Happy Birthday, Mary MacLane!

Happy 138th birthday, Mary MacLane! In honor of the day and in response to a number of friends’ inquiries, it’s time for admirers to have a bit of the forthcoming biography. Below is the first bit of Chapt I of the biography – “A Quite Unusual Intensity of Life” – up to the coming of Mary’s father, James “Flatboat” MacLane, on the scene. Chapt. I is very much about James, and his life-story has finally been put together. The ending total is 13,300 words and 121 citations, and it’s a fascinating tale with unexpected resonances with Mary’s life and career. Viva Mary!

[ excerpt copyright 2019 by Michael R. Brown ]

I. Alpha’s Daughter

It was called, simply, “Upper Canada” – this land of forests, fields, farms, great lakes, and a great river passage, opened in 1825 via the Lachine Canal around impassable rapids near Montreal, to the Gulf of St Lawrence and out to the Atlantic. Along Lake Ontario’s shore, towns had begun to develop in the wake of surveyors’ work in the 1790s, and one place set in bounds and measures in 1792 would be – like nearby towns founded on the same survey – named after a town in Yorkshire: Whitby, in whose abbey England’s first poet, Cædmon, had lived and worked.

First settled around 1800 without a name, its natural harbor at Windsor Bay was made a government port of entry in 1831, and when grain shipments from farmers in the fertile northward lands commenced in 1833, energy began flowing into the area, leading to former politician turned merchant Peter Perry’s founding a downtown in 1836, which saw erected the Commercial Hotel in 1842 and, in 1850, a general store in the fancy Montreal style (and sided with fire-resistant brick). Initially called Perry’s Corners, then Windsor, the town was renamed Whitby in 1848 and was incorporated in 1855.

In the middle 1840s, Perry persuaded the provincial government to overhaul the road into town from Lake Scugog (at whose lower reach he had, not coincidentally, built a store at Port Perry), about 20 miles to the north. With a road connection northward to Lake Huron completed in the late 1840s, the port became the third busiest on Lake Ontario – led only by Toronto and Kingston – and his firm scored a coup in 1850 by buying the Scugog Road and Windsor Bay’s harbor facilities at half the government’s cost.

Peter Perry would die the next year, and so never witness Whitby’s being chosen as the seat of the newly-formed County of Ontario’s government in 1852.

In this rich land with an expanding economy based on water-borne agricultural exports settled John MacLane , born in the 1790s in Carrickfergus, Ireland, a commercial center on the water just north of Belfast and across the Irish Sea from Scotland. A stronghold of United Irishmen involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798, Carrickfergus was the site of the execution of the rebel William Orr, the injustice of which so outraged the citizenry that they left town for his hanging-day.

John’s father, also John MacLane (c. 1773-?), had been born in Ecclefechan, a rural village in southern Scotland’s western Uplands, five miles from the sea and about eight miles from the English border, now known as the birth- and burial-place of Thomas Carlyle and of Dr. Arnott, Napoleon’s physician at St Helena. John’s father, also John (1750-1855), was the son of John (1732-?), whose father, too, was John (1699-?). The family, rooted in sea-bordering Argyll in western Scotland, apparently lived on the Isle of Mull for a time, but though their famed Canadian-American descendent would claim a spiritual as well as physical descent from the fearsome warriors of Clan MacLean, her family’s older history – and precise connection with the Highland clan with the vast land ownerships in Argyll and the archipelagan Hebrides – is obscure.

Frustratingly, nothing significant is known of the females among her ancestors but the names that vary the succession of Johns: Barbara MacDonald (1702-?), Jessica Ross (1733-?), Isabel MacDougal of Argyll (1755-?), and Dorothea Cameron (1780s?-?).

It is not known why John left Ireland (or why his father moved there), but waves of Scots were motile in the years of the Clearances, when families’ traditional agricultural lives were upended in the great landowners’ remaking of their lands into pasture as a consequence of the Industrial Revolution. Though rooted in the Dukes of Argylls’ decision to auction the Kintyre leases in the 1710s, the Clearances are generally dated 1760-1815 – dovetailing well enough with John’s birth c. 1794. The family’s passage from Scotland to Ireland and then from Ireland to North America was within a greater movement that would continue in the next generation – both among and outside the MacLanes of Upper Canada – with a further thrust westward.

Slightly more is known of Mary Scott Reid (1809-1907), the first female to enter the family in the New World. US-born daughter of Asa Farrar Reid (1787-1859), a scandal-ridden American surgeon, and Irish-born Margaret Wilson (1793-1874), a later story had it that at age twelve she rode horseback with her parents from Kentucky to a new home in Upper Canada. Asa, with colonial American forebears and of near-noble British descent, became one of the Toronto area’s first doctors and would see a street in Richmond Hill named for him.

In 1827, at the age of 18, Mary married 33-year-old John MacLane, and the next year gave birth to Margaret, followed by Mary, Diadama, Maria, Sarah, James Whitby, Asa Markham, and Elizabeth. The family was evidently on the move, with Mary’s birth in Richmond Hill (whose first European residents were a ferment of French Royalists and British immigrants), Diadama’s in German-settled Markham, and James Whitby’s in Perry’s Corners.

Upper Canada and Lower Canada, having been swept by revolutionary broils in 1837-1838, were dissolved by the Crown in 1841 and reconstituted as a single governmental entity, the Province of Canada, with Canada West and Canada East coextensive with the earlier colonies. The MacLanes cannot be identified in the 1842 Canada West census, but in 1851 John shows as farmer and head of a Presbyterian household in the town of Whitby on Lake Ontario’s north shore. Ten years later, his son James was 22 years old, working as a laborer – whether on or off their property is not recorded – and living with three of his sisters and their parents in a one-story log house.

Asa left home before his elder brother. He cannot be found in the 1861 census, but does show in 1871 as a newly-married farmer and Presbyterian head of family in Oro – a township on the far shore of Lake Simcoe, about 70 miles north of Whitby – with Diadama and their widowed mother Mary, her husband having died around 1864, living with them.

James left not long after Asa but went further. An 1889 account would recall his departing at age nineteen at the height of an unnamed gold rush, having outfitted teams to cross the Rockies and accompanying them to the Pacific coast – at the time, a most adventurous enterprise. That age would put his departure between 1858-1860 and may be rejected out of hand with his appearing on the 1861 census, but the story is, beyond that, true.

While he was too young to have participated in California’s rush of 1849-1855, there were several significant gold rushes further north on the Pacific coast – among them the Stikine, which began with the colorful Alexander Choquette’s 1861 claim on the Stikine River, and the mighty Cariboo, founded in early discoveries at Hills Bar in 1858, with further strikes in the next two years and publicity around 1860 drawing streams of miners which would crest by 1865. Although the Stikine would soon peter out, the Cariboo was longer-lasting and sparked the founding of towns and construction of the famed 600-mile-long Cariboo Road – and indeed, in an 1890 history, there is a direct mention of James under a later nickname: “Flat-boat McLean … was one of those who crossed the plains and mountains in 1862, to the Cariboo gold fields”. This fact, echoed by independent sources , indicates that he was among the celebrated Overlanders of ’62, the first major company of Canadians to cross the continent to what would be called British Columbia. Inspired by reports of gold riches, more than one dozen small parties rose in Canada West and Canada East and would travel to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post at Fort Garry, near to what would become Winnipeg, to form a company of about 150 souls to strike out west.

[ End. ]


James Whitby “Flatboat” MacLane (1839-1889)

Finished the *very* rough first draft of the first-chapter-long bio of Mary MacLane’s dad last night for the Mary MacLane biography-in-process. 17,597 words, 125 citations – now to refine. Felt an elegiac sense of farewell to this amazing guy who since about 1902 never got more than a few sentences here and there but for some newspaper mini-profiles back in the early 1970s in the hometown paper. But what a figure of vitality and adventure, living on the edge of civilization and making things better for all. His was a huge life force and it’s been an adventure in itself to bring his story back together. From farm kid in Ontario to gold miner in British Columbia to one of the earliest developers of Edmonton, Alberta to successively a flatboat-fleet magnate in Winnipeg (who helped save the Red River Colony when there was a plague of grasshoppers followed by a tornado), a steamboat builder (who came up with a 100+ ton steamer with a draft of only 12 inches), ferry builder/operator, builder of the best and largest grain mill west of St. Paul, Minnesota in either country, transporter of the mails, timber businessman, cattleman … “Flatboat” MacLane, they said you made money and friends fast. I wish you were here to shake hands with.


Mary MacLane site update

Added amusing exchange from New York World interview of 28 April 1902: She was at work in her mother’s kitchen when the correspondent of The World called on her to-day and asked her to talk about her book and the fame it promised her. “What does your mother say about you?” the young authoress was asked during the conversation. “Oh, she says, ‘Mary, it is time to get the potatoes.'”http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/works/interviews/

Added letter from Ambrose Bierce to George Sterling – April 17, 1905: I read that other book to the bitter end – the “Arthur Sterling” [sic. – Stirling] thing. He is the most disagreeable character in fiction, though Marie Bashkirtseff and Mary McLean in real life could give him cards and spades. Fancy a poet, or an kind of writer, whom it hurts to think! What the devil are his agonies about – his writhings and twistings and foaming at all his mouths?The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Bertha Clark Pope; San Francisco, The Book Club of California, 1922, pp 106-107. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/reactions/writers/index.html#section3

Added letter from H.L. Mencken to J. Gilman D’Arcy Paul – 1916: You tell the horrible truth about Dreiser with surgical accuracy, but he remains the best of the corn-fed herd. There is something Mary MacLaneish about him: his self-revelations are immense. Howells is too discreet and shallow. James is merely a fifth-rate Englishman. Dreiser really belongs to our fair republic, and shows the Knight of Pythias complex. I wish you knew him. He is more fun than a massacre.http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/reactions/writers/index.html#section3


Mary MacLane biography – update

Update on the Mary MacLane biography in process.

All substantial research into MM’s life was complete last year – family background is written as is the settlement into Upper Canada, later known as Ontario.

Have found some fascinating openings into the life of her father, such that we now have a very good idea of the course of his entire adult life (and of his paternal line back to 1699 in western Scotland).

James Whitby MacLane, it turns out, was an adventurer just as was his daughter, and we have a good idea of his movements and large-scale doings in what would become British Columbia in the 1860s and the basis for the large mark he left on the Red River Colony – which would become known as Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Working title for the biography remains A Quite Unusual Intensity of Life: The Lives, Worlds, and Works of Mary MacLane. Working Chapt. 1 title is “Alpha’s Daughter.”

As ever, the Mary MacLane website remains the definitive resource for all things MM: http://www.marymaclane.com


Review of -The Last Year- by Amelia Banis

A review of The Last Year by Amelia Banis – BalboaPress – 216 pages – ISBN 978-1504397575 – Amazon page

Will Provoke Your Thoughts … Could Change Your Life

Let’s start at the beginning: it took a long time to write this review – to be able to write this review – because this book was so singular, in such unobvious ways, that the musing after finishing took far longer than the reading. This is a first indication that a book has much within it: that it isn’t swallowed like a cultural chicken nugget and forgotten, but that it demands engagement – unless one only wants a chicken nugget, consumed and then no more. One supposes some could take this book that way, but this reader is not one of them. So it’s the path of the unique meal of unexpected delicacies and resonances that keeps nourishing long after one (thinks one) has risen from the table.

On the face of it, the story is simple and clear. Amelia Banis was an adopted child who had a fraught relationship with her adoptive father, Diederich – German-born, fatefully so in 1938, who survived World War II and his father’s time in a Soviet prison camp to become almost a caricature of the closed, reactive Teutonic patriarch. His Swiss-born wife, Lilia, is Diederich’s polar opposite in her kind, quiet ethereality. Between these two extremes Amelia grows up, and one senses that from the beginning Amelia and Diederich are naturally entangled, the more so for the Diederich refusing to admit the existence of any emotions save irritation, exasperation, and anger – determinedly directed at all but himself.

The Last Year is a memoir compounded of a beginning in the big picture and zeroing down inexorably into an event-by-event recounting of the eponymous final year of Diederich’s life.

This is no spoiler, for Ms. Banis tells us at the very start, with a striking first chapter opener with her making hospice arrangements for this monumentally stubborn opposite number and ending with his taking his final breath with Amelia and her husband by his side. There is no escape for Diederich, no roseate deathbed realization. The following twenty-six chapters show how the Diederich-Amelia dyad stretched and spun and writhed – never severing – its way to that final end. Reading this beginning, the author’s necessary and ingenious avoiding of the boredom of a linear decline to death (just desserts) or an unlikely pink rainbow scene (the old devil had a heart after all), one feels right away in good hands. She is taking care of us, too, and will make sure it’s an interesting ride. One thinks of Akira Kurosawa’s epic 1952 heart-movie, Ikiru, which begins with a shocking closeup of the protagonist’s abdominal X-ray, which the businesslike narrator informs us shows terminal cancer. Mr. Watanabe is to die, as we are all to die, so this will be the story of what he does with his time, his last months or days or year.

What comes next in Banis’ book is one of the great memoirial narratives of the details of a life. One looks in astonishment at the clarity of recall, the outpouring as if from a cosmic high-pressure pipe in which all the facts and details must emerge – not in a chaotic spray, but remorselessly marched forward and set down. The style is accessible, often wry, but the mental intensity is palpable, and one knows through the grip of the force behind it that this book had to be written. This is no guarantee of a book one must read, and at some points this reader, though compelled by something to hold on, blanches at the detailedness of the tale. One does not read an airy summary of happenings showing the working-out of some abstract pattern familiar or new: one reads things as they happen at the moment, in William James’ “great blooming, buzzing confusion,” before any narrative or intuitive smoothing and completing. It makes for an inescapable tension if one stays on for the ride and a compelling hold on one’s attention.

One could see some readers getting off the ride, perhaps easily. It is a mark of the advancement of Ms. Banis as writer – this is a first book – that she makes things neither easy for the reader nor contrives any difficulties. Her sentences are almost steel-edged in their clarity and decision – one is unsurprised to read in the biographical note that in her working life she is at a high level in business – and are resolutely extrovert in declaring what happened out there, in common space, observable by anyone with eyes and ears. The details, the outward turn, the powerful will behind the word-engraving – it is, as the story goes on, almost too much.

And yet.

Leave aside that one felt compelled to hang on. Leave aside that one knew how it would end. It ended at the beginning, in the extinguishing of the locked, fixed will of Diederich. There is the curiosity to see where it is going – with the end at the beginning, one wonders what beginning will prevail at the end. But that too can be left aside, as a desire that will be closed – fulfilled or disappointed – by the last page.

What came to this reader only in the long musing afterward was that the key to it all was carried by, shown by, could only be displayed by, the unrelenting detail as the tale goes.

To begin, one is given one of the great portrayals of an absolutely fixed will in Diederich. One would have to reach into the non-fiction ponderings of D.H. Lawrence on this same matter, or to Jack London’s incomparable Wolf Larsen, to see the male will portrayed as so profoundly locked back in its own redoubt, never relenting, never ceasing its vigilance and teeth-baring at the approach of any who would dare approach the cave.

We then have the narrator, who is no plaster saint and who portrays herself losing patience, wanting to leave Diederich to his own devices, self-doubting, self-berating – yet she, of all, without claiming any great merit for it, takes care of Diederich, endlessly, against his own resistance all the way to the moment of his death.

The driver for the great pour of detail is just this: the locked will of Diederich and the will of Amelia, equally strong, to see him through, whether he rejects it or not. He is an immovable object of refusal, and she is an unstoppable force of care. The explosion of detail comes inevitably from this irreconcilability.

Yet, again, this is not all. There is something carried by means of the detail that is never spoken, never hinted, yet now, after a few months pondering this singular tale singularly told, is clear. Amid all the details there is nearly nothing explicit of the spirit, of the soul, of ethics. Amelia is held to the vocation of care for reasons she cannot, being immersed, fully know – no more so than Diederich understands his position. In their way, each is acting completely truly to their nature, with no time for reflection or artifice. One leaves with the details of an intimately personal story, and for this reader the unspoken came out as they, afterward, arranged themselves as they would, as though the writing were continuing within oneself: that this is a profoundly moral tale, the more credible for being not a fiction and the moral nowhere announced or even whispered.

The moral is this: that at each moment in life, we choose a better or worse course, particularly in dealing with our fellowman. Diederich in time became little more than a ruined body hosting a psyche ingenious in endless forms of rejection. Amelia for most of her journey with Diederich is at the very edge of being able to go on, but carry on she does – for the sake of seeing it through, for caring for the most impossible among us. It is so without reward that it has not even the satisfaction of duty performed. She staggers on because, by some light within her, often buried but still known, it is the right thing to do.

And this was the turning point of finding a deeper sense: at any moment, Diederich could have changed course, even in the smallest extent. At each momentary turn, unconscious as he was of it, he was choosing, choosing to shut himself off from the sunshine of an adoptive daughter caring for him beyond what would even be the expectation of blood. That is his true death, before his heart ceases: that he turned away from the land of life, from a steadfast hand extended from it to help him come as close to it as he liked – or even to cross over. Diederich, refusing to be die and be born again, lives not even once. It is merely an existence that ends.

Diederich dies, enclosed. Amelia, her husband, and their children recover and move forth. Again, as with Kurosawa’s Ikiru, the protagonist’s death is not the end. There is a coda of dispersion back-into-the-world, of the taking care of things. And so the world of the book ends, and we are back in our own lives. And we wonder that things feel different than before, and wonder at this curious, powerful book that made it so.

This would make a powerful play, readily staged – and even more so a feature film. In the right hands, with the right casting, the two leads could strikingly explore the infinite complexities we humans make – and break – in our relationships.

One hopes for more from Amelia Banis’ hands. There are presumably no more Diederichs to be told, so one would see what her determination to tell will do next. In the next volumes one, too, would wish to see beneath the extrovert horizon and within the aura of the author. Through The Last Year we are very much in her strong hands, and one wants, at the end, to challenge the author, in the same manner as her very being challenged her adoptive father, to surrender the control and give more of her subjective self, whether she writes again in the first person or not, and to show us in tale and writing-style more of the unexpected mysteries and potentials for change she drew from within herself in telling the story of a year of crisis.


Guide to the Mary MacLane website (rev. 1/1/19)

Copying my Twitter tweet-storm (who says POTUS can’t inspire anything?), here’s a guide to the new Mary MacLane site. Let me know any questions, suggestions, improvements! Since it’s Twitter, read from the bottom up for hierarchical order.
Last page on the website – support the Mary MacLane Project! Buy the authoritative Petrarca Press editions of works by and about Mary MacLane! – http://www.marymaclane.com/support.html #marymaclane
Works by and about Mary MacLane – books, songs, movies, poetry, you name it and it’s likely there – much to discover in 10 full subdirectories including never-before-reprinted material. http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/works/ #marymaclane
Reactions through the years to Mary MacLane – 10 subdirectories full of the highs and lows – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/reactions/ #marymaclane
Brief bio sketches of members of the Mary MacLane Project – , Philip Lipson, and Virginia R. Terris (1918-2012) – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/people/index.html#marymaclane
Big collection of photos of places in Mary MacLane’s life – first gallery ever. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/10-places-in-mms-life/#marymaclane
Images of book covers and pages related to Mary MacLane – first gallery ever. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/09-books-and-pages/#marymaclane
Newspaper and magazine items about Mary MacLane – first gallery ever. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/07-newspapers-mags-incl-non-movie-ads-mainlytext/#marymaclane
Artwork, cartoons, street photos, graffiti about Mary MacLane – first gallery ever – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/06-artwork-cartoons-streetphotos-graffiti/#marymaclane
Photos of people in Mary MacLane’s life – first gallery ever. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/05-people-in-mms-life/#marymaclane
Photos of samples of Mary MacLane’s handwriting – first gallery ever. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/04-mm-handwriting/#marymaclane
Photos of ads for Mary MacLane’s silent movie “Men Who Have Made Love to Me” – first gallery ever. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/03b-mm-movie-ads/#marymaclane
Photos from Mary MacLane’s silent movie “Men Who Have Made Love to Me” – first gallery ever. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/03a-mm-in-movie-stills/#marymaclane
Photos of Mary MacLane with others – first gallery ever – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/02-mm-with-others/#marymaclane
Photos of Mary MacLane by herself – first gallery ever – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/data/photo/01-mm-by-herself/#marymaclane
Mary MacLane books in preparation – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/resources/index.html#section6#marymaclane #iawaitthedevilscoming #QueleDiablememporte #DeseoquevengaelDiablo
Mary MacLane’s Books in Print – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/resources/index.html#section5#marymaclane
Other Sites and Pages on Mary MacLane –
Site map for the Mary MacLane website – navigate to anywhere on the site fromm here. – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/resources/index.html#section2#marymaclane
News/Blog – Follow fuguewriter’s blog here for updates on the Mary MacLane website and Project – http://www.marymaclane.com/mary/resources/index.html#section1#marymaclane
Mary MacLane Project Social Media – http://www.marymaclane.com/index.html#section8#marymaclane
The Mary MacLane Project. – http://www.marymaclane.com/index.html#section3#marymaclane
Let’s take a tour through my great, big, and great-big new-big Mary MacLane website at http://www.marymaclane.com . Tweet-flurry cometh, and has nothing to do with POTUS. #marymaclane

The big Mary MacLane site’s coming.

After several years of intensive research, writing on the Mary MacLane biography has begun – ETA and detail to be announced. Revamped and expanded website at http://www.marymaclane.com coming soon – and by “big,” I mean Mary-big!

As a site preview, click here for the first-ever gallery of photos of Mary MacLane, from 1888 to the early 1920s – most unseen since the early 1900s-late 1910s. Collection of photos of her with others and stills from her silent movie Men Who Have Made Love to Me coming with the full site.

Stay tuned.


On David Bowie’s two final photos

Nothing coincidental with this artist. Clad in an immaculate,
conservative suit, he’s stepping off a near-black mat onto the grey
sidewalk. All colors perfectly coordinated – background, mat, sidewalk,
suit, tie. What a universe away from his mad extravaganzas of color –
this is death: the end of his colors. In case we missed it, he’s
pointing down at the black and grey boundary line. It’s an as-if
posthumous photo, like some of Picasso’s final self-portraits where you
can see the skull peeping out beneath. (It was facial color-shift that
signaled something off with his appearance in the Blackstar photo.) –

A friend said on Facebook: And I am wondering why he isn’t wearing socks. Signed: totally lacking in imagination but most appreciative of those who can see beyond the obvious.

My reply: Perhaps for balance – he’s showing skin in three about-equidistant-in-the-photo places – and also vulnerability.