Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Thirty Years'The dust jacket of Marquand’s Thirty Years provides this unimpressive description of the book’s contents: “A collection of stories, articles and essays which have not previously appeared in book form.” Plenty of such collections have been published, but perhaps none other has been so honest in acknowledging the flimsy rationale for its existence. Little, Brown, Marquand’s publisher, needed some content to put out “in book form.” So Marquand gathered up an assortment of material that hadn’t previous appeared in book form, and hey presto: a book. He was also honest enough to admit in his foreword that the book makes “no pretense at being a prize collection.”

In his introduction to the book, Clifton Fadiman calls Marquand “the best novelist of social comedy now [1954] at work in our country” and predicts that he will be considered the American Thackeray of the 20th century. Fadiman attributes Marquand’s success to his being “at once outsider and insider.” From the distance of over a half century later, I think it’s become clear that Marquand was far more insider than outsider. And despite recent attempts to prop up the place of rich East Cost white men as its pinnacle, it’s probably also safe to conclude that the role of Boston and New York clubmen in the American Establishment mostly of historical and anthropological interest today.

So why bother with Thirty Years? Well, unless you do find historical and anthropological interest in the heyday of the American Establishment, there isn’t any reason to. A fair amount of the book’s content is just as slapdash as the dust jacket’s disclaimer suggests. Is anyone still interested in Marquand’s stories from the Mulligatawny Club, a mocking version of the various yacht clubs–or societies for the preservation of the prejudices of rich retired white men–he encountered along the shores Long Island Sound? Or his stories of the “strenuous life” of rich young white men in East Coast private schools and Hahvuhd?

Marquand includes a long story, “The End Game,” which Herbert Mayes, editor at Good Housekeeping in the 1940s and 1950s, “once thought highly of.” In it, Marquand attempts to weave a narrative out of various threads he was familiar with: China in the years before the Communist revolution; the culture of American Army life; New York City in the 1940s; and chess. He notes that the story is roughly equal in length to Henry James’ Daisy Miller and that he found it a “dangerous” form to work with: “Such a fictional form can fall over itself more readily than any other I have ever known.” And so “The End Game” does.

The story is told by Henry Ide, an American businessman taking one of his periodic breaks in New York City from time working in trade in China. There is something I always find interesting about stories that grow out of characters who find themselves in such “in between times.” Wandering around midtown Manhattan one evening, he enters a penny arcade and finds in its basement a room where you can play chess or checkers against the house masters. Ide sits down to play chess with a scruffy-looking man who introduces himself as Joe, and over the course of the next few evenings, he draws out pieces of Joe’s story. Marquand proves an effective Scheherezade for most of the tale, drawing the reader along through its pages. And then he blows it. In his foreword, Marquand notes that many of his magazine stories “lack depth and significance, qualities popular periodicals customarily avoid, and almost inevitably they reach a happy ending.” Let’s just say that “The End Game” features one of the most abrupt and unbelievable happy endings ever written. And reason enough not to read it: I wish I hadn’t.

Most of Marquand’s serious novels are well over 400 pages long, and he was often accused of putting far more material into them than was necessary. And he committed the same sin with Thirty Years. Of its 466 pages, only the 120-some pages in the section “The Wars: Men and Places” are of more than passing interest, and fifty of those are taken up by the unsatisfying “The End Game.” What’s left are a handful of pieces–a mix of fiction and reporting–that stem from Marquand’s stints working for the War Department during World War Two.

The best of these, “Ascension Island,” is taken from a trip Marquand took in mid-1943 in the company of Brigadier General James S. Simmons, a former dean of the Harvard School of Public Health assigned to survey the potential for disease outbreaks at U. S. Army bases everywhere from the Caribbean and Brazil to North Africa, Sicily, the Middle East, India, and China. Simmons was given priority over air transport “that could bump off anyone except the President, the Secretaries of War and the Navy, and General Marshall and Admiral King.”

On the returning leg of the trip, Simmons and Marquand stopped at Ascension Island, a British protectorate in the middle of the South Atlantic that had been transformed into a refueling and patrol base for the U. S. military. There, he finds a resounding demonstration of the power of production and logistics that underlay the American effort in World War Two (and went on to constitute of core of what Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex”, which is still on display at places like Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan):

Whenever I hear someone say that there is no unified national spirit and no culture in the United States, I think of our airports in Africa, India and the Pacific. It may be true that the Englishman far from home dresses for dinner and has his Number One Boy bring in his gin and tonic, but in all his centuries of colonizing he has never brought his civilization with him wholesale, as our armed forces have brought theirs in this war. Machine shops, plumbing, air conditioning, outdoor movies, ping-pong tables, boxing rings, Time, Newsweek, the weekly comics, Pocket Books, Gillette razors, Williams’ Aqua Velva, Rheingold beer, Johnson’s baby powder, Spam and Planters’ peanuts, all followed our army to the war for the edification of dark-skinned men in G-strings and for the shocked amazement of the French and British.

In this piece and in “Iwo Jima before H-Hour”, Marquand provides–perhaps unconsciously–some of the rare reporting from World War Two that stresses the extent to which the American effort depended on materiel and masses of personnel. It was an approach that would soon take over many other aspects of American life and push into obsolescence Marquand’s “timeless” world, where “The Boston pigeons are exactly the same as they were fifty years ago, and so are the old ladies and gentlemen who feed them, and so are the newspaper readers on the Common benches and the amorous couples who walk the shady paths.” Which is one reason why Thirty Years is now more of an anthropological artifact than a relevant work of literature.


Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand
Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown, 1954

The Strangers Were There: Selected Stories by John Bell Clayton (1957)


With Charlottesville, Virginia and its statue of General Robert E. Lee in the news, it’s worth taking a moment to note a long-forgotten collection of short stories set in and around the town. John Bell Clayton’s The Strangers Were There (1957), published posthumously, earned mildly reviews and quickly disappeared, but it remains perhaps the most accurate portrait of the town and its people–at least as it stood in the late 1940s and early 1950s, on the brink of desegregation and the Civil Rights movement:

He got off the bus at Third Street, flipped up the collar of his topcoat and waited at the curb until the buss pulled away, expelling a bluish gush of exhaust fumes. Third Street ran diagonally to Main exactly four blocks from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Station to the Robert E. Lee Hotel. There, amid the leafless elm and buckeye trees, the commanding bronze figure of General Lee astride Traveller, his hat in his right hand, assailed by the flakes now, faced with that imperturbable gentle resignation not just south but the whole enigmatic contradiction that was and remained and would always be the South.

In Clayton’s Charlottesville, lightly disguised as “Colonial Springs,” the members of the Colonial Club–lawyers, businessmen, and officeholders–“ran everything, everywhere.” On Wednesdays, the young cadets of the Military Institute strolled downtown on their two hours of furlough. On Thursdays, the girls from the local Seminary walked the same sidewalks during their own short release. On Saturday afternoons, “crowds of fur-coated college girls and their escorts came back from football games” and took over the restaurants and drugstores. And on Saturday nights, the sidewalks were packed with country folk “come to swarm into the ten-cent stores, the hardware stores and notion stores, the Strand and the Colonial movie houses, to parade along the streets, to look and see, to get a little excited and possibly a little drunk, to give expression to something elemental.”

Born in Craigsville on the western slope of the Shenandoah Valley, Clayton attended university in Charlottesville and wrote for the town’s paper, The Daily Progress. From there he went on to work with Ernie Pyle in the Office of War Information’s San Francisco bureau during World War Two, then stayed on as an editor for the Chronicle.

John Bell Clayton
H. L. Mencken is said to have encouraged Clayton to try writing fiction, and his instinct proved right. The second story Clayton ever sold, “The White Circle” (included in The Strangers Were There), was selected as winner of the O. Henry Award first prize for 1947. By 1951, he was making a full-time living selling stories to Colliers, Mencken’s The American Mercury, and other leading magazines. He then published three novels in the next three years: Six Angels at My Back (1952) and Wait, Son, October is Near (1953), both set in rural Virginia; and Walk Toward the Rainbow (1954), set in San Francisco. California historian Kevin Starr wrote that Rainbow“abounds in ample and precise detail regarding the city.”

A similar eye for details shines throughout The Strangers Were There, which collects most of Clayton’s published stories, along with a number of unpublished pieces. Edited by Clayton’s widow, Martha Carmichael Clayton (sister of famed songwriter Hoagy Carmichael), the collection is organized into three sections: “The Town Clock,” whose stories are set in Charlottesville/Colonial Springs; “The Village Bells,” set in a hamlet perhaps not unlike Clayton’s hometown Craigsville; and “The Valley and the Mountains Beyond,” set in the Appalachian farm and hill country. Through these stories weave all the different peoples of the region:

There were the rich and the poor and the good and the indifferent. There was a man worth thirty million dollars, and another, a gaunt moonshiner from Jerkumtight Hollow, come on a Saturday night to look at the neon signs, who did not possess thirty. There were the housewives, the merchants, the lawyers, the schoolteachers, the filling-station attendants, the college girls, the golf players on one scale and the pool players on another. There were the churchgoers and the radio listeners and the ne’er-do-wells and the drinkers of cheap wine. On a Sunday night there were a dinner party at the country club and a tryst at a roadside tourist cabin and a prayer meeting at the Lutheran Church and three drunks telling lies in the men’s room of the bus depot and a Negro child dying f leukemia on Jitney Street and a young couple getting married and a thousand women preparing supper and an esthetic girl at the Seminary writing what she believed to be a sonnet or a song.

Clayton has a good feel for the fine and ignoble aspirations and deeds of the poor country people living in the hills around the town. They are not all two-dimensional stereotypes of simple but honest folk. Some are lazy, some are cowardly, some too much in love with their liquor, and some too obstinate to get out of their own way. But when they come down to hang around Main Street on a Saturday night, he can see that,

There was something raw and beautiful about it. Mountain country has a great somber loneliness. The winters are especially lonely. You live there in country like that. Your neighbors are few. Once in a while, in that great dead winter stillness, you hear a solitary crow cawing and you go to the window and watch its fugitive flight across a dull sky. The snow drifts high in the hollows there. And when the warmth of the summer finally does come, you feel the need to go out and be among people.

Some of Clayton’s best feel for details comes in the small, telling descriptions of his characters. There is a remarkable range to be found here: blowhards, saints, bigots, cowards, winners, and losers. “Little Woodrow” features a small-time crook who read too many old copies of The Police Gazette while in prison and comes home dressed up like a cartoon gangster–“like a figure in a wax museum suddenly become animate and determined to revive the role of an undersized villain in a threadbare melodrama everybody else had long since forgotten.” A large, lazy man lays on his bunk “in the state of dull, hippopotamus somnolence that passed for consciousness with him.” And he offers a priceless description of a nervous paregoric addict desperately seeking his next fix: “a series of expressions like tiny clowns chased one another across his eyes: jocularity, solemnity, mirth, concern, and finally something stricken, haunted, pursued.”

If the passages I’ve quoted make The Strangers Were There a bit honey-hued with nostalgia, I should caution that Clayton was too much of a newspaperman to see the world with anything but a sharp and skeptical eye. For all the love he may have felt for the Shenandoah country and its people, he did choose to leave it behind in his late twenties and never returned. And perhaps some of his reasoning is revealed in the story, “Incident at Chapman’s Switch,” about the shooting of a black man and his wife by a belligerent cop. The town sheriff and local judge quietly agreed to look the other way, and the story revolves around a discussion between a journalist and the editor of the town paper about how to write up the account. “Son,” the editor admonishes the journalist, “We are movin’ slowly and gradually to improve things and no matter how much you would like to you just can’t do it all at once.” This causes the writer to muse:

I am a part of it…. I was born into it and raised by it…. It is my native land and I love it, but there are times when I hate it. They’ve made me talk like them and look like them and even act like them…. But they can no longer make me think like them….

One can only hope that similar thoughts come to those people around Charlottesville and elsewhere who’ve been coming up with reasons to hold back the hands of time.


The Strangers Were There: Selected Stories by John Bell Clayton
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1957

Selected Stories, by Frances Bellerby (1986)

The fact that Frances Bellerby’s Selected Stories has been out of print for over thirty years now is literally a case of insult being added to injury. Having damaged her spine while walking along the Lulworth Cliffs on the Dorset coast in 1930, Bellerby spent the remaining forty-five years of her life in pain and illness, yet managed to write short stories that are discussed alongside those of Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Jean Rhys, and Elizabeth Bowen. Of the 40-plus writers profiled in David Malcolm’s recent survey, The British and Irish Short Story Handbook, only one–Bellerby–has none of her story collections currently in print.

Although no less a worthy than Robert Gittings contributed an illuminating biographical sketch for Bellerby’s Selected Poems (which is still in print, probably simply due to the fact that Amazon hasn’t sold out the 1994 printing), her life deserves a treatment similar to Jean Strouse’s classic biography of Alice James. For, like Alice James, Bellerby’s was an intense and creative spirit that burned within a body often inadequate to the task of sheltering it.

Born in Bristol, Bellerby was taught at home until the age of nine by her mother, a trained nurse who worked alongside her husband, an Anglo-Catholic cleric, in a mission among the working poor in the quarries, collieries, and factories outside the city. The family was, in Gittings’ words “exceptionally tight-knit and isolated socially.” Frances idolized her older brother, Jack, and his death in World War One was the first of a series of tragedies that left permanent imprints that can be seen clearly in her work.

Eager to join the fight after the outbreak of the war, Jack volunteered for the Coldstream Guards and was among the first of the so-called Kitchener’s Army to be sent to France. Visiting his family shortly before embarkation, Jack told his father that he expected to be killed in action, saying that he considered it a fate preferable to being wounded and sent home a permanent invalid. His prophecy proved true, as he was killed by an artillery shell on 8 August 1915 at “Windy Corner” near Givenchy. Decades later, in her story “The Carol”, his sister imagined her brother’s return to their home:

Observing a photograph which he did not remember, he went close to see what it was. It hung over the bed, and beneath it hung the old snapshot of James. To his amused surprise the photograph was of himself in uniform. Vaguely, he remembered having it taken. Funny old Mater to put that in my room! he thought, much entertained. Then, noticing written words at the foot of the photograph, he read: “Killed in Action at Givenchy, Aged i8, August 8th, 1915.” This gave him a tremendous shock.

So when his mother, hearing, as she often did, the softly whistled carol, ran upstairs and opened the door to look in, the room was, as usual, empty.

“Time is, perhaps, little more than a flimsy curtain, which under the least pressure of intensity gives way.” As Jeremy Hooker writes in his introduction to Selected Stories, this opening sentence from her story, “Soft and Fair”, “serves well to indicate the nature of Frances Bellerby’s short stories.”

She did try, at first, to break free from her family and painful memories. After attending a Catholic girls’ boarding school with the financial assistance of a family friend and a short stint writing for several newspapers in Bristol, she was hired by The Bristol Times and Mirror and sent to work in London as their drama critic. There she met and married John Rotherford Bellerby, a Fellow of Caius College, Cambridge studying conditions among workers in the East End. She supported her husband as she had seen her mother do, and her first books were, in Gittings’ estimation, little more than Sunday school tracts.

Then came her accident. Walking along the cliffside with her husband and another couple, Frances ran ahead in a burst of enthusiasm, slipped, and landed very awkwardly. She assured John that it was nothing and he and the other man walked on. When the other woman approached, however, she saw Frances dragging herself forward with only her hands, her face twisted in agony. Even after being helped back to their lodgings, she insisted it was only a passing injury. She wasn’t helped by her own tendency to dismiss the seriousness of what had happened, but, as Gittings puts it, “the 1930s were not a good time for the treatment of spinal injury.” And she did, somehow, realize that this was more than just a passing matter. As she later wrote in a notebook, when she found herself on the ground after the fall, “I saw … tall golden letters: THIS IS FOR EVER.”

From that point forward, she found much of the life she had become accustomed to impossible. Walking was difficult and soon required the help of a cane or crutches. She tried a variety of braces to support her back, none of them very effective. When she did consult a physician, she was likely to return home in worse pain from their manipulations. She railed against her plight: “I HATE my spine,” she wrote in her diary. “I am going to write this here because I want it out of me. I HATE my spine…. I am NEVER used to it. I NEVER shall be … I NEVER shall be reconciled to this.”

Adding to her difficulties was the news of her mother’s suicide in 1932. Having suffered from depression almost continuously since her son’s death, she waited one day for her husband to leave their house, then went up to her bedroom, shut the window and plugged up the door and opened up the gas cock. “I suffered and broke and died with her,” Frances later wrote of the impact of her mother’s death.

Her situation also strained her relationship with John Bellerby. She found living in a busy place like London or Cambridge, where he needed to work, increasingly difficult, and she began spending more and more of her time in isolated cottages in the countryside. They separated permanently in 1942. Although this added to her practical challenges, she also found that being away from him freed creative energies she had not experienced since the early days of their marriage. While she had managed to write and publish enough stories for her first collection, Come to an End (1939), before the separation, she now became to write poetry and fiction in earnest.

Writing provided a way for her to channel some of her frustrations. As Sabine Coelsch-Foisner writes in her article, “Finding a Voice: Women Writing the Short Story (to 1945),” included in A Companion to the British and Irish Short Story, “Springing from her own tragic life, Bellerby’s stories focus on exceptional experiences and events too large or formidable to understand: the traumas of war, pain, and bereavement.” Understanding something of her life’s story undoubtedly helps a reader see that Bellerby often transfers painful episodes from it into the experiences of her characters–as in the example from “The Carol” above.

She mustered the energy to write an extended work of fiction, the novel Hath the Rain a Father (1946), but her talent was shown to best advantage at a smaller scale. Some of Bellerby’s best stories deal with situations seen through a child’s eyes and with a child’s sensibility. She had a remarkable understanding of the fragility of a child’s world. As she writes in “The Little Lamps”,

A child is so strong. A child is the strongest creature on earth. A child is integrated, is its own. A child needs no loved one to share the experiencing of beauty, yet has always the underlying certainty that sharing would be easily achieved if need arose: that there is, in fact, no involuntary aloneness.

For some people, growing-up is largely a matter of the death of this certainty. A sudden death, perhaps, or perhaps a very lingering affair.

For Bellerby herself, her brother Jack’s death was undoubtedly such a death of certainty. For her characters, however, it may be merely the suspicion that some stable element in their world is about to break up. In “Pre-War”, a brother and sister are at loose ends, left to play by themselves in their house: “Life had suddenly become a stranger. For three days their mother had been shut away from them in her bedroom.” In “The Cut Finger”, a family suddenly goes to the seaside for what the children are told is a holiday, so that their father can rest. Coming back to their rooms after playing on the beach, the little girl sees her mother crying, and somehow realizes the tragic weight that lies behind this moment:

How could such a thing be? What frightful hurt had brought it about? Her mother! The one person to whom Judith had always gone, by right, without shame or doubt, whenever she herself had been broken to tears. This cherishing omnipotence writhing face-downwards on a bed, sobbing into the pillow–so that the whole world, yes, the whole established world, had been blown sky-high and come hurtling down in fragments anyhow, anywhere.

Frances Bellerby, 1950
Most of her work during the 1940s was devoted to short stories. Bellerby published two further collections of stories, The Acorn and The Cup (1948) and A Breathless Child (1952). Perhaps because of her diminishing strength from dealing with her spinal injury, however, she turned increasingly to the more concentrated form of poetry. Her first collection, Plash Mill and Other Poems, named after the Devon cottage where she spend much of the decade, was published in 1946, and The Brightening Cloud in 1949. By the end of the 1940s her poems began to be read on a regular basis on BBC radio, selected by presenter Charles Causley.

With the start of the new decade, however, the fragility of her own situation only increased. In 1950, she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. She was given “perhaps a year, perhaps about five months” to live. A double mastectomy, followed by radiation treatment, suspended this sentence for some years, but she continued to suffer from respiratory problems and other frequent illnesses. Their impacts can be seen in the titles of poems from her next collection, The Stone Angel and the Stone Man, published in 1957: “Convalescence,” “Hospital Car,” “Chronic Ward,” “Dying in June”. She was increasingly confined to the little cottage in Cornwall she had bought, and eventually lost the ability to use a typewriter. She tried to direct her waning energies toward an autobiography, but gave up the effort after working on it for over fifteen years. She confided to her diary: “Desolate. Desolate. Desolate. Frightened, broken, alone.”

Yet the memory of her family traumas was never far away. When, in 1970, with the help of a friend, the publisher Alan Clodd, the first edition of her Selected Poems was released by Enitharmon Press, she dedicated the book “To the brief and everlasting life of my brother”. Clodd and others also helped her gain a Civil List pension in 1973, but it did little to relieve her situation. After years of remission, her cancer returned and she died just short of the age of 75 in July 1975. The following poem serves as a fitting epitaph for this woman whose life and work were filled with such pain and struggle:

Before the Light Fades

Before the light fades
Someone should be found to explain
With sufficient wisdom and patience
Everything I have seen.

And before owl and moth
Shock by remembered flight
The deep, tombed, silence
Of the world of night,

There should appear some linguist
Hot-blooded as a bird,
To translate with a single sentence
Everything I have heard.

Then darkness
Might prove home,
And eternal silence
The kingdom come.

Bellerby’s Selected Stories and Selected Poems are both available in electronic form in the Open Library.


Selected Short Stories, by Frances Bellerby, with an introduction by Jeremy Hooker
London: Enitharmon Press, 1986

No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin (1943)

Title page from "No More Mimosa"After writing a fairly disparaging piece about Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs two years ago, I wouldn’t have counted on finding her work on my reading list again. But then I read a thoughtful piece on her 1943 collection, No More Mimosa, originally printed in the December 2013 edition of the Bulletin of the Labour History Project of New Zealand, which was particularly enthusiastic about one of its stories, “Refugees,” which describes the lot of a group of Spanish republicans living in exile in London: “In a few descriptive pages Mannin crystallized the universal experience of political exile and loneliness.” Finding a copy of No More Mimosa for under $25 (the starting price is higher now, I’m afraid), I put it on my list for this year of short stories.

In her preface to the collection, Mannin writes that she “sought to give the book as definite a ‘shape’ as a novel.” To that end, she collects stories set in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two in the first section, “Before the Deluge”; in the second section, “Thunder in Spain”, she includes four stories centered upon the defeat, flight, and exile to England of an actual group of Spanish pro-Republican radicals, including Joaquin Delso de Miguel, to whom she dedicated the book; and in the final section, “The Deluge”, she depicts a Europe in the midst of a war which, at the time she was writing, there was no apparent end.

While a few of the stories in No More Mimosa are run-of-the-mill magazine fodder–more O. Henry than Chekhov, and forgotten minutes after finishing them–the collection could, with a bit of editing, serve as a striking record of its time. Mannin is an interesting case. Hugely prolific, she managed to sell well throughout her long career. The stories in this collection first appeared in such mainstream publications as Good Housekeeping, Nursery World, and The Evening Standard. At the same time, she was fierce and unapologetic in her politics and causes, supporting the Anarchists in Spain and refusing to register for national service in World War Two. In this book, these contrasts improve its interest and variety, as Mannin portrays a wider range of classes and circumstances than one is likely to find in any collection from one of her contemporaries.

With the opening story, “Mimosas for Remembrance,” she signals a clear awareness–even writing some years before the start of the war–that storm clouds were gathering:

The light was fading and the room was filled with a soft greyness, upon which the scent of mimosa floated like a dream in a sleep. A dream of spring; of other springs, in other worlds, long ago. There had been mimosa lighting the greyness of the olive-groves above Lake Como. And mimosa woods on the hillsides of Cavalière….

“Europe is doomed and damned,” one character predicts. “We’ll to the woods no more–the mimosas are all gone! It’s probably the last European spring in which they’ll not spread their branches above machine-gun nests, or be mown down before tanks.” He sums up the world they see nearing its end:

… the lives we lived sitting on cafe-terraces, drinking green wine under the chestnut trees in little Tyrolean towns, running in and out of art galleries in Paris, Rome, Florence, Vienna, all the lying in the sun we did on little plages in the South of France, the Balearic Islands–the painting, the writing, the love-affairs, the wild parties, the scandals–all lived out to a background of bars and cafes, olive-groves, mimosa woods, and rapides with romantic names–the Rome Express, the Flèche D’Or, the Blue Train, and trains that pulled into Paris from Istanbul, Belgrade, Wien, Napoli….

And the tales Mannin tells in this first section are utterly cosmopolitan in character. Mostly under five pages long, the sixteen stories comprising “Before the Deluge” are scattered all over the map: Buenos Aires, Algiers, Marseille, Sarajevo, Ragusa, Jerusalem, Montparnasse, and Moscow. And her people come from all over the social spectrum: English spinsters, French nobility, a Palestinian nationalist, an ambitious Algerian wharf-rat, a down-on-his-heels Eton graduate making his way around the Balkans as a member of a sad nightclub dance act. Some of them are still coping with the aftermath of the last war. Of a Russian family in Paris, Mannin writes, “They fled across Europe and into France, which is something which is said in a few words, but which in living meant months and years of semi-starvation in all the capitals of Eastern Europe.”

Ironically, while Mannin’s characters are almost all great travelers, one can’t help but notice after a few stories that few of them are actually heading somewhere in their lives. The English dancer changes partners in the course of his story, but this make no real difference: “Between the time of their arrival and opening they had to find rooms, find the bar, rehearse. Well, it wouldn’t be the first time. Nor the last.” Even in the rare case, as in “Algiers”, where the wharf-rat manages to polish up his act, make enough money to pass himself off as wealthy (for a few days, at least), and insinuate himself into the fringe of Paris society, the final destination of his climb up the ladder proves a dead end and, soon enough, he finds himself back on the waterfront. For all its travel opportunities, Mannin’s world of the thirties seems rather claustrophobic.

In the middle section, “Thunder in Spain,” her characters don’t lack for a cause or direction to their lives, but this proves to matter little when you find yourself on the losing side. She follows a group of five pro-Republican organizers fleeing first from Madrid to the temporary capitol, Valencia, and then to the small port of Gancia. In “The Last Night in Gancia”, which Mannin describes as “historic fact”, they spend their last hours on Spanish soil in a tense limbo, wondering whether they would be caught and executed by the Nationalists or rescued by the French or British warships circling offshore. When at last the business of embarkation begins,

[A] great motley crowd of men, and a few women, with pale strained faces, some of them with their eyes dark with misery or wet with tears because they were leaving behind everything they held dear, those they loved and might never see again, and with them the grey ashes of their dreams, some with their eyes alight with hope; for some the embarkation was tragedy, for others, in spite of everything, adventure; for some it was the end of everything, for others merely the end of a chapter.

For the revolutionaries, however, as Mannin shows in “Refugees”, their next chapter is another, duller form of limbo:

After all, when you have nothing whatsoever to do, from the time you get up, late, in the morning, till the time you go to bed in the small hours of the following morning, it does not matter how you get through the time. Time flowed over us in a grey stream, empty, endless, unmeasured–we who had lived such intense, crowded lives. Now we were lost in a vacuum of futility. We had endless political discussions that developed into impassioned arguments, voices raised, fists banged on the table, and usually someone sweeping out; we held endless futile political post-mortems. We played chess; we wrote letters, and were eaten out and in with longing for letters, for news, that never came; we made fitful attempts at learning English; we struggled with the grey labyrinth of London; we made a good deal of coffee, and we spent a good deal of our time lying on our beds and looking at the high dirty ceiling, our thoughts flowing endlessly backward.

When the war does come, however, it doesn’t prove to offer anything better in the way of a direction for most of the characters Mannin portrays. The Army comes to the rescue of a couple whose dream of running a quaint little hotel in the country by buying them out–but financial relief is a poor second best to actually seeing their dream succeed. An actress and an escaped prisoner spend a night together discovering just how well human nature can let down our hopes. A chorus girl struggling to find work gets played by a con artist, only to be dragged out of the rubble after a German bomb hits their bar. And two sets of evacuees find themselves and their hosts disappointed, then unhappy, then disgruntled and resentful. Patriotism turns out to be a pretty weak force in the face of people who simply dislike each other intensely. Mannin could not have foreseen it, but she was doing a good job of preparing her characters for the Cold War to come.

If this makes No More Mimosa sound like grim fare, I must point out that Mannin is a solid and professional story teller. She has a remarkably talent for sketching in enough details for the reader to accept the story’s setting and principals in a matter of a page or two. I often thought of Maugham while reading the book–that same sense of a writer saying to the reader, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story, and I know what I’m doing, so your job is just to read along. Shall we?” However, Mannin’s characters are, in general, a bit rougher around the edges–you wouldn’t be surprised to see some dirt under their fingernails or a bit of food in their teeth. Come to think of it, they’re a lot more like the inhabitants of Orwell’s fiction. I don’t want to oversell the book, however–it’s not “Rain” meets Keep the Aspidistra Flying. But for anyone looking for an antidote to nostalgia for the thirties and war years, No More Mimosa offers a convincing demonstration that the West had its share of grim, grey lives well before anyone came up with the phrase “Iron Curtain.”


No More Mimosa, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrolds Publishers, Ltd., 1943

Among the Dangs, by George P. Elliott (1961)

Cover of first US edition of 'Among the Dangs'I’ve never found anything written by George P. Elliott entirely satisfying–yet I keep coming back to his work.

Considered a rising talent in the 1950s, when his short stories such as “The NRACP” and “Among the Dangs” began appearing in anthologies and to be mentioned as some of the more significant works in then-contemporary American writing, Elliott was solidly placed in the literary mainstream by the 1960s, when his name often appeared alongside those of Bellow, Heller, and Roth; beginning to be seen as marginal by the start of the 1970s; and largely forgotten by the time he died at age 62 in 1980. His books are all out of print today, and he doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry (yet).

What happened? I think a look at his best-received book, the short story collection Among the Dangs (1961), can explain a lot.

Among the Dangs includes several stories that stand out quite starkly from most of what was being published at the time. In the title story, a black American academic and anthropologist studies and then becomes a member of a violent Amazonian tribe, the Dangs, only to flee from them in the end, in fear that he was on the brink of reverting to their more instinctual and primitive level. I remember thinking it a remarkable and memorable story when I first came across it in some anthology of contemporary short stories back in college, and that memory was the main reason I but the book on my “to read” list for this year.

Nearly forty years later, the impression left by “Among the Dangs” is not nearly so powerful. Aside from the novelty factor of a white writer adopting the voice and perspective of a black man, there is nothing revealed about the narrator that gives any sense that this was anything but an arbitrary choice by the writer. The color of his skin could just as easily have been purple for all it adds to the story. Elliott later wrote that, “My work in composing ‘Among the Dangs’ was made the easier because I was so little interested in all those aspects of the world which are recognizably arranged in a realistic story,” and this gets to one of the first problems with his fiction.

When I dug back through contemporary reviews of Among the Dangs, one theme jumped out as a constant. The Kirkus Reviews reviewer described Elliott’s outlook as “disinterested and detached. Critic Benjamin DeMott said that Elliott wrote with a “mild irony and a certain detachment from his characters.” Another wrote that Elliott “… entertains and interests us and at the same time puzzles us–puzzles me, perhaps not you–for he conveys a sense of great moral and emotional earnestness without making clear what more or what emotion he wants us to feel.” And another simply confessed defeat in the face of Elliott’s detachment: “I don’t know what George P. Elliott thinks of the people in his stories.”

Elliott’s most reprinted story also appears in Among the Dangs. Originally published in the Hudson Review in 1949, “The NRACP” is such a dryily-written satire that more than a few readers miss the joke entirely. NRACP standa for “National Relocation Authority: Colored Persons,” and the story postulates an America in which a government-run program is quietly carrying out the genocide of its black citizens. In some ways, it’s a fictional demonstration of the old saying about how to boil a frog (i.e., very slowly). Much of the story deals more with the personal dilemma of the protagonist, a relatively hapless guy torn between staying with his wife or having a fling with his younger and more attractive secretary. Only vaguely does the reader come to understand that all around, the blacks are being taken away to camps and disappearing from the streets. And Elliott’s protagonist is even slower to catch on.

A fair number of readers were shocked by the story when it first came out, and as the civil rights movement gained momentum, the violence of the story’s premise came to seem even more dramatic. Elliott was considered coarse and insensitive by liberals and viewed as mocking the beliefs of conservatives. Elliott himself said that it was the first story he ever sold that made him enough money to go out to dinner on: “So I invited Josephine Miles and some other friends out, but Josephine wouldn’t go. She would not dine on that story because she thought it was so bad, so wrong.” The America of “The NRACP” is one increasingly split between the winners and the losers–or, as Elliott puts it, “Those who get it and those who dish it out.” Of all the stories in this collection, it’s certainly the most relevant for readers in today’s America, where this sort of divide is becoming more and more apparent.

A third story, “Faq'” (a title likely to be misunderstood by most readers today), evokes the work of Borges, Kafka, and other metaphysical writers. In it, an American geographer sees a remote settlement in the Atlas mountains of Morocco while flying on an Army Air Corps mission and vows to visit and study it after the war. What he finds is a long-isolated civilization where the men spend all day worshipping numbers while the women–kept at a rough ratio of three to every male to ensure a ready workforce. The people of Faq’ have come to believe that their existence depends upon continuing the communal task of counting: “By hypothesis the highest nameable number is as far from the end as one is, and there is no end to counting. It is the function of Faq’ to test this hypothesis in the only statistically verifiable fashion, actually by counting forever.”

As with the anthropologist of “Among the Dangs,” however, the American ultimately flees and returns to the world he is more familiar with. He is determined “never to go there again, for he is sure that though he does not know what is right for men ordered perfection is wrong, and that though suffering is bad the lack of suffering is much worse.”

This last statement could easily serve as Elliott’s motto. The anthropologist gains a place among the Dangs in part through his prowess as a storyteller, and the primary story he tells them is that of the life of Christ. While not an overtly religious writer, Christian themes–particularly those of human fallibility, of sin, of the need for repentance, and of the possibility of forgiveness–are easily found throughout Elliott’s work. And he always had a moralist’s disdain for the notion that seeking freedom or pleasure would ultimately change man’s situation. He would have agreed with wittgenstein: “I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.” As Elliott wrote in a piece in The Nation titled, “The Happiness Rat Race”, “To be sure, having the kind of fun you have to have doesn’t hurt as much as finding out what’s really wrong and doing something about it. But finally, rather than that grinning stupefaction, I’d prefer to hurt.”

Human failure is in many ways Elliott’s favorite subject. Although one critic wrote that the story, “A Family Matter”, “sounds as if it had been written as a contribution to a seminar on the novels of Miss Compton-Burnett”–and Elliott himself later admitted that he had written it as an experiment after reading several of Compton-Burnett’s novels. “That is, I felt like writing a story in which the plot problem is announced at the outset, developed in clearly marked stages, and resolved near the end, and in which all the characters are connected with the same family and speak concisely and hyperconsciously.”

In the story, an elderly millionaire returns to the place where his ex-wives and children live, in part to try to understand what led to his becoming so distant and detached from them. In the end, neither he, the ex-wives, the children, nor the reader is any more the wiser–and yet, it’s clear that the effort was both necessary and useful. Elliott was a firm believer in the necessity of trying to come to grips with the world we live in–even if that effort is likely to prove unsuccessful: “A good deal of fiction derives from the writer’s impulse to understand or cause the reader to understand the true nature of part of the world. Whether he does it for himself primarily or for the readers he wants to affect does not matter as much as that he is pressed by the need to understand the world, to order experience.”

I think this is what continues to interest me in his work: even when it’s not entirely satisfying, it always reveals an individual making a deep and serious effort to understand. As someone has probably already said, it’s probably more important to have the right questions than to have the right answers.

Though Elliott published four novels during his life, all were consistently judged interesting but ultimately unsuccessful. Many reviewers remarked that his short fiction was better than his novels. And reviewing his second story collection, An Hour of Last Things, William Peden judged that Elliott was “As much a thoughtful essayist as story-teller.” But even in his essays, Elliott could, at times, become somewhat strident and brittle. However, as Phillip Stambovsky writes in The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story, a few of these essays, mostly autobiographical, “are among the most original and impressive of his literary productions”: “A Brown Fountain Pen” and “A Piece of Lettuce” from A Piece of Lettuce; “Never Nothing” from Conversions; “Snarls of Beauty” from The George P. Elliott Reader. “Whatever other qualities this unnamed, unshaped age we are entering may have,” Elliott once wrote, “I hope that it will realize it needs art in order to live.” I will have to return to these essays next year, when I plan to focus on autobiographical works, to give Elliott’s art the appreciation it deserves, in its own earnest if never fully successful way.


Among the Dangs and Other Stories, by George P. Elliott
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961

The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross (1995)

I recently had the chance to travel to Estonia for the first time, to attend a conference in Tallinn. In the spirit of this trip, then, I took along a copy of The Conspiracy, a collection of stories by one of the leading Estonian writers of the last 50 years, Jaan Kross. I was thoroughly impressed by the people, sights, food, and energy of life in Estonia, and once you’ve read a little of the country’s history, you realize how long and hard they have had to struggle to establish–and reestablish–their independence and to maintain their culture and way of life in the 50+ years they spent under Nazi and Soviet control.

The Conspiracy offers a particularly good fictional introduction to what the Estonians endured during that time. Kross, who was born in 1920, not long after Estonia declared its independence, reached adulthood at about the time when that independence was crushed–first by Soviets (1940-1941, starting with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and ending soon after the German invasion of Russia), then by the Germans (1941-1944), and then again by the Soviets, who settled in for over forty years. The stories in The Conspiracy trace this history through episodes in the life of Kross’ fictional counterpart, Peeter Mirk.

The first story, “The Wound”, is set in the time around the start of the German invasion of Poland, when Germany offered ethnic Germans in the Baltic republics the opportunity to move into settlements in recently-conquered Poland and begin the process of establishing Hitler’s precious lebensraum. Peeter Mirk’s first love, a neighbor and fellow student in Tartu University, belongs to a family with German connections who decides to accept the offer. At a farewell party, feelings of nostalgia overtake the two young people and they decide in a moment of haste to run away and get married. As they run from the restaurant through rainy streets, however, she slips and falls, getting a severe cut on her leg, forcing them to stop and go back. Their impulsive act leads, in the end, to just the first of many casualties suffered by people in Peeter’s life over the next twenty years.

Kross was able to complete law school and stay on as a member of faculty for the first years of German occupation, in part through a series of medical dodges, avoiding the “lead piping” into which many Estonian men were channeled:

And the lead pipes, as already mentioned above, were, according to these notices, two in number. One of them spewed forth its load on to the front via the notorious Bad-Tölz training camp, that is to say, via southern Bavaria after a period of three to four months. The other pipe did the same, after a couple of weeks of basic drill at the Kohila or Elva training camps. Those spewed out of the first pipe wore SS uniforms and were told that they constituted the elite of Neues Europa and of the Estonian people. The second pipe spat forth so-called “Volunteer Assistants”, who were in fact required to stay in the frontier zone in the same section as the prisoners of war stationed there.

But some of Kross’s friends were not so lucky. Even those who tried to escape to Sweden or Finland took extraordinary risks, as is illustrated in the stories “Lead Piping” and “The Stahl Grammar.” And Kross himself ended up being arrested by the Germans in 1944, only to be set free from a Tallinn prison by the first wave of Soviet troops to retake the city. Two years later, however, he was again arrested, this time on the charge of being a “bourgeois recidivist”, and was sent to the Vorkutlag complex of camps. He spent the next eight years in the Gulag, finally returning to Estonia in 1954.

Jaan Kross in a light-hearted mood, 1973
Fortunately for Kross and his readers, he was possessed of a spirit of extraordinary resilience and good humor. He was lucky, he once remarked in an interview for the Guardian, that he was imprisoned by the Soviets and not the Germans: “Such was their Ordnungsliebe –passion for order–and their savage discipline. The Soviets at least had their saving virtues of inefficiency and incompetence.” He had an intense interest in other people–indeed, at a few points in his stories he pulls himself up with a remark such as, “But why have I begun to describe him in such detail?”

And Kross works details into his writing with all his senses. The reader gets the sense not just of how things looked, but also weather, textures, sounds, and, most of all, smells:

I had keys to Uncle’s apartment. We climbed the stairs with their faint smell of polish and stepped into the hall of the apartment. For some reason (or perhaps because we entered without switching on the light) it was the smells of the apartment which impinged on my consciousness on that occasion: the faint smell of ether emanating from Uncle’s surgery into the hall and its extension which served as a waiting room; the faint smell of naphthalene which arose from the Biedermeier furniture in the living room, the faint smell of cooking oil from the dining room through which we groped our way and where rye flour pancakes fried in a drop of sunflower oil, obtained goodness knows where, had been eaten; the fragrance of Soir de Paris which seeped through his wife’s door which stood ajar; the smell of the liquor store from the chink in the bathroom door, though this could have been mere imagination, since Uncle stored his several-liter stock of spirits in large flagons which stood in the bath which was half-filled with water as a precaution against fire and air raids; and then the comically coarse yet subtle whiff of tobacco from Uncle’s own room (for he had, for donkeys’ years, been smoking a weed grown by some patient or other and prepared with rose oil in his straight-stemmed pipe).

After Kross returned to Estonia, he realized that the only way he could survive was to write things that would not be closely examined for possible counter-revolutionary themes. So he became a historical novelist, carefully disguising his criticism of Soviet rule and calls for Estonian independence through characters and situations from hundreds of years earlier. Through this work and teaching, he was able to survive to see Estonia’s return to independence in 1991, and even to sit in its first Parliament and participate in writing the country’s new constitution. He died in 2007.

Four of Kross’ books, including his best-regarded novel, The Czar’s Madman, were translated into English, by Anselm Hollo and Eric Dickens, and published by Harvill in the mid-1990s, and a further novel featuring Peeter Mirk, Treading Air, was issued in 2003. Most of these are now out of print, but recently, Quercus Publishing began releasing an English translation of his most popular work in Estonia, a historical trilogy, Between Three Plagues, starting with the first volume, The Ropemaker.

In a piece for the Estonian Literary Magazine, Kross once wrote of the disadvantages and benefits of being a writer from a small, much-invaded country. Starting out as a writer at perhaps the worst time in his country’s history, he became “not only a writer of a small nation, but a writer who had lost his country.” When, after fifty years’ wait, he had the chance to reclaim his country, he was burdened

… with only the normal troubles of the literature of a small nation: linguistic isolation, the indifference with which the world mostly treats us and our helpless resignation in the face of it -instead of trying to fight it with every possible means within the limits of good taste. Most important of all is the sense of proportion: the amount of time for all sorts of meetings where these means are being discussed, should be reasonable. The rest of the time a writer should stay at home–the smaller the nation of the writer, the more he ought to stay at home, at his desk, writing truly remarkable books.

When Kross died in 2007, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves saluted him in a funeral service that was broadcast live on Estonian State Television: “He was one of those who kept fresh the spirits of the people and made us ready to take the opportunity of restoring Estonia’s independence.”

The Conspiracy can also be borrowed in electronic format from the Open Library: (Link).


The Conspiracy and Other Stories, by Jaan Kross
London: Harvill Press, 1995

The Conspiracy

Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera (1988)

In “The Fall”, the first story in Virgilio Piñera’s collection, Cold Tales (Cuentos Frios), the leader of two mountaineers climbing a peak slips and falls. The fall pulls his partner down after him, and the two plummet, topsy-turvy, down the mountainside, colliding into rocky outcrops and losing limbs along the way. By the end, all that is left is the leader’s beard and his partner’s eyes: “But I couldn’t complain; my eyes landed safe and sound on the grassy plain and could see, a little ways off, the beautiful gray beard of my companion, shining in all its glory.”

Cold Tales is a collection of stories where things take place in this world we all know but happen in ways that defy all our common senses. This may be a reflection of Piñera’s own perspective, as his life was lived both in the midst of his world and always standing somewhat outside it. In his introduction to the collection, Guillermo Cabrera Infante writes that “Virgilio Piñera’s short stories are far from any received notion in literature, for they come from absolute alienation, where the shortest distance to hell is not through paradise but purgatory.”

In his native Cuba, Piñera is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, but few of his works are currently in print in English translation. Born in Cárdenas in 1912, he began writing plays and poems in the 1930s and participating in Cuban politics and literary affairs. He was also homosexual, and the treatment of the Cuban government of people with his sexual and political inclinations led him to move to Buenos Aires as a voluntary exile. There he met the Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, and helped him translate his novel, Ferdydurke. Piñera also became acquainted with other writers and Cuban exiles and began writing absurdist short stories, likely influenced by Gombrowicz and Borges and anticipating. Many of the stories in Cold Tales were written during this period.

In 1958, anticipating the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution, Piñera returned to Cuba, and was, at first, involved in the circle of political and literary personalities forming around the core of the new regime. His pieces appeared in some of the most widely-read periodicals. But while acceptance of his political views had changed, attitudes toward his sexuality had not. Castro’s government wanted to eliminate what they called “the three Ps”: “prostitutes”, “pimps” and “pájaro” (homosexuals in Cuban slang). Che Guevara himself once hurled one of Piñera’s books off a shelf in the Cuban embassy in Algiers, shouting, “How dare you have a book by this foul faggot!”

In October 1961, he was arrested and jailed for pederasty, after which it became a struggle to live and love freely. He got work as a journalist and translator, and a few of his plays were performed, but it was well known that he was in Castro’s disfavor. Ostracized by many who had known him, he became known as something of a literary ghost. Though it was difficult to get his work published, he continued writing, and when he died of a heart attack in 1979, eighteen boxes of unpublished material were recovered from his apartment.

His work did gain some attention outside Cuba, however, being published in France, Romania, and elsewhere in Europe. And in 1988, Eridanos Press, a small (and much-missed) U. S. publishing house backed by Bompiani, the literary arm of Italy’s leading publishing corporation, Fabbri, released Cold Tales, taken from Piñera’s Cuentos Frios, published in Buenos Aires in 1956, along with over twenty more written afterwards, in excellent translations by Mark Schafer. Two years later, Eridanos also published one of Piñera’s three novels, Rene’s Flesh. And, in 2012, he finally received some posthumous recognition from the Cuban government, which organized a conference and several events to recognize el Año Virgiliano in honor of the 100th anniversary of his birth.

Cold Tales has been, for me, the discovery of 2017 (so far). Unlike Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories, which suffer too much from taking place in the head and not the flesh, Piñera’s stories are both fantastic and palpably real. “These tales are cold because they limit themselves to the hard facts,” Piñera asserts in his Foreword.

You can see this in “Meat,” for example, in which people respond to a growing famine by cutting away and eating parts of their own bodies. “One distinguished physician predicted that a person weighing one hundred pounds (discounting viscera and the rest of the inedible organs) could eat meat for one hundred and forty days at the rate of half a pound a day.” One of the most obese men in town cannot control his hunger, however, and disappears in fifteen days: “After a while, no one could ever find him. Evidently, he was hiding….”

In “Swimming”, the narrator learns to swim on dry land–which, he admits, “has an agonized quality about it.” “… [A]t the same time one is dying, one is quite alive, quite alert, listening to the music that comes through the window and watching the worm crawl across the floor.” And there are benefits: “Once in a while I sink my hands into the marble tiles and offer them a tiny fish that I catch in the submarine depths.” In “The Mountain”, a man resolves to eat an entire mountain. He realizes that people will think him crazy, but takes comfort that, very gradually, “the mountain is losing mass and height.”

Some of Piñera’s stories are a mere paragraph long. Here, for example, is “Insomnia” in its entirety:

The man goes to bed early. He can’t fall asleep. He tosses and turns in bed, as might be expected. He gets tangled in the sheets. He lights a cigarette. He reads a little. He turns out the light again. But he can’t sleep. At three o’clock, he gets out of bed. He wakes his friend next door and confides that he can’t sleep. He asks the friend for advice. The friend advises him to take a short walk to tire himself out. And then, right away, to drink a cup of linden blossom tea and turn out the light. He does all that, but is unable to fall asleep. He gets up again. This time he goes to see a doctor. As usual, the doctor talks a lot but the man still doesn’t fall asleep. At six in the morning, he loads a revolver and blows his brains out. The man is dead, but hasn’t been able to get to sleep. Insomnia is a very persistent thing.

Cold Tales ends with perhaps Piñera’s last story, written in 1978, within a year of his death. In “The Death of the Birds”–just two pages long–the narrator reviews the different theories offered to explain why all the birds have died–epidemic, mass suicide, sudden thinning of the atmosphere, etc.. Many millions of birds lie strewn all over the earth and humanity is “filled with fright by the impossibility of discovering an explanation for such a monstrous fact.” But then, suddenly, they all come back to life and take flight.

Why? One can imagine a wise smile coming across Piñera’s as he wrote these closing lines:

The fiction of the writer, erasing the deed, returns them to life. And only with the death of literature will they fall again wretched onto the earth.

Cold Tales is now, sadly, out of print and used copies fetch over $30. But perhaps someone from David R. Godine, which bought Eridanos Press some years ago, will notice this piece and realize the simple step that can be taken to forestall the death of literature and keep the birds flying.


Cold Tales, by Virgilio Piñera, translated by Mark Schafer
Hygiene, Colorado: Eridanos Press, 1988

The Sex Without the Sentiment, by Thyra Samter Winslow (1957)

Cover of 'The Sex Without the Sentiment'When I reviewed Thyra Samter Wilson’s first short story collection, Picture Frames, I wrote that there was “No room for nostalgia in this tough cookie’s heart.” In the thirty-plus years that separated Picture Frames from her last collection, The Sex Without Sentiment, Winslow seems to have squeezed a little in. But as her title proclaims, it’s not much–a broom closet, maybe, as the subtitle, “Short Stories Written With Understanding But Without Sentiment” emphasizes.

If Balzac had been a woman living in Manhattan in the 1950s, he might have written The Sex Without Sentiment. Like Balzac, Winslow’s human comedy is closer to Greek tragedy than to anything with the remote chance of evoking a laugh. And to Balzac’s grim fascination with human failings Winslow adds a feminine perspective. Woman, as they appear in The Sex Without Sentiment, are abused, cheated on, gossiped about, kept down, and, most often, ignored.

Winslow’s stories reveal a female version of the same rat race run by the businessmen scurrying over the island of Manhattan each work day. In a few cases, they are fighting their way up the same corporate ladder, but in most, the competition is for the simple matter of being noticed. In “Fur Flies,” a beautician in an expensive Midtown salon offers a quick overview of the race’s most popular heats:

When a woman like that hits a spot like Emily Deane’s there are only a few reasons. A younger man has fallen for her, which is unlikely, unless she’s a rich widow. Or somebody’s left her a fortune, and that’s unlikely, too, unless she tells about it; folks always want to tell about a fortune. Or her husband has fallen in love with another woman and she wants to get him back—the routine reason. Or her children think she’s dowdy and put the pressure on her.

Even for someone as the low end of the social scale, such as “Sophie Jackson”, a maid looking for a job, the feminine rat race has its trickle down effects:

Looking back, there wasn’t so much difference between the best and the worst places. Lazy mistresses or worried mistresses. Generous ones or those who, through nature or necessity, kept her from getting enough to eat. You got up early and set the table and cooked breakfast. Breakfast got lighter every year, but there was always toast and coffee and fruit–and eggs most of the time. Even this meant dozens of steps and dishes.

And, after breakfast, the work started. Beds to be made. “Don’t forget to turn the mattress. You didn’t turn it yesterday.” Rooms to be cleaned. Silver to be polished. And one eye on the clock, so lunch wouldn’t be late. And maybe a couple of visits to the store, during the morning. “Why didn’t you tell me you needed eggs? I believe you like to run to the store!”

After lunch, more dishes and more cleaning. And children coming home from school. Vegetables to prepare. Dinner—and more dishes. And washing on Monday and ironing on Tuesday. “Don’t get Mr. Watkins’ collars so stiff. These are soft shirts, Sophie!” And one room cleaned thoroughly each week. And staying in nights, so the children wouldn’t be alone.

Nights off—every Thursday, if you were lucky, and every second Sunday. Going to the movies alone, unless you made friends with one of the girls working in the neighborhood. The mistresses didn’t want to be mean. Sophie knew that. But they were harassed too. Or were worried about money. Or had difficult husbands. Or wanted to be out of the house, away from the work, as much as they could be.

In the race for romance, the odds are against Winslow’s women. Marriages, when they do happen, are usually unhappy. Or the price of love means being the other woman. In “More Like Sisters,” Lela Robbins, having been bound to her widow mother as a companion for the whole of her prime, has learned to take quick stock of her occasional dates: “She’d never hear from him again, or from the other men who would appear briefly and seem to like her a little.”

So some woman look for proxies. Rita, one of the four career women in “Girls in Black”–“and all four of them liked to think of themselves as career women, instead of professional women or girls who ‘go to business’”–finds one by inviting her older sister to move to Manhattan from Ohio: “Why, with Millie here, she belonged to someone. They were a family, the two of them. A woman alone at night is a pitiful sight. A woman alone in a restaurant always looks out of place, forlorn. But two women–that’s different.”

In “A Lamb Chop for the Little Dog,” an elderly widow discovers that something as small as having a dog makes the difference between being treated as part of a community and being ignored: “Before she had Frisky it never occurred to Mrs. Taylor that she was practically invisible. She had worn dark, decent clothes and thought that people treated her very well. Now she saw, curiously enough, that no one noticed her. She went out on the street–and it was just as if she were not there!”

Ironically, Winslow sold her work primarily to women’s magazines: Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harpers Bazaar, Journal of Living, Todays Woman and Womans Day. Now, these are certainly stories of their time and not, for the most part, timeless classics. Perhaps The Sex Without Sentiment is more artifact than art, so it could be argued that, sixty years later, many women have found ways to avoid Winslow’s version of the rat race. Yet I could also point to Vivian Gornick’s recent Odd Woman in the City, which was discussed here at the end of last year, and suggest that there are still many effective ways to render older women living alone invisible.

The Sex Without Sentiment can be found for free in electronic formats on the Internet Archive: Link.


The Sex Without the Sentiment, by Thyra Samter Winslow
London and New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1957

Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding (1935; 1971; 1982)

Laura Riding’s Progress of Stories is something of a litmus test for readers. For some, it is a neglected masterpiece, a revolutionary work in the development of fiction, a book like no other. For others, it a book like no other … in its pretentiousness, its relentless interruptions to remind the reader that he/she is reading a piece of fiction, and its refusal, in many stories, to follow any conventional narrative pattern.

Riding first published Progress of Stories in 1935, when she was living with the poet Robert Graves on Majorca and running the Seizin Press. She had already made a name as a modernist poet in the U.S., divorced her first husband, had an affair with the poet Allen Tate, attempted suicide and broken up Graves’ first marriage–although she cut off sexual relations with Graves early in their time as a couple. If Riding comes across as a woman inclined to take things to extremes, that comes across in her fiction.

In the words of Graves’ nephew and biographer Richard Perceval Graves, “Her plenipotent intellect and personality swept away all resistance, reducing to discipleship, abject servility, or virtual madness anyone who could not manage to shake him/herself free from her mesmerizing, tyrannical influence. Her most subjective responses to experience were translated (by her as well as her followers) into world-historical imperatives and aesthetic universals, while her insight into the multiple layers of human personality enabled her to manipulate everyone around her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually.” (There is a striking resemblance between accounts of Riding by people who knew her–and her responses to them–and those of another litmus-like figure, Ayn Rand.)

I must confess defeat through exhaustion in dealing with Riding’s life and a good deal of her opinions. This is a woman who, in her eighties, could chastise Harry Mathews over four lengthy paragraphs for referring to her in a New York Review of Books article of the 1982 of Progress of Stories as “Laura” rather than “Laura (Riding) Jackson” (her preferred name after her 1941 marriage to critic Schuyler Jackson). She also made sure to note that “my work and myself” were subjects “which no professional literary man or woman can afford to disregard in his or her position-taking.” And I nearly surrendered before even reaching the stories in Progress of Stories thanks to 33 pages of prefaces (the one to the 1935 edition, followed by a second for the 1982 edition).

From the start, Riding draws a stark line between her work and those of virtually all her predecessors: “There is a quaint cult of story-writing which practises what is called ‘the short story’; pompous little fragments in whose very triviality, obscurity and shabbiness some significant principle of being is meant to be read.” Instead, it is time, she declares, that “we should be telling one another stories of ideas.” This is no earth-shaking assertion, but soon after it, Riding challenges the reader to digest the following sentence: “Thus the story-telling model of human speaking, or, as speaking recorded for silent apprehending is literarily named, ‘writing’, persists, in its natural casting of speaking or writing as reduplicating the live processes of happening, into the open areas of knowledge and understanding that all minds share as the world of intelligent being—partaking, in their unitary reality as minds, of the identity of mind.”

I balked for a moment, but plowed on (write me if you can explain what she meant). Or rather, detoured past the rest of the preface material and headed into the stories themselves. The book is organized in three major sections: the stories from the 1935 edition, followed by a selection of stories from Riding’s first two fiction collections, Anarchism is Not Enough (1928) and Experts Are Puzzled (1930). It concludes with “Christmastime,” a story she wrote in 1966 and her own reflections on some of the preceding stories.

The Progress of Stories section represents something of a journey out of conventional story-telling into the new territory Riding proposes to discover. The seven stories in Part One, “Stories of Lives”, a written in a very spare style but still somewhat represent other short stories one might be familiar with, although rather as if being viewed under a microscope like a specimen.

In Part Two, “Stories of Ideas,” however, Riding sets the reader down in wholly unfamiliar material. “Reality as Port Huntlady” opens with a simple, traditional narrative sentence: “Dan the Dog came to the town of Port Huntlady with two friends, Baby and Slick.” OK, no problem there. But then Riding tells us that, “Port Huntlady was not a town as other towns are towns. It was rather like a place where one felt a town might one day be, or where one felt that perhaps there had once been a town.” Port Huntlady, in other words, is not your usual seaside resort town. No, it is a town that–like the story itself–hovers between life in the real world and life in a world of ideas: “Port Huntlady was a place where things might happen; not the things that happened in the world proper, which were personal experiences, but universal experiences, such as the end of the world, or great turning-points in the course of human events.”

At the center of Port Huntlady affairs is Lady Port-Huntlady–herself an orphic figure who might well be a fictional counterpart for Riding herself: “Never seeming to say anything—and yet, after one had left her presence, it seemed that she had said a great deal, at least that one had understood a great many things that one did not really understand.” Indeed, a cynic might say the same thing after finishing Progress of Stories

But it doesn’t really matter what Lady Port-Huntlady might or might not say during her soirees, since, as Riding soon tells us, “We are all aware that there is no such place as Port Huntlady. It may well be that there is a place to which Port Huntlady stands as a lie stands to the truth. In fact, this is not far from being the case.” The inclusion of details is, for Riding, part of the attempt the story-teller to be believable, but this is ultimately equivalent to hypnotism: “this true-seeming is the power of the story to keep your interest until you have abandoned, quite frankly, those rational standards of interest with which we all prop up our chins when our thoughts scurry between brain and heart and we can do no better than be proud. It is the moral pretence of the story created by our joint vanity in being conscientious, orderly and truthful creatures—before we give ourselves up to its gentle idiocy….”

“But, indeed,” she asks further on, “is our story very important? Is any story very important? I assure you that no story is of much importance; and I think you will agree with me. Are we not all agreed that only a few things are really important?” Though she introduces other characters and engages them in various actions, she notes that these matters are both pointless and, therefore, infinite in their possibilities: “… how Lady Port-Huntlady would have consoled the cats by bringing down the remains of their lunch from the lounge; and how Miss Bookworth would have left Port Huntlady soon after to take up a post as secretary to a wealthy invalid whose hobby was corresponding with patients in tuberculosis sanatoria, in which he had spent much of his own life; and how a story may go on indefinitely unless there is perfect understanding at the start of the limitations that keep a story from being anything but a story….” In the end, she writes, driving a last stake through any pretense of honoring the “laws” of fiction, “no amount of ingenuity can save a story from seeming, in the end, just a story–just a piece of verbal luggage, belonging to anybody who cares to be bothered with it.”

In an interview, the poet Lisa Samuels, who edited the University of California Press 2001 reprint of Riding’s 1928 collection, Anarchism Is Not Enough, argued that Riding was challenging the very conceptual basis of fiction itself, rather like Brecht breaking the fourth wall between the play and its audience: “Her tone can be crisp in those stories, as you say; but her combinations of the fantastic, fairy tales, interrogating language as power, investigating what it means to draw and disassemble characters, challenging the reader to be aware of their desire for narrative and syntactic seduction, and so on, make for a situation, in my reading, of multiple possibilities (rather than precision) and messy genres (excess – I mean that in a good way).”

If you wanted to know whether or not you would get anything out of Progress of Stories, you could actually just go straight to “Reality as Port Huntlady” and draw your conclusions from that. For me, reading it was rather like the experience of looking at a Magic Eye picture, where you can feel your visual perception of the image switching back and forth between what seems like noise and then, a moment later, becomes coherent. It was both disorienting and, in a way, almost thrilling.

Continuing on in this manner for another two hundred-plus pages, however, was a like being trapped in a gallery with nothing on the walls except Magic Eye pictures. A little bit is an exciting novelty; dozens of these pictures, one following the other relentlessly, was mind-numbing. Reviewing the 1982 edition in New York magazine, Edith Milton concluded, “All this self-consciousness makes for quite difficult reading, and, despite their formal brilliance, the stories pall.”

On the other hand, Harry Mathews–himself a veteran challenger of the conventions of fiction–considered Riding’s venture among the most ambitious in 20th century literature: “Riding’s aim in writing this carefully structured series of stories was to make articulate in the experience of her readers a knowledge of life that is both true and nonconceptual. It was as if she wanted to make the mechanisms of language, usually so approximate and reductive, accurate enough in the effect of their working to initiate the reader willy-nilly into an awareness of what she felt to be the pure, unmediated truth.”

Unfortunately, Mathews managed to express himself better than Riding herself. For her entry in the 1955 edition of Twentieth Century Authors, she wrote: “We did not fully understand the character of the mental operation required for definitions of the kind we wished to make until we perceived that we must liberate our minds entirely from the confused associations of usage in which the meanings of words are entangled–and that, for us, the act of definition must involve a total reconstituting of words’ meanings. Much of our work has been done upon our minds, rather upon words directly: and we have proceeded very slowly, in consequence.” Indeed, “a total reconstituting of words’ meanings” could present a fairly insurmountable obstacle if one is trying to pursue writing as a career.

After seeing Progress of Stories mentioned as an undeservedly neglected book for decades, I was glad to finally have the chance to read it, but in the end, I was reminded of something a friend of mine once said when returning a book he’d borrowed: “It was good, but not that good.”


Progress of Stories, by Laura Riding
New York: Persea Books, 1982

The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok (1941)

Cover of first US edition of 'The backbone of the Herring'“It has been said that a judge is a member of the Bar who once knew a Governor,” Curtis Bok quips in the first story in his collection of judicial stories, The Backbone of the Herring. With this opening line, the reader immediately gets a sense of Bok’s easy-going humor and self-deprecation. Although John Lukacs once described Bok’s personality as “glacial”–which it may well have been in public–as a writer, channeled through his fictional identity as “Judge Ulen” in these stories, Bok comes across as the kind of judge you’d want to have hearing your case–whether as plaintiff or defendant: conscientious, empathetic, impartial, and capable taking or making a joke once in a while.

Lukacs’ assessment might stem from Bok’s position on the highest tier of Philadelphia society. His father, Edward Bok was editor of The Saturday Evening Post and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and his mother, Mary Louise Curtis, brought a fortune and her husband’s access to his editorship courtesy of her father, Cyrus Curtis, who founded the Post along with a half-dozen of the other leading American magazines of the time. She herself founded the Curtis Institute of Music, considered the toughest American conservatory to get into, and somewhat shocked Philadelphia when, a widow of 67, she married the violinist and bon vivant Efrem Zimbalist (Senior). And, not to stunt the family tree, Curtis’ son, Derek grew up to become president of Harvard.

On the other hand, for a son of the Main Line, Curtis showed a remarkable capacity for choosing his own path. After a tour in the Navy during World War One, he studied law at the University of Virginia and became a member of a prestigious Philadelphia firm. He won a place on the cover of Time magazine in 1933 when he turned down the chance to run the family publishing company and, instead, kept his low-paying job as an assistant district attorney. Despite his time in the military, he was a practicing Quaker and a lifelong opponent of the death penalty.

Time magazine cover from July 1933 featuring Curtis Bok
In 1937, he became President Judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the city’s primary civil and criminal court. Early on, he began keeping a notebook of his observations from the courtroom–not so much to aid in writing his opinions as to help shape his understanding of the nature of justice, and these developed into fictional sketches that he began publishing in The Shingle, the magazine of the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1939. These stories are collected in The Backbone of the Herring

“These are not entirely autobiographical or fictitious, nor is Ulen,” Bok writes in his foreword. His point in recounting these stories was “that our system of justice, apart from Justice, which will remain undefined so far as I am concerned, can be made to work when applied with art and sympathy and a sly sense of humor.” Describing himself as a “mediocre lawyer with good connections,” Ulen took some time to overcome his timidity and found, somewhat to his surprise, that “when at last he had drifted to a point of rest he came rather abruptly into his full powers and began to use them with a delight.”

Although Ulen’s reflections on justice (“Justice has to do with the play of an enlightened personality within the boundaries of a system”) are a constant motif, the real interest of these stories is in Bok/Ulen’s observations of people. One defendant, a hulking laborer, is “the kind of man who puts his hands on his hips to think.” A large woman at the end of a difficult day collapses into a chair “like an exhausted avalanche.” A wife leaves her husband not because he beat her, cheated, or “was actively unkind: he simply lived as though he had been cored out and had nothing with which to respond.” Of another left man, Bok writes that, “No one thought to educate him in the art of getting on with his fellow man: this knowledge is supposed to grow on trees.”

His survey of human relations includes his own. When his friend, Henry Fielder, newly elected as Governor, offers him a post on the bench, the little dance Bok describes is something you often witness in male interactions:

Gosh, said Ulen to himself, this is serious. He was an introvert and Henry was an extrovert, and they were very shy of sentiment. The one feared a rebuff and the other was afraid of falling in a swamp. It was an impasse of language, for each of them was continually delighted by what the other did and bothered by what he said. Fielder called the thing he saw a spade. Ulen preferred to call it nothing, on the chance it might turn into something else of make a reasonable answer. The result was that when they were together they spent a great deal of time looking at their own feet and thinking what a wonderful fellow the other was in his own way.

On the other hand, Bok/Ulen is clearly operating in unfamiliar territory in those sketches where he ventures out of the courtroom, and positively lost when he tries to imagine what people do and say when he is not there. In “Artema’s Story,” about a failed romance that ultimately winds up on his docket, he expects the reader to believe that any woman would say the following to her lover: “We must lie greatly or not at all. To me this evening was a natural as walking in the city and suddenly seeing the hills. Maybe we stop being prisoners only when we don’t care whether the gates are open or shut. I may never know that with lucidity, but you will when the time comes.” Perhaps she was talking to Master Thespian. Fortunately, these potholes are few and easy to veer around.

Bok spent over twenty years in charge of the Court of Common Pleas, and wrote several well-regarded law texts, along with a few influential opinions. In his most famous, throwing out obscenity charges against a Philadelphia bookseller who was offering works by such smut-mongers as William Faulkner and James T. Farrell, he wrote that “It will be asked whether one would care to have one’s young daughter read these books.” The worst that might happen, in Bok’s view, was that “they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome. Nor can they hold it back, for life is a series of little battles and minor issues, and the burden of choice is on us all, every day, young and old.”

He also wrote a sequel to The Backbone of the Herring, I, Too, Nicodemus (1946), which collected further “judicial adventures” of Judge Ulen. He also wrote two novels: Star Wormwood (1959), written as an illustration of the moral harm of the death penalty, and Maria (1962), a romance set on his beloved coast of Maine and published posthumously. Bok was appointed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1958 and served there until his death in 1962.

The title of The Backbone of the Herring, by the way, comes from a judicial oath used on the Isle of Man centuries ago: “You swear to do justice between cause and cause as equally as the backbone of the herring doth lie midmost of the fish.” The dust jacket design is by renowned graphic designer W. A. Dwiggins, who provided Knopf with some of its best covers of the 1930s and 1940s.


The Backbone of the Herring, by Curtis Bok,br>
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941

Many Are Called: Forty-Two Short Stories, by Edward Newhouse (1951)

Cover of 'Many Are Called'For a dozen years or so, starting in the late 1930s, Edward Newhouse was one of The New Yorker’s most prolific fiction writers, working with editor Gus Lobrano in an impressive stable that included John Cheever, Irwin Shaw, and Jerome Weidman. Granville Hicks rated Newhouse “high in the ranks of contemporary short-story writers,” and a Publisher’s Weekly once wrote that, “If I were to receive in the same mail new books by the dozen best writers of fiction in America, Edward Newhouse’s would be the first I’d read.” But hardly anyone has heard of Newhouse for the simple reason that he stopped writing.

Between 1934 and 1954, Newhouse published seven books–four novels and three short story collections. Then nothing, then a few stories in The New Yorker’s in 1957, then nothing more aside from a short autobiographical piece, “Hungarians,” published in The New Yorker’s in 1965. Unlike the magazine’s legendary Joseph Mitchell, who came to work for decades without producing a single article, however, the issue in Newhouse’s case wasn’t writer’s block. He simply didn’t need the work.

Born Ede Ujhazi in Budapest in 1911, Newhouse emigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1923. His father, an unemployed actor (who named his son after a famous 19th century Hungarian actor), was simply desperate to find work. Thrown into the New York City public school system without a word of English, Newhouse weathered a fair number of schoolyard fights until he established his street smarts. After a short attempt at City College, he spent the better part of a year riding the rails around the country and looking for work. In the end, he came back to New York and got a job covering sports for the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, and wrote a novel, You Can’t Sleep Here (1934), based on his time as a hobo. He went on to join the staff of The New Masses, an experience he later satirized in his third novel, The Hollow of the Wave (1949).

Edward Newhouse
Edward Newhouse
He had already published a second novel,
This is Your Day (1937), before placing his first story with The New Yorker in 1939, and his first collection of stories,
Anything Can Happen, appeared soon afterward in 1941. Around this time, he met and married Dorothy DeLay, a classical violinist, and became friends with another rising star at The New Yorker, John Cheever. Cheever later said that he and Newhouse shared “an inability to draw the parts of [their] lives together.”

Joining the Army Air Corps after Pearl Harbor, Newhouse was selected to attend Officer Candidate School and quickly found his niche as a public relations man for the service. He finished up as a lieutenant colonel, writing speeches and reports for General H. H. “Hap” Arnold, the Army Air Corps commander and working in the same Pentagon office as James Gould Cozzens, whose diary of the experience was later published as A Time of War. Newhouse went straight back to work for The New Yorker right after separating from the Army. He published a third collection, of short stories dealing with childhood, The Iron Chain, in 1946.

Many are Called (1951) was his last collection. Thirty-nine of the stories in the book were from The New Yorker. The stories are arranged thematically. The three shortest and least interesting sections gather stories based on characters gathered around a bar (“At Jake’s”), a candy-and-cigar store (“A George’s”), and from Newhouse’s time as a hobo (“En Route”). These are more sketches than complete stories, and none rises above the level of an imitation Ring Lardner.

The book opens with “In Edgerton,” six stories set in a fictional town north of New York City, and with one of the best stories in the whole book, “My Brother’s Second Funeral.” In it, the narrator reflects on the attitudes of his home town to the burial of his brother, a war hero killed in Italy now with the local chapter of the American Legion named after him. Barely ten pages long, it somehow manages to capture so much about the ways in which American men attempt–sincerely, pretentiously, ineffectually–with life. “He was my friend, and I’ll never have another one like him,” the narrator observes. “Grown men can’t make friends, not really, not like boys. That piece of steel at Salerno killed the only man that ever knew what I was all about.”

The stories in “Waiting” could easily remind readers of Newhouse’s friend Cheever. Set in and around New York City, they are all about people poised on the edge of a transition. A man takes a bus tour of Manhattan on his last day before entering the Army. A man tries to contain his thoughts and emotions after quitting his job. A woman whose husband is serving in the Pacific decides to move back into the city after an awkward time living in suburban Westchester. In each, Newhouse displays what short story expert William Peden called “his own special kind of genius for the usual.”

The best pieces in the book, however, can be found in “The Captains Depart,” which collects stories clearly drawn from Newhouse’s own experiences on active duty. Though he spent most of his time in the Army Air Corps in the relatively comfortable position of a speechwriter and press liaison, Newhouse did accompany senior officers on numerous trips overseas, saw many different aspects of life in the Air Corps, and seems to have flown as an observer on a least a couple of combat missions.

This variety of contacts is reflected in the ten stories in “The Captains Depart.” Some are set stateside, where the safety and petty concerns of base life can still be unexpectedly disrupted by a telegram from North Africa or an accident that scatters parts of an aircraft and its crew over half of a farm. Others are scattered all over the map, from a fighter base in England to a transport field in Nigeria. “The Four Freedoms” takes place one evening in Cairo, with part of the entourage of generals and staff returning with Roosevelt from the Teheran Conference. At one point, Newhouse’s fictional counterpart, Captain Wyatt, considers the situation of the Air Corps general he works for:

The General will be descending the great staircase soon, Wyatt thought, in full consciousness of his role as the most important man in a room filled with rank. He will slap his current favorite, the new young General Jack Crane, on the shoulder, and he will play wicked uncle to April Starr and Gail Fiske. If he likes the comedian and the juggler, he will ask them if they have any relatives in the Air Forces or what they thought of the food at some A.T.C. base. With the juggler and the comedian, he’ll be Harun-al-Rashid, incognito on the streets of Baghdad, sounding out public opinion. He might confound them by asking how long they thought the war would last and why.

Like most, though by no means all, other soldiers, the General was obsessed by that question.He’ll never again attain a fraction of the power he wields. A coal miner’s son and still drawing only moderate pay, the chief was living as only the wealthiest men in the history of the world had lived. In England he had stopped at the greatest of feudal castles, elsewhere in a series of royal suites, and here among such Byzantine splendors as gold cups on the table and zippers on the mosquito net. He had at his disposal any means of transport or communication known to man. Presents and honors came to him from everywhere. And large formations of bombers went on critical missions, at tree-top
level, against targets selected by him.

Newhouse may be the only American writer of fiction to take in the global scope of the war, as well as its industrial capacity and efficiency for destruction. At the same time, however, he never loses sight of the fact that this destruction also operates as a very human scale. In “Irving,” Wyatt recalls an earnest young Jewish kid from New York who worked as a speechwriter in the Pentagon. Irving had worked himself up from being a towel boy in a Turkish bath to second lieutenant’s bars by virtue of a series of cheap mysteries featuring a Boston Brahmin detective named Sedgwick Cabot “equally at home in an opium den off the Embarcadero, at a coming-out party in the Pierre, down in a bathysphere, or aloft at the controls of a PBY.” Eager to experience combat, Irving wheedles his way into being sent to the Philippines to accompany a minor party of reporters. He talks his way onto a B-25 on a bombing mission over Formosa and is promptly killed, along with the aircraft’s whole crew. Wyatt and another speechwriter retire to a bar when the news arrives. “We covered the whole subject of Irving in some detail. All we left out was that he had been the only child of two very old people who lived behind a tailor shop.” As Granville Hicks wrote in his review of Many are Called, “These stories, with their wonderful combination of sensibility and intelligence, belong with the best writing the war has produced.”

Newhouse published less than a dozen stories after Many are Called. His last novel, The Temptation of Roger Heriott (1954), was well-received, but marked his last serious attempt at fiction. In the view of Cheever and others, Newhouse’s primary reason was simply money. He’d sold several stories to Hollywood studios and made good investments with the proceeds. By the late 1940s, Dorothy DeLay had moved from performing to working as a member of the faculty at Julliard and earned a respectable income. He took on the role of supporting spouse, and helped many of his wife’s students–who included such luminaries as Itzhak Perlman, Nigel Kennedy, and Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg–with grant applications and business decisions. Few of them were aware that their teacher’s husband had had a successful career as a writer, and some even assumed he was somehow attached to the faculty. Newhouse stayed friends with Cheever, lunching with him regularly (although Blake Bailey reports in Cheever: A Life that he came to think of Newhouse as a bore). Dorothy kept on teaching at Juilliard up to her death in March 2002; Newhouse followed his wife just eight months later.

Many are Called is also available on the Internet Archive: link.


Many Are Called, by Edward Newhouse
New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951

Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway (1980)

Cover of Powers of the WeakI’ve written about many good books on this site over the years, but this may be the most important one, particularly now.

Even when it was first published in 1980, Elizabeth Janeways’s Powers of the Weak was labelled as a feminist tract and fairly quickly dismissed and forgotten. Which was an apt demonstration of the very phenomenon noted in the quote from Victor Turner’s Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture from which Janeway took her title and which she prefaces her book:

INFERIORITY: A value-bearing category that refers to the powers of the weak, countervailing against structural power, fostering continuity, creating the sentiment of the wholeness of the total community, positing the model of an undifferentiated whole whose units are whole human beings. The powers of the weak are often assigned in hierarchic and stratified societies to females, the poor, autochthons [indigenous peoples], and outcasts.

Ironically, Powers of the Weak is actually an intensely empowering book that should inspire hope in anyone who is feeling desparate, hopeless, and voiceless.

“My aim is to understand power,” Janeway writes in her opening chapter, “that ambiguous, menacing, much-desired quality whose accepted definition seems to me unsatisfactory.” Indeed, she immediately rejects the premise that power is a quality or a property and instead defines it as “a process of human interaction”–a dynamic process that only exists in the context of a relationship. In this way, it’s analogous to potential in electricity, mechanics, or gravity–the tension created between two opposing charges, forces, or masses.

And because of this view, Janeway holds the weak accountable for their part in relationships with the power. “[W]hen the weak habitually turn their backs on power because they accept the stereotypes that undervalue them, they permit their rulers to define proper processes of governing according to the experience of the rulers alone, so that it comes to seem that only one ‘right way’ to handle power exists.”

Even in the extreme conditions of a totalitarian state. As natural “as fear must be when the weak face unbridled oppression from the state, this fear is intended. It has a political purpose–to interfere with the normal functioning of the human beings who make up the mass of the governed”–to “separate them, and sick each one in isolation and paralysis.” She cites as evidence Charlotte Beradt’s remarkable survey of the dreams recounted by ordinary Germans living under the Nazi regime, The Third Reich of Dreams: “What she found was a kind of mental lockjaw. Anxiety dreams were everywhere. In them the dreamer was invited again and again to take some action in the face of danger and could not manage to do so; did not dare to move a finger.”

Elizabeth Janeway, 1980
In response, Janeway rallies the weak to hold onto what she calls “the first and last power of the weak”: skepticism, mistrust, and dissent. “If, in the face of repression, the governed can still hold to mistrust, they will not, of course be safe; but they will preserve the inner citadel of the self and with it the capacity of judging the exterior world in terms of their own interests.” Dissent, she writes, “is the intellectual steel which strengthens the self in the face of the tyrant’s weapon of induced panic.”

This suspicion should even extend to whatever bright alternate futures might be held up to excite the action and loyalty of the weak. “I have never, myself, read a Utopia that seemed to approach even distantly the size and the vitality of the human world. The past was full of surprises; the present is astonishing (as well as frightening): who knows what the future may be?”

In fact, though Janeway holds those who consider themselves weak, oppressed, or alienated accountable for taking charge of their own lives, she would reserve some skepticism for any political construct that might be devised. In a line that ought to be engraved and put up on the wall above any thinking person’s desk, she cautions that “There is always more more reality around than we allow for; and there are always more ways to structure it than we use.”

If you’re one of those who’ve felt depressed, disenchanted, or disgusted since November 8, I highly recommend getting a copy of Powers of the Weak and let her reinvigorate your power to dissent: “The basic trust of reality that we learned in our first creative conquest of the world is our defense against the magic image of a new system presented by the tyrants.”


Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980

G. B. Stern’s Infinite Autobiographies

G. B. Stern, from the dust jacket of 'Benefits Forgot'“Gladys Bronwyn Stern, or G. B. Stern (17 June 1890 – 20 September 1973), born Gladys Bertha Stern in London, England, wrote many novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, biographies and literary criticism,” states the opening sentence of G. B. Stern’s Wikipedia entry. Many as in over fifty, or roughly one a year starting in 1914.

She was never, apparently, at a loss for words.

One way she managed such an impressive rate of production was that she dictated most of her books while laying on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling. “If I wrote them myself, I know I should always be stopping to draw patterns,” she told an interviewer once. Another was that she was perhaps more open to the potential of detours than any other writer. Wherever her thoughts might wander in the course of her dictation, she was more than willing to follow:

A straight line, so I have been taught, is the shortest way between two given points. This book [Monogram, her first volume of autobiography] will probably prove to be the longest possible way between three given points: objects picked up at random from my own sitting-room; from the rubbish heap of a garden in the South of France; from anywhere. A straight line cannot enclose anything; but if you join three points, you have a triangle, and something exciting may or may not be discovered, afterwards, enclosed inside a triangle, wherever and however you happen to draw it.

So Stern was a born non-linear thinker, and her reader should not be surprised when her thoughts not only lead off the beaten path but often cross the lines between one genre and another. Her temperament was well-matched with the imaginative absurdity of the snippet of Marx Brothers dialogue that serves as the epigraph to Monogram:

Groucho: “It’s my opinion that the missing picture is hidden in the house next door.”

Chico: “But there isn’t a house next door.”

Groucho: “Then we’ll build one!”

When her publishers, Chapman and Hall, approached Stern with the idea of writing an autobiography, she chose to interpret the label liberally: “So let us try, for a change, to put our words into thoughts. Surely this should be what they call autobiography?,” she asked.

Inspired by the example of Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, she determined to follow his example, in which “everything is linked to everything else.” This worked for Stern, for as she saw it,

There is hardly an object, however recently acquired, however sharply free from cobwebs and memories, that would not start an association with some incident, some person, that would lead on to another and another; honestly allowing the line of the pattern to take whatever twists and curves and backward looks, angles and zigzags and convolutions it wills; honestly; not forcing it in this direction nor in that, simply because this or that direction might make the prettier or the more rhythmical pattern.

So Stern seizes upon a little blue and white glass dragon figurine on her mantelpiece, and off she goes. In the space of the next ten pages, she leads us to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, to the fact that she had named characters Maitland in four different books but had never known anyone with that name, to a memory of associating the word “Hydrant” with magical powers until her Nannie explained what one was, to a recollection of a chalet in the Tyrols, to an account of attending the first performance of R. C. Sherriff’s war play, Journey’s End, in Berlin in the early 1920s.

And on the book rolls, taking countless twists and turns and diversions, until ending 300 pages later with a joke about Einstein’s wife. And on Stern would roll, through a further eight volumes over the course of the next twenty-four years. Although several conformed a little more closely to a pre-set structure (And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957) was a collection of sketches of famous people she had known, such as Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm, All in Good Time (1954) and The Way It Worked Out (1956) were about her conversion to Catholicism), none fully restrained her from wandering off-topic when her curiosity took over.

It’s no surprise, then, that some critics couldn’t stand this approach. Reviewing Trumpet Voluntary (1944), Albert Jay Nock wrote that Stern “… presents uninteresting personages doing most uninteresting things in extremely uninteresting circumstances. Its narrative is desultory, garrulous, inconsequential.” (Another critic wrote that Stern was “occasionally inconsequential but never trivial”).

Most reviewers struggled to capture the unique nature of these books. One called Another Part of the Forest (1941) “a desultory, enticing, and ingenious volume of recollection, comment, reverie, and imagination.” Another labeled Trumpet Voluntary “a Commonplace Book, into which the author throws quotations, favorite and otherwise, opinions on books, on authors, everyday happenings–in short, everything that comes into her head at the moment.” A third wrote that “for those who love them,” each of Stern’s autobiographies was “a river of a book, now in flood, very rarely reduced to a trickle, but with occasional excursions into idle, tree-protected pools.” In its starred review of Monogram, Kirkus Reviews provided a good description that could any of the nine books:

There is no beginning, no end; no background of birth and parentage; no chronology of events; no category of friends and acquaintances. Instead, at the end, you have a rich tapestry of a full life, a life savored, shared, enjoyed to the utmost. You pick up facts, and weave them into the pattern, with no illusion of importance as to where and when they belong. You meet as intimates — or as passing acquaintances–the people that enliven today’s literary world, artistic world, theatrical world. There is humor–and poetry–and appreciation–and keen commentary on the passing scene–and it’s grand reading from first page to last.

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Looking across the full set, from Monogram (1936) to One is Only Human (1960), a gradual trend toward more serious, deep-rooted thoughts can be seen. Monogram is almost effervescent, still retaining the high spirits and optimism of Stern’s first great successes as a novelist, playwright, and celebrity in the 1920s. Another Part of the Forest (1941) is full of enthusiasm for Merry Olde England (and crazy new America) but mentions of mobilization, bomb shelters, and the fact that her beloved France was cut off and under occupation remind the reader that Stern was writing in wartime. the war becomes even more prominent in Trumpet Voluntary (1944), which opens with a reflection on the destruction of her flat in London:

I used to wish that something would happen, something quite harmless, naturally, to remove the Military Tailors [a shop across the road from her flat] and leave me with a wider view. How I used to wish it! … I need not even have seen it happen; one morning, pulling aside the curtains, the building opposite would not be there, and I should have my unremorseful view.

… And then one morning, the morning of October 15, 1940, to be exact, the Military Tailors drew aside their curtains, and my rooms were not there, and instead, they had a heavenly outlook; at least, they would have when the rubbish and ash and bits of gutted wall had been cleared away. It was almost the same thing, you see; the Green Djinn had got it as nearly right as could be expected from Djinns, only it had not struck me, and I am afraid did not strike me till two years later and on this afternoon of November, 1942, that the Military Tailors might also have been doing a bit of intensive wishing, and that they were better at it than myself.

In Benefits Forgot (1949), the memories of war are still fresh. Stern comes across letters written her by American and British soldiers and learns that the R.A.F. pilot who wrote her in praise of Trumpet Voluntary died while on a raid the day after he posted his letter.
All in Good Time (1954), The Way It Worked Out (1956), and, to a large extent, One is Only Human (1960), all deal with spiritual matters, tracing Stern’s long journey from being raised as a secular Jew to embracing Catholicism in her late fifties.

Throughout all the books and all their many changes of subject, one thing remains constant: Stern’s unwavering good humor. Even Albert Nock admitted that, “Chatterbox as Mrs. Stern is, commonplace as her people and their doings are, she brings them before you pervaded with the warmth and glow of an inexhaustible affection.” If her spirit of whimsy and stream-of-consciousness narrative logic can, at times, become a wee bit tiresome, Stern’s fundamental generosity and gently self-mocking tone almost always provides a restorative effect.

I have to confess that while I’ve never managed to read any of them from beginning to end, I have kept one or more of Stern’s books in my nightstand for most of the last two years and probably always will. Dip into any page of any of these books, and I guarantee that within a page or two you will have read something interesting, something amusing … and probably switched subjects at least twice along the way. Someone could probably assemble a terrific book of about 400-500 pages with the best excerpts from the lot, but I suspect it might come off a bit like a fruitcake without the cake. Till then, I highly recommend picking up any one of them (many copies are going for as little as $1.00 plus shipping) and diving in.

G. B. Stern’s “Autobiographies”


Monogram (1936)

Another Part of the Forest (1941)

Trumpet Voluntary (1944)

Benefits Forgot (1949)

A Name to Conjure With (1953)

All in Good Time (1954)

The Way It Worked Out (1956)

And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957)

One is Only Human (1960)

Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer (1980)

journey_around_my_room_boganLouise 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.

Louise Bogan in the 1950sBy 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

The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, by Helene Mullins (1970)

nb_0623On the few times I get to spend in a used bookstore, I find myself increasingly depressed at how often I can tell in a glance that there’ll be little chance of finding something I haven’t seen before. Which is, obviously, something of a natural consequence of running this site for over ten years. When this happens, I give it one last shot by heading for the poetry section.

If they have one. If they don’t, it’s time to abandon all hope.

If they do, there is a better chance of finding something hitherto unknown because by God there are a lot of skinny books of poetry that have been published over the last hundred-some years. A lot of it is pretty forgettable, as a growing stack of skinny books of poetry in my “To Donate” box attests. But there’s a good share that was doomed to neglect simply because it’s from too small a press, doesn’t include anything that got pulled into an anthology, or has some hideous design or amateur artwork that screams “Stay Away!” to all but worshippers of one of the poetic muses.

Or, as in the case of Helene Mullins’ collection, The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969 (1970), so boring that it could easily be mistaken for a review draft. Except the one I found earlier this year was in immaculate shape, protected in Brodart, included an inscription by the author (“To Bob Adams with good wishes”), and sold for just $4. The Mirrored Walls came from a moderately well recognized publisher (Twayne) and included blurbs from John Hall Wheelock, Louis Untermeyer, and A. M. Sullivan, so it indicated that Mullins had made it under the mid-20th-century American poetry Big Top, if not quite into the center ring.

So who was Helene Mullins? Of the few online sources, the short bio sketch on the Yale Library page devoted to her papers (and those of her sister Marie McCall, who published a few novels) offers the most information. Born in New York City in 1899, she spent most of her life in the city. Married twice, began publishing poems in the early 1920s, including regular appearances in FPA’s (Franklin Pierce Adams) “Conning Tower” column in The New York World newspaper. Along with poetry, she wrote two novels early in her career — Paulus Fry: The History of an Esthete (1924), a quirky, elegant little jeux d’esprit in the vein of Carl Van Vechten and James Branch Cabell (“a flutterby-butterfly book,” one review called it), co-authored with her sister; and Convent Girl (1929). Convent Girl was an apparently autobiographical account of a girl’s life in a city convent boarding school for three years that was praised for its “clearness of vision” and “calm, well balanced prose, free of all flamboyant sentimentality and flashy brittleness, written frankly, and undoubtedly without prejudice.” She published four collections of poetry: Earthbound and Other Poems (1929); Balm in Gilead (1930); Streams from the Source (1938); and The Mirrored Walls. Married twice, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1935. She spent several weeks in a coma and it took her several years to recover. She lent her support to a number of liberal, human rights, and peace causes over the years, and died in 1991.

Mullins was one of the younger women poets to come to notice in the 1920s, when Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie reigned, but she quickly gained a solid foothold, publishing in Scribners, Commonweal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular magazines. She was among the more frequent contributors of poetry to The New Yorker in its first ten years.

Irony to the Ironical

Accept from me, at least, an admiration
Not cultivated too laboriously.
Most delicate shall be the situation,
A matter of wit and wine and poetry.

You need not give me caution in exchange,
For I am self-sufficient and content.
I think that you are beautiful and strange,
And willingly I yield to sentiment.

Passionate Beyond Belief

Passionate beyond belief
Is the crisp and dying leaf.
Watch it whirl through clouds of dust,
Determined not (until it must)
To yield and be forever still.
What a brave display of will!
What a glorious, futile fight!
O gathering dark, O waiting night,
Few such do you absorb when all
The casualties of autumn fall.

I like the fact that this last little ode to death appeared alongside ads for Peek Frean biscuits, the National Horse Show, Kauffman for Riding Togs (since 1876), and Alix’ Famous Collarless Wrap from Bloomingdale’s. You can see why at least one acquaintance called her “a mix of Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay.” On the other hand, Mullins managed to rub Southern poet Allan Tate wrong in a big way: “I’m in favor of rejecting all verse henceforth by this piece of baggage! She’s the vulgarest, rudest wench I’ve yet graced with my presence. She also has a voice like the taste of a persimmon.”

Mullins’ basic style changed little over the years. Of her first collection, Earthbound and Other Poems, one reviewer wrote, “She is content to let the theme develop with practically no ornament; she delights in harmony but rarely employs counterpoint.” Of Balm in Gilead, another wrote that her verse “is honest, admirable, and wise”: “Constant war is being waged between her high heart and the lesson of bitter resignation she thinks we all must learn.”

A significant shift in perspective, however, can be detected in the poems found in Streams from the Source, the first collection to appear after her accident and convalescence:

She Marvels Over What They Say

It cannot last,” they said to me,
When I with Love went dancing.
“The end is always ruthlessly
And quietly advancing.”
But I knew better, being young.
And I would not endeavor
To understand a dismal tongue;
My dance would last forever.
Now that with Pain I’m lying prone,
“It cannot last,” they tell me,
And in a calm and soothing tone
Endeavor to compel me
To be assured the end will come.
But though it chafe or grieve them,
I find their comfort wearisome;
I still do not believe them.

“Her lines are no longer founded on self-pity or self-preoccupation,” wrote Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review. “It is not an austerity so much as a gathering of intellectual forces, a translation of the fanciful in terms of the philosophic.”

Her subjects also shifted to social issues: unemployment, justice, and, with the start of World War Two, the fight against totalitarianism. “Interview with a Dictator,” for example, asks “What is it to be in power, a ruler of men/To advance beyond the humble of the earth/Who strive and suffer, and fall to rise again/Begging their fellows to recognize their worth?” These would remain a major focus of her work, at least as reflected in her last collection, The Mirrored Walls. In “How Forgive the Power of Rulers,” twenty years after “Interview,” her question remains essentially the same: “How forgive the power of rulers/waging wars with borrowed breath/of entertainers who copyright/our dramas of life and death.” (You can hear Mullins reading this and other poems, along with fellow poet Henrietta Weigel on a KPFA show from 1964 on the Internet Archive (Link).

These are not, however, the poems to remember her by. They remind me a little of the Red flag-waving poems that Genevieve Taggard wrote during her New Masses phase. You do have to give credit for hanging in with her causes, though. Rounding the corner on seventy, she still managed to feel the fire of comradeship with the Flower Power generation: “We march and sing and demonstrate./We are the rebels who extol/the equal rights that cry for peace,/the liberty which keeps man whole” (from “Hippy Song”).

Instead, if there is anything to be remembered from The Mirrored Walls, it is Mullins’ poems that deal with the personal, not the social, the intimate and not the public:

My Mother’s Final Gesture

Before she left, my mother,
trying to make it easier for us,
by slow degrees erased her identity.
Shedding the meretricious ornamentations,
the perpetual hopes, the outworn new beginnings,
she covered with the tenuity of old age
her beauty, grace, the poor remains of a gaiety
hoarded against a need that might arise.
So intent was she
on divesting herself of all familiar lineaments,
she did no heed a word of what we were saying:
that we were glad she soon would be released
from the tremors of our menaced civilization,
the fears and horrors seeping through our walls.
Barely recognizable at the end,
except to us who knew her as she was,
she slipped away
with a reassuring flutter of her hands.
We watched her go toward her unknown destination,
then turned to face our own.

Dynamic of Life

Everything changes, everything passes away,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.
The joys impatient to leave me I try to delay,
None of them pause, outlast my clumsy embrace.

New flowers bloom and new songs come into fashion,
The hair of my love is black and then it is gold.
I shrink from the touch of an unfamiliar passion,
I reject the strange and new, I cling to the old.

Everything changes, everything passes away,
Nothing will heed me, nothing remain in its place.
The warmth I will need tomorrow goes from me today,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.

I wouldn’t say that any of what I read in this neglected collection were great poems. But as someone about a block away from rounding the corner on sixty, whose mother is going gently into that good night, I will say that these two were tough to read without feeling a chill down my spine.


The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969, by Helene Mullins
New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, by Val Wilmer (1989)

Cover of first paperback edition of "Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This"Books on jazz, blues, country, rock, soul, and other styles of popular music are, for me, the closest written equivalent to potato chips. I have to be careful taking one down from the shelf, because there is a high risk I will get nothing else accomplished until I finished it. And it’s worse now with the Internet, since just about any tune mentioned, no matter how obscure, can be located and downloaded in seconds, so reading slips all too easily into listening and, suddenly, who knows where the time goes? At least in the old pre-Net days, all you could do was write down the record title and hope that some day in the distant future you might have the luck to find a copy in some used record store.

So when I got a copy of Val Wilmer’s terrific autobiography, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, I saw a lost weekend coming. She got her first taste of jazz via an early teen boyfriend and a copy of Rudi Blesch’s pioneering study of jazz, Shining Trumpets (1949), and the rest is history. Over the course of the last 60 years, she has listened to, photographed, interviewed, wrote about, partied with, and gotten to know most of the major figures, and many more of the minor ones, in pop music. You can get a good sample of her talent for sizing up musicians as performers, artists, personalities, and human beings in The Guardian’s archive of obits she’s written (and you can get a small sample of her work as a photographer here, here, and here).

But there’s some serious starch in Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. As Wilmer’s eyes and ears were opened up by her exposure to a variety of styles — including African, West Indian, and Jamaican pop years before it hit white audiences — her understanding of the social, economic, and gender dimensions of the music and the musicians also grew deeper and more sophisticated. She quickly learned a few lessons as a young and single white woman spending hours in the company of musicians, mostly black and uniformly male:

Many feminists believe there to be an unspoken bond between males, the understanding that all women belong to all men. Where the white woman and the Black man are concerned, this understanding of the woman as shared possession, breaks down under the white man’s gaze — unless the woman can be shown to be a “prostitute.” If she wasn’t, back in the 1960s, then in my experience the white men on the scene made sure she’d be treated like one. This was the penalty to pay for associating with Black men and breaking down the order of things white men had established. No woman was allowed to exist in her own right as an autonomous individual, if she was there, it had to be for the benefit of some man. As a result, hotel porters, bus drivers, stage doormen — real “jobsworth” to a man — became a thorn in my side when it came to moving around with musicians. If the thought of sex had never crossed anyone’s mind, these people certainly put it there.

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This is really much more than a book about music, though it’s exceptional on that level. But Wilmer’s life is something of a distillation of much that was of importance in the 1960s and 1970s. The growing recognition of race as a political factor, of the rise of civil rights. The increasing influence of American culture in British life. The changing British economy (Wilmer collaborated on a never-published oral history of coal mining). And the sexual revolution.

“It is how we are treated as women, rather than as individuals, what happens to us because we are women, that dictates the direction of our lives,” she declares in the book’s introduction. “To us the personal is political, whether we like it or not.” In her case, it was not only a matter of being witness to the rise of the woman’s movement: she took an active part, helping to organize the first “Take Back the Night” events in London.

And her understanding of her own sexuality grew, as she came to recognize her preference for women. She describes experiencing a thrill when Althea Gibson was kissed by an opponent after a match at Wimbledon and the shock of seeing lesbian couples openly embracing and dancing in Paris nightclubs. In the mid-1960s in London, however, lesbians had to seek the safety of forming private clubs — which even then were occasionally subjected to vice squad raids. Yet the act of going to one of these clubs was also a matter of asserting a gay woman’s rights:

… because what we were doing by walking through that door was declaring ourselves — what some would call “coming out” — there was about the whole exercise a sense of terrible excitement. It revolved around bravado and ritual. Getting ready to go there was a ritual, the crease in the trousers, the eyes made-up just so Parking the car was a ritual, as near to the club as possible to avoid the voyeurs and the challenge of passers-by. Gaining entry meant mustering bravado. And for what? To spend time in a place where you could, supposedly, be yourself.

Val Wilmer's mother and drummer Herbie Lovelle, 1959
Val Wilmer’s mother and drummer Herbie Lovelle, 1959
Wilmer acknowledges the large and positive role her mother played in her life. Her father died when she was still young, and her mother raised two children on her own, taking in boarders to get by. Despite a most conventional English middle class upbringing, her mother was remarkably open to both her daughter’s interests and the string of musicians — almost all of them black, male, and from other countries — that Val brought home for tea. Her hospitality became legendary among jazz performers visiting London. Harry Carney, Duke Ellington’s great baritone sax player, sent her Christmas cards every year. “Randy Weston stayed at our house and talked Africa and Nationalism, she cooked him bacon and eggs; the Liberian Ambassador invited her to his parties and she drank champagne.”

And though her mother never quite understood her daughter’s sexuality — “Well, not for women, dear” — she was open to just about anyone Val associated with: “I always knew I could bring my friends home to a warm welcome. Without such a love behind me, I doubt whether I could have even coped with the stresses of trying to be myself in an essentially homophobic society.” The only things she wouldn’t tolerate were slovenliness and mistreatment of her daughter. Other parents could learn from her example.

“People often write autobiographies as if they had no mother, no children, as if sexual love had passed them by,” Wilmer writes at the start of Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. “This not one of those.”

Amen.


Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, by Val Wilmer
London: The Women’s Press Limited, 1989

Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska (1999)

The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
“Let us begin with two sisters dressed for a ball,” Drusilla Modjeska writes in her introduction to Stravinsky’s Lunch. “Whenever I look at this painting — which, as it is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is quite often — I think they are waiting for the century to begin…. You can see from their faces that they are not the girls who went to balls in nineteenth-century novels; and you can see from their clothes that there is nothing of the modern woman about them.”

Cover of first US edition of "Stravinsky's Lunch"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Modjeska looks at how two near-contemporaries of the two women in the painting (the painter’s sisters), Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith — both Australians, both painters — took on the century they encountered and carved out lives and careers very different from the conventions of the Victorian world in which they were raised. Modjeska refers to the book as “a koan in my own practice as a woman and writer.” The choice of the term is apt, as Stravinsky’s Lunch is a book that raises many questions and finds few definitive answers to them.

Such as the story of Stravinsky’s lunch, which Modjeska first heard over a restaurant meal with other writers and artists. It’s not really a story, so much as the fact that when the composer Igor Stravinsky was working on a composition, he insisted that his family eat lunch in silence. “All artists are selfish,” wrote Robert Craft in Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship (1972), “they must be, to get their work done. And they sacrifice the people around them.” for Modjeska, Stravinsky’s selfishness raises larger questions: “What are we prepared to ask of ourselves and of those who love us, what value we put on love and what value we put on art; what compromises we will make; which gods we will appease.”

Stella Bowen offers an example of a woman who, at first, sacrificed herself willingly on the altars of love and art. She happily entered into a relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford, taking on the many domestic burdens of their rustic, near-penniless existence, in return for the sake of his love and his company: “… to have the run of a mind of that calibre … was a privilege for which I am still trying to say ‘thank you,'” she wrote in her memoir, Drawn from Life. But she also sacrificed her own development as an artist, as tending to Ford’s needs left her with little time and energy for her own work:

Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realise that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time — it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.

When, after one too many affairs with other women on Ford’s part, Bowen broke off their relationship, he failed to understand what all the fuss was about. As Modjeska puts it, he didn’t realize “that the qualities that had drawn him to her in the first place — her courage, her intelligence, her engagement with life — were precisely those that would take her away from him.” And that courage and intelligence were also what allowed her to produce her best work when she herself was free to focus. Yet, as is clear from Drawn from Life, Bowen never looked upon her time with Ford with regret, certainly not when she thought of their daughter. “Was Love the one, in the end, that she chose?” Or did she even chose one or the other? “Is choosing what she did?”

When I first read the story of Grace Cossington Smith that makes up the second half of Stravinsky’s Lunch, I was quite disappointed. There was none of the drama of Stella Bowen’s life. “No husbands. No babies. No affairs. No scandals. No cafes in Paris…. In the prejudices of her time, she was, simply, a spinster.” Smith spent most of her life in the same house with her parents and two of her three sisters. Most days, she painted scenes and people she saw around her in Sydney and the nearby country and seaside, working in a small studio her father had built at the back of their yard. She was over sixty before she was accepted as a serious artist of her own generation, over seventy when she was finally recognized as one of the greatest Australian painters of her century.

"Trees," by Grace Cossington Smith (1926)

Much of Smith’s story is a matter of producing painting after painting, moving first towards a striking mix of realism and abstraction, as illustrated by her 1926 painting, Trees. Smith said she was trying to paint all sides of a tree at once. When it appeared in her first solo show, one newspaper critic condemned it as a “freak.” Modjeska sees the work as revealing Smith’s keen eye for the dual nature of her Australian world: “For this was a young woman who understood both the settled pleasures of a garden with its bloom of peach, and the hectic tangle of branch and leaf, the mysterious possibilities that lay beyond, in bush and gully.”

As she grew older, Smith turned from subjects such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge to her immediate surroundings, painting the rooms in her family home — always with at least one window or door opening out into the world, but always from the perspective of someone on the inside. She experimented with color, settling on yellow as her primary tone, offset with blue (which is why it’s surprising that Modjeska doesn’t quote the opening phrase from Drawn from Life: “The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country”).

Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
But there is another story, which Modjeska brings out. Of Smith’s three sisters, one married early and another took on a lifetime profession as a nurse. But her sister Madge stayed at home and cared for their parents and Grace, and after their parents died, for Grace alone. It was Madge who cooked the meals and saw that the rooms were cleaned and laundry washed and ironed. Modjeska reprints a photo of Grace, Madge, and their father from 1919. It’s one of those family photos that, though accidentally and perhaps misleadingly, seems to betray a secret. “There is Grace with her strong, intelligent face lifted to the sun. Madge’s lowered head is shrouded in misery so intense it seems to burn the paper their images are printed on…. You can tell at a glance that there’d be no question of Grace taking over the kitchen.”

So, despite forging a career in art that was very much of her own shaping, deliberately enforcing her isolation so that she could focus on her work — focus to the point that her paintings from her last decades all depict scenes less than a few yards from her own home — Smith did, in her own way, insist on a form of Stravinsky’s lunch. No wonder that when Madge accompanied Grace on a trip to England in 1949, she found a widower in need of a wife and married him, leaving Grace to return to Australia alone.

Yet Modjeska admits that her attitude toward the story of Stravinsky’s lunch changed in the course of writing the book, and, in particular because of Smith’s example. The nature of the book as a koan is revealed in her realization that the story “not only buys into a way of thinking that would separate art from life, with art striding above and beyond, transcending the ordinary and humble, but it sets life against art, or art against life.” Smith never involved herself in artistic movements and stayed rooted to the home and family she knew. And as her energies diminished with age, she focused on the things she saw immediately around her: her bed, her table, her windows, her mirror.

Some reviewers objected to Modjeska’s interjection of herself, of her own reflections, into her accounts of the lives and careers of Bowen and Smith. But Stravinsky’s Lunch is not really a work of biography as much as an exercise in understanding — and as much Modjeska’s self-understanding as her understanding of the two women she portrays. In 1999, perhaps it was just slightly too early for critics to be comfortable with a work that did not fit neatly into the boundaries of one particular genre, but I think we are seeing now a proliferation of books that sweep across genre boundaries with never a second thought. I hope today’s readers will be ready to seek out a copy of Stravinsky’s Lunch and enjoy it as thoroughly as I did.


Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska
New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999

Drawn from Life, by Stella Bowen (1941)

Cover of first edition of "Drawn from Life"I came to Stella Bowen’s memoir, Drawn from Life (1941), through Drusilla Modjeska’s wonderful book, Stravinsky’s Lunch (which I’ll discuss in a separate post). Born in Adelaide, Australia, Bowen met the writer Ford Madox Ford while studying art in London and they lived together from 1919 to 1927. Modjeska devotes the first half of her book to an account of how Bowen struggled to establish herself as an artist while simultaneously dealing with domestic demands — first of Ford and later as a single mother raising their daughter, Julie — and quotes liberally from Drawn from Life. It only took a few excerpts to convince me that I had to read more.

“The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country,” opens Drawn from Life, with a rhapsody about the landscape of Australia — which, ironically, she left at the age of 18 and never returned to. Though her father died when she was just three, her childhood, as she recounts it, was entirely conventional: “We were, in fact, a suburb of England.” Her mother was a staunch Victorian, pure and true in her principles, and Bowen acknowledges it “a privilege to be associated with anyone whose life is a simple and perfect demonstration of all that they believe.” Her mother did, however, bend a little, allowing Stella to take classes at an art school run by a pioneering woman painter, Rose McPherson.

When her mother died in early 1914 and Stella and her brother were left with an annuity of two hundred pounds a year, Stella seized an opportunity to accompany a friend’s family on a journey to England. In London, she studied painting under Walter Sickert, who drove the importance of seeing the unique visual features of any subject. “He taught one to trust one’s faithful eyes, and to open them wide. I had never before been required to look at things so minutely, and having looked, to record them with so little fuss.”

She also met a number of influential figures, starting with the poet Ezra Pound, and in early 1918, at one of Pound’s parties, she was introduced to Ford Madox Ford. They experienced an instant rapport. Bowen found him “quite simply the most enthralling person I had ever met.” He quickly began confiding in her about all his troubles, including his inability to divorce his wife and to disentangle himself from his lover, the writer Violet Hunt. Soon he was telling her that “he wished to place his person, his fortune, his future in my hands.” He was tired of the world and just wanted “to dig potatoes and raise pigs and never write another book.”

Within a year, after Ford’s discharge from the Army, they were moving into a tumble-down cottage in Sussex. It had a hole in the roof, continuously damp, and surrounded by mud whenever it rained, but they loved their hideaway. They bought some chickens and pigs and planted a garden. Not long after, Bowen became pregnant.

Although Ford had vowed to give up writing, it didn’t take long for them to realize they couldn’t survive without the income. He set to work on articles and a novel, eventually published in 1923 as The Marsden Case. Soon the rhythm of the house became set by Ford’s work:

He would retire upstairs to write, and leave me to wrestle with the dinner. At eight I would say, “are you ready to eat?” and he would reply, “in a minute.” At eight-thirty I would say, “It is eight-thirty, darling,” and he would reply, “Oh, give me another twenty minutes,” and I would return to the kitchen and concoct something extra — another vegetable, or a savoury. At nine I’d say, “what about it?” and he’d tell me to put the meal on the table. At nine-thirty I would suggest putting it back on the fire, to re-heat. “What!” he’d cry, “dinner on the table all this time? Why ever didn’t you tell me?” Well, we’d eat perhaps at ten, with enormous appetite, and discuss the progress of his book and of my cooking.

“We enjoyed ourselves,” Bowen writes, but the preservation of Ford’s “working conditions” meant that she had to take over most of the domestic chores and all of the responsibility for managing their affairs. “I must manage to keep all worries from him, which was difficult. It meant that I must not let him know how overdrawn we were at the bank, nor how big the bill from the corn mills had become, nor how badly we needed a paraffin tank.” It was not enough for Bowen to keep the pig from wandering off to the next farm or take care of all the cooking and cleaning and feeding while in the last months of her pregnancy. “If ever a man needed a fairy godmother, he did,” she eventually concluded. And meanwhile, her painting “had, of course, been hopelessly interfered with by the whole shape of my life….”

Stella Bowen: Self Portrait, 1928
Stella Bowen: Self Portrait, 1928
A major theme in Drawn from Life is the near-impossibility of a woman working as an artist when all her time, attention, and energy is devoted to caring for a man pursuing his own career. “I was learning the technique of a quite different role: that of consort to another and more important artist.” Bowen’s blunt eloquence makes this a pioneering work of feminism, on the order of Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own.” And still quite relevant, as the following quote from Jenny Offill’s recent novel, Dept. of Speculation: “I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”

Eventually, both Ford and Bowen came to resent the drudgery of rural life, and in 1922, they sold the cottage and, with daughter Julie in hand, headed for France. Their friend, the poet Harold Monro, had offered them the use of his tiny villa perched on a hilltop outside the town of Villefranche. Although the house was barely better furnished than their cottage, they relished the warmth of the Mediterranean weather, and Ford began working on Some Do Not …, the first volume of Parade’s End. The next spring, Ezra Pound’s wife Dorothy invited Bowen to join her on a tour of Tuscany, and the precise and flattened perspectives of Giotto’s murals strongly influenced her subsequent work.

They moved to Paris in September 1924, and were soon at the heart of the thriving expatriate scene. Ford’s brother, Oliver Hueffer, convinced him to take on the job of editing a new magazine he was establishing called the transatlantic review. Although the review failed after just one year, what a year that was. Ford has a marvelous gift for spotting good writing and collected pieces from Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and H. D., although with the first excerpts from James Joyce’s “Work in Progress” (Finnegans Wake). He also published the work of a fragile and destitute writer from the West Indies named Jean Rhys — and began an affair with her.

Though circumspect about the affair, the memory of it drives her to her most strident tones. She lumps Rhys in with a larger group of bohemians she refers to as “Wild Ones”: “It was quite all right to be dirty, drunk, a pervert or a thief or a whore, provided that you had a lively and an honest mind, and the courage of your instincts.” The affair was brief, however, and Ford and Bowen agreed to stay together in another rough villa outside Toulon for the winter of 1925-6.

Here, the Spanish painter Juan Gris encouraged Bowen to put her painting ahead of the matters of tending after Ford, and she managed to produce a number of vibrant landscapes. It was becoming clearer, however, that she could not continue to struggle with two competing demands, particularly not after being betrayed. When a French painter remarked that her work still seemed very immature, she thought in exasperation, “It is platitudinous to say so, but being a woman does set you back at great deal.” She refers to homemaking as a “specialization”: “Perhaps you never intended to devote your life to his kind of specialization, but society, and your own affections, and the fear of loneliness that besets us all, may keep you at it…. But beware: unlike other specialists, you will receive no promotion after years of faithful service. Your value in this profession will decline, and no record of long experience, or satisfaction given, will help you if you want to change your job.”

They made one last move back to Paris, and enjoyed something of a productive truce period. They placed their daughter in the care of a French woman outside the city and rented a space in Montparnasse where Bowen was able to set up a studio and the two worked during the week, visiting Julie on the weekends. But even with her own work space, Bowen found Ford constantly sending her out on errands: “I wish you’d go and sound so-and-so about such-and-such. I don’t want to do it myself, but it should be quite easy for you.”

Ford spent much of the next two winters in the United States, and Bowen was able to focus on her own work without distraction for the first time. Upon his return from his second trip to the U.S., however, Ford informed her that he had taken up with another woman painter, Janice Biala. That was enough for Bowen. She began action to take full custody of Julie and told the girl that Ford would no longer live with them. “I imagined that facing Paris without Ford was going to be full of difficulties,” she writes. Instead, “There were none. I felt chilly and forlorn at one moment and like a million dollars the next.”

Unfortunately, that feeling soon faded as Bowen confronted the practical obstacles of an increasingly unfavorable exchange rate and a crashing real estate market. Desperate for ways to bring in some much-needed cash, she took an opportunity raised by her American friend, Ramon Guthrie, and sailed for the U.S. where she could get portrait commissions and make several thousand dollars in the course of a few months. Though it helped her out of her financial straits, the visit to America makes for easily the weakest chapter in the book, one filled mostly with unremarkable observations about American life and culture.

By the time Bowen returned to Paris, it was clear that she could not afford to keep living in France, and she and Julie moved back to England, settling in London. With the onset of the Depression, work was almost impossible to get and the two struggled through some lean years. And Bowen found herself temperamentally out of place: “I dare say I have never known how to communicate with people in the English idiom.” In Paris or New York, she could manage to carry on conversations, tossing the ball back and forth with others. In London, however, the conversational ball “crashes to the ground where it lies looking like a suet pudding under the cold and silent eyes of the company. Agony!”

After a few years, she managed to make some headway. “I developed a technique for doing portrait sketches in two or three days and got a good many orders.” Julie studied set design at the London Theatre School and Bowen found a quiet cottage to her tastes in Green End, a hamlet in the Norfolk countryside east of London. Janice Biala contacted them saying that Ford was dying and Julie traveled to Honfleur, France to see her father one last time. It was June 1939.

Drawn from Life closes as summer 1940 nears. Though military encampments are being set up around Green End and the possibility of evacuation is being whispered about, for Bown, “Mostly I feel this is my last ditch.” Earlier, she wrote, “Four times in my life I have gone away with two suitcases, leaving all behind me, never to return,” but she was ready to “stay put and take what comes.”

Three group portraits painted for the Australian War Memorial by Stella Bowen
Three group portraits painted for the Australian War Memorial by Stella Bowen

Though written on the promise of popular interest in her relationship with Ford, Drawn from Life earned Bowen little more than her advance, and she struggled to keep things going until late 1943, when she was commissioned to paint for the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. She produced several dozen canvas over the next two years, including several group portraits of Australian bomber crews that evoke the murals of Giotto that she’d seen in Italy with Dorothy Pound. Before the war ended, however, she had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and, after a short remission, she died in October 1947 at her home in Green End.

Drawn from Life deserves to be recognized as a minor classic. It’s a fiercely feminist text, one that echoes the messages of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech, “The Solitude of Self,” and anticipates The Feminine Mystique and other works of decades later:

If you are a woman, and you want to have a life of your own, it would probably be better for you to fall in love at seventeen, be seduced, and abandoned, and your baby die. If you survived this, you might go far! Otherwise, emerging from a love-affair into the position of a middle-aged housekeeper, you may suffer the most desperate sensations of constriction and futility which your situation will give you little chance to survive.

At present, there appear to be around thirty copies available for sale, with prices starting at over $20 and ending at over $2,000, according to a search on AddAll.com. First published in the UK in 1941, when a paper shortage ruled out the possibility of any immediate reissue, it’s been republished several times (in 1976 by George Mann, a small regional UK press, in 1984 by Virago, and in 1999 by Picador in Australia), but none of these were large quantity runs and (I’d like to think), it’s a book that, once bought, people tend to hang onto.


Drawn from Life: Reminiscences, by Stella Bowen
London: Collins Publishers, 1941

Men of Capital, by Catherine Gore (1846)

A portrait of Catherine Gore
A portrait of Catherine Gore
I’ve had Catherine Gore on my list long before I started focusing on the works of women writers in the last two years. Gore was perhaps the most prolific authors of Regency and early Victorian era genre known as the silver fork or “fashionable” novel. As Tamara Wagner describes the silver fork novel on Victorianweb.org, “it was at once escapist in describing former elegance and glitter, anticipating the genre of the Regency Romance, and censorious in judging the frivolities and often supercilious emphasis on the aesthetic rather than the moral that characterised aristocratic high society.” At the time, these books sold like hot-cakes. By many estimates, one of the most representative silver fork novels, Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham , was the single biggest bestseller of 19th century England. They indulged the fascination of a large share of the British reading public with the details of what the rich wore and ate, of the interiors and exteriors of their city houses and country estates, and of their manners and affairs.

Although the “silver fork” label is usually applied to works from this period, some consider it a genre that’s never gone out of style. As recently as 2008, Diane Johnson opened a New York Times review of Alex Witchel’s novel, The Spare Wife by asking the question, “Is it a ‘silver fork’ novel?” Silver fork novels, she argued, were “a subgenre that has been around almost as long as novels themselves, affording the reader the double pleasures of following the lives of the aristocracy and scorning its mindless snobbery, triviality and malice.” They allow us to peek in on “a world most of us can only participate in vicariously.” In other words, the literary equivalent of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or Keeping Up with the Kardashians–or, what comedian Jim Gaffigan calls “McDonald’s of the soul”: “Momentary pleasure followed by incredible guilt eventually leading to cancer.”

But my theory was that somewhere in Catherine Gore’s 60-plus pile of silver fork trash there must be a pony. And so I’ve carried a half-dozen of her books, none of which are now in print (I refuse to include the crap that comes from Kessingers and other print on demand recyclers of public domain material), on my Kindle for a couple of years, waiting for an opportune time to dive in. That time came recently, on a long flight from Frankfurt to Seattle, and so I launched into Men of Capital (1846) with an open mind, leaving it up to Gore to win me over.

“Few will deny that the age we live in is the age of Money-worship,” she writes in her preface, clearly declaring the moral tone she would be taking. While she credits the spirit of capitalism “constitutes a fertile source of national greatness,” she also identifies as one of its most corrupting elements a practice dating back to the Middle Ages: “One of the chief causes which render this pursuit a bitterer as well as more pardonable struggle in England than on the Continent, is the unequal and capricious distribution of family property.” She’s referring to primogeniture, the automatic inheritance by the first son of the entire estate — leaving any succeeding children to fend for themselves on a small annual income or the charity of their elder brother.

In “Man of Capital,” the first of the two novels that comprise Men of Capital“>Men of Capital, Gore illustrates the effects — good and bad — of primogeniture on the younger sons. It opens by introducing us to Bartholomew (Barty) Brookes, a daredevil younger son. Though he follows his older brother to Eton, their paths diverge from that point on. Sir Robert Brookes goes on to Oxford and becomes master of Wrenhurst Park, their father having died when they were still boys. Barty learns early on “that a man must square his elbows who has to push his way through the crowd; while his elder understood the wisdom of standing still, that his way might be pushed for him.”

An officer in the Life Guards regiment, 1837
An officer in the Life Guards regiment, 1837
Barty secures a commission in a Guards regiment through a family connection but quickly discovers that in the high-spending world of hunts, balls, and card-games in London clubs, five hundred pounds a year doesn’t go very far. At this point, he meets Percy, a fellow younger son in his regiment. It is Percy who narrates the story, which soon becomes as much about him as about Barty. Barty is easily the most popular lieutenant around, charming his way into invitations to country house weekends while Percy remains in barracks, reading about nature and taking long walks in the countryside. Percy confesses — in a passage that only a woman could have written — that,

Men by themselves, and in numbers, are the greatest beasts on earth. Like trees, they require thinning out from the plantation, to acquire anything like dignity of proportion ; and it is only by associating with women that the higher qualities of their nature are developed. The earthly particles require too much preponderance when fed with nothing but cigars, brandy-and-water, and the unlicensed gossip of bachelorhood.

But the two share their misery as paupers in a unit full of lords and baronets. They also share secret passions for beautiful but poor young women: Barty for Emma, orphan ward of his guardian, Justinian Broadham, M. P., and Percy for Barty’s own sister, Harriet. The two sets of lovers pledge their respective troths to wait for a day when they can wed and live on in humble happiness. But when Barty learns that his brother has up and married Emma, something cracks within him, and he sets his aim on finding the quickest route to a fortune he can. When Juckeson, a millionaire from the spice trade, acquires a grand estate near the regiment’s garrison outside Windsor, Barty begins stalking Juckeson’s daughter, Sabina.

The true heart of the story, though, is less about Barty than about the narrator himself. Walking in the Windsor Forest one day, he meets Mr. Stanley, an elderly gentleman, as they shelter together from a sudden rainstorm. Stanley invites him home for dinner, where Percy meets the very beautiful (and much younger) Mrs. Stanley. He hears that his friend Barty has been a regular visitor, and eventually realizes that Stanley had been wandering about the forest in hopes of catching Barty en route to a rendezvous with Mrs. Stanley.

Mr. Stanley and Percy soon become close friends, but a few months later, while on leave, Percy reads a death notice for Mr. Stanley. When he returns to Windsor, he learns that Stanley died from despair. And when he sees Mrs. Stanley again, he realizes why. Mrs. Stanley is … well … with child.

Percy proves himself a good Christian and sticks with Mrs. Stanley through her difficulties, shielding from her the fact that her husband took his revenge upon her infidelity in his will, leaving her to become destitute upon the birth of the child. And twisted the knife by dictating that the child be taken from her and sent to a guardian in London. The bad things continue to snowball until both child and mother are dead and Percy is left to pick up the pieces.

The dramatic twists don’t end there, though. The last thirty pages of “The Man of Capital” is chock full of plot turns, and the story ends in a lovely but tragic scene as the wheels of Percy’s coach roll through his beloved Harriet’s village, crushing the flowers from her wedding into the dirt, as he moves on to a new life as a “Man of Capital” like his former friend, Barty.

The second novel, “Old Families and New,” is longer and less effective than its predecessor. Gore contrasts the haughty Squire Cromer, a man of old blood, with Mordaunt, a man of new wealth from his Manchester cotton mills and his shares in the regional railroad. Gore writes cynically of Cromer that,

Of modern improvements in rural economy he knew nothing, and took care not to improve his knowledge either by reading or observation; while, as to refurnishing or remodelling his house, nothing short of a fire would have driven him to so dire an extremity. It was an article of religion with him that every thing should remain in the state in which, at the marriage of his father, sixty years before, Cromer Hall had been fitted up in honour of the bride.

She also reaches back to an old plot warhorse, the romance between the children of two feuding families. Squire Cromer vehemently opposes his daughter’s marriage to Mordaunt’s son, declaring, “I would as soon have my blood mix with that of the hangman, as with that of a Manchester cotton-spinner.” Like “A Man of Capital,” the story ends with a wedding — but a happy one this time around. Which, of course, is why you know it’s a bit of a let-down after the juicy drama and hanky-wringing tragedy of “A Man of Capital.”

An anonymous reviewer, assessing one of Catherine Gore’s novels for the Westminster Review, once wrote, “We do not deny the smartness, and occasionally, the shrewdness, of Mrs. Gore’s views of manners and life, but still we are far from tracing even a remote resemblance between the labours of the two ladies. Miss Austin’s [sic] novels are histories of the human heart, and in the more occasional parts, wonderfully exact analyses of character and disposition: whereas, in Mrs. Gore’s books, we can see little more than a series of brilliant sketches, bordering occasionally on the caricature.” Which, as April Kendra put it, is a little like Lloyd Bentsen’s retort to Dan Quayle, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

But honestly, isn’t any attempt to equate the work of two writers a bit of a slap in the face to one or both of them? Catherine Gore spent most of her life writing at a frantic pace to bring in enough cash to keep an unemployed husband and a house full of children (she bore ten, only two of whom survived to adulthood), so it’s not surprising that the average artistic quality level of her output might come in a few notches below Jane Austen’s. What should matter for a reader is whether the reading experience of a book proves worth the time invested. For me, “A Man of Capital” was more entertaining and more interesting than any movie Lufthansa had to offer, while “Old Families and New” tested my commitment to get through at least one of Catherine Gore’s books. “A Man of Capital” would make a terrific little show on BBC or Masterpiece Theatre. it moves, has a core cast of well-rounded characters, and plenty of plot twists to keep the momentum rolling. Its companion piece, “Old Families and New,” on the other hand, does come off a bit too stale and predictable to recommend to any but a Gore absolutist — and I suspect there aren’t any of them still walking the planet.

Men of Capital is available on the Internet Archive in the original 1846 three-volume edition (Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3) and in a one-volume edition from 1857 (link).


Men of Capital, by Catherine Gore
London: Henry Colburn, 1846

The World of Charmian Clift (1970)

Cover of Fontana Paperbacks edition of 'The World of Charmian Clift'Neglect is a relative term, particularly when you look at writers from a global perspective. Charmian Clift is a good example. In the U.S., she gained slight notice for her two books about life on a Greek island back in the 1950s, disappeared after that, and is utterly unknown today. In Australia, she and her husband, the novelist George Johnston are major figures in the country’s cultural history, and adjectives such as myth, legend and phenomenon are attached to her story, and this collection of her essays can be found on the Australian Society of Authors’ list of the 200 Greatest Works of Australian Literature.

George Johnston and Charmian Clift, soon after marrying in 1947
George Johnston and Charmian Clift, soon after marrying in 1947
Had Clift been American and People magazine been in business during her life, she would have been a staple of the supermarket check-out aisles. Beautiful, smart, and talented, she was already gaining considerable publicity and attention before she met and married Johnston, who was one of the most dashing of Australia’s war correspondents and a rising figure in the country’s postwar literary scene. Their romance scandalized some, as Johnston was married and eleven years older. They collaborated on a novel set in Tibet, The High Valley (1947), that won the Sydney Morning Herald award as the best Australia novel–the first of three they would write together. A vocal opponent of the government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, Johnston left Australia in 1950 to take a job as a correspondent in London, bringing along Clift and their two young children.

After a few years in chilly England, chafing against the constraints of journalism, Johnston quit his job as correspondent and the family moved to Greece in 1954, where they soon set up house on the small island of Hydra. Their dream was to enjoy the warm weather, cheap living, and freedom from distractions and concentrate on writing. And at first it worked. George wrote several novels, as well as a number of thrillers under the name of “Shane Martin” (the names of their first two children), and Charmian wrote two books about life on the island: Mermaid Singing (1956) and Peel Me a Lotus (1959).

But although Hydra was a small and largely forgotten island, it had attracted a fair number of expatriates, and some of them, like Johnston and Clift, were hard drinkers and partiers. They collected in the back room of a small grocery store run by the Katsikas brothers, and soon the parties were starting right around noon and running all night. Hydra’s reputation as a haven for bohemians spread, attracting, among others, the young Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen, who bought a house there in 1960. Photographer James Burke visited the island and made the expat scene the subject of a photo essay, with Clift and Johnston prominently featured. Both passionate people, Johnston and Clift gave vent to their feelings when drinking, and became known for their bitter fights. Cohen would later write of the couple that they “drank more than other people, they wrote more, they got sick more, they got well more, they cursed more, they blessed more, and they helped a great deal more. They were an inspiration.”

George Johnston and Charmian Clift and their children, shortly before leaving Hydra
George Johnston and Charmian Clift and their children, shortly before leaving Hydra
And, despite the warmth of the Greek summers, life in an unheated house took its toll on Johnston, who never enjoyed the most robust constitution. He contracted tuberculosis, and spent long months incapacitated, which cut into his time for writing and hence the family’s income. Finally, he borrowed some money and flew back to Australia in 1964, and Clift followed him soon after with their children (now three with the addition of Jason, born on Hydra).

Johnston’s health continued to decline, although he was able to complete his autobiographical novel, My Brother Jack (1965), now considered an Australian classic. But Clift had to take over as the main breadwinner, and, by happy coincidence, was offered the job of writing a weekly column in the women’s section of the Melbourne Herald and Sydney Morning Herald. The papers published a large ad announcing Clift’s engagement alongside her first column featuring her photo and mentioning the couple’s recent return from Greece.

Clift’s first piece (titled “Coming Home” but changed by the editors to “Has the Old Place Really Changed?”) reflected on the contrasts between the landscapes, urban environments, and people of Greece and Australia. She remarked how often her old acquaintances would tell her, “The old place has changed quite a bit since you saw it last.” But, in fact, she noted, many of the characteristics of Australian life — characteristics that had led her and Johnston to leave ten years earlier — hadn’t changed. It was, she found, still a country wrapped up in its concerns for conformity.

Though the column came to her largely as an accident, the timing was perfect. Australian society was beginning to open up, influenced by the racial, sexual, and cultural changes it saw happening in England and America. Before Clift began writing, the women’s page of the Herald confined itself to lightweight pieces on beauty, fashion, food, and child-rearing. Clift’s style and outlook was anything but conventional. Though her debut column noted that Australia’s symbolism was growing old, she saw on the horizon “a real cultural and social flowering, spiky and wild and refreshing and strange and unquestionably rooted in native soil.”

And she was aware of significant geopolitical changes on the horizon as well. The Menzies government introduced military conscription for young men the same month that Clift began writing her column, and soon after began increasing its commitment of troops to support the Americans and South Vietnamese in Vietnam. At the same time, Asian immigration was being seen as a threat to the Australian economy and identity. Clift argued that the shift was inevitable:

Indeed, our national policy might be dedicated to the proposition that we stay, racially, as we are — 98..7 per cent European excluding the Aborigines (although it seems doubtful whether the Aborigines are going to go on meekly submitting to exclusion) — but since the end of the war it has been impossible for any one of us, as Europeans, to ignore the fact that two great continents, teeming with the differently coloured skins that comprise half the world’s population, lie between us and home base….

Coming back to Australia one is even more conscious of Asia. Not as the Far East. Not as the Near North. Not even as Our Neighbours. One is conscious of Asia as the place where one lives.

But what set out Clift’s columns from anything that had preceded them was how personal and intimate her voice was. There was really no concession to objectivity or fitting into a pattern. She wrote about the passing of the kitchen as the focus of family life, or the act of transcribing the addresses of friends and family members from an old address book to a new one, or of the wonder of discovering a jungle filled with “billions of nasturtiums” at the bottom of a ravine near her house. “I am becoming addicted to sunrises,” she wrote in one piece:

I suspect I always was, only these days I get up for them instead of staying up for them. Staying up needs stamina I don’t have any more, although I remember with pleasure those more romantic and reckless days when it was usual for revelries to end at dawn in early morning markets, all-night cafes or railway refreshment rooms, with breakfasts of meat pies and hot dogs and big thick mugs of tea, or — in other countries — croissants and cafes au lait, bowls of tripe-and-onion soup, skewered bits of lamb wrapped in a pancake with herbs and yoghourt, in the company of truckers and gipsies and sailors and street-sweepers and wharf-labourers and crumpled ladies with smeary mascara: it is amazing how many people and of what a rich variety belong to that indeterminate dawn time. Real enjoyment of this sort of thing depends, probably, on a sense of drama, the resilience of youth, and whether you can get in a decent kip after.

Clift quickly gained a large and loyal following of readers, both women and men, who had been hungering for something original and alive in their routine newpaper fare. She was able consistently to convey, as Nadia Wheatley put it, “the sense that the writer is conducting a two-way conversation — a dialogue — with the reader.” Less than a year after she had begun the column, her first collection, Images in Aspic, was published with an introduction by Johnston. “Charmian Clift writes thoughtfully and carefully,” he wrote.

She is concerned with style, elegance, choice of the exact word. She often writes very long, unjournalistic sentences. She takes time to muse, to reflect, to drive through experience. If this is daily journalism it is very different from anything in my experience.

Johnston’s health continued to deteriorate during this time, however, and he had to be hospitalized for the better part of a year. Clift took over the job of writing the script for the television series based on My Brother Jack, and her hopes of finding the time and energy to write another novel faded. Despite the success of her essays with newspaper readers, she was sensitive to the fact that she was working in a generally disrespected form. As Wheatley writes, “Through the beauty of her prose style and her mastery of the essay form, Charmian Clift was putting literature onto the breakfast tables of these thousands of very different Australians. Yet there has always been a kind of critical question mark over her place as a writer. She herself got to the heart of the matter when she told David Higham that she was ‘writing essays for the weekly presses to be read by people who wouldn’t know an essay from a form-guide, but absolutely love it.’ The problem, as far as her reputation is concerned, is that she was writing essays at the wrong time and in the wrong place.”

Though she prided herself on her commitment to the regular schedule of writing the column, as she entered her forties, she appears to have begun to feel trapped.

Clift and Johnston with their children in 1969, shortly before Clift's suicide
Clift and Johnston with their children in 1969, shortly before Clift’s suicide

It didn’t help that she and Johnston had continued to be heavy drinkers. Some of the inevitable physical damage of prolonged alcohol abuse can be seen in photographs from this period. She began to suffer from depression, perhaps connected with the onset of menopause. Finally, one night in July 1969, after an evening of drinking and fighting with Johnston, she swallowed a bottle’s worth of his sleeping pills, laid down on their couch, and never woke up.

The news of Clift’s suicide came as a huge blow to her readers. According to one observer, “Thousands couldn’t believe it, bombarded the Herald with inquiries and sent the switchboard berserk.” The paper published a special Letters to the Editor section a few days later to accommodate just some of the thousands of letters sent in. The critic Allan Ashbolt wrote in a lengthy obituary piece published in the Herald, “As a columnist she found, I think, a role eminently suited to her witty and humane outlook…. She went straight to the human essence of any problem, straight to what a situation would mean in human happiness or suffering.”

Johnston assembled a second collection of her Herald essays, The World of Charmian Clift in 1970, and it was reissued again in 1983. In the second edition, her son Martin, who had by then become recognized as one of Australia’s leading poets, wrote,

For most writers with only a couple of novels — by no means bestsellers — a couple of travel books, and miscellaneous essays to their credit, that would have been that. And yet it hasn’t been. I couldn’t begin to count the number of people who’ve asked me, ever since my mother’s death, when they could expect a re-issue of one or all of the books, so I can hardly be alone in welcoming this one.

For the Johnston family, however, the tragedy continued to play out after Charmian’s suicide. George died just after The World of Charmian Clift was published. Their daughter Shane committed suicide three years later, and Martin died of the effects of alcoholism in 1990 at the age of 42.

In 2002, Suzanne Chick published Searching for Charmian: The Daughter Charmian Clift Gave Away Discovers the Mother She Never Knew. Working with newly opened adoption files, Chick discovered that her birth mother was none other than Clift, who apparently became pregnant at 19 and gave up the baby for adoption. Chick’s book is written in the form of parallel biographies, and though she harbored an unavoidable resentment toward Clift, her writing is fluid and remarkably empathetic. This was followed by several other books about Clift and Johnston, including Susan Johnson’s fictionalization, The Broken Book (2006) and Nadia Wheatley’s superb biography, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (2014).

Several of Clift’s books, including a collection of her essays, are available in Kindle format from Amazon Australia. Aside from these, however, her other works are all out of print.


The World of Charmian Clift
Sydney, Australia: Ure Smith, 1970