Monday, July 12, 2010

Marguerite Young and Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

This review-essay appeared in the Washington Post Book World in 1994. A friend recently asked online whether I had ever read Marguerite Young, so let me post this as a reply.

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Miss MacIntosh, My Darling
by Marguerite Young
Dalkey Archive, 1198 pp. 2 vols, $30

Angel in the Forest
A Fair Tale of Two Utopias
by Marguerite Young
Dalkey Archive, 331 pp. $13.95

Marguerite Young, Our Darling
Tributes and Essays

Edited by Miriam Fuchs
Dalkey Archive, 143 pp. $24.95

Inviting the Muses
Stories, Essays, Reviews

by Marguerite Young
Dalkey Archive, 246 pp. $21.95

by Gregory Feeley

The reception of Marguerite Young's enormous Miss MacIntosh, My Darling since its publication in 1965 has followed a pattern established by earlier American modernist novels of great scale and ambition: an interesting and mixed reception with meager sales, followed by long years of relative neglect (and often silence from the author) while the novel retains the ardor of a small but loyal audience who urge its virtues, decry its neglect, publish essays, and eventually see the book returned to print. William Gaddis's The Recognitions, Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, and (to a degree) Cynthia Ozick's Trust have experienced similar fortunes, but Miss MacIntosh, My Darling stands out: at three quarter of a million words, not only is it by far the longest, it is also the barest of incident, the most demanding of its readers' patience, and the slowest (to date) to win approval from critics or academia.

Withal, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling has had its partisans, along with several paperback incarnations over the past three decades, and has now found a patron in the Dalkey Archive Press, that indefatigable champion of avant garde literature. Readers who missed the last incarnation of Young's novel (a two-volume trade paperback from Harcourt Brace Jovanovich back in the late seventies) can now acquire the text in a handsome format (the pages photo-reproduced from the original Scribner's edition), which moreover allows one to follow the page citations in the essays being produced by the small but dedicated Marguerite Young industry. In publishing three books by or about Young this year (with a collection of her early poems soon to follow), the Dalkey Archive has radically enlarged the available material on Young, whose magnum opus has until now had to be approached solely on its own solitary terms, like a steep spur rising from the sea.

Despite the real interest of Young's 1944 Angel in the Forest (a study of the two utopian communities that successively settled New Harmony, Indiana in the early nineteenth century), and the three-volume biography of Eugene Debs, upon which Young has labored for most of the past thirty years and which will reportedly appear next year, Young remains very much a one-book author, and no one who hates Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (as Peter Prescott notably hated it in a prominent Newsweek review) should expect to find something more to his liking among Young's smaller works. Angel in the Forest may deserve a place among the important books on American social history, but the festschrift Marguerite Young, Our Darling and the occasional collection Inviting the Muses are at most minor satellites to Young's single and massive novel, whose readers have rarely had any but the strongest opinions.

Eighteen years in the writing, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is an intensely phantasmagorical work, dream-like, repetitive, resolute in declining to distinguish between reality and fantasy. Its very plot resists summary: Vera Cartwheel, a young or perhaps middle-aged woman, is riding a bus to Iowa in search for Miss MacIntosh, her beloved childhood nursemaid, who drowned herself when she was fourteen. Whether Vera doubts Miss MacIntosh's death (her body was never found) or is simply seeking to trace the dead woman's origins is never divulged: although virtually the entire novel takes place with Vera sitting on the near-empty bus, obsessively recalling Miss MacIntosh and her own childhood memories, we do not learn anything of her plans, nor what her adult life has been, nor what year (or decade) it is. All we have are her swirling memories, and these can be unreliable as well.

Vera's mother lives in a great mansion on the New England coast, where she dreams away the years in an opium haze, holding conversations with dead friends, historical figures, her chandelier, and her drug bottle. In addition to her mother and Miss MacIntosh, Vera's recollections grow steadily to encompass a large cast of grotesques: Mr. Spitzer, her mother's devoted but spurned lawyer, whose dead brother seems occasionally to exchange identities with him; Cousin Hannah, a world-traveller, balloonist, mountain-climber and suffragist who claimed never to have wanted a husband but proved, after her death, to have left behind forty locked trunks, each containing a different wedding gown; a graveyard seducer with a noose's scars on his neck; Esther Longtree, a cross-eyed waitress who murdered her baby and is now perpetually pregnant; and lots more.

This sounds like a narrative cornucopia, but the reader who imagines that these colorful figures will be brought to life in the manner, say, of those in Allan Gurganus's Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All will be in for a shock. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is virtually bereft of dialogue and outward incident: the long paragraphs recount everything at the same shimmery remove, like objects glimpsed underwater, dissolving any narrative elements into a vast sea of prose.

"Mr. Spitzer, still in a mournful mood, for someone was always dying, had carried this alpenhorn embossed with mother-of-pearl, heavy as a tree branch, along the foggy beach when Cousin Hannah was no more, when doubtless she had climbed her last mountain, the hailstones like buring cinders dashing in her face, and he had blown a few wandering notes like some old ghost calling to his lost love as he had heard, above the ringing waves ringing like silver bells, the ringing, tolling of the silver sheep's bell which had once rung to the lost sheep, hearing also, as he did so, the cries of the grey loons in the grey fog and the bah, bahing of waves breaking upon this shore of stone and fog as thick as fleece streaking with the golden rays of the moonlight, waves coming to pasture like sheep with moony eyes beamed upon the waves of darkness. . . ." (529)

Even a few hundred thousand words of this goes a long way, and I found the novel almost unbearable when I recently tried to read it straight through. Setting oneself a pace (even a leisurely one, such as most of the summer) proved intolerable -- the book's remorselessness and utter lack of counterpoint drive one to frenzies of impatience -- while twenty years earlier, I had no difficulty dipping into it at random and reading so long as my interest held. (Peter Prescott, who justified his trashing of the book by proclaiming that he had labored over it for two days, here earns a modicum of sympathy: few books are less suited to a reviewer's schedule.) Although Young's advocates insist on the book's "fugal" nature and careful construction, Anne Tyler probably speaks for more readers when she recalls the pleasure of browsing its pages at odd moments, a practice she gives the protagonist of The Accidental Tourist.

Although the structure of the novel may be eccentric--Vera's bus ride lasts until page 948, and her sojourn in a (characteristically unnamed) Indiana town is almost devoid of incident until the book's closing pages--the novel is plainly something other than the inchoate mass that an unsympathetic perusal suggests. Early chapters were published in anthologies and magazines throughout the 1950s, and to compare them with the finished text is to see how radically Young reworked her prose during the long years of composition: a 1954 fragment from New World Writing, which seemed very much of a piece, ends up scattered and recast through various early chapters, with few sentences persisting unaltered. Whatever logic governs the novel's structure, it is the product of long and careful labor.

One problem facing readers of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is they are trained to read prose differently than Marguerite Young cares to be read. We prefer our symbols anchored by literal referents: the sea in Joyce may be the eternal thalassa, but it is also the Irish Sea, whose particulars Joyce knows well. For Young, however, the sea is everything: birth, death, eternity, mutability--she uses the word "oceanic" constantly, and "foam" and "tides" almost as much--and while we know that the sea here is the Atlantic Ocean, for the Cartwheels' seaside mansion is in New England, we don't know where in New England, and what few details Young lets drop convinces me that she doesn't, either. From Joyce to Nabokov (both in his novels and his essays) and Gaddis, we have learned to look for particularity in the elements of narrative; and the free-floating symbology of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling's strikes modern readers as overblown, just as the melodramatic acting style of the nineteenth century grates on twentieth-century audiences, who cannot but take their own era's style as a benchmark. It may take another generation before readers can look at this novel without finding its style of artifice a bewildering irritant.

Whether most readers will try, of course, is another question. Whatever its virtues, Young's massive novel is open to the objection that Leavis made about Clarissa: that the demand it makes on the reader's time is both proportionally and absolutely so immense as to be prohibitive. If one does not consider Ivy Compton-Burnett a major novelist one may concede that she is at least a very good one; but Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is either a great novel or it is nothing.

The contributors to Marguerite Young, Our Darling are in no doubt on this question. Expanded from a 1989 special issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, this volume is the work of true believers. In addition to a section on "Tributes and Recollections" and another of "Essays," the book offers a gratifyingly full chronology, which sometimes tells us more than its compilers may have intended. Most of the writers who have lauded Marguerite Young over the decades--William Goyen, Mark Van Doren, Anais Nin, Kurt Vonnegut, their words of praise quoted on each Dalkey dustjacket--prove to have been old friends, while many of the younger writers who contribute full essays turn out, in the tributes they have also written, to be longtime protegees. It would be unfair but unsurprising for the cynical reader to exclaim, "This isn't an oeuvre, it's a cult."

Although these pieces show Marguerite Young scholarship to be still in its early stages--its contributors defensive about their subject's exclusion from "the canon," and readier to advocate than to discuss--anyone who has read Miss MacIntosh, My Darling will enjoy the company. Miriam Fuchs argues interestingly for Young's use of "liquescence as form," while Susan Strehle proposes that the novel evokes a "women's time" in which teleology, the yoking of cause to effect, and linear progression are supplanted by "the time of female subjectivity." And Marguerite Young herself--still living in Greenwich village, where she moved from the Midwest in 1945--is evoked with clarity and affection by a surprising number of writers, including Stanley Kunitz, Anne Tyler, and Amy Clampitt.

Other critical issues remain unexamined. Many of the novel's mythopoeic elements--Mr. Spritzer's shared identity with a radically dissimilar brother, as well as Vera's mother's dreamflights through history and the eternally pregnant Esther Longtree--suggest affinities with Finnegans Wake that I would have happily seen explored. Young, however, firmly denies any influence by Joyce; and her respectful scholars leave the point alone. It may be that Marguerite Young criticism will only come into its own once the imposing figure of Ms. Young is no longer in evidence.

In the meantime, her monumental Debs biography--2400 pages, according to a recent interview--will appear next year from Alfred A. Knopf. Such a massive project, coming on the heels of a revival of Young's previous work, will doubtless attract much attention, and prompt attempts by reviewers to link the socialist's biography with the phantasmagorical cult novel and the utopian study before it. Even with the ground cleared by the Fuchs volume, they will have their hands full.

6 Comments:

Blogger Scraps said...

Did her Massive Eugene Debs biography get published?

8:18 PM  
Blogger Gregory Feeley said...

Scraps! How are you?

Yes, her Debs book was published, though at 600-some pages it was much shorter than expected. I read somewhere that she was unhappy with what Knopf did to it.

The book got a bewildered long review from John Leonard in The Nation, and I remember wondering whether he would have liked the full-tilt-boogie version more or less.

8:23 PM  
Blogger Scraps said...

I'm okay. My writing is improving, though my speaking is less so. The stroke has still run my life, but now I'm getting used to it. Velma has quit her job, and we are moving in about six months.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Scraps said...

To Seattle.

3:28 PM  
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8:43 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

I"m pleased Miss MacIntosh got your attention. Shortly after I moved to New York City in the '80s I saw a quarter page magazine paragraph and picture of Marguerite Young and note that she teaches adults at the New School. She was a good and thoughtful teacher, and was pleased that Kurt Vonnegut acknowledged her in a memory of his own time as her student. After formal class we'd reconvene at a bar on Sheridan Square.

2:56 PM  

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