In Extremis – Reviews

The Boston Sunday Globe
The whole of Laura Riding: poet, critic, troubled and troublesome woman
Wendy Smith / July 11 1993

To say that Deborah Baker has written a rather strange book is not entirely a criticism. Laura Riding, who died in 1991 at age 90, was an extremely odd and difficult woman; only a quirky work has even a chance of doing justice to her unique character.


Riding’s position in 20th-century literary history always has been embattled. Critics’ individual reactions to her forceful personality have led to sharply divided opinion as to her merits: While Paul Auster, writing in The New York Review of Books more than a decade ago, declared her “an important force in the international avante-garde,” Martin Seymour-Smith, in a biography of Robert Graves published about the same time, found her “explosively freakish.” She was both, and Baker’s biography, which downplays the weird behavior in order to carefully explicate her ideas, succeeds in fostering some respect for Riding only at the price of creating an abstract portrait that gives little sense of the flesh-and-blood woman behind the theories.

Hailed by The Fugitive in 1924 as “the discovery of_the year,” Riding’s poetry appeared strange and difficult to the general public; her books seldom sold more than a few hundred copies. An influential and original critic, she wrote with Graves “A Survey of Modernist Poetry” (1927), which sparked the birth of the New Criticism, with its insistence that close textual analysis, independent of historical or biographical considerations, was the only way to approach a poem.

She was Graves’ companion for nearly 14 years; his nephew and biographer, Richard Percival Graves, credits Riding with rescuing him from a severe personal crisis, freeing him to write the best-selling memoir “Goodbye to All That,” and immeasurably improving his writing with her searching criticism. Her belief in poetry as the medium of truth-telling eventually led to an obsessive interest in defining words’ specific meanings; in the mid-1930s, she began work on a dictionary intended to “erase any ambiguity that might have accrued” to words “over years of improper usage.” Around the time of her happy second marriage, to Schuyler Jackson in 1941, she renounced poetry altogether to work for decades with him on the never-completed dictionary.

Baker barely considers that marriage; her narrative devotes a cursory 20 pages to the half-century following Riding’s split from Graves in 1939. This selective approach is employed throughout the biography, which begins with Riding’s first encounter with the Fugitive poets (Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren) in Tennessee, then circles back to chronicle her New York City childhood as daughter of an idealistic Jewish socialist from Poland and an embittered garment worker who had ruined her eyesight working in sweatshops. Baker perceptively traces the tensions in the Reichenthal household (Riding changed her last name around the time of her marriage to Lou Gottschalk, a history instructor at Cornell), arguing convincingly that Riding’s lifelong fascination with the dynamics of personal relationships began in the conflicted bosom of her family.

Baker’s rapid resume of Riding’s first marriage, uneasy alliance with the Fugitives and literary apprenticeship in New York set the tone for the rest of the biography: Human relations are subordinated to Riding’s ideas about them and their impact on her poetrv and criticism. Lengthy quotations from and sensitive explications of these works are the book’s best feature. Poems such as “The Mask” and “In 1927” still excite with their fresh, exact imagery; such later works as “What to Say When the Spider” show Riding moving close to Gertrude Stein in her challenging play with words and meaning. Baker’s exegesis of Riding’s criticism refutes the sexist assumption of earlier historians that Graves must have been the principal theorist in their collaboration. She clearly demonstrates that the central ideas were Riding’s, although she never acknowledges that their witty elaboration in “A Survey of Modernist Poetry” owed much to Graves’ easy prose style; “Anarchism Is Not Enough” and “Contemporaries and Snobs,” which Riding wrote alone, are far less engaging.

Baker’s reluctance to criticize Riding and her desire to refute previous derogatory evaluations of her subject give the biography a peculiar tone and structure. She assumes readers’ familiarity with earlier biographies of Graves, neglecting such crucial issues as the exact nature of his emotional bond with Riding. She begins the long section on their years together not with their meeting in 1926 but with Riding’s attempt to kill herself by jumping out the window of their London flat in 1929, because, Baker argues, “part of the reason for Riding’s obscurity as a writer lies in the story of the leap and how it has been told.” That may be, but readers have no way of understanding the suicide attempt when they know nothing of the three years that preceded it, and Baker’s deservedly scathing refutation of Seymour-Smith’s unconscionable embellishing of the facts about it in his book does nut appear for an additional 100 pages.

Similarly, the detailed account of Riding’s high-toned, flaky theories about her “marriage of three” with Graves and his wife, Nancy Nicholson, goes on for ages before bothering to inform us that, yes, Riding was sexually involved with Graves and perhaps with Nicholson as well. The chronicle of her residence on the island of Majorca with Graves after his marriage broke up skims over the imperious behavior that earned Riding her reputation as a domineering nutcase, preferring to chart her literary evolution. Admittedly, these cranky interactions with various devoted disciples have been covered in ample, nasty detail elsewhere, but mentioning them in passing raises more questions than it answers.

In many ways, this elliptical, allusive biography suits its subject. The odd jumps in chronology, the single-minded focus on Riding’s work as the center of her life, the tendency to view other characters through her eyes, all reflect the ability to isolate herself within a self-created world that makes Riding’s poetry so interesting – and her theories about practically everything else so off-putting. Baker’s respectful treatment of Riding’s screwball brand of feminism, still with us today, which purports to exalt women by seeing them as utterly different from and inherently superior to men, is symptomatic of her difficulty in finding a critical distance from her subject, despite her frank distaste for some of Riding’s ideas. “In Extremis” provides valuable insights into the artistry of poems only recently given their due by literary scholars, but it’s too reverential toward the imperfect, often impossible woman who wrote them.

Wendy Smith, a free-lance book critic, is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”