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Genevieve Taggard--An Autobiographical Essay (1927)

Poet Out of Pioneer

My mother and father were the two most remarkable young people in a very small Western town: my mother, a pioneer extravert, a hardworking, high-handed, generous, and handsome girl. She never set limits to what she could do. She believed in miracles made by her own hands. When my father came, she was in rebellion against small-town sterility, determined to go to college and become, not a raw country girl with the limit of grammar-school learning but a cultured Christian gentlewoman, who could paint, sing, write, and testify to God's glory. My father had come West from Missouri for his health. He looked like Abraham Lincoln, but delicate and Quixotic. My mother's strength fascinated him and, I suppose, scared him to death. Church and school linked them--he, the principal of the grammar school; in a crude community, a man of learning (six months in a church college); the superintendent of the Sunday school and leader of Christian Endeavor. She was his first-grade teacher and a very good one. Not for nothing had she been mother to eleven brothers and sisters on the old ranch. She ran her schoolroom with an energy that was electric. Children were happy with her. She furnished them a firm foundation.

My father, of course, felt the charge of vitality. They married and for two years lived in a state of enforced chastity, I suppose, determined to save money and go to college. They saved $2,000 and were departing for a higher life when my uncle, my father's brother, came penniless from the East and married a shrew. My father loved my uncle with an unnatural simplicity. Brother John and the shrew wanted the two thousand to buy an apple-farm. My mother saw an older love in my tender father about to swamp her ambitions. In this emotional tangle I was conceived and it was I, finally, not my father or my uncle, who defeated my mother. The money went of course to John, college plunged into inaccessibility, and my mother was in the usual trap and, I am sure, as bitter as any modern woman about it.

Suddenly came a chance to go to a tropic country--another way out. Romanticists they both were, although they called themselves missionaries. And so when I was still a baby my mother gave the rest of her possessions to my uncle, packed up me and her baffled desires, and set off with her Shelleyesque husband to the heathen. The story is a complicated one; I shall follow only the trends of the two temperaments. My mother, with, ultimately three children and a passive husband, still had her old ambitions in this new land. But with us she did not encourage the freedom she gave her little school-children. At home she was a major domo. The family became a highly efficient organization--it had to be, when she gave most of her day to teaching. Although she took care of us all, there was never any ease or leisure; we were not permitted happiness. In the public school and the missionary chapel these two labored, giving their crowded time free for Jesus. My father was the principal, a flexible glove on my mother's strong, stubby hand. She was still his "primary" teacher, his wife, cook, housekeeper, refuge, and intelligence. And so complete was her domination over her man that she expected to mold and use me as she had used him.

But I, of course, began before I can remember silently and consistently to oppose her; to defend my father and to rebel at her steamroller tactics. I was lonely and excitable. Fairy-tales were denied me--no reading but the Bible--so I made Bible stores into fairy-tales and she found me very difficult about them. She believed in authority. I would not submit to it. She drove me to music lessons and housework--all done to the moral precept: there is only one right way. I should have been a musician or a composer; but she blocked the path, hemmed in with her vigilance all creation. Music, made hideous in the guise of duty, I abandoned and took another way out--with words, where no one could give me orders. I dreamed and made fantasies, and soon I lied habitually, to escape her, and went underground in all my desires. I was my father again, but a girl this time, and enough like herself to match her mettle. I had a good childhood in spite of the fact that we lived in a state of nervous tension at home and, as missionaries and school people, in a superior and controlled fashion in public, upholding the just, the good, the true. That was easy because we had the advantage of our less educated native neighbors. My father, as the years went by, became a vague sort of scientist, fleeing away from my mother's pressure. She, passionate and unfulfilled, lived in her three children.

Her objective was this cultural life she had never reached herself, and toward it our faces were always directed. But there was a division in my mother's own mind which she had never faced. Our religion was the religion of the small town, based on a fear of the big world, on a fear of the rational, the progressive, and the huge bugaboo of "Darwinism" and Higher Criticism. And yet however my mother fought against the liberal Congregationalists and the damned Unitarians, and however fanatical was her matter-of-fact mysticism, she wanted her children to live in that intellectual world and, I suppose, to solve, in a Christian fashion, its problem for her.

Twice my father collapsed and was told to his immense relief that he had tuberculosis and that he need no longer inhabit our world. His ailment was undoubtedly psychological. Twice we starved, and adored our mother for her gorgeous strength, and pitied and averted our faces from our father. And then the old theme reentered.

My mother demanded of my now wealthy Uncle John the $2,000 that had made him a comfortable apple-grower, and had kept her in bondage. We lived on canned salmon and rice and wild tomatoes for several months, in a shack where the tropic rains poured on our beds; and John wrote evasively with no enclosures. My father loved him still and would do nothing about it. My mother went as nearly insane with rage as she could permit herself, but only on Saturday mornings, when she could safely compute compound interest on an outlawed loan. The story spins out and out. We returned to the small town in an attempt to collect the two thousand, after a letter from my uncle offering us an old farmhouse near him. There, used as my uncle's hired help and wearing his family's cast-off clothing, we integrated ourselves into the single struggle to exist--without him. At length we returned to our tropics, penniless still, but to decent poverty and our own way of life. And my mother and father took up their teaching where they had begun fourteen years before, in a three-room school on a sugar plantation. This was a little too ironic for my frail father who had just managed to complete before his return to the States a twelve-room modern school for his beloved natives. He fell ill again and again we existed--I teaching in his place to get the $25 a month allotted a substitute.

I was ready for college. On two hundred borrowed dollars we came to a Western university town and there as servants in a boarding-house began again the struggle that included our whole story.

Am I the Christian gentlewoman my mother slaved to make me? No indeed. I am a poet, a wine-bibber, a radical; a non-churchgoer who will no longer sing in the choir or lead prayer-meeting with a testimonial. (Although I will write anonymous confessions for The Nation.) That is her story--and her second defeat. She thinks I owed her a Christian gentlewoman, for all she did for me. We quarrel. After I escaped, she snapped shut the iron trap around my brother and sister. That is their story. I do not know if they will ever be free of her. She keeps Eddie Guest on the parlor table beside the books I have written--a silent protest against me. She is not pleased.

I cannot pretend to be entirely frank in telling the story that results from this story; or to apply to it any such perspective. Let my daughter tell it later on. She will see outlines I cannot.

I think I have not been as wasted as my mother was--or as wasteful. I have made worse mistakes, which might have been more fatal than hers and yet have not been, at least for me. My chief improvement on her past was the man I chose to marry. I did not want a one-way street of a marriage, like hers. I married a poet and novelist, gifted and difficult, who refused defeat as often as I did. Hard as it is to live with an equal, it is at least not degrading. We have starved, too; struggled as hard as ever my folks did. But the struggle has not been empty; I have no grudges. Intellectually as well as emotionally my husband had as much to give that was new and strange as I had. In marriage I learned, rather tardily, the profound truth that contradicts Jesus when he said, "Bear ye one another's burdens." I am a better person when I bear my own burdens. I am happiest with people who can bear their own, too. I remember my mother's weariness and contempt for a man who could never take up her challenges. Seven years with a real person is better than her thirty with a helpless, newspaper-reading gentleman.

The pioneer woman was a dynamo--and her man nearly always ran out on her. From the bitterness in such women many of us were born. Where was her mate? Did she destroy him? Did he hate her for her strength? Was he weaker because she was strong? Where is the equilibrium, anyway? I do not know, for sure, although I spend much time wondering.

Marriage is the only profound human experience; all other human angles are its mere rehearsal. Like every one else I have wanted it. And yet having it, it is not all I want. It is more often, I think, a final experience than a way of life. But I am a poet--love and mutual living are not nearly enough. It is better to work hard than to be married hard. If, at the beginning of middle age, we have not learned some of the perils of the soul, in this double-selved life, we are pure fools. Self-sufficiency is a myth, of course, but after thirty, if one is a serious-minded egoist (i.e., artist) it becomes more and more necessary. And I think it can be approximated.

Lucinda Matlock, in the "Spoon River Anthology," says:

We were married and lived together for seventy years,
Enjoying, working, raising the twelve children,
Eight of whom we lost,
Ere I had reached the age of sixty.
I spun, I wove, I kept the house, I nursed the sick,
Rambling over the fields where sang the larks,
And by Spoon River gathering many a shell,
And many a flower and medicinal weed,
Shouting to the wooded hills, singing to the green valleys.
At ninety-six I had lived long enough, that is all,
And passed to a sweet repose.
What is this I hear of sorrow and weariness,
Anger, discontent, and drooping hopes?
Degenerate sons and daughters,
Life is too strong for you--
It takes life to love Life.

My mother was not this woman, nor am I, but we are both some way kin to her.

from The Nation (1927)

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