There’s a required class at my alma mater called Contemporary Civilization, a yearlong survey of the “greats” of (mostly) Western philosophy and thought. We’d read a book or two each week, jumping from Plato to Kierkegaard to Hegel, like some sort of philosophical Eurotrip. I can’t remember much of what we read or discussed, but I ate this type of education up: I thought it would protect me from feeling dull or inferior wherever I found myself outside the university. But I’ve since noted that the promise of my education hasn’t fulfilled itself in the ways I expected. I have rarely found it helpful to have access to hazy bits of philosophy. And I’ve found that being overeducated—having “done the reading”—doesn’t stop me from feeling woefully inadequate in any number of situations, punishing myself for not knowing more.
I thought about this overambitious, under-delivering class when I first read Nancy Hale’s story “Book Review,” republished in 2019, in a Library of America collection of her stories called Where the Light Falls, edited by Lauren Groff. In Hale’s 1941 story, a young woman finds herself on a trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, with her husband, his colleague, and his colleague’s wife. They drive up to an old house that’s “run as a club”; at dinner, Elizabeth is seated next to a gentleman called the “Commissioner.” When she mentions she used to be a writer, he scoffs spectacularly; when they start talking about Hemingway, he calls the characters in For Whom the Bell Tolls “communists,” and declares the book shouldn’t have been written.
“You don’t mean that you were for Franco?” Elizabeth asks. “I certainly was,” he says. Astounded, she goes on: “Then you’re for the totalitarian governments, is that it? You’re for Hitler.” She asks him if he’s read any books, asks how he can look oppression in the eye and not feel like it’s like the Middle Ages. He responds with condescension. “Look here, my dear young lady,” he says. “I was in Spain before the Revolution and it was a happy, prosperous country. The people were well off.” Elizabeth hasn’t been to Spain and has only read books about the civil war.
The argument escalates as her husband’s friend tries to mediate. “I didn’t know you were such a Red, Liz,” he offers, trying to lighten the mood. Liz balks. They don’t understand that the Spanish were “fighting just to be free.” (Liz is one of several women in Hale’s stories who visibly, viscerally empathize with victims of fascism, because they, too, feel oppressed in their lives.) Her husband’s friend leans across the table. “You see, Liz,” he begins condescendingly, then calls her a “gallant little arguer.” Back in their room, Liz’s husband, though kind and sympathetic, tells her she needs to “keep the soft pedal.” He falls asleep quickly. But her mind reels for a while, remembering “the things she had not thought of to say.” Rather than sleeping soundly, confident in what she knows, she punishes herself for what she doesn’t.
“I don’t know anything. I know I’m in the right, but I don’t know anything. If I had known dates, and places, and facts … I could have made him see. … But I don’t know enough about it.” She’s done the reading. But despite her preparedness, when faced with a mansplainer who’s wrong, the woman who’s right is still the one kept up at night. Hale and Hale’s women—the sad and the bored and the frustrated (and the painfully sharp), those defying the men in their lives and those resisting the fascism rising around the world—firmly belong in our own time.
Hale was born in Boston, in 1908. After marrying, she moved to New York and wrote freelance articles for various magazines while working at Vogue. She would have two subsequent marriages and contribute over 80 short stories to the New Yorker, becoming one of its most-published authors, only to slide into near oblivion in the following decades.
At first glance, her fiction and its subject matter might seem tired, narrow, and rather boring: the story of a married woman’s life in Vermont; a semiautobiographical novel called A New England Girlhood; another novel, which her editor, the influential Maxwell Perkins, called “a trifle.” (You might have called them “women’s fiction,” if you hadn’t read this piece by Meg Wolitzer.)
Mostly, Hale wrote about women, young and old, with unparalleled incisiveness, brilliantly recognizing frustrations that feel particularly female. One of her recurring characters is the “stuck woman”; but Hale probes deeper than the boredom or bitterness of the common housewife, identifying the unshakable fear that can grow from a woman’s dissatisfaction with her lot.
There’s Laura, in “Sunday—1913,” who is married to the improbably named Morton Gorton. She’s filled with unhappiness, and with guilt at this unhappiness, both of which manifest themselves in an unbearable, indescribable pain in her ankles. To assuage her guilt, Laura counts her blessings—literally: the fireplace, the bed, the crystal highboy dresser. But “greater than any blessing for a woman was the love of a good man,” Hale writes. It’s immediately clear that neither she nor Laura believes this. Laura doesn’t love Morton, though she won’t admit it; she forcefully pushes “the appreciation she felt into her face” when he expresses his affection for her.
The story escalates slowly. Laura spends most of her time in her room, or at the dinner table with Morton and his mother, reminding herself that “she ought to express her gratitude somehow.” She utters out loud, “Thank you, God,” but it’s about as empty as can be. After a day at church with her husband and mother-in-law, where she starts to feel a “curious hot stirring,” she reaches a breaking point. Up in her bedroom with Morton, she lets out a bloodcurdling, incessant scream. The one intelligible thing she says is that she can’t have a baby. Her husband responds by making her pray.
When faced with a mansplainer who’s wrong, the woman who’s right is still the one kept up at night.
All of Hale’s characters share the very human fear that things won’t get better, that they might get far worse. And some of her characters respond to this fear by clinging to others, to a dangerous degree. “Who Lived and Died Believing,” one of the most affecting stories in Where the Light Falls, features a Mrs. Myles, who is undergoing electroshock therapy. Happiness has abandoned her entirely, and her only source of (vicarious) joy is in the relationship between her nurse, Miss Percy, and Miss Percy’s boyfriend. But at the very end of the story, when Mrs. Myles asks after Miss Percy’s boyfriend, she finds out they’ve broken up. The story ends with Mrs. Myles “crying quietly, for all that was dead, now, forever, and could never be brought back.”
The way Hale captures this fear and dependency isn’t limited to her depictions of women. In fact, one of the collection’s most powerful portraits is found in “The Double House,” which Hale writes from the perspective of a little boy. Robert fears for his future. He’s afraid of admitting this to his father, who he’s convinced is happy and unburdened. “It was only because his father was such a happy man that life was possible at all,” Hale writes, and with this the reader is struck with an immediate sense of doom. The boy’s aunt once told him that childhood was the only happy time, and “Robert’s heart had stood still with fear, for if it were true that he would never be any happier than he was now, then he was lost.” His father is his only hope, the kind man who straightens up and waves vigorously when he sees his son anxiously awaiting him on the front step.
One day, Robert’s father is late coming back from work. Like a parent who’s lost their child, Robert panics: “He hasn’t come,” he says to his aunt. “Something’s happened to him.” When his father shows, it takes ages for Robert’s heart to settle; he’s reeling as he washes his hands upstairs for dinner. But once he finally calms himself, he comes downstairs and overhears his father telling his aunt he’s lost his job. “My God, Esther,” he says, “How I wish we were children; we were happy then.” This horrible loss of innocence, for a boy who had almost none to begin with, whose father’s apparent happiness was his only lifeline, blinds Robert. He climbs down into the cellar, then, crying hysterically, “stumbled in the darkness until his clutching fingers felt one of the dangling ropes. As he fumbled at the loop he was sobbing crazily.”
We so rarely read about children in this way, acknowledging that their emotions can be just as deep and paralyzing as our own; that they, like anyone else, may be teetering on the brink of destruction. Both here and in “Who Lived and Died Believing,” the loss of innocence culminates in either a literal death, or a complete loss of faith—which is, in Hale’s tragedies, almost as bad. I found “The Double House” particularly unexpected, in the way Hale, as an adult woman, so piercingly slid into the mindset of a young boy. But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Being a woman means being carefully attuned to how others are thinking and feeling, exercising one’s ability to empathize with and relate to others on command. I think most of us can do it. There are just few of us who can write it with Hale’s precision.
Besides her emotional perceptiveness and keen attention to the individual, Hale was also a resolutely political writer. She was pointed in her criticism of fascism and racism; this comes through brilliantly in “The Marching Feet.” Here, a group of friends sit outside on a warm Virginia day. Three companies from the Naval Reserve unit of the University of Virginia are marching up and down the lawn.
“He’d approve [of the drills on the lawn],” says Mrs. Leith, referring to Jefferson, who founded the university. “After all, what you hear now is just preparation to defend democracy.” They’re waiting for their friend Rosalie, who will be joining them with her friend, the author Beatrice Steinberger. Though they’re eager to meet Miss Steinberger (they’ve all read and loved her book), Miss Mayson hesitates: “Isn’t she a—well, a Jew?” Then: “Why can’t they stay up North and go to their own colleges,” she says, “not come flocking down here?” “Because they know they can do here cheaper,” Mrs. Leith replies.
Mrs. Gregory is concerned with preserving the purity of the South. “We don’t want people just as different from ourselves as—as the Chinese settling here.” But when Miss Steinberger finally arrives, they coo and posture. “It was a pleasure to read the things you said about that man Hitler,” says Miss Mayson. “I can assure you we all agree with you one hundred percent.”
“We all care especially about democracy down here, as this might be said to be the cradle of democracy,” says Mrs. Leith. In a particularly American kind of blindness, they don’t see that it’s this democracy they’re threatening with their hatred; instead, they believe they embody the very concept. When they hear the army unit marching past again, Miss Steinberger notes they sound like Stormtroopers. “Here!” exclaims Miss Mayson. “My dear Miss Steinberger. As if Fascism could ever come to this country!”
In this scene are flashes of today: where those who claim to be preserving our democracy are in fact chipping away at it with dangerous attitudes, naively believing that fascism couldn’t—or hasn’t already—come to roost. What’s unique about Hale is that she’s almost more critical of the bystanders—those who are blind to the hatred they are sowing with their ignorance—than the perpetrators of hate or violence themselves.
There’s a quieter radicalism to Hale’s work, too. She takes on mental health, abortion, promiscuity, divorce, and, especially, women’s complicated relationships with their children, with empathy and nonjudgment. “On the Beach” tells the story of a young mother with an almost psychic connection to her son, Mac: they had an “identical laugh,” an “identical wrinkling of the nose,” an “electric communication.”
Near the end of a perfect day on the beach, jets fly overhead. The boy’s reaction is unexpected. “Jets!” he exclaims, then pretends to fire a machine gun. His mother’s gut reaction to this unexpected behavior is pure anguish. “The jerk came then. … Sick, draining, both startling her out of the dream of the day and blacking consciousness, the jerk came and went.” Mac lifts his face for a kiss: “But she felt no impulse to give it to him. He seemed too far to reach.”
Here, we see not a child moving away, growing apart from a mother, but a mother distancing herself from her son. Things can change all at once, and in Hale’s world, the bond a mother feels for her child can break, or transform into something unrecognizable. In her world, taboo sees light.
Perhaps Hale writes sadness best. In the first story in the collection, “The Earliest Dreams,” a young girl lies in her bedroom while her parents host a party downstairs, worlds away. She feels sadness for something she’s never known, something she’s not even sure she wants. The story is in the second person, as the girl looks back on this memory as an adult: “It was so quiet, and the air of the night and the snow came through the window and smelled so cold, so sweet, and of faraway sad promises. What was it you wanted so?”
As she lies in bed, she starts to hear the gentle wafting of piano music up the stairs. “What was it that you did not know about, what was it that the music had known and wept for, something that was over and could never be forgotten, but for you it had never been begun.” The child is nostalgic, but what’s most poignant about this story is that she’s nostalgic for something she’s not even experienced. For her, it’s “not yet started.” We might think emptiness is too complex, perhaps too subtle, an emotion for children to feel. But Hale is more generous than that and gives her young characters full lives, as heartbreaking as those of any grown person.
In Hale, we witness the complete spectrum of human experience: absolute ecstasy and utter despair, complete contentedness and unbearable frustration. Hale knew what it was like to feel the full range of human emotion, and to write it with such ease that we almost don’t realize how devastatingly she’s mirrored us.