All in the Family

In the opening pages of Charles Molesworth’s 1990 biography of Marianne Moore, the reader encounters two exceedingly curious sentences. “I have chosen,” declares Molesworth in the first of these, “to limit my interpretations of [Moore’s] character by relying more on literary than on psychological questions.” Study that statement for a moment—savor it, if you will—and ponder its meaning. What is Molesworth saying here? Apparently, that he not only thinks a biographer can somehow “interpret” his subject’s “character” while skirting “psychological questions,” but also that for some reason he has found this course of action to be advisable. Which, of course, raises the questions: Exactly how does one go about interpreting a person’s character while de-emphasizing “psychological questions”? And why? On to his next sentence: “Hence most of my evidence focuses on the external facts of Moore’s life.” What can this possibly mean, other than that Molesworth, for whatever perverse reason, has purposefully set out to produce a shallow account of his subject’s life? In any event, Molesworth more than fulfilled his goal: Reviewing his book for the Washington Post, I found it to be a staggeringly superficial effort by a writer whose unreflectiveness seemed stubborn and boundless; at the end of my review, I expressed the hope “that a more poised and penetrating study of [Moore’s] singular writings and enigmatic life will materialize before too long.”

Well, it only took twenty-three years. In Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore (the title is drawn from Moore’s famous poem “Poetry”), a professor emerita of English at Oklahoma State University, Linda Leavell, working from the very same materials that were available to Molesworth, has managed to produce a remarkably illuminating biography of a woman whose life, it turns out, was far more fascinating—and disturbing—than Molesworth ever let on.1

The story begins with Moore’s mother, Mary, the well-educated daughter of a respected, liberal-minded Presbyterian minister in Kirkwood, Missouri, who had something of a national reputation as a preacher and speaker. Though apparently regarded as a smart and sensible young lady, Mary found herself being talked into wedlock by a rather sketchy character named John Moore, who even during their courtship seemed a less-than-promising catch and, soon after the nuptials, proved to be a hopeless ne’er-do-well with serious psychiatric problems. By the time Marianne came along in 1887 (Mary had already given birth to a son, Warner), John—who had grown increasingly devout as his worldly prospects had steadily diminished—was a full-blown psychotic, possessed by a religious mania from which he would never recover. Mary filed for separation (they never divorced), and John, who never saw any of his family again, spent the rest of his life in psychiatric hospitals, dying in 1925. Following the breakup, Mary and her children lived with relatives for several years, then moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where Mary (and, later, Marianne) worked as a teacher and did something that would have powerful lifelong repercussions for her children: She began shaping her little household into something deeply, disturbingly, and destructively bizarre.

This is where the two biographers thoroughly part company. Molesworth serves up a blandly affirmative and downright fatuous account of Mary’s relationship to her children, the thrust being that they were an admirably cozy threesome; Leavell makes it clear that, on the contrary, both Marianne and Warner were the victims of severe psychological abuse at the hands of a terribly sick and suffocatingly possessive mother—a woman who, quite calculatingly, set out to imprison them in a hermetically sealed little world of their own with its own peculiar customs, moral codes, and rules of behavior, all of them determined exclusively by her. Their world even had its own language—an elaborate set of pet names and other words and phrases, drawn largely from children’s books. Molesworth’s utterly inane take on this grotesque state of affairs is as follows: “One special way Mrs. Moore had of showing her love for her children was to encourage and enter into their playful and very complex use of pet names.” On the contrary, as Leavell details, it was Mary who instigated the formulation and encouraged the use of the family’s private vocabulary, her obvious purpose being to bind her children to her, to isolate the three of them from society at large, and (in the long run) to keep Marianne and Warner from growing up and leaving her.

To understand Moore’s reason for creating this private world, one needs to be aware of a fact that Molesworth, for whatever reason, entirely omits from his book: Mary was a lesbian. More than that, she was a lesbian who, at the turn of the twentieth century, also considered herself to be a devout Christian—indeed, a model Christian, whose right and duty it was to pass judgment on others. Nor was she either a celibate or a discreetly promiscuous lesbian, but, rather, a lesbian who, for many years, beginning when Marianne was thirteen, lived in a committed relationship with a considerably younger woman named Mary Norcross, who was treated as a full member of the Moore household, even sharing in the family’s private lingo. The nature of these two women’s relationship was no secret from Mary’s children, yet it was plainly made clear to them that in their own private world, if not in the world beyond, there was nothing unusual about the ménage. Indeed, Mary’s rules not only legitimized but privileged and ennobled her partnership with Mary Norcross, even as those same rules granted her the indisputable role, within the household, of defender of traditional piety and stern critic of what she saw as the corrupting influence of secular society on her son and daughter. When Warner went off to Yale, for example, Mary laid down the law about his social life, proscribing any involvement whatsoever with the female sex. And when Marianne was away at Bryn Mawr, Mary wrote a letter warning her against “falling into the snare of self-seeking”—of aspiring, in other words, to a life of her own, a life not centered on Mary herself. A self-styled “progressive” (in the parlance of the day), Mary claimed to share William James’s “democratic respect for the sacredness of individuality,” but in fact she was always on the alert for—and always prepared to crush mercilessly—any sign of individuality (or, needless to say, sexuality) on the part of either of her offspring.

I have called Mary possessive, but clearly she was a great deal more than that. We are speaking here of a mental disorder every bit as crippling, in its way, as her husband’s. Consider this: Mary established a pattern whereby Marianne, in family conversations and correspondence, was invariably referred to as a boy and identified only with male pronouns. Furthermore, Mary encouraged the siblings to regard each other as “lovers,” and to think of her as their “lover,” too. (In a letter to Warner, for instance, she told him: “you are Mr. Fang’s lover”—Mr. Fang being one of their names for Marianne—and in another letter she described Warner as being her “lover, father, and son all in one.”) In later years, when she became famous, Marianne’s image would be that of a tight-lipped spinster, the sort of woman who not only was without the remotest hint of sexual experience but who would surely blush at the very mention of such a thing as, say, homosexuality. Molesworth, in his book, seemed determined to preserve this image, even though he must have known it was a lie. For the truth is that Marianne, to what must have been a virtually unparalleled extent among Americans of her generation, grew up surrounded by openly gay men and women. Mary “preferred the company of homosexuals to that of heterosexuals,” writes Leavell, and, after mother and daughter moved to New York in 1918—Warner having become a Navy chaplain—among the few people the elder Moore was actually happy to welcome into their home were gay literary and artistic couples, such as the novelist Glenway Wescott and his partner Monroe Wheeler, and the poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and her British girlfriend Bryher (Winifred Ellerman). Then there’s Bryn Mawr, which, during Marianne’s student years, may well have been the global capital of open lesbianism: M. Carey Thomas, the college’s legendary president, lived on campus with her female significant other, as did many of the women on the faculty. Marianne, then, was the product of two milieux—her home and her alma mater—that were, for their time, unusually dominated and shaped by open homosexuality.

Warner, as noted, escaped Mary’s powerful gravitational pull. But it wasn’t easy. When he met and fell in love with a perfectly nice young woman from a good family and announced his plans to marry, Mary treated him as a criminal, and Marianne, plainly a victim of what we would now call Stockholm syndrome, joined in, chastising him severely for causing their mother such grief. (“My crime,” Warner told his mother in a letter, “is that while I would count it nothing to die for you, I have refused to live for you.”) Mary even wrote to Warner’s fiancée, Constance, two weeks before the wedding, calling the planned marriage “unethical in a high degree,” a violation of her own “Christian philosophy”; while professing to believe that a “heaven-made marriage is the most beautiful thing this sin-shadowed world has ever seen,” Mary declared the proposed union to be “unblessed of heaven.” Instead of being outraged at this audacious stunt, Warner kept begging for Mary’s forgiveness—to no avail. Equally unavailing were Constance’s tireless efforts, in the years after the marriage, to win Mary’s (and Marianne’s) acceptance. Warner and Constance had two daughters, and when the children, as well as Constance, in what comes across as a poignant attempt to be brought into the fold, started using the family nicknames, Warner, Mary, and Marianne switched to new ones. (Marianne, who hated children—calling them “repellent larvae”—does not appear to have made an exception for Warner’s progeny.) To keep Constance in the dark, moreover, about the intimacy and extent of his correspondence with Mary and Marianne, Warner had his mother and sister send letters to him at work and, after his retirement, received them at a secret post-office box, all the while sharing with Constance “sober and short” fake versions of his letters home.

But at least he got out . . . sort of. Marianne didn’t. Yes, at Bryn Mawr she had a taste of freedom and “chafed against Mary’s possessiveness.” But after returning home, she resumed “her childlike, precollege persona,” placing herself once again fully under Mary’s authority. For a few years thereafter, Marianne did long for her own life, and at various times Mary even held out the possibility of loosening her apron strings. But she never did, explaining in a letter to Warner that “Ratty” (another nickname for Marianne) was “too little to be chased around by big cats.” In the end, Marianne never left the nest: She feared being alone, and feared angering Mary. She had friends, but none to whom she could open up fully. She couldn’t even confide in a diary, because Mary would insist on the right to read it. A single anecdote sums up the whole ghastly situation. After mother and daughter moved to New York—taking a small flat in Greenwich Village, where Marianne worked part-time at the local library—a neighbor gave them a kitten. It seems to have been the first pet ever owned by Marianne (whose love of animals is attested to not only by the variety of fauna that populate her poems, but by the glass menagerie—yes—that would later be a feature of her Brooklyn flat). After they had owned the kitten for a month, Marianne wrote to Warner that he was getting “cuter and cuter. . . . His flower pin eyes are a pretty amber.” It is touching to see Marianne finally experiencing this pure, healthy affection. And it is chilling to discover what happened the very day after she wrote that letter to Warner: While Marianne was at work, Mary, having given no clue beforehand of her plan, euthanized the kitten with chloroform. Marianne was devastated, but meekly bowed to Mary’s argument that, as Marianne put it in a letter to Warner, “It would have been cruel to him to let him grow and might have . . . seemed like murder to him if we had kept him and turned him over to strangers; and a seemingly comfortable life in a shut up room would not be good to any cat so we were kind, but having had him so long as we had made the deed seem foul.” Of course it wasfoul—a ruthless assertion of power, a cruel act of retaliation and punishment by a psychologically twisted woman who could not even bear the competition of a pet. Marianne mourned the kitten for years but apparently never breathed a critical word about its killing. (Molesworth doesn’t even mention this incident.)

The closest thing Marianne had to an escape from life with Mary was her poems. A key fact about them, underscored by Leavell, is this: On the one hand, she “could never have become the poet she was without the four years away from her mother at Bryn Mawr,” where she first became part of a creative community and found the freedom and confidence to forge a poetic voice of her own—in reaction, one might say, to the family language Mary had invented—and where, taking biology courses, she was drawn to the rigorous language of science. On the other hand, it was being back home under Mary’s thumb that made her feel compelled to write—compelled to escape from the world Mary had fashioned (itself an escape from the real world) into a literary landscape of her own devising. Many of Moore’s poems, Leavell reminds us, feature “camouflaged and armored animals” that are “misunderstood, self-reliant, and invariably solitary”—a manifest reflection, of course, of Marianne’s own circumstances. But the poems, as any reader of Moore well knows, are the very opposite of cries of the heart. Mary, after all, read every word—so raw confession, or anything close to it, was not an option. Hence Marianne was forced to devise what amounted to a new type of poem, stunning at the time, not only for being syllabic in form (something which was previously all but unheard of in serious English poetry) but, perhaps even more so, for its extraordinary, even clinical, degree of precision and dispassion. “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion,” Eliot would write in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” There are, and were, many poets to whom this generalization does not apply at all. But it certainly applies in spades to Moore, who at Bryn Mawr, in the first decade of the twentieth century, had already begun to write the kind of impersonal poetry that, years later, Eliot would call for in this and other famous essays. But if she concocted this new type of poem well before Eliot’s call, it wasn’t because she was consciously setting out to break new poetic ground, but because she needed to find a way of using poetry to serve her own needs without making the kind of explicit personal references that would trigger her mother’s ire. So it was that, just as Mary had turned their household into a distinctive, isolated world over which she presided like a goddess, so Marianne did much the same thing in her verse. “She had no privacy at home, no ‘room of her own,’ ” Leavell writes, “until she began to make a place for herself in her poetry.”

How to describe the typical Marianne Moore poem? It plunges the reader into an act of obsessive contemplation, often of an animal or object, that is recorded with an intensity that will seem alien even to the kind of reader who may regard himself as a rather acutely attentive observer. Her voice is that of an anatomist, an archaeologist, a curator; the level of lucidity, of descriptive precision, is remarkable. And yet, in many if not most of her poems, it soon becomes apparent that despite all the linguistic cues which suggest a high level of argumentative coherence, the whole thing just doesn’t quite hang together logically. After a point, indeed, one may catch oneself thinking “all this is quite mad”—even as one recognizes that there is some kind of very elaborately worked-out method to the madness. The poet and critic Donald Hall, notably in his brief 1970 book about Moore’s life and work, has commented on her method with perhaps more acuity than anyone else. Recognizing the agitation beneath the smooth, untroubled surfaces of her best work—recognizing, in fact, that it is “the power of underlying emotion” itself “that is responsible for [the] highly-worked perfection” of Moore’s poetic surfaces—Hall provided the crucial insight that, in such poems as “Marriage” and “Sun,” “the ostensible subject—the surface object—simply will not support the weight of implied concern. Something else, something quite different from the stated subject, is in control of the poem.” The only way to explain the intensity Moore brings to her putative topics, in other words, is to recognize that her real preoccupations lie elsewhere—one sign of which is that, after a certain point in what presents itself, at the outset, as a supremely logical and coherent piece of expository writing, “rational content suddenly disappears. All at once there is no paraphrasable meaning. Nothing makes sense. One realizes slowly that something else has taken over the poem. The images are no longer images of any thing but are, rather, images of feeling.” It is at such moments, Hall suggests, that Moore’s poetry provides its “greatest pleasure.” Yet even as Hall perceived that something dark and desperate was roiling deep within Moore’s psyche (“The stronger and more frightening the feeling, the more necessary the protection that complexity of surface can provide. . . . Only the wildest animals need cages so carefully made”), he, like other readers at the time, accepted without question the cover story about Moore’s home life: Marianne, he writes, had “great affection and respect” for her mother; Mary and Warner “seem to have been essential supports in her life.”

The reader who happens to know better—who happens to be aware that Moore was the child of two individuals with serious psychiatric problems—may find himself taking things a step or two further than Hall did. Surely Marianne herself, one surmises, was acutely conscious of the fact that both of her parents were, in their own ways, profoundly divorced from reality. Is it much of a stretch to imagine that she regarded her poems primarily as a locus within which she could assert, insistently and ferociously, her own sanity—her own awareness of and commitment to the solid, the tangible? Could her poems, that is, have been her means of staving off madness itself, of reinforcing her connection to palpable reality, and of reassuring herself that she had both feet on the ground, even as she continued to tenant her mother’s own cloud-cuckoo-land? Leavell notes that in 1932, when Marianne was writing her poem “The Jerboa,” she was in such an extreme psychological state that she “began saying ‘cookie dust’ with no explanation.” The poem, Marianne told Warner, was nothing less than a desperate effort “to say what is boiling within me.” Leavell’s comment: “What was boiling within her was survival.” Moore’s “animal poems,” Leavell concludes, “are both instructions in the art of survival and acts of survival themselves.” This does not seem to me an overstatement.

It didn’t take long for Moore’s poems to get published in important places—and to win the notice of important people. She was enthusiastically admired—no mean feat—both by William Carlos Williams, booster of the fresh, simple, and formless, and by Eliot, the champion of tradition, complexity, and form. “Whereas to Williams she represented all that was ‘new’ in poetry,” observes Leavell, “to Eliot she was an enduring member of the ‘tradition.’ And whereas Pound praised her early resistance to romanticism, Stevens paid her his highest compliment by calling her a ‘romantic.’ ” What they all agreed on, however, was that her high degree of rigor, lucidity, and exactitude was singularly commendable and represented an important and authentically modernist innovation. Reading Moore, commented Eliot, provided “satisfaction in something quite definite and solid”; Williams, himself, of course, a physician, compared Moore’s poems to laboratory experiments, reflecting that in them “a word is a word most when it is separated out by science, treated with acid to remove the smudges, washed, dried, and placed right side up on a clean surface.” R. P. Blackmur praised her in similar terms, saying that she placed quotation marks around borrowed texts “to impale their contents as in a pair of tongs for gingerly or derisive inspection.” The incorporation of quotations in poetry, of course, would become a mainstay of modernism, the signal example being the proliferation of secondhand snippets in The Waste Land. ButMoore began including other people’s words in her poems even before Pound and Eliot did. And there was, as Leavell emphasizes, a significant difference: Whereas Pound’s and Eliot’s quotations “invoke the authority of the past and erudite readers may congratulate themselves upon recognizing them, Moore’s quotations undercut both authority and erudition. She seizes phrases from the verbal ephemera of modern life—articles from Vogue and Scientific American, a newspaper advertisement, a remark overheard at the circus, a slogan on a statue in Central Park—much as contemporary artists pasted pieces of newspaper onto their canvases.” (John Dos Passos, to name just one example, would later do much the same thing in USA.)

Fortunately, controlling though Mary Moore was, she deeply respected culture, and so when Marianne began to dip her toes into the modernist literary and art scene, Mary was unusually tolerant, if typically wary and watchful. In 1915, after Marianne, then twenty-seven years old, returned home to Pennsylvania from a trip to New York, where she had finally met “people with whom she could discuss new directions in the arts,” Mary wrote darkly, in a letter to Warner that captures her self-consciously archaic epistolary manner, that “Ratty has come. . . . He knows not what he eats nor what he sees [here]; can think only of the edge of the great sea, where he has sojourned. I look very gravely, not to say sternly, at some of the experiences unfurled . . . but I have offered no threats so far of what I must do in future.” Marianne ended up making many literary and artistic friends, the closest of whom she brought home to meet Mary. Yet there was always a certain distance in these relationships, and something else besides: Whereas Marianne did everything she could to avoid creating the slightest discord between herself and her mother, she seems, on several occasions, to have become inexplicably angry, even furious, at friends who had done nothing whatsoever to deserve her wrath—among them Scofield Thayer, who boosted her career immeasurably by publishing her work in The Dial (one of the most important high-culture journals of the day) and later by naming her its editor (a job she held from 1925 to 1929), and Bryher and the writer Robert McAlmon, whose marriage she took (just as Mary had Warner’s) as a personal offense.

When Mary finally died in July 1947, Marianne went into deep mourning. Emerging into the public eye almost three years later, she was a different woman—liberated, at least in some sense. In a way she had not done before, she threw herself into talks and poetry readings, at which she displayed a new flair for performing—a hamminess, even—and a new, grateful responsiveness to the enthusiasm of audiences. Her CollectedPoems appeared; she won several major awards; her work started (at long last) to be accepted by TheNew Yorker,although the poems of this period, less cryptic and urgent than their predecessors, “delight without challenging the reader,” as Leavell puts it (the difference, one surmises, being that with Mary’s death poetry was no longer, for Marianne, the desperate survival mechanism that it had once been). But the artistic falling-off hardly mattered: Her fame just grew and grew. Transcending mere literary renown, she ascended into the realm of genuine celebrity, and seemed to delight in all of it, engaging consciously, and with surprising savvy, in showbiz-style image-building. (Thus the tiresome “tricorne hat” that made her instantly recognizable to countless people who had never read a poem in their lives.) Her picture appeared in Vogue; now living in Brooklyn, she wrote poetic tributes to the Dodgers (one of which appeared on the first page of the New York Herald Tribune on the opening day of the 1956 World Series)and was invited to throw out the first ball at a season opener; a fan of Muhammad Ali, she wrote the liner notes for his spoken-word album; in 1969, she was named New York State’s Senior Citizen of the Year. In one particularly sub-literary episode, she exchanged letters with a Ford Motor Company executive who asked her to help name a new car. The correspondence, published in TheNew Yorker and often reprinted since, has given some readers amusement while making others cringe. Leavell aptly describes Moore as having crossed, at this point, “the line between pop culture diva and court jester.” (Quoting Hilton Kramer’s review of the 1981 CompletePoems,in which he chastised Moore for letting herself be turned into “the very archetype of the quaint literary spinster,” Leavell notes that “[v]irtually all of Moore’s critics since then have agreed with this assessment.”) Alas, Moore survived long enough—she died in 1972—to see herself overshadowed by a new and very different species of woman poet—from feminist firebrands like Adrienne Rich to confessional vein-openers like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. “In the new era of identity politics, Moore became the wrong kind of woman with whom to identify,” Leavell writes. “Little did Rich and her adherents imagine in the 1970s and ’80s that the fatherless Moore had been reared by lesbians and educated by feminists.” (For her part, Marianne couldn’t stand their work; she liked Ted Hughes, but loathed Plath.)

I’ve never had quite the response to a literary biography that I’ve had to this one. As told by Leavell, the story of Marianne Moore’s psychological entrapment by her mother is the stuff of a monumental novel or play or opera. Among the literary and historical figures Mary brings to mind are Dr. Sloper, the dictatorial father in Henry James’s Washington Square,and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own real-life domineering paterfamilias,who was immortalized in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. But Mary, one gathers, would have made mincemeat in a trice of both these petty tyrants. It is no exaggeration, indeed, to say that she has the makings of a world-class literary villain. This being the case, to read Hanging On Upside Down can have the effect of making Moore’s verse seem, by comparison, decorative, almost trivial, a series of finger exercises that are clever, even exquisite, but that fail to engage at the highest level with the human condition. One finds oneself nodding in agreement at John Crowe Ransom’s observation that, for all their excellences, Moore’s poems traffic in “minor not major effects”—aiming not, as did Eliot or Yeats, for literary greatness of the first rank but seeking simply to make public “the exempla of rightness or of beauty that have hit her fastidious taste.” It may be noted that Moore herself made no great claims for her work, testifying in her Paris Review interview that early in her career she had “disliked the term ‘poetry’ for any but Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s or Dante’s” and saying that her writing “could only be called poetry because there is no other category in which to put it.” Indeed, however ample the store of human feeling that underlies her primly clinical accounts of animals and objects, the near-utter absence from her poetry of flesh-and-blood people (rather than just, as in “Marriage,” say, abstractions about people or general reflections about human institutions) is, ultimately, a mark against her. “The proper study of Mankind is Man,” wrote Pope, and while Moore’s poems are definitely studies of a sort, humankind is their subject only in the most indirect or subterranean way. We learn from Leavell’s book that Moore actually wrote a novel, called The Way We Live Now,that Leavell describes as utterly lacking in plot and character development and for which, even at the height of her acclaim, Moore could not find a publisher. “The reader winces in embarrassment,” writes Leavell, noting that the book’s most memorable character is, of all things, a kitten. “For all Moore’s attention to the appearance and behavior of animals,” Leavell maintains, “she seems remarkably obtuse about people.” And we know why, of course. To return to Moore’s poems after reading Leavell’s book is to view them in a new and sad light—because one is mindful that, just as so much of the power of first-rate Iron Curtain poets like Joseph Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz can be accounted for by the terrible pressure of the circumstances under which their poems were composed, so the strength of Moore’s own work owes much to the fact that she, like them, created it while living under an iron-fisted tyranny. Only in Moore’s case, the tyranny was that not of a totalitarian state but of a little old lady.

1Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore, by Linda Leavell; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 480 pages, $30.