Louise Bogan didn’t write her autobiography. Or rather, she didn’t write this book. Always an intensely private person, she rarely risked putting details about her life in print, preferring to confide in her own diaries and journals and, occasionally, in letters to a few friends. “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself,” she once wrote. “Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”
Journey Around My Room was assembled some years after Bogan’s death in 1970 by her literary executor, Ruth Limmer, a professor of English at Goucher College, after the idea was suggested by Amanda Vaill, then an editor at Viking. Limmer framed the work in rough chronological order, using text from a story Bogan published in The New Yorker in 1933 titled “Journey Around My Room” as introduction, close, and chapter prefaces. She also used the lines from one of Bogan’s poems, “Train Tune” (“Back through clouds/Back through clearing/Back through distance/Back through silence…”) as chapter titles. Finally, she pulled from the mass of papers Bogan left extracts from journals, notebooks, poems, letters, short stories, scraps of paper, essays, even recorded conversations hundreds of fragments, the tesserae from which she assembled this mosaic.
The rough and vulgar facts are not there. Without the outline of Bogan’s life that Limmer provides in her autobiography, the reader would not know when she was born, that she was briefly married, to a soldier with whom she had almost nothing in common, that she had a daughter and then left him, that she had a second marriage, to writer Raymond Holden, that also ended, that she had an affair with Theodore Roethke and an infatuation with Edmund Wilson, that she served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, that she was hospitalized several times for depression, that she spent much of her later life living alone in what she called the faubourg of Washington Heights. Bogan explained her reticence as an attempt to make sure that future researchers into her life would have to work for their pay, but the truth was simpler: her solitude was essential to both her work and her survival.
William Jay Smith, one of her few close friends, with whom she collaborated on a collection of poems for children, wrote after her death that when he used to call her up to meet for lunch, Bogan would always decline, saying she had a dentist appointment. He eventually figured out that no one could need so much dental work. As Limmer puts it, “She came first.” She once wrote, in response to a questionnaire she set for herself, that her wish was “To live without apology.” She had no desire to confess her sins and no interest in trumpeting her virtues. “The fact of the matter,” Limmer writes, “is that Bogan was far more absorbed by the texture and meaning of experience than with the events giving rise to them.”
Bogan’s childhood experiences clearly did much to shape her sensibility and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Her father was a reticent man who held a series of jobs in small mill towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, moving the family every few years. Her mother was the catalyst of the explosions and scandals that led the family to pull up stakes. “The secret family angers and secret disruptions passed over my head,” Bogan writes, but she does remember one scene: “The curved lid of the trunk is thrown back, and my mother is bending over the trunk, and packing things into it. She is crying and she screams. My father, somewhere in the shadows, groans as though he has been hurt. It is a scene of the utmost terror.”
From Elizabeth Frank’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan: A Portrait (1986), one can learn that Bogan’s mother saw herself as a great beauty and pursued men she met in the hotels and boardinghouses in which the family often stayed. She was victim to “her own vanity’s desire for praise and love.” She left her husband on at least one occasion and always considered him unworthy of her. As she grew older, her pursuits more and more ended in frustration. A certain level of resentment and impending chaos simmered throughout Bogan’s childhood. “I had no idea of ordered living.” No wonder she remembers such affection for the home in which her friend Ethel Gardner lived. “I can only express my delight and happiness with the Gardners’ way of living by saying that they had one of everything.”
Eventually Bogan’s mother surrendered her hopes of romantic escape and the family settled in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Boston. Revisiting the area as an adult, Bogan found the sense of failure overwhelming: “I felt the consuming, destroying, deforming passage of time; and the spectacle of my family’s complete helplessness, in the face of their difficulties, swept over me.” Yet she also recognizes that “The thing to remember, and ‘dwell on,’ is the extraordinary courage manifested by those two disparate, unawakened (if not actually lost) souls: my mother and father.” What little money they had paid for music lessons for Louise and her brother, for occasional theater tickets, for tram fares to the Girl’s Latin School, from which Louise graduated in 1915. And they survived “in this purgatory — with an open hell in close relation.”
Again, for what happened next we have to turn to Limmer’s introduction or Frank’s biography. Bogan attended Boston University for year and was offered a scholarship to Radcliffe. She had begun to attract some attention for her writing, getting a number of poems published as a freshman. She chose instead to marry an Army corporal named Curtis Alexander and followed him when he was assigned to a post in the Panama Canal Zone. She found the life unendurable. “All we had in common was sex. Nothing to talk about. We played cards.” She took her baby, Maidie, back to Boston in May 1918. A few months later, the family was notified that Bogan’s brother Charles had been killed in a battle in the Haumont Woods in France. The news devastated Bogan’s mother, leaving her emotionally shattered for the rest of her life. About a year later, Alexander died.
Bogan took the meager widow’s pension from the Army and used the money to pay for a trip to Europe. She spent a year in Vienna studying piano, reading Tolstoy, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, and writing. Then she returned to the U. S., settling in New York City, where her first collection of poems, Body of This Death (1923), was published. Her portrait appeared, along with those of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, and Genevieve Taggard in a Vanity Fair article, “Distinguished American Women Poets Who Have Made the Lyric Verse Written by Women in America More Interesting Than That of the Men.”
She began a relationship with Raymond Holden and they married in 1925. She was invited for a stay at the Yaddo Colony and published her second collection, Dark Summer (1929). On Boxing Day 1929, the house she and Holden were living in burned down, taking with it almost all of her first ten years’ work. Her relationship with Holden was troubled by her jealousy and their mutual heavy drinking, and she entered a sanitarium, complaining of depression and exhaustion. There would be more such stays in the next thirty years. She took advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1933 to return to Europe, this time spending the spring and summer in Italy and France.
She separated from Holden in 1934, began her affair with Roethke in 1935, and lived by writing reviews and stories for The New Yorker and other magazines. These stories, which can be found in Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (2005), edited by Mary Kinzie, were impressionistic but clearly autobiographical, and Bogan discussed the possibility of building a novel, to be titled Laura Daly’s Story, with an editor at Scribner’s. Limmer incorporates passages from several of the stories into Journey Around My Room.
By the end of the 1930s, Bogan had divorced Holden, taken up residence in the apartment in Morningside Heights that she maintained to the end of her life, and become the regular poetry editor for The New Yorker. Over the next three decades, she continued to write, if more slowly as time wore on, and kept up a steady round of engagements as a lecturer and visiting professor at colleges around the U. S.. She published three more collections, one per decade: Poems and New Poems (1941), Collected Poems, 1923-1953 (1954) and The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968).
Unlike many of her peers, she avoided involvement with social causes, and one would have little idea what was going on in the outside world, as well as her own life, from reading Journey Around My Room. “What is staler than old politics?” she once wrote. “It is like walking over old furnace cinders to read what once was news of political chicanery or change.” Her foremost concern was her own work. “Saw my real, half-withered, silly face in a shop mirror on the street, under the bald light of an evening shower, and shuddered. The woman who died without producing an oeuvre. The woman who ran away.”
Bogan felt her talent doomed her to insignificance.”‘My time will come,’ you say to yourself, but how can you know whether or not your time has not already come and gone?”:
Perhaps it has been spent, all spent, squandered out, in taking streetcars, drinking gin, smoking cigarettes — in connubial love, in thousands of books devoured by the eye, in eating sewing, in suspicions, tears, jealousy, hatred, and fear. Perhaps it is now, on a dark day in October, in the bedroom where you sit with emptiness in your body and heart; beside the small fire, drying your hair — older, more tired, desperately silent, unhappily alone, with faith and daydreams (perhaps luckily) broken and disappearing, with the dreadful pain in your shoulder which presages dissolution, infection, and age.
This is not to suggest that she faded away in lonely isolation. While Journey Around My Room shows us a woman who spent a great deal of time exploring the deeper currents of her spirit, an hour reading her letters, particularly those from the Forties on, in What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters makes it clear that she never lost touch with what was going on around her. She read copiously and was quick to recommend books to her friends. She went to plays and kept up with the movies, taking delight in Jules and Jim and other films that hit the New York art houses in the Fifties and Sixties. She loved an occasional indulgent dip into gossip and could toss out razor-sharp barbs when in the mood.
But she also struggled increasingly with depression and was frustrated by the necessity for — and the effects — of the the drugs she took to cope with it. “This morning I thought that the 1st pill was going to see me through; a clear, untroubled interval would show up (take over) every so often…. But soon that secondary sort of yearning hunger (which is not real hunger, but is in some way attached to the drug) began again.” She found less and less energy to write. “Any true writing … will have to be done in the afternoon.” The unpublished poems Limmer includes in the last chapter, “Back through the midnight,” however, reveal that Bogan maintained some amount of hope that this, too, would pass:
The Castle of My Heart
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I lived for long with little joy.
For Falsest Danger, with its counterpart
Sorrow, has made this siege its long employ.
Now lift the siege, for in your bravest part
Full power exists, most eager for employ;
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I have lived for long with little joy.
Do not let Peril play its lordly part;
Show up the bad game’s bait, and its employ.
Nor, for a moment, strut as future’s toy.
Advanced, and guard your honor and my art.
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart.
Six months before her death, she wrote her long-time New Yorker editor, William Maxwell:
The struggle with silence still goes on. —But I plan some secretarial help, after the holiday. If this doesn’t help, I’ll have another conference with you; and plan some strategy. Surely I can outwit this thing! I don’t want to give up just yet.
Louise Bogan died in her apartment, in the early hours of February 1970, of a heart attack.
“Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remark (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry of the cahier,” she once complained. Yet the scraps she left and the mosaic that Limmer assembled from them are breathtaking in its power, truth, and beauty. Journey Around My Room has not left my nightstand since I first read it over 18 months ago. I have discovered and written about many good books over the course of the past ten years, but I am conservative in the use of words like “great” and “masterpiece.” Journey Around My Room is a masterpiece, one of the truly great American autobiographies. Every time I open it I find something stunning in its honesty and insight.
Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer
New York: The Viking Press, 1980