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Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy

Becoming Modern: The Life of Mina Loy

by Carolyn Burke

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The poet and visual artist Mina Loy has long had an underground reputation as an exemplary avant-gardist. Born in London of mixed Jewish and English parentage, and a much photographed beauty, she moved in the pivotal circles of international modernism—in Florence as Gertrude Stein's friend and Marinetti's lover; in New York as Marcel Duchamp's co-conspirator


The poet and visual artist Mina Loy has long had an underground reputation as an exemplary avant-gardist. Born in London of mixed Jewish and English parentage, and a much photographed beauty, she moved in the pivotal circles of international modernism—in Florence as Gertrude Stein's friend and Marinetti's lover; in New York as Marcel Duchamp's co-conspirator and Djuna Barnes's confidante; in Mexico with the greatest love, the notorious boxer-poet Arthur Cravan; in Paris with the Surrealists and Man Ray. Carolyn Burke's riveting, authoritative biography brings this highly original and representative figure wonderfully alive, in the process giving us a new picture of modernism—and one woman's important contribution to it.

Editorial Reviews

Megan Harlan

Her contemporaries considered Mina Loy to be one of the great Modernist poets, as well as perhaps the first "Modern woman." After decades of obscurity, her recent "rediscovery" poses a peculiar challenge for readers of poetry and redressers of history. Will her dazzling and far more easily apprehended legend-in-the-making -- that of a glamorous bohemian chameleon whose friends and admirers included Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Djuna Barnes, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp -- overshadow the formidably difficult brilliance of her work?

To read Burke's lush, nuanced biography is to marvel at how aptly Loy served as a "cartographer of the imagination" in the post-Victorian era: her hand sculpted burgeoning movements from feminism to Futurism. She had an impeccable instinct for being at the right place at the right time. Her strict religious upbringing in late 19th-century London gave her cause for rebellion, and she escaped to study art in Surrealist Paris where she married and had children. Later she settled in Florence and had a tumultuous affair with the Futurist theorist F.T. Marinetti.

When she moved to Dadaist New York, her reputation as a "shocking" and even obscene poet preceded her. (That reputation wasn't dented when she followed her notorious true love, the poet-boxer Arthur Cravan, to revolutionary Mexico in 1917.) Loy made a living creating ethereal objets d'art in post-war Europe and spent her later years (she died in 1966) living, painting, and writing poetry on New York's Bowery -- with the bums for her muses.

Burke's effort stands on its own as a tract on international Modernist history with one beautiful woman "genius" at its center. But as distractingly attractive as this idea is, there's also an artist's aesthetic to consider: Ezra Pound, in order to discuss Loy's poetry, created the word "logopoeia" ("poetry that is akin to nothing but language, which is a dance of intelligence among words and ideas..."); Yvor Winters compared her work to Wallace Stevens's and Marianne Moore's as among "the most astonishing." The biography recreates a marvelous legend, but, offering no examination of the poetry except as windows into Loy's personal life, invariably leads to this glaring question: what of the poetry?

In his introduction to her generously annotated selected works, Conover, Loy's literary executor, suggests Loy "should first be apprehended at poem-level." He's absolutely right. Though T.S. Eliot complained of her lacking an "oeuvre," Loy's poems make up in density (and, along with it, a sometimes overwhelming abstruseness) what they lack in quantity. Their effect is very similar to the cut-crystal intellectual and emotional exactitude of Emily Dickinson's -- had the latter's subjects also extended to prostitution, childbirth, and gender battles. Under a veneer of labyrinthine lyric beauty lies a perspicaciousness, honesty and wit of which Denise Levertov has said: "Bite on it, you'll break your teeth." And get out the dictionary, since words like "sialalogues," "glumes," and "phthisis" appear like so many exotic flowers.

Loy is tough. But if ever there were an era ready to decipher her self-described "music made of visual thoughts," visionary confessionalism, and sexual frankness, it's now. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Thirty years after her death, Mina Loy (1882-1966) remains the most obscure of the great modernist poets-a public scandal in the New York of the 1910s, a forgotten literary innovator soon afterward. Burke, a pioneering scholar in the rediscovery of Loy, has written the first comprehensive biography of this intriguing figure. She draws on interviews and Loy's private papers to illuminate some of the murkier years of the poet's glamorous life, especially her final reclusive years and her Victorian English girlhood. After coming to America in 1916, Loy helped invent the techniques of American modernist poetry, hobnobbing with fellow poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams as well as with painters such as Marcel Duchamp. Her outrageously witty, often obscene verse had a decisive role in the development of modern poetry. Burke follows Loy's wanderings from Greenwich Village to Mexico, from Paris to Aspen, turning up plenty of good stories and delightful gossip. The author does not spend much of the book reading Loy's poetry, interpreting it strictly as coded autobiography. But this story should make anyone interested in literature curious to investigate the work of this brilliant poet. An important contribution to a neglected corner of modern literary history. Photos not seen by PW. (July) ~ FYI: FSG will concurrently publish a selection of Loy's poetry, The Lost Lunar Baedeker.
Library Journal
Burke (English, Univ. of California-Santa Cruz) has written a comprehensive biography of poet and visual artist Mina Loy. Burke sees Loy (1882-1966) as the prototypical New Woman of the 20th century, experimenting in free verse, in fashion and design, and in creating a life in a world where Victorian values no longer applied. Loy lived in the company of major shapers of international modernism, such as Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Mabel Dodge, in Florence, Paris, and New York for most of her adult life. Though little known today, she was widely published in American literary magazines between the two world wars. Burke is objective and insightful in her use of Loy's letters, manuscripts, and personal papers and of autobiographical interpretations of Loy's poetry. She has also used the letters, biographies, and critical writing of others who knew Loy. Highly recommended for comprehensive literature and modernism collections.-Judy Mimken, Boise P.L., Id.
A biography of the avant-garde poet and visual artist and her travels in modernist circles from Greenwich Village to Mexico, drawing on her private papers and interviews. Includes b&w photos. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Thom Gunn
Mina Loy: there was the legend of her life and the reputation of her poetry, both of them oddly difficult to check up on....Burke's biography fills in the gaps between the few facts we have been able to pick up earlier and makes sense of what is in any case a remarkable life. -- Thom Gunn, Times Literary Supplement

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Becoming Modern

The Life of Mina Loy

By Carolyn Burke

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1996 Carolyn Burke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70954-9


The Bud beside the Rose

(LONDON, 1882-97)

A DOORWAY FIGURES in Mina Loy's earliest memory, of a time when she found herself among strangers. Too young to know why she had been brought to this large, dark house full of people she did not recognize, she knew that she wanted to go home. One afternoon they bundled her into her winter clothes; then someone picked her up and began carrying her down a flight of stairs. There was nothing familiar about the man who held her in his arms. Suddenly something flashed above the doorway at the bottom of the stairs. Colored lights dazzled her eyes. She blinked and stared at the fiery reds and yellows, barely making out the colored bottles that stood in a row behind the fanlight. The sun was shining through layers of glass and straight at her, as if she had caught fire, as if shards of color had entered her body. But as she stretched her arms toward this brilliance, the force that gripped her like a clamp kept on going down the stairs. The colored lights vanished when they went out the door.

In this first memory, something precious is lost, and something else —which we might call self-consciousness—is gained. Trying to analyze this moment decades later, Mina could still feel its power over her in middle age, as she wrote and rewrote the many versions of her autobiographical fiction. First impressions of this kind were unconditional, she wrote: such experiences could "print pictures, even maps, which are not, as it were, taken 'off the press' until years later."

But as a child, Mina could interpret neither this first "map" nor her feeling of having been "so lately embodied." In adolescence she learned from a chance remark that she had been sent to stay at the family doctor's house during her sister Dora's birth one month before her own second birthday. When she remembered being carried downstairs to go home, she understood that the doctor's professional grasp had been the clamp that held her: "The entire event emerged quite clearly. I was staying with the wife of our family doctor to be 'out of the way' while my younger sister was born."

Mina returned to this memory as an adult because she wanted to grasp its meaning. She had yearned to become one with the glow, she thought, since an infant, "conceiving no distinction between the thing to be known & the knowing of it ... becomes in turn everything it encounters." In that moment her precocious aesthetic sense had been "quickened by that fundamental excitement combined of worship and covetousness, which being the primary response to the admirable very likely composes the whole human ideal." The memory also crystallized the time just before self-consciousness. "My conviction of having been everywhere-at-once while definitely aware of my self survived my discovery that something I since have known as space intercepted my relation to other contents of the nursery." This "first concrete impression" underlay her efforts to map her inner world.

Yet it stayed "on the press" for reasons other than those revealed in her autobiography—even when she saw the difference "between the thing to be known & the knowing of it." The intensity of her focus on this first memory also suggests a disturbance in the little girl's passage from her parents' house into the world. The image of the door is charged with ambivalence—on neither side can she regain the comfort of her mother's arms. At the onset of self-consciousness—she is not quite two—the child finds herself in the grip of a stranger who, rather than giving her what she wants, carries her off in the opposite direction. She must forgo the blazing reds and yellows and return to the house where she is always "in the way."

For the young Mina Loy, the discovery of self was linked not only with the enchantments of light and color but also with the loss of "home." The memory stages embodiment as a shock. She is exiled first from her mother, then from the colored glass. Although her yearning is displaced onto the glowing shapes, this consolation proves inaccessible and, for that reason, all the more fiercely desired. (In memory, the blaze of colors signals pain as well as wonder: gazing up at them, she is "riddled with splinters of delight.") Like a palimpsest or a pentimento lying beneath the "homes" she created in verse and on canvas, this first impression maps the space where Mina felt that she had been cast out from paradise; its component parts—the door, the colored glass, the flash of illumination, the sense of embodiment—recur in her art like sudden glimpses into her imagination.

By reflecting on such memories, Mina hoped to write her way to self-knowledge: "Far from being fantastic interpretations of half forgotten infantile responses," she believed, "these analyses are as painstaking in their accuracy as a blueprint." For this reason she kept analyzing her life in poems, fiction, and lightly veiled memoirs. This unfinished "autobiography" is voluminous but fragmentary, as if her experiences as she traveled from the Victorian era into the modern world were too diverse to be woven into a single narrative. Yet certain threads recur. Rage against her mother runs like the weft through her tales of childhood, and a sense of herself as the family outcast interlaces her later forays into modernism. Taken together, these stories comprise the materials for an autoanalysis carried out on the page, and only in part, since they bristle with unassuageable anger at her mother as the cause of her difficulties and internal divisions. Yet to a sympathetic reader they also suggest that without this adversary, Mina might never have been driven to compose her own story.


She was born Mina Gertrude Lowy, the first child of Julia Bryan and Sigmund Lowy, on December 27, 1882. Anxiety about the family name, which sounded unmistakably Jewish to British ears, would inspire in both mother and daughter a variety of strategies for dealing with the awkwardness it inevitably provoked. But Mina never guessed at the equally embarrassing circumstances that preceded her birth, nor did she realize that her mother had been seven months pregnant at her wedding. Had she known the reasons for this unlikely marriage, they might have given her greater insight into what she saw as her mother's innate dislike of her firstborn. About this union, only the date and place are recorded: whether the delay reflected the Bryans' concern over Julia's marriage to a man who was both a foreigner and a Jew, or whether there was little love between the couple, is not known.

What is known about Mina's grandparents is suggestive. George Bryan, a carpenter and, later, cabinetmaker, lived with his wife, Ann, in Bromley, a village southeast of London where, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Evangelical and Nonconformist chapels outnumbered Anglican churches. As the daughter of an artisan in this area, Julia was presumably raised as a Baptist, a Congregationalist, or in one of the Methodist denominations. Consequently, even if her parents respected Lowy's skill as a tailor, they could not have helped thinking him an unusual choice for her hand. While forced marriages were not unusual, mixed ones were: a Jew was foreign to their experience except as a descendant of the Old Testament Hebrews.

There were many secrets in the Lowy household. Mina had no idea that her mother had married Sigmund, who was twelve years her senior, to avoid disgrace. Nor did she know what had attracted her to this handsome foreigner in the first place. But she was aware that, for her mother, life with a man who clung to his faith and his profession, and who could not—or would not—lose his accent, was a trial. In Mina's view her mother tried all her life to conceal both her husband's religion and the source of his income. Although Julia sometimes let it be known that he was "connected with trade," no one was allowed to mention what he did. Mina was surprised to learn in later years that he began as a tailor.

Haunted by the contradictions of her family life, Mina wrote and rewrote her autobiography—first as the modernist verse epic "Anglo-Mongrels and the Rose" (1923-25), then in the many prose versions that constitute her fictionalized memoirs. While this writing brims with the sensuous immediacy of childhood, it is also shot through with the analytic insights of adulthood, in nearly the same proportion in which physical exactness and intellectual acuity combine in her poetry. She rarely recorded sensory memories without commenting on them or trying to interpret their meaning; returning to the same incidents from different angles, she kept trying to grasp the emotional dynamics of her childhood and its effect on her imagination. It is difficult to see beyond her perspective—both because it is so persuasively presented and because there are no sources other than her autobiographical writing for most of her life. Yet it is possible to evaluate the plausibility and consistency of these accounts, as well as their confirmation in her art and adult experience.

In one version of her childhood, the free-verse autobiography Mina wrote in her forties, she and her father are "Anglo-Mongrels" and her mother the "English Rose"—a blossom "self-pruned" yet bristling with "the divine right of self-assertion." Once Sigmund decided to follow Jewish custom by assigning the spiritual education of his girls to their mother, Julia could bully the family in the name of religion; in Mina's view, her mother's delicate coloring concealed a self-righteous determination to have her way. Julia probably believed that children were born not in innocence but in sin, and that girls had to learn to suppress their natures through self-denial. Like most Evangelicals, she was undoubtedly raised to think that the slightest indiscretion paved the road toward depravity. If Julia resented her firstborn as intensely as Mina's memoirs suggest, it was because her daughter was a daily reminder of her own lapse from rectitude.

But Mina came to suspect that her mother's religion was based less on theological principles than on her concern with other people's opinions. For those of uncertain social status like the Lowys, genteel affectations and censorious cant justified their claims to middle-class respectability, especially at a time when "not only were the middle classes drawing away from the poor, but each stratum within the bourgeoisie was drawing away from the stratum next below it." And as the Lowys moved up the social ladder, trading the lower-middle-class standing of small shopkeepers for the more middle-middle rung of the merchant and professional classes, Julia's enhanced respectability only partly concealed the insecurities of her position. Lacking self-assurance as well as an education, she paid close attention to the codes of propriety—a practice which complemented her religious belief that stringent rules applied to the least acts of everyday life.

Julia may have also shared the widespread Victorian belief that parents should repress young children for their own good. Reflecting in middle age on her "inner necessity to escape from the Victorian era," Mina was thinking of her own childhood, but also more generally of the sternness with which childish attempts at self-expression were usually met. Although Julia maintained only a slightly exaggerated version of common practice, Mina came to see her mother's tyrannizing as the domestic version of imperial rule: just as Britannia had taken for granted her right to govern the uncivilized peoples over whom she held sway, so her mother believed it her duty to encourage the repression of her daughter. While one could not overemphasize the inhibiting force of Julia's views on Mina's temperament, one could also say that this oppressive force may also have served to strengthen her resolve and focus her imagination.

In "Anglo-Mongrels" Mina's father appears as the Jewish tailor "Exodus," a touching figure who bows to the will of his British wife, while in one prose version of her life he is "Mr. Israels." As Mina understood it, the Lowys had been wealthy members of the Jewish community in Budapest for more than a century before her birth. After giving part of his fortune to build a synagogue, Sigmund's grandfather had disinherited his son Adolph—Sigmund's father—for marrying a working-class woman who came there to worship. Their son—Mina's father—was born in 1848, a year of anti-Semitic riots following the granting of civil rights to Hungarian Jews. Adolph Lowy named the boy Sigmund Felix in honor of the composer Felix Mendelssohn, who had died the year before and was a relation of the Budapest Lowys. Sigmund's father transferred to his son his own frustrated ambitions, making sure that the boy learned Hebrew along with German and Hungarian. But after his father's early death, Sigmund's mother married a man from her own class who disparaged his stepson's cultural interests and forced him to learn tailoring. Although Jews were granted political rights in 1867, when Sigmund was nineteen, they were denied religious equality, and anti-Semitism persisted among the Hungarian bourgeoisie. After his apprenticeship Sigmund emigrated to England, where, it was said, Jews prospered.

Lowy soon became the highest-paid tailor's cutter in London. A handsome man who carried himself well, he painted delicate studies of English flowers or strolled around London on his days off. Once Lowy acquired fluency in business English and began to dabble in stocks, he was ready to go into business and start a family. But he was of a sensitive nature, preoccupied with his health and social status, especially at a time when Jewish tailors were associated in the public mind with the East End sweatshops. Although the marriage brokers introduced him to a number of eligible Jewish women, he could not interest himself in their charms. On a holiday in a country village near London, he met the pink-and-white hedge rose who, he decided, would initiate him into Englishness. Wondering (in "Anglo-Mongrels") how such an unlikely match was made, Mina thought that her father believed he had found "Albion in female form" and would "unite their variance / in marriage."

Their variances were so great, however, that once united, the Lowys shared little more than their three daughters and their common interest in marking out their superiority to those beneath them on the social ladder When Mina was born, Lowy had already established himself as a merchant rather than a man who worked with his hands and put considerable distance between his Gracechurch Street office and the squalid East End. Having suffered from both social rigidity and religious discrimination in Budapest, he was happy to find that in London, being a tailor (or a draper as he now called himself) could be socially acceptable provided one made a great deal of money, and being a Jewish tailor might be overlooked provided one made even more. By the time Mina's sister Dora was born in 1884, her father had joined the ranks of the highly skilled "English" tailors, who made clothes for the upper classes; judging by his own manners and appearance, he could have been taken for one of his clients. But he was never to accumulate the great wealth that might have opened the doors of society.

When Mina came into the world, so precipitously after her parents wedding, the Lowys had not yet consolidated their social position. Since Lowy had no time to find new lodgings, Julia joined him in his boarding house in Hampstead, a comfortable North London suburb where many successful English Jews lived, as well as a number of writers and artists He may have hoped that Julia would feel more at home in countrified Hampstead than in the center of the city. In any case, their anomalous marriage would seem less unusual there, and the location—a short walk to Hampstead Heath and the station where Lowy caught his train to the City—was convenient. Not only would his new family enjoy the better air and green expanses, but their position would be enhanced by life far frorr. the center of commerce.


Excerpted from Becoming Modern by Carolyn Burke. Copyright © 1996 Carolyn Burke. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Carol Burke is the author of Becoming Modern.

Carol Burke is the author of Becoming Modern.

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