Wednesday, December 05, 2018

I, Mary Maclane

I, Mary MacLane: a diary of Human Days / Mary MacLane
New York: Frederick A. Stokes, c1917.
317 p.

This is Mary MacLane's second best-selling diary: fifteen years earlier she wrote I Await the Devil's Coming, which burst onto the American literary scene, selling over 100,000 copies and launching MacLane into a celebrity life outside her hated hometown of Butte, Montana.

But fifteen years on, a serious illness forced her to return to her family, back to the same old house in Butte, Montana. And this time her diary has a seasoned voice, a woman who has moved beyond her personal desire for a bigger life into one who is more generally feminist and a little less fiery about what she wants from life - just a little.

She has the same style, the same longings as she did when she was 19. But now she also has some experience of the world to compare her life to. 

I found this an interesting read, though not quite as startling or vibrant as her first diary, which came out of nowhere onto the literary scene. I liked this one for her focus on her interior life, though there is an entry or two that makes one really wonder about Mary, again. She cycles between despair and elation, between thinking she is the cleverest person in the world and feeling existentially and ultimately lonely. This book, unlike her first one, is an exploration of herself, that self that lies between surfaces and the deepest part of her.

An element I found running through this book is Mary's focus on the fact that she only owns two dresses. She mentions it repeatedly, sometimes as a sign that she is living humbly, sometimes as a sad commentary on the loss of the wider world and New York parties, sometimes in an appeal to God. She also ruminates on her wonderful shoes, a small thing in her life which enables her to walk and escape her thoughts for a while. 

And as a journal keeper, and someone who has studied journaling and taught it at times, I did notice some of her techniques that were interesting and would be useful to incorporate into a journal practice even today -- for example, one long entry that is a repeated list of "I Don't Know..." (which brings up unexpected details). 

But this is my own view of a book that is a little bit odd, funny at times (her paean to eating cold potatoes at midnight was entertaining), and still full of a woman's longing to do things that her life and surroundings are not allowing her to do. She's a vital though tragic figure to encounter. 

(Note of Interest: my copy has the "Brentanos New York" bookseller label in the back, and was donated to the Canadian library from which I bought it very shortly after it was published. Wonder what the story there was?)

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