A long time ago (by the Internet clock), I mentioned the efforts of Karen DeCrow, one-time president of the National Organization for Women, to get a publisher interested in reissuing Small World, a 1951 novel written by Carol Deschere. DeCrow sent a letter to dozens of publishers, urging them to take another look at Deschere’s book. As DeCrow wrote,
Twelve years before publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), Carol Deschere wrote a novel which could have spurred the feminist revolution, had enough women read it. In Small World, a simply written and simply plotted novel, Deschere tells us the story of a bright, educated, and cultured woman who leads the life of a middle-class housewife. Her husband is kind and generous, her children are intelligent and obedient, her home is stylish and comfortable.
Her world, however, is so small that it revolves totally around food, clothing, furniture, and an occasional outreach of interest to music, art, and literature. The novel takes place during one of the critical periods in American history: World War II had just ended, the alliances of nations in the world were dramatically shifting, capitalism as an economic system was being seriously questioned for the first time in a century, and the seeds of the Cold War period were being developed in the United States. Yet Kay Hiller, the hero of the novel, does not deal with these issues, despite the fact that she is both bright and intellectual.
Given my decision to focus on books by women this year, I didn’t hesitate when I spotted a copy of Small World for a little less than the starting price of $48 that I found back in 2008.
I have to confess that I felt a bit mislead by DeCrow’s take on the book. Yes, it’s true that this is a book about the life of a housewife–her home, family, and neighbors–with little sense of the big world beyond, but DeCrow seems to have found the book more interesting as an example of the limitations experienced by women like Deschere than as a piece of writing. In reality, if there is any tone that prevails in Small World, it’s one of joy, not frustration.
Small World is a thinly-fictionalized account of about ten years in the life of Deschere and her husband, Ralph Berendt. It follows the couple from their decision to move from New York City to Ithaca (more centrally located for Ralph’s work as a salesman for his family’s shoe company) and then to Syracuse, through their starting a family and encountering all the typical mishaps and misadventures of 1950s suburban life. The Saturday Review summed up the plot, such as it is, nicely: “We moved from New York City to Ithaca, where we kept house for a year with my husband’s brother and his wife, Lois, then we moved to Syracuse and Lois and I each had a baby, and then in a couple of years I had another, and we lived in several apartments and then we bought a house and the children went to school.”
If anything, it’s far more in the spirit of The Egg and I–or Lesley Conger’s Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, another domestic comedy by a woman of intellectual aspirations mentioned here a few months. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a decent 50s comedy film being based on the book. What distinguishes this book isn’t the story or the post-historical context but simply the delightful voice of its narrator. I love the way the Saturday Review reviewer put it: “I read somewhere that it is a test of a lively imagination and a glib tongue to be able to expatiate for fifteen minutes on the characteristics of a billiard ball without pause and without repetition and to hold one’s listeners spellbound in the process. This, in effect, is what Carol Deschere does with her Small World.”
Deschere’s approach to telling a story is never straightforward and, occasionally, wanders so far afield as to never arrive at its intended conclusion. But with the right story-teller, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. Here, for example, is how she introduces an episode about the family dog bringing home its first piece of roadkill:
I was in the cellar sorting a load of wash and putting it through the machine, a process which occupied only the hands, leaving the brain free to drowse a little. The pulsing rotation of the machine, like the rocking of a cradle, added its soothing in?uence. Doing the laundry was one of the pleasantest of household chores, with a robot assistant which could be summoned, like a genie out of a bottle, at my command. Paul had tried to explain to me how the Bendix worked, but, losing itself somewhere among the thermostats and timing elements, my mind had wandered off to the old Victrola we had had when I was a child. A man lived inside of it; his name was Caruso; he sang music with words you couldn’t understand, and that made it all right, somehow, for him to stay in that cabinet all the time. My thinking still ran along those lines; it was so simple to pretend there was a human activator concealed within the washing machine, a perfect laundress, who turned the faucets with strong, bony ?ngers, and tested the temperature with a sharp, swift elbow. She had a personality too, but it was so unvaryingly eficient I didn’t care to contemplate it. . . .
The machine began to drain itself of suds. Next door, a child’s wagon clattered down the porch steps, and I heard my neighbor call out, “Micky, on your way home from the park, stop at the store and get me the things on this list, of, and a pack of Camels, too.” Micky grumbled and the clatter dwindled down the street. My mind still dozed. These sounds were part of my habitat; they barely touched the surface of my consciousness.
By the time the dog shows up, we’ve long forgotten it was a story about him. In fact, the mutt kind of gets in the way of an otherwise respectable meander.
Yet, in deference to Karen DeCrow, one must acknowledge that there is a consistently feminist note that now and again rises to make itself heard:
Evelyn felt that she always had to appear at her super-best for the simple reason that, plain and unvarnished, she mightn’t be able to compete with her husband’s other interests, while we felt no such compulsion. Keeping herself and her house well-groomed was part of Evelyn’s job, and Harold praised her for it to pay off his own conscience. It wasn’t vanity at all; it was insecurity . . . and maybe it wasn’t exactly insecurity but a kind of guilt-edged security! Oh, we had really hit on something this time. The women’s magazines, always harping on the idea that a girl must look fresh as a daisy even if she was feeling like a piece of stinkweed, had put this thing on a national basis. Then there was insufficiency to consider, too. You made a full-time job out of housekeeping because that was easier than looking for something else to do; it was an out that society handed you, and the busier you kept yourself with furniture polish — and nail polish — the less time you had to fret over the fact that you weren’t doing anything else.
Carol Deschere’s most profound influence as a writer was not on other women, however, but on her son, John Berendt. Forty-some years later, he saw a book he had worked on for years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, achieve spectacular success, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination and spending over four years on The New York Times bestseller list. As he told an interviewer, “The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.”
The following appears on the back cover of Small World:
A Letter from the Author of Small World
I was born in New York city, and although I see no reason why the date should appear on the jacket of my book, I’m perfectly willing to confide to your files that it was April 13, 1915. When I was six, my parents reluctantly acted on their belief (now shared by me) that the city was not the best place in which to bring up children, so we moved to the nearest available “country,” which happened to be Westchester. I went to school in New Rochelle, and the ink on my high-school diploma was hardly dry when, my childhood being officially over, we moved back to New York.
I went to Hunter College–which I loved–and was graduated in 1933, having been married the year before. I can highly recommend the combination of going to school while learning to keep house, as it give the bride the properly casual attitude toward housewifery. (Another effect, however, may not be quite so wholesome. After sixteen years, I find myself still taking courses.)
We left New York in 1936, and have been living in Syracuse for years. The children, aged thirteen and eleven, have always had an enormous amount of civic pride, and we have finally caught a mild form of it from them. At least, we now regard Syracuse as home.
From the Syracuse Post-Standard, 20 May 1951:
Finally, I must reproduce this early example of a publisher’s attempt to collect feedback, which was still securely nestled midway inside the immaculate copy of Small World that I received from thebooksend: