In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
Photo: Lucy Scholes.
In a literary landscape often obsessed with youth—whether it’s the buzz surrounding so-called hot new talent or those “30 under 30” and “best of young novelists” lists—stories of late-in-life success prove especially fascinating. I’m talking about writers like Penelope Fitzgerald, who didn’t publish her first book until she was in her late fifties, and won the Booker Prize at sixty-three. Or the British novelist Mary Wesley, who was seventy when the first of her ten best-selling novels for adults made it into print. Then we have the doyenne of them all, Diana Athill, who experienced unexpected literary celebrity in her nineties. As such, Cleo Overstreet’s debut novel, The Boar Hog Woman—which was published in 1972, when its author was fifty-seven years old—couldn’t help but catch my attention. David Henderson’s celebratory obituary for Overstreet, which ran in the Berkeley Barb on the occasion of her death, only three years later, in the summer of 1975, opens with a description of the deceased as “a grandmother and a novelist.” She “came to writing late in life,” Henderson explains, “but she had in her mind’s eye many stories to tell. She dedicated the last 12 years of her life to putting them down on paper.” Unlike Fitzgerald, Wesley, and Athill, however, Overstreet’s late-in-life career was sadly short and sweet. Henderson mentions her “unpublished novels,” referring to the most recent by name: Hurricane, the manuscript of which Overstreet’s close friend Ishmael Reed was apparently asked to edit for posthumous publication by Random House. Yet as far as I can see, this never actually happened, which means that The Boar Hog Woman remains the only one of Overstreet’s books to have made it into print.
Of all the books and authors I’ve written about thus far in this column, The Boar Hog Woman and Cleo Overstreet have to be those about which and whom I’ve uncovered the least information. Bar the brief author bio on the dust jacket of my secondhand copy of The Boar Hog Woman, Henderson’s obituary is the only account of Overstreet’s life that I’ve found. There’s a short Kirkus review of the novel that describes it as “weirdly engrossing,” and a significantly longer write-up—a rave, by the writer and film scholar Clyde Taylor—in the June 1974 edition of Black World. But what I learned from these pieces, combined with the novel’s publication date, was enough to intrigue me. Two of the most exciting and experimental female-authored works to emerge from the Black Arts Movement were written during the early seventies—Fran Ross’s Oreo (1974) and Carlene Hatcher Polite’s Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play (1975)—so I was keen to see how The Boar Hog Woman compared.
Short answer: although not quite up there with Oreo, Overstreet’s entertaining and often moving account of the comings and goings of a close-knit Black community in mid-’60s Oakland, California, more than holds its own. But don’t just take my word for it. “Cleo Overstreet has done to narrative what Sterling Brown and Langston Hughes did to Negro poetry, put it on a solid Black footing by tapping the folkroot,” Taylor writes. “She gives a hip to the creaky machinery of the novel—point of view, stream of consciousness, the objectivity of the narrator, the incessant analysis of motivation, jabber jabber—then she leaves it hanging out to rust. She has up-fingered its tradition more successfully than any Black writer in North America.” Read More