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.