A Walker in the City
The Lists of the Past
By Julie Hayden
Pharos Editions, 2014.
When all else fails, we walk. At least, this is what we do if we are New Yorkers, especially if we are lost, or lonely, or broke, if the room we are coming from or going to seems too crushingly small, or if it too gorgeous a day to descend into the subway. As Charles Baudelaire wrote in The Painter of Modern Life, urban dwellers walk “[t]o be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily defined.”
The Lists of the Past, a short story collection by Julie Hayden originally published in 1976 and now back in print thanks to the Seattle-based Pharos Editions, opens with a story entitled “Walking with Charlie.” Charlie is the nephew of the unnamed narrator, who immediately announces herself one of those walkers struggling to feel everywhere at home: “Though familiar with the Park, I am a West Sider,” she tells us. Approaching from a different direction, seeing the park through the eyes of an eighteen-month old – such minor adjustments are enough to unmoor her. The story charts Charlie’s navigation of the world with brief discursions to the narrator’s past and once-imagined future:
Charlie fiercely and obsessively identifies the vehicles in their flight, as though he were necessary to them; he could not stop even if he wanted to. “’N a car. ’N a tackie car. ’N a bus.” Green car, taxi car, taxi car, motorcycle. The time of warblers is long past, and Robert and I will never again eat cheese and drink beer and quarrel in the Ramble. (Once he asked, “Can’t you say anything right?” and burst into tears, hiding his face in his hands.) The Park belongs to Charlie. I cover his red sneakers with leaves.
Eventually Charlie comes to a pair of abandoned shoes and is inconsolable when told he cannot take them with him. The narrator realizes he believes they are his father’s. “Did I ever care so much for another person that even his clothes were holy to me?” she asks, before closing with a self-portrait that could describe many of the characters in the collection:
I am thirty years old and I have no child and no attachments. If Robert came to me barefoot across the meadow I would turn my back on him, having mastered the knowledge that you can love someone and not be able to live with him, and that there are no grownups who can tell you what to do.
“Walking with Charlie” was the first of ten stories by Hayden published in The New Yorker. Those ten, along with another two, became Lists of the Past, published by Viking in 1976. Despite the support of New Yorker editors and a positive New York Times review, it would be her only book. Suffering from alcoholism and phobias, afraid to complete her treatment for breast cancer, she was only 42 when she died in 1981 of kidney failure. The Lists of the Past had long been out of print when best-selling author Cheryl Strayed selected it for inclusion in Pharos’s series of republications.
The New Yorker not only brought Hayden’s work to the public, but also allowed these stories to be written. As recounted in S. Kirk Walsh’s wonderful essay about Hayden, written for The Los Angeles Review of Books and reprinted in the Pharos Edition, throughout the time these stories appeared Hayden supported her writing with a day job as a newsbreak editor at the magazine, selecting which clips to pass along for publication.
So it is fitting that we owe the republication of this stunning collection to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast, in which writers for the magazine select, read, and discuss a story from the archive. In 2010, Lorrie Moore selected “Day Old Baby Rats,” probably the most powerful and complete story in Lists in the collection. Both Strayed and Walsh discovered the book through the podcast.
Like “Walking with Charlie,” “Day Old Baby Rats” features an unnamed and fragile young woman navigating the city. From the opening lines (“Down near the river a door slams; somebody wakes up, immediately flips over onto her back,”) the usual identifying markers are elided. Newspaper headlines are telescoped in the manner of the newsreel collages of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. A glove is misplaced, a baby cries; as she walks, she carries a flask and thinks of it “with longing.” In “Walking with Charlie,” the toddler is the only person to whom the narrator speaks; here that role is played by a priest (dubbed “the Big Ear,”) who proves far less responsive. Her attempt at confession thwarted, she is left alone with memories of an abortion, and the casual cruelty of the nurse and doctor.
It is easy to see what drew Moore to Hayden’s work, and the many fans of Moore’s dry wit and dark humor will find it here, drawn in a more melancholic shade. It’s possible to imagine Moore following a description of Hare Krishnas with one of St. Patrick’s Cathedral as “the rival sect’s headquarters,” as Hayden does in “Baby Rats,” though few of Moore’s characters are as haunted by the particularities of an ideology as Hayden protagonist is by Catholicism. In Hayden’s characters we imagine what might have become of Moore’s characters in a world less tolerant of female eccentricity.
Like Moore, Hayden is interested in contingency, slyly suggesting to readers how easily things might have been otherwise. While reading the collection, I was often caught off guard by a pronoun, realizing midway that a story I thought was in first person was really in third, or vice versa. We are always inside Hayden’s characters, even when they not narrating the traditional sense, and we are always aware of an intelligence outside them even when they are. In “Visitors,” Hayden toys with power over her characters’ fate like a cat chasing a mouse. There’s whimsy in her movement between stories of unrelated characters as she spins their possible fates, their qualities (“Henrietta’s paintings could have been good”) and even their place in the story: “A hand raps on the glass to attract the attention of somebody inside: she looks up, in exaggerated surprise, and it is clearly not Henrietta Gordon at all.” But there’s something terrifying as well, as if the intelligence guiding them is aware of how easily everything can go askew.
The second half of the collection is a linked series of stories of a family and culminating with the death of the father. At times the solidity of the domestic life it chronicles seems to put us on more stable ground than with the wanderings of her young solitary characters. But here too everything is approached with delicate awe. When we come to the father’s death and return from his funeral, Hayden suggests the possibility that he might be still be alive, only to question its desirability: “After the effort, the work that goes into burying a dead man. Could then endure having him back again, after that?”
Despite the urban setting of many of the stories, animals and the natural world are central to Hayden’s explorations. Kirk notes that Hayden was a serious birder, and birds are so common and noteworthy throughout the collection that it is easy to imagine that Hayden rather than Moore might have repurposed the title of Mary McCarthy’s 1971 novel Birds of America for her own collection. The narrator of “Walking with Charlie” has “identified sixteen kinds of warbler in the Ramble, including the Connecticut, and glimpsed a peregrine falcon menacing children’s kites over the sheep Meadow.” In “In the Words Of,” a couple (introduced by Hayden as “two people in a field”) picnic in the Catskills, watching hawks, sapsuckers and phoebes. Many other writers might compare a character’s face to that of a bird, many fewer would compare the behaviour of a bird to a child: “A brown thrasher asking everything twice, like a boring five-year-old.” Unlike the pets so familiar in stories about lonely people, Hayden’s birds are companions only in the loosest sense, but they are never just metaphors: they are a sturdy and essential a part of the emotional landscapes Hayden constructs. The world through which her characters walk does not reflect their inner state; it penetrates them in such a way as to makes us doubt that a boundary exists.
If the world cannot be separated from the self, it can at least be chronicled. Lists populate the collection, especially in the second half. Here scenes of domestic suburban life replace the urban wanderings of “Walking with Charlie” and “Day Old Baby Rats.” Yet the landscape of objects, animals and people, and the ways they appear to be on similar footing, remains constant. Here too the external world presses inward: the house, the garden, a lifetime of accumulated objects. There are lists of chores, a list of seeds to be planted, a list of books, a list of the dying man’s questions for the doctor. (“Expect discomfort? If so, how much?”) And there are more birds, including the dying man’s memory of the now-gone passenger pigeons:
[T]he last passenger pigeon flocks in Iowa. Not like in the old days when there were billions, but enough to literally darken the sky. When I was a kid, of course. And a few years later they stopped coming down the Mississippi.
There’s a poignant irony behind these delicate, melancholic portraits of suburban domestic life. In 1965, the year Hayden began working at The New Yorker, her mother, Phyllis McGinley, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. A bestselling author of light verse and children’s books, McGinley and been called a “housewife writer” by Betty Friedan and she’d taken to embracing and defending the label, writing a series of articles in women’s magazines in praise of suburban, domestic life. McGinley’s work filled a demand that continues today, celebrating traditional feminine pursuits, defending them from the perceived threat of feminism with assertions about the inherent joys of family life. Unspoken is the question of whether such private joys are inherently transformed when turned into a public career.
Although we don’t know just what Hayden made of her mother’s work, what we know of her life and what we see in this book suggest a complicated relationship to the transformations to family life and the lives of women during her formative years. In an interview with Kirk, Strayed suggests that in some sense she had more freedom than other women at the time, remaining single and without children, and able to devote much time to writing because of her New Yorker job. Kirk describes the protagonist of “Day Old Baby Rats” as an “older, more broken-down version of Plath’s Esther Greenwood” The heroine of The Bell Jar had landed the young college girl’s dream of a prestigious magazine job but finds herself, like many of Hayden’s characters, lost in the city. She sees a conventional life, marriage and motherhood as traps, but cannot envision an alternative. Many of Hayden’s characters seem trapped in a similar in-between state, in a world where single women, odd women, and women with artistic ambitions were no longer shunned but were often invisible. While many of the obstacles they face appear on the surface to be private in nature, Hayden’s work reminds us again and again how impossible it is to draw such neat boundaries between limitations that come from without and those that come from within.
I still remember the first time I discovered The New Yorker as a small child. My grandmother had an immaculate stack on her coffee table. I remember especially the front section, the descriptions of plays and gallery shows that might as well have been taking place on a different planet. This would have been in the early eighties, around the time of Hayden’s death. It would have seemed impossible to me then that anyone who worked at or wrote for The New Yorker could have had anything but the smoothest and most glamorous of lives. It would seem more impossible still that their work could be forgotten. In many ways it still does. Perhaps this is just a writer’s narcissism: if a New Yorker writer can be forgotten, what hope is there for the rest of us? But in the world Hayden gives us, the contingency of all experience, let alone one as fleeting as literary creation and reputation, is inescapable. The narrator of “Walking with Charlie” approaches the park from the west one day, and the next day from the east. Birds that darkened the sky will disappear, and then the last old men to remember them will as well. The characters of “Visitors” may be alive, or they may be dead. Young lonely girls walk the city every day imagining how they might record their thoughts. When faced with such a magnificent rediscovery as The Lists of the Past, it is impossible not to mourn for what might have been. But as with all creations, the wonder is not how it was lost, but that it ever came to be.
Laura Tanenbaum is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, where she teaches literature, composition and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in the Jacobin, Narrative Magazine, The Sixties, failbetter and other publications. She blogs at goldennotebooks.blogspot.com.