“A Certain Solace”: Nancy K. Miller, My Brilliant Friends

millerThere’s a certain solace in writing about loss, too, of course, because it’s a way of coming to terms with mortality. As long as you are doing the writing, you are rehearsing the losing; unlike the friend, you are still there. You are the mourner, after all. But what happens when you start losing yourself?

Nancy K. Miller’s My Brilliant Friends: Our Lives In Feminism is an odd kind of book, or perhaps it just seems that way to me because it hovers in between genres I recognize—it is part friendship memoir, part introspective autobiography, with dashes of campus tell-all and dabs of philosophical reflection on grief and aging and physicality and mortality. It often felt unfinished to me, with its uneven sections and abrupt segues never quite developing, never going for a long time in any one direction. Miller is too experienced and self-conscious a writer not to be doing all of this on purpose: that I found the end result rather scattered is a reflection of my own preference for continuity and order, but I imagine she would say that continuity and order are exactly what the experiences the book is about have not provided, and so the form fits the content.

heilbrunA lot of things about My Brilliant Friends really interested me. The friendships Miller is reflecting on were with Carolyn Heilbrun, Naomi Schor, and Diane Middlebrook: all four of them are big names, renowned scholars of the generation that basically pioneered feminist literary scholarship in the American academy in the later 20th century—and thus the generation that laid the groundwork for my own education as a feminist critic. I’ve written here before about the influence of Heilbrun on my own scholarship and my ongoing interest in her life and work. Miller’s own 1981 PMLA essay “Emphasis Added: Plots and Plausibilities in Women’s Fiction” greatly influenced my thinking about many novels but especially The Mill on the Floss. Part of the fascination of the book for me, as a result, was purely anecdotal and personal: I liked getting to know more about what it was like to be these women doing this groundbreaking work, getting a glimpse behind the scenes. I found myself envying these women their drive and also marveling at their persistence. It was oddly reassuring, too, to hear about their doubts and hesitations, and their fears about whether their work was worth what it took to produce or getting the notice or credit they wanted for it—familiar academic neuroses. “I don’t want to die thinking I’ve been left out of a footnote, excluded and erased” Miller comments (harking back to Naomi’s “pain at being left out of a footnote in an essay by a historian we both knew”), “though it’s not a feeling alien to me [or to me!]; alternately, I don’t want to be relegated to a footnote, which at best is what happens to most academic work.”

middlebrookAt its heart, though, My Brilliant Friends is really about more personal things than that (again, I think Miller might reply that the personal and the academic are not really so separable, or shouldn’t be). I found I wasn’t always able to be as interested as I wanted to be in the details. The Heilbrun section was the easiest one for me to engage with, because I have a relationship of my own, however indirect, with its subject. Miller’s thoughts on her friendship with Naomi Schor (a relationship which was long, complex, and of intense interest and significance to her) left me mostly unmoved, a detached spectator to the emotional intricacies of its ebb and flow. Of her three main subjects, I knew the least about Diane Middlebrook when I started the book; for some reason she came more vividly to life for me than Schor did, through both Miller’s recollections and her own letters. She sounds wonderful: she possessed, Miller says, “the art of making her friends feel loved and appreciated.” Theirs was a friendship formed relatively late in life, and I found Miller’s reflections on the different bases on which such belated bonds are formed really thought-provoking, especially as I have spent so many years distant from the very dear friends I made in my younger years.

220px-Carolyn_Gold_HeilbrunDeath is the occasion for the book. Middlebrook died of liposarcoma, which she was diagnosed with not long after she and Miller met; Schor suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at only 58, which, Miller remarks, “while not a tragically young age, is young enough to feel untimely.” Heilbrun, of course, committed suicide: though a relatively small part of the book as a whole, the other women’s reactions to her choice are among the most thought-provoking moments, because they are tied up with their deepest convictions about autonomy, especially for women, as well as with their thoughts about living, aging, and dying. Miller quotes from an exchange about Heilbrun’s death between Middlebrook and Elaine Showalter (another accomplished and very influential feminist scholar of this generation, of course, and another whose work has played a large part in my own scholarly life—her book A Literature of Their Own was the first book of literary criticism I ever bought for myself, when I was just starting down this academic path). Middlebrook argues that the suicide was an act “taken on behalf of what she valued in herself, which was her independence,” while Miller sides with Showalter, at least emotionally, that while the death itself may have been a legitimate choice, it was regrettable that leading up to it Heilbrun had (as Showalter put it) withdrawn herself “from life, from the trivial, quotidian treats that gave pleasure, and from the tasks and obligations that give pleasure to others.” (As a side note, I looked up the rest of the Showalter-Middlebrook exchange because it is also a discussion about retirement, something that, while most likely a decade or more away for me, has begun to pose itself to me as a question: not just when, but what. My attention was especially caught by Showalter’s reference to a book that makes the case for “people reinventing themselves after 55. She believes,” Showalter says, “that it is actually necessary to make major life changes at this point, or fade away.” Hmm. That gives me just over two years!)

miller-but-enoughIt’s not just her friends’ deaths that prompt and shape Miller’s writing: early in her work on the book, she herself was diagnosed with lung cancer. “You discover that your position, secured among the living, is unstable, unsure,” she observes; “You may have imagined yourself safely on the side of the living, and then suddenly … you are on the verge, possibly, of disappearing yourself.” This increases her desire to be “the subject”—”to be in charge of the story even if it seemed I had lost control of the narrative.”

This is why the generic oddity of the book ends up making sense to me. At first there seemed to be a strange kind of self-assertion to the book, an assumption about the relevance of these very particular and very personal relationships. In themselves, they are probably not that different from many friendships, ones that have been written about (such as that between Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby) and ones that will never be written about (such as most of the ones all of us experience). But for a feminist theorist, one whose life has been bound up in articulating what (and how) women’s lives mean, and especially one like Miller who has been particularly interested in criticism as a form that intersects with autobiography, some kind of commentary on the complex dynamics of loyalty, affection, support, rivalry, and resentment that made up her most important relationships with other women seems more than reasonable—it seems necessary. Miller is especially aware that in writing this book she is claiming the last word: “What else am I doing here,” she asks at one point, “but sketching biographies of my dead friends without their permission?” But she isn’t using it to put them in their place, to settle scores or fix definitions or perfect narratives about them. My Brilliant Friends is also not a manifesto about the “right” kind of friendship: it doesn’t have and also doesn’t seek that kind of unity. It just offers up Miller’s friendships, warts and all, for readers to think about. It also invites us to think about what Miller’s diagnosis has forced her to confront: not just who we will mourn and why, but who will mourn us, and what role writing will have for us, in that particularly difficult exercise in being human.

Given to Murder: Amanda Cross, Honest Doubt


“I know you said most professors aren’t given to murder, but are English departments more given to murder than most?”

“Not as far as I know,” Kate said.

Over the years I have read all of the Kate Fansler mysteries by Amanda Cross (who was really Columbia English professor and renowned feminist critic Carolyn Heilbrun). Honest Doubt, published in 2000, is the penultimate of these; the last, Edge of Doom, came out just a year before her 2003 suicide.

I remember not liking Honest Doubt very much when I read it the first time, and rereading it over the last couple of days I could see why. At least for someone with preexisting knowledge of academia and its discontents, Honest Doubt is fairly heavy-handed, with a lot of tendentious explanations of the kind of theoretical and disciplinary infighting that was characteristic of English departments in the 1990s  and also of the territorialism, defensiveness, and self-importance that remain pretty typical. If you live it, there’s not necessarily a lot of charm in reading about it, particularly when the telling offers no new insights or revelations. Often in a mystery the solution to the individual crime points towards a solution to the broader ill it is a symptom of — Honest Doubt, however, does not offer any glimmer of a way forward except the general hope that eventually the worst, with all their passionate retrograde intensity, will die off.

That said, I did appreciate that Heilbrun devised a good formal justification for her expose of academic foibles by approaching her story, not through Kate, as usual, but through a private investigator, Woody, who consults with Kate to make up for her own ignorance of academic ways and means. Woody is an engaging narrator, and her outsider status gives Kate (and many of the other characters) an excuse for explaining how things work as well as how they go awry — with details about all things academic, from adjunct labor to tenure requirements to the hazards of prioritizing teaching over research. It also lets Heilbrun (and thus her readers) have some fun with Woody’s fish-out-of-water experiences on the college campus, and with the hyper-articulate name-dropping poetry-quoting professors she has to interview. There’s no doubt that a lot about how we carry on is kind of absurd if you step back and think about it, and though there are some ways in which Heilbrun’s cynical take seems a bit outdated, she’s not wrong that the extent to which our work often seems inconsequential to outsiders is exactly why the stakes get so high internally. She also does well capturing the ways academics’ identities get bound up in their objects of study, so that it becomes near impossible to avoid taking changes in their field personally. Kate sagely acknowledges the corrupting potential of this over-identification, especially as it converges with academic ambition: she quotes Auden saying that when Tennyson “decided to be the Victorian bard . . . he ceased to be a poet,” and propose that the victim, a curmudgeonly Tennyson expert, experienced a similar fall from grace: “He was a real academic when he began with Tennyson. Then he tried to become the academic and the Tennysonian, and ceased to be even a decent professor.”

heilbrunThe case itself is cleverly contrived but not, I think, particularly meaningful. On a completely personal and thus mostly irrelevant note, I enjoyed that it turned on the victim’s fondness for retsina: retsina is actually the first wine I ever drank, back when I was a regular in a Greek dance performing group, so for some time I didn’t realize just how distinctive (many would say, just how disgusting) it actually is. I haven’t had any in years, but now I’m tempted to see if our local wine store carries any. As I recall, it certainly goes well with the robust flavors of Greek cooking — garlic, lemon, and lamb especially. It isn’t really key to the crime, though, except that because nobody likes it but the victim, it proves a useful vehicle for delivering the fatal poison. (This is not a spoiler, as the method of the murder is one of the first things we find out!)

Otherwise, the only thing that really interested me in the novel was its gesture towards another of Heilbrun’s own recurring interests: solitude. She sees, rightly, I think, that a fondness for solitude is a particularly vexed issue for women, and in Honest Doubt she gives us a character who has managed to achieve the remarkable state of being unapologetic about her need for it. “I don’t want to offer you an extended disquisition on a woman’s life,” she tells Woody (the phrase itself reminiscent of Heilbrun’s slim but mighty book Writing A Woman’s Life)

and how it is made to seem that she really wants what she has, how she believes she has what she wants, and, if she has any secret desires, which are against all the forces of her culture, she hardly dares to face them.

Kate herself also in her own way resists the pressure to want what she’s supposed to – she is happily childless, for one thing – and in other Amanda Cross novels Heilbrun offers a number of characters who try to write their own stories according to their own needs and desires rather than haplessly following cultural norms. In Death in a Tenured Position, for instance, which is the one in the series that I know the best (I’ve assigned it several times in my ‘Women and Detective Fiction’ seminar), a happily married couple struggles with the dubious reactions of friends who realize they sleep in separate rooms — a small private decision that provokes simply because it doesn’t conform to people’s assumptions about marital togetherness. “You’d think they’d decided to be tattooed, or run guns to Cuba,” remarks one of their friends.

tenuredpositionI finished Honest Doubt thinking that, though I didn’t love it this time either, I should reread more of the series. Even 2000 was a long time ago in my own academic career, and for all that aspects of Honest Doubt seemed faintly archaic already, some of its truths hit home in a way they didn’t before. Even its title, in fact, has new resonance to me, taken as it is from Tennyson’s lines (from In Memoriam) “There lives more faith in honest doubt / Believe me, than in half the creeds.” My own doubts about a range of academic values and practices have made me seem to some, I think, like a negative force, maybe even a threat (or, and I’m not sure if this is better or worse, like an irrelevance). I’ve described myself as feeling sometimes like “a nonbeliever in church”: to me, though, my doubts have always been indications of my faith that what we do not only is valuable but can be even more so.

“Life is Never Absent”: May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

mrs-stevens-hears-the-mermaids-singingIn her 1974 introduction to Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, Carolyn Heilbrun comments on how little “organized acclamation” or “academic attention” May Sarton has received. I was curious to see if that had changed in the intervening decades, so I did a quick subject search on the MLA Bibliography and turned up 108 results since 1974 — which is within hailing distance of George Eliot’s (surprisingly modest) 117 results for the same time frame, much better than Winifred Holtby’s 36, but far from Virginia Woolf’s startling 5147. Sarton’s star has risen, then, at least a little.

I’m almost as interested in Heilbrun’s interest in Sarton as I am in Sarton herself. Heilbrun clearly found something in Sarton that mattered to her, and thus she became her reader, her critic, and her advocate. She works hard to understand and go beyond strains of conventionality in Sarton’s novels, and particularly in Sarton’s ideas about women and women’s work, and to articulate what it is, despite Sarton’s formal limitations, that gives her work such speaking force. In this introduction, for instance, Heilbrun praises Sarton’s compassion:

Louise Bogan, in a letter to Rush Limmer, calls some poems of Sarton’s “sentimental,” an easy charge, a palpable danger to any writer not barricaded against revelation. But what appears sentimental to the society Mrs. Stevens envisioned as composed of male critics is an inevitable aspect of the compassion which, in Sarton, has never cowered behind the usual defenses. As a result, life is never absent from her work as it is from, to name a master, the work of Flaubert. And even Bogan must have understood something of this. Writing of Elizabeth Bowen’s crystalline and pristine prose, never for a moment lax or sentimental, Bogan observed, “The Death of the Heart is too packed, too brilliant, for its own good. What Miss Bowen lacks is a kind of humility.”

I was struck by how these comments actually bring us back to what I was puzzling over in my last post: the relationship between a certain kind of artistic excellence and a quality of what, in Heilbrun’s terms, might be called lifelessness. Another way to think about it, building on Bogan’s word “humility,” might be that Sarton comes across as a writer trying to figure things out, whereas Flaubert or James seem so sure of themselves — an effect that of course is the result of effort, not ease. There is intellectual excitement as well as beauty in their achieved confidence, but there’s something appealing in a different way in Sarton’s awkwardness — a quality that (in my limited experience, at least) is more apparent in her fiction, as if when writing memoir some obstacle (psychological, formal, whatever) melts away and she finds her own kind of writerly certainty.

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing is actually a lot like a memoir: it’s hard not to read the story of novelist and poet Hilary Stevens reflecting — through the device of an interview — on her life’s work as a version of Sarton’s own story, as an attempt to dramatize questions she had thought a lot about regarding creativity and love. I think I might have found it more engaging if I were a creative writer myself: as it is, I have little idea what the relationship between a poet and her “muse” might be, and I care a lot more about the results! Still, I was quite interested in Hilary’s comments on poetic form:

Inspiration? It felt more like being harnessed to wild horses whom she must learn to control or be herself flung down and broken. The sonnet form with its implacable demand to clarify, to condense, to bring to fulfillment, became the means to control. Now for the first time she understood about form, what it was for, how it could teach one to discover what was really happening, and now to come to terms with the impossible, how it was not a discipline imposed from outside by the intellect, but grappled with from inner necessity as a means of probing and dealing with powerful emotions.

But what I liked best here, as in Plant Dreaming Deep or Journal of a Solitude, is Sarton’s ability (or, perhaps, her willingness) to convey the vitality of a single person: a person alone in her own space, observing it closely but also filling it with her thoughts and memories; a person deeply, persistently, without self-satisfaction, simply being herself. “You’ve given me courage,” says Jenny Hale, one of the interviewers and herself an aspiring writer, near the end of the visit: “courage to be myself, to do what I want to do!” “How did I do that, I wonder?” asks Hilary. “Maybe –” replies Jenny, “maybe because you have dared so greatly to be your self.” It doesn’t sound like much, to be your self, but it is a lot, isn’t it? And it’s hard to do, especially among other people who inevitably, often quite legitimately, make their own explicit or implicit demands on who you can be. Sarton’s fascination with being alone is tied to this sense that solitude brings (albeit at a cost) a certain freedom otherwise inaccessible — perhaps especially for women.

“The Rough Rocky Depths”: May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude

journalsolitudePlant Dreaming Deep has brought me many friends,” says May Sarton early in Journal of a Solitude, “…but I have begun to realize that, without my intention, that book gives a false view.” She worried that she had given an overly idealistic picture of her life alone in her restored New Hampshire farmhouse, which she describes in Plant Dreaming Deep with such joyous lyricism: “the anguish of my life here — its rages — is hardly mentioned.” She wrote Journal of a Solitude as a counterweight:

Now I hope to break through into the rough rocky depths, to the matrix itself. There is violence there and anger never resolved. . . . I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour, and keep alive only by imposing upon myself inexorable routines.

She kept this journal for a year and recorded both those heights and those depths.

I’m definitely among those who were won over by Plant Dreaming Deep. As I said in the comments on my post on it, though, I didn’t find it idealizing: in the post itself I wrote, “Sarton’s story here is not of uninhibited bliss: there’s guilt and anxiety, as already mentioned, but also fear, hard work, and constant demands on her self-reliance.” Still, Journal of a Solitude did seem darker and more fretful. Days may begin well but often end in tears; friends are welcome but their departure is a relief; traveling is less invigorating than exhausting: “I armed myself in patience and before I finally got back here, I needed it.” Her solitary home is a refuge from the pressures of the external world, but often provides insufficient distractions or buffers against inner turmoil:

I woke in tears this morning. I wonder whether it is possible at nearly sixty to change oneself radically. Can I learn to control resentment and hostility, the ambivalence, born somewhere far below the conscious level? If I cannot, I shall lose the person I love. There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour — put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I canot achieve it inside me.

But while there are tears and rages and fits of intense, frustrated depression, her emotional life is not one deep trough. Her garden especially brings her pleasure, and here, as in Plant Dreaming Deep, she writes about it, and the flowers it yields, with pungent vividness:

 A gray day . . . but, strangely enough, a gray day makes the bunches of daffodils in the house have a particular radiance, a kind of white light. From my bed this morning I could look through at a bunch in the big room, in that old Dutch blue-and-white drug jar, and they glowed. I went out before seven in my pajamas, because it looked like rain, and picked a sampler of twenty-five different varieties. It was worth getting up early, because the first thing I saw was a scarlet tanager a few feet away on a lilac bush–stupendous sight! There is no scarlet so vivid, no black so black.

 You almost want to finish her paragraph with “ah–bright wings!

While I didn’t really find Journal of a Solitude that different or that much darker than Plant Dreaming Deep, I did find it more episodic and fragmented, perhaps because the earlier journal tells the story of her finding, fixing, and learning to live in her New Hampshire home, while this one does not have as clear a narrative arc. It does turn out to be about a particular turning point in her life — or at least it covers what turns out to be a turning point, namely her decision to move away from the farmhouse and into a house on the Maine coast. This is a development that occurs fairly far along, however, an opportunity that seems to arise more or less out of the blue, so it’s not as if it is written as a farewell to Nelson.

Life rarely has the coherence of fiction, however, and journals especially — written, as they are, in the moment — can hardly be expected to anticipate or be structured around patterns that will emerge only in the future. That’s a luxury for memoir or biography. Simply as a record of Sarton’s experiences and responses to them, Journal of a Solitude had plenty to interest me. For instance, it’s during this year that she first meets Carolyn Heilbrun, whose essay on Sarton I refer to in my post on Plant Dreaming Deep. I enjoyed seeing the relationship from the other side. With her letter of introduction, Heilbrun sends Sarton some reprints of her articles. “I dived into one on Bloomsbury at once,” says Sarton, who “knew Virginia Woolf slightly.” I can’t resist quoting extensively from her remarks on Woolf, not least because they end up at what is still a familiar place:

What a relief to find an essay that neither sneers at nor disparages Virginia Woolf! The sheer vital energy of the Woolfs always astonishes me when I stop to consider what they accomplished on any given day. Fragile she may have been, living on the edge of psychic disturbance, but think what she managed to do nonetheless — not only the novels (every one a break-through in form), but all those essays and reviews, all the work of the Hogarth Press, not only reading mss. and editing, but, at least at the start, packing the books to go out! And besides all that, they lived such an intense social life. (When I went there for tea, they were always going out for dinner and often to a party later on.) The gaity and fun of it all, the huge sense of life!  . . .

It is painful that such genius should evoke such mean-spirited response at present. Is genius so common that we can afford to brush it aside? What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine — why is there resentment at a female-oriented art? . . . Women certainly learn a lot from books oriented towards the masculine world. Why is not the reverse also true?

 These comments resonate in the journal itself partly because Sarton struggles very hard during this period with her own status as a writer. The entry immediately following records her devastated response to “an annihilating review in the Sunday Times,” which continues to pain her in her low moments:

What a lonely business it is . . . from the long hours of uncertainty, anxiety, and terrible effort while writing such a long book, to the wild hopes (for it looked like a possible best seller, and the Digest has it for their condensed books) and the inevitable disaster at the end. I have had many good reviews and cannot really complain about that. What I have not had is the respect due what is now a considerable opus. I am way outside somewhere in the wilderness. And it has been a long time of being in the wilderness. But I would be crazy if I didn’t believe that I deserved better, and that eventually it will come out right. The alternative is suicide and I’m not about to indulge in that fantasy of revenge.

But she can be turned aside even from these dark thoughts by a glimpse of the sky: “Somehow the great clouds made the day all right, a gift of splendor as they sailed over our heads.”

Writing Carolyn Heilbrun’s Life: Susan Kress, Feminist in a Tenured Position

kressIt’s appropriate for a biography of Carolyn Heilbrun to be self-conscious about the challenges of writing about a woman’s life: Heilbrun literally wrote the book on this, in her slim but influential Writing a Woman’s Life. I’ve written here before about the influence of that little book on my own thinking and writing — and I’ve written about Heilbrun often, including as recently as my post on May Sarton’s Plant Dreaming Deep. Heilbrun always seems to be a step ahead of wherever my interests take me, or perhaps, without my really being conscious of it, she’s been leading me along — to a richer appreciation of Dorothy L. Sayers, to an active interest in Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain, and to engagement with Sarton. I should add that she also helped me see my way to my current project on Dick Francis (she’s a fan and her comments about him helped shape my pitch).

But of course Heilbrun’s real significance is not in her influence on me, however much that matters personally: as a critic, a feminist, a theorist, an academic (including President of the MLA), and a novelist, she played a substantial role in the intellectual history of the last 50 years. Susan Kress’s biography (the title of which plays on Heilbrun’s Death in a Tenured Position) explores that role, contextualizing Heilbrun’s individual efforts in an account of the history of feminism, especially academic feminism, in the second half of the 20th century. It’s a smart, thought-provoking read: not just a biography, not quite a critical biography, but rather a reading of Heilbrun’s life and works both as manifestations of the political and theoretical problems with which Heilbrun herself was most concerned: split selves, androgyny, inclusion and exclusion, sexism and feminism, and especially stories — stories about women and how to tell them, where to look for (or how to create) models, what shape to give them, how to take strength from them.

Kress shows that Writing a Woman’s Life is the culmination of Heilbrun’s work on all of these questions. It’s also, she notes, a book that embraces the risk of writing not just across disciplines but across audiences: “If this is Heilbrun’s most popular critical book, it is also her most theoretically sophisticated, although she always presents the theory in clear, accessible terms.” The rhetorical simplicity of the book is deceptive, as its influence (including on me!) shows, but that simplicity is also part of an idea of feminist discourse that isn’t satisfied with separating theory from practice. Kress quotes Cynthia Ozick on “the good citizen and the wild writer,” the separation between her essays and her fiction. Heilbrun, in contrast, expresses her feminist ideas through every form of her writing.


It strikes me as interesting and also as deliberate that Kress spends a lot more time on Heilbrun’s intellectual life than on the events of her personal life: her marriage and children are mentioned but primarily as reflections of or influences on her thinking (for instance, how “the experience of motherhood [shaped] her literary point of view”). Lionel Trilling has a much greater presence in the book than Heilbrun’s husband: he’s her unwitting mentor, the vexed inspirational antagonist who “taught [her] how to approach literature” but, to her lasting bitterness, barely acknowledged her at all. A telling early incident: Heilbrun’s first published essay was “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother,” a reassessment of critical views of Gertrude. “Delighted with her first publication,” Kress reports, “Heilbrun sent a copy to Lionel Trilling; he did respond, on a postcard, saying that he did not realize that Gertrude’s character had been in dispute.” Ouch. Kress reads much of Heilbrun’s critical work (and some of her Amanda Cross novels too) as responses to Trilling: “Toward a Recognition of Androgyny … was conceived as an argument against Trilling’s view of women and … Reinventing Womanhood reconceives and reinvents the Trillingesque self for women.”

Kress also (rightly) pays a lot of attention to Heilbrun’s overall — and equally vexed — relationship with Columbia University, where she got her Ph.D. and then taught until her resignation in 1992. It’s easy to dismiss her complaints against this prestigious institution where, after all, she held a tenured position, one of significant privilege (Kress cites several critical or outright hostile responses including that of Christina Hoff Sommers in Who Stole Feminism?). “In 1992,” Kress notes, “to any casual observer, Heilbrun seemed anything but marginal.” Much of Kress’s book, though, has helped set the terms for an alternative understanding of Heilbrun’s position as someone who “valued acceptance and inclusion, not disruption and revolution.” Yet, as she also points out, “the seeds of struggle are there from the beginning”: Heilbrun was always an outsider as much as an insider (this is one aspect of her “split selves”). And there’es plenty of evidence of a “historical pattern of Columbia’s neglect of women.” Kress suggests that by 1992, Heilbrun “had written herself into a position where she had to act, to take risks,” and departing so publicly was a way of “[taking] charge of her story” and make sure that “she would not simply disappear without a trace.”

I appreciated the time Kress took talking about Heilbrun’s teaching career. “The pedagogical impulse is strong in her,” she says, and Heilbrun’s idea that “the classroom walls are permeable” is congruent with the kinds of books she wrote and the style she wrote them in. Her interest in team-teaching is especially interesting: she seems to have been genuinely eager to learn herself, to expose herself to new challenges and approaches. She taught a course called “The Heroine’s Text” with Nancy K. Miller, for instance: “If Miller was impressed by Heilbrun’s inside-out knowledge of literature and literary figures, Heilbrun was introduced to the arcane maneuvers of high theory and to a more intense focus on women’s literary traditions.” “Teaching was a primary aspect of her professional identity,” but she also experienced “a certain discouragement”: “Teaching as a feminist is not easy.” That hasn’t really changed.

Kress’s book ends with a section called “A Rhetoric of Risk” that is, itself, riskily unstructured — or, maybe better, structured unconventionally around different talking points. Kress is wary, I think, about coming to “a conclusion,” not just because Heilbrun’s life was not over at the time of writing but because Heilbrun had taught her that self-consciousness. In her final paragraph, she quotes Heilbrun in Writing a Woman’s Life: “We women have lived too much with closure; this is the delusion of a passive life.” It’s impossible to read the biography overall and this paragraph in particular without thinking about another major step Heilbrun took in refusing “a passive life.” How different is ending your own life on your own terms from ending your career — or your books — the same way? I expect Kress saw this last decisive act as continuous, as part of Heilbrun’s ongoing and indomitable effort to be the one who would tell her own story.

“There solitude became my task”: May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

I’ve owned Plant Dreaming Deep for a couple of years at least. It’s always funny, isn’t it, when a book that has just been sitting on the shelf suddenly catches your attention, as if its moment to be read has finally arrived? I sometimes think of it as a ripening process — though whether it’s me or the book that needs to mature, I’m not always sure. I picked Plant Dreaming Deep from the shelf almost at random on Monday morning, to look at as I enjoyed a leisurely cup of tea in honor of Victoria Day — and then I stayed at the kitchen table for two hours straight until I’d read the whole thing. I fell right into it, which isn’t an experience I’ve had with a book for a while.

sartonplantPlant Dreaming Deep is one of May Sarton’s memoirs. When she was 46, Sarton bought an 18th-century farmhouse in Nelson, New Hampshire. Her parents had recently died, and part of their legacy to her was furniture – big solid pieces that traveled with them from Belgium (where they had survived the First World War), and then moved with them from place to place until they settled in their own house. Sarton, who to that point had never owned her own home, had to store the furniture in the cellar (“my mother’s desk with its many pigeonholes and secret drawers, the bahut, the long refectory table that matched it, and two eighteenth-century chests of drawers”), and she found she could not bear having these “great pieces of our lives” stashed away:

After a year they began to haunt me as if they were animals kept underground and dying of neglect. How long would they stay alive? And how long would the life in me stay alive if it did not find new roots?

And so she went on a quest — one which took the form of finding, renovating, and then living in her farmhouse, but which is really about integrating all the parts of her life and history and finally being, not just settled in her house, but at home in her self. Plant Dreaming Deep is the story of that adventure, including both its literal, external parts and its internal adjustments and revelations.

A central conceit of the book is that the house she moves into doesn’t just have character, as we often say of buildings, but is a character. It has needs and pleasures, and makes demands:

I found out very soon that the house demanded certain things of me. Because the very shape of the windows has such good proportions, because the builder cared about form, because of all I brought with me, the house demands that everywhere the eye falls it fall on order and beauty. So, for instance, I discovered in the first days that it would be necessary to keep the kitchen counter free of dirty dishes, and that means washing up after each meal; that the big room is so glorious, and anyone in the house is so apt to go to the kitchen windows to look out at the garden or into the sunset, that it would be a shame to leave it cluttered up.

She has moved there to write, which is difficult work: “the writer, at his desk alone, must create his own momentum, draw the enthusiasm up out of his own substance . . . the writer faces a daily battle with self-questioning, self-doubt, and conflict about his own work.” Music helps Sarton “through the barrier,” but also, she finds, “the house itself helps”:

From where I sit at my desk I look through the front hall, with just a glimpse of staircase and white newel post, and through the warm colors of an Oriental rug on the floor of the cosy room, to the long window at the end that frames distant trees and sky from under the porch roof where I have hung a feeder for woodpeckers and nut-hatches. This sequence pleases my eye and draws it out in a kind of geometric progression to open space.

 Thus she finds reflected in it, supported by it, the “clarity and structure” she seeks for her poetry and prose.

The book is full of things to savor, from lyrical descriptions of her garden, to her fond but unsentimental stories of her neighbors, to her meditative (but not always tranquil) reflections on community, family, aging, and writing. “I am happy when I am writing,” she tells us, but “the demons come as soon as I stop and consider what I have done, as the critic takes over from the creator”:

These demons, which might be called the demons of reputation, have two masks, and I do not know which is more distressing. There is the demon who wears the mask of rage: Why have I not been recognized? A young writer may be able to turn that demon away by taking refuge in the delusion of his genius, by thinking as a child does, “They’ll be sorry when I am dead!” For the middle-aged professional writer there is no such consolation. He has, willy-nilly, become a realist. He has to face the other demon, who wears the mask of self-doubt: Why have I failed? Where have I been self-indulgent, lazy, not honest enough? Or is my failure written into my very bones?

Though she finds some reassurance in her success with readers, still “the only real way to keep [the demons] out is to shut the world out,” which she finds easier to do in Nelson than anywhere else. But even Nelson cannot shelter her completely from the demon of guilt that demands she weigh her solitary creative life against “teaching underprivileged children” or some other more socially sanctioned set of responsibilities: “For a single woman the question is acute.” The house contains but cannot overrule her anxiety.


Her comments on aging are less fraught but no less thought-provoking:

It is only past the meridian of fifty that one can believe that the universal sentence of death applies to oneself. At twenty we are immortal; at fifty we are too caught up in life to think much about the end, but from about fifty-five on the inmost quality of life changes because of this knowledge. Time is suddenly telescoped. Life in and for itself becomes more precious than it ever could have been earlier . . . it is imperative to taste it, to savor it, every day and every hour, and that means to cut out waste, to be acutely aware of the relevant and the irrelevant. There are late joys just as there are early joys. Young, who has time to look at the light shine through a shirley poppy? The outer world is only an immense resonance for one’s own feelings. But in middle age, afternoon light marbling a white wall may take on the quality of revelation.

 Middle age is “time to lay ambition and the world aside,” she tells us, and again the house has a role to play: “Nelson has been my way of learning to do just that.”

Probably the most important thing about the house is that Sarton lives there alone. This is what Carolyn Heilbrun focuses on in her essay on Sarton’s memoirs: “what makes Plant Dreaming Deep unique and uniquely important is that Sarton has written a memoir of the possibilities of the solitary female life.” The chapter in which Sarton settles into the house — once the rebuilding is done, the furniture moved in, the mementos placed — is called “With Solitude for My Domain”: “I was, as I wished to be, alone.” But only after her first house guests depart does it seem that she realizes fully the experience she has sought and found:

It was my first experience of the transition back to solitude, the moment of loneliness, the shadowy moment before I can resume my real life here. The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a sea anemone that has been wide open to the tide, and then slowly closes up again as the tide ebbs. For alone here, I must first give up the world and all its dear, tantalizing human questions, first close myself away, and then, and only then, open to that other tide, the inner life, the life of solitude, which rises very slowly until, like the anemone, I am open to receive whatever it may bring.

I think it was when I realized that the book was less about a house than about being alone in a house that I lost myself to it. I am fascinated by solitude. Often I enjoy it; sometimes I crave it — but I’m also well aware that, as Sarton says, “at any moment solitude may put on the face of loneliness.” I’ve only lived alone (that is, truly in my own quarters, without roommates or family) for two of my 46 years, in the basement suite I rented as an undergraduate. I am chatty and enjoy being in company both intimate and lively, but I also feel a certain exhilaration when I’m alone. It’s not just being freed for a while of the endless negotiations that life with other people inevitably entails, though that’s certainly part of it; it’s also as if some kind of psychological space opens up  — if that makes sense. I hardly know how to put it, but I’m sure I’m not the only bookish person with a preference for quiet and difficulty separating herself emotionally from whatever other lives are going on around her (in fact, I’m related to at least one other person just like that!). People sometimes interpret a desire to have some “alone time” as rejection of them, but I find it can be crucially restorative and can send you back to them with renewed pleasure.

Really living alone, though, rather than just spending some time alone, takes courage, as well as inner resources. Sarton’s story here is not of uninhibited bliss: there’s guilt and anxiety, as already mentioned, but also fear, hard work, and constant demands on her self-reliance. Heilbrun notes that a few years after Plant Dreaming Deep was published, Sarton moved again. Heilbrun sees the move to Nelson, the “first, hard assertion of selfhood,” as a necessary step for Sarton in generating a narrative of her own life: “What Sarton did was to write a new plot for women, a new script.” Just knowing such a life is possible, knowing what it might feel like or mean, she suggests, is something other women needed. I’ll never live alone in a farmhouse in rural New Hampshire — I wouldn’t want to! But maybe at this point in my own life it was important for me to imagine the life that Sarton lived in hers. You can be alone even without solitude, after all. We all need to find the resources we need to be at home with ourselves wherever we are. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t stop reading until I’d seen how it turned out.

“Women Catch Courage”: Carolyn Heilbrun, The Last Gift of Time

lastgiftThe greatest oddity of one’s sixties is that, if one dances for joy, one always supposes it is for the last time. Yet this supposition provides the rarest and most exquisite flavor to one’s later years. The piercing sense of “last time” adds intensity, while the possibility of “again” is never quite effaced.

It’s impossible not to be very aware, reading The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty, that Carolyn Heilbrun committted suicide in 2003–six years, that is, after the book’s publication. As she tells us in the Preface, she had “long ago settled upon the determination to end [her] life at seventy,” but arriving at that age, which once seemed “far off, indeed unlikely ever to occur,” she surprised herself by choosing to live past it. Life, for her, became a daily decision, an empowering one because it meant she remained in control of the narrative of her own life. As someone who finds the opacity and finality of death profoundly disturbing, I am fascinated by her clarity and resolve about it.

The Last Gift of Time is a series of personal essays reflecting on Heilbrun’s experience of aging as well as on issues that took on new relevance or new dimensions as she aged. Perhaps because they are quite personal, to me they were not all equally substantial or valuable. I didn’t much like the chapter “Living with Men,” for instance, which seemed to me to overgeneralize carelessly. But I loved “The Small House,” in which Heilbrun writes about her desire for solitude, in pursuit of which she eventually buys a small house in the country. It turns out she does not love being alone quite the way she expected and she and her husband end up, paradoxically, finding “solitude together.” But she is astute about the temptation, the fantasy, of solitude, “a temptation so beguiling that it carries with it the guilt of adultery, and the promise of consummation.” Being alone and being lonely are not necessarily the same conditions–indeed, my own experience is that it is sometimes possible to feel much more lonely when not alone. I imagine many women, particularly ones with young families, feel both longing for “quality time” with themselves and guilt about that desire; men who want to get away from it all have (as Heilbrun points out) more cultural support and precedent for it. I wonder how far Heilbrun is right that the pleasure of solitude depends on its being both voluntary and temporary.

Another chapter I enjoyed is the one on e-mail, which is also really about balancing aloneness and togetherness. E-mail “reaches into our privacy without invading it,” as she remarks, and she rightly notes too that it enables new relationships to develop as well as sustaining old ones that might otherwise erode with distance. She’s writing when this technology was still relatively new for non-techies. I got my own first email account in 1990, when I moved away from Vancouver to go to Cornell, and I remember how it sustained me (as, indeed, it still does) to open my mailbox and find messages from home. As Heilbrun notes, there’s an intimacy to email that is different (not better, just different) from both face-to-face and phone conversations: “with e-mail, one moves into it without notice, and may find there messages that are not, strangely enough, appropriate for the telephone.”  Also, because they are written and not in ‘real time,’ email messages can allow us not just extra reflection but also “the practice of wit.” I imagine Heilbrun would have been even more exhilirated by blogging–and might even have been an enthusiastic Facebooker.

220px-Carolyn_Gold_HeilbrunTwo other, more literary, chapters also stood out for me. One, “Unmet Friends,” talks in general about the way writers can come, in our minds, to be our close friends, though we have ‘met’ them only through their words on the page. “Women catch courage,” Heilbrun proposes, “from the women whose lives and writings they read, and women call the bearer of that courage ‘friend.'” Heilbrun’s main example is Maxine Kumin, who, she says, “exists as a close friend only in my mind.” She talks in engaging detail about how she got to ‘know’ Kumin and what their ‘friendship’ has meant to her over the years. “Kumin,” she explains, “spanned both the refuted and the desired aspects of my life.” But she also mentions Dorothy L. Sayers (“her life and her writings spoke to me of a more expansive life, an existence devoted to aims riskier than I had previously allowed myself”)–and Virginia Woolf, who, though “a writer I have studied, taught, and written about with admiration, has never been a friend: she is entirely too much of a genius for that.” There’s also a separate chapter on a writer who became Heilbrun’s real-life friend, May Sarton. Heilbrun mentions her reading of Sarton’s 1968 memoir, Plant Dreaming Deep, “a work that quite literally caught me in its spell,” as “the beginning of our friendship;” that comment, plus her account of Sarton’s eccentric personality and vexed writing career, made me glad I had coincidentally picked up Plant Dreaming Deep at the same time I bought The Last Gift of Time.

The final chapter in The Last Gift of Time is “On Mortality.” It’s here, of course, that the knowledge of her suicide lingers most hauntingly over her words, but the chapter is neither morbid nor sentimental–she considers her death in the context, especially, of her children and grandchildren, and admits that she faces her own mortality with equanimity but cannot bear the thought of her husband’s: “Perhaps death, the nearness of it, transforms long marriages. . . . I have noticed that marriages that have endured over many decades seem to have earned, as reward, a mutual mellowness.” She has learned to stop expecting or demanding change; she quotes George Balanchine’s instruction, “Just dance the steps,” and suggests that similarly she has come to believe that in marriage too, one should worry less about larger meaning and significance and “just dance the steps.” The chapter ends with a poem that was new to me and that will linger with me, Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise.” An excerpt:

I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

For Heilbrun, that day was October 9, 2003.

Writing and Life: Influential Critics

heilbrunSome time ago one of my most thoughtful readers (hi, Tom!) suggested I write about “a teacher/scholar whose work has had a significant influence on you.” I really liked this idea because, as I said in the resulting post, “It is impossible to overestimate the importance the right teacher at the right time can have on a student, though it may be impossible to foresee what will turn out to be ‘right’ ahead of time.” The teachers I wrote on included one from elementary school, one from high school, and one in particular among several who were important to my university years. At the close of the post, though, it occurred to me that the original question “may have been meant to elicit more about scholarly and critical, rather than personal, influences.” “I’m still thinking,” I concluded, “about that dimension of influence. No question, I have learned a lot from many teachers and scholars. But is that the same as having been ‘influenced’ by them? And have any of them actually inspired, moved, or motivated me?”

I’ve been thinking about those questions again recently because as I have tried to figure out what is most important to me to express as a critic (now that my long apprenticeship is over and I’m answerable primarily to myself for the future direction of my research and writing) I have identified two critics whose work indeed does inspire, move, and motivate me. More specifically, I have noticed that two critical books in particular repeatedly help me see and articulate what matters to me, or interests or challenges me, about many of the books I read, teach, and write about. One of these is Wayne Booth’s companionably plump and erudite The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, and the other is Carolyn Heilbrun’s slim but mighty Writing a Woman’s Life. Oddly, both were originally published in 1988. That means both were quite current when I started my PhD program at Cornell in 1990. But neither work–indeed, neither author, that I recall–was assigned, or even mentioned, in any course I took.

Booth’s book I discovered for myself when, soon after I earned tenure, I allowed myself to reconsider the focus of my scholarship, hoping to capture in my research the same excitement and urgency I felt in my teaching. I was dubious that I would ever feel much exhiliration pursuing increasingly esoteric projects about obscure women historians; I had done what I wanted to in that area with my thesis (which became my book). What I wanted to talk about was how and why novels actually mattered in our lives. I felt (feel!) that they do, profoundly, and I thought (think!) that one important facet of their significance is ethical. But I didn’t know how to talk about this in a rich way that would also be sensitive to fiction’s many other significant facets, including form, aesthetics, and history. The Company We Keep not only talks about exactly this, but it does so in Booth’s wonderfully engaging, unpretentious, open-minded way. It was criticism that talked about how we live in the world, and about literature as part of that living rather than something abstractly theoretical. Booth’s work was part of a wider debate about the ethics of fiction that included, among many others, Richard Posner, Martha Nussbaum, and, eventually, me: I published two academic essays as a result of this turn in my research (here’s one, in PDF; here’s the teaser for the other). The ideas it generated infused my teaching as well, particularly in a course I designed on ‘close reading’ that I will offer again, for the first time in 5 years, next fall. More recently, I wrote an essay on Gone with the Wind that attempted a “Boothian” reading of that problematic novel: an ethical reading that avoids (or so I hope) simplistic finger-pointing while accepting morality as a key aspect of literary evaluation. (Judging by the comments, not everyone was convinced! But I hope, in the spirit of what Booth calls ” coduction” [my favorite neologism!], some readers found themselves thinking about Gone with the Wind differently, even if they didn’t agree with me in all the details of my argument.) Clearly, Booth counts for me as an influential critic; I only wish I had read him earlier and been in a program where he and his interests had been prominent instead of–well, instead of much of what I was assigned.

I have a longer relationship with Heilbrun’s little book, which was given to me by my mother soon after its publication, with a lovely inscription noting that she had found it “interesting and provocative” and hoped we would talk about it “over tea.” It seems appropriate that Writing a Woman’s Life should have come to me in this way, as a gesture of shared interests and an invitation to intimacy and support, because that kind of female community and the strength it generates is one of Heilbrun’s major themes. Written relatively late in Heilbrun’s long career, its brevity is deceptive as it distills the accumulated insights of three decades of academic experience and feminist scholarship (for Heilbrun, often in a vexed relationship with each other). It’s wise, articulate, and insistent. I drew on it in formulating the central argument of my thesis and book, quoting from its first chapter, which is nominally on George Sand but is also on the difficulties and the vital necessity of finding appropriate ways to shape narratives of women’s lives. “Lives do not serve as models,” Heilbrun writes;

only stories do that. And it is a hard thing to make up stories to live by. We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or changed, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.

She moves immediately on to an example from George Eliot, to the Alcharisi in Daniel Deronda, who vehemently “protests women’s storylessness.” She writes in the book about women who lived lives that chafed against the stories they knew, and about biographies of these women that did, or, more often, did not find a better story to tell their lives in. She writes about anger and courage, about love and compromise, about age and beauty, about Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf and herself. Writing a Woman’s Life is as much polemic (graceful and witty as it is) as theory, and it makes big claims supported by allusion and invocation rather than narrow claims defended by bulwarks of footnotes and metacriticism. It’s not, exactly, scholarly, but then it wasn’t exactly meant to be, because it’s a book that’s about living life as much as it is about writing it. “I risk a great danger,” Heilbrun remarks at the outset: “that I shall bore the theorists and fail to engage the rest, thus losing both audiences.” But Writing a Woman’s Life is never boring because it has all the urgency I wanted criticism to have. Though I didn’t immediately see it as a relevant book when I was reconsidering my own critical path, it’s urgent because it too is ethical criticism, in that broad sense of ethos that drives Booth’s arguments as well, and it’s urgent because it thinks it matters what and how we read: it takes fiction seriously because it sees reading as part of living, as shaping how we think and thus how we live.

I’ve found myself returning again and again to Heilbrun’s ideas about the limits of narrative forms and the problems of conceptualizing new stories (especially love stories) when talking with my students about many different novels, from The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to The Mill on the Floss to Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi. Like Booth’s book, Heilbrun’s has been recurrently useful not so much in the details but in the lens it offers for bringing key problems into focus–or, to try a different metaphor, for the way it illuminates the problems I want to talk about. Reviewing a new biography of George Eliot that frustrated and disappointed me, I turned to Heilbrun for help in explaining why. I just turned to her work again while teaching Death in a Tenured Position, which was written by Heilbrun under her pseudonym, Amanda Cross. (In another odd coincidence, Death in a Tenured Position is dedicated to May Sarton, whose novel The Small Room I just read and wrote up for the Slaves of Golconda.) Looking at it again, and also reading with great interest and pleasure the essays in her collection Hamlet’s Mother and Other Women, I found that after all these years, she more than most critics speaks in a voice I want to listen to. She’s infectiously passionate about the books and writers and issues she addresses, and she explains them sympathetically: her approach is inspiring, even, again, if we might differ on the details. Her  own story, also, with its brave ending, is moving in its effortful integrity. She was a controversial figure, but that in itself is motivating. As she says towards the end of Writing a Woman’s Life, those of us who are very privileged,

not only academics in tenured positions, … but more broadly those with some assured place and pattern in their lives, with some financial security, are in danger of choosing to stay right where we are, to undertake each day’s routine, and to listen to our arteries hardening.

“I do not believe,” she concludes, “that death should be allowed to find us seated comfortably in our tenured positions.” There, she is surely correct.