My Introduction to Mary MacLane’s “I Await the Devil’s Coming”

( Petrarca Press, Kindle Edition )

One of the unconfessed fascinations within some consumers of art is the artist’s high-wire act. A great American newsman once said he watched a prominent colleague of his with fascination: not for his news-delivery, but rather expecting that one day the colleague would suddenly blow into “the amazing exploding newsman” – so tightly wound was he.

Similarly, the unconfessed major premise of some classical musical critics was sharply revealed a few years ago when a vastly-praised pianist – Joyce Hatto, just deceased in 2006 – was revealed to have had a whole latter career as a manufactured scam: her entire enormous recorded corpus for the last few decades of her life was a pastiche of manipulated recordings from other pianists, passed off as her own recorded under the most poignant circumstances: while she fought terminal cancer. In some cases, critics who had denigrated the original performances found the resurrected versions, set within the frame of a heart-rent tale, luminous and revelatory.

This would have come as no surprise to the Romantic era, which honestly exalted the individual performer and would have found perplexing our recent vogue-idea that art – high or otherwise – should be as impersonal and abstract as possible, as if it had come from nowhere and no one and should be thus apprehended, to carry the perceiver into a like depersonalized state. They’d never have gotten themselves into such a fix. We seem to find it impossible that an individual state or a consciousness could be of high art. Yet we exalt our artist-superstars – the cooler they are, the more heated the response.

Preceding art-eras, particularly the Romantic, cannot be understood through the lens of modern depersonalizing. Such a lens will inevitably invert, reverse, and fun-house-undulate the object it attempts to render. Which defeats the very precision and sharpness, the unveiledness, the refusal to fall for illusion, on which we pride ourselves as moderns, even more as post-moderns. The Romantic era brooked no hard split between art, artist, personality, passion, and perceiver. If one actually enters into the Romantic mood, the spidery structures of modernism – seen from without, with a more passionate mood through oneself – are suddenly known as unfulfilling to the whole person.

Yet modernism did not come from nowhere. Like other eras before it, the Romantic era painted itself into a corner: through its dwelling in its own intensity. The editor has listened to Wagner and thought, “Where could it have gone from here, if not into reaction? Ninety-hour operas, twice as loud? And what after that? Where is the exit point?” Wagner made Strauss a necessity, if an ugly one.

It is in this setting of a conflict of era-tongues that the recent rediscovery of Mary MacLane rises up from the stage-floor like a magician’s chef d’oeuvre. MacLane – more Romantic than the Romantics, more post-modern than we’ve yet been able to complicate ourselves into – defeats, fulfills, transcends, and thumbs her nose at these genres simultaneously. They fall off her sides, unable to apply, because there’s no hook: MacLane was a deeply original consciousness, in circumstances of mixed inspiration, exasperation, and desperation who had mastered a body of classic literary matter, extracted from it a vast range of expressive devices and moods, and set to the great artistic work: making something new at the interface of internal and external life. For, borrowing from Hume, there’s no internal tale that doesn’t have some reference to the outside – even in a single metaphor – and no external tale that bears no mark of the consciousness that made it. And so comes MacLane as one of the great reorienters. “Oh!” she would exclaim to a newspaper reporter amid the great success her first book occasioned, “don’t think that I approve of what I say in my book. I don’t – of much of it. I don’t approve of myself.” But, she said, it was true, and that was her aim: to be true.

Long excavation of not only her written legacy but of the traces of her unwritten life leads the editor to say that MacLane is first and foremost a structure of moods, a world (like a good musical composition) unto its own, communicated – at times by stylistic means that seem nearly magical – directly to other consciousnesses. That is all. She has no fixed doctrine – in her 1917 article on marriage she comes the closest to describing her own path, with the words “absolute freedom” – but with full knowledge that it will bring with it things undesired and unwished. She is no utopian: beginning with herself. She finds an irreducible pairing of complementary sides at every point in life, and in her last book attempts to give direct voice to it with adjective-strings, surfacely akin to Whitman but without his open-road optimism.

Yet it is not with her career’s final years with which we are concerned, but its earliest: the book that began the phenomenon. Au courant publishers Melville House has played an important role in the MacLane rediscovery by reprinting her first and last books in March of this year, with associated PR campaign. (Her quieter middle book, My Friend Annabel Lee, is as ever left to fend for itself.) In particular, their restoration of MacLane’s original title – I Await the Devil’s Coming – for her first book is a signal service to MacLane’s original intentions, crossed by her 1902 publisher’s mild drop-in: The Story of Mary MacLane. One of the unfortunate tonal changes occasioned by the drop-in was the removing of the gestural significance of MacLane’s regular, steady references through the text to waiting for the Devil: a continual upward glance at the actual title that gives what might seem a rambling work a steadying influence, and her onomatopoeic repetition of waiting … waiting … waiting … for the one for whom one is never supposed to have to long wait once one is willing: the Devil himself.

But many other beauties in the original text remain inaccessible to the reader, particularly to one new to MacLane’s highly specialized style. For all the controversial elements permitted to remain, I Await the Devil’s Coming was edited – and many changes made in 1902 did MacLane’s original conception and execution no service, and in some cases compromised the radicality of her vision. A reader of the text reproduced so many times day may find striking MacLane’s affirmation of her body, system by system, her “calm, beautiful stomach” and her liver, heart, lungs, her “two good legs” – but would never know that that she had praised even her intestine, “vibrating with conscious life.” Neither would that reader have seen the punctuation system she had developed which permitted many quasi-musical hesitations and extensions. Perhaps most unfortunately, a reader possibly concluding that MacLane was incapable of meta-criticism (or humor), would never have read her entry of February 19. (In its entirety: “Am I not intolerably conceited?”)

And no reader would see the arc described by the original version, from the beginning dedication to the absent Devil, through the waiting, to an ending direct address to – as the author might have said – the sure readers of earth: a trajectory that precapitulates that of MacLane’s career to its completion seventeen years later in 1918.

It was for these hidden joys the editor thought it imperative, when publishing the first MacLane anthology in 1993, to remove the 1902 publisher’s egregious alterations and show the almost-invariable superiority of the original version.

This need persists today with Melville House’s welcome reprint of the 1902 edit, so the original text of I Await the Devil’s Coming is herewith presented, with expurgations and editings removed, that what Mary MacLane was able to bring up out of herself into the world may be seen for what – and all that – it is. Her text is an enduring testament to the power of the individual consciousness turned with complete absorption to a task that arises out of its own depths, with intensity turned all the way up, and Devil take the hindmost.

The discussions are already ongoing, as they rightly ought, on how to classify MacLane, on the extent of her influence, on how much of her self-involvement was real, how much was theatrical or performative, and all the takings-apart we of these times enjoy in our cooler-temperature way. But let us not lose sight of the original creators, who are clearly more than mere mannequins to hang our word-nets over. MacLane, and the rest, are great fun to dissect, but we forget at times that dissection implies a living body – which implies a life.

Here, in the form intended for it, is Mary MacLane’s most alive book.

Michael R. Brown – Rocklin, California – 31 March 2013

Buy for Kindle:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s