Unsettling New York Settlement from the Inside: Maeve Brennan, the Long-Winded Lady, and the Urban Dream of the New Yorker

Madeleine Lyes,

Clinton Institute for American Studies, University College Dublin

I’m not the first to find meat for comparison within the work Maeve Brennan produced as the Long-Winded Lady for the New Yorker and the characters and events of her earliest completed work, the novella The Visitor. The Visitor was published posthumously by New Island Books in 2001, eight years after Maeve Brennan’s death, though there is evidence that it was completed in 1948, when Brennan was thirty-two years old. The editor of the published text, Christopher Carduff, himself saw certain similarities between the rootless and desperate protagonist of the novella, Anastasia King, and the persona adopted by Brennan in her columns for the New Yorker, the Long-Winded Lady. According to Carduff, both women represent one of Brennan’s archetypes, that of, in his words, “an exile from a lovingly remembered past, doomed to roam the city with no real home of her own.” (“Editor’s Note,” 104) My work disputes this notion, contending that there is something far more interesting at work in the representations of home, urban life, and the self in evidence in Brennan’s writing. It is evident also that the ideas and preoccupations featured in The Visitor act as a striking illustration of the early stirrings of Brennan’s nascent urban philosophy.

Although the story itself takes place in Dublin in the 1940’s, a setting immensely distant – temporally, and in myriad other respects – from the metropolitan clamour of 1960’s Manhattan, the central concerns of the protagonist of the piece reflect many of the issues which would come to be prevalent in Brennan’s Long-Winded Lady columns for the New Yorker. Examination of this early text, then, establishes a precedent in Brennan’s writing, placing her later work in a continuum of carefully considered literary and urban values. It is Brennan’s writing in The Visitor, which negates any accusation of triviality in her later New Yorker columns, and as such warrants investigation. I hope to show, through an examination of her work as the Long-Winded Lady and in The Visitor, that Brennan’s growth as a writer of cities lends provocative and challenging insight into contemporary discussions of place, homeland and identity in the United States and Ireland.

There is little in the way of nostalgia in Brennan’s Dublin fiction. The Visitor, as the first work of an emigrant far away from home, from the spaces evoked in the text, could be expected to follow a fairly traditional path in Irish-American writing, describing a land long-lost and hazy with memory and longing, every object and event in the text softened and blurred by a patina of glowing reminiscence. Instead, The Visitor is a strangely alienating and chilling piece of work, its obscurity hinging on the impenetrable motivations of the protagonist and sometime-narrator of the text, the 22-year-old Anastasia King. As the story begins, a newly-orphaned Anastasia is arriving in Dublin, her return from Paris after six years rendering her confused, lonely and bewildered. She is shown to be anxious about her homecoming, moving between disorientation and a desire to settle once again in her childhood home, now occupied only by her stern grandmother, Mrs. King, and an elderly housekeeper, her desperation at her rootlessness driving her quest to wedge herself back into the family home, ignoring the fact that she is unwelcome until it is finally made cruelly clear. Much of the text deals with her alternating states of hope and despondence at her progress in convincing her grandmother, who blames the death of Anastasia’s father on her mother’s departure and on Anastasia’s decision to reject her father out of loyalty to her mother, that she should be allowed to make a home with her once again. It is made clear that many characters are puzzled at Anastasia’s desire to return from a comfortable life of freedom in Paris to the dark and rigid home of two elderly women, and in many ways the reader must ask the same thing – what is it that Anastasia is so anxious to find in her grandmother’s house? What idea of home must she envisage if she hopes to find it in a gloomy house with a bitter old woman who so obviously resents her?

It is clear that in The Visitor, Maeve Brennan was at the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the theorisation of home as space, with the conception of identity-formation as a place-based project, and as such her work was in line, ahead of its time, with a more recent shift in critical social theory towards an investigation of spatiality and place – or rather placelessness – within the current conditions of globalised society. In light of her later work as the Long-Winded Lady for the New Yorker, which focused exclusively on the experience of urban living, it is perhaps worth examining the ways in which Dublin as a city is represented in this earlier text and how the interaction with this city-space is negotiated throughout the novella, in order to illustrate the ways in which the vastly different cityscapes of 1940’s Dublin and 1960’s New York are evoked. In the opening pages of The Visitor, Anastasia King’s return to Dublin is described as blurry and indistinct, as though she lacks the ability to understand her surroundings, a vast chasm between her and the shadowed and withdrawn faces of those around her. Later in the text, one particular passage highlights Anastasia’s impressions of city life, describing it as a place of two worlds, an inner and an outer. In Brennan’s words, “One world has walls around it [that is, the home] and one world has people around it [meaning the crowd, the city streets]”:

This world [the second world, of the streets] has a sightless, malicious face, which is the face of the crowd. The face of the crowd is not immediately to be seen, it only becomes apparent after a while, when it shows itself in wondering sidelong looks and sharp glances… One goes to stand alone on a city bridge, to look over at the water, and suddenly one’s eyes are sliding from left to right, to see if some person is watching, some stranger who thinks it is odd to stand alone, looking over the bridge with nothing to do. One must be about one’s business. There is no patience for solitary aimless wistful hangers-on who want to sit and watch, or who ludicrously join the crowd in its rush to the end of the street, and then pause at the corner, confused, directionless, stupid.” (The Visitor, 76-7)

To Anastasia, the city is a place of barricades and boundaries, of restrictions around space where all behaviour is scrutinised and found wanting, where everyone else has a purpose but hers remains unclear. For Anastasia, a sense of purpose is inextricably linked to a sense of belonging, and it is the lack of both in her life which, combined with the effortlessly cruel machinations of her grandmother, combine to slowly destroy her sense of self until she spirals into a breakdown at the end of the book. For Anastasia, the only possibility of belonging, the only space she can imagine as a home, and by extension the seat of the coherent and stable identity she craves, is the house in which she was raised. Within both Irish and American writing, traditional conceptions of the homestead, be it colonial mansion or ranch, Big House or poorhouse, were spaces within which each new generation could locate an identity and negotiate a conception of self closely linked to the ever-reliable walls of the family home. This idea is also rife within the literature of Irish-America, in, for example, the fiction of Elizabeth Cullinan, Mary Gordon and Mary McCarthy, all of whom placed the ancestral residence, be it in America or Ireland, at the heart of their work. Brennan’s work in The Visitor can be seen to both echo and unsettle this tradition, highlighting the extent to which Anastasia’s fixation on her grandmother’s home as the only hope for her future security becomes an obsession, and undercutting any nostalgic emigrant trope of the home that will always be awaiting their return.

Within both Irish and American literary history, the construction of the concept of home as the site of identity formation has been particularly powerful, Irish stories reflecting the internal conflict resulting from the impossibility of feeling truly at home in a colonised space, and their American counterparts moving from narratives of virgin land for the pure at heart to a forced re-envisioning of these tropes of Manifest Destiny once the so-called virgin land to the west was eventually used up. The Visitor shows the continued ways in which these narratives have power over our concepts of self. In the novella, our protagonist is constantly striving to establish herself and her identity through the claiming of space, reflecting her investment in the traditional conceptions of self-formation. This is most notable in Anastasia’s quest to be accepted back into her family home, but there are many echoing passages throughout the text. She battles with her grandmother for possession of space within the home, curling herself up in her father’s room for comfort only to be driven out and made to feel an intruder. Even her recently deceased mother, who reflects Anastasia’s powerlessness in having lost the battle with Anastasia’s grandmother in the past, is denied her version of home when Mrs. King refuses to allow her to be buried in the family plot, determining that she must be interred in exile. At a later point, Anastasia is driven out of the house and in a state of delirium, seeks shelter in a local catholic church. There, local women and eventually a nun, suspicious at her state of distress and believing her to be drunk, ask her to leave. It is only after she has left that Anastasia thinks to herself, “She should have said, Who are you to say I should not be here? But it was already too late then” (75). Over and over again, Anastasia is confronted by those who have made claims upon the spaces she seeks to enter, those who refuse to share that claim for fear of losing it themselves. In many ways, then, this text is an example of Brennan’s growing belief in the hopelessness of place-based identity formation, a belief that would only become stronger once exposed to the ever-shifting and unsettled space of the great metropolis.

The preoccupation with issues of belonging, identity and destabilisation stayed with Brennan throughout her life, though it would seem at first glance that her later work as the Long-Winded Lady was in direct opposition to her descriptions of Anastasia’s urban world. In her introduction to a collection of her New Yorker pieces, Brennan described the lifestyle of the Long-Winded Lady as a type of people-watching, a vocation and an art. For her, the act of sitting alone in a public space, doing nothing but watch the world go by, was not the passive occupation it may sound, and nowhere does she experience the level of threat and malevolence experienced by Anastasia King in Dublin. Column after column of the Long-Winded Lady’s descriptions of New York life showed her sitting in a restaurant or a bar, strolling down the street, looking out a window; always alone, always seemingly idle, but never uneasy, never uncertain of her right to be exactly where she wanted to be. “Washington Square Park was being very satisfactory the other morning at six o’clock,” she says, or “Early the other evening, I was sitting in a restaurant on Lower Fifth Avenue,” (The Long-Winded Lady, 91) or “Lately I have been taking oblong walks, staying between Fifty-ninth Street and Forty-fifth Street and keeping to four avenues” (LWL, 123).[1] The Long-Winded Lady saw connections everywhere. Staring at fellow patrons in a bar, listening to a couple arguing in a park, or glancing upward in the dark, into the greenly lit room of another city stranger. For her, the ideal city picture was always one which illustrated the ephemeral but stubborn ties between all human beings, the “moments of recognition,” in her words, which countered the loneliness of urban life (LWL, 3). Maeve Brennan wrote the Long-Winded Lady column for the “Talk of the Town” part of the City Section in the New Yorker from 1954 to 1981, but she was not the Long-Winded Lady. The Lady was a persona, a particular segment of Brennan’s personality and opinions, and with the very little that is known about her interior life during the period, it is impossible to be sure where the boundaries between the two were situated. Differences between the two are a matter of perception, therefore, and in studying the work done by those columns through the 1960’s, the almost total lack of personal detail presented throughout allows for an assessment untrammelled by endless debate surrounding unverifiable authorial intent. What comes through instead is a series of texts steeped in both New Yorker idiosyncrasies and the urban debates and ideas ongoing in New York at the time, providing a fascinating example of the magazine’s mid-century policies in action.

Maeve Brennan, the Irish-born and educated daughter of Robert Brennan, the first envoy sent by the new Irish Free State to the United States, moved to America with her family in 1934. Deciding against the traditional path of marriage and family, she moved alone to New York and began her career as a writer with Harper’s Bazaar, soon moving on to the New Yorker magazine where she began penning articles for the “Talk of the Town” city section. She worked for some time with the magazine, writing small pieces for the “Talk” section which were published anonymously, in the style of the column, as part of an ensemble, along with all other contributors. Then in January 1954, for the first time in New Yorker history, the pattern changed. A short introduction to a piece entitled “Skunked,” announced: “A rather long-winded lady has just given us an example of the death of the faculty of attention, which she believes is rampant. Let her present it in her own heart-rending words…” (26). What followed this entirely facetious opener was Brennan’s first piece as the Lady, long before it can have occurred to anyone that the column would reappear and the one-off article would evolve into the only consistently voiced section in “Talk” history. That first letter from the Lady was nothing close to “heart-rending;” it was a light, clever piece about the Lady taking a purse to a dress shop to have a matching collar made for her to wear, and the disaster that ensued when the man in the shop failed to listen correctly and destroyed the bag in order to make the collar. It ended, deprecatingly, with “Well, there you are, in case you’ve paid any attention.” At that time, approximately quarter of a million subscribers were paying attention and the Long-Winded Lady column began to appear more regularly in the magazine, chronicling a very particular and significant experience of urban living. Meanwhile, Brennan was also appearing in the magazine as a short story writer, this time with her own name featured on the text, as she wrote stories influenced by her memories of her youth in Dublin and by her present married life in upstate New York in the exclusive suburb of Snedens Landing. It was not until the nineteen-sixties, however, with the dissolution of her rocky marriage to St. Clair McKelway and her return to New York City, that her work, both short stories and ‘Lady’ columns, became prolific. Apart from the sudden increase in production volume and occasional references to a return to city living after some time away, few traces of Brennan’s turbulent life made it into the ‘Lady’ columns. Brennan’s personal life, her increasing mental instability, alcohol addiction and eventual homelessness, is now well-documented; it is, unfortunately, the first thing many people know about her, and the pathos of her later life owes much to the extent of her success in her youth. At the height of her career, Brennan was at the centre of the New Yorker’s power bubble, talented, sophisticated and celebrated, admired by her fellow writers who were, in many cases, among the most celebrated authors of the twentieth century.

The “Talk of the Town” section of today’s New Yorker is no longer a collection of anonymous or pseudonymous pieces gathered together at the heart of the magazine. Under Tina Brown’s direction in the early nineteen-nineties, individual authors began signing their names to “Talk” pieces, one of the many changes she instigated which brought forth the ire of the traditional New Yorker subscriber. Fifty-five years earlier, Harold Ross had declared the anonymity of the “Talk” section to be intrinsic to the magazine. “I think [the “Talk” section] is stronger anonymous, as an expression of an institution, rather than an individual. I feel this very strongly. I feel that the strength of the New Yorker is largely that strength” (Yagoda, 43). Ross placed the “Talk” section firmly at the centre of the magazine’s appeal, and its collective nature as the source of its power. In retrospect, it is easy to see that Ross was well aware of the ways in which the collective voice of the “Talk” section – with its infamous “we” – came to be defined as the voice of the magazine, much more so than the fiction pieces for which it is most respected. Luminaries such as Wolcott Gibbs, E. B. White, Katherine Angell, James Thurber and Ralph Ingersoll had over time developed the “Talk” section into the most recognisable section of the magazine, and the mythos that grew around them as writers and urban celebrities worked to cement the New Yorker’s place at the heart of Manhattan society. Mary Corey points out that “[t]he degree to which readers identify with the New Yorker worldview and share its assumptions is arguably without precedent in the American magazine market,” and such assumptions and worldview were nowhere more apparent than in the “Talk of the Town” (2). In more recent years, this same phenomenon fuels much of the nostalgic writing surrounding the magazine, and there are numerous accounts of the witty banter and hilarious pranks associated with the cabal of staff writers throughout its history.[2] One such story reveals that Maeve Brennan, William Maxwell and Brendan Gill had to be moved from their adjoining offices to more separate locations because of the continuous joking and laughter that would disturb the rest of the writing staff, showing that Brennan, at least in her prime, had little trouble fitting in with the somewhat macho atmosphere (albeit the particular machismo of the intelligentsia) of the New Yorker staff offices. Though not a planner, an architect or an urban sociologist, Brennan’s city writings reflect her deep engagement with both the artistic and practical realities of urban life. Evoking the immense upheaval ongoing in the United States and more particularly in New York City during the nineteen-sixties, her portrayal of the city is hyper-aware of the transience and instability of the urban fabric, evoking a picture of a concrete city crumbling before her eyes. She criticises sharply the unthinking demolition and replacement of myriad Manhattan buildings, concentrating on the effects this constantly shifting landscape has on the mindset of the city dweller. She saw the “Office Space giants” making vast incursions downtown, replacing the small, family-run businesses she saw as the “home fires” of the city. This is, of course, in direct opposition to Anastasia King, who cannot learn to see Dublin city as her home, describing it only as her “dwelling place.” (The Visitor, 5) In a long, highly sophisticated piece, written twenty years after Brennan finished The Visitor, the multifarious strands of Brennan’s urban vision are played out against a narrative dealing with the Long-Winded Lady’s perusal of the day’s newspaper. The piece, entitled “Ludvík Vaculík,” is named for the Czech writer most famous as the author of the “Two Thousand Words” manifest of June 1968, in the midst of the Prague Spring. It evokes the power of the free press, detailing the different stories available in the morning edition of the New York Times after news has come through on the radio of the Soviet invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia, with the removal of the government and the horrifying knowledge that “some Czech citizens are trying to stop advancing tanks with their bodies” (LWL, 198). After this exposition, the piece continues with the Lady relating in an entirely changed tone the other stories available in the paper that morning: “all about the Democrats getting ready for their convention,” and about “the Londoner who saved his pet goldfish, George, from drowning,” and “a cleaning lady… who picked up a rumbled brown paper bag from under one of the pews and found inside not the stale sandwiches she expected but seventy-five hundred dollars’ worth of gold and platinum, diamonds, bloodstones, and onyxes” (LWL, 199). Finally her attention is captured by a picture of two white South African students being pelted with white paint as they protested a government veto on the appointment of a black African lecturer at Capetown University. “Their faces are grim but not angry or distressed, and they look as though they were standing their ground not for the present only but also for the future” (LWL, 200). As soon as it was light enough to leave her apartment, the Lady heads towards the Jan Hus Presbyterian Church on Seventy-Fourth Street, to see the affect the news of Soviet invasion has had on the Czech and Slovak communities of New York. In the anti-climax of the piece, she sees no sign of recognition anywhere – the streets are empty and “there was no sign around that a blow had been struck that might smash the globe and would in any case leave deep and lengthening fissures in it” (LWL, 201). Instead, the only cluster of people to be found are gathered around a shop window – not, as the Lady guessed, to watch the news from Czechoslovakia, but rather as part of a movie being filmed from across the street, some actors, others simply passers-by drawn forward by the sight of an interested crowd. The crowd is staring at nothing, half performing an urban scene for a camera, half playing an unwitting part in the creation of another typical New York movie. This piece can be seen as a palimpsest of Brennan’s idea of the urban, a picture of a cosmopolitan city both affected by and curiously impervious to the great upheavals of a broader world society. It is a city only half real, a city happily colluding in the creation and maintenance of its central fantasy, a city with eyes turned ever inwards, apart from the occasional glimpse outside to check how its marvels are being received. But it is also a city of associations, a city which can reveal the underlying connectiveness of its systems and citizens if one seeks to find it. “A cheer for little George,” says the Lady toward the end of the piece; “A cheer for the cleaning lady, Mrs. Ivy Rickman, who said of the bag of jewels, ‘My eyes popped out. I knew I’d have to tell a cathedral official, but I couldn’t resist first trying on a few rings and bracelets’” (LWL, 203). Vaculík himself gets not a cheer but a prayer that he might be kept “safe to write in freedom soon again,” the writer’s freedom exercised by the Lady herself (LWL, 203). Brennan’s intent with this piece is to show the persistence of those connections, the links that remain and persevere whether they are acknowledged or not, ties that offer potential succour and strength if only we take the opportunity to seek them out.

It is evident that these issues of home, security and self-location have not become any less pressing in the time that has elapsed since Brennan wrote her Long-Winded Lady columns. Ireland is in the process of re-negotiating a conception of itself as a space of immigration rather than emigration for the first time in centuries and the traditional relationship between Ireland and America is shifting as political disparities make themselves known and Ireland begins to find it does not particularly suit the label of anyone’s ‘Old Country’ anymore. In the United States, however, the undocumented Irish are still campaigning for legal status, showing that older conceptions of identity hinged around place within the nation state still hold sway over the paths of people’s lives. Perhaps, then, the key to understanding Anastasia King’s despair in Dublin is in the title of the text, The Visitor. Anastasia never manages to find herself at home in Dublin, any coherent and settled identity lost along with her claim on her grandmother’s house. In comparison, Maeve Brennan’s Long-Winded Lady, who moved from hotel to hotel around Manhattan and eschewed all close ties with her concrete environment, never felt anything less than a native New Yorker. As the struggle to avoid becoming a visitor in one’s own life becomes ever more a concern within the globalised contemporary world, then Maeve Brennan’s provocative alternative strategies may posit new theoretical strands in the ever-expanding debates surrounding definitions of home in the twenty-first century.

With the support of the UCD Clinton Institute for American Studies and the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences.

Endnotes

[1]“LWL” refers here to The Long-Winded Lady by Maeve Brennan, 1998. All further references are to this edition. back to text

[2]See in particular Brendan Gill’s Here at the New Yorker, a memoir made up almost entirely of anecdotes. back to text

Works Cited

Brennan, Maeve. The Visitor. Dublin: New Island Books, 2001.

—. The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from the New Yorker. New York: Mariner Books, 1998.

Carduff, Christopher. “Editor’s Note.” The Visitor. New Island Books, 2001.

Corey, Mary. The World Through a Monocle: The New Yorker at Midcentury. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Gill, Brendan. Here at the New Yorker. New York: Random House, 1975.

“Skunked.” The New Yorker. 23 January 1954: 26-7.

Yagoda, Ben. About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made. New York: Scribner, 2000.

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