May 21st, 2015

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


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

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

“Solitude has always excited me,” West writes, and her three months out in the Arizona desert gave her plenty of time to reflect. Ironically, for someone seeking time alone, she managed to fill many of her thoughts with memories of other people. Her family, in particular. Her parents moved with their three children from Indiana to Whittier, California, to join a group of Quakers settled there when Jessamyn was six. (Her mother was a Milhous, so West was related to Richard Nixon. His father, Frank, was one of her Sunday school teachers, but West has little good to say for her cousin’s politics.)
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



May 18th, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


May 16th, 2015

A Sleepless Summer Night in Bordeaux, from The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson (1945)


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.

from The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson (1945)


May 15th, 2015

Around the Campfire, from The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, by Josephine Herbst (1991)


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.

from The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, by Josephine Herbst


« « Previous Post: