Audio clips of Young reading from her novel are from cassette tapes created by Kay Bonetti in 1983 for the American Audio Prose Library and currently archived at the State Historical Society of Missouri.
There was now no landscape but the soul’s, and that is the inexactitude, the ever shifting and the distant….Every heart is the other heart. Every soul is the other soul. Every face is the other face. The individual is the one illusion.
Miss MacIntosh, My Darling is the Divine Comedy at the end of the Enlightenment – the sunset of all sunsets – the journey of all journeys – the alchemical Red Lily, growing in a landscape of all souls, all hearts. Vera Cartwheel, the young female protagonist, is on a search for nothing less than truth, love, and wisdom.
What motive in this quest but the search for life, for love, for truth that does not fail? I had come because of my own heart’s need for an answer. I had come because of the searchings of other souls, the dead, the lost, because of a chance remark overheard on the city streets, because of the encompassing darkness, because of my mind which had been filled with self, because I must find my way from the darkness to the ultimate light. I had come because of a dead girl’s love letters scattered on the floor of her empty bedroom, the palm leaves crossed above the marble mantel piece, her rosary hanging on a brass bedpost, because of her suicide, because of a deaf musician, because of a drunkard’s celestial dream of childhood, because of the answers not heard, because of a blind man’s groping for his coffee cup at an all-night quick-lunch stand on the fog-shrouded waterfront of that great harbor city as he had asked of his companion — When shall the light, Peter, enter my soul?
Chapter One introduces us to Vera and her two traveling companions on a Grey Goose bus, driven by the drunken bus driver, Moses Hunnecker, veering towards a destination in southern Indiana. Madge Edwards, an ornately dressed young woman, is pregnant and married to Homer. Madge and Homer dream and argue about Madge’s hometown rival for Homer’s affections, Jackie. Vera narrates the conditions of her journey, and states that she is nearing the end of a life-long search for her nursemaid, Georgia MacIntosh, who walked into the ocean never to be seen again when Vera was only fourteen.
Grey Goose Bus
Chapter Two introduces two figures from Vera’s past: her mother, Catherine Helena Cartwheel, née Snowden, widow of Jock Cartwheel, and Joachim Spitzer, an unmarried estate lawyer. Catherine is a beautiful invalid, addicted to Res Tacamah, an opium anodyne. Her companion and forever rejected, dejected admirer and caretaker is Joachim Spitzer. Together they fantasize about Joachim’s dead brother Peron, whom Catherine preferred, much to Joachim’s bewilderment. Catherine has inherited from her parents the maze-like mansion which she inhabits on the New England seacoast. On a site adjacent to a garden for the deaf, her father built a Garden for the Blind for her mother who had gradually lost her sense of sight.
Catherine’s World of Dreams
Chapter Three is an introduction and vignette of Miss MacIntosh, an old woman, living on the dole, hired by Mr. Spitzer to look after Vera at age seven: “an unwanted child born of a fugitive marriage” who represents to her mother only an “immense sense of meaningless woe expressed by flesh and blood” (13). Unlike the dilated, irrational soul of Catherine, who lives in a lunar hysteria, Georgia MacIntosh, a native of What Cheer, Iowa, is the acme of common sense, her “whole sensorium repelled by the dream of imagination” (10). It is her task to restore Vera’s “waning common sense” (192).
What could Miss MacIntosh, a simple woman with a broken nose, find to admire in any broken marble statue, that which had been sculptured by man dreaming that he was other than he was or that he was man? Her religion was truth to nature, nothing else, as she would always say with a severity of good humor inviting no argument, no sad or meandering response….for was she not sensible, the last person who
would ever be taken in by what existed nowhere but in the dreaming mind, a plain, old-fashioned nursemaid, a red-headed and practical Middle Westerner, stoutly girded by her whale-boned corset, plainly clothed,
visible to all, one who had kept her head above the waters in Chicago
and elsewhere, one who had rejected an aura which should distinguish her from others, one who, with her way clearly set and her heart not foolish, would submit to no luxurious temptation of this old crazy house on a desolate stretch of the primitive New England coast, there where,
though all the ghosts of the universe wandered, shrieking like winds,
like tides, like daft sea birds, she had seen nothing but what was
plain, the desolation which was enough for her? (MMMD, 10)
Acme of Common Sense
Miss MacIntosh is the central heart, Vera’s moral guide, her finest sense. The loss of Miss MacIntosh at age fourteen is the beginning of a long illness and a great chaos for Vera, and it takes many years for her to regain a sense of “life that needed no dream of death” (8).
Chapter Four is a brief transition to Vera’s narrative in the present, and Chapters 5-8 return to her companions on the Midwestern bus ride to southern Indiana. The end of Chapter 8 will not be picked up again until Chapter 67. Chapter 9 begins Vera’s narrative of her katabasis into the “disrelations of the spiritual” (191).
Vera’s initiatory vision of the “dark side of the moon” is also the truth of her prophetic dream in Chapter 17: Miss MacIntosh is not who she seems, and has only disguised her true, androgynous identity with a veil of red hair. Miss MacIntosh becomes the monster, the angelic demon, revealed as Eros in the night. Chapter 18 is an incredible account of the violence of Dionysus, a moment of rapture, betrayal and abandonment, after which Vera is left to wander like Psyche, bereft of her beloved Eros. At age fourteen, Vera must experience the disillusioning power of a “false Dawn,” the wounding of a “dark negation.” Her landscape becomes “barren, impoverished.” Chapter 23 ends the beginning of this ring composition, which is not picked up again until chapter 63, and then completed in Chapter 66.
Chapters 24-29 are a digression and expansion of Chapter Two’s introduction to Catherine Cartwheel and Joachim Spitzer. Chapter 30 begins a novella about Catherine’s cousin Hannah Freemount-Snowden, a famous New England suffragette. Mr. Spitzer in his official capacity as “lawyer for the dead” has been responsible for her final will and testament, and was present in her final months of illness and death. As he unlocks the forty trunks scattered throughout her mansion, he discovers that each contains a wedding dress. The imagery of coffins, water birds, the springs of Lethe, the boat of Charon, all contribute to Mr. Spitzer’s characterization as a hierophant of the dead, perhaps a reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian embalmer. His membership in the Society of Interplanetary Butterfly Lovers (SIBL) is a constant motif throughout his imagistic soliloquies on the metaphysics of death, dualism and transcendence. His words are in the elegiac mode, the “man who had missed love,” who lived in the great alienation of the two hearts eternally divided. His Orpheus song becomes the overriding melody of Young’s epic, until we are returned to Vera’s present.
Chapters 51 through 62 are a novella devoted to the “Immortal Ego” (681) of Mr. Spitzer and his “sublunary knowledge” (691). Chapter 62 contains the longest of Young’s ‘drag-net’ sentences, the most lengthy being 126 lines on pp. 847-50. Let me know if you find one longer. Here is Young at her most mysterious and finest, and I suspect she is practicing an ancient spiritual grammar, perhaps learned from the Indian poet and Vedic philosopher Bhartrihari, author of the fifth century C.E. work On Sentence and Word (Vakyapadiya).
Mr. Spitzer’s Lost Promise
Chapter 63 resumes the ring composition interrupted in Chapter 23, with Georgia MacIntosh’s anguished vendetta against “electric lights.” The tension between Vera and Georgia, two very different personalities (or two different aspects of one personality), becomes intensified. Georgia is the one who is broken by the betrayal of Vera’s affirmation of her young adulthood and denial of Georgia’s absolute authority over her life. When Vera senses Georgia’s helpless anguish, she suddenly realizes that she cannot live without Miss MacIntosh. She tries to reconcile their relationship, to heal Georgia’s shame, but to no avail. As Georgia tells the story of her life, Vera realizes the vastness of the old woman’s loneliness and sorrow. Their last month is only a long, mournful prelude to Georgia’s suicidal walk into the sea.
Where there was only water, the firmament laid upon the firmament, I should remember her as the lonely heart of all, even as she had been in that last month where the old values had shifted before my eyes, the old certainties had been broken and like the waves wandering and tossed as the sorrows of the human heart were enlarged beyond nature…Her hands busy or folded at the wound where the breast was missing, she would sit still by the window, wrapped in those memories beyond the province of sense, but then, suddenly bethinking herself of her common sense which had been so lavish, must stir, move, cry out. And there was nothing certain but, at last, her baldness which had ever been hers from the beginning, from the first day to the last and the outgoing of the morning and the outgoing of the evening when she should be seen no more but as the essential loneliness of every mortal heart and soul and body when each must go alone even upon the wings of the wind, even upon the tide which does not return. (885-86)
Her face changes colors, her moods change, and in her final days Georgia seems to undergo an elemental metamorphosis, becoming a “storm center of mirages” (894). The pain of loss and transformation is the beginning of Vera’s journey to learn the wisdom of the middle way.
Chapter 67 resumes the ring composition interrupted at the end of Chapter 8. Vera’s words beginning her descent: “To come to a village at night may be never to know it with that clarity which one realizes if he comes to that same village in the beautiful sunlight of day” are echoed at the beginning of Chapter 68: “To come into a village by night may mean perhaps never to know it in the same way as if one came in the incandescence of sunlight.” In Wabash country, late winter is now turning into spring.
Chapters 68-71 introduce three minor characters, the Christian hangman Mr. Weed; Dr. O’Leary; and Mrs. Hogden who temporarily replaced Miss MacIntosh upon her mysterious death.
Chapters 72-81 are a novella about the character Esther Longtree, a women who is eternally pregnant with wanted but illusionary children.
Chapter 82, the final chapter, is about Vera’s resolution of her loss, and the final farewell to her childhood. She is now her own woman. Her mother’s death came about when a great storm swept the mansion into the sea, Mr. Spitzer having been the only survivor of her childhood companions.
Vera stays in southern Indiana, and finds the wisdom to live and love. She marries and conceives a child by a man who is stone-deaf, whose “musical voice” she can hear, but who cannot hear her.
Fullness of Spring
And yet what difference if there was the communication of love and long enchantment in this sleeping world? (1196).