Emily Holmes Coleman

By Lee, Amy | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Emily Holmes Coleman


Lee, Amy, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Emily Holmes Coleman was a woman of many talents and a prolific writer. She is perhaps best known for her 1930 autobiographical novel, The Shutter of Snow, a fictional rendering of a woman's experience and treatment of postpartum psychosis. The subject matter, the content, and the technical innovation exhibited in the novel were ahead of its times, as witnessed by the range of reviews the novel received at the time of its first publication. Coleman, however, was not daunted by the rather negative reception of her book by the lay reading public and went on pouring her energy into the different artistic and literary projects she deemed valuable, whether they were projects she was to undertake herself or works of fellow literary artists in her circles. It was her selfless support of her fellow artists that earned her appreciation from writers and literary critics.

In a review of a recent book-length study of Djuna Barnes's life and work, Marisa Januzzi refers to Emily Coleman as one of the "influential but unsung writers who turned out their best work during the Nightwood years" (192). There is no doubt that the study of Djuna Barnes and her work will continue, but one of the keys into the secret chamber of a full appreciation of an unconventional work such as Nightwood is the circle of literary friends around Barnes during its writing. Coleman was said to have such belief in the work that she volunteered to be Barnes's editor and initiated contact with T. S. Eliot to publish the book, which had already been rejected by several prominent publishers. Virgil Geddes certainly has a point when he views Coleman as "more a catalyst during the twenties in Paris than an exemplary writer" (Geddes 72). Her influence, it seems, came more from her vibrant personality and her tireless enthusiasm for art than from her aesthetics.

Emily Holmes was born on 22 January 1899 in Oakland, California. Her father, John Holmes, was a senior insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut; her mother, who had a history of mental illness, died when she was young. With no mother to take care of her, she was sent to a private boarding school, but she was not happy there. Later she matriculated at Wellesley College, where she felt at home and graduated in 1920. She had a great enthusiasm for writing, and she met Loyd Ring Coleman, a psychologist whom she referred to as "Deke," through a pen friendship. In 1921 they were married.

Their son John was born in 1924. Coleman, however, suffered from postpartum depression and had a mental breakdown. She entered Rochester State Hospital, where she stayed for treatment for two months. During her stay, she suffered from toxic exhaustive psychosis, the experience of which was fantastically depicted in The Shutter of Snow. In 1925 (some sources say 1926) Coleman moved with her husband to live in Paris. Deke was working in advertising then, and Coleman managed to get relocated to the Europe branch of Chicago Tribune for which she had been working, and she wrote the society column for the Paris Tribune.

In Paris Coleman enjoyed very much the freedom and new stimulation of the life of an expatriate. She met writers and artists and engaged in enthusiastic discussions of literature and art. These friendships awakened potential creativity in her and encouraged her to produce poetry of her own. At this time she had a major disagreement with the editor of the Tribune, and she quit her job and devoted all her time to writing. She had quite a number of poems and short stories published in Paris's literary journals including transition and New Review.

In 1928 Coleman was living in Bon Esprit, St. Tropez, working as a personal secretary to Emma Goldman, who was preparing her autobiography, Living My Life (1931), for publication. Goldman referred to her as a "mad American girl called Emily Coleman [Demy]" (Falk 382). Also there she met Peggy Guggenheim, and the two exceptional women started a great friendship that was to last through several decades across marriages and different relationships. …

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