There are two common ways in which a literary canon is titled and presented to the public. One is simply as a list of “best” books. As in, The Guardian’s list of “Top 100 Books of All Time” or Time magazine’s “All-Time 100 Novels.” The other variation is a list of books to read “before you die.” As in the “25 Books to Read Before You Die” according to the staff of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. The first kind of title emphasizes evaluation. The second, a looming deadline.
Since you could hardly be expected to read a book after you die, the second kind of title merely puts a very fine point on the problem that haunts list-makers and readers alike: finitude. Discussions of canons are always crossed, implicitly or explicitly, with time. In Lucy Scholes’s monthly column in The Paris Review, “Re-Covered,” which has become one of my favorites, she recommends little-known books, most of them written by women roughly within the last seventy-five years. I always feel a crimp of anxiety when I read the column subhead, which says that Scholes “exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.” If they shouldn’t be forgotten, why have they been? What went wrong? Have we failed, or has someone failed us?
And—exhumes. The problem of time slips in. The books, at least, might get a second life. But readers still have the same statistical allotment of years in which to fit their reading no matter how many exciting works are rediscovered and reissued. And that’s not even to speak of the brand-new and super-famous old books that are still on one’s to-read list. “If a person read a book a day, he would be neglecting to read four thousand others, published the same day,” writes the Mexican critic Gabriel Zaid in So Many Books. “His ignorance would grow four thousand times faster than his knowledge.”
“Bette Howland’s work was rediscovered near the end of her life when one of her books was found in the one-dollar bin at a used bookstore, about to be pulped,” reads the jacket flap of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a 2019 collection of Howland’s stories.
The person who saved the bargain book from its pulpy fate was Brigid Hughes, the editor of the literary journal A Public Space. She had never heard of Howland, all of whose work was then out of print. She read the bargain-cart book, Howland’s first, called W-3, a memoir of her time in a psychiatric ward originally published in 1974. She then read Howland’s other two books, story collections from the 1970s and 1980s. She ran two stories by Howland in an especially rich 2015 issue of A Public Space dedicated to the subject of women and anonymity. Howland was the only writer in the issue whose work was accompanied by a portfolio of supplementary materials. Along with the stories and an essay of Howland’s on the heroine in American literature, there was also a beautiful piece about Howland’s life written by one of her sons, Jacob Howland, as well as a collection of letters and postcards to Howland from her friend and former lover Saul Bellow.
Yes, she had been friends with Bellow, whom she met at a literary conference early in her career and who encouraged her writing for decades. The surprising thing about the lost writer Bette Howland was just how much institutional support she had during her career. Howland studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (she would have graduated but for a technicality having to do with the formatting of her thesis, according to a posthumous profile in the University of Chicago’s alumni magazine). She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978 and a MacArthur genius award in 1984, after her third book came out. She won grants to attend conferences and retreats at the artists’ colonies MacDowell and Yaddo. Major literary journals ran her stories and major publishers published her three books.
Hughes was taken with Howland’s work and launched a book-publishing arm of A Public Space in order to bring out Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in 2019 and now W-3, the book she first discovered on the bargain cart. She did so amid a surge of interest in reissued titles. Cycles of obscurity and rediscovery may be a regular part of book publishing, but in recent years the number of reissues and—perhaps most significantly—the amount of review coverage they receive have been striking. In addition to the presses that specialize in reissues (NYRB Classics, the Feminist Press), other publishers have also revived out-of-print work (as Farrar, Straus and Giroux did with Lucia Berlin’s stories and New Directions with Fran Ross’s satirical novel Oreo) or brought out previously unpublished work by well-known authors (for example, Amistad’s publication of Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston’s oral history of the life of Cudjo Lewis, and the belated publication of Claude McKay’s novel Romance in Marseille by Penguin Classics).
Reissuers are the retentive corps of publishing: they go sweeping through to make sure that no one who still has a pulse has been left behind on the battlefield. These books, after all, have not only been written but edited and copyedited, reviewed and read and admired and loved—all in the relatively recent past of the last century or so. We’ve invested so much in them already; the spirit of conservation, financial and otherwise, says, Let’s not let them go.
In a recent column dedicated to Howland, Scholes wrote that she is now gaining her “rightful place in the literary canon.” Rightful: arguments for one book over another are formulated in terms of justice. Often questions of canonical justice overlap with social justice: Are books by Black writers or women writers, for example, being overlooked, or tossed on the dustheap too quickly? Is the lineage of great works being drawn from ancient Greece through Europe exclusively?
There are other kinds of bias claims made against the traditional canon as well, including the charge that certain forms of literature get snubbed. In his introduction to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Geoff Dyer argues that if West has been denied her deserved stature—“if she is not regarded as a writer quite of the first rank”—it’s because her best work was not in her novels but in so-called minor forms like journalism and travel writing. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Dyer writes, is “one of the supreme masterpieces of the twentieth century.” Yet “palpably inferior works—novels—sit far more securely on the literary syllabus than an awkward tome whose identifying quality is a refusal to fit.” Though he doesn’t point to the length of West’s book—about 1,200 pages—as a limiting factor, it’s clearly another impediment to getting into the particular kind of canon he mentions, the undergraduate syllabus. A long novel might make the cut, but to write a long genre-bending travelogue is pretty much to court canonical injustice. Not that a writer has much choice as to what form her best work will take.
Bette Howland (née Sotonoff) was born in Chicago in 1937. Her father was a grocer and, after losing his store in the Depression, a machinist in an auto-parts factory. Her mother was a social worker. Both of her parents were the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. She left high school early and enrolled at the University of Chicago, one of those academically precocious teenagers whom the university snapped up in its famous early admissions program for fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds. She graduated at eighteen and at nineteen married Howard Howland, who became a biologist. They had two sons, and were separated by the early 1960s. She lived in a succession of shabby apartments, working as a copy editor and a librarian at a branch of the Chicago Public Library when she wasn’t writing or taking care of the boys. A photograph of Howland in the Public Space issue shows her sunbathing in a swimsuit and sunglasses. Just visible on the blanket behind her, at the very edge of the photo, are a baby’s feet and legs.
She began publishing stories in the late 1950s. She met Bellow in 1961. He was one of her teachers at the writer’s conference, and the two were briefly lovers and then lifelong friends and correspondents. His letters and postcards—from Rome, Oaxaca, Tokyo, Jerusalem—reprinted in A Public Space are brief but warm; they refer to sons and wives and books in progress, and offer reassurance to his “best and best-loved pupil”: “You go on writing. Don’t blame yourself so much,” he writes in 1967. Her side of the correspondence was not published.
In 1968, staying in Bellow’s empty apartment while he was abroad, she tried to commit suicide by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. She was committed to the psych ward of the University of Chicago hospital (her confinement there was apparently involuntary; her son refers to it as an “imprisonment”). This term in the ward became the basis for W-3.
In the opening pages of the book, Howland wakes up in an intensive care unit, her first conscious impression the beeping of a monitor attached to a heart attack patient in the next bed. She had recently lost her day job, and her boys had been living with relatives. She had just moved to a dilapidated apartment where her next-door neighbor shouted profanities at her through the thin wall that separated them. But what led her to swallow a bottleful of pills, she tells us, was not just the accretion of hardship but an intolerable new fear: that these events were not merely setbacks in the progress of her life, they were her life.
Howland is assigned to W-3, the hospital’s psychiatric ward, and it’s here among the patients and staff that most of the book takes place. W-3 was first published just three years after the American debut of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar—a period of intense interest in depression and its treatments, when attitudes toward mental illness were being revised and skepticism of the psychiatric establishment ran high.
Howland’s story is not so much the description of her inner experience as it is a kind of group portrait of the ward, which is part of an esteemed university hospital in a neighborhood hit hard by white flight and urban disinvestment. The combination of institutional prestige and surrounding poverty means the psychiatric ward draws patients of wildly different incomes and backgrounds. Guz was evicted from his apartment near the university at the same time that his wife was leaving him. He slit his wrists, then changed his mind and staggered to the hospital emergency room, holding his arms up to try to limit blood loss. Because his landlord seized all his clothes, Guz spends days on the ward in the same pair of blood-stained socks. Trudy is a manically uninhibited suburban teenager with long-standing mental health issues (“I’ve been in nuthouses before”). Zelma arrives for her second stint at W-3 in elegant evening dress, with seven pieces of matching leather luggage.
These personalities and many others whirl by somewhat quickly, observed by a wry narrator who’s attentive to manner and mood, but doesn’t get to know her fellow patients deeply and dares not take too many liberties imagining their inner lives. Compared, for instance, to Shulamith Firestone’s Airless Spaces (1998), a collection of devastating sketches of mentally ill New Yorkers and their encounters with the psychiatric system, Howland’s group portrait is warm, but makes only glancing emotional contact with the characters described.
Howland is lightly skeptical of the official, enlightened-progressive ethos of the ward, with its insistent sham language of “team” and “community.” But she takes no stand against it. What she ultimately finds is that W-3 works:
In due time most of us would acquire more adequate clothes; we would fatten up on the starchy hospital food, get some sleep on the carefully rationed pills, calm our anxieties or inner violence with drugs, i.e., we would “get better.”
The stability, supervised outings, and familiar routines all play their part, as does the imperfect communal life of the place. Stories are similar, Howland suggests, experience general rather than specific. After months on the ward, she feels “free of my own personality, my particular history,” which she has found to be “not so private, particular, and personal after all.”
But the workings of this process on our narrator remain obscure. Howland is committed to a kind of first-person plural perspective, stressing the we of the ward rather than her personal experience, as if trying to translate the effective therapeutic process into an aesthetic principle. After the first few chapters, she stops reflecting on her pre-institutional life, no longer dipping back into her past to flesh out the story of her recovery. Nor does she tell us much about her ongoing relationships with people in or out of the hospital. It comes as a surprise to learn toward the end of the book that she was one of the few lucky patients who received flowers, letters, and visits from friends.
It’s an even bigger surprise when she says that a patient named Elke was her closest friend on the ward. Howland, that crafty sneak, has thrown us off the trail, made friends in secret while distracting us with the gentle slapstick of group outings to the bowling alley. When and how did this intimacy form? What wouldn’t we give to hear a conversation between them! Or even just to learn more about Elke. If we can’t have the narrator’s inner life, it feels at least that we should get to know someone. There is a kind of self-effacing blankness at the center of the book.
At the core of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage are six stories that had been published together as Blue in Chicago, Howland’s second book, in 1978. Howland is above all an observer of city life. She reports conversations overheard, drops tart observations about a local writer or an émigré or the ladies who like to see and be seen in her neighborhood. But it’s quickly clear that she’s covering a different milieu from the more famous first-person urban wags and sophisticates on the 1970s scene—she’s not Chicago’s answer to Fran Lebowitz or Eve Babitz or Renata Adler. Her flânerie takes place in public institutions and on blighted blocks rapidly being abandoned by everyone with the means to get out.
The émigré she’s gossiping about is Popkin, a possibly senile man in a long Russian military coat and earmuffs who shuffles back and forth among the library stacks all day and evening, motivation unknown. The ladies who like to be seen are shabbily coated old women, including the narrator’s grandmother, who watch the world go by from behind the plate-glass window of the A&P. The writer? An eighty-year-old man who works on his memoirs all day at the branch library, possibly because his heat or electricity has been shut off. Every day he goes to the reference desk where our narrator works as a librarian and asks her to read back to him the latest pages of the story of his life. (“It was the story of his opinions, actually; he was against coeducation and in favor of the Kerensky government.”) Howland’s jokes are forms of generosity: no one is too old or down-and-out to have his vanities noted, punctured.
Her many first-person narrators seem like one woman viewed from different angles at somewhat different stages of her life: here she’s an apprentice writer with an extended working-class Jewish family scattered around the city; here a worker of part-time day jobs; here a mother of two children; here a graduate student in Hyde Park, waking up to reports of local murders, getting quizzed by relatives about why she continues to live on the South Side instead of moving to the suburbs or at least the North Side, like them. Her apartment, in one story, is a small studio on an upper floor of a high-rise; one of her friends compares it to living at the top of a flagpole. “Lately one visitor after another has expressed a wish for an apartment just like mine: ‘It’s perfect,’ they say. From which I infer that they all want to climb up the flagpole; remove themselves.”
Perhaps because she’s a child of Chicago rather than New York or Los Angeles, Howland’s narrator seems eminently sensible. There is wit and fellow-feeling in her depictions of poverty, but not a hint of romance. The sight of crumbling infrastructure or scurrying rats doesn’t make her reverberate with Yeatsian dread. If she hears about a mugging or the opening of a porn theater, she doesn’t treat these as signs of a larger cultural apocalypse, or as the symbolic expression of her soul’s turmoil. Howland’s observations would be consistent with the accounts of public policy and sociological texts: she describes the concentration of poverty and violent crime in poor neighborhoods. The fact that she doesn’t sing of these phenomena makes hers an appealingly modest voice.
“Roughly speaking, there are only two kinds of people in a criminal courtroom,” the narrator of “Twenty-Sixth and California” tells us. The story is set entirely in the Cook County Criminal Courts building, where she is watching the progress of three different trials.
Innocent, guilty have nothing to do with it. Plaintiffs and defendants are not on different sides; they are not opposing forces. They belong to the same category, are drawn from the same human mass. Almost everyone on the benches is black.
Almost everyone on the benches also seems to be poor. “In the other category—on the other side of the great divide—are the officials. The professional, administrative class. White men in business suits with important documents under their arms.”
At about this point, a question comes up. What is the narrator doing there? She does not seem to belong to either of the two sides. Why has she spent hours and possibly days watching routine criminal court proceedings to which she has no apparent connection? “I remember all at once that I have been a child napping on these benches myself,” she tells us. Under what circumstances? we wonder. “I went to school” with the judge, she tells us later. If she was once a bored child dragged to the courtroom, she grew up to belong, to some degree, to the world of the white administrators. What do these two bare facts—the only ones about our narrator that we get—have to do with anything? Who is she?
Howland’s narrators watch and listen but rarely speak to the people they write about. They seem to feel separated from their neighbors by education or age or race, and apparently don’t hang out with them. They give no sign of being part of any literary or artistic community, either in geography or in spirit. Friends? Lovers? Dates? Parties? Bars and midnight diners? Museums and movies? Evenings with her children? Evenings alone with Tolstoy and a plate of spaghetti? They don’t tell us about their social lives, but nor do they make a subject of their loneliness.
If there were a deeper answer to the question of who the Howland narrator is, it would surely be found in her other main subject, her extended family. “Bette wrote tenderly, beautifully about her parents,” her son writes in his essay, “yet she did not speak to Sam for many years before his death, and barely spoke to Jessie; her writing was the vehicle of her love.”
Tender and beautiful seems to me exactly right. Here is Howland’s narrator in “Golden Age” catching sight of her father across a synagogue dining room where her mother administers lunches to seniors and where her extended family has gathered before they head together to a funeral: “An arm shot up in the back of the room, waving a paper napkin…. So he’s talking to me today. A great mauled-looking man in a dark-blue suit.” She goes on:
His skullcap sat on the back of his thick dusty hair like a lid; his shirt collar and tie looked to be choking him, and his eyes were a startling, smarting, blinking blue—like the eyes of a coal miner emerging from the pits.
My father always looks startled—you would too, if you’d been born in the wrong century—but today he looked stricken. There was a glare behind his glasses. The death was in his family—a beautiful child.
But note that Howland has steered us away from a nagging question: Why wouldn’t the narrator’s father be speaking to her? The story goes on for another thirteen pages, in which the narrator presents more family members, considers the different ways they manifest their advancing years and the difficulties they face finding their way to a dignified old age. But whatever tension might have been created by the withholding of crucial information—what’s going on between father and daughter?—dissipates as we realize that Howland is simply never going to supply it. Tenderness keeps us off the trail of feelings that may be wild and painful, to which Howland drops only a small clue—“so he’s talking to me today”—with guarded bravado.
In the story “Power Failure,” the narrator is snowed in at a rented cottage in New England where she has come to write. Looking for scraps of paper for the fireplace, she finds a letter from her mother that she has been avoiding, expecting the usual formula of maternal sentiment—“A little reproach, a little punishment, a little guilt.” Her mother has disapproved of her erratic life, rejected her years ago when the daughter was raising two small children on her own. Now the mother has retired, moved to Florida, mellowed. She tries harder to understand. But the daughter is still stung. None of it can be undone.
Searing phrases of her mother’s from back in the day flash through her mind: “WASH MY HANDS. YOU MADE YOUR BED NOW LIE AS FAR AS I’M CONCERNED NO DAUGHTER OF MINE.” It’s as if the pain is still so strong that she can only stand to remember fragments of sentences. But you can’t recall things that your mother said to you without also recalling the situation in which she said them. Were the words spoken? In person? Over the phone? Written in a letter? These fragments want to be part of a scene. If the narrator can hardly bear to remember the material, it also feels like the author can hardly bear to write it.
Howland’s writing is full of self-limiting contradictions. She is strongly drawn to using the autobiographical “I” but severely restricts what the narrator can tell us of her circumstances. She makes subjects of her family but is loath to draw blood. She writes about her neighbors, but only from a distance. Those parameters have the effect of boxing in her “I,” which hums with wit and sensitivity but can’t put these qualities to full use. The impression on the reader is one of constraint—No Entry signs everywhere. The only path Howland leaves herself is the use of accretion—more courtroom scenes, more family sketches, more snapshots of group therapy on the psych ward—to create a sense of depth and narrative progression. She offers time with her narrator in place of intimacy, and she gets decently far with this, but not far enough.
If Howland had gone on to publish more work, her breakthrough would presumably have involved finding a way to set her narrator free, giving her greater latitude to speak of her own experience. Or, on the contrary, she might have found a way around the imperative to confess. She might have revealed herself indirectly through the stories of other characters, like the narrators in V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, or W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, or Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy—narrators who give that impression of acute loneliness we also find in Howland’s writing. Her narrator might have playfully thwarted the reader’s expectations of disclosure, becoming even further abstracted, like the “I” of Lydia Davis’s early stories. Or she might have turned into an arch critic-commentator like Lynne Tillman’s Madame Realism, or a collage-artist like David Markson’s “the Writer” in his Notecard Quartet. The 1980s and the decades that followed have been rich in experiments with the autobiographical “I,” and it’s not hard to imagine Howland taking part in that ferment. Then again, it’s not hard to imagine her simply finding her way to a more candid first-person narrator, resemblance to persons living or dead be damned.
But this is not what happened. Howland kept writing until the end of her life, according to her son, but she published very little after winning the MacArthur award; “I suspect she felt anything she published afterward had to justify the judges’ esteem,” he writes.
Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage includes a novella of the same name, which Howland wrote in the 1990s. It’s an elegy for a man, Victor Lazarus, a dashing late-middle-aged intellectual and reckless drinker, a close friend and former lover of the narrator until his recent death. (Howland’s son tells us that it’s based on her relationship with a former college professor of his.) Moving from his funeral to the last few days of his life when he was in and out of the hospital, roaming through their shared past, the narrator speaks to him, lovingly harangues him, catches him up on what he’s missed in the days since he died. It’s Howland’s most well-formed and textured work. In a few quiet moments of straightforward emotion, it also becomes her most intimate: “Tell me, Victor, where should I go? Where do I belong? I’m not your student, not a colleague, not family; no longer a lover. I don’t want to be alone, not just yet; and the only one I want to talk to is you.”
But for much of the story the narrator is still hiding, this time behind a hard-bitten rhetoric of lamentation pitched to the heavens, which, more than any of Howland’s earlier writing, sounds dated:
Okay, let’s leave love out of it. I want you to know that it wasn’t easy. Ironic detachment isn’t for everyone, I’m no philosopher. The unexamined life was all right with me. A nice normal life. Is it my fault there’s no such thing? I was willing to do what people do: imitate. For you that could never be an option.
Howland was frugal and made the MacArthur money last until the end of her life. In 2013, when Hughes found her work, she was living in Tulsa and had dementia. Her son reports that she was “mildly pleased” at having been rediscovered. She died in 2017.
The reissues of Howland’s work have been praised by critics. That her writing is in any way inadequate is not the prevailing view. “A remarkable literary voice rediscovered,” goes a typical rave, this one from Kirkus Reviews on the publication of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. But to me it seems that Howland was searching throughout her career for the right form or approach to accommodate her stories, without ultimately finding it.
Revisit her portfolio in A Public Space after reading Howland’s work, and something about the elaborate apparatus now seems defensive. The pathos of the discount shelf, the menace of the pulping machine. The testimony of a son. Bellow’s fond postcards. And about that—in a special issue dedicated to the subject of women and anonymity, the inclusion of twenty pages of letters from Howland’s heavily laureled male friend seems a bit thorny. Is his approval of her work offered as a testament to its quality? (Why should we need his endorsement? And if we value his endorsement, how could we fail to notice that his brief, mild praise in these missives doesn’t constitute an especially strong one?) Are we meant to be impressed by her having such an eminent friend? (She herself didn’t write about him in her fiction and seems to have scrupulously avoided writing about cool or prominent connections.)
Are we to boggle at the idea that any friend of Bellow’s might have ended up on the bargain cart? (But should we expect his friendship to guarantee anyone else success? Would that be good?) Are we invited to make a direct comparison between his fame and her anonymity and judge that Howland has been slighted because she was a woman? (I think this claim would be hard to support, sexism in literary evaluation, and in the shaping of a life, notwithstanding.) And what bearing does it have, really, that Howland won the Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships? These are merely bets placed on a writer’s future. It’s by the finished work that we judge a writer when her career has come to an end.
But this matter of judging a rediscovered writer is nerve-racking. After a book is snatched from the jaws of the pulper, who would be so pitiless as to suggest it should go back? With every rediscovered writer comes not only a body of work but the story of a life. Those who slip from public view are often the unprolific authors of only one or two or three books over a lifetime. Others write more but only one or two of their books stand out today. In a column on the British novelist Kay Dick, Scholes describes reading all seven of Dick’s novels. The first four “were elegant but not especially memorable.” The fifth “proved more absorbing, especially in its psychological astuteness.” But with the sixth—“almost out of nowhere, I found myself completely bowled over.” Imagine, four pretty good books, a fifth one that’s even stronger, and then a breakthrough at number six. The psychological and financial resources required to get to number six are considerable (Dick worked as a book editor and journalist while writing novels). It’s not surprising that many don’t get there.
Howland’s case is a difficult one that pits a critic’s responsibility to the reader against her responsibility to the writer and to the project of rediscovery itself, which has brought so much great work to our attention. In Howland’s case, I submit, the desire to help readers has become entangled with the desire to help a writer: to keep her work from becoming lost, to save the writer herself—if we go further, beyond reason—from the nearly silent and presumably frustrating second half of her career. But overpraising a writer is not purely benign. The reader still faces her hard deadline.
You’ll say it’s not a matter of overpraise, it’s just that other people have a higher opinion of Howland’s work than I do. To which there can be no answer beyond the obvious one that I am right and everyone else is cuckoo. Or, in any case, I can only say that to me the defining thing about her work is the gap between the companionable intelligence of the narrators and the unsatisfying realization of the fiction. Though this makes Howland an interesting and enormously sympathetic figure, it doesn’t make me want to recommend her books to someone asking for advice about what to read next. That person asking for book recs is alive! Not for long. Her time should weigh on us.