Lauren Groff on the Forgotten Genius of Nancy Hale

"The paradox is that one has to read the stories to understand how wrong we have been"

In the late 1970s, Nancy Hale—then in her sixties and whitehaired, elegant, queenly—toured the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in preparation for writing her biography of the Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt. Hale later described herself moving silently and in growing excitement as the galleries opened into each other, each successively framing a new movement in the artist’s work, until at last, upon leaving the exhibition, she turned to her guide and exclaimed, “This show is a biography! There is nothing to say about Mary Cassatt that isn’t here.” She did in fact go on to write Cassatt’s biography, but her point was, as she later said, that an artist’s work “was not like his life, it was his life.” Nancy Hale was the daughter of two Impressionist painters:

Her father, Philip Leslie Hale, a scion of an old Boston family who had known Monet at Giverny during his dissipated youth, and her mother, the successful portraitist Lilian Westcott Hale, a beautiful, warm woman whose entire focus was her art. In the same pages in which Nancy Hale spoke of her revelation about Mary Cassatt, she wrote of her mother’s paintings that “it was not that the pictures told about her, so much as that they were her, just as the other side of the moon, hidden, is still the moon.”

Hale acknowledged the nimbly semi-autobiographical nature of her own work in her memoir, A New England Girlhood, saying:

My pieces, although their background is the scenery and characters that bounded my childhood, are intended less about the real and ascertainable past than about the memory of it; and memory as a mode of thinking tends to burst spontaneously into fantasy at every turn. Some of the events in the stories are true to fact, some not. What interested me in writing them was to try to catch the reverberations from childhood that sometimes make it seem as if the first few years of all our lives constitute a riddle which it is a lifework to solve.

Nancy Hale was born on May 6, 1908. Her Bohemian mother and father never seemed quite acceptable to her; she wrote later that as a child she wanted different parents, “orthodox ones, against whom I could properly rebel and for the proper reasons.” In her first story in this collection, 1932’s “The Earliest Dreams,” she writes in a strange and breathless second person—long before Jay McInerney and Lorrie Moore popularized the conceit in the 1980s—about the experience of lying in bed as a tiny child and hearing guests downstairs as they arrive for a party, the sense of coldness and vibrating wonder at being excluded from the warmth and laughter of the adults. The writer Ann Beattie says of this story that the effect of it is “like a buzzing in the ear emitted by something that won’t go away.” The paternal side of Nancy Hale’s family, relatives of the Revolutionary spy and soldier Nathan Hale and the writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, were genteel, formal, and moneyed, like Uncle Paul in the story “A Place to Hide In.”

The larger, refined Boston world of Hale’s youth was pedigree-proud, and practical-verging-on-parsimonious, like the Yankee sisters in “How Would You Like to Be Born,” who restrict their meals to cheap organ meat they don’t even enjoy so that they can give money to their progressive causes. As a child, she felt that she was destined to admire but never own the beautiful things of life, like the little girl in “The Empress’s Ring,” who is given a precious antique gold and turquoise ring which she loses in her sandbox and which haunts her in her adult life as a symbol of her own unworthiness to be the possessor of treasures.

The effects of living with parents who were turned inward toward their artwork are made visible in “Outside,” in which artist parents overlook their daughter’s dangerously high fever in their self-absorbed preparations for an afternoon party, ignoring the girl’s brave minimizing of her pain to the point of her own collapse, then the girl’s deep sense of abandonment that ensues when she wakes up alone in the hospital. Lilian Westcott Hale’s fine and vivid portraits were in high demand in Boston society, but Philip Leslie Hale found more success as a critic and teacher of painting than in his own art, which caused him great disappointment. He would trudge off to his classes in deliberately bourgeois clothing—a bowler hat and a banker’s suit—pretending to go with a light heart, but an older Nancy Hale understood that his cheerfulness was only a façade. She mirrored her father in her fiction as the parent in “The Double House,” whose wearisomely feigned adult solidity is the only thing allowing his deeply sensitive young son to hope that life will be less dark and difficult and confusing when he grows up.

The shift from the prim North to the bewildering South brought out a satirical side in Nancy Hale.

Though money was tight, and the Hale family lived for most of the year in Boston, they managed to spend their summers on the chill and rocky New England shore. Her story “Flotsam” sketches with love and economy the town of Rockport at the end of its season: “stout middle-aged women in shorts and halter, usually surmounted by a Jazz Age shingle or an imposing pile of marcelled hairdo. Several children of less than school age ran, on little bare brown feet, down to the beach in summer-ragged, summer-faded bathing suits. Here and there an artist had pitched his easel near the sidewalk and stood scowling past his canvas at the cobalt waters of Sandy Bay.”

And “To the North,” my favorite story from Where the Light Falls, and one that I find a world-class achievement, even after a dozen rereads, speaks achingly of a place called Graniteside, where the summer people meet but hardly notice the hardy Finnish working class who live there year-round. The main character, Jack, loves the wild, brilliant sea and the long slabs of untouched gray stone, the miles behind the sea of rough moorland, full of low, stunted growth, smelling of wild rosebushes and bayberries and sweet fern; the high, clear, strong air, full of sun and salt. He loved the heavy purplish clouds that came across the sky suddenly, the ocean turned lead gray and whipped up into little points, the abrupt violence of the wind and then the downpour and hurricane of the northeaster screaming in from the sea. He loved the land in its particulars, in its small unique things—the thorny locust trees that blossomed in white too early for him ever to have seen; the red spiders no bigger than pin points that ran in thousands over the rocks in the sun; the deserted quarries back in the moors, jagged holes filled with blue fresh water that reflected the rotting, rusting derricks above them; the way the wind rose imperceptibly day after day after the first of September, rising a little, steadily, as if toward some terrific crescendo still months away.

The family spent the rest of the year in the far more cosmopolitan Boston area, and in her late teens, Nancy Hale became a debutante, which both fed her hunger for society and glamour and made her chafe against the straitened futures such young and wealthy girls were expected to enter into. Her story “Crimson Autumn” paints with a brightness borne of nostalgia the manic life of youthful Boston society of the twenties, with its Harvard football games and Bugatti rides through the cold to the ballroom at the Copley Plaza just as the orchestra is warming up. (This story is also a first pass at a long passage in her third and best novel, The Prodigal Women.)

In “Rich People,” the debutante main character’s puritanically healthy mother—described as an adherent of cold baths even in winter, hearty Scotch tweed, breakfasts of “whole oranges, whole-wheat porridge, and whole milk,” and all dinners alfresco, no matter the cold and wind and chilling mist at their summer place on the shore—remarks not unkindly that coming out was not a success for her daughter. Nor was it for Nancy Hale, especially, who had not-so-secret artistic ambitions and who spent two years studying the fine arts before marrying at 20 the socialite and writer Taylor Scott Hardin in 1928. The marriage, too, was not a success, although Hale did have a son, Mark, with Hardin; and when the little family moved to New York City, the new, bright, exciting city gave Nancy Hale the second of her three great locations for her fiction. “The Bubble,” one of her best-known stories, in which a very young and pregnant new wife is put up in the grand and elegant Washington, DC, house of her mother-in-law, is a study of maternal and marital and socioeconomic ambivalence. The young mother, when her baby is born and her body has become sleek again, flees to New York and picks up her flashy, exciting life there as though something as momentous and earthquaking as childbirth hadn’t just happened to her.

There are surprisingly few short stories of motherhood in Nancy Hale’s body of work, but among the best is the deliciously alienating and moving “On the Beach,” in which a mother watches her plump little son on an outing to the shore. Hers is a child with whom the mother feels a great and wordless sympathy, who, she muses, “used to look up even from his play pen, the light in his face reflecting her exact mood.” But on this particular morning the mother feels the close affinity with her son broken as Cold War–era anxiety slowly overwhelms her in great waves; only with difficulty, at the story’s end, does the pragmatic little body of her boy bring her back to the moment. Later in the collection, in “A Slow Boat to China,” an angry mother is ambushed by her grief and loneliness when she drops her son off at college.

In 1971, Hale cofounded the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which currently offers residencies to over 350 artists per year.

Although the Hales of Boston boasted of a long literary heritage, it was only when she moved to New York City that Nancy Hale’s life in letters began. She worked for Vogue as a bright and beautiful young creature, freelancing at night, and almost immediately started publishing in places like Harper’s, Vanity Fair, and Scribner’s, where she was edited and championed by the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins. By 21, she was publishing in the newly founded magazine The New Yorker, and by 26 she had published two novels and divorced her first husband.

In the last of her ground-shaking deracinations, Nancy Hale married her second husband, the journalist Charles Wertenbaker, in 1935, and moved with him to Virginia. The shift from the prim North to the bewildering South brought out a satirical side in Nancy Hale that hadn’t showed itself in her work before. In the story “That Woman,” Hale shines a bright light on Southern women’s hypocritical attitudes toward sex and the way they often unquestioningly uphold the patriarchy. The stories “The Marching Feet” and “Book Review,” both written in 1941 during the thick of World War II, describe how Southern ideas of white supremacy are subterranean, uniquely American flavors of fascism. “Those Are as Brothers” pulses with anger, a searing denunciation of the way wealthy people often feel free to diminish the poorer, less powerful, suffering people whom they hold in their thrall.

Yet the Virginia landscape’s beauty also brought out a sense of romance and wonder in Nancy Hale, best seen in her story “Mid-summer,” with its breathtaking Gothic overtones:

“There was something terrible about the hollows, deep-bottomed with decaying leaves, smelling of dead water and dark leafage and insufferable heat. The sound of the horses’ feet was like a confused heartbeat on the swampy ground. They both felt it. They used to get off their horses, without having said a word, and helplessly submerge themselves in each other’s arms, while the sweat ran down their backs under their shirts. They never talked there. They stood swaying together with their booted feet deep in the mulch, holding each other, hot and mystified in this green gloom. From far away in the upper meadows they could always hear the cicada reaching an unbearable, sharpened crescendo.”

There are years of intense rupture and renewal in all lives; 1941 was one such year in Nancy Hale’s. During this year, she divorced her second husband—with whom she’d had a second son, William, in 1938—and published her magisterial novel The Prodigal Women, a book that she’d struggled to write for seven difficult years. Shortly after she finished her novel, she had a nervous breakdown, for which she sought psychiatric treatment at a sanitarium.   A number of stories in Where the Light Falls come out of this and subsequent harrowing experiences of mental instability and attendant vulnerability, including “Miss August,” “Some Day I’ll Find You . . . ,” “Sunday—1913,” and the excellent “Who Lived and Died Believing,” a story in which a woman’s madness washes through her in vivid pointillism until, eventually, shock treatment washes it out of her.

The paradox is that one has to read the stories to understand how wrong we have been to let Nancy Hale slip from our memory.

In 1942, she married her third husband, Fredson Bowers, a renowned textual scholar and a professor of English at the University of Virginia. This last relationship turned out to be the happiest and most stable one in her life: she and her husband would remain married for 45 years, until her death. Although the final story in this collection was published in September 1966, she never stopped publishing or writing her memoirs, nonfiction, short stories, and novels, including a never completed novel-in-history of a Hale relative, Charles Hale, who had been a U.S. consul general to Egypt and the publisher of the Boston Daily Advertiser.

In 1971, she cofounded the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which currently offers residencies to over 350 artists per year, a magnificent gift of time, space, and silence in which artists can dream and fail and, eventually, create. In 1980, Nancy Hale was slowed down by a stroke, but according to her friends, she still wrote and thought about her writing until the very week of her death in 1988. How sad it seems that, in the 30 years since then, Nancy Hale has been almost entirely forgotten, even by the writers who consider themselves to hold a library of American short stories in their skulls. I am a rabid fanatic and practitioner of this literary form, but I confess that my only exposures to Nancy Hale before this project were in a few late-night insomniac forays into the online archives of The New Yorker, and in Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor’s magisterial 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, which includes her 1941 story “Those Are as Brothers.”

I said earlier that her slow forgetting was sad, but in fact it makes me riotously angry that such a brilliant and important writer as Nancy Hale could fall out of public consciousness. Over these months of living with Hale’s voice in my head, I have asked myself over and over how we could have turned our eyes from her, and I find that I have no decisive conclusions, only a few hypotheses. These include internalized misogyny and the quiet, deadly, constant devaluing of women’s work; the sheer quantity of her stories, some of the later and more purely autobiographical of which do feel a bit slight and sweet, like too much meringue at the end of a meal; the fact that Nancy Hale’s aristocratic Boston lineage and her later adopted role as a Southern gentlewoman unfairly lend to her imagined person a stale, old-fashioned whiff of dust and starch; the false presumption that the short story form, the one in which Nancy Hale excelled, is a lesser creature than its big and blustering sibling, the novel; the work’s straightforward realism that can tempt the reader into thinking it easy, at least until you come up for air at the end of a story and are struck still by the work’s precision and emotional muscle; and William Maxwell’s point, in his tribute to Hale after her death, that she was a writer who really cared about feeling and that “the intellectual content of fiction has been more valued than the emotional.”

Though each of these devaluations is knocked out cold by reading even a few of the stories in this collection, the paradox is that one has to read the stories to understand how wrong we have been to let Nancy Hale slip from our memory. It is in this way that the circuit of forgetfulness endlessly repeats itself, to the detriment of the literary canon, which, through forgetting, pares itself down to seem like a monoculture of educated, white, upper-middle-class men.

I hope, very much, that The Selected Stories of Nancy Hale will serve as a necessary correction to her slow slide into oblivion. The more time that I have spent with these stories, the more invaluable her work appears to me. During the era in which she was writing, it was taken for granted that the stories most worthy of being told were those of the heroic or well-off white man, like those by Hale’s contemporaries and fellow Scribner authors Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, but Nancy Hale insisted on the importance of the lives of ordinary women and children.

She saw the turmoil and drama of a little boy so driven by despair at the revelation that he would carry his melancholy into adulthood that he would run into a basement and put a noose around his little neck; she saw the profound loss incurred when a woman, in order to live in the wider world’s stark reality, has to give up her treasured belief in a wild and all-consuming love. She saw how rigid ideas of propriety can so warp a good and gentle woman who has lived a long life under the thumb of her severe sister that even when she has broken free from her sister’s constraints, and wants to exult a little in the life of the body, she finds herself unable to do so.

Nancy Hale’s voice has become a quiet and internal intelligence that over the past months I have begun to rely on; finishing the book gives me a gentle, bittersweet tang. She once said, according to her granddaughter Norah Hardin Lind, that the work of a great writer makes it feel as though we are “sitting on some cosmic front porch together, rocking, exchanging long, gratifying accounts of our happy or unhappy lives. At any moment the writer is trying to make it seem that the reader can break in upon the writer’s stream of discourse crying, Why, that is just the way it was with me!” Many times in reading for this volume, I had that same slippery sense of connection with a keen and perceptive mind that saw pieces of my life more clearly than I could. A small, ignoble part of me even wants to keep her as my own brilliant friend without having to share her with the rest of the world; a joy held secretly within the heart can illuminate a dark time or a difficult day, and there have been plenty of these for all of us in recent months.

Yet even my worst self knows that, given the choice between keeping a beloved writer as a prized secret and shouting her brilliance to the world at large, it behooves all of us to shout, to make noise, to throw parades for the writers of the past who merit rediscovery. Consider this introduction to be the loosening of my grip on this extraordinary writer. Nancy Hale will continue to be mine; I am so happy that she will now also be yours.

_______________________________

Where the Light Falls

Where the Light Falls by Nancy Hale and edited by Lauren Groff is now available by the Library of America. 

Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff is the author of five books, the latest of which is the story collection Florida. Her 2015 novel, Fates and Furies, was a National Book Award finalist, as well as a New York Times Bestseller and Notable Book, and was translated into over 30 languages. She is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and lives in Gainesville, Florida.





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