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Unearthing Author Margery Latimer’s Body of Work

Margery Latimer’s 20th-century feminist literature is sympathetic and even empathetic toward her women characters–and implicitly judgmental.

We Are Incredible
Margery Latimer
J. H. Sears
This Is My Body
Margery Latimer
J. H. Sears

This article discusses the two novels of Margery Latimer, a largely forgotten Wisconsin-born novelist and story writer who died in childbirth, age 33, in 1932. Before getting to the books and their creator, I think it’s important to explain how I heard of them.

I’ve been reading Kenneth Fearing, an American poet and novelist known for modernist techniques and a vision of life as a mechanized, media-soaked, fragmented hell. His most famous novel is The Big Clock (1946), a thriller. I’d finished the New York Review of Books reprint edition of Clark Gifford’s Body (1942), a very curious collage purporting to document a near-future American revolution, and ordered Cry Killer! (1958), the pulp paperback retitling of Dagger of the Mind (1941).

Then, courtesy of the Inter-Library Loan service of my local library, I got my hands on the out-of-print Complete Poems (1994), a revelatory collection of a substantial body of work. Part of me wants to start discussing Fearing’s poems, but I’m curbing the impulse. Clearly, I’m smitten with the guy. It turns out I’m not the only one.

Editor Robert M. Ryley’s introduction begins by discussing that Fearing was the inspiration for a character called Ronald Chadron in Margery Latimer’s second and last novel, This Is My Body (1930). I get lots of mileage out of Inter-Library Loan, and soon I had both her novels starting with the first, We Are Incredible (1928).

I recount this because among many ironies of Latimer’s career, her having written about Fearing can attract contemporary readers–something she could never have guessed in 1930 when he’d just published the single slim poetry collection, Angel Arms (1929). Fearing dedicated this collection to Latimer. She was already much better known than he.

Now she’s the more obscure writer. In discussing her neglected novels, which have never come back into print since they first published, I feel free to give away SPOILERS, so be warned.

We Are Incredible (1928) contains three sections, each named for its stream of consciousness figure. The first, and arguably most irritating, though it’s a close call, is Stephen Mitchell, an idle mooning 31-year-old bachelor. He’s never gotten over the fact that Hester Linden–the local transcendentalist progressive feminist “old maid” who attracts frustrated acolytes in love with her–didn’t return his feelings a dozen years ago. Now he keeps drinking and haunting her lawn at night. Yeah, I know.

The second personality is Dora Weck, supposedly engaged to a rich local lunk but really the latest 18-year-old virgin under Hester’s arid spell. Dora’s lush red hair probably identifies her as a surrogate for the author.

The third and last section falls upon the legendary creature herself, self-sufficient spinster Hester Linden, always monitoring her own thoughts and insisting on being above everything, though she’s psychologically astute and right in general about how insane is the world. She lives on a richly gardened estate and surrounds herself with a coterie of admirers who all just love her cool style and subtle manipulations. An open question or implication is whether Hester is a sexless lesbian.

The book’s dedication: For Zona. According to Joy Castro’s excellent profile of Latimer in the Fall 2001 issue of Review of Contemporary Fiction. If you read anything recent about Latimer, it’s probably by Castro. Hester Linden is inspired by another Wisconsin writer: Zona Gale, best known for the celebrated Miss Lulu Bett (1920) which won the 1921 Pulitzer in drama. She befriended the 18-year-old Latimer after reading a story by the teenager published in a newspaper.

If it’s true that Hester is at least partly a portrait of Gale, the fact that Gale wrote an introduction on the jacket (missing from the copy I found) sounds exceptionally generous or oblivious. However, the comparison can’t be too exact because Hester creates nothing and serves as no practical mentor, unlike Gale. Dora Weck’s parallels with Latimer are equally skewed, but that’s how fiction works.

Despite this triangle of characters claiming the spotlight, Latimer is secretly in love with the vulgar Fry family of pathetic and horrid bickerers, especially large Myrtle Fry, Dora’s older sister. Because we’re inside the minds of the trio, we see how they refract everything through their perspective. We witness another vivid example of the same in Myrtle Fry’s unending palaver that steals the book. As much as contemporary English novelist Henry Green loves how working people talk, Latimer loves transcribing Myrtle’s diatribes and digressions, her abrupt shifts, and her contradictions about how she never utters a word of complaint.

If the main triangle is expressed as a problem in “sterility”, with the bachelor resenting his tippling “impotence” and the young woman bursting to be “caged” or uncaged and ravished, the alternative of the “normal” middle-class Fry household and its “good sort” of plain folks is viciously, satirically dispiriting and intolerable. It’s enough to drive anyone to withdraw behind the walls of a garden to gaze at the stars if they can afford it.

The abrupt death of the most terrorized and obnoxious child, age four–presumably by scarlet fever but mom thinks for emotional reasons–foreshadows the similar tragedy of immaturity and ego that must end the story, also mysteriously. The implication is that all these characters are emotionally arrested and spontaneously combustible.

The title refers to nothing concrete and may be interpreted either as “we’re wonderful or extraordinary” or as “we can’t be believed”, the latter in the sense not that such people don’t exist (though that’s there) but that what they say isn’t real, can’t be trusted. Indeed, there is much argument about what is “real”, which will also be a theme of Latimer’s next novel.

When I went Googling for reviews of this novel, I found that the Unz Review, which unfortunately also blogs a lot of toxic political gibberish, reprinted three free reviews from 1928 magazines. Gladys Graham in The Saturday Review finds Hester works best offstage, and that her “stereotyped” presence is unconvincing as a spell-caster. Mary Shirley in The Outlook, on the other hand, finds Hester a brilliantly depicted “fraud” and “unnatural” “monster of virginity”, superficially Platonic but dominated by a Will to Power that’s fully realized in herself but prevents self-realization in others to batten on their adoration. This reaction shows how unsympathetic is this woman reviewer to unconventional women, and how this book may play into such assumptions.

William McFee in The Bookman, who comments on the lavish cover blurbs by Joseph Hergesheimer and others, finds the book belongs to a contemporary type of academically sex-obsessed neurosis and contrasts it with his recommendation of Margot Asquith’s Octavia, which he calls “an excellent portrait of a young woman neither neurotic nor silly. Is it too much to ask that an intelligent girl be a legitimate subject for a novel?” He prefers old-fashioned books that aren’t vulgar or depressing; his sea novels follow that creed.

Latimer’s second, much longer novel, This Is My Body (1930), adopts a seemingly conventional style of bildungsroman (novel of formative development) or kunstlerroman (novel of an artist’s development) for the journey of its heroine, Megan Foster, from embarking on college life to a first love affair and abortion in New York while seeking publication as a novelist.

The author’s voice begins by invoking muses: the spirits of the girl she used to be, her parents, and her ex-lover. These have all acted as her crucibles or Cavalry, for the story ends with Megan imagining herself on her bloody knees, like a pilgrim to church, pushing her body in front of her. Does this invocation mean that the author is declaring herself to be Megan, or are we asked to believe that an older Megan is writing this after turning herself into a third-person perspective? Here’s one of the questions the story won’t answer.

Latimer begins her profoundly radical approach with Megan’s first day at college, consumed with anxiety and homesickness. These emotions can be understood by anyone who’s gone to college or left home for the first time. Everyone she meets makes friendly overtures, and Megan rebuffs and alienates them, both peers and fuddy-duddies. First, she annoys all the women, then she’ll work on the male professors and students. She thinks, “Good, I don’t want to be liked. I want people to hate me”.

Later, a bohemian “frenemy” (for Megan’s at least quasi-hostile to other women) will say that nobody should want these fools’ approval anyway, and while that’s a rationalization, it gives Megan something to hold onto. It’s the wrong way to make friends and it brings more trouble upon her than she needs, but here she is. Deal with it.

I believe this is Latimer’s signal that you’re not reading one of the era’s shopgirl romances aimed at a female readership, those books where adorable plucky girls face hardship in the city because the mean world likes to kick puppies. She refuses to make Megan ingratiating or likable. She doesn’t care if you like her–like, shmike. By the time she has dragged you and Megan through the mud, Latimer’s going to make you understand her.