I learned of Jane Mayhall’s first and only novel, Cousin to Human (1960) from its inclusion in Tillie Olsen’s lists of recommended titles by women writers included in the back of her book, Silences. Olsen provided no description of it and no explanation for its mention.
Cousin to Human seems to have vanished from notice after receiving a few reviews. While the reviewer for Kirkus was not enthusiastic (“This is a baffling sort of book, which seems to head out for the Catcher in the Rye market–femininely slanted, but fails to pull the threads together into an integrated whole”), those for The New York Times and Saturday Review were favorable. There was no paperback release, however, and the book has never been reprinted or reissued.
Perhaps one reason was its similarities with another book that dominated best-seller lists and critical awards around the same time–Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Set in roughly the same time, both books had young girls as their protagonists and related their narratives as perceived by them.
Unlike Scout Finch, however, 15 year-old Lacy Cole is not at the center of the most dramatic moments in Cousin to Human. When her best friend dies in a drunk driving accident, she learns of it the next day through a neighbor, and though Lacy spends hours at the bedside of her mother as she suffers the terminal stages of stomach cancer, we learn of her mother’s death after the fact, when Lacy’s attention is taken up by other things–her sister-in-law’s efforts to take over the family house and her own infatuation with her music teacher.
Mayhall’s approach and style is far more indirect and poetic–she was, after all, primarily a poet–than Harper Lee’s, and her subject more mundane. Set in Louisville, Kentucky, in the mid-1930s, it portrays a year in the life of Lacy Cole and her family. Her father, Norman, works in a post office and her mother, Cleanth, is a hard-working housewife who loves her children but is neither sanctimonious nor forgiving in her judgments. The Coles make enough to keep a house and feel some security but not enough to afford the brand-new Chevrolet Norman buys at Christmas out of a mix of envy, frustration and grand-standing.
Reviewing the novel for The New York Times, Florence Crowther wrote that, “Miss Mayhall is a wise author–she has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet be understood.” Lacy is neither a character with a capital “C” nor a cipher, but a completely believable young woman trying to make sense of the many messages being thrown at her from her family, neighborhood, school, movies, radio, the various strata of Louisville society she encounters, and her own instincts. I’d revise Crowther’s line to say that Mayhall “has Lacy keep her mouth shut and yet tries to understand.”
This book, in fact, is most marked by the effort its author and protagonist make to understand. Mayhall takes the following couplet by William Blake as her epigraph: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?” Cousin to Human is the work of an author remarkably alert to the sights and smells and, particularly, sounds of the world around her. Mayhall herself grew up in Louisville and would have been roughly Lacy’s age, so many of the observations probably come from direct memory even if the story itself is not autobiographical.
Take the following passage, which occurs early in the book as Lacy rides with her mother and Aunt Dinna to visit relatives in a town outside Louisville:
Aunt Dinna flopped back in her seat, ready for more talking.
“You remember, Clee. How Aunt Milly used to play?”
“Can’t never forget it.”
Lacy knew the beginning of this conversation. Due to the mention of music, it was the occasion to speak of Great-aunt Milly who played the violin, and lost her heart to a rascal named Jeff at the Clayville Feed Store. Sometimes it was Cleanth who told Dinna the story. And then the situation reversed and Aunt Dinna had to remind Cleanth.It had always gone one, ever since Lacy could remember the way they talked. So she could listen or not, and still know where the ending came.
She put her head against the seat, smelling the sun-warmed leather. The click-clack of the wheels and the sound of Dinna’s voice reached her dreamily. Lacy knew all of her ancient relatives by heart, as if she had been born remembering the way they lived and died.
This reminds me so much of endless Sunday afternoons spent visiting relatives and listening to the adults swap family stories, and Mayhall has a wonderful ear for dialogue and eye for family dynamics. The scene in which Cleanth, Dinna, and their cousin Sarah debate what to do with their grandfather, an enfeebled old drunk who’d been mostly harmless and completely useless for as long as they could remember, manages to weave economic, practical, emotional, ethical, and psychological threads into a conversation that takes little more than a couple of pages, and won my attention for whatever was to follow.
Mayhall certainly had a poet’s sensibility–Lacy frequently notes the color of the sky at sunset–but her approach was solidly novelistic. While the dramas are only those of small, working-class family life, her story moves forward with consistent momentum even as she takes time to develop nuanced characterizations and note telling observations. And these accumulate, one by one, into Lacy’s own awareness of herself and her world. When Lacy meets a local professor, a well-regarded (particularly by himself) expert on Appalachian folklore, she senses a resemblance to someone she had previously encountered:
Dr. Sprichett pressed her hand, like they knew some kind of secret. It was as if it was strictly between them. Lacy shrank from this contact again. Who was it like? The fingers were possessive, warm-clinging. A tiny cunning shot through her mind.
It was quickly coming on, the sense of what she felt. And it was like–she nearly knew. It was like that time, that night–the picture was coming back. At the baking-company auditorium. It reached her in a flash, the very same sensation. It was like the man who had taken her ticket and tried to grab her hand. Valeda going on ahead–and it was like when the man tried to grab her. Nearly, almost the same. She felt a sharp elation. She was relieved, extravagant, and certain. That was what Dr. Sprichett was, no matter what he said. He was just like the other man. And thinking he knew her all the time.
I am almost in awe of this passage. It’s such a remarkable blend of specific, tangible observation, thought-in-process, and awareness that comes upon us in just such instants.
Mayhall drew her title from the following passage, which appears late in the book: “Even dogs bark in their sleep and cats hiss. By this we know they are cousin to human.” And throughout the book, she gives us glimpses into her character’s dreams and demons. With Terence, she shares the philosophy that “humani nihil a me alienum puto” (“Nothing that is human is alien to me”).
At the same time, Cousin to Human is full of larger set-piece scenes that are rich in color, action, and context, such as a talent show in which Lacy and Valeda compete as “The Twinkle Twins,” the rhapsody of American consumerism that sweeps up Norman when he buys the Chevrolet, or indeed the full story of Great-Aunt Milly and the rascal Jeff.
I took Cousin to Human along with me on my most recent flight back to the U.S.. I usually choose books that demand a little extra effort and attention on these trips so I can take advantage of a solid 7-9 hours with few distractions. In this case, it only took about a dozen pages to fall in love with Jane Mayhall’s vision and voice, and I can easily say that this was my most satisfying read this year so far. I plan to feature at least a couple of longer passages in the Excerpts section over the next few weeks.
Jane Mayhall was born in Louisville in 1918, and studied music at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. She met Leslie George Katz, a fellow student, and they moved together to Greenwich Village and married in the early 1940s. Katz founded and ran the Eakins Press, a small press specializing in poetry, graphics and short stories and whose publications were “notable for their meticulous, elegant design,” according to The New York Times. Eakins published two collections of poems by Mayhall. Following Katz’s death, Mayhall struggled with grief and wrote a special collection devoted to considerations of death and loss that was published in 2006 as Sleeping Late on Judgment Day. She died in 2009 at the age of ninety-one.