Joan Chase: Our Childhood Edens and Lost Orchards of Memory

- | 3

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

Every year I teach Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein to first-year college students, who can’t quite believe it was written by a girl their age. How could someone so young create a work so furiously complex, alive with the energies of need, anger, love, and alienation? But then, who would have known freakishness so well as a bookish girl in a male-dominated world, secretly convinced she’d killed the mother she never knew? “When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me,” the Creature tells his creator, Victor Frankenstein. “Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?” Yet the Creature’s own consciousness makes avoiding this pain impossible, and, like any writer, he is drawn to examine it: “[O]f what a strange nature is knowledge!” he tells Victor. “It clings to the mind, when it has once seized on it, like a lichen on the rock.” Knowledge brings pain. But knowledge — and its exploration, in stories — is irresistible.

The sorrowing rage of a precocious daughter who felt spurned by her father and responsible for her mother’s death certainly drives the novel. But its origins aren’t quite that simple. Frankenstein was a book Mary Shelley had to write, for reasons she might never have been able to explain. That inward pressure is part of the alchemy that makes any novel an even bigger and stranger experience for its writer (and its reader) than the writer knows. While we may sometimes connect the real Mary Shelley with her brooding Creature, Frankenstein’s enduring allure comes from a much more mysterious place — an imaginative energy born of transgression, memory, fear, and desire, which may spring from real life but isn’t ever fully bound by it. That energy communicates itself to us, elevating the idea of the novel itself — to a heightened sensory tour of a recognizable human reality, fundamentally not responsible to any laws but its own.

Joan Chase, whose first novel was published when she was 47, is a writer whose work demonstrates this energy. She’s won many awards (including a Guggenheim, a Whiting Writers’ Award, the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and PEN America’s Ernest Hemingway Foundation Award), and, according to one online source, is “still writing.” Yet she’s a shy, little-known presence in the modern literary world, with no webpage or Twitter feed. When confronted with so specific a fictional realm as Chase’s, readers accustomed to copious author bios and Internet availability will find themselves baffled. Yet her fiction demonstrates just how little “authorial intent” or “biography” can matter. Chase teaches us what it means for a writer to submit herself to the story, letting fiction and fact alchemize according to the needs of the created world on the page and following wherever that world’s logic leads, regardless of literal “truth.”

Recently reissued by NYRB Classics, Chase’s first novel, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia (1983), is narrated by a collective “we,” a group of sisters and cousins living in a matriarchal farm household in northern Ohio in the 1950s. “For as long as we could remember,” they tell us, “we had been together in the house which established the center of the known world.” Celia, Jenny, Anne, and Katie are cousins and sisters, “like our mothers, who were sisters” and who are all living in the house together at one time or another. “Sometimes we watched each other, knew differences,” they say. “But most of the time it was as though the four of us were one and we lived in days that gathered into one stream of time, undifferentiated and communal.”

The girls’ days are marked by farm-kid pleasures (kittens under the porch, playing in the hayloft with a hidden deck of cards) and violence (fighting with each other and their boy cousin, the sinister Rossie) and family crises that descend like weather: cancer, marital discord, courtship and impending marriage, abuse and making-up again. Family members come and go and come again until three generations — parents and their daughters, and the daughters’ husbands and children — have settled into the house. At every turn the girls feel knit deeper into the place:

Peaceable, we waited on the porch in the dappling noontime. In the Mason jars stacked up dusty and fly-specked on the side shelves, in the broken-webbed snowshoes hung there, the heap of rusty hinged traps waiting this long time to be oiled and set to catch something in the night, was the visible imprint of the past we were rooted in.

The girls’ world is presided over by a fierce, dominating goddess — their grandmother Lil. Nicknamed the eponymous “Queen of Persia,” Lil has been working her entire life, starting as a scrawny 11-year-old nanny for a neighbor with tuberculosis. Even an inheritance from a rich uncle, which enables her to buy a farm for herself, doesn’t soften her sense of grievance at the world. “She vowed it was peculiar,” say the girls, “her father spent his life in the West, searching for oil, when all along it was right out back under the corn crib. Now wasn’t that just like a man? Like life.” Focused in old age on her own self-protection, Lil widens her angry judgment of the world to include her daughters and granddaughters. Sometimes she condemns them, but sometimes she protects them. When her oldest daughter Grace dies of cancer, Gram squares off against Grace’s feckless husband, Neil. Yet at the novel’s end — after making a decision that shocks the reader — Gram snorts, “What did we ever have around here but dying and fighting? Work and craziness.” For the girls, Gram models womanhood as sheer cussedness and endurance, a “soiled and faded apron and her exhausted face, marked like an old barn siding that had withstood blasts and abuse of all kinds, beyond any expression other than resignation and self-regard.”

The man for whom Gram reserves most of her fury is her husband, Jacob, a stern Amish outcast who “was bigger than all the other men we saw who came around the farm…it was a bigness of bone, as though he were solid calcium with only skin stretched over him.” Cursing at the cows, backhanding Rossie into the barn wall for smashing eggs, and changing his long underwear only a few times a year, Grandad is a dark force of nature whose inability to interpret or express his own emotions makes him terrifying but, initially to Gram as a young woman, alluring:

Every night his eyes were watching, wanting her and letting her see it in him; but he wouldn’t touch her…though when she would pass close beside him she would hear his breathing, harsh and quick. It nearly drove her wild and her mind came to dwell on him nearly every second. Sometimes, when she lifted up the handle of the stove to stir the wood, the glutted, ashy coals crumbled at the slight touch and something inside her seemed to fragment in the same way.

Eventually, marriage — marked by furtive, rape-like sex and Jacob’s long absences — bends Gram’s desire into a thick club of anger, aggression, and dark humor with which she attacks everyone around her, and herself:

I seen more damned men than you would believe drinking themselves crazy, killing each other over nothing. And their women dying with babies or something else unnecessary. But you can’t tell them. I’m through trying. You can’t tell a young gal nothing, nor an older one neither. Not anything she don’t want to hear.

Watching Gram hang on to her life exactly as it is — remaining married to a man she hates, stashing her money under the floorboards, and shaking up her family with daily small cruelties — makes the reader wonder: in a world that thwarts women, what makes a woman also thwart herself, surrendering to meanness and pushing against a hard life in a way that only makes it harder? What’s the source of that particularly Midwestern passive aggression, self-sabotage, and buried rage? And why hate the one who gets away from it all — in this case Aunt Elinor, a successful New York career woman whose efforts to care for her dying sister are mocked even as they are relied upon? “Aunt Elinor looked patient, as one who had seen a wider world,” the girls observe, “one she constantly made visible to the rest of us — accepting the fact that a wider world might mean a weaker place in the old one.” Why love a place where the ordinary marvels of life — “The wet orchard grass and briers gleamed like washed planking, while above, the branches held green sails to the wind” — are braided with such pain?

When you are immersed in Joan Chase’s writing, that love seems wholly inevitable. In her review of During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Margaret Atwood described the girls’ connection to this place:

Will the ‘we,’ having known a childhood so all-enveloping, so histrionic and so collective, ever be able to resolve itself successfully into four separate ‘I’s? For despite the horror of some of the events they witness, the children’s life at Gram’s is fascinating and addictive, and they live with an intensity and gusto that prevent their final vision from being a bleak one.

Indeed, something in the girls cleaves to their “flamboyantly, joylessly unpredictable” grandmother, no matter what:

When we are grown up and have been through everything, we’ll be like that. We’ll order kittens drowned by the bagful. Then at night we’ll dress in our silken best, pile on jewels and whiz off to parties, bring home prizes for the family. We’ll bet on horses.

This thread of resilience brightens the otherwise dark weather of this novel, which nevertheless isn’t forced or melodramatic — it’s only doing what it must, only being what it is. Lacking answers to the questions we might ordinarily ask the author — Is this your family? Are you saying something about women and passive-aggression here? — we fall back on the novel itself and on our own reactions, delving deeper into the territory of self-investigation. Which is to say, into literature.

Like Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which was published three years earlier, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia is poised on the border between strict realism and something like a dream. If the governing element of Robinson’s novel is water — the frozen lake, the drowned train — Chase’s novel is of the soil. Rooted in landlocked northern Ohio, it is replete with cluttered farmhouses and barns and deer stealing windfall apples from the orchard. Yet its effects are never showy or awkward, never just rural Gothic cliché. Like William Faulkner, whom Chase admires, this is novelistic imagination with no elaborate scaffolding between reader and author — just direct immersion in a stream of subjectivity and life we come to know through that immersion itself. In this, the novel echoes its subjects: terrifying, marvelous, and memorable things happen here, and that’s just how it is — here in this dark Midwestern Eden, with its gnarled and faithful apple trees.

Chase found an early center of gravity in a large family homestead in rural Ohio like the one in Queen of Persia. “[I]t was wonderful,” she has said, “to have so much family around me.” On an “Ohioana Authors” radio program, she said, “When I began to write what became During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, I didn’t decide on Ohio as the setting, Ohio was just there, my imaginative heartland. It was the land of my childhood and from my perspective the most lovely and thrilling place in the world.”

These biographical statements (among the few Chase has made) don’t account for the elements of Queen of Persia that are less than “lovely.” But they don’t really need to; we all know that what is “true” doesn’t always make the best story. A writer must let the emotional qualities and images on the page shape the story according to her own emerging logic. This means that tracing a writer’s “biography” in a novel can be difficult. Particularly for the writer herself. And that, too, is perhaps as it should be.

Chase’s later works return to themes similar to Queen of Persia, although in more diffuse, experimental ways. Her second novel, The Evening Wolves (1989) explores how a feckless, wandering father warps his daughters’ lives. Francis Clemmons is charming and fierce, self-centered and often irresistible. The first-person narration (traded among his three children and second wife) is precise and pithy, rooting us in particular bodies and subjectivities: “My hair is straight, quiet hair,” young daughter Ruthann declares, “and my head feels peaceful, at least where it shows.” Elsewhere she tells how a boy “started rubbing my bones, their stone hearts luminous in the dark, binding me like stays.” Unlike Persia, the novel feels inconclusive, with an open-endedness that is employed to better effect in Chase’s short fiction.

Gathered in Bonneville Blue (1991), Chase’s stories are strange and shapely, centered around striking images from down-at-heel rural worlds reminiscent of Persia’s barns and backroads. Sally in “Crowing” accompanies a cranky old man around his barn: “People say farm animals know when the hog butcher is coming. Somehow. Even the day before, they will be restive, off their feed, as though word of the appointment has reached them.” Here, too, women are yearning yet uncertain how to act. In the lyrical “The Harrier,” an unhappily married woman dreams of a younger man:

I didn’t go with him up into that bed in the forest, not in the end, although as I said, in that winter of cold and driving spikes of ice he seemed to slam against my bedroom window all night like some night bird wanting in. But I chose to lie on, hugging the curve of my husband’s unyielding back, dreaming the smell that is feverish and rank, the distillation of roots and vines newly turned over.

Like Elena Ferrante, whose novels of growing up in midcentury Naples have drawn fresh attention this fall — and who writes from behind an inviolable pseudonym — Joan Chase disrupts the links we seek between a writer’s life and her art to let her work stand alone in the public eye. Of course, Joan Chase is her real name. But her relative silence, while thwarting readers’ curiosity, serves us as Ferrante’s pseudonymity does by sending us back to the work, which stands on its own — enigmatic, dark, and gorgeous.

Reading Chase, Ferrante, and Mary Shelley all together reignites my curiosity about women, writing, and boldness. What interior permissions, or exterior disguises, or at-long-last states of peace and determination must a woman attain to in order to speak the story that wants to take shape, whatever that shape may be? I’m wondering, too, about the relationship between personal privacy and the kind of boldness we need to do our work. In the Internet age, Ferrante’s pseudonym and Chase’s quietness both suggest strategies to address that issue: if you want to avoid complaining family members, or earnest reviewers asking you about “which parts are autobiographical,” or random readers’ emails, short-circuiting the link between you and the public might help. Maintaining privacy might also quiet interior voices that insist a good daughter would never write this. Seeking recognition is just not what we do in this family. If you get the wrong kind of attention, it’s your own fault.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia does make me wonder about Chase’s family’s reaction: whether they recognized themselves, whether they objected, whether they half-resented the one whose success they also envied. But ultimately, it’s not our business. It is enough that Joan Chase brought into the world a novel so vivid, risky, and beautiful, and that from it we can learn to trust our stories — to finger the jagged grain of those trees in our childhood Edens, those lost orchards of memory — and let them take us where they need to go.

Post-40 Bloomers: Anna Sewell and Growing Into Compassion

- | 1

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 

Compassion comes with age, with experience, with having walked the writer’s path over many years. But in the best sense, compassion is also profoundly, if paradoxically, simple. One spiritual tradition after another has pointed out that if you can give the external trappings of identity (house, car, job) no more meaning than they deserve, you can discover that you are just one container for a greater energy, a greater common ground of being you share with other creatures too. John Keats, that most famous young artist, wrote that “the camelion Poet” is “always filling some other body,” curious to experience reality as other beings understand it and to render it into art. His alert and precise observation extends the grounds of artistic vision – or compassion – to animals: “I go among the Fields and catch a glimpse of a stoat or a field mouse peeping out of the withered grass,” he wrote in a letter of 1819. “[T]he creature hath a purpose and its eyes are bright with it – I go amongst the buildings of a city and I see a Man hurrying along – to what? The Creature has a purpose and his eyes are bright with it.”

Like Keats, and like that other 19th-century female recluse, Emily Dickinson, Anna Sewell (1820-1878) possessed a spiritual curiosity that pushed her imagination beyond the boundaries of bodies, even species. “The Victorian invalid” has become a cliché, yet Anna Sewell really was.  From an active young womanhood, she declined into a state of dramatically poor health after breaking an ankle, eventually dying from symptoms resembling lupus. Her only book, Black Beauty, was written in painful fragments and dictated to her mother (with whom she lived her entire life), then published six months before her death at age 58. Yet in considering her life, I think of a favorite line from another writer who lived at home with her mother, Eudora Welty: “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well, for all serious daring starts from within.”

Consider this: Anna Sewell, spinster invalid, wrote one of the most influential and original books to come out of Victorian England. Influential? Original? Think about how omnipresent this book has been in your own life (as a child) or in the lives of children you know. Think about how writing such a book now would be equivalent to writing from the point of view of your Subaru — the transportation mode with a semblance of mechanical “life.” Now think about the radical twist of compassion, the Keatsian, world-opening change that happens (as it happens in childhood) when you realize that other beings are as real to themselves as you are to yourself, that, for example, the color orange as you see it might or might not be the same orange someone else sees. We need this realization, often. We need to be reminded that the world is bigger than just ourselves.  And because Black Beauty is so simple — short chapters, limited-first-person narration “translated from the equine” — it’s easy to forget how radically it reminds us of just that.

In an essay for The Believer, Paul Collins places Black Beauty beside slave narratives, and another Victorian tradition: The Autobiography Of [insert overlooked object, person, or mysterious other here.] Among the “autobiographies” were those of lumps of coal—which takes me to George Orwell’s reflection, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), on his harrowing tour of a coal mine:
It is so with all types of manual work; it keeps us alive, and we are oblivious of its existence. More than anyone else, perhaps, the miner can stand as the type of the manual worker, not only because his work is so exaggeratedly awful, but also because it is so vitally necessary and yet so remote from our experience, so invisible, as it were, that we are capable of forgetting it as we forget the blood in our veins. In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an “intellectual” and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.
Poor drudges, black bodies, blackened to the eyes: to a Victorian, this could describe coal miners, dirty housemaids, and the slaves freed throughout the Empire only in 1833, on whose working shoulders all of “civilized” life depended.  It might describe horses, too, who are lower even than such lower people, because they lack language and reason.  Or so we might think, until we read Black Beauty.

The genius of Sewell’s simple conceit — what would you learn if the horse that pulled your carriage every day could speak to you? — is that it upsets adult prejudices by returning us to the moral and imaginative porousness of childhood, where empathy wasn’t a conscious effort at all. It wouldn’t have seemed unusual, then, for your favorite stuffed toy to speak, because you were also secretly sure your cat or dog could understand everything you said and, in its own way, could talk back. As a bookish farm kid, I was convinced that horses and cats and dogs had their own personalities and systems of justice and love, inarguably better than bewildering human cruelties and rules. Black Beauty was confirmation of what I already knew, in my heart: people were mean, and they hurt the good and forbearing creatures around them every day, without knowing it. Sometimes those animals were horses. Sometimes they were pudgy preteen girls, locked in bodies that seemed as far from humanity as anything that neighed or barked or curled up at the foot of the bed, purring, to sleep. Black Beauty was vital therefore in igniting a sense of justice, the basis for which was already there: the strong may hurt the weak, but the weak never, never lose the right to say this is unfair and hope that someone else will hear.

Black Beauty does not speculate about human motivations, which are unknowable to him; he only reports what he feels, hears, and sees. Sometimes these are lyrical evocations of the English countryside:
The first place that I can well remember was a large pleasant meadow with a pond of clear water in it.  Some shady trees leaned over it, and rushes and water-lilies grew at the deep end.
Sometimes these are his own sensations, defamiliarized:
Every one may not know what breaking in is, therefore I will describe it.  It means to teach a horse to wear a saddle and bridle and to carry on his back a man, woman, or child; to go just the way they wish, and to go quietly. . . He must never start at what he sees, nor speak to other horses, nor bite, nor kick, nor have any will of his own, but always do his master’s will; even though he may be very tired or hungry; but the worst of all is, when his harness is once on, he may neither jump for joy nor lie down for weariness. So you see this breaking in is a great thing.
Black Beauty’s reportorial narration is simple, and factual, and yet the reader feels a stirring of unease at how simply such obedience may be exploited, and how ambiguous is that word “great” — to the Victorians it’s “significant,” not necessarily good. There is life before and life after “breaking” — Black Beauty goes from childhood to adulthood just as his readers must, and he’s surrounded by a constellation of other equine characters whose circumstances determine their “breaking” just as they do for people.

Chief among these is the mare Ginger, a consistent foil to the stoicism of Beauty (who’s a gelding, although the castration is not described.) Like some of her human literary forbears — the reformed prostitute Jemima in Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, the Wrongs of Woman (1798) or the abused wife Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) — Ginger is a sensitive and high-spirited female, literally beaten into apparent obedience by men.  Her resistance becomes the occasion for more punishment, and the novel leaves little doubt that men’s brutality — uncomfortably resembling rape — has formed her into the rebel she remains throughout the book:
But when it came to breaking in, that was a bad time for me; several men came to catch me, and when at last they closed me in at one corner of the field, one caught me by the forelock, another caught me by the nose, and held it so tight I could hardly draw my breath; then another took my under jaw in his hard hand and wrenched my mouth open, and so by force they got on the halter and the bar into my mouth; then one dragged me along by the halter, another flogging behind, and this was the first experience I had of men’s kindness, it was all force: they did not give me a chance to know what they wanted… You know yourself, it’s bad enough when you have a kind master and plenty of coaxing, but there was nothing of that sort for me.
Yet in the same kind home where Beauty finds himself, Ginger “grew much more gentle and cheerful, and had lost the watchful, defiant look that she used to turn on any strange person who came near her.” One wonders how such kindness might work on any of the other defiant “creatures” we now see as “problems” — schoolchildren getting arrested, for instance?

Good fiction nudges us to see that which we would prefer to forget, and often draws parallels between ourselves and apparently different others. It enlarges the aperture of our moral vision (which the daily textures of our own comforts and concerns always threaten to narrow) in a way that encourages us to follow that morality into social awareness, and into action. In Anna Sewell’s time, as in ours, “Christianity” as a term is politically much-abused and deliberately manipulated, especially by those “Christians” who should know better. Yet as a Quaker, Sewell is part of a tradition of activism, in her time and ours — a tradition which reminds us that our comfortable lives are cushioned by the labor and sacrifice of human and nonhuman others, and that if we do not find ways to honor these others, we commit injustice: we transgress what she would have respected as God’s creation. As I’ve written elsewhere, antislavery and animal rights were linked to one another in the 18th and 19th centuries by just this view.  Jesus’s promise of social disruption and reversal (the last shall be first, and the first shall be last) and his focus on the meek, the poor, and the disenfranchised, opened the door for women (socially “meek,” legally disenfranchised) to follow their training and beliefs as “good Christians” into activism on behalf of others, human and animal.

We hurt and rely on and remain willfully ignorant of those around us all the time, every day, rather than giving them – in the words of philosopher Hannah Arendt — “a claim on our thinking attention.” Victorian industrial processes alienated worker from product and consumer, alienated worker from other human beings. But socially, they also alienated those who labored or produced from those who enjoyed the fruits of that labor, even as they came into daily contact, sometimes living under the same roof. Servants, animals, and women were all considered different “species” from the dominant male — despite the servant sweeping ash from your fireplace or the horse trotting along in front of your carriage, in plain view, every day. Ditto the wife whose body was at once an intimate, domestic presence and — when you waited anxiously in the parlor while your children were born upstairs — a near-total mystery. Yet as Anna Sewell is still helping readers and writers to learn, from childhood on up, imagination and compassion will help you cross that gap.