Essays and Reviews

I Await The Devil’s Friend Request: On Social Media and Mary MacLane

By posted at 6:00 am on March 29, 2013 15

1.
coverWe live in a performative age. This is an era when restaurants have had to adopt formal camera policies, because so many diners persist in taking pictures of their meals on their iPhones to post online. On any given day, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are filled with self-portraits: This is my new haircut. This is my new shirt. This is the face I make when I wish to convey that I am wry and self-aware, and this is my confident, I-can-take-on-the-world grin. Or details of lives, broadcast to the world: This is my dinner. This is my cat. This is how I feel at this moment. Look, I made a pie! Etc. “All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women merely players,” but it seems to me that only the first half of this statement remains true. The conventions of social media encourage us to see ourselves not as players in a larger drama, per se, but as the stars of our own individual reality shows.

There are moments when I love social media. There are other moments, actually a lot of moments, when I question how much of my finite life I want to spend on the Internet. In the plus column, I’ve met some wonderful people via social media, including a few who I’d count among my dearest friends. It’s an easy way to keep in touch with my siblings, who are as phone shy as I am and live 3,000 miles away. There are people who use social media in interesting ways. The conversations are occasionally good.

But I’ve been a sporadic and somewhat ambivalent participant of late. Long periods of time go by when I post almost nothing of my own and only respond to other people’s updates, because what it comes down to, I think, is that either you have an instinct for broadcasting your life on the Internet, or you don’t. It’s not that I find my life uninteresting, it’s just that I’m not at all sure why anyone else would be interested, aside from my mom. I keep a sporadic diary, because I want to remember my life, but I have a hard time imagining why I’d want to display that life for public consumption. I deeply value my privacy.

Mary MacLane, on the other hand, would have been a natural. Mary MacLane’s enthusiasm for broadcasting her life to the world was unparalleled in her time. Her staggeringly self-obsessed first book, I Await The Devil’s Coming, was published in 1902, and, as I read it, I found myself thinking that this was a woman who was temperamentally perfectly suited to the social media age. And then, a week later, I read Emily Gould’s excellent introduction to Melville House’s new e-book edition of I, Mary MacLane, the book that followed a few years later, and Gould said more or less the same thing. So much for my original insight.

But in any case, these are the facts: Mary MacLane’s main interest was herself, she found it necessary to exhaustively explore her own personality, and it wasn’t enough to write to herself in the pages of a diary. She required an audience. The audience, it turns out, was waiting for her. I Await The Devil’s Coming, originally published under the more sedate title The Story of Mary MacLane, sold 100,000 copies in its first month.

2.
I Await The Devil’s Coming is a peculiar and fascinating piece of work. At the time of writing, Mary MacLane was an intellectually frustrated, profoundly restless 19 year old living a middle-class life with her family in Butte, Montana. Little was expected of her. The days passed slowly. High school was finished, and college didn’t seem to be part of anyone’s plan. She did a little light sewing, she wrote in her notebook, she read, she went on long walks. She was unbearably lonely.

She seems to have been unable to relate to anyone in her family, or even in Butte, and felt like a foreigner among them. She alludes to a miserable, loveless childhood. She has one friend and one friend only, referred to throughout as the Anemone Lady. She is in love with the Anemone Lady, but the Anemone Lady has left town. “My life,” MacLane wrote, “is a desert — a desert, but the thin, clinging perfume of the blue anemone reaches to its utter confines. And nothing in the desert is the same because of that perfume. Years will not fade the blue of the anemone, nor a thousand bitter winds blow away the rare fragrance.”

The Anemone Lady, she wrote, offered her the first and only glimpse of love she’d experienced in her life. She fantasized about meeting and marrying the Devil, although it isn’t entirely clear to me whether she actually believed the Devil exists, or if this was more of a vague desire to be rescued combined with an instinct for shock value. Regardless, the overall impression is of a young woman driven half-mad by loneliness and boredom. “My life lies fallow,” she wrote. “I am tired of sitting here.” MacLane called this book “the record of three months of Nothingness.”

Those three months are very much like the three months that preceded them, to be sure, and the three that followed them — and like all the months that have come and gone with me, since time was. There is never anything different; nothing ever happens.

In that nothingness, she wandered the plains outside Butte, and her descriptions of that spare landscape contain some of the most beautiful language in the book. When she could focus on subjects other than herself, she was capable of sublime prose.

It was rare, though, for her to focus on subjects other than herself. Mary MacLane’s primary interest was Mary MacLane. But she was extremely self-aware, and there are moments when she seems to recognize the corrosive potential of her self-absorption: “If I were not so unceasingly engrossed with my sense of misery and loneliness,” she wrote, “my mind would produce beautiful, wonderful logic. I am a genius — a genius — a genius.” It’s a startlingly candid admission: If I weren’t so engrossed with myself, I could accomplish greater things. 

3.
It’s a slippery thing, genius. The above quote isn’t an anomaly. In I Await The Devil’s Coming, MacLane informs us that she’s a genius again and again, until the question becomes unavoidable: okay, sure, but a genius at what? MacLane was a good but not transcendently gifted writer. (There’s something underdeveloped about her writing. There are glimpses, here and there, of what she might have been capable of if she’d been more interested in writing about subjects other than herself; if perhaps she’d lived a little longer, if some editor had perhaps taken an interest and redirected her talents; if she hadn’t been quite so cripplingly self-obsessed.) Her genius didn’t lie in any other obviously identifiable fields: she wasn’t developing new mathematical theorums, composing symphonies, or elucidating groundbreaking philosophical ideas. She was prone to curious leaps of logic: “A genius who does not know that he is a genius is no genius,” she wrote.

coverJust after I read I Await The Devil’s Coming, I read Savage BeautyNancy Milford’s exquisite biography of the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. There are certain similarities between the two women. They were more or less contemporaries — MacLane was born in 1881, Millay in 1892 — and neither had much interest in living within the constraints of societal convention. At 18 and 19, Millay, too, was writing about an imaginary consort in the pages of her diary, and living a life shot through with desperation in Camden, Maine: “Sweep the floor,” Millay wrote at 19, “and sweep it again tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and the day after that and every day of your life; — if not that floor, why then — some other floor.” This is MacLane’s territory, these endless interchangeable days, this narrow life.

Both Millay and MacLane were sprung into new lives by works written at 19. Millay wrote a magnificent long poem, “Renascence,” that propelled her to Vassar and then a new life in New York, while the wild success of I Await The Devil’s Coming gained MacLane the fame she craved and enough money to escape Butte. Both women were bisexual, took many lovers, passed through Greenwich Village a few years apart, and lived bold and unconventional lives.

It’s important to note that MacLane made no claim to literary genius, but reading Savage Beauty and I Await The Devil’s Coming back to back throws one of the difficulties of MacLane’s work into sharp relief: one can’t help but notice that while MacLane was busy declaring herself a genius, certain other people were busy actually being geniuses without spending too much time announcing it.

But as the nature of MacLane’s “genius” is gradually revealed, there’s something deeply poignant about it. MacLane was excruciatingly sensitive. “I am not good,” she wrote. “I am not virtuous. I am not sympathetic. I am not generous. I am merely and above all a creature of intense passionate feeling. I feel — everything. It is my genius. It burns me like fire.”

That year, she stood watching the sunset in the landscape outside Butte and let her mind wander to a daydream of standing by the sea: “I stood on the shore and looked at the rocks. My heart contracted with the pain that beautiful things bring.” Against the beauty and pain and loneliness of her life, of the world, she had no armor. She barely had skin.

She was driven by a fervent longing. She wrote, “My wailing, waiting soul burns with but one desire: to be loved — oh, to be loved.”

4.
MacLane was condemned and widely mocked for her immodesty, her self-stated lack of morals, and her open self-absorption, but I Await The Devil’s Coming turned her into an overnight sensation. It turned out there was a vast audience waiting for confessional writing, before confessional writing existed.

MacLane specifically wanted fame. She longed to be seen. As Emily Gould notes, she would have been a Tumblr and YouTube star. I’ll take this a step further and suggest that MacLane was someone who might have benefited immensely from the existence of the Internet, a person who might have been shaped, for the better, by the exposure to a wider world that the Internet can provide to isolated people. MacLane was cursed with a certain narrowness of imagination: she could summon up an imaginary Devil in perfect detail — the look in his eye, his tone of voice, the cut of his suit — but at 19 she couldn’t conceive that in all of this vast world, very little of which she’d actually seen, there could possibly be anyone remotely like her.

In a 1986 article about confessional writing in The New York Times, Patricia Hampl made reference to MacLane’s “repellent self-absorption.” I find myself repelled too, but also I am fascinated. MacLane was an original. I Await The Devil’s Coming is frequently irritating, but it’s also audacious. This was an era when women were expected to be modest to the point of invisibility, to all but disappear into the wallpaper, and MacLane refused. The new Melville House edition of her first book has gained considerable traction, including a recent long excerpt on The New Yorker website. I find myself wondering if what seemed repellently self-involved when Hampl wrote that article in 1986 seems merely mildly eccentric in the social media age. We expect self-involvement in the social media age; we are, after all, publishing photographs of what we had for breakfast. The only eccentricity is in openly declaring one’s own genius.

“But I would give up this genius eagerly,” MacLane wrote, “gladly — at once and forever — for one dear, bright day free from loneliness.”





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15 Responses to “I Await The Devil’s Friend Request: On Social Media and Mary MacLane”

  1. Michael R. Brown
    at 10:57 am on March 29, 2013

    What she began in 1901 in Butte – I have stood in the bedroom of the abandoned house where she wrote those fired sentences – is only now reaching its development. After knowing her work for two and a half decades, it’s high time for the world to know what had passed its way when Mary MacLane blazed through. Here’s one writer who put it well: “[H]ow could we possibly have spoken of Montana a-tall without mention of Mary MacLane? She who streamed across the heavens like a shooting star, so far ahead of these Lucifer matches of young rebels of the present, that they actually think they’re blazing a trail.” – Isabel Paterson, New York Herald-Tribune, 15 Feb 1925.

  2. Bill
    at 5:23 pm on March 29, 2013

    Mary MacLane’s self obsession and unrelenting drive for fame without actually doing anything to justify it makes her sound like Snooki or Paris Hilton with just enough intelligence to express herself with a degree of eloquence.

  3. Kelly Hand
    at 10:35 pm on March 29, 2013

    What I really want to know is how she managed to sell 100,000 copies of her book in one month without the benefit of social media! I’m guessing it had something to do with the sensationalism of fantasizing about the devil. That must have drawn people in who love to judge excess! I love the connection you make here between confessional writing and social media sharing. I too am ambivalent about it all, yet it’s compelling also. What concerns me is that in reading online material, I have less time for reading books.

  4. This Week in Words – Mar 30 | Treehouse
    at 7:06 am on March 30, 2013

    [...] The Millions, Emily St. John Mandel considers this age of social media and early 20th century writers who might have fared well with a Twitter [...]

  5. Just stop and look at the jellyfish: On the instinct for broadcasting your life online | woodtang.com
    at 11:09 am on March 30, 2013

    [...] the Millions yesterday, Emily St. John Mandel writes about Mary MacLane, a lonely, would-be socialite from Montana whose 1902 book “I Await [...]

  6. Michael R. Brown
    at 7:31 pm on March 30, 2013

    @Kelly Hand: In some respects she did have social media, of the time: the newspapers and wire services. Her publisher Herbert Stone’s father ran the AP, and Stone & Co. sent out huge samples of the advance sheets and had the book run as a *news* story. (That’s a publisher’s dream to this day and still one of the best tactics for finding a good sales: news versus a sales pitch.) The papers ran some very long excerpts and that built the sensation into a self-reinforcing whirlwind. Somewhat as we see happening now with the MM rediscovery.

  7. Michael R. Brown
    at 7:33 pm on March 30, 2013

    @Bill – You should read her first book – it’s available (like her other two) for free on Google Books and Archive dot org. She had a lot more going on than you’re thinking. Some of us have known of her for decades and still draw refreshment from her. Don’t shortchange the Mac!

  8. Judy Krueger
    at 1:29 pm on April 1, 2013

    Very thought provoking stuff here. It makes me think of a word I always have to look up because the meaning just won’t stick in my mind: solipsism, which is being purported lately to be the trouble with our current age. Sometimes I like to take the long look. For centuries, the inner life of a woman was not to be spoken of. Just shut up, submit, and obey. Know your place and your role. When I fell in love with Edna St Vincent Millay at the age of 13, it was because she was telling me about her inner life in published form! Next for me came Joni Mitchell, early female confessional songwriter. Now any female can reveal what goes on in her life and her mind and her emotional state. It is an avalanche. Probably a balance will come. I am speaking from a female viewpoint because MacLane and Millay were female. Don’t you think guys behave differently on FB than females?

  9. Bill
    at 3:58 pm on April 1, 2013

    @ Judy Krueger – I probably shouldn’t admit that I never read Edna St. Vincent Millay either, especially since I’m the son of an English teacher. But I am familiar with some of Joni Mitchell’s songs. The biggest difference between Joni and the anonymous Facebookers is that Joni, for all her personal details, expressed emotions that were common to nearly anyone. There’s a fine line between making something just personal enough to let the emotion come through and making it all about you. Facebook is so far on the “all about you” side that it’s not even in the same galaxy. And, honestly, guys are not really any different on Facebook than girls are. One particular family member comes to mind for me. He gets drunk and posts his rants about his romantic travails or his job problems. There are a lot of guys who post like he does, only they’re stone sober when they whine about how bad their job sucks or how much they wish they had a girlfriend.

  10. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 4:56 pm on April 1, 2013

    @Judy — I think you make an interesting point. My personal observation has been that there’s no noticeable difference in general solipsism levels (thanks for reminding me that that word exists, btw; it’s perfect!) between men and women on Facebook. However, again in my own entirely non-scientific observation, I’ve noticed that among my more solipsistic FB friends, the women are seemingly much more likely to post a particular kind of photo of themselves: pictures where they’re the subject of the photograph, the “here’s a close-up of me looking pretty” genre. Guys do this too, but less often. It suggests a certain insecurity to me… why would anyone post those photographs, except in the hope that people will Like them?

    (I should just reiterate at this juncture that I’m not talking about all of my Facebook friends here. There are a lot of people who use Facebook in interesting ways.)

  11. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 4:58 pm on April 1, 2013

    @Bill — Seriously, I can’t recommend Savage Beauty highly enough. I hadn’t read a word of Edna St. Vincent Millay before I read that book, and it’s a completely captivating introduction to her life and work.

  12. Michael R. Brown
    at 5:30 pm on April 1, 2013

    @Emily – It affirms the memoirists, or something in them, that a biography is often the richest entry point to a writer. Either a whole bio or going in cold – nothing at all.

  13. Michael R. Brown
    at 5:34 pm on April 1, 2013

    @Emily – Reminds me of a great bit from Bertrand Russell. He wrote somewhere that one day he received a lady from a logician saying that she was a formal solipsist, and that this was a rare position in philosophy. She was, she said, surprised there were no others. “Coming from a logician,” Russell said, “her surprise surprised me.” That always makes me smile.

  14. John eden
    at 5:42 am on April 3, 2013

    i too completed these books. Savage Beauty and I Await The Devil’s Coming, which looks similar and make some controversy among them.

  15. Kim Triedman
    at 4:51 pm on April 3, 2013

    Perhaps she wasn’t made for the social networking generation at all. She would have been drowned out by all the millions of other prima donnas looking for air-time. When one considers what people are willing/needing/dying to tell the world today about their lives in exquisite and often exasperating detail — their families; their fantasies; their dinner — it would seem that MacClane’s grab for fame would have been all but lost in the rubble today…just one more scrap of truncated verbage thrown out into the twittosphere. Perhaps what brought her so much desired attention was that she WAS of her time — she could make noise in a vaccuum.

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