As I’ve almost finished my thesis and it is summer, I’ve managed to do a bit of reading and re-reading.
Amongst the many books I’ve browsed through, a theme has emerged. These four mid 20th century American women have affected me deeply with their stories. The first thing that hit me was how much better off white middle class women are in the 21st century compared to white middle class women of the 1950s. But then I realised things haven’t changed so much. Women generally, and especially women who don’t “fit” still don’t have it easy.
What is interesting is these contemporaries (who I gather never met or if so only in passing) all had much in common and yet dealt with their reluctance to conform is such different ways.
One and Only is the story of Lu Anne Henderson, best know as Marylou from Kerouac’s “On the Road”. The missing female perspective on ‘the beats’ and the era can be found here. For this group Carolyn Cassady’s “Off the Road” is also a good one, but I found LuAnne’s story more touching and perhaps more honest. It also echoes a comment that I read somewhere recently (and now can’t find the source of but I think perhaps in John Clellon Holmes’ “Go“) that every generation thinks they invented a sexual revolution. Luanne wanted freedom and never really found it.
Alice Denham – July 1956 Playmate of the month, was the first (and only?) playmate to have a story published in the magazine alongside her centrefold. Denham because an adjunct professor of English and although she viewed sex as a “great adventure”, she used it and her body to get where she wanted to go and did reasonably well on it. Sex and brains, an irresistible combination! Her book “Sleeping with the Bad Boys” is well written, (although it could have been better edited) and flips between a tell all romp and a sad description of another woman wanting to be recognised as an intellectual individual in the 1950s New York literary world run by white middle class men who simply didn’t want to know.
Joyce Johnson again is a female view of the beat scene. Her relationship with Jack Kerouac as “On the Road” was published is the focal point of the book but the more interesting part to me was again her struggle to write and be independent in 50s New York. The pain of the women being pushed to the back is so evident here – the cover photo is so revealing, as are others from that shoot. As the is the title “Minor Characters”
And then we come to Sylvia, who struggled and escaped and then when the carefully constructed ideal world she created fell apart, ended it all. I call her Sylvia because I’ve been working on a project related to her for 18 months or more and I feel I’ve got to know her.
The ideal world where she felt she had it all was marriage and motherhood (like a good 50s girl should) and a literary life – with a loving literary husband in the English country side. This in spite of the advice a Smith professor gave her that the achieve a literary life for a woman at that time she must remain single or at least childless. However also the times meant marriage difficulties and she battled depression her whole adult life and I don’t need to say where it ended. My revelation has been her short stories in “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams“. I think they reveal a lot about Plath that other works perhaps don’t. they are also more measured and avoid the hysteria of some of her more well know works.
I am still thinking about these women. Sadly I see and hear resonances of the stories everyday, repeated even now in 2015. We haven’t come as far as we might think ladies.