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.

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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)

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

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

Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth (1976)

Cover of first edition of 'Personal Geography'For a writer who became associated with Maine and the Northeast and life on a small farm, Elizabeth Coatsworth managed to cover more of the rest of the world’s terrain in her first 25 years than many of her more cosmopolitan peers. And her last book, Personal Geography is aptly named, covering both great travels and years spent in the space of just a few square miles.

The book’s subtitle, “Almost an Autobiography,” is also apt. While Coatsworth manages to tell us most of the essential facts of her life, she does it by weaving together passages from her diaries and journals, going as far back as the early 1900s and running up to the time she was writing — an amalgam of things, she calls it, “Each piece a moment in my life, caught in passing.” And she recommends it be read the same way she wrote it: “in snatches — picked up and put down, and I hope picked up again.”

Coatsworth was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1893. She refers to Buffalo as “my Middle East”: “There is a Middle East in this country as surely as there is a Middle West, but it is not called by that name. It is an emotion rather than a nomenclature.” Her father owned Buffalo’s largest grain exchange and the family lived in one of the best houses in town, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. They wintered in California, traveled to Europe and Egypt, and sent Elizabeth and her sister to Buffalo’s best girl’s school and, in Elizabeth’s case, on to college at Vassar.

When her father died in 1912, her mother sold the mansion. After Elizabeth graduated from college in May 1914, they set off, with her younger sister Margaret, for Europe. They visited England, France and Holland before war broke out, but carried on regardless, moving on to Spain, Italy, Egypt and Palestine. Then they sailed to Japan and China, down to Southeast Asia, and finally back to California. Of all the countries they visited, she loved China the best: “I think my whole preference for China could be epitomized by a flaking wall near a temple, on which someone had sketched a narcissus and a line of Chinese characters. In Japan that would have been tidied up. But not in China, the lovely decrepit China of those days.”

Elizabeth’s idle itinerant life ended in 1929 when she married the writer Henry Beston. Beston had just written his best-known book, The Outermost House, which related the story of a year living in an isolated house on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. A year later, they bought Chimney Farm, near Nobleboro, Maine, which remained their home for the rest of their lives, and Coatsworth published her second book, The Cat Who Went to Heaven, which went on to win the Newberry Medal as the best children’s book of the 1930.

Though they together wrote nearly two dozen books at Chimney Farm, Beston and Coatsworth had fundamentally different approaches to writing. Beston would spend months planning, researching, organizing, thinking — and lining up his publishing contract. Coatsworth tended to write in a flash. “Writing was for me an addiction like drink, which I kept as much as possible out of sight.” A dedicated naturalist, Beston helped her learn to observe the life of the plants and animals in and around Damariscotta Pond, the lake alongside Chimney Farm. And she came to find outside her window sights as amazing as anything she’d seen on her world travels:

Now and then a heavy shower passes over our road eastward beyond the lake and its dark shores. The clouds will mass in a black wall there on the other side, while the sunshine strikes in the fields on this side, and every grass-blade, weed, and flower in them, to a wet and burning green. A tremulous rainbow hangs against the clouds. Looking out through your skull’s two windows you know you are seeing a beauty rare and certain to be gone in a moment. It is one of the miracles of daily life that you should see it at all. It is, surely, an enchantment more fit for the eyes of magicians than for everyday human beings ourselves.

Still, she never thought she could match Beston’s gift for observation: “I think sometimes that when Henry and I die, Henry will go knowing that he has given an exact impression of the world and life as he has seen it, but that I shall know that I have left behind me only glimpses, random remarks, things seen at a tangent.” Henry, who was five years older, died in 1968. When Coatsworth wrote Personal Geography, she had lived alone on the farm for eight years. “After so many travels, I am home, and my happiness here is no less than it was in foreign lands and my sense of wonder has not dulled with all these years. I am as happy as an old dog stretched out in the sunlight.”

Yet she is in no hurry. “I don’t want to die because even in this narrower radius there are so many people and things still to enjoy.” And even as she acknowledges having to give up driving, her mind is still wandering far afield. She imagines the lost cities in the oases of the deserts between China, India and Russia, the icebergs off Greenland, and the hundreds of small volcanic cones in Anatolia. “None of these places have I ever seen and certainly never will see. But I do not wish to see them. They swim in my fancy, often nameless. They are a living part of my thought.”

Personal Geography belongs on many a nightstand, to be picked up and put down and picked up again.


Personal Geography: Almost an Autobiography, by Elizabeth Coatsworth
Brattleboro, Vermont: The Stephen Greene, 1976

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, by Val Wilmer (1989)

Cover of first paperback edition of "Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This"Books on jazz, blues, country, rock, soul, and other styles of popular music are, for me, the closest written equivalent to potato chips. I have to be careful taking one down from the shelf, because there is a high risk I will get nothing else accomplished until I finished it. And it’s worse now with the Internet, since just about any tune mentioned, no matter how obscure, can be located and downloaded in seconds, so reading slips all too easily into listening and, suddenly, who knows where the time goes? At least in the old pre-Net days, all you could do was write down the record title and hope that some day in the distant future you might have the luck to find a copy in some used record store.

So when I got a copy of Val Wilmer’s terrific autobiography, Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, I saw a lost weekend coming. She got her first taste of jazz via an early teen boyfriend and a copy of Rudi Blesch’s pioneering study of jazz, Shining Trumpets (1949), and the rest is history. Over the course of the last 60 years, she has listened to, photographed, interviewed, wrote about, partied with, and gotten to know most of the major figures, and many more of the minor ones, in pop music. You can get a good sample of her talent for sizing up musicians as performers, artists, personalities, and human beings in The Guardian’s archive of obits she’s written (and you can get a small sample of her work as a photographer here, here, and here).

But there’s some serious starch in Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. As Wilmer’s eyes and ears were opened up by her exposure to a variety of styles — including African, West Indian, and Jamaican pop years before it hit white audiences — her understanding of the social, economic, and gender dimensions of the music and the musicians also grew deeper and more sophisticated. She quickly learned a few lessons as a young and single white woman spending hours in the company of musicians, mostly black and uniformly male:

Many feminists believe there to be an unspoken bond between males, the understanding that all women belong to all men. Where the white woman and the Black man are concerned, this understanding of the woman as shared possession, breaks down under the white man’s gaze — unless the woman can be shown to be a “prostitute.” If she wasn’t, back in the 1960s, then in my experience the white men on the scene made sure she’d be treated like one. This was the penalty to pay for associating with Black men and breaking down the order of things white men had established. No woman was allowed to exist in her own right as an autonomous individual, if she was there, it had to be for the benefit of some man. As a result, hotel porters, bus drivers, stage doormen — real “jobsworth” to a man — became a thorn in my side when it came to moving around with musicians. If the thought of sex had never crossed anyone’s mind, these people certainly put it there.

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This is really much more than a book about music, though it’s exceptional on that level. But Wilmer’s life is something of a distillation of much that was of importance in the 1960s and 1970s. The growing recognition of race as a political factor, of the rise of civil rights. The increasing influence of American culture in British life. The changing British economy (Wilmer collaborated on a never-published oral history of coal mining). And the sexual revolution.

“It is how we are treated as women, rather than as individuals, what happens to us because we are women, that dictates the direction of our lives,” she declares in the book’s introduction. “To us the personal is political, whether we like it or not.” In her case, it was not only a matter of being witness to the rise of the woman’s movement: she took an active part, helping to organize the first “Take Back the Night” events in London.

And her understanding of her own sexuality grew, as she came to recognize her preference for women. She describes experiencing a thrill when Althea Gibson was kissed by an opponent after a match at Wimbledon and the shock of seeing lesbian couples openly embracing and dancing in Paris nightclubs. In the mid-1960s in London, however, lesbians had to seek the safety of forming private clubs — which even then were occasionally subjected to vice squad raids. Yet the act of going to one of these clubs was also a matter of asserting a gay woman’s rights:

… because what we were doing by walking through that door was declaring ourselves — what some would call “coming out” — there was about the whole exercise a sense of terrible excitement. It revolved around bravado and ritual. Getting ready to go there was a ritual, the crease in the trousers, the eyes made-up just so Parking the car was a ritual, as near to the club as possible to avoid the voyeurs and the challenge of passers-by. Gaining entry meant mustering bravado. And for what? To spend time in a place where you could, supposedly, be yourself.

Val Wilmer's mother and drummer Herbie Lovelle, 1959
Val Wilmer’s mother and drummer Herbie Lovelle, 1959
Wilmer acknowledges the large and positive role her mother played in her life. Her father died when she was still young, and her mother raised two children on her own, taking in boarders to get by. Despite a most conventional English middle class upbringing, her mother was remarkably open to both her daughter’s interests and the string of musicians — almost all of them black, male, and from other countries — that Val brought home for tea. Her hospitality became legendary among jazz performers visiting London. Harry Carney, Duke Ellington’s great baritone sax player, sent her Christmas cards every year. “Randy Weston stayed at our house and talked Africa and Nationalism, she cooked him bacon and eggs; the Liberian Ambassador invited her to his parties and she drank champagne.”

And though her mother never quite understood her daughter’s sexuality — “Well, not for women, dear” — she was open to just about anyone Val associated with: “I always knew I could bring my friends home to a warm welcome. Without such a love behind me, I doubt whether I could have even coped with the stresses of trying to be myself in an essentially homophobic society.” The only things she wouldn’t tolerate were slovenliness and mistreatment of her daughter. Other parents could learn from her example.

“People often write autobiographies as if they had no mother, no children, as if sexual love had passed them by,” Wilmer writes at the start of Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This. “This not one of those.”

Amen.


Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This, by Val Wilmer
London: The Women’s Press Limited, 1989

Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden (1966)

Two_Under_the_Indian_Sun“This is not an autobiography as much as an evocation of a time that is gone,” write Jon and Rumer Godden at the start of this magical book. At the time the book was published, both women were experienced writers of novels and short stories. Rumer was the more prolific and successful, best known for her 1939 novel, Black Narcissus, and her 1963 best-seller, The Battle of the Villa Fiorita. Jon did not begin publishing until she was over forty, but like Rumer, she set a number of her books in India, including her 1956 novel, The Seven Islands.

Two Under the Indian Sun is a lyrical, funny, and charming recollection of the seven years the sisters spent with their family in Narayanganj, a city on the Shitalakshya River in then-East Bengal (and now Bangladesh). The girls had been sent to live with relatives in England and receive proper English educations in 1913, but a year later, with war about to break out in Europe, they were brought back to the relative safety of India.

And safe India was, particularly from their child’s eyes: “We never felt we were foreigners, not India’s own; we felt at home, safely held in her large warm embrace, content as we were never to be content in our own country.” Their father, referred to as Fa, ran a steamship company based in Narayanganj, and the girls enjoyed the run of a large house with a courtyard and a retinue of cooks, amahs, maids, babus, and other servants. Like many of the better-off Anglo-Indians, the family travelled into the lower reaches of the Himalayas and summered in one of the hill stations like Simla.

They also had the chance to travel up some of the wide, slow rivers on their father’s steamships and were able to experience a considerable part of East Bengal. “We never thought,” they write, “as many people do, that the Bengal landscape was monotonous and dull; each little village, with its thatched roofs among the tall slim coconut palms and dark mango trees against the jewel-bright background of the rice or mustard fields, was beautiful in its own calm way and full of interest.” These trips were among their favorite times. “It was bliss to wake early and lie watching the reflected sunlight dancing on the ceiling, to feel the comfortable beat of the engines beneath us, to listen to the tinkle of the carafe on the washstand, and to know that another whole river day was before us.”

Rumer and Jon Godden, 1966
Rumer and Jon Godden, 1966
Taught at home by their Aunt Mary, the girls quickly discovered a talent for writing. They competed in devising stories and offered rudimentary criticism to each other as — usually — the sole readers of each other’s work. Only rarely did any of the adults take notice, as in the case of Jon’s carrot saga:

Jon could illustrate her books; she seemed set fair to be that luckiest of combinations, an author who could illustrate her own writing, an artist who could write her own text, and this double talent meant that her books were more exciting that Rumer’s, but most even of Jon’s efforts stayed unnoticed. Occasionally, though, one would soar into attention, as unpredictably and, to us, as inexplicably as any best seller in the real literary world. It happened, for instance, when Jon wrote a novel about a family of carrots, four male carrots called No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4. In spite of their prosaic names they were surprisingly alive characters and, in its miniature way, the book was a complete novel; very often we did not finish ours. There were two villains, a cross cabbage and an apple tree that spitefully rained apples on the carrots’ heads. Then, “Ho, horror!” as the book said, a human boy dug up No. 1 and carried him away, but it was only to scoop him out and hang him up in the window to grow again — as we had done in our London day school. Finally the cabbage was dug up and eaten, the apple tree had its apples picked; No. 1, having grown, was replanted and four more carrots came up in the carrot bed, luckily all females, so that “there were four little carrots more.” It was vividly illustrated and Mam and Fa showed it to their friends. Jon was congratulated, which she half liked and half detested.

Reading Two Under the Indian Sun, one is challenged to tell one author’s voice from the other. The two blend together into an almost seamless narrative, and the only clue to a change is when one of the sisters is named: if it’s Jon, then Rumer is writing, and vice versa. And the book was also something of a unique creation from the publishing standpoint, as it was released under the dual imprints of Knopf, Rumer’s publisher, and Jon’s publisher, Viking. Distributed by Viking and picked up by the Book of the Month Club, it was probably Jon’s best-selling book. It was reissued in the late 1980s by Beech Tree Books, but is now out of print.


from Two Under the Indian Sun, by Jon and Rumer Godden
New York: Alfred A. Knopf and The Viking Press, 1966