In the April 27, 1946 edition of Picture Post, a U. K. version of Life, an unusual three-page story was devoted to a poet who, even then, was two decades past her brief and limited fame. Anna Wickham struggled throughout her life against the control that men–first her father, then her husband, and finally, the male power structure of her time. Though she wrote quickly and spontaneously (her poems bear the marks far more of improvisation than careful craft) and managed to write hundreds of poems and publish three books (The Contemplative Quarry (1915); The Man With A Hammer (1916); and The Little Old House (1921)) while raising four boys and keeping house, she resented that expectations about how her time and energy should be spent and implicit contest between the domestic and the creative life.
There is no doubt that her poetry might have been more highly regarded now had she put more energy into her writing and less into her fights with the world, but then she wouldn’t have been the woman she was. In this article, Lionel Birch refers to her as a “Great She,” and she once snapped at a man threatening to eject her from an art auction, “You’d better retract, my good man. I may be a minor poet, but I’m a major woman.” One of her most stalwart supporters, Louis Untermeyer, who included some of her poems in most of his anthologies, called her “a magnificent gypsy of a woman, who always entered a room as if she had just stamped across the moors.” Rayner Heppenstall wrote that Wickham was “reputed to bite people’s heads off and try to pull other women’s breasts off.” Even the tough-minded George Orwell, a neighbor in the 1930s, considered her “ferocious looking.”
As she grew older, she became known as something of a character in Hampstead, where she ran a rough-and-tumble rooming house. She wrote more intermittently after 1930 and published less, but still did occasional readings (at which she was known to make such candid asides as, “Rubbish, but there it is.” And she tenaciously stuck to her opinions, rights, and routines throughout the war, even as houses a few feet from hers were destroyed in the Blitz, earning the respect of her neighbors and a certain local celebrity that was celebrated in the Picture Post photo essay.
In an autobiographical piece reprinted in The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet (edited by R. D. Smith, Olivia Manning’s husband), Wickham once wrote, “I feel that women of my kind are a profound mistake. There have been few women poets of distinction, and, if we count only the suicides of Sappho, Lawrence Hope and Charlotte Mew, their despair rate has been very high.” Almost exactly a year after the Picture Post piece appeared, her youngest son, George, found her hanging in the kitchen in which she is shown sitting below. She was 63.
And so, to mark the end of two years devoted to the neglected works of women writers, I take the liberty to reprint the text and photos from the Picture Post article, remarkable for its time in its open-hearted recognition of Wickham’s struggles with her world.
Anna Wickham: Poetess and Landlady
Celebrated in America, appreciated in France–Anna Wickham, mistress of words that sing and words that devastate, is still without full honour in her own country.
In the living-room of Anna Wickham’s house in Hampstead hangs one of those landlady’s notices which look so familiar. But this is how it reads: “Tour bourgeoise. Anna Wickham’s Stabling for Poets, Artists, and their Executives. Creative mood respected. Meals at all hours.”
“Creative mood respected.” That is important to Anna Wickham, and you can see why, when you read a verse of one of her own poems, called, “Dedication to a Cook”:
If any ask why there’s no great She-Poet, Let him come live with me, and he will know it. If I’d indite an ode or mend a sonnet, I must go choose a dish or tie a bonnet….
Anna Wickham herself is a Great She, and she is a poet of a flavour which you won’t find anywere else. She wrote that verse more than twenty years ago, when she was in the process of bringing up a family, looking after her husband, running a home, and generally having her creative moods disrespected by the tyranny of the kitchen range, and the dictatorship of the darning needle.
She was born in Wimbledon in 1884, went to Australia when she was six, came back to Paris to study singing with Jean De Reszke, when she was 21, got married shortly afterwards, abandoned her singing career, started writing poetry, and came slap up against the creative total-woman’s conflict between the demands of the Dream and the demands of the Race. There then pursued her a period of frenzied sweeping-up, in her successive Hampstead homes, until her sons at last grew up and went afield.
At that point she was once more in a position to respect her own creative moods–even though it meant that the dishes were left unwashed and stockings undarned. Today, her house remains a memorial of those bud-bursting years when the rabid itch to get lyrics down on to paper would never let her alone,a nd neither would the kitchen range.
For the house–the house in these pictures–was the battlefield on which her dreams fought a war of movement against her domesticity; and there the pots and pans still hang around in gangs, at teh scene of their crime.
The poet in her kitchen, where soufflés fight against sonnets for her time and exclusive attention. Anna Wickham, one of England’s rarest, but least-publicised, lyric poets, in the nerve-centre of her Hampstead home. Many of the most fruitful hours of her life have been spent just like this: waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for a dish to cook, waiting for the unborn poem to start knocking–and hoping they aren’t all going to start happening at once. The prevailing problem, to find time for dreams as well as for domesticity.
But as soon as Anna Wickham steps outside her front door, it is a different matter. When you see her walking down the Parliament Hill, with her big Indian shopping basket clanging against her knee like a great bamboo bell, you know that there is at least one free, sovereign, woman abroad on the earth. Free to do what? Free to spend time, or to use time, or to pass time. Free to walk or stop walking. Free to break her quarter-mile journey to the shops half-way, sit down on the kerb and eat a bun. Free to proceed, with or without broomstick, on the pond, or to declaim an old poem to a child operating against the tiddlers. Free, in fact, to deal with the dream when it arrives. Free to do any of the things which may lead to the making of a new poem.
People stare? Of course, people stare. The huge face, corrugated by the astringency of wisdom, the goblin eyes, and the laugh of a naughty little girl–these rightly rattle the giblets of the rolled-umbrella-man in the pub. the gawper in the street, the wondering child on the Heath.
In Hampstead one is used to Free Austrians and Free Hungarians. But it is not every day that you can see a Free Elizabethan reciting a barbed lyric to herself in the middle of East Heath Road. Anna Wickham declares that she does not write poetry: she exudes it. She does not speak of writing to, for, or about, people she meets. She talks of writing it “from” them. “I imagined that poem from So-and-So,” she says.
She has written poems passionate and poems compassionate, Mistress-poetry and Mother-poetry. And, in her conversation, she is master-mistress of the phrase-that-goes-home–either the phrase that kindles, or the phrase that trounes, or the phrase that heals.
One poem explains the ruthlessness:
If I had peace to sit and sing, Then I could make a lovely thing; But I am stung by goads and whips, So I build songs like iron ships. Let it be something for my song If it is sometimes swift and strong.
Lastly, and because it is a question which is central to her poetry, let’s take the complaint of the Powdered and Pomaded Ones: “But why doesn’t she smarten herself up?” Let Anna Wickham, in an hitherto unpublished poem, answer:
I plant my hope, On my Irish view of water And my Italian attitude to soap. I am my father’s daughter. I bathe by spells, At holy works, And wash them with the Turks. Them without sin, I disregard my skin, And thus I know Old Stratfrd-atte-Bow, The sweats and smuts and anguish of my Loard, All saints, and sluts, before the Water Board. Young Fancy came to wreck, From too much washing of the Heron’s neck.
You tell me that shows that the woman has no standards? I tell you her standards are something more than steeple-high. Listen to this:
God, thou great symmetry, Who put a biting lust in me From whence my sorrows spring, For all the frittered days That I have spent in shapeless ways, Give me one perfect things.
And that poem constitutes one out of about 200 similar reasons why I count Anna Wickham as a blessing, and why I would have you meet her.
Written by Lionel Birch. Published in Picture Post, April 27, 1946
Ida Maria Luise Sophie Frederica Gustave, daughter of Carl Friedrich Graf (Count) von Hahn, married her wealthy and elderly cousin Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Graf von Hahn, and thus became Ida Maria Luise Sophie Frederica Gustave, Gräfin (Countess) von Hahn-Hahn, giving all of us the pleasure of a small chuckle. The marriage was unhappy and they divorced less than three years later. She took it in mind to be a writer and proceeded to produce several books of poetry and then a string of novels “depicting, in a very aristocratical manner, the manners of high life in Germany,” according to Sarah Josepha Hale’s Woman’s Record.
And she took it in mind to become a traveller. According to Hale’s account of her life, Countess Hahn-Hahn went to Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Sweden, England, Central Europe, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt over the course of roughly ten years, after which she retired to a convent to meditate, pray, and write devout books.
The only point in mentioning her here is that her collections of letters from her trips to France, Spain and the Near East were considered exceptional by the reviewers of their English translations. Of course, exceptional is a double-edged adjective: “The merits and demerits of her writing are so interwoven that it is hard to pronounce upon them without being unjust to the one or far too lenient to the other,” wrote one. Yet, “In liveliness of observation, readiness of idea, and spirited ease of expression, she is unsurpassed by any lady writer we know,” wrote another. Male readers seem to have delighted in her frank opinions, which she felt free to express with vehemence even though it seems pretty clear that she expected her correspondents to hang on to her letters so she could publish them after returning from her journeys. Her writings were held to have “an air which is not ill-described by the term insolent. Saucy is hardly strong enough. Exceedingly saucy women, however, when they happen to be pretty, witty, and well-informed, are often agreeable companions, and almost always pleasant correspondents.”
The countess was certainly capable of painting a pleasant word picture when offered the right scene. Here, for example, is life on the streets of Pesth (the eastern side of Budapest):
People do not merely walk—they sit, work, sleep, eat, and drink in the street. Almost every third house is a coffee house, with a broad verandah, around which are ranged sophas and blooming oleanders. Incredible quantities of fruit, grapes, plums, particularly melons, and heaps of water-melons, are offered for sale. Unemployed labourers lie, like lazzaroni, on the thresholds of their doors or on their wheelbarrows, enjoying the siesta. Women sit before the doors, chatting together and suckling their infants. The dark eyes, the loud, deep voices, here and there the piercing eyes, are all southern.
Here she offers us the streets in Constantinople in all their anarchic glory:
If none but dogs were the inhabitants of Constantinople, you would find it sufficiently difficult to make your way through a city where heaps of dirt, rubbish, and refuse of every credible and incredible composition, obstruct you at every step, and especially barricade the corners of the streets. But dogs are not the only dwellers. Take care of yourself — here comes a train of horses, laden on each side with skins of oil — all oil without as well as within. And, oh ! take care again, for behind are a whole troop of asses, carrying tiles and planks, and all kinds of building materials. Now give way to the right for those men with baskets of coals upon their heads, and give way, too, to the left for those other men — four, six, eight at a time, staggering along with such a load of merchandise, that the pole, thick as your arm, to which it is suspended, bends beneath the weight. Meanwhile, don’t lose your head with the braying of the asses, the yelling of the dogs, the cries of the porters, or the calls of the sweetmeat and chestnut venders, but follow your dragoman, who, accustomed to all this turmoil, flies before you with winged steps, and either disappears in the crowd or vanishes round a corner.
At length you reach a cemetery. We all know how deeply the Turks respect the graves of the dead — how they visit them and never permit them to be disturbed, as we do in Europe, after any number of years. In the abstract this is very grand, and when we imagine to ourselves a beautiful cypress grove with tall white monumental stones, and green grass beneath, it presents a stately and solemn picture. Now contemplate it in the reality. The monuments are overthrown, dilapidated, or awry — several roughly paved streets intersect the space — here sheep are feeding — there donkeys are waiting — here geese are cackling — there cocks are crowing — in one part of the ground linen is drying — in another carpenters are planing — from one corner a troop of camels defile — from another a funeral procession approaches — children are playing — dogs rolling — every kind of the most unconcerned business going on.
She was vocal in her dislike for the manners of a minor member of the Ottoman nobility who travelled on the same ship with her to Constantinople: “If you had anything in your hand that attracted the pasha’s notice, an operaglass, for instance, or a telescope, he beckoned to one of his slaves, and the slave instantly took the opera-glass, or whatever it might be, out of the hand of the owner, and delivered it to his master. He examined it, tried it, and when he was tired of it, he gave it back to the slave and the latter to the owner. Some chose to consider this behaviour simple, childlike, engaging; for my part, I could only think it rude….”
Nothing so attracted her disdain, however, as the French. Her beloved papa fought alongside von Blücher at Waterloo, and she never forgave his people for raising up the upstart from Corsica. “I shall now go to France, Heaven knows what the consequence may be, for I hate France! I hate the spirit of vanity, fanfaronade, insolence and superficialness; in short, I hate the national character of the French. It is unmitigated barbarism.”
Needless to say, her letters from France are less saucy than venomous.
My horizon has been widened in the last few months thanks to Jane Gleeson-White’s Australian Classics: 50 Great Writers and Their Celebrated Works (2011), which introduced me to the wealth of interesting Australian writers beyond the ones I’d been aware of (Stead, Patrick White, Miles Franklin). Easy the most intriguing book discussed by Gleeson-White is Eve Langley’s 1942 novel, The Pea Pickers, which she describes as “a raucous romp through the Victorian countryside in praise of Australia, and a voyage through the passions of a young woman with the soul of a poet determined to live by her own elusive law.” Novelist Georgia Blain proclaims it “a wonderful book, absurd, hilariously funny, messy, anarchic; the kind of book that so rarely gets published.”
Yet Gleeson-White’s biographical sketch of Eve Langley was even more intriguing. She wrote the novel while pregnant with her third child, entered it into a competition for unpublished works by Australian and New Zealand writers and won, but was committed to a psychiatric hospital before the book was published. Released seven years later, she took to wearing men’s clothes and had her name changed legally to Oscar Wilde. She spent her last years in conditions no better than a bag lady and was found dead in her shack in 1974. A little more digging turned up a 1989 biography, The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite. Drawn heavily from Langley’s own diaries and letters, it looked like an interesting read, and I sent off for a copy from a dealer in Australia.
In some ways, I found The Importance of Being Eve Langley even more remarkable than The Pea Pickers — even though the novel is utterly unlike any book written by a woman I’ve ever read. Langley seems never to have stopped writing, even when she was confined in the mental hospital. As Thwaite puts it, both of Langley’s two published books were taken from the “diaries, letters, poems, and jottings from her interminable stock of scribblings,” and this output flowed on to at least ten other unpublished books. Yet, as Thwaite observes early on, “It is never wise to trust absolutely in Langley’s voice.” Whether or not she was mentally ill, Langley was certainly prone to wild flights of imagination and appears to have had a relatively loose understanding of what other people would consider normal behavior.
Langley was born in at a cattle station in New South Wales in 1904. Her father was an itinerant farm worker who died when Eve was still a girl, and her mother raised Eve and her sister June while managing a small hotel in Crossover, a small town in Victoria. Although Eve’s education was incomplete, she was, as her biography Joy L. Thwaite, puts it, “a precocious and omniverous reader, a weaver of tales, a haunter of libraries.” By the time she was 20, one of her favorite amusements was to imagine herself the incarnation of some great writer she had been reading, such as John Keats or Francois Rabelais. Eve herself only half-jokingly referred to her reading as a medical treatment: “My early arnicas of Mathew Arnold, small balsams of Wide, Rabelaisian cauterizers, Shavian foments and Shakespearean liniments.”
She had also formed an extravagant passion for Gippsland, the rural area of Victoria where her mother had been raised, and in 1924, she convinced her sister June to head out with her for Gippsland in hopes of getting work picking peas. “Now that we’re going to Gippsland, we said, we must put off our feminine names for ever,” declares the narrator in The Pea Pickers. And, as in the book, Eve and June dressed up in men’s overalls and took to calling themselves “Steve” and “Blue.”
Over the next four years, Steve and Blue made annual trips to Gippsland during the growing season, traveling from farm to farm, living in tents and earning poverty wages hoeing and picking crops. For Langley, the experience seems to have been more like a personal transformation than a youthful adventure. “At some part of the journey, my hereditary Gippsland mind awoke. It was a totally different apparatus to my Dandenongian mind,” she would later write in The Pea Pickers (Dandenong being the fictional stand-in for Crossover).
Eve tried to make a go as a farmer herself, but was too likely to become diverted by her reading and writing to keep a successful crop going. In 1932, she moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where June and her mother had settled. She began getting poems published in literary magazines, but also had a disastrous affair with an Italian car salesman that resulted Eve becoming pregnant and giving the child up for adoption.
Several years later, she became infatuated with an artist named Hilary Clark. Clark was eleven years younger than her and more interested in men than women, but the two ended up marrying and Eve had three children by him over the next four years. (Their names were Bisi Arilev, Langley Rhaviley and Karl Marx.) They were separated and she was keeping the first two children in squalid conditions and pregnant with the third when she began writing The Pea Pickers. She typed it on cheap paper a friend had given her and couldn’t afford to buy a new ribbon when the text began to be illegible. Nevertheless, she finished the book and mailed it off to Sydney as an entry for the S. H. Prior Memorial Prize competition.
At Sydney publishers Angus and Robertson, a very large package containing a manuscript by “Gippsland Overlander” (the competition required all entries be submitted under pseudonyms) arrived in June 1940. As Jacqueline Kent writes in her biography of one of A&R’s most influential editors, Beatrice Davis: Backroom Girl of Modern Literature, “It was an editor’s nightmare — typed in single space on flimsy pink paper with a faded ribbon, words drifting off the edge of the page….”
Yet the readers quickly recognized that this was a novel of unique energy, language, and imagery. Langley’s descriptions of the Gippsland countryside, the sunrises and sunsets, the smells on the breeze were of exceptional intensity. At the same time, the headstrong personalities of Steve and Blue, never quite blending with those of the other farm workers, made for some wonderful absurd human comedy — as in this scene, when Steve and Macca, the man for whom she’s formed an overwhelming passion, go to bed for the first time.
We tiptoed into the hut and lay decorously on the bed. Excited by the events of the night, I tossed beside him and could not sleep. I wished to talk of verse and cry out passages of the Aeneid all night. He began to breathe with a monotonous regularity, slowly and evenly, opposing my short passionate breath. His calm animal sound maddened me, at last. I could not bear it. I appeared to be breathing my life away, two to his one. Then he snored faintly. Enough! I struck him sharply.
“Go home! I cannot sleep. If you won’t talk to me of the Aeneid, go home!”
Sitting up on the straw mattress, his figure black against the wirenetting window and the bilious clayey light of the moon, he said cruelly, “Steve, you’re a little cow!”
“Then, O, to be in India where they worship them,” said I. “There I could eat milk tins in the very streets, and wear a hat on my horns and who would dare to cry me nay?”
“I’m going home. It must be nearly daybreak.”
Not all the judges were as impressed, however, and in the end, the prize for 1940 was split three ways between The Pea Pickers, Kylie Tennant’s novel, The Battlers, and a biography of an early governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times, by M. H. Ellis. Angus and Robertson took the rights to publish Langley’s novel, but a great deal of editing was required to get the material into publishable shape. They also sold the U. S. rights to by Dutton, which didn’t publish it until 1945, as Not Yet the Moon.
Before the book was released in Australia, however, Angus and Robertson received a letter from the Public Trustee Office in Auckland, stating that Eve Langley, a “married woman, a mentally defective person” had been committed to the Auckland Mental Hospital by her husband. Both Langley and her husband appear to have had extreme paranoid reactions to the possibility of Japanese attack on New Zealand and took their children out on a small sailboat they owned, looking for places their might hide. During one stormy night, Langley spilled boiling water on at least one of the children and all three were taken into custody by a nurse who knew the family. Her husband became concerned about her stability, particularly because he was expected to be called up for service, and he arranged for her to be committed for observation. Langley would spend the next seven years in the hospital, and during that time, A&R heard nothing from her.
Then, in 1950, June 1950, she was released in custody of her sister June, who secured her a position in the book binding shop of the Auckland Public Library. A&R editor Davis wrote expressing her happiness at receiving the news and inquired if Langley had been able to do any writing during her confinement. A year later, Langley replied that her new book, White Topee, was progressing well, and she sent it to the publisher in 1953.
In her report on the book, A&R editor Nan McDonald wrote, “This novel, pruned and condensed, would certainly be worth publishing. It is written with Eve Langley’s characteristic brilliance and originality and no one else could have written it. But I am afraid that no amount of editing will be able to make it as good as The Pea Pickers.” White Topee (I link here to AddAll.com, since the only copy currently on Amazon goes for over $3,500!) was eventually published in 1954.
It did not repeat the success of The Pea Pickers. Reviews were few and unenthusiastic: “Not so much a novel as a marvelous oddity,” wrote one reviewer. Like The Pea Pickers, it drew heavily on the Gippsland experience and on all the materials Langley had written about it over the years. Even before White Topee was published, however, Langley sent A&R another manuscript, Wild Australia.
This time, the A&R editors found it hard to be be charitable. One called the book “dazzlingly irrational.” “Many pages were devoted to Eve’s account, as Oscar Wilde, of a trip she and her lover Lord Alfred Douglas made to Cairo so that Eve/Oscar could be operated on to become female.” When Nan McDonald wrote to say that A&R would be returning the manuscript, Eve wrote back in panic, “Nan McDonald, DEAR Nan McDonald I AM OSCAR WILDE AND YOU’RE KILLING ME… And I hate being Oscar Wilde because NO ONE WANTS OSCAR WILDE… Dear Nan, please reconsider your most awful decision and don’t send that book. O I know what death is now….”
Nevertheless, she proceeded to send yet another manuscript, Bancroft House, to A&R and a year later, another titled Somewhere East of Suez. She continued to believe that her work was something the publisher would be thrilled to receive. It was clear from her correspondence, however, that Eve was spiraling out of control:
I am just going to pack up the latest book “Last, Loneliest, Loveliest,” and send it over to you. It’s all about my life over on the North Shore in Auckland and full of rich warm glowing material from a journal kept in those days of marriage to an artist husband and a batch of children as well…. you will get “The Land of the Long White Cloud” soon. Then comes “Demeter of Dublin Street”, followed by “The Colossus of Rhodes Street”, then “The Old Mill”…. then after this one comes “Remote, Apart” to be followed by “Portrait of the Artist at Chelsea” and then “The Saunterers” and “Beautiful Isles of the Sea” and lastly “Apollyon Regius”…. Two books come in between, introducing to you “The Land of the Long White Cloud” and these are “The Nimrod Type” and “The Australian” … so that’s eight to come, no nine with “Golden Wattle Warriors”, no eleven with “The Nimrod Type” and “The Australian”.
“This is IMPOSSIBLE,” one A&R reader wrote. Nan McDonald quipped in one report that “seven full-length works are too much Eve Langley for anyone to take in a few months without indigestion.” Beatrice Davis tried, however, to let Langley down gently, writing, “Heaven knows when we shall be able to publish all these so attractively titled novels.”
In 1960, Eve moved back to Australia. She bought a house — barely more than a shack — near Katoomba, a town in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Langley referred to it as “Iona Lympus,” and began planning a trip to Greece, where she hoped to commune with the spirits of Homer and other ancient Greeks. By now, she had taken to wearing men’s clothes all the time. One of her closest acquaintances and most loyal supporters during this time, Hal Porter describes a typical Langley outfit:
… dressed in a navy-blue chalk-stripe double=breasted suit a la [Australian prime minister Robert] Menzies, and what I call a publican’s cardigan, one of those maroon and fawn things, and a tie with stripes across it. She had quite small feet in boots, they must have been schoolboy’s shoes she bought. Over this she had flung a very long fur coat, ankle-sweeping, quite an opulent one, made of black cat or some strange material. And topping all this, a white topee.
Davis helped Eve apply for a pension as an invalid, which provided pretty much the only income she had. She had a few poems published, but, as Thwaite puts it, “was living for the most part on fish and chips, cakes, muscatel and Penfolds wine.” In September 1965, Angus and Robertson received a letter from the Australian ambassador to Greece reporting that Langley had been found penniless in Athens and inquiring if she had any means of support. Eve had convinced herself that she could work picking grapes for a Greek winery and somehow managed to pay for a berth on a freighter to Athens. She enjoyed the trip tremendously, but was also, based on her journals from the time, hallucinating wildly, seeing a various times Nazi warships and ancient Greek and Egyptian vessels out in the sea around her. She lost most of her luggage after disembarking in Piraeus, and within a few weeks was surviving by scavenging food from back alleys.
Davis and other friends managed to collect and send her several hundred pounds, but the embassy put her on a plane back to Sydney in December. Back home, she continued to decline into fantasies. She thought she could transform her shack into a Greek temple. She was convinced that German soldiers were moving through the woods around her. She treated her colds and aches with home-made remedies involving treacle, kerosene and eucalyptus bark. Yet she managed to arrange a trip to New Zealand to visit her daughter in 1968, although her eccentricities soon pushed filial piety past the breaking point. An old friend who saw her during the visit recalled her “as someone living quite outside reality.”
When Eve returned to her house in Katoomba, it had been ransacked, though little of value had been taken. Eve was convinced an elderly neighbor was the culprit, however, and she smashed the woman’s door with a golf club. She began to carry on conversations with an imaginary companion named “Albi.” She collected little dolls, dressed them up, and sent photographs of them to her daughter. And the whole time she continued to record everything meticulously in her diary — which is how we know so much about her last years.
In 1974, a social worker was sent to check on Langley after a neighbor noticed that her mailbox was filling up. She found Langley’s body on the floor of her shack, beginning to decompose, her face partly gnawed by rats. The coroner estimated her time of death as a month earlier. Among her papers was found a notebook whose last entry was dated a few months before her death:
Dear god of the planet Mars, how we wonder how you are!
Your dear girl weeps but I feel sleepy and soon will sleep.
Steve Langley, Igh, Infelia Dido, of thought
The Importance of Being Eve Langley came out fifteen years after Eve’s death, but it seems to have been a little ahead of its time and has never been reissued. However, as acceptance of cross-dressing, transgender, and “fluidly gendered” people has grown, interest in Eve’s life and work has begun to grown. The Pea Pickers is now well-established as an Australian classic, even making it to #5 on a list of candidates for the Great Australian Novel. And several plays have been written to celebrate her unique life and character. Margi Brown Ash, an Australian therapist and actress, has performed a one-woman show, “Eve,” in several countries. Ash refers to Eve as “the character I keep returning to again and again … for she is the voice of the invisible female artist of the Australian landscape.”
The Pea Pickers, by Eve Langley Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1942
The Importance of Being Eve Langley, by Joy L. Thwaite Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1989
“Never before have I heard of an exiting new literary talent bursting forth at the age of 80. But here, I am convinced, we have one,” Tom Wolfe in Harper’s Bookletter in 1975. He was remarking upon the publication of Carobeth Laird’s first book, a memoir of her marriage to anthropologist John Peabody Harrington, Encounter with an Angry God, by the small, volunteer-run Malki Museum Press.
Chances are slim that Wolfe would have learned of the book had not two writers, Harry Lawton and Anne Jennings, associated with the museum, sent copies of it to some of their contacts in New York publishing circles. Lawton and Jennings knew a remarkable piece of writing when they saw it. Encounter is a frank, self-deprecating, and eloquent account, written from a distance of fifty years, of how Laird met, married, worked with, and, ultimately, divorced Harrington, a pioneering linguist and anthropologist who was singularly driven to pursue his researches at the cost of everything else, including his wife’s health. Thanks to their efforts, the book gained reviews in a number of major papers, including The Washington Post, in which Larry McMurtry positively gushed: “… if it were fiction, it would be a great, if not the greatest, American novel.” The small press’s initial edition of 2,000 copies sold out quickly, another run of 5,000 was released, and the book was picked up for release as a mass market paperback by Ballantine Books.
Yet Encounter is a classic case of a book being so entwined with an author that the two cannot be judged separately. Carobeth Tucker was already an exceptional young woman when she enrolled in Harrington’s introductory class on linguistics at the San Diego Normal School in 1915. Born in Texas, she had traveled with her family to Mexico in 1913, met and fell in love with a married man, and became pregnant with his child. She moved with her parents to San Diego and together, they raised Carobeth’s child. Unable to gain admission to a college, given her situation, she undertook self-study instead, demonstrating a real aptitude for learning languages. When the opportunity to study linguistics at the Normal School came up, she jumped at it.
Her first thought upon seeing Harrington enter the classroom on the first day was that he looked “like an angry god.” Although he hated teaching and his manner was abrupt and awkward, “his magnificent head and face” stirred her imagination, and Harrington soon learned that she, in turn, was extremely alert and grasped both the principles and details of linguistics with ease. She started staying after class to help him grade papers and they discussed poetry, evolution, and his dreams of field research. In a matter of weeks, Harrington was speaking “as if it were completely settled that he and I should spend our lives together,” although she was already noticing that “at other times all his planning left me out completely.” He later tried to explain his fluctuating manner by saying that he was worried she was a Jew.
He was also tactless and intellectually arrogant, wore clothes that were threadbare and needed a wash, shoveled his food in with a spoon, and talked with his mouth full. Her parents weren’t particularly impressed when they met him, but they considered him somewhat prestigious, given his degrees and faculty position, and already thought Carobeth “desparately self-willed.” They merely went along with her wishes when she followed Harrington up to Los Angeles and joined him on a field trip researching Indian languages in the Santa Ynez Valley. Though he virtually ignored her aside from relying on her command of Spanish and typing skills as research tools. They fought. And, after a few months in the field, they got married.
Early in the book, Laird acknowledges that what Harrington needed was “a wise, firm and sympathetic guide, not a youthful slave and disciple.” From what she describes, slave was her primary role in their time together. Harrington was not only utterly focused on research work he saw as a race against time, given that the California Indian populations had been so decimated and many of the surviving native speakers of Indian languages were aging and ill, but he also had a deep streak of paranoia. Despite the fact that they worked together day in and day out, and he could see the sacrifices to personal concerns she was making on his behalf, he would take off at times without a word and tried to keep some of his field notes in code to avoid her reading them. Although a diagnosis from a distance of a century is risky, I strongly suspect that Harrington was suffering from Asperger’s syndrome.
When Carobeth became pregnant, Harrington’s received the new with irritation, concerned mainly about the disruption it would bring to their work. At one point, when Carobeth was eight months pregnant, he left her alone in a rude mountain cabin with barely any food, and she slept each night with an axe beside her bed. He packed her off to San Diego to have the baby, a girl, and counted on her returning as soon as the infant could be left to be raised by her parents. (Which brings up one of the disconcerting aspects of Encounter. Laird would ultimately have seven children by three different men, but the two daughters she had at the time of this book go virtually unmentioned aside from when they are waving goodbye to her from a train window.)
Although Harrington essentially neglected his wife, he did respect her intelligence and skill in field work, and when an opportunity arose to document the language of the Chemehuevi Indians, he sent her alone to Parker, Arizona, to begin work on a study he would ultimately take over. She quickly developed a friendship with her guide there, a soft-spoken blacksmith, “built like a buffalo,” named George Laird: “From the moment of our meeting, there was a rapport between us which went much deeper than a shared interest in words and myth, though at first it could only be expressed in such sharing.”
George Laird was twice her age, living with another woman, and barely educated. But she soon found herself weaving “amorous fantasies about him.” Harrington was so impressed by the quality and detail of the notes his wife was sending on the Chemehuevis that he asked her to bring George to meet with him in Santa Fe, where he was now teaching. At one point in the visit, Harrington tossed a book to his wife for her to read. It struck her in the stomach:
Both men leaped to their feet. Both exclaimed with a single voice.
George said, “Did it hurt you?”
Harrington said, “Did it hurt the book?”
When Harrington was assigned to the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington, he insisted on bringing both Carobeth and George along Over the course of the following winter, with George sleeping on a cot in the couple’s kitchen, the two men worked on Harrington’s notes on the Chemehuevi and Carobeth and George fell in love. By the spring on 1920, she decided to leave Harrington, and she and George drove back to San Diego in an old Chevrolet.
Her parents didn’t think much of Carobeth’s new lover and insisted he find a room in a hotel to stay in. George took a job as a ditch-digger and slowly began working his way into her mother’s good graces. After a year, her father agreed to pay for a divorce lawyer, and, despite many delays and a last minute attempt by Harrington, the divorce was finalized in 1922. Her parents asked Carobeth and George to wait a year to get married, but helped them look for and buy a small farm in Poway, a town outside San Diego. The couple finally married in August 1923. She was 28. He was 52. They were to be married for 17 years, until George died in 1940.
Much of the power of Encounter with an Angry God as a story comes from the contrast between the edgy, tense relationship between Carobeth and Harrington and the gentle and patient love she shared with George Laird. If she was able to take a more balanced view of Harrington, recognizing her own faults as well as his, it is surely due in part to the influence of George, who appears, in her affectionate portrait, to have been a man of remarkable strength and forbearance.
In 1969, Carobeth was living with Georgia, the oldest of the children she had with George, when she was contacted by researchers looking to pick up the threads of the research on the Chemehuevi they found in the huge archive of field notes (over a million pages, by one account) left by Harrington. What they discovered was that what complete work there was in the archive was probably done by Carobeth. And, more amazingly, they learned that throughout the time she and George had been together, she had been documenting the Chemehuevi language and myths.
The Malki Museum Press contracted with her to publish The Chemehuevis, a summation of her research. When Harry Lawton, on the board of the press, learned of Carobeth’s story, he encouraged her to write her own autobiography. As a memorial to Carobeth put it, “The rush of memories came in flood, so much so that she completed almost a chapter a week,” and the book was finished in a little over three months. Anne Jennings sent a copy of the galley proofs to her acquaintance, Tom Wolfe, and Wolfe offered to contribute a blurb for the back cover. “Carobeth Laird’s story of how she married the Genius Anthropologist and left him for one of the natives he was studying manages to be at once tender and ruthless — ruthlessly funny — and to offer and amazing slice of American life.”
Malki published The Chemehuevis not long after Encounter with an Angry God. The subject and the more scholarly approach of the book meant that it was unlikely to have the same popular success, but in its field it was immediately recognized as a classic work. In a memoriam written after her death in 1983, Lowell John Bean, professor of anthropology at California State University, Hayward, paid tribute to her accomplishments as an anthropologist:
The Chemehuevis is an important book not only because of its enormous amount of ethnographic detail, but because that detail is so well analyzed. Laird implicitly understood what anthropologists today call a systems approach. She saw how each aspect of the culture was systemically related to other aspects of culture. The book is not a laundry list or simple description, it is an analysis of culture. This is particularly clear in her use of mythic materials where she draws out the sociological, economic, psychological, and philosophical implications of the myths for everyday Chemehuevi life.
Carobeth had little chance to enjoy the fruits of her recognition. A little while before the publication of Encounter, she suffered a severe inflammation of her gallbladder while living with one of her grandsons in a trailer near Lake Havasu. She was hospitalized and soon operated on, but being dirt poor and with none of her children in a position to help, she was sent to a fairly spartan nursing home. There, she found that most of her fellow residents were suffering from some form of dementia, and that the staff simply assumed that she had to be, too. It took a considerable effort, culminating in a ruse by several of her friends to rescue “Professor Laird” from the home.
She was taken in by two of her old neighbors from Poway, who gave her a safe place to recuperate. So angered and frustrated was she by her experience in the nursing home that she immediately began writing an account. “It was neither the best nor the worst of nursing homes,” she wrote “It wasn’t horrible, just dehumanizing.” Although she finished the book quickly, it took months to find a publisher, as none of the major firms wanted to deal with a book about aging. She finally signed a contract with a tiny firm, Chandler & Sharp, out of Novato, California, and Limbo: A Memoir about Life in a Nursing Home by a Survivor was published in 1979. Once again, a small press was no impediment to her publicity, and stories about Carobeth were run in dozens of newspapers, include a two-page profile spread in the popular Sunday supplement, Parade Magazine.
Her health began to fail soon after this, and she died in 1983. Her last book, which collected the many Chemehuevi myths she had been told by George Laird, Mirror and Pattern: George Laird’s World of Chemehuevi Mythology, was published posthumously by the Malki Museum Press. The University of New Mexico Press reissued Encounter in paperback in 1993, but it’s been out of print since then.
A few months ago, I was contacted by Professor Veronica Makowsky of the University of Connecticut, who is researching the life and work of Isa Glenn, a forgotten woman writer of the 1920s and 1930s whose novel Transport I reviewed here some years ago. Dr. Makowsky is something of an expert on neglected women writers, having published biographies of Caroline Gordon and Susan Glaspell and, just out, The Fiction of Valerie Martin: An Introduction, about the work of a contemporary American writer whose work has been underestimated. She is the author of numerous articles on F. Scott Fitzgerald, American women writers, and southern writers, and has served in editorial and directorial positions over the course of her career.
Isa Glenn is a writer I’ve been interested in for years. The daughter of an Atlanta mayor, she grew up in the highest circles of Southern society and studied art in Paris under her cousin, James McNeill Whistler. In 1903, she married S.J. Bayard Schindel, an Army captain who had taken part in the battle of San Juan Hill, in a ceremony that took place in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City and was reported in all the New York papers. Over the next two decades, until Schindel died in 1921, she moved with him as he served in Army posts in the U.S., Panama, and the Philippines.
After her husband’s death, Isa Glenn and her son, John Bayard Schindel, settled in New York City and she became involved in the city’s literary and social circles. She also began writing fiction, and published her first novel, Heat, which was set in the Philippines, in 1926. She published a total of seven novels over the space of nine years, and then, it appears, stopped abruptly and never published again. She died in 1951 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with her husband.
I was excited to see Dr. Makowsky’s interest in Isa Glenn’s work and took the opportunity to ask if she’d be willing to do an interview by email, to which she agreed graciously. Given her credentials and that fact that she is perhaps the only academic to take a serious look at Glenn’s work in many years, she is in a unique position to offer a perspective on its qualities and on Glenn’s place in American literature.
How did you become interested in Isa Glenn’s life and work?
Throughout my career, I have been interested in American women writers who were well known and esteemed in their day, but were erased from the literary canon over the first half or so of the twentieth century. My first book, a biography of the Southern novelist Caroline Gordon (1895-1981), was set in motion because one day, while I was a graduate student at Princeton, I noticed that many boxes were being delivered to the library archives where I was doing some research. When I asked about them, I was told that they were Caroline Gordon’s; she was the wife of Allen Tate, and, oh, also a writer.
My second book on the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright and fiction writer Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) was provoked by the constant coupling of her name with that of Eugene O’Neill as a founder of the Provincetown Players; when I began with the most cursory research, I was struck by her many accomplishments and her vast renown during her lifetime. The book I published this year concerns the works of contemporary American novelist Valerie Martin (1948–); I couldn’t figure out how and why a writer of such amazing talent and imagination, who won the UK’s Orange Prize, was so little known in her own country.
My interest in Isa Glenn was sparked by a brief biographical sketch of her on page 254 in George Hutchinson’s biography of the Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen (In Search of Nella Larsen, Harvard UP, 2006). Hutchinson writes of her novels: “Remarkable as they are in their expert dissections of race, gender, class, and sexuality, they have so far been completely lost to literary history” (254). Like that of Gordon, Glaspell, and Martin, Glenn’s work was well-recognized for its topicality and literary techniques during her lifetime, but was “disappeared” in the mid-twentieth-century in favor of male writers when male scholars were deciding who should be studied in colleges and whose work should be included in the literary canon or “canonized.”
Having read a number of her books, would you consider her justly neglected or deserving of rediscovery by today’s readers?
Glenn’s work is richly deserving of rediscovery by today’s readers for a number of reasons. First, as a literary scholar, I want to point out her excellence in various literary techniques, such as structure, patterns of imagery, and characterization, but, above all, point of view; she is technically a fine writer. Secondly, her work has remarkable range: the American South, South America, ships at sea, the New York literary scene, Washington DC, army outposts, the Philippines, and the Far East. Thirdly, she addresses topics that are timeless yet timely in her day and in ours, particularly power relationships based on race, gender, and class, mother-and-daughter and mother-and-son relationships, the burden of the past opposed by the tyranny of trendiness, “helpful” Americans abroad making a mess of their lives and those they are supposedly assisting, the judgmental, clannish, and exclusionary aspects of human nature, the monumentalizing of a social value until it becomes an oppressive weight rather than an aspiration for growth, and many others. She is writing about specific times and places, but her novels remain uncannily relevant today.
Glenn was something of a Southern belle, being the daughter of a one-time mayor of Atlanta and the wife of an Army general. Why do you think she ended up writing novels that were satirical about the culture she grew up in?
I can only answer with speculation based on her fiction and some published interviews since I have not been able to find more than a few of her letters nor a diary or journal. The small collection of her papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library is a good source for her published work, but reveals little about her as a person.
From her fiction, I would speculate that she observed that various cultures, for all their good points, tended to fossilize and become absurd and constricting as they failed to adapt to changing times. She examines many such cultures in her works, to cite a few examples from her novels: Southern culture in Southern Charm (1928) and A Short History of Julia (1930); army culture in Heat (1926, her first published novel) and Transport (1929); white colonial culture in Heat, Little Pitchers (1927), and Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age (1933); trendy literary New Yorkers in the late 1920s and early 1930s in East of Eden (1932); or the claustrophobic culture of Washington DC’s old families in The Little Candle’s Beam (1935, her last published novel).
Although these works can be considered somewhat satirical, there is also a respect for the strength of the perpetuators of these fossilized cultures who are often formidable older women such as the title character’s mother A Short History of Julia; the central consciousness and mother of two daughters in Southern Charm; the “Old New York” mother-in-law of the woman torn to death between marriage and her writing in East of Eden; and the lioness-like mother and leader of the Washington “cave dwellers” in The Little Candle’s Beam. I believe these ideas about calcified cultures may have been developed through her interest her interest in George Gurdjieff’s philosophy of attaining a higher consciousness and full human potential, which she pursued through her acquaintance and correspondence with Gurdjieff’s expounder, A. R. Orage (1873-1934) from the late 1920s through the early 1930s, another intriguing aspect of Glenn’s writing and life that calls for more information and reflection.
A number of her novels are set in the Philippines and Far East, where she lived for some years while her husband was in the Army. How would you describe her view of relationships between Filipinos and the Westerners?
In her depictions of such relationships in Heat and Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age, Glenn was ahead of her time and yet not what we today would see as completely “politically correct,” so we need to assess her work in the context of her day, unblinded by our “presentism.” She skewered the devastating effects of American colonization on the local culture and the local environment as she characterized the arrogance and blindness of the colonizers. At the same time, perhaps because she was often conveying the sentiments of her white American characters, she often portrayed Filipinos, Malays, Chinese, and other “Orientals” as both strange and menacing. Her novels give her more balanced portraits, but many of her short stories (published in prominent and popular magazines of her day) seem to cater to prevailing titillating stereotypes of inscrutably treacherous “Orientals.”
I asked Dr. Makowsky a number of other questions about Glenn’s work and career, but she confessed to having run into one of the challenges in researching the work of a long-forgotten writer, which is the lack of reliable sources and large holes in the remaining documentation.
These are excellent questions, but, as of yet, I have not located materials that will satisfactorily answer them. This points to a major difficulty in reviving interest in Glenn’s work, a sort of vicious circle in that we lack the information about her that would help revive interest in her work and her work is out-of-print so it is difficult to revive interest in her as a literary figure.
What we know of her biography suggests a woman with a playful, witty character which led her to a number of remarkable and fascinating experiences: Southern belle; student in the atelier of her cousin painter James McNeill Whistler; army wife all over the globe, particularly in the Philippines in a time of rebellion against the colonizers; single (widowed) mother of a son; her self-reinvention as an author when she was well into middle age (her forties and fifties) including becoming a prominent part of the 1920s literary scene in New York. All these aspects are beguiling lines of inquiry whose results would greatly lead to a revival of interest in her work, but I currently lack the kind of detailed information about the author’s life and views that can be found in correspondence by, with, and about her; family documents and memorabilia; a diary or journal if she kept any; and various other personal effects and documents; as well as memories, oral or written, of those who knew her.
I have been piecing together what I can from public records (birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records), ships’ passenger lists, papers largely relating to her publications at Yale’s Beinecke library (including notes toward a novel, According to MacTavish, which, as far as I know, may never have been completed or published), mentions in newspapers in literary sections and in gossip or society columns, army records, and published interviews with her. Everything that I find suggests a fascinating woman with a fascinating life that requires more facts and, especially, more of her own voice speaking about her experiences.
Her son, John Bayard Schindel, published his own novel, Golden Pilgrimage, which was based on his childhood experiences on Army posts, and then never published again. Can you tell us what happened to him after that?
Isa Glenn’s son, John Bayard Schindel, known as “Bayard,” is a captivating character in his own right as well as the catalyst for some of his mother’s work. He was born on November 4, 1907 when Isa Glenn Schindel was probably thirty-three years old (she gave various dates of birth that made her younger and younger as was not unusual for women of her era). His childhood was the peripatetic one of the army brat due to his father’s steady advance in the army’s hierarchy; Bayard recounts and rejects these experiences in his novel Golden Pilgrimage (1929), published when he was only about twenty-one.
His father, Isa Glenn’s husband, died in 1921 when Bayard was about thirteen; the topic of a son’s need for a father and the widowed mother’s feelings of inadequacy are topics that Glenn explores in Little Pitchers and The Little Candle’s Beam. He shared his mother’s interest in George Gurdjieff’s philosophy of self-development as expounded by A.R. Orage (1873-1934) with whom both took classes in New York. According to Yale’s Beinecke Library’s website on the Schindel papers (Isa Glenn and Bayard’s), Bayard “studied for a time at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France.”
On August 25, 1943, Bayard married Charlotte Marie Cline in St. Margaret’s Church, Washington DC; he was a Captain in the Army; she was an Ensign in USNR. They had three sons. According to Charlotte’s obituaries, they lived in occupied Japan, and bases in Alaska, Virginia, Maryland, and finally Newport News where he died in 1980; his death certificate lists his occupation as civil servant. More information about his life and experiences, particularly in his own words, would be of great interest, not only for his mother’s life and work, but illuminating his own intriguing and accomplished character.
If you had the chance to pick one of her books for republication now, which one would it be?
This is a difficult question to answer because no one novel exemplifies the range of her themes. Heat, her first novel, is written with the great verve that its title epitomizes, but while quite compelling, it is not as mature in theme and technique as some of her later works. For colonization and imperialism, I prefer Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age, which is her revision (in a way that presages postmodernism) of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, set in the Far East instead of Paris; this novel is marked by Glenn’s inimitable use of point of view, characterization, and imagery. Of the “southern” works, I like best A Short History of Julia for its remarkably evocative setting and characterization, but also for Glenn’s astute rendition of relationships between black female servants and their white female employers.
And chances are that Evans would have taken this in stride. Few poets have had her capacity for patience and her ability to see things from the long view.
When an eye ailment required a series of surgeries that forced her to postpone entering Radcliffe College for six years, she waited, spending endless days walking along the coast near her home in Camden, Maine. Over thirty when she graduated, she still took on the challenges of a younger woman, traveling to France to work with the Red Cross during World War One and returning to the States to work in social relief for miners in Colorado and steelworkers in Pittsburgh. By the time she joined the faculty of the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, she was forty-one; she taught there for the next thirty years.
With a little help from Edna St. Vincent Millay, who’d been one of Evans’ Sunday school students in Camden, Harpers agreed to publish her first collection of poems, Outcrop, in 1928. Evans was 47. “Read these poems too swiftly, or only once, and your heart may still be free of them. Read them again, with care, and they will lay their hands upon you.” Evans herself acknowledged that she favored things that required long study. “For some twisted reason I/Love what many men pass by,” begins one of her early poems, “Juniper.”
She could write of “The Mountains” that “they are at best but a short-lived generation,/Such as stars must laugh at as they journey forth.” Looking at the stones in “The Stone-Wall,” she could see that, having been dug up from the earth, they were “Back to darkness sinking/At a pace too slow/for man’s eyes to mark, less/Swift than shells grow.” No wonder that when Richard Wilbur presented Evans with the Russell Loines Award for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1961, he said that “her subject is nature, and it is not a nature bordered by candytuft. It is ancient, vast, mysterious, and catastrophic; it includes the polar ice-caps and ‘knittings and couplings’ of the atoms.”
Some of this tendency she owed to her father, a Welshman who emigrated to the U. S. as a young man, and who worked for years to be able to put himself through college and theological seminary, becoming a Congregational minister in his thirties. Evans was proud of her father and commemorated him in “Welsh Blood,” a poem written in her seventies.
Here my own father Worked in the coal seam Out of light of day, Going in by starlight, Coming out by starlight, First, a child of seven. Last, a man of twenty, Throwing down the coal pick, Crossed the ocean, Found my mother, Begot me.
Evans’ second collection, The Bright North (1938) gained little recognition when it was published in 1938, but a few other poets cherished a number of poems from the collection. Louise Bogan liked to include Evans’ “To a Forgotten Dutch Painter” in her readings, perhaps because it celebrated the same attention to fine details that was integral to Bogan’s own style:
You are a poet, for you love the thing Itself. In twenty ways you make me know You dote on difference little as that which sets Berry apart from berry in the handful.
It was not until she was nearly eighty, however, that she won the Loines Award and her third collection, Fact of Crystal, was selected as winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. A slender book of just thirty-seven poems, it had taken her over twenty years to write. “Words have to ripen for me,” she once explained, and she was satisfied that two or three poems a year was a perfectly respectable rate of production.
If anything, Evans felt that haste was antithetical to good poetry. In “The Bridgehead Generation,” she cautioned her colleagues,
We are too near. In the face of what we see Silence is better than the sound of words. Homer himself sang not till Trojan swords Were long since rust in an old century.
Not till the tumult dies, and under green Lie all of us, and time has brought to birth Poets whose frame-dust slumbers deep in earth Can men make song of what our eyes have seen.
And yet she remained very much aware of the changes taking place around her. She took part in a “Poets for Peace” reading in New York City in 1967, alongside Wilbur, Arthur Miller, and Robert Lowell. When the University of Pittsburgh published her Collected Poems in 1970 as part of its Pitt Poetry Series (which is full of fine volumes of unjustly neglected poetry), it included five new poems Evans had written within the last two years. Among them was “Martian Landscape,” inspired by the signals sent back to Earth by Mariner 4 and Mars 3 spacecraft. In it, she demonstrated an understanding both of the nature of digital communication and the possibilities of finding poetry at the cutting edge of technology:
I think of the Martian landscape late delivered To the eye of man by digits of a code Reporting shades of grayness, darker, lighter, In dull procession; in the end disclosing To the rapt eye the unimagined craters.
— And I see a poem, word by word assembled In markings down a page flash into code, And bring in sightings of another landscape No eye has seen before.
When Evans died at the age of 101 in 1983, no major newspaper noted her passing. Her friend, Margaret Shea, wrote of her interment, “I didn’t expect trumpets and a Bach chorale, but I had hoped for some better farewell to a great poet. One spray of flowers lay on the astro-turf; on a small disposable table behind the flowers stood a box containing her ashes…. What a ceremony for such a lively, gallant lady.”
Evans was a great lover of music. She had season tickets to the Philadelphia for decades, and sometimes quipped that half of the musicians in the Orchestra had been in one or other of her classes at the Settlement Music School. And so I want to close by reprinting a lovely and funny tribute to music from Fact of Crystal:
All Those Hymnings-up to God
All those hymnings-up to God of Bach and Cesar Franck Cannot have been lost utterly, been arrows that went wide. Like homing birds loosed from the hand, beating up through land fog, Have they not circled up above, poised, and found out direction (The old God gone, the new not yet, but back of all I AM)?
Such cryings-up confound us; I think they are not tangential, But aimed at a center; I think that the through-road will follow their blaze. No man has handled God, but these men have come nearest. I trust them more than the foot rule. Bach may yet have been right.
Bernice Kenyon published just three collections of her poetry, the last over thirty years before she died. And perhaps this is because her preference for simple, concise words and phrases reached the point at which writing itself became impossible. Even in her twenties, one critic remarked that “Miss Kenyon is an artist who loves to chisel at her material until she achieve perfection.” Whatever the real reason, her work is largely forgotten now, and while I wouldn’t argue that she deserves recognition as one the greatest American poets of her time, I do find her last collection, Night Sky (1951) a quiet, humble, and moving set of meditations upon our place in the universe. Take the lines that open the book:
Let me lift up my glance to the night sky — More strange than mystery, more clear and plain Than treasured truth; so shall I hope and try Unceasingly, and even if in vain, To know, though I can never indeed define, The infinite way, its symbol, and its sign.
On old interminable strife, On deep unrest, we build secure; And who shall find for any life Foundations yet more sure?
For want of basic certainty The little structure of these days Would go unbuilt. But wiser we: Our tower rocks and sways
And mocks the assaulting elements With slender strength and fragile form. And we can laugh if its defense Comes clattering down in storm.
Kenyon began working as a story editor at Scribner‘s magazine soon after graduating from Wellesley, and, in 1927, moved over to the magazine’s publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons, where she worked as an assistant to legendary editor Maxwell Perkins throughout most of Perkins’ time with the firm. Her husband, Walter Gilkyson, was nearly twenty years her elder, and the couple enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle that sometimes earned the jealousy of other writers and artists with whom they socialized. In one of her letters to Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan wrote, “you should see her: she closely resembles a Swedish cook and she wears false furs (meow, meow) in profusion….”
I suspect, in fact, that Kenyon’s poem, “Smiling Woman,” may have been a veiled portrait of Bogan, who often wore a Mona Lisa-like sardonic smile in her photographs:
Her personable countenance Incites the mind devoid of laughter; She is a smooth and supple lance That, bent, retained some bending after.
Always the sun will flash from it, Tracing that length that never broke — Her lovely grace — her singing wite That cuts a curved and cruel stroke.
The title of Songs of Unrest is unfortunate and misleading. Kenyon’s work was not the least bit radical or revolutionary, and whatever unrest she intended to convey was purely personal and psychological.
The centerpiece of her second collection, Meridian: Poems 1923-1932 (1933), is a sequence titled, “Sonnets in Protest,” but the protest has nothing to do with the political or economic conditions of her time. Instead, these are the replies of a lady “to the Poet who wishes to immortalize her in his verses”:
Write if you will, in each enduring phrase, Of her whose cruelty has brought you sorrow; But when the past devours a thousand days, And you count treasure fr the hundred morrows, You will be baffled with a wordless rage To find your captive vanished from your cage.
I find Meridian: Poems 1923-1932 an uneasy mix of anger, love of nature, and the occasionally whimsical (e.g., two poems about cats). Her comments upon the crowd in “Sonnets Written in the Pennsylvania Station” seem almost snippy with superiority: “They do not live. There is not one is warm./There is not one who cares to give or yield/An atom’s breath.” In the hands of someone like Philip Larkin, such nastiness can sometimes rise to the level of art. But not here.
Night Sky is, by far, her best collection and perhaps the only one fully worth rediscovering. Night Sky collects around fifty poems, organized into four sections: “Of the Green Earth”; “Of Human Kind”; “Of One Love”; and “Of Several Destinies.” A rough arc is traced through this progression, from the specific and mundane to the vast and infinite. In “Sigrid’s Song” in the first section, Kenyon rejoices in the vocabulary of wildflowers (“Fire-weed, saxifrage, bee-balm and feverfew”) but recognizes that what endures is their timeless beauty: “Nothing lasts as flowers last, with simple form and savour;/Nothing shines as flowers shine, although their time be brief.”
Impermanence continues as a theme in “Of Human Kind,” with lines like “Thus are my walls gone down, and the tower crumbled./These I had hoped would last forever and longer” and “Of One Love” (“The stars have given no pledge that we should be/Forever happy as we are today”). As Gerard Previn Meyer wrote in Saturday Review, “Deeply introverted, tranquilly unified in theme, these poems express the poet’s search through time toward timelessness, through the finite toward the infinite.” In the final section, “Of Several Destinies,” each poem is a variation upon a single theme, that of acceptance of our limitations, our inability to fully grasp the vastness of time and space in which our life is just a blink:
Since there is not, for you and me, One instant of tranquility, But always beating in the throat Such clamor and such high confusion — Let us preserve the mind remote, And build our silence of illusion.
Think for a little of those shining Worlds where no man has set his foot: Where dark and daylight have no meaning — Only as distance; where no root Of deep disaster strikes and holds; Where only wonderment unfolds.
Then you will find, most certainly, That all you sought was fantasy. The stream of life runs loud and wide, Bearing us toward infinity. How shall we learn to know — to ride The noise of this our destiny? Here rest a moment — rest you here, Where your own thoughts are still and clear.
From an artistic standpoint, I can see weaknesses in Kenyon’s poetry. Her choice of words may, at times, be too simple, her statements too direct, to stand up under sustained study. And perhaps this is why, although she continued to write, she published no other collection before her death at 84. Her New York Times obituary suggested that she was in the process of compiling a four book, “Mortal Music,” when she died, but there is no evidence that she was working with any publisher. It’s a shame to have lost her best poems (such as “Never,” reprinted here last year), however, as they achieve a level of peace and understanding that is almost like a prayer. I have a feeling that Night Sky will have a lasting place in my nightstand, as a book I can reach for again and again to settle the day’s madness.
Not long after I mentioned her 1977 novel, The Blue Chair, in a Reader Recommendations post, Joyce Thompson emailed with thanks for the notice and reported that she’s busy working as a writer of fiction again, after a long stint as a technical writer for Microsoft. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions about The Blue Chair and about some of her more recent works.
What was your reaction when you found a post referring to The Blue Chair as a neglected book? Better neglected than forgotten! Over the many years since its original publication, I’ve gotten correspondence from readers who can’t forget the book, or heard the occasional voice in the wilderness proclaiming it a must read. Most recently, someone found and pinged me on Facebook to say, Now that I’m the age that Eve Harmon was, I’m struck by how much of The Blue Chair has come true.
The Blue Chair was your first novel. How did you come to write fiction? My kindergarten report card says, Joyce keeps us amused with her stories. For me, storytelling is the key to the kingdom, the journey and the test and the joy. Stories find me and I engage with them. I’ve also written stage plays, produced, and a few screenplays, paid for but not realized on film. I used to think of myself as a poet. But prose fiction is the most durable, most pliable container for a storyteller. Sometimes it requires you to reinvent the form so that your story can be told.
And The Blue Chair was not my first novel. I’d written a much more realistic novel right out of college, part of teaching myself the form. Seymour Lawrence, who then had a star editor imprint at Delacorte, read it and gave me a lot of great notes. He even called me a couple of months later to see how my rewrite was progressing. But I had no idea how to rewrite a novel then, so I waited for the next one to come along. That was The Blue Chair. Nobody asked for rewrites. Lawrence did, bless him, make me understand that I needed to tame my lyrical impulse in order to write good prose. That lesson stuck. At the time it was published, The Blue Chair was considered science fiction. Looking at it now from a distance of almost forty years, does that label still fit? Insofar as the social premise is based on the assumption that science will advance, and those advances will affect humans in unforeseen and irremediable ways, sure. I think I was a lot closer on the pure science than the technology. People consume text on screen, I got that right, but in 1975, I was imagining microfiche on steroids, not the digital revolution.
What does resonate today is the premise itself: That in the course of looking for a cellular level treatment for cancer, science has discovered a way to extend human life indefinitely, an innovation with serious implications for the ability of the planet to support a species that does not replace itself and die. In the novel, only white first-world citizens are eligible for immortality, this only if they choose not to reproduce. Those who do reproduce are limited to two children per couple; once they reach the age of 70, they’re entitled only to palliative, not life-prolonging medical care. The rationing of health care and state intervention in the cycles of life and death doesn’t seem so far fetched anymore.
I would add that I consider myself a “literary” writer who likes to put a genre engine under the hood. Fiction is my way of exploring the other—in terms of race, age, gender, class, sexual preference, soma, soul. That’s novels—the form for exploring what you don’t understand but want or need to. Short stories, for me, are the form for writing about what you do understand, what you know in your bones. My stories—two collections published—are more conventional, more drawn from my own real experience than my novels are. The Blue Chair is set in an America where the privileged (white) people are cared for by an underclass of (dark skinned) emigrants and have the possibility of attaining immortality. To what extent would you say that some of what you anticipated has come true? The premise was that people could escape the chaos and deprivation of the Third World by indenturing themselves to the First (imperialist) World. In the novel, American blacks are citizens with full rights, but too often mistaken for indentured immigrants because of the color of their skins. That’s all pretty much come true. What I didn’t foresee in 1975 was the Reagan/Clinton one-two punch, the infusion of drugs into communities of color and the mass incarceration of young black men, coincident with the rise of for-profit prisons, that we were, in effect, building our own Third World, from our own citizens and in our own neighborhoods.
Was your characterization of the security state in which TThe Blue Chair is set in any way a reaction to things you saw going on in the Seventies, such as Watergate? The security state was pretty much a 20th century paradigm, a meme of the tendency of governments to control their people through surveillance, oppressive bureaucracy and domestic military policing. It’s kind of an inescapable historic and literary theme. I just put my own spin on it.
The Blue Chair was published as a paperback original by Avon Books, which had up to then been pretty much exclusively a re-publisher of works first published in hardback. How did their choice to release your book come about? The Blue Chair’s first person protagonist is a 70 year old woman poet in a dystopian future society, who is able to re-experience her life by sitting in her blue chair. Ten editors said lovely things about the writing and their personal experience of the book—and also said they didn’t believe it would sell. The 11th was a young editor at Avon and The Blue Chair was either the first or the second book she got to choose herself—risk fiction. She grew up to be Susan Moldow, now President of the Scribner Publishing Group, with a long and brilliant career in publishing. At that time, she worked under Bob Wyatt’s wing—he who brought out affordable English translations of the all the emerging Latin American novelists of the time. I felt like I was in good company.
Paperback originals are ephemeral, but the first press run was huge, there was a substantial second printing adding up to over 100,000 books out there in supermarkets, bus stations and bookstores. A couple of years later, Avon reprinted the book in their Bard line, which kept it in print longer and in better company than would otherwise have happened. Checking WorldCat today, I see it’s the only one of my six published novels that doesn’t currently have any library life. In the mid-1990s, you took a break from writing fiction and joined Microsoft as a technical writer. How has that experience changed your perspective as a writer? In the mid-90s, I was raising and supporting two kids by myself. I was having a wrangle with my then-publisher about the second book of a two book contract and teaching fiction in a not-very-exciting MFA program. A friend invited me to do something new in another part of the forest. I went for new—not technical writing but writing creatively and collaboratively for new media. I worked on various teams at Microsoft for 3 ½ years, then stopped commuting to Redmond and started my own business. That’s when I discovered I could talk to engineers and translate them into language regular people could understand. I’ve never written manuals but I’ve helped bring 20 years’ worth of emerging technologies to market and public attention. That experience has given me an inside view of the vast changes in culture, consciousness and communication those technologies have driven. The novel I’ve just finished, A Wake for Paper, is about three generations of writers in one San Francisco family, living out those tectonic shifts through the recent recession. Grandpa’s a poet/professor, the parental generation are journalists, the youngers a coder/hacker and an online blogger, respectively.
Harper Collins published Sailing My Shoe to Timbuktu, a memoir about dealing with your mother’s Alzheimer’s and your initiation into Santeria, in 2003. Are you interested in doing more autobiographical work, or are you planning to stick with fiction? I loved writing Sailing My Shoe, which I did in the year after my mother died. If I’m lucky enough to live an interesting life for the next ten or twenty years, I might have another memoir in me. Has the reception of your 2013 novel, How to Greet Strangers: A Mystery, encouraged you to write another work featuring your lead character, Archer Barron? How to Greet Strangers, like The Blue Chair, is a story and character that took hold of me and demanded to be written. Archer is a black drag queen disengaging from Santeria and an accidental detective in the mean streets of Oakland, where I’ve lived for the last 15 years. Like The Blue Chair, it’s a book that keeps readers up all night and mainstream publishers say they can’t sell. In its small press edition, it was a finalist for Lambda Literary’s Best Gay Mystery. The ALA called it “an important addition to any fiction collection.” The second volume of Archer’s story, Cops and Queens, is done. Did I mention that I’m looking for someone bold enough to publish them right? Here’s hoping this post catches the eye of an interested publisher. Thanks, Joyce.
The name of Ouida has been vaguely familiar to me ever since I saw Under Two Flags on the list of Classics Illustrated comic books. Somewhere in the course of studying English literature, I assimilated the knowledge that she had written a great many popular novels of no great merit in the second half of the 19th century, and as I more recently began to investigate what works by neglected women writers there might be to discover, I kept seeing her titles popping up in search results on the Internet Archive. And I would probably have left it at that have I not stumbled this morning onto Elizabeth Lee’s 1914 book, Ouida: A Memoir, began to read it, and from there set off on a meandering path around the many corners of the web that led me to conclude that this is a life that deserves to be better known, if only for its quirks and contrasts.
She was born Maria Louise Ramé, with a French father and English mother, in Bury St. Edmonds in 1839. She hated the town, which she considered an uncultured backwater. She referred to it as “that lowest and dreariest of Boroughs, where the streets are as full of grass as an acre of pasture land,” and said that “the inhabitants are driven to ringing their own doorbells lest they rust from lack of use.” Many years later, when the town placed a plaque in her honor outside the house where she was born, she snipped to a friend, “This tomfoolery in Suffolk annoys me very much. I identify myself with my father’s French race and blood, and I shall be greatly obliged if you would do your best to prevent any inscription of the kind you named being put as you say.”
Maria Louise was delighted to leave the town behind and moved with her mother to London in 1857. Through their doctor, she was introduced to the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, who was then working as the editor of Bentley’s Miscellany and who encouraged the girl’s interest in writing. Her first story, “Dashwood’s Drag: or, The Derby and What Came of It,” appeared in the magazine in 1859 under the pseudonym, “Ouida,” which appears to have been her own toddler’s version of “Louise.” “Dashwood’s Drag” is something of an anomaly in Ouida’s oeuvre, as it’s told in the voice of a rough-and-tumble young friend of Dashwood’s and displays a certain amount of humor–a quality legendary in its absence from her writing.
She quickly learned what appealed to readers, and to her great fortune, that was much of what appealed to her, too. Although her own education was limited, she thought her father’s French roots entitled her to consider herself a woman of culture, and she aspired to be treated as one of the gentility. At the same time, however, she loved melodramatic subjects. As Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodge Holt put it in Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction, her first two novels, Held in Bondage and Strathmore “contain secrets, bigamy, adultery, the dead-alive, murder, shipwrecks, gypsy fortune tellers, secret marriages, and strong female villainesses.” With her talent for what Anthony Powell would later call “an extraordinary vitality in the presentation of her narrative” soon gained great popularity,” Ouida became one of the most successful writers of her time.
Over the next forty years, she would publish 47 books, including 41 novels, several short story collections, and a few works of nonfiction. Of these, her best-known today are A Dog of Flanders (1872), of which at least ten different film versions have been made, and Under Two Flags (1867), which was also filmed several times. With its story of a Guardsman who runs away to Africa and joins a precursor to the French Foreign Legion, Under Two Flags almost certainly inspired P. C. Wren’s 1924 best-seller, Beau Geste. Looking back from a far difference perspective than that of 1867, however, Talia Shaffer, in her The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Victorian Literature and Culture Series), describes it as “a novel of homoerotic thrills.” It’s hard not to say she might be right, given Ouida’s description of her hero, Bertie Cecil, known as “The Beauty of the Brigades”:
His features were exceedingly fair — fair as the fairest girl’s; his hair was of the softest, silkiest, brightest chestnut; his mouth very beautifully shaped; on the whole, with a certain gentle, mournful love-me look that his eyes had with them, it was no wonder that great ladies and gay lions alike gave him the palm as the handsomest man in all the Household Regiments — not even excepting that splendid golden-haired Colossus, his oldest friend and closest comrade, known as “the Seraph.”
Less than thirty years after the novel was published, Willa Cather gave it the kind of mixed praise that characterizes even Ouida’s most enthusiastic advocates: “Really, it would be hard to find a better plot than is in that same Under Two Flags, and the book contains the rudiments of a great style, and it also contains some of the most driveling nonsense and mawkish sentimentality and contemptible feminine weakness to be found anywhere.”
In some ways, Ouida’s novels were the action comic books of their time. Her characters were certainly as one-dimensional as comic book heroes and villains. As Bonamy Dobrée wrote, “Her wicked are so deeply wicked, her good so extravagantly good, the issues between them so strenuously fought out, that one abandons any hankering after analysis, probability, subtlety, and floats, even now, deliciously on the great wave of her exuberant, superabundant vitality.” “Ouida’s persons are types, or rather, they are what used to be called ‘humours'”, Dobrée wrote; Max Beerbohm — one of her fans — called them “abstractions.”
Take, for example, the French nobleman/defender of the people/artistic genius of her 1870 novel, Tricotrin. Tricotrin is everything but faster than a speeding bullet:
A man with the wit of a Piron, the politics of a Jean Jacques, the eloquence of a Mirabeau, the Utopia of a Vergniaud! — a man with the head of a god and the blouse of a workman, the brain of a scholar and the life of a scamp, the soul of a poet, and the schemes of a socialist.
And a “Straduarius” violin with which he plays Mozart for the peasants in the fields.
“Straduarius” is only one of the many, many factual gaffes for which Ouida was criticized. She commonly put historical figures in places they’d never been, placed events in the wrong year, and misinterpreted or mistranslated foreign terms. She gave elaborate and fanciful descriptions of places she’d never seen, attributed incredible abilities to her characters, and moved her narratives along with utterly implausible motives and actions. As W. H. Mallock wrote in his memoirs, “Ouida lived largely in a world of her own creation, peopled with foreign princesses, mysterious dukes — masters of untold millions, and of fabulous English guardsmen whose bedrooms in Knightsbridge Barracks were inlaid with silver and tortoiseshell.”
Subtlety was never her forté, but her work seems to have left no one in the middle ground. The reading public of the time loved almost everything she doled out. Reviewers–pro or con–were rarely unmixed in their assessments. Of her 1885 novel, Othmar, one reviewer wrote, “This latest production from the fertile pen of “Ouida” is at once one of the most powerful and penetrating, and weak and superficial, novels of the year.” Writing in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, George Bernard Shaw described the typical Ouida novel as “diffuse, overloaded with worthless mock sociology, perceptibly tainted by a perversion of the sexual impulses, egotistical and tiresome and yet imaginative, full of vivid and glowing pictures, and not without a considerable moral stiffening of enthusiasm — half-reasoned but real — for truth and simplicity, and of protest against social evils which is not the less vehement because certain emotional and material aspects of it have a fascination which the writer has not wholly escaped.” Robert Louis Stevenson and some of his friends once wrote a parody of Ouida as a parlor game. The result, titled, An Object of Pity; or, the Man Haggard: A Romance (it also mocked H. Rider Haggard) carried the following dedication: “Many besides yourself have exulted to collect Olympian polysyllables, and to sling ink, not Wisely but too Well. They are forgotten, you endure. Many have made it their goal and object to Exceed; but who else has been so Excessive?”
Few of the many thousands of her readers objected to any of this, however. Indeed, they reveled in all the things that serious critics derided. And it earned her a very plush lifestyle. At the height of her success, Henry James wrote a short story, “Greville Fane,” which mocked her strategy of aiming for the lowest common denominator:
She made no pretence of producing works of art, but had comfortable tea-drinking hours in which she freely confessed herself a common pastrycook, dealing in such tarts and puddings as would bring customers to the shop. She put in plenty of sugar and of cochineal, or whatever it is that gives these articles a rich and attractive colour. She had a serene superiority to observation and opportunity which constituted an inexpungable strength and would enable her to go on indefinitely.
Ouida held her own work in considerably higher regard. As early as 1881, she was writing one of her publishers, Baron Tauschnitz, “English literature is very sorry stuff nowadays. You must make much of me for now George Elliott [sic] is gone there is no one else who can write English.” She had a very old-fashioned view of success, however. She wasn’t interested in pursuing the cult of celebrity and tended to avoid publicity for herself. She once described interviewers as “the vilest spawn of the most ill-bred age that the world has ever seen.” And she didn’t think much of the changes in the publishing business that were taking place. In a letter to the Times she wrote, “The literary agent … is a middleman between other middlemen and the producer; he is, to use a homely simile, the maggot of the nut; he is neither the kernel nor the shell; he is an esoteric body living between and upon the two. Maggots have rights and uses no doubt, but the nut never yet was the better for them.”
What success entitled her to was not celebrity but social status. “Please to address me Madame de la Ramée, or Madame Ouida. It is the more correct way to address a woman of eminence,” she advised a new acquaintance. And her bias toward gentility sometimes put her in foolish positions. “In whatever company she might be in, her first anxiety was to ingratiate herself with the most important members of it,” Mallock recalled,
but she was constantly making mistakes as to who the most important members were. Thus, as one of her entertainers — Violet Fane — told me, Ouida was sitting after dinner between Mrs. _____ , the mistress of one of the greatest houses in London, and a vulgar little Irish peeress who was only present on sufferance. Ouida treated the former with the coldest and most condescending inattention, and devoted every smile in her possession to an intimate worship of the latter.
Toward the end of the 1880s, Ouida’s work found a new set of advocates among the Aesthetes. Writing in 1889 the same magazine as Shaw, Oscar Wilde rose to her defense, calling her “the last of the romantics.” He admitted that her style was “full of exaggeration and overemphasis,” but held that it showed “some remarkable rhetorical qualities and a good deal of colour.” He did, however, concede the limitations of her intellect, writing that “Ouida is fond of airing a smattering of culture….” As with many of her supporters, his endorsement is less than unqualified: “Guilderoy, with all its faults, which are great, and its absurdities, which are greater, is a book to be read.”
Wilde’s review quotes numerous epigrams from Guilderoy that certainly betray more than a few signs of being an influence on his own style:
Moralists say that a soul should resist passion. They might as well say that a house should resist an earthquake.
Men always consider us unjust to them when we fail to deify their weaknesses.
And the country in England is so much more intolerable than anywhere else, because the weather is so bad: to endure it long one must have the rusticity of Wordsworth’s mind, and boots and stockings as homely.
Ouida’s characters often speak in epigrams, and in her day these nuggets were consider worthy of being captured in books titled The Wisdom, Wit, and Pathos of Ouida and A Flash of Ouida. Not all of them stand the test of time, however: “A pipe is a pocket philosopher, a truer one than Socrates. For it never asks questions. Socrates must have been very tiresome when one thinks of it.”
Not long after Wilde’s review, G. S. Street wrote “An Appreciation of Ouida” that appeared in the influential magazine that gave its name to the 1890s, The Yellow Book. “I respect an unrestrained and incorrect eloquence more than a merely correct and periphrastic nothingness,” he wrote in something of a left-handed compliment. For Street, the two qualities that underlay the best of Ouida’s work — “and which must have always saved it from commonness” — “are a genuine and passionate love of beauty, as she conceives it, and a genuine and passionate hatred of injustice and oppression.” In the end, he declared, “I take the merits in Ouida’s books to balance their faults many times over.”
Another The Yellow Book dandy, Max Beerbohm, dedicated his 1899 collection of essays, More, “To Ouida, with Love,” and offered similarly passionate yet qualified praise: “Her every page is a riot of unpolished epigrams and unpolished poetry of vision, with a hundred discursions and redundancies. She cannot say a thing once; she must repeat it again and again, and, with every repetition, so it seems to me, she says it with greater force and charm.” Yet more than a few critics and academics have since noted evidence of Ouida’s influence in the work of George Meredith, J. K. Huysmans, and Ronald Firbank.
Ironically, while the Aesthetes were rising to her defense, Ouida’s own career was beginning to decline. Her formula was growing weaker and weaker from constant reuse and dilution. One of her harshest critics, Malcolm Elwin, later wrote that, “Towards the end of the ‘eighties, she began to lose her grip. In spite of her highfalutin blather about her ‘art’, she wrote purely and simply for money, and all but herself could see that her work had degenerated.” Even one of her more recent advocates, Talia Shaffer, writes bluntly that by the 1890s, “Ouida finally ran out of ideas.”
By that time, she had long left England for good, moving to Florence, where she bought an expensive villa where she and her mother lived with a pack of pet dogs. She quickly developed a deep affection for Italy and the Italian people, and within a few months of arrival had written a novel, Pascarel (1873), set there. It was the first of nearly a dozen, including A Village Commune (1882), In Maremma (1882), and The Waters of Edera (1900). Some, like In a Winter City portrayed the expat society around Florence and Rome, but most were set in the countryside and portrayed the various ways in which corruption and capital was used to exploit and repress the peasants and workers.
She fell in love with an Italian nobleman, the Marchese della Stufa, who took maximum advantage of her adoration and generosity while at the same time encouraging the affections of other women, including a fellow English expat, Janet Ross. Ouida took revenge on Ross by writing Friendship (1878). A little taste of how Ouida took the knife to her victims can be obtained from this excerpt from a less-than-enthusiastic review:
The whole plot of the story is that a thoroughly depraved, covetous, swindling, bullying, brazen adventuress of noble Scottish birth, whom some early and unexplained scandal has forced into a marriage of convenience with a speculating trader, first pigeon and then rook, and who is compelled to live out of England, has succeeded in forcing an Italian prince into a prolonged intrigue with herself (the friendship of the title), carried on with the full knowledge and consent, but simulated ignorance, of her husband, who is partner with his wife in the business side of the transaction, which consists in ruining the lover, and practically seizing his ancestral estate.
Yes, folks, that’s all one sentence. Della Stufa seems to have been her one great love. She never married and became, increasingly, an eccentric recluse. As Rose Macaulay later wrote, “She spent her great fortune recklessly, on lavish living, on rich dinner menus for her dogs, on going continually to law.”
By 1893, Ouida had spent so much that when her mother died, as Elizabeth Lee recounts in her memoir, “There was literally no money in the house at all, and there seems no doubt that Ouida kept her mother’s body upstairs long after it should have been buried because she could not endure the thought of laying her in a pauper’s grave in the Allori Cemetery.” Yet she refused to accept help from her friends, and when one of them arranged for meals to be brought to her from one of the finest restaurants in Florence, she gave the food to her dogs, preferring to live on tea and toast. A notable neighbor and expat, Walburga, Lady Paget wrote that she found Ouida on one visit “… in a draggled white nightgown, trimmed with lace, and a black cape. Eight dogs kept up an infernal noise and went on mistaking the lace frill of her nightdress for a lamp-post.” And another friend confided in a letter that “Ouida is now by her own folly denuded of everything.”
She eventually had to give up the villa and move, first to Bagni di Lucca and then to a cheap apartment in Viarregio, on the coast north of Pisa. (Viareggio has attracted its share of unfortunate English writers, starting with Shelley, whose body washed up on its shores, and later, Marjorie Bowen, who nursed her husband there through much of the First World War.) Her situation became so desperate that Lady Paget begged the then-Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, to award her a Civil List pension in 1906 — to which Ouida responded in typical hauteur, “What right have they to offer me a pension only fit for superannuated butlers?” She died there of pneumonia in early 1908. Her friends purchased a fine tomb for her in the cemetery in the spa town of Bagna di Lucca. Her obituary in the Times shows just how far her star had fallen by then — indeed, it’s almost shocking in its derisive tone:
The comparative study of her writings, though these cover a period of about 40 years, discloses but little artistic growth. From first to last Ouida, with certain exceptions to be noted, entirely failed to realize the life that was going on around her. Her most famous novels all suggest a schoolgirl’s dream of the grande passion. She seems to be living and moving in a world, not of men and women, but of demi-gods and demi-reps. She takes her facts from her imagination, and does not check them by inquiry.
“To enjoy her work,” declared the Times writer, “it is necessary to forget everything that you know, and resign yourself to hallucinations and deceptions.”
By the 1930s, Ouida was a favorite object of ridicule. In his survey of popular Victorian literature, Victorian Wallflowers, Malcolm Elwin wrote dismissively, “The popularity of Ouida’s novels illustrates the degenerate taste of the new reading public of the commercial middle class…. As a novelist, she lacked humour, reality, and humanity, she had the scantiest of skill in devising a plot, a stereotyped sense of character, and an almost complete absence of culture.”
With the rise of feminist critics and academics in the last thirty years, however, Ouida’s critical reputation has begun to be restored. Two academic books — Schroeder and Holt’s and Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture, edited by Jane Jordan and Andrew King — have been published in the last ten years, and she has been the subject of a 2008 PhD dissertation by Carla Molloy. 300-some different versions of her works are available for free on the Internet Archive. And in an age where the pulp fiction and sleazy novels of the 1950s and 1960s are routinely celebrated and studied, one could argue that this great Victorian producer of potboilers deserves her own recognition, whether you side with her critics (“a schoolgirl’s dream”) or her supporters (“extraordinary vitality”).
In the eyes of some critics, Taggard has only herself to blame. Somewhere in the early 1930s, Taggard decided that her work was simply not confronting the traumatic social conditions she saw around her. She “refused to write out of a decorative impulse because I conceive it to be the dead end of much feminine talent.” Instead, she chose to write what she considered “poetry that relates to general experience and the realities of the time.” Although she gives Taggard prominent mention in her landmark survey, A Jury of Her Peers: Celebrating American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter concludes that the poet’s choice to reject her early lyrical style in favor of a more politically-oriented realism “stifled the ardent feminine voice that had made her poetry alive.”
The fact that her second husband, Kenneth Durant, was the American agent of the Soviet news agency, Tass, and that her poems regularly featured in New Masses, colored the opinion of even her closest friends. In an interview for an oral history project, Sara Bard Field claimed, “She wrote a poem called something like ‘Our Good Father Stalin.'” (Bard may have been recalling Taggard’s 1942 poem, “Salute to the Russian Dead,” which includes such propagandistic declarations as, “Whatever is good and tangible and fair in time to come/Begins here, where they die in their blood, in their genius.”) Certainly, Taggard’s tendency to reach for the red banner and to wave it a little too enthusiastically after her marriage to Durant is difficult to look past, particularly after The Gulag Archipelago and the declassification of the Venona intercepts.
Yet it’s worth taking the effort to look past Taggard’s most strident verses and discover more about this woman and her work. And a great deal can be understood by a series of autobiographical pieces she wrote for various magazines between 1924 and 1934. The last of these, titled “Hawaii, Washington, Vermont,” appeared in the October 1934 issue of Scribners magazine, and contrasts the two extremes of her childhood: the bleak, narrow-minded aridity of Waitland, a small town in the farmlands of Eastern Washington; and the lush, gentle warmth of rural Oahu, Hawaii.
Taggard was born in Waitland, where her father had come at the invitation of his brother, a successful apple farmer, in hopes of improving his always-fragile health. The dust of farmland life, however, was ruinous, however, and in 1897, when Genevieve was two, he accepted an offer from the Disciples of Christ to run a missionary school on Oahu. They lived there for over ten years, then returned to Waitland, came back briefly, then left Hawaii for good, settling back in Waitland, where Genevieve graduated from high school in 1912.
For Taggard, Hawaii was, literally, “our Garden of Eden.” They lived with the diverse cultures of the island–“the Portuguese, the Filipinos, the Puerto Ricans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hawaiian-Chinese, and the hap-a-haoles.” They ate mangos, scooped minnows by the hundreds from coastal lagoons, picked algarroba beans, and played in the warm Pacific surf. Having to return to Waitland was like being cast out of Paradise. In an article titled, “A Haole Scrapbook,” published in the June 1924 issue of The Bookman, Taggard recalled one of her last days before leaving:
John Frank, the greatest swimmer of all the native lads, stood on the big rock that overhung the Kalihi-kai swimming pool, the last day I saw him. His fathers had fished there, with spears and torches. The fish, white and languid, went back and forth, that day, in a shaft of sunlight that knifed the yellow-green water. John Frank stood on the stone worn into a little hollow by the feet of his forefathers. He didn’t own the stone. It was on a white man’s estate now.
“Wellakahou”, shouted John Frank, and cut the water with his joined palms.
I sat on the stone when he left it and strung myself a lei–it was a goodbye lei made of ilima flowers. The first span of my years–the first ten years spent in the islands–was ending the next day.
John Frank’s smooth black head popped up from the water. “How long you going stay in the States?” he asked me, as if it had just become clear that I was really going,
“Three months”, I said.
“Mangoes getting ripe soon”, he offered.
A sudden pang at the thought of missing mango season went through me. John Frank had dived again. The water was sooty black and quiet. Then in a whirlpool came a brown arm. This time he popped up with a well formed idea: “Too bad you gotta be haole”, he said, and went under again.
Off and on, I have thought so too, all my life.
Waitland, on the other hand, seemed something very like Hell:
Hot stubble faces met us at the train window. I ducked down and took a quick look at the hot face of the town, with the feeling of a person about to enter a jail. Dust, ankle-deep, paved the main street. Broken wooden sidewalks bordered by dusty weeds led to a block of ramshackle stores. A drooping horse and a spring wagon stood hitched in front of the post office. No trees in sight; just stubble-covered hills through which we had come for hours. We children found even the first day in the new home town as dull as ditch, or rather dish, water. Houses had the blinds down to protect carpets. Houses were tight and smelled of dust. Kitchens were hot with wood stoves. Parlors were not to sit in. Flies swarmed around doorways. Outside there was stubble or dust, no grass. Children must not play in the orchards. If little girls were bored they could hem dish towels or swat flies.
James Taggard, Genevieve’s father, was given a miserable plot of land between two railroad lines and planted with a withering stand of pear trees. His brother, who had gotten his start with $2,000 borrowed from James, told him the orchard was repayment and just needed “intensive farming.” Instead, it failed, as did James’ already-poor health, and when Genevieve was accepted into the University of California Berkeley in 1914, the whole family moved with her.
Her mother ran a boarding house and Genevieve worked when she wasn’t taking classes. It took her five years to graduate, after which she parted from her family and moved to Greenwich Village. She quickly landed a job with a literary magazine, then another, then founded Measure, a Journal of Verse of which she worked as editor, and also worked as poetry editor of the Liberator, the slightly toned-down version of the Masses set up by Max Eastman. Her university classmate, Josephine Herbst, joined her, and the two were soon best friends. Taggard helped arranged for Herbst’s abortion after she became pregnant during her affair with Maxwell Anderson. The two complained about the character of the men they met: “What’s in the men nowadays–the women have the fire & the ardency & the power & the depth?,” Taggard once wrote Herbst.
Then she met Robert Wolf, who styled himself the model of the serious artist: “He had an extremely high idea of his own value as a poet,” recalled Sara Bard Fields. Taggard fell for him, hard, and they soon married. In an anonymous piece, “Poet out of Pioneer,” published in the Nation in 1927, it’s clear she was still convinced that Wolf’s art was the great cause for which she had to sacrifice: “I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was…. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry….. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult….”
She gradually discovered just how difficult Wolf could be. He insisted he had to go off on his own to write, that she was too intrusive and confining for him to be able to create around her. After Genevieve gave birth to their daughter, Marcia, in 1921, he said she would have to take full responsibility for raising the child. They moved back to California and Genevieve went to work at Mills College while Wolf went off to the Pacific coast to write. Soon, instead of looking on her marriage as her “chief improvement,” she was writing Herbst that it was hard to sacrifice herself for his art “when you struggle for weeks with stoves and mud and diapers and canned food….”
Though they did not finally divorce until 1934, Wolf and Taggard spent less and less time together. He became subject to bouts of depression, bouts of hyperactivity, and bouts of anger, most of it directed at Genevieve. She continued to be the main bread-winner, working as a book reviewer, teaching at Bennington College, and still managing to write far more than Wolf did. Her first book, For Eager Lovers, was published in 1922. In it, in a poem titled, “Married,” the refrain tells us much of the state of her own marriage: “Apart, apart, we are apart.” The book included a poem that demonstrated just how much her initial idealism had given way to a much more measured view of the world:
Men go to women mutely for their peace; And they, who lack it most, create it when They make because they must, loving their men– A solace for sad bosom-bended heads. There Is all the meager peace men get no otherwhere; No mountain space, no tree with placid leaves, Or heavy gloom beneath a young girl’s hair, No sound of valley bell on autumn air, Or room made home with doves along the eves, Ever holds peace like this, poured by poor women Out of their heart’s poverty, for worn men.
Her second book, a small volume titled, Hawaiian Hilltop, was published in 1924. In 1925, Eastman asked her to edit May Days: An Anthology of Verse from Masses-Liberator. In her preface, she remarks that re-reading the back issues of the magazines “had the same fascination that the face of your father at the age of sixteen has, when you come upon it peering from an album, for the first time after years of pre-occupation with your own generation.”
Her third book, Words for the Chisel, was published by Knopf in 1926, but it was Travelling Standing Still (1928) that first earned her serious critical acclaim. Edmund Wilson called Taggard “a poet of our common human experience” and lauded her poem, “With Child,” as the best poem about birth he’d read. William Rose Benet, writing in the Saturday Review, said he found it “almost impossible to classify Miss Taggard as a poet. If you use the image of a gem, she has many facets, and she has always possessed a quality like the moods of water.”
Though she no longer considered her marriage a triumph, she still saw herself as something of a rebel against the conventions of her parents. In a piece titled, “Statements of Belief,” published in The Bookman, Taggard described how her inclination toward contrarianism started early:
We always sang four-part songs, in the Islands, at school and singing was important. I sat with the altos and sang the dark humming parts. After about a year, came along a singing teacher who applied her octaves and diagnosed: “But you are a soprano.”
There it was again. I was a freckled blonde when I wanted to be brunette, white when I wanted to be Hawaiian, and a soprano when I wanted to be alto.
“I’m going to keep on singing alto.” That was final.
“Very well, and ruin your voice. You have a real soprano. And you might sing solos.”
And so, Alto against Nature, with now (she was right), no voice at all . . . and the only chance for singing, on paper. Uncomfortable as a dog within ear-shot of high sopranos, still liking best middle register and counterpoint.
And so, Alto against Nature, she proclaimed herself quite the opposite of all that her parents stood for: “I am a poet, a wine-bibber, a radical; a non-churchgoer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial.”
The late 1920s and early 1930s was perhaps the period of Taggard’s best work. Benet later selected a poem Taggard published in the 13 October 1928 issue of Saturday Review for his anthology, Fifty Poets (1933). The poem offers hints of the two worlds of her childhood:
Try Tropic for Your Balm (On the Properties of Nature for Healing an Illness)
Try tropic for your balm. Try storm. And after storm, calm. Try snow of heaven, heavy, soft, and slow, Brilliant and warm. Nothing will help, and nothing do much harm.
Drink iron from rare springs; follow the sun; Go far To get the beam of some medicinal star; Or in your anguish run The gauntlet of all zones to an ultimate one. Fever and chill Punish you still, Earth has no zone to work against your will.
Burn in the jewelled desert with the toad. Catch lace In evening mist across your haunted face; Or walk in upper air the slanted road. It will not lift that load; Nor will large seas undo your subtle ill.
Nothing can cure and nothing kill What ails your eyes, what cuts your pulse in two. And not kill you.
Taggard later wrote that, “One Summer evening in 1928 in a special key of loneliness and intensity and certainty, the whole thing came as if dictated…. When I wrote it … I had myself and you, reader, in mind … and many others … all of us, and there are many now–who run through books and landscapes looking for something, with worn faces. I chose this poem because it is about our life and our way of behaving.”
She joined the faculty at Mount Holyoke College and began work on a biography, The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson, which was published in 1930. In 1931, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her to travel to Europe, where she spent several months living on the island of Mallorca.
When she returned to the United States, she appears to have brought back a conviction that she had to make a fundamental change in her poetry. She felt her previous work was frivolous, and she now wrote with a thumping seriousness worthy of Robert Wolf:
To the Powers of Desolation
O mortal boy, we cannot stop The leak in that great wall where death seeps in With hands or bodies, frantic mouths, or sleep. Over the wall, over the wall’s top I have seen rising waters, waters of desolation.
From my despair bibles are written, children begotten; Women open the wrong doors; men lie in ditches retching,– The horrible bright eyes of insanity fix on a blue fly, Focus, enlarge. Dear mortal, escape You cannot. I hear the drip of eternity above the quiet buzz of your sleep….
In a review of a collection of poems by William Carlos Williams written for New Masses at around the same time, Taggard bemoaned that Williams had “fallen among the Imagists” and declared that, “We do not need to pay such exaggerated attention to ‘real objects’ because now the fog clears off; real ideas challenge us.”
Divorced from Wolf in 1934, she joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, where she remained until forced by ill health (chronic hypertension) to leave in 1946. Through her work for New Masses, she met Kenneth Durant and they married in 1935. By all reports, the two were deeply in love. She became a member of the Communist Party and they took a tour of the Soviet Union in 1936. She published a selection of her new, realistic poems, Calling Western Union, soon after, and two years later, Collected Poems: 1918-1938, in which she formally declared her lyrical work a thing of the past.
Interestingly, her shift from modernism to realism was mirrored by a renewed respect for the values her parents–and, in particular, her mother, stood for. In the November 1938 issue of Poetry, she published the following:
To My Mother
The long delight and early I heard in my small years clearly: The morning song, bed-making, bustle for new undertaking, With dish-washing and hay-raking,
This vanished, or seemed diminished, Was lost, in trouble finished. I did nervous work, unsteady, captive work and heady. Nothing well-done and ready.
And heard in other places Than home, and from foreign faces The dauntless gay and breezy communal song of the bust, I–idle and uneasy.
I said, my work is silly, Lonely and willy-nilly. See this hand with nicotined habits, this useless hand that edit A chronicle of debits.
Join, if I can, the makers, And the tillers of difficult acres; And get somehow this dearly lost, this re-discovered rarely Habit of rising early.
She had apparently also forgiven her mother for keeping a volume of Edgar Guest’s poems next to Genevieve’s books on her nightstand. During the Forties, Taggard spent a good deal of her free time at a farm near Bennington that she had bought with the profits from her Dickinson book. Although she acknowledged she could never fully assimilate with the locals, the rural atmosphere somehow brought back her memories of Hawaii, and a lyrical strain began to force its way back into her poetry. She published A Part of Vermont in 1945–a slender book but with nary a sign of red banners or marching masses.
A year later, she published Slow Music, which showed a writer torn between the cause she believed in and the sensuality at the core of her spirit. Dross like “Salute to the Russian Dead” is overwhelmed by such poems as “Hymn to Yellow,” “A Dialogue on Cider,” “A Poem to Explain Everything About a Certain Day in Vermont,” and the playful “A Sombrero Is a Kind of Hat This Poem Is a Kind of Nonsense.” And the woman who rejected William Carlos Williams for fixating on objects came up with a lovely little poem with echoes of William’s red wheel barrow:
Even if the geraniums are artificial Just the same, In the rear of the Italian cafe Under the nimbus of electric light They are red; no less red For how they were made. Above The mirror and the napkins In the little white pots … … In the semi-clean cafe Where they have good Lasagne … The red is a wonderful joy Really, and so are the people Who like and ignore it. In this place They also have good bread.
And so, with her last book, Origin: Hawaii (1947), Taggard returned to Oahu for the last time (and perhaps knew it for the first time). In her introduction to the collection, she wrote that, “A place that has not been truly felt and communicated does not, in a certain sense, exist. Just as a human being who is not quite conscious may be said not quite to exist either.” The collection includes the last poem she wrote, “Luau,” which, one could argue, offers her own equivalent of the Last Supper:
So I come home in the valley of Kalihi, My bare feet on hard earth, hibiscus with stamen-tongue Twirled in my fingers like a paper windmill, A wheel of color, crimson, the petals large, Kiss of the petal, tactile, light, intense …
Now I am back again. I can touch the children: My human race, in whom was a human dwelling, Whose names are all the races–of one skin. For so our games ran tacit, without blur.
… Here we are dipping and passing the calabash In the ceremony of friends; I also; But in frenzy and pain distort The simple need, knowing how blood is shed:
To sit together Drinking the blue ocean, eating the sun Like a fruit …
Geraldine Taggard died in New York City in 1948 at the age of 53, of the debilitating effects of long-term chronic hypertension. Though all her books are now long out of print, by far the best place to start to discover her poetry is the collection compiled by her daughter, Marcia Durant Liles, To the Natural World, which was issued in 1980 but is available for free in PDF format (link. It includes some of her very best poems and suffers none of the shortcomings of Taggard’s “realism” period.
As a rule, I limit this site to out-of-print books and long-unpublished authors, but I want to break that rule today to take a little time to celebrate the work of one of my favorite writers, Wright Morris. To some extent, Morris does qualify for mention on the Neglected Books Page, for while most of his books are still in print, thanks to the outstanding support of the University of Nebraska Press for a favorite native son, his name rarely gets mentioned in discussions of great 20th century American writers. While Morris was still living, in fact, a reviewer in the Washington Post once wrote, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.”
I first learned of Morris through a PBS documentary from the mid-1970s, one of a series of half-hour films on selected American writers. The show concentrated on Morris’ roots in the great plains and dry lands of central Nebraska, a place where, as Morris put it, “The man drives and the woman sleeps.” My grandfather, who was born about a hundred miles west of Morris’ home town of Central City, was still living at that time, and I had a strong interest in understanding the culture he grew up in. He had a remarkable patience and persistence that seemed a little mystifying to a kid who’d spent his days watching TV and going downtown to the movies.
Although Morris left the state when he was fourteen, lived in Chicago with his father, attended colleges in southern California, spent a year traveling around Europe, resided in Pennsylvania and California, and often visited Europe and Mexico, Nebraska remained strongly associated with him, and reappeared in his novels and stories throughout his career. Two of his earliest books, The Inhabitants (1946) and The Home Place (1948), were pioneering works of photo-fiction, combining Morris’ stark black-and-white photographs of deserted, wind-scarred buildings and abandoned interiors in rural Nebraska with stories of the odd people, mostly of few words, who survived there.
Where others might see emptiness, Morris found the source for intense imaginings. “In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in a man that begins to flow.” So opens The Works of Love (1952), which I consider one of the very best American novels of its century. For me, to steal an opening line from Ford, this is the saddest story I’ve ever heard. Morris tells the story of Will Brady, a man of the plains, who achieves a great success as an early corporate poultry farmer yet always seems a Grand Canyon away from the people he loves. One of his wives wraps herself up in their sheets to keep away from Will, and when, later, he is broke and working as a department store Santa Claus in Chicago, he writes long letters to a stepson who will never see them.
Morris’ first novel, My Uncle Dudley (1942), was a comic account of a trip from Nebraska to California that Morris made at the age of sixteen with his uncle Dwight in 1926. My favorite Morris novel–a pair of novels, to be correct–takes that journey in reverse. In Fire Sermon (1971), a wizened, straight-backed old man, Floyd Warner, aged eighty-three, takes his orphaned eleven year-old grand nephew and returns to his family home in Nebraska to settle the affairs of his sister, Viola. Floyd fixes up the 1927 Maxwell he’s had up on block for decades, and, driving well below the speed limit, slowly works his way East. Along the way, they pick up a hitch-hiking hippie couple, and when they arrive at Viola’s place, they find the same empty rooms and collections of silverware and kerosene lamps that Morris photographed thirty years earlier.
Fire Sermon was followed in 1972 by A Life, in which Floyd Warner continues his journey, leaving behind the young boy and picking up a somewhat mythical character, Blackbird, who leads him to his death. The two novels trace a symbolic path from the hard and innocent days of the 1920s to the energy and anarchy of Vietnam-era America–yet the one thing one could never say is that Morris ever strays from the concrete and tangible into symbolism.
Looking through the list of Morris’ novels, I am struck both by the size and variety of his oeuvre. In addition to his Nebraska novels, there are his expat novels, such as The Huge Season (1954), The Field of Vision (1956), and Cause for Wonder (1963). All feature rich, precise descriptive prose, electic mixes of characters and situations, and Morris’ ironic sense of comedy. Then there are two of the best novels written and set in the 1960s: In Orbit (1967), about the one day racing, raping and thieving spree of one Jubal Gainer, a character of pure energy and violence, and One Day (1965), which looks at a small California town on the day of JFK’s assassination.
In his last novel, Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980), Morris returned again to a Nebraska setting. In his review of the book, Larry McMurtry wrote, “No landscape moves him so deeply as the somber, muted plains country; for nowhere else is his depth of reference so nearly absolute.” Although the book received better publicity than most of Morris’ other books, it remained, like the rest, better spoken of than read. While the sum of his work represents a considerable richness and variety of writing, Morris never aimed to write for a large audience. Asked to describe his ideal reader, Morris said it would be one who possessed, “A well-established and chronic inclination to read slowly, and reread the line you just slipped by.”
As long as the University of Nebraska Press stays in business, there’s a good chance that Wright Morris’ novels will stay in print. But there’s little chance that his name and reputation will ever eclipse that of, say, John Steinbeck or Norman Mailer, given his predilection for spare, unpretentious prose and lean, less-traveled subjects and places. And so I consider him more than worth the time and space required for this modest tribute. If you’ve never read anything by Morris, I’d suggest Fire Sermon–just under 150 pages, dry, tough and funny. I’d recommend The Works of Love as well, but you’d better be prepared to have your heart broken and bled. Few writers have been as adept at speaking softly and wielding a big emotional stick as Wright Morris.
Although James Agate (pronounced AY-gett) was, during his lifetime, one of the best-known literary figures in England, it’s not surprising he’s utterly forgotten today. His primary form–theatre and film reviews for daily newspapers–is about as short-lived as there is.
Not that his work ethic ever acknowledged that fact. As his biographer, James Harding wrote,
As a talker, as a raconteur, he was spontaneous and witty without effort. As a writer, he was slow, uncertain and laborious. It took him three days to write his Sunday Times article, and he rewrote it as many as six or seven times. the manuscript ended up as a maze of crossings-out and second thoughts. He would go to bed reasonably satisfied with what he had done. In the middle of the night, new phrases would present themselves, and he would get up and slave at his desk again until dawn.
He made it a habit, in fact, to draft his review before even going to a play, just to ensure that he had something ready in time to make his deadline. But though he worked at a time when theatre was the leading form of lively arts in Britain and reigned for years as its most influential critic, there would be little reason for mentioning his name here had he limited his output to criticism (and three minor works of fiction).
What earns Agate a place not just on this site but on the shelves of any lover of literate amusement are the nine volumes of his Ego–a unique work that combines autobiography, journal, causerie, commonplace book, and collections of letters written to him by others. They are, in Harding’s words, “the perfect bedside books. You pick one up to check a point, and, before you realize what is happening, you are bewitched into reading on, and on, and on.” This is an echo of Jacques Barzun’s introduction to The Later Ego, which collects Ego 8 and Ego 9: “One can only say that nine volumes of this ideal bedside reading are none too many.”
Agate was approached to write his autobiography in the early 1930s. From today’s vantage point, one wonders why. At the time, he’d been working as a critic for over twenty years, covering theatre, music, books and, lately, film. A theatre lover from an early age, Agate found his talent for acting lacking and turned to criticism as an alternative. It was a profession he joined late, having spent the first twenty years of his working life following in his father’s footsteps as a cloth merchant. Although he’d begun to acquire a nationwide reputation through his appearances on BBC radio, his autobiography would seem to have more in common with a quickie book published to capitalize on a minor celebrity’s fame than anything of lasting literary value.
Yet when the first Ego was published in 1935, most reviewers acclaimed it as an exceptional work. Rebecca West wrote, “One would like to organise some graceful national demonstration in its honour. … Really, there is not anything much better than our Mr. Agate, save Mr. Pickwick and such bright diamonds of literature.”
The comparison with Pickwick was accurate. Agate was a larger-than-life character: foppish, heavy-drinking and smoking, a lover of cricket and horse racing, extravagant in his spending (he would keep cabs waiting for hours while he dined and wined with friends), and vastly well read. He was also gay, though his public brash drew attention away from his private preferences. He liked to be one of the last to enter a theatre, which he did with a flourish, and wherever he went, he loved the company of lively personalities … as long as he was allowed to outshine them. He once described himself as a character “who looked like a farmer, dressed like a bookmaker, ate like a Parisian, and drank like a Hollander.”
He also spent money like there was no tomorrow. While he did quite well when he worked in the cloth business, once he came back from serving as a purchasing agent in the British Army, buying fodder in the south of France for use by cavalry horses in France and Greece, he gave up all pretense of keeping his books. He opened a small shop when he first moved to London and it quickly went bust. He bought and sold horses with expert eye for horseflesh, but usually came out at a loss after factoring in his stabling costs. “Debt worries are a legitimate hell,” he wrote in his very first entry. In his very last, he notes, “Received this morning a curt communication from the Revenue saying that unless I find £940 within a week everything in my flat except the bed I lie on will be taken away.”
Although Ego and all the subsequent volumes were subtitled, “The Autobiography of James Agate,” it’s really a set of diaries than a narrative life story. The first entry in Ego 1 is dated 2 June 1932; the last in Ego 9 exactly fifteen years later–just four days before his death, of a heart attack, just short of his 70th birthday. Across the over two thousand pages comprising the nine volumes, Agate wrote and quoted–without ever a note of apology–whatever he felt. “It will be a relief to set down just what I do actually think, and in the first words to hand, instead of pondering what I ought to think and worrying about the words in which to express the hammered-out thought.”
It was never intended to be a private diary. He kept keeping it after being approached about the autobiography, and, as Harding puts it, “Agate wrote for immediate publication.” After Ego 1, the subsequent volumes appeared roughly every 18 months, and from the responses from critics and readers he quotes, each was eagerly anticipated. “I enjoy keeping this diary, yet would not write a word except with the notion that some day somebody may read it.”
Agate was opinionated, bitchy, frank (but not candid), and witty. Or, as Alistair Cooke described him in one of his last “Letters from America,” “irritating, brilliant, perceptive, self-centred, argumentative, charming, spoiled, explosive, capacious.” Agate was fluent in French, German and Latin, prodigious in his knowledge of literature and the history of the theatre in both England and France, and ready to pounce on the slightest mistake in a quotation from Shakespeare, Jonson, Congreve, and most of the other major playwrights.
Yet he managed to be expert without becoming pompous. He was capable of finding fine and funny things in the highest and lowest. An example: “I hold this Pipe Night [a short story collection by John O’Hara] to be ten times better than James Joyce wrote towards the end of his life, and a hundred and fifty times better than Gertrude Stein wrote at any wrote wrote at wrote wrote wrote period any any at.”
He also, it seems, trusted and liked well enough by a very broad reading audience for thousands of them to have felt free to write him on almost any topic at all. Agate includes hundreds of such letters–everything from an RAF airman in a remote station in Malaysia asking for a donation of a few books to enliven the base library to two girls in Manchester asking for career advice.
It’s a literary potpourri, and if you don’t find something funny or enlightening, keep reading: you will in the next page or two. I can’t agree with James Harding’s claim that, “The full flavour of the Ego books cannot be appreciated without reading them through consecutively. So much depends, as in a musical composition, on the individual themes which are stated, taken up, varied, developed, and then succeeded by other motifs that recur at given points.”
It just isn’t possible. Agate was a prodigious worker, enormously proud of his output, which he toted up each year and compared with the likes of Balzac and Trollope. But the diary entries are just as likely to be ephemera (“7.0. Get up. 8.0. Start to motor to Manchester. 12.15. Arrive Manchester”) or clippings (excerpts of other peoples’ reviews or articles) or letters from his many correspondents, high and low (“Dear Mr Agate, Are you a self-made man because I wish you could advise me how to be one too”) or jokes:
From a Harley Street lecture on the subject of How to Sleep Well: “Be careful how you spend the evening. It’s what you do out of bed that affects you when you turn in.” One of those cases, surely, in which the converse is equally true!
It’s this unpredictability that makes the volumes of Ego so wonderful for serendipitous browsing. I dip into Ego 6, arriving in mid-1942:
May 31, Sunday Opening my paper in the train to Bournemouth, I read that John Barrymore has died. Oddly enough, among the books I have brought down with me is a review copy of Mrs. Alma Power-Water’s biography published this week. “For God’s sake don’t whitewash me,” Barrymore said to her. “Play me as I am.” ….
July 1, Wednesday Billy Bennett, the music-hall comedian, died yesterday….. Billy Bennett was forthright, bawdy, and wholesome. He knew what sailors and soldiers on leave look for is not a rock bun, a symphony concert, or a lecture on modern poetry. He knew that a Saturday night audience is a crowd of clerks and shop assistants, let out after being pent up for the week in warehouse or store. He was a wiser man than Burke, who ought to have known that vice which loses its grossness doubles its evil. Bennett’s grossness had that gusto about it which is like a high wind blowing over a noisome place.
July 30, Thursday Meric Dobson, now a sub-lieutenant in the R. N. V. R., told me this. During his recent leave he visited a travelling circus near Bristol. Introducing “Miss Zelfredo, the world-famous snake-charmer,” the ringmaster said, “It is with great regret that I have to announce one of the great tragedies of the Ring. Doreen Zelfredo’s python, which had been with her for six years, died on Friday at Knowle. I am sure the audience will join with me in sympathy for Doreen, and in the wish that she may soon find a new pal. If ever a woman loved a snake Doreen did. Miss Zelfredo will not enter the ring and perform her act without her snake.”
A few days after this, Agate wrote,
This sixth and possibly final volume of Ego–I can feel an October nip in the air–will be my thirty-seventh book, unless, of course, I publish some more while it is writing. This means thirty-seven slabs of stolen time. Every moment spent on Ego had been filched from the hours I should have been giving to this editor or that…. But since, all deductions made, my books have never brought me in even a hundred pounds a year, I must continue reviewing plays, films, novels. And then there is the old income-tax nuisance. My arrears tie me to the stake. Bear-like, I must fight the course.
The lucky readers who discover Ego will thank James Agate for filching these moments, for these are pages that are still to be enjoyed long, long after his finest Sunday Times reviews will have been forgotten.
It would be a challenge to assemble all nine volumes of Ego, as several of the early books are quite rare. The later volumes, however, are easier to find, and fairly cheap. Easier still are the three volumes of A Shorter Ego (Vol. 1 (1946); Vol. 2 (1946); and Vol. 3 (1949)). There is also The Later Ego, (1951) edited by Barzun, and the rather slim The Selective Ego (1976), edited by Tim Beaumont. Any of these is a great place to start–and I challenge you to stop with just one. There’s a good reason why Barzun, in his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present, called Agate “the Supreme Diarist.”
Humor is a bit like wine: a lot of it doesn’t age well, and depending on your taste, it might not even young well. And unlike other forms of literature, for which there’s a chance that the right teacher or critic might help you appreciate what first turned you off or left no impression at all, it’s pretty hard to make something funny by persuasion.
If you Google “Ira Wallach,” you’re more likely to find pages about the millionaire philanthropist than about the novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, playwright and, back in the early 1950s, industrious writer of parodies. Even the bios of Ira Wallach the writer focus on his work for Hollywood and the stage. Frankly, unless you’re S. J. Perelman, writing parodies is unlike to earn you a significant spot in literary history. Parodies rank pretty low on the totem pole, just slightly above “How To” books.
Actually, “How To” books have a better chance of surviving in the eyes of the reading public. Dale Carnegie still sells thousands of copies a year, while no one cares about How to be Deliriously Happy, Wallach’s send-up of the blithely optimistic Carnegian school of self-help books.
Both Hopalong-Freud books collect parodies of a wide variety of then-current writers and styles. Fortunately for today’s reader, most of Wallach’s targets have since earned a lasting place in the literary canon, so one can easily appreciate his success or failure in exaggerating their quirks and flaws. Hopalong-Freud, for example, is a take-off of T. S. Eliot’s 1949 play, The Cocktail Party, which was his greatest popular success. Freud, Wallach’s twist on Eliot’s psychiatrist-comme-priest, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, offers up such weighty pronouncements as,
No, no, one never knows the Glutzes. One may have the glimmer of the Glutzes Or feel the shadow of the Glutzes as they pass, But to know the Glutzes is to know oneself, And to know oneself is more than It is given to man to know.
Of course, shooting at Eliot as his most solemn is a bit like shooting at a balloon: it’s already laden with enough gas to be on the verge of bursting. The same goes for “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Soup,” which blasts Hemingway with a mortar–rather as Wallach’s protagonist does a duck (along with “one sparrow, one caneton, and a B-36″) in the story’s opening scene.
A couple of Wallach’s pieces no longer have a solid point of reference to stand up against. How many will recognize Lin Yutang’s somewhat dated bits of Chinese wisdom, let alone Wallach’s pastiche (which naturally involves large quantities of tea). On the other hand, while Bob Hope’s ghostwriters have long since put down their pens, the best-seller lists are still full of routines by stand-up comedians recycled as books. Wallach’s “Modern Joe Miller” is a wonderful example, taking the following story and running it through the wringer several times in a row:
Walter Hampden told this to Eddie Cantor when they were visiting Eleonora Duse at George Bernard Shaw’s house shortly after they had all been guests of the Prince of Wales at the Ascot Races. Seems the late Czar of Russia once met a familiar figure walking down the streets of Moscow. Seizing him by the shoulders, the Czar exclaimed, “Rasputin, how you’ve changed! You used to be tall. Now you’re short. You used to have a beard. Now you’re clean-shaven. You used to be stoop-shouldered. Now you stand erect.”
The Czar’s friend stopped him. “Your Majesty,” he said, “my name’s not Rasputin. It’s Kerensky.”
“Oho!” cried the Czar. “So you’ve changed your name, too!”
The best of the four books, for me, is Gutenberg’s Folly, which provides a sampler of the works of the late Mitchel Hackney, a contemporary of Hemingway, who tried his hand at most of the major literary styles and genres of the 1930s to 1950s, along with a selection of critical commentaries. This device allows Wallach to play upon the worst aspects of Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe, Tennessee Williams, William Saroyan, William Faulkner, and others.
I particularly liked “The Pilgrimage of Bixie Davis,” Hackney’s attempt to trump Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Having recently tried to listen to an audiobook version of another Bellow novel, I was ready to appreciate Wallach’s spot-on version of Bellow’s style, which always seems hell-bent on tossing another ingredient into an already-overloaded prose stew:
Uncle Gordon who lived with us had a stand where he sold rubber goods, razor blades, sundries, and life insurance. His face was clear of wens but he had blebs, straggling hairs anchored at the top of his head, the whites of his eyes green, and above the eyes two eyebrows, one black, one red, condor-nose horning a Roland-call for breakfast. Which was oatmeal and tea. He was a Tenth Avenue Marco Polo and he Cathayed the years away, Gordon, until he parlayed a fortune into three more, Midas-fingered, gilding his daughter into the arms of Bolo Snider, the bookie.
Bolo gave me my first job taking the phone and keeping book behind the cigar store, buttering the cops and dunning the deadbeats while the ponies dug hooves into Belmont. A two-buck-across-the-board life. In general Bolo was a good man but constricted, a frog in the mouth of a snake, bug-eyed, face wenned and warted, full of blebs, long hairs dropping from his nose to his chin, one ear quartered, the other halved–O judgment of Solomon!–nose straight, Praxiteletic, from having been knocked to one side in a fight and knocked back in another. Well, “le présent est chargé du passé, et gros de l’avenir.” Or if you wish, dolce far niente. What the hell!
“If the unresponsive gods, so often invoked, so seldom complaisant, would grant me one sweet boon, I should ask of them that I might join that little band of authors, who, unknown to the wide careless world, remain from generation to generation the friends of a few fortunate readers.” This was Agnes Repplier’s introduction to Epistolae Ho-Elianae, a two-volume collection of the familiar letters of James Howell a 17th Century English bureaucrat and man of letters.
If ISI intended this quite misleading title to attract more attention than, say, “Selected Essays by Agnes Repplier,” it succeeded, garnering at least a few reviews in the major press. Michael Dirda covered it in the Washington Post. Titled “A Woman of Masterful Persuasion,” the review included Dirda’s admission that, as a lifelong scourer of bookstore shelves, he’d seen used copies of Repplier’s books hundreds of times, but that,”in appearance they all seemed mere period pieces, ladylike albums revealing a sensitive soul’s adventures among the masterpieces.” It was, however, “An understandable mistake. After all, there were so many similar litterateurs of that era–Augustine Birrell, Edmund Gosse, Alice Meynell, Robert Lynd, Logan Pearsall Smith.”
The main reason ISI’s title is misleading is not that Repplier was in no way a contemporary of Austen’s (she was born 38 years after Austen died, and lived to the ripe age of 95–twice as long as Austen). It’s that Repplier wasn’t even a novelist. After publishing a dozen or so short stories, she abandoned fiction almost entirely. Repplier was an essayist.
The literary canon seems to allot each century an average of one or two essayists for remembrance. Born in 1855 and still writing until 1937, Agnes Repplier didn’t make the cut for either of her centuries.
Not that she would have lost any sleep over it. She was pretty sanguine about her place in literature: “My niche is small,” she said, “but I made it myself.” She gave up fiction in favor of essays at the advice of her first editor, Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic World magazine. “‘I fancy,'” he said, ‘that you know more about books than you do about life, that you are more of a reader than an observer.'” He suggested she write a piece about her favorite author, John Ruskin. “And make it brief,” he added.
“That essay turned my feet into the path which I have trodden laboriously ever since,” she wrote. Her choice of genre was entirely pragmatic, however. Her father, a coal broker, lost his fortune in a failed iron foundry south of Philadelphia, and it fell to Agnes to be the main breadwinner, caring for her father, sister, and a feeble-minded brother who lived to the age of eighty. “The imperious necessities of life have driven me, in common with other workers, to seek the best market I could find for my wares.” “I have been a mere laborer in the trenches, with no nobler motive underlying my daily toil than the desire to be self-supporting in a clean and reputable fashion,” she wrote in a 1909 essay, “Catholicism and Authorship.”
The piece on Ruskin was published in 1884. Within a year of that, her work was appearing in almost every issue of the Catholic World. Her great ambition, though, was to be published in the Atlantic Monthly, the leading American literary and cultural magazine of the time. It took two years, but in 1886, her essay, “Children, Past and Present,” was accepted and appeared in the April issue.
The piece is a classic of the compare-and-contrast school. She cites numerous examples of child-rearing in the past, ranging from abuse to “Spare the rod and spoil the child” to simply leaving the child to fend for itself. Then she discusses contemporary views, influenced by a mix of romanticism (“the innocent babes”) and early professional educators. As is often the case in her essays prior to the First World War, Repplier sees merits and demerits on both sides. She acknowledges the charm of children brought up with “relaxed discipline,” but maintains that “The faculty of sitting still without fidgeting, of walking without rushing, and of speaking without screaming can be acquired only under tuition.”
While “Children, Past and Present” isn’t a good place to start if you’re interested in experiencing the pleasures of Repplier’s best work, it does display one of her greatest strengths: a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of literature, from the great classics to obscure books and writers. Among the names she mentions or quotes from in just the first half of the essay are Maria Edgeworth, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, Giacomo Leopardi, Jehan le Cuvelier, Madame de Rochefoucauld, St. Augustine, St. Anselm, Edgar Quinet, Sir Francis Doyle, Adam Smith, and her favorite, John Ruskin.
“What Children Read,” which appeared in the January 1887 issue, is a better example of Repplier’s voice and viewpoint. In it, she mourns for the passing of a time when there were few books actually written for children, and what many young readers had to choose from were books intended for an adult audience: “Those were not days when over-indulgence and a multiplicity of books robbed reading of its healthy zest.” By the time Repplier was writing, no end of “Ripping Yarns” and tales of stalwart young heroes and heroines ala Horatio Alger were flooding the book market, substituting a safe world full of moral models for one in which an unsuspecting child might pick up “A Tale of a Tub,” “The Faerie Queen,” or The Three Musketeers.
Repplier convinced Houghton, Mifflin to publish a collection of seven of her early essays in her first book, Books and Men (1888). As Geore Stewart Stokes puts it in his 1949 biography, Agnes Repplier: Lady Of Letters (available on the Internet Archive), “she had become convinced that a book is a necessary form of advertisement for a periodical writer.” As it was, she had to subsidize the book, and the publisher “made it painfully clear that she was very probably throwing her money away.” Instead, it sold well enough to lead to three more printings, and Repplier went on to publish nineteen more collections of essays over the next fifty years.
At her best, Repplier is pragmatic, cuttingly insightful, and funny. Take her piece, “Lectures,” from her 1894 book, In the Dozy Hours: “Now, is it industry or a love of sport which makes us sit in long and solemn rows in an oppressively hot room, blinking at glaring lights, breathing a vitiated air, wriggling on straight and narrow chairs, and listening, as well as heat and fatigue and discomfort will permit, to a lecture which might just as well have been read peacefully by our own firesides?” (Remember, this was at the height of the Chatauqua movement). She remarks that, “The necessity of knowing a little about a great many things is the most grievous burden of our day”–an observation still true today. Or take her comment in “How the Quaker City Spent Its Money,” from Philadelphia, the Place and the People (1912), about a Quaker preacher: “He came to make a dull world duller.” This is an echo of the statement in one of her most famous pieces, “The Mission of Humor,” from Americans and Others (1904), that ” A man destitute of humour … is often to be respected, sometimes to be feared, and always–if possible–to be avoided.”
Something muddled her thinking and writing around the time of the start of the First World War. She developed a deep hatred of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Prussian militarism, and the German Empire. In his review of American Austen, Michael Dirda writes, “Repplier isn’t really squishy in the least; she regularly delivers sentences and similes of epigrammatic sharpness,” and he cites a passage from “The Cheerful Clan,” published in Points of Friction (1920):
Things are as they are, and no amount of self-deception makes them otherwise. The friend who is incapable of depression depresses us as surely as the friend who is incapable of boredom bores us. Somewhere in our hearts is a strong, though dimly understood, desire to face realities, and to measure consequences, to have done with the fatigue of pretending. It is not optimism to enjoy the view when one is treed by a bull; it is philosophy. The optimist would say that being treed was a valuable experience. The disciple of gladness would say it was a pleasurable sensation. The Christian Scientist would say there was no bull, though remaining–if he were wise–on the tree-top. The philosopher would make the best of a bad job, and seek what compensation he could find.
These are some wonderful lines. But one has to overlook these lines, which come a few pages earlier in the same essay:
Germany cannot–for some time to come –spring at our throat. If we fail to readjust our industries on a paying basis, we shall of course go under, and lose the leadership of the world. But we won’t be kicked under by the Prussian boot.
Her bitterness towards Germany may have just been part of an increasingly acerbic view of the world. The last essay in Points of Friction is titled “Cruelty and Humor,” and in it, she offers a contrarian view of the Reader’s Digest adage of “Laughter is the Best Medicine”:
We hear so much about the sanitary qualities of laughter, we have been taught so seriously the gospel of amusement, that any writer, preacher, or lecturer, whose smile is broad enough to be infectious, finds himself a prophet in the market-place. Laughter, we are told, freshens our exhausted spirits and disposes us to good-will–which is true. It is also true that laughter quiets our uneasy scruples and disposes us to simple savagery. Whatever we laugh at, we condone, and the echo of man’s malicious merriment rings pitilessly through the centuries. Humour which has no scorn, wit which has no sting, jests which have no victim, these are not the pleasantries which have provoked mirth, or fed the comic sense of a conventionalized rather than a civilized world.
Repplier got to be a tough old gal in her later years. In the introduction to his biography, Stokes recalls their first meeting, when “We sat and talked that afternoon in October in the Victorian parlor of Miss Repplier’s Clinton Street apartment, her Grandmother Shorb’s tea set spread on a little table between us, its cups serving as a series of convenient ash trays.” She grew less and less patient with interruptions and unwanted visitors. There is a perhaps apochryphal story of a young admirer who came to call and then kept dithering about as she began to leave. “There was something I meant to say, but I’ve forgotten what it was,” she confessed. “Perhaps, my dear, it was ‘Good-bye,'” Repplier replied.
“Opening a new Humphrey Pakington novel is like noticing that the apples are ripening or a train is on time,” a New York Times reviewer once wrote. “There is a sense of living in an orderly, reliable world, not exciting or dangerous but pleasant and secure.” And lightly amusing. Starting with Four in Family (1931) and ending with John Brandon (1965) over thirty years later, Humphrey Pakington managed to plow an exceedingly narrow row and harvest over a dozen novels from it.
Most of his books are set in the mid-to-lower strata of English nobility, where there are family estates, clergymen with livings, second or third sons in the Royal Navy, eccentric aunts or grandmothers how ask awkward questions, and charming young people holding tennis racquets and bumbling about with love and marriage. It all takes place somewhere between about 1888 and 1938, during which there are births and deaths, occasional bothers, and no great tragedies. If there are revolutions or strikes going on, they are too far away and too alien to be admitted, let alone acknowledged.
Instead, it’s a world where certainties are cherished and cultivated. “They prided themselves on moving with the times, while doing all in their power to make time stand still for themselves,” Pakington writes of the group of English ladies in Aunt Auda’s Choir (U.S. title, Our Aunt Auda). Of Canon Wargrave, the father in Aston Kings, Pakington observes that “he conformed to the general principle that the accumulation of wealth in an honest and straight-forward manner was one of the first duties of a Christian and a gentleman.” Wrote Roger Pippett, “It is a world few of us know from experience, but we are familiar with it every time the curtain in a theatre goes up on a chintzy English drawing room.” It’s a world from which Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster must look rather wild and daring.
Ironically, this sane and stable world seemed to have a great appeal to American readers and reviewers during the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and the Second World War. Every one of Pakington’s novels published between 1931 and 1951 were enthusiastically welcomed in Saturday Review and the New York Times. “This is a major book. Major in every way,” wrote Jane Spence Southron, reviewing Family Album for the Times.
Pakington’s lack of message was, in fact, considered something of a virtue: “So few authors turn their hands to good-humored humor, non-ax-grinding, non-crow-picking entertainment, that there is especial cause for thanksgiving when one who has a way with him takes pen in hand for a reader’s holiday,” wrote Saturday Review’s anonymous reviewer of Four in Family. Virgilia Peterson applauded his always-tolerant attitude towards his characters: “He contents himself with mirroring their habits, their pastimes, their platitudes, and their idiosyncracies.”
He is a haphazard writer. His novels proceed, more or less, until he is tired of writing them, at which point somebody is married off to somebody else, and that’s that….
His irrelevance, after all, is what binds us to Mr. Pakington, if we like him at all, and I for one like him very much. Why do I read him? Not to discover what is to happen next to Johnnie Bartlett, the hero of Family Album. Johnnie is an agreeable child, an agreeable youth, and an agreeable middle-aged man. He marries the girl he loves and when she dies he marries, after a suitable interval, the girl who has always loved him. No, the reason why one reads Mr. Pakington is because one always hopes to find on turning the next page some minor character who will delay the story for a while with amiable nonsense, and then not infrequently just disappear. Sir Gerald Frogg, the medico “who was only called in when it was quite certain the patient could not live,” is such a character.
Another is Auda Biddulph, who is no-one’s actual aunt, and who found music “a useful means of controlling, cajoling and bullying her acquaintances,” or Aunt Serena in Aston Kings, who was “always ready to welcome the worst,” or Aunt Lucy in Young William Washbourne, who invades Malta more successfully than did the Knights of St. John. There is usually at least one eccentric aunt in every book.
By the mid-1950s, however, Pakington’s formula was losing its appeal. Of one of his later novels, one reviewer wrote dismissively, “It makes few demands on a reader and offers the small rewards of a sincere and well-mannered narrative about some uncomplicated people.” A younger generation of reviewers and readers found his artlessness more tiresome than charming. While the Times welcomed The Vynes Of Vyne Court like a new crop of apples, Al Hines, writing in Saturday Review, diagnosed it as dead on arrival: “it is a combination which has been thoroughly drained of all the humor and interest with which Mr. Wodehouse and Mrs. Thirkell manage to impart quality to their long series of books in the same genre.” If not dead, it was certainly going stale. One of the few positive things said of John Brandon was that it was “pleasantly notable for the authentic glow of gaslight that pervades its early chapters.
No one could accuse Humphrey Pakington of not writing what he knew. Born the third son of the fourth Baron Hampton in 1888, he went to public school, entered the Royal Navy in 1903, and served with honor during the First World War. Several of Pakington’s protagonists, including young William Washbourne and John Brandon, also serve in the Royal Navy. After the war, he trained as an architect (one of his first books, for children, was How the World Builds). Novel-writing seems to have been principally a creative outlet, as he was already quite comfortably off through the combination of inheritances and architectural work. In 1962, he succeeded his oldest brother to become the 5th Baron Hampton. He had few reasons to complain about his lot in life. Not surprisingly, then, that one reviewer wrote of his autobiography, Bid Time Return (1958), “Happy lives seldom account for masterpieces, but when they are well spent, gracious, and successful, they can be good reading.”
None of Humphrey Pakington’s novels have been in print in almost fifty years. Only his 1945 guidebook, English Villages And Hamlets–which is, itself, an something of an artifact of a lost world–is currently available. While I wouldn’t try to propose any of his books as neglected masterpieces, there can be found in a few of them, such as Aston Kings and Family Album a sense of the comic that is both dry and loving.
One of the more noteworthy recent reissues in the wonderful New York Review Books Classics series is Theodor Fontane’s 1891 novel, Irretrievable. Fontane is considered by many of those familiar with his work as “clearly the greatest German novelist before Thomas Mann,” in the words of Gordon A. Craig, yet there are few of the truly major European writers of the nineteenth century–aside perhaps of Benito Pérez Galdós–who have suffered greater neglect among English-reading audiences.
In part he suffers a common fate with other German novelists. His works, as much as those of his contemporaries such as Adalbert Stifter and Theodor Storm, have a tendency to pop up in English translations, usually from academic presses, and then vanish out of print just as quickly.
The loss is ours. German writers get a bum rap, a reputation for ponderousness than is only partly deserved–and wholly undeserved in Fontane’s case. “There is also in Fontane,” writes Phillip Lopate in his Afterword to Irretrievable (Unwiederbringlich), “a Montaigne-like equipoise, a sunny melancholy, an investment in domestic family life that steadfastly avoids the demonic and apocalyptic….” Perhaps this is due to the fact that Fontane came to fiction very late: his first novel was published when he was sixty years old. Throughout his work, you find a sense of perspective, humor, and tolerance very few writers possess before middle age.
The other thing most English readers encountering Fontane’s work for the first time note is how modern his themes are. The problems of marriage–particularly from the wife’s perspective–are one of his most frequent topics, as are its most common responses: divorce, adultery, and simple unhappiness. Take, for example, Lopate’s setting on the story in Irretrievable:
Irretrievable is the story of a marriage that has worn thin. The partners have been together for some twenty-three years, are raising two teenage children, and for the most part have enjoyed a happy marriage. Still, they have reached a point where they no longer are charmed but are irritated by the limitations each sees in the other.
His women are fully-drawn individuals capable of living outside their husbands’ shadows, and his men–like most of us still–are more often well-intentioned but clueless than autocratic and evil. In fact, Lopate suggests the lack of a radical sense of evil might be one of the reasons Fontane’s work has had a hard time winning popular and critical readers in English.
Fortunately, though, there’s never been a better time to discover Fontane in English. In large part this is thanks to Antony Wood, whose small press, Angel Classics has reissued four of his novels–including an alternate translation of Unwiederbringlich, No Way Back, translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.
In addition to No Way Back/Irretrievable, Fontane books currently available in English translation include On Tangled Paths, translated by by Peter James Bowman. The tale of a romance between a cavalry officer and a seamstress. The officer intends for the relationship to be something of a place-holder until a wealthier and more socially acceptable wife can be found, but then the situation gets more complicated when they end up falling in love.
This novel is also available in not one but two alternate translations: Trials and Tribulations, translated by Katharine Royce, from Mondial Books, and in a volume from Continuum’s fine “The German Library” series, Delusions, Confusions, paired with another novella, “The Poggenpuhl Family.” Finally, there is Cecile, translated by Stanley Radcliffe, also from Angel Classics–also a story of adultery–in this case, initiated by the woman.
However, at least as many other English translations of Fontane’s works have disappeared within a few years of appearing in print:
This is easily Fontane’s best-known work, often compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary for its depiction of adultery. Thomas Mann once wrote that if one had to reduce one’s library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them. Although Angel Classics’ website shows their edition, also translated by Rorrison and Chambers, as being in print, Amazon shows that both theirs (issued as a Penguin Classic in the US in 2001) and the 1976 Douglas Parmee translation (also a Penguin Classic) as out of print.
This was Fontane’s first major work, about the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on the Prussian gentry and peasants. It was issued as an Oxford World Classic in paperback in 1985, but used copies now go for $25 and up. It’s compared by some to War and Peace, but aside from sharing a historical period, the two books have little in common. Although both novels portray wars from the viewpoints of the people they crash over like tsunamis, there is very little drama and quite a lot of conversation in Fontane’s book. It does cause one to wonder, though, what Fontane might have produced if he’d tackled this subject when he was twenty or thirty years younger.
Although a minor work, Under the Pear Tree is the closest Fontane ever came to a novel of incident (if not action). Hradschek, a village innkeeper, murders a man who comes to collect a gambling debt … only to wind up dead himself soon after.
“At the end an old man dies and two young people get married—that is just about all that happens in 500 pages” was Fontane’s own summation of this book. The Stechlin was Fontane’s last major work. It’s been called, “probably the finest chronicle of the life style of the German upper classes in the late nineteenth century.” Camden House published William L. Zwiebel’s first-ever translation into English in 1995.
Up north, whenever I could get out of the store I’d go out on the desert–lots of big ranches up there–and ride after cattle. I liked it and it kept my blood running; but down here I didn’t even have a store to try to get out of. I’d sit in the cafe and rechew the newspapers, and when I couldn’t take it any more of that I’d go out and drive my pickup around on these desert roads, which are all straight as strings and numbered A to Z in one direction (running east to west) and 1 to 100 in the other, with every tenth one laid right along the section line; easy to find your way wherever you wanted to go, but I didn’t know where that was. After a couple of weeks I began to think, “Well, if this is heaven I’ve had enough of it,” and I decided to go out and shop for a horse.
Max Schott has published just four slim books–barely 700 pages put together–in the space of 30 years. Even at that, he’d probably claim Pascal’s shortcoming (“I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter”).
Though he taught for over thirty years as a member of the English faculty at the University of California Santa Barbara, horses, not words, were Schott’s first love. A Santa Barbara native, as a kid he dreamed of being a cowboy. When he was able to head out on his own, he headed for the high desert country, where he learned to train horses and started competing on the rodeo circuit. He lived the life of a modern cowpoke for close to fifteen years before deciding it wasn’t how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. So he headed back to Santa Barbara, got his degrees, earned a spot on the faculty, and settled in for a life of teaching and writing.
His first book, a collection of short stories published through much of the 1970s, Up Where I Used to Live, came out from the University of Illinois Press in 1978. It was part of the Illinois Short Fiction series, a noteworthy series that published some of the best short story writers of the 1970s and 1980s–Jean Thompson, Barry Targan, Kent Nelson, Andrew Fetler, H. E. Francis, among others. Schott’s stories drew on his experiences with horses and rodeos, but what drew me in when I first read them shortly after the book came out was his tone: spare, dry, self-effacing, a bit tired, and mildly amused at the world’s foolishness.
Most of Schott’s stories are told in the first person. His narrators come from the world of horses, ranches, and large, sparse, dry places. Schott’s diction perfectly matches his characters: simple, laconic, but with a sly grin. This is a world where the last thing a man’d want to be know as is talkative. Better to keep your mouth shut than to run on like a woman. Hell, even the women in Schott’s world are careful with their words. It’s a world where words are like water–something you don’t waste.
This might explain why Schott has published so little. But not why he’s barely known outside a lucky circle of loyal readers. After all, he had a shot at the big time when his first novel, Murphy’s Romance (1980), was adapted and filmed by Martin Ritt. Unfortunately for Schott, Ritt quickly disposed with most of the story and setting and created a largely new narrative from the remnants. Ritt kept the title, which might at least have pulled in a few unsuspecting readers for Schott’s book, but there was no movie tie-in reprint.
Murphy’s Romance grew out of “The Old Flame,” one of the stories in Up Where I Used to Live. The title is actually a bit of fun on Schott’s part. Murphy Jones, a rancher retired to Pearblossom, California after some decades in eastern Oregon, briefly considers romancing Toni Wilson, a no-nonsense and very independent horse trainer, but ends up marrying her aunt Margaret instead. Though Murphy narrates the book, most of the story is about Toni’s turbulent engagement and marriage to Ben Webber, a rodeo vet in his fifties.
Schott carried the story forward–or backwards, rather–in his second novel, Ben. He takes us back to Ben Webber’s first marriage, which was even stormier, but this time we hear the story from Max, a young man probably close to Schott’s own age when he first got into the horse business. We’re still in the world of horses and tough men and women. Even when Ben gets drunk and throws up, Max notes that he has enough self control to do it “all neatly, like a man who knew how.” In the book, Max has to deal with the death of his mother from cancer, but fenced in by the likes of Ben and the other horse men, there’s little risk of getting into anything too sentimental. The only thing gooey in the book is a body accidentally tossed under a bronco’s hooves.
All three books manage to pack a great deal into very slim packages. “Just a chip, then, this little book–but gold all the way through,” Kirkus Reviews wrote of Murphy’s Romance, and the same could be said of Up Where I Used to Live and Ben. Throughout all his fiction, Schott creates remarkably rich and subtle characterizations with the slightest of strokes. The art is all in making it seem completely artless. If he’d lived in Japan he would probably have become a Zen master.
His most recent book, Keeping Warm: Essays and Stories, published in 2004 by the Santa Barbara-based John Daniel and Company, collects short pieces from magazines and newspapers published over the course of the last thirty years. His most intimate piece in the book, “Diary About My Father,” collects reflections on his father’s life and Schott’s relationship with him, and reveals that that same spare, understated voice heard throughout his fiction is Schott’s own:
He died two years ago today. At about two in the morning, so that to us it seemed like the night of the day before–which was five years to the day after Mom died.
After being ill for how long, fifty years? Sixty? She slipped away so easily.
A few years ago, if someone had said to me, “He behaved towards her like a saint,” I would’ve said, or wanted to say, “Yes, but I don’t like saints.” But now it seems to me that the truth is much simpler. No saint, but a man in a situation not of his own making, he did as well as he could.
I think most of Schott’s horsemen would be happy to have that last sentence for their epitaphs.
We might not see another book from Schott, who’s now in his late seventies. But any of the ones he’s already written will do as well as any could to convey his uniquely Western voice and outlook. Forget the movie of “Murphy’s Romance”–do yourself a favor and find the book instead.
In 1940, after immersing himself in the works of Marx and other 19th century thinkers to write his masterpiece, To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson turned his attention to lighter, more contemporary writers with a long piece for the New Republic, titled, “The Boys in the Back Room.” Of the mostly-California-based writers he discussed, all are still in print–James M. Cain, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck.
All that is, save one: Hans Otto Storm. Wilson had the following to say of Storm’s work:
With Hans Otto Storm and John Steinbeck, we get into more ambitious writing.
Both stories had a concentration of form and a kind of conscientiousness in their approach to their material that were rare enough to excite interest in the author.
An engineer who thus goes in for literature is such a novelty that Hans Otto Storm is able to carry us with him because we have never listened to precisely his story before.
Add to this equipment–to this first-hand knowledge of aspects of American life which few American writers know at all–a mentality which is culturally closer to Europe than that of most American writers (there is a suggestion of Conrad about him); and you get something quite unique in our fiction.
Hans Otto Storm writes with a refreshing subtlety and with a distinctiveness that draws his novels quite out of the familiar orbit. His qualities are so individual that a review and convey only an inadequate impression of them.
Born in California in 1895, Storm studied engineering at Stanford and went into the nascent field of radio engineering. His first novel, Full Measure (unnoticed by Wilson, who calls Pity the Tyrant his first book) was published in 1929. It’s something of a romance of radio engineering with a strong autobiographical flavor. Like Storm, the young hero starts out at a powerful shore station providing telegraphy service to ships at sea, then goes on to install the first major station in a fictitious Central American country. And as is often the case with novels about technology written by technologists, the engineering aspects of Full Measure are far more interesting and well-developed than any of the characters.
Full Measure received mildly positive reviews but sold little over a thousand copies. Whether chastened by the lukewarm reception or caught up in the concerns of his day jobs, which included posts with the Federal Telegraph and with Globe Wireless Company, Storm did not publish again until eight years later. Then, in just four years, he published three major works: Pity the Tyrant (1937), a political allegory about a South American dictator; Made in U. S. A. (1939); and Count Ten (1940), a long bildungsroman about flying, radio, business, love, and independence. None of them have been in print in over 50 years.
These are three quite different books. Wilson considered Pity the Tyrant, set in Lima, Peru, Storm’s best work. Storm’s protagonist is, once again, a radio engineer. The Tyrant of the title is certainly based on Augusto Leguía, President of Peru from 1919 to 1930, whose rule was marked by rebellion, suppression of his opponents, and widespread corruption. In the book, the Tyrant mostly hovers in the background. Much of the story involves a series of set pieces that combine incident and philosophical meditations and debates, rather along the lines of one of Voltaire’s novels. But unlike Candide, Storm’s engineer does not retain his naivete in the face of violence, cruelty, and injustice. As the book closes, the engineer, having been ordered out of the country, sails off on steamship:
“Where do you think we are now, anyway?” “Just off Trujillo,” he replied. “Oh, why don’t we put in at Trujillo?” “No,” he said, “the port’s closed.” He didn’t tell her that at Trujillo there were a thousand dead, real dead, actual dead, people one knew by their first names or owed little bills to; tortured, mangled, decapitated, left to rot. What was the use?
Storm is precise and telling in his choice of details, so there is a strongly realistic thread throughout the book. In more than a few ways, it’s a precursor of the magical realism of Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers of the 1960s.
Made in U. S. A. is somewhat more obviously allegorical. A tramp freighter with a small contingent of paying passengers runs into an uncharted sand bar somewhere in the South Pacific. The initial attempts to free it fail, and what was thought to be a brief delay turns into a protracted ordeal. As days wear on and the situation grows more serious, tempers grow raw, and suddenly the ship is divided into two camps. A short, clumsy battle of fists and clubs breaks out, after which the sides retire behind barricades of hay. The captain manages regain his senses and stare down the mutineers. Storm’s description of the morning after gives some sense of his style:
Such feelings and a good many other like them ran, expressed and unexpressed, through the minds of those two thirds of the passengers who found themselves abaft of the hay. They were not the only things that ran there through. They were the what you might call public feelings, and they by no means filled the foreground–most of the passengers had private things to think about that were more vivid. They got up late, many of them nursing cuts and bruises and sore joints, things which got worse rather than better with the night. Last evening they had marveled at themselves that they could fight–now they were even more surprised to find how frightfully one can get himself bunged up at it. Limbs ached just from the sheer exertion where they couldn’t even show a black and blue spot. More than one man of forty-two spent the time wondering with private apprehension how he had happened to get in that fight.
This is not a breakdown of civilization. It’s more like a violin string wound too tight and vibrating off-key.
Storm’s work in radio, along with years of dealing with the maritime business, shows in many telling details that anchor his story in a credible reality. But there is also a sense of Storm as puppeteer, manipulating his players, pushing them into extremis just to see the violence of their recoil. I found myself thinking of Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard and Isa Glenn’s Transport–two other neglected books set on ships somewhere out in the vast Pacific. All three novels play on the artificiality of shipboard life utterly isolated–save by radio–from the rest of the world.
Pity the Tyrant and Made in U. S. A. are relatively short books–around 200 pages each. Storm’s fourth novel, Count Ten weighed in at over six hundred pages. Rather than a short period of time, Count Ten covers over thirty years, following the life of Eric Marsden from boyhood, when his father teaches him to fly as well as bail out (he tells the boy to “Count ten” as he jumps from a crashing plane) through time as a conscientious objector in World War One, an ordinary seaman, a campaign worker, and finally an executive in business. The New York Times’ reviewer, William Jay Gold, proclaimed, “It is not only safe, it is necessary now to say that Hons Otto Storm has become one of our first-rank writers. His new novel, Count Ten, is one of the finest books of fiction produced in America for more than a decade.” Gold grouped it with other novels about the meaning of life: The Last Puritan, Of Human Bondage, and Jean-Christophe–not all of which remain quite their same standing.
Count Ten was widely advertised and sold by far the best of Storm’s books. In Wilson’s estimation, it was “very much inferior on the whole to the ones that had gone before.” He also thought that it showed “what seemed internal evidence of having been written earlier than they,” giving off the air of “one of those autobiographical novels that young men begin in college and carry around for years in old trunks.” Having read Full Measure, I would have to agree with Wilson. The book bears stronger resemblance to that early work than to the much more artfully conceived and concisely written Pity the Tyrant and Made in U. S. A..
Storm died in December 1941, a few days after Pearl Harbor. He was electrocuted while working on an Army Signal Corps transmitter station in San Francisco. He was 46. David Greenhood collected Pity the Tyrant and other fictional and nonfictional pieces Storm had written about life in Central and South America into Of Good Family, which was published by the small Swallow Press in 1948. And that was about the last the reading public heard of his work.
I must admit that I did not note Louis Auchincloss’ passing at the age of ninety-two in late January. For at least the last ten years, Auchincloss, whose career as a writer spanned over sixty years and produced over sixty books, seemed either to be someone I’d thought had already died or just assumed would live forever. For more than my entire life, he’d been publishing, publishing, publishing.
His productivity and energy seems to have come from another generation, from the Victorian and industrial age. He worked for over forty years as a lawyer in the heart of Wall Street and the East Coast establishment. He sat on the boards of museums and academies, and he knew everyone. He was president of the Century Association, probably the most exclusive cultural association in America, and a member of New York’s best clubs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Gore Vidal were related to him through second- and third-marriages. His wife was related to the Sloanes and Vanderbilts. He attended Groton alongside FDR’s son John and shared a room with William Bundy. He lunched with Brooke Astor at the Knickerbocker Club. In 2003, he was feted, along with Princess Yasmin Aga Khan and Blaine Trump, as one of seven “New Yorkers who make a difference.”
His father was also a New York lawyer and confidant of the wealthy and powerful. Auchincloss would always demur about his family’s place in society: “We were wealthy by the standards of the globe, not by the community.” But they managed summers at Bar Harbor, Maine, where Prescott Bush set up a family summer house. Not that the Auchinclosses and Bushes mingled: he once remarked to a Financial Times interviewer, “I just think the Bushes are a big family of shits. They might have existed anywhere.”
There is so much in that short quote. It’s not President George W. Bush, who presented Auchincloss with the National Arts Medal in 2005, that he condemned–it was the whole family, and for, one suspects, crimes against manners and culture rather than society. Then there is the use of the word “shits.” Most Americans would be more inclined to say something like, “full of shit,” but to call someone a “shit” is very much an upper crust idiom.
The world of New York, of wealth, elite society, and the law was the world Louis Auchincloss lived in and wrote about. For the first two, he was often and will forevermore be written of as the successor to Edith Wharton (and indeed, Edith Wharton: A Woman in her Time was the first of a number of biographies he published). He dismissed suggestions that he took a narrow view in his choice of subjects. He told an Atlantic interviewer in 1997:
If you look through the literature of the ages you will find that ninety-five percent of it deals with the so-called “upper class,” from The Iliad and The Odyssey through to Shakespeare with his kings and queens. If you go through the nineteenth-century novelists you will find much the same thing. Take a novel like War and Peace — the characters are taken not only from the upper class but from the very small upper-upper class that ruled Russia at the time. And yet Tolstoy is given credit for having written a “world” novel. It’s as if Norman Mailer had written The Naked and the Dead and made every Marine or Army man on that island a graduate of a New England private school. That would be quite a shocker to people, yet that is War and Peace.
I’m not sure he convinced many people with that argument. In her 2007 biography, Louis Auchincloss: A Writer’s Life, Carol Gelderman quotes Lady Bird Johnson–a sharper judge of character than she’s usually given credit for–on meeting him: “… polished, very Eastern. I couldn’t imagine him living or writing about life west of the Mississippi River.” “She could have said Hudson River and been just as accurate,” Gelderman adds. The Christian Science Monitor’s book critic, Heller McAlpin, had a lovely, if fainting damning, comparison for his work:
Thereâ€™s something oddly comforting about reading this patrician novelist of manners, successor to Edith Wharton. You know, to a certain degree, what youâ€™ll be served â€“ rather like eating at an exclusive social club. The food is rarely exciting, but itâ€™s never alarming, either, and itâ€™s impeccably presented. Manners are genteel, language is as proper and crisp as white linen napkins, and everyone is educated and well-heeled. It all feels like a throwback to a more gracious time.
Heller’s description recalls this passage from Dinitia Smith’s 1986 profile of Auchincloss for New York Magazine:
The Downtown Association, for instance, is Louis Auchincloss territory, the world of old money, of deals made behind closed doors. Like a number of the great clubs, the DTA, as it’s called, doesn’t even have a sign over the door. Your’re just supposed to know it’s there. The decor is a bit understated. The food is uninspired–one choice is tuna fish in a shell of tomato with dollops of mayonnaise for decoration, and desserts include those WASP staples, rice pudding with raisins and cabinet pudding.
But Auchincloss was no idle spender of old money. He was a working lawyer, which got him into rooms that would never have been open to Wharton as a mere woman and writer. He started out with the prestigious firm of Sullivan and Cromwell before World War Two, and later ran the trust and estates department of Hawkins, Delafield, and Wood. Vidal once wrote of him, “He is the only one who tells us how our rulers behave in their banks and their boardrooms, their law offices and their clubs … things that we don’t often meet in fiction.”
The law was always his second choice, though. While attending Yale as an undergraduate, he wrote a long novel modeled on Madame Bovary. When it was rejected by Scribners, he decided to renounce literature and become a lawyer. While studying at the University of Virginia Law School, though, his passion for writing returned: “I stumbled into Cardozoâ€™s opinions, I became fascinated by his style and realized that the two occupations, law and writing, are more or less synchronized. I began the two careers I would follow from then on, law and writing. That summer I started a novel; the second summer I finished it.” Even as a lawyer, his talent for writing came out. Auchincloss loved to relate a comment made by the young Mario Cuomo upon reading a brief of his while clerking for the New York Court of Appeals: “The guy who wrote this ought to be a novelist!”
Graduating in 1941, Auchincloss was barely able to get started in his career in the law before being pulled into the Navy, where he served in Panama and captained an LST on DDay. He started a third novel, The Indifferent Children, which he originally published in 1947 under the pseudonym of Andrew Lee at his mother’s insistence. She thought it “trivial and vulgar.”
He was never a typical writer. Though he was friends with Ralph Ellison, travelled as a cultural ambassador with Arthur Miller and Allen Ginsburg, and served as president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, his work as a lawyer kept his routine within strict limits. He once told an interviewer,
When I married Adele, she said, Oh, weâ€™re going to see all these wonderful writers. One night Calder Willingham called just as we were about to go to bed. He asked if weâ€™d come out and drink with him. I said, Well, I donâ€™t think Adele wants to do that. Then why donâ€™t you come? His idea was weâ€™d sit up all night. I said, No, I donâ€™t do that. I had to get up in the morning.
That routine–and the support of an effective agent and a loyal publisher–paid off. Auchincloss published 31 novels, 17 short story collections, 17 works of nonfiction, at least a half-dozen coffee table books such as J.P. Morgan: The Financier as Collector, and contributed introductions and afterwords to dozens of other books, including numerous reissues of works by Edith Wharton.
How did he manage such a volume of work, particularly during forty years of Monday-to-Friday work as a lawyer?
One secret was a knack for writing in little snatches of time. He told George Plimpton for his Paris Review interview in 1994:
I’ve always had to use bits of time. For example, I would have little notebooks with me in court, and if I was waiting for something I might write a few paragraphs at a time. By mastering the ability to use five minutes here, fifteen minutes there, I picked up a great deal of time that most people allow to drift away.
I remember seeing an opera rehearsal once in which the conductor put down the baton, the singers stopped, and then he picked it up to go again. If I was singing I’d have to go back to the beginning. But no! They picked up right on the particular note they left off on. That’s what I’ve learned to do with my writing.
I can pick up in the middle of a sentence and then go on. I wrote at night; sometimes I wrote at the office and then practiced law at home. My wife and I never went away on weekends. I wouldnâ€™t recommend that anyone else try this method, but it worked for me.
Not worrying over what got scribbled into his notebooks helped, too. It was rare that he spent much time on rewrites. “… [O]rdinarily I find that when I have to rewrite, thereâ€™s something basically wrong. My best stuff usually comes out quite straight almost the first time,” he told Plimpton.
Writing the same book over and over–or, at least, using the same formula over and over–also kept his rate of production high. The use of multiple narrators and mixing first and third-person voices, which was cited by many as the distinguishing feature of his most critically successful book, The Rector of Justin, was, in fact, his standard approach to a novel. As Jonathan Yardley summarized it in his “Second Reading” of the book in 2008:
The novel begins in September 1939 and ends in April 1947. It is told principally through the diary of Brian Aspinwall, who comes to Justin Martyr at the age of 27 as an instructor in English and soon believes “that I may have a call to keep a record of the life and personality of Francis Prescott,” who “is probably the greatest name in New England secondary education.” Five other narrators contribute to the portrait: David Griscam, chairman of the trustees, chief architect of the school’s wealth; his son, Jules, expelled by Prescott for an act of defiance; Horace Havistock, Prescott’s oldest friend, “a remnant of the mauve decade”; Cordelia, Prescott’s rebellious daughter; and Charley Strong, one of Prescott’s “golden boys, Justin ’11, senior prefect and football captain, a kind of American Rupert Brooke,” who fled to Paris after World War I and underwent a crisis of identity and faith.
One can find the same technique in such works as The House of the Prophet, based on the life of Walter Lippmann, The Embezzler, inspired by but not entirely faithful to the story of Richard Whitney, one-time president of the New York Stock Exchange, and Honorable Men (loosely taken on the careers of his Groton classmates Bill and McGeorge Bundy).
In some cases, the line between his short story collections and his novels is hard to determine, particularly given his penchant for publishing stories linked by a particular theme or setting. The stories in Powers of Attorney, for example, revolve around partners and attorneys in the fictional firm of Tower, Tilney & Webb. The novel East Side Story is a series of eleven portraits of members of the Carnochan family from colonial to modern days. Fellow Passengers: A Novel in Portraits made the construct explicit in its subtitle, as did The Partners, which cautions the reader that it is, “Not a novel in the conventional sense,” but rather a series of sketches of another fictional law firm, Shepard, Putney & Cox. But even novels lacking these disclaimers, such as The Education of Oscar Fairfax, The House of Five Talents, and False Gods were essentially collections of character sketches rather than strong linear narratives.
And, in truth, the magazine piece–whether fiction or non-fiction–was Auchincloss’ forte. Open one of his books at random and you’re likely to find, on the copyright page, a note to the effect that, “Some of the [stories/pieces] in this book have appeared in …” followed by a list that ranges from the Saturday Evening Post, American Heritage, and the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, and the Atlantic to McCall’s, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Redbook to the Virginia Law Review and the Yale Literary Magazine.
This is not to dismiss his accomplishments, however. To publish hundreds (thousands?) of pieces in such a variety of mainstream magazines over the course of six decades required a remarkable ability to consistently produce an interesting, well-written, and fairly succinct story. And if the character sketch was what Auchincloss was best at, then he truly had few peers. Back in 2002, Russell Baker reviewed Edmund Morris’ 772-page second volume of his biography of Theodore Roosevelt alongside Auchincloss’ 155-page work in Arthur Schlesinger’s “The American Presidents” series, and it’s easy to see who emerged the winner in Baker’s view: “Louis Auchincloss’s concise Theodore Roosevelt, which compresses the full life, cradle to grave, into an elegant 136 pages, is a dandy handbook for the reader seeking guidance through Morris’s great forest.”
Throughout Auchincloss’ works, the example of the Duc du Saint-Simon, the legendary memoirist of the court of Louis XIV, keeps popping up. Indeed, he once wrote a novel–The Cat and the King–fantasizing that the duke kept on writing after his memoirs were published. “The Single Reader,” a story from Powers of Attorney, was about a lawyer who was secretly recording the life of Manhattan society in a diary inspired by Saint-Simon’s:
Inevitably, he came to think of his people as they would one day appear in his diary. If a judge was rude to him while he was arguing a case, if a government official was quixotic or arbitrary, Madison would reflect with an inner smile that they were marring their portraits for posterity. Yet he took great pains to avoid the prejudices which he suspected even in his idol, Saint-Simon. Most of the people whom he knew, like many of Saint-Simon’s, would survive to posterity only in his own unrebuttable pages. If he succumbed to the temptation of “touching them up,” of making them wittier or nastier or bigger or smaller than they were, nobody in a hundred years would be any the wiser. But his work would have become fiction, and he had no intention of being a mere novelist.
So, in making my closing argument in the case of Louis Auchincloss, let me quote from just one of the thousands of character sketches to be found in his oeuvre, a body of work certainly not packaged like Saint-Simon’s but certainly rivalling it in the wealth of observations about men and women in work and society. And it’s fitting that it be one of a lawyer–in this case, one Waldron P. Webb, partner of Tower, Tilney and Webb, the firm depicted in Powers of Attorney, in the story, “The Ambassador from Wall Street”:
Webb himself was a trying visitor, almost impossible to entertain. He was one of those lawyers who were frankly bored by everything but the practice of law. He was a big, stout choleric man, with a loud gravelly voice that was made for the cross-examination of hostile witnesses and not for gossip under the umbrellas. He indulged in no known sports, would not even swim, and expressed his contempt for the country in the uncompromising black of his baggy linen suit and the damp cigar that was always clenched between his yellow molars. He wandered about the house, pulling books out of the bookcases which he would then abandon with a snort, and asking for whiskey at unlikely hours. Mrs. Webb, the kind of forlorn creature that loud, oratorical men are apt to marry, contemplated him with nervous eyes, hoping, perhaps, that he would wait until they were alone before abusing her.