The Truth Teller

Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy

by Carolyn Burke
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 494 pp., $35.00

The Lost Lunar Baedeker

by Mina Loy, edited by Roger L. Conover
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 238 pp., $19.00

The curious life of the English avant-gardist Mina Loy (1882-1966) is told in detail for the first time in Carolyn Burke’s faithful biography, which should help to renew interest in Loy, her poetry, and her few surviving works of art. Loy was a born writer and a born artist: the frustration of her talent—a frustration due in part to her temperament, in part to her lack of education, in part to sexism, and even in part to her beauty—makes a perplexing tale.

I should say right away that her talent was not entirely frustrated; but her poems do not add up, in my view, to a major body of work. She has partisans among critics and among American feminists, who, because Loy spent the last thirty years of her life in the United States, respond to her as a predecessor in feminism. And indeed, no one can read Loy’s 1914 “Feminist Manifesto” (sent privately to her friend and patroness Mabel Dodge) without responding to its typographical energy:

The feminist movement as at present instituted is Inadequate

Women if you want to realise yourselves—you are on the eve of a devastating psychological upheaval—all your pet illusions must be unmasked—the lies of centuries have got to go—are you prepared for the Wrench—?….

[B]e Brave & deny at the outset—that pathetic clap-trap war cry Woman is the equal of man—

   for

She is NOT!…

…Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not—seek within yourselves to find out what you are. As conditions are at present constituted—you have the choice between Parasitism, & Prostitution—or Negation

It will be seen, even from this brief excerpt, that by 1914 Loy had learned some bitter lessons about life and (from the Italian Futurists) some vivid lessons about typography; but she was not about to join the suffragists in turning women into a neutral political equivalent of men. Her manifesto was brave in decoupling sex and childbearing from their “moral” location within marriage, and in asserting the necessity of sexual arousal for the completion of personality (“the woman who is a poor mistress will be an incompetent mother”). And her poetry (which appeared in experimental journals such as Others and Rogue as well as in the one book she published in her lifetime, the 1923 Lunar Baedecker [sic]) proclaims a comparable autonomy.

Yet Loy lived her life not as a self-sustaining feminist but as a person financially dependent on successive men—her father, her first husband, her son-in-law, her son-in-law’s father—and various patrons (among them Peggy Guggenheim). Her few attempts to support herself (by designing lampshades, thinking up patents) failed; her life was that of a child-woman, unwilling or unable to assume responsibility for herself, let alone for her young children, whom she left in the care of servants (going so far as not to see two of her children at all for three years). She makes an uneasy heroine for …

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