For their first home, Mary and Bert Vorse chose an eighth-floor Greenwich Village apartment with queer, pie-shaped rooms opposite the park on Sheridan Square. By 1898, Greenwich Village was fast becoming the abode of the artistic and intellectual young. Set amid the evenly aligned thoroughfares of New York, the Village’s maze of crooked streets and narrow alleys was also the habitat of that fascinator, the Bachelor Girl. The journalist Hutchins Hapgood was one of the first to marvel at the new womanhood developing there. When the world began to change, these women would be the main fount of the cultural oasis to be known as Greenwich Village. But in the late 1890s Hapgood found them “still deeply held by the traditions of womanly restraint.” This grip included the notion that marriage should precede any sexual encounter.1
As often as they could afford, Bert and Mary visited the most genuine bohemian meeting place in the Village. Maria’s was a basement restaurant on MacDougal Street. There, at what Vorse remembered as “one of the first green shoots of the Village that was to be,” guests sat around one large table, actually spoke with strangers, contributed music, poetry, and speeches, and got a good Italian meal with red wine for fifty cents. Sudden altercations among the sensitive sometimes sent plates of spaghetti swirling through the air. One writer rhapsodized that Maria’s late Saturday night suppers brought “two hundred Bohemians in one large lump,” while an “additional one hundred more verging Bohemians, Philistines and the curious” gazed on the imbroglio.2
It was a grand thing to be young, to pioneer a new century. The “forerunners of a new world,” Bert and Mary dubbed themselves. She dared to wear only one petticoat and no corset at all when dining at the Hotels Lafayette and Brevoort—already in their prime and just two blocks from her apartment. In the cellar of the Brevoort, Vorse and her friends, following the example of George Sand, lit cigarettes in defiance of the house rules, which forbade women to smoke. Told to put them out, the women soon relit them. “Time and time again,” Vorse said, “[we] went through the ritual, with the air of those performing a public service.”3
They lived an ideal of youth, gaiety, and sophistication, with a certain daring born of middle-class comfort. Bert was then literary adviser at G.P. Putnam’s, a promising position for young writers who hoped to launch their career through the creation of valuable connections. He earned $20 a week, and sometimes sold an article to bring in another $50. After heat, food, and entertainment were provided for, there was one dollar available for savings and six for extras.
When Mary became pregnant in 1901, they moved to a larger apartment on Waverly Place, one block from Washington Square. As an economy measure, Mary wrote occasional book reviews for the Criterion, where Bert had a new job. Most of the staff were friends of Huneker’s. This group embraced ideas and authors that the staid weeklies and monthlies of the day ignored. The magazine quickly declined after Bert became associate editor, although it survived until 1905.
In December, Mary’s first son, Heaton, was born at home. Attended by a woman doctor, Mary had an easy birth. Only the horrified protest of the nurse kept Mary from immediately beginning work on her book reviews. Mary found a simple way to avoid maternal interference during her pregnancy. She falsely informed her mother that the baby was not due until February.4 First, a secret marriage; now, a secret birth. (In her second pregnancy, six years later, Mary would not tell her mother of the birth until after it had occurred.)
At about this time came the first indication that Bert was overstepping the bounds of monogamy. He reassured Mary, as he would so often in the future, that he was faithful to her. During the summer of 1902, when she summered in Amherst with the baby, their letters to one another decidedly stiffened in tone.
Before long Mary knew her suspicions justified, even though she could not badger him into direct confession. At first she cried a great deal, mourning all her lost dreams of marital bliss. Bert chafed under what he chose to interpret as Mary’s excessive need for his attention. “I made a great mistake to cry and bore you with tears . . . ,” she wrote him, “you talk so much about tyranny.” When tears failed, she tried scolding. Life narrowed into an anxious wait for his comings and goings, which she met with swollen eyes or angry accusations. Nursing their separate hurts, the dreadful tension between them took shape and grew, until Mary felt she could actually see it, a great, gray box, square and closed, absorbing her world.
Finally, in defeat, even seeking and following her mother’s advice, she opted to accept his philandering in the approved female fashion—with sacrificial passivity. She formed a theory that it was only Bert’s failure to succeed as a writer that made him compensate with “a new personal success” now and then. She would soothe his dissatisfaction with himself by her own calm, she decided. Nevertheless, as Mary commented about one of her fictional heroines who was in the same fix: “Something so awful had happened that she couldn’t comprehend it yet. But she did know that life as she had known it, that little restricted life that seemed so safe and so secure, was shattered forever, and that never in the big, unchancy world would she ever feel so safe again.”5
Of course she was furious at Bert—so full of a masculine importance she could never know, so slyly supported by the barely concealed understanding of his male world. She dreamed of escape and violent revenge. She loathed her moroseness, and dripping nose, and self-pity. She had given up her youthful dreams, had traded them for the promised joy of marriage and motherhood. Now she was left without an income, without internal illumination, tied to a child and his care and protection, alone and miserable, unable to imagine herself unmarried and not miserable. The greatest cruelty that Bert imposed on her was his denial of the circumstance that poisoned their union, his lies and evasions, which were designed to leave her unsure of her deeply felt certainty. The greatest cruelty she fastened on herself was her fearful acceptance of those deceits. Erecting a shaky pile of hope and “love,” she bravely endured, as good wives and mothers were meant to do.
Meanwhile, encouraged by the lukewarm reception given to his book of arctic tales, Bert continued to write, laboriously grinding out each sentence. He sold a disappointing number of adventure stories, or of romances in which the hero prevailed over the brief, meek defiance of his bride-to-be. Bert’s writing style reflected his plodding effort.6
Mary continued to publish a few book reviews, but still very much her mother’s daughter, she thought of her writing as a kind of “selfish pastime.” Careful to keep both herself and her work in its place, she earned only enough money to indulge frivolous needs: “to buy an extra hat, an ornament for the house.” She was even willing to take the blame for Bert’s literary failure. It was his forced daily labor in an office in order to support his family, she claimed, that prevented him from perfecting his writing skills.
In the winter of 1903 Mary and Bert came to a crucial decision. In order that Bert might quit his job and thus have the chance to develop his writing, they would move to Europe where living was cheaper. It was agreed that Mary would also write, but only temporarily, to augment their income. Her earnings, their savings, and a small stipend sneaked them by Mary’s father would theoretically suffice until Bert made good. The unstated motivation behind their move was Mary’s, and perhaps even Bert’s, desire to begin again, to avoid old haunts—and old lovers.
In France, Bert’s and Mary’s mutual confinement to create two writing careers in one small apartment only compounded marital stress. To escape tension, Mary traveled with her nurse and her two-year-old son to Fiesole where she stayed through the spring. Her first lengthy separation from Bert was a joyful experience. Even though she was thirty years old, it was the first time, except for trips between New York and Amherst, that she had traveled any distance without father or husband. Twenty years later she still savored those single days in Fiesole. There she was able to write with zest, freed from “criticisms and demands.” She told her father, “this time I shall always look on as an oasis in my life . . . all care and worry seem to have slipped from me.”
To her surprise, Mary’s love stories sold easily to the women’s magazines and the genteel journals. Her fiction caricatured the rigid etiquette that constricted middle-class sex relations. Mary’s stories often pictured a tomboylike heroine whose direct approach wrests the prized male from the simpering belle. But even her more traditional women, on the surface trusting and childlike, barely concealed a determination that lifted them far above the dulling routine of marital life.
Although Mary and Bert were reunited in the summer of 1904, the difference in their mode of literary production became too apparent for either’s comfort. Bert wrote in a slow agony. Mary said, “I reel off stuff like a regular phonograph. . . . I slap down and let her go which is the way for me to have fun.” Bert wrote long into the night. Mary worked only when she felt like it. Bert sold almost nothing. Mary sold almost everything she produced.
Yet while Mary was “truly pleased with the Comfortable Little Income” she earned, she assured her parents that Bert was following the best and only road to “becoming a writer of note.”7 Her self-disparagement was sincere, not designed simply for parental consumption or to save Bert’s pride. It was at this time that she wrote a revealing set of articles published in the Atlantic Monthly. They brought her some minor fame and were eventually compiled to form her first book, published in 1908.
The Breaking in of a Yachtsman’s Wife describes a bride’s introduction to the world of sailing by her overbearing husband. Marjorie and Stan purchase their twenty-foot sloop in the first summer of their marriage (just as Mary and Bert purchased a boat with Lincoln and Josephine Steffens in the summer of 1899). Stan allows Marjorie to prove her love for him by assisting him in the toilsome stripping and painting of his new boat, all the while accusing her of a lack of interest and feminine ineptitude for the task. Marjorie learns to sail well. She loves the thrill of danger and the sense of physical competence. Alas, her achievement also damages Stan’s sense of superiority. Marjorie finally concedes that “it is so much against the usual for a woman to sail a boat as to seem almost against nature, and so I say . . . no yachtsman’s wife should learn to sail, for no grown woman can learn to handle a boat and not be puffed up with pride. . . . The world over, a man should be the skipper of his boat.” While the ending was conventional, one cannot miss the scorn for childish males implicit in Marjorie’s renunciation.8
The dilemma of the yachtsman’s wife was Mary’s own, as she and Bert wrestled with the meaning of her disturbing literary triumphs. Years later, in 1938, Mary sourly commented that this “mealy-mouthed” story of women keeping their place was “dated as a bustle. . . . It belongs to another civilization.”9 But in 1904, tied to a marriage that frustrated her ambition and eroded her happiness, her denial of self was real enough, an exercise in female survival.
That year she and Bert settled for a time in Venice. There she received her baptism into the labor movement that she would later serve with over half a century of her life. In her autobiography written years later, she presented an overly dramatized version of the scene. Mary claimed that the Italian general strike, which she and Bert observed from Venice, riveted her imagination as nothing before ever had. Above all else, she said, she learned the potential power of workers who act in unity.
In Venice, Bert and Mary, through their gondolier, met the secretary of the sandola guild. Their new friend took Mary to her first labor meeting. Later, in a procession of two thousand people, Mary, made giddy by what she called the “peculiar, beautiful contagion” of mass solidarity, marched arm in arm with two girl workers down the Merceria to the Grand Canal. At Venice, “for the first time,” she later insisted, “I felt . . . the people marching and singing together for a high conscious aim. I was caught up and carried along by these marching, singing people who had so much power and yet had such discipline.”10 Throughout her long career as a labor writer, nothing thrilled her more than the sound and sight of masses united in protest. For Mary Vorse mass action would always be felt as a mystical “flame of creation,” personally igniting her repressed fury, searing her inhibitions, expanding timidity into invincible certitude.
Mary’s political enlightenment proceeded parallel to Bert’s literary failure. After two years in Europe he had all but lost faith in his artistic power. Consoling himself with a conviction that Mary’s work required his firm editorial hand, he told her parents that with his help it was Mary who would “become the family genius. . . . If she isn’t a truly eminent novelist in a few years, I miss my guess.”
Despite his proclaimed respect for her work, Bert blamed her for neglect of home and family and for not providing him with the essentials of life—like clean underwear. In one of his many unpublished articles, entitled “The Husband of a Celebrity,” he wrote:
She wanted to make her own pin money, and so long as she didn’t let the household go wrong, I had no objections to offer against that. . . . [But] her new realization of her increasing greatness has quietly changed all our relations. For example, nowadays I do not like to disturb her if I don’t find fresh underclothing in the mornings. And this brings me to the great point of change—our whole life has had to be adjusted to meet her engagements. She hasn’t time to keep house. . . . She is not concentrated on our purpose as I am.
In her articles entitled “Working Mother” and “Failure,” Mary retaliated:
I had . . . insensibly altered our relations over a period of years, and did it without realizing it. . . . He let himself procrastinate getting back into life. The more I worked, the less he did. What did my success do to him? It dimmed life in some way. It tapped some vital force in him. There he was, suddenly no longer needed. . . . And his sickness with himself reacted on me.
Not many men will forgive their wives for supporting them. Inevitably they visit their bitter defeat upon their wives.11
In Europe, a “little wondering question” took shape in her mind. There came a moment when instead of feeling that work was keeping her from him, in “some odd way the situation was shifted.” She felt definitely that he was keeping her from her work. At first she had been apologetic for the hours away from him. She seemed to be always excusing herself, always accounting for her time spent on work, rather than on family. Finally she knew herself enslaved, and felt it as something humiliating.
From denial of unseemly ambition, Mary moved to open resentment of his inability to accept her strengths: “Neither the fruits of the spirit nor the amenities of social life can evolve where one person is either consciously or unconsciously lording it over others.” Mary wrote:
In the hearts of men for a long time must have lurked the suspicion that they were not made of such very different clay from their wives. From this suspicion must have sprung the irritable vanity of the old fashioned husband. He knew that the tenure of his position as head of the household was insecure, and he bolstered it up, sometimes with loud blusterings, oftener in subtler assumptions of masculine superiority.12
Soaring sales of her work brought a new sense of self-worth. When Lincoln Steffens read one of her early stories, he wrote her, “Remember that the mind that can write the good piece can write innumerable good pieces. You have made your place now . . . as a writer in whom I can believe.” Mary felt, if “not smug, at least sure that this business of women’s co-operating in wage-earning was the solution to domestic life.” How much better for children “to have a live mother abreast of the time” and for a “husband to have a helpmeet instead of a millstone. . . . It seemed to me all the things the feminists had promised with the cry of economic independence had come true.”13 Feminist hope crashed on Bert’s intractable demands. She focused her fury on all “men who are small enough to want to feel superior.”
Mary’s anger erupted in one of her most powerful short stories, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1907. “The Quiet Woman” is about an aged mother whose sad, reclusive nature is a reaction to the restrictions placed on her by her patronizing husband, now dead. Her son continues in the same tradition as his father, smothering the mother with insensitive control. Katherine, the young narrator of the story, seems as powerless as the mother to resist the domineering son. Katherine is dissuaded from marrying him only by his mother’s warning that he will humiliate and bruise Katherine’s spirit: “You would try and try, and then you would see that neither patience nor submission nor love could change him.” He and his father “are the men with no women in them.” Men such as these demand that women serve them and then scorn the passivity they create. In the “quiet woman,” Mary portrayed her own loneliness and need for a supportive mother, as well as her new assessment of women’s obligation to please men: “Often I have seen on a woman’s face a look of anger or fear or cunning, and I knew that here was another of me. There are more of us than you think, and we use in self-defense, [either] guile, or flattery, or affection or submission, according to our natures.”14
When Bert gave up his hope for a literary career, he sought, and failed to find, a job as a diplomatic consul. They returned to Amherst in April 1905. In July he was refused a place in Admiral Peary’s expeditionary force, another blow to his self-esteem. Through the summer and fall they lived apart, as Bert, supported by Mary’s writing, searched for work in New York City. His eye for women soon led to what Mary later termed her “first severe sexual defeat.” By the end of the year their marriage was near collapse.15
Again, Mary suffered the whole familiar gamut of pain. In succession came self-righteous hurt, then fear, self-blame, fury, the tortures of the rejected lover. Her first settled reaction, however, was guilt. She decided that she had strangled his spirit with too many demands. She had demanded perfect unity between them with a “devouring ego which demanded graspingly that her man should be hers, all of him.”16 She once more opted to ease his suffering through maternal solicitude. She would be as endlessly sweet and tireless as a mother with a sick child. Her determination to be “perfectly good” carried them through another winter in New York. During the summer, they rented a house at Provincetown, Massachusetts. Here they snuggled in to nurse their mutual sores.
The first time Mary Vorse saw Provincetown she came down from Boston by boat, skirting remote shores inhabited only by colonies of sea gulls. Provincetown was the loveliest of spots, a small village with jutting gray wharfs and huge willow trees. The garden beds were lined with white shells and ornaments of whale’s vertebrae. Ox teams dragged low-hung wagons with wide wheels through the sand of the main street.
That summer marked the beginning of her love affair with the fishing village on the tip of the Cape. Mary’s Provincetown house, purchased in 1907, was her treasured base, her one sure anchor, for the next fifty-nine years. As illusions dissolved, along with her marriage, her need for stability grew. After a life of international mobility, broken only by inland stays in Amherst and the easy vagabondage of Greenwich Village and Europe, she longed for permanence. “At first sight,” Mary wrote, “I was invaded by the town and surrounded by it, as though the town had literally got into my blood.”
Provincetown’s beach circled the harbor like the gold setting of an emerald. The bay, seen from her workroom window, constantly changed color and mood, as the fog bell beat a steady tone.
Like many before her who found Provincetown, Mary Vorse felt “the sense of completion that a hitherto homeless person has on discovering home.” Provincetown had been a lawless, godless settlement for over two hundred years. Boston ministers and magistrates had often expressed their dismay at the roisterous smugglers, Indians, and squatters who clustered at the land’s end. Mary believed it was the Portuguese fishermen and their families who arrived in the mid-1800s who made Provincetown unique. Their relation to the sea—as a source of both nourishment and sudden death—bred an impassioned, prideful people. She had discovered the direct opposite of Amherst: “The blight of gentility and pseudo-culture that crept over English-speaking countries in the nineteenth century never spread over us [in Provincetown] as it did inland.”
Her one-hundred-year-old house on the sandy main street fronting the harbor, with its wide floorboards and hand-wrought nails, became her lifelong passion. She wrote of it, spoke of it, loved it, fumed against it, as though it lived. A house was a female shell, “one’s defense against the world.” A woman without a house had no sanctuary: “To any woman who has not a house I would say to ‘Go and buy one if it be but two rooms.’” The female need met—a room of one’s own. More important—a room purchased with one’s own earnings.17
While in Provincetown that first summer of 1906, Mary and Bert utilized the classic ploy of the unhappily married couple to stitch together their unwinding lives. By September, Mary was pregnant.
They left the Cape to winter in New York, a pattern Mary Vorse would follow for much of her life. She and Bert joined sixteen other people at A Club, a cooperative housing venture at 3 Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from Washington Square and across the street from the Hotel Brevoort. Succeeded in 1913 by the famed Liberal Club, the A Club was the first organized group to express the revolt of the Villagers in the years before the war. A Club harbored writers and painters, lawyers, clergy, settlement workers—“everybody a Liberal, if not a Radical—and all for Labor and the Arts,” as Mary wrote. A Club was named when Howard Brubaker said, “Oh, just call it a club.” The newspapers called it the Anarchist Club and predicted that B, C, and D clubs would be formed. A New York reporter was sent to investigate the subversives. All he found was four-year-old Heaton Vorse, who offered to play ball with him in the hall.18
A Club was an intellectual jolt. For the first time Mary lived alongside men and women of sparkling intellect “who questioned the system under which they lived.” At A Club, “even Bert had a new consciousness,” she noted. The array of talent there was astounding. Most of the members were destined for prominence as writers, reformers, radicals, or social critics of the Progressive era. Women residents included Anna Strunsky, her sister Rose, and the writers and social activists Midge Jennison, Miriam Scott, Martha Bruere, Bertha Carter, and Charlotte Teller Hirsch. The men included William English Walling, Walter Weyl, Ernest Poole, Paul Wilson, Howard Brubaker, Leroy Scott, Arthur Bullard, and Robert Bruere, most of them social workers associated with University Settlement.
Mark Twain dropped by almost every day to smoke his long cigars and spin his tales. Frances Perkins, Rose O’Neill, Dolly and John Sloan, and William Glackens were in and out. Everybody at one time or another came to A Club, as Mary remembered it, including such different types as Mother Jones and Theodore Dreiser. Ernest Poole recalled of A Club: “With most of us writing books, stories, or plays and all of us dreaming of reforms and revolutions of divers kinds, life in that house was a quick succession of intensities, large and small, from tremendous discussions about the world to hot little personal feuds and disputes; but through it all ran a broad fresh river of genial humor and relish in life.” For Mary, A Club was above all “a completely successful and civilized experiment in communal living.”
A Club functioned as a kind of American press bureau for the 1905—1907 Russian revolution. Political refugees “arrived from Russia with ours as the only American address,” Mary Vorse remembered. A Club members became national news in 1906 when they gave sanctuary to the Russian radical Maxim Gorky, after he was evicted from several New York hotels. Gorky’s trip to the United States to raise funds for the Russian revolutionaries had at first elicited the support of the literary lights of New York—until Gorky publicly supported William “Big Bill” Haywood, the militant American labor leader then held on a trumped-up murder charge in Idaho.
The staff at the Russian embassy incited the newspapers to create a scandal about the illicit relationship between Gorky and his common-law wife who had accompanied him to America. The press exploded with denunciations of Gorky’s sex life. Gorky’s welcoming dinner was canceled, as gentlemen like Richard Watson Gilder and William Dean Howells ran for cover. Meanwhile, President Theodore Roosevelt vowed that Gorky would never enter the White House. Gorky and his female companion, widely denounced as monstrous evils, were ejected from several hotels, including even the Hotel Lafayette in the Village. For several days Gorky hid in the A Club rooms, while the moralists outside raved of dangerous foreign influences on the American family. Undaunted, the A Clubbers continued their support of the Russian dissidents. During Mary’s first months there, they sheltered a Russian gunrunner who purchased ammunition and stored it at A Club in boxes marked “Soap.”19
The winters spent at A Club, in 1907 and 1908, were a period of rapid political and professional growth for Mary Vorse. She finished her first book there, The Breaking in of a Yachtsman’s Wife, and wrote most of her next two books, including The Story of a Very Little Person, a description of the infancy of her daughter, Ellen, who was born in 1907. Mary was notorious at A Club for plastering warning notes on her closed door: “I am working! Do not enter!”—a revealing sign of her new pride in self.
Looking back twenty years later, Mary Vorse admitted that although those at A Club had a high level of purpose and activity, talk was really their main occupation—“talk which led many of the members into joining the Socialist Party.”20 Most of the A Club members called themselves revolutionaries. They were really nothing more than liberal reformers, “natural-born New Dealers” Mary would later call them, part of the movement of well-heeled, inspired young into settlement houses at the turn of the century. Mary Vorse was younger than the other residents of A Club. Even though her experience there had a moderating influence on her political thought, her intellectual progression would follow a far different course from her friends at A Club, most of whom finally settled for Wilsonian idealism, or “government controlled” corporate growth. Her time at A Club marked the beginning of her radicalization and not its apex.
Meanwhile, after two winters at A Club, Mary’s marital frustration reached an intolerable level. More and more, a slackness crept into Bert’s life. The book he planned remained unwritten. His faith in himself bled away. Mary suffered from continuous nervous headaches. Her anxiety heightened when she learned that she was again pregnant. She remembered the summer of 1908 in Provincetown as one of the worst periods in her life. It was the “awful summer” when she discovered that Bert was involved in an affair with her stenographer.
Once, in a state of high agitation, Mary set out to find Bert and his new conquest. Mary hired the teenage boy next door to drive her in a wagon out Snail Road to search for the wayward duo in the back country. Mary and her driver surprised her sandpiper Bert and his embarrassed companion emerging from the dunes. Dapper in his customary white ducks, Bert attempted humor. “Ah, such is the way of the world,” he shrugged. Sickened by jealousy and anger, Mary claimed to have lost her child through miscarriage. She spent most of her time that summer lying on the couch, attempting to write as tears rolled down her cheeks in a seemingly endless stream. Once again, Bert promised to reform.21
In the winter of 1909, Bert and Mary toured Europe with the children. They were accompanied by Bror Nordfeldt, a Swedish etcher of some note, and his fiancée. Young Wilbur Daniel Steele, a distant cousin of Bert’s and then an unrecognized author, joined the group in Italy. The trip was enlivened by Vorse’s discovery of Steele’s writing skill. He showed his first story to her and she pronounced him “a born writer.”22 In the spring, she and Steele returned with the children to Provincetown, where he boarded at Mary’s house during the summer of 1909. Bert remained in Europe; he would never again return to their Provincetown home.
After eleven years of marriage, something more than her affection for Bert had ended. She was also free of her need to please and pamper him. After eleven years, “revolt, absolute and complete . . . I thought I will kill this thing or it will kill me.” She transcended that self that practiced perfect goodness in perfect fraud. Something that had long been gestating was given birth. “Never again was I so enslaved. . . . I loved Wilbur and I was happy. . . . It was now that I began to have the men I cared for serve me.”23
That summer in Provincetown Mary Vorse refurbished and launched her twenty-three-foot dory, the Molasses II. She scraped and sandpapered the bottom, reworked the mast and the bowsprit, puttied all the seams, and painted the inside of the boat ocher. Strangers and fishermen stopped in the sun to talk, and helped to paint. She wet the halyards and coiled and recoiled them to prevent a kink. Finally, there it was, body white as a gull, bottom glassy green. Mary rubbed up all the brasswork, the pin, the blocks, as she polished the name Molasses on its side and its stern. With pride, “I finally launched her—paid out her sheet, saw her sail catch, and floated off on the shining surface of the bay.”
The “Yachtsman’s Wife” had herself broken free.
She stayed outside as much as possible that summer, blueberrying with eight-year-old Heaton, a handsome, mischievous boy of intelligence. Sneaker-footed, they explored the golden ponds and trails and desolate, beautiful stretches of the outside shore, gathering spicy bayberries, beach plums, and wild grapes and roses. There was a cosmic quality to her pleasure, nourished by the sea and woods, the companionship of her son, gigantic meals. Her baby, Ellen, was “soft and milky.” Mary’s sails alone were joyous.
“I knew that I would never be quite so happy again,” she wrote. “For a moment, a few brief weeks, I had recaptured the happiness I had as a girl, and yet I had the freedom of a woman. I had my house and my children, and yet I had the gaiety that comes only, as a rule, with the irresponsibility of youth.” Mary Vorse made a tremendous discovery—“how grand a life can be without continually having someone as it were continually over you.” There was no one “to find fault with me, to nag, to be superior. I liked living alone, I was out of love with Bert. I had had enough.” Mary had not written since that terrible summer of 1908. She began to write again, experiencing such strength that she could “work all day and then walk four miles to the outside shore and back for sheer joy.”24
. . .
Since 1906, her earnings had supported the family. As early as 1907, she brought home about two thousand dollars a year, almost as much as Bert had earned in his heyday of 1902, and her income rose each year. Between 1906 and 1911 she published three well-received books and over sixty articles and short stories in major journals and popular magazines. Her work was eagerly sought by the high-paying women’s journals like Woman’s Home Companion and Good Housekeeping, as well as by the more general interest magazines like McClure’s, Scribner’s, Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, and Outlook. So rapid was her success that she was selected in 1906 to contribute a chapter to a novel written by twelve important American writers, among whom were William Dean Howells and Henry James.25 While she was working hard at learning her craft, it seemed that almost every word she wrote found a ready market.
Mary Vorse’s work sold so readily because it expressed the turmoil that characterized the sexual relations of her chiefly female and middle-class audience. Although her fiction spoke best to women’s concerns, it sparked the interest of male readers who were forced to adjust, not only to restive mates, but to urban business society with its competitive demands. Mary’s was a generation of adjustment. In the early twentieth century, the nuclear family, already stripped of much of its economic function, lost much of its educational, religious, and nursing functions to outside agencies. Privileged women, even though they enjoyed greater leisure and more years free of childbearing, were channeled exclusively into care of children and husband. As women’s economic and biological functions waned, their emotional and psychological role in the family increased. At the same time the growth of industry curtailed men’s participation in family life. Direct patriarchal authority within the family declined as a result of the father’s absence from the home. In a society characterized by sexual inequality, the changes in the organization of production placed tremendous structural strains on marriage and domestic life. As Mary’s discontent, rooted in her experience as wife, mother, and female achiever, grew, it shaped the content and tone of her written expression. Like much best-selling fiction of the day, her work chipped at the idols of Masculinity, Womanhood, and Gentility.26
She dramatized the tough-minded thesis that the adored wife-child of the past was hopelessly outdated. Her stories swarm with these pitiful creatures. Inevitably, their husbands grow bored, avoid coming home, and turn, with relief, to the sensible world of business and men. Preoccupied with sunny sentiment, these women seek to remain the emotional center of their husbands’ lives, long past the natural limits of the period of first love. Their efforts to keep a keen edge on romance are as dangerous to their happiness as having “an infantile disease late in life,” she wrote.27 A woman whose purpose in life begins and ends with pleasing her man eventually is left high and dry emotionally. Her answer to the problem is that women must learn to “stand on their own feet,” “broaden their interests,” and “not expect too much,” although the details of realizing these homilies are left exceedingly vague.
Mary concluded that the great game of marriage was a terribly unequal one. Yet “women are too courageous, for the most part to tell the truth, even to themselves; they accept the inevitable and tell themselves and others that things are for the best.”28 Mary highlighted the predicament of the economically privileged wife, pinned to stereotypical ideals of woman’s proper role, isolated emotionally and physically from the public world, and destined to lose, in the end, even the glamor of romance. This defeat sounded a common chord in the experiences of many of Mary’s readers during the first decade of the new century.
Contemporary women found in Mary Vorse’s fiction both consolation and explanation for their disappointment with True Womanhood. The source of their problems as women, Mary believed, was the unfortunate training of the male. Childish, selfish, egotistical—even when well-meaning and warm-hearted, the men in Mary’s stories are rarely admirable. She habitually sketched three types. The first is the effeminate genteel, so trapped in sexual repression that he is unable to do much more than flutter, ineffectually, near the desired, but never conquered, more lively female. Another is the business-oriented autocrat who is wholly baffled by the sensitivity of his wife to human concerns. In his struggle to behave in proscribed fashion as a “good provider” and a “faithful husband,” he remains an emotional cretin whose unconscious deprecation of women and children stems from his belief that he must be served by these lesser beings.
The third version of manhood in Mary’s writing is more complex in structure, as well as more prevalent in her work. This creature is powerfully rapacious. His lips curl, eyes burn, muscles ripple, and voice booms. His mouth is invariably sensual and cruel. His appearance both frightens and entrances the women he encounters. They respond either by narrowly escaping, only through great self-control, his magnetic charm, or, more commonly, by imperfectly subduing his magnificent sexuality through his love for them. In either case, the male animal is triumphant, although ego-dependent on the reflection of himself in the woman he dominates. Even after 1900, women’s popular fiction still relied on the old poetic forms of male power and female passivity, with the common theme of women’s dependency, investing it with bliss and horror, interweaving it with dreams of submission and escape.
Regardless of the variation in her male characters, Mary emphasizes that their personality characteristics are produced by early socialization. If men seem generally weak, insensitive, vainglorious, and even silly, it is not their fault so much as it is the creation of society itself. Women are forced into dependence on the undependable.29
The role of modern women, Mary counseled, was patiently to nurture and instruct man, despite the male’s boyish strutting and selfish demands. In essence, much of Mary’s work in this period is an early development of the core ideology of feminist-based pacifism, which would surface within a decade. The popular ideal of woman’s selfless, maternal love is thus transformed in Mary’s fiction—from its late nineteenth-century form as illustration of women’s superiority, to its twentieth-century use as demonstration of men’s inferiority.
A related theme is Mary’s exposé of married existence. She stressed that “the perfect hour” when love was new and all-consuming would inevitably pass during the first years of marriage. In her stories, it is sometimes replaced by a distant, friendly understanding between man and wife, but more often by a one-sided yearning of the wife for a return of emotional unity. Left without similar resources and interests, the wife must nonetheless adjust to her husband’s natural desire to have every legitimate freedom of action.
Nor could women turn, as their mothers had promised, to happy absorption in home and children. Mary’s writing exposed this myth as relentlessly as her work stripped away romantic notions of marriage. She ridiculed the novels where mothers were always seen as loving saints, eyes full of holiness, sewing little clothes. In her work, mothers frequently feel incompetent, tired, and angry with their lovely new babies. They are frustrated by their limited experience.
Her pages describe the children who have been made rebellious and unpleasant by their mother’s old-fashioned denial of self. Women who sacrifice all for their children, in line with the ideal, create “beautiful soulless monstrosities . . . indifferent minotaurs who eat their mothers alive.” They produce daughters who are as reluctant to grow up as their mothers are. “The child becomes a victim of her mother’s immolation; the mother a victim of the child of her own raising. . . . Unselfishness breeds a perfect selfishness.” And fathers are no help at all in Mary Vorse’s fictional world. Wholly absorbed in money making, fathers, when they appear, are distant, inaccurate assessors of family problems.30
By shrouding it in just enough conventionality to make it marketable, Mary found a fictional formula that worked. It was popular because it told women what they could no longer endure and what they did not know how to change. In a real sense the combatants in Mary’s early fiction are Mary versus her mother, and women versus men. The conflict echoed in the homes of millions of her readers.
. . .
In the fall of 1909, her interest sparked by pieces written by A Clubber Arthur Bullard, Mary asked the editor of Harper’s Monthly Magazine to send her to Morocco to write a series of travel stories. It was her first foreign assignment as a journalist.31 She bid her young lover Wilbur Daniel Steele an amiable goodbye and sailed for Europe.
With $200 on hand, and an additional stipend of $100 a month from Woman’s Home Companion, Mary was now responsible for the support of five people—the two children, the again-penitent Bert, and the nursemaid and secretary who accompanied her. In the spring Bert returned to New York alone, while Mary and the children remained in Europe. At their parting, Heaton watched in wonder the uncommon sight of his mother sobbing without control. She realized this separation was more final than the rest, and she mourned the lost dreams now dead. “It’s odd,” Bert wrote from New York. “We have not told anyone of our difference, but everyone here seems to surmise something is wrong. I take a simple and natural tone, but last night when I suggested to Paul [Wilson] that I might engage a house for a year, in view of the fact that you might want to take a house next winter, Paul looked at me with derision and then laughed outright.”32
On June 15, 1910, a phase of Mary’s life ended abruptly. On that date, aboard an ocean liner and ultimately bound for Provincetown, she received word that both Bert and her mother were dead.
Bert died on June 14 of a cerebral hemorrhage while on an unexplained visit to Staten Island. He was found unconscious in a hotel room in the morning—alone. Mary’s mother, after hearing of Bert’s death, died of heart failure in Amherst the next day.33
There is little evidence of the immediate effect on Mary of this news. Even after the lapse of many years, she avoided all discussion of the deaths. There are fragments of horror to be found in several letters written to a friend.
[Bert] hated so the thing he was. . . . It was not any great viciousness that killed him. It was his small daily indulgences. . . . I have a curious haunted feeling tonight as though the one I used to be was there in the room somewhere with the one he used to be. Do you suppose I will always have to bleed for him as I do now, drop by drop of blood and the strength of me goes. . . . I cannot bear that he should have died in the dark without me and I cannot bear that he died without seeing his children again. They asked me in the hospital if he had some great nervous shock lately. There are other things too that I can’t very well write about yet, and I don’t think ever.34
It is likely though, that Mary Vorse spoke best through her fiction, when she described the feelings of a widowed woman whose marriage had also chilled long before her unfaithful husband died. Mary wrote, “It wasn’t grief I felt—it wasn’t loss. In some ways it is worse to feel nothing than to feel pain.”35