A Lost World

New York Mosaic: Do I Wake or Sleep, The Christmas Tree, Many Mansions

three novels by Isabel Bolton, with an introduction by Doris Grumbach
Steerforth Press, 401 pp., $35.00

By 1946 I had spent three years in the army where the name of the daily New York Times book reviewer, Orville Prescott, struck not a bell, while, to the few who were literary-minded, Edmund Wilson meant everything. Wilson was The American Critic whose praise—or even attention—in The New Yorker meant earthly glory for a writer. When my first novel was published, I realized that he no longer bothered much with current novels or new writers. Although politely loyal to commercialite friends like Charles Jackson and Edwin O’Connor, he was now working up large subjects—most lately the suppurating wound of Philoctetes, the necessary archer. Also, he was known to have a not-so-secret passion for beautiful young women who wrote beautiful young prose that he might nurture with his generous praise and gentle advice (“‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c,’ dearest.”) and, indeed, if he could hack it, actual presence in their lives should the dice so fall. Even so, one still hoped. In my case, in vain—snake eyes.

It was the prissy Orville Prescott who praised me while Mr. Wilson astonished everyone that season with a Pythian ode to a beautiful young woman called Isabel Bolton, whose first book, Do I Wake or Sleep, he hailed as “school of Henry James… the device of the sensitive observer who stands at the center of the action and through the filter of whose consciousness alone the happenings of the story reach us…a voice that combines, in a peculiar way, the lyric with the dry; and is exquisitely perfect in accent; every syllable falls as it should….” A star was born.

A comic legend was also born. Wilson, ravished by the beauty of Bolton’s prose, hoped that its creator was equally beautiful and so…. Well, Wilson was very much school of Montaigne. Like Montaigne, he was not exactly misogynistic but he felt that the challenge of another male mind was the highest sort of human exchange while possession of a beautiful woman was also of intense importance to him. Could the two ever be combined—the ultimate soulmate? Montaigne thought that if women endured the same education and general experience as men they would probably be no different and so intellectual equality might be achieved. But he gave no examples. By Wilson’s time, many women had been similarly educated and luminous feminine minds—chock-a-block with pensées—were very much out there. But what about…well, to be blunt, Beauty? Could Mind as well as Beauty be found in one person?

Wilson’s lifelong quest led him into some strange culs-de-sac. The strangest of all must have been when he discovered that Isabel Bolton—name deliberately reminiscent of Isabel Archer?—was, in reality, a majestic granddame of sixty-three, born Mary Britton Miller in 1883 at New London, Connecticut.

Only five minutes, so legend goes, after my sister. This participation in identical twinship is the most valuable experience of my life…. Both of my parents died of pneumonia and within an hour of each other in the fourth year of my…

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