The works of Helen Bevington–poet, memoirist, and long-time professor of English at Duke University–remain one of the most delightful discoveries of my years of exploring in the realm of neglected books. I started out 2013 with her trilogy of memoirs–Charley Smith’s Girl (1965); A Book and a Love Affair (1968); and The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm (1971)–and since then, have added most of her other books to my collection. So I thought a dip into her oeuvre would be a nice start to this year of reading the works of women writers.
Bevington, whose comic verse was often featured in The New Yorker and New York Times Book Review, began writing a memoir in the early 1960s. The book, which became Charley Smith’s Girl, was as much a portrait of her parents, Charley and Lizzie, whose divorce, when Helen was still a very young girl, was considered quite scandalous at the time. Not long before it was published, Bevington’s husband, Merle, also an English professor at Duke, died suddenly of a brain tumor at the age of 64.
To honor Merle’s memory, she wrote A Book and a Love Affair, which recounted their meeting while students at Columbia University in the 1920s and the early years of their marriage. She followed this with The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm, which covered their move to North Carolina and the experience of raising their two sons, Phillip and David, both of whom became distinguished professors–Phillip of physics and David of English. This book concluded with Phillip’s recovery from a near-fatal car accident that left him a paraplegic.
Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960’s, published five years later, contains excerpts from the journal she had been keeping for many years. Most entries are less than a page long and undated aside from being collected by month and year. Often she reprints the poems she had written at the time, many of them inspired by her reading or the passing seasons.
The title of Along Came the Witch is taken from one of her poems:
Lost in the night, my love,
Are those who could never tell
The perishable world from the imperishable.
So they lived everafter, rich
In fairytales and in general–
Till along came the witch.
The inevitable, though always unexpected, appearance of evil and pain is a recurrent theme throughout this journal. In the first few years, she lost her mother and husband, both to diseases that were long-diagnosed but late, abrupt, and harsh in their effects. And throughout the decade, she saw violence and conflict erupting in the world: the assassinations of JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King; the start of the Vietnam War; civil rights protests and political and race riots; demonstrations and even tear gas on her own campus. For Bevington, the 1960s were her anni horribili.
Yet these pages are also filled with beauty, comedy, and love. She was as quick to take note of a new bird around her house or the quirks of her neighbors as the headlines on the TV news. She delighted in observing her young grandchildren coming to their individual perceptions of the world and ways of expressing themselves. She relished a good anecdote, like her hairdresser’s flipping and wrecking a brand new car just to avoid running over a grey squirrel, and the unique language of her house cleaner: “When things go wrong in Rosa’s life and her head is blouzed up with trouble (as when her car was stolen last Saturday night), she takes some jolt medicine.” “Rosa has a got-rights cat. It has got rights the same as everybody.”
Each semester, she approaches each new class and group of students with a mix of trepidation, dismay, and wonder. While she notes petulance and hair lengths increase over the years, she still manages to find a remarkable appetite for learning to love and understand poetry. Bevington was one of the most beloved and respected teachers at Duke, and her joy in this work belies her anxiety about being up to the task. As one of the few faculty members without a PhD, she felt a certain amount of inferiority to her peers, and one of the bright spots in the decade was her acceptance as a full professor in 1970.
Her love of poetry and literature lights up these pages as well. A voracious reader, she is constantly reflecting on what she’s reading, and the depth and richness of her memory of what she’s read is remarkable. Like Isabel Paterson, she seems to have read everything and remembered everything, especially snatches of poetry and conversations. I dog-eared a couple dozen pages just to remind myself to check out the books she mentions.
The central theme of the book, however, is her struggle with learning to live alone. She was in her late fifties when Merle died, and she would live over 35 years as a widow, almost a long as the two were married. In writing of her parents, she concluded that neither offered her a way of living that she could accept for herself: “My mother and my father–one was strong and brave and indomitable, and one withdrew in utter despair. Neither of them ever discovered how to be happy. There must be a third way. I am not sure, but I think there must be a third way.”
She struggled to come to an understanding of this third way throughout the rest of her life. Her last book, in fact, was titled, The Third and Only Way: Reflections on Staying Alive (1996). About a year after Merle’s death, she did come to realize something about how she would have to move forward:
As I drove to the University this morning, thinking about Richard Wilbur whose poetry we would read in class, saying over a line of his, “It is by words and the defeat of words–” I made a sudden resolution, at the stoplight of Broad and Club Boulevard, to unlearn my words.
I will stop using the word lonely. I will change it to independent or alone. Aloneness is not the same thing as loneliness. I will live an independent life, fraught with freedom. I will stop explaining my plight to myself, using charged words like fear, like grief. It is not only cowardly but Byronic. (Byron: “I learned to love despair”). By the defeat of words I grieve. It is myself I mourn for.
Bevington went on to publish two more books of from her journals: The Journey is Everything: A Journal of the Seventies and The World and the Bo Tree, based her travels in the 1980s. I look forward to spending these decades with her.