Looking for Betty MacDonald
The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I
(University of Washington Press)
Betty MacDonald was born in Idaho, and lived in the Puget Sound area for most of her life. She died almost sixty years ago. Her major contribution to American life and wit was a book titled The Egg and I, published in 1945.
I read it when it first came out (I was thirteen at the time), and then I read it in 1946, then again in 1947 - - - and probably two or three more times between then and now.
Why? What could possibly be found in a book about chicken farming that could grab someone like me when I was just a pubescent kid?
Well, for one thing, it was funny as hell, the same kind of humor that we cultivated in my large and slightly dotty, dysfunctional family. So much of Betty's humor was not to be found in novels of the times. People who said things like "JEEESUS KEE-RIST" when they wanted to make a point. People who nicknamed their daughters "Tits." (Who, according to Betty, was not misnamed.)
Then there were people who, when you met them, and if they saw you were "in the family way," would offer to help you to a quickie back-alley abortion if needed.
Hemorrhoids? I had in my short life never explored nor even heard of "piles," much less wanted to know about them. Betty hinted that she was plagued by them. She also told us that on cold nights, with the rains rumbling down from the Olympic Peninsula mountains, with the outhouse being a fair distance from her house, they could be a considerable pain.
§ § §
The genre that Betty picked was ripe for satire: Walden, back-to-the-country, pristine, joy-for-the-soul in a clean, rustic area, filled with kindly neighbors. Betty's home and life - - - there with husband Bob in the middle of Washington's Olympic Peninsula - - - was, by contrast, far from being paradise, was also a pain.
In a compilation of concise, cinema-like portraits, we get to see her amidst the foibles of her rustic neighbors blended with such a sumptuous panorama, the flourishing stateliness of the Washington wilderness.
Best for sheer inventiveness were the images of the people around her, clear and precise - - - sometimes gentle, sometimes loving; gradually, in the sequence of description, giving way to an earthy bit of slapstick:
Mrs. Kettle had pretty light brown hair, only faintly streaked with gray and skinned back into a tight knot, clear blue eyes, a creamy skin which flushed exquisitely with the heat, a straight delicate nose, fine even white teeth, and a small rounded chin. From this dainty pretty head cascaded a series of busts and stomachs which made her look like a cooky jar shaped like a woman. Her whole front was dirty and spotted and she wiped her hands continually on one or the other of her stomachs. She also had a disconcerting habit of reaching up under her dress and adjusting something in the vicinity of her navel and of reaching down the front of her dress and adjusting her large breasts. These adjustments were not, I learned later, confined to either the privacy of the house or a female gathering - - - they were made anywhere - - - anytime. "I itch - - - so I scratch - - - so what!"
There is a delicacy in these first few lines, a touch of amused affection, but Betty was Betty, a master of what psychiatrists now call "the double bind." Thus smack-dab in the middle, we get a literary U-turn, leaving us with a picture-perfect shot of Ma Kettle, one capable of leaving us in stitches.
Great for the reader, bad for Betty. Four years after the publication of the book, we learn that the "Kettles" - - - in real life, Susanna and Albert Bishop - - - brought suit, claiming that Betty had "subjected them to shame and humiliation." Too bad they didn't show the court some of their same racy country humor as they had in real life.
They testified that Betty had the ability to skewer - - - she did - - - but no one testified to the fact that she had the ability to show an affectionate side, one that could give a picture of the Ma Kettle who had "clear blue eyes, a creamy skin which flushed exquisitely with the heat, a straight delicate nose, fine even white teeth, and a small rounded chin."
§ § §
She was a master of whimsical humor, but Betty could, at the same time, paint a picture of the mountains and forests of the peninsula, making American readers, for the first time, aware of the allure of their own northwest.
And, starting in 1946, according to Becker, because of her arcadian portraits of the countryside, people turned up from everywhere - - - not only to explore the wild beauty of the the Olympic peninsula, but to meet the woman who had given them such an enticing memory, conjoined with so many risible characters. There were even a few villages in that area, which might well have been named by her: Sequim (pronounced "squim"), Sol Duc Hot Springs (pronounced "soul duck"), Hoh (pronounced "hoah" - - - see the Urban Dictionary), Potlach, Quilcene, Lilliwaup, Forks, Squaxin, Dosewallips, and Pysht.My family, like Betty's, was screwball - - - but they were also screwy. To hide from this malfunctioning bunch, I began to spend my evenings reading, and reading, and reading. Betty's elegant (at times) earthy (at times) humor was certainly not the kind of honest reportage that I had run into in previous readings.
I was a faithful subscriber to all of the Hardy Boys books, at times even Nancy Drew, plus "Boy's Life Magazine" and "The Open Road for Boys." Even earlier I had learning to be touched, often entranced, by the likes of Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and Fattypuffs and Thinifers.
This last was a real charmer, written by the French author, André Maurois. Such a book with such diverting characters, thick and thin, could have been by Betty, for she wrote several children's books, highly successful ones. The publication of the Piggle-Wiggle series coincided with Egg.
Then too, there were her later works: The Plague and I (about her time in Firland sanatorium, recuperating from TB) and Anybody Can Do Anything, (about her droll if not eccentric family.)
She also produced Onions in the Stew, which Ms. Becker and I agree was not written by the Betty MacDonald we knew. I suspect that we can blame its wooden plot and desultory style on the long, invasive trial brought by the "Kettles."
It had, we learn here, dismayed and depressed her (at one point, when being questioned savagely by the attorney for the plaintiffs, she bolted out of the courtroom, weeping). To the dismay of those who loved her, her delicious humor had met head on bitter anger . . . and greed, aimed at her new-found literary fortune.
Worst of all, the attorneys of publisher Lippincott forced Betty to fabricate a lie about her writing, making her testify in court that the Bishop family was not the Kettle family. She was thus cornered, made to pretend, absurdly, that Egg had nothing at all to do with any of them; was but a novel, not an autobiography.
It was a double whammy, for the plaintiffs were faulting her writing style, and, too, teaching our once naïve Betty the truth: that sudden wealth can be very expensive. One who had been accustomed to a virtual lifetime of serious poverty was now immersed in a new ballgame, one called "deep pockets."
She had sworn to tell the truth, yet Becker states ominously that "caught in the truth in court, Betty had lied."
For a person as honest as she was, it not only demoralised her, but it poisoned the well. The defendants won, and it was counted as a victory, but I suspect that her later writings suffered. The victory was pyrrhic (viz. "Another victory like this and we are done for.") Judge and jury would be looking over her shoulder for the rest of her life as she set out to type yet another book on her ancient Royal, there in her now luxurious cabin, overlooking the tempestuous, frigid Puget Sound. The trial had left her as bruised as she had been when living with her first husband, a ruffian by the name of Bob Heskett.
§ § §
By my lights, Becker doesn't emphasize enough how the mise-en-scène Egg was a sea-change for American literature. This post-WWII literary evolution was spawned by her and her peers: Thorne Smith, Philip Wylie, Norman Mailer and those broody, dispiriting heavies, Arthur Miller and Eugene O'Neill. And Kathleen Winsor, whose novel Forever Amber burbled onto the scene from the back of the literary bedroom - - - all around the very time the Egg was upending Betty's life.
Forever Amber was a rather sordid novel, presumably "romantic" in the fullest and most flatulent sense of that word. But many critics thought it crude, certainly in lights of Literary neo-Puritanism of those days. The attorney general of Massachusetts, a representative of that bastion of proper Puritan values
cited 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men.
Reason enough for banning the novel in 1940s America. Now, fortunately, we can view it as sententiously, if not crudely, tame.
Betty's home in Egg, is revealed here as Chimacum, Washington. A place, according to the author, awash in endless rain, funny neighbors, drunken Indians, scary traveling salesmen, baleful appliances, perverse animals (civet cats and mountain lions), no electricity, no refrigerator, water available only with a considerable trek downhill, and worst of all for Betty MacDonald, a rural regime that demanded that she rise at six in the morning to milk the cows, feed the chickens, and attend to Bob's demands; even though, in one chapter, she admits that when Bob drove off to Port Townsend in the morning, she (emphasis hers) went back to bed.
§ § §
Betty MacDonald had great luck with her manuscript, which she finished in late 1944. A friend suggested that she send it to the prestigious literary agency, Brandt & Brandt, in New York. These days things are different, no? Try mailing off a single copy of your sweat-soaked novel to one of these top agents in New York now.
Those were certainly different times, yet it was an era when publishers were a tad more adventuresome, publishing the likes of Philip Wylie, James Jones, Norman Mailer, and - - - ultimately - - - Vladimir Nabokov.
B & B obviously found Egg, to its liking. But they didn't like the title, coming up with a far dumber one - - - The Yolk's on Me [sic] - - - but Betty was not one to back down, even with her future as a writer hanging flimsily there on line. She dug in her heels and demanded that they stick with it, and, reluctantly, they did . . . And promptly sold the book to Lippincott, one of the leading publishers of the time. And promptly, hitting the jackpot. The literary world was soon awash in eggs and bad egg jokes.
§ § §
I confess to being disinterested in the ins-and-outs of publishing. I prefer to read books rather than reading about them, or their authors. But I'm enough of a fan of Egg that I soldiered on with Looking for Betty MacDonald. I was suitably impressed by what happened once the book appeared in the stores. It sold a million copies within a year of publication and, was on best-seller lists for three years (as was Forever Amber).
Such success was unheard of, especially for first-time authors. The rights purchased by Lippincott and the subsequent royalties instantly delivered a graceful death to Betty's acute poverty. Along with that of her family, the Bards.
And as the Buddhists say, we should never forget that all in life is going to change, whether we want it or not.
We have change here in spades, considering where Betty was coming from. For instance, there's the matter of her first marriage to one Bob Heskett
He was, according to Becker, nothing like the Bob she portrayed in Egg. He was a disagreeable reprobate, and ultimately, an abusive one. Betty was only seventeen when she married him - - - possibly pregnant - - - and she soon learned about the disaster of being married to an older, drunken, jerk. Fortunately, her good sense made her get the hell out from under, back to her family, the Bards, none of whom had been invited to the hasty wedding.There was little mention of Bob Heskett in The Egg and I, and Becker tells us that Betty quietly elides the truth, merging the original bilious Bob with the affectionate, considerate, and loving second husband, Donald MacDonald. Yet we get to see a tiny touch of whimsey in this, her first book, which, despite the ruinous time with Heckett, she throws in, scarcely noted, at the end of one of the chapters. She tells of the time that she had forgotten to order kerosene:
Bob was never one to scold (sic!) but he showed his disappointment in me by leaving the table still chewing his last bite and thrusting himself into bed, to dream, no doubt, of the good old days of wife beating.
§ § §
Paula Becker is a fairly good writer, though bogged down by detail, even a bit humdrum. Unfortunately, she shows little if any humor . . . as if she had never ever run across any of Betty's writings. Our theory is that if you are going to tell readers that the author is a laff-riot, you should offer up enough quotes so we can make up our own minds.
Even more distressing, for us old Egg and I fans, Becker had access to a hugely rich resource - - - practically all of Betty's correspondence, boxes of it (she was a writer, of books, and of letters) - - - all packed neatly in folders located, by some effort, by Ms. Becker, at the homes of Heidi Anne Keil and Timothy Girard Keil, children of Joan MacDonald (Betty's daughter).
Heidi lived out on Vashon Island, a ferry ride from Seattle, and Becker - - - how we envy her - - - spent months going through these treasures: letters, memos, notes to herself, calendars, family documents.
Becker reminds us that in her pre-Egg life, Betty had been a secretary, and tells us that many of the letters (she seems to have kept copies of many of not all of her letters, and her responses) have wonderful, often sarcastic, sometimes hilarious, at times exquisite literary portraits of friends, family, and strangers.
But Becker, alas, only gives us a few brief quotes. We, the readers of this book, are the losers, and I'm beginning to think that in publishing this book, the University of Washington Press might fear the Kettle curse: that if too many of these letters were published, there might be a doppelgänger, the University itself being sued by millions for millions.
§ § §
Finally, we are forced, in Looking for Betty MacDonald, to bear witness to Betty's agonizing death, at the age of fifty. This must be why I try to avoid biographies of my favorite writers. Betty MacDonald, née Bard, dying from cancer, a two-year, process . . . despairing for her and her family, depressing for fans like me.
For we would have wanted her to live to ninety, writing all the while, slowly gaining back her delicious irony, her sharp words, her wicked skewering of characters . . . and, above all, as she was wont to do, giving in to her own gentle way of self-mockery.
Alas, we know that even her skill could not make her find wit, such gentle irony at her own untimely demise. I suspect that few of us could master that outside of pure cynics like Christopher Hitchens.
Still, Betty being Betty never completely gives up trying to divert us (and herself) from the hard truth. Near the end, probably late 1957, she wrote to a friend,
I'll let you know that the cancer specialist says . . . I think they are all a little irked with me for not dying - - - so upsetting their prognosis.
I discovered yesterday that by taking two codeine, waiting 20 minutes for it to take effect and then hurrying like mad I can write 1½ letters before beginning to gag - - - this of course without any pause for thought, wit, or clever phrasing.
In general, we must give Becker points, that she has, literally, brought back from the dead one of the best post-WWII writers: a comprehensive volume, a 175 page book with 33 pages of notes, including a terrific index (a reviewer's dream).
But the next time I'm offered the chance to consider a biography of one of my favorites (H. L. Mencken, Paul Krassner, Joyce Cary, Warren Hinckle, Jerome K. Jerome, or S. J. Perelman) I think I'll beg off, claiming that I've suddenly been called to an important appointment.
In Samara.--- L. W. Milam