Diary Entry

March 1968 Encore / January 2024

Admission: About me.

I’ve been stuck for over a month, unable to continue the narrative, still troubled, almost paralyzed by my late life discovery about my friend Carolyn Heilbrun’s fan letter to May Sarton.

What did this mean and why did it matter to me? Or why did it seem to matter so much? Enough to send me down a rabbit hole of archival research and self-doubt. After all, Carolyn and I didn’t agree on everything. We in fact enjoyed our obvious differences in taste and style. Carolyn had celebrated, even exaggerated those differences in the preface we co-wrote to an anthology we republished in the book series during the early ‘90s. And I hope I’m not naïve enough to have imagined that she couldn’t surprise me. Since she often did. Well, clearly, I was.

We tended to acknowledge and understand what we liked and didn’t like about books and writers. I always deferred to Carolyn about British modernism, of course, and understood, if did not always share her tastes. Not only had Carolyn and I talked about books by other writers and by ourselves, but we had taught together, published a book series together, and I had witnessed over and over the acuity of her judgment. It’s also true that by the time I began to know Carolyn, in real life as we say now, almost a decade later she was in a different phase of her life.

So why care? Why care so much?

Worse still, how stupid am I to cling doggedly to the truth available in the archive since the chances are that I will in the end be no further advanced than when I started? If it’s the truth? Let’s be postmodern about this. Or why not just follow along in a critical voyage of discovery. Now in the spirit of docility and academic perseverance, and to offer another token of good faith, I will add these two pages to the reading I proposed earlier of Carolyn’s first fan letter to May Sarton. I return to my baby steps as a student in French, a dogged explication de texte, keeping myself out of it.  And then try to move on to understand the power of the evolving relationship between these two women.

I have the sense that I will continue to fail but I’m equally compelled to continue without being happy. (She persisted.) Here’s an embarrassing nugget: I don’t want Carolyn to like May Sarton. Their Chloe and Olivia show makes me feel lonely. 

Enough about me.

NB: Reminder: the entire collection of Carolyn’s letters can be consulted at the Berg (NYPL). For posting online I will follow the practice of fair use, limiting myself to snippets as in the letter attached here.

What autobiographical work by women writers, I’ve wondered, might Carolyn have read that made Plant Dreaming Deep feel to her like a shock, a revelation of something entirely new? Mary McCarthy’s experimental Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, for example, was well received in 1957 and McCarthy seen as a writer to take seriously. Here’s a line from Charles Poore in The New York Times: “her book is the most incisive contribution to the story of her development as an artist that we shall ever have.” (May 18, 1957). He is dazzled by the tour de force of the form itself. Carolyn would no doubt have demurred. Among other things, McCarthy was famously no feminist, and, as we used to say in the 70s, male identified.

I’ve also been struggling to figure out how I might have read Sarton’s memoir in 1968, had I been aware of her work. What would I have been reading in the sixties? I was pretty male identified myself.

I had lived in France throughout most of the sixties. I left Paris in the summer of 1967 in a state of abject failure six years after my arrival — if only. What I had been reading, and trying to enact, in those years, was the erotic literature of Georges Bataille, on the heels of writing a master’s essay on Les Liaisons dangereuses. Inspired by my reading, sex with men was my main preoccupation, in literature as in life, and in a city. So was structuralism and narratology in their critical popularity.

The books by women that I remember reading and feeling that I was encountering  something entirely new were Doris Lessing’s 1962 The Golden Notebook and the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, that I read in French in a friend’s heavily underlined pocket edition in 1964. The story of Beauvoir’s quest for independence in the memoir inspired me: that was exactly what I was in the process of doing, trying my best, and generally failing to break the hold my parents had over me, even at a distance. I envied Beauvoir’s friendship with Zaza, a relationship that powerfully shaped her future thinking about women’s lives.

The Golden Notebook fascinated me, both because of its style — the four notebooks — and its portraits of independent women living lives away from home in London. Lessing for years resisted and outright rejected the label “feminist” for the book, though finally accepted its legacy decades later — a book passed on between women, between generations—but feminist was not a word on my critical or emotional horizon either.

When I try to imagine what it would have felt like to discover Plant Dreaming Deep in 1968, I turn to the concluding lines of an enthusiastic review by Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times: “Love is the genius of this small, but tender and often poignant, book by a woman of many insights.” (February 4, 1968). Atkinson was a well-respected and well-known critic of that era, sometimes referred to as the “Dean” of theater critics. Would his glowing review have persuaded me to read a memoir about a woman in mid-life who moves to the country alone and renovates an 18th-century house? Through writing and gardening in solitude (there are, however, cats and a parrot, not to mention the contractors, workers, and a few friends who visit), she creates a vita nuova. Depressed as I was to be back in New York, my expat life a ruined dream, I would have remained unmoved by a paean to country life. I still am.

Nancy K. Miller. Diary

Welcome. Some musings on my current preoccupations with the worlds of illness and the worlds of books, the vicissitudes of living with cancer and the need now, in my eighties, to imagine what new writing might be. 

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