Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself.

In 1902 a book written by a 19-year-old resident of Butte, Montana, Mary MacLane took the world by storm.  Over 100,000 copies were sold in the first month of its publication.  Banned by some, considered the birth of a new American voice by others, The Story of Mary MacLane brought its young author financial success and social notoriety.  Ernest Hemingway, Hart Crane, even Gertrude Stein praised it.  H.L. Menckon made fun of it.  Pastors in pulpits across the country condemned it.  Mary MacLane even starred in a 1917 movie based on her the men she had known called The Men Who Have Made Love to Me now believed to be lost.

Though Mary MacLane lived to publish several more books included a sort of sequel to The Story of Mary MacLane,  she never again enjoyed the same level of literary or financial success.

Shortly after her death in 1929 at age 48, Mary MacLane faded into obscurity and her work all went out of print until 1993, when the "Wild Woman of Butte" was rediscovered and editions of her work began to appear again.

I heard about her during a presentation on Montana literature during the week I spent touring the state with The Richest Hills, an NEH program for teachers.  Hers was one of several books mentioned that I just had to get a hold of.  Fortunately, the Montana Historical Society's bookstore in Helena had several copies.

So does a book exposing the inner life of a Butte Montana teenager have anything to offer some 111 years after it was first published?

The Story of Mary MacLane is not really a story.  While it may be possible to find an emotional arc in the three months of journal entries that make up Mary MacLane's book, there is no narrative arc.  MacLane sole subject is herself--her thoughts, her feelings, what she calls her genius.  She does briefly discuss her family, the city of Butte, then a bustling town of well over 100,000 people, but she creates only one other character--a former teacher, Fannie Corbin, whom she calls her anemone lady.  MacLane is clearly, openly, in love with Fannie Corbin, though she has  no contact with her during the months her journal covers. When she discusses her love for the anemone lady, MacLane is about as close to openly sexual as it would have been possible to be in 1902.  She does not use the words homosexual or lesbian, but its clear that her desire for Fannie Corbin is more than just friendship.

The rest of the book alternates between her admiration for Napoleon, her expressed love of the devil whose arrival she is waiting for and the lack of recognition her own genius receives.  There is an entry where she explains the 17 pictures of Napoleon she has, and how each shows the man in a different, mostly admirable, light.  That she lists all 17 pictures in this section could have worked well in the hands of a more satirical writer, but MacLane is unfortunately sincere in her love for Napoleon.

That she spends so much time discussing the devil whom she hopes will finally arrive and take her away surely would have been enough to get her tossed out of respectable society even in a place as wild as Butte was in 1902.  I know it would have shocked both of my grandmothers even in the the wildest phase of their youth.  To openly reject God and express your admiration for the Devil has never been something one could easily or openly do in America.  (Name two openly atheist American politicians currently holding office.  You can't because the last one was Congressman Pete Stark who lost his bid for re-election last year.) I kept waiting for it to become clear that she was using the devil as a metaphor for something, perhaps the love of a man, but she was clearly talking about the devil himself.  She felt that only the devil could take some one liker her away from the life she found so limiting.  God would not rescue her, so had no one else to rely on.

As for her genius.....well.....  She claims no artistic talent, nor skill as a writer.  Her genius, she says, is in the ability to feel.  No one can feel things the way she does.

I suspect that even from my description above it's easy to see Mary MacLane as simply typical of a certain type of American teenager.  I can think of several former students who could be her. I usually have one or two a year, even at seventh grade.  With a few updates, probably more than a few, The Story of Mary MacLane could do pretty well in today's Young Adult market, even though it lacks a supernatural element.  But all that said, I still think The Story of Mary MacLane does have something to offer a modern adult reader.

I came up with my view when MacLane discussed The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner published in 1883, a book I admire much more than The Story of Mary MacLane.  One of the characters in Schreiner's book, Lyndall, could be an emotional double for Mary MacLane.  Lyndall wants to escape the bounds of her own provincial upbringing;, she finds the limits placed on women of her time too constricting to bear; she wants a means to express her own genius, though she does not call it this, but can find none.  Lyndall has no use for the conventional roles of women which her sister seems to embrace nor does she find any refuge in religion.  She is a free thinker forced to live among people who do not or will not understand her.  It's little wonder that a young woman like Mary MacLane would find herself in Olive Schreiner's book.

I'd like to suggest that one can read the two as the early genesis of the teenager.  Taken together, and placed on a spectrum with books like My Brilliant CareerThe Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar and today's wide range of YA lit, one can see the history of the teenager as outsider, a character doomed to an emotional genius of feeling with nothing to direct this genius towards.  Most of us either grow out of or simply live through this state and move on to adulthood, but memory of this condition is preserved by books like The Story of Mary MacLane.

So some one hundred and eleven years after its first publication, I think there are many readers who will find a bit of themselves, at least their teenage self, in The Story of Mary MacLane


Jim Randolph said...

Sounds fascinating. Never heard if this. Thanks.

Teresa said...

I've been wondering about this book, since it's just been reissued. I think I may have even requested an e-galley, before I decided to pretty much give up on e-galleys. Your thoughts about her as typical of a certain kind of teenager are intriguing. I'll have to see if my library has it.

Lisa said...

James, I'm curious about how a book like this was discovered & published in 1902 - I'm amazed that a publisher was willing to take it on! Hopefully with the re-issue there will be some information available about her that I can find.

Unknown said...

Great review. I confess I couldn't get further than the first few chapter I found it so tedious. But I feel a bit like that about teenagers. Good thing I don't teach middle school.

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