In Extremis – Reviews

Los Angeles Times

“A model of literary biography-reasonable, sensible, informed, well-paced.”

The Times of London

“Deborah Baker ends this circuitous, indecisive, but gallant book most sensitively, with a piece of Riding’s prose and a poem, neither of them worthless, and which display such raw insight into Riding’s desperate survival strategies that one wants to forgive her everything. But that way madness lies.”

The Guardian

“Deborah Baker has understood Laura Riding very well. With the help of this excellently researched and written biography, I also understand her better now, I hope.”

The Sunday Telegraph

“The adage about trusting the song, not the singer, seems to stand behind Deborah Baker’s book, but it stands there uneasily: Laura’s long renunciation of poetry sours that message, and so does Baker’s cool, remorseless recital of what often looks like paranoiac obsessiveness, utter solipsism, and sheer human cruelty. In Extremis attempts a difficult job well – the job of trying to “explain” Laura Riding. Yet it raises as many questions as it answers.”


July 1993

This cant-put-it-down page-turner of a biography is worthy of its subject, the controversial modernist poet Laura Riding — or Laura (Riding) Jackson, as she preferred to be called before her death just two years ago discovered and hailed by the coterie of poets around Allan Tate and John Crowe Ransom in the 1920s, she went to England to advance her reputation. And that she did: with poet Robert Graves and his artist wife Nancy Nicholson she formed a sensational menage, which later narrowed to just herself and Graves. For more than a decade on the island of Mallorca, the two lived and wrote. Riding’s poetry was intensely private, sometimes obscure, but had a compelling intensity and classic diction. Driven by unanswerable philosophic questions, she eventually withdrew from the literary world and, for years, published little but scathing correctives to those writers who dared discuss her or Graves’ life or work. Several other biographers ran afoul of her demanding temperament: so did Baker, but Ridings death left this biographer a free hand. Bakers work is exemplary: she reveals the character of her subject without either whitewashing or (as in a recent biography of Graves) excoriating Riding for her faults: she invents a twining, switchback narrative eminently suitable to the complexity of her subject’s life and work, and she discusses Riding’s work in clear, expansive analyses that should heighten literary interest in the poet.

Pat Monaghan

The Missouri Review

Baker’s biography chronicles the life of the first female Fugitive, the group of poet/philosophers who advanced New Criticism. This portrait of Riding — the woman who William Carlos Williams called “a prize bitch” — is dignified, well documented, and cautious. The erratic life of Laura Richenthal Riding Gottschalk Jackson was not easily researched; (Riding) Jackson, who died in 1991, shed names and philosophies easily, and though she at first welcomed communication with her biographer, in the end she refused to condone Baker’s work. However, Baker is sympathetic toward her subject’s origins, literary contributions, and vanity.

Born to an immigrant family, Jackson married one of her college professors before completing her undergraduate studies at Cornell. While trying to maintain her role of faculty wife at Champaign- Urbana, she metamorphosed into a poet, then a critic, novelist, philosopher and editor, before becoming Robert Graves’s lover. At age forty-three, she settled down as a citrus farmer in Florida, with her second husband, the critic Schulyer Jackson. Continuing to write between harvests, she renounced poetry, perhaps burned some of her papers, and took to epistolary discussions with scholars and editors from all over the country. After Jackson was widowed, her work reappeared in print. The Guggenheim Foundation provided grants for her memoirs and she was awarded the Bollingen Prize for Poetry at age ninety.

Interspersed throughout the biography are the author’s reminders that Jackson vehemently opposed its publication. Jackson needn’t have been so hostile toward Baker’s effort. Her biographer’s admiration for Jackson is evident; she sees her as a visionary who tried to articulate the conflicts between imagination and intellect, literature and life. This book is not a gossipy discussion of another Modernist who died embittered and lonely, but a detailed look at one woman’s mental agility and contribution to the literary world. Excerpts from Jackson’s poems, stories and essays, some of which were unpublished, are scattered throughout the book, allowing us to realize (as Baker says) that Jackson made her work out of her life.


Janice Braun, Hoover Institution Lib., Stanford Cal. Baker presents a well-researched biography of Riding (1901-91), a writer whose work has been obfuscated by a difficult personality and estrangement from her colleagues. As is often the case in literary biography. Riding’s life is examined through her writing and, accordingly, her inner being becomes as important as her actions. The core of the book is Riding’s 14-year relationship with Robert Graves—treated most thoroughly. In addition, descriptions of Riding’s suicide attempt, her collaborative efforts, and her personal associations with such literary luminaries as Gertrude Stein are telling of Riding’s complex psyche. Baker has made extensive use of archival sources in tracing this unconventional woman’s journey away from poetry and toward an absolute truth that could be exposed by means of other forms such as criticism. Recommended for humanities and woman’s studies collections.


The Boston Sunday Globe
The whole of Laura Riding: poet, critic, troubled and troublesome woman

Wendy Smith

Charlottesville This Week
Laura Riding made large claims for poets and poetry

Greg Foster

London Review of Books

Jenny Turner

New York Times Book Review
Laura Riding Roughshod
No one understood her but herself, and that may have been her own fault.

Carol Muske

Financial Times
Lurid life of a literary witch

Anthony Curtis

A bladed mind

Will Eaves