Calm Sea and Pros­per­ous Voy­age: Select­ed Stories

  • Review
By – August 19, 2019

Most of the press around Bette Howland’s sto­ry col­lec­tion Calm Sea and Pros­per­ous Voy­age has focused on its amaz­ing pub­li­ca­tion sto­ry: How­land, born to a work­ing-class Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Chica­go in 1937, mentee and on-off lover of Saul Bel­low, author of three books and win­ner of the MacAu­r­ther genius” grant who nev­er wrote a book again. In 2015, Brigid Hugh­es of the mag­a­zine A Pub­lic Space found a worn copy of Howland’s mem­oir W‑3 at a used book­store. Hugh­es sought out the rest of Howland’s work, even­tu­al­ly meet­ing her son and the ail­ing, now deceased, How­land her­self. They pre­sent­ed Hugh­es with a trea­sure trove of cor­re­spon­dence with Bel­low and unpub­lished work, some of which is now fea­tured in Calm Sea. A Pub­lic Space devel­oped a press just to pub­lish the collection.

This sto­ry is excit­ing and time­ly, giv­en society’s increased inter­est in erased, mar­gin­al­ized voic­es through­out his­to­ry. But to always read How­land as the voice of a long-lost” woman dimin­ish­es the astound­ing achieve­ment in pierc­ing, evoca­tive writ­ing that is the collection.

Calm Sea and Pros­per­ous Voy­age is a book to be savored. Howland’s not­ed arrhyth­mi­cal writ­ing is dense with bit­ing, humor­ous obser­va­tions, can­ny emo­tions, and apt Chica­go dialec­tic con­ver­sa­tion. It resists quick, sur­face-lev­el reads. Like a deca­dent dessert, it should be held on the tongue, rel­ished, dis­sect­ed for its dif­fer­ent notes: the pain, the love, the honesty.

Many of the sto­ries are auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal. These first-per­son pieces chron­i­cle a work­ing-class Chica­go Jew­ish fam­i­ly through big moments — wed­dings, funer­als — from the per­spec­tive of Howland’s eter­nal­ly obser­vant, sen­si­tive, stand-in. Like How­land, she is a divorced moth­er and, as such, she feels that her fam­i­ly is dis­ap­point­ed in her. The sep­a­ra­tion between moth­ers and daugh­ters seems inevitable and fun­da­men­tal. The nar­ra­tor has a dis­turb­ing dream in which she can­not recall rais­ing the daugh­ter she nev­er had; a Ger­man land­la­dy imag­ines an ever-crit­i­cal moth­er-in-law in the attic. It is as impos­si­ble for moth­ers and daugh­ters to con­nect as it is for the Yid­dish-speak­ing bubbe to talk with the Eng­lish-speak­ing sec­ond gen­er­a­tion. These char­ac­ters search for and imag­ine rela­tion­ships that will give their lives order and sense, if not make them whole.

Howland’s char­ac­ters grope in the shad­ows, search­ing for under­stand­ing among oth­ers. This dis­tance and striv­ing illu­mi­nates the soul­ful por­trait of 1970s Chica­go that, thanks to its obser­va­tions on race, crime, and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, could just as eas­i­ly depict Amer­i­ca today. Howland’s alter-ego rides the bus­es of the South Side. I’ve got to stop react­ing to peo­ple accord­ing to col­or … Try it walk­ing down the street some night. It’s a reflex. Every­one is becom­ing con­di­tioned,” she writes, a white, Jew­ish woman becom­ing new­ly aware of her inter­nal, unin­ten­tion­al, racism.

Oth­er sto­ries depict, with almost painful thought­ful­ness, tri­als between black defen­dants and white juries and a small pub­lic library branch where the poor and elder­ly spend their days. Let us speak frankly,” she writes. Where are peo­ple to go? Peo­ple, I mean, who have no place to go. There are no clean well-light­ed places.”

Whether she’s speak­ing of the elder­ly, dis­placed peo­ple of col­or, dias­poric Jews, estranged chil­dren, or the new­ly dead, How­land doesn’t pro­vide an answer. But she seems to sug­gest that there is val­ue, and poten­tial for learn­ing, in the search.

Giv­en Howland’s rich themes and dia­mond-like prose, sparkling and sharp, the amaz­ing thing is not that her work was redis­cov­ered, or that such a tal­ent didn’t pub­lish more after win­ning the MacArthur; it’s how such work could have ever gone out of print, how it wasn’t can­on­ized from the very beginning.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

Discussion Questions