The Outward Room

The Outward Room

by Millen Brand, Peter Cameron

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The Outward Room is a book about a young woman’s journey from madness to self-discovery. It created a sensation when it was first published in 1937, and has lost none of its immediacy or its power to move the reader.
Having suffered a nervous breakdown after her brother’s death in a car accident, Harriet Demuth is committed to a mental hospital, but her doctor’s Freudian nostrums do little to make her well. Convinced that she and she alone can refashion her life, Harriet makes a daring escape from the hospital—hopping a train by night and riding the rails into the vastness of New York City in the light of the rising sun. It is the middle of the Great Depression, and at first Harriet is lost among the city’s anonymous multitudes. She pawns her jewelry and lives an increasingly hand-to-mouth existence until she meets John, a machine-shop worker. Slowly Harriet begins to recover her sense of self; slowly she and John begin to fall in love. The story of that emerging love, told with the lyricism of Virginia Woolf and the realism of Theodore Dreiser, is the heart of Millen Brand’s remarkable book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781590174074
Publisher: New York Review Books
Publication date: 10/19/2010
Series: NYRB Classics Series
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 387 KB

About the Author

Millen Brand (1906–1980) was born in Jersey city, New Jersey, into a working-class family and was of Pennsylvania German descent on his mother’s side. Following graduation from Columbia University in 1929, he worked briefly as a psychiatric aide and for several years as a copywriter for the New York Telephone company before taking up faculty posts at the University of New Hampshire and New York University. The Outward Room, Brand’s first and most acclaimed novel, appeared in 1937, and was adapted for Broadway in 1939 as The World We Make. in 1948, with Frank Partos, he received an academy award nomination for his screenplay adaptation of Mary Jane Ward’s novel The Snake Pit. Brand’s association with members of the Hollywood Ten led to his questioning by the House Unamerican activities committee; he refused to cooperate, invoking the Fifth amendment. From the early 1950s to the early 1970s, Brand was an editor at crown Publishers. His other novels include The Heroes; Albert Sears; Some Love, Some Hunger; and Savage Sleep. He was also the author of Local Lives, a book of poems about the Pennsylvania Dutch; a posthumously published account of his participation in the 1977 Peace March from Nagasaki to Hiroshima; and the text to Fields of Peace, a book of photographs by George Tice.

Peter Cameron is the author of several novels, including Andorra, The Weekend, and most recently, Coral Glynn. He lives in New York City.

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The Outward Room 3.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Outward Room is a good read and I liked it.After Harriet suffers a shock when her brother is killed in a car accident, she is institutionalized. At some point she knows that this just isn't what she needs to feel any kind of normalcy, and makes a plan to escape. Once on the outside, she's alone and has to fend for herself, but she has little money and little prospects for a job because the Depression has made finding work difficult. Then she meets John, who takes her in, and she realizes she may finally have a chance for happiness. While on one hand it may seem to modern readers that Harriet's choices once she meets John are a bit old-fashioned, on the other, there is something to be said even now for living a quiet existence in the day-to-day flow of ordinary life, and facing whatever may come your way with someone you love. And I think this is where the strength of this book lies. The Outward Room also offers a quick glimpse into the Depression era & the difficulties faced by regular people who lived during that time. Overall -- a good read, one I'd recommend.
piemouth on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A sweet, odd novel originally published in 1937. Harriet is in a locked ward of an asylum since she had a nervous breakdown five years ago when her brother died in an accident. Her days are fenced in by the hospital routine, visits with her doctor, and interactions with other patients on the ward. Impulsively, she escapes and makes her way to New York.The novel is about her return to life and how her heart opens with her return to the world. I felt a little cynical about the incredible luck with which she lands on her feet and is able to survive, then felt bad about that. It¿s not an unrealistic miracle cure; it does feel real, though against the odds. It's also frustrating that her mental health comes about by taking care of a man and doing housework, but hey, I don't expect a lot more from something written in 1937.The author does a good job of describing her mental states of hopelessness, fear, desperation, and then patience and observation of her new life. It¿s also a vivid picture of New York life in the depths of the Depression, which would depress anybody.
susanbooks on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"[I]t seemed flat, gray, without color." This phrase, over a hundred pages in, is the first & only time this book raised any interest in me. It seemed such a self-aware admission of the book's myriad faults. But, alas, no. The narrator is describing a building rather than the narrative itself. And so my interest waned & I slogged thru the remaining 120 pages only because I received this book as an Early Reviewer. Much of my work centers around, to describe them overly broadly, asylum novels. Here are some brilliant ones: "The Snake Pit," by Mary Jane Ward . . . "The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath . . . "Under Observation" by Amelie Skram . . . "Bird-Eyes" by Madelyn Arnold . . . "The Treatment" and "The Cure" by Peter Kocan . . . "Beyond the Glass" by Antonia White. This is just off the top of my head; there are, of course, lots more. Where these novels succeed is in capturing the mixture of tension, fear, confusion, boredom that you can find on a psych ward. Brand's novel tells us that there is a lot of the first three but demonstrates only the last and that only by prose that is itself so boring that I, as a reader, have to believe in the boringness of the hospital, because certainly anything with the least bit of interest should perk up the flat narration.The books I've listed also succeed in showing the powerless anger patients can feel, even if only fleetingly. In The Outward Room, on the other hand Harriet, our heroine, has a nauseatingly complete belief in her psychiatrist, for no clear reason I can see since he sounds like a condescending, manipulative sadist. We get a long, boring (of course, it's boring!) unintentionally comic session of what the author imagines Freudian analysis must sound like. Harriet's "illness" is explained by a vague, misogynistic mishmash of Oedipal ridiculousness. It might make sense if we really knew anything about her loss, but the book never bothers to detail much of anything: characters, places, emotions, everything here is told not shown; is one-dimensional; is "flat, gray and without color." (Plot spoilers ahead) So she escapes (boringly) to Manhattan. "Now she was asserting her freedom," says the narrative voice. But there's no exhilaration, no charge, no change in Harriet or in the language used to describe her. Besides the word "freedom" itself, nothing else lets us imagine anything like freedom is even under discussion. What does Harriet do with her freedom? Eventually she goes home with a stranger who turns out to have a heart of gold. And finds salvation in . . . housework. Let me pause here to point out that most of the novels I've listed critique the enforced feminine heteronormativity under which female patients suffered until very recently. Generally this meant dresses, make-up, hair-dos, and an acceptance of woman's place in the home. Early on we're told that Harriet is wearing a tailored dress as part of the hospital regimen. The novel doesn't explore this issue. Instead, it adopts the hospital's ideology and shows us how feminine stereotypes save lives. Once back to John's apartment Harriet finds life again by "Washing, cooking -- tasks to do until the hour when he would return. . . . All that she did had meaning." Her presenting him with a successfully washed and ironed shirt is written as a particularly triumphant moment. We know she's really all better by the last paragraph because she's finally ready to become his wife. John is working class & brings in some talk of labor radicalism that, despite its possibilities, is as boring, one-dimensional, unreal, as anything else in the novel. This book was published in 1937, so Brand couldn't have read Plath. But Amalie Skram, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Antonia White, Virginia Woolf, and many, many others, had written critiques of psych-ward ideology that Brand is either unaware of or just doesn't care about. But then, after all, this isn't an asylum novel. It's a book about the feminin
hauptwerk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm boundlessly impressed by NYRB Classics. They keep publishing fascinating twentieth-century novels and other books that I would never otherwise heard of. Here we have Millen Brand's The Outward Room, a novel from the 1930s about a young woman's escape from a psychiatric institution and her struggle to make a new life for herself in Depression-era New York.For the first thirty pages of the book, set in the psychiatric hospital, the woman has no name; traumatized by her brother's violent death, she is trapped in a recurring cycle of manic episodes alternating with periods of comparative calm. Her psychiatrist's Freudian psychoanalysis is totally unable to help her, and so she escapes from the hospital, making her way to New York City and assuming the name Harriet Demuth. She is able to survive for a short while by pawning her one valuable possession (a ring), but she is soon out of money, and there's no work available for a woman with no job experience or references. She's finally rescued from starvation by an encounter with John Kohler, a complete stranger who lets her rest at his home. The inevitable happens; the two begin to fall in love, and Harriet gradually begins to recover her identity and presence of mind.This all sounds terribly conventional and a bit maudlin, but Brand deftly avoids the usual clichés. The novel is written throughout in a free indirect style, the third-person narration appearing deceptively objective but in fact reflecting Harriet's point of view. This is done exceptionally well. Brand has a wonderful eye for the telling detail, or the crucial shift in narrative tone, that alerts us to Harriet's changing mental states. The ending is particularly moving, and it also happens to be a virtuosic piece of storytelling, tying together a number of threads from earlier in the story and bringing things to a somewhat equivocal resolution. This was Brand's first novel, and one gets the sense that he was slightly over-ambitious. There are probably too many plot threads for the novel's own good: a subplot about the formation of labour unions in the tool and die industry is introduced and then awkwardly abandoned, for no clear reason. Still, this is an intriguing piece of mid-century American literature, well worth your time to read.The advance proof copy I read did not include the introduction by Peter Cameron, but I'm sure that it is very nice.
TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As a fictional record of the awful desperation and crushing poverty that existed during the Great Depression of the 1930s, this is an outstanding example. It also depicts the beginnings of labor unions in this country. I'll admit readily I don't know that much about this aspect of the story, but I'll assume that too is accurate. As a look at the treatment of mental illness and the largely Freudian methods that were in the forefront in the 30s - once again, relevant and probably accurate. I'm not so sure, however, of the accuracy of the depiction of what might go on inside the mind of a manic-depressive woman who has been traumatized by a violent death in her family. But then who can know this for sure? The protagonist, whose real name we never learn, escapes from the Islington Hospital for the insane, where she has been incarcerated for several years or more, due to a mental breakdown following the death of her beloved older brother in an automobile accident. Taking the name Harriet Demuth, she rides the rails of a train, then hitchhikes to NYC, where she begins to try to rebuild a life. She knows she's probably still ill, but serendipitously meets a good and decent man, John, a former coal-miner turned machinist, who takes her in and cares for her and, gradually, they fall in love. Can true love cure mental illness? Well, if Brand's story can be believed, perhaps it can. I'm not inclined to disbelieve. I didn't think I was going to like this story when I began it, but it picked up momentum once Harriet arrived in the city and then was taken in by John. I found myself rooting for this downtrodden couple - the woman tormented by her inner demons and doubts, and the hardworking, enterprising man who tries to do right by her, working long thankless hours at his lathes and drill presses in a machine shop. Harriet too takes a job for a time in a garment factory, a job which finally gave me a descriptive realistic look at what the term "sweat shop" really means. Secondary characters too come alive, in Harriet's shop friend, Anna Tannik, who can't marry her boyfriend because her parents and siblings need her paycheck, miniscule as it may be. Anna's father, let go from his job and beaten down by despair as he searches endlessly for work, pounding the pavements with thousands of other disenfranchised unemployed. And this is a love story too, told in the most simplistic and starkest of terms, but nonetheless, achingly believable.There is also the symbolism of the "rooms" to consider here: first her room in the asylum, described minutely, then her first three-dollar-a-week room in a New York rooming house, and finally the two-room walkup she shares with John, all examined in detail and described both physically and figuratively. Though not overtly intrusive, there is 'art' in this story, something the critics I suppose loved. When this book was first published nearly 75 years ago, it sold nearly a half-million copies, an astounding number in those days. It received high praise from the likes of Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser. And I can see why. Yet Brand never again achieved the recognition or commercial success that he enjoyed with this book, The Outward Room. Before reading this new edition from NYRB Classics, I had never heard of Millen Brand. There's nothing flashy about this novel. But it is a quietly beautiful little book. It didn't deserve to disappear the way it did for over 50 years. I hope it sticks around a while this time. Perhaps it will find a new audience now that our country seems to be on the verge of another Depression. Verge, hell. We're in it, folks. Unfortunately, the kind of anger, fear and desperation depicted in The Outward Room seems relevant once again. For that reason alone it's worth reading. I'm glad I read it.