In the first half of this century, many writers who are women produced a kind of poetic, interior, reverie-bound prose clearly influenced by modernism and by Freud. The talents of these writers range from the large to the slight--among them Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Anna Kavan and Djuna Barnes, to name a few--but in each of them, the intelligence is high and is characterized by strong intimations of harrowing past experiences. This is writing that has grown, unmistakably, out of insight inflicted on the writer--insight she neither sought nor welcomed nor could ever have imagined would come to her. But here it is, and what a parable-like dream it has turned out to be.
Isabel Bolton, whose work is now being reprinted after having fallen into obscurity a half century ago, belongs in the ranks of these writers. Her real name was Mary Britten Miller, and she was born into an upper-class white Protestant family in Boston in 1883. As a young woman, she lived for some years in Europe (it is possible that she was pregnant and went abroad to have her baby). When she returned to the United States, she settled in New York, where she lived until she died in 1976 in the Greenwich Village apartment she had occupied for many years. She was never married, and she seems not to have had a lover anyone ever knew. She had many friends in New York, and she wrote: poems, essays, stories. She is said to have been witty and mean, entertainingly haughty and impressively self-educated.
Between 1946 and 1952, between ages 63 and 69, she wrote three short novels, now being reprinted as “New York Mosaic,” that, at the time, earned her a significant amount of attention. Edmund Wilson praised her work in the New Yorker, as did Diana Trilling in the Nation. Both critics thought they had discovered a major new talent, powerful and poetic.
The novels are all context. The reader is inside the mind of a woman going through a day (or a few days) in New York, musing, thinking, reminiscing, trying to puzzle out her life. The action is always at a remove; it’s the reverie in her head that matters. In the first novel, “Do I Wake or Sleep?”, the year is 1939; the woman is in her 40s, and she’s named Millicent. In the second, it’s 1945; she’s in her 50s and named Hilly. In the third, it’s 1950; she’s in her 80s, and she’s Margaret. This woman is intelligent, cultivated, upper-class and alone. In each novel, there’s a young man (in one, he’s a homosexual son) to whom she is peripherally attached, but really, she is alone and has been alone forever. Somehow, love has been an impossibility; something was always amiss; she could never make connection. In each story, however, she is presented as a woman able to make her deal with life because she has the city to love, urbanity to merge with.
“The moon rode high above the [city]. . . . In the cornices of the Metropolitan Museum the pigeons slept. . . . The skyscrapers--choirs and choruses of lighted windows, human hives and cells swarming round her in the night, cities of glass and iron--flickering, fluttering like bees, like fireflies, seemed to sing together, celebrating something strange and not to be quite credited. . . . And considering all this--the transformations that had taken place in the landscape of her life since she was young . . . the frantic rush of today, when all that she was experiencing seemed to exist in an empty space filled with sound that had no vibrations in the memory; one seemed severed from one’s roots; one groped, one tried to find one’s way. . . . You ran about in motor cars, you boarded ocean liners, crossed the continent in Chiefs and Super Chiefs . . . while all the time there was this yearning upon you to go back, to retreat into the darkness, the dusk, into the backward and abysm . . . the present moment so filled with terror and tenderness, and experiencing every day such a queer intensity. Wondering so often who you were and what you were and who it might be necessary for you to be the next moment . . . and the heart so hungry for heaven knew just what, so unassuaged, so void. . . . [But] almost anything might happen to you in New York . . . the fabulous city like a great Christmas tree, so brilliantly lighted, with so many glittering gifts perpetually being handed out; and all the rush and competition. . . . You wouldn’t call it the natural climate of your soul. . . . Longing as you were for some display of natural warmth and friendliness [that seemed] to have dissolved in gossip, analysis--sophistication. . . . There was hunger, there was immense curiosity, there was solitude. And one was very busy. . . . Yet there were these sudden, these unaccountable moments--being overtaken by love--everywhere--on top of buses, in crowded concert halls--sometimes on winter evenings with the skyscrapers floating, flickering above you . . . merging with the crowds, examining the faces. This sense of brotherhood. You buried your loneliness in it. At times you were persuaded that it was larger than any personal stakes you had in happiness.”
This passage, reduced here by half, appears in the first novel and is a prototype of passages that saturate the prose of all three books. The city is far more than context for this protagonist. It is her companion and her interlocutor, that which gives her back the conversation with herself that she craves. This relation between the self and the city is Bolton’s true subject: the modernist part of the enterprise.
“Life came at you from every direction . . . thinking you could read, hear, see, get everything all at once, these thirsts and hungers to be assuaged, wanting to drink from all the springs at once, snatching at universal culture, being, as you damned well knew you were, the most solitary, the most lonely individual that ever at any moment in the march of mad events had trod upon the earth. . . . Christ, how we loved our own aloneness. We did plenty of howling about it, it was a central theme of all our art expressions. None the less we hugged it jealously. We were incapable of giving because there was so much within our reach to grab and snatch and gather for our own, our solitary souls. . . .”
Bolton was nearly 70 when she wrote these words. They constituted her wisdom. She had come to understand that modern life with its unspeakable freedoms mirrored in the fluid motion of the crowded city had led us to see that we are hopelessly neurotic, that our loneliness is self-induced. It reflects a grievance, there from birth, to which we are devoted. This is the truth she is speaking. And when she spoke it in 1952, it sounded penetrating to her most intelligent readers.
Now, almost 50 years later, the work feels more limited than it did upon its first publication. A large part of Bolton’s writing is soaked in reverie and reminiscence, prolonged mood-making and memories that provide us with a record of personal hurts more than with a modernist parable. Far too often, these novels seem to be in love with their own situation, the pain and isolation that is a modern woman’s dilemma. They romanticize emotional damage. They linger, how they linger, over all that is not and can never be. Repeatedly, the greater aim, her insight about the self and the city, becomes subverted. All poetic, interior writing risks falling into the swamp of romantic self-regard and, although “New York Mosaic” does not do this, it does not exactly steer clear of it.
Talent is not enough with this sort of writing. Even intelligence is not enough, as insight is only raw material. What is required is an overriding steadiness of vision. A great artist like Virginia Woolf, writing in very much the same vein, knew how to transcend her own material, producing sentences that opened the reader again and again to a wider sphere of experience. Jean Rhys did it once in “Wide Sargasso Sea” and Djuna Barnes also once in “Nightwood.” Without this steadiness, the work turns in on itself and becomes neurasthenic.
“New York Mosaic” fails to make something large out of what its author knew, but it is a very interesting piece of work, entirely worthy of republication. Bolton’s writing about New York is immensely evocative, even astonishing at times. The reader can easily see this gallant “odd woman” walking the streets of a great and fabulous city decade after decade, through 40 years of extraordinary change, armed with an arresting piece of self-awareness, which, although it does not deepen, remains nonetheless acute. It’s the acuteness that seduces, repeatedly giving the work a strength that comes and goes and comes again.