The Little Locksmith: A Memoir

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The Little Locksmith, Katharine Butler Hathaway's luminous memoir of disability, faith, and transformation, is a critically acclaimed but largely forgotten literary classic brought back into print for the first time in thirty years. The Little Locksmith begins in 1895 when a specialist straps five-year-old Katharine, then suffering from spinal tuberculosis, to a board with halters and pulleys in a failed attempt to prevent her being a "hunchback." Her mother says that she should be thankful that her parents are ...
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The Little Locksmith: A Memoir

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The Little Locksmith, Katharine Butler Hathaway's luminous memoir of disability, faith, and transformation, is a critically acclaimed but largely forgotten literary classic brought back into print for the first time in thirty years. The Little Locksmith begins in 1895 when a specialist straps five-year-old Katharine, then suffering from spinal tuberculosis, to a board with halters and pulleys in a failed attempt to prevent her being a "hunchback." Her mother says that she should be thankful that her parents are able to have her cared for by a famous surgeon; otherwise, she would grow up to be like the "little locksmith," who does jobs at their home; he has a "strange, awful peak in his back." Forced to endure "a horizontal life of night and day," Katharine remains immobile until age fifteen, only to find that she, too, has a hunched back and is "no larger than a ten-year-old child." The Little Locksmith charts Katharine's struggle to transcend physical limitations and embrace her life, her body and herself in the face of debilitating bouts of frustration and shame. Her spirit and courage prevail, and she succeeds in expanding her world far beyond the boundaries prescribed by her family and society: she attends Radcliffe College, forms deep friendships, begins to write, and in 1921, purchases a house of her own in Castine, Maine. There she creates her home, room by room, fashioning it as a space for guests, lovers, and artists. The Little Locksmith stands as a testimony to Katharine's aspirations and desires-for independence, for love, and for the pursuit of her art.

"We tend to forget nowadays that there is more than one variety of hero (and heroine). Katharine Butler Hathaway, who died last Christmas Eve, was the kind of heroine whose deeds are rarely chronicled. They were not spectacular and no medal would have been appropriate for her. All she did was to take a life which fate had cast in the mold of a frightful tragedy and redesign it into a quiet, modest work of art. The life was her own.

"When Katharine Butler was five, she fell victim to spinal tuberculosis. For ten years she was strapped to a board (that means one hundred and twenty months, an infinity of days and hours and minutes)

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Editorial Reviews

Elle Magazine
The 1943 bestseller is now reissued so contemporary readers may savor this eloquent memoir of Hathaway's ultimate triumphant struggle for fulfillment as a writer and a woman. . . . delicacy and directness illuminate every page.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781558612396
  • Publisher: Feminist Press at CUNY, The
  • Publication date: 7/1/2000
  • Edition description: 1ST FEMINI
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 696,139
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt


In the early 1980s, soon after I had moved alone to the coast of Maine where my life unexpectedly expanded and deepened, my daughter gave me a copy of The Little Locksmith. Behind the misleading title (this is definitely not a children's book), among the discards in the forty, eight-cent bin of New York City's largest secondhand bookstore, she had discerned a rare treasure and, after reading it, inscribed it to me for my birthday. The story of a woman who, in defiance of all expectations for someone of her circumstances and gender, buys a house on the Maine coast and transforms a life of doom into one of triumph was a perfect gift to me.

    Holding its own among the best spiritual autobiographies of our time, this "story of the liberation of a human being, as its author describes it, so moved me that I wanted to shower copies of it on my friends, promote its republication, teach it to my students, and find out all I could about its author, her life and work. Fortunately, secondhand copies were easy to come by since the book had been a bestseller in 1943 and a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club and had even been excerpted in the Atlantic Monthly before publication, during the dark days of World War II. But like so many valuable literary works by women, not many years after the author's death (at age fifty-two, on the very eve of the publication of her memoir), the book languished in attics and was forgotten. I began to buy up enough copies to supply my classes, bless my friends, and quell my fear of running out. But sometimes I found myself down to my last copy and had tobegin collecting again. It is therefore with relief, as well as enthusiasm, that I now, these many years after my first memorable encounter with The Little Locksmith, relish the confesses, "I love this book and can hardly bear to leave it." Rereading it yet again, I know just what she means.

    There is in fact much more to know of Katharine Butler Hathaway after the events of the final chapter of this book (for which she planned two sequels): the long denied sexual fulfillment, a stint in expatriate Paris among the avant-garde artists and bohemians she considered her true peers, romance and marriage, and finally the literary recognition she craved. But although another volume of her writing does exist—a posthumously edited miscellany of journal entries, poems, letters, and drawings—there is no sequel to The Little Locksmith.

    No matter. This single profound work is treasure enough.

Alix Kates Shulman Long Island, Maine September 1999

Chapter One


I have an island in the palm of my right hand. It is quite large and shaped like an almond. To make this island, the fate line splits in two in the middle, then comes together again up toward the Mount of Jupiter. I don't know what an island means in palmistry. No two people ever interpret it alike. But it looks to me, and that is enough for me, as if it meant that a quiet respectable fate were suddenly going to explode in the middle of life into something entirely new and strange, and then be folded together again and go on as quietly as it began. And because something of this kind has happened to me I get a rather foolish magic-loving satisfaction from believing that my island represents that period, the cycle of precious experience which befell me and which I am going to write about in this book. I treasure that little thing in my hand. I pore over it reminiscently, gratefully. I like to know it is there. It is the lucky coin that saved me. It is the wafer of beneficent magic that made everything all right at last. It is the yeast that made my life rise.

    When I was young I was so sure of the marvelous way my life was going to unfold that I never wasted my time looking for signs and portents. But something went wrong. The future I expected didn't come, and so I began to be superstitious and sometimes took a furtive look at the palm of my hand when I was alone. And there I found the curious and possibly hopeful island. If the subject of fortune-telling came up in a roomful of people I secretly hungered for my turn. I put on a cool, superior air as I watched the others, and I made an exaggerated pretense of being reluctant and skeptical when my turn came-while inwardly of course I was no more reluctant and skeptical than any other ambitious willful people are in the late twenties, and then in the early thirties, and then in the middle thirties, if their lives are being held at a complete standstill during those heartbreakingly precious years. As foolishly and fiercely as I had believed in myself, so foolishly and fiercely I came to believe in gypsies, astrologers, card-readers, crystal-gazers, or anyone else who would give me any hope. And as each year dropped off my life I felt an almost unbearable longing to know what the great thing could be that was going to happen to me when I reached that amazing island in the palm of my hand.

    Now I know What it was. It has happened. And it really was an island. The things that happened there made a period that was complete in itself, and so separate from the rest of my life that it was almost unrecognizable as mine. It was a period that seemed unreal and half enchanted, because it was so foreign to me and to everything that I had thought and been before. It floated like an island in the rest of my life.

    Since then I have been thinking about islands, those explosions of apparently uncharacteristic experience that occur in certain lives. Most of the people we know are terribly afraid of such islands. They see one looming ahead and they hurriedly, steer off in another direction. In order to save one's life, as has been said, one must be willing to let it be tossed away, and not many of us are willing. All well-brought-up people are afraid of having any experience which seems to them uncharacteristic of themselves as they imagine themselves to be. Yet this is the only kind of experience that is really alive and can lead them anywhere worth going. New, strange, uncharacteristic, uncharted experience, coming at the needed moment, is sometimes as necessary in a person's life as a plough in a field. Yet those people who are most capable of continuous development, because of their rich and fastidious and subtle natures, seem to feel a passionate fear and resentment of any really new experience. Change must always come, to them and in them, evenly and slowly and always in a given direction. If it takes a sudden sharp turn, or seems to be leading them into a place that they think is not fit for them, they refuse to follow it. Oh, lucky beyond most human beings is the refined and well-brought-up person who comes upon an utterly unfamiliar island flat in the middle of his fate line, and who is bold and crazy enough to defy the almost overwhelming chorus of complacency and inertia and other people's ideas and to follow the single, fresh, living voice of his own destiny, which at the crucial moment speaks aloud to him and tells him to come on.

    Then what happens is like the Japanese fairy tale of the man who visited a lady in her palace under the sea. It is romance, and it becomes legend. One reaches the island, is tossed ashore and stays one's allotted time, and one leaves the island in the end. One leaves it, but the island floats there still, separate from all the rest of one's life, foreign and almost incredible. But there it is, and it is enough that it is there, even though one can never go back to it again. As one looks back upon it, it comes to seem like an allegorical tale. It throws light on everything that went before, and on everything that comes afterward. One recognizes it as the true heart of one's life, for without it one's life would have been empty. Some fortunate lives unfold without obstruction or flaw, and these do not need islands.

Chapter Two

I was coming very close to my own island when I reached the quiet refined age of just past thirty. And by that time I had lost all interest in the little mark in my hand as a promise of adventure or change for me. By that time change was the thing I wanted least of all. I had suffered an unbearable thirst and hunger for experience, and I had been caught and held by my predicament in such a way that I could not seek what I needed and it could not come to me. Therefore at last I turned my back on myself and my predicament in the hope of turning my back on any more unbearable disappointment and despair.

    I decided that I would be a writer, and I determined to be the kind of writer, like Flaubert, who removes everything from his life except his writing in order that his writing may live and he may live in it. I even killed in myself any desire that writing should bring me success or fame. I would never risk again any sort of disappointment. Personal obscurity and infinite patience and infinite devotion were to be my program. I knew very well that out of these I could build and maintain a delight as intense as the mystic delight of any nun who has renounced the world.

    And so I combined an absolutely uneventful outward personal life with a vivid life of imaginary experience. I filled notebook after notebook with ideas for stories and things in Nature I had noticed and adored, and all kinds of things, minute and spectacular, that I saw happening in other people's lives. As they grew, my notebooks became as secretly precious to me as their slowly growing honeycomb must be to a hive of bees. And I adored, idolized even, the piece of work which was always in progress-the one whole imaginary experience in the form of a novel or a long short story, which was always in the process of unfolding before the intensely fascinated gaze of my mind's eye. This mysteriously organic growing thing held the essence of life for me, as I concentrated upon it all the skill I had and all my love. I clung to it the way a bee clings to a flower, clutching at it with my whole body and mind, absorbing it and being absorbed by it as though I would die if I let go. And it seemed as if I would die, if I lost it or lost my power to cling to it. When I was separated from it for a few days, or sometimes even for a single day, my life became an abyss which terrified me, an unfamiliar place where I had a sense of never being at home, of never really belonging there. Because of this queer unnatural suffering, I feared and dreaded any external change which might threaten to prevent me from clinging tight to my great anesthetizing flower of dreams. And when I began to entertain at first mildly and then eagerly the innocent idea that it would be very nice to have a house of my own it was mainly for the sake, I thought, of making this secret life of mine safer still from external interference. I was intending to make it very hard indeed for anything to dislodge or disturb me.

Chapter Three

So I began to peer among lilac bushes and old apple trees as I went along country roads looking for my house. I thought I knew the sort of house I wanted and that would be suitable for me. It would be dark and weather-beaten on the outside and have small curved windowpanes and a mossy roof. I didn't go to any real-estate dealers because I knew they would try `to force the wrong thing on me and make me horribly uncomfortable. I knew that when the destined moment came I should find my house. But it must be let alone, I thought, to happen by itself like a friendship or a love affair.

    Nevertheless, I was sure that I saw it in my mind's eye very much as it would turn out to be. Unquestionably, for me, a very small childish spinster, it should be small, something mignonne and doll-like. I had thought of an old Cape Cod cottage with a trumpet vine, or a cluster of outbuildings on some old Topsfield or Ipswich farm—a creamhouse, cobbler's shop, and woodshed all fastened together by narrow passages and made into something fascinating and doll-size. I had once seen a house like that which its owner called The Thimbles because each building was no bigger than a thimble. After that, thimble was the word used by me and my family to describe the thing that was supposed to be suitable for me, for my size and my needs, and it was understood and approved by everybody that sooner or later I should find and buy myself a thimble. Therefore when I noticed the FOR SALE sign on a very large high square house on Penobscot Bay overlooking the Bagaduce River and the islands and the Cape Rozier hills, and when just out of casual curiosity I stepped inside to look at it, I was awestruck by the force of destiny. I didn't recognize this huge house at all. I had never seen it in my mind's eye. But I knew that whether I liked it or not this at last was my house. It frightened me very much. And filled me with astonishing joy, quite out of keeping with my size and my spinsterhood.

    The owner's wife showed us over it and said she didn't know what price her husband was asking for it. My sister-in-law laughed scornfully at the idea of an unattached person like me in rather fragile health buying that enormous place. It would have been more suitable for her with her family of chil-

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Table of Contents

The Song of Transformations
1 An island in my fate line 1
2 I decide to be a writer 4
3 Discovering my house 6
4 The little locksmith 12
5 Childhood delights 16
6 Our return from Stowe 26
7 Night horrors 31
8 Mother's sorrow 36
9 I find my brother 42
10 With Warren in Danvers 47
11 My small poems 58
12 Warren's friends 60
13 A crucial instinct 68
14 The town of Castine 70
15 My friend Mary 86
16 A way of life 95
17 Good neighbors 101
18 My house and land 112
19 The sun and air 127
20 A house for artists 135
21 A house for children 152
22 Two river days 166
23 At Radcliffe 176
24 God within me 186
25 A house for lovers 194
26 The very bright child 202
27 Restoring the house 206
28 My boundaries 216
29 I throw away the boat 220
Epilogue: The rest is waiting 229
Afterwood 239
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2008

    Very relatable and good book

    Katherines life took a turn for the worst when she was diagnosed with TB as a child leaving her deformed, but out of it it gave her a greater realization for the things that we all take for granted day by day, she was strapped to a board for 10 years for 'treatment', which sounds like a personal hell, but she took something good out of it and became interested in the things other kids dont, the sound of rain, smells, colors etc. This part of the book gives back a realization to those things that we dont see day to day that are right in front of us. However, as she gets older the writing twists more to the things she DID miss that others DO experience, such as love, a family and sex. Her one escape to normalcy is to buy a house in the country and make it a haven for others and her family. This book is a great read, i wouldnt necessarily say RUN out to get it - but i certainly wouldnt deter you from it either. Her life story is truly inspiring to be able to grow and be satisfied with life, even though she lacked the things that society said are what you need to make your life satisfying. Its a good book for all of us who are always finding something wrong in our lives ' i dont have a good enough job, no one loves me, im not who i want to be'. It puts things into perspective that your life is really what you make it, and that you can choose which things negatively impact you.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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