Bogan, Louise (1897–1970)
Bogan, Louise (1897–1970)
Poet and New Yorker critic who was one of America's most influential women of letters. Born on August 11, 1897, in Livermore Falls, Maine, a small mill town; died at her home in Washington Heights, New York, on February 4, 1970, of coronary occlusion; daughter of Daniel Joseph Bogan (a clerk and superintendent of
a paper mill) and Mary "May" Helen Murphy (Shields) Bogan; married Curt Alexander (a German-born captain in the army), on September 4, 1916 (died 1920); married Raymond Holden (a writer), on July 10, 1925 (legally separated, 1934); children: one daughter, Maidie Alexander (b. October 19, 1917).
Body of this Death (Robert M. McBride, 1923); Dark Summer (Scribner, 1929); The Sleeping Fury (Scribner, 1937); (collection) Poems and New Poems (Scribner, 1941); Achievement in American Poetry: 1900–1950 (Regnery, 1951); Collected Poems, 1923–1953 (Noonday Press, 1954); Selected Criticism: Poetry and Prose (Noonday Press, 1955); (co-compiled with William Jay Smith, anthology of poetry for children) The Golden Journey (Reilly & Lee, 1965); The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923–1968 (Farrar, Straus, 1968); (posthumously; a collection of journals and unpublished materials) Journey Around My Room (1980). Frequent contributor to the Partisan Review, Saturday Review of Literature, The New Yorker, Times Literary Supplement, and Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.
Louise Bogan was reticent when speaking about her early years. She was born on August 11, 1897, in the small mill town of Livermore Falls, near Lewiston, Maine, where her father Daniel Bogan worked in a paper mill for the International Paper Company. Though Irish Catholic, the family lived in a mill-owned house in the Protestant section. Her mother May Bogan hated the mill, the smell, the town, and its provinciality.
When Louise was four, the family moved to another mill town in Milton, New Hampshire. For the next two years, they lived in the Hotel Milton where Louise shared a room with her mother, while her father shared a room with her older brother. Liberated from her stifling life in Livermore Falls, May Bogan socialized on the veranda of the guest hotel and began a life of intrigue. Still a young child, Louise was aware of whisperings, odd looks, and clandestine meetings, the ill-concealed evidence of her mother's many trysts.
As May took lovers—admirers as she called them—she would bring Louise along on her assignations and leave her waiting out in the hall. On more than one occasion, her mother vanished for a few weeks, only to return repentant and docile. Scenes between her parents could be violent. A rebellious May would spew epithets at Daniel until he rejoined with threats. "[May] had a hunger for experience that was never appeased," wrote Elizabeth Frank in Louise Bogan: A Portrait, "a jealousy for the prerogatives of independence enjoyed at that time only by men." Louise loved her mother deeply and felt protective toward her. "I never truly feared her," said Bogan. "Her tenderness was the other side of her terror." Nevertheless, Bogan maintained that she became "the semblance of a girl, in which some desires and illusions had been early assassinated: shot dead."
When Louise was seven, the family moved once more, this time to Ballardvale, Massachusetts, a mill town near Andover, where her father and brother began working at a bottling plant. For the first time, they moved into a house of their own on Chester Street, followed by a move to Oak Street, then to Tewksbury Street. Homebound with a bout of scarlet fever, Louise learned to read from a book titled Heart of Oak: "Its contents were as delicious as food. They were food; they were the beginning of a new life." She soon learned she could ward off the yelling between her parents behind the sturdy wall of a book. In Ballardvale, her mother formed another circle of friends and conspirators. When they visited, Louise was told to stay in the living room, where the child listened to the low voices emanating from the kitchen. While her mother made amatory forays into Lowell or Boston, from which she would again return contrite, Louise was left with a Mrs. Parsons. In the absence of other supports, Louise relied on her books, her brother's, and those of her mother's which included a generous helping of Celia Thaxter . Louise's older brother Charlie, whom she adored, was crippled by the domestic situation. He lived at home, occasionally smashing furniture, until he joined the service.
In July 1906, nine-year-old Louise was packed off to her mother's old school, Mount Saint Mary Academy in Manchester, New Hampshire, while her mother went on a 12-month junket cross country to California, along with a friend and another admirer. A grade ahead in school, though she was not one of the nun's favorites, Bogan ended the year in the top ranks. But, among more well-off classmates who had visiting mothers, she was a lonely outcast. "The social world was to her, from its beginnings, composed of malice, gossip, insult, cliques, cruelty, pettiness, and preferment," writes Frank. Boarding school, Bogan observed, was "about the best place in the world to make bitter enemies as well as close friends."
Because she had skipped a grade, Bogan was kept out of school from 1908–09. When the family moved to a railroad apartment in the Roxbury section of Boston in 1909, she continued to sleep with her mother, while her father and brother shared another bedroom. Now 12, Bogan was determined to be a famous opera singer; but, by the time she entered seventh grade in Boston, she had begun to write. Her mother sent her to Girls' Latin School, a public high school for gifted students. For the next five years, Bogan was extended one of the best college-prep educations available; her days were filled with Latin, Greek, French, along with literary societies and debating societies. "I began to write verse from about fourteen on," said Bogan. "The life-saving process then began."
She patterned her early work after that of William Morris, the Rosettis, and Swinburne, and she devoured back issues of Poetry magazine at the Boston Public Library. By the time she was 18, Bogan had a "thick pile of manuscript, in a drawer in the dining room" and had "learned every essential" of her trade. Her poems appeared in the school paper, The Jabberwock, and she was designated Class Poet. Her only setback was her Irish ancestry, reported a schoolmate, writer Martha Foley . At that time, the Irish were widespread victims of discrimination, and the headmaster warned May Bogan that "no Irish girl could be the editor of the school magazine." In 1912, Bogan's first poem was printed in the Boston Evening Transcript.
In autumn 1915, Bogan entered Boston University and continued her immersion in books. Entranced with Arthur Symons' treatise on the Symbolist movement in poetry, she also read Walter Pater, Max Stirner, Aubrey Beardsley, Amy Lowell, Louise Imogen Guiney , Compton Mackenzie, Alice Meynell , and everything written by Alice's daughter Viola Meynell . Bogan next turned to lyric poetry, devouring the works of Christina Rossetti, Sara Teasdale, Lizette Woodworth Reese , and Meynell and Guiney. These were followed by her readings of Edna St. Vincent Millay , and Elinor Wylie . In her own work, Bogan borrowed from the Imagists, but only techniques of interest to her.
Though she won a scholarship to Radcliffe for the fall of 1916, Bogan fell in love and instead married Curt Alexander, a German-born captain in the army, on September 4, 1916. She was 19; he was 28. They moved to Bleecker Street in New York's Greenwich Village. In April of the following year, with the entrance of the U.S. in World War I, Curt was sent to Panama. Four months pregnant and perpetually ill, Louise followed on a troop ship that May. In the heat and humidity of Panama, marital disillusionment arrived along with their daughter Mathilde (later rechristened Maidie) who was born on October 19, 1917. Seven months later, Bogan returned home to mother. A few weeks before the October 1918 Armistice of World War I, her beloved brother Charlie, age 33, was killed at Haumont Wood in France. In later years, Bogan was to speak of him rarely.
On her husband's return, the couple reunited and lived at an army base in Portland, Maine. He was then stationed in Fort Dix, New Jersey, from which Bogan would take the ferry to Manhattan to see friends in Greenwich Village. In the summer of 1919, she left her demanding husband, entrusted Maidie to her parents, and rented an apartment on New York's West Ninth Street. After Curt Alexander died of a gastric ulcer the following year, Bogan received widow's benefits, though she was, and would always be, strapped for cash. She took a job as a clerk at Brentano's bookstore and quickly became a Village bohemian, surrounded by the likes of Malcolm Cowley, Paul Rosenfeld, Lola Ridge, Mina Loy , John Reed, Louise Bryant , and Conrad Aiken. She visited her parents and daughter every few weeks.
Around 1921, Bogan became friends with Edmund Wilson and had five poems accepted for Harriet Monroe 's Poetry magazine. By the end of the year, she was being published by The New Republic, Vanity Fair, Voices, The Liberator, The Literary Review of the New York Evening Post, and a "little" magazine, The Measure. The work of William Butler Yeats became a measuring stick for her own work. Frank notes that under the tutelage of Ridgely Torrence, literary editor of The New Republic, Bogan began fusing "delicate feminine perceptiveness with the roughness and vitality of Yeats' common speech." Meanwhile she made money gluing book pockets into books at the New York Public Library, St. Mark's Place branch, seated next to aspiring poet Marianne Moore . Wrote Bogan:
This was the winter before I went to Vienna, and I was in a dazed state of mind, and Marianne, as well as everyone else, came through to me rather foggily. But I remember very well, working with her in the winter afternoons, upstairs in that library with its general atmosphere of staleness and city dinginess. Her hair was then a beautiful shade of red; she wore it in a thick braid. She was continually comparing the small objects with which we worked—mucilage brushes and ink and stamping rubbers—to oddly analogous objects; and she smiled often and seemed happy. … She had no idea that I wrote poetry, and always treated me kindly, but rather like some assistant more or less invisible to her (as indeed I probably was, being, at that time, more or less invisible to myself, as well).
Bogan was experiencing one of her many longterm bouts of depression. "I must get well," she wrote:
Walk on strong legs, leap the hurdles of sense,
Reason again, come back to my old patchwork logic…
I must feel again who had given feeling over,
Challenge laughter, take tears, play the piano,
Form judgments, blame a crude world for disaster.
Though she began analysis, the depression would not abate. In 1922, Bogan sailed to Paris, then traveled to Zurich, and settled in Vienna "to stop writing like magazines," and get back to "hard, painfully produced poems that sounded like myself." But her emotional distress was great and she wrote little, except for the poem "Stanza." Throughout her life, she could not force the writing of poems, they had to arrive unbidden. On her return to America in October, the poems began to come: "My Voice Not Being Proud," "The Romantic," "The Frightened Man," "Men Loved Wholly Beyond Wisdom," "The Changed Woman," and "Fifteenth Farewell." Her first book of poems Body of this Death was published in 1923. Though most critics treated the poetry with respect, they found the poems too obscure. "She was a linguistic pragmatist," wrote Frank, "who believed that words could mean what they said; the problem was for the writer to have something to say. … In her view, the farther the art of language detached itself from the actuality of experience while remaining alive to its ungraspable and anarchic magnitude, the more richly that art justified its claim to approximate and even displace experience."
In 1924, Bogan began to live with the still-technically-married writer Raymond Holden, with whom she had a turbulent relationship, and eventually brought her daughter Maidie into the household. Before he dissipated his inheritance, the well-off Holden supported them both. Socially, her time with Holden was enjoyable and loaded with bootleg gin. Her retinue of friends had grown to include Léonie Adams, Genevieve Taggard , Rolfe Humphries, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict , Scudder Middleton, and Robert Wolf. Now 27 and feeling "very minor" as a poet, Bogan began to write criticism in 1924, at the insistence of her friend Edmund Wilson. Her career as a critic was inaugurated in The New Republic with a review of D.H. Lawrence's Birds, Beasts and Flowers.
On July 10, 1925, Holden and Bogan were married. Three years later, in the summer of 1928, they bought a run-down farmhouse in Hillsdale, New York, where they renovated, wallpapered, scraped floors, and put in a heating system. "Louise loved the house," wrote Frank, "and the hard work. While Raymond put in windows, she planted a bulb garden and contemplated writing a book about common and beautiful flowers." She grew bucolic and wrote prolifically, more content than she had been in years. "How happy I feel!" she wrote Edmund Wilson. "How easy art really is!" Her next book of poems Dark Summer appeared in a handsome edition by Scribner in 1929. Yvor Winters, among others, lauded the book. That Christmas, the family returned from visiting Raymond's mother to find the house burning down. All her manuscripts were lost—poems, stories, notebooks, letters, as well as books and photographs.
Having invested the greater portion of his money in the stock market, Raymond lost most of it in the October crash, and the couple could not rebuild. A week later, they returned to New York City. Holden took a job as managing editor at The New Yorker, while Bogan continued with her poetry and reviews for The New Republic and Poetry. But her depression returned throughout 1930, resulting in what she called "creative despair." She took long streetcar rides through the city, drank too much, and was envious of other women writers. She was certain that Holden was having affairs, certain of his inevitable betrayal; in his 1935 autobiographical novel Chance has a Whip, Holden blamed her strong jealous streak for their problems. Presented with the John Reed Memorial Prize from Poetry magazine, Bogan told Harriet Monroe : "the hazards of self-exposure seem to outweigh the rewards." She set out to break down her creative method and start over.
In March 1931, after fiction editor Katherine S. White convinced publisher Harold Ross to print serious poetry in The New Yorker, Bogan was asked to write a poetry review, a job she would continue for the next 38 years. She could not, however, shake the depression and so entered the Neurological Institute as a volunteer patient, where, she later said, she was "taken apart, like a watch." Her distress was focused on Raymond whom she accused of clandestine trysts. Reluctantly, Bogan returned to their apartment with a slight rise in self-confidence but hardly cured. Finding it hard to write, she did manage to compose profiles for The New Yorker on Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (which was rejected) and Willa Cather , as well as five stories.
In August 1932, she wrote in her journal: "The continuous turmoil in a disastrous childhood makes one so tired that 'Rest' becomes the word forever said by the self to the self. The incidents are so vivid and so terrible that to remember them is inadequate: they must be forgotten." Or, possibly explored. At this time, she wrote the reverie "Journey Around My Room." Longing to be alone, she applied for and received a Guggenheim fellowship. To begin a year of travel abroad, she sailed on April 1, 1933, to Italy. Soon homesick, she worried about Raymond's faithfulness. She returned to New York in August with little writing.
Upon arrival, her worst fears proved true. Despite a surfeit of epistolary protestations, Raymond had been living with a woman in her absence. Her pride made it impossible for her to forgive or divorce him, and the depression returned in full force. That November, Bogan entered the New York Hospital in White Plains, where, for five months, she worked to ease her demands for perfection. Released at the end of April 1934, she recorded one doctor's prognosis in her journal: "She will never get entirely better. She has too many things to contend with—but she'll be able to do her work." That July, she filed for a legal separation.
I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.
For the time being, the fog had lifted. Bogan had regained her sense of humor, as evidenced in the title of her poem "Lines Written in a Moment of Such Clarity as Verges on Megalomania." She entered into a pleasing fling with 26-year-old poet Theodore Roethke. By the spring of 1936, theirs had settled into friendship. In an article published in the Michigan Quarterly Review called "The Poetry of Louise Bryant," Roethke proved prophetic: "Her poems create their own reality, and demand not just attention, but the emotional and spiritual response of the whole man. Such a poet will never be popular, but can and should be a true model for the young. And the best work will stay in the language as long as the language survives."
In the spring of 1937, Bogan published The Sleeping Fury. It was to be her last important work. Wrote Frank:
The possibility, often said to be feared by people who are both creative and neurotic, that psychiatric treatment would cure their neurosis but in the process kill their creativity, may well have been, for Louise Bogan, uncannily close to the truth. With the publication of The Sleeping Fury, her most productive days as a poet were over. She did not immediately stop writing poetry, and the high standard of her work did not lapse, but her career as a critic began increasingly to feed on the energies that had hitherto gone into waiting for poems and nurturing them when they arrived.
In 1941, her first collected edition Poems and New Poems was published and well received. Marianne Moore, writing for The Nation, called Bogan's poetry "compactness compacted. She uses a kind of forged rhetoric that nevertheless seems inevitable." But another poem did not come to Bogan until 1948. Seven years, in her words, of "being uninvited by the Muse."
For all the praise Bogan received from the likes of W.H. Auden and Edmund Wilson, the women garnering the most recognition were Léonie Adams and Laura Riding . Though Bogan saw herself as slighted by the academic and literary worlds, she did not contribute in efforts to become better known. With precarious finances and a strong belief that interest in poetry was on the wane, she left her longtime editor John Hall Wheelock at Scribner, the house which had published most of her works; as a result, all her books were soon out of print. Despite having been abandoned by his writer, Wheelock put her name in nomination before the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1951 and the Academy of American Poets in 1954 (she was elected to membership in 1969). Bogan did not find another publisher that would handle her poetry until Noonday Press published Collected Poems: 1923–1953 in 1954.
Nonetheless, recognition was forthcoming. She was asked to become a fellow in American Letters of the Library of Congress, 1944, and a consultant in poetry, 1945–46. From 1949 to 1960, she taught poetry at many colleges and universities, including New York University, the University of Arkansas, University of Washington, Brandeis University, as well as at the 92nd Street YMHA in Manhattan. She spent many summers at the MacDowell Colony where she added three new friends: Elizabeth Mayer , English professor Ruth Limmer , and May Sarton who wrote of their first meeting in A World of Light: Portraits and Celebration. Becoming somewhat of a mentor, Bogan once advised Sarton: "You keep the Hell out of your work."
In 1964, while teaching at Brandeis in Boston, possibly too close to her New England roots, the old malaise swept in. Bogan tried to shake it, went on medication, and eventually returned to New York; by mid-September 1965, she had once again entered the New York Hospital in White Plains. Plagued by anger and mourning for many losses, she reluctantly underwent shock therapy. In spring 1966, she came out of the hospital low on energy and still weepy, especially in the mornings. In 1967, she was awarded $10,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts for her lifetime's work. The following year, her last book of poetry The Blue Estuaries: Poems, 1923–1968 was published, prompting William Meredith in The New York Times Book Review to recognize her "career of stubborn, individual excellence," pronouncing Louise Bogan "one of the best women poets alive." But, in her early 70s, Bogan remained emotionally distraught. In September 1969, she left her job of 38 years with The New Yorker. Three months later, on February 4, 1970, she was found dead in her apartment of coronary occlusion.
Bogan had once told Sarton: "I have been forced to learn to wait, to be patient, to wait for the wheel to turn. … I have been forced to find a way of loving my destiny; of not opposing it too much with my will. … I have been forced 'to forgive life' in order to get through existence at all."
Frank, Elizabeth. Louise Bogan: A Portrait. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.
Limmer, Ruth, ed. What the Woman Lived: Selected Letters of Louise Bogan, 1920–1970. 1973.
——. Journey Around My Room. 1980.