Life As It Affected Mary MacLane
by CATHERINE ENGH
Nineteen-year-old Mary MacLane from Butte, Montana tells her reader almost immediately in her 1902 “portrayal” that she is a descendant, through her father, of highland Scottish ancestors. No one else in her family, according to her, has the true temperament of the clan — a reality that makes MacLane’s identity as a migrant even more important to her.
MacLane describes Butte as a town populated by immigrants from all over Europe. She bears witness to the awful stench of sulphur, a pollutant produced in the copper mines that drew laborers and industrialists like her father to Montana.
MacLane was an oddball — she did not find refuge from the instability that was a part of her immigrant’s experience in the time-honored traditions of church and family. In I Await the Devil’s Coming, her belief in her “young-woman’s body” is posed as a response to the alienation that she feels in a barren Midwestern landscape, in a world atomized by advances in technology and industry.
I Await the Devil’s Coming dramatizes MacLane’s oh-so-human struggle to find words to express her feelings. After one, long, seventeen-line projection of a feeling that “will seethe and roar; it will plunge and whirl; it will leap and shriek in convulsion,” MacLane writes shortly: “the words of the English language are futile.”
Troubled by the limits of language, MacLane continuously brings her conversation back to the more solid ground of her young-woman’s body. She elaborates the function of different parts of that body in full health. She is particularly fond of her liver and she takes pains to remind her reader that her intelligence resides in her internal organs: “Through my stomach — my stomach, do you hear — my soul seems to feel the infinite.”
MacLane’s inability to take for granted those values of home and family that structured social roles in Butte put her at odds with many of the people in her small town — for much of I Await the Devil’s Coming, MacLane writes as a cynical social critic or as a misunderstood teen. But MacLane’s conviction that people can be understood as moving and feeling bodies facilitates a few really wonderful human encounters. She sympathizes with two old women — one is an ostracized old crone and the other is an Italian peddler. The peddler-woman carries a heavy valise with assorted wares so that when she walks, “every muscle in her body seemed to be pressed into the service.” The woman stops to rest at MacLane’s back door and they talk men: she learns that the peddler-woman left her husband in Italy years ago.
Their dialogue is all misdirection. The peddler-woman tells MacLane that she will have her own man soon. MacLane says that she’d like to have a man if he was a sweet one. The peddler woman then states that she’d be better off peddling — men, she asserts, are “sweet t’ree days, then — holy God! He never work, he git-a drunk, he make-a rough-house, he raise hell.” As MacLane watches the peddler-woman walk away, she is moved to tears by what she calls the humor of the situation: “It came to me with sudden force that the earth is only the earth, but that it is touched here and there brilliantly with divine fingers.”
These two women, both defined by their displacement and their want of sustained human attachments, share a brief understanding. Their conversation gets at nothing substantial but there is a profound — and temporary — affinity between the two women that is beyond words. This is the sort of sociality that MacLane captures and, for all her desperate loneliness, the encounter makes MacLane’s philosophy seem pretty appealing.
MacLane’s reliance on the solidity of the body and its feelings over the obscurity of words is her way of resolving the chaos — her belief system forecloses certain ties that bind but it also creates a space for spontaneously felt human connections. She makes some really fine points about the body and the self but her philosophy is not what has stirred the public conversation — few reviewers even mention the fact that MacLane has a philosophy. The MacLane that provoked intense reactions in 1902 and again in 2013 after the reprint of her book is the MacLane who claims that she is a genius almost as frequently as she claims that she is in love with the devil.
Michelle Dean wrote last year that the question of MacLane’s sincerity is irrelevant because I Await the Devil’s Coming is a performance, it is a pose, it is a representation of a persona. The entire book is steeped in irony — MacLane does not actually believe that she is a genius. It is true: to read MacLane is to encounter her running ironic tone.
Elizabeth Bishop uses irony and repetition in her 1979 poem "One Art" to achieve effects comparable to those MacLane aims for in I Await the Devil’s Coming. In four of the poem’s six stanzas, Bishop writes: “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” By the end of the poem, her reader gets the sense that the art of losing is very hard to master, that Bishop is either underestimating the difficulty of her problem or saying other than what she means.
A phrase that calls up the language of infomercials, eHow articles and “for Dummies” books is the formal backbone of Bishop’s Sestina. But the affirmation that is false from the get-go makes possible the parts of the poem where Bishop confronts memory traces of progressively more significant losses. Bishop moves from “lost door keys” to the loss of “you (the joking voice, the gesture I love).” Empty self-assurances emerge as necessary to a writing process that tries to recuperate a loss that is raw and, consequently, hard to incorporate into consciousness.
Bishop takes loss as a problem that is difficult to represent in One Art; MacLane takes feminine genius as such. A woman’s genius was a thing that MacLane would have been regarded by many as mad to lay claim to in 1902 and a thing that she would have been hard pressed to define.
Historically, of course, geniuses have been overwhelmingly male. In the 1970s, the American literary critics Susan Gubar and Sandra Gilbert influentially argued that women writers are debilitated by something even more fundamental to their productivity than the “anxiety of influence” that Harold Bloom attributes to male writers: aspiring women writers struggle with an “anxiety of authorship” for want of an established tradition of women’s writing.
MacLane invokes a few women writers who she admires — Charlotte Bronte, George Elliott, Marie Bashkertsaff and Olive Schreiner. Otherwise, though, she writes about male artists. By asserting her claim to genius over and over again, MacLane problematizes this very claim — her intimations to singularity are, like Bishop’s sense of personal loss, illusive, hard to write. I get the sense that MacLane has to reassure herself of her genius in order to move in the direction of a fresh and original voice; that this is a particularly feminine necessity. MacLane’s often-tiring claims to exceptionality make sense as expressions of a conundrum and they make possible some really in-between material — i.e. MacLane’s marvelous encounters with outcast women. Her obsession with the devil, though, is a little harder to take seriously.
The devil comes in where MacLane’s aestheticism devolves into decadence, her sensualism into depravity. In one diary entry, MacLane describes the “the art of eating,” or, her bodies’ digestion of a green olive. Through her exalted prose, a mundane olive becomes a “perfect thing” — a pure, self-enclosed whole that she reveres for the intense sensations that it brings her. The entire world is subsumed by her mind’s idea of one delicious green olive that is valuable because it exists, beautifully, in a plane unto itself. MacLane’s sympathy with the aesthete’s maxim “art for art’s sake” could not be more obvious.
But the problem is that the olive will only get MacLane so far. She thinks that the sensitivity that brings her a temporary, intense pleasure from activities like eating an olive also attunes her to the “heavy, heavy weight of life” — a burden that the Devil will relieve her of. The Devil is MacLane’s fantasy of a violent and erotic, soul-crushing force. Whenever MacLane starts talking about the Devil, I get the sense that she is a little debauched, that the Devil is doing for her what all those romance novels did for Emma Bovary: the promise of escape is making her more lonely, unhappy and miserable. At best, MacLane’s Devil obsession comes across as an irreverent ruse — a species of media hoax intended to provoke.
After the publication of her portrayal, MacLane’s avowed paganism and her brash public persona raised the question — “Is she for real?” Readers who questioned MacLane’s authenticity missed the more interesting question raised by her book: why is a mass audience willing to buy into some illusions while others are off limits? If MacLane’s love for the devil is false, is her persona any more constructed than the eternal image of feminine purity circulated in and by Christian America?
The success of MacLane’s portrayal earned her a ticket out of Butte to Chicago and then to New York City. In debt after a period of decadent living and little literary success, she returned to Butte at age thirty-two, to the “sand and barrenness,” the “weary, weary nothingness,” where she had first found her voice.
In 1917, she wrote I, Mary MacLane — a literary self-performance similar in concept to I Await the Devil’s Coming. She directed a film called Men Who Have Made Love to Me in which she stars as a vampire. But MacLane’s moment had passed. After her final period of productivity, she dropped off the map—she wrote nothing more of note and she died at the age of forty-eight in a Chicago hotel.
It was in the solitude and loneliness of Butte where Mary MacLane could write. But the unhappiness that was essential to MacLane’s creativity was also a curse. She knew the darker dimensions of her personality well and she was frank in I Await the Devil’s Coming about the weary and bitter turn of character that she saw in herself. MacLane hoped at 19 that her adolescent unrest would pass and that her mental powers would be roused, her genius ignited. Then, she thought, she “should no longer exhaust much of my energy in grinding, grinding within.” Unhappily, grinding introspection is what MacLane did best, what produced her most worthwhile ideas and what kept her from becoming a greater writer.
Catherine Engh is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. This is her first appearance in these pages.
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