Vancouver trains and buses – la!

I very much like this Twitter-feed founded with a good friend a few years back – the wacky and wonderful in Vancouver on the move.

 

Edna Gertrude Beasley

This post from five years ago has been a regular favourite on basil.CA in terms of “hits.” That means that my readers and I are in tune with the universe, perhaps.

GertrudeBeasley

“It is perfectly clear to me that life is not worth living, but it is also equally clear that life is worth talking about.” – EGB

I learned of the delightfully named Edna Gertrude Beasley while reading A Second Mencken Chrestomathy. Mencken reviews Beasley’s memoir, “My First Thirty Years,” in a chapter called “A Texas Schoolma’am,” written in 1926:

This book, I suspect, comes out with a Paris imprint because no American publisher would risk printing it. I offer the very first paragraph as a specimen of its manner:

‘Thirty years ago I lay in the womb of a woman, conceived in an act of rape, being carried through the pre-natal period by an unwilling and rebellious mother, finally bursting forth only to be tormented in a family whose members I despised or pitied, and brought into association with people whom I should never have chosen. Sometimes I wish that, as I lay in the womb, a pink soft embryo, I had somehow thought, breathed or moved and wrought destruction to the woman who bore me, and her eight miserable children who preceded me, and the four round-faced mediocrities who came after me, and her husband, a monstrously cruel, Christ-like and handsome man with an animal’s appetite for begetting children.’

This is freely speaking, surely, but only a Comstock, reading it, would mistake it for an attempt at pornography. There is, in fact, not the slightest sign of conscious naughtiness in the book; it is the profoundly serious and even indignant story of a none too intelligent woman lifted out of the lowest levels of the Caucasian race by her own desperate efforts, and now moved to ease her fatigue by telling how she did it. …

La Beasley, it appears, came into the world on the Texas steppes, the ninth child of migratory and low-down parents. Her father was an unsuccessful farmer who practiced blacksmithing on the side. During her first half dozen years the family moved three or four times. Always prosperity was beckoning in the next township, the next county. Children were born at every stop, and as the household increased it gradually disintegrated. Finally, the mother heaved the father out, took her brood to Abilene, and there set up a boarding-house. The sons quickly drifted away; one of the daughters became a lady of joy; the others struggled pathetically with piddling jobs. Gertrude was the flower of the flock. She worked her way through a preposterous ‘Christian College,’ got a third-rate teacher’s certificate, and took a rural school. The county parents liked her; she kept their barbarous progeny in order, often by beating them. After a while she took other examinations, and was transferred to better schools. In the end, she went to Chicago, and there tackled pedagogy on a still higher level. For all I know, she may be teaching in that great city yet.

The tone of Mencken’s review is thoroughly, unusually admiring. He respects her unblurred, dyspeptic view: “The author has emancipated herself from her native wallow, but she does not view it with superior sniffs. Instead, she frankly takes us back to it, and tells us all she knows about its fauna, simply and honestly. There is frequent indignation in her chronicle, but never any derision. Her story interests her immensely, and she is obviously convinced that it should be interesting to others. I think she is right.”

One wishes, at any rate, that Mencken’s guess regarding Beasley’s then-current whereabouts had been the case. She did not end up teaching in Chicago.

In fact, as Mary Ellen Specht puts it in her excellent piece “The Disappearance of Gertrude Beasley, “‘My First Thirty Years’ ends with Beasley sailing off to Japan, where she writes for ‘National Geographic’ and travels to places like China and Russia before publishing her autobiography and disappearing for good,” it seemed, at the age of 35.

In 2008 the mystery of Beasley’s disappearance was solved. Specht writes:

Edna Gertrude Beasley … was institutionalized 10 days after her ship landed in New York. She lived out her last 27 years in gulag conditions, until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1955. She was 63.

The [author’s] grandniece and Beasley “friends” and family have since located her grave, marked only by a number, and erected a headstone there. While Beasley’s body may be at peace, her story isn’t. New York State will not release details of her commitment hearing, even to family.  The question remains: How did she end up there? The family has found a dictation from one of Gertrude’s brothers claiming she was committed by William Randolph Hearst, for whom she briefly worked as a journalist, though the brother claimed “she was no more crazy than you or I.” My mother found no mention of Beasley in the Hearst papers at the University of California at Berkeley.

Maybe she *was* crazy. The letter she sent to the U.S. State Department from the ship is full of grandiose suspicions regarding “a conspiracy against myself.” Beasley also claims to be “completing a work which I believe to be one of the most significant of its sort ever written.” She accuses British police and “certain people in Texas” of trying to stop her. She implies that once she disembarks from the steamer, her life will be in peril. She was never heard from again. My mother says, “Is it paranoia if they’re really out to get you?”

Gertrude Beasley wrote about the hardships of her first 30 years, but we can’t begin to imagine what her last 30 must have been like.

In 2011 Beasley’s memoir was re-issued as a paperback; you can download it onto your Kindle, too. (Amazon has a sizeable selection of the text available as a “preview.” Google Books has these excerpts.) The writing is utterly vivid and distilled. No noun seems not needed in this ardent narration of an American hell. The courage and the craft that our author had … inspires. She reminds me of very few writers of my generation – perhaps only Lydia Lunch and Robin Plan, who were not, thank god, thrown into the “gulag” midway through the journey of their lives.

Stanley Cavell

Visiting a couple of friends at Harvard back in 1982 or so, I was invited to attend a seminar on Shakespeare taught by Stanley Cavell. Holy moly – it was amazing! Graduate students piped up now and then, but the class was essentially a monologue – one of surpassing learning and agility – that felt wholly improvised.

He asked a question that has stayed with me all these years: Does an interpretive approach need to account for every word of a literary work, as it would, let’s say, of each note in a symphony or an opera, or is it enough that the approach makes sense of only certain passages? (It was not a rhetorical question.)

This short memoir of Cavell in the New York Review of Books is very good.

RIP.

The opposite of talking

A friend called me a good listener the other day. I was happy to get this compliment; I work hard at listening. Not being clueless is a full-time activity for me.

I was reminded of the Fran Lebowitz quote: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.”

A surprise

I once asked a student of mine, who was finishing her degree in fashion design, why women found purses and handbags so important. She said, “They are just like us. They are beautiful on the outside, and there is everything you need on the inside.”

Love deserves …

In a marvellous Tukwila, Washington used bookstore the other week I picked up a copy of Yvor Winters’ Uncollected Essays and Reviews for $2.99. I am glad I did because it sure was worth it. I would have been happy to have paid five.

Winters was a Stanford University English Professor and a literary critic and moralist. Long after he passed away, in the 1980s graduate students like myself could leaf through his bound and yellowing PhD dissertation in the Briggs Room library (I was the librarian) in Building 50 next to Memorial Church on the quad. We all read Winters, particularly his book In Defense of Reason, if only to disparage his conviction that a poem should be a rational statement of an abiding human truth. We were more amenable to his discussions of prosody, but could not help but find him often wanting there as well.

As a reader of American poets of the early 20th century, Yvor Winters’ views went from testy to lacerating and back again. I enjoyed his limpid prose. And I certainly enjoyed some of his take-downs of silly poems and poets.

Most interesting to me were his discussions of William Carlos Williams, who was the subject of my first scholarly publication. His ambivalence was all-out, as if he had fallen in love with a drug dealer. This is from an essay called “Poetry of Feeling” found in the Uncollected Essays:

The romantic principles which have governed Dr. Williams’ work have limited his scope. … The combination of purity and of richly human feeling to be found in his language at times reminds one of Thomas Hardy or of Robert Bridges, and of beauty and of execution he is their equal, though in so different a mode; but his understanding is narrow than theirs, and his best poems are less great. On the other hand, when poems are so nearly unexceptionable in their execution, one regards the question of scope regretfully: Robert Herrick is less great than Shakespeare, but he is probably as fine, and, God willing, should last as long. If I may venture … a prediction, it is this: that Williams will prove as nearly indestructible as Herrick; that the end of the present century will see him securely established, along with Wallace Stevens, as one of the two best poets of his generation.

Winters wrote a “postscript” to this piece 25 years later, not long before he died:

My general remarks may stand, but by this time, I would restrict my choice of successful poems much more narrowly. … To say that Williams was anti-intellectual would be almost an exaggeration: he did not know what the intellect was. He was a foolish and ignorant man, but at moments a fine stylist.

“But at moments.”

I find this postscript terribly poignant: What had happened to Professor Winters that permitted scorn to upend his aesthetic attentiveness and delight for work he had loved truly, if never with the wholeness of ease?

“No love deserves the death it has.” – Jack Spicer

– reposted from nocontest.ca

Dog on Sunset Beach

DogOnSunsetBeach