Since Marguerite collects angels, Be an angel and come, You may shed your wings if you wish …
… from seven o’clock into eternity …
I suppose it’s been a long time since my blog posted any new or useful content here. I’m not certain these remarks will be useful to anyone — I hope that they will — but it’s time I said a few words about Marguerite Young (1908-1995).
I’m no expert on Young or her work, but I have acquired a number of her (somewhat rare) books and I have read around in them a fair amount. From my very partial reading of just one of her books, I became convinced she was a genius, and I admire to no end her ability to write beautifully in the florid idioms and rhetoric of the English Renaissance and Baroque eras. People say that she is obscure, forgotten, unknown, unread. The Paris Review published a piece not long ago that reinforces this cant. It is sloppy work indeed to borrow (or adapt) your headline from a throwaway phrase appearing in Young’s New York Times obituary: “The Most Unread Book Ever Acclaimed” (by Meghan O’Gieblyn, Paris Review Blog, Sep 19 2018). To me this rankles because from the outset Young is framed as a little read author. Now, supposing your publication’s readers are interested in literary excellence, what does the size of an excellent author’s readership matter to begin with? Furthermore, to gauge the size of a readership is no pat task. Who can say who’s picking up her books in old shops and taking them home? I think of that Rilke line: “you whose course is wrongly entered on every chart” (Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. M.D. Herter Norton, p. 74). Now as for that book everyone is talking about just this moment, whether Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries or that new Houllebecq about to be published… I don’t give one hoot.
Every writer who is not a household name is obscure until one “discovers” them, as simple as that. Is S.J. Perelman obscure? Nathanael West? Heinrich von Kleist? Nathalie Sarraute? Madame de Lafayette? You tell me. They’re all among my favorite writers… I have known about Marguerite Young for five or six years I think. She was one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers. If you read her, or even if you don’t, now that you have heard of her, she will no longer be obscure to you. Her books are there waiting, stored on the shelves of libraries and shops, entirely out of print, not always exorbitant. She is not obscure, she is lucid. Moreover, her work is available freely on the Internet in the form of a series of radio adaptations produced by Charles Ruas. There is a truly epic amount of audio available there, including Young in interview — you can hear her speak.
Without being a critic of her work, I have been an advocate of her work on twitter for some time. I have even helped a few readers discover her work. One of them read the entirety of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling! It’s a very strange feeling as a reader to know that you encouraged another reader to embark on a journey of 1,200 pages, and that they made the journey intact.
But the book which has fascinated me to no end, with many interruptions, is not Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, but Young’s Angel in the Forest: An Epic of Two Utopias – A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America (1945). Judging from the title, this work might be a rather dull work of local history, a work of social and religious import, an entry in the utopian catalogue. It is all of these things, I have found it dull at times, though stupefying and wondrous in almost the same instant. Young’s greatest achievement here is to have captured something of the anarchic character of the American interior before it was organized by modernity but to have done so using a phraseology that puts one in mind of the (baroque) elegance of the King James Bible and of John Lyly. (Marguerite Young’s MA thesis was written on the latter, in fact.) I fear it is an inexhaustible work and that even by reading it over many times it will continue to surpass me. Gobsmacked I am by it. Here are two exemplary (and representative) passages from Angel:
Frederick walked in a larger maze than any he had planned, the wilderness, both actual and political. He was a traveling salesman, purely mundane. In that capacity, he had run into all kinds and conditions of men—desperadoes, carpenters, anchorites, botanists, Indian chieftains without tribes, counterfeiters, ragged tailors, preachers without congregations, blacksmiths, prostitutes who looked like fallen angels and smelled like skunks, giants, dwarfs, a mannish bearded lady in a Kentucky tavern, men whose canes concealed swords, false millenniasts, robber barons quoting the work of John Wesley, pregnant women, Shakers, a Punch-and-Judy show, coffinmakers, teamsters, human imagination gone hog-wild. (54)
What was the variety of nature—but a construct of the imagination, a public fantasy, a veering, Athena with the face of Mary, Mary with the face of a woman who squatted on the road, as the pod of her body opened? The erection of a conclusive system would probably be forever beyond man’s powers, Frederick thought. There could be nothing simply and absolutely so—but many possibilities, alluring as bypaths, many visions, deformities, grandeurs, scandals, soldier kingdoms, overladen horses, warped glories, holy cities. The external world, on its entrance to the mind at Harmony, had been ferried from reality to the most fearful unreality—as if the kingdom of God cometh not with observation of nature. Suppose the gulf between the finite and infinite to be itself infinite, however? It would be better to accept the tangible reports of the sensations, wherever possible—parasitic tufts on the maple, a bird in the bush, hooked seeds, the zebra stripes of sunlight on dark grasses, orange trumpet flower, a woman’s breasts. Better to have been a nomadic pioneer, wanderer like nature herself, who leaves her footprints in the marshes. Better to have slept all night in an Indian village, among cripples, babies, and old, flea-bitten dogs. Better to have taken a chance with the worst of men, even the gambler, if he gambled for the love of gambling and not for the false love of a false God. For then men would at least be undeceived. (57)
As I said, her work is out of print. I am lucky to have a lot of it before me, I appreciate it greatly. As a resource for her future and present readers I am taking the liberty of posting some photos of her books and a few very brief excerpts. “Fair use” in copyright being always subject to interpretation, I feel only slightly trepidatious sharing these materials. (If you can prove that you are a copyright holder and you are opposed to the sharing of these brief materials, drop me a line and I would be more than happy to cease and desist.) I think that the Tables of Contents of the two rather ancillary volumes may prove useful to some readers and researchers in locating relevant texts. Lastly, I know that the material aspects of the books may be of interest to some readers.
Also, to this blog’s loyal readers, the many thousands, the happy few — Happy New Year!
Young’s first book, a collection of poems, Prismatic Ground (1937), and “Spring” therefrom.
Young’s second (or third book?), Moderate Fable and Other Poems (1944), and two poems therefrom. Angel in the Forest would be published the following year.
The above edition of Angel in the Forest (with its Table of contents after) is not the original 1945 edition, but a beautiful 1966 reprint by Charles Scribner’s Sons. Note that the jacket text added to the title – An Epic of Two Utopias — A Chronicle of the Experiments by Father George Rapp & by Robert Owen in Nineteenth Century America — is not a true subtitle as it doesn’t appear on the title page or in most bibliographic information. It’s a very nice paratext though, all the more for it being ambiguous in that way. The first edition seems to have had the subtitle A fairy tale of two utopias. I have never seen a first edition of Angel.
Inviting the Muses (1994) was edited by Steven Moore (with input from scholars of Young’s work, including Miriam Fuchs and Martha Sattler) during his time at Dalkey Archive Press, and it contains stories, essays, and book reviews Marguerite Young wrote over the decades. Curiously, Marguerite Young reviewed a lot of books in 1945. The other book reviews are chronologically very few and far between.
A very useful chronology of Young’s life, by Martha J. Sattler:
Marguerite Young, Our Darling (ed. Miriam Fuchs, Dalkey Archive, 1994), contains a wealth of ancillary materials, including about ten photographs of Young (see below), the invitation card to the release party of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (1965) up at the top of this post, the above chronology by Martha Sattler, and so on.
And for good measure I’ll leave you with one of the many thousands of striking passages in Miss MacIntosh, My Darling — from page 265 in the Dalkey reissue. Let’s hope that the French translator Claro manages, as he has been trying I know, to convince a French publisher to take on this book and pay him to translate it.
P.S. Many before me have made guideposts to Marguerite Young’s work, and I would be remiss if I didn’t provide at least a few links, so here goes. They are all themselves full of links, so much to explore: