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Southern Satirist and Literary Rebel
By Barbara Ann Wade
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1998 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Living as a Southern Lady and Literary Rebel
Articles by and about Frances Newman, as well as her many letters, reveal a vibrant, independent woman who simultaneously defied and was influenced by the traditional southern society she satirized in her writing. It is difficult to measure the courage needed by this former debutante and member of Atlanta's high society to choose to be self-supporting, when that meant accepting a degree of economic hardship, and to write novels with allusions to such taboo topics as menstruation, sexual arousal, and syphilis, when that meant risking even her meager but respectable position as a librarian. Newman was known in Atlanta as a rather shy but polite and helpful librarian, and yet she sent that city "almost in convulsions" (Frances Newman's Letters, hereafter known as Letters 224) with her first published novel. Contemporary reviewers had difficulty reconciling Newman's feminine dress and fragile appearance with her sharp satirization of southern culture, yet her habit of dressing only in shades of lavender or purple during the last several years of her life was at the same time ultrafeminine and boldly eccentric. Newman explained the importance she attached to dress in her last interview with Winifred Rothermel: "It is not at all strange to me that persons who love the beautiful in art and music should love beautiful dress, for dress in itself is an art. One should wear colors and styles which reflect the personality of the wearer" (Rothermel). Newman's association of personal style and art suggests an affinity with aspects of the fin de siècle decadism of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. Wearing only shades of purple and writing letters on lavender stationery, she can be seen as constructing an artistic persona. Newman also alludes to the culture of Oscar Wilde in her writing. In The Hard-Boiled Virgin, which has autobiographical elements, she attributes Katharine Faraday's appreciation for epigrams and her belief "that nothing is so immodest as modesty" to having "brought herself up on the literature of the Beardsley period" (94), and she almost immediately afterwards mentions The Importance of Being Earnest. Newman's own fiction is epigrammatic and self-consciously concerned with style, although she never mentioned Wilde's style as one she admired or emulated.
Contemporary critics presented a portraiture of contrasts in describing Newman. One reviewer characterized her as "a strange mixture of a very modern woman, intellectually emancipated from conventionality and a Southern girl who has been carefully reared to remember all the proprieties" ("Frances Newman Shocked"), and another described her as having "a striking mind, brilliant and hard, and often a little alarming" as well as having "the excellent manners of a wellbred Southerner" (Brickell). Some considered her seemingly contradictory traits to be evidence of neurosis, unresolved conflicts, or an unfulfilled life as a single woman. However, rather than being consumed by conflicting and irreconcilable desires, Newman was fulfilling her own ideal of a complete person, a woman with intelligence and wit as well as charm and femininity. Her article entitled "The Rising Age of Heroines" applauded the demise of "the cheerless idea that aesthetic and intellectual charms could not be found in any one woman," and she once wrote to her friend Sylvia Bates, a writer whom she had met at Peterborough, New Hampshire, "I want people to be clever and to have the kind of manners I think of as good manners—somebody I can enjoy talking to in both ways" (Letters 324). Winifred Rothermel, the last person to interview Newman, found her a "mixture of Southern romantic, aristocratic ladyhood and modern sophistication," a woman and writer who was "grossly misunderstood," especially in the South, but who nevertheless "retained her equilibrium" and displayed not even "the slightest signs of bitterness" over the attacks against her person and her work. The sense of good humor and perspective that Newman must have needed to achieve this balance of witty intelligence and charmingly polite manners, especially in the face of constant critical jabs, can be seen in Katharine Faraday's observation in The Hard-Boiled Virgin "that a southern lady's charms are estimated entirely by their agreement with tradition and ... her intelligence is judged entirely by her ability to disagree with tradition" (244).
Frances Newman was born the fifth child and youngest daughter in a prominent Atlanta family on December 13, 1883 (E. Evans 253). Newman's father, Judge William T. Newman, was a Confederate war hero who had lost his right arm in the Civil War and who became a highly respected lawyer and U.S. district judge after moving to Atlanta ("Judge"). Her mother, Fanny Percy Alexander Newman, was a direct descendent of the founder of Knoxville, Tennessee (Talmadge 622). In this upper-class conservative southern household, the person who provided Newman with her first skepticism concerning the southern tradition was Susan Long, a former slave who helped rear Newman and was known to the author and her family as "Mammy." Newman credited Long with being "mostly responsible for my lack of a southern lady's traditional illusions" (Letters 273): "When I was a little girl, she used to tell me about slavery times, and I thought Miss, her old mistress, was a woman and the devil was a man, and that was the only difference between them. If you grow up hearing of mistress's sons who set dogs on a little girl three years old to see her run, who beat the slaves, who didn't tell them they were free, you can't admire the antebellum south completely" (273–74).
Little else is known about Newman's childhood except that she was an avid and precocious reader in her father's library and that she began writing at an early age. In an article written for the Atlanta Journal the spring before she died, Newman tells of her first attempt at fiction when, "like nearly all other human beings who learn to read and write at the age of six or seven," she wrote a novel at the age of ten ("Frances Newman Tells" 6). Soon afterwards, she overheard a suitor of her older sister reading a chapter from that youthful novel out loud and "without any trouble ... gathered that ... [they] found it very comical." Yet Newman did not attribute her early disappointment in literary endeavors to "a conviction of inadequacy" but rather to not having been "born into a literary environment." The "habit" of novel writing, she explained, was "very frequently caught in towns and in families and in colonies where a great many novels were written" (6), as opposed to Atlanta and her own nonliterary family. Writing novels was not Newman's only precocious activity; apparently she was reading Shakespeare's plays at that same age (Baugh 3).
Newman's early affection for her father's library and her early writing are often explained as a compensation for her lack of physical beauty. Isabel Paterson, for one, asserts that Newman "cultivated her fine intelligence as a substitute" for her "lack of beauty" ("Books"), and in his introduction to Newman's letters, Hansell Baugh includes a description written by her niece of Newman as a homely child: "She was an unattractive child, and she knew it. Only too often had she stood before her mother's mirror and compared the image of the pallid girl with stringy black hair and stringy black-stockinged legs with the visions of grace and beauty which were her three older sisters. And she realized that even in the remote distance when she would be grownup, she would never look as they did. So with remarkable intelligence, she decided that her only alternative was to cultivate her cleverness" (3).
Even though Baugh insisted Newman later read "with satisfaction" this portrayal of herself, his and others' attributing her childhood proclivity for reading and writing to mere compensation is too facile. Newman's approval of this description of herself as an unattractive child who was thus attracted to intellectual pursuits parallels the taking on by nineteenth-century American women writers of ultrafeminine pen names such as "Fanny Fern" and "Grace Greenwood." Just as these earlier women writers disguised "behind these nominal bouquets their boundless energy, powerful economic motives and keen professional skills" (Showalter 35), Newman could avoid offending prevailing views of what was proper for women by agreeing to the explanation that her intellectual pursuits were compensation for not being beautiful. Newman's active social life and romantic attachments with younger men seem to indicate that far from feeling insecure about her physical appearance, Newman seemed rather to take her character Katharine Faraday's attitude that "she could not believe there was any really good reason why no one had ever told her that she was surprisingly pretty for a girl who was as clever as she was" (Hard-Boiled Virgin 41).
Despite her intellectual precocity, Newman's formal education was "extensive rather than thorough" (Talmadge 622); it was limited to that deemed appropriate for a southern female from a good family. Her early schooling began at the exclusive Calhoun Street School (F. M. Blake 305) and continued at Washington Seminary, "a fashionable girls' school" on Peachtree Street (Cole 19). After high school she was sent to two finishing schools—Miss McVeagh's School for Young Ladies in Washington, D.C., where she (like her character Katharine Faraday) made unchaperoned visits with other students to the Senate and House, and Mrs. Semple's School in New York City (Baugh 5), where according to her own recollections she "did nothing but attend West Point hops" (Essig). Newman also briefly attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia, and then embarked on a three-month European tour in 1910 (F. M. Blake 305). After she returned from Europe, instead of seeking the proper marriage that her family and society expected, Newman continued her education, first taking courses in Italian and Greek at the Summer School of the South (the University of Tennessee's summer program) in 1911 and then completing a library science degree at the Atlanta Carnegie Library in 1912, in a program that later became the library school at Emory University (F. M. Blake 305–6).
After completing her library science degree, Newman worked for a year as a librarian at Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee. However, she so hated being apart from her family and Atlanta that she returned in 1914—after a Mediterranean tour with her sister Isabel—to a job at the Atlanta Carnegie Library. She once remarked that she had become a librarian because she liked books ("Frances Newman Tells"), and for a woman who chose to be independent when that meant to accept financial hardships, a library was an excellent place to continue her education. Newman later spoke of this period as one in which she had read "everything I could lay my hands on" and had "learned two-thirds all I know" (Essig). She displayed persistence in attaining her often-noted erudition; despite her lack of a university education, she became fluent in four languages and familiar with the literature of seven (Jones, Tomorrow 276).
During her early years at the Carnegie Library, Newman also began her writing career. As early as 1915 she was writing reviews for the Atlanta Journal ("Lady from Georgia"), in February 1920 her "Library Literary Notes" began to appear in the Atlanta Constitution's Sunday editorial page, and she also began writing literary bulletins for the Carnegie Library. These early pieces revealed her broad reading, distinct tastes, and sense of humor. For example, in her essay "Exit Mr. Castle and Mr. Williamson" Newman first discussed a number of literary couples, some collaborators and others like Mary Shelley, who was "undoubtedly too clever a woman to make even the subtlest suggestion to her sensitive plant" (G-2). Newman then turned to unmarried novelists, observing that "with the notable exception of Mrs. Wharton, who would, of course, never have committed the social error of remaining unmarried, most of our other American writing ladies are stalwart spinsters." After an extensive list of American and English literary "spinsters" and "bachelors," including "Miss Ellen Glasgow and Miss Mary Johnston, of the unhappy endings," Newman commented: "Whether bachelors and spinsters take up novel writing as a solace or whether novel writing is a bar to matrimony seems difficult to settle beyond a reasonable doubt" (G-2). In her article "Freud and the Flapper," Newman playfully mocked Freud's "quite touching theory that the simplest way of curing a lady suffering from suppressed desires is to have her fall in love with the doctor—a noble idea but of a rather self-limiting nature, since even the most self-sacrificing doctor could hardly marry more than three or four of his patients." She also critiqued writers whose fiction depended too heavily on Freudian theory in "Literary Complexes," opining they were "obliged by a lack of imagination to fall back upon a set of complexes with frocks and boots and Christian names" (6). Evelyn Scott, whom she described as "very susceptible to the straws that the literary wind blows her way," peopled her Narrow House "with a family who suffer inferiority complexes, ego-complexes, compulsions—every conceivable complex except those that promote filial and fraternal affection" (4). In contrast, D. H. Lawrence "has read his Freud and his Jung, he has taken all that they have for him and then he has thrown the rest right away" (6), and Susan Glaspell's Suppressed Desires demonstrates "the moral that if one must write Freudian drama, it is far better to poke a sort of knowing fun at it" (4). Newman's bold, incisive articles attracted the attention of the Virginia novelist James Branch Cabell and the critic H. L. Mencken, who became her supporters and mentors. In his first letter to Newman, Cabell requested copies of all her literary introductions, saying he had "been wondering about this authentic voice from the wilderness for some while" (Letters 32). H. L. Mencken's first letter to Newman requested that she write an article for The Smart Set if she were a graduate "of any of the eminent women's colleges"; she ruefully responded that she would be unable to write the article since she did not have the "advantages of a college education" (64–65). Newman appreciated their encouragement and help, and she looked to Cabell for literary advice as well as intellectual friendship.
Cabell encouraged Newman to seek a publisher for her recently completed first novel, The Gold-Fish Bowl, in 1921, but she at first resisted, explaining she intended to keep it as a "skeleton in my own closet" (Letters 48) since it did not measure up to her own exacting literary standards. Later she decided to follow Cabell's suggestion, commenting to him: "I wish I could say that you had lured me into novel writing, as I need some such good excuse, but chronology would convict me. However, if Mr. Holt [Henry Holt of Henry Holt & Co.] should unthinkably find the frivolous tale worthy, he will doubtless relate that you discovered me pining in the desert" (Letters 38). When the publisher Robert M. McBride rejected The Gold-Fish Bowl as a novel unlikely to be commercially successful (H[olt], unpublished letter), Cabell urged Newman to send it next to Knopf and if necessary to Harcourt, and he related his own difficulties in getting published (Letters 67). Newman, however, insisted her first novel "would never justify such fortitude"; she had already sent it to George Henry Doran and determined if he did not publish it not to send it out again. "Happily," she explained, "I care next to nothing about its fate" (69).
In August of the same year, "The Allegory of the Young Intellectuals" appeared in the Reviewer as the first in a series of Newman's articles published by this short-lived but important southern literary magazine newly founded by Emily Clark. In several of these articles Newman satirized the propensity for gloom in the writing of young Americans, noting in "With One Year's Subscription" (1922) that whereas essayists "are still permitted a gentle cheerfulness," to be considered a worthy American novelist, one must "abandon all hope: having stumped his own toe on life, he must have decided that his own misfortune is nothing less than a law of nature" (375–76). In "Five Years of American Fiction," written in September 1922, Newman attacked "the complacent belief that the American short story is extremely clever technically" as "the fearful legacy of O. Henry and of the gentlemen and ladies who give prizes in his name and spread the legend that story writing is a merely mechanical art ... easily learned over-night." Instead, she asserted, the "inability to see the necessity of putting one's self to school in writing is the fundamental defect of American novelists" (6). She praised the experimental English writers Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and D. H. Lawrence for their "delicately felt and beautifully fashioned stories" influenced by the "new psychology" ("Five Years" 5). In discussing the demise of the novel centered on external action and the ascent of that in "pursuit of the soul," Newman declared every novelist of the new school "a disciple of James Joyce and Dorothy Richardson" ("'Quiet Interior'").
Excerpted from Frances Newman by Barbara Ann Wade. Copyright © 1998 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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