Am I the Christian gentlewoman my mother slaved to make me? No indeed. I am a poet, a wine-bibber, and radical: a non-church-goer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial. (Although I will write anonymous confessions for The Nation.) That is her story–and her second defeat. She thinks I owed her a Christian gentlewoman, for all she did for me. We quarrel. After I escaped, she snapped shut the iron trap around my brother and sister. That is their story. I do not know if they will ever be free of her. She keeps Eddie Guest on the parlor table beside the books I have written–a silent protest against me. She is not pleased.
I cannot pretend to be entirely frank in telling the story that results from this story; or to apply to it any such perspective. Let my daughter tell it later on. She will see outlines I cannot.
I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was–or as wasteful. I have made worse mistakes, which might have been more fatal than hers and yet have not been, at least for me. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry. I did not want a one-way street of a marriage, like hers. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult, who refused defeat as often as I did. Hard as it is to live with an equal, it is at least not degrading. We have starved, too; struggled as hard as ever my folks did. But the struggle has not been empty: I have no grudges. Intellectually as well as emotionally my husband had as much to give that was new and strange as I had. In marriage I learned, rather tardily, the profound truth that contradicts Jesus when he said, “Bear ye one another’s burdens.” I am a better person when I bear my own burdens. I am happiest with people who can bear their own, too. I remember my mother’s weariness and contempt for a man who could never take up her challenges. Seven years with a real person is better than her thirty with a helpless, newspaper-reading gentleman.
The pioneer woman was a dynamo–and her man nearly always ran out on her. From the bitterness in such women many of us were born. Where was her mate? Did she destroy him? Did he hate her for her strength? Was he weaker because she was strong? Where is the equilibrium, anyway? I do not know, for sure, although I spend much time wondering.
Marriage is the only profound human experience; all other human angles are its mere rehearsal. Like every one else I have wanted it. And yet having it, it is not all I want. It is more often, I think, a final experience than a way of life. But I am a poet–love and mutual living are not enough. It is better to work hard than to be married hard. If, at the beginning of middle age, we have not learned some of the perils of the soul, in this double-selved life, we are pure fools. Self-sufficiency is a myth, of course, but after thirty, if one is a serious-minded egoist (i.e., artist), it becomes more and more necessary. And I think it can be approximated.
Lucinda Matlock, in the “Spoon River Anthology,” says:
We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
Rambling over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed,
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived long enough, that is all.
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent, and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you–
It takes life to love Life.
My mother was not this woman, nor am I, but we are both some way kin to her.
From These Modern Women: Autobiographical Essays from the Twenties, edited and with a revised introduction by Elaine Showalter
New York City: The Feminist Press, 1989
In 1926 and 1927, the progressive magazine The Nations published a series of autobiographical essays by seventeen women, including a poet (Taggard), a journalist (Sue Shelton White), a novelist (Mary Hunter Austin), an artist and children’s book author (Wanda Gag), and a psychologist (Phyllis Blanchard). Over fifty years later, Elaine Showalter collected them in These Modern Women. She also includes the analyses The Nations commissioned from three psychologists, two of them men. As one might expected, the men come off as superior and officious, while the woman (Beatrice M. Hinkle) is supportive and optimistic. If there was one thing I would have liked Showalter to correct one mistake in the book, which was leaving the last word to the second male psychologist, Joseph Collins (“On rereading these articles I fell into meditation. Which of these women should I have liked to companion?”). What a terrible way to end what is an otherwise fascinating and empowering book.