I don’t know whether the writers Bette Howland and Johanna Kaplan ever met, but if they had, they would have been unlikely to run out of things to talk about. Both had a spell as contributors to COMMENTARY. In March 1975, Johanna Kaplan even reviewed, on the whole favorably, Bette Howland’s memoir, W-3. Perhaps most notable of all, both women suffered decades-long writer’s block, though Kaplan is said to be working on a new novel, which would be her second. Each has recently had a portion of her writings reissued,1 doubtless as part of the heightened interest in the work of women writers. Finally, each might have made a convincing character in the fiction of the other.
Bette Howland was five years older than Johanna Kaplan and died in 2017 at the age of 80, the age Kaplan is now. She published three rather slender books before her death, one about her stay on a psychiatric ward (W-3) after an attempted suicide, another a book of essays (Blue in Chicago), and the third a collection of three longish stories (Things to Come and Go). Kaplan published a collection of short stories (Other People’s Lives) and a novel (O My America!). Neither writer went unrewarded. Howland won Rockefeller and Guggenheim grants and, in 1984, a MacArthur “genius grant.” Kaplan’s book of stories and her novel were finalists for the National Book Award in 1976 and 1981, and both won the Jewish National Award for Fiction. They wrote in distinctive styles, rich in observation and laced with humor.
I know Johanna Kaplan only from her prose, but I knew Bette Howland well enough to think of her as a friend. I met her sometime in the middle 1970s through Saul Bellow. “Oh,” she said, when Saul introduced me to her, “I was expecting a much older man,” then added, “Oh, God, that sounds like a line from some bad movie.” Smallish, zaftig, with a winning smile, thick dark hair, high cheek bones but slightly blotchy skin, she was a live wire, intellectually effervescent. Her career, right up to the end, was inextricably connected with Saul. “Bette Howland, Author and Protégée of Bellow’s, Dies at 80” ran the headline to her obituary in the New York Times. Bette could be astute about Bellow. “Saul doesn’t really do plots,” she once told me. “Reading a Bellow novel is like going to hear Yehudi Menuhin play Mozart. Who cares about the Mozart?”
At dinner one night with Saul at Gene & Georgetti’s west of the Loop, I mentioned Bette’s name. “Ah, Bette,” said Saul, “my working-class queen. She expected me to marry her, but I would never marry a woman who tried to kill herself.” He neglected to mention that Bette may well have attempted suicide, which she did in his apartment during his absence, precisely because he wouldn’t marry her. Not the most sensitive of guys, Saul, certainly not for one so relentlessly self-advertised in his own novels as extraordinarily sensitive.
Everything in Bette Howland’s early life seemed accelerated. At 15, she departed John Marshall High School in Chicago to become a student in the three-year undergraduate program at the University of Chicago (known as Robert Hutchins’s Children’s Crusade). At 19, she married a biologist named Howard Howland, with whom she had two sons, Frank and Jacob, but was divorced from him five or so years later. As far as I know, she never had full-time custody of her sons, but was with them every chance she had and was devoted to them.
I was myself between marriages when I met Bette but, somehow, our relationship never went beyond friendship. She could be dazzlingly brilliant in conversation, but given to moodiness, not to mention streaks of neuroticism. Neal Kozodoy, then editor of COMMENTARY, once called to ask if I knew how he could reach Bette, who had not returned galley proofs on an essay and apparently wasn’t answering her phone. The one time I was in her studio apartment, on the top floor of a high-rise building in Hyde Park, supplied strong evidence that Bette laid no claim to being a balabusta, or efficient homemaker. Emerging from the bathroom, I felt a silkiness on my hand, which turned out to be Bette’s underpants left on the inside doorknob.
One summer, when I was going off on a two-week vacation with my own sons, I offered Bette and her boys the use of my Evanston apartment, which was only three short blocks from Lake Michigan. She was, she told me, delighted to have it. When I returned, my kitchen sink had somehow turned orange, the sheets were off my bed with a note of apology from Bette for her not having had time to launder them, my older son’s baseball glove was missing, and an open and half-eaten can of tuna was in the refrigerator with another note that read, “In case you’re hungry when you return.”
When I published my first book, Divorced in America (1974), I gave Bette a copy, signed, “To Bette, In Friendship, Joe.” Two or three years later I found this signed copy for sale in a used bookshop and have ever since regretted not returning it to Bette with the postscript, “Still friends.” She would, I like to think, have appreciated the joke.
Bette departed Chicago in 1975 and, far as I know, never for long had a permanent residence after that. She stayed at Yaddo, Bread Loaf, MacDowell, Ragdale, and other writers’ colonies; she lived in other people’s apartments; her last years were lived with her son Jacob in Tulsa. She seemed cut off, her own life permanently impermanent. The last time I saw Bette, I picked her up at her sister’s house in Chicago. Wearing a heavy mutton-lamb coat, she hugged me with so great an ardor that I feared I might never escape. Over lunch at the Ashkenaz Delicatessen in Rogers Park, one sensed her discontent with the way her life was going. Among other things, she noted that, though she had published three books, no men were attracted to her. “A man in his early fifties who had published three books wouldn’t be in the same condition,” she complained. I spoke to her only once, over the phone, in the last year of her life, when she called me from Tulsa. That she was suffering from dementia was, sadly, obvious. I subsequently learned that she had multiple sclerosis and had also been hit by a pickup truck.
On the back cover of Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary, the new volume featuring Johanna Kaplan’s shorter writings, mention is made of her having worked for many years as a teacher of emotion ally disturbed children. Many of the characters in her stories are themselves, in rather a different way, emotionally disturbed. All live in New York. Toward the close of her memoir “Tales of My Great Grandfathers” (originally published in the July/August 2000 COMMENTARY, she writes: “I am the great-granddaughter at once of an eccentric, lofty-minded rabbi who rescued abandoned children and of a desolate, kidnapped child conscript whom no one attempted to save. How could I not, then, as a writer, be drawn to the paradoxes and disruptions that stumble through generations of Jewish family lives? How could I not be preoccupied, in my fiction, with the terrible deforming power of history’s privations when I know that its remnant and anachronistic tendrils are still so alive in me?”
Kaplan writes chiefly about Jewish immigrants who fled Hitler to arrive in America, some of them with the telling tattoo of the death camps on their forearms. The land of the free and the home of the brave for these migrants is never easy. They tend to live on the old, pre-gentrified West Side of Manhattan. They worry about muggers, but even more about the thinness of American culture and the confusion of the country’s values. Many are what were once known as “kooks,” the neurotic element strong in them. “Forgive yourself your neuroses,” one character in her novel advises another. They do not let their awkwardness with English get in the way of their complaints. “Kaplan has an almost uncanny ear for the way language is fractured by those whose command of English is imperfect, and for the speech rhythms of people who don’t know the difference between logorrheic monologue and conversation,” the novelist Francine Prose writes in her introduction to Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary. They are preponderantly women, while the narrators of her stories are often young girls, American-born, trying to understand a world larger than the one they were born into.
A passage from Howland’s essay “Golden Age” well describes many of Kaplan’s characters: “These people were all old Jews. Judging from the accents I heard around me, most of them had come over on the boat. They were not, as the jargon goes, assimilated… . And yet their status is symbolic. This is no country for old men. All of them must be in the same boat; they are not entirely of America, either.”
Neither Howland nor Kaplan wrote about sex, at least not in any direct way. Ezra R. Slavin, a central character in Kaplan’s novel, O My America!, an intellectual and guru of sorts, is many times married, but his attraction to women is less than clear. The novel is organized around Slavin’s wives and children. A self-acclaimed anarchist known to his readers as “the subway Thoreau,” he is a character constantly on the qui vive for American behavior that goes against what he thinks are basic human needs. “Inauthenticity kills” is among his mottoes. “When I hear the word technology,” he says, “I want to reach for my Yo-Yo.” Ezra Slavin sounds in some ways rather like the famous radical essayist Paul Goodman, without Goodman’s polymorphous perversity. (The old joke about Goodman has a man at a cocktail party ask another man where Paul is. When told he last saw him by himself at the buffet, the first man replies: “You mean you left Paul alone with the chopped liver?”)
Part of Howland’s style plays off clichés and infuses them with new comic meaning: “Only that he [her father] didn’t know his own strength.” Pause for new paragraph. “But I did.” Or: “‘But you know your mother. It’s her way or nothing.’” Pause. “Usually it’s nothing.” Or writing of Victor Lazarus, the hero of her novella Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, who is dying of cancer: “Rivets in your ribs. Staples in your lungs, man-made esophagus, stitched-up stomach… . Victor Lazarus was a man of parts.”
Howland also had what seems an unusual enthusiasm for describing decrepitude, sagging skins, slumping posture, failing eyesight, missing teeth. She could go on for pages describing the inmates in an old people’s home or the sad fogeys who daily inhabit a public library in a shabby Chicago neighborhood, or the hopeless men and women who show up in Chicago criminal courtrooms. Of a minyan in her story “Aronesti,” she characteristically writes: “The old men smelled like wet crushed cigars; their white beards were stained with yellow streaks of nicotine, and they coughed up white-yellow phlegm.”
The Howland family, nuclear and extended, appears throughout Bette’s work. In her essays her father is portrayed as an earnest but hopeless lummox, her mother an ineffectual shrew. Aunts, uncles, and cousins do not fare much better. In a long essay about the death of her grandmother called “How We Got the Old Woman to Go,” she expends 35 pages describing the physical and psychological oddities of her family. One rather hopes that those family members still alive when she wrote about them never read these devastating prose portraits.
Bette developed a prose style that resembles nothing quite so much as riffing in jazz. She would depart an essay or story to riff on Judaism, hospital life, WASP culture, and scores of other things. Here is a brief sample about a woman who insists on an orthodox Jewish divorce, a get, from the husband who is the main character in “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”: “As a good Jewish daughter, X could not in good conscience consider her divorced without a get… All these people with their good consciences. Where do they dig them up? Is God holding a garage sale? I tell you, Victor, these good consciences will be the death of us.”
For her part, Kaplan’s prose is laden with metaphor and simile, which can sometimes, to avail myself of both a metaphor and a cliché, send her off the rails: “Merry listened to Charlotte, whose voice kept floating on in sighing cloudy rapture—as if at any time she might turn into a daffodil.” Or: “Louise heard the various zippers on her fatigue jacket jangling in the darkness like the key chain of a Victorian housekeeper.”
Severe writer’s block, which both women suffered, is a malady with many possible causes: illness, exhaustion, depression, financial and various other external pressures and impedimenta. The standard story for Howland’s block, which I find less than convincing, is that it derived from her feeling not able to live up to the half-million-dollar MacArthur “genius” grant she received, with Saul Bellow’s support, in 1984.
My own, doubtless harsh, view is that writer’s block is most often a synonym for absence of ideas. “Every writer has only one story to tell,” James Baldwin once wrote, “and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.” Bette Howland’s one story was that of her nuttily obtuse family and down-but-not-quite-out people in Chicago, told less successfully in her fiction than in her essays. Her few attempts at fiction, alas, never quite come to life.
Johanna Kaplan’s one story is that of the wonderment of girls and young women at the unease, often full-out wretchedness, of adults struggling to make sense of the world. Her fiction does indeed come alive, often soars, her problem being landing the story once she sends it aloft—her stories, that is, seldom arrive at satisfying resolutions. Is it possible that both Howland’s and Kaplan’s awareness of this, their bone knowledge that they could not take their chosen stories any further despite their considerable talents, caused their long silences?
Johanna Kaplan and Bette Howland are women of my own generation, a generation that did not produce all that many women writers, and among those it did, depression seems to have ridden high. I think of Joyce Carol Oates, or “the three saddest words in the English language,” as Gore Vidal referred to her. Then there are Joan Didion and Renata Adler, about whom I wrote an essay in the June 1984 issue of COMMENTARY to which I gave the title “The Sunshine Girls.” In the first paragraph of that essay, I wrote: “I think of them as the Sunshine Girls, largely because in their work the sun is never shining. If weather reports were offered in novels, in their novels the forecast would almost always be gray, mostly cloudy, chill winds, with a strong chance of rain. They seem, these two writers, not really happy unless they are sad. They keep, to alter the line from an old song, a frown on their page for the whole modern age.”
Neither Bette Howland’s nor Johanna Kaplan’s writing is marked by depression of this sort. The work of both is laced with humor and high spirits; talent and wit everywhere play through their writings. Yet their stories and essays do not bring a lot in the way of good news, or pay much attention to the rich variety and amusement of modern life. Each is the master of her milieu: Bette Howland’s lower-middle-class life and below in heartless Chicago, Johanna Kaplan’s immigrant Jewish life in crowded New York. Each can strike off brilliant passages. Here is Bette Howland on cancer patients waiting in hospital oncology departments: “Among the couples in the waiting room—no one comes to oncology alone—there is no telling which was which; which was the one. The one whose name was written on the charts; the one they had the contract out on. No one looks sick or scared or in pain. But then again, pale rider, neither are you. What they look was weary. They were waiting, waiting the way people wait in airports, bus terminals, other places of arrival and departure.”
And here is Johanna Kaplan on life in a Jewish tenement in New York: “It sometimes seemed to Miriam that if a person from a foreign country—or even a miniature green man from Mars—ever landed by accident in her building and by mistake walked up the six flights of stairs, all he would hear was screaming and crying: mothers screaming and children crying, fathers screaming and mothers crying, televisions screaming and vacuum cleaners crying; he could very easily get the idea that with all these noises there were no lives.”
Style is a great preservative in literature and the quality that both Bette Howland’s and Johanna Kaplan’s writing possess in abundance, and the reason their work has proved worth preserving.
1 Blue in Chicago: And Other Stories, by Bette Howland (Picador), Loss of Memory Is Only Temporary, by Johanna Kaplan (ecco)
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