Friday, August 28, 2009

Marguerite Young - Aug 28 1908 - Nov 17 1995

Marguerite Young, a fellow Hoosier, was born in Indianapolis. I first heard of her in 1965 when Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, her novel of some 700,000 words on 1,198 densely printed pages, was published. She got much press at the time; a charming anecdotist, she claimed to have delivered the manuscript, which had taken her some eighteen years to write, in a wheelbarrow from her apartment in Greenwich Village to the mid-town offices of Scribner's, her publisher. The best line I read from any review of the book said that Miss MacIntosh, My Darling was a book that everyone loved but which no one finished.

I was one of those. I set upon it but stopped at page 107. I really was loving it ... it was wacko and crazy and alternately surreal and realistic, but, in my twenties at the time, I didn't have the perserverance that I would, through practice and changes of attitude, acquire later -- or perhaps it was the sheer weight of the book that caused me to set it aside. But, whatever the reason, the fact of her style having failed to lead me all the way through 1198 pages did not diminish my literary crush on Marguerite Young.

Some 30 years later, in a used-book store, I found a two-volume edition of the novel, nicely slip-cased, but I've not gotten to this easier-to-hold version either.

Marguerite Young embraces her manuscript.

In the winter of 1978 I was living on West 74th Street in New York City. One late afternoon I stopped in at the Argo Restaurant on Amsterdam at 72nd, as I often did, it being my neighborhood Greek cheap-eats place. I took one of the little red-leatherette two-seat booths. An abandoned Village Voice was on the empty seat. I scanned through the listing of events, looking for something to do. Bam! Pow! Marguerite Young's creative writing class for the spring term at the New School for Social Research would be meeting for the first time that night. I hopped onto the subway, figuring Marguerite Young would not be the sort to take attendance; she would not notice and would not care that an un-enrolled 38-year-old man was crashing her class.

I took a seat toward the rear of the room and pulled a notebook and pen from my knapsack.

Marguerite Young entered the room. She was wearing a black dress, black pantyhose, and, over her feet, woolen socks and -- despite the fresh deep snow outside -- sandals. A knitted shawl hung from her shoulders. She sat on the desk up front, not at it. Her hair was long and stringy and greasy. She wore fabulous cat-eye glasses from the fifties.

"First of all," she began, "the course outline describes this as a creative writing class. I'm supposed to teach you how to write creatively even though I don't know that this is something that can be taught. But I do have advice aplenty. And perhaps my advice will be helpful. Perhaps not. And I don't even know if that's up to me or up to you. Tonight I'll throw out some advice. Next week you'll all start a writing project. Novel, short story, magazine article ... whatever. You'll begin being creative! And we'll talk about one another's writing and ... who knows? ... perhaps we can all teach one another. At any rate, let us, above all, try to have fun. Even if you say something serious or I say something serious, even seriousness can be fun. The first serious thing I like to tell students is to not hurry your writing. Keep in mind that even the snail gets there."

She paused to light a Pall Mall.

"The worse thing we can do is fear expression," she continued. "I recommend richly endowed characters. Pay attention to everything they do. Pay particular attention to how they dress. Our clothes say a great deal about us."

She took a long puff on her cigarette, cocked her head, and seemed to be staring at the upper pane of a window.

"Rollerina," she said, "looks exactly like Miss MacIntosh. I think you could base a good character on Rollerina."

Rollerina was a legend in the city, a young man who sometimes dressed up in a ballet tutu, sometimes in a tattered wedding dress, sometimes in other striking thrift-shop costumery, and did roller skating spectacles on the streets of New York, usually in front of a crowd of people, such as one that might be waiting for a theater to open. He was beloved, cheered. He was a happening.

"I think Squeaky Fromme is most amusing; she'd be someone to base a character on too," Marguerite added.

Some of the students laughed nervously at this characterization of the woman who, a few years earlier, had, at close range, tried to shoot President Ford. (And who, as I write in 2009, was only recently released from prison.)

"And I like Patty Hearst. I'm rooting for her. And Son of Sam would be a good character. He seemed so sweet ... working at the Post Office and all."

Son of Sam, aka David Berkowitz, was a serial killer whose specialty was shooting couples who were making love in cars parked in secluded places.

Marguerite Young said she preferred the age of repression. She did not specify what she preferred about it, or even exactly what time frame she was referencing, but her remark made me recall the early sixties (I was living in Michigan at the time) when you could drive to Detroit and go to The Unstabled Coffeehouse (operated by an avowed socialist named Edith Canter) where avant garde plays, poetry readings, and such would be performed, and you could be half certain that the police might raid and shut down the place for the night. Unfortunately, by the time I met Edith Canter, she herself had become so disheartened by repression that she was trying to decide whether it was worth the effort to try to keep the coffeehouse open; eventually she decided that, no, she couldn't take any more harrassment from the authorities. (Some of Lily Tomlin's earliest performances had been at The Unstabled.) It was hard for me to imagine a preference for any age of repression, beyond the fetchingly romantic idea of being an outsider.

"Get TV out of your mind forever," Marguerite advised. "Television is the death of fiction. Read, read, and read! I read seven newspapers daily. I don't even mind reading The National Enquirer. And look around! Observe, observe, and observe!"

It felt rich to be in her presence. I observed and observed and observed and one of the things I observed was that it took her seven unfiltered Pall Malls to get through her two-hour lecture.

And I'm reminded that I preferred the age when smoking, including my own, was not repressed, even if I am now the represser.

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