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A prosperous return

The rediscovery of Bette Howland

The life and legacy of Bette Howland is “a case study for the movement of honoring women writers whose work has been erased.”

Several years ago, Brigid Hughes—founder and editor of the Brooklyn-based literary journal, A Public Space—had a chance encounter that would send her reaching into the past, emerging with a treasure for the future.

“At a used bookstore in New York City, I came across a copy of a book called W-3 on the one-dollar cart,” Hughes said. “It had this striking black and neon green cover, and a blurb from Saul Bellow. I opened a page at random and was enthralled. We looked for more information about the author, and Google though we may, could find very little. That such a gifted writer had been so forgotten seemed both a puzzle and an injustice.”

What was lost, and what was found—after a long hunt that led Hughes and her team to the author’s son, Jacob Howland, a professor of philosophy at the University of Tulsa, who replied the next day via email—turned out to be a safe-deposit box full of unpublished stories and letters by the late Bette Howland, a woman whose personal and literary history was as riveting as her writing.

A Public Space has been around since 2006, but until this year had never published a book. Taking the place of honor as the first work in its new imprint line is Bette Howland’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, a collection of grittily-detailed, tender-hearted, uncompromising stories of mid-century life in Chicago that are, in Hughes’ words, “singular and memorable and absolutely original.”

“Her story is a case study for the movement of honoring women writers whose work has been erased,” Hughes said.

Born in 1937, Howland—the first in her working-class Jewish family to go to college—attended and taught at the prestigious Committee on Social Thought and earned her MFA from the creative writing program at the University of Iowa. “I don’t know whether she would say that she learned a lot from the guys at Iowa,” Jacob Howland said with a laugh. Her gift for writing was her own.

A single, divorced mother of two sons, as familiar with poverty as she was with prose, she published three books between 1974 and 1983, and in 1984 received the MacArthur Award (also known as the “genius grant”), after which she published very little, according to her son, feeling a pressure of expectation that was perhaps too much for a woman who had been so little encouraged in her work up to that point.

One person who certainly did encourage her was Bellow, one of the 20th-century’s great fiction writers. They met in 1961 and became lifelong friends and literary compatriots. Bellow wrote recommendations for Howland when she wanted to get into writer’s retreats to work on her books. She, her son recalled, once offered some criticisms on a draft of Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet that made the author so angry he stormed out of the house.

“To the extent that he could, Bellow helped to make a place for her in American letters,” Jacob Howland said. “And she was always proud of helping him improve that book. People say she was a protege of Bellow, but she doesn’t need any qualifications. The sheer excellence of her writing is the biggest reason for this renaissance.”

And the writing is extraordinary: both dream-like and hyper-real, experimental and classical, the product of a prodigious mythopoetic imagination and a visceral attention to the facts of downtroddenness and heartbreak. Her late story “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage”—described by her son as “the story of a man named Victor Lazarus, either a Greek tragedy or just bad Jewish luck”—is a wildly contemporary feat of layering, where quotations from scripture lie alongside Chicago colloquialisms and descriptions of characters’ interior lives that would have made David Foster Wallace genuflect. For Howland, the vocation of the writer was a moral one. Her favorite word, her son told me, was “ardor.”

Bette Howland died in Tulsa in 2017, having moved from her native Chicago to be cared for during her final years, and it’s from here that her work has been born again. Though Hughes (who, earlier in her career, edited The Paris Review, the first woman ever to do so) never got to talk with the author while preparing the forthcoming book, she said she took guidance from an interview with her from the 1980s.

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” Howland said there. “And any separate chapter has more power when read with the rest, as part of the book. I had no theme. I was just interested in my characters and in their place. You see, everything about writing is intuitive and intentional at the same time.”

“I wanted to honor that,” Hughes said. “I also wanted the book to span her career. ‘Aronesti’ was her first published story. The opening story, ‘A Visit,’ was one of the pieces Jacob sent in that first email. And we knew we wanted ‘Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,’ a masterpiece, as the finale; to end the book with that beautiful last line: ‘It’s all over—and it’s only the beginning.’”

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage by Bette Howland
with Dr. Jacob Howland and special guests from Belletrist and A Public Space
IDL Ballroom, May 7, magiccitybooks.com

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