Book review: Michael Dirda reviews Mary MacLane’s ‘I Await the Devil’s Coming’

When this shocking confession/memoir/prose poem first appeared in 1902, the publisher blandly retitled it — against the author’s wishes — “The Story of Mary MacLane.” That sounds quite innocuous, and unlikely to draw the immediate wrath of the Morality Police. Yet even renamed, the book sold 100,000 copies within a month. How could it not? In its sensational pages, the 19-year-old Mary MacLane proudly described her strong young body, her love for another woman and utter indifference to her family, the deep loneliness of life in ­turn-of-the-century Montana, her sexual and mystical reveries, an occasional impulse to suicide and, not least, her greatest wish of all: to marry the Devil, or at least be his plaything for a few days.

Shrewdly, Melville House has not only reverted to MacLane’s original title, “I Await the Devil’s Coming,” but also given its new paperback edition a design both chaste and subtly erotic. The cover is dominated by a photograph of the author, looking quite beautiful. She has large eyes, her close-fitting dress buttons tightly around her neck, and her thick hair — piled high on her head — is just slightly undone. The entire cover is also shadowed in dark crimson: In effect, Mac­Lane appears in the midst of fire and brimstone.

(Melville House/Melville House) - ”I Await the Devil's Coming” by Mary MacLane.

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Her book opens with a diary entry headed “Butte, Montana, January 13, 1901”: “I of womankind and of nineteen years, will now begin to set down as full and frank a Portrayal as I am able of myself, Mary MacLane, for whom the world contains not a parallel.”

Let’s examine that sentence. The diction seems distinctly old-fashioned, but note the complicated syntax and that phrase “for whom the world contains not a parallel,” which echoes the beginning of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions.” Is this happenstance? Perhaps not. It soon becomes clear that MacLane is hardly artless. She tells us that she graduated from high school with “very good Latin; good French and Greek; indifferent geometry and other mathematics; a broad conception of history and literature.”

In fact, MacLane is more widely read than most 21st-century adults. In these pages, she quotes, usually without acknowledgment, Shakespeare, Goethe, Longfellow, Tennyson and Lewis Carroll (“You are old, Father William”) and is clearly familiar with all the major Victorian novelists. Plus, she’s up-to-date, having read not only Henry James but also the best-selling Marie Bashkirtseff, whose once-famous diary serves as an obvious inspiration for her own cri de coeur.

While MacLane’s outpourings are often remarkable, there are many pages in which she sounds like a typical adolescent girl, scribbling that she is “unhappy, and filled with anguish and hopeless despair. What is my life? Oh, what is there for me!” She tells us that her soul “burns with but one desire: to be loved — oh, to be loved.” And that life with her family can be summed up as “the dreariness, the Nothingness! Day after day — week after week, — it is dull and gray and weary. It is dull, Dull, DULL!”

In short, MacLane presents herself as “one grand conglomeration of Wanting.” But at this point, she makes a leap and, like a young Wiccan or proto-Goth, solemnly insists that she is “ready and waiting to give all that I have to the Devil in exchange for Happiness.” She adds that “with me Virtue and Honor are nothing” and that she is grateful for having been born “without a conscience.” She scorns all socially imposed constraints:

“I can think of nothing in the world like the utter littleness, the paltriness, the contemptibleness, the degradation, of the woman who is tied down under a roof with a man who is really nothing to her; who wears the man’s name, who bears the man’s children — who plays the virtuous woman. . . . May I never, I say, become that abnormal merciless animal, that deformed monstrosity — a virtuous woman.”

This is heartfelt and stirring. Yet suffragette MacLane can suddenly turn dryly funny. She explains that she lives “in a house with people who affect me mostly through their tooth-brushes.” She spends three pages instructing the reader on how to properly eat an olive. Louisa M. Alcott is wryly dismissed for constantly writing about “girls with bright eyes, and with charming faces (they always have charming faces), standing with reluctant feet where the brook and river meet, — and all that sort of thing.” She then satirizes fictional heroines in general:

“A heroine is beautiful — eyes like the sea shoot opaque glances from under drooping lids — walks with undulating movements, her bright smile haunts one still, falls methodically in love with a man — always with a man, eats things (they are always called ‘viands’) with a delicate appetite, and on special occasions her voice is full of tears. I do none of these things.”

But soon she’s back to talking romantic gush about the Devil, whom she pictures not as an “atrocious creature in red tights” with a pitchfork but rather as “an extremely fascinating, strong, steel-willed person in conventional clothes — a man with whom to fall completely, madly in love . . . exactly the sort of man whom my wooden heart awaits.”

How serious is she about her desire to be “ruined” by the Devil? She is certainly facetious in a two-page diabolical litany: “From pleasant old ladies who tell a great many uninteresting, obvious lies; from men with watch-chains draped across their middles; . . . from side-saddles: Kind Devil, deliver me.”

MacLane’s sexual feelings obviously remain amorphous and unfocused. About a former high school teacher, she feels “a strange attraction of sex. There is in me a masculine element that, when I am thinking of her, arises and overshadows all the others.” Was there more to this relationship than feminine friendship? It’s impossible to say, but I think the poetic and lonely MacLane was mainly desperate for a sympathetic soul mate.

Happily, “I Await the Devil’s Coming” earned her the cash she needed to get out of Butte and move to Greenwich Village, where she led a liberated, Bohemian life. She even starred in a now-lost silent film called — another brilliant title — “Men Who Have Made Love to Me,” and later published a follow-up memoir called simply “I, Mary MacLane” (available only as an e-book from Melville House). At the age of 48, she was found dead from unknown causes in a Chicago hotel.

In her introduction, Jessa Crispin, editor of the webzine Bookslut, views “I Await the Devil’s Coming” as largely a historical document, a moment in the history of feminism. Yes, but one can still respond to MacLane’s exalted, Blakean language, her almost shamanistic identification with the desert landscape and her witchy inversion of traditional female mysticism. A rather fin-de-siecle diabolist, she flouted conventional morality to be true to the playful, spirited woman she was:

“Be carefree, be light-hearted, be wicked. . . . The deeds are what you will; the time is now; the aftermath is nothing; the day of reckoning is never. Love things lightly, take all that you see, and to the winds with regret!”

Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

I AWAIT THE DEVIL’S COMING

By Mary MacLane

Melville House. 162 pp. Paperback, $16

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