This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
In the Review’s February 9, 2023, issue, Francesca Wade reviews a new biography of the enigmatic modernist Mina Loy, a poet and artist whose work has been “periodically ‘rediscovered’ while remaining elusive.” Her life was peripatetic and haunted: she had affairs with Italian Futurists, married the boxer-poet Arthur Cravan (who disappeared mysteriously and without warning), and seemed to write new identities for herself with the same riotous energy she brought to her poetry. For a biographer, she is a subject as seductively mysterious as she is difficult to pin down.
Wade, a writer and editor—she is the author of the group history Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars and of a forthcoming Gertrude Stein biography—has an approach that begins with a historian’s delight in the archive. We e-mailed this week about how she finds her way into her subjects, the anachronism of “feminism,” and aha moments in beer halls.
Lauren Kane: You’re currently at work on a book about Gertrude Stein, and your first book was a group biography of five female writers in England toward the beginning of the century. What draws you to writing a biography? What challenges does a critic face when reviewing one?
Francesca Wade: Every biography is a work of artifice—it creates a narrative out of life, which is messy, unpredictable, contradictory, and mostly private. I’m interested in biographies that not only acknowledge but engage with that tension, that probe archival gaps rather than seek to cover them over, and that make clear that theirs is only one version of events. I think a biography can be as creative and surprising as the life it tells.
I’m particularly drawn to subjects who engaged in their own mythmaking, whether by turning their lives into subject matter for their art or attempting to steer the course of their posthumous reception. My current project is a biography of Gertrude Stein, but it’s also a commentary on biography, an attempt to show its workings. I’m exploring how (and why), as an autobiographer, Stein made her life into legend, and how after her death those in charge of managing her estate continued—or subverted—her efforts to control her reputation.
Most reviews of biographies assess the life rather than the book. So often, the fruits of years of tireless sleuthing are described as if they’re common knowledge, and biographers (rather like translators) get praised for being as unobtrusive as possible—as if every sentence, every interpretation, wasn’t a choice they made! I’m researching some of Stein’s first biographers at the moment, a cast of highly eccentric characters who only confirm my sense that the biographer tends to put far more of themselves into their work than critics or readers—or indeed biographers—would like to believe.
When you’re starting out on research, where do you begin?
I try to begin with the subjects’ own words, to see how they went about making narratives of their lives in autobiographies, diaries, letters, or fiction. My first book began with a hunch. I noticed that Mecklenburgh Square in London’s Bloomsbury had been home to several fascinating (and very different) women writers in the years between the World Wars, and I wondered whether there could be a way to tell their stories through this place where each of them had searched for that elusive room of one’s own. I started at the archives: the local history library in Bloomsbury showed me how the economic and architectural development of the area had created the conditions that enabled these women to move there, while each subject’s papers offered insight into what had drawn them personally to the square.
I became so fascinated by the way archives operate that they’re now central to the story of my current project, as well as to its research. Stein worked closely with the librarians at Yale to ensure her papers would be stored there for posterity. Thanks to her commitment to the archive as a vehicle for her legacy, the Stein and Toklas papers are one of the most comprehensive literary collections at the Beinecke. Mina Loy’s papers are held there too, and, remarkably, they have been digitized in their entirety, so it’s possible (for those with forbearance for spidery handwriting) to scroll from home through her draft poems, drawings, invention blueprints, and cycle of unpublished autobiographies.
How do you cope with writer’s block?
With great anguish! I’m at a stage in this Stein project where the material and scope regularly feel overwhelming. But I do think if something isn’t working, it often falls into place when you let your mind wander to something different. The other week I made a crucial realization about the structure of my book in the beer hall opposite Film Forum after sacking off work to watch Eo.
Helen Vendler reviewed Caroline Burke’s biography of Loy for us in 1996, and in her essay she writes that Loy worked “not as a self-sustaining feminist but as a person financially dependent on successive men.” Would it be fair to call Mina Loy a feminist writer?
It’s always tempting to “claim” historical figures, and disappointing when they don’t hold up to our ideals or our projections of them. Though I’m not sure Loy’s feminism needs to be tied to her income, nor that she was always dependent on men (in her poetry, she lambasted several of the Futurists for their bad treatment of her, and she ran a pretty enterprising lampshade business in Paris, admittedly supported by Peggy Guggenheim). Labels carry such different associations in different times and places that any retrospective application has to adjust for radically different cultural assumptions and the shorthand often starts to feel redundant. But Loy certainly engaged strongly, if haphazardly, with feminist thought in her time, and it’s clear how much interest her work and life hold for feminists of later generations, too.
Loy had a preoccupation, let’s call it, with genius. Where do you think recognition fit into that? Was public acknowledgment of her work a confirmation of genius?
Much of Loy’s most generative thinking about genius was concerned with how it operated in society: fury at the censorship of Ulysses combined with grief for her poet husband Arthur Cravan helped her articulate her desire for a form of governance under which genius, in the broadest terms, was able to flourish. Both Loy and Stein had complex relationships with the idea of an audience. Loy experienced a burst of notoriety in her youth, went through a long period of not writing or publishing at all, then saw a renaissance in her old age, of which she was somewhat skeptical. Stein, meanwhile, craved renown for her work and acknowledgment of its radical breakthroughs, but when she finally had a best seller—The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, ironically written in someone else’s voice—she found herself unable to write. Her very private process was suddenly confronted by the intrusion of expectations. Plus, to her frustration, readers tended to contrast the autobiography’s charming and accessible style favorably with the avant-garde poetry for which she wanted to be known. I think both Loy and Stein had to find inner resources to stay convinced that their work was worthwhile. They both knew recognition came with pitfalls. Loy’s inclination toward anonymity (“incognito” was one of her favorite words) speaks to her ambivalence.
Where would you recommend someone start if they wanted to get into Mina Loy’s work?
The Lost Lunar Baedeker, edited by Roger Conover, is a great compilation of her poetry with a detailed introduction. And I’m really looking forward to the exhibition of her artwork that will open at Bowdoin College in April. Loy made art throughout her life, from her early Pre-Raphaelite-inspired paintings to her fantastical lampshades to her eerie late collage constructions. There’s a fascinating article online by Carolyn Burke, aptly titled “Biography as Restoration,” that tells the story of how, in the course of researching Loy’s life, she tracked down one of Loy’s assemblages, which was crumbling in a (recently ransacked) Venice warehouse, shipped it back to the US, and had it restored. It’s a perfect example of the kind of side quest biographers get sucked into—and a very fitting way to conserve Loy’s legacy in its fullest form.