A few months ago, I was contacted by Professor Veronica Makowsky of the University of Connecticut, who is researching the life and work of Isa Glenn, a forgotten woman writer of the 1920s and 1930s whose novel Transport I reviewed here some years ago. Dr. Makowsky is something of an expert on neglected women writers, having published biographies of Caroline Gordon and Susan Glaspell and, just out, The Fiction of Valerie Martin: An Introduction, about the work of a contemporary American writer whose work has been underestimated. She is the author of numerous articles on F. Scott Fitzgerald, American women writers, and southern writers, and has served in editorial and directorial positions over the course of her career.
Isa Glenn is a writer I’ve been interested in for years. The daughter of an Atlanta mayor, she grew up in the highest circles of Southern society and studied art in Paris under her cousin, James McNeill Whistler. In 1903, she married S.J. Bayard Schindel, an Army captain who had taken part in the battle of San Juan Hill, in a ceremony that took place in a mansion on Fifth Avenue in New York City and was reported in all the New York papers. Over the next two decades, until Schindel died in 1921, she moved with him as he served in Army posts in the U.S., Panama, and the Philippines.
After her husband’s death, Isa Glenn and her son, John Bayard Schindel, settled in New York City and she became involved in the city’s literary and social circles. She also began writing fiction, and published her first novel, Heat, which was set in the Philippines, in 1926. She published a total of seven novels over the space of nine years, and then, it appears, stopped abruptly and never published again. She died in 1951 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery with her husband.
I was excited to see Dr. Makowsky’s interest in Isa Glenn’s work and took the opportunity to ask if she’d be willing to do an interview by email, to which she agreed graciously. Given her credentials and that fact that she is perhaps the only academic to take a serious look at Glenn’s work in many years, she is in a unique position to offer a perspective on its qualities and on Glenn’s place in American literature.
How did you become interested in Isa Glenn’s life and work?
Throughout my career, I have been interested in American women writers who were well known and esteemed in their day, but were erased from the literary canon over the first half or so of the twentieth century. My first book, a biography of the Southern novelist Caroline Gordon (1895-1981), was set in motion because one day, while I was a graduate student at Princeton, I noticed that many boxes were being delivered to the library archives where I was doing some research. When I asked about them, I was told that they were Caroline Gordon’s; she was the wife of Allen Tate, and, oh, also a writer.
My second book on the Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright and fiction writer Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) was provoked by the constant coupling of her name with that of Eugene O’Neill as a founder of the Provincetown Players; when I began with the most cursory research, I was struck by her many accomplishments and her vast renown during her lifetime. The book I published this year concerns the works of contemporary American novelist Valerie Martin (1948–); I couldn’t figure out how and why a writer of such amazing talent and imagination, who won the UK’s Orange Prize, was so little known in her own country.
My interest in Isa Glenn was sparked by a brief biographical sketch of her on page 254 in George Hutchinson’s biography of the Harlem Renaissance novelist Nella Larsen (In Search of Nella Larsen, Harvard UP, 2006). Hutchinson writes of her novels: “Remarkable as they are in their expert dissections of race, gender, class, and sexuality, they have so far been completely lost to literary history” (254). Like that of Gordon, Glaspell, and Martin, Glenn’s work was well-recognized for its topicality and literary techniques during her lifetime, but was “disappeared” in the mid-twentieth-century in favor of male writers when male scholars were deciding who should be studied in colleges and whose work should be included in the literary canon or “canonized.”
Having read a number of her books, would you consider her justly neglected or deserving of rediscovery by today’s readers?
Glenn’s work is richly deserving of rediscovery by today’s readers for a number of reasons. First, as a literary scholar, I want to point out her excellence in various literary techniques, such as structure, patterns of imagery, and characterization, but, above all, point of view; she is technically a fine writer. Secondly, her work has remarkable range: the American South, South America, ships at sea, the New York literary scene, Washington DC, army outposts, the Philippines, and the Far East. Thirdly, she addresses topics that are timeless yet timely in her day and in ours, particularly power relationships based on race, gender, and class, mother-and-daughter and mother-and-son relationships, the burden of the past opposed by the tyranny of trendiness, “helpful” Americans abroad making a mess of their lives and those they are supposedly assisting, the judgmental, clannish, and exclusionary aspects of human nature, the monumentalizing of a social value until it becomes an oppressive weight rather than an aspiration for growth, and many others. She is writing about specific times and places, but her novels remain uncannily relevant today.
Glenn was something of a Southern belle, being the daughter of a one-time mayor of Atlanta and the wife of an Army general. Why do you think she ended up writing novels that were satirical about the culture she grew up in?
I can only answer with speculation based on her fiction and some published interviews since I have not been able to find more than a few of her letters nor a diary or journal. The small collection of her papers in Yale’s Beinecke Library is a good source for her published work, but reveals little about her as a person.
From her fiction, I would speculate that she observed that various cultures, for all their good points, tended to fossilize and become absurd and constricting as they failed to adapt to changing times. She examines many such cultures in her works, to cite a few examples from her novels: Southern culture in Southern Charm (1928) and A Short History of Julia (1930); army culture in Heat (1926, her first published novel) and Transport (1929); white colonial culture in Heat, Little Pitchers (1927), and Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age (1933); trendy literary New Yorkers in the late 1920s and early 1930s in East of Eden (1932); or the claustrophobic culture of Washington DC’s old families in The Little Candle’s Beam (1935, her last published novel).
Although these works can be considered somewhat satirical, there is also a respect for the strength of the perpetuators of these fossilized cultures who are often formidable older women such as the title character’s mother A Short History of Julia; the central consciousness and mother of two daughters in Southern Charm; the “Old New York” mother-in-law of the woman torn to death between marriage and her writing in East of Eden; and the lioness-like mother and leader of the Washington “cave dwellers” in The Little Candle’s Beam. I believe these ideas about calcified cultures may have been developed through her interest her interest in George Gurdjieff’s philosophy of attaining a higher consciousness and full human potential, which she pursued through her acquaintance and correspondence with Gurdjieff’s expounder, A. R. Orage (1873-1934) from the late 1920s through the early 1930s, another intriguing aspect of Glenn’s writing and life that calls for more information and reflection.
A number of her novels are set in the Philippines and Far East, where she lived for some years while her husband was in the Army. How would you describe her view of relationships between Filipinos and the Westerners?
In her depictions of such relationships in Heat and Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age, Glenn was ahead of her time and yet not what we today would see as completely “politically correct,” so we need to assess her work in the context of her day, unblinded by our “presentism.” She skewered the devastating effects of American colonization on the local culture and the local environment as she characterized the arrogance and blindness of the colonizers. At the same time, perhaps because she was often conveying the sentiments of her white American characters, she often portrayed Filipinos, Malays, Chinese, and other “Orientals” as both strange and menacing. Her novels give her more balanced portraits, but many of her short stories (published in prominent and popular magazines of her day) seem to cater to prevailing titillating stereotypes of inscrutably treacherous “Orientals.”
I asked Dr. Makowsky a number of other questions about Glenn’s work and career, but she confessed to having run into one of the challenges in researching the work of a long-forgotten writer, which is the lack of reliable sources and large holes in the remaining documentation.
These are excellent questions, but, as of yet, I have not located materials that will satisfactorily answer them. This points to a major difficulty in reviving interest in Glenn’s work, a sort of vicious circle in that we lack the information about her that would help revive interest in her work and her work is out-of-print so it is difficult to revive interest in her as a literary figure.
What we know of her biography suggests a woman with a playful, witty character which led her to a number of remarkable and fascinating experiences: Southern belle; student in the atelier of her cousin painter James McNeill Whistler; army wife all over the globe, particularly in the Philippines in a time of rebellion against the colonizers; single (widowed) mother of a son; her self-reinvention as an author when she was well into middle age (her forties and fifties) including becoming a prominent part of the 1920s literary scene in New York. All these aspects are beguiling lines of inquiry whose results would greatly lead to a revival of interest in her work, but I currently lack the kind of detailed information about the author’s life and views that can be found in correspondence by, with, and about her; family documents and memorabilia; a diary or journal if she kept any; and various other personal effects and documents; as well as memories, oral or written, of those who knew her.
I have been piecing together what I can from public records (birth, marriage, and death certificates, census records), ships’ passenger lists, papers largely relating to her publications at Yale’s Beinecke library (including notes toward a novel, According to MacTavish, which, as far as I know, may never have been completed or published), mentions in newspapers in literary sections and in gossip or society columns, army records, and published interviews with her. Everything that I find suggests a fascinating woman with a fascinating life that requires more facts and, especially, more of her own voice speaking about her experiences.
Her son, John Bayard Schindel, published his own novel, Golden Pilgrimage, which was based on his childhood experiences on Army posts, and then never published again. Can you tell us what happened to him after that?
Isa Glenn’s son, John Bayard Schindel, known as “Bayard,” is a captivating character in his own right as well as the catalyst for some of his mother’s work. He was born on November 4, 1907 when Isa Glenn Schindel was probably thirty-three years old (she gave various dates of birth that made her younger and younger as was not unusual for women of her era). His childhood was the peripatetic one of the army brat due to his father’s steady advance in the army’s hierarchy; Bayard recounts and rejects these experiences in his novel Golden Pilgrimage (1929), published when he was only about twenty-one.
His father, Isa Glenn’s husband, died in 1921 when Bayard was about thirteen; the topic of a son’s need for a father and the widowed mother’s feelings of inadequacy are topics that Glenn explores in Little Pitchers and The Little Candle’s Beam. He shared his mother’s interest in George Gurdjieff’s philosophy of self-development as expounded by A.R. Orage (1873-1934) with whom both took classes in New York. According to Yale’s Beinecke Library’s website on the Schindel papers (Isa Glenn and Bayard’s), Bayard “studied for a time at Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France.”
On August 25, 1943, Bayard married Charlotte Marie Cline in St. Margaret’s Church, Washington DC; he was a Captain in the Army; she was an Ensign in USNR. They had three sons. According to Charlotte’s obituaries, they lived in occupied Japan, and bases in Alaska, Virginia, Maryland, and finally Newport News where he died in 1980; his death certificate lists his occupation as civil servant. More information about his life and experiences, particularly in his own words, would be of great interest, not only for his mother’s life and work, but illuminating his own intriguing and accomplished character.
If you had the chance to pick one of her books for republication now, which one would it be?
This is a difficult question to answer because no one novel exemplifies the range of her themes. Heat, her first novel, is written with the great verve that its title epitomizes, but while quite compelling, it is not as mature in theme and technique as some of her later works. For colonization and imperialism, I prefer Mr. Darlington’s Dangerous Age, which is her revision (in a way that presages postmodernism) of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, set in the Far East instead of Paris; this novel is marked by Glenn’s inimitable use of point of view, characterization, and imagery. Of the “southern” works, I like best A Short History of Julia for its remarkably evocative setting and characterization, but also for Glenn’s astute rendition of relationships between black female servants and their white female employers.