In the Realms of the Unreal, edited by John G. H. Oakes

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: In the Realms of the Unreal: “Insane Writings”

Editor: John G. H. Oakes

Type of Book: Non-fiction, collection, mental illness, outsider literature

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It studies the writings of people diagnosed with mental illness, including people with schizophrenia and people who spent their lifetime in mental institutions.  It sort of approaches being an “outsider” literature collection.

Availability: Published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1991, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  It’s no secret that I am a sucker for books about mental illness.  Though many of the books I read are never discussed here, you could get a taste of my mental health reading habits on my dead site, I Read Everything.  As a person who struggles with a relatively mild mental condition (mild in the spectrum – it sucks, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing akin to having schizophrenia or bi-polar), I find reading about the illnesses of others illuminating and instructive.  But this book was important to me because it features work by Henry Darger.  The book takes its name from Darger’s work, and features a long sample of his work.  I’m in a Darger mood lately, collecting books about him, reading about him, watching the documentary about him over and over, so it was great when my sister-in-law sent me this book for Yule.

But along with my tendency to want to read about mental illness is my tendency to gather up lists of books I am interested in without knowing a whole lot about the books.  I couldn’t begin to tell you my decision calculus for obtaining a book, because it’s immediate, mercurial and often very shallow.  I sort of approach books the way a kid approaches candy.  I see some chocolate gum and think, “Hey, I like chocolate and gum, so let’s try it.”  And of course it sucks.   This book is not an utter failure, like chocolate gum.  It’s more like a delicious Belgian chocolate with a bitter licorice center.  This book is very interesting on some levels, but at it’s core, the book fails.  In spite of this, this is going to be a very long discussion because even as the book fails at its premise – an attempt to present the works of insane writers without comment – there are elements that are interesting and good enough that they, temporarily at least, overshadow the failure of the premise.  There are snippets of writing from genuinely mentally ill people that resonated with me deeply or troubled me, and the inclusion of two writers who were not really insane, Henry Darger and Mary MacLane, improved the reading experience.

So let me get to the premise problems that harm this collection.  In the Realms of the Unreal is a collection of various writings from people who, in some loose sense, fit the description of being “insane.” Sort of. The writings range from poems to involved works of fiction to intense biographies to snippets of what can only be called word salad. And when you have such a range of works under the heading of “insane writings,” it can make you wonder what the methodology of this book was. In the Editor’s Preface, it sort of explained things, but at the same time, it makes it clear that there really was no methodology beyond what the editors had access to within their parameters of unusual behavior.

From the editorial preface, an attempt is made to explain that insane means a lot of things and that their primary goal was to include a variety of writings, knowing full well some may not pass the sniff-test for true insanity.

An effort was made to include a wide variety of authors: living and dead, free and institutionalized, foreign and American, contemporary and antique.

But even within that paradigm, the editors give themselves a lot of wiggle room. They exclude the works of more famous “insane people,” like Antonin Artaud, because they made a living from their writing, but include Mary MacLane, whose writings were widely popular when they were initially published.  It’s also odd because MacLane was definitely not insane, period, and the explanation for her inclusion is odd.

…MacLane’s work was never accepted into the literary canon. She had the double strike against her of being a woman and an eccentric during a period when society was particularly unforgiving.

The editors also have to explain their inclusion of Henry Darger:

We were looking for unusual poems and stories, often by people who had been or were currently institutionalized – although someone like Henry Darger (whose epic text lent its title to this volume) to our knowledge was never treated for “mental illness.” The amount of material produced by these unusual thinkers has greatly diminished in the modern era, principally because of the use of psychiatric drugs that often dull creativity, even as they help a patient adjust to life in conventional society.

I don’t know what to think of that statement about drugs dulling creativity because in my experience it is definitely untrue and it is often the mantra that so often prevents people who need help from getting it, but okay, let’s just roll with it for the purposes of this book.   And as we roll with it, let’s just accept that “insanity,” for the purposes of this book, is whatever the editors decided it is.

But there is another problem with this collection.  Again, from the editor’s preface:

No common theme to the book should readily emerge. To again borrow a phrase of Roger Cardinal’s, we are exploring an archipelago of ideas, rather than a continent.
These writings are not presented as clues to someone’s “illness”: they are published for their intrinsic worth.

This approach is problematic.  Writings of genuinely insane people are chaotic at best.  Without a common theme or at least an attempt to classify these writings, the reader is confronted with a wall of illness-influenced words that become amorphous and meaningless without context.  The only divisions in the book are institutional and chronological, which is sort of helpful because one can almost see how anti-psychotic medications changed how mentally ill people interacted with their disease, but even that is not enough to give this work the sort of focus that prevents these works from becoming an assault on even readers who seek out this sort of literature.

Finally, I find the notion that “they are published for their intrinsic worth” to be utterly specious.  Much of the work in this book is not good, and failure to link the work to the illness that may have fueled its creation, in my opinion, strips the works of their worth.  To say that all of these pieces from the insane have intrinsic worth just because they were written by insane people is akin to saying that all diary entries from teenagers have intrinsic worth because they are from teenagers, or that all poems written by people in wheelchairs have intrinsic value because they were written by people in wheelchairs.  It is disingenuous to compile  a book of writings selected not because they were well-written but because they are the works of the “insane” and then tell the reader that one should not look at these works using a framework of insanity.

What other framework can the reader use to determine value?  Most of this book is not genius borne from madness.  It’s just madness.  With the exception of a handful of writers, including Darger and Mary MacLane, these are not the works of natural writers.   These are the works of people with a specific story to tell – the story of being mentally ill.  There is no way to evaluate these writings without discussing the illness and experience of illness that inspired the writing in the first place.  I think culturally we need to understand that 20 years ago, the liberal idea of colorblindness and being “handicapable” were in full swing.  One was not supposed to see color, race, religion, disability or illness.  One was just supposed to see people (leading to the now derided and utterly ridiculous insistence that black, white, pink, or purple, liberals don’t see color, just people).  It’s easy to understand this approach to egalitarianism but such an approach denies the experiences of specific people as we deliberately refuse to see the things that define another person’s experience in this world.

So now that you know that this is an unorganized collection of works from people that may be insane or may not be insane, that the works are not necessarily going to be good, and that I plan to completely ignore the exhortation that we overlook the insanity that may have fueled these writings, let’s discuss the individual components that made this book worth reading.  I am going to discuss the best of the poetry and prose from the people in this book whose work was not embraced in their lifetimes or posthumously, and I will save  Henry Darger and Mary MacLane for last.  Please be aware that many of these works contain grammatical errors and unique spelling that I plan to reproduce without comment.

I am hamstrung a bit because I am not a person who can critique poetry as well as I can prose. But even taking that into account, there is some poetry here that has a deep emotional punch.  Here’s a snippet from a poem called “Let the Deer in the City” by David Wikar, whose mental health history is not explained in his biography:

Then you will be asked to let the deer in the city
and they will walk on your cement and broken glass,
and their gentle child-like feet will bleed.

The poem is a bit on the nose in other places but in utter violation of the mission statement of this book, it is hard not to see the child-like state of people in the throes of medication, subdued and yet still facing danger. I suspect the first night in an asylum would be like a deer walking along broken glass.

Though I don’t know from poetry, I like the precise anger in Beth Greenspan’s “Praying to the Gods of Office Ceiling Sprinklers in Juniper Street”:

I’ve got a headache THIS FUCKIN’ BIG
And it’s thanks to you, you, you, you, you
And me and none of your useless white pills
Is going to set me free,
Think of needles through pinched skin
With lead weights hanging off the tips.

Here’s another Greenspan poem called “Betsy,” a miserable, desolate story of people unable to connect:

We were in the restaurant
The waiter hung around our table
Like a damp rag.
You weren’t there, really.
You were cloud-like.
Your black velvet hair
Was the point
On which I focused-
Your eyes like China beads.
The moment was lost
In a swirl of plates
Landing on our table.
Chicken salad.

Beth’s mental health history is not explained aside from mentioning that she was only 25 but had spent 12 years as a “system inmate,” but also that she was a student studying English and founded a literary magazine.

Some of the essays are extremely interesting. Here’s an essay from Richard G. Love, whose biography indicates that he had been receiving psychiatric care from a young age, though the nature of that care is not explained:


A lot of people who are in the hospital as staff say that anger is to be talked out calmly, coolly and in normal tones at all times.

I say that doesn’t work all the time.

As an example, when I was growing up, people liked to be mean to me, including my own brother, to make me mad so that they had a reason to beat me up. Even if I asked them to stop it or ignored them, told someone or got angry at them the way the hospitals and school teachers said, I’d still get beat up and laughed at.

What I’m trying to say is that controlling anger has its place. Sometimes you have to yell, scream, punch someone, even fist fight to get the point across.

Now if none of these efforts work, then it just isn’t worth it.

I can understand Love’s premise that sometimes anger is necessary. When I was in the worst part of my depression, I really got tired of the condescending attitudes that anger is toxic and that anger is bad and must be conquered. It was advice given to meek and baffled people whose anger was often justified. Anger is an energy and I’ve always considered it misguided to try to deprive lucid and sane but otherwise depressed people the right to exercise a basic human emotion. You can’t have fisticuffs constantly, to be sure, but righteous rage has a place that is often overlooked in modern therapeutic methods.

Here’s a bit from an essay from Karoselle Washington, a devoutly religious woman whose affliction is not revealed but who clearly spent time in a locked psych ward. It’s one of the longer essays in the book and describes too clearly what time in a state home feels like. The essay is called “The Killing Floors:”

It seemed like everytime I went into the bathroom there was a lethal mess. The women used the toilets and refused or didn’t bother to flush them. Sticking toilet paper, clothes and state dresses in the commodes. Some would drag around coffee and spill coffee grinds all over the basins. Cups with coffee in them sat on the basins in spite of the fact, the cleaning women came in everyday to clean. The women still messed up everything, dropping Cigarette Butts on the floor and in cups. It was one big stinking mess all the time. The so called doctors didn’t care. All they would say was, are you taking your medicine. I couldn’t see why they weren’t trying to help us, since it was so obvious we needed help. Everyone needs help now and then. They did not help us and we spent most of the day doing nothing.

Karoselle’s essay, especially this paragraph, reminded me of the nastiness of confinement. My roommate was in bad shape and seldom cleaned herself. She hoarded food as well, and because I did not want to get her into trouble, I said nothing. I just dealt with the funk in our room and brushed the ants away. She had no one to visit her and was broke. I left her all my change when I left because she hoarded food because her meds made her ravenous (if you have ever been on an atypical antipsychotic, you will know what I mean). She was starving half the time, so when people had leftover snacks, or didn’t eat their applesauce with dinner, she would take the food and hide it away so that she was not crawling inside out with hunger when the pangs hit her (and no, no accommodations were made for the terrible hunger side-effects of medications). But even in my private, slightly upscale hospital, it was grubby, we could have no fresh air and there was a constant stink and funk that made me, a neat freak, very nervous. It reads very much like Karoselle and I were cut from similar cloth where our inability to block out foulness is concerned. (And just to clarify, my time in a psych ward was brief.  I was misdiagnosed with bi-polar and a bad psychiatrist yanked me off medications and put me on new meds that made me go psychotic.   But though my time in the hospital was brief, it took me about a year and a half to recover entirely from the chemical soup that sent me to the psych ward and the corrective soup that actually made things worse, but I’m back to what is normal for me now, and likely will never repeat the experience unless I permit professionals to dink with my meds again.)

These two prose examples are pretty lucid, but some of the work in this book comes from some seriously mentally ill people, like Mary Rand, who committed suicide in 1985 after years of suffering from a “ravaging psychiatric disorder.” In an essay of numbered paragraphs, she discusses her life in a calm yet disjointed manner that is deeply unsettling.

3. Lately I have been feeling like the worst part of a bad novel, and they put the wires to my head every week now. But God cannot commit suicide: he is eternal by definition, poor trapped bastard. Time got left somewhere in the sky many years ago leaving everyone on the brink of violence while I am on the brink of emptiness, as one outside might say to another. People are beginning to crush me like I want to crush them. I lost contact with my mind months ago, so I need to come home and put myself back on the road to goodness and God, and all the luscious white storks. I am alone in my little white room playing solitaire and listening to Mexican songs and wondering whatever happened to time that there’s none left.

Then there are the essays from the seriously mentally ill who were seeking help long before there were adequate drugs to treat such illnesses. Take this passage from a man named Karl A., an institutionalized German schizophrenic who wrote this in 1909:

I undersigned at end remember exactly that as a little boy I took the juice of a hatched snake egg, because the mother snake was taking a bath in the nearby river and I used this moment to take an egg, the little eggs sat close together in a clump, and when I opened the egg, a small one slipped out, it happened in bright sunshine, and the little one was black or, rather, the young one fell to the ground, and the juice of the egg ran over my fingers, which I licked with my tongue, the young one grew before my seeing eyes, turned snow-white from the sunrays, and I ran away and the little snake after me but couldn’t catch me and I was happy that I luckily escaped, the juice tasted so sweet, and I was enchanted from that hour on, and I often had the wish to once more take the juice from such an egg but unfortunately I never had the chance, the juice had that ability it swelled my head and gave me such a handsome appearance which I would have liked to tell others, therefore I was and am the little enchanted Emperor’s son Prince F.C.W. v. A.H. Aherenottjberg secondly the juice has probably helped to keep a man’s virility in the bones and was not lost and I have drunk a lot of water with that until the sweet taste was gone.

Oh dear lord. This one was a huge smack in the brain. It evokes the sexual menace of Emily Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” It evokes the creation myth of the Serpent in Eden. It forces into the mind all the psycho-sexual implications of snakes and eggs and juices. I know just enough about schizophrenia to know I know too little to discuss it, but had I been a Jungian and had access to this man after reading this little essay, it would have been tantalizing to question him deeply, to see how much of this was the disease and how much of it was the subconscious.

Here’s a bit of a piece written by a schizophrenic named August Klett, written in 1912:

The zero or Madame Luna indicates a lady in blue on the floor, a black dog in the white fork of the pants, a universal dog on the left, whose genitals she plays with, while the other licks like all get out: Friedrich Glaser should examine that fishy character before entering the athletics club, “you are bastard pig, the honor is mine, says Dr. Sailer, it’s supposed to have happened that he fucked somebody in the ass, named Supp” on the right a brother, during the act “rocking by himself” the other one she is supposed to have loved with even more horniness: it is supposedly the skyturning, the tossed bosom, the upper and lower, letting father and brother do it to her at the same time, even while standing on her head…

I reproduce this passage mainly because it actually reminds me of some of the writings I associate with brilliant, modern writers. When Kathy Acker got on a roll, her writing had a similar flavor, a stream-of-consciousness of complexity and borderline filth.

All of this is vastly interesting, and there is so much more that I could not even hope to discuss, but as fascinating as some of this writing is, I think the two writers featured in this book that are worth the most discussion are Henry Darger and Mary MacLane. Arguably, neither writer should have been included in this volume at all because neither ever received any sort of official diagnosis (as far as I can tell – perhaps they did and I have not come across this information yet). Both were troubled in some regard, but it’s quite easy to make the case that neither of their bodies of work are “insane” and that neither of them were “insane.” Odd, definitely. But not insane. But they were included and since they were, I am discussing them.

And in my usual manner of bitching endlessly, I need to mention that including Darger in any sort of compilation and not including his drawings is bizarre.  I guess if you didn’t know that Darger illustrated his magnum opus, the 15,145 page work called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, then reading his words without his illustrations may not seem so hollow.  But he did illustrate his work and those illustrations are important to understanding Darger’s mind and intent.  But alas, there are no illustrations in this book.  Just a clump of his prose with zero context.

Darger was a man whose childhood was a misery.  Born in 1892, he was just four-years-old when his mother died soon after giving birth to his sister and the little girl was given up for adoption.  He never saw her again.  His father died when he was 12 and Henry was sent first to a Catholic orphanage, a place that he was largely fond of. He later was sent to an institution with a diagnosis of “self abuse.”  Yes, an adolescent was sent to an institution for masturbating.  The institution was a workhouse with children as forced labor and he ran away several times.  When he was 16, he got a job as a menial laborer and he worked in such a capacity, mainly as a janitor, for the rest of his life.  There is some belief that Darger had Tourette’s Syndrome, and he was a man who lived a very unconventional life.  He interacted with few people, the sole time he ever had sex he claimed an Italian girl raped him, and he spent almost all his money buying blow-ups of images of little girls he used to trace to illustrate his work.  He had an unclear knowledge of female anatomy, drawing most of his girls with penises, but as primitive as elements of it could be, his work showed a deep, abiding, complex desire for human justice.  Having been abused and having witnessed institutionalized abuse, Darger became socially frail, but his mind created an extraordinary manner of achieving catharsis.  He was not insane, though he likely had mental illness.  Some speculate that he had Asperger’s but the extraordinary empathy he shows in his works makes that seem unlikely to an armchair psychiatrist like myself. His works were discovered after he died and he never really shared that he spent most of his leisure time in the pursuit of righting childhood wrongs and creating a world wherein children actively fought against their own suffering.

That having been said, here’s a passage from his writing as presented in this book:

For it would imply that countless multitudes of the innocent should suffer indescribable cruelty it would attempt the impossible feat of justifying the smiting of these four big towns where all the inhabitants lived lives of peaceful, helpful industry, mostly Catholic of like population, very religious, children brought up the way they should go and the sparing of communications and communities where no man or woman served the gods of dishonest wealth and wicked slothful idleness. Children were from far away places sent to that convent, because nuns there knew how to bring up and train children, the way these children were in that Convent, youd a believe they were already Saints.

And also this was no vengeance decreed for human Short comings. God does not make or order disasters. And neither does the devil though it is said he has the power to do so.

God wont let him. No sir-ee. These disasters are superhuman but not supernatural. It was but a manifestation of the very unchangeable irresistible forces of nature governed by physical laws which are inexorable. To blame God for this disaster would be rank rash blasphemy.

Nature knows neither revenge nor pity. Old Mother Nature does not select her victims, nor does she turn aside to save the good who are in her path. Besides powerful as Mother Nature is she cannot prevent what is going to happen.

Oh, did I mention that after running away from the institution for the last time, Darger encountered a tornado that destroyed a swath of central Illinois?

Would the above passages have meant as much had you not known Darger’s experiences with Catholicism – largely pleasant but experiencing harsh judgement as he was sent away for basic human instinct – combined with his loathing for the workhouse? This information would have been helpful but his biographical information includes none of this, aside from the name of his master work. His portion in this book, a book he did not belong in, was just a context-less, meaningless word dump.

Now for Mary MacLane. Here’s the bio the book has for her:

Mary MacLane was a solitary eccentric born in 1881 in Canada and lived her entire life in Butte, Montana. She harbored literary ambitions at an early age, and a small publisher in Chicago published her diaries, The Story of Mary MacLane, by Herself, in 1902, from which this text is excerpted. This afforded Mary some little fame (she made a brief trip to New York City), which she craved, but like Emily Dickinson, hers was a loner’s soul. She published a novel in 1903 and another memoir in 1917, and in 1929, Mary MacLane died as she lived, alienated and alone in Butte.

Her inclusion in this book was surprising to me for two reasons, one which I will share after discussing her. The other I have already mentioned: she was not insane. Not even close. I know little about her other than small bits I have been able to glean from the Internet, but Mary MacLane was far from insane. So her presence in this book is bizarre. But in a way, I am very glad she was included because I don’t know that I ever would have truly been aware of her otherwise.

My first response to reading Mary MacLane, whose work spans 14 pages in this book and makes up the most coherent chunk you will find, was that she sounded like every over-intelligent young woman whose personality can unflinchingly make the rapid turns from grandiosity to depression, from invincibility to a place of deep suffering. Melodramatic young women are thick on the ground, it seems. Hell, I was one once.

But then I reread her words in this book and tried to experience what it would have felt like to have been Mary MacLane in a backwoods place like Butte, Montana in 1902, a time when women could not yet even vote, a time when being a woman with an extraordinary intellect ensured not just feeling apart from others, but possibly actually being apart from others. Being a very smart, difficult, interesting young woman in Butte in 1902 was wholly different than being a smart, difficult, interesting young woman in Dallas in 1990, mainly because there was little context then for being the sort of complicated young woman that Mary was. That Mary framed her life using a context of her own, analyzing her experiences from a wholly new way of looking at young women, makes her unique.

But make no mistake, Mary is vainglorious. Take this snippet from her entry from January 13, 1901:

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 this world contains not a parallel.
I am convinced of this, for I am odd.
I am distinctly original and innately and in development.
I have in me a quite unusual intensity of life.
I can feel.
I have a marvelous capacity for misery and for happiness.
I am broad-minded.
I am a genius.
I am a philosopher of my own good peripatetic school.
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.
I know myself, oh, very well.
I have attained an egotism that is rare indeed.
I have gone into the deep shadows.
All this constitutes oddity. I find therefore, that I am quite, quite odd.

I know, it is tempting to write her off as the sort of young woman who would have a very bleak Tumblr. Perhaps Mary is the patron saint of every young woman who has a burning need to communicate with the world and is certain no one can understand her, but tries anyway because the burning need to speak is too great. But as I read her, I was taken with the idea that she believed she had an unusual intensity for life. I cannot quote all of her words, though it may seem like I actually can given how much I do quote from works, but MacLane was deeply solitary, despising the company of others and very happy in her own company. Her intensity of life seemed to come from an internal fire, and that was indeed quite unusual. Think of her peers, like Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was a bisexual adventurer and a woman who was actively passionate about politics. That was the face of changing artistic womanhood. In comparison, even wanting to share a life of thoughts rather than a life of action was an act of courage, and one that people responded well to at the time.

The thoughts she shared at times, again, seemed like a basic teenager’s lament, but remember, she was sharing these during a time when motherhood and what it meant to be a devoted daughter were idealized and driven by Christian ideals.

There is absolutely no sympathy between my immediate family and me. There never can be. My mother, having been with me during the whole of my nineteen years, has an utterly distorted idea of my natures and its desires, if indeed she has any idea of it.

When I think of the exquisite love and sympathy which might be between mother and daughter, I feel myself defrauded of a beautiful thing rightfully mine, in a world where for me such things are pitiably few.

I suspect many women feel this way but it was not a commonly expressed idea then.

Mary seemed to me to be suffering from a profound metaphysical depression, a deep ennui, but she found simple pleasures where she could.

I have no particular thing to occupy me. I write every day. Writing is a necessity – like eating. I do a little housework, and on the whole I am rather fond of it – some parts of it. I dislike dusting chairs, but I have no aversion to scrubbing floors. Indeed, I have gained much of my strength and gracefulness of body from scrubbing the kitchen floor – to say nothing of some fine points of philosophy. It brings a certain energy to one’s body and one’s brain.

This was interesting to me because when I contrast this to the antics of other women of her time, intelligent women who wanted to write, their lives are involved to the point of exhaustion – wander lust, physical lust, adventure – or at the very least a desire to obtain greater education. It’s hard to say just from these passages whether or not Mary adapted her life to Butte or rather if she was oddly suited for Butte, even as she felt alienated there. But given that she seemed so internally-focused, it seems like MacLane would have been alienated and yet self-absorbed no matter where she lived. Self-absorption can be a negative thing but sometimes, it’s not, especially when the self is genuinely the most interesting thing around you in which to be interested.

But even as Mary spoke of her gracefulness and her uniqueness, she showed a heartbreaking vulnerability. This is from her diary entry on October 28, 1901:

…none of them, nor any one, can know the feeling made of relief and pain and despair that comes over me at the thought of sending all this to the wise, wild world. It is bits of my wooden heart broken off and given away. It is strings of amber beads taken from the fair neck of my soul. It is shining little gold coins from out of my mind’s red leather purse. It is my little old life-tragedy.

It means everything to me.

Do you see? – It means everything to me.

At the end of this, that is the idea I took away. Mary MacLane showed her readers everything, along with the implicit dangers that come with doing such a thing. She could have been accepted, which she was in her time, selling many copies of her diary, or she could have been rejected, but regardless of the reaction of others, she still had written her everything down and let others see it. In a way that is far more radical than the sexual escapades of Edna St. Vincent Millay or the outspoken social and feminist stances of Rebecca West. All it seems that MacLane had was her mind and she shared it, even as she feared the consequences.

I find MacLane deeply interesting and intend to read more about her, which brings me to the second reason why her inclusion in this book was so surprising to me. New readers here may have missed it, but I discussed a book written by a man called Michael R. Brown. I don’t wish to link to it or the nonsense that ensued, but he and I butted heads in a very unappealing way (butting heads can be quite fun if done correctly). I subsequently banned him from this site. Seeing MacLane in this book was startling because the only person I had ever known to mention Mary MacLane before was Brown. He wrote a book about her that was released last year, and has studied her and written about her in the past. Most of her information on Wikipedia directs back to Brown in some manner.

With some trepidation, I contacted Brown about MacLane and had a reasonably normal exchange with him about her. I extended an invitation to him to come back to my site to discuss Mary if he so desires, as long as our earlier interactions remain in the past. I will unban him so he can share if he thinks it appropriate. It seems sort of petty to have access to an expert on a writer I find fascinating and refuse to speak or interact with him. Though I may be wary around Brown even if this turns out to be a fine exchange here, the fact remains that it would also be very nice to have civil communications with him so that if I choose to read his books on MacLane (and another comes out this year) and discuss them here, I can do so. It’s bizarre to discuss anything written by a person you have banned from your site, so why not try to let strange kerfuffles stay in the past. It if fails, I can always reinvoke bans.

I tell you this so that if anyone sees Brown commenting and the comments are pertinent to MacLane or my analysis of her writing, in so much as one can analyze 14 pages and come out with a strong conclusion, that there be no unpleasantness. My desire to discuss The Word is stronger than my desire to hold a grudge, so let’s all be respectful to each other. Let’s not bring up anything that does not enhance the discussion of this book. And if unpleasantness happens, I’ll be the  la grosse dame sans merci you have all grown to know and love .

Back to the book. Even as I condemn the very premise of this book, it’s worth a read, if only as an introduction to Darger and MacLane. The other writings in this book are meaningful as well, but that is so subjective that it would be hard to say definitively that you will find something that means anything to you. The real reason to read this book is to ignore the editor and read these stories, essays and poems with full knowledge of the minds behind them as a means of having a look into the lives of people most of us may never encounter in our real lives. So on that basis, it is worth a look.

2 thoughts on “In the Realms of the Unreal, edited by John G. H. Oakes

  1. Coming in some months after your posting – I’m very glad you were able to read for yourself the writing of the truly great, and awfully neglected, Mary MacLane.

    Going more or less in order …

    The book’s bio of her is in error in various regards.

    Item: MM was not a solitary – she lived a hectic life, to the point of wildness, at various junctures. Her writing at a quick glance might indicate a solitary existence, but this was more an of-the-moment reportorial condition: she went away from people and outside stimuli to write; when she wrote she did not party, and when she partied she did not write. Not unusual, there. She was the toast of the town at at least two points when she stopped in New York, and was a high-stakes gambler in St Augustine, Florida. In her later years she consorted with anarchist and bohemian radicals in Chicago. She did end up somewhat reclusive in the very last years – not unusual, given tuberculosis at the time. (She was both born and died within a few years of D.H. Lawrence, with whom she also shared a childhood milieu centered on mining, and a penchant for the intuitive dark side of existence.

    Item: Her first publisher was not a small press – it was a major artisan house with a number of popular hits, who also published the likes or Robert Louis Stevenson and A. Conan Doyle – and also discovered the now-evergreen “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin.

    Item: “The Story of Mary MacLane” was not a diary, but a very artfully crafted meta-journal. Mary MacLane was never, ever unaware of her audience. It also brought her not little, but tremendous, fame. Newspapers the country over talked of “Mary” – first name only – for most of the summer.

    Item: MacLane didn’t die in Butte, but in Chicago. It is debated if she was alone. Alienation, even, is debatable. There’s suggestion that she had a number of girl-friends from an office whereat she was said to have worked near the end.

    I agree entirely that Mary MacLane was not insane. She was likely saner than all the rest of us put together. Her letters (which I have been the first to publish) establish that hers was a precise mind and never actually out of control. She’s probably best understood as a performance artist with a dark side.

    Mary had her vainglory, agreed too – but the element of humor to her, and irony, runs deep. She also thinks that everyone, young and old alike, are as egoistic as she is. She’s just, in her view as best as I can discern it, the one who knew it and was willing to express it.

    You write: “she believed she had an unusual intensity for life … Her intensity of life seemed to come from an internal fire, and that was indeed quite unusual.” From all I know of her, after researching her since 1985, I think this is both true and one of the simplest and best perceptions of her. You’ve seen her well.

    “a profound metaphysical depression, a deep ennui” – Yes. I’m not sure quite where it all came from – part of it may have been the Decadent halting of action, particularly bodily action – because she was described as athletic, and rode horses and such. Perhaps the “deadlocked … thrall” of Butte got into her. Or it was a milieu she carried with her literarily. The smelter-smoke of Butte could not have helped, either.

    “she was oddly suited for Butte” – As you’ll see when you read her, she slammed Butte while she was in it, and loved it (and said so) when she was away from it. One thing the bio also gets wrong is that Butte was pounding, thronged, striving – it was a major center of wealth and industry in its time. It was the opposite of a sleepy backwoods – it had, at its height, something like twelve daily newspapers, with better printing presses than the New York papers had!

    “All it seems that MacLane had was her mind and she shared it, even as she feared the consequences.” – Beautifully said. It is so.

    I will be happy to send a print copy of the Mary MacLane book I’m editing right now – Human Days: A Mary MacLane Anthology – gratis, once it’s done. And after that, I’ll tackle her biography. There’s much good and new there.

    But for now, from one who has stood over her grave in the little Minnesota town in which she grew up – thank you for seeing her so well from fourteen pages.

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