The Riddle of the Labyrinth:
The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code
By Margalit Fox
New York: HarperCollins, 2013, 363 pp., $27.99, hardcover
Reviewed by Susanna J. Sturgis
How can something once so well-known become so lost? Margalit Fox’s engrossing The Riddle of the Labyrinth asks the question twice: once about the writing on tablets unearthed in Knossos, Crete, in the first years of the twentieth century; and again about the crucial contribution of Alice Elizabeth Kober, a classics professor at Brooklyn College, to their eventual decipherment decades later. Kober published her key papers on Linear B, as the script on the tablets was called, in the mid-to-late 1940s. Within a very few years her work had disappeared almost completely from the record.
This won’t surprise any student of women’s history—but The Riddle of the Labyrinth reminds us of how quickly languages and even whole civilizations can vanish from sight. The scribes of Knossos wrote in Linear B around 1450 BCE. The script could still be read and written 250 years later, around 1200 BCE, but by the time of Homer, around 800 BCE, not only Linear B but writing in general was unknown. Homer’s epics were originally sung or told, not written down. By Homer’s time, Minoan Crete was as mythical as the Olympian gods, and by the time Plato (427–347 BCE) walked the streets of Athens, Homer was somewhat legendary himself.
When the British archaeologist Arthur Evans found the tablets in the ruined palace at Knossos, history was turned on its head. As Margalit Fox writes: “Nineteenth-century scholars dismissed Homer’s accounts of Bronze Age life as pure poetic fancy. The glories of Classical Greece, the strong implication went, had sprung full blown from the long cultural vacuum that preceded them.” Thanks to his father, a dedicated amateur geologist and archaeologist, Evans had grown up around tangible evidence that history didn’t work like that. Now he had proof that a previously unknown civilization had preceded Classical Greece by a thousand years—and evidence that writing had existed in Europe many centuries before scholars thought it had.
But now what? Evans called the script of the tablets Linear B, not because it was written on a line, though it was, but because it was written with linear strokes, as opposed to, say, cuneiform, whose strokes are wedge-shaped. For would-be decipherers, it posed the most daunting challenge of all: an unknown language written in an unknown script. No Rosetta Stone appeared, pairing the unknown script and unknown language with a known language in a known script. Linear B came with only two clues: a place, Crete; and an approximate time, the middle of the fifteenth century BCE.
The riddle of Linear B fascinated scholars and amateurs alike, but more than fifty years elapsed before it was solved. The Riddle of the Labyrinth comprises three parts, one for each of the three individuals most crucial to the decipherment: Arthur Evans himself, “The Digger”; Alice Kober, “The Detective”; and Michael Ventris, “The Architect,” who finally cracked the code. Evans and Ventris were acclaimed for their work and are remembered today. Kober is not, although, Fox argues persuasively, “without Kober’s work, Linear B would never have been unraveled as soon as it was, if ever.”
Fox, who trained as a linguist and clearly would have made a wonderful teacher if she hadn’t become a journalist, does a masterful job of introducing the nonlinguistically trained reader to the categories and concepts essential to decipherment. She walks us through Kober’s analysis step by step until we grasp just how crucial her contribution was. She indeed laid the foundation on which Michael Ventris stood.
Evans, through careful observation, persistence, and deep knowledge of the ancient Aegean, had determined that Knossos was the place to dig. He financed the excavation out of his own deep pockets. Of course he wanted to decipher the inscriptions himself, but his efforts were hampered both by his unsystematic methods and by his romantic assumption that the Bronze Age Cretans—Minoans, as Evans thought of them—were “superior to [the mainland Greeks] in every conceivable way,” and thus that the language of Linear B could have nothing to do with Greek. By force of personality and his position as keeper (curator) of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, Evans was a powerhouse in early-twentieth-century archaeology. “The few scholars who dared to question him met with swift and certain professional punishment, and for the first half of the twentieth century, the idea of Minoan supremacy was almost universally accepted,” explains Fox. He controlled access to the inscriptions, which hindered others’ efforts to crack the code. And unlike Kober and Ventris, he lived a very long life, dying in 1941, at the age of ninety.
Kober and Evans, though linked by their devotion to Linear B, could not have been more different. The “upstart American daughter of working-class immigrants,” as Fox describes her, Kober supported herself as a professor of classics at Brooklyn College. Her course load was heavy, her academic obligations considerable, and her pay poor. She worked on the inscriptions in whatever spare time she had. As far as Fox can determine from her private papers, Kober never had a romantic partner or even any social life to speak of. Those papers weren’t made publicly available until recently, and thus she has been too easily pigeon-holed, and dismissed, as a stereotypical spinster schoolteacher.
But Kober had the scholarly discipline and integrity that others working on Linear B lacked. Like Evans, they all had their pet theories about how the script worked, what language it wrote, and what sound each character represented. (It was recognized early on that Linear B is primarily a syllabary, in which most symbols represent a consonant and a vowel. It also includes dozens of logograms, signs that stand for particular objects.) Their assumptions led them astray. “To Kober,” Fox writes,
While Evans sat on the inscriptions, Kober “systematically acquire[d] every needed weapon in the decipherer’s arsenal. She learned a spate of ancient languages and scripts . . . She studied archaeology, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics.” This preparation took more than a decade. Once enough inscriptions were available to study, about 200, the real work began: creating an analog database of Linear B that recorded how each symbol appeared in relation to other symbols, where it occurred in a word, and much more. Kober filled forty notebooks before World War II paper shortages made notebooks unavailable. Then “she began hand-cutting two-by-three-inch ‘index cards’ from any spare paper she could find: church circulars, the backs of greeting cards, examination-book covers, checkout slips from the college library, and whatever else she could lay her hands on,” writes Fox. Eventually she produced 180,000 index cards, which she filed in cigarette cartons.
Fox writes, “What [Evans, Kober, and Ventris] shared was a ferocious intelligence, a nearly photographic memory for the strange Cretan symbols, and a single-mindedness of purpose that could barely be distinguished from obsession.” What Kober lacked, which the men had in abundance, was time. Research positions were scarce for women in those days. Thanks to a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1946 – 1947, Kober was able to take a sabbatical from teaching and devote herself to Linear B full-time for a year. During that year, she spent six weeks at Oxford copying inscriptions, which were now in the charge of Sir John Linton Myres, Evans’s successor as “the grand old man of Aegean prehistory” and, unfortunately, the person charged with preparing four decades’ worth of Evans’s unruly notes for publication. The inscriptions had to be copied by hand: office photocopiers hadn’t been invented. As Fox notes, “[T]he techniques available to scholars in the mid-twentieth century had not advanced much beyond those employed by the Cretan scribes three thousand years before.”
From this point on, one setback after another further constricted the already limited time Kober had available for her work: the nonrenewal of her fellowship; the unexpected death of John Franklin Daniel, a respected colleague on whom her future plans had depended; and Myres’s liberal use of her secretarial services in preparing Evans’s volume for publication. Here Kober was in a bind: the task ate up much of her precious free time, but Myres’s transcriptions were often inaccurate and his understanding of Linear B inadequate. Kober couldn’t bear the thought of the book going to press with preventable errors. And Evans was still controlling the inscriptions from beyond the grave: no one else could publish them until his Scripta Minoa II came out. Thus she had a strong incentive for hastening the process however she could.
Readers of Riddle of the Labyrinth, knowing what Alice Kober did not—that she was going to die in May 1950, at the age of 43—may be justifiably tempted to rail at fate for being so cruel.
So it was Michael Ventris, not Alice Kober, who finally deciphered Linear B, two years and two months after Kober’s death. From Fox’s account, he seems to have been the best suited by training and temperament to build on Kober’s sturdy foundation. In addition, he had resources that Kober did not: access to additional Linear B inscriptions that had been found on the Greek mainland, and, perhaps most important, time, bought by his success in the stock market. Until now, writes Fox, “the process by which Ventris cracked the code has remained something of a black box all these years.” By documenting Kober’s work, Fox has illuminated the inside of that box.
Fox poses the inevitable, unanswerable question: Could Alice Kober have made the breakthrough had she lived a little longer?
As a freelance editor, Susanna J. Sturgis thinks that translating English into English is quite challenging enough. She keeps a blog about year-round Martha’s Vineyard at http://squattersspeakeasy.com and is the author of the novel The Mud of the Place (2008).
The Lives of Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins
By Julia M. Allen
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013, 364 pp., $95.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Bettina Aptheker
Julia M. Allen has written a wonderful, engaging, queerly emblematic joint biography of Grace Hutchins (1885 – 1969) and Anna Rochester (1880 – 1966), life partners who devoted themselves to the Communist Party and a seemingly infinite number of allied causes, especially those that advanced the equality of women. Fearless throughout the McCarthyite repression of the 1950s, under relentless FBI surveillance until their deaths, stubborn, energetic, upright, ever reserved in the manner of their upper-class, WASP-y origins, they created a way out of no way for themselves as “whole persons,” writes Allen, with commitment and passion for each other, for women, for peace, and for social justice. It is an inspiring story told in meticulous, methodical, chronological detail. (And for those concerned about the hardcover price, it is due out in paperback soon).
Anna Rochester was, according to Allen, a precocious child with exceptional language abilities and a propensity for gender transgression, preferring outdoor adventures to a more traditional female domesticity. She was raised in the comfort of an upper-middle-class family, her father having made his fortune as the treasurer of the Western Union Telegraph Company. For her fifteenth birthday, he bought her a baby grand piano, and from that time forward she studied music assiduously, preparing herself to become a concert pianist—a career she eventually gave up to pursue life as a revolutionary. She excelled in school, and entered Bryn Mawr College with a handsome scholarship. However, when her father died suddenly a year into her studies, she returned home to care for her increasingly invalided mother; she never completed her college education. The lack of formal education, however, did not impede the intellectual and political life she pursued nor her facility with languages. She knew German and French well enough, for example, to translate and publish several Marxist texts. She spent a good part of her life as a journalist, while also writing major works in economics and history.
Rochester began her public life, however, in the Christian Socialist movement, deeply influenced by the Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch; she became a devoted member of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross (SCHC). Later she was greatly influenced by the work of the British, openly gay, socialist philosopher Edward Carpenter. Her conversion to more radical Communist politics came in the late 1920s.
Grace Hutchins was born into the Boston upper crust. Tracing her ancestry to the early European colonists, she was eligible for membership in Daughters of the American Revolution, an irony lost on no one after she was arrested in 1927 for protesting the execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists who had been falsely accused of murder on the flimsiest of evidence. Her father, Edward Hutchins, was socially and politically conservative, a member of a leading Boston law firm, who served on the boards of directors of various banks and as a vestryman at Trinity Episcopal Church. Her mother, as befitted her social status, served on the boards of prominent local charities. When Hutchins was a teen, she and her family took a yearlong trip around the world, spending time in Japan, China, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Egypt, and the Philippines. Typically upper-class, racist, and privileged attitudes informed her visions of these countries and their peoples—ideas she later transformed, as she took on more radical and ultimately Communist politics. Hutchins, like Rochester, attended Bryn Mawr College, but she lacked Rochester’s intellectual and academic gifts. A New Woman, she instead reveled in sports, becoming a champion in basketball, baseball, and field hockey.
In the tradition of her family, she pursued religious and Bible studies. Although, according to Allen, she went through a brief crisis of religious doubt, she returned to church with fervor, joining the YWCA. Embracing missionary work, she embarked for China early in 1912. She arrived in March and sailed up the Yangtse River to Hankow, arriving in Wuchang in April; she was assigned to St. Hilda’s School of Girls. The Chinese Revolution had only recently overthrown the Qing Dynasty and established the Republic of China. Among other things, the revolution encouraged the education of girls, placing Hutchins on the cutting edge of revolutionary purpose. Returning to the United States, Hutchins embarked upon the first of many fundraising campaigns, this one to support the Women’s Committee in Wuchang. Through it, she learned skills that served her well in later years, as she raised money for more radical causes. Moving to New York in mid-decade, Hutchins continued her religious studies and soon found her way to SCHC and Anna Rochester. It was December 1920. Rochester was forty and Hutchins 35.
In the beginning of their relationship, Hutchins and Rochester were both struggling with mixed feelings about church, social justice, and feminist community. In June 1921, they went off together to write a book about how to bring the ideals of Jesus into modern-day life. Jesus Christ and the World Today was published in 1922. Although ostensibly still within the fold of the SCHC and Christian ethics, Rochester had used among her sources a study of the 1919 steel strike by William Z. Forster—who was soon to become a charter member of the US Workers [Communist] Party. The book was highly praised within the limited circles in which they traveled, and their time together in authorship blossomed into a deep and abiding love for which they truly had no adequate language. They called themselves “partners.”
Together they sought to realize the principles upon which their book had been based. They joined progressive groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), the Intercollegiate Socialist Society, and the League for Industrial Democracy. For many years, both worked for the fellowship, with Rochester writing for and editing the group’s magazine, The World Tomorrow, and Hutchins raising the money to keep it going. In 1926, still working for the fellowship, they traveled together very nearly around the world. The trip was a turning point in their evolving political consciousness. Carrying letters of introduction to leading figures in Europe and beyond, they met with Mahatma Gandhi and the poet Rabindranath Tagore in India, and the novelist and socialist leader Martin Anderson Nexo in Denmark. They witnessed a successful strike by 30,000 cigar makers in the Philippines, and reported on rising Nazi violence in Germany and the ineffective response of the Weimar government. Rochester’s account of anti-Semitism was especially perceptive.
Arriving in the fledgling Soviet Union, they saw socialism in practice for the first time and decided to join the US Communist Party (the CP). They did so in 1927 and soon after resigned their affiliations with the FOR and the socialist movement. They remained loyal to the party to the end of their lives, through its dramatic successes, as well as its failures and defeats.
Working with Robert Dunn and Alexander Trachtenberg, two leading Party members from the late 1920s onward, Rochester and Hutchins founded Labor Research Associates, to provide statistical data and analysis vital to the trade union movement. They began their more scholarly careers with International Publishers, the publishing house of the Communist Party, which Trachtenberg ran for more than thirty years. Rochester published extraordinary and original works including Rulers of America (1936); Why Farmers Are Poor (1940); The Populist Movement in the United States (1943); Capitalism and Progress (1945); many pamphlets; and dozens of articles. Hutchins focused her research on women workers, publishing Women Who Work in 1932. No such analysis had ever been done before. The labor organizer Lucy Parsons wrote to Hutchins, “The women whose lives you so graphically depict are the mothers of future generations. It is terrible to contemplate, but such is life under capitalism.”
Hutchins and Rochester remained in the Communist Party even after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Party in 1956, when Nikita Khrushchev detailed Stalin’s horrific crimes. They remained steadfast through years of FBI surveillance and harassment, and Hutchins’s encounter with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Her ordeal was particularly difficult between 1948 and 1950, before and after the indictment of Alger Hiss, a lawyer and employee of the State Department during the New Deal, who was accused of being a secret member of the Communist Party and a Soviet spy. He was eventually tried and convicted of perjury. Whittaker Chambers, the chief government witness against Hiss, was married to Esther Shemitz, whom Hutchins had known for years: her drawings had illustrated Hutchins’s book Women Who Work. Chambers attacked Hutchins publicly, and Hutchins then denounced him as “a homosexual,” in an effort to discredit him. It was, Allen explains, a terrible lapse in judgment, which cost Hutchins dearly. Chambers was protected by the government, which was paying him to lie, and he published a best-selling book, Witness (1952), in which he went after Hutchins hammer and tongs. In an exceptionally strong literary analysis of Chambers’s writing, Allen uncovers his veiled but vicious homophobic assaults on Hutchins, in which he equates “lesbian and death,” and to which she could not, of course, respond in the context of the 1950s.
Rochester and Hutchins were embedded in a women’s community they themselves deliberately created and sustained. Their lifelong friends, even when their politics differed, included the couples Ruth Erickson and Eleanor Stevenson, Vida Dutton Scudder and Florence Converse, Molly Dewson and Polly Porter, Sophie Brown and Marion Rollins; as well as Alice Dillingham, Rayna Prohme, Helen Bryan, and Maud Malone. Most of these women, who remained life-long friends with Rochester and Hutchins, were Christian Socialists and remained largely in that political theater. Virtually all had public, professional careers. Erickson and Stevenson were members of the Socialist Party and moved decidedly to the left in the 1950s, joining, for example, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the CP-led Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born. In addition to their Christian and Socialist commitments, Brown and Rollins were ardent feminists and supporters of the Equal Rights Amendment in it earliest campaigns; while Molly Dewson and Polly Porter were deeply involved in New Deal politics and close to Eleanor Roosevelt. Dillingham, a Bryn Mawr alumna, was a lawyer and maintained a life-long friendship with Hutchins; and Rayna Prohme was a prominent journalist, whom Hutchins had met in China. Prohme was renowned for her reportage during and immediately after the Chinese Revolution of 1925 – 1927 and was a close friend of Dorothy Day and her circle. Maud Malone was a flaming suffragist, lesbian, and CP member.
Above all, as Allen movingly writes, Hutchins and Rochester had each other. For example, following a series of painful surgeries Hutchins wrote to Rochester,
My Beloved Darling Partner, You’ve done everything for me that I need. Nothing could have been more perfect in every way than the love and devotion you give me. I don’t deserve it at all & I know it. But oh how I count upon it, & depend on it, & live for it –literally . . . I’d go through a 4th operation to live for you, my Partner.
On August 19, 1944, Hutchins’s 59th birthday, Allen writes, Rochester created “another of her trademark poems”:
Warm heart, clear brain
Straight back, no pain.
Friend to many, loved by all,
Spring of youth,
Tho‘ nearly sixty, heeds the call
In 1938, the CP declared homosexuality incompatible with party membership—a position it did not change until the early 1990s. As a result, Rochester and Hutchins never openly acknowledged their love for each other within party circles. Still, it was not exactly a secret; it was rather a practice of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Upon Rochester’s death in 1966, obituaries appeared in the Worker and the New York Times, both noting that she had “no survivors.” Likewise, when Hutchins died in 1969, there was no mention of her long and intimate partnership with Rochester. To its shame, the Communist Party held no public memorials. Allen’s monumental study, worthy of these two extraordinary lives, goes a long way toward correcting the historical record.
Bettina Aptheker is professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her most recent book is a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became A Feminist Rebel (2006). Her current research is for a book with the working title, “Queer and Communist: Re-Visioning Left and LGBT Politics.”
The Dinner Party:
Judy Chicago and the Power of Popular Feminism, 1970-2000
By Jane Gerhard
Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013, 331 pp., $24.95, paperback
Reviewed by Elissa Auther
Jane Gerhard’s new book, The Dinner Party, is an important, overdue contribution to the history of feminism. Flipping on its head the conventional historical approach, wherein feminism is seen as an exclusively social or political movement, and feminist cultural forms are regarded as, at best, curious sideshows, Gerhard finds value and meaning in feminist cultural expressions. Using art and popular culture as her primary documents, she examines the history of 1970s feminism and the ways ordinary women have encountered and embraced feminist thought outside of activism.
As its title makes clear, Gerhard’s study takes as its focus the artist Judy Chicago’s monumental work The Dinner Party, examining it in detail from its inception in 1974 to its exhibition in 1979, its subsequent national tour from 1979 – 1989, and finally its permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. For those readers unfamiliar with the work, The Dinner Party is a large rectangular table set with 39 embroidered runners and oversized place settings—including individualized sculpted and painted porcelain plates—each one dedicated to a woman from prehistory to the twentieth century. Although there exists a sizable body of scholarly, art-historical writing about The Dinner Party—so much so that it’s hard to believe anything new can be added to the cultural record—this is the first comprehensive study to be written by a historian of 1970s feminism. By disciplinary training, Gerhard embraces a concept of value different from that operating in the art world. Gerhard values The Dinner Party for what it can tell us about US second-wave feminist theory—in particular, about the translation of theories into popular, cultural commodities. In contrast to art-historical or art-critical approaches mired (as they have been) in making aesthetic judgments about The Dinner Party, Gerhard offers insightful new perspectives on, among other topics, how Chicago practiced feminism as an educator and an artist within The Dinner Party studio, the Dinner Party’s place in popular culture, and its overwhelmingly positive reception by mainstream female audiences.
In her introduction, Gerhard walks the reader through the unfortunate split of 1970s feminism into radical and cultural camps. The radicals equated feminism with political activism and defined creative expression as apolitical, feel-good therapeutics. To me this split has always looked like a sad carbon copy of the dismissal by the New Left, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, of the diverse forms of creative expression produced by the counterculture—which conveniently allowed its leaders to narrow what counted as politics or social activism to street-level protest or actions meant to structurally transform the state. The consequences of this political vs. cultural split were similar for US feminism: it dismissed personal transformation as apolitical or irrelevant to social change and was generally thoughtless (or perhaps uncomfortable?) about the role of creative expression in social movements.
Reconsidering this split and its consequences deflates the power of the term “cultural” to marginalize producers and consumers of feminist art works such as The Dinner Party and enables Gerhard to uncover the theory behind their conception. In the first part of the book, Gerhard documents in great detail Chicago’s invention of a feminist pedagogy, which she implemented in 1971 at California State Fresno, in women-only studio courses eventually called the Feminist Art Program (FAP). The FAP was subsequently transplanted to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where Chicago co-directed it with the artist Miriam Schapiro. The FAP revolved around the reformation of female students’ negative self-images, crippling gender socialization, and poor work habits, all of which Chicago identified as obstacles to professional success. Through making art as a group, consciousness-raising, and confrontation, students learned to “feel comfortable about being aggressive, ambitious, and directed.” The experience for both Chicago and her students was physically exhausting and emotionally draining—but they never viewed it as outside of politics or merely therapeutic, as such activities would later be regarded.
As in the FAP, the volunteers working on The Dinner Party attended consciousness-raising sessions and weekly, studio-wide rap sessions about working on the project, among other topics ranging from the everyday to the extraordinary. Gerhard examines the challenges, pitfalls, and successes of all this group processing in The Dinner Party studio, which became a site both for the production of a one-of-a-kind work of art and for personal growth and transformation. Juxtaposing the experience of the volunteers (hundreds of whom worked on the piece) against the demands of Chicago and her administrative team that the volunteers take ownership of their work in the studio—from sweeping the floor to embroidering runners—Gerhard tells a great behind-the-scenes story about The Dinner Party’screation. It’s easy to see how the rumors of Chicago’s exploitation of volunteers emerged from this context, given the pressures all parties exerted on themselves and each other to complete The Dinner Party. But through analysis of volunteer testimonials, Gerhard documents a high level of satisfaction, gratitude, and pride.
In addition to comprehensively documenting the details of The Dinner Party’s conception and production, Gerhard charts its relationship to 1970s feminist theory through detailed analyses of the design decisions behind the piece’s tiled Heritage Floor, embroidered runners, ceramic sculptures, and overall staging. Whereas the organization of the studio represented a radical vision of feminist sisterhood, the Heritage Floor and the place settings, each of which commemorates a famous woman, invoke a liberal historical tradition that revolves around personal achievement. This vision—although it unintentionally replicated hierarchies of social power and was blind to a burgeoning feminist multiculturalism—was consistent with Chicago’s earnest desire to replace what she saw as women’s sense of themselves as insignificant with a sense of themselves as “accomplished, creative, and emboldened actors on the world stage.” The embroidered runners, Gerhard writes, embraced and elevated “women’s culture,” with the embroidery acting as both a “symbol and practice” of the work and effort required to achieve.
The vulva-like iconography of the ceramic plates, which is the piece’s most controversial element, originates in Chicago’s ongoing interest in th representation of the female body—a subject that remains a fraught area of discussion among feminists both within and outside of the art world. She embraces women’s difference from men as positive, a basis for equality in a male-centered world. Gerhard contextualizes the biological essentialism of this iconography within cultural feminism’s rehabilitation of the dignity and power of the female body.
Finally, Gerhard connects the otherworldly staging of The Dinner Party, with its dramatic lighting and floating table, to Chicago’s engagement with alternative spirituality and the quest for female images of the divine.
The second half of the book focuses on the debut of The Dinner Party in 1979 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, its subsequent national tour, the extreme gap in its reception between professional and popular audiences, and its bumpy ride to a permanent home at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007. Gerhard unpacks the complex of issues that shaped the reception and meaning of The Dinner Party, including the changing direction of feminist theory away from an embrace of sexual difference and toward an understanding of gender, race, and sexuality as constructed through ideology; the art world’s anxiety over the encroachment of popular culture into the realm of high art; and the growing market for feminist cultural commodities.
As anyone who has read the voluminous reviews of The Dinner Party that appeared in national art magazines, local newspapers, and feminist publications knows, the piece was highly polarizing once it was unveiled to the public. The exhibit was a blockbuster: it attracted sell-out crowds and turned a profit from its debut in 1979 to its final installation in 1989—but in the art world, popular success could damage an artist’s reputation. Instead of bringing Chicago the prestige and recognition she sought, she found herself accused of producing “kitsch," a term made famous by the formidable modernist critic Clement Greenberg and applied to any work of art perceived as commercial, didactic, appealing to popular taste, garish, amateur in technique, or propagandistic. On top of that, Chicago had used embroidery and ceramics, media associated with “low culture,” not “high art.”
Academic feminists were repelled by the work’s biological essentialism, in the form of Chicago’s core iconography, her appeal to a universal sisterhood and shared female experience, and her embrace of the goddess—in short, the aspects of the piece that expressed seventies-style feminist theories. Coincident with the integration of feminist theory into the academy in the 1980s, these had been supplanted by new, psychoanalytic- and poststructuralist-inspired notions of gender and an emphasis on intersectional identities.
Thus, despite the piece’s popularity with the public, after its opening in San Francisco, the tour Chicago had organized for it fell apart, as museum cancellations trickled in one after the other. Not to be deterred, she and her team devised an alternative tour with the help of women’s groups around the country, and Gerhard’s documentation of this fascinating chapter in The Dinner Party’s story shows how its circulation outside the art world was a key factor in its evolution as a feminist icon.
Uncovered by Gerhard, a treasure trove of unpublished commentary written by female viewers, in the forms of letters to Chicago and entries in the public comment books available throughout the tour, demonstrates that not everyone viewed Chicago as a sellout or The Dinner Party as a failed work. These writers were overwhelmingly appreciative of it. Gerhard argues that this split between The Dinner Party’s professional and popular audiences demonstrates “the fact that no single group could either guarantee nor deny its success”—much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of Chicago’s art-world and feminist detractors. Chicago’s fans took pleasure in the very aspects of the piece viewed with suspicion by the art critics and academics, including Chicago’s projection of a sisterhood or community of women, the idea that women’s history mattered, the desire to rehabilitate representations of the female body, and Chicago’s own struggle to create and exhibit the piece. Female viewers expressed in very emotional terms their pride in Chicago and The Dinner Party, and their delight in feeling themselves included in the work’s imagined community.
Feminists in the art world such as Lucy Lippard and Amelia Jones, among others, have noted that the negative responses of art critics and scholars to The Dinner Party are informed, in part, by a discomfort with the very pleasures the work’s fans describe. Feeling moved, identifying with Chicago, or seeing oneself reflected in art were, and continue to be, considered naïve, sentimental, and outside the purview of the high-art experience. Gerhard adds that far from being a throwaway response, the emotional identification of female viewers with the work is a “way for a woman without a feminist context to imagine a way into a feminist identity.” Because of the power of The Dinner Party to create this experience, Gerhard claims a dual status for it as both a work of art and of feminist popular culture.
The Dinner Party's last opening in the US was in 1981, although it toured internationally through 1989. Three developments during the 1990s converged to revive its visibility, eventually leading to its permanent installation at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The first was an attack by right-wing members of Congress on The Dinner Party as what they called 3-D ceramic pornography, during a debacle set off by Chicago’s donation of The Dinner Party to the University of the District of Columbia. She rescinded her gift.
The second was its installation as part of the exceptionally innovative 1996 exhibition Sexual Politics, curated by Amelia Jones for the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Jones initiated a sophisticated renarrativization of the place of The Dinner Party that contextualized its iconography of the female body and its affirmative political intentions within 1970s feminist artistic practice. Sadly, she was ridiculed for this by critics and scholars wedded to the view that feminist art and theory from that period were “failures.” Since then, however, a lot has changed in the art world, and I was pleased to see Jones recognized as a catalyst in Gerhard’s history.
The third element Gerhard discusses is the growth, during the 1980s and 1990s, of feminist-themed popular culture, such as Jane Wagner’s stage show for Lily Tomlin, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1986); the film adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple (1982); and the HBO production of The Vagina Monologues (1998). Like The Dinner Party, these kinds of cultural works “offered audiences a way into the insights of feminism apart from activism or gender theory.” They share a focus on sexual difference as positive, rather than as “something to be dismantled,” writes Gerhard; it is as much a “source of pleasure and fun as much as vulnerability and pain.” The expanded framing of The Dinner Party as both a work of art and a pop-culture commodity should invite professional feminists to more thoughtfully consider the value of various forms of creative expression.
Elissa Auther is associate professor of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, and codirector of the public program Feminism & Co.: Art, Sex, Politics at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin
By Jill Lepore
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 480 pp., $27.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Martha Saxton
Jill Lepore has contributed more than her share of insightful books, articles, and essays on early America over the last fifteen years or so; Book of Ages is, to me, the most compelling yet. Her original, affectionate, and smart biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister makes Jane Franklin Mecom’s arduous life and diligent pursuit of understanding a delight to read and hard to forget.
Lepore took her title from Jane’s record of her children’s births and deaths, the precious list of a poor woman’s life work. Of her eleven children, three died as infants, and the rest lived on into adulthood. But, as Jane wrote to her brother, Ben, “I had had some children that seemed to be doing well till they were taken off by Death.” She wrote her Book of Ages in an ornate script that she never employed elsewhere; its meaning to her may have been grandly expansive or as literal as the few names and numbers listed inside. Like so much about Jane, we will never know, although Lepore offers fascinating and plausible possibilities.
Throughout Book of Ages, Lepore poses the question of what is lost to historians who study women and the poor. The early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown thought that history was for men’s lives, while the intimacy of fiction was for women’s. But perhaps, Brown wrote, by looking at household papers one could discern and record the lives of the unhistoried. “If it were possible to read the[ir] histories …,” he wrote, “we should then perceive the unjust prodigality of our sympathy.” Lepore asks what it would mean to write a history “not only from what had been saved but also from what had been lost? …Maybe if a reader could sit in a chair and hold in her hands a Book of Ages, she might…find, in sympathy, justice.” Lepore has given Jane Franklin both.
As Laurel Thatcher Ulrich did in A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on her Diary (1991), Lepore uses credible deduction and supplies rich context to fill in the large gaps in Jane’s life story. And like Virginia Woolf, who wrote about Shakespeare’s imaginary sister in A Room of One’s Own (1929), Lepore has laid next to each other the richly fulfilled life of an accomplished man and the impoverished and burdened life of his sister, whose talent we can only occasionally glimpse. But unlike Shakespeare’s tragic (theoretical) sister, Jane managed to savor the pleasures of her restless mind.
The intellectual and emotional power of this book derives from the contrasts and collaborations of brother and sister. They were one another’s favorite siblings. Jane adored Ben’s brilliance, rejoiced over his elevation to Enlightenment hero, and was grateful for his intermittent help on her long and difficult journey to her own personal enlightenment. He sent her books; they corresponded. She apologized for her writing, while studying his letters for every possible meaning. “Every hint of yrs appeared as two [too] much consequence to me to be neglected or forgotten. I all ways knew Everything you said had a meaning,” she wrote. They differed sometimes. When Jane remembered her childhood as harmonious, Ben remembered that Jane was sometimes “miffy,” or easily irritated. Jane later marveled that Ben was able to conquer his own temper. She agreed that she was “none of the patientist.”
Lepore writes that children growing up in the Franklin family, with its Puritan roots, learned early that “the first lesson in childhood was submission. The second was reading.” By the ends of their lives, as Lepore hilariously puts it, these inveterate readers both thought of themselves as books. Ben planned to live on in his autobiography; Jane looked forward to being resurrected as a “New and more Beautifull Edition.” But both moralists and ministers agreed that submission weighed far more heavily than reading as a necessary acquisition for girls. Ben’s acquaintance with submission seems to have been marginal, and Jane’s, although deeper, was incomplete. She married at fifteen to the 22-year-old ne’er do well, Edward Mecom, by whom she may or may not have been pregnant. “She was Pamela undone,” says Lepore, referring to the eighteenth-century novel by Samuel Richardson about a virtuous woman pursued by a would-be seducer. Although Pamela resists her seducer, Jane succumbed. (“He had a beautiful singing voice,” she comments. “Maybe she loved the sound of him.”) But the marriage did not get her out of the family home or remove her from the demands of submission, which for a wife were lifelong. If Jane suffered from “miffiness,” the traditional limits on poor girls surely made it worse.
When Ben was 21, he sent Jane a copy of the Ladies Library, a compendium—really a hodge podge—of moralists’ advice, essays, and poetry, meant to help women behave better and elevate their minds from household affairs and gossip. Designed to educate women—but not too much—it still cracked open the door to the world of knowledge. Jane hungered to learn. “I Read as much as I Dare,” she wrote to Ben, in the midst of her chores.
Jane passed her youth and middle age giving birth, nursing, and tending to her growing children. Lepore evokes these otherwise irrecoverable scenes with wonderfully fleshy writing:
…the little legs and little arms, the little hands, clutched round her neck, the softness. Her days were of toil, swaddling and nursing the baby, washing and dressing the boys, scrubbing everyone’s faces, answering everyone’s cries, feeding everyone’s hunger, cleaning everyone’s waste. She taught her children to read. She made sure they learned to write better than she did.
The author’s taut declaratives and runs of gerunds invite us into Jane’s days and inside her skin. Lepore persuades us that, even with all her cares and unceasing work, Jane was a loving mother. When toddlers fall, Jane wrote, they need you “to Kiss the Dear Lip after it was Hurt” for “the little Rogues all want to be Pityed by them that Loves them.”
Edward Mecom’s inability to make a living, and his increasing instability and drunkenness, induced Jane to take in boarders, adding to her daily burdens. As some of her children evinced signs of madness, she reluctantly turned to her brother and other family members for help. In the midst of these financial and emotional crises, and her ceaseless maternity, Jane also cared for her (and Ben’s aging) parents, looking after her beloved, frail and unwell mother for many years after Josiah Franklin’s death. She named her last child, a girl born in August 1751, Abiah, after her mother. The following April little Abiah died in a smallpox outbreak. Two weeks later, her namesake, Jane’s mother, died. As Lepore says, Jane “loved her; she fed her; she washed her. And then she buried her.” In her Book of Ages, Jane wrote:
Father Franklin Died Jany 17, 1744
my Dear mother Died May 8 1752
Ben wrote to Jane thanking her for caring for their parents, explaining, by the way, why she had to do it by herself: “Our distance made it impracticable for us to attend her, but you have supplied all.” He did pay for a marble monument to the parents, which read, in part:
By constant Labour, and honest Industry…Maintained a large Family Comfortably, And brought up thirteen Children and seven Grand-children reputably. From this instance Reader, Be encourage to Diligence in thy Calling. And distrust not Providence. … Their youngest Son, In filial Regard to their memory, Places this Stone.
Lepore notes that this stone, in fact, memorializes the “filial” Benjamin Franklin. She also explains that the seven grandchildren he refers to in the inscription were Jane’s seven oldest children, who were born before her father died—not all of Abiah and Josiah’s numerous grandchildren. Lepore does not belabor this point or, indeed, most of her points, but I will. By singling out Jane’s first seven children, Ben credits not only his father over Edward Mecom as the responsible parent, but also his father over Jane as bringing up her children reputably. Yet, from Lepore’s book, it seems clear that it was Jane’s work and planning that placed her children in suitable situations and provided them such education as they received.
Ben’s memorial also suggests a significant rift between brother and sister. His words defer to his parents’ Puritan values by stressing diligence in one’s calling, but they also emphasize his own (and the Enlightenment) value of human capacity over the inscrutable and pitiless plans of the God of Jane and his parents. Jane wrote more than once to Ben about how worried she was that he seemed to be straying from the Puritan belief in humanity’s utter dependence on God. She cautioned her brother that he seemed to believe that human morality was more important than complete faith in the infinite power of God. This, she believed, was a heresy and would call down divine wrath upon him for “sitting loose from God,” as the poet Anne Bradstreet had put it. Jane even had the temerity to tell him that his eternal soul was at stake. Ben denied that being moral and doing good works challenged the omnipotence of Providence. But like the men of the Enlightenment whom he had come to know—scientists, diplomats, philosophers, educators, and revolutionaries—he believed in their extraordinary abilities to shape and improve the lot of humankind. Jane feared that he was in dangerous territory. Her life of caring for her family’s physical needs had offered her little chance to shape her own experience—much less that of all humanity. But she never stopped pondering the relationship between Providence and human effort.
After the Revolution, Jane took what Lepore argues was her most important philosophical leap, reconciling Providence and inequality of opportunity. This happened during Jane’s happiest, final years. Her childrearing days were over, and Ben had given her a home. She could read as much as she wanted. Devouring the books he continued to send, she asked for more. She even made reading suggestions to him—which he took. Her studies took her to the philosopher Richard Price, who believed that Providence ordered everything inscrutably, but that everything happened for the best—even those things that seemed distinctly otherwise, such as the madness and death of so many of her children. Price, she paraphrased, “thinks Thousand of Boyles Clarks and Newtons have Probably been lost to the world, and lived and died in Ignorans and meanness, merely for want of being Placed in favourable situations, and Injoying Proper Advantages.” She went on to write that “very few we know is Able to beat thro all Impediments and Arive any Grat Degree of superiority in Understanding.” Providence ordained many children, but so far, they were so unequally situated that only a handful could become wise. Lepore, in her characteristically terse commentary, which opens possible meanings without insisting on any one in particular, writes: “Of the seventeen children of Josiah Franklin, how many had beat through? Very few. Nearly none. Only one. Or, possibly: two.”
Ben created a transcendent self in his autobiography —a work in which he never once mentions Jane. After his death, Jane wrote of him, “My dear brother supplied all. Every line from him was a pleasure. He while living was to me every enjoyment.” If it was an unequal, unfair relationship, he nevertheless helped her on her path from immanence to her own transcendence. Lepore makes it an unforgettable journey.
Martha Saxton teaches history and women's and gender studies at Amherst College. She has written books on a range of American women and is currently working on a biography of Mary Ball Washington, George Washington's mother.
The Girl Who Loved Camellias
By Julie Kavanagh
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 304 pp., $27.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Carole DeSanti
If the Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis were to look back, in some twenty-first--century incarnation, upon her nineteenth-century self, what would she see? The scrabbling flight from poverty, abuse, and the depredations of old men? The quicksilver Houdini act that led to her giddy, tempestuous conquest of the hearts and bank accounts of the literary, artistic, aristocratic set in 1840s Paris? The jewels and opera boxes, the florists’ bills, the stables of horses and carriages, the decorative extravaganzas, paid for by others when possible, slapped on credit when investing in the future? The constant scramble of affections, real and fake, furiously jockeyed about? Through all of it, always the beautiful appearance, the polished surface, the opera box, the pink champagne, the fine sensibilities and insatiable appetites. “I know that the body quickly wears itself out in this métier,”she wrote to the friend who was pleading for her to adopt a soberer life.“But when you’re young and full of passion, you don’t control your destiny the way you should.”
A complex portrait of this young woman (she lived only until age 23) emerges in Julie Kavanagh’s biography. Marie Duplessis was both pragmatic and theatrical; but she seems genuinely to have loved, at least on occasion, and she projected an amour propre rare among those of her status. Part of the Duplessis legend is that she possessed a certain genuineness of feeling that is assumed in most of the literature on the subject to be missing among courtesans of her type. For example, we learn that Duplessis stayed up practicing piano until the morning hours, trying, and faltering in an effort to master the instrument, after having been inspired at a concert performed by Franz Liszt. Later, the two became lovers, although Duplessis stumbled badly in pursuit of this attachment.
Duplessis’s legend has come down to us because she was a friend, at one time a lover, of Dumas fils, the writer whose literary inclinations were supported by his father, Dumas père, whose enduring fame arose from his creations, the swashbuckling Mousquetaires. The younger Dumas wrote a novel, La Dame aux Camellias, based on Marie’s life: it is the melodramatic tale of a young beauty who is sacrificed for the sins of men and the world. The tale became a touchstone, an archetype, a persistent myth, that we have mightily believed. We have lingered over and venerated the lovely surfaces, wept over the tragedy as the repentant, tubercular beauty coughs herself into oblivion—and ignored the real life behind and beyond the arc of the story. Adapted for the stage, the Duplessis character, now called Marguerite, was played to great effect by Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse. In Verdi’s La Traviata, Marie becomes Violetta; Maria Callas made the part her own, and the legend rolled forward: Marie, Marguerite, Violetta. There are ballets, and Coco Chanel’s iconic camellias. On stage and screen, Camille has been played by Theda Bara, Alla Nazimova, Norma Talmadge, Greta Garbo, Greta Scacchi, and Charles Ludlam.
Kavanagh’s account, with admirable research and restraint, pulls a real and full-blooded Marie Duplessis from this palimpsest of ideas, and from what could or could not be expressed, at various points in history, not only about her but about women generally. Now, it is possible to understand that the original creator of the myth was Duplessis herself. Kavanagh reveals her as a woman who did, indeed, want to control her destiny and who went to great lengths to try to do so; who, in the end, was more defeated than repentant—despite the amount of time she spent on her knees on a prie-dieu. Duplessis deployed herself strategically while maintaining the appearance of laziness and luxury, fragile distress and accidental fortune. Snippets of the few of her letters that are available provide keyhole views into her nuanced dissembling. With an aesthetic sense that drew to her both artists and the powerful, she defied stigma and fended off society’s contempt.
But she also “lived for art, lived for love,” as Callas sang in a different role. And if she adored her comforts and caprices, she foundered on love. She waged a long campaign to marry a count, Edouard de Perregaux, which was at least in part, Kavanagh speculates, a desperate bid for a title that would gain her entrée to Liszt’s circles. The pianist and composer, however, was far too concerned with his own aspirations to announce his connection with Duplessis publicly.
In fact, her deepest attachments would fail her, and all too soon, weariness of the body set in, her famous malady treated by expensive doctors with doses of “ass’s milk,” daily enemas, and other mysterious remedies. Perhaps the most dreadful part of it all was the realization that few of her admirers truly cared about her. A telling scene from Dumas fils—whose novel, at least scene-by-scene, is believed to have been drawn from real events—is quoted by Kavanagh:
“You are killing yourself, Madame …”
“Ah, it’s not worth alarming yourself,” she said bitterly. “Look how the others aren’t bothering.”
In the end, the young Duplessis staged her death with calculated, final appearances at the theater and the opera, and the commissioning of a last portrait. She ensured that even on her deathbed—as bailiffs and repossessers pounded at her door—she would be surrounded by her beautiful objects and dressed, by her maid Clothilde, according to her precise instructions.
Her career in Paris lasted less than ten years.
Who was she? What meaning does her short, vivid life have for us now? The Girl Who Loved Camellias makes for fascinating reading: it is evocative and finely told, and usefully distinguishes fact from mythology to get at something closer to the truth. And yet, its unasked questions seep between the lines. Duplessis wanted to love and to be loved, to live well, with all the beauty and pleasure she could gather into her existence. But the world permitted this only insofar as she allowed herself to be devoured—and so, she allowed it. Or, was she driven to it? The violence Duplessis endured as a young girl—she was essentially trafficked by her father, who tried first to sell her to gypsies, then placed her in captivity in a house with an old man, and finally “lost” her in Paris—is touched upon, but only to reiterate the rags-to-riches legend. The inner landscape that must have been created by such stress and violation is not considered here. The connections between Duplessis’s early trauma and abuse, and her later life of self-coercion and self-commoditization can only be guessed at.
Kavanagh’s biography does suggest that Duplessis hadmuch terrible insight into her situation, of the sort hard-won by those who have truly suffered. She was trapped, and she knew it. She got the idea that she would survive only by playing to the desires of those more powerful than she; thus, she had to live in such a way as to attract protection in a venal world: luxuriously, carelessly; always at risk. If this was catastrophic, so was the alternative. For Duplessis, there was no gentle in-between, and when she tried to escape—which she did, from time to time—she was pulled back by her early experiences as much as by outward circumstance. She made a beautiful picture of herself and sold it to the highest bidder, a strategy that worked only for brief periods of time before it had to be exhaustingly recreated. Kavanagh provides a view of Duplessis’s manipulations, her self-numbing, her desperation, and her increasingly hopeless artifice. We see here a fate we might not, in fact, like to live out: therefore I depart from Kavanagh’s theory that the life Duplessis led made her “freer” than others of her sex, and anyway, Kavanagh herself rather thoroughly, if unintentionally, disproves this idea. Duplessis carved a defiant and memorable path; Kavanagh calls her a survivor and she was indeed, but a survivor of trauma—and not for very long.
Women who became successful in this way did not, actually, recommend it; they did not themselves feel free. Veronica Franco, in the Venice of the 1600s, did not, when she warned a friend’s daughter off of becoming a courtesan, and Celeste Mogador, a contemporary of Duplessis, certainly did not: she did everything she could to escape her fate, as she made clear in her later memoirs.
Caroline Weber, reviewing this biography for the New York Time Book Review (July 21, 2013), writes, “Kavanagh reveals that cold-eyed pragmatism, not saintly self-abnegation, formed the bedrock of Duplessis’ character and career.” But Duplessis was a softer character than, say, La Païva, who later in the nineteenth century, took the career of grande horizontale to unprecedented levels and who, unlike Duplessis, is remembered for her icy, often cruel, venality. Her former apartments in Paris are preserved as a tourist attraction and restaurant. But Duplessis became a novel, an opera, a ballet, and her legend comes down to us, from Dumas fils, as a woman who was beloved.
Reading Kavanagh’s biography in Manhattan’s West Village, on a cobbled street, a tide of noise bubbles up from the upscale bar/restaurant on the corner and floats through my open window. Young women laugh and stumble, having had too much to drink, tripping in their heels, clutching tiny handbags, holding on to one another. Lifespans are longer now than they were in the 1840s. Tuberculosis is no longer epidemic, at least in the West (Marie coughed blood into a silver bowl, leaving the infectious bacteria to float around the room), and economies have changed. Young women are not, for the most part, “kept” in jewel-box apartments, presented with baubles, and fed cocktails and steaks by debauched aristocrats.
Still,qualities of the nineteenth century persist. Courtesan culture swirls around us. Great numbers of female souls of all ages shrink back to supplicate protectors of one kind or another; vile and abusive behavior is often tolerated and capital cultivated to its nether ends. The self-coercion, the self-numbing with drink and drugs and debt is familiar to us; the desire for and exploitation of the beautiful surface; ignoring the death-wish underneath is as well. What Marie called “the abyss and the horror that awaits those who grow old and lose their charm” remains a widespread and highly marketable threat that many take to heart, egged on by forces in the wider culture.
Duplessis seems to have understood that she was pursuing a course that would end in an early death, a terminus she both courted and deeply feared. With more than a century and a half of evolution of feminine consciousness behind her, would this intelligent, passionate, damaged, and driven woman see a wider horizon of choices? Do we? Or are we so in love with this métier and enamored of its mythologies that we cannot, more than a century and a half later, quite leave it behind? This seems to me to be the deeper question that this biography raises.
To the very end, Duplessis thought she might outwit her destiny and pull off a grand coup in the roulette she had made of her life. Somehow, she believed to the end that she was more than her métier. The “most important thing of all” she felt, was that “the bolt on her coffin be a very weak one.” She wanted to live on—and she has, in more ways than she might have dreamed.
Carole DeSanti is vice president, editor at large at Penguin Random House and the author of the novel The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R (2012), now available in paperback.
Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life
By Dana Greene
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2012, 360 pp., $35.00, hardcover
A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov
By Donna Krolik Hollenberg
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, 510 pp., $44.95, hardcover
Reviewed by Kate Daniels
When Denise Levertov died in Seattle in 1997 at the age of 74, she left behind a body of work that was as astonishing for its size as for its lyric erudition and formal originality. In more than 25 volumes of poetry, prose, translations, and a bit of personal memoir, Levertov documented not only her own development as a major poet of the twentieth century but also provided illuminating interpretative commentary on the practice of poetry and some of the innovative developments in poetics undertaken by her very ambitious generation of English-language poets: those who immediately followed the intimidating examples of the modernists. Levertov herself, however, did not seem particularly susceptible to what later came to be called the anxiety of influence. She announced herself a poet at age five, mailed her early poems for critique to T. S. Eliot at age twelve (he responded), published her first poem at seventeen, and brought out her charter collection of poetry when she was barely 23. Her publishing career lasted almost as long as she lived, continuing up into the final days of her life.
These two scrupulously researched biographies—Denise Levertov: A Poet’s Life, by Dana Greene, and A Poet’s Revolution: The Life of Denise Levertov, by Donna Krolik Hollenberg—the first to appear since the poet’s death, both certify Levertov’s brilliant originality as a poet. They share, as well, a similar understanding of her vocational approach to her art, her sense of having been called to the work of poetry. Each records real conflict between the life lived and the art created, but reveals Levertov’s insistence (often at the expense of personal happiness) that art should always prevail. Where the biographers depart from each other is in what each chooses to emphasize: Greene, a historian with an interest in Catholicism, focuses on Levertov’s spiritual identity and how her early, aesthetically infused sense of wonder in the natural world developed, over a long and sometimes complex lifetime, into a spiritually inflected left-wing politics and finally into baptism in the Catholic Church and an identity as a poet of specifically Christian faith. Greene has written a slimmer, faster-moving narrative that makes a convincing argument for the inevitability of this conclusion.
Hollenberg, a literary critic who has worked on twentieth-century women’s poetry (particularly that of HD), has written a longer and more meandering book. While she shares Greene’s understanding of Levertov’s vocational calling and her invocation of the sacred in her poetry, she foregrounds the politics and adopts a more secular approach to the life. Her clear interest is in Levertov’s creative development over time, and she is very good on the accretive process of that development. Her book is rich with wide-ranging literary and artistic references that help make sense of Levertov’s culturally rarified, political aesthetic.
Neither biographer takes a very analytical look at the role of gender in the poet’s life; neither is particularly psychologically minded; and both acquiesce too often to Levertov’s unreliable self-interpretations (taken from her journals) of some of the most troublesome aspects of her life as a woman of achievement in the twentieth century. Both inadequately address the poet’s myopia about her male-inscribed consciousness, her difficulties with other women, and her homophobia. Nevertheless, these are absorbing biographies that are worth reading. They offer new ways of thinking about an important poet of the twentieth century and her marvelous work.
For writers and readers of my (baby-boomer) generation, Denise Levertov was a fixture of contemporary poetry, there when we first discovered it in our teens and twenties. She was with us during the the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and she stayed as we partnered up, gave birth, made careers, and raised families. She was still there in the 1990s, as we began to enter old age. Many of my generation cherished some of Levertov’s most unforgettable lines (here, incorporating John Keats):
We are faithful
only to the imagination. What the
. What holds you
to what you see of me is
that grasp alone.
(“Everything That Acts Is Actual”)
Or this, my favorite:
And if at Mill Valley perched in the trees
the sweet rain drifting through western air
a white sweating bull of a poet told us
our cunts are ugly—why didn’t we
admit we have thought so too? (And
what shame? They are not for the eye!)
No, they are dark and wrinkled and hairy,
caves of the Moon ...
But she could be difficult for women of my generation to embrace as a role model because of her antifeminism and her insistence that gender had nothing to do with her own accomplishment—and shouldn’t have anything to do with anyone else’s either. “I don’t believe I have ever made an aesthetic decision based on my gender,” she said, according to Greene, on a panel on gender and genre at the Modern Language Association conference in 1982, when she was 59 years old. This deeply held belief about herself probably explains why she fashioned a literary career that mostly steered clear of the most compelling social movement for women writers of her time, feminism. Believing that the antiwar movement of the 1960s had greater claim, she focused almost exclusively on the politics of war (and later on nuclear disarmament and environmental issues). Her insistence that feminism had nothing to do with poetry sidelined her during the 1960s and 1970s, when identity politics were first articulated. Absent from these conversations by choice, she became less visible than poets more or less contemporaneous with her—including Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Audre Lorde, and Alicia Ostriker—whose feminist politics encompassed a larger field of vision, and in which war, civil rights, race, gender, and sexual orientation were all considered not only interrelated, but also instrumental to the overall struggle.
Even more than most poets, Levertov was a lone wolf, Rilkean type, who eschewed the herd—especially when the herd was predominantly female. Her lifelong predilection was for male mentors, and for the most part, she disdained her era’s sisterhood, deeming “women’s poetry” an “invalid” literary category. “While she accepted ‘the new Black poets’ as a legitimate classification because ‘most of them are, by avowed intention … concerned with Black culture and struggle as subject,’” writes Hollenberg, “she rejected feminist or women’s poetry because of its concern ‘with the nature or the oppression of women as subject.’”
As both Green and Hollenberg repeatedly document, Levertov’s insistence on what she believed to be a nongendered, universal principle underlying the creation of all art probably prevented her from accessing a source of personal support for problems she faced, as a woman of her time, in her marriage, motherhood, and sexual life. Adrienne Rich’s struggles with the oppressiveness of postwar expectations for young wives and mothers ultimately led her to develop a political poetics that radically changed the course for women writers who followed her. In contrast, Levertov, struggling with similar social expectations, and also chafing within the stultifying environment of the 1950s, took a decidedly self-flagellating attitude. In psychotherapy for her sexual difficulties, marital unhappiness, and uncontrollable anger, she sought a solution for her malaise in Jungian theory. Despite her strong sense that her muse was an inner goddess, indisputably female, she ended up kowtowing to theory and chastising herself for resisting Jung’s insistence that her muse was an animus (a male figure). “How is it,” she wrote in her journal, “that I always tend…to forget that I have not an anima, but an animus, and that such female figures [as the Goddess Muse in her poem “The Well”] must be something else.”
One of the saddest things both of these biographies reveal is Levertov’s lesbian-specific homophobia. Although she had no apparent bias toward gay men, she harbored negative feelings about gay women and, according to Greene, during the 1960s nurtured a paranoid concern that “radical lesbians” were “taking over” the women’s movement during the 1960s. As late as the 1970s, when she was in her fifties, Levertov believed that “homosexual experience was a phase of adolescence from which some people were never extricated,” writes Greene, and when she discovered that a woman she had asked to be her literary executor was gay, she rescinded the invitation.
All this confirms my own experience. When I interviewed Levertov in the late 1980s for a biographical work on Muriel Rukeyser (with whom she was friends for two decades), she became visibly distressed when I made a passing reference to Rukeyser’s longtime, live-in relationship with Monica McCall (whom Levertov also knew). Levertov left the room for a while, and when she returned, said, “I never realized that Muriel was a homosexual.” As a participant in Rukeyser’s life (to say nothing of the evidence in Rukeyser’s poetry), how Levertov missed this is as intriguing as it is astounding. I don’t know how to explain such a psychological block—yet in relation to a woman writer of Levertov’s brilliance, I believe it’s important to seek its source, since what I can only regard as a wound must have impinged upon other aspects of her life, both personal and professional. Unfortunately, neither biographer succeeds in unraveling this.
If Levertov was not a feminist poet, neither was she was a completely American poet. Born and raised in London, she was the daughter of charismatic parents. Her father was a Russian Hasidic Jew who converted to Christianity and became a central figure, as an Anglican priest and scholar, in the Hebrew-Christian messianic movement of the early twentieth century; her mother, a spirited Welsh woman of great imaginative gifts: a painter, singer, pianist, and naturalist. Both shared a sense of the distinctiveness of their familial lineage, descended on one side from the founder of the Habad branch of Hasidism, and on the other from a visionary preacher and tailor who stitched his meditations into the garments he created. These “illustrious ancestors” (the title of one of Levertov’s more well-known poems) added to the sense of the “peculiar destiny” that she and her family of origin shared, writes Greene. Together, Levertov’s parents created a unique home environment, designed to immerse their offspring into the humanities, languages, and the arts. Their progressive ideas about education produced two extraordinary daughters who could only be described as prodigies—young women with an irrepressible confidence in their abilities that was highly atypical of their post-Edwardian generation.
While her peers were sent to school, tea parties, and comportment lessons, Levertov was homeschooled until age thirteen, then turned loose on the city of London to range at will, raiding the cultural endowments of the city as the spirit moved her. Her political consciousness and her spiritual response to the natural world developed early and simultaneously, fed by her father’s learning, his powerful and proselytizing personality, and his prodigious library, as well as by her mother’s own intense relationship to the natural world and her devotion to nurturing her younger daughter’s interest in the arts.
In a family that was three-quarters female, the powerful, priestly figure of the father dominated the household and the poet’s developing consciousness. Psychotherapy in the 1960s unearthed a new understanding of her father—“very vain and often insensitive to the needs of people close to him, and … quite tyrannical” (a description that some who knew her would apply to the poet as well)—but Levertov, writes Hollenberg, was unwilling to follow her therapist’s advice to “shake off the influence of her father in her work in order to achieve something truly original.’” She seemed unaware of her privilege as the rare female among the males and disinclined to ruminate upon the access she received by consorting with a phalanx of male poets—which might not have been forthcoming had she been one of her generation’s woman-identified writers and practiced their brand of literary feminism.
From an early age, she understood herself as a woman who craved (Levertov’s word) the adoration of men. Seeking it, she almost always eschewed female mentorship in favor of male mentors, some of whom (I was disconcerted to learn) she addressed as “Master.” She never recognized what others saw: in a nearly all-male poetry world, Denise Levertov was a minority who adamantly refused to acknowledge herself as such. Greene quotes her, from 1990:
Since I started writing when I was five, this constant consciousness of “I am a woman, I am a woman speaking as me” has never been part of my consciousness: it just isn’t part of it. I am a human being. And I am me… I’m not a woman poet; I’m not a man poet. I’m a poet, and that has always been my consciousness.
Ironically, the escape from gender that she insisted upon, did not, in fact, provide an escape. As Greene points out, “as a woman poet she continued to be haunted by traditional female concerns—her failures as mother, as daughter, as lover.” Both books suggest that she remained haunted by those concerns in her personal life, as well.
As women, surely we read the biographies of other women not merely as entertainment, but as object lessons. Green and Hollenberg have performed a great service in gathering the information and details of Levertov’s life and work. But although their respective understandings of Levertov’s literary contributions are illuminating, their interpretations of her life are less so. More often than not, they step right to the edge of insight into the peculiarities not only of the poet’s consciousness but of women’s lives in general, only to draw back. Thus, while each book has tremendous archival value, each also lacks an overall interpretative context that would provide a starting point for comprehending the poet’s insistent, lifelong antifeminist attitudes and beliefs about herself.
Levertov clung to an outdated mindset that caused her to remain impervious to the twentieth century’s evolving ideas about the self and the extent to which personal identity is constructed by cultural events and beliefs. Instead, she seems to have believed that personhood was created solely within the individual, unaffected by the larger social world within which we all live. Ironically, though, it was just this social world that was most important to her. I recall an interview with her that I came across shortly after I had begun reading about the lives of contemporary women poets, scouring them for hints about how to fashion my own life as a female writer. Asked in an interview in the New York Quarterly (Summer 1971) about the “poems of protest against injustice” that she had written during the 1960s, she replied:
I think the poetry of protest, indignation, anger and so forth, that has been written by many, many poets has helped to reawaken many people to the situation [of the antiwar movement and its connection with]… racism, imperialism, capitalism, male supremacy. There are increasing numbers of people who understand, or are beginning to understand, the connections between all these things. And the poets have played some part in this consciousness-raising.
Even after reading two biographies of Denise Levertov, I cannot fathom how a poet of such brilliance could have failed to close the gap between her politics and her personal identity, to “understand the connections” between the gender she was assigned at birth and the (often unhappy) way that things worked out for her as a woman. I eagerly await the next biographer, who will need to take on the task of explaining with greater psychological acuity the mind and the art of one of our most brilliantly original woman poets.
Kate Daniels is the director of creative writing at Vanderbilt University. She is a 2013 – 2014 Guggenheim Fellow, and her most recent book of poetry is A Walk in Victoria’s Secret (2010).