The Most Unread Book Ever Acclaimed


Arts & Culture


Like the holy books, long novels are more often maligned than read. Critics complain that they’re exasperating or impossible or not worth the time. But in the history of my reading life, I’ve encountered nothing like the caveat lectors surrounding Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. They feel less like user warnings or cautionary tales than being forced to gaze upon the skeletons of those who had previously made the attempt. When it was published in 1965, the critic Peter Prescott gave up after two days, even though his editor offered him four times the normal rate (everyone else had refused). The online reader reviews I found vary between naked revulsion and sheepish endorsement. One Amazon reviewer claims he gave a copy of the twelve-hundred-page novel to each of his friends and promised that if they finished, he would pay for their children’s college education. “I’ve paid for no one’s education!” he writes. Upon Young’s death in 1995, thirty years after the novel was published, the New York Times proclaims it “one of the most widely unread books ever acclaimed.”

I came across Young by way of her essay “The Midwest of Everywhere,” a short piece about a series of bizarre sights she claims to have witnessed firsthand in the American interior: elephants browsing the banks of the Wabash River; an entire town populated by deaf people; a dead whale in a boxcar, stranded in the middle of a cornfield. Young was born in Indiana and spent many decades in the Midwest—at the University of Chicago, where she studied Elizabethan and Jacobean literature, and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she taught fiction—but in the essay, she writes about the region in a way that is entirely unfamiliar. “For me, a plain Middle Westerner, there is no middle way,” she writes. “I am in love with whatever is eccentric, devious, strange, singular, unique, out of this world—and with life as an incalculable, a chaotic thing.” I read the essay last winter at my home in Wisconsin. At the time, I was in a slump that was probably seasonal but felt dire and endless and linked, in a vague way, to the fact that I lived in a region that was bound up in the American imagination, and increasingly my own, with the television reboot of Roseanne. I have always lived in the Midwest and had often defended it against reductive stereotypes. But the notion that it was an economic and political wilderness had become such an insistent article of national consensus that I’d begun to doubt my own frames of reference. I was not in a particularly ambitious mood that winter, but I kept thinking about the strange consciousness I’d glimpsed in the essay. A couple days later, I found a copy of Miss MacIntosh

The novel likewise begins in the Midwest. A young woman, Vera Cartwheel, is traveling by bus through southern Indiana, looking out at an endless expanse of gray mist. “It was spring, but it might have been winter still, another planet, the face of the dead moon,” she observes. The barren landscape immediately calls to mind the fractured modern psyche, the fragments shored against the ruins. But this is not Eliot’s wasteland; it’s the void of Genesis at the moment before creation, “when only the spirit of God had moved upon the deep.” The only other passengers on the bus are a pair of young newlyweds, trying to sleep. The woman is pregnant and festooned in all sorts of worn finery. Something strange begins to happen when Vera describes the woman’s clothes:

Her dress of sleazy silk was bright burned orange painted with black sail-boats sailing over purple trees and red football players playing over steeples and white skiers skiing over sail-boats cascading to the hem and locked acrobats, the entire field of outdoor sports, it seemed, being on her body, for her scarf was painted with spidery tennis players and tennis nets and ice-skaters skating on silver ponds and red polo riders riding red horses, and there were little footballs hanging from her charm bracelets, tennis rackets and ice-skates and golf clubs and numerous other trophies, some of field and stream, satin fishes running around the hem of her chiffon petticoat edged with yellow lace, butterflies embroidered upon the keens of her thin silk stockings …

The description of her dress does not end there. More sports are named. It’s hard not to feel that something has gone wrong. The record is skipping; whoever was manning the controls has stepped out for a cigarette—or a very potent joint. Why must the pattern contain every conceivable sport? Would not three or four or a dozen have been enough? In a similar vein, one might ask why there needs to exist ten thousand types of birds or three hundred fifty thousand species of beetles. But these are modern questions—not the sort of thing that interests God or nature—and Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is a Modernist novel decidedly unconcerned with modern questions.

It seems impossible to describe the book in terms of plot or structure. Even the basic operations of character and perspective aren’t straightforward. But here’s an attempt: Vera has come to the Midwest from Boston in search of Miss MacIntosh, her childhood nursemaid, a spinster from What Cheer, Iowa, who mysteriously disappeared after Vera’s fourteenth birthday. What makes Miss MacIntosh so remarkable is that she is, unlike most of the people in Vera’s life, ordinary. “She was neither a high brow nor a low brow but just, as she was pleased to admit, a plain middle brow, a Middle Westerner, trying to steer her middle course.” But little in the book is what it seems—especially that which appears ordinary. Early on, Vera notices that the bus is not driving a straight line but circling the same route. It’s at this point that the novel—which begins as a quest—folds in on itself, tunneling into reveries and flashbacks, drifting into the consciousness of other characters, most of them women. There is Vera’s aunt Hannah, an unmarried suffragette who owns fifty wedding dresses, and Esther Longtree, an eternally pregnant woman. There’s Vera’s mother, a bedridden opium addict—“the horizontal person”—whose labyrinthine, hallucinatory monologues are among the book’s many delights: she imagines she’s conversing with dead queens and kings, golden harps, chandeliers, Milton, Shelley, subway musicians, and “two sister ravens who had created the universe.”

Around page two hundred, the warnings about the book begin to seem less hysterical. The novel is not demanding in any conventional sense: it contains no footnotes, no structural gimmicks, no compendious digressions. What it does require is attention of the kind that Americans often find most difficult: the stoic focus needed for meditation—or for driving into the infinite horizon of the heartland. The reader is less likely to throw the book down in a fit of disgust than she is to be lulled into a theta state, a highway hypnosis induced by page after page of incantatory prose. Monologues last for hundreds of pages. Sentences are repeated with subtle, endless differences, reiterating paradoxes: “And his night was his day, and his day was his night, for his twilight was his dawn, and his dawn was his twilight, and his moon was his sun, and his sun was his moon, and his beginning was his end, and his end was his beginning.”

There’s an echo here of Christ at his most runic, in the Gnostic Apocrypha. (Here he is in the Gospel of Thomas: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female … ”) Young was a descendent of Brigham Young, and while her contemporaries often compared her to Eliot and Joyce, she insisted her greatest influences were the Bible, Augustine, and the Mormon poets. She bristled when her work was described as avant-garde; it was inspired by the oldest forms of Western literature.

But the novel does feel oddly contemporary—particularly in its fixation on simultaneous realities. Characters are said to be both alive and dead, both pregnant and barren, both awake and dreaming. Men change into women, and women into men. One character, Mr. Spitzer, suspects that he is actually his own twin brother, who died by suicide. When I explained this character to my husband, he asked whether this was supposed to be metaphorical. I tried several times to answer before realizing that the question itself was irrelevant. According to Young’s ontology, everything is both literal and metaphorical, just as Mr. Spitzer is both himself and his twin. Young was interested in contemporary physics, and Miss MacIntosh is, in some sense, a quantum novel: every probability in the book is equally real and occurring simultaneously. “It seems to me as if, instead of dismissing modern literature as experimental or surrealistic or impressionistic or the great artifice,” Young writes in one of her essays, “we should stop and think a little about the experimental, surrealistic, impressionistic, artificial life of our experience.”

Vera comes to Indiana armed with bucolic visions of small-town life. “There would be cherry and apple and peach and persimmon trees, their blossoms blowing like foam, meadows of wild flowers as closely packed as mosses,” she dreams. Young here is wryly mocking the literary depictions of the Midwest that were popular during her day. She deplored regionalism, particularly the disciples of Sinclair Lewis, whom she called “the middlebrow worshippers of the simple” and who had flattened the heartland into a bland caricature. But Vera’s idealized vision of the region also embodies the follies of Utopian thinking. Young spent seven years in New Harmony, Indiana, writing a history of the town’s two planned communities, and all her books are, to some extent, about failed searches for paradise. The Midwest Vera encounters initially appears to be the inverse of what she was looking for, a void barren of all meaning. But it turns out to be something more extraordinary, a primal void that contains all meaning, even contradictory ones, spawning the novel’s endless phantasmagoric visions. Vera is ultimately forced to abandon her quest, but in doing so, she’s granted something far more valuable: an expanded vision of reality. Young once said that all her writing is “about the recognition that there is no single reality. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.”

This is also a good description of what it must have been like to write this twelve-hundred-page novel, a project that took eighteen years. When Scribner’s commissioned it in 1944, Young expected it would be two hundred pages and could be completed in a couple years. At a certain point, she resigned herself to making it her life’s work. “I would not easily marry, I would not easily travel,” she tells The Paris Review in 1977. “I wanted to write this book.” During that time, she supported herself by teaching—first at Iowa and later at Columbia University in New York, where she lived in Greenwich Village and became friends with Truman Capote, Anaïs Nin, Gertrude Stein, and Richard Wright. She had an affair with Allen Tate and once, at Yaddo, declined the advances of Carson McCullers (“Well, Carson,” she said, by way of apology, “if I could love any woman, it would be you”). But for the most part, she lived in New York as she had in the Midwest, spending most of her time in an apartment filled with books, a large collection of dolls, and a painted carousel horse. The poet Amy Clampitt recalls her striding down Bleecker Street “with a kind of capacious majesty, like a vessel under sail.”

Miss MacIntosh received some positive reviews when it was published—including one by William Goyen, who calls it “one of the most arresting literary achievements in our last 20 years”—and it has, over the decades, maintained a cult following (it was reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press in 1993). But the book’s reputation for difficulty still overshadows the enthusiasm of its admirers. Many critics have taken the novel’s heft as evidence that its author refused to make choices or perhaps was ignorant about how to do so. Young acknowledged that her most brutal reviews came from male critics who blamed the length of the novel—or perhaps its very existence—on the fact that she was childless and had too much time on her hands. She sums up the tenor of these reviews in a 1988 interview: “If she had gotten married she never would have done this.”

But I suspect the problem is not the book’s length but its ambition—a fact that says as much about regionalism as it does gender. When it was published, Midwestern writers, like women writers, were frequently associated with small, quiet novels: portraits of small-town life, quaint domestic dramas. It’s ironic that in this region of expansive vistas, writers have so often limited themselves to the spadework of local anthropology or are constrained by the more immediate need to correct premises—to humanize, to complicate, to prove, simply, that the region is capable of sustaining life. In 1943, the novelist Dawn Powell claimed she wrote about the Midwest to prove to New Yorkers “that in a small radius of 100 square miles in Northern Ohio, there are a half-dozen different types of civilization: a Finnish town, a Dutch town, a rubber town, steel town, and great grain farms, fruit farms, German towns, etc.” It’s not difficult to see why critics sensed, next to such modest aims, something deranged in the sprawl of Miss MacIntosh, an epic in the tradition of Milton or Cervantes, set in Indiana, told largely from the perspective of women. “Indiana is a land rich in legend,” Young said of the novel. “I tried to transmute this legend into a universal and cosmic statement of some kind.”

What statement she intended is not entirely clear. In the end, whatever meaning the story contains is diluted by its sheer excess—which is by design. Miss MacIntosh is a novel as infinite and mystifying as life itself. Having finished it, I experienced no sense of triumph at having conquered something difficult; I felt no closer to proficiency or understanding. In a way, the critic who comes to the novel with the desire to master it, to figure it out, falls victim to the same delusions as its characters, with their quixotic, Utopian quests. Any reader who hopes to survive the book must forget about telos, abandon all hope of destination. Accept that the bus is going nowhere. This is, in any case, what I took from the novel, at a time when I had come to see the place where I lived—a region that has largely outlived its purpose—as a dead end. Young reminded me that many strange and wondrous things once came out of the void. If we could see the world as it truly is, we would realize that they still are, that it’s happening all the time.


Read Marguerite Young’s Art of Fiction interview. 

Meghan O’Gieblyn is a writer who lives in Wisconsin. Her essays have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, n+1, the New York Times, the Guardian, Oxford American, Ploughshares, The New Yorker, The Point, and Tin House. Her collection of essays, Interior States, will be published October 9.