The house by the river belonged to an old man whose relationship to George Meshaw was complicated but easily covered by “cousin.” He had lived there alone, with a painting that was probably a Bonnard. Now he was in a nursing home, following a stroke, and George’s mother had taken charge of the painting. It was her idea that George should live in the house until it was clear whether or not their cousin was coming home. She had flown up to Sydney for the day, and George met her for a late lunch. George’s mother wore a dark Melbourne dress and asked the waiter for “really cold water,” between remarking on the humidity and the jacarandas—you would never guess that she had lived in Sydney for the first thirty-one years of her life. She bent her head over her handbag, and George found himself looking at a scene from childhood. His mother was on the phone, with the orange wall in the living room behind her. As he watched her, she bent forward from the waist, still holding the receiver. Her hair stood out around her head: George saw a dark-centered golden flower. He couldn’t have been more than six but he understood that his mother was trying to block out the noise around her—he folded like that, too, protecting a book or a toy when “Dinner!” was called—and that this was difficult because the room was full of the loud jazz his father liked to play.
Over the years, George’s mother’s hair had been various colors and lengths, and now it was a soft yellow sunburst again, still with that central dark star. She produced a supermarket receipt from her bag and read from the back of it: “Hair Apparent. Do or Dye.”
“The Head Gardener,” replied George. “Moody Hair.”
They were in the habit of noting down the names of hairdressing salons for each other. His mother said, “Also, I saw this in an airport shop: ‘Stainless steel is immune to rust, discoloration, and corrosion. This makes it ideal for men’s jewelry.’”
George and his mother had the same high laugh—hee hee hee—and otherwise didn’t resemble each other at all. The Bonnard was beside her, done up in cardboard and propped on a chair. When George asked what it was like, his mother said, “A naked woman and wallpaper. He needed an excuse to paint light.”
The house by the river was spacious and built of bricks covered in white render. It was late spring when George moved in, but the rooms on the ground floor were cold and dark. There were mortuary-white tiles on the floor, and the lights were fluorescent tubes that looked as if they would be fatal to insects. They had to be switched on even in the middle of the day. George remembered that his mother had described the house as “Mediterranean.” Ridiculous secondhand visions—a turreted pink villa with terraced gardens, a bowl of red fish at a window—had opened at once in his mind.
He had been back in Sydney for four years and still swam gratefully in its impersonal ease. In Melbourne, where George had lived since he was six, he had wanted to write about modernism in Australian fiction for his Ph.D. After some difficulty, a professor who would admit to having once read an Australian novel was found. At their first meeting, she handed George a reading list made up of French and German philosophers. When George settled down to read these texts, he discovered something astonishing: the meaning of each word was clear and the meaning of sentences baffled. Insignificant yet crucial words such as “however” and “which”—words whose meaning was surely beyond dispute—had been deployed in ways that made no sense. It was as unnerving as if George had seen a sunset in his east-facing window, and for a while it was as mesmeric as any disturbance to the order of things. When despair threatened, he transferred his scholarship to a university in Sydney. There, George read novels and books about novels and was wildly happy. He taught a couple of tutorials to supplement his scholarship. Recently, with his thesis more or less out of the way, he had begun to write a novel at night.
A loggia with archways ran along the upper floor on the river side of the house. That was where George ate his meals and sometimes came to sit very early, as the park detached itself from the night. Koels called, and currawongs—the birds who had whistled over his childhood. Fifteen minutes by train from the center of the city, he lived among trees, birdsong, Greeks. The Greeks, arriving forty years earlier, had seen paradise: cheap real estate, sunlight for their stunted children. Fresh from civil war and starvation, they were too ignorant to grasp what every Australian knew: this was the wrong side of Sydney. Where was the beach?
“George and his mother had the same high laugh—hee hee hee—and otherwise didn’t resemble each other at all.”
There were mornings when George left the house at sunrise, crossed the river, and turned in to a road that ran beside the quarried-out side of a hill. The sandstone was sheer and largely obscured by greenery: giant gum trees fanned against the rock, and native figs, vines, scrub. Brick bungalows cowered at the base of the cliff and skulked on the ridge above—it seemed an affront for which they would all be punished. In the moist, gray summer dawns, George felt that he was walking into a book he had read long ago. The grainy light was a presage. Something was coming—rain, for certain, and a catastrophe.
Opposite the quarry, on the river side of the street, driveways ran down to secretive yards. They belonged to houses that faced the river, with lawns sloping to the water. A sign warned that the path here was known to flood. But bulky sandstone foundations and verandas strewn with wicker furniture soothed—these houses were merely domestic, nothing like the foreboding on which they turned their backs.
After Pippa moved in, George often came home from his walk to the smell of coffee. They would drink it and eat Vegemite toast on the loggia, and then George would go to bed. Pippa, too, kept irregular hours. Saving to go overseas, she was juggling waitressing with part-time work in a sports store, and George could never be sure of finding her at home. That was fine; the idea was that they would live independently—at least so it had been settled in George’s mind. In her second year at university, Pippa had been in his tutorial “The Fictive Self”: a Pass student whose effortful work George had pitied enough to bump up to a Credit at the last moment. Not long ago, he had run into her near the Reserve Desk at the library. Her hair lay in flat, uneven pieces as if something had been chewing it. As the year drew to a close, a lot of students looked like that: stripey and savage. She had only one essay left to write, “in my whole life, ever,” said Pippa. A peculiar thing happened: she held out a piece of paper, and George feared he would see a note that began, Help! I am being held prisoner . . .
It was an invitation to a party. Pippa shared a house in Coogee with a tall, ravishing girl called Katrina. When George arrived, Katrina was standing by the drinks table on the side veranda, talking about her cervix. He placed his six-pack in a plastic tub of ice, and Pippa told him a few people’s names. George had left Marrickville on a warm day, but by the time he crossed the city, a southerly had got up. Every door and window in Pippa’s house stood open. The dim corridor and all the rooms were full of cold air. In his T-shirt and loose cotton trousers, George moved from one group of people he didn’t know to another, trying to get out of the draft. The girls didn’t seem to notice it. They were Sydney girls, with short skirts and long, bare arms. Recently, George had gone to an opening at a gallery in the company of a visiting lecturer from Berlin. The artist was fashionable, and the gallery’s three rooms were packed. Over dinner, the German woman expressed mild astonishment at the number of sex workers who had attended the opening. “Is this typical in Australia?” she asked. George had to explain that she had misunderstood the significance of shouty makeup, tiny, shiny dresses, and jewels so large they looked fake. Eastern suburbs caste marks, they identified the arty, bookish daughters of property developers and CEOs. George was still adjusting to them himself, after Melbourne, where the brainy girls wore stiff, dark clothes like the inmates of nineteenth-century institutions, with here and there an exhibitionist in gray. Pippa had stick limbs, that chewed fringe, a sharp little face. She would have made an excellent orphan: black sacking was all that was needed, and heavy, laced shoes. But she came out of the house in scarlet stilettos and leopard-print satin, and found George on the back patio. He had taken refuge there, in the lee of the kitchen door.
Ashamed to mention cold to this waif, George conjured a headache. Pippa offered Tiger Balm and the use of her room. The windows there were open: Katrina could be heard describing a minor surgical procedure on her ovaries. But when George shut the door and lay down, he was out of the wind at last. A long painting, purple and blue swirls, hung on the wall facing Pippa’s bed—George closed his eyes at once. Long ago, his mother had been a painter. A few survivors from that era—severe, geometric abstractions—could be seen in her flat in Melbourne, but for a long time now her involvement with art had been confined to the upmarket school where she taught.
George fell asleep. When he woke, Pippa was there on the end of the bed, unbuckling her sandals. She flexed her toes, then sat sideways and swung her feet up. They were small, chunky feet, George noticed, and her toenails were painted blue. Katrina passed down the corridor, saying something about her menstrual cycle. George wondered what she was majoring in. Gender Studies? Performance Art? Obstetrics?
“Communications,” said Pippa. She was drinking bubbly; it was the late 1990s, so people still called it champagne. The soft white plastic cup dimpled under her fingers, and Pippa remarked that she was stuck. The house would shortly be reclaimed by Katrina’s aunt, who was returning from Singapore. Another house had been found for the girls—Katrina’s family had several at their disposal—but it wasn’t available before the beginning of March. Katrina was moving home for the summer, but there were reasons why that wasn’t an option for Pippa. George told a lie about the purple painting and learned that it was the work of Pippa’s boyfriend, Vince. “He’s back at his folks’ place in Mudgee, to save money so we can go traveling next year.” She spoke of “Asia,” of “Europe,” collapsing civilizations in the sweeping Australian way.
“The fascinating thing about Mr. Shackleton’s report,” the New York Evening Globe commented one day after its publication on March 24, 1909, “is the story of the struggle rather than the results of the struggle. All of us feel loftier in our inner stature as we read how men like ourselves pushed on until the last biscuit was gone.” At the dawn of the 20th century, after the rise of industrialized technologies that promised to make all results possible and before the Great War that made even the most self-sacrificing human struggle seem meaningless while, at the same time, tarnishing technology’s gleam, the Globe’s comment captured the essence of heroism as extraordinary efforts by ordinary people.
Ernest Shackleton had an advance contract with a leading newspaper for an exclusive first report on his expedition—income from the contract helped to finance his efforts. For newspapers—then at the height of the publishing wars that marked the era in journalism—disasters, battles, and harrowing expeditions sold best. Publishers paid top dollar for exclusive accounts. On March 22, the Nimrod stopped for a day at Steward Island, just south of New Zealand, where a special telegraph operator waited to dispatch Shackleton’s report to London’s Daily Mail.
A master storyteller and a family man with a gift for attracting women and befriending men, Shackleton knew what the public wanted and, in his report for the Daily Mail, dished it out in due measure. Newly discovered mountains and the world’s largest glacier; waist-deep snow with crevasses that swallowed ponies and left men hanging by their harnesses; man-hauling 500-pound sledges over blue ice; and struggle, always struggle, filled this first narrative. “For sixty hours,” he wrote at one point, “the blizzard raged, with 72 degrees of frost and the wind blowing at seventy miles per hour. It was impossible to move. The members of the party were frequently frostbitten in their sleeping-bags.” The race to survive ran through the account, underscored by the repeated refrain “food had again run out.” These were Shackleton’s own words. The ghostwriter who helped transform his sledging diary and this first narrative into a bestselling book, In the Heart of the Antarctic, would not join him until New Zealand.
To capitalize on its investment, the Daily Mail solicited dozens of celebrity endorsements for Shackleton’s feat, which it published along with the queen’s “very hearty congratulations,” though her telegram mistakenly credited Shackleton with hoisting her flag at the magnetic pole. Mountaineer Martin Conway hailed the ascent of Mount Erebus as “a great achievement,” while Albert Markham of former farthest-north fame called the polar trek “a wonderful performance.” Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen, and Robert Scott added their tributes, though for personal reasons each was pleased that Shackleton had fallen short of the pole. By the time his first report had circled the globe, Shackleton had stepped out of Scott’s shadow and into the limelight of worldwide fame.
“For newspapers—then at the height of the publishing wars that marked the era in journalism—disasters, battles, and harrowing expeditions sold best.“
After the humiliation of the Boer War and with the rising German challenge to its military superiority, the British Empire needed heroes, and Shackleton seamlessly fit the bill. First in New Zealand, then in Australia, and finally in England, he was cheered by the masses and feted by the elites in the upstairs-downstairs Edwardian swirl. “I am representing 400 million British subjects,” Shackleton said before his departure, and upon his return, they all seemed to adopt him.
It was the struggle more than the results that won plaudits. “An amount of pluck and determination has been displayed by Lieut. Shackleton and his companions which has never been surpassed in the history of Polar enterprise,” the Royal Geographical Society proclaimed. The Standard spoke of his “intrepid heroism,” the Morning Post of his “extraordinary endurance.” “The benefit,” the Spectator said of Shackleton’s expedition, “is to be seen in the proof it gives that we are not worse than our forefathers; that the blood of the Franklins, the Parrys, and the Rosses still flows in a later generation; and that men of the various ranks and various callings are still found ready to encounter great risks and endure prolonged privation and suffering for no gain to themselves beyond the joy of mastering difficulties.” A knighthood followed. It scarcely mattered that Shackleton had failed to reach the pole. “His adventures,” the Nation observed, “appear to have been brilliant, if not extremely valuable.”
Shackleton wanted to go back as soon as possible to finish the job. He discussed it with Frank Wild during the grueling return march and received Wild’s commitment to return. The fame, money, lectures, and elite social invitations only made him want to go more. “The world was pleased with our work, and it seemed as if nothing but happiness could enter life again,” Shackleton wrote with some candor, but he recognized the fleeting nature of celebrity and knew that it needed feeding by new fame.
Seeking new feats in the Antarctic before interest waned, Shackleton planned the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition for 1914–16. The ambitious plan involved sending a support party to the old British huts on Ross Island to lay resupply depots as far as the Beardmore Glacier while he took the main party to the Weddell Sea, from which he would march across the continent to the Ross Sea. The Ross Island party was stranded at Scott’s old huts when its ship drifted out to sea in a gale, however, and Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, was icebound and crushed before reaching the Weddell Sea coast.
These setbacks provided the path to lasting glory for Shackleton, whose leadership skills always rose in crisis situations. With an air of confidence that masked his own fears, Shackleton led his men on a storied five-month journey across drifting sea ice and by lifeboats to Elephant Island. From there, Shackleton and five others sailed 800 miles across the notoriously turbulent Southern Ocean by open boat to a whaling station on South Georgia Island. The leadership displayed by Shackleton during this epic trek and open-boat voyage was much like that shown by him on the Nimrod Expedition’s southern journey, writ large for everyone to see. Yet there was more. On the fourth attempt, in the teeth of midwinter storms, he rescued all his men on Elephant Island and turned his attention to the Ross Sea sector, where three had already died. But after joining the imperial effort to rescue the survivors, Shackleton returned to an England consumed with the bloodiest war of its history. Amid the Great War, no one much cared about polar heroics. Lasting fame for the Endurance Expedition came too late for Shackleton to enjoy. Following World War I, he tried one last time for Antarctic glory with an expedition in 1921–22, but died at the age of 47 from a heart attack on South Georgia Island. Rather than bring his body back to England for a hero’s funeral, Shackleton’s wife, Emily, asked that it be buried on South Georgia near his beloved Antarctic. The tombstone bears Shackleton’s favorite words, drawn from the poet Robert Browning, that a man should strive “to the uttermost for his life’s set prize.”
Yesterday afternoon, as I walked along Forty-second Street directly across from Bryant Park, I saw a three-cornered shadow on the pavement in the angle where two walls meet. I didn’t step on the shadow, but I stood a minute in the thin winter sunlight and looked at it. I recognized it at once. It was exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, more than fifty-five years ago.
Here is Maeve Brennan hanging on, recording a solitary encounter in her last published piece in The New Yorker. On the sidewalk of the city where she had come to live in her twenties and spent the rest of her life, she recognizes, that sunny winter’s day in 1981, the stamp of the house in Dublin where she had passed her childhood. Maeve Brennan and her work had already been lost to public view when she died in 1993. Never eager to establish a home, moving from one rented room to another, staying in friends’ places while they were away, she disappeared by degrees, at last joining the ranks of the homeless. But four years after her death, with the publication of The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, her work appeared in a new edition. For the first time the Irish stories could be read in a sequence that made strikingly clear the remarkable depth and originality of her art.
An exile whose imagination never abandoned its native ground, Maeve Brennan was in perpetual transit. Her emigration was not chosen, although in time it became so. She would not have left Ireland at the age of 17 if she’d been given the choice, and yet in her adult years she didn’t choose to return. A displaced person, always on provisional ground. When writing about New York City she described herself as a “traveler in residence.” She was staying for a while, poised to depart. And in that displacement she may be a figure for the Irish American a little disoriented as to notions of home, or for any immigrant who finds herself elsewhere without having chosen to leave where she came from. In time, Maeve Brennan’s status as traveler had become a habit, a preference, an identity. But at one time there had been a home, a fixed address at 48 Cherryfield Avenue. Lost, it could only be remembered.
The particulars of Maeve’s wandering life were often elusive, even to her friends. But in her art, for which she sacrificed so much, she is everywhere felt in her dedication to the poetry of place, whether in Dublin or New York. It is in her work we find her.
In June 1948, Maeve’s father wrote to her from Ireland referring to the recent visit she’d made to see her parents not long after their return from his ambassadorship in DC. By then, she’d lived for five years in New York City, working briefly at the public library on 42nd Street before being hired at Harper’s Bazaar in 1943 by the editor Carmel Snow, also Irish. There she’d been drawn into a world that included writers and editors, some at Harper’s and others, like Brendan Gill, at The New Yorker. She frequented Tim and Joe Costello’s, at 44th and Third Avenue, a favorite drinking and eating place for Irish writers, and increasingly writers of any stripe. As a young man Tim Costello had known her father as a fellow Republican in Dublin, and he now kept an eye out for her. While she’d adopted many aspects of American fashion and culture, her speaking voice remained the one she’d grown up with. She was “effortlessly witty,” as William Maxwell wrote of her later, had a lively sense of the ridiculous. She was generous, sometimes extravagantly so, bestowing lavish gifts, pressing on friends things of her own they admired. Costello’s was only a few blocks away from The New Yorker, and on the basis of a few short pieces she’d written for that magazine she was hired there by William Shawn, in 1949, at Brendan Gill’s urging.
But during those years at Harper’s she began and completed a novella, The Visitor, that was only discovered years later, in 1997, in the library of the University of Notre Dame among the papers of Maisie Ward—of Sheed and Ward—who with her husband had founded a Catholic publishing house in London that had moved to New York. The manuscript can be dated by the address—5 East Tenth Street—written on its cover sheet. Brennan was living there in 1944, when she was 27 and working at Harper’s. By the late 1940s she’d moved. Maisie Ward must have read the manuscript or at least received it. But who else? And why was it never published? Did Brennan, who sometimes worked on a story for decades, never revisit it? Did she keep a copy herself? This novella announces her great themes and obsessions, and who can say but that she herself was shy of it.
“The particulars of Maeve’s wandering life were often elusive, even to her friends. But in her art, for which she sacrificed so much, she is everywhere felt in her dedication to the poetry of place, whether in Dublin or New York.”
With The Visitor, the harrowing novella that seems to have been Maeve Brennan’s first completed work, the reader, with a jolt of recognition, enters a world that is at once new and strangely familiar. How simple the writing, evoking the crowded but lonely mood of a train arriving in Dublin on a rainy November evening. And then, seamlessly, the story opens, and we’re in a place known better in dreams, in the murkier places of the unconscious. “Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. Then what resentful wonder, and what half-aimless self-seeking. . . Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward.”
In 1949, the following year, Maeve was hired by The New Yorker, and her life changed again. While Harper’s had been a woman’s world—run by a woman who hired other women—The New Yorker, arguably the most powerful literary magazine in America at the time, was a magazine dominated by men. As elsewhere during the 1950s, a woman’s value—however that might be assessed—would have been assumed to be different from a man’s. In her early thirties Maeve wore her thick auburn hair in a ponytail that made her look younger than she was. Later she piled it on her head. Just a little over five feet, she wore high heels, usually dressed in black, a fresh flower, often a white rose, pinned to her lapel, a bright dash of red lipstick across her mouth. Several of her colleagues would become good and constant friends—Joseph Mitchell, Charles Addams, Philip Hamburger, and, of course, William Maxwell—and some lovers as well. But she was an outsider, a stylish and beautiful Irish woman in a world of American men. As Roger Angell put it, “She wasn’t one of us—she was one of her.” Although she would live in an assortment of furnished rented rooms and hotels in Manhattan—and as the years went by, increasingly obscure ones—her place at The New Yorker, however alien at first, provided a kind of sanctuary where her work would be fostered and edited and published.
Early in 1954 Brennan began writing the unsigned pieces for the “Talk of the Town” in the voice of “the long-winded lady.” They would appear in the magazine for more than 15 years, but only in 1968 would the writer be identified as Maeve Brennan when she chose some of her favorites to be published as a selection. In a foreword Brennan describes her persona:
If she has a title, it is one held by many others, that of a traveler in residence. She is drawn to what she recognized, or half-recognized, and these forty-seven pieces are the record of forty-seven moments of recognition. Somebody said, “We are real only in moments of kindness.” Moments of kindness, moments of recognition—if there is a difference it is a faint one. I think the long-winded lady is real when she writes, here, about some of the sights she saw in the city she loves.
Indeed, she declares her love for the city in an ode to the ailanthus, New York City’s backyard tree, that appears like a ghost, like a shade, beyond the vacancy left by the old brownstone houses speaking of survival and of ordinary things: “New York does nothing for those of us who are inclined to love her except implant in our hearts a homesickness that baffles us until we go away from her, and then we realize why we are restless. At home or away, we are homesick for New York not because New York used to be better and not because she used to be worse but because the city holds us and we don’t know why.”
When Brennan was 37 she married St. Clair McKelway and joined him where he lived in Sneden’s Landing, a community just north of the city on the west bank of the Hudson. He worked at The New Yorker as a nonfiction staff writer, was three times divorced and 12 years older than herself, and known to be a compulsive womanizer. Like Brennan, he was volatile, hard-drinking. And like her too, incapable of handling money. “I think I feel as Goldsmith must have done,” Maeve wrote to Maxwell, “that any money I get is spending money, and the grown-ups ought to pay the big ugly bills.” During the three years she was married, her mother died, a death she grieved for a long time, and she and St. Clair fell into calamitous debt. Her stories from that period are often set in Herbert’s Retreat, as she calls Sneden’s Landing: unlike the Dublin stories, they tend to be ironic, even brittle, in tone; they have to do with affluent households looked after by knowing Irish maids who observe and appraise their employers’ lives from the kitchen.
And on St. Patrick’s Day, 1959, Brennan wrote a reply to a letter from a reader asking when more Herbert’s Retreat stories would appear in The New Yorker, a letter that was making the rounds in the office. When it reached her, she wrote a reply on the back before passing it on.
I am terribly sorry to have to be the first to tell you that our poor Miss Brennan died. We have her head here in the office, at the top of the stairs, where she was always to be found, smilingright and left and drinking water out of her own little paper cup. She shot herself in the back with the aid of a small handmirror at the foot of the main altar in St. Patrick’s cathedral one Shrove Tuesday. Frank O’Connor was where he usually is in the afternoons, sitting in a confession box pretending to be a priest and giving a penance to some old woman and he heard the shot and he ran out and saw our poor late author stretched out flat and he picked her up and slipped her in the poor box. She was very small. He said she went in easy. Imagine the feelings of the young curate who unlocked the box that same evening and found the deceased curled up in what appeared to be and later turned out truly to be her final slumber. It took six strong parish priests to get her out of the box and then they called us and we all went and got her and carried her back here on the door of her office. . . We will never know why she did what she did (shooting herself) but we think it was because she was drunk and heartsick. She was a very fine person, a very real person, two feet, hands, everything. But it is too late to do much about that.
It was only after she had amicably separated from St. Clair during the winter of 1959 and was alone once more that Brennan returned to the Dublin stories she’d been working on during the years leading up to her marriage. The solitary life had fostered her writing earlier, and now she would again live by herself, accompanied by her beloved black Labrador retriever, Bluebell. During the early 1960s when Brennan was writing steadily, she spent the summers in the city and the winters alone in East Hampton, renting houses off-season close to her devoted and nurturing friends Sara and Gerald Murphy, on whom F. Scott Fitzgerald in Tender Is the Night had modeled Dick and Nicole Divers. She wrote about the sea and shore and seagulls, and about children too. She wrote about the progress of the day as seen through the eyes of her animals—her cats and Bluebell—with the radiant simplicity of Colette.
But most of all she continued to work on the stories for which she is remembered, the Derdon stories, to publish them, and began to write about the Bagots. What she required, it seemed, was a room where she could be alone with her typewriter.
“She had unequivocally become an outsider now, one of the poor and afflicted among whom she’d always counted the visionaries.”
She would go on writing of lonely marriages as lived out in the house at 48 Cherryfield she’d grown up in. And though by this time she’d had her own intimate experience of marriage, and there are many echoes of her parents’ lives in the stories, her portraits are originals. Both couples—Hubert and Rose Derdon and later on Martin and Delia Bagot—are shadowed by fear and regret and shame. They experience self-misgivings, a ravished sense of having made some first mistake, of having missed out on some crucial knowledge that everyone but themselves has grasped and so are condemned to solitude.
Brennan’s first collection, In and Out of Never Never Land, was published by Scribner’s in 1969 and included the Bagot and the Derdon stories that had been published up to that point. It included neither “The Springs of Affection” nor “Family Walls,” two of her greatest stories, which would appear in The New Yorker only three years later. In 1974, another collection, Christmas Eve, was also published by Scribner’s that included these newer stories as well as several from the 1950s. There was no paperback edition of either one. And as she had no Irish publisher, her Dublin stories went largely unnoticed in Ireland where so many of them were set. At about this time William Maxwell said he thought her the best living Irish writer of fiction, but in her own country she was almost entirely unknown.
By the early 1970s Brennan’s friends had become aware of painful changes in her behavior. She was no longer a young woman in a working world still dominated by men: she was middle-aged now and alone. Her father and Gerald Murphy had died within a few weeks of each other in the fall of 1964, and her nearest companion, Bluebell, was also dead. She was having trouble writing. Pursued by an accumulation of debts and creditors, she stayed in increasingly rundown hotels. She had always moved from place to place, but now she began moving rapidly, as her father had done long ago when he was on the run and staying in safe houses during the Irish Rebellion. Sometimes she camped out—like a similarly bereft Bartleby—in the offices where she worked: in the New Yorker offices in a little space next to the ladies’ room, at one point tending a wounded pigeon. Then she had a severe breakdown and was in the hospital for a time. When things were better she returned to Ireland, thinking perhaps to remain there. But it must have been too late. For a few weeks she stayed with her cousin Ita Bolger Doyle. She wrote to William Maxwell from the garden studio on September 11, 1973:
The typewriter is here in the room with me—I hold on to it as the sensible sailor holds on to his compass. . . What I am conscious of, is of having the sense of true perspective. . . that is in fact only the consciousness of impending, imminent revelation. “I can see.” But “I can see” is not to say ‘I see.’ I don’t believe at all in revelations—but to have, even for a minute, the sense of impending revelation, that is being alive.
Sometime after her return to New York from Ireland, things again fell apart; her movements became increasingly hard to track. She’d always been known for her generosity; now she began rapidly to divest, handing out money in the street. She was occasionally seen by her old colleagues sitting around Rockefeller Center with the destitute. Then she fell out of the public eye altogether. She had unequivocally become an outsider now, one of the poor and afflicted among whom she’d always counted the visionaries. It wasn’t until she seemed quite forgotten—until after her death in 1993 in a nursing home in Queens where she wasn’t known to be a writer—that she again swam into view.
Christopher Carduff, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin at the time, encountering Brennan’s work by chance in the late 1980s, “fell in love,” as he put it, and undertook to get it all in print, including the recently discovered novella The Visitor. In 1997, for the first time, the Derdon stories as well as the Bagot stories could be read in sequence when they appeared in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin. William Maxwell wrote a foreword to the volume. One of the many writers who greeted the publication was Mavis Gallant: “How and why the voice of these Dublin stories was ever allowed to drift out of earshot is one of the literary puzzles. Now The Springs of Affection brings it back, as a favor to us all, and it is as true and as haunting as before.”
One of the literary puzzles indeed: Perhaps her colleagues and friends at The New Yorker tried and failed to intervene on her stories’ behalf when Brennan was unable to do so herself? To help see her existing volumes into paperback? Or press for the Dublin stories to be compiled and arranged, as did Christopher Carduff? Would things have been different if she had been “one of us”? A man rather than a woman, a compatriot? Unknowable and complex factors, surely, must have played their part, but it’s painful to remember that Brennan’s furious dedication to her art had been witnessed by so many.
When I first touched a brain, it was braised and enveloped in a blanket of beaten eggs. That brain had started its life in the head of a calf, but ended in my mouth, accompanied by some potatoes and a beverage at an economical eatery in Seville. Seville is a Spanish city famous for its tapas, and tortilla de sesos, as well as other brain preparations, are occasional offerings. On my brain-eating trip to Seville, I was too poor to afford sophisticated gastronomic experiences. Indeed, some of my most vivid recollections of the trip included scrounging around supermarkets for rather less satisfying food, while the delectable tapas remained out of reach, only for the ogling. The brain omelet was certainly one of the better meals I had.
My next encounter with sesos came many years later in a laboratory at MIT, in a crash course on neuroanatomy whose highlight was certainly the handling and dissection of a real sheep’s brain. At that time, I was drawn to the class and to the sheep’s brain by a diffuse set of concerns that motivate many of my fellow humans to follow and even embed themselves in neuroscience. The brain is the seat of the soul, the mechanism of the mind, I thought; by studying it, we can learn the secrets of cognition, perception, and motivation. Above all, we can gain an understanding of ourselves.
The experience of handling a brain can be awesome, in the classical sense of the word. Is this lump of putty really the control center of a highly developed organism? Is this where the magic happens? Animals have had brains or brain-like structures for nearly 500 million years; over 80 percent of that time, the ancestors of sheep were also our ancestors, and their brains were one and the same. Reflecting that extensive shared heritage, the shape, color, and texture of the sheep’s brain are quite like our own, and it is not hard to imagine that the sheep’s brain is endowed with transcendent capabilities analogous to ours. The internal complexity of the sheep’s organ is indeed almost as astounding as that of the human brain, with its billions of cells, trillions of connections between cells, and ability to learn and coordinate flexible behaviors that carry us across lifespans more convoluted than the cerebral cortex. The sheep’s brain bears witness to years of ovine toil, longing, passion, and caprice that are easily anthropomorphized. And that brain, removed from the rest of its body and everything the ex-sheep once felt or knew, is as powerful a memento mori as one can find.
But the sheep’s brain, like ours, is also a material highly similar to other biological tissues and organs. Live brains have a jellylike consistency that can be characterized by a quantity called an elastic modulus, a measure of its capacity to jiggle without losing its form. The human brain has an elastic modulus of about 0.5–1.0 kilopascal (kPa), similar to that of Jell-O (1 kPa), but much lower than biological substances such as muscle or bone. Brains can also be characterized by their density. Like many other biological materials, the density of brains is close to water; given its size, an adult human brain therefore weighs about as much as a large eggplant. A typical brain is roughly 80 percent water, 10 percent fat, and 10 percent protein by weight, leaner than many meats. A quarter pound of beef brain contains 180 percent of the US recommended daily value of vitamin B12, 20 percent of the niacin and vitamin C, 16 percent of the iron and copper, 41 percent of the phosphorus, and over 1,000 percent of the cholesterol—a profile somewhat resembling an egg yolk. Risk of clogged arteries aside, why not eat the brain rather than study it?
About two million years ago, near what is now the southeastern shore of Lake Victoria in Kenya, ancient hominins were doing just that. Lake Victoria itself, the largest in Africa and source of the White Nile, is less than half a million years old and was then not even a glimmer in the eye of Mother Nature. Instead, the area was an expansive prairie, roamed by our foraging forebears, who subsisted on grassland plants and the flesh of prehistoric grazing mammals that shared the terrain. Archeological findings at this site, known as Kanjera South, document the accumulation of small and midsize animal skulls at specific locations over several thousand years. The number of skulls recovered, particularly from larger animals, substantially exceeds the corresponding numbers of other bones. This indicates that animal heads were separated from the rest of their carcasses and preferentially gathered at each site. Some skulls bear the marks of human tool use, thought to reflect efforts to break open the cranial cavities and consume their contents. Brains were apparently an important part of the diet of these early people.
“Although other carnivores competed vigorously with humans for most cuts of meat, brains may have been uniquely humankind’s for the taking.”
Why brains? In evolutionary terms, the Kanjera humans were relatively new to meat eating; carnivory in Homo is documented as beginning only at about 2.5 million years ago (Mya), though it is believed to have been a major factor in our subsequent development as a species. Nonhuman carnivorous families on the scene at 2 Mya had been established meat eaters for many millions of years already. The biting jaws and catching claws of the great Pleistocene cats, the giant hyenas, and the ancestral wild dogs were better adapted to slaying, flaying, and devouring their prey than anything in the contemporary hominin body plan. But early humans had advantages of their own: already the bipedal stance, the storied opposable thumb, and a nascent ability to form and apply artificial implements all conferred special benefits. If a primordial person stumbled across the carcass of a slain deer, pungent and already picked to the bone by tigers, she could raise a stone, bring it crashing down on the cranium, and break into a reservoir of unmolested edible matter. Or if she brought down an animal herself, she could pry off the head and carry it back for sharing with her clan, even if the rest of the animal was too heavy to drag. In such fashion, the hominins demonstrated their ability to carve out an ecological niche inaccessible to quadrupedal hunters. Although other carnivores competed vigorously with humans for most cuts of meat, brains may have been uniquely humankind’s for the taking.
Synchronicity on a geologic time scale may explain the coincidence of early hominin brain eating and the emergence of massive, powerful brains in our genus, but the two phenomena are connected in other ways as well. Highly evolved human civilizations and their corresponding cuisines across the world have produced edible brain preparations that range from simple, everyday dishes to splendid delicacies. Celebrity chef Mario Batali brings us calf brain ravioli straight from his grandmother, needing about one hour of preparation and cooking time. Traditional forms of the hearty Mexican hominy stew called posole are somewhat more involved: an entire pig’s head is boiled for about six hours until the meat falls off the bone. Unkosher, but perhaps appetizing all the same! Truly festive brain dishes are prepared across much of the Muslim world on the feast of sacrifice, Eid al-Adha, which celebrates Abraham’s offering of his son Ishmael to God. These recipes—brain masala, brains in preserved lemon sauce, steamed lamb’s head, and others—leverage the glut of ritually slaughtered animals generated on the holiday, as well as a cultural reluctance to let good food go to waste. And who could forget the highlight of Indiana Jones’s Himalayan banquet on the threshold of the Temple of Doom—a dessert of chilled brains cheerfully scooped out of grimacing monkey heads? Although it is a myth that monkey brains are eaten on the Indian subcontinent, they are a bona fide, if rare, component of the proverbially catholic Chinese cuisine to the east.
Even to the hardened cultural relativist, there is something slightly savage about the idea of consuming brains as food. “It’s like eating your mind!” my little girl said to me at the dinner table, a scowl on her face. Eating monkey brains seems most definitively savage because of the resemblance of monkeys to ourselves, and eating human brains is so far beyond the pale that on at least one occasion it has invited the wrath of God himself. The unhappy victims of that almighty vengeance were the Fore people of New Guinea, discovered by colonists only in the 1930s and decimated by an epidemic of kuru, sometimes called “laughing sickness.” Kuru is a disease we now believe to be transmitted by direct contact with the brains of deceased kuru sufferers; it is closely related to mad cow disease. The Fore were susceptible to kuru because of their practice of endocannibalism—the eating of their own kind—as Carleton Gajdusek discovered in epidemiological studies that later won him a Nobel Prize. “To see whole groups of well nourished healthy young adults dancing about, with athetoid tremors which look far more hysterical than organic, is a real sight,” Gajdusek wrote. “And to see them, however, regularly progress to neurological degeneration. . . and to death is another matter and cannot be shrugged off.”
“Eating someone else’s brain, even an animal’s,is too much like eating our own brain, and eating our own brain—as my daughter asserted—is like eating our mind, and perhaps our very soul.”
Fore people were surprisingly nonchalant about their cannibalism. The bodies of naturally deceased relatives were dismembered outside in the garden, and all parts were taken except the gallbladder, which was considered too bitter. The anthropologist Shirley Lindenbaum writes that brains were extracted from cleaved heads and then “squeezed into a pulp and steamed in bamboo cylinders” before eating. Fore cannibalism was not a ritual; it was a meal. The body was viewed as a source of protein and an alternative to pork in a society for which meat was scarce. The pleasure of eating dead people (as well as frogs and insects) generally went to women and children, because the more prestigious pig products were preferentially awarded to the adult males. The brain of a dead man was eaten by his sister, daughter-in-law, or maternal aunts and uncles, while the brain of a dead woman was eaten by her sister-in-law or daughter-in-law. There was no spiritual significance to this pattern, but it did closely parallel the spread of kuru along gender and kinship lines until Fore cannibalism was eliminated in the 1970s.
There are many reasons not to eat brains, from ethical objections to eating meat in general, to the sheer difficulty of the butchery, to the danger of disease; but all activities come with some difficulties and dangers. One can’t help thinking that the real reason our culture doesn’t eat brains is more closely related to the awesomeness of holding a sheep’s brain in one’s hand: brains are sacred to us, and it takes an exercise of willpower to think of them as just meat. Eating someone else’s brain, even an animal’s,is too much like eating our own brain, and eating our own brain—as my daughter asserted—is like eating our mind, and perhaps our very soul.
Some of us arrive at this conclusion through introspection. Even in the sixth century BCE, the Pythagoreans apparently avoided eating brains and hearts because of their belief that these organs were associated with the soul and its transmigration. But can we find objective data to demonstrate a modern disinclination to eat brains? Consumption of offal of all sorts, at least in Europe and the United States, has dropped precipitously since the beginning of the 20th century, but it seems that brains in fact are particularly out of favor. A recent search of a popular online recipe database uncovered 73 liver recipes, 28 stomach recipes, nine tongue recipes, four kidney recipes (not including beans), and two brain recipes. If we suppose somewhat crudely that the number of recipes reflects the prevalence of these ingredients in actual cooking, there appears to be a distinct bias against brains. Some of the bias may be related to “bioavailability”—a cow’s brain weighs roughly a pound, compared with two to three pounds for a tongue or ten pounds for a liver—but a difference in popularity plausibly explains much of the trend. A 1990 study of food preferences surveyed from a sample set of English consumers also supports this point. The results showed that dislike for various forms of offal was ranked in ascending order from heart, kidney, tripe, tongue, and pancreas to brain. This study is notable partly because it was performed before the mad cow outbreak of the mid-1990s, so the surveyed preferences are not easily explained by health concerns related to brain eating. The participants’ tendency to “identify with” brains might best explain revulsion at eating them, inferred sociologist Stephen Mennell in an interpretation of the results.
Being, as a rule, quite fond of amoral teens on screen, I am plotting with a girlfriend to go see Thoroughbredsthis weekend, despite its admittedly middling reviews. Otherwise, I plan to be hiding from St. Patrick’s Day with the new Tom Rachman novel, The Italian Teacher, (and its deeply appealing cover) close at hand. This all besides my usual creature comforts of RuPaul and The Challenge, of course. You can rest assured that I am always watching those.
–Emily Temple, Senior Editor
Earlier this week it came to my attention that I had made a catastrophic error: despite having lived in Philadelphia for five years, as well as growing up close enough to the city to know better, I mistakenly scheduled a visit that coincides with St. Patrick’s Day. If you think that St. Patrick’s day in Manhattan is something to behold, respectfully: you have seen nothing. This is all to say that I will be occupied primarily with ducking the vomiting, public-urinating hordes transported throughout the city on a hellish fleet of free buses known as the Erin Express. For some much-need quiet, I plan to visit two of my favorite Philly sights, different and yet alike in beauty: Marcel Duchamp’s final masterpiece Étant donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the 40-pound colon in a glass vitrine at the Mütter Museum.
–Jess Bergman, Features Editor
I will be in the relative peace of the Hudson Valley on St. Patrick’s Day and will maybe drink one of those fancy cans of Guinness while watching John Sayles’ deeply charming The Secret of Roan Inish with my seven-year-old son, followed by Into the West (which features peak Gabriel Byrne). Once the child is in bed, dreaming of selkies and magical horses, I’ll try to finish Richard Powers’ sprawling doorstopper, The Overstory, so I can finally begin Anna Maria Ortese’s ur-Ferrante, The Neapolitan Chronicles.
–Jonny Diamond, Editor in Chief
Lauren van den Berg’s tweet reminded me I wanted to read Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, which I’ll finish up this weekend (I also hope to see a couple on the street walking a Great Dane, but I hope to do that every weekend.) It is an utterly remarkable novel (or maybe not a novel, as Vivan Gornick says in Bookforum). The New York Times excerpt of Leslie Jaimson’s forthcoming The Recovering has pushed that book up in my queue, so looking forward to reading that next.
–Emily Firetog, Managing Editor
This weekend I’ll be watching the NCAA tournament and in between games reading about a slightly less corrupt organization, the gambling outfit that ran the 1930s Shanghai underworld, as described in Paul French’s new true crime book, City of Devils, coming out this summer and full of exactly the kinds of stories I like.
–Dwyer Murphy, Crime Reads Senior Editor
This weekend I’ll be diving in to Liz Nugent’s upcoming thriller, Lying in Wait, which from the first page has me hooked with its blueblood murderess and her icy sang-froid. Nugent’s been on my radar as a wicked and knowing new voice in crime fiction since her book Unraveling Oliver made a splash. While Unraveling Oliver used domestic suspense as a taking off point to explore gender dynamics and the performance of middle-class normality, Lying in Wait promises to use the form to explore extreme class divides and the relationship between city and hinterland. I’ll also be finishing up Jessica Jones: Season 2, probably while knitting, and I’ll read a few pages of the enormous new history of turn-of-the-century New York City, Greater Gotham: A History of New York City from 1898-1919, in my quest to learn more about my newly adopted city.
–Molly Odintz, Crime Reads Associate Editor
I’m dogsitting an excellent Staffordshire terrier/Pitbull mix named Olive this week and will be spending my country’s national feast day hanging out with her in Morningside Park. She enjoys rassling, eating chicken, and barking loudly at other dogs, so that’s what we’ll do. On Sunday, I’ll head to Swift Hibernian Lounge in the Bowery, where every year around St. Patrick’s Day my New York-based countrymen and women (and their friends) gather to drink pints, sing exile ballads, and recite passages of literature from the old country. I’m also greatly looking forward to checking out this year’s Irish Arts Center Book Day, where tens of thousands of books by Irish, Caribbean and American authors will be handed out for free at pop-up stands across the five boroughs.
–Dan Sheehan, Book Marks Editor
My older brother has been an actor for 25 years, and in all the years I lived in New York I haven’t been able to see him perform. But he has a movie on in town Friday night so that is the only thing I’m thinking of this weekend, everything else is an also.
Whatever decision you and Carson reach about the two prefaces [for Reflections in a Golden Eye] is O.K. with me. My feeling was, when I read over the first version, that I appeared in that version to be talking too much about myself. If you revert to that original version I hope that you will preserve the cuts that I have made in it, particularly the long portion about “imitators.” I believe that I scratched out (in the returned proofs) all but about two sentences of that material which was provoked mainly by a personal antagonism for Truman which I think should not be indulged in this place. I also wish you would compare the two versions very carefully, again, and perhaps something from the second, which I still believe had a great deal more dignity in keeping with the novel, could be appended or worked into the other.
I received yesterday a long letter from Carson, most depressing. “Health has failed steadily—can’t walk more than half a block—neuritis has set in—damaged nerves constantly spastic—dreadful headache—nausea, prostration—a gland went wrong in the neck—prolonged suffering—a sort of convulsion at dawn . . .” It sounds almost fantastic! Surely she has not been given any really intelligent diagnosis or therapy. I think she should be hospitalized for several months and exhaustively examined from every angle, physiological, emotional, Etc. Of course there needs to be a special branch of medicine for the understanding and treatment of such hypersensitive artists, but since they practically never have any money, they are simply condemned. I dread the play production that she is now facing as her emotional involvement is certain to be great. Clurman(1) is a fine director for it, but when I last saw the script it was far from being in a state to produce.
I am sailing out of Naples on the twentieth, the crossing takes ten days, and must go directly to Hollywood when I land. My work on the movie script is practically complete but they are not yet satisfied with the ending and I think I shall have a fight with them about that. They say they don’t want a fairy-tale ending but there is evidence of double-talk. At least I should learn something more about the technique of film-making which I can use creatively on some other assignment perhaps over here. I am on excellent terms with Rossellini and De Sica(2) and Visconti and would enjoy working with any one of them. Last week had supper with Ingrid Bergman and Rossellini.(3) Their “Fuck you” attitude toward the outraged women’s clubs and sob-columnists is very beautiful and should have salutary effect on discrediting these infantile moralists that make it so hard for anyone to do honest work and live honestly in the States. If Bergman has the moral courage she appears to have, it will be a triumph.
Several weeks ago I sent you two long poems, “The Soft City” and “Counsel,” which you haven’t mentioned receiving. If you hate them, for God’s sake Jay, don’t hesitate to say so! I depend so much on your critical opinion as there are times when my own seems to fail me. I lose objectivity about my work, as everyone does at times, but you know that I am not morbidly sensitive to adverse opinion, but on the contrary, I am grateful for it. I showed Kazan and his wife(4) a long synopsis of the play I had been working on. They both wrote me from London of their disappointment in it quite frankly and while I felt that the synopsis had not conveyed a true idea of the play as it existed in my conception, their criticism will be helpful when I go back to work on it, if I do. Whatever I do badly (even if it is everything!) I want to know, I want to be told! Honesty about failure is the only help for it.
I am enclosing two versions, first and second drafts of another poem. I don’t know which is better or worse. Also, the other ending to the Lawrence play [I Rise in Flame]. I wonder if it would not be better to change Brett’s name in the play to something like Brady, since the incident is fictitious and she might object. I don’t believe Frieda would.
It is dreadful to leave here, but I have thrown a coin in the Fountain of Trevi.
1. Clurman: Harold Clurman (1901–1980). American stage director and founding member of the Group Theatre, Clurman directed McCullers’s stage adaptation of her novel, The Member of the Wedding (ND 1951), and the original production of TW’s Orpheus Descending on Broadway in 1957.
2. De Sica: Vittorio De Sica (1901–1974), Italian director and actor.
3. Ingrid Bergman: (1915–1982). In 1949, while working on the film Stromboli for the Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Bergman and Rossellini fell in love and she became pregnant. Though she later divorced her husband and married Rossellini, American public opinion was slow to forgive the Swedish- born actress who had played Saint Joan as well as Ilsa in Casablanca. She and Rossellini remained in Italy for several years until the “scandal” subsided. TW’s attitude is evident.
4. Kazan and his wife: Molly Day Thacher Kazan (1905–1963) happened to be the reader at the Group Theatre who singled out TW’s group of one- acts, “American Blues,” for an honorable mention in 1939, which led him to New York and to his longtime agent, Audrey Wood.
December 9, 1949 [Key West]
Theseus(5) came today and it is resting beside my bed, the proper place for any good work of art. We have a snow white rooster next door to us who flaps his wings and crows every half hour or so. I always wake up and continue my reading.
Life here is as dull as paradise must be. Consequently I do more work. I have, at long last, finished a first complete draft of a new play called The Starry Blue Robe of Our Lady [which became The Rose Tattoo]. It may be weeks before I dare to read it. Am also working on another novella. Audrey wrote me that you were interested in publishing Moon of Pause [which became Roman Spring]. That was not my impression. I did a little more work on it. I would really like to publish it, first in a magazine such as Harper’s Bazaar. I think it is a good study of the malignant power-drive but how effective it is otherwise I still don’t know; Carson sent me an enthusiastic wire about it. Evidently Bigelow had showed it to her, as he is retyping it.
I may come to the Philadelphia opening of Carson’s play(6) Xmas week, in which case I’d spend a few days in N.Y. Isherwood’s friend, Bill Caskey(7), is having dinner with us one night.
5. Theseus: An essay on the Theseus myth by André Gide was published by ND in 1949 (in a translation from the French by John Russell) in a limited edition of two hundred copies, hand printed by master printer Giovanni Mardersteig at the Officina Bodoni in Verona. JL loved fine printing and Mardersteig was a favorite printer for special projects.
6. Carson’s play: The Member of the Wedding (ND 1951) opened on Broadway January 5, 1950. During their time spent together on Nantucket in the summer of 1948, TW greatly helped McCullers to shape the play and, though he took no credit, McCullers was always keen to thank him for his help.
7. Bill Caskey: William Caskey was a photographer with whom Isherwood lived and collaborated.
December 16, 1949 [Cambridge, Massachusetts]
Thanks ever so much for your good letter of December 9th, which reached me up in Cambridge, where I am busy with my duties as a member of the Visiting Committee for the English Department. It is very funny to go around from class to class and observe the students and the funny old professors objectively. Re-visiting these scenes of a good many follies of youth certainly gives me a feeling of old age. But there is no question but life becomes less troublesome as you get older. The senses seem to get dulled so that you no longer get into the emotional agonies that certain situations produced when you were eighteen years old. On the other hand, a lot of the excitement is gone too.
I’m glad to hear that Key West is turning out to be a success and that you’re getting a lot of work done. Audrey told me you were doing some revision on the novella [Roman Spring], and I think that is fine. I do definitely want to publish it when you get it in such shape that it satisfies your own feeling about it. I just didn’t want to push you into publishing it until you yourself are ready. I was trying to lean over backward lest I should have to accuse myself of a commercial motivation. Obviously, the thing will sell pretty well, and that sets up a kind of pressure in a publisher which has to be guarded against by a strict examination of conscience. When you get it in a shape that satisfies you, let’s go ahead with it, with the idea that it will first appear in one of the magazines, and then later on be done as a book, perhaps with a few short stories added to it to fill out the book. Audrey also said something about your starting of another one, which might pair up with it. But we can work out the details of that later on.
That’s fine that you have blocked out the new play [The Rose Tattoo]. Is there any chance of getting a look at it? I am always sort of fascinated to know what you are going to do next.
[ . . . ]
With best wishes as always, James Laughlin
December 22, 1949 [New York]
Thanks ever so much for sending along the poems. My favorite is the “Old Men With Sticks” and I believe that is the right one to send first to Partisan Review. I shall pass these on to Audrey with the request that she make copies of them, in case you didn’t keep copies, and then put them out to the magazines. She has tactfully hinted in the past that it confuses her records if I send things out independently from this office. But I will advise her as to where to send the things, as I don’t think she knows too much about poetry channels.
Mulling over these poems, it occurs to me that you are achieving a consistent vein, which might well be labeled a sort of “new romanticism.” Possibly if I ever get ambitious to be a critic again I’ll write an essay about you under that title. To my way of thinking it is a very good force to have around. The academic poets of the neo-metaphysical school have gotten far too dry. They are afraid to let their gussets out, as it were. I hope you will keep on with your poetry because I really think you can accomplish a lot with it. Your approach to any given subject is so different from the average that there is never any danger of your falling into the commonplace, no matter how far you let yourself go with explicit feeling. And don’t forget that I would like to get out a little book of your poems when you think you have enough gathered together that you like.
The big news up here these days is that we are having a bit of luck again after a rather dry late summer and fall. The Bowles [The Sheltering Sky] is going along great guns. It has had the most flamboyant kind of reviews in all the provincial papers, as well as good ones here in New York, except for rather contrary ones in The New Yorker and The Saturday Review. We have gotten what I call a “green light” on it in the way of large orders from the jobbers which supply little neighborhood shops in the suburbs and lending library chains, and so I am throwing a lot of money into advertising to try to make a big thing out of it.
The Firbank(8) [Five Novels] and the Vittorini [In Sicily, introduction by Ernest Hemingway] are also doing well, and the latter has been taken by the Book Find Club for March.
Carson has invited me to the opening of her play [The Member of the Wedding] and I am looking forward to that very much. Reflections in a Golden Eye has been printed and ought to get through the bindery next month. I’ll send you down some copies for you to give around to friends.
Well, I guess that’s all for the moment, so will close with a Merry Christmas and all that.
[ . . . ]
8. Firbank: Ronald Firbank (1886–1926), English novelist. New Directions published six titles by Firbank.
Dad says no, but we play anyway, Lola and I. In the afternoon, my grandmother awaits my return from elementary school. She wears a peach cardigan, and a gambling habit tempered by a soft smile and wrinkles. I greet her with a kiss, and Lola’s words are both a question and an exclamation, “Oh! You want to play?” She speaks as if she has been waiting all day, though I know she has been tending her garden, watching soap operas, preparing dinner. Lola, like me, cannot wait for the fix of slippery cards between her fingers. She and I share a gambling mania, only her mania is tempered by decades of games, decades of dollars, decades of winning. While Lola has learned to tame her inner gambler, I am like a young dog, ready to soil itself and roll in the glossy rectangles.
Because it strains her back to sit at a table for long, Lola sits at one end of the sofa, and I at the other. A piece of square laminate board serves as our improvised card table. We play Crazy Eights, Kings in the Corner, Paris Paris. We play uninterrupted for hours, Lola sometimes shifting her heavy thighs, careful not to disturb the cards. We play without words, and I don’t know then what Lola is trying to teach me, but I feel possibility in the cards, and that possibility is electric.
Dad grumbles that I am too young to learn such habits, to play cards like a man. He says I should exercise, write my times tables. Dad has greater plans for me. He wants me to go to college, get a good job, and make good money. To play is a small act of defiance, but I am small, just nine years old. As the youngest girl in our family, I must do as I am told without question, but because Lola is the matriarch of our family, Dad will not tell her no. With Lola at my side, I am powerful. With Lola at my side, even the youngest daughter can upset the hierarchy of a household.
Before she came to the states, Lola was a teacher in the Philippines. Now, she teaches me. The deck is her chalk, the card table her chalkboard. I learn the vocabulary of winning: mano, bunot, escalera, secret, panalo. I learn game theory, strategy. Lola teaches me to play each card to its utmost advantage, to measure my hand against my opponent’s. I learn restraint, planning, to pull, to discard, to envision turn, after turn. My brown wrists flick. My fingers dance. Shuffle. Deal. Fan. My fine motor skills are sharpened on the edge of a card. While my friends shape Play Doh and mud pies, my hands work the deck. Dexterity is the hallmark of skill, an offering to Lady Luck.
Under my Lola’s tutelage, I establish a set of rules that will shape every relationship of my life. I choose my partners with care, and set parameters for those with whom I share a table. I avoid players without skill, without rationale—if I cannot predict their moves, I cannot plan for my own. I walk away from players with nothing to lose, or worse, privileged nonchalance. I learn to downplay the merit of my cards, learn when to grimace, smile, learn to read other’s faces knowing our endgame is the same—the ultimate hand, the ultimate pot, the ultimate win. I learn sportsmanship, to tolerate losing, to laugh off dozens of dollars, and deal again. Sore losers are coolers who bring down the table, and we like it hot, we like it loud, and we are bringing down the house.
My schooling advances at the Circus Circus Las Vegas Midway Arcade. Sheltered from the desert heat, in this dark womb, I feed on flashing lights, side scrolling play, and continuous background soundtracks. Armed with a bucket of quarters, my brother and I play beat ‘em ups like The Simpsons, but make time for Title Fight, Virtua Cop 2, and Area 51. Games like skee-ball, Wheel ‘Em In, and Wack-A-Gator pay out tickets, and the machines go tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk. We are in sync, these machines and my heart. The sound in the arcade is winning—the bling bling bling of sirens when someone hits a jackpot, the thunk of styrofoam hammers, the pop of balloons exploding in clowns’ mouths—all of this is winning. Play a quarter. Win tickets. Redeem prizes. The reward is Pavlovian, my training deliberate. I am primed for gambling, ready to sacrifice any number of quarters, tokens, chips, in the name of winning.
“I learn to downplay the merit of my cards, learn when to grimace, smile, learn to read other’s faces knowing our endgame is the same—the ultimate hand, the ultimate pot, the ultimate win.”
When we run out of quarters, my brother and I drift from the arcade and troll the casino from the sidelines, hovering near a sign that reads: NO ONE UNDER 21 YEARS OF AGE IS ALLOWED IN GAMING AREAS. We search the casino floor for our heroes: Mom at the craps table, Dad at the Sports Book, Lola playing slots. I breathe in the smoke, relish the sounds. There is rhapsody in gambling, and the music is always with me. The casino floor is a chorus that never slows to inhale. Sopranos! Clanging sirens and jackpot bells. Altos! Waitresses in bodysuits and stockings, chanting their unending refrain: drinks, drinks, drinks, and keno, keno, keno. Tenors! Bass! Baritones! Laughing card players and yelling drunks. At the tables, the sounds are softer, though no less enchanting: the tantalizing ripple of cards being shuffled, and the slip-slip-slip as they are dealt. The click-click-click-click-click of chips dancing across green felt. A ball skipping along the roulette wheel in hypnotic tympani. Even the lights flicker and dazzle in a smoky synchronized show.
When we tire of loitering, we sit outside our hotel room, or rest down the hall, in the nook beneath the staircase, debating whether we ought to watch free circus acts at the midway, or continue to wait—minutes, sometimes hours, for someone to return and unlock the door. Later, I huddle in stiff sheets next to Lola, my chest pressing against her back. In the darkness, I know she feels my heart pounding, and the beat is tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk, like the sound of coins falling from a slot machine when you hit the jackpot. My fingers tap. My feet jitter. Even in my sleep, my body wants to count numbers, to push buttons, to throw dice. Lola has written a story of risk on my body, and it cannot be unwritten.
On the drive home, my parents replay all the games, all the hands, each throw of the dice. They say, had we stopped this time, or that time, we would have been up this amount or that amount. They never stop. Here, I learn the vocabulary of losing: mala suerte, mawalan, pagkatalo. Mom says she loses more than she wins, but that when she plays, she forgets all her worries—with a full-time hospital job and five children, the forgetting is deserved. By the time we get home, Lola’s feet are swollen from poor circulation, her stiff flesh bubbling over the tops of her shoes. We cook rice. We prepare for Monday. Whatever daring I had in the arcade seems to have dissipated on the drive through the desert. At home, I am again, only the youngest daughter, only a brown girl in a white suburb. But possibility is waiting with Lola and a deck of a cards.
When I am ten, we travel to the Philippines, and Dad takes me to watch the cockfights in Candelaria. He asks, Are you thirsty? Do you have to go the bathroom? Then he leaves me to join men gathered in the cockpit at the center of the arena, where the chickens will fight. Kristos! Kristos! the men call the bookie. Kristos, they call him for how he spreads his arms in the air like Jesus, when acknowledging wagers, as if to say, Blessings upon this bet! Blessings upon this sabong!
Alone in the stands, I can’t see the metal gaffs tied to the roosters’ legs, or even hear the dull tap of their heads being hit together, but I am close enough to see two men and the orange scarlet blurs that burst from their hands and deflate on impact. If Dad didn’t want me to gamble, he shouldn’t have let me see them fly at each other, let me witness how they flopped dead onto the mats. He shouldn’t have left me among strange men, let me hear them cheer, see how they waved their tickets and threw them to the floor. Had he left me at a cousin’s house to play, instead of bringing me to that arena of mutilated chickens and boisterous men, I would never have witnessed how alive and splendid they were in those moments just before the kill.
The Sundays we don’t wake in Vegas, we go to church. Away from the tables, we remember gambling is frivolous, sinful, greedy. We know this, but still we pray to win a big hand, to come into money. When the Spanish colonized the Philippines, they brought Catholicism. If gambling teased riches on Earth, prayer offered paradise in the afterlife, and we thought it best to hedge our bets. At church, I force my fluttering to still. Here is a place for paying attention, not jittering, tapping, or counting coins. But the Bible is filled with stories of gambling—wagers for land, for greatness, and for souls—that are mythical, epic, and I am rapt.
When Eve dared to defy God’s command and picked fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, her consequences were severe: expulsion from Eden, Original Sin, painful childbirth. Her sad consolation prize—matching his and hers fig leaves. Eve’s gamble is one of the most difficult to comprehend. Why risk losing paradise? Could it be that Eve was dissatisfied? Of the three figures inhabiting Eden—God, Adam, and Eve—she was the lowliest of the three, and like me, the youngest daughter. And maybe, she, like me, was dissatisfied with the hierarchy of her paradise.
In the Old Testament, God and Satan enter a wager. God is certain that Job, a devout follower, will always remain faithful to Him, while Satan claims that Job only remains so because he has been blessed by God’s good will. After a great many sheep, camels, oxen, and asses are slain, and Job’s sons, daughters, and servants are smite, God wins, and Job, the unwitting participant of this wager, is rewarded with greater wealth, returned health, and new offspring. By biblical standards, Job’s compensation far outweighs his loss—at least he doesn’t get leprosy. God, on the other hand, wins a single, though important, tally mark in the unending battle between good and evil, and moreover, bragging rights.
“If gambling had taught us anything, it was that we had little hope of ever beating the house, but for the moment, America was a steady bet, and one that we let ride.”
When Judas Iscariot saw odds were not in Jesus’s favor, and bet with the house, the cost was a single kiss, and his payoff, a meager thirty pieces of silver, well below the worth of a soul. Later, Judas threw his money into the temple and hanged himself, his name forever synonymous with betrayal. That is what we call a bad beat.
When Magellan and his men reached our islands, they brandished metal shields and swords. We sent our bravest warriors with spears and arrows. From the beginning, the odds were against us. In exchange for our islands, and our freedom, Spanish missionaries promised eternal life. Newly named, Las Islas Filipinas, and newly devout, we learned to pray when we gambled. We crossed ourselves. Dear God, Mother Mary, please let me win. And when we lost, Susmaryosef. The Spanish remained in power for almost four hundred years. Susmaryosef.
Following a hard-fought revolution and a foolish bet on the United States, the Philippines cast off one colonizer for another. In exchange for our islands, and our freedom, Americans promised education, opportunity and riches. If gambling had taught us anything, it was that we had little hope of ever beating the house, but for the moment, America was a steady bet, and one that we let ride.
As much as my father protests, he and my mother are great gamblers. If my parents were a Texas Hold ‘Em hand when they first came to the United States, they might have been mistaken for a deuce-seven, a throwaway. But they weren’t: They were English speaking college graduates. Still, they were brown immigrants with accents. A low pair. Maybe fours. Someone else might have chosen to fold this hand, to stay in the Philippines, to set aside dreams of the mythical land of milk and honey. But my parents recognized a gamble worth taking.
They bet big and went all in, hoping the flop would be kind. It was. A small Baltimore apartment shared with my aunt. Decent jobs. Unexpected friends. Two children born in the states. The turn helped. Citizenship and a relocation to southern California. Enough money for a house and three more children. And then the river was low. Times were tight, but they were rich in children. Family was their investment. Their children understood utang na loob, a debt that could never be repaid. And that was enough. That was plenty.
Dad says no, but we play anyway, Lola and I. Anything, Dad says. You can do and be anything here in America. You can attend the best schools—Harvard, Annapolis, Stanford. You can become a lawyer, a doctor, travel the world. I understand he wants me to live well, and not by the roll of the dice or a deal of the cards. Still, he tells me: Keep your head down. Don’t sit with boys. Stay out of trouble. Don’t talk back. His desire to prepare me for greatness, wars with his desire to prepare me for a world in which I will always be othered.
I understand, but do not accept my place in the hierarchy. Every game is an attempt to disrupt the odds that are stacked against me. Bet on me, Dad, I tell him. I have learned on the knees of my grandmother to live a life that defies odds. Our survival has depended on it. Soon, they will learn to fear us at the table. Maybe I won’t own mutual funds, or blue-chip stocks, but I will break the bank. Meet me at the cashier, and I will be waiting, my pockets overflowing with the wins of many progressive jackpots. My fine house will be made of cards and mahjong tiles, my 401K—all four kings. The odds are against us, but that’s never stopped us from betting. This is our legacy, to risk, perchance to win. My Lola has written a story of risk on my body, and her grandmother on hers. And all of this, this card play, this calling Kristos, this rhapsody—all of this is winning.
What follows is a story of contagion, and it begins, as all such stories must, with a message both obscure and appalling.
The city in which this message was passed was the city of N— in the geographic center of Illinois, and, as the saying goes, in the middle of nowhere. N— was notable as a place that had succeeded in achieving the destiny American cities had sought for centuries: complete abstraction. As the German mystic Jacob Boehme once observed, “It is not philosophers who are abstract, it is the man in the street.” Actually, this story with its embedded message happened at least three times, in various places, but on the same spring date, as if this world were only a quarrelsome device like one of those old brightly painted tin toys that you’d wind up and watch as a dog jumped on a wagon and back, on a wagon and back, in that false infinity provided by winding a spring tightly.
The first time it happened was in 1810, in Dresden, as later attested to in a most remarkably vivid account by the gnomish writer of realist fantasy E.T.A. Hoffmann, in his story “Mademoiselle de Scuderi.” Then it all fell out again in 1910, in Paris, on the edge of the first modern war. Picasso and Braques were hanging out, drinking yellow-green absinthe, and then enjoying hallucinations at that new sensation, the Bijou, the florid cinema. While they enjoyed such bohemian pleasures, the second coming of these remarkable events lit the air around their heads, the most brilliant heads of a most brilliant time, but, sadly, not even they noticed. They were painters, after all, and perhaps not open to the “unfolding” of things across vast stretches of time. at I know of, there is no record of the events happening elsewhere either (although I once imagined, wrongly as it turned out, that there were cryptic allusions to them in Franz Kafka’s story “The Warden of the Tomb”). The third time that this story unfolded itself, as if the very air could open up like a Chinese paper box, was in 2010. Then, the residents of one house in N— were awakened from that self-satisfied sleep of the Midwest by a mad pounding at the door.
“N— was notable as a place that had succeeded in achieving the destiny American cities had sought for centuries: complete abstraction.”
As it happened, all the women of the house were away sex-touring and ganja-smoking in Jamaica. The men had been left behind with strict instructions to lock the doors and ignore the baying of hounds. The men wondered if this pounding at the door was what the women meant by “the baying of hounds,” so they went cautiously to an upstairs window.
“Open the door, for God’s sake, open the door,” a man’s voice said, rising up above the sublime pounding he was giving to the door.
“Who is down there?” the men asked. “We know better than that, Mister. We were warned not to open the door to strangers.”
“I must speak to the Marquis!”
“The Marquis? I think you have the wrong house. Try that big one at the end of the block.”
“For God’s sake, it’s a matter of life and death. I stand falsely accused . . . of an atrocity.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?!”
And down they went and unbolted the great oak portal.
No sooner had they opened the door than a figure wrapped in a flowing black cloak burst through violently, eyes wild, a man with the intensity of a demon!
“It’s no wonder that you’ve been accused of an atrocity. Just look at yourself!”
The men now thoroughly regretted opening the door. One of them said, “Why don’t you come back tomorrow at a decent hour?”
“Does destiny care for the time of day?” the man in the black garb asked.
They had no opinion on the matter.
“Why, then, if you won’t take me, take this, and give it to the Marquis.”
And he held an envelope aloft.
“Childe Harold bask’d him in the noon-tide sun, Disporting there like any other y . . . ”
When I try to picture him, the caped stranger looks a lot like Guy Williams in the old TV show “The Lives of Zorro,” minus the mask. Oh, hell, let’s give him a mask then. They’re not expensive. You can get a bag of ten for a dollar-fifty at the Penury Factory Outlet down in Heyworth. So, if he wants a mask, vamos!, for God’s sake. So, he’s wearing a mask and one of those sexy flattop fedoras that I thought were simply the coolest thing in the world circa 1959. It even had a brightly wrought sterling silver band around it, if I’m not mistaken, although I might be thinking of Richard Boone’s Paladin.
At any rate, this masked character at last got around to taking out an envelope in which was the note with the famous message he’d been promising.
“Take this letter to the Marquis. It is a matter of life and death—my death!”
One of them, let’s call him Rory, stepped forward to say what all the others were thinking. “Sir,” he said, “no offense, but this is not making a whole lot of sense to us. We have no idea who you are, there is no Marquis here—and, to tell you the truth, we’re not collectively clear on just what a Marquis is—and you’ve frightened us a lot with your bizarre aspect. So, you might as well tell us what’s in the envelope because we’re just going to open it as soon as you leave.”
The stranger looked perplexed, angry, frustrated. Perhaps he was a man with black belts in various martial arts, or a mob enforcer, perhaps he was Special Forces, a Navy SEAL, or someone with a lot of PTSD issues including the habit of savage resolution to situations that are not quite going his way. He waved the letter dramatically over his head—he was wearing really gorgeous black gloves, the softest calfskin, that went down his arm nearly to the elbow.
“I can tell you this: my letter comes from a woman of great power and influence living in a villa in the Hebrides. Have you never heard of the famous Queen of Spells? Surely, even in this depraved outpost of humanity, you have! I believe her letter touches on issues related to the owing light of the Godhead. In this letter there is a vision of a great marble slab that lies at the base of a mighty mountain. There is a doorway in it like the doorway to a great city. A radiance as bright as that of the sun overflows the marble.”
“Are you making this shit up?” asked one ruffian.
“Well, if that is not convincing to you, consider this,” he said, and he turned and swung open the door.
The men looked out and saw that in the courtyard before their house hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Zorro-like guys were riding on small black horses—no more than two feet tall—rearing often and dramatically on their hind legs, as if the movie they were in was almost over and they were thinking about riding into the sunset. The men also waved envelopes—not Stetsons—high over their heads, messages galore. There they were in their pitchy vestments, as if the computer-graphics geeks had gotten carried away, gone a little haywire, in this scene. The men and horses roiled—anxious, trapped—and looked upon one another as if they were as terrified by this vision as were those who looked upon them. Stranger yet, they were crying great confused tears that owed down their faces and seeped out beneath their little masks. But for what reason? That was what was so hard to say.
“This, this, is the reality that you scorn, on which you dare to look with your doubt and cynicism. Now, forthwith, to the Marquis!”
The men were overwhelmed by what they’d seen. They dropped their pretense and took the man directly to the Marquis.
Less than four months after the spectacular “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro” issue of the magazine Survey Graphic appeared, Alain Locke, its guest editor, was out of a job. On June 16, 1925, Emmett Scott, Secretary-Treasurer of Howard University’s Board of Trustees, wrote to Locke: “Voted: That, Alain LeRoy Locke, Professor of Philosophy, be not reemployed for the school year 1925-26.” By way of explanation, Scott continued: “After very full discussion of the matter, in all its phases, your place, among others, it was decided, could be vacated and the work of the University not unduly suffer.” That might seem surprising, for during the winter quarter, 1925, Locke had carried a heavy load of teaching, including Philosophy 2 Ethics, Philosophy 126 Modern Philosophy: Renaissance to the Present, Philosophy 129 Race Contacts (for graduate students), and Philosophy 130 Aesthetics and Literary Criticism.
Of course, on another level, Scott’s comment reflected the low value placed on the teaching of philosophy, rather than religion, at Negro colleges and universities in the mid-1920s. As if to ensure that Locke did not feel unappreciated, Scott concluded: “I am directed to add an expression of the Executive Committee’s appreciation on the behalf of the Board of Trustees of the services you have rendered since you have been connected with the University.”
How could the premier Negro institution of higher education in the United States fire its most-educated faculty member, especially after he had made history, again, by editing arguably the most important statement of Negro efficacy in 1925? The answer, while complex, came down to this: the New Negro was not a welcome attitude in all quarters of Negro America, especially among administrators of institutional Negro America who viewed the New Negro and its criticality of racial hegemony as a nuisance to be dismissed or, if that did not suffice, to be crushed.
Locke’s problem was simple. He was not only the principal chronicler of the New Negro—he was a New Negro himself, an upstart rebel against the kind of paternalist control that had become the staple of Negro higher education. For years he had served as the secretary of the faculty committee peppering the board of trustees at Howard University with memoranda demanding better salaries for the faculty. As recently as January 1925, Locke, as secretary of the faculty committee on salaries, had penned a caustic letter to Jesse Moorland, chairman of the Budget Committee of the Howard Board of Trustees, challenging the board’s statement in the press that most of the recent increase in salaries went to the teachers and not the staff. Locke was the face of faculty rebellion against the board’s obfuscations about faculty salaries.
Locke had been able to keep his distance from this caldron of faculty rebellion against the board of trustees and Howard’s White president by being away almost every other year and every summer since his mother’s death in 1922; but that absenteeism inadvertently confirmed the university’s judgment, coldly expressed by Scott, his campus nemesis, when he wrote that Locke’s “place, among others, it was decided, could be vacated and the work of the University not unduly suffer.” Locke’s sexuality, his need to be away to live and love openly, his need to be abroad to find inspiration to reenter Black America with fresh ideas—all of that combined to make him expendable despite that he was again a household name in educated Negro America.
The tension between Locke and Howard revolved around different conceptions of the meaning of education. Declaring a Negro Renaissance in the Survey Graphic he edited, Locke neglected to mention that a broad transition in the notion of education had also accompanied the emergence of new art during the Italian Renaissance. Educated at Harvard under Irving Babbitt and Barrett Wendell, Locke imbibed the notion that the 15th century in Italy ushered in an educational revolution that consigned scholasticism to historical dustbins and launched humanism as the foundation of modern liberal arts and scientific education. This new education was as important as the new art in launching the new subjectivity of the Italian Renaissance and it was no different in the Negro Renaissance 500 years later. Having struggled throughout his teaching career at Howard against what he believed was an outmoded form of education that suppressed the subjectivity of Negro students as well as Negro professors, Locke saw himself on the side of a renaissance generation, as was exemplified in his freshmen lecture, “The Ethics of Culture,” making self-directed humanism the key to education at Howard.
But Locke also did not mention in the Survey Graphic or The New Negro: An Interpretation that the earlier renaissance was also a period of intrigue, murder of leaders, abuse of power by patrons, and the fractured dismemberment of the city, Florence, that had birthed it. Silenced in Locke’s utopic vision of renaissance was a dark side—colonialism, violence, exploitation, and the need to control the masses of the people so that the few, the gifted, and the anointed could pursue the life of art and humanities. The more contemporary Mexican Renaissance had as its wider goal destroying the vestiges of colonial thinking in its citizens through a revolutionary education system that would enable the “New Man” to emerge. But Locke had not wanted to announce publicly that for a real spiritual awakening to occur among American Negroes, there needed to be a fundamental change in the Negro world of education and the power relations that kept it conservative. His dismissal showed there were those intent on keeping such change from happening.
Most important, by downplaying the protest element in New Negro consciousness in the Harlem issue of the Survey Graphic, Locke silenced the strongest expressions of New Negro subjectivity in the mid-1920s—that of the Black student protest occurring on Negro university campuses! Just one month before the Harlem issue appeared, Fisk University, one of the oldest and most respected Negro universities in the United States, had erupted in a student rebellion against its White president, Fayette McKenzie, and his strict student codes of dress and conduct, and his suppression of student voices on campus. Stoked by the graduation speech a year earlier by none other than W.E.B. Du Bois criticizing the president for his dictatorial rule and questionable use of Black women students to sing at White men’s clubs for money, students disrupted the campus on February 4, 1925. In response, McKenzie sent White Nashville police onto campus to arrest students in their dormitories. Formerly divided over McKenzie’s tenure, because of his success in raising money, the Black community unified in its criticism of the president, forcing him to resign.
Rebellion was endemic on the streets of Harlem, in working-class unions among the newly migrated, and in women’s organizations to fight for the rights of laundresses. While Locke acknowledged such rebellion in “Youth Speaks,” he downplayed its political significance in favor of the spiritual catharsis he favored. But the coming storm in his life would test both his spiritual poise and his avoidance of protest, since art could not save him.
Despite the popularity of the Harlem issue, various aspects of its new approach to Negro subjectivity angered some in the Black community. Clashes over how the Survey Graphic represented Black people and Harlem erupted immediately after its publication. James Weldon Johnson wrote to Locke on March 10 to complain about how Winthrop Lane’s article, “The Grim Side of Harlem,” had provided ammunition for unfavorable commentary about Harlem in the New York World and the Savannah Morning News. Johnson harangued that more White newspapers would use Lane’s article to condemn the Negro in Harlem, judging it “a serious slip” to have published Lane’s litany of Harlem’s ills—the pervasiveness of policy-playing among poor Blacks, the exorbitant rents charged by Black real estate agents of poor Black migrants, the dozens of quack doctors, incompetent pharmacists, and various hustlers that took advantage, in Lane’s language, of the “childlike” gullibility of the poor Negro migrant from the South—in the Harlem number. This was precisely the kind of mistake that the protest tradition’s tendency to focus on White racism avoided—blaming the victim for the ills of the American social order. Johnson, it seemed, wanted Negro beauty without Negro truth.
“Despite the popularity of the Harlem issue, various aspects of its new approach to Negro subjectivity angered some in the Black community.”
Locke handed the letter over to Kellogg, who responded with a serious rebuttal. He asserted that an objective view of Harlem had to include coverage of real problems, and that the right response was not to blame the messenger, but organize to help social workers and others on the scene eradicate the evils Lane documented. Kellogg welcomed Johnson and John Nail, the Black real estate developer, also incensed by the article, to help social workers deal with these problems, and even welcomed them to submit replies to Lane’s assertions. Neither did, in part, perhaps, because Nail’s real estate operation was accused of charging exorbitant rents, which some said fueled the need for unlawful sources of income. Neither took up Kellogg’s suggestion to clean up Harlem. They were simply angry that Lane had outed Harlem and that progressive organizations like the NAACP were doing nothing to combat the day-to-day problems experienced by the masses of Black people in Harlem. Of course, such exposés as Lane’s helped southern media suggest Blacks stay in the South, rather than risk the “immorality” of northern cities. New Negro “openness” was causing problems.
Luckily, there was no rush of newspapers to join the Savannah Morning News in its indictment. But the deeper question remained: how true was Locke’s forecast of a renaissance of a people in Harlem if the story of success was marred by serious social, economic, and moral failures? Even a Black New York newspaper questioned Locke’s rosy view of Harlem’s prospects. The New York Age argued Harlem was not a site of economic self-determination. Under the headline: “Survey of Business Development on Seventh Avenue,” the Age reported, “colored men own 40 percent of business but whites operate the places that net the largest profits.” That challenged Locke’s assertion that Harlem represented a new phase in Black-White power relations, since from a Marxian perspective, a cultural advance had to reflect a change in economic relations. It also undermined the renaissance analogy, since the Age’s statistics suggested that a true bourgeoisie had not emerged in Harlem. How could an economically marginal people produce beauty on a service worker’s salary? Locke never accepted the defeatism implicit in the anomalies reported by Lane or the Age, but the arguments exposed the economic problem of Black cultural and educational advancement: part of why colleges and universities like Fisk had to have men like McKenzie as president was to beg enough money from philanthropic Whites to keep them afloat. Soon, this would also become an issue for Locke’s aesthetic agenda as well.
More stinging critiques of Locke’s leadership emerged, however, when at a meeting in Harlem, Paul Kellogg was asked by some residents why Locke, a non-resident, had been chosen as guest editor. Kellogg answered that question and received an ovation; but the implication lingered—Locke was barely known in Harlem. Other African Americans criticized some of Reiss’s portraits, especially “Two Public Schoolteachers,” which also appeared in the exhibition of Reiss’s portraits organized by Ernestine Rose, the librarian at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. At a meeting, Elise McDougald wrote Locke, “One Mr. Williams wondered if the whole art side of the issue were a ‘piece of subtle propaganda to prejudice the white reader.’ He told us that ‘Should he meet those two schoolteachers in the street, he would be afraid of them.’ It happened that one of them, Miss Price had come in late with me from another meeting. When an opportune moment arrived, she stood to express her regret that she would frighten him but claimed the portrait as a ‘pretty good likeness.’”
Locke reacted swiftly to the challenge made to his editorial authority in selecting Reiss to portray Harlem. Published in the May 1925 issue of Opportunity, “To Certain of Our Philistines,” Locke called Reiss’s critics “Philistines,” who were not reacting out of an aesthetic judgment, but out of their own prejudice against the dark-skinned figures in the portraits. Their internal race prejudice “distorts all true artistic values,” he wrote, “with the irrelevant social values of ‘representative’ and ‘unrepresentative,’ ‘favorable’ and ‘unfavorable’—and threatens a truly racial art with the psychological bleach of ‘lily-whitism.’ This Philistinism cannot be tolerated.” Defending Reiss’s portrait of the teachers, he wrote: “It happens to be my particular choice among a group of 30 more or less divergently mannered sketches; and not for the reason that it is one of the most realistic but for the sheer poetry and intense symbolism back of it. I believe this drawing reflects in addition to good type portraiture of its sort, a professional ideal, that peculiar seriousness, that race redemption spirit, that professional earnestness and even sense of burden which I would be glad to think representative of both my profession and especially its racial aspects.” It did: both teachers clearly wore Phi Beta Kappa keys with an open magazine, perhaps Opportunity, in front of them. As usual, it was their skin color and their unassimilated Negro features that caused the bourgeoisie to recoil.
Being gay, Locke could see the bankruptcy of the Black bourgeoisie’s conception of what and who is “representative” in a different light. A Black middle-class viewer of Reiss’s portraits might perceive “A College Lad” as representative, because the very light-skinned, Anglo-looking man wearing a suit, and a serious pose, epitomized a Black Victorian ideal. But if this bourgeoisie knew that he was also sometimes a lover of Countee Cullen, then for most of them Harold Jackman would cease to be “representative.” By contrast, the teachers, with their dark skin color, tired-looking faces, and relaxed clothing, were perhaps more “representative,” on the basis of conventional heterosexual morality, than “A College Lad.” Locke saw the irony of such categories and the inability of those who might seem representative in one set of values to live up to all of the criteria the aggressively assimilated imposed on those who “represented” them. The irony of the New Negro movement was that it was led by those like Locke, Cullen, Jackman, Hughes, and Walrond, to name only a few, who were “representative” only because they lived an open secret. Locke, who always hated skin color prejudice among Negroes, knew it was just another indication of the pressing need for a new vision of the ideal society for Black people.
Locke also dismissed the notion that a Negro American artist would have produced better portraits of the Negro. Since American society characterized Black people as lacking in beauty, “Negro artists, themselves victims of the academy-tradition,” they tended to avoid serious artistic study of them. Instead, modern European artists, such as Reiss and Auguste Mambour, had developed “a new style or at least a fresh technique” in order to adequately portray a “new subject”—Africans and people of African descent. As a transnationalist, Locke realized that the outsider had something profound to contribute, especially to highly provincial societies. For Locke, that justified his decision to go with Reiss, for being from Europe and having grown up outside of American racial iconography gave him a unique perspective and access to European modernist traditions with which to depict a New Negro, one that transcended even American Negro aesthetic notions of “representativeness.”
Beyond simply defending a particular drawing or his choice of Reiss, Locke made an ethical argument. He claimed that the emergence of the New Negro meant the birth of a new set of ideas. One of those was that African American life had moved away from aggressive emulation of White American values toward the search for an alternative, healthy, more self-accepting value system. Another was that the quest for a better life among Blacks was not exclusively racial, that Whites were part of this process, and that progressively minded allies existed among Whites who were critical to the unfolding of a new way of being Black in the world. Perhaps most profoundly, Locke was asserting that Black life and values themselves were going to have to change. The focus on the pigmentation of those who represented the Negro bourgeoisie (or whether they lived in their neighborhoods) had to give way to focus on whether their consciousness enhanced Negro identity and culture. What Locke was attempting with the New Negro was very subtle and perceived by some as dangerous—to stimulate an awakening among Black Americans to their unique cultural particularity, but also demand that that particularity lead to a broader universality and acceptance of internal and external difference than was common in provincial Black communities. National awakening could not be allowed to become knee-jerk essentialism.