DISCOVERING ADELAIDE CRAPSEY: CONFESSIONS OF A CONVERT
The strange name "Adelaide Crapsey" was first introduced into my lexicon when I was a graduate student at the University of Rochester in the sixties. She was a local poet, and the name came to mean to me all that seemed provincial and pretentious in my home town of Rochester and all that was trivial in women poets. I was busy with a dissertation on Theodore Roethke, an amazing poet in some ways, but one who must have further biased me against Crapsey when he complained about women poets "stamping a tiny foot against God."
Crapsey's papers and poems had been donated to the University, and there was no-one interested enough to catalogue them and introduce them to the public. William Gilman, one of my professors who was then occupied with the editing of Emerson's Journals, was passionate in his emphasis of the necessity for establishing accurate texts in American Literature, and often used Crapsey as a typical example. "Here is a poetess," he would say, "who might be every bit as good as Emily Dickinson, but doesn't have a good editor to present her work to the world."
Now at the time I didn't particularly see the value of the drudgery of editing. As a romantic and idealistic graduate student of Literature I didn't see any romance in spending one's days in the laborious task of deciphering the scrawls of some insignificant writer. It seemed to me that greatness was something that always rose to the surface, always made itself apparent, and the laborious work of the textual editor could have little to do with that greatness. So when I saw, a few years later, an authoritative edition of Crapsey's poems and letters in the library, I found myself chortling, wondering who Gilman finally got to do the dirty work, and what could possibly be of value in a Rochester "poetess."
The person he got to do the dirty work, I discovered when I took the book off the shelf, was my classmate, Susan Sutton Smith. Susan had carefully compared all the manuscript copies of all of her poems, determined the order Crapsey had intended for a group of these poems, collected her letters and photographs, and emerged with a solid, scholarly, authoritative text.
My curiosity was satisfied. I knew all I ever wanted to know about this phenomenon. And phenomenon was all it could be—because who could possibly be intellectually interested in someone who was considered a local "poetess," someone who had never published a poem in her lifetime, someone who didn't even make it to the Norton Anthology of Women, and someone with a name like Adelaide Crapsey.
Because I was writing an article on the history of poetry by women in America, I decided to take a peek at some of the poems, although considering her as part of the history of poetry by women was certainly not in my mind at the time. She was a joke, the same kind of joke Emily Dickinson had been to my teachers when we studied her in the sixties. I remembered what Northrop Frye had written of Emily Dickinson: "For the thousands of people, most of them women, who make verse out of a limited range of imaginative experience in life, love, nature, and religion, who live without fame and without much knowledge of literature beyond their schoolbooks, Emily Dickinson is the literary spokesman."
Who would want to associate oneself with such diminutive, tangential people?
Still, I opened the book, looked at a few poems, closed the book, and went back to the serious poetry of Adrienne Rich I had been poring over before I took that break. At the time, Crapsey's poems seemed, well, okay. But then in the evening I began to think about them. There was one poem, for example, that seemed simple and beautiful when I read it, but kept coming back to me with different meanings. It was a brief piece entitled "Niagara, Seen on a Night in November."
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The form was strange, a form Crapsey had invented, something she called a cinquain. The cinquain is a five line poem, of initially increasing line length— the first line takes one stress, the second has two, the third three, the fourth four, and the fifth one. This may seem simple, but meditating on the form and the poem, numerous complexities began to appear.
To begin with, in a poem of this length, the title takes on the weight of at least one sixth of the poem, and the relationship between the title and the first line is quite crucial. In this case, the title which gives the reader the alleged subject is not what the first line seems to be about. The title is specific— a certain place, a certain season, time of day, and most significantly, an awareness of the perspective of perception. The scene is not simply "described," and perspective and time become as important to Niagara as the falls. That this is an exercise in individual perception is even more clear with the seemingly inappropriate first line, "How frail."
But the subject is delineated in this first line. And it is not the Falls at all. The structural, grammatical frame of the poem is visually clear, symmetrical. "How frail . . . hangs . . . the moon." Visually, the poem seems to imitate the moon reflected in the water, separated by the "crashing water" of the second and third lines and the "reflections" of the fourth.
It took me a few minutes to realize that the moon is not at all frail in relation to Niagara. Niagara, in fact, is not only much smaller and less "powerful," but it can only be seen at night when the moon is out, and is in fact "ruled" by the moon which rules the tides.
So the poem embodies an inversion. What seems to be the major subject, what – in fact –
is announced as the major subject, is really the frozen impotent subordinate clause. The famous Falls is merely a "bulk of crashing water." To be more precise, the poem presents the scene – from where she stands, and she knows perspectives are limited.
This cinquain proved to be a very interesting lesson, a way to approach the "frail" woman poet, worth keeping in mind while skipping on to another poem.
With faint dry sound,
Like steps of passing ghosts,
The leaves, frost-crisp'd, break from the trees
Notice first the anticipation created by the initial command, an anticipation that breaks out in each increasing line: What is it that we are listening for? What will be the ultimate result of our anticipation? The grammatical postponement, with the subordinate clauses and the simile preceding the subject, adds to this effect of anticipation. But the final line brings a let-down. Not only does it diminish sharply in length, but it also describes, in two monosyllables, a literal anti-climax.
It was from one of Crapsey's students, Louise Townsend Nicholls, who was also a poet and critic, that the second vital lesson for my understanding of the poet was gleaned from this cinquain. In her copy of Crapsey's Verse published in 1915 (to be found in the Special Collection at Rochester), Nicholls commented in pencil: "as with a little gasp of terror at the artistic unfulfillment caught back again to die," and referred to "The brief life being like her cinquain form caught back again to one."
As I found myself drawn further and further in to the subject of Adelaide Crapsey's poetry, I found these poems an amazing emblem for her. For example, that consciousness of form, the inevitable shape of one's own life, something that can be sensed only by an individual fully conscious of his/her mortality—the end as well as the beginning. It indicates that the poet needed to perceive her existence as having form, and by imposing this form upon her material (biographical and poetic) she gave it meaning and direction.
And in the cinquain, "Niagara," that sense I had of initial frailty, of smallness, of insignificance, turned out to be reversed as I learned tshift my perspective on the data presented me.
What was this life of which Nicholls spoke that was copied by the author in a verse form?
As I continued to explore the information about Crapsey, and continued to find new hints, new connections, new ways of evaluating her situation, I began to realize that there was a great deal that had not been known about her and even more that had not been understood about her.
It would have been most dramatic if I had uncovered some kind of secret life – because the facts as we had them seemed less than fascinating in themselves: The daughter of an Episcopalian minister, she attended a parochial girls' school in Kenosha, Wisconsin, attended Vassar college (whose students were all female and overwhelmingly Episcopalian and Republican), returned to her high school to teach, and then, after a few years of independent study in Italy and England, came back to the U.S. to teach at Smith College. She contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of 36.
This biography almost automatically cancels out any interest a reader might have in her poetry. Except for the confrontation with death there seems to be no experience of life that would make her poetry attractive. With no "secret life," Crapsey forms the typical image of the "poetess" so aptly and condescendingly described by literary critics.
There were, however, two surprises: One is that I did discover something of a "secret life," even though anyone who has ever tried to discover secret lives of women of previous generations knows that they did their best to keep them quiet, discreet, their own business, because only by keeping their adventures discreet could they be free to continue them. I discovered, for example, that Crapsey's acquaintance with the scholar James Holley Hanford, assumed by biographers to be based on their mutual interest in Milton, was most memorable to him for the evening they went out sailing together and she wanted him to tie the sheet, but he was engaged to marry another woman and was excitedly embarrassed by her invitation. He understood that she was asking him to free his hands for her, and remembered that scene so well he described it vividly to a potential biographer (Thomas Mabbott) 60 years later. These kinds of details led me to understand that I was not dealing with the stereotypic poetess that had been presented in available biographical sketches.
I discovered much more exciting information through re-reading that famous children's book Daddy Long-Legs. Daddy Long-Legs which, it may be recalled, is an epistolary novel about a young orphan who gets put though college by an unknown benefactor, was written by Crapsey's college roommate and best friend, Jean Webster (who was, incidentally the great-niece of Mark Twain). There were a few films made of the dramatic version, the most recent with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron, but don't pay attention to the films. Read the book. Not because Crapsey helped write it, and not because her college friends were reminded of Crapsey when they read it, but because it is a very careful account of how a child victimized by institutions and destined to help perpetuate a system which robs people of their individuality develops independence in a patriarchal world.
What I learned from this book to was reread the implications of the terms: 1) "girls' school" 2) dependent individual 3) woman writer.
A nineteenth century girl's school, for example, is often thought of as a kind of convent—a pure protection from the corrupt world outside—a way of keeping women from having "Experience." Any product of a women's institution, therefore, particularly a product that doesn't try to climb over the walls every night, has got to be a person who knows nothing about what counts. What she has to say can be of little value.
What is needed in order to understand Adelaide Crapsey and her environment is to invert the entire interpretation of these facts. Women who went to college at the turn of the century, it is now becoming clear, were placed in an environment free from competition with men. They could develop skills and play roles unavailable to them outside. One may use Crapsey as an example: Basketball captain or coach for seven years, editor of the monthly high school magazine, editor of the college yearbook, prizewinning playwright, starring actress, lieutenant of the drill team, member of the debating team arguing against Britain's policy in the Transvaal— she could play all these roles, learn all these skills, because there weren't any men who had been previously prepared for these jobs and who were biologically more suitable. Schools for women, then, allowed women to develop in ways unavailable to them in society.
And these skills and the self-confidence they helped to develop in her enabled Crapsey to travel around Europe at the beginning of this century—with no chaperon, no framework, no job, no constant traveling companion, no money, and not even her health to rely on—for two to three years.
But the freedom and self-sufficiency she developed in school also left her unable to return to the subservient role expected by women in general society. In the general society she—and the other women educated like her—had no voice. One of her teachers, the history professor Lucy Maynard Salmon, complained in her letters that the only way she could get an opinion on the military situation (in the Transvaal) printed in a newspaper was if she wrote about the dangers of war and signed her letter "A Mother." An educated woman could only participate in society from the sidelines or at womens' schools.
In Daddy Long-Legs, the protagonist too is aware of this possibility. If you can't rise beyond the social pressures by the force of your own talent, you may get absorbed by it. Although protagonist Judy Abbott, the aspiring writer, usually believes she will succeed in her career as author, there are moments of great gloom, when she fears she "may end up by marrying an undertaker and being an inspiration to him in his work."
But if you've read Daddy Long-Legs you will recall that Judy Abbott gets her career, her independence, and the man she loves—the same man who provided her with the means to become independent by secretly paying for her college education. This may seem a sellout, but within the context of the book it is not a compromise—the marriage at the end of the book is a "modern" one, one that compromises neither partner and one that will continue to enable each of the partners to develop intellectually and emotionally.
All this allowed me to consider Adelaide Crapsey in a new way, and as I learned more about the background of her poetry, the poetry itself assumed a new dimension, a new consciousness. Knowledge of her constant cosmopolitan concern with the relations between men and women in the arts, for example, shed light on numerous poems as re-readings of contemporary approaches to the subject. Papers on socialism and research on the potential and limitations of the socialist party, together with the knowledge that she attended the International Peace Conference at the Hague in 1907, helped to highlight the constant responsibility to society she exhibited in her verse. Early publications—amateur though they sometimes were—showed her sophisticated concerns. A college story she wrote called "A Girl to Love," for example, was concerned with four men, artists and writers, who discover a photograph of a beautiful woman in the apartment of a friend away in Europe for the summer. They all fall in love with the woman and dedicate themselves to her in their art, finding her their inspiration and model. When their friend returns, he discloses that the photograph is of himself dressed up for the Hasty Pudding. The idea of the ideal woman and her influence on art is given a new dimension, one that adds understanding to a poem of hers entitled "The Witch."
When I was girl by Nilus stream
I watched the deserts stars arise;
My , he who dreamed the Sphinx,
Learned all his dreaming from eyes.
I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.
And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mien,
Who judged—the wench knew far too much—
And burnt her on the Salem green?
Of course the poem is more complex than the story in many ways. The whole idea that it is the same concept of woman as inspiration that leads to the idea of woman as witch may not be terribly new or profound today—but it certainly was revolutionary then. And it is possible to see the evolution of this idea in her writing.
The most painful and the most interesting—for many—period of Crapsey's life was the period in which she wrote her cinquains, during her last year at Saranac Lake, where she was taken when her tuberculosis was discovered. What became the most interesting for me was the way in which she interwove her illness and her poetry. For example, in the poem entitled "Song," she writes about her poem as her shroud, but the beauty of the poem tends to make one ignore the significance of her subject.
I make my shroud but no one knows,
So shimmering fine it is and fair,
With stitches set in even rows.
I make my shroud but no one knows.
In door-way where the lilac blows,
Humming a little wandering air,
I make my shroud and no one knows,
So shimmering fine it is and fair.
The story behind the poem illuminates some of its significances. She seems to have written it about 1911, when she was beginning to suspect that she was dying. She went to visit a friend of hers, Adelaide Draper, at a hotel in New York, and lay on the bed reading her poems. She read this poem, and then read it for the vowel sounds only, and asked her friend questions about the rhythm, the music of the poem. The upshot of this visit was that Draper was not aware that Crapsey was trying to tell her that she was dying, and that the function of the poem was to reveal and conceal at the same time it eternalized the situation.
Crapsey must have thought she was doing a very good deed by not sharing her fears of death with her friends and family, but why would a person hide her symptoms from those who might try to help her? It is the kind of self-effacing behavior scorned by the contemporary woman, yet a mark of power and nobility in her generation. I suspect at least part of this power and nobility in suffering had something to do with the apparent medical disdain and neglect Crapsey and other women underwent at this time. As an educated woman, she was likely warned that her weariness had something to do with taxing that organ of her body not meant for female strain—the brain—to the detriment of the uterus. When she taught at Smith College and suffered from an as yet undiagnosed exhaustion, she was advised to get more fresh air, to stay away from the library, to read less. Tuberculosis, whose symptoms she exhibited for at least seven years, was only mentioned a year before she died, when treatment was too late. Had she been a factory girl or a male poet, the signs would have been obvious.
There is one other angle to this story. The more I read of Crapsey, the more she began to appear in the network of American poetry. At first her influences seemed surprising, but standard: Carl Sandburg wrote a poem about reading her poetry, and a lesser known, but no less interesting poet, Lola Ridge, wrote a poem about her persistent presence. But that persistent presence became more clear as time went by. Contemporary women poets, such as Alicia Ostriker and Louise Bernikow, spoke to me about Crapsey as if we shared a childhood secret, and Anne Sexton, whose first models were Sara Teasdale and Crapsey, invested her early efforts in cinquains that reflect the language and themes of her source. It was Sexton whose comments on women poets hinted to me the real reason Crapsey had disappeared:
When Tillie Olsen shared with Sexton her love of Teasdale, Sexton answered, "Oh, so you love her poems too! But you must never, never admit it to anyone." Whether she was an influence on other poets or not, it would have been an embarrassment to admit being swayed by such a stereotypic woman poet.
At least in part because I cannot entirely be sure I am rid of these prejudices which were built into my education, I am reluctant to decide where to place Adelaide Crapsey in the poetic canon today. I am not sure if she is a first rate minor writer, or a major writer, but I am certain that she is buried somewhere in the poetic memory of many American poets, that her life and her works are models for the experience that shaped American Poetry, and that Ivor Winters was right when he said of her poems, "We should not let them disappear."