Christina Stead and the Politics of Bohemia 3: I’m Dying Laughing – Amerika
In January 1950, settled temporarily in London, Stead wrote to Edith Anderson about Ruth McKenney, a popular comic novelist and one of Stead’s closest friends since the late Thirties, now the subject of the novel she had recently begun to sketch out about renegade American communists. Four years before, McKenney and her husband Richard Bransten had been expelled from the American Communist Party for “propagation of views hostile to the party”, yet despite the importance to Stead of loyalty to the Party, for a couple of years she had continued to regard McKenney as her “dearest American friend, female”.
By 1950, however, her affection was cooling. Cast out by their comrades, and having, like Stead and Blake, moved to Europe, McKenney and Bransten found themselves in a political, social and moral limbo: unable to practice their beliefs, incapable of entirely abandoning them. Regardless of this, Stead prolonged the relationship, in part because she felt it wrong to desert someone in trouble (as it became increasingly evident McKenney was), but also because she still enjoyed the show that her friend unfailingly provided. In her letter to Anderson she told her breezily she was going “to see Mme. Gargantua perform”: “…she longs to be anti-Soviet and to decry the Cominform – it makes her sheer raving mad to think of the money you make by being anti-Soviet and she is prevented by shame…I laugh at her – I like her, Edith. She is big, noisy, ravenous and alive…I have a lot of fun when I visit Ruth.” But fun was not enough to secure the friendship. Increasingly Stead felt that the vitality she relished in McKenney – behaviour she had once regarded as rudely ‘alive’ – was shifting, becoming more alarming. Now McKenney’s large appetites and constant state of riot seemed symptomatic not of élan, but of desperation: her life was rudderless and out of control.
The Branstens presided over a perpetual banquet. Like their counterparts in I’m Dying Laughing, Emily Wilkes and Stephen Howard, they were living “high, wide and handsome and to hell with the consequences”. But next to Stead’s and Blake’s meagre life, as they struggled in the post-war years to eke out an existence from their writing (“We’re not doing too well and expect to do worse,” Stead wrote despondently to a friend in the early Fifties), or when compared with the fate of their jailed and blacklisted comrades who had stayed in America to face the wrath of the HUAC, she felt the couple’s conspicuous feasting was vulgar and callous. And still her attitude towards her ebullient friend, and her assessment of the degree of McKenney’s political apostasy, continued to waver. Over a decade later in 1966, revising the first version of I’m Dying Laughing, Stead went through “material from the past” (probably letters McKenney had written to her over the years) and told her friends the Burnshaws that this had “…borne in on me how much more brilliant Emily was than I make her – but poor woman! She has me only. (She was very incisive, hardminded, and with – until the end – a high sense of integrity and what people should be doing as opposed to what they do do. Part of her decline came from that terrific struggle…)“
The friendship extended to their partners, Blake and Bransten, and throughout their acquaintance the two couples spent time together: as late as 1954, less than a year before Bransten killed himself (in a car, just as Stephen Howard does, in I’m Dying Laughing), the four celebrated Christmas with one another. Blake felt, as Stead had about McKenney’s decline, that Bransten was defeated not simply because he had renounced his communist beliefs, but because he, too, retained a degree of integrity which made it impossible for him to leave the past behind. Notifying another friend of Bransten’s suicide, Blake wrote “he never abjured his faith and yet did not maintain it: this twilight caused him intense pain and wrecked his life…”.
But these tempered views of the couple’s political bad faith were in marked contrast to Stead’s condemnation of McKenney’s hypocrisy as a writer. Far from the youthful idealism expressed by Emily in I’m Dying Laughing, her desire to write novels that “make a window on the world”, Stead felt that for McKenney writing had become a purely mercenary exercise, the shrewd manufacture of the kind of product that would sell best on the literary market in order to support her grand Chelsea household (“central heating, hot and cold, refrigerator, fully furnished with carpets, broadloom style, diamond-cut glass, Belgian wine glasses, pink-bordered and embroidered linen sheets, servants daily…”).
Stead was particularly scathing about the exorbitant advance paid to McKenney and Bransten for a travel book about the South-East, Here’s England (1950), which they had cobbled together for American tourists, without any serious knowledge of the territory. Stead’s irritation was perhaps felt all the more because the perilous state of her and Blake’s finances at this time (representing their failure to make a living from ‘serious’ writing) meant that while she stayed in Newcastle undertaking research for Cotter’s England, Blake was forced to live with McKenney and Bransten, where his evenings were spent correcting proofs for their guide book: “She got $5,000 berries, five thousand, count them, for this bit of embroidery…so this will keep the Branstens going for the next week.“
By 1956, Stead’s sarcasm had turned to outrage. Bransten’s suicide the year before had done nothing to lessen her anger toward her old friend. When McKenney (having returned home to America after Bransten’s death), sent Stead a copy of her latest book, Mirage (1956), about Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, Stead depicted her as a “Greedy pig”, and declared the book a “monstrous prefabricated best-smeller”: “It’s got lush sex scenes and summer tourist French and all kinds of HWd [Hollywood] garbage about the French Revolution and absolutely hackneyed types and comic-strip conversations and it was all done purposely, every word done to make a best seller, done by Richard and Ruth consciously, with the intention of being garbage but just the right sort to appeal – not too low, mind you.“
Why was Stead’s response to McKenney’s squandering of her talents as a writer more vehement than her reaction to the disavowal of her political beliefs? Perhaps because even as she grew to deplore McKenney’s disaffected way of life, Stead continued to be fascinated by her energy, narcissism and wit. But in McKenney’s writing there was now nothing she found to admire: she was simply appalled by the crassness and affectation of the later work, its feigning and calculation. For instance, Far, Far From Home (1954), McKenney’s final work of autobiography, about her family’s stay in Belgium, which she wrote in the years of Stead’s growing disenchantment with her, is an unashamedly ingratiating book, awash in maxims intended somehow to be both profound and cute: “Say what you like, it’s the clichés that make the fabric of a happy family” is a typical example. A debased version of her earlier comic novels, it lacks their slight charm and jettisons altogether the idea of writing that McKenney had aspired to as a young woman: literature as a radical weapon, and a truthteller.
This fall from grace is clearly reflected in I’m Dying Laughing, where Emily describes her own work as “poorly written, vain, cosy, dull, ignorant and pitiably lacking in self-criticism…” Having left America, though, she suggests producing more of her “cheap, easy shit”, this time in the form of a travel book from the family’s experiences in Europe, “The Howards Abroad turn[ing] out a sort of Baedeker for Americans, all they want to know, not the old three-star stuff.” (Emily’s readiness to pander to her readers stands in contrast to Stead’s refusal to spoonfeed her own: we are left to work out the full implications of Emily’s remark about the kind of writing she is proposing: Americans, intent on their creature comforts, want guide books that concentrate less on the history and culture of Europe – “the old three-star stuff” -, more on where to find good steak and hotel plumbing.)
But probably it was not so much McKenney’s abandonment of literature as a political instrument, nor even the sugar-coated commercialism and conformity of her writing that frustrated Stead, as the fact that in all this, (apart from rare flashes of something more disturbing beneath the surface), McKenney contrived so wilfully to misrepresent herself. Even in directly autobiographical work like the hugely successful My Sister Eileen (1938) (about sibling relations) and Love Story (1950) (about marital ones), where the picture is of a woman out of kilter with the trappings of femininity, comically maladroit in the roles of seducer and wife, there is nothing too painful or subversive: the self-portrait is deliberately non-threatening, the tone fatally collusive. McKenney managed to repress in her writing all of those qualities that Stead recognized in her, the complexity and scope (“What dimensions!”) which excited Stead and which, she believed, made McKenney something more remarkable than the bumbling housewife of her own account: a kind of exemplary American: “I regard Ruth as the greatest American of all in many respects (Richard really does not count, he is not in the same scale), outrageously venal, ferociously for her ideas, gangster à outrance [sic] when she must…“.
McKenney having abandoned the task of real self-representation in her writing, of bearing witness to her life in all its tortured extremity, the burden was taken up by Stead: “poor woman! She has me only”, Stead wrote of her subject, sentient of her formidable duty of recovery, adding, “I hope I’m able to do it, that’s all.” (Two further lines from the Whitman poem Stead uses as her epigraph in I’m Dying Laughing, express it well: “None has understood you, but I understand you/None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to yourself”.) So despite all McKenney’s autobiographical novels it was Stead, who faithfully transmuted that “crazy out-of-size” life into fiction, who, in I’m Dying Laughing, converted the tragic and stormy qualities of her existence into literature. Had McKenney been capable of such alchemy she might have been able to find some way out of her morass: might have become the architect, not the victim of her life. But she cracked up, and it was left to Stead to make the restoration, to put her back together in the pages of I’m Dying Laughing.
Such an idea, that literature, in its transfiguring power, can be redemptive, is, of course, a difficult one, especially when seen in relation to a writer of avowedly Nietzschean bent like Stead. In fact I’m Dying Laughing, a novel which pushes relentlessly to its ending in despair, madness and suicide, might seem a good example of destructive art (displaying Sadeian exuberance in its trashing of bourgeois family life). But this is by no means Stead’s blackest work: in her pantheon that honour belongs to A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948) and Cotter’s England (1966).
In the nihilistic worlds of those novels, the sense of hope or possibility has closed down to such a degree that in Cotter’s England, for instance, parts of the novel call to mind the totalitarian gloom of 1984. But I’m Dying Laughing – not only because of the presence of the irrepressible Emily Wilkes, but because of the shame that she and Stephen suffer in the face of their treachery – continually draws the reader back to the idea of the ‘good’ life they have lost. The various hells that Stead consigns her characters to in A Little Tea, A Little Chat and Cotter’s England are no worse than the one in I’m Dying Laughing, except that in those there is no sense of any transcendent space: in I’m Dying Laughing there is the prospect of a life lived in good faith, a communist heaven to match the anomie of the renegade couple’s self-made hell.
Emily’s glimpse of this heaven on earth comes when, before their marriage, she and Stephen attend the anti-fascist writers’ conference in Paris in 1935 (which Stead had also attended). The writers, “on roller skates from all points of the compass”, are fêted and feasted in embassies across the capital where Emily and Stephen come to feel “punchdrunk and ethereal…free” as they take their place in a magical democracy, announced on arrival at each event in the company of the great and the good: “…all the artisans of typewriter and pen, the unknown, the known, all named: ‘Monsieur André Gide, Madam Anna Seghers, Monsieur Thomas Mann, Monsieur Forster, Monsieur Thomas Barrie, Monsieur Kantorowicz…Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, Ilya Ehrenburg, Aldous Huxley, Julien Benda – Monsieur Stephen Howard, Mademoiselle Wilkes – Bonjour, Monsieur l’Ambassadeur, bonjour Madam, l’Ambassadrice.'”
Stead’s authorial act of resurrection in I’m Dying Laughing, transforming Ruth McKenney into Emily Wilkes, is not exactly Christian. (Indeed, there are those who might regard the novel’s damning report as more akin to a character assassination, an act of literary crucifixion.) But, while there is neither kindness nor charity in Stead’s rendering of her old friend, there is vindication. In I’m Dying Laughing Stead ensures that Emily Wilkes is a character possessed of complexity, selfishness, wit, and acuity about her compromised life – retrieving the great qualities Stead perceived in the ‘original’: qualities which McKenney failed to reproduce in any of her own literary incarnations that so diminish her.
I don’t want to live this way in the bright lights, going to the gilded palaces, unable to tolerate a waiter who’s been eating sour cabbage, or a waitress who hasn’t washed, unable to bear a hotel if the manager doesn’t scrape to me, suffering if my girl doesn’t change her dress twice a day. I don’t want to be like that. I am like that. Why? Because I see the funny side, I’m a wise guy. I’ve got the angles. I know the score. How despicable! Money’s filthy. It is filthy, Stephen. Don’t look down your nose. And when you think that my humour, which is me, I admit, is really the way I see things, laugh at everyone, sneer at everyone’s troubles I really am cruel. I often wake up in the night Stephen, to think out what I am. I’m like a doll with two faces glued together. They used to have those. I disliked them. One back, one front. Mark Twain wrote some terribly unfeeling, heartless pieces. After all to write The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg [sic], you have to have a really hard heart, you have to be a cynic. Whereas a natural tragic dramatist is always weeping for humanity. And here I am, supposed to write for the proletariat, or at least be a friend of the people, and I can’t live except this way, moneybags, or what’s just as good, enormous debts.
The Janus-faced doll is a good image not just for the riven character of Emily Wilkes, but for Stead’s attitude to the friend in whose image she was created. Stead’s drawing of McKenney in I’m Dying Laughing is uncircumscribed, revelling in discrepant feelings – in her esteem for this most electric of women, but also in the outrage and fear that her transgressions excited. This is brave writing, inhabiting the mired territory that Edmund White, an admirer of Stead, has described as the most fertile, from which the greatest work is produced: the best writers, he argues, have “tackled subjects they were of two minds about”. The doubleness of good writing is something Salman Rushdie has also written of, associating its wellspring in the imagination with the kind of fervour Stead felt for McKenney: “When the imagination is given sight by passion, it sees darkness as well as light. To feel so ferociously is to feel contempt as well as pride, hatred as well as love.”
ii. The Incontinent Mouth and the Carnival
Stead’s desire, in this final novel, was to produce the kind of fiction that would honour such a degree of complexity, which would take the artifice out of art and deliver to the reader something akin to what her friend Ralph Fox called “the presentation of ‘man alive’”, or Lawrence’s “bright book of life”, containing life’s conundrums instead of art’s unnatural completions – something she once praised Elizabeth Harrower for, saying that her novel The Long Prospect (1958) conveyed “the fragrance and nuttiness of the kernel, with the nutshell dispensed with.” So in I’m Dying Laughing Stead herself dispensed with the fine encasements, the glowing writing that characterized much of her earlier work, in favour of something more rough-hewn – the “ungainliness” and “ferocity” which Angela Carter admired.
But while the “nuttiness” she praised in Harrower was something she strove for herself, making her wary of writing that was excessively formal or ornate, Stead was still cognizant of the great iconoclasm of modernism, the radical break with the past which it heralded. (In ‘Heart of Darkness’ (1902), Conrad’s storyteller, Marlow, famously announces the principal narrative shift that is to take place between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, instructing his listeners that the meaning of his story lies not in the kernel of the tale, but in the shell, in the package in which it is delivered.) In I’m Dying Laughing, when Emily herself wonders about what kind of art might now be able to convey fully the dimensions of “a human being, intricate, delightful, convoluted” with “all sorts of facets and curves”, she decides that it would require the mould-breaking forms of modernism: only “an impressionist, a futurist could depict him.”
But it is painting not writing that Emily is thinking of and the connection to art is useful because one struggles to find literary comparisons for this brilliant and unique novel. In its depiction of estrangement, however, I’m Dying Laughing does call to mind much twentieth century painting, Bacon and Freud, as I have said, but also Munch’s ‘The Howl’, and the work of caricaturists from Georg Grosz to Ralph Steadman, in which the characteristic pose of twentieth century alienation is struck: head snapped back, jaws agape, the incontinent mouth. A strategy to communicate Emily Wilkes’s huge orality is to relinquish some of the control exerted by a third person narrator: in I’m Dying Laughing Stead pares away the omniscient authorial voice, leaving a novel composed of two-thirds speech – unmediated voices which speak out to the reader directly from the page. Stead’s ventriloqual writing (“I can write Emily-Stephen dialogue till the cats come home”, she said), omits much of the realist furniture of more conventional novels: it mimics (and so enhances) the idea in I’m Dying Laughing that the material goods which Emily and Stephen so desperately crave – to consume, to surround them, to make them safe – is only chimerical, that the rich stuff with which they attempt to shore up their lives (as more conventionally writers ‘upholster’ their characters) amounts to nothing more than fancy dressing.
So Emily and Stephen are doubly set adrift in I’m Dying Laughing: adrift from the Party (which grounded their lives and gave them meaning), and adrift in the text, usually unsurrounded by a contextualizing or explicating authorial voice. The effect of this is to make the characters seem still more existentially alone. Theirs are truly voices in the wilderness: less rooted in a created textual world, without benefit of domesticating mise-en-scène, they are wilder and more violent presences. Thus unrestrained, Emily becomes literally unhinged, “morally ill”, like Bertha Mason, Rochester’s insane first wife in Jane Eyre. By the end of the novel she is as free from any social constraint, her diatribes paranoid and profane: she, too, speaks the unspeakable. As if recognizing her outcast state, Emily consigns herself to the nether regions of the house, becoming its madwoman, not in the attic, but in the bowels of the house, where, Stephen admits: “She is so outrageous…lying there in the basement, drunk and dirty, living on drugs, rushing out shouting, insulting me…“
The comparison with Bronte is important because of the trouble critics have had trying to ‘place’ Stead, not just in the canon at large, but also as a woman writer. Reviewing The Man Who Loved Children on its publication in America, Clifton Fadiman, striving to convey the feel of the work, wrote that the novel seemed to him like “Little Women written by a demon” (unlike the kind of writing Ruth McKenney felt communist critics required, which would have “a sort of left-wing Little Women fireside atmosphere”). Fadiman observed that Stead’s remarkable, sui generis novels tended to unsettle “women reviewers in particular [who] find her hard to take” – a comment borne out by Mary McCarthy whose review of the same novel the following year found the book full of “fearful disordered vindictiveness”, and by Rebecca West, who, although admiring of the The Beauties and Furies, felt that novel’s strange dislocations begged the question, “Is it then something crazy?” Stead’s own account of the female literary canon was one which highlights the differences in it, dividing the Wild Women from the Lady Authors (and thereby giving women writers a greater degree of agency than many later descriptions which tend to assign to women writers the position of exclusion). And Vivian Gornick’s view that “The writer (a generation ahead) whom she most resembles is Sylvia Plath” fits with this model. Seeing her, like Plath, as one of the Wild Women writers, Gornick says both are “very angry, very involved” writers, in both “rage is the organising principle”, and in both “burns an exploding star of language, dark and violent, beside itself with the need to go all the way.”
If Gornick felt Stead anticipated Plath’s unbounded fury, looking back over the women writers who had preceded her, Stead found few that were like-minded. But she admired the turbulence of the Brontes, berating Virginia Woolf for her version of the tradition in a letter to a friend because “She does not rave about Fanny Burney, or the Brontes…”, preferring instead the more decorous Jane Austen (whom Stead pronounces “unreadable”). And Charlotte and Emily Bronte are the women writers with whom the critics have most often found parallels, Fadiman thought that “Like Emily Bronte, [Stead] has none of the proper bearing, the reassuring domestic countenance of a ‘lady author’.” An example of her indecorousness, one she shares with the Bronte sisters, is an unladylike interest in the body, in particular, the mouth. Stead can be thought of as a member of that assembly, to which the Brontes and Plath and many other women writers belong, of ‘hunger artists’ – writers concerned with hunger and denial, the body, its sexuality and the space it takes up. These preoccupations wind inevitably through much of women’s writing where the mouth is important as a symbol of control (determining the body’s size and reproductive health by the amount of food which enters it, and determining control over the environment by the words which come out).
Stead recognized this when she wrote in an article about women of “the awful power of hunger and suck”, and in I’m Dying Laughing she alludes to the dynamic of appetite and denial enacted by mothers and daughters, when Emily recalls her own mother, a “refined” woman with “a birdlike appetite”, who was ashamed of her “prize pig” of a daughter and refused her food. But as with the bird-like figure of Jane Eyre (light as air), or the martyred figure of Catherine Earnshaw, who refuses food in pregnancy and starves herself to death, other women writers have tended to concentrate not on the incontinent, but on the closed mouth, kept shut either by patriarchal oppression (as Jane is starved and chastised for talking at Lowood School), or voluntarily sealed as a symbol of refusal (Catherine’s self-denial parodies and rebukes the authoritarian Victorian society which refuses her the chance to love freely). In many of her novels Stead presents similarly negated women (though like the rebellious heroines of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights they struggle against their lack of freedom): among these are Louisa Pollit in The Man Who Loved Children who is humiliated by her father’s interference with her growing, pubescent body (at one moment marshalling her for long walks to trim her down, at another, force-feeding food directly from his mouth into hers), angered by his attempts to control language of hers he considers unfit; while in For Love Alone, Teresa Hawkins enacts her own programme of renunciation, pushing a regime of punishing asceticism to the point of self-starvation.
But in her last novel Stead gives a rare portrait not of deprived or delimited femininity, but of female excess, of the open-mouthed, gargantuan woman (the inscription in Part One is from Rabelais’s Gargantua: “I’m thirsty!”; and at one point Emily remarks “Rabelais was the only man who understood me. He’s dull and reported to be vulgar; but you can’t high-hat the classics. You can just say they’re dull. But they’re real!”) This alone would make I’m Dying Laughing noteworthy, for there are no Gargantuas or Falstaffs or Don Quixotes in the canon of women’s writing, nothing either in contemporary fiction to match, for example, the omnivorous figure of Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children, a “swallower of lives” who has “consumed multitudes”. Perhaps this is because, as Jane Miller observes in an essay on women and the carnival tradition, it is not just “the imposition of order” that patriarchy claims for its own, “men seem to have appropriated the management of misrule as well”. Stead, however, was undeterred by this lack of precedents. She wrote, as Fadiman noticed, without concern for social niceties about the supposed nature of women, creating her novels and short stories from how she found them. And in Ruth McKenney she believed she had discovered “a terrific central character, female”, multitudinous and seditious. (After reading the manuscript for I’m Dying Laughing, her friend Stanley Burnshaw wondered whether Emily’s excesses weren’t too great to accommodate within the bounds of art – particularly the scene where she nearly seduces her step-son. Stead believed,on the contrary, that these trespasses made the need to write about McKenney all the more compelling: “It is because it is all too much that it is worth writing about”, she admonished him.)
In her essay, ‘Feasters and Spoilsports’, Miller points to the way in which women are in an uncertain relationship to traditions of male-dominated knowledge and rationality, but in an even greater state of disenfranchisement in relation to the “traditions of…heresy and subversiveness” like the carnival. This problem, of course, confronts not just women who, like Miller, are critics of culture, but those who are its practitioners, too, and the idea that women might not fit easily into such traditions is something that Stead seems to have understood. She creates in Emily Wilkes a woman who fits Bakhtin’s representation of the carnivalesque, presenting her borderlessness and sense of limitless possibility as the characteristics which make her remarkable. Emily’s infinite capacity to “see everything as large as life and twice as natural” amazes Stephen and makes him feel the limitations of his pedestrian view of the world, “I’m stunned, abashed, melancholy, every evening to see what you’ve been seeing all day and I’ve been there and haven’t seen one-hundredth”; while his son, Christy, is also bemused by Emily’s ability to perceive myriad gradations in the flat and prosaic, to see eleven, perhaps fifteen colours “in an ordinary blue sky”: “Only an artist can see such things”, she lectures the stubbornly myopic boy, “a whole palette in a plain blue sky, which is only washing blue to the ordinary jerk.”
But Stead shows that the effect of these expanding carnival properties (“you don’t know when to stop” Stephen chastises her), has not only been to disarm the people around Emily, but to unravel her to the point of madness. Stead’s feeling that women might not thrive on, or survive heresy, was not (like Miller’s) the result of a theoretical engagement (Bakhtin had not been translated into English at the time she wrote I’m Dying Laughing), it was derived, once again, from what she perceived in life: the carnivalesque, disordering energy which made Emily Wilkes’s original remarkable, was also the thing which undid her. In July 1972, following McKenney’s death, Stead wrote of her paradoxical friend: “…she could be a torrent, an endless talker – a phenomenon. You couldn’t always endure it – but it was unique – (probably led to her mental disorders [because] there was no limit)…“.
In I’m Dying Laughing, McKenney’s ‘double’ Emily has “fun [with] these glorious spurges, this mad eating” insisting upon the primacy of the body: “heigh-ho, nothing in my life compares with my physical feelings”. She prefers “to know how coal-heavers feel on Saturday night”, rather than share the meagre sensibilities of an “intellectual”. Stead’s suspicion that the carnival’s lack of limits was deadly for McKenney is reified in Emily’s vision of her body grown monstrous, convulsive, at one moment overwhelming her with laughter – “It’s an awful rolling spasm, you’re out of control, but madly happy, inhumanly happy”; and the next tipping her towards death – “And the body gets up like an immense giant and grabs me and balances me over the cliff, threatening to toss me over.”
A critic as well as a novelist, (indeed, a synthesizer of the two: “My characters always have a tendency to be telling you something”), Angela Carter (who read Bakhtin late in her career) also suggests that women are in an equivocal position in relation to the idea of carnival. Her last novel, Wise Children (1991) celebrates the carnivalesque – laughter, art and sex – things which allow us to conceive the world as other than it is, by puncturing its proprieties, disrupting its order. But for all its buoyancy the novel is not utopian, it also proposes the idea that carnival riot can be dangerous, particularly for women. Under patriarchy, war and rape are licensed forms of (male) transgression, Carter argues; we should remember that violence, too, is a part of the carnival (amending the tendency in criticism and fiction to concentrate on its positive and creative elements). Carter, having in her forties just become a mother, departs from her earlier novels, where any idea of essentialism was roundly trounced, and concludes her last by arguing that there is, after all, something in the business of mothering that makes women a bonding agent; and that this prevents them from completely abandoning themselves to the anarchic selfishness of the carnival, or to the violence to which that can lead. (Admittedly hers are strange and ‘unnatural’ mothers: tipsy seventy-five year olds who toddle off at the end of the book, “Drunk in charge of a baby carriage”.)
From the evidence of her writing Stead had no such belief about motherhood: there was nothing in her background that would have led her to view it as a necessarily benign or connecting force. Her own mother died when she was two years old, and her fraught relationship with her stepmother, Ada, (“[she] did not like me…her treatment of me was dubious”) is related in The Man Who Loved Children, where Stead’s fictional counterpart, Louisa, ends by poisoning the usurper. In the novel (as in Stead’s life) the stepmother withdraws into a private world, abdicating her responsibility for her own brood and leaving Louisa to become the household drudge, shouldering the unwanted responsibility of mothering children not much younger than herself. Stead’s third ‘mother’ proved just as problematic. Long after Stead had escaped from Australia, Ada died and Stead’s father remarried. His new wife, Thistle Harris, had been a teenage acquaintance of Stead’s: they were the same age, both sixteen when her father first told Christina he was in love with Thistle. They remained cordial, but Stead was never comfortable with the transformation of their relationship, making her step-daughter to a woman who had once been her coeval.
In her adult life Stead’s attitude to having children of her own was ambivalent, her biographers report that she had several miscarriages and abortions, and her relationship to Blake’s daughter, Ruth, who after their marriage became her stepdaughter, was at times a difficult one (defensively reversing the image of the stepmother as witch, Stead was fond of pointing out that Ruth’s birthday fell on walpurgisnacht- witch’s night). When asked why she hadn’t had her own children Stead replied that she had already done her stint of mothering with her half-brothers and sisters; and like many writers, she often talked of her books as her children, but she found even this form of literary mothering distasteful, boasting to one interviewer in 1972, “I’m a bad mother; once the baby’s born, I don’t even think about it. It must fight for itself”, a belief she restated five years later when she talked to Thomas Keneally: “I do not write for publication. I really do not, and I don’t care what happens to the wretched thing [sic]. I’m a bad mother…”. But in ‘Trains’, a short story Stead wrote in the Fifties about a visit from Ruth McKenney’s son Patrick Bransten, she is excited at the prospect of engaging in childish things, while rueful about the loss of her own childhood, brought about by her early, enforced mothering: “When I see a strange child, I become lavish. I become a heady greedy giddy six-year-old, the sort I never was. I have fantasies about buying ice-cream, orangeade, comics, magic tricks, cake and circuses.“
Perhaps it was this early burden that drew Stead and McKenney to one another. In her autobiographical novels McKenney attests to a similarly benighted youth: recounting in My Sister Eileen that she was responsible for her sister from an early age, and in Love Story, two suicide attempts (however parcelled in retrospective irony) indicate that she, too, was an unhappy teenager. Stead opens I’m Dying Laughing with the young Emily’s get-away from her dependent family – a brother, his wife and their son – all of whom she is committed to supporting financially. As the boat slips its mooring she declares to her surprised neighbour: “Sigh, blissful sigh! Until they hooked that damn rope, I didn’t know if they weren’t going to crawl up the rope, first prize the greasy pig. Me…I’ve got the kind of family with gluey toes like that night-animal with big eyes. I’m Big Sis, who works even at the bottom of the Depression. Why should my loved ones work? Nay, nay. They’re good kids. I’m not mean and sour. I’m just so darn glad to get away.“
So the dominant image of mothering in I’m Dying Laughing turns convention on its head (in today’s parlance it might be called a ‘perverse reading’): it is one of exploitation, not nurture. And in keeping with the carnival’s doubling of meaning the mother in this novel is both exploited and exploiter. Emily is regarded at the beginning of I’m Dying Laughing by her own family, and later by Stephen and his, as a Mother Earth figure, a natural resource to draw upon which, like the land, can endlessly replenish itself. A “golden goose” who will lay golden eggs for the family, she is thought of much as Bakhtin describes women in one of the rare differentiated references to them in his work on the carnival, as “the inexhaustible vessel of conception.” Stephen falls in love with Emily because he believes she can fill up the emptiness and counteract the sterility of his life, that her fullness can compensate for his lack: “And there you are Emily, full of joy and interest and love and humanity and a need to know and you are strong, can’t be crushed. A faithful love, a true, great woman. You have the faith I’m afraid to lack.“
But from the beginning Emily feels trapped by this image of her as provider and comforter: (“‘How do you know that I’m faithful and strong?’ she objected, feeling cornered by this belief in her…”). It is not just her family that regard her primarily as a source of nourishment; her readers, too, have to be fed the junk food to which they are addicted. For Emily, writing becomes so completely a matter of satiating appetite, that her fictional books mutate into cookery books in which she serves up dishes to her hungry readers: “…the mama public, stupid, cruel and food crazy. I find myself putting in recipes – ugh! – because I know they’ll guzzle it.” As the demands of family and work on Emily increase, so her own need to replenish what’s exhausted becomes greater and more urgent. Motherhood becomes a state not just of giving, but of immense need, and she projects this back onto her ravenous readers, calling them the “mama public”. Just as her fiction turns into writing about food, so she consumes vast amounts to fuel her writing in the first place: “I eat like a cormorant, an elephant, a pelican, otherwise I can’t think…”.
But despite the logorrhoea of her diary (the twelve-volume Journal of Days under the Sun, in which Emily “had the irresistible duty imposed by her nature, her verbal excess and her genius, to record all her life”), and long, unguarded letters to family and friends, the plans for books she might write all fail to come to fruition. (Among this potential library of work are The Monster, the autobiographical work she is found clutching at the end of the novel, in a deranged state, strewing its papers across the steps of the Forum in Rome like some demented descendent of a Henry James heroine. But before this much heralded demise there are plans for a travelogue for American tourists, The Howards Abroad; political monographs Inside the New Democracies and No Turning Back; The Personal History of Bill Blank about a good communist [an in-joke reference to Bill Blake, no doubt]; a Journal of Europe 1948, about which she vows “I’m going to make every patch of waste evening fertile”; the Goethe parody, The Sorrows of a Really Fat Person like Me; her “magnum dopus”, and Trial and Execution about the last days of Marie Antoinette: “It is like today…we are all being tried and all go to our execution, by their hand or ours, or by time, killed, exiled, living in terror…frightened of neighbours and old friends; that is the terrible time we live in.”)
By the end of I’m Dying Laughing, however hard Emily stuffs herself with food, or drink or drugs, she is exhausted. In her need to survive at whatever cost she is more akin to Brecht’s grubbing Mother Courage than a fecund Mother Earth. But Emily’s readiness to manipulate and feed off her children, demanding that they pay for her care of them out of their inheritances, exceeds even the “greed, malice and uncharitableness” of Brecht’s symbol of venality. She becomes a truly monstrous mother, not succouring her family, but devouring them, and in turn feels herself eaten away by them, her own mouth shut, prevented from being like Bakhtin’s open-mouthed carnivaler, open to the world: “…having to keep a family going and with the expenses the devil’s long pocket could not meet, I’m doomed, I fear, to assassinating myself, to never doing what I want to do or to putting it off till doomsday…the worst thing about a husband and even kids is they cut you off from humanity. You’re a nun, you’re gagged, your mouth’s full of soap. “
So the terrible accusations levelled by her American comrades, that Emily’s is an unnatural family, put together for the purposes of greed and exploitation, though not true at the moment of charging, become so, by the end of the novel. (Stead makes it clear, however, that the ‘natural’ family to which the Party apparatchiks appeal is a shibboleth: in contemporary California the family has become an elected, made-up one, and the irony is her accusers, too, are adoptive and step-parents.) Nor are the children left untouched by this familial game of exploitation and betrayal. In Paris, Stephen finds his son Christy spying on him and Emily, and reporting back to his American grandmother who operates a blacklist of the friends that they are permitted to associate with, while holding tight the purse strings on the family money: “I’ll thrash the boy. Christ, listening at doors and trying to sink us; selfish little brute. We’re killing ourselves for him. What a thief!…Little savage! He’s a half trained dog. Isn’t he too sweet! And then he bites the hand that honeys him.“
Stead’s Letters contain testimony that her unease about mothering and childhood was reflected not only in I’m Dying Laughing, but in her view of the novel’s impeded development. In 1969 she wrote to Stanley Burnshaw saying that she had intended to concentrate on the marriage between Stephen and Emily: “My original plan is very clear in my mind – the passions-of-love in marriage, money and politics altogether in two persons – and nothing else, the rest just by the way.” But she kept getting diverted from this project by the children. In an uncanny mirroring of Emily’s feeling that the business of being a mother, the obligation of running a family, was preventing her from “doing what I want to do”, Stead also found herself led astray by the introduction of children into her story: “I don’t frankly, this is my real feeling, want IDL published…I want to finish it for myself, to tell the truth, the truth only I know; and most of the circumambulations and substitutions, quite unfortunate for the most part (take that painted little Olivia) have been to avoid the truth, which I know.“
Further evidence that Stead felt encumbered by the children in I’m Dying Laughing can be found in an act of Wildean carelessness, in which she loses one of the Bransten children from the plot altogether, (one of the text’s “anomalies” that her executor and the book’s editor, Ronald Geering, notes in his Introduction). When the family move from America to Europe, Lennie, Emily’s nephew on her brother’s side who becomes a part of Emily’s own family disappears from the novel completely. Stead’s uncertainty about the child is palpable from the outset: at the beginning of the novel he is living ‘offstage’ from the main action, with a nurse in Belfast (though no coherent explanation for this is given). When Emily asks for a photograph of the boy she supports financially, she is told that his nurse is superstitious and will not allow it, nor can she have Lennie’s address because, “It would so frighten Mary-Martha, the old darling. She would not understand a stranger writing.” So Lennie’s appearance in the drama is as a ghostly, tenuous presence, as if mimicking Stead’s uncertainty about the degree to which she was going to allow the children to intrude into the central story of Emily and Stephen. The idea that the child is a disturbing presence in I’m Dying Laughing (one who might disappear from the text, or destroy it altogether) is reinforced, when Emily, exasperated at the insubstantiality of this child (unseen and only vaguely placed) conjures Lindbergh’s nurse and Lizzie Borden’s servant as potential carers for him.
The loss of Lennie from the story in Part Two is something that can’t be accounted for simply by the fact that the novel was incomplete when Stead died, nor even by Carter’s observation that in Stead’s novels “She will allow careless lapses of continuity. People can change names, parentage, age, occupation from page to page, as though she corrected nothing.” Quite so. (Another instance of this in I’m Dying Laughing is Emily’s reference to “my sister Beth” on page 148, who is never heard of again.) But the disappearance of a character from the text signals something more than a slipshod approach to narrative continuity. Stead’s growing sense of dissatisfaction with I’m Dying Laughing had to do with her feeling that the novel’s unwieldiness was caused by entreaties from editors and other readers to concentrate more on the children (whom they felt were more commercially appealing, or perhaps to provide some relief from Emily’s noisy barrage), and the consequent writing had turned her novel into a “papermine”; these diversions were “completely ruining the original plan”: “I recognised that Cyrilly’s [her agent’s] demands…for more family scenes, were only because of TMWLC and I didn’t intend to introduce darling little kiddies – yet I have laboured over pretty Olivia.“
So in these two late novels Stead and Carter take quite different attitudes to motherhood. What is it then, in being a woman, that they both find inimical to the carnival, that means Stead’s protagonist is destroyed by it, that keeps Carter’s heroines from embracing it fully? Neither of Carter’s heroines in Wise Children, Dora and Nora Chance, is incarnated as the principle of the carnival: Dora reports from a sporadically fabulous world but she is a realist narrator, grounded in the material. In this she is most unlike her red and rude Uncle Perry who does embody the carnival, whose ever-expanding body knows no limit, recognizes no difference, and cheerfully assimilates all before it. He is multiple, and therefore elusive: symbolically wreathed in evanescent butterflies, Perry cannot entertain – literally cannot hear – the rational and challenging arguments Dora puts to him about war.
In Wise Children Carter deconstructs English culture, and, for the sake of her argument, the family is divided into two halves: the legitimate Hazards (theatrical royalty) and the illegitimate Chances (music hall performers, film extras and show girls). The women of these two sides embody one half of the carnival each: the Hazard women, circumscribed by patriarchal authority and convention, enact its darker side: negated, unfree, they turn in upon themselves, fighting, cheating and poisoning one another. The bastards Dora and Nora Chance, however, free of convention, get to revel in their left-handedness, in the freedom of living outside of the law, on the “wrong side of the tracks”.
I’m Dying Laughing also deals in questions of legitimacy and outlawry but there are none of the simple divisions that Carter’s polemical fiction offers. Unlike Dora and Nora, Emily partakes in both the light and dark sides of the carnival: she is the feaster and the spoiler, the joker and the killer. But as in Wise Children, where Carter argues that patriarchy permits carnivalesque transgressions of law in war and rape, and where women suffer the consequences of these acts of lawlessness (Granny shouting at the airmen above who drop bombs on women and children, the thirteen year old Dora being seduced/raped by her Uncle Perry), in I’m Dying Laughing, Emily is also unable to survive the carnival’s violent repercussions: she wreaks havoc on the world around her, precipitating Stephen’s death, and this same cataclysmic power leads to her own disintegration and madness.
There have been critics (predominantly the Shakespearean scholars known as the New Historicists) who have argued that the carnival’s rebellions are not subversive but a function of order. Carter makes a similar claim, but in Wise Children the order in question is not Bakhtin’s generic one but specifically patriarchal, sanctioning disorder as a reminder and a symbol of the very force which holds it up. However, Carter’s contention does not lead to a reductionist line of argument – as it can for the New Historicists – denying the carnival any radical or insurrectionary effect, claiming that its upturned world is permitted merely as a ritualized release of hostility which then facilitates the restoration of the ruling power. Rather, she tempers a utopian vision of the carnival with caveats about the effects of its chaos upon women, while still celebrating the fecundity of the carnival and its possibility for change and growth, believing that it cannot be permanently contained, that its radicalism will spread and lead, as Bakhtin says, “toward a shift of authorities and truths, a shift of world orders.”
Stead’s quarrel with the carnival is not as acutely gendered as Carter’s – she does not envisage mothering as a bonding force in the way that Carter does in Wise Children, and this allows Emily to embody both the creative and the destructive sides of carnival. But Emily suffers from her double state and is not able to achieve the triumphant rebirth that Bakhtin allots to similarly double characters in Dostoevsky: “In each of them (that is, in each of the doubles) the hero dies (that is, is negated) in order to be renewed (that is, in order to be purified and rise above himself).” Instead, by the end of I’m Dying Laughing Emily is negated, depleted, annihilated but without the possibility of renewal that Bakhtin argues is “the basic concept of the carnival”. This is not, I think, because Stead is an insufficiently dialogic writer, who fails to deliver “carnivalistic ambivalence” in the manner that Bakhtin describes, by becoming “single-levelled”, but because, like Carter and Miller, she senses that there is some impediment for women, some barrier which prevents them from taking a full part in the carnival.
In her essay, Jane Miller seeks to uncover just what the problem might be. She prefaces her analysis of Bakhtin’s work with a personal recollection of her time as a young student at Cambridge, where she found herself marginalised in that “city of men”, embarrassing them by her assertions of difference. Miller felt she was accepted in the company of male scholars “so long as she laughed and danced for them in the ways literature told them women could and did”, but her questioning of the role of women in male narratives was scarcely tolerated. In Bakhtin, as Miller notes, there is little said specifically about women. They appear briefly in the habit of the uninhibited laughing, dancing creatures that Miller speaks of – in Rabelais and his World Bakhtin writes, “she represents…the undoing of pretentiousness , of all that is finished, completed, exhausted” – or they are present as metaphors: “The female body generally serves as a metaphor for kinds of degradation, but also for an equally death-dealing gentility.” Perhaps it is in Miller’s questions about the way in which women confront masculine traditions (both orthodox and heretical) – how they locate themselves in relation to them, how they read the meaning of femininity in them – that we can find a reason for Stead’s and Carter’s suspicion of the carnival, even while their novels honour and celebrate it. At the very heart of the carnival, Bakhtin argues, is the idea of death and renewal: “Carnival is the festival of all-annihilating and all-renewing time.” It is only through death that re-birth can occur, and his work is suffused in correlative images of “constructive death” and “pregnant death”.
The language of fertility and reproduction prevails in Bakhtin’s work even as he ignores (as Miller puts it), “all those pains and leakages which are not common to both sexes”: women’s difference is lost in the carnival’s breakdown of barriers (collapsing life into death), and the consequent amassing of experience (collapsing female and male bodies into one undifferentiated mass), creating a world that is “infinitely reversible and remakeable.” However, while Bakhtin presents women’s bodies in an unspecific, metaphorical manner, linking them to the reproductive power of the earth, he also reiterates that the carnival is not made up of “abstract thoughts”, but is to be understood literally: “Carnival is not contemplated and strictly speaking, not even performed; its participants live in it.” This warning not to read the carnival symbolically leaves women in a disturbingly ambivalent position: their role in one half of the carnival, in giving birth, is unacknowledged, and their fate in the other half, in annihilation, is bleak.
Bakhtin’s writing on carnival cheerfully and carelessly appropriates the language of fertility without acknowledging the pains of childbirth, the cost to women of creating and nurturing life. For Stead and Carter, who have written novels in the carnival tradition, the blood, sweat and tears which women expend on creating and sustaining life cannot be so readily turned into fertilizer. In I’m Dying Laughing, Emily knows that for all her creative energy and exuberance she is not Mother Earth – however much her family and public might want her to be – is not that “inexhaustible vessel of conception”. She knows, too, that the reality of her fertility and her femininity means that she cannot partake of the carnival’s freedom and licentiousness without paying a price for it, without, as she protests, finding herself “gagged”. Similarly, Bakhtin speaks of “bloodless carnival wars”, but in Wise Children, Carter’s canny Granny rails at the bombers overhead, knowing that it is men who make war, and that women and children – who have no say in the matter – who are sacrificed in the process.
For male writers the ritual bloodletting of the carnival death continues to present no such problem. An important English language novel of recent times (winner of the ‘Booker of the Bookers’ prize in 1993), Midnight’s Children, ends with a pure image of carnival that suggests carnival’s swoon to the (mother?) earth, its love affair with death, is bound up exclusively with patrilineage. The hero-narrator, Saleem Sinai, a bastard carnivaler himself, is trampled underfoot by the massed population of India, and in perpetuity is followed into “the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes” by generation after generation of similarly bastard sons. This association of death and renewal was troubling to Stead. In a letter she wrote to her friend Ettore Rella about his play, Smiley the Guru, she struggles with the work’s association of death (a double crucifixion) and creativity, trying to understand the relationship in the idea of tradition: “I was struck…by the deep tradition in your work…much tradition makes for true originality, a paradox – ‘“rank and maddening, a resurrection/smoking up from the immortal genius/of all the dead years…’ a poet of genius said. (Do you know him?) What a phrase! And I have tried to make the leap from there to “O flesh farewell”, your message. But it is not in me, a woman. She goes on to say that the “gloom, despair” of the play makes her anxious, but that she has tried to reconcile these fears by placing the work in the tradition of the Commedia Dell’Arte, finding a remark about the Commedia in which characters are swayed by “a mood of floating melancholy” – a phrase she thinks suits Rella’s piece very well. But this attempt to rationalize her anxiety about its darkness does not quite convince her. She ends by asking Rella “is this the heart of the matter, a tradition? I am afraid it is more than that.”
Stead finds in her friend’s work a connection between the tradition in which he is steeped and the nihilism, the “gloom, despair” of the art he produces out of that tradition. While marvelling at the “paradox” that tradition should produce originality, there is the suggestion of something uncanny about this transaction: a transaction which Stead cannot perform (“it is not in me, a woman”) not simply because the dead souls of tradition are male, but because the exchange seems to require of the artist an idea of surrender to that tradition: as if the poet’s immortality can be gained only through the renunciation of his own mortality (“O flesh, farewell”), the creation of genius and ascension to the canon achieved, not as Eliot – and Bloom – envisaged it in the (Oedipal/Freudian) rebellious act of killing off strong predecessors, but through an act of obedience in answer to the demands of the canonical dead: in an act of self-martyrdom. The idea that death could bestow this kind of significance was something she could not countenance. She told Stanley Burnshaw: “I am strongly opposed to the idea of death, to death, it means nothing to me…”
Like Stead, in I’m Dying Laughing, Emily, the materialist, refuses any mystification of death, seeing surrender to it as weakness (she reminds Stephen that suicide is defeatist: “you know how repugnant and wrong that is to a communist!”) And in the image of the martyr, she finds a corollary for carnival or canonical death which throws an altogether different light on the idea of death in the service of life: of Bakhtin’s “pregnant” or “constructive death”, or of the canon’s “resurrection” of fresh talent from its belly of dead art. Stead, unlike her admired friend Ettore Rella, was a true materialist. For her no possibility of transcendence or metamorphosis could come from death, and this view is reflected by Emily, for whom all death, even in the cause of the carnival’s revolutionary “shift of world orders”, is repulsive and terrifying: ‘“What an extraordinary race to belong to! Ants and bees have organised societies – so they say. It’s all nicely fixed up, mother to son; they don’t turn the anthill upside-down every twenty years. But we say, it’s a tenet, the tree of liberty must be watered every twenty years by the blood of martyrs. Why is it? What is the answer?” “The answer is, revolution is a necessity if we are not to be ants and bees.” “Brr! but it’s murder, it’s terrible.”‘ Emily’s view of death is that of a true materialist (which Bakhtin was not). Her materialist belief is so robust that it tempers her enthusiasm for revolution, cautioning her as to the effects of a world turned upside down, and the likely consequences for her and her family.
iii. The Strong and the Weak
In I’m Dying Laughing Emily complains recurrently about the violence wreaked in moments of anarchy and rebellion (even as she perpetrates her own). As earlier she bemoaned the lack of plan and organisation in American politics (“We haven’t even got a system; or if we have, no one knows what it is”), so in her image of society as a tree watered by the blood of men, she dreads any shift in the rule of society – whether it be by war, the democratic usurping of one administration by the next, or even the kind of popular uprising that, as a communist, she advocates. She feels the danger of all these revolutions and their threat of “bloodletting”. Coming from the underclass, like Carter’s Granny in Wise Children, Emily’s belief is that any blood spilled in these transfers of power will be her own; that the downtrodden will be trodden down once again.
Perceiving herself under attack (“I don’t like to be a martyr, I won’t be a martyr”), Emily builds an armoured personality out of just her will to survive. (She is like Kazan who, after testifying before the Committee and handing over a dozen names, told Miller, that “he came from survivors, and that the job was to survive.”) With only her “smart horse-sense” and stinging wit, her history has been to fight her way up from “the sod-digging level of [her] grandfather”, to join the successful in the American dream. (She contemplates writing “a horror book about that most dreaded figure in American society, a failure.”) Having reached the zenith of the promised land, making it all the way to a star-lit Hollywood, she is determined not to return to that dismal place, not to fall back down to that “dark and bloody ground”. This understanding of where Emily has come from, and the battle she wages not to return there, is a key to her often paradoxical view of the world: from it flows her lust for life, her communist belief and egalitarian idealism, her desire for order and her fear of chaos; but, conversely, it also feeds her disapproval of the outsider or the bohemian, her identification with strength, and hatred of weakness or nihilism or anything tending toward death – all those insecurities which fuel her Nietzschean selfishness and lack of compassion: “I have no sympathy with suffering and death. If we weren’t cruel,” she tells Stephen, “we’d die.”
Emily knows that she comes from a country where the rule of law is the rule of the jungle, life is a Darwinian battle in which the strong must fight to overcome the weak. In 1935, the year in which I’m Dying Laughing begins, and anticipating what has become doctrinal in American politics today, Emily argues that the Depression is degrading not simply because of the hardships of poverty but because it forces people into dependency upon the state: “It’s sickening for Americans to be living on handouts, when we’re the richest country in the world and believe in the survival of the fittest.” And, American to the core, Emily fights not to be a recipient of handouts, at the mercy of others, but to determine her own place on the food-chain. Living under “American cannibalism-capitalism” she must eat or be eaten, fight or be defeated: “I’m not looking to anyone to save me. Why? Because I’ve got my two fists, just like any Irish worker or bohunk back in the rolling mills.”
Since Emily is used to struggling and taking care of herself, the spoils of her fight – her new money – sit uncomfortably with her. Either she is out of control, like a child set loose in a sweet shop, “too greedy, she wanted to try everything”; or she is over-controlling, suspicious of the people who work for her: at home she obsessively reduplicates the servants’ housework. When she comes into the kitchen one evening to find a stray cat licking one of her baking dishes (left there by Manoel, their Portuguese butler), she erupts in fury. The starving cat has just had kittens but finds in Emily no answering display of maternal feeling. Instead, showing the determination and lack of sentimentality characteristic of the arriviste, she throws the cat out onto the hillside rising behind her Hollywood home: “There were always stray dogs and cats in the hills. People, when they were leaving, took their pets there, hurled them from the cars, and raced back down the glen. At nights, cats howled in the glens and sniffed around the doors.” (There are only a modest number of interpolations Stead allows herself into the dense drama of Emily’s and Stephen’s lives, but when she does pull back from this, to tell us something about the environment these furies inhabit, the images she registers are striking and prescient. She conveys in her Hollywood of the Forties, the first glimpses of a new world, the Californian alien-nation that, in the Sixties, writers like Thomas Pynchon, and later Don DeLillo, would delineate in their map-making novels about the city with its strange inhabitants, and their stranger habits.)
Emily hates the cat, fears its outsider status, its stray, unbelonging, bohemian nature. She seems to sense that this scrapping mongrel hurling itself against her kitchen door, trying to get to the warmth inside, is a cruel parody of herself. When the cat bounds onto the kitchen window-ledge, Emily sits inside, smoking a cigarette, contemplating “its phosphorescent wild eyes through the glass”, as if looking in the mirror. Finally drawn to bed by Stephen’s cajoling, she is unable to sleep (something antithetical to her nature, a waste of life). She bangs on the window to make the feline doppelganger go away, make it leave her in peace, then turns to Stephen and declares she’d like to kill all cats. When he points out that cats kill birds, who in turn kill insects (neither of which she can stand), she responds that they should exterminate all animals by spraying them with DDT (something it becomes apparent she has tried when later we find her walking around her garden, the “grapevines ruined and burned by the DDT spray”): “What use is all this trash in the modern world? Let’s get rid of them and organise the world. They don’t belong to anyone, they don’t like anyone they’re marauders. They eat our food…The world belongs to man or to animals doesn’t it? It’s them or us…We want the world for ourselves. We’re growing at such a rate there won’t be enough for us if we let them maraud and rob and steal…“.
Emily’s desire to destroy those in the animal kingdom she considers undesirable, echoes the social Darwinist enthusiasm of Sam Pollit in Stead’s autobiographical novel, The Man Who Loved Children. Pollit tells his daughter, Louisa: “Why, we might murder thousands – not indiscriminately as in war now – but picking out the unfit and putting them painlessly into the lethal chamber.” He also informs her that she is different from him, not a part of the same golden humanity but of some different order: he tells her she is ugly and ill-bred (rather like the mongrel cat), leaving Louisa to surmise that if she does not try to conform to his desires for a pretty and obedient daughter, then, like the “vaudeville jews” her father so loves to imitate, and the coterie of “old wives”, “female sluts” and “vicious women” he believes himself besieged by, she, too, could become the target of his project for “clearing the way for a eugenic race.” To safeguard herself against this eventuality, Louisa kills the things her father disapproves of – the rebellious, unappealing femininity that does not accord with his vision of a beautiful and pacific world. She kills these attributes not in herself (she remains rebellious), but in a perversion of this (and with her consent to the act) in her depressed step-mother, Henny. At the climax of The Man Who Loved Children, Louisa poisons the unhappy, disappointed woman by putting cyanide in her teacup, then stands by, frozen in mute horror, watching her gulping it down.
In I’m Dying Laughing, Emily is also accused of being a botched woman: she is not, like Louisa, deemed inadequate as a daughter by her father; this time it is Emily’s role as a mother that is impugned, and the patriarchs who indict her belong to the Party. But Emily has a different strategy from Louisa for surviving paternal threats of persecution. The warring scenarios of “cannibalism-capitalism” in I’m Dying Laughing, or of the patriarchal family (the battle-ground upon which Stead was principally intent in The Man Who Loved Children), leave a woman limited choices: she can choose to play the victim and martyr (of the kind Henny enacts through her “weakness, recrimination, convenient ailments, nerves and tears”), or, like Emily, she can perform an act of psychological transvestitism and adopt the role of the patriarch herself: she can try and become the master. Perhaps part of Stead’s complicated relationship with Emily’s original had to do with the fact that Ruth McKenney reminded Stead of her father. In him, a similarly life-affirming exuberance was also translated into something darker and nastier: his belief in eugenics. Like McKenney, David Stead was hugely egotistical and equipped with linguistic powers which allowed him to play the despot in his family. And like McKenney, he could spin out a charm of words which began in life and logic (the brand of scientific rationalism he made recourse to was Darwinist; hers, Marxist) and ended in deathly chop-logic. Stead depicts the fictionalized versions of these people, Sam and Emily, as similarly carried away by language, they are (like Robert Grant in A Little Tea, A Little Chat and Nellie Cotter in Cotter’s England) dangerous characters who can talk themselves into and out of anything.
However there are important differences between them. The tyrannically cheerful Sam Pollit (the designer of “pollitry” and “Sunday-funday”) rules his family without acknowledging any challenge to his leadership, brooking no dissent from his regime of vigorous optimism and health. Even when Louisa confesses her part in her step-mother’s suicide, and claims that her brother, Ernie, had also intended hanging himself, Pollit refuses to accept this version of events, or the implication for his part in the family’s tragedy. By contrast, Emily (also the family’s breadwinner) attempts the role of master, and appears to dominate her weak husband and confused children, but, as a woman, her rule is not so unassailable. Unlike the strong and handsome Pollit who towers over his family, the very image of masculine power, Emily’s wild appearance – pink-faced, hair “bunched up in spikes and curls”, looking “like a Holbein woman” – makes her seem to her husband more like a figure of fun (albeit a loveable one), than a figure of authority. And when, like Sam Pollit, she is implicated in the death of her spouse, Emily is unable, as Pollit does, to carry on resolutely, refusing to entertain the idea of culpability, and instead is broken by the event.
Evidence of Emily’s fallibility comes on the night of her encounter with the stray, in a dispute with Stephen about what direction their lives should take. This finds her unable to exert her control, even momentarily lost for words, impotent before her husband who collapses her argument by laughing at her crazed demeanour. Their disagreement is precipitated by the dinner party in Hollywood, at which they are assaulted by their communist friends, accused of being renegades. The comrades’ accusations and threats to remove Stephen’s child from their custody, bring to a head Emily’s sense of disgust with their lives. Her battling instincts aroused, she demands of Stephen: “I’m prepared to fight Hollywood, why not you?” Sick of feeling humiliated by the “degrading” scripts she is called upon to churn out for her retainer, Emily wants to “give up everything to write good literature for the working class.” But Emily is not the only battling outsider in this family, Stephen, too, is an outcast: renounced by his family, disinherited because of his espousal of communism, he is now unprepared to be thrown out into the wilderness once again. Having lost his place in his natural family, he is averse to squandering his place in his elected one, the Party, by falling out over matters of political principle. Nor is he willing to throw away the opportunity for Emily to make money in Hollywood (upon which the support of the Party depends): ““I’m not going to give up the Party or the boys’ favour, because if I didn’t have that, I’d have nothing. I must have their esteem. I gave up my family, its money and esteem. I must have something.”“
Stephen’s petulant argument wins Emily over. But this is not simply because of his intransigence, and his protestations that her belligerence is giving him an ulcer, but because he argues that their bottom line must be the family and the need to support it at all costs, to keep hunger from their door. Such an assertion plays directly into Emily’s vulnerability, her fear of returning to the impoverished place from which she has come. Stephen’s appeal to her to abandon righteousness, not to “argue back” to “the great stone faces of the Party”, but knuckle under, toe the line, and continue to write the empty-headed comic cuts which have reaped great rewards in the past – all this prevails because it exploits Emily’s sense of beleaguerment. Having aroused the spectre of her insecurity, Stephen proceeds to frustrate Emily’s argument for a life based on solidarity, on political and artistic integrity: “Oh, heavens, who can fight with you?” she writhes in frustration, “Oh, you won’t listen to what I mean. There’s no getting round you. Oh you drive me crazy.” Instead, he counters her demand for moral rectitude with something much more seductive: a programme of ‘us against the world’, a shared battle of retribution: ““I want to destroy my enemies in the family and outside with the terrible acid of success and melt them to the bone-dust with your help if I can do it.”
So Emily’s rejection of the cat that night represents something much more substantial than the moment of frisson it affords the reader – it is also a symbolic encounter. In abandoning the stray, Emily deserts her communion with the poor, the downtrodden and the outcast, and opts instead for her own survival and that of her family. The battle over conscience continues to rage throughout the novel but, after this, rather than regarding herself in some fraternal relationship to others, deep-down Emily sees herself only in competition with them. And this keen and fundamental competitiveness rapidly tips over into paranoia: it is not just other human beings she has to fear, but all the creatures of the planet who become a threat. As she falls asleep, Emily continues to think about the real and imaginary animals she would turn out of Eden, the “flying snakes” and all their disturbingly different associates; how she would impose upon her wayward rivals “laws and measures against the free-living part of the world, those who spoke other tongues than ours, who hissed, chirped, rattled, scuttled, flew, slid.”
The pluralist dream of heaven on earth Emily discovered among her anti-fascist comrades in Paris, the vision of writers, great and obscure, banqueting with the gods on “the largest dishes they had ever seen, silver boats and coracles used no doubt by Jupiter guzzling in heaven,” is quashed. From now on feasting will become a function not of inclusiveness but of exclusivity, the symbol of Stephen’s battle-cry for “acid success”, of their vitriolic triumph over others. Having thrown the cat out, the pleasure Emily takes that night is no longer in ideas of fecundity and abundance, of enough for all, as it was in Paris, but in its obverse: what satisfies her now is the sight of a sterile and empty kitchen “smell[ing] of various cleaning agents”, where the dishrags have been soaked in vinegar, boiled and hung out to dry.
iv. Capitalism and the American Family
Stephen’s refusal to fight the Party represents his fear of being ostracised for a second time, and his determination to keep faith with his beliefs. But (like his demands that Emily should continue to write drivel in order that the family might live well) having once before renounced financial security, Stephen’s desire not to take another bite out of the hand that feeds him – they take seriously the Party’s influence over hiring and firing – is, more pointedly, a reversion to the selfishness of his class. He may have been disinherited by his family, but his behaviour can still be understood in the light of his upbringing. Although on the night of their row Emily’s insecurity makes her succumb to his arguments, she knows that at the heart of her husband’s actions lies not stoic acceptance of Party discipline but his ingrained allegiance to his family and all that it symbolizes.
A key to this understanding is Stephen’s relationship with his Uncle Maurice, who lives in France in “his museum of a home”, an accumulator of esoteric objets. “He collects – all sorts of oddities, delicious objects that I like and admire”, Stephen tells Emily, “It took me years to understand him, for it seemed boyish to me – collecting.” His feeling that his uncle is “boyish”, that he is not fully a man, is a covert reference to his homosexuality, though when Emily confronts him with this in a row over Christy’s future, baiting him nastily (“Maybe he’d become a fairy like Uncle Maurice, he’s pretty enough -”), Stephen responds furiously, shouting: “Emily, shut up! You’re drunk; Uncle Maurice is not a fairy. He’s a gentleman bachelor.” Stephen’s refusal to acknowledge that his uncle is homosexual, however, is not simply a matter of good manners or family secrets, it relates to the fact that in Emily’s eyes Maurice represents something about his family and about Stephen himself which he does not wish to confront: that their problems are typical of their class. All their behaviour can be understood in the light of the family’s role as a building block of American capitalism – their pedigree confirmed, Stephen reports, in a register of the most powerful clans in America in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
Early in her marriage Emily is enchanted by her husband’s relatives (her vision of them hanging in an art gallery calls to mind Sartre’s description in Nausea of the way in which the powerful inscribe and perpetuate their authority): “It’s such a beautiful way to live…all with different personalities, leaving each other alone and admiring each other. A united family…like a picture gallery somewhere in Italy – all the portraits, elegantly drawn by some master of the day – tray raffinay. A friendly master – a court painter – not a hater of the rich. Till now, I never knew the rich were decent.” But she is soon disabused of this illusion of freedom, unity and decency. Stephen informs her that his is a family of shrewd, first-rate businessmen and women who, having achieved success, now have no need to make money, (“For us the dollar-fever crisis has passed”) but continue to do so out of “pride and honour; [because] one has a duty towards money.” Not decency or freedom as Emily first supposes, but this obligation to money is the family creed, an ideology springing directly from their money-making endeavours in hotel management and property speculation. In I’m Dying Laughing, Stead (showing how, as always with her, the political is personal) argues that theirs is a system rotten with avarice which inevitably infiltrates and infects the mercenary families who are responsible for it. As Stephen acknowledges, ruefully: “You eat the spittle of a class that knows no pity and it will poison you.”
Stead’s portrait of the Howard clan, typical of their class, reveals them at once to be strong and manipulative, but also tired and inept. What she is demonstrating with this peculiar combination of power and weakness – some relatives, like Anna, persist in the ruthless pursuit of money, others, like Maurice the collector, are “all gentle now, or ridiculous cranks” – is the inherent failing of capitalism, the way in which its dynamism, productivity and exploitation lead inexorably to surfeit, and thus to behaviour that is excessive or eccentric, to degeneration and bohemianism. Through this dialectic, Stead conveys the eery way in which capitalism manifests itself as strength and weakness, substance and insubstantiality, fullness and emptiness. These are qualities which Emily shares, because she, too, is a product of the system. But her relation to it, like her relation to Stephen’s family, is always complex. To them, Emily is someone without the refinements of their class: rough, loud and crude, she is the worker, the “golden goose” whose talents are to be exploited. And as an outsider she is divided in her feeling about them: she is the Nietzschean battling her way to the power of the insiders, to gain the advantages the capitalist enjoys; while at the same time she is the Marxist wanting to see the family and the system which put her on the outside, overwhelmed by revolution. When Stephen first describes his uncle to Emily, he says that he, too, is “really another Uncle Maurice” (meaning that he is like him having studied at the Sorbonne, and in being an aesthete, without occupation), but that his mother is “thankful I am not” (meaning that she is thankful he is not, like Maurice, homosexual). Stephen is not literally homosexual, but the likeness to Maurice is telling, obliquely associating him with received notions of homosexual men as weak and emasculated, traits which Emily later ascribes to his whole family.
During the argument about Christy, Emily calls the Howard family “effete” and “left-sided”, and Stephen’s son “a runt of the pedigree stock”. Her frequent accusations that Stephen is a “vampire”, lazy and living off her, (“Work, goddamn it, work!” he yells, refusing to work himself), all reinforce the sense of Stephen and Christy as “bloodless” scions, the tail-end of a family that is parasitic, unproductive and therefore doomed. When Emily and Stephen meet on their first voyage to Europe, she falls in love with him because his “effete personality and… emaciated comeliness” present a foil to her ruddy good health and strength, his wan beauty reminds her of an El Greco. But after the destruction of their lives in America and the echoing carnage of war in Europe, this image of deathliness and passive acceptance repels her: she “can’t love the humble and desperate”, nor will she join the millions of “crucified ones” who “hunger for anonymity and death.” Right to the end, even in her vagabond disarray on the steps of the Forum in Rome, Emily refuses any semblance of the Christ-like martyr: “The son of man has nowhere to lay his head?” she scoffs, “That is absurd. You can lay it anywhere, I lay my head on the steps and I stay here.”
Stephen’s son’s Christy, has a name that suggests he will be condemned to suffering, to playing the part of victim which Emily so fears and loathes: acted upon rather than acting, he is a slow, indecisive boy, and according to Emily less able even than his impotent father. Stephen’s troubled relationship with Christy is caused not simply by the fact that he is to inherit the riches Stephen has forfeited, but because Christy reminds him of himself, of the useless self that he had tried (in joining the Party, in marrying Emily) to forgo, and of the failure he has made of his rebellion from his family and class. Riven in their view of the world and how to live in it, Stephen and Emily have a schizophrenic relationship to his wealthy family, regarding them at one moment as the strong and influential clan of Howards and Tanners and Drovers to whom they are in thrall, agreeing cravenly to live their lives as the family demands in return for the promise of cash. But in the next (in those moments when their communist conscience reasserts itself) they are seen as the enemy: a ruthless bunch whose “rough and ready vandal capitalism” is responsible for “one-third of a nation bone-idle and suffering from beriberi and malnutrition”, a family – as the doctrine goes – whose decadence and exploitation can lead only to ruin, to a revolution from those they have oppressed.
Uncle Maurice in part serves to reinforce this latter view – making them a family devoid of any strong masculine presence: comprised only of the weak Stephen, the confused teenage Christy and the homosexual Maurice. It is Stephen’s mother Anna who holds the power in the family (granting her husband an allowance), together with his sister Florence who has a substantial inheritance of her own. That it is women who are powerful is a further sign of the family’s dysfunction: like an East Coast version of one of Faulkner’s tribes petering out at the end of the line, they are capable now of producing only pale imitations of themselves – Christy’s weakness echoing Stephen’s, Olivia’s preening and vanity (“this revolting success in life, the perfect woman”, is Stephen’s description of her) echoing her aunt’s and grandmother’s. And as in Faulkner, ( in The Sound and the Fury, for instance) where new family members are given the same names as those of the previous generation, in I’m Dying Laughing this state of solipsism and exhaustion is suggested by the name of another of Stephen’s uncles – Howard Howard.
Proof of the Howard family’s decline is found also in its inability to consolidate itself in marriage or stable parenting: children get moved around like pawns on a chessboard. When Stephen’s first wife, an heiress, dies, she leaves neither her fortune nor her daughter to his care, believing him too idle to inherit money and of too “indecisive [a] nature” to look after Olivia. The infant is passed on to her sister-in-law. But Florence’s health also proves frail, and her life with a left wing artist is deemed unsuitable for a small child. So Olivia is handed on again, this time into her grandmother’s care. Anna, however, does not want to keep her, but nor does she want her granddaughter to return to “an irregular household” (Florence and the artist are unwed). Reluctantly, she decides that unsuitable a match as she deems Emily to be for her son, she nevertheless “loves her home; she is a homemaker”, and therefore grants Stephen and Emily guardianship of the doll-like Olivia. But Anna has few doubts about her platinum-haired, blue-eyed granddaughter. A predatory and vicarious woman, she “look[s] forward to her adolescence”, never really doubting the child’s fate, believing that despite the subversive influence of Florence and Emily and Stephen the vain girl will not become a traitor: “When the time came,” she was certain, “Olivia would do what all the girls of her class did.”
Testifying to Stead’s irritation with the way in which family matters seemed to frustrate the central story of Emily and Stephen, much of the background information about the complicated marital status of Stephen’s family is handled in a rather peremptory fashion, hurriedly dispatched by Stead, warranting no more than a few pages in this long novel. But the familial delineation is important, nevertheless, serving as it does to show just how the American brand of capitalism seeped into private life setting its culture and tone, instigating marriages, divorces and control of children, and dividing family members against one another. In a potted family background we learn that like Olivia, Christy too is the target of his grandmother’s schemes. He is Stephen’s nephew, the child of his sister Brenda and her alcoholic husband Jake Potter (a harmless man, another collector, but set to work in one of the Howard hotels where he takes to the drink), and like Olivia, the inheritor of his mother’s wealth. As their marriage collapses Brenda returns to the protective bosom of her mother and sister. Despite their financial power, women in the Howard family do not fare well and she also dies, leaving Potter to admit his unsuitability as a parent, adding Christy to Stephen and Emily’s growing brood. (The sturdy Giles is their only ‘natural’ child, and Lennie, Emily’s nephew, is erased from the script in the second half of the book.)
So Emily’s and Stephen’s family relationships are never secure: first when Florence tries to regain custody of Olivia with the aid of the Party in Hollywood, and then, again, in Europe when Anna threatens to take Christy and Olivia back to the States, their parentship is constantly undermined, their family life played out in a state of paranoia and siege that echoes the nervous political climate of McCarthy’s America, and then the disconcerting cynicism and moral ambiguity the Howards encounter in post-war France. Anna, described scathingly by her son as a “nice schoolgirl who knows nothing but triple-entry bookkeeping”, refuses to think about the exploitation upon which her riches are predicated even when Stephen confronts her with the suffering the Howards are responsible for. Her life is spent trying to control the family and, therefore, to control the flow of its money (she plans to buy the buildings around her on East 75th Street to create a “Howard Village”, and bribes her relatives to come and live where she can keep an eye on them – a temptation that Stephen and Emily refuse in the early days after their marriage when they are still full of hope and idealism).
Stead’s portrayal in I’m Dying Laughing of the warring Howard family (split between capitalists and communists or fellow travellers) is not an idiosyncratic one. Inheriting vast fortunes from their robber baron forbears, many second and third generation legatees who had not earned their wealth, and who inherited at the height of a depression for which their predecessors were (as Stephen believes) responsible, found the callousness of their families in the face of the suffering caused by their American brand of “rough and ready vandal capitalism”, difficult to live with. It was their guilt, and the fear of this poison eating them up, that in the Thirties took many children of the privileged and wealthy into social work and political radicalism something which perplexes Emily when she first meets Stephen, finding such apparent altruism almost anti-American: “I don’t understand…why you rich are all such do-gooders. Not one in my bailiwick. Arnold’s [her brother] just a Village Pink. The rest discuss the baseball scores over the dividing fence and a whisky and soda in the evening, and neck over a banana split at the drugstore, Saturday.” But as in Hollywood where Stead and others felt the pool-side radicalism of the wealthy was often at best faint-hearted, at worst merely opportunistic, the motivation for the activism of the rich is perhaps not so much altruistic as penitential; and as Stephen recalls of his own early political involvement, the resulting efforts of this radical chic and its failure to connect in any meaningful way with the working classes could be laughably naive and ineffective: “We lived in a Californian bohemia, marched for causes with placards, threw parties for Negroes, Mexicans and others who have no reverence for our coronets and kind hearts; they simply drank up the hooch, went away and forgot our names.“
v. Macho Men and Anxious Women
The gap between well-meaning bourgeois radicals and the workers they wanted to appeal to is in sharp contrast with the romantic ideal of the working class activists of an earlier generation, the rough battlers of the IWW and their like. But as Stead shows in I’m Dying Laughing, (unlike Stephen and other Californian bohemians with their “airy almost girlish way[s]”), there were still some men in the Party in the Thirties and Forties who were butch enough to fit the bill, whose manliness was never in doubt – indeed, it formed a large part of their attraction. One such is Jean-Marie McRoy the old friend Emily meets on her first trip to France. McRoy is of immigrant extraction (part French-Canadian, part Scot and Russian), a rabble-rouser and bare-knuckle boxer who, who when Emily knew him as a student, was always in trouble with the authorities for fist-fights defending Sacco and Vanzetti and Karl Marx. Later, he tells her, he became a stevedore and a sailor. His wildness and truculence, his independence, all appeal to Emily – he is, she thinks: “…a magnificent animal; because he roared, went on benders, didn’t shave, didn’t dance and would come towering in, full of drink and smiling strangely, separate, threatening, ready to smash-hit, or shout rough laughter, or topple. Drunk or sober, he argued and fought.“
In the second volume of her autobiography, Doris Lessing, looking back to her days in the Party, is sceptical now about the “romanticism, not to say sentimentality… [that] permeates the left wing”: this was a movement in thrall to its history, “monitored by the ghosts of heroes and heroines.” But at the time she was not immune to the charm of these ‘romantic’ men, falling for one herself (resembling McRoy in many respects, the similarity showing us how exactly Stead had conveyed the type of man): the child of poor Russian immigrants, both labour organisers and trade unionists, he was a nomad who liked to converse with the ghosts, with “Abraham Lincoln, Clarence Darrow, Sacco and Vanzetti, Jefferson, Mother Bloor, John Brown, as well as Rosa Luxembourg, Speransky, Bukharin, Trotsky…” For him the history of the United States was “all heroic battles, and often bloody confrontations with government.” And Lessing was not alone in her attraction: Jessica Mitford also recounts how charged and exciting she found such men:
I was enchanted by the flesh-and-blood Communists we now began meeting [when she joined the Party in 1944], veterans of the 1934 waterfront strike, of the trade union organizing drive of the thirties, of bitter battles between agricultural workers in the San Joaquim valley and hired thugs sent by Associated Farmers. Buddy, still in his twenties…Born in Mississippi and raised in Memphis, he had escaped from the South at the age of seventeen by jumping freight trains, and had come to Oakland with his teenaged wife Mary shortly before the War. He had worked variously as a middle-weight prize-fighter, long shoreman, ships fitter, merchant seaman.
A few years later, Simone de Beauvoir, visiting America just after the war, met and fell in love with a writer she placed in this rough-living, hard-drinking tradition of manly political radicalism. In a letter to Jean-Paul Sartre, written in January 1946, she describes the attractions of her new lover, the novelist Nelson Algren: “He’s a typical American, poker-faced and physically inexpressive, who started off travelling across America on freight trains and working as a ‘pin-boy’ – the person who picks up the skittles in bowling alleys…He writes books about Chicago – where he has always lived – that remind you both of Saroyan and Damon Runyon. And he’s more or less a communist, of course…I found my guy in his little, indigent intellectual’s room and he took me to the streets and bars of the Polish neighbourhood. The bars were very agreeable: outside the wind was bitter and we’d hurry inside to down a vodka in the warm. He showed me old gangster bars and told lots of stories.”
Perhaps part of the attraction of these strong, independent men lay in the effect their company had upon the women who sought them out: their palpable virility serving to reinforce the sense of a woman’s femininity, allowing her to doubly inhabit what were still thought of, habitually, as male realms (as writers, and as battlers for the cause) without finding such unorthodox behaviour tainting them with the brush of bohemia – making them women who might appear strange; or sexually threatening, unattractive or ambiguous. Mary McCarthy, for instance, was alarmed by what she thought of as the sexually predatory women she met at Party socials (admittedly, her askance look is dressed in the guise of aesthetic and sartorial snobbery – as the Paris Review reported her self-presentation was streamlined and modest by comparison with the colourful Party women, just a “simple beige dress with little jewellery”): “On couches with wrinkled slipcovers, little spiky-haired girls, like spiders, dressed in peasant blouses and carapaced in Marxian jewellery, made voracious passes at babyfaced juveniles; it was said that they ‘did it for the Party’, as a recruiting effort.“
This picture of radical women as sexually voracious fits with an image that was prevalent in America of the castrating women, the “praying mantis” that Simone de Beauvoir refers to in The Prime of Life, and which Lorna Sage has argued was a product of the times: “along with the Cold War, the America of the 1940s and 1950s saw a new phase in the sex war.” Sage points out that it was not just radical women who were labelled in this fashion – female intellectuals were similarly characterised for not coinciding with an idea of the way in which women should behave. That women internalised these images and were collusive in perpetrating them is perhaps inevitable. In a review of a collection of Paris Review interviews with women writers (all from the twentieth century), Brenda Maddox observes that for those authors like Susan Sontag who inhabited the “post-Liberation world”, it was much easier to “rejoice in the achievement of women”, but women writers of the earlier generation (as Toni Morrison observes in her interview) “grew up thinking that men knew better.” Maddox argues that: “In this era, clever women preferred male company and savaged other women. And savaged them well. Mary McCarthy’s opinion of Simone de Beauvoir – ‘I think she’s pathetic that’s all’ – is pure 1961. (Later in the interview, she changed the “pathetic” to “odious”.) Rebecca West, speaking to Marina Warner, said frankly that she saw no advantage in being a woman writer; it all would have been easier as a man.“
McCarthy’s policing of other women’s behaviour (both as writers and political activists) was not untypical. Elizabeth Hardwick was another writer who couched her criticism or appreciation of women authors in terms of their sexual identity: for instance, she wrote admiringly of McCarthy for softening the hardness of the female intellectual (who needed a “great measure of personal attractiveness” to allay the tendency in women intellectuals to “the governessy, the threat of earnestness and dryness”). And in a review of The Man Who Loved Children McCarthy criticised Stead for producing a novel that she perceived as “a hysterical tirade”, “a sort of mechanical monstrosity”. Such attitudes to uncircumscribed female expression (political or artistic), and the bohemia to which it could consign women, was not the prerogative of the West, however. As Emily had noted earlier, communists were also peddling a view of women which sought to constrict them, one which frowned upon sexual freedom (hence the restriction in abortion laws which worry her and Ruth Oates), and complemented the assault upon deviant masculinity: the effeminate, decadent intellectuals so reviled by Comrade Zhdanov and his acolytes. Stead (anxiously) repudiates the idea that political and artistic dissidence might lead to sexual unorthodoxy in an article for Left Review, in which she describes the participants at the 1935 writers’ anti-fascist conference (which Stephen and Emily also attend). She informs the journal’s readers that “The hall was not full of half-feminine masculine and half-masculine feminine rebels. They were neat, had no postures and poses.”
In I’m Dying Laughing, Uncle Maurice, homosexual and a part of the rich and spoilt Howard family, is perhaps the antithesis of the emphatically strong, heterosexual working class men that communist women like Stead, Lessing, Mitford and De Beauvoir tended to fall for romantically, and politically to romanticize (as Lessing later thought). But Maurice, who is liked by both Emily and Stephen, fares much better than other gay characters in Stead’s novels who, echoing contemporary anxiety about sexuality, are connected, invariably, to negative ideas of bohemia, to its decadence and destructiveness. This association is pressed furthest in Cotter’s England where Nellie Cotter, a lesbian (albeit a married one), talks a lonely young woman into suicide. In interviews Stead spoke freely about her feelings towards lesbianism, “pure freakery” she thought it. The reasons for her hostility can be accounted for simply by the prevailing prejudices of the time, but beyond these, and the Party’s attitude to sexual ambiguity, Stead’s dislike of homosexuality had a more specific foundation: one connected to her beliefs about creativity and love.
In her correspondence, and in interviews, Stead often remarked that she felt the impulse to write and to love both sprang from the same well: the urge to create: “Writing is creative, loving is creative. It’s exactly the same…” she said. In 1967 she wrote to Stanley Burnshaw about her progress on I’m Dying Laughing, saying that after a period away from the novel she could see it now with greater clarity, “as one sees things after a love-affair”. She believed strongly that it was the union between men and women that gave rise to the creative impulse, whether in love or in art, telling her younger brother David that this was borne out by the fact that she had written nothing substantial since Blake’s death: “To think it is two years since Bill died and I have not turned out anything…Well, it is a great tearing-apart and however calm one tries to be the essentials of living have changed.”
Like Emily, who believed it had “been her greatest stroke of luck” to have met Stephen, and that this was something she would “never forget,” Stead also felt that it was luck which had brought her to Blake, “a curious turn of fate” is how she describes their meeting after her first few days in London, and that his love and support had enabled her to live her life as an artist: without him some essential part of her writer’s make-up was missing. Seven years after complaining of her literary inactivity to her brother, she wrote to an old friend, saying that she was still suffering from writer’s block: “What am I doing? Nothing but empty nothing…It looks as if I can’t get on alone; but need a life companion…the only thing for me is love between man and woman and that is the only thing that makes me work.“
Perhaps, too, Stead was influenced in her belief about homosexuality by her naturalist father: like him she thought it important to remember that human beings were a part of the animal world. It was wrong for women to be separated from men, the union of men and women she felt was the ‘natural’ one: homosexuality, by extension, was not. Added to this was the Party line which attacked homosexuality not simply on the grounds that it was immoral, but because its practice appeared avowedly bohemian, affronting ideas of orthodoxy and normality – the centre ground which communists were struggling to achieve. (As Monique Wittig has argued, homosexuality is not only the desire for one’s own sex, “it is also the desire for something else that is not connoted. This desire is resistance to the norm.”)
Whatever feelings of fear or disgust Stead may have already held were added to when, feeling vulnerable and alone, she arrived in London at the age of twenty-six. Discussing the genesis of Cotter’s England in a letter, she recounts to friends an incident from this time (rather confusingly and excitedly written) that made a strong impact upon her: “For you two only and once by accident I walked in on a row of black crows just after the suicide (murder!) – one second I saw them (to get an umbrella left behind), and that second is the basis of the Walpur-gisnacht [sic] – many years ago when I first came to London an Australian, a woman, whom I did not know but heard of, was put to death in some such way by some such women; it stuck with me.“
But if Stead was shocked, even repelled by the displays of homosexuality she witnessed in London, she also revelled in the greater degree of sexual openness she encountered, shortly after, during her early days in Paris. Another letter home recounted her delight in taking a young Australian woman with a rather limited experience of the world, to sample the delights of one of the most famous and, by the standards of the time, sexually overt revues in Paris: “I went Sunday week to the Casino de Paris (which is the same thing as the Folies Bergères) with an Australian girl…She is from Sydney: she is all that there is of Australian, plus a strong accent, simple, colonial, unsophisticated …She has been in Paris three months with some French women, en pension, and has seen absolutely nothing. I took her to the Casino de Paris where we saw perfect revue spectacles, unimaginable dresses, obscene wit (in French, for the safety of simple Austns) and show women with beautiful naked bodies…“. Perhaps contributing to Stead’s responses to these two events was the fact that the first episode was confusing and covert, and thereby connected in Stead’s mind with something shameful, nihilistic, deathly, while the second was an overt display of sexuality taking place in public beneath the bright lights of the Folies Bergères. These differing atmospheres – the clandestine and the forthright – Stead felt were characteristic, embedded in the fabric of the two cities: “London is crooked, narrow, dirty and ill-conceived,” she wrote to a friend, “Paris is a pearl of delicacy, brilliance and suavity.”
In Stead’s account of her own journey from Australia to Europe, transposed in the autobiographical novel For Love Alone (1945), her heroine, Teresa, longs for a climate of greater openness, one without cultural narrowness or stifling shame about sex, and hopes to find in Europe a place in which she can express her love and creativity freely. In an appreciation of Stead, Rebecca West argues that for many women living in the new world, Europe seemed the only route to a life of fulfilment: “Teresa knows she is intelligent; and though that is not an asset in the groups to which she belongs she has the feeling that somewhere things will be different. Australia had when this books was written, quite a promising culture, but that culture had come from England. And she supposes that if she could get to England she might be respected for her brains, and even, which is of immense importance to her, be loved for it by some cultured man.”
Shari Benstock’s pioneering study, Women of the Left Bank. Paris 1940-1948 (1986), of the neglected contribution of women, and particularly American expatriate women (many of whom were lesbian), to the development of modernism in Paris, makes a similar point about the breath of fresh air that Paris afforded women from another ex-colony: “These women appeared to share a common factor in expatriating: they wanted to escape America and to find in Europe the necessary cultural, sexual and personal freedom to explore their creative intuitions.” (Though Stead, ever on the outskirts, fails to win even a footnote in this work on the marginalising of literary women.) Gertrude Stein, the best-known and perhaps the most influential of the modernist women assessed in Benstock’s work, responded to a questionnaire from transition – a magazine edited by another of Benstock’s subjects, Maria Jolas and her husband – sent out to expatriate writers in Paris, asking them why they chose to live abroad. Stein wrote that she preferred Europe because of the unsophisticated, parochial mentality prevalent in the States, holding the country back where it had once heralded the future: “America is the mother of twentieth century civilization, but she is now early Victorian.”
I’m Dying Laughing is an ambitious novel. In it Stead explores not only cultural and literary ideas – the carnivalesque relationships between feasting and starvation, fecundity and sterility, life and death – but also, in her dissection of the relationship between the family and America’s business class, the social and economic. Equally important is her interest in the geo-political, her pursuit of the dialectic between America and Europe (the physical spheres into which the two halves of the novel divide roughly). Like Stein, who abandoned the staleness and conformity of her young homeland for the more progressive attitudes of Europe’s older culture, Stead, too, found many paradoxes in the relationship.
Initially Emily presents the two continents in opposition: America is young, vigorous, strong and democratic, a nation high on “the easy success of belonging and belonging to heaven and the angels”; Europe is old, weak, decadent and enslaved, “exhausted by wars and landowners spending the bone-dust of serfs at Nice and Monte Carlo” – as Emily puts it in one of her many gothic moments. But (in a manner characteristic of Stead’s insistence on connectedness, her rebuke of purity) the water which divides these two continents quickly muddies. Stead contemplates the ways in which these ostensibly divergent civilizations correlate – how ideas, and patterns of behaviour, and populations flow back and forth between them – finding echoes and correspondences which, despite America’s ascendancy and Europe’s decline, bind them together.
Despite this considerable canvas, for a novelist who is by today’s standards (as Angela Carter points out) so impressively ambitious, so interested in the world and confident of the novel’s capacity to speak saliently about it, Stead is remarkably unprogrammatic. This is not just a negative result of her ‘looseness’ as a writer, nor her buoyant disregard for the more trifling details of character or plot, but pertains to the way in which she engages the reader in what are often quite multiform and intricate concepts – like the association between America and Europe – without recourse to signposting or evident structuring in her narrative. Stead allows ideas to emerge organically from the complexity of her characters (aided by the fact that they are usually curious, speculative and voluble people) and their relationship to the world. In I’m Dying Laughing the most pertinent example of this is Stead’s generation of contrapuntal argument from Emily’s position as both emblem and critic of America.
On her first voyage out leaving the land of the consumer, heading for the land of culture (“They’ve got so much culture over there they throw it away like…we threw away beefsteaks and turkeys in the garbage cans”) – Emily sails from New York’s harbour, past Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty, seeing it for the first time. Her esoteric view of the world means that she regards the statue not as customarily seen – a symbol of the American dream, the land of opportunity – but literally: Emily is impressed by this gargantuan woman rising before her, the vast, irrefutable strength and terrifying gigantism, and in it (signalling the extent of her narcissism and ambition) sees a mirror of herself. Emily’s moment of self-recognition is as shocking as Catherine Earnshaw’s announcement in Wuthering Heights of her profane identification with the masculine and the outlawed (“Nellie, I am Heathcliff!”) so, here, Emily informs us of something similarly taboo, similarly monstrous: that she is powerful, multitudinous and knowing enough to embody her nation: that she is America: ““Ah me! [my emphasis] I know everything there is to know about that dame. She’s French, their idea of the wheatfed goddess. Her nose is Greek, four feet six inches long; but her waist, oh, her waist, is thirty-five feet round. Mrs Midwest America herself; can you see her in a mother hubbard?…You know, there are 200,000 pounds of copper sheeting in her?…And her mouth, like mine, is three feet wide!”“
But emphatic as this monumental image is, Emily tells her shipboard companions that the enervating effects of the Depression have sapped some of America’s stridency, arousing disturbing inklings of the nation’s self-consciousness and fallibility: ““Why does it happen? The USA is a rich country; it’s been plundered only by us. Nobody invades us…We’re worrying about farm surpluses! We’re full of mineral, lumber, rivers – workers, steel mills, cattle, pigs, corn – how can it be worth nothing? How are we poor? How can we be rich, rich, rich – and then suddenly a stock market crash and overnight we’re poor, poor, dying in our tracks…”. And after Emily has returned from foraging in the cultural trash cans of Europe, and after the War and the onset of McCarthyism, she finds American confidence in its own idealism and self-righteousness further eroded, making it harder to think of as the land of liberty, fraternity, equality. Now, home-grown witch-hunts seem nauseatingly to mimic the dark days of European fascism: American life too has become polluted from the Senate to the kitchen by its own “domestic…denunciation and denouncers”.
It’s a measure of the prescience and power of I’m Dying Laughing that Stead registers so accurately the tone of Cold War America, sounding ever louder and brasher, trumpeting its virility and invincibility, all the while increasing the gap between the nation’s descriptions of itself, and the discontent simmering below (soon to erupt in the subsequent revolutionary decade). Brilliantly capturing this thwartedness, Stead conjures in Emily not only an acute diagnostician of America, but also its warped product: as indomitable as her nation and intent upon overwhelming her own enemies, even the ravages and limits of life itself: ““I never want to be old, withered, hideous. There is no dignity of old age or disease. I hate the stench of death. I hate death. There must come a time when we conquer death. What’s the point of tinkering with salves and bandages? Just to help us be a cadaver in the mortuary. Life is such a wonder! How did it come about? I’m breathless thinking about it.” Seeking to cheat her fate, Emily finds her way to Park Avenue and the surgery of the eponymous Dr Parks, the dispenser of a serum “said to prolong life,” (it’s a forerunner of the Dylar drug in White Noise, Don DeLillo’s preeminent novel of American paranoia), to create bodies with the same permanence, perhaps, as the Statue of Liberty. However just as Stead reminds us that that beacon light of America, shining out across the Atlantic, is, in fact, “French, their idea” of America, so, it transpires, this quintessentially American notion (“the great American dream of a life without pain and without conclusion” is how one critic puts it) – materialized, here, in the form of the Bogomoletz serum – is Russian.
Just as those emigrés who flocked to Hollywood infused American cinema with Europe’s nightmares and dreams, creating strange dystopias (Lang) and utopias (Lubitsch), finding an audience hungry for new experiences, for visions of other possible lives, so scientific dreamers and quack doctors met equally covetous new populations, also eager to have their wildest dreams realized, to be literally injected with a promise of the future. And when Stead first visited New York in 1935 she felt that the city’s aspiring architecture, “looking at the blue sky”, was also designed to articulate and inculcate these fantasies of longevity and over-coming: “One wishes for eternal youth in this land (Central Park West lined with giant apartment houses) to see what will happen next. It makes one feel that life has only just started and that the normal span should be about 200 years.“
This American preoccupation with the horizon provides a rich seam for Stead in her final novel, because contrarily enough (as she observes) it results in a nation in a state of arrest: perpetually nascent, eternally postponing maturity or conclusion. It’s a phenomenon which has bothered other writers, Arthur Miller, for instance, connected the lack of moral authority in those who wanted to resist McCarthyism but failed to do so, with a kind of chronic national immaturity. He was thinking particularly about the wasting of writers like Odets in Hollywood and the way in which their behaviour kept them unfledged and incapable of speaking with any moral force at times of crisis like the McCarthy trials: “Why were there so few Americans so far beyond corruption that their voices were undeniable by any honest person?…Was it simply that we consumed everything including our truth-tellers at such a rate that none of them ever seemed to mature?“
This debate about the state of American culture has lately become more intense with arguments about growing illiteracy, a climate of ‘dumbing down’ and the ‘closing of the American mind’. In a study of contemporary popular culture Robert Burt talks of American society as “childish, regressive, immature, and infantile” and in “the Nineties [of a] context of diminishing expectations.” In I’m Dying Laughing Stead anticipates this anxiety about (what Burt calls) America’s “kiddie culture”, and Emily, her symbolic American, is constantly referred to by Stephen as someone in just such an arrested state, as someone who has not grown up: she is “a foolish little girl”, “a very sweet, young, innocent fool”. Dr Coriolis – the refugee Emily meets in Parks’s waiting room and becomes childishly besotted with – also thinks of her as “fascinating, American and forever young”, while to a male friend in Europe she is still only a “toddler.” Twice a week Emily goes to Dr Parks to “guzzle at the fountain of youth”, and she finds there a clientele just as avid as herself in their pursuit of prolonged life. True to her thwarted state, her kinship with these emotionally stalled characters never impedes Emily’s ability to caricature them: “Dr Park’s waiting-room was full. There were also people who wanted the treatment for their animals; but the supply of serum was limited. Emily talked with everyone in the waiting-room and came home full of the grotesque vanity of these peculiar people who wanted to live for ever, ‘not to mention their hound-dogs’.“
Stead’s keen cultural antennae (born of years spent observing and adapting to successive new habitats) had earlier picked up the traits of a new culture developing in California. Similarly prescient, her portrayal of Dr Parks and his longevity serum, which identifies the importance of mutability for Americans, is suggestive of an increasingly urgent debate about the character of American culture. Frances Fitzgerald, for instance, in her strongly iconoclastic study of America, Cities on a Hill (1986) argues that the shaping force of America’s identity is not, as is customarily held, the essentialism and stasis of Puritanism, but its antithesis, an evangelical belief in the recreation of society and of the self: “The country…was always in motion with economic change, new immigrant groups, new money and new ideas. The constant was merely this condition of turbulence: nothing much else lasted for very long. Small wonder, then, that the evangelical tradition proved so durable, and so influential beyond its own domain, for with its promise of rebirth – of liberation and transformation – it was anti-traditional and thus acceptable, or even a necessity, to Americans.“
Fitzgerald is sanguine about this, arguing that immigrants found in their reconstruction of themselves in America, an empowering, existential freedom. Others are not so positive. Discussing her 1996 novel, Accordion Crimes, E. Annie Proulx agreed that immigration might be the key to understanding the peculiar creativity of American life: “I was…taking a look at the US character of self-invention, the tendency of Americans to remake themselves constantly and create new personas with plastic surgery, personality training courses, 12-step programmes, new careers…I wondered where this came from, and I thought perhaps the immigrant experience was a causative factor.” But she is less optimistic about the process than Fitzgerald. In Accordion Crimes Proulx focuses her attention on the abandonment of the old self – demanded by America of those immigrants who joined its ranks from all over the world – rather than on their chances to create themselves anew once they arrived in the promised land: “People came to America and were met with an abusive, bullying culture that insisted that everything from the old culture was thrown away. The crimes in [my] book’s title are social crimes…The erasure of someone’s past is not a source of joy.“
Perhaps Elia Kazan’s life demonstrates the way in which the erasure of the past could became habitual in America, its “abusive, bullying culture” fostering further “crimes” – those acts of intimidation and defamation committed in the name of the HUAC. Born in Istanbul to Greek parents, before his ninth birthday Kazan and his family moved first to Berlin, then back to Istanbul and then to New York. As one critic puts it: “His peculiar insecurity derives from his history as an immigrant, the son of an Anatolian rug-trader, desperate to assimilate yet naggingly aware that he was ‘not quite an American’. How better to become one than to denounce those who were, according to the committee’s definition, un-American?”
Whether or not Stead felt America’s resourceful, re-creating culture was liberating or damaging (as Proulx thinks, and as Kazan’s willingness to testify suggests) is hard to determine from I’m Dying Laughing. Emily’s and Stephen’s ‘evangelical’ characteristics – their lack of attachment, their chameleon behaviour – are ruinous: the novel, after all, ends in the “smash-up” Emily has long feared. But equally present in this book is Stead’s delight in America’s revisionary energy, and the accompanying lust for life (exemplified by the visits to Parks) with which Emily is so plentifully endowed. A deracinate figure herself, who had repeatedly taken part in what Salman Rushdie has called “the defining experience of the twentieth century” – the process of leaving home, of migration, and the personal border-crossings that such journeys entail – Stead both enjoyed the freedom to fabricate herself, and felt the loss of friends and family, the insecurity and vulnerability, in her own wandering, made-up life (she called her friends abroad GI’s – geographically inaccessible). Her refusal of the demarcations that Fitzgerald and Proulx make is born out of the complexities of this peripatetic experience. Her view in I’m Dying Laughing is continually bipolar. Rather than their simple and ultimately moralizing divisions (in which this process of remaking becomes something that is either good or bad), what interests Stead are the effects of perpetual metamorphosis on America: the immaturity of a people constantly starting from the beginning, forever reinventing themselves; the high level of disturbance and disguise that are also the product of such a transient, unrooted culture.
Symptomatic of this is the level of subterfuge that surrounds Dr Parks’s clinic. Parks, of course, is an alias, taken from the fashionable Avenue from which his business operates, he is a “refugee doctor” and his old, foreign identity is now opaquely hidden behind his new pseudonym. This prosaic example of immigrant remaking (finding yourself by taking the name of the place where you now find yourself) is mirrored not only in Parks’s transformative work with drugs, but by counterfeiting of a different kind, one which would seem to reinforce Fitzgerald’s and Proulx’s view that the process of re-creation which begins in migration, goes on to become an habitual way of life in America. Woven into the narrative of Dr Parks, is the information that Emily attends his clinic with her friend Ruth Oates, who works with her husband, Axel, producing a magazine. The purpose of their “scandal sheet”, Evidence, is to reveal the extent to which American public life is spurious by broadcasting what is hidden, it is “full of rumours, tips, and the secret news…bought by every bright journalist at home and abroad and by a good many left-leaning economists and others.” (The inspiration for Evidence was probably I.F. Stone’s Weekly.) So the enthusiasm of individuals for Parks’s altering serum, reflects in I’m Dying Laughing a more profound alterity at the heart of American society, exposed in the Oateses’ paper and the covert world it seeks to uncover.
More than illuminating the American propensity for wearing masks (either in the individual’s belief in transcendence, or in the darker recesses of public life), the juxtaposition of the similarly double-worlds of Parks and Evidence also introduces a heightened sense of masking in the text. There are two reasons for this. First is that despite her wish to divest her later work of artifice, the veiled biographical/autobiographical mode that Stead employs in I’m Dying Laughing re-enacts the disguises and impersonations that are already the author’s lot, making it difficult to suppress from view her writerly performance. A provocative example of this is that Stead allots the name of Ruth Oates – the name of Emily’s prototype, Ruth McKenney to – a character based on herself, underscoring her position as sole creator of the work (a pre-emptive strike, perhaps, against any counter-claims by her characters’ originals). Further, in the conjunction of Parks and Evidence, Stead establishes that, although friends of Emily, Ruth and Axel are morally different from her. Evidence is (Stead’s) evidence of their dissimilarity, showing that while the characters based on Stead and Blake also inhabit the same precarious territory of lapsing communists, they possess some form of moral rectitude, and through the magazine are intent on exposing double-dealing, on searching out the truth and bringing it to light. Emily (McKenney), on the other hand, is allowed no such exemption. She is a hypocrite (albeit a fascinating one), who is self-deceiving, and her gullibility in paying for Parks’s quack serum is just one example of the deception in which her life is embroiled.
If at this point Stead’s self-consciousness wraps the novel in a higher level of artifice than hitherto, so, paradoxically, does her pursuit of her earlier goal of delivering ‘real life’. A second reason, then, for an increased air of unreality in I’m Dying Laughing, has to do with the increasing artificiality of ‘real life’ in the post-war period. Stead’s quick reading of this sea-change allows her to convey, as it occurs, the transformation of American sensibility that Norman Mailer and other critics would later describe: the problem with reality is that it isn’t real anymore, but composed of something more ersatz and manufactured. For Stead, early evidence of this was to be found not only in the propaganda and role-playing of McCarthyite politics, but in the broader culture, too, which, at times, appeared little more than propagandist: its habitual mode a kind of capitalist, as opposed to socialist, realism, churning out kitsch images of clean-cut, smiling nuclear families.
Accompanying Emily’s and Stephen’s growing sense of alienation are signs of a culture becoming steadily more synthetic, self-conscious and voyeuristic. For instance, the post-war political climate in which surveillance has become the modus operandi is discussed at a cocktail party Emily holds in Connecticut, (where she and Stephen have decamped from California, before running even further afield to Europe in their bid to escape the double-edged sword of McCarthy and the Party). Some of her guests believe that they are living in a time when “spy fever” has taken grip: the government infiltrating the Party and the Party spying on its members to detect who the infiltrators are, or to keep possible renegades like Emily and Stephen from turning traitor themselves. To Emily’s mind the level of espionage is now such that “we’ll end with every citizen on file, like Tsarist Russia or the Nazis.” And given the nature of the times this was not a melodramatic assessment. As Arthur Miller observed it was the feeling of many on the left that: “One lived in an occupied country where anyone at all might be a spy for the enemy.”
But while Emily’s guests bemoan the perfidy of contemporary politics, they play their own part in creating the climate of suspicion. All are engaged in criticising, sniping at, spreading rumours about the Party, to the point where, “It was quite impossible for a foreigner like Dr Coriolis to tell friend from foe, the loyal from the renegade.” If the guests seem erratic (in the same sentence they are described as both “impudent” and “devoted followers with no minds of their own”), then Emily’s drunken behaviour (aggressive one moment, defeatist the next) serves as a paradigm for the times, swerving wildly from assaults upon the integrity of Party leaders to desolate remarks about how the end is in sight, how she and Stephen will be expelled for their disloyalty, how they have reached a point from which there is “no going back.”
Perhaps most pertinent is Emily’s peroration that night about the great complexity of the era in which they live, attesting to the ways in which the combined pressures of a witch-hunting, anti-communist government, and a dogmatic and out of touch communist Central Committee (Emily traduces them as “the sacred and the famous…the inner heaven of Sick Men who had not shaken hands with a worker for fifteen years”) had between them succeeded in confounding into submission, silence or capitulation that group of radical intellectuals who in the pre-war years had seemed so vital a force: “Oh, who would believe, who reads about the USA and the gilded lives of writers and the middle-class, that it is so intricate and full of fantastic difficulties? It’s unbelievable. And we’re men of good-will and try to understand the world we live in. It’s confusing I guess.“
This new climate – intricate and fantastic – has repercussions for Emily’s writing. Her work is not selling, indeed her homespun tales now look decidedly old-fashioned and eccentric. Desperate to peddle something, she sets to work stripping out references to anything in her manuscripts that might seem too political or untimely. She is aided and abetted in this self-censorship by Stephen who, as ever, takes a keen interest in the marketability of his wife’s work. But aware as she is of the new facts of life (not only long-life serums: Emily notes that – with the same evangelical zeal – Americans have also taken up colonic irrigation and face-lifts), she is unable to translate these into literary currency, and falls back on her habitual, sugary ingredients: “…they fine-tooth-combed every line, every paragraph of the four chapters… When she had finished the fifth chapter.…they had both revised it, to see that all the ingredients were there and nothing to harm, nothing about atheists, Russian science, or anything but “family hokum, a belly-laugh or two and a shovelful of sentiment”, [only then] they sent it to the agent.“
Emily’s eagerness to partake of the serum is an extension of her old instinct for self-preservation (a way of reinforcing herself, making her more unassailable), but she is ill at ease in the protean world of which it is a symbol, made anxious by the growing cultural insistence upon self-improvement. “Oh, I hate the ads,” she complains to Uncle Maurice of this feigning dimension now invading their lives to an unprecedented degree: ““…showing the lady wondering whether her wash is telltale grey, or her toilet paper crude, the man going home to mother because wifey let the sink get stopped up and the young couple who drift apart because he had dandruff or she – excuse me! And then the mother who reunites them by mentioning trade-names and baking an old-fashioned, fluffy, dee-licious bunch of goo with banana whip and ice-cream guzzle.”” Stead had written about artificiality and duplicity in many of her earlier novels, notably in Cotter’s England, but in these she gathered all ideas on the subject into one quarter: bohemia. And in I’m Dying Laughing Emily’s acceptance of her domicile in bohemia marks the extent of her self-delusion and her bad faith: ““It always hurt me bitterly that they called us escapists and Bohemian adventurers. I was discouraged and now I’m in a dream-world of glorious joy. Oh, what a gamble! It seemed like a gamble, worse, a delusion; but even for us it’s worked out perfectly.”“
However, despite scattered references to bohemia as a ghetto of the kind traditionally envisaged by Marxists, in I’m Dying Laughing Stead’s treatment of bohemia’s illusory qualities is different from that in Cotter’s England. In that novel about similarly wayward radicals (its characters working class Geordies, not Hollywood high-livers) inauthenticity is confined to a side-show. There, Stead pictures a congregation of anarchists and nihilists, demagogues and tricksters waylaying the faithful with their strong rhetoric and powers of persuasion. Conjuring chimera, phantoms, false gods, the bohemians beset the vulnerable and insecure, tempting, and ultimately imprisoning them in a quagmire of falsehood. In I’m Dying Laughing, (and perhaps this is unsurprising for a novel concerned with Hollywood adventurers), Stead sees these taunting, mirroring qualities now not just as the property of bohemia, but as breaking out into the mainstream of life, making it harder to determine what is authentic, moral or virtuous – as if all that was solid was melting into air.
The reference to Marx is apt. In many ways – and perhaps unsurprisingly, as I have argued, Stead was a writer greatly influenced by communist ideology – her reading of American capitalism and its descent into bohemia and effeteness anticipates arguments made by later Marxist critics such as Frederic Jameson (in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991). Both emphasise a disconnection from the past (Jameson’s “historical deafness”, Stead’s emphasis upon the future), and the extension of the market, seeing it saturating all areas of life to the point where even realms that were previously held to be autonomous like culture, the subconscious or nature have become commodified.
Attesting to the paradoxes of her communist belief, Stead wrote in 1935 that indigenous artists were wrong to have been put off by the forcefulness of capitalism in America, by the country’s unabashed glorification of the dollar: “here…the love of money is brutally outspoken and crassly advertised”. As someone who a few years later was to write a book about banking and international finance (House of All Nations, 1938) she did not believe art should strive for transcendence, as if afraid to sully its hands in the material world: “There is no excuse for any American artist to seek refuge abroad in any country”, she proclaimed. Indeed comparing America to England and France she applauded the lack of mystification surrounding financial matters. Unlike England where they “teach…that money is the root of all evil…and pretend…to worship the classics, good form, delicacy, retirement, pastoral poetry and gardens”, in America, “no illusions are offered to the workers”. The roughness and brazenness of American capitalism, what Stead calls “the scramble for boodle”, declares itself unashamedly in a way that any Marxist would find fascinating: “This acute worship of Mammon is something marvellous, incredible as the gold halls of Babylon.”
Conversely, but also as a Marxist, Stead deplores the dehumanising effects of the expansion of the market into the private realm:
Everything is expressed in terms of money; [I am] shocked by women’s pages where the value of a suitor, and advice concerning a reluctant alimony-payer are discussed, and where women are told that when they have lost their husbands’ love, they have nothing to rely on but coercion to alimony, where the money-value of children is discussed. This is horrible, revolting. It certainly exists in every country but nowhere else is human love discussed in terms of the stock market.
Demonstrating this state of flux and ambiguity in I’m Dying Laughing, where old conceptions of private and public, artificial and essential begin to disintegrate, collapsing together (categorically) strange bedfellows like money and love, Stead delineates the ways in which the McCarthyites and the Party, steadfast political adversaries, came in these post-war years to assume a disturbing identity in their ways of operating: we see this in the Party’s ‘trial’ of Emily and Stephen, prefiguring discussion of McCarthy’s own trials; in the requirement of both sides for confession or expulsion; and in the rumours of their common use of espionage and counter-espionage.
Stead goes further, extending these representations of similarity and relativity beyond America’s borders to include the relationship between America and Europe. In Emily’s association with Dr Parks and Dr Coriolis she presents a through-the-looking-glass world, in which Americans fleeing the conflicts of McCarthyism and escaping to Europe are confronted with Europeans who have themselves escaped fascism and war, and come to America. (This mirror wave of emigration, Ceplair and Englund argued was “international fascism’s revenge on Hollywood. The immigration of the thirties became the emigration of the fifties, as the great tide of political refugees now moved away from the film capital.”) And just as Stephen’s and Emily’s motivations for leaving their home are far from simple, so Dr Coriolis’s relationship to his home and the people he has left behind is also fraught with “dilemma”. Old friendships become a source of suspicion, as allies are divided by the new boundaries between people that history has erected: “For instance, though he himself had had to run away, if he went back, he would find enemies who would blame him…Some friends had been Nazis, come collaborators, some in the Resistance, some passive and glad to survive…“.
But these copy-cat actions detected in politicians of opposing colours, and in the exoduses of American and European populations, are not the only form of mirroring the reader is invited to contemplate; at this point in I’m Dying Laughing, as if imitative behaviour in the public sphere was having a corrosive effect upon the integrity of the individuals involved, characters also become affected by the climate of repetition. Dr Parks, for instance, already a reformed character (an immigrant who has renamed himself and succeeded on Park Avenue), has sprouted a double who supersedes him in the narrative. His doppleganger Coriolis, also a European refugee doctor, materializes in Parks’ waiting room, where Emily first meets him. When she discovers Parks thinks her a hysteric (snooping in the papers on his desk) she readily transfers her affection from him to Coriolis, as if the two men were indistinguishable from one another.
Emily’s interest in the doctors is bound up in her idealised notions of them as Europeans (and therefore, she imagines, as men of “taste and refinement”), and the romantic possibilities that they might afford because of this. Her feeling is that the superficiality of American culture and its stress on appearance denies women like her the chance for love. “Can’t Americans, too, have passion in middle age and die for love at seventy?” she asks Uncle Maurice, wistfully. She thinks of Europe as a place of greater erudition and cultivation than America; more engaged in history and interested in character, less concerned with facade: “Life is different, it’s much gayer, tougher, stranger, more complex in Europe. Here it’s just dull corruption, drink, drink, fornicate, fornicate, no love, no romance, no adventures, no mascots.” Her desire for Europe to be a place of complexity, able to provide her with mysterious lovers, fits conveniently with her other reason for needing Europe to be a place of sophistication, something that other fallen communists are quick to assure her of: “People in Europe have so much history, no nation has ever been always in the saddle, they understand failure and terror, they aren’t like the Americans, who can only win, and if they don’t, wring their hands in bleak despair. You’ll be alright there. No one will question you or your motives. You can live your life happily and return home when the trouble is past.“
And yet, typical of Emily’s fluctuating allegiances, despite the growing appeal of Europe as a romantic and political haven, she still feels residual affection for her own country, marvels at its brashness and vulgarity:
“Oh my mamma public! That good old respectable pie-eating Middle-Western family with papa and mamma, taking colonic irrigations and the children twice as big as anything in Europe…the dreary, thick-skulled, fat-backed, smug, pig-eyed hog-calling Middle West. I guess I like it too, when I’m not with my family. Oh, to hell with aesthetics. I guess we’re all right, too, with our orange juice and schools and bathrooms and pie contests and baseball, as good as the rest, if not better.”
This aesthetic vacuum, though, points to something deeper and more disturbing in American life, as if there was only a cynical selling-machine suppressing and so destroying any real feeling or passion in the society (“nowhere else is human love discussed in terms of the stock market”). After her speech to Maurice on the speciousness of American advertising, (forever suggesting that love’s problems can be rectified by the right toilet paper, washing powder or shampoo), she despairs of the emptiness she feels, wailing, “Oh, Maurice, Maurice, – the lovelessness of our lives.”
As we have observed before, however, while Emily is a stern judge of this avidly consumerist society, intent on accumulating all the shiny goods and junk food it can, her own covetousness is also its result. Capitalism’s hard-sell to the basest or most childish instinct – what she calls “the LCD” [lowest common denominator] – instead of appeasing desire, arouses it in Emily, making it impossible for her ever to be satisfied or content. Hence the perpetual restlessness and constant appetite (which in Bakhtin’s carnival are symbols of health, representing an attack upon order) are here transmuted under “cannibalism-capitalism”, manifesting themselves in Emily as the means by which order upholds itself: she is created as the consumer who can never get enough, always yearning, always wanting more: “…why am I so dumb? The freckled valedictorian always hungry, for some reason, met her fate, and had the wildest good luck and can’t be satisfied; but now must dream of exotic and mysterious romance, of someone who lives in your heart.”
It is in her desire for the succour she feels will accompany the intimacy and intrigue of such a romance that Emily starts to think of leaving America behind and setting her sights on Europe. But at another party in her Connecticut home – this time a barbecue held in honour of Labor Day – she is reminded that, alienating as the sterility of American culture may be, it is also prophylactic: its cleansing soaps and DDT, all its sanitizing products, are what keep at bay the unpalatable by-products of the passion she now seeks. The sweat-stains, excretions, disease and over-population, all of these are banished from the advertisers’ germ-free New Jerusalem. To the horror of some of her guests, Emily’s promiscuous way of thinking means it is only a small step from this notion of American hygiene and purity, to the idea that perhaps the war in Europe was, after all, benign. In eliminating the sick and unfit it was equally cleansing, equally purifying:
“So what do we care? We will survive and work out our destiny. We don’t want Europe on our back. Let them die and genocide. Russia can take care of herself…..What do these plagues and epidemics and wars mean? It’s nature protecting us. It’s the balance of nature. We breed too fast anyway. There isn’t enough to eat in the world anyway. If anyone gets a disease or a woman can’t have children, it’s because they’re unfit anyway. Let them all stay over there till no one is alive but the fit and the clean!…I don’t see that it’s such a bad lookout for us that Europe has been decimated…There were too many people, hungry, dirty, weak, ignorant anyway. And they’ll spring up again. That’s one of the awful powers of the human race, they’re like birds, or roaches, or weeds. Gee it’s a terrible problem. It frightens you for us. There are too many of us. I don’t see why they don’t permit abortion. Any foetus that aborts is abnormal, weak or something anyway…I care about survival. I can’t weep for victims or abortions; it’s bad for me. It’s not my nature. It weakens me. I don’t like misfits and sick people.”
The Black Death, as Emily points out, decimated Europe but “the ones who survived were our ancestors. The others were born to die; they were weaklings.” Having come through so much, having made it to America and endured whatever changes were demanded of them, now the descendants of these long-suffering immigrants have the right to live free of disease and poverty, to live for ever if they can. But this triumphalist language rapidly descends into the fascist argot of Preordained Destiny and Triumph of the Will, in which nature, contrarily, is both to be defeated, and proof of one’s supremacy (“it’s nature protecting us”). As earlier she failed in her attempt to take on the language of the patriarch and become the law-maker in her family – causing her husband to collapse in laughter – so, here, Emily’s totalitarian speech-making is undermined, once again, by the fact of her femininity. For we have only recently been reminded by Stead of the vulnerability of her sex: anticipating the announcement of Emily’s pregnancy on the eve of their departure to Europe is a passage recounting her initiation into childbirth. For all America’s brave new world of technology, with all the conquering equipment that their kitchens and gardens can stand, women in pregnancy or childbirth must still come face to face with their own animality, frailty, even their mortality.
Standing in opposition to the cheerful carnival associations of fertility and death, what Stead makes us feel is the uncanniness of pregnancy, of something growing inside. In one startling passage she manages to imbue her descriptions of this with the same sense of horror and monstrosity, out of which, a century and a half before, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein, marking out the Gothic as an allegorical genre about the terrors of procreation and death:
…she had not known the back-kitchen and disease-infatuated world of women who regard their own bodies uneasily and are district nurses for the family. She had heard in hospital, for the first time, woman-talk, dirty talk, superstitions like witchcraft, but perhaps, who knew, partly true …the new woman’s world of aching, haunting fantasy and concern with the loins, the bowels, the digestion. She saw, for the first time, the brain as a wet, slippery, red palpitating animal inside her ‘thick peasant-shaped skull’ and she suddenly appreciated the difficulty of living, breathing, surviving, the infinite possibilities of death.
But Emily’s pregnancy is short-lived. Stephen, although resigned to the fact that they must move to Europe, cannot countenance this affirmation of life in the face of the abandonment he feels they are about to perpetrate: “If we are going”, Stephen tells her, laying down the law, “we simply can’t have the baby.” After the abortion, refusing to have a full hysterectomy (“quite a fashionable operation then”), she is bullied by Stephen and a surgeon who deride her belief that her emotional and intellectual well-being resides in the whole of her body, “my feelings spring not only from the brain,” she insists, “but from everywhere, I am myself everywhere.” Rejecting as “superstition…an old wives’ tale” her contention that “without my sex and womb, I’m not a woman, my character would change,” her view of her body is discounted and she is forced into having her tubes tied, so avoiding what Stephen regards as “the inconveniences and embarrassments of her being a woman.”
This is an oddly written passage. Emily’s operation is described in an awkward, unfamiliar lyric vein as one “in which the fallopian tubes were twisted so no more would ova pass into the womb and she would no more become a mother.” And Stead hurries through her description of the four operations Emily undergoes (an abortion, the tube tying, a further operation resulting from complication, and an appendectomy) taking only a half a page to describe them. In McKenney’s version of these events, recounted in her autobiographical book, Love Story, she nearly dies as a result of abdominal peritonitis (this is loosely tied to something vaguely gynaecological: an operation to put in place “surgical patches”, after “birth had left sags and tears which needed patching”). In her biography on Stead, Rowley reports that in December 1946, after Blake had already left for Europe, Stead was called by Bransten to McKenney’s bedside in a New York hospital, where for a time it looked as though she might not survive the septicaemia that had developed as a result of an abortion. Stead was persuaded to postpone her leaving for Europe until the New Year and spent her last Christmas in the States with the Branstens.
Stead’s refusal to make greater symbolic mileage out of the coincidence of the abortion and her characters’ departure for Europe is revealing, and perhaps its significance is twofold. This ‘real life’ event may have metaphorically encapsulated the meaning Stead wished to ascribe to Emily’s and Stephen’s abandonment of their beliefs, (they were aborting all that they had once believed in) but it probably seemed too convenient and too vulgar for her as a writer to exploit more fully. Perhaps, too, the reticence evident in her terse treatment of the abortion, had something to do with the fact that this time Stead’s insistence on fidelity to the truth of McKenney’s life however painful or messy caused her some kind of embarrassment at the betrayal involved in the recounting. The editing out of the full episode from the text might indicate that Stead’s reasons for the omission were themselves sublimated, edited out. After all, at this point in their relationship, Stead’s friendship with McKenney had been so important that it was she who was summoned as McKenney seemed at death’s door. But even if it were the case that the cursory description of Emily’s time in hospital veiled some awkwardness on Stead’s part, there is no answering candour in her portrayal of her own involvement in McKenney’s life at this moment.
Stead does not place her alter ego Ruth Oates at Emily’s hospital bedside, but has she and Axel heading together for a Europe ravaged and depleted, yet one they have missed and are keen to return to. Their modest, unfussy departure (“The Oateses took with them a few valises and a trunk”) is contrasted with a long memorandum from Emily that Ruth carries with her across the Atlantic, asking exhaustive questions about what provisions the Howards should bring with them into this unknown territory. She enquires about the availability of medicine, food (“Should we bring or have sent regularly, such items as the following: canned milk; canned orange juice; canned fats; sugar; chocolate; powdered eggs; cocoa; jam; canned meats, as ham, hamburgers; ice cream; frankfurters?”), toiletries, furnishings, kitchen equipment and clothes. “We’re ashamed” Emily confesses to “not [being] used to hardships,” but she is intent all the same on taking with her to Europe all the consumer goods that have propped up their affluent lives. True to form, she is more concerned about going without than offending poorer neighbours still trying to recover from the wreckages of war with ostentatious displays of American wealth.