Reading Isa Glenn’s novel, Transport, I kept thinking of the refrain from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo. Only in the case of Transport, it’s round and round the women go, talking of every other soul trapped on a hot, slow steamer from San Francisco to Manila.
Transport is about a group of Army wives and children, along with a sprinkling of officers and enlisted men, traveling to posts in the Philippines some time in the 1920s. This was familiar territory for Glenn. The daughter of an Atlanta mayor, she married Brigadier General Samuel Bayard Schindel in 1903, when he was in his forties and she in her twenties. Glenn accompanied her husband on assignments to Philippines, China, Hawaii, and Panama, and learned well the hothouse atmosphere of rank, manners, and bottled-up ambitions and jealousies of these isolated Army posts.
After her husband died in 1921, Glenn began turning her nearly twenty years’ worth of observations into literature. Encouraged by Carl Van Vechten, she wrote her first novel, Heat, which was published by Knopf in 1926. Heat, which portrayed the failed romance of a young Army officer and an idealistic American teacher caught up in the exotic world of Manila, drew heavily upon her overseas postings with General Schindel, as did its successor, Little Pitchers (1927).
Transport was the last of her novels taken directly from her time as an Army wife. She and Schindel probably took much the same voyage when they were posted to the Philippines. It’s something of a tour de force, in that Glenn set herself a considerable technical challenge in setting the whole of the story within the confines of the promenade deck, dining saloon, library, and cabins and passageways of the transport ship and managing a cast of over twenty distinctly sketched characters. Her ability to weave their movements, conversations, and bondings and partings around her set is on a par with a ballet master’s.
And her talent for tracing the intricate fabric of Army society has something of the touch of Henry James in his later years. It’s a fine, taut, and airless weave that makes one glad to be far removed from it. Take the seemingly simple matter of selecting chairs on the promenade:
For only upon the deck of an army transport do humans act the splendid lie that all men are born free and equal. Passengers have their official assignments to staterooms, and to seatings in the dining saloon, strictly according to the Army List; but there there glorious prerogatives of rank cease. Upon the small deck there is waged a daily battle for the right to the shade, the right to the breezy side, the right to any space that any moral could conceivably wish to occupy. Silent pressure is put upon the wary and the unwary. The wife of a high ranking officer may come to a halt squarely in front of the chair that you have risen betimes to snatch. Under her cold eye, you cast about in your mind the chances that one day her husband may be in a position to do your husband–or your brother, or your son, or yourself if you happen to be of the right sex from the military standpoint–dirt, or the reverse; and with this thought uppermost, you then do the graceful thing of arising and respectfully seating the lady in the desirable place wherefrom you had been lazily contemplating the day ahead.
However, as John Bradbury notes in Renaissance in the South: A Critical History of the Literature, 1920-1960, while Glenn’s themes, organization, and technique are “astonishingly Jamesian”, her style “is distinctly her own, sharp, pungent, often barbed with wit and satire.” While she understands the logic of Army life, she doesn’t for a second forget that it’s an artificial set of rules and rituals.
As might be expected with any volatile mix of ingredients that is bottled up and shaken about for three weeks straight, this tightly-wound little society eventually explodes. Worn down by the effort of putting up a stolid front, a passed-over major goes momentarily mad and reveals a horrifying secret he and his family have been keeping under wraps for years. The dancers retreat, regroup, and reinforce the pretences that keep this society running smoothly. By the time the ship pulls into Manila Bay, everything is back in order.
Glenn published a total of eight novels in the space of nine years. Two–Southern Charm (1928) and A Short History of Julia (1930)–drew upon Glenn’s early years as a budding Southern belle. Both dissected the pretensions of post-bellum Southern society as coolly and satirically as she dealt with those of the Army. East of Eden (1932) was set in the literary world of New York City she had become a part of, while The Little Candle’s Beam (1935) portrayed the “cave dwellers” of old Washington, D. C. society.
Glenn appears to have exhausted her creative energies by the end of this burst of work, for her later novels received far less notice and far fewer enthusiastic reviews. Although Bradbury calls her 1933 novel, Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age her “take on James’ The Ambassadors“, Newsweek dismissed it with a three-word review: “An average novel.” There are several references to a final novel, According to Mac Tavish, supposedly published in 1938, the title cannot be found in the Library of Congress or New York Public Library catalogs. She died in 1951. Most of her biographies list her birth year as 1888, which would have made her 15 when she married Schindel and 12 when she studied briefly under James McNeill Whistler. It seems more probable that she was born in 1874 as the New York Public Library’s catalog indicates. Her son, Bayard Schindel, published one novel of his own, Golden Pilgrimage, in 1929.
Transport, by Isa Glenn
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929