Ordinary People

One fantasy of modernism is telling all there is to tell about the most ordinary of lives. On a train journey from Richmond to Waterloo Station, Virginia Woolf watched “an old lady in the corner ...

One fantasy of modernism is telling all there is to tell about the most ordinary of lives. On a train journey from Richmond to Waterloo Station, Virginia Woolf watched “an old lady in the corner opposite” in her carriage. She was “one of those clean, threadbare old ladies,” whom Woolf imagined might well be called “Mrs. Brown.” By the time her train pulled into Waterloo, Woolf had created an entire possible life for “Mrs. Brown.” She put her at home “in a seaside house … perching on the edges of chairs,” and imagined her making a “heroic decision” at a moment of crisis. Then she watched her fellow passenger “disappear, carrying her bag, into the vast blazing station.”1

But when an ordinary person writes exhaustively about her own life, it can be something of a nightmare. Alexander Masters also wants to know what the women he passes in the street or sits beside on the train are thinking. Where Woolf imagined her way into the lives of others whom she names, Masters immerses himself in 148 diaries rescued from a literal trash heap, written by one person between 1952 and 2001, but offering no clue to their author’s identity. Masters’s account of what it was like to read these diaries, and to attempt to piece together the diarist’s life, becomes one writer’s way to respond to Woolf’s 1924 injunction, in which she urged modernist writers to “come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown.”

The energetic quest that Masters undertakes to identify his found diarist takes him all around Cambridge, the university town where the diaries were found. He visits the local library, the diarist’s school, the ruins of a house described in the diary, a graphologist who analyses the diarist’s handwriting, even a local private detective. It takes him until the end of chapter five to discover that his diarist is a woman, and he does not learn her name until the very end. He calls her Not-Mary throughout. Not-Mary struggles with her studies, briefly goes to art school, is sacked from a job as a librarian, is sacked from a job as a housekeeper, and eventually takes up a job as a live-in housekeeper for a bachelor academic. She dreams of writing and making her mark on the world. She suffers from episodes of misery and has painful menstrual periods. She falls romantically in love with elderly women. Spoiler alert: When Masters finally hunts Not-Mary down to a small bungalow that “squats beside the pavement like a resting fly,” she turns out to be Laura Francis: a reasonably cheerful hoarder who is amused to find herself the subject of a biography.

Joe Gould, the subject of Jill Lepore’s book, was himself a modernist writer, or so he claimed. A barfly who hung around literary New York between the 1920s and 1950s, Gould was succored and protected by some talented authors. His doctor was William Carlos Williams; Edmund Wilson was a close friend; E. E. Cummings and Ezra Pound wrote anxiously to each other about him. An alcoholic, homeless, louse-infested fabulist, Gould claimed to be working on the longest book ever written: an Oral History of the Contemporary World, also known as Oral History of Our Time or Meo Tempore, which purported to record every conversation he had ever heard. He boasted that there were more than 20,000 of them. Gould told his friend and first biographer, New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, that he had been working on the Oral History for 26 years, writing in notebooks hidden in friends’ apartments around New York.2 In that time, he became a kind of hero-mascot of the Modernists. “You might write a nize lil piece say harft a page about Joe’s ORAL hizzery,” Pound suggested to Cummings, and “make it clear and EGGs plain WHY Joe izza hiz / Torian.”

It is impossible to sum up, as Gould suggested one could, “the whole story of man.” Or woman. But summing up is not the point.

Masters’s diarist and Lepore’s historian both want to record everything. Gould views his history as a vitally important project, proclaiming, in a piece entitled “Why I Write,” “If one were to pick anyone up at random and study him intensely enough in all the ramifications of his life, we would get the whole story of man.” Not-Mary is less confident; she is always about to be an author, but at any given moment, she is “just writing.” She has her intimations of immortality: “I may—perhaps—have colossal powers in me”; “My diary is now a work of art.” But in the end, Not-Mary feels that “I’ve really done very little. It’s all been a disappointment, my life, yes.” Gould is sure that he will be “the most brilliant historian of the century,” although this will only become clear “a couple of generations after I am dead and gone.”3 In fact, very little of his fabled Oral History ever surfaced; most likely it never really existed except in disjointed fragments. Lepore finds some chapters in archives here and there. Possibly much of it was lost or destroyed; just as plausibly, it was never written. Ultimately, Mitchell seems to have decided that he was taken in by Gould and that there was no Oral History. The man who at one point was supported by a rich anonymous donor so that he could finish his great work probably never wrote more than a few pages. The woman who doubted herself at every turn indubitably produced around 40 million words. Hers is probably the longest diary in history.

Gould and Not-Mary shared a willingness to subsist on revolting food—cauliflower stalks and diner ketchup—and an addiction to writing. As a youth, Gould wrote all over the walls and floor of his room in his parents’ house. Not-Mary also exhibited signs of graphomania, admitting that her diary-keeping is “more of a compulsion really. I just enjoy writing. I enjoy the sound of the words. I’ve done it since I was about twelve. I just like the feeling of the pen on the page.” Both were writers, but were they authors? In his 1979 novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera identifies the difference between Goethe and a taxi driver who writes his memoirs in the middle of the night as one of self-awareness—Goethe has it, the taxi driver does not. Kundera writes, “In the era of graphomania … everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without.”4 Similarly, when Masters reflects on why Not-Mary’s writing never improves, never grows into art, he decides that she cannot hear her own voice: “She is deafened by solipsism.”

Is Masters being fair to his subject? When he first opens Not-Mary’s diaries, it looks as if the words had “been poured in as a fluid.” This plenitude both attracts and repels him. The idea of pouring or emptying all of one’s consciousness is not always held in contempt; when John Middleton Murry read the first edition of Ulysses in 1922, he remarked that “Mr. James Joyce has made a superhuman effort to empty the whole of his consciousness into it.”5 “He says everythingeverything,” Arnold Bennett exclaimed, and Holbrook Jackson agreed: “He has recorded everything.6 George Moore is reported as objecting to Joyce’s novel because “it is absurd to imagine that any good end can be served by trying to record every single thought and sensation of any human being. That’s not art, it’s like trying to copy the London Directory.”7 Precisely because the modernist project was so concerned with capture and with amplitude, Gould’s writer friends wanted to believe in his Oral History. To its critics, modernism itself seemed to risk undermining the distinction between writing and graphomania. Both Masters’s and Lepore’s books return us sharply to the solipsism of the modernist aesthetic, and make us think anew about how we determine that Not-Mary’s musings fall short of Prufrockian greatness.


Ordinary Lives

By Howard S. Becker

“I imagine the most valuable sections will be those which deal with groups that are inarticulate such as the Negro,” said Gould of his Oral History, and he consequently spent a lot of time drinking at parties in Harlem. Gould’s life ended sadly; he returned repeatedly to psychiatric asylums, where he probably underwent lobotomy and electric shock therapy. But Gould’s story is perhaps less sad than the other tragic narrative that unfolds in Lepore’s book, that of the African American sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage was a talented artist who ended her life a recluse, having fled New York and destroyed most of her work, after being harassed, stalked, and terrorized by Gould for years. The novelist Millen Brand, a friend of Gould’s, told Mitchell, “It was evident that as a Negro she hesitated to take court action.” Gould’s group of New York writer friends knew that he was a habitual groper and that he persecuted women who had the temerity to refuse his advances. Gould would record his adventures in his diary: “I felt some breasts,” “I got two other women to kiss me.” On at least one occasion, Horace Gregory and Edmund Wilson managed to get a jail sentence for sexual assault suspended. But Brand eventually reported Gould to the police himself when Gould started a campaign against Brand’s wife, the Jewish poet Pauline Leader. Gould was writing her vile letters and calling her “a greasy neurotic Jewess with breath stinking of herring.” But even then, somehow Gould and his friends persuaded Brand to drop charges. Lepore writes that “A century on, Gould looks bleak, his mental illness looks serious, and modernism looks fairly vicious, actually.” Modernism might be too wide a target, but Gould’s hero-mascot status with this group of white, male, modernist writers undoubtedly protected him and allowed him to continue his abusive behavior.

Virginia Woolf says that “however pointless” her story about the train journey from Richmond to Waterloo might be, it at least “has the merit of being true.” Masters describes an exquisite moment of pointlessness, when he is sitting in a Suffolk wood reading one of Not-Mary’s diaries and hears a “leafy unwrapping sound.” He looks up to see eight deer that have drawn close to him. They nibble at some grass and then move off. “Nothing exciting had happened with the deer. They had just been there, true things, thinking themselves alone. [Not-Mary] is also a true thing.”

The “there-ness” of Not-Mary’s written record of her experience is the secret of its truth and meaning. It is the writing of a woman without qualities, an ordinary person writing about her ordinary life in the present moment. Her diary ought to answer to the modernists’ ideal: the capture of “real” life and experience. But Woolf never expected her putative Mrs. Brown to be writing her own story, any more than Molly Bloom was writing hers. Here is the central paradox of the modernist project: the fascination with the ordinary experiences of the masses in tension with fears about democracy and the potential unleashing of banality and ignorance. Those fears were elitist, but there was also genuine trepidation about the populism and fascism of the 1920s and 1930s. It is perhaps less easy to dismiss them just now than it might have been for late 20th-century critics of modernism.

Both these delicately written books reflect on the contradictions and risks of their own biographical practice. They think about the ways that fiction, biography, and history are not distinct genres. “There is something very appealing about this constant failure of biography,” says Masters, reflecting on everything he has got wrong and mis-imagined about the true identity of Not-Mary. “Wouldn’t all biographies be better if they gave up trying to fix the person they’re writing about, and confined themselves to his glints and reflections,” he asks, putting one in mind of Woolf’s own experiment in indirect biography, Jacob’s Room.8 It is impossible to sum up, as Gould suggested one could, “the whole story of man.” Or woman. But summing up is not the point. Masters understands that “the only moment that ever matters to [the diarist, Not-Mary]” is “Now,” the evanescent present moment. Gould’s dream of contemporary history is equally made up of fleeting fragments of overheard conversations in bars and on trains. Both these books ultimately document what Woolf described in Mrs. Dalloway: the curious way that life has, however pointlessly, however painfully, “of adding day to day.”9

  1. Virginia Woolf, “Character in Fiction,” in Virginia Woolf: Selected Essays, edited by David Bradshaw (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 42.
  2. See Joseph Mitchell, “Professor Sea Gull,” New Yorker, December 12, 1942, and Mitchell, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” New Yorker, September 19 and 26, 1964.
  3. Mitchell, “Professor Seagull.”
  4. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, translated by Michael Henry Heim (Penguin, 1981), p. 92.
  5. John M. Murry, review of Ulysses, by James Joyce, Nation & Athenaeum, April 22, 1922. Reprinted in James Joyce: The Critical Heritage: Volume 1, 1907–1927, edited by Robert H. Deming (Routledge, 1970), p. 197.
  6. Arnold Bennett, “James Joyce’s Ulysses,” review of Ulysses, by James Joyce, Outlook, April 29, 1922. Reprinted in Deming, James Joyce, pp. 219–22, p. 221. Holbrook Jackson, “Ulysses à la Joyce,” review of Ulysses, by James Joyce, To-Day, June 1922. Reprinted in Deming, James Joyce, p. 198.
  7. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 529.
  8. Alexander Masters, The Genius in my Basement: The Biography of a Happy Man (Fourth Estate, 2011), p. 8.
  9. Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (1925; Penguin Classics, 2000), p. 71.
Featured image: Journals. Photograph by Barry Silver / Flickr