Bewildered in Boston
November 12, 2011
Fanny Howe isn’t part of the local literary canon. But her seven novels about interracial love and utopian dreaming offer a rich social history of Boston in the 1960s and ’70s.
[This essay first appeared in The Boston Globe’s IDEAS section, on March 7, 2004.]
Fanny Howe isn’t wild about her hometown. “Boston is a parochial and paranoid city,” the 63-year-old poet and novelist charges in the introduction to The Wedding Dress (University of California), a new collection of her literary essays. “It doesn’t admit its own defects, and it belittles its own children as a result.”
Between 1968 and 1987 the Cambridge-born Howe lectured at Tufts, MIT, and other local institutions while publishing 19 books of poetry and fiction, including a series of seven semi-autobiographical novels obsessively chronicling not just particular Boston neighborhoods but the social, economic, and political tensions that plagued the city in the racially charged ’60s and ’70s. Yet it wasn’t until the University of California at San Diego offered her tenure in ’87 that Howe began to be recognized as one of the country’s least compromising yet most readable experimentalist writers. Since then, she has won the National Poetry Foundation Award, the Pushcart Prize for fiction, and the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, among other prestigious awards.
Still, she’s never been celebrated as part of Boston’s literary pantheon. “This city is tougher on its own — that’s a sign of its provincialism,” says Howe’s old friend Bill Corbett, an influential local poet and writer-in-residence at MIT. “Fanny had to leave town in order to find her audience.”
But Howe says Boston’s reluctance to recognize her work was the least of her worries. In The Wedding Dress, she recounts her experiences as a well-born Brahmin turned community activist, a white woman married to a person of color, and a mother of three mixed-race children during the city’s violent busing crisis — and recalls feeling that she’d never be the same again. “[The late anti-busing activist] Louise Day Hicks and the vociferous Boston Irish were like the dogs and hoses in the South…,” she writes. “Some worldview was inexorably shifting in me.”
Her daughter Danzy Senna, whose bestselling 1998 novel Caucasia drew upon her own memories of growing up in Boston in the early ’70s, says Howe “had an epiphany: As the mother of nonwhite children, she was no longer comfortable in the blind spot of the white world. She became a race traitor and a keen analyst of whiteness, in all its complacency and complicity.” As Howe herself writes in The Wedding Dress, she often feels “that my skin is white but my soul is not, and that I am in camouflage.”
Howe may be best known as a poet, but it is her fiction — elliptical, richly emotional, and mostly out of print — that makes it clear just how impossible it was to inhabit the no-man’s land in which she found herself. Some of her readers may have wondered whether Howe, and Boston itself, would ever manage to resolve the fraught dichotomies — black vs. white, rich vs. poor, political gravity vs. religious grace — that have impelled her writings to hesitate self-consciously, subvert themselves, and wind up (as the title of one of her novels suggests) in the middle of nowhere.
Now we have our answer: In both the introduction to The Wedding Dress and “Bewilderment,” a manifesto-like essay in that collection, Howe reveals how her own incapacity to “handle the complexities of the world or the shock of making a difference” finally became “a way of entering the day as much as the work.” Bewilderment — by which she means political indecisiveness, social boundary-crossing, and existential vertigo — is what has both galvanized and torpedoed both her work and her everyday life. For her, Howe claims, bewilderment is nothing less than the starting point of political action and artistic creation.
She may never have felt truly at home in Boston, but Fanny Quincy Howe is certainly of it. Her father, Mark DeWolfe Howe, was a distinguished law professor at Harvard and a civil rights activist, and her mother, Mary Manning, an Irish-born playwright and actress who founded the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge. (Fanny’s grandfather, historian and Atlantic Monthly exec Mark Antony DeWolfe Howe, married into the eminent Quincy family of Massachusetts; her grandmother’s brother, Howe points out proudly, was the progressive Boston mayor and Harvard president Josiah Quincy III.)
Although the household in Cambridge was an intellectual and bohemian one, as a teenager Howe felt stifled. “My parents were ironic and witty about everything — that’s where my troubles began,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “Although their ‘materialist-skeptical’ view, as I’ve come to call it, was seductive, I rebelled against it and adhered instead to an ‘invisible-faithful’ view.” The latter outlook, she explains, is an optimistic political-religious belief in both a future social utopia and a divine scheme for the world.
But amidst Boston’s brewing social tensions, such optimism was difficult to maintain. As Howe would write in The Deep North (1988), the third of her semi-autobiographical novels, “Among dripping spigots and gargoyles several stories high over the Common, people are judged according to class, race, and beauty.” Excruciatingly aware that her skin color and social class put her “on the wrong side of history,” the book’s main character, G., abandons Cambridge for Roxbury in an attempt to reject her own upbringing.
Howe, too, split town, after being kicked out of Cambridge’s elite Buckingham School in 1957. She took classes at Stanford for several years, but never graduated and instead drifted back to New York, where she worked at odd jobs and tried to write — suffering, at the time, from debilitating panic attacks. It wasn’t until her father encouraged her to get involved with the civil rights movement that Howe woke up to what she now calls “the possibility that I was feeling justifiable despair, not depression; social outrage, not personal anxiety.”
In the mid-’60s Howe volunteered to seek out housing violations for the Boston chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality; one of her colleagues was school-reform activist Jonathan Kozol. At the same time she helped launch a literary magazine, Fire Exit, with Bill Corbett. In ’67 Kozol urged them to publish Carl Senna, a charismatic half-black, half-Chicano writer and activist who’d grown up in a Roxbury housing project. A year later, Howe and Senna were married.
It was an era of assassinations and race riots, and Boston’s black neighborhoods, where the newlyweds spent their time, sometimes became war zones. (“My white face felt like something I had foolishly chosen to wear to the wrong place,” recalls Henny, protagonist of Indivisible, the last of Howe’s memoiristic novels, of her travels “from Connolly’s to Bob the Chef to Joyce Chen’s and the Heath Street projects.”) Still, Howe and Senna bought a crumbling Victorian on Robeson Street in Jamaica Plain, and quixotically tried to establish their own racially neutral utopia. Senna went to work for Beacon Press, while Howe lectured at Tufts, got involved in neighborhood politics, and filled the house with “Carl’s family and Jamaican, Irish, and African friends of friends,” as she puts it.
The couple had three children — daughters Ann Lucien and Danzy, and son Maceo — in four years. Danzy looked white, but Howe encouraged all three children to think of themselves as black, and enrolled them in Roxbury public schools and the late Elma Lewis’s arts programs. (The white mother in Senna’s Caucasia tells her mixed-race daughter, “It doesn’t matter what your color is or where you’re born into, you know? It matters who you choose to call your own.”)
But as Howe admits, “Boston was a poor choice of a place to live” for a mixed-race family. “Many times people stopped me with my children, to ask, ‘Are they yours?’ with an expression of disgust and disbelief on their faces.” In a 1985 poem titled “Robeson Street,” she’d recall: “This stage was really hell — the fracas of an el/to downtown Boston, back out again,/with white boys banging the lids of garbage cans,/calling racial zingers into our artificial lights.”
Racial tensions in the city subtly invaded the Robeson Street household. “The media and environs around Boston were so charged … that any personal exchange on the subject of home life would be marked with symbolic value,” Howe writes in The Wedding Dress. Domestic quarrels turned into furious, racially charged donnybrooks — and in 1974 Howe and Senna split up. (Full disclosure: Shortly thereafter, my father, a friend of Howe’s active in the same neighborhood groups, bought the house on Robeson Street from her; I grew up there, and attended elementary school in Roxbury with Ann-Lucien and Danzy Senna.)
“Violent language, violent action, intimidation, insult, accusations that made no sense, based as they were in an absolute lack of understanding of each others’ cultures — all this,” Howe recalls bitterly, “in order to create a new society.”
In 1975, Howe moved with her kids to Connecticut, and landed a low-paying teaching gig at Columbia University. In ’78, they returned to Boston, where Howe lectured at MIT for almost a decade. She moved constantly, from apartment to apartment, practicing what she now calls “domestic socialism” with other single mothers, often of mixed-race children. “There were many women like me — born into white privilege but with no financial security, given a good education but no training for survival,” she says. “Women raising children alone, women who tried to out-radicalize their parents and ended up in jail, or in cults.”
The bewilderment she’d discovered on Robeson Street, Howe claims, spared her the fate of these women. By the ’70s, she was neither as utopian as she’d been, nor as radicalized as some became. “The politics of bewilderment,” she explains in an e-mail, “involves staying on the ground, taking a grassroots approach to action, avoiding hubris and the will to exert force.” Howe also became a devout, if unorthodox, Catholic. She began by accompanying her mother-in-law to Mass, then devoured works of Catholic liberation theology, and finally converted. An assiduously cultivated religious bewilderment — “I like the way Catholicism is a load of contradictions,” one of her characters says — infuses her books.
Each of the novels Howe has written about her own experiences features a woman who, she points out in The Wedding Dress, is “bewildered and penniless, ethical and destroyed.” The books’ plots dash forward, falter, and grind to a halt. Alongside the narration, another voice — personal and philosophical — interrupts, comments on the action, and gets off gnomic observations. One gets the impression that the author is deeply conflicted about storytelling itself.
“I think of plot as the worldly part of literature, and the pursuit of epiphany — a way out of the plot — is the other driving force. Fate versus free will would be the reductive message,” Howe says today. “In my novels I try to keep these two forces in balance.”
Except for two books brought out in ’75 and ’76 by Avon (for whom she would write several works of juvenile fiction “to pay for summer vacations,” she says), every one of Howe’s 30 or so post-1970 works of fiction and poetry have been published by independent presses. “Fanny writes these epic, metaphysical adventures that provide an incredible social history of the ’60s and ’70s — and yet they’re grounded and emotionally devastating, too,” says Semiotext(e) editor Chris Kraus, who published Indivisible in 2000, as part of a series of first-person adventure novels by American women. “It’s very wild stuff.”
Were it not for Louise Day Hicks and Boston’s social and political turmoil, one can’t help but feel, Howe might never have become such a far-out writer. Bill Corbett agrees: “Fanny struggles with Boston — that’s one aspect of what her work is about,” he says. “You may curse where you came from, but you don’t curse in the same way somewhere that you didn’t come from, if you see what I mean.”
After retiring from UC-San Diego three years ago, Howe returned home to Massachusetts, buying a house in West Tisbury. This winter, she commuted from there to New York, where she taught writing at the New School. Why did she come back?
“The experimental nature of her writing and her radical politics made my mother unacceptable at home. But Boston is in her blood and in her bones, and she identifies with it,” offers Danzy Senna. “Maybe now it’s ready to acknowledge her existence.”
SIDEBAR: Boston in black and white
“They stopped at a set of lights, and she could see almost the length of the street running under the el to Forest Hills station. As a place that never sees light, it looked like the inside of an unhappy life. … G. stared into the slums of Boston and perceived them as a form of x-ray, a study of the inside of the self, which she could not interpret.” — The Deep North (1988)
“Boston is a red brick fortress where the smell of the sea gives a tantalizing but false impression of a city at liberty. … Boston rejects its own offspring, vomits each child out onto the pavement and watches him or her crawl through the shadows toward some poor sort of survival.” — The Deep North (1988)
“Home for me then was on the edge of Boston in a town abutting Roxbury and Franklin Park. The pit and the puddingstone. Old Victorian mansions were shaded by spectacular trees which were pollinated by Olmsted’s landscaping ventures around town . … Almost every person was poor or about to be. You had to leave if you were getting money, because the neighborhood could not tolerate inequalities.” — Indivisible (2001)
“In Jamaica Plain we lived in a large white house on a street called Robeson Street that ran up Sumner Hill to Franklin Park, one of Olmsted’s most glorious landscapes. Trees from this parkland spread huge branches over our house and the puddingstone juttings that supported the enormous and shabby Victorian houses on this one street.” — The Wedding Dress (2003)
“The house had once belonged to a family of Hasidic Jews. They had fled Roxbury when it began to change colors, and the building had sat empty and rotting for years until Dot and her motley crew took it upon themselves to restore it. They had slowly been reconstructing the house through lazy Saturdays of hammering, sanding, and painting. But still it had the feeling of a half-finished funhouse.” — From Caucasia (1998), by Howe’s daughter Danzy Senna
READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE
Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).