Riding, Laura (1901–1991)

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Riding, Laura (1901–1991)

Important American poet and contributor to literary modernism who stressed the unique ability of poetry to penetrate a reality beyond that of the senses. Name variations: Laura Reichenthal; Laura Riding Gottschalk; Laura Riding Jackson. Born on January 16, 1901, in New York City; died on September 2, 1991, of heart failure, in Sebastien, Florida; daughter of Nathan Reichenthal (a garment worker and labor activist) and Sarah (Sadie) Edersheim Reichenthal (a garment worker); attended Brooklyn Girls' High School, 1914–18; attended Cornell University, 1918–21; married Louis R. Gottschalk, in 1920 (divorced 1925); married Schuyler Jackson, on June 20, 1941 (died 1968).

Moved with husband to Urbana, Illinois (1921); moved with husband to Louisville, Kentucky, and submitted first work to Fugitive (1923); won Nashville Poetry Prize (1924); joined Robert and Nancy Graves in England, published first book of poetry (1926); assumed the name "Laura Riding" (1927); founded Seizin Press with Graves (1928); attempted suicide, moved to Spanish island of Mallorca (1929); left Spain for Brittany (1938); Schuyler Jackson reviewed her poems for Time magazine (1938); ended relationship with Robert Graves, settled in Pennsylvania (1939); abandoned writing poetry, settled in Florida (1941); participated in BBC broadcast explaining her long literary silence (1962); awarded Bollingen Prize for poetry (1991).

Selected works:

(poetry) The Close Chaplet (1926), Love as Love, Death as Death (1928), Collected Poems (1938), Selected Poems: In Five Sets (1970); (prose) A Survey of Modernist Poetry (with Robert Graves, 1927), The Telling (with Schuyler Jackson,1972), Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words (1997).

Laura Riding was a major American poet of the first half of the 20th century. Seen as a prodigy when her work first appeared in the 1920s, she later abandoned writing for an extended period of time starting in the late 1930s. She was also an important literary critic, who played a crucial role in promoting the work of Gertrude Stein . As an editor and critic, she had a particularly strong influence on the English poet and novelist Robert Graves, with whom she also maintained a close personal relationship for 13 years. Riding's poetry, which was distinguished by its verbal precision and the absence of devices like metaphor, attracted only a small reading audience. Notes Joyce Wexler , her career contained a "tragic irony" since "as her pursuit of truth became purer, her audience shrank." Riding's verses featured such themes as death and the denunciation of physical sexuality. Her turbulent life was marked by a suicide attempt and by frequent

occasions when she changed her name as a symbol of her efforts to reshape her identity.

The future poet was born to immigrant Jewish parents in New York City on January 16, 1901. Her father Nathan Reichenthal had grown up in the Polish province of Galicia and arrived in the United States 17 years before Laura's birth. He worked as a tailor in the sweatshop conditions of the New York garment industry, became a widower after a brief marriage to an immigrant from Hungary, and then married the woman who became Laura's mother, Sarah Edersheim Reichenthal , whom her family called Sadie. Sadie, who had been born in the United States of German-Jewish immigrant parents, was a psychologically troubled woman whose life had also been shaped by the harsh conditions she experienced while working in the garment industry.

Nathan tried unsuccessfully to start his own clothing business, but, by his own, perhaps dramatized, account of his life, became an important figure in the New York labor movement and in labor journalism. His various business efforts made the family a highly mobile one, and Riding attended a number of schools in the East and Midwest during her childhood years. As a devotee of American socialism, Nathan encouraged Laura to consider a career as a political activist, a plan she wholeheartedly rejected by her teenage years. Her ambition to become a poet led to a bitter quarrel with her father at the age of 15. This family outburst, along with the young girl's troubled relationship with her bitter and domineering mother, prompted Riding's decision to move in with her half-sister, Isabel Reichenthal . A secretary in a publishing firm who soon married one of the editors, Isabel herself published poetry and encouraged Laura's literary aspirations.

The stay with Isabel provided a rare interlude of stability for Riding. So too did her four years at Girls' High School in Brooklyn, where she began to distinguish herself academically. A scholarship, one of three that she won, allowed the young girl, still only 17, to enroll at Cornell University in the fall of 1918. In her second year there she fell in love with her young history instructor, Louis Gottschalk. Two years after beginning her higher education, she dropped her academic program and left college when she and Louis were married on November 2, 1920. Riding then followed her new husband to several junior academic positions, starting at the University of Illinois in 1921. The couple moved to Kentucky two years later when Louis took up a position at the University of Louisville. She made several unsuccessful attempts to complete her undergraduate degree at the two institutions where her husband taught. Deeply dissatisfied with the role of faculty wife in an isolated Midwestern town, she threw herself into literary activity, writing both novels and poetry.

As the wife of a young academic in the South, Riding entered the annual poetry contest put on by the Fugitive Group of Nashville, Tennessee, in 1923. The Fugitives were a group of teachers and students at Vanderbilt University including such future literary luminaries as John Crowe Ransom and Allan Tate. They were laying the foundation for the New Criticism movement of the following decades. The first poem she ever published, entitled "Dimensions," appeared in the group's magazine The Fugitive in the August–September issue of 1923. Riding shared the Fugitives' view that new forms of poetry free of traditional rhetorical devices must be created. Four more of her works were published in the same journal the following February.

After this breakthrough in her writing career, Riding entered a period of personal crisis. Her marriage was in difficulty, in large part due to her husband's lack of sympathy with her literary ambitions. All of her future relationships were with men who shared her devotion to poetry. When at the close of 1924 she visited the Fugitives in Nashville, she began a brief love affair with Tate. The cause of the relationship's collapse points to a fundamental theme in Riding's life: her intense personality and her arrogant propensity to dominate any group in which she found herself. Around this time, she was hospitalized, probably for a nervous breakdown. After her release, she separated from Gottschalk, and the two eventually divorced in 1925. That same year, the aspiring poet returned to New York and settled in Greenwich Village for several months. A love affair followed with fellow poet Hart. But by the close of 1925, she was so disillusioned with the poets' circles she had discovered in New York—perhaps due to their lack of serious purpose—that she accepted an invitation to cross the Atlantic.

The invitation came from the young but wellknown English poet Robert Graves. Graves had been an admirer of Riding for some time, praising her by name in an essay, "Contemporary Techniques of Poetry," he had published in July 1925. A correspondence between the two developed during the remainder of the year. By mid-winter, Graves wanted her to join him, his wife, artist Nancy Nicholson (1900–1977), and their four children for a stay of several months in Egypt where he was to teach at a university. She would supposedly be a good companion for Nancy and a useful collaborator for Robert in completing a book he was writing on modern poetry.

In England, where she arrived in January 1926, Riding met Robert and his family and almost immediately left with them for Egypt. According to one of Graves' biographers, the English poet "had found someone of great intelligence and originality, who listened with interest to his ideas, and whose head teemed with ideas of her own." Riding herself remembered that there had been an immediate attraction between them. Once settled in Egypt, Robert, Nancy, and Laura established what some authors describe as an intimate three-way relationship. Many acquaintances, however, thought that the sexual relationship between Graves and Riding began only when the group returned to England the following year. Riding's close association with Graves began with their common literary interests and, from the early days of their acquaintance, they were enthusiastic literary collaborators.

In 1927, after returning to England, then taking a trip alone to Vienna, Graves and Riding settled down together in an apartment in the London neighborhood of Hammersmith. There they completed an influential study of modern verse entitled A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927). Later in their lives, each insisted on claiming the lion's share of the originality that had gone into the book. Nonetheless, writes Richard Graves, there is "little doubt that hers was usually the controlling intelligence at work." Riding's contribution to the work included a sharp criticism of many modern poets. She castigated those who were immersing themselves in such eccentricities as the poetry of China. And she was equally harsh in condemning poets who drew too much inspiration from the classics. According to Riding's biographer Deborah Baker , the book showed that the American poet "was ready to imagine a new poetry." Although the new poetry Riding and Graves lauded had unfamiliar forms, they insisted that the poem's form had to develop out of the theme it presented. Richard Graves sees the book as a defense of the type of modernist poetry Riding herself was writing. With its emphasis on judging a poem solely on the basis of its internal verbal relations and its call for close textual analysis, this work made a fundamental contribution to the development of the New Criticism movement. A symbol of the young American's growing sense of self-confidence and independence came in another one of her name changes. She had gone to England referring to herself as "Laura Riding Gottschalk." Now, she became simply "Laura Riding."

As a successful and prominent author, Robert Graves was able to advance Riding's career. He arranged for her work to appear in print, insisting that he would not deal with his various publishers unless the firms agreed to publish Riding's poetry as well. Unfortunately, the sales of her verse remained at an extremely low level. By contrast, he did well from sales of his popular book on the wartime exploits of Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence). Meanwhile, Riding turned much of her formidable energy to writing literary criticism. With Graves' money in hand, the two of them also began their own publishing venture, the Seizin Press. Riding's second volume of poetry, Love as Love, Love as Death, was the initial book to appear under the new imprint.

Perhaps all along truth had been Laura Riding's pursuer rather than the imagined quarry.

—Deborah Baker

Baker finds hints of Riding's mental anguish in the poet's work of the late 1920s and notes that even in "her earliest unpublished poems, Riding's poetry could be viewed as intensely suicidal." The poem "In Nineteen Twenty-Seven," for example, gives hints of the suicide attempt that marked Riding's life only two years later. By the spring of 1927, her personal life was complicated by her relationship to the Anglo-Irish poet Geoffrey Phipps. Phipps subsequently declared that he no longer wanted to be on intimate terms with Riding, and this apparently destroyed her remaining mental equilibrium. Throwing herself from a window in her apartment in the Hammersmith neighborhood of London on April 27, 1929, Riding suffered severe but not fatal injuries. These included a broken spine and broken pelvis. The initial diagnosis mistakenly added a fractured skull and, equally mistaken, concluded that Riding would not survive her injuries. A subsequent assessment of her condition suggested she would be permanently crippled. Eventually, the forecast was improved to indicate a complete recovery in time.

In November 1929, Riding and Graves settled in the small town of Deya on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Mallorca. The possibility that Riding might be prosecuted for her attempt to kill herself had not materialized, but the two still felt the need to escape the scandal. Gertrude Stein, who was both Laura's friend and her poetic protégé, had recommended the island as a getaway.

As Baker has put it, instead of being devastated by the experience she had just undergone, "in the months following her suicide attempt, Riding appeared to gain in vitality … entering a period of intense and remarkable creativity." She composed a long poem, "Laura and Francisca," which described her decision to live in Mallorca and her affection for a local village child. Signs of concern for her personal appearance, including a new interest in the elegant Spanish clothing and jewelry to be found on the island, matched her creative energies. In the six years they spent on the island, the couple was bolstered by the financial success of Graves' memoir of his service in World War I, Good-bye to All That, and a historical novel, I, Claudius. Through the 1930s, Riding busied herself with a variety of writing and editing projects. These ranged from editing Graves' work to writing novels both singly and in collaboration with others.

The complex relationship between Riding and Graves now came to include her renunciation of sexual relations. She had first discussed her dissatisfaction with physical sex in an essay published in 1928. In 1933, she was even more decisive on the subject. In a brief autobiographical entry for Authors Today and Yesterday, she now stated directly, "I think that bodies have had their day," and claimed that the basic tie between men and women should be "between the male mind and the female mind." For Baker, this public renunciation of sex was an initial step in "the heated search for truth." That same year Graves described Riding's confident and overbearing personality to one of his friends: "She is a great natural fact like fire or trees or snow and either one appreciates her or one doesn't."

Riding's strong personality and her authoritative views on the nature of literature and poetry led to her intellectual domination over a series of visitors to her household in Mallorca. This literary circle in Deya included a number of young English and American poets who had sent her samples of their work and, following intense correspondence, decided to join her on the Spanish island. For a time the rising British intellectual and mathematician Jacob Bronowski fell under her spell, but he, like many others, broke away following a bitter quarrel.

The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 quickly involved Mallorca. The island where Riding and Graves had their home became a military stronghold for the Nationalist rebels led by General Francisco Franco. At the urging of the local British consul, the two hastily abandoned their home and were evacuated on a battleship to France by the Royal Navy. They returned to England vainly hoping that the Civil War would end soon and permit them to reestablish a home in Mallorca.

The darkening political scene in Europe not only ruled out a return to Mallorca, it also pushed Riding into a rare political excursion. She began a campaign of letter writing that came to include letters to 400 key figures in European and American political and intellectual circles. Each letter asked what could be done by intelligent individuals hoping to "live a peaceful, civilized existence" in an increasingly politicized European environment. Riding had hopes that such direct and personal contact with influential leaders might somehow avert the war that now loomed over the Continent. She took 65 of the responses, added her own extensive commentaries, and published the collection in a volume entitled The World and Ourselves. The book also included Riding's plan for a new organization for society, one that would create what Baker calls "a woman-centered system of government." Meanwhile, Riding's poems of the final years of the 1930s pointed toward her impending abandonment of poetry itself. She spoke enthusiastically of the need to abandon all imagery and literary device and, writes Baker, "to speak without guile, wit, or decoration."

All hopes of returning to Spain vanished by the start of 1939 as the Civil War continued, and in April Riding and Graves sailed for New York. That summer, they settled on a farm in New Hope, Pennsylvania, as the guests of Kit Jackson and Schuyler Jackson, a literary critic who had lauded Riding's poems in a recent review in Time magazine and with whom she had corresponded. Soon, a romantic liaison developed between Laura and Schuyler. Kit, who had a mental breakdown and tried to strangle her young daughter Griselda Ohannessian (later publisher of New Directions), filed for divorce. (Miranda Seymour , Graves' official biographer, wrote a controversial novel about the incident, The Summer of '39. As well, versions of this story appear in one Riding biography, three Graves biographies, and a memoir by T.S. Matthews, part of their inner circle and later editor of Time.) On June 20, 1941, Schuyler and Laura married; she now took her last name change, becoming Laura Riding Jackson.

Pressed for funds, the Jacksons settled in Wabasso, Florida, a small town on the Atlantic coast, where they hoped to earn their living farming two small grapefruit groves. The two busied themselves with one of Riding's longstanding projects, a dictionary of the English language that would indicate the precise meaning of words. She believed that only a poet had sufficient command of English to permit the realization of such an effort, which she entitled The Dictionary of Rational Meaning. The project dragged on for years.

Around the time of her marriage to Jackson, Riding formally abandoned her work as a poet. An acquaintance recalls seeing her burning a mass of papers at the farm in New Hope shortly before she and Jackson were wed. Baker believes that these were Riding's poems, and that she did well to abandon poetry at a time when "her poetry had become increasingly didactic" and she herself was lacking in "the emotional reserves required to endure the demands of her art." Barbara Adams sees Riding's decision as more ambiguous, noting that it was not clear "whether she deliberately gave up writing poetry, or whether she gradually lost the creative urge."

In their remote new home, which lacked even a telephone and electricity, the newly married couple worked the land in the face of numerous climatic and financial crises. They also collaborated on their massive linguistic study, Rational Meaning, devoted to "knowledge of the meaning of words." Notes Joyce Wexler, since they regarded "poetry as a dead end, together they sought truth via linguistic study."

After decades of illnesses that doctors could never successfully diagnose, Schuyler Jackson died on July 4, 1968. Now alone in the world, Riding completed Rational Meaning. Portions of it appeared in various journals starting in the 1970s. She gradually returned to literary circles, establishing written contact with a number of poets and teachers of literature, and she received a Guggenheim grant to support her while she wrote her memoirs. In 1970, she permitted the publication of Selected Poems: In Five Sets, a group of works from Collected Poems, which she had originally published in 1938. In her book The Telling, which appeared in 1972, Riding discussed her need to turn away from poetry and to pursue the study of words as the route to an understanding of truth.

A new interest in Riding's poetry developed among English and American critics starting in the 1970s, and she engaged in lengthy, often contentious correspondence with the writers in order to correct what she saw as inaccuracies or attacks on her ideas. In one case she attempted to rewrite a scholarly dissertation on her work; in another, she first authorized a biography, then broke with the author after the latter had put ten years into the effort.

Laura Riding died of heart failure on September 2, 1991, in Sebastien, Florida. Her modest funeral was attended by only 30 mourners and held in the small and primitive bungalow where she had lived for nearly 50 years. Shortly before her death, the writer, who had abandoned the creation of verse decades before, received Yale University's Bollingen Prize for poetry. The extended study of language upon which she and her late husband had labored for so long, Rational Meaning, finally appeared in its entirety in 1997.


Adams, Barbara. The Enemy Self: Poetry and Criticism of Laura Riding. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1990.

Baker, Deborah. In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding. NY: Grove Press, 1993.

Quartermain, Peter, ed. American Poets, 1880–1945. 2nd series. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1986.

Seymour, Miranda. Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. NY: Henry Holt, 1995.

——. The Summer of '39 (novel). NY: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Vendler, Helen. "The White Goddess," in The New York Review of Books. November 18, 1993, pp. 12–18.

Wexler, Joyce Piell. Laura Riding's Pursuit of Truth. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1979.

suggested reading:

Canary, Robert H. Robert Graves. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Fromm, Harold. "Myths and Mishegaas: Robert Graves and Laura Riding," in The Hudson Review. Vol. 44, no. 2. Summer 1991, pp. 189–202.

Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926–1940. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California