My introduction to The Devil’s Letters to Mary MacLane

From the forthcoming book Mary in the Press: Miss MacLane and the Yellow Papers – Petrarca Press * Rocklin, California * April 2013

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Introduction

by Michael R. Brown

The recent rediscovery of Mary MacLane’s writing has made the once-inescapable tale of her first book’s success again familiar: shortly after book publication of her proto-blog I Await the Devil’s Coming (under the publisher’s colorless title The Story of Mary MacLane) in April 1902, a spectacular success broke over the twenty-one year old author and the several literary genres she’d opened up. Mostly lost to history in the foam and surges and various undertows, however, has been the coincident silly season. Bits and pieces have been discussed in recent years – for the most part in obscure venues, as in unpublished doctoral dissertations – but its full extent remains unexplored.

We know that within a few months, no fewer than three characters reminiscent of MacLane had appeared on New York stages: from an outright parody to a breath-of-fresh-air Montana maiden on a mid-ocean passenger ship.

We know that by autumn thousands upon thousands of newspapers had poked fun at the young woman. In those months, among a daily’s half-page or so full of one or two-sentence items humorous or newsy or marvelous (which to today’s eyes look curiously like a Tweet-flock), on page four or seven or eight was sure to be a reference or two, direct or not: intense young women, the Devil, Butte (and Montana), schoolmistress-crushes, red sunsets, olives, toothbrushes – all facilely permutated and whipped together with other popular interests. This does not cover the hundreds, if not thousands also, of articles in the yellow press: some number of them interviews original or reprinted or invented, dovetailing with and reenforcing the ever-renewed humor-squibs.

There were advantages, to be sure. It kept the author out in front and books selling – indeed, sold out even in Boston in the autumn. The young author was put in involuntary symbiosis with the yellow press. Though it benefited her in the near-term, it gave her long-term prospects a yellow dimness. For it was possible to write her off as a mere attention-seeker. She had never been respectable, had never tried to be – but after the yellowing, she was tagged.

Some fought it. Prof. Oscar L. Triggs of the University of Chicago declared that in her book readers “will see the soul of a woman laid bare. Few people will probably have the strength and courage to read it, or the wit to understand.” The Bancroft Library’s future magister, Jack London’s friend Porter Garnett, declared MacLane of greater moment than England’s Poet Laureate, Alfred Austin: “the one is sui generis, the other a mere variant.”

But such voices – and there were not only two – were unheard above the yellow yelling. MacLane was a sensation, precedently had been marketed as such by her publishers (despite her having wanted to “avoid anything like mere cheap notoriety and sensationalism”), and there was no escape.

For all potential lost, however, we – near eighty-five years after her death – find a curious long-term benefit invisible in the vari-colored splashes of the time: the brief jabs, pokes, and giggles – importantly, all unguarded – show us not only how she was taken but what was found funny, mocking, affectionate, dismissive. The lines thrown off by writers scrambling for a few cents per, blurted without time to think, give an odd direct line into the inner rules of the world that Mary MacLane confronted.

A forthcoming volume from Petrarca Press – Mary in the Press: The Yellow Papers and Miss MacLane – will provide a look into the extensive humor industry that sprang up around her. Included will be still another genre: humor books devoted to her alone – two in print by the autumn of 1902, each a fairly direct caricature: one pretending to be The Story of Willie Complain and written by Willie himself, the other by a rather solid Boston lady who tells us her tale: The Story of Lizzie McGuire.

There were probably other books, of the moment, at present unknown; each will go visible again in their time.

We know, also, that there was an entirely different thing that had less to do with froth or the moment: a book published more than a year after the sensation had faded, several times the length of Willie or Lizzie – and, unalike to almost any MacLane-parody, a work of some seriousness and sustained effort: the anonymous, until now enigmatically authored (and published) Devil’s Letters to Mary MacLane: published c. December 1903, to a bit of attention for a few months, and hereinbelow returned to print for the first time in nearly 110 years.

*

To dispose of an unfortunate bibliographic error: pleasing as would be a fourth book, MacLane did not write it. Though published anonymously (“By Himself”), the publisher submitted an author record to the Library of Congress: uniquely among the parodies and rare among contemporary responses to MacLane, a woman – Mrs. T.D. McKown, until now lost to history. The publisher – Inter-State Book Company, of Chicago – appears to have been a one-shot created for the purpose. The copyright notice bears the name E.A. Weeks, and the line of inquiry this opens shows clearer shapes in the distance. Weeks is a figure known to scholars of works of A. Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, James Whitcomb Riley, and others as a literary pirate, busily active as E.A. Weeks and Co. out of Chicago in the 1890s. This publisher – little about whom outside the professional is known – would brazenly pirate and file for copyright works, at times by British writers, to which he had no conceivable right. With greater cheek yet, one group of such works formed his “Enterprise” series, out of which names of then-famed, now varyingly remembered, writers emerge, e.g. Anthony Hope, Leo Tolstoy (with Master and Man), Bertha N. Clay, Alexandre Dumas (The Memoirs of a Physician).

And yet, Weeks was not only a fraud. Scholars have commented that his books often show fine production values – imitation laid paper, gilt edges, fine cover work – and Letters is in this line. The cover-illustration of a red Satan holding up a missive has kept its color in the editor’s copy, and the curiously luxurious top-gilt has kept a century’s dust from fusing pages. The mysterious publisher, after dropping from the record from about 1899 until publication of Letters, deigned to speak to the newspapers on his new project, saying that his author was “a woman of high social standing in a Western state.” After this, E.A. Weeks and Inter-State Book Company drop from the record – at any rate, under those names.

The unnamed author, Mrs. T.D. McKown was in reality Sarah H. McKown; her maiden name is at present unknown. She was born in 1869 in Alabama, and in 1892 married Thomas Dean McKown, a physician and sometime inventor from Chickamauga, Georgia. By 1897 the couple was living in Cripple Creek, Colorado, and by 1903 she appears to have been living, at age 34, in Denver apart from her husband. By 1910 the couple was together, living in a Georgia town close by the Tennessee border. By 1912, possibly because her husband was in failing health, she was appointed Postmaster of nearby Pittsburg, Georgia at the age of 43. In 1914 her husband died, and at this point she is unfortunately lost to the record. As far we know, she published nothing else and never spoke publicly about her one book.

*

The obvious is readily said. Sarah H. McKown is no undiscovered great. She brings with her the clear expression inculcated in her time and an agreeable smatter of quotations from worthy sources. In her avoidance of prolix pomp she is writes on the side of the moderns – with steel pen instead of quill. She never slows our progress with irony or fine airs, and at few points is the reader delayed in wonder or admiration.

What she does bring is a sustained masquerade in which – for perhaps the first time – a female author, of apparent conventional morals and religiosity, adopts the persona of Satan with surprising assurance and gusto. Over dozens of entries, the Devil commits or hints at the expected transgressions, but the author’s tone is anything but foreboding. That is held for not-overconvincing comments to MacLane about how many converts she is winning for him, etc.

When the Devil is simply being the Devil, he has a simply grand time as a relentless salesman, hypnotic seducer (necessarily quite the dancer), a cross-dressing gender-switcher who slips into a Woman’s Club meeting, a regular exclaimer on the beauty of the female body, and so forth. This, more than any direct parody of MacLane, is where the text has its independent being. In this text’s world, MacLane dwindles. She is but an excuse. Which adds a further layer: MacLane had asked in I Await to be used – by the Devil himself. And McKown – who is not the Devil, yet writes as him – comes closest to fulfilling the desire.

Perhaps entirely innocently of the implications, Mrs. McKown – safely anonymous – commits an act of masked lesbian appropriation. As MacLane wrote, after April 1902 “so many imitations of him presented themselves, all with the one crude purpose, that he and his sometimes charm grew a bore and a monotony.” And so, the 34-year old doctor’s wife of Cripple Creek came perhaps closest to fulfilling MacLane’s first-book’s professed desires. And that MacLane was at least mixed in her sexual preferences adds a further luster of complication to the game of masks and truths.

*

A last strangeness: for all the mysteries of the two women’s lives, a specific reason may be discerned for McKown’s sliding into print.

Following the redoubtable Mr. Weeks’ clues, the sole Mrs. T.D. McKown to be found in the Western US in those days is a woman in Colorado, the president of a social club with 125 active members: the Cripple Creek’s Woman’s Club. To a reader of the Letters, this brings to mind two Devil’s letters as one – the most colored, detailed, outer-facing from our extrovert author: the depiction of Cripple Creek’s Fourth of July, and McKown’s triply gender-flipped penetration of the Woman’s Club. The book’s highly specific entries intersect at Cripple Creek and the Club – the same two lines that cross at Mrs. McKown. That the Cripple Creek entry is instantly followed by the Club entry stands almost as a clue.

Now that MacLane’s 1903 feature articles for the Denver Post have been recovered, McKown’s motive in writing as she did – at four times beyond the length of Willie or Lizzie – comes clear: MacLane’s first article tartly describes a visit to a Woman’s Club in nearby Colorado Springs. It casts the setting of the Woman’s Club and the personalities therein as a foreground that would fade against Colorado’s lasting natural background, thus: “At Colorado Springs in the varnished hall I looked at women and considered them as was my bounden duty. There were all sorts there. All the sorts and conditions that go to make up the different types of the genus club-woman.”

And as with the lesbian bending that returns again and again in her text, McKown – writing very quickly, probably consciously turned to defend her morals, religion, and Colorado Springs sisters – likely never knew. But we can – for she has turned us into voyeurs, too.

Is MacLane’s MacLane using McKown’s Devil? Is McKown’s Devil using MacLane’s MacLane? The standoff appears fixed and, at this very late date, perpetual.

Long may they glower! Our post-moderns could make a fine industry in elaborating it all through their portable pro tem halls-of-mirrors.

All this, in a work written for that most devilish of motives – revenge! – and in fun that is possible only through seriousness.

*

Michael R. Brown

26 April 2013

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