Hello everyone! Over the summer, each member of the TLW team will be writing a post to tell you a little bit about what they’re reading and researching at the moment. Today it’s our founder, Dr Laura Rattray.
At TLW HQ, we’re busy working on events for the new session – and we’re excited about them! We’ll be sharing full details later in the summer, but we can tell now you we already have six events in the pipeline, including teaming up with some awesome people and organisations in Glasgow and beyond. We hope you’ll join us in September for what we’re calling our first team road trip, and next month we’re looking forward to introducing two fab new members to Team TLW. We welcome your ideas, so if there’s an event you’d like to see, be part of, a theme you’d like to propose, as always please get in touch with us via twitter or at the email address on this site. All events are free and open to all.
What else am I up to (apart from the regular summer work of dissertation and theses supervisions, new teaching prep, programme convening, externalling, planning a programme for the university’s Centre of American Studies)? Well, I’m recently back from a conference in Dublin on Transatlantic Women, taking part in a panel on Edith Wharton’s Transatlanticism. I know colleagues who are dismissive of/ tired of conferences, even if costs are covered by their universities, but for me they remain one of the fun, enjoyable parts of the work. And they’re valuable, sometimes in unexpected ways. Two years ago it was our conversation at a conference that led my US colleague, Mary Chinery, and I to realise that in 1901 Wharton had written a play called The Shadow of a Doubt, a play that none of us had been aware of. Fired up by that conversation we determined to see if we could track it down. And we did, publishing the play and our article in the Edith Wharton Review. It’s been energising to see professional readings of the play in the US this year as a result of that work, and there are more in pipeline, including, fingers crossed, a full-scale production. That simply wouldn’t have happened without the conference.
This week saw the offer of a contract for a new project I’m excited about, and over the summer I’m finishing a book on Wharton, which I’m really enjoying working on. I’ve made a pact with myself in terms of research that I will only do work I care about. I’m not always great at the life/work balance, so if I’m working I figure it better damn well be on stuff I love.
And some of that work I care about is drawing attention to women writers who have been neglected, side-lined, or forgotten. It was one of the reasons I started the Transatlantic Literary Women Series in the first place and one of the reasons I run a course on modern American women’s writing. This summer I’m revisiting the writing of Josephine Johnson. Josephine Who? Exactly! Here’s some more information on the first of my summer reads:
In September 1934, at the height of America’ s Great Depression, twenty-four-year-old Josephine Johnson published her first novel, Now in November. Without giving away any plot spoilers (and there are dramatic events) the story is seen through the eyes of a young protagonist whose family, like millions of Americans, was badly hit by the Depression, and they move out of the city to try and scratch out a living from the land:
We left our other life behind us as if it had not been. Only the part that was of and in us, the things we’d read and the things remembered, came with us . . . We left a world all wrong, confused, and shouting at itself. . .
Reviewers were swept away by the novel, exclaiming somewhat bizarrely that the country had found a talent worthy of comparison to Emily Dickinson, Katherine Mansfield, Willa Cather, and Emily Bronte (all of them? really?). Now in November was even called ‘the American Wuthering Heights’. The novel was both timely and timeless, politically astute without resorting to polemics, and written in a beautifully lyrical prose style.
The following year, Now in November won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Johnson seemed set. Publishers were clamouring to represent her. A collection of stories, Winter Orchard, swiftly followed. Some of the publicity undoubtedly patronised Johnson – because she was a woman, and because she was young. She was depicted a young naïf, living miles from anywhere, and to an extent Johnson played along with this, claiming in a local interview she was as happy in the kitchen as she was writing, as though she had tossed out a Pulitzer novel between baking pies. In reality, Johnson was a committed activist, involved with unions and groups fighting for the victimised and dispossessed. In June 1936, she would be arrested under suspicion of encouraging cottonfield workers to strike.
Johnson’s eagerly awaited second novel, Jordanstown, published in April 1937, brought the political convictions that were largely on the fringes on Now in Novemberto the fore. Its male protagonist buys a local newspaper to expose injustice and mobilise workers in a protest that is brutally supressed by the police. Reviews, at best, were mixed. Bernard de Voto, writing in the Saturday Review of Literature, concluded: ‘The loss of a first-rate psychological novelist is too high a price to pay for a second-rate sociological novelist, or even for a first-rate one…[I]f she returns to the kind of fiction that she was unquestionably destined to write, she may be the foremost woman novelist of her generation.’[i]
In some ways this was the beginning of the end for Johnson. She would not become the foremost novelist of her generation – woman or otherwise. For a time it seemed that she had abandoned fiction in the 1930s, but when I looked at the records in her archive, there in a box were four surviving chapters of a novel that in 1939 was rejected outright by the publishing house that had nurtured her – along with the advice to ‘take a break’ from writing altogether.
Wounded by the criticism Johnson would do just that and take a prolonged break from her writing career, directing her energies to other concerns: politics, unions, mural painting, government rehabilitation farms, marriage and children. A single novella, Wildwood, would be followed by a publishing hiatus of almost twenty years.
Johnson’s work drifts in and out of print (including re. the latter, *sigh*, an edition for which I wrote a preface years ago). Currently the book is available though, so if you’re looking for a different read, are interested in the 1930s, the Depression from the point of view of woman, or in shining a light on another writer who in many ways has fallen by the wayside, Now in November comes highly recommended. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, wonderful as it is, doesn’t have a monopoly on indelible pictures of the Depression and Dust Bowl years.
[i]Bernard de Voto, ‘In Pursuit of an Idea’, Saturday Review of Literature, 3 April 1937, pp. 6-7.