Many great American women writers flourished in the mid-to-late twentieth century. It was a boom time for American literature. Discerning women read with excitement the award-winning work of Mary McCarthy, Maureen Howard, Jean Stafford, and Alison Lurie, who captured, often satirically, features of American women’s lives. Their piquant wit, gritty realism, and glittering prose should have won them a place in the canon. But has it?
One of the most neglected divas of American literature is Maureen Howard, whose baroque sentences in her tetralogy of novels about the seasons (A Lovers’ Almanac, Big As Life, The Silver Screen, and The Rags of Time) left me breathless. She won the National Critics Circle Award in 1978 for her memoir Facts of Life, which is now, astonishingly, out-of-print. Howard seems to be forgotten. Yet only a decade ago Jess Row in The New York Times praised the complexity of The Rags of Time. Row compared it to “one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes full of minutely arranged objects.”
I concentrate on Howard’s graceful style and unusual characters as I reread Facts of Life, a memoir of growing up Irish Catholic in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This montage of gritty vignettes, dramatic scenes, and fragments is gorgeously-constructed. It is fascinating but not an easy read, because Howard is demanding and unsentimental. I have marked so many passages I want to share, but here is an especially vivid descriptions of Howard’s mother, a teacher who was devoted to her parents.
“In the role of the educated promising daughter my mother failed. Her father had really wanted a safe local schoolteacher, an aging girl correcting papers up in her maidenly room. … But it was her own money in the Bridgeport Savings Bank.”
Maureen’s mother fell in love and married a low-paid detective when she was 33. As a housewife and mother, she still relentlessly made use of her education at Smith College to introduce Maureen and her brother George to the arts. But after the kids grew up and moved to New York, their mother gave up culture and reverted to watching Lawrence Welk with their father. Was it all a sham before? They were never sure. George became a strange artistic man: he lived in semi-squalor but at one time knew who was dancing the lead role in the ballet. He liked “Orange crates and real Picassos. Thousands of records and books, but no dishes, no curtains.”
Maureen is split between high culture and pop culture. She writes,
“While I’m split, split right down the middle, all sensibility one day, raging at the vulgarities that are packaged as art, the self-promotion everywhere, the inflated reputations. In such a mood I am unable to sit in a theater or pick up a recently written book. I am quite crazy as I begin to read in stupefying rotation–Anna Karenina, Bleak House, Persuasion, Dubliners, St. Mawr, Tender Is the Night, The Wings of the Dove. I play the Chopin Mazurkas until the needle wears out…. The atmosphere I demand is so rarefied it is stale and I know it.”
I am loving this memoir and urge you to read it if you can find a copy.