A Life in Letters

Portfolio Jacob Howland

Thirty-one, a single mother of two young sons, she labored at her typewriter day and night, worked part time as a librarian and an editor for the University of Chicago Press, and often threw bills directly into the trash.

Among the quotations my mother, the author Bette Howland, used to post on cards around her workspace is one from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim:


The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertion of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.

Bette was born in 1937 in a working-class Jewish neighborhood of Chicago’s West Side. Her three books—the memoir W-3 (1974), about her imprisonment in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt, and the autobiographical story collections Blue in Chicago (1978) and Things to Come and Go (1983)—transformed deep and anxious inner motions into literature.

The events she writes about in W-3 happened in 1968. Thirty-one, a single mother of two young sons, she labored at her typewriter day and night, worked part time as a librarian and an editor for the University of Chicago Press, and often threw bills directly into the trash. (In 1956, she married Howard Howland, a Mayflower descendant who would become a prominent biologist; they separated in the early sixties, and later divorced.) The neighborhood we lived in then—Hyde Park, long before gentrification—was chaotic and dangerous. I remember standing at the window one very cold winter’s day, six floors up, looking west, over miles and miles of slums, and above the rooftops, as Saul Bellow puts it, “the dragging smoke which rises with difficulty in zero weather.” The memory captures for me, and perhaps for my mother as well, the indescribable, metaphysical bleakness of life in Chicago. One afternoon, while staying at Bellow’s apartment when he was overseas, she swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.

That period of Bette’s life forms part of the context for a collection of letters and postcards I discovered among my mother’s possessions this past summer. She met Bellow in 1961 at a writing conference on Staten Island, an “excited, charged man,” and was attracted as much by his “dark, glowing eyes that seemed to want to tell you everything” as by his prose. He played important roles in her life over the next forty years: occasional lover, mentor, critic (they read aloud for each other from their manuscripts), friend.

Bellow wrote that “the fact is a wire through which one sends a current.” Like Bellow, Bette stuck with the facts about people and events, and didn’t need to change them much. But rather than just send a current through them, she registered the voltage they already carry:


I always take books with me on buses or trains. I never read them.… it seems to me that there is something immoral—because inattentive—about reading when your body is in transit.… I should be paying attention instead. But paying attention to what? —Blue in Chicago

What should we pay attention to, in transit on the seas of existence? Bette developed a writer’s eye for the meanings of everyday life in all its grime and splendor, and an ear for its many languages. She learned to make sense of her life by observing its concrete moral reality.

Though her parents regarded her plan to become a writer as insane—the world they grew up in had no categories in which to make sense of such an idea—my mother came to understand that her family was full of characters: particular human types who provided rich material for her creative impulse. Her father, Sam Sotonoff, was one of seven children of Russian Jews; her mother, Jessie Berger, was also a child of recent immigrants. (Jessie’s mother, Sarah, came from Bucharest to Chicago by way of Louisville and spoke Yiddishized English with a Kentucky drawl—“Y’all have eat!”) Sam owned a grocery store that went bust during the Depression, and ended up running heavy machinery for a company that manufactured nuts and bolts for automobiles—a job that never quite gave Jessie the wealth and status she craved. Bette wrote tenderly, beautifully about her parents, yet she did not speak to Sam for many years before his death, and barely spoke to Jessie; her writing was the vehicle of her love. Her work is all about connections made and missed: about falling short of being a good daughter, or how a parent’s love comes out looking like hostility.

Bette’s life as a writer was one of more loneliness than her monkish vocation demanded, and more poverty than she bargained for. After leaving Chicago in 1975, she preferred remote locations. She finished Blue in Chicago on an island in Maine. She walked its circumference daily, about three miles, even in the deep snow. She knew almost no one, and no one knew her, and she liked that. Later, she lived on farms in Pennsylvania and Indiana; a Quonset hut in Michigan.

My mother was always writing, but she almost stopped publishing fiction after winning the MacArthur Award in 1984. What appeared in print was mostly literary criticism. Though it was a financial blessing—my mother snagged bargains in thrift stores all her life, and the money has lasted to this day—the MacArthur was a curse as well. I suspect she felt anything she published afterward had to justify the judges’ esteem.

Late in her career, however, Bette produced an extraordinary novella. “Calm Seas and Prosperous Voyage” is based on the last days of my mentor, a professor of philosophy, with whom she was for a time romantically involved. She wove from his life, and his death at forty-seven, a story with the primal power and universal significance of myth.

Victor Lazarus is someone we never really know, but in whose company a few of us may learn, to our shame, who we are. His ex-wife and nemesis, SHE—a child survivor of the Holocaust—is the Fury of Jewish history. SHE embodies the frenzy that tormented Bette herself, reaching across the sea in the deep anxieties that her grandparents, fresh from the pogroms, brought with them from the Old World to the New.

Victor is comparable to Socrates in his inscrutability and his symbolic, prophetic richness. At his funeral, the trees are filled with locusts, and his former colleague, Arnie Rheingold, busy making excuses for betraying his friend, brushes the bugs from his sleeve without noticing. These are the cicadas of Plato’s Phaedrus, where they symbolize empty chatter.

It’s not just Arnie’s words that are weighed and found wanting in the story. “Tell me, Victor,” the narrator asks at one point, “where should I go? Where do I belong? I’m not your student, not a colleague, not family; no longer a lover.… What am I to you, Victor?” The narrator’s detachment from ordinary social roles and relationships, a familiar feature of my mother’s life and work, gives her a kind of objectivity as a moral witness. Her questions also seem to me a reflection on the inherent limitations of literature. Is it really true that “all sorrows can be born if they belong to the story”—that “In the end,” as Victor speculates (while talking—O the irony!—in his sleep), “the sheer consolations of Myth will exceed the mournful contingencies of the True?” What if a story cannot encompass the human reality of which it speaks? How can a storyteller redeem the sorrow of losing someone who has always exceeded comprehension?

These questions weigh heavily on me. My mother now suffers from MS and dementia. The carpet around her easy chair is littered with unfinished manuscripts, words struck through in her shaky hand. I read aloud to her, often from her own writing. While we can no longer discuss the meaning of her stories, this activity pleases us both.

No. 23

No. 23

Author

Jacob Howland is McFarlin Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tulsa. His books include Plato and the Talmud and the forthcoming Plato’s Republic and the Voyage of the Soul, both with Cambridge University Press. His essay “Chicago Love Letters: Bellow and Bette” appeared in the October 2015 issue of Commentary.

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