Weekly, the coffee shop near my house has what the owner calls “Trivia Tuesday”: anyone who can answer the trivia question posted on the cake case wins a free cup of coffee. One Tuesday not so long ago I ventured in at around four in the afternoon. The question, written in black marker on a white card, read “What American playwright/actress was arrested and jailed for her work?” No one that day had answered the question correctly. No one had not said “Lillian Hellman.” I summoned the cashier, pointed at the sign, and said, a little triumphantly, “Mae West.”
I knew the answer because I had recently read a piece about West written for The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont. I knew that West was arrested on charges of obscenity for her theatrical hit, Sex, which she had written under a pen name. She did a week in the lockup on Welfare Island (now Roosevelt Island) and complained only about the underwear. As I drank my free coffee and privately toasted both West and Ms. Pierpont, whoever and wherever she was, I began to wonder why it is, in an age when readers know the hobbies of Vladimir Nabokov, the wives of John Updike, the girlfriends of Philip Roth—all fairly private men—we know so little about our women writers. Why did a hundred intelligent coffee drinkers imagine that Lillian Hellman had somehow done jail time, or that she was also an actress? Why do hardly any of us think of Mae West as a writer at all? And why was the question about Mae West’s jail time even considered “trivial”? It was not remotely on the same level as the queries regarding batting averages and running yardage that usually graced the cake case. Soon, my happy, free coffee had become a problem. It is sometimes, as a feminist in the world, difficult to stay pleased.
Somewhat to the rescue comes Claudia Roth Pierpont’s new collection, Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, which despite its soporific title is one of the most ceaselessly interesting books I’ve read in some time. Within its pages one will find Ms. Pierpont’s Mae West piece (which inspired not just Trivia Tuesday but James Lapine’s current stage production, Dirty Blonde) as well as biographical essays on eleven other women writers: Olive Schreiner, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, Margaret Mitchell, Zora Neale Hurston, Eudora Welty, Marina Tsvetaeva, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Hannah Arendt, and Mary McCarthy. “There is hardly a woman here who would not be scandalized to find herself in company with most of the others,” Pierpont says in her introduction. But she chose these literary women for their “influence” (different from their “literary influence”) and for the unorthodox ways they “worked out their destinies in an age of momentous transition for their sex.” She has organized her book in three sections that deal “broadly speaking” (a pun that occurs several times in the book) with issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics. She needn’t have. There is so much inevitable overlap in theme, and Pierpont’s portraits, written independently of one another, are so far-reaching (despite their brevity) and so thesis-resistant that not one of them stays put within her diaphanous divisions. It affects the book’s quality not at all.
Pierpont begins with Olive Schreiner, the only clearly nineteenth-century writer in the group, though Schreiner stood in opposition to almost everything that typified that century. She grew up in the dry South African wilderness and made her reputation with her very first novel, The Story of an African Farm, which became an international sensation even as it questioned all that conventional Victorian spiritual life had typically held dear. As to sex, God, and race, Schreiner was a freethinker: a suffragette, an agnostic, an anti-apartheidist. These were intellectual commitments, and did not arise out of any particularly bold or rebellious temperament, for physically and emotionally she was delicate, shy, ill for much of her life. Within the English libertine circles with which she came to associate, she was by comparison restrained, with a pesky predilection for falling in love.
Schreiner was born in 1855, the same year Charlotte Brontë died, and she seems in many ways a continuation of Brontë. They had much in common: a minister father, a bleak childhood in a stark landscape, the early deaths of beloved siblings, fragile health, unusually short stature, work as a governess, an early and determined desire to write, a concern for the predicament of women, an admiration for Wuthering Heights. Although surely Pierpont must have noticed this tie with Brontë, such is the exquisite distillation of her portraiture that the comparison goes unmentioned. She has no room for an observation that may be, well, a little idle. As in all her portraits, she wields a poet’s economy: she hasn’t the space to wander. Shrewdly she is after the knottiest, thorniest things she can find, which are, invariably, the relationship of the writer to her society’s impediments, to her love life, and to her mother; Pierpont sees them all as inextricably bound to the story of the writer’s work.
Schreiner saw her own well-educated English mother as “a grand piano closed up and locked, and tragically mistaken for a common dining table.” She was one of the many mothers described here who had “vital, unused energies” of which their literary daughters were keenly aware. Schreiner’s mother spoke French and Italian, was something of a painter and musician, then married a German missionary and was consigned on the edge of Basutoland to “a devastating range of household tasks.” Owing to a variety of infractions, Gottlob Schreiner had difficulty hanging on to his posts (the feckless colonial father is an element of Doris Lessing’s life as well), and the family had to move constantly, from mission to mission, often living in wagons. Olive eventually escaped to England, but not without the crucial help of her brother Fred, whom she called “Dada.” (Curiously, among Pierpont’s portraits, this is one of only two instances of a brother playing a prominent role in a woman writer’s life—the other being Gertrude Stein’s brother, Leo.)
Schreiner hoped for a career in medicine. Instead she became a lifelong patient (asthma, anxiety, emphysema, heart failure) and a writer; her manuscript of African Farm was accepted in 1882 by the novelist George Meredith, then a reader for the publishing firm of Chapman and Hill, who swiftly made the novel an international success. The book’s penultimate lines give sympathetic voice to Schreiner’s modern, science-fed thoughts: “The soul’s fierce cry for immortality is this,—only this:—Return to me after death the thing as it was before…. Your immortality is annihilation, your Hereafter is a lie…. All dies, all dies!” The blasphemous drama of faith understandably shaken, of doubt sympathetically saluted, was one the world was ready to read.
After African Farm, Schreiner’s writing came more slowly. She had a love affair with Havelock Ellis, the sex “scientist.” She fell unrequitedly in love with the mathematician Karl Pearson. She eventually returned to South Africa and married a young farmer who had written her a fan letter. He took her name, gave up his farming, and followed her to England, awaiting the big book she promised to write. She wrote a tract called Woman and Labour, which in 1911 reestablished her as a “social prophet,” and in which she claimed to have lost twelve chapters of another, larger book to a fire set by British soldiers during the Boer War. Her husband insisted, after her death, that the story was a lie.
Their life was not easy, and they separated for six years, living on different continents. When she returned to him in Africa, essentially to die, he did not recognize the old woman she’d become. In her loneliness and peripatetic exile, she wrote over six thousand letters (a fraction of which were later published by her husband), and her political work on behalf of women, blacks, and even Afrikaners (she found the Afrikaner commitment to the land preferable to the rapaciousness of the British colonials) was vigorous and unyielding to the end. Her husband, ever awaiting the big book that would save them financially, was not wholly forgiving. Even after her death he continued to accuse her of having confused thinking with working. Such an accusation, full of bitter incomprehension, leaves one in a wince of sadness and recognition.
The downward turn of the Schreiner narrative typifies that of most of these women of Passionate Minds. There is no lovely deathbed, its perimeter studded angelically with grandchildren. Tsvetaeva commits suicide; Nin becomes a bigamist then ill with an excruciating gynecological cancer; West remains a show business joke but one she is no longer in on; Mitchell is struck and killed by a New York cab before she writes a second book; Hurston, deemed a traitor to her race, lives her last days in obscurity and poverty, working as a maid in Miami. There is no elegant endgame: the end is absurd; at best a quiet, ordinary mockery.
Relatively speaking, Gertrude Stein, Pierpont’s second subject, did all right, though this “mother of confusion,” this author of “suspiciously significant nonsense,” this literary love-child of William James and Tweedledee, died in 1946 just after completing her libretto about Susan B. Anthony (The Mother of Us All), without ever seeing it staged. A collaboration with Virgil Thomson, it is arguably her most movingly political work. In fact, for the author of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, collaboration is a rich word indeed, especially in the last years of Stein’s life, years that may have goaded and transformed her. Pierpont here characteristically seeks the problem spots—the weird, the unreconcilable, the troubling—as a missile seeks heat. How did Stein and Alice Toklas, two Jews living in occupied France, survive the Nazis? Apparently through the requests of a high-ranking Occupation librarian, a friend of theirs, who asked that they not be disturbed. But they were disturbed, though not in the expected manner: German soldiers, it seems, were billeted for a time at their house. Stein and Toklas, ever the hostesses, served dinner. In Stein’s now out-of-print Wars I Have Seen, Pierpont says, “One feels her struggling with the effort not to look away: the very term ‘collabo’—which is all she manages to spit out of it—causes her to stumble on the page, falling into a repetitive stutter that seems not a mannerism but a kind of seizure.”
Surely the most terrifying and heartbreaking life recounted in these pages is Marina Tsvetaeva’s. Born at the same time as Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam, she was famous in her day yet is still the least known of this dazzling Russian quartet whose poetry spans the Revolution. Her subject was “the torment of passionate, sexual love,” and her virtually untranslatable poems were often emotional dares “addressed to men she briefly worshipped or desired.” Tsvetaeva, the daughter of an aging professor whom her mother, an accomplished pianist, had married on the romantic rebound, “had no ideology save romance and provocation.” Her own mother’s rebellion and longing, she claimed, had grown in her children “to the level of a scream.”
Mandelstam fell in love with Tsvetaeva, as later did Pasternak, but they married others; Tsvetaeva married a tubercular teenager she met at the beach. She wrote poems against the Revolution and against the tsar, and when she was stranded in chaos-stricken Moscow, her husband at war, her family house dismantled for firewood, she wrote plays. She barely managed, dependent upon small fees for reciting her work and upon friends and handouts for food. The squalor she and her small children lived in became well known. One daughter died of starvation. Tsvetaeva did get out, and for three years she lived in Prague with her husband, who had now been drawn into the Soviet secret service and was implicated in several murders, including Trotsky’s son’s. When her husband fled to Moscow, Tsvetaeva packed her bags and followed him, in Pierpont’s words, “into Hell.” Once there she was no longer a renowned poet but a pariah: a former supporter of the White Guard and the wife of a by then disgraced Soviet agent. Both her husband and daughter were informers and worked to implicate each other as well as Tsvetaeva herself. Her daughter was arrested and spent seventeen years in prison camps. Her husband was shot in 1941. She herself was taken in by sympathetic strangers, and that same year hanged herself in one of their outbuildings. Even Mandelstam’s widow, who knew well the tragedies under Stalin, was eventually to claim to know no more terrible a fate than Tsvetaeva’s.
Tsvetaeva’s tale alone, for those unfamiliar with it, is worth the price of Pierpont’s book, illustrating as it does the fascination and worth of a writer’s life story—in “our insatiable age of biography”—even when the writer’s work has not been much read or made readable. Resourcefulness, artful organization, a keen interest in history, perceptive reading of the available texts, and an intelligent way with gossip are the keys to Pierpont’s mesmerizing telling. Moreover, she reminds us to consider the curious detail. Economist Alan Greenspan was once a member of Ayn Rand’s inner circle. Eighteen-year-old Hannah Arendt’s clandestine meetings with the married MartinHeidegger involved an “elaborate signal system of lights switched on and off.” The Gone With the Wind film première in Atlanta involved a costume ball, celebrating “the days at Tara Hall, when every man was a master and every man had a slave”; it included entertainment by the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir, and among the onstage “pickaninnies” was the minister’s ten-year-old son, Martin Luther King Jr. Such finds—which Pierpont sometimes confines within parentheses—eloquently reveal the complicated, often surreal landscapes from which cultural figures are both made and freed.
Which is not to say that readers will not quarrel with Pierpont. They will. That is part of the pleasure of such a book. Independent-minded, perhaps to a fault, Pierpont herself is an equal-opportunity quibbler, though one sometimes suspects that her allergy to group-think causes her to go out of her way to dispute a feminist or a Communist. She occasionally ridicules Lessing: “You can take the woman out of the galaxy but you can’t take the galaxy out of the woman.” She turns Ayn Rand into a harmless if grotesque figure of fun. Margaret Mitchell, relegated to a shallow social type, eludes her almost entirely. And she is dismissive of Nin, devoid of even reluctant praise for Nin’s intermittently astute writing; the powdered mask and sexual theater that Pierpont so approves of in West and the promiscuity she disregards in Mary McCarthy are suddenly completely repellent to her in Nin. As if beauty, availability, and desire weren’t sufficient to explain Nin’s long list of lovers, she exclaims that Nin must have been “simply astonishing in bed,” then sets about to prove Nin frigid. Which sends a reader to the dictionary to look up the word “astonishing.” Also the word “bed.”
Pierpont has, too, the biographer’s predictable habit of looking to the work for the life but she sometimes takes it a bit further, into what might be called the “therapeutic fallacy,” suggesting that writers are cathartically working out their problems in their writing. “She had discovered that the only way to relieve her suffering was by writing,” she says of Stein. Saying that writers write from what is on their minds is different from saying they are relieving their suffering—“getting better”—by writing. The distinction is an important one. To venture slightly into Stein-ese, the only suffering of the writer a writer might relieve by writing is the suffering of not writing. Art is hardly therapy.
Pierpont will be most controversial in her take on the deeply gentle, much-loved, and still-living Eudora Welty, whose profile she titles, with some irony, “A Perfect Lady,” and whom she correctly notes has entered the national pantheon as a kind of favorite literary aunt, “the Pallas Athena of Jackson.” One has to applaud Pierpont’s sense of justice here, with regard both to the little things—“It is appalling that just about everyone willing to speak about Welty in her youth refers to her physical unattractiveness”—as well as the harder, larger ones.
In Pierpont’s view it is Welty’s interrupted, and eventually unlocatable, moral and social discernment that is most disturbing to a reader of Welty’s oeuvre. Despite a brilliant interlude as a photographer in the 1930s, when her subject was Mississippi blacks, Welty seems to have kept from the center of her work the racial story everywhere around her. In Pierpont’s mind Welty has been polite, perhaps blinkered, rarely writing anything that would inconvenience or offend her Jackson, Mississippi, neighbors and her residence among them. (Welty, now ninety, still lives in the house of her childhood.) “The uncertainly educated denizens of Welty’s ingrown, posthistoric, Coca-Cola-sodden South” are to Pierpont “truly akin to monsters—albeit, at Welty’s dismaying best, entirely guileless and extremely funny ones.”
The “dismaying best” says it all. That Welty’s work not just records but too often imitates the social refusal and denial all about it, Pierpont believes, is not to be overlooked because of Welty’s literary gifts. Pierpont does not address aesthetic ideas of naturalism or that more antique word, “regionalism”; it does not matter to her that the glancing way in which race is mentioned by Welty might be accurate to the segregated, white world that she portrays. Pierpont sees Welty as having struck an unholy bargain with the charming South: she would keep its hatred and ugliness out of her work, in exchange for acceptance.
Such a flatfooted assertion is of course both thrilling and naive: it is impossible that a writer of Welty’s stature would be capable, even unconsciously, of such a coarse and poisoned contract. One wonders here whether Pierpont has perhaps encountered a generosity of spirit and called it ingratiation. She is also likely flunking Welty in political homework unassigned to Welty’s Northern peers; one detects in Pierpont’s account a geographical bias. Pierpont also declines to emphasize the complicated ironies and portraits of internal exile that abound in Welty’s work.
But, Pierpont writes well—and so not unpersuasively. Since she is interested less in literary criticism than in the wrong turns of a writer’s life, she claims that Welty’s alleged spiritual failing and artistic turnaround are attributable to two people Welty loved and desired to please: John Robinson, the attentive, handsome, and homosexual stepgrandson of a racist Mississippi governor; and Welty’s own overbearing mother. If, upon her father’s death, Welty had not had to return from New York, where she was then living, and taken up residence with her mother, her work, Pierpont suggests, might have continued on a very different path. (In one of Pierpont’s searing parentheticals, she notes that Katherine Anne Porter in 1952 visited Jackson and was incensed when Welty, then forty-two, had to ask her mother if Porter might come for dinner. To make matters worse, Welty’s mother said no.) The jazz improvisations and grim social complexities that were included early on in Welty’s stories gave way, Pierpont insists, to “something akin to the folksy humbug of Will Rogers.”
Of course, all writers are vulnerable to accusations of having left things out—wittingly or unwittingly—of having avoided or transformed certain things because of the difficulty of addressing them head on. Often it is a kind of modesty, a writer’s underestimation of his or her abilities, that keeps the work—and perhaps the life—so constricted. Welty, by virtue of birthplace and temperament, may be particularly vulnerable to such complaints. When she was growing up, “the only black people she appears to have seen were contented servants. According to her own report, quite unremarkably she questioned nothing.” Works such as Delta Wedding appear to Pierpont—and others—to traffic in the flattering, local white myths. Quite tellingly, in her twenties, Welty apologized publicly, if a bit sarcastically, for not having been in jail or trodden grapes like other young people. But then Welty was always famously “nice.” When her Collected Stories appeared in 1980, her publisher removed the word “nigger” from a significant portion: Welty gave her consent.
Passionate Minds, with its unintimidated questions and explorations, is provocative and bracing, a wizard’s mix of innocence and fire. One can only guess how that playwright/actress Lillian Hellman might have fared within its pages.
April 13, 2000