In a short prose piece, “Letdown,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1934 and excerpted in Elizabeth Frank’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan recalled how the art lessons she took from a spinster named Miss Cooper opened up a world of culture and civilization to her, until one day when her rapture was broken by the revelation that her teacher was also an ordinary human being:
One afternoon she came out of the kitchen and stood behind me. She had something in her hand that crackled like paper, and when she spoke she mumbled as though her mouth were full. I turned and looked at her; she was standing with a greasy paper bag in one hand and a half-eaten doughnut in the other. Her hair was still beautifully arranged; she still wore the silver and fire-opal ring on the little finger of the right hand. But in that moment she died for me. She died and the room died and the still life died a second death. She had betrayed me. She had betrayed the Hotel Oxford and the replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the whole world of romantic notions built around her. She had let me down; she had appeared as she was: a tired old woman who fed herself for comfort. With perfect ruthlessness I rejected her utterly. And for weeks, at night, in the bedroom of the frame house in Harold Street, I she tears that rose from anger as much as disappointment, from disillusion and from dismay. I can’t remember that for one moment I entertained pity for her. It was for myself that I kept that tender and cleansing emotion. Yes, it was for myself and for dignity and gentility soiled and broken that I shed those tears. At fifteen and for a long time thereafter, it is a monstrous thing, the heart.
In her remarks on this passage, Frank writes,
In the story of Miss Cooper’s fall from grace, Bogan tells us everything essential about the person she had become by the age of fifteen. That person was a full-blown romantic, with the romantic’s despotic requirement that reality conform to her wish, and the romantic’s susceptibility to desolating disappointment. She does not say that Miss Cooper was the first in a line of other infatuations and disillusionments, but she does not need to. It is the idea of “civilization,” and not her personal history, that she seeks to define in her memoir, and what she implies is that without a foundation in sympathy and understanding, the joys of style and taste must forever remain hollow.
I find both Bogan’s memoir and Frank’s remarks examples of stunningly good writing. Indeed, it’s a pity that Bogan never finished the autobiographical work she referred to as her “great long prose piece,” which she turned to over and again through much of her life, although we have, thanks to Ruth Limmer, a close approximation to it in Journey Around My Room (1980). But who wouldn’t want more amazing lines like “At fifteen and for a long time thereafter, it is a monstrous thing, the heart”? Or Frank’s wise conclusion that “without a foundation in sympathy and understanding, the joys of style and taste must forever remain hollow,” which I am almost tempted to adopt as a motto?