I Await the Devil's Coming / Mary MacLane
Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2013, c1902.
Melville House has released the diaries of Mary MacLane, the first of which was a popular hit at the turn of the last century. They've also released her second, I, Mary MacLane, but I haven't got to that one yet.
I've known of MacLane for many years; I've always had a particular interest in diaries and diary fiction, and many years ago now, I worked at a library that was selling off a variety of its very old books. At that time I picked up both volumes of Mary MacLane's writing, for $1 each. They've been on my shelves ever since, from whence I've glanced into them but never read them straight through.
Once this shiny new edition crossed my desk, I knew it was time to focus. So I've read this one, I Await the Devil's Coming, the title of which was considered a bit too daring at first publication, when it was published as The Story of Mary MacLane.
Through this diary we get to know the interior landscape of this very unhappy, stifled 19 year old girl, a peacock among pigeons. I must admit that my eyebrows went up pretty high at times... she is a odd one, certainly. She was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, but at a young age her family moved to the States, eventually ending up in Butte, Montana. Her surroundings have a strong influence on her; she notices the variety in a seemingly bland landscape, as well as the variety in the inhabitants of this small western town. But being so far away from everything, so far West, when she wants to be in the cosmopolitan East, adds to her frustration.
She thinks of Butte as a provincial backwater in which the expectations for proper behaviour are untenable. She admits freely that she enjoys stealing; that she wants the Devil to come and awaken her sensual side; that she is in love with the one lovely woman who ever understood her; that her family is made up of dullards with whom she has nothing in common, neither affection nor sympathy. I think she would have been a very difficult person to live with, so perhaps her mother shouldn't be blamed for wondering where this cuckoo in her nest came from.
Mary releases her tension by taking long solitary walks and observing the landscape, she talks to unfortunates whom other people avoid, she enjoys the pleasures of good food. As she says, it's hard to be miserable when she has a fine rare porterhouse steak and some green young onions inside of her good, strong young woman's body. There's a lengthy section in which she describes the pleasures of eating olives that was quite amusing -- it resembles a mindful exploration of eating, a century before mindful eating was a practice. She begins it with this:
I have acquired the art of Good Eating. Usually it is in the gray and elderly forties and fifties that people cultivate this art -- if they ever do; it is indeed a rare art.
But I know it in all its rare exquisiteness at the young slim age of nineteen -- which is one more mark of my genius, do you see?
It's almost pathetic to see the gratitude she has to the one person who has ever taken her seriously as a person, the schoolteacher who has now moved away. You get the feeling while reading that everyone else simply avoided her, either that or was continually saying, "For goodness sake, Mary!"
She chafes miserably at her surroundings, and is blunt about her desires and her longings. She craves fame and attention as well. When this diary was published, she got what she wanted: it became a huge hit, and she left Butte to travel around the country, packing lecture halls and becoming a celebrity. She used her sudden income to live a Bohemian life in Manhattan, among other places. Alas, the fires of fame die quickly, and her second diary, published 15 years later, wasn't nearly as successful. Mary would ultimately die at 48, from unknown causes, alone in a Chicago hotel. A sad end for a passionate woman who, it seems to me, needed the kind of help that wasn't readily available in those times.
She has a lively, direct writing style, with humour popping up unexpectedly. Contrasted with the dejection and loneliness that also fills the book, it creates a complex life story. This makes interesting reading, but also uncomfortable reading, for me. Mary seems fairly unstable, and when you know how her life ends up, it makes reading about her hopes and desires seem very sad. But this book certainly shakes up some of the truisms about life in the early 20th century; there were people like Mary, people who made her into a celebrity for a time, people with whom her own struggles resonated in some way. It's good to remember that there is always real, powerful, human desire simmering, no matter what year it is.
(read Michael Dirda's very good review at the Washington Post for more detail)