March 22nd, 2015

Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall (1960)

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cousintohumanI 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


 

March 20th, 2015

Hunter of Doves, by Josephine Herbst (1954)

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Nathanael West in Bucks County, PA“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.

A quick key to the characters in “Hunter of Doves”:

  • Noel Bartram = Nathanael West
  • Mrs. Heath = Josephine Herbst
  • Mr. Heath = John Herrmann
  • Joel Baker = S. J. Perelman
  • Nora Baker = Laura Weinstein Perelman
  • Parker Grainger = probably Quentin Reynolds


 

March 18th, 2015

Snow in London, from A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley

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"London Snow," a wood engraving by Gwen Raverat

The Wind Blows High

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.

Children’s Game

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?”

“Forever.”

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


 

March 15th, 2015

Risk, by Rachel MacKenzie (1971)

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Cover of first US edition of "Risk"

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 at The New Yorker
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


 

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