From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Spring 2003, Vol. 23.1
I: You have been writing for more than half a century. Although your two books of poetry “Prismatic Ground” and “Moderate Fable” were published a few years apart, there were twenty years between “Angel in the Forest” and “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.” There will be about twenty-five years between “Miss MacIntosh” and your forthcoming work on Eugene Debs. Do these long intervals represent major changes in the direction of your thought?
MY: No. All the books I have written have been one book, from the beginning. The first poem I ever wrote, about loss, when I was five years old, expressed the themes of everything I would ever write. My early volumes of poetry, “Prismatic Ground” and “Moderate Fable,” also express a sense of loss. And “Angel in the Forest,” examining the nineteenth-century communities of Father George Rapp and Robert Owen’s socialist experiment in New Harmony, Indiana, is about abandoned utopias. I would say my theme has always been paradise lost, always the lost cause, the lost leader, the lost utopia. “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” carries on this theme because Miss MacIntosh, with the loss of her wig, showed herself to be the orphaned angel, the asexual angel, neither male nor female, unable to live without her mask of illusions. Losing those illusions, she showed herself to be the denuded character every person would be if confronted with the loss of their illusions as she was. She is the central character with all the spokes of other characters radiating out from her. I always thought of Miss MacIntosh as the center of the wheel, the hub, then the spokes as the subsidiary, secondary characters, and the wheel as endlessly expanding like a universe. I never alter my style in anything I write. My Debs book is as poetic as “Miss MacIntosh,” but balladry rather than epic.
I: You have strong political views. Have critics recognized them, or have the poetic qualities and eccentric characters in your writing diverted critics from your sociopolitical points? Does “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” show a social conscience?
MY: Some of the reviewers recognized the social and political implications of “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling.” It isn’t that Miss MacIntosh has a social conscience, but the book does. If you understand hallucination and illusion, you don’t blindly follow any leader. You must know if the person is sane or insane, over the abyss. Mr. Spitzer’s adventures and the passages on the little frog musician investigate the nature of illusion, and if there is no certain reality, the idea of following a leader must be scrutinized. Some of the poetic writers who insert passages of realism in their texts have no underlying philosophy to uphold them and revert to realism. I don’t believe there can be a poetic novel without political consciousness. I have a strong political conscience, and the Debs book shows this as well.
I: Why do you project reality as tenuous?
MY: When you have examined all the illusions of life and know that there isn’t any reality, but you nevertheless go on, then you are a mature human being. You accept the idea that it is all mask and illusion and that people are in disguise. You see the crumbling of reality and you accept it. The reason I had Esther Longtree in “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” marry the little bond salesman was that he was the most demented person of all. The reason Vera married the stone-deaf man was that she could not marry a perfect being. She had to marry a flawed creature because she knew that all creatures are flawed, but out of the flaw may come the universe. Like the crystal flaw that is in “Moderate Fable,” my book of poems. Because it was imperfect it came into being.
I: How do you counter critics who accuse you of excessive fantasy?
MY: I never fantasized or invented a thing, not one thing. I knew every single thing I ever wrote about—I knew the opium lady of “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” and Cousin Hannah, the alter ego of the opium lady if she had been set loose in the world. A lawyer I once knew told me of a strange case, a suffragette who had never married. After her death, he opened her trunk and discovered fifty wedding gowns. I used this material to create Cousin Hannah, the suffragette and adventurer of foreign lands, particularly the East. I enjoyed writing about Cousin Hannah. Had I left out her section, I could have done a lot of other things, but when the dream came into being, I always pursued it. I had read the histories of mountain climbers, of suffragette captains, of travelers to the Middle East. I’ve read all the books about them like Lady Duckworthy, all the ladies who went to the Middle East. I’d like to go myself. I didn’t invent anything in my book. I didn’t need to.
I: Why is Miss MacIntosh not merely bald, but missing a breast and other things as well?
MY: Because everything is lost. Remember that after she had her breast amputated she went to work in a bowling alley? A place where she could get herself killed? She lost everything, her hair, her love, her brother, her identity.
I: How did you decide to write about New Harmony, Indiana, the location of “Angel in the Forest”?
MY: My mother lived there, and one day I bumped into a group of coal miners from the Ozarks, wandering coal miners living a gypsy life, like in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” I started to speak with these coal miners, and became very interested in them. It was because of these coal miners that I decided to write about New Harmony. “Angel in the Forest” is based upon social consciousness. Every real book is, no matter what the subject. A good writer cannot avoid having social consciousness. I don’t mean this about small pieces of writing, but about a big book. If it’s a big book, there has to be more than one undertow. In “Miss MacIntosh,” for example, there are many novels, novellas, and short stories. There’s Mr. Spitzer’s story and that of Esther Longtree, who is the mother of us all, I would say, quoting Gertrude Stein. Esther is Mr. Spitzer’s feminine counterpart. A close friend of mine once called Esther’s section a song of songs, a song of songs of schizophrenia. Esther doesn’t know whether you are alive or dead, whether you were born or she only dreamed that you were born. Every dead butterfly is her baby. With every empty cocoon something of her is lost. I have four or five other novellas as well.
I: Is this material that you omitted from “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling”?
MY: Yes, this is material I hope to bring out. One piece is based on the fact that when Mr. Spitzer asks for something in a store, he always gets it and never wants it. He would say, “Do you have a town clock?” And the man would say, “Yes, we do.” No matter what ridiculous thing, he was just asking. Then Mr. Spitzer would be weighted with it. He would have to buy something he absolutely did not want because he was always asking for things. Another piece is about Mr. Spitzer’s efforts to get to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where he heard that an elderly lady had the pony which had never grown old, that once belonged to Queen Victoria. It’s a quest for something that cannot be found. My editor at Scribner’s liked the novellas very much and wanted to publish them. I always wanted to go over them again. When I started to write about New Harmony, the utopia, I was inspired to do so by an account of a flour miller who tried to pass on his thumbmark to his son. That cannot be done, and the son ended by committing suicide. I wrote a short story about it, but it was not successful at all, it was too difficult to do, I don’t know why. I have put that flour miller and this thumb into “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” somewhere. In fact, I’ve put that flour miller and his thumb into everything I’ve ever written since. Just maybe a reference to it—it’s the thing I never could write, the idea of identity and passage of the soul.
I: Does the idea of passage function in “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,” in which a specific object will reappear as another object? For instance, a coin becomes a drachma, which becomes a black poker chip elsewhere in the text. Are these clues towards solving a mystery?
MY: They are references to transmutation and transmigration, to metempsychosis, resurrection, loss of identity, change of function—and of definitions of money.
I: You knew Harriet Monroe, Gertrude Stein, Anais Nin, Djuna Barnes, and many others. Did you travel to Paris in the twenties?
MY: No, I wish I had. I never had a nickel. The first money I ever had was when I received an award from the American Association of University Women. John Crowe Ransom wrote to me from Ohio, saying “Are you in New York yet?” He knew I would go to New York, and I did.
I: Did you resent the fact that male writers experimenting in fiction and poetry received a great deal of attention while the women were neglected?
MY: No at the time. It never occurred to me because I always believed that many great writers were women—Kay Boyle, Katherine Anne Porter, Christina Stead, Katherine Mansfield, Anna Kavan, Jane Bowles. Jane Bowles, whom I’d met, was quite a success around the time of “Two Serious Ladies.” I never thought of myself as either a woman or a man. I thought of myself as a person who was born to a writer, who was doomed to be a writer. But after “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” was published, I found I was the victim of some brutal male reviewers. “If she had gotten married she never would have ‘done’ this,” they would write. Like Kay Boyle, whose work I’m wild about, I could have married, written a book with every baby, a baby with every book. There were also some cruel reviews by women, but the tone of the male reviewers, sometimes hysterical, was different. I have suffered, but I don’t want to name names -but there have been men who have seemed to want to destroy me or my writing, men I don’t even know. At this point, however, I must say that some men, particularly William Goyen, wrote me beautiful reviews. Still, I think there is a rage against women. I’ve come to see that now although at the time I did not notice it. I was preoccupied with my teaching and my writing. I would teach from nine to four, sleep an hour, and write from six until midnight, night after night. I realize now, incidentally, that “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” would have sold many more copies, if I had published one volume at a time.
I: In “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” you show a keen awareness of male/female dichotomies. Sometimes a male becomes a woman or a woman becomes a man. Why?
MY: It’s spiritual. Body—soul—and clothing, with the profound influence upon me of William James and Saint Augustine in “The City of God.” The multiple and the pagan feeling, instead of the monolithic reality that Miss MacIntosh tried to assume but did not succeed at. That pagan reality.
I: Why did you decide to write a biography of Eugene Debs?
MY: If you knew all I know about utopia, you would ask why not Debs. He talked to the simplest people with poems and images—from “The Arabian Nights” and Poe’s “The Raven,” from “Don Quixote,” from Dickens. His speech was beautiful. I didn’t choose Debs. He chose me.
When I finished “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,” Mark Van Doren asked me, “If someone gave you a choice of writer for a biography, who would it be?” I had had one glass of champagne, which is fatal for me. Otherwise I probably would have said Dreiser, whom I love, and almost wouldn’t speak to anyone who ever attacked him. But I reverted to my childhood and said James Whitcomb Riley. And Van Doren jumped to his feet screaming, “That’s what I hoped you would say.” If you know anything about James Whitcomb Riley, you know that Little Orphan Annie is one of the most fantastic characters who ever lived in America before Charlie Chaplin. Riley and Debs were drinking companions. It was through their conversations about how to get to paradise or utopia that I became more and more involved with Debs. I stopped working on Riley to write a short book on Debs, and it has turned out to be 2400 pages, three volumes of 800 pages each. My book on Riley is almost finished. So I have four books ready. The more I think about Riley the greater my appreciation is. Riley was one of the key spirits of Deb’s life, one of the five most interesting people Debs ever knew. The first and foremost was James Whitcomb Riley. There are reasons for that.
I: “Miss MacIntosh” is nearly 1200 pages, and your Debs book will be 2400 pages. This means you are writing, in your lifetime, only a few works. Do you regret this?
MY: I didn’t realize that the Debs project would be so long. I wrote a short book on Debs, and the publisher said I should turn it into an epic. In my Debs biography, I break down the categories of poetry and prose. In fact, these categories belong not to writers, but to critics. I think the category between fiction and non-fiction is nothing. The poetry of non-fiction is as fabulous as any poetry you could ever write in fiction. Poets have greatly influenced me. The only difference between the novel as poem and the lyric as poem is the difference in length.
I: And the distinctions between fiction and biography?
MY: I don’t find any.
I: You have said that Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser are two of your favorite writers, yet your own style is not at all like theirs.
MY: Just as I do not want my students to imitate my style, I admire authors who write differently from me. Lewis and Dreiser didn’t try to write in a poetic style. I had referred to Sinclair Lewis’s America in the first pages of “Angel in the Forest,” and then I met Lewis in the bar of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. A man with red hair came crawling toward me, screaming and crawling along the bar. He said, “Marguerite Young, you are my favorite author.” I said, “I? And who are you?” He said something like “I get so damned tired of my imitators. You showed another America, real and beautiful, but baroque and bizarre.” That’s why he liked me. I think most people don’t like others who, without a voice of their own, emulate the other. I certainly don’t want anybody just to pick up my thoughts and hand them back to me.
I: What other writers do you admire?
MY: There are many writers I admire, Laurence Sterne, Edgar Allan Poe, Victor Hugo. I was devoted to W. H. Auden. I loved Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens. I love James Merrill’s poems and his short novels. Ambrose Bierce. Vachel Lindsay, I like, and I knew his sister quite well. I love the work of Kay Boyle and Christina Stead. I once spent a wonderful week in New York with Christina, who knew everything surreal there is to know about life. I knew Anais Nin, who called me after I had been away for a few years. She was seeking help because at that time no one would give her a decent review. She was made fun of. I prefer “Collages” of all her work. That’s what she intended—a new kind of writing, but she did not live to do it. I like Gertrude Stein, and spent two weeks with her at the University of Chicago. I like her. She did not influence me in any way, but she wrote a novel called “Marguerite” in which she explained me. She wasn’t writing about me, she just defined the meaning of the name Marguerite, and it was true of everything she wrote about me. No, I like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and all those people, and I knew Harriet Monroe. Of the contemporaries, I read Toni Morrison’s work and the short stories of Cynthia Ozick. I believe that Ozick, like me, has been influenced by William James. Their Henry James too, but especially their William James. I admire T. S. Eliot, though he did not influence me as people like to think.
I: What about the echoes of Eliot in “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling”?
MY: There are no echoes of Eliot. There are echoes of the things that influenced him. At the University of Chicago I majored in epic literature of the world and studied the material that Eliot had studied. I studied Dante, Milton, Lucretius, Locke, Fourier, Darwin, Owen, and many others. I did not need to go to Eliot. My references, for instance, to crabs from—I forget now—but I think from Danish folklore, not from Eliot. I love Eliot’s work, don’t get me wrong, but I resent people who say I echo Eliot.
I: Who did influence you directly?
MY: I studied with Robert Morss Lovett, the great professor of epic literature. Another important influence was Ronald S. Crane, a professor of aesthetics at the University of Chicago. I was in his class, and we read “Tom Jones” thirteen times, doing an intricate study of its structure. Nothing could have been more valuable for my own writing, although it was one time more than I cared to read “Tom Jones.”
I: Some reviewers have criticized your non-realistic style for being poetic, repetitive, almost obsessive. Have you altered your style from one book to another?
MY: No, I have never altered me style in anything I’ve written. My Debs biography is as poetic as “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,” but it is more of a ballad while “Miss MacIntosh” is an epic. I would never write realistic prose. I don’t like people who try to write in a poetic style, but in the course of their book abandon it for realism, and weave back and forth like drunkards between the surreal and the real. I think that the style is the writing, a beautiful sense of style. And if you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter what you write, it doesn’t really make any difference. I’m not speaking of realistic novels now, but of the pseudo-poetic novel or short story. I’m quite sure that most writers would sustain real poetry if they could, but it takes devotion and talent. I’ve been willing to go for years without publishing. That’s been my career.
I: Have you always viewed yourself as an experimental writer?
MY: I see myself as traditional even though I know you see my work as experimental. I don’t really consider Sterne, Joyce, and Proust experimental either because the tradition of their writing goes back a long way. Traditional. The Grand Tradition. Clear back to “Don Quixote.” I never decided to write in a “new way” at all. It’s realism that’s fairly new. Is it experimental to have been influenced by the Bible? By Saint Augustine?
I: But you don’t write about Saint Augustine. Studying your style, people would think of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” for instance.
MY: But I was not influenced by Joyce although he’s a great writer, and I love his work. I was influenced by Saint Augustine. The books that did influence me were “Tristram Shandy” and Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” Dickens and Poe.
I: Are you saying that your goal wasn’t to break tradition, to alter the narrative line?
MY: No. Theological, historical, philosophical—I’m as much influenced by Joseph Smith and the Mormons as I am, more so, than by Eliot. Actually, I’m much more influenced by the poetry of the Mormons.
I: If you believe that your writing is traditional, why does “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” have no beginning, middle or end?
MY: Because life has no beginning, middle or end.
I: You tell your students to follow their obsessions to their ultimate conclusions. What is your own obsession?
MY: Absolutely, that is what I tell them. If you don’t have obsessions, don’t write. Debs was obsessed. James Whitcomb Riley was obsessed. And my characters are obsessed. The personages in the Debs book are obsessed, including Emma Goldman and Margaret Anderson. I have hundreds of characters . . . I had a book, which was stolen, the art of the life of the character, in which you present a whole life in three of four pages. I used that method. I’m obsessed. My first attempt to write about Robert Owen was in the form of poetry. Then I turned it into a blank verse poem, but I discovered that I couldn’t fit in all the facts, which are fabulous. I decided to rewrite it a third time, still retaining every image I had already written in the first two versions. My published volume, “Angel in the Forest,” contains all the other versions. I think that Mark Van Doren recognized this obsession in me when, in his introduction to “Angel in the Forest,” he described the intensity of my efforts to capture illusion as an “unkillable concern.”
I: Will you describe your obsession?
MY: I believe that all my work explores the human desire or obsession for utopias, and the structure of all my works is the search for utopias lost and rediscovered. This is true of “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,” “Moderate Fable,” “Prismatic Ground,” “Angel in the Forest,” and my Debs manuscript. All my writing is about the recognition that there is no single reality. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.