In view of the Supreme Court’s recent draft of an opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, I have reposted an adapted version of one of my former posts on Ovid’s abortion poems.
Ovid wrote two poems about abortion (Amores 13 & 14). He was the first Roman poet, to my knowledge, to write elegies about abortion. The first poem in Ovid’s diptych is sympathetic to his ailing mistress Corinna, whose abortion has gone drastically wrong. He begins the first poem (I cannot write poetry; this is my quick, literal translation):
While she rashly is overthrowing the burden of her pregnant womb,
Weary Corinna lies in danger of her life.
Having attempted so great a danger without telling me
She deserves my anger, but my anger dies with fear.
But indeed she had conceived by me, or so I believe.
It is often for me a fact because it can be.
In the next lines Ovid writes a formal prayer to Isis, a maternal goddess and healer who had a cult in Rome, and assures her that Corinna honors her and has participated in her rites on the designated days. Then he prays to Ilithia, the Greek goddess of childbirth. He promises to bring gifts and incense. “I will add the inscription, “Naso has given this for Corinna’s recovery.” (Ovid’s full name is Ovidius Publius Naso.)
He is frantic about Corinna’s illness. He wants above all for her to live. But he ends the prayer – and poem – with a gentle rebuke to Corinna.
If it is right to have warned in such great fear,
let it be enough for you to have struggled in this combat once.
The second elegy in the diptych is a furious attack on abortion. He begins with a reference to Euripides’s Medea, who said, “I would rather stand in front of the shield three times than give birth once.” He argues that Medea’s killing her children was comprehensible because she wanted revenge on Jason; but he says the tearing of an embryo from the womb is wrong, because it must naturally grow first and why deprive it of its life?
He attacks women who have abortions, saying that the first to do so should have died as a punishment. He accuses women who are exempt from military service of taking their own weapons and using them against themselves, rather than taking up those of Mars. And he argues that Corinna, the Roman population, mythological heroes, and he himself would not have been born if their mothers had had abortions. (N.B. He does not mention the cruel ancient practice of exposing babies, especially female babies, on a hillside.)
But in the last two lines he relents somewhat, praying for her safety and echoing the last two lines of the first poem.
Gods, concede that safely she has sinned once.
and it is enough: let her bear the punishment a second time
But which poem reflects Ovid’s feelings? The first is gentler than the second. The points of view seem different. The name Corinna is not mentioned in the second poem. Only the last couplet seems to link it to the first poem.
I thoroughly enjoyed Leslie Brody’s autobiography, Red Star Sister: Between Madness and Utopia, an account of her life as a radical in late 1960s and early ’70s. As I read this witty, candid book, I was impressed by her commitment, energy, and, most of all, her tolerance for communal living. (The grimy communal houses are one step up from camping.) While she was still in high school in Massapequa, New York, in the late ’60s, Brody protested against the Vietnam war, which was at the root of her radicalism; founded an underground newspaper; and met with members of SDS. She also attended Woodstock.
You can read the rest of this post at Thornfield Hall Redux.
Why, you may wonder, did I choose The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher for the first of six essays about neglected American women writers? Short stories are not usually my métier. They often seem abrupt and vertiginous: just as I resign myself to fifteen or twenty minutes with characters I won’t have time to love, the story ends and I must get acquainted with new people – unless the author indulges the reader’s affinity for sameness in the form of linked stories.
The Collected Stories of Hortense is perhaps more suited to the needs of a keen novel reader like me than, say, the average story in The New Yorker (if there is such a thing). Calisher’s short stories have a density of detail and the long, convoluted sentences I love. Of course, many of her stories were published in The New Yorker, which seems to cancel my assertion that her stories are somehow other. But her range – from a group of linked autobiographical stories about the Elkins, a wealthy Jewish family in New York, to a delineation of a rebellion organized by “Johnny One” against the patronizing summer people in the inbred village of Hillsborough – is rivaled by very few American writers of short stories. Calisher had a devastating sympathy, curiosity, and understanding of class and psychology in America in the twentieth century. After graduation from Barnard in 1932 and employment as a social worker before her marriage , she became a writer and chronicled the vicissitudes of the twentieth century, unfazed by cultural differences that put off writers nowadays.
And she indulges our curiosity about the quirks of family in linked stories she originally meant to turn into a novel, she writes in the introduction. In “Time, Gentlemen,” which is narrated by Hester Elskin, the daughter of the family, we first encounter the mellowness of Father and the tension and drive of Mother. The irony of the title is that Hester’s father, a Southern gentleman born in the 19th century, has no sense of time – and his wife, who is 22 years younger, thinks of little else. Mother is a fan off 20th century efficiency, while Father believes in leisure.
The following passage, contrasting Hester’s mother’s work ethic with her father’s charm and popularity, is typical of Calisher’s dazzling disclosures about the mores and manners of different times.
My mother, however, although she had never been in the business world, had certain convictions about it which would have done her credit in a later era. She believed that a business run with such unpressurized ease, even enjoyment, must be well on its way to ruin…. She was a woman who would have felt much safer breathing hard and fast in the wake of one of those lunchless men whose race with their calendar ends only with death. And she was never to comprehend the real truth: that people loved to do business with my father because, in an already accelerating age, his dandified air of the coffeehouse, his relaxed and charmingly circuitous tongue – which dwelt much on anecdotes but only lightly on orders or due dates – and above all, his trust in the “plenty” of time, made them feel participants in a commercial romance, gentlemen met by chance on the Rialto, who had decided to nurture a little affair.
What a find! I believe these short stories are her best work, or at least my favorite. It is one of those forgotten books by a neglected American woman writer who was once celebrated and compared to Henry James. Calisher was the president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1987 and elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997. She died in 2009.
On a 97-degree Wednesday, I am dejected by the consequences of human folly. The snapshot of my bicycle at the top of the sidebar, with the caption “Carbon treadprint,” seems naive now, doesn’t it? All those years of biking instead of driving – and people are usually so irritated by it – seem to have done little if any good. Even some SUV drivers may at this point have acknowledged it is rather hot this summer.
It is so hot that I need complete escape, and I am dallying with mysteries. Oh my God -what a pleasure to sit in the air conditioning and be spellbound by an unlikely crime novel, with lots of witty repartee, complemented by spare, unshowy prose.
I recently rediscovered Catherine Aird, author of the Inspector Sloan series. His Burial Too, published in 1973, shares many characteristics with Golden Age Detective fiction. The crime is committed off-stage, the characters are sufficiently well-sketched to seem real but have no off-putting psychological depth, and the emphasis is on solving the puzzle. This is my idea of perfect entertainment.
Set in an English village in Calleshire, it begins one morning when Fenella Tindall wakes up late and discovers that her father is missing. Since Richard Tindall, the director of a research and development firm, is absolutely reliable, and doesn’t stay out late, she and the housekeeper are convinced something has happened. But his car is in the garage, so the police think he has probably taken the train to London, and have no conviction that there is need to worry -until they find the body crushed under a marble statue in the bell tower of a church.
What makes this mystery so diverting is Aird’s quietly compelling prose, the sharp dialogue, and the ironic observations of Inspector C. D. Sloan. The sardonic Sloan often seems to be the only adult in the room. Only the old crones (I mean that as a compliment) who live near the church seem to have their wits about them – they saw and heard a few things the night of the crime. Certainly Sloan’s assistant, William Crosby, a recklessly fast driver who hasn’t got a clue what is going on, and at one point mentions Batman, is very little help.
This is great fun, and I love all her books!
A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis. I am a a great fan of Lindsey Davis’s witty Marcus Didius Falco historical mysteries, set in ancient Rome, and characterized by much wise-cracking. A few years ago I discovered her equally witty Flavia Albia series, in which Falco’s adopted daughter takes over the family detective business.
A Comedy of Terrors, set in Rome in 89 A.D., takes place the week before Saturnalia, a rowdy winter holiday which involved heavy drinking, mayhem and rioting, and role-playing among slaves and masters. It gives Flavia Albia a perfect over-the-top opportunity for comic musings. Flavia Albia loathes Saturnalia, and is also irritated by the schadenfreude of friends who think she won’t be able to continue freelance work as an investigator now that she and her husband Tiberius have adopted two orphaned nephews .
Resigned to the horror of the holidays, she escorts the two boys for holiday shopping in an iffy neighborhood said to sell the best sigilla (statues). And what does she find instead? The corpse of the vendor covered with blood . “Oh, pigshit. And you try telling a three-year-old and a five-year-old who have been promised horrible figurines that they can’t have them.”
Well, this turns out to be a Saturnalia prank, not a murder, so one does understand why Flavia Albia hates Saturnalia. But unfortunately her husband is investigating a new gang which is taking over the nut trade – yes, nuts! – and murdering vendors who won’t sell their moldy poisonous product – which has actually killed some of the consumers.
Flavia Albia, always a savvy snoop, surmises there is a connection between the nuts gang and a new client, the battered wife of a dubious loan shark from whom she wants to escape – and this connection puts Flavia Albia and her family in danger. Their sheep, a family pet, is stolen and its head left at the gate. This is the kind of hooligan in the nut trade. There are many twists and turns to the plot, but the main reason to read it is Davis’s humor. Flavia Albia always has something witty to say even while catching criminals.
This weekend, as I searched the house for The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, I noted with surprise the paucity of books by American women writers on our shelves. Anglophilia dominates the collection: one cannot apparently have too many copies of Middlemarch(my least favorite book by George Eliot); Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (my favorite Bronte Gothic); or Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, the experimental masterpiece of the ’60s. As for American literature, I do know a few titles. I have repeatedly read The House of Mirth (Lily Bart and laudanum!) and Cornelia Otis Skinner’s humor pieces in Soap Behindthe Ears… but, one wonders humbly, is that enough?
Well, I felt a little low, thinking about being an American who doesn’t much care for American literature. It’s a gap, I’ve always said cheerfully, but is it just a gap? No, really, I’ve read the American women’s canon, but what does it say that I’d rather drink cups of tea with Barbara Pym than watch Kate Chopin’s Edna Pontellier walk into the sea again (though I like Kate Chopin very much!)? Why are we Americans so intense?
Well, at least I have a Hortense Calisher collection, i comforted myself. Calisher (1911-2009) was a brilliant, prolific American writer, with a powerful, eclectic imagination and a wide literary range. In her novel The Bobby-Soxer, the most fascinating character, Aunt Leo, is a hermaphrodite; in Calisher’s slim novel, In the Slammer with Carol Smith, she chronicles the harrowing experiences of a woman who did jail time for peripheral activity with a bombing in the ’70s and now lives on the streets; and Sunday Jews, Calisher’s last novel, is a vast, unputdownable family saga. All three of these books, however, have vanished from my shelves: I practiced read-and-weed skills unwisely here. I did, however, find The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher, published in 1975 – and have discovered she is a master of the short story.
That isn’t really the point of this post, though. (I will write about Calisher’s stories later.) The point is that I wonder how often the fame of even the most lauded of American women writers outlasts their lifetime. Philip Roth’s work (deservedly) will never die, nor will the Rabbit books of John Updike, but no one talks about Calisher any more, and the fate of Elizabeth Spencer (1921-2019) was hanging by a thread until Library of America took her under their wing and revived her work recently. (N.B. I once attended a reading by Spencer at a book festival and got my copy of The Southern Woman autographed. I felt a kinship with her because she had a cat tote bag!)
In the U.S., Library of America and NYRB classics have picked up some of the slack with forgotten women writers: LOA is publishing more women these days, though NYRB Classics seems shaky on the gender question.
Well, we don’t have Virago here. And that’s a shame. We could do with an American women’s press. There is the Feminist Press, but alas! they publish only a limited number of titles. A limited budget, no doubt.
And so I must turn to my shelves for neglected writers. I guarantee, you will be hearing about women writers whom, well, you’ve never heard of.
I am still a confirmed Anglophile… but really, Kat, enough is enough!
Who are your favorite neglected American women writers?
It has been months since I wrote a Literary Links post, and yet I love this kind of post at other blogs: I am always looking for recommendations of internet articles. If you’re at the beach – I’m not – and getting blasted by the sunshine and heat, you might retire to the shade and check out one or more of these articles about books and writers.
1. Those of us who like domestic humor – and who doesn’t? – will relish the following clever article about Jean Kerr, the brilliant essayist and playwright who entertained us with Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and The Snake Has All the Lines. You can read “Days of Wine and Daisies” at The Washington Examiner (April 14, 2003). And you won’t regret it, whether you are male or female, because Kerr is always relevant.
Here is a short excerpt.
“Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” is a collection of witty dispatches from the frontlines of motherhood. She had plenty of material.. Kerr has been compared, inevitably, to that other published suburban housewife, Erma Bombeck, though, in truth, the only book in the genre that can rank with “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” is Shirley Jackson’s “Life Among the Savages,” a surprisingly charming account of motherhood from the author better known for the grim story “The Lottery” and the Jamesian horror novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” While Bombeck did tread some of the same ground, she didn’t write about, say, how she taught her boys not to loathe poetry. Worried that the only Milton their children would know was the chocolate maker, the Kerrs instituted a family “Culture Hour” in which the children would recite poems they’d memorized during the week, followed by some highbrow music on the hi-fi.
2. Thoreau is my favorite Transcendentalist philosopher, and I had no idea Walden was controversial nowadays. Sometime it is good NOT to keep up, especially in 2021. But Caleb Smith investigates all sides of what for me is a non-question in his thoughtful essay, “Thoreau in Good Faith”, at Public Books.
“One of the books that I love is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden,” Alda Balthrop-Lewis writes at the beginning of her new book, Thoreau’s Religion. Before she starts analyzing Walden, she composes a little list of its charms. Some of the features she names are aesthetic: “I like it because it is funny, and beautiful, and weird.” Some of them are ethical: “I like that it doesn’t seem to hide its weird messy bits, its contradictions and vices.” Balthrop-Lewis, a research fellow in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry at Australian Catholic University, is letting us know that she will be taking the part of the author she studies, not taking him apart. Rather than seeking out Thoreau’s hypocrisies or flaws, she will treat him with generous affection. In other words, she will read Walden in good faith.
…The Unquiet Englishman, Richard Greene’s sparkling new biography of Graham Greene, would have a lot of interest even if the latter were not an important writer who, twenty years after his death, still has a large audience. Graham Greene traveled widely, through Europe, Mexico, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, and the United States, and he wrote about what he saw in all those places. He worked for the British secret service during World War II, and spent a lot of time with Kim Philby, who would later turn out to be a double agent for the Soviet Union. Greene became a Catholic in 1927 in order to marry Vivien Dayrell-Browning, but almost from the start, he had trouble with the practical demands of Catholicism—and in particular, trouble with marital fidelity. Soon after his marriage, he began a long series of affairs, but Vivien refused to grant him a divorce, and he continued to support her.
What have you been reading on the net? Any good literary links?
When I discovered Nancy Hale about ten years ago, I believed I had found a hidden portal to a Nancy Hale Elysium. Nobody had heard of Hale, none of her books were in print, even the university library had discarded all her books but one (A New England Girlhood). By chance I read one of her stories in a 1930’s anthology of New Yorker Stories, so I ordered a used copy of Hale’s 1942 best-selling novel The Prodigal Women – which was the easiest of her books to find online, and at that time was very cheap.
The Prodigal Women is a ripping good read, a fun “literary pop” novel, saved from melodrama by Hale’s extraordinary plotting and life-like characters. The style is sometimes awkward, as if Hale’s thoughts were rushing ahead of her pen, but the women’s relationships and, most important, their actions, keep this scintillating novel alive. The heroine, Leda March, morphs from sympathetic outsider to a cold horrific bitch. (Don’t be fooled by the allusion to the Marches in Little Women.) As a lonely New England schoolgirl, she meets the Jekylls, an unconventional southern family who moved to Massachusetts so flamboyant Mrs. Jekyll could conquer Boston society (which of course doesn’t happen). Leda and Betsy Jekyll become inseparable, and the two girls worship Maizie, Betsy’s beautiful, popular older sister. But as an adult, Leda ruthlessly falls in love -without conscience! – with Maizie’s husband, Lambert, who is in turn a talented artist and a vicious philanderer, who psychologically tortured Maizie until she submitted to an illegal abortion on their honeymoon in South America, the results of which permanently ruin her health. (Lambert says she is malingering.) Betsy goes to New York and is breezily happy until she falls in love with an abusive writer. Are you saying, WOW!? All this in a single book! Well, it is a very long book, and it influenced Mary McCarthy’s The Group and Jacqueline Susann‘s Valley of the Dolls.
Nancy Hale is a smart, unflinching literary writer, but she doesn’t mind descending into pulp fiction, and that’s one thing I like about her. In recent years literary writers – or rather, the very few that read Hale – seem to prefer her short stories. And perhaps the stories are more consistent, though somehow I do not read her for style. She seems to me to be a talented sidewalk painter of vivid, offbeat portraits of New Englanders and Southerners, with a genius for conveying a sense of place – and at the same time there is an endearing sloppiness. Mind you, I am the only reader who does not entirely admire her style, but that doesn’t mean I love her any less.That said, I am very enthusiastic about Where the Light Falls, Selected Stories of Nancy Hale, edited by Lauren Groff, and published by the Library of America in 2019. Most of these stories are well-crafted, some of them brilliant, and I found myself flying through them. Though some of the stories are slightly dated , we are entranced, because they capture historical events and attitudes in real time. The stories span the years 1934-1966 – and you will always recognize the specificity of the period.
Her 1942 story, “Those Are As Brothers,” is very much a World War II story. It is a Connecticut idyll, but the Nazis and concentrations camps cast long shadows. It begins with a glorious running sentence, which contains a subtle statement about American “freedom” – in Connecticut!
The long, clear American summer passed slowly, dreaming over the Connecticut valley and the sound square houses under the elms and the broad living fields and over the people there that came and went and lay and sat still, with purpose and and without but free, moving in and out of their houses of their own free will, free to perceive the passage of the days through the different summer months and the smells and the sun and the rain and the high days and the brooding days, as was their right to do, without fear and without apprehension.
Wouldn’t we all love summer in Connecticut? But not everyone in Connecticut has this experience of freedom – certainly not the German immigrants and Jewish refugees. Every night the German governess, known as Fräulein, who takes care of Mrs. Mason’s two little boys, chats with Mr. Loeb, the neighbor’s German Jewish gardener. Mrs. Mason, too, befriends the quiet Mr. Loeb, who becomes a member of her extended family of evening visitors. But one day his miserly employer threatens to report Mr. Loeb to the refugee committee because he talked back when she accused him of painting the fence too slowly (painting fences! an American allusion to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). Mr. Loeb is terrified, haunted by the concentration camps, and believes he will never get another job. But Mrs. Mason says she would never let anything happen to him. And will she be able to protect hie, or is it the naivete of Connecticut? I prefer the former.
One of the saddest stories is “Who Lived and Died Believing.” Elizabeth, a compassionate young psychiatric nurse, stops in at Massey’s Drug Store for a soda before work; her boyfriend, Dave, a medical student, works at Massey’s during the summer. Elizabeth tells him that her patient, Mrs. Myles, is scheduled for shock treatment in the morning, which upsets Elizabeth, because it does not seem to benefit the patients. Elizabeth thinks it would calm Mrs. Myles if Dave stopped in after work, so Mrs. Myles could see an ordinary couple in love in ordinary life. And then Hale portrays the garbled thoughts of poor Mrs. Myles, sitting by the window in the “vicious heat.” “And a little part of the rotted grapes that rolled about her brain watched the faces…” But Mrs.Myles is impressed by the love between Elizabeth and Dave, long after they have ceased to be a couple.
My favorite story by far is “How Would You Like to Be Born…” about New England duty. One thinks of Henry James. Miss Florrie Davenant, whose sister Laura has just died, finds herself alone in the family house. At first, as the new Miss Davenant, she imagines breaking all the family customs. Why on earth, when she is poor and can’t pay the bills, should she send money to defend “the Negro adolescents in Georgia who were going to be tried for the murder of a white farmer”? But the impoverished Davenants are descended from abolitionists, and they always give money to such causes. She tries to break other rules – she wants to befriend the common people in her neighborhood – but nobody smiles at her, and people imitate her aristocratic accent. Are the rules there for a reason? Miss Florrie Davenant is frightened, and we are frankly frightened too for this naive woman alone in the world.
Remarkable stories and extremely enjoyable, even if you are not a short story person. I jumped breathlessly from story to story, experiencing each situation as if I were there.