Literature's nuisance: (Riding) Jackson's memoir

A review of ‘The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson’

The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson, Volumes 1 and 2

The Person I Am: The Literary Memoirs of Laura (Riding) Jackson, Volumes 1 and 2

Eds. John Nolan and Carroll Ann Friedman

Trent Editions 2011, ISBN 9781842331439 (Volume 1); ISBN 9781842331446 (Volume 2)

Rarely do authors talk back to the literary apparatus — criticism, reviews, biographies —that builds up around their work. In the two-volume collection of Laura (Riding) Jackson’s “literary memoirs,” (Riding) Jackson does just that, while also providing new insights into her theories on literature, ethics, and the topic of memoir itself. As (Riding) Jackson wrote in 1984, she faced “a stream of published erroneous representations of myself, my thought, my writings” (2:229). In responses to her work and in accounts of her life, (Riding) Jackson has indeed been villianized, marginalized, and ignored. Many in academic and poetic scholarship (including myself) have attempted to reclaim (Riding) Jackson from these representations; adding to these recent scholarly attempts, The Person I Am offers a valuable, personal defense of the author and her work.

Rather than a complaint, a correction, or an autobiography, this collection is more, as (Riding) Jackson explains, an aid to understanding. Both volumes will be useful to those seeking additional knowledge about (Riding) Jackson’s philosophy and point of view. (Riding) Jackson put together the first volume herself; the second volume, which consists of essays, short pieces, and correspondence, was put together by the editors. The editors selected the title, explaining that (Riding) Jackson considered others, including “Praeterita” and “Later-Life Commentaries.” The term “memoir” here is somewhat awkward, as (Riding) Jackson and her editors acknowledge. The text includes several points of interest which broaden our knowledge of (Riding) Jackson’s biography — including new information about her relationships with figures such as Robert Graves and Geoffrey Phibbs, her participation in the Fugitives poetry group, her life in Wabasso, Florida, and her personal thoughts on a range of other artists, from filmmaker Len Lye to Sylvia Plath — but these volumes do not take the form of a typical autobiographical narrative.

(Riding) Jackson’s “literary memoirs,” in the spirit of her own devotion to etymology and linguistics, are more in line with the origins of the word “memoir” than with our contemporary understanding of memory-based personal autobiography. Older, more obsolete definitions trace “memoir” to “memorandum,” “note,” “record.” The Person I Am operates more as a collection of extended footnotes than as a tell-all life story. (Riding) Jackson documents her perspective, supplementing critical studies as well as giving us a theoretical guide to her writings. The result is a significant contribution to the expanding body of interpretations and reinterpretations of (Riding) Jackson’s consistently perplexing and often uncategorizable work.

Throughout the text, (Riding) Jackson conflates herself with her written work. She says “I have not known … a sense of writer-identity in separation from my sense of human-being identity” (1:177). (Riding) Jackson views both her life and writing as part of a moving “continuum” (1:17); she writes,

In trying to help those who have applied themselves in writing doctoral dissertations on my work, I have in each case, offered the recommendation: ‘Think of me as, generally, in movement.’ It is a kind of movement not for solitary attainment to points forward. I have proceeded, and proceed, in expectation of the necessary appearance of company at some point, or points; it is a spiritually natural human condition. I do nothing in my writer’s course inconsistent with what it befits us all spiritually to do, in being human. I have labored towards, I labor towards, our knowing, our knowing how to rightly tell, and truly live, our story. (1:190)

The Person I Am, in its refusal to accept existing accounts of (Riding) Jackson’s life and work, contributes to this ever-changing process. In layering new information and interpretation on top of scholarship, (Riding) Jackson does not allow her work to stagnate; instead, she participates in self-analysis and encourages readers to join her in this type of midrashic reading.

(Riding) Jackson’s carefully developed and defined belief in the role of literature and language conflicted with what she found when, as a younger poet, she encountered the “literary world.” She poses the “literary world” in opposition to what she calls “reality” or the “plain world.” She sees herself occupying this more “human,” “plain world.” In her introduction to the memoirs, she explains how her “way of being” led her into a “literary life-course,” but that her view of literature differed sharply from others in her time-period. She critiques the “literary world mentality” as ingrown, out of touch, and stifling: she writes,

In the special literary world, writers of natural-writer identity are exposed to various dangers of unacceptance or suspicious or hostile treatment, if they do not accommodate themselves to codes of autonomous literary-world legislation, and rituals of literary-world self-worship. (1:23)

(Riding) Jackson turns to the example of Robert Graves (with whom she had a working and romantic relationship) in order to illustrate her position and to distinguish herself and her writing from the selfish motives of the literary world. Much of the literary criticism and biography that (Riding) Jackson responds to in The Person I Am depict her as either subordinate to or smothering of Graves’s talent. She dismisses Graves’s intentions as self-interested and lacking seriousness, characterizing him as driven by “ambition to achieve importance in some field of activity” rather than committed to the sacrifices required of the truly devoted writer (1:210). In conveying her religious-like belief in language, (Riding) Jackson forces others to examine their commitment to writing and avoid distractions such as ambitious “self-worship” and literary-world “codes.” She questions the motives behind writing and the processes of criticism which can (unfairly) elevate or erase particular authors. These explanations both give new depth to her decision to renounce poetry and recharge debates about literary attention-getting.

To critics, (Riding) Jackson says, she is “a nuisance” (1:145): “my work has an effect of dampening, discouraging, literary interest in it because it asks no favors of good regard, and offers no congratulations for attention paid to it as manifesting sensible discretion and sagacity” (1:201). It is in fact her work’s demanding, unapologetic quality — and its continuing relevance to writers and readers — which provokes fascination and literary investigation.