When the Sewing Needles Dropped
By Anne Roiphe
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2011
In the summer of 1953, a young Smith College student named Sylvia Plath came to New York for an internship at Mademoiselle magazine. She would, of course, later chronicle the disastrous results in The Bell Jar, a novel Plath considered something of a potboiler, and which was published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas just a month before her suicide. Aside from its numerous literary, sociological and biographical interests, it would deserve to be remembered for its first line alone: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
Just a few years younger, Anne Roiphe came to Smith that same year. She was already from New York (Park Avenue no less), and not long after college she found herself milling around George Plimpton’s parties, but in her new memoir Art and Madness, we learn she had little more idea than Plath’s Esther Greenwood what exactly she was doing in New York. But whereas for Esther, the execution of the Rosenbergs holds portents of terror and fascism, Roiphe experiences their story through her family’s privilege – and the silent cruelties and alliances this entailed:
The cook listened to the soap operas on her little radio in her small room behind the kitchen. The maid in the next-door room wrote letters home to her family in County Cork. My mother did crossword puzzles, took beauty cures for dry skin, and removed unwanted hair. No one believed in God. No one was looking for God. No one was waiting for the revolution. The great thing was that everything should seem all right. Everything seemed all right. Perhaps because we were American Jews we were just grateful that no one was planning to transport us to our deaths. But no one said that. What they said was that the Rosenbergs deserved to die.
This passage is emblematic of Art and Madness. Roiphe moves back and forth in time, from her childhood through her years as a bookish student, to her first, catastrophic marriage to playwright Jack Richardson, during which she completely abandons her own literary ambitions to serve as helpmate and muse, and the birth of her first daughter (described throughout only as “the baby” and “the child”) in whom Richardson never shows more than a passing interest. Throughout she presents short scenes of terse observations and juxtapositions that speak to the absurdities of her upbringing. These absurdities are completely invisible to the characters yet obvious enough to the contemporary reader to require little explicit elaboration. The result is an unexpected and effective tone: with minimal intrusion from the narrator, there is nonetheless more distance between the writing and remembered selves than we’re used to in memoir, even from writers who have far more reason than Roiphe to dismiss their former selves.
Roiphe depicts this lost world as a more pretentious version of Mad Men, one in which not even the need to appear somewhat presentable to clients serves as an impediment, however minimal, to a full day of drinking. (One perhaps unintended effect of Art and Madness is to make the much-lamented domestication of writers into respectability and teaching positions in MFA programs seem like a cause for unmitigated celebration.) As with Mad Men, status and privilege are the real topics at hand, although our perspective is mainly limited to the jostling among the top rungs. Roiphe’s grandparents were Jewish immigrants, but by the time she is able to understand such things, the wealth her family has amassed is at least as central a fact in their lives as their Jewishness. Roiphe notes that there are certain clubs where her family is not welcome, but she attends Brearley, Smith, and Sarah Lawrence, and as her family’s comments about the fate of the Rosenberg’s suggests, they have adopted the politics as well as the social mores of their social class. The price of this ascent, as the young Roiphe quickly intuits, is something far more menacing than the notion of “assimilation” would suggest. Her mother haunts the book of the dangers of obeying the rules and marrying into wealth:
She overhears her father casually bribe a judge by telephone. As a matter of family obligation, she agrees to go on a date with the unfortunate younger brother of David Schine the year before Schine rises to prominence in the Army-McCarthy hearings. Schine and Roy Cohn sit nearby and watch; Cohn is her cousin.
My mother wept and wept and put compresses on her eyes that should have stopped the swelling of the lids but didn’t. She read The New Yorker, played solitaire on her bedcovers, and drank scotch and water, one and then another.
For Roiphe, it was not being Jewish but being female that was at the heart of the paradox of her upbringing. That the social situation of a woman born into wealth might be described in terms of restriction as well as privilege was a feminist insight the young Roiphe grasps instinctively, even if she does not yet have the language to articulate it. The chasm between the high artistic ideals in fashion during the postwar period and the unofficial curriculum in proper pre-feminist comportment – the same chasm that defined so much of Plath’s life, work and legacy – could not be bridged:
At Smith that year, 1953, the girls were all knitting argyle socks for their boyfriends. The socks required many small needles from which balls of red, blue, yellow, gray yarn dangled. During class the little needles would drop and roll down the floor, rattle, rattle, until coming to a stop beneath the lecturer’s podium. Often I lost the professor’s words in the clatter of needles.
Roiphe soon leaves Smith for Sarah Lawrence, travels abroad, and meets Richardson, whom she marries as a half-hearted concession to her parents. Ironically, given the book’s exploration of why Roiphe was so quick to abandon her own literary ambitions to serve as a helpmate to his, Richardson himself comes off as a cipher. He is the projection of a desire and the betrayer of that promise, much like the women who played muse to the literary heroes Richardson and his contemporaries hoped to be. The subtitle of Roiphe’s book “A Memoir of Lust Without Reason” is a bit misleading. Roiphe’s passions are driven more by ambition and insecurity than by anything resembling youthful abandon: when she later comes across the work of Philip Roth, she describes his interests in “the shape of a breast, the length of a thigh, the curve between the humps of the ass” as “far more honest than my preliminary explorations.”
Yet cultivating honesty was not among the cultural experiments taking place in Roiphe’s world. In this pre-feminist and pre-sexual revolution environment, after all, attitudes not only towards alcohol but towards adultery – not to mention childrearing – would today appear distinctly lax. Deflecting the advances of a married writer without offending his ego, or acquiescing without interfering with his work the next day, all while similar negotiations are taking place on the couch across the room and your child sleeps on the coats in the room next door: to do all of this was not to break the rules but to very carefully obey them. One of the interesting things about Roiphe’s book is the extent to which she is willing to scorn her earlier self, precisely because she followed the rules until it became impossible to do so. As Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:
In fiction, a cast of characters is put to work that will cover all the bases: some will speak the author’s inclination, some the opposition – that is, some represent an idea of the self, some agnostic other; allow them all their say, and the writer moves into a dynamic. In nonfiction, the writer has only the singular self to work with. So it is the other in oneself that the writer must seek and find to create movement, achieve a dynamic. . . . Here, it is a self-implication that is required.
Roiphe moves beyond self-implication to self-castigation; her younger self becomes not the other in oneself but a wholly distant other. Of the scene in which Richardson finally leaves, she writes, “I have no pity for her, the still-young woman helping her fleeing husband pack his shirts into a suitcase that had belonged to her mother.”
Plath died at thirty-one; Roiphe’s story here ends at around the same age, with survival and remarriage. Away from Richardson, away from the fantasy of serving as a muse and the reality of serving as a neglected wife, she is able to write. Shortly after the end of the period described in Art and Madness she published her first novel, Digging Out; a few years after that came Up the Sandbox, a bestseller and one of the most widely known popular works associated with the second-wave feminist movement of the late sixties and early seventies. If people had actually believed literary greatness was synonymous was self-destruction, Plath would have claimed room for women in the pantheon. But the women’s movement held out a different promise: that creativity might not only be compatible with survival, but that it might allow one to survive. The anger of Plath’s devotees for Ted Hughes, stemmed always in part from a retrospective hope far larger than the dynamics of single marriage or literary rivalry: feminism could have saved her. Roiphe flirted not so much with self-destruction as with the self-destroyers – a not uncommon tactic, as she notes, for daughters of privilege. As Roiphe traces the end of her first marriage and the end of her infatuation with serving as muse, she suggests that the whole romantic notion of the great solitary artist may be nothing more than another legacy of a sexist era, one that ill-served ambitious young women like Rophie but also did no favors to the men – or their writing.
What she doesn’t say directly is that the gap between expectation and experience doesn’t just produce lovesick girls, burnt-out writers, and disillusioned alcoholics – it also breeds revolutionaries. By the end of Art and Madness, we understand precisely why, if not how, the transformation from aspiring muse to feminist author will take place. On the final page she recalls a meeting years later with Carol Southern, who had long ago been married to Terry Southern, a writer who, by merging Hollywood success with subversive credentials, achieved something close to the unachievable ideal of the crowd Roiphe depicts. Roiphe asks Carol if she regrets those years: “’No,’ she says, ‘I loved every moment of it. I would do it again.’ She smiles her radiant and gentle smile. She is telling me the truth. I, on the other hand, would never do it again. Never.”
And yet, in the end, the very things that made her feel unworthy and that she castigates herself for failing to transcend, would become her subject. And they would fuel a social movement that made this, at least for a while, a subject even the booziest cocktail party charmers could not avoid.
Laura Tanenbaum is an Assistant Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, in New York. Her fiction has recently appeared in failbetter and Steel City Review, and she is a founding editor of the on-line literary journal Vibrant Gray. Her writing for Open Letters can be found here.