I’ve been working on this site for almost seven years and following neglected books for nearly thirty years before that, and still I manage to miss marvelous things that seem to be sitting right in plain sight. Take the works of Helen Bevington. Searching for information on someone else, I came across a review of her 1961 book, When Found, Make a Verse of, by Langston Hughes. I’ll quote at greater length from the piece when I feature When Found in a few weeks, but the opening line sold me instantly: “One rarely comes across a book that has both guts and charm, but this one has.”
Who was Helen Bevington, I wondered? The Internet produced immediate answers, of course: that she was an “American poet, prose author, and educator” (Wikipedia); that “Her memoir Charley Smith’s Girl was banned by the library in Worcester, N.Y., where she grew up” (NY Times obit); and that “She was one of the great teachers. Her course in 20th century poetry was … a tremendously influential course in my own development,” according to the novelist Reynolds Price (Duke Today).
I also learned that she wrote a series of autobiographical books, starting with Charley Smith’s Girl, in addition to several collections of her own verse. A Book & A Love Affair, published in 1968, is the second in chronological order but the first one to arrive in the mail, so it’s the first–but not the last–to be mentioned here.
And in some ways, it may deserve first mention, anyway. “I sat down in the seat beside him one morning in Professor Hunter Wright’s class in Romanticism. And that was how my life began,” opens A Book & A Love Affair. He is Merle Bevington, a fellow graduate student in English at Columbia University, referred to throughout the book as “B.” Although B. had shown no interest in Helen until that moment, she had been eyeing him since the start of the semester, waiting for her opportunity.
She clearly knew what she was looking for. They move seamlessly from class to the streets to the 125th Street ferry, on which they spend the night, going back and forth to Fort Lee, New Jersey and talking endlessly. Within days, they marry–despite the fact that Helen first turns him down because she had made up her mind permanently against marriage (with some reason, as we learn in Charley Smith’s Girl).
A Book & A Love Affair covers the first sixteen years of their marriage, until they moved to Duke University in North Carolina, where B. and later, Helen, became members of the faculty. (B. taught until his death in 1964; Helen until her retirement in 1976). It isn’t a particularly memorable autobiography in terms of events–they traveled around the world in third class in 1929; they had two sons; they managed to get through the Depression with a variety of teaching and secretarial jobs; they lived in a series of apartments in Manhattan and the Bronx.
What makes the book–and, I suspect, all of its successors–enjoyable is the pleasure of Bevington’s company. She and B. are tremendous readers, rarely without a book in hand or a quote for the occasion, but they’re not snobs. Helen can fetch up a line from Donne or Keats, but she’ll also reprint a note passed between her boys as they sit around the dinner table:
I do not think that bilding houses is worth it. Becase when you bild mother always comes and busts it down.
If you think its wroth it answer.
Sincerely yours Philip.
She earns her graduate degree from Columbia and does research on the subject of sentimental novels of 18th century England, but she’s also a working mom whose experiences–though seventy-some years old now–will ring true for today’s parents:
Under the heading of light entertainment I led my children forth to be diverted by fear, managing very early to harrow up their souls. David would ask, hopeful as we set out on one of these excursions, “Will it be funny?,” but we seldom had such luck. In March, 1938, we attended in their innocence and mind the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and for a while David laughed himself sick at the antics of the Walt Disney clowns. Pip echoed him. Then along came the witch. As always happens, along came the witch.
She threw David into a panic. Tense and frowning, he began to squirm, covering his eyes, peering out in the dark to see if she was still there. Next he crawled hastily from his seat and crouched on the floor, making no sound but shuddering all over like a whipped animal. I felt like a dog. Philip turned to his father, fortunately on hand to protect us, and grabbing his arm quavered, “You said it was a movie, didn’t you, Dad?”
After that we rested on our oars until The Wizard of Oz came along and scared the pants off them.
And although Helen and B. remain somewhat protected from the hazards of the time–they always had a paycheck when one was needed and a roof over their heads–she eloquently conveys the sense they had that terror was never too far from their door:
He wrote every night till the eleven o’clock news, then we listened to the radio and Edward R. Murrow saying, ‘This is London’–or, as holding my breath I waited to hear, ‘This is London no more.’ Each night we learned the new words: Luftwaffe, Messerschmitt, Stuka, dive bomber, balloon barrage, flak, incendiaries, Spitfires, antiaircraft guns. And the old words: burning, burning, burning.
Although the Bevingtons leave the noise and crowds of New York City for the relative calm of Durham in August 1942, the book ends on a hesitant note. Writing in the late 1960s, Helen was still living in a world where nuclear warfare lurked in the wings as a threat, and you can tell that she struggled to maintain a sense of hope that sanity would prevail: “The idea of a book against the dark is no doubt absurd …. Still, a word’s eye view is not to my mind such a bad idea. To me there is in fact only the one view, whether of life or death. It is simple and eternally the same–a book and a love affair, that is all one needs.”
The next in the sequence of Helen Bevington’s autobiographical books, published in 1971, has what I think may be my favorite title of all time: House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm. I look forward to sharing it.