Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Overviews
WOMEN'S LITERATURE FROM 1900 TO 1960: OVERVIEWS
ELAINE SHOWALTER (ESSAY DATE 1991)
SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. "The Other Lost Generation." In Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing, pp. 104-26. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.
In the following essay, Showalter discusses the difficulties faced by women writers in the 1920s and 1930s, notably postwar hostility toward the women's movement, negative reactions against women in academia, and the secondary domestic and social roles relegated to women that marginalized female artists.
'I never was a member of a "lost generation,"' the poet Louise Bogan wrote to her friend Morton Zabel in the 1930s, trying to account for the problems she was facing in her career.1 Bogan meant that she had not belonged to the famous group of literary pilgrims who fled the United States in disillusionment after World War I, to cultivate their Muse in London or Montparnasse. Yet in another, and more important sense, Bogan and her female contemporaries were members of a generation lost to literary history and to each other. For—despite the presence of Edith Wharton, Gertrude Stein, Katherine Anne Porter, and other women—the post-war literary movement that we have come to call the Lost Generation was in fact a community of men. In the 1920s, according to the critic John Aldridge, 'the young men came to Paris. With their wives and children, cats and typewriters, they settled in flats and studios along the Left Bank and in the Latin Quarter.'2 Functional and anonymous as typewriters to male literary historians, the wives of the expatriates were none the less often ambitious writers themselves. Their marginalization, moreover, paralleled the dilemma of other American women writers who stayed at home. While the 'lost generation' of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald became literary legend, another generation of American women writers suffered a period of conflict, repression, and decline.
For the literary women who came of age in the 1920s, the post-war hostility to women's aspirations, the shift from the feminist to the flapper as the womanly ideal, and especially the reaction against the feminine voice in American literature in the colleges and the professional associations made this decade extraordinarily and perhaps uniquely difficult. American society's expectations of modern womanhood were strikingly at odds with its image of artistic achievement. Women writers who had established their careers in the earlier part of the century found themselves out of touch with the new ideals; as Willa Cather would later remember, 'the world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts;'3 and for many women of her older generation it was impossible to cross the divide.
In order to understand the problems of American women writers in the 1920s and 1930s, we must also look at what was happening to American women generally during this period. First we need to look at the feminist crash of the 1920s—the unexpected disintegration of the women's movement after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment. The 1920s were feminism's awkward age. The political coalitions of the suffrage campaign had dissolved into bitter and warring factions. While the suffragists had prophesied that an enfranchised female electorate would bring sweeping social reform to the United States, they were grievously disappointed when women did not press en masse for an end to war, prostitution, and poverty. To many feminists, moreover, Democratic and Republican party politics seemed crude, boorish, and mundane after the heightened utopian rhetoric and ennobling sense of sisterly mission conferred by suffrage activism. By the mid-1920s, it was widely acknowledged that the women's vote had failed to materialize. Women did not seem able to deliver a united vote that would give them power at the polls; instead they voted like their fathers and husbands, or simply stayed at home. Even one of the new female politicians, Democratic committeewoman Emily Newell Blair, acknowledged that the ballot had not brought women either power or political solidarity: 'I know of no woman today who has any influence or political power because she is a woman. I know of no woman who has a following of other women. I know of no politician who is afraid of the woman vote on any question under the sun.'4
As articles began to appear in the popular press on the 'failure' of women's suffrage, there were also signs of failure and disillusion on the personal level. The feminism of an earlier generation had been forged in the intense personal relationships of women's culture. Many female intellectuals and activists of the pre-war generation—women like Jane Addams or Sarah Orne Jewett—had been raised to believe that women were the purer sex, blessed with little sexual appetite. The novelist Mary Austin recalled in 1927 that in her youth 'nobody, positively nobody, had yet suggested that women are passionately endowed even as men are.'5 Many ambitious women had forgone marriage and satisfied their emotional needs in intimate friendships with other women, or in communal female living in women's colleges or settlement houses. What they sacrificed in sexual passion they made up for in independence and the freedom to devote all their creative energies to their work.
But 'modern' women read Freud and struggled to liberate themselves from outmoded sexual inhibitions. The heroine of the Jazz Age became the flapper, with her bobbed hair, short skirts, bathtub gin, and easy kisses. The feminism of the suffragettes seemed irrelevant or dated to the young women of the 1920s, who had been exposed to the messages of psychoanalysis, advertising, and Hollywood. The women's colleges that had been the avant-garde for the previous generation felt the shock wave of major changes in the 1920s. No longer intellectual sanctuaries where bright girls were initiated into intense female communities, they became sites of struggle over regulations and restrictions about heterosexual mixing. Even Bryn Mawr, the last holdout, offered tea dances by 1929 and allowed Princeton students to play the men's parts in student plays. The rituals and traditions that had united women students as a group withered away as students demanded more personal freedom and interaction with men. Ambitious women of the 1920s expected that they could have careers of their own, without surrendering the traditional feminine experiences of romance, marriage, and motherhood. 'By the time I grew up,' Lillian Hellman recalled, 'the fight for the emancipation of women, their rights under the law, in the office, in bed, was stale stuff. My generation didn't think much about the place or the problems of women.'6
But these fantasies of lives that successfully balanced love and work were premature in a society where the husband's role was unexamined and unaltered, where wives were still expected to serve their men and their families, where in fact women's reproductive, marital, legal, and vocational rights were few. Encountering the real tensions between their writing and their personal lives led to disillusionment for women of Hellman's generation. Older feminists too felt bitter and betrayed. The younger generation did not seem to recognize their sacrifice or wish to emulate it. For a pioneer of women's higher education like Wellesley's Vida Scudder, the 1920s were 'the bleakest years of her life.'7
While this shift in female attitudes towards personal achievement caused anxiety and conflict for women planning literary careers in the 1920s and 1930s, hostility towards female authorship and feminine values in academia and the literary establishment further stigmatized women's writing. A country taking new pride in its cultural heritage after the war saw only weakness and sentimentality in the contribution women had made to our national literature. In the years following the war, women writers were gradually eliminated from the canon of American literature as it was anthologized, criticized, and taught.
We can see the signs of this devaluation of women's writing as public honors for a few celebrated token figures were accompanied by mockery of women readers and writers in private literary correspondence and exclusion of women's literature from serious critical consideration. Although Willa Cather received an honorary degree from Princeton in 1931—the first woman to be so honored—her critical reputation, like that of her contemporary Edith Wharton, diminished. Both women were scorned by critics of the 1930s as decorous relics of a bygone age. While at the beginning of his career Fitzgerald acknowledged the influence of such important novelists as Cather and Wharton, he also complained that the American novel was being emasculated by female conventionality and propriety. Yet there was little tolerance for female unconventionality, originality, and impropriety from the very men who lamented the dictatorship of feminine prudery. Hemingway, for example, learned what he needed from Gertrude Stein, but could not imagine her being part of his literary circle. 'There is not much future in men being friends with great women,' he wrote in his memoir of Paris, A Moveable Feast (published posthumously in 1964), 'and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.'
Perhaps the worst casualties of the inter-war period were the women poets. The image of the woman poet, or 'poetess,' as she might still be called, was much more stereotyped and limiting than that of the novelist. The popular image of the American 'female lyrist' was that of a 'sweet singer' with three names, a pretty, youthful creature who wrote about love and renunciation, in a song as spontaneous, untaught, and artless as the lark's. After the war, however, American women poets needed to search for precursors who could define the shape of a serious woman poet's career as she matured and grew in artistry, range, and technique. Some, like Sara Teasdale, Edna St Vincent Millay, and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), looked to Sappho, the Greek lyricist whose work existed only in fragments; and indeed reinvented her to provide a poetic matrilineage for themselves. Many turned to the English poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti. Others welcomed the rediscovery of a uniquely American female poetic voice, heralding the critical revival of Emily Dickinson in the late 1920s. Amy Lowell championed Dickinson's poetic genius and praised her unorthodox meters and rhymes during a period when mainstream critics regarded her work as eccentric, and her place in American literary history as inconspicuous. Genevieve Taggard's biography of Dickinson in 1931 was one of the first written outside of the poet's family circle, and Taggard was editing a collection of Dickinson's poems and letters when she died.
Yet none of these precursors seemed wholly satisfying either in their personal lives or in their poetic careers. Amy Lowell's poem 'The Sisters' (1925) summarized her generation's sense of marginality and eccentricity:
Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot
We women who write poetry. And when you think
How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.
Reviewing the work of her 'older sisters' in poetry—Sappho ('a leaping fire'), Barrett Browning ('squeezed in stiff conventions'), and Dickinson ('she hung her womanhood upon a bough')—Lowell regretfully concludes that none offers her a model for the kind of poetry she wants to write:
Goodbye, my sisters, all of you are great,
And all of you are marvellously strange,
And none of you has any word for me.
I cannot write like you.
American women poets like Lowell were particularly troubled by the advent of a modernist poetic aesthetic. Before the war, there had been a place for the female poet in American culture, albeit a limited and sentimental one. But T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, among others, proclaimed the need for a severe poetry that transcended personal experience and emotion—precisely the modes in which women lyric poets had been encouraged to specialize. Serious, or 'major,' poetry, Eliot, Pound, and their disciples argued, was intellectual, impersonal, experimental, and concrete. Furthermore, they believed, women were by nature emotional creatures who could inspire major poems but lacked the genius to produce them. As John Crowe Ransom declared in an essay entitled 'The Poet as Woman' (1936), 'A woman lives for love … safer as a biological organism, she remains fixed in her famous attitudes, and is indifferent to intellectuality.' Even laudatory reviews of particular women poets frequently included derisory generalizations about the deficiencies of women's poetry as a genre; Theodore Roethke, for example, provided a lengthy catalogue of 'charges most frequently levelled against poetry by women': 'lack of range—in subject matter and emotional tone—and lack of a sense of humor … the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life … lyric or religious posturing … lamenting the lot of the woman; caterwauling, writing the same poem about fifty times, and so on.'8
Even when women produced feminine versions of modernism, reimagining myths, for example, from female perspectives (such as Bogan's 'Cassandra' and 'Medusa', Millay's 'An Ancient Gesture,' describing Penelope, and H. D.'s 'Eurydice'), as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot had modernized the myths of Ulysses and the Grail, their experiments were ignored or misunderstood. As they attempted to forge a new tradition for themselves against this patronizing aesthetic, American women poets struggled with the conflict between their ambitions to create and their internalized obligations to behave as beautiful and selfless Muses for men. This conflict can be seen as the common thread in a number of otherwise disparate poetic careers.
Sara Teasdale was one of the most famous female poets of her era. Yet she had been raised to believe in the romantic feminine myth of love as woman's whole experience, and she could never allow herself to acknowledge a primary commitment to art. 'Art can never mean to a woman what it means to a man,' she reassured an admirer. 'Love means that.' Believing that 'a woman ought not to write … it is indelicate and unbecoming,' Teasdale sought to curb her poetic ambitions, as she also repressed her sexual energies. Her early poems were wistful love lyrics that corresponded to her sense of feminine delicacy and decorum. When Teasdale married in 1914, her businessman-husband boasted that 'she has put the duties of her womanhood (motherhood and wifehood) above any art and would I believe rather be the fond mother of a child than the author of the most glorious poem in the language.' A rejected suitor, the Populist poet Vachel Lindsay, foresaw a new role for Teasdale in which her 'woman heart' would express itself in verse that was both maternal and modest in scope: 'You ought to make yourself the little mother of the whole United States,' he enthusiastically suggested.
Yet marriage did not bring the ecstasies that she had anticipated, or the motherly role men envisioned for her. Only a few years later, Teasdale had an abortion, unable to imagine maternity and poetic creativity as other than antagonistic roles. In the 1920s she retreated into isolation and psychosomatic illness, as her poetry took up themes of frustration and suffering. As a young woman, Teasdale had believed that the woman who wished to be a poet should 'imitate the female birds, who are silent—or, if she sings, no one ought to hear her music until she is dead.' In 1933, convinced that her lyrics had become unfashionable, but unable to develop a new and strong poetic voice, she took her own life.9
Another strategy for American women poets of the period seeking to reconcile femininity and creativity was the celebration of the miniature and the decorative, in exquisitely crafted sonnets and lyrics. Elinor Wylie, for example, specialized in images of whiteness, crystal, ice, glass, porcelain, and jewels. Unlike that of Teasdale, Wylie's life had been full of scandal, including adultery, divorce, and the desertion of her son. The precision of her poetic forms and the chilliness of her imagery helped Wylie defend herself against charges of overwrought feminine emotionalism and sexual promiscuity. Her most famous poems, such as 'Velvet Shoes,' about walking in the snow, and a series of sonnets about winter landscapes, established her persona as a daughter of the Puritans devoted to austerity, silence, and self-denial. In such books as Nets to Catch the Wind (1921) and in her essay 'Jewelled Bindings' (1923), Wylie presented her view of the lyric poem as a 'small jeweled receptacle' in two or three well-polished stanzas. The image associated the female lyric with the female body itself, especially since Wylie was celebrated for her silver gowns, dresses like a kind of metallic armor, in which her slender body reminded Van Wyck Brooks of 'some creature living in an iridescent shell.'10
The themes of reticence, confinement, and silence so prominent in the work and personae of Teasdale and Wylie can be seen as the dominant ones of the modernist women poets; and we can understand them as in part a response to anxieties about female creativity. In the Imagism of 'H. D.' and the elipses of Marianne Moore, subjective elements were made ambiguous or obscure. Moore's difficult and allusive poems withheld any hint of a self behind the text; the critic Hugh Kenner's remark that Moore was a 'poet of erasures' for whom deletion 'was a kind of creative act' suggests that the aesthetic of reticence demanded vigilant self-control.11 Léonie Adams and Louise Bogan also chose a severely impersonal poetry, dissociating themselves from what they saw as the sentimental excess of much women's writing. Bogan was outspoken about her contempt for a female tradition in poetry, although she did not recognize the self-hatred behind her stance. Rejecting a proposal to edit an anthology of women's verse in 1935, she wrote that 'the thought of corresponding with a lot of female songbirds made me acutely ill. It is hard enough to bear with my own lyric side.'12
Yet these cautious choices also seemed to restrict the poets to minor status. Writing about Marianne Moore in the Literary History of the United States (1948), for example, a critic remarked that 'she is feminine in a very rewarding sense, in that she makes no effort to be major.' While Moore's self-effacement might seem rewarding in contrast to the bawling ambition of her male contemporaries, this is a revealing statement about the way in which femininity and minority status were linked in the critical mind. For many women poets of the period, feeling 'very minor,' as Bogan noted, was a painful reminder of their dilemma. At the same time that Bogan pursued her austere credo of withdrawing 'her own personality from her productions,' she envied male poets their scope, ambition, variety, and freedom to express personality.
Often Bogan's sense of creative inhibition was expressed in physical images of size and weight. In a review of Edna St Vincent Millay's poetry, Bogan noted that 'women who have produced an impressively bulky body of work are few.' Just as she lamented the absence of a female precursor with a substantial body of work, Bogan longed to write 'fat words in fat poems,' like her friend Theodore Roethke, instead of the spare, chiseled, even anorexic verses she could allow herself.13
At the beginning of her career, Edna St Vincent Millay showed promise of becoming the most daring and successful presence in her generation of women poets. After her widely publicized youthful debut in 1912, when her poem 'Renascence' won a prize sponsored by a poetry society, Millay became as notorious for her love affairs as for her art. Her first book, A Few Figs from Thistles (1920), established her as a bold voice for the New Woman. Such flippant lines as these from 'First Fig'—'My candle burns at both ends; / It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—/ It gives a lovely light!'—suggested that Millay would insist upon the kind of sexual freedom and emotional independence that had always been the prerogative of men. Raised by a strong mother in a family of loving and talented sisters, and a student at Vassar during the height of the suffrage movement, Millay became a passionate lifelong feminist. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she took pride in the achievements of other women. 'Isn't it wonderful how the lady poets are coming along?' she wrote in delight after reading Louise Bogan.14 Millay dedicated her powerful sonnet-sequence Fatal Interview to the memory of Elinor Wylie, and even in unsuccessful poems like 'Menses' she made a daring attempt to explore taboo female sexual experience and bring it into the realm of acceptable poetic subjects.
Yet Millay, too, suffered from the period's critical resistance to the first-person lyric as a serious art form. Working with such traditional poetic genres as the ballad, lyric, and sonnet, she was patronized by critics favoring formal and linguistic experimentation. In the 1930s, as she sought to incorporate her political interests into her writing, she disappointed an audience that expected her to remain a romantic laureate. Like Teasdale, she suffered a series of breakdowns as her popularity waned.
Millay was not the only woman poet of this generation who found it increasingly difficult to create as she grew older. Many seemed to run out of suitably 'impersonal' subjects, and were finally silenced by years of self-censorship. Léonie Adams, having published two widely praised volumes of 'metaphysical' poetry in the 1920s, virtually stopped writing by 1933. Louise Bogan simply could not imagine a woman poet who survived as an artist when youth, beauty, and romance were past: 'Has there ever been an old lady poet?' she sadly inquired.15 Between 1941 and 1968, Bogan wrote only ten poems and was frequently hospitalized for depression.
One way to resist the label of 'minor woman lyricist' was to write poems reflecting the political struggles of the Great Depression. Genevieve Taggard began her career with For Eager Lovers (1922), a book of poems about love, courtship, and pregnancy that reminded reviewers of Teasdale and Millay. Yet Taggard, a socialist and radical who had written for The Masses and who was active in left-wing organizations and writers' groups, became impatient with this limited cultural role. 'I have refused to write out of a decorative impulse,' she explained, 'because I conceive it to be the dead end of much feminine talent.' Neither could she accept the impersonal mask of the modernist aesthetic. Acknowledging the importance of Eliot as a poet, she none the less sharply criticized his elitist politics, his anti-Semitism, and his contempt for women.16 Believing that the most personal lyric could reveal the feelings of a whole community, Taggard used the form to write about the experience of the working class, in collections that critics promptly denounced as mere propaganda.
Ironically, women poets like Taggard and Millay who turned to politics in the 1930s as a way of establishing their strength and universality found themselves condemned by yet another set of double sexual and literary standards. As the historian Elinor Langer has noted, 'the radical movement of the 1930s was a male preserve.'17 Like other left-wing groups, the Communist Party of America welcomed women into its ranks but elevated few to leadership and presented few as candidates for public office. Leftist groups saw feminist issues as not only potentially divisive but also as less important than the struggle of the working class. Women's roles and needs were subordinated to those of workers, and women organizers were expected to sacrifice personal ambitions, family, and children for the good of the party. Political work—picketing, demonstrating, writing, and distributing party leaflets and tracts—demanded enormous commitments of women's time and energy.
Moreover, as the historians Alice Kessler-Harris and Paul Lauter have pointed out, 'The cultural apparatus of the Left in the thirties was, if anything, more firmly masculist than its political institutions.'18 Women were only token members of left-wing cultural and literary organizations such as the John Reed Clubs, and they were also underrepresented on the editorial boards and pages of radical journals: six women were listed among fifty-five editors and writers on the mast-head of The New Masses. At the Partisan Review, also, male editors expected women to be frivolous, less than intellectually and politically serious. Mary McCarthy recalled that when she started writing for the Partisan Review she was given the job of drama critic because 'I was a sort of gay, good-time girl from their point of view.… They thought the theater was of absolutely no consequence.'19
Finally, the literary and aesthetic values of the Left favored male writers, male protagonists, and masculine themes. In 'Go Left, Young Writers,' an editorial for The New Masses in 1929, Michael Gold described the advent of a new kind of American writer, 'a wild youth of about twenty-two, the son of working-class parents, who himself works in the lumber camps, coal mines, and steel mills, harvest fields and mountain camps of America.' The vogue of this tough-guy artist implicitly cast doubt on the more private or domestic subject matter of women's fiction, even though for men, too, the lumberjack role was often a pose. In addition, the insistence that left-wing art should focus on economic oppression and the workplace created special problems for women. Only 25 percent of all women, and less than 15 percent of married women, worked outside the home during the 1930s; and few of these worked in the coal mines or steel mills. Once more women's special experiences were devalued or ignored.
What were the effects of political involvement for women writing during the 1930s? Despite their difficulties, some women felt nourished and inspired by the urgency of the issues before them and by the excitement of sharing revolutionary goals with male and female comrades. They found encouragement, communion, and fellowship in left-wing organizations. For the novelist Meridel Le Sueur, for example, the 1930s were a period of satisfying literary productivity and of 'nourishing' associations with political men and working women. From her point of view, the decade was 'a good time to be a woman writer, or any kind of writer.'20 Like other politically active women in the decade, such as Josephine Herbst, Martha Gellhorn, Tillie Olsen, and Mary Heaton Vorse, Le Sueur developed new forms of reportage, combining journalism with a committed personal voice that made the work a precursor of the 'nonfiction novel' of the 1970s. Her best-known essays are outspoken, colloquial, graphic vignettes of female experience during the Depression. 'Women Are Hungry' (1934) describes the special anguish of women on the breadlines:
The women looking for jobs or bumming on the road, or that you see waiting for a hand-out from the charities, are already mental cases as well as physical ones. A man can always get drunk or talk to other men, no matter how broken he is in body and spirit; but a woman, ten to one, will starve alone in a hall bedroom until she is thrown out, and then she will sleep alone in some alley until she is picked up.
Yet there were other women on the Left trying to write about gender as well as class, who were isolated from each other, and who had no support either from women's groups or Communist Party networks. Furthermore, as Le Sueur admitted, the party demanded a particular style of writing from its members and had little tolerance for other literary forms. Most Marxist literary critics were hostile to the formal and linguistic experiments of modernist writers such as James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf; they dismissed such aesthetic preoccupations with language as bourgeois or decadent. Instead they advocated 'proletarian realism,' the theory that literature should describe and celebrate the lives, struggles, and triumphs of working-class people under capitalism. Literary innovation was to take the form of recording the language and dialect of the working class, or the 'folk,' extending report-age and documentary into a narrative form.
But even Le Sueur had been profoundly influenced by Lawrence, whose writing about sexuality helped her overcome the puritanism of her Midwest upbringing and gave her a model for some of her lyrical short stories of the 1920s about female sexuality and pregnancy. Such subjects, however, were taboo among left-wing critics in the 1930s, as were the styles and subjectivities of women's writing. When left-wing women writers moved away from the permitted subjects to discuss private female experiences, their work was harshly condemned by radical male critics. Whittaker Chambers rebuked Le Sueur for the 'defeatist attitude' of her essays about women, and other reviewers disparaged her fictional efforts to describe women's feelings and their sexuality. Le Sueur struggled during the decade to purge her fiction of what she called its 'narcissistic' elements; but later she ruefully recalled that the Communist Party tried 'to beat the lyrical and emotional out of women.'21
We can see the effects of this pressure on the development of her writing during the period. In her early work, Le Sueur had been drawn to explorations of women's awakening sexual consciousness in the tradition of Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Edith Wharton's Summer, and to almost mythic projections of the cycle of separation from the mother, reproduction, and death. 'Persephone' is a haunting allegory about a young girl's abduction from her mother, a Demeter-figure identified with nature and fertility. In subsequent stories such as 'Wind' and 'Annunciation,' Le Sueur described female rites of passage, including sexual initiation and pregnancy. Yet her major fictional work of the 1930s, a novella called The Girl (1936), which describes a community of women from different backgrounds who help each other to survive the Depression, was rejected by her publisher and remained unpublished until 1971.
Tillie Olsen has written in her book Silences (1978) about the periods of creative paralysis that beset writers and especially women writers, listing among the causes the moments when 'political involvement takes priority.' Olsen's own experiences in the 1930s are a case in point. Coming from a socialist immigrant background in Nebraska, Olsen grew up aware of the suffering of women and the poor, and familiar with both a radical and a feminist literary tradition. She had read the work of Rebecca Harding Davis, Willa Cather, Olive Schreiner, and Agnes Smedley, as well as that of John Dos Passos and Langston Hughes. When she joined the Young Communist League as a talented young writer in 1931, Olsen was assigned to a series of political tasks in the Midwest, including organizing women in factories and writing skits and plays for the Communist Party. During these years, too, she was working at a series of low-paid jobs and taking care of two daughters. For Olsen, 'it was not a time that my writing self could be first.'22 Her writing self, indeed, had to be postponed until many years later, and in some sense it has never been fully recovered; a prizewinning book of short stories, Tell Me a Riddle (1961), and an unfinished novel, Yonnondio (1974), are fragments of a career that was damaged by long deferral.
Yonnondio, like The Girl, was begun in the 1930s and only published forty years later. Like Le Sueur's book, it is about the struggle for survival: a family moving from mining to tenant farming and finally to the slaughterhouses and packing plants of Omaha. Yet the novel has a strong subjective and experimental quality. It is the story of the daughter, Mazie, an autobiographical heroine who, in Olsen's original plan, was to have become a writer, and her mother Anna. But Olsen was never able to finish the book. In the tradition of feminist writers like Olive Schreiner, she wanted a place for the lyric, the personal, the mythic, and the fantastic. But her immersion in the aesthetic of proletarian realism made it difficult for her to develop the psychological elements of her story—the wrenchingly intense mother-daughter bond, the conflicts of sexual desire and feminine respectability, and the power struggles of marriage. These had to be suppressed in favor of a more impersonal account of the struggle between workers and bosses. Olsen was silenced by her internal conflicts as well as by the external pressures of family and work.
Josephine Herbst was another significant novelist on the Left whose work was both nourished and distorted by the formulas of the 1930s. While Herbst was never an active feminist, her life and career were shaped by her profound feelings about other women. Her mother's stories first stimulated her imagination and made her want to become a writer; in the early 1920s her favorite sister's death after an abortion was a never-to-be-forgotten blow. Although Herbst was married to the left-wing writer John Herrmann, she also had two profound love affairs with women. Deep friendships with other women writers, especially Katherine Anne Porter and Genevieve Taggard, gave her a stronger base in a female literary community than Olsen or Le Sueur had enjoyed. Herbst's political radicalism was also an important part of her life, although at many times she recognized that she was being marginalized or used as a token woman.
For Herbst's fictional development, however, the times were mixed. In 1920 she had an affair with Maxwell Anderson, then a married young reporter; when she became pregnant, he insisted on an abortion. The bitter novel she finished in 1922, 'Unmarried,' was never published. In a trilogy of novels based on her family's history in America, Herbst later tried to avoid the 'constricted "I"' deplored by Marxist critics and to submerge autobiography in an epic story of American society. But the documentary devices and the mixture of social consciousness and personal narrative that worked for male writers like Dos Passos struck readers as less significant when the central protagonists were women. Herbst's reputation declined, and although she worked for many years on a memoir of her life in the 1920s and 1930s, when she died it was found unfinished.23
Another neglected writer of the 1930s was Tess Slesinger. The daughter of a cultured and prosperous Jewish family, Slesinger studied writing at Swarthmore and Columbia. In 1928 she married Herbert Solow, assistant editor of the Menorah Journal, and through him met many of the young left-wing New York intellectuals of the period. The couple were divorced in 1932, and Slesinger drew on this experience for her only novel, The Unpossessed (1934). Like Le Sueur and Olsen, Slesinger was drawn to the literary experiments of the modernist writers, and her novel was strongly influenced in its style and narrative technique by Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf; its stream-of-consciousness technique is especially akin to Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Slesinger uses two heroines to represent the modern woman of the 1930s: Margaret Flinders, the working woman married to a Marxist intellectual, and Elizabeth Leonard, a boyish art student, who has bohemian love affairs and reads Ulysses. Through her account of the founding of a left-wing journal, Slesinger satirizes the sexism of the literary Left. One intellectual leader proclaims that 'the point about a woman … is her womb'; and the women heroines wonder how to reconcile their desires for marriage and motherhood with their intelligence and their political ideals. In the bitter concluding section, 'Missis Flinders,' Margaret is made to have an abortion by her husband Miles, who fears that becoming parents would make them soft and bourgeois. The death of their child is clearly a signal of the death of their marriage, and perhaps also of their political movement. Slesinger ends with a despairing image of Margaret's barrenness and emotional sexlessness: 'She had stripped and revealed herself not as a woman at all, but as a creature who would not be a woman and could not be a man.' Published independently of the book, 'Missis Flinders' was one of the first stories about abortion to appear in an American magazine.
But Slesinger's insistence that personal relationships as well as political ones needed to be revolutionized was lost on her male contemporaries. While the mainstream press generally praised her book, the work offended male radical critics, such as Philip Rahv, who complained in the Partisan Review that it lacked 'a disciplined orientation for radicalized intellectuals;' Joseph Freeman in the Daily Worker called it 'bourgeois and reactionary.' In the late 1930s, Slesinger went to Hollywood as a film writer and became active in the Screen Writers' Guild. Her last, unfinished novel, left in fragments when she died of cancer in 1944, was a study of Hollywood written from the perspective of the film industry's workers, rather than its tycoons or stars.24
The frustration, fragmentation, and silencing that plagued women poets and novelists generally during the 1920s and 1930s were especially acute for black women writers, who struggled not only with personal conflicts but also with racism and with pressures to conform to the aesthetic ideals of the Harlem Renaissance. As in the Left, the cultural theory and practice of the Harlem Renaissance was strongly male-dominated. Influential critics of the period, such as Alain Locke in The New Negro (1925), argued that the black writer should strive for positive expressions of black culture and for racial uplift, as well as for pure art. In the 1930s, when some leading black intellectuals such as Richard Wright joined the Communist Party, they argued that the black artist had a primary responsibility to portray racial oppression and struggle. Women were expected to provide loving maternal nurturance for the new movement and its artists, not to lead it. The novelist Dorothy West recalled how in 1926 she joined a literary group in Harlem, but because she was 'young and a girl … they never asked me to say anything.' The highly educated and sophisticated women writers who participated in the movement often felt estranged from the working-class black community whose experiences they were expected to represent. Insulted by racist stereotypes of the black woman as erotic and primitive, they also felt hampered by family and religious pressures to deny their sexuality.
One of the most gifted women of the group the Harlem Renaissance called the 'ultrarespectables' was the novelist Jessie Redmon Fauset. Educated at Cornell, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Fauset went on to graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania and the Sorbonne. From 1919 to 1926 she was the literary editor of the NAACP journal The Crisis. Fauset's male contemporaries admired her intelligence and culture, especially in her conventionally feminine role as the mentor or 'midwife' for young black writers. Langston Hughes recalled her parties for the black intelligentsia in which conversations about literature sometimes took place in French. Claude McKay praised her for being 'as prim and dainty as a primrose.' But her refined hyperfemininity affronted those fighting oppression or defending the folk sources of black consciousness. Fauset's novels were as deeply concerned with problems of female sexual identity as with racial conflict; they show how race and gender together create permutations of power and powerlessness. Yet her romantic plots were mocked as 'sophomoric, trivial and dull,' or as 'vapidly genteel, lace-curtain romances.' Even McKay called her novels 'fastidious and precious,' and to critics of the Harlem Renaissance, Fauset is sometimes described as the 'Rear Guard.'
Fauset's own relationship to her literary community, however, was more critical and innovative than these condescending terms would suggest. On the one hand, she deplored the cult of primitivism and the limits that white publishers set on the portrayal of blacks in fiction. Most publishers, she wrote in protest, 'persist in finding only certain types of Negroes interesting and if an author presents a variant they fear that the public either won't believe in it or won't stand for it.' Indeed, Fauset's first novel, There Is Confusion (1924), was rejected by publishers because it contained 'no description of Harlem dives, no race riot, no picturesque abject poverty.' 'White readers just don't expect Negroes to be like this,' her publishers complained.25
On the other hand, Fauset's portraits of black middle-class women, struggling with sexual politics as well as with racial tensions, challenged the stereotypes of black male readers. Fauset's most important novel, Plum Bun (1929), uses a contrast between two sisters, the light-skinned Angela and the dark Virginia, to dramatize the temptations of 'passing' for her gifted black women. For Fauset, the theme of 'passing' has a double meaning; it refers both to the racial conflicts of the mulatto who can enter the white world and to the divided sensibility of the woman artist who must conceal or sacrifice her vision in response to social definitions of femininity. As one character in the novel remarks, 'God doesn't like women.' Each sister represents an aspect of Fauset's own identity. Through the vivid Jinny, a teacher in Harlem, she describes the intellectual world of the Harlem Renaissance and its male idols, like the spellbinding theorist Van Meier. Through the gifted artist Angela, who studies in New York and Paris, Fauset shows the steady subversion of female talent by myths of romance and domesticity. Whether she is courted by the cynical white playboy Roger or the idealistic black painter Anthony, Angela fears that she will risk losing love and security if she appears strong or insists on putting her art first; to be beloved and feminine she must be 'dependent, fragile … to the point of ineptitude.' In marrying Anthony, she determines to make his happiness her career: 'At the cost of every ambition which she had ever known she would make him happy. After the manner of most men his work would probably be the greatest thing in the world to him. And he should be the greatest thing in the world to her.'
Similar themes of female sexuality and frustrated ambition are explored in the remarkable novels of Nella Larsen. The daughter of a Danish mother and a West Indian father, Larsen studied at Fisk University and the University of Copenhagen, and trained as a nurse in New York. Later she became a librarian. Her literary career was brief and intense. On the basis of her two novels, Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929), she was offered a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing in 1930—the first black woman to be so honored. But Larsen never finished another book. After her return from Europe, as she dissolved her marriage to a prominent black physicist, her career ended in silence and obscurity.
We may look for the clues to Larsen's unhappy career in the tensions of her two novels about cultivated women of mixed parentage trying to find a place for themselves in the Harlem art world, in white society, or in the black rural South. In Quicksand, the mulatto heroine Helga Crane is intellectual and cosmopolitan, but she feels alienated and alone wherever she goes. At the black Southern college where she teaches English, she is repelled by the caution of her black colleagues and by their self-denying emphasis on racial uplift. In Harlem, she is both intrigued by the glamor and imagination of black society and irritated by its obsession with race. Yet when she goes to live with relatives in Denmark, Helga misses the company of other blacks, experiencing a belated sense of racial identity she had not even known she possessed. Resisting marriage, moreover, she is tormented by the intensity of sexual desires that are unacceptable in all her social worlds. Larsen imagines a grim resolution to Helga's dilemma; wandering into a black revivalist prayer meeting in New York, she finds a release for her stifled emotions in the Bacchic frenzy of worship and song. 'In the confusion of seductive repentance,' she marries the evangelical preacher and goes to live with him in Alabama, a marriage that sentences her to permanent imprisonment in childbearing and poverty. Although she is gifted with intelligence and beauty, Helga seems doomed by both her sexuality and her race.
The most important and productive woman writer of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston, experienced similar conflicts in her life, but managed to transcend them in her work. Raised in the all-black community of Eatonville, Florida, where her father was the mayor, Hurston grew up with the direct experience of rural Southern society that writers like Fauset and Larsen from the urban Northeast had missed. In 1925, however, having begun to establish a reputation in Harlem as one of the most talented and irreverent young writers, Hurston won a scholarship to Barnard College, where she was the only black student. Trained as an anthropologist by Franz Boas, and subsidized by a wealthy white patron of black writers whom she called 'Godmother,' Hurston returned to the South with the eyes of an observer, and with the methods of a social scientist rather than an artist. The tall tales of her childhood had been redefined as 'folklore,' and her task was to collect and analyze them. Yet Hurston kept her aesthetic identity intact; she survived both the pressure of the academic community to distance herself from black culture and the pressure of the white literary community to romanticize it. The books she wrote in the 1930s—most notably Mules and Men (1935), Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and Moses: Man of the Mountain (1939)—are memorable for what Hurston called 'a Negro way of saying,' a subtle, pungent, and original style that draws force from the black vernacular but is carefully crafted and influenced by literary models as well. However, Hurston's determination to write from inside black culture and to withstand fashionable issues of racial tension or oppression ('I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood,' she wrote in 'How It Feels to Be Colored Me') antagonized her male contemporaries. Richard Wright, Sterling A. Brown, and Ralph Ellison accused her of pandering to a white audience and attacked her use of dialect humor as 'minstrel technique.' Like Fauset and Larsen, Hurston had to make her way as an independent and strong female artist in the face of male opposition.
Hurston's finest book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, blends several traditions of American writing. In technique, it is a modernist novel that incorporates surreal elements into its realism, and that alternates between the sophisticated verbal range of an omniscient narrator and a more intimate folk idiom that represents the consciousness of the heroine, Janey. Hurston's use of dialect, folklore, and a mulatto heroine roots her in the Afro-American literary tradition as well. But the novel is primarily the story of a woman's evolution from loneliness to independence. In what it includes and what it leaves out, it demonstrates Hurston's commitment to traditions of female narrative. Unlike her predecessors in the 1920s, Hurston was not afraid to make female sexuality a central theme in her fiction. Janey's growth to personal maturity is reflected by the sexual as well as emotional terms of her three marriages, which represent three stages of her inner development. Married at sixteen to an older man for whom she feels no desire and who would turn her into a 'mule' (one who carries a burden passed by white men to black men to black women), she bolts. Her second marriage, to the domineering and possessive Joe Starks, becomes a power struggle that ends with her silencing and subordination. After Joe's death, Janey chooses Tea Cake, a younger man, who insists that she 'partakes wid everything,' that she share both his work and his play. Tender and affectionate, Tea Cake teaches her to fish and to shoot; he cooks for her and encourages her to tell stories with the men. Yet at the end of the novel, after Tea Cake has been bitten by a rabid dog, Janey is forced to shoot him.
Why does Hurston arrange her plot so that her heroine is forced to destroy a loving and egalitarian hero, if not because her heroine's survival meant more to her than romantic love? Having learned how to speak and to work, Janey must end on her own, free to make her own way in the world. Hurston's strong resistance to saddling her heroine with domestic burdens, however idealized, is made clear by the fact that despite three marriages, in two of which sex plays an important role, Janey has no children; in fact, the novel seems deliberately constructed to make us look away from this striking omission, to make us ignore such a lapse in its realism. In Quicksand, Helga Crane ends up pregnant and immobilized with her fifth child; in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janey remains unencumbered and so is free to realize her dreams.
The 1930s did not end happily for American women writers. Within the academic institutions of American literature, women were increasingly marginalized. In 1935, the first edition of a standard college textbook, Major American Writers, included no women at all. Even the great bestsellers of the decade, such as Pearl Buck's The Good Earth (1931) and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936), were taken as confirmations of women's talent for a popular literature that could never compete with male art. During the last years of her life, Zora Neale Hurston moved from job to job, forgotten and neglected. When she died in 1960, she was living in a welfare home, working as a maid. Her grave was unmarked.
Yet despite all the difficulties and defeats, American women writers in the 1920s and 1930s produced an important body of work that has finally become influential, as we begin to incorporate it into a three-dimensional understanding of American literary history. Although the feminist movement waned during these decades, many strong women writers resisted the pressures to abandon their own visions and voices. In every genre—poetry, the short story, the novel—women writers between the wars advanced the honest exploration of female experiences and female lives. Moreover, many revised the aesthetic techniques and narrative strategies of their male contemporaries, in order to record uniquely female perspectives. As the feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have noted, the sonnet sequences of Wylie and Millay expressed female sexual desires within a genre traditionally devoted to the expression of male desire.26 The more experimental poets of the period—Gertrude Stein, H. D., Marianne Moore—contested the linguistic, syntactical, and thematic conventions of what Stein called 'patriarchal poetry.' Women novelists on the Left infused the stiff formulas of proletarian realism with psychological nuance and lyric force. And the women writers of the Harlem Renaissance insisted on telling their own stories despite neglect, condescension, or critical abuse.
Ultimately, the value of the literature of the past has to be measured in terms of its continued impact on readers, writers, and critics. No book is ever lost as long as there are new generations of readers to enjoy it, new generations of writers to be stimulated by it, new generations of critics to reveal its fuller meanings. By this standard, women writers between the wars have already established their place in our literary tradition. Ignored or misunderstood in their own day, they often died in disappointment. Several of their most ambitious books were left incomplete. But their achievement has survived, making them significant precursors of the world in which we live as well as the one in which we read and write. Like the contemporary renaissance in American women's poetry and fiction, the development of a female tradition of political writing has been founded upon the work of women writers of the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps the fate of Zora Neale Hurston, in many ways the most painfully 'lost' member of a lost generation, can serve as an example for all. When Hurston died, her books were out of print; histories of Afro-American writing ignored or disparaged her work; aspiring young writers studied American literature without even encountering her name. But today she is recognized not only as a gifted black woman writer but also as what the novelist Alice Walker, who made a pilgrimage in the 1970s to put a headstone on Hurston's grave, called 'a genius of the South.' For Walker and for many of the leading women writers, black and white, of the 1980s, Their Eyes Were Watching God has become one of the most important books in a literary tradition that continues to inspire them and to enable their work. As we continue to enlarge that tradition, the lost generation of American women's writing may offer further surprises and riches. We must not let it become lost again.
- Louise Bogan to Morton Zabel, cited in Elizabeth Frank, Louise Bogan: A Portrait (New York: Knopf, 1985), 33.
- John Aldridge, After the Lost Generation (New York: Noonday Press, 1958), 13.
- See Hermione Lee, Willa Cather: Double Lives (New York: Pantheon, 1989), 183.
- Emily Newell Blair, cited in William H. Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Role (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 30.
- Mary Austin, 'The Forward Turn,' The Nation, 20 July 1927, 58.
- Lillian Hellman, An Unfinished Woman (New York: Bantam, 1970), 29.
- Helen L. Horowitz, Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges (New York: Knopf, 1984), 287-8.
- Theodore Roethke, 'The Poetry of Louise Bogan,' Selected Prose of Theodore Roethke, ed. Ralph J. Mills, Jr. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965), 133-4.
- See William Drake, Sara Teasdale: Woman and Poet (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979).
- See Stanley Olson, Elinor Wylie: A Biography (New York: Dial Press, 1978).
- Hugh Kenner, 'More than a Bolus of Idiosyncracies,' New York Times Book Review, 17 July 1977, 14.
- What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920-1970, ed. Ruth Limmer (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973), 86.
- Frank, Louise Bogan, 77.
- The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, ed. Allan Ross Macdougal (New York: Harper, 1952), 173.
- Katha Pollitt, 'Sleeping Fury,' The Yale Review (Summer 1985), 600.
- See Hortense Flexner King, 'Genevieve Taggard, 1894-1948,' Sarah Lawrence College Alumnae Magazine, 14 (Fall 1948), 12; and Genevieve Taggard, 'Children of the Hollow Men,' Christian Register Unitarian, 125 (Nov. 1946), 441-2.
- Elinor Langer, Josephine Herbst: The Story She Could Never Tell (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1984), 120.
- Alice Kessler-Harris and Paul Lauter, 'Introduction,' to Tess Slesinger, The Unpossessed (New York: Feminist Press, 1984), xi. I am very much indebted to this essay for background material on the Left and fiction in the 1930s.
- Mary McCarthy, interviewed by Elisabeth Sifton in Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989), 183.
- Elaine Hedges, 'Introduction,' to Meridel Le Sueur, Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980 (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982), 15. See also Robert Shaffer, 'Women and the Communist Party, USA,' Socialist Review, 99 (May-June 1979), 73-118.
- Hedges, 'Introduction,' 8-11.
- Deborah Rosenfelt, 'From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition,' Feminist Studies, 7 (Fall 1981), 383.
- See Elinor Langer, 'Afterword,' to Josephine Herbst, Rope of Gold (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1984), 441.
- See Janet Sharistanian, 'Afterword,' to Tess Slesinger, The Unpossessed, 370-1.
- See Deborah E. McDowell, 'Introduction,' to Jessie Redmon Fauset, Plum Bun (London: Pandora Press, 1985), ix-xxiv.
- Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 1241-2.
JEANNE LARSEN (ESSAY DATE 1993)
Larsen, Jeanne. "Lowell, Teasdale, Wylie, Millay, and Bogan." In The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, pp. 203-32. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
In the following excerpt, Larsen examines the careers of such early-twentieth century poets as Amy Lowell and Sara Teasdale, examining how their writings relate to those of other writers including Louise Bogan, Hilda Doolittle, Adelaide Crapsey, Genevieve Taggard, and others.
Passionate expression of emotion, revelation of personal sensibility, apparent delicacy overlaying sensuality and self-assertion, musicality created by diction and cadence, a vigorous grace of form: these qualities are characteristic of much work by a succession of American women poets. This tradition reached a peak in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, when such poets as Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), Elinor Wylie (1885-1928), and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) enjoyed popular favor, flourishing careers, and critical praise.
The reasons for the broad appeal of their musical and moving poems are apparent on first reading. The fascinating complexities beneath polished surfaces are not. Through the 1940s American students continued to read poems by these women; some of their work maintained a quiet popularity in the years that followed. Yet by mid-century all three—like other successful female poets of their era—had fallen into critical disregard.
A new assessment of such disregard, and of the poetry itself, has begun. Understanding the value of these poets' work, and the reasons behind the changing estimations of that value, restores to us a fuller picture of a vital era in American poetry. It can also offer us a new avenue into work by other American poets, including not only Amy Lowell (1874-1925) and Louise Bogan (1897-1970) but also such neglected writers as Adelaide Crapsey (1878-1914), Anne Spencer (1882-1975), Georgia Douglas Johnson (1886-1966), Genevieve Taggard (1894-1948), Eunice Tietjens (1884-1944), and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle, 1886-1961).
For half a century Teasdale, Wylie, and Millay have generally been ignored or treated as embarrassing mistakes in vulgar taste. Lowell is often presented as an interesting, somewhat comic, figure in literary sociology, but hardly someone to be taken seriously as a poet. Bogan earned respect for her work as a critic as well as prizes for her poetry, yet all too frequently she too has been passed over or short-changed or praised in terms that distort her poetic achievement.
What has caused this? A study of anthologies of twentieth-century verse suggests that the changes in critical appraisal do have some correlation with the gender of the poets—and of those who do the selecting. Important anthologies edited by women and published in multiple editions from the mid-teens to the mid-thirties (such as Margery Gordon and Marie B. King's Verse of Our Day, or Harriet Monroe and Alice Crobin Henderson's The New Poetry, or Jesse Belle Rittenhouse's three collections of "modern verse") contain much greater ratios of female poets to male than do present-day anthologies, edited by men, that cover the same period.
But gender alone does not explain the situation. Some poetry by women was accorded a place in the canon. The marvelously dry, and ostensibly self-deprecatory, syllabic verse of Marianne Moore (1887-1972) evidently did not threaten critics in the antifeminist period in American literary scholarship that took hold during the thirties and gained strength after World War II. Even Louise Bogan, whose work derived creative energy from her complex (and sometimes inhibiting) relationship with the female lyrical tradition, was rather one-sidedly praised by her friend Theodore Roethke for freedom from the "embroidering," "lyric … posturing," "lamenting the lot of the woman," and "caterwauling" of other women poets. An appearance of neutered chastity, of restraint in language and content was, it seems, acceptable in ways that stirring self-expression and musicality were not.
Consciously avant-garde female poets of the early twentieth century have been neglected too, but for different reasons than more lyrical writers. In the poetry of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), Mina Loy (1882-1966), and Laura Riding Jackson (1901-1991) the reader finds difficult experimental language, conspicuous erudition, and profound displays of intellectual force. Loy explored epistemological, metaphysical, and aesthetic issues, rejecting traditional concepts of femininity through a rigorous and unsentimental analysis of female experience and consciousness in patriarchial culture; Stein and Riding Jackson did the same through brilliant complexities of thought and linguistic innovation. Their avant-garde qualities deprived the three of a broad popular audience, but at least they could not belittled in terms suggesting a shallow girlishness.
Yet just as the sly subversions and covert sexuality of Moore's poetry have recently been brought to light, so the value of Stein's, Loy's, and Riding Jackson's work is overcoming critical evasion and sloth. No longer can the poetry of early twentieth-century American women be limited to one or two representatives accorded a quiet niche within an androcentric hierarchy, if the work seems inhibited rather than passionate, if it does not boldly claim a place in the grand traditions of English lyric or philosophical verse, if it eschews heightened sound and assertive rhythms, and if it does not call attention to such disruptive phenomena as female artistic creativity and female desire. Recent critical and biographical studies such as Jean Gould's and Richard Benvenuto's on Lowell, William Drake's and Carol Schoen's on Teasdale, Judith Farr's on Wylie, and a growing body of work on Millay and Bogan reveal the increasing interest in some of these women and their work.
The foundations for the current reassessment were, in fact, laid in 1923, just as the golden years were drawing toward an end. In her essay "Two Generations in American Poetry," Amy Lowell tells us that from the late nineteenth century through the first decade of the next American readers of poetry found themselves in "a world of sweet appreciation … of caged warblers, which species of gentle music-makers solaced it monthly from the pages of the Century or the Atlantic Monthly. "Then, as life in the United States changed, a poetic revolt began. ("Prosperity is the mother of art," writes the pragmatic Lowell, "no matter how odd such an idea may seem.")
So far, the story is a familiar one, though other critics have found more of interest than Lowell did in such turn-of-the-century lyric poets as Lizette Woodworth Reese (1856-1935) and Louise Imogen Guiney (1861-1920). But observe how Lowell describes the work of the new generation, the generation of Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, H. D. and other Imagists, Edgar Lee Masters, and (though she does not mention him by name) of Ezra Pound: "this new poetry, whether written by men or women, was in essence masculine, virile, very much alive. Where the nineties had warbled, it was prone to shout."
Observe, too, how she describes the literary generation that followed, a breathtaking ten years later. Of the younger poets, the ones "doing the better work" she calls the Lyrists. She praises their skill in versification, and declares expression of emotion to be their "chief stock in trade." The best of them, she tells us, are Elinor Wylie and Edna St. Vincent Millay: "It is, indeed, a feminine movement, and remains such even in the work of its men."
Readers today may find themselves troubled by Lowell's unexamined images of shouting, virile masculinity and musical, emotional femininity, even though the poet-critic was quick to describe Wylie as "one of the most intellectual" of American poets. Yet in understanding the poets and the poetry of the United States from the mid-1910s through the 1930s—as in understanding the history of their changing critical reception—considerations of sexual difference and gender politics are inescapable. Recent scholars, including Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Emily Stipes Watts, Cheryl Walker, Elaine Showalter, William Drake, Jean Gould, Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia L. Smyers, and Bonnie Kime Scott have followed Lowell's lead in investigating the various powerful effects of gender on the lives and art of literary women of that era.
One such effect may indeed be "warmth of feeling" or "poetic intensity." In 1951 Louise Bogan stated in her history of twentieth-century American poetry that the line of this quality "moves on unbroken" from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, in the poetry of women. And despite the disdain she had professed in 1935 for the work of "female songbirds" and her "own lyric side," Bogan here shows the shift in attitudes that was to continue through her later years. She argues that restoration of emotional energy to American poetry was grounded in "womanly attributes," was made possible through the liberating social changes effected by feminists, and was "accomplished almost entirely by women poets through methods which proved to be as strong as they seemed delicate."
Those strong and delicately realized methods of their craft, that "poetic intensity," the "line of feeling" running through the work of Lowell, Teasdale, Wylie, Millay, and Bogan herself, commends them to us. They (as well as H. D. and their other poetic sisters and daughters) have had to come to terms with—to don or drape anew-the mantle of their nineteenth-century heritage of female lyricism. Most often, they have done so to very good effect.
Eclectic and wide-ranging in her art, Amy Lowell is usually discussed in terms other than her relationship to the female lyrical tradition. But, in fact, she wrote beautifully of personal passions, and her work is a record of stimulating and successful experimentation with the music of finely wrought words.
Despite the self-doubts engendered in her as a girl who did not fit the standard image of female beauty, when she came into her own in her thirties Lowell took herself quite seriously as an artist and as a Professional. She was also generous in her support of other writers, male as well as female, writing in new voices and new modes, In a successful power stuggle with Ezra Pound she advocated a collaborative—rather than his authoritarian—approach to the editing of the second Imagist anthology. In all of this she drew on the nineteenth-century tradition of professional women writers, on a conventionally masculine assertiveness, and on the conventionally feminine ability to connect with others. This same range of traits is evident when she places herself in literary history.
In her long poem "The Sisters," Lowell constructs for herself a literary ancestry that makes evident the complex relationships of women writers in her day to their foremothers. The poem begins by explaining the relative scarcity of women poets: it is a result of the great demands of motherhood and the other "every-day concerns" of women's lives. Here the poet breaks with the many Victorian writers who celebrated female self-sacrifice and a circumscribed domesticity.
Naming Sappho, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Emily Dickinson as her "older sisters," Lowell explores their greatness, the differences among them, and "how extraordinarily unlike / Each is to me." Perhaps, in the way of poets, she protests her uniqueness a bit too much, but this is hardly surprising in a time when "we women who write poetry" were considered "a queer lot." The nineteenth-century female lyricists are left out altogether, and Barrett Browning is chided for her failure to write "beyond the movement of pentameters." Dickinson is most highly praised, especially for her "range of mind." But when Lowell commends Sappho for her impassioned amatory poems and "her loveliness of words," the younger writer praises the very qualities that distinguished those of her contemporaries she dubbed the Lyrists.
Lowell's covert affinities with other earlier literary women are made clearer in her perceptive and subversive book-length poem, A Critical Fable, published anonymously in 1922. In this witty, antimisogynist description of the contemporary poetic scene (which sent the American literary world into a buzz of curiosity, outrage, and sly delight), she again gives Dickinson top marks, citing her as the one nineteenth-century American poet-male or female—she can "sincerely admire." But the poem's narrator remains open to a variety of poetic styles, assuring us that current literary taste gives "no prominence / To rhyme or the lack of it."
Here, Lowell jocularly describes herself and her work as "electrical … prismatic … outrageous … erratic / And jarring to some, but to others ecstatic," an innovator and champion of the bold new generation. Yet she admits "there's always a heart / Hid away in her poems for the seeking; impassioned, / Beneath silver surfaces cunningly fashioned." Recognizing this is essential to a complete picture of this poet of many voices and modes.
Those carefully made poems of Lowell's express her belief in the fundamental relationship of poetry and music, a belief that, despite the formal innovations of much of her poetry, clearly links her to the lyrical tradition. In 1919 she gave a lecture at Harvard (famous in part for being the first ever given by a woman at that proud institution) entitled "Some Musical Analogies in Modern Poetry." The preface to Lowell's breakthrough second book, Sword Blades and Poppy Seed(1914), advocates an alternative name for vers libre: "unrhymed cadence," a term that draws deliberately on musicology's vocabulary for expressive rhythmic phrasing. "Merely chopping prose lines into lengths does not produce cadence," Lowell writes; "it is constructed upon mathematical and absolute laws of balance and time." This position not only defended free verse against those who criticized it as impoverished or anarchistic, it also allowed her to publish poems in the new mode alongside sonnets and other metrical poems with varied rhyme schemes—as well as experiments in "polyphonic prose," the intense interweaving of vowels, consonants, and accentual patterns that she liked to compare to the many voices of an orchestra.
The groundwork for her careful attention to effects of sound must have been laid by the formal poetry of the nineteenth-century "music-makers" Lowell heard as a child. She grew up listening to the much-admired light verse of her famous cousin James Russell Lowell, and to what her father chose to read aloud: the songlike poems written (often by women) for children, and selections from Longfellow or Frances Ridley Havergal's Morning Bells. (Amy Lowell's biographer, S. Foster Damon, describes this anthology as "abominable"—presumably because it contained the sentimental rhymed and metrical verse so popular at the time.)
In a 1917 essay entitled "Poetry as Spoken Art" we learn something of why Lowell did so well at public readings of her work: "Poetry is as much an art to be heard as is music," she writes, and gives very good advice on how to read all kinds of poems aloud. The essay describes the essential linkage of sound and feeling that every lyric poem enacts. It is the "musical quality" of poetry "which differentiates it from prose, and it is this musical quality which bears in it the stress of emotion without which no true poetry can exist."
The last six poems in Lowell's Pulitzer Prizewinning book What's O'Clock (which she completed shortly before her death in 1925), exemplify how Lowell found in the sonnet a form still vital, still capable of containing and shaping that "stress of emotion." The sequence is addressed to Eleonora Duse, the acclaimed actress who more than twenty years before had set young Amy afire with the idea of making art from words; it explores themes of beauty's endurance and power to inspire. As suits passionate poems written to this demanding form, metaphors of molding, carving, mirroring, stamping, and lenses made of "twisted glass" mingle with those evoking the heat and dazzle of intense responses to the actress and her art. The second poem of the six announces its musical nature by declaring itself "a letter or a poem—the words are set / To either tune." It then describes the poet (or, in a brilliant ambiguity, the poem itself) as a drop of sealing wax "impressed" with "a fret of workmanship." The result is "like melted ice"—frozen, "precise / And brittle"; nonetheless, the sonnet suggests, having been so formed, it may show images of great, even divine, power. And of course, such well-made poems enabled the poet to express quite openly her feelings for the one she so admired.
Despite the emotional repression advocated by the androcentric Modernist aesthetic, Lowell's work demonstrates that her self-description in A Critical Fable is indeed accurate. One indication is her many striking images of sexuality. Some of these are not gender-marked, or include a phrase, such as "supple-limbed youth" in "White and Green" (1914), that steers the reader toward assuming heterosexual desire. One of her best-known poems, the free-verse dramatic monologue "Patterns" (1916) presents female sexuality as "softness … pink and silver" hidden away, waiting to be released by a "heavy-booted," stumbling male lover. Like earlier female writers of the so-called Erotic school such as Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919), Lowell here objects to the suppression of womanly desire: "passion / Wars against the stiff brocade," against "each button, hook, and lace" of the persona's proper attire.
The poet sometimes—as in the relatively early poems "Clear, with Light Variable Winds," "The Basket," and "The Shadow"—adopted a male point of view when celebrating an idealized female beauty. Over time Lowell increasingly used explicit images of lesbian eroticism; many of her love poems were inspired by her longtime companion, Ada Dwyer Russell. For example, in "Aubade" (written in 1913, about a year and a half after Lowell met Russell, and published after Russell began sharing her home in 1914), the poet writes:
As I would free the white almond from the green husk
So would I strip your trappings off,
And fingering the smooth and polished kernel
I should see that in my hands glittered a gem beyond counting.
The 1919 Pictures of the Floating World is rich with such images. "The Weather-Cock Points South" describes parting the "leaves" of the beloved, "The smaller ones, / Pleasant to the touch, veined with purple; / The glazed inner leaves," until "you stood up like a white flower." In "A Decade," Lowell writes: "When you came, you were like red wine and honey, / And the taste of you burnt my mouth with its sweetness."
Lowell broke with the previous century by writing, as in these examples, both more far more explicitly and in the Imagist mode. But at the same time she was carrying on the feminine tradition of ardent love poems. The same held true when she helped enrich twentieth-century American poetry by drawing on the literary heritage of China and Japan. Fir-Flower Tablets, the 1921 anthology of renditions of Chinese verse that Lowell produced in conjunction with her old schoolmate, Florence Wheelock Ayscough, acknowledges a distant foremother: its title translates the name of the fine sheets of paper made by the most successful woman poet of Chinese poetry's golden age, Xue Tao, whose best-known work includes superlative amatory verse. Lowell's search for new forms led her to write English haiku. But despite its title and its debt to Japanese models, the late sequence "Twenty-Four Hokku on a Modern Theme" reminds the reader once again of poems by nineteenth-century American women, as its lucid images mingle sorrow, self-abnegation, and self-pity with moving declarations of adoration.
The variety of form, tone, and voice within the full range of Amy Lowell's work makes her impossible to pigeonhole with a single convenient label such as Imagist. She strove to learn from many poets and to forge a new aesthetic for a new age. She also strove to write each poem in whatever manner best suited it; often that manner was rooted in the lyrical and passionate poetry of the immediate past.
Sara Teasdale is sometimes taken to be Amy Lowell's opposite: an unrebellious daughter to nineteenth-century poets in the traditional feminine mode, a sentimental songbird warbling on in the new century. Indeed, in A Critical Fable, Lowell underlines the negative implications of that metaphor, describing Teasdale as "a little green linnet / Hung up in a cage," and faults her for a range limited to one tone, "the reflex amatorial." Yet Lowell is quick to observe that Teasdale's "poetry succeeds, in spite of fragility, / Because of her very remarkable agility." This "dainty erotic" is characterized as a skillful seducer of her audience, who reveals to the careful reader "a primitive passion so nicely refined," then slips away, thus preserving her essential autonomy. Although Lowell pokes at bit of fun at "Our love-poet, par excellence," she also places Teasdale squarely in a line of descent from Lowell's own poetic fore-mothers, Sappho and Elizabeth Barrett Browning—only "Our Sara is bolder" than the latter, "and feels quite at ease / As herself."
If Lowell's relationship to the female lyric tradition is stronger than most of her critics would have us see, Teasdale's is more complex. Teasdale's work is charged with a deceptive air of spontaneity; it shines with a deceptively clear gloss. But—as her notebooks and letters reveal—the art and effort were in fact considerable. And the poems themselves remind us that the caged bird's song is not always a simple one.
Teasdale achieved striking, subtle effects from metrical variations and from the use of varied line-length. But in the early years of her poetic maturity she tuned her ear to the cadences of vers libre, and learned from the new way of writing a great deal about word choice and the power of the image. From then on she occasionally chose to use a musically adept free verse.
Whatever the form, her lyrics focused on the expression—and examination—of human feeling. In a 1919 essay she states, "The poem is written to free the poet from an emotional burden." Teasdale lived and wrote in a time of enormous social change, and her poetry draws into question notions of the previous era about what was proper in women's lives—especially, emotional lives—and women's art.
In her own life, deftly though she managed it, that questioning was costly. Her biographers show that it was also unconscious or quickly repressed, as Teasdale clung to appearances of the old order in the day of the New Woman. At age twenty-four, living in her parents' home, she professed impatience with women who chose self-realization over self-sacrifice, off-handedly citing the heroine of Ibsen's A Doll's House. But even in her earliest collection of poems, Teasdale writes to an exalted ideal lover, "I bid you awake at dawn and discover / I have gone my way and left you free." For all that this departure is said to be a "gift" that breaks the speaker's heart, the slam of the door as Nora leaves the doll's house in search of her own freedom seems to echo—contradictory and poignant—between these lines.
Certainly Teasdale's description of the changing times into which the nineteenth-century British poet Christina Rossetti had been born tells us something about both women: "Such changes are a strain on the individual called upon to undergo them. We cannot live through one of the crucial acts of the drama of civilization without paying for the privilege." Teasdale's often painful relations with men—her tendency toward love relationships unrequited on one side or the other, and her evasive marriag—show something of how she paid.
Teasdale defended sincere, direct self-expression as essential to true poetry—and hid herself behind a variety of complex, conflicting speakers who suggest a complex, conflicted self. "The finest utterance of women's hopes has been on love," she wrote in the introduction for The Answering Voice (1917; revised edition, 1928), her anthology of love poems by women. Again and again the speaker of her poems is "crying after love" ("Spring Night," 1915), in lyrics that appear intensely personal. Teasdale's first two books in particular (Sonnets to Duse and Other Poems, published privately in 1907, and Helen of Troy and Other Poems, 1911) contain many brief, skillful expressions of love-longing. Sometimes a poem appears to accept the limitations assigned to women, as in "The Wanderer":
But what to me are north and south,
And what the lure of many lands,
Since you have leaned to catch my hands
And lay a kiss upon my mouth.
But often passion remains unrealized: "Loves come to-night to all the rest / But not to me." ("But Not to Me").
Even the early poems, however, reveal underlying tensions between sexuality and the chastity required by Victorian morality. The very female image of the "velvet rose" in "A Maiden" evokes an intense, frustrated physical desire:
And since I am a maiden
My love will never know
That I could kiss him with a mouth
More red than roses blow.
The poem "Union Square" points out the cost of traditional feminine modesty, causing a sensation when Helen of Troy was published. Though the poem's speaker claims to feel it is "well" that the man she loves "never leaned to hear / The words my heart was calling," she cries out with envy of the streetwalkers who are able (in a naively glorified picture of a sex-worker's life) to "ask for love," as she may not.
A sharp irony is also at work in "The Kiss," with its interrogation of the same romanticized notions she appears to express uncritically elsewhere. After the speaker receives the kiss she hoped for, she becomes "like a stricken bird / That cannot reach the south." What causes this wounding that prevents fulfillment? "His kiss was not so wonderful / as all the dreams I had," we are told—and are left to wonder whether the hurt comes from the lover's inadequacy or from the idealization of romantic love as a woman's one source of happiness. Indeed, the poem leaves open the question of whether the "dreams" were dreams of a romance no real man could live up to or other dreams (like those of "The Wanderer," who in fact had "loved the green, bright north, / And … the cold, sweet sea") that must now be given up.
Many poems in Rivers to the Sea (1915) posit the conflict between romance and self quite distinctly. "I Am Not Yours" is sometimes read as an example of the desire women were expected to have, to be "lost" in love. In fact, the poem quite subversively asserts an individuality that continues despite that well-learned longing: "Yet I am I, who long to be / Lost as a light is lost in light."
The title of another poem casts the struggle in disguised terms, "New Love and Old." But the true tension emerges at the end, when the love now set aside is asked, "Shall I be faithless to myself / Or to you?" The answer to this dilemma could be almost flippant, in a tone more usually associated with Millay, or even Dorothy Parker (1893-1967); in "Song," a lover is given distinct demands:
You must love me gladly
Soul and body too,
Or else find a new love,
And good-bye to you.
Sometimes, in a more conventional manner, the resolution to the conflict between vulnerability and independence lies in death, as in the beautiful lyric, "I Shall Not Care."
Teasdale's career was to explore this crucial tension many times, moving more and more often to the side of the self. "The Crystal Gazer" (in Dark of the Moon, 1926) expresses the intent to "take my scattered selves and make them one." And the first poem in the same book, "On the Sussex Downs," locates the source of poetic creativity quite clearly: "It was not you, though you were near.… It was my self that sang in me."
The final section of Flame and Shadow (1920) is titled "Songs for Myself." Although its first poem, "The Tree," begins, "Oh to be free of myself," and although those following pick up the growing themes of age, disillusionment, and mortality, "Song Making" tells us that the poet "'had to take my own cries / And thread them into a song"—even though "the debt is terrible / That must be paid." Teasdale never stopped making a personal and passionate art, however painful the process.
One alternative to the "terrible" price of self-awareness achieved through self-expression is silence, an alternative many women have chosen. Teasdale examines this cultural expectation in a number of poems. In "From the Sea" (1915), a woman addresses a man she adores, saying, "praise me for this, / That in some strange way I was strong enough / To keep my love unuttered." Yet her first knowledge of her unattainable beloved came from the speaking-out of poetry: "all my singing had prefigured you."' "Night Song at Amalfi" (1915) more distinctly undermines the ideal of feminine reticence:
Oh, I could give him weeping,
Or I could give him song—
But how can I give silence
My whole life long?
"What Do I Care" (1920) seems, however, to repudiate the effort to assert individuality through the lyrical expression of emotion. Yet it does not choose self-effacement, it speaks of the greater strength of the mind, which is "a flint and a fire … proud and strong," while the poet's songs are only "a fragrance" and "do not show me at all": the last line states, "It is my heart that makes my songs, not I." But of course, in a rich and thought-provoking paradox, all this is set forth in the form of a song.
The idea of silence did attract Teasdale. She wrote (in "Those Who Love," 1926) of romantic heroines like Guinevere and Iseult, "Those who love the most, / Do not talk of their love." Even her Sappho asserts (in Teasdale's 1915 poem "Sappho") that she seeks at her life's end autonomy in a rest from making poetry: "I will not be a reed to hold the sound / Of whatsoever breath the gods may blow, / Turning my torment into music for them." Again, the reader discovers a paradox, for of course this refusal is expressed in seven pages of powerful blank verse. And what the world knows of Sappho it knows from her poetry. An earlier poem to the Greek poet's daughter, "Cleis" (1911), reminds us that Cleis, too, was preserved in a poem. Teasdale knew the same would be true of her; "Refuge" (1917) is but one of many houses "made of shining words, to be / My fragile immortality."
Teasdale continued to consider, in poetry, the value of keeping still. By 1926, when Dark of the Moon was published, Teasdale could write, "I have less need now than when I was young / To share myself with every comer / Or shape my thoughts into words with my tongue" ("The Solitary"). In her last book, Strange Victory (1933), Teasdale was to assert in one poem ("Age") that silence is appropriate to "the sad wisdom of age."
Teasdale's poetry ultimately subverted nineteenth-century ideas of feminine fulfillment in romantic love. The young dreamer of the early poems came to learn that "the heart asks more than life can give" ("Moonlight," 1920). A few years later she advised, "Take love when love is given, / But never think to find it / A sure escape from sorrow" ("Day's Ending," 1926). Yet in the book she finished shortly before her death, Strange Victory, Teasdale indicates that some sort of comfort is possible. "Last Prelude" suggests that the longed-for release from painful separateness that romantic love did not provide could come in the upward rush of "melody," in poetic inspiration. And in "Secret Treasure" the poet declares the value both of lyrical art and of autonomy within the mind, telling us that even when no poems took shape in actual words, she found "unencumbered loveliness" in "a hidden music in my brain."
For Louise Bogan, the resolution of what her society defined as a dissonant combination, "woman" and "poet," was not so easy. Her strategies for psychological survival and aesthetic success included a discriminating use of restrictions in the form and content of her poetry. She found in intellectual and verbal rigor a way to assert her artistic gifts, one that conveys a transformed version of the inhibition often required of female poets. The results included compelling, tightly disciplined poems on the disturbing topic of womanly emotionality—metrical and free-verse lyrics that display an unsurpassed sense of the music of the English language.
Biographers point out that Bogan's observations of her parents' turbulent relationships and her mother's extramarital affairs must have taught her early on to distrust unrestrained emotions. Yet young Louise also associated her mother with beauty, talent, and vitality. As late as 1962, in a lecture that carries forward her growing pride in the artistic achievements of women, Bogan counsels that women writers "must not lie … whine … attitudinize … theatricalize … nor coarsen their truths." She particularly denounced both "the role of the femme fatale" and "little girlishness."
Bogan's striving for a controlled impersonality—untainted by stock feminine poses or sentimental excess—was, of course, grounded in more than the circumstances of her childhood, two difficult marriages, or the painful love affairs of her early twenties. It was a carefully developed aesthetic position, an aspect of male Modernist doctrine that she assimilated and bent to her own purposes. Although the volume of Bogan's work was reduced by her self-imposed limitations, her critical principles enabled her to make enduring art.
Born almost a quarter-century after Lowell, Bogan reached maturity not with, but slightly after, a major feminist efflorescence in politics and literature. In the fall of 1923, when her first volume of poetry appeared, she was featured in Vanity Fair as one of the youngest "Distinguished American Women Poets Who Have Made the Lyric Verse Written by Women in America More Interesting Than That of Men." But her association there with Lowell, Millay, Teasdale, Wylie, and other literary woman was a far more positive thing than it came to be for critics in subsequent decades.
The reassertion of dominance by male Modernists (and their critical followers) analyzed by Gilbert and Gubar in No Man's Land had much to do with the revolt against the self-expressive poetry of the female lyricists. A similar anxiety may have brought about Bogan's insistence on women's limitations. Perhaps she described herself when she said in 1962, "The blows dealt women by social and religious change were real, and in certain times and places definitely maiming." Her next sentence seems to pick its way through territory mined with psychological peril, asserting that woman is "not the opposite or the 'equal' (or the rival) of man, but man's complement." And women's art, she felt, must accord with what she saw as women's nature.
As Bogan's place in the canon of modern poetry grows more secure, it is important not to forget the effect upon her work of the female lyricist tradition about which she felt such ambivalence. When musical verse with the appearance at least of direct and simple self-expression went out of style during the 1930s, she dissociated herself (in the words of a 1938 essay quoted by Jaqueline Ridgeway) from its potential excesses of "bathos" and "limpness" of form even as she reminded her readers of the "high tension" at work in the best such poems. She also hinted at the role of gender in fashion's swing, noting the "ridicule" and "contempt" being directed toward "Female lyric grief."
In her late teens Bogan read Teasdale, Guiney, Reese, and other women skilled at expressing feeling tempered by highly polished forms—and learned much from them. Yet she needed to differentiate herself. The poem "My Voice Not Being Proud," in her first book (Body of this Death, 1923), claims a poetic voice not "like a strong woman's, that cries / Imperiously aloud." The intricate rhyme scheme of the poem reins in every end-word but the headstrong "cries." In fact, however, the voice is certainly strong, and quietly proud.
Like Teasdale and Millay, moreover, Bogan develops the heritage of nineteenth-century women's poetry by voicing a critique of romantic love. In "Knowledge" (1923) she echoes the previous era's association of love and death in terms of present-day disillusionment: "passion warms little / of flesh in the mould." "The Changed Woman" (1923) "relearns" the nineteenth-century lesson that ardor brings wounds—and the twentieth-century lesson that "the wound heals over." But, we're told, this woman will ultimately yield again to the "unwise, heady" and seductive force "ever denied and driven"; readers are invited to reexamine the title with all the skepticism of the new age. "Girl's Song" (1929) similarly unites with the familiar theme of springtime love-sorrow, a modern worldly awareness that "another maiden" will fall for the faithless lover.
Bogan's poetry makes clear the price for women of the old myths of romance—and the new myths of her own Greenwich Village experiments in free love. She expresses compassion for those who have lived by both versions of vulnerability to the passions, even as she wryly reproves their foolishness. "Chanson Un Peu Naive" (1923) releases a radiant scattershot of ironies, aimed at the female experience of sex, at those who intend to escape the near-death it brings (physically, in orgasm or childbirth, as well as emotionally, in betrayal), at those who believe lovers' lies even while they utter them, at those like the young Millay who make the "pretty boast" of liberation, at those who fail to recognize that pain's warning signal may make it one's truest friend, and at those—including of course herself—who fashion poetry from all this.
Nevertheless, formal verse seemed necessary to Bogan to handle risky emotions. A 1948 letter states that the "burden of feeling" (the phrase echoes Teasdale's 1919 essay) is best taken up "instantly" by a practiced poetic technique (Bogan's emphasis). In "Single Sonnet" (Sleeping Fury, 1937) the poet calls on the "heroic mold" of the poem's structure to "take up, as it were lead or gold / The burden." Feeling is described as a "dreadful mass" that cannot be lifted from its torpor without "Staunch meter"; Ridgeway notes that the typescript of the poem indicates it was written at Cromwell Hall, the sanitarium where Bogan received treatment in 1931.
Bogan's early poem, "Sub Contra" (1923), expresses the tension between upwelling emotion and its containment in poetry. The title suggests that a lyric begins in resonant tones almost beneath the threshold of hearing, building from delicate tremors to "one note rage can understand." The poet invokes sounds rooted in the heart, which rouse the mind—as well as craft, which brings what is "riven" into the harmony of a chord. The poem, however, snaps shut with a warning against excess control. The final rhymed iambic tetrameter couplet plays off against the previous loosely cadenced stresses and subtle echoings (the preceding rhymes have run abcdefcedbaf) as it calls for freedom from rigidity—"for every passions sake."
Thus Bogan carries on her argument against the overwrought thrill her poetic mothers were accused of and against the neurotic deadening of sensibility of the backlash. The formal poem without "life" provided by feeling is a lackluster thing, like an artificial "Homunculus" (1937). The homunculus-poem, not engendered in ardent procreation but constructed in a learned alchemist's fleshless flask, "lacks … Some kernel of hot endeavor," a hazardous but essential source of bodily—perhaps specifically female—energy. In her pivotal 1947 essay "The Heart and the Lyre" Bogan wrote of the "impoverishment" that would result from an abandonment by women of emotionality "because of contemporary pressures or mistaken self-consciousness." Written after years of analysis and introspection, one of Bogan's rare last poems ("Little Lobelia's Song," 1968) was to recognize a further danger of repression: how speechless rage at abandonment sours into sleeplessness, depression, and tears.
Dangerous though it may seem, then, Bogan joins her foremothers in declaring passion essential to poetry. And she too found an empowerment in the making of verbal music. The title of her "Song for a Slight Voice" (Dark Summer, 1929) alludes ironically to the notion of an unassertive songstress, but the speaker warns:
If ever I render back your heart
So long to me delight and plunder,
It will be bound with the firm strings
That men have built the viol under.
Clearly, the singer, and the energetic rhythms of her song, have considerable ability to control.
Music, born of the emotions and needed as protection from the hurt they can bring, is in Bogan's view something as greatly to be desired as sexual release. "Musician" (Poems and New Poems, 1941) uses the rhyme scheme of a modified Shakespearean sonnet on short lines individually modulated to embody meaning through rhythm. An erotic yearning charges the descriptions of the music-maker's hands. But the much-desired plucking of strings—like the relief of poetic inspiration—has been long delayed. In light of the artistic silences of Bogan's later years these warnings seem prophetic.
Studies by Elizabeth Frank and Gloria Bowles, among others, have recently joined the volumes edited by Martha Collins and Ruth Limmer in elucidating Bogan's life and work. Many aspects of her art have received critical notice—her remarkable use of myth, her compelling explorations of the unconscious, her deep concern with mutability and the human condition, her relation to the Romantic as well as the Symbolist and High Modernist aesthetics. Yet no one aspect seems more essential to our understanding of that art than its grounding in the body: the body that pulses, hears, and sings. "The Alchemist" (1923) speaks of how flesh "still / Passionate" and oddly "unmysterious," outlasts all efforts of will and mind to refine it away. "You may have all things from me," a woman says to a lover in "Fifteenth Farewell" (1923), "save my breath." The first of these two intricately crafted Petrarchan sonnets finds in that "slight life in my throat … / … Close to my plunging blood," the inbreathing and outflow from which the lyric poem is born. This very physical thing is stronger than heart's pain or the rift between emotions and intellect, the divided "breast and mind."
Bogan seemed intensely aware that her body was a female one. Frustrated when her work was treated by critics in round-up reviews of recent books by women, she struggled with assimilated misogynist attitudes of her times. In a letter written two months before her fortieth birthday the only woman she lists among the nine examples of "oddly assorted authors" she read in her formative years is the British lyric poet Alice Meynell (1847-1922), although in fact there were a number of others. She describes "what I did and what I felt" then as "sui generis." Yet unique though she was, she came to know her parentage—her mothers and her fathers both. Bogan spoke human truths that transcend the channels formed by gender, but she spoke with a profound awareness of gender's molding force on the experience and the expression of those truths.
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