By ANDREW HERTZBERG
Let’s get the cliché out of the way: behind every great man is a great woman. In the history of well-known great men, rarely does that great woman have her chance to express her importance.
In her new book Heroines, Kate Zambreno asserts that many of the extolled male writers, particularly from the Modernist era, have been overly-mythologized, that not only were these great women behind them, but that they were pushed unnecessarily far behind their beaus, as their shadows, just ghosts. Zambreno focuses primarily on Vivienne Haigh-Wood and Zelda Fitzgerald, wives to TS Eliot and F. Scott, respectively. Through consistent wordplay, non-linearity and repetition, Zambreno explores how these women’s creativity was suppressed, and how they eventually suffered through their breakdowns. Zambreno herself identifies greatly with these women. She’s had a troubled background, is an artist, and has changed locations for the sake of her husband’s career. She laments that she is often defined as a wife, not as a writer. But as Zambreno identifies primarily as a blog writer, much of the book follows an informal, stream of consciousness online diary format. She jumps timelines, perspectives, and references rapidly. Sentence fragments abound. But there is also a freedom in her writing and she humorously uses her (care)freedom and various pop- and sub-cultural references to her advantage, equating Georges Bataille to a Surrealist Charlie Sheen or calling “The Wasteland” emo.
But something happens to Zambreno midway through the book. Her tone changes; her language changes. This schism of voice is the only reason I can think of why the book is separated into two parts. She is a bit more playful in Part One and prone to dark humor, like recognizing her typo of the word ‘obliterate’ into ‘obliterature,’ or constantly playing around with homonyms (the book’s title, for example). But in Part Two, she is less playful with language and relies more on repetition. Beyond just giving these women a fair shot of being remembered properly, Zambreno herself changes. Perhaps it is because she writes about her own writing more, or the fact that she starts reveling in the “red light” that Virginia Woolf warns about in A Room of One’s Own. While anger can certainly be strenuous, I think it is the repetition that is draining her; you can read how connected and empathetic she feels towards these heroines through her sheer exhaustion by the end of the book.
This book is difficult in that although it is non-fiction, the scatter-brained ADHD-pacing makes it hard to conceive who Vivienne, Zelda and the rest really were. Do not start this book expecting to go into great depths on any specific writers. Rather, understand that Zambreno wants to give a voice to as many female authors as possible. She may have reached too far in this scope, but has instead offered an informal introduction to early feminist works, to those women who found a room of owns own to write in, who were given the opportunity to flourish and create, if not eventually succumbing to the cruel fate of an asylum and early death.
Beyond recounting her struggles as a writer, she investigates what it means to be a writer, particularly in the digital era, home to the subsubcultures of Livejournal, Tumblr, and Blogger. She feels a community with other female bloggers, whether or not they’ve been published or have ever written anything outside of the public diaries these websites cultivate. Zambreno continuously reasserts that it is the owners of language (men) who define the Great American Writers (men), while another part of the population are only seen as emotional, unstable, or crazy (women) when they attempt to express themselves. But perhaps in this digital-era, with the free and equal platform that the Internet provides, the future heroes and heroines will be completely unrecognizable to those of a hundred years ago. For her part, Kate Zambreno is a profound leader of this charge.
Whereas Heroines is a non-fiction work that aims to give voice to a multiple of wives of their more famous husbands, Melanie Benjamin’s historical fiction work The Aviator’s Wife lends a voice to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife to to the Great Aviator himself, Charles “Lucky Lindy” Lindbergh. While Benjamin’s writing style isn’t nearly as aggressive or experimental as Kate Zambreno’s, the two books do find similar conclusions about the wives of famous men, albeit reached from different paths.
Anne Morrow, the daughter of a US Ambassador to Mexico, could have made things easy for herself. She could have married, been a housewife and be “content” and “happy” to raise a few kids. But while money or daily comfort were never an issue for the couple, their lives were anything but easy. Charles was very guarded and quite cold toward his wife, who always wanted to know more about her husband. They were constantly harassed by society and the press, which subsequently led to the kidnapping and murder of their first child; they bounced around from place to place and eventually to Europe, where Charles became a Nazi-sympathizer and alienated the Lindberghs from the American public that once adored them. The family recovered their good name after World War II, but Charles became so busy traveling for work, Anne was left to raise five kids on her own (well, and with the help of some servants). They both eventually sought relations outside of marriage, Charles due to his (ahem) biological need to spread his seed, and Anne craving any amount of physical human contact.
In one of their first meetings in the novel, Charles tells Anne about the stress he felt after his famous flight from Long Island to Paris, how all of a sudden it wasn’t he who was now in control in his life but “they,” particularly when he wasn’t allowed to fly back to America: “That was the first time I realized my life was no longer my own.” Anne expresses shock, unable to imagine the feeling, but what perhaps is the most clever part of the novel is how gradually she does begin to understand this lack of control over her own life; her life would eventually be dictated by Charles. Granted, he was always supportive of Anne’s writing, but it was generally to portray him in a positive light, rather than for her own self-expression. In fact, it was one of her works (at Charles’ urging) that backfired on the couple, a piece of propaganda suggesting against the US involvement in WWII when the rest of the country was ready for action.
But here is where Benjamin doesn’t go far enough, particularly in Anne’s ruminations. What was she thinking when she wrote the propaganda piece? Was she so blinded by love or commitment that it was inconceivable to her that she was just a pawn for her husband’s point of view? In fact, she does briefly consider this, but quickly represses any controversial thought. While the book does mention her Gift from the Sea, a feminist work written when the marriage was steadily on the decline, it doesn’t push far enough to indicate that she actually was her own woman, that she was the one strong enough to hold the family together. She was a writer, a poet, who had a passion for “playing with words almost as if they were flowers to be constantly rearranged into beautiful bouquets.” Benjamin could have further explored Anne’s doubts about her husband and what he made her write, as surely she must have in real life. The novel’s title could have been ironic, but instead it comes off as literal and permanent.
The novel teaches as much about the Aviator as the Aviator’s Wife. As with most accounts of heroic, historical figures’ lives, it’s amazing we are not more cynical towards them and to the ones we are currently cultivating. Benjamin and Zambreno both deflate certain mythologies, and instead place these men as more of a cautionary tale: Lindbergh, Fitzgerald, and Eliot, philosophers, athletes and musicians, too many to name: immoral, drunks, bastards, horrendous parents, adulterers, liars. Yet we still praise them for their talents, for their legacies that take priority over the shame of their appalling mistakes.
While change on social and technological levels has allowed women to write more freely, it’s still unnerving to read that Zambreno still feels the same restrictions (of being “just” the wife, of moving for her husband career) that Vivienne, Zelda, and Anne Morrow felt nearly a hundred years earlier. Behind every great man is a great woman. Now we live in a time where these great women are themselves supported by other great women, giving them a voice they were never allowed to develop in their own time.
Andrew Hertzberg is a staff writer currently hibernating in Chicago; he recently reviewed A Chinese Life by Li Kunwu. He is devoting the entire year of 2013 to escaping his literary comfort zone.