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Margery Latimer.

American modernist Margery Latimer (1899-1932) is remembered today only as the first wife of Harlem Renaissance author Jean Toomer, the lover of leftist poet Kenneth Fearing, or the close friend of Georgia O'Keeffe, yet her early death cut short the promise of an extremely successful literary career comparable to that of many canonized modernists. Reviewers of the period compared Latimer's two novels and two volumes of short fiction to the work of Katherine Mansfield, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce; indeed, she published in many of the same venues. Her oeuvre blends an experimental modernist aesthetic with her own brand of feminist and leftist critique, urging our renewed interest.

Modernist to the core, Latimer was brilliant, innovative, passionate, revolutionary, and self-conscious in the best sense of the word. Her genius is for transmitting a certain immediacy of experience--transcendent moments, small epiphanies--by means of the carefully rendered physical detail. Veering from sensuous lyricism to clever, biting satire, her prose employs striking metaphors--a woman's vengeful glee surfaces "like an actual shawled body rising from mud, smoothly dripping" (Nellie Bloom 24)--and experimental narrative techniques (such as a melding of first-, second-, and third-person narration in a single story) to jolt and engage the reader. Her work explores issues central to the modernist movement, such as the role of the artist in society, the breakdown of social verities, the liberation of sexuality from Victorian mores, and the sometimes thrilling, sometimes alienating impact of technology and urban existence.

While such stories as "City" and "Confession" (1929) illuminate the excesses, idealism, and loneliness of urban bohemians--Latimer was herself a habitue of the wild all-night parties of Greenwich Village in the 1920s--most of her work uses the experimental language and narrative structures of the avant-garde to render rural small-town life in middle America. Like her modernist contemporaries T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, Latimer hailed from the heartland, and her fiction turns repeatedly to the Midwest, particularly to small rural communities, both interrogating their provincialism--she has been called a feminist Sherwood Anderson--and commemorating their simplicity and natural beauty. In Fitzgerald's worldview, the Midwest is the place from which one escapes by whatever means necessary, as Jimmy Gatz does to become Jay Gatsby, and the American small town is where one returns when one has failed, as does Dick Diver at the end of Tender is the Night (1934). Between Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Sinclair Lewis's Main Street (1920), small-town Midwestern America had been revealed as a petri dish of dysfunction, philistinism, and banality, yet as the focus of American life shifted toward urban centers, Anderson and others also sounded an elegiac note of affection and grief in their portraits of these rural remnants of America's history. Latimer did so as well: in an essay published shortly after her death, poet Horace Gregory recalls her as a "country girl" who criticized Proust's "drawing rooms and desiccated people" and preferred instead "an open field in spring, where brown-skinned farmer boys tend slowly-moving cattle" (2). But Latimer also brought to her depictions of village life a critical feminist sensibility that illuminated the prevalence of child abuse, sexual exploitation, religious and social hypocrisy, marital inequality, and the sexual repression expected of women. Without essentializing Woman as Nature, her work connects the colonized female consciousness with the destruction of nature as small towns expanded and modernized.

In the American tradition of Walt Whitman and the modernist tradition of James Joyce, Latimer reclaims the body as a site for epiphanic spiritual experience. But in Latimer's case, it is primarily the female body that is reclaimed. The pleasures and pains of women's sexuality are explored throughout her work, from an overwhelming and transcendent experience of pregnancy in "The Family" (1929), to a devastating abortion in the novel This Is My Body (1930), to a young girl's awakening sexuality in "The Little Girls" (1932). Particularly compelling are her fictional critiques of traditional marriage and family structures, which she analyzes in light of the changing status and freedoms of women.

Works such as We Are Incredible (1928), "Possession" (1929), and "Guardian Angel" (1932), which fictionalize Latimer's intense and lengthy mentorship by the older writer Zona Gale, delineate the passionate complexities of women's relationships with each other. Indeed, the eroticized language with which Latimer describes these relationships and the violent breaks that end them strongly suggest the presence of what Patricia Juliana Smith has labeled "lesbian panic" in her analysis of British women's fiction of the modernist period: the "disruptive action or reaction that occurs when a character--or, conceivably an author--is either unable or unwilling to confront or reveal her own lesbianism or lesbian desire" (2). In the face of such desire, Smith argues, characters are either restored to institutional heterosexuality or annihilated, as happens in We Are Incredible.

With its focus on the body and its exploration of clearly autobiographical material, Latimer's work resists the new critical representation of modernism that views texts as independent art objects suspended in ahistorical space, complete unto themselves, for she relentlessly ties her writing back to her own lived experience and to others' perceptions of her body in the world. Ravishingly lovely, Latimer was remarked everywhere for her statuesque beauty and her blaze of red-gold hair. Journalist Blanche Matthias, recalling the first time she met Latimer, describes her as "a glorious looking young woman. Her red-gold curly hair was like a halo as the sun coming through the windows touched it" (1). In "Margery Latimer--Wisconsin's Newest Writer," an interviewer's physical description focuses on Latimer's hair as well: "Tall, red-haired, very much alive and vigorous, still under thirty, Margery impresses one with her vitality. She often wears her thick hair so that it falls to her shoulders" (Buss 15). By giving many of her protagonists physical characteristics similar to her own, Latimer deliberately links her texts to her embodied self--herself as perceived by those who knew her, herself as presented to the public by journalists. The events of her novel This Is My Body follow the contours of her own life so closely that scholar Robert Ryley refers to it unproblematically as a roman clef (ix). Latimer's work thus deliberately questions that strain of modernism that leans toward impersonality, toward the separation of the art object from its larger sociohistorical context. She diverges, too, from the classical impersonality of much Anglo-American modernist writing, from the austerity that ignored personal emotion and experience called for by Eliot, Pound, and others. Instead, Latimer's concern is expressionistic, focusing on subjective emotional, intellectual, and aesthetic responses. Thus she contributes to that strand of modernism that revisits and extends the romantics' investigation into consciousness, the self, and intensified experience.

Two of Latimer's major themes, the role of art and the role of women, merge in This Is My Body and in stories such as "The Family" and "Guardian Angel," which explore the relation of the female artist to sexuality, domesticity, and mysticism. In rebellion against nineteenth-century prohibitive attitudes toward the body and female freedom, Latimer labored to express women's physicality, sensuality, and spirituality, while insisting on women's intellectual and creative capabilities, thus anticipating the work of later feminist writers and theorists. In a striking number of Latimer's texts, we find a portrait of the artist as a young woman, struggling to forge both a self and an art. In an era in which many ambitious women eschewed romance and family life altogether, artistic talent often meant an either-or choice for women. Latimer sought, in her fiction as in her life, to combine both kinds of experience, and her work explores the ramifications of sexuality and family life for the female artist, elucidating the difficulties of being a woman of genius in a prefeminist age. Yet this is not her only concern. From varying vantage points, Latimer's work protests the rigidity of gender roles, the institution of marriage, the accepted child-raising practices of her day, the disparities between economic classes and among ethnic groups--"Confession," for example, self-consciously satirizes the first-person narrator's white privilege, anticipating recent critical inquiries into the construction of whiteness--and the terrible costs women paid for being sexually alive.

Born on 6 February 1899 in Portage, Wisconsin, a town of about 3,000 at the time, Margery Bodine Latimer was the younger of two daughters of Clark Watt Latimer, a traveling sales representative, and Laura Augusta Bodine. Genteel but not affluent, the Latimers scrimped to maintain their middle-class status in the community.

In 1917 Latimer published one of her short stories in the local paper, and it caught the eye of her neighbor Zona Gale (1874-1938), by all accounts a remarkable woman. A liberal activist and suffragist profoundly alive with ideas, Gale had earned two college degrees before the turn of the century and demonstrated a serious commitment to work in her successful career as a journalist, fiction writer, and playwright who would be the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Not only did she live alone (until the age of fifty-four) and like it, but she instructed other ambitious women to do likewise. She was a long-time close friend of both Jane Addams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Mark Twain and Frank Lloyd Wright numbered among the admirers of her work. Gale invited Latimer to tea and, impressed by such talent in one so young, deemed her "one of the most exquisite centres of intuitive experience imaginable" (Derleth 172). Gale would become Latimer's mentor and confidante for the next fourteen years, supporting and controlling her in an intense relationship that both women would explore in their fiction.

Latimer entered Wooster College in Ohio in the fall of 1918; lonely and homesick, she returned home after a semester. In the autumn of 1919 she entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but her restless intellect made her impatient with the focus on sports and sororities. In 1921 Latimer moved to New York City, where she attended playwriting workshops at Columbia University, volunteered at the Henry Street Settlement House, and held a short-lived position writing fashion copy for the mass-circulation magazine Woman's Home Companion. At Columbia, she met Blanche Matthias, the wealthy and lovely Chicago art critic, journalist, and poet, with whom she developed a lasting friendship; a recent biography of Georgia O'Keeffe suggests that Latimer and Matthias may have been lovers as well (Eisler 341).

The material circumstances of Latimer's life were not luxurious. In 1922, for example, Latimer's father, to support a family of four, earned only a little over $1,000, roughly the equivalent of $10,000 in today's terms (Loughridge 218). Conscious of her protegee's difficult financial situation, Gale instituted the Zona Gale Scholarship at the University of Wisconsin that year. Its generous terms were tailor-made for Latimer, who returned to Madison as its first recipient. While there, she served on the editorial board of the university's literary magazine, to which she also contributed several striking early pieces. In 1923 she left college permanently to focus on her writing career.

Raised in Portage, Latimer had extensive personal knowledge of rural small towns and placed most of her fiction in such settings. Yet after her sporadic early education, she based her literary life in New York City and specifically in Greenwich Village. Her first home there, a meeting place for other young writers and artists, was commemorated by Horace Gregory in his first volume of poetry, Chelsea Rooming House (1930), and she later shared a Staten Island apartment with the dazzlingly talented leftist poet Kenneth Fearing, whose own work is currently enjoying a revival of scholarly interest. Fearing and Latimer, who had met in Madison in 1923--he followed her to Manhattan--carried on a tumultuous romantic relationship until 1928, an affair marred by Fearing's penchant for borrowing money and sleeping with other women. Latimer's "Two in Love," "Wind," "City," and This Is My Body include clearly recognizable Fearing figures.

In Manhattan, Latimer constructed an active social life. She formed a close friendship with Meridel Le Sueur, the labor activist and feminist writer, who later claimed that Latimer's prose had influenced all her own writing; Le Sueur had also been a protegee of Zona Gale, and both she and Latimer labored in their writing to express women's physicality and sensuality in rebellion against Gale's prohibitive attitude toward the body. Latimer also befriended such artists and writers as Georgia O'Keeffe, Lewis Mumford, Anita Loos, Louis Zukofsky, Blanche and Alfred Knopf, Carl and Irita Van Doren, and Walt Kuhn, the painter who helped organize the New York Armory Show of 1913. Known as a great beauty wherever she went, Latimer was a favorite at the extravagant mixed-race parties of writer and jazz critic Carl Van Vechten and his wife Fania Marinoff. Poet Carl Rakosi, who knew her at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and in Manhattan, recalls her striking physical presence: "She wore no make-up, no high heels, no frills of any kind and only the most plain dresses. Her walk was unselfconscious, very straight and direct, without being masculine. What struck one immediately was her radiant presence. Blake would have described her as a cloud of gold" (qtd. in Loughridge 217).

Throughout the 1920s, Latimer published stories in a variety of journals, from mainstream publications such as Scribner's, the Century, and the Bookman to avant-garde literary reviews such as Pagany and transition, the groundbreaking Parisian journal that published Joyce, Stein, and Hemingway. She reviewed fiction for various periodicals, including the New York Herald and the New York World. Her remarkable short essay on experimental writing, "The New Freedom," which anticipates Virginia Woolf's ideas in A Room of One's Own, appeared in the Reviewer in 1924. In 1928 her novel We Are Incredible received mixed but admiring reviews, while her first collection of short fiction, Nellie Bloom and Other Stories, met with excellent notices the following year. A second novel, This Is My Body, appeared in 1930 and was both praised and damned for its experimentalism.

In New York, Latimer supported herself with clerical jobs while continuing to write. In 1983, in his Collected Prose, dedicated to "Margery Latimer Dearest Friend of My Youth," Rakosi recalled her financial situation: "In those days young women were not expected to support themselves, and I assumed therefore that when she lived away from home, she was on an allowance the way Kenneth [Fearing] and I were. I was shocked to learn from her biographer that there was no money for this at home and that she had to depend for her subsistence on ... an occasional publisher's advance or book review, for which the usual fee then was five dollars" (95). While her experimentalism drew her toward the modernist project, the economic circumstances of her life kept her close to class struggle, and her fiction contains an aggressive blend of modernist technique and material detail, positioning Latimer as a leftist feminist intellectual who rode the crests of multiple movements during the 1920s and early thirties.

Latimer, whose work often depicts moments of transcendent awareness, had been interested in the Gurdjieff spiritual movement since 1924, attending lectures on Georgei Gurdjieff's philosophy in New York and discussing her literary work with Katherine Mansfield's editor, A. R. Orage, then the movement's American leader. In 1931 Latimer's interest came to fruition when she helped the new leader, Jean Toomer, organize a communal retreat for Gurdjieff students near her hometown. Known as the "Portage Experiment," the retreat was sensationalized in the press as a haven for radicals.

Her turbulent romance with Fearing over, Latimer was drawn to the brilliant, handsome, and charismatic Toomer, whose book Cane (1923) is widely regarded as a harbinger of the Harlem Renaissance. In October 1931 Latimer and Toomer were married in Portage, but they soon became the objects of a nationwide antimiscegenation scandal: Toomer, who claimed some African ancestry, was accused of trying to mongrelize America, and Latimer, who could trace her Anglo-American heritage back to Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, was seen as a traitor to white racial purity.

When Time magazine reported the marriage in March 1932, for example, it placed the article under the general heading "RACES." Titled "Just Americans," the piece opens with these inflammatory lines: "No Negro can legally marry a white woman in any Southern State. But Wisconsin does not mind, nor California," referring, respectively, to the states where Latimer and Toomer had married and temporarily settled. The other item under "RACES" concerns a young Apache's murder of a white woman with whom he'd had sex; Time's page layout juxtaposes a photograph of Latimer and Toomer with one of the Native American (an "undersized Redskin buck") in his jail cell. Rather than marking Latimer and Toomer's marriage as a meeting of two literary minds--rather than reporting it, for instance, in the "BOOKS" or "PEOPLE" section--Time sensationalized the relationship as one of racial and sexual transgression, which is how it was widely viewed. While Latimer and Toomer found support in the artists' community of Carmel, where they mingled with the Lincoln Steffens-Robinson Jeffers circle, Latimer's parents, who received threats and hate mail, had to leave their Portage home until the scandal abated.

When Latimer learned she was pregnant, she and Toomer returned to Chicago to be near Latimer's mother for the birth. Just ten months after her marriage, Latimer died in childbirth on 16 August 1932, after delivering a healthy daughter. She was thirty-three.

Latimer's final collection of short fiction, Guardian Angel and Other Stories, was published posthumously in 1932 to great acclaim; the title story had been previously published in Scribner's as a finalist in its $5,000 story competition. Reviews of Guardian Angel compared Latimer to Mansfield and Lawrence and mourned the loss to American literature incurred by her early death.

The feminist project of reviving women's writing led to a renewed interest in Latimer's work, and in 1984 the Feminist Press issued a reprint entitled Guardian Angel and Other Stories, which drew stories from both earlier collections. The volume includes three afterwords: a useful biographical essay, a warm tribute by Le Sueur, and a critical appraisal by former Modern Language Association president Louis Kampf. An edition of the original Guardian Angel is also in print from Books for Libraries Press; it includes four additional stories. The remaining twelve stories from Nellie Bloom and both of Latimer's novels remain out of print and difficult to obtain.

Little critical work has been done on Latimer. Though her accomplishments rival those of her modernist contemporaries, her brief output, early death, and buried reputation have obscured her achievements.

During her own time, however, Latimer was clearly regarded as an active architect of the new writing, as is evident from the journals, anthologies, and presses whose editors chose to feature her work. While several of her stories appeared in mainstream literary publications such as the Century, the Bookman, and Scribner's, a consideration of the avant-garde journals that published her work reveals that influential progressive editors ranked her work with that of the period's leading modernists. Latimer's short story "Grotesque," for instance, originally appeared in 1927 in the revolutionary, experimental journal transition together with Stein's "As a Wife Has a Cow" and an installment in the serial publication of Joyce's Work in Progress, which would later become Finnegans Wake. Founded by Eugene Jolas and Elliot Paul as "a linguistic and creative bridge between the countries of the Western World," transition provoked controversy in 1929 with Jolas's famous "Manifesto: The Revolution of the Word," which damned the plain reader. Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants" first appeared within the pages of transition, and its covers were designed by such artists as Picasso, Miro, Kandinsky, Duchamp, and Man Ray. During its run between the world wars, the journal featured the work of writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, Laura Riding, Dylan Thomas, Andre Breton, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett.

Pagany, another journal that chose Latimer's fiction, was one of the most important literary magazines of the Depression. Launched by Richard Johns in consultation with William Carlos Williams, Pagany showcased the work of Stein, Ezra Pound, H. D., John Dos Passos, e. e. cummings, Mary Butts, and Tess Slesinger during its brief run between 1929 and 1932. Two of Latimer's stories, "Monday Morning" and "The Little Girls," first appeared in its pages. The original venue for Latimer's story "Picnic Day" was the socialist journal New Masses, the first to publish Richard Wright. Along with journalism, fiction, and poetry by socialist writers like Mike Gold, New Masses published Hemingway, Dos Passos, Muriel Rukeyser, Dorothy Parker, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Wolfe, and Langston Hughes.

Editors of little magazines were not the only ones to perceive the importance of Latimer's work. In 1927, when editors Van Wyck Brooks, Alfred Kreymborg, Lewis Mumford, and Paul Rosenfeld assembled the anthology The American Caravan: A Yearbook of American Literature--dedicated to Alfred Stieglitz as "a yearbook conducted by literary men in the interests of a growing American literature"--they included Latimer's story "Penance" in conjunction with pieces by Hemingway, Stein, Dos Passos, Louise Bogan, Robert Penn Warren, Hart Crane, Eugene O'Neill, and William Carlos Williams. A later volume in the series, The New Caravan, includes Latimer's posthumously collected "Letters to Georgia O'Keeffe" alongside the work of such writers as Anderson, Wright, Toomer, and Wallace Stevens.

Latimer's books found homes with presses similarly dedicated to advancing the new writing. New York editor Harrison Smith formed the publishing house of Cape and Smith in order to print avantgarde works, such as Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury in 1929; the following year, he added Latimer's novel This Is My Body to their list. When Smith left to form a subsequent publishing partnership with Robert Haas, Faulkner and Latimer were two of the authors he took with him. Smith and Haas published both Faulkner's Light in August and Latimer's collection Guardian Angel and Other Stories in 1932; Latimer's title story had appeared previously in Scribner's alongside Faulkner's "Spotted Horses." Smith, like many editors of the period, recognized Latimer's work as congruent in both content and style with the aims of modernism.

Latimer was certainly involved in reading the new writers, for her correspondence (now housed in collections at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the University of Wisconsin Memorial Library in Madison) indicates a broad and deep familiarity with contemporary literature and the modernist corpus. In letters to friends, Latimer discusses Pirandello, Henry James, Joyce, Proust, Dostoyevski, and Gide. She recommends Lawrence, Steffens, Jeffers, Somerset Maugham, and her contemporaries Hemingway and Wolfe, though her most enthusiastic recommendations are reserved for the work of other women writers: Mansfield, whose work she most passionately admired, Stein, Sigrid Undset, Virginia Woolf, Kay Boyle, and Rebecca West. Her correspondence casually compares the treatment of sexuality and the body in Ulysses to that in Lady Chatterley's Lover, takes Willa Cather to task for her lack of innovation ("just that old, old thing over again but beautifully built") and comments wryly on Mansfield's published letters: "Not nearly as good as the journal though. Mr. Husband must have left a lot out." Her avid reading of the lives of writers and artists included Margaret Anderson's My Thirty Years' War: An Autobiography (1930), which details Anderson's establishment of the modernist literary journal the Little Review, her publication of Ulysses, and her various attempts, in Latimer's admiring description, to "live hazardously." One letter includes a witty sketch of Edna St. Vincent Millay in the evening gown she'd worn to a reading. In all, Latimer's correspondence suggests her active engagement in the exuberant modernist milieu of New York in the twenties and early thirties.

Latimer was also on the radar screen of other important writers of the modernist period. In a letter written from Vienna in 1933, H. D.'s partner Bryher laments the fact that she cannot find "the early Margery Latimer book" (Friedman). Bryher may have been referring to Latimer's first novel We Are Incredible, reviewed by Katherine Anne Porter and praised by Upton Sinclair; according to poet Genevieve Taggard, We Are Incredible surpassed the work of Katherine Mansfield.

Reviews of Latimer's fiction were extremely positive--a review of Nellie Bloom and Other Stories in the New York Herald Tribune, for instance, argued that Latimer had outdone both Mansfield and Sherwood Anderson--yet many critics were troubled by the experimental elements of her work (Haxton 3). While the New York Times Book Review acknowledges "the excellent craftsmanship which is the outstanding feature of her work," the general critical response focused on Latimer's unconventional choice of form (Guardian Angel 6). For instance, Gertrude Diamant in the New York World chides that it is "precisely because Miss Latimer can write with ruthless objectivity that it is wasteful for her to compromise her genuine power with the attempt to be modernistic," throwing out the baby with the ideological bathwater in an implicit criticism of the modernist project as a whole. Diamant was not troubled by any artistic failure on Latimer's part but rather by her experimentalism.

Similarly, the anonymous critic in the Saturday Review of Literature gives and removes praise in the same gesture: "Miss Latimer gives liberal evidence of her proficiency in that compressed fiction form wherein plot and cumulative dramatic tension are not called into play," as if to say that, while she may be good at it, it's not worth doing (Nellie Bloom 42). A New York Times Book Review critic, discussing Latimer's 1930 novel This Is My Body, censures it for being "intensely subjective" and continues: "by [Latimer's] very immersion in the colors and sensations of life, she sacrifices much of the feeling of reality for which the book apparently strives" ("Hungry" 9). Again, it seems to be Latimer's experimentation, which privileges "immersion in the colors and sensations of life" over straightforward traditional realism, that draws critical fire. Reviewer Edwin Seaver objects to the same text on the basis of its disruption of genre: "Miss Latimer's book, it seems to me, is rather to be taken as an autobiographic fragment than as a novel," a critique easily leveled against such modernist classics as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The talent is there, the critics agreed, but what on earth is she doing with it?

Mainstream reviewers who complain in 1930 that Latimer writes "in the manner of James Joyce," or that her characters "go a little Gertrude Stein occasionally and fling fantastic chains of words about," see these resemblances as flaws ("Hungry" 9, Wakefield 10). While Joyce, Stein, and other experimental writers eventually won widespread approval--Faulkner's seventeen books were not even in print when critics revived his reputation after World War II--Latimer's work was already out of the public eye by the time this recuperation occurred.

Latimer's feminism was another factor that made the critical reception of her work problematic. Her decision to focus on the seldom discussed experiences of girls and women drew belittling attacks from critics, who questioned whether such material was relevant to readers and rebuked Latimer on the grounds of what might now well qualify as gender bias. We Are Incredible, for example, "rockets into the hysterical with a thin, unsupported shriek," according to the New York Evening Post. Today such complaints can be read in light of the reviewer's potential sexism or reevaluated in light of recent work by feminist critics, such as Gabrielle Dane, who limn hysterical rhetoric as a form of feminist protest against sexual abuse or violation. Latimer's second novel, for instance, describes a young woman's coming-of-age: sexual pressure from boyfriends, an episode of sexual harassment by an older professor, a lover (the Fearing figure) who lives off her meager earnings yet prefers the company of prostitutes, and an illegal and traumatizing abortion. Compounding the protagonist's difficulties, her ambitions and confidence are met at every turn by a dismissal grounded solely in gender. When a male poet asks her, "What are you planning to do with your beautiful body?" she replies, "Be a great writer." His response is telling: "`Yah,' he cried in disgust. `That is for homely women. You have that child'" (169). Hysterical rhetoric, Dane argues, is not merely a fitting but the only response available to women in a society that routinely silences their experience and reduces them to their sexual and procreative capacities.

As a chronicle of a young woman artist's maturation, This Is My Body represents a significant contribution to the tradition of women's coming-of-age writing, for it stands as one of the only female-authored Kunstlerromane of the period. In her scholarly study A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman, Linda Huf reminds us that "Jane Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Katherine Anne Porter, and Flannery O'Connor never wrote a portrait-of-the-author novel" (1-2), and Patricia Meyer Spacks wonders in The Female Imagination if there exists a novel that can function as "the female equivalent of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" (200). Fearful of recrimination for narcissism and egotism, female authors "have frequently balked at portraying themselves in literature as would-be writers," Huf notes, but Latimer audaciously does just that (1).

Compounding the difficulties of writing a female kunstlerroman, moreover, was the fact that critics were likely to misread such a narrative. The reviewer at the New York Times, for instance, seems baffled by the trajectory of This Is My Body: "It would be almost unfair to the book to accept it, in the common sense of the phrase, as telling a story. Miss Latimer has taken ten years of a girl's life--the ten years which include late adolescence, college, first love, the eager investigation of latent powers, the fumbling for a start at life, and the final emergence into maturity. Of these ten years she has woven a highly colored tapestry" ("Hungry" 9). The passage's first sentence seems contradicted by what follows, giving rise to questions as to what might constitute a legitimate story. Clearly the anonymous reviewer's criteria for meaningful plotlines did not include the experience of girls and women: a young woman comes of age, sexually and emotionally, and becomes a successful artist against substantial odds, and yet the narrative does not count as "a story." One wonders in what "sense of the phrase" it would be fair to call it such. But Eleanor Wakefield of New York World concurs: "Plot there is none in the conventional sense." Latimer does experiment with traditional narrative structure, but not so radically that cohesive development is difficult to perceive. The pique of critics seems to issue from the fact that a novelist would consider "ten years of a girl's life" worthy of exploration at all. Blinkered by standard (male) narrative patterns of development, few critics comprehended Latimer's accomplishment.

Although reviewers in the New York Times Book Review and the Saturday Review of Literature remarked upon the book's "almost hypnotic sense of power," its display of "fine and genuine talent," "sensitive observation and emotional keenness," "standard of serious excellence," and "cultivation of an individual prose style," they and other critics took the protagonist Megan Foster severely to task (9, 1073). "Miss Latimer's heroine," argues F. L. Robbins in the Outlook, "is an hysterical, egocentric girl whose talk is all of the `realities' of life, but who has not learned the reality of her own insignificance," and the novel is dismissed in the New Republic as the "entirely subjective story of a frenzied adolescent" (148, 227). The Saturday Review of Literature concurs that Megan "exhausts one's sympathy and exceeds one's patience a hundred times over," while the Bookman labels her "definitely neurotic" (1073, 216). M. C. Dawson moans in the Nation that it is "without doubt the most exasperating book I have ever read," while seeing it as nonetheless "a novel of rare and permanent value," and Edwin Seaver of the New York Evening Post decries "its annoying honesty" (552, 10).

Her posthumously published collection of fiction, Guardian Angel and Other Stories, met with immediate critical success when it appeared in 1932. Even so, the Saturday Review characterizes Latimer's talent as "original" but "circumscribed" due to its continued dwelling upon "so slight a theme" as "feminine adolescence: its terrors, its joys, its hesitancies" (179). Critics' preconceived notions as to whose stories were important--and whose were not--had a powerful impact on Latimer's reception in the public sphere.

Latimer's sharp critiques of the traditional nuclear family also proved problematic for reviewers. We Are Incredible was widely praised for its originality and style, yet critics of the period were quick to leap to the defense of home and family when they encountered the Frys, a small-town family that today's readers would quickly describe as dysfunctional. The response of the Milwaukee Journal's critic is typical: "Unnecessarily emphasized, it would seem, are the constant bickerings between husband and wife, the squalling of untidy and ill behaved children, the ugliness of small town gossip, the dullness of small town existence" (17). Yet despite the critical doubt, Latimer's emphasis on family dysfunction in We Are Incredible is hardly unnecessary. Readers today, for instance, would note with interest the reviewer's criticism of "untidy and ill behaved children" that omits mention of the physical and emotional abuse of the youngest daughter, a gentle and dreamy four-year-old who is repeatedly slapped, shoved, humiliated, and threatened with parental abandonment, and whose mother's disregard of doctor's orders culminates in the child's death. The objectionable "small town gossip" includes a story of an adolescent girl who has been sexually used by so many of the town's citizens--including her own uncle, a churchgoing man--that no one person can be settled upon as the father of her child; she is sent away to work on a farm until the child is born and will then be sent to the city until the scandal blows over. The shame is figured as hers and her mother's (for not controlling her), not the men's. Rex Fry sleeps with his secretary; his wife Myrtle threatens suicide but continues to wash the supper dishes. Hardly unnecessary, Latimer's biting analysis of the family and of small-town America--"meager lawns and screaming children who tottered after dogs who would not play"--forms an indispensable backdrop, the cramped context in which her characters are forced to make choices (129).

Recent feminist work on the period enables us to situate Latimer's work and recognize its significant contribution to reconfigurations of literary history. She has much in common, for instance, with the women writers publishing between 1892 and 1929 whom Elizabeth Ammons, in Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century, sees as "united by gender, historical context, and self-definition" (4). Like the seventeen writers Ammons analyzes, Latimer exhibits "an emerging, shared, and often defiant confidence in the abilities and rights of women" as well as sharing these writers' "avowed ambition, with few exceptions, to be artists .... in the modern high-culture sense of the term in the west, makers of new, challenging, and typically idiosyncratic forms" (4-5). Like these writers, Latimer demonstrates in her work a focus on radical experimentation, spotlights the role of the woman artist in society, and displays her interest in gender and racial social structures, what Ammons calls "issues of power: the will to break silence by exposing the connection among institutionalized violence, the sexual exploitation of women, and female muteness" (4-5).

Latimer's work also contributes to the recent redefinitions and expansions of the modernist canon prompted by the realization that, as Elaine Showalter notes, "the post-war literary movement that we have come to call the Lost Generation was in fact a community of men" (104). The publication of Latimer's first book coincides with what Bonnie Kime Scott sees in The Women of 1928 as a pivotal moment in modernism, and Latimer's work pursues issues, such as a radical critique of the conventional family structure, that are common to the women modernists Scott anthologizes in her groundbreaking 1990 volume The Gender of Modernism. With H. D., Mansfield, Stein, Woolf, and the lesser known writers in the collection, Latimer's texts "write the erotics of the female body" and explore female creativity, anticipating much recent French feminist theory (Scott 13-15). Latimer's insistent foregrounding of the subjectivities of traditionally sidelined female characters, too, works to deconstruct received narrative structures. By repeatedly placing marginal characters at the center of her fiction, Latimer allies her work with that of Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, and other modernist forerunners of postmodern and postcolonial strategies (Hite 25).

Margery Latimer, then, was firmly ensconced in the project of high modernism, publishing in the same venues as Joyce, Stein, Hemingway, Faulkner, and other canonical modernists. Analysis of the mainstream critics of the period reveals that they rejected precisely those aspects of her work--its experimentation with language, focus on subjectivity, and disruption of traditional narrative structures--which we have come to see as defining characteristics of modernism. While with time the experimentation of modernist works came to be seen as acceptable, even laudable, by critics and the wider reading public, Latimer's reputation was already lost by the time this reevaluation occurred. Due to her brief output, early death, and buried reputation, her work was never reevaluated with the critical hindsight that benefited other modernist writers.

Moreover, Latimer's focus on female experience dovetailed with her trenchant critiques of traditional family and social roles to form significant ideological stumbling blocks for many critics of the twenties and thirties. As Scott and others have convincingly demonstrated, a disproportionate number of modernist women who, like Latimer, were actively publishing work that pursued such themes were winnowed away during the initial period of canon formation. Inadequately understood in her own time, Latimer would not live long enough to see the development of a body of criticism that would explain and appreciate her work.

We Are Incredible

Latimer's longest treatment of her conflicted relationship with Zona Gale, the 1928 novel We Are Incredible, addresses two competing paradigms of womanhood available to young women in the early years of the twentieth century: the domestic wife-and-mother and the sexually pure intellectual-artist. In We Are Incredible Latimer caricatures a thinly veiled Gale in the character of Hester Linden, a beautiful older woman who seduces her young admirers (both male and female) with an antiseptic spirituality and urges them away from the life of the body. Her controlling rejection of sexuality results in the demise of two of her young proteges, Stephen Mitchell and Dora Weck, whose forbidden attraction to one another ends in their mysterious deaths.

The text bears a telling resemblance to Gale's own 1920 best-selling novel Miss Lulu Bett (which, when adapted for the stage in 1921, won Gale the Pulitzer), as if Latimer were deliberately reworking Gale's plot. The situations are strikingly similar, yet the traditional nuclear family, depicted as benignly vapid in Miss Lulu Bert, becomes openly destructive in Latimer's novel: Latimer's Mr. Fry, the pontificating husband, is also a callous philanderer; his wife is desperately frustrated and lonely, yet helplessly, bitterly urges marriage and motherhood on all women; and their youngest daughter, Deva, "the only delicate member" of the family, dies from parental neglect (7). The romance that ends successfully in Gale's book, with marriage for Lulu Bett and Neil Cornish, ends with death for Latimer's protagonists.

We Are Incredible, which unfolds across a nine-day span, employs a third-person narrator whose limited omniscience dips into the psyches of each of the three main characters, and the tripartite structure of the book serves to emphasize the centrality of their roles as focalizers--the sections are entitled "Stephen Mitchell," the man who views ironically his old enthrallment by Hester; "Dora Weck," the young woman who is currently enthralled; and "Hester Linden," the Gale figure. In her use of third person, Latimer relinquishes the openly subjective stance of much of her short fiction in favor of one that explores a combination of detachment and empathy, leaving room for irony and critique.

While the dire effects of the Gale character serve as the focus of most contemporary reviews of the book, far more of Latimer's actual text is devoted to descriptions of the Fry family, whose function as backdrop to the main plot threatens to displace it. Stephen Mitchell boards with the Frys; Dora Weck is Mrs. Fry's younger, unmarried sister, a financial burden the Frys are pressed to assume upon the death of her mother. Eager to rid themselves of Dora, Myrtle and Rex Fry urge her to marry Joe Teeter, a local boy who has done well in his family's creamery business. Simple, genuine, and eminently acceptable as husband material, Joe nonetheless fails to interest Dora, who, influenced by Hester Linden, longs for someone more complicated, more worldly--someone more like Stephen Mitchell. Since the choices that Dora must make have everything to do with available paradigms of sexual relationships and womanhood, the development of the Frys' family situation, seen by reviewers as excessive and negative, can be read as a development of the home-and-family option for women and therefore as an elaboration of the issues at the heart of the novel.

In We Are Incredible Latimer develops characters who represent both available paradigms for women, yet neither role is featured as a compelling option for the young Dora--whose hair, we are quick to learn, is "a blaze of copper," marking her as an autobiographical Latimer figure (5). The life of the mind is represented by cool, manipulative Hester, "a virgin, a woman years older ... who was so fastidious she was sterile, so exquisite that she was cruel." Described as "masked, evasive, ... an arid old maid," Hester derides the sexual impulses of her young friends as "tiresome," "silly and vulgar," and they, in turn, express their ties to her as "bondage" (4, 36).

In contrast to Hester, Dora's older married sister, Myrtle Fry, stands as a figure for fecund womanhood under patriarchy, she "whose most intense psychic and physical energies," in Adrienne Rich's words, "are directed towards men" (219). Myrtle plays the role of the "mother-woman," as Kate Chopin phrases it in The Awakening, a representative of "women who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels" (181). Myrtle, however, is a blighted caricature of such angelic self-effacement. Marred by her complete social and economic dependence on her husband, she is pathetic, and--seen from Stephen Mitchell's point of view--revoltingly fleshy, a corpulent chatterbox, a "warm, coarse" product of her own "automatic fertility" (10). What beauty and character she once possessed have been obliterated by the changes wrought upon her body by motherhood: "Her clear blue eyes, her mouth, a delicate downward curve, seemed like irrelevant details in the masses of rolling flesh" (11). When her husband eyes his typist, she demands his respect by threatening to leave him, but to no great effect:

"But you know what I can do, Rex Fry, and don't you ever forget it, either. Sometime you'll come home and I'll be gone."

"Aw, Myrtle."

"Well, I will." She could barely speak and stopped, her eyes filling with tears. "And--and I'll be in the canal." (57)

The only power Myrtle perceives herself as wielding in her marriage is the power of self-annihilation; her options, as she sees them, are little different from those of Chopin's Edna Pontellier. But her intermittent plays for power are futile; the desired response is not forthcoming from her husband, who instead ignores her:

"Don't think for one minute, Rex Fry, that you can treat me the way you do because you can't. You'll come home some night from that fine typewriter of yours and find me gone--you just wait!"

As Rex lighted his cigar Mitchell noticed that Myrtle, instead of falling into a faint, had begun to pick up the dishes listlessly. Suddenly she discovered a rhubarb stain on the cloth and began examining the condition, then, of her best napkins. (57-58)

Though Stephen Mitchell expects hysterics, Myrtle turns to her domestic duties, for the Fry family cannot afford the sort of domestic help Hester Linden takes for granted. Fainting fits, Myrtle discerns, are the luxury of leisured women, not of those solely responsible for the daily management of children and a household--a household that takes in boarders, at that. However she might protest, her life is entirely defined by domestic responsibilities and the burdens of class, and she knows it.

Hester Linden and Myrtle Fry represent the historical paradigms of womanhood between which Dora, the young Latimer figure on the verge of adulthood, must choose. Searching for a story, a life for herself, Dora sees the two older women as the only available role models. Both are inadequate: "She couldn't marry Joe or Mitchell, even, or any other man. They would touch her and she would wither and grow hideous like Myrtle and all the others but if she kept beyond their touch like Hester she would stay beautiful and young and they would worship her. There was no place in the world for her" (119). There is indeed no place for Dora in the world of the novel, no place for any woman who would combine both independence and sexuality. It is male "touch," heterosexuality and its consequence of childbearing, which in Dora's mind produces the physical changes she fears. Following Hester's example, Dora has the option of keeping herself "beyond [men's] touch" and thus keeping them in her thrall, but while this option works for the mysteriously wealthy Hester, it breaks down for penniless Dora, who is reliant on her sister's husband for support. Following in Hester's footsteps does not appear to be feasible for Dora. Yet to reject men is also unthinkable, due to their complete social and economic power: after a brief experimental stint as Hester's maid, Dora, without education or a profession, "fear[s] taking care of herself, even the thought of work and loneliness filled her with terror" (118). Neither Hester nor Myrtle suffices to offer her a vision of retained selfhood combined with active sexuality.

When Dora attempts to overcome this dichotomy, claiming for herself the right to sexuality without the institution of marriage, the text reveals that there is indeed "no place in the world" for her: the novel ends with her death. She goes "into the garden" with Stephen Mitchell in romantic rebellion against Hester's sexual prohibitions; Hester witnesses their sexual liaison from her window, and their bodies are found the next morning (276-77). Dora's death is specifically sexualized in a figure of lost virginity--"there was blood on her dress," cries Hester's maid (281).

Yet the actual cause of death remains obscure within the text, as if the very transgression of social and sexual boundaries has resulted in the characters' spontaneous demise. The "hands that had brought them death" are "white and still" at Mitchell's sides, we are told, but the fact that the couple is found entwined leaves room for ambiguity as to whether the hands in question are Stephen's, Dora's, or both (283). Additional ambiguity arises from the fact that, since no cause of death is defined and no murder weapon mentioned, readers cannot know if the "hands that had brought them death" are meant literally (Stephen could have used his hands alone to kill Dora by strangling her, but he could not have successfully strangled himself) or if the very fact of touch, sexual contact, represented synecdochically by "hands," has killed them.

In its violence and ambiguity, the closure of We Are Incredible anticipates similar endings in the novels of Latimer's female contemporaries, novels which, like hers, attempt to address the social strictures surrounding women's sexuality and domestic roles. Nella Larsen, for instance, deliberately leaves the ending of Passing (1929) unresolved: Was it murder, suicide, an accident, or some slippery combination thereof?. The closing of Ellen Glasgow's 1932 The Sheltered Life was so ambiguous in its initial edition that a new version, clarifying Eva Birdsong's murder of her philandering husband, was issued. Rather than a failure of authorial skill, this lack of explicitness may more fruitfully be read as a direct attempt to confuse issues of culpability. Obscuring the locus of blame raises questions about all the characters involved, diffusing responsibility throughout the sexual and cultural dynamic.

In Dora's case, moreover, death is freighted with additional significance, for it returns her to the lost mother. Mrs. Weck has died prior to the action of the novel, crucially affecting Dora's development; as Myrtle tells Mitchell, "She always has had a good strong constitution, but since Mama died she hasn't been the same girl" (60). Like motherless Rachel Vinrace in Woolf's The Voyage Out (1915), like motherless Anna Morgan in Jean Rhys's original version of Voyage in the Dark (1934), Dora dies as the culmination of her social and sexual coming-of-age; her subsequent dissolution in death functions to reunite her with the dead mother. While figured as the heroine's failure to adopt her gender role, such deaths also serve to return her at a symbolic level to the long-lost maternal, the realm of the semiotic, characterized by pre-Oedipal fluidity, mutuality, and lack of differentiation. Woolf, Rhys, and Latimer, in response to the period's impossibly contradictory conditions for women, reject for their protagonists the institution of heterosexuality.

In We Are Incredible marriage is figured as wholly negative, and Hester Linden's austere aesthetic, the only alternative to conventional domesticity, is destructive and dissatisfying. But when Stephen and Dora attempt to overthrow both codes, attempting love and sexuality without institutional endorsement, they meet with a bloody end, suggesting that those who try to make a life in the interstices between systems cannot survive.

Nellie Bloom and Other Stories

When Latimer's first volume of short fiction, the richly diverse collection Nellie Bloom and Other Stories, appeared in 1929, it met with immediate critical acclaim. Dedicated to Kenneth Fearing, the collection contains sixteen stories, several of which had been previously published in venues such as the Century, New Masses, and transition. "Possession" fictionalizes the relationship of Latimer and Gale from the Latimer figure's first-person point of view. "City" wittily chronicles a woman's fledgling attempts to be a writer in New York: "I began to wonder seriously how one asked for a job. I practiced by myself. I was myself asking and I was an editor answering. But they were all very nice to me and encouraging" (85). "Confession" links the frenetic self-indulgence of urban and international bohemians with their childhoods of domestic abuse and political trauma. Key stories in the collection include the title work, "Nellie Bloom," "Mr. and Mrs. Arnold," which examines a day in the life of an older married couple, and "The Family," a novella that offers Latimer's first serious portrait of the artist as a young woman.

In "Nellie Bloom" Latimer focuses on the attempt of a younger woman to gain self-understanding by exploring the experience of a woman from a preceding generation. The unnamed first-person narrator, a young woman, has undergone a personal emotional trauma which remains undefined. Returning to her family home, she becomes intrigued with the story of a woman who had died of a broken heart in her small hometown many years before. In "Nellie Bloom" Latimer reworks the "Poor Joanna" episode in Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). Jewett's old Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Fosdick tell the young female narrator about Joanna Todd, who, "crossed in love," retreats alone to an island, where she spends the rest of her days in solitude (61). Latimer's Nellie Bloom is similarly betrayed by her fiance, and the young female narrator investigates Nellie's story much as Jewett's narrator voyages to Joanna's island herself. Other similarities between the texts suggest Latimer's deliberate patterning of her own fiction upon Jewett's. Yet Latimer's text is more frank about erotic desire and anger, and Latimer also sets the tale in a Midwestern small town, where there are no island refuges; Nellie must face daily the town's persistent curiosity and the continued presence of the man who betrayed her.

As the narrator imagines the varied events of Nellie's life, her empathetic connection--which Latimer figures as intimately linked to bodily experience--quickly deepens: "Then it was summer and I was Nellie walking home from school in a slim white dress. Dark curls warmed my shoulders and the strapped books were heavy in my warm, tired hands. For an instant I could feel the scraping of a garter and a little ache in my flesh where it rubbed the skin" (5). The narrator learns from Mrs. Alverson, a neighbor in her eighties, that Nellie's heartbreak arises from her betrayal by her best friend, Bird, and her fiance, Dorr, who fall in love and decide to marry when Nellie is briefly out of town. When Nellie first finds out about the betrayal, her breakdown is represented as a death: "They took her into the spare room and she lay like a corpse, her hair covering the pillow, her face blank and dead white" (10). The imagery recalls tableaux in fairy tales like "Snow White" and "Sleeping Beauty," with the beautiful maiden arranged on her deathbed, waiting for the prince to come and kiss her back to life. But in Latimer's alternate version, the prince (now happily married to someone else) never comes.

Nellie's sense of betrayal, like the narrator's identification with her, is depicted as physically overwhelming: "Nellie's blood turned to pain and burned those arms that had held Dorr, burned the breasts that he had kissed and the white neck where the vague little curl lay, rushed like a burning storm through the long limbs under stiff silk" (9-10). Her pain and desire are here figured as profoundly embodied, profoundly physical, but neither emotion can be safely displayed to the community. While the whole town wonders what will happen, Dorr and his new bride set up housekeeping. Nellie puts a brave face on things, making several attempts to forgive and befriend them again, but she privately struggles with obsessive fantasies of revenge. Latimer represents Nellie's effort to "love" Dorr and his wife as a struggle between the acceptable utterance and the unacceptable feeling: "she sat helpless, struggling occasionally to say, `I love them,' while her mouth pulled down with scorn and loathing.... Finally she sat down on the floor and pressed her head into the bed, whispering to it, `I love them--I love them,' but all through her and about her were little spirals of laughter, fine and bright as coiled wires" (24-25). The discord between what she actually feels and what she is supposed to feel threatens Nellie with madness.

The resulting relationship among the three characters is understandably somewhat strained, yet it continues for five years, polite on the surface, while Nellie privately agonizes to Grandma Sweeney, the older woman who cares for her: "He gave me something of himself and it's still in me. I know all his bones. I know his eyes and the way they look out at me. I can hear him breathing in the night. What do I do with all that? Where can I put it?" (20-21). In a culture which sanctions female sexual appetite only within marriage, there is nowhere to put Nellie's desire--or her anger. She is beyond the pale of social convention; like Dora Weck, there is "no place in the world" for her.

Nellie's unrequited desires apparently have as much to do with her longing for a child as with her longing for Dorr himself. Regarding this, the narrator distances herself from Nellie, claiming not to share this particular desire; Latimer here locates the urge for "the vast power for happiness in the body, in the womb" with Nellie Bloom, and ambitious "head-fancies" with the woman of a later generation (21). Although Nellie manages to continue her strained relationship with the childless couple, it is Bird's eventual pregnancy that finally devastates her. Expected to pay a social call after the birth, Nellie musters her self-control and visits. When Bird lays the child in her lap, Nellie is unable to process what is happening: "She heard Bird come into the room and she was conscious that something lay soft and heavy in her lap, but she was also aware of not noting these things or commenting on them. She told Bird it would be a good thing if they would put in cement walks all over town" (25). Unheeding of the bundle in her lap, Nellie converses for a while about civic developments, but her acknowledgment of the child precipitates a crisis: "Nellie looked around the room strangely and then down at the child in her lap. `Oh, God,' she said faintly and stood up, but Bird had her baby in her arms before it fell" (26). That night, Nellie dies a mysterious death, a death by sheer anguish, as it were. Latimer describes the death as a stiffening, a freezing; Nellie keeps "clearing her throat as if she were trying for the last time to force herself to say that she loved them, but her throat must have been frozen" (27). Nellie's agony is limned a constriction of the throat; she dies, the narrative suggests, because she cannot speak.

"Mr. and Mrs. Arnold," originally published in the Reviewer in 1924, is Latimer's earliest fiction to deal explicitly with marital relationships and reveals much about her stance toward traditional gender relations. In the story, which transpires within a single day, a long-married husband and wife have a chance to rejuvenate their relationship--to "only connect," in E. M. Forster's famous phrase. The characters, however, fall back into their traditional roles and fail to renew their intimacy. The chance for epiphany is missed.

Curiously, Latimer diffuses the impact of her simple plot with the characters' confusing speech patterns. Their dialogue, marked by abrupt switches in meaning, almost obscures the larger action of the story. Performing roles rather than communicating, Mr. and Mrs. Arnold are reduced to self-contradictory, nonsensical babble, oscillating between poles of signification. The reader, startled into amusement by the contradictions, tenuously constructs meaning as the dialogue lurches from assertion to counterassertion. Oddly comic, the story has a grim absurdity that anticipates Beckett's work: words have come slightly unhinged from their meanings, and everything is askew just enough not to work, yet still familiar enough that the characters keep trying. This lack of communication and its attendant despair emphasize Latimer's views of traditional marriage.

Fittingly, the text opens by acknowledging the couple's lack of forthrightness: "No one knew what Mrs. Arnold believed; she never said much. Mr. Arnold played extravagantly with words but no one knew what he believed. They thought they loved and hated one another but they could never be sure" (51). Both characters conceal themselves in a stereotypically gendered manner. Mrs. Arnold masks her true feelings by acting as the silent nurturer, gentle and serene, a veritable angel in the house. Although her husband harshly criticizes her appearance, behavior, and speech, she does not retaliate but rather moves to help and support him in quiet humility. Withdrawing into an acceptably feminine silence, she does not have to risk a confrontation.

While Mrs. Arnold disguises her true emotions with the absence of language, Mr. Arnold masks his with a surfeit. Although the narrator charitably describes his verbal vacillation as "play[ing] extravagantly with words," the story presents his contradictions as irritating, even maddening. A self-made authority on every topic he encounters, Mr. Arnold opines, critiques, passes judgment, and gives advice--no matter that his opinions conflict, his judgment about the weather turns out to be wrong, and his advice to his wife (about crossing streets carefully) would be best heeded by himself. He blusters on, convinced of his mental prowess: "If I'd known thirty years ago what I know now, I'd have set the world on fire" (55). He feels confident enough in his role as household authority to lay down contradictory edicts:" `Darling,' said Mr. Arnold. `Oh, nothing, nothing at all,' he shouted suddenly at her mild face. `I wish you wouldn't wear that confounded cap, please. Oh, wear it if you want to.... What do I care! If women want to wear caps let them.'" His wife, silently obliging, "removed her cap, smiled up at him, and suddenly replaced it" (51). But though she tries throughout the narrative, she cannot accommodate his shifting demands. His remarks switch back and forth, a dialectic of disagreement he never resolves.

While both characters hide their true feelings, Mr. Arnold's mastery of language gives him the power to pronounce and define. Amid the banter about caps and apple cider, there is also a more serious debate occurring. While Mrs. Arnold deflects his derogatory comments, remaining apparently serene, her husband is defining her very sanity. For instance, when Mrs. Arnold, foreseeing rain, suggests that he take an umbrella,

His mouth fell open and he stared out at the bright maple leaves on the lawn. "Are you crazy?"

"I am always sane," she said and added in the same voice, "never sane." (52)

Crazy? Sane? She accepts and repeats her husband's fluctuating assessments of her, just as she removes and replaces her cap at his whim. (It later does, in fact, rain.) Because her tone is fiat, we wonder how engaged or invested she is in the whole debate--if she has not rather withdrawn altogether into a private world of tatting and housework. She has tuned out emotionally: "Her laughter was neither bitter nor amused. It was a plain fiat sound" (54). An air of detachment pervades her every move: "Mrs. Arnold took the breakfast dishes into the kitchen and filled the dishpan. She made suds with flakes of soap and watched the water make the glasses clean. Then she wiped the dishes and noted reflections on their surfaces; she wiped the dishpan and hung it up" (53). Here, Mrs. Arnold is merely a passive observer: she "watche[s] the water make the glasses clean." The water, rather than the character, is given agency, as if she herself has no impact upon her environment. Although she "note[s] reflections," we are not told if those reflections are of her own face or of other objects. To Mrs. Arnold, it does not seem to matter. Overwhelmed by her husband's definitions of her, she has disengaged from the discussion and become a neutral observer of her own life.

Latimer's depiction of Mrs. Arnold anticipates the compliant facade of Mrs. Ramsay in Woolf's To the Lighthouse, published three years later. Mr. Ramsay, upset that his wife has disagreed with his impromptu weather forecast, curses her in an angry outburst. She restores his good humor by silent submission:

... without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said....

Very humbly, at length, he said that he would step over and ask the Coastguards if she liked. (51)

Mrs. Ramsay uses silence as a strategy to restore order and peace, rather than risk provoking a direct confrontation. Similarly, when Latimer's patriarch has a self-contradictory outburst, his wife responds submissively: "From Mrs. Arnold radiated silence" (51). Mrs. Arnold's withdrawal, like Mrs. Ramsay's, functions as a survival strategy, a method of gaining freedom and transcendence while remaining in a hostile environment she cannot escape. Faced with a controlling, critical husband who constantly seeks to define her, Mrs. Arnold emotionally excuses herself, like the wife in Doris Lessing's The Summer before the Dark, who pours coffee for her husband and his colleague and then "set[s] an attentive smile on her face, like a sentinel, behind which she could cultivate her own thoughts" (14). With the character of Mrs. Arnold, Latimer exposes the speechless angel-in-the-house role as a facade, a cover for the private selves of women who find themselves powerless in the traditional family structure.

Latimer also demonstrates the vulnerability, fallibility, and mortality that Mr. Arnold's masculine role conceals. In describing his physical appearance, she also reveals his character: "His skin was sulphur-colored, his face solid, his body big and broad, but his eyes proved him perishable" (54). Here Mr. Arnold is described as massive, a statue; his sheer bulk, his dominant physical mass, obscures recognition of his human frailty. Yet his eyes, with the capacity both to see others and to express emotion, render him vulnerable. His physique echoes the way he positions himself as an authority--on topics from politics to the weather to his wife's foibles--but is proven fallible by the events of the story. Mr. Arnold, contrary to his own high opinion of himself, is neither impervious nor unerring: he is knocked down by an automobile, the very thing about which he has warned his wife. He is not seriously injured; two men bring him home, and Mrs. Arnold attends to his comfort.

When the men leave, the plot opens as if for some sort of mutual epiphany, some chance for renewed intimacy between husband and wife. Spurred by the memento mori of the accident, Mrs. Arnold makes her first impulsive, spontaneous gesture of the story: "She came back to her husband and suddenly kissed him. She took his hands and they looked at each other" (56). For the first time, she acts "suddenly," as if moved by strong emotion, rather than with her usual expressionless serenity. This is also the first moment in the story when the husband and wife make eye contact. The moment seems ripe, almost begging for an emotional breakthrough to function as the climax of the narrative.

The opportunity, however, is lost. Terrified, Mr. Arnold falls back on a self-aggrandizing cliche: "I tell you I could set the whole world right if they'd only listen." Mrs. Arnold withdraws again, and the final lines of the story stamp on the reader's mind the couple's return to their usual mode: "His wife moved softly and slowly away. `There's something quite good for supper,' she said without intonation" (56). He is again blustering, opinionated, and ultimately frustrated; she again moves "softly and slowly" rather than "suddenly," and her voice reveals no emotion. They have reinhabited their roles, refusing the chance for reconnection and rapport.

The story deconstructs assumptions about the primacy of the public sphere, shifting the reader's perspective away from the privileged world of politics and economics and into the domestic arena. Describing only those actions that occur inside the home, the narrative places the reader in the same subject position as the housebound Mrs. Arnold. The reader, like Mrs. Arnold, sees Mr. Arnold only in the morning, then during his lunch break, and finally in the evening when the two men bring him home. While he is absent from the house, the reader knows nothing of his whereabouts and activities. His work life--and even the pivotal event of his accident--occur offstage, outside the scope of the narrative view.

While the focus remains with Mrs. Arnold in the confines of her house, the dishpan details of her day are richly imagined. Latimer imbues Mrs. Arnold's relation to ordinary household objects with telling detail: "She lingered at the table and watched the suppressed look of the heavy silver imprisoned there on the white cloth. She moved a spoon close to the sugar bowl and fenced a delicate cup with forks" (55). Latimer invests Mrs. Arnold's smallest domestic actions with emotional weight, implying that the character perceives herself, at some unarticulated level, as "suppressed," "imprisoned," and "fenced."

But the narrative, while foregrounding the vantage point of the feminine social role, does not side simplistically with Mrs. Arnold. Although her plight in the marital situation is depicted with authorial sympathy, we also hear that "Her smile pricked the stiffness of her face," suggesting the strain of the angel-in-the-house charade (53). Mrs. Arnold's lack of spontaneity, of impulsiveness, has resulted in an emotional life as frozen as her countenance. In addition, Mrs. Arnold's strategy of emotional withdrawal, while perhaps a survival strategy, is also portrayed as potentially damaging. After another of Mr. Arnold's diatribes, she retreats inward: "Again she withdrew, into unlimited space, he judged, from her look" (55). though this emotional evasion functions as a mode of transcendence for Mrs. Arnold ("unlimited space"), it also damages the couple's ability to communicate. This is the sole instance in the story when the third-person narrator focuses on Mr. Arnold's perceptions ("he judged"); elsewhere, the narrative sticks fairly closely to Mrs. Arnold's experiences. This apparent slippage in narrative control can be read as a telling signal of authorial sympathy for Mr. Arnold's plight: Mrs. Arnold's smooth surface, Latimer suggests, can frustrate attempts at genuine interaction as surely as can her husband's repeated cliches. The failure to "only connect" is mutual.

Given its pessimistic content, "Mr. and Mrs. Arnold" is surprisingly amusing. But Latimer's is an edgy kind of comedy, a humor of the absurd, a laughter on the edge of madness. Yet this brief narrative, immersing readers in the private experience of the couple as if the reader were a quiet, observant child witnessing parental interactions, reveals much about Latimer's stance toward traditional marriage and the traditional family. The reader, forced to piece together meaning from contradictory statements, wavers among hilarity, confusion, and despair.

"The Family," by far the longest story in Nellie Bloom, traces the progress of an artist from childhood to adulthood in a conventional household, chronicling the maturation of a sensitive young woman whose parents are much like Mr. and Mrs. Arnold. Though the protagonist, Dorrit Beale, depicts in paintings her vision of the ideal family, bathed in mutual affection, respect, and delight, her attempts to communicate that vision to the members of her own family meet with only embarrassment and dismay.

On a visit home from college, she arranges her paintings on the walls of her room and brings her parents to see them. The vision she has labored to portray is not a detached, neutral one, but has immediate personal relevance. Her paintings are not only aesthetic objects but also a direct emotional appeal to her parents:

The walls were covered with pictures of happy families, the father, the mother, and the child, painted in bright sun among flowers and birds, painted with love in their faces and hands, love in their hands and arms that touched each other, and all three in some strange way were entirely separate and yet interchangeable, as if they understand each other's parts, as if they understood so well that they need not speak. And here there was no love withheld, it was all over them, it was part of the bright light that came from their flesh and their deep happy eyes. Each was a picture of a family, but a family that had never appeared upon the earth. (155)

Keeping such a vision at bay, however, her father responds with a lecture about realism and the laws of anatomy, overwhelming her mother's murmured vague support.

Yet Latimer, sensitive to the contours of American history, attributes the oppressive frustration of her WASP patriarchs to their unmet, unacknowledged yearning for the frontier past of their childhoods. After bellowing at his wife and daughter so that both flee the dinner table, Mr. Beale exclaims with an outraged sense of entitlement,

"When I take a day off from the store I expect to be entertained, I expect to have a little consideration shown me and look at this!" He waved his hands over the loaded table and the empty chairs. His heart felt so sore and open that he could not speak.... He remembered the day his father took him to see Dick Bacon's sick bull. He could see the mud, the flies stuck in it and circling above, singing like hornets. Home in the wagon, buckwheat cakes for supper, a lamp in the center of the table. He bent his head lower. "Pass the bread, if you please." Plates piled with bread white as snow, platter heaped with hot sausages, his father saying the blessing, freckles on his mother's hand seen through eyelashes in the lamplight, in the peace, amen. (137)

His rural background rendered irrelevant, Mr. Beale has become one of a nation of shopkeepers. Though he longs for the closeness of his family, all he can muster are diatribes about woman's place, dirty foreigners, and the glorious superiority of the United States, like the father in "Marriage Eve" who, "standing fixed in a strange rock-like position, his head thrust forward like a bull's," can only offer his grown daughter a book of Woodrow Wilson's collected speeches--"Real American stuff. A-number one'--when she comes home seeking rapprochement (Guardian Angel 277, 282). Bull-like in their stubborn strength, "their broad tough shoulders spread solid and dark and impregnable," Latimer's patriarchs reach for communion yet alienate the women around them (277).

Dorrit eventually leaves her home and the provincialism of the small-town Midwest to become a successful and well-known artist, yet her father is never able to accept her work, and her mother, initially supportive, becomes increasingly frightened by it. When Dorrit's paintings are exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, "The one reproduction Mrs. Beale saw in a city paper made her shake with grief and fright. It made her think of their position in town, of the butcher and the postman and the clerks everywhere" (187). Mr. Beale, outraged, takes the train for Chicago in an attempt to have Dorrit's paintings taken down. When he sees them, the "sweat came out on him" and he imagines himself telling someone, "My daughter painted these freaks that have never been seen on earth. I brought her up right but my wife spoiled her" (191).

Dorrit's vision is indeed disruptive. The first painting Mr. Beale views foregrounds

a naked woman in sand. Bright sky and water. Two enormous gulls with opened wings. A huge happy baby seated squarely on the woman's stomach and the woman's head pushed deep in the sand, chin up, a look of such definite animal delight in her face that Mr. Beale shivered. He went on until the room seemed to fill up with the happy naked figures of men and women and children, until the sun was there behind him and his shoulders were hot with intense gold light. Sea gulls were in the room, you heard their enormous wings, the ocean was there, and everywhere he looked he met one of the supreme bright looks of radiant bliss. (190)

Like her earlier work, Dorrit's show in Chicago depicts humans in ecstatic connection with each other and the natural world. Rather than keeping their aesthetic distance, Dorrit's paintings cause feelings and sensations: Mr. Beale is "hot with intense gold light," and Latimer, breaking with narrative convention, employs the second person to involve the reader as well: "you heard their enormous wings." Dorrit's artistic vision is one of engagement, participation, emotion, and freedom. It is a vision of an ideal world.

Perhaps conscious of the futility of trying to have the loving family she envisions so clearly, Dorrit never does go home again, substituting the increasing approbation of the larger world for the understanding of her parents. This wider acclaim, though, does not entirely suffice: the narrative closes in Paris, where a drunken young Dorrit caricatures her father's speeches for a table of laughing men. Though she can envision and portray the happy, egalitarian family she desires, Latimer's artist figure is unable to construct such a family in her life, either with her parents or with a partner. A neighbor of the family, vacationing in Paris, witnesses the cafe episode and wonders if the young woman can possibly be happy. Latimer leaves the question unresolved.

This Is My Body

In the 1930 novel This Is My Body, her most explicitly leftist work, Latimer weaves autobiographical elements into a Kunstlerroman to present the difficult truth about her life in the medium of fiction. Challenging genre boundaries between fiction and memoir, she ties the protagonist repeatedly to public images of her own body to tell the story of a young woman who, like herself, wrenches away from the small town of her upbringing, attends college, and finally settles in New York, where she faces poverty and sexism while struggling to become a writer and form an egalitarian heterosexual relationship. At once liberating and apocalyptic in its revelation of female experience, This Is My Body stands as one of the few portraits of the artist as a young woman in early twentieth-century literature. It refutes, moreover, masculinist assumptions within leftist, high modernist, and futurist circles about reproductive choice and women's creativity, thus participating in culture-wide conversations among multiple movements of the period.

The novel opens with a physical description of Megan, who is "rather large with a full sweet body" and red-gold hair (3). Focusing immediately on her body and her hair, this description of Megan is not incidental, for it overtly links her to Latimer, who herself was tall for a woman of the period--about 5'8"--and whose hair formed a focal point for contemporaries' physical descriptions. Given the risks This Is My Body takes in telling the coming-of-age story of a woman artist, this linkage is a daring one. As Virginia Woolf pointed out one year prior to the novel's publication in A Room of One's Own (1929), issues of sexuality and the body remained, for women, extremely difficult to address: "Chastity ... has even now, a religious importance in a woman's life, and has so wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest" (51). In This Is My Body, Latimer brings both female sexuality and its frequent result, unplanned pregnancy, "to the light of day," for the portrait of the artist as a young woman is here climactically punctuated by abortion.

The issue of pregnancy was particularly vexed within socialist circles. It may seem counterintuitive that women would be viewed as second-class citizens within a political movement predicated precisely upon the struggle for human equality, yet recent scholarship by Laura Hapke, Constance Coiner, and others has illuminated the many obstacles facing leftist women of the twenties and thirties: the refusal of leftist party politics to address women's issues, the resistance to women in positions of leadership, and the ideology that discouraged women's literary production. Mike Gold's famous description of the ideal proletarian writer--"a wild youth of about twenty-two, the son of working-class parents, who himself works in the lumber camps, coal mines, and steel mills"--excludes women by definition (qtd. in Nekola and Rabinowitz 3).

While the increased availability of contraception and abortion during the period may appear from our post-Roe-v.-Wade perspective--to have been a guarantor of female freedom, the ramifications of such technologies must be understood differently within the context of American socialism, a movement whose dominant voices saw children largely as either impediments to class struggle or fodder for the factory and battlefield. Women who found themselves pregnant could be compelled, in the interests of leftist political ideology, to reject childbirth regardless of their own desires.

Pregnancy was also a contested issue within high modernism. When influential modernist critic Cyril Connolly pronounces in Enemies of Promise, for instance, that "there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall," he speaks for a significant strain of high modernism that would reject women, children, and the whole of family life as antithetical to literary production, a rejection that male writers on the left largely echoed (116). The opening phase of Anglo-American modernism, propagated by Pound, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, T. E. Hulme, and others relied, as Peter Nicholls has argued, on a kind of "technical and ethical self-discipline, on an ascetic refusal to collapse art into life ... [which] den[ies] itself the immediate pleasures of the `caressable' and the mimetic.... The literary values of this type of modernism are founded, then, ... on the appeal to the visual and objective which affirms distance and difference" (197). Pregnancy and childbirth, with all their attendant intimacy and messiness, fly in the face of such an aesthetic.

Futurism, "The Other Modernism," as Cinzia Sartini Blum has termed it, also problematized the issue of female reproductivity. The basic insight of F. T. Marinetti, the founder of Italian futurism, was that the struggle between cultural tradition and the forces of industrial innovation was "relentless, unpitying, and weighted in favour of the modern." His first manifesto, published in 1909 in the Parisian paper Le Figaro, argued in favor of expunging from art and literature all human sentiment in order to valorize the inhuman speed and technology of the machine age (Nicholls 85). The fundamental misogyny of futurism has long been accepted; Marinetti's own creative vision produced the novel Mafarka le Futuriste (1909), which finally dispenses with women's bodies altogether: in Mafarka reproduction is performed solo by a male.

Because of this gender tension within the leftist, high modernist, and futurist movements, the issue of reproductive choice becomes particularly fraught in women's writing of the period. In This Is My Body Latimer uses the issue of abortion to vet the inconsistencies of leftist politics and to reveal the contradictions of the left's promise of freedom for women. Exploring the ways in which women's bodies and desires are controlled and women as a class are exploited, she contributes a pointed feminist critique to leftist writing of the period. Moreover, by linking the negative aspects of abortion to images of technology, the novel critiques the futurists' enthusiastic denial of the human in favor of the machine. Rejecting a vision of the future that edits out connection, relationship, and the female sex itself in its rush to embrace efficiency, This Is My Body negates such an unquestioning celebration of technology. Finally, it functions as a profound interrogation of that strain of modernism that would turn away from the caressable pleasures of the natural world.

The abortion story can serve, as Judith Wilt has argued, as a rich and productive narrative moment, since it is always a site of profound anxiety, both for the storyteller, who stands revealed as a potential locus of moral culpability, and for the reader, who must contend with a morally contested, emotionally explosive issue. Significantly, the structure of Latimer's novel does not conform to Wilt's analyses of abortion plots. Interpreting the work of more recent authors (Didion, Barth, and others), she argues that abortion functions to resist control. Thus if a man tries to control a woman with pregnancy, the plot resists with abortion. Conversely, if a man tries to control a woman by coercing or forcing her to have an abortion or if a woman tries to control "nature" by having an abortion, then the plot resists with continued pregnancy. Such resistance, however, is not operative in this novel from the Depression era. Instead, the female protagonist is pressured by her male partner to terminate a pregnancy she clearly wants. Backed by leftist rhetoric, the male character attempts to control her, and she submits. Later, she suffers from not only physical and emotional pain but also the sense that she has betrayed her values. Given the overt commitment of the left to struggle and resistance, this lack of resistance required of its women works as a telling indictment from within.

The abortion in Latimer's text functions structurally as the climax of the plot, an ironic and bitter dashing of the protagonist's hopes; the denouement records the emotional aftermath of the experience. Since the abortion itself is never described--only the events immediately before and after it--the climax itself is a silence, an emptiness, a hollow center. Abortion, moreover, functions in this text as a trope for more general kinds of loss or failed potential: the failure of the bourgeois ideal of maternity to translate to lives of political commitment and financial instability, the failure of leftist party politics to comprehend important aspects of women's experience and women's desire. Latimer plays on abortion's metaphoric possibilities and multiple meanings, then, in order both to critique capitalist culture and to interrogate masculinist assumptions of the left.

Latimer offers an incisive critique of the intersections of class difference and sexual politics at the locus of pregnancy. The narratire hinges upon the heroine Megan Foster's reluctant agreement to abort the pregnancy her lover does not want. A subplot focuses on Megan's friend, a fellow university student who, impregnated by the married dean of her college--a representative of bourgeois respectability--is tricked by him into visiting a doctor, who performs a forced abortion while she struggles and screams.

In each narrative thread the young woman wishes to keep her pregnancy, both presenting verbal arguments in favor of continued pregnancy and exhibiting emotional distress at the prospect of termination; in each, her male partner pushes her to abort for a complex of social, political, and economic reasons, which--the narratives make clear--function to conceal personal reluctance to make public an illicit relationship, to reconceive the relationship as other than a sexual playground, or to cede primary importance in the eyes of the female. The Kenneth Fearing figure, Ronald Chadron, is a bohemian poet who derides bourgeois morality and espouses socialist ideals, yet he listens to his partner no more than does the dean to his. Although he does not, like the dean, employ physical restraint, the narrative carefully delineates his emotional violence: after using economic and political arguments to convince Megan to terminate her wanted pregnancy, he makes her go for the abortion alone and pay for the procedure herself. It is only after Megan acquiesces, moreover, that Ronald at last consents to touch her again, "press[ing] her arm warmly like a comrade or a husband," suggesting Latimer's equation of party power structures and the male-dominant structure of the bourgeois household (325).

The narrative is beautifully attentive to material detail, yet Latimer blends a leftist focus on material conditions with a high modernist use of archetypal symbolism. The abortion itself, when described by Miss Bradley, a Greenwich Village waitress and fellow aspiring writer, is figured as an everyday economic transaction, requiring the performance of class position: "He'll do it for thirty dollars," she tells Megan, "wear old clothes or he'll charge a hundred" (326). Later we learn that Megan has in fact dressed the part, performed her class position, for when Ronald asks the cost, she replies, "Thirty." Latimer twice notes the price; its resonance with the thirty pieces of silver for which Judas betrays Christ is not coincidental, for the passage is infused with the language of betrayal: "Oh, you've let me betray myself," she tells Ronald. "I've betrayed myself. I've punished and violated and betrayed my own self" (32930). We remember the novel's title, This Is My Body, and realize that Latimer has audaciously couched the abortion narrative in Christ imagery; the epigraph reads: "I'll give them my body--I will say--'This is my body, friends, world--Oh, take my body and eat--Oh, take my soul and do not be afraid--.'" Latimer details her intention to employ Christian symbolism--and her resultant anxiety over such a move--in letters to friends, writing to Matthias in the winter of 1929: "Your Christmas present is going to be a copy of my new book which will be out the twentieth of January, published by Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. Did I tell you the title? It is called "This Is My Body" and I mean in the same way Christ meant when he said--`This is my body; take, eat.' I felt so fulfilled giving myself that way, my blood, my illusions, my life, the last atom of my self to all.... O I hope they don't laugh." Latimer's biblical allusions, however, go unremarked in reviews of the novel, suggesting the lack of understanding with which most women's explorations of such structures met during the period. As Elaine Showalter explains, "Even when women produced feminine versions of modernism, reimagining myths, for example, from female perspectives (such as Bogan's `Cassandra' and `Medusa,' Millay's `An Ancient Gesture,' describing Penelope, and H. D.'s `Eurydice'), as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot had modernized the myths of Ulysses and the Grail, [their] experiments were ignored and misunderstood" (109). Reviewers of This Is My Body fell so wide of the mark in interpreting Latimer's allusions, in fact, that the New York Times Book Review attributes the title and epigraph ("This is my body, friends, world--Oh, take my body and eat--") to Walt Whitman: "Miss Latimer has taken for her text a paraphrase of Whitman's introduction to `Leaves of Grass'--`who touches this book touches a man.' Only her version of it is somewhat more diffuse" ("Hungry" 9). Latimer's deliberate linkage of Megan's story to the primary Western narrative of self-sacrifice went unnoticed by critics, who failed to suppose that a young woman's story could be meaningfully related to Christ's.

Latimer also recasts elements from traditional fairy tales to underscore the narrative's Kunstlerroman plot and suggest that the roles women have inherited are inadequate and destructive, anticipating the work of feminist writers like Anne Sexton and Angela Carter. In the apartment Megan shares with Ronald, for example, hang prints depicting scenes from childhood tales such as "Little Red Riding Hood." Initially, the prints are described in neutral ways, but as she faces the more sordid aspects of men's sexual exploitation of women, Megan's perceptions of the pictures become progressively more sinister: the wolf begins to leer at Red Riding Hood, at the "good things under her round red cape" (317). After acquiescing to her lover's demands by terminating the pregnancy she wants to keep, Megan stumbles through the city, seeing the men around her as vicious predators:" `Oh, save me from the hungry wolves,' she cried as sun gleamed on those twitching canes, those dark sleek faces under stiff formal hats, those bunched grey gloves" (350).

The novel ends ambiguously. While the narrative thrust of the Kunstlerroman is fulfilled--Megan's book is finally accepted by a publisher--she suffers such severe physical and emotional pain that it is unclear whether her sexual and social coming-of-age has succeeded or failed. In a 1930 letter to Matthias, Latimer explains her intentions for the novel in fairy tale terms as well:

I meant it to be like a fairy tale in substance. You know the prince who is sunk in a snake skin and looks horrible from the outside? The princess faces his horror and he emerges beautiful? I thought of this girl as being wrapped in all the horror of fear, the darkness of inexperience, the death of hatreds, indifference, egoism. I meant her to slowly have her wrappings withdrawn and with each loss, a gain in understanding, so that at the end, completely revealed through love and defilement she faced a new world and faced the possibility of living a new life through effort.

But in Latimer's gender reversal of the traditional plot, the catalyst for transformation--the prince who would fulfill for Megan the function of the all-accepting princess in various tales of male beastliness--is nonexistent.

Latimer's focus on the experience of the female body as a locus for cultural critique is highly self-aware. Early in the novel, Megan goes to the dean of the college--the same dean who later tricks his young lover into a forced abortion--and, claiming that her prescribed courses do not interest her, requests a special seminar on Descartes and Spinoza (35). Latimer thus anticipates the work of contemporary feminist theorists such as Elizabeth Grosz, who sees the philosophical differences between Descartes and Spinoza as so fundamental to our contemporary understanding of the body that she opens her 1994 Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism with a discussion of their work (6). While the Cartesian attitude toward the body--that it is "a self-moving machine, a mechanical device"--lends support to the arguments of characters like Ronald--or like Hemingway's famously oblique male character in "Hills Like White Elephants," who insists to his girlfriend that the operation will have no significant consequences--Latimer's work functions to resist this "exclusion of the soul from nature, this evacuation of consciousness from the world" (Grosz 6, 10). In rejecting definitions of body-as-machine, Latimer traces the sexual politics of her time to their root in Enlightenment philosophy and decries the mechanistic philosophy of the futurist argument.

Technology and machines are allied in the text with the degradation of female subjectivity. After hearing her friend Arvia's experience of being strapped down for an abortion, Megan is deeply shaken. In contrast to the high modernism that would repudiate the "immediate world" "of nature and natural things," Megan responds by craving vegetation, water, and soil as sources of comfort, rereading the "messiness and confusion" of nature as something stable and reassuring:

She could feel nothing but fear and nausea, a great panic as if she must catch hold of wood, earth, anything solid and clean.... She thought in a flash of a tree that she could bind her arms around and clench herself close to so that when lightning came she would be holding a part of the tree even if it split apart and went rolling down the cliff. Then when the great tremendous floods of water came she would be holding part of the sweet firm wood. She would be borne out into the dark sea clinging to part of it, her arms wrapped around it. (310-11)

The passage combines both the imagery of a fundamental split and flood imagery of retribution for sexual transgression. As long as she can hold on to part of nature before it is bifurcated, Megan believes, she will be saved. But the modern world offers no such refuge. When the two women leave the restaurant in a taxi, "Megan pressed against the glass. She tried to find something hard to grip hold of but there was nothing but the steel bar on the driver's seat. She crouched closer and smaller, one shoulder drawn up as if she thought someone was going to strike her, the other down against the glass" (311-12). Technology, machinery, offers no comfort; Latimer repeatedly uses the word against to describe its relationship to Megan's body.

The abortion scene itself is pervaded by an emphasis on technology, since the literal tools of the procedure command center stage. In Latimer's text the abortion occurs entirely offstage. The doctor announces, "It will take one hour to sterilize the instruments. You can wait in there" (327), and a section break abruptly follows. The opening line of the next section finds Megan entering her apartment' "It's over," she tells Ronald (328). Readers must infer the entire procedure. The focus thus falls on the technology, the instruments, and upon Megan's own lack of agency in the face of technology's power.

Afterward, she expresses her grief in terms of the material detail of abortion: "I ache. That iron scrapes all the time in my head" (330). Associating the technology of abortion with the changes of modernity and urbanization, the novel's final line returns us to the image of flesh being scraped from flesh in its depiction of Megan's acceptance of a bifurcated self: "And now it seemed as if she walked on her knees behind herself, pushing her body forward through the waves of mindless faces, her stockings, her skin scraped off her moving knees, the raw flesh at last on the dull cement" (351).

Melding high modernist structure and symbolism with socialist attention to material contingency, This Is My Body thus complicates traditional boundaries between leftist and modernist canons while offering a feminist critique of high modernism, leftist sexual politics, and futurism's dehumanizing ideology, indicting the mind-body bifurcation that underpinned all three.

Guardian Angel and Other Stories

The title novella and eight stories of the 1932 Guardian Angel and Other Stories, Latimer's final book, offer finely detailed, unsentimental portraits of the impact on girls' friendships of class difference, family dysfunction, and awakening sexuality (in "Gisela" and "The Little Girls") and examine the lingering psychological impact of old love affairs (in "Married," "Monday Morning," and "Daisy Turlock," in which the protagonist rushes to her room after her parents "had bent over a big map, trying to locate the places where Christianity hadn't penetrated" (217)). The stories explore a young woman's struggle to escape from her overbearing father ("Marriage Eve"), campus literary politics ("O Clouds, Roll Back"), the last-minute epiphany of an elderly woman ("Death of Mrs. Vanderwood") and, again, in "Guardian Angel," the Latimer-Gale relationship.

In "Guardian Angel," Latimer's final depiction of her relationship with Gale, the young woman Vanessa successfully breaks away from the sexual and emotional restraints of her mentor Fleta Bain. She leaves for the city to pursue her artistic goals, and the narrative implies that she will enjoy an active and satisfying personal life. "Guardian Angel" employs a first-person narrator, but the voice speaks not from the position of the immature Latimer figure, who is viewed with ironic detachment, but from that of Vanessa's Aunt Grace, who (married with children) serves to represent the traditional mother figure. That Aunt Grace narrates the novella indicates a significant development from We Are Incredible, in which Myrtle Fry is the only major character who does not have a section of her own: although readers hear plenty of Myrtle's words, they are always filtered through the perspectives of Stephen, Dora, or Hester; we never hear the voice of Myrtle's interior life. In "Guardian Angel," however, the entire narrative is told from the first-person point of view of Aunt Grace, who occupies the same position as Myrtle does in We Are Incredible--the wife and mother, the older woman relative who functions as a potential role model for the Latimer figure (though here an aunt rather than an older sister). It is Aunt Grace's family that functions as a backdrop for the main action, as do the Frys in We Are Incredible. Yet while Latimer's earlier work provides a bitter, disturbing portrait of marital turmoil and destructive parenting, "Guardian Angel" is narrated by a mature, intelligent, creative woman who deeply loves her husband and children yet retains an undimmed critical sensibility, a wry sense of humor, and narrative authority.

The bifurcation between traditional mother and countermother roles in "Guardian Angel" is not as strict as that presented in We Are Incredible, suggesting an ideological movement toward rapprochement. Grace achieves a satisfying sexual life and raises affectionate, psychologically healthy children in a situation that affirms both self and others. However, she is still faced with an either/or situation; her successful home life has come at the cost of her singing career. Yet although she has relinquished artistic and professional goals in favor of family life, Grace is depicted by Latimer as thoughtful and mature. She chooses and supports her children and is nurtured by her husband in a mutually satisfying relationship. Although she has not struck an ideal balance, as Vanessa (the text promises) will, she has certainly come closer than Myrtle Fry.

Likewise, just as Grace functions as a traditional mother yet remains intellectually alive and independent, the countermother figure Fleta Bain incorporates elements of the opposing paradigm. Fleta possesses many of Hester Linden's characteristics: though lovely and charming, she suppresses the spontaneity and warmth of everyone around her, constantly denying and denigrating embodied experience. Yet during the course of the novella, she chooses to marry, and--significantly, given Latimer's emphasis on vegetal imagery as representative of female sexuality and spirituality--she begins to garden in an effort to connect with nature. Though she does so imperfectly--the flowers stand "in straight rows, in full bloom, newly transplanted from a greenhouse"--effort is nonetheless being made (105). With "Guardian Angel," Latimer moves closer to a synthesis of women's two divergent social roles.

In "Guardian Angel" Latimer seems to explore several of the elements in Woolf's The Voyage Out (1915). Both Woolf's Aunt Helen and Latimer's Aunt Grace are mature women who are artistic and intellectual yet devoted to their children and happily married. Both have immature, vague, beautiful nieces with an artistic bent: Rachel Vinrace plays piano, and Vanessa draws. Both nieces admire older women who represent glamour, society, and art: Rachel idealizes Clarissa Dalloway, and Vanessa idealizes Fleta Bain. However, Fleta Bain discourages heterosexual romance, while Mrs. Dalloway encourages marriage, arguing for its efficacy as a sexualized emotional balm for the wound of Rachel's lost mother: Mrs. Dalloway went on:

"Are you like your mother?"

"No; she was different," said Rachel.

She was overcome by an intense desire to tell Mrs. Dalloway things she had never told any one--things she had not realised herself until this moment.

"I am lonely," she began. "I want--" She did not know what she wanted, so that she could not finish the sentence; but her lip quivered.

But it seemed that Mrs. Dalloway was able to understand without words.

"I know," she said, actually putting one arm round Rachel's shoulder. "When I was your age I wanted too. No one understood until I met Richard. He gave me all I wanted. He's man and woman as well." Her eyes rested upon Mr. Dalloway, leaning upon the rail, still talking. (59-60)

Here, Rachel apparently wants her mother, who is dead, yet she cannot speak that desire for the feminine, reduced to the wordlessness of compulsory heterosexuality. Mrs. Dalloway urges the transmutation of that longing into a heterosexual love which will satisfy all desires, in which a husband will be "man and woman as well." Yet this solution unravels as the plot does, for Richard Dalloway betrays his wife's trust; when she is seasick, he turns to Rachel for erotic gratification, revealing an underworld of untrustworthy male desire similar to that in We Are Incredible or This Is My Body.

In "Guardian Angel," on the other hand, Latimer presents a more optimistic vision of the potential of heterosexual love. It is noteworthy that not Vanessa's but Grace's mother has died; Grace's maturity seems to be predicated upon her acknowledgment of that loss. Her husband Wendall, unlike Richard Dalloway, makes no corresponding overtures to other women. He and Grace remain loyal to one another, and he in fact functions as a catalyst for Grace's mourning of her mother. Rather than the death of a child (like Deva in We Are Incredible), Grace's mutually enriching relationship with her husband, which acknowledges and grieves the loss of her mother, produces new life; she confides happily to the reader that she has become pregnant. Similarly, rather than dying--as do Rachel Vinrace and Dora Weck--Vanessa (a generation removed from Grace's grief) succeeds in leaving old roles behind for a life which combines both work and love. With the character of Wendall, Latimer reimagines the male role as one that encompasses nurturing and loyalty in addition to traditional gender expectations, leaving ideological room for egalitarian heterosexual romance. Latimer's narrative, like Woolf's, seems to situate women's health and happiness as dependent upon both their acknowledgment of their lost mothers and the trustworthiness of male desire. Yet, unlike The Voyage Out, Latimer's "Guardian Angel" provides a successful resolution.

This preoccupation with the death of the mother represents a departure from Latimer's autobiographical representations, for while Latimer litters her literary landscape with maternal remains, her own mother outlived her by several years. The textual death of the mother instead serves to symbolize the powerlessness, the social silencing of the traditional mother figure in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American culture. The ambivalence of the daughter figures stems from the fact that to join the mother, to become like her, is to die in terms of autonomy and public achievement. Conversely, to live--to participate in the sort of active political and social engagement typified by such figures as Gale, Addams, and Gilman--is to reject the mother, to betray and lose her in one motion. By acknowledging and grieving 'what has been silenced, Latimer argues via Aunt Grace, women could begin to make the transition toward integrating and enlarging their options.

Latimer's various fictional interrogations of the mutually exclusive life-choices available to women function, in Carolyn Heilbrun's words, as an effort to "write her own life in advance of living it," as a way to write her way through to a new reality for women (11). In "Guardian Angel" Latimer seems to resolve those aspects of her relationship with Gale which she found so problematic: Gale's magnetic appeal, her vague metaphysics, and particularly her repudiation of physicality and sexuality. The novella holds the opposing terms of the available paradigms of womanhood in tension, yet in Latimer's creation of Vanessa, "Guardian Angel" holds a clear promise of future synthesis.

The results of the feminist project of recovering lost or historically undervalued women writers are now so successful as to have become commonplace: "When I grow up," a little girl tells her companion in a recent New Yorker cartoon, "I want to be rediscovered." As a theoretical exercise, scholar Mary Poovey recently recovered the work of nineteenth-century British novelist Ellen Pickering-not for its own sake, but in order to test the contemporary critical practices and assumptions that inform such projects. Citing the arbitrarily selected novelist's conventionality, Poovey concluded in the Yale Journal of Criticism, "Do I think that Pickering's works should be canonized? No, frankly, I don't" (448).

In contrast, Latimer's work urges our serious examination on its own merit. Critics encountering her fiction in recent years have called repeatedly for recuperation. Former MLA president Louis Kampf closes his 1984 essay on Latimer with the assertion that she "richly deserves a place of honor in the history of American modernism" (246), and Daniel McCarthy argues that "a closer look at her is overdue" (475). Toomer's biographers Kerman and Eldridge assert that her "phenomenal career" deserves critical consideration (192), and a recent study of Fearing calls Latimer "immaculate, luminous, mystical, otherworldly," an "exceptionally gifted young writer" (Ryley xii). At the college level, her work teaches well in conjunction with that of her American contemporaries Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway; students find Latimer equally challenging, stimulating, and revealing. Erudite and experimental, her work participates equally in the modernist project yet offers a feminist perspective on issues of sexuality, social structure, urbanization, and technology.

Do I think that Latimer's works should be canonized? Yes, frankly, I do. Appreciating Latimer's groundbreaking contributions to literature complicates and enhances our understanding of both modernist and American literary canons, and recognizing her reinterpretations of material by her female predecessors unearths intertextual links within women's literary traditions. Like the important female modernists whose work has been excavated in recent decades and like the rediscovered American women writers Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Zora Neale Hurston, Margery Latimer was lost for too long. It is time to find her.


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JOY CASTRO teaches fiction writing and modernist literature at Wabash College in Indiana. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories and a book on Margery Latimer. Her essay on Jean Rhys appeared in the Summer 2000 Review of Contemporary Fiction.
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Date:Sep 22, 2001
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