Badger, Mole, and Marianne Moore

Morton D. Zabel/Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia
Marianne Moore (right) and her mother, Mary Warner Moore, at home in Brooklyn, 1932

Any scholar visiting the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia quails before the huge Marianne Moore archive—poems, drafts, letters, reading notebooks, conversation notebooks, poetry notebooks, postcards, clippings, and little objects (not to speak of her grandfather’s large furniture). The museum says on its website:

The Rosenbach has a long and important relationship with the modernist poet Marianne Moore (1887–1972). In the late 1960s, the museum purchased from Moore virtually all of her manuscripts and correspondence. When she bequeathed her personal belongings to the Rosenbach, the living room of her Greenwich Village apartment was recreated in the museum as a permanent installation.

In spite of the intimidating quantity of the collection (including more than 30,000 letters), writers on Moore have courageously undertaken to construct the outlines of her life and work, with varying degrees of attention to the life and the poetry. It is simply not possible to compile an exhaustive account of either, let alone of both. Linda Leavell, a professor emerita at Oklahoma State University, has chosen, in her new and revelatory biography, to focus mainly on Moore’s family life, in part because she has gained access to new sources. This is the first biography authorized by Moore’s nieces, who allowed Leavell to read a hitherto unseen “cache of letters about Moore’s father.” (Leavell’s more specialized earlier book on Moore and the visual arts focused on Moore’s literary and artistic networks in New York.)

Charles Molesworth’s critical biography, Marianne Moore: A Literary Life (1990), is more comprehensive on both the literary life and the poetry than Leavell’s new volume, but it is less personal and anecdotal in its emphasis. Leavell’s remarks on the poems are—as Moore might say with her characteristic double negative—“not unhelpful”: they point out the main theme of a poem, trace it to a person it may be describing, or mention the event that occasioned the poem in question, but they do not equal the longer accounts of the poems in Molesworth, or the penetrating analyses in the most convincing book yet to appear on Moore’s poetry, Bonnie Costello’s Imaginary Possessions (1981). One must take Leavell’s offering as yet another tile in the Moore mosaic, valuable for its rendering in detail both the extreme pathos and the dreadful pathology of two generations of the Moore household.

Moore’s father, John Moore, son of the owner of a foundry, left engineering school after one year, married, and within a few years went insane. His wife, Mary Warner Moore, after bearing him a son (John Warner, called “Warner” in the family) and after enduring her husband’s deep depression and unemployment, left him, returning, pregnant with her second child, to her father’s Presbyterian manse. Marianne was born in the manse; there were no further children. Though John’s brother Enos housed…

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