Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
Holding On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore
Linda Leavell
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013
480 pp., $30.00

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Kirby Olson

"To Be Liked by You Would Be a Calamity"

What's missing from accounts of Marianne Moore's life & works?

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Marianne Moore needs to be read on her own terms. A co-founder of American modernist poetry—with Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, and others—she has nevertheless been hard to place in any of the reigning narratives by which the story of that "movement" and its meaning is told. Moore was born in 1887, and her early life was spent in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where she lived until 1916. She worked at an Indian School in Carlisle until it folded, then moved to New York City with her mother. By the end of her life, she had become a celebrity in New York; older readers of this magazine may recall seeing photos of her in her trademark tri-corn hat and cape; throwing out the baseball on opening day for the Yankees; hobnobbing with Mohammed Ali; interviewed by magazines such as Lady's Home Journal, Time, and Sports Illustrated. She died in 1972. Many critics believe that the heyday of her poetry was over by the time she turned fifty; after about 1940, so the story goes, even as she moved into the mainstream and began to publish her poems in The New Yorker and other well-known vehicles, she was washed up as a poet. Not all readers of her work agree.

Moore's life, like her poetry, resists tidy categories. (Maybe most lives do, if seen up close.) Although she moved easily among New York's avant-garde, her brother (with whom she was very close) was a prominent and very conservative Presbyterian pastor in the U.S. Navy. Her grandfather had been an important pastor who lived in Gettysburg during the famous Civil War battle. Moore herself never strayed from the church or from Republican politics. Poets are notoriously unreliable—this one hymned Mussolini, that one proudly accepted a prize from Stalin—but a pathbreaking American woman poet who was a lifelong Republican? And a Christian? Inconceivable!

In short, Linda Leavell has her work cut out for her in Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore, in which she seeks to make her subject appealing to urbane 21st-century readers. So, for example, Leavell presents Moore's mother, Mary, as a rebel in her own right, a racy woman whose lesbianism defied the social contract of Carlisle in the early 1900s. "Although sexual acts between members of the same sex had been acknowledged for centuries," Leavell writes, "few people in central Pennsylvania would have heard of homosexuality, much less of lesbianism, as psychological proclivities. The terms would not come into common usage until the 1920s." Moore's mother was thus ahead of her time. And yet, conscientiously, Leavell also reports an incident in which Moore's mother put Marianne's much-loved cat into a bag and dumped it off the pier near their Manhattan studio, drowning it. Her motive isn't clear, but the overall portrait that emerges is of an exceedingly strong-willed woman. She fought hard to keep her son and daughter close to her. When the son married, the mother stopped talking to him for three years, and never completely accepted his wife. Marianne never left her mother's side.

Moore never married; she never so much as dated. There's no evidence in her life of sexual intimacy—with men OR women. William Carlos Williams was "exasperated" that Moore took no interest in "literary guys," Leavell writes, and Ezra Pound offered to mount her "Presbyterian stairturn," to no effect. What was wrong with her, anyway? Not only did she show "no man-instincts whatsoever," as her mother put it, but also she had no "confidant." Were other potential suitors kept at bay by the formidable mother? Leavell speculates that Moore's apparent lack of libido (how else is a modern person to understand it?) may have been linked to her low weight. Moore weighed less than 100 pounds for much of her teens and into her thirties. At a Greenwich Village public scale she once weighed in, fully dressed, at 75 pounds. (Was the scale reliable?) Leavell comments: "Too little body fat causes … the loss of libido."

There's an interesting contrast between Leavell's book and the previous Moore biography, by Charles Molesworth (Marianne Moore: A Literary Life, 1990). Leavell is a much more fluent writer; her book has a narrative drive that Molesworth's lacks. And yet Moles-worth's is the better book, more persuasive, less agenda-driven. His account of Moore's family life gives more prominence to the naval pastor brother and the close ties between the two. And Molesworth says that, even though Moore never married, she remained open to the possibility of marriage, noting that she told the engraver to leave space for a possible husband next to her name on her tombstone after her mother's death (she is buried at Gettysburg next to her mother). Moore was then already sixty.

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