Skip to content

Cartwheeling Truth

Marguerite Young’s utopia of language

A young woman sits on a bus. Her name is Vera Cartwheel—the cartwheeling truth—but we won’t know that until page five of the novel we’re reading, Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. Soon after, we will forget it. We will lose and find our narrator’s name repeatedly, along with many other names, in this great storm of words—about twelve hundred pages’ worth, in the forthcoming reissue by Dalkey Archive Press—that follow, a torrent of affirmations and denials that can posit the same character as at once dead and alive, imaginary and real, commonsensical and delusional. Names aren’t really the point of this book, anyway. Things have a tendency to crawl away from them.

Projects had a similar tendency to crawl away from Marguerite Young. Born in 1908, she received degrees in English and French from Butler University—not as unusual by the early 1930s as it had been, say, two decades earlier, but not the path of an utterly conventional woman, either. At the University of Chicago, she wrote a master’s thesis on the copious-for-the-sake-of-copiosity English Renaissance prose style of John Lyly, and she held down a part-time job reading Shakespeare to an opium-addled old woman who had once been friend and patron to the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. This woman, Minna Weissenbach, serves as the inspiration for Vera Cartwheel’s bedridden mother in Miss MacIntosh, and Lyly’s baroque playfulness seems as close to a literary precursor to that novel as anything does. Aesthetically pleasing coincidences, chance encounters with the great, dotted Young’s life. She lived for many years in Greenwich Village and, after receiving a PhD in English and philosophy from the University of Iowa, taught for a spell at that university’s famous writers’ workshop, where she mentored a young John Gardner. (How delightful to imagine CIA money finding its way to this utterly bizarre and, so far as she had a consistent politics, left-populist writer, neither a realist nor a liberal Cold Warrior.) Her friends included Kurt Vonnegut, Mari Sandoz, Anaïs Nin, and Carson McCullers, whose sexual overtures she claimed to have rejected. (She claimed not to have rejected Allen Tate’s, for some reason.) She told interviewers she was on friendly terms with the ghosts of Poe and Dickinson, and that Henry James visited her in a dream.

Young’s bibliography is far less crowded than her biography. Early on, she wrote two books of poetry, Prismatic Ground and A Moderate Fable, as well as the classic study Angel in the Forest, which tells the story of New Harmony, Indiana, a town successively occupied by two utopian communities founded on opposing principles. She then spent, in scholar Miriam Fuchs’s estimate, eighteen years on Miss MacIntosh, and even longer on her last, unfinished book, Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, published in 1999, four years after her death. Harp Song began as a biography of the poet James Whitcomb Riley before Young’s attention turned to Debs, that Indiana-born socialist pacifist with quasi-mystical leanings, during the tumultuous years she spent protesting the Vietnam War. In any event, Harp Song, in the posthumously edited form we have it, is not a biography of Riley and, despite the subtitle, it’s barely one of Debs, who disappears for dozens or even hundreds of pages at a time while Young goes off in search of other dreamers and prophets. In perversely distended sentences and back-broken paragraphs (“When Debs was a stripling trying to organize his chapter and at a time when there might be perhaps only one member present at a meeting and that was himself who certainly was easy to organize as he was all one piece, his head receiving the messages of his heart . . .”), Young gradually brings us through at least some of Debs’s early years, while also telling us a great deal about the mid-nineteenth century European socialist Wilhelm Weitling, about the early Mormons (she was descended from Brigham Young), about the jerk who founded the Pinkertons—anything, seemingly, that caught her attention.

Vera Cartwheel, similarly, tells us about herself mostly via what she tells us about other people. We will gradually learn, in waves of exposition that lap and recede until a bit of ground has been, if not covered, at least thoroughly soaked, that she is traveling through the Middle West in search of her childhood guardian, Miss Georgia MacIntosh. But when the book opens, we aren’t privy to any of this information. Right now, she just wants to tell us about the bus driver:

The bus-driver was whistling, perhaps in anticipation of his wife, who would be a woman of ample breasts, those of a realized maturity. It would be impossible that he did not have, from my point of view, a wife and children, indeed, a happiness such as I could not imagine to be real, even like some legend out of the golden ages. He had spoken numerous times during our journey of his old woman waiting, and he was going home.

No one has ever accused this novel of being efficient, but credit where it’s due: the opening paragraph is a pretty good index of what it’s like to read Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. It tells us, first, that the novel is frequently taken up with shameless acts of projection on the narrator’s part, even that it’s about projection (“It would be impossible . . . from my point of view”). Vera assures us that her knowledge of the bus driver’s family comes partly from his own testimony, and we will hear, more than once, some bits of his monologue, but come on—have you ever ridden a bus? You’re not going to hear even a fairly loud driver talking to himself over all that racket. It is Vera who monologues, from one end of the book to the other, always showing a preference for fustian (“those of a realized maturity”), for self-consciously old-timey effects (“even like some legend out of the golden ages”), and for people and situations that veer toward archetype (“a wife and children”).

The next paragraph demonstrates her fondness for pleonasm (“old, archaic”), for the Midwestern landscape (“this interior America”), and for lists (a few paragraphs later the bus nearly collides with “a lumbering moving van,” of which Young enumerates the contents). In the next few pages, we meet the other passengers, a pregnant girl and her boyfriend, “all blissful stolidity and broad-faced innocence.” Are we meant to take them as people, or as allegorical images of Youth? Yes. There follow several pages of atypically beautiful description, worth the price of the book, especially for lovers of the Midwestern surreal:

We had passed, on this journey, many curious pieces of rural architecture, an enormous coffee urn with its lid opened against the sky, a wigwam nightclub where, under a denuded oak, a melancholy buffalo was tethered, incongruous as the faded washing on the line. We had passed a windmill, a leaning tower, Noah’s Ark, the old woman who lived in the shoe, but these were miles back, and there were now no buildings but those of the amorphous distance, little, low-roofed houses, small as ruined birds’ nests, a child’s face at some near window, the individuality blotted out by the watery greyness of the Middle West, the train as small as a toy train crossing a toy bridge.

But this passage is an outlier. Miss MacIntosh doesn’t ultimately exist to showcase its author’s considerable powers of observation, her attunement to what fascinates and beguiles in the supposed wastes of the American interior. If you want that, you should read Angel in the Forest. That earlier book relates to Miss MacIntosh, for me, as “The Dead” does to Ulysses, or Ulysses to Finnegans Wake: it’s the work that is so clearly excellent in ways that I can make sense of that I am willing to follow the artist in their pursuit of new excellences that I can’t. That trust, in turn, may turn out to be misplaced; the artist may have pursued a mirage.

Into the Waves

On the level of plot summary, what “happens” in this novel is that Vera Cartwheel searches, as stated above, for her old nanny. Miss MacIntosh was, in Vera’s telling, a plain and commonsensical woman, devoted to pure fact, a contrast to Vera’s continuously tripping, bedridden mother. Vera learns, on her fourteenth birthday, that Miss MacIntosh has been wearing a wig and makeup to cover her bald and disfigured face—an implicit denial, in Vera’s eyes, of Miss MacIntosh’s entire philosophy. She is hiding “facts” behind illusion, the thing she always told Vera not to do. Compounding her fall from grace, if that’s what it is, she seems to attempt to sexually assault Vera, although this section is as ambiguous as to what actually happens as any of the rest of the book. I suspect that there isn’t any “what actually happens,” that even the what-if of fiction in general is too definite for this massive fiction.

I suspect that there isn’t any “what actually happens,” that even the what-if of fiction in general is too definite for this massive fiction.

Soon after this assault does or doesn’t happen, Miss MacIntosh and young Vera do or do not have a conversation in which Miss MacIntosh declares that she will leave before long, and about a month later, she appears to walk into the sea. This raises the question of why Vera thinks she can find her erstwhile guardian and would-be rapist by pursuing her to What Cheer, Iowa, Miss Macintosh’s hometown. At least it would raise that question if anybody in this book—or, as perhaps Young wants us to see, in the beautiful and haunted America that exists both inside and outside this book—ever did anything for clear-cut reasons that bear scrutiny. The novel’s dream logic prevents it from developing narrative stakes of any conventional sort. Everything can be taken back.

Most of the novel seems to take place in Vera’s mind as she rides that bus. She remembers her mother, who lived in a permanent haze of opium smoke; her mother’s most loyal friend and would-be suitor, Mr. Spitzer, a fussy lawyer who writes music only he can hear and who may have somehow switched identities with his louche brother, who on the other hand, or additionally, may be dead. She remembers Mr. Spitzer’s memories—unless they are Vera’s, and she merely places them in Spitzer’s mind, like a candle in a jack-o’-lantern—of Vera’s aunt Hannah, an adventuring suffragette. Eventually, she arrives in What Cheer, where she has a gruesome conversation with the town hangman, and another with a woman who is always pregnant but never gives birth. Finally, Vera decides that she will marry a deaf man whom she meets—in the 1965 Scribner edition—exactly six pages from the end of the book. (Structurally, this move reminded me of Jeanne Dielman—when a story has no clear stopping place, you just do something dramatic.) I describe Vera’s intended, somewhat reductively, as “a deaf man” because that’s basically all we know about him. It’s characteristic of the way people exist in this book’s cosmology. Details add on but don’t add up.

Here is another example, from much earlier in the book:

She was amazed, thinking of all the men she could have married, of all those she could have chosen, just by lifting her little finger. She could have married any of those old pottery hands back there at the pottery, any face of clay, the men whose feet were clay, any old potter turning the wheel that threw the clay, and all those who had kept the furnace fires, for all had wanted her, and the night watchman had wanted her, and the day watchman had wanted her, and the greatest potter had wanted her, and she could have gone on both shifts, the day and the night, and she could have escaped, escaped this life which she could not now escape. She surely had been, back there at the pottery, the most popular girl she ever knew, the prettiest telephone operator and receptionist, talking on four wires at once, never getting the messages mixed, giving all the men the messages from their jealous wives, jealous old hags, and now she was trapped, trapped in her own plot, trapped throughout eternity, married to the wrong man, one she had never talked to. She had not even slept with him until it was too late. And then he had not touched her.

The last, taking-it-all-back sentence makes it clear, if it hasn’t occurred to the reader already, that Young—here as throughout the book—is not doing anything so prosaic as describing a character or action. What she does is begin with observations and then let language take over: first via repetition and even redundancy (“old pottery hands back there at the pottery”), then via mere word association or even solecism, the swapping out of similar-sounding words (“face of clay” evening out into the more common “feet of clay”). It’s not that there is, in the world of this book, a day watchman and a night watchman who both desire the woman described here (who, in this case, is on the bus with Vera); it’s that, once she—the character, or Vera, or Marguerite Young, or the reader’s mind, speaking over the words on the page—says the phrase “night watchman,” a day watchman must also be posited, because “night” and “day” sound better in counterpoint. Reality is sterile, a tattered, sticklike old woman who goes mad with desire and then walks off into the waves. Young wants to give us language instead.

In Excess of Life

Is Miss MacIntosh any good? This is a question that a critic really ought to be able to answer—and that only a comparative handful of people probably can answer, since not that many people have made it from one end of the novel to the other. But it turns out to be the only question about this book more vexing than “What is the plot?” The novel maddens, annoys, baffles, and impresses, all the time, all at once. There are passages of stunning beauty, and chapters from which I have retained no memory except that of a stupefying boredom. Young’s use of repetition made me feel as though I were the unknowing victim of a Parallax Corporation brainwashing scheme; one more mention of Mr. Spitzer’s “high silk hat,” I felt, and I might go into a dissociative state and shoot a politician. Certainly, the book, in its cult-classic, now-you-can-buy-it-now-you-can’t career in print, has had its staunch defenders, including Nin and also Macon Leary, the hero of Anne Tyler’s novel The Accidental Tourist (he reads it at random, opening to any page, like a Pentecostal consulting the Bible). Reaching the end, I felt momentarily overwhelmed by the sheer size of the network of associations and memories that Young had created. But I doubted my response; I worried that actually finishing the book biased me. It has to have been good, because otherwise I went through all that for nothing.

This book isn’t a doorstop; it’s a door, and a house, and windows, and the lot that it all sits on, and the sinkhole that’s constantly swallowing it.

If Miss MacIntosh, like any ambitious experiment, pursues new modes of aesthetic interest that may turn out to be mirages, then it is also about the pursuit of mirage. Everyone who writes about the novel—and it’s hard, having put in all that work reading it, not to—eventually gets around to quoting a comment Young made, near the end of her life, in an interview with Fuchs and Ellen G. Friedman:

I believe that all my work explores the human desire or obsession for utopias, and the structure of all my works is the search for utopias lost and rediscovered . . . All my writing is about the recognition that there is no single reality. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.

Young’s work before and after Miss MacIntosh evinces this concern in straightforward ways: it is the story of failed utopias and utopians. And her relationship to the concept is likewise relatively straightforward: utopia probably can’t exist, but you have to try anyway. The constellation of radicals and cranks that we find in her nonfiction are models—not necessarily in the details of their projects, but at least in the stubbornness that lay behind them. She asks in Angel: “What is man but a series of competing mythologies, most fearful and wonderful, and what would man be if these were taken away from him?” And so many decades later, in the uniquely clotted style of Harp Song—a style at once stiff and fusty in some of its language and excessive, riotous in its details and transitions—she seems to answer her own question, on the book’s last page, using Debs as an example:

Debs’s search for utopia, which he did not expect to be granted in a millennial sense with instant transformation of the old world into the new, had begun at that time when the fringe-topped surrey which like a troika could lose its way in an enchanted wood or take the long way and not the direct way home as the driver grew old was being displaced by railroad traveling as speedy as the arrow in flight, so rapid that some people thought that the molecular agitations and displacements caused by long-distance traveling could permanently addle a man’s brain, the flowering geranium which could think, or his entire nervous system.

The paragraph places Debs simultaneously in the past, the future, and the subjunctive—he worked for socialism in a world where coaches had begun to give way to trains, a world made more efficient (“speedy as the arrow in flight”) and less romantic (“lose its way in an enchanted wood”), but menaced, too, by dangers that don’t come to pass (“could permanently addle a man’s brain”). And superintending all of it, the mind, “the flowering geranium which could think,” which must think—must imagine other, better worlds. This passage is followed by the book’s long last sentence, which is also (in a classic Young move) its last paragraph. It ends on the image of Debs going “on and on, this world always half in darkness.”

Not long before her death, Young spoke with Fuchs again, and seemed to return to her earlier comment. “Utopia,” she told Fuchs, “is not in the realization, it’s in the words, only in words do they exist because when you get there, it isn’t what you thought it would be.” When I first read the interview, I passed by this moment; it took the full experience of reading and wrestling with Young’s oeuvre for me to realize its importance. Reading Miss MacIntosh finally taught me what people mean when they say that the possibility of perfection, of meaning, of beauty, and of social justice, finally reside “in language.” Since I don’t happen to believe that—since I believe that language itself, enormous as it is, is only a hand mirror in which these things, which are real but not fully accessible to our experience, glimpse bits of themselves—I have always taken such comments as polite ways of saying that they do not exist at all. The political expression of such a view, I further assumed, would be at best a kind of wearied post-leftism, more likely a nihilistic post-everythingism—not the politics of Eugene Debs, or of someone who admired him deeply, as Young did. If justice can’t exist anywhere except in the imagination, why do anything to bring it about?

But that is not what Young is saying at all. She is saying, instead: of course these things exist; look at all this print. Beauty, goodness, justice, richness, adventure—page after page of them, more than any reader could possibly want, more than even the book’s fans would advise the reader to absorb all at once. (Most writers on Young also eventually get around to the disclaimer that you should read the book piecemeal, as Tyler’s Macon Leary does, or in tiny, daily sips. They’re right.) Someone like Debs could offer a foretaste of justice, a temporary victory for a particular group of workers. Young can give pure excess in all directions to anyone with access to a library. Here, in Miss Macintosh, is utopia, well in excess of sense or design or the requirements of structure—like most vast novels, this one is loose, simple, open, and arbitrary—and finally in excess of life, that bald, bewigged spinster who denies all these possibilities while sneakily reveling in them. Language overfills this book, till it is too big to serve as a doorstop, a cliché image that Young would eagerly, democratically have taken up and then inundated with further clichés, further words, with nonsense images and changes of subject, till the thing popped like a duck’s tasty liver. This book isn’t a doorstop; it’s a door, and a house, and windows, and the lot that it all sits on, and the sinkhole that’s constantly swallowing it. How can you say that infinite possibility doesn’t exist? It’s sitting right there, and it’s so big. You may not ever reach utopia, but you can always pick up this book again. You’ll never—thank God—finish it.