When I was ten, I read a novel called A Girl of the Limberlost that made a deep impression on me. I assumed that its author, Gene Stratton-Porter, was a man, and gave the matter no further thought. I read the book, written in 1909, at a small New Hampshire girls’ camp—run by an elderly Congregationalist minister and his wife and itself past its prime—curled up on a worn velvet sofa in an outbuilding called the Lodge, whose walls were hung with Indian blankets and sepia photographs of girls in togas doing eurythmic dances in a forest clearing. It was 1944, and civilian America was undergoing a regimen of wartime austerity by which it was never more than mildly discommoded, but that imparted a sort of scratchy gray wool feel to the atmosphere. The lack of gas and the rationing of meat touched us campers—we had to walk the three and a half miles to the lake where we swam, and we ate a lot of creamed codfish—but did not register on us as deprivations.
For a child living in a culture of limited and somewhat monotonous resources, A Girl of the Limberlost—the story of an Indiana girl who starts out in severe material distress and ends up with everything a girl could possibly want—had special resonance. When I reread the book in the 1980s (I found it at a library sale), I felt that I was reentering an imaginative world whose grip on my own imagination had never loosened. The opening scene—Elnora Comstock’s arrival at a small-town high school dressed in rough farm clothes, in mortifying contrast to the “bevy of daintily clad, sweet-smelling things that might have been birds, or flowers, or possibly gaily dressed, happy young girls”—came back to me with the force of a seminal memory.
As the plot unfolded, almost every turn had a familiar ring. When a kindly neighbor named Wesley Stinton and his wife, Margaret, take pity on Elnora and go shopping at the local dry goods store for the clothes that will propel her into the ranks of the daintily clad, I could all but recite their purchases of fabric for “bright and pretty, but simple and plain” school dresses (“four pieces of crisp gingham, a pale blue, a pink, a gray with green stripes and a rich brown and blue plaid”), along with ribbons, belts, a hat, umbrella, shoes, boots, and toiletries. But my greatest shock of recognition was reserved for the final “neat and genteel” purchase of a brown leather lunch box:
Inside was a space for sandwiches, a little porcelain box for cold meat or fried chicken, another for salad, a glass with a lid which screwed on, held by a ring in a corner, for custard or jelly, a flask for tea or milk, a beautiful little knife, fork, and spoon fastened in holders, and a place for a napkin.
Margaret was almost crying over it.
So was I. As the novel progresses, the box appears and reappears, almost like a character, its ingenious compartments filled with delicious homemade food. But it is as an empty vessel that it makes its deepest impression. What better emblem of childhood than an object designed around a state of expectation? The good things not yet in the lunch box connect with deep feelings of childhood optimism. The high promise of the lunch box heralds the novel’s own happy denouement, and, perhaps, even its long life as a classic text of girlhood fulfillment.
Gene Stratton-Porter (originally Geneva) was a plump, bossy woman of enormous energy and enterprise, who is vaguely remembered today as a sentimental novelist and (incorrectly) as a sort of proto-environmentalist. She was born in 1863 on a farm in Wabash, Indiana, the unplanned last of twelve children, and began to write after her marriage to a druggist and banker named Charles Dorwin Porter, thirteen years her senior. Her early writings were studies of bird life, illustrated with black-and-white photographs that she took herself with great effort. When the nature writing did not bring in money, Stratton-Porter turned to fiction, and promptly became a best-selling author. By the time of her death in an automobile accident in 1924, her novels had sold more than seven million copies, and she herself was a millionaire.
Money wasn’t enough, however; Stratton-Porter wanted recognition as a literary artist. “I am desperately tired, as I have often told you,” she wrote to a friend, “of having the high-grade literary critics of the country give a second- and at times a third-class rating to my literary work because I would not write of complexes and rank materialism.”
In fact, materialism (or consumerism, as we now call it) is at the heart of Stratton-Porter’s literary enterprise. Her heroes and heroines burn with desire for money and goods, though their naked acquisitiveness is clothed in the homespun mantle of the Protestant work ethic: unless you work for it, you can’t have it. Accordingly, Elnora will accept the Stintons’ wonderful purchases only if she can repay them for each item with money she has earned. In her darkest hour (her awful clothes aren’t her only problem—she also needs money for tuition and books) she sees a sign in the window of a bank that leads her to the Bird Woman (a character based on the author), who is offering high cash prices for specimens of moths and butterflies. Elnora, as it happens, has hundreds of moths and butterflies stashed away in a wooden case in a swampy wilderness called the Limberlost (based on an actual area of that name). As Dreiser’s Caroline Meeber sells her body to men to escape poverty and acquire the pretty things she craves, so Elnora sells moths to the Bird Woman (who in turn sells them to foreign collectors). Elnora’s continuing quest for marketable lepidoptera permits her to become a popular, nicely dressed high school girl.
A Girl of the Limberlost is a Cinderella story whose wicked stepmother, in an interesting twist, is the heroine’s real mother. She is a crazy person, deranged by grief for a husband who was sucked into a quagmire before her eyes when she was pregnant with Elnora. Elnora grows up actively disliked by her mother —blamed for the death of the husband —and treated with harsh unkindness. The mother’s derangement extends to her finances—she believes herself poor, though her land is full of valuable trees and has oil beneath its surface. Cutting down timber and drilling for oil would permit her to provide comfortably for Elnora. But she refuses to allow it. “Cut down Robert’s trees! Tear up his land! Cover everything with horrid, greasy oil! I’ll die first!” she says.
Far from commending her for her environmental correctness, Stratton-Porter treats the mother’s refusal to lumber and drill as a symptom of her madness. In 1909, commercial exploitation of the wilderness was as unexceptionable as pig farming and beekeeping. When the ecosystem of the actual Limberlost, where Stratton-Porter did her work on birds, was destroyed by lumbering and oil drilling, she simply moved her nature operations elsewhere; there was still plenty of elsewhere. And when the mother in the novel learns that the husband for whom she has been grieving for eighteen years was a philanderer, who drowned while sneaking home from an assignation, she demonstrates her return to sanity by expressing her willingness to “sell some timber and put a few oil wells where they don’t show much.”
The unobjected-to destruction of the Limberlost also figured in Stratton-Porter’s previous novel, Freckles (1904), whose impoverished boy hero struggles as Elnora does for a place in the world of buying and selling and ends up a rich man with an Irish title. He was found on the streets of Chicago as an infant, with his right hand horrifyingly cut off, and, after a bleak childhood in an orphanage, arrives at the Limberlost, where a fatherly lumberman named McLean, a partner in a Grand Rapids lumber company, hires him to patrol the trail and guard the valuable trees that are soon to become Grand Rapids furniture:
Of the thousands who saw their faces reflected on the polished surfaces of that furniture and found comfort in its use, few there were to whom it suggested mighty forests and trackless swamps, and the man, big of soul and body, who cut his way through them, and with the eye of experience doomed the proud trees that were now entering the homes of civilization for service.
Freckles was the first of the consumerist fairy tales packaged as nature novels that brought Stratton-Porter to the forefront of early-twentieth-century American popular fiction. In it she performs the brilliant feat of fudging that permits the reader to feel ennobled by the natural world while rooting for its extirpation. It isn’t that Stratton-Porter’s feeling for nature wasn’t genuine. She once wrote to a reader who asked what church she belonged to that she didn’t go to church because “I prefer to continue in the relationship I feel is established between me and my Creator through a lifetime of nature study.” She went on:
I would advocate holding services out-of-doors in summer, giving as my reason that God so manifests Himself in the trees, flowers, and grass that to be among His creations puts one in a devotional frame of mind, gives better air to breathe, and puts worship on a natural basis, as it was in the beginning, when Christ taught the people beside the sea and in the open.
And yet when Freckles exclaims, “Do you suppose Heaven is any finer than that?” he is not talking about a forest glade in spring carpeted with violets and hepatica, but about the “polished floors, sparkling glass, and fine furnishings” of the Bird Woman’s house during a party, when it is “all ablaze with lights, perfumed with flowers, and filled with elegantly dressed people.”
After Freckles, Stratton-Porter never again so baldly celebrated the destruction of the natural environment in the name of “service.” Henceforth her entrepreneurial heroes and heroines confine their commodifications of nature to moths, medicinal herbs, and bees. But their attachment to the world of commerce grows ever stronger. In The Harvester (1911), Stratton-Porter’s greatest best-seller, and arguably her worst book, she achieves a kind of apotheosis of shopping. Her hero, David Langston, lives alone in the woods, like Thoreau, but unlike Thoreau he doesn’t prissily criticize the townspeople for their hapless acquisitiveness. He himself is constantly rushing into town to buy things. He has a good income from the medicinal herbs he gathers and sells to drug companies, and is fixing up a house he has built for the woman he plans to marry—a woman who appeared to him in a vision, and who presently appears in real life in the form of another hard-up girl.
Like Elnora Comstock, Ruth Jameson—known as the Girl throughout the novel, as David Langdon is called the Harvester—won’t take money she hasn’t earned, or things she can’t pay for, but weirdly agrees to enter into a not-for-real marriage (like a marriage for a green card) so that she may live in the Harvester’s house. The Harvester hopes that in time the marriage will become a marriage more than in name. In a kind of reverse Taming of the Shrew scenario, he woos the Girl with nourishing meals and tasteful decor. “This adjoining is your bathroom,” he tells her, and goes on:
“I put in towels, soaps, brushes, and everything I could think of, and there is hot water ready for you—rain water, too.”
The Girl followed and looked into a shining little bathroom, with its white porcelain tub and wash bowl, enamelled wood-work, dainty green walls, and white curtains and towels. She could see no accessory she knew of that was missing, and there were many things to which she never had been accustomed.
Actually, the Girl is no slouch at label recognition. “Just as I thought!” she exclaims, after inspecting the corner of a coverlet. “It’s a genuine Peter Hartman!” (It is painful to think that the name Ralph Lauren may one day mean as little as that of Peter Hartman.) In the pages that follow, the Harvester shops for beds and sofas and curtains for the not yet furnished parts of the house, and puts special effort into the room to be occupied by the housekeeper. “Rogers,” he tells the man who comes with the van bringing the furniture,
hang those ruffled embroidered curtains. Observe that whereas mere guest beds are plain white, this has a touch of brass. Where guest rugs are floor coverings, this is a work of art. Where guest brushes are celluloid, these are enamelled, and the dresser cover is hand embroidered…. Watch the bounce of these springs and the thickness of this mattress and pad.
When the Girl expresses disbelief at the idea of treating a housekeeper better than a guest, the Harvester reasonably explains:
Friends come and go, but a good housekeeper remains and is a business proposition—one that if conducted rightly for both parties and on a strictly common-sense basis, gives you living comfort.
But the housekeeper never comes. No servant (or wife) could live up to the Harvester’s standards. He may be the most maniacally neat hero in literature. On taking his beloved to sit under an oak on a hilltop, he fussily “spread the rug and held one end of it against the tree trunk to protect the Girl’s dress.” When the sound of an arriving car rouses him in the middle of the night, he “swung his feet to the floor, setting each in a slipper beside the bed.” His house is like a five-star hotel: “rooms shining, beds fresh, fireplaces filled and waiting a match, ice chest cool.” His personal hygiene is no less outstanding. He is always jumping into the lake and changing into fresh, white clothes.
The Harvester is clean in another sense of the word. In A Girl of the Limberlost, Elnora’s upper-class suitor, Philip Ammon, makes a point of telling her, “I’ve kept myself clean,” meaning—what else?—that he has refrained from sex. The house-proud Harvester is similarly sex-deprived, but he goes beyond private self-denial to public crusading. In a speech delivered before a medical society in New York (to which he is peddling his herbal remedies), he rants about the evil social consequences of uncleanness:
The next time any of you are called upon to address a body of men, tell them to learn for themselves and to teach their sons, and to hold them at the critical hour, even by sweat and blood, to a clean life; for in this way only can feeble-minded homes, alms-houses, and the scarlet woman be abolished. In this way only can men arise to full physical and mental force, and become the fathers of a race to whom the struggle for clean manhood will not be the battle it is with us.
By the distorted faces, by the misshapen bodies, by marks of degeneracy, recognizable to your practised eyes, everywhere on the streets,… I conjure you men to live up to your high and holy privilege, and tell all men that they can be clean, if they will.
The Harvester is such a nutty book that by the time you come to this passage it seems like just another of its forays into the crackpottery of its period. According to her biographer, Judith Reick Long, Gene Stratton-Porter never revised or cut; her novels—like the Harvester’s hysterical sermon—just came pouring out of her. But racial theories were no passing fancy with her. They became the central theme of a noxious novel called Her Father’s Daughter, written in 1921, after she had moved to Los Angeles and enthusiastically embraced the hatred for Chinese and Japanese immigrants by which early-twentieth-century California was seized. Its seventeen-year-old heroine, Linda Strong, talks like this:
The white man has dominated by his colour so far in the history of the world, but it is written in the Books that when the men of colour acquire our culture and combine it with their own methods of living and rate of production, they are going to bring forth greater numbers, better equipped for the battle of life, than we are. When they have got our last secret, constructive or scientific, they will take it, and living in a way that we would not, reproducing in numbers we don’t, they will beat us at any game we start, if we don’t take warning while we are in the ascendancy, and keep there.
There’s an undercurrent of something deep and subtle going on in this country right now…. If California does not wake up very shortly and very thoroughly she is going to pay an awful price for the luxury she is experiencing while she pampers herself with the service of the Japanese, just as the South has pampered herself for generations with the service of the negroes. When the negroes learn what there is to know, then the day of retribution will be at hand.
The plot of Her Father’s Daughter revolves around a Japanese A-student in a Los Angeles high school, named Oka Sayye, who is actually a forty-year-old man planted there by the Japanese government for God knows what reason, but who is clearly such a threat to the white world that in the end he has to be remorselessly pushed off a cliff by the heroine’s Irish housekeeper. I’m not kidding.
Suspecting that Oka Sayye is not what he pretends to be, and in any case incensed by the very thought of a nonwhite leading the class, Linda reproaches another A-student named (yes) Donald Whiting for his supine acceptance of second place. She taunts him with the idea
that a boy as big as you and as strong as you and with as good brain and your opportunities has allowed a little brown Jap to cross the Pacific Ocean and in a totally strange country to learn a language foreign to him, and, with the same books and the same chances, to beat you at your own game.
Donald meekly asks, “Linda, tell me how I can beat that little cocoanut-headed Jap.”
In this atrocious book (I said that The Harvester was Stratton-Porter’s worst book because this one is really in a different league), Stratton-Porter puts her talent for describing desirable consumer objects to the task of describing undesirable racial traits: “I have never seen anything so mask-like as the stolid little square head on that Jap,” Linda says to Donald. “I have never seen anything I dislike more than the oily, stiff, black hair standing up on it like menacing bristles.” Consumerism is not absent from the book—parallel to the yellow-peril plot is another Cinderella story, this one featuring a wicked stepsister, Eileen, who deprives Linda of the pretty clothes and dainty furnishings that are her due.
Like Elnora, Linda finds a way of extracting money from nature: she collects desert plants and writes a lucrative magazine column about the delectable dishes she makes from them. But here even the Cinderella plot has a racist twist. Stratton-Porter improves on the original Cinderella story by severing the blood connection between the heroine and her nasty sibling: Linda finds a document in a secret compartment in her late father’s study, from which she learns that Eileen was not his biological daughter. Blood tells all.
Judith Reick Long notes in her biography that Her Father’s Daughter “caused no ripples in Gene Stratton-Porter’s readership” and in general “met with few complaints.” ( The Literary Review went so far as to praise its “wholesome charm,” she writes.) In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald gives us a nice sense of where white supremacy was situated in the thinking of 1920s America. In drawing the portrait of his deeply unpleasant character Tom Buchanan, he has him extravagantly praise a book called The Rise of the Colored Empires by a writer named Goddard:
The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be—will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…. This fellow has worked out the whole thing. It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.
Fitzgerald used Goddard’s book as a novelist writing today might use a New Age book to establish a character’s intellectual nullity. He based Goddard on a real writer named Lothrop Stoddard, whose book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) sometimes reads as if Stratton-Porter had written it—“clean, virile, genius-bearing blood, streaming down the ages through the unerring action of heredity”—and surely had been read by her. She had probably also read The Passing of the Great Race (1916) by the equally fervent racist Madison Grant—a book Adolf Hitler is said to have called “my bible.”*
When, during the 1980s and 1990s, Indiana University Press reissued eight of Stratton-Porter’s novels (as literature for “young adults”), it wisely didn’t go near Her Father’s Daughter, though it did include The Keeper of the Bees (1925), a work about a World War I veteran with an incurable shrapnel wound, whose weirdness almost surpasses that of The Harvester. But while other nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century sentimental novels have fallen by the wayside, as dull as they are ridiculous, even the most risible of Stratton-Porter’s works remain oddly readable. One mocks them, but goes on turning their pages. Stratton-Porter had the crucial ability of the popular novelist to make the reader want to know what happens next to people in whose existence he does not for one minute believe. But she had something else as well.
In a perceptive study called “Class, Gender, and Sexuality in Gene Stratton-Porter’s Freckles,” Lawrence Jay Dessner, dwelling on some of the book’s more conspicuous excesses, notes:
This relentless insistence, this lack of moderation, this sensationalism in [ Freckles ‘s] language is so customary, so seemingly habitual, that one feels the presence of presumably unconscious expressive needs. It is as if the novel’s intellectual and ideological muddle is merely a superficial layer of flotsam bobbing on a boiling sea of emotion.
Dessner adds, with nice dryness, ” Freckles is not a work to support a faith in the political progressiveness of popular fiction.” But Dessner’s image of a boiling sea of emotion as the element in which Stratton-Porter’s fiction is suspended offers a clue to its power. She often uses the phrase “she panted” instead of “she said,” and the novels themselves have the atmosphere of someone breathlessly running around inside them, ordering their cuckoo plots and scattering their pernicious notions in a kind of passion of uncontrolled and uncontrollable feeling. Her peaceable kingdom—where birds and moths and small mammals lie down with oil tycoons and lumber barons, and dainty bathroom fixtures and lovely things to eat and lawn dresses and eugenics and God and fringed gentians are all mixed up together—is the product of an imagination of an almost life-threatening febrility.
If a sense of “unconscious expressive needs” wafts out of all imaginative literature, it is rare to find it so floridly present in best-selling sentimental fiction. In an article called “The Why of the Best Seller,” published in 1921 in The Bookman, the critic William Lyon Phelps valiantly struggled to define the character of Gene Stratton-Porter’s achievement. He was reduced to saying, “She is a public institution, like Yellowstone Park,” and “If she is not a literary artist, she is anyhow a wonderful woman.” (This after deploring Her Father’s Daughter.)
In a memoir called The Lady of the Limberlost (1928), Stratton-Porter’s daughter, Jeannette Porter Meehan, defended her mother’s apparent mawkishness:
Mother knew both sides of life, but she chose to write only about one side. She knew the stern realities, the immorality, and the seamy, disgusting sidelights of life. But why write about them? Every one has his own trouble and heartache, so why not give the world something happy to read, and make them see visions of idealised life? Surely this does more good than sordid tales of sex filth that only lead to morbid and diseased thinking.
But in fact, read a certain way, the novels have much to offer dirty minds. For example, the way Dessner, under the sway of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, reads the queer stuff going on between Freckles and McLean (“the perfervid, the ecstatic—may one say the erotic?—relationship between Freckles and McLean”) and sees the stump of Freckles’s missing hand as a “shame-provoking, phallic-shaped member.” Stratton-Porter generally kept her interest in sex filth below the level of consciousness, but in The Harvester she allowed it to surface with almost embarrassing explicitness. The Girl predictably succumbs to the charms of her benefactor-decorator (Stratton-Porter liked to portray him asleep, looking like a Rockwell Kent Aryan hero, “his lithe figure stretched the length of the bed,” “the strong, manly features, the fine brow and chin” etched by the light of the moon)—but she is sexless. After one of her sad attempts at a kiss, he witheringly tells her, “That was the loving caress of a ten-year-old girl to a big brother she admired. That’s all!” and stalks off to talk to his dog Belshazzar about his sex starvation. Presently, he decides on a bold step: “Excuse me if I give you a demonstration of the real thing, just to furnish you an idea of how it should be.” After the demonstration,
she lifted her handkerchief and pressed it against her lips, as she whispered in an awed voice, “My gracious Heaven, is that the kind of a kiss he is expecting me to give him ? Why, I couldn’t—not to save my life.”
In the end, the Harvester accepts the counsel of a lewd old lady named Granny Moreland:
If you’re going to bar a woman from being a wife ’til she knows what you mean by love, you’ll stop about nine tenths of the weddings in the world, and t’other tenth will be women that no decent-minded man would jine with.
Granny checks her facts with a doctor:
“I told him you’d tell him that no clean, sweet-minded girl ever had known nor ever would know what love means to a man till he marries her and teaches her. Ain’t it so, Doc?”
“It certainly is.”
(Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach takes a mordant look at the conduct of this pedagogy in mid-century England.)
In A Girl of the Limberlost, there is a scene of voyeurism so vividly rendered that I have retained a picture of it in my mind over the years, assuming that I was recalling one of the book’s art nouveau illustrations by Wladyslaw T. Benda. In fact, no such illustration exists—the image derives from my mind’s eye. What I see is a man in a tree on a dark night looking through a window into a lighted room, where a girl in a nightgown is reading at a table. In Stratton-Porter’s description:
He could see the throb of her breast under its thin covering and smell the fragrance of the tossing hair. He could see the narrow bed with its pieced calico cover, the whitewashed walls with gay lithographs, and every crevice stuck full of twigs with dangling cocoons…. But nothing was worth a glance save the perfect face and form within reach by one spring through the rotten mosquito bar. He gripped the limb above that on which he stood, licked his lips, and breathed through his throat to be sure he was making no sound.
It is a measure of what children pick up without knowing exactly what they are taking in that my uninformed ten-year-old self grasped and was excited by the scene’s obvious sense of sexual threat. Though not spelled out, the implications of “throb of her breast,” “within reach by one spring,” “licked his lips” were not lost on me. Of course, the rape is averted: Elnora starts talking to herself, as Stratton-Porter’s characters are given to doing when she needs them to, and her innocent babble converts the would-be predator into a blubbering sentimental fool, who restores the money he has stolen from Elnora’s hiding place in the Limberlost, and leaves her a note of warning against his fellow lowlifes.
A Girl of the Limberlost is Stratton-Porter’s best book. Alone among the novels, it escapes the wild veerings of her mind into strange, crankish byways. Its single touch of racism—and it is recognizable as racism only in the light of Her Father’s Daughter and The Harvester—is the drastic skin peel the reformed mother gives herself to remove the brown complexion she acquired while working outdoors without a sunbonnet; a white skin is part of her program of looking nice in front of Elnora’s classmates. And Elnora is Stratton-Porter’s best heroine. Her strict morality and goodness are accompanied by a straightforwardness, almost a brusqueness of manner, that sets her off from the saccharine heroines of conventional sentimental fiction. She has a lot to put up with, and she puts up with it with endearing good-enough grace.
Edith Carr, A Girl of the Limberlost ‘s bad girl, is another unusual creation. She is beautiful, rich, and spoiled, but has a dimension of neuroticism that sets her off from her conventional counterparts. There is an atmosphere around her—and her peculiar faithful follower Hart Henderson—that evokes the beautiful damned characters Fitzgerald created twenty years later. Philip Ammon (né Mammon?) is about as wooden as a character can get—but then Prince Charming is no Pierre Bezukhov, either. A Girl of the Limberlost ‘s strong mythic understructure, the Aladdin’s cave glitter it imparts to the modest material rewards of Elnora’s enterprise and hard work, secures it a special place in Stratton-Porter’s oeuvre—and in American popular art.
In 1922, Stratton-Porter wrote a long poem called The Fire Bird, about an Indian maiden who brings divine retribution on herself, in which she believed she had achieved the high art that eluded her in her novels. Her one fear, as she wrote to a friend, was that “it is one of those things so very high class, so for the few understanding ones, that I have the very gravest doubts as to whether I could market it if I wanted to.” The poem did get published, but has long been out of print. It isn’t as bad as you might think; it’s merely boring.
Stratton-Porter gave a party for herself in Los Angeles to celebrate The Fire Bird ‘s publication. She invited 115 people and wore “a new evening dress of orchid chiffon velvet, looking, my friends were kind enough to say, the best they ever had seen me.” (This is from a letter that Jeannette Porter Meehan quotes in The Lady of the Limberlost.) The house was decorated with red and white flowers and large branches on which stuffed cardinals, “insured at one hundred dollars each and loaned me from one of the museums of the city,” were perched. There was music (“‘The Pastoral Symphony’ with the bird notes done on a flute”), an hour-long reading from The Fire Bird, and a buffet supper of roasted turkey and spiced ham and salad and cake and ice cream. “A number of people who were present told me that it was the most unique and the most beautiful party ever given in Los Angeles.” (Freckles had clearly seen nothing when he rhapsodized about the Bird Woman’s party in Indiana.)
Two years later, Stratton-Porter was dead, at sixty; she was killed when a Los Angeles streetcar rammed into her chauffeur-driven limousine, one of two she owned. She had just finished The Keeper of the Bees at her new fourteen-room redwood vacation house on Catalina Island, to which she had retreated with a cook, a driver, two secretaries, and “a little Yaqui Indian” while awaiting the completion of an eleven-thousand-square-foot, twenty-two-room Tudor-style mansion in Bel-Air.
The book was dictated from a hammock slung between two oaks on a hillside and sometimes reads as if the author’s attention were elsewhere. At the start of the novel, its hero, Jamie MacFarlane, flees a veterans’ hospital at a California hot spring, where he has been unsuccessfully treated for his shrapnel wound (and from which he is about to be transferred to the dread Camp Kearney, where everyone is or will become tubercular), and makes his way to the seaside house and garden of a moribund beekeeper, who asks him to look after the bees when he collapses and is hospitalized. MacFarlane learns beekeeping from an annoying child called the Little Scout and gets mixed up with a woman called the Storm Girl, whom he meets on a rock jutting out of the Pacific Ocean during a storm, and obligingly weds the next day to give her unborn child (the Shame Baby) a name.
None of this is believable and much of it is tedious. Only when she is dealing with the minute and sometimes disgusting particulars of MacFarlane’s medical condition does Stratton-Porter fully draw us (and perhaps herself) into her story. As she scrutinizes her hero’s bloody bandages and traces his chronic infection to the germs bred by the “hot, chemically saturated boiling spring water” piped through the veterans’ hospital, she returns to the boiling sea of emotion that is the breeding ground for her inspiration. She invests the story of MacFarlane’s cure by bathing in cold Pacific water and never eating starches and meats in the same meal with a thrilling significance. Putting her characteristic feverish intensity in the service of the medical fads of her day, she once again strikes the note to which her contemporaries vibrated, and to which we ourselves may helplessly, if somewhat more mutedly, respond. Imagine a Jane Brody column written by Charlotte Brontë and you will have a sense of Stratton-Porter’s singular feat.
January 15, 2009