(b. 16 January 1901 in New York City; d. 2 September 1991 in Sebastian, Florida), poet and literary critic best known for her avant-garde poetry of the 1920s and 1930s and a poetics, developed alone and in collaboration with die English writer Robert Graves, that contributed to the development of the New Criticism.
Born Laura Reichenthal, Riding was the daughter of Nathaniel S. Reichenthal, an Austrian Jew who immigrated to the United States in the 1880s, and Sarah (“Sadie”) Edersheim. She had an older half sister and a younger brother. Both parents worked in the garment industry; the family lived in a tenement apartment in Brooklyn, New York, where Riding attended public school. She was influenced early by her father’s fervent socialism and his determination that life could be improved through education and political activism. According to Riding’s biographer, her father taught her “to read the newspapers with an eye for the capitalist subtext.”
After graduating from Brooklyn Girls’ High School, Riding entered Cornell University on a full scholarship in 1918. On 2 November 1920 she married Louis Gottschalk, her European history instructor, and discontinued her Cornell studies; in 1923 she moved to Louisville when Gott-schalk was appointed assistant professor at the University of Kentucky, and although she took classes at this institution she eventually abandoned her undergraduate career. The couple had no children.
In the early 1920s Riding, who had started writing poetry at Cornell, began submitting her work to literary journals. From the beginning, her poems revealed a distinctive intelligence concerned with the articulation of consciousness; they derived less from traditional poetic images and diction than from philosophical inquiry. Because of this, Riding came to the attention of the Fugitives, a group of writers and thinkers centered at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. From 1922 to 1925 in their journal The Fugitive, they published work by Robert Graves, Hart Crane, and Riding, among others. The group, which included the poets John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, was dedicated to a reexamination of cultural and poetic practice, and they hailed Riding’s innovative, densely textured, ironic verse, awarding her their top prize for poetry in 1924.
Divorced from Gottschalk in May 1925, Riding returned to the East Coast and was briefly enmeshed in the literary life of Greenwich Village. That December she left for Europe at the invitation of Graves, who had admired her work in The Fugitive and contacted her about a possible collaboration. Marking this new stage of her career was the publication of her first book of poems, The Close Chaplet, in 1926. In 1927 Laura Reichenthal changed her surname to Riding.
Riding spent thirteen years with Graves, who was married throughout the time of their association. Critics have described their influence on each other alternately as vital and “vampiric.” Together they founded the Seizin Press in England in 1927. After Riding attempted suicide in 1929 (an action she later described as an effort not to kill herself but to break the bonds of the past), Graves moved with her to Majorca, Spain, where they relocated their publishing venture. They remained in Majorca until the outbreak of the Spanish civil war in 1936, when they relocated to London. The Seizin Press, which continued in operation until 1939, published important early modernist works and counted Gertrude Stein among its authors.
Riding and Graves’s critical collaborations A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) and/1 Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928), and Riding’s Contemporaries and Snobs and Anarchism Is Not Enough (both 1928), laid the groundwork for the New Criticism by advocating the organic integrity of literary works and emphasizing the personal authority of the writer. William Empson acknowledged the influence of A Survey in his famous work Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). In Contemporaries and Snobs, Riding expounded on her belief that poetry “changes accidental emotional forms into deliberate intellectual forms.” She denounced the “professionalization” of poetry achieved by traditional literary criticism, which contextualized literature into a social and historical framework at the expense of the individual work: “More and more the poet has been made to conform to literature instead of literature to the poet—literature being the name given by criticism to works inspired by or obedient to criticism.” She asserted that “poetry invents itself” and that the poem is a self-referential entity.
While in Europe, Riding edited with Graves a critical series titled Epilogue; on her own she published nine volumes of poetry and several works of fiction. In 1938 her Collected Poems was issued; in the preface to this work she introduced her poems as “an uncovering of truth.” The early poem “Incarnations” is a representative piece; it begins, “Do not deny,/Do not deny, thing out of thing./Do not deny in the new vanity/The old, original dust.”
After Riding and Graves returned to the United States in 1939 their association ended. Riding married Schuyler B. Jackson, with whom she had begun a correspondence while in Spain, on 20 June 1941, and thereafter used the authorial signature Laura (Riding) Jackson. They had no children. Educated at Princeton, Jackson was a onetime poetry reviewer for Time magazine. He had praised her 1938 Collected Poems as written “in a language in which every word carries its fullest literate meaning.”
Riding’s commitment to language as revelatory of truth ultimately led to her renunciation of poetry in 1941. She explained in 1962, during a reading of her poems broadcast by the BBC (the statement was published in 1972 in Riding’s The Telling, a book she described as her “personal evangel”) that poetry, “with its overpowering necessities of patterned rhythm and harmonic sound-play,” inevitably distorted truth. Moving to Wabasso, Florida, in 1943, Riding and Jackson undertook an ambitious linguistic study, and operated a fruit-shipping business until 1950. After Jackson’s death on 4 July 1968 Riding lived alone and simply; she completed the study, which was published posthumously in 1997 as Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words. Her early works, which had fallen out of favor and out of print, saw a revival in the 1980s and 1990s, and in 1991 Riding received the Bollingen Prize from Yale University for her achievement in poetry. She died of a heart attack on 2 September 1991 at the age of ninety. Riding was cremated and her ashes buried in Wabasso.
In 1969 the critic Michael Kirkham, in The Poetry of Robert Graves, detailed Riding’s seminal influence on Graves’s later work. In The Word “Woman” and Other Related Writings (1993), Riding claimed that Graves’s archetypal study The White Goddess (1948) was a distorted appropriation of her thought; she castigated the estranged Graves for having “sucked, bled, squeezed, plucked, picked, grabbed, dipped, sliced, carved, lifted [The White Goddess] out of the body of my work.”
Riding is frequently described by critics as a cultural outrider who prefigured later movements and literary styles. In a review in the New York Times (28 November 1993) Carol Muske wrote that Riding’s work in linguistics “anticipat[ed] (in spirit if not substance) contemporary language theory.” In London’s Sunday Telegraph (19 July 1992) the critic Anthony Thwaite suggested that in her “abrupt, enigmatic style” and “angular, piercing, sometimes uncanny” poetic forms Riding recalls such later poets as Sylvia Plath and John Ashbery; and the editors of Riding’s The Word “Woman” envision her early writings as heralding the contemporary feminist movement.
Riding’s singular commitment to truth, forged out of the cultural dislocations following World War I, led to work that has been characterized as difficult, obscure, and even impenetrable, and inevitably was vulnerable to the attacks brought against New Criticism generally: that the understanding of literary works solely as independent entities risks their irrelevance with respect to the larger cultural and historical context. Riding’s denouncement of “relativist” constructs makes her poetry and prose difficult to place, and her commitment to the universal and immutable can leave the individual reader at sea. Personal eccentricities and a relentless compulsion to challenge critical appraisals of her work and life opened her to charges of megalomania. Riding, who once described herself as “embodying finality,” approached neither life nor art with equanimity.
Riding’s papers can be found in the Laura (Riding) Jackson and Schuyler B. Jackson Collection at the Cornell University Library, Ithaca, New York. A full-length biography is Deborah Baker, In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (1993). Richard Perceval Graves, Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-1940 (1990), details her most important personal and professional collaboration. Joyce Piell Wexler,Laura Riding’s Pursuit of Truth, is a critical approach to her work (1979). Jeanne Heuving, “Laura (Riding) Jackson’s ’Really New’ Poem,” in Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers (1996), edited by Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano, discusses Riding’s “utopian vision of a new human universality.” Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Florida Vero Beach Press-Journal (both 4 Sept. 1991).
Melissa A. Dobson