On the Life and Under-Recognized Work of Margery Latimer, Visionary Modernist Writer
Joy Castro Revisits an Intellectual Ahead of Her Time
A quarter of a century ago, when I was a young mother and a doctoral student, a Latina first-gen from straitened circumstances, raising my child and trying to write a dissertation about the canonical women modernists my professors had included on their syllabi—Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys—I stumbled across the blazing work of Margery Latimer.
Riveting, brilliant, and shimmeringly weird, Latimer’s short stories and novels compelled me to scrap my drafted chapters and start over, to visit the Beinecke Library at Yale and the rare books collection at the University of Wisconsin where Latimer’s papers are housed, and then to devote hundreds of pages of my own prose to analyzing and interpreting her work.
But university presses had mostly stopped publishing scholarly books about single authors by then, and Latimer, as an unknown female writer championed by only one young, unknown academic, failed to overcome that industry hurdle, so I published a couple of articles about her while my dissertation gathered dust, and eventually I turned to other things. My own creative work slowly took off, and I realized that I could teach and study the Latinx writers that had not yet been taught at the universities where I’d been a student. Content with these intriguing developments, I moved on—or so I thought.
But Latimer—a self-supporting feminist-leftist intellectual, an avant-garde literary artist who broke ground with both her body and her pen—continued to fascinate and haunt me.
Born in 1899 in rural Wisconsin, Margery Latimer was committed to racial, class, and gender justice all her life—and she was brave about it. She wrote a novel so explicit people wrapped it in brown paper to read it on the subway; she titled it This Is My Body. She wore pants in public.
Leaving her hometown of Portage, population 3,000, she broke the Mann Act and her WASP father’s prohibitions to live with her Jewish boyfriend in Greenwich Village and on Staten Island. (The boyfriend, Kenneth Fearing, wrote porn for money, published poems in The New Yorker, and later published the blistering, prescient, paranoid noir novel The Big Clock. He dedicated his first book of poems, Angel Arms, to Latimer. He also insisted that she terminate a pregnancy she wanted to keep, an experience that forms the bitter climax of This Is My Body.)She scathingly deployed the female gaze upon male characters and treated her female protagonists, as Michael Barrett recently noted, with an odd mix of tenderness and critique.
Unlike most modernist writers, Latimer was the furthest thing from a trust-fund baby. (Her father, while quite vocal about his Anglo-Saxon pride, was a traveling salesman who specialized in suspenders, and the family struggled financially.) In New York, Latimer took clerical work like typing and copyediting to support herself (and sometimes the spendthrift Fearing) while reviewing books and trying to make a name for herself as a writer.
Which she did. Latimer’s short stories appeared in the avant-garde little journals of the day alongside those of James Joyce, William Faulkner, and Gertrude Stein. The editor of her books, Harrison Smith, was Faulkner’s editor, too. Reviewers compared her to canonical high modernists: Stein, Joyce, Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence—and even mainstream critics of the era recognized her extravagant talent: the New York Times Book Review would eventually choose three of Latimer’s four books to lead its fiction section.
“There are four ways to write a woman’s life,” explains scholar Carolyn Heilbrun in her classic study of the subject: “the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called a biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process.”
Latimer chose to reveal her life in fiction—and sometimes in advance of living it—with acute self-consciousness (in the best sense of the word). She both recognized and named the process. Her narratives hewed scrupulously close to autobiography—a blend that tantalized my own writerly appetite for both fiction and memoir. Gesturing toward autofiction decades before the term existed, Latimer gave her own bobbed, red-gold hair to her fictional protagonists, along with her wide blue eyes, tall and curvy build, and scandalously frank behavior. Perhaps even more provocatively than endowing them with erotic appetites, she bestowed upon them her own unabashed yearning to succeed professionally at making art, a classic Künstlerromanesque trajectory her novels and short stories repeatedly trace. In story after story, she interrogated white supremacy (usually voiced by father-figures) and white privilege (usually enjoyed by oblivious and beautiful young heroines), exploring their connection to patriarchal narratives of racial purity, eugenics, and the control of the bodies of daughters and wives.
She scathingly deployed the female gaze upon male characters and treated her female protagonists, as Michael Barrett recently noted, with an odd mix of tenderness and critique, both capturing the anguish of romantic, ambitious young women recognizably patterned upon herself while coolly skewering their delusions and pretensions.
Some of her young protagonists are writers, as in This Is My Body, while others are visual artists (a transposition I’ve recently effected as well, in my novel Flight Risk, which is about a Latina sculptor). Close friends with Georgia O’Keeffe, Latimer briefly dated Walt Kuhn, who’d helped organize the pivotal Armory Show of 1913, the explosion that brought modernist art to the United States, shocking American sensibilities with Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp, Gaugin, and Van Gogh. For her 1929 novella “The Family,” Latimer created a female protagonist whose wild, sensuous, experimental paintings alienate her Midwestern family and friends; young Dorritt (named after Charles Dickens’s besieged heroine) leaves the United States (and her bigoted father) behind for Paris.
In real life, Latimer stayed stateside. In New York, she was a generous, indefatigable promoter of writers she admired, often hauling their manuscripts—including Fearing’s—along to editors’ offices and arguing for their publication. In 1926, Mark Van Doren, literary editor at The Century, advised New Masses editor James Rorty that “Margery Latimer seems to be able to tap most of the radical stuff of the middle northwest.” She was then twenty-seven.
Publishing her book reviews in the New York Herald Tribune, The Nation, and elsewhere, Latimer shaped public opinion about modernist authors whose work she loved. In letters to friends, Latimer easily discussed Joyce, Willa Cather, Henry James, Kay Boyle, Proust, Pirandello, Dostoevsky, and Andre Gide. Prescient and intuitive, with taste like a tuning fork, Latimer was urging her friends to read Melville when the librarians at Yale still shelved Moby Dick under cetology. She recommended Lawrence, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, Lincoln Steffens, Robinson Jeffers, and Somerset Maugham—but reserved her warmest, most personal praise for the work of other women: Mansfield, whose work she passionately admired, Stein, Nella Larsen, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian novelist who would win the Nobel in 1928.
But though intellectually astute—she read Spinoza and Leibniz for pleasure, as does the protagonist of This Is My Body—Latimer had no appetite for academia, which she found stultifying and hopelessly male-dominated. Struggling financially in New York and frustrated by romantic failures (“I am so frightening, for some reason,” she reflected in pained bewilderment, “to the men who like me the best”), she vowed celibacy, returned to her family’s modest home in Portage, and settled down to write, giving occasional readings at regional venues.
But she wanted to remain engaged with the literary world—to keep a hand in the scene. When hopeful writers from all over the country sent manuscripts for her critique, she provided written feedback, single-handedly functioning as a one-woman prototype of today’s low-res MFA programs. She resigned herself to a quiet literary life.
Yet in the spring of 1931, she met Harlem Renaissance writer and confirmed bachelor Jean Toomer, who was then leading the U.S. arm of the Gurdjieff spiritual movement. Latimer again fell passionately in love: in Toomer, she’d met her match at last. Brilliantly talented, frustrated by racist social constraints, light-skinned but choosing neither to pass nor to declare his race at every opportunity, Toomer loved his mixed heritage but chafed at the inherent racism of America’s “one-drop” rule, envisioning a future with no racial barriers at all. Equally utopian, bold, and outspoken, Latimer so enchanted him that he gave up his womanizing and proposed.
At their church wedding in Portage that October, in a signature move that both invoked and flouted convention, Latimer wore black velvet down the aisle. For their honeymoon, the couple—each working on a new book—road-tripped to Santa Fe, Pasadena, Hollywood, and Carmel. When Latimer found, to her great joy, that she was pregnant, both she and Toomer were ecstatic. Their desire for a baby was more than personal; it was intimately connected to their vision of a world made new.
But in Carmel, America’s racism caught up with them. They granted an interview to a reporter at the local weekly Pine Cone, and his revelation of their interracial marriage exploded in a nationwide anti-miscegenation scandal. Time Magazine ran an account of the marriage not under the section heading “People” or “Books” but under “Races” (alongside the cautionary story of an Apache man who’d had sex with a white woman and then murdered her; Time’s editors juxtaposed a photo of Latimer and Toomer with a picture of the accused killer in his cell). Newspapers from as far away as Italy picked up the story, which provoked a flurry of threatening hate mail that condemned the couple for mongrelizing America. During a period of intense racial violence and widespread lynching, the letters were no idle threats. Latimer’s parents left their home in Portage for a safe house.
Undaunted, Latimer and Toomer returned to the Midwest to prepare for the birth of their child. In July, 1932, they settled in Chicago at 69 East Division Street, just two doors down from Lake Shore Drive and half a block from Lake Michigan. Their third-floor apartment was airy, breezy, full of light, and spacious enough to house everyone who arrived to help with the birth: Latimer’s mother Laurie, a trained midwife and pediatric nurse, and a farmgirl who arrived during Latimer’s ninth month to help with the heavy housework.
Surrounded by family and friends, thirty-three years old and blissfully happy, Latimer gave birth to a healthy baby girl. But hours later, hemorrhaging and suffering from infection, she died.
Riven by grief and struggling to care for his infant daughter, Toomer plunged ever more deeply into the Gurdjieff movement. He never regained his own literary heights, and Latimer’s legacy was left to languish and fade.
It’s time to bring her back.
Passionate, luminous, brilliant, and bold, Latimer was both entirely of her moment and a hundred years ahead of her time. She left behind a groundbreaking body of work: two staggeringly audacious novels, two collections of riveting short fiction, and dozens of sharp-eyed reviews and essays, including her 1924 manifesto “The New Freedom,” a flash essay that anticipated (by five full years) the core issues in the most famous feminist literary manifesto we have, Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.
In 1993, Feminist Press brought out an anthology of short stories drawn from Latimer’s two collections, but her novels and much of her short fiction remain out of print.
Uncompromising, brave, and visionary, Margery Latimer lived and wrote her way toward a future that we’re only now beginning to see. Her bold descriptions of women’s desire, ambition, interracial empathy, and economic struggle feel utterly contemporary and necessary. Her work is engrossing, challenging, and pleasurable to read, animated by a tremendous intelligence and generosity. Witty and tragic, soaring and mundane, it blends contradictory styles with effortless ease, juxtaposing plainspoken rural realism with flights of lyricism, and deploys everyday symbols (birds, trees, pavement) that accrue luminous and subtle meanings as the text unfolds. Her stories are peopled, moreover, by complex, contradictory characters. Recognizable, believable individuals, they negotiate among their private longings and their restricted social world, yearning for transcendent meaning and ecstatic connection—yet, when that fails, willing to console themselves (as in this characteristically bleak comic turn) with being “respected by the doctor, the dentist, our butcher, in the electric office, in the gas, general coal, trusted by the egg man.”
Even Latimer’s least pleasant characters possess private pockets of vulnerability that, suddenly revealed, change the way we decode their public actions. She treats her characters with understanding, not derision, and though they are often in terrible conflict with one another, there are no simplistically good or bad people in Latimer’s oeuvre. Neither as forbidding as the fragmented and allusive surfaces of T.S. Eliot’s work nor as overwhelmingly recondite as late Joyce, Latimer’s stories and novels are rich with layered meanings and coded resonances. She is, above all, a good read.
Strictly identitarian politics might argue that there was no particularly good reason, a quarter of a century ago, for a young, broke Latina to have been drawn so strongly to a white woman writer from Wisconsin. Yet now, after having lived as a progressive for more than two decades in red states in the Midwest and Great Plains (due to the vagaries of the academic job market), I see how relevant Latimer is for readers today. She deeply loved her Midwestern origins—the beauty of the land, the humor and loveliness of the people—yet she refused to be constrained by the provincial politics of her surroundings. Rather, she embodied a radical futurism of gender, racial, and class justice decades ahead of her time.
Moreover, she captured in her fiction—as I’ve tried to do in mine—the tensions of loving a place passionately while feeling politically not at home there, a condition that afflicts millions of Americans now and has only been exacerbated by the racial, class, and gender tensions of our own moment. Latimer moved through an equally vexed time with a keenly observant eye, wry humor, and luminous grace, creating art that still vibrates on the page today.
“What struck one immediately was her radiant presence,” recalled poet Carl Rakosi, her friend since college. “Blake would have described her as a cloud of gold.”
Joy Castro’s novel, Flight Risk, is available November 1 via Lake Union Publishing.