Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Born Today In 1881, 'Wild Woman of Butte' Memoirist Mary MacLane

Mary MacLane was born today, May 1, in 1881. She was a controversial Canadian-born American writer whose frank memoirs helped usher in the confessional style of autobiographical writing. MacLane was known as the "Wild Woman of Butte."

MacLane was a very popular author for her time, scandalizing the populace with her shocking bestselling first memoir and to a lesser extent her two following books. She was considered wild and uncontrolled, a reputation she nurtured, and was openly bisexual as well as a vocal feminist. 


MacLane was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, but her family moved to the Red River area of Minnesota, settling in Fergus Falls, which her father helped develop. After his death in 1889, her mother remarried a family friend and lawyer, H. Gysbert Klenze. Soon after, the family moved to Montana, first settling in Great Falls and finally in Butte, where Klenze drained the family funds pursuing mining and other ventures. MacLane spent the remainder of her life in the United States. She began writing for her school paper in 1898.

From the beginning, MacLane's writing was characterized by a direct, fiery, highly individualistic style. At the age of 19 in 1901, MacLane wrote her first book, titled by its author I Await the Devil's Coming but changed by its publishers, Herbert S. Stone & Co., to The Story of Mary MacLane. It sold 100,000 copies in the first month and was powerfully influential on young women, but was pilloried by conservative critics and readers, and lightly ridiculed by H. L. Mencken.

Some critics have suggested that even by today's standards, MacLane's writing is raw, honest, unflinching, self-aware, sensual, and extreme. She wrote openly about egoism and her own self-love, about sexual attraction and love for other women, and even about her desire to marry the Devil.

Her second book, My Friend Annabel Lee was published by Stone in 1903. More experimental in style than her debut book, it was not nearly so sensational, though MacLane was said to have made a fairly large amount of money.

Her final book, I, Mary Maclane: A Diary of Human Days was published by Frederick A. Stokes in 1917 and sold moderately well but may have been overshadowed by America's recent entry into World War I.

In 1917, she wrote and starred in the 90-minute autobiographical silent film titled Men Who Have Made Love to Me. Produced by film pioneer George Kirke Spoor and based on MacLane's 1910 article of the same title for a Butte newspaper, it has been speculated to have been an extremely early, if not the earliest, sustained breaking of the fourth wall in cinema, with the writer-star directly addressing the audience. Though stills and some subtitles have survived, the film is now believed to be lost.

For a period she lived with her friend Caroline M. Branson, who had been the long-time companion of Maria Louise Pool until the death of the latter in 1898. They lived in the Rockland's house that Pool left to Branson. But the great love of MacLane's life was Harriet Monroe. In a poem dated 1902, MacLane writes:

Dear Harriet Monroe -
I remember you
I remember you on a summer forenoon.
You were there and I was there.
We went out to walk by the lake-shore.
The lake-shore was very beautiful.
You were so fascinating that day. You were so strong. You were so true.
Particularly you were so true.
I loved you.
I had infinite faith in you.
And you were kind.
You were kind - so that I felt it without knowing it.
Which is a wonderful thing and goes far.
Surely no Pharisee was ever yet kind like that.
For a summer forenoon:
My love to you - oh, my love to you.
Dear Harriet Monroe. -
At any rate - good-by.
- My love to you, always.

MacLane died in Chicago in early August 1929, aged 48. She was soon forgotten and her prose remained out of print until late 1993, when The Story of Mary MacLane and some of her newspaper feature work was republished in Tender Darkness: A Mary MacLane Anthology.

In January 2011, the publisher of Tender Darkness (1993) announced forthcoming publication of an integrated complete-works anthology and biographical study of MacLane. The first volume, Human Days: A Mary MacLane Reader (with a Foreword by Bojana Novakovic), was published in late 2014. The next installments - the multi-volume Mary in The Press: Miss MacLane and Her Fame (which will collect for the first time the enormous primary-source record of the sensation during her life and after) and the biographical/interpretive study, A Quite Unusual Intensity of Life: The Lives, Works, and Influence of Mary MacLane, were published in 2015.

In 2011, Novakovic wrote and performed "The Story of Mary MacLane - By Herself" in Melbourne, Australia, which was subsequently staged in Sydney, Australia in 2012. Both were well received by critics and audiences.

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