Marguerite Young spent eighteen years of her life writing Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, the amount of time it requires to raise a child. She began the novel in 1945, in the shadow of Hiroshima, and proceeded for the next two decades to work on it each day, putting in a reliable eight hours. She wrote in Iowa City, where she taught creative writing and often unnerved her students by pausing to invite Henry James or Emily Dickinson into the classroom. She wrote in New York, from a cramped Greenwich Village apartment filled with dolls, carved angels, and an antique carousel horse. She wrote at Yaddo, where she spent summer evenings drinking with Truman Capote and Carson McCullers and running wild through the moonlit rose garden. FDR gave way to Harry, to Ike, to JFK. She was working on Miss MacIntosh at the time of Jackie Robinson’s first game, and throughout the spring of the McCarthy hearings, and the winter the Beatles first arrived in the US. None of these events appear in the novel, which is not interested in cultural or political landmarks, or, for that matter, linear time. Its characters seem to exist in a holding chamber that stands outside of history, an imaginative space that has absorbed the general atmosphere of the 20th century, its aroma, its texture, but none of its content. Its plots, if they can be called plots, are inspired not by the headlines of that era but the stories one might have encountered in the back of the regional dailies, dispatches from a more uncanny America that lurked on the margins of postwar optimism. In 1945, a chicken in Colorado allegedly lived for eighteen months after its head was cut off, and a Los Angeles woman gave birth to a healthy child she had gestated for over a year. One March afternoon, a Bronx bus driver veered off his daily route and continued south until he reached Florida. When questioned by journalists, he answered that he’d been overcome by a “spring-time urge.”
Miss MacIntosh begins with a bus that has gotten off its track, though it’s unclear what species of madness has overtaken its driver. He is careening through Indiana’s Wabash Valley, a landscape that is dark and covered in mist, drinking openly from a bottle of whiskey and calling aloud upon the angel Gabriel. Two of the passengers, a young couple, doze through the chaos, the girl pregnant and reciting somniloquies about the mysteries of birth and death. The third passenger is Vera Cartwheel, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. Her name can be read literally: she is a young woman whose most cherished truths have recently been upturned. She has come to the Midwest to search for her childhood nursemaid, Miss MacIntosh, a sensible Iowan whom Vera calls her “steersman,” as she was the sole adult in her rather unusual, aristocratic upbringing who offered her practical guidance. It was Miss Macintosh who taught Vera about the perniciousness of illusion, and who educated her in those Protestant virtues one associates with the middle of the country—in Ben Franklin’s maxims, Bunyan’s morality, and the wisdom of the Farmer’s almanac. And it was Miss MacIntosh who proved, in the end, to be the greatest illusion of all, mysteriously disappearing on the eve of Vera’s fourteenth birthday.
It is an opening that bears all the trappings of a quest, a promise underscored by allusions to Melville and Cervantes. But as Vera looks out into the darkness, “this far country, this interior America,” she notices that the landmarks—the Coca-Cola billboard, the enormous coffee urn, the replica of Noah’s Ark—are repeating. The bus is not plowing forward but going around in circles. It’s a cue to the reader about the trajectory of the story, which is about to veer from the linear thrust of the novelistic plot—perhaps from history itself—and disrupt every expectation the reader has about the shape and limits of literature.
I’m writing about Miss MacIntosh with the apprehension that overshadows the surrender of all beloved cult objects, my impulse to evangelize outweighing, by a slim margin, my reluctance to betray a private devotion. If you are among the readers who have long adored the book, you know well the risks of recommending it. (I have yet to sacrifice a friendship over the novel, though I have lost my respect for a handful of acquaintances whose stamina I badly misjudged.) Few novels boast a fan base so fiercely, and perhaps needlessly, protective. Despite being hailed repeatedly as a work of genius; despite the spadework of feminist scholars who have periodically revived interest in it over the past five decades; despite the novel’s many admirers, which include writers as stylistically diverse as Sinclair Lewis, Anaïs Nin, Mari Sandoz, Djuna Barnes, Kurt Vonnegut, and Norman Mailer, it has not managed to shake its status as prohibitively difficult. The epithet that has unfortunately stuck is one that appeared in Young’s 1995 New York Times obituary, which christened Miss MacIntosh “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.”
A first-time reader of Miss MacIntosh is nevertheless in an enviable position, embarking like Vera on a journey into the unknown, still oblivious to the strange visions that await: the flower-crowned satyrs and moon-eyed minotaur, the Arctic tulips, the pearl-colored fog, the long-toed kings sleeping in long ivory beds. Foremost among the novel’s many wonders are its fantastical cast of characters: Esther Longtree, the eternally pregnant waitress; Mr. Spitzer, the lawyer who composes silent music and suspects that he is actually his dead twin; Catherine Cartwheel, mother of Vera, “the horizontal person,” a beautiful, opium-addicted heiress who has taken to bed for good, content to spend the rest of her life consorting with her bizarre hallucinations. This is a novel in which characters spontaneously transmutate, or transmigrate, or change from one gender to another, a place where there is little difference between the living and the dead. It also boasts some of the most exquisite sentences in modern literature, writing that freely transgresses the boundaries of poetry, prose, incantation, and music. Few novels so lavishly reward being read aloud, for those who have sufficient breath.
The trials of Miss MacIntosh are unique among modernist literature. It is not so easy, in fact, to locate the source of its difficulty. It is not the difficulty of Joyce, whose philological experiments push language to the very limits of comprehension; nor of Gaddis, with his unattributed dialogue, his Hungarian quotes, his lengthy discourses on Mithraism or Flemish painting. It is not the kind of book that makes one feel smarter for having read it, as is often said of Pynchon’s novels. There are no riddles to solve, no hermetic knowledge humming beneath the surface. No, the discomfort experienced by the reader of Miss MacIntosh is largely passive. It is not unlike the anxiety Odysseus must have felt on the isle of Calypso, hypnotized with song and bewitched by the rhythmic shuttle of the golden loom, slowly realizing that he may never be permitted to leave. It is the uneasiness of a quest mislaid. The story, like the bus, hardly ever moves forward—or rather it moves at a rate too subtle to be observed, and only after returning obsessively to where it began. The repetitive nature of the novel has often invited references to Gertrude Stein, but the comparison is impoverished, like equating the skipping of a record with the vast recurrence of fractal patterns across nature. Young writes in what she once called “dragnet sentences,” extended thoughts that haul in the strange artifacts of the unconscious and endlessly fold back on themselves. Her theory of the unconscious owed more to William James than to Freud. It was a phenomenon that operated on the timescale of nature, not the snappy production schedules of New York literary markets, and the best pages of Miss MacIntosh contain the gems she gleaned from nearly two decades of trawling. It feels misleading, in a way, to call her prose repetitive, when the cumulative effect is the opposite: the reader cannot but wonder at the sheer fecundity of the author’s imagination, her ability to dilate any thought into infinite poetic variation.
It was the novel’s repetitions, more than any other transgression, that drove early reviewers to unknown furies, convinced as they were that Young had needlessly drawn out what might have been a more portable novel. The damning quantitative data was trotted out again and again: the thirty-eight miles of computer tape it required to typeset; the seven suitcases needed to transport the manuscript pages, which numbered 3,449; the word count, which tallied three-quarters of a million. Peter Prescott called it “the most offensive novel of the year,” even as he admitted that he had not—no, could not—read it, thereby emboldening critics who were all too eager to regard their own impatience as proof that the novel was not merely demanding but disastrous. We get it already! they said. Why does she need to keep repeating herself? The author of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling had too many darlings, and she had refused to murder any of them, had let each and every wailing babe live, much to the detriment of the project—though they disagreed on how many pages should have been trimmed. One reviewer kindly suggested that the book would benefit from being halved. Few expressed interest in authorial intent, and instead deferred to ineptitude, concluding that Young had been so entranced in poetic stupor, she’d failed to foresee the reader’s boredom. “Miss Young just doesn’t know when to stop,” one reviewer wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “She says what she has to say brilliantly and with such magic that she becomes enamored of her own talent and keeps doing it again and again.”
One sign of a book’s genius is its ability to anticipate its critics and fold their objections into the work itself. None of these reviewers seemed to notice that Young had cleverly put their complaints in the mouth of the novel’s titular character. Miss MacIntosh, a caricature of Midwestern prudence, is constitutionally allergic to literary excess and insists that truth can be whittled down to tidy aphorisms and proverbs. The nursemaid prides herself in the fact that her remarks are “always brusque, straight to the point, never winding in circles like the whirlpool.” So fierce is her commitment to the plain and the ordinary, she complains to Vera of the excesses of the King James Bible, “which was, in her pale esteem, befogged, not at all so clear as God’s word would have been but deceitful with too many harps of ice and winding sheets and crowns of gold, too many angels, too many dead eyes peeping.” The irony of these remarks becomes evident only later, when Miss MacIntosh is revealed to be about as “ordinary” as hens’ teeth, and Vera learns to be suspicious of anyone who claims that life is simple, direct, and to the point. Perhaps the critics did not read far enough to get the joke. For Young, the reader who objects to too many harps and harpist angels, too many meandering streets of gold, is guilty of blaspheming not merely the holy Word but the Creator, who produced this overblown masterpiece we call life. Is not God, Young asks in a 1946 essay, “the greatest fiction writer of them all—His sentences, replete with the most baroque imagery, and quite circumlocutious, and even a little long-drawn?”
In her life, as in her work, Marguerite Young operated under the principle that more was more. Her friends recalled the majesty with which she strode down Bleecker Street, like a Florentine angel or a vessel under sail, dressed in a theatrical wardrobe that commanded attention even in the West Village. She lived in a narrow brownstone flat that, if you hadn’t seen it, it was once said, you hadn’t really seen New York. The painted carousel horse stood in the middle of the living room, surrounded by a candle-stand from a Franciscan mission, a large gravepiece made of braided hair, glass animals, puppets, and masks. Guests searched in vain for the telephone and discovered it under the bed. To walk through those crowded rooms must have been to glimpse the externalization of her thronged imagination, which refused to make the usual distinctions between dreams and reality, or the living and the dead. She spoke of deceased writers as though they were intimates, and often claimed that she saw them walking around town. One friend recalls saying to her at a restaurant, during a conversation about American poets, “And then there’s Poe . . .” Young immediately sat up and turned to the window. “Where?” she asked.
Beneath these eccentric flourishes, however, lay a stolid Midwesterner who did not drink or experiment with drugs, and lived a largely solitary life of teaching and writing. Young arrived in New York rather late for an artist, at the age of 35. Before that was Indianapolis, where she was born and raised; and the University of Chicago, where she studied literature; and the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she earned a guest lecturer fellowship. The books she wrote during those years—two collections of poetry, and a lyric history of the failed utopian experiments in New Harmony, Indiana—are rooted in the Midwest, though it wasn’t until she arrived in New York that she began to write about how the heartland was represented in contemporary literature. Her essays from the 1940s heap scorn on the regionalist fiction that was then popular, Sinclair Lewis knockoffs rendered in Dick-and-Jane prose that were well-loved by “commonsense literary critics,” as Young called them. “What is it that such anti-literary literary critics really want, when it comes right down to brass tacks?” she asked in one essay. “They want literature to be simple, plain, sensible, healthy, unassuming, underwritten, comfortable.” The problem was not merely with style, but with substance, the former being inseparable from the latter. It was this miserly literature that perpetuated the lie that the Midwest, often celebrated as the “true” America, was simple, dull, and average. “America has been, if anything, the land of crazy unreason, where all kinds of people have done, as a matter of course, the most impossible things,” she writes. “So why should American literature be falsely described as something less experimental than America is?”
The character of Miss MacIntosh is a parody of the figures who populated this regionalist literature, and the nursemaid’s idyllic recollections of her home in Iowa are a scathing lampoon of the genre. “There would be cherry and apple and peach and persimmon trees, their blossoms blowing like foam,” Vera imagines, as she travels through Indiana, hoping (and failing) to find the place Miss MacIntosh had promised. It’s not coincidental that Vera, in her search for truth, must traverse the American interior, the locus of this national myth. Young intended the novel to be an exploration of illusion in all its forms: the illusion of love and marriage; the illusion of apocalypse and the heavenly afterlife that the evangelist Mr. Bonebreaker believes to be imminent. There is the illusive nature of modern finance, satirized in a scene where Miss MacIntosh bets imaginary money at the stock market, revealing that economics, resting as it does on speculation and intangible property, is simply another form of fantasy. There is the delusive nature of prejudice, which stems from a failure to recognize the self in the other. Esther Longtree, in her concluding monologue, tells Vera the story of a Chicago detective who was so racist he refuses to solve any crime that involves anything black, including a “blackbirds, storm clouds, black spots on dominos.” “One day,” Esther recalls, “he had seen his own shadow, black on the black leaves, and that had almost driven him to murder himself.”
Young’s maximalist aesthetic stemmed from a radical commitment to pluralism and a rejection of that monolithic American ideal that relied on so many forms of exclusion and illusion. It was in this spirit that she began painting the Midwest that she knew and loved, a land where roosters crowed at midnight and elephants bathed on the banks of the Wabash, a place where she insisted that she once saw, in an Indiana cornfield, a dead whale in a boxcar. “Indiana is a land rich in legend,” she said in an interview about Miss MacIntosh. “I tried to transmute this legend into a universal and cosmic statement of some kind and not to be strictly a regionalist.” She filled the book with odd stories she found in the newspaper, and with people she had known or heard about—the “Opium Lady of Hyde Park,” a wealthy, bedridden addict she was paid to read Shakespeare to during her studies in Chicago; a demented Indiana doctor who believed he was delivering imaginary babies; an unmarried suffragette who owned a trunk that contained fifty wedding dresses. She realized early that a novel of this scale would be an undertaking. “I would not easily marry, I would not easily travel,” she recalled. “I wanted to write this book.”
Any woman who devotes her reproductive prime to writing an enormous book is bound to be suspect, particularly if she has the gall to fill it with female characters and conclude with a two-hundred-page poetic lament about the sorrows of miscarriage. In a 1988 interview, Young claimed that much of the outrage she received from male critics amounted to the conviction that “if she had gotten married she never would have done this,” as though the novel’s monstrous length was proof of the dangers of childless women and the time they possess. But although Young recognized the implicit misogyny of her critics, she also understood that all truly ambitious literary projects will unsettle the reading public and are, by their very nature, doomed to teeter on the brink of failure. “I think anyone who tries anything real—think Proust or Dostoevsky—risks being an absolute fool,” she told Charles Ruas in 1977, and she took this pitfall as a kind of dare: “But if you’re mistaken, be terribly mistaken!”
I believe that Young was not mistaken. With Miss MacIntosh she succeeded in executing what I consider to be an entirely original vision, though her intent has often been neglected and misunderstood. The novel’s repetition, far from being gratuitous, is central to its epic consciousness. Each of its characters is obsessed, and these obsessions are the engines driving the novel’s narrative vortices. Coleridge argued, in his lecture on Hamlet, that Shakespeare’s method of characterization was “to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess,” an observation that inspired the creation of Captain Ahab. But what Melville took to heart, Young takes to its extreme, pushing modernist interiority to new heights by recreating on the page the circular pattern of human consciousness.
It is a shame, too, that so much criticism has lingered over the novel’s style and neglected its radical ontology, a subject that warrants its own treatise. Within the world of this novel, truth is bound up with paradox. Men are women and women are men, birth is death, weddings are funerals, conception takes place in graveyards. It is the paradoxical that reveals that the concepts we envision as continuums are actually circles whose extremes inevitably meet. Young was inspired by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus who believed in the unity of opposites and taught that the world was subject to never-ending change. It was a truth she found mirrored in modern physics, which proved that particles could also be waves and that truths as basic as the law of gravity were possibly illusions. She hated to hear her fiction described as “experimental,” as it implied that the novel’s leaps of logic were somehow incongruous with reality, which we were too eager to pretend we understood. Her maximalism proceeded from an epistemic humility, a conviction that within the scope of this vast and baffling universe, we are not yet wise enough to distinguish the essential from the ornamental.
The critic Charles Ruas argued that the novel’s epic scope is proof that Young “accepted the literary challenge of her generation to write ‘the Great American Novel,” though this distinction fails to capture what Young actually achieved. Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is not the Great American Novel but its Jungian shadow. It is the unconscious of our literary tradition, containing everything too vast, too odd, too philosophically daring to find expression in the workaday craftsmanship of American letters, and in that sense, it provides a truer glimpse into the national psyche than many other novels of its time. The story that America continually tells itself, after all, and its most tenacious illusion, is that we are a nation of ordinary people, doing ordinary things.