Number 10, 2012 - Review
John Nolan and Carroll Ann Friedmann (eds), The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson.
Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2011. 2 vols, 372 pp. & 354 pp. £15 each, pb. Laura (Riding) Jackson Series: General Editor, Mark Jacobs.
ISBN 978-1-84233-1439 and 978-1-84233-1446.
Literary memoirs can be of interest to readers for many reasons. They may offer new insights into the conditions under which important literary works were conceived or created; they may generate a new and richer historical understanding of the time and the contexts of that literary creativity; or they may respond to a rather baser fascination with literary gossip. These two volumes of memoirs by Laura (Riding) Jackson offer something, but perhaps not quite enough, of each of these reading pleasures.
Laura (Riding) Jackson is an intriguing and important figure for a number of reasons. She was a prominent poet in the 1920s, closely associated with the Fugitives, and frequently published in The Fugitive magazine. She moved from the USA to England in 1925, and formed a close relationship with Robert Graves, subsequently living with him in Majorca, where they welcomed many writers and intellectuals to their home, until 1936. She co-authored with Graves the very influential A Survey of Modernist Poetry, which was published in 1927. Riding continued to publish poetry throughout the 1930s, but in the early1940s she completely and emphatically renounced poetry as a cultural form, declaring the ‘impossibility of poetry fulfilling in any degree of humanly livable practicality the human need and hope of a speech – a verbal expression-mode – of self-sustaining truth’ (I: 228). Thereafter, she dedicated herself, in close collaboration with her second husband, to a major project on the relations between language and truth under the broad rubric of ‘rational meaning’. This major, and never fully completed, intellectual projects ought to challenge what she saw as ‘the predominating feature of twentieth-century intellectual activity […] the dwindling away, in its general inspiring force, of a naturally restless will to know the knowable utmost, to achieve the totality of the possible in knowledge’ (I: 299).
Both (Riding) Jackson’s life and her work are thus of considerable interest to scholars and readers of modernist literature. Across the two volumes of these literary memoirs the key issues outlined above are presented and debated at considerable length. The first volume contains material that was arranged for publication by (Riding) Jackson herself, while the second was arranged by the editors and consists of texts that had mostly been previously unpublished. The organization of the two substantial volumes thus inevitably follows slightly different principles, and also involves a degree of repetition as the same literary and philosophical questions are explored across a range of texts. This does pose some challenges for the reader simply in terms of the scale of what is offered, and also makes it at times difficult to discern the significant historical developments of (Riding) Jackson’s thinking and writing from the 1920s to the1980s.
(Riding) Jackson presents her memoirs both as a corrective to the mistaken critical judgments and literary histories of others, and also as an exposition of her own philosophical and literary values. She writes with a significant degree of consciousness that her world-view has not always been readily accepted: ‘I have believed in the veridicality of my vision, lived by a faith in its intrinsic strength that contradicted the actualities of failure’ (I: 15). This rather admirable, and even generous, recognition that her own deeply held views are not always shared by others does not, however, characterise the memoirs as a whole. She writes at times with a kind of obsessive disdain,and an insistent sense of being wronged and undervalued, that are difficult for the reader to engage with. When she writes, ‘to return, for a little, to the subject of myself’ (I: 55), one is not necessarily overjoyed.
The most interesting and original parts of these memoirs lie in (Riding) Jackson’s attempts to articulate the importance and originality of her engagement with the philosophy of language and the nature of truth: ‘the task of exploring the nature of language as the adequate apparatus of truth’ (I: 26). This is more consistently present in the first volume, but aspects of her commitment to these issues can be found across both. She defends, repeatedly and often effectively,her view of the ethical and cultural importance of ‘a special literary world, viewed as representing to the other world its consciousness of itself ’ (I: 31). But − and this seems to me to be a significant issue for the reader of these memoirs − she does all this in a prose style that is clotted, repetitive, and frequently hectoring. This is a real disappointment for an enthusiastic reader of Laura Riding’s poetry. In contrast to the clarity, economy and beauty of lines such as ‘Between the word and the world lie / Fading eternities of soon’, from Riding’s poem ‘Echoes’, the prosaic quality of these memoirs seems to offer too little and too much at the same time. When one is confronted with the argument ‘That literary activity came to have the force of a negation of literature’s function of fidelity to the humanly ascertainable meaning of being is explicable in some part by the collapse of the idea of the human being as ideally represented by a male figure of perfectly generalized human identity’ (I: 43),one does rather long for the ‘fading eternities of soon’.
It is always encouraging to see work by major literary figures that had previously been unpublished, or difficult to access, brought together in an accessible and affordable format for a contemporary readership, and in this context these volumes are very much to be welcomed. It is, however, disappointing that the editors have provided such a modest scholarly apparatus to accompany the memoirs. The editorial introductions to both volumes are very brief, and the notes provided amount simply to pointing out some of the key sources and references in (Riding) Jackson’s texts. It would have enhanced the potential usefulness of the memoirs to have had much fuller annotations, outlining the complexities of the literary and philosophical issues and figures to whom (Riding) Jackson refers, as well as introductions to both volumes which present and analyse in much more detail the historical context of the memoirs. The addition of a more substantial scholarly apparatus would have significantly enhanced the importance and utility of these memoirs for a broad range of scholars and readers of modernist literature. As they stand they may, sadly, be seen as of interest only to the reader who is already a committed reader of Laura (Riding)Jackson’s work.
Queen Mary University of London