Louise Bogan didn’t write her autobiography. Or rather, she didn’t write this book. Always an intensely private person, she rarely risked putting details about her life in print, preferring to confide in her own diaries and journals and, occasionally, in letters to a few friends. “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself,” she once wrote. “Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”
Journey Around My Room was assembled some years after Bogan’s death in 1970 by her literary executor, Ruth Limmer, a professor of English at Goucher College, after the idea was suggested by Amanda Vaill, then an editor at Viking. Limmer framed the work in rough chronological order, using text from a story Bogan published in The New Yorker in 1933 titled “Journey Around My Room” as introduction, close, and chapter prefaces. She also used the lines from one of Bogan’s poems, “Train Tune” (“Back through clouds/Back through clearing/Back through distance/Back through silence…”) as chapter titles. Finally, she pulled from the mass of papers Bogan left extracts from journals, notebooks, poems, letters, short stories, scraps of paper, essays, even recorded conversations hundreds of fragments, the tesserae from which she assembled this mosaic.
The rough and vulgar facts are not there. Without the outline of Bogan’s life that Limmer provides in her autobiography, the reader would not know when she was born, that she was briefly married, to a soldier with whom she had almost nothing in common, that she had a daughter and then left him, that she had a second marriage, to writer Raymond Holden, that also ended, that she had an affair with Theodore Roethke and an infatuation with Edmund Wilson, that she served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, that she was hospitalized several times for depression, that she spent much of her later life living alone in what she called the faubourg of Washington Heights. Bogan explained her reticence as an attempt to make sure that future researchers into her life would have to work for their pay, but the truth was simpler: her solitude was essential to both her work and her survival.
William Jay Smith, one of her few close friends, with whom she collaborated on a collection of poems for children, wrote after her death that when he used to call her up to meet for lunch, Bogan would always decline, saying she had a dentist appointment. He eventually figured out that no one could need so much dental work. As Limmer puts it, “She came first.” She once wrote, in response to a questionnaire she set for herself, that her wish was “To live without apology.” She had no desire to confess her sins and no interest in trumpeting her virtues. “The fact of the matter,” Limmer writes, “is that Bogan was far more absorbed by the texture and meaning of experience than with the events giving rise to them.”
Bogan’s childhood experiences clearly did much to shape her sensibility and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Her father was a reticent man who held a series of jobs in small mill towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, moving the family every few years. Her mother was the catalyst of the explosions and scandals that led the family to pull up stakes. “The secret family angers and secret disruptions passed over my head,” Bogan writes, but she does remember one scene: “The curved lid of the trunk is thrown back, and my mother is bending over the trunk, and packing things into it. She is crying and she screams. My father, somewhere in the shadows, groans as though he has been hurt. It is a scene of the utmost terror.”
From Elizabeth Frank’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan: A Portrait (1986), one can learn that Bogan’s mother saw herself as a great beauty and pursued men she met in the hotels and boardinghouses in which the family often stayed. She was victim to “her own vanity’s desire for praise and love.” She left her husband on at least one occasion and always considered him unworthy of her. As she grew older, her pursuits more and more ended in frustration. A certain level of resentment and impending chaos simmered throughout Bogan’s childhood. “I had no idea of ordered living.” No wonder she remembers such affection for the home in which her friend Ethel Gardner lived. “I can only express my delight and happiness with the Gardners’ way of living by saying that they had one of everything.”
Eventually Bogan’s mother surrendered her hopes of romantic escape and the family settled in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Boston. Revisiting the area as an adult, Bogan found the sense of failure overwhelming: “I felt the consuming, destroying, deforming passage of time; and the spectacle of my family’s complete helplessness, in the face of their difficulties, swept over me.” Yet she also recognizes that “The thing to remember, and ‘dwell on,’ is the extraordinary courage manifested by those two disparate, unawakened (if not actually lost) souls: my mother and father.” What little money they had paid for music lessons for Louise and her brother, for occasional theater tickets, for tram fares to the Girl’s Latin School, from which Louise graduated in 1915. And they survived “in this purgatory — with an open hell in close relation.”
Again, for what happened next we have to turn to Limmer’s introduction or Frank’s biography. Bogan attended Boston University for year and was offered a scholarship to Radcliffe. She had begun to attract some attention for her writing, getting a number of poems published as a freshman. She chose instead to marry an Army corporal named Curtis Alexander and followed him when he was assigned to a post in the Panama Canal Zone. She found the life unendurable. “All we had in common was sex. Nothing to talk about. We played cards.” She took her baby, Maidie, back to Boston in May 1918. A few months later, the family was notified that Bogan’s brother Charles had been killed in a battle in the Haumont Woods in France. The news devastated Bogan’s mother, leaving her emotionally shattered for the rest of her life. About a year later, Alexander died.
Bogan took the meager widow’s pension from the Army and used the money to pay for a trip to Europe. She spent a year in Vienna studying piano, reading Tolstoy, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, and writing. Then she returned to the U. S., settling in New York City, where her first collection of poems, Body of This Death (1923), was published. Her portrait appeared, along with those of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, and Genevieve Taggard in a Vanity Fair article, “Distinguished American Women Poets Who Have Made the Lyric Verse Written by Women in America More Interesting Than That of the Men.”
She began a relationship with Raymond Holden and they married in 1925. She was invited for a stay at the Yaddo Colony and published her second collection, Dark Summer (1929). On Boxing Day 1929, the house she and Holden were living in burned down, taking with it almost all of her first ten years’ work. Her relationship with Holden was troubled by her jealousy and their mutual heavy drinking, and she entered a sanitarium, complaining of depression and exhaustion. There would be more such stays in the next thirty years. She took advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1933 to return to Europe, this time spending the spring and summer in Italy and France.
She separated from Holden in 1934, began her affair with Roethke in 1935, and lived by writing reviews and stories for The New Yorker and other magazines. These stories, which can be found in Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (2005), edited by Mary Kinzie, were impressionistic but clearly autobiographical, and Bogan discussed the possibility of building a novel, to be titled Laura Daly’s Story, with an editor at Scribner’s. Limmer incorporates passages from several of the stories into Journey Around My Room.
By the end of the 1930s, Bogan had divorced Holden, taken up residence in the apartment in Morningside Heights that she maintained to the end of her life, and become the regular poetry editor for The New Yorker. Over the next three decades, she continued to write, if more slowly as time wore on, and kept up a steady round of engagements as a lecturer and visiting professor at colleges around the U. S.. She published three more collections, one per decade: Poems and New Poems (1941), Collected Poems, 1923-1953 (1954) and The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968).
Unlike many of her peers, she avoided involvement with social causes, and one would have little idea what was going on in the outside world, as well as her own life, from reading Journey Around My Room. “What is staler than old politics?” she once wrote. “It is like walking over old furnace cinders to read what once was news of political chicanery or change.” Her foremost concern was her own work. “Saw my real, half-withered, silly face in a shop mirror on the street, under the bald light of an evening shower, and shuddered. The woman who died without producing an oeuvre. The woman who ran away.”
Bogan felt her talent doomed her to insignificance.”‘My time will come,’ you say to yourself, but how can you know whether or not your time has not already come and gone?”:
Perhaps it has been spent, all spent, squandered out, in taking streetcars, drinking gin, smoking cigarettes — in connubial love, in thousands of books devoured by the eye, in eating sewing, in suspicions, tears, jealousy, hatred, and fear. Perhaps it is now, on a dark day in October, in the bedroom where you sit with emptiness in your body and heart; beside the small fire, drying your hair — older, more tired, desperately silent, unhappily alone, with faith and daydreams (perhaps luckily) broken and disappearing, with the dreadful pain in your shoulder which presages dissolution, infection, and age.
This is not to suggest that she faded away in lonely isolation. While Journey Around My Room shows us a woman who spent a great deal of time exploring the deeper currents of her spirit, an hour reading her letters, particularly those from the Forties on, in What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters makes it clear that she never lost touch with what was going on around her. She read copiously and was quick to recommend books to her friends. She went to plays and kept up with the movies, taking delight in Jules and Jim and other films that hit the New York art houses in the Fifties and Sixties. She loved an occasional indulgent dip into gossip and could toss out razor-sharp barbs when in the mood.
But she also struggled increasingly with depression and was frustrated by the necessity for — and the effects — of the the drugs she took to cope with it. “This morning I thought that the 1st pill was going to see me through; a clear, untroubled interval would show up (take over) every so often…. But soon that secondary sort of yearning hunger (which is not real hunger, but is in some way attached to the drug) began again.” She found less and less energy to write. “Any true writing … will have to be done in the afternoon.” The unpublished poems Limmer includes in the last chapter, “Back through the midnight,” however, reveal that Bogan maintained some amount of hope that this, too, would pass:
The Castle of My Heart
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I lived for long with little joy.
For Falsest Danger, with its counterpart
Sorrow, has made this siege its long employ.
Now lift the siege, for in your bravest part
Full power exists, most eager for employ;
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I have lived for long with little joy.
Do not let Peril play its lordly part;
Show up the bad game’s bait, and its employ.
Nor, for a moment, strut as future’s toy.
Advanced, and guard your honor and my art.
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart.
Six months before her death, she wrote her long-time New Yorker editor, William Maxwell:
The struggle with silence still goes on. —But I plan some secretarial help, after the holiday. If this doesn’t help, I’ll have another conference with you; and plan some strategy. Surely I can outwit this thing! I don’t want to give up just yet.
Louise Bogan died in her apartment, in the early hours of February 1970, of a heart attack.
“Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remark (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry of the cahier,” she once complained. Yet the scraps she left and the mosaic that Limmer assembled from them are breathtaking in its power, truth, and beauty. Journey Around My Room has not left my nightstand since I first read it over 18 months ago. I have discovered and written about many good books over the course of the past ten years, but I am conservative in the use of words like “great” and “masterpiece.” Journey Around My Room is a masterpiece, one of the truly great American autobiographies. Every time I open it I find something stunning in its honesty and insight.
Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer
New York: The Viking Press, 1980
On 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
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.
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.”
Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, by Val Wilmer
London: The Women’s Press Limited, 1989
“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.”
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.
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”).
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
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….”
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.”
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
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’sPelham , 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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
About the time I was well into reading through Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage a couple of months ago, I discovered that Kate Macdonald, Visiting Fellow at the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading and fellow Brussels expat, was also working through the series and posting about it on her blog. So I asked if she would be willing to undertake a dialogue about the experience and our respective thoughts on the work as seen from a distance of nearly a hundred years and in the context of the literature of its time and since, and she agreed most generously. The following is being posted simultaneously to our blogs, in hopes that one of us might inspire other intrepid readers to discover the fascinations (and frustrations) of Pilgrimage.
Brad: Congratulations on finishing Pilgrimage! It’s a happy coincidence that we both chose to tackle Dorothy Richardson’s magnum opus at the same time, since Pilgrimage is certainly a work that, once read in its entirety, one feels compelled to talk about with others. And given its relative neglect, there aren’t a lot of other readers who’ve made it through all thirteen novels.
With a work of this magnitude, there is an enormous number of possible topics to discuss–starting with the question of how to refer to it: Is it one novel in thirteen “chapters,” as Richardson sometimes referred to it? Is it thirteen novels linked through a common narrative? Is it in fact a novel or fictionalized autobiography? But lest we get bogged down counting angels on a pin, let’s start with a basic question: what was your experience of reading Pilgrimage?
For me, it was an endeavor that consumed a large share of my time and attention over the course of a month or so. I chose to read the 2,000-plus pages straight through and set myself a quota of pages to complete each day. As Richardson writes in a highly impressionistic style that often takes liberties with time and narrative continuity, I found it challenging as I sat at the dining room table, pencil in hand, and with George Thomson’s Reader’s Guide nearby to help explain the many glancing and cryptic references in the text.
On the other hand, I found it profoundly illuminating to spend so much time looking at the world through the eyes of a woman who dedicated herself so utterly to understanding her own thoughts, experiences, and emotions. I’ve been exclusively reading the works of women writers for the last year or so, but nothing else I’ve read in that time was so immersive and so forcefully different from a male perspective. And yet, though Richardson is at times almost strident in her feminism, in the end, I think what distinguishes Pilgrimage is its dedication to the importance of individual identity. I found its emphasis on making–and accepting the consequences of–one’s own choices very contemporary.
How did it seem from your side of the gender divide?
Kate: That’s a very disciplined approach! I let the structure of the novels, and the edition I was using (the 1938 4-volume Cresset press) dictiate how I read the sequence. When I finished a novel (and sometimes when I’d stopped for the night, still with chapters to get through), I wrote it up in my reading diary. This was essential: I could not have recalled much of the plot, the events, my responses and my unfolding thoughts about her writing, without recording as much as I could along the way. Once I’d fnished reading a novel, I sometimes went straight onto the next one, but I also often took a break and read some science fiction, or a novel I needed to review.
I found Miriam a demanding narrative voice, and don’t like her very much, but her London life resonated very strongly with me. I agree with you about the immersive power of the reading experience in that respect. I too (I think I’ve already said this in my earlier blog about Backwater and Honeycomb) was a young woman earning my own living in my twenties, alone in London, with not many friends, but revelling passionately in the freedom and opportunities for finding out what I liked to do and who I wanted to be. I spent a lot of time in and around Bloomsbury, as I was reading for my PhD at University College London, so I know the ‘Tansley Street’ and Euston areas well. All her midnight wanderings and long walks, and her dingy rooms and uncongenial neighbours: been there, done that too.
I found Richardson’s feminism less strident than you. I was very aware (because I’m a book historian) that DR was writing these novels as historical accounts, and so although Miriam was discovering feminism, and suffragism, for DR these issues were old hat when the novels they appeared in were published. (Some) women received the vote in 1919, when only the second or third novel was published, so when Amabel was in prison for militant suffragism, her first readers were in the 1930s, and about to receive full suffrage for all women. But at the same time, these novels were probaby among the first historical accounts of the very recent advances in feminist history (as opposed to the suffrage fiction published at the time of the Suffrage campaigns), so they were powerful even for their first readers.
I didn’t have the Readers’ Guide (until you lent it to me much later), so I wasn’t able to check things as i read. Though I did some research online to sort out Richardson’s connection to H G Wells. It was obvious when Hypo Wilson appeared that he was Wells: such an opinionated, obnoxious little man. (Though I enjoy his fiction greatly, had I ever met him I would have slapped him for his condescending philandering and preying on young women.) I was content to absorb the novels’ characters and settings as probably based on Richardson’s own life, but it wasn’t important for me to find out the ‘real’ source, because these are novels, not autobiography. I was determined to read them as fiction.
Which produces my question: did you read these novels as conventional, linear realist fiction, in which a plot and characters are constructed and arranged to produce what we in the trade call ‘rising and falling action’, ie a simulation of tragedy, or any other kind of story, that is tidily contained within the novel’s beginning and end? Or were you able to read the texts more impressionistically, to follow her ‘stream of consciousness’ experiment? (Thank you, May Sinclair, for that genius descriptive term.) I ask because I don’t think many of the Pilgrimage novels are a success as a pure stream of consciousness, as with (the inevitable) Mrs Dalloway, or as a slice of unplotted, no beginning-and-end life, as in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them.
Brad: I didn’t read Pilgrimage as conventional linear fiction, or at least that wasn’t the way I perceived the novels. To me, the story is far less about what happens to Miriam than about how her understanding of herself develops. Richardson clearly found herself by far the most fascinating character in her own story, which is probably one reason why Miriam isn’t fiction’s most likeable character.
I’d have to agree with you that Pilgrimage isn’t purely a stream of consciousness narrative. It’s really more of a hybrid, a mix of two different generations of fiction, if you will. Don’t forget that the writer who most influenced Richardson was Henry James (remember Miriam’s revery over The Ambassadors in the early part of The Trap?). So throughout the books, the style shifts back and forth from interior monologue to closely (at times microscopically) observed social intercourse: Richardson puts us inside Miriam’s head, then sets aside and recounts the scene from the perspective of a detached observer. Not an omniscient observer–at least I don’t recall that she ever tries to get inside the thoughts of any other character.
When I described Richardson’s feminism as strident, I wasn’t referring to feminism as a movement in any political sense, so perhaps my use of the word was incorrect. What I meant was that Richardson is emphatically of the view that men are relatively unthinking, unobservant, and unperceptive lunks who have done a pretty poor job of organizing and running the world. Now, having raised two sons and one daughter, I’ll admit that there’s some truth to that, but as Pilgrimage progresses, you’ll find statements to that effect being made over and over, to the point that it does get somewhat tiresome.
What never got old for me were the wonderful passages about life in London, the life in the streets and the cafes, the light on the rooftops, the bustle of crowds on the sidewalks, the shop windows and omnibuses. You could say that Miriam’s most passionate relationship is with the city itself–I think she says something to that effect in one of the later books (Dawn’s Left Hand?). All the lyrical passages about London collected together would add up to a work of a hundred pages or more, and they certainly had the effect for me of leavening what might easily have become a monotonous string of long stays inside Miriam’s head. I love visiting and walking through the streets of London, and it was a pleasure to imagine Regent Street, Oxford Street, and Bloomsbury from a hundred years ago as channeled through Richardson’s prose.
This leads me, though, to a question I told you I wanted to discuss–namely, how should Pilgrimage be approached, if there is any hope for it to regain a place of greater recognition among the literature of its time? Even when the authoritative edition emerges over the course of the next decade or so, most readers won’t be willing to take on the task of reading through all 13 novels. The easy answer is to say, read Pointed Roofs and keep going if you feel like it. It’s not the book I’d choose as an introduction, though. My vote would probably be for The Tunnel. But as one who teaches literature as a profession, how would you approach it? Or would you say that it doesn’t quite rate a spot on the syllabus? (There are plenty who’ve assessed Pilgrimage as an impressive but ultimately minor work.)
Kate: The close-gripped focus on Miriam and her life, her perspective, her view of the world didn’t seem to get annoying for me, despite her personality being aggravating. I liked the consistency, and I liked trying to see pst her point of view to think about how her behaviour might have seemed to others, like Mrs Philips or Dr Densley. The confusion I felt as she left each (what seemed to me to be) perfectly reasonable situation or relationship, again and again, was me putting myself in her situation (so that’s a sign of good fiction-writing). I had to respond to that to ask why Miriam had taken each action, eg to ask myself questions about her character and motivations. By making the narrative so completely Miriam’s, DR was making the reader observe her more closely than we might have done if other perspectives had been available.
I’d forgotten the Henry James elements, and I agree. I don’t particularly like reading James, so perhaps the more Jamesian parts of Pilgrimage may be where I did a little skim-reading….
I think DR does draw some fairly enlightened male characters: Dr Densley and Mr Hancock seem sensitive and considerate human beings, and Michael Shatov puts up with Miriam for way longer than I could have done. But the system (political, social, economic, educational) was entirely directed at and for men, so that’s what she was rightly railing against. And there was no sign of change, which would explain why the subject is returned to again and again in successive novels.
The London parts are wonderful for a Londoner! (Anyone who’s lived in London for a few years is a Londoner.) Even though the buildings and street patterns have changed after wars and demolition, what she writes about is still there, which is lovely.
How should Pilgrimage be approached for teaching? The Dorothy Richardson Project will be doing something about that now, since they have UK academic funding, and their website has finally been updated (http://dorothyrichardson.org/), and the Dorothy Richardson Editions and Letters will be published by Oxford University Press between now and 2020, so the basic resources will be there for students to use. Teaching it now is easy enough using e-editions (although I loathe them, students like them). I would start with Oberland as a standalone example of Richardson writing, and because the novel is relatively unconnected to any of the others, to need extensive explanations and catch-up briefings. It’s also short, and about a very appealing, recognisable subject (holiday! Learning to sledge in a long skirt! Flirting with new people!). Its attention to introspection and details is just as strong as in other novels, and the narrative voice works in the same way.
If I were teaching a seminar on Richardson and other modernist authors, where we had to work on three or four novels for each author, I’d also use Backwater and Honeycomb as a pair, since they make a strong contrast, they show Miriam’s character in many different ways, they raise questions about women’s education and careers, about inhabiting spaces not one’s own, about resisting external pressures and corruption. Lots of talk about and get students working on in there. The Tunnel is VERY long, which is a negative (but did that ever stop Ulysses being taught?), but I can see lots of positives: an excellent ‘London’ novel (often teaching by theme is more interesting than teaching by chronology or by genre), very good for modernist style and the development of s-of-c; good for the sociology of the period (women in work, women sharing rooms, the boarding-house economy, illness and health). It also has the immortal (or, rather, not immortal, but still) Miss Dear, who is a parasitic monster the like of which I have never encountered before.
I do think Pilgrimage should be on the syllabus, if only for students to know that it exists, and what it represents as a woman’s literary endeavour and as a monumental modernist work. The individual novels should be taught, because they (some more than others) are significant works of literature, and there are precious few woman modernist authors taught apart from the inevitable V Woolf, and DR predates her considerably.
My question now: I’ve often wondered whether London’s attraction as a setting in fiction of the past 2 centuries or so depends on its familiarity. If DR has set these novels in Birmingham, or Glasgow, or another large and successful British city, would they have the same appeal to those who don’t know the cities? I can’t quite work out where the Londonness of the novels comes from, and how important it is to Miriam’s story. The contrast of city versus the country and suburbs is very important, but why London?
Brad: The release of Pilgrimage in authoritative editions from the OUP should go a long way toward restoring Richardson’s status in the academic community, and I can only hope that a certain amount of publicity in the press will accompany it. But I suspect many readers will still be put off at the prospect of scaling its massive rock face. Oberland is an interesting choice as a point of entry–as you remarked in an earlier email, it’s something of an anomaly within the overall context of Pilgrimage. I also thought it was the most Jamesian of the lot. (I’m not a great fan of James, either, but more because my life doesn’t offer sufficient time and energy to give his work the level of focus I think it demands–at least not at the moment.)
I am a great lover of novels set in big cities, but I’m not sure the actual choice of city always makes a difference. I loved John McIntyre’s Steps Going Down, for example, which is set in Philadelphia, but it could just as easily have been set in a dozen other US cities or in an entirely fictional one. Still, for some countries, there is one city in particular that is such a focal point that any other choice turns the novel into a regional work: London for the UK, Dublin for Ireland, Paris for France, Rome for Italy, Madrid for Spain, and, yes, New York City for the US.
In the case of Pilgrimage, London had to be the setting merely because Miriam’s story is so closely based on Richardson’s own. It certainly helps to make the series more accessible to a wider audience than if she had chosen, say, Glasgow or Manchester. London was where the Fabians were founded and thrived, where there was a strong current of foreign influences as one of the great global cities of its time and capitol of the Empire, and where a wide variety of cultural and religious activities could be found. If you think of a contemporary novel from her time set in a city outside London — one of Arnold Bennett’s for example — there is always a sense that whatever is going on, the really big, important things are happening in London.
I’m glad to hear that you would put Pilgrimage, at least in part, on the syllabus, particularly to broaden the coverage of women writers beyond Woolf. Woolf has come to dominate the place of women writers in the first half of the 20th century to a point that almost everyone of her peers is unfairly ranked as second-classers as a result. And, in some ways, I think Pilgrimage stands a better chance of finding sympathetic readers among female students, in particular, since her protagonist is an independent and working woman, which was such a rarity in literature of the time and yet such a commonplace of our world today. There aren’t a lot of Clarissa Dalloways walking around London today, but the tubes and busses are full of Miriam Hendersons.
One question you raised when we were considering this dialogue was: Do the novels in Pilgrimage bear any resemblance to other novels being published at the time? When Pointed Roofs came out, it was immediately remarked upon as a work of some novelty, but by the time Dimple Hill and the first four-volume editions came out (1938), a whole generation of modernistic literature, much of it considerably more experimental and challenging, had been published and read. We know from Richardson’s own correspondence that she was an active reader and kept up with much of what was being written. Do you sense that she was influenced in any way by the changes in literature? Or did she just stubbornly stick to the furrow she began plowing in 1915?
Kate: I’ve been doing some research on women writers of this period, as it happens, so this is something I have data for. Contemporary and present-day critics interested in women’s writing of DR’s period write about these authors, as well as Woolf and Richardson: Rose Allatini, Edith Bagnold, Mrs Baillie-Reynolds, Stella Benson, Mary Borden, Phyllis Bottome, Lettice Cooper, Clemence Dane, E M Delafield, Ethel M Dell, Mary Fulton, Constance Holme, Winifred Holtby, Violet Hunt, Storm Jameson, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Margaret Kennedy, Rosamond Lehmann, Rose Macaulay, Viola Meynell, Hope Mirrlees, Eleanor Mordaunt, Baroness Orczy, Amber Reeves, Vita Sackville-West, Dorothy L Sayers, Ethel Sidgwick, May Sinclair, Cynthia Stockley, Rebecca West and E H Young. Obviously loads of male authors were active at this time too, but they are more easily looked up in the canonical sources. Of the women authors that I have read working in DR’s period, I’d say Mary Borden’s work was closer to DR’s in terms of the emerging technique of stream of consciousness, and Stella Benson’s in terms of writing about London as an experience rather than as a setting. I think also that once DR had got Miriam going, she stayed with that style because it suited what she wanted to say and do. There are fluctuations, obviously: the novels as a single creative stream have ebbs and flows of more modernist, less modernist, more realist, more novelettish, even. The Jamesian moments are like quicksand.
Better critics than I have already spent a lot of time discussing DR, and I not an expert by any means, I just know the period well. Kristin Bluemel, Gloria Fromm and George Thomson are the scholarly names to read, while waiting for the DR project to get underway. Their bibliography is also useful for further investigation.
My question for you: I’ve been thinking about how DR expected her reader to read these novels. They are unrelentingly personal, interior, single-perspective: there is no omniscient third-person narrator to give useful and helpful background details, nor is there a coherent cumulative list of dramatis personae. By the time of The Tunnel Miriam is no longer focused on her sisters, and her mother is dead (which we have to infer), her father simply disappears for several novels. Her perspective is written as tunnel vision, a beam of light on her world that doesn’t record anything that was happening elsewhere. This is part of the modernist technique, I assume, to get away from the conventional realist novel and only focus on what was important to one character. How did reading this technique feel to you, I know I was struggling between two ‘modes’ of reading, if you like: absorbing the single-directional Miriam-perspective as DR intended, but also querulously grumbling that I wanted to read the novels as if they were Victorian or Edwardian sagas; to know the continuing stories of Sarah, Eve, Harriett, the Philips family that we re-encounter in Interim, all the people that Miriam meets and rushes past, as if they’re leaves blown away in the wind of her high-speed velocity. DR makes no concession for that need the reader will feel, except for a few very late catch-up remarks much later in the sequence.
Brad: I actually enjoyed DR’s “unrelentingly personal, interior, single-perspective,” perhaps because it seemed more “exterior” than other works based in an interior monologue. When Miriam sits by herself in her room and reflects, her window is open and she’s taking in the world outside, where the feeling from many other books using the technique is one of having to live inside the narrator’s head–with the windows shut, the door locked, and maybe even the lights out.
It’s absolutely true that what DR sacrificed in her pursuit of this one very focused objective was a huge amount of the context one would expect from a conventional novel. Contrast, for example, the family in Rebecca West’s series that started with The Fountain Overflows. Here the sisters all have lives, experiences, and come and go in a fairly predictable manner, so that at the end of the series the reader can, essentially, tot up the status of the original cast. Whereas in Pilgrimage–to take the most blatant example–the manner in which the suicide of Miriam’s mother is conveyed is so indirect and glancing that more than a few readers have finished Honeycomb without a clue to what actually happened.
Which is probably why the ending of the series, the last few pages of March Moonlight, do seem so out of keeping with the rest of the work. There is just enough tying up of loose threads that it comes off as more conventional than anything the reader has come to expect.
For me, there is something quite refreshing in DR’s willingness to let characters step away and disappear. It reminds me of the experience of watching Monty Python when the series first came on in the 1970s. When the Python crew found that a sketch wasn’t working, they simply cut to something else. This was so liberating after years of watching sketch comedy shows where the conventional form, which demanded an ending that provided some dramatic closure or a punch line, forced the actors and writers to carry on to some painfully awkward and unfunny endings.
It may have also been the right decision in terms of her own ability as a writer. I honestly think she could be a better writer in sticking to her monomaniacal individualism than if she had tried to conform more closely to existing narrative conventions. I probably am somewhat biased in thinking that it takes a exceptional talent to create a work of striking originality while staying within the bounds of a conventional form, and that sometimes the abandonment of form helps a writer overcome her own limitations as much as it enables her artistic aims. I’m not sure DR’s work would be quite so memorable and distinctive if she had tried, say, to follow scrupulously the example of Henry James. Given a choice, I’d take any volume of Pilgrimage over one of H. G. Well’s conventional novels (Ann Veronica? The Passionate Friends?)–or even, for pure reading pleasure, one of James’.
But then I don’t really agree with the view, which Thomas Staley and some others have proposed, that each of the books in Pilgrimage should be viewed as a complete and independent novel outside of the context of the series. That might be the only way to introduce students to Richardson’s work, but I don’t think it does justice to her accomplishment. She truly committed her life to reinterpreting and transforming her own life through a continuous narrative centered on a fictional counterpart. Once she set out on this path, she really abandoned the possibility of other works. As long as she had the energy, she worked on Pilgrimage. The fact that it was incomplete when she died was, to me, inevitable. Could she really have set it aside and written a 200-page satirical novel? Or a play? Or a romance? I can’t fit any of those possibilities with what I’ve learned of Richardson’s life and character.
Which is why, in trying to reach my own summary assessment of Pilgrimage, I have to put it in something of a category of its own, or perhaps a category by In Search of Lost Time and possibly a few other works one could call “life-long narratives.” It is fiction, and it is, technically, a form of autobiography, but both labels are inexact fits. The term roman-fleuve, taken literally, might be more accurate, since the story flows on from book to book like a river–but, like a river, without precise borders between stages. It’s kind of Michael Apted’s Up series of films, which are individual documentaries but so much more when seen as a series, as a whole bundle of “life-long narratives.” Few writers have the resources or take the opportunity to stick with a work over the course of decades, as Richardson did. And yes, the result is massive and intimidating and, at times, frustrating. But also immersive and illuminating and rewarding. So whatever label you choose to apply, I think you’d agree that Pilgrimage is a monumental accomplishment absolutely worthy of acclaim, endless study, and appreciation by anyone who loves remarkable writing.
Kate: I agree completely that DR’s ‘interiority’ is completely about what Miriam is experiencing through her senses: it is not about her internal agonies. The world really matters to her, whereas in other modernist works the exterior world is occluded by the size of the narrator’s ego. I also agree that March Moonlight is a sad falling-off of quality and tone. It really does feel as if she had forgotten how she produced the fierce focus of the earlier books: but it’s an unrevised draft, I think, not a final novel, and published after she died, so it wouldn’t be fair to judge DR on that. However, its existence does suggest that DR could have written a competent realist novel in the conventional way, had she wanted to. Its a hybrid.
I do try to read Wells’ novels when I stumble across old editions: about to start Marriage, which should be a hoot, considering his actions and views on the subject. His personality and convincement that he was right, suffuse his writing. Its not possible to know if the same happens with DR, because she didn’t make a living forcing her opinions on the world the way that Wells did: his novels are just extensions of his personality and his times, whereas hers are creative accomplishments of technique and perspective, far less bound to the period in which she was living. Perhaps that is what makes them feel so outside historical time, they simply aren’t concerned with the social environment of Miriam’s day, but with Miriam’s own growth.
DR’s willingness to allow characters to disappear and for scenes to end without conventional resolution is one of the most revolutionary techniques that she introduced. Narrative unity is abandoned completely, and it is so refreshing. She mimics real life perfectly in that respect, because the effect is a result of Miriam’s lack of knowledge about the future, she cannot know that X will reappear in two books’ time, or that she will never see Y again. Roman-fleuve seems about right to me.
I’m sure that we could keep going with this dialogue for many more pages, particularly if we rolled up our sleeves and dove into a volume-by-volume analysis. As it is, we may well have exhausted the patience of all but the most intrepid readers. But I have no doubt that we would both agree on two points: first, that reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage is a large investment in time and attention that richly rewards any reader who undertakes a serious effort to work through the series; and second, that it’s a book that makes you want to seek out other people who’ve read it, so you can have a chance like this to exchange thoughts and help process that experiences into some meaningful form and refine your own understanding of its meaning and significance.
For nearly 30 years, Dimple Hill (Amazon) was the last chapter in Dorothy Richardson’s novel series, Pilgrimage.
That was not Richardson’s plan. Even as the 1938 collected edition of Pilgrimage was being distributed by J. W. Dent in the U. K. and Alfred A. Knopf in the U. S., she was continuing to write, still planning to add further chapters to the work. But as the saying goes, life is what gets in our way as we’re making other plans. By 1938, Richardson was in her sixties, and she and her husband, the artist Alan Odle, spent their lives shuttling between cheap lodgings in Cornwall and London, getting by on almost no money, going without heat at times, skipping meals, fighting colds that hung around for months, and consuming most of their energy just getting through their days.
In her correspondence (published in the excellent Windows on Modernism: Selected Letters of Dorothy Richardson (1998), Richardson mentions working on the book once in 1939. The next mention comes in 1943, when she writes to her friend Bryher that “Since my break-down eight years ago I’ve been slower than ever…. [I] don’t care a hoot whether or no I ever write another word. In 1944, she writes of “my recently hauled forth Pilgrimage ms. put away nearly five years ago.” In 1945, she complains that “present conditions & lack of domestic help … have permitted me to write, in six years, half a book….” In 1948, she tells Bryher, “I’ve written a few lines of Pil….” Two years later, she writes that “Whenever possible, my morning includes the putting together of a few lines of the new vol.” To the novelist Claude Houghton in early 1952, she wrote, “I still add scraps, when poss., to another volume.” In November, she wrote Bryher that “The second half of the book goes more & more slowly, the days when I can manage any writing beyond dealing, usually belatedly, with my ever-increasing correspondence.”
March Moonlight is, therefore, an awkward book. It was assembled from papers found when Richardson died in 1957 and published as the last chapter in the four-volume collected edition of Pilgrimage released by Dent and Knopf in 1967. Though by far the shortest book in the series, it covers the longest span of time — from 1909 to 1912 (based on the sketchy temporal milestones provided in the book). Three sections of the book were published under the title of “Work in Progress” in several issues of the journal Life and Letters Today, which was owned by Bryher, between 1944 and 1946.
In his introduction to the 1967 J. W. Dent collected edition of Pilgrimage, Walter Allen called March Moonlight “a coda … the rounding off and summation of all that has gone before.” I think that credits too much intent to what clearly is an assembly of parts rather than a finished work. Chapter One of March Moonlight is somewhat anomalous, not only based in Switzerland, away from the setting of the rest of the book, but written in the first person. There is a genuine coherence of narrative and style in Chapters Two through Nine, as Miriam shifts between family and friends in London and the farm at Dimple Hill, and, as George Thomson details in his careful chronological explication in A Reader’s Guide to Dorothy Richardson’s “Pilgrimage” (which is an invaluable aid to unraveling the often mystifying use of time and flashbacks in Pilgrimage, fits fairly neatly within a space of six months, from April to October 1909. But Chapter Ten is closer to an outline of future work: set two or possibly three years later, and blasting through a half-dozen dramatic highlights in the space of eight pages.
The book opens with an extended flashback describing a visit Miriam made to Switzerland in “the winter of ’08-’09,” as guest of Miss Lonsdale, a retired English school teacher. The memories are stirred by a letter from Jean, a Scottish woman she became friends with during the visit (Jean refers to Miriam as “Dick,” one of the many references a reader is likely to miss without Thomson’s guide at hand). Jean is deeply religious, and during Miriam’s stay it becomes obvious to her that Jean is infatuated (at least in a spiritual sense) with an Anglican bishop vacationing at the resort. Though the two never discuss religion, Miriam does decide she has “a preference for living, if ever circumstances should compel the choice, with even the most hypocritically sanctimonious pietists, flopping to their knees on every possible occasion … than with even the most enchanted and enchanting humanists.” As with the Quakers in Dimple Hill, Miriam finds great sympathy with the quiet nature of this religious woman: “Out intermittent silences, rather than tension-creating searches for fresh material, were fragments of a shared eternity….”
This flashback occurs to Miriam as she sits in the backyard of her sister Sally’s house in suburban London, and Chapter Two, which returns to the present and third person, is certainly the most conventionally domestic in all of Pilgrimage, with Miriam joking with her niece and nephew and observing her sister’s care for all the conventional proprieties and mundane household concerns. This theme continues in Chapter Three, where she moves on to a visit to her friends Michael and Amabel, now married and preparing to move to their own house. “Marriage is awful,” Amabel confesses to Miriam. Miriam sees that “the absence in their daily life of a common heritage” (he is a Russian Jew, she is a passionately feminist Frenchwoman) makes “the state of these two the worst of all.” “Be glad,” Amabel tells her, “that you can go away.”
Miriam is happy to return from London to the Roscorla’s farm at Dimple Hill. As she waits for her train, she thinks, “Last year this station had meant just the end of the journey towards an unknown refuge. Today it is the gateway to Paradise.” Though she is benefiting from a gift from her friend from Oberland, Mrs. Harcourt, intended to help Miriam set herself up again in London, she plans to use the money to allow her “to stay where I can live on almost nothing, and am going to write.” “To write is to forsake life,” she acknowledges, but she has come to see that this is the only choice that works for her.
Paradise never lasts, however. Rachel Mary, the Roscorla sister and housekeeper, tells Miriam that she will be away for much of the summer visiting a distant brother, and that, as a consequence, Miriam will not be able to stay. With few options, Miriam settles on taking a room at the Young Women’s Bible Association (Richardson’s fictional counterpart of the YWCA) house in St. John’s Wood in London. And even though she returns to Dimple Hill in September, the stay is short-lived.
She learns that the Roscorlas have agreed to provide refuge for Charles Ducorroy, a former French monk who has decided to leave the Church and needs time to regain a sense of himself. Able to speak French, Miriam naturally spends a great deal of time in conversation with Ducorroy, who proceeds to fall in love with her. Ever a believer that honesty is the best policy, though, Miriam feels she has to tell him about her affair with Hypo Wilson and the miscarriage. Ducorroy rejects her, then has second thoughts, but not before Miriam is informed that her room at the Roscorlas’ will not be available again due to redecorating (hard as it is to believe that a poor Quaker farm family would redecorate).
So once again Miriam returns to London, this time taking a room at a Bloomsbury boarding house run by a Mrs. Gay. There she meets a scarecrow-like figure, an artist named Mr. Noble, for who she feels an immediate sense of … well, not attraction so much as, perhaps, protectionism. Mr. Noble is Richardson’s counterpart for her own husband, Alan Odle, whom she meant in just such circumstances. And seconds later, it’s all over.
Bear in mind that what I described in the last three paragraphs takes up barely 30 pages in March Moonlight. This is not Richardson’s typical closely-observed, slowly revealed style but a break-neck sprint for the finish. It’s generally assumed that Richardson meant for Pilgrimage to end with Miriam’s equivalent of her own meeting with Alan Odle, and these last pages do appear to be a set of fragments thrown together to get to this point rather than to provide a coherent narrative.
Is March Moonlight the end of Pilgrimage that Richardson intended? It seems clear that Richardson intended to write more. As late as 1952, she wrote Bryher that “I hope to survive long enough to finish the present vol [March Moonlight]. There were to have been four, but war-time demands put them out of the questions, & post-war conditions, though differently, are hardly less exacting.” George Thomson argues in his Reader’s Guide that Richardson’s idea was to produce “a Volume V comprising Dimple Hill, March Moonlight and two or three further books.” From an artistic standpoint, this makes some sense, as Clear Horizon brought Miriam’s London period to an end, while Dimple Hill and March Moonlight move her forward into a period like that of Richardson’s early years as a writer, living in different places on almost nothing and establishing herself as a writer.
I’ve purchased several of the major works of Richardson scholarship to help guide me through Pilgrimage, which is, as Thomson writes in A Reader’s Guide, “a compressed & fragmented narrative,” “an exactingly selective narrative,” and “a demanding narrative.” I’ve also gone through the issues of Pilgrimages: The Journal of Dorothy Richardson Studies on the Dorothy Richardson Society website. I’m struck by how little information there is available on the process of assembling March Moonlight and the 1967 collected edition, so it’s difficult for me to do much more than speculate. But it seems clear to me that one can only view it — and consequently, Pilgrimage itself, as an unfinished work.
I’m planning to publish a conversation with Kate Macdonald about our respective journeys through Pilgrimage when she finishes it, and one of the questions I’ve already thrown out for consideration is whether Richardson set for herself what was, effectively, an impossible artistic task: that of writing a work so carefully considered and closely examined that it could never be finished — at least not within the meager economic means and hard-scrabble life she lived with Alan Odle. I think this has a lot to do with the subsequent neglect of Pilgrimage: we have an inherent bias toward books that are complete, that have a clear beginning, middle, and end, that reflect, if you will, a complete artistic conception and design. Just the idea of a 2,000-page novel that is ultimately unfinished is probably enough to put off all but a tiny number of readers, and also kills its chances of being widely taught or written about.
Which is a true shame. Pilgrimage is easily the best, most involving, most thought-provoking, and most memorable work I’ve read in years. Reading it has been one of the most rewarding journeys I’ve taken in my life.
March Moonlight, published in Pilgrimage, a 4-volume set, released by:
London: J. W. Dent & Cresset Press, 1938
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938
Twenty-four years after launching Pilgrimage with Pointed Roofs, Dorothy Richardson found herself struggling to progress with its twelfth volume, Dimple Hill (Amazon). The sales of her books had dwindled into the hundreds with each succeeding volume. Over sixty, she was thirty years away from the experiences she was trying to recreate through her fictional counterpart, Miriam Henderson.
Yet Dimple Hill manages to be something of a new beginning for both author and character. Miriam literally packs a new set of bags, buying a glossy new cabin-trunk and a hat box, “incredible symbols of freedon,” before she sets out from London. She starts out on her rest vacation with a week with Grace and Florence Broom, the sisters she first met at Wordsworth House school in Backwater, whose home has always represented something of a sanctuary of happiness and acceptance for Miriam. They visit Chichester Cathedral, and although Miriam still resists any conciliation with the Anglican church, she finds herself relaxing, giving in to the luxury of an undefined time ahead of her, even saying to Florence, “I’m never going to think any more.”
Quickly, though, life as an itinerant guest, wandering from friend to friend, staying a week here, a week there, pales, and she searches to find a place where she can remain for a much longer time. Fortunately, her friend Michael Shatov recommends the Roscorlas, a Quaker family whose farm, Dimple Hill, lies just a few miles from the coast in East Sussex. There, they keep orchards, grape vines, vegetable plots, and an herb garden, and have a spare room they let to boarders.
The Roscorlas take in Miriam on the assumption that she has suffered some kind of emotional breakdown and will need a long period of quiet recovery. She soon comes to love the beauty and peace of the country around Dimple Hill, spending hours reading under a great tree that spreads a gentle shadow over the lawn behind the farmhouse and walking through the fields and along the lanes. She finds herself marveling at the taste of fresh food from the farm: “Long ago, before she had learned that fod could be a substance indifferently consumed to keep life going, its flavour had had this assaulting power, taken for granted…. For a moment, with the first shock of perception, she had indeed felt that even in a potato grown upon their happy land some special virtue must reside.”
But even more than the landscape, the soft-spoken grace of the Roscorlas, who often sit together in silence after supper:
In place of the sense of loss oppressing the air when silence descends at last upon a talking group and its members, fallen apart, deprived of the magnetic stream, realize each other as single individuals, lessened and variously pathetic or in some way, for all their charm, offensive, there was a sense of recovery, of return to a common possession, the richer for having been temporarily forgotten.
Miriam finds something to like and admire in each member of the family. Richard, the strong, handsome older brother who runs the farm, has an air of self-confidence grounded in ability that contrasts with the blustering front of Hypo Wilson and other men she encountered in the city, and she is somewhat attracted to him. But both she and Richard are too reserved for anything to come of it. Alfred, the younger brother, is usually the butt of family jokes, yet he astonishes her in the depth of his spiritual expression when he reads a passage at the first Quaker meeting she attends with them. Rachel Mary, the sister, has charge of the house and kitchen and takes her duties seriously without losing a sense of humor and perspective. Even their quiet elderly mother warms to Miriam, taking tea with her and conversing in soft, gentle tones.
A profound sense of peace and healing pervades much of Dimple Hill. Richardson herself felt a great affinity with the Quakers, who were the subject of her first book, The Quakers Past and Present (1914). Sometime in spring 1908, she resigned from her post in Dr. J. H. Badcock’s dental practice in Harley Street and went to stay with a Quaker family, the Penroses, at their farm near Windmill Hill, a hamlet near Herstmonceaux in East Sussex. She appears to have spent most of the next three years with them, although as Gloria Fromm writes in her biography of Richardson, “These are veiled years she spent in Sussex.” There is no correspondence from this time, although she did publish several color sketches in The Saturday Review around this time, including a piece titled “A Sussex Auction” that was reworked into a chapter of Dimple Hill.
“Why should it be only Quakers who employed, in public as well as privately, this method of approach to reality,” Miriam wonders at a Quaker meeting as she sits with the congregation in contemplative silence. For her, the stillness allows her to draw energy for the work she is determining to undertake, the piece that in Richardson’s hands would become Pilgrimage:
Bidding her mind be still, she felt herself once more at work, in company, upon an all-important enterprise. This time her breathing was steady and regular and the labour of journeying, down through the layers of her surface being, a familiar process. Down and down through a series of circles each wider than the last, each opening with the indrawing of a breath whose outward flow pressed her downwards towards the next, nearer to the living centre.
She sets up a table under the branches of the great tree behind the Roscorla’s house and begins to write. “Here,” she thinks, “amidst the dust-filmed ivy leaves and the odour of damp, decaying wood, was the centre of her life.” “Write the confessions of a modern woman,” she recalls a man saying to her many years back. The notion to her represents everything she does not want in her work: “… everything would be left out that is always there, preceding and accompanying and surviving the drama of human relationships; the reality from which people move away as soon as they closely approach and expect each other to be all in all.”
The wedding of her friends Michael Shatov and Amabel draws Miriam back to London for a brief visit, and when she returns to Dimple Hill she is determined, despite her love of the place and the Roscorlas, to move on. Much as she has gained from the experience, she realizes that she could never in a lifetime become a true local. An acquaintance from her time in Switzerland (Oberland) writes to suggest that Miriam join her at a resort near Geneva the book closes.
Although Richardson had some hope that the promise of Dimple Hill’s inclusion in the four-volume edition published by J. W. Dent in 1938 would create some suspense, so fresh interest in the work, the entire oeuvre went virtually unnoticed in the U. K. and received only a few reviews (for the parallel publication of a four-volume set by Alfred A. Knopf) in the U. S.. She concluded that reviewers either saw the book as “a cul de sac rather than a conclusion” or congratulated themselves for predicting years before that Pilgrimage would end with a whimper, not a bang. Aside from a very occasional short piece — mostly for Life and Letters Today magazine (owned by her friend Bryher) — the sets from Dent and Knopf where her last publications. It would be almost thirty years before the last chapter of Pilgrimage would appear.
Dimple Hill, by Dorothy Richardson
Published in Pilgrimage, a 4-volume set, released by:
London: J. W. Dent & Cresset Press, 1938
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938
Clear Horizon (Amazon) brings the London period of Pilgrimage to its end, ten years later, with Miriam Henderson passing thirty and taking the decision to turn her back on her life and work there.
Having struggled with her feelings for Amabel, whose own love for her was open and ardent, and having ended her affair with Hypo Wilson (the fictional counterpart of Richardson’s real-life lover, H. G. Wells), Miriam seems to be searching for ways to gracefully cut her ties. The thought occurs to her of introducing Amabel to Michael Shatov, the Russian Jew she had been involved with, at least tentatively, in earlier chapters, and she seizes upon it immediately. “It stood there before her, solving the mystery of her present failure to suffer on Michael’s behalf, filling so completely the horizon of her immediate future that it seemed to offer, the moment it should become the reality into which she had the power of translating it, a vista ahead swept clean of all impediments.”
She also experiences a moment of revelation that fills her with a sense of joy that strengthens her resolve to take a deliberate step away from the life she has been living:
And it was then that the wordless thought had come like an arrow aimed from a height downwards into her heart and, before her awakened mind, dropping its preoccupation, could reach the words that already were sounding within it, in the quiet tone of someone offering a suggestion and ready to wait while it was surveyed, she was within that lifting tide of emotion.
With a single up-swinging movement, she was clear of earth and hanging, suspended and motionless, high in the sky, looking, away to the right, into a far-off pearly-blue distance, that held her eyes, seeming to be in motion within itself: an intense crystalline vibration that seemed to be aware of being observed, and even to be amused and to be saying, ‘Yes, this is my reality.’
She was moving, or the sky about her was moving. Masses of pinnacled clouds rose between her and the clear distance and, just as she felt herself sinking, her spirit seemed to be up amongst their high, rejoicing summits.
When she later tries to share this experience with Hypo, and then with Amabel, however, it is taken as metaphor rather than sensations she took as reality. Miriam was already a person who tended to see herself as separate and apart from others. To now have an intense physical and spiritual memory of the moment and find it impossible to communicate with those she feels closest to only reinforces her sense of isolation.
This sense is compounded by a meeting she has with Hypo Wilson, who manages in his glib way to ensure that Miriam is pushed yet further away. He thinks at first that Miriam is pregnant (with his child), then interprets her saying that she has come down from the clouds as meaning that she had discovered that she wasn’t. He clumsily compliments Donizetti’s, the little Italian cafe that had become Miriam’s favorite refuge outside of her room: “It’s almost the irreducible minimum in little haunts, isn’t it?” And then he proposes that “one has to invent … a special category” for Miriam: “the individual’s individualist.” As they leave the restaurant and walk out into the London evening, she thinks of their relationship as “so conclusively ended.”
Having already made an emotional break with Amabel, Miriam’s decision is confirmed when she visits her in Holloway Prison after Amabel’s arrest in a suffragette demonstration. “I wanted to come,” she says, but immediately wonders, “what kind of truth lay behind her words, whether she had wanted most to see Amabel or, most, to achieve the experience of visiting an imprisoned suffragist….” Upon further reflection, she decides that “Amabel was a tornado, sweeping oneself off one’s feet and one’s possessions from their niches.”
The process of separation takes its toll on Miriam. Michael is concerned at her appearance, telling her that she looks “pulled down.” And when she visits her doctor to discuss an operation to be performed on her sister, Sarah, who has been living in increasing poverty and has to be taken as a charity case, he demands, “What are you going to do to get the better of this seriously run-down condition?” His prescription is simple and emphatic: “Well, my dear, I should say, in the first place, rest; and secondly, rest; and, in conclusion, rest.” His conviction pushes Miriam into the decision she has been hovering around, and she sets her course to find a place in the countryside, away from London, where she can rest–which she interprets as devoting herself to reading and writing.
Perhaps the most touching moment in Clear Horizon–indeed, in the whole of Pilgrimage–is Miriam’s farewell to the dental office where she has worked for the last ten years. Although Hypo Wilson jokes that she should use the experience to write “a dental novel,” the office–and Dr. Hancock in particular–has occupied a large place in her life, thoughts and emotions. She lingers an extra few minutes to tell him a trivial story, but in reality, just to “remain, for yet another moment, encircled by the glow of his kindliness, in the midst of the busy activities of the practice, by whose orderly turmoil surrounded they had so often taken counsel together.”
Among the many remarkable attributes of Pilgrimage, I think its most overlooked is its treatment of work as an activity that can be intellectually stimulating; personally satisfying as well as, at times, exhausting; and the basis of a web of relationships that leave lasting impressions–whether good or bad–that echo in our consciousness ever after. In what other work of fiction from the early 20th century is the experience of working given such extended, balanced, and overall positive treatment? It’s one of the factors that I find strikingly contemporary in Pilgrimage. I suspect one could find a dozen women of Miriam’s age, independence, and intellectual aspirations working in London dental offices today–and, I would hope, a dozen dentists of Dr. Hancock’s professionalism and generosity.
Over sixty, and having spent over seventeen years caring for her sickly husband, Alan Odle, in a series of cheap and ill-furnished digs in London and Cornwall, Richardson found it harder and harder to find the energy and time to focus on Pilgrimage. After sending the manuscript off to her publisher, J. W. Dent, she wrote her friend, the novelist John Cowper Powys, that she feared they would find it “too short & its last third ‘too thin’, & may send it back to be enlarged….” To her friend Bryher, she wrote that “The last few sections, having been written under difficulties, are rather scrappy & dim.” She later reported that Dent had sold just 400 copies of the book, although they were still quite interested in releasing Pilgrimage as a set, assuming it was the end of the series.
The last chapter in Pilgrimage to be published as a separate book, Clear Horizon went virtually unreviewed. By the time it came out, Richardson’s work had either been forgotten or was considered worth forgetting. The latter view was expressed by Queenie Leavis in her review for Scrutiny: “This is the eleventh and latest, but not last, volume of the novelcycle Pilgrimage, the first, Pointed Roofs, having appeared in 1915, when it fell like a rock from a height into the literary waters. Since then each succeeding volume has made less of a splash, and the latest is likely to part the surface with scarcely a ripple.” Leavis thought Pointed Roofs by far the best of the series, dismissing the rest as “increasingly small beer.” Hardly a fan of feminism herself, she saw that Richardson’s strong focus on the feminine perspective “a pervasive weakness.” About the only good thing she had to say about Pilgrimage was that it “will be a gift to the research student of the two-thousands,” which has proved more true than she might have thought.
Clear Horizon, by Dorothy Richardson
London: J. W. Dent & The Cresset Press, 1935
Of all the Pilgrimage series, Dawn’s Left Hand (Amazon) by far offers the richest lode for Richardson scholars to mine for publication material. Not because it’s the longest (it’s not) or the best (it’s not, IMHO) or the densest with references (my vote for this award would be Deadlock), but because of the sex. This is not only the book in which Miriam finally recreates with Hypo Wilson the affair Dorothy Richardson had with H. G. Wells somewhere around 1907, the affair that led to her pregnancy and miscarriage and that added to the long list of talented women (e.g., Violet Hunt, Rebecca West, Odette Keun) with whom Wells had slept. But it is also the book in which another woman writes “I love you” with a piece of soap on Miriam’s mirror, and in which Miriam wonders if she can reciprocate that emotion. While certainly not the first novel of its time to deal with lesbianism, it is among a tiny number to entertain the possibility of bi-sexuality. And like it or not, sex sells, folks, even in academic circles.
To dispense with the affair, of which the angst beforehand greatly exceeds the passion in the actual conduct thereof, Miriam returns from her trip to Switzerland (Oberland) to find a letter from Hypo Wilson that declares, “I’m more in love with you than ever.” The mixed feelings Miriam had about Hypo before getting the letter are not the least bit changed by this revelation. “[B]ehind the magic words was nothing for her individually, for any one individually,” she thinks. And even when the two finally do spend an evening together in one of the discreet London restaurants that specialized in individual rooms and maximum privacy for consenting couples, she notes that Hypo’s body is not beautiful and caters to his sexual egotism, murmuring, “My little babe, just born” as they embrace.
My theory is that, for Miriam, the attraction in the affair is almost entirely the novelty of the experience. Having gotten past romance novels, having had at least a few men show genuine attraction and interest in romance with her, and having considered whether she could have the same feelings — and dismissed the idea in all cases so far — the great unknown for her at twenty-eight is not romance but sex. And I suspect she was pragmatic enough to realize that this was an affair that held little risk of turning into romance, let alone marriage, on either’s part. And so, with the opportunity to leap in front of her, she decides to take it. At one point, a few days before their first rendezvous, Miriam thinks of herself as “this person, who was about to take a lover,” almost as if she were giving the notion a trial run. In any case, Miriam’s trial run with Hypo proves to be a pretty short run. By the end of Dawn’s Left Hand, it has joined the many memories that Miriam has to reflect upon in future chapters.
The other relationship in the book, with Amabel, a passionate and beautiful young woman raised in France, also reproduces one in Richardson’s life, in this case with Veronica Leslie-Jones, who was an activist and suffragette she met around the same time as her affair with Wells. Unlike Hypo/H. G., who was more interested in the getting than the keeping, Amabel is clearly in love with Miriam, and considers it destiny for them to spend the rest of their lives together. She sneaks into Miriam’s flat to leave the message on her mirror, she leaves a very long and beautifully penned love letter at Miriam’s office, she frequents their women’s club and Lycurgan Society meetings in hopes of encountering her.
And Miriam is drawn to Amabel to an extent fundamentally different and more perplexing to herself than in any previous relationship with men. When Amabel asks if Miriam is repelled by the prospect of a woman being in love with her, she replies, “No, it makes no difference . . . with you.” She thinks about stroking Amabel’s hair, and considers that, unlike her affair with Hypo, it would demand a long-term and fundamental choice: “For if indeed, as her own ears and the confident rejoicing that greeted every work she spoke seemed to prove, then she was committed for life to the role allotted to her by the kneeling girl.”
“Amabel” was, in fact, Richardson’s working title for Dawn’s Left Hand. And though it’s the affair with Hypo/H. G. that tends to get mentioned most often in sound-bite mentions of Pilgrimage, it is Amabel’s love that causes the more significant spiritual dilemma for Miriam. It’s not clear that she ever feels love for Amabel with quite the same certainty and intensity, but she does recognize the price, in terms of personal commitment, that it would demand of her. And the competition it presents for her first love — her own individuality — is what causes her the greatest distress.
Dawn’s Left Hand ends with Miriam fairly definitively closing the door on her short affair with Hypo, but the story of her relationship with Amabel continues to unfold in Clear Horizon. If Miriam has learned nothing else thus far in her journey of self-discovery, she understands that her choices can only be made through long consideration. Which is something Hypo misses entirely:
“It’s the committing yourself you’re afraid of. Taking definite steps. You’ll miss things. And live to regret it.”
“How can one miss things?”
“Mere existence isn’t life.”
“Why mere? Most people have too much life and too little realization. Realization takes time and solitude.”
Which could easily serve as Dorothy Richardson’s credo.
Richardson struggled with Dawn’s Left Hand for years. She refers to it (as “X”) in letters as early as 1927, and almost four years later, in January 1931, she writes Bryher, “So once more I sat down to Vol. X.” When it was finally at the printer’s in September 1931, she wrote (again to Bryher, who had become her closest friend and supporter), “[T]he book fills me with despair by reason of its ‘thinness’ & brevity; the shadow of a book it is, result of momentum of the unconscious, got going a thousand times in these four years, & a thousand times broken off with devastating results to both author & work.” It was very nearly four years more before Clear Horizon was to follow it.
On the less serious side, I must note that Dawn’s Left Hand deserves special recognition for Pilgrimage’s single greatest Moment of Zen. Sitting in an opera house box with Alma and Hypo, listening to Wagner, Miriam thinks,
To know beforehand where you are going is to be going nowhere. Because it means you are nowhere to begin with. If you know where you are you can go anywhere, and it will be the same place, and good.
These are lines truly worth painting on a rock.
Dawn’s Left Hand, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1931
For those reviewers who were growing weary of the “gas-light drabness” of Pilgrimage’s London novels, Oberland (Amazon) offered a refreshing change of scenery — literally. For reasons that, in typical Richardson fashion, are never quite explained, Miriam Henderson has been given the gift of a two week trip to a resort in the Bernese Oberland region of Switzerland, and the action — and, by Pilgrimage’s standard, this is certainly the most action-packed book in the series — is entirely set within the space of Miriam’s trip. So, in terms of time covered, this is also the most condensed chapter.
Oberland is based on a trip Richardson made to Adelboden, a resort town, in 1904, on a recommendation and at the expense of her employer, Dr. J. H. Badcock. In Miriam’s case, the time is two years later, in February 1906. When Richardson was writing the book, therefore, she was looking back some twenty years, from the perspective of a woman over fifty, and the increasing distance between author and subject as time went by — when added to the not-insignificant hardships she was dealing with as a nearly penniless writer — is certainly one of the reasons why progress on Pilgrimage grew slower and slower.
Oberland most differs from the rest of Pilgrimage in its treatment of landscape. The great snow-covered mountains that surround Miriam are completely unlike anything she has ever seen:
The leap of recognition, unknowing between the mountains and herself which was which, made the first sight of them — smooth snow and crinkled rock in unheard-of unimagined tawny light — seem, even at the moment of seeing, already long ago.
They knew, they smiled joyfully at the glad shock they were, sideways gigantically advancing while she passed as over a bridge across which presently there would be no return, seeing and unseeing, seeing again from the first keen vision.
Looking out on them from her hotel room, she imagines them saying to her, “Watch, see, if you can believe it, what we can do.” And when she wakes the next morning, she feels “It was as if all her life she had travelled towards this radiance, and was now within it, clear of the past, at an ultimate destination. The bold, bright light that bounces off the mountains and all the snow-covered slopes around her, is such a contrast with the rare bursts of sunshine she enjoys in London that Miriam experiences a spiritual glow whenever she ventures out during her stay.
There is more outdoor activity in Oberland than in the rest of the series in total. Many of the guests go skiing, a sport which had just begun to become popular among visitors, although Miriam is never persuaded to try it. Tobogganing (or what Americans would call sledding) is the favorite among the less athletic, and Miriam takes her first runs down the slopes after a little convincing, and takes up the sport with the same enthusiasm as she did cycling. For the more sedate, there is always a leisurely glide around the town’s large skating rink. And, towards the end of the book, she watches a ski-jumping (referred to as sky-jumping) competition, which Richardson describes in a much more visually dramatic style than has been typical:
Here he came, in black against his snow, deep velvety black against the snow, gliding past the little hut with a powerful different gait. . . . From the edge of the shelf he leapt high into the air and seemed to stand there against the sky, in a dream. Down he swooped, sailing, dreaming, to the track, rose smoothly from the terrific impact and smoothly went his way. . . .
All the Swiss, though some were rough and ungainly, moved with that strong and steady grace. But Zurbuchen was the best. It was he who would live in her memory, poised against the sky like a great bird.
Miriam comes to the Hotel Alpenblick, a small, over-heated pension at which a variety of guests, mostly English but including one American and an Italian businessman whom everyone takes for Russian. This little interior world is the counterpart to the bright, white outdoors. Unlike the preceding chapters, much of the social interactions in Oberland are related directly or through observation, and far less is refracted through Miriam’s subsequent thoughts. Closely observed, though, it remains, and I wonder if Richardson was, perhaps, trying to emulate Henry James rather than the unique interior style of her previous books.
Yet this is still Richardson and Miriam we are dealing with, and even in the invigorating and liberating mountain setting, the fierce battle to retain individuality carries on. Approached by a silly but warm-hearted English woman named Mrs. Harcourt, Miriam is both pleased and on guard. As they exchange introductory chit-chat, a warning voice tells her to withhold: “Even a little talk, a little answering of questions, would falsify the past. Set in her own and in this woman’s mind in a mould of verbal summarizings, it would hamper and stain the brightness of to-morrow.”
However, it is Mrs. Harcourt who alerts Miriam to the last stunning sight of her trip:
“Look out of ve window!”
Sitting up in bed, she saw hanging in mid-air just outside the window a huge crimson lamp, circular in a blue darkness. Sleepily she cried her thanks and leaped awake to dwell with the strange spectacle, the gently startling picture, in its sudden huge nearness, of the loveliness of space. The little distant moon, enormous and rosy in blue mist, seemed to float in the blue as in blue water, seemed to have floated close in sheer unearthly kindliness, to comfort her thoughts, on this last day, with something new and strange.
Richardson struggled to get Oberland published. She had become frustrated with the poor sales and lack of promotion by Duckworth, which had published the first eight books in Pilgrimage, and H. G. Wells encouraged her to think that she would do better with other firms. After wasting nearly six months on unsuccessful approaches to three other publishers, she ended up settling for Duckworth’s offer, which was worse than anything she’d taken before: instead of giving £10, half of their previous price, they gave her a royalty of 7.5% of sales. Knopf, her U.S. publisher, was only slightly more generous at 10% royalty. Duckworth sold under 300 copies; Knopf less than 500.
The U.K. reviews were few and negative. In the U.S., Earl Aldrich dismissed it in The Saturday Review: “Oberland, vivid though it be, is after all only a very limited travel book — the thing that a female author might send in sections to a friend, and later publish because he public wanted some personal impressions.” The New York Times gave the book first place in a full-page review of new fiction, gushing that, “It is scarcely possible to say enough in praise of a book of such rare, such quietly dazzling beauty.” Unfortunately, next to the review, they also printed a photograph of an American author, also named Dorothy Richardson. This mistake would be repeated several times during Dorothy (M.) Richardson’s life, and it always drove her nuts. “I shall write advertising,” she wrote in frustration the first time it happened. And in The New York Post, Conrad Aiken made the generous prediction that Richardson was entitled to “as precise and permanent a place in the history of literature as it is ever possible to predict for a living author.”
The book was even short-listed for the Prix Femina Anglais, although it lost to H. M. Tomlinson’sGallion’s Reach. Richardson herself admitted that the book was “slight.” Writing to her friend, the novelist E. B. C. Jones, she explained that, “It is due partly to the need to condense that grows with each vol. & partly on M’s becoming more out-turned really living, partic. for this year or so, much more on the surface than she did.” “Each episode could have filled a single volume in the old wudgy manner — but I should have been in my grave before M’s fortnight was at an end & there are things calling ahead.” And years later, the novelist Eva Tucker, who was otherwise a tremendous advocate for Richardson’s work, told an interviewer that Oberland “doesn’t quite hang together for me as part of the series. It seems a bit out of step of out of place in Pilgrimage as a whole.”
Oberland, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1927
Having expanded her social horizons over the course of the last four chapters, in The Trap (sorry, no online text available, cheapest edition available is a used copy of Volume 3 of the Virago set) Miriam Henderson decides to undertake an experiment in social living that proves the quandary from which Richardson takes her title. After years of living alone in her room at Mrs. Bailey’s, Miriam lets a flat in a house in Flaxman Court that she will share with a recent acquaintance, a social worker named Selina Holland.
At first, the two women see the move as a great adventure. Miriam hears in the tone of Selina’s voice “Garden sunlight that had been missing through all the wandering years.” They collaborate on arranging their things, putting up a curtain, buying a few small pieces of furniture to fill the vast space of their two rooms. And Miriam, for the first time in her life, splurges on her own desk to write at: “The bureau was an experience: seen from any angle it was joy complete. Added to life and independent from it. A little thing that would keep its power through all accidents of mood and circumstance.”
“Here in the mornings,” she delights, “there would always be beauty, the profiles of things growing clear on either side of the pathway of morning light. . . .” As the men move in the last of her belongings, Miriam can’t resist dipping into her copy of Henry James’ The Ambassadors — “the book that had suddenly become the centre of her life.” Even in that first hour, though, she can see the first warning signs that her personality and Selina’s are simply too different to avoid an inevitable strain. “Miss Holland would get nothing from James. She would read patiently for a while and pronounce him ‘a little tedious.'”
Neither is she likely to appreciate the revelation of who the tall figure who inhabits the apartment opposite theirs on the court:
Yeats: and he lived here. Miriam drew back and sat down on the end of her bed. This queer alley was then the place in all London in which to live. Was he dismayed at the sight of Philistines invading the retreat where he lived hidden amongst unseeing villagers? . . . .
To which Selina’s response is, “The strange room,” said Miss Holland, who also had left the window, “has a tenant as eccentric as itself.” No wonder, then, that Selina also fails to appreciate the little Italian cafe, Donizetti’s, that Miriam had discovered years before and come to think of as a haven. In bringing Selina to Donizetti’s, Miriam is offering her a little piece of herself. Selina, however, has little patience for the experience: “It is now well past midnight. This has been a unique experience. And just for this once, I do not object to it. But it must certainly not be repeated.”
To add to Miriam’s headaches, she comes to realize that their landlord is a bit of a creep with a mother complex and their downstairs neighbors an alcoholic commercial sculptor who battles frequently with his wife. Yet she has a tremendous capacity to find joy in the midst of tedium. Even waking on a work day in a bedroom she shares with a less-than-compatible roommate, she can find something wonderful:
The morning lays cool fingers on my heart and stands there an intensity of light all about me and there is no weight or tiredness. When I open my eyes there is a certain amount of light — much less than I felt before I opened them — and things that make, before I see them clearly, an interesting pattern of dark shapes; holding worlds and worlds, all the many lives ahead.
“I shall go on getting happier and happier. Because it takes almost nothing to make me as happy as I can bear.” Miriam’s Pollyana dream cannot, of course, last. Later that same day, a woman at the dental office cautions her, “It’s your life you are living here, lassie,” and Miriam suddenly realizes that “This scene that she persisted in seeing as a background, stationary, not moving on, was her life, was counting off years.”
She does have some respite from this bleak prospect as she attends a happy New Year’s celebration held by the Lycurgans. A handsome older man asks her to dance, and she looks around the floor and sees George Bernard Shaw and Wells (not referred to as Hypo Wilson this time) dancing as well. “That’s not dancing, it’s the Ethical Movement,” someone wisecracks, but Miriam finds the innocence and awkwardness charming. And when everyone joins hands to sing in the new year with “Auld Lang Syne,” she thinks, “To stand thus linked and singing was to lose the weight of individuality and keep its essence, its queer power of being one with every one alive.”
At 110 pages, The Trap is the shortest book in the Pilgrimage except the final, unfinished March Moonlight. The experiment in group living has been short and unsuccessful. The experience has shown Miriam that a room of her own is essential for her survival, and as The Trap ends, with the wild squealing of cats outside and Mr. and Mrs. Perrance having another drunken quarrel downstairs, she thinks, simply, “Away. Away. . . .”
Published 10 years after Pointed Roofs, The Trap was reviewed by relatively few, and the general tone of most reviews was that of ennui. Pilgrimage was beginning to seem endless, fulfilling the prediction first made in 1920 in S. P. B. Mais’ Books and Their Writers: “there is no reason why the series should not be continued to infinity.” As Hamish Miles put it in The Saturday Review,
And so, for the eighth time, Miriam Henderson trickles sandily through her predestined hour-glass. One more stage measured. One more pallid dawn suffuses the Euston Road. Grain by grain, Miriam has slipped through the upper bubble to the lower. Turn over the contraption the other way up (the glass is clean and dry) and there, once again, patiently marking off a ninth furlong of time, the same sand will accomplish the same journey: one more novel will have been tacked on to Miss Richardson’s untiring sequence.
She would offer them some relief with the next chapter, Oberland, of which one reviewer would write, “The book is rich in poetic passages that are a full reward for the gas-light drabness of the earlier books in the series.” Which is what folks in the Midwest refer to as a left-handed compliment.
The Trap, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1925
Revolving Lights (Internet Archive, Amazon) is both a fairly seamless continuation of the preceding chapter, Deadlock, and a progression towards the style and perspective of the remaining books in Pilgrimage. Having spurned Michael Shatov’s interest in marriage, Miriam carries on with their friendship, if only for the opportunities it provides her for encountering different people and outlooks. She spends a long vacation at the seaside home of Hypo and Alma Wilson (Richardson’s fictional counterparts for H. G. Wells and his wife Amy), which both excites her intellectual interests and reinforces her sense of the superficiality of even those society consider intellectuals. And she has her first encounter with Quakers, whose silent worship makes a profound impression on her and whose company, in later books, she seeks out. Yet the book is also full of passages that demonstrate Miriam’s growing assurance that her preference for solitude is an honest and proper response to the world.
Revolving Lights is organized in four chapters, each centered on one or two episodes around which the whole chapter is constructed. Chapter One is almost the entirety of the London chapters of Pilgrimage in microcosm. Having attended a meeting of the Lycurgan Society (Richardson’s stand-in for the Fabian Society), Miriam walks through midnight London to her room in a Bloomsburg boarding house and reflects on the meeting, on a party she attended with the Wilsons, on her daily work at the dental office on Wimpole Street, and on her own preferences and choices.
Of the hall in which the meeting took place, she thinks,
The building of the large hall had been brought about by people who gave no thought to the wonder of moving from one space to another and up and down stairs. Yet this wonder was more to them than all the things on which their thoughts were fixed. If they would take time to realise it. No one takes time. No one knows it. . . . But I know it. . . . These seconds of knowing, of being told, afresh, by things speaking silently, make up for the pain of failing to find out what I ought to be doing. . . .
Noticing and reflecting are essential for Miriam. Although Richardson, a great fan of Henry James’ style and careful observation, never quotes him in the book, it’s clear that she aspires for Miriam to “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” Her choice to continue working in the dental office, which, while not well-paid, provides her with just enough money and time to follow her interests where they lead her: “She, with no resources at all, had dropped to easy irresponsible labour to avoid being shaped and branded, to keep her untouched strength free for a wider contemplation….” In this, Miriam is something of a forerunner of what is an increasing segment of today’s workforce, among whom there are more and more people choosing to take undemanding jobs with lower pay for the freedom it gives them to pursue travel, sports, or creative interests.
Miriam worries, though, that the choice to devote great chunks of her time to contemplation could be dangerous in the long run. “[B]eing her own solitary companion would not go on for ever. It would bring in the end, somewhere about middle age, the state that people called madness.” But Richardson is clear that this would only be a case of being labelled as mad for what society simply finds unfathomable and irrationally non-conformist, that “Perhaps the lunatic asylums were full of people who had refused to join up,” but who spent their days in a “state of amazed happiness.”
And for Miriam, one of her constant sources of happiness is the experience of living in London. As she walks along Oxford Street, passing Bond Street, she imagines the city saying to her, “Walking here you can keep alive, out in the world, until the end, an aged crone, still a citizen of m kingdom, hobbling in the sun, along my sacred pavements.” She feels “the spirit of London” coming to greet her, and thinks in almost romantic terms, “Nothing in life could be sweeter than this welcoming — a cup held brimming to her lips, and inexhaustible. What lover did she want? No one in the world could oust this mighty lover, always receiving her back without words, engulfing and leaving her untouched, liberated and expanding to the whole range of her being.” But she sees that these are feelings she must keep to herself: “. . . she must go on, uselessly, unrevealed; bearing a semblance that was nothing but a screen set up, hiding what she was in the depths of her being.”
The long interior monologue that comprises Chapter One (at 56 pages, one of the longest in the entire sequence) is contrasted by the next two chapters, which deal with social encounters. Michael Shatov takes Miriam to meet the Lintoffs, an intense couple, both Russian intellectuals and revolutionaries, attempting to show her off to them and hoping to rekindle some romantic feelings in Miriam, but which leaves her feeling weighed and found wanting. When he takes her to a Quaker meeting on St. Martin’s Lane, however, she experiences, for the first time, a form of worship that doesn’t make her feel lectured to and chafing to escape: “[B]eing in the silence was being in something alive and positive; at the centre of existence; being there with others made the sen of it stronger than when it was experienced alone.” Richardson foreshadows the final books of Pilgrimage in writing that, “It had felt like the beginning of a life that was checked and postponed into the future.”
The weeks she spend with the Wilsons at Bonnycliff, covered in Chapter Three, however, leave her with mixed feelings. She is thrilled by the talk and music and self-confidence of Hypo Wilson and their other guests, which include a woman novelist (Edna Prout, a ficitional stand-in for Violet Hunt) and the editor of a literary magazine. In the course of the stay, we learn that Miriam has begun to write. Her first piece was a review “of a bad little book on Whitman,” but she recalls feeling overwhelmed at the experience: “I went nearly mad with responsibility and the awfulness of discovering the way words express almost nothing at all.” Hypo encourages Miriam to do more: “You’re lucky you know, Miriam, in your opportunities for odd experience. Write it up. Don’t forget.”
Towards Hypo Miriams feels both attracted and repelled. She is interested in him because he is quite obviously interested in her, and because he is an interesting person in much of his talk and in what he has been able to accomplish as a writer. But she also resists what she considers “his twofold vision of women as bright intelligent response or complacently smiling audience.” There is always a somewhat mocking edge in his treatment of Miriam. During one conversation, Hypo refers to her as, in order, “Quarrelsome Miriam,” “Harsh Miriam,” “Pugilistic Miriam,” “Mysterious Miriam,” and “Diplomatic Miriam.” And he is incapable of just sitting in silence. “The test of absolutely everything in life,” she tells him, “is the quality of the in-between silences. It’s only in silence that you can judge of your relationship to a person.” At the end of Chapter Four, however, which is devoted to a busy day at the dental office, Richardson leaves us with the closest thing to a cliff-hanger to be found in Pilgrimage. Returning home, Miriam finds a letter from Hypo waiting: “Dear Miriam … When can I see you? Just to talk.”
What happens next? Tune in next time, kids, for another exciting episode of Pilgrimage.
Revolving Lights, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1923
Deadlock (Internet Archive, Amazon) opens the third volume in any of the various four-volume editions of Pilgrimage. Roughly half way through, in other words, at least in terms of pages. And I suspect that many readers find themselves giving up hope at this point.
The problem is that the flow of Miriam Henderson’s thoughts here begins to flow at such an unmoderated rate that anyone who hasn’t by now become accustomed, if not enamored, with it can be excused for turning away and gasping for air. Dorothy Richardson clearly put intense effort into capturing these thoughts and sensations by mining her own memories. But at times — and those time start coming more frequently as the chapters roll on — artistry (and here I take the definition of artist from that old quip: “Someone who know when to stop — and does”) becomes the victim of authenticity. As Rebecca West once wrote, “Miriam’s interior monologue went deeper and deeper, and in the end Dorothy Richardson would not interrupt it to record such external facts as the going out and coming in of other characters, with the result that is is never certain who is speaking to whom.” Or when, either, as she increasingly began to play with time, leaping backwards and forwards with no notice and few clues to ensure the reader could keep up with her.
Deadlock is further weighted down with a few too many philosophical discussions, none of which I can imagine are of any serious interest to today’s readers. Yes, Miriam’s intellectual development, her exposure to different political, moral, scientific, and cultural perspectives and beliefs, is a major element of her process of self-discovery, and in that way, absolutely important. But page after page of, say, a conversation about the virtues and shortcomings of the French versus the Russian versus the English, benefits neither our understanding of Miriam nor the narrative momentum. After a few too many of these, I could not help but agree with the nameless woman in the following snippet from one such discussion:
“I think I have said” — his face beaming with the repressed radiance of an invading smile, was lifted towards the audience, but the blue eyes modestly addressed the frill of green along the platform edge — “that metaphysic, with respect to some of the conceptions of science, while admitting that they have their uses for practical purposes, denies that they are exactly true. Theology does not deny the problems of metaphysic, but answers them in a way metaphysic cannot accept.”
“In that case theology,” began a rich, reverberating clerical voice . . .
“This is veggy boring,” said the woman.
Richardson’s tendency to allow the ideas being discussed to drown out the spirit of a conversation particularly plagues what otherwise would be the centerpiece of Deadlock: Miriam’s acquaintance, then friendship, then unsure romance with Michael Shatov, a lively, sophisticated, and highly opinionated Russian Jew living (initially) in the same boarding house as Miriam. Michael is Miriam’s guide, introducing her to a number of different the philosophical and political movements. They share an enthusiasm for Emerson. She is excited by his willingness to accept her as an intellectual being, to consider her having an equal capacity for intelligence and discrimination. They kiss — at least once — and she refers to him as her “dear, funny little man.”
But Miriam is also never free from her constant conflict between the expectations of other people and her own need for solitude and introspection. And Michael helps usher Miriam towards what is perhaps the greatest discovery along her pilgrimage — namely, her ability to reach much greater depths of understanding through writing. At first, it’s not really writing but translating, translating a lecture written by another boarder, a Frenchman named Lahitte. As she translates Lahitte’s piece, however, she becomes aware that her own sense of prose style is far better than his — indeed, that she can express herself quite well. The moment is a great turning point in Pilgrimage, like its first great turning point: the recognition of her room at Mrs. Baileys as her haven. “You know in advance when you are really following your life,” Miriam thought at that time. Looking at her papers, she is reminded of that moment:
Rising from the table she found her room strange, the new room she had entered on the day of her arrival. She remembered drawing the cover from the table by the window and finding the ink-stains. There they were in the warm bright circle of mid-morning lamplight, showing between the scattered papers. The years that had passed were a single short interval leading to the restoration of that first moment. Everything they contained centred there; her passage through them, the desperate graspings and droppings, had been a coming back. Nothing would matter now that the paper-scattered lamp-lit circle was established as the centre of life. Everything would be an everlastingly various joyful coming back. Held up by this secret place, drawing her energy from it, any sort of life would do that left this room and its little table free and untouched.
And ironically, this realization also tempers — perhaps forever — Miriam’s expectations of connecting with other people, and Michael in particular — through conversation. A thought occurs to her in the midst of a discussion of women’s rights that could almost be seen as Richardson’s credo: “If only one could speak as quickly as one’s thoughts flashed, and several thoughts together, all with a separate life of their own and yet belonging, everybody would be understood.” Unfortunately, she concludes that, “As it was, even in the most favourable circumstances, people could hardly communicate with each other at all.”
There are other reasons that lead Miriam … well, not so much to break up with Michael as to choose not go further in their relationship. One is something in his past that she finds she cannot accept. What it was — an old love? a shameful episode? indecent exposure? — is a mystery, given Richardson’s hyper-oblique treatment:
“Before you go,” Mr. Shatov was saying. She turned towards his suddenly changed voice, saw his pale face, grave, and working with the determination to difficult speech; saw him, while she stood listening to the few tense phrases in painful admiration of his courage, horribly transformed, by the images he evoked far away, immovable in the sunshine of his earlier days. The very trembling of his voice had attested the agonising power of his communication. Yet behind it all, with what a calmness of his inner mind, had he told her, now, only now, when they were set in the bright amber of so many days, that he had been lost to her, forever, long ago in his independent past. The train was drawing in. She turned away speechless.
I leave it to your filthy imagination to fill in the details.
And the other reason is, ahem, the Jewish question. Michael tells Miriam that he would not expect her to convert if they were married, tells her that he has no special religious feelings himself, but there is something about the fact of his being Jewish that becomes like a scab she cannot resist picking. And so, having learned of an Englishwoman who married a Jew and converted, Miriam writes and goes to learn about the woman’s experience. Again, in typical Richardson style, much is inferred from glancing references and truncated conversations. “Much of course depends upon the synagogue through which one is admitted,” the woman tells her. “Ah,” Miriam thinks; “she had felt the impossibilities. She had compromised and was excusing her compromise.”
This episode, and numerous other references to Jews and Jewishness in Pilgrimage — none of them in the least suggestive that Jews are malicious or devious or racially impure or any of the other stereotypes of outright anti-Antisemitism — obviously leave today’s reader a little unsettled. There are just enough hints of an other-ness about Jews that Richardson will never get a clean bill of tolerance. And that graduate students will for years to come find an easy subject to base theses and dissertations on.
Deadlock ends with Miriam closing the door on her relationship with Michael; and the next chapter, Revolving Lights opens another on the relationship that will keep Richardson’s name in the history books no matter what happens to Pilgrimage: Miriam’s relationship with Hypo Wilson, the fictional counterpart of H. G. Wells, with whom Richardson had a brief affair that led (it is believed) to a miscarriage.
Deadlock, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1921
Interim (Internet Archive, Amazon) opens (once again) with Miriam, bag in hand, on a doorstep. In this case, it’s at the Putney home of Grace and Florrie Broom, two sisters who were her students at Wordsworth House in Backwater. Miriam is spending Christmas (1896) with the Brooms, whose house and friendship remains, throughout Pilgrimage, a haven of acceptance and calm. Although there were real-life counterparts of the Broom sisters, with whom she remained close until their deaths in the 1930s, Richardson never disclosed their real names; however, in an article in Pilgrimages: The Dorothy Richardson Society Journal, Rebecca Bowler and Carol Overhill speculate that they were Ethel and Kathleen Higgins, two sisters recorded as students at Edgeworth House in the 1891 census.
Despite the hospitality and affection of the Brooms, however, Miriam cannot shake the sense of being an outsider. Walking in the High Street near their home, she observes the people bustling about on last-minute Christmas errands. “Long ago,” she muses, “she had passed out of their world for ever, carrying it forward, a wound in her consciousness unhealed, but powerless to re-inflict itself, powerless to spread into her life…. [T]hey could never touch her again, ensconced in her wealth.” Miriam may not have a clear idea of what she wants to do with her life, but with each chapter, her convictions about what she doesn’t want grow ever stronger.
As mentioned at the end of the post on The Tunnel, with the decision of her landlady, Mrs. Bailey, to take on boarders (meaning renters who take meals at the house), Miriam’s circle of acquaintances must, unavoidably, expand. Soon after, she is startled to hear a dinner gong sound downstairs: “They were having tea. Of course; every day; life going on down there in the dining-room.” Miriam’s routines have already become so solitary that such a normal event almost strike her as bizarre.
Richardson’s description of Miriam’s thoughts in this moment would be comical if the reader hadn’t grown familiar to how fiercely she fights to preserve her identity as a separate and independent person:
Involuntarily her feet were on the stairs. She went down the narrow flight holding to the balustrade to steady the stumbling of her benumbed limbs. What was she doing? Going down to Mrs. Bailey; going to stand for a moment close by Mrs. Bailey’s tea-tray. No; impossible to let the Baileys save her; having done nothing for herself. Impossible to be beholden to the Baileys for anything. Restoration by them would be restoration to shame. She had moved unconsciously. Her life was still her own. She was in the world, in a house, going down some stairs. For the present the pretense of living could go on. She could not go back to her room; nor forward to any other room. She pushed blindly on, bitter anger growing within her. She had moved towards the Baileys. It was irrevocable. She had departed from all her precedents. She would always know it. Wherever she found herself it would always be there, at the root of her consciousness, shaming her, showing in everything she did or said.
Despite her resistance, however, into the dining room she goes, and quickly finds herself the object of considerable curiosity by Mrs. Baileys new (male) boarders: Antoine Bowdoin, an artistically-minded and musically-talented Frenchman; Bernard Mendizabal, a Spanish Jew who is variously taken for Italian, French, or Russian; and a trio of Canadian doctors following a course of specialty studies. And Miriam, in turn, is intrigued by their, well, foreignness. Her short time in Germany (Pointed Roofs) and a short trip to Belgium (barely mentioned in Backwater but referred to in later chapters) have only spurred her desire to know more about other cultures — in part, one suspects, for the opportunity they provide as contrasts to the prevailing English attitudes.
But she’s still a young and fairly naive woman, as is shown by her gushing reaction when she enters the apartment taken by Antoine Bowdoin, who is hosting a little musical soirée:
This was Bohemia! She glanced about. It was the explanation of the room. But it was impossible to imagine Trilby’s milk-call sounding at the door It was Bohemia; the table and chairs were Bohemian. Perhaps a big room like this would be even cheaper than a garret in St. Pancras. The neighbourhood did not matter. A bohemian room could hold its own anywhere. No furniture but chairs and a table, saying when you brought people in, “I am a Bohemian,” and having no one but Bohemians for friends.
Not surprisingly, Miriam’s ability to judge the motivations of these exotic foreigners is similarly immature. She spends a good deal of time with Mendizabal simply out of a desire to have her horizons widened, only to find out after the fact that he was trying to lead the other boarders to think they were having an affair — a fact which sends Dr. von Heber, the most eligible and interested of the Canadian doctors, to pack his bags and head home.
Miriam’s social range is also expanded by the increasing number of lectures she attends. Looking around during a lecture on Dante one evening, she is impressed by the attentiveness of a number of the women in the audience — and their ugly and weather-worn clothes. “[T]he women were really interested in it, they were like people who had climbed a hill and were eagerly intent on what they could see on the other side. It was refreshing and also in some way comforting to be with them. They represented something in life that was going to increase.”
Coming home in a rapture, though, she faces a dilemma: how to share this experience? Make it just a matter of passing conversation? “I have been to a lecture she said in imagination standing by the window. It was what any other boarder would have said and then so fine, such a splendid lecturer and told the subject and his name and one idea out of the lecture and they would have agreed and gone cheerfully to bed, with no thoughts.” Or just keep it to herself? To truly share it appears impossible: “To try and really tell anything about the lecture would be to plunge down into misrepresentations and misunderstandings and end with the lecture vanished.”
The core story in Interim is, in a way, the core story of Pilgrimage distilled down to its essence: how one woman learns to live in society while maintaining her own sense of self. In Miriam — and Richardson’s — case, the key was overcoming the fear of loneliness and coming to peace with her own need for a large share of solitude:
The only real misery in being alone was the fear of being left out of things. It was a wrong fear. It pushed you into things and then everything disappeared. Not to listen outside, where there was nothing to hear. In the end you came away empty with time gone and lost. . . . To remember, whatever happened, not to be afraid of being alone.
She stood staring at the sheeny gaslit brown-yellow varnish of the wall-paper above the mantelpiece. There was no thought in the silence, no past or future, nothing but the strange thing for which there were no words, something that was always there as if by appointment, waiting for one to get through to it away from everything in life. It was the thing that was nothing. Yet it seemed the only thing that came near and meant anything at all. It was happiness and realisation. It was being suspended, in nothing. It came out of oneself because it came only when one had been a long time alone.
The more I reflect on Pilgrimage as I write these posts, the more I am impressed by how contemporary and relevant is Miriam’s story. Thanks to the many ways in which our sense of what is “normal” has been expanded or exploded, it is perhaps easier than ever to choose one’s own path, even if it leads into less conventional, and hence less widely accepted, choices. But it’s still not so easy that a fair amount of risk-taking and courage isn’t involved. And, like life at any time in history, some mistakes and failures are unavoidable. Miriam Henderson should be seen as a heroine by anyone who wants to chart his or her own course: it isn’t easy; it takes a day-in, day-out, mindful effort; but it can be done. Pilgrimage is the story of one woman who did.
Interim, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1919
The Tunnel (Internet ArchiveAmazon) opens with another arrival, as Miriam Henderson comes, heavy bag in hand, to Mrs. Bailey’s lodging house at 7 Tansley Street (Richardson’s real life equivalent was at 7 Endsleigh Street) in Bloomsbury. There is no trace of the horror of her mother’s suicide that ended Honeycomb. This is Miriam feeling, for the first time, the freedom of an independent life in her adored London.
Its center is her attic room, a small somewhat run-down garret that to her seems like something close to heaven:
She closed the door and stood just inside it looking at the room. It was smaller than her memory of it. When she had stood in the -middle of the floor with Mrs. Bailey she had looked at nothing but Mrs. Bailey, waiting for the moment to ask about the rent. Coming upstairs she had felt the room was hers and barely glanced at it when Mrs. Bailey opened the door. From the moment of waiting on the stone steps outside the front door everything had opened to the movement of her impulse. She was surprised now at her familiarity with the detail of the room . . . that idea of visiting places in dreams. It was something more than that … all the real part of your life has a real dream in it; some of the real dream part of you coming true. You know in advance when you are really following your life.
This room and Mrs. Bailey’s house are truly at the heart of Pilgrimage, as Miriam is to remain here through the seventh chapter, Revolving Lights, and return to it again at the end of The Trap, and many of her experiences will be intertwined with people she meets here.
The Tunnel is easily the most delightful chapter in the entire series, so suffused are its pages with Miriam’s delight in her life and London: “London, just outside all the time, coming in with the light, coming in with the darkness, always present in the depths of the air in the room.” She pays seven shillings a week rent, out of the munificent salary of one pound per week that she receives in her new job as the secretary of a prestigious Harley Street dental surgery.
Most of the references I’ve seen to the fact that Richardson spent years working in a dentist’s office make it seem as if it had been some form of tedious penance. Quite the contrary, in fact: if Miriam’s experience mirror Dorothy’s (as they do a great but not absolute extent), she found it busy, challenging, and satisfying work. The whole of Chapter Three of The Tunnel — at 42 pages one of the longest in the entire series — is taken up with a blow-by-blow description of just one day in the office, as Miriam rushes between the two examination rooms of Doctors Hancock and Orly, tends to paperwork, ushers in patients, and brings supplies and impressions to and from the dentists and the little laboratory in the basement. And, as the photo above of the office’s waiting room, taken from Gloria Fromm’s biography of Richardson, shows, even the office’s decor could be described as hectic.
Miriam is greatly impressed by Dr. Hancock, the junior member of the practice but by far its professional superior. He has a taste for art, particularly Japanese, and is active in the British Dental Association, for whose journal, The Dental Record, Richardson would later write numerous articles and columns. He is also taken by Miriam’s enthusiasm and intelligence, and takes her to her first lectures at the Royal Institution. He briefly considers a romantic relationship with her, but Miriam gently dissuades him. Much as she admire him, she senses a gulf between their classes she could never overcome: “Never, never could she belong to that world. It was a perfect little world; enclosed; something one would need to be born and trained into; the experience of it as an outsider was pure pain and misery.” The word enclosed will come to hold great significance for Miriam as Pilgrimage, occurring again and again when she thinks of the prospect of entering into relationships with various men.
Dr. Hancock’s real life equivalent, Dr. John Henry Badcock, was, in fact, a leading figure in his profession, eventually becoming president of the British Dental Association which later established an annual series of lectures in his name. Badcock practiced at 140 Harley Street for forty-six years. He was very generous to Richardson, paying for several of her vacations, including the trip to Switzerland that would be the subject of Oberland, the ninth chapter in Pilgrimage, and corresponded with her up to his death in 1953.
Miriam’s daily walk from Mrs. Bailey’s to the dental surgery and back again is just the start of her London excursions. There seems to be nothing about London, not even sinister shadows and encounters with the occasional drunk, that she does not experience with delight. I take the risk of including the following lengthy excerpt to demonstrate just integral to Miriam’s world are the sensations of walking in London:
Strolling home towards midnight along the narrow pavement of Endsleigh Gardens Miriam felt as fresh and untroubled as if it were early morning. When she had got out of her Hammersmith omnibus into the Tottenham Court Road she had found that the street had lost its first terrifying impression and had become part of her home. It was the borderland of the part of London she had found for herself; the part where she was going to live, in freedom, hidden, on her pound a week. It was all she wanted. That was why she was young and glad; that was why fatigue had gone out of her life. There was nothing ins the world that could come nearer to her than the curious half twilight half moonlight effect of lamplit Endsleigh Gardens opening out of Gower Place; its huge high trees, their sharp shadows on the little pavement running by the side of the railings, the neighbouring gloom of the Euston Road dimly lit by lamps standing high in the middle of the roadway at long intervals, the great high quiet porched houses, black and still, the shadow mass of St. Pancras church, the great dark open space in front of the church, a shadowy figure-haunted darkness with the vague stream of the Euston Road running to one side of it and the corridor of Woburn Place opening on the other.
In The Tunnel, Miriam has her first encounters with women who refuse to be secondary figures in mens’ lives. She is first awed, then disgusted, by Miss Szigmondy, a sophisticated woman introduced to her by Dr. Hancock, as she comes to realize how deliberately the woman is manipulating the men affected by her beauty to serve her purposes. She finds herself taking another young woman, Eleanor Dark, somewhat unwillingly under her wing when Eleanor becomes homeless and jobless, and eventually comes to understand that she is also somewhat manipulative and devious, if to different ends. She befriends Mag and Jan, two wise-cracking and worldly women a little older than Miriam, whose disinterest in the affairs or opinions of men greatly encourage her. Her friendship with them will continue through the rest of the series.
And she discovers the liberating effects of a novel form of transportation — the woman’s bicycle. Able to afford one even on her small salary (picking up one second hand from Miss Szigmondy), she overcomes the awkwardness and embarrassment of her first attempts to use it and soon finds herself exploring the far reaches of London. One Saturday, in fact, she rides so far out into the countryside that she is forced to spend a night in a village inn after she gets a puncture in a tire. Cycling also brings liberation to her wardrobe, as less cumbersome skirts become available to meet the demands of lady cyclists.
The Tunnel also introduces what will become one of the most significant relationships in Miriam’s life. An old school friend, Alma Wilson, invites her to join her husband and some of their friends for a weekend at their country house. Alma’s husband, Hypo, has begun to enjoy great success as a writer, particularly of imaginative and politically provocative novels. Hypo is the fictional equivalent of H. G. Wells, which whose wife, Amy Catherine Robbins, attended Miss Sandell’s school in Putney with Richardson. Hypo is the first to encourage Miriam to write and, much later in the series, enter into an affair with her. The affair results in a pregnancy and miscarriage, as was the case for Richardson and Wells, although Richardson’s treatment of the matter in both fiction and real life was so discreet as to require a fair amount of tea-reading by would-be biographers.
In the last scene of The Tunnel, Mrs. Bailey informs Miriam that she has decided to turn her lodgings into a boarding house, and with the next chapter, Interim, the horizon of Miriam’s social world will increase significantly.
Having just finished the last chapter, March Moonlight, I would say that The Tunnel is, in my view, the most representative book in the entire Pilgrimage series. Many of the situations and thoughts that occur to Miriam in its pages will re-occur, in nuanced variations, throughout much of the rest of the series, and the style and content of the book is among Richardson’s most consistently interesting and vivid. If you were not ready to take on the challenge of reading the full series and wanted to read just one book, The Tunnel would have to be the one I’d recommend.
The Tunnel, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1919
Honeycomb (Amazon/Internet Archive) opens with Miriam Henderson stepping off a train at a dark English country station late one March evening in 1895. Many of the chapters in Pilgrimage begin with Miriam setting off for or arriving at some place, reinforcing the sense of a journey implicit in the title. Having spent the months since leaving Edgeworth House school at the end of Backwater cooped up in the small house in west London that has been loaned to her family by Bennett, the fiance of her sister Sarah, she is grateful to taking on a new position as governess to the two children of the Corries. Mr. Corrie is a successful lawyer, a Q. C. (Queen’s Counsel) prosecuting high-profile cases in London, commuting each day from their large villa outside London, and his wife is a kind but superficial and somewhat crass woman of leisure.
Honeycomb covers a similarly brief time as Pointed Roofs and Backwater, about four months, from March to June, plus a brief episode at the end in the fall of 1895. Whatever Miriam aspires to become, by the end of Honeycomb, it is clear that it will not involve teaching. Although May Sinclair was to write, in her famous review published after the publication of Honeycomb, that “In this series there is no drama, no situation, no set scene. Nothing happens,” a survey of the chapters in the book do, in fact, demonstrate not only that things do happen but that Richardson did provide some structure to her work and did not simply let one continuous stream of consciousness (to use the phrase applied by Sinclair):
Miriam arrives at Newlands
Her first day and her introduction to the Corrie’s children and household
A day in which Miriam thrills to a late snow
Her second week at the Corries
A day in London accompanying Mrs. Corrie on a hat-shopping trip
A short, rapturous walk Miriam takes while Mrs. Corrie visits with a friend
Miriam takes a quick trip to London to shop for a wedding present with a potential suitor
Miriam walks into town and a scrappy bull-dog follows her back to the house
A weekend in May, during which Miriam wearies of the Corries and their friends
Miriam returns home to attend the dual wedding of her sisters Sarah and Harriet
Miriam accompanies her mother to Hastings, hoping the rest will improve her mother’s depression
It won’t qualify as a cliffhanger, admittedly, but clearly there is some shape and direction here.
Honeycomb shows Miriam still overcoming tremendous naïveté. She stumbles upon Mr. Corrie’s private study, a “curious soft brown room” that fascinates her, and she fantasizes about him using the space to engage in profound thinking: “… she would say, ‘What do you think about everything?’ Not so much to hear what he thought, but because some of his thoughts would be her thoughts.”
In contrast, she quickly realizes that, although a woman with impeccable taste in clothes and the ability to maintain a beautiful and orderly house, Mrs. Corrie is vapid and uncultured. The two children were spoiled and immature: “For years life had been for them just what it was to-day — breakfast in bed, chirping at their mother from the dressing-rooms where they slept, and scolding at Stokes as she waited on their toilet….” They were used to an hour or two of the most superficial teaching –usually just reading from Rollo books — and being allowed to spend most of the day riding their ponies and running about in the yard. By her second week, she concludes that “it was impossible and would always be impossible to make two hours of application anything but an irrelevant interval in their lives.”
And the Corries’ friends, who frequently come out from London for weekends, are well-off, on top of the latest society gossip, and utterly philistine. “What sort of place is Balone to stay in?” Mr. Corrie asks one just returned from France. “Why do you call it Balone?” the friend demands, and informs him that the correct pronunciation is “Balloyne.” “Oh, Lord, they mean Bologne,” Miriam realizes. For her, their wooden ears are symptoms of a general deafness to the world:
What did it matter, after all, the right pronunciation ? It did matter; not that Balone was wrong, but the awfulness of being able to miss the right sound if you had once heard it spoken. There was some awful meaning in the way English people missed the right sound; all the names in India, all the Eastern words. How could an English traveller hear hahreem, and speak it hairum, Aswan and say Ass-ou-ann ? It made them miss other things and think wrongly about them.
As grows increasingly apparent in Pilgrimage, some of Miriam’s most significant experiences are those that take place as she sits by herself in a room. The many quiet nights at the Corries’ give her time to indulge even more in one of her favorite pastimes, reading. After going through dozens of popular novels while staying at Edgeworth House, her taste in books has grown a little more sophisticated: “If it was finished and the interest gone when you know who married who, what was the good of reading at all?” Instead, her enthusiasm for Ouida’s work grows:
That was why Ouida put those others in the shade, not, not, not because her books were improper. It was her, herself somehow. Then you read books to find the author ! That was it. That was the difference . . . that was how one was different from most people. . . . Dear Eve [one of Miriam’s sisters]: I have just discovered that I don’t read books for the story, but as a psychological study of the author . . . she must write that to Eve at once; to-morrow. It was rather awful and strange. It meant never being able to agree with people about books, never liking them for the same reasons as other people. . . . But it was true and exciting. It meant . . . things coming to you out of books, people, not the people in the books, but knowing, absolutely, everything about the author. She clung to the volume in her hand with a sense of wealth.
As many have suggested, the greatest love story in Pilgrimage is that of Miriam’s passion for London. And when she accompanies Mrs. Corrie on a hat-shopping trip to London, she is perfectly happy to be politely ejected for an hour when Mrs. Corrie stops for tea and gossip at a friend’s Mayfair flat. She seizes the chance and experiences a rapturous thrill as she walks toward Regent Street:
Wide golden streaming Regent Street was quite near. Some near narrow street would lead into it.
Flags of pavement flowing along — smooth clean grey squares and oblongs, faintly polished, shaping and drawing away — sliding into each other. … I am part of the dense smooth clean paving stone . . . sunlit; gleaming under dark
winter rain; shining under warm sunlit rain, sending up a fresh stony smell . . . always there . . . dark and light . . . dawn, stealing . . .
Life streamed up from the close dense stone. With every footstep she felt she could fly.
There will be many more such walks before the series is through.
While Richardson felt that — as she once wrote an inquiring reader — that “the handing out of direct information is . . . excluded” in her writing, she does firmly, if obliquely, set the time frame of Honeycomb with a reference to Oscar Wilde’s first trial, on his charge of criminal libel against the Marquess of Queensbury, Alfred Douglas’ father:
“What is it ? ” said Miriam, shaking and flushing. ” Don’t tell me, don’t tell me,” cried her mind, “don’t mention it, you don’t know yourself what it is. Nobody knows what anything is.”
“I couldn’t tell you!” cried Mrs. Corrie.
“Why not?” laughed Miriam.
“It’s too awful,” giggled Mrs. Corrie.
“Oh, you must tell me now you’ve begun.”
“It’s the most awful thing there is. It’s in the Bible,” said Mrs. Corrie, and fled into the house.
It was agreed that for her mother’s health, Dorothy and she were to go into lodgings at Hastings. There was again the persistent illusion that “sea-air” was good for invalids no matter what was wrong with them, and it was hoped that Hastings with its esplanade and bandstand and pavilion would life the depression that had settled over Mrs. Richardson’s mind. . . . On November 30, 1895, at Hastings, Dorothy Richardson took a short morning walk away from her lodgings. On her return she learned from her landlady that her mother had committed suicide by cutting her throat with a kitchen knife.
It’s hard to imagine a more horrific experience for a young woman, and the knowledge that the suicide took place while she had left her mother alone must have produced a crushing sense of guilt.
It’s also hard to imagine that any reader would have a clear understanding of the event from the way Richardson describes it in the last two pages of Honeycomb. Returning to the lodging from a visit to a homeopathic practitioner, Miriam’s mother tells her that “God has deserted me. . . . He will not let me sleep. He does not want me to sleep. . . . He does not care.” Just two paragraphs later, we read:
The bony old woman held Miriam clasped closely in her arms. “You must never, as long as you live, blame yourself, my gurl. She went away. Miriam had not heard her come in. The pressure of her arms and her huge body came from far away. Miriam clasped her hands together. She could not feel them. Perhaps she had dreamed that the old woman had come in and said that. Everything was dream; the world. I shall not have any life. I can never have any life; all my days.
I had read Gregory’s book before starting Pilgrimage, but even with that forewarning it took me a second reading of the last chapter of Honeycomb to realize that this was how Dorothy Richardson placed in the life of her fictional counterpart, Miriam Henderson, what must have been a violent and life-searing memory. Though some critics argue that Pilgrimage itself was how Richardson expunged her sense of guilt, I can’t agree. George Thomson’s Notes on Pilgrimage identifies a total of two references to Miriam’s mother in the entire series (I think I found a third). More telling, though, is the fact that there are no references to Richardson’s mother in the nearly-700 pages of her letters, spanning over four decades, collected in Windows on Modernism. One cannot help but wonder if what she expunged was the memory itself.
Honeycomb, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1917
The opening chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage, Pointed Roofs (Project Gutenberg, Internet Archive, Amazon) immediately launches into Miriam Henderson’s long voyage of self-discovery. Like Richardson, she has been forced by her father’s bankruptcy into finding paying work through one of the very limited set of choices available to a well-bred, somewhat schooled, middle-class young woman in the England of 1890s. And like Richardson, what she obtains is a placement as an English teacher in a small private girl’s school in Germany.
As she travels with her father from England through Holland to Germany, Miriam swings back and forth between eager anticipation at the novelty and adventure of her first time in foreign countries and grave doubts about whether she is up to the challenge. Her willingness to go it on her own is helped along to some extent by her irritation at her father’s attempts to glorify the situation:
He was standing near her with the Dutchman who had helped her off the boat and looked after her luggage. The Dutchman was listening, deferentially. Miriam saw the strong dark blue beam of his eyes.
“Very good, very good,” she heard him say, “fine education in German schools.”
Both men were smoking cigars.
She wanted to draw herself upright and shake out her clothes.
“Select,” she heard, “excellent staff of masters… daughters of gentlemen.”
“Pater is trying to make the Dutchman think I am being taken as a pupil to a finishing school in Germany.” She thought of her lonely pilgrimage to the West End agency, of her humiliating interview, of her heart-sinking acceptance of the post, the excitements and misgivings she had had, of her sudden challenge of them all that evening after dinner, and their dismay and remonstrance and reproaches–of her fear and determination in insisting and carrying her point and making them begin to be interested in her plan.
After a long train ride through Holland and northern Germany, they arrive in Hanover, where her father leaves Miriam at a school run by Fräulein Lily Pfaff in a large house near the old part of town (whose medieval half-timbered houses and roofs inspired the title of this chapter). The school had about a dozen boarding students, a mix of German and English girls between the ages of 8 and 14 — barely younger than Miriam/Dorothy herself, who was just 17 when she came to the school. Typical of the educational approach for such girls at the time, Fräulein Pfaff’s curriculum is a mix of language instruction (German, French, English), singing and piano lessons, sewing, and religious training by a Lutheran pastor, with many idle hours and occasional outings. Perfect preparation, in other words, for a life as the well cared-for and placid wife of a comfortably rich man.
I am indebted–and will be throughout the rest of these posts on Pilgrimage–on George H. Thomson’s A Reader’s Guide to Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (1996) and his Notes on Pilgrimage: Dorothy Richardson Annotated (1999). The former provides a detailed chronology of the narrative events, the latter identifies and explains the many otherwise cryptic references in the text and reveals the depth to which his research took Thomson into such esoterica as card games, popular songs, railway routes and fares, and London shops of the period (1893-1915) covered by the books. In addition, Gloria Fromm’s Dorothy Richardson: A Biography (1977) is invaluable in providing a key to the ways in which characters, places, and events in Miriam Henderson’s life do — and do not — mirror those of Richardson’s.
With the help of Thomson and Fromm, for example, we can identify that Fräulein Pfaff’s real-life counterpart was Fräulein Lily Pabst, who ran the school at 13 Meterstrasse (Google Maps) in Hanover at which Richardson taught in the first half of 1891 (two years earlier than Miriam). According to Fromm’s biography, Richardson did not realize until halfway through writing the book that she had been using the real names of her characters, when she changed Pabst to Pfaff. In some cases, she never did come up with fictional alternatives.
As one might expect for a girl barely out of school herself and with no formal training or preparation to teach, Miriam is filled with doubts. Even before she leaves home, she dreams of being rejected by her students: “They came and stood and looked at her, and saw her as she was, without courage, without funds or good clothes or beauty, without charm or interest, without even the skill to play a part. They looked at her with loathing.” Riding through Germany, she looks out at the night as anxious thoughts run through her mind:
It was a fool’s errand . . . to undertake to go to the German school and teach . . . to be going there . . . with nothing to give. The moment would come when there would be a class sitting round a table waiting for her to speak. . . . How was English taught? How did you begin? English grammar . . . in German? Her heart beat in her throat. She had never thought of that . . . the rules of English grammar? Parsing and analysis…. Anglo-Saxon prefixes and suffixes … gerundial infinitive…. It was too late to look anything up.
And while she never does lose those doubts, Miriam manages to charm her girls with her youth and enthusiasm for the experience. However, she also quickly realizes that she is temperamentally incapable of going along quietly with a curriculum designed to produce passive and unquestioning helpmates. She seethes inside as the girls have a simplistic Lutheran dogma drilled into their heads and are led off to spend hours at services at the local church. She begins to realize how exceptional — if still imperfect — was her own schooling, which encouraged girls to think beyond marriage as a future: “the artistic vice-principal — who was a connection by marriage of Holman Hunt’s and had met Ruskin, Miriam knew, several times — had gone from girl to girl round the collected fifth and sixth forms asking them each what they would best like to do in life.” Tellingly, Miriam’s prompt response was, that she wanted to “write a book.”
Pointed Roofs introduces us to two themes that will remain constant throughout Pilgrimage: the role of music and clothes in Miriam’s world. For Miriam and her sisters (like Richardson, she has two older and one younger sister), music is an essential part of their lives. A piano and a rich collection of sheet music is the centerpiece of the family’s living room, and they all spend hours playing and singing, by themselves, with family, and for parties. Musical references account for a considerable share of Thomson’s annotations. In just the first 100 pages, Miriam thinks of, plays, or hears The Mikado, “Abide with Me,” Don Giovanni, Lohengrin, Chopin nocturnes, Beethoven sonatas, Mendelsohn’s Spring Song, and songs from the period like “Beauty’s Eyes,” “Venetian Song,” and “In Old Madrid.”
And there are her clothes. Miriam is lucky enough to have avoided the worst of the days of corsets and stays, but the awkwardness of women’s clothing of the time and the shabbiness, age, and poor quality of her own is an irritation never too far from her mind. Walking out in the chill of one of her first days in Hanover, she catalogs the shortcomings of her English clothes:
She hated, too, the discomfort of walking thus at this pace through streets along pavements in her winter clothes. They hampered her horribly. Her heavy three-quarter length coat made her too warm and bumped against her as she hurried along–the little fur pelerine which redeemed its plainness tickled her neck and she felt the outline of her
stiff hat like a board against her uneasy forehead. Her inflexible boots soon tired her.
Her family’s effort to supplement her wardrobe don’t help, either: “‘We are sending you out two blouses. Don’t you think you’re lucky?’ Miriam glanced out at the young chestnut leaves drooping in tight pleats from black twigs … ‘real grand proper blouses the first you’ve ever had, and a skirt to wear them with … won’t you be within an inch of your life!'” As Pilgrimage progresses, Miriam’s struggles to deal with cheap shoes, dowdy blouses, and skirts that show all the stains and marks of daily wear in a working world are reminders of the meager circumstances to which her poorly-paid jobs condemn her, and the fine dresses and hats she sees other women in are symbols of a power and privilege she can never aspire to.
Miriam’s enthusiam for her German adventure carries her through the worst days, but she unwittingly earns Fräulein Pfaff’s criticism: “You have a most unfortunate manner,” the school mistress tells her. “If you should fail to become more genial, more simple and natural as to your bearing, you will neither make yourself understood nor will you be loved by your pupils.” Though Miriam would like to stay on at the school, she runs into a simple financial predicament when they arrive at the summer holiday period. Two of the girls invite her to join them and their families at the North Sea, but she simply lacks the money to cover the expense of her lodging and food. And Fräulein Pfaff makes little effort to encourage her to stay. Just five months after coming to Hanover, Miriam boards a train to return to England, knowing she may never come back to Germany again.
Pointed Roofs superbly introduces us to Richardson’s style, viewpoint, and journey. Miriam is still awakening, still naïve, and still tentative in her engagements with the adult world, but she already has a strong sense of an inner drive that will not easily accept the conventions of her day. In its very first paragraph, Richardson tells us that contemplation is as essential to Miriam’s being as breathing: “There was no one about. It would be quiet in her room. She could sit by the fire and be quiet and think things over….” As Walter Allen wrote in his introduction to the 1967 J. M. Dent collected edition, the first complete edition of the novel, “Pilgrimage shows us, uniquely, what it felt like to be a young woman, ardent, aspiring, fiercely independent, determined to live her own life in the profoundest sense….” Having just passed the halfway point through Pilgrimage, I think it may represent the high point so far in my year-plus exploration of the world as seen through the eyes of women writers.
Pointed Roofs, by Dorothy Richardson
London: Duckworth, 1915
A couple of months ago, the encyclopedically knowledgeable Robert Nedelkoff emailed:
I want to bring a novel by a woman – an extremely and undeservedly neglected novel if there ever was one – to your attention: Life Signs, by Johanna Davis, nee Mankiewicz, published by Atheneum in 1973 and by Dell in paperback the next year, just after she died when she was struck by a taxicab outside her Greenwich Village apartment building at the age of 38.
You can find a reminiscence of her and a short discussion of her one book, written by Gilbert Rogin’s niece, Katie, on the Literary Mothers blog (link). It mentions she came from a “Hollywood family” of writers, but doesn’t specify that she was the daughter of the man who wrote Citizen Kane; the niece of the man who gave us All About Eve; and the aunt of TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. [Nor that her brother Frank ran George McGovern’s presidential campaign and her brother Don won the Harper Prize for his novel, Trial.
I took Robert’s suggestion and ordered a copy of Life Signs. Its opening gives a good clue to the book’s subject and Davis’ wise-cracking tone:
The way Camilla Ryder saw it: somewhere, tucked off in a back cranny of her brain, lived a tiny old lady, retired from active duty as a postal inspector but still interested in keeping her hand in. To this end, she ran a merciless, night and day operation over Camilla’s thoughts, zeroing in on any that seemed even slightly uninhibited with a furious red ink stamp. RETURN TO SENDER. The notion was improbably, if pleasing (Our Lady of the Medulla would wear Supp-Hose and an Orlon sweater set, tint her hair blue and eat off a tray), much like the explanation furnished by Camilla’s older brother for other mysteries of life; it took high school physics to finally rid her of Daniel’s persuasive visions of Lilliputian men striking and extinguishing microscopic matches inside of light bulbs, marching in and out of radios to give their news and spin records.
Camilla lives with her film-maker husband and a baby boy in a Greenwich Village apartment. She is eight months pregnant and her synapses are firing in overdrive. She regularly wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, leading her husband to suggest she see a therapist.
Despite his many affectations of sophistication, the psychiatrist’s advice is basically sound, but Camilla’s brain is in control of a particularly demonic set of little men. Another mom at the local playground sets her up with a beginner supply of amphetamines. Soon, she is having an absurd conversation with her son:
Jacob reached for her hair, making pigeon sounds. “Goo-goo,” he said. “No,” Camilla was firm. “Goo-goo is how babies go. Mommies go cuckoo.” She tucked him into clean rubber pants, and sat him up, and happy golden Kewpie doll she had won without trying. “Koo-koo,” he said. “Mommy koo-koo.” “Right,” said Camilla, unprecedented love coming at her like a flash flood as the pill hit. “Your first sentence, you smart thing. Have a zwieback.”
The novel follows Camilla through four days, until her water breaks and she delivers after a frantic taxi ride to the hospital. Though she promises her husband there will be “No more crazy salad,” within a week, she’s sleepwalking.
There are more than a few parallels between Camilla’s situation and Davis’ own. Married to a film-maker herself, she had had her own breakdown of sorts when her second child was born. Years after her death, her friend Brooke Hayward told People magazine, in an article about Davis’ husband, that “Peter literally took over the role of mother for the children.” “It was Peter who would bathe them, Peter who would pick up the groceries and Peter who often would cook. He’s a family man, and he never was anything but.”
Daughter of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, niece of director Joseph, Davis was known as Josie growing up in Hollywood. As a teenager, her closest friends were Hayward, daughter of producer Leland Hayward and actress Margaret Sullavan, Jane Fonda, and Jill Schary, daughter of MGM head of production Dore Schary. If the literary output of this group is any indication, Davis had plenty of the ingredients for a crazy salad of her own: Jill Schary, writing as Jill Robinson, published Bedtime Story, a memoir of drug addiction, alcoholism, and self-destructive behavior; Hayward’s own memoir, Haywire, described how she wrestled with the question, “How do you cope with the fact that your parents were unfit for parenting?” Let us not forget that Fonda’s mother Frances committed suicide in a New York sanatarium when Jane was 12, and, as Jonathan Yardley put it in his review of Fonda’s autobiography, for both Jane and her brother Peter, “yearning for their father’s love has been a lifetime’s preoccupation.” And, as her cousin, producer Tom Mankiewicz, revealed in his memoir, My Life as a Mankiewicz, it was Josie who discovered the body of her aunt, actress Rose Stradner, after Stradner committed suicide in 1958. At the time, Josie was 19.
Davis seems to have had the same kind of manic energy, wit, and intelligence as her heroine. In a memorial piece for The New York Times, Richard P. Brickner wrote, “She was the most literary person imaginable, in the sense that she was a natural story-teller and a natural story. She was all alertness, all poised eye, ear, and tongue. She invented incessantly, she read people incessantly, and she narrated incessantly in conversation.” In the People piece on Peter Davis, Anne Rogin, Katie’s mother and Johanna’s roommate at Wellesley College, recalled that, “Josie took stage center when she was in the room or in your life. She was a star, and when you have someone like that, people tend to see you as a satellite.”
In her Times article, Nora Johnson wrote that Camilla and similar women in such novels as Lois Gould’s Such Good Friends (1970), Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), Alix Kate Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen (1972), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), “Have been driven mad not by men, but by the social principles of the patriarchy, so familiar as to be almost invisible. We dwell uncomfortably with those softer, more humanistic principles so hard to tease out and explain or understand, which are historically women’s. These are, besides, unpopular, unworkable, even ridiculous.”
I wouldn’t say that Camilla finds a workable resolution for her own situation. Her story ends before we have the chance to find out. Davis herself may have achieved some resolve by writing Life Signs. Unfortunately, her own story ended too soon, too. She was killed on 25 July 1974 near her apartment in Greenwich Village when two taxis collided in an intersection and one careened onto the sidewalk where she was walking with her 11 year old son, Timothy. Timothy was uninjured but the cab struck Davis and threw her into a mailbox, causing a fatal blow to her head. Davis was survived by Timothy, Nicholas, then 9, and her husband.
Life Signs, by Johanna Davis
New York: Atheneum, 1973
In his foreword to The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), Sir John Gielgud writes, “I have always felt that Ruth Draper was (with Martha Graham) the greatest individual performer that America has ever given us.” Yet, despite the fact that her career spanned the eras of sound recordings, radio, films, and television, virtually no trace of her performances now remains aside from a few recordings she made — with some reluctance — in 1954, less than two years before she died. These recordings have recently been remastered and are available at www.drapermonologues.com. Their release led Michael Feingold, writing on TheaterMania.com, to call Draper “America’s Greatest Woman Playwright (Maybe)” and inspired Annette Benning to recreate four of them in a 2014 show at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
One of her performances, before a 1954 meeting of the Community Service Society, is available online at the WNYC Archives. In “Three Generations From the Court of Domestic Relations,” which she first performed in 1919, Draper appears as the 79 year old Anna Abrahams, then as Anna’s daughter, Sadie Greenman (47), and finally, as Rosie Greenman (19), Sadie’s daughter. The three women are speaking with a judge, and it gradually emerges that Rosie is trying to convince the judge to direct that her mother and grandmother be put in a home for elderly women so she and her boyfriend can leave for some small town out West where he’s been promised a job. All we hear is Draper’s voice, of course, but from that alone — her changing accents, diction, vocabulary, emotional tenor — that she transforms completely in the course of a 20-minute performance.
She explained her inspiration in an early — and rare – interview with a Boston reporter in 1925:
I used to know a City Magistrate who presided in the Domestic Relations Court, and he told me I could come and sit with him when I wanted to and see what was going on. That’s where I saw the old Jewish woman. In real life, though, the situation was not the same as it is in the stage sketch. The old woman’s daughter and her granddaughter wanted to have her sent away. I thought that was less interesting than placing the stress on the attitude of the youngest generation, so I built the sketch around the young woman, instead of the old one.
Despite the fact that she played poor women in many of her monologues, Draper was accustomed from birth to the society of the wealthy and famous. Her father was a successful surgeon in New York City and her mother was the daughter of Charles A. Dana, editor and part owner of The New York Sun. She attended an exclusive girls’ school, came out as a debutante in 1902, and was active in the Junior League. She would later use her insider knowledge of society women to devastating effect in such pieces as “The Italian Lesson,” “A Debutante at a Dance,” and “A Cocktail Party.”
But she had shown a flair for performance from a young age, and a family friend, the great Polish pianist Paderewski, encouraged her to pursue her passion: “You must do this professionally,” he told her in 1910. “You must make the decision. It must come from you, from inside.” She began by performing short one-person skits of her own creation at private functions at the homes of society friends around New York, and quickly gained a reputation as something of a phenomenon. Henry Adams saw her perform in Washington, D.C. in 1911 and wrote thereafter, “She is a little genius and quite fascinates me.”
In 1913, she traveled to England, where she appeared at parties hosted by society dames and ladies of the nobility. Her audiences included, on different occasions, King George V and Queen Mary and Prime Minister Henry Asquith. While in London, she became friends with Henry James, who once remarked to her, “My dear young friend, you have woven yourself a magic carpet — stand on it!” James even wrote a sketch for her, though Draper never attempted to perform it. The artist John Singer Sargent made several sketches of her, including the one featured on the cover of The Letters of Ruth Draper, which shows her in costume for the sketch, The Scottish Immigrant at Ellis Island.
She returned home to America just before World War One broke out, and her mother died a few weeks after her arrival. She toured the country performing on behalf of War Relief Benefits, and, for the only time in her career, acted as a member of a full cast in a Cyril Harcourt play, A Lady’s Name. The experience quickly convinced her that she should only perform solo, and in works she had written and conceived herself. In October 1918, she returned to England and then, on the day after Armistice, crossed to France.
For the next eight months, she toured American Army camps, entertaining the troops. She returned to England and resumed making the rounds of private homes, but her experience of performing before the soldiers had given her confidence that her art could appeal to more than just the wealthy and privileged. In January 1920, she booked Aeolian Hall in London for a single performance, and the reviews encouraged her to book it for five more in May 1920. This run rocketed her to success. “She is a hit of the season,” wrote The Observer, and The Jewish Chronicle’s reviewer proclaimed:
The art of Miss Draper stands alone…. To hold an audience enthralled for nearly two hours with this brand of dramatic art, without the aid of properties, music or scenery, is indeed a triumph. There is no doubt that her listeners would cheerfully have allowed Mis Draper to continue indefinitely.
The letters in The Letters of Ruth Draper begin at this point and continue over the course of the next 36 years, up to just two weeks before her death, at the age of 72, in 1956. Throughout these decades, she travelled all over the world, performing constantly. As Morton Dauwen Zabel writes in the memoir that introduces The Art of Ruth Draper: Her Dramas and Characters (1960), which can be found in electronic form on the Internet Archive (link):
She performed wherever her travels took her — in theatres, in halls, in drawing-rooms, in college auditoriums, in a country store in New Mexico, in a ship’s salon. She carried none of the enormous equipment of scenery, lights, costumes, managers, impresarios, and paraphernalia the great Frenchwoman [Sarah Bernhardt] required. She travelled through six continents and over thousands of miles by land, sea, and air without retinue, staff, or company, carrying all the equipment she needed in a few dress-cases or hat-boxes and the most rudimentary of make-up kits.
When the French actor and producer, Lugné-Poe, who assisted Draper in arranging her tours over the next twenty years, first approached her about appearing at his theater, he asked her how many assistants and other cast members she would need. “Non, oh non,” she answered. “Je suis seule. Je n’ai besoin de personne. Seule, moi. Un rideau [curtain], seul.” The simplicity of her needs is demonstrated by a sample of the stage requirements listed in an appendix to The Art of Ruth Draper:
A Class in Greek Poise:
A plain straight chair, and a small plain table.
Christmas Eve on the Embankment at Night:
A plain low wooden bench, if possible of weathered appearance.
A Cocktail Party:
A drawing-room chair with or without arms, and a low coffee-table.
A Dalmatian Peasant in the Hall of a New York Hospital:
A plain straight office chair.
A Debutante at a Dance:
A large roomy upholstered or overstuffed armchair.
Doctors and Diets:
A small rectangular table to serve as a restaurant table, and a straight restaurant chair.
She could … arrive at the theatre twenty to thirty minutes before curtain time. She would glance at her mail, ask her stage manager which “sketches” were on her program for that performance, and then, with the help of her dresser, slip out of her dress or suit, and don her pinkish kimono while she supllemented — really only strengthened — her makeup: a little blue eye-shadow, the minimum of mascara and brown eye pencil and rouge — very little — dark lipstick shaped on with her fingertip, powder with a rabbit’s foot or soft brush. She simply wore her own face — her primary tool of expression. Dark brown wavy hair, large brown eyes compelling, expressive, and all-seeing, skin clear with a tone slightly — very slightly — tawny.
Then into her stage dress: brown or beige lace, a dark brown velvet, always sleeveless, basic, unobtrusive, to which could be added shawls or bits of costume for her characterizations. A final glance in the mirror and she walked quickly out to the wing where her dresser had laid out on a table the “costumes” and props for that performance, put on the necessary items; the curtain rose, and with a final word to whomever she was chatting with, she walked into the stage lights — a different character and personality. No more than that, no rehearsal, no moment of reflection or of gathering herself together.
Despite the fact that she was among the best-paid and most in-demand actresses of her day, Draper was little interested in publicity. The playwright Russel Crouse, who worked as her first press agent, once wrote that, “It was a strange association for she did not want any publicity, refused to see me half the time, and every thing I did to help her sell out, which she did, I did in spite of her.” She would do her part by performing, Warren writes, “but personal interviews, details of her off-stage self, most definitely not!” She once called publicity “only a sham sort of literature, pre-digested by someone else for ‘ready reading.'”
In part, the simple pace of her career kept the scope of her private life limited. Of the hundreds of letters published in The Letters of Ruth Draper, the majority are to a few of her close friends and relatives. But when she did have a great romance, it turned out more dramatic than any of her pieces. In early 1928, while appearing in Rome (among Draper’s talents was an ability to perform with equal facility in English, Italian, French, and German), she met Lauro de Bosis, a poet, scientist, and classical scholar. She was 43, he 26, but they were immediately drawn to each other. De Bosis pursued her in earnest, but Draper was filled with self-doubts. After some weeks together, she returned to the U.S., in some confusion. “My great object is to stop thinking — stop worrying — rejoice in the fact that I am loved — in the wonder of my life with its richness and beauty. I seemingly have everything — yet I can’t grasp it — that’s my trouble.
De Bosis followed her a few months later, taking a post with the Italy-America Society in New York City. He and Draper spent many days together, and when she boarded a ship for a tour of Europe the next spring, de Bosis travelled with her. By late 1929, they were considering marriage, but events intruded on their plans. A passionate anti-Fascist, de Bosis abruptly decided in June 1930 to give up his post and returned to Italy, where he began organizing a resistance group, Alleanza Nazionale. It soon attracted the attention of Mussolini’s police, and while de Bosis was away in New York settling his affairs, they arrested two of his associates, searched his mother’s house, and, upon finding incriminating letters, arrested her, too.
Signora de Bosis was released after she signed a letter to Mussolini denying any sympathies for the anti-Fascist cause, but the situation made it impossible for de Bosis to return to Italy. Instead, he moved to Paris, taking a job as a concierge to survive and working with other exiles to organize support against the regime. Inspired by a bold daylight flight by a fellow radical, Giovanni Bassanesi, during which he scattered anti-Mussolini leaflets over Milan, de Bosis began taking flying lessons and bought himself a small airplane. On 3 October 1931, he took off from Marseilles with less than a full tank of fuel, having told the ground crew that he was headed for Barcelona. Instead, he headed for Rome, where he dropped leaflets and circled the city for half an hour before heading out to sea. He was never seen again.
His fate was unknown for some time. Two weeks after his departure, Draper wondered to a friend “if Lauro should call me up perhaps from Spain, or South America, or Egypt.” By early November, howerver, it was clear that he had crashed somewhere at sea, most likely having run out of fuel somewhere between Italy and Corsica. Though she grieved for the loss, she committed to carry on: “O well, I must grit my teeth and know one can’t recall the past, and have a second chance — with all my weaknessses and failures he loved me — and regretted nothing — that I know. By early January 1932, she was touring again, appearing in a series of twelve one-week engagements throughout Great Britain.
And tour she continued to do, despite the travel restrictions of a world war, for the rest of her life. In the last twelve months before her death, she performed in Chicago, Boston, New York City, Scotland, London, The Hague, Vienna, Italy, and Paris. When she couldn’t cross the Atlantic two or three times a year, as had been her habit, she settled for crossing the U.S. by train, appearing everywhere from Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, Washington. A few weeks before the Pearl Harbor attack, she wrote enthusiastically to Corinne Robinson (mother of columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop) from Minot, North Dakota:
We go to such funny places, and now and then to a friend and luxury and comfort, and in spite of the bad hot air I do like trains! I have superb audiences everywhere, and the response is terrific. New people, young people, alert and keen and warm, and it’s very gratifying…. No worry about advertising, no risk, and assured packed house everything with the “best people” in town and, what I love, the youth! The high school and civic auditoriums I simply hate, but that’s where concerts are held, so I have to bear it, but the audiences seem wild with delight, and it’s a wonderful satisfaction.
By the early 1950s, her place in the world of the arts was so respected that she was awarded a CBE in 1951 and invited to give a private performance at a gala dinner at Windsor Castle. As she ended her last piece, The Scottish Immigrant, she slipped and fell flat on her back. “I managed to get up rather gracefully considering the shock,” she wrote her niece, “and the first persons who came forward were the Queen and both Princesses.”
Such exalted recognition did not lessen her appeal, however, as a young Kenneth Tynan wrote in one of his Observer reviews:
I want to declare Miss Draper open to the new generation of playgoers, and to trample on their suspicions, which I once shared, that she might turn out to be a museum-piece, ripe for the dust-sheet and oblivion. She is, on the contrary, about as old-fashioned and mummified as spring, and as I watched her perform her thronging monologues the other night, I could only conclude that this was the best and most modern group acting I had ever seen….
I have an idea that, at the back of her mind, Miss Draper is hoping still to find a company of actors skillful enough to stand up to comparison with the accuracy, tact, and wisdom of her technique. She is actually doing her
contemporaries a great kindness by not exposing them to such a hazard.
The Scottish Immigrant, which Draper first performed in 1912, was also her very last monologue. On December 29, 1956, the fifth night of what was intended to be a four-week season at the Playhouse Theatre, just off Broadway, she complained to her assistant at one point that, “I just went blank — and kept on talking. I never did that before.” She closed the show with her piece about the girl from the Highlands arriving at Ellis Island to join her fiance, rushing off stage at the end, calling out, “Sandy, my Sandy — I’m here!” Afterward, she asked to be driven to see the Christmas lights in the city, then went home for supper. Her maid found her in bed the next morning, dead from a heart attack.
While her work has inspired several generations of performers, including Lily Tomlin, Spaulding Gray, and Julia Sweeney, and continues to be celebrated, her decision to devote herself strictly to live performances has ensured that Ruth Draper will forever be something of a neglected genius. As David Benson remarked in connection with a 2002 BBC Radio 4 tribute to her work:
If you want to be immortal you must be in films – the best theatre dies with its audience and the best telly and even radio disappears after a while. But movies are forever. Ruth Draper made no films, apart from a few experimental tests with Alexander Korda which were never used. It is a great shame, as the audio recordings, brilliant though they are, only give us half the magic of her work. We miss seeing what she did.
The Letters of Ruth Draper: A Self-Portrait of a Great Actress (1920-1956), edited by Neilla Warren
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979
Walk on over the leaf-patterned carpet, under the gas lamps, and there is Pickwick and Sam Weller in a huge gilt frame. It hangs above the piano. This is a busy room. There is a “dado” of landscapes near the ceiling. And pictures of landscapes on either side of the great Pickwick. I have a recent yearning for pictorial pictures again. To stand and look far back to distant mountains, to which tiny boats are heading, and on the shore tiny people picnic, while near at hand a family group of peasants — or of wealthy sightseers — gesticulate, smiling or sad, dangling long ribboned hats. patting long-haired, carefully painted dogs. The storytelling picture, the romantic painting — but at least doing something. Not blobs of color.
There are tall vases on the mantel, a shiny black bust of Beethoven on the piano. The chairs have carved legs, flowered seats, curved rockers; antlers sprout from the walls; flowers sprout from flowered vases. The Mexican vase is there. The bookcases have glass doors. Parlors, hallways, living rooms all seem to flow every which way, kept in order by massive sliding doors with square carved panels. There is so much going on in silence!
Josephine Johnson wrote Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places when she was in her sixties, and it’s a memoir constructed around the unusual framework of the seven houses in which she had spent most of her life to that point. The daughter and granddaughter of prosperous St. Louis merchants, she grew up in a household full of sisters and aunts but dominated by strong male figures. She took early to writing, but was astonished to learn she’d won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel, Now in November, in 1935.
And despite this success, as she writes in Seven Houses, “I seemed to be waiting to begin to live, and not all the beauty, all the intensity of the words on paper … all the desperate search for reform and change, the bitterness of the depression years, not the love for my sisters nor the tortuous refining of personal philosophy, seemed to be the reality of living that I wanted to find.” Despite establishing herself as a successful writer and growing up around strong women, her outlook was still dominated by the need for a strong male figure: “And then I met Grant Cannon and the waiting to live was over and the real life began.”
Seven Housess was written not long after Johnson published The Inland Island (1969), a book that some have compared to Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — a book very much about the impact of landscape on the writer’s life and perceptions. And, ironically, despite its title, Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places is as much about the landscapes and seasons outside as it is about the things that went on inside. “But there was too much house, too little land,” she writes of a house she shared with Cannon and their children for over ten years. At times, Johnson seems to be struggling to understand where she wants to go with her memoir, but even in its occasional disorientation, Seven Houses is a unique and often moving reflection on life in all its elements.
Seven Houses: a Memoir of Time and Places, by Josephine W. Johnson
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1973
Negative Entropy or
The Third Law of Thermodynamics or
How It is We Keep Alive
We feed on crystals, feast on minerals,
Batten, upon the moon, consume the stars
And through the channels of our love drain off
The sun’s heat and the whole world’s energy.
The crocus and the oak, the elephant,
The long-tailed tit, the taxidermist’s owl,
Our eyes, our hair, our nails, all, all the same
Millions of indistinguishable atoms
Chaos in single numbers, order in milliards.
Only the passionate indestructible pattern
Of the all-but-eternal molecule, carries the key.
Locked in its heart lies the secret
To grow from the acorn the oak,
From the corm the year’s yellow crocus,
From the fertilised cell the elephant,
From the egg the tit or the owl,
From eyes our children’s eyes, from hair their hair
And from our nails their same peculiar nails.
Each greedy of life resists death,
Sucks sustenance from the desert;
Devours the rock and the ruby.
Until we cool to our end
And dying provide new fires
For love and fresh generation.
from The Lightning Struck Tower, by Sheila Shannon
London: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1947
Errol was exceptionally tidy in his personal habits. Sometimes he shaved twice a day and) he took constant showers. But one day Beverly said to me: “Mama, isn’t it strange? He doesn’t use anything under his arms. You’d think a man who’s been around as much as Errol would know about a little thing like that, wouldn’t you?”
I certainly agreed. He Wasn’t offensive—far from it. But it proved to me once again that those women he’d run around with for years—all those top sex charmers—were a bunch of dummies in some departments. You’d think one of them might have gotten around to giving Errol the message. But not one of them knew how to tell him.
With Beverly herself it was simply no problem. She was such a sweet person she didn’t need an underarm deodorant, but she used one just to be safe. One night when she and Errol were preparing to go somewhere in New York, she suddenly brought up the subject. It was always her way to be quite frank with him.
“Errol,” she said, “why don’t you use Mennen’s under the arms, or something like that?”
He took it as quite an insult. He had been shaving, and he turned away from the washbowl and gave her a hurt look.
“Well,” he said, sarcastically, “I’ve always considered myself a fairly clean man.”
“But why not use one? ” said Beverly. Her persistence made him a little angry.
“Damn it,” he said. “Who uses that stuff anyway? Besides, how come you know so much about what men are supposed to put on?” He looked at her half-suspiciously, half-jokingly. “I thought you were supposed to be a virgin before you met me. So how come you know all about this? Who told you?”
“My father!” snapped Beverly. “That’s who! He’s the cleanest man that ever was. He always asks me to give him Mennen toilet water for Christmas!”
Errol laughed and finished shaving. He didn’t say anything more about it then, but not long after that he started using a deodorant.
FromThe Big Love, by Mrs. Florence Aadland (as told to Tedd Thomey)
New York: Lancer Books, 1960
“There’s one thing I want to make clear right off: my baby was a virgin the day she met Errol Flynn.”
The world can be divided into two groups: those who gag at that line and those who glory in it.
I have to confess that I belong to the second group. To me, this is one of the great opening lines in American writing, right up there with “Call me Ishmael.” It’s proud, shameless, sleazy, and sycophantic–all at the same time. Whatever else you might say about ghostwriter Tedd Thomey, you can’t deny that he masterfully conveyed Florence Aadland’s unique voice to the printed page.
I am not the first to recognize The Big Love. It’s pretty well known about those who celebrate great celebrity trash writing such as Mommie Dearest and Mother Goddam, and pops up twice on this site (named in Writer’s Choice by William Styron and W. H. Auden and in Tin House magazine by John Marr). Which helps to explain why this book sells for 55 bucks and up, if you can find a copy. I had the great luck to find a copy for $1, which goes to show that God does want us to browse the shelves of the “Religion” section of used bookstores: you never know what you might find misplaced there.
The facts of the story have been hashed, re-hashed, and even filmed, so I will be brief. In October 1957, one-time dashing and successful actor Errol Flynn spotted Beverly Aadland among the extras on a studio set, took her out to dinner, and raped her. Well, in those days, he would have said he seduced her, but by Florence’s account, she tried to fight him off.
She was then 15 years old.
Looking old for her age, Beverly was passing as 21 to get studio and nightclub work, and Flynn probably did not know the truth (though he’d already been charged several times with having sex with underage girls and was, in the words of his FBI file, “a man perverted in his sexual desires, and who ultimately will cause Warner Brothers a considerable amount of difficulty if he doesn’t kill himself in the process”).
But Flynn found himself intensely attracted to Beverly, and despite the rape, she agreed to meet him again. The relationship developed, with frequent dates and visits to Flynn’s house. Flynn invited her mother, Florence, on several occasions. Florence was bowled over by Flynn’s looks, charm, and glamor, and enjoyed the lavish meals that featured “caviar, pate de foie gras, and other swank items.”
A few months later, Flynn flew daughter and mother to join him in New York. On the plane there, Beverley told her mother the truth about the rape. Stunned and furious at first, Florence was somehow persuaded by Beverly that she and Flynn were truly in love. Quickly, Florence saw what needed to be done: “I decided I was going to put up one hell of a fight to see it it that he married my daughter.”
The stay in New York mostly involved Flynn painting the town and spending long hours at the Park Lane Hotel with Beverly while Florence cooled her heels in another (cheaper) hotel. She only saw Flynn a few times, and when she did, “I never did get a chance to tell Errol off. Whenever the opportunity arrived, it was gone in a flash.” The problem, it turns out, was that, “He was such a lively character, so flip, so quick to turn a person’s thoughts onto a new subject.”
Who knew that sparkling personality was a form of mind control? Imagine if Flynn had turned his superpower to the cause of good?
Well, Flynn’s charm managed to keep Beverley close at hand and Florence at bay for over a year and a half. Beverly traveled with him to Africa, on tour with a flop play, and back to Hollywood. She joined him in Cuba and appeared in a bit part in his last movie, Cuban Rebel Girls, which Wikipedia describes, oxymoronically, as a “semi-dramatic documentary B movie.” Then, in October 1959, while the pair were in Vancouver, Canada, trying to sell Flynn’s yacht to fund his divorce from Patricia Wymore, his third wife, Flynn collapsed suddenly and died. The cause was ruled heart attack and cirrhosis of the liver.
Despite Florence’s hopes and an unsigned will leaving much of his estate to Beverley, the pair were soon back where they started, rich in nothing but notoriety. Which compounded about a year later when Beverly’s then-boyfriend shot himself in her bedroom and Florence was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Beverly was made the ward of a Baptist minister and his wife, and Florence went in search of a book deal.
But Beverly’s affair with Errol Flynn is, in the end, not the real reason people take such delight in The Big Love. Instead, it is the sublimely unwitting and adorned crassness of Florence. She is blissfully unashamed that her main location throughout the affair was offstage, usually far offstage. That, while Beverly and Flynn were off in Africa or Jamaica or Cuba, she was working as a coffee shop waitress or manicurist, aware of what was going on through what were clearly very occasional phone calls.
Instead, she celebrates the miracle that saved her from death when she went into shock from uremic poisoning after Beverly’s birth: was her doctors yelling at her, “Come on, you silly little dumb bitch! Fight! Fight!” No wonder she later found that she and Flynn “could speak the same language together”: “There were times when we traded four-letter words, and I know he respected my ability to use such language when the occasion demanded.”
Indeed, we learn that Florence had finer side–was something of an intellectual, if you will. We are told that, after joining the Rosicrucians, she “made a detailed study of life and the universe” and “learned as much about the human nervous system as a doctor does.” When Beverly was still quite young, Florence “read Shakespeare to her and he was always one of her favorites.” No wonder that later, when they were visiting Flynn in New York, he and Beverly “spent hours watching the United Nations sessions on television, following the complicated events day after day, trading opinions, offering detailed judgments.”
Florence also raised Beverly to be refined in her sensibilities. Although Flynn “shaved twice a day and took constant showers,” Beverly was put off by the fact that he didn’t use deodorant. She felt he could not meet the standard upheld by her father: “He’s the cleanest man that ever was. He always asks me to give him Mennen toilet water for Christmas!”
Though Flynn and Beverly were never to marry, Florence had no regrets about their affair: “Have no difficulty finding an answer to the question my friends often ask me. ‘Flo,’ they’ll say, ‘if you had to do it over again, would you make the same decision?'” To which her answer is always the same: “Of course I would. And I mean it from the heart.”
And as for those who would condemn them, as for those who cannot appreciate the qualities of The Big Love, we can share Florence’s sentiment that, “They are the ones who will never, never try to understand what kind of a man Errol Flynn was and what kind of person my daughter Beverly is.” And take comfort in the knowledge that “people like that don’t count with us anyway.” Or with us–am I right?
The Big Love, by Florence Aadland as told to Ted Thomey
New York: Lancer Books, 1961
Anyone with romantic fantasies about the life of a popular writer need only read Margaret Campbell’s autobiography The Debate Continues to get over them. Under such pseudonyms as Marjorie Bowen, Robert Paye, George R. Preedy, Joseph Shearing, and John Winch, she published over 150 books, many of them best-sellers in both the U.K. and U.S.. She tended to specialize in highly authentic but melodramatic historical novels such as The Viper of Milan (1906), which she wrote at the age of 16. Indeed, the popularity of The Viper of Milan, which was a best-seller of its time, was such that her publishers put relentless pressure on Campbell to write more like it. And the extravagant demands of her family–first her mother and then her ailing first husband–on her income, as she was typically the only bread-winner, kept her writing book after book in a genre and style she considered beneath her true abilities.
Margaret’s parents separated a few years after she was born, and she spent most of her early years moving from one cheap apartment to another as her mother, Mrs. Vere Campbell, an aspiring but utterly unsuccessful playwright, outran collection agents and leaned upon the charity of her friends. Her mother made it clear that Margaret, whom she considered thin, unattractive, and stupid, was by far the least favored of her three daughters. It made for a pretty grim childhood: “The great object of my days,” she wrote, “was to escape blame or punishment, for active pleasure or amusement was beyond hope.” Her grandmother, who was part of this wandering band, was little better: “Nana, too, would always remain as she was—slovenly, slack, with a sly, malicious tongue, untrained in everything save the shifts of poverty and the intrigues of cheap lodging-houses and tenth-rate flats.”
As what little money her mother could spend on schooling she reserved for her other daughters, Margaret largely taught herself, painstakingly working out the meaning of words in the rare book that might be lying around one of their apartments. By her early teens, however, she was spending many of her days at the British Museum, reading about history, art, and culture. She picked up a few small jobs as a fact-checker and ghost-writer, and was soon the one reliable source of income for the family. Not that this did anything to improve her standing in her mother’s eyes. Her mother was, variously, dismissive, discouraging, or bitterly envious.
Margaret’s first attempt at writing a novel was, by her own account, highly amateurish and relied heavily on guidebooks for its settings. Passed around from publisher to publisher for several years–most of them simply refusing to accept that a young girl could have written it–it was finally accepted in 1906 by Gilbert and Sullivan’s publisher, Alston Rivers. A moderate success in the U.K., The Viper of Milan became a best-seller when published by McClure in the U.S.. Quickly, the demands of both her publishers and her family turned Margaret into a full-time production machine. Although she held no great opinion of her work, Margaret did scruple to stick with subjects that required at least some knowledge and craftsmanship on her part:
… I liked historical work. It never could be as slap-dash and careless as light, modern stuff. A good deal of effort, research and painstaking, and a severe self-discipline were necessary for the writing of these books in which history was to be transformed into fiction and men and women of the past given some kind of life. The harder the work involved in the preparation of a book the better I liked it. I seemed to be giving something solid in return for the money I earned; too much money for what I gave, I always privately thought. And at least there was a certain dignity about this kind of fiction that there would not have been about ephemeral love or adventure stories of the life about me.
She also found, ironically, some relief in her tendency to favor stories of revenge, murder, and Gothic horror: “I found that, by writing of dark and gloomy subjects, I, in a way, rid my mind of them.”
“Margaret Campbell thus ended her account of her childhood and youth.” With this odd statement, Campbell opens the second half of her book and abruptly shifts from first person to third person. The transition also marks the start of her life as a married woman. In 1912, she met a Sicilian man at a party hosted by one of her mother’s friends, and more as an escape than out of love, married him soon after. Within a few weeks, they were on their way to Italy, and soon after that, Margaret found she was pregnant with their first child. Her account of the child’s delivery at the hands of a local Sicilian mid-wife, “who had every appearance of being a witch and whose knowledge of superstitions, of incantations, of good and bad omens was only equalled by her complete ignorance of medicine and hygiene” is as terrifying as anything she wrote as fiction.
Her husband then had the inspiration to rent the palace of some German prince along the Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Pisa in the off-season. There was truly nothing to be recommended in this plan: the place was gloomy, impossible to heat, sitting near stagnant water, and with little in the way of food. Margaret’s husband, who was never very healthy, quickly fell ill and began to waste away. He hung on for over a year, with Margaret all the while struggling to care for him, search for food, haggle with the local pharmacist over patent medicines, find wood for the stoves … and, in her spare time, keep writing. “There were times,” she wrote, “when she wished she could have been treated as they treated stray dogs, given some warmth, food, and quietly exterminated.”
Margaret’s husband hung on for over a year. In his last few months, she finally found a reliable doctor to care for him. Long anticipated by her maid, who spoke of the man’s legendary care-giving abilities, “The Professor” came over to the house early one summer evening. She was utterly unprepared for what happened next:
She supposed that she had read or heard of such an experience as was now hers, but she had scarcely believed in it. What had happened was that the focus of her existence had altered; she had been absorbed, to the point of obsession, with her husband, with his illness, with his approaching death. For months she had thought of nothing else, save intermittently of the child in England. Only a few stray unbidden dreams and visions had interrupted the intense concentration on this one subject.
Now, in one moment of time, the moment in which she had met this stranger on the threshold of her alien home, everything had altered. It was no longer her husband who was her chief concern, but the man who was now shut up with him, the man who had been so incongruously and absurdly termed “the Professor.”
Margaret’s feelings were fully reciprocated by the Professor, an elegant Venetian in his late sixties. As he left their villa a few days later, he spoke to her: “Before he left her he said he would come again in the morning early. Then he added, in a voice that was suddenly changed by emotion, that he loved her and would do so for the rest of his life.”
Their romance was one of the most proper to be found in literature. What few minutes they could share away from the dying man allowed time for nothing more than a short walk around the villa. And when, after the funeral, they were able to spend a few days together, concern for appearances kept things from going beyond an occasional holding of hands. Yet so convinced were they of their love that Margaret promised to marry the Professor when she returned from England with her son, who had been living with Nana.
But it was not to be. While in England, Margaret received a letter from him saying that his health was too poor to ever allow them to marry. In the space of three or four pages, she sweeps past her second marriage and two more children to arrive at the present. And switches back again to the first person: “It seems to me that it would have been simple for me to make a harmony of my own life, but it has always been cut across by the discords of other people’s lives.”
One has to respect Margaret Campbell’s dedication to her work as an income-earning writer, and in retrospect, she is certainly considered among the better genre novelists of her time. However, one is also tempted to play amateur psychoanalyst in reading her autobiography: why the shift from “I” to “Margaret” and back to “I”? And is it selflessness or resentment that lies behind this statement: “I think I should have known how to live simply, pleasantly, and gaily myself, but no life can be entirely self-contained and my designs have been overborne by those of other people”? Even without the analysis, though, The Debate Continues is an absorbing and fast-moving story that will leave you in awe of this woman’s energy.
Ethel Mannin wrote. A lot. By her own declaration, Sunset over Dartmoor (1977), the final chapter of her autobiography, was her 95th. She wrote so many books that even though the “By the Same Author” page in Dartmoor lists 41 novels, along with many other titles on “Politics and Ethics,” “Short Stories,” “Travels and Memoirs,” and “Child Education,” the list still ends with “Etc.” (there were at least four more after Free Pass to Nowhere (1970)).
She got an early start. Before marrying at 19 and having a daughter (her only child) a few months later, she had already begun to produce serialized romantic novels at the price of one guinea for every 1,000 words. (These books are on top of the other 95.) And by the age of 30, she’d had enough practice to feel quite comfortable publishing an autobiography, Confessions and Impressions (1930).
Confessions was one of her most successful and popular books, going into multiple printings and being reissued a few years later as an early Penguin paperback. Its success owed much to the novelty of Mannin’s scandalous confessions, such as falling in love with one of her female teachers, enduring the abuse of another (psychopathic) teacher who refused to let her pupils use the toilet and kept them hostage until they wet themselves and were duly punished, and having several affairs, including one with an unnamed man so distraught over their break-up that he committed suicide. Heady stuff for its time.
But, at the same time, Confessions and Impressions offers an early clue to the secret of Ethel Mannin’s success as a word producer and failure as a writer. For the “Confessions” section of the book amounts to about 40% of its content, while the “Impressions”–a collection of somewhat shallow and gossipy sketches of various writers and celebrities she was acquainted with. Noel Coward she thinks “the most electric person I had ever met;” Rebecca West is “small and provocative, rather like a lovely naughty child;” Radcliffe Hall, then notorious for her novel of lesbian love, The Well of Loneliness, is “the definitely masculine type of woman, but not by any means in that tiresome and unattractive sense suggestive of police-women or tomboyish daughters of county families.” She shares confidences about William Gerhardie told to her at one of Rebecca West’s cocktail parties: “Oh, did he offer to seduce you? He did me. He said it would make me a better writer.” At the time, English readers must have lapped this up, but it all seems pretty silly and musty today, as do her pontifications on Freud and her declaration that (remember, she’s only thirty), “I have lived richly and fully because out of abundant vitality, physical, mental, emotional, I have never been afraid to give myself to life.”
And she went on to prove herself right by packing in enough experiences that, less than ten years later, she produced a second volume of autobiography, Privileged Spectator (1939). During the Thirties, she wrote another couple dozen books, including the pretentiously (and, in truth, just barely) experimental Ragged Banners: A Novel with an Index (1931) (yes, it did have an index); another, Linda Shawn, based on A. S. Neill’s pioneering work at his Summerhill boarding school; a highly critical account of life in the Soviet Union, South to Samarkand (1936); Common-sense and the Adolescent (1937) an advice book calling for greater liberality in the treatment of teenagers and their struggles with sexuality and identity. She said good-bye to the carefree, bohemian lifestyle of the Twenties after spending the pring of 1932 on Majorca, which she found “infested by every kind of foreign undesirable, durg addicts, dipsomaniacs, crooks, idle rich, and every kind of parasite.” She also found time to become active in the Labour Party–and then, when disillusioned with that, the Independent Labour Party. She raised funds for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War alongside Emma Goldman and married Reginald Reynolds, a Quaker, writer of political tracts and satirical poems, and one of Gandhi’s primary representatives in the U. K.. She also bought a house, Oak Cottage, outside London, where she hosted figures ranging from Goldman in the Thirties to Iraqi dissidents in the Sixties.
Although her travels were more restricted during the Second World War, her writings were not, and her production carried on unimpeded by Blitz, blackouts, or rationing. As a pacifist, Reynolds was less than popular with the authorities, and he spent a few weeks in Exeter prison for the felony of riding a bicycle without a headlight (in the middle of the morning) as well as several rounds in hospital for his weak lungs and heart.
Always on the side of the underdog, Mannin’s principles occasionally landed her in a awkward position. In 1944, a prison inmate–a German national and fervent supporter of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF)–wrote to ask for a few of her books, having devoured all he could find in the prison library. She wrote a few letters in support of his case, but was startled when the man appeared, paroled, at Oak Cottage and insisted that he be hired to serve as her secretary. Mannin didn’t really need a secretary but was reluctant not to help the man out on his new path. So she found herself hosting a still-rabid Fascist with few secretarial skills, who still liked to wear his BUF uniform shirts around the house, who sulked for days after Mannin said she didn’t care for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and who couldn’t even be trusted to write a simple letter correctly. She would hand him a letter from some group inviting her to speak, saying, “Just say I am very busty and have no time.” He would then “type a very neat letter–using all his fingers, very correctly–to say that Miss Mannin had better things to do that waste her time speaking to a lot of nincompoops at a literary society, and if anyone was interested in Miss Mannin’s ideas they could jolly well read her books. Yours faithfully.” When asked to rewrite it, he stormed off. “He was extremely temperamental,” she notes. To her great relief, the man announced one day that he needed to move on “to better himself.” In later years, she had another mixed experience with a charity case when she and her husband “adopted” Frank Stanley, who had broken into their house and been sent up on a charge of burglary. He also turned out to be well-meaning but proved to have an unfortunate residual interest in violence, criminal intrigues, and rough trade.
Brief Voices (1959) covers the longest period of all her autobiographies, from the outbreak of war in 1939 to Reynolds’ sudden death, while on a speaking tour in Australia, in 1958. It set a pattern for all her remaining memoirs, providing a relatively superficial and stand-offish account of personal matters (her daughter, for example, is mentioned only a few times per book and usually not by name), synopses of her travels and the books they produced, and assorted chapters of reflections on then-current events and the decline of manners, morals, politics and art. All of which, she takes for granted, will be of interest to her readers. After all, as she concluded in the introduction to Brief Voices, “A writer’s life should have a special quality of interest because of the intense awareness brought to it.” ‘Nuff said.
After the war, Mannin seems to have latched onto a formula guaranteed to keep her production rate high. She would travel to a country, usually as a guest of the government or some cultural organization, often being led around to see schools, hospitals, museums, great civil construction works, sometimes giving talks herself. From this experience, she could easily produce at least one travel book and, with the local color she’d absorbed, at least one novel. In a few cases, she doubled her output. And so, after a trip to Burma in 1955, she wrote Land of the Crested Lion (1955) about her travels and then the novel, The Living Lotus (1956), about a current case of a white girl taken in by a Burmese family and raised as a Muslim, and the contest when her parents attempted to repatriate her.
In the 1960s, she became greatly interested in the Middle East. A long trip through Iraq and Kuwait in 1963 produced A Lance for the Arabs (1963) and the novel, The Road to Beersheba (1963), which she saw as a pro-Palestinian counter to Leon Uris’ huge pro-Israeli best-seller, Exodus. She returned to Jordan in 1965, producing The Lovely Land (1965) (travelogue) and The Burning Bush (1965), also favoring the Palestinian cause.
She entangled herself in the messy politics of the Middle East. Gaining a very favorable view of General Abd al-Karim Qasim, who–though an autocrat–did more to advance democratic and social welfare issues while Prime Minister in Iraq until he was violently overthrown in a Ba’athist-led coup during Ramadan in 1963. Afterward, Mannin was a sympathetic support of Iraqi liberals, and developed a close friendship with Khalid Ahmed Zaki, head of the Iraqi student movement in Britain, who was later killed while leading a guerrilla group in the marshes outside Basra. And her pro-Palestinian stance often placed on the unpopular side of a public argument, particularly after the Palestine Liberation Organization began to adopt more violent tactics to advance their cause.
As with her wayward charity cases, so does Mannin’s unrelentingly earnest pursuit of what she believes right sometimes puts her into an unwittingly comic light. In Stories from My Life (1973), she devotes a whole chapter, “Young Man in Parma Violet Shirt,” to an account of an “astonishing young man” she observes on an evening train from Leeds to London:
He was astonishing because he was incredibly handsome and different. What on earth was he doing amongst all those business executives, paunchy and middle-aged for the most part, short-back-and-sides, brief cases, dark lounge suits, the lot? The young man with his thick, dark longish hair, he dark-skinned Latin good looks, his splendid parma violet silk shirt freely displayed across his broad shoulders, his jacket above him in the rack; this young man with the Ivor Novello profile and high forehead and sensitive intelligent face, totally absorbed in a book.
Never have I seen anyone so totally absorbed in a book. He sipped his gin-and-tonic, and later his soup, without ever taking his eyes from the page….
It was a big book, a fat book, and I wondered, inevitably, always interested in what people are reading….
I wondered what he had to do with Leeds; there was a repertory theatre, so perhaps he was an actor; there was a university, so perhaps he taught….
… not since General Abd al-Karim Qasim of Iraq had I seen a man possessed of so much charisma. He wore no wedding ring and I wondered if he was married, or had a mistress; he did not suggest homosexuality….
I had two hours and forty minutes in which to study him and speculate about him, and since he never once looked up from his book I could do it unremittingly as he read.
But he left the train and strode away, and I did not accost him, and I crossed the dreary concourse of King’s Cross and went down into the tube, and I felt stricken; you could almost say bereaved….
… That book … I was so sure was the key to his personality.
Finally, she asks a librarian friend to look up the title and send her a copy of the book she’d seen the man reading with such fascination, and she has the chance to discover for herself:
I began to read, to review-read, rapidly; and within the first few pages was pulled up short by a passage of what was to me a quite startling degree of pornography. I skimmed on for a bit, but it seemed only an interminable series of the most explicitly detailed sexual episodes. I sent it back by return of post, telling myself bleakly, that, well, anyhow now I knew.
And she took time to fill in what she must have considered the gaps between Confessions and Impressions and Privileged Spectator with Young in the Twenties (1971). Though she freely admits that, in the Twenties, she was “young and uppity” and foolish and light-hearted in a way no longer possible: “We were gay; not a doubt of it. We laughed a lot, we danced a lot, we told each other risqué stories–there are no such stories nowadays, for when all is permitted how be risqué?” Considering how liberal, radical, and uncompromising Mannin’s politics were, she does manage, as the years go on, to do a remarkable good imitation of a Tory old fogey: “We who were young in the Twenties are intensely aware of the Seventies’s scene because we have no part in it–nor want any.”
In 1974, Mannin packed up and sold Oak Cottage, moving to a smaller house in Teignmouth in Devon in southwestern England to be nearer to her daughter. She managed two write two more novels (Kildoon (1974) and The Late Miss Guthrie (1976)) before starting on her “final chapter of autobiography” and last book, Sunset over Dartmoor.
In structure, Sunset over Dartmoor stays true to Mannin’s long-worked formula. Part I, “Farewell to Oak Cottage,” takes us through the process of selling Oak Cottage and settling into her bungalow in Teignmouth. It is some of the least interesting writing I have ever read:
Then there was a young-middled-aged couple, pleasant enough, but I recorded in my journal, “but I don’t think they are serious.”
… then a couple came with a name that I wondered about–was it perhaps Italian? It could even be Arab. It proved to be Egyptian ….
Then there was a tall bearded man, an architect, and his wife; they admired the garden, but what they felt about the house I have no idea.
… Then a Swede offered thirty-seven thousand cash for the house without seeing the inside!
Then a doctor and his wife, who thought the garden “fantastic.” They rang back in the evening to ask if they could come again at the weekend with her mother. They were young-middle-aged; trendy.
With writing this trivial, could anyone care about the potential buyers who came to look at her old house? Oh, but then there is the move. Or not: “The Big Move wasn’t the ordeal I had expected it to be….” By page 37, she has completely lost any pretense of having something interesting to say about her experience. And so we move on to Part II, “Devon: The Local Scene,” which is nothing more than six chapters of local color and history unrelieved by any character, fine observation or humor. I skimmed through it to get to the final part, “Sunset Reflections.”
Now, one would think–certainly I assumed–that after ninety-five books, world-wide travels, two marriages, numerous affairs, and over seven decades of experience, Ethel Mannin would have packed as much depth and perspective into these final chapters as she could. She does at least start out big, which a chapter on, “An inquiry into belief in ‘God.'” Given that she was, for most of her life, an avowed skeptic who felt affinity to some tenets of Buddhism but refused to embrace any religion–even though she wrote several novels with strong religious stories–you might think this would be an opportunity to offer insight into her own beliefs and how she came to understand them. Instead, it really is nothing more than a survey of how various religions and religious thinkers she has known have tried to define the word, “God.”
Not surprisingly, she stays with this theme with her next chapter, “A reflection on some misused terms,” which include everything from “race” and “anti-Semitism” to “have a nice day” and “at this moment in time.” It’s the stuff of a bored editorial writer on a slow news day. Later, we get to share in “Some reflections on the contemporary scene,” where we are informed that, “We live in an age of dehumanized sex, and of violence at all levels, social, political, sexual, personal.” “For the young it may be challenging and exciting,” she acknowledges, “but for the old it is depressing and alarming.”
On the final page of this, her final book, Mannin concludes that, “… without the material and psychological relaxation of this retirement I might not have felt moved to set them [these reflections] down. Whether it has been a good thing to have done this is for the reader to decide.” I regret to say that for this reader, it was not a good thing.
There’s a saying on the Internet to the effect that, “Content is King.” Sadly, by the time she reached the end of a staggering quantity of books, one has to say that Ethel Mannin couldn’t tell the difference between content and material. Sunset over Dartmoor could have been the summing up of a remarkable career and life. Instead, it was the last lap of a writer who’d already run too long and was just going through the motions she’d drilled into her muscle memory through sheer repetition.
Confessions and Impressions, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrold Publishers, 1930
Privileged Spectator, by Ethel Mannin
London: Jarrolds Publishers, 1939
Brief Voices, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1959
Young in the Twenties, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1971
Stories from My Life, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1973
Sunset Over Dartmoor, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1977
“When a woman asks to be alone,” Jessamyn West wrote in Hide and Seek, “… alone, alone, truly alone … a woman feels wicked, unloving, defying God and man alike.” If this is true, then Alice Koller could be considered America’s wickedest woman. Since the day in October 1962 when she packed her few belongings and a German Shepherd puppy named Logos into her car and set out for Nantucket Island, she has pursued, nurtured, relished, contemplated, and celebrated solitude to an extent no writer of our time could match.
An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery is her account of the three months she spent in a rented summer house out by the shore, walking along the beach, reflecting on her life, and trying to achieve some understanding of the most fundamental questions any human can ask of herself: Who am I? What am I here for? What do I want from my life?
At the time she decided to take the few hundred dollars she had in the world and head someplace remote, isolated (and cheap), Koller had already been struggling to exist for almost twenty years. After finishing high school in Ohio, she accepted a chance to act and study as part of the acting company based at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. She soon grew disenchanted with acting, though, and began attending the University of Chicago. At a time when few women were going into graduate schools, she determined to carry on with her studies. Relying on countless low-paying clerical jobs, she eventually worked her way through to earning a Ph.D. in philosophy at Radcliffe (now merged into Harvard) in 1959, at the age of 34.
She quickly discovered, however, that her doctorate meant little in an academic world still overwhelmingly dominated by men. When she asked one of her professors for advice on getting a job, he dismissed her with a curt reply: “You’re too late,” which likely referred more to her age than the time in the academic year. And so, after thirteen years of study, she found herself taking the same kind of low-paid work as she had as an undergrad. To add to her woes, she’d watched her second long-term serious romantic relationship end with the man abruptly leaving to marry another woman.
“I don’t have a life,” she concludes, looking at herself in the mirror. “I don’t live anywhere. I perch.” “It has to stop,” she decides. “Can’t I just stop, right now, and try to figure out what I’m doing? What I should be doing?” And so, after a little hunting, she finds a house outside Siasconset on Nantucket Island she can afford to rent for at least three months (due to the off-season). She also decides she needs a dog “To warn me about strangers,” and buys a puppy she names Logos in tribute to the philosophy she has spent the last decade studying: “Logos: the rational principle of the universe, the Word, reasoned discourse.”
On her very first day in the house on Nantucket, her search for answers begins with a very practical question (albeit a question few men in the same situation would ever ask): “What will I look like now that no one I know will see me?” And yet her answer (“Color will matter”) starts Koller on her way. “It’s my first clear judgment, my judgment. A very tiny step I take. How will knowing that I trust my eye for color take me to knowing how I want to live my life? The chasm stretches beneath me.”
It would be easy to dismiss An Unknown Woman as the epitome of navel-gazing. A week into her stay, she writes:
Wanting. What have I wanted? No. What have I wanted? Not right yet. What have I wanted?
When I read this, I immediately thought of the Beyond the Fringe sketch parodying the recollections of Bertrand Russell and the absurdity of logic as a philosophical discipline. Russell recounts a visit to his fellow philosopher, G. E. Moore:
… there was Moore seated by the fire with a basket upon his knees.
“Moore,” I said, “do you have any apples in that basket?”
“No,” he replied, and smiled seraphically, as was his wont.
I decided to try a different logical tack. “Moore,” I said, “do you then have some apples in that basket?”
“No,” he replied, leaving me in a logical cleft stick from which I had but one way out.
“Moore,” I said, “do you then have apples in that basket?”
“Yes,” he replied. And from that day forth, we remained the very closest of friends.
All jesting aside, though, there is a great difference between playing with semantics about a basket of apples and digging into the root of your own identity. Koller calls the thinking she is doing “a kind of fighting”: “I’m defending, and laying siege, all at once.” “I’m even the prize,” she jokes, “But I’m also the only one who’d want it.”
Inevitably (perhaps), excavation of one’s identity reaches the strata of one’s family and childhood. In Koller’s case, it leads to the realization that what she has been pursuing for much of her life is the approval of a mother who gave her little attention and even less love growing up: “She’s been an obstacle to be gotten around in everything I do, everything I’ve ever done.”
From this discovery, she begins to assemble a sense of self owing to no one else’s choices but her own. She starts a list of moments in recent memory that have given her as much of a “sense of fullness” as sitting with Logos’ head in her lap, scratching behind his ears, and eliciting a low moan of satisfaction. In four hours, she comes up with thirty moments. And from this list, she develops an understanding of what she truly seeks from life: “What I’ll want to do will have to have this same quality of … what? Fitting me.”
And so she sets out for her new life. After three months, she is not broke, thanks to a bit of work she landed analyzing a technical report for some research firm in Connecticut, but close to it. She has no firm job prospect and will have to camp out once again in some friend’s house. “And yet I know some few things,” she concludes. “I love Logos. I must have him with me.” And “This ocean matters to me.” With these things and “the idea that other things may join with these,” she heads back to the mainland. “They are all the self I have. But they are mine.”
It would be pleasant to think that this new foundation enabled Koller to launch herself into great personal and professional success, but the truth is that it more likely condemned her to a life on the margins of society. She turned the journal she had kept on the island into a book, but it was rejected by thirty different publishers over the course of thirteen years, most often for being “too personal,” until it found a receptive editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston. The book became something of a grass-roots best-seller, racking up sales of over 500,000 copies, mostly in its Bantam paperback edition, over the next five years.
In 1991, Koller followed up with The Stations of Solitude (1990), which reviewed her experience on Nantucket in light of her life and thoughts since leaving the island. She had a brief stint teaching at the University of California Santa Barbara, but no long-term teaching jobs. As Diane M. Quilty Litchfield put it in her Masters thesis on Koller’s work, “One Woman’s Construction of Self and Meaning: A qualitative study of the life of Alice Koller” (link), “Indeed, her employment was so sporadic that she often lived through the generosity of her friends or on welfare.” Or, as Koller herself wrote, “During … twenty-five years, I have moved sixteen times … I forage for my living where the food supply is.”
And yet, Koller resolutely embraces and champions her choice to pursue a life driven more by introspection than material comforts: “I essay to write my thinking. I am a philosopher studying my own mind. And when I look outward at the natural world, I essay to write my seeing and hearing and touching.”
In 2008, at the age of 83, Alice Koller bought her own domain name and set up her own website, alicekoller.com, on which she solicits “patrons” for a work in progress titled “Meditation on Being a Philosopher.” It appears that she’s been renewing her domain name registration annually since then. It’s up for renewal again in a few weeks, so I’ll have to check if she’s still keeping it going … a few months short of her 90th birthday.
Whether “Meditations” gets finished or not, Alice Koller has been our closest counterpart to Henry David Thoreau — indeed, has devoted more years to the principle that only an examined life truly matters than Thoreau drew breath. And for that, in my view, she deserves to be celebrated as an American original.
An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery, by Alice Koller
New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981
The next two books I’m featuring here — Jessamyn West’s Hide and Seek and Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery — are set a continent apart but share a strong common bond with that American classic, Thoreau’s Walden. In all three, the writer sets aside time and chooses a location with the conscious intent to do nothing else but be alone and think — but in each, where she starts and where she finishes are markedly different.
In Hide and Seek West, a novelist, poet and short-story writer with a number of best-selling and highly acclaimed books — the best known being The Friendly Persuasion (1945), which was made into a successful film starring Gary Cooper in 1956 — picked a bluff high above the Colorado River and a two-room trailer as her spot, bidding farewell to her husband Max in the opening scene and retiring to the trailer to spend three months alone. “Alone, alone!” she exults. “For those who relish it, a word sweeter than muscatel to a wino.”
“Solitude has always excited me,” West writes, and her three months out in the Arizona desert gave her plenty of time to reflect. Ironically, for someone seeking time alone, she managed to fill many of her thoughts with memories of other people. Her family, in particular. Her parents moved with their three children from Indiana to Whittier, California, to join a group of Quakers settled there when Jessamyn was six. (Her mother was a Milhous, so West was related to Richard Nixon. His father, Frank, was one of her Sunday school teachers, but West has little good to say for her cousin’s politics.)
Though her father held down a steady job with a railroad and made a success of the stake he took in a small farm outside Yorba Linda, West’s parents were fairly non-conformist for their time. Her father would burst into hymns, singing out at full volume while doing chores, and her mother placed little value on things like curtains and cleaning up around the house. They had a laissez-faire attitude towards certain conventions: “As children we were permitted to do pretty much as we liked in the matter of keeping the dirt down.” They loved camping and made a bold cross-country trip back to visit family in Indiana in their Paige automobile in 1920, when such travel usually involved paying a farmer or two to get hauled out of some mudhole.
Yet as much as she loved her family, West always knew that, deep down, she was a solitary. At the age of four, she commanded a great big washtub as her private domain, and when her father bought a piano, she turned the crate it came in into a sanctuary: “At that age I did not know that I got into the box or the tub or later the room or the trailer in search of box bliss.”
In a family, in society, being a solitary has something of a stigma, particular if you’re female: “When a woman asks to be alone, not alone like Garbo, who asked only for a little privacy out of sight of her fans, but alone, alone, truly alone, separated from mother and father, husband and children, a woman feels wicked, unloving, defying God and man alike.” So, when she was 18, enjoying her first experience of work and living on her own, she had to feign illness to get out of going along on another family camping trip.
Coming to understand her own identity was the great revelation of West’s girlhood. Walking home from the Yorba Linda library one autumn evening, she said out loud to herself, “You are M. J. West”:
This is how I thought of myself in those days, for my name is Mary Jessamyn, and I was in love with what was spare and cut to the bone. It was as if I had told myself a great piece of news. When I said those words, then I noticed the heavy clotting of the Milky Way, and the brow of the hill, a dark curve against the starlit sky. M. J. West noticed them. Who had been noticing them before, because I hadn’t lived starless until the age of thirteen or fourteen, I don’t know; but on that night I knew who was doing the seeing: M. J. West.
She recognizes that this identity came at a cost, the cost of some of the connections that bound her to other people in her life. In a moving passage of reflection, she writes,
I have sometimes thought that I would like not to be young but to see myself, my parents, brothers, and sister when we were all young together. I have thought that I would; but given the chance, I’m not sure I would take it. The sight might drive me crazy with sorrow or self-pity. What would it be like to see that girl (knowing, as I would, how soon some of us would vanish from sight) choosing time after time to be with Mary J. Holmes’ English Orphans or Tarzan or David Copperfield rather than with them? What if I saw myself bullying my little sister? Sowing the seeds that made her say before she died, “I have resented you all my life.” What if I recognized the reason it was impossible for me to say even once in my life to my father, “Papa, I love you.”
I’ve focused on West’s memories of her family, but there is much, much more to Hide and Seek: celebrations of the Western landscape; appreciations and clear-eyed criticisms of her model, Thoreau; memories of the teachers who influenced her, a lovely and funny recollection of a trip to the Indiana settings of The Friendly Persuasion in 1944; and descriptions of the lost and stray characters she meets while seeking solitude out in the desert. West achieves a fine balance of poetry and plain speaking that makes her a most enjoyable narrator: “The grass never looks greener to me on the other side of the fence. It often is, of course. The name for the person with this kind of eyesight is ‘stick-in-the-mud.'”
I have to thank Tillie Olsen, who recommended in one of her reading lists reprinted in later editions of her classic meditation on the woman writer, Silences.
Hide and Seek: A Continuing Journey, by Jessamyn West
New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973
Though one of the most acclaimed of contemporary American novelists when she was writing in the 1930s, Josephine Herbst published just two books after 1941, and her last book, New Green World, a biography of early American naturalist John Bartram, in 1954, fifteen years before she died at the age of 76.
By the time she had turned 60, she was already struggling to survive. Her marriage to novelist John Herrmann ended in 1940 after he discovered that Herbst was in love with another woman. Her work during World War Two for the Office of the Coordinator of Information on a precursor to the Voice of America came to an end when the couple’s involvement with the Communist Party in the 1930s was investigated. (Herrmann was later shown to be not just a public Communist but a covert Soviet agent, but Herbst’s politics were never anything but open and stubbornly self-determined.) What little money she had went for essentials and she often relied on the kindness of friends to get by. And she turned to the bottle for relief more than did her good.
When Saul Bellow and his friends Jack Ludwig and Keith Botsford decided to launch their own literary magazine, The Noble Savage, Bellow reached out to Herbst and offered her some money for a piece recalling her experiences in Madrid and around the Republican front lines during the Spanish Civil War. The resulting essay, “The Starched Blue Sky of Spain,” was long — forty pages — and resolutely unromantic about a conflict that had long been romanticized, thanks to the work of Hemingway and others. Hemingway himself was shown in all his glory and selfishness: “he wanted to be the war writer of his age, and he knew it and went toward it,” but also took advantages of the services a master go-fer, Sid Franklin, who managed to keep his suite at the Hotel Florida stocked with eggs, butter, champagne, and even partridge. (For more on Hemingway’s residence at the hotel, see Amanda Vaill’s recent book, Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War.)
A second essay, “A Year of Disgrace,” appeared in The Noble Savage issue 2, and recalled how she met and fell in love with Herrmann in Paris in 1924, moved back to the U.S., where they lived for a while in an old farmhouse in Connecticut, then moved to Greenwich Village. In its own way, it was a skeptical look back at a time that had itself become romanticized (by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others). She and Herrmann welcomed many friends to the sparse hospitality of their farmhouse, but Herbst was less than thrilled about the many nights the men spent tipping back jugs of applejack in the barn into the wee hours. At the same time, she still felt a rush of emotion when thinking of the lively talks and the celebrations of art that she was able to share with fellow writers and neighbors such as John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter, Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, poet Genevieve Taggard, and Catholic activist Dorothy Day:
But it was a mark of the time and the place that a first encounter might last all night, overflowing from the speakeasy to the street, from the street to someone’s room, to pitch you finally into a dawn exhilarated, oddly at peace, for wasn’t it of engagements like this, long talks and walks, that you had dreamed in the midwest town before the war when the sky had pressed above your head like a burnished brass bowl and the long secretive dark express trains zipped into the horizon? You had dreamed of it as surely as you had dreamed of love.
Herbst went another eight years before publishing another article. In 1968, “Yesterday’s Road,” a melancholy memoir of her investigation as a Communist sympathizer — and of her disillusionment with the Party based on her experiences in Spain and as a guest of the Soviet government at a writers’ congress in Moscow in 1930, appeared in the third issue of Theodore Solotaroff’s remarkable literary magazine in popular paperback form, the New American Review. Less than a year later, she was dead of lung cancer.
Over twenty years later, these three pieces, along with an unpublished essay on her memories of growing up in Iowa and of an unforgettable family expedition to the Oregon coast in 1901, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” was collected as The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs by HarperCollins, with an introduction by the novelist Diane Johnson. In Johnson’s words, “it was only in her sixties that in turning to this life as a subject, she found her real tone”:
Where most of us revise the past as we move forward through the present, Josephine Herbst retains something like total recall for the visual details of what her circle wore and ate and did….
… in her last essays, things had begun to come into perspective, and hers was a remarkable perspective, honed in remarkable times.
And, indeed, in commenting elsewhere on the then-contemporary fiction of the 1950s, Herbst would write, “What seems to be missing is a sense of the world. The world around us.”
Of the four essays, the first in order and chronology, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” is, in my opinion, by far the best of a very, very good lot — really, something of a masterpiece. I have a habit of dog-earing pages with passages I want to remember or quote, and there are so many in this piece that I could, without a little self-control, easy find myself reprinting nearly the entire piece. It has so many different facets: the simple pleasures of life in Sioux City, Iowa at the turn of the century and the disparate feelings of isolation and small-mindedness; the contrast between her father, the failed businessman, and her uncle, a highly successful pharmacist, businessman and Rotarian — and, at the same time, her uncle’s own sense of being haunted by the ghost of the father who died in the Civil War before his child was born; the excitement of discovering the world of books and writing and the mystifying experience of developing sexuality (“My body was speaking a language I was too ignorant to interpret”). As a work of lyrical yet honest autobiography, I think it ranks with one of my favorite books, James McConkey’s stunningly beautiful Court of Memory.
The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs is, sadly, itself long out of print since it was reissued by the Northeastern University Press in 1999. Herbst’s only work currently in print, according to Amazon, is Pity Is Not Enough (1933), the first of three novels (the others are The Executioner Waits (1934) and Rope of Gold (1939)) about the rise and decline of an Iowa family, the Trexlers. And you can find her very rare novella based on the life of Nathanael West, “Hunter of Doves,” in e-book formats in this recent piece on this site. I also recommend reading Hilton Kramer’s fine memoir, “Who was Josephin Herbst?” from the New Criterion (Link).
The Starched Blue Sky of Spain and Other Memoirs, by Josephine Herbst
New York City: HarperCollins, 1991
I learned of Jane Mayhall’s first and only novel, Cousin to Human (1960) from its inclusion in Tillie Olsen’s lists of recommended titles by women writers included in the back of her book, Silences. Olsen provided no description of it and no explanation for its mention.
Cousin to Human seems to have vanished from notice after receiving a few reviews. While the reviewer for Kirkus was not enthusiastic (“This is a baffling sort of book, which seems to head out for the Catcher in the Rye market–femininely slanted, but fails to pull the threads together into an integrated whole”), those for The New York Times and Saturday Review were favorable. There was no paperback release, however, and the book has never been reprinted or reissued.
Perhaps one reason was its similarities with another book that dominated best-seller lists and critical awards around the same time–Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in roughly the same time, both books had young girls as their protagonists and related their narratives as perceived by them.
Unlike Scout Finch, however, 15 year-old Lacy Cole is not at the center of the most dramatic moments in Cousin to Human. When her best friend dies in a drunk driving accident, she learns of it the next day through a neighbor, and though Lacy spends hours at the bedside of her mother as she suffers the terminal stages of stomach cancer, we learn of her mother’s death after the fact, when Lacy’s attention is taken up by other things–her sister-in-law’s efforts to take over the family house and her own infatuation with her music teacher.
Mayhall’s approach and style is far more indirect and poetic–she was, after all, primarily a poet–than Harper Lee’s, and her subject more mundane. Set in Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-1930s, it portrays a year in the life of Lacy Cole and her family. Her father, Norman, works in a post office and her mother, Cleanth, is a hard-working housewife who loves her children but is neither sanctimonious nor forgiving in her judgments. The Coles make enough to keep a house and feel some security but not enough to afford the brand-new Chevrolet Norman buys at Christmas out of a mix of envy, frustration and grand-standing.
Reviewing the novel for The New York Times, Florence Crowther wrote that, “Miss Mayhall is a wise author–she has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet be understood.” Lacy is neither a character with a capital “C” nor a cipher, but a completely believable young woman trying to make sense of the many messages being thrown at her from her family, neighborhood, school, movies, radio, the various strata of Louisville society she encounters, and her own instincts. I’d revise Crowther’s line to say that Mayhall “has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet tries to understand.”
This book, in fact, is most marked by the effort its author and protagonist make to understand. Mayhall takes the following couplet by William Blake as her epigraph: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Cousin to Human is the work of an author remarkably alert to the sights and smells and, particularly, sounds of the world around her. Mayhall herself grew up in Louisville and would have been roughly Lacy’s age, so many of the observations probably come from direct memory even if the story itself is not autobiographical.
Take the following passage, which occurs early in the book as Lacy rides with her mother and Aunt Dinna to visit relatives in a town outside Louisville:
Aunt Dinna flopped back in her seat, ready for more talking.
“You remember, Clee. How Aunt Milly used to play?”
“Can’t never forget it.”
Lacy knew the beginning of this conversation. Due to the mention of music, it was the occasion to speak of Great-aunt Milly who played the violin, and lost her heart to a rascal named Jeff at the Clayville Feed Store. Sometimes it was Cleanth who told Dinna the story. And then the situation reversed and Aunt Dinna had to remind Cleanth.It had always gone one, ever since Lacy could remember the way they talked. So she could listen or not, and still know where the ending came.
She put her head against the seat, smelling the sun-warmed leather. The click-clack of the wheels and the sound of Dinna’s voice reached her dreamily. Lacy knew all of her ancient relatives by heart, as if she had been born remembering the way they lived and died.
This reminds me so much of endless Sunday afternoons spent visiting relatives and listening to the adults swap family stories, and Mayhall has a wonderful ear for dialogue and eye for family dynamics. The scene in which Cleanth, Dinna, and their cousin Sarah debate what to do with their grandfather, an enfeebled old drunk who’d been mostly harmless and completely useless for as long as they could remember, manages to weave economic, practical, emotional, ethical, and psychological threads into a conversation that takes little more than a couple of pages, and won my attention for whatever was to follow.
Mayhall certainly had a poet’s sensibility–Lacy frequently notes the color of the sky at sunset–but her approach was solidly novelistic. While the dramas are only those of small, working-class family life, her story moves forward with consistent momentum even as she takes time to develop nuanced characterizations and note telling observations. And these accumulate, one by one, into Lacy’s own awareness of herself and her world. When Lacy meets a local professor, a well-regarded (particularly by himself) expert on Appalachian folklore, she senses a resemblance to someone she had previously encountered:
Dr. Sprichett pressed her hand, like they knew some kind of secret. It was as if it was strictly between them. Lacy shrank from this contact again. Who was it like? The fingers were possessive, warm-clinging. A tiny cunning shot through her mind.
It was quickly coming on, the sense of what she felt. And it was like–she nearly knew. It was like that time, that night–the picture was coming back. At the baking-company auditorium. It reached her in a flash, the very same sensation. It was like the man who had taken her ticket and tried to grab her hand. Valeda going on ahead–and it was like when the man tried to grab her. Nearly, almost the same. She felt a sharp elation. She was relieved, extravagant, and certain. That was what Dr. Sprichett was, no matter what he said. He was just like the other man. And thinking he knew her all the time.
I am almost in awe of this passage. It’s such a remarkable blend of specific, tangible observation, thought-in-process, and awareness that comes upon us in just such instants.
Mayhall drew her title from the following passage, which appears late in the book: “Even dogs bark in their sleep and cats hiss. By this we know they are cousin to human.” And throughout the book, she gives us glimpses into her character’s dreams and demons. With Terence, she shares the philosophy that “humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“Nothing that is human is alien to me”).
At the same time, Cousin to Human is full of larger set-piece scenes that are rich in color, action, and context, such as a talent show in which Lacy and Valeda compete as “The Twinkle Twins,” the rhapsody of American consumerism that sweeps up Norman when he buys the Chevrolet, or indeed the full story of Great-Aunt Milly and the rascal Jeff.
I took Cousin to Human along with me on my most recent flight back to the U.S.. I usually choose books that demand a little extra effort and attention on these trips so I can take advantage of a solid 7-9 hours with few distractions. In this case, it only took about a dozen pages to fall in love with Jane Mayhall’s vision and voice, and I can easily say that this was my most satisfying read this year so far. I plan to feature at least a couple of longer passages in the Excerpts section over the next few weeks.
Jane Mayhall was born in Louisville in 1918, and studied music at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. She met Leslie George Katz, a fellow student, and they moved together to Greenwich Village and married in the early 1940s. Katz founded and ran the Eakins Press, a small press specializing in poetry, graphics and short stories and whose publications were “notable for their meticulous, elegant design,” according to The New York Times. Eakins published two collections of poems by Mayhall. Following Katz’s death, Mayhall struggled with grief and wrote a special collection devoted to considerations of death and loss that was published in 2006 as Sleeping Late on Judgment Day. She died in 2009 at the age of ninety-one.
Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall
New York: Harcout, Brace and Company, 1960
“For understanding what it was like to live to the full the turbulent American literary life of the 1920’s and 30’s as it moved from bohemianism to radicalism, there could be no more revealing figure than Josephine Herbst,” wrote Robert Gorham Davis in his review of Elinor Langer’s 1984 biography of Herbst, Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell. “She knew everyone and was in all the right places at the right historic moments – Greenwich Village, the Left Bank, Russia, Germany, Cuba and Spain.”
I won’t attempt to synopsize Herbst’s life and career here. Hilton Kramer did a far better job of that thirty years ago in his New Criterion article, “Who was Josephine Herbst?,” available online and well worth the read (link). What matters for this piece are two times in her life: the first, beginning in 1928, when she and her husband, the novelist John Herrmann, rented a small, rustic house in the Bucks County countryside near Erwinna, Pennsylvania; and the second, twenty-some years later, when she was living there alone, shunned by most of the literary establishment for her politics and struggling to write anything more than the marvelous, fulsome letters for which she was always held in awe by her correspondents and a few snippets of memoirs of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.
While living in Erwinna, Herbst and Herrmann made the acquaintance of Nathanael West, who was still working as the night manager of the Hotel Kenmore Hall in Manhattan and revising The Dream Life of Balso Snell, his absurdist novel set in the entrails of the Trojan Horse. They invited West out to Bucks County, and he immediately fell in love with the area. Throughout his life, West pretended to the style and manners of the rich and landed American gentry, and he loved to hike around the Pennsylvania woods with a shotgun slung in one arm, very much the gentleman hunter.
West quit the hotel job, having decided to make his name as a writer, and worked on finishing his second novel, the black comedy Miss Lonelyhearts. He bought a farm near Herbst and Herrmann and spent many hours with them. Herrmann and West often went out to hunt pheasant, quail, and West’s favorite, doves, although both were terrible shots. However, envious of the money that his friend and brother-in-law, S. J. Perelman (Perelman had married West’s sister Laura), was making writing for the Marx Brothers and others, he accepted a contract to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. While West’s experience in Hollywood wasn’t a financial success, it did contribute to his greatest artistic success, the novel The Day of the Locust. Only a few months after marrying the vivacious Eileen McKenney, the title character in her sister Ruth McKenney’s smash comedy play, “My Sister Eileen,” West and McKenney were killed in a car crash in California.
West’s novels, which had never been best-sellers, quickly fell out of print, but in the aftermath of World War Two, a new generation of critics, such Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, began to discover and appreciate the bleak and absurdist tone of his work. A number of academics and critics became interested in his life, and their researches led a number of them to Josephine Herbst’s doorstep.
She soon grew aggravated by their inclination to view West’s life and work through a postwar prism that exaggerated his foresight and ignored the good and bad points of his character. And so, sometime in 1953, she set aside the book she had been working on–a dual biography of the early American naturalists John and William Bartram (a book published in 1954 as New Green World), and wrote “Hunter of Doves,” a short novel based on her memories of West.
Although she gave her characters fictional names, “Hunter of Doves” deviates from fact in unimportant ways. Herbst’s own character, Mrs. Heath, is a painter rather than a writer. Timothy Comfort, the would-be biographer, is a stand-in for a handful of real-life researchers. And, as Elinor Langer revealed in her biography, the faint suggestion of a triangle involving West, Herbst, and Herrmann was actually taken from the passion Herbst had developed for the artist, Marion Greenwood.
What was true, however, was Herbst’s desire to have West seen truthfully. “Nothing is reliable except the work,” Mrs. Heath tells Comfort. “People either want to read or they don’t. You can find Noel Bartram, perhaps more than you like, right there, in his novels, if you take the trouble. Or have the sense. The intuitive sense.” Herbst was also true in depicting how the night manager job at the Hotel Kenmore Hall–a job that came his way through his family’s connections in real estate and took at his mother’s insistence–was both his prison and his inspiration:
Whether the mother intended the hotel as her son’s sole future, Mrs. Heath could not say, but it represented security, that shackling iron which simply meant one is freed from necessity to become enslaved….
But the truth was that the hotel and all its occupants surrounded him with the felt mat of a persistent presence. If he were alone in his privacy, the phone might ring, calling him below. One had no idea, he had pleaded, pleading for himself, the nature of the interruptions. He was the guardian of the hotel, its keeper, its jailor. A hotel like this was jam-packed with broken hearts, broken pocketbooks, too, and as the hotel was a genteel one, with a gilding upon it, one could imagine the pride of the victims who, finding themselves slowly drained of their substance, tried to keep up a front, sallied past the door, hummed, pretended light-hearted gaiety, delay of checks from rich uncles, alimony, or the imaginary sale of imaginary real estate that would put them on easy street.
“Hunter of Doves” was published in 1954 in Botteghe Oscure, an acclaimed international literary magazine published in Rome by Marguerite Caetani. It was quickly recognized as Herbst’s finest work since the 1930s, and did lead to a more nuanced view of West.
It did not, however, lead to either a rediscovery of Herbst’s work or a break-through of her own artistic roadblocks. Over the next fifteen years, she only managed to produce three autobiographical pieces–“The Starched Blue Sky of Spain” (The Noble Savage, Number 1, 1960); “A Year of Disgrace” (The Noble Savage, Number 3, 1961); and “Yesterday’s Road” (New American Review, Number 3, 1968). These, along with a fourth piece, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” about her girlhood in Sioux City, Iowa, were published posthumously in The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, and Other Memoirs
Given the fact that “Hunter of Doves” has never been reprinted and can be found only in the rare academic libraries holding back issues of Botteghe Oscure, I am taking here a unilateral and perhaps improper step of making the text freely available online.
First, let’s start with the facts, since these are not this book’s strong suit.
Sometime in 1929, Arthur Waley, who was working as Assistant Keeper of Oriental Prints and Manuscripts at the British Museum and who had began to be known as a translator and popularizer of Asian literature with his publication of A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems, met Alison Grant, a young woman recently emigrated to London from New Zealand. She fell headlong in love with him and he was at least strongly attracted to her. Soon after, he took her back to his flat and they spent the night lying together, fully clothed, in his bed. As he led her to the street the next day, he tells her, “You must never come here again.” Why? Because “There is a lady in Fez….”
The lady in Fez was Beryl de Zoete, a dancer, writer, and researcher into exotic dance forms, with whom Waley had begun living in 1918. Although Beryl was “in Fez”–with three male admirers in tow–Waley implied that her return was imminent and that their ambiguous relationship had to take precedence over whatever he might like to start up with Alison. And so they parted, only to catch glimpses and exchange a few words while passing in and out of the British Museum. Alison married, bore a son, and carried on–the whole time still carrying a torch for Arthur.
Then, sometime in 1943, they met again in the midst of the Blitz and decided to resume the affair. Alison’s husband walked in on the pair–again lying together fully-clothed–and left her. Arthur, however, stayed firmly embedded with Beryl. And even more firmly embedded to the life of the solitary scholar. A man who spent his life studying and translating the literature of Asia, he never actually traveled more than a few hundred miles from London and was never able to converse in Chinese or Japanese. By all accounts other than Alison’s, he was at his happiest alone with his books and papers.
Nearly twenty years passed. Ten years older than Arthur, Beryl began to suffer the effects of Huntington’s chorea and was eventually confined to a bed in their Bloomsbury flat, where she died in 1962 at the age of 82. Alison swooped in and began to arrange for a life together with Arthur. Arthur appeared somewhat less enthusiastic at the prospect–in fact, he went and rented a studio flat–but after injured in an automobile accident while Alison was driving and, in its aftermath, diagnosed with cancer of the spine, he agreed to spend his few remaining months with her. Weeks before his death, they are wed at the local registry office. Arthur died in 1966 at the age of 76; Alison lived on to the next millennium, dying at the age of 100 in 2001.
Now, to the book.
In some ways, I’m tempted to call this the greatest of all English romances.
I say that because A Half of Two Lives features some of the most passionate love scenes, some of the most operatically intense raptures, some of the most uncontrolled and unashamed outbursts of desire to be found in any pages of English prose. Although she had to wait until the age of 82 to publish her love story, Alison Grant Robinson Waley managed to channel all the energy and focus of her inner teenager into its telling.
And I say that because, at the same time, this is a very English romance. Whether Arthur and Alison or Arthur and Beryl ever did actually have sex remains in doubt. Some writers suggest that Arthur was actually a tightly closeted homosexual, and among the weirder passages in this book are recollections of his distaste and dismissal of gays (“No party without buggers,” he sighed when reviewing a list of guests prepared by Alison). Although Arthur assures Alison at the very onset, “I love you. Every sort of way. Even physically,” it becomes clear that “even physically” is defined as holding hands, snuggling, and, in very special moments, kissing. By the time Arthur and Alison are living together, he is paralyzed from the chest down. There was a rumor, back in 2008, that the Hungarian director Istvan Szabo was planning to make a film based A Half of Two Lives. Had he stayed faithful (no pun intended) to the book, the film would been lucky to earn a “PG” rating.
What no one–other than Alison Waley–questions, though, is that this is not a work of nonfiction. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Humphrey Carpenter wrote, “There are many kinds of biography, and this is none of them.” He preferred to call it “a kind of mad, splendid poem.” Marina Warner, in The Sunday Times politely demurred that “it does not resemble a conventional biography,” while Hermione Lee was–by TLS standards–blunt in calling it “a fervent, fragmentary, and extremely odd narrative.” Even Hilary Spurling, in her well-modulated introduction to the book, advised that, “Some of the stranger episodes … do not tally with other people’s recollections any more than the anguished and tormented Arthur of this book matches previously published reminiscences of the great sinologist.”
Writing in the London Review of Books, Penelope Fitzgerald was characteristically insightful and deft: “Alison Waley, although she is a poet, has been too close to what she calls ‘every tear, every pain, every certainty’ to record them with precision. Sincerity should be the same thing as clarify, but isn’t.” And even between her own lines, Alison Waley occasionally betrays herself. At one gathering of the Bloomsbury elite, Arthur refused to introduce her, remarking, “One doesn’t introduce a child.” A further clue to Waley’s reservations can be found in this note from a 2011 auction of a collection of his letters and postcards to Beryl and Alison: “Waley’s correspondence with his future wife, Alison Grant Robinson, chiefly comprises the briefest notes, suggesting an elusive and apologetic relationship: ‘I shall be delighted to see you, on condition you don’t say nasty things about Beryl’; ‘I hate to cause you pain & disappointment’; ‘Will you obey me or not?'”
In a 1986 article in the Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries, Marian Ury quotes Edith Sitwell, writing to William Plomer after a visit from Alison: “[She] thinks one has to be screwed up to the pitch at which one writes, the whole time–otherwise one isn’t a writer.” And that, finally, defines what makes A Half of Two Lives simultaneously horrifying and wonderful. “Time must have a stop,” Alison quotes at several points in this book, but it’s obvious she never felt that applied to her passions, which she could still let blast full-bore in her ninth decade.
Even at a distance of over twenty years, for example, she cannot mute the tone of romantic madness in her last encounter with Beryl:
Beryl–propped with a dozen pillow–regards me with wavering glance.
I take her wildly jerking hands in mine and they are suddenly still. Looking only into her eyes, now fixed on mine and strangely glowing, I say: “Hullo, Beryl …” I lean forward and kiss her brow–sweat-soaked, dark and strange under its flying wisps of white. I sit back on my heels and lay my bare arms along her own–no more than withered sticks: but our eyes hold. And in that long moment we are known to one another so that nothing stands between. In some no-place, in some mid-heaven, a truce is called: all is as it might have been. I feel only a surge of love and joy that from that grotesque mask the eyes–oh, but unbelievably–are smiling into mine.
The next time an English composer is in need of a good libretto, he should take a careful look at A Half of Two Lives. If the book’s not the basis for the Great English Opera, there’s no question that Alison Waley is certainly a perfect candidate for the Great English Operatic Heroine with her motto, “Keep Hysterically Passionate and Carry On.”
A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1982
New York: McGraw Hill, 1983
This is one of the most frustrating books I’ve read in a long time.
Marya Mannes was a woman who got around with a capital “A.” Her parents, David Mannes and Clara Damrosch Mannes, were among the most popular and respected classical musicians of the early 20th century, and through their New York apartment flowed a constant stream of talents such as Pablo Casals, Alfred Cortot, and Arthur Schnabel, as well as Clara’s brothers Frank and Walter. Her brother Leopold was a celebrated concert pianist, married one of George Gershwin’s sisters, and, along with fellow musician, Leopold Godowsky, Jr., invented the process behind Kodachrome color film.
When she was 19, she travelled alone to England, where she studied with sculptor Frank Dobson and socialized with various members of the Bloomsbury set before heading off to Paris and the Riviera, where she partied with F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Murphys. Returning to the U. S., she wrote a play that was produced (unsuccessfully) on Broadway, married Jo Mielziner (“the most successful set designer of the Golden era of Broadway,” according to Wikipedia), and wrote and modelled for Vogue. She left Mielziner to live with Francisco Duran-Reynals, a pioneering researcher into cancer virology, then travelled back to Europe, where she married the wealthy American artist, Richard Blow. She and Blow enjoyed life in their palatial villa in the hills outside Florence until they fled to the U. S. just a few days before the Germans invaded Poland in 1939.
Her gift for languages and wide network of contacts came to the attention of the Office of War Information and, later, the OSS, which sent her to Portugal and Spain–where she also managed to write a series of “Letters” for The New Yorker. Then it was back again to the U. S., where she brought along Paul Cavaillez–a French aviator later convicted as a Nazi spy–to one of the first public showings of film from the concentration camps at Belsen and Buchenwald. Then back to Europe, this time working for Vogue, and on to Egypt and Palestine, where she watched the arrival of one of the first ships carrying Holocaust survivors to their new homeland. After that, she published as best-selling novel, Message from a Stranger and married husband #3, former R. A. F. pilot and British aviation executive Christopher Clarkson.
When she and Clarkson moved back to New York City after his assignment as air attache in Washington, D. C., Mannes started writing regularly for The Reporter and became one of the earliest critics of television–and then, one of the earliest critics to appear on television, in the early days of The Huntley-Brinkley Report. And, ironically, managed to get some early and strong pro-feminist pieces into the pages of such magazines as Vogue, Redbook, and McCalls. By the late 1960s, her face and name was so widely recognized that T. V. Guide could feature her in an advertisement as a foil to Ed Sullivan.
And in and amongst all this, she carried on a series of affairs, for which she offers no regrets or apologies:
I did not then–and do not now–understand the term “promiscuous”: used pejoratively, of course, and only of women. What was wong with giving and receiving warmth, pleasure, affection, and release even if these could no qualify as love? If it was not wrong for men (Oh yes, philanderer, rake, swordsman, what have you–all implicitly more flattering than diminishing) why was it wrong for women? One at a time, to be sure. For one night, or ten, or two years. But how could you know a man you liked without knowing his body?
Of course you accepted the consequences of these acts. You accepted uncertainty, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and insecurity. But you lived as full as you could, and often as deeply.
So why my frustration?
I think there’s a subtle clue in the passage above. Note that in the space of one paragraph, she shifts from first to second person. Now, it’s not uncommon for a memoirist to address her younger self as “you,” but in this case, the “you” seems less the younger Marya than an ambiguous other person that could be herself but might just as easily be the reader or women of her generation or … well, you can make your own guess. Although Mannes quotes from her own diaries, letters, articles and unpublished works throughout the book, there is always an odd sense of the impersonal in her tone.
Take, for example, how she relates her experience of early motherhood:
There–really there–a child. And I was a mother.
In love, yes, but not in nuture. A nurse was already waiting at home. There would always be nurses. What did I know about taking care of a child, free soul over thirty, always in other worlds? No more prepared to be a mother than his sire a father?
… But once maternal demands began to impinge, I began to retreat. Like most men who have successfully dodged for millennia the actual nuture of child and home (owed equally with their women) I wanted to pull free of the basic hourly, daily matters of care. I loved to hold my child but not diaper him.
While I give Marya Mannes full marks for her honesty, I can’t read the above without thinking it was written more as an editorial commentary than a felt memory. “His sire?” Who used “sire” outside of animal husbandry in the last hundred years? A few diaper changes might have provided something missing in much of Out Of My Time: sensations.
This book is full of thoughts and reflections but largely empty of the things that make one person’s memories real to another–the specific details of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound. When she does try to convey them, the result is unconvincing. Here, she describes going out to meet a ship bringing Jewish refugees into Haifa harbor: “Alongside the hull, the smell from the black portholes just above our heads was overpoweringly foul: the breath of a thousand latrines and a hundred hours of sweat.” Maybe it’s just me, but this clunky prose seems like a second-hand memory rather than something still vivid and felt twenty-some years later.
Too much of Out Of My Time is life in the abstract rather than the immediate. Although Mannes dedicates the book “To my son, with love and respect,” he goes unnamed and is mentioned, glancingly, less than five times after he’s born (e.g., “The adventurer in me would often continue to prevail, at a child’s expense, over the parent”). “A child”? His name was David Jeremy Blow, for the record. Neither do her three husbands get names. I had to rely on her New York Timeobituary for theirs.
And this is what makes Out Of My Time such a frustrating book. Marya lived a remarkable, diverse, creative, original, and significant life. Her autobiography ought to be fascinating, a page-turner, full of anecdotes and insights. Instead, too much of the time it reads like War and Peace–specifically, the Second Epilogue, where dancing Natasha and dithering Pierre are replaced by Tolstoy the would-be philospher of history (“What force moves nations?”). Had Tolstoy not preceded the Second Epilogue with a thousand pages of rich, vivid, intensely felt fiction, no one would read War and Peace today. Just as almost no one reads Out Of My Time now.
Out of My Time, Marya Mannes
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc.
The works of Helen Bevington–poet, memoirist, and long-time professor of English at Duke University–remain one of the most delightful discoveries of my years of exploring in the realm of neglected books. I started out 2013 with her trilogy of memoirs–Charley Smith’s Girl (1965); A Book and a Love Affair (1968); and The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm (1971)–and since then, have added most of her other books to my collection. So I thought a dip into her oeuvre would be a nice start to this year of reading the works of women writers.
Bevington, whose comic verse was often featured in The New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, began writing a memoir in the early 1960s. The book, which became Charley Smith’s Girl, was as much a portrait of her parents, Charley and Lizzie, whose divorce, when Helen was still a very young girl, was considered quite scandalous at the time. Not long before it was published, Bevington’s husband, Merle, also an English professor at Duke, died suddenly of a brain tumor at the age of 64.
To honor Merle’s memory, she wrote A Book and a Love Affair, which recounted their meeting while students at Columbia University in the 1920s and the early years of their marriage. She followed this with The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, which covered their move to North Carolina and the experience of raising their two sons, Phillip and David, both of whom became distinguished professors–Phillip of physics and David of English. This book concluded with Phillip’s recovery from a near-fatal car accident that left him a paraplegic.
Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960’s, published five years later, contains excerpts from the journal she had been keeping for many years. Most entries are less than a page long and undated aside from being collected by month and year. Often she reprints the poems she had written at the time, many of them inspired by her reading or the passing seasons.
Lost in the night, my love,
Are those who could never tell
The perishable world from the imperishable.
So they lived everafter, rich
In fairytales and in general–
Till along came the witch.
The inevitable, though always unexpected, appearance of evil and pain is a recurrent theme throughout this journal. In the first few years, she lost her mother and husband, both to diseases that were long-diagnosed but late, abrupt, and harsh in their effects. And throughout the decade, she saw violence and conflict erupting in the world: the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; the start of the Vietnam War; civil rights protests and political and race riots; demonstrations and even tear gas on her own campus. For Bevington, the 1960s were her anni horribili.
Yet these pages are also filled with beauty, comedy, and love. She was as quick to take note of a new bird around her house or the quirks of her neighbors as the headlines on the TV news. She delighted in observing her young grandchildren coming to their individual perceptions of the world and ways of expressing themselves. She relished a good anecdote, like her hairdresser’s flipping and wrecking a brand new car just to avoid running over a grey squirrel, and the unique language of her house cleaner: “When things go wrong in Rosa’s life and her head is blouzed up with trouble (as when her car was stolen last Saturday night), she takes some jolt medicine.” “Rosa has a got-rights cat. It has got rights the same as everybody.”
Each semester, she approaches each new class and group of students with a mix of trepidation, dismay, and wonder. While she notes petulance and hair lengths increase over the years, she still manages to find a remarkable appetite for learning to love and understand poetry. Bevington was one of the most beloved and respected teachers at Duke, and her joy in this work belies her anxiety about being up to the task. As one of the few faculty members without a PhD, she felt a certain amount of inferiority to her peers, and one of the bright spots in the decade was her acceptance as a full professor in 1970.
Her love of poetry and literature lights up these pages as well. A voracious reader, she is constantly reflecting on what she’s reading, and the depth and richness of her memory of what she’s read is remarkable. Like Isabel Paterson, she seems to have read everything and remembered everything, especially snatches of poetry and conversations. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages just to remind myself to check out the books she mentions.
The central theme of the book, however, is her struggle with learning to live alone. She was in her late fifties when Merle died, and she would live over 35 years as a widow, almost a long as the two were married. In writing of her parents, she concluded that neither offered her a way of living that she could accept for herself: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.”
She struggled to come to an understanding of this third way throughout the rest of her life. Her last book, in fact, was titled, The Third and Only Way: Reflections on Staying Alive (1996). About a year after Merle’s death, she did come to realize something about how she would have to move forward:
As I drove to the University this morning, thinking about Richard Wilbur whose poetry we would read in class, saying over a line of his, “It is by words and the defeat of words–” I made a sudden resolution, at the stoplight of Broad and Club Boulevard, to unlearn my words.
I will stop using the word lonely. I will change it to independent or alone. Aloneness is not the same thing as loneliness. I will live an independent life, fraught with freedom. I will stop explaining my plight to myself, using charged words like fear, like grief. It is not only cowardly but Byronic. (Byron: “I learned to love despair”). By the defeat of words I grieve. It is myself I mourn for.
Sweet Adversity is easily one of the most ambitious American novels of the last fifty years.
And if you weren’t reading new American fiction back in the late 1970s, you’ve probably never heard of it.
The only edition of Sweet Adversity ever released came out as an Avon paperback in 1978. Avon editor Robert Wyatt and author Donald Newlove agreed that Newlove would edit his two separate novels, Leo & Theodore (1972) and The Drunks (1974), into a single volume for this paperback release, recognizing, as Newlove wrote in his “Author’s Note,” that “The story loses scope and focus when halved into two books.” Newlove went so far as to say that he considered the original texts “now forever CANCELLED.” And Wyatt deserves special credit for convincing Avon to go to the additional expense of having new type set for Sweet Adversity rather than simply photographing the hardback texts.
But, as, effectively, a paperback original in a time when that was publishing’s equivalent of a “direct-to-disc” movie, it meant that no major paper or magazine reviewed Sweet Adversity.
And so what is already a heart-breaking book itself became something of a tragedy as it quietly vanished from the bookshelves with scarcely a notice.
And one might just leave it at that. It’s not the only good book to get forgotten, as this site continues to demonstrate.
But this book, for me, is something of a special case. For in writing Leo & Theodore and The Drunks, and then revising them into Sweet Adversity, Newlove achieved not only a remarkable artistic feat, but also an act of great personal strength, part of his recovery from decades of alcohol abuse.
In a Riply bar he shows them a magic trick. He dips a lighted kitchen match into whiskey and lifts the blue flame out of the shot-glass unquenched. Marvel at the blue-dancing spirit on the glass!
Alcohol makes its appearance on the first page of Sweet Adversity and, from that point on, it is the dominant presence in the story. Dominant, that is, with the exception of Newlove’s protagonists, Leo and Theodore.
Leo and Theodore are Siamese twins, joined at the waist by a short band of flesh, blood, and nerve tissues.
Now, for many would-be readers, a 600-plus page novel about Siamese twins–particularly one coming out at a time when Tom Robbins, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut were among the hottest names in new fiction–must have seemed like some kind of over-the-top fabulist work, full of exaggerated characters and absurd situations.
Instead, this is one of the most realistic books you’ll ever read. Almost too realistic, at points. “Nowhere has the green or red bile of hangover, piss, bleeding assholes, and d.t.’s been so carefully catalogued,” according to the Kirkus Review’s assessment of The Drunks.
Although Leo and Theodore are Siamese twins, almost no one in the book treats them as freaks–not Newlove and most certainly not their mother, Stella. Newlove notes, in a hundred different passages, subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which their connectedness affects how they live and perceive the world, but it is never his focus.
The narrative arc of Sweet Adversity very much follows that of the two original novels. In the first half, Leo and Theodore grow up in and around Cleveland during World War Two, discover girls and sex, learn to play instruments and fall in love with jazz, and witness the lovely and horrifying effects of drinking on people around them. And in the second half, they come hurtling down through all the ravages of alcoholism–the black-outs, vomit, unexplained bruises, lost jobs, seedy rooms, and shakes–until they hit bottom and begin to lift themselves back up with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The first part of the book is a giddy celebration of the fine and destructive aspects of mid-West, mid-century American life. The boys work as soda jerks, take midnight swims, learn to smoke, make out with girls in the back of cars, sneak into movie theaters, fantasize about fighting Nazis, and watch their mother get punched by their alcoholic step-father. The raw energy of the time bursts through in Newlove’s prose, as in this portrait of a busy night at the soda parlor:
Racing with the moon! the juekbox boomscratches. Fulmer’s splits with smoke after King James cracks tiny Lakewood on the Friday night gridiron. Car herds roar Third. Fevered twins set up orders, spirits pitchforked. White-eyed Helene and Joyce wait table in a blue burn of uniforms. Wayne yawns in the back kitchen, roasting peanuts, steps out into the squeeze for tables, cries in the jukeblare, “Swill, you swine!” and goes back to his roasting oil.
Newlove’s style draws heavily upon James Joyce’s word-fusing (“the snotgreen … scrotumtightening sea”), and there are times throughout the book when the frenzy of the prose becomes close to unbearable. When I call this one of the most ambitious American novels, I don’t mean to suggest that the author’s technique always kept pace with his ambition. The worst comes somewhere in the second helf, when Teddy loses a tooth in the second half, and Newlove subjects us to page after page of lisped dialogue (“There’s thill a double order of chop thuey in that roach.”). It might be realistic but it isn’t interesting reading.
For all the over-sexed, over-adrenalined dumb teenager things Newlove has Leo and Theodore do in the first half of the book, there is never anything else than endearing and touching about the boys. Which is why reading the second half is such a heart-breaking experience. As he describes in Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers, Newlove knew intimately the humiliations and illusions of a hard-core, long-term alcoholic, and the twins are not spared many of these. The New Yorker’s reviewer was not alone in considering this novel “probably the most clear-eyed and moving—and certainly one of the most honest—books ever written about alcoholics.”
Even with the editing Newlove did for Sweet Adversity, the book suffers from the intensity of the prose. Those Drinking Days, Newlove writes that, “The published volume was light-filled to bursting, enormously lively,” but adds, “and, for most readers unreadable without great attention to every syllable.” And perhaps this is one of the reasons why Sweet Adversity has been forgotten.
If so, it’s a lousy reason. An occasional word-glutted passage might deserve having a few points shaved off Newlove’s score, but given the unbelievable energy, passion and power of Sweet Adversity, there’s no good reason for this book to have been dismissed as a failure, and certainly not to have been so unfairly neglected. Donald Newlove and his twins are among the great fiery phoenixes in American literature.
Sweet Adversity: Embodying the author’s final revisions for Leo & Theodore and The Drunks, by Donald Newlove
New York: Avon Books, 1978
“Art is no place for snobs,” Leo Stein wrote in his foreword to Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, a marvelous little guide to opening one’s eyes and ears. Written about a year before his death in 1947 from stomach cancer–the same disease that killed his sister, Gertrude, in 1946–Appreciation is a book for anyone who’s ever felt themselves incapable of understanding or appreciating great literature or art.
On the surface, Leo Stein had every right to hold his opinions about art above those of the crowd. Although overshadowed by his sister through much of his life–and after–he was the trailblazer in their discovery of the Post-Impressionists painters and the work of French writers such as Rimbaud and Paul Valery. He was one of the first Americans to buy paintings by Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse and Picasso, and the house they shared at 27 rue de Fleurus became a center of the artistic community in Paris. Both Matisse and Picasso made portraits of Leo, who was respected for his sensitivity and perception as much or more for his influence on other collectors.
Few brothers and sisters could have been more different in temperament than Leo and Gertrude. In her foreword to Journey into the Self, a collection of Leo’s letters and diaries edited by Edmund Fuller and published in 1950, their friend Mabel Weeks wrote:
Gertrude successfully integrated her character around her limitations. Leo could not accept his limitations. Gertrude, whatever her neuroses, made herself a life with few frustrations; Leo had thousands of frustrations, and only the by most rigorous self-discipline got rid of some of them. Gertrude’s personality was magnetic; she had a laugh from the middle of her, and a sort of warmth and zest and enjoyment which gave her a tremendous appeal, particularly to young people. Leo was very withdrawn, and didn’t win people. She insisted that everyone meet her on her own terms. Leo, in a way, couldn’t meet anyone except on his own terms. But he wasn’t a bully. Gertrude bullied everyone.
Through much of his life, Leo struggled against what Weeks calls “his tendency to burrow within,” and while this severely limited his output compared his prolific sister’s (his only other book was a collection of essays titled, The A-B-C of Aesthetics (1927)), it also means that what one finds in Appreciation is the result of long consideration.
Leo Stein described Appreciation, with characteristic modesty, as “a little debauch in the realm of ideas,” but this does the book a great injustice. There is nothing of the abstract or esoteric here. Instead, this is a most democratic view of great art.
“It is, I believe, a good thing to recognize the continuity of the usual and the unusual, and if we are to be reverent it is better to be widely and not narrowly reverent.” The muscles in Stein’s arm, for example, “are not essentially different from those of Joe Louis.” The only difference is that “His have more punch in them.”
Bridging the gulf between us and the work of genius, in Stein’s view, starts with the understanding that in each of us there lies some measure of creative power. “Every personal letter one writes, every personal statement one makes, may be creative writing if one’s interest is to make it such.” And while something like this blog entry doesn’t remotely approach the same level as, say, Hamlet, the two works exist on a continuum of human creations. To Stein, “continuity illuminates”: “The value of the great things is made more valuable when they are known as exceptional, not in their kind but in their degree.”
Stein’s own appreciation of the art of painting, for example, only really came into full bloom when he asked himself, “How does a painter see when he paints?” To answer that, he set himself a little experiment:
I put on the table a plate of the kind common in Italy, an earthenware plate with a simple pattern in color, and this I looked at every day for minutes or for hours. I had in mind to see it as a picture, and waited for it to become one. In time it did. The change came suddenly when the plate as an inventorial object, one made up of parts that could be separately listed, a certain shape, certain colors applied to it, and so on, went over into a composition to which all these elements were merely contributory. The painted composition on the plate ceased to be on it but became a part of a larger composition which was the plate as a whole. I had made a beginning to seeing pictorially.
This experiment well illustrates a key principle in Stein’s approach to appreciation: namely, that serious appreciation takes time and effort. “Pleasure in clear hard thinking is not so common as it ought to be,” he remarks at one point, and one of the pleasures of Appreciation is Stein’s candor in describing his own trials in coming to an understanding of certain poets and painters. In the case of Picasso, he confesses that his efforts ultimately failed. (Their differences over the value of Picasso’s work was one of the reasons Leo and Gertrude went their separate ways in 1914 and never again spoke to each other.)
Stein was entirely a pragmatist. The whole message of Appreciation is one of bringing art into the context of one’s life. He may not have read E. M Forster’s Howards End, but I’m sure he would have agreed with Margaret Schlegel’s adage, “Only connect the prose and the passion.” “Wisdom that is worth having must be brought down to earth,” he writes at the close of the book, even if, “on solid earth a snail’s pace is the measure of its progress.” And in this respect, Appreciation embodies the remarkable progress made by a snail named Leo Stein.
“Almighty God, who hast created man in thine own image, it so happened in April that our Saab had to be serviced at a garage a few miles west of Carlisle.” This combination of the sacred and the mundane with which David Hughes opens The Lent Jewels immediately establishes the split personality of this book, certainly the most engaging I’ve read this year.
Killing time in Carlisle while waiting for his car to be fixed, Hughes wanders into the Deanery–the residence of the Anglican dean of Carlisle. There he finds a showcase that tells, with bits of paper and a few old photographs, of the death of five daughters of the Dean of Carlisle, Archibald Tait, and his wife, Catharine, over scarlet fever, in the space of one month in 1856:
The five-year-old Chatty, short for Charlotte, was the first to pass over; she died on 6 March.
Her almost two-year-old sister Susan was next to be called home; she died five days later.
Frances breathed her last on 20 March; she died at not quite three years old.
The next, just ten, named after her mother Catharine but called Catty, gave up the ghost on 25 March: the eldest to die.
Her sister May passed on a fortnight later aged nearly nine; she died on 8 April.
Intrigued to understand how two people of faith dealt with such a devastating tragedy, Hughes locates a thick, two-volume biography of Tait, who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury from 1868 to 1882. One short chapter treats of the deaths, mentioning a record written by Catharine some months later as “known and reverenced in every land.” It also quotes Tait’s own diary, an entry written a month after Mary’s death: “Thou hast re-claimed the lent jewels. Yet, O Lord, shall I not thank Thee now? I will thank Thee not only for the children Thou hast left to me [a son and an infant daughter], but for those Thou hast re-claimed…. I thank Thee for the bright hopes of a happy reunion, when we shall meet to part no more.”
The Lent Jewels is the story of Hughes’ attempt, as a non-believing man, a rationalist of the late 20th century, to see life through the eyes of a man and woman whose faith was so profound, so fundamental to their being, that even the loss of five daughters at a stroke could not shake their trust in the wisdom of God.
“What gap was I trying to bridge?” Hughes asks himself:
The time gap was not long, the culture gap subtle, the gap of faith between then and now huge–what else? I wanted to communicate with someone who was in theory better than myself in all human respects: to get in touch with a god, indeed God, who was prepared with good grace to descend an airmile or two, to link the empyrean with the quotidian. It was the gap between what lay within me and what lay beyond.
Perhaps I found The Lent Jewels so engaging because I’ve often looked across the same gap myself. I know people today who seem to hold in their hearts a faith like that of the Taits, who can speak comfortably of the eternity of the soul, of being reunited with their loved ones, and have wondered, like Hughes, just what inspires such belief.
As the book progresses, Hughes traces the lives of the Taits, starting with their residences in London–London House and Lambeth Palace. London House, he remarks, sits not far from the haunts of one of their contemporaries, “Walter,” the anonymous author of the mammoth erotic memoir, My Secret Life, and from this point forward, Hughes repeatedly draws parallels and contrasts between the spiritual life of the Taits and the sensual life of Walter. Despite Hughes’ efforts to obtain some significance from this contrast, it seemed to me unconvincing and distracting.
His pursuit of the Taits evokes in Hughes other thoughts and memories. His visits to the various churches and cathedrals where Tait served reminds him of his time as a member of a boy’s choir while an evacuee from the London Blitz. During this time, Hughes fell under the sway of the assistant organmaster, an elusive character who enticed him into secret corners of the church and masturbated against the boy’s thighs and buttocks.
These experiences, on top of the overwhelmingly secular nature of his everyday life, might have been enough justification for a loss of belief in other men, but Hughes never makes an explicit connection between them. Instead, he wonders repeatedly whether dreams offered the only glimpses we could expect of a spiritual world. “Dreams had an air of permanence, an authority,” he writes at one point, and at another, he says that dreams have a special value because they are “beyond sharing.”
He also seeks to understand the Taits by reaching for a current point of comparison–Geneviève Jurgensen’s book, The Disappearance: A Primer of Loss, which describes the death of her two daughters in a random traffic accident on the autoroute in France in 1980 and Jurgensen’s struggle to cope in its aftermath. “I realised that time numbed but did not heal,” he writes, “time being an anaesthetic applied to the incurable”–a statement I’ve heard echoed in other words by friends who’ve lost children.
While Hughes is following the steps of the Taits, his own life is being taken up with endless details. He and his wife are in the process of selling their farmhouse in Wales, which involves meetings with estate agents, trips back and forth from London, and the long hours and minutiae of moving day. Stretching up to try to peak into the next world, he is constantly being pulled back down to deal with the business of this one.
Hughes’ investigation leads him to locate Hallsteads, the house along the shores of Ullswater, in the Lake District, where Catharine Tait wrote her account of the death of her daughters as a means to recovery in the first few following months. He admits that, by this point, his interest in Catharine had developed into something of an infatuation: “I saw her as a tenderly human guide to the manners–purity, prayer, propriety, sheer goodness–now lost in me, a language I could only stutter.”
In the end, Hughes cannot bridge the gap: “The thinnest of membranes, if an opaque one, divided me from the reality of belief, but at least I knew it was real.” And if his search did not end in any great revelation or break-through, he takes some consolation in the fact that “Not a step fo the way had been attended by angst or hollowed by tedium or taken for granted.” A careful, precise writer, Hughes never rushes to a conclusion or overstates his case, and that precision and delicacy make The Lent Jewels a book one reads carefully, making sure to stay close in step with its writer. Although at no point does Hughes pretend to posses the spirituality of the Taits, in the end, he managed to produce a profound meditation on life in a time when the connection between spirituality and eternity is not taken as a matter of faith.
The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes
London: Hutchinson, 2002
Reading Willard Bain’s 1967 meta-fiction, Informed Sources: Day East Received, was for me such a time-trip that I can’t imagine getting half as much pleasure if I’d read it forty years ago.
First, we have to take care of the matter of technology. The entire text of Informed Sources: Day East Received is in upper-case Courier. This is because, as we’re told around the book’s half-way point,
THE SKELETON OF THE BOOK IS MODELLED, SIGNIFICANTLY, ON THE AP REPORT FOR THE THREE DAYS FOLLOWING PRESIDENT KENNEDY'S ASSASSINATION
Back in the day–the day being pretty much any time between the late 1930s and the mid-1980s–the Associated Press, Reuters, etc. were known as wire services. That’s because they distributed their headline news and news reports to newspapers and radio and TV stations over teletype networks. In fact, the text also helpfully tells us that "DAY EAST RECEIVED" ACTUALLY APPEARS ON THE COVER OF THE ASSOCIATED PRESS "A"A WIRE REPORT WHICH IS BOUND UP IN THE SAN FRANCISCO BUREAU AT THE END OF EACH MORNING.
In each one of these clients’ offices sat something that looked like an industrial-strength typewriter. These were usually Teletype Corporation Model 15s (you can see one in action in this YouTube clip).
I saw one of these in action back in the early 1970s, when my dad detoured to visit a microwave relay site while we were driving down the Al-Can Highway. The site also housed a local radio station, and my brother and I read the news on the wire service machine while Dad talked to the microwave guys. Ten years later, I ran into teletypes again (Model 28s, this time) on my first job, running an Air Force communications center. In both cases, the machines ran on 7-bit code, which meant that EVERYTHING WAS IN UPPER CASE, the SHIFT key requiring that not-yet-state-of-the-art 8th bit.
OK, enough of my geek nostalgia.
Informed Sources: Day East Received is also a trip back to a very specific time, place, vocabulary, and world-view: San Francisco in 1967, the Summer of Love, when Hashbury was the unofficial capitol of Flower Power and an explosion of cultural, musical and political energy.
You need to know that to dig where Willard Bain was coming from, man:
FIVE MINDS WERE BLOWN TODAY, FOUR OF THEM SERIOUSLY
IT WILL BE COOL WITH A CHANCE OF SCATTERED CHAOS
The book even provides at one point a quick guide to some frequently-encountered Hippie (or was it Hippy?) terms:
EDITORS: A NUMBER OF GUIDES HAVE BEEN ISSUED USING THE FOLLOWING TERMS RECENTLY:
Informed Sources is both the book’s title and the name of the AP-like new service over which the transmissions captured in the book are sent. In this case, the story–so-to-speak–centers on a cultural rather than political assassination. Robin the Cock, a supposedly legendary figure in the “Peripheral Underground” is reported to have been killed, and in the flurry of rumors, contradictions, and reactions to his death, several fringe movements rise up and threaten the Establishment.
One bombs the Golden Gate Bridge. Several infiltrate the wire services:
THERE ARE INDICATIONS NON-STAFFERS ARE MANNING ONE OR MORE BUREAUS
Among these are Solomon and Sarah Hershey, who seem to be Merry Pranksters of the wires. They post a story describing themselves as A PAIR OF FAR-OUT VOLCANIC ISLANDS that DECLARED THEIR INDEPENDENCE IN 1963 AND NOW RECOGNIZE NO COLONIAL AUTHORITY WHATEVER. Later, they are joined–or contested–by another group known as the Green dream.
As these revolutionaries introduce more and more of their information into the system, the Informed Sources service keeps trying to push through a story that embodies the worst fears of the Establishment:
SAN ANTONIO, NOW (IS) -- A COMMUNIST BEATNIK DOPE FIEND KILLED AND MUTILATED A 3-YEAR-OLD BOY TODAY AS THE LAD WAS KNEELING IN PRAYER IN A JUST-DEDICATED METHODIST CHURCH.
It’s a losing, battle, however, and the infiltrators manage to subvert an attempt to push out a “Support Your Police” message:
Before the whole thing goes spiralling out of control, the movement celebrates its triumphs:
WASHINGTON, NOW (IS) --THE STATUS OF MAJOR LEGISLATIVE PROPOSALS THIS SESSION:
REDUCE LAW ENFORCEMENT TO OPERA BOUFFE . . . . . . ENACTED
The first publication of Informed Sources was itself a counter-culture act. Printed by mimeograph and stapled together by the Communications Company, run by Chester Anderson and Claude Hayward as the publication arm of the Diggers an improvisational theater/community anarchist group, the first few hundred copies were taken to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore and given away free. (Today, the few copies to be found fetch the price $400 on Amazon.)
On its first appearance, the book was considered a sign of great days a-coming. Writing in the L. A. Free Press, Lawrence Lipton proclaimed,
What is being escalated today, among other things, is the dying of the sick & dying society. A day to day chronicling of the deathbed scene. The author, whoever he is, is the master arsonist of ideas, A light-bringer as well as a fire-bringer. This book may turn out to be the first major work of the hip era in writing.
The book’s reputation eventually made its way to the editors of Doubleday, who published it as a trade paperback in 1969. At that time, reviewing the book in the New York Times, novelist R. V. Cassill advised readers not to get distracted by the font and focus on Bain’s message. In doing so, however, he chose a comparison that now makes him seem even more dated that the teletype: “In its quality as political manifesto and in its subordination of eccentric technique to satire and affront, I find it more in a class with the play ‘Macbird!‘”
Now, of course, we know that the Summer of Love had far less political than cultural impact in the long run.
THE BIRCHERS WERE RIGHT AFTER ALL WE ARE INDEED THAT DANGEROUS one member of the movement declares with pride, rather in the manner celebrated by the title of Nicholas von Hoffman’s account of the San Francisco counter-culture: We Are the People Our Parents Warned Us Against. Ironically, the Establishment’s assessment proved more accurate in the end: A COUP WOULD BE UNNOTICED AND IRRELEVANT writes one Informed Sources die-hard. The revolution was televised, but in the end it went the way of “Laugh-In.”
Willard Bain and his wife moved to Marin County a couple of years after he first published Informed Sources. They opened a bookstore in Corte Madera and raised five children. He died in 2000.
Informed Sources: Day East Received, by Willard S. Bain
San Francisco: The Communications Company, 1967
New York: Doubleday, 1969
London: Faber & Faber, 1969
Subtitled “A Factual Novel,” Breaking Point is a chilling account of life in a Nazi transit camp, an official limbo from which the only exit is on the weekly train to Auschwitz. Yet its author, the Dutch historian and secular Jew, Jacques Presser (who was referred to as Jacob Presser in English language editions), never set foot inside a transit camp and spent several years of the war in hiding.
“The one thing I want to repeat for the tenth, for the hundredth time is that all this is true, that it was thus and not otherwise,” writes Presser’s alter ego and narrator, Jacques Suasso Henriques, a Dutch Jew of Portugese descent. Asserting the truth of a work of fiction so forcefully demonstrates remarkable self-confidence in the author, although there was certainly less scrutiny of Holocaust survivor credentials at the time the book was first published in the late 1950s.
Breaking Point is the title given the English language translation by Barrows Mussey. The original Dutch title was De Nacht der Girondijnen, which literally means “The Night of the Girondists.” The reference is to the arrest, trial and execution of the Girondists, a loose political faction that opposed the most extreme measures of the Jacobins and, in the end, fell victim to the very same themselves. (Through much of the war, Presser worked on a biography of Napoleon, Napoleon: Historie en Legende, which was published in 1946.)
Jacques Henriques is a teacher in a secondary school, living in tenuous security due to his family’s “Portugese papers,” in the book’s opening scenes. From time to time, he notes the absence of one or more of his students as the Nazis put increasing pressure on the dwindling Jewish population, but he feels relatively insulated from this terror. Then, one day, while quizzing his students on the “approved” Dutch history textbook, one of them tells him that her mother had been taken the day before:
“And she’d had herself sterilized, because they said …” Then she was crying. This is true; I could repeat it at the Last Judgment: this is what a thirteen-year-old girl said, those very words, in Class 2A of the so-called Jewish High School.
What next? I put down my book, and let the children “work individually for the rest of the period,” the classic phrase of teachers who don’t feel like keeping going.
With that, he walks out of the school without a word and decides to hide himself from the terror in the place he’s least likely to be taken. One of his students puts him in contact with Siegfried Israel Cohn, who runs the Disposition Service at the Westerbork transit camp. The DS, also known as the Jewish SS, polices the inmates of the camp and organizes the selection and loading of the weekly shipments to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. “We, a few intellectuals, office clerks, workmen, traveling salesmen, and peddlers, were to the others undoubtedly the most loathsome scum that God had ever created,” Henriques writes, but they were also effectively immune to selection themselves as they played an essential role in the process.
Henriques enters the camp and joins the DS with a reference from Cohn’s son, and attempts to appreciate the safety of his situation and numbing himself to reality by becoming as cynical as Cohn himself. He even admits to enjoying his position as Cohn’s adjutant: “I did not find it unpleasant. Sure enough, it gave me a pleasing tingle. Plainly I was already beginning to be a man.”
Soon, however, he finds it impossible not to see the camp as a version of hell:
This hell exists today alone. There is no past and no future; everyone knows that in his heart. The past is dead; the future is death. Between the two lies the narrow watershed, life. And that life consists of pursuing a shoelace, of quarreling over a seat by the stove, of fleeting encounters with a woman on the barter system, of intolerable loneliness in intolerable crowds. Each week it rises anew to the fiercest, the unspeakably grisly horror of the one night, the night before the departure; the apocalyptic plunge, forever new, of hundreds of human beings into destruction and death.
Henriques’ cloak of cynicism quickly wears thin, and, in the end, he finds it impossible to keep his anger and fear under wraps. The smallest event–Cohn knocking a book from the hand of a man waiting to board the train–proves his breaking point.
Despite the fact that Presser never experienced the camps at first hand, Breaking Point is a thoroughly convincing account. So convincing, in fact, that one of the most renown survivors and writers on the Holocaust, Primo Levi, was moved to translate the book into Italian in 1974 (as La notte dei Girondini).
Presser had ample evidence to draw upon. In 1943, his own wife, Debora, was arrested for holding forged papers as sent to Westerbork. Although she later died in the Sobibor camp, her life in the two camps was conveyed to him by her surviving fellow inmates. In 1950, he was contracted by the Dutch government to write a history of the experience of Dutch Jews during the War, a book published in English (and still in print) as Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry. In his research for that book, he came across the diary of a Polish Jew who was a member of the FK [Fliegende Kolonne, or Flying Column], which dealt with the victims’ luggage. Although it did not mention Presser’s wife, it covered in detail the week she spent there.
And here is an indication of why Presser, before he could begin Ashes in the Wind, first had to write this story about Westerbork: compelled by his sense of personal co-responsibility and in despair over the loss of his first wife, he had searched in this historical material for the place where his wife had last been before all traces of her were lost: that was Westerbork. It was for this reason that Presser knew so much about this subject, even though he had survived the war by going into hiding and had never set foot in Westerbork.
Presser himself saw a link between the two books that was not solely due to their subject. Although meticulous in documenting his sources and a critic of the hagiographic style found in most biographies of Napoleon prior to his own and that of his countryman and contemporary, Piet Geyl, Presser was nonetheless ready to note that both fiction and history were forms of story-telling:
Just over 80 pages long, Breaking Point is barely more than a long short story, and written in an unadorned, frank confessional style. Yet it’s also a remarkably nuanced work that raises themes that extend far beyond its brief scope. I have to look back to Levi’s own last book, The Drowned and the Saved, to offer a comparable text.
Breaking Point, by Jacob Presser
Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1958
John T. McIntyre was 65 and had been working full-time as a writer for over 50 years when he published Steps Going Down in 1936. Thanks to a little creative public relations work by his publisher, Farrar, Rinehart and some help from Warner Brothers, which was considering it for filming, it was selected as the American entry for something called the All-Nations Novel Prize–an international competition organized by a consortium of publishers, mainly in the U.S. and Europe. It didn’t win the competition, but the selection came with an award of $4,000, which was probably more than what McIntyre had earned in the preceding five years.
For a few months, McIntyre garnered more publicity than he had in his entire career as a writer. The New Yorker praised him and he was positioned by some critics as a grandfather of what Edmund Wilson would refer to a few years later as “The Boys in the Back-Room”–hard-boiled writers like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett and John O’Hara, whose works were full of rough characters, tough talk, and hard drinking. But though his next two books–Ferment (1937) and Signing Off (1938) took on suitably tough subjects–union corruption and Italian-American gangsters–they failed to win either popular or critical praise, and soon McIntyre was back to pitching stories about detectives and dime-store romances at newspapers and magazines. Eventually, even these didn’t sell and he was forced to sell off most of his belongings and rely on the charity of his friends. Suffering from alcoholism and cancer, he died in 1951 with barely a penny to his name.
Aside from some of his early crime novels featuring a scientifically-minded detective named Ashton-Kirk, McIntyre’s work has effectively vanished since his death. About ten years ago, Prof. Ron Ebest published an in-depth look back at McIntyre’s life and on Steps Going Down in particular, in the New Hibernia Review. In “Uncanny Realist: John T. McIntyre and Steps Going Down” (link), Ebest called the book “a minor classic of modern Irish-American writing” and praised McIntyre’s “talent for dialogue and his gift for presenting the grittier sides of urban life in realistic fiction.” I learned of Steps Going Down after reading about the All-Nations prize. (The winner for the 1936 competition, by the way, was The Street of the Fishing Cat, a novel about Hungarian emigrants in Paris by Jolán Földes).
Having taken the better part of three weeks to get through Steps Going Down, I struggle now to decide whether it was a waste of my time. By anyone’s standard of what makes a good novel, this one is a failure. Had McIntyre not thrown in a quick and implausible deus ex machina ending, it would have amounted to a five-hundred page equivalent of “Waiting for Godot.” Reviewing the book in The New Masses, Albert Halper wrote, “The story goes round and round and doesn’t come out anywhere,” and that’s a pretty accurate assessment. The anonymous reviewer on Kirkus Reviews said “It’s not strictly a novel,” but “a relentless turning inside out of a way of living –brothels, drug haunts, bars, shady dives, crooks, gangsters in miniature, lodging house keepers.”
Steps Going Down is about a guy named Pete, who has, at various times in the past, been a journalist and vaudeville dancer, and who goes on the lam when he suspects he might be accused of being involved in some crime at the bank where he’s been working. Pete got the job through a friend named Slavin, and he thinks Slavin is trying to pin the blame on Pete. And, as Halper puts it, “for the rest of the book the reader cracks his brains trying to find out (1) why Slavin got Pete the job,(2) who Slavin really is, (3) who Pete really is, (4) what crime Slavin has (or has not) committed, (5) how Thelma, Pete’s current girl friend, always knows where to reach Pete by phone even though Pete may be in hiding or in any of the city’s thousand drug stores, beer joints, or merely passing a public telephone booth.”
Well, I read the book, and I can’t answer any of those questions. I’d say that easily 80% of the book consists of nothing but Pete sitting around in some boarding house, oyster house, chop house, flop house, or bar and drinking and talking. Most often it’s with another character named Gill, who’s an alcoholic, Skid Row philosopher, part-time ink salesman, and black sheep son of a family that made its fortune selling patent medicines now running afoul of the new food and drug safety laws. Despite the fact that Pete spends at least two to three months moving from place to place to avoid being found by the police, district attorney, or Slavin, he somehow continues to have enough cash to buy another drink–even after he gets robbed.
And then another drink. And another. There is a lot of drinking in this book. As Ebest puts it, “Not to put too fine a point on it, essentially everybody in the book is hammered from page one on.” McIntyre himself had a drinking problem, and as you’re reading Steps Going Down, you often get the same kind of blurry sense of what’s happening that comes about three drinks after the stopping point.
And yet, there are some wonderful things in this book. Most of the action in the book takes place in once-respectable neighborhoods now gone to seed:
The Potsdam was a decayed establishment; it had a big lobby on the first floor that had once been a bar; a German bar with sanded floor, and with waterfalls, and old castles and folk in peasant costumes painted on the walls. There was a high, arched ceiling, now dusty and neglected. The Kegelbahn had been in the basement, and the wooden balls had rolled thunderously at night; a brass band once had its headquarters in the second floor front, and German marches and waltzes had poured out from the windows upon a contented neighborhood. German societies had met there; there was a singing of songs, emptying of seidels, the aroma of sausage and cheese; the gabble of all the dialects of the Fatherland. But those days were over; the people who now huddled under the Potsdam’s roof were broken and anxious; they were people whose days slipped by with no flavor of promise in them.
“No flavor of promise in them”–what a superb phrase with which to end a superb paragraph.
There are fine characters who come briefly into focus and then fade off. Like Cork, a small-time, unlucky gambler: “Cork was in the habit of talking about money; in sporting matters he mentioned large sums; the intake of stuss games interested him; the profits in drab houses, the chances of turning over sums by various underhand practices, had a slimy sort of glamour for him.” Or Finney, who spent his whole life dreaming of the time when he could be completely idle: “He used to watch the old men; they had been street sweepers, or cart drivers, or pavers, or weavers; old men that had worked at many trades and were now past their time, and were resting. Finney used to envy them. They could sit down somewhere contentedly, and no word was said against them. It was what was expected of them.”
There are places where you could imagine Oliver Twist hanging around if Dickens had time-travelled to 1930s Philadelphia: “The neighborhood of Shandy’s was one of small rackets; groups gathered at curbs, at newsstands, at corners, around shoeblacks’ chairs; smirking youths in smart overcoats and narrow rimmed hats talked with policemen.” The cheap hotels where Gill and Pete find rooms for a night or two: “Badly lighted, with greasy wallpaper, shabby floor coverings, brass cuspidors. Dejected men in soiled shirt collars sat forever reading newspapers; others wrote long, bitter letters at the little tables…. havens for uneasy men who had separated from their wives.”
The book opens with one of its strongest chapters–certainly the stuff I kept looking for more of–which puts us in the mind of Mrs. Salz, owner of the boarding house Pete lights out from, as she moves around, cleaning her sitting room. Each item she cleans reminds her of someone from her past–the gilt mirror from her brother Albert’s barbershop; Freddie the canary from her childhood now stuffed but still hanging in his gilded cage; the heavy armchair her father bought from a minister, in which her sister Cassy would sit “after her trouble”:
She worked for three or four dressmakers; every time she left a place it was for higher pay. And it was one of their husbands that was the cause of her trouble.
It was an awful shock to her mother; and her father used to curse terrible; and everybody in the neighborhood talked and said things they shouldn’t have said. Uncle Victor wanted the case taken into court; he said Cassy ought to get damages. But she wouldn’t let it be done. After the child died, she came home again, but she was awful changed. You’d scarcely ever hear her speak a word. She didn’t seem to be fit for anything at all. She’d just sit in the chair at the window and look out and think.
Taken together, these bursts of fine description and characterization probably add up to 150 or more pages out of the total 500, which is not such a bad ratio, but for many readers, it’s asking a lot to demand the persistence required for that kind of sifting. And so Steps Going Down will most likely remain out of print and unknown.
Yet, if Steps Going Down is a failure, it’s a noble failure. It’s like a fine old Victorian house, abandoned and neglected for years, shut up behind a tall fence. As you pass by, you catch a glimpse of some intricate, carefully-crafted feature or decoration, a room you can imagine was once dark, warm and welcoming. But no one will ever knock down the fence and put in the hard work to restore it and put it into working order. And so it’s just a lost promise. It reminds me very much of something Zadie Smith wrote in her essay, “Fail Better”: “The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment.” In Steps Going Down, there are such lovely shards–but it will never be a monument of fulfillment.
Steps Going Down, by John T. McIntyre
New York City: Farrar, Rinehart, Incorporated, 1936
Despite all the exhortations to stop and smell the roses, that what matters is the journey, not the destination, I tend to read in something of a rush, mindful of the ever-growing stack of books that still beg to be read and rediscovered. It takes an exceptional writer to subdue this inclination and take a work at his or her own pace.
I took John Guest’s Broken Images: A Journal (1949) along on a recent trans-Atlantic flight, figuring I’d have time not only to finish it (it’s just 220 pages long) but to get through some work-related reading as well. Instead, I spent the entire flight, along with the next leg of my trip, to read it–not because it was a struggle but because Guest’s writing is so superb I wanted to enjoy every sentence.
At the time that World War Two broke out, John Guest was in his late twenties, working in a publishing house and wandering rather aimlessly into his future. He didn’t rush to enlist, but was inducted into the Royal Artillery in May 1940. Broken Images opens with a journal entry written–quite against regulations–on his second day in the Army, and continues until his separation five years later, in October 1945. Many of the entries were sent to the poet and lyricist Christopher Vernon Hassall, with whom Guest served on an anti-aircraft battery stationed near the London dockyards.
When Broken Images was first published, the Spectator’s reviewer wrote of it that, “It will be surprising if the last war produces a more rewarding set of personal impressions than the journal of Mr. John Guest.” What’s remarkable, though, is that I would never think of recommending it as a great war book. True, it is all about Guest’s experiences during the time he served in the Army, and he did experience combat first-hand in North Africa and Italy–where some of the most hard-fought battles of the war took place.
But its finest characteristic is that of a sensibility to life that never, despite all the drudgery and monotony of Army life and all the strains and fatigue of combat, seems anything less than fresh and alert. Here, for example, is an early observation from his first month in uniform:
But doing guard also has its pleasures. It is the only time when one is really alone. It is lovely, too, on warm starlit nights. Another pleasure, relatively new to me, is to see the dawn and hear the birds’ chorus; shortly after the sky has paled, one bird emits a sleepy note–do you remember that magical verse in “Tears, idle tears”:
Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns
The earliest pipe of half awaken’d birds …
–and within two minutes every bird in creation is singing wildly.
Guest loved poetry and nature. He notes the flowers, bushes and trees wherever he is, knows the names of most of them, and often remembers a line or two of verse they inspired.
While he wasn’t a model soldier, he was no slacker, and was selected for officer training during his first year. Although he’d never had any association with the Army and felt no regret when he left it behind, he early on came to understand that his time in the uniform represented a personal transformation: “Something is between me and everything now. We seem to be breaking apart, diverging, but reality is on my side–vivid reality–while everything I used to be and do belongs elsewhere, connected to me only in memory, not it fact.”
Throughout much of the book, “the war” seems to be a show playing on another stage. Guest does not deploy to a combat theater until he’s been in the Army for nearly three years. He spends far more time training, taking part in exercises, and waiting, and even when he is in within eye sight of the enemy, the fighting is more often incidental than intense. He apologies, in fact, in one entry,
This is just to set your mind at ease in case you thought I was in the big attack. If you have been imagining me in the thick of battle, you would have laughed to see me this afternoon (or indeed most afternoons and evenings) sitting in a canvas chair at the edge of our olive grove–sleeves rolled up, dark sun-glasses, a book on my knee; listening to the birds and swatting flies with a grass switch. In front, the bank falls steeply away through a wood full of cyclamen, genista and honeysuckle, to a green valley below, and from where I site I can hear the stream that runs through it. But, apart from the occasional bang of guns, one wouldn’t know there was a war on.
Being far enough away from the front lines does not equate to enjoying the pleasures of peace, however. “You do not know what a country which has been fought over looks like,” he is careful to caution Hassall:
Everywhere the signs are unmistakable–one knows without thinking about the evidence. It is rather like one of those abandoned industrial areas at home; but here they are not abandoned; people are still living in them. Even if the houses are not in ruins, everything has a tired, disused look. Gates and hedges are broken. Rusting skeletons of vehicles lie in the ditches. Windows are broken. Roads in bad repair. The fields untended. Ground under trees or by the roadside all chawed up and rutted. Empty food tins. Trees cut down or splintered. Charred remains of fires. Human excreta. Broken drains, pools and floods–all the million and one things which should be mended, tidied, tended, buried or otherwise seen to, are left undone.
Guest never takes himself to be anything but a small cog in a big machine, and he often notes the tendency of the Army to grind everything down to an anonymous uniformity. Indeed, as he queues for one in the many steps involved in being processed out of the Army, he muses, “It was really a huge machine which had been churning away at top speed for six years…. All you had to mind was that you didn’t get nipped in the works.”
If there was one thing that most certainly didn’t happen to Guest, though, it was the sacrifice his individual sensibility. His eye was always alert to nuances of landscape, the life going on in the margins, and the endless human comedy. On leave in Rome, for example, he delights in the band playing in the lounge of an English officers’ hotel:
This consisted of three middle-aged Italians–two male and one female. One man played a huge sort of guitar-cum-zither which he held like a banjo and plucked. To the end of our stay I was absolutely convinced that it made no noise whatsoever, and that upon closer inspection it would transpire that the strings were made of elastic or wool. For all that, his gnarled right hand plucked and flipped with all the merriment in the world, and his left hand scrambled deftly up and down the wires.
I’ve already overindulged in the temptation to quote at length from Broken Images. It really is a deliciously well-written book that I have left riddled with dog-eared pages marking particularly fine passages.
As someone who just turned fifty-six, I take comfort in the example of late bloomers, and it was a delight to note that Anne Goodwin Winslow was 68 when she published her first book, The Dwelling Place, in 1943. Now, that’s not strictly true–she did publish a collection of her poetry, The Long Gallery, in 1925, at the age of fifty. But in the space of six years between 68 and 75, she managed to publish a body of work that compares well with what some others take a lifetime to produce.
Born on her family’s estate outside Memphis, Tennessee, she and her sisters were educated by their attorney father in a rather laissez-faire manner. He gave them the run of his library and encouraged them to spend long hours reading and thinking and talking about what they read. Then, when she was still a teenager, Eben Eveleth Winslow, a West Point graduate and captain in the Corps of Engineers, asked for her hand and off she went into the itinerant life of an Army wife. Their tours included Oahu, where Winslow oversaw the construction of Fort DeReussy and other fortifications, and Panama, where he built bases to protect the new canal. He became the Army’s expert on coastal fortifications, and his 1920 book, Notes on Seacoast Fortification Construction, can be found on the Internet Archive (link). Over a thirty year career, he rose to be the acting Chief of Engineers when the U. S. entered World War One in 1917 and led the enormous expansion of the Army’s ranks and facilities over the next two years.
When General Winslow retired in 1922, he and Anne headed back to Anne’s family home outside Memphis. There they oversaw the raising of cotton, fruit and nuts, pigs and cattle, and she began to write and publish her poetry. Winslow died in 1928. With both her children grown and out of the house, Anne settled into the graceful life of a dowager, with a steady stream of visitors to keep things interesting.
Her poetry was quickly accepted by such journals as the Atlantic and the North American Review, and she developed friendships with a number of literary figures, including Vachel Lindsay and William Alexander Percy. Allen Tate and his wife, Caroline Gordon, became particular friends, and the aging Ford Madox Ford came along for a visit while on his extended stay with the Tates as their house guest. In one of his very last books, Great Trade Route (1937), Ford described the Winslow home as antebellum menagerie, very relaxed, where, “… peacocks wandered nonchalantly in and out of the room, and it was quiet, and profuse, and hospitable.” Life there seemed “to run on wheels in a deep shade.”
The Dwelling Place is Anne Goodwin Winslow’s amused, affectionate, and poetic tribute to her home. Despite her many years away with the Army–“the antithesis of permanence”–it remained at the center of her emotional life: “I do not see how anyone can get along without at least one thing in his life that he can think of as being both intimate and permanent.”
Starting with a chapter on solitude, she portrays the house, the land, its people, animals, plants and visitors (living and spectral) over the course of a year through a series of loosely-connected sketches. Although absolutely at home in a way of life–with a grand mansion, a large garden full of magnolia trees and wisteria-laden trellises, and a cook, maid, groundskeeper and handyman–that was near its end, she was also a sophisticated woman, widely-traveled and read. She wrote one of the first articles about Rilke’s poetry to appear in an American journal and was comfortable reading and translating both French and German. When she reaches for a classical allusion or a line from Keats, it’s always at her fingertips.
As a result, there is an elegance and grace throughout The Dwelling Place that makes one wish for the opportunity to have spent some time as Anne Goodwin Winslow’s guest.
She herself wondered, however, why people came to her home seeking a “quiet” week in the country:
How did the idea ever get abroad that nature is given to tranquility? A certain amount of self-restraint is necessary for tranquility, and nature has none. She is all out and total about everything, and noisy besides, and peace, I should say, is about the last thing on the list of her requirements–or solitude. Nothing in nature wants to be alone for one breathing instant, and everything that has a voice is perpetually lifting it up in desire or bereavement, with overtones of threat or challenge, and whinnyings for help–our own unrest made audible. I have grown so suspicious of nature’s motives as expressed in sound that only the accidental, frictional noises–wind rustling the leaves or water slipping over stones–gives me a feeling of repose. I made up my mind long ago that nobody who has had much sorrow, or even too much happiness, should ever go to the country to forget about it.
Writing during America’s first full year in the Second World War, she is quick to acknowledge that, compared to hers, “life has been so shot up to pieces for so many people that I would hesitate to speak again of any bombs that fell on mine.” She doesn’t claim that what she has created is a good book, one that will offer “present help in trouble,” but she credits the effort for its therapeutic value: “… maybe only those who write have learned the saving power that lay in many a poor one.”
She also questions her ability to venture into the realm of fiction: “I doubt very much if I could write a novel, but I would be willing to try for the sake of all the dear people who like to worry over me.” Ironically, the act of writing The Dwelling Place must have released hitherto-unrecognized creative energies, for over the course of the next five years, Anne Goodwin Winslow was to publish five books of fiction: A Winter in Geneva and Other Stories (1945); Cloudy Trophies (1946); A Quiet Neighborhood (1947); Springs (1949); and It Was Like This (1949).
The pace of her writing slowed down considerably after that and her published works were limited to a few short stories and poems. She died in late 1959 at the age of eight-four, and was buried with her husband in Arlington National Cemetery. You can find their grave records here. Her family home, known as Goodwinslow, still stands (see coordinates in Google Map) and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places (see entry).
The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943
Artistic failures are often more interesting than masterpieces–or more accessible, at least. Hayden Carruth’s first and only novel, Appendix A (1963), is a good example of this. “I did the novel in the first place because that was the only way I could get my first book of poems published,” he admitted years later, in an interview published in American Poetry Review.
“I had already written a long story, which I didn’t know what to do with, about a kid in France during World War II, who had been orphaned and adopted as a sort of a mascot by a German unit,” he told the interviewer, Anthony Robbins. “So when Emile [Emile Capouya, his editor at Macmillan] said he had to have a novel, I said I’ll expand the story into a novel, and basically that’s what I did. I added three other sections to the book, making it cover a longer period.”
This ad hoc structure is quite evident in the book. Carruth incorporated the story of the French orphan by transporting him to post-war Chicago, giving him the American nickname Charley, and making him the cuckold of an affair between the narrator, known only as E., and Charley’s wife, Alex. The first section shows the affair in midstream, centered around a sweltering July weekend. The second half is set about a month or so later, as Alex decides to leave E.–and Charley–over the course of long and boozy day and night. Framing these three parts is one set ten years later, as E. reflects back on the experience from an asylum somewhere in upstate New York.
It’s an awkward collage. The Charley/Gaston story is a crude graft, a pointless excursion from the main thread of the novel. And Carruth never provides a convincing explanation of what drove E. to isolate himself in a cottage in the Connecticut woods to write his account of the affair ten years later, or how this led to his being sent to the asylum.
Yet Appendix A remains an intriguing book, particularly when you know a little about Carruth’s life. E. is very much based on Carruth. Like Carruth, he served with the U. S. Army in Italy during the war. Like Carruth, he becomes the youngest editor of a prestigious and amply-endowed literary journal (E.’s Pegasus is Carruth’s Poetry). Whether Carruth had an affair similar to E.’s, he certainly did spend a time in an asylum, and spent some time after that in the care of a psychiatrist (Peter Laderman, to whom the novel is dedicated). The book’s second half revolves around a comical account of a reception, attended by the “poetocracy” and a set of ridiculous donors, for an English poet whom Carruth later identified in Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays as a fictional version of Stephen Spender: “… [B]ut I remember almost nothing of it now. I was no doubt drunk.”
As Carruth told Anthony Robbins, “It was a very anxious experience for me because I didn’t really think I knew anything about writing novels. In fact I didn’t.” Inexperience led him into a fair amount of experimentation in the book. A publisher’s note at the beginning states that the book is “part of a subdepartmental dossier in the files of a state bureau of public health.” One chapter is simply a dialogue between E. and Charley about an M. G. sportscar they co-own. Another contains a series of excerpts from such disparate sources as John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, the censure of Samuel Gorton, an early Colonial dissenter, and The Voyage of the Rattletrap, a comic Midwest novel written by an earlier Hayden Carruth. He omits Chapter 26 entirely: “if I left it in it would give the whole show away.” E. even refers to the book as a “levon”: “a feeble invention, but let it pass.”
Carruth considered the book “over-written in places.” And there are some pretty awful sentences, such as: “We are the principles of love, Linda and I, and so you need not remember us; indeed, you cannot — you can discover us only within yourselves, in which event we shall have different names and faces.” But there is something about a book being set in Chicago that guarantees an occasional punch of muscular prose:
Traffic thickened as we left St. Joseph, and would continue to thicken all the way to Chicago as more and more people heading home from points along the Indiana shore joined the stream. The concrete highway was a steady rolling formation of cars, like a railroad train a hundred miles long. At first the pace was quick, but then it slowed, cars jammed up, sometimes there would be a crescendo of aphonic squeals as drivers, one after another, jumped on their brakes; for a mile ahead in the late afternoon light you could see red glowing taillights, and the air would turn blue and acrid with exhaust fumes from idling motors.
I had almost forgotten what it was like to come back into town on a hot Sunday afternoon back in the days before freeways, but reading this sent me right back to the rear seat of my father’s Rambler, stuck with sweat to the vinyl as we inched past mile after mile of drugstores and used car lots.
And there are wonderful observations: “the momentary shame men feel upon seeing their own nakedness exposed before the elegance and subtlety of a woman.” “Chicagoans are as well schooled as most people and have studied their geography lessons in childhood, yet in their hearts they don’t know what lies beyond: space, distance, the incredible vectors and tangents of the nebulae themselves.” And this priceless comment on what we can never experience:
Instantly four poems came to my mind, four celebrations of that tender arrangement of loved flesh, four poems that should have been written by Skelton, Wyatt, Ben Jonson, and perhaps Sackville or Waller; but they didn’t write them, and neither did I. People who complain — with some justice — about the number of poems that are published, should think of the number, including some superb examples, that are never written.
None of which argues that anyone should rush to reissue Appendix A and proclaim it a lost masterpiece. Carruth may not have known much about how to write a novel, but that didn’t stop a fair amount of good writing, combined with astute and sometimes acerbic insights, from shining through the awkward seams and sometimes unchecked verbosity.
Fortunately, there is no need for a reissue, anyway: you can find electronic versions, for free, on the Internet Archive (link).
Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth
New York City: Macmillan, 1963
“This book tells of the experiences of a German civilian interned in England,” wrote Paul Cohen-Portheim in the preface to Time Stood Still: My Internment in England 1914-1918, “and it is the author’s aim to describe nothing except what he actually saw and experienced.”
This understatement is both typical of Cohen-Portheim’s remarkable humility and an utterly inadequate synopsis of this remarkable book, for Time Stood Still is, in its way, a monument of humanism–the cosmopolitan, cultured, enlightened humanism exemplified by Stefan Zweig, Jules Romains, Thomas Mann and others–that flourished in Europe until exiled or exterminated by fascism. Countless times while reading this book I was awed by the depth and character of the author’s perspective.
Born in Berlin of Austrian parents, Paul Cohen-Portheim was educated in Geneva, took up painting, and was living in Paris when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June 1914. Despite the increasing rumors of war, he carried on with his life and traveled to England to spend a few weeks with friends in Devonshire. When England declared war on August 4th, 1914, he found himself stranded: “My flat and my belongings were in France, my relations in Austria and Germany, I myself with summer clothes, painting materials, and £10 in an England one could not leave.” The next day, he discovered he was now an “enemy alien.”
For the next ten months, he lived in a sort of limbo, unable to leave England, unable to move from one location to another without official permission, unable to hold a job legally. He joined with other expatriates to form a makeshift opera company and busied himself with sets and costumes until, on May 24th, 1915, he received notice to report to the local police station the next morning to be interned.
“What shall I pack?,” he asked the policeman. “I would pack as if you were going for a holiday,” the man replied. And so Cohen-Portheim loaded his luggage with “white flannels, bathing things, evening dress, etc..”
He and several hundred other German and Austro-Hungarian men between the ages of 18 and 65 were loaded into railway cars and then ferried to the Isle of Man, where they were interned at Knockaloe, which was the largest camp set up in England during World War One. A few months later, however, he and about sixty other inmates, considered by the British to be “gentlmen” were transported to a new camp in Lofthouse Park, near Wakefield in West Yorkshire. Here he was to remain until mid-1918, when he was sent to the Netherlands to await the end of the war in another form of limbo.
To the authorities responsible for setting up Lofthouse Park, “a gentleman was a man prepared to pay ten shillings a week to them for the privilege of being there.” Cohen-Portheim had been able to contact his mother in Vienna and set up a weekly allotment while at Knockaloe, so, like the other inmates of the camp, he was able to order books and art supplies and to pay for sundries at the camp store. He was able to obtain more suitable clothing, and, as this picture from the Wakefield libraries collection shows, to dress in a manner befitting a gentleman. Other than being confined to the camp, served tasteless but adequate food, and mustered multiple times a day to be counted, he was largely left alone by the authorities and guards.
“Were you treated well?” friends asked him after the war. Cohen-Portheim’s response was carefully qualified: “I am not prepared to say what British treatment of prisoners of war or of interned civilians was–fair, correct, brutal, inhuman, indifferent–I can only speak of my own experience,” and that was that the treatment was “standardized.” He understood that internment was politically motivated, moderated entirely by public perceptions of the treatment of British internees in Germany, and bureaucratically administered.
This was the first war in which there was large-scale confinement of enemy civilians, and the lot of those in England was far better than that of their counterparts in France (as recorded in Aladar Kuncz’s 1934 book, Black Monastery). But, in Cohen-Portheim’s analysis, it was still a brutal and cruel system. Its inhumanity was not based on physical abuse or deliberate psychological mistreatment, but on a more fundamental truth: this was not how humans are meant to live.
Take, for example, the factor of time. Cohen-Portheim chose his title carefully: “One must remember that there was absolutely no limit to be foreseen to the duration of the war and of my imprisonment, not could one know to what one would then return, if one lived to return to anything.” The inmates were well aware of the events going on outside the camp, the progress and set-backs of each side in combat, but they were frozen in time. “The past was dead, the future, if there should be a future, was a blank, there was nothing left but the present, and my present was the life of a prisoner.” This condition was, in his view, unnatural: “where there is no aim, no object, no sense, there is no time.”
Yet it was not the fact of being imprisoned that made the experience horrible. “What was horrible was that one had ceased to be an individual and had become a number.” Any decisions made about the conditions in the camp were made based on an abstract concept of the enemy alien prisoner, and not on any aspect of his individual actions or nature. Cohen-Portheim saw this as a fundamental effect of war: it creates “an abnormal state in which no one can be honestly considered responsible for his actions.”
The obliteration of personal responsibility “undoes what education has built up in years of struggle, or rather in many centuries of effort.” This observation illustrates the particular perspective evident throughout the book. Cohen-Portheim upheld the humanist ideal of man as a rational being with a free will moderated by morality and empathy. And the fundamental crime of internment is that it is inhuman. The fact that the camp population was of such a narrow demographic–male, upper class, German or Austrian, adult, with no women, no children, no other nationalities or classes–by itself made the situation inherently abnormal.
But there was also, “no privacy, no possibility of being alone, no possibility of finding quietude.” The men were cooped up together 24 hours a day, day in and day out, with no end in sight. Because of this, “The worst tortures of camp life were due to the small failings of one’s fellow creatures everlastingly in evidence, and to unimportant little tricks endlessly repeated”:
It is not the men of bad character or morals you begin to hate, but the men who draw their soup through their teeth, clean their ears with their fingers at dinner, hiccough unavoidably when they get up from their meal (a moment awaited with trembling fury by the others), the men with dirty hands, the man who will invariably make the same remark (every day, year after year) as he sits down–and who is quite an inoffensive good-natured soft of creature otherwise–the man who lisps, the man who brags,, the man who has no matter what small defect or habit you happen to object to. You go on objecting quietly, for one does not quarrel about such silly trifles, and the thing gets on your nerves, becomes unbearable by the simple process of endless repetition, until you hate the cause of your torture with a deadly hatred.
“Such an atmosphere is thoroughly poisoned,” he concluded.
What is most impressive about Cohen-Portheim’s account of his experience, however, is that despite all of these wrongs, he could write, “I cannot honestly say that it has harmed me.” Indeed, his time at Lofthouse Park turned his passion from painting to writing, and one of his books, The Message of Asia (1934), was based on material began in the camp. He saw himself as an exception case, though, and was careful to caution in his preface that this must not “induce my readers to think that I call good what in itself is evil.”
After the war, he became a journalist and travel writer, and published such books as England, the Unknown Isle, The Spirit of France, and The Discovery of Europe. Time Stood Still was published in 1931, and like W. V. Tilsley’s outstanding novel, Other Ranks, published the same year, suffered from critical and popular weariness over war memoirs. The Saturday Review’s reviewer dismissed the book as “a ‘document’–by which I mean a piece of writing what has not quite succeeded in becoming literature.” Looking back on Time Stood Still from a distance of eighty years, however, I would place it on a shelf with some of the finest pieces of writing about life behind barbed wire.
Like many of the books I’ve written about on this site, I discovered A Cargo of Parrots serendipitously–that is, in the course of looking for something else. In this case, it was through reading about the career and works of Wallace Stegner, who, after some years of underappreciation, if not neglect, has come to be recognized as one of the major American novelists of the 20th Century.
When I learned that Stegner’s first novel, Remembering Laughter, was selected as the winner of a short novel contest run by Little, Brown in 1937 and was one of the five titles selected for publication out of the 1,340 works submitted, I immediately began wondering about the other four. Thanks to a Saturday Review item written by Howard Mumford Jones, “Hope for the Novelette”, it didn’t take long to identify them as:
Jones’ review agreed with Little, Brown’s assessment that Remembering Laughter was clearly the superior work of the five, but I was most intrigued by his comment that A Cargo of Parrots was “an almost perfect realization of the form” (that is, the novelette or short novel). That was enough to spur me to locate and buy a used copy.
But the cover illustration, of a Moorish, faintly pirate-ish (the man does have a parrot on his shoulder) with a sailing ship was enough to lead me to shelve it far away, to be read at some long distant time. Despite the fact that I’ve featured a fair number of nautical books over the years, I actually don’t care much for the subject and it’s only really good writing that can get me over that prejudice. So it sat there for a couple of years, until I picked it, almost at random, to read on a flight back to the U.S. this week.
Well, as I said, it takes really good writing to keep me reading a nautical book, and there is some exceptionally good writing in A Cargo of Parrots. And by that I mean not just that the prose is fine–balanced, fluid, subtle–but that the author’s perspective is quite remarkably open and sensitive. I started liking it within the first ten pages, and by the time I finished it a couple of hours later, I loved it.
It’s the story of a man named Ramazani, a native of one of the islands off the coast of what is now Tanzania. Kidnapped onto an Arab dhow as a child, he has passed through a series of masters until, somewhere in middle age, he is bound to an ailing German naturalist who survives by trapping exotic birds for zoos in northern Europe. When his bwana dies in a town on the Congo coast, Ramazani is left with the task to escort the parrots they have collected back to England and Germany.
This lands Ramazani and his birds on a hard-luck American steamer with a bitter, racist first mate, and from the moment the two men meet, it is clear that the story will have a violent end. Not that Ramazani is a violent man. If anything, as the author conveys within the first few pages of the book, he is quiet and perceptive, even if he interprets the actions and manners of Western men through a different lens. Indeed, it’s the civility of his manners that provokes the mate:
Had he been able to express his feelings he might have said to himself that no nigger should ever be given the advantage of such dignified clothing: the long and snowy-white coatlike garment coming to the feet; a spotless white cotton fex, delicately embroidered. The ancient garb of kanzu and kofia, which sets off so admirably the natural dignity of the East African Arab, roused in Mr. Jacob almost rage. Niggers should wear the cast-off garments of the white man, shouldn’t they?
When, a day or two later, the first confrontation takes place, it is not a clash of cultures but something primeval: they find themselves “staring at each other like two wild animals, hereditary enemies who have met by chance on a highway, man-made, between two sides of a forest.”
This last quote captures one of the remarkable aspects of A Cargo of Parrots, which is the sophistication of the author’s perceptions, in being able to accept and communicate the validity not only of what we would now call a Third World perspective, but also of an ecological sensibility. Ramazani holds deep respect for the German naturalist, in part because he reacts to African wildlife in a way that no other white men, to his knowledge, do:
It revolted him to see the enforced public intimacies of the mating season; the wonderful display–in Nature’s setting–of individual song and dance and gesture; of coquetry, of joy, rage, jealousy, revenge and even murder, taking place in the dark spaces and glades of the forest, in the solitary trees and the open grass of the African uplands, in the faces of ancient lichenous rocks and the newer, raw escarpment hanging over a two-thousand-mile valley which holds its bed, like pools left in the rocks after rain, lakes as big as England; or on the lily-patterned surface of forest lakes remote and small whose source springs hot from volcanic fires…. It wrung his heart to see some wretched substitute for the age-old routine of the nest–that miraculous inherited uniqueness and precision of form and material and site–the plaintive cries, the thwarted efforts of the parent birds to hide their eggs, to feed their young without the arduous and joyous duties of the hunt and without the food proper to the species; to see the swift decline and death, after a million of years, of instinct–like the blowing out of a sacred lamp, no less that the sudden stoppage of an elaborate system more exact than any man-made machine; to see the dullness of eye and feather that follows such outrage to body and spirit….
The word “ecosystem” hadn’t been coined when this was written, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that this passage might have been written by an environmental activist today.
While I can’t fully support Jones’ assessment of A Cargo of Parrots as “almost perfect” (there is a disproportional amount of material whose only purpose is to provide Jacobs, the first mate, with a back story), it is a moving and powerful story. As the ship steams further north, and Ramazani and the parrots encounter the cold and storms of the North Atlantic, their sufferings becomes almost unbearable for the reader. This was not at all the story I expected from the book’s cover, and it has been to my considerable pleasure and appreciation to have looked past that.
A Cargo of Parrots, by R. Hernekin Baptist (pseudonym of Ethelreda Lewis)
Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1937
Joseph McElroy’s 1977 novel, Plus, is, without a doubt, my most neglected neglected book. I actually bought the Knopf paperback edition (one of the earliest examples of a simultaneous release in hardback and trade paperback) when I saw it on the shelves of the University Bookstore in Seattle back in early 1977. I had finished a wonderful English course during which our professor took the class through Ulysses, giving us just enough in the way of reading tools that I felt ready to take on the most daunting of texts. I was also just discovering experimental fiction, reveling in Queneau and Steve Katz and Harry Mathews, and I was sure that Plus was going to be of the same ilk.
And then I started to read it:
He found it all around. It opened and was close. He felt it was himself, but felt it was more.
It nipped open from outside in and from inside out. Imp Plus found it all around. He was Imp Plus, and this was not the start.
I struggled for several pages, then gave up. I felt like I was trying to scale El Capitan with my bare hands.
I set Ulysses aside, and there it has stayed for thirty-five years and a dozen moves.
When I started this site seven years ago, I always knew that I would have to return to the challenge. Facing a long flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis a few weeks ago, I saw the opportunity to hunker down and make amends for my neglect.
Joseph McElroy is, perhaps and simultaneously, America’s most neglected and highly regarded living novelist. Neglected based on the simple fact that, as Scott Bryan Wilson writes on the Constant Conversation, “there’s probably never been a time in his career when all of his books have been in print [at] once.” You will not find one of his books at Barnes & Noble. One in a hundred people who know the names of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo or Toni Morrison will recognize McElroy’s or be able to name any of his books.
Why the neglect? I think the reason is very simple: he writes difficult prose. As one Amazon reviewer of Women and Men wrote, “If you haven’t read McElroy, don’t jump into this unless you consider yourself the boldest and bravest of readers.” McElroy writes for grown-ups. By that I mean, he does not take the reader by the hand and guide him through the story like a crossing guard assisting a group of school kids. He expects the reader to discover the story–and more than that, the narrative perspective–by having the guts to take a deep breath and dive into the writing.
I like the way Mike Heppner describes it in his article, “The Courage of Joseph McElroy,” in the Golden Handcuffs Review (link):
It takes courage to write a sentence like the one quoted above [from Women and Men]; to risk ugliness, arrhythmia, tonal irregularities: those moments of dissonance and rubato that cause us to doubt our own ears. (Or, as Carl Ruggles defended Charles Ives to a quivering concertgoer who’d come expecting Brahms: “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?”)
To be pedantic, the quote was by Ives, at a concert of his music and Ruggles (“When you hear strong masculine music like this, sit up and USE YOUR EARS LIKE A MAN!”). I’ve long thought this quote, despite its latent chauvinism, should apply to encounters with challenging art in any form.
And so I summoned my readerly courage and dove into Plus once I’d settled into my seat.
The actual story in Plus is explained right on the cover:
Plus is the meditation–the experience–of a disembodied human brain, once the brain of an individual with a wife and a child, but now orbiting the Earth in a capsule.
The brain’s function, as part of a solar energy project, is to observe growth inside the capsule and to transmit information along the Concentration Loop to the scientists on Earth, whom it knows only by sound: the Good Voice, and Acrid Voice.
The capsule is IMP: the Interplanetary Monitoring Platform. Imp Plus is the brain, the CPU of the IMP satellite–or at least, of one of its key payloads.
But the story is not really the point of Plus. Instead, what McElroy undertakes is something that makes all previous attempts at the stream of consciousness seem child’s play. The real drama in Plus is that of a consciousness constructing its own means of understanding.
In this case, the consciousness has the added challenge of working without any of its senses. Imp Plus is a brain in a jar, so to speak, and the jar is in orbit around the Earth. While it carries out its various monitoring tasks, it grapples to establish an awareness of its new world through an extremely limited set of inputs. It has no skin to feel with, no tongue to taste with, no ears to hear with. Although the inputs from Ground Control are referred to as voices, I see them more as command line messages: “IMP PLUS WE READ NO DROP IN POWER FROM ACCUMULATOR.”
In another article from the Golden Handcuffs Review, “Sensation in Joseph McElroy’s Plus” (link) Yves Abrioux argues that McElroy “regularly deploys synesthesia … to insist on both perception and cellular biology as sensation.” I think this is illustrated by the way in which Imp Plus associates the command line transmissions with voices:
Between which the dim echo now must come transmitting correct velocities. But were they correct? And Imp Plus did not know if the transmission was to Ground or him. He seemed to be transmitting within himself. DIM ECHO. ACRID VOICE. GOOD VOICE.
He must heed the cavings-in, he must heed the cavings-out, and the shapes around whether they heeded him or not.
There was more all around, and the more all around was joining itself to Imp Plus.
He approaches sight in much the same way:
Imp Plus knew he had no eyes. Yet Imp Plus saw. Or persisted in seeing.
With sprouts, maybe.
But there is another input which Imp Plus cannot associate with a sense, even if it comprises a collection of sensations: memory. As the cover blurb says, Imp Plus was a man with a wife and child before his brain was taken out and transferred into its capsule. Early on in the book, the brain is aware that not all of its consciousness is tied to its spacecraft inputs:
What came to Imp Plus amid the brightness was that some of him was left.
So some of the gradients were Imp Plus.
There are not many remnants of his past life. One he returns to frequently relates to a camping trip taken to a Mexican beach not long before the operation. The man seems to have had some terminal illness. He may have been associated with the space program, or at least to have agreed to allow his brain to be used in the capsule. There are fragments of conversations.
From these limited resources, along with the growth of biological matter–the narration refers to chlorella–in the capsule, Imp Plus assembles its understanding. The picture develops piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle, but without the top of the box to guide it. So the pieces don’t always seem to relate to a coherent whole. Only over time, over the course of the book, can one finally–along with Imp Plus–gain the sense of a complete self.
To do so requires considerable patience from the reader, but enormous forethought and restraint on McElroy’s part. It would have been so easy to skip over a difficult step in the construction of Imp Plus’ consciousness with a fast bit of simple explanatory prose, as software programmers call external routines or scripts as shortcuts. But the task he sets himself in Plus is profoundly daunting. As David Auerbach wrote recently in an excellent piece on his site, waggish.org, “McElroy’s ambition is to take the language used by embodied creatures and try to show how it might be applied in a situation where one’s interface with the world has completely broken down and been wholly altered: senses removed and replaced by new kinds of neural inputs.”
To help isolate myself while reading Plus, I put in my earphone and listened–several times–to Philip Glass’ epic four-hour work, “Music in Twleve Parts”. I think there is a certain commonality between the two works, in that each uses elements that are, in themselves, simple, but then creates, through repetition and subtle variations and aggregations, a new type of complexity and beauty.
Of course, Philip Glass’ music is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nor is Joseph McElroy’s fiction. But after finishing Plus and thinking about it over the last two weeks, I found myself contemplating an assault on his magnum opus, Women and Men. Weighing in at 1.5 times the length of War and Peace and rated by the book editors of The Millions as one of the world’s “top 10 most difficult books,” it’s truly an El Capitan assault of reading. But then I found a copy for $15–it’s out of print and goes for three times that–at Shakespeare and Company in Missoula, so I think the Fates have spoken.
Plus, by Joseph McElroy
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977
Stilgoe is not advocating an escape back to a simpler form of life or a time before electronics. Instead, Outside Lies Magic is a call for us to step outside … and pay attention. In particular, to pay attention to all the aspects of our environment that we quickly learn to take for granted, that thereby become invisible, particularly if we are accustomed to travel through this environment inside the cocoon of a car.
Stilgoe calls it “a straightforward guidebook to exploring.” By exploring, he means venturing into our ordinary landscapes at a slower pace–by foot or bicycle–and taking the time to notice: “to widen his or her angle of vision, to ste sideways and look at something seemingly familiar, to walk a few paces and see something utterly new.”
Stilgoe, a professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard, is not exactly a neglected figure. His classes are among the most popular and best-regarded at Harvard, and he was the subject of a story on CBS’s “60 Minutes” back in 2009. Outside Lies Magic is still available in Kindle format, but it’s been out of print in paper form for the last decade.
Landscape–whether natural or man-made–is not meant to be interpreted, Stilgoe points out. It’s meant, in most cases, simply to serve some purpose, whether obvious or obscure. And since most of our voyages through our landscape are also purposeful, we tend to neglect anything not directly related to our purposes.
Exploring, for Stilgoe, starts with abandoning purpose. “Ordinary exploration begins in casual indirection, in the juiciest sort of indecision….” This is not aimless wandering, however. Although the term doesn’t appear in the book, Outside Lies Magic is about mindfulness applied to the everyday world around us.
Stilgoe leads the reader through this world along a variety of paths, starting with “Lines”–literally, the electric, telephone and cable lines strung over our heads or lying buried beneath our streets and sidewalks. From these physical networks he then takes us into the virtual network of the U.S. mail system, tracing its evolution from post offices run out of general stores to the age of railroad post offices, during which service among major cities probably exceeded that of today, to the introduction of Rural Free Delivery (R.F.D.). He goes on to reveal the past, present and possible future of railroad routes, many of which still run through our neighborhoods, whether active, abandoned, or transformed into bike and walking paths.
Outside Lies Magic is not a formal guidebook, however. Although Stilgoe does stick to a set theme in each chapter, he deliberately avoids becoming too purposeful in this guide to purposeless discovery. This is not a book you’d take in hand to help you navigate and interpret what you might encounter.
More than anything, it’s a prose poem. By that, I don’t mean that Stilgoe’s is a particularly poetic prose style. Instead, it’s full of passages that use patterns and rhythms akin to the poetic. Take, for example, this little ode to what lies beneath a freeway overpass:
Beneath the elevated interstate highway lie the lots to which dented tow trucks tow illegally parked cars, lots filled with piles of sand, great stacks of concrete lane barriers, heaps upon heaps of shattered asphalt and concrete and rusted reinforcing rod surrounded by derelict construction machines. Beneath the elevated highway stand disused construction-site trailers, long-parked trailer-truck trailers, dozens of buses with every window long smashed. Beneath the elevated highway march the four-foot-high piles of dirt and litter emptied in perfect rows from three-wheeled street-sweeping machines, piles awaiting pickup by loaders and dump trucks that seem never to arrive. Everywhere beneath elevated highways blossom makeshift dumps, great clutches of abandoned cars and burned-out cars, the former often occupied as homes by the homeless, the latter serving as unofficial Dumpsters and toilets. Beneath the elevated highway the exploring bicyclist finds the homes never visited by the United States Census, the clusters of cardboard cartons, sheet-metal boxes, construction-timber lean-tos, and automobile hoods that comprise the turn-of-the-millennium American jungle.
This could easily be re-formatted into a five-line work of free verse.
Stilgoe can find poetry even in such mundane things as a Motel 6 at night:
Out on the bypass, out by the interstate highway, the motel owns the night, its many lights shining down over both its parking lots, its handful of old-fashioned outdoor post and wall lanterns sparkling by its main entrance, its dozens or hundreds of smaller, single-bulb lights flicked on, one beside each room door.
Outside Lies Magic is also a small work of practical philosophy. Stilgoe argues passionately for the need for unstructured time, unstructured thoughts, unstructured experiences as a means to keep ourselves fully engaged with our world. Speaking with Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes,” he observed of his Harvard students, “I think they’ve missed a kind of self-guided, non-organized activity, non-sports activity growing up. Wandering around, getting into things. And the assumption seems to be nowadays is if a child isn’t in an organized activity, the child is a criminal.”
“But as far as I can understand,” he continued, “most of my colleagues I work with seem to have found their careers by being slightly disorganized. Lucking into something, you know.” His observation reminds me of something that appears in Jacques Hadamard’s The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (republished as The Mathematician’s Mind): “A problem . . . reveals itself suddenly when it is no longer investigated, probably because it is no longer investigated and when one only expects, for a short time, to rest and relax….”
“A person is more than separated mind and body,” Stilgoe writes at the conclusion of Outside Lies Magic,
… and the body exists as much to carry the mind as the mind exists to direct the body. Outdoors, away from things experts have already explained, the slightly thoughtful person willing to look around carefully for a few minutes, to scrutinize things about which he or she knows nothing in particular, begins to be aware, to notice, to explore. And almost always, that person starts to understand, to see great cultural and social and economic and political patterns unnoticed by journalists and other experts.
Exploring, finally, is a way of reclaiming one’s senses and encountering the world in a different way. “Whoever owns the real estate and its constituents,” Stilgoe writes, “the explorer owns the landscape.”
So what’s keeping you? Get out now.
Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, by John R. Stilgoe
New York: Walker and Company, 1998
Felix Riesenberg’s 1928 novel, Red Horses, is extremely rare in two ways. There are only two copies list for sale on the Internet–one at $100, the other (signed) at $300, and there are only about twenty copies listed in Worldcat.org. I was only able to read it via my son’s access to the University of California’s superb library system.
But it’s also the only case I know (admittedly, there may be others I don’t) of a novel that’s been rewritten and published by its author with a different title. In a brief note at the start of the book, Riesenberg wrote:
The basis of the present story is my novel P.A.L issued by Robert M. McBride & Company in 1925. I have rewritten my earlier novel and the job has given me considerable amusement. I offer the result without apology or prayer.
P.A.L, which I wrote about back in August 2012, is an acerbic account of the career of an over-the-top entrepeneur and huckster, P. A. L. Tangerman, who shills everything from baldness cures and health tonics to chocolate, cigars and self-improvement books and, finally, to a scheme to produce gold from desert sand. Riesenberg was 44 when he published the book. He came late to writing, having worked as a merchant marine officer, Arctic explorer, civil engineer, and building inspector.
Riesenberg’s view of American capitalism in P.A.L is bitterly satiric, full of an angry that Riesenberg later gave full vent to in his Depression novel, Passing Strangers. He relates the story of Tangerman’s rise and fall through the eyes of Marakoff, a Russian merchant seaman, shipwrecked off the coast of Washington State and tossed into the feverish boosterism of Tangerman’s Seattle. Rather like Gulliver in the land of the Brobdingnag, Riesenberg’s narrator finds a sort of monstrous energy at play:
Power! light! heat! These were everywhere in evidence. As I walked up from the wharf, the sensation of coming again into a highly charged community caused my finger tips to tingle…. Lean, earnest-faced men shouted revolution, others spoke rapidly of religion, and still others, great, full-mouthed orators, extolled the virtues of special medicines. A band of uniformed musicians chanted loud praises of the Lord. Over all was the constant blink of great electric signs.
Later, when the scene shifts to Chicago, the narrator’s sense of a diseased society becomes literal:
Such thoughts came to me of an evening, looking out on the avenue and marveling at the curious folk who walked by. What was going on about me so far exceeded even these fancies that I judged the world throughicurious eyes. At times I felt we were in a great hospital full of patients, all sick, some seriously, some slightly, but getting worse. I even pictured this great hospital managed by a peculiar staff of somber, public doctors. It seemed to me the great hospital of humanity was for a time in charge of the world’s undertakers, men prospering mightily through the general debility.
The intensity of Riesenberg’s reaction to the fervor of the 1920s is muted only slightly in his rewrite of the book three years later. Although I haven’t done a line-by-line comparison of texts between P.A.L and Red Horses, I think I can safely say that Riesenberg’s major change was to pare away whatever he considerable inessential.
P.A.L was structured in four parts, preceded by a prologue describing the voyage and shipwreck of Marakoff’s ship. In Red Horses, Riesenberg dispenses with the prologue completely. He also dispenses with a considerable amount of editorial commentary. The prologue to P.A.L begins,
Of course there is an explanation for everything. Even a state of mind may be explored, and some have attempted to explain the favor of a woman. Chance and time play upon us constantly. Love and murder may be answers to the same demand; Who can see everything and know all, in a universe growing more complex with time?
In Red Horses, Riesenberg wisely dropped this exordium and jumped straight into the story:
I was a sailor, ashore and out of work. I had no money, no friends, no business or profession upon which I might rely.
The cut of the prologue is the largest single change in the text, and there is no equivalent change in the story itself. Marakoff, whose name is taken down as Markham by his rescuers, is given an introduction to P. A. L. Tangerman, who is launching the Cudahy Dome, a contraption intended to cure baldness by applying a vacuum to the scalp, as his first great venture. Tangerman spins off dozens of other enterprises and eventually moves to Chicago with Markham in tow. He continues to surf from one deal to another, relying in most cases more on momentum and hype than real capital, until one of his many paramours shoots him dead. Markham returns to Washington State and settles down happily ever after with Madeleine, Tangerman’s first wife, whom Markham has loved from afar for years.
In fact, it would probably be more accurate to describe Red Horses as an edit of P.A.L than a rewrite. Riesenberg did make other structural alterations beside dropping the prologue, but these consist only of changes in how the text is broken up. What are called “Parts” in P.A.L become “Books” in Red Horses, and instead of “Chapters,” Riesenberg divides these into numbered sections, using nearly twice as many in Books Two and Three–the Chicago books.
Aside from these changes, which make little difference in the reading experience, what is most noticeable between P.A.L and Red Horses is what is missing. As the following excerpts demonstrate, the primary skill Riesenberg developed between the two versions is the use of his blue pencil.
P. A. L.
Now began an adventure that defied analysis. I could neither pull it apart, nor could I find the materials out of which it might be logically built. It was an existence, a state of being, or a condition. But the effect upon me was one of bewilderment. My past life had always known its departments or classes. One was an officer, an aristocrat, or one was not. Throughout, this simple relationship had held. Always the patrician and the plebeian. We had a convenient set of bins into which one might throw the facts of life, and forget them.
But, of a sudden, I became engulfed in the democracy of America, without doubt the greatest and most amazing state men have yet achieved. In England I had known the old order modified, the aristocracy backing down, hanging on to their caste while slowly dropping their cash and unearned privileges; but here I found people in a continuous waltz, taking on importance and losing it with remarkable swiftness and facility. The greatest in the land were those most skilled in the art of extracting money from their fellows.
Of a sudden, I became engulfed in the democracy of America, without doubt the greatest and most amazing state men have yet achieved. In England I had seen the old order modified, the aristocracy backing down, hanging to their caste while slowly dropping their cash and unearned privileges; but here I found people in a continuous waltz, taking on importance and losing it with remarkable swiftness. The greatest were those most skilled in extracting money from their fellows.
In the light of retrospection, in cold letters, the adventure that follows comes to me like a nightmare, remembered in the dawn. In a land where the Keeley Motor was given to science, where Turtle Serum was welcomed by an enthusiastic multitude of doctors, where the Cardiff Giant once astonished paleontologists, where Ponzi bewildered financiers, and where Dr. Cook split the millions into contending camps, resting his claims upon the broad back of the King of Denmark, in such a land almost anything may happen, and almost anything may be absolutely true. It is a grand land, a mighty land, and in the very middle of it lies the teeming city of Chicago, the heart and lungs and life of it, free, thank Heaven, from pernicious, outside, foreign interference.
In a land where the Keeley Motor was given to science, where Turtle Serum was welcomed by an enthusiastic multitude of doctors, where the Cardiff Giant once astonished paleontologists, where Ponzi bewildered financiers, and where Dr. Cook split the millions into contending camps, resting his claims upon the broad back of the King of Denmark, in such a land almost anything may happen, and almost anything may be absolutely true. And in the very middle of it lies the teeming city of Chicago.
My state of mind in the summer days that followed the death of Tangerman was that of some nascent atom, forcibly released from a powerful combination in which it had long played a dependent part. The city went on just the same, much to my surprise, for it seemed at times that everything should stop, as my own life had stopped amid the jumble of Pal’s affairs.
On the morning of his burial, arranged in its details by the fimeral directors, a great many people met at the church where services were held. Small wreaths were placed on his coffin by humble mourners who walked back and sat through the service. A eulogy was rendered by a solemn speaker who had never laid eyes on Pal in his life. He spoke in hollow monotone, stringing platitudes for a fee-—a paraphrast mumbling behind the awful shadow of death. I positively marveled at the audacity of the man. Better, by far, to have honored Pal by an interval of the human quiet he had never known.
On the morning of Pal’s burial, arranged in its details by the funeral directors, a great many people met at the church where services were held. Small wreaths were placed on his coffin by humble mourners who walked back and sat through the service. A eulogy was rendered by a solemn speaker who had never laid eyes on Pal in his life. He spoke in hollow monotone, stringing platitudes for a fee—-a paraphrast mumbling behind the awful shadow of death. Better, by far, to have honored Pal by an interval of the human quiet he had never known.
In the end, Riesenberg very likely got more amusement than critical or financial reward out of rewriting P.A.L as Red Horses. P.A.L garnered a handful of reviews; Red Horses even fewer. Neither was ever reprinted. Perhaps thanks to my earlier piece, there appear to be exactly as many copies of P.A.L for sale as Red Horses: two. Aside from a couple of surveys of fiction set in Chicago, neither has been remembered in print anywhere outside this site since Riesenberg’s death. I suspect Riesenberg’s work might have fared between if he’d lived in Nebraska or Georgia or Texas, where he might at least have earned some recognition as a regional novelist. Although I wouldn’t claim masterpiece status for either version of Tangerman’s tale, I do think it deserves an honorable mention in the history of American literature and I suspect some industrious graduate student could provide an interesting textual analysis of the two books. Until then, however, we’ll keep a candle burning here in Riesenberg’s memory.
Red Horses, by Felix Riesenberg
New York: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1928
Greave earned a place in the home while hiding away in a room in a decrepit boarding house in Calcutta, an experience he describes in The Seventh Gate. An unexpected windfall from his father allowed him to book a passage to England on a merchant freighter. For Greave, leaving India and gaining a hope of proper treatment was his first miracle. The second, he hoped, would be for him to walk out of the clinic cured, a healthy man.
The book opens with his long ride in the back of a cab from a Liverpool dockside to the home. His nerves worn raw from eight years of painful and lonely existence in India, he finds himself contemplating suicide even as the cab nears his destination:
I was in a state not far removed from insanity; it would not have been correct to describe me as a youngish [he was 38 when he arrived at the hospital in 1947] man who was sick. I was sick, but I was more than that; I was a perambulating mass of fear. Because of my fate I felt that I had lost the status of human being, that I stood outside the bounds of human pity; and the fear of something unimaginably horrible happening to me, once my condition was known, had become part of my mental make-up. And yet in a way this fear was my own choice; I had deliberately accepted it as the price of freedom. For eight years I had clung to the outskirts of life; crouching in my corner I had feasted my eyes on its radiance and gaiety; and though it had meant hiding like a criminal I had managed to retain my identity.
I dreaded beyond words the possibility of being shut away, of becoming a number in a hospital ward, of forfeiting even the nominal rights of a human being. To be shut up was a death sentence, and yet it was worse than that; it was a sentence of life without any of the ingredients that make life bearable.
It takes Greave some weeks to adapt to his new circumstances and begin to feel safe. The physical comforts–a room of his own, a comfortable chair to sit in, a soft bed to sleep in, windows from which to look out to the surrounding fields, three warm, nourishing meals a day–break down his resistance first. Then the genuine concern of the sisters and physicians for his care, and the companionship of his fellow patients helped him lose his sense of isolation. And after suffering years of painful and pointless injections into his scars, his disease began to respond to treatments with the new drug, dapsone.
The most difficult part of his recovery, though, is spiritual. In the time that he hid away from the world in his room in Calcutta, Greave had come to see his disease as a mark of “the guilt of a thousand generations of twisted minds, and of bodies thirsting for decay.” At the home, among other sufferers, he felt a release–“one of the the main ingredients in that shining peace I had prized so much.” With the successful treatment of his leprosy, “… all this was to be taken from me. I was to be flung back into the world of ordinary men, my body healed but bearing the taint of my guilt-haunted mind.” “I stood like a diver on a high springboard,” he writes, “looking down into the dark, greedy waters into which I soon must plunge, and knew that I was terrified.”
In the end, it is the Sisters who guide him to the cure for his soul as well as his disease. In a moving closing scene, in which he watches three of the novices he’s come to know take their voes and prepare themselves to leave on their missions to Africa, he finds a way to let go of his fears and entrust his fate to God.
The dust jacket copy sets up The Second Miracle as a story of Christian redemption, but there are few direct religious references or scenes in the book. What there are, instead, are many passages of beautifully written, closely observed, and sympathetic prose. This is some of the best writing I’ve come across, and I will be excerpting a least a couple of passages in succeeding posts. Here is a short one, recalling the last days of one of the elderly patients:
But although the gap left by that massive, bent figure with the wheezing chuckle and shoulders draped in a faded green shawl was a real one, it was surprising how quickly he seemed to slip out of the general mind. For a day or two there were comments on his absence and inquiries as to his progress, and then he appeared to be lost sight of in the space of gossip and small personal spites and ambitions. It struck me as extraordinary that a man could so rapidly drop out of the circle and be forgotten by the rest, vanish and be as though he had never existed; but it struck me that perhaps this apparent callousness was due not so much to heartlessness as to an unconscious instinct for self-preservation. It was necessary for us to forget, to put out of our minds and utterly discard, anything that could remind us of the tenuous uncertainty of our hold on life. We all knew, though probably we scarcely admitted the thought even to ourselves, that we were little more than a hair’s breadth away from a similar defeat, and consequently we focused all our powers upon the struggle for survival, without a backward glance for those who were unable to keep their foothold upon the uneasy tightrope of existence.
While staying at the home, Greave began to write and publish for the first time, and for this we all owe the sisters a debt of gratitude. After leaving the home, he married and was able to make a living as a writer. He published articles in various magazines, wrote The Second Miracle and several novels–all out of print–and a further memoir, The Seventh Gate, in 1976. He died in 1977 at the age of 68.
The Second Miracle, by Peter Greave
New York: Henry Holt, 1955
I stumbled onto the works of Helen Bevington about two months ago and was immediately captivated by the charm and intelligence of her writing. It was a honor and pleasure to feature three of her books over the last few weeks. I wasn’t prepared, however, for the power of Charley Smith’s Girl. Subtitled “A Memoir,” it’s much more than that–it’s a profoundly moving attempt by a child to understand her parents and a book full of such deep sadness that it brought tears to my eyes near the end–something I don’t think has happened to me since Charlotte’s Web.
Helen Smith was born in 1906 in her grandfather’s parsonage. Her parents were living there because a few months earlier, her father Charley had been forced out of his own Methodist parsonage after his affair with a married woman in his congregation became public. Helen’s mother, Lizzie, had lied to defend her husband, but she refused to do it a second time when he was caught in another adulterous relationship, in another congregation, when Helen was about two years old. Lizzie insisted on getting a divorce–a rare and shocking act at the time–and Charley was sent packing.
Although the lot of a single mother was a tough one in 1908, Lizzie Smith managed to provide a home for herself and Helen by teaching music and piano. There was no day-care in those days, aside from the kindness of a few neighbors, and Helen learned to keep herself amused as she trailed along with Lizzie to lessons or, after a few years, to stay quietly in their house by herself.
Despite the scandal of the divorce, Lizzie Smith earned the respect of her community in Worcester, New York, through her unbending reserve and propriety. She maintained a rigid air of personal dignity and refused to convey vulnerability to anyone–including her daughter:
My mother chose to deal with the matter in her own brisk disciplinary way. She often boasted afterwards how well she succeeded, how she calmed my terrors and made me unafraid–as she herself has been fearless all her life–by taking me in hand before it was too late. Her method was spartan. To teach me courage she sent me night after night into the dark: on an errand to the black cellar for jelly, to the unlighted parlor for a book, across the deep-shadowed road to the Prestons’ with a message. Sometimes she slipped out of the house without a word, leaving me alone with the one kerosene lamp lit, and I would lean against the door and wair sobbing, shaken with fear, till she returned. The only flaw in her method was that it never worked. I kept on being afraid, and I am afraid still.
This grim regime was multiplied in its severity when, after a few years, Lizzie decided to move to Hornell, New York, and live with two dowager relatives, Aunt Net and Aunt Lydia. Like Lizzie, they were strong-minded women “of the same blood and temperament as my mother,” but “stronger-willed and even more durable than she.” Together, Net, Lydia and Lizzie provided for Helen’s material needs–food, clothing, shelter, and the security of a home. “Yet, as I know now what was lacking in that composed and stoical household,” Bevington writes, “I know the single omission was too great. The old ladies withheld the one needful thing–love.”
Although a position as a choir mistress in a Methodist church had drawn Lizzie to Hornell, her stubborness soon brought her into conflict with her choir members and the church leadership, and she was fired after less than a year. She enrolled in a few courses in the local business school and soon found work as a clerk for the Erie Railroad. She stayed there for thirty-five years until she was retired at the age of seventy-six. “The work was dull, from monotonous to deadly.” Yet she stuck with it. “It was,” Helen writes, “the unhappy solution to her life.”
Lizzie Smith died of cancer while Helen was writing this book. Helen “stopped short in the middle of a page” and returned to Hornell to care for her mother, who passed little more than a month later. Lizzie never gave in to the disease but fought for life until the very end. The nurses at the hospital told Helen that she resembled her mother, but she disagrees. “I am not a fighter like her, not unafraid, not able or willing to live without love. She kept her solitude–a lifetime of solitary days and lonely nights. She was somehow completely alone.” “And now,” she realizes, “I am the only person alive who remembers her story and mine….”
As is the case in many marriages, successful and unsuccessful, Lizzie Smith’s husband, Charley, was her polar opposite. A boisterous man with a fine baritone voice he delighted in exercising at full volume, he was the life of many a party–which inevitably ran counter to his responsibilities as a minister. After the divorce, he left the church for good and switched to a more compatible line of work as a traveling salesman.
Unfortunately, he was still too much of a ladies’ man and was soon spending more time flirting with a pretty secretary in his company’s Chicago office than out on the road selling. A couple of years after the divorce, the secretary, Addie, turned up on Lizzie’s doorstep to say that she and Charley were getting married.
Charley lost his job but he and Addie were able to move into an apartment over her father’s Czech grocery store. One summer, Helen spent a few weeks there with them. Addie continued to work as a secretary and helped out in the store every evening, while Charley … well, Charley continued to enjoy life. One Saturday night the three of them venture out to a lively party of Czech immigrants, but only Helen and Addie return home. “I learned that summer,” she writes, “when I was eight, how you can tell when someone beside you in bed is weeping in the dark. Addie breathed unevenly, holding her breath and letting it out a little at a time, in quick uneven gasps that made almost no sound.”
Charley’s turbulent spirit and Helen’s independence brought the two into inevitable conflict. He disapproves of her choice to attend the University of Chicago, her choice to study English, her choice of friends and living arrangements, and they finally part ways with angry words.
Twenty-two years later, Helen receives a call from Boyce, her half-brother, the son Charley had with Addie. Despite his wandering ways, over the years Charley grew more and more dependent upon Addie, and when she died, he suffered an unbearable despair. “Finally,” Boyce tells her, “he just stayed in the house–he lived with Marian and me, you know–sat all day in the apartment staring into space, twisting his ring around his finger and clenching it into his fist. One morning he didn’t get out of bed. He turned his face to the wall, never spoke, never got up again–”
“I see, much too late,” Helen writes, “that I lacked the one quality most needed for this simple tale–compassion. Any child can feel resentment, and any child can find a reason to rebel. It was compassion I took so desparately long to learn….”
The compassion Helen Bevington reveals in every line of Charley Smith’s Girl lifts this book from the level of a simple, open-eyed memoir to a masterpiece, a transformative meditation on the lessons a child can learn from her parent: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair,” she writes in the final lines of the book. “Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.” As readers of A Book and A Love Affair, House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, and her journals will discover, throughout her adult life, Helen Bevington pursued that third way.
Charley Smith’s Girl: A Memoir, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1965
House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, published in 1971, was Helen’s third volume of memoirs, covering the period from 1942 to 1956. It picks up where the preceding book, A Book and a Love Affair, ended: with the arrival of the Bevingtons at Duke University, where Helen’s husband Merle was joining the English faculty.
Helen, too, was soon recruited into teaching, and she was to remain with the department for over thirty years. Part of House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm–and one of the more interesting parts it is–relates her experiences in teaching poetry to several generations of undergraduates. She quickly realized that “The great and abiding danger, without doubt, lay in talking too much.” More than a few teachers never learn that lesson.
Among her first students were former servicemen enjoying the benefits of the G. I. Bill, and she had mixed success in getting these veterans to appreciate Wordsworth and Cummings. Of one in particular, she admits she fell short: “I wanted to make sense, teach without hypocrisy or rectitude. But what did I in this cloistered world insulated from war know of Iwo Jima?”
She also witnessed how quickly poetry underwent a transformation from which it has yet to fully recover:
In past centuries, from Chaucer to Thomas Hardy, the poet seldom would be caught teaching. I suppose it didn’t occur to him as his vocation, or that he had words to spare or anything pedantic to say. Now his audience consisted of a row of college students plus a few loyal professors. Like most poets on the lecture platform (Auden, Lowell, Wilbur, Eberhart, Jarrell, Roethke, Shapiro, Dickey), he was pretty sure to be a professor himself, or a librarian like Philip Larkin, a frightening state of affairs. Poetry was being written by teachers and taught by poets. It had become, of all things, academic.
She herself struggled and had, perhaps, greater success in managing to be a poet herself. She published three collections–Doctor Johnson’s Waterfall and Other Poems (1946); Nineteen Million Elephants (1950); and A Change of Sky, and other poems (1956)–during this period, and saw dozens of her verses published in The New Yorker. She decided to follow a middle path between “the Mrs. Roosevelt complex–the urge to rush out and mill around twenty-four hours by the clock fulfilling oneself in the marketplace” and that of one of her favorite writers, Montaigne, retired to his tower. “My solution,” she writes, “was to live three lives: the domestic, the professional, and in an (insubstantial) tower the private.
Now after a quarter of a century, fully aware of the vanity and overweening of tripling oneself in a multiple choice of existence, I can highly recommend it to anybody who wants it. The only rule is to remember it won’t work, not with scandalous serenity. Each separate life constantly demands its rights in the matter. Each self cries out, “Pity me.”
This passage demonstrates one of the things I love about Helen Bevington’s perspective: her wonderful balance of romantic idealism and working-mother practicality. She would never have accepted the pablum advice to “Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow.” As she tells in Charley Smith’s Girl, her account of growing up the child of divorce in a time when such things were not spoken of, she had early on come to see how hard such simple things as a roof over the head and food on the table can be to come by and never took them for granted–at least not after she had children of her own. You can have it all, she might say–but not with “scandalous serenity.”
House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm is an account of her middle age. During this time, her sons went off to college, married, and starting teaching careers of their own. She and her husband (still known just as B.) had the chance to travel and enjoy each other’s company. She taught and wrote and enjoyed friendships. And she went through a soul-shaking crisis after a malignant lump is removed from under her shoulder and her doctor advises further surgery. Fearing a bleak end of pain and invalidism, she considers taking her own life.
Books, however, ultimately come to her rescue: “For bolstering the hours I read books as sustainers: Montaigne, who said we are all novices at this business of death. ‘My art and my profession is to live.’ They were curative words, written unfortunately by a dead man.” And, sharing the inspiration for the book’s title, she read “Wallace Stevens, who had died six months before”:
The house was quiet because it had to be.
The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.
And the world was calm.
The house and the world were the same thing. And they were not quiet after all, and they were not really calm. It was only that they had to be.
I’m grateful for Helen Bevington’s decision, as she stuck around for another forty-some years, during which she gave us this and her other memoirs and journals, all of which display her remarkable insight, wit and wisdom.
The House was Quiet and the World was Calm, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971
One rarely comes across a book that has both guts and charm, but this one has: When Found, Make a Verse of. The people who discovered it then loved it, and those who never saw it missed a lot. Its dust jacket, vermillion red with a black spine, simple white lettering at the very top, and in the upper corner a small medallion, is seductive to the eye, enticing to further exploration. Once open, each piece in the book is short enough to lead quickly to the next piece without strain, and the contents are varied and jolly enough, or dramatic enough, to keep you reading on–and then one–turning pages and still reading when you ought to put out the light and go to sleep.
The critic Gilbert Highet described When Found, Make a Verse of as “the commonplace book of a poet,” but that’s a little misleading. Most commonplace books are collections of excerpts and passages from various sources, and while there are plenty of excerpts here, they’re generally brief and serve mainly to inspire an observation or poem–and sometimes both. I think Hughes provided a better synopsis: “It is rather a collection of the liveliest and oddest and most exciting chosen items from memory and memoirs that you can possible imagine, and about them Helen Bevington sometimes makes verses.”
A verse is a verse. Mine were only a kind of notation. The habit of notetaking, an old and private one with me, went back to college days at the University of Chicago when, like Hudibras, I learned to take note, “Transcribe, collect, translate and quote.” I began copying down powerful and enlightened words whenever I found them, calling the first notebook “Chiefly about Life.” It was the beginning of my education.
“When found, make a note of,” said Captain Cuttle in Dombey and Son. “Overhaul the wollume, and there find it. . . . When found, turn the leaf down.”
… Writing a verse meant taking a note and shaping it a little for safekeeping. If the verse turned out ill, the quotation it sprang from was too good to leave around gathering dust. I felt obliged to rescue personally from oblivion such immortal words, to act as it were their advocate–for example, Aunt Mary Emerson’s imperious command: “Be still, I want to hear the men talk.” Or Thoreau saying, “Do what you love. Pursue your life.” Or, Fontenelle: “Quelque fois j’ai dit ha ha.” Or Cummings:
Humanity i love you because you
are perpetually putting the secret of
life in your pants and forgetting
it’s there and sitting down
Bevington’s verse is, with few exceptions, light verse. She quotes another master, Morris Bishop, who defined three principles for light verse: “strictness of form, incongruity, and logic.” That suggests a product whose lightness belies the effort involved in its creation, and a number of times in her memoirs Bevington refers to rewriting a piece a hundred times or more.
A clue to this perspective can be found in a wonderful story about the artist Clare Leighton:
One afternoon while she was living in Durham we talked of her woodcuts, and she brought out her recent work, spreading it widely over the floor of her living room. It was but a single woodcut, in many versions, of an old Carolina woman in a rocking chair. Clare arranged these prints in progression, dozens of them, all so nearly alike that no one but her could have guessed the proper order. Yet between the first and the last was a beautiful and telling difference. With each revision, she had changed perhaps a single line in the wooden block, seeking always the right tone and texture. Thus the impressions of light and shade became more delicate, the old woman gained slowly in character. That, I realized, was the way to create: to seek clarity over and over and over again.
You can see an example of Bevington’s own search for clarity in the following two passages. The first appears in A Book and a Love Affair, just after the above excerpt on note-taking:
… Yeats said, “People do not invent. They remember.” And as everyone knows, memory deceives. Yet without the power of invention or the imagination of a poet, I would not fabricate or invent: I would remember. I would be a note-taker and remember the notes. Moreover I would remember only what I wanted to, without sadness in it, and not be a preserver of grief. Who would want a memory without a compartment for forgetting?
I say that I believe Yeats was right about it when he said, “People do not invent. They remember.” Ideas, light as goose feathers, are everywhere, requiring only good eyesight and good hearing to detect them. The only difficulty is that one is, most of the time, forgetful or asleep. What I wish for most, I think, is a talent for experience and a long memory. I grieve for the light and shining events that all my life I must have overlooked and forgotten.
If Bevington had worked a hundred more variations upon this theme, I would happily read them.
I can’t close this piece without quoting at least one of Bevington’s verses, a lovely bit of form, incongruity and logic:
What John Skelton said
Maybe John Skelton knew,
And the devil is dead.–Is dead?
Maybe Max Beerbohm knew
What happiness? when he said
That it’s a four-post bed
In a field of poppies and
Mandragora. Some do
Give the answers, as if they knew
Much virtue in as if.
Such a delicious and wise punch line.
Just as Langston Hughes pulled me into this book, I’ll let him offer those who still need it one last tug of the shirtsleeve: “It is a going-back-to-book to open almost anywhere for sheer pleasure and read something over again–vivid vignettes and sparkling comments in clean clear type with air between the lines on very good paper–a pleasure to both mind and eye, yes. Really a lovable book.”
When Found, Make a Verse of, by Helen Bevington
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961
I’ve been working on this site for almost seven years and following neglected books for nearly thirty years before that, and still I manage to miss marvelous things that seem to be sitting right in plain sight. Take the works of Helen Bevington. Searching for information on someone else, I came across a review of her 1961 book, When Found, Make a Verse of, by Langston Hughes. I’ll quote at greater length from the piece when I feature When Found in a few weeks, but the opening line sold me instantly: “One rarely comes across a book that has both guts and charm, but this one has.”
Who was Helen Bevington, I wondered? The Internet produced immediate answers, of course: that she was an “American poet, prose author, and educator” (Wikipedia); that “Her memoir Charley Smith’s Girl was banned by the library in Worcester, N.Y., where she grew up” (NY Times obit); and that “She was one of the great teachers. Her course in 20th century poetry was … a tremendously influential course in my own development,” according to the novelist Reynolds Price (Duke Today).
I also learned that she wrote a series of autobiographical books, starting with Charley Smith’s Girl, in addition to several collections of her own verse. A Book & A Love Affair, published in 1968, is the second in chronological order but the first one to arrive in the mail, so it’s the first–but not the last–to be mentioned here.
And in some ways, it may deserve first mention, anyway. “I sat down in the seat beside him one morning in Professor Hunter Wright’s class in Romanticism. And that was how my life began,” opens A Book & A Love Affair. He is Merle Bevington, a fellow graduate student in English at Columbia University, referred to throughout the book as “B.” Although B. had shown no interest in Helen until that moment, she had been eyeing him since the start of the semester, waiting for her opportunity.
She clearly knew what she was looking for. They move seamlessly from class to the streets to the 125th Street ferry, on which they spend the night, going back and forth to Fort Lee, New Jersey and talking endlessly. Within days, they marry–despite the fact that Helen first turns him down because she had made up her mind permanently against marriage (with some reason, as we learn in Charley Smith’s Girl).
A Book & A Love Affair covers the first sixteen years of their marriage, until they moved to Duke University in North Carolina, where B. and later, Helen, became members of the faculty. (B. taught until his death in 1964; Helen until her retirement in 1976). It isn’t a particularly memorable autobiography in terms of events–they traveled around the world in third class in 1929; they had two sons; they managed to get through the Depression with a variety of teaching and secretarial jobs; they lived in a series of apartments in Manhattan and the Bronx.
What makes the book–and, I suspect, all of its successors–enjoyable is the pleasure of Bevington’s company. She and B. are tremendous readers, rarely without a book in hand or a quote for the occasion, but they’re not snobs. Helen can fetch up a line from Donne or Keats, but she’ll also reprint a note passed between her boys as they sit around the dinner table:
I do not think that bilding houses is worth it. Becase when you bild mother always comes and busts it down.
If you think its wroth it answer.
Sincerely yours Philip.
She earns her graduate degree from Columbia and does research on the subject of sentimental novels of 18th century England, but she’s also a working mom whose experiences–though seventy-some years old now–will ring true for today’s parents:
Under the heading of light entertainment I led my children forth to be diverted by fear, managing very early to harrow up their souls. David would ask, hopeful as we set out on one of these excursions, “Will it be funny?,” but we seldom had such luck. In March, 1938, we attended in their innocence and mind the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and for a while David laughed himself sick at the antics of the Walt Disney clowns. Pip echoed him. Then along came the witch. As always happens, along came the witch.
She threw David into a panic. Tense and frowning, he began to squirm, covering his eyes, peering out in the dark to see if she was still there. Next he crawled hastily from his seat and crouched on the floor, making no sound but shuddering all over like a whipped animal. I felt like a dog. Philip turned to his father, fortunately on hand to protect us, and grabbing his arm quavered, “You said it was a movie, didn’t you, Dad?”
After that we rested on our oars until The Wizard of Oz came along and scared the pants off them.
And although Helen and B. remain somewhat protected from the hazards of the time–they always had a paycheck when one was needed and a roof over their heads–she eloquently conveys the sense they had that terror was never too far from their door:
He wrote every night till the eleven o’clock news, then we listened to the radio and Edward R. Murrow saying, ‘This is London’–or, as holding my breath I waited to hear, ‘This is London no more.’ Each night we learned the new words: Luftwaffe, Messerschmitt, Stuka, dive bomber, balloon barrage, flak, incendiaries, Spitfires, antiaircraft guns. And the old words: burning, burning, burning.
Although the Bevingtons leave the noise and crowds of New York City for the relative calm of Durham in August 1942, the book ends on a hesitant note. Writing in the late 1960s, Helen was still living in a world where nuclear warfare lurked in the wings as a threat, and you can tell that she struggled to maintain a sense of hope that sanity would prevail: “The idea of a book against the dark is no doubt absurd …. Still, a word’s eye view is not to my mind such a bad idea. To me there is in fact only the one view, whether of life or death. It is simple and eternally the same–a book and a love affair, that is all one needs.”
The next in the sequence of Helen Bevington’s autobiographical books, published in 1971, has what I think may be my favorite title of all time: House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm. I look forward to sharing it.
A Book and A Love Affair, by Helen Bevington
New York City: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
One of the drawbacks to running this website is that I rarely read books that are still in print. Browsing in new book stores is always frustrating. I find things I’d love to read, but then struggle to justify the time that would take away from reading books I should cover on this site.
Last week, however, I couldn’t resist buying a new book. We were at the Istanbul airport waiting for our flight back to Brussels and my wife and I were killing time browsing in the D&R store in the international terminal. There was a small section of English translations of Turkish literature, and in it, a copy of Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country, published by Persea Books in 2009. I thumbed through it and saw that it was a long poem (Hikmet’s subtitle is “An Epic Novel in Verse”), which would usually constitute strike two for me. I have to confess that I do not read as much poetry as I should.
But I soon found myself five pages into the book, almost inhaling the text like air. Although writing (mostly) in blank verse, Hikmet’s style is transparent and effortless to read. Unlike the only other verse novel I’ve read (Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, which I did enjoy and do admire greatly), Human Landscapes from My Country could be published as prose with little effect on the meaning–though certainly not the form–of the text. I decided to buy it, and read over 150 pages in the course of our flight back. I went on to devour its over-450 pages in the course of a few days.
The poem opens on the steps of the Haydarpa?a train station, one of the landmarks of the shoreline of the Asian side of Istanbul, in the spring of 1941. Hikmet takes us into the thoughts of Master Galip, an unemployed man in his fifties: “When will I die?/Will I have a bed to die in?” Then Hikmet’s focus shifts to a homeless boy, then to a middle-aged woman originally from the Caucasus, then to Corporal Ahmet, a veteran of the wars (Balkan, Great and Greek). In these first few pages, we are introduced to a cross-section of Turkish society, including Halil, a political prisoner who serves as something of a fictional persona for Hikmet. Some of them are about to depart on the 3:45 PM train for Ankara and points east. Others will travel in style on the Anatolia Express. Through the rest of Book One of the novel, we will follow the 3:45–the cheap, slow train–and its passengers. Then, in Book Two, we ride with the businessmen, fonctionaires and bourgeoisie on the Express, a modern and comfortable sleeper.
Book Three is set in an Anatolian prison and a hospital where Halil is taken to treat his growing blindness. Again, we meet a variety of characters representing different aspects of Turkish society. Hikmet’s vision is broad and all-embracing, as he deal with peasants still firmly rooted in feudal and tribal ways, intellectuals at various points along the political spectrum, government spies, crooks, and women (who are almost universally viewed as property, work animals, or sex objects). He shows an intimate understanding of the effect of imprisonment on both the prisoners and their loved ones:
A woman whose husband’s in prison always looks
in the mirror, always.
More than other women,
she fears getting old.
She wants the man she loves to like her still when he gets out,
if it’s thirty years later.
The centerpiece of Book Four is a series of dealings in grain sales in which the old ways come into conflict with the rigid, control-oriented mindset of the government and lead to a riot. And in Book Five, Hikmet places Turkey into the context of the world war going on all around it. This section contains the weakest part of the novel, a passage depicting the heroic defense of Moscow in December 1941 by a small band of Russian soldiers. It’s the sort of hackneyed drivel that belonged in some piece of Soviet propaganda and is completely out of place in this book. But maybe it helped Hikmet earn a roof over his head later on.
It’s a brief lapse, in any case, and the novel closes with a moving sequence in which Hikmet takes us to a small town along the Mediterranean coast and introduces us to a few characters killing time in a seaside cafe. They then watch as two boatloads of Greek men, women and children, trying to escape from German occupation, slowly come into the harbor. The Turks take up a collection to buy them food, but soon the police come along and force the boats to cast off, ignoring the Greek’s uncertain fate. Turkey managed to stay out of the fighting in World War Two, but, as Hikmet shows, it came at the cost of constant moral compromises. In that way, Human Landscapes from My Country reminds me of the first book I read in 2012, Maxence van der Meersch’s Invasion.
Hikmet’s technique of rapid cuts works well in creating a collage of “human landscapes.” Here, for example, is part of the cross-section he builds from one moment during the night of September 3rd, 1941:
rose from the table
The others stood up, too.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to bed–
please don’t get up.”
Tahsin (the doctor-Representative)
“Intelligence goes to sleep this early?”
Monsieur Duval talked with Jazibe Hanum:
“I like your peasants–
they’re patient and don’t make demands.
Your merchants aren’t bad, either,
and your government men are harmless.
Above all, you need to develop your agriculture.
And you need to get rid of statism . . .”
Emin Ulvi Achikalin, the Izmir merchant, sat with his head full of figures
for about a hundred thousand in currants, raisins, and figs.
Kasim Ahmedoff belched
and the lips of the girl sweet as a mandarin orange
On the Anatolia Express
two women sat talking in a second-class section
They were fifty,
and both showed
their fifty years.
Nimet Hanum sat in the same section.
A young woman,
she works at a ministry.
She isn’t beautiful,
but she has something else–
a certain warmth.
Hikmet, who is considered by many to be the greatest Turkish poet of the 20th century, wrote Human Landscapes while serving a sentence of twenty-eight years in a prison near Bursa. He had been convicted by the ?nönü government for being a member of the Turkish Communist Party, which has been banned since the early 1920s. Hikmet’s sentence was cut short in 1950 after he staged a hunger strike that gained national attention and led to organized protests. He was forced into exile soon after and spent most of the rest of his life in the Soviet Union. The book was banned in Turkey for many years.
Human Landscapes was translated into English by Randy Blasing, a poet himself, and his Turkish wife, Mutlu Konuk. A shorter version was published–also by Persea Books–in 1983. I can’t speak for the faithfulness of the translation, although a Turkish colleague of mine confirmed that she went through the book like lightning when she first read it. And I certainly feel no need to justify the time I took away from my stack of out-of-print books to read Human Landscapes from My Country. It’s a terrific book that will, I hope, forever remain in print as a classic piece of 20th century literature.
Human Landscapes from My Country, by Nazim Hikmet, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, with a foreword by Edward Hirsch
New York City: Persea Books, 2009
I’ve stocked my nightstand with a selection of books by Felix Riesenberg, whose first novel, P. A. L., I wrote about several months ago. Riesenberg was a professional merchant seaman and civil engineer who took up writing somewhere in his thirties and went on to publish about a half dozen novels and an equal number of non-fiction books before his death in 1939. One might compare him to Joseph Conrad, who also switched from sea captain to writer, but Riesenberg is certainly not in Conrad’s class when it comes to fiction.
Still, I’m intrigued by what drove Riesenberg to make such a dramatic shift in occupations in middle age, and particularly by the fact that, as P. A. L. demonstrates, he took considerable risks in his choice of subjects and approach. Although the majority of his books deal with life and work at sea, none of them seems to follow a predictable path. Riesenberg have not have had the mastery to be fully successful in his artistic ambitions, but he certainly didn’t lack the courage to take risks.
As Riesenberg’s 1937 autobiography, Living Again: An Autobiography, shows, risk taking was ingrained in his character. While still a teenager, he signed into merchant marine service, sailing around Cape Horn in a six-master and working his way up through the ranks, attaining his chief mate license and, later, his chief engineer and master licenses.
Riesenberg served on a wide variety of ships, from schooners to freighters to first-class Atlantic liners. His travels took him from the Far East to the Mediterranean and all over the Atlantic. But even these experiences weren’t enough for him, and in 1905, at the age of 26, he read an article about an expedition being organized by an American journalist, Walter Wellman, to reach the North Pole by dirigible. “The scheme was crazy enough to seem workable,” Riesenberg writes. He paid a call on Wellman, who happened to be in Chicago at the same time as Riesenberg was taking leave at home, and a few days later, received a telegram telling him to report to Tromso, Norway to join the expedition as its navigator.
The expedition’s equipment loaded down four schooners, which sailed to Dane’s Island, near Spitsbergen. A base camp was built, including a massive hangar for the dirigible, but things fell behind schedule, the airship’s engines failed spectacularly when tested, and Riesenberg and two other men were left to spend the winter alone while the rest of the team returned to Norway. The next summer, the dirigible was finally completed and Wellman, Riesenberg and another man set off for the North Pole.
Within a few hours, though, they encountered powerful head winds and soon had to make an emergency landing on a glacier. A rescue party located them the next day. Riesenberg departed not long after they made it back to the base camp. “I returned, not a hero, not a bit the wiser–for it took years of contemplation before I was able to even bear the thought of setting down the circumstances of my disappointment.”
Back in New York, he enrolled in the civil engineering program at Columbia University after an uncle offered to help with tuition. He married soon after graduating, and the adventurer soon found himself scraping to stay afloat: “After marriage, things happened to me. I tried to save but could not manage it. Unexpected jobs, royalties and windfalls came to me often in the final minutes before the crack of disaster.” He worked on the construction of massive pipelines bringing water to the city. He worked for the Parks department until kicked out of the job with a change of administrations. He worked as a building inspector, which proved one of his more educational jobs:
Violations, reported by neighbors, policemen, and what not, consisted of fire escapes that were rusting apart, of fire doors unhinged and inoperative, or air shafts too small, of drains leaking, of the many things that can be wrong with any ramshackle structure. The job took me into places nothing else could have opened; no novelist could find a better entree to the steaming and often stinking heart of the bloated, untidy, but exciting city.
Then, in 1917, the sea called him again, and he was asked to take command of the U. S. S. Newport, the floating campus of the New York Nautical School. Riesenberg was both ship captain and college dean. He reveled in the glories of the ship, a sparkling white three-master, one of the last sailing ships built for the U. S. Navy. While the war was going on, the ship was confined to Long Island Sound, but after the Armistice, he was able to take it on a long cruise down to the Caribbean.
Riesenberg left the command in 1919, but returned four years later for another cruise. This time, he took the students on a voyage of thousands of miles, all the way from England to the Canary Islands and the Bahamas. Along the way, they encountered a massive storm that nearly capsized the ship. You can read an account of the cruise by one of the students, A. A. Bombe, online at http://www.sunymaritime.edu/stephenblucelibrary/pdfs/1923%20cruise%20uss%20newport.pdf.
In between and after, he kept moving from job to job–a year as chief engineer for the construction of the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital; somewhat longer editing the Bulletin of the American Bureau of Shipping; and, increasingly, stories and articles for the likes of The Saturday Evening Post. Riesenberg spares little space for his own writing. One novel he dismisses in a sentence as “a rotal flop, a complete and thorough failure.” His 1927 novel, East Side, West Side, though, was a hit and made into a film, one of the last big-budget silents, which earned him a time in Hollywood as a studio writer.
“Felix, why don’t you write a book about your life?” one of his editors asked him in 1935. So Riesenberg packed up his journals and diaries and headed to a small house on the beach near Pensacola. “After seven months on the edge of a warm and reminiscent sea,” however, “the truth came upon me with a feeling of dread–I was a stranger to myself.” Though he managed to set down the account that appears in this book, he confesses at the start that, “I look upon these things as strange occurrences, common, no doubt, to all of us.”
Despite the many colorful episodes and Riesenberg’s strong and direct prose style, however, that odd sense of detachment prevades Living Again and leaves it, in the end, a less than satisfying autobiography. The reader cannot help but get the sense that Riesenberg’s most intense experiences occurred during his early years at sea, and that most of what happened thereafter seemed anticlimactic.
Still, I will carry on with my navigation through Riesenberg’s novels. I just started Endless River, which Robert Leavitt described as, “a torrent that pours through a book—the torrent of Mr. Riesenberg’s thought and comment on life…. It swirls and eddies, formlessly; it gnaws at its restraining backs; it throws up a spray that gleams, now and then, with an unholy phosphorescence. And it tumbles along a burden of flotsam that is the most curiously assorted ever a river bore.” Clearly another example of Felix Riesenberg’s willingness to take risks.
Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937
Forty-some years before Ian Dury recorded his shopping-list song, “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3,”, listing fifty-some sources of everyday delights–from “some of Buddy Holly” to “saying ‘Okey-dokey'”–Rose Macaulay came up with her own list. Roughly equal in number, but a little longer (well, at 395 pages, quite a bit longer) in explication, Personal Pleasures is, like Dury’s tune, a wonderful reason to be cheerful on its own.
Just a glance at the table of contents will prove it: “Arm-Chair” is the third entry, followed two later by “Bakery in the Night,” and two more by “Bed,” which is further broken down into “1. Getting into it” and “2. Not getting out of it.”
Now this is a woman who had her priorities straight.
“The great and recurrent question about Abroad is, is it worth the trouble of getting there?” she observes at the start of the first piece in the book. “Do tickets, passports, money, traveller’s cheques, packing, reservations, boat trains, inns, crouch and snarl before you like those surly dragons that guard enchanted lands?” To which today’s traveler can add, “Security checks, airline seats, airline food, and featherweight plastic cups instead of proper glasses in the hotel bathroom.”
Of course, Macaulay answers. All it take, she–a fine product of a Victorian childhood–advises, is “A little firmness, a nice mingling of industry, negligence and guile.”
Some of the pleasures are very much of a particular time and place. “Candlemas” and “Turtles in Hyde Park” may be a bit too dated to register with today’s readers. And will anyone ever again list “Flying” as a pleasure? Well, to be fair, Macaulay’s flying was as the passenger in a Klemm two-seater, helmeted and goggled against the elements in an open cockpit, which is something few of us will have a chance to experience but most would agree would have been a thrill. “Driving a Car” was also more of an adventure in the days before freeways and traffic lights.
Most of her choices, however, are timeless. If there comes a day when there is nothing to enjoy about “Eating and Drinking,” “Hot Bath,” “Listening In,” or”Taking Umbrage,” then I suspect it’ll be because books like Personal Pleasures are being hauled off the shelves and tossed onto bonfires again.
One could almost argue that Personal Pleasures is almost a textbook on how to enjoy life. Who knew that “Departure of Visitors” hid within itself a little goldmine of delight?
The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand. “I am afraid the room is rather littered….” The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.
Personal Pleasures has been in and out of print several times over the decades. It is currently out of print, but Bloomsbury Publishing will be releasing a Kindle edition this month. And it’s certainly one book worth having just the touch of a button away, as you’re more likely to dip into it from time to time than to read it straight from cover to cover–which would be a bit like eating nothing but cake for a week.
And as a good child of Victoria, Macaulay is quick to caution that all pleasures exist only when there is something against which they can be measured:
But how true it is that every pleasure has also its reverse side, in brief, its pain. Or, if not wholly true, how nearly so. Therefore, I have added to most of my pleasures the little flavour of bitterness, the flaw in their perfection, the canker in the damask, the worm at the root, the fear of loss, or of satiety, the fearful risks involved in their very existence, which tang their sweetness, and mind us of their mortality and of our own, and that nothing in this world is perfect.
Or, to paraphrase Mary Poppins: a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down.
Macaulay wrote most of these essays as she was assembling The Minor Pleasures of Life, a compilation of poems, essays, and assorted bits of prose by other writers on many of the same pleasures and more. Quite a bit more, in fact, over 300 pages more. Most of the pieces are less than a page long, which makes Minor Pleasures a perfect bathroom book, if such things have any appeal for you. And no matter where you happen to keep your copy, it’s nice to know you can dip into it and find little gems like Henry More’s remarks on the pleasure of having “A Coach to One’s Self”:
I hired a whole Coache to my selfe which cost me, but it was the best bestowed money . . . that ever I layd out, for the ayre being cool and fresh, and the coach to be opened before as well as on the sydes, I quaff’ d off whole coachfulls of fresh ayr, without the pollution or the interruption of the talk of any person.
Although Franz Schoenberner was a man of letters for his entire adult life, aside from a short time of service in the German Army at the end of World War One, he was over fifity before he wrote his first book. Throughout the 1920s and up to Hitler’s taking power as Chancellor of Germany in early 1933, Schoenberner was a journalist and editor–most notably of the satirical (and anti-Nazi) weekly, Simplicissimus. As such, he was an archetypal European intellectual of the golden days of transnational humanism–the world of Stefan Zweig, Jules Romains, and André Gide. Not surprisingly, then, when he did come to write his first book–a clear-eyed and self-deprecating account of that period–he titled it, Confessions of a European Intellectual.
When the Nazis began cracking down on all forms of political opposition following the Reichstag fire in February 1927, however, Schoenberner quickly realized that the only options available to him were exile or imprisonment. Taking a few belongings and a little money in a backpack, he crossed into Switzerland in March 1933 and began life as a refugee. The Inside Story of an Outsider, his second book, published in 1949, is his account of eight years of living as an outsider.
From the time they set foot in Switzerland until their acceptance as long-term residents of the United States in 1941, Schoenberner and his wife, the novelist Ellie Nerac, existed in a political and economic limbo. For most of this time, their passports were in the hands of the local police. They could not leave without visas and sufficient funds to gain entry to another country, and they could not return to Germany without risking certain imprisonment or death in a concentration camp. Their status did not allow them to hold down regular jobs, and no one in Switzerland or France needed an editor of a liberal German-language magazine. Nazi laws had made it almost impossible to get any of their funds out of their German bank accounts or to sell their remaining property, and what small royalties they could get out of selling an occasional article in a Swiss or French magazine often took months to make it through a complex chain of bank transfers.
Even so, Schoenberner and Nerac were able to get by, living in cheap apartments in the south of France and devising countless ways to economize. These he recalls in a charming chapter titled, “How to Live Without Money.” “Having lived so many years almost exclusively by miracles, I feel obliged to relate for the personal benefit and encouragement of my readers some of these experiences and even some of the practical techniques which, as I have found, are likely to create the practical and psychological preconditions for such miracles to happen.”
Schoenberner is the first to admit that what he and his wife experienced–even the months of internment with thousands of refugees in filthy camps run with gross incompetence by the Vichy French–hardly compared with the fate of millions of other victims of the Second World War. Even among his fellow internees, some found their situation too much to bear. Schoenberner recounts the fate of his friend, the poet Walter Hasenclever, in the Camps des Milles, outside Aix-en-Provence:
Only when, getting up at dawn, I suddenly heard that Hasenclever could not be awakened, I knew that his good night had been a last good-by. He was still breathing when two stretcher bearers brought him to the infirmary. But a last look at his face–so deadly pale and deadly quiet–made me feel sure that any attempt to save him would be in vain. An empty tube of veronal had been found in the straw of his sleeping place. He probably had taken all the twenty tablets shortly after going to bed, and I knew enough of medicine to be certain that after eight hours the stomach pump could not remove the poison from his body. … If he reused to take this chance, it was because his will to live, as well as to create, was exhausted, and the new struggle seemed no longer worth while to him. If all he wanted was peace, life should not be forced upon him. In our times more than ever, life would always mean the opposite of peace, and everyone had to make his choice, Since he had decided for peace, it should not be disturbed.
Schoenberner had the advantage of a tremendous internal resilience–and of just enough recognition outside Germany–based largely on the reputation of Simplicissimus–to win an occasional favor with a French official–such as a release from a internment camp outside Bayonne just a day or so ahead of its being taken over by German forces.
He and Nerac also benefitted from the support of their friend, the German novelist Hermann Kesten, who was active on the Emergency Rescue Committee in the U.S.. Eventually, with the help of Varian Fry, the committee’s representative in Marseilles, who was responsible for the release of thousands of refugees from Vichy France, they were able to pull together the necessary paperwork and enough funds to gain passage to New York via Lisbon.
Having made it to the safety of the United States did not, however, mean that all their worries were over. They still faced the challenge of adapting to a new language and culture and finding a way to make a living. Fortunately, standing alone and stranded with their few suitcases in a customs shed on Staten Island, they sought out the help of woman wearing a Red Cross uniform.
This woman turned out to be a member of the local Unitarian Church, and her generosity in taking them in, offering room and board for weeks, helping them find a place to stay in Manhattan, setting them up with connections for work, and simply offering much-needed compassion and support to two very tired and uncertain people, makes you wish that all refugees coming to this country could experience the same kind of welcome.
As do many writers trying to tell a story with a happy ending, Schoenberner struggles a bit in the final chapters of The Inside Story of an Outsider. He throws in a tribute to the work of Thomas Wolfe that has little to do with the rest of the book–particularly given that Schoenberner never met or knew Wolfe personally. Although he is able to gain a position with the Office of War
Information and is persuaded to write Confessions of a European Intellectual, which wins very favorable reviews, he does not believe that the peace achieved at the end of the war represents anything but an ugly compromise. Schoenberner is unwilling to attribute any special meaning to his experiences or his choice to record them aside from the imperative for a writer to be “an incorruptible witness.”
I hope I’m not being too rude when I say, however, that, for a German intellectual, Schoenberner’s style and outlook are surprisingly light and optimistic. One might say he possesses an almost Gallic charm. And it is the pleasure of spending some hours in the company of a remarkable narrator–intelligent, compassionate, humorous and self-effacing–that makes The Inside Story of an Outsider a book worth seeking out. Over the last few days, I’ve always enjoyed picking it up, even if just for a few minutes, and regretted setting it down. Considering the book’s subject, that’s quite a recommendation.
The Inside Story of an Outsider, by Franz Schoenberner
New York City: The Macmillan Company, 1949
I. A. R. Wylie subtitled her book, My Life with George, “An Unconventional Autobiography,” and the adjective was appropriate in more than one way. George, she tells us in an opening paragraph, is that “factotum … known to the general public as our subconscious.” Given the Gay Old Nineties illustration on the book’s dust jacket and the sly reference to Clarence Day’s then-recent best-seller, Life With Father, it appears that Wylie and/or her publisher were playing a little joke on buyers, who probably assumed George was some character from the author’s past.
But Wylie’s title is also appropriate because her life itself was unconventional, particularly by the standards of the America and England of 1940. Aside from a few years in a boarding school in Brussels, she was largely self-educated, and she was certainly largely independent from an early age. She pedalled her way back to London from a family holiday at the seaside when she was just ten years old, spending a night along the way.
This trip was, in fact, her father’s suggestion, and he was the first reason her life was so unusual. Alec Wylie was, if his daughter’s account is accurate, a volatile and manic personality, who managed to flout Victorian conventions by a combination of charm, luck, and the kindness of strangers:
From the day of his birth to the hour of his death he never had a penny that he could legitimately call his own. If by some strange chance he had earned it, he already owed it several times over, and it was only an additional reason for borrowing more. Quite often he didn’t have a penny of any sort, and there were days in our large absurd house in London when there was no food for anyone except the bailiff occupying our one completely furnished room. But in the nick of time Father would run into some fine fellow who understood his situation perfectly, and we would be in funds again. The bailiff would be wined and dined and sent on his way rejoicing and proud to know us, and the furniture vans would begin to arrive with expensive, unpaid-for furniture–quite awful stuff because Alec’s taste was Victorian in its last most ponderous convulsions.
Ida–named quite literally after her parents, Ida Ross and Alec Wylie–was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1885, the first child of Wylie’s second marriage. Having married, and fathered two children, he divorced his wife and fled England with creditors at his heels, pausing only to propose to his ex-wife’s sister Christine on the way to the docks. He sweet-talked his way into a marriage with Ida Ross, the sad and plain daughter of a wealthy businessman, but quickly grew bored in Australia. On the pretext of pursuing a law case in England involving his father-in-law’s firm, he cashed in the return tickets for luxury-class one-way fares and took his wife and newborn daughter back to London.
Alec resumed his erratic affairs in London and his wife soon wasted away and died, knowing she would never see Australia again. Fortunately for young Ida, though, not before striking up a deep friendship with Christine, the woman Alec had once tried to marry. In an extraordinary example of loyalty, Christine took on the primary responsibility for making sure that Ida was clothed, fed and cared for, despite the vagaries of Alec’s fortunes, until the girl was in her late teens. Christine was just the first of a line of women who proved far stronger and more reliable than any man in Ida’s life.
This life was also unconventional for its time because Wylie’s precocious independence didn’t stop with solo bicycle rides. Having spent many hours playing by herself and filling the time by making up her own stories, she took easily to writing fiction, and, at the age of 19, sold the first short story she sent off to a magazine editor. From that point on, she was able to support herself–and eventually, Christine as well–as a writer.
She did it, in part, because she was always driven by a pragmatism that may have been a reaction to her father’s fantastic behavior. Rooming with another young English woman who had been raised in colonial India, she wrote and sold several stories based her roommate’s recollections: “At the end of my first year Esme rejoined her parents in India but she left behind her enough sahibs, memsahibs, Bo-trees, ayahs and compounds to furnish me with all the necessary ingredients for an Anglo-Indian novel which I wrote when I was twenty-one.” She went on to write at least five books based in India–The Native Born, or, The Rajah’s People (1910); The Daughter of Brahma (1913); Tristram Sahib (1915); The Temple of Dawn (1915); and The Hermit Doctor of Gaya (1916).
Along with her tales of faux India, Wylie also had considerable success with a series of books based on her experiences of living in Germany in her early twenties: My German Year (1910); Rambles in the Black Forest (1911); and The Germans (1911). Although she returned to England in 1911, she kept in touch with German friends and tried to offer a more balanced view of the German people against the jingoism of British propaganda during World War One. Her novel, Towards Morning (1918), was perhaps the first in English to suggest that not all Germans were evil imperialists (one character is shot for cowardice after refusing to take part in a particularly vicious attack).
In England, Wylie continued to go against the tides of convention by joining the Suffragette movement and providing a safe house where women who had been released from prison to recover from their hunger strikes were smuggled away from police surveillance. As she tells in the book, one of her allies in this effort was another young Englishwoman named Rachel.
After the war, Wylie and Rachel travel to the U.S., where Wylie’s books and stories have enjoyed commercial success. Despite having no driving experience, they buy a car and spend over a year travelling all over the country, from New York City to San Francisco and southern California. Wylie has her first encounter with Hollywood, which had already begun to mine her catalog for stories. Unfortunately, she was hired as a color consultant for “Stronger Than Death”, based on her Anglo-Indian novel, The Hermit Doctor of Gaya, and had to confess that she’d never actually been to India.
That didn’t keep the studios from continuing to hire Wylie. Over thirty movies made between 1915 and 1953 were based on her works, including “Torch Song” and “Phone Call from a Stranger”, which feature great scenery-chewing performances by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively. Her story, “Grandmother Bernle Learns Her Letters,” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1926, was filmed twice–by John Ford in 1928 and by Archie Mayo in 1940, both times for Fox. Ford called “Grandma Bernie,” which portrays the four sonds of a German family divided between sides in the First World War, “first really good story” he ever filmed. The best-known film made from her work is probably “Keeper of the Flame” (1942), which is usually remembered as the one non-comedy that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together.
Anyone reading My Life with George today will have no trouble identifying one unconventional aspect of Wylie’s life: her sexuality. She mentions a number of women with whom she spends time and shares homes, although she never even remotely suggests any physical aspect of these relationships. She does, however, admit,
I have always liked women better than men. I am more at ease with them and more amused by them. I too am rather bored by a conventional relationship which seems to involve either my playing up to someone or playing down to someone. Here and there and especially in my latter years when there should be no further danger of my trying to ensnare one of them I have established some real friendships with men in which we meet and like each other on equal terms as human beings. But fortunately, I have never wanted to marry any of them, nor with the exception of that one misguided German Grenadier, have any of them wanted to marry me.
She also acknowledges that many of her women friends refer to her as “Uncle,” and her choice of being credited as “I. A. R. Wylie” instead of Ida Wylie was certainly an attempt to downplay her gender in publications.
When Baker retired in the mid-1930s, she, Wylie, and another pioneering female physician, Dr. Louise Pearce, bought Trevenna Farm, outside Skillman, New Jersey, and lived there together. Baker died in 1945; Pearce and Wylie in 1959. The farm, coincidentally, went up for sale again recently.
The literary merit of My Life with George diminishes as the book goes on, though. With all the events of her young life and her own ironic commentary, the first two thirds is terrific. It’s fast, funny and vibrant demonstration of how resilient some children can be in the face of staggering adult neglect.
After her first circuit of the U.S. with Rachel, however, Wylie loses focus. Editorial opinions are poor substitutes for first-hand observations even when fresh–and they don’t stay fresh long: “I would wise with all my heart that in the coming struggle between Good and Evil–for me it amounts to that–America would stand full-armed, shoulder to shoulder with nations who for all their shortcomings are the defenders of civilization against barbarism.” The last book staggers through its last 50-60 pages loaded down with such baggage.
Aside from direct-to-print copies of her works now in public domain and a couple of library reissues, Wylie has not had a book in print since the early 1960s. Her last novel, Claire Serrat, was published in 1959, as was praised by one reviewer as “the book of the month.” Interestingly, Ben Brady used a scenario based on Claire Serrat as the centerpiece for his 1994 book, Principles of Adaptation for Film and Television.
This slim book–just 119 pages–contains some of the simplest and most powerful writing I’ve come across in a long time. And at the same time, it’s something of a mystery.
Born and raised in a house just up the street from the Liverpool waterfront, Frank Laskier ran away to sea when just fifteen. Shifting from ship to ship–many of them tramp steamers whose conditions resembled those of B. Traven’s The Death Ship–he spent most of the next dozen years as a merchant seamen. Aside from a short stint when he tried life ashore and ended up in jail for burglary, he spent much of the time filthy and miserable at sea or drunk and violent in port.
Then, sometime in late 1940, his ship, Eurylochus, was attacked and sunk by an merchant raider, the Komoran, off the coast of West Africa. Laskier’s foot was blown off by a shell, and he and the other thirteen survivors spent three days adrift in a life raft before being rescued by a Spanish trawler. He was eventually repatriated to the UK, where he idled away his days in a pub until a young BBC radio producer overheard him regaling some friends with a story. The producer thought him a natural radio personality and convinced Laskier to record an account of the attack and his rescue.
The piece proved immensely popular with wartime listeners and Laskier went on to write and broadcast more talks over the next year. These were collected as My Name is Frank. Of the book, a reviewer in the Spectator wrote:
Frank Laskier’s broadcasts had the stuff of greatness; put into print they lose nothing in the reading. By a natural genius this seaman has found an expression and a rhythm which the poets and artists of the modern world have been striving after for generations.
Although a genuine article, Laskier did allow himself to be used for maximum propaganda effect. In The Merchant Seamen’s War, Tony Lane refers to him as a Stakhanov–the Russian coal miner made a worker’s hero by Soviet propagandists. Laskier appeared in several films, encouraging others to join the Merchant Marine. You can see a preview of one at the British Pathé website.
A year or so later, Laskier published Log Book. The book is clearly an autobiography, as the story follows his own exactly. But, for some unexplained reason, Laskier chose to call himself Jack in the book, and to treat the story as fiction, avoiding most references to specific times and places.
The book suffers not at all by this choice–indeed, it may gain in power, as it thereby allows the writing to stand on its own.
And what writing it is. Reviewing the book in the New York Herald Tribune. Lincoln Colcord called it, “a work of art so simple and acute, that one often pauses to wonder. Here, for example, is Laskier’s description of the return from liberty of a hand who had watched his own brother fall and smash his skull on the deck a few days before:
Outside, beyond the pool of light over the gangway, the stand-by man and Jack could hear a man stumlbing along. He seemed to be having an hysterical argument with somebody. It was the donkey-man–still in his engine-room clothes–as he had gone down the gangway for a quick one. His face, as he came under the light, looked blotched, and red and swollen. He stopped at the quayside and looked up at the ship; a big, grimy figure, gazing up the gangway to the faces of the man and boy–then passing to the outlines of the ship. “You dirty, hungry, lousy bastard! You stinking, bloody old death trap.” His voice rose to a scream: “You … you death ship! Hey, boy, call the bosun–and tell him to come ashore and meet the bloody Madam.” He stood there swaying, and they could see the sweat slowly trickle down his face. Or was it tears–dead bosun was his brother. The stand-by man stood at the tope of the ladder. “Come aboard,” he said, “come up now mate and get some kip.” The donkey-man looked up at him, then he slowly started to crawl up the ladder. Up and up, dragging one foot after the other. his gnarled hands gripping the rail. Up and up, away from the land, away from the whores, and away from himself. He was all the Jims, all the sailors. Leaving all the sordidness and filth of the land–leaving that land–crossing that silent, inviting strip of water–stepping into a new world. One board, the ghost of his brother waited to lead him gently to his bunk. His footsteps rang hollowly as he slumped along the darkness of the deck and vanished into the fo’castle.
There are dozens of such passages throughout the book. I counted over twenty pages I’d dog-eared while reading it.
Laskier was thirty years old when he wrote Log Book, but his voice and perspective are those of a man of long and hard experience. After years of whoring, drinking and fighting, a year in Borstal and another in Nottingham prison, he finally experiences an epiphany one night when he takes a break to go on deck as his ship steams through the Bay of Biscay:
His old friends the porpoises came out and did their set of lancers in front of the bows. He could hear the rustle and swish of their bodies as they surfaced. And the gentle plop as they submerged. The sea, the sky, the moon and the stars–in unison–told him of the glorious heritage of beauty that belongs to the sailor. They would forgive him all, so long as he was worthy of them and could feel their beauty.
His personal peace is short-lived, those, as the Second World War breaks out shortly after he reaches port. He signs on with another ship and is soon convoying a load of Britsh children to Canada. On the return voyage, the old freighter’s engines fail to keep speed and the ship is forced to fall out and make its way back to Liverpool alone–a nervous week of scanning the surrounding waters for signs of U-boats.
The ship’s end comes, however, not in the bitter, rough North Atlantic but on a calm evening, as “Phosphorus gleamed in the wake of the ship, pale green; long, beautiful streaks of cold fire.” The attack comes abruptly, with great noise, fire, explosions, and is over in just two pages, as Jack throws himself into the water, not realizing his foot is gone. He and the few survivors endure three days, exposed, with no water and sharks constantly circling and scraping against their raft.
They have the good fortune to be rescued by a passing trawler and, later, by a Royal Navy ship, and Laskier and his shipmates are evacuated to a hospital ship anchored in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The book ends with Jack back in the UK, and, like Laskier, discovered by the BBC and speaking for the first time on the radio.
Despite the enthusiastic critical reception of Log Book and My Name is Frank, Laskier was quickly forgotten when his propaganda value had faded. He moved to the US and tried to get the movie studios interested in his stories. His first genuine novel, Unseen Harbor, was published in 1947, but received little notice. He died less than a year later, the victim of an automobile accident.
Log Book, by Frank Laskier
London: George Allen & Unwin, 1942
New York City: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943
I sat down to read a few pages to get a sense of the book. An hour later, I was on page 50 and committed to finish it.
Invasion (originally titled Invasion 14 in French) would not, at first glance, seem the sort of book that can pull you in and make you want to stay. Set in Roubaix, a French industrial town just a few miles from the border with Belgium, Invasion is the record of over four years’ occupation by the German army as experienced by dozens of the local inhabitants. Even on a good day, Roubaix is a pretty grim place: a town of mills and mines, full of streets of grey shuttered houses, much of the year under a grey a dreary sky. Trapped behind German lines, the people of the town had no choice but to remain, but today’s reader is free to leave their story gathering dust on the shelf.
However, Van der Meersch’s style (in translation, at least) is simple and immediately accessible, like Tolstoy’s, and like the great master, he has a viewpoint that seems able to get inside the head and heart of any character. In the course of the novel, Van der Meersch follows dozens of the town’s residents, from wealthy mill owners to shopkeepers and farmers to petty criminals and little children. As with a Russian novel, there are times when one gets lost in the flurry of names (I kept confusing the Fontcroix with the Laubigiers).
Yet despite the bleakness of the novel’s setting and subject and the constant shifting from character to character, Van der Meersch maintains a remarkable level of narrative tension. Put any group of people in an extreme situation and their responses will vary widely. This has been a basic formula of story-tellers for millenia. But in this case, the strain seems to increase relentlessly. No one–not even the Germans–expects the occupation to wear on for months and then years. The faint, muffled sound of shelling–the front is never more than twenty miles away–goes on and on, and the sense of hopelessness grinds away at even the strongest.
The Laubigiers, an ordinary working class family, for example, offer shelter to three French soldiers separated from their unit in the first retreat. It’s a simple gesture of charity in response to a request from the local priest. Civilian clothes and forged papers are arranged to aid their escape. But then the time wears on:
For the first few weeks an atmosphere of mutual toleration prevailed, but then a certain amount of friction began to develop. The men were bound to the Laubigiers by no real ties, and became irritable under pressure of forced seclusion. Their minds turned to their own people, and the necessity of learning new trades in order to keep themselves occupied and to earn enough to pay for their keep, of becoming cobblers, harness-makers, and chair-menders, began to get on their nerves. Quarrels started. Disputes arose over the sharing of coal and food. The carelessness and messiness of her three lodgers did violence to Félicie’s naturally tidy nature.
“Seen in its stark reality,” van der Meersch concludes, “the situation was one in which a group of people remained bound together by necessity, while all the time they grew daily to hate one another more and more violently.”
One reason I was interested in Invasion is that I wanted to explore the effects of a prolonged occupation on a people. Twice in the course of thirty years, the people of Belgium, where I live now, and parts of France, lived for years under the rule of an occupying power. This is an experience unknown in American history, and I have a theory that this is one reason why people in this part of Europe view good and evil as lying along a spectrum of infinitely subtle gradations and no clear-cut distinctions.
In the first months of the occupation, a few in the town display true heroism. A priest and a local schoolteacher manage to produce a newsheet telling about local incidents of German brutality and calling for resistance. A mill owner rallies his workers to refuse to make cloth for German uniforms. But they are all soon rounded up and shot, imprisoned or sent off to forced labor. Even the rich find their possessions confiscated and their savings eaten away by black market prices.
Some collaborate quickly and with little sense of guilt. Others give in only when their means or willpower have been exhausted. Some develop genuine friendships, as the Laubigiers do for a German cook billeted with them, that inevitably come with complications that verge or veer into collaboration.
By the time the severe winter of 1917-18 comes around, the hardships have worn away almost all sense of hope and dignity. The extent to which the experience leads inevitably to self-destruction is symbolized by peoples’ pillaging of their own homes:
Gradually, and rather fearfully, folk began to remove the banisters from staircases, trap-doors from lofts, everything that was of no immediate, or only of secondary, use. Boards were taken from the backs of cupboards, shelves for keeping food fresh in the cellars, doors and woodwork from lavatories, the seats themselves, the roofs. A futher step involved the shutters of windows, rabbit hutches, tool-sheds, coal boxes. After a further week or two the doors of the rooms had to go, attic floors, gutters, and drain pips. Finally, life came to be lived in the strangest apologies for houses, bare walls open to the air, with a mattress of the ground and a fire in one corner.
The occupation does end, however. Two hours after the last German leaves, the English arrive, and the retribution begins almost as soon as the celebrations. “Realizing that life in France would be impossible for them,” women who have taken German lovers “made up their minds to see whether they could not start afresh in Germany.” When they catch up with retreating troops, though, they are sent back to be branded and beaten.
The men, on the other hand, soon reach “a sort of tacit agreement to cease fire…. It was very much better to form a mutual admiration society than to rake up uncomfortable truths and start hitting blindly at the expense of all and sundry.” “Those who stumbled on the truth,” writes van der Meersch, “took fright and avoided it like poison.”
A native of Roubaix, van der Meersch was just seven years old when the German occupation began, but his novel is informed by a rich network of friends, relatives and neighbors and years of hearing their recollections. Trained as a lawyer, his advice was often sought out even though he never actually practiced. The historian Richard Cobb, who met van der Meersch when he was evacuated to Roubaix as an internee during the German occupation of 1940-44, described the novelist as “the magician who had pulled the front off so many corons [villages], to introduce me, de plein pied, into the kitchen and the smell of coffee and boiling potatoes.”
In an essay in his book, Paris and Elsewhere–reissued as a New York Review Classic–Cobb calls van der Meersch “a regionalist who had written almost exclusively about Roubaix and who had brought honour to the town by winning the Prix Goncourt. He was, in fact, a clumsy stylist, a Christian-Socialist Zola, who wrote off an accumulated stock of fiches [files].” Invasion does, at times, give the sense of being an accumulation of fiches–primarily because no single character dominates the narrative.
Van der Meersch wrote around a dozen novels, all of them set in and around Roubaix, in the space of about as many years. He was 27 when Invasion was published, and two years later he won the Prix Goncourt for L’Empreinte du dieu, translated into English as Hath Not the Potter. By the time Cobb met him, “He was tubercular and had fallen under the influence of a medical eccentric who preached under-nourishment as a cure for tuberculosis; his most recent novel [Corps et âmes, translated as Bodies and Souls] was an attack on orthodox medicine.” He died of the disease in 1951 at the age of 43. Although several of his novels are still in print in France, as well as Spain and Germany (not Invasion, understandably), his work has largely been forgotten by English readers.
Invasion, by Maxence van der Meersch, translated by Gerard Hopkins
New York: Viking Press, 1937
Although I’ve had Fortunata and Jacinta on my list of books to feature from the first day I started working on this site, I’ve put it off for years. In part, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice without creating an enormous post that would scare off all but the most dedicated readers. But I was also intimidated by the investment in time the book demands. Although the Gullón translation runs to just over 800 pages, these are dense pages with long lines and small print. In truth, Fortunata and Jacinta is about as long as War and Peace less the essay at the end. And unlike War and Peace, which moves quickly, Fortunata moves at a more relaxed pace. It’s very much a book of Spain, where the day is interrupted by siesta, everyone comes out to stroll the streets after dusk, and suppertime starts at around 10PM. Do not start this novel if you’re not willing to spend at least a few weeks on it.
Writing about Fortunata in the PEN blog, contemporary Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina captures the commitment the book demands:
You live in it. You move into it. You inhabit it. You get accustomed to it. It becomes part of the daily setting of your life, like your coffee mug or your computer or your dog. You scrape some extra minute to get back to it. You stay awake longer than you should to reach the end of a chapter. You walk the same streets the characters walk, overhear their conversations, visit the same cafés and street markets and bourgeois mansions and working-class slums and taverns.
If you make this commitment, though, you will be rewarded with one of the richest reading experiences of your life. Galdós ranks with Henry Fielding as the most amiable of all the great novelists, yet with a power of observation and description that can astonish.
He is an excellent story-teller, he loves the inventiveness of life itself. It is extraordinary to find a novel written in the 1880s that documents the changes in the cloth trade, the rise and fall of certain kinds of café, the habits of usurers, politicians and Catholic charities but also probes the fantasies and dreams of the characters and follows their inner thoughts.
Indeed, Galdós has a gift for creating interior monologues and exterior conversations that shows he was a veteran of many hours of listening in on the talks of others.
One of the words you will learn in the course of reading this book is tertulia. A tertulia is conversation elevated to the level of an art form or ritual. “Spaniards are the most talkative creatures on earth,” Galdós observes. My wife and I once visited a Spanish family for coffee after their Sunday lunch. At one point, my wife’s friend had her daughter model a new dress for the grandparents, aunts and uncles. For the next forty-five minutes, at least, the entire family discussed, analyzed, deconstructed, and assayed the little girl’s dress from every conceivable angle. It was a scene that would have fit easily into Fortunata and Jacinta.
Early on in the novel, Galdós remarks, “Clothes, ah! Is there anyone who doesn’t see in them one of the main sources of the energy of our times, perhaps even a generative cause of movement and life?” Clothes and fabric have a particular importance as they are the source of the wealth of the Santa Cruz family, whose son Juan’s dalliance with the working girl Fortunata sets off the central drama of the book.
Juan is “a completely idle man.” His parents, having achieved a comfortable fortune through owning a successful store selling fabrics, shawls and fancy Chinese fans, indulge their only child’s lack of ambition. His father, Galdós writes, “delighted in his son’s indolence just as an artist delights in his work; the more the hands that made it grow pained and tired, the more he admires it.”
His mother intends to maintain their fortune and standing, however, and arranges for Juan to marry Jacinta, the daughter of a rival mercantiler. Before the pair marries, Juan encounters Fortunata, an orphan living with an aunt who runs an egg and poultry shop in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, and quickly seduces her. Easily bored, he abandons the girl–but not before getting her pregnant. Juan and Jacinta marry and head off for a honeymoon visiting sites throughout Spain, taking advantage of the novel convenience of train travel. The child dies soon after birth.
The tertulias are highly effective modes of communication, and Jacinta soon hears rumors of Juan’s affair. While on the honeymoon, she attempts to get thr truth out of Juan, but he manages to acknowledge as little as possible. He is an altogether shallow, self-centered and manipulative character: “Santa Cruz denied some of the facts, and others, the bitterest, he sweetened and glossed over admirably well to make them pass.”
Jacinta continues to harbor suspicions, and as years of childless marriage pass, broods upon the idea of Fortunata’s having had a child with Juan. In the meantime, having been picked up and abandoned by a string of other men, Fortunata allows herself to be taken in by Maximiliano Rubin, a pharmacy student living with his aunt, Doña Lupe, who embark on a mission to reform her.
Although she willingly enters a convent for a course of time and weds Rubin, Fortunata soon falls back into an affair with Juan, who is attracted again by the novelty of seducing a married woman. Throughout much of the book, Fortunata tries to go along with the efforts of others to change her, but is ultimately resigned to be what she is: “I was born pueblo and I’ll stay pueblo,” she says.
The two women meet only a few times in the course of the book, but they come to have a relationship that is far more powerful than either experiences with Juan. Fortunata develops “a burning desire to look like Jacinta, to be like her, to have her air–that particular kind of sweetness and composure.” And, at the end, Jacinta comes to accept Juan’s second child born to Fortunata as her own as the poor woman lays dying in her squalid apartment. Of this scene, Pritchett wrote,
The last time I wept over a novel was in reading Tess when I was 18. Fifty years later Fortunata had made me weep again. Not simply because of her death but because Galdós had portrayed a woman whole in all her moods. In our own 19th century novels this situation would be melodramatic and morally overweighted–see George Eliot’s treatment of Hetty Sorrel–but in Galdós there is no such excess.
As you might expect from a thousand-page novel, in and around the central story of Fortunata and Jacinta are woven dozens of other narratives and a cast of minor characters often as interesting as the protagonists. The women are particularly strong–Doña Lupe, for example, whose “motto was: we should always start with reality and sacrifice what seems best to what is good, and what is good to what is possible.” Or Doña Guillermina, the “saint” whose energy in wrenching donations of money, services and building materials out of everyone she encounters would put today’s best fundraisers to shame.
And there are countless descriptions of a large and complex city in the midst of social and political changes. Amadeo abdicates in favor of the first Spanish republic, which falls in turn with the restoration of Alfonso XII. The republicans push many of the Church’s enterprises out from the center of Madrid, sparking a wave of new construction: “Every day the growing mass of bricks covered up another thin layer of the landscape. With every row that was laid, it seemed as if the builders were erasing rather than adding.”
And there is all the drama one could wish for in a rich 19th century novel. At least three death scenes. Two weddings and two funerals. A fist fight between Rubin and Juan, a nails-bared fight between Fortunata and Juan’s latest lover. Several mad scenes. Feasts and starving orphans.
And there is conversation:
In our cafés, anything under the sun is fair game for conversation. Gross banalities as well as ingenious, discreet, and pertinent ideas may be heard in these palces, for they are frequented not only by rakes and swearers; enlightened people with good habits go to cafés, too. There are tertulias made up of military men, of engineers; most often, there are tertulias made up of employees and students; and whatever room they leave is filled up by out-of-towners. In a café one hears the stupidest and also the most sublime things.
Galdós wrote Fortunata and Jacinta in the space of about a year, publishing it in 1887. By then, he’d been writing novels and plays for nearly twenty years, and he carried on for over twenty more. In total, he wrote over thirty conventional novels, plus an additional forty-six that he called Episodios nacionales, which depicted episodes from 19th century Spanish history, starting with Trafalgar and culminating in Cánovas, written in 1912 and set around the time of Fortunata.
Of these seventy-some novels, roughly twenty have been translated into English in the course of the last 120 years. Of these, setting aside direct-to-print copies of very old translations, less than five are still in print–meaning, still for sale new from Amazon. The last new edition of an English translation of a work by Galdós appears to have been Juan Martín el Empecinado, one of his Episodios nacionales, translated by Alva Cellini and published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2003. It sells for $109.95–and is out of stock. Used copies of Fortunata and Jacinta are available from Amazon starting at $3.99 and going up to $150. I recommend the Gullón translation, which is a masterpiece–fresh, lively and worked with considerable care.
Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women, by Benito Pérez Galdó
Translated by Lester Clark and published by Penguin, 1973
Translated by Agnes Moncy Gullon and published by the University of Georgia Press, 1986 and Penguin, 1988
After forty-plus years of nosing through the stacks of book stores, it’s hard to surprise me. When I came across a Modern Library edition of Human Being by Christopher Morley while browsing in the Harvest Book Company store in Philadelphia, it was a double punch: not just a Modern Library title I’d never seen before, but a Christopher Morley novel that I couldn’t recall.
I know most of the Modern Library list by heart–even the early oddities like Artzibashev’s Sanine and Kuprin’s Yama (The Pit). I should devote a post, in fact, to the curiosities that can be found in the full Modern Library backlist. And, of course, I’ve seen hundreds of copies of Morley’s best-known books, particular his two bibliophile novels, Parnassus on Wheels (1917) (a Modern Library title from 1930 till the early 1950s) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919), and his biggest best-seller, Kitty Foyle (1939). And I must have come across Human Being before, as it went into at least six printings when it first came out in 1934. If I had, though, the memory has gone with the wind.
For a solid three-plus decades, between the late 1910s and early 1950s, Christopher Morley was one of the best-known literary figures in America. A prolific essayist, reviewer, and writer of every type of literature, from plays and poetry to short stories and novels. He was one of the founders of the Saturday Review magazine and one of the first members of the Book of the Month Club review board. He did not aspire to creating great art, although he has an enthusiastic proponent of bringing literature to the masses–editing, for example, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for the popular audience.
Yet, at the same time, he appears to have been happy to follow his whims wherever they led, taking it for granted that enough readers to pay his mortgage would want to come along. And anyone who would read Human Being needs to be ready to follow Morley’s meanderings, as he happily takes many a detour from the narrative.
Starting with the narrator himself. The core of Human Being is based around the attempt by Lawrence Hubbard, a semi-retired accountant, to construct a biography of Richard Roe–a man he meets just once, over lunch with some other acquaintances, a few weeks before Roe’s death. But from the very beginning, another voice, clearly that of Morley, takes over, and reaches over Hubbard’s shoulder to grab the pen whenever the spirit moves him. “This is not the biography of Richard Roe,” he interjects at the start of Chapter Three, “but a biography of that biography.” And, where needed to move things along, an omniscient narrator steps in to let us into the minds of Roe, his wife, his mother-in-law, and even his Pekinese dog.
In giving his protagonist the name Richard Roe, Morley makes it pretty obvious that he wants to tell an Everyman story. Which requires, of course, a character with few distinguishing traits. Recalling Roe from their one lunch together, Hubbard remarks, in fact, that Roe “had a talent for not being noticeable.” He does, however, remember one thing Roe said: “Not long ago, I went up Riverside Drive at night on a bus. Suddenly an electric sign across the river flashed on in the dark, caught me right in the eyeball. It said THE TIME IS NOW 7:59. You know that damned thing frightened me.”
A short while after the lunch, Hubbard finds a short notice in the paper:
Richard Roe of 50 West 81st Street, manufacturer of stationery novelties with an office in the Flatiron Building, was taken ill on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat last night and died before the boat reached Hoboken. A heart attack was said to be the cause.
This leads Hubbard to decide to write a biography of Roe. Partly because “He had reached that period–it usually comes somewhere in the fifth decade–when a man decides that if he is ever going to do anything worth while he had better get started.” And partly because, as an accountant, “He was a great believer in the only law that is unerringly enforced, the law of averages.” Who better, then, to study, than an essentially unknown human being, to answer the question: “What was the basic alloy involved in being human?”
Richard Roe’s story is simple: he gets a start as a go-fer in a touring theatre company and works his way up to house manager. He switches to publishing when offered a job and works his way up to a regional salesman. Then, on a suggestion and a little financing from one of his customers, he starts his own company, making and selling things like ink stands and deskpads. It fares well, even into the start of the Depression. And then he dies.
Morley tries to build a great tragedy upon this slight foundation. Roe marries the box-office manager, Lucille, while they are both working for the theatre company, but she turns out to be a shrew. Years later, he meets Minnie Hutzler, who manages the book section in a Chicago department store. The two are attracted to each other. Minnie inspires Roe to form his own business and comes to New York to help him run it. They eventually have an affair–a very tentative one–but Roe finds himself trapped. Morley would have us believe that Roe dies not of a heart attack but of a heart broken for a love he can never fully express and enjoy. It helps, of course, that Lucille is a bitter, jealous, and relentless harridan, while Minnie is what Alice Kahn called a “gal”: sympathetic, supportive, but also as wily and worldwise as an Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter character.
In truth, what makes Human Being a rich and wonderful book is not the story but the detours. For although Roe’s life “cuts a narrow groove along the canyons of Manhattan,” as Morley puts it at one point, it’s full of intersections that lead down fascinating side streets.
So Roe’s time in show business leads Morley into a three-page meander into the classified ads in Variety. His office supply company gives Morley an excuse for a soliloquoy about inkstands and universal desk calendars. His time as a travelling salesman leads him to wander for seven pages through The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba:
The Railway Guide became Richard’s Outline of History, his Story of Philosophy. There was the Toledo, Peoria & Western (“The Peoria Road”) which doesn’t seem to go near Toledo at all on its own rails, but begins at Effner, Indiana. He found himself in imagination on a Mixed Train (“passenger service connections uncertain”) passing a long night on the way to Keokuk. Number 3 leaves Effner at 8:30 p.m. It arrives Peoria Yard at 5:20 a.m. There must be a chance for coffee and sinkers at the Peoria Yard? And he would go out on Number 103 (good old Number 103!) at 7:45, arrive at Keokuk 2:30 p.m.–“Is there a bookstore in Keokuk?” he asked Miss Mac.
And there are endless wanderings into the diverse pleasures of mid-20th century Manhattan itself: the Flatiron Building, where Roe moves his offices; the L, which Roe takes to and from work each day; the Museum of Natural History, one of his favorite haunts. And the seasons:
New York is never so lovely as in early summer. In Richard’s familiar region of Central Park West awnings burst out on apartment windows; asphalt streets feel soft under the point of a walking stick. Drug stores are draughty with electric fans, which blow out the gasoline cigar-lighter every time you snap it into flame. In the inner airshaft of apartments housewives indignantly observe little flocks of fuzz that come drifting over the sill from dustpans higher up.
In an essay on Human Being published in The American Scholar magazine back in 2003 (another reason I should have remembered the book), James McConkey described it as “more essayistic than fictional in nature.” “Within the personal essay,” McConkey writes, “subject is inseparable from authorial presence.” If the fictional framework of Human Being is slight, what does that matter in the end, if all its display windows are packed with goodies to delight the eye of the streetside passers-by?
Usually, in the interest of having material to post on a regular basis, I tend to read books quickly. With Human Being, I took my time, happy to get dragged down another side street by such an enthusiastic and amiable tour guide as Christopher Morley.
Human Being, by Christopher Morley
New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1934
After enjoying Seumas O’Brien’s daft collection of fables, The Whale and the Grasshopper, I realized that I should take a moment to acknowledge the small (naturally) collection of fables by other modern writers that I have been assembling over the last few years.
A fable is a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities), and that illustrates a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.
A fable differs from a parable in that the latter excludes animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as actors that assume speech and other powers of humankind.
Not every writer who’s called his little pieces fables has observed this distinction. Marvin Cohen’s fables, for example, always take place in the world of men and their imaginations, with rarely if ever a critter to be found in them. The greatest of all modern fabulists, George Ade, never thought to disguise his small tales of man’s pretensions and predicaments by cloaking his characters in animal costumes. And though most do keep their fables within the 3-4 pages or less that’s considered the limits of the form, some stretch out to as many as twenty or more.
The one thing modern fabulists do seem to share is the sense that the didactic purpose of fables should always be taken with a grain of salt