A Manifesto of the Modernist as a Young Woman
I first read American modernist Margery Latimer (1899-1932) in my twenties, when I was working on my Ph.D. in literature. Researching her husband, Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, I stumbled across Latimer’s work and immediately fell in love with her gorgeous, weird, difficult fiction. Abandoning my sensible plan to write a dissertation on canonical modernists, I devoted myself to Latimer’s novels and short stories, and I never looked back.
Manifestoes of modernism abound—futurist manifestoes, surrealist manifestoes, dadaist manifestoes—but scholars have found almost no modernist manifestoes authored by women, so I was stunned to discover Latimer’s flash essay “The New Freedom.” Published in The Reviewer in 1924 and a mere two pages long, “The New Freedom” offers a quirky call to rebellion. Playful and witty, Latimer’s essay nonetheless carves a serious way forward for a young writer who went on to publish in the same high modernist venues as Faulkner, Stein, and Joyce. Perhaps most importantly for a young female writer determined to break ground, it genders the conflict between old and new, casting women as potential literary progenitors.
Latimer’s modest proposal for the new writing opens wittily, its form echoing its content: “Everyone knows the sort of person who tells you to break up your thoughts with commas and semicolons instead of periods. And who bewails the ignorance of modern writers.” It then goes on to code its call for rebellion in gendered terms: “But have you met the man who sends out waving roars from defiant lips because you have murdered a word? You must meet him. Then you will want to keep on murdering words. It will become your favorite pastime.” Latimer casts literary convention as a cranky man who bellows and roars his authority, a tyrannical traditionalist of the English language who “wants you to wilt but you must not.” She urges experimental writers to ignore the polite, conventional inhibitions of their “lovely white soul[s]” (anticipating Daisy Buchanan’s mockery of her “white girlhood” in The Great Gatsby a year later) and to take heart, for “you are contributing to the race of words and he is only repeating. So you are more important than he is.”
To say, “you are more important than he is,” in the early years of the twentieth century was to make a bold claim, because while Latimer portrays literary convention as male, her emphasis on reproduction as a metaphor for literary creativity, together with her use of second-person address, opens space to construct her reader—that is, the fellow experimental writer—as potentially female. She depicts literary traditionalists as controlling eugenicists: “Now you are free to add to the race of words as rapidly as you please. . . . Don’t let anyone stop you! Down with birth control!” Resisting controls of all sorts, Latimer’s essay encourages young writers like herself to ignore the dictates of convention and create fresh forms.
In Latimer’s extended metaphor, the word is made flesh, and it is flesh with a mind of its own, infused with the possibility of change: “If you have ever watched a word put on its hat and walk down your tongue out into the world you will always want it to do as it pleases. . . . And now your words will make their own streets and cities and worlds.” Latimer’s essay offers a liberatory vision of literature, inflected with the utopian courage of the new. “Here,” promises her narrator, “is ecstasy.”
“The New Freedom” broke fresh ground. Five years would pass before Virginia Woolf would publish—again employing the essay form—the most famous feminist literary manifesto we have, A Room of One’s Own. Yet Latimer’s essay anticipates core issues of Woolf’s work, such as affirming innovation in the face of old patriarchal forms of linguistic and literary authority.
Latimer wrote against long odds. She was neither wealthy nor pedigreed; she struggled financially, supporting herself with clerical work and review-writing; she was an outspoken white anti-racist who first lived with Jewish poet and noir novelist Kenneth Fearing and then provoked a nationwide anti-miscegenation scandal by marrying Jean Toomer. Despite comparisons to D.H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield by contemporary reviewers, her reputation has largely disappeared since her early death in childbirth.
Yet in “The New Freedom,” she offered a bold script for experimental writers to follow: “One word that I create myself is worth more to me than all the others that have previously been created.”
As a young woman, using the medium of the very short essay, Latimer imagined her way forward into a future of literary achievement. “The New Freedom” provides the invention of possibility, complicating our notions of modernism, women’s literature, and American literary history.
Joy Castro is the author of The Truth Book: A Memoir and the collection of essays Island of Bones, as well as the literary thrillers Hell or High Water and Nearer Home. Her edited collection Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family, will appear in September from University of Nebraska Press. She teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Follow her on Twitter at @_JoyCastro. [website]
And if you're interested in her longer essay on Latimer that appeared in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, here's a link to a pdf via Castro's website.