Introduction by Michael R. Brown
From nowhere known, Mary MacLane - from the earliest time we know of her - founded her life on the closest thing there is to a formula for the creative life: passionate extremism. The unique public sensation her work immediately created - remembered today, yet still to be documented and fully comprehended - became very rapidly the artistic material of her later work. At the height of fame she disdained it, and when the crest of that fame had broken several years previous, she admitted a fondness for it (nothing more) and said what only she could say: “It’s fun to be Mary MacLane, a set-apart individuality in any gathering.” Set-apart and individual she was, and remains, and the fun she had with it is one of her continuing relevancies to our time, when we are wont either to deny our individuality (and thus risk the contradiction of saying we do not exist) or to express it joylessly and reactively (and thus give it the lie).
Born in 1881 in Winnipeg, she and her three siblings followed the fortunes of their deep-chested frontier entrepreneur father, whose death at age fifty when MacLane was eight haunted her for longer than she would ever admit. The young tomboy was moved from Minnesota, where her father had retired after making a fortune, to Montana on the occasion of her mother’s rather rapid remarriage. After some time in Great Falls, her stepfather moved the family to Butte in about 1897, in whose uproarious mining heyday MacLane would sharpen her wits, strengthen her opposition to most things conventional, and - before the age of twenty - would craft the book that made her famous, infamous, loved, hated, and most of all attended-to.
In an age when even Butte citizens observed certain proprieties - one of their great whorehouses offered the wealthiest patrons a private tunnel so that they would not be seen entering or exiting at street level - MacLane did what was more remarkable than simply breaking the rules. She played with customs and morals, scrutinized them, largely ignored them - to the point of seeming almost normal. Then she would be off on another adventure, which could take the form of living off a single lucky throw of the dice in a St. Augustine casino, or shutting herself away for years to work on books that never saw print. In 1918, at the climax of her career, in a nod to the future, she wrote and starred in a ninety-minute silent movie - playing herself. It was probably the first to unify writer, narrator, and star - and one of the first, if not the first, to entirely break the fourth wall by a star’s facing the camera and, for a sustained period, addressing the audience directly.
And, for all this, she was not fundamentally a controversialist or attention-seeker and was decidedly not an extrovert. Indeed, her career - of which her public appearances and actings-out were only a derivative manifestation - possesses a deep unity through an uncompromising, sometimes precipitous introversion and self-scrutiny. The piercing moral inspection of her Scottish Presbyterian forebears never ended - she decoupled it from morality, and explored where it led. Her career, seen in its totality (which has been impossible until very recently), is a sustained performance in transcending what were and usually are held to be necessary dichotomies, which yet retains all the electric tension of very earnestly believing in those dichotomies. When she brands herself as decadent or perverse, she believes it, is perplexed by it, is making art of it, and is experimenting with how it feels.
Her career testifies to the power of writing as the organizing principle of an entire life. Whatever else she was - and years of research have only begin to disclose the full trajectory of even her written life - she lived writing.
In 1913, the then-famous California novelist Gertrude Atherton visited Butte. The pen-sketch in her memoirs twenty years later is one of the most vivid.
“When [MacLane] called on me she remained for several hours, talking all the time, and with exceeding brilliance. She was very nervous, pacing the room for the most part, for she led a wild life down on ’The Flat,’ that resort of all the wild spirits in Butte ... [S]he read constantly, the best that was written, had been well drilled in the classics from childhood. Her criticisms of current authors were acute, unbiased, and everything she said was worth listening to.”
And yet, Atherton’s facile history of MacLane gives us a recklessly deteriorating decadent without creative talent - which the leonine novelist (whose heroines conquer ardent men through age-defying beauty) felt was best expressed through writing - novels. “She had the genius of personality,” Atherton concluded, but “could only write of herself.”
It must be said that this was not an uncommon judgment around the time of MacLane’s death in August 1929, two years short of her father’s death-age. She was remembered in obituaries across the nation - in pieces that showed almost no comprehension of the extent or the meaning of her work. Obituarists and editorialists spoke of comets, star-bursts, called her “the lovely pagan” and the first of the Flappers, all in a hectic confusion that got the titles of her movie and books wrong and had nothing to do with the craft of her work. She was made an instance of, as the New York Times put it, “the paths of glory” that lead over an obscure horizon to dissolution, a warning of life’s brevity and the transience of fame. At times there was a sad kind of pity, at times an esteem, sometimes mockery, at points an elegiac regret that did not quite know why it was sad. Every so often, someone understood.
But for the most part, what was before the eye was missed.
It is to bring before new minds this author’s progress, and invite a full survey of a sophisticated, highly-crafted oeuvre, that this book is offered. A recent spate of mechanically-assembled reprints of her three books has shed no light; indeed a comprehensive examination of MacLane - despite several worthy doctoral dissertations on specific aspects - is sorely overdue. The editor intends to complete a study of her life, work, and influence - A Quite Unusual Intensity of Life: A Mary MacLane Companion - in 2012.
First, however: Mary MacLane, as she spoke. Not a museum piece, not a sensation of long ago, but a sharp flame of self-knowing that shows us of today and tomorrow how much is possible through the descent within, the adventure without, and exact expression that flows out at the line between.
Many through the years have contributed to our knowledge of MacLane. Some are many decades beyond anyone’s ability to thank. This book, specifically, was enriched by Vicky Anderson’s Minnesota research, Tim Blue’s film-sharing, Nola Cassady’s flame-keeping, Len Chester’s unexpected generosity, Arlene Copeland’s and Nicolas Gosse’s Europe research, Chiara di Benedetto’s wise counsel, John Emeigh’s expert reportage, Suzanne Hahn’s rapid responsiveness, Jonathan Ned Katz’s decades’ bravery, Jerry Kilmer’s kind aid, Shoshana Knapp’s long inspiration, Ada McAllister’s bright friendship, William A. Mays’ archive-keeping, Joan Melcher’s creative ways, Cheree Miller’s dedicated labors, Haley Anne Nelson’s confident artistry, Bojana Novakovic’s unfailing energy, Lee Phillips’ literary safeguarding, Sharon Presley’s steady interest, Marthe Séguin-Muntz’s Canada research, Zoe Ann Stoltz’s Montana research, and Ken Storie’s Manitoba research, and Virginia R. Terris’ path-clearing scholarship.
It is dedicated to the memory of Elisabeth Pruitt, who through the first MacLane anthology introduced to new generations a deeply-woven body of work, and of Martha Finnerty and John Hughes, who sent forward the keys that opened the first doors.
Michael R. Brown
Butte County, California
Michael R. Brown is the foremost MacLane researcher in the world today. He published the acclaimed MacLane anthology Tender Darkness and more recently authored the well-reviewed experimental memoir She and I: A Fugue. He is completing the first book ever on MacLane’s life, career, and influence for publication in 2015. He lives in Northern California.
Foreword by Bojana Novakovic
I stumbled upon her writings accidentally one wintry morning, when I was bemusing my own wanton state by reading a collection of contemporary ramblings by outsiders: people we refer to as being depressed or mad.
My first encounter was a brief one: a small segment from her first book. But it was enough to leave me struck with adoration, awe, and an odd sense of kinship. Her name was Mary MacLane and she was raw, honest and surreal. I wished that I had written her words, would never have admitted that to anyone, and did not think her mad at all.
I wanted to know more about her, so I took to the (newly discovered) World Wide Web for research. What I found shocked and delighted me. I was reading the ramblings of a woman from over a hundred years ago. A teenager from 1902 was writing of things that mattered to me (a woman barely out of my teens), in 2004.
I shared it with my girlfriends and they too were in love. Mary MacLane had tapped into something that mattered to us: an incessant yearning for self-discovery: something which my generation was on the verge of exploiting (for better or for worse) on the Internet over the next decade. Mary was doing it, in style, over 100 years ago. If she had a blog today, she would be a superstar.
Mary knew nothing of Freud, yet the sense of self-discovery in her writing contains an instinctively psychoanalytic perspective. Her observations of herself and her environment are free of social constraint and psychobabble. Her use of language is original and startlingly contemporary, her ideas universal and timeless. A host of contemporary definitions have been applied to her through time. But Mary’s own diagnosis is the most relevant: that of a Genius. It was a unique branding. She was a genius of The Self. Her emotional intelligence was prodigious. She was unparalleled in the world of acute, over-analytical self-knowledge.
Today we witness a metastasizing strain of humanity searching for meaning through superficial communication where content is irrelevant: a cultural addiction to expressing every arbitrary feeling to anyone via Facebook updates and Twitter tweets. This adrenaline-driven, anxiety-stricken quest for validation has urged fame for fame’s sake, where it is not what you say, but how many people hear it, that matters. Mary MacLane wills us, even from the grave, to draw parallels and comparisons between her time and the wayward manifestations of self-discovery in our digital age.
Like those utilizing today’s social networks, Mary wrote with a sense of audience, a knowledge of the existence of the reader. But she did so without quest for validation. Hers was a yearning to express herself and be understood, not to be validated. I am convinced that were she alive now, her contribution to the virtual public sphere would revolutionize it with class.
While she was proclaimed as the first of the Flappers by one of the Jazz Age’s big magazines, I would like to suggest that Mary was not only decades, but well over a century ahead of her time. If you ask me, she was the first of the Grungers and, now Emos: a generation of contemporary teenagers and “tweens,” walking around lost in their own unfathomable sense of self, willing each other to look at and talk about the dark side of life, writing poetry, wearing black, and feeling things very deeply ...
All jokes aside, I found Mary’s writing fundamentally theatrical, yearning to be shared with an audience or read out loud. So I dug her up from the grave and set out to write her a play ...
This started me on a search for materials, facts, and artifacts. I trawled through the Net and found an incredibly comprehensive website, made by this book’s editor. I called people, emailed, wrote letters and asked questions. I went to Butte and scanned the archives, one by one, year by year, hoping to find more answers. The world of Mary was available but it was scattered. Annoyingly so. If I were not so keen, I would have given up. All this information was hard to track down and (even more) difficult to explain to people.
But now there is this book, compiled, annotated, and edited by Michael R. Brown. It not only makes Mary accessible to those of us who have been searching for her material over the years, but it makes her available to the new reader. Here she is as comprehensible as she will ever be. The book is carefully thought out, categorized, and annotated in a way that puts the pieces of the puzzle back together delightfully. From someone who has travelled the world looking for all things Mary, I promise you, there is no need to look further than this anthology. Michael R Brown, thank you.
A little feverish thrill runs through my veins as I, merely a humble fan, sit by and read this night after night. A spell of silent human-music glows and burns upon me like gentle fire. Often is God thus capriciously kind to me ...
So please, ladies and gentlemen, take this time to uncork your favourite bottle of red, find an apple tree to sit under, put away your fob watches, forget for an hour or so about all those splendid little wars the world is always in, and join us in saluting the collected works of the greatest genius you’ve never heard of: The One, the only Miss Mary MacLane ...
Bojana Novakovic is an Australian Film Inst. award-winning film, stage and television actress, translator, director, playwright, and co-Artistic-Director of Ride On Theatre. She debuted her original stage interpretation "The Story of Mary MacLane - by Herself" in November 2011, playing the title role. She makes her home in Melbourne, Australia.