WINTER 2013 (Issue 77)

Jennifer Large Seagrave

“Why! That’s Just the Way It Is with Me!”

Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master
Eds. Dan Chaon, Norah Hardin Lind, & Phong Nguyen
The Unsung Masters Series at Pleiades Press 2012
218 pages

Dan Chaon opens the new book Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master lamenting that his four collections of Hale’s stories are all “out of print and difficult to find” (i). He, as well as nearly all of the twelve authors represented in the compilation, note Hale’s ten O. Henry anthology appearances, her “remarkable, artistic family,” her records for the most published pieces in the New Yorker in a single year (12 in 1954/1955) and the most published author in the New Yorker over all with over 70 pieces, and the brilliance of her bestselling novel The Prodigal Women (1942). Her artistry, influenced by her parents, successful painters Philip and Lilian Wescott Hale, informs her descriptive, sensitive writing, we learn from Norah Hardin Lind, her granddaughter.

So the question of why her collections are all out of print and no one knows her work any longer lingers, unanswered, through each of the six disparate sections of this peculiar book. Its inclusions range from effusive introductions to a short compilation of Hale’s short stories, explanatory essays to photos of her life, critical essays on her novel, and examples of her own life writing as well as a few biographical pieces.

One of the critical essays included in this compendium is the “Introduction to the New American Library Edition: on The Prodigal Women,” in which Mary Lee Settle discusses Hale’s writing as classic and “forever young.” She writes,

I interpret a ‘forever young’ novel as one in which we find our timeless selves, our hopes, our fears, our neighbors, never-ending, never-changing sorrow, and joy and pride. Anna Karenina is echoed whenever a woman has to choose between son and lover, Emma Bovary whenever a middle-class romantic makes a fool of herself.” (Nancy Hale, 123)

But rather than becoming the stories invoked by those universal situations, Hale’s oeuvre curiously echoes other stories that everyone remembers.

It can’t be a bad thing when a writer’s work conjures Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, or Walter Benjamin’s “Unpacking My Library.” In fact, it puts the reader straightaway into a mood of remembrance, which is what much of Nancy Hale’s work intends to evoke: memories. According to Lind, “She captures glimpses of life—frequently her own life” (13). But Hale admits that often she attempts to put those glimpses into the “terms” of her readers (13): she “recreates and shares universal human emotions” (15). In a telling quotation, Hale explains:

People do like to get together and have a good talk about their youths. Nobody listens to anybody else, except to be reminded of something that happened to them when they were ten. I have come to believe that this is a basic impulse. For the writer of autobiography it means something important: that here is something in readers which can be reached, an instinct to share memories, a desire to compare notes on living. (15)

Several of the works in this compilation triangulated my experience: they gave me Hale’s account, which brought to mind my own experience as well as another author’s description of the situation. Take, for example, a child in bed, attempting to sleep as the noises of the party downstairs waft into the bedroom. In “The Earliest Dreams” Hale writes, “You longed for something, lying still between two smooth slices of sheet, but you could not think what it was, and now you will never know what it was” (45). The direct address suggests a kind of nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened to “you” the child yet, and that “you” the adult reader can no longer formulate because reality has intervened between innocent anticipation and experienced memory. And this brings on recollections of my own childhood bed, of soft sheets and fluffy pillows, the door slightly cracked, and the sudden eruptions of loudness and laughter from downstairs that filled my head with dreams of forbidden investigations. And then I think of Proust when he remembered his own bedtime seclusion in Swann’s Way, writing, “I would rest my cheeks tenderly against the lovely cheeks of the pillow, which, full and fresh, are like the cheeks of our childhood.”

I wonder at the talent Hale shows for this kind of triangulation. In “Who Lived and Died Believing,” she writes about “the rising walls, of the enclosing fear, like sound-proof glass shutting her away; the terrible paw-like hand fumbling with the cork to stopper her finally into the bottle of aloneness” (68). This sentence innocently brings Sylvia Plath to my mind. It doesn’t hurt that the asylum names, Belwith and Belsize, in the respective stories are so similar. I hear, in the back of my head, lines that Plath would make famous two decades later: “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.” And I see the horrible, yellow wallpaper in that story by Hale’s relative, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who also went crazy, closed up in a room, and wrote about it.

In one of the biographical pieces in the book, Hale is quoted saying, “Stories of mine that have made readers say, ‘Why! That’s just the way it is with me!’ seem to my surprise, to be about what I should have thought most private, most personal to myself. Just so I seem to do better by the world when I am acting for what is most inwardly myself” (208). The tragedy about Hale is that we do not remember her works though we may identify with them. Rather we remember similar moments in the work of authors who have remained popular. Her most personal moments, so intricately portrayed, have been usurped by a canon that must narrow the field of posterity.

Undoubtedly, the beauty of Nancy Hale’s writing merits a recovery effort. My favorite story in the book, “The Empress’s Ring,” took me to a place of nostalgia so strong I could feel acutely the pain of losing that childhood treasure I still look for occasionally in my parents’ home—one ruffled, white dress with yellow flowers. The accompanying explanatory essay by Phong Nguyen is insightful, though neither it nor any of the three explanatory essays contains the level of critical research found in the essays on The Prodigal Women, which is not contained in the compilation.

The selections in the book illustrate the breadth of Nancy Hale’s work, though the repetition of basic life facts gets old before the third essay. The somewhat odd inclusions of interpretive essays, biographical essays and family photos call into question where a revival of interest in an author should begin; should the 217-page book contain more than 65 pages of Hale’s fiction? Should interest in her begin with her work rather than family photos and an effusive introductory essay written by her granddaughter?

Hale’s work will be of interest to lovers of the fin de siècle, as her style surrenders to language in the descriptive flow of writers like Gilman, Chopin, and Wharton, though she writes a half-century later. The book would work well as a companion volume in a course that includes The Prodigal Women, or a course interested in short-fiction explication. While the book doesn’t republish one of Hale’s celebrated out-of-print collections, that does seem to be its hope for the future. For my part, I’m all for it.