The Big Love, by Mrs. Florence Aadland (as told to Tedd Thomey) (1961)

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“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”).

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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.

Beverly and Florence AadlandDespite 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

The Debates Continues, by Margaret Campbell (Marjorie Bowen) (1939)

marjoriebowenAnyone 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.

The Debate Continues is long out of print, and, according to AddAll.com, there are no copies available for sale. However, you can find the complete text online courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1300751h.html.


The Debate Continues: Being the Autobiography of Marjorie Bowen, by Margaret Campbell
London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1939

Ethel Mannin’s Memoirs

ethelmanninEthel 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.

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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.

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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.

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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 still she traveled. Of her trip to the U.S., she totes up the output: “It produced a travel book, An American Journey (1967), and two novels with California backgrounds, The Lady and the Mystic (1967) and Bitter Babylon (1968), and was the last big journey I did, and I shall do no more.” Last, that was, except for short trips around England (England for a Change (1968), England at Large (1970), and England My Adventure (1972)). And that one to Italy (An Italian Journey (1974)).

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

An Unknown Woman, by Alice Koller (1981)

alicekoller“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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall (1960)

cousintohumanI learned of Jane Mayhall’s first and only novel, Cousin to Human (1960) from its inclusion in Tillie Olsen’s lists of recommended titles by women writers included in the back of her book, Silences. Olsen provided no description of it and no explanation for its mention.

Cousin to Human seems to have vanished from notice after receiving a few reviews. While the reviewer for Kirkus was not enthusiastic (“This is a baffling sort of book, which seems to head out for the Catcher in the Rye market–femininely slanted, but fails to pull the threads together into an integrated whole”), those for The New York Times and Saturday Review were favorable. There was no paperback release, however, and the book has never been reprinted or reissued.

Perhaps one reason was its similarities with another book that dominated best-seller lists and critical awards around the same time–Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in roughly the same time, both books had young girls as their protagonists and related their narratives as perceived by them.

Unlike Scout Finch, however, 15 year-old Lacy Cole is not at the center of the most dramatic moments in Cousin to Human. When her best friend dies in a drunk driving accident, she learns of it the next day through a neighbor, and though Lacy spends hours at the bedside of her mother as she suffers the terminal stages of stomach cancer, we learn of her mother’s death after the fact, when Lacy’s attention is taken up by other things–her sister-in-law’s efforts to take over the family house and her own infatuation with her music teacher.

Mayhall’s approach and style is far more indirect and poetic–she was, after all, primarily a poet–than Harper Lee’s, and her subject more mundane. Set in Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-1930s, it portrays a year in the life of Lacy Cole and her family. Her father, Norman, works in a post office and her mother, Cleanth, is a hard-working housewife who loves her children but is neither sanctimonious nor forgiving in her judgments. The Coles make enough to keep a house and feel some security but not enough to afford the brand-new Chevrolet Norman buys at Christmas out of a mix of envy, frustration and grand-standing.

Reviewing the novel for The New York Times, Florence Crowther wrote that, “Miss Mayhall is a wise author–she has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet be understood.” Lacy is neither a character with a capital “C” nor a cipher, but a completely believable young woman trying to make sense of the many messages being thrown at her from her family, neighborhood, school, movies, radio, the various strata of Louisville society she encounters, and her own instincts. I’d revise Crowther’s line to say that Mayhall “has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet tries to understand.”

This book, in fact, is most marked by the effort its author and protagonist make to understand. Mayhall takes the following couplet by William Blake as her epigraph: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Cousin to Human is the work of an author remarkably alert to the sights and smells and, particularly, sounds of the world around her. Mayhall herself grew up in Louisville and would have been roughly Lacy’s age, so many of the observations probably come from direct memory even if the story itself is not autobiographical.

Take the following passage, which occurs early in the book as Lacy rides with her mother and Aunt Dinna to visit relatives in a town outside Louisville:

Aunt Dinna flopped back in her seat, ready for more talking.

“You remember, Clee. How Aunt Milly used to play?”

“Can’t never forget it.”

Lacy knew the beginning of this conversation. Due to the mention of music, it was the occasion to speak of Great-aunt Milly who played the violin, and lost her heart to a rascal named Jeff at the Clayville Feed Store. Sometimes it was Cleanth who told Dinna the story. And then the situation reversed and Aunt Dinna had to remind Cleanth.It had always gone one, ever since Lacy could remember the way they talked. So she could listen or not, and still know where the ending came.

She put her head against the seat, smelling the sun-warmed leather. The click-clack of the wheels and the sound of Dinna’s voice reached her dreamily. Lacy knew all of her ancient relatives by heart, as if she had been born remembering the way they lived and died.

This reminds me so much of endless Sunday afternoons spent visiting relatives and listening to the adults swap family stories, and Mayhall has a wonderful ear for dialogue and eye for family dynamics. The scene in which Cleanth, Dinna, and their cousin Sarah debate what to do with their grandfather, an enfeebled old drunk who’d been mostly harmless and completely useless for as long as they could remember, manages to weave economic, practical, emotional, ethical, and psychological threads into a conversation that takes little more than a couple of pages, and won my attention for whatever was to follow.

Mayhall certainly had a poet’s sensibility–Lacy frequently notes the color of the sky at sunset–but her approach was solidly novelistic. While the dramas are only those of small, working-class family life, her story moves forward with consistent momentum even as she takes time to develop nuanced characterizations and note telling observations. And these accumulate, one by one, into Lacy’s own awareness of herself and her world. When Lacy meets a local professor, a well-regarded (particularly by himself) expert on Appalachian folklore, she senses a resemblance to someone she had previously encountered:

Dr. Sprichett pressed her hand, like they knew some kind of secret. It was as if it was strictly between them. Lacy shrank from this contact again. Who was it like? The fingers were possessive, warm-clinging. A tiny cunning shot through her mind.

It was quickly coming on, the sense of what she felt. And it was like–she nearly knew. It was like that time, that night–the picture was coming back. At the baking-company auditorium. It reached her in a flash, the very same sensation. It was like the man who had taken her ticket and tried to grab her hand. Valeda going on ahead–and it was like when the man tried to grab her. Nearly, almost the same. She felt a sharp elation. She was relieved, extravagant, and certain. That was what Dr. Sprichett was, no matter what he said. He was just like the other man. And thinking he knew her all the time.

I am almost in awe of this passage. It’s such a remarkable blend of specific, tangible observation, thought-in-process, and awareness that comes upon us in just such instants.

Mayhall drew her title from the following passage, which appears late in the book: “Even dogs bark in their sleep and cats hiss. By this we know they are cousin to human.” And throughout the book, she gives us glimpses into her character’s dreams and demons. With Terence, she shares the philosophy that “humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“Nothing that is human is alien to me”).

At the same time, Cousin to Human is full of larger set-piece scenes that are rich in color, action, and context, such as a talent show in which Lacy and Valeda compete as “The Twinkle Twins,” the rhapsody of American consumerism that sweeps up Norman when he buys the Chevrolet, or indeed the full story of Great-Aunt Milly and the rascal Jeff.

I took Cousin to Human along with me on my most recent flight back to the U.S.. I usually choose books that demand a little extra effort and attention on these trips so I can take advantage of a solid 7-9 hours with few distractions. In this case, it only took about a dozen pages to fall in love with Jane Mayhall’s vision and voice, and I can easily say that this was my most satisfying read this year so far. I plan to feature at least a couple of longer passages in the Excerpts section over the next few weeks.

Jane Mayhall was born in Louisville in 1918, and studied music at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. She met Leslie George Katz, a fellow student, and they moved together to Greenwich Village and married in the early 1940s. Katz founded and ran the Eakins Press, a small press specializing in poetry, graphics and short stories and whose publications were “notable for their meticulous, elegant design,” according to The New York Times. Eakins published two collections of poems by Mayhall. Following Katz’s death, Mayhall struggled with grief and wrote a special collection devoted to considerations of death and loss that was published in 2006 as Sleeping Late on Judgment Day. She died in 2009 at the age of ninety-one.


Cousin to Human, by Jane Mayhall
New York: Harcout, Brace and Company, 1960

Hunter of Doves, by Josephine Herbst (1954)

Nathanael West in Bucks County, PA“For understanding what it was like to live to the full the turbulent American literary life of the 1920’s and 30’s as it moved from bohemianism to radicalism, there could be no more revealing figure than Josephine Herbst,” wrote Robert Gorham Davis in his review of Elinor Langer’s 1984 biography of Herbst, Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell. “She knew everyone and was in all the right places at the right historic moments – Greenwich Village, the Left Bank, Russia, Germany, Cuba and Spain.”

I won’t attempt to synopsize Herbst’s life and career here. Hilton Kramer did a far better job of that thirty years ago in his New Criterion article, “Who was Josephine Herbst?,” available online and well worth the read (link). What matters for this piece are two times in her life: the first, beginning in 1928, when she and her husband, the novelist John Herrmann, rented a small, rustic house in the Bucks County countryside near Erwinna, Pennsylvania; and the second, twenty-some years later, when she was living there alone, shunned by most of the literary establishment for her politics and struggling to write anything more than the marvelous, fulsome letters for which she was always held in awe by her correspondents and a few snippets of memoirs of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.

While living in Erwinna, Herbst and Herrmann made the acquaintance of Nathanael West, who was still working as the night manager of the Hotel Kenmore Hall in Manhattan and revising The Dream Life of Balso Snell, his absurdist novel set in the entrails of the Trojan Horse. They invited West out to Bucks County, and he immediately fell in love with the area. Throughout his life, West pretended to the style and manners of the rich and landed American gentry, and he loved to hike around the Pennsylvania woods with a shotgun slung in one arm, very much the gentleman hunter.

West quit the hotel job, having decided to make his name as a writer, and worked on finishing his second novel, the black comedy Miss Lonelyhearts. He bought a farm near Herbst and Herrmann and spent many hours with them. Herrmann and West often went out to hunt pheasant, quail, and West’s favorite, doves, although both were terrible shots. However, envious of the money that his friend and brother-in-law, S. J. Perelman (Perelman had married West’s sister Laura), was making writing for the Marx Brothers and others, he accepted a contract to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood. While West’s experience in Hollywood wasn’t a financial success, it did contribute to his greatest artistic success, the novel The Day of the Locust. Only a few months after marrying the vivacious Eileen McKenney, the title character in her sister Ruth McKenney’s smash comedy play, “My Sister Eileen,” West and McKenney were killed in a car crash in California.

West’s novels, which had never been best-sellers, quickly fell out of print, but in the aftermath of World War Two, a new generation of critics, such Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin, began to discover and appreciate the bleak and absurdist tone of his work. A number of academics and critics became interested in his life, and their researches led a number of them to Josephine Herbst’s doorstep.

She soon grew aggravated by their inclination to view West’s life and work through a postwar prism that exaggerated his foresight and ignored the good and bad points of his character. And so, sometime in 1953, she set aside the book she had been working on–a dual biography of the early American naturalists John and William Bartram (a book published in 1954 as New Green World), and wrote “Hunter of Doves,” a short novel based on her memories of West.

Although she gave her characters fictional names, “Hunter of Doves” deviates from fact in unimportant ways. Herbst’s own character, Mrs. Heath, is a painter rather than a writer. Timothy Comfort, the would-be biographer, is a stand-in for a handful of real-life researchers. And, as Elinor Langer revealed in her biography, the faint suggestion of a triangle involving West, Herbst, and Herrmann was actually taken from the passion Herbst had developed for the artist, Marion Greenwood.

What was true, however, was Herbst’s desire to have West seen truthfully. “Nothing is reliable except the work,” Mrs. Heath tells Comfort. “People either want to read or they don’t. You can find Noel Bartram, perhaps more than you like, right there, in his novels, if you take the trouble. Or have the sense. The intuitive sense.” Herbst was also true in depicting how the night manager job at the Hotel Kenmore Hall–a job that came his way through his family’s connections in real estate and took at his mother’s insistence–was both his prison and his inspiration:

Whether the mother intended the hotel as her son’s sole future, Mrs. Heath could not say, but it represented security, that shackling iron which simply meant one is freed from necessity to become enslaved….

But the truth was that the hotel and all its occupants surrounded him with the felt mat of a persistent presence. If he were alone in his privacy, the phone might ring, calling him below. One had no idea, he had pleaded, pleading for himself, the nature of the interruptions. He was the guardian of the hotel, its keeper, its jailor. A hotel like this was jam-packed with broken hearts, broken pocketbooks, too, and as the hotel was a genteel one, with a gilding upon it, one could imagine the pride of the victims who, finding themselves slowly drained of their substance, tried to keep up a front, sallied past the door, hummed, pretended light-hearted gaiety, delay of checks from rich uncles, alimony, or the imaginary sale of imaginary real estate that would put them on easy street.

“Hunter of Doves” was published in 1954 in Botteghe Oscure, an acclaimed international literary magazine published in Rome by Marguerite Caetani. It was quickly recognized as Herbst’s finest work since the 1930s, and did lead to a more nuanced view of West.

It did not, however, lead to either a rediscovery of Herbst’s work or a break-through of her own artistic roadblocks. Over the next fifteen years, she only managed to produce three autobiographical pieces–“The Starched Blue Sky of Spain” (The Noble Savage, Number 1, 1960); “A Year of Disgrace” (The Noble Savage, Number 3, 1961); and “Yesterday’s Road” (New American Review, Number 3, 1968). These, along with a fourth piece, “The Magicians and Their Apprentices,” about her girlhood in Sioux City, Iowa, were published posthumously in The Starched Blue Sky of Spain, and Other Memoirs

Given the fact that “Hunter of Doves” has never been reprinted and can be found only in the rare academic libraries holding back issues of Botteghe Oscure, I am taking here a unilateral and perhaps improper step of making the text freely available online.

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

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

A Half of Two Lives, by Alison Waley (1982)

Covers of UK and US editions of 'A Half of Two Lives'
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

Out of My Time, by Marya Mannes (1971)

outofmytimeThis 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.
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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 Time obituary 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.

Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Along Came the Witch'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.

The title of Along Came the Witch is taken from one of her poems:

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.

Bevington went on to publish two more books of from her journals: The Journey is Everything: A Journal of the Seventies and The World and the Bo Tree, based her travels in the 1980s. I look forward to spending these decades with her.


Along Came a Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington
New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1976

Sweet Adversity, by Donald Newlove (1978)

Cover of first US edition of 'Sweet Adversity'
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 his memoir, Those Drinking Days: Myself and Other Writers writes that Sweet Adversity “sprang from my life’s earliest memory–my father dipping a kitchen match into a shot of whiskey and raising it out still burning.” Or, as captured at the very beginning of the book:

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

Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, by Leo Stein (1947)

appreciation“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.

leosteinmatisseLeo 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.

Appreciation was reissued in 1956 as one of a small series of paperbacks published as part of the Modern Library, and then again in 1996 by the University of Nebraska Press.


Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, by Leo Stein,br>
New York: Crown Publishers, 1947

The Lent Jewels, by David Hughes (2002)

Cover of first U.K. edition of The Lent Jewels“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.

taits

“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

Informed Sources: Day East Received, by Willard S. Bain (1967)

informedsourcescovers

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:

POLYMORPHOUS PERVERT--PAUL'-LEE-MORE'-FUSS PREE'-VERT

SUFIS--SIOUX' FEE

INSECT PLOT CONTROL--(JUST AS IT SOUNDS0

LOVE--LUV'

GROK--GROK'

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:

sufferpolice

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:

LEGALIZE POT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ENACTED

FREE LOVE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ENACTED

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

Breaking Point, by Jacob Presser (1958)

breakingpoint

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.

lanotteDespite 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.

In an afterword to a Dutch edition of the book quoted in Lina Insana’s 2009 book, Arduous Tasks: Primo Levi, Translation and the Transmission of Holocaust Testimony (Toronto Italian Studies), Philo Bregstein wrote,

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.

jacquespresser
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:

… for me, there’s very little distance between literature like Night of the Girondists and history like Ashes in the Wind … Yes … there is reality in the fable of Night of the Girondists … just as the reality of Ashes in the Wind is … a fable. It goes beyond dry description … it has something to do with literature.

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

Steps Going Down, by John T. McIntyre (1936)

stepsgoingdownJohn 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

Broken Images: A Journal, by John Guest

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.

Coverr of first U.K. edition of 'Broken Images'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.

About the time that Broken Images was published by Longmans, Green and Company, Guest joined the firm as a litarary advisor, and he remained with the firm until his retirement. Aside from The Best of Betjeman, which he edited, Broken Images is the only book he published. It earned a mention in both Paul Fussells’ Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War and Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale: Bearing Witness to a Modern War, but has been out of print since its first publication. Such a shame. In researching this post, I came across one review in which the reviewer gushed, “I enjoyed this book so much that it is difficult to avoid seeming over-elaborate in praising it.” I second that emotion.


Broken Images: A Journal, by John Guest
London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1949

The Dwelling Place, by Anne Goodwin Winslow

dwellingplaceAs 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).

goodwinslowhouse
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

Appendix A, by Hayden Carruth

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.”

appendixaThis 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