Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Marianne Moore, the James Family, and the Politics of Celibacy

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Marianne Moore, the James Family, and the Politics of Celibacy

Article excerpt

Not long before she died, Marianne Moore received a letter, a form letter, requesting her signature on the following statement: "I have had an abortion. I publicly join millions of other American women in demanding a repeal of all laws that restrict our reproductive freedom." (1) The request was sent to her by Gloria Steinem and Barbaralee Diamonstein, who intended to publish the statement along with the names of its signers in the inaugural issue of Ms. magazine in January 1972. Moore died the first week of February. She was 84 when the letter arrived and quite ill. She almost certainly never saw it.

This letter is a harbinger of what would be asked of women writers over the next 30 years. Although confessional poetry had been around for a decade by 1971, the letter draws on the still-fledgling politics of confession, of "coming out": it asks women to confess to an illegal act, and most likely a private embarrassment, in order to effect political change. Marianne Moore had always supported civil liberties, from the suffrage movement of the 1910s to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and she received this letter because she supported Planned Parenthood. But for her, "suffering and not saying so" was a mark of heroism, not political apathy (Complete Poems 8). It has annoyed some readers that Moore never admitted to a sexual orientation or even to the trials of growing up female in a patriarchal culture. But we can hardly expect her generation to understand identity politics as we do. When Robert Lowell praised Moore in 1967 as the best woman poet writing in English, Langston Hughes, who was also on the platform, countered by calling her "the most famous Negro woman poet in America" (Rampersad 419-20). The joke delighted Moore but not, perhaps, young African Americans in the audience.

Almost simultaneously with the arrival of the Ms. letter, Adrienne Rich delivered to the MLA her famous lecture "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision," in which she calls on women to proclaim their sexual identity and disparages Marianne Moore's distance from hers (168). As identity politics took hold in the 1970s and 1980s, feminist poets and critics unearthed the past in search of literary grandmothers whom they could adopt as paradigms or save from obscurity, preferably both. Moore failed them on both counts. One prominent critic told me in 1985, "Marianne Moore does not need me." (2) Maxine Kumin described Moore as "an eccentric spinster / whom I can't emulate, however much / I admire her words" ("Marianne Moore" 43-44). (3) Women who had come of age in the 1950s and 1960s hardly knew what to make of a celebrity poet in an androgynous tricorne hat who appeared at baseball games, at fashion shows, and in commercials for Braniff airlines. In an era of political activism, how could they admire a poet who joined the campaign to save a landmark tree in Brooklyn but voted for Nixon and supported the Vietnam War? A decade after Moore's death, students who had no memory of the cape and tricorne were entering graduate school. By 1987, the centennial of Moore's birth, the academy had begun to "re-vision" the elderly celebrity as her younger, more defiant self, a woman whose cryptic poems and brilliant conversation "held every man in awe" (Kreymborg 239).

Despite Moore's apparent reticence about gender politics, critics looking for resistance to patriarchal authority in her poems do not turn away empty-handed. Much, and much of the best, criticism in the past decade has been thus motivated; we now know a poet less quaint, less demur, and more politically engaged than previous generations might have imagined. (4) But still, however much we admire her words, she remains for many an "eccentric spinster." We have come to know Moore as a gendered poet but not yet as a sexual one. The blindness lies partly in our age. We accept any sexual preference--except celibacy. Although Marianne Moore may be the least autobiographical of poets even within her own famously impersonal generation, she was by no means indifferent to questions of identity, even sexual identity. …

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