Post-40 Bloomers: Harriet Doerr’s Impossible Perfection and Happiness

March 29, 2012 | 7 8 min read

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Wallace Stegner once said of Harriet Doerr that she had “an almost flawless lens, with a capacity to make a world out of the fragmentary images she had caught.” He started that statement with “Although [she] came to writing very late in life…” I suspect “Because” is more accurate. With age, the things that matter come into relief, trifles fall away; so with Doerr’s prose, fragments of character, experience, and place strike the reader as all that are necessary, all that carry meaning, all that is real, and beautiful.

On the occasion of her 85th birthday, Doerr wrote a short memoir, 27 pages in which she covered the ground of her entire life — a terrifying moment at the blackboard at age eight, the feel of a glass doorknob, gardeners and butlers more vivid than the relatives whose household they served, then, “Suddenly at seventeen I grew up, fell half in love, and went east to college.” She returned west to continue her studies at Stanford but dropped out, after a year and a half, to marry: “forty-two years of marriage, including two separate pieces of time which, recollected now, impress me as nearly perfect. Later on, after my husband’s death, another came along, and it too approached perfection.”

But more about these many years, and their near perfection, in a moment.

In 2009, I wrote an essay here at The Millions called ““The Mommy Problem,” in which I confessed:

I mine for family status in the biographies of women artists and writers. If a prolific, successful woman-artist has children, I (uncharitably, self-pityingly) think to myself, “She must have a husband who makes money.”

This unattractive thinking came back to me as I immersed myself in Doerr’s luminous work, and the story of her seemingly perfect life.

covercoverThe Work: Doerr wrote two novels — Stones for Ibarra and Consider This, Señora – and a collection of “stories and other inventions,” The Tiger in the GrassIbarra was her first novel and won the National Book Award (then the American Book Award for First Fiction) in 1985; in his NY Times review, Anatole Broyard described it as “a very good novel indeed, with echoes of Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Katherine Anne Porter and even Graham Greene,” and a New Yorker review deemed it “a novel of extraordinary beauty, of unusual finish, of striking originality.” Consider This, Señora also received high praise: Times critic Margo Jefferson, citing the 12 years between the two books, wrote admiringly of the family resemblance from one novel to the next — “But [in Señora] everything is richer, as when an actress takes a role you saw her play a decade ago, and lets you read that decade in her face, her voice and her body.”

I read all three books in a weekend and immediately began re-reading them, savoring sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Doerr’s prose is often compared to a precious jewel for its “clarity and beauty.” I would add elegance, and the mirage of effortlessness — a lightness that belies depth and complexity. Her subject, invariably, is romance — the double-romance that a woman has with both man and place. In Doerr’s fictional worlds (as well as her real-life world), the man is a husband, the place usually rural Mexico. Both loves are complicated and beautiful. As Jefferson wrote, Doerr’s romance “accommodates sadness and rue. That accommodation is what keeps the tidy precision of Ms. Doerr’s style from becoming precious and diminutive.”

The Life: During those 42 years of marriage, Doerr had two children and devoted herself to the roles of wife and mother. When she was pregnant with her second child, the family began making visits to Mexico to oversee husband Albert’s family mining business, and in the late 1950s, Harriet and Albert moved there and stayed until Albert’s death in 1972. Three years later, at age 65, she re-enrolled at Stanford to finish the degree she’d abandoned 47 years earlier.

coverHer writing teacher, John L’Heureux, was impressed by her writing and personally invited her into the Stegner Fellows program upon her graduation (to the initial chagrin, apparently, of the others who’d been admitted by competitive application). The rest, an oft-told legend of “it’s never too late,” is history (or in this case, herstory). Doerr published the award-winning Ibarra when she was 74 years old.

Her 20 years of late-life writing comprise that third period of time which “approached perfection.” Put together with the other two — when her children were young and the family spent summers at a small beach cottage in Southern California, and the years they spent living in Mexico (“impossibly flawless”) — by my count, that’s well over half a life lived in a state of bliss.

What to do with all this happiness and perfection? Was Doerr’s own life not at all complicated by “sadness and rue”? Harriet’s grandfather, Henry Edward Huntington, was a railroad magnate and major collector of art and rare books; it was in fact the year of Harriet’s birth, 1910, when her grandfather sold most of his interest in Pacific Electric Railway and devoted his time to books. She was one of six children and lost her father at a young age, but overall, Harriet was raised in abundance, both materially and culturally.

Albert Doerr, engineer and copper-mining heir, also provided for her amply (she writes often, for example, of her/her characters’ relationships with hired help, particularly full-time gardeners). Those beach-cottage years were the years of the Second World War, when “There was very little right in the rest of the world,” and yet, she wrote, “I am convinced that the scattered houses on the beach and on the hill, the expanse of empty sand, the endless and untroubled coming on of days and nights, the slow hours passing unmeasured and unnoticed, were my first intimations of paradise.”

Did things always come so easily to Doerr, each segment of her life falling into place, perfectly, one after the other? I suppose this question is why I found myself intrigued by this passage from “The Tiger in the Grass”:

I think of a conference in Park City, Utah, where I spoke one afternoon to a number of published and unpublished writers. I explained my late start as an author after forty-two years of writing “housewife” on my income tax form. These years without a profession, from 1930 to 1972, were also the years of my marriage. Hands were raised after my talk, and I answered questions. The final one was from a woman who assumed, incorrectly, these were decades of frustration. “And were you happy for those forty-two years?” she asked, and I couldn’t believe the question. I asked her to repeat it, and she said again, “Were you happy for those forty-two years?”

It was then that I said, “I never heard of anyone being happy for forty-two years,” and went on, “And would a person who was happy for forty-two years write a book?”

Would she? Despite its rhetorical bite, Doerr’s answer is, to me, oblique, and markedly depersonalized. Did the woman who asked the question “assume decades of  frustration,” or was she troubled because she sensed none?

I find myself needing to know that Harriet Doerr’s life was not perfect. Why do I need to know this? I suppose it’s because I’ve reconciled myself to the belief that “you can’t have it all.” That we make choices and live by them and bear fruit in our own particular, valid, and meaningful way. That disappointment and sacrifice are a part of life, no one really gets everything she wants. And that there is no perfect or right way to make a life as a woman and an artist.

Doerr’s biography disturbs that view, threatens to proffer The Perfect Formula: marry young to a decent, wealthy man; devote yourself to him and to motherhood for a long time, thinking not of yourself or your own talents, until those children are grown and that husband is dead. Then, spend your final 20 years developing and perfecting your art, without conflict or distraction. Harriet Doerr, it seems, did have it all, and in spades. The woman in Park City may have just wanted to know if the perfect life was really possible; it seemed to be living and breathing before her eyes.

If the marriage years were neither decades of frustration, nor decades of happiness, then what, in the final accounting, were they? Other than the story of Albert and Harriet’s first date — a boxing match — we know little. Perhaps the couple in Ibarra, Sara and Richard Everton  — striking in their airtight intimacy and unqualified togetherness as they venture off to rural Mexico — provide a reasonable approximation. Everything, including their idealism, is “they,” not “he” or “she”:

Five days ago the Evertons left San Francisco and their house with a narrow view of the bay in order to extend the family’s Mexican history and patch the present onto the past […] To weave chance and hope into a fabric that would clothe them as long as they lived […] But the Evertons expect too much. They have experienced the terrible persuasion of a great-aunt’s recollections and adopted them as their own.

That oneness holds throughout the story, especially through Richard’s illness and death. Unlike many contemporary novels that feature a couple as co-protagonists, it is not a novel “about” a marriage in the sense of exposing its fault lines; the marriage’s inviolability is a given, the reader absorbs fully, if unconsciously, Sara’s and Richard’s fidelity to it. It’s a beautiful trick on Doerr’s part: “Here they are,” the first line of the book reads, “two North Americans, a man and a woman, just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico.”  Here they are, this couple, these two who will be devoted to one another and to this eccentric life they are making together — what else is marriage if not this?

Ursula Bowles, the 79-year-old widow of Consider This, Señora, (roughly Doerr’s age when she started writing the book), was also married to one man for a long time — 55 years. And even while, acknowledging those years, she thinks that she “could scarcely have defined [love],” her dead husband Philip comes to mind often: at one point she is “stunned by a sudden longing to reverse time, touch this Philip’s young mouth again and feel his hand on her young breasts.” She observes her daughter Frances, divorced twice and taken up with a charming but unreliable man, and thinks, “I must explain love to Frances […] Somehow find the words to tell her what love is, what it truly and actually is.” For Doerr, it seems, whatever else love is, it is longevity; it is a lifetime, together.

And yet: Sara and Richard Everton have no children; they live in their own undisturbed world of pleasures, the odd North American couple, who sleep late, and “lift their glasses and laugh” in the kitchen, and drive 100 kilometers to buy a particular shrub for their garden, and light a fire that they do not cook on, as well as candles while they eat and talk. Sometimes “the señor and señora eat out [in the corredor] in the middle of the day and watch the wild birds flock to the imported bird seed.” I wonder what it meant for Doerr to delete motherhood from her images, her memories, of life and love in Mexico.

Two of Doerr’s characters — Sue Ames of Consider This, Señora, and Ann Randall from the story “Carnations,” have suffered their husbands’ infidelities. Sue, a young wife, walked in on her husband Tim with another woman in their own bedroom; Ann, closer to middle age, learns of her husband’s affair by anonymous letter in her mailbox. “In the case of Elliott, her husband, she is out of sight and sound. His eyes focus behind her and his voice is directed to one side. His arms do not reach through the unseen walls.” Ann’s marital future seems precarious. Sue, on the other hand, remarries Tim after five years divorced, five years she spent living alone in Mexico; theirs is a romantic end, the road traveled sad and rueful.

Beset by near-blindness in her final years, Doerr’s lens finally grew flawed. She was working on a book-length memoir, which she never finished. We may never know in her own words the textures and details of the less-than-perfect times of her life; as with most novelists, her fiction is, and isn’t, a window into her life — “I believe the older you get,” she said in an interview, “the more your memory and your imagination become one in the same.”

We do know, or can guess, that Doerr was aware of her own privilege: “They are kind and friendly, but they are strangers to the exigencies of life,” a villager says of Sara and Richard Everton. But we also know that in fact she was no stranger to loss — her father, her husband, her son to cancer, her eyesight. We know that she was an immensely gifted writer who had time only to leave us with three books.

And finally we know that — partly by virtue of the many years she lived, and partly because of what she says she learned in Mexico — she understood that, rich or poor, privileged or not, “if you regard dying as a part of living it makes your life more complete.” Like Ursula Bowles on her death bed, “She could see now that an individual life is, in the end, nothing more than a stirring of air, a shifting of light. No one of us, finally, can be more than that.” If Doerr were to speak before writers today, she might say that perfection is found in holding loosely to this life, to both the beautiful and the sad. Love, family, art, talent — it is here, and it is good, maybe even perfect; but then, of course, it is gone.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is deputy director at Film Forum, a nonprofit cinema in New York City, and she teaches media & film studies at Skidmore College and fiction writing in Warren Wilson College's MFA program. Learn more about Sonya here.