Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green (1962)

I’ve probably looked past a copy of the Signet paperback edition of Peter Green’s Habeas Corpus fifty times or more while browsing through used bookstores over the decades and looked right past it. But on the look-out for short story collections now and having the good fortune to spend an hour in one of Seattle’s last great used bookstores, Magus Books, a while ago, I finally saw it for the first time.

Habeas Corpus provided an excellent counterpoint to Hugh Walpole’s The Thirteen Travellers, which I’d read just before. Most of Peter Green’s stories are set 30-40 years after Walpole’s, but Green’s England is a very different world. It’s been through a second world war and a long grey time of rationing. The upper class is in retreat, the working class is getting into university, and everyone is drinking and smoking–hard. The veneer of English gentility is wearing through to the wood in spots.

Jack Newhouse, the … well, one can hardly say protagonist, once you’ve read what he does … of Green’s title story, for example, is quite the contrast to Walpole’s dandy, Absalom Jay:

… somehow an ineffectual figure despite the carefully calculated raffishness–bottlegreen corduroys, the old tweed jacket patched like a prep school master’s at elbows and cuffs, blond hair not so thick as it had been, too fine anyway to be worn quite so long by a man in his over-late thirties, blown now every which way by the tangling wind…. A fair if fashionable judge of College wine; slightly suspect politically, and apt to appear on television programmes rather more often than the unspoken norm allowed….

Newhouse proves to be just the sort of heel you might suspect from this description, but his sort of misdeed is less one of great evil than of the petty, cowardly kind–not doing wrong, just simply failing to do right. Many of Green’s characters are compromisers and prevaricators. Ideals are just bubbles waiting to be popped, as in “The Tea Party,” in which a naive but ambitious young student comes to realize the truth about an idolized professor: “And Grandison, his old world in shreds, saw from the heart of his confusion that the Professor was as naked as himself. Do not reject me, cried the stony mask beneath its stone.”

Illustration from the cover of the Signet paperback edition of “Habeas Corpus”

You might think from this that Habeas Corpus is a drab, depressing book, but in all but perhaps one of Green’s eight stories, there is a strong narrative, a sense of a revelation yet to come, that makes for irresistible reading. His characterizations are often enhanced through just the simplest details, and in each story, there is a vivid sense of place. Thumbing back through the book as I write this, I find myself recalling the settings as if I’d actually seen them. I tend to skip around stories in a collection, particularly if there is, as in this case, no evident pattern or sequence intended, but I read straight through Habeas Corpus and was only tempted to look elsewhere during “Proof of Identity,” which was a throw-away compared to the other stories in the book. It’s a shame that this is Green’s one and only collection of stories.

Although Green attended Charterhouse, one of the poshest public schools, his time at Cambridge was interrupted by the war, during which he spent five years in the R.A.F. in the heat and dirt of India and Burma, where everyone’s finer points eventually got blunted. After finishing with a degree in classics at Trinity, he scrabbled along for some years as a journalist until moving to Greece, where he wrote several works of fiction. By the time that Habeas Corpus was published in the U.S., however, he had moved into teaching and writing classical history, which has remained his focus ever since (he is still on the faculty of the University of Iowa as an adjunct professor at 92). Habeas Corpus was his last work of fiction.


Habeas Corpus, by Peter Green
London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962

The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole (1920)

I put off my plan to devote a year’s worth of posts to neglected short story writers and collections for a year when I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave my year of the neglected woman writer quite yet. So I stretched that year into two and have made a pretty poor start of things by putting off this year’s project until–Jeepers, the middle of March. Yes, life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

In any case and not to procrastinate further, let me start things off with a lovely package of ripping yarns: Hugh Walpole’s 1920 collection, The Thirteen Travellers. I’ve wanted to cover this book ever since reading its first story, “Absalom Jay,” which manages to be both satirical and heart-tugging in its portrait of an aging and forgotten fop.

At the height of the Yellow Book era of the late 1890s, Absalom Jay was the perfect embodiment of the London dandy, caricatured in Punch and other magazines:

Everyone always noticed his clothes. But here again one must be fair. It may not have been altogether his clothes that one noticed. From very early years his hair was snow-white, and he wore it brushed straight back from his pink forehead in wavy locks. He wore also a little white tufted Imperial. He had an eyeglass that hung on a thick black cord. His favourite colour was a dark blue, and with this he wore spats (in summer of a truly terrific whiteness), a white slip, black tie, and pearl pin. He wore wonderful boots and shoes and was said to have more of these than any man in London. It was also said that his feet were the smallest (masculine) in the British Isles.

But when Walpole finds Absalom, a year or so after the Armistice, society as he had known it–which had been Society with a capital S–had been left behind, one of the war’s many victims, and good manners and light conversation no longer gained one reliable invitations to dinner parties and dances. He is now an old man, whose living has become increasingly tenuous due to a bit of imprudent speculation just before the war, and whose elbows and welcomes have worn exceedingly thin.

Absalom is one of Walpole’s thirteen travellers–all residents of Horton’s, a respectable residential hotel somewhere between Picadilly and St. James’ Square. Some of them, like Absalom, are moving down, some are moving up, and others are just passing through. For each, Walpole constructs an efficient, well-balanced, and soundly-built story as dependable as Mr. Nix, the manager of Horton’s. He even tosses in a jolly good ghost story.

One could see in The Thirteen Travellers a predecessor to Vicki Baum’s best-seller of a decade later, Grand Hotel, but this is format that’s been around since at least the time of The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales: the linked story collection. In Walpole’s case, the link is Horton’s Hotel and the transitional time just after the Great War and before the Twenties started to roar. His cast ranges from young to old, rich to poor, nobility to working class, but they share a common set of English values and prejudices. Not that Walpole is so obtuse that he can’t see that some of these values got banged out of shape in the war and are rapidly being replaced by harsher facts.

Hugh Walpole was one of the most successful English writers of his time, but his reputation took a serious hit after W. Somerset Maugham mocked him in fictional form as the sycophantic social climber, Alton Kear, in his novel Cakes and Ale. By the time he died in 1941, he was considered such a joke that his Time obituary dismissed his work with remarks such as, “He could tell a workmanlike story in good workmanlike English.” Since then, however, some of his works, particularly the six novels of the Herries Chronicle, have remained in print and held a small but loyal following. In recent years, his standing has been restored somewhat, but an honest critic would have to acknowledge that he is better remembered as a story-teller than as an artist. And his ghost stories in particular are well worth seeking out and now easily available in the collection, All Souls’ Night, released last year from Valancourt Books.


The Thirteen Travellers, by Hugh Walpole
London: Hutchinson & Company, 1920

Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway (1980)

Cover of Powers of the WeakI’ve written about many good books on this site over the years, but this may be the most important one, particularly now.

Even when it was first published in 1980, Elizabeth Janeways’s Powers of the Weak was labelled as a feminist tract and fairly quickly dismissed and forgotten. Which was an apt demonstration of the very phenomenon noted in the quote from Victor Turner’s Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture from which Janeway took her title and which she prefaces her book:

INFERIORITY: A value-bearing category that refers to the powers of the weak, countervailing against structural power, fostering continuity, creating the sentiment of the wholeness of the total community, positing the model of an undifferentiated whole whose units are whole human beings. The powers of the weak are often assigned in hierarchic and stratified societies to females, the poor, autochthons [indigenous peoples], and outcasts.

Ironically, Powers of the Weak is actually an intensely empowering book that should inspire hope in anyone who is feeling desparate, hopeless, and voiceless.

“My aim is to understand power,” Janeway writes in her opening chapter, “that ambiguous, menacing, much-desired quality whose accepted definition seems to me unsatisfactory.” Indeed, she immediately rejects the premise that power is a quality or a property and instead defines it as “a process of human interaction”–a dynamic process that only exists in the context of a relationship. In this way, it’s analogous to potential in electricity, mechanics, or gravity–the tension created between two opposing charges, forces, or masses.

And because of this view, Janeway holds the weak accountable for their part in relationships with the power. “[W]hen the weak habitually turn their backs on power because they accept the stereotypes that undervalue them, they permit their rulers to define proper processes of governing according to the experience of the rulers alone, so that it comes to seem that only one ‘right way’ to handle power exists.”

Even in the extreme conditions of a totalitarian state. As natural “as fear must be when the weak face unbridled oppression from the state, this fear is intended. It has a political purpose–to interfere with the normal functioning of the human beings who make up the mass of the governed”–to “separate them, and sick each one in isolation and paralysis.” She cites as evidence Charlotte Beradt’s remarkable survey of the dreams recounted by ordinary Germans living under the Nazi regime, The Third Reich of Dreams: “What she found was a kind of mental lockjaw. Anxiety dreams were everywhere. In them the dreamer was invited again and again to take some action in the face of danger and could not manage to do so; did not dare to move a finger.”

Elizabeth Janeway, 1980
In response, Janeway rallies the weak to hold onto what she calls “the first and last power of the weak”: skepticism, mistrust, and dissent. “If, in the face of repression, the governed can still hold to mistrust, they will not, of course be safe; but they will preserve the inner citadel of the self and with it the capacity of judging the exterior world in terms of their own interests.” Dissent, she writes, “is the intellectual steel which strengthens the self in the face of the tyrant’s weapon of induced panic.”

This suspicion should even extend to whatever bright alternate futures might be held up to excite the action and loyalty of the weak. “I have never, myself, read a Utopia that seemed to approach even distantly the size and the vitality of the human world. The past was full of surprises; the present is astonishing (as well as frightening): who knows what the future may be?”

In fact, though Janeway holds those who consider themselves weak, oppressed, or alienated accountable for taking charge of their own lives, she would reserve some skepticism for any political construct that might be devised. In a line that ought to be engraved and put up on the wall above any thinking person’s desk, she cautions that “There is always more more reality around than we allow for; and there are always more ways to structure it than we use.”

If you’re one of those who’ve felt depressed, disenchanted, or disgusted since November 8, I highly recommend getting a copy of Powers of the Weak and let her reinvigorate your power to dissent: “The basic trust of reality that we learned in our first creative conquest of the world is our defense against the magic image of a new system presented by the tyrants.”


Powers of the Weak, by Elizabeth Janeway
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980

Anna Wickham: Poetess and Landlady

“The Poet Abroad in Her Kingdom, the Earth: She Prescribes an Oligarchy of Poets and Painters to Organise the World”

In the April 27, 1946 edition of Picture Post, a U. K. version of Life, an unusual three-page story was devoted to a poet who, even then, was two decades past her brief and limited fame. Anna Wickham struggled throughout her life against the control that men–first her father, then her husband, and finally, the male power structure of her time. Though she wrote quickly and spontaneously (her poems bear the marks far more of improvisation than careful craft) and managed to write hundreds of poems and publish three books (The Contemplative Quarry (1915); The Man With A Hammer (1916); and The Little Old House (1921)) while raising four boys and keeping house, she resented that expectations about how her time and energy should be spent and implicit contest between the domestic and the creative life.

There is no doubt that her poetry might have been more highly regarded now had she put more energy into her writing and less into her fights with the world, but then she wouldn’t have been the woman she was. In this article, Lionel Birch refers to her as a “Great She,” and she once snapped at a man threatening to eject her from an art auction, “You’d better retract, my good man. I may be a minor poet, but I’m a major woman.” One of her most stalwart supporters, Louis Untermeyer, who included some of her poems in most of his anthologies, called her “a magnificent gypsy of a woman, who always entered a room as if she had just stamped across the moors.” Rayner Heppenstall wrote that Wickham was “reputed to bite people’s heads off and try to pull other women’s breasts off.” Even the tough-minded George Orwell, a neighbor in the 1930s, considered her “ferocious looking.”

As she grew older, she became known as something of a character in Hampstead, where she ran a rough-and-tumble rooming house. She wrote more intermittently after 1930 and published less, but still did occasional readings (at which she was known to make such candid asides as, “Rubbish, but there it is.” And she tenaciously stuck to her opinions, rights, and routines throughout the war, even as houses a few feet from hers were destroyed in the Blitz, earning the respect of her neighbors and a certain local celebrity that was celebrated in the Picture Post photo essay.

In an autobiographical piece reprinted in The Writings of Anna Wickham: Free Woman and Poet (edited by R. D. Smith, Olivia Manning’s husband), Wickham once wrote, “I feel that women of my kind are a profound mistake. There have been few women poets of distinction, and, if we count only the suicides of Sappho, Lawrence Hope and Charlotte Mew, their despair rate has been very high.” Almost exactly a year after the Picture Post piece appeared, her youngest son, George, found her hanging in the kitchen in which she is shown sitting below. She was 63.

And so, to mark the end of two years devoted to the neglected works of women writers, I take the liberty to reprint the text and photos from the Picture Post article, remarkable for its time in its open-hearted recognition of Wickham’s struggles with her world.


Anna Wickham: Poetess and Landlady

Celebrated in America, appreciated in France–Anna Wickham, mistress of words that sing and words that devastate, is still without full honour in her own country.

In the living-room of Anna Wickham’s house in Hampstead hangs one of those landlady’s notices which look so familiar. But this is how it reads: “Tour bourgeoise. Anna Wickham’s Stabling for Poets, Artists, and their Executives. Creative mood respected. Meals at all hours.”

“Creative mood respected.” That is important to Anna Wickham, and you can see why, when you read a verse of one of her own poems, called, “Dedication to a Cook”:

If any ask why there’s no great She-Poet,
Let him come live with me, and he will know it.
If I’d indite an ode or mend a sonnet,
I must go choose a dish or tie a bonnet….

“She Scrutinises Her 62nd Spring”
Anna Wickham herself is a Great She, and she is a poet of a flavour which you won’t find anywere else. She wrote that verse more than twenty years ago, when she was in the process of bringing up a family, looking after her husband, running a home, and generally having her creative moods disrespected by the tyranny of the kitchen range, and the dictatorship of the darning needle.

She was born in Wimbledon in 1884, went to Australia when she was six, came back to Paris to study singing with Jean De Reszke, when she was 21, got married shortly afterwards, abandoned her singing career, started writing poetry, and came slap up against the creative total-woman’s conflict between the demands of the Dream and the demands of the Race. There then pursued her a period of frenzied sweeping-up, in her successive Hampstead homes, until her sons at last grew up and went afield.

At that point she was once more in a position to respect her own creative moods–even though it meant that the dishes were left unwashed and stockings undarned. Today, her house remains a memorial of those bud-bursting years when the rabid itch to get lyrics down on to paper would never let her alone,a nd neither would the kitchen range.

For the house–the house in these pictures–was the battlefield on which her dreams fought a war of movement against her domesticity; and there the pots and pans still hang around in gangs, at teh scene of their crime.

“The Poet in Her Kitchen, Where Soufflés Fight with Sonnets”

The poet in her kitchen, where soufflés fight against sonnets for her time and exclusive attention. Anna Wickham, one of England’s rarest, but least-publicised, lyric poets, in the nerve-centre of her Hampstead home. Many of the most fruitful hours of her life have been spent just like this: waiting for the kettle to boil, waiting for a dish to cook, waiting for the unborn poem to start knocking–and hoping they aren’t all going to start happening at once. The prevailing problem, to find time for dreams as well as for domesticity.

“She Eats Her Elevenses on the Kerb”

But as soon as Anna Wickham steps outside her front door, it is a different matter. When you see her walking down the Parliament Hill, with her big Indian shopping basket clanging against her knee like a great bamboo bell, you know that there is at least one free, sovereign, woman abroad on the earth. Free to do what? Free to spend time, or to use time, or to pass time. Free to walk or stop walking. Free to break her quarter-mile journey to the shops half-way, sit down on the kerb and eat a bun. Free to proceed, with or without broomstick, on the pond, or to declaim an old poem to a child operating against the tiddlers. Free, in fact, to deal with the dream when it arrives. Free to do any of the things which may lead to the making of a new poem.

“She Investigates the Mythology of a Kite”

People stare? Of course, people stare. The huge face, corrugated by the astringency of wisdom, the goblin eyes, and the laugh of a naughty little girl–these rightly rattle the giblets of the rolled-umbrella-man in the pub. the gawper in the street, the wondering child on the Heath.

In Hampstead one is used to Free Austrians and Free Hungarians. But it is not every day that you can see a Free Elizabethan reciting a barbed lyric to herself in the middle of East Heath Road. Anna Wickham declares that she does not write poetry: she exudes it. She does not speak of writing to, for, or about, people she meets. She talks of writing it “from” them. “I imagined that poem from So-and-So,” she says.

She has written poems passionate and poems compassionate, Mistress-poetry and Mother-poetry. And, in her conversation, she is master-mistress of the phrase-that-goes-home–either the phrase that kindles, or the phrase that trounes, or the phrase that heals.

One poem explains the ruthlessness:

If I had peace to sit and sing,
Then I could make a lovely thing;
But I am stung by goads and whips,
So I build songs like iron ships.
Let it be something for my song
If it is sometimes swift and strong.

“She Returns to the Tree About Which She Wrote Her Loveliest Song”
Lastly, and because it is a question which is central to her poetry, let’s take the complaint of the Powdered and Pomaded Ones: “But why doesn’t she smarten herself up?” Let Anna Wickham, in an hitherto unpublished poem, answer:

I plant my hope,
On my Irish view of water
And my Italian attitude to soap.
I am my father’s daughter.
I bathe by spells,
At holy works,
And wash them with the Turks.
Them without sin,
I disregard my skin,
And thus I know
Old Stratfrd-atte-Bow,
The sweats and smuts and anguish of my Loard,
All saints, and sluts, before the Water Board.
Young Fancy came to wreck,
From too much washing of the Heron’s neck.

You tell me that shows that the woman has no standards? I tell you her standards are something more than steeple-high. Listen to this:

God, thou great symmetry,
Who put a biting lust in me
From whence my sorrows spring,
For all the frittered days
That I have spent in shapeless ways,
Give me one perfect things.

And that poem constitutes one out of about 200 similar reasons why I count Anna Wickham as a blessing, and why I would have you meet her.

Written by Lionel Birch. Published in Picture Post, April 27, 1946

Odd Women in the City

Bus Stop No. 98 by Mark Garbowski
Bus Stop No. 98 by Mark Garbowski

In her recent book, The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick aligns herself with what she calls the Odd Women, taking the phrase from George Gissing’s novel, which, in turn, took it from the perception that there was an excess of single women in England at the time, and that so many women were destined to find themselves the odd woman out, unable to find a man to marry them. Gornick, as usual, weaves a moving and thought-provoking series of reflections on love and loneliness around this theme of people who find themselves the odd person out, living alone in a world that tends to equate life in a relationship with success and happiness.

Gornick cites the example of Mary Britten Miller, who, as Isabel Bolton, published three critically celebrated novels in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when she was well into her sixties. As described in her 1966 book, Under Gemini, discussed here back in 2011, Miller’s great tragedy was the loss of her identical twin sister, Grace, in a swimming accident in their early teens. When she reached adulthood, Miller settled in Greenwich Village, where she lived alone until her death at 92: “She was never married, and she seems not to have had a lover anyone ever knew. What she did have was friends, some of whom described her as witty and mean, entertainingly haughty, and impressively self-educated.”

In her novel, Do I Wake or Sleep?, Bolton wrote: “Christ, how we loved our own aloneness… We were incapable of giving because there was so much within our reach to grab and snatch and gather for our own, our solitary souls.” As Gornick writes, “She sees what Freud saw–that our loneliness is anguishing and yet, inexplicably, we are loath to give it up. At no period in psychological time are we free of the contradiction: it is the conflict of conflicts.”

It struck me in reading The Odd Woman and the City that a fair amount of my two years of focusing exclusively on the work of women writers has been devoted to what Gornick would call odd women: Alice Koller, whose book An Unknown Woman: a Journey to Self-Discovery could be considered the Bible of odd womanhood; Eve Langley, who was packed off to a mental asylum when her oddness grew too much for her husband to bear; Abbie Huston Evans, whose geologic sense of time could make her 101 years seem like a jog through a very small park; Ouida, who, having wasted a fortune on a wastrel lover and other lost causes, died in neglect, surrounded only by her many dogs; Stella Bowen, who learned her lesson in love at the hands of Ford Madox Ford and, thus the wiser, devoted her remaining years to surviving and to putting her own art first. Even Dorothy Richardson, though she spent over thirty years in a rather odd sort of marriage to Alan Odle, wrote, in Pilgrimage, the magnum opus on the challenge of living one’s own life–alone more often than not.

In discussing another odd woman, the novelist Evelyn Scott, Gornick quotes a letter from Louise Bogan that I will take the liberty to reproduce in full:

Dear May:

I had a sad and rather eerie meeting, early this week, with poor old Evelyn Scott. I sad old advisedly, since she really has fallen into the dark and dank time–the time that I used to fear so much when I was in my thirties. She is old because she has failed to grow–up, in, on … So that at 62, she is not only frayed and dingy (she must have been a beauty in youth) but silly and more than a little mad. She met me only casually, years ago, with Charlotte Wilder [sister of Thornton Wilder], but now, of course, she thinks I can do something for her–so transparent, poor thing. She is not only in the physical state I once feared, but she is living in the blighted area of the West 70’s, near Broadway: that area which absorbs the queer, the old, the failures, into furnished or hotel rooms, and adds gloom to their decay. It was all there! She took me out to a grubby little tea-room around the corner, insisted on paying for the tea, and brought out, from time to time, from folds in her apparel, manuscripts that will never see print. I never was able to read her, even in her hey-day, and her poetry now is perfectly terrible. Added to all this, she is in an active state of paranoia–things and people are her enemies; she has been plotted against in Canada, Hampstead, New York and California; her manuscripts have been stolen, time and time again, etc., etc. –We should thank God, that we remain in our senses! As you know, I really fear mad people; I have some attraction for them, perhaps because talent is a kind of obverse of the medal. I must, therefore, detach myself from E. S.. I told her to send the MS to Grove Press, and that is all I can do. “But I must know the editor’s name!” she cried. “I can’t chance having my poems fall into the hands of some secretary….” O dear, O dear….

Love from your hasty
Louise

Yet Bogan herself spent her share of decades as an odd woman, in what she called the faubourg of Morningside Heights. And she could write, in a notebook quoted in her posthumous autobiography, Journey Around My Room,

When we have not come into ourselves we say, in solitude: “No one loves me; I am alone.” When we had chosen solitude, we say, “Thank God, I am alone!”

For Bogan, however, the struggle with loneliness never ended. She wondered as the spirit she saw in others her age and older:

But people keep hopeful and warm and loving right to the end–with much more to endure than I endure. –I see the old constantly, on these uptown streets–and they are not “depressed.” Their eyes are bright; they have bought themselves groceries; they gossip and laugh–with, often, crippling handicaps evident among them.

Where has this power gone, in my case?

I weep–but there’s little relief there.

How can I break these mornings?

And she found herself rising too early, as she wrote her friend Ruth Limmer less than a year before her death in 1970:

I waken at v. odd hours, having gone to sleep so early. –Remedy I: Put on light and try to read. II: Get up, and do not light a cigarette, but pour yourself a nice slug of Gordon’s Gin. This usually works ….

For Gornick, it’s living in a city that provides the only effective remedy:

It’s the voices I can’t do without. In most cities of the world the populace is planted in centuries of cobble-stoned alleys, ruined churches, architectural relics, none of which are ever dug up, only piled one on top of another. If you’ve grown up in New York, your life is an archaeology not of structures but of voices, also piled one on top of another, also not really replacing one another.

I think one reason the works of these odd women have so interested me is that they all, in one way or other, get to the heart of the fundamental question of what it means to be an individual. Defining oneself inherently involves separating from the things and people you are not, and there is no way to do this without risking some amount of loneliness. Which requires a certain share of courage and rarely comes without a fair share of second-guessing as well. I’m still figuring much of this out for myself, but I know that I draw more than ever on the words and experiences of women like Gornick, Koller, Bolton, and Bogan.

Christmas Trees New and Old, from The Christmas Tree, by Isabel Bolton (1949)

Cover of first US edition of 'The Christmas Tree'

The New

Though there was all manner of evidence of the season – New York producing it, as it produced everything else, on its own colossal, mass-production scale, all outdoors and public and promiscuous, with a tree in almost every park and square, all the churches turning them out properly lighted and arrayed, the great central civic spectacle there in Rockefeller Center, the tallest Christmas tree erected on this earth, standing up in all the majesty of its broad green boughs, with those beautiful balloons floating like celestial bodies of blue and gold and silver all around it, while from below, in the skating rink, with crowds and crowds of people listening, one heard, right through the night, those deep strong voices singing the familiar hymns.

The Old

There stood the tree – the great, the green, the fabulous hemlock – with all its layered boughs reaching out into the room, filling it with greenness, tapering upward, till its tip almost, but not quite, touched the ceiling, and distributing a Christmas incense which the warmth of the room, the heat of burning candles drew out to such a fine intensity of Christmas sentiment. There it stood before her, garlanded, looped round with ropes of snow-white popcorn, with rainbow-colored chains of paper bracelets, with silver tinsel and with gold, hung with blue and red and gold and with silver balls and bells and silver stars so cunningly faceted as to receive and flash back, from bell and ball, from star and candle flame, from the upper and the nether ornaments and trinkets so many tiny sparks and scintillations, so many beams and filaments of light, as to create in all the boughs and branches a mesh and maze of brightness, the candles with the blue candle-centers all together flickering, traveling upward to a point of highest ecstasy.

There it stood, fixing her in a trance, rendering her incapable of detaching this little picture from that, or one moment from the next – kneeling or sitting down, smiling, getting up, walking round, around, the blessed instants blending, melting one into another, becoming, and even as she gazed, memory, message, meaning.

For here, under the white sheet spread out to save the carpet from candle grease and hemlock needles, were all the Christmas gifts, of every shape and size, wrapped with white or silver paper, tied with white or red or silver ribbons, embellished with holly and mistletoe and inscribed with loving dedications – ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Hilly, Merry Christmas from Uncle Theodore’; ‘John from Aunt Sally’; ‘Hilly from Mamma and Papa’; ‘Adelaide from her father’ – and all and everybody searching to find their own particular presents – package heaped on package, and each one for somebody, with love from someone else, and all presumably from Santa Claus.


Though proclaimed by Edmund Wilson as “a poet of the noblest kind who uses the compression and the polish of her fiction to focus human insight and to concentrate moral passion” and by Diana Trilling as “the best woman writer of fiction in this country today” when The Christmas Tree was first published and by Gore Vidal as “a magically alive writer” and by Doris Grumbach as “a writer of originality and great power” when it was reissued in 1997 as one of the three novels in New York Mosaic, Isabel Bolton remains a neglected writer, none of whose books have seen print this century. I featured her striking memoir of her childhood as an identical twin, Under Gemini (1966) here back in 2011, and Vivian Gornick recently recalled her as one of her prototypical New York City “odd women” in her memoir, The Odd Woman and the City.

Few facts have emerged about Mary Britton Miller, the woman who transformed herself into Isabel Bolton the novelist in her early sixties. Her parents both died within hours of each other when Mary and her sister Grace were both four, leaving them and three other siblings orphans. They were all raised by a spinster hired by their aunt, the wife of a railroad executive who prided herself on knowing best how to run other people’s lives. Ten years later, when Mary and Grace were rowing near the shore in Long Island Sound, their boat overturned and, in panic, Grace became exhausted and drowned as Mary watched, unable to help.

Mary attended the Cambridge School for Girls and then lived in Italy for a few years, probably in the company of her cousin, Marguerite Chapin, who later married Prince Roffredo Caetani and founded the influential literary magazine, Botteghe Oscure. In a letter to Diana Athill, Edward Field suggested she had a child out of wedlock in Italy, but, lacking any other evidence, we can only take this as hearsay.

Then she settled in New York City, eventually buying a pre-Civil War era brownstone at 81 Barrow Street in the West Village (a property that fetched a cool $15 million when sold in 2011). As Mary Britton Miller, she published a number of books of poems for children, starting with Songs of Infancy and Menagerie (1928), and continuing on with Intrepid Bird (1934). In 1943, she told the story of her life between the death of her parents and the loss of Grace in fictional form in In the Days of Thy Youth. It was not a timely subject, however, and the book went virtually unreviewed.

By then, she had turned sixty and begun to suffer from a loss of vision that led her to dictate all her writing and to hire readers (Grumbach recalls a story that Miller fired one for hesitating when encountering the word “fuck”). For reasons that no one has yet managed to unearth, she decided to use a pseudonym for her next novel, Do I Wake or Sleep? (1946), even though the book was published by Scribners, which had published In the Days of Thy Youth. All she offered in the way of a biographical sketch for the dust jacket was, “Here it is, the book over which I have thought deeply and worked hard. What more is there to say, except perhaps to add that I have lived some time in Europe, that I was brought up in America, and that New York has been my home for many years?”

What a difference three years made. Diana Trilling opened her review in The Nation with the announcement that, “Isabel Bolton’s Do I Wake or Sleep? (Scribner’s, $2.50) is quite the best novel that has come my way in the four years I have been reviewing new fiction for this magazine.” In a feature review in The New Yorker, Edmund Wilson compared Bolton to Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Elizabeth Bowen. They and other reviewers were equally effusive when The Christmas Tree was published three years later. But by the time her third book, Many Mansions, was published in 1952, the glow had faded. Kirkus Reviews called the book “a rather mannered, meditative backward look” and wrote that “Miss Bolton, whom one often feels is under the influence of Edith Wharton, never gets beyond a certain drawing room elegance and withered gentility.”

And so Miller returned to children’s poetry, with burst of publications in the late 1950s: Give a Guess (1957); All Aboard (1958); Jungle Journey (1959), written with her friend, Tobias Schneebaum (to whom she later dedicated Under Gemini); A Handful of Flowers (1959); and Listen–the Birds (1961). Though simple and straightforward, these poems reveal the same intimate awareness of childhood that seems never to have left Miller, even if she could write fiction that was compared with that of Henry James:

Where Are You Now?

Someone has just
Put out the light;
Someone has just
Told you good night

People are talking
Not far away;
You wish you could hear
Just what they say.

The window is open—
People are walking,
Voices are calling
Out in the street.

Now you are falling
And falling and falling
Into a silence
Soft as your pillow,
White as your sheet.

Yet she was fully aware that she was no longer living in the same world. In the The Christmas Tree, the lead character’s grandson is obsessed with warplanes and informs her that it was the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. And so she felt there was good reason to ask, in a poem titled, “This Wonderful World,” “It’s a world full of growing/And changing and flowing./Who’d want to blow it/To smithereens?”

In 1966, Miller once again took up the pseudonym for a nonfictional account of her life with her sister Grace, Under Gemini–this time roughly one-fourth the length of In the Days of Thy Youth. The book received respectful reviews but was not reprinted again until 1999. And when she published her last book, The Whirligig of Time, in 1971, Kirkus Reviews felt free to remark deridingly, “… one questions whether any contemporary will wish to join Blanche Willoughby in her return through the years ‘to the heartland of her soul” and called the book’s “perfumed sensibility … just about unbearable.”

In its obituary when Miller died at the age of 91 in 1975, The New York Times recalled Miller’s statement that after Grace’s death, her own life had been “blotted out——everything became dim, unreal, artificial.” And noted that “Miss Miller never married.”

Not My Mother’s Daughter, by Genevieve Taggard, fromThose Modern Women

Genevieve Taggard, 1926
Genevieve Taggard, 1926
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.

The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles (1947)

gentlebush-paul
I will admit guilt for committing an occasional theft. Once in a while, I find a book that cries out, “Please take me home with you.” These are always, naturally, neglected books. I usually find them in hotels or vacation rentals, in those little libraries of books that previous guests have left behind–perhaps in hopes that someone else would find them interesting, perhaps simply because they weren’t interesting enough to be worth carrying home.

The scene of my last crime was a small hotel in Luxembourg, a pretty forgettable place where I stayed one night while on a business trip. Taking up part of the landing on the staircase up to the rooms was a tall, narrow bookcase with a mix of French, German, and Dutch paperbacks–Dan Brown, John Grisham, and their Euro counterparts. But one book was definitely not new, not a bestseller, and in English. It was a thick, old (1955), and somewhat unusually-sized paperback (halfway between a pocket book and a trade paperback): The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles. Although clearly in English, the book’s publisher, Panther Books, had an address in Leipzig, which was in the German Democratic Republic at the time. Other Panther titles listed inside the back cover included English classics such as Jane Eyre and The Scarlet Letter, but also a few I didn’t recognize: The Volunteers, by Steve Nelson, and Goldsborough, by Stefan Heym. Nelson turned out to have been an activist, volunteer in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and member of the American Communist Party. Heym was a German writer who emigrated to the U.S. to escape Hitler, fought for the Allies during the war, wrote and organized for left causes after the war, and moved to East Germany in the early 1950s.

A little more digging confirmed that Panther Books mutated into Seven Seas Books, which was run by Heym’s American wife, Gertrude Gelbin, and continued to publish English-language books, mostly novels and mostly on leftist subjects by such writers as Ring Lardner, Jr., Alvah Bessie, and Dorothy Hewett, as well as many of Heym’s own books and those of fellow East German writers such as Anna Seghers and Christa Wolf.

I had, of course, slipped the book into my duffel bag before checking this aspect of the book’s back story, and I started to read at home the next evening. Giles takes her title from a line from Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes: “Let the gentle bush dig its root deep and spread upward to split one boulder.” Her story is set in bayou Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century, among the many members of the Durels, a family in slow decline from the grand beginnings made by their grandfather, who established a large plantation before the Civil War.

The only Durel still thriving financially is Agricole, who is looked down upon by his kinsmen: “Everyone knew that Agricole’s father, the first Agricole, had not married cette femme in New Orleans until his son was at least ten years old.” This doesn’t prevent Agricole (junior) from attempting to insinuate himself (and his three children) back in the family’s good grades. And from that point forward, the story is one big race to decay: will the poor but upright Durels decline into penury before wealthy Agricole (junior) loses his last shred of decency in his pursuit of filthy lucre?

I can’t say that I stuck with the story. I quickly lost track of Durels, what with Tante Abelle, Michel, Nicole, Auguste, Alcee, Amelie, Leonie, Lizette, and a good dozen more, along with the many other characters in the neighborhood of Bayou Teche. The 500-plus dense pages of The Gentle Bush require more commitment that I had in me.

gentlebush-firstAnd Giles was looking for readers with commitment. A frequent contributor to The New Masses, she seems to have taken her inspiration from a odd duo: Karl Marx and Taylor Caldwell. Particularly Caldwell’s saga about a family of American arms manufacturers, The Dynasty of Death, The Eagles Gather, and The Final Hour. She captures the energy of a successful entrepreneur but favors the poor but honest and down-trodden, the working whites and serving blacks, who seem to shine with a uniformly stalwart glow. Even as evil triumphs, we know that ultimately the workers of the world will unite and seize control of the means of production, or something like that.

The Gentle Bush was generally well-received when it was first published–by a mainstream publisher, Harcourt, Brace and Company–in 1947. The chill winds of the Red Scare were picking up, but it was still possible for activist writers such as Giles, Alexander Saxton, and Cedric Belfrage to get published by the big firms. A year later, The New Masses closed its doors. Giles continued to maintain her Communist Party membership even after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, only leaving in the mid-1960s when she felt it had become irrelevant. Giles never published another book.


The Gentle Bush, by Barbara Giles
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1947

The Hepzibah Omnibus, by Olwen Bowen (1936)

Illustration by L. R. Brightwell, from Beetles and Things
Illustration by L. R. Brightwell, from Beetles and Things

Cover of The Hepzibah OmnibusWhen I saw The Hepzibah Omnibus in a bookstore in London a few months ago, I began wondering, “Why do I know the name Olwen Bowen?” A quick glance at the title page cleared up the mystery: “Foreword by Clemence Dane.” Kate Macdonald and I had read and discussed Dane’s massive theatrical saga, Broome Stages, earlier this year, and though neither of us much cared for the book, I did remember a few facts from the author’s life–in particular, that she and Bowen had lived together for nearly forty years.

nb_0640Unlike Dane, who wrote fiction, drama, and nonfiction, Bowen confined herself strictly to writing for children. Although her last book, Tales from the Mabinogion, was a retelling of stories from the King Arthur legends, most of her books were set in worlds inhabited almost exclusively by animals and insects. Her titles were simple and straightforward: Runaway Rabbit; Taddy Tadpole and the Pond Folk; Dog’s Delight; A Terrier’s Tale.

The Hepzibah Omnibus collects four of her animal tales. The first two, “Hepzibah the Hen” and “Hepzibah Again,” take place in the farmyard shared ruled over by the vain Hepzibah and her friend, the equally self-absorbed pig, Gertie Grunter. Most of the Farmyard Folk stick with alliteration when in comes to names: Reginald Rat, Kathleen Cow, Cuthbert Cockerel, etc.. Each chapter is a small object lesson that usually comes as the result of some animal foible–vanity, pride, jealousy–but always ends happily. Rather like Aesop with the edges sanded down. It’s a world where even the rodents loved their most fearsome predator:

And all the Farmyard Folk were very grateful to Barny, the Barndoor Owl. They liked to hear him at night as he flew about among the barns, calling out to himself as he flew, “I see you! I see you!” just out of habit; for they knew that he was a very friendly person really and they all felt much safer when he was about.

yapThe next tale deals with Yap, a young fox with still a bit too much fellow-feeling in his heart to realize that the rabbits might not feel quite comfortable with him crashing their Rabbit Fest in a rabbit suit. In most chapters, though, he proves exceptionally adept at team-building. At different times, he joins causes with a toad, a vole, an otter, three badgers, and a hedgehog. The alliances usually seem to involve getting some kind of food, but I guess we don’t have too feel too much remorse over the sacrifice of eggs, fish, or fruit. And when it does involve something a little closer to home, it’s a roast chicken that Yap’s father, Barker Fox, steals from a circus tent, not a live one.

beetles-bwI found the last tale, “Beetles and Things,” by far the most charming, perhaps because of the illustrations by Harry Rountree (the illustrations for Hepzibah and Yap are by L. R. Brightwell). Montgomery Beetle, in particularly, looks a bit like Harry Langdon. As with the farmyard, the insects exist in a peaceful, alliterative form of coexistence, in which Septimus Spider would never dream of ensnaring Ena Earwig or Bill Blue-Bottle. The only inter-species competition in the book is over a lot of overripe plums (and, of course, that gourmand Thomas Tit gets most of those).

It’s hard to imagine that many kids would enjoy The Hepzibah Omnibus these days. Bowen wrote for children capable of dealing with compound sentences and with a wider vocabulary that the sort of 4-5 years olds who might still go for simple animal stories: “Lena Fly and Bill Blue-Bottle flew quickly away, while Cedric, Ena Earwig, and many of the others spend a cramped and uncomfortable afternoon curled up in any tiny niches and crevices they could find in the tree itself.” And, on the other hand, I’m not sure I would put Hepzibah on a par with The Wind in the Willows as a timeless classic of children’s literature. But I was happy to give up an hour or so of my time to see what Olwen Bowen was up to while her partner was busy hammering away at Broome Stages.


The Hepzibah Omnibus, by Olwen Bowen [Davies]
London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1936

G. B. Stern’s Infinite Autobiographies

G. B. Stern, from the dust jacket of 'Benefits Forgot'“Gladys Bronwyn Stern, or G. B. Stern (17 June 1890 – 20 September 1973), born Gladys Bertha Stern in London, England, wrote many novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, biographies and literary criticism,” states the opening sentence of G. B. Stern’s Wikipedia entry. Many as in over fifty, or roughly one a year starting in 1914.

She was never, apparently, at a loss for words.

One way she managed such an impressive rate of production was that she dictated most of her books while laying on the sofa, staring up at the ceiling. “If I wrote them myself, I know I should always be stopping to draw patterns,” she told an interviewer once. Another was that she was perhaps more open to the potential of detours than any other writer. Wherever her thoughts might wander in the course of her dictation, she was more than willing to follow:

A straight line, so I have been taught, is the shortest way between two given points. This book [Monogram, her first volume of autobiography] will probably prove to be the longest possible way between three given points: objects picked up at random from my own sitting-room; from the rubbish heap of a garden in the South of France; from anywhere. A straight line cannot enclose anything; but if you join three points, you have a triangle, and something exciting may or may not be discovered, afterwards, enclosed inside a triangle, wherever and however you happen to draw it.

So Stern was a born non-linear thinker, and her reader should not be surprised when her thoughts not only lead off the beaten path but often cross the lines between one genre and another. Her temperament was well-matched with the imaginative absurdity of the snippet of Marx Brothers dialogue that serves as the epigraph to Monogram:

Groucho: “It’s my opinion that the missing picture is hidden in the house next door.”

Chico: “But there isn’t a house next door.”

Groucho: “Then we’ll build one!”

When her publishers, Chapman and Hall, approached Stern with the idea of writing an autobiography, she chose to interpret the label liberally: “So let us try, for a change, to put our words into thoughts. Surely this should be what they call autobiography?,” she asked.

Inspired by the example of Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, she determined to follow his example, in which “everything is linked to everything else.” This worked for Stern, for as she saw it,

There is hardly an object, however recently acquired, however sharply free from cobwebs and memories, that would not start an association with some incident, some person, that would lead on to another and another; honestly allowing the line of the pattern to take whatever twists and curves and backward looks, angles and zigzags and convolutions it wills; honestly; not forcing it in this direction nor in that, simply because this or that direction might make the prettier or the more rhythmical pattern.

So Stern seizes upon a little blue and white glass dragon figurine on her mantelpiece, and off she goes. In the space of the next ten pages, she leads us to the Mount Wilson Observatory in Los Angeles, to the fact that she had named characters Maitland in four different books but had never known anyone with that name, to a memory of associating the word “Hydrant” with magical powers until her Nannie explained what one was, to a recollection of a chalet in the Tyrols, to an account of attending the first performance of R. C. Sherriff’s war play, Journey’s End, in Berlin in the early 1920s.

And on the book rolls, taking countless twists and turns and diversions, until ending 300 pages later with a joke about Einstein’s wife. And on Stern would roll, through a further eight volumes over the course of the next twenty-four years. Although several conformed a little more closely to a pre-set structure (And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957) was a collection of sketches of famous people she had known, such as Somerset Maugham and Max Beerbohm, All in Good Time (1954) and The Way It Worked Out (1956) were about her conversion to Catholicism), none fully restrained her from wandering off-topic when her curiosity took over.

It’s no surprise, then, that some critics couldn’t stand this approach. Reviewing Trumpet Voluntary (1944), Albert Jay Nock wrote that Stern “… presents uninteresting personages doing most uninteresting things in extremely uninteresting circumstances. Its narrative is desultory, garrulous, inconsequential.” (Another critic wrote that Stern was “occasionally inconsequential but never trivial”).

Most reviewers struggled to capture the unique nature of these books. One called Another Part of the Forest (1941) “a desultory, enticing, and ingenious volume of recollection, comment, reverie, and imagination.” Another labeled Trumpet Voluntary “a Commonplace Book, into which the author throws quotations, favorite and otherwise, opinions on books, on authors, everyday happenings–in short, everything that comes into her head at the moment.” A third wrote that “for those who love them,” each of Stern’s autobiographies was “a river of a book, now in flood, very rarely reduced to a trickle, but with occasional excursions into idle, tree-protected pools.” In its starred review of Monogram, Kirkus Reviews provided a good description that could any of the nine books:

There is no beginning, no end; no background of birth and parentage; no chronology of events; no category of friends and acquaintances. Instead, at the end, you have a rich tapestry of a full life, a life savored, shared, enjoyed to the utmost. You pick up facts, and weave them into the pattern, with no illusion of importance as to where and when they belong. You meet as intimates — or as passing acquaintances–the people that enliven today’s literary world, artistic world, theatrical world. There is humor–and poetry–and appreciation–and keen commentary on the passing scene–and it’s grand reading from first page to last.

nb_0637

Looking across the full set, from Monogram (1936) to One is Only Human (1960), a gradual trend toward more serious, deep-rooted thoughts can be seen. Monogram is almost effervescent, still retaining the high spirits and optimism of Stern’s first great successes as a novelist, playwright, and celebrity in the 1920s. Another Part of the Forest (1941) is full of enthusiasm for Merry Olde England (and crazy new America) but mentions of mobilization, bomb shelters, and the fact that her beloved France was cut off and under occupation remind the reader that Stern was writing in wartime. the war becomes even more prominent in Trumpet Voluntary (1944), which opens with a reflection on the destruction of her flat in London:

I used to wish that something would happen, something quite harmless, naturally, to remove the Military Tailors [a shop across the road from her flat] and leave me with a wider view. How I used to wish it! … I need not even have seen it happen; one morning, pulling aside the curtains, the building opposite would not be there, and I should have my unremorseful view.

… And then one morning, the morning of October 15, 1940, to be exact, the Military Tailors drew aside their curtains, and my rooms were not there, and instead, they had a heavenly outlook; at least, they would have when the rubbish and ash and bits of gutted wall had been cleared away. It was almost the same thing, you see; the Green Djinn had got it as nearly right as could be expected from Djinns, only it had not struck me, and I am afraid did not strike me till two years later and on this afternoon of November, 1942, that the Military Tailors might also have been doing a bit of intensive wishing, and that they were better at it than myself.

In Benefits Forgot (1949), the memories of war are still fresh. Stern comes across letters written her by American and British soldiers and learns that the R.A.F. pilot who wrote her in praise of Trumpet Voluntary died while on a raid the day after he posted his letter.
All in Good Time (1954), The Way It Worked Out (1956), and, to a large extent, One is Only Human (1960), all deal with spiritual matters, tracing Stern’s long journey from being raised as a secular Jew to embracing Catholicism in her late fifties.

Throughout all the books and all their many changes of subject, one thing remains constant: Stern’s unwavering good humor. Even Albert Nock admitted that, “Chatterbox as Mrs. Stern is, commonplace as her people and their doings are, she brings them before you pervaded with the warmth and glow of an inexhaustible affection.” If her spirit of whimsy and stream-of-consciousness narrative logic can, at times, become a wee bit tiresome, Stern’s fundamental generosity and gently self-mocking tone almost always provides a restorative effect.

I have to confess that while I’ve never managed to read any of them from beginning to end, I have kept one or more of Stern’s books in my nightstand for most of the last two years and probably always will. Dip into any page of any of these books, and I guarantee that within a page or two you will have read something interesting, something amusing … and probably switched subjects at least twice along the way. Someone could probably assemble a terrific book of about 400-500 pages with the best excerpts from the lot, but I suspect it might come off a bit like a fruitcake without the cake. Till then, I highly recommend picking up any one of them (many copies are going for as little as $1.00 plus shipping) and diving in.

G. B. Stern’s “Autobiographies”


Monogram (1936)

Another Part of the Forest (1941)

Trumpet Voluntary (1944)

Benefits Forgot (1949)

A Name to Conjure With (1953)

All in Good Time (1954)

The Way It Worked Out (1956)

And Did He Stop and Speak to You? (1957)

One is Only Human (1960)

Four Poems by Eithne Wilkins

Spoken Through Glass

Here the big stars roll down
like tears
all down your face;
darkness that has no walls, the empty night
that fingers grope for and are lost,
is nightfall in your face.

The big stars roll,
the glittering railway-line unwinds into the constellations.

Over and under you the dark,
in you the rocking night without a foothold,
and no walls, no ceiling,

the parallels that never meet, the pulses winding out to the
stars.

Night has no end.
Light travelling from the stars is out
before you ride along it
with the black tears falling,
falling,

all fall down.

 

Passage of an August (1938)

In solitary august, like a story
he met grief’s lassie with the quartz-bright hands;
and she became his darling,
who was young, was sorry
there among the grasses blowing over pit and brands.

She walked beside him back the way he came,
into the whitening hills, and cut his throat.
Although she called him by another name,
she was no stranger, love. And none
can drive her out.

 

barbedwire

Barbed Wire (1940)

The silence, with its ragged edge of lost communication,
silence at the latter end,
is now a spiked north wind.

Last words
toss about me in the streets, waste paper
or a cigarette butt in some gutter stream
that overflows
from crumpled darkness.
“Look, I am plunged in the midst of them, a dagger
in their midst.”

and over the edge
the nightmares peer, with their tall stories
and the day’s unheard-of cry.

 

Failure

What can forgive us for
the clothes left lying and the rocking journey,
flashing poles and pylons standing into fields of air,
in flooded fields?

Something flew out of our hands,
the cup incomplete,
air of invasions and land of defeat.
There was the tree felled in another valley,
behind the flown carpet
and nothing left to remember, all to forgive.

Nothing to remember but
the windows slammed against the cold,
the helmet crushed down on the eyes.

And who, beside the darkened station lamp,
remembering, started back.


These are stark, grim poems, very much in the spirit of their time, when there was little good news and a great deal of bad, and no one knew how far away better days might be. But there is an underlying toughness and realism that reflects the attitude of a survivor, of someone who wasn’t going to give up in the face of loss. I would have included more such poems had discretion not held me back. Sadly, Eithne Wilkins never published a collection of her poems, so one has to root through the pages of long-defunct little magazines to find them.

She attended Oxford in the early 1930s, then moved to London, where she worked as a translator and reader for various publishers. Her poems began to be published in British literary journals around 1937, and in 1949, a selection of them were included in The New British Poets, a collection edited by Kenneth Rexroth and published by James Laughlin’s just-founded New Directions Press. That same year, she married the Austrian writer and translater, Ernst Kaiser. Although she worked on English translations of a number of well-regarded books, including Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, she appears to have stopped submitting her poems for publication sometime after the New Directions collection was published, and her one book, The Rose-Garden Game (1969), was a popular history about the origins of rosary beads as an accessory to Catholic worship.

from The New British Poets, edited by Kenneth Rexroth
New London, Connecticut: New Directions Press, 1949

Available on the Internet Archive: Link.

This is one in a series of neglected poems from the Internet Archive.

What to Talk About, by Imogene B. Wolcott (1923)

nb_0635What proportion of your business is selling drugs?

Do you sell more drugs to keep people well or to help them recover from sickness?

What would you do if a man came into your store to purchase some bichlorid of mercury tablets?

These are a few of the questions that Imogene B. Wolcott (Mrs. Roger Wolcott, the title page advises us) proposes her reader ask a druggist. What to Talk About is a simple pocket-sized handbook full of what Mrs. Wolcott suggests are “Clever Questions” that aid in “Social, Professional, and Business Advancement.” Her theory is that the key to a successful conversation is to express interest in people: “Forget yourself and think only of the person to whom you are talking.”

And so she offers the reader nearly three hundred pages worth of questions to use in a conversation. What to Talk About is a classic of the first great era of the American self-help book, a contemporary of James Allen’s As a Man Thinketh and Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, when the shortest path between a person’s problems and their solution was a straight line. Like the first pre-packaged foods, all you had to do to enjoy the banquet you craved was add water and stir.

In Mrs. Wolcott’s world, a man’s line wasn’t something he used to pick up women in bars–it was his job, and his job was his identity. The first third of her book is devoted to questions organized by jobs and professions. Of civil engineers, she proposes one ask that probe their expertise: “Why is steel used to reinforce concrete?” “Which usually offers the greater engineering difficulties: drainage or irrigation?” She offers contemporary questions: “How much progress has been made on the tunnel under the English Channel?” “What use has been made of the valuation of the railroads made by the Interstate Commerce Commission?” And she explores the civil engineer’s philosophical side: “Which of these characteristics is most important to an engineering career–a mind of precise accuracy, the power to dream great dreams, or the ability to carry visions to a successful completion?”

Mrs. Wolcott’s selection of professions offers us insights into the working world of a century ago. Lumbermen and newspapermen rubbed elbows with trolley officials, steamship officials, detectives, dry goods merchants, jobbers, public office holders, and sculptors. Because it was the Roaring Twenties, she was careful to include flappers (“Why don’t you like chaperones?”), debutantes, and “Matrons (Society)”–for whom she offers the obvious question, “What do you think of the conduct of the younger generation?” (And its follow-up, “Does the fault lie with the young men of today, with the girls, or with their parents?” Me, I blame Society (Matrons)). She does not, however, provide a category for gangsters or rum-runners, so were the reader to run into Al Capone, he would have to make do with “Importers and Exporters”: “What proportion of our foreign trade is done on American bottoms?”

Mrs. Wolcott also wrote in the midst of the first great wave of American leisure time. And hence, she provides a substantial section devoted to questions based on a person’s hobby. This might be a sport (Ice Hockey, Jiu Jitsu, or Tobogganing) or an indoor occupation (Weaving, Stamps, or Painting). She was not above recognizing that some might indulge in minor vices (Billiards, Poker, or Smoking). She includes a sample of questions for the person interested in “Heredity and Eugenics” that would certainly liven up a conversation today: “Should first or second cousins marry?” “What is meant by the mutations theory?” Or, if you should run into a fan of this site, you can ask, “Which do you think is more healthful, the coarseness of the eighteenth century novel or the brutality of a school of our novelists?”

Finally, What to Talk About reminds us that there was a time when, no matter where you went, you never quite shook the dust of your home ground off your shoes. A time when people wore such labels as “Yankee,” “Dutchman,” “Irishman,” and “Philadelphian.” In fact, she suggests asking a Californian, “Do you see many Mexicans? Japanese? Chinese? Iowans?” Iowans? So it is only natural that Mrs. Wolcott ends her book with questions to ask the natives of such places as Denmark, Deauville, Indianapolis, Palm Beach, and “The South” and “The West.” Most aim at confirming some stereotype about each place and its inhabitants: “Is it ture that people of Charleston dine at four o’clock in the afternoon?” “Is cheapness of labor the only factor that permits China to compete in a commercial way with the rest of the world?” “Do the majority of the women who spend the winter in Florida try to get tanned or to avoid a coat of tan?” “Is it true that one seldom sees a sunset in Pittsburgh?” “What has been done in your section of the South to combat the boll weevil?”

A few of her questions, though, would probably stump even a native nowadays:

“What is meant by the three-cent cult?” (Cleveland, Ohio)

“What has the Pan-American Conference accomplished?” (South America)

“In what regard do Philadelphians hold Edward Bok?”

“Did you see many lepers?” (Holy Land)

“Were you shown the site of Annette Kellerman’s diving activities in the preparation of her most famous moving picture?” (Anyone? Anyone? … The correct answer is Bermuda.)

A book as full of questions as this one cannot help but raise a few that reach beyond the limits of place, profession, and hobby, timeless questions we could all do well to take a moment to ponder:

“Does the fear of death become stronger or less strong as one grows older?”

“Does personality or ability count more in business?”

“At what age does a hen cease to be profitable?”

“What is the future of Palestine?”

And one many of us have asked recently:

“Why is it that so many of our Vice-Presidents have come from Indiana?”


What to Talk About: The Clever Question As an Aid to Social, Professional, and Business Advancement, by Imogene B. Wolcott
New York & London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1923

Jacques Barzun on The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow

Cover of first US edition of 'The Springs'A few weeks after my post on Anne Goodwin Winslow’s 1949 novel, The Springs, I came across the following, from American Panorama (1957), edited by Eric Larrabee, a collection of essays on the 350 books chosen by the Carnegie Corporation as “most descriptive of life in the U.S.A.”:

Mrs. Winslow’s reputation as a novelist is based on an exquisite specialization. She writes about the Southern gentry at the turn of the present century. This might well prove trivial or suffocating if it were not for the author’s astonishing power to make life pulse vigorously in the constricted places, situations, and people that she chooses. Her outlook is perhaps best expressed in the contrast between the title of one of her other novels—— A Quiet Neighborhood (1947)——and the violent events, the passions leading to murder, which inform the work.

Mrs. Winslow belongs to no school, for although some of her perceptions are akin to William Faulkner’s and her technique is in the tradition of William Dean Howells, her temperament, style, and biography set her in a world apart. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, which is to say a “border state” in the great North-and-South struggle of the past century, Mrs. Winslow married a Northern army engineer and spent many years in New England and abroad. She has returned to live in her home state and it is the distillation of her childhood memories through her traveled mind—emotions recollected in tranquillity — that she gives us in her novels and tales.

The Springs is a study of character which by its subdued atmosphere makes one think of Henry James’s The Europeans. But the “culture” in which the characters evolve is markedly different, as is the fact that Mrs. Winslow’s interest in household detail lends a peculiar vividness, almost a pathos, to the scene. It is as if, suddenly transplanted to those quiet old days we sometimes long for, we discovered their slow terror, which not even conventional happiness could allay.

Barzun’s last sentence captures the unique quality of Winslow’s writing that I probably haven’t done justice to: it’s delicate, subtle, and somewhat nostalgic, but there is an underlying potential for same anger, pain, and violence that percolates much closer to the surface in Faulkner. And if we had forgotten that this potential is apparently an ineluctable element of the American character, the events of the last year have done much to remind us.

Four Memoirs of the Aftermath of War

As a veteran, I would like to take this day as an opportunity to remember that one of the worst things about a war is the suffering that continues after its end. In the stereotypical versions of the end of World War Two in Europe one sees in America and Britain, the symbol of V-E Day was the great joyous crowd doing the Lambeth Walk in Piccadilly Circus. But on the Continent, the end of the war merely opened a time of displacement, disruption, and slow, painful reconstruction.

Four fine neglected books, all written by women, remind us of one of the greatest tragedies to follow the war in Europe — namely, the plight of the millions of prisoners, forced laborers, and refugees who were displaced from their homes and stranded in foreign countries, often without the means to return.

Aftermath, by Francesca M. Wilson (1948)

aftermathWilson, an English academic who had already worked with refugees from the First World War, Russia, and the Spanish Civil War, joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in early 1945, and was one of its first staff members to arrive in Germany to begin to deal with the enormity of the problem created with the liberation of concentration camps by the Allies. The first DP (Displaced Persons) camp she worked at was Feldafing in Bavaria, which the U.S. Army set up to house a trainload of Hungarian Jews one of its units found near Mühldorf , a satellite camp of Dachau. In these early days, those organizing relief quickly realized that they were dealing with people who had been subjected to a dehumanization more extreme than anything that even an experienced worker like Wilson had ever experienced:

They had the furtive look and gestures of hunted animals. By years of brutal treatment, by the murder of relatives, by the constant fear of death, all that was human had been taken away from them. We went into the dormitories where they were eating — the collected their food from the kitchen and brought it back to devour in relative privacy: nothing would persuade them to eat in communal dining-rooms. I noticed a man who was trying to eat but was too weak to finish his food. Three boys were staring at his plate. I had once seen the same look of burning yet cautious intentness on the Russian steppes. When the sick man pushed his plate away a thin arm shot out and seized the lump of meat left on it. The lad who had secured it slid out of the room, like a starving dog with a bone.

Despite the challenges of woefully inadequate supplies and staff, an oncoming winter, and a population devastated by malnutrition, disease, and depression, UNRRA and other relief organizations gradually established some degree of sanitation and comfort in the camps. But none of them was quite prepared to delete with the special challenge presented by the former residents of lands now incorporated into the Soviet Union. And their responses were not always something to be proud of:

They are now in exile because they do not wish to become Soviet citizens. Only they can decide about this. Soviet citizenship should be accepted voluntarily, and the policy not to compel their return is a right one: but the policy of leaving them to rot in DP camps is utterly wrong. Poland will not accept her former Ukrainian citizens — those who tried to go back there were turned back from her frontiers. Military authorities in Austria were trying last September to make a temporary solution. They reduced their rations, which had been kept to the 2,000 calorie level, to the 1,200 of the surrounding population, saying at the same time that all those who were physically able must pay for their board and lodging in the camps…. But unless these uprooted peoples are to be permanently absorbed in the German or Austrian economy — and this neither they nor their hosts desire — this is only a temporary solution. When all have gone home who will or can, there will still be three-quarters of a million irrepatriable DPs….

The Wild Place, by Kathryn Hulme (1952)

the_wild_placeIn 1945, Kathryn Hulme arrived as UNRRA director of the Wildflecken DP camp in northern Bavaria. Like Wilson, she encountered a desperate situation and struggled in the first months to establish conditions fit for the people in the camp. Her first impressions, she wrote “entered with such sharp shock that never again would I be able to look on a refugee mass, even in pictures, and see it collectively, see it as a homogeneous stream of unfortunate humanity that could be handled with the impersonal science of the engineer who does not even think of the drops of water when he is controlling the flood.” At Wildflecken, she also met Marie Louise Habets, a Belgian nurse and former nun. The two became close friends and were to remain together as companions when they left the camp. Hulme would later fictionalize Habets’ experiences as a nun in the 1958 best-seller, The Nun’s Story. The Wild Place won the Atlantic Monthly award as best non-fiction book of 1953. Although not rare (AddAll.com lists over 50 copies for sale), it’s become something of a collector’s item, with prices starting at $35 and running to over $400 a copy.

The Walls Came Tumbling Down, by Henriette Roosenburg (1956)

walls_came_tumbling_downRoosenburg was a young Dutch woman imprisoned in 1944 by the Nazis as a Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) inmate for her activities as a member of the Dutch Resistance organization. When the war ended, she and four other Dutch women were inmates of a prison near Waldheim in Saxony, in the Russian zone of occupation. Because one of the women was too ill to walk, they were left behind in the initial evacuation, and after turning their friend over for medical care, they had to work their way back over four hundred miles of territory that was still in chaos. It required an extraordinary amount of strength, ingenuity, and persuasiveness, and reading The Walls Came Tumbling Down serves as another illustration of the fact that a group of women is usually ten times smarter, better organized, and more practical than any equivalent group of men. Roosenburg, who worked as a journalist after the war, first wrote about these experiences in a four-part series in The New Yorker titled, “Annals of Liberation — The Journey Home.”

The Children, by Charity Blackstock (1966)

the_childrenThe Children was the only book of non-fiction published by Ursula Torday under the pen-name of Charity Blackstock that she used mostly for murder mysteries and light thrillers. In it, she recounted her five years’ work as director of a scheme organized by an association of British Jews organized to help locate and reunite family members who had survived the Holocaust. The scheme involved arranging for displaced Jewish children being kept in group homes in France to be placed — only temporarily at first — with Jewish families in England. The Children provides a vivid demonstration of the paradoxes of memory: how quickly people in France and England could forget their own troubles during the war and grow callous to the plight of children orphaned and displaced in its wake; and how long these children remained scarred and disturbed by their experiences. Even for herself, Torday admits, “This business of going back is dangerous: by doing it one virtually stands still, and tomorrow is surely more interesting than today.” And she is able, writing nearly fifteen years later, to recognize that for the children, “The Scheme, the families, the Homes, are all part of a black and stinking past, to be remembered by all of us, but to be forgotten as far as it is possible by them. Even I myself, even the best of hostesses, must be unwilling reminders of a time when they were dependent on charity, deprived children, pathetic victims.”

The Buzzards, by Janet Burroway (1969)

Cover of first US edition of 'The Buzzards'To mark the last day of what has been an ugly and troubling election campaign, let me note a fine neglected book about the toxic cocktail that results when you mix family dynamics, political ambition, and relentless media coverage: Janet Burroway’s 1969 novel, The Buzzards.

The Buzzards centers on Arizona Republican senator Alex Cofer, running for President and finding it forcing him to make uncomfortable choices between his ambition and his family.

It shouldn’t take much to guess which wins out in the end.

Cofer is, at the start, a relatively decent if clueless man, safely conservative but not unpalatably rabid, with stereotypical politician’s good looks — silver hair, blue eyes, chiseled features. His wife, Claudia, is already bitter from years of his neglect. Their elder daughter is a frustrated housewife finding her life being drained away by the demands of three kids. Orin, their son, has given up on America and take refuge in Paris. Only Evie, a teenager with all-American girl good looks — isn’t loaded down with psychological baggage, and even Evie becomes a bit of a problem when she acquires a boyfriend who’s a little … well, brown.

And as the campaign progresses, Alex finds himself becoming more strident in his statements and positions, just to put himself in contrast to his more liberal opponent: “Every man who takes an oath of office in this country, implicitly declares himself ready to use force as he deems it necessary for the preservation of a peaceful and lawful union. He declares himself ready to place in jeopardy the lives of those nearest to him in spirit….”

You can imagine how well the family bonds bear up when doused with the battery acid of months of campaigning and media coverage. Raised in Arizona, it’s not surprising that more than one of the Cofers compares the press to a flock of buzzards, constantly circling, waiting to dive down and feast on the victims.

I’ve read that The Buzzards was a finalist for the 1970 Pulitzer, but can’t confirm from the Pulitzer site. Though an interesting read in any election year and full of points ready-made to make one reflect on today’s equivalents, I found it awfully full of fictional devices for the sake of … well, because Burroway could. Multiple narrators, stump speeches, a diary, stream-of-consciousness, news reports — ample evidence that she was well qualified to write the book she’s best known for, the standard of college courses everywhere: Writing Fiction. Still, if you feel the need to remind yourself of the soul-grinding spectacle of the last umpteen months in American politics, you can do far worse than to pick up a copy of The Buzzards.


The Buzzards, by Janet Burroway
Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown, 1969

Music At Midnight, by Muriel Draper (1929)

Front cover of 'Music at Midnight'I don’t believe in golden ages. Pick anyone’s candidate for a golden age — the Athens of Socrates, the Italian Renaissance, Paris in the Twenties, Eisenhower’s America — and without much looking you will find someone — the slaves, the serfs, the blacks — for whom the time was no great party. But I do believe in golden moments — a few months or a few years when circumstances allow a few people to something uniquely marvelous and irreproducable. Music at Midnight is a memoir of one of these golden moments: two years (1912-1914) when Paul and Muriel Draper rented a house at 19 Edith Grove, Chelsea, and it became the center of the music world of London.

Paul Draper was an aspiring American tenor who came to London to study lieder with a renowned voice coach, Raimund von Zur Mühlen, bringing his socialite wife Muriel and their two sons in tow. Although Draper proved a good but not great singer, the couple quickly managed to attract many of the finest musicians living and performing in London at the time. A list of their friends and acquaintances is impressive: Igor Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Chaliapin, Rubinstein, Pierre Monteux, Pablo Casals, Eugene Goossens, Gertrude Stein, John Singer Sargent, and even Henry James were among those who spent evenings at the Draper’s. And no gathering was complete without music.

It often occurred that an artist who did not live in London would arrive for the night of the concert only, leaving London the next day. This meant that he would not arrive at Edith Grove until after the concert and its tedious artist’s-room salutations and compliments were terminated (though I never knew one who did not like them) anywhere between ten-thirty and midnight, and would not leave until it was time to catch the boat-train in the morning. He would find perhaps a movement from a Brahms violin sonata, a Beethoven trio for flute, violin, piano, a Chopin mazurka or German song cycle already in full swing and would creep into a chair or on a cushion until it was over. Then, usually hungry and a little tired from the strain of a concert, we would carry him off upstairs for food and drink. After which the really serious work of the evening would begin and continue until the skylight in the roof above us would turn from black to black-blue to blue-grey to yellow-grey and at last show clear blue sky beyond yellow sunlight, seen through blue-yellow-grey layers of smoke from burning wood, burning tobacco and burning candles. It would be six o’clock — seven o’clock — eight o’clock in the morning before we would make another visit to the dining-room, where the miracle maids after eight hours’ sleep had somehow managed to clear away the debris of Chester’s pink food and lonely parts of deserted fowl and make room for fresh coffee, scrambled eggs in an enormous chafing dish, raspberries and strawberries in big bowls. Oh! those English berries! We would breakfast, and break day by going to bed.

Their neighbors were less enthusiastic about the Draper’s musical soirées. The folks behind them once staged a protest one evening, going from window to window, “blowing policemen’s whistles, shooting off torpedoes, and filling the night air with hootings and rattles.” In response, Rubenstein and John Warner merely attacked the Bach prelude and fugue with even greater enthusiasm. “Bach is stirring enough played by two hands: by four, it is not conducive to sleep,” Muriel notes.

In one way, Music at Midnight is a bit like a snooty man’s version of People magazine — or, as Jim Gaffigan puts it, McDonald’s of the soul. It’s utterly superficial and primarily of interest for the glimpses of the great when they let down their guards. But what English major can resist an account of Henry James on the phone?

To be called to the telephone by Henry James was an experience in itself. The first time it happened I, all unaware, took up the receiver eagerly, and said, “Yes — this is Muriel.”

A voice that began to twist and turn on the other end of the wire, finally spoke.

“Would you be — er — or, rather, my dear, — er — my very dear, if I may call you so, child, would you, — not by — er — er arrangement, but would you — more — er — truthfully speaking — be — er — er NATURALLY at home — this afternoon?”

By that time I was not naturally anything at all, and could only gasp, “Yes, always, any time — yes, yes, this afternoon at five, I will, unnaturally or not, be here — yes,” and hung up.

Muriel soon discovered a trick that many a reader of James has probably been tempted to repeat:

I soon learned to talk with him and listen to him, by withdrawing the weight of my attention from his actual words and the anguished facial contortions that accompanied them, and fastening it on the stream of thought itself. I even diverted my eyes from that part of his face from which the phrases finally emerged, namely, his mouth, and directed them to a more peaceful spot between his eyes, which I imagined to be the source of tought. It proved helpful. … My effort to ignore the words and extract the meaning by a sense of weight, inflection and rhythm which emanated from him … proved an excellent modus operandi from then on….

Muriel Draper, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1934
Muriel Draper, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1934
Even though Carl van Vechten groused in his diary that Muriel Draper couldn’t write, Music at Midnight bubbles with what one critic called “the zeal of a child anticipating a good time,” and is filled with memorable sketches of the greats. Of the actress Eleanora Duse, for example: “She permeated the air with the ethereal assurance that she was inhabiting her body, but could leave it if she chose.” Or the intimidating Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, who “had the shape and substance of a rock, the smell and sound of vast stretches of earth and water, and breathed like the winds in the air.”

The parties at 19 Edith Grove might have carried on for years, but like most golden moments, it came to a ugly and unexpected end with the start of World War One. Caught on a tour in Germany, Paul Draper obtained passage back to America, leaving Muriel and the boys in London. She hung on, selling off bits of furniture for cash while foreign exchange with the U.S. was restricted, but by mid-1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, she decided it too risky to postpone their own return. When the cab arrived to take them to the train station, a group of friends serenaded their departure.

The Drapers divorced not long after Muriel’s return to the US. Paul Draper married a show girl in 1920 and she divorced him a few years later. He died in 1925 at the age of 38. The New York Times reported the cause as heart disease, but in truth, he drank himself to death. Muriel carried on without him, remaining active in New York social and artistic circles. Despite the fact that Van Vechten dismissed Muriel’s ability to write, he photographed her often in the 1930s. And she was a great supporter of young talent, as actress Marian Seldes recalls in this YouTube clip.

Muriel Draper and her sons Sanders  (L) and Paul, Jr. (R), in the late 1930s
Muriel Draper and her sons Sanders (L) and Paul, Jr. (R), in the late 1930s

Her son Paul Jr. became a well-known dancer, particularly for his fusion of tap and modern dance. His brother, Sanders, went to England and joined the Royal Air Force in 1940. He died a hero’s death when he steered the plane he was flying, which had been severely damaged and was plummeting to the ground, and avoided crashing into a school full of children in Hornchurch, just outside London. Muriel became a proponent of Communist and socialist causes until scared off by investigators from the House Un-American Activities Committee. She died in Manhattan in 1952.


Music at Midnight, by Muriel Draper
New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1929

My Father Around the House, from Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell (1965)

Sir George Sitwell
Sir George Sitwell
My father was extremely active physically, and he had adopted, in later life, the custom of pacing the long passages at Renishaw because, he said, by cultivating such a habit one ceased to trouble if the days were wet and cold, or torrid and weighted by the heat, were drawing out or drawing in. If you paid no attention to a fact, it ceased to exist. He remembered, however, that the weather was useful as a basis for conversation (he would speak with approbation of noisy female nonentities who “kept the ball rolling,” by which he meant rattling out unceasing nonsense obliterating the passage of time, at every meal). Apart from these interludes, only the sound of his footsteps and the care for his health remained to bind him to reality. He did not believe in taking risks, however, and, though an agnostic by profession, said his prayers every night, on the chance of this being a good investment.

When pacing the passages he walked very slowly, occupying as much time as possible, in order that the house should seem even larger than it is—for he liked to think of it as very large. Occasionally (about once or twice a day) he would pause outside a door, if he could hear voices in the room beyond—not because he wanted to eavesdrop or to spy, since there was nothing he could hear that would interest him, but because he was enabled in this way to touch, for a moment, the world in which others moved, thought, acted, without being obliged to become part of it; and this made him real to himself, real in his isolation, in the separation of his identity from the world that he could yet touch at will. For this reason he would pretend to secret information from an unknown source: “We happen to know,” he would say; and when a letter arrived for my mother in a handwriting he did not know, he would enquire “How are they?” He would spread various objects belonging to himself all over the house, in the many rooms—his hat in one room, his stick in another, his spectacle case in a third—because when he came face to face once more, in the course of his wanderings, with these records of his personality, he was reminded of himself, which was pleasant, and because it enabled him to stake his claim on every room in the house as sole inhabitant. Should any other person enter one of the rooms in question, my father would follow him there, and, conveying suddenly the impression of very great age, would make it clear by his manner that he had intended to rest there and had hoped that he would not be disturbed. Then, having by this means routed the intruder and put him to flight, he would continue his walk.

When he was not pacing up and down the passages, my father spent much of his time in walking up and down outside the house, and when he did this, he would succeed in appearing like a procession of one person—he being the head, the beginning and the end.


taken_care_ofI was over halfway through Edith Sitwell’s autobiography, Taken Care Of (1965), before I realized that it was back in print, thanks to the Bloomsbory Press’ Bloomsbury Reader series, and hence, technically disqualified to be featured here. However, I couldn’t resist posting this excerpt, which follows a portrait of Sitwell’s mother etched with the same comic acid. Sitwell obviously had no sympathy with Louise Bogan’s view of looking back at one’s parents (“There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them”. She seems never to have gotten over the fact that her very handsome and self-centered parents saw their first child ‐ angular, unconforming, and decidedly eccentric in orientation — more as an odd creature than the fruit of their flesh, and in her old age gave them the same treatment, placing them under her magnifying glass like a couple of entomological specimens.

Taken Care Of is also available online through the Open Library (link).


Taken Care Of: The Autobiography of Edith Sitwell
London: Hutchinson, 1965

The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1949)

springs_anne_goodwin_winslowWhenever I think about Anne Goodwin Winslow, I tend to pair her up with Isa Glenn (whose work was discussed in my interview with Veronica Makowsky). They were both true Southern belles, daughters of wealthy and powerful men, who married Army officers, followed them to exotic assignments, and then, as widows, turned to writing (for a few years) and then faded into obscurity.

Whatever the similarity in their lives, however, their approaches to writing were strikingly different. Glenn, who settled in Manhattan after her husband’s death and started publishing in the 1920s, was usually satirical and looked back upon the South in which she grew up without an ounce of nostalgia. Winslow, on the other hand, retired to her family home, Goodwinslow, outside Memphis and portrayed the South in light strokes and subtle tones. This is not to suggest that she saw her past as a better time — simply that she was a sketcher, while Glenn was an etcher.

Winslow’s delicacy of style may be her greatest handicap in appealing with today’s reader. As I wrote in my post on her final novel, It Was Like This (1949), “Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection.” It seems like so little happens in her books that it’s easy to miss what does.

Not that there isn’t drama in her third, and best-regarded, novel, The Springs. A jealous husband arrives one night and murders the handsome local boy with whom his wife has become infatuated, leaving the body lying beside the springs of the title and calmly walked away, knowing his money and influence would keep him from any punishment. From the moment Mr. Dupree had arrived from New Orleans to deposit his wife and children at the hotel, people had smelled trouble. Stocky and arrogant, his capacity for violence was palpable, and Mrs. Dupree was quickly seen to be a stupid and foolish woman unable to admit her age.

But what I’ve just written is crude and obvious compared to how Winslow tells the story. And it isn’t even the central story in The Springs. In fact, I somewhat suspect that Winslow included the Dupree’s re-enactment of Othello to enhance the contrast between the coarse lines of their drama and the almost imperceptible filaments of the triangle that forms around Alice, the seventeen year-old girl through whose memory the story is filtered.

Mr. Mason, a man from Charleston, South Carolina sent to work in Memphis in the cotton business, falls for Alice at first sight. But though he spends hours walking and talking with her, often telling her of his family’s once-grand plantation, he feels himself encumbered by a commitment to help restore his parents to their former status in Charleston society. When Mason introduces Alice to Brian Howard, a rich and handsome young Englishman (“They really do seem to be surprisingly like they are in the books they write about themselves,” he observes), he consciously puts Brian forward as a more suitable candidate for her hand.

Though Alice seems oblivious to the maneuver, when Brian falls for her and returns the next year with his family’s approval, she accepts his proposal. Mason has gracefully exited stage right, and when he comes back later, she is somewhat perplexed, feeling that it was Mason who had failed her. To her, Mason is the poetic soul and Brian just the rugged outdoorsman, best seen with shotgun in hand and brace of pheasants hanging from his belt. The fine, the beautiful, the romantic thing to do would be to flee with Mason to his doomed plantation by the sea.

But the real story Winslow is telling in The Springs is not about passion or romance but about perspective. The perspective than transforms experience into memory.

Once when they were going through the woods and the others had gone on ahead, she and Mr. Mason stopped under the tree where they used to spend so much time talking, and it made her feel a little strange. In spite of all you could do, and no matter how happy you were, things were always slipping. You never could hold on to them; you just had something else instead.

“It seems so long ago, doesn’t it?” she said.

He had taken off his hat and stood looking up into the tree, but now he looked at her. “How can it, when you’ve never been in any long ago? That’s a place you are never going with me. I’ve told you that.”

“Do you mean you can really hold on to things — in your mind — so that you don’t feel sad about them?”

“Maybe they hold on to me.”

“This place, for instance?”

“This place. But I have had you here with everything green around you. Stand over there and let me put the colors in. Without your hat.”

She stood quite still, helping him to get the picture he wanted to keep; then he let her go and they walked on.

“You mustn’t ever worry about the past, Miss Alice,” he said. “It hardly ever lets you down. As a rule we like it better and better as we go along, or we can keep working on it until we do.”

Mason sees Alice from the distance of a man twenty years her elder. Alice recalls this time from a distance of forty years and another continent. Winslow, who was 74 when The Springs was published, had the perspective of even greater distance, and was able to show — subtly — delicately — indirectly — how each separation from experience loses something in intensity but gains something in proportion.

The Raleigh Inn
The Raleigh Inn

Winslow never suggested it, but from a few bits of information, one can determine that there was a strongly autobiographical element to The Springs. The home where she grew up, Goodwinslow, butted up against the edge of Raleigh Springs, a resort that was set up in the late 1800s to take advantage of the supposed medicinal benefits of the local natural springs, somewhat of a Deep South competitor to the Greenbrier and Saratoga. Like the Springs in Goodwin’s novel, the Raleigh Inn eventually lost its prestige and was turned into a girls’ school. Winslow kept up Goodwinslow, however, dying there in 1959, and it remains one of the fine Southern mansions gracing the outskirts of Memphis.


The Springs, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949

“Jerked Heartstrings in Town,” by E. B. C. Jones (1918)

oxfordstreet

Jerked Heartstrings in Town

I have heard echoes and seen visions of you
Often of late. Once yawning at a play
A sad keen rapture suddenly pierced me through
Because one puppet moved and sighed your way;

An omnibus’conductor fixed your glance
— Intense, preoccupied — upon my fare ;
I saw your stooping shoulders, at a dance,
Lean by a doorway: but you were not there.

Down Oxford Street, in the slow shopping crowd,
Hearing your very voice, ” Ah, that’s superb ”
I turned, — a tawdry simpering little dowd
Passed by, and left me trembling on the kerb.

from Songs for sale, an anthology of recent poetry, edited by Emily Beatrix Coursolles (E. B. C.) Jones
Oxford: B. H. Blackwell; New York, Longmans, Green & Co., 1918

Available on the Internet Archive: Link.

This is one in a series of neglected poems from the Internet Archive.

Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer (1980)

journey_around_my_room_boganLouise Bogan didn’t write her autobiography. Or rather, she didn’t write this book. Always an intensely private person, she rarely risked putting details about her life in print, preferring to confide in her own diaries and journals and, occasionally, in letters to a few friends. “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself,” she once wrote. “Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”

Journey Around My Room was assembled some years after Bogan’s death in 1970 by her literary executor, Ruth Limmer, a professor of English at Goucher College, after the idea was suggested by Amanda Vaill, then an editor at Viking. Limmer framed the work in rough chronological order, using text from a story Bogan published in The New Yorker in 1933 titled “Journey Around My Room” as introduction, close, and chapter prefaces. She also used the lines from one of Bogan’s poems, “Train Tune” (“Back through clouds/Back through clearing/Back through distance/Back through silence…”) as chapter titles. Finally, she pulled from the mass of papers Bogan left extracts from journals, notebooks, poems, letters, short stories, scraps of paper, essays, even recorded conversations hundreds of fragments, the tesserae from which she assembled this mosaic.

The rough and vulgar facts are not there. Without the outline of Bogan’s life that Limmer provides in her autobiography, the reader would not know when she was born, that she was briefly married, to a soldier with whom she had almost nothing in common, that she had a daughter and then left him, that she had a second marriage, to writer Raymond Holden, that also ended, that she had an affair with Theodore Roethke and an infatuation with Edmund Wilson, that she served as Poet Laureate to the Library of Congress, that she was hospitalized several times for depression, that she spent much of her later life living alone in what she called the faubourg of Washington Heights. Bogan explained her reticence as an attempt to make sure that future researchers into her life would have to work for their pay, but the truth was simpler: her solitude was essential to both her work and her survival.

William Jay Smith, one of her few close friends, with whom she collaborated on a collection of poems for children, wrote after her death that when he used to call her up to meet for lunch, Bogan would always decline, saying she had a dentist appointment. He eventually figured out that no one could need so much dental work. As Limmer puts it, “She came first.” She once wrote, in response to a questionnaire she set for herself, that her wish was “To live without apology.” She had no desire to confess her sins and no interest in trumpeting her virtues. “The fact of the matter,” Limmer writes, “is that Bogan was far more absorbed by the texture and meaning of experience than with the events giving rise to them.”

Bogan’s childhood experiences clearly did much to shape her sensibility and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Her father was a reticent man who held a series of jobs in small mill towns in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, moving the family every few years. Her mother was the catalyst of the explosions and scandals that led the family to pull up stakes. “The secret family angers and secret disruptions passed over my head,” Bogan writes, but she does remember one scene: “The curved lid of the trunk is thrown back, and my mother is bending over the trunk, and packing things into it. She is crying and she screams. My father, somewhere in the shadows, groans as though he has been hurt. It is a scene of the utmost terror.”

From Elizabeth Frank’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Louise Bogan: A Portrait (1986), one can learn that Bogan’s mother saw herself as a great beauty and pursued men she met in the hotels and boardinghouses in which the family often stayed. She was victim to “her own vanity’s desire for praise and love.” She left her husband on at least one occasion and always considered him unworthy of her. As she grew older, her pursuits more and more ended in frustration. A certain level of resentment and impending chaos simmered throughout Bogan’s childhood. “I had no idea of ordered living.” No wonder she remembers such affection for the home in which her friend Ethel Gardner lived. “I can only express my delight and happiness with the Gardners’ way of living by saying that they had one of everything.”

Eventually Bogan’s mother surrendered her hopes of romantic escape and the family settled in a poor neighborhood on the edge of Boston. Revisiting the area as an adult, Bogan found the sense of failure overwhelming: “I felt the consuming, destroying, deforming passage of time; and the spectacle of my family’s complete helplessness, in the face of their difficulties, swept over me.” Yet she also recognizes that “The thing to remember, and ‘dwell on,’ is the extraordinary courage manifested by those two disparate, unawakened (if not actually lost) souls: my mother and father.” What little money they had paid for music lessons for Louise and her brother, for occasional theater tickets, for tram fares to the Girl’s Latin School, from which Louise graduated in 1915. And they survived “in this purgatory — with an open hell in close relation.”

Again, for what happened next we have to turn to Limmer’s introduction or Frank’s biography. Bogan attended Boston University for year and was offered a scholarship to Radcliffe. She had begun to attract some attention for her writing, getting a number of poems published as a freshman. She chose instead to marry an Army corporal named Curtis Alexander and followed him when he was assigned to a post in the Panama Canal Zone. She found the life unendurable. “All we had in common was sex. Nothing to talk about. We played cards.” She took her baby, Maidie, back to Boston in May 1918. A few months later, the family was notified that Bogan’s brother Charles had been killed in a battle in the Haumont Woods in France. The news devastated Bogan’s mother, leaving her emotionally shattered for the rest of her life. About a year later, Alexander died.

Bogan took the meager widow’s pension from the Army and used the money to pay for a trip to Europe. She spent a year in Vienna studying piano, reading Tolstoy, Joyce, and T. S. Eliot, and writing. Then she returned to the U. S., settling in New York City, where her first collection of poems, Body of This Death (1923), was published. Her portrait appeared, along with those of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Amy Lowell, Elinor Wylie, and Genevieve Taggard in a Vanity Fair article, “Distinguished American Women Poets Who Have Made the Lyric Verse Written by Women in America More Interesting Than That of the Men.”

She began a relationship with Raymond Holden and they married in 1925. She was invited for a stay at the Yaddo Colony and published her second collection, Dark Summer (1929). On Boxing Day 1929, the house she and Holden were living in burned down, taking with it almost all of her first ten years’ work. Her relationship with Holden was troubled by her jealousy and their mutual heavy drinking, and she entered a sanitarium, complaining of depression and exhaustion. There would be more such stays in the next thirty years. She took advantage of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1933 to return to Europe, this time spending the spring and summer in Italy and France.

She separated from Holden in 1934, began her affair with Roethke in 1935, and lived by writing reviews and stories for The New Yorker and other magazines. These stories, which can be found in Poet’s Prose: Selected Writings of Louise Bogan (2005), edited by Mary Kinzie, were impressionistic but clearly autobiographical, and Bogan discussed the possibility of building a novel, to be titled Laura Daly’s Story, with an editor at Scribner’s. Limmer incorporates passages from several of the stories into Journey Around My Room.

Louise Bogan in the 1950sBy the end of the 1930s, Bogan had divorced Holden, taken up residence in the apartment in Morningside Heights that she maintained to the end of her life, and become the regular poetry editor for The New Yorker. Over the next three decades, she continued to write, if more slowly as time wore on, and kept up a steady round of engagements as a lecturer and visiting professor at colleges around the U. S.. She published three more collections, one per decade: Poems and New Poems (1941), Collected Poems, 1923-1953 (1954) and The Blue Estuaries: Poems 1923-1968 (1968).

Unlike many of her peers, she avoided involvement with social causes, and one would have little idea what was going on in the outside world, as well as her own life, from reading Journey Around My Room. “What is staler than old politics?” she once wrote. “It is like walking over old furnace cinders to read what once was news of political chicanery or change.” Her foremost concern was her own work. “Saw my real, half-withered, silly face in a shop mirror on the street, under the bald light of an evening shower, and shuddered. The woman who died without producing an oeuvre. The woman who ran away.”

Bogan felt her talent doomed her to insignificance.”‘My time will come,’ you say to yourself, but how can you know whether or not your time has not already come and gone?”:

Perhaps it has been spent, all spent, squandered out, in taking streetcars, drinking gin, smoking cigarettes — in connubial love, in thousands of books devoured by the eye, in eating sewing, in suspicions, tears, jealousy, hatred, and fear. Perhaps it is now, on a dark day in October, in the bedroom where you sit with emptiness in your body and heart; beside the small fire, drying your hair — older, more tired, desperately silent, unhappily alone, with faith and daydreams (perhaps luckily) broken and disappearing, with the dreadful pain in your shoulder which presages dissolution, infection, and age.

This is not to suggest that she faded away in lonely isolation. While Journey Around My Room shows us a woman who spent a great deal of time exploring the deeper currents of her spirit, an hour reading her letters, particularly those from the Forties on, in What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters makes it clear that she never lost touch with what was going on around her. She read copiously and was quick to recommend books to her friends. She went to plays and kept up with the movies, taking delight in Jules and Jim and other films that hit the New York art houses in the Fifties and Sixties. She loved an occasional indulgent dip into gossip and could toss out razor-sharp barbs when in the mood.

But she also struggled increasingly with depression and was frustrated by the necessity for — and the effects — of the the drugs she took to cope with it. “This morning I thought that the 1st pill was going to see me through; a clear, untroubled interval would show up (take over) every so often…. But soon that secondary sort of yearning hunger (which is not real hunger, but is in some way attached to the drug) began again.” She found less and less energy to write. “Any true writing … will have to be done in the afternoon.” The unpublished poems Limmer includes in the last chapter, “Back through the midnight,” however, reveal that Bogan maintained some amount of hope that this, too, would pass:

The Castle of My Heart

Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I lived for long with little joy.
For Falsest Danger, with its counterpart
Sorrow, has made this siege its long employ.

Now lift the siege, for in your bravest part
Full power exists, most eager for employ;
Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart
Where I have lived for long with little joy.

Do not let Peril play its lordly part;
Show up the bad game’s bait, and its employ.
Nor, for a moment, strut as future’s toy.
Advanced, and guard your honor and my art.

Cleanse and refresh the castle of my heart.

Six months before her death, she wrote her long-time New Yorker editor, William Maxwell:

The struggle with silence still goes on. —But I plan some secretarial help, after the holiday. If this doesn’t help, I’ll have another conference with you; and plan some strategy. Surely I can outwit this thing! I don’t want to give up just yet.

Louise Bogan died in her apartment, in the early hours of February 1970, of a heart attack.

“Whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remark (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry of the cahier,” she once complained. Yet the scraps she left and the mosaic that Limmer assembled from them are breathtaking in its power, truth, and beauty. Journey Around My Room has not left my nightstand since I first read it over 18 months ago. I have discovered and written about many good books over the course of the past ten years, but I am conservative in the use of words like “great” and “masterpiece.” Journey Around My Room is a masterpiece, one of the truly great American autobiographies. Every time I open it I find something stunning in its honesty and insight.


Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan – A Mosaic by Ruth Limmer
New York: The Viking Press, 1980