Cour­tesy of the author

Calm Sea and Pros­per­ous Voy­age, a col­lec­tion of sto­ries by Bette How­land — a writer who fad­ed out of the pub­lic eye after her pop­u­lar­i­ty in the 1970s — has recent­ly been pub­lished by A Pub­lic Space. In the fol­low­ing inter­view Brigid Hugh­es, founder and edi­tor of A Pub­lic Space, talks with Howland’s son, Jacob. They dis­cuss Bette Howland’s writ­ing and read­ing habits, her close friend­ship with Saul Bel­low, and ulti­mate­ly her per­spec­tive on the world and how this shaped her work.

This project of bring­ing your moth­er’s work back into print began with the dis­cov­ery of her book, W‑3 in a used book­store. We strug­gled to find any infor­ma­tion about her life or work and then just as we were about to give up, we came across a men­tion of her son Jacob, and emailed you. You wrote back and men­tioned find­ing unpub­lished man­u­scripts and a trove of post­cards and let­ters from Saul Bel­low. What did you think when you found that trove?

I always knew Bette must have kept their cor­re­spon­dence. Last sum­mer, my broth­er Frank found anoth­er trove in a box she’d left at his house. My first thoughts were, this is fas­ci­nat­ing stuff.’ Bel­low was always at the top of his game, even in dash­ing off a postcard.

You quot­ed from one of his let­ters in one of the first emails you sent us: One should cook and eat one’s mis­ery. Chain it like a dog. Har­ness it like Nia­gara Falls to gen­er­ate light and sup­ply volt­age for elec­tric chairs.” It was a mod­el for writ­ing she embraced. You’ve writ­ten that she wrote her­self out of the grave.” How so?

Bel­low wrote those words a few months before Bette’s sui­cide attempt. She must have recalled them while con­fined in the psy­chi­atric ward at Billings Hos­pi­tal, an expe­ri­ence that turned into her first book, W‑3. Writ­ing saved her from being devoured by wild beasts or drowned in a flood of despair. One might say that’s what writ­ing is for.

We pub­lished a port­fo­lio of her let­ters in A Pub­lic Space, and she writes fre­quent­ly to Bel­low about her strug­gles with her work: A doc­tor once told me my semi-paral­y­sis was nick­named, in the pro­fes­sion, perfectionist’s dis­ease.’ I’m not a per­fec­tion­ist!’ I said. That’s my work!’… You see what I’m get­ting at. We have to demand this of our­selves in our work. But you can’t demand it in life. We will make mis­takes, + it will cost.” How did the demands she made of her­self with her writ­ing man­i­fest in life? Why was she so hard on herself?

Bette didn’t suf­fer fools, and she expressed her opin­ions frankly and fierce­ly. She was hard on every­body, not just her­self, yet she often regret­ted her sharp words. She knew she was good, that what she wrote real­ly mat­tered in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture. But she also knew that her sons paid for the time and space she claimed for her­self, and did so dear­ly — by which I mean both heav­i­ly (as chil­dren) and, ulti­mate­ly, with affec­tion and grat­i­tude for her gifts. Bellow’s accom­plish­ments were the stan­dard by which she mea­sured her writ­ing, and that helps to explain why she was so tough on her­self. If you’re going to try to free solo El Cap­i­tan, you’d damn well bet­ter be a perfectionist.

In one of her let­ters to Bel­low, she writes, Feel­ing alone (more so than usu­al) + in truth a lit­tle scared. (It takes a lot of courage to be any­one, any­body; it doesn’t mat­ter who.” What does that mean to you? How do you think about her life and about her work, in terms of that word, courage?

John Stu­art Mill said that most peo­ple do not choose what is cus­tom­ary, in pref­er­ence to what suits their own incli­na­tion. It does not occur to them to have any incli­na­tion, except for what is cus­tom­ary.” Bette chose to be pre­cise­ly and exact­ly her­self. And that takes courage in any age. But she was also a sin­gle, divorced woman work­ing part-time jobs to sup­port two chil­dren. In the 1960s, we lived in dilap­i­dat­ed build­ings in dan­ger­ous Chica­go neigh­bor­hoods. It took courage to pur­sue her dream of a lit­er­ary career in the face of pover­ty, lone­li­ness, and the strong dis­ap­proval of her work­ing-class par­ents, who prob­a­bly nev­er for­gave her for drop­ping out of law school at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. Writ­ers take enor­mous risks — psy­cho­log­i­cal, finan­cial, social — against long odds. Any­one who sticks with it needs courage.

Feel­ing alone (more so than usu­al) + in truth a lit­tle scared. (It takes a lot of courage to be any­one, any­body; it doesn’t mat­ter who.’

How was she in her dai­ly routine?

Bel­low astute­ly wrote to her that she was some­thing between a home­mak­er and a holy anchorite. When you set up your bed, your shop, your shelves of books, you tend to lose all sense of time.” Bette wrote every day, reli­gious­ly. In the morn­ing, hours of non­stop rat-a-tat-tat on the type­writer at one hun­dred words per minute. Then she’d fill the typed pages with inde­ci­pher­able pen­cil short­hand. In the after­noons, she loved to cook. She made her own yoghurt — a sta­ple in our home — and baked hot loaves dai­ly. Her beet borscht was to die for (secret ingre­di­ent: lemon juice). She prac­ticed and taught yoga, and took long walks every day. Even in the last years of her life, four or five miles was noth­ing for her.

You’ve said that her two favorite words were ardor and voca­tion. What did they mean to her?

She was pas­sion­ate­ly drawn toward dis­cov­er­ing the truth and mean­ing of her life, which, in lit­er­a­ture, becomes some­how more uni­ver­sal­ly true and mean­ing­ful than it would oth­er­wise. That’s the ardor part. Voca­tion comes from the Latin vocare, to call. Bel­low cap­tures her sense of being called in his anchorite” com­ment. She was devot­ed in a qua­si-reli­gious way to find­ing words for the grime and grace of every­day existence.

She wrote to Bel­low: Oth­er peo­ple don’t have my habits — true; who would wish my habits on any­body.” And in an aside: It bugs me when they don’t have habits of their own.” I love that wry humor, which is so much a part of every­thing she wrote. What are the qual­i­ties in her writ­ing that most cap­ture her for you?

Bette read very wide­ly — Homer, Durkheim, Freud, you name it — and I’ve recent­ly come to appre­ci­ate how much the intel­lec­tu­al tra­di­tion res­onates in her work. Deeply fun­ny pas­sages com­ple­ment her trag­ic sense that the puz­zles of our lives sim­ply can’t be com­plet­ed — you push one piece into place and anoth­er pops out. But I’m most struck by her aston­ish­ing pow­ers of obser­va­tion, her abil­i­ty to size peo­ple up in soul and body and cap­ture their dis­tin­guish­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics in a few deft strokes.

So much of her writ­ing is set in Chica­go, though she left the city in 1975 and chose to live, for the most part, in very dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments, such as an island in Maine. She told an inter­view­er, This town is one of the great loves of my life. When I lived there, I did­n’t know it. Now that I’m gone, I do.” Why do you think she need­ed that distance?

Inner city Chica­go is a cold, hard place. Bette writes about this in sto­ries like Blue in Chica­go” and Pub­lic Facil­i­ties.” I think it ground her down, and she sought refuge in more iso­lat­ed regions like Albu­querque, a farm in cen­tral Penn­syl­va­nia, a Quon­set hut near the shore of Lake Michi­gan, and an Indi­ana farmhouse.

What books did she read to you when you were little?

She read us Tolstoy’s short sto­ries. When I was around six and my broth­er was sev­en, she read us How Much Land Does a Man Need?,” but we had to go to bed before the end. Frank got up and read the rest to me the next morn­ing. She intro­duced us to Isaac Babel and I. B. Singer. She gave me a copy of Richard Wright’s Black Boy when I was around ten years old. This book had an enor­mous impact on my life. His attempt to wring a mean­ing from mean­ing­less suf­fer­ing” described what I saw my moth­er doing every day. She want­ed us to expe­ri­ence the full range of cul­ture. She would take us to con­certs in the park, the Art Insti­tute, and plays at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. We used to go to the Clark The­ater and watch films. (Bette had a big poster of Clint East­wood, in a pon­cho and with a cig­a­r­il­lo dan­gling from his mouth.)

Did you ever talk with her about her writing?

Bette was always hes­i­tant to share work in progress. I learned at about age fif­teen not to be too crit­i­cal of her writ­ing. Look­ing back, I can’t imag­ine what I might have object­ed to!

How has your under­stand­ing of her work changed, with the dis­tance of years?

I didn’t read her work until W‑3 was pub­lished. For some rea­son, it was Blue in Chica­go that made the biggest impres­sion on me, maybe because I was nine­teen by then and rea­son­ably capa­ble of under­stand­ing just how good her work real­ly is. But as you know, I think her novel­la Calm Sea, first pub­lished in Tri­Quar­ter­ly (1999), is her mas­ter­work. Reread­ing that work recent­ly, I real­ized that my mother’s writ­ing isn’t just very, very good. It’s great. It deserves to be taught in uni­ver­si­ties and stud­ied by pro­fes­sors of lit­er­a­ture. I think she’d get a good laugh at what lit­er­ary crit­ics in the acad­e­my might write about her.

For some rea­son, it was Blue in Chica­go that made the biggest impres­sion on me, maybe because I was nine­teen by then and rea­son­ably capa­ble of under­stand­ing just how good her work real­ly is.

What do you remem­ber of her rela­tion­ship with Bel­low? What isn’t in the let­ters that is impor­tant to under­stand­ing their relationship?

Bel­low used to come over to Bette’s apart­ment and we’d play with Adam and Daniel while they read their man­u­scripts to one anoth­er. Frank remind­ed me of the time Bel­low read from a draft of Mr. Sammler’s Plan­et and she crit­i­cized it and he left in a huff. But Bette was always proud of help­ing him to improve that book — one of my favorite Bel­low novels.

Apart from Saul Bel­low, who were some of the writ­ers who meant the most to her? In one of her let­ters, she men­tions work­ing on a the­sis about Hen­ry James. You read the Ili­ad to her at the end of her life, when she was suf­fer­ing from demen­tia, which she loved.

She felt a deep con­nec­tion to Chica­go writ­ers like Dreis­er, Richard Wright, and James T. Far­rell. She loved An Amer­i­can Tragedy, Sis­ter Car­rie, Native Son, Black Boy, Studs Loni­gan, James Fen­i­more Coop­er, Huck­le­ber­ry Finn, Dos­toyevsky, Tol­stoy, The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Ben­venu­to Celli­ni, The Edu­ca­tion of Hen­ry Adams, Lord Jim, Stephen Crane, Faulkn­er, Arnow’s The Doll­mak­er, Hen­ry James (espe­cial­ly Por­trait of a Lady), Hen­ry Roth’s Call it Sleep. Roth and his wife were good friends. Late in life she began to study the Hebrew Scrip­tures, and she pub­lished in this area as well. In terms of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, she high­ly val­ued Erich Auerbach’s Mime­sis and D.H. Lawrence’s Stud­ies in Clas­sic Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture.

Could you talk about her novel­la Calm Sea and Pros­per­ous Voy­age”? As with much of her writ­ing, it tells a sto­ry from her own life and in this case, a rela­tion­ship with a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor, who was also your mentor.

Right. The fic­tion­al pro­tag­o­nist of Vic­tor Lazarus resem­bles my first teacher of phi­los­o­phy and dear friend, who died at forty-sev­en. Calm Sea” recounts the last days of the narrator’s for­mer lover, Vic­tor Lazarus, a bril­liant, alco­holic philoso­pher and schol­ar of Torah and Logos, hound­ed even on his deathbed by his ex-wife, a fren­zied orphan of the Holo­caust. Vic­tor is a poi­soned Socrates or a vic­tim of Jew­ish fate, his ex-wife a Fury or a dyb­buk, his sto­ry a Greek tragedy or a Hasidic tale. The novel­la leaves us won­der­ing, to bor­row Victor’s words, whether the sheer con­so­la­tions of Myth” real­ly do, in the end, exceed the mourn­ful con­tin­gen­cies of the True.”

Brigid Hugh­es is the found­ing edi­tor of A Pub­lic Space. Pre­vi­ous­ly, she worked at the Paris Review with George Plimp­ton, suc­ceed­ing him as edi­tor in 2003. She teach­es at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, and at A Pub­lic Space has col­lab­o­rat­ed with such cul­tur­al orga­ni­za­tions as BAM, the Guggen­heim Muse­um, and PEN on lit­er­ary pro­gram­ming. A grad­u­ate of North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty, she lives in New York City.

Jacob How­land is McFar­lin Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tul­sa. His essays have appeared in The New Cri­te­ri­on, Com­men­tary, the Jew­ish Review of Books, and the Clare­mont Review of Books, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. His lat­est book is Glau­con’s Fate: His­to­ry, Myth, and Char­ac­ter in Pla­to’s Repub­lic (Paul Dry Books, 2018).