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Progress of Stories

In response to:

Queen Story from the April 29, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

I am writing to you in special relation to a particular feature of Mr. Harry Mathews’s review of the new edition of my book Progress of Stories, which appeared in your issue of April 29th. This feature is a supposed difficulty Mr. Matthews represents himself as encountering in referring to me by name, and the caper of arguing a necessity of resolving it by referring to me in his review’s developing course as, just, “Laura.” The freedom-taking in this country with first-name calling that has been adopted as a professional necessity in television and newspaper quarters, and doctors’ and dentists’ establishments (I have been met, in the last, in requesting address not automatically intimate, with the query “Are you British?”) has not yet, so far as I know, extended to literary journalism: I feel justified in describing Mr. Mathew’s resorting to it in his review as a caper. His arguing it a necessity is based on a rather cavalier neglect of the facts as to naming data in my regard within easy reach of one as exploratorily energetic as himself. Why, then, this caper? I believe the reason to be in there being a purpose in his writing his review, to write an unqualifiedly good review of the book. This, within the tradition of literary attitudes to my work and myself, which no professional literary man or woman can afford to disregard in his or her position-taking as to these subjects, tempts to conversion of the entire performance into a caper—a procedure for outwitting, with gaiety and deft mobility in critical commentary, the prevailing literary world bestowing on me of the character of a bugbear flouting the normal presumptions of “best” literary-world opinion, a rather unreal but sufficiently present nuisance to require occasional dismissal as non-existent. The incidental caper of calling me “Laura” lends to the caper in-the-whole of the treating of the book under review, and my work and myself all, an effect of enthusiastic involvement of personal acquaintance with and feeling about my writings and their life-history protecting the reviewer from accusations of partisan favoring: he wants to be understood as unashamedly meaning all that he avers as to this particular book, my writings generally, and myself personally.

To consider the familiarity of the first-name calling of me, represented as provoked by my making myself difficult in the matter of names, and Mr. Mathews’s frank will to demonstrate that I can be treated as easy to treat of rather than bugbearishly difficult.—In so far as the matter of my names is concerned, Mr. Mathew’s is weirdly in error. The open bibliographical record has no “Laura Gottschalk” or “Laura Gottschalk Riding.” My first publications bore the name Laura Riding Gottschalk: from 1920 to 1925 I was the wife of Louis Gottschalk. After the publication of my first book in 1926, I divested myself of that surname, “Riding” becoming my authorial and legal personal name.

The assertion that “Miss Riding” and therefore Laura Riding “no longer exists,” and the implication that “Mrs. Jackson” and therefore Laura (Riding) Jackson have no literarily legitimate indentificatory validity, the name “Jackson” authorially used, he alleges, as a matter of sentiment, are effronteries to which Mr. Mathews feels himself entitled because of the bold gallantry of his undertaking to write a good (!) review of a book of mine (!). All that is proper to his reviewer problem of dealing with these two successive surnames is a decision on the basis of good literary-behavior manners. The second of these, preceded by my first name, and a parenthesized middle element “Riding” to facilitate reader-awareness of continuity of authorial identity for writing extending over six decades, seems the choice of those having some lively awareness of my later writing; the first seems favored by those having mainly, almost exclusively, awareness of the earlier. The best biographical or literary reference-volumes cope with courteous scholarly nicety with the two authorial names; none of them have thrown up their editorial hands in despair and given me alphabetical place in the “L“‘s. Besides a few verse-indecencies by male poets of early century-periods, there has been no “Laura” literary calling of me. A book of scurrilous character of not many years ago engaged in would-be assassinative “Laura”-calling of me thoughout; but this falls outside the category of literary-behavior manners or policy. In all the bad literary-behavior manners to which I have been subjected—Mr. Mathews introducing into his caper-tactics the appeasement of literary-world colleagues who have found bad manners a convenient mode of dealing with the difficulty for them of facing the requirements of intellectual conscience posed by my work, and by my literary principles, with a characterizing of my treatment of bad manners as bad as the behavior of a “Fury,” and an attributing to me the defect of being, also, besides a poet and a “seer” and a “muse,” that weakling phenomenon, a human being—there has been general avoidance of privilege-assuming of first-name calling of me as warranted by an astutely intimate personal knowledge of me. Mr. Mathews has gone farther in pretending to have such knowledge than many without other will towards me than the denigratory. The pretence, with him, entangles him in the denigratory, as in the characterization “muse,” which he snatches from an area of bad-willed, indeed wicked, concocted, pseudo-narrative.

But what of this review, in what relates in it to Progress of Stories itself? I have encountered considerable interest in knowing what I thought of it, as a piece of criticism. It has been impossible for me to separate the critical portion of the review from the introductory portion, in which the capering spirit Mr. Mathews has obviously thought essential for the production of a “good” review takes its start, and impetus is built for the intended conversion of the capering energy into serious effects of critical enthusiasm. The crucial pass-over point is the leap, from the centering of a history of near-oblivion ascribed to my work and myself, as at least in part a consequence of my incivility to literary-world bad-manneredness, in a most poignantly tragic obliteration of Progress of Stories, to a miracle of rejuvenation of my buried work and self in the republication of this collection of stories. The attempt to cast this subsidiary element of my life’s work in the role of a major element, and key of first importance to the purport and potency of the whole, has a certain flippancy in it, a light-weight enthusiasm, for which the bestowal of honors of attributed literary descent from Poe and Flaubert and Mallarmé cannot compensate. The background of derivation of the stories is in the background thought and sensibility of all my writing; and the celebratory isolation of them into a ground for the setting of a national Laura Day is eclipsed in the Harry Day that the “good” review precipitated into actual literary occurrence.

Laura (Riding) Jackson

Wabasso, Florida

Harry Mathews replies:

Mrs. Jackson’s reaction to my review of Progress of Stories seems beyond dispute. I regret the mistake made concerning her name.

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