To Be Mary MacLane


Arts & Culture

Advertisement for Mary MacLane’s film Men Who Have Made Love to Me, 1918. Photo: Perfection Pictures / Essanay Film Manufacturing Company / George Kleine System. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

“I of Womankind and of nineteen years, will now begin to set down as full and frank a Portrayal as I am able of myself, Mary MacLane, for whom the world contains not a parallel.” Thus begins one of the most unusual books in our literature, by one of the most scandalous American writers.

When The Story of Mary MacLane was published by the prestigious Chicago firm of Herbert S. Stone and Company in April 1902, its author was skyrocketed to nationwide notoriety. The book was an immediate sensation. Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and the fact that it was the work of a teenage girl—living in Butte, Montana, of all places—made the scandal complete. Every Associated Press affiliate in the country ran a front-page story on it. Here for the first time was a young woman’s “inner life shown in its nakedness”:

I have discovered for myself the art that lies in obscure shadows. I have discovered the art of the day of small things … I care neither for right nor for wrong? my conscience is nil. My brain is a conglomeration of aggressive versatility. I have reached a truly wonderful state of miserable morbid unhappiness … May I never become that abnormal, merciless animal, that deformed monstrosity—a virtuous woman …

Respectable critics roared their disapproval. “Mary MacLane is mad,” wrote the New York Herald. “She should be put under medical treatment, and pens and paper kept out of her way until she is restored to reason.” The New York Times urged that she be spanked. Other critics raised the charge of “obscenity.” When the Butte Public Library announced that it would not allow the book on its shelves, the Helena Daily Independent applauded, arguing that if this book “should go in, all the self-respecting books in the library would jump out of the window.”

The Story of Mary MacLane was an instant best seller. Some eighty thousand copies were sold the first month alone, and the resulting $17,000 in royalties allowed MacLane to fulfill her greatest ambition: to escape Butte. The book went through several printings, and its author remained front-page news for years. Mary MacLane Societies were organized by young women all over the country. The popular vaudeville team of Weber and Fields—remembered today mostly as the introducers of pie-in-the-face gags—did a burlesque of the book. A full-length spoof was published, titled The Story of Willie Complain. “Montana’s lit’ry lady” found her way into the comics and popular songs. There was even a Mary MacLane Highball, “with or without ice-cream, cooling, refreshing, invigorating, devilish, the up-to-date drink.”

The rage for “MacLaneism,” against which leading critics from coast to coast declaimed so fervently, also had its more somber aspect. It was reported that a Chicago girl who had organized the local Mary MacLane Society was arrested for stealing a horse. She said she committed the theft because she needed the experience for a novel she was writing. And on May, 4 1902, the Great Falls Daily Tribune told of a Michigan fifteen-year-old who “imagined herself ill-used and misunderstood. The reading of the morbid ravings of the Butte girl convinced her that she was, and a dose of arsenic followed. She died with a copy of the book in her hands.” According to some reports, MacLane’s book prompted a whole rash of suicides.

Who was Mary MacLane—this Montana girl who drove literary critics to distraction and made moralists furious, and whose book was said to provoke insanity, crime, and suicide?

Descended from “a long line of Scotch and Canadian MacLanes,” Mary was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on May 2, 1881. Throughout her life she was fiercely proud of her father’s “Highland Scot” heritage, and she considered her own rebellious genius to be a direct result of it. At age four her family moved to western Minnesota. Her father died when she was eight. A few years later, after her mother had remarried—this time to “a mining man”—they pressed on to Montana, finally settling in Butte in the mid-1890s. Those who knew Mary MacLane in those years recalled her as a studious, withdrawn, and somewhat morbid child; her schoolmates called her “The Centerville Ghost” because she liked to prowl around the local cemetery at night. For two years she edited the Butte High School paper. She graduated in 1899, with proficiency in Latin, Greek, and other languages.

She seems to have read whatever came her way—everything from Nick Carter pulp mysteries to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Drawn to the great Romantic poets, Byron and Keats above all, she was also fond of “books for boys.” She did not, however, care for “girls’ books”: “I felt as if I had more in common with the Jews wandering through the wilderness, or with a band of fighting Amazons.”

Well versed in the history of the struggle for women’s rights, she read and liked the feminist authors—especially Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Victoria Woodhull—but took no part in the organized women’s movement. Similarly, she admired “the noise and color and morale of the crowds on a Miners’ Union Day” (Butte was a stronghold of the militant Western Federation of Miners, and later of the Industrial Workers of the World), but remained outside the ranks of organized labor. “I am always alone,” she wrote. “I might mingle with people intimately every hour of my life, still I should be alone.”

Outwardly her life remained in many ways as severely restricted as that of most women in the turn-of-the-century United States, crushed beneath the weight of custom and crippled by prejudice. But inwardly her spirit yearned for love, adventure, and the marvelous, and teemed with a defiance that found expression in her writing. It was what she did with these yearnings and this defiance that makes her work so unique and important. And what did she do? Simply, brilliantly, rigorously, she revealed the real working of her mind in the various circumscribed situations of daily life.

“The clearest lights on persons,” she noted, “are small salient personal facts and items about them and their ways of life.” Out of these “small salient personal facts” Mary MacLane elaborated her own myth—a myth of herself. From the seemingly most trivial things that surrounded her, she distilled a pure magic. She wrote, with sensuous detail, on “the art of eating an olive,” on her long walks over Butte’s endless “sand and barrenness,” on the sexual longings stirred in her by seventeen engraved portraits of Napoleon. Narcissistically, obsessively, playfully, she explored the infinite irrational depths of her recalcitrant subjectivity. “Just to be Mary MacLane—who am first of all my own self, and get by with it!—how I do that I cannot quite make out.”

After The Story of Mary MacLane she published two more books: My Friend Annabel Lee (1903) and I, Mary MacLane (1917). She also contributed feature articles to a number of newspapers and magazines. None of her writings fit into the usual literary classifications. They are neither fiction nor nonfiction; they are not “stream of consciousness” narratives and should not be confused with “true confessions.” Although presented in diary form, they are really something quite different. They are certainly not autobiography, philosophy, or psychology, any more than they are stories, essays, or poems. Mary MacLane defied existing genres and created her own.

Poetic humor is her hallmark. Much of her work, such as “The Six Toothbrushes” and “The Back of a Magazine,” makes us think of Lautréamont and Jarry. There is an “anti-literary” quality about her writing—anti-literary in the sense intended by André Breton and Paul Éluard when they declared that “poetry is the opposite of literature.” Although an avid reader she disdained the society of litterateurs and contributed rarely, if at all, to literary reviews. Her eccentric, playful, yet radical divergence from the dominant literary tendencies of her time qualifies her as an authentic presurrealist.

“I do not write what my thoughts are saying to me,” she acknowledged, although “now and again I think I catch some truth by the sweat of its Rhythm.” But “something lives, lives muscularly in me that constantly betrays me, destroys me against all my own convictions, against all my own knowledge, against all my own desire.” With the same striking candor she recognized the limits of her own self-assigned project: “It is as if I have made a portrait not of Me, but of a Room I have just quitted.”

If most critics disparaged her with uncomprehending malice, there were at least a few exceptions. The novelist Gertrude Atherton, who visited MacLane and wrote about her at length, admired not only her writing but also her conversation, “a mixture of slang and prose of an almost classical purity”; she found, too, that MacLane’s “criticisms of current authors were acute, unbiased, and everything she said was worth listening to.” Hamlin Garland praised “her crisp, clear, unhesitating use of English.” H. L. Mencken admired her sense of “the infinite resilience, the drunken exuberance, the magnificent power and delicacy of the language,” and said he knew of no other woman writer who could play on words more magically. In a full-page review in the Chicago American, Clarence Darrow pronounced The Story of Mary MacLane “little short of a miracle,” and went on to say that “no more marvelous book was ever born of a sensitive, precocious brain.” The socialist Oscar Lovell Triggs saluted MacLane’s courage in portraying “the inner history of her life.” And Harriet Monroe, who went on to become the founding editor of Poetry magazine, likened MacLane to Emily Brontë and elsewhere stated that she had never met anyone with more analytical power.

After The Story of Mary MacLane was published, the young author visited Chicago and then went East for a time. Rumor had it that she might enroll in Radcliffe College or Vassar, but nothing came of it. She found life in Boston and Cambridge dull compared to Butte, “where the people are so much more virile and full of imagination.” She much preferred New York, especially Greenwich Village, where she kept an apartment for several years. Her New York writings include an affectionate sketch of Coney Island and a strong indictment of Wall Street.

Wherever she went she was sure to confound the philistines with her unconventional behavior. She went out of her way to insult Butte society matrons who staged a literary reception in her honor. A trip to Newport, Rhode Island, provoked an article sharply critical of that fashionable resort town’s class pretensions and arrogance. Mary MacLane simply could not be “domesticated.” Violating social conventions was the essence of her being. At a time when tolerance of dissident sexuality was virtually nonexistent, she openly avowed her lesbian inclinations. We find her refereeing a prizefight in Thermopolis, Wyoming, and frequenting low-class gambling dives on Forty-Second Street in New York. In later years she seems to have rejected literary society altogether and, with characteristic defiance of white middle-class propriety, chosen to live instead in Chicago’s African American community. Always, everywhere, she freely expounded her controversial views on marriage, the family, sex, religion, literature, morality, the greed and idiocy of the rich, and anything else that came to mind.

Unlike so many authors who enjoy initial success in Chicago and then move to New York to grow old and respectable, in 1917 Mary MacLane came back to the city of her youthful triumph for what turned out to be a second triumph, of sorts—or at least another scandal in the grand MacLane tradition: she made a movie!

An “ardent film fan” herself, when she received an invitation to make a film from the producer George K. Spoor of Chicago’s renowned Essanay Studios, where Charlie Chaplin made his greatest shorts, she readily accepted. Shortly after her arrival in town, production began on the full-length feature Men Who Have Made Love to Me. Not only did MacLane write the script—based on an article of the same title she had published in 1910—she also played the starring role: herself.

Directed by Arthur Berthelet, the seven- or eight-reel Men Who Have Made Love to Me was released in January 1918 and was widely reviewed throughout the country. Unfortunately, no print of this film appears to have survived. Most critics didn’t care for it, needless to say, although a few begrudged her some ability as an actress, and her director said that the comic vamp reminded him of the young Sarah Bernhardt. Not surprisingly, the film provoked the wrath of puritanical public opinion; it was banned by the Ohio Board of Censors as “harmful to public morality.”

And so Mary MacLane, who embodied much of the spirit of the “Jazz Age” two decades early, was still going strong in 1918. Not for nothing has she been called the earliest example of the “New Woman” in literature, and even “the first flapper.” But when the Roaring Twenties roared into full swing, she was no longer the constant headliner she had been in her youth. After the furor provoked by her movie died down, she settled in Chicago. Her contract with Essanay called for a series of films, but she made no others. In part this may have been because the first film was not a box-office hit, but MacLane’s failing health was surely another and perhaps greater factor. She had been considered frail even as a child, and in 1910 she suffered a severe case of scarlet fever. Sometime in the twenties, if not earlier, she was diagnosed as having tuberculosis.

She was cared for during her last years by her best friend, the African American photographer and longtime Chicagoan Harriet Williams, whom she had met through New York acquaintances not long after her first book came out in 1902. The two had stayed in touch and were especially close during MacLane’s last four years. On August 6, 1929, she died in her room at the Michigan Hotel on South Michigan Avenue, not far from Williams’s studio. She was forty-eight years old. Williams, together with Harriet Monroe, arranged her funeral.

For decades after her death Mary MacLane remained largely an unknown. Her books were long out of print and difficult to find, even in libraries. Standard literary histories and anthologies ignored her completely, and until recently even feminist writers rarely referred to her except in passing. Amazingly, she is not profiled in the three-volume reference work Notable American Women.

Yet MacLane’s is an important voice, rebellious and original, and surely will be listened to again. At a time when most American “women’s literature” reeked of genteel sentimentality, moralistic uplift, and other literary sugar water, she offered readers stronger stuff by far. Scandalously, passionately, she rejected bourgeois Christian notions of “femininity” and scorned the patriotic platitudes about life in the U.S. Above all she affirmed her right to a free sexuality, and insisted that the quest for experience and self-realization is too important to allow it to be impeded by stupid, narrow-minded bigots and bureaucrats. After nearly a hundred years, her radical pessimism, her individualist feminism, her refusal to adjust to the misery and hypocrisy of an unjust and exploitative social order have retained and even multiplied their force, and more than ever win our respect and admiration.

“I can shake my life like a hollow gourd,” said Mary MacLane, “and hear the eerie rattling sound I make in it.” There is a bitter humor in these words, as in so much of her writing. Although she felt that her humor was “far too deep to admit of laughter,” she coolly and calmly insisted on keeping the last laugh for herself. “In my black dress and my still room, I say inwardly and willy-nilly, and with all my Heart and relishingly: Ha! ha! ha!”


Penelope Rosemont is the author of Dreams of Everyday Life: André Breton, Surrealism, Rebel Worker, SDS and the Seven Cities of Cibola; Beware of the Ice and Other Poems; and, most recently, Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields. She is also the editor of the seminal anthology Surrealist Women: An International Anthology. Her paintings appeared recently in the exhibitions “Revolutionary Imagination: Chicago Surrealism from Object to Activism” and “Dada Chicago.” She continues to be active in the surrealist movement in the U.S. and Europe. She lives in the Chicago area.

From Surrealism: Inside the Magnetic Fields, by Penelope Rosemont, out now from City Lights Publishers. Copyright 2019 by Penelope Rosemont. Reprinted with permission of City Lights Publishers.