s work as a salesman for his family’s shoe company) and then to Syracuse, through their starting a family and encountering all the typical mishaps and misadventures of 1950s suburban life. The Saturday Review summed up the plot, such as it is, nicely: “We moved from New York City to Ithaca, where we kept house for a year with my husband’s brother and his wife, Lois, then we moved to Syracuse and Lois and I each had a baby, and then in a couple of years I had another, and we lived in several apartments and then we bought a house and the children went to school.”
If anything, it’s far more in the spirit of The Egg and I–or Lesley Conger’s Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, another domestic comedy by a woman of intellectual aspirations mentioned here a few months. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a decent 50s comedy film being based on the book. What distinguishes this book isn’t the story or the post-historical context but simply the delightful voice of its narrator. I love the way the Saturday Review reviewer put it: “I read somewhere that it is a test of a lively imagination and a glib tongue to be able to expatiate for fifteen minutes on the characteristics of a billiard ball without pause and without repetition and to hold one’s listeners spellbound in the process. This, in effect, is what Carol Deschere does with her Small World.”
Deschere’s approach to telling a story is never straightforward and, occasionally, wanders so far afield as to never arrive at its intended conclusion. But with the right story-teller, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. Here, for example, is how she introduces an episode about the family dog bringing home its first piece of roadkill:
I was in the cellar sorting a load of wash and putting it through the machine, a process which occupied only the hands, leaving the brain free to drowse a little. The pulsing rotation of the machine, like the rocking of a cradle, added its soothing in?uence. Doing the laundry was one of the pleasantest of household chores, with a robot assistant which could be summoned, like a genie out of a bottle, at my command. Paul had tried to explain to me how the Bendix worked, but, losing itself somewhere among the thermostats and timing elements, my mind had wandered off to the old Victrola we had had when I was a child. A man lived inside of it; his name was Caruso; he sang music with words you couldn’t understand, and that made it all right, somehow, for him to stay in that cabinet all the time. My thinking still ran along those lines; it was so simple to pretend there was a human activator concealed within the washing machine, a perfect laundress, who turned the faucets with strong, bony ?ngers, and tested the temperature with a sharp, swift elbow. She had a personality too, but it was so unvaryingly eficient I didn’t care to contemplate it. . . .
The machine began to drain itself of suds. Next door, a child’s wagon clattered down the porch steps, and I heard my neighbor call out, “Micky, on your way home from the park, stop at the store and get me the things on this list, of, and a pack of Camels, too.” Micky grumbled and the clatter dwindled down the street. My mind still dozed. These sounds were part of my habitat; they barely touched the surface of my consciousness.
By the time the dog shows up, we’ve long forgotten it was a story about him. In fact, the mutt kind of gets in the way of an otherwise respectable meander.
Yet, in deference to Karen DeCrow, one must acknowledge that there is a consistently feminist note that now and again rises to make itself heard:
Evelyn felt that she always had to appear at her super-best for the simple reason that, plain and unvarnished, she mightn’t be able to compete with her husband’s other interests, while we felt no such compulsion. Keeping herself and her house well-groomed was part of Evelyn’s job, and Harold praised her for it to pay off his own conscience. It wasn’t vanity at all; it was insecurity . . . and maybe it wasn’t exactly insecurity but a kind of guilt-edged security! Oh, we had really hit on something this time. The women’s magazines, always harping on the idea that a girl must look fresh as a daisy even if she was feeling like a piece of stinkweed, had put this thing on a national basis. Then there was insufficiency to consider, too. You made a full-time job out of housekeeping because that was easier than looking for something else to do; it was an out that society handed you, and the busier you kept yourself with furniture polish — and nail polish — the less time you had to fret over the fact that you weren’t doing anything else.
Carol Deschere’s most profound influence as a writer was not on other women, however, but on her son, John Berendt. Forty-some years later, he saw a book he had worked on for years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, achieve spectacular success, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination and spending over four years on The New York Times bestseller list. As he told an interviewer, “The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.”
The following appears on the back cover of Small World:
I was born in New York city, and although I see no reason why the date should appear on the jacket of my book, I’m perfectly willing to confide to your files that it was April 13, 1915. When I was six, my parents reluctantly acted on their belief (now shared by me) that the city was not the best place in which to bring up children, so we moved to the nearest available “country,” which happened to be Westchester. I went to school in New Rochelle, and the ink on my high-school diploma was hardly dry when, my childhood being officially over, we moved back to New York.
I went to Hunter College–which I loved–and was graduated in 1933, having been married the year before. I can highly recommend the combination of going to school while learning to keep house, as it give the bride the properly casual attitude toward housewifery. (Another effect, however, may not be quite so wholesome. After sixteen years, I find myself still taking courses.)
We left New York in 1936, and have been living in Syracuse for years. The children, aged thirteen and eleven, have always had an enormous amount of civic pride, and we have finally caught a mild form of it from them. At least, we now regard Syracuse as home.
From the Syracuse Post-Standard, 20 May 1951:
Finally, I must reproduce this early example of a publisher’s attempt to collect feedback, which was still securely nestled midway inside the immaculate copy of Small World that I received from thebooksend:
Small World, by Carol Deschere
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951
I will not come today–
I cannot come tomorrow.
I am gone far away
Beyond the realm of sorrow;
Beyond the reach of sleep,
And past the firmament
I am gone. No word is sent.
I am submerged, sunk deep
In the black basalt of eternity.
So call no name–you will call hopelessly.
But let the turning sky be fair and blue,
With what I loved the most: the eternal hue
Of hope and wonder, that is always you.
fromNight Sky, by Bernice Kenyon
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951
In memory of Bill Andrews, August 29, 1955 – October 3, 2014
Errol was exceptionally tidy in his personal habits. Sometimes he shaved twice a day and) he took constant showers. But one day Beverly said to me: “Mama, isn’t it strange? He doesn’t use anything under his arms. You’d think a man who’s been around as much as Errol would know about a little thing like that, wouldn’t you?”
I certainly agreed. He Wasn’t offensive—far from it. But it proved to me once again that those women he’d run around with for years—all those top sex charmers—were a bunch of dummies in some departments. You’d think one of them might have gotten around to giving Errol the message. But not one of them knew how to tell him.
With Beverly herself it was simply no problem. She was such a sweet person she didn’t need an underarm deodorant, but she used one just to be safe. One night when she and Errol were preparing to go somewhere in New York, she suddenly brought up the subject. It was always her way to be quite frank with him.
“Errol,” she said, “why don’t you use Mennen’s under the arms, or something like that?”
He took it as quite an insult. He had been shaving, and he turned away from the washbowl and gave her a hurt look.
“Well,” he said, sarcastically, “I’ve always considered myself a fairly clean man.”
“But why not use one? ” said Beverly. Her persistence made him a little angry.
“Damn it,” he said. “Who uses that stuff anyway? Besides, how come you know so much about what men are supposed to put on?” He looked at her half-suspiciously, half-jokingly. “I thought you were supposed to be a virgin before you met me. So how come you know all about this? Who told you?”
“My father!” snapped Beverly. “That’s who! He’s the cleanest man that ever was. He always asks me to give him Mennen toilet water for Christmas!”
Errol laughed and finished shaving. He didn’t say anything more about it then, but not long after that he started using a deodorant.
FromThe Big Love, by Mrs. Florence Aadland (as told to Tedd Thomey)
New York: Lancer Books, 1960
I arrived in New York with thirty-five dollars, a camera and a fur coat. I asked the taxi driver where he thought I ought to stay and he took me to a small hotel on Broadway in the seventies. Here I found a room for nine dollars a week, paid for two weeks, and went out to pawn the camera and the coat.
When I got back I was tired, and more than a little afraid. I lay on the bed in the stifling little cell with its grimy walls, and turned on a switch marked “radio.” A grating in the wall gave forth with dance music. Then there came a pause and a man’s voice said gravely: “Now for an important message.”
“Here it comes,” I thought. “War . . . it must be war. . .” I braced myself in anguish for what everyone in Europe feared, expected. . . .
“Do you suffer from acid indigestion?” the grave voice asked. I could not believe what I heard. I thought perhaps my mind had given way. The strain of recent years, the journey, this exile in a foreign country . . .
There were no commercials on my radio in Europe. It was my first encounter with the never-never land of phony sell. I listened bewildered. The news when it came said nothing about war. It talked of names and people and events I could not relate to. I knew nothing about the United States except what I had gathered in my childhood. I might as well have traveled to the moon for all I knew about my new surroundings.
The name of Ouida has been vaguely familiar to me ever since I saw Under Two Flags on the list of Classics Illustrated comic books. Somewhere in the course of studying English literature, I assimilated the knowledge that she had written a great many popular novels of no great merit in the second half of the 19th century, and as I more recently began to investigate what works by neglected women writers there might be to discover, I kept seeing her titles popping up in search results on the Internet Archive. And I would probably have left it at that have I not stumbled this morning onto Elizabeth Lee’s 1914 book, Ouida: A Memoir, began to read it, and from there set off on a meandering path around the many corners of the web that led me to conclude that this is a life that deserves to be better known, if only for its quirks and contrasts.
She was born Maria Louise Ramé, with a French father and English mother, in Bury St. Edmonds in 1839. She hated the town, which she considered an uncultured backwater. She referred to it as “that lowest and dreariest of Boroughs, where the streets are as full of grass as an acre of pasture land,” and said that “the inhabitants are driven to ringing their own doorbells lest they rust from lack of use.” Many years later, when the town placed a plaque in her honor outside the house where she was born, she snipped to a friend, “This tomfoolery in Suffolk annoys me very much. I identify myself with my father’s French race and blood, and I shall be greatly obliged if you would do your best to prevent any inscription of the kind you named being put as you say.”
Maria Louise was delighted to leave the town behind and moved with her mother to London in 1857. Through their doctor, she was introduced to the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, who was then working as the editor of Bentley’s Miscellany and who encouraged the girl’s interest in writing. Her first story, “Dashwood’s Drag: or, The Derby and What Came of It,” appeared in the magazine in 1859 under the pseudonym, “Ouida,” which appears to have been her own toddler’s version of “Louise.” “Dashwood’s Drag” is something of an anomaly in Ouida’s oeuvre, as it’s told in the voice of a rough-and-tumble young friend of Dashwood’s and displays a certain amount of humor–a quality legendary in its absence from her writing.
She quickly learned what appealed to readers, and to her great fortune, that was much of what appealed to her, too. Although her own education was limited, she thought her father’s French roots entitled her to consider herself a woman of culture, and she aspired to be treated as one of the gentility. At the same time, however, she loved melodramatic subjects. As Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodge Holt put it in Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction, her first two novels, Held in Bondage and Strathmore “contain secrets, bigamy, adultery, the dead-alive, murder, shipwrecks, gypsy fortune tellers, secret marriages, and strong female villainesses.” With her talent for what Anthony Powell would later call “an extraordinary vitality in the presentation of her narrative” soon gained great popularity,” Ouida became one of the most successful writers of her time.
Over the next forty years, she would publish 47 books, including 41 novels, several short story collections, and a few works of nonfiction. Of these, her best-known today are A Dog of Flanders (1872), of which at least ten different film versions have been made, and Under Two Flags (1867), which was also filmed several times. With its story of a Guardsman who runs away to Africa and joins a precursor to the French Foreign Legion, Under Two Flags almost certainly inspired P. C. Wren’s 1924 best-seller, Beau Geste. Looking back from a far difference perspective than that of 1867, however, Talia Shaffer, in her The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Victorian Literature and Culture Series), describes it as “a novel of homoerotic thrills.” It’s hard not to say she might be right, given Ouida’s description of her hero, Bertie Cecil, known as “The Beauty of the Brigades”:
His features were exceedingly fair — fair as the fairest girl’s; his hair was of the softest, silkiest, brightest chestnut; his mouth very beautifully shaped; on the whole, with a certain gentle, mournful love-me look that his eyes had with them, it was no wonder that great ladies and gay lions alike gave him the palm as the handsomest man in all the Household Regiments — not even excepting that splendid golden-haired Colossus, his oldest friend and closest comrade, known as “the Seraph.”
Less than thirty years after the novel was published, Willa Cather gave it the kind of mixed praise that characterizes even Ouida’s most enthusiastic advocates: “Really, it would be hard to find a better plot than is in that same Under Two Flags, and the book contains the rudiments of a great style, and it also contains some of the most driveling nonsense and mawkish sentimentality and contemptible feminine weakness to be found anywhere.”
In some ways, Ouida’s novels were the action comic books of their time. Her characters were certainly as one-dimensional as comic book heroes and villains. As Bonamy Dobrée wrote, “Her wicked are so deeply wicked, her good so extravagantly good, the issues between them so strenuously fought out, that one abandons any hankering after analysis, probability, subtlety, and floats, even now, deliciously on the great wave of her exuberant, superabundant vitality.” “Ouida’s persons are types, or rather, they are what used to be called ‘humours'”, Dobrée wrote; Max Beerbohm — one of her fans — called them “abstractions.”
Take, for example, the French nobleman/defender of the people/artistic genius of her 1870 novel, Tricotrin. Tricotrin is everything but faster than a speeding bullet:
A man with the wit of a Piron, the politics of a Jean Jacques, the eloquence of a Mirabeau, the Utopia of a Vergniaud! — a man with the head of a god and the blouse of a workman, the brain of a scholar and the life of a scamp, the soul of a poet, and the schemes of a socialist.
And a “Straduarius” violin with which he plays Mozart for the peasants in the fields.
“Straduarius” is only one of the many, many factual gaffes for which Ouida was criticized. She commonly put historical figures in places they’d never been, placed events in the wrong year, and misinterpreted or mistranslated foreign terms. She gave elaborate and fanciful descriptions of places she’d never seen, attributed incredible abilities to her characters, and moved her narratives along with utterly implausible motives and actions. As W. H. Mallock wrote in his memoirs, “Ouida lived largely in a world of her own creation, peopled with foreign princesses, mysterious dukes — masters of untold millions, and of fabulous English guardsmen whose bedrooms in Knightsbridge Barracks were inlaid with silver and tortoiseshell.”
Subtlety was never her forté, but her work seems to have left no one in the middle ground. The reading public of the time loved almost everything she doled out. Reviewers–pro or con–were rarely unmixed in their assessments. Of her 1885 novel, Othmar, one reviewer wrote, “This latest production from the fertile pen of “Ouida” is at once one of the most powerful and penetrating, and weak and superficial, novels of the year.” Writing in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, George Bernard Shaw described the typical Ouida novel as “diffuse, overloaded with worthless mock sociology, perceptibly tainted by a perversion of the sexual impulses, egotistical and tiresome and yet imaginative, full of vivid and glowing pictures, and not without a considerable moral stiffening of enthusiasm — half-reasoned but real — for truth and simplicity, and of protest against social evils which is not the less vehement because certain emotional and material aspects of it have a fascination which the writer has not wholly escaped.” Robert Louis Stevenson and some of his friends once wrote a parody of Ouida as a parlor game. The result, titled, An Object of Pity; or, the Man Haggard: A Romance (it also mocked H. Rider Haggard) carried the following dedication: “Many besides yourself have exulted to collect Olympian polysyllables, and to sling ink, not Wisely but too Well. They are forgotten, you endure. Many have made it their goal and object to Exceed; but who else has been so Excessive?”
Few of the many thousands of her readers objected to any of this, however. Indeed, they reveled in all the things that serious critics derided. And it earned her a very plush lifestyle. At the height of her success, Henry James wrote a short story, “Greville Fane,” which mocked her strategy of aiming for the lowest common denominator:
She made no pretence of producing works of art, but had comfortable tea-drinking hours in which she freely confessed herself a common pastrycook, dealing in such tarts and puddings as would bring customers to the shop. She put in plenty of sugar and of cochineal, or whatever it is that gives these articles a rich and attractive colour. She had a serene superiority to observation and opportunity which constituted an inexpungable strength and would enable her to go on indefinitely.
Ouida held her own work in considerably higher regard. As early as 1881, she was writing one of her publishers, Baron Tauschnitz, “English literature is very sorry stuff nowadays. You must make much of me for now George Elliott [sic] is gone there is no one else who can write English.” She had a very old-fashioned view of success, however. She wasn’t interested in pursuing the cult of celebrity and tended to avoid publicity for herself. She once described interviewers as “the vilest spawn of the most ill-bred age that the world has ever seen.” And she didn’t think much of the changes in the publishing business that were taking place. In a letter to the Times she wrote, “The literary agent … is a middleman between other middlemen and the producer; he is, to use a homely simile, the maggot of the nut; he is neither the kernel nor the shell; he is an esoteric body living between and upon the two. Maggots have rights and uses no doubt, but the nut never yet was the better for them.”
What success entitled her to was not celebrity but social status. “Please to address me Madame de la Ramée, or Madame Ouida. It is the more correct way to address a woman of eminence,” she advised a new acquaintance. And her bias toward gentility sometimes put her in foolish positions. “In whatever company she might be in, her first anxiety was to ingratiate herself with the most important members of it,” Mallock recalled,
but she was constantly making mistakes as to who the most important members were. Thus, as one of her entertainers — Violet Fane — told me, Ouida was sitting after dinner between Mrs. _____ , the mistress of one of the greatest houses in London, and a vulgar little Irish peeress who was only present on sufferance. Ouida treated the former with the coldest and most condescending inattention, and devoted every smile in her possession to an intimate worship of the latter.
Toward the end of the 1880s, Ouida’s work found a new set of advocates among the Aesthetes. Writing in 1889 the same magazine as Shaw, Oscar Wilde rose to her defense, calling her “the last of the romantics.” He admitted that her style was “full of exaggeration and overemphasis,” but held that it showed “some remarkable rhetorical qualities and a good deal of colour.” He did, however, concede the limitations of her intellect, writing that “Ouida is fond of airing a smattering of culture….” As with many of her supporters, his endorsement is less than unqualified: “Guilderoy, with all its faults, which are great, and its absurdities, which are greater, is a book to be read.”
Wilde’s review quotes numerous epigrams from Guilderoy that certainly betray more than a few signs of being an influence on his own style:
Moralists say that a soul should resist passion. They might as well say that a house should resist an earthquake.
Men always consider us unjust to them when we fail to deify their weaknesses.
And the country in England is so much more intolerable than anywhere else, because the weather is so bad: to endure it long one must have the rusticity of Wordsworth’s mind, and boots and stockings as homely.
Ouida’s characters often speak in epigrams, and in her day these nuggets were consider worthy of being captured in books titled The Wisdom, Wit, and Pathos of Ouida and A Flash of Ouida. Not all of them stand the test of time, however: “A pipe is a pocket philosopher, a truer one than Socrates. For it never asks questions. Socrates must have been very tiresome when one thinks of it.”
Not long after Wilde’s review, G. S. Street wrote “An Appreciation of Ouida” that appeared in the influential magazine that gave its name to the 1890s, The Yellow Book. “I respect an unrestrained and incorrect eloquence more than a merely correct and periphrastic nothingness,” he wrote in something of a left-handed compliment. For Street, the two qualities that underlay the best of Ouida’s work — “and which must have always saved it from commonness” — “are a genuine and passionate love of beauty, as she conceives it, and a genuine and passionate hatred of injustice and oppression.” In the end, he declared, “I take the merits in Ouida’s books to balance their faults many times over.”
Another The Yellow Book dandy, Max Beerbohm, dedicated his 1899 collection of essays, More, “To Ouida, with Love,” and offered similarly passionate yet qualified praise: “Her every page is a riot of unpolished epigrams and unpolished poetry of vision, with a hundred discursions and redundancies. She cannot say a thing once; she must repeat it again and again, and, with every repetition, so it seems to me, she says it with greater force and charm.” Yet more than a few critics and academics have since noted evidence of Ouida’s influence in the work of George Meredith, J. K. Huysmans, and Ronald Firbank.
Ironically, while the Aesthetes were rising to her defense, Ouida’s own career was beginning to decline. Her formula was growing weaker and weaker from constant reuse and dilution. One of her harshest critics, Malcolm Elwin, later wrote that, “Towards the end of the ‘eighties, she began to lose her grip. In spite of her highfalutin blather about her ‘art’, she wrote purely and simply for money, and all but herself could see that her work had degenerated.” Even one of her more recent advocates, Talia Shaffer, writes bluntly that by the 1890s, “Ouida finally ran out of ideas.”
By that time, she had long left England for good, moving to Florence, where she bought an expensive villa where she and her mother lived with a pack of pet dogs. She quickly developed a deep affection for Italy and the Italian people, and within a few months of arrival had written a novel, Pascarel (1873), set there. It was the first of nearly a dozen, including A Village Commune (1882), In Maremma (1882), and The Waters of Edera (1900). Some, like In a Winter City portrayed the expat society around Florence and Rome, but most were set in the countryside and portrayed the various ways in which corruption and capital was used to exploit and repress the peasants and workers.
She fell in love with an Italian nobleman, the Marchese della Stufa, who took maximum advantage of her adoration and generosity while at the same time encouraging the affections of other women, including a fellow English expat, Janet Ross. Ouida took revenge on Ross by writing Friendship (1878). A little taste of how Ouida took the knife to her victims can be obtained from this excerpt from a less-than-enthusiastic review:
The whole plot of the story is that a thoroughly depraved, covetous, swindling, bullying, brazen adventuress of noble Scottish birth, whom some early and unexplained scandal has forced into a marriage of convenience with a speculating trader, first pigeon and then rook, and who is compelled to live out of England, has succeeded in forcing an Italian prince into a prolonged intrigue with herself (the friendship of the title), carried on with the full knowledge and consent, but simulated ignorance, of her husband, who is partner with his wife in the business side of the transaction, which consists in ruining the lover, and practically seizing his ancestral estate.
Yes, folks, that’s all one sentence. Della Stufa seems to have been her one great love. She never married and became, increasingly, an eccentric recluse. As Rose Macaulay later wrote, “She spent her great fortune recklessly, on lavish living, on rich dinner menus for her dogs, on going continually to law.”
By 1893, Ouida had spent so much that when her mother died, as Elizabeth Lee recounts in her memoir, “There was literally no money in the house at all, and there seems no doubt that Ouida kept her mother’s body upstairs long after it should have been buried because she could not endure the thought of laying her in a pauper’s grave in the Allori Cemetery.” Yet she refused to accept help from her friends, and when one of them arranged for meals to be brought to her from one of the finest restaurants in Florence, she gave the food to her dogs, preferring to live on tea and toast. A notable neighbor and expat, Walburga, Lady Paget wrote that she found Ouida on one visit “… in a draggled white nightgown, trimmed with lace, and a black cape. Eight dogs kept up an infernal noise and went on mistaking the lace frill of her nightdress for a lamp-post.” And another friend confided in a letter that “Ouida is now by her own folly denuded of everything.”
She eventually had to give up the villa and move, first to Bagni di Lucca and then to a cheap apartment in Viarregio, on the coast north of Pisa. (Viareggio has attracted its share of unfortunate English writers, starting with Shelley, whose body washed up on its shores, and later, Marjorie Bowen, who nursed her husband there through much of the First World War.) Her situation became so desperate that Lady Paget begged the then-Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, to award her a Civil List pension in 1906 — to which Ouida responded in typical hauteur, “What right have they to offer me a pension only fit for superannuated butlers?” She died there of pneumonia in early 1908. Her friends purchased a fine tomb for her in the cemetery in the spa town of Bagna di Lucca.
Her obituary in the Times shows just how far her star had fallen by then — indeed, it’s almost shocking in its derisive tone:
The comparative study of her writings, though these cover a period of about 40 years, discloses but little artistic growth. From first to last Ouida, with certain exceptions to be noted, entirely failed to realize the life that was going on around her. Her most famous novels all suggest a schoolgirl’s dream of the grande passion. She seems to be living and moving in a world, not of men and women, but of demi-gods and demi-reps. She takes her facts from her imagination, and does not check them by inquiry.
“To enjoy her work,” declared the Times writer, “it is necessary to forget everything that you know, and resign yourself to hallucinations and deceptions.”
By the 1930s, Ouida was a favorite object of ridicule. In his survey of popular Victorian literature, Victorian Wallflowers, Malcolm Elwin wrote dismissively, “The popularity of Ouida’s novels illustrates the degenerate taste of the new reading public of the commercial middle class…. As a novelist, she lacked humour, reality, and humanity, she had the scantiest of skill in devising a plot, a stereotyped sense of character, and an almost complete absence of culture.”
With the rise of feminist critics and academics in the last thirty years, however, Ouida’s critical reputation has begun to be restored. Two academic books — Schroeder and Holt’s and Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture, edited by Jane Jordan and Andrew King — have been published in the last ten years, and she has been the subject of a 2008 PhD dissertation by Carla Molloy. 300-some different versions of her works are available for free on the Internet Archive. And in an age where the pulp fiction and sleazy novels of the 1950s and 1960s are routinely celebrated and studied, one could argue that this great Victorian producer of potboilers deserves her own recognition, whether you side with her critics (“a schoolgirl’s dream”) or her supporters (“extraordinary vitality”).
When you go away
Then I enter your room,
A faint and lingering scent
Like the perfume of bruised violets
In the quiet gloom
Of twilight, and I begin to look
Around me and I see
That is open on its face
In the place
Where you laid it.
And I find ashes still scattered on the floor.
And my heart beats faster when I remember
That before you left
I loved to kneel and brush them out of the way.
Because I knew that you had spilled them
And would spill more. . . .
And then I look into the mirror until it seems
As empty as a house of dreams.
Or the white-pillowed bed where recently you lay,
And I shut the door
And go away.
from David and Bath-sheba, and other poems, by Sally Kinsolving
Baltimore: The Norman, Remington Company, 1922
One of the best ways to guarantee a writer’s work will be overlooked is to write in a less-widely known language, especially if it’s thought difficult to translate. If, on top of that, the writer is a woman, the barrier to entry to a wider audience is even higher.
A good example is the work of Margit Kaffka, a Hungarian woman who published a number of novels before and during World War One that dealt with the constraints that her contemporary society–as with most Western societies at the time–placed on a woman’s ability to make her own life decisions. Her 1912 novel, Színek és évek, translated here by George F. Cushing as Colours and Years, is considered one of the great works of Hungarian fiction of the 20th century as well as a significant fiction of feminist fiction, yet it was only in 1999–eighty years after Kaffka’s death–that it was translated into English, and already it’s out of print. And so few non-Hungarians, occasional academics aside, are even aware of this fine novel.
Colours and Years is narrated by Magda, an “old” (early fifties) woman who looks back on a life marked by failures, tragedies, and countless reminders of the narrow set of roles and rights available to a woman of her time. The daughter of a family of waning gentility, Magda is barely eighteen when she is married to Jeno, a young lawyer from a family of some money and thought to have a promising career ahead of him. Having been raised with few skills aside from making decorative little things and reading romantic poetry, she quickly grows dependent upon Jeno but chafes as their domestic routine.
She dabbles in a bit of romantic fancy with a local cad, but mostly tries to be a faithful and supportive wife. Jeno runs for a local office, imagining it the start of the path to a post at the national level, but soon discovers that his naïveté is little better than Magda’s. He irritates a few local power brokers, is defeated, and finds his law practice evaporating before his eyes. He takes ill and dies, leaving Magda with a young son and debts, and she is forced to return to a family little able to care for her.
In fact, life is nothing but a series of setbacks for Magda, defeats made worse by her own lack of skills and her utter dependence upon the choices made for her by men. “I had no real understanding of the value of money or of the connection between life and work. While my husband was alive, no large sum was ever entrusted to me, but he provided me with everything; we never talked much about trifling material matters …. Small lovers’ tiffs and letters caused much more turmoil in me.” As her situation steadily deteriorates, she feels an ever-growing sense of weariness: “I lived a life, a miserably miniscule, creaking, dull, hard and grinding life.” It makes for some grim reading.
Although Magda is essentially a passive victim in her own life, the bleakness of her situation is relieved in the end by a spiritual, reflective outlook: “Life goes on at a great distance from me, problems, altercations, industry and application….” She achieves an almost-Buddhist sensibility. Old age, she announces, “is not as horrible as it may seem from a distance. You do not feel one state more acutely than another, nor do you feel the lack of things for which the desire has long since died in you.”
Published in 1912, Colours and Years is something of a novel of two centuries. With its rich set of characters and strong tragic narrative, Kaffka’s tale is one that could easily be placed alongside those classic 19th century novels of Balzac, Zola, or Perez Galdos. Yet Kaffka’s message about the fate of women assigned to negligible roles in a society controlled by men would soon find its echo in the work of Virginia Woolf and other 20th women writers.
Kaffka herself was something of a woman of her new century. She trained as a teacher, and although she married at the age of 25, she found she was not made for domesticity and separated from her husband after five years, taking her son with her to Budapest. There she was able to make a living as a writer, publishing poetry, short stories, and several novels, starting with Colours and Years. She divorced her first husband, took up with a man ten years her junior, a Jewish medical student, and married him. Her sales and critical reputation continued to grow with each book, and she had started on a historical novel when she contracted the Spanish flu and died on 1 December 1918. Her son died the day after. A few months before her death, Kaffka’s close friend, the poet Endre Ady, wrote of her, “Let us rejoice in Margit Kaffka because she has arrived and proves the triumph of Hungarian feminism: one need not be polite, pay false compliments to her. She is a strong person, an artist with an assured future: no criticism can hinder her true destiny, the path marked as her own.”
Colours and Years, by Margit Kaffka, translated by George F. Cushing
Budapest: Corvina Books, 1999
“There’s one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn.”
The world can be divided into two groups: those who gag at that line and those who glory in it.
I have to confess that I belong to the second group. To me, this is one of the great opening lines in American writing, right up there with “Call me Ishmael.” It’s proud, shameless, sleazy, and sycophantic–all at the same time. Whatever else you might say about ghostwriter Tedd Thomey, you can’t deny that he masterfully conveyed Florence Aadland’s unique voice to the printed page.
I am not the first to recognize The Big Love. It’s pretty well known about those who celebrate great celebrity trash writing such as Mommie Dearest and Mother Goddam, and pops up twice on this site (named in Writer’s Choice by William Styron and W. H. Auden and in Tin House magazine by John Marr). Which helps to explain why this book sells for 55 bucks and up, if you can find a copy. I had the great luck to find a copy for $1, which goes to show that God does want us to browse the shelves of the “Religion” section of used bookstores: you never know what you might find misplaced there.
The facts of the story have been hashed, re-hashed, and even filmed, so I will be brief. In October 1957, one-time dashing and successful actor Errol Flynn spotted Beverly Aadland among the extras on a studio set, took her out to dinner, and raped her. Well, in those days, he would have said he seduced her, but by Florence’s account, she tried to fight him off.
She was then 15 years old.
Looking old for her age, Beverly was passing as 21 to get studio and nightclub work, and Flynn probably did not know the truth (though he’d already been charged several times with having sex with underage girls and was, in the words of his FBI file, “a man perverted in his sexual desires, and who ultimately will cause Warner Brothers a considerable amount of difficulty if he doesn’t kill himself in the process”).
But Flynn found himself intensely attracted to Beverly, and despite the rape, she agreed to meet him again. The relationship developed, with frequent dates and visits to Flynn’s house. Flynn invited her mother, Florence, on several occasions. Florence was bowled over by Flynn’s looks, charm, and glamor, and enjoyed the lavish meals that featured “caviar, pate de foie gras, and other swank items.”
A few months later, Flynn flew daughter and mother to join him in New York. On the plane there, Beverley told her mother the truth about the rape. Stunned and furious at first, Florence was somehow persuaded by Beverly that she and Flynn were truly in love. Quickly, Florence saw what needed to be done: “I decided I was going to put up one hell of a fight to see it it that he married my daughter.”
The stay in New York mostly involved Flynn painting the town and spending long hours at the Park Lane Hotel with Beverly while Florence cooled her heels in another (cheaper) hotel. She only saw Flynn a few times, and when she did, “I never did get a chance to tell Errol off. Whenever the opportunity arrived, it was gone in a flash.” The problem, it turns out, was that, “He was such a lively character, so flip, so quick to turn a person’s thoughts onto a new subject.”
Who knew that sparkling personality was a form of mind control? Imagine if Flynn had turned his superpower to the cause of good?
Well, Flynn’s charm managed to keep Beverley close at hand and Florence at bay for over a year and a half. Beverly traveled with him to Africa, on tour with a flop play, and back to Hollywood. She joined him in Cuba and appeared in a bit part in his last movie, Cuban Rebel Girls, which Wikipedia describes, oxymoronically, as a “semi-dramatic documentary B movie.” Then, in October 1959, while the pair were in Vancouver, Canada, trying to sell Flynn’s yacht to fund his divorce from Patricia Wymore, his third wife, Flynn collapsed suddenly and died. The cause was ruled heart attack and cirrhosis of the liver.
Despite Florence’s hopes and an unsigned will leaving much of his estate to Beverley, the pair were soon back where they started, rich in nothing but notoriety. Which compounded about a year later when Beverly’s then-boyfriend shot himself in her bedroom and Florence was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Beverly was made the ward of a Baptist minister and his wife, and Florence went in search of a book deal.
But Beverly’s affair with Errol Flynn is, in the end, not the real reason people take such delight in The Big Love. Instead, it is the sublimely unwitting and adorned crassness of Florence. She is blissfully unashamed that her main location throughout the affair was offstage, usually far offstage. That, while Beverly and Flynn were off in Africa or Jamaica or Cuba, she was working as a coffee shop waitress or manicurist, aware of what was going on through what were clearly very occasional phone calls.
Instead, she celebrates the miracle that saved her from death when she went into shock from uremic poisoning after Beverly’s birth: was her doctors yelling at her, “Come on, you silly little dumb bitch! Fight! Fight!” No wonder she later found that she and Flynn “could speak the same language together”: “There were times when we traded four-letter words, and I know he respected my ability to use such language when the occasion demanded.”
Indeed, we learn that Florence had finer side–was something of an intellectual, if you will. We are told that, after joining the Rosicrucians, she “made a detailed study of life and the universe” and “learned as much about the human nervous system as a doctor does.” When Beverly was still quite young, Florence “read Shakespeare to her and he was always one of her favorites.” No wonder that later, when they were visiting Flynn in New York, he and Beverly “spent hours watching the United Nations sessions on television, following the complicated events day after day, trading opinions, offering detailed judgments.”
Florence also raised Beverly to be refined in her sensibilities. Although Flynn “shaved twice a day and took constant showers,” Beverly was put off by the fact that he didn’t use deodorant. She felt he could not meet the standard upheld by her father: “He’s the cleanest man that ever was. He always asks me to give him Mennen toilet water for Christmas!”
Though Flynn and Beverly were never to marry, Florence had no regrets about their affair: “Have no difficulty finding an answer to the question my friends often ask me. ‘Flo,’ they’ll say, ‘if you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?'” To which her answer is always the same: “Of course I would. And I mean it from the heart.”
And as for those who would condemn them, as for those who cannot appreciate the qualities of The Big Love, we can share Florence’s sentiment that, “They are the ones who will never, never try to understand what kind of a man Errol Flynn was and what kind of person my daughter Beverly is.” And take comfort in the knowledge that “people like that don’t count with us anyway.” Or with us–am I right?
The Big Love, by Florence Aadland as told to Ted Thomey
New York: Lancer Books, 1961
The pear is weighted now with more than fruit–
In hordes they come, a winged avalanche,
Descending on the tree from tip to root,
Shaking the leaves, bending each silver branch.
They overflow the meadows for miles around
In multitudes, spilling their liquid song;
This is the time of swallows; along the ground,
On fence posts, bushes, these living beads are strung.
And then, in thousands, they reclaim the sky,
Sailing across the soft blue sea of air,
A bright, light-winged armada; we watch them fly
To what far destination; suddenly aware
Of the year’s waning, as the quick eye follows
The end of summer in the flight of swallows.
from In Time of Swallows: 52 American Birds, by Mae Winkler Goodman, illustrated by William E. Scheele
New York: The Devin-Adair Company, 1951
Regular readers of this site (both of you) know that I tend to save the books I want to really concentrate on for the Transatlantic flights I have to take 5-6 times a year. This last trip, I thought I’d really found a good one. “Corrupt Power! This is the blistering story of a ruthless political boss whose thirst for power corroded his soul and blinded him to evil” proclaimed the flyleaf of the Signet Giant paperback I found in the basement of my beloved Montana Valley Bookstore. I am a sucker for a good city novel, and this had some indicators that it would be a good one: corruption; realism; dense plot packed into one evening during a state political convention; tempting review quote (“Full of violent, dramatic drive”–New York Times). It also appeared to have an interesting structure, with the core of the story told sequentially through three of the main characters. And it was unknown to me, which is usually a good sign that it’s probably unknown to most folks. So I happily tossed it into my briefcase for the next day’s trip.
I consider myself a pretty forgiving reader. Some folks stop if the first page fails to grab them, others wait until the end of the first chapter, others until their patience gives out. I’m usually in the last category, and even then I will hang in to the very end on the off chance that it suddenly gets better. In the case of Caesar’s Angel, though, it was clear by the end of the first, mostly scene-setting chapter, that this was going to be predictable and pedestrian, something along the lines of, say, Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man or Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle.
Now, I know there are some–many, in fact–who consider these great books. And maybe there was a time when they were truly better than most of what was available. Kinda like the way Hill Street Blues seemed good when it first came out. But what seemed good, gritty, snappy and real when it was new can come to seem tired, thin and predictable when it’s got a few decades under its belt.
A simple run-down of the quartet of principal characters offers enough evidence for anyone to fill in the rest of the story without even reading the book:
Tony Maggiore, the tough, smart kid from the Italian ghetto who quickly realizes he gets more miles per gallon of political ambition with that special fuel additive: mob money.
Leo Stansky, the tough, smart kid from the Polish ghetto who becomes a prosecuting attorney with a special taste for busting hoods like the ones he grew up with.
Al Piazza, the idealistic, naive kid from the Italian ghetto torn between the heritage he shares with Tony and the black-and-white sense of right and wrong he shares with Leo. Oh, and who also carries a torch for …
… Jean Maggiore, the blonde angel attracted like a moth to Tony’s bright light of power and charisma but beginning to have her doubts.
It’s a little like Name That Tune: four notes are all it takes to identify the melody.
This was Mary Anne Amsbary’s one and only adult novel. Under the pseudonym of Kay Lyttleton, she wrote a series of novels for teenage girls about an earnest young woman named Jean Craig who grows up, goes to New York, becomes a graduate nurse, and finds romance. Or, at least, that’s what I assume happens given that these are the titles of those books.
She clearly tried to raise her sights to a much higher standard with Caesar’s Angel: a social message, the use multiple narrators, and a web of complicated relationships that I took the liberty to illustrate below.
But this illustration also shows what’s wrong with the book: a collection of stereotypes does not a convincing character make. I stopped reading comic books a long time ago. It takes a riveting narrative, stunning prose, or palpably realistic scene-setting to get me to hang in with cartoon-like characters (Hell, these days, even cartoon characters are more convincing than these mannequins).
Or a Transatlantic flight with nothing else to read. Which is the only way I got through Caesar’s Angel.
Heaven Pays No Dividends, a novel of postwar Germany by Richard Kaufmann. Frederic Morton wrote of this novel in the Saturday Review, “That a novel so grim in its setting, so formidable in its moral implications, can at the same time be so wonderfully engaging, is a tribute to Mr. Kaufmann’s skill. He has armed his hero with a perennially childlike resistance to ulterior motives, with an imperviousness to sophisticated compromise. The effect is not dissimilar to the one Mark Twain achieved when he let Huck Finn’s gusty innocence loose upon life’s devious rascalities.”
Down All Your Streets, by Leonard Bishop, a long, rough, macho novel, one of the first to deal with drug addiction and drug dealing. William Burroughs feared it would take away readers he hoped would read his first book, Junky.
Natural Child, Calder Willingham’s fifth novel, set in Greenwich Village, flirting with the issue of abortion, and still well-regarded for its dialogue and use of an unreliable narrator.
Oh, and there’s Irwin Shaw’s The Young Lions. Well, they can’t all be great.]
In this year of reading the work of women writers, I should take a moment to note the remarks of Isabel Paterson, whose 1933 novel, Never Ask the End, was one of the earliest neglected masterpieces I came across after starting this site, on four of her contemporaries whose own work has long gone unread. These come from some of the book reviews Paterson wrote for The Bookman magazine before and after it was bought by her mentor, Burton Rascoe.
There is much more sting and sharpness to the work of Grace Flandrau in Entranced. It is like the difference between the American and English air. And Mrs. Flandrau’s special quality, which is brought to perfection in this book, is her ability to render atmosphere; not mere local color, nor even a personal background, but the tension and temperature, the shading and tone, of a certain group of persons involved in a given relation to each other at a definite place and time.
The action of Entranced passes in St. Paul, and it really is St. Paul, not even Minneapolis, or perhaps anything but Minneapolis, since unplumbed spiritual abysses separate the Twin Cities. So this is no vague, delocalized ‘midwestern metropolis,’ but St. Paul. The Robinsons belong in it, are rooted there. Richard and Rita Malory, marrying into the Robinson family, attempt to amalgamate themselves with it. They fail.
That is the story. Richard and Rita are not of the same stuff as the Robinsons; there is a difference in texture, in density and specific gravity. The Robinsons are solids and the Malorys are fluids. They are cursed with the curse of Reuben: “unstable as water, thou shalt not excel.” Richard Malory is a dilution of Lucien de Rubempre, a man lacking in that inner integrity which is essential to success. Rita does not lend herself to glib definition. I should like to read more of her — what happened to her and Ives and Gordon, afterward. There is, by the way, an especially delicious chapter — what a woman thinks about when she is annoyed at her husband. Don’t miss this.
Entranced is so rare now that there appear to be only two copies for sale at the moment, both priced over $100. It was Flandrau’s second novel. Of her first, Being Respectable (1923), F. Scott Fitzgerald said it was “better than Babbitt” and reported that Edith Wharton liked the book “better than any American novel in years.” Joel Van Valin published a long article on Flandrau’s life and work in his Whistling Shade literary magazine in 2008.
In The Matriarch Miss Stern accepts the universe. She presents a panorama stretching over almost a century, but focused on the figure of a gorgeous, eccentric, autocratic old lady. To get so much into one volume requires a perilous process of foreshortening. All the same, it is a fine rich jumbled hamper Miss Stern has packed.
One is willingly subjugated by old Madame Anastasia Rakonitz, chieftainess of a far spreading Jewish clan noted for its masterful womenkind and its straight Greek noses. Disraeli sprang from just such a brilliant, mercurial strain as this. I believe he had a grandmother very like Anastasia. They are the kind of Jews who form a yeasty element in the countries of their adoption, who make an adventure of business, a business of art, and an art of living. Their essential stability consists in their strong family feeling; they rise and fall and rise again together, so tightly interlocked that an outsider pitchforked among them comes near to suffocation. One could pick flaws, but the main point is that The Matriarch is a decidedly likable book.
G(ladys) B(ronwen) Stern, who was one of most successful and prolific of that generation of successful and prolific British women “middlebrow” writers that included Ethel Mannin, Storm Jameson, and Phyllis Bottome that collectively published thousands of novels over of course of fifty-some years between 1920 and 1970. From The Matriarch alone, Stern produced as much as some writers do in an entire career, turning it into a play that was a hit in both London and New York, and following it up with three more novels about the Rakonitz family–A Deputy was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), and Shining and Free (1935)–that were then combined in a massive 1400-page tome titled, The Matriarch Chronicles, in 1936. The Matriarch was reissued several times in paperback, most recently in the mid-1980s as a The Matriarch“>Virago Modern Classic. It was originally published in England as Tents of Israel (1924).
We may as well swallow the bitter pill first, reserving the jam for consolation. But since Miss Macaulay’s tonic is sugared with tolerant amusement, it goes down most easily. It is an antidote to Victorianism, containing a salutary reminder that we may have achieved a distinction without a difference in our Georgian emancipation. If the Victorians were self righteous, aren’t we a little smug in our superiority to those benighted creatures? The plot belongs to the great universal stock; Miss Macaulay helps herself to it gracefully. She premises that in 1855 there sailed from England a shipload of some forty orphan children of tender years, London waifs philanthropically destined for San Francisco under the aegis of a virtuous maiden lady of the Anglican persuasion, a clergyman’s daughter. Miss Charlotte Smith had all the prejudices proper to her social status. A decent Scotswoman had been brought as a nurse. The ship’s doctor was Irish, bibulous. Rabelaisian, and a Roman Catholic.
The ship was wrecked in the lee of a fertile and uninhabited South Sea Island. Seventy years later a rescue party arrived. They found that the orphans had thrived and multiplied, preserving in their island home an undiluted mid-Victorian atmosphere. Miss Smith, aged ninety eight, was a reduced but still majestic replica of the late dear Queen. The social, political, and economic problems of the tight little island had reproduced themselves with the same grotesque fidelity. If the microcosm is funny, the author implies, what of the original? And if they were funny, what of ourselves? How shall we look to our grandchildren?
It is all done in good humor, with a touch of broad comedy for a high light in the distressing circumstances of Miss Smith’s marriage. She had been deceived by the doctor; he had a wife in Ireland. Miss Smith never knew it until she had borne ten children in this bigamous union; and she kept the secret thereafter, reacting to her hidden shame by a more rigid respectability in law making. Illegitimacy she would not tolerate. On principle she was also a teetotaler, though she fuddled herself on palm wine with great dignity, calling it fruit juice prescribed for her health. It is excellent satire, and if to youthful readers it seems inapposite, that is because they can’t visualize the object. Their elders will enjoy it.”
Orphan Island is among the hundreds of books by fine mid-century British men and women writers that have been reissued in e-Book format by Bloomsbury Press in the last couple of years. You can find a Kindle version on Amazon.
For me to assume an attitude of impartial criticism of ” The Crystal Cup, or any other of Gertrude Atherton’s novels, would be sheer pretence. I am biased, if not totally disqualified, by my enthusiastic admiration of the author, which cannot be set aside, even hypothetically, for the consideration of her work “on its merits”, because her books are charged with her personality. Not that they are intimate confessions nor factual autobiography; it is self-evident that they are very far from being anything of the kind; but the dynamic quality with which she was so greatly and fortunately dowered by nature flows through the point of her pen; and her attitude toward life, which she has not only accepted but welcomed and enjoyed, determines her choice and treatment of material.
Always her characters are positive. Confronted by the dilemma which is prerequisite to a story, they arrive at definite decisions and act upon them with energy and even ruthlessness. And, though in some instances the power which moves them is felt as directly owing to the writer rather than to the fictive characters in their own right — which is the final achievement of creative art — nevertheless it is genuine, and it serves its purpose: to rivet the reader’s attention. The degree of illusion she creates varies considerably. In The Crystal Cup, the problem is the main thing, rather than the subtleties of character analysis, although the story hinges on character. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is a question of a certain type breaking through fortuitous and adverse circumstance to find a normal channel of expression.
Gita Carteret, inheriting the beauty and charm which made the women of her family successively the reigning belles of their period, was warped by the unhappy experiences of her girlhood into a fierce antagonism toward men. Her father was a rake, a spendthrift, and a drunken brute. Besides reducing his wife and child to poverty, he exposed them to the insulting gallantries of his raffish associates. Gita grew up hating her own femininity, wishing herself a man; and in self defense she dressed and acted as much like a boy as possible. But at twenty-two, already an orphan, she found herself an heiress in a small way, through the death of her grandmother. The singular expedient to which she resorted to secure her share of life while excluding men from her personal scheme of things, and the unexpected result of it all, provides a very brisk plot, enlivened with a touch of melodrama and one scene (at least) of fine tense drama. It is safe to say The Crystal Cup will be among the best sellers. It marches.”
Not all reviewers shared Isabel Paterson’s enthusiasm for Atherton’s work. In the Saturday Review, H. W. Boynton wrote, “Again Mrs. Atherton has made an elaborate gesture and produced a stuffed rabbit out of the hat. Its skin is real but its eyes are glass, and its little insides are cotton and excelsior.” The Crystal Cup is available in a ridiculously over-priced direct-to-print paperback–or you can get an original edition for just $2.99.
*I do have to say that I fear this embrace of Paterson by Libertarians has put the kibosh on her chances of getting accepted by academia and published by any mainstream reissue press (e.g., New York Review Books) anytime soon.
Anyone with romantic fantasies about the life of a popular writer need only read Margaret Campbell’s autobiography The Debate Continues to get over them. Under such pseudonyms as Marjorie Bowen, Robert Paye, George R. Preedy, Joseph Shearing, and John Winch, she published over 150 books, many of them best-sellers in both the U.K. and U.S.. She tended to specialize in highly authentic but melodramatic historical novels such as The Viper of Milan (1906), which she wrote at the age of 16. Indeed, the popularity of The Viper of Milan, which was a best-seller of its time, was such that her publishers put relentless pressure on Campbell to write more like it. And the extravagant demands of her family–first her mother and then her ailing first husband–on her income, as she was typically the only bread-winner, kept her writing book after book in a genre and style she considered beneath her true abilities.
Margaret’s parents separated a few years after she was born, and she spent most of her early years moving from one cheap apartment to another as her mother, Mrs. Vere Campbell, an aspiring but utterly unsuccessful playwright, outran collection agents and leaned upon the charity of her friends. Her mother made it clear that Margaret, whom she considered thin, unattractive, and stupid, was by far the least favored of her three daughters. It made for a pretty grim childhood: “The great object of my days,” she wrote, “was to escape blame or punishment, for active pleasure or amusement was beyond hope.” Her grandmother, who was part of this wandering band, was little better: “Nana, too, would always remain as she was—slovenly, slack, with a sly, malicious tongue, untrained in everything save the shifts of poverty and the intrigues of cheap lodging-houses and tenth-rate flats.”
As what little money her mother could spend on schooling she reserved for her other daughters, Margaret largely taught herself, painstakingly working out the meaning of words in the rare book that might be lying around one of their apartments. By her early teens, however, she was spending many of her days at the British Museum, reading about history, art, and culture. She picked up a few small jobs as a fact-checker and ghost-writer, and was soon the one reliable source of income for the family. Not that this did anything to improve her standing in her mother’s eyes. Her mother was, variously, dismissive, discouraging, or bitterly envious.
Margaret’s first attempt at writing a novel was, by her own account, highly amateurish and relied heavily on guidebooks for its settings. Passed around from publisher to publisher for several years–most of them simply refusing to accept that a young girl could have written it–it was finally accepted in 1906 by Gilbert and Sullivan’s publisher, Alston Rivers. A moderate success in the U.K., The Viper of Milan became a best-seller when published by McClure in the U.S.. Quickly, the demands of both her publishers and her family turned Margaret into a full-time production machine. Although she held no great opinion of her work, Margaret did scruple to stick with subjects that required at least some knowledge and craftsmanship on her part:
… I liked historical work. It never could be as slap-dash and careless as light, modern stuff. A good deal of effort, research and painstaking, and a severe self-discipline were necessary for the writing of these books in which history was to be transformed into fiction and men and women of the past given some kind of life. The harder the work involved in the preparation of a book the better I liked it. I seemed to be giving something solid in return for the money I earned; too much money for what I gave, I always privately thought. And at least there was a certain dignity about this kind of fiction that there would not have been about ephemeral love or adventure stories of the life about me.
She also found, ironically, some relief in her tendency to favor stories of revenge, murder, and Gothic horror: “I found that, by writing of dark and gloomy subjects, I, in a way, rid my mind of them.”
“Margaret Campbell thus ended her account of her childhood and youth.” With this odd statement, Campbell opens the second half of her book and abruptly shifts from first person to third person. The transition also marks the start of her life as a married woman. In 1912, she met a Sicilian man at a party hosted by one of her mother’s friends, and more as an escape than out of love, married him soon after. Within a few weeks, they were on their way to Italy, and soon after that, Margaret found she was pregnant with their first child. Her account of the child’s delivery at the hands of a local Sicilian mid-wife, “who had every appearance of being a witch and whose knowledge of superstitions, of incantations, of good and bad omens was only equalled by her complete ignorance of medicine and hygiene” is as terrifying as anything she wrote as fiction.
Her husband then had the inspiration to rent the palace of some German prince along the Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Pisa in the off-season. There was truly nothing to be recommended in this plan: the place was gloomy, impossible to heat, sitting near stagnant water, and with little in the way of food. Margaret’s husband, who was never very healthy, quickly fell ill and began to waste away. He hung on for over a year, with Margaret all the while struggling to care for him, search for food, haggle with the local pharmacist over patent medicines, find wood for the stoves … and, in her spare time, keep writing. “There were times,” she wrote, “when she wished she could have been treated as they treated stray dogs, given some warmth, food, and quietly exterminated.”
Margaret’s husband hung on for over a year. In his last few months, she finally found a reliable doctor to care for him. Long anticipated by her maid, who spoke of the man’s legendary care-giving abilities, “The Professor” came over to the house early one summer evening. She was utterly unprepared for what happened next:
She supposed that she had read or heard of such an experience as was now hers, but she had scarcely believed in it. What had happened was that the focus of her existence had altered; she had been absorbed, to the point of obsession, with her husband, with his illness, with his approaching death. For months she had thought of nothing else, save intermittently of the child in England. Only a few stray unbidden dreams and visions had interrupted the intense concentration on this one subject.
Now, in one moment of time, the moment in which she had met this stranger on the threshold of her alien home, everything had altered. It was no longer her husband who was her chief concern, but the man who was now shut up with him, the man who had been so incongruously and absurdly termed “the Professor.”
Margaret’s feelings were fully reciprocated by the Professor, an elegant Venetian in his late sixties. As he left their villa a few days later, he spoke to her: “Before he left her he said he would come again in the morning early. Then he added, in a voice that was suddenly changed by emotion, that he loved her and would do so for the rest of his life.”
Their romance was one of the most proper to be found in literature. What few minutes they could share away from the dying man allowed time for nothing more than a short walk around the villa. And when, after the funeral, they were able to spend a few days together, concern for appearances kept things from going beyond an occasional holding of hands. Yet so convinced were they of their love that Margaret promised to marry the Professor when she returned from England with her son, who had been living with Nana.
But it was not to be. While in England, Margaret received a letter from him saying that his health was too poor to ever allow them to marry. In the space of three or four pages, she sweeps past her second marriage and two more children to arrive at the present. And switches back again to the first person: “It seems to me that it would have been simple for me to make a harmony of my own life, but it has always been cut across by the discords of other people’s lives.”
One has to respect Margaret Campbell’s dedication to her work as an income-earning writer, and in retrospect, she is certainly considered among the better genre novelists of her time. However, one is also tempted to play amateur psychoanalyst in reading her autobiography: why the shift from “I” to “Margaret” and back to “I”? And is it selflessness or resentment that lies behind this statement: “I think I should have known how to live simply, pleasantly, and gaily myself, but no life can be entirely self-contained and my designs have been overborne by those of other people”? Even without the analysis, though, The Debate Continues is an absorbing and fast-moving story that will leave you in awe of this woman’s energy.
Another feature of Hastings was a shop at the edge of the old town and the fishing quarters, with glass cases outside, full of every kind of shell, and boxes covered with shells, and shell necklaces, and shells painted with views; and dried starfish there were, and the hedgehog-like shells of sea-urchins, and shells like great horns–cornucopia such as one saw in paintings of goddesses of plenty, shells with rosy interiors, shells like great silver snails, shells that were flat plates of mother-of-pearl, and long narrow razor-like shells, and black ‘devil’s purses’-—a most wonderful and exciting shop. And just as you could listen forever to the blind men playing the violin and the piano together, so you could gaze at this wonderland of sea-treasures forever. What is good should never end, the moment be extended into eternity.
Only a few years ago I went back to Hastings, and to my great joy the shell shop was still there, and I could have sworn the same shells were in the glass cases, and I gazed as raptly in my forties as the child with not a decade of years to its name had gazed, in summers that seemed always hot and sunny. We do not, fundamentally, change; of that I am convinced. Life knocks us about, pushes us around, this and that happens to us as our bodies increase in size and our minds expand in receptivity and power, but the core of the individual remains the same-—delighted with cornucopia shells, frightened of dogs, shy of strangers, the anxieties and the eagernesses better under control, but induced by very much the same experiences. And, given a chance, we are still capable of that ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ which makes it possible to hear-—quite plainly—the sea’s murmur in a shell.
This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin is a slender tribute to her father that Ethel Mannin wrote several years after his death. She later wrote that she considered it her best work. The book certainly displays a tenderness, a wistfulness, that is rarely found in her own memoirs.
Robert Mannin led an unexceptional life. Born in Westminster when that area of London still had its share of slums, he took advantage of what little education he had to earn a low-paying position as a mail sorter in the Post Office, where he worked for over thirty years. When he retired, he and his wife took a small house in the countryside near London, and he spent many of his last days living with Ethel. He died on Christmas Eve, 1949, in the public ward of a London hospital. At his funeral, “No one wept, and no one felt constrained to utter any of the conventional falsities.”
This Was a Man: Some Memories of Robert Mannin is a tribute more to his character than his accomplishments. by his daughter’s account, he was a pleasant man who held no great credos aside from an almost-Buddhist sense of peace with his fate. He refused, for example, to leave his bed and evacuate to a shelter during the bombing raids on London. “If a bomb’s got Bob Mannin written on it,” he told Ethel, “then I’m for it whatever I do, and if it hasn’t there’s nothing to worry about!” Although he loved to tell stories about the music hall performers, such as Little Tich and Marie Lloyd, that he saw in his youth, he was could also spend hours sitting in Ethel’s garden doing nothing more than watching the clouds in the sky. His relaxed approach to life hardly rubbed off on his daughter, though, who wrote that, “My own inclination is always against procrastination or postponement, just because ‘tomorrow’ so soon becomes ‘today.'”
The odd, alien green tint of the cover of the U.S. edition of Mary McMinnie’s second novel, The Visitors is somehow appropriate for this long out-of-print book, for it manages to be, at the same time, both highly realistic–indeed, drearily, tediously, relentlessly realistic at times, the kind of realism that’s so convincing that it can feel like the writer is holding your head under water and you want to struggle to break free–and utterly artificial.
The artificiality comes from the situation in which McMinnies places her main character, Milly Purdoe. A beautiful, lively but superficial woman, she find herself stuck in a grim provincial Polish city–a fictional equivalent of Krakow–in its bleakest, most repressive post-Stalinist days, the trailing spouse of a minor British Foreign Service officer. (The German title of the book was Seltsame Gäste–“Strange Guests.”) Quartered in a cold apartment in the town’s once-grand hotel, she has little to do but avoid tangles with her children’s stone-faced nanny, look for antiques in the pathetic stores and flea markets, and read Madame Bovary. Although the nanny is a novelty, a sign of her husband’s rise in the civil service, everything else is a little too familiar to Milly:
Already it was October. That was how time passed. Between departure from the last place, arrival at the next, and for a week or two either side, miraculously it stood still–if you could always be doing that, coming and going, going and coming. But no sooner had you arrived than you began, because it had to be and you were experienced at it, to settle in. No sooner were you settled in and starting to find your feet, yet still making discoveries like where to buy the best sausage and the bread and each day holding the promise of some novel experience before it close, than, before you knew where you were, the days would begin to assume a pattern, to merge into each other, yesterday like to-day, to-day like to-morrow; and in front of your eyes, little by little, the excitement would be fading, the novelty becoming stale, until in no time at all you knew you would be passing through the intermediate stage, the seemingly endless one you care for least, between coming and going. It would be like living in a dream; not uncomfortable, because only reality is that–your pulse-beat steady, you would be eating well, sleeping well; but certain times of day, the performing of certain actions, sherry at twelve, gin at six, brushing your teeth, pouring tea, seeming to come round with deadly regularity until you would feel something simply had to happen to joly you out of it, the dream routine; even if it were to be no more than a gale, like the gale with had raged the night before and had swept not only a great many leaves off the trees but a leaf off the calendar, too, and now it was October.
And so, like Flaubert’s romantic trapped in a dull French provincial town, Milly soon finds ways to keep busy that are undoubtedly amusing to her but also clearly dangerous and self-destructive when carried out under the eyes of a paranoid police state.
The Visitors is a big, ambitious book, rich is characterization and description, ruthless in its social satire, mesmerizing in its powerful narrative vortex. Some reviewers found that McMinnie’s ambitions outstretched her artistic reach, comparing her work with that of the period’s biggest over-the-topper, James Jones. It was picked up by the Book of the Month Club, which boosted its U.S. sales, and was twice released as a paperback, the second time in 1967 as a Penguin paperback. It’s been out of print ever since, though, and McMinnies appears to have published nothing since. A couple of readers remember it with enthusiasm on Goodreads and Amazon, but their reviews and this one are the book’s sole mentions on the Web.
The Visitors, by Mary McMinnies
New York City: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1958
Of course it’s possible to make generalizations about numbered ten-year slots, thought they don’t much work until after the fact. “We’re not in ‘the eighties,'” said Abbie Hoffman about a later decade, “we’re in a delicatessen in New York City.” You could say the fifties were the end of the era when chauvinism was still about countries and a dip was something you did on the dance floor, not stuck your crudités into; before smoking officially killed you and food, air, sex, and water generally didn’t; when the drugs in circulation were legal and it was safe to walk alone at night. But such observations have no significance at the time to a person who is simply swamped by the whole thing. When you are growing up in it, it isn’t the fifties or the sixties or anything else–it’s just a part, your part, of some terrible, vast ocean. You don’t give any thought to whether the waves are Atlantic or Pacific; if they’re about to drown you, who cares if they started in the Black Sea or the Red, or are saltier or tougher than the Caribbean? In the decade of your youth, the first wave merges with the last, and you know nothing about the time’s distinctness: your job is just to keep afloat.
Sally Belfrage’s Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties is both one of the funniest and one of the saddest books. Growing up in an America where fitting in seemed a higher goal even than getting rich, Belfrage was cursed with some seemingly insurmountable obstacles: “My parents were foreigners and got married a lot, they went in for weird food and funny clothes, they were always moving.” Her mother, Molly Castle, had been the hottest young columnist in England in the 1930s, “The Girl Everyone Reads,” a voice of authority on style, glamor and celebrity. Her father, Cedric Belfrage, had been a film critic, a press agent for Sam Goldwyn, a screenwriter in Hollywood, an operative for M.I.6 in New York City, an agent for the Americans in post-war Germany, setting up democratically-oriented newspapers, and–oh, yeah, an ardent leftist and one-time Communist. He also had a mistress he’d brought back from Europe and set up apartment with, leaving his family to fend for themselves much of the time. She was the only kid in her class whose phone was tapped and whose house was regularly visited by F.B.I. agents.
“When my teens began, it dawned on me: the only untried, unheard-of, truly original ambition I might pursue was to be normal.” Much of Un-American Activities is devoted to recalling her earnest efforts to fit in. She had the help of her downstairs neighbor, Debbie, who knew everything from how to keep boys from getting past first base to when and when not to wear lipstick. Tall, blonde and beautiful, Sally should have had an easy time achieving a survivable level of popularity, but her academic abilities landed her in the Bronx High School of Science, where she still the oddball, the lone shiksa in a school full of geeky Jewish guys.
And there was the matter of her parents. Despite the fact that the half-life of Cedric Belfrage’s Communist Party membership could be measured in days, he was an open and unabashed pinko, the kind of radical who befriended emigrant European intellectuals, partied with Paul Robeson, and kept on founding left-wing magazines. He was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He simply would not keep a low-profile. Ironically, it was his wife who was the first to be deported.
Despite all this turmoil, however, Sally managed to get a boyfriend–a West Point cadet, no less. He offers her the promise of a life complete with two kids and a station wagon. All she has to do is keep his mother, who’s torn between hating her for being the daughter of Communists and hating her for being Goy. But then, when her father is finally kicked out of the country, Walter Winchell blasts out the news on his nightly radio show: “Flash. Pinko Cedric Belfrage, who edits a smelly sheet in NYC, will be taken from West Street jail to be deported, probably tomorrow. Good riddance!”
Un-American Activities ends with an epilogue in which Sally revisits her parents, both remarried (her father several times over) thirty-some years later, nurses her father in his final days, and has a whirlwind affair with her old West Point boyfriend, now a two-star general involved in Reagan’s Star Wars program. It is something of a let-down, offering little in the way of added perspective on the preceding story.
Which is unfortunate, because her story after her parents’ deportation–if she’d been a little more willing to go into the details–is that of a life far more interesting and individualistic than either of her parents. In the late 1950s, she played hooky from an escorted tour to the Soviet Union and ended up spending six months on her own in Moscow, telling the tale in her first book, A Room in Moscow (1958). A few years later, she joined the Freedom Riders, traveling through the segregated South and helping blacks register to vote, which she wrote about in Freedom Summer (1966). In the late 1970s, she left her husband (Bernard Pomerance, author of The Elephant Man) and spent time on guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh’s ashram, an experience she described in Flowers of Emptiness (1981). In the mid-1980s, she traveled to Belfast to collect the impressions of resident on all sides of the conflict for her 1987 book, The Crack: A Belfast Year. None of her books made much money, and when she died of breast cancer in 1994 at the age of 57, she was living in a tiny flat in Maida Vale. She was fondly remembered by her friends, however. Ceremonies were organized in her honor, including a tribute in New York City hosted by Maya Angelou.
Un-American Activities: A Memoir of the Fifties, by Sally Belfrage
New York City: Harper Collins, 1994
In the eyes of some critics, Taggard has only herself to blame. Somewhere in the early 1930s, Taggard decided that her work was simply not confronting the traumatic social conditions she saw around her. She “refused to write out of a decorative impulse because I conceive it to be the dead end of much feminine talent.” Instead, she chose to write what she considered “poetry that relates to general experience and the realities of the time.” Although she gives Taggard prominent mention in her landmark survey, A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter concludes that the poet’s choice to reject her early lyrical style in favor of a more politically-oriented realism “stifled the ardent feminine voice that had made her poetry alive.”
The fact that her second husband, Kenneth Durant, was the American agent of the Soviet news agency, Tass, and that her poems regularly featured in New Masses, colored the opinion of even her closest friends. In an interview for an oral history project, Sara Bard Field claimed, “She wrote a poem called something like ‘Our Good Father Stalin.'” (Bard may have been recalling Taggard’s 1942 poem, “Salute to the Russian Dead,” which includes such propagandistic declarations as, “Whatever is good and tangible and fair in time to come/Begins here, where they die in their blood, in their genius.”) Certainly, Taggard’s tendency to reach for the red banner and to wave it a little too enthusiastically after her marriage to Durant is difficult to look past, particularly after The Gulag Archipelago and the declassification of the Venona intercepts.
Yet it’s worth taking the effort to look past Taggard’s most strident verses and discover more about this woman and her work. And a great deal can be understood by a series of autobiographical pieces she wrote for various magazines between 1924 and 1934. The last of these, titled “Hawaii, Washington, Vermont,” appeared in the October 1934 issue of Scribners magazine, and contrasts the two extremes of her childhood: the bleak, narrow-minded aridity of Waitland, a small town in the farmlands of Eastern Washington; and the lush, gentle warmth of rural Oahu, Hawaii.
Taggard was born in Waitland, where her father had come at the invitation of his brother, a successful apple farmer, in hopes of improving his always-fragile health. The dust of farmland life, however, was ruinous, however, and in 1897, when Genevieve was two, he accepted an offer from the Disciples of Christ to run a missionary school on Oahu. They lived there for over ten years, then returned to Waitland, came back briefly, then left Hawaii for good, settling back in Waitland, where Genevieve graduated from high school in 1912.
For Taggard, Hawaii was, literally, “our Garden of Eden.” They lived with the diverse cultures of the island–“the Portuguese, the Filipinos, the Puerto Ricans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hawaiian-Chinese, and the hap-a-haoles.” They ate mangos, scooped minnows by the hundreds from coastal lagoons, picked algarroba beans, and played in the warm Pacific surf. Having to return to Waitland was like being cast out of Paradise. In an article titled, “A Haole Scrapbook,” published in the June 1924 issue of The Bookman, Taggard recalled one of her last days before leaving:
John Frank, the greatest swimmer of all the native lads, stood on the big rock that overhung the Kalihi-kai swimming pool, the last day I saw him. His fathers had fished there, with spears and torches. The fish, white and languid, went back and forth, that day, in a shaft of sunlight that knifed the yellow-green water. John Frank stood on the stone worn into a little hollow by the feet of his forefathers. He didn’t own the stone. It was on a white man’s estate now.
“Wellakahou”, shouted John Frank, and cut the water with his joined palms.
I sat on the stone when he left it and strung myself a lei–it was a goodbye lei made of ilima flowers. The first span of my years–the first ten years spent in the islands–was ending the
John Frank’s smooth black head popped up from the water. “How long you going stay in the States?” he asked me, as if it had just become clear that I was really going,
“Three months”, I said.
“Mangoes getting ripe soon”, he offered.
A sudden pang at the thought of missing mango season went through me. John Frank had dived again. The water was sooty black and quiet. Then in a whirlpool came a brown arm. This time he popped up with a well formed idea: “Too bad you gotta be haole”, he said, and went under again.
Off and on, I have thought so too, all my life.
Waitland, on the other hand, seemed something very like Hell:
Hot stubble faces met us at the train window. I ducked down and took a quick look at the hot face of the town, with the feeling of a person about to enter a jail. Dust, ankle-deep, paved the
main street. Broken wooden sidewalks bordered by dusty weeds led to a block of ramshackle stores. A drooping horse and a spring wagon stood hitched in front of the post office. No trees in
sight; just stubble-covered hills through which we had come for hours. We children found even the first day in the new home town as dull as ditch, or rather dish, water. Houses had the blinds down to protect carpets. Houses were tight and smelled of dust. Kitchens were hot with wood stoves. Parlors were not to sit in. Flies swarmed around doorways. Outside there was stubble or dust, no grass. Children must not play in the orchards. If little girls were bored they could hem dish towels or swat flies.
James Taggard, Genevieve’s father, was given a miserable plot of land between two railroad lines and planted with a withering stand of pear trees. His brother, who had gotten his start with $2,000 borrowed from James, told him the orchard was repayment and just needed “intensive farming.” Instead, it failed, as did James’ already-poor health, and when Genevieve was accepted into the University of California Berkeley in 1914, the whole family moved with her.
Her mother ran a boarding house and Genevieve worked when she wasn’t taking classes. It took her five years to graduate, after which she parted from her family and moved to Greenwich Village. She quickly landed a job with a literary magazine, then another, then founded Measure, a Journal of Verse of which she worked as editor, and also worked as poetry editor of the Liberator, the slightly toned-down version of the Masses set up by Max Eastman. Her university classmate, Josephine Herbst, joined her, and the two were soon best friends. Taggard helped arranged for Herbst’s abortion after she became pregnant during her affair with Maxwell Anderson. The two complained about the character of the men they met: “What’s in the men nowadays–the women have the fire & the ardency & the power & the depth?,” Taggard once wrote Herbst.
Then she met Robert Wolf, who styled himself the model of the serious artist: “He had an extremely high idea of his own value as a poet,” recalled Sara Bard Fields. Taggard fell for him, hard, and they soon married. In an anonymous piece, “Poet out of Pioneer,” published in the Nation in 1927, it’s clear she was still convinced that Wolf’s art was the great cause for which she had to sacrifice: “I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was…. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry….. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult….”
She gradually discovered just how difficult Wolf could be. He insisted he had to go off on his own to write, that she was too intrusive and confining for him to be able to create around her. After Genevieve gave birth to their daughter, Marcia, in 1921, he said she would have to take full responsibility for raising the child. They moved back to California and Genevieve went to work at Mills College while Wolf went off to the Pacific coast to write. Soon, instead of looking on her marriage as her “chief improvement,” she was writing Herbst that it was hard to sacrifice herself for his art “when you struggle for weeks with stoves and mud and diapers and canned food….”
Though they did not finally divorce until 1934, Wolf and Taggard spent less and less time together. He became subject to bouts of depression, bouts of hyperactivity, and bouts of anger, most of it directed at Genevieve. She continued to be the main bread-winner, working as a book reviewer, teaching at Bennington College, and still managing to write far more than Wolf did. Her first book, For Eager Lovers, was published in 1922. In it, in a poem titled, “Married,” the refrain tells us much of the state of her own marriage: “Apart, apart, we are apart.” The book included a poem that demonstrated just how much her initial idealism had given way to a much more measured view of the world:
Men go to women mutely for their peace;
And they, who lack it most, create it when
They make because they must, loving their men–
A solace for sad bosom-bended heads. There
Is all the meager peace men get no otherwhere;
No mountain space, no tree with placid leaves,
Or heavy gloom beneath a young girl’s hair,
No sound of valley bell on autumn air,
Or room made home with doves along the eves,
Ever holds peace like this, poured by poor women
Out of their heart’s poverty, for worn men.
Her second book, a small volume titled, Hawaiian Hilltop, was published in 1924. In 1925, Eastman asked her to edit May Days: An Anthology of Verse from Masses-Liberator. In her preface, she remarks that re-reading the back issues of the magazines “had the same fascination that the face of your father at the age of sixteen has, when you come upon it peering from an album, for the first time after years of pre-occupation with your own generation.”
Her third book, Words for the Chisel, was published by Knopf in 1926, but it was Travelling Standing Still (1928) that first earned her serious critical acclaim. Edmund Wilson called Taggard “a poet of our common human experience” and lauded her poem, “With Child,” as the best poem about birth he’d read. William Rose Benet, writing in the Saturday Review, said he found it “almost impossible to classify Miss Taggard as a poet. If you use the image of a gem, she has many facets, and she has always possessed a quality like the moods of water.”
Though she no longer considered her marriage a triumph, she still saw herself as something of a rebel against the conventions of her parents. In a piece titled, “Statements of Belief,” published in The Bookman, Taggard described how her inclination toward contrarianism started early:
We always sang four-part songs, in the Islands, at school and singing was important. I sat with the altos and sang the dark humming parts. After about a year, came along a singing teacher who applied her octaves and diagnosed: “But you are a soprano.”
There it was again. I was a freckled blonde when I wanted to be brunette, white when I wanted to be Hawaiian, and a soprano when I wanted to be alto.
“I’m going to keep on singing alto.” That was final.
“Very well, and ruin your voice. You have a real soprano. And you might sing solos.”
And so, Alto against Nature, with now (she was right), no voice at all . . . and the only chance for singing, on paper. Uncomfortable as a dog within ear-shot of high sopranos, still liking best middle register and counterpoint.
And so, Alto against Nature, she proclaimed herself quite the opposite of all that her parents stood for: “I am a poet, a wine-bibber, a radical; a non-churchgoer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial.”
The late 1920s and early 1930s was perhaps the period of Taggard’s best work. Benet later selected a poem Taggard published in the 13 October 1928 issue of Saturday Review for his anthology, Fifty Poets (1933). The poem offers hints of the two worlds of her childhood:
Try Tropic for Your Balm
(On the Properties of Nature for Healing an
Try tropic for your balm.
And after storm, calm.
Try snow of heaven, heavy, soft, and slow,
Brilliant and warm.
Nothing will help, and nothing do much harm.
Drink iron from rare springs; follow the sun;
To get the beam of some medicinal star;
Or in your anguish run
The gauntlet of all zones to an ultimate one.
Fever and chill
Punish you still,
Earth has no zone to work against your will.
Burn in the jewelled desert with the toad.
In evening mist across your haunted face;
Or walk in upper air the slanted road.
It will not lift that load;
Nor will large seas undo your subtle ill.
Nothing can cure and nothing kill
What ails your eyes, what cuts your pulse in two.
And not kill you.
Taggard later wrote that, “One Summer evening in 1928 in a special key of loneliness and intensity and certainty, the whole thing came as if dictated…. When I wrote it … I had myself and you, reader, in mind … and many others … all of us, and there are many now–who run through books and landscapes looking for something, with worn faces. I chose this poem because it is about our life and our way of behaving.”
She joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College and began work on a biography, The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, which was published in 1930. In 1931, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her to travel to Europe, where she spent several months living on the island of Mallorca.
When she returned to the United States, she appears to have brought back a conviction that she had to make a fundamental change in her poetry. She felt her previous work was frivolous, and she now wrote with a thumping seriousness worthy of Robert Wolf:
To the Powers of Desolation
O mortal boy, we cannot stop
The leak in that great wall where death seeps in
With hands or bodies, frantic mouths, or sleep.
Over the wall, over the wall’s top
I have seen rising waters, waters of desolation.
From my despair bibles are written, children begotten;
Women open the wrong doors; men lie in ditches retching,–
The horrible bright eyes of insanity fix on a blue fly,
Focus, enlarge. Dear mortal, escape
You cannot. I hear the drip of eternity above the quiet buzz of your sleep….
In a review of a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams written for New Masses at around the same time, Taggard bemoaned that Williams had “fallen among the Imagists” and declared that, “We do not need to pay such exaggerated attention to ‘real objects’ because now the fog clears off; real ideas challenge us.”
Divorced from Wolf in 1934, she joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, where she remained until forced by ill health (chronic hypertension) to leave in 1946. Through her work for New Masses, she met Kenneth Durant and they married in 1935. By all reports, the two were deeply in love. She became a member of the Communist Party and they took a tour of the Soviet Union in 1936. She published a selection of her new, realistic poems, Calling Western Union, soon after, and two years later, Collected Poems: 1918-1938, in which she formally declared her lyrical work a thing of the past.
Interestingly, her shift from modernism to realism was mirrored by a renewed respect for the values her parents–and, in particular, her mother, stood for. In the November 1938 issue of Poetry, she published the following:
To My Mother
The long delight and early
I heard in my small years clearly:
The morning song, bed-making, bustle for new undertaking,
With dish-washing and hay-raking,
This vanished, or seemed diminished,
Was lost, in trouble finished.
I did nervous work, unsteady, captive work and heady.
Nothing well-done and ready.
And heard in other places
Than home, and from foreign faces
The dauntless gay and breezy communal song of the bust,
I–idle and uneasy.
I said, my work is silly,
Lonely and willy-nilly.
See this hand with nicotined habits, this useless hand that edit
A chronicle of debits.
Join, if I can, the makers,
And the tillers of difficult acres;
And get somehow this dearly lost, this re-discovered rarely
Habit of rising early.
She had apparently also forgiven her mother for keeping a volume of Edgar Guest’s poems next to Genevieve’s books on her nightstand.
During the Forties, Taggard spent a good deal of her free time at a farm near Bennington that she had bought with the profits from her Dickinson book. Although she acknowledged she could never fully assimilate with the locals, the rural atmosphere somehow brought back her memories of Hawaii, and a lyrical strain began to force its way back into her poetry. She published A Part of Vermont in 1945–a slender book but with nary a sign of red banners or marching masses.
A year later, she published Slow Music, which showed a writer torn between the cause she believed in and the sensuality at the core of her spirit. Dross like “Salute to the Russian Dead” is overwhelmed by such poems as “Hymn to Yellow,” “A Dialogue on Cider,” “A Poem to Explain Everything About a Certain Day in Vermont,” and the playful “A Sombrero Is a Kind of Hat This Poem Is a Kind of Nonsense.” And the woman who rejected William Carlos Williams for fixating on objects came up with a lovely little poem with echoes of William’s red wheel barrow:
Even if the geraniums are artificial
Just the same,
In the rear of the Italian cafe
Under the nimbus of electric light
They are red; no less red
For how they were made. Above
The mirror and the napkins
In the little white pots …
… In the semi-clean cafe
Where they have good
Lasagne … The red is a wonderful joy
Really, and so are the people
Who like and ignore it. In this place
They also have good bread.
And so, with her last book, Origin: Hawaii (1947), Taggard returned to Oahu for the last time (and perhaps knew it for the first time). In her introduction to the collection, she wrote that, “A place that has not been truly felt and communicated does not, in a certain sense, exist. Just as a human being who is not quite conscious may be said not quite to exist either.” The collection includes the last poem she wrote, “Luau,” which, one could argue, offers her own equivalent of the Last Supper:
So I come home in the valley of Kalihi,
My bare feet on hard earth, hibiscus with stamen-tongue
Twirled in my fingers like a paper windmill,
A wheel of color, crimson, the petals large,
Kiss of the petal, tactile, light, intense …
Now I am back again. I can touch the children:
My human race, in whom was a human dwelling,
Whose names are all the races–of one skin.
For so our games ran tacit, without blur.
Here we are dipping and passing the calabash
In the ceremony of friends; I also;
But in frenzy and pain distort
The simple need, knowing how blood is shed:
To sit together
Drinking the blue ocean, eating the sun
Like a fruit …
Geraldine Taggard died in New York City in 1948 at the age of 53, of the debilitating effects of long-term chronic hypertension. Though all her books are now long out of print, by far the best place to start to discover her poetry is the collection compiled by her daughter, Marcia Durant Liles, To the Natural World, which was issued in 1980 but is available for free in PDF format (link. It includes some of her very best poems and suffers none of the shortcomings of Taggard’s “realism” period.
I am not a follower of ballet or dance, but when I started leafing through Martha Graham’s autobiography, Blood Memory: An Autobiography, I soon found I had to keep going and finish it. Now, this is hardly what one would call great writing. Indeed, there are some suggestions that it was more dictated, to her companion and assistant, Ron Protas. Protas himself cautioned Martha’s editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “Jackie, this is a mix of Martha and me talking.” Kirkus Reviews said the book “feels as if it were dictated a few minutes at a time and left largely unedited,” and the Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote that it reminded one of the “rambling, disjunctive quality as the dangerously long, seemingly shapeless pre-curtain speeches she insisted upon making once she could no longer dance her own repertoire.” And toward the end, the names start dropping like bits of shrapnel.
But, at the same time, you’ve got to respect the kind of passion that could keep Graham going until she succumbed to pneumonia just a few weeks short of her 97th birthday. Graham doesn’t try to sugarcoat the fact that a double helping of ego tends to be part of the package when one is a creative genius, nor is she apologetic about the fact that she liked men and went after those she wanted. When it became clear that she had to stop dancing herself, it led to too much drinking, too much brooding, and a personal crisis: “A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you would wish.”
And she would probably have agreed with Arnold Palmer that “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” “I believe that we learn by practice,” she declares in the second line in the book, and she goes on to describe just how much practice she would put herself and her dancers through, starting with intense drilling in basics–400 leaps in five minutes, as a start. Though Graham obviously didn’t aim for this to be a self-help book like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, the pages are full of inspirational words that any dancer, artist, or other creative person could draw ideas and encouragement from. Graham recounts more than a few situations where it was only her “damn the torpedoes” attitude that got her through.
Blood Memory: An Autobiography was published about four months after Graham’s death. It was followed three weeks later by the publication of Agnes De Mille’s biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, and I’d encourage anyone interested in Graham to check it out, too. De Mille and Graham had danced together and known each other as close friends for over fifty years, and De Mille had been working on the book for years, holding it back from publication out of respect. She approached it as a serious, almost scholarly work, despite her feelings for Graham, and in itself, is a remarkable book, particularly considering that De Mille was past 85 when it was finally published.
Blood Memory: An Autobiography, by Martha Graham
New York: Doubleday, 1991
Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes De Mille
New York: Random House, 1991
Willa Cather is hardly a neglected writer, but even in the work some of the best-known writers, there are little gems that have been rattled off into a dusty corner by the thumping feet of their magna opera. This comes from an essay on Katherine Mansfield in Not Under Forty (1936), which was the last book Cather published.
I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday “happy family” who are merely going on living their daily lives, with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them. Yet every individual in that household (even the children) is clinging passionately to his individual soul, is in terror of losing it in the general family flavour. As in most families, the mere struggle to have anything of one’s own, to be one’s self at all, creates an element of strain which keeps everybody almost at the breaking-point.
One realizes that even in harmonious families there is this double life: the group life, which is the one we can observe in our neighbour’s household, and, underneath, another–secret and passionate and intense–which is the real life that stamps the faces and gives character to the voices of our friends. Always in his mind each member of these social units is escaping, running away, trying to break the net which circumstances and his own affections have woven about him. One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them. In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works.
Not Under Forty, by Willa Cather
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936
One has to wonder what the residents of Piermont, New York thought of Alice Beal Parsons. A writer and–for her day–a radical feminist, with a strong liberal tack to her politics, she bought a house–more like a cabin–on the slopes of Tallman Mountain (now a New York State Park in the late 1920s. Probably few had read or were even aware of her book, Woman’s Dilemma (1926), which argued for equal rights in work and sexual matters at a time when that was still a decidedly minority view.
Parsons commuted to New York City by ferry most days, working for The Nation and The Bookman as a book reviewer, but she had enough time to observe the residents of Piermont and their doings to become inspired. Within a year or so of settling near the town, she had fictionalized it as Pawlet-on-Hudson and made it the setting of her first novel, John Merrill’s Pleasant Life (1930), which told the story of an idealistic young engineer who has his life spirit drained from him even as he rises to great success running the town’s main factory. Two years later, she used the setting again in A Lady Who Lost (1932), which portrayed the place as a microcosm of the social disturbances caused by the Great Depression. In the book, an idle woman married to a wealthy man becomes involved with the case of a woman tried for the murder of a lover and then with a strike (also at the town’s big factory) organized by Communists.
Then, during the Second World War, she published The Mountain (1944), which was an autobiographical account of life in and around Piermont. She described how her attitude and relations with her neighbors evolved over the course of time, with her initial prejudices and stereotypes gradually giving way to more nuanced and sympathetic understanding and affection. She also rhapsodized about the beauties of the changing seasons on the mountain and offered some comic sketches of her own life and a few of her more colorful neighbors. The book was very favorably reviewed. Saturday Review called it, “… one of those books whose subject matter defies formal classification and whose charm depends partly, of course, on the style of its writing, but almost more on the intimate relationship the author manages to establish between you and her from the start. When you finish it you feel almost as if you had been the week-end guest of a delightful hostess.” One imagines her standing rose at least a little in the eyes of the Piermontese.
But then, a couple of years later, Parsons published I Know What I’d Do (1946), which made poor little Pawlet-on-Hudson a hotbed of adultery, racism, Xenophobia, and violence. The title comes from something several folks in town tell Al Miller, a returning vet, soon after he arrives back in town: “Yes, I know damn well what I’d do if I heard the sort of story some of youse fellow is agoin’ to hear now you’re back home. It ain’t no Sunday School story some of youse is goin’ to hear.” In other words, while Al was off training in England and fighting in Italy, his wife, Sally, had an affair with someone in town. Al’s friend, Jim Phelan, in fact.
At first, Al tries to be rational about things. He’d slept with an English girl himself while overseas. And it’s just innuendos at first, until Sally confesses to him one night. Only in her version, it wasn’t an affair–it was rape. And she got pregnant and now needs money for an illegal abortion. Oh, and just to ratchet up the melodramatic volume, the local Ku Klux Klan klaven burns a cross on their lawn–their version of a red letter A.
Things quickly spiral out of control. Al Miller hunts down and murders Jim Phelan. The scene instantly becomes the center of attraction in town:
In spite of the gas and rubber shortage, the traffic on Prospect Avenue out of which Penross Drive opened was greatly increased by the murder of Jim Phelan. Cars drove slowly by, obstructing north-bound traffic. Because of the jam, parking was forbidden on the Avenue. Sight-seers got around this difficulty by turning into abutting driveways and gazing their fill from these safe vantage points. Some determined individuals actually left their cars and strolled up Penross Drive, though everyone knew it was a one-way street. If they encountered anyone they pretended, according to sex and condition, to be looking for apartments, or stray dogs, or to be selling insurance.
The murder and the sordid details behind it split the community into factions like a prism. Much muck is shoveled up and raked over in the course of the subsequent trial. Fortunately for Al, his case is helped by a sympathetic woman writer living near the town–a fictional version of Parsons herself, one imagines–and civic rationalism prevails.
When I Know What I’d Do came out, critics divided into two camps. One saw the book as a soap opera and an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the very current topic of the struggles of returning veterans. The other applauded Parsons for her multi-faceted approach to her subject and characters. And it’s true that while there are bigots, bullies, and gossips a-plenty in Parsons’ Pawlet, there are others who demonstrate the same kind of depth and complexity of character that Parsons revealed among her neighbors in The Mountain. Grace Frank, writing in Saturday Review, easily spotted the parallels with Parsons’ earlier book:
Most of the portraits in the book, even the incidental ones, are admirable likenesses: the returned soldier, abstracted and uninterested until someone accidentally speaks his language; the young woman, a devoted wife and mother, who nevertheless yields to the excitement of an experienced seducer; a bullying sport, making another man pay for his fun; a worldly-wise writer, equating the effects of love and loneliness on Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Sally, and herself; the opposing lawyers, a woman of the man-eating type, a shrewdly cantankerous young doctor, a dowager aristocrat, and finally the different local characters, including the irreconcilable families of Sally and Al. Pawlet may be purely imaginary, as the author contends, but for all that it and its inhabitants are as real as Route 9W [Route 9W is the highway that runs through Piermont.–Ed.]
Parsons quickly followed up with a return to the subject of her most successful book. In The World Around the Mountain (1947), she carries on with her portrait of life around Piermont, including a comic and self-mocking account of her impassioned but quite unsuccessful attempt to get involved with local politics.
This was her last book, and other than a short story that was published in The American Mercury in 1950 (available at unz.org), Parsons appears to have published nothing after it. She died in a hospital in Nyack, just north of Piermont, in April, 1962.
I Know What I’d Do, by Alice Beal Parsons
New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1946
Ethel Mannin wrote. A lot. By her own declaration, Sunset over Dartmoor (1977), the final chapter of her autobiography, was her 95th. She wrote so many books that even though the “By the Same Author” page in Dartmoor lists 41 novels, along with many other titles on “Politics and Ethics,” “Short Stories,” “Travels and Memoirs,” and “Child Education,” the list still ends with “Etc.” (there were at least four more after Free Pass to Nowhere (1970)).
She got an early start. Before marrying at 19 and having a daughter (her only child) a few months later, she had already begun to produce serialized romantic novels at the price of one guinea for every 1,000 words. (These books are on top of the other 95.) And by the age of 30, she’d had enough practice to feel quite comfortable publishing an autobiography, Confessions and Impressions (1930).
Confessions was one of her most successful and popular books, going into multiple printings and being reissued a few years later as an early Penguin paperback. Its success owed much to the novelty of Mannin’s scandalous confessions, such as falling in love with one of her female teachers, enduring the abuse of another (psychopathic) teacher who refused to let her pupils use the toilet and kept them hostage until they wet themselves and were duly punished, and having several affairs, including one with an unnamed man so distraught over their break-up that he committed suicide. Heady stuff for its time.
But, at the same time, Confessions and Impressions offers an early clue to the secret of Ethel Mannin’s success as a word producer and failure as a writer. For the “Confessions” section of the book amounts to about 40% of its content, while the “Impressions”–a collection of somewhat shallow and gossipy sketches of various writers and celebrities she was acquainted with. Noel Coward she thinks “the most electric person I had ever met;” Rebecca West is “small and provocative, rather like a lovely naughty child;” Radcliffe Hall, then notorious for her novel of lesbian love, The Well of Loneliness, is “the definitely masculine type of woman, but not by any means in that tiresome and unattractive sense suggestive of police-women or tomboyish daughters of county families.” She shares confidences about William Gerhardie told to her at one of Rebecca West’s cocktail parties: “Oh, did he offer to seduce you? He did me. He said it would make me a better writer.” At the time, English readers must have lapped this up, but it all seems pretty silly and musty today, as do her pontifications on Freud and her declaration that (remember, she’s only thirty), “I have lived richly and fully because out of abundant vitality, physical, mental, emotional, I have never been afraid to give myself to life.”
And she went on to prove herself right by packing in enough experiences that, less than ten years later, she produced a second volume of autobiography, Privileged Spectator (1939). During the Thirties, she wrote another couple dozen books, including the pretentiously (and, in truth, just barely) experimental Ragged Banners: A Novel with an Index (1931) (yes, it did have an index); another, Linda Shawn, based on A. S. Neill’s pioneering work at his Summerhill boarding school; a highly critical account of life in the Soviet Union, South to Samarkand (1936); Common-sense and the Adolescent (1937) an advice book calling for greater liberality in the treatment of teenagers and their struggles with sexuality and identity. She said good-bye to the carefree, bohemian lifestyle of the Twenties after spending the pring of 1932 on Majorca, which she found “infested by every kind of foreign undesirable, durg addicts, dipsomaniacs, crooks, idle rich, and every kind of parasite.” She also found time to become active in the Labour Party–and then, when disillusioned with that, the Independent Labour Party. She raised funds for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War alongside Emma Goldman and married Reginald Reynolds, a Quaker, writer of political tracts and satirical poems, and one of Gandhi’s primary representatives in the U. K.. She also bought a house, Oak Cottage, outside London, where she hosted figures ranging from Goldman in the Thirties to Iraqi dissidents in the Sixties.
Although her travels were more restricted during the Second World War, her writings were not, and her production carried on unimpeded by Blitz, blackouts, or rationing. As a pacifist, Reynolds was less than popular with the authorities, and he spent a few weeks in Exeter prison for the felony of riding a bicycle without a headlight (in the middle of the morning) as well as several rounds in hospital for his weak lungs and heart.
Always on the side of the underdog, Mannin’s principles occasionally landed her in a awkward position. In 1944, a prison inmate–a German national and fervent supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)–wrote to ask for a few of her books, having devoured all he could find in the prison library. She wrote a few letters in support of his case, but was startled when the man appeared, paroled, at Oak Cottage and insisted that he be hired to serve as her secretary. Mannin didn’t really need a secretary but was reluctant not to help the man out on his new path. So she found herself hosting a still-rabid Fascist with few secretarial skills, who still liked to wear his BUF uniform shirts around the house, who sulked for days after Mannin said she didn’t care for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and who couldn’t even be trusted to write a simple letter correctly. She would hand him a letter from some group inviting her to speak, saying, “Just say I am very busty and have no time.” He would then “type a very neat letter–using all his fingers, very correctly–to say that Miss Mannin had better things to do that waste her time speaking to a lot of nincompoops at a literary society, and if anyone was interested in Miss Mannin’s ideas they could jolly well read her books. Yours faithfully.” When asked to rewrite it, he stormed off. “He was extremely temperamental,” she notes. To her great relief, the man announced one day that he needed to move on “to better himself.” In later years, she had another mixed experience with a charity case when she and her husband “adopted” Frank Stanley, who had broken into their house and been sent up on a charge of burglary. He also turned out to be well-meaning but proved to have an unfortunate residual interest in violence, criminal intrigues, and rough trade.
Brief Voices (1959) covers the longest period of all her autobiographies, from the outbreak of war in 1939 to Reynolds’ sudden death, while on a speaking tour in Australia, in 1958. It set a pattern for all her remaining memoirs, providing a relatively superficial and stand-offish account of personal matters (her daughter, for example, is mentioned only a few times per book and usually not by name), synopses of her travels and the books they produced, and assorted chapters of reflections on then-current events and the decline of manners, morals, politics and art. All of which, she takes for granted, will be of interest to her readers. After all, as she concluded in the introduction to Brief Voices, “A writer’s life should have a special quality of interest because of the intense awareness brought to it.” ‘Nuff said.
After the war, Mannin seems to have latched onto a formula guaranteed to keep her production rate high. She would travel to a country, usually as a guest of the government or some cultural organization, often being led around to see schools, hospitals, museums, great civil construction works, sometimes giving talks herself. From this experience, she could easily produce at least one travel book and, with the local color she’d absorbed, at least one novel. In a few cases, she doubled her output. And so, after a trip to Burma in 1955, she wrote Land of the Crested Lion (1955) about her travels and then the novel, The Living Lotus (1956), about a current case of a white girl taken in by a Burmese family and raised as a Muslim, and the contest when her parents attempted to repatriate her.
In the 1960s, she became greatly interested in the Middle East. A long trip through Iraq and Kuwait in 1963 produced A Lance for the Arabs (1963) and the novel, The Road to Beersheba (1963), which she saw as a pro-Palestinian counter to Leon Uris’ huge pro-Israeli best-seller, Exodus. She returned to Jordan in 1965, producing The Lovely Land (1965) (travelogue) and The Burning Bush (1965), also favoring the Palestinian cause.
She entangled herself in the messy politics of the Middle East. Gaining a very favorable view of General Abd al-Karim Qasim, who–though an autocrat–did more to advance democratic and social welfare issues while Prime Minister in Iraq until he was violently overthrown in a Ba’athist-led coup during Ramadan in 1963. Afterward, Mannin was a sympathetic support of Iraqi liberals, and developed a close friendship with Khalid Ahmed Zaki, head of the Iraqi student movement in Britain, who was later killed while leading a guerrilla group in the marshes outside Basra. And her pro-Palestinian stance often placed on the unpopular side of a public argument, particularly after the Palestine Liberation Organization began to adopt more violent tactics to advance their cause.
As with her wayward charity cases, so does Mannin’s unrelentingly earnest pursuit of what she believes right sometimes puts her into an unwittingly comic light. In Stories from My Life (1973), she devotes a whole chapter, “Young Man in Parma Violet Shirt,” to an account of an “astonishing young man” she observes on an evening train from Leeds to London:
He was astonishing because he was incredibly handsome and different. What on earth was he doing amongst all those business executives, paunchy and middle-aged for the most part, short-back-and-sides, brief cases, dark lounge suits, the lot? The young man with his thick, dark longish hair, he dark-skinned Latin good looks, his splendid parma violet silk shirt freely displayed across his broad shoulders, his jacket above him in the rack; this young man with the Ivor Novello profile and high forehead and sensitive intelligent face, totally absorbed in a book.
Never have I seen anyone so totally absorbed in a book. He sipped his gin-and-tonic, and later his soup, without ever taking his eyes from the page….
It was a big book, a fat book, and I wondered, inevitably, always interested in what people are reading….
I wondered what he had to do with Leeds; there was a repertory theatre, so perhaps he was an actor; there was a university, so perhaps he taught….
… not since General Abd al-Karim Qasim of Iraq had I seen a man possessed of so much charisma. He wore no wedding ring and I wondered if he was married, or had a mistress; he did not suggest homosexuality….
I had two hours and forty minutes in which to study him and speculate about him, and since he never once looked up from his book I could do it unremittingly as he read.
But he left the train and strode away, and I did not accost him, and I crossed the dreary concourse of King’s Cross and went down into the tube, and I felt stricken; you could almost say bereaved….
… That book … I was so sure was the key to his personality.
Finally, she asks a librarian friend to look up the title and send her a copy of the book she’d seen the man reading with such fascination, and she has the chance to discover for herself:
I began to read, to review-read, rapidly; and within the first few pages was pulled up short by a passage of what was to me a quite startling degree of pornography. I skimmed on for a bit, but it seemed only an interminable series of the most explicitly detailed sexual episodes. I sent it back by return of post, telling myself bleakly, that, well, anyhow now I knew.
And she took time to fill in what she must have considered the gaps between Confessions and Impressions and Privileged Spectator with Young in the Twenties (1971). Though she freely admits that, in the Twenties, she was “young and uppity” and foolish and light-hearted in a way no longer possible: “We were gay; not a doubt of it. We laughed a lot, we danced a lot, we told each other risqué stories–there are no such stories nowadays, for when all is permitted how be risqué?” Considering how liberal, radical, and uncompromising Mannin’s politics were, she does manage, as the years go on, to do a remarkable good imitation of a Tory old fogey: “We who were young in the Twenties are intensely aware of the Seventies’s scene because we have no part in it–nor want any.”
In 1974, Mannin packed up and sold Oak Cottage, moving to a smaller house in Teignmouth in Devon in southwestern England to be nearer to her daughter. She managed two write two more novels (Kildoon (1974) and The Late Miss Guthrie (1976)) before starting on her “final chapter of autobiography” and last book, Sunset over Dartmoor.
In structure, Sunset over Dartmoor stays true to Mannin’s long-worked formula. Part I, “Farewell to Oak Cottage,” takes us through the process of selling Oak Cottage and settling into her bungalow in Teignmouth. It is some of the least interesting writing I have ever read:
Then there was a young-middled-aged couple, pleasant enough, but I recorded in my journal, “but I don’t think they are serious.”
… then a couple came with a name that I wondered about–was it perhaps Italian? It could even be Arab. It proved to be Egyptian ….
Then there was a tall bearded man, an architect, and his wife; they admired the garden, but what they felt about the house I have no idea.
… Then a Swede offered thirty-seven thousand cash for the house without seeing the inside!
Then a doctor and his wife, who thought the garden “fantastic.” They rang back in the evening to ask if they could come again at the weekend with her mother. They were young-middle-aged; trendy.
With writing this trivial, could anyone care about the potential buyers who came to look at her old house? Oh, but then there is the move. Or not: “The Big Move wasn’t the ordeal I had expected it to be….” By page 37, she has completely lost any pretense of having something interesting to say about her experience. And so we move on to Part II, “Devon: The Local Scene,” which is nothing more than six chapters of local color and history unrelieved by any character, fine observation or humor. I skimmed through it to get to the final part, “Sunset Reflections.”
Now, one would think–certainly I assumed–that after ninety-five books, world-wide travels, two marriages, numerous affairs, and over seven decades of experience, Ethel Mannin would have packed as much depth and perspective into these final chapters as she could. She does at least start out big, which a chapter on, “An inquiry into belief in ‘God.'” Given that she was, for most of her life, an avowed skeptic who felt affinity to some tenets of Buddhism but refused to embrace any religion–even though she wrote several novels with strong religious stories–you might think this would be an opportunity to offer insight into her own beliefs and how she came to understand them. Instead, it really is nothing more than a survey of how various religions and religious thinkers she has known have tried to define the word, “God.”
Not surprisingly, she stays with this theme with her next chapter, “A reflection on some misused terms,” which include everything from “race” and “anti-Semitism” to “have a nice day” and “at this moment in time.” It’s the stuff of a bored editorial writer on a slow news day. Later, we get to share in “Some reflections on the contemporary scene,” where we are informed that, “We live in an age of dehumanized sex, and of violence at all levels, social, political, sexual, personal.” “For the young it may be challenging and exciting,” she acknowledges, “but for the old it is depressing and alarming.”
On the final page of this, her final book, Mannin concludes that, “… without the material and psychological relaxation of this retirement I might not have felt moved to set them [these reflections] down. Whether it has been a good thing to have done this is for the reader to decide.” I regret to say that for this reader, it was not a good thing.
There’s a saying on the Internet to the effect that, “Content is King.” Sadly, by the time she reached the end of a staggering quantity of books, one has to say that Ethel Mannin couldn’t tell the difference between content and material. Sunset over Dartmoor could have been the summing up of a remarkable career and life. Instead, it was the last lap of a writer who’d already run too long and was just going through the motions she’d drilled into her muscle memory through sheer repetition.
Confessions and Impressions, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrold Publishers, 1930
Privileged Spectator, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1939
Brief Voices, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1959
Young in the Twenties, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1971
Stories from My Life, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1973
Sunset Over Dartmoor, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1977
The story is about how Jessamyn West helped her sister, Carmen, in the terminal stage of bowel cancer, commit suicide in 1965. In A Matter of Time, Jessamyn’s character is named Tasmania, Carmen’s Blix. In the novel, Blix is able to kill herself with the help of a cache of pain-killers conveniently left her by her doctor over the preceding weeks. In the memoir, Jessamyn vaguely suggests that Carmen was able to buy them herself over the preceding months, while still able to drive herself to pharmacies around her area, but one suspects this is in the interest of protecting Carmen’s doctor, who would certainly have risked real, not fictional, prosecution in 1976.
For their time, both books were courageous. The right to die question was just becoming a very public issue in 1976 over the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, and even in her 1966 fictional version, West makes it clear that she aided her sister in the process. In neither book, however, does she attempt to make any generalizations or moral judgments. West simply responded to Carmen’s plea, which reached her by letter, while she was working in New York: “Sister, dear sister, come home and help me die.”
Revisiting the story as memoir ten years later, what changes is not the narrative but the perspective. Not to be too simplistic, but in A Matter of Time, the story is told from the inside looking out. Through Blix’s sleepless nights, the sisters sit together, reminiscing about their family, contrasting Tasmania’s older, more distant and intellectual outlook with Blix’s younger, more sensual responses. In The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, West takes a big step back, devoting the first half of the book to the story of her own illness and care.
While working on her Ph.D., West was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and, through her mother’s swift intervention, quickly admitted to a sanatorium outside Los Angeles. First considered a terminal case, she was able to be moved where she could get more active treatment, again thanks to her mother’s hounding of the hospital management. For the better part of two years, her mother would visit her four times a week,
… driving the round trip of eighty miles through rain, through Santa Ana sandstorms, through fog so thick headlights were turned on at four in the afternoon. She came with brow anointed with Musterole, with varicose veins swathed in stretchable rubber bandages, with truss laced in place. What I suffered, in actual pain, dying though I might be, was a pinprick to her multiple aches. But she came. She came laughing. She came laden with things I had never dreamed of wanting, but which proved exactly what would give pleasure to a patient next door to a terminal ward.
Aided perhaps from the long, reflective spell alone in a trailer in the Arizona desert that she recounted in Hide and Seek, published a few years earlier than The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, West new sees how much of her response to Carmen’s illness is rooted in her mother Grace’s response to Jessamyn’s tuberculosis. Not so much in approach–Grace recognized how much the weak and ill Jessamyn needed a strenuous advocate, while Carmen, worldlier and possessed of a self-confidence Jessamyn always envied, needed an accomplice she could trust to carry out her plan. Grace said “Yes” to life, nursing and coaxing Jessamyn back from death, and Jessamyn said “Yes” to Carmen’s wish to end her own life. But her memory of her mother’s care helps West set aside personal concerns and simply focus on Carmen’s needs, whether it was to talk into the night or to be left alone to struggle with her pain.
And this, in the end, is what makes both books–but particularly The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death–so effective. West tells us how three women dealt with the life-and-death crises they encountered together, and nothing more than that. There is no message but that of accepting and understanding a specific situation on its own. Carmen chose to end her life rather than endure what West calls “nature’s savage torture,” but there is no suggestion that any general principles can or should be derived from her example. There are only these two versions of what happened.
A Matter of Time, by Jessamyn West
New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966
The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976
My mother had true elegance of hand. She could cut an apple like no one else. Her large hands guided the knife; the peel fell in a long light curve down from the fruit. Then she cut a slice from the side. The apple lay on the saucer, beautifully fresh, white, dewed with faint juice. She gave it to me. She put the knife away.
(Or she would measure off, with one forefinger set across another, the width of some ribbon or lace which had run in rows around the skirt and sleeves of some dress she loved and remembered. “Narrow red velvet,” she would say, or “white Val lace”; and the color and delicacy of the wide circles would be perfectly brought back into being. Or she would describe the buttons on some coat or winter dress: “cut steel” or “jet” or “big pearl.” Suddenly all the elegance of her youth came back.)
Her hands were large and her fingers were padded under their tips. Their chief beauty lay in the way they moved. They moved clumsily from the wrist, but intelligently from the fingers. They were incapable of any cheap or vulgar gesture. The fingernails were clear and rather square at the tips. The palms of her hands were pink.
When she sewed, and that, in my childhood, was rarely, I could hear the rasp of the needle against the thimble (she had a silver one), and that meant peace. For the hands that peeled the apple and measured out the encircling ribbon and lace could also deal out disorder and destruction. They could tear things to bit; put all their soft strength into thrusts and blows; they would lift objects so that they became threats of missiles. But sometimes they made that lovely noise of thimble and needle. Or they lifted the scissors and cut threads with a little snip.
Girl, I am tired of blowing hot and cold;
Of being that with that, and this with this;
A loosened leaf no bough would ever miss,
At the wind’s whim betwixt the sky and mould.
Of wearing masks. Oh, I would rend them all
Into the dust that by my door is blown;
Of my old secret bare me to the bone.
Myself at last, none other! I would call:——
“I had a lover once. This is the face
He lauded April-high and April-deep,
As fair a flower as hers of Camelot;
And yet he loved it but an April’s space.
This is myself indeed. Now hear me weep.
I had a lover once, but he forgot.”
from Spicewood, by Lizette Woodworth Reese
Baltimore : Norman, Remington Company, 1920
When I was in high school, I used to keep a copy of C. P. Snow’s Variety of Men, a collection of memoirs of his encounters with such men as Einstein, Churchill, and H. G. Wells, beside my bed. I had picked it up from a sale box at the base exchange, as I thought myself a very serious young man and was already in the habit of reading thick volumes about powerful dead white men. I was also in the habit of spending too many sleepless hours, laying in bed and agonizing over whether I had it in me to make my own great mark in the world.
There was something in Snow’s book that I found tremendously calming. I think it was his tone. Although Snow had, by the time he published the book in 1967, certainly made his mark on English literature as well as on then-contemporary thought (with his The Two Cultures), he was hardly in the same category as Einstein or Churchill. And yet there was such assurance in his treatment of these men. Snow was probably just another geek to Churchill, but that fact didn’t stop Snow from feeling that the world would want to share in his thoughts and memories of the great man. That self-confidence–so self-confident as to be effectively unconscious–was so reassuring to a boy with utterly none. And the fact that its short, self-contained chapters were conveniently packaged for reading before falling back to sleep helped, too.
Now, some forty years later, I still find myself awaking with self-doubts, although they tend to be over things such as paying for college, keeping old cars running, and whether reading about cancer (viz.) will give me cancer. And I have found myself a new bedside companion to provide some reassurance and coax sleep back. Interestingly, it’s a similar book of short reminiscences–but this time, by C. P. Snow’s wife, the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson. Already a successful novelist at the time they married in 1950 (his first, her second), Johnson had grown up in an impoverished family of actors, gone to work as a typist, and began publishing poetry in her early twenties. She had over a dozen novels under her belt; he had three, plus a few mysteries.
Although the two kept on writing right up to their deaths (Snow in 1980, Johnson in 1981), it was soon Snow rather than Johnson who earned the lion’s share of the spotlight. She seems to have been quite content with the bargain. “He has been all I could wish. More might be said but it isn’t going to be,” she remarks at one point in this book. By the time she wrote Important to Me, they had settled into a comfortable life with a country house, a London flat, and occasional all-expense-paid trips to America to teach and lecture on college campuses or to defend the realist stream in literature against the onslaughts of modernism at conferences in Europe and the Soviet Union.
In a recent review of Wendy Pollard’s 2014 biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times, Hilary Spurling referred to Snow and Johnson as “Literature’s least attractive power couple.” She was Snow’s most fervent promoter; he, in turn, kept her hard at work, pumping out over twenty more books, to help maintain their lifestyle.
The strain took its toll on Johnson, who admits to battling migraines and depression in this book (and in Pollard’s biography is revealed to have other problems with pills and alcohol). Yet, in true Victorian fashion, she refuses to admit there are any cracks in the glass. “With Charles, I am always happy, if he is free from professional worries, or when any of the children are causing serious anxiety,” she writes. And if the black dog comes around, well, “I do not know what I should do without The Times.”
“This book is not a straight autobiography,” Johnson declares in her introduction. Instead, it is a collection of mostly short essays, “reflections upon things that have been important to me in my life.” Although she admits freely to many faults and deficiencies–no musical talent, little interest in food, idiosyncratic tastes in art–she feels “I am, perhaps, old enough now to write these things with some confidence.” And so we learn about her father, an administrator with a British railroad company in Africa, who died young and left his family nearly penniless; about an encounter with a ghost in the streets on London; her love of Shakespeare; her acquaintances and impressions of Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and Ivy Compton-Burnett; her love of detective stories; her travels to America and Russia; her run-in with a man claiming to be Jesus Christ on the streets of Los Angeles.
It’s all written with care, selective in including a nice balance of descriptive details and personal assessments, discreet in avoiding too private or painful disclosures. And a comfortable foundation of self-confidence unperturbed by even the most gruesome aspects of modern life. Johnson wrote a short book about the Moors Murders (On Iniquity (1967)), she dismisses the notion of collective guilt for the violence of modern society: “We are ‘all guilty’–somehow–of the Moors Murders. I am not. I have never, by speech or writing, contributed to the ambience that could make such horrors possible.” Those who think otherwise are simply “totally permissive cretins.”
Better to focus on beautiful music, lovely paintings, pleasant scenery, and the love of husband and family. The “exquisite friendship,” the “absorbing unity of interests” of a successful marriage. And, of course, The Times crossword puzzle.
Some, like the anonymous review in Kirkus Reviews, may feel that Important to Me “will primarily attract those to whom Pamela Hansford Johnson is important.” A masterpiece, it certainly is not. A book you can dip into on a grim and restless night and quickly find something interesting, well-written, and filled with a voice well-grounded in its own sense of self and the rightness of its place in the world, however, it most certainly is.
Important to Me is back in print again as part of a series of her books–mainly novels–published by Bello Books, a line of Pan Macmillan, to celebrate her centenary in 2012.
Important to Me, by Pamela Hansford Johnson
New York City: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974
“Is life too short to be taking shit, or is life too short to mind it?” Violet Weingarten wonders after being told by an acquaintance–erroneously and spitefully–that her husband was having an affair while she is undergoing chemotherapy.
A few years later, Anne Lamott, watching as her father, writer Kenneth Lamott, was dying of cancer, went looking for books to help her understand what was happening. As she later wrote, “I found myself desperate for books that talked about cancer in a way that would both illuminate the experience and make me laugh.” The only one she found was Weingarten’s Intimations of Mortality. She was so struck by Weingarten’s candor and caustic humor that she used the question above as the epigraph to her book, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994).
While many more books about the experience of being treated for cancer have been written since 1978, Intimations of Mortality remains worth rediscovering for the pleasures (and pains) of Violet Weingarten’s unique voice and perspective. Growing up in New York City, she spent over fifteen working as a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, where she met her husband, Victor. The two would later be named as members of the Communist Party by reporter Winston Burdett in testimony before a Senate committee. She quit the paper in the early 1950s, choosing to focus on raising their two daughters. As the nest emptied in the early 1960s, she went back to work–but this time as a novelist. Her first novel, Mrs. Beneker (1967) won a respectable amount of critical and popular acclaim, and she was working on her fourth book, Half a Marriage, when she was first diagnosed with cancer.
Her first reaction was surprise, followed quickly–and unexpectedly–by euphoria: “The shoe I had been listening for–unconsciously–all my life had dropped. The fear that makes me human, my knowledge of my own mortality, the fear I had hidden so resolutely and displayed so obviously (none of use see his own ostrich rump sticking up there in the air) was suddenly allowed to surface, and I felt an enormous sense of relief.” Leave it to Weingarten to put in such commonplace words the profound message of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Denial of Death (1974).
After further tests and some surgery, Weingarten was given a clean bill of health. But from the very beginning, her instincts told her that any reprieve would be temporary, and by February 1975, she was preparing herself for her first round of chemotherapy. She set herself the task of keeping a journal of the experience, and quickly filled a dozen pages with an account of her thoughts on the prospect. “I have indeed become the long-winded lady,” she concludes: “It’s the switch from third to first person. I got drunk on it.”
Fortunately for the reader, writing remained something of a tonic over the next thirteen months. Her chemotherapy took its toll on her stamina, added enough pounds to leave her constantly anxious over her looks and the fit of her clothes, tested her patience, and brought on its share of secondary illnesses, but appears not to have been severely debilitating until the very end. And Weingarten is very selective in what she shares about her cancer directly. This is not a journal about cancer but about the thoughts and feelings of a woman being treated for it.
At times, it makes for difficult reading. Not because of the details of her treatment or her descriptions of any of its side effects.” What makes this painful to read at points is the extent to which Weingarten was willing to share her thoughts, even if they were often maddening in their relentlessness: “What succeeded that phase was an idée fixe–an unending undercurrent–‘I think I am well, I am sure I am well,’ and the thought of my not being well never leaves my mind.” And when the anxieties of cancer combined with the forebodings of an author with a new book about to be published, her thoughts machine-gun onto the page:
… this time it’s a little different. Partly because I really don’t know what I am going to write next (but I never did). Partly because it is so important for me to have something going on now (I think that was what saved me when I got out of the hospital in January–I had work to pick up right away). But most of all because of all the unknowns. Will I see it published? (Next spring.) How will I feel then? (Will I be another Cornelius Ryan [who died of prostate cancer just after his A Bridge Too Far was published in 1974]?) Will they push it (in part because)? How will I feel about that? Diffident if they do, angry if they don’t. Also, a whole lot of me went into it. I can’t retreat any more–write what Gottlieb calls “cutesy”–I can only write from my gut now. But what I have to write about now is, in a way, unwritable. Except here.
“This is a special journal,” Weingarten wrote about two months after starting it. “I shan’t end it, life will.” And life did, in April 1976. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out to be a virus?” read the last line in her journal. She entered Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, where she died on July 17th. Her husband and her daughters, Jan and Kathy, struggled over the decision to publish the journal. “To allow the death of our wife and mother, for us a very private event, to become public was disturbing.” But they decided that she had written it with the intent that it be read, and worked with Robert Gottlieb of Knopf to have it published: “Because she was a good writer, her journal should make her own experience significant to a great many people.” I can only hope that this article helps a few more people share in Violet Weingarten’s remarkable last experience.
Intimations of Mortality, by Violet Weingarten
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978
The Kurzmann itself was wasted on me, but the box it was shipped in wasn’t. It became my house; not a playhouse, a place where I played at keeping house, but a real house where I lived. Who needs to play at keeping house when there are three younger children, and a mother never very well, to keep house with?
… Actually, I didn’t spend much time looking out. The box was for being in, not looking out. I didn’t get in there to escape work; if anyone wanted me they knew where I would be. I didn’t play house there. I was a constant reader, but I never read there any more than I would read in church. I was a considerable eater, but I never ate there. I never entertained visitors there; though, since the biting episode, no one was very eager to share close quarters with me.
I got into the box to experience a feeling I had only when I was in a place of my own, alone, with no one near or threatening to be near. I do not even yet know the exact name for the feeling. It was an intense feeling of awareness and of complete peace. I might call it joy, but I could be joyful when I was with others: while box joy, tub joy, the joy of solitude, was a bliss that came only when I was alone and then only on special occasions.
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. Later I knew what I was seeking. Later the feeling included what I saw: the room and its objects — books, fire, flowers, the swinging pendulum of a clock. When the bliss came upon me or was coming upon me, I would move a chair so that the firelight could not be blocked from a brass bowl. I would replace a blue-bound book with one that was red. I would seep the hearth if I saw that it was dusty. The room, the shell of my solitude, and its contents was a still life I had painted and was still painting. Sitting alone in that room, waiting, experiencing, I became part of the still life. The room have me beatitude, and my beatitude filled the room.
The experience was not unlike those reported by drug-takers, though nothing strange or frightening ever happened: flames never crept up the walls; wallpaper designs did not come to life with octopus tendrils; the sofa’s edge never hung above an abyss. There was a high, a euphoria, a radiance that enveloped and presently ebbed. But never anything that alarmed.
In the piano box, the dream-box factory, I did not, when I was a child, usually look out. Seeing outside, when I was a child, shattered box magic. But occasionally the magic was strong enough to envelop and enhance the persons I saw moving about in the yard. They were familiar but strange; related to me but with lives of their own, of which I had heard reports only. When the mystery took hold of them (and me), they walked about like storybook figures, out of a world stranger than mine.
Seen from my piano-box opening, my mother and father, brothers and sister were both more and less than themselves; less in that they were part of my dreaming; more in that, though they were part of my dreaming, the dream enlarged and enhanced them. I saw them not as the flat figures of one summer’s evening and relatives of mine to boot, but as characters, persons with the experience of their known past and even of their imagined future enveloping them.
from Hide and Seek, by Jessamyn West
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973
“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
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.
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.)
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
Though 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
Later, from the window of my bedroom on a corner of the Place des Quinconces, I watched the lights blazing outside the theatre — they should be gas-lamps — and along the quays, those on the farther side of the Garonne reflected in the past, in her present. A dialogue between a piano and a violin began in the large cafe at a corner endlessly continued, using up what little air, what little darkness, there was.
I was sleepless not only because of the breathless heat, but I feared to overlook the one thing that was keeping her and meaning to give her up in its own time. And Bordeaux scarcely slept. The cafe was awake until long after midnight, and at three o’clock men were sweeping the streets, and talking, between it and the river. Very early, almost before dawn, the lamps still burning along the quays, but as if abolished already by the still absent light, a single star, immense, appeared over the harbour.
I watched a little colour come into the sky as stealthy as that which unbelievably came back after she died, only to her cheeks, not her far too suave mouth above the shadow formed of trees and houses crowding the other bank of the river. In a few minutes there was a full chorus of birds in the Place des Quinconces, the star dwindled to a dot, the street-lamps went out on the quays, flicked off by a thumb. Stretching itself, the light pushed the sky away on all sides, and just after four the sun sprang from the Garonne directly into my room. I ought now to have closed the shutters, but I was too eager. Abroad, I am very much the captain’s wife in my curiosity: which is at its most alert in towns: it seizes its chance to sleep when I take it to the country.
Bordeaux was making signs and I could not read them. The conversation went on outside, growing more lively and complicated a plume of factory smoke in the clear sky ; cranes leaning over the unruffled brightness of the river; oddly cut down by the sun, the two lighthouse-columns; the breeze, only audible where it crossed the branches of a tree ; the traffic thickening with every minute; a girl and a young man laughing together on their way to work; men in washed-out blouses: above them all, an incessant darting and crossing of noisy shuttles, the swifts.
By seven o’clock the heat was frightful, the Garonne had lost its colour a breath of mist clouded the glass. I closed both shutters, but the heat had settled itself firmly in the room ; it clung to the heavy gilt overmantel and the stains on rose-flowered carpet and wall-paper. I felt ill, and rang for coffee to pull me together.
Editor’s note: In 1898, Josephine Herbst journeyed from Sioux City, Iowa with her mother and three sisters to visit an uncle in Oregon. Together, the two families traveled by wagon to the coast, where they spent a few weeks camping in the woods alongside a beach, playing, swimming, fishing, and talking at night around the campfire. Nearly seventy years later, she recalled that trip in an essay about her childhood, parents, and family, titled “The Magicians and Their Apprentices.” Unpublished during her lifetime, it was collected along with three other autobiographical pieces in The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, with an introduction by Diane Johnson–a book that, in my opinion, ranks as one of the finest works of autobiography written by an American during the 20th century.
This was a summer for lore beyond books. Your hands and feet learned more than they had ever known they could do: how to catch mud cats and cut them up for bait; how to cast a line in a trout stream; how to dig your hands in oozy mud after the clam had squirted the signal of his little geyser. How to wait on the tide and how to find sea urchins and small frogs and ferns of sea moss in quiet pools. How to pry the rock oyster from his stony bed and how to cook him. How to catch a crab without getting pinched. How to walk barefoot on a slippery fallen log across the fiery sparkle of a tumbling mountain brook. How to stand still when you saw a deer. How to sit still around the campfire and listen to the gorgeous talk of grownups, who lived in their world, and you in yours, neither troubling to be pals with the other but only good friends.
It was a summer to remember not just for the new things your hands and feet discovered but for the glitter it offered of some distant beyond. There was someone’s beyond behind you, and a beyond to come to pass, and this interlude was the curious glowing union of past and present, promises and reality. The grownups were the magicians, the children their apprentices.
It was at night, in the light of the big campfire of driftwood, where the burning splinters fell in sparks the color of the rainbow or shot into tiny sulfurous spurts or foundered in pools of verdigris green, that the magicians and the apprentices played their true roles. For the circle was so gently relaxed, some sitting on rugs, some lying down and extending hands or feet toward the blaze, that a child of six could feel as detached as a bit of moss in a pool now covered by the tide. The very sound of the ocean and the sight of the sky, where the stars were bright buoys floating on their own watery deep, made you feel gently suspended in water, rocking in the vast hammock of the night. The voices of the grownups, slow, sometimes quietly breaking into laughter, communing over things dead and gone, remembering when my uncle and my mother were boy and girl together in a big family of other boys and girls, now scattered or dead, cast long lines backward in time and across a continent. There became here and then was now. The magicians might have been casting lines across an ocean covering buried towns and farms, so dreamlike was the world they called to life, so haunting the images, so watery the night, so true the history that branched its coral islands to you, because it had belonged to them.
Strange names of towns burst like sparks of dying wood. A dead aunt once more played the piano on Arch Street in Philadelphia, and the wild boy who went south to Georgia sent home a bunch of bananas to hang at the top of the stairs. The red bird sang in his gilded cage, and the mockingbird died. Once more the faithful dog Rebbie begged for bread spread with smearcase and apple butter. And against the glow of the fire, the flesh of your bare toes became rosy luminous; the delicate dark skeleton showed stiff as the charred twigs of a burning bush.
I found this intriguing book on the Internet Archive (link), started reading it, and kept on and on, wondering where its meandering and, at times, mirage-like thread would lead. By the time I realized that it didn’t fully qualify as neglected (it’s been reissued, along with over a dozen other titles by Storm Jameson, as an e-book by Bloomsbury Publishing), it was too late.
Although Jameson presents it as the journal of the fictional Mary Hervey Russell, daughter of the domineering Sylvia (portrayed with both empathy and acidity in The Captain’s Wife) and her husband, captain of various small freighters, the intersections between the fictional Mary and the real-life Storm Jameson are too many to mistake this as anything but Jameson’s own journal, lightly disguised. It’s also not always a journal, as it includes a short play featuring Odysseus and a conversation about contemporary English poetry conducted by the corpses of several British soldiers killed during the German invasion of France in 1940.
Many of the entries are undated, but one can safely say that the journal covers the period between the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 and early 1943. Much of the first half of the book deals with the fears and trials of European intellectuals that Russell/Jameson encounters and assists in her role as president of the British branch of PEN, and the second half with her experiences during the first years of World War Two, including the Blitz and rationing. While I initially thought Jameson’s reflections on these contemporary events would be the most interesting parts of the book, there is often such a relentless seriousness that too much of it becomes tedious. (Or ridiculous: “Turning her back on us, France is bequeathing us a summer. Very kind. It would be kinder still if she sent us her Fleet.”)
Instead, perhaps the strongest connecting thread in the book is that of Russell/Jameson’s memories and emotions about her family. Her mother was imperious, selfish, unloving, and dismissive of her husband and children. Though seen from a distance of thirty years or more, her actions and words left wounds still raw. Jameson mourns the loss of her brother, a pilot killed in the First World War and then, just at the end, of her sister, killed in a German bombing raid. And she reflects upon the parallels between her family’s small dramas and the great changes she has witnessed in her lifetime:
Mine is the last generation brought up to know a great many hymns. And the last which remembers, as a thing felt, the Victorian certainties, hollow as these were, wormed inside, in 1900. Isolated, sarcastically indifferent to the rest of England, our Victorianism was almost of 1840. I rebelled against it, but it had formed and deformed me; even my revolt was filial. My deepest self, when I am conscious — you won’t expect me to answer for any sleeping or disinterested self — is patient, stubborn, a little cracked in its dislike of being told what to do. Anything which is repeated a great many times, a chair, a sentiment, words, repels it.
The lyricism of some of Russell/Jameson’s recollections are almost Proustian in their intensity, and I will have to excerpt one later to illustrate this.
My landlady, a woman about forty, was in her room on the ground floor, the door open, while her hair was waved. Looking in the glass she could watch it as well as note who came in and out. In a monotonous voice she was telling the hairdresser that her husband had spent the night “with those women”, and was asleep in his room. “First thing when he wakes he’ll ask me to give him a clean shirt, and then what money I have in the drawer. What disillusion!”
The lines of her mouth formed a single word, of surprise and bitterness.
The streets here, behind their mask, unsmiling, of sunlight, are grey and hard with age. The life going on continuously, every inch occupied by it, in every room someone coughing, working, bartering, baking, or pressing offal into a cheap pate, ironing, giving birth, dying, was self-supported and self-devouring, completely cut off, by a hard membrane, from the soil.
This was the eighth book Jameson published during the war, and over the course of a sixty-year career, she published well over five dozen books. As with Ethel Mannin, Phyllis Bottome, and a number of her other contemporaries, Jameson’s work was a remarkable combination of the prolific, the popular, the psychological, and the political. It’s hard to imagine all of these qualities coexisting in a successful writer today.
The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson
London: Macmillan, 1945
I am sitting here and contemplating Heaven and Hell.
Of course at the outset it has to be understood that I don’t believe in either of them. Still, as concepts they are interesting, and what is particularly interesting is that all the minds that have been bent to the task over the centuries have made a much better job of imagining Hell than they have of imagining Heaven. So far what I’ve seen of Dante’s Hell fits into the usual patter of tortures and torments, but it is more subtle, more ingenious, and more detailed. Dante, like the Mikado, has made the punishment fit the crime — which is, I think, philosophically acceptable. I wrote a short story once (it never saw the dark of print) in which Hell was a place where some power gave us the giftie of seeing oursel’s as others see us. The sinner was doomed, in my Hell, to reliving endlessly the least savory moments of his past, with the added pleasure of being able to perceive, as if he were audience as well as actor, how mean and petty, vicious and cruel he had been. In a Heaven to match, I suppose, one would be allowed to fit one’s most inflated self-image.
I find Heaven, however, unimaginable. The traditional clouds, wings, and harps are preposterous; and as for the eternal picnicking and fish frying of Green Pastures, well, I have never cared that much for picnics. The idea of a perpetual summer vacation repels me. Nasty as it is, the world seems more interesting and more suited to man’s psychological make-up, though perhaps in Heaven man is relieved of his earthly psychology and can therefore tolerate tedious and eternal bliss.
Struggle is a natural factor in man’s relationship with his environment, his fellow man, and himself. Where would be the joy in growing a garden if there were no weeds, if sunshine and rain came in the required amounts, and everything were bound to flourish even if you did nothing about it? I am not much of a gardener, so let us suppose that in Heaven a writer needed only paper and pen (easily requisitioned from the angel in charge of office supplies) and knew that all he had to do was set one to the other and a work of genius would automatically result. My reaction would be — why bother? You would find me sitting on some primrose cloud, disgruntled and miserable and bored to tears, with nothing to do that seemed worth doing.
Happily ever after is really a ghastly ending to any story. Besides, happiness is nothing absolute; it requires unhappiness to make it palpable. Food is useless without hunger, sleep demands fatigue, and accomplishment is the lofty mountain that rises from the plain of inactivity and failure. In a perfect world, what opportunity would there be for the exercise of wisdom, of tolerance, of pity, of charity, of fortitude? We would have to shed all these like so much excess baggage and sit in beatific contemplation of the beauties around us, rather like a stupefied and inert television audience.
To turn to Hell — could absolute torment remain torment forever? Or is torment torment only when one entertains some small hope of escape or release? The souls immersed in Dante’s river of blood, boiling in it to the end of time — why do they struggle to get out? In Hell is the soul forever reactivated in its human desires while in Heaven it is relieved of them? Or if in Hell it is cunningly contrived that each tormented soul shall know short periods of relief in order to keep the torment sharp and stinging, is it likewise ordered in Heaven to provide enough misery and disappointment, enough hunger, fatigue, cold, and pain, to make pleasure pleasurable?
My coffee is fine, and so is the gorgonzola spread on the tiny crackers. I like it so moldy that it makes my ears sing as if they were full of gnats. Is there mold in Heaven, or only for those who love mold? Would my cheese become moldy and my neighbor’s not?
A Jehovah’s Witness once asked me in syrupy tones if I didn’t want to like in the Kingdom where the lion would lie down with the lamb, flowers would be everywhere, and all would be perfection. I said no, it sounded tiresome; and I shut the door.
I am still waiting for somebody to come up with a Heaven worth getting into.
Sitting in her kitchen nook, sipping her mid-morning cup of coffee–“the best part of being a housewife” — Lesley Conger decided one day in October 1961 that, “The shape my ambition has taken this year is this: I shall begin to read all the books I should have read by now….” Adventures of an Ordinary Mind is the diary of that year of reading.
Lesley Conger and her book are quite the contrasts to the refined taste and elevated atmosphere of Berenson and his book. Mother to six children ranging in age from five to fifteen, she squeezed her reading in between loads of laundry, stirred stewpots with a book in one hand, and found the energy to get through a canto or two of Dante before turning out the light. Instead of Renaissance masterpieces, her walls featured PTA notices, children’s crayon drawings, maps with vacation routes marked in red and “an oil painting by a nobody, left over from Greenwich Village days, which nobody likes but it has such a nice frame.” And Berenson probably never wondered, “If a child is going to drop a doughnut thickly crusted in powdered sugar, why does he do it at the top of a flight of stairs carpeted in dark red?”
Lesley Conger was the pen-name of Shirley Suttles — who. at the time, really was a housewife, living in Vancouver, B.C. and raising seven kids (the last one came after this book) with her husband, Wayne. Contrary to her title, though, Suttles was no ordinary mind. She and her husband studied at the University of Washington and Berkeley, and she spent at year at the New School for Social Research, sharing a room with the very young James Baldwin, before reuniting with Wayne back in Seattle (he was the UW’s first Ph.D. graduate in anthropology). Even as their family began to grow, she still found to write articles and short stories for magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and McCalls, and even published a humorous account of life in the Suttles house, Love and Peanut Butter (1961). Her husband went on to become a pioneering ethnographer and linguist of Indians of the Pacific Northwest, publishing such works as Musqueam Reference Grammar (still in print, by the way).
And her year’s reading included works that can challenge even the least distracted readers: Vergil; Euripides; the Bhagavad Gita; Bouvard et Pécuchet; Camus’ The Plague. She puts a remarkable effort into sticking with her program through its dryest spells. But then she is, she admits, addicted to reading:
I will read anything. I will even read it twice. And because I have a large house and six children and a cat and a dog, and can’t always find an uninterrupted hour or two to sit down peacefully with a book, I read on the fly, as it were. I read while stirring a pudding; I read while darning socks. There is always some book I am reading, and I carry it around with me, propping it open wherever I happen to be. I can, for example, read a page or two while the dirty water drains out of the washing machine, and a page of Maugham is more diverting than a view of mud from blue jeans under a scum of detergent suds.
When she goes to the library, it’s “in the mood of a logger hitting town after six weeks in the bush.” She does confess at one point, though, that Plato’s Dialogues “are not what a weary mother wants to read between bouts of caring for a small patient.” And I had to shout, “Amen!” when I read that she found “reading Faulkner like wading through waist-deep water thick with seaweed.”
Sadly, this book was seen as a mix of Erma Bombeck and the Great Books Program, didn’t please the fans of Love and Peanut Butter nor those looking for something a little more intellectual. Kirkus Reviews dismissed it as “a pleasant annotation of a full life and an eager mind — but no more.” The only printing was quickly shuffled to the remainder pile.
And though, late in the book, she celebrates carving out a room of her own (actually, just a closet) so she can concentrate on finishing a novella, Conger/Suttles did not publish another book for adult readers, aside from To Writers, with Love, a collection of her “Off the Cuff” columns, which appeared in The Writer for over fifteen years.
Shirley Suttles died in 2006, at the age of 88, a year after her husband Wayne’s passing, leaving behind a large family — and a few happy readers.
Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963
[Editor’s note: Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, subtitled, “The International Romance of a Young Lady of Fashion of Colonial Philadelphia with Letters to Her and About Her,” compiled and edited by Ethel Armes, was published in 1935 and is available free on the Internet Archive: Link.
The following review, written by the remarkable Philadelphia essayist, Agnes Repplier, appeared in the March 1936 issue of The American Mercury and is available online at unz.org: Link.]
The Masculine Era
“Surrounded by lovers, I could at first see you without great danger,” wrote M. Louis Guillaume Otto, afterwards Compte de Mosloy, to Miss Nancy Shippen, aged sixteen; and, reading his words, we are irresistibly reminded of Lydia Bennet, aged fifteen, “tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.” The close of the eighteenth century, whether it was closing in England or her colonies, saw little to fill a girl’s mind but costumes and lovers, followed in the course of time by marriage and domesticity. “I was formed for the world, and educated to live in it,” said Nancy a few years later, when her world was shrinking and darkening, and when the three hours consumed in dressing for a “bride’s visit” seemed no longer worth the while.
And what did it mean to be educated for the world in I779? Miss Shippen at fifteen could play a little on the harpsichord, sing a little “with timidity”, speak a little French, dance creditably, and embroider very well. While still at school she worked a set of ruffles for General Washington, no easy task as, in the absence of lace, the threads had to be drawn to give them a filmy look. She does not appear to have been very intelligent, but she was good tempered and docile, and she married the wealthy man who was her father’s choice rather than the agreeable young attaché to the French Legation who was her own.
Generally speaking this was a course to be commended. Fathers have longer sight and clearer vision than do girls under twenty. But in this particular case, prudence failed to justify itself. Colonel Henry Beekman Livingston had everything to recommend him save the kind of character and disposition which would have enabled a wife to live comfortably by his side. Nancy was not long suffering. After two years of profound discomfort, she took herself and her baby daughter back to her father’s home in Philadelphia, thus starting the endless complications which, in that staid and conventional era, beset the defiant wife. For Colonial America was a man-made world. Unmarried women had far more liberty, according to French visitors, than was good for them; but, once married, they fell into line, content to reign absolutely in their own domain, and to assume the responsibilities thus entailed:
To take the burden, and have the power,
And seem like the well-protected flower.
There was a great deal of chivalrous speech (it was the fashion of the time); and behind it a hard masculine sense that had nothing in common with the deep sentimentality of our day.
Nancy Shippen Livingston was to find this out to her cost. Her husband made no great effort to compel her return to him; but insisted firmly that the child should be placed under the care of his mother, Margaret Beekman Livingston, the only person in the confused narrative who commands our unfaltering respect. It is a relief to turn from unreason and emotionalism to Gilbert Stuart’s masterly portrait of this unpretentiously great lady; to the firm mouth, the amused eyes, the serene repose of a woman who understood life, and conquered it. Her generous support of her daughter-in-law is the best assurance that the unhappy young woman deserved more sympathy than she got.
To seek a divorce was so unusual a proceeding in 1789 that Nancy’s uncle, Mr. Arthur Lee, considered her desire for freedom as a joke; a joke in very bad taste, he admitted, but none the less absurd. That mysterious crime, mental cruelty, which has today been stretched to cover any action which an ordinarily human husband might perform in the course of twenty-four hours, was still a hundred years off. It would have provoked ribald laughter from a hard-headed eighteenth-century legislature. Henry Livingston was as safe then (he did not deserve safety) as he would be defenseless today. It is indicative of the decency of Colonial America that the word alimony was never mentioned by his supporters or by his wife’s.
The rest of the Journal Book, which is the raison d’etre of Miss Armes’ massive volume, is filled with pictures of social and domestic life in the days which charm us by their seeming serenity, but which must often have been empty and dull. Dull certainly for young Mrs. Livingston who loved frivolity and could not get enough of it; who hated the country which grew “more disagreeable” to her every day she lived in it; who tried hard to read Blair’s “excellent sermons”; and who wept copiously over The Sorrows of Young Werther. “There is luxury in some kinds of grief,” she remarks with unwonted sapience. Always in the offing is the good-looking Compte de Mosloy who would gladly have espoused his early love had she been free; but who filled up his time by marrying two other women, who made him reasonably happy.
We have no doubt that life today is too crowded, too noisy, too assertive, too pretentious in matters of the intellect, too combative about material things. Standards are lowered year by year to meet the demands of mediocrity. Yet out of this welter emerges clear and plain an effort to aid the uneasy human beings who know only that things go wrong. We are all pushing harder than is seemly, but perhaps we push to some purpose. The Sorrows of Young Werther echoed “the dim-rooted pain of thinking men” — hard to heal, but comparatively easy to forget.
Nancy Shippen: Her Journal Book, compiled and edited by Ethel Armes
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1935
The names of the cars had thrilled him. Hudson and Buick, Plymouth, Oldsmobile, Lincoln and Ford, Chevrolet, Studebaker, DeSoto and Dodge; their names stabbed in his heart like weapons of love. And that there should exist fifteen thousand automobiles in the city, and that one of these ready-made vehicles should not, at last, belong rightfully to Norman Cole was beyond his powers of understanding. That the great names, the life-giving names of engine and wheel, General Motors, American Trucking, Goodyear, and Body by Fisher, or that the names of turbine and throttle, axle and pinion, names of steel companies, aluminum, and importers of rubber, that these great dynastic names and name-givers of time and space, in a clamor of pistons, combustion, and fast acceleration, providing the wherewithal to encompass the worlds of America—that these mixed spirits of whose ubieties he knew not, but sensed where they were, omnipresent and unseen, that the magnanimous names and name-fathers of industry should not make it finally possible for Norman to attain and to keep a new car was almost beyond his mind and his reason. The city itself, abounding with the visible influences of whiskey merchants, tobacco tycoons, moguls of metal, the sheer weighty sum of illustrious tradesmen and affluent producers, appeared to present a grand and superlative evidence that opportunity was open to one and to all. “Buy More and Save,” “Dividends and Plus,” “New Heights of Delight.” Ready and open and given to all. On upper Broadway, set beyond intentions of glittering glass, the automobile salesrooms were constantly ablaze with spotlights and mirrors, standing out at night like an electric sunrise. Or, he thought of them by day, opalescent and strange, like transparent caves wherein lolled the comely creatures of self-locomotion; shining with non-breakable windows, bodies of chromium-blue, sable and mauve, crimson or pale yellow—like fish in a formidable bowl, they floated with a beauteous mien.
“Pay Us On Time,” “The Choice Is All Yours,” “Enjoy Yourself While You Can.” Everywhere now, when he saw these advertisements, his secret manhood was touched; Norman felt awakened to a sense of aspiration that he had thought long since dead. That was who he was! Dodge and Plymouth, Buick and Whippet, and sometimes the names seemed almost to have been invented by himself—so near they were to his marrow. He was not an immodest man, and he saw himself in perspective. But was it not finally for him, and others like himself, hard working job-owners who earned what they made, that the sovereign powers were intended? Was it not for him that the cities and the countryside were plotted with roads, and the highways to new adventure? It was the normal way to live, and it only seemed right. Every week, he saw it exhibited there, in Liberty Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, some vision of stalwart cliffs and frothy cascades, picnic grounds extending three thousand miles long, bewitching, exotic, verdant, and free. Was it not he, himself, who was meant to enjoy the sun-baked desert and green-oaked forest? Lush in the sward and the sweet downy glade. Off the coast of South Carolina, there were isles of romance, fruit-bearing trees and black-tufted palm.
“The World Is Your Own Back Yard!”
Well he knew that, and only required the time yet to prove.
I’ll admit it: I bought this book because of its cover. That Day-glo orange and blue Manhattan skyline illustration is one of the most visually exciting dust jackets I’ve seen since Helen Ashton’s People in Cages.
But there was more to it. I was vaguely aware of Ethel Mannin as “a popular British novelist,” as her Wikipedia entry puts it, one of the generation of “middlebrows” celebrated on and Lesley Hall’s site. I didn’t realize, though, just how prolific a writer she was until I saw the list of book “By the Same Author”: two columns of densely packed titles in small print. In the course of a 50-plus year career starting in the early 1920s, Mannin published over 100 books–a half-dozen volumes of memoirs, some political tracts, a few on child education, over a dozen travel books, and 40-plus novels.
Having researched a little more into Mannin’s life and work, I find it rather astonishing that her work–particularly her novels–sold so well, since her political and sexual views were far from that of the average British book-buyer of her time. She had affairs with Yeats and Bertrand Russell, among others, organized for the Labour Party until she found it too corrupt and conservative for her taste, married a Quaker who channeled support to Gandhi while he was working against British rule, protested against torture of Mau Mau members in Kenya, and was a vocal supporter of Palestinian opposition to Israel. Ironically, though Mannin was an avowed atheist, one of her most popular novels, Late Have I Loved Thee, about the conversion of an Irish man to Catholicism, came to attention again last year after it appeared on a list of Pope Francis’ 11 favorite books.
An American Journey is the account of a trip Mannin took to the U.S. in 1965. The dust jacket states that, “The author insists that this is not a travel book about America but the story of a journey and that there is a difference.” I suspect this is the sort of hair-splitting that Mannin defiantly insisted upon throughout her life.
Mannin’s American journey reveals more about its author than its subject. Travelling around the U.S. by Greyhound bus, she finds a country bursting with economic and engineering excess–helicopters landing on the roof of the Pan Am building in New York; a radio talk show broadcast from a Chicago restaurant; six-lane freeways and fifty-car pile-ups in Los Angeles. She also tends to see a culture whose worth decreases in inverse proportion to the country’s wealth. She is far more impressed by Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers and Navaho pottery than by the fact that you can order a martini on an evening commuter train out of Manhattan.
And she is quick to spot the cracks in the American dream. A taxi driver taking her to visit a school in a black neighborhood in Washington D.C. tells her that he would rather see his daughter “dead in the river than at a nigger school.” She counters boosterism in Oklahoma City with the following quote from John Collier’s Indians of the Americas: “The local looting of Indians became a principal business in eastern Oklahoma, continuing with brazen openness until past 1925, and not wholly ended yet.” Of attempts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to introduce small manufacturing enterprises on southwestern reservations, she remarks that, “Industrialisation is invariably the answer in the modern world to poverty and unemployment–whether it is or not.”
Through her many, many hours on the bus, she encounters dozens of Americans–black and white, male and female, young and old–but rarely seems to have made more than a cursory attempt to strike up conversations. Of those she mentions, the most common feature is the speaker’s utter ignorance of England or anything else outside the U.S.. On several occasions, she prefers to turn away and bury her nose in the Simenon novel she brought along. In any case, conversation was probably never her strongest suit. Waiting at the bus station in Los Angeles with a friend she had visited, she remarks that, “The grey early morning, when body and soul are only narrowly held together by a cup of coffee, is anyhow no time for conversation, anywhere, in any circumstance.”
For today’s reader, the pleasures of An American Journey are mostly incidental. Mannin saw the U.S. at a moment when you could still ride a Super Chief train from Chicago to L.A. and book its Turquoise Room for a private afternoon cocktail party, while passengers arriving at Eero Saarinen’s space age modernist Dulles Airport were carried direct from their planes to baggage claim in moving lounges that featured armchairs and tables with magazines and newspapers. (Sadly, neither luxury survived long after that.) The interstate highway system was complete, but you still arrived in most towns on a road studded with motels, diners, car lost, flashing signs, and what Mannin, in her stubborn Britishness, refers to as “hoardings” (billboards). If you were to retrace her journey today, you could probably spend every night in a Holiday Inn Express within 100 yards of a freeway after eating the same dinner at the nearby Appleby’s.
I did become intrigued to understand just how such an adamantly radical woman could exploit an adamantly capitalist publishing industry to finance her political, artistic, and personal interests and passions for over fifty years, and as part of this year’s program of reading works by women, I plan to read a few more of Ethel Mannin’s books and see what I can discover.
An American Journey, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1967
Once Mamma left us in Barcelona while she went to America for a short visit. We were then eight, going on nine, and we had not yet seen our own country. We asked to be taken with her. Mamma did not approve, so we stayed home with Papa. But a week or so after Mamma left, we had a wonderful surprise. Dr. Mann, our family physician and friend, arrived at the house with four pigeons a pair for each of us. Carlos, the butler–also our friend–built us a cage for them on the terrace. The pigeons seemed happy in their new home, and we promptly named them. They were Isabella and Ferdinand, Jeanne and Carlos. One day, when we got home from school, our friend Carlos met us at the door. “I have news for you, twins,” he said, leading us to the pigeon cote. “Look, they have laid eggs and are sitting on them. Someday soon you will have baby pigeons.”
“When? How soon?” we asked.
Carlos smiled. “You will have to wait,” he said. “Nature takes its own time.”
Naturally, we were excited. We had never had any pets of our own before, much less baby pigeons. Every day after school we would sit by the hour, watching the nesting birds. We sat in silence, afraid that any sound might disturb the delicate balance of nature. Then one day as we clambered up to the terrace we heard Carlos calling to us. “Look, twins/ he said, “they are here–the little pigeons–six of them.”
We ran to the nest, and we were horrified. We had expected soft, fluffy little things-like the baby chicks you see at Easter. Instead, we saw six wet, ugly little creatures with heads bigger than their bodies. We were ready to cry. But Carlos comforted us. “Wait and see,” he said. “In a few days they will be beautiful.” And they were.
Meanwhile, we racked our brains trying to find suitable names for them. Mamma returned from America. “Come, Mamma,” I said. “Come outside and see what a beautiful sight we have to show you.”
Mamma took one look at our baby pigeons; then, to our horror, she ordered them killed. From inside the house we heard her say to Carlos, “Let the parent pigeons loose, Carlos. Then kill the baby pigeons. We will have them for dinner.”
“Oh, no, Mamma!” Gloria wailed; “please let them stay at least until they are old enough to fly away.” Now, very near hysteria, we screamed in turn: “Don t kill them! Don t kill them! Why? Why? They’re so little they don’t take up any room at all.”
All our pleading left Mamma cold. Her mind was set.
“Why are you doing this?” I screamed, as she turned to leave. “Why?”
“Why?” Mamma looked at me with ice in her eyes; I had dared to question her orders. “Because,” she said, “my dear grandmamma always told me that pigeons bring misfortune, bad luck, and poverty into a house and my dear grandmamma was always right.”
Gloria and I put our arms around each other and cried help lessly and in desperation; this was our first great grief. But whether we were brokenhearted or not, that night we were given squab for dinner. Carlos must have been crying, too, for as he served our baby pigeons we noticed that his eyes were red and swollen.
Heads down, out of the corners of our eyes we watched Mamma. “Eat your dinner,” she commanded.
“Oh, no, no, Mamma,” Gloria said pathetically. “We cannot eat our babies.”
“Stop this nonsense,” Mamma snapped. “Eat your dinner or leave the room.”
The tears again started down our cheeks. Together we got up and left the room. Through the fog of our feelings we were conscious of her brittle voice announcing, “No dessert for a week.”
We went to our room and sobbed until we were exhausted. “I don t care if we never have dessert again,” Gloria wailed. “I only want to bring our baby pigeons back to life.” And together we cursed this ogress of a grandmother, a woman we had never seen and would never see who seemed to stand for everything that didn’t matter, and who seemed to destroy everything that did.
While horrifying, this anecdote–perhaps more imagined than remembered–reminds me of one of those old “Mommy, Mommy” jokes from the 1960s:
“Mommy, Mommy, want happened to Fido?”
“Shut up and eat your meatloaf!”
from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958
The long resounding marble corridors, the shining parlors with shining women in them.
The French room, with its gilt and garlands under plump little tumbling painted loves.
The Turkish room, with its jumble of many carpets and its stiffly squared un-Turkish chairs.
The English room, all heavy crimson and gold, with spreading palms lifted high in round green tubs.
The electric lights in twos and threes and hundreds, made into festoons and spirals and arabesques, a maze and magic of bright persistent radiance.
The people sitting in corners by twos and threes, and cooing together under the glare.
The long rows of silent people In chairs, watching with eyes that see not while the patient band tangles the air with music.
The bell-boys marching in with cards, and shouting names over and over into ears that do not heed.
The stout and gorgeous dowagers In lacy white and lilac, bedizened with many jewels, with smart little scarlet or azure hats on their gray-streaked hair.
The business men in trim and spotless suits, who walk In and out with eager steps, or sit at the desks and tables, or watch the shining women.
The telephone girls forever listening to far voices, with the silver band over their hair and the little black caps obliterating their ears.
The telegraph tickers sounding their perpetual chit-chit-chit from the uttermost ends of the earth.
The waiters. In black swallow-tails and white aprons, passing here and there with trays of bottles and glasses.
The quiet and sumptuous bar-room, with purplish men softly drinking in little alcoves, while the bar-keeper, mixing bright liquors, is rapidly plying his bottles.
The great bedecked and gilded cafe, with its glitter of a thousand mirrors, with its little white tables bearing gluttonous dishes whereto bright forks, held by pampered hands, flicker daintily back and forth.
The white-tiled, immaculate kitchen, with many little round blue fires, where white-clad cooks are making spiced and flavored dishes.
The cool cellars filled with meats and fruits, or layered with sealed and bottled wines mellowing softly in the darkness.
The invisible stories of furnaces and machines, burrowing deep down into the earth, where grimy workmen are heavily laboring.
The many-windowed stories of little homes and shelters and sleeping-places, reaching up into the night like some miraculous, high-piled honeycomb of wax-white cells.
The clothes inside of the cells — the stuffs, the silks, the laces; the elaborate delicate disguises that wait in trunks and drawers and closets, or bedrape and conceal human flesh.
The people inside of the clothes, the bodies white and young, bodies fat and bulging, bodies wrinkled and wan, all alike veiled by fine fabrics, sheltered by walls and roofs, shut in from the sun and stars.
The souls inside of the bodies — the naked souls; souls weazened and weak, or proud and brave; all imprisoned in flesh, wrapped in woven stuffs, enclosed in thick and painted masonry, shut away with many shadows from the shining truth.
God inside of the souls, God veiled and wrapped and imprisoned and shadowed in fold on fold of flesh and fabrics and mockeries; but ever alive, struggling and rising again, seeking the light, freeing the world.
from You and I, by Harriet Monroe
New York: The Macmillian Company, 1914
This poem is Arnold Bennett’s The Grand Babylon Hotel in miniature, with all the glittering details of a big city hotel in an era when they were the great crossroads of social and business life for those who could afford the price of entry. And I love that last line, which to me captures what is going on in most of us every day, whatever name or spirit we associate with God.
For those into abnormal psychology, there is their half-Irish, half-Chilean and 100% drama-queen mother, Laura Delphine Kilpatrick Morgan. Nora Ephron once wrote that, “If you give your kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy, they’d choose suicide in the next room.” If you asked Gloria and Thelma, they’d go for the Hawaii option: anything to get away from that woman. Their daddy, on the other hand, the fine, dignified and long-suffering diplomat, Harry Hays Morgan (Senior), could do no wrong. Is it any wonder that both girls pretty much marry the first men who show any interest in them and who shared the outstanding attribute of being about the age of their father when they were born?
No matter, for each is quickly disposed with. Thelma’s first husband, Jimmy Vail Converse, grandson of AT&T co-founder Theodore Vail, turns out to be an abusive and bankrupt alcoholic. A quick trip to California produces a divorce, followed in about a year by marriage to Marmaduke Furness, British shipping magnate and member of the House of Lords … and also over twenty years her senior. His good manners and huge fortune could not hold a candle to the likes of Edward Prince of Wales, and Divorce Number Two followed within eight years of Divorce Number One. Sadly, Thelma lost out to another American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and had to drown her sorrows in a quick fling with Prince Aly Khan (later husband to Rita Hayworth). She managed somehow to overlook the fact that, for once, she was the older one.
Meanwhile, Gloria fell for and married Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, heir to the fortune established by “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Gloria and Reggie got along famously (sorry), but sadly, Reggie had to go and ruin things by choking to death on his own blood due to a mysterious throat hemorrhage medical condition he had kept secret from her. A man whose chief accomplishment, according to his Wikipedia entry, was that, “He was the founder and president of many equestrian organizations,” Reggie left his widow and daughter (the Gloria Vanderbilt of fashion fame) comfortably off. Unfortunately, he and his lawyers left open a legal loophole through which his sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (yes, those Whitneys, swooped a few years later, making off with daughter Gloria and most of (mother) Gloria’s money. Nothing for it but a few more affairs. Oh, and a few years after that, daughter Gloria and lawyers swooped again, took mother Gloria’s annual allowance, and donated it to a charity for the blind. Had the expression been invented back then, one imagines (daughter) Gloria’s lawyers shouting, “BOO-YAH!”
But wait–there’s more! There are the rare and elusive Vanderbilt siblings–three of them. You have to keep a sharp eye out for them, though: no sooner than you spot one and it’s off into the mists for another decade or two. There are more transatlantic steamship trips than there are Washington-New York shuttle flights. There are their many close, intimate acquaintances–humble folk “such as Peggy Stout, who married dashing Lawrence Copley Thaw and later divorced him; Jimmy and Dorothy Fargo, whose name is associated with Pony Express fame; the two daughters of Mrs. Richard T. Wilson, Marion and Louise; Juan Trippe, now president of Pan-American Airways; the two Jimmys, Leary and O’Gorman; and Margaret Power, who had introduced us to Margaret Hennessy. They were both from Montana; their families at one time jointly owned the Anaconda copper mines.” And you: who do you watch polo with? Thought so.
Kirkus Reviews praised the twin authors for “sparing no detail no matter how unorthodox,” but half the fun of this book are the details they left out. Like, say, a moral and ethical framework. As Thelma is falling in love with Prince Edward, she and “Duke” Furness head off to Africa for a spot of safari and shooting. Lying in her tent one night, Thelma wails, “Why did I have to be the big white hunter?” A short ellipsis later, and she totes up her toll: “I shot an elephant, a lion, a rhino, and a water buffalo.” Even in those days, scruples were so passé. If you ever needed proof positive that the very rich are different from you and I, take a stroll through Double Exposure. For us proles, it’s available for free on the Internet Archive (Link).
from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958
Depending on your perspective, Violet Weingarten’s debut novel, Mrs. Beneker (1967) is outdated or timeless. Mr. and Mrs. Beneker could live next door to half of John Cheever’s characters or across the street from Rob and Laura Petrie. She picks up Mr. Beneker from the 6:23PM train to Westchester, takes an adult education class on comparative religions, worries about her son at Harvard and her daughter, pregnant and off to Egypt with her aid-organizer husband, and wishes she could land one of those highly-coveted volunteer jobs teaching reading to youngsters in Harlem. She did work, back in the late 1930s, when she was single, radical, and infatuated with her newspaper’s dashing red-headed star reporter, but now she is in something of a limbo, no longer in daily demand as a mother and too young to retire to Florida like her parents.
She spends much of her time watching and weighing the world around her–both refining her public persona and wondering at its ludicrousness:
She reached over and patted Mr. Beneker’s hand, perfectly aware she was doing so for the benefit of two women at an adjacent table who had been staring at them from the moment they sat down. Mrs. Beneker loathed them. Obviously they got their exercise circulating petitions against liberal school-board members. They rode in open cars in Memorial Day parades, paper poppies on their breasts and overseas caps spiked to their iron-grey heads with bobby pins.
What a devoted pair we must seem, thought Mrs. Beneker, adding a winning smile to her performance. The lobsters came, and Mr. Beneker, as usual, reached over and cracked her claws for her. And are, she concluded.
Oh so it seems under she picks up the phone one evening and hears her husband say, “Nothing. I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice.”
Left on her own while he flies off to California on business, she has the chance to exercise her role as a woman scorned to the fullest. “Coals of fire, she thought. Let him writhe under them.” She imagines prying a hefty settlement from Mr. Beneker and moving into a “new, bright, ultramodern” apartment overlooking the East River. But the more she thinks of the apartment, the more it “echoes with emptiness,” and the more she thinks of Mr. Beneker, the harder she finds it to accept this new identity of his: the adulterer. In the end, reality is more muddled and less stark, and a good healthy slap goes a long way toward clearing the air.
And this is typical of the crises in Mrs. Beneker’s life over the course of the year depicting in the book. Dangers seem most fearsome when they hover in the near future, her wits sharper and character stronger in the heat of contact. And her sense of humor intact. “Eskimos have the right idea,” she often jokes at the prospect of aging. “The only thing to do with old people is to abandon them on ice floes.”
Mrs. Beneker was the first of four novels Violet Weingarten published between 1967 and 1977, when she died of cancer at the age of sixty-one–an experience she recorded in a journal later published as Intimations of Mortality (1978). All are about women of roughly her own age, economic, and social status, liberal in outlook, well-educated, mothers of grown children, living in or around New York City. All of her novels received respectful reviews and sold well enough to come out in book club and paperback editions, and here and there around the Internet, you can find readers who remember them with fondness.
Are they outdated or timeless? Mrs. Beneker is certainly a work of its particular time and place, yet I often found myself finding scenes and comments that were still relevant. I began to form a theory that these four books by Violet Weingarten were, in their way, every bit as timeless as any of the Jeeves books by P. G. Wodehouse. I will have to read on to put that theory to test.
Mrs. Beneker, by Violet Weingarten
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1967
I learned of Jane Mayhall’s first and only novel, Cousin to Human (1960) from its inclusion in Tillie Olsen’s lists of recommended titles by women writers included in the back of her book, Silences. Olsen provided no description of it and no explanation for its mention.
Cousin to Human seems to have vanished from notice after receiving a few reviews. While the reviewer for Kirkus was not enthusiastic (“This is a baffling sort of book, which seems to head out for the Catcher in the Rye market–femininely slanted, but fails to pull the threads together into an integrated whole”), those for The New York Times and Saturday Review were favorable. There was no paperback release, however, and the book has never been reprinted or reissued.
Perhaps one reason was its similarities with another book that dominated best-seller lists and critical awards around the same time–Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in roughly the same time, both books had young girls as their protagonists and related their narratives as perceived by them.
Unlike Scout Finch, however, 15 year-old Lacy Cole is not at the center of the most dramatic moments in Cousin to Human. When her best friend dies in a drunk driving accident, she learns of it the next day through a neighbor, and though Lacy spends hours at the bedside of her mother as she suffers the terminal stages of stomach cancer, we learn of her mother’s death after the fact, when Lacy’s attention is taken up by other things–her sister-in-law’s efforts to take over the family house and her own infatuation with her music teacher.
Mayhall’s approach and style is far more indirect and poetic–she was, after all, primarily a poet–than Harper Lee’s, and her subject more mundane. Set in Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-1930s, it portrays a year in the life of Lacy Cole and her family. Her father, Norman, works in a post office and her mother, Cleanth, is a hard-working housewife who loves her children but is neither sanctimonious nor forgiving in her judgments. The Coles make enough to keep a house and feel some security but not enough to afford the brand-new Chevrolet Norman buys at Christmas out of a mix of envy, frustration and grand-standing.
Reviewing the novel for The New York Times, Florence Crowther wrote that, “Miss Mayhall is a wise author–she has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet be understood.” Lacy is neither a character with a capital “C” nor a cipher, but a completely believable young woman trying to make sense of the many messages being thrown at her from her family, neighborhood, school, movies, radio, the various strata of Louisville society she encounters, and her own instincts. I’d revise Crowther’s line to say that Mayhall “has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet tries to understand.”
This book, in fact, is most marked by the effort its author and protagonist make to understand. Mayhall takes the following couplet by William Blake as her epigraph: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Cousin to Human is the work of an author remarkably alert to the sights and smells and, particularly, sounds of the world around her. Mayhall herself grew up in Louisville and would have been roughly Lacy’s age, so many of the observations probably come from direct memory even if the story itself is not autobiographical.
Take the following passage, which occurs early in the book as Lacy rides with her mother and Aunt Dinna to visit relatives in a town outside Louisville:
Aunt Dinna flopped back in her seat, ready for more talking.
“You remember, Clee. How Aunt Milly used to play?”
“Can’t never forget it.”
Lacy knew the beginning of this conversation. Due to the mention of music, it was the occasion to speak of Great-aunt Milly who played the violin, and lost her heart to a rascal named Jeff at the Clayville Feed Store. Sometimes it was Cleanth who told Dinna the story. And then the situation reversed and Aunt Dinna had to remind Cleanth.It had always gone one, ever since Lacy could remember the way they talked. So she could listen or not, and still know where the ending came.
She put her head against the seat, smelling the sun-warmed leather. The click-clack of the wheels and the sound of Dinna’s voice reached her dreamily. Lacy knew all of her ancient relatives by heart, as if she had been born remembering the way they lived and died.
This reminds me so much of endless Sunday afternoons spent visiting relatives and listening to the adults swap family stories, and Mayhall has a wonderful ear for dialogue and eye for family dynamics. The scene in which Cleanth, Dinna, and their cousin Sarah debate what to do with their grandfather, an enfeebled old drunk who’d been mostly harmless and completely useless for as long as they could remember, manages to weave economic, practical, emotional, ethical, and psychological threads into a conversation that takes little more than a couple of pages, and won my attention for whatever was to follow.
Mayhall certainly had a poet’s sensibility–Lacy frequently notes the color of the sky at sunset–but her approach was solidly novelistic. While the dramas are only those of small, working-class family life, her story moves forward with consistent momentum even as she takes time to develop nuanced characterizations and note telling observations. And these accumulate, one by one, into Lacy’s own awareness of herself and her world. When Lacy meets a local professor, a well-regarded (particularly by himself) expert on Appalachian folklore, she senses a resemblance to someone she had previously encountered:
Dr. Sprichett pressed her hand, like they knew some kind of secret. It was as if it was strictly between them. Lacy shrank from this contact again. Who was it like? The fingers were possessive, warm-clinging. A tiny cunning shot through her mind.
It was quickly coming on, the sense of what she felt. And it was like–she nearly knew. It was like that time, that night–the picture was coming back. At the baking-company auditorium. It reached her in a flash, the very same sensation. It was like the man who had taken her ticket and tried to grab her hand. Valeda going on ahead–and it was like when the man tried to grab her. Nearly, almost the same. She felt a sharp elation. She was relieved, extravagant, and certain. That was what Dr. Sprichett was, no matter what he said. He was just like the other man. And thinking he knew her all the time.
I am almost in awe of this passage. It’s such a remarkable blend of specific, tangible observation, thought-in-process, and awareness that comes upon us in just such instants.
Mayhall drew her title from the following passage, which appears late in the book: “Even dogs bark in their sleep and cats hiss. By this we know they are cousin to human.” And throughout the book, she gives us glimpses into her character’s dreams and demons. With Terence, she shares the philosophy that “humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“Nothing that is human is alien to me”).
At the same time, Cousin to Human is full of larger set-piece scenes that are rich in color, action, and context, such as a talent show in which Lacy and Valeda compete as “The Twinkle Twins,” the rhapsody of American consumerism that sweeps up Norman when he buys the Chevrolet, or indeed the full story of Great-Aunt Milly and the rascal Jeff.
I took Cousin to Human along with me on my most recent flight back to the U.S.. I usually choose books that demand a little extra effort and attention on these trips so I can take advantage of a solid 7-9 hours with few distractions. In this case, it only took about a dozen pages to fall in love with Jane Mayhall’s vision and voice, and I can easily say that this was my most satisfying read this year so far. I plan to feature at least a couple of longer passages in the Excerpts section over the next few weeks.
Jane Mayhall was born in Louisville in 1918, and studied music at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. She met Leslie George Katz, a fellow student, and they moved together to Greenwich Village and married in the early 1940s. Katz founded and ran the Eakins Press, a small press specializing in poetry, graphics and short stories and whose publications were “notable for their meticulous, elegant design,” according to The New York Times. Eakins published two collections of poems by Mayhall. Following Katz’s death, Mayhall struggled with grief and wrote a special collection devoted to considerations of death and loss that was published in 2006 as Sleeping Late on Judgment Day. She died in 2009 at the age of ninety-one.
Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall
New York: Harcout, Brace and Company, 1960
“For understanding what it was like to live to the full the turbulent American literary life of the 1920’s and 30’s as it moved from bohemianism to radicalism, there could be no more revealing figure than Josephine Herbst,” wrote Robert Gorham Davis in his review of Elinor Langer’s 1984 biography of Herbst, Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell. “She knew everyone and was in all the right places at the right historic moments – Greenwich Village, the Left Bank, Russia, Germany, Cuba and Spain.”
I won’t attempt to synopsize Herbst’s life and career here. Hilton Kramer did a far better job of that thirty years ago in his New Criterion article, “Who was Josephine Herbst?,” available online and well worth the read (link). What matters for this piece are two times in her life: the first, beginning in 1928, when she and her husband, the novelist John Herrmann, rented a small, rustic house in the Bucks County countryside near Erwinna, Pennsylvania; and the second, twenty-some years later, when she was living there alone, shunned by most of the literary establishment for her politics and struggling to write anything more than the marvelous, fulsome letters for which she was always held in awe by her correspondents and a few snippets of memoirs of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.
While living in Erwinna, Herbst and Herrmann made the acquaintance of Nathanael West, who was still working as the night manager of the Hotel Kenmore Hall in Manhattan and revising The Dream Life of Balso Snell, his absurdist novel set in the entrails of the Trojan Horse. They invited West out to Bucks County, and he immediately fell in love with the area. Throughout his life, West pretended to the style and manners of the rich and landed American gentry, and he loved to hike around the Pennsylvania woods with a shotgun slung in one arm, very much the gentleman hunter.
West quit the hotel job, having decided to make his name as a writer, and worked on finishing his second novel, the black comedy Miss Lonelyhearts. He bought a farm near Herbst and Herrmann and spent many hours with them. Herrmann and West often went out to hunt pheasant, quail, and West’s favorite, doves, although both were terrible shots. However, envious of the money that his friend and brother-in-law, S. J. Perelman (Perelman had married West’s sister Laura), was making writing for the Marx Brothers and others, he accepted a contract to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. While West’s experience in Hollywood wasn’t a financial success, it did contribute to his greatest artistic success, the novel The Day of the Locust. Only a few months after marrying the vivacious Eileen McKenney, the title character in her sister Ruth McKenney’s smash comedy play, “My Sister Eileen,” West and McKenney were killed in a car crash in California.
West’s novels, which had never been best-sellers, quickly fell out of print, but in the aftermath of World War Two, a new generation of critics, such Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, began to discover and appreciate the bleak and absurdist tone of his work. A number of academics and critics became interested in his life, and their researches led a number of them to Josephine Herbst’s doorstep.
She soon grew aggravated by their inclination to view West’s life and work through a postwar prism that exaggerated his foresight and ignored the good and bad points of his character. And so, sometime in 1953, she set aside the book she had been working on–a dual biography of the early American naturalists John and William Bartram (a book published in 1954 as New Green World), and wrote “Hunter of Doves,” a short novel based on her memories of West.
Although she gave her characters fictional names, “Hunter of Doves” deviates from fact in unimportant ways. Herbst’s own character, Mrs. Heath, is a painter rather than a writer. Timothy Comfort, the would-be biographer, is a stand-in for a handful of real-life researchers. And, as Elinor Langer revealed in her biography, the faint suggestion of a triangle involving West, Herbst, and Herrmann was actually taken from the passion Herbst had developed for the artist, Marion Greenwood.
What was true, however, was Herbst’s desire to have West seen truthfully. “Nothing is reliable except the work,” Mrs. Heath tells Comfort. “People either want to read or they don’t. You can find Noel Bartram, perhaps more than you like, right there, in his novels, if you take the trouble. Or have the sense. The intuitive sense.” Herbst was also true in depicting how the night manager job at the Hotel Kenmore Hall–a job that came his way through his family’s connections in real estate and took at his mother’s insistence–was both his prison and his inspiration:
Whether the mother intended the hotel as her son’s sole future, Mrs. Heath could not say, but it represented security, that shackling iron which simply meant one is freed from necessity to become enslaved….
But the truth was that the hotel and all its occupants surrounded him with the felt mat of a persistent presence. If he were alone in his privacy, the phone might ring, calling him below. One had no idea, he had pleaded, pleading for himself, the nature of the interruptions. He was the guardian of the hotel, its keeper, its jailor. A hotel like this was jam-packed with broken hearts, broken pocketbooks, too, and as the hotel was a genteel one, with a gilding upon it, one could imagine the pride of the victims who, finding themselves slowly drained of their substance, tried to keep up a front, sallied past the door, hummed, pretended light-hearted gaiety, delay of checks from rich uncles, alimony, or the imaginary sale of imaginary real estate that would put them on easy street.
“Hunter of Doves” was published in 1954 in Botteghe Oscure, an acclaimed international literary magazine published in Rome by Marguerite Caetani. It was quickly recognized as Herbst’s finest work since the 1930s, and did lead to a more nuanced view of West.
It did not, however, lead to either a rediscovery of Herbst’s work or a break-through of her own artistic roadblocks. Over the next fifteen years, she only managed to produce three autobiographical pieces–“The Starched Blue Sky of Spain” (The Noble Savage, Number 1, 1960); “A Year of Disgrace” (The Noble Savage, Number 3, 1961); and “Yesterday’s Road” (New American Review, Number 3, 1968). These, along with a fourth piece, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” about her girlhood in Sioux City, Iowa, were published posthumously in The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, and Other Memoirs
Given the fact that “Hunter of Doves” has never been reprinted and can be found only in the rare academic libraries holding back issues of Botteghe Oscure, I am taking here a unilateral and perhaps improper step of making the text freely available online.
The wind, the wind, the wind blows high,
The snow is falling from the sky.
Maisie Drummond says she’ll die
For Want of the Golden City.
The last day of February I929.
At Bayswater when I enter the Underground the sky is dull as canvas and still — the shadowed ceiling of a marquee without so much as a flap. Here, at Charing Cross, I step into this white and whirling dance of snow. I stand on the kerb-edge beside this huge policeman. His black cape flaps out like a crazed or injured bird while his broad red hand directs those who wish to cross the Strand. I do not wish to cross. I stand there, the palms of my ungloved hands upturned, face flung back, eyes closed, mouth open to catch the dancing flakes. It is no use, they melt before one can taste them; they do not make enough moisture even to swallow. But they touch my eye-lids with infant’s fingers. And my dark hair is full of a scatter of white flowers. “You want to cross?” the policeman’s voice is very loud and close; I open my eyes with a jerk.
“Isn’t it marvelous,” I say.
“Marvelous? Ugh!” He guides a child by the arm and crosses between the stationary traffic: then, ponderously, taking his time, he returns to my side.
Now he looks me over. My face, my throat and the backs of my hands are brown as an Indians.
“You a Londoner?” he asks.
I laugh at his perplexity. “Yesterday — not. Today . . . perhaps,” and find myself perplexed.
“You staying long?”
And then . . . Is that true, I think . . . am I staying forever? London. This city to which I’ve travelled twelve thousand miles — whose streets my guided fingers traced at the age of four — nostalgic since infancy? Not the land of the Maori — but this so-strangely-known city, birthplace of my father . . . is it to be my city also? — the goal, the end of seeking? This “Here and Now,” . . at last my home?
I fling my arms wide — “For all my life,” I add.
from A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982
New York: McGraw Hill, 1983
Risk, Rachel MacKenzie’s brief account of her hospitalization and initial recovery from open-heart surgery to repair an aneurysm of the left ventricle of her heart is one of the shortest books covered on this site, just 59 pages in all.
Adapted from an article she published in The New Yorker in November, 1970 as “fiction,” it’s a model of the ultra-efficient narrative. There is nothing unnecessary in her account. A student of the progress of heart surgery could easily trace the entire course of her diagnosis, examinations, surgery, and post-operative difficulties, including the game of drug roulette her cardiologist plays until settling on Dilantin as the most effective treatment for arrhythmia, yet no individual element of her medical care gets more than a few lean paragraphs’ attention.
And her choice of the third person allows her to be ruthlessly selective in what she mentions of her own emotions and sensations. She notes pain–when it comes, where it stays, how long it takes to leave. The widely different abilities of doctors and nurses to insert catheters–quickly, barely noticeably or ineptly, leaving bruises and soreness from repeated assaults–gets special notice.
Risk takes its title from the fact that open-heart surgery was still a new field in 1970, one where full recovery could not yet be taken for granted. Her surgeon tells her,
“I have to tell you that we could get your chest opened up and I might decide the risk was too great to proceed. It’s large. The men who did the arteriogram figure between fifty and sixty. They think nearer sixty. I still think fifty. It will depend on our judgment of the strength of what’s left of the ventricle to carry on.”
Later, another doctor puts the situation in starker terms:
“Dr. Jamison,” she [MacKenzie] said, “I’ve been thinking. Are there particular risks and complications in this surgery I ought to know about? Do you really aprove of my having it?”
The expression of special pleasure that had been on Dr. Jamison’s face gave way to one of reserve. “Nobody’s rushing you into this,” he said. “It’s entirely your decision.”
“That isn’t what I mean. My decision was made before I ever came in here. But I would like to know what the risk is.”
“It makes no sense to talk about risks in a thing like this,” Dr. Jamison said. “Risks are statistics. Averages. So far as you’re concerned, they’re on hundred per cent or they’re zero.”
The surgery itself is successful, but MacKenzie experiences a number of post-operative complications that leave her variously frustrated, depressed, and impatient. But she progresses from ICU to Cardiac Care and finally to a normal recovery ward, and is able to return home.
Months later, discussing her case with her cardiologist, she is able to put the risks into human terms:
“How many of those operations have they done?” she asked.
“Between fifteen and twenty–seventeen is the exact number, I believe.”
Dr. Rudd had said the risk was thirty-five per cent or a little more. She figured. Had they lost six? Seven?
Looking back on her own experience, she thinks, “Dear God, the miracle.”
Rachel MacKenzie was a editor at The New Yorker from 1956 until just before her death in 1980, and worked with some of the magazine’s most intimidating contributors–Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer–and fostered the early work of Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, and Bernard Malamud. Born in a small town in Ohio in 1909, she spent over twenty years as a teacher, first at Ginling College in Nanjing, China, then at the College of Wooster, Radcliffe, Wellesley, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The American Heart Association presented her with the Blakeslee Award “for lasting service to physicians as well as laymen” in honor of Risk. Her one novel, The Wine of Astonishment, published in 1974, tells the story of two spinster sisters and their lives in the tight-knit and strictly conventional community of a small upstate New York town.
Ironically, one of the earliest of her few published pieces was a short story titled, “The Thread,” which appeared in Harpers in September 1947. Relating the experience of Ellen, a young girl hospitalized for injuries that require some surgery, it greatly foreshadows Risk, even down to the constant refrain of doctors and nurses warning, “Just a pinprick” before giving another of her countless injections. Harpers subscribers can read “The Thread” on the Harpers Archive (link).
Risk, by Rachel MacKenzie
New York: The Viking Press, 1971
Crawling out of their green shirts …
Coughing a little in the dawn …
And the church …
There is always a church
With its natty spire
And the vestibule–
That’s where they whisper:
Tzz-tzz . . . tzz-tzz . . . tzz-tzz . . .
How many codes for a wireless whisper
And corn flatter than it should be
And those chits of leaves
Gadding with every wind?
From Connecticut to Maine:
Tzz-tzz . . . tzz-tzz . . . tzz-tzz. .
from Sun-Up and Other Poems, by Lola Ridge
New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1920
A new series of radio shows, along with a free accompanying ebook, featuring the lives and works of eight neglected writers of the American Plains, has just been released by Nebraska Educational Telecommunications. This series, organized by Professor Wendy Katz from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is a little multimedia treasure trove. For each of the eight men and women featured on the site, you can find a radio essay, one or more video clips, photos and illustrations, and links to some of their articles or stories. You can also find an accompanying book, written by Claire Harlan-Orsi, available free on iTunes (link). Among the writers covered are:
First, let’s start with the facts, since these are not this book’s strong suit.
Sometime in 1929, Arthur Waley, who was working as Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum and who had began to be known as a translator and popularizer of Asian literature with his publication of A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, met Alison Grant, a young woman recently emigrated to London from New Zealand. She fell headlong in love with him and he was at least strongly attracted to her. Soon after, he took her back to his flat and they spent the night lying together, fully clothed, in his bed. As he led her to the street the next day, he tells her, “You must never come here again.” Why? Because “There is a lady in Fez….”
The lady in Fez was Beryl de Zoete, a dancer, writer, and researcher into exotic dance forms, with whom Waley had begun living in 1918. Although Beryl was “in Fez”–with three male admirers in tow–Waley implied that her return was imminent and that their ambiguous relationship had to take precedence over whatever he might like to start up with Alison. And so they parted, only to catch glimpses and exchange a few words while passing in and out of the British Museum. Alison married, bore a son, and carried on–the whole time still carrying a torch for Arthur.
Then, sometime in 1943, they met again in the midst of the Blitz and decided to resume the affair. Alison’s husband walked in on the pair–again lying together fully-clothed–and left her. Arthur, however, stayed firmly embedded with Beryl. And even more firmly embedded to the life of the solitary scholar. A man who spent his life studying and translating the literature of Asia, he never actually traveled more than a few hundred miles from London and was never able to converse in Chinese or Japanese. By all accounts other than Alison’s, he was at his happiest alone with his books and papers.
Nearly twenty years passed. Ten years older than Arthur, Beryl began to suffer the effects of Huntington’s chorea and was eventually confined to a bed in their Bloomsbury flat, where she died in 1962 at the age of 82. Alison swooped in and began to arrange for a life together with Arthur. Arthur appeared somewhat less enthusiastic at the prospect–in fact, he went and rented a studio flat–but after injured in an automobile accident while Alison was driving and, in its aftermath, diagnosed with cancer of the spine, he agreed to spend his few remaining months with her. Weeks before his death, they are wed at the local registry office. Arthur died in 1966 at the age of 76; Alison lived on to the next millennium, dying at the age of 100 in 2001.
Now, to the book.
In some ways, I’m tempted to call this the greatest of all English romances.
I say that because A Half of Two Lives features some of the most passionate love scenes, some of the most operatically intense raptures, some of the most uncontrolled and unashamed outbursts of desire to be found in any pages of English prose. Although she had to wait until the age of 82 to publish her love story, Alison Grant Robinson Waley managed to channel all the energy and focus of her inner teenager into its telling.
And I say that because, at the same time, this is a very English romance. Whether Arthur and Alison or Arthur and Beryl ever did actually have sex remains in doubt. Some writers suggest that Arthur was actually a tightly closeted homosexual, and among the weirder passages in this book are recollections of his distaste and dismissal of gays (“No party without buggers,” he sighed when reviewing a list of guests prepared by Alison). Although Arthur assures Alison at the very onset, “I love you. Every sort of way. Even physically,” it becomes clear that “even physically” is defined as holding hands, snuggling, and, in very special moments, kissing. By the time Arthur and Alison are living together, he is paralyzed from the chest down. There was a rumor, back in 2008, that the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo was planning to make a film based A Half of Two Lives. Had he stayed faithful (no pun intended) to the book, the film would been lucky to earn a “PG” rating.
What no one–other than Alison Waley–questions, though, is that this is not a work of nonfiction. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Humphrey Carpenter wrote, “There are many kinds of biography, and this is none of them.” He preferred to call it “a kind of mad, splendid poem.” Marina Warner, in The Sunday Times politely demurred that “it does not resemble a conventional biography,” while Hermione Lee was–by TLS standards–blunt in calling it “a fervent, fragmentary, and extremely odd narrative.” Even Hilary Spurling, in her well-modulated introduction to the book, advised that, “Some of the stranger episodes … do not tally with other people’s recollections any more than the anguished and tormented Arthur of this book matches previously published reminiscences of the great sinologist.”
Writing in the London Review of Books, Penelope Fitzgerald was characteristically insightful and deft: “Alison Waley, although she is a poet, has been too close to what she calls ‘every tear, every pain, every certainty’ to record them with precision. Sincerity should be the same thing as clarify, but isn’t.” And even between her own lines, Alison Waley occasionally betrays herself. At one gathering of the Bloomsbury elite, Arthur refused to introduce her, remarking, “One doesn’t introduce a child.” A further clue to Waley’s reservations can be found in this note from a 2011 auction of a collection of his letters and postcards to Beryl and Alison: “Waley’s correspondence with his future wife, Alison Grant Robinson, chiefly comprises the briefest notes, suggesting an elusive and apologetic relationship: ‘I shall be delighted to see you, on condition you don’t say nasty things about Beryl’; ‘I hate to cause you pain & disappointment’; ‘Will you obey me or not?'”
In a 1986 article in the Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries, Marian Ury quotes Edith Sitwell, writing to William Plomer after a visit from Alison: “[She] thinks one has to be screwed up to the pitch at which one writes, the whole time–otherwise one isn’t a writer.” And that, finally, defines what makes A Half of Two Lives simultaneously horrifying and wonderful. “Time must have a stop,” Alison quotes at several points in this book, but it’s obvious she never felt that applied to her passions, which she could still let blast full-bore in her ninth decade.
Even at a distance of over twenty years, for example, she cannot mute the tone of romantic madness in her last encounter with Beryl:
Beryl–propped with a dozen pillow–regards me with wavering glance.
I take her wildly jerking hands in mine and they are suddenly still. Looking only into her eyes, now fixed on mine and strangely glowing, I say: “Hullo, Beryl …” I lean forward and kiss her brow–sweat-soaked, dark and strange under its flying wisps of white. I sit back on my heels and lay my bare arms along her own–no more than withered sticks: but our eyes hold. And in that long moment we are known to one another so that nothing stands between. In some no-place, in some mid-heaven, a truce is called: all is as it might have been. I feel only a surge of love and joy that from that grotesque mask the eyes–oh, but unbelievably–are smiling into mine.
The next time an English composer is in need of a good libretto, he should take a careful look at A Half of Two Lives. If the book’s not the basis for the Great English Opera, there’s no question that Alison Waley is certainly a perfect candidate for the Great English Operatic Heroine with her motto, “Keep Hysterically Passionate and Carry On.”
A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982
New York: McGraw Hill, 1983
The dinner party, thanks to the little pills that Mr. Parkinson always had by him, was a great success. Mr. Parkinson swallowed one, and made Mrs. Prime do the same, saying in his high, funny falsetto voice, “Here you are, Biddy,” and then the cocktail table shot across the floor and he went with it, landing on his head in a flowerpot. But he didn’t seem to mind. He picked himself up, ruefully feeling his head and smiling, and Mrs. Prime cried out, “Oh, darling Perky,” rather crossly, and pulled his clothes straight. They were evidently great friends.
That sort of thing kept happening during the evening. Still, Mr. Daw’s little dinner was very nice. It was like all pleasant expensive dinners, except that the ship turned over on its side every ten minutes, carrying with it down the sliding slope of a rushing monstrous mass of water the panelled restaurant with its gleaming white cloths and its pretty shaded lamps; except that the waiters clasping bottles of champagne fell on their knees and shot swiftly backward like crabs, and the peaches from California rolled round the floor, and the musicians went headlong with their fiddles and music racks on top of them, after the piano, crash, into a heap in the corner; except that Gussie’s slim little feet were covered with a soft warm mess of scrambled eggs that came scuttling and spilling under the table from somewhere, and that the iced soufflé went into Bridget’s lap. Otherwise, one would have thought one was at the Berkeley or Claridge’s or the Embassy Club.
from Flamingo, by Mary Borden
New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1927
I wanted you to come to-day —
Or so I told you in my letter —
And yet, if you had stayed away,
I should have liked you so much better.
I should have sipped my tea unseen,
And thrilled at every door-bell’s pealing,
And thought how nice I could have been
Had you evinced a little feeling.
I should have guessed you drinking tea
With someone whom you loved to madness;
I should have thought you cold to me,
And reveled in a depth of sadness.
But, no! you came without delay
I could not feel myself neglected:
You said the things you always say,
In ways not wholly unexpected.
If you had let me wait in vain,
We should, in my imagination,
Have held, what we did not attain,
A most dramatic conversation.
Had you not come, I should have known
At least a vague anticipation,
Instead of which, I grieve to own,
You did not give me one sensation.
from Poems, by Alice and Caroline Duer
New York: George H. Richmond & Co., 1896
Alice Duer married Henry Wise Miller a few years after publishing this book of poems with her sister Caroline, and became Alice Duer Miller, who wrote “Forsaking All Others,” a verse short novel featured here recently (post).
You probably couldn’t find a more resolutely practical novelist than Josephine Lawrence. In the 30-plus adult novels she wrote between 1932 and 1975, she consistently wrote about people coping with problems of everyday life: growing old, growing up, dealing with children and aging parents, trying to make ends meet, getting laid off, finding a decent house to live in, figuring out how to get along with annoying neighbors, figuring out whether the person you’ve been going with for the last two years is the one you’re supposed to marry.
Partly this may be due to the fact that she spent a few years writing “Question and Answer,” an early advice column ala “Dear Abby” that appeared in the Newark Sunday Call. Coming early in her career, this experience put her in touch with the dilemmas of her readers, and these became the vein she mined for over forty years at the rate of a book every fifteen months.
In the case of A Tower of Steel, the problems revolved around the fact that the United States had entered a war, enlisting or drafting millions of men, consuming precious resources, and leaving many of the non-combatants in an odd sort of limbo. Marsh Lyman, well into his seventies (his staff call him “the Old Man”), has to hold off on retirement while he keeps the law firm of Lyman, Lyman, Lyman, and Lyman going in the absence of his three nephews and partners, all serving in uniform.
… the silence of the room in which she and the Old Man sat had in it a curious quality of pressure or of waiting. That oppressive heaviness, suffocating, labored, shutting them away from reality, extended, she fancied, beyond the closed door. those other silent offices, empty except for shadows, pulled constantly at the Old Man’s thoughts. He looked in each one every morning, had instructed Mrs. Mullane to clean and dust them. The rooms waited, he waited, and it was the struggle not to let life stop, not to listen to the silence, that weighted the quiet atmosphere.
Supporting him is a staff of four women, each dealing with one or other of the challenges of life. Thalia, Marsh’s experienced and capable secretary, endures living with a rough-and-tumble extended family sharing a ramshackle house with just one bathroom. Frannie, the office manager, tries to stay ahead of a shopaholic mother coming out of her third marriage and on the hunt for a fourth, along with an uncle still suffering PTSD from the Spanish-American War. Leis, another secretary, worries about her husband, off at an Army camp in some dusty town in Texas. Bon, 17 and in her first full-time job, worries about just one thing: finding a boyfriend.
Reading A Tower of Steel is an immersion into life on the homefront during World War Two. Characters keep careful track of their meat and fat points, calculate whether they can afford to take a weekend trip with the remaining gas they have in the car, get crammed and jostled in over-crowded buses and trains, tip-toe past G.I.s on two-day passes sleeping on couches in their apartment house lobbies, shed a tear for their last pair of pre-war nylons, get married after three days’ acquaintance when orders come to ship out, and dread the sight of a Western Union messenger with a telegram from Washington.
Yet there is also much that seems strikingly contemporary. All the stories in A Tower of Steel pivot around the same axis: the office. A working woman herself, Lawrence recognizes the special place that work has in our lives. “This office,” says Thalia, “is all that keeps me from going completely out of my mind.” Frannie agrees. “In fact, Thalia, I’ve come to the conclusion that if a man needs two wives, it’s doubly true that a woman needs two lives. One in, and one out.”
Perhaps the most interesting perspective on work comes from Marsh Lyman’s wife, Caroline, who feels that, lacking this second life leaves her “unprotected and vulnerable” when her husband comes home “beset by the secret heaviness that cannot be shared”:
Office workers, Caroline believed, shared nothing, at least not honestly. There was always something left which belonged only to the single identity. The office might–might it not?–under these circumstances, furnish an escape, a sedative, or simply stabilize?
“Sooner or later there must be born a generation of women wise enough to balance their lives,” she hopes–a thought that still comes to many people today.
One has to call A Tower of Steel a work of craft, rather than art. Although Lawrence occasionally rises to some fine prose (a wedding party where laughter “spiraled above the voices and cracked into fragments like broken glass”), her primary goal is to move her characters through their trials and tribulations. While some critics have written that Lawrence’s characters tend toward the cardboard, I found them sketched convincingly enough to have distinct personalities. And while there is one case of love at first sight, most of the romances are moderated and believable. Bon becomes smitten with a likeable young sailor, certain they will share the rest of their lives together, and just as quickly realizes there are other fish in the sea moments before they say farewell at Grand Central. Leis decides to join her husband in Texas but dreads the fact that she will be nothing but an encumbrance in the eyes of the Army.
And, frankly, I thoroughly enjoyed, for a change, a story completely free of any symbolism, mannerism, pretense or artfulness. If filmed at the time it was published, A Tower of Steel would have been the second feature at the movie house–a good second feature, but one without award-winning directing, memorable cinematography, or lines that would get quoted decades later: just a good story with a cast of solid professionals, told well and without much fuss and muss. Not great art, but very good craft.
A Tower of Steel, by Josephine Lawrence
Boston: Little, Brown and Company
Around the middle of Marya Mannes’ 1968 quasi-sci-fi novel They, a conversation about what is considered “dirty” goes off on several different tangents. After pages and pages that mention everything from Shakespeare to the nature of clams, the pompous conductor Lev says, “It is very hard to keep on the track with this group. No discipline.”
Unfortunately, this is how one feels reading Mannes’ misguided vision of dystopia. Despite an intriguing premise – a world in which people over 50 are segregated from the rest of society for 15 years until they’re finally killed off – Mannes doesn’t really give us a story to match it.
The story is narrated by Kate, who lives with Lev and three other people along with their pets in an old beach house. They’re all between the ages of 50 and 65, torn away from their families and preparing for imminent death. They’re only allowed to leave the beach house at designated times for restocking on food or going for medical checkups. During these checkups, any patient with a serious illness would be put to death immediately. This is because “They” (always capitalized) declared that people over the age of 50 were no longer able to contribute to society, and so needed to be exiled.
How did They come to this determination? Well, Kate provides a rather convoluted explanation. It seems to have started with young people’s love of late-1960s pop culture, which ultimately led to a youth-obsessed society that rejected not only the past but any kind of human feeling.
We kept looking for meaning, for standards, for order…and we were told they were no longer relevant….
We were told daily that mind (logic, reason) meant nothing and that only sensation counted.
Words were of no importance, except to the intellectual arbiters who used them to tell us this.
And the man who told us writing was dead could not write.
Yet, after spending many pages attacking the youth and their lack of standards, Kate writes, “For you see, it wasn’t only Their doing, although perhaps I should have made it more clear that They applies not only to the young. The machines were part of the takeover, for they had invaded every function of daily life.” It gets worse: “For what really brought the sense of crisis that followed the chill was not merely domination by the young or by the machine but the brief return to political power of a reactionary coalition under a conservative President.” This government then started a war with China. Talk about slippery slopes!
So what do the residents do? Do they try to rally against the system? Do they attempt an escape into a world where they can live without restrictions? No, they just spend a lot of time talking about Them and their interests. And because of her experience as a writer and editor, Kate gets chosen by the rest of the group to be the chronicler. Yet her purpose for writing (like everything else in this book) is unclear, since “writing is dead,” even though the book begins with a preface written by Kate’s son, identified only as “6B8953A-411-Y.”
In all fairness, the residents do make some attempts to live on their own terms. One of the things they do besides arguing is to schedule days in which they deprive themselves of one of their senses. For example, they have “Blind Day,” where they are not allowed to use sight. The residents believe that by practicing such things, they can heighten their other senses in case they lose one in real life.
And, at the end of the book, the residents do create an incident that gets Their attention. But Mannes spends too much time on observations and arguments about what society has become and not enough time building up the story to its climax. (It doesn’t help that she mentions the climactic incident at the novel’s beginning.)
Much later in the story, a young mute enters the lives of the residents. Despite his youth and his inability to talk, he actually gets along with the residents, who name him Michael since they cannot determine his real name. The problem with Michael is he’s not really a character. When he first appears, he serves as a temporary distraction from all of the bickering about culture and politics. Then Mannes – rather blatantly – turns him into a device foreshadowing the incident at the end. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if Mannes had used him more in the story and given him more human characteristics.
In conclusion, Mannes’ novel serves neither as a warning about the dangers of technology nor an example of the human spirit overcoming adversity. And They has little to offer in the way of literary value or entertainment. Perhaps readers who are interested in social criticism from the late 1960s may appreciate this novel, but those who are looking for a great dystopian novel similar to 1984—or even one on a par with an average SF book—will be disappointed.
Written by Christopher Iacono
The man body jumbled out of the earth, half, formed,
Clay on the feet.
Heavy with the lingering might of chaos.
The man face so high above the feet
As if lonesome for them like a child.
The veins that beat heavily with the music they but half understood
Coil languidly around the heart
And lave it in the death stream
Of a grand impersonal benignance.
from Precipitations, by Evelyn Scott
New York: Nicholas L. Brown, 1920
I could hardly imagine a less likely subject for a poem than Theodore Dreiser, but this sketch by Evelyn Scott is close to perfection, both in its imagery and in the clay-footedness of that last line, which might have come straight off the pages of one of Dreiser’s novels.
Among the number of small evils which haunt illness, the greatest, in the misery which it can cause, though the smallest in size, is crumbs. The origin of most things has been decided on, but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer. I will forbear to give my own explanation, which would be neither scientific nor orthodox, and will merely beg that their evil existence may be recognized and, as far as human nature allows, guarded against. The torment of crumbs should be stamped out of the sick bed as if it were the Colorado beetle in a potato field. Anyone who has been ill will at once take her precautions, feeble though they will prove. She will have a napkin under her chin, stretch her neck out of bed, eat in the most uncomfortable way, and watch that no crumbs get into the folds of her nightdress or jacket. When she lies back in bed, in the vain hope that she may have baffled the enemy, he is before her: a sharp crumb is buried in her back, and grains of sand seem sticking to her toes. If the patient is able to get up and have her bed made, when she returns to it she will find the crumbs are waiting for her. The housemaid will protest that the sheets were shaken, and the nurse that she swept out the crumbs, but there they are, and there they will remain unless the nurse determines to conquer them. To do this she must first believe in them, and there are few assertions that, are met with such incredulity as the one — I have crumbs in my bed. After every meal the nurse should put her hand into the bed and feel for the crumbs. When the bed is made, the nurse and housemaid must not content themselves with shaking or sweeping. The tiny crumbs stick in the sheets, and the nurse must patiently take each crumb out; if there are many very small ones, she must even wet her fingers, and get the crumbs to stick to them. The patient’s night-clothes must be searched; crumbs lurk in each tiny fold or frill. They go up the sleeve of the night-gown, and if the patient is in bed when the search is going on, her arms should hang out of bed, so that the crumbs which are certain to be there may be induced to fall down.
Mrs. Leslie Stephen, born Julia Prinsep Duckworth, is better remembered today as the mother of Virginia Woolf. She published this little book about a year after Virginia’s birth, with the simple aim of sharing “things which have come under my actual observation, either as giving relief, or causing discomfort to the sufferer.” Notes from Sick Rooms, which has been reissued recently by Paris Press to accompany Virginia’s essay, “On Being Ill,” is also available on its own from the Internet Archive (link).
It’s a short book brimming with common sense and a certain measure of humor. “I have often wondered,” she writes at the start, “why it is considered a proof of virtue in anyone to become a nurse. The ordinary relations between the sick and the well are far easier and pleasanter than between the well and the well.” Of course, relations between care-giver and cared-for are often not easy or pleasant, but her point is well-taken: overall, the odds of both parties being accommodating are better.
When Notes from Sick Rooms was reissued back in the early 1980s, Penelope Lively wrote of it in the London Review of Books:
It is as though Mrs Ramsay had stepped out of the pages of To the Lighthouse – cool, kind, sensible and meticulous – and set out to tell us, with the minimum of fuss, how to wash an invalid, make the bed, comb the hair, give an enema, arrange the bedside lighting. The tone has that combination of humanity and practicality that ought to pervade the medical profession and so frequently does not. It makes one yearn to collapse at once between linen sheets smoothed by Mrs Stephen and give oneself up in gratitude to the calm, unhurried, reassuring presence, the therapeutic rubbings and the beef tea. The section on the removal of crumbs from the bed is a masterpiece. This is the voice of a woman for whom the unsentimental alleviation of distress in others is a way of life; hearing it, you know this is someone whose advice would always have been equally precise, rational and wise – the sort of person you would want to meet in a hospital consulting-room, or at the scene of a disaster. And you think also of the frequently-reproduced photograph of Julia Stephen – a face of unforgettable beauty. And of Mrs Ramsay: ‘Was it wisdom? Was it knowledge? Was it, once more, the deceptiveness of beauty, so that all one’s perceptions, half-way to truth, were tangled in a golden mesh? or did she lock up within her some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all?’
Notes from Sick Rooms, by Mrs. Leslie Stephen
London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1883
When it was first published in 1978, Tillie Olsen’s Silences sparked a revolution in the recognition of the importance of the work of women writers in the canon of Western literature and the curriculum of its studies. Olsen attacked the many sources of discrimination that led to women writers representing “one out of twelve” works of mainstream fiction being published in the U.S. during the first three-fourths of the 20th century.
Included as an appendix to book are a set of four reading lists that Olsen published between 1972 and 1974 in Women’s Studies Newsletter, a publication of the Feminist Press. As described in Silences, “The lists represented the fruit of Olsen’s extensive reading and research in public libraries, where she discovered writing by women and working-class authors often out of print and not included in the literature curricula of the day. Olsen’s lists proved influential for the development both of women’s studies and of women’s publishing.”
One measure of this influence is the number of titles on her lists that have subsequently been reissued, often with extensive introductions, commentaries or annotations. Here, for example, are the novels recommended on her first list:
Over half of these titles were out of print when the list was first published. Now, the only one still out of print is Ethel Voynich’s Put Off Thy Shoes (1945), a historical novel set in late 18th century England featuring a strong heroine.
Particularly impressive is the number of books likely always to be considered minor, even if with the label “minor classic” or “minor masterpiece” (an oxymoron?), that have been much more widely recognized since the publication of Silences and are now in print and easily available. Examples include Katharine Butler Hathaway’s memoir, The Little Locksmith; Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses; Barbara Probst Solomon’s pioneering novel about abortion, The Beat of Life; Growing Pains, Emily Carr’s memoir of struggling to progress as an artist against the workload of daily life; and Jo Sinclair’s novel The Changelings, an early novel of adolescent girls fighting to overcome racism, anti-Semitism, and sexism.
Still, a few titles off Olsen’s lists remain out of print and under-appreciated:
Schreiner considered this novel of two sisters raised on a remote African farm her finest work, though it was unfinished at the time of her death in 1924 and only published posthumously. It was reissued some years ago as a Virago Modern Classic but is out of print once again.
In this first novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, a radicalized college student fights with her father, a pawnbroker she calls the “Merchant of Venice.” The story follows the two through the subsequent weekend, culminating in their coming together again in the father’s hospital room.
A novel about the struggles of the child of a white man and black woman to find opportunities and support for her own growth as an individual and artist. In her review of the book for Saturday Review, Catherine Meredith Brown wrote, “With sensitivity, observation, and embracing understanding, Southbound serves the cause of man’s humanity, and serves it well.”
Harriet Connor Brown won the Atlantic Monthly prize for this story of her mother-in-law, who, with her husband, established a homestead in Ft. Madison, Iowa, and raised a family of seven children. Her story is told with recollections, letters, newspaper items, and provides one of the most vivid and personal accounts of life during the settlement and domestication of the Midwest.
One of the first women to hold a place of influence in an American publishing house, Lenore Marshall helped get Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury published, and was an active campaigner against racism and nuclear weapons. The Saturday Review review of Marshall’s first novel opened with the question, “What would happen if a woman like Anna Karenina decided to stay with her husband and children rather than run off with a lover?”
Hale, whose 1942 novel, The Prodigal Women, was one of the most successful works of serious fiction by a woman to follow Gone with the Wind, was the daughter of two painters with a Bostonian pedigree tracing back to the original Colonists. This memoir is both a fond and skeptical view of growing up in a Brahmin family.
Subtitled “A Continuing Journey,” Hide and Seek is a collection of memories and meditations that come to West as she spends a few weeks camped out beside the Colorado River in a trailer (“Alone, alone! For those who relish it, a word sweeter than muscatel to a wino”).
On a blank page at the beginning of the Supplementary Volume of my Dictionary, I record emendations, corrections, additions, earlier uses of Words, as I come on them in reading. Ah, I say, congratulating myself, here Messrs. Murray, Bradley, Craigie and Onions are nearly a century out; here were sailors, travellers and
philosophers chattering of sea turtles from the fifteen-sixties on, and the Dictionary will not have them before the sixteen-fifties. And how late they are with estancias, iguanas, anthropophagi, maize, cochineal, canoes, troglodytes, cannibals and hammocks. As to aniles, or old wives’ tales, they will not let us have this excellent noun at all.
Thus I say to myself, as I enter my words and dates. To amend so great a work gives me pleasure; I feel myself one of its architects; I am Sir James Murray, Dr. Bradley, Sir William Craigie, Dr. Onions, I belong to the Philological Society; I have delusions of grandeur. Had I but world enough and time, I would find earlier uses of all the half million words, I would publish another supplement of my own, I would achieve at last my early ambition to be a lexicographer.
If there is a drawback to this pure pleasure of doing good to a dictionary, I have not yet found it. Except that, naturally, it takes time.
Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936
E. B. White says a favorite book of his is a novel by Laurids Bruun, Van Zanten’s Happy Days. Since my favorite book is anything Mr. White writes, I hurry to the library to share his delight.
Ball One for Mr. White. Every man to his own lotus eating, but he is wrong about Van Zanten’s Happy Days. Aside from a good title, it lacks persuasion. Van Zanten went native in a simpleminded manner on a South Sea island among black savages, convinced that Eden still exists and he had returned to it in a bamboo hut. After finding unmixed joy in the arms of a female savage, with her fears, superstitions, indolence, and lusts, then losing her in a typhoon, he hated thereafter all white women, who by contrast appeared civilized.
Mr. White used to dream in print about Dorothy Lamour wearing only a sarong and a hibiscus flower, rising up from a swamp to welcome him to Jungle madness. Or, as he said, to “amorous felicity.”
Van Zanten’s Happy Days: A Love Story From Pelli Island, by Laurids Bruun
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922
The Golden Gate (1986), Vikram Seth’s novel in verse (to be precise, in Onegin stanzas) is one of my all-time favorite books, and there is something about a verse novel I find particularly attractive. Perhaps it’s the way the flow of the verse gives the narrative an added momentum. When I picked up Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country in the Istanbul airport a couple of years ago, it read so fast that I felt like I was inhaling it.
Alice Duer Miller’sForsaking All Others (1931) was probably the most successful verse novel in English since Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh or her husband Robert’s The Ring and the Book, and it got a second wind when Miller’s second verse novel, The White Cliffs, a salute to England’s defense against the Nazis, sold over a million copies and led to its reissue. Running just under 100 pages in its original hardback edition, it’s perhaps more accurate to call it a novella in verse.
Unlike Vikram Seth, Miller mostly stuck to simple rhyming couplets and alternating rhymes (ABAB), and used a variety of foot lengths rather than sticking to one particular metre. However, the first couple parts of the poem may remember readers of the light, sophisticated, ever-so-slightly tongue-in cheek tone of much of the romance between Seth’s two protagonists. In this case, there is the added spice that the lovers are married–to other people. Lee Kent’s husband is locked away in an asylum, apparently a victim of combat fatigue from his time on the Western Front. Millionaire Jim Wayne (no relation to Bruce) has married his childhood sweetheart, the faithful but somewhat dreary Ruth.
The story in Forsaking All Others is played out in five parts. Part 1: Lee and Wayne meet at a dinner party and exchange some flirtatious banter. Part 2: Interested by Wayne, Lee wonders why he doesn’t contact her until they meet again at a art auction. Part 3: Lunches ensue. Part 4: The affair develops, and Wayne starts using the demands of business as an excuse to avoid joining Ruth at their summer place in Maine.
With Part 5, however, Miller takes her story on an express train from the Jazz Age to the heart of the Victorian era. Ruth, who knows that something is going on, dies tragically from a dramatically-convenient illness. “Is that you, Jim?” she murmurs in her fever before dying in a scene worthy of “Ten Nights in a Bar-room.” Stricken with grief and remorse, Wayne sails for the Mediterranean. The moral of the story? Vide the Seventh Commandment.
Personally, I’d have been happy to stop at the end of Part 4. Wayne is already struggling between attraction to Lee and loyalty to Ruth, but there are still plenty of bubbles in this champagne:
They would meet for luncheon every day
At a small unknown French cafe
Half-way up town and half-way down
With a chef deserving great renown.
And Pierre the waiter would smile and say:
“Bonjour, Monsieur, dame,” and they
Would see by his smile discreet and sly
That he knew exactly the reason why
A couple so proud and rich should come
To eat each day in a squalid slum.
And nothing delighted his Gallic heart
More than to find he could play a part
And protect “ces amoureux foux d’ amour”
And guide their choice through the carte du jour.
In its way, it could have been more conventional version of W. M. Spackman’s little classic of civilized adultery, An Armful of Warm Girl.
This is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time.
Marya Mannes was a woman who got around with a capital “A.” Her parents, David Mannes and Clara Damrosch Mannes, were among the most popular and respected classical musicians of the early 20th century, and through their New York apartment flowed a constant stream of talents such as Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, and Arthur Schnabel, as well as Clara’s brothers Frank and Walter. Her brother Leopold was a celebrated concert pianist, married one of George Gershwin’s sisters, and, along with fellow musician, Leopold Godowsky, Jr., invented the process behind Kodachrome color film.
When she was 19, she travelled alone to England, where she studied with sculptor Frank Dobson and socialized with various members of the Bloomsbury set before heading off to Paris and the Riviera, where she partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Murphys. Returning to the U. S., she wrote a play that was produced (unsuccessfully) on Broadway, married Jo Mielziner (“the most successful set designer of the Golden era of Broadway,” according to Wikipedia), and wrote and modelled for Vogue. She left Mielziner to live with Francisco Duran-Reynals, a pioneering researcher into cancer virology, then travelled back to Europe, where she married the wealthy American artist, Richard Blow. She and Blow enjoyed life in their palatial villa in the hills outside Florence until they fled to the U. S. just a few days before the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.
Her gift for languages and wide network of contacts came to the attention of the Office of War Information and, later, the OSS, which sent her to Portugal and Spain–where she also managed to write a series of “Letters” for The New Yorker. Then it was back again to the U. S., where she brought along Paul Cavaillez–a French aviator later convicted as a Nazi spy–to one of the first public showings of film from the concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald. Then back to Europe, this time working for Vogue, and on to Egypt and Palestine, where she watched the arrival of one of the first ships carrying Holocaust survivors to their new homeland. After that, she published as best-selling novel, Message from a Stranger and married husband #3, former R. A. F. pilot and British aviation executive Christopher Clarkson.
When she and Clarkson moved back to New York City after his assignment as air attache in Washington, D. C., Mannes started writing regularly for The Reporter and became one of the earliest critics of television–and then, one of the earliest critics to appear on television, in the early days of The Huntley-Brinkley Report. And, ironically, managed to get some early and strong pro-feminist pieces into the pages of such magazines as Vogue, Redbook, and McCalls. By the late 1960s, her face and name was so widely recognized that T. V. Guide could feature her in an advertisement as a foil to Ed Sullivan.
And in and amongst all this, she carried on a series of affairs, for which she offers no regrets or apologies:
I did not then–and do not now–understand the term “promiscuous”: used pejoratively, of course, and only of women. What was wong with giving and receiving warmth, pleasure, affection, and release even if these could no qualify as love? If it was not wrong for men (Oh yes, philanderer, rake, swordsman, what have you–all implicitly more flattering than diminishing) why was it wrong for women? One at a time, to be sure. For one night, or ten, or two years. But how could you know a man you liked without knowing his body?
Of course you accepted the consequences of these acts. You accepted uncertainty, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and insecurity. But you lived as full as you could, and often as deeply.
So why my frustration?
I think there’s a subtle clue in the passage above. Note that in the space of one paragraph, she shifts from first to second person. Now, it’s not uncommon for a memoirist to address her younger self as “you,” but in this case, the “you” seems less the younger Marya than an ambiguous other person that could be herself but might just as easily be the reader or women of her generation or … well, you can make your own guess. Although Mannes quotes from her own diaries, letters, articles and unpublished works throughout the book, there is always an odd sense of the impersonal in her tone.
Take, for example, how she relates her experience of early motherhood:
There–really there–a child. And I was a mother.
In love, yes, but not in nuture. A nurse was already waiting at home. There would always be nurses. What did I know about taking care of a child, free soul over thirty, always in other worlds? No more prepared to be a mother than his sire a father?
… But once maternal demands began to impinge, I began to retreat. Like most men who have successfully dodged for millennia the actual nuture of child and home (owed equally with their women) I wanted to pull free of the basic hourly, daily matters of care. I loved to hold my child but not diaper him.
While I give Marya Mannes full marks for her honesty, I can’t read the above without thinking it was written more as an editorial commentary than a felt memory. “His sire?” Who used “sire” outside of animal husbandry in the last hundred years? A few diaper changes might have provided something missing in much of Out Of My Time: sensations.
This book is full of thoughts and reflections but largely empty of the things that make one person’s memories real to another–the specific details of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. When she does try to convey them, the result is unconvincing. Here, she describes going out to meet a ship bringing Jewish refugees into Haifa harbor: “Alongside the hull, the smell from the black portholes just above our heads was overpoweringly foul: the breath of a thousand latrines and a hundred hours of sweat.” Maybe it’s just me, but this clunky prose seems like a second-hand memory rather than something still vivid and felt twenty-some years later.
Too much of Out Of My Time is life in the abstract rather than the immediate. Although Mannes dedicates the book “To my son, with love and respect,” he goes unnamed and is mentioned, glancingly, less than five times after he’s born (e.g., “The adventurer in me would often continue to prevail, at a child’s expense, over the parent”). “A child”? His name was David Jeremy Blow, for the record. Neither do her three husbands get names. I had to rely on her New York Timeobituary for theirs.
And this is what makes Out Of My Time such a frustrating book. Marya lived a remarkable, diverse, creative, original, and significant life. Her autobiography ought to be fascinating, a page-turner, full of anecdotes and insights. Instead, too much of the time it reads like War and Peace–specifically, the Second Epilogue, where dancing Natasha and dithering Pierre are replaced by Tolstoy the would-be philospher of history (“What force moves nations?”). Had Tolstoy not preceded the Second Epilogue with a thousand pages of rich, vivid, intensely felt fiction, no one would read War and Peace today. Just as almost no one reads Out Of My Time now.
Out of My Time, Marya Mannes
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
As we left the theater, I was thinking of a cousin of mine, Cousin Georgia, who had been not deaf or mute but desperate. The particular memory had to do with her going to a movie one Saturday afternoon. I never knew her story, more than that Cousin Georgia who was beautiful was unhappy, and she lost her mind as if she had mislaid her purse while watching a picture in a movie house. This occurred after her divorce, after the loss of her child, after she had returned alone to her parents’ house. Some plot unfolded on the screen recounting her own tragedy. Raising her fists she stood up in the theater, screamed out “You can’t do this to me!” and was frantic, from that moment insane. She lives on in an asylum.
The works of Helen Bevington–poet, memoirist, and long-time professor of English at Duke University–remain one of the most delightful discoveries of my years of exploring in the realm of neglected books. I started out 2013 with her trilogy of memoirs–Charley Smith’s Girl (1965); A Book and a Love Affair (1968); and The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm (1971)–and since then, have added most of her other books to my collection. So I thought a dip into her oeuvre would be a nice start to this year of reading the works of women writers.
Bevington, whose comic verse was often featured in The New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, began writing a memoir in the early 1960s. The book, which became Charley Smith’s Girl, was as much a portrait of her parents, Charley and Lizzie, whose divorce, when Helen was still a very young girl, was considered quite scandalous at the time. Not long before it was published, Bevington’s husband, Merle, also an English professor at Duke, died suddenly of a brain tumor at the age of 64.
To honor Merle’s memory, she wrote A Book and a Love Affair, which recounted their meeting while students at Columbia University in the 1920s and the early years of their marriage. She followed this with The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, which covered their move to North Carolina and the experience of raising their two sons, Phillip and David, both of whom became distinguished professors–Phillip of physics and David of English. This book concluded with Phillip’s recovery from a near-fatal car accident that left him a paraplegic.
Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960’s, published five years later, contains excerpts from the journal she had been keeping for many years. Most entries are less than a page long and undated aside from being collected by month and year. Often she reprints the poems she had written at the time, many of them inspired by her reading or the passing seasons.
Lost in the night, my love,
Are those who could never tell
The perishable world from the imperishable.
So they lived everafter, rich
In fairytales and in general–
Till along came the witch.
The inevitable, though always unexpected, appearance of evil and pain is a recurrent theme throughout this journal. In the first few years, she lost her mother and husband, both to diseases that were long-diagnosed but late, abrupt, and harsh in their effects. And throughout the decade, she saw violence and conflict erupting in the world: the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; the start of the Vietnam War; civil rights protests and political and race riots; demonstrations and even tear gas on her own campus. For Bevington, the 1960s were her anni horribili.
Yet these pages are also filled with beauty, comedy, and love. She was as quick to take note of a new bird around her house or the quirks of her neighbors as the headlines on the TV news. She delighted in observing her young grandchildren coming to their individual perceptions of the world and ways of expressing themselves. She relished a good anecdote, like her hairdresser’s flipping and wrecking a brand new car just to avoid running over a grey squirrel, and the unique language of her house cleaner: “When things go wrong in Rosa’s life and her head is blouzed up with trouble (as when her car was stolen last Saturday night), she takes some jolt medicine.” “Rosa has a got-rights cat. It has got rights the same as everybody.”
Each semester, she approaches each new class and group of students with a mix of trepidation, dismay, and wonder. While she notes petulance and hair lengths increase over the years, she still manages to find a remarkable appetite for learning to love and understand poetry. Bevington was one of the most beloved and respected teachers at Duke, and her joy in this work belies her anxiety about being up to the task. As one of the few faculty members without a PhD, she felt a certain amount of inferiority to her peers, and one of the bright spots in the decade was her acceptance as a full professor in 1970.
Her love of poetry and literature lights up these pages as well. A voracious reader, she is constantly reflecting on what she’s reading, and the depth and richness of her memory of what she’s read is remarkable. Like Isabel Paterson, she seems to have read everything and remembered everything, especially snatches of poetry and conversations. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages just to remind myself to check out the books she mentions.
The central theme of the book, however, is her struggle with learning to live alone. She was in her late fifties when Merle died, and she would live over 35 years as a widow, almost a long as the two were married. In writing of her parents, she concluded that neither offered her a way of living that she could accept for herself: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.”
She struggled to come to an understanding of this third way throughout the rest of her life. Her last book, in fact, was titled, The Third and Only Way: Reflections on Staying Alive (1996). About a year after Merle’s death, she did come to realize something about how she would have to move forward:
As I drove to the University this morning, thinking about Richard Wilbur whose poetry we would read in class, saying over a line of his, “It is by words and the defeat of words–” I made a sudden resolution, at the stoplight of Broad and Club Boulevard, to unlearn my words.
I will stop using the word lonely. I will change it to independent or alone. Aloneness is not the same thing as loneliness. I will live an independent life, fraught with freedom. I will stop explaining my plight to myself, using charged words like fear, like grief. It is not only cowardly but Byronic. (Byron: “I learned to love despair”). By the defeat of words I grieve. It is myself I mourn for.
I ask you to be fierce, Chicago,
As a drowning man in the first spasm
Fierce first of all to your women.
Trip them when they come mincing down the Avenue,
Take their little necks and squeeze them,
(Women grow scatter-brained with no fingers at them,
There is no white glory to them if they are not hurt,
Oh, the unhurt women you see ogling at the shops.
Paint and cloth!)
And when you get a chance at men.
Be fierce with them;
It is their hands have made you,
Their insistent, silly howling for the moon.
When they wrought you, Chicago,
They wrought pigstys out of gauze.
And fine dreams.
from We, the Musk Chasers, by Loureine Aber
Chicago: Ralph Fletcher Seymour, 1921
I like this poem because the poet’s voice is ferocious. She invites Sandburg’s Hog Butcher of the World, City of Big Shoulders, to wring the necks of her men and women with the facts of the real world.
We, the Musk Chasers–one of the odder titles of its time–was Loureine Aber’s only book, and at that, was a cheap paperback edition from a minor Chicago publisher. A graduate of Oberlin College, she had a number of poems published in Harriet Monroe’s magazine, including a feature spot right after Wallace Stevens in the October 1921 issue. She worked in advertising and then in the offices of the Leschin Apparel Company and boarded with a fellow Oberlin graduate, Lillian Blackwell Dial, and her husband. She died in 1930, a few days past her 37th birthday.
She was in her late 20s when she wrote “Take Their Little Necks.” She’d already been out, presumably on her own, for some years. Was she writing out of frustration with her own situation or with the fact that so many others hadn’t yet come to share her outlook on the world? Another poem in the collection, “You Will Never Go Picking Wild Flowers,” tells a well-to-do woman that she can never be carefree again because “You must go stiff now/Furs in storage/Diamonds in vault/Limousine waiting.” And was to make of “Four Corners of a Room”? Is this a celebration of limits or a declaration of resignation?
It is only four corners of a room
That keep me from becoming God.
I might leap out and spin stars,
I might address myself to grass
And long windy nights.
But these four corners hold me,
They have memories in them.
They will keep me fast
I am glad to be kept from being God.
It is certainly tempting to weave a whole story for Loureine Aber out of the lines of We, the Musk Chasers.
In my recent post on Phyllis Rose’s latest book, The Shelf, I mentioned that Rose’s comments about the continued challenges faced by woman writers was making me think that I should set aside 2015 as a year to focus on the neglected works of women writers. Rose was reacting to Chris Jackson’s post, “All the Sad Young Literary Women,” which appeared on the Atlantic’s website in 2010. In it, Jackson recounts a conversation he had with a fellow editor:
I was going on about some novel I was reading and loving and she cut me off and asked, “When was the last time you read fiction by a woman?” And I honestly couldn’t come up with anything for a few minutes. It was a pretty shameful moment … because I’ve spent a lot of time advocating the reading of books outside of the reader’s direct experience as a way of understanding the world … and apparently I’ve been ignoring the literary output of half the human population.
To make amends, Jackson committed himself “to balance my own reading–consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.” Rose’s reaction to this pledge was to find it “lovable and, could it be legislated, highly effective, solving all kinds of problems, including, probably, the one of respect for women writers.”
Reading this passage in The Shelf caused me to take a look at my own track record. Over the 8+ years I’ve maintained this site, I’ve written about 240 pieces on individual books. I’ve certainly tried to highlight the work of a number of women writers–Isabel Paterson was an early discovery, I featured Katharine Brush’s This is On Me as a unique illustration of the craft of writing for a living, and devoted considerable space to such forgotten woman writers as Thyra Samter Winslow, I. A. R. Wylie, and the diamond-in-the-rough Ada Blom. Helen Bevington was my favorite discovery of 2013 and Anne Goodwin Winslow the best of 2014. And my article on Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine led, indirectly, to that novel being reissued in 2009 and her unpublished novel, Clair de Lune, being issued by Harper Perennial in 2012.
Still, the numbers don’t lie. Less than a quarter of all the pieces are on works by women. And perhaps more tellingly, a small fraction of my Amazon Wish List items are by women. That puts me ahead of Rose’s “Joe Pubgoer,” who doesn’t even try to read writing by women, but in the ranks of her “Really Good Guys”: “The Really Good Guys know they should respect women writers, but it doesn’t come naturally.”
As any good music teacher knows, some of the best habits in the world are those that don’t come naturally. What comes naturally, as William James pointed out in his classic piece on Habit, is often what takes the least effort and attention. What becomes second nature becomes the rut in which we roll back and forth without variation. “It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice.”
Replacing a nurtured habit with good one takes more effort, particularly at the start. As James advised, “We must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible.” “Put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way,” he wrote: “Take a public pledge, if the case allows.”
Well, this case certainly allows. So let this be my public pledge to devote this site to the coverage of the work of women writers in 2015, in hopes that they will continue to have a prominent place in 2016 and beyond.
I’ve already had some help to this end. D. H. Sayer wrote recently to recommend the work of Carol DeChellis Hill, whose life and work he covered in remarkable detail in this post on his own blog from 2013, and Tom Frick pointed me toward this article from the Poetry Foundation on Rosemary Tonks, an English poet and novelist whose collected poems were released as Bedouin of the London Evening by Bloodaxe Books just before Christmas. And as I do my research for this year’s reading, I observe the same kind of domino effect I’ve noticed ever since creating this site–namely, that finding out about a book or writer I’ve never heard of leads more often to another and another and another than it leads to a dead end. Already I have a stack building: Helen Bevington’s journals from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s; more novels by Isa Glenn and Anne Goodwin Winslow, both previously covered; several each by the fashionable radicals Elizabeth Hawes and Marya Mannes; short story collections by Katinka Loesser, Ivy Litvinov and Cora Jarrett; memoirs by Mina Curtiss and Joan Colebrook; and science fiction by Rosel George Brown and Naomi Mitchison. I also hope to dip into the vast number (70+) of “silver fork” novels by Catherine Gore, whom the Times once called “the best novel writer of her class and the wittiest woman of her age.”
Feel free to offer your own recommendations, which are always welcome. And if the list grows too long to finish this year, I guess we can keep going into 2016 and beyond.
Having taken a long trip over the last year through the pulp paperback fiction of R. V. Cassill, starting with his 1956 novel of wife-swapping in rural Iowa, The Wound of Love, I wasn’t surprised when I was contacted by Open Road Media, an e-book publisher, about their re-issue of five of Cassill’s books:
They offered me a free copy of any of these in return for this post, and as I was planning to read it anyway, I opted for Doctor Cobb’s Game.
Doctor Cobb’s Game was certainly Cassill’s most commercially successful book. The story is based on the Profumo affair, a scandal involving sex, secrets and Soviet spies that led to the resignation of Conservative Defence Minister John Profumo. Cassill’s Doctor Michael Cobb is his fictional version of Dr. Stephen Ward, the London osteopath and socialite who introduced Profumo to the 19-year-old Christine Keeler and who facilitated their affair while, at the same time, carrying on a close friendship with Soviet military attache and intelligence officer, Yevgeny Ivanov. Although doubts remain whether it did actually involve prostitution, procuring, or the passing of secrets or was just a case of bad judgment and awkward coincidences, the Profumo affair was something of a watershed in British culture and morality. Never after did the cone of silence over the old boys’ network fit so well, and the affair is often taken as one of the events marking the start of the swinging Sixties.
As all of his pulp novels plainly demonstrate, sex–particularly adulterous and illicit sex–held a great fascination for Cassill, and Doctor Cobb’s Game is his magnum opus on the subject. At the time the book was first published, sex had become something of a centerpiece on best-seller lists. The Sensuous Woman, by the anonymous “J”, topped lists for 1969, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was among the hottest titles when Doctor Cobb’s Game came out. Cassill’s publisher saw him, as he joked, as “Jacqueline Susann in trousers” and threw together a press campaign that saw the writer appearing on The Dick Cavett Show alongside the Rev. Billy Graham and Mandy Rice-Davies, who played a minor role in the Profumo affair. The press coverage and generally enthusiastic reviews succeeded in boosting the book’s sales and Cassill took home what was probably his biggest-ever paycheck from the sale of the paperback rights to Bantam Books.
In his review of the book for the New York Times, James Frakes wrote, “Cassill is remarkably adroit at capturing moods–domestic, supernatural, and, of course, psychosexual. I know of only two writers who rival him in this respect. Their names are D. H. Lawrence and Norman Mailer.” At the time, this was high praise. Reading it over forty years after Doctor Cobb’s Game, it seems much more artifact than masterpiece. Back in the 1950s, Cassill made a living for a few years working as an editor for the mens’ magazines, Dude and Gent. Although his work never made it to the pages of Playboy, his writing about sex in Cobb’s Game reminds me very much of the tone of that magazine in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which was, basically, “The great thing about Women’s Lib is that it makes it OK to fool around because now we know that women can get something out of sex, too.” In other words, it’s not the least bit liberating. Instead, it made me nostalgic for the good old days when Mailer had to write about “fugging.”
Frakes’ Times colleague, Jonathan Leonard, described Doctor Cobb’s Game as “a staggeringly complex meditation on irrationality, the forms it assumes, its energy for good and evil, its sources in biology and myth.” Running over 500 pages in hardback form, the novel does pack in a substantial array of characters in addition to those taken a clef from the Profumo affair. He tells the story, in fact, through an American narrator, Norman Scholes, who works in some ambiguous position for the mysterious Gath Corporation–an archetypal fictional “mysterious think-tank” corporation run by former Marine general and based out of a remote fortress-like complex in upstate New York known as “Falcon’s Wing.” The material related to the Gath Corporation alone is a choice bit of 1960s culture itself–I kept expecting Scholes to run into Derek Flint or Napoleon Solo.
But in fiction, there’s a fine line between complex and just plain complicated. While I found something to appreciate in each of Cassill’s pulp novels, they all suffered from his tendency to introduce one too many characters or one too many scenes or one too many plot diversions. In the right hands, most of these books could easily have made it into the ranks of a fine pulp classic like The Postman Always Rings Twice, but in Cassill’s, they ended up like a jigsaw puzzle with a few empty spaces–or,rather, pieces left over. Whether the fault lies with the manufacturer or the assembler, the result is awkward and unsatisfying. I was reminded of the old quip that an artist is someone who knows when to stop–and does.For me, the whole treatment of Doctor Cobb as some mythical character with access to alien or supernatural powers might have seemed radical and the height of invention at the time, but from this perspective, it looks as clunking and unconvincing as a special effect in a cheap science fiction film.
As one who remembers furtively thumbing through my father’s copies of Playboy in the late 1960s, Doctor Cobb’s Game was something of an uncomfortable trip back in time. I fear that what I enjoyed most were aspects and associations that Cassill never intended to evoke, while his great artistic reaches seemed like so much flailing around. I feel particularly chagrined to open 2015 with this post because I had decided to devote this year to featuring the work of neglected women writers.
I picked up a copy of Enter, Sleeping in the £2 box outside a bookstore in London a few weeks back and enjoyed reading most of it on the Eurostar ride back. Karp, whose dystopic novel, One, was reissued a few years ago by Westholme Publishing (but appears to be out of print again), was usually serious, almost moralistic, in his approach, but this is an out-an-out farce. If you’re a fan of 1960s movies, I’d describe it as a blend of “The Producers,”“Lord Love a Duck,” and “The President’s Analyst”: Broadway, young love (er, sex), and Looney Tunes conspiracies. All in all, great fun.
Young Julius Schapiro, a play reader for an erstwhile Broadway producer (more Max Bialystok than David Merrick), meets the lovely, tender Daphne one evening and ends up walking her back to her home. At the door, she nearly lassos him into bed, but Julius is stopped on lift-off by her father, the uber-earnest Ernest Leydecker. Ernest quickly proves a granite stone-faced mind-fucker first class:
“What do you do?” her father asked as he sat opposite him. His manner, his posture were the same. Flat, calm, unassailable, impenetrable.
“I work for a stage producer,” he said.
“But what do you do?” he was asked again.
“I read plays.”
“To what end?”
“To inform the producer which plays are good.”
“Does he take your advice?”
“He reads what I recommend he read.”
“And does he produce what you recommend he produce?”
“Not very often.”
“Then why do you do it at all?”
“Because I need a job. I have to eat, to live.”
“You don’t have to live,” her father said with a voice that was almost kindly. “If you find life burdensome, I know a doctor who will provide you with a poison which is almost painless.”
Later, Ernest gives Julius his reassuring assessment: “I don’t understand what my daughter sees in you. I consider you a total imbecile.”
On his own home front, Julius has the comfort of living with a mother one character describes as, “… a triple-plyed monster of the old school of Jewish monsters. She’s not a monster. She’s a growth.” When he tries to make some connections to get his career as a budding songwriter going, he runs into the hyperbolic, hyperactive agents, Lou Cohen and Al Douglas:
“I got to find this guy Julius Schapiro, I yelled,” Al said, his face contorted with pain. “Lou, Lou, I yelled, we’ve got to find this guy! We’ve got to find him! I called the magazine! I called the Writers Guild! I called the papers! I called the Dramatists Guild! I called the Coast! I called all the networks! I called every agent in New York! I must’ve made a hundred calls. Right, Lou?”
“He spent nearly two days on the telephone,” Lou said, shaking his head in awe.
Poor, sane Julius, who wants only to woo Daphne and make a buck, is like a cork caught in a torrent of obsessions and conspiracies. Nowadays, we would call him clueless, but in the book’s terminology, he’s a sleepwalker.
In pursuit of Daphne, he winds up helping Ernest’s Truth-Seekers, whose primary occupation is writing letters of complaint over the slightest of wrongs. In support of a member who felt ripped off at the price of a lousy movie, they write to “the management of the theater … the producers of the motion picture, the Mayor of the City of New York, the Governor of the State of New York, Governor of the State of California, where the picture was manufactured, the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, the place of manufacture, and, of course, the usual copy to the President of the United States and to the Secretary General of the United Nations for his information.”
In the real world, no one could take such letters seriously, but in Karp’s loony bin, it’s only natural that the Truth-Seekers soon attract the interest of the F. B. I. … or is it the Secret Service … or is it some dark, unacknowledged arm of the government?
Enter, Sleeping might have collapsed under the weight of such cartoonish exaggerations, but Karp’s touch with his broad brush is light and deft. Running under 180 pages, the book is too brief, the momentum too fast, to let anything bog down. Karp wraps up his story with a last-minute happy ending in the tradition of a good Shakespearian comedy, complete with matched pairs of lovers. All in all, a fast, fun farcical frolic with a nice blend of Sixties innocence and Cold War paranoia. Absolute worth the £2.
I kick myself for letting the publication of Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf, subtitled, “From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading,” go unremarked, for it’s likely the most prominent celebration of neglected books to come out in many years.
“This book records the history of an experiment,” Rose writes at the opening of her book. “Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical–that is, writers chosen for us by others—-I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.”
In fact, as she goes on to explain, not just the canon is chosen for us, but much of what is generally read. Even if the decision to pick up a particular book is yours, your access to the book is shaped by others in many ways: by booksellers in their choice of they stock and what they display; by reviewers in what they praise or condemn or simply deprecate; by editors in what they select to have reviewed; by librarians by what they choose to purchase, to retain, and to discard; by schools and professors by what they choose to put on their reading lists; and by other readers, whose choices produce best-seller lists and guide booksellers and librarians through feedback mechanisms that reinforce the success of the popular and, as Rose details with examples throughout the book, ensure the neglect of the unlucky.
Rose’s experiment was to read off-piste–that is, to read a selection of books with only an arbitrary criterion, and no received advice, as a guide. In her case, she eliminated a variety of options and settled on one particular shelf in the fiction section of the New York Society Library containing books by authors whose last names ran from LEQ to LES, “running from William Le Queux to John Lescroart, by way of Rhoda Lerman, Mikhail Lermontov, Lisa Lerner, Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Etienne Leroux, Gaston Leroux, James LeRossignol, Margaret Leroy, and Alain-René Le Sage.” As she sums up in her closing chapter, the experiment covered, “Twenty-three books. Eleven authors. Short stories and novels. Realistic and mythic. Literary fiction and detective fiction. American and European. Old and contemporary. Highly wrought and flabby fiction. Inspired fiction and uninspired.”
Rose found the experiment a bit of a trial at points. Sticking to the well-trod paths does provide a sort of guarantee: if others found a book worthwhile, chances are better that you will, too. There’s risk in going off-piste: sometimes, the experience isn’t worth the time. “I did not want to report on novels I found merely interesting,” she writes. “Yes, my disappointment could be made amusing up to a point, but what was in it for either of us, me or you? I wanted to address the life-enhancing possibilities of literature.” (I’ve tried to follow much the same approach with this site.) Rose goes beyond the call of duty in devoting time and thought even to her disappointments, giving, for example, the works William Le Queux more attention than they deserve even as historical artifacts.
But had there not been a few high points along her way through the shelf, it would have been easy to give up and head back to the plowed runs. For Rose, a high point is a book that passes a certain simple test: “The fiction I esteem is fiction I would reread. The test of time is beyond us as human beings with a limited life span, but the test of times is possible.” In her case, she found three books that passed–“texts to keep me company through life”: God’s Ear, by Rhoda Lerman, The Adventures of Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage, and Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time.
Along the way, however, she also discovers a few titles more than just interesting, if not life-enhancing. These include:
These two short novels by Lernet-Holenia, an Austrian writer whose early novel, The Glory is Departed, AKA The Standard, I reviewed here about a month ago, are little gems–one a supernatural love story (Bagge), the other a black-as-death comedy of paranoia gone wild (Luna).
A collection of short stories, published in 1939, centered on a habitant-merchant–a Québécois farmer–turned shopkeeper and his family. Rossignol was something of a polymath, having studied philosophy and psychology, taught economics, and researched and written extensively on politics, education, economics, in addition to writing fiction.
This, Lerner’s one and only novel, a funny, savage, and yet somehow tender tale of a sexual dystopia, fell into neglect on the strength of one bad review in The New York Times, which ensured few other papers or magazines reviewed it, and left its fate to the enthusiasms the few readers who discovered and cherished it.
While extreme reading, might, in the words of The New Yorker’sfeature on the book, require “special personal traits,” including “a dash of perversity,” Rose found it had rewards more than worth the effort. In fact, it’s an act of individual empowerment:
More people should visit Antarctica, metaphorically speaking, on their own. That is one of the conclusions I have reached, one of my recommendations: explore something, even if it’s just a bookshelf. Make a stab in the dark. Read off the beaten path. Your attention is precious. Be careful of other people trying to direct how you dispense it. Confront your own values. Decide what it is you are looking for and then look for it. Perform connoisseurship. We all need to create our own vocabulary of appreciation, or we are trapped by the vocabulary of others.
All of which makes me wonder if I shouldn’t rename this site ExtremeReading.com (well … maybe not).
Unlike Rose, I spend most of my time reading off the beaten path, and so I am sparing in my choices of current books. The Shelf, however, was a thorough delight, not only introducing me to the works of a few writers even I haven’t come across, but also full of thought-provoking observations. (Her comments about the continued challenges faced by woman writers is making me think that I should set aside 2015 as the year of the Neglected Books by Women.)
So if you’re hesitant to break out into uncharted reading territory, I recommend The Shelf for an initial shot of courage.
The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose
New York City: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014
Most of us spend most of our lives
Climbing in and out of wombs,
Bitching about bad coffee and too wet
Martinis. Most of us lust for, more than love,
Our wives, waitresses, and celluloid sirens.
But a few seem to move to the total horror
Of ennui, to wake tired at morning,
To be glad to face another alley, rather
Than to go on for another hour with the sheets,
Fighting the nightmares that gang up.
Those few are real and positive. They know
What misery and terror really are.
They’re usually the very last ones to bitch.
They go off somewhere to drink in a bar
Or cry or quietly to kill themselves.
from Poems and Stories, by Thomas McAfee
Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1960
This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).
Full of cardboard characters, stereotypes, cariacatures, clichés, and hackneyed situations Elmer Rice’s 1937 novel, Imperial City is the most enjoyable read I’ve encountered in months. It’s got something for nearly everyone: a murder in a crowded night-club; a race riot; a raid on a high-class whore house; adultery (both hetero- and homosexual); a solo flight across the Atlantic that ends tragically; a protest by undergraduates at Columbia; an unsuccessful hold-up and high-speed getaway; a black-out that cripples Manhattan just as a sickly child is undergoing an emergency surgery. Something’s happening on nearly every page, and with close to 700 pages, that’s a lot of action.
I’ve had a copy of Imperial City for a few years but always shied away from reading it. I’m a sucker for city novels, particularly ones set in New York, but the few reviews of the book I’d been able to find were pretty lukewarm in their praise. The fact that its one reissue was as an abridged Avon paperback with a cheesy cover didn’t say much for its long-term literary merit, either.
But when I finally picked it up, I was 50 pages in before looking up again, and found myself reaching for it in every spare moment after that.
Not for Rice’s style, mind you. Probably the closest comparisons I could find to Imperial City would be The Bonfire of the Vanities or one of James Michener’s geographic doorstops like Hawaii or Centennial, and compared to Rice, Wolfe and Michener are poets. Here, for example, is how he handles a stressful period in his leading man’s romance:
These activities, together with his constant attendance at the trial, had left him almost no time for Judy. For more than a week he had hardly seen her, except for two or three brief visits to the hospital to which her father had again been removed. They talked listlessly and almost impersonally. Judy was preoccupied with her father’s illness, and Gay with his brother’s critical situation and his efforts to avert the strike. Emotionally neither was capable of sharing the other’s anxiety, and for no good reason, each was hurt by the other’s apparent lack of sympathy; so that an indefinable coolness sprang up between them and their parting had none of its accustomed warmth.
This is reporting, not writing.
And yet, it’s easy to look past such clunkiness and just keep stuffing oneself with pages like handfuls of potato chips or popcorn. Imperial City is the fictional equivalent of empty, addictive calories.
Although centered on the Colemans–one of the wealthiest families in Manhattan–the novel is a veritable solar system of characters, ranging from a couple dozen planets whose names gradually grow familiar to minor moons and satellites to asteroids that go screaming past in a few pages, never to appear again. I suspect Rice’s cast list would put Tolstoy’s biggest to shame, and given how superficial many of his characterizations are, even harder to keep straight. Names disappear for hundreds of pages only to pop up again with no re-introduction (“Arnold Rayford … is he the lawyer or the power company executive? Oh, no that’s Charles Albertin … or is it Livingston Ward?”). More than a few times, I just gave up and hoped to figure things out as I went along.
What redeems the book, however, is its tremendous momentum and enough telling details to make the stage sets convincing. An early highlight is a visit to Coney Island on a hot summer day:
Everyone’s jaws were moving; those who were not munching ice-cream cones and hot dogs or licking lolly-pops were industriously chewing gum. The air was thick with the smells of brine, pickles, sauerkraut, spiced sausage-meat, sizzling lard, and human exhalations. People shoved and trod on each other’s toes to reach the booths where stentorian vendors extolled the merits of pop-corn and pink spun sugar and Eskimo pies. Spectators stood five-deep behind the players of skee-ball, Japanese ping-pong, and coney races. There were long queues waiting to buy tickets for the Old Mill, the Love Ride, the jolting little electric auto-racers, the barrel in which the motor-cyclist risked death, the crèche where the pre-maturely born babies were displayed in incubators. In the swimming-pools of the large bathing establishments, the divers shouted and splashed.
The prose may be trite or awkward (particularly that last sentence), but despite Rice’s clumsiness with the brush, a lively and colorful picture emerges. As a portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s–one of the city’s most vibrant decades–Imperial City isn’t the most deftly painted, but it may be one of the richest and most fascinating. Great art it ain’t, but it is great entertainment. Summer is a long way off, but if you’re looking for a neglected beach book next year, remember this.
Whoever know a city, know this square:
The loud and quaking air
That breaks on brick or scales the sun-choked glass,
The travelers who pass
One minute of one day and nevermore,
The neo-Grecian door
Poised like the needle’s eye, open and shut
For the mythical feet
Of some squat nobleman of fields and mines,
Or eggshell yachts afloat in summer water,
The pink expensive daughter
With a flair for shady friends and maybe Bach,
The colonnaded house and the Chinese cook.
In early spring this heartlike acre shines:
Canyoned streets, carlines
Flow with violence of union, men
Learn faith in fathers then;
The butcher from the suburb and the clerk
Hear the organizers speak
The echoing language of the pioneer,
And in that press they cheer
With such a swirling and reproachless voice
The city swims in noise;
Those sooty faces and grime-sculptured hands
Live where the river bends,
They own the rotted gardens made to green
Where but the fossils of machines have lain.
All interweaves among the changing years:
Progress is in arrears
Until some chanticleering message raids
The disparate multitudes,
Or the bark of some command, made sharp with hate,
Sends Property’s gunmen out.
Poised in that infinity of death
Or life, or barely both,
The human balance sways; away, away,
The bleak night and the day,
The bankers couched in limousines, the poor
Jackknifed against a door,
The bankers conscious of defeat, the poor
Jackknifed, oblivious, against a door.
from The Selected Poems of John Malcolm Brinnin
Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1963
This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link)
From Kansas City, the
last bleeding station-stop
of mother’s cancer, goes
west and then south, writes
“Having become myself
my fiction’s hero, will
pause at tonight’s hotel,
called (letterhead translates)
Inn of the Last Resort,
(amused) tomorrow will
taken sudden steps to go
into Mexico, write
nothing to anyone.”
Like a cheap dog thereafter
in grey timorousness
will his hallucinations
attend his heel
to lick at the least call?
Heroic, in the bar
back of the best streets,
he, in a diamond vest,
gold pieces in his ears,
muscles like a hoopsnake,
cheerfully will impart
his daddy’s wisdom with
new lies in a new night.
Or if that keepsake fails,
the coin in his hand turns
to a useless penny, he
cursed for a male witch,
eyes superstitiously full,
flesh softer than human,
“having become himself
his fiction’s hero” may
dance to a smart blaze,
staccato feet bound
fast to the fire’s end,
his clumsy hands told
gestures of departure.
Why worry, lovey? He,
mother in her fat tomb,
auntie on her pension,
Kansas City an act done
in an indecent story,
now suffers his own air,
breathes himself wholly.
And if he takes off
all clothes, smarts
in another country’s love, if
he takes off his heart, bleeds
untranslated blood, still
it is his fiction.
But I agree, I
cannot leave it there, and
wait the improbable card
postmarked Champs Elysees:
“Everything dandy, death
easily managed. Find
fine company; Ambrose Bierce,
all others who disappeared
stopping by for a drink.
Having become themselves
their fictions, are
spoken with new tongues.
Write to me. Love me. Yours.”
from The Interpreter’s House, by William Dickey
Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1963
This is one in a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive (link).
I first mentioned The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, back in 2010, in a post about “Classics Lost and Found,” a feature in the Independent. In that post, I wrote that it was only book mentioned in the article that could be considered truly neglected.
It’s really quite remarkable, in fact, that such a good book could be so easily forgotten. In a short review on Amazon, record producer Russ Titelman wrote, “As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the great unsung American masterpieces on a par with A Death in the Family and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It is spare, poetic and honest.” In the Independent piece, Clive Sinclair called it “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.” And in his introduction to the 1972 Harrow Books paperback reissue, Wirt Williams wrote that it “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written”:
Why? Well, certainly, it offers so many of those elements indispensable to the form as popular fiction: a supergunfighter as hero, a powerful story, a colorful background, great authenticity of detail. But Hendry Jones has more than these and is much greater than their sum. It is, quite simply, a first-rate work of literature.
Neider started out with the intent of writing a fictional account of the life of Billy the Kid, and his title pays tribute to Sheriff Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. But despite a long visit to New Mexico, during which he tracked down and interviewed a few of the surviving witnesses from Billy’s time, Neider was stuck until he decided to shift the setting to the central California coast and Baja Mexico, and cut any strong ties to the historical Billy.
Williams argues that what distinguishes the novel is “its mythic quality.” Neider certainly made a deliberate choice to make the story somewhat timeless. His hero has no name other than “the Kid.” His narrator, “Doc” Baker, a former member of the Kid’s gang, does say that his account is set “in that summer of 1883,” but he refuses to offer any biographical information:
Some people had told me I ought to tell about the Kid’s early life, who was his mother who his father, where he went to school, how he killed his first man, how he got to be so good with the gun, the great fighters he met and knew, the women he had, the men he killed, the way he cleaned out the faro bank in the Angels that time. But I see no point in going into all that.
But I have to differ with Williams. I think it’s the book’s specificity that makes it great. Every page shines with prose that’s clean, precise and poetic:
It was good to sit in that town after the hills and Punta, to sit in a plaza and listen. Cries on the bay; bark of a dog; rattle of carts’ clopping of hooves; voices laughing and shouting. It made us wonder how it would be to live in a place like that, with all the houses and faces and business and all the smells–grapes being pressed, eucalyptus trees, pine smoke, roses, meat curing, cheese drying, and the perfume you caught as you passed a lady on the street.
The book is told entirely in “Doc” Baker’s voice, and much of the reason the book works so well is due to Neider’s success in finding just the right tone, a combination of dry, matter-of-fact, life-hardened realism, a casual familiarity with violence, and a subtle touch of the poetic–enough to be effectively atmospheric, not so much as to become intrusive.
In fact, re-reading the novel recently, I suddenly realized why this prose seemed so familiar. Compare these two passages:
Jackson fired. He simply passed his left hand over the top of the revolver he was holding in a gesture brief as a flintspark and tripped the hammer. The big pistol jumped and a double handful of Owen’s brains went out the back of his skill and plopped in the floor behind him. He sank without a sound and lay crumpled up with his face in the floor and one eye open and the blood welling up out of the destruction at the back of his head. Jackson sat down. Brown rose and retrieved his pistol and let the hammer back down and put it in his belt. Most terrible nigger I ever seen, he said. Find some plates, Charlie.
It was at this point that Shotgun Smith fired a barrel into Modesto’s head. The boy dropped and Curly Bill dismounted and kicked his face with the high heel of his boot. Cal dismounted too, got a large rock and laid it under Modesto’s head for a pillow. Then Curly Bill, spotting Modesto’s piebald in the corral, roped her, led her close to the boy and shot her in the head. When she lay dead, steaming, the urine running out of her and the blood staining the ground, he got Modesto’s hat, which had fallen near the body, and put it under the mare’s head.
“You go and tell the Kid about this,” said Curly Bill to Modesto’s boss. “Tell him this is what he’s going to get too.”
The first is from Blood Meridian, the second from Hendry Jones. I don’t think I’m entirely off the mark in noting an awful lot of similarity between Cormac McCarthy’s Western voice and Charles Neider’s. Which is another reason why it’s hard to understand why The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones has fallen into neglect.
Finally, there is the reason why the book is most often mentioned these days–namely, that it was the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s one and only credit as a director, the 1961 film, One-Eyed Jacks. As you can read in more detail in the Wikipedia article, the screenplay took a tortuous path from source to screen and, other than being shot on the California coast and retaining some of the characters’ names, the film bares little resemblance to Neider’s book. If you wish to see it, though, there are several copies of the film available on YouTube.
There have been several reissues since the book was first published by Harper in 1956. It was released as Crest paperback (1960) aimed squarely at traditional readers of Westerns. In 1972, it was issued in the U. S. as a Harrow Books paperback and in the U.K. by Pan Books. Finally, University of Nevada Press issued it in 1993 as part of its “Western Literature Classic.”
Given that Cormac McCarthy’s books are the closest thing to the gold standard when it comes to best-selling serious fiction these days, I can only hope that some bright editor catches a clue and ushers a new release of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones into print. Maybe even with an introduction by McCarthy … although that may be coming too close to home.
The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956