Marguerite Young and Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

About Marguerite Young: Young was an American author of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and criticism. Her work evinced an interest in American identity, social issues, and environmentalism. Her first book of poetry was published in 1937, while she was teaching high-school English in Indianapolis. In that same year, she visited New Harmony, Indiana, the site of two former utopian communities, where her mother and stepfather resided. She relocated to New Harmony and spent seven years there, beginning work on Angel in the Forest, a study of utopian concepts and communities, which was published in 1945 to universal acclaim, winning the Guggenheim and Newberry Library awards. Over the next fifty years, while maintaining an address in New York’s Greenwich Village, she traveled extensively and wrote articles, poetry, and, book reviews for numerous magazines and newspapers. She was also renowned as a teacher of writing at a number of venues, including the New School for Social Research and Fordham University. Young’s epic novel Miss MacIntosh, My Darling was informed by her concept of history and pluralistic psychology, as well as her poetic prose style with its many layers of images and languages.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Zachary Tanner. See his bio below.

“I always thought of Miss MacIntosh as the center of the wheel, the hub, then the spokes as the subsidiary, secondary characters, and the wheel as endlessly expanding like a universe.” — Marguerite Young1

Out of print for just shy of two decades now (but not for long?2), I find something quite ironic: this book is very rare, and yet even today there are undoubtedly more people who own a copy of one of its five editions than there are starry-eyed wax house figurines who have the patience to not only keep the boundless illusion of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling3 illuminated detail by redundant detail, reading uninterrupted for a few hours each day up to several weeks, but beyond this, to sit with it and love it as it should be loved. It is an exceptionally long book in which exceptionally little happens by conventional narrative standards. Most readers who have grown to see their pocket-sized corporate ad-lattice as an appendage of their autonomy, or, say, a novel as a “story,” will find themselves not only disinterested in this book, they will scorn it, for it is an affront to their sense of time.

Tempus fugit! Except when you’re reading Young, or Proust, or Sterne, the grand dilators. What is more, when reading Marguerite, one must die to oneself several times and keep failing to self-actualize after diligent effort to the contrary, one must fall into and climb out of grief, despair, and loneliness to read her, whereas most novels require little more than passing into and out of art—either situation is as hard to picture in your typical monolingual North American person as it is to picture a pair of sumo wrestlers playing racquetball. Such may be the plight of all long, tricky books, yet with each gigantic brick of late-20th century prose-poetry, certain questions must be asked: 1) why isn’t it still in print?, 2) should I drop half of my minimum-wage paycheck on whatever copy drops below $100 on eBay, or is some small press soon going to reprint it?, then, if the said small press, 3) can we make money on this reprint?, and finally, I as a reader ask rhetorically, 4) should all great novels be reprinted?

All of these are ways of asking: is this book worth reading, or more complexly, if it isn’t going to be reprinted, worth pursuing? Should I, as a person who will die and am gifted but a brief blip in this psychosexual wasteland, spend my time with such frivolities as “experimental” books that will be a chore to find in the first place, and not only waste myself on those in general, but on this book, which seems to get pretty mixed reviews? Even though she’s my favorite author, I can count all the people I’ve ever met who might like Miss MacIntosh, My Darling on one finger. Though that’s a dubious statement because I’ve never really met myself, that is transcended myself, and likely never will, and if I do, not until I die, but then who will be there to match the feeling with the memory of this transient reference? So, for this biased reader who owns three copies (but no more per an agreement with my spouse), if I was recommending it to someone who might like it, I’d still caution them: Maybe you don’t have the time right now to give it all it’s worth!

This book is the tortoise that makes the sloth seem like a hare, but that’s okay if we remember that the universe is tortoises all the way down, that is, you can still have a good time if you acknowledge chaos as the orchestrating principle of the universe, those of us open to and a little tingly at the thought of such cosmic free association as a stack of tortoises regressing into infinity are the kind of readers to whom this book will appeal.

“All my writing is about the recognition that there is no single reality. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.”4

Any human familiar in the way only we can be with the vertiginous experience of consciousness should be able to appreciate Marguerite, but few have the patience, initiative, and proper illative sense. It takes work to appreciate this book as it takes work to appreciate a cadenza by first learning the instrument it’s written for and practicing other music for several years or decades before then returning to the initial piece that set the dreamer dreaming. Undoubtedly the listener who relistens is different than the one who first heard, so too must we not only read Marguerite, but set her down and spend some time wandering through what Donna J. Haraway calls “the relentless emergent relationality that is the world,”5 perhaps raising children or falling into and out of love ad nauseum, as ever shall you, yourself, do until you die or happen to pick the book back up.

My quest to procure the complete works of the author who wrote the gay book that so enchanted me as a 23-year-old valet reading at a curbside podium in New Orleans began when I read vol. 9, no. 3 of the Review of Contemporary Fiction:

All the books I have written have been one book, from the beginning. The first poem I ever wrote, about loss, when I was five years old, expressed the themes of everything I would ever write. My early volumes of Poetry, Prismatic Ground6 and Moderate Fable, also express a sense of loss. And Angel in the Forest, examining the 19th-century communities of Father George Rapp and Robert Owen’s socialist experiment in New Harmony, Indiana, is about abandoned utopias. I would say my theme has always been paradise lost, always the lost cause, the lost leader, the lost utopia. MMMD carries on this theme because Miss MacIntosh, with the loss of her wig, shows herself to be the orphaned angel, the asexual angel, neither male nor female, unable to live without her mask of illusions. Losing the illusions, she shewed herself to be the denuded character every person would be if confronted with the loss of her illusion as she was.7

However trite it might sound to hear another 20th-century artist assert that all of their work Is but One Work, I’d say the unprepared reader would also be someone who hasn’t read Moby-Dick (1851), Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), and all of Lyly8, or, perhaps, someone who has but would think twice before saying to hell with Literature and checking out for a three-week opioid bender in a seat next to a radical spinster on a charter bus trip through Midwest Erewhon.

Even if you’ve not the time nor sensibility to enjoy this sort of fiction, I will say (if you’ve got the money), this 1198-page Prose Sonata for Aeolian Harp still makes a gorgeous objet d’art no matter which one you snag, as all editions were seemingly printed on moth wings and bathed in stardust, the only novel I’ve ever read aside from Proust or Burton that I have also used as a base for succulents, to color-compliment a bust atop my piano, and other such ideas one gets from Southern Living, and so I am getting beside myself, but that seems quite appropriate, for often does Vera Cartwheel, aka Leopold Gloom, the omniscient dreamer with a funeral in her brain and a grab-bag of preternatural penchants for daydreaming, stargazing, and free-associating, who will project herself into the future by journeying into the past on a long bus ride to the rainbow’s end of Everywhere, seeking her bald imposter, her sexless Nurse Matilda.

When Miss MacIntosh, My Darling was finally printed after 17 years9 of 9-to-5 diligence, Ruth Stephen, a friend and the editor of nine-issue lit mag, Tiger’s Eye, that once published working excerpts of the book,10 threw her a “musical champagne supper…at Stone Legend on the lawn by torch and moonlight or inside the house if it rains…seven p.m. until eternity.”11 I seem to have lost the iPhone photos of the printed photos of this, but trust me when I say it was elegant and you had to be there: bohemians in tuxes playing guitars, people sitting alone on divans and chaise lounges flipping quite comically—who starts a thousand-page book such as this at a cocktail party?—through the first few chapters of this gargantuan monstrosity, and in many pictures a genuine smile on Marguerite’s weary face. With one of its paperback reprints, the Dalkey Archive Press used a Before image from the mid-40s on Volume 1 and on Volume 2 an After image of the author lovingly cradling the massive typescript in the mid-60s.

The first time I read Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, I read it as much criticism has interpreted it: a great gender-bender from the time before women’s rights became common sense. Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji (11th Century), Baron Corvo’s Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (written in 1904, published in censored form in 1934, finally released to us as the Baron intended in 1977), and Woolf’s Orlando (1928) are some other classics I’ll teach in my queer fiction class if a gaggle of undergrads should but give me their afternoon out on the lawn beneath a blooming Japanese magnolia. After my first read, I was also certain, if nothing more, that it had the merit of other great novels-by-poets like The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), and Livro do Desassossego (1982).

Though all of us North American anglophones are complicit in blood-sucking the earth, the genocide of indigenous populations, and the slaughtering of black Americans, we have come a long way in respecting white women. It is not now so bizarre to us as it seemed in 1965, that Marguerite’s indulgent mega-novel was published by a major New York publisher, but I’d like to take a second to appreciate that regardless. For this fact—no little achievement let us remember—it is no surprise that in the following decades, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling was the subject of much feminist scholarship.

It is now relevant to mention that Marguerite most vehemently disagreed with inaccurate feminist interpretations of her work, her big book a Mobius strip that is not one or two-sided and therefore given to binary interpretation, but simply many-sided or universally-sided, so an anomaly, or something which can only be admired for what it is, in all its paradoxical complexity. From my 21st-century perspective, I take for granted the realization that binary dialectics are inherently reductive and insufficient lenses through which to ponder a Tuesday afternoon, let alone a rococo masterpiece of pluralism such as this. From the remove of her cosmological poetics, there are no comparisons of any one thing with any other, for all is one, the novel an organicist production in time, quite like a living thing.

For instance, I have a copy on my computer of an essay sent to her for approval by former student Erika Duncan, titled “Esther Longtree, Marguerite Young’s Perpetually Pregnant Woman.”12 It immediately stuck out to me in her archive for the intensity with which admonishments were scrawled throughout the margins and between the double spaced lines, not to mention several arrows and lines connecting phrases like “…who was mocked for having worked on her novel for eighteen years while Joyce was praised for the same achievement…” or “She blames a certain inner vulgarness in women…” with aggressive marginalia like inaccurate, typical lack of grammar, stupid interpretation of some or all, some more foolishness, and, my favorite, lies! lies! lies!, which eventually becomes dirty lie, dirty lie. Signed and dated by Marguerite, February 15, 1979, quite clearly across the top third of the title page is written: This is to notify you that I forbid this propagandistic article about my book concerning the creative beauties of maternity as a world of illusion. I have the backing of scholars and lawyers. This former student is attributing to the book her problems. I hold you legally responsible (Marguerite’s emphasis). And finally at the bottom of the last page:

I am paving nobody’s way!!!! The book is not a metaphor for motherhood.

I personally take similar qualms with a certain transphobic, laudatory piece that I will not dignify with a citation beyond mentioning that it subtitles the novel “a Feministmonial,” which, in its ironic exclusivity, proves exactly my point:

Vera Cartwheel set out to discover the gravity of Miss MacIntosh. The story’s revelation is androgynous and transvestite. Ordinarily, transvestites make me angry, I feel they mock women. But Young is an artist making a statement which happens to work here. If there is a central vision to the book, it is this of being born and nourished by truth’s wildest paradoxes, and the fact that authentic romanticism can only be independent.

There are no easy interpretations of the book as there are no easy interpretations of Miss MacIntosh, no matter how long Vera replays the events in her mind. My absolute favorite line in the entire novel, the disappearing center of the whole shebang, the focus around which the music of the spheres dances: “Ever since, in a moment of extreme revelation when I have seen that people are not exactly what they have seemed to be, I have tried to be charitable, not only for their sakes but as a retribution for my cruelty to my darling who had seemed so very plain. For I had been cruel to her, and I had discovered her essential baldness.”

Like Mona Lisa, Miss MacIntosh (and through her Cosmic Wheel with its infinite spokes, Marguerite too) refuses to participate in the performance of Western femininity, of contemporary society; she confounds the Male Gaze with her bald head and amputated breast, above the gender politics that so insignificantly attach themselves to a transcendent work simply because of the genitals of the author. What’s more disturbing than people being hesitant about her being a woman is the look I get from people when I lovingly pull a picture of my beloved Marguerite up on my phone. Immediately, the tale I’ve been spinning for them about this wonderful book by this wonderful author loses its glamour. But, she’s ugly! they say, suddenly suspicious of my obsession. Surely if they are so quickly repulsed by the sexless spinster, they will despise and reject the bald, disfigured governess, as she was rejected on the night before her wedding by the preacher. These hateful people are those who have never felt unseen or invalidated. They have that privilege. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling can be easily read as a vast, dark organism of married opposites, where one is not so very baffled by a genderless or intersex body, for this is a world where snowflakes fall indoors, doorknobs turn into reincarnated sultans, and the ocean of Vera’s mind batters the memory of her innocence. It is more effectively read as a trans or intersex or cyborg book than a feminist book because everything in it is constantly in a state of permutation and complex metamorphosis—no more ambitious poem such as this since Ovid’s Metamorphoses (8 AD).

As Steve Shaviro aptly puts it:

In style as in content, the novel is outrageously hyperbolic, a universe of plural affirmations, of displacements and substitutions, of paradoxes and contradictions, far richer and more diverse than any simple presence could be…. Everything is said so many times, in so many different ways, that it becomes impossible to isolate or specify anything which might simply be asserted once and for all. Reiteration becomes a principle of variation and difference…. It moves out into the chaos of unresolved passions, the multiplicity of the world, rather than folding back upon itself and asserting its own constitutive quality as language or consciousness.13

What a tragedy that this book was not considered in LeClair’s In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (1987), the dense fabric-like prose-poetry, variated in space and time in several levels of complementary and interpenetrating layers, a thousand pages of synesthetic thoughtspeech that at its most abstract reaches to the horizontal and vertical axis imagery of As I Lay Dying (1930) and at its acutest, such as the long never-ending night of Vera’s fourteenth birthday, reads like a bloated Carpenter’s Gothic (1985)stoned on 4acoDMT.14 If McElroy was “our first planetary realist”15 with Women and Men (1987), then by the same token Marguerite is our first galactic realist, for the poetics of her novel work largely by the same principle, that the weight of nothingness or the other-than-ness of dark matter is what holds what little light there is together, and never before nor since has this universality been so authentically translated into the art of fiction. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is the most brooding English-language novel since Melmoth, the Wanderer (1820). It can at times feel like being cast adrift alone on a boundless torrential sea where angels with peacock-feather eyes shrink into infinity and the sound of lost souls scream for all eternity from the night of their shipwreck as light keeps traveling long after its source passes out of existence. A geography of consciousness, an open, paracrystalline orgy of incoming sense data raining into the sea of memory, the darkness which preceded, created, holds together and will exist long after the light, a person not so much a set of choices, but a complex state of interdependent probabilities at any moment living several hundred thousand lives in several hundred billion places and times, bleeding together in and out of each other as they do in the most disorienting passages of Chandler Brossard’s sublimely trippy-dippy Wake Up. We’re Almost There (1971) or as they are plate-zapped into the colloidal unconscious in McElroy’s aforementioned classic, this collective principle most clearly elucidated in the character of Mr. Spitzer, who may not be himself but his dead brother, and our narrator, Vera, who remembers her mother, the Opium Lady, who may also be Cousin Hannah, who may be read as a figment of Spitzer’s imagination if we forget that we are in this world through Vera, who was raised by Miss MacIntosh, who drowned in the sea, which might be nothing more than a figment of the Opium Lady’s mind, who, let us remember, is a phantom of Vera’s past living forever after (or, more likely, until Vera’s death) in the mind of the daughter she left behind long before death. Indeed, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, better than any other book, marries micro/macro world structures such that an unreal such-is-life-ness explodes between, shattering the illusion of all binaries, leaving only the singular amoebic gestalt of Being, no part separate from the whole, the whole operating in some higher dimensionality, crafted by a novelist whose imagery evokes the orgiastic infinities of melting faces in Hindu architecture. For even the grand patron of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ms. Minna Weissenbach, who hired a 25-year-old Marguerite as a reader,16 the living basis for the Opium Lady, admired the author for her ability to dream without drugs.17

Between my first and second readings, I aged four years and put my fingerprints all over 10 boxes from Young’s archive, in doing so skimming through her personal photographs, some friendly garden shots of Anaïs Nin in a translucent white robe, unopened end-of-life correspondence, hoarded doll wig catalogs, pages of the original Miss MacIntosh, My Darling typescript, and, get this, the spec script for a film adaptation! When I returned from Yale, I read the rest of her work, for I felt alone in a dying universe, in love with a dead author, as Vera is in love with a dead nursemaid. Up until a few months ago, I aspired to go back to school one day, that I might, in the elbow-patch security of the Western university system, become the scholar to finally put it all together (never had I heard of Miriam Fuchs18). Indeed, at one time this essay was alive as the dream of being the one to translate Miss MacIntosh, My Darling into Spanish or to perhaps treat her life in the sort of biography she wrote about her angels, Father George Rapp, Robert Owen, James Whitcombe Riley, and Eugene Victor Debs.

But that was years ago. It wasn’t until 2020, after meeting George Salis and enjoying his emphatic praise of one of my favorite authors (Alexander Theroux, to whom he most kindly passed along a photo of my toddler in a rocking chair holding our first edition of Darconville’s Cat), that I asked if he’d read Young, and whether or not he ever planned to write an Invisible Books post about my favorite invisible book. He had fairly strong negative feelings (though positive ones as well, explaining how a reader could open the book at random and savor its poetry), as, in his lovable, ruthless precocity, he also has against The Recognitions (1955). I learned that he had not finished it, though, he had only read the first volume and needed a long break from an experience he described as filled with “semantic satiation,”19 but told me he would eventually get to the second volume, and only then would he write a review.

To be fair, he has a point. Aestheticists will have some obvious qualms with this enormously overdrawn organicist conceit. The poet is guilty of a capital sin: the hyper-reiteration of metaphor. Yet, this is just what Anaïs Nin praises as Marguerite’s special genius in her fantastic page-and-a-half introduction to the two-volume HBJ paperback box set: “The book is also a canto to obsession. Life is filled with repetition culminating in variations which indicate the subtlety of man’s reactions to experience,” and then, quoting Marguerite, “‘To get hold of a character I may have expanded it took much but if I shortened it it would not be an obsession, and obsession is what possesses people. If I removed the repetitions I would remove one of the motifs of life itself.’”

What was her aim with the novel? In her essay “Making of the Big Novel,”20 she asserts, “I accept the definition of a novel as a poem of being and consciousness.” And here’s the more or less running advertisement for her fiction course at the New School (where she taught from 1977-1992):

Fiction as the art of human nature in all its diversities, with emphasis on the beauty and power of language as the vehicle of personal expression; uses of metaphor, musical phrasing, sentence structure, variations of style. Emphasis on poetic or artistic & psychological acclimatization of the writer toward the subject; close scrutiny of creative processes in each individual; choice & evaluation of material out of which fiction can evolve; assistance in organic handling of this material.21

Wow! Sign me up!

We might also turn to the earlier books. Angel in the Forest, a book best read “when there was nothing to do but imagine the unimaginable,”22 is interesting as the author’s transition from very neat Browning-esque poetry to overblown, mythopoetic run-on sentences, or an early example of a little something my workshop professors liked to call “creative nonfiction,” and here warrants special recognition as Young’s prose genesis:

I myself had been, before I came to the writing of the novel Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, by way of an epic nonfiction work Angel in the Forest, a poet and teacher of poetry writing at Indiana University. The measured music of poetry becomes the unmeasured and perhaps immeasurable music of the novel, that form which seems to be, richly grounded in literary tradition, the ultimate revelation of modernity—that form which gives most scope to subjectivity, thematic movements and countermovements, inquiry into variations of human character and destiny.23

Angel in the Forest would also get her accepted for multiple residencies at Yaddo, where she eventually became friends with Truman Capote24 and Carson McCullers,25 and shortly after its publication in 1945, a forty-page novel excerpt with the working title of The Worm in the Wheat was accepted by Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s.26

Who knew that she would spend the next twenty years collecting angels and would craft, in Mr. Spitzer, the gentlest effete of world literature since Swann?

What follows the hallucinatory opening bus scene of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is the longest, slowest English prose poem that has ever been written. The exterior journey of the bus ride is a catalyst for Vera’s interior journey, the Midwest the gateway to the Past, which is the only way forward, that she might find the what-could-ever-remain-of-my-dear-Mary-Poppins on the abandoned streets and in the dim dives of Old Everywhere, desperately seeking any shattered pieces left behind by the long-dead, ascetic governess, Georgia MacIntosh, the only person she ever loved, who took her own life by walking into the sea naked as the day she was born, the only memory of this dearly beloved darling her things cast about the shore: the black umbrella, the yellow mackintosh, and the red wig with green ribbon left wandering, carried by an errant horseshoe crab.

To understand why the audience raised on cinema will despise this book, let’s review the major action of our sequence to detail the macrocosmic narrative structure that made coming across an abandoned film adaptation so hilarious to me. Our first major section of the novel is Vera’s autobiography, culminating in the night of her fourteenth birthday party a couple hundred pages in, which is the beginning of the 1000-page denouement. That night, Miss MacIntosh is revealed as the bald pretender, horrifying in the never-ending dark as Crucifer in Darconville’s Cat (1981), the mad doctor in Ryder (1928) and Nightwood (1936), or Large Marge in PeeWee’s Big Adventure (1985). Had the novel ended here, cutting out the stories of Cousin Hannah, Mr. Spitzer, and Esther Longtree, Marguerite would have been conventionally laureled such as her Yaddo contemporaries McCullers and Capote. So, what really, do we gain in the last 1000 pages of a 200-page book that has been expanded to 1198? The Opium Lady’s alphabetized encyclopedic lists, for one, which should please any fan of Barth, Sorrentino, or Rabelais, memories of things forgotten at the bottom of the sea, and a forever synaptic channel between the memory of the book and the sight of a corset, just as I can’t help think of Robbe-Grillet’s Dans le labyrinthe (1959) when I stand on a veranda and watch banana leaves swaying in the breeze. By page 349, Cousin Hannah, the feminist pariah, has taken over the story, returning from her timeless voyages and battles with spoils like jeweled daggers and poison cups, always riding her white horse, El-Burraq, who was named “after the horse which Mohammed the Prophet had tethered at the Wailing Wall for a moment before they had taken the invisible road which ascended into heaven.” Cousin Hannah’s vagabonding tales, as though she were one who had voyaged with Jason, Sinbad, et al., comes in waves like the surface of the ocean, the hallucinations of a psychedelic trip, and the singular fabric of spacetime itself. From there, around page 500, we transition to Mr. Spitzer, the deaf composer, who is not sure if he is himself or his flamboyant twin brother, Peron, who fell or jumped from a window many years ago, who if he was still Peron and not himself after all, could still hear his dead brother’s, the deaf composer’s (that is his own?) music of the spheres just as we hear the magic of the sea in the conch shell, as we project our own irises into Hubble images of nebulae. This is the section that will cause most readers to put the book down. In multivolume editions, it runs from the last hundred or so pages of the first volume to the last few hundred of the second. It is a novel-within-a-novel crafted by a poetics of inundation, and I have more than one note reading, “How long has this Spitzer novella been going on?” I forgot that it runs nearly 400 pages. Whereas earlier sections are quite akin to her kindred masters of psychonarration Woolf and Corvo, the Spitzer affair reads like Beckett’s trilogy. Through an entropic onslaught of imagery, a novel metaphysics of silence is philosophized, the counterpoint of paradox established as its own musical art, the song of the nameless dead. This section really drags on like some of the longer drawing-room scenes in Proust. It is quite tiring, and why I will spend some time away from my dearly beloved book before reading it for a third time. However, in this endless extension of metaphor, we achieve variety in similarity, or vice versa, universality in differentiation, the grand paradox of human relation, the golden fleece of sociology: “Life was this infinite variety of moves and countermoves—accompanied, however, by infinite monotone, as Mr. Spitzer, to his early sorrow, had found—a few repetitive notes, wandering flute notes coming from a cloud or from no known source—a wearisome sameness like this poor brother he was, alone and groping through the dark, only approximating what his brother had been when he was alive.” The repetitions of this enormous poem accumulate finally in a silence that “was greater than sound, even as one star did not extend its margins through all the universe but was lost in the everlasting fields of night, and night was greater than day, a momentary gleaming like the firefly seen by the blind man who was left with only one sliver of glass upon his eyeballs when the windows of his eyes were shattered into crystal dust and sand.” We briefly return to Vera and Miss MacIntosh, still at breakfast the morning after Vera’s fourteenth birthday, and the abandonment she feels, that is her burden alone to bear, for there are no others to love her after she is gone, when Miss MacIntosh strips and walks far out where “there was only water, the firmament laid upon the firmament, I should remember her as the lonely heart of all, even as she had been in that last month where the old values had shifted before my eyes, the old certainties had been broken and like the waves wandering and tossed as the sorrows of the human heart were enlarged beyond nature.” By 943, we have been pulled here, there, and everywhere by the narrative tides such that we have been spat back upon the shore: in the bus in the middle of the night headed to What Cheer. Here we are surprised to find the shift to the highly efficient Christian hangman and Esther Longtree’s sad, magnificent story recounted to Vera over the course of a new never-ending night by the mother of us all, whom it turns out the novel has been about all along, that there is no being so beautiful as non-being, otherwise being “Owt to luntsch.”

Beyond its tedious pacing and repetitive syntax and imagery, “this transforming sea which changed all bodies and knew no walls, no limitations,” Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is a book that seems more concerned with constructing the space and time of consciousness than it does with illustrating a plot. Novels that do this particularly well, such as Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) or Samuel R. Delany’s leather-daddy epic Dhalgren (1975), are usually shelved in the SF section. However, its preoccupation with the weight of non-being, its pluralist social politics, popcorn sentences27 like Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), her impeccable use of Flaubert’s pluperfect mode (the pluperfect is the tense of most imagination and memory, for such is the mind that it folds in on itself, like layers of transmuting flower petals opening and bleeding into one another in a rainbow synapse of personhood within the skull, the body nothing but the birth of a dead skeleton, something that would only happen for a time), and the relentless omnipresence of what seems common in the universe but rare in literature, that is the Obliterative Sense, together ensure that this book transcends gender and genre, no matter how fun it may be to think of it as a Women’s Classic or literary speculative fiction, especially given not a little bit of our, what was it?, “galactic realism”: “The creation was not the stars. The mother of creation was this great abyss swallowing moons, suns, stars, city lights, cities, long-haired water lilies fringed by golden ripples under dying moons. Orion flying as if it were a bird. The creation was this void where the stars went out like city lamps.”

To conclude, a brief anecdote: Stoned on Swiss absinthe I sat reading outside the coffee shop when I was interrupted by a loquacious man with only one hand – like something out of the book itself. This greatly disturbed me. I was on a date with my partner, and our baby was with grandma, and I was quite sublimely lost in the beginning of the second volume when he disturbed us. He quickly got to talking about being born without a hand, young people, Stephen Hawking, and the nature of space and time. As I do when someone interrupts me while I’m clearly reading, I threw out a few references to sodomy and autofellatio, but this little deterred my interlocutor, and recalling the episode, I shame myself, for by the end of our conversation, I’d grown quite warm to this fleeting phantom, as someone who might have walked out of the novel itself, as the dead and unreal who haunt the Opium Lady’s bed-chamber.

If we cannot take pleasure in such diversion in life, we cannot take pleasure in the art of fiction; good fiction like Miss MacIntosh, My Darling reminds us that people are more important than art, and once we realize this, we can begin to love ourselves, and so read as Marguerite would have us read.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

NOTES

1“A Conversation with Marguerite Young” by Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs first appeared in the Review of Contemporary Fiction vol .9, no .3 (Fall 1989) and was later reprinted in Marguerite Young, Our Darling (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994).

2Must I cite a tweet?

3Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (Scribner’s, 1965), a book, like a thin cut of rare fish, most readers likely spent upwards of $80 just to try, if they are stranded in some godforsaken region without a university library. It has been reprinted four times: in single-volume hardcover (Peter Owen, 1966), single-volume pocket paperback (Signet, 1967HBJ), two-volume paperback box set (Harvest/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), and, most recently, two separate two-volume paperback printings (Dalkey Archive Press, 1993).

4 See “A Conversation with Marguerite Young”.

5Donna J Haraway, Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors That Shape Embryos (North Atlantic Books, 2004), xvii.

6 Prismatic Ground (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1937) was by far the most difficult book to get my hands on. I tried for years to get a copy, unwilling to pay the outrageous asking price of $350 or so for a 60-page book of poems. I was desperate to read the book until I requested a PDF copy from her archive a few months ago.

7See “A Conversation with Marguerite Young”.

8“I wrote my master’s thesis at the University of Chicago on the birds and beasts of Euphues – his England—and for that, I had to study the history of every bird and beast there ever was.” From “Marguerite Young, The Art of Fiction LXVI” by Charles Ruas, Paris Review 71 (Fall 1977). https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3547/the-art-of-fiction-no-66-marguerite-young. In this interview, Marguerite also refers to herself as a “graveyard poetess,” “prosaic sprite,” and a “pluralist.” She also confirms that the eponymous nanny’s suicide by sea was directly inspired by Virginia Woolf and says, “When I began MMMD I fully thought it would take two years. If I had known it would take eighteen years, I would have dropped in holy horror.”

9Or is it 18? She contradicts herself all over the place, just as in her manuscripts she would scrawl “delete” and “keep” in the margins on either side of a single passage, other times writing “delete” above “keep,” or “keep” above “delete.”

10The front matter in volume one from my HBJ box-set includes a nice list of all the places excerpts once appeared: “Acknowledgments to publications of chapters of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling are made to the following magazines: The Tiger’s Eye, Mademoiselle, Harper’s Bazaar, London Harper’s Bazaar, New World Writing, Botteghe Oscure, Discovery, Western Review, Literary Review.”

11From Ruth’s personal invitation, a copy of which I handled at the archive, also reproduced on page 12 of Marguerite Young, Our Darling. There is a tercet at the bottom of the card reading: “Since Marguerite collects angels/Be an angel and come/You may shed your wings if you wish”.

12 Marguerite Young Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. https://archives.yale.edu/repositories/11/resources/1653 Accessed March 16, 2021.

13Steven Shaviro, “Exorbitance and Death: Marguerite Young’s Vision”, which can also be found in the Review of Contemporary Fiction vol .9, no .3 and in Marguerite Young, Our Darling.

14A semi-synthetic psilocybin analog.

15Tom LeClair, “The Novel as Kaleidoscope”, The Washington Post Book World, 22 March 1987: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/entertainment/books/1987/03/22/the-novel-as-kaleidoscope/e5929a03-c15d-44b7-ae4f-41c9090c8188/.

16I know she was 25 at the time thanks to the spectacular Chronology written by Martha J. Sattler, which was printed in Marguerite Young, Our Darling. The book also mentions a forthcoming Descriptive Bibliography by the same writer, which I have followed to such dead ends as faculty webpages at North American Universities where a “Martha J” or “Sattler” or “Martha Sattler” has ever worked, obituaries from various periodicals across the country, and an inquiry to Steven Moore, who secured the reprint rights for Dalkey Archive Press in the early 90s: “Sattler submitted her bibliography to me in 1994/95, and I wanted to publish it, but Dalkey’s boss (John O’Brien) had no interest in it, and kept postponing its publication until I left in 1996, and then just ignored it. I didn’t stay in touch with Martha, so I don’t know what if anything she did with it after that.” If anyone knows Martha or how I might get a hold of her manuscript, please, let me know.

17 Mrs. Minna Weissenbach, bed-ridden, opioid-addicted patron of Millay, who hired a 25-year-old Marguerite to read for her and from whom Marguerite was gifted a silver drinking cup that once belonged to John Keats, which she kept on her nightstand for the rest of her life. See “Marguerite Young, The Art of Fiction LXVI”.

18Her essays were first published in Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction and Review of Contemporary Fiction vol .9, no .3, but are quite nicely collected in Marguerite Young, Our Darling, which she edited. “Marguerite Young’s Utopias: ‘The Most Beautiful Music [They] Had Never Heard’” is particularly valuable for its exploration of the flour miller, an archetype that shows up in every book, “…whose story Young says she has never finished, speaks convincingly for all that the farmers cannot see because it cannot be clearly represented; it has no single signifier.” This essay and the other, “Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling: Liquescence as Form,” are indispensable. As the very last passage in Angel in the Forest reminds us, “There will always be as many flours as there are millers” (330).

19A lost Instagram message that I don’t have the mobile data to access where I sit to complete this bibliography.

20 COMPASS: Focus on Women, n.d., 30-31.

21“Inviting the Muses” Mademoiselle, 1965. Reprinted in Inviting the Muses (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994).

22Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1945), also reprinted in paperback by Dalkey Archive Press in 1994.

23See “Inviting the Muses”.

24To whom she introduced William S. Burroughs, after Chandler Brossard, who worked with Capote at The New Yorker, said he couldn’t introduce him “to you vultures” (i.e. Burroughs and David Kammerer). See Ted Morgan’s Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (1988), 94.

25“By her own account, she welcomed the advances of the poet Allen Tate but rebuffed those of Miss McCullers, telling her at Yaddo in 1946, ‘Well, Carson, if I could love any woman, it would be you.’” From “Marguerite Young, 87, Author and Icon, Dies”, The New York Times,20 November 1995: https://www.nytimes.com/1995/11/20/us/marguerite-young-87-author-and-icon-dies.html.

26See Sattler’s Chronology.

27“When I was writing the first few books, what I would do is write a bunch of sentences and then go back and expand and explode those sentences, pack as much into them as I could, so they’d kind of be like popcorn kernels popping . . . all this stuff in there to make the writing dense, and beautiful for its density.” From “William T. Vollmann, The Art of Fiction No. 163” by Madison Smartt Bell, Paris Review 156 (Fall 2000). https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/620/the-art-of-fiction-no-163-william-t-vollmann.

Zachary Tanner earned a degree in moving images from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Their fiction has appeared in The Collidescope, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and the Southwestern Review. Zachary lives with a spouse and two children in a small house in Louisiana and will soon rewrite a gigantic multiverse book titled Margie and the Atomic Brain.

One thought on “Marguerite Young and Miss MacIntosh, My Darling

  1. Great review! It’s so nice to meet a fellow MMMD/Young lover. I have all her books (only one copy of MMMD though) except Prismatic Ground. I hope to get it soon. I was lucky enough to be in a Facebook group reading of MMMD with Steven S. We had discussion threads for each chapter. He published it as an EPUB too and he’s on Twitter and Facebook. That’s a travesty that Mattler’s bibliography wasn’t published. I would love to read it as well. After that read through I decided I had nothing better to do than study it for the rest of my life so I’m writing a paragraph by paragraph commentary (on chapter 6) and reading it as a podcast (chapter 13) for the heck of it. I was able to buy an EPUB copy of the book but that site is gone now so I would love to see an edition as an ebook. I converted it to Kindle and PDF to make it searchable and to be able to break it up by paragraphs. That really brings out the symbolism. Thank you so much for writing this and to my friend on Twitter for sharing your review with me.

    Like

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