Q&A On Mary MacLane #2

[ With Veedma. ]

> budding female narcissists

She was in full flower at 16! High school editorial from 1899: “The world is harsh. And in youth prepare you for it. Become you a stoic, if need be. Make you no friendships, for friendsare but Brutuses and will turn against you. Take you the world for what it is and nothing else. – ‘Tis the way I myself have begun, and in my thirties and forties I will ask no one for oil, for I expect my lamp to be burning. I expect to wring not my hands, for in an armor one cannot. Neither will my soul sink in anguish.”

> who’ve read alot of romantic nonsense.

She tended more to the mainstream good straight British writers for style and the American realists, like Howells – then for Romance the Bible and Shakespeare and Dickens. Gertrude Atherton, remembering in 1932 a visit of around 1913: “When she called on me she remained for several hours, talking all the time, and with exceeding brilliance. She was very nervous, pacing the room for the most part, for she led a wild life down on ‘The Flat,’ that resort of all the wild spirits in Butte. She told me in a mixture of slang and prose of an almost classical purity of a fight she had had in a saloon with a ‘sporting woman’ and of the fine black eye she had given her. She admitted freely that she ‘drank,’ and liked rowdiness when she happened to be in the humor. And yet she read constantly, the best that was written, had been well drilled in the classics from childhood. Her criticisms of current authors were acute, unbiased, and everything she said was worth listening to.”

> I sincerely hope you’re re-discovered a real literary gem and not a lump of black coal.

For my part, I’ve been reading her for 25 years and still am discovering new things about her. She has a good pedigree – some of the great’ish were guardedly intrigued by her, and she provoked a huge populr surge. None of that is decisive, of course. I think she holds together, but she has to be framed rightly. She was not just a writer. At this point I’m seeing her as a performance artist in which the writing is but one part of her gestural work. She had to start with the classic hard-edged adolescent memoir – go through her middle period of dissolution and impression (her final book, “I, Mary MacLane” (1917) is a voyage deep into post-decadent inner disintegration – and a bow out of public like with a look to the future: the first-personal moving image, taking the curtain away from courting behavior – she appears to have been one of the first actresses in cinema history to break the fourth wall.

But there is writing, pure writing from her, that I cannot imagine being improved. In Romantic mode – a visit to Newport, Rhode Island – after she’d escaped Butte, in fame’s first blaze::

“Newport is a little lovely restful town in itself. There are few things new, and the old things are earth-old. The stars and the dust and the wild weeds are there, as in the beginning. And in the gray morning a pale, pale sky hangs over wonderful wide water – a sky so pale that one half-expects a Raphael virgin’s head to emerge slowly, sleepily from it. And the sea – the sea runs on always, in weariness, in joy – the gray, the blue, the gray, the blue – world with no end. Far away in Butte-Montana I had fancied the sea, and here is it. And the sea has a sister in Newport – a fascinating seductive sloe-eyed sister with soft long hair and magic finger-tips. She is the Air, and she is incomparable. After the first look into the sloe-eyes you close your own and lift your face and feel the sweep of the long soft locks of hair upon your chin and forehead. You feel the touch of those finger-tips upon your shoulder-blades, and straightaway you give your quiet heart into her hands to keep for a season.
” The perfume of her long hair is of sea-weed and salt and of moss and decayed wood, and of half-sunk islands over the sea. In the plains of heaven is there any more exquisite thing? Round and about Newport there are bits of rude country that, after the shaven lawns of other parts, rest the nerves and senses. There are places where long dry yellow grass grows confusedly, and tiny rocks, and spaces between that are like the sand and barrenness of Butte-Montana, – but a long, long way apart. Here and there is a fresh-water pond and some lilies and wet, wet leaves. The wild grasses grow tall by the pond, and are also wet and very sweet. Back from the sea I looked long at a prospect that was fair and exceeding good. It was of smiling farms and rolling country and dark-colored trees and fields of corn. And all was green, green, green. It is gray in Butte-Montana, and my mind then opened and took in a new color. And all was green. The flowers bloomed in plenty, and the farms – and Jersey cows fed from the land. To my mind there came a bit of very old poetry from that same well-filled Bible, which seemed to tell it all in a serene voice saying: ‘My well-beloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill.’ All this is the background. In the foreground there are people, and there is life: in truth, the pomps and vanities of this wicked world.
” How glittering, to be sure, is the pageant at Newport, – how the women and men reek with The Money, how unreal – how like phantoms do they seem to one who has thus far been wont to take a few things seriously and has lived a small, narrow life in Butte-Montana. I gazed at this glittering pageant until my senses were strained and a faint sickening influence came to them. As I looked there came a feeling of deadly weariness and sickness of heart. For through this false brilliant procession, the infinite – life itself – shows in poignant bitter intensity. There is a thing in the life of the women and men that one can not grasp. The stars and the dust and the wild weeds give at once of their deepest and the pain that they send is soft. The vision of the pageant at Newport tells of something so false, so distorted, so sharply cruel, that all of life – all of the past and all of the present – becomes useless. The Universe shrinks into a damnable little thing, and the souls – there are no souls.
Well, then.”

Written, that, for a popular newspaper: Pulitzer’s yellow Manhattan paper, The World.

[ Lightly edited. ]


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