English Literature

A Woman of Genius by Mary Austin

A Woman of Genius by Mary Austin.jpg


It is strange that I can never think of writing any account of my life without thinking of Pauline Mills and wondering what she will say of it. Pauline is rather given to reading the autobiographies of distinguished people—unless she has left off since I disappointed her—and finding in them new persuasions of the fundamental lightness of her scheme of things. I recall very well, how, when I was having the bad time of my life there in Chicago, she would abound in consoling instances from one then appearing in the monthly magazines; skidding over the obvious derivation of the biographist’s son from the Lord Knows Who, except that it wasn’t from the man to whom she was legally married, to fix on the foolish detail of the child’s tempers and woolly lambs as the advertisement of that true womanliness which Pauline loves to pluck from every feminine bush.

There was also a great deal in that story about a certain other celebrity, for her relations to whom the writer was blackballed in a club of which I afterward became a member, and I think it was the things Pauline said about one of the rewards of genius being the privilege of association with such transcendent personalities on a footing which permitted one to call them by their first names in one’s reminiscences, that gave me the notion of writing this book. It has struck me as humorous to a degree, that, in this sort of writing, the really important things are usually left out.

I thought then of writing the life of an accomplished woman, not so much of the accomplishment as of the woman; and I have never been able to make a start at it without thinking of Pauline Mills and that curious social warp which obligates us most to impeach the validity of a woman’s opinion at the points where it is most supported by experience. From the earliest I have been rendered highly suspicious of the social estimate of women, by the general social conspiracy against her telling the truth about herself. But, in fact, I do not think Mrs. Mills will read my book. Henry will read it first at his office and tell her that he’d rather she shouldn’t, for Henry has been so successfully Paulined that it is quite sufficient for any statement of life to lie outside his wife’s accepted bias, to stamp it with insidious impropriety. There is at times something almost heroic in the resolution with which women like Pauline Mills defend themselves from whatever might shift the centres of their complacency.

But even without Pauline, it interests me greatly to undertake this book, of which I have said in the title as much as a phrase may of the scope of the undertaking, for if I know anything of genius it is wholly extraneous, derived, impersonal, flowing through and by. I cannot tell you what it is, but I hope to show you a little of how I was seized of it, shaped; what resistances opposed to it; what surrenders. I mean to put as plainly as possible how I felt it fumbling at my earlier life like the sea at the foot of a tidal wall, and by what rifts in the structure of living, its inundation rose upon me; by what practices and passions I was enlarged to it, and by what well meaning of my friends I was cramped and hardened. But of its ultimate operation once it had worked up through my stiff clay, of triumphs, profits, all the intricacies of technique, gossip of rehearsals, you shall hear next to nothing. This is the story of the struggle between a Genius for Tragic Acting and the daughter of a County Clerk, with the social ideal of Taylorville, Ohianna, for the villain. It is a drama in which none of the characters played the parts they were cast for, and invariably spoke from the wrong cues, which nevertheless proceeded to a successful dénouement. But if you are looking for anything ordinarily called plot, you will be disappointed. Plot is distinctly the province of fiction, though I’ve a notion there is a sort of order in my story, if one could look at it from the vantage of the gods, but I have never rightly made it out. What I mean to go about is the exploitation of the personal phases of genius, of which when it refers to myself you must not understand me to speak as of a peculiar merit, like the faculty for presiding at a woman’s club or baking sixteen pies of a morning, which distinguished one Taylorvillian from another; rather as a seizure, a possession which overtook me unaware, like one of those insidious Oriental disorders which you may never die of, but can never be cured. You shall hear how I did successfully stave it off in my youth for the sake of a Working Taylor and Men’s Outfitter, and was nearly intimidated out of it by the wife of a Chicago attorney who had something to do with stocks; how I was often very tired of it, and many times, especially in the earlier periods when I was trying to effect a compromise between it and the afore-mentioned Taylorvillian predilections, I should have been happiest to have been quit of it altogether.

I shall try to have you understand that I have not undertaken to restate those phases of autobiography which are commonly suppressed, because of an exception to what the public has finally and at large concurred in, that it does not particularly matter what happens to the vessel of personality, so long as the essential fluid gets through; but from having gone so much farther to discover that it matters not a little to Genius to be so scamped and retarded. I have arrived at seeing the uncritical acceptance of poverty and heartbreak as essential accompaniments of Gift, very much of a piece with the proneness of Christians to regard the early martyrdoms as concomitants of faith, when every thinking person knows they arose in the cruelty and stupidity of the bystanders. Hardly any one seems to have recalled in this connection, that the initial Christian experience is a baptism of Joy, and it was only in the business of communicating it that it became bloody and tormenting. If you will go a little farther with me, you shall be made to see the miseries of genius, perhaps also the bulk of wretchedness everywhere, not so much the rod of inexplicable chastisement, as the reaction of a purblind social complacency.

I shall take you at the sincerest in admitting the function of Art to be its re-kneading of the bread of life until it nourishes us toward greater achievement, as a basis for proving that much that you may be thinking about its processes is wrong, and most that you may have done for its support is beside the mark. If I have had any compunction about writing this book, it has been the fear that in the relation of incidents difficult and sordid, you might still miss the point of your being largely to blame for them. And even if you escape the banality of believing that my having lived for a week in Chicago on 85 cents was in any way important to my artistic development, and go so far as to apprehend it as it actually was, a foolish and unnecessary interference with my business of serving you anew with entertainment, you must go a little farther honestly to accept it, even when it came—this revitalizing fluid of which I was for the moment the vase, the cup—in circumstances which in the rule you live by, appear, when not actually reprehensible, at least ridiculous.

Looking back over a series of struggles that have left me in a frame when no man under forty interests me very much, still within the possibility of personal romance, and at an age when most women have the affectional value of a keepsake only, the arbiter and leader of my world, I seem to see my life not much else but a breach in the social fabric, sedulously bricked up from within and battered from without, through which at last pours light and the fluid soul of Life. Something of all this I shall try to make plain to you, and incidentally how in the process I have perceived dimly this huge coil of social adjustment as a struggle againstthe invasive forces of blessedness, the smother of sheep in the lanes stupidly to escape the fair pastures toward which a large Friendliness herds them. If you go as far as this with me, you shall avoid, who knows, what indirection, and that not altogether without entertainment.


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