Bette Howland. Photo courtesy of Howland’s estate.
In nice chairs, on a stage, sit five North American writers born in the thirties—three are dead, but only one was lost: Bette Howland, born in 1937. They’re seated younger to older, which has Howland next to Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates, both born in 1938, and further down, Margaret Atwood and Toni Cade Bambara, born in 1939. Neither of the two others dead is as out of print as Bette Howland has been until the publication tomorrow of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. I love the very literary story: In 2015, Brigid Hughes, editor of the magazine A Public Space, finds W-3, Howland’s 1974 memoir, in a sale bin at a used bookstore, reads everything she wrote, and plans for Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage as a result. A press is founded, A Public Space Books. Publication of W-3 will be next—placing Howland next to Maxine Hong Kingston and Vivian Gornick as progenitors of the resurgence of memoir.
Wherever you position Bette Howland’s absence, the vacancy is glaring—she has the kind of large presence on the page that reconfigures the literary history of its moment, as, for instance, the revival of Jean Rhys did in the sixties. Both were mentored by an A-list great male novelist—Rhys by Ford Madox Ford; Howland by Saul Bellow, whom she met at a writers’ conference on Staten Island in the early sixties. Like Rhys and Ford, Howland and Bellow were “lovers for a time.” He continued as her friend until the end of his life, giving her advice that’s solid gold for a blocked, often depressed writer lacking in self-confidence: “I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.”
That Howland is being revived now makes her a member of a cohort who have benefited from the forty-year gap between the end of a woman’s youth and beauty when, at say forty, one’s reputation goes dark, until eighty or so, when one becomes a discovery. Think Marie Ponsot, American poet, the above-mentioned Rhys, or the recently deceased Diana Athill, “discovered” in her late nineties. When Howland came into this company, she was some years into dementia and multiple sclerosis; but the likenesses reproduced were of a sixties babe in bathing suit and sunglasses, a seventies beauty in a fedora. Not recognizing her in the photos, I was drawn to that exhausting formulaic epithet, “a lost woman writer”—then I saw the name. So it’s finally happened, I said to myself, I actually knew one of them. Read More