The American H.D.

The American H.D.

by Annette Debo


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In The American H.D., Annette Debo considers the significance of nation in the artistic vision and life of the modernist writer Hilda Doolittle. Her versatile career stretching from 1906 to 1961, H.D. was a major American writer who spent her adult life abroad; a poet and translator who also wrote experimental novels, short stories, essays, reviews, and a children’s book; a white writer with ties to the Harlem Renaissance; an intellectual who collaborated on avant-garde films and film criticism; and an upper-middle-class woman who refused to follow gender conventions. Her wide-ranging career thus embodies an expansive narrative about the relationship of modernism to the United States and the nuances of the American nation from the Gilded Age to the Cold War.

Making extensive use of material in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale—including correspondences, unpublished autobiographical writings, family papers, photographs, and Professor Norman Holmes Pearson’s notes for a planned biography of H.D.—Debo’s American H.D. reveals details about its subject never before published. Adroitly weaving together literary criticism, biography, and cultural history, The American H.D. tells a new story about the significance of this important writer.
Written with clarity and sincere affection for its subject, The American H.D. brings together a sophisticated understanding of modernism, the poetry and prose of H.D., the personalities of her era, and the historical and cultural context in which they developed: America’s emergence as a dominant economic and political power that was riven by racial and social inequities at home.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609380830
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 03/15/2012
Edition description: 1
Pages: 246
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Annette Debo is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University, in Cullowhee, North Carolina, where she teaches courses in modernism, women's literature, African American literature, and literary theory.She is the coeditor of the MLA volume Approaches to Teaching H.D.’s Poetry and Prose (2011) and is the cochair of the H.D. International Society. Her articles have appeared in African American Review, Callaloo, Paideuma, South Atlantic Review, Quarterly Review of Film and Video, CLA Journal, and College Literature.

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University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2012 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60938-083-0

Chapter One

HER EARLY AMERICAN SCENE H.D., Pennsylvania, and Marianne Moore

At the time of H.D.'s birth in 1886, the United States had only recently entered into existence as a true "nation-state" rather than a loosely associated group of states, as discussed in the previous chapter. The role of the federal government was increasing, and states' rights were on the decline. She was born into a country undergoing monumental transitions as it shifted from the Gilded Age to the Progressive Era, which Matthew Frye Jacobson describes as "characterized by a paradoxical combination of supreme confidence in U.S. superiority and righteousness, with an anxiety driven by fierce parochialism" (Barbarian Virtues 4). Stretching roughly from 1870 to 1890, the Gilded Age oversaw the development of a modern industrial economy, including transportation and communication networks, all of which led to excessive displays of wealth by a very few, the rise of labor unions (and resistance to them), population expansion through massive waves of immigrants, and the beginning of the Great Migration, the movement of 6 to 8 million African Americans from the South to the North and West in the largest internal migration ever experienced in the U.S. Because she lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, home of Bethlehem Steel, as a child H.D. witnessed the growth of the steel mills and the transformation of her town through the mill's production and pollution (she deplored in letters the cutting of the town's beloved trees), as well as the immigrants it employed. Industrialization was celebrated at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, also called the Chicago World's Fair, which H.D.'s parents attended. A marker of American industrial optimism and growth, the fair came to symbolize American exceptionalism and the desire to become an industrial power, in both the North and the hitherto agrarian South. As the U.S. outpaced Britain in its industrial production, the specter of overproduction was raised, which increased the imperialist impulse to create new markets for American goods and to secure new low-wage workers. With the American Indian wars ending and the continental reach of the U.S. established, the country began to stretch farther, expanding its economic control into Latin America and East Asia and emulating the British Empire, which in 1910 controlled one-fifth of the world's land mass. Hand-in-hand with industrialization came an economy dependent on the consumer and materialism, all of which led to the development of a new professional middle class, to which H.D.'s family belonged (Wiebe, Search 112).

At the same time, Reconstruction, dating from the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 or the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865, had failed through the Compromise of 1877, which guaranteed the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes at the price of removing federal troops from the South. This abandonment of a move toward racial equality was finalized in 1883 when the Supreme Court declared the Civil Rights Act of 1875 unconstitutional. Race relations during H.D.'s life in the U.S. saw the development of the punitive Black Codes, the pivotal 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, the development of the Jim Crow system, and the proliferation of lynching and institutionalized oppression of African Americans.

For women, the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention had not yet borne fruit; the suffrage movement was inching toward the volcanic proportions it would eventually reach, but not until H.D. had left the U.S. More women were attending college—H.D. was in the second generation of female students—and opportunities beyond the domestic sphere were just beginning to open, as in Jane Addams founding Hull House in 1889, a settlement house emphasizing educating the poor to alleviate poverty. Still, H.D. grew up in a stifling Victorian world of layered petticoats, hair piled high, and specific expectations for one's romantic interests, even if her family did put her on the road to becoming a scientist like her father and brothers. The country did not yet value female achievement in music or visual art, as witnessed by exhibitions of paintings in which Mary Cassatt was the exceptional single woman included, and H.D.'s early inclinations toward writing were not encouraged. To again quote Virginia Woolf, whose work H.D. read and owned, women's lives at that time had not figured in the many volumes of human history held in the illustrious British Museum, and "cats do not go to heaven. Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare" (Room 48).

H.D.'s life in the U.S. bridged the fin de siècle, with fourteen years in the nineteenth century and eleven in the twentieth. She witnessed the transition into the Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s), which responded to the changes brought about by industrialization by advocating a range of reforms in politics, economics, social policies, and morals. Most of this era's achievements were realized after 1911, when H.D. left for Europe, and only after World War I had spurred them forward, so H.D.'s upbringing was spent in a period of change and tension, before the final prize of social change. In fact, the world in general was changing rapidly: in 1899, Sigmund Freud, with whom H.D. underwent analysis and training in 1933–34, published his Interpretation of Dreams; in 1903, the Wright brothers flew the first engine-powered airplane; in 1905, Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity; in 1910, Halley's Comet made one of its periodic approaches to Earth (as witnessed by H.D. in her father's observatory); and Isadora Duncan was pioneering modern dance (H.D. attended a performance in New York City). Painting quickly shifted from impressionism to the Fauves with Matisse's Woman with a Hat in 1905 and cubism through Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907, and the new styles finally emigrated to the U.S. through the 1913 Armory Show, by which time H.D. had left and become familiar with modern art in Europe. Literature was likewise experiencing a sea change, as writers sought to find language and forms to fit the new times, a concerted break with the elaborate and restricted nature of Victorian literature. They chose to "make it new," to use spare and concise language, to elevate images rather than feelings, to reach for language to match the new skyscrapers, and to create forms to capture modernity. Still to come in 1911, this literary generation became H.D.'s future, and her Sea Garden (1916) and early Greek translations joined the paths being trod by other modernists: Ezra Pound's Personae (1909), Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (1909), William Carlos Williams's Poems (1909), Marianne Moore's Poems (1921), T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), Ernest Hemingway's In Our Time (1925), and Langston Hughes's The Weary Blues (1926).

In order to become the person who could publish "Epigram" signed "H.D., 'Imagiste.'" in Poetry in 1913, H.D. was irrevocably shaped by American people, places, and institutions. Her early life in the U.S. forged the American identity she took abroad in 1911, and through existing biographical information and new information recently unearthed, this chapter constructs H.D.'s early American scene. (An admirer of Henry James, H.D. often borrowed his title when discussing her American past.) The portrait of H.D. that emerges reveals a young woman well educated and academically successful (her three semesters at Bryn Mawr were an aberration), socially adept, equally comfortable in urban and rural settings, deeply committed to her family, and writing at an early age. My construction of these formative years of H.D.'s life accentuates her formal education and details her year at the University of Pennsylvania, emphasizing little-known biographical information. An extended section is dedicated to H.D.'s friendship with Marianne Moore, which was her most enduring and meaningful relationship with another American writer. Particular attention is paid to the supportive community that developed between H.D., Moore, and Bryher, which offers an opportunity to introduce Bryher, H.D.'s companion for most of her life. The chapter concludes with H.D.'s first trip back to the U.S. in 1920–21, which clearly resonates in H.D.'s 1920s writing.

H.D. was born on September 10, 1886, to Helen Wolle Doolittle, who formerly taught music and art at the Moravian Seminary, and Charles Leander Doolittle, then professor of astronomy at Lehigh University. From her birth until 1895, when she turned nine, H.D. lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where she attended Moravian schools and was immersed in Moravian culture—which enters her later writing, particularly The Gift and The Mystery, but not until she redeveloped an interest in Moravianism and researched it extensively from Europe. H.D. was a notable pupil even when young. When asked for memories of H.D., a former teacher's daughter wrote, "Hilda must have been an outstanding pupil for when Mother recalled her teaching days, which meant very much to her, she always spoke of 'my little Hilda' in affectionate terms. Evidently her feeling for the child was reciprocated, for my sister has a little china cream pitcher which H.D. gave to mother."

For H.D., Bethlehem became an important symbol. During her analysis with Freud, he immediately, upon hearing the name of her birthplace, connected that town to the city of the Virgin Mary, underscoring the religious connotations for H.D. The town was indeed named after the birthplace of Jesus by Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf and his Moravian followers on Christmas Eve in 1741. Over a century and a half, it evolved from a typical Moravian settlement where the church owned all the property and exerted extensive control over members' lives to a typical northeastern industrial village. Bethlehem was the town of H.D.'s mother's artistic family, the family branch she knew the best and felt most akin to. A Moravian minister and principal of the Young Ladies' Seminary in Bethlehem, where her mother subsequently taught, H.D.'s grandfather, Francis Wolle, or Papalie, was a renowned expert in botany, illustrating his myriad of plant samples with plates hand colored by older women in the community in his three volumes published in 1884, 1887, and 1890. His artistic gift and care for detail were passed down to Helen, who suppressed her own talent in painting to take care of a busy household upon her marriage to H.D.'s father. H.D. speculates in The Gift that this artistic gift, also interpreted as spiritual wisdom by the Moravians, was passed on to her Uncle Fred and herself. In 1898 J. Fred Wolle used his musical gifts to begin the Bach Choir, and in 1900 he created the famous Bach Festival, which to this day celebrates Bach's compositions in the Central Moravian Church.

Across the Lehigh River from the Old Town was a quite different venture, Bethlehem Steel. Begun in the 1860s as Bethlehem Iron Company, the mill was reorganized and sold as Bethlehem Steel Company in 1901, going through another reorganization in 1904, under the leadership of Charles M. Schwab, to become Bethlehem Steel Corporation in 1904. A part of the growing industrialization and benefitting tremendously from imperialism, Bethlehem Steel produced the means for modern architecture: the steel frameworks for skyscrapers and long-span bridges, as well as the means for modern war: warships, armor plate, shells, and artillery ammunition. H.D. could see the mill from the Old Town on the north side of the river, as the land rose away from the Lehigh River.

From age nine to twenty-five, influential years as H.D. matured into adulthood, H.D. lived in Upper Darby, just outside the borders of Philadelphia, where the family moved in 1895 when H.D.'s father became professor of astronomy at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Flower Observatory and where H.D. "learned to tell the stories of the stars and constellations when she showed visiting schoolchildren the heavens through the telescope," initiating her interest in astronomy and astrology (Pearson, Foreword, Hermetic 1). The family lived on the spacious grounds of the observatory in the Director's Residence, a landscape influential in H.D.'s writing. Their house was in a rural area, surrounded by farms, but only a short streetcar and trolley ride away from the heart of Philadelphia, where H.D. would lunch and shop at Wanamakers, attend parties and outings with school friends, and take in the artistic offerings at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Art. In their comfortable home, with its dedicated wing for astronomy students and staff, lived H.D., her parents, three brothers (Gilbert, Harold, and Melvin), her half-brother Eric and his wife, and assorted visiting relatives. (Her other half-brother Alfred left Bethlehem when his mother, H.D.'s father's first wife, passed away.) H.D. attended Miss Elizabeth Gordon's school in West Philadelphia during 1901–2 and then moved on to the rigorous Friends' Central School. Friends' Central was "much further from home, much larger, and recognized by all the top eastern colleges as a dependable preparatory school" (Wallace, "Athene's" 105). Emily Wallace, who has thoroughly researched this part of H.D.'s education, claims that "Quakers, like the Moravians, cherished the inner light of each student and held up the same ideals of intellectual and artistic excellence for girls and boys," a fortunate choice for the young H.D. ("Hilda" 19). This education, completed in reliable American institutions, laid the groundwork for H.D.'s later writing.

H.D. entered Friends' Central School in 1902 and graduated in 1905, one of ten girls in the Classical Section, whose intellectual level was characterized as "academically elite and demanding" (Wallace, "Hilda" 18). Surrounded by academic achievers, H.D. graduated fourth in her class. Of this group, three classmates went to Swarthmore, two to Wellesley, one to Vassar, H.D. to Bryn Mawr, one died, and two probably married (Wallace, "Hilda" 18–22). An ambitious student, H.D. aspired to attend Bryn Mawr and attempted early acceptance in 1904. Sixth of the Seven Sisters to open, Bryn Mawr distinguished itself by its level of rigor, hitherto only seen in colleges for men, established by the leadership of M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr from 1893 to 1922. H.D.'s father, progressive in his beliefs on the education of women, planned for H.D. to become a scientist like himself, so Bryn Mawr, with its graduate study options and established PhD's in chemistry and mathematics, was a logical choice. Although she did not succeed in her bid for early acceptance, H.D. did pass the "hardest and most comprehensive examination in the nation" the next year (Wallace, "Hilda" 17–21). Although H.D. never mentions Thomas, she may have been influenced by this pioneer in women's education who "taught English literature and gave talks in chapel during which she espoused her philosophy promoting women, their education, and their intellectual equality with men; it is in one of these chapel talks that Thomas supposedly made the apocryphal statement, 'Only our failures marry' when she meant to say, 'Our failures only marry'" (Eisenmann 429).

In addition to academic success, H.D., tall and graceful, succeeded socially. She was on the Scientific Committee of the Literary Society, she earned a Friends' Central letter for playing center on the '05 basketball team, and she was involved in student politics. The 1905 Friends' yearbook offers comments like "Hilda has a large majority for the best disposition," and two of H.D.'s "redeeming virtues" were listed as "her ability ... in overawing her opponents" and "her charming affability." At graduation, she was honored by being chosen as a speaker, and she read an essay titled "The Poet's Influence." Overall, H.D.'s high school record is challenging and achievement oriented. She advanced to college an academic and social success. (Continues...)

Excerpted from THE AMERICAN H.D. by ANNETTE DEBO Copyright © 2012 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Modern Nation, Identity, and H.D....................1
1 Her Early American Scene: HD, Pennsylvania, and Marianne Moore....................25
2 America's Second Great Period of Literary Creation: Nation and HD's Literary Imagination....................71
3 Plants and Trees Make Countries: HD's Sacred Land....................127
4 America Cannot Hold Unless Black Meets White: The Harlem Renaissance's Transatlantic Influence....................151
5 A Woman's Age: Nation and Women....................177
Epilogue: Frankly and Frenziedly American....................209
Works Cited....................229

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