On a long travel day home from the Woolf conference in Pennsylvania and a side-trip to Maine, I was fortunate to be able to pass the time with Vivian Gornick’s new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, a gift from my friend in Maine.
I was taken by surprise when, about halfway through the book, Gornick diverts from her mostly personal musing with a lengthy passage that starts: “She was born Mary Britton Miller in New London, Connecticut, in 1883….” She goes on to state that Mary Miller lived in New York and wrote stories and poetry that went unnoticed. Then in 1946, at the age of 63, she published a novel, Do I Wake or Sleep, under the pen name Isabel Bolton. It was followed in 1949 and 1952 by The Christmas Tree and Many Mansions.
Her work was lauded by Diana Trilling in The Nation and Edmund Wilson in The New Yorker, who likened her modernist prose to Virginia Woolf’s. She nevertheless slipped into obscurity until the nineties, when the three novels were re-published as a trilogy, New York Mosaic. Yet she remains unknown today. She published two volumes of poetry, a memoir, and another novel before she died in 1975.
Gornick focuses on her own theme, the self and the city. In Do I Wake or Sleep, Millicent in New York — much like Clarissa Dalloway in London — observes: “What a strange, what a fantastic city … there was something here that one experienced nowhere else on earth.”
I was fascinated even before I learned about the comparison to Woolf. I found New York Mosaic at the public library and launched into it. Do I Wake or Sleep is Millicent’s interior voice over a 24-hour period — sound familiar? The prose is stunning. Here’s a sentence from the first page:
There was, she thought, a magic, an enchantment — these myriad rainbow lights, now soft and low, now deeper, stronger — all the stops and chords and colors played like organ voluntaries, over the moon, the clouds, the grass.
I’m still reading, completely hooked. I’ve ordered the trilogy — I have to have it, a library copy just won’t do — along with her memoir. I’m off and running on what looks to be a fairly extensive research project and have had interest expressed in a profile I plan to write. Too bad I didn’t find her before the conference on Woolf’s Female Contemporaries!
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