The following is a submission from Molly Parent, who, in light of Kate Zambreno’s recently published study Heroines, considers the special cases of two writers no one reads: Vivienne Eliot and Zelda Fitzgerald. (Ed.)
* * *
Kate Zambreno’s Heroines—a thoughtful, confessional, research-rich book recently published by Semiotext(e)—focuses on the mythology and the actualities of a particular camp of writers no one reads: the mad wives of modernism.
While some of these women, including Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, and Djuna Barnes, had brilliant but often under-acknowledged literary careers, the words of many of their contemporaries never made it onto—or, considering their perpetual role as characters in others’ fictions, off of—the page.
One such woman is Vivien(ne) Eliot, wife of T.S, who preferred to drop the last two letters from her name, the most transparent pseudonymous identity of a handful she used throughout her life. A pal of the Bloomsbury group (in a sense: Virginia Woolf once described her as “the bag of ferrets Tom wears around his neck”), Vivienne was assumed not to have much literary talent of her own. She frequently wrote semi-autobiographical short stories, an activity condescendingly prescribed as an exercise to soothe her “nerves”. Zambreno writes: “Eliot praised her mind as being ‘not at all a feminine one,’ which reveals only Eliot’s bias, not any truth regarding her prose style, or even regarding his.”
Still, Vivienne’s mind was capable of co-editing The Criterion, the Eliots’ quarterly literary magazine. Writing under a pen name, many of her contributions were based on Bloomsbury gossip; Zambreno describes her as “the bored yet alienated female Prufrockian narrator who listens in and cattily, wittily exhumes.” (One of many in a line of literary gossips, of course. “Or,” as Elizabeth Hardwick said, “as we gossips like to call it, character analysis.”) This was not always well received, and eventually Tom gave in to the complaints of his social circle and shut down the publication. It reappeared a year later as The New Criterion. Vivienne was banned from contributing.
Soon after, the Eliots’ marriage began unraveling, along with Vivienne’s mental health, though this tumultuous time coincided with a feverish period of literary activity on her part. Ultimately, Tom arranged for a formal separation—so formal, in fact, that he instructed his friends and business partners to cut off contact with his estranged wife and to not tell her where he was, a move that baffled and further unhinged her.
Vivienne’s life from that point on was marked by desperation, ill health and psychiatric wards. Despite this, she still produced a prolific amount of journaling, which she at least saw as valuable: “You who in my later years will read these very words of mine,” she wrote in a diary entry in 1934, “and will be able to trace a true history of this epoch, by my Diaries and Papers.” Their value did not go unnoticed by certain interested parties; Vivienne’s diaries and papers cannot be accessed without permission of the estate of Eliot’s second (recently deceased) wife Valerie. Should one wish to read Vivienne’s writing without navigating such litigious waters, her most concise and heartbreaking prose may be found in an advertisement she tried to place in the paper after Tom’s departure. It reads:
Will T.S Eliot please return to his home, 68 Clarence Gate Gardens, which he abandoned Sept. 17th, 1932.
A few years later, a more famous literary wife would experience a similar litany of institutionalization and silencing despite a more focused literary ambition. Zelda Fitzgerald, remembered mostly as an emblem of the flapper lifestyle and as Scott’s less stable half, wrote the entirety of her one novel, Save Me The Waltz, in a six-month stay at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore (one of multiple institutions to which she was committed throughout her life). The novel drew heavily on autobiography, which posed a problem for Scott, who tended to use facts about Zelda to color the novels that had made him quite famous—and it happened to share some such content with a draft he had been agonizing over for the last seven years. Luckily for him, editors took the side of the literary heavyweight and not the notorious nut job. Save Me The Waltz, with much of it slashed out by Scott’s pen, was eventually published to “meh” reviews. Tender is the Night, the seven-year masterpiece, fared much better.
Undeterred, Zelda had designs for a second novel, which Scott, with the help of doctors (enlisted by him) and editors (his), firmly and rather brutally talked her out of pursuing. In Heroines, Zambreno quotes the transcripts of one such “psychiatric evaluation”:
The doctor tells Zelda that if she could not write “masterpieces” like her husband, then her “ambitions” would only further “depress” her. “I will always be unhappy then,” she said. “I was a good deal more unhappy when I did not want to write.” She finally agrees to what the doctor prescribes… she is forbidden from writing fiction that draws on a shared biography (in other words, her own life.)
As such, should one wish to read Zelda, one of the truest ways to do so may be to read Scott, whose writing often lifted entire phrases from her letters or speech. The most famous and eerily aware of these is Zelda’s exclamation at the birth of their daughter, which became one of the most recognizable of Daisy’s lines in Gatsby: “Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups,” Zelda said upon seeing her child, having stated moments before that she herself was drunk for the occasion. “I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” And so Zelda the myth lives in fiction, Scott the myth lives as its author.
Zelda died in a fire in the hospital where she was finally institutionalized for schizophrenia. An incorrect date was printed on her tombstone, and her husband’s words placed literally atop her grave.
Despite the tragedy and justified anger in which Heroines is steeped, it ends with something like hope regarding the idea of being read. After all, the book is a chronicle of Zambreno’s obsession with reading these unread or unreadable women, an exorcism of their ghosts that produced the thing they longed for: their words, their truths, in print. And, Zambreno argues, today the internet provides a forum for questioning the cannon and a community that informs, supports and reads each other, one that may have aided Vivienne and Zelda had they been granted access. In a poignant shift in the book’s last twenty pages, Zambreno suddenly turns her narrative towards a you – triumphantly, a reader, and if you take up her charge, a writer, a decider of the mythology. The question, as she puts it: “Who gets to be remembered and who does not?”
No one reads German polymath Paul Scheerbart (1863-1915). Yet during his prolific career his eccentric fiction, art, and poetry influenced a range of intellects, from architect Bruno Taut to writer Walter Benjamin. It’s a testament to Scheerbart’s prophetic vision that his fiction has attracted such lasting attention: he wrote mostly outer-space novels and utopian stories about things like glass architecture.
Beyond the quirky concepts, however, Scheerbart’s work has a revolutionary, philosophical zeal and the image of him that arises is that of a steampunk Ralph Waldo Emerson with imaginative powers equal to those of Thomas Edison and Jules Verne.
Some major university presses have published a handful of Scheerbart’s work in English. MIT Press brought out his glass architecture novella, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel, and University of Chicago Press published The Light Club (the full title is The Light Club of Batavia: A Ladies’ Novelette), about an underground utopia created by a group of wealthy humanists. These are enjoyable books, optimistic, ironic, and, as the titles indicate, pro-feminist for their time.
The most recent Scheerbart in translation is Lesabendio: An Asteroid Novel, and kudos to Wakefield Press (in Cambridge) for creating a wonderful illustrated edition of Scheerbart’s short novel about brainy humanoid worm-aliens, dreamers who float around and consider their place in the cosmos. Using the basic tropes of sci-fi, Scheerbart creates a sharp social satire of European salon culture, industrial ambition, and the groupthink of his day, including offhand musings like this about quantum mechanics and string theory that are startlingly accurate:
Lesabendio fell asleep. He dreamed of an enormous solar system—and it appeared to him like a system of millions of rubber bands that were continuously being stretched apart and then rebounding back together again.
My favorite Scheerbart in English so far is The Perpetual Motion Machine (Wakefield Press). The central question seems to be—is success or failure better for the imagination? Translator Andrew Joron did great work capturing Scheerbart’s wonderful range of raw emotion as he struggles to tell “The Story of an Invention,” as the book is subtitled. The diary of intense frustration hits innumerable highs and lows as Scheerbart tries, fails, and fails again to invent a real perpetual-motion machine (he and his wife needed the money). “I’m getting nowhere with my prototype,” he says. “This has not in the least hindered the outpouring of my imagination.”
(The book also shows off Scheerbart’s impressive skills as a draughtsman: it includes 26 schematic diagrams of prototypes for a real perpetual motion machine, which will prove humorous for anyone familiar with, say, gravity, or the concept of friction.)
Eventually, Scheerbart uses failure as a route to revelation, and revelation as an engine for belief in infinite creativity. The diary gives way to several short stories, including “The Astral Direction,” in which Scheerbart mentions “the significance of the Earthstar.” His failures have yielded a vision that “The Earth itself is a perpetual motion machine” and if his “perpet” (his nickname for a perpetual motion machine) could actually harness gravity’s power it would cause a “sublime revolution,” bringing about the “obsolescence of labor,” freeing humanity from “nation-states” and “militarism.” He imagines great changes ahead. “We are standing, then, before a cultural earthquake. A great many old arrangements will be undone.”
He was right, but unfortunately wrong about the nature of the impending earthquake—World War I would soon break out. The mass death would reveal how earnest Scheerbart was about his dreams for utopia and peace: Joron states in his introduction to The Perpetual Motion Machine that Scheerbart is said to have killed himself in a hunger strike protesting the war.
No one reads the poems of Carolyn Rodgers (Dec. 14, 1940-April 2, 2010). She was a key member of the Black Arts Movement and a student of Gwendolyn Brooks. As so often happens with women in the arts, she was chastised for what men were celebrated for. Here she addresses the use of profanity in a poem:
—from "The Last M.F."
that i should not use the word
in my poetry or in any speech i give.
that i must and can only say it to myself
as the new Black Womanhood suggests
a softer self
a more reserved speaking self. they say,
that respect is hard won by a woman
who throws a word like muthafucka around
and so they say because we love you
throw that word away, Black Woman …
that i only call muthafuckas, muthafuckas
so no one should be insulted.
How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems was a finalist for the National Book Award (1976). Over time she shifted away from revolutionary and militant themes to more personal concerns but she never neglected the plight of being poor and black in America:
"East of New Haven"
you see so many
these little towns
out in the open
spaces & places.
i guess big cities
have not enough space for the
let alone the dead.
there is so much
and back home in
chicago we would call
them rocks, lying all on the ground(s)
lots of rocks around / but
you would call them
see how much smoother
the world is.
the farther east we
the more frequent
are the stops at rich small
quaint towns and the more frequent
are the admonitions to “watch one’s
ticket on the rack above the seat
or to be very sure to take it with
you if you leave your seat!”
the very wealthy,
as i ride the train
watching the many white students
eating out of brown paper
sacks, saving their now
money so that they can
be the very wealthy later
Carolyn Rodgers will be inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2012.
Perhaps a few more people will read her poems now.
[The following was written by Stephen (SS), a bookseller and panelist on the Best Translated Book Award jury—and, as a caveat, a one-time employee of Dalkey Archive. Any responses should be directed to him. I apologize to those of you not interested in polemics. Nevertheless, it’s my hope that among the followers of this blog, which represents a sizeable community of readers who care about discovering and disseminating works that are too easily overlooked, there will be some who care enough to feel that the actions of Dalkey Archive Press are, at the very least, irresponsible.]
To reward you for at least scrolling past this rant on your dashboard, the three of us at WNOR offer some book recommendations below.
[NOTE: As of December 7, Dalkey Archive submitted several worthy titles (as PDFs) to the BTBA committee.]
A few weeks ago, I learned through Chad Post, organizer of the Best Translated Book Award, that Dalkey Archive Press, who publish the most translations per year of any English-language publisher, was withdrawing from the competition, citing expenses. The justification offered was that sending eligible titles to the members of the nine-person judging panel, of which I am a member, leaves “a smoking hole in [our] budget.” (Despite the fact that the judges all accept PDFs.) Tacked on to this already questionable excuse was the kicker: “And… we’ve never won.”
As a reader and a bookseller, I’ve long been passionate about translated fiction. Along with inimitable New Directions, which served as a model for Dalkey’s early efforts, Dalkey Archive has always seemed to me one of the most daring publishers in the United States. The Press brings to English-language readers work from across the world, often publishing the kind of challenging and innovative fiction that larger, for-profit publishing houses would never touch. Their list is rich in significant, enduring titles and I can happily say that during the course of my career I have sold hundreds of copies of these books.
So it’s a real disappointment—less for myself than for those whose reading worlds just got a little smaller for lack of exposure to Dalkey’s books—that (a) a publisher of this caliber would withdraw from a competition designed to promote translated literature, their ostensible raison d’etre and (b) that their excuse for doing so would be so transparently insincere. In his reaction to this move, Chad Post, who in addition to organizing the BTBA also runs Three Percent, a good resource for readers interested in translated literature, effectively sums up the reasons why a publisher claiming budget concerns in their refusal to send books to the judges is baseless. (It boils down to this: it would cost Dalkey in total about $120 to mail books to the panelists.) Even if we accept for a moment the possibility that the Press is in such desperate financial straits that it can’t afford to mail—or, again, to email!—books to judges, the lack of consideration the publisher is demonstrating toward its authors and translators, the cultural agencies who underwrite the work, and the readers the Press ostensibly aims to reach is galling.
No one reads Margaret Anderson’s and Jane Heap’s Little Review but it was one of the preeminent literary publications of the ’10s and ’20s. Along with Poetry, Blue Sky Press, and countless other forgotten magazines and presses started in Chicago early in the 20th century, The Little Review introduced adventurous readers to some of best writers of the day. Anderson started it in 1914, reportedly declaring at a party with other Chicago literary types, that it was time for a magazine which “would make no compromise with public taste.” In time that sentiment became part of its masthead. She had many admirers, among them a very young Ben Hecht, who was apparently heartbroken when she moved away to New York. Jane Heap joined as an editor in 1916. She was a far less public figure than Anderson, often referred to in the pages of their journal as just “jh.” The two women maintained a professional and romantic relationship that lasted until about 1925.
In 1917 they took on Ezra Pound as an editor and moved to New York. A year later they began to serialize James Joyce’s Ulysses, which would bring them their highest acclaim as well as their greatest infamy. Anderson, as publisher, was tried for obscenity but remained defiant. The magazine continued to publish feminist, anarchist, and surrealist articles and art that was often at great odds with the tastes of established American society.
In 1923 Anderson and Heap moved their base of operations to Paris to join Pound, but by 1925 the two women parted ways—Anderson remained in Europe and Heap assumed head editorship of their magazine and went back to New York. She continued The Little Review until 1929 when she grew disillusioned and was forced to conclude bitterly that “Modern art has finally come into its own…advertising.”
Margaret Anderson eventually wrote a three-volume autobiography chronicling her time as a publisher as well as her many illustrious years in the company of literary and artistic high society thereafter. Of her role in the creative world, she said, “I had vicarious experience of the artist’s ecstasy without having had to undergo the daily lonely labor of the functioning virtuoso. I have been a cheat, and no one has ever been more rewarded for cheating.”
“You may be familiar with Robert Bridges, who served as England’s Poet Laureate. But chances are, you are unfamiliar with the work of Digby Mackworth Dolben, a school friend of Bridges’s who died at only nineteen. An eccentric and a zealous Anglo-Catholic, long after his death Dolben continued to exercise a compelling hold over his circle, which included Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
I hope to some day read the Collected Works of Mirtha Dermisache (Argentina, 1940–2012).
Image: Mirtha Dermisache, Carta, 1970
No one reads Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931) these days, though were he around he’d probably prefer to read his poems to you himself. Lindsay believed in dramatizing his writings, referring to it sometimes as “singing poetry” and other times as “Higher Vaudeville”. He can be considered one of the progenitors of our slam-poetry and performance art.
He was born in Springfield, Illinois into a family devoted to the Cambellite sect of Christianity. He tried his hand at visual art but was told by painter Robert Henri that he was more of a poet. Soon after Lindsay was trying to peddle his poems to dubious passersby in the street. He saw his purpose on earth to preach his “Gospel of Beauty” to the people.
His fame rose in the 1910s due in large part to his ecstatic public recitals. He gained notice from the likes of William Butler Yeats and the then-nascent Poetry Magazine. Robert Frost said of him: “Some of these poets seem to get in a corner and gnaw their fingernails and try to get a dark corner, you know, and try to go crazy so they will qualify. There’s none of that in Vachel. He was just crazy in his own right; he did some of the strangest things.”
He paid tribute to many prominent people of his day, including Lincoln:
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,
Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.
He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long,
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.
His head is bowed. He thinks of men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why;
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.
The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.
He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free:
A league of sober folk, the Workers’ Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.
It breaks his heart that things must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?
—from Congo and other poems (1915)
Lindsay caused a lot of controversy with his most famous poem, “The Congo” for its racism and for romanticizing “the noble savage.” He never understood the criticisms and spent considerable time defending himself against detractors like W.E.B. Debois. Listen to him reading “The Congo” and other poems here.
As with many poets he had a hard time making a steady living. He crisscrossed the country performing his poems to pay down his considerable debts in his last years until he lapsed into despondency and committed suicide by drinking a bottle of Lysol.
His last words were, “They tried to get me — I got them first!”
[Writers No One Reads Facebook page]
No one outside Australia reads Peter Kocan, and even in Australia his past often overshadows his literary achievements. In 1966, when Kocan was a 19-year-old factory worker, his history of mental illness came to a head with a determination to be remembered for murdering someone important. He chose Arthur Calwell, leader of Labor, the more left-leaning of Australia’s two main political parties, who was campaigning in the run-up to a federal election.
Calwell had just finished addressing a Sydney rally against conscription for the war in Vietnam, and was leaving in his car. When Kocan approached him Calwell began to wind down his window, assuming the young man was a well-wisher. Instead, Kocan produced a gun and pulled the trigger.
Australian politics and crime novelist Shane Maloney writes:
The bullet, fired from a sawn-off rifle, shatters the window of [Calwell’s] car, spattering him with broken glass and bullet fragments. His would-be assassin drops the gun and runs away. He is chased, caught and overpowered without further incident. […] The Opposition leader, in shock and bleeding from the face, has narrowly escaped death. Deflected on impact with the window, the bullet has lodged in the lapel of his coat. The gunman is declared criminally insane, sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated in a psychiatric prison. His victim sends him a letter of forgiveness and returns to the election campaign, in which national security is a major issue. When Labor is thrashed at the polls, he is compelled to cede the leadership to his younger, charismatic deputy. […]In the asylum, a fellow inmate introduced [Kocan] to the works of Rupert Brooke. He began to study literature, philosophy and history, and to write poetry. Two of his collections were published while he was still locked up, and his subsequent work draws on his experience of psychosis and imprisonment. [via]
"The shooting logic was in the air at the time," Kocan has explained, referring to the assassinations of Ngo Dinh Diem, John F. Kennedy, Hendrik Verwoerd and Malcolm X. "Unfortunately, we are creatures who pick up on what’s around. If it had been a different era, my actions may have been different. Insofar as I had any thoughts about what would happen after the shooting,I assumed I’d be cut down in a hail of bullets."
Released in 1976, Kocan continued to write poetry, and also began writing a fictionalised version of his life in the brilliant novellas The Treatment (1980), The Cure (1983) and the novel Fresh Fields (2004). These books have earned him numerous awards, including two from the News South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards and one from the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards—all premiers who belonged to Calwell’s Labor Party.
The Social Workers (a poem by Peter Kocan)
Hyenas will encourage a stampede
To see which ailing zebra falls behind.
They’re nature’s social workers, and inclined
To feel most altruistic when they feed.
From the publisher’s page for City: Bolshevik Super-Poem in 5 Cantos:
Manuel Maples Arce was born in 1898, and studied law in Mexico City. He was a judge and later Secretary General of the Government in the city of Xalapa, state of Veracruz, under the controversial revolutionary General Jara. During this same period he became the central figure in the Stridentist Movement, a very ambitious avant-garde group that flourished under General Jara’s protection. Composed of a small group of poets and visual artists (especially engravers and printmakers), Stridentism bore resemblence to both Futurism and Dada, as well as many similar groups throughout Latin America, but was much more radical, politically, and came much closer to the realization of many of their goals, since they effectively were the government in Xalapa for a brief period in the 1920’s. General Jara was eventually deposed and murdered and the group dispersed. Maples Arce went on to become a diplomat, serving as the Mexican ambassador first to France, then Canada. He continued writing poetry as well as essays and criticism. His collected poems was published in Mexico in 1971. Maples Arce died in 1981.
André-Marcel Adamek (1946-2011) is the pen name of one of Belgium’s finest contemporary storytellers. The author of more than fifteen books of fiction, poetry, and teleplays, he also holds several patents, and has been a cruise ship steward, a toymaker, a paper wholesaler, a goat farmer, an editor, and a ghost writer. His awards include the Prix Jean Macé, the Prix triennal du roman, the Prix du Parlement de la Communauté française, and the Prix Rossel, Belgium’s top literary prize. His sweetly postapocalyptic fable “The Ark” appeared in the January 2011 issue of Words Without Borders.
No one reads Robert Herrick (1868–1938) any more. Even fewer read his novels than read the lyric poems of his 17th Century namesake. Despite his cherubic countenance Herrick wasn’t a particularly happy man and saw his lot in life in stark terms—
"In Search of One’s Soul"
The image of man toiling up desolate windswept heights, with some unknown destination, unrealized aim. As the journey progresses the scene has grown wilder, sterner, more desolate, less distracting, less peopled, and less cumbered…[H]e is more and more definitely conscious that his pursuit is necessary, inevitable, and that its sole consolation is that at each stage he finds himself strong enough to rise and resume the toilsome way, without enthusiasm or emotional delight, perceiving more clearly that the road will be increasingly lonely, severe, and the end defeat… The reward? Somewhere, somehow, around some dark, forbidding cliff he will come face to face with himself, entire, complete.
Herrick was a prolific and well-respected novelist in his day, turning out some thirteen titles in a realist, social-commentary vein. Praised by the likes of William James, he was described as a less-vitriolic Upton Sinclair. He arrived in Chicago in 1893 amid World’s Fair fever and was professor of English at the University of Chicago from its inception until he quit abruptly in 1923, feeling like he didn’t get his due from the university. He settled scores with William Harper (who helped found the University and recruited Herrick away from Harvard) and other perceived and real enemies in his prose. His relationship with Chicago was also somewhat ambivalent:
"Chicago is an instance of a successful, contemptuous disregard of nature by man. Other great cities have been called gradually into existence about some fine opportunity suggested by nature, at the junction of fertile valleys, or on a loving bend of a broad river, or in the inner recesses of a sea-harbour, where nature has pointed out, as it were, a spot favourable for life and growth. In the case of Chicago, man has decided to make for himself a city for his artificial necessities in defiance of every indifference displayed by nature."—from The Gospel of Freedom (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1898)
After leaving Chicago he turned away from academia and literature. In 1935, he was appointed as a Secretary to the United States Virgin Islands, finding respect and a measure of peace in those sunnier climes.
Herrick was suggested to me by local treasure, Paul Durica, proprietor of the Pocket Guide to Hell.
[Writers No One Reads Facebook page]