When I mentioned Bette Howland, who died in 2017 at age 80, her three books out of print, a writer friend who has read everything snapped “never heard of her.”
To situate Howland, I began to talk about the most gossipy part of her story—the part I had gravitated to since I first read about her in the journal A Public Space in 2015— about her life changing when she met Saul Bellow at a writers’ conference in 1961. She was 24 and he was 49; she was unpublished and he belonged to literature.
It is easy to sniff at their affair, especially in the #MeToo era, as an older writer preying on a vulnerable young woman. But it was more than that, as these tangles almost always are. Howland and Bellow shared many things, including last names that were synonyms for yelling: I like to imagine that they had pillow talk about that. They both had “opposition” in them, as Einhorn observes that Augie March does in Bellow’s groundbreaking 1953 novel, although I have found that most people better tolerate that quality in men. And their early biographies are strikingly similar: Both grew up working-class Jewish families in Chicago, defied their parents to become writers, attended the University of Chicago (Bellow for one year), married early, had children, and divorced.
Still, differences and distances overwhelmed them, and the liaison fell apart. According to Howland, it was over practically immediately, but Zachary Leader, Bellow’s most recent biographer, suggests it endured for a number of years. Or at least Howland’s feelings for Bellow did. But what is agreed upon is that the pair remained friends until Bellow’s death in 2005, reading each others’ manuscripts and looking after each other, in their ways. Long before then, Howland vanished as a writer.
The special issue of A Public Space where I first read about Howland was devoted to “lost” women writers and artists, and published a cache of her nonfiction stories, criticism, and letters to her from Bellow, most during the 1960s and ’70s. There were also snapshots of a dish (which contrast with descriptions I had read of her as “stocky” and “pockmarked”) and an affectionate essay by her son, Jacob Howland, a professor of philosophy.
Howland sparked the issue. Brigid Hughes, the editor of A Public Space, stumbled across W-3, the Chicago writer’s 1974 memoir of her time in the psych ward after a suicide attempt, on the $1 table at the New York bookstore Housing Works. Now, in the shadow of #MeToo, Hughes has continued her project of trying to make a lost writer unlost. Under the title Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, she has collected Howland’s eponymous novella, her best stories, and excavated one new work. In doing so, she has set the stage for a new conversation about how sexism obscured a brilliant 20th-century Jewish American woman writer.
On paper, Howland seems deserving of all the new attention. She wrote one memoir, two short-story collections, and criticism, mostly for Commentary magazine. Her books received good reviews and she was awarded both Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. After the MacArthur, she mostly stopped writing fiction.
A Public Space treats Howland’s slide to obscurity as a social tragedy. And certainly it’s easy to blame sexism. While Bellow caroused, she felt shame about her divorce. “No one ever asks me much,” she writes in her nonfiction story “Blue in Chicago.” While Bellow left his children with his wives, Howland was encumbered with her young sons, dragging them from one apartment to another.
According to Zachary Leader, Howland’s suicide attempt in 1967 may have been a response to Bellow’s attempt to end the relationship. In general, it’s a mistake to conflate the writer and the narrator but since Howland, like Bellow, draws from her autobiography, when she writes in W-3, “I couldn’t take it any longer. I couldn’t bear this burden of concealment,” is it not possible that she might be suffering from love?
Still, I am reluctant to paint Howland as a victim of her onetime lover—or the patriarchy. After the early passion waned, Bellow seems to have been devoted to his friend, nursing her after a gruesome treatment (which he paid for) for her acne. He fictionalizes this incident in More Die of Heartbreak, where he models Dita Schwartz after her, but is that wrong? It is what writers do. Bellow got W-3 published with Viking. He found Howland jobs and housing, sometimes at his apartment when he was away. He secured her admission to the Committee for Social Thought, the University of Chicago’s most prestigious program, which he was chair of for 32 years. He even tried to get her employed there, much to the consternation of certain snobbish professors.
Besides, this essay isn’t a trial of Bellow (and even if it were, I am not a prosecutor, although I certainly think crimes have been committed). But you could say that he saved Howland from her Chicago shtetl and post-marital blues. It also seems wrong to blame Bellow for the fact that after the breakup, while his exile from Chicago included Bellagio, hers included a remote island in Maine and a farm in Pennsylvania. He was ravished by the world, she lived like a monk. I guess some people would blame the patriarchy. Some people would ask why I’m comparing these two writers in the first place. But all I can really do here is ask the universe: Could whoever is in charge of distributing the ravishing and the monkishness redistribute them?
Actually, ravishment is an issue in a lot of ways. I don’t see any glimmer of it in Howland’s work, which, as her son writes, is mostly about “the indescribable metaphysical bleakness of life in Chicago.” The best of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage describes that city. My favorite story, “Blue in Chicago,” remains among the most accurate descriptions of Hyde Park’s siege mentality that I have read. “You always want to know how close these things come to you,” the narrator begins, describing the shooting of a graduate student. Howland’s cold evocation of that South Side neighborhood only serves to more brilliantly illuminate the sadness she feels when trapped with her sulky Jewish relatives at a wedding. She has nowhere to go.
Like Bellow’s work, Howland’s can be a kind of anti-Chicago autobiography. Her nonfiction stories are granular investigations into homely institutions like the public library, the courthouse, and the eccentrics who jostle around in them. I liked these stories, though I found them hard to read. I found myself doing the thing you’re not supposed to do as a critic: comparing her grimly comic characters, stuck in their ghettos or meaty, unsatisfying pasts, with ebullient, sexed-up Bellowian heroes. Sometimes Howland unleashes a sly humor, but the stories are not picaresque. They stall.
Set in a summer cabin on Lake Michigan, “Aronesti” follows the sad musings of the lonely title character preoccupying himself with nuisances—“bits fell on the pages, bits of what he did not know”—to forget happier times. A rare story set outside of Chicago, “German Lessons,” ends with a semitough American woman being haunted by a ghastly mother-in-law. The epistolary novella, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, loosely based on the death of Howland’s late-life lover, a philosophy professor who was also her son’s mentor, is an homage to Bellow’s ecstatic mingling of mythology, reality, and philosophy. It wraps up as it started, at a funeral.
Just as it is unfair to compare the lives, it is unfair to put Howland’s slim, at times airless oeuvre against Bellow’s overly rich, at times irritatingly kinetic one. But I’m doing it because it’s impossible for me not to wonder if her characters lack the drive of Bellow’s because of her gender. If her frequent invisibility as a narrator (unlike Bellow’s “I am everywhere” shtick) is because she was a woman. A feminist theorist might say she erased herself.
I pored over her books, looking for rare confessional moments, such as this one from W-3, her memoir about the psych ward, where she turns herself inside out:
For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin—real life. but there was always some obstacle in the way. Something to be got through first, some unfinished business; time still to be served, a debt to be paid. then life could begin. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. I was always rolling these stones from my grave.
And I seized on this writer confession, her intimacy, with despair.
Just as I read eagerly the cache of Bellow’s letters and postcards that A Public Space reprinted. “Jews remind me of you,” he writes. “Make use of your unhappiness. I do,” he writes. The word “friend” appears many times. After 1970, the letters taper off, although he does praise “German Lessons.”
I’m interested in A Public Space’s efforts to tell the story of Howland’s life and to do justice to her work. But I also want more. And part of me feels that it’s too late for her and part of me is mad at how little things have changed.
I’m younger than Howland by three decades and I come from a completely different milieu, but growing up, and, as a young woman, and wanting to be a writer, I felt invisible too.
My editor writes me a note about this piece:
How do you imagine that Howland’s work might have contributed to the self-awareness of your younger self? As a negative example—as a warning about becoming subsumed in others? As a positive example? Something more specific? Reading this, we’re not entirely sure yet.
I’m not entirely sure either. Part of me wonders if I had known about Howland, even with her flaws, when I was younger, I would have been less inconsolable. If I had seen her on the bookshelf or in a bookstore. If I had read the last paragraph in “Blue in Chicago” where, looking at her brutish uncle Rudy, about whom she writes, “Rudy and I are both outsiders. Out of the mainstream. … It always feels depleting to make these discoveries.”
I remember as a teenager, trying to figure out who I was as a writer, feeling like I was vanishing all the time. I remember reading My Name Is Asher Lev—who knows why that was on my parents’ bookshelf—but there was not enough in there to stop me from screaming and raging.
Reading Howland might have beat back the feeling of hopelessness, at least a little. It might have made me feel like I had a chance to discover who I was apart from my well-meaning family before the world swept in. Reading her and reading about her might have protected me from their disappointment that I would never accomplish what they had imagined. So, this in the end is the reason to republish her, even when so much remains mysterious. For some young female writer, trying to figure it out.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicately that Howland’s letters were not printed in A Public Space.