And even in his answer have I escaped, I am the insubstantial heart beat which goes From him, in whom are all the leaves of darkness; Who grows more silent than the thing he shaped.
--From "Ventriloquist: The Coffee Hour" (1940)
Marguerite Vivian Young (1908-1995), who began her writing career as a poet, became the author of two volumes of poetry, an epic poetic prose novel, and two poetic prose histories. Young was born in Indianapolis on 26 August 1908 to Chester Ellis and Fay Young (nee Knight). After her parents divorced, Marguerite at age three and her younger sister were raised by their maternal grandmother, Marguerite Herron Knight. Both of her parents remarried, and Marguerite maintained contact with her extended families throughout her life through letter-writing and visits. As she grew older, her relatives gradually removed themselves from her life, which had become defined by the literary and artistic community of Greenwich Village. A Midwesterner who could not live in the Midwest, Young had left her doctoral studies in Philosophy and English at the University of Iowa and moved to Greenwich Village after her first manuscripts were accepted for publication in 1943. Remaining true to her Midwest origins, she returned to Indianapolis in 1993 to live at the home of her niece, Daphne (Thomas) Nowling, where she died on 17 November 1995. Her posthumous work, Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, published in 1999 by Alfred A. Knopf, establishes Young's reputation as a Hoosier writer.
In interviews later in life Young always mentioned her grandmother as the foremost influence in her youth, a type of "female William Blake [who] was convinced I would write from the age of three" (Byatt, "Women Writers" 71). As a young child she took seriously her vocation to be a writer and was strongly encouraged by her grandmother: "She wanted me to be a writer. From the earliest infancy I memorized a verse or two of the Bible every day, the King James version, which she thought was important for a sense of imagery and music.... [S]he praised my writing, and knew from the earliest time when I began to pick up a pencil that I would be a writer. She said I would be either a writer, or the first woman president of the United States ..." (Ruas 95-96). In addition to reading the English classics, Dickens, George Eliot, and Thackeray, young Marguerite developed an early fluency in French, and before going to college, she had already read works by Anatole France, Balzac, Racine, and Voltaire (Duncan 8). When asked by an interviewer how the divorce of her parents affected her as a child, she reflected, "That fact is important. It makes a child introspective to lose a parent; it is something which has happened to many writers. It also meant that I was always a liberated woman, because I never had a mother to overthrow or a father to dominate me" (Byatt, "Women Writers" 71).
She attended Indiana University, Bloomington, and Butler University, Indianapolis, where she majored in English and French and minored in criminology. She was on the editorial staff of Butler's poetry journal, The Cocoon, as well as the university's literary magazine, the Tower Alice Bidwell Wesenberg, her poetry teacher at Butler and editor of the poetry journal, became a lifelong friend and correspondent. Young dedicated her first book of poetry, Prismatic Ground, to Wesenberg. After obtaining her B.A. at Butler in 1930, at the age of twenty-two she published her first poems in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, vol. 36. Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of the journal, also became a friend and mentor of Marguerite's. Monroe's Andes mountain expeditions became a topos for the mountain-climbing, suffragette cousin, Hannah Freemount-Snowden, in Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. It was through Young's connections with Monroe and Poetry while she was a graduate student at the University of Chicago (1933-1936) that she obtained her job as reader to Minna Weissenbach in Hyde Park, better known as the opium lady. This eccentric patroness of the arts became a model for Catherine Cartwheel in Miss MacIntosh, the opium-addicted, invalid mother of the novel's protagonist, Vera Cartwheel. Young dedicated her second volume of poetry, Moderate Fable, to Weissenbach. During her years as a student at the University of Chicago, Young also came into contact with the Charles Walgreen family, and later, through her friendship with Ruth (Walgreen) Stephan, she became fiction editor of the Tiger's Eye in 1947. Young's friendship with Ruth Stephan and her support of Stephan's poetry centers in Austin, Texas, and Tuscon, Arizona, lasted the rest of her life.
Young continued to write poetry throughout the 1930s and 1940s. Her first volume of poetry, Prismatic Ground, was published by Macmillan in 1937. At the University of Chicago she became interested in the seventeenth-century, emblematic, prose poetry of Elizabethan and Jacobean writers, as well as the cosmologists and epic writers who influenced John Milton's Paradise Lost. She completed her Master's in English in 1936. Her Master's essay was a study of the "various moral and social meanings of the birds and beasts in John Lyly's Euphues and related works and traced these figures to their multiple sources in poetry and in a quasi-mythological zoology" (Wakeman 1584). She credited Ronald Salmon Crane, the neo-Aristotelian aesthetician, for her enduring interest in the eighteenth-century novel. He was a demanding teacher who, according to Young, had his students read Henry Fielding's Tom Jones thirteen times. It is no wonder that Young felt complimented when she was told that reading Miss MacIntosh is "like reading Tom Jones under water" (Duchene 11).
Young's experience at the University of Chicago expanded her expertise in the mythological and historical foundations of poetic prose, epic, and the novel. As a doctoral candidate in Philosophy and English at the University of Iowa (1940-1943), she studied with Rene Wellek and Austin Warren, both comparative literature scholars, as well as the philosopher Gustav Bergmann, who introduced her to the work of Hume, Locke, and William James. She became an avid reader of the history of world philosophies and religions. She assisted Louis Untermeyer as a resident at Breadloaf in 1940, where she first met Carson McCullers, and in 1942 had a creative writing fellowship at the University of Iowa while teaching as a lecturer in the department of English. Young never completed her doctorate. Her reputation as a poet prompted Austin Warren to submit her name to a talent scout, Frank Taylor, from Reynal and Hitchcock, who came to the university in 1943. Young's manuscripts for Moderate Fable and Angel in the Forest were subsequently accepted for publication, and she moved to New York City with fellowship funds awarded by the American Association of University Women.
After receiving her Master's degree in English from the University of Chicago and again briefly in 1941 while on the staff of the Indiana Writer's Conference at Indiana University, Young taught both gifted and handicapped children at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis. Also during this time she visited her mother and stepfather, John Allison, in New Harmony, Indiana. (John Allison later operated a motion-picture house in Carlisle, Indiana, called the "New Vivian Theatre," destroyed by fire in 1955.) Young became interested in the history of utopian settlements in the area, as well as folk ballads, which could still be heard in the hills of southern Indiana and Kentucky. From these roots in folk culture and history, she began her work on a series of sixty ballads called Angel in the Forest, which was to be a poetic history of the early nineteenth-century Rappite and Owenite utopian communities in New Harmony, Indiana. For seven years, Young gradually developed the ballad form into a type of poetic prose, and it was this manuscript (in addition to her second volume of poetry, Moderate Fable) which was accepted by Mark van Doren at Reynal and Hitchcock. Albert Erskine then acted as her editor.
Young's first work of fiction, a short story entitled "Dead Women," was published in American Prefaces in 1943, and her short story "Old James" appeared in the Kenyon Review the next year. "Old James" was included in the 1944 collection of O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories; both stories were reprinted in Inviting the Muses, a 1994 collection of her short pieces. Young's early stories resemble James Joyce's short stories and are written as vignettes of American characters. Although this early work may correspond in some respects to Joyce's early work, Young did not agree with later characterizations of Miss MacIntosh as a Joycean, Ulysses-type stream of consciousness.
Angel in the Forest (1945) and Moderate Fable (1944) were both nominated for best nonfiction of the year in 1945 by the National Academy of Arts and Letters. Moderate Fable won the award in poetry, as only one award per category could be given to the work of one writer. In 1946 Young spent a summer at the Yaddo artist community in Saratoga Springs, New York, establishing friendships with authors Truman Capote and Carson McCullers. Life magazine, which had done a feature on the Rappite community in New Harmony, Indiana, in the fall of 1945 based on Young's publication of Angel in the Forest, again in the fall of 1946 included mention of Young's budding literary career in a photo feature of her and Truman Capote together at Yaddo. Also in September 1946 Harper's Bazaar published one of the first excerpts to appear from the future Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, entitled "Teacher of Arithmetic." In 1945 Young submitted a forty-page draft of Miss MacIntosh to Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's, who recognized its promise. The working title of the novel was The Worm in the Wheat, from an epigraph by William Blake: "and the worm upon the leaf/Speaks to thee thy mother's grief."
After Perkins's death in 1947, Jack Wheelock was Young's contact at Scribner's, and then Burroughs Mitchell became the editor of Miss MacIntosh. It is Mitchell who saw the novel through to its completion in February 1964, at which time the 2,450-page manuscript required thirty-eight miles of computer tape. Young had spent eighteen years completing the novel and had continued to receive prestigious awards to help her complete the work. In addition to the Guggenheim Foundation award (1948), she received the Newberry Library award (1951) and the Rockefeller Foundation award (1954). In order to support herself while writing, Young taught creative writing and wrote numerous reviews for such publications as Vogue, Mademoiselle, the New York Times, New York Herald Tribune, the Chicago Sun, Washington Post Book World, Literary Review, Western Review, the Nation, Harper's Bazaar, New World Writing, the Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, Sewanee Review, New Directions, and Flair.
In 1952 Young traveled to Rome and stayed near her friends Ruth and John Stephan and their young son John. The family had moved to Europe after the Tiger's Eye ceased publication in 1950. John J. Stephan writes an interesting account of his youthful memories of Young while in Italy in his tribute "Growing up with Mr. Spitzer" (Fuchs, Marguerite Young 10-12). While in Rome Young met the Princess Marguerite Caetani de Sermoneta, editor of Botteghe Oscura, who subsequently published an excerpt from Miss MacIntosh, "The Opium Lady" (issue #10). Young continued on to England and then her ancestral land, Edinburgh, Scotland. Young never felt the compulsion to live the writer's life as an exile in Europe. As "one of the natural resources of her country," her identity was consistently rooted in American culture and letters. After she returned to the States in 1954, she taught at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop from 1954-1957 with Paul Engells and briefly with Mike Martin. It is during this time that her reputation as a teacher of creative writing was established and she taught many students, including John Gardner, who were influenced by her style of writing and teaching. She continued to earn her living as a teacher of writing for the remainder of her life, starting a long teaching career at the New School of Social Research in 1958 upon her return to New York City and working at various times at Columbia University, Fairleigh Dickenson University, Seton Hall University, and Fordham University. She was a visiting writer/lecturer at many poetry houses, colleges, and universities, including Clarkson University, the University of Arizona, San Diego College, Montana State, Marion College, Northwestern University, University of Wisconsin, Butler University, Denver University. In 1983 Young received a life-time achievement award as one of the Midwest's "Foremost living writers and professors of Creative Writing in America" at the annual meeting of the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) in St. Louis. At this tribute, speeches in praise of Young were given by Anna Balakian, Fran McCullough, Robert Bly (a student of Young's briefly at the University of Iowa), Leo Lerman, Charles Ruas, and Senator Robert Young of Missouri, Young's half-brother on her father's side.
As a teacher of creative writing, her bottom line was authenticity and beauty, as she demanded no less from her own work. In an interview with Peggy Swanson, she stated that one of her critical standards had always been "that my work be beautiful. I teach my students that. If it's beautiful, that's really enough. I agree with Keats: beauty is truth and truth is beauty. I'm not at all interested in plain writing. I don't shave images from my writing. I'm a putter-inner. I have that in common with Thomas Wolfe" (4D). Her students remember her influence as life-changing. In a 1965 letter one student described an experience of "rebirth" as a result of taking a writing class from Young. The student goes on to describe Young as a "guiding light who would influence the rest of my days. And that has nothing to do with subject matter, of course. It is rather the consciousness of a soul emanating through some miracle of communication. Truth and Beauty. Ineffable strange and marvelous feeling that defies description and needs no justification." Young's style of teaching is described by others as exuberant, her personality as warm and generous, with the rare quality of being able to listen to personal concerns. She would conduct her classes more as a literary salon than a structured workshop; students and teacher would often spill over into a Greenwich Village coffeehouse, talking late into the night.
Young's recommended reading list for students, recorded in her brief article "On Teaching," encompasses the total spectrum of philosophy, religion, criticism, and literature. A partial list includes: William James, Henry James, Saint Augustine, Plotinus, Robert Browning, Dante, Coleridge, Blake, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Yeats, Melville, Sir Philip Sydney's Arcadia, Sigmund Freud, Wilhelm Stekel, Theodor Reik, Jung, Joseph Campbell, Don Quixote, Plutarch's Lives, Apuleius' The Golden Ass, Uncle Remus, Proust, Joyce, Laurence Sterne, Cervantes, and all of Dickens, Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, and Pasternak. Her own library was extensive, the number of volumes at times surpassing four thousand, reflecting the thesauric content of her own writing, which is a repository of the language of mystical literature, the metaphysical poets, nineteenth-century romanticism, Augustinian psychology, Neoplatonism. What interested Young was the historical fluidity of literary form and its continual kaleidoscopic metamorphosis into mythos and archetype: "I begin with what I know is easy--with something strange and beautiful--and then it starts to activate itself.... I have a muralist's imagination. I like to see the epic swing of the thing, the many as opposed to the one. I am a pluralist in that sense" (Ruas 115, 118).
Young defined her style of poetic prose as "imagistic" in the "seventeenth-century tradition of Sir Thomas Browne, and Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy" (Ruas 102). Her imagistic style can be defined as metaphysical in contrast to the symbolist exploration of imagistic consciousness because of her cultivation of themes and emblems which are historical rather than formulaic and/or transitory. In contrast to the imagery of modern symbolist poets, metaphysical imagery is used as a "sharp tool to explore the rationally apprehensible relations of things" (Tuve 215). Young also uses imagery as a tool to explore the unconscious, which by her own definition is the "world of the sensational" (Weinbaum). The motifs of the dream, utopias, mountains, all polarities, the sea, gardens, statuary, unheard music, lunar light, the veils and shadows of hermetic initiations, all of which permeate her work, are formal ones with a rich heritage.
The metaphysical qualities of Young's work are well noted by critics (see especially Gardner; and Staley 186-87). Wayne McEvilly's analysis of Young's style, in his 1969 article, "The Philosopher without Answers," characterizes Young's Miss MacIntosh, My Darling as an "intellectual novel" because it is a novel about the "mystery of Being" and the ontological "word which is also music": "it is no longer true to say that Magister Ludi is the most dangerously intellectual novel ever published. The most intellectual novel ever published, dangerous or otherwise, is not Magister Ludi, is not Moby-Dick, is not Ulysses, is not Finnegans Wake, but is Miss MacIntosh, My Darling" (77). Young's seminal theoretical essay, "Illusion is the Key," posits the modern writer's task to be the "critique of illusion," an imperative that demanded the full extent of her own intellectual and artistic gifts.
A feature of Young's intellectual project is to incorporate the Elizabethan delight in metaphors both decorous and indecorous, constantly embellishing her prose with a poetic juxtaposition of the grand with the prosaic, "a constant alternation of the magniloquent and the colloquial" (Tuve 215). Young's evocation of the human need to "search for immortality within the logic of mortality" (Young, Archive Papers, Beinecke Library) foregrounds the fictive fabric not only of Miss MacIntosh but also of her two poetic prose histories, Angel in the Forest and Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs. Angel in the Forest documents the founding and demise of the early nineteenth-century Rappite and Owenite utopian communities in New Harmony, Indiana. Harp Song is written on a grander scheme, the ultimate goal being to write a historical epic of the socialist-inspired labor movement in this country and abroad in the nineteenth century. What makes her historical prose style unique is her ability to coalesce the tragicomedy of human frailties with the facticity of events. Her sense of mythic time informs her historical sense of place. She accomplishes this within a narrative form that is defined by its exponential inclusivity; the original drafts of Harp Song brought together no less than seventy-five vignettes of historical personages who influenced in some way the life of Eugene Debs. In her Guggenheim grant proposal she wrote:
Although mine are highly documented volumes bristling like a hedgehog with the facts of cases--as Debs might have said--they at all times take into account the rather awesome fact that the facts themselves are based upon assumptions of a mythic and psychological nature, often derivative from various religions both of the West and of the East, as well as fairytales and Scottish border ballads and older ballads of misty origin, parables and allegories and pluralistic angelologies and demonologies, many carrying with them eternal mystery as well as eternal paradox.
The advantage of my long retrospective analysis is that I am ennabled to render phantasmal and tragic and sometimes comic personae and events into the
poetry of prose--
the extension of the metaphors of lyric poetry into the prose which is the epic of modernity--whether fiction or non-fiction such as biography and history.
After the publication of Angel in the Forest, Young was beginning to be recognized as a major American literary talent. Newton Arvin's lecture "The New American Writers," first delivered at Smith College and then reprinted in Harper's Bazaar in March 1947, includes Young in a list of new American writers who have moved beyond the restraints of a deterministic and Eurocentric naturalism. This list includes many of the women writers of the time, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Djuna Barnes, Eleanor Clark, Jean Stafford, Anais Nin, in addition to William Faulkner, William Maxwell, Truman Capote, Henry Miller, and James Agee. Arvin senses that this new generation of American writers was developing a distinctive American voice, which is "naturalistic in a deeper and more geniunely human sense ... essentially faithful to the nature of things as we know them to be.... A neo-naturalism, a humanized and poeticized naturalism ... not of the document but of the myth--such may well be the literature that the near future has in the making for us" (299). Young herself identified her attraction to the naturalism of Theodore Dreiser but always acknowledged a broad variety of influences: the tragicomedy of Dickens, the ironic humor of Mark Twain, the epic vision of Melville, the Gothic brooding of Edgar Allan Poe, the Neoplatonic, Christian introversion of St. Augustine, and the American, philosophical pragmatism of William James.
When Miss MacIntosh was published in 1965, Young's style had developed a unique poetic prose quality, characterized by long, dragnet sentences and intricate symbolism and imagery. With this novel it becomes clear that Young was not writing in the realist style of Hemingway or Steinbeck. In a 1989 interview Miriam Fuchs and Ellen G. Friedman asked about her epic poetic prose style and if she creates an "experimental" fiction.
I see myself as traditional even though I know you see my work as experimental. I don't really consider Sterne, Joyce, and Proust experimental either because the tradition of their writing goes back a long way. Traditional. The Grand Tradition. Clear back to Don Quixote. I never decided to write in a "new way" at all. It's realism that's fairly new. Is it experimental to have been influenced by the Bible? By Saint Augustine? ... I was not influenced by Joyce although he's a great writer, and I love his work. I was influenced by Saint Augustine. The books that did influence me were Tristram Shandy and Gogol's Dead Souls, Dickens and Poe. (153)
Perhaps what is "new" about Young's writing is her direct connection to ancient, bardic prose, her Homeric style of versifying myth and storytelling, which she sees as a continuum in the history of literature.
It is Young's discursive power, by her own admission, that characterizes her thinking and writing; and it is by virtue of this capacity, which the Stoics called the vis cogitativa, that she engages universal metaphysical issues which palpitate behind the bedevilling, mundane details of life. In a 1978 interview with A. S. Byatt, Young describes herself as a practitioner of the art of discursivity, both in her teaching and writing: "My texts are William James, Freud and Jung, and case-history books. But no formulas. I believe in the art of discursion. I have taught psychoanalysts, Karate experts, ferryboat captains, royalty, taxi-drivers, illiterates.... I can give them courage, unless they are budding Hemingways. But people who like Hemingway don't often sign up with me" (71). It is Young's technique of discursivity that broadens and deepens the scope of any topic she writes and/or talks about. In describing how she formulated the main character of Vera Cartwheel when writing Miss MacIntosh, she demonstrates her ability to turn the prosaic into prosody: "Gloria Vanderbilt was suing her mother. She said at the trial that the only person she ever loved was her nursemaid. That gave me the idea for Vera Cartwheel, the poor little rich girl whose name means truth endlessly turning. I planned to write a 200 page novel. But my tendency has always been to collate and include. I am a discursive thinker. Anything I write turns into Tristram Shandy. (Laurence Sterne is my God. I spoke to him at his grave when I was in London. All the most beautiful dead people are in England. I didn't care if I saw a single living person)" (Byatt, "Women Writers" 71). Her own allusions and attraction to the work of Laurence Sterne are perhaps the best way to understand Young's poetic prose, which at various times has frustrated her editors and critics. Young's rhetorical flair for copia, her amplification of imagery and periodic sentence structure, are features designed for oral performance as well as the "secondary orality" of the written word. Her sometimes exhaustive demands on her readers divert critical attention away from the integrity of the metaphysical and epistemological structures that determine her style.
In a paper written for Rene Wellek at the University of Iowa in the early 1940s, Young defended Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy against critiques that reduce his work to "merely romantic eccentricity, an exaggerated straining after individuality." She suggests that Sterne's exorbitant and digressive style was a self-conscious "literary employment of a theory of knowledge," an "experimenting with the experimental world of the British empiricists, especially Locke." His "sensationalistic writing" is one that premises that the origin of ideas is in experience, versus the eternal ideas of a transcendent, Platonic dimension. Laurence Sterne's work, like Young's, was received with a certain amount of confusion by the critics of his time, because they did not connect his literary experimenting with the then-current psychological theories of perception found in Hobbes, Locke, Bishop Berkeley, Hume, Newton, and Voltaire, all of whom were included in Sterne's library. The premise of Young's essay is that Sterne clearly "recognized that his aesthetic practice was derived from such presumably arid sources."
Young's own love of the "atomic particles" of experiential reality, the textures of thought and perception, derives from a similar acknowledgment of the human limitations to transcendent perfections, exemplifed by the grand schemers of failed utopian socialisms or the recurring paradoxes of existential awareness. What is important is not architecture but the principle of change within the human being. It is hard to see the world as a whole. It is made up, rather, of rags and tags--even this planet is made up of the shreddings of other worlds.... It is impossible to have a knowledge of matter which comprise[s] the universe. It is impossible to have a knowledge of reality which transcends the phenomenal world. There seems to be no such thing, evidently, as reality which comprises a whole. Sterne rather points to the particular, the irrelevant, the accidental--and shows that our ideas often travel at a more rapid rate than the experience which they describe. (Young, Archive Papers, Beinecke Library)
According to Young, the work of a "sensationalist" writer is not the materialist proof of the atomists or the impressionistic epistemologies of associative psychology, but rather a way of "breaking up forms" in order to light up the "dark corners and hidden alleys" of the soul so as to destroy the "dogma of a universal." She said, "And I don't believe in saving anything from one book for another. I had my theme and my quest and I followed it for 18 years. I felt like an explorer when I was writing Miss MacIntosh. One of my favorite ancestors was an explorer, he opened the Santa Fe Trail. He made a miniature wilderness in his garden in St. Louis; and when he entertained the nephew of the Tsar there, ice for the champagne was brought from the mountains by Indian runners. I feel that the spirit of my ancestors and the dream of those dead American explorers affected my writing" (Byatt, "Women Writers" 71).
As Miss MacIntosh, My Darling comes at a crucial moment in Young's literary development, it is perhaps her most representative work, revealing the dynamic complexities of her creative impetus as well as the confusion surrounding her reception. Marguerite Young worked for eighteen years to complete her epic novel, which was published in its entirety in 1965. This novel seems to be the pivotal point in the history of Young's critical reception, as it has yet to enter the canon of American literature for reasons that have not been thoroughly explored. The history of the critical reception of this work is full of paradox: although well-known and loved by many authors and critics, her work is declared by other critics to be obscure, redundant, or unreadable. Young was well known among writers, publishers, and critics during her first thirty years of work, and her epic novel, 1,200 pages in length, was eagerly awaited. After eighteen years of preparation, the novel was published and highly publicized. Scribner's sponsored a promotional parade on Fifth Avenue, "complete with rented buses and angels passing out champagne and playing trumpets" (Neville 20). The novel was greeted by reviewers such as Jerzy Kosinski as a "novel of massive achievement." But such critical acclaim and excitement was shortlived. Reviewers complained that her work was too massive and wordy and had a strange outlandish quality. Since 1967 very little has been written about Young in the critical or academic literature. She went into seclusion, disappointed and perhaps mystified by the world's abrupt dismissal of her work.
The veil of confused response surrounding the form and style of Young's work thinly covers an aesthetic blind spot on the part of reviewers. Critics of Miss MacIntosh loudly complain that Young's style is too lengthy and verbose, while seeming to ignore the fact that her novel is quite deliberately constructed as a poetic prose epic. Leon Edel's review of Miss MacIntosh in Life magazine, entitled "Literature's Longest Bus Ride," illustrates what Staley calls "the scholarly difficulties a major canonical critic had then, as others continue to have, with Young's prose" (13). Edel's critique of Young's "tall tale" betrays an eagerness to shelve the book as an interesting but not enduring piece of Americana: "Miss Young, it can be seen, has a runaway imagination, and she also has a great deal of craft to support it. The result is often as overwhelming as a hurricane--and as rubbish-strewn.... [She has] discipline of craft but not the discipline of the imagination [and has written] an awesome `curiosity' of American literature" (Edel 12). Although usually explicitly negative, many of the reviews are characterized by a backhanded style of dispensing bits of praise couched in terms of dismissal. A comment by Melvin Maddox recognizes one of Young's central themes of the illusory quality of life as "a valid insight, that life is often a deception.... But she has made the insight so central, so explicit, so systematic that the insight has devoured her" (Maddox 7). But Martin Lebowitz, in a 1945 review of Young's Angel in the Forest, although somewhat puzzled by Young's mix of history and metaphysical "inner" dialogue, manages to remain sympathetically receptive: "Marguerite Young's first prose volume is repetitive, obscure, diffuse, overwritten, tiresomely obsessed with copulation and with analogical images of flowers, insects, and birds, scornful at many times of coherence, continuity, and form; yet it is a book of astonishing subtlety and brilliance, a genuine work of art, and together with her two previous volumes of verse it should establish its author as one of the truly notable writers of her generation. Its faults are in no sense deficiencies" (Lebowitz 547). One's initial reaction to such an analysis is to ask who is more confused: the reviewer or the writer of the text? Perhaps the worst attack comes from A. S. Byatt, who claims that Young annihilates all objects as well as all sense. Byatt makes a hasty value judgment, preferring "the precise, sensually excited descriptions of harpooning, tackle, stripping of blubber from real whales, real blood and foam" of Moby-Dick fame; or second best, R. D. Laing's "descriptions of his conversations with the schizophrenic `Ghost of the Weed Garden'" (Byatt, "Obsession" 68-69). These sometimes passionately confused responses to Young's work betray a deeper confusion; by not reading what is posited as unreadable, they have, in effect, demonstrated not Young's vulnerability to charges of inadequacy, but the limitations of their own unaesthetic reception.
Her ease in shifting from lyrical poetry to nonfiction to fiction and to biography with her Debs epic challenges all attempts to categorize her work. Young recognizes this confusion of category and speaks eloquently to the distinctive form of poetic prose which she cultivates. Young did not feel comfortable with any of the critical fashions by which works of literature could be labeled: "Categories ... do not describe creative processes, but are rather quick little ways by which critics or commentators can divide them" (Newquist 499). Yet in her efforts to define and defend her own style, she found that she was antithetically opposed to the literature of existential realism, primarily because it did not provide an antidote to the spiritual vacuum that she sensed in modern culture and the arts. Young succinctly expresses these views in a 1945 review of an art show by Howard Mitcham (model for the deaf man, lover of Vera in Miss MacIntosh). Young published this review in the Conscientious Objector, which she co-edited at the time with Henry Miller. "We need the myth of infinite distended variety to combat the spiritual vacuity which our unthinking technicians have presented to us and which they will continue to present. A static concept of world and idea would be repellent to those who understand the great change wrought in our universe by the release of the atomic bomb--the diseased atoms in contagion reaching, who knows, to the solar system itself in future time.... It is a glorious experience, the plumbing of the irrational" ("Plumbing the Irrational" 196-97). Young's challenge to modernism is to reject the fundamentalist tendency to "reduc[e] everything to a few often-repeated slogans" and to turn to an exploration of the "richness of myth-making."
R. Eric Staley suggests that Young lost her audience by simply outliving "her milieu and the American literary sensibility in which her ideas evolved and her work first appeared" (Staley 9). Although he characterizes all of her work through Miss MacIntosh as "thoroughly of the modern, not postmodern tradition," it is also paradoxically evident that "postmodern critical vocabularies work well for interpreting Young.... [A]lthough her prose style has its antecedents in the tradition, it also charts new directions" (18-19). So the other possibility posed by feminist and postmodern critics to explain Miss MacIntosh's lukewarm reception is that Young's work prefigures postmodernism, and thus her work has had no audience because the appropriate sensorium is not yet present. According to Steven Shaviro, there is the possibility that the modern and postmodern sensibility is not up to the task of reading Marguerite Young's sublime and subliminal style: "Young's book has not yet been allowed into the canon or accorded a firm place in contemporary literature. This lack of recognition is considered here to be a backhanded testimony to the novel's beauty, uniqueness, and strength. I suggest further that one sign of the importance of this text is its refusal to conform to our usual paradigms of either modernism or postmodernism. We simply have not yet learned how to read Miss MacIntosh, My Darling" (Shaviro 213). But to posit Young's epic, poetic prose as "unreadable" because of a failure on the reader's part rather than the author's, only futher problematizes the reception of her work.
The story of how Young began as a lyric poet and then developed into a writer of poetic prose is a record of creative discovery as she realized that poetic prose was the traditional medium that could transcend the reductive fundamentalisms of modernity. Marguerite Young, as she herself asserted, had no intention of "shocking" or "reshaping" the reader's expectations. What she discovered was not that she could shock her readers, but that she was doing something that writers have always done: "Each poet must seek, in his own hazardous way, as was always the case among the adventuresome, the integration of an experience which defies integration, since so many of the old signposts walk off lurchingly into the mist themselves" ("Our Person" 180). Simply by remaining true to her own atavistic instincts, Young became the first woman author in literary history to write poetic epic. Although it has been suggested that Young can best be treated by feminist critics, to include her work in a manifesto of feminist experimentalism is justifiable only to the extent that the term feminine could accurately define her style (see Fuchs and Friedman, Breaking the Sequence; and Strehle). She herself would not agree that to write in a "feminine" way was the act of a "feminine" author or that "feminine" writing necessitated a "female aesthetic" (as defined by DuPleiss 271-91). Young's strength as a writer is the potential of her work to challenge all current, critical assumptions regarding genre and the fetish of the avantgarde.
Both as a lyrical poet in her two early books of poetry and as a poetic novelist, Young addresses the dissociative tendencies that characterize the literature of a post-Kantean aesthetic. She first explores the dissociation from the Other as a pathologizing of soul in Prismatic Ground. Young's central preoccupations with the nature of a reality bifurcated into dream and waking consciousness infuse her poetic images and narrative themes. By exploring the ontological status of poetic activity, she is able to reflect on the status of both the dreamlike utopia of a predissociative consciousness, as well as the intense sense of loss in a postdissociative consciousness experienced as a separation of head and heart. In the poem "Heart Who Stays" the image of the head connected to the heart only by the act of remembrance evokes the tension inherent in a bifurcated reality:
It matters not at all to this dark Omnivorous and eyeless Head Come the moon-streaming seraphim Of all the austere, blinded dead, Slanting like honey-colored leaves Across a drift of early snow; For the Head remembers the Heart who stays, Remembers the Heart, who cannot go. (Prismatic Ground 35)
In the poem "Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne" in Moderate Fable, Young treats the theory of Berkeley's idealism as a result of the "loss" of a unified ground of being. She begins to embellish on the experiential reality of living only in the head, i.e., to live within the barriers of an imagistic sensorium:
Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne said to the head of John the Baptist, Yea, should my head be severed ever from body, O, fearful thought! I should have no knowledge of that loss, The outer realm of fact was always false, For always, in truth, my head like yours contained All furnitures of earth, angelic choirs, And also a fat old English queen Dissolving like her shadow on a green wall.... Suppose my head detached from my body, this various brain In a colorless fluid held, O, there removed From the connotations of London bridge--should that celestial chemist, who can tell, Inject as food through a tube, earths illusive now as this! How should I guess I was but a poor brain preserved Should he choose to furnish me with an imagined clothing And the embroidery of babies mild as flowers.... (Moderate Fable 48-49)
As Young goes on to enumerate various furnishings of the ideal brain (or the brain of idealism), her humor brings out the quality of her writing that is enamored with caricature and personification.
Young's poetic language of illusory returnings to veiled "oneness" becomes the metaphysical language of the social constructions of utopianism in Angel in the Forest. Although she returns to her folk-ballad style of American history with Harp Song for a Radical, it is her fiction that perhaps best exemplifies her dedication to the task of an ontological rehabilitation of poetry as the primary, lyrical essence of all speech.
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling
Speak not to my sleeping mother of the soul which was divided into only two parts--or of the reversals of polarities, the meetings of opposites, the imperial organization of chaos--but of that disorder which seemed itself innate, a greater mystery than life or death, the spirit messengers reciting revelations in the darkness, eyes burning like stars in the fog, sea birds with burning feathers drifting before their eyes, dolphins with shining curls upon the long wake of the waves, the swell of the sea which breaks upon the distant shore, the foam of sound caused by the breaking billows....
Whenever she passed through a phantasmagoric doorway, she had always found that there was yet another doorway she must pass through, that each room led to another room, that there were new visions, voices, clouded raptures, mirrors looking out on clouds or mirroring nothing. For my mother's soul was like a many-spiraling house with many rooms, many cubits adding to dazzling cubits, many stairways leading to many heavens.... (MMMD 430)
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is a story of a young female protagonist, Vera Cartwheel, who narrates her pilgrimage from her New England home to the Midwest home of Georgia MacIntosh, her nursemaid from ages seven to twelve. Georgia had disappeared from Vera's life one morning by walking into a briny, midwinter sea. Her dissolution and Vera's subsequent realization that she had lost someone she greatly loved establish the premise to Vera's quest and wandering. The narration begins on a bus. Vera, now in her late twenties, is returning to the birthplace of Miss MacIntosh in What Cheer, Iowa. On this trip, she engages in a long reminiscence of her past, a long dreaming which generates the dream of what lies beyond at the next bus stop. Young's theme of the journey becomes an epic narrative; the scope of the narrative is encyclopedic, establishing Young's atavistic affinity to the first American epic, Moby-Dick (Staley 163, n. 9). Her myths are fully developed, her language creating a mythical order which functions as a way of knowing. Allen Tate, the Southern Fugitive critic and poet, was an admirer of Young and her work (Duncan 10). He adapts the phrase "complete knowledge" inherent in poetic utterance as a term of highest praise for the life of the imagination: "The order of completeness that [poetic utterance] achieves in the great works of the imagination is not the order of experimental completeness aimed at by the positivist sciences, whose responsibility is directed towards the verification of limited techniques. The completeness of science is an abstraction covering an ideal of cooperation among specialized methods. No one can have an experience of science, or of a single science. For the completeness of Hamlet is not of the experimental order, but of the experienced order: it is, in short, of the mythical order.... We must return to, we must never leave, the poem itself" (Tate 104-05). In her poetry and poetic prose Young cultivates the ontology of the poem as dream. The complete knowledge that she brings is a reimagining of the soul, a daunting task of discrimination and description, which only an epic narrative can contain. As poet for our culture, Young is also educator and guide, describing for her audience in a sometimes unfamiliar literary language a transformational aesthetic experience we are bound to enter as her epic unfolds. To read Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is an exercise which brings with it the potential to educate the reader's aesthetic capacities.
Vera Cartwheel's journey is written as a travelogue of the soul. The reader must retrace the path of soul's abandonment and separation from the source and object of her love. In the context of the story, this journey is a turning away from the phantasmagorical life of her mother. Catherine Helena Cartwheel is a woman who lives the life of "pure" imagination, discordant with the senses. On a metaphorical level, Georgia MacIntosh, Vera's "plain, old-fashioned nursemaid" (38), represents the soul's faculty of common sense (she is the "acme of common sense" ), but only as it functions without the informed and imaginal faculties that represent the capacity to be transformed by beauty. Her sensible, nondreaming consciousness seems unimpinged by the phantasms that haunt Vera's house; she is a woman who keeps her own "unamazed mind" (39). We are told, "this beauty which surrounded her was never her beauty, and she distrusted beauty as if it were a dream" (860). Dressed in durable clothes, hale and hearty, she is plain, ornamented only with flaming red hair: "Her beauty had never been physical. It had been something almost as intangible as the light, the darkness on the water" (66). Vera's mother, Catherine, who is described as an "immortal beauty" (18) and who lives in the inner room of an opulent mansion, suffers the living death of one who lives purely in the realm of phantasm without the faculties of judgment or discretion. Her common sense is confused by the horizontal position of a bedridden invalid, as she is disabled by a lame foot. Her spatial disorientation is given a visionary expression by means of her opium dreams, an addictive anodyne to her dislocation of body and perception. The two mother figures in Vera's life represent two alternatives that the child must ultimately reject: to be trapped either in the translucent sinews of a body that never dreams or in the ethereal phantasms of an addicted imagination.
Young's characterization of Catherine Cartwheel can be traced to four women (but not only these four) known to her in life and literature, who together embody the traits of a distant, romantically inclined mother who is also a spiritual visionary and crazed opium addict. The distant, romance-addicted mother is Young's own mother (Staley 162, n. 5); the spiritual visionary is Madam Blavatsky, a well-known founder of theosophy in Europe and America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Duncan 12); the opium addict is Minna Weissenbach combined with a bit of Young's grandmother (Ruas 97, 117-18; Duncan 9-10; Staley 161-62, n. 5). Catherine is a personification of the realm of aesthetic idealism given validity by Kant and the ninteenth-century romantics. But she is at the same time a caricature of the irrational mystic as constructed by a metaphysic driven solely by a desire to escape the wisdom of the senses. As irrational mystic she is "within and without: diffused thru starlight." Her mystic "ecstasy ... came from her sense of the incompleteness of life, its evasiveness" (380). Her madness is a type of "lunar hysteria" (12), her soul "irrational ... dilated" (14). Her ambient imagination is a deviation of the wandering soul motif, because she cannot escape the mansion that encloses her like a tomb.
Catherine's never-to-be-fulfilled longing for her beloved (Joachim Spitzer's gambling brother, Peron, who had committed suicide in the distant past) is a deviation of Soul's necessary connection to Eros: "If I knew Love, I would not dream of Death" (177). Her personification as the head separated from heart represents a radical ontological split: "the absence of anyone was like his presence" (420). Her desire is limited by the structure of her house and the repetitious nature of her fantasies and is not the nature of the unlimited desire of Eros: "my mother's soul was like a many-spiraling house, with many rooms.... So she could never seem to escape from this house ..." (430).
Mr. Spitzer, the lawyer whose life is suspended in a never-to-be-fulfilled love of Catherine, personifies wounded desire separated from psyche. His wound consists of a disconnected attachment to the one he loves, a woman who miscognizes his presence. This is compounded with a searing awareness of the "split" that is the cause of his suffering: "Two tenants wrangled in an empty house, that which was his body and his soul.... [A]nd yet could he confront his own illusion by which he was caught between two worlds, between two lives, between two deaths where the mirrors drifted through clouds ..." (631). Mr. Spitzer suffers from "dualistic problems" (751), with no trust of his sense or his dreams, his faculties of common sense are "fragments of his being which were like another, an alien being, an alien being who wore his body and was his body.... For never was he his own man, and he was always suffering from this profound sense of distance as if he were another man, scarcely acquainted with himself and his desires which he had outlived" (753). Mr. Spitzer as personified Eros dreams only of lost, amorphous love, of "that blind Eros for whom there was no time and no face of love and no act of superficial recognition of subject or object and no love in this flesh" (633). His love is also a deviation from the essence of Eros, which is unlimited desire; his Eros is fixated, obsessed with what can never fulfill desire: "[His] eyes burning with that fixed intensity of one who has lost his reason for being intense, one whose last card long ago was played" (417). Joachim's soul is subsequently constrained, limited; his soul "darkly hidden," like a sunken boat (462). His mind without psyche becomes the carrier of all rational cognition and apprehension; so when mind is "unhealthy" it is a result of being contaminated with the "irrational" passions and memories of a pathologized soul. For Mr. Spitzer, this means that he is easily disoriented: his senses are easily confused. Joachim must walk the "narrow line of consciousness" (556) in constant fear of his own sanity being infected with the madness of Catherine, whom he loves.
Like Catherine and Mr. Spitzer, Georgia MacIntosh is also wounded; her wounds are physical and psychological. She has lived a life in constant struggle with the elements: her nose was broken in Seattle; one breast was lost to cancer at an early age; and baldness was a second outcome of her disease. As caretaker of Vera, her duty is to teach the girl "common sense," recognizing that she is the child of a mother who only dreams: "We are not all like your mother, confounded among the beautiful and enigmatical choices, unable to move or to teach the pawn to move.... Your poor, dreaming mother ... gave me complete authority over you, for she wished you to have a little common sense ..." (871, 876). Married at one point to a preacher by the name of Mr. Bonebreaker, she knows only the abuse of a lustful Eros and lives perpetually with the wound of lovelessness. Without beauty of body, without dreams of beauty, she is without soul. As detached from soul, her mind is filled with apprehensive nightmares, her passions are alternately repressed and then violent. She cannot act to bring heart and mind together for she is outcast, rejected, doomed to suicidal disappearance. But Georgia brings to Vera the only essential human, nonphantasmic qualities that the child had ever known. She was "the one person who had not veered suddenly before my eyes, whose ways had appeared fixed like the North star and unchanging" (196). It is subsequently the experience of losing her one orienting guide that awakens Vera to a recognition of what her soul desires.
Vera grows up in the house by the roaring waves of the Atlantic ocean, learning her mother's ways. Her childhood home of enchantment becomes a prison of isolation. Vera's sobbing is heard in an "empty house" (413), a house of "Lunacy" (426). The ancestral mansion becomes a house of death. Images of the dead, faceless mirrors, silent rooms are the real furniture of the rooms which are never used. Miss MacIntosh is hired by Mr. Spitzer to care for the neglected, seven-year-old child, and saves her from a certain fate: "With firm hand and true, however, Miss MacIntosh had restored me to my senses when I had already seemingly lost them, when even Mr. Spitzer had been on the verge of giving up hope" (192). Vera is beginning to learn how to reconstitute her common sense. All goes well for seven years. On the night of her fourteenth birthday, Vera experiences an unusual and dangerous initiation into the precincts of Eros, the Dionysian field of erotic desire, and Psyche, the field of soul.
Vera cannot sleep and decides to go to Miss MacIntosh for companionship. As she approaches her nursemaid's quarters she must cross the garden created by her grandfather for her blind grandmother. In this garden she experiences her last moments of what she later recognizes to be an illusory happiness: "I stood in the garden of the blind which had been created for one whose eyes were as missing, for one who had suffered the absence of a sense, the absence of a world of vision and of light. My happiness seemed boundless" (190). This garden, with its absence of statues and effulgent richness of sensory experience, described evanescently in Young's poetic prose, is to Vera her first vision of an "unseen" beauty: "I opened my eyes, that I might not feel estranged.... Little could I have realized, for my heart had been filled with preternatural joy, that my first vision of the wonders and glories of this planet, glimmer and shine of flowers and leaves and birds' breasts like multiple moons shining in ineffable light, the first vision would also be the last" (191). Young deepens the remembrance of the young girl's dreamlike initiation with Vera's description of what it was like to wander in her mother's "garden of the deaf," a second garden, where marble statues did stand: one of Venus, "bearded by patriarchal fog" (197). In such a garden, the ear is dead, because the sounds are spoken by the dead, the absent seraphim. "One should see the bird and the shadow of the bird, but one should not hear the song. One should see his lover's face but never hear his voice speaking farewell" (199). The threshold for Vera to the realm of soul is through the exploration of the senses intact as well as the extraordinary capacities of perception that develop when one (or more) of the physical senses does not function. The theme of the "missing sense" is a recurrent refrain throughout the novel.
Filled with childlike, fierce exaltation in "the immensity of life"(227), trembling on the "margin of sentient life" (195), she bursts into Miss MacIntosh's room where she comes upon the old woman in her nakedness. Her nursemaid's baldness terrifies the young girl, as she cannot believe that what she had previously seen as "true" was now "false." Not only does Vera discover the truth about Miss MacIntosh's physical body, but she is also assaulted with the truth of Georgia's violent love for Vera.
Who then was this massive, ruthless combatant dealing such skillful and decisive blows, even when I lay still, staring at ambiguities which were far distant from my present situation--for surely, it could not be Miss MacIntosh who held me with her arms pinioned against my back, my limbs rigid as if my spirit had departed like a breath? ... It must be, I reasoned, even as my consciousness faded into my consciousness, someone else who had assaulted me, dealing such a thunder shower of blows now scarcely felt, stripping the tulips from the tulip trees, the roses from the midnight bush.... (242)
Vera's initiation into love is one of radical confusion: the sunaesthesia of this encounter is almost unbearable in its intensity of image, thought, and sense. The event clearly marks Vera's entry through a veil to a place where barrenness, loneliness, and vulnerability are objective realities. Nothing could bring back the past; the present had become permanently altered. Miss MacIntosh does not survive the crisis, for the event precipitates her suicide. The light that the field of psyche brings to her disoriented, confused longings is disastrous (and as a sidelight explains Georgia's repeated references to her distrust of "electric lights": 298, 862-64). But the crisis brings about the necessary conditions for Vera's wandering and further initiation into the wisdom of soul.
Vera makes a conscious decision to leave behind her mother's world after the death of Georgia MacIntosh and follows her own circuitous path, a path that takes her through spectral villages on a red-eye bus, driven by a long-bearded man who looks like William Blake but speaks like a devil. The journey is constructed in a type of ring composition, as the nighttime voyage of Vera's entry into the town of What Cheer is interrupted by the long reverie of her seven years with Miss MacIntosh: "Had I not come to a land of eternal night, that of these voices, forever the aberrations, the irregularities, old, amorphous shapes like those which creep through mist and fog, Cyclops, men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders, dead souls, unsoluble mystery, that fleeting image, that dream within the dream?" (165). The journey of descent (katabasis) which is contained within the frame of the ring composition is the many-layered story of her initiation into the realm of psyche, a house of many souls and refractions of sense. Her subsequent circuitous search for truth is to restore the common sense to its integrating center and soul to its role as presence, acting in life as the creative principle. Her final stopping place is in actuality the same utopian settlement of New Harmony researched by Young for Angel in the Forest, a forlorn Indiana village along the Wabash River where angels dare to tread. The emblematic naming of the main character, Vera Cartwheel, "the principle of truth `wheel within wheel'" (Staley 110), speaks to the universal longings for paradise and wisdom and the trials endured by those who travel this path.
No longer dreaming, no longer I searched for [Miss MacIntosh] as she once had been, for she was dead, and my search was for life, this life as it would become. Here, where now a squall of rain drove against the bus-window, here where only a far lamp gleamed for a moment like a great moon and went out, here where the night shrouded the night of the soul which the daylight should never reveal, I knew what I had always known, that the unknown had always been, must always be her place. That was why I had come this circular way--by no direct route. (72)
The ring composition is picked up again with Vera's nighttime arrival in a small town in Indiana. The next day she meets Esther Longtree, a woman who is perpetually pregnant with invisible children. Like Vera's mother, Catherine, who could not remember giving birth to her child, Esther is another static feminine figure who cannot be in a creative relationship with the world. Her perpetual pregnancies leave her "estranged" rather than at one with nature (1135). She herself being an unwanted child, had been "born of distances--not because of necessity but because of doubt, not because of the love of unthinking flesh but because of the love of an arid idea" (1119). Esther's persona serves as a foil to Vera's final initiation to womanhood.
In the very last nine pages of the 1198-page journey, Vera meets a deaf man who becomes her husband, and she conceives a child. Her lover brings with him the faculty of understanding the language of the deaf, the unheard, ever-present melodies of flowers, grass, and the stars. Vera's great lesson is that she learns to listen, to hear the music, not with the dead ear of her mother trapped in imagistic reveries, but with living sensibilities receptive to the world's soul: a sensorium fully in relationship to the world.
I remembered the garden of the blind through which I had passed in a night of dripping and drenching summer before ever I had seen my bald love stripped of her illusions, glories, waters, clouds, loves although their lack would be my love, my bald love....
My love was late in coming, coming only as she [Miss MacIntosh] was going. My love could come only when I saw beyond this surface of character, when I saw that mediocrity has also its power to crumble into the most phantasmagoric dream that man has dreamed, that all the shining waters dream beyond the surface cold and bare, that had I been less wrapped up in myself, I might always have known her, the other soul, its power, its enchantment. (1177, 1190)
What Vera represents, with her true pregnancy, is the principle of quickening, the soul "making-logos" which brings color and life to the poverty and potentiality of matter and fills the wellspring of endless desire. Not until the veil of the pathology of soul is lifted can there be a wisdom of psyche. The integration of the atomistic perceptions of the senses and those of imagination in the human being allows the essential nature of psyche to be present as a creative principle in the world. Young's journey ends in the quiet presence of soul's creative, generative principle.
The Education of the Heart
Young had hoped that the long-awaited publication of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling in 1965 would be the apex of her career, bringing the recognition that she and many others felt she deserved; but this did not prove to be the case. Young returned to her project of a biography of the Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley; she had begun gathering information and memories from those who knew him by placing classified ads in the nation's newspapers as early as the late 1940s. She now hoped to finish this project of a historical biography. But as she studied Riley's friendship with Eugene V. Debs, she decided that the better story was in the life of Debs, and so she began a project that would occupy the rest of her life. The story of how this manuscript, projected by Young to be a three-volume work, was never finished is one that reveals the frailty and pride of a great writer who experienced the disappointment of the literary world's "tragic quiescence" (Gordon Holcombe, friend of Young's, in a letter dated 4 February 1969, Beinecke Library).
Young's work throughout her life is characterized by her roots in the populist politics of the Midwest and her profound understanding of human nature. Her avid reading of the tabloids, True Detective magazines, and lifelong study of the history and memorabilia surrounding James Whitcomb Riley and Eugene Victor Debs reflect an ability to intersect the commonplace with universal themes in philosophy and literature. One of her favorite quotations from Browning, "The poet must be a great reporter," is a statement that resonates with a host of writers from Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The ability to see truth and beauty in the commonplace constitutes her own understanding of high culture and her idealization of the "aristocratic approach to literature. That's the only way to convey anything in life. You don't get down and roll in the gutter. The word is real" (Weinbaum). As Young grew older, she could reminisce about the golden age in the Village, when luminaries such as Marc Chagall, Richard Wright, Leo Lerman, Allen Tate, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Van Doren, e.e. cummings, Marianne Hausser, Marian Selder, Anais Nin, and Maria Sandoz were her friends and peers. By the 1970s and eighties, popular culture was dominant and Young was the wise old woman, a reluctant figurehead for feminists, and living in the shadow of those she had inspired.
Young has not received the renown and credit due to the first woman writer of epic in Western literary history and perhaps the foremost of American women writers. Young's work has resisted the ideologies of the literary critics, and this lack of canonical reception has prevented the "unfinished business" (Weinbaum) of Young's legacy to become a part of the literary canon. Her work is not included in anthologies of American literature or in works of American women authors. However, time is on the side of those critics who have had and continue to have confidence that Young will finally be seen as one of America's foremost writers of the twentieth century. Ned O'Gorman, in his 1966 New Republic review of the second printing of Angel in the Forest, lambasts the narrowness of critics (especially Edel, Edelstein, and Maddox) who gave negative reviews of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling:
There is a pose in contemporary American letters that is austere, ascetic, biased toward sentimental severity. Rather than producing a new and flourishing literature, it is producing a paltry, doric, creative lamentation.
Marguerite Young is a writer of impeccable abundance. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is, I think, one of the Marvels of American literature, an example of the particular American genius (Melville, Faulkner, Hawthorne) of joining myth, reality, mystery and folk ritual into a tangy whole. That novel was greeted with arthritic anxiety by the critics, revealing in them a fear of plenitude, an abhorrence of mystery and an inability to cope with the limits of the creative act. (25)
The reviewers of Young's long-awaited Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs have been both restrained and generous with their praise. Steven Moore in his review celebrates Young's "magniloquent prose" and complains "not that it's too long but that it's not long enough." Because of editing constraints, almost one-half of Young's original manuscript was not included in the final published work. Young did her best to please the editors, working on the Debs book even on her deathbed.
In her very final days Young returned to writing poetry, the language of her youth. In an emotional memorial, Young's friend and student Miriam Brav describes Young's relinquishment of her lifestream, her words: "Almost to the end she wrote her poems, scrawl of red ink bleeding to the other side of the paper. Her world was alive with the visitors real and imagined who conversed with her and kept her company. Debs was finished, tomorrow they would start working on Riley, there were endless books she would write into eternity, `till the line between being of this world and not of this world blurred. Three days before she died, she told Bill she knew she was dying because she lost her zest for poetry and on November 17 the rare and wonderful being she was has walked on" (Young Archives, Beinecke Library). Perhaps Young can appreciate at a great distance the irony that her final life's work of describing the rise of labor movements against the inhuman profiteers of industry would itself become vulnerable to the callous commodification of a culture industry driven by the lust for reaping profits. The exuberance and anachronistic rhythms of Young's style continue to resist the dogmatic tenets of American naturalism, regionalism, feminism, and postmodernism. Young's evocation of the sublime (what some critics have called her utopian vision) in a culture of modernity which has eschewed the metaphysical, but now hungers for the spiritual, is an invitation to further study and appreciation.
Arvin, Newton. "The New American Writers." Harper's Bazaar March 1947: 196-97, 292-99.
Balakian, Anna. "Marguerite Young, Innovator." In Fuchs, Marguerite Young, Our Darling: Tributes and Essays. 3-5.
Byatt, A. S. "The Obsession with Amorphous Mankind: Marguerite Young's Strange Best-Seller." Encounter 27 (1966): 68-69.
--. "Women Writers in America." Harpers & Queen International July 1978: 71.
Duchene, Anne. "An Odyssey of Love." Manchester Guardian 3 June 1966: 11.
Duncan, Erika. "The Literary Life and How It's Lived: A Reminiscence with Marguerite Young." Book Forum 3 (1977): 426-35. Rpt. "Marguerite Young." Unless Soul Clap Its Hands. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.
DuPleiss, Rachel B. "For the Etruscans." The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 271-91.
Edel, Leon. "Literature's Longest Bus Ride." Life 17 September 1965: 12.
Edelstein, J. M. Rev. of Miss MacIntosh My Darling. New Republic 2 October 1965: 28.
Fuchs, Miriam, ed. Marguerite Young, Our Darling: Tributes and Essays. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.
--. "Marguerite Young's Miss MacIntosh My Darling: Liquescence as Form." In Breaking the Sequence, 188-98.
Fuchs, Miriam, and Ellen G. Friedman. "A Conversation with Marguerite Young." Review of Contemporary Fiction 9 (1989): 147-54.
--. Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1989.
Gardner, John. "An Invective against Mere Fiction." Southern Review Spring 1967: 444-67.
Lebowitz, Martin. "Work of Art." Rev. of Angel in the Forest. Nation 12 May 1945: 547.
Maddox, Melvin. Rev. of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Christian Science Monitor 16 September 1965: 7.
McEvilly, Wayne. "The Philosopher without Answers: A Look at Metaphysics and Marguerite Young." Studies in the Twentieth Century 3 (1969): 73-81.
Moore, Stephen. "Fanfare for an Uncommon Man." Washington Post Book World 24 September 1999: 9.
Neville, Susan. "Where the Landscape Moved like Waves: An Interview with Marguerite Young." Arts Indiana 17 (1995): 20-23.
Newquist, Roy. "Marguerite Young." Conversations. New York: Rand McNally, 1967.496-505.
O'Gorman, Ned. "The Dark Angel." Rev. of Angel in the Forest. New Republic 12 March 1966: 25-27.
Ruas, Charles. "Marguerite Young." Paris Review 71 (1977): 58-75. Rpt. Conversations with American Writers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985.91-127.
Shaviro, S. "Lost Chords and Interrupted Births: Marguerite Young's Exorbitant Vision." Critique 31 (1990): 213-22.
Staley, R. "No Landscape but the Soul's: A Critical Study of the Work of Marguerite Young." Ph.D. dissertation. University of Missouri--Columbia, 1993.
Strehle, Susan. "Telling Women's Time: Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. "Review of Contemporary Fiction 9 (1989): 177-82.
Swanson, Peggy. Interview with Maguerite Young. St. Louis Post Dispatch 26 October 1965: 4D.
Tate, Allen. "Literature as Knowledge." Essays of Four Decades. Chicago: Swallow Press, 1968.
Tuve, Rosemond. Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1947.
Wakeman, J., ed. World Authors, 1950-1970. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1975.
Weinbaum, Batya. Interview, undated. Young Archives: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Young, Marguerite. "Illusion Is the Key: About Our Elegantly Mental Young Writers and Their Dealings with Illusion." Vogue 15 January 1947: 84-85, 134.
--. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. 1965. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993.
--. Moderate Fable. Cornwall, NY: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1944.
--. "On Teaching." Inviting the Muses: Stories, Essays, Reviews. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994. 147-47.
--. "Our Person Our World." Inviting the Muses: Stories, Essays, Reviews. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994. 179-86.
--. "Plumbing the Irrational." Inviting the Muses: Stories, Essays, Reviews. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994. 195-97.
--. Prismatic Ground. Cornwall, NY: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1937.
--. "Ventriloquist: The Coffee Hour." Moderate Fable. Cornwall, NY: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1944.37-38.
A Marguerite Young Checklist
Prismatic Ground. Cornwall, NY: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1937.
Moderate Fable. Cornwall, NY: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1944.
Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945. Rpt. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. New York: Scribner's, 1965. Rpt. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993
Inviting the Muses: Stories, Essays, Reviews. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.
Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
CONSTANCE EICHENLAUB graduated from Duquesne University with a B.A. in English and Classical Languages and an M.S. in Education before going to the University of Washington to study Classics and Comparative Literature. Her interest in Marguerite Young began as she developed her dissertation topic, which was a study of the psychology of perception in ancient and modern theories of aesthetics. She currently teaches in the Humanities and Sciences Program at Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
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