SEPTEMBER 19, 2020
A FEW OF THE BOOKS that have changed me: Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior (1976). Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943). Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982). Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Most recently, Lacy M. Johnson’s The Reckonings (2018) and ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003). These are some of the books that have changed the way I live, the way I think, the way I write. After them, I never saw the world in quite the same way. How could I? But before these there were others. Books written by women. Books that never saw the light of day or that were crushed under the weight of criticism. Books that quickly fell out of print and into obscurity.
Some of these books were rescued and so had the chance to make their impact on me. Alice Walker made it her mission to single-handedly resurrect all the works of Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston’s first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, was published to critical acclaim in 1934, but she soon fell out of favor. In 1937, her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was criticized for its sensuality, its depiction of an independent woman protagonist, its use of dialect. Hurston herself was criticized for being outspoken and individualistic, for embracing her blackness. All of Hurston’s works were out of print by the 1940s. She died in poverty in 1960.
How does something like that happen?
Discussing Hurston’s decades-long exile into obscurity, literary scholar and critic Henry Louis Gates Jr. asked, “How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prizewinning autobiography virtually ‘disappear’ from her readership for three full decades?”
It happens. It happens more often to women authors, and it happens most often to women authors who do not conform, who reach for more than they are told they should expect, or who dare to write in a way that is forthright and unapologetic.
In her now-famous essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” published in Ms. magazine in 1975, Walker writes about her quest to find and commemorate Hurston’s unmarked grave. Walker’s essay reignited interest in Hurston’s work, and so it was that I sat in a university classroom in Santa Cruz, California, in 1986 and read Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston (1985) and then sought out everything the author had ever written. From beyond the grave, Hurston taught me how sacred language can be — the overwhelming loveliness of metaphor used well, the impact of legacy and culture and family, the power of character and dialogue.
That is what Hurston taught me. Walker taught me that the ghosts are out there and that we must be on the lookout for them.
The ghosts. I have seen them.
Sanora Babb was born in Red Rock, Oklahoma, in 1907. She wrote Whose Names Are Unknown in 1939 based on her experiences growing up on a broomcorn farm, visiting family who still lived in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl era, and helping migrants in California when she worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). She is a woman I would have loved to meet for beers. She exiled a smitten William Saroyan to the friend zone, had an affair with Ralph Ellison, and was blacklisted during the earliest days of the anticommunist purge. She was forced to live apart from her Chinese American husband, James Wong Howe, an Academy Award–winning cinematographer, for 10 years due to California’s anti-miscegenation law.
Babb’s novel was shelved by Bennett Cerf at Random House when John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath in 1939. It was too similar, Cerf told her. Only later did it come to light that Babb’s supervisor at the FSA had shared Babb’s journals with Steinbeck without her knowledge or permission. Steinbeck almost certainly used Babb’s notes, along with his own experiences and sources, to write The Grapes of Wrath — he mentions her supervisor in the novel’s dedication. Whose Names Are Unknown wasn’t published until 2004, a year before Babb died. Ironically, Babb’s work is still relatively unknown. I learned of the book only last year, when author Deanne Stillman mentioned it on social media.
The details in Babb’s book are personal and evocative. The dirt comes alive. It is a character — it is everywhere in Babb’s novel, just like it is everywhere in the characters’ lives: they are breathing it, choking on it, wearing masks and face covers, constantly cleaning it up, clearing off a place to eat a meal. By the time the families leave Oklahoma, the reader has a visceral sense of their desperation and what they are leaving behind, which makes the hardships and indignities they suffer in California even more gut-wrenching. Without taking away from Steinbeck’s achievement, Babb’s novel has something different to offer. It carries the weight of truth and experience. Steinbeck read Babb’s notes and then imagined from them, albeit beautifully. But Babb lived them.
One day a couple of summers ago, my daughter Melissa and I unexpectedly ran into another ghost while we were on a walking history tour of our small town. Visiting an old adobe building, we learned about the original owner, Helen Adams, a novelist who was an early resident of San Luis Obispo, California. Adams’s 1935 book Tough Little Trollop drew comparisons to James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, which had been published the previous year. Adams’s book was good enough that Hollywood came knocking, but (our tour guide tells us) it was ultimately seen as too risqué. Cain’s book thrived amid the same kind of scandal.
There are others.
Winifred Watson’s 1938 novel Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was lost for several generations before it was rescued by an English teacher whose mother had introduced her to the book when she was a child. She brought the novel to the attention of Persephone Books, a publishing company that specializes in releasing out-of-print novels. Watson had given up her writing career to take care of her mother and a sick child during World War II, then vanished for 60 years.
Earlier this year, Margaret Brown Kilik’s coming-of-age novel The Duchess of Angus was finally published — Brown Kilik wrote the book in the 1950s, but it was only recently discovered by her granddaughter, sometime after her 2001 death. Like my own grandmother, Rubye, whose poignant memoir we found after she was gone, Brown Kilik wrote her book in secret, neither of them fully understanding or asserting the right of a woman to write.
Not all of the ghosts are visible.
In the mid-19th century, two books were published about young women who were seduced by clergymen and became pregnant out of wedlock. One of them was written by a man who, even then, was considered a giant of the literary world. That novel was well received by critics and has become a classic still taught in schools today. The other novel was written by a woman, was rejected by literary critics, and fell into obscurity almost immediately.
Alice Cary published Hagar: A Story of To-Day in 1852, two years after Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter. Cary’s novel is considered by academics to have been a feminist response to Hawthorne’s. I was required to read Hagar alongside The Scarlet Letter my senior year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, in Dr. Sophia Forster’s seminar class “Fictions of Fallen Women.” I wasn’t happy about it. Cary’s book is out of print, and so it was a pain in the ass to read in any sort of scholarly way. Although there are reproductions of the novel available for purchase, they are unreliable. In some, the author’s name is misspelled or missing altogether — at least one seller lists the book as having been written by “Anonymous.” How can you trust what is between the covers? Dr. Forster didn’t.
My classmates and I were required to read the novel in a web browser — someone had painstakingly photographed each page of a first edition that once belonged to the New York Society Library. Reading the book as a student was laborious. I couldn’t print or tab pages. I couldn’t highlight passages. Though the reading experience was less than ideal, I begrudgingly found myself falling in love with the novel, which seemed more real and more thought-provoking than Hawthorne’s. I read it more than once, searching for clues. Cary was a known writer in her time, living in New York and moving in literary circles. Her first poem was praised by Edgar Allan Poe. She seems to have been well liked. I had the same questions Walker and Gates had voiced about Hurston’s work — I wondered how and why Cary’s novel had fallen out of print while Hawthorne’s had become a literary classic.
Cary’s Wikipedia page describes her as a poet and all but ignores her body of work as a novelist and a writer of short fiction — these works are summed up in one tidy sentence. An entire, major part of her life has been erased. Hagar isn’t listed among Cary’s works on her Wikipedia page, and I’ve yet to find a surviving copy. The book only has two ratings on Goodreads, my own five-star rating and another by Despy, a classmate from Dr. Forster’s class. Despy was decidedly less impressed. I searched the archives of The New York Times, available from 1851, and found numerous contemporaneous reviews of Cary’s work, all complimentary. She and her sister Phoebe wrote poetry together and routinely entertained the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John Greenleaf Whittier, even Mary Mapes Dodge, the author of one of my childhood favorites, Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates (1865). When Cary died in 1871 at the age of 50, P. T. Barnum and Horace Greeley were among her pallbearers. There is a story there, a woman far more interesting than her Wikipedia page would suggest. Like Hurston, Cary was known in her time, but she appears to have overstepped when she wrote Hagar. As far as I can tell, the book never received the slightest mention in The Times’s robust and comprehensive book section. Apparently, 19th-century cancel culture was a thing.
I imagine the outcry on Book Twitter when Hagar was published in 1852, an outcry perhaps led by Nathaniel Hawthorne himself. As much as I revere his work, Hawthorne seems to have been a writer who would pull the ladder up behind him when it came to women writers. “America is now wholly given over to a damned mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public taste is occupied with their trash,” he wrote to his publisher in 1855. Alice Cary seems to have been a lovely person. She might have followed Hawthorne on Twitter. He might not have followed back. He might have subtweeted criticism of her book, perhaps without having read it. He might have incited a group of internet trolls unofficially known as the Nate Nation to bully her off the platform.
The Scarlet Letter (1850) is set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s. We’ve all read it, whether voluntarily or not, so we all know the story. Hawthorne’s stoic heroine, Hester Prynne, is condemned to wear a red letter “A” stitched to the front of her dress. She lives on the outskirts of town, raises her illegitimate daughter Pearl alone, and is shunned by society. Except when they need some mending done. No matter — Prynne holds her head high and refuses to reveal the name of her child’s father, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a clergyman in a position of authority and trust.
Hagar is deliciously dark and Gothic. Beyond the basic premise of a young girl seduced and impregnated by a clergyman, Cary’s novel departs dramatically from Hawthorne’s. Cary lets readers see behind the doors that Hawthorne kept closed. The novel follows its protagonist, Elsie, from childhood: her cruel, mostly absent father ignores her, while her mother is too busy working to raise her properly, so she is given over to the care of a cold aunt and uncle. Readers are privy to Elsie’s first meeting with Nathan Warburton, the clergyman who eventually seduces her and who begins this seduction when she is a lonely and neglected child. Warburton later rejects a pregnant Elsie, and the next time we see her, she is a housemaid who has changed her name to Hagar. From there, the novel travels from mere darkness into the realm of horror.
In his 1988 book Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville, David S. Reynolds calls Hagar: A Story of To-Day an important work that “deserve[s] reconsideration by modern readers,” identifying it as part of “a transitional genre that looked forward to the fiction of the American naturalists.” Reynolds writes that Hagar, criticized by reviewers in its time, was darker than The Scarlet Letter and was compared negatively to Hawthorne’s book. In the next breath, Reynolds gives us a glimpse into the kind of criticism Cary must have faced when her novel was published. Unlike Hester Prynne, Reynolds writes, “who embodied at once the gloom of women’s wrongs and the redemptiveness of moral exemplar feminism,” Cary’s protagonist Hagar “embodies only women’s wrongs, without any redemptiveness whatsoever.”
Perhaps there are no heroes in Cary’s novel. But what did Hester Prynne do that was redemptive or heroic? What makes her an excellent model of feminism? Reynolds praises her for “endur[ing] abandonment and betrayal […] with […] haughty pride.” Yes, one of the things I do love about Hester is that she doesn’t let anyone else define who she is. But, in essence, she is deemed a hero by many for being dumped while pregnant and taking it in stride. For suffering in silence. For refusing to expose the identity of her seducer. That isn’t heroism — it’s codependency.
Hagar is not only a good book, it is an important one, because it delves deeply into much darker territory than The Scarlet Letter does. Hagar is an early example of feminist writing and the shifting characterization of the fallen woman in literature. But more than that, it is significant as one of the first novels to go beyond morality to explore environmental, social, emotional, and psychological factors affecting its characters, which contribute to their development and thus make women like Hester and Elsie vulnerable to manipulation by unscrupulous men.
In his 2013 study Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, cultural historian Philip F. Gura observes that, while Cary wrote Hagar just a couple of years after The Scarlet Letter was published, she emphasizes that her story is set in modern, more complicated times — hence the subtitle, “A Story of To-Day.” The setting for Hawthorne’s novel is a Puritan community with a rigid, black-and-white moral code, while — as Gura notes — “Cary knew that her story had no easy moral.”
How does such a book become a specter?
I am grateful to have been introduced to Alice Cary. But I’m afraid that I’m a cynical, glass-half-empty kind of reader. When I think about Cary, I think about how serendipitous it was that I was able to read Hagar at all. But then, like the novel itself, my thoughts gradually turn dark. I think about all that I’ve missed. I am wistful for the books that will never have the chance to change me. Books I will never hear about and never read. I am haunted by the nearly missed — Hurston, Babb, Cary. The fact is that I only read Hagar because I happened to sign up for a class with a professor who happened to have read the book. A professor who thought it important that Despy and I read it, too, even if she had to force us to do so under threat of damage to our GPAs, and even if the reading was difficult and uncomfortable.
I love The Scarlet Letter, but I love Hagar, too. It is different than Hawthorne’s novel — better in some ways, not as good in others. It is deserving of its place. I hope to see Cary’s book back in print someday, if only for the sake of Dr. Forster’s future students, armed with their yellow highlighting pens. And I can’t help but wonder what other forgotten books and authors are still lurking out there, waiting to have the life breathed back into them.