The obituary reads: Author, Protégée of Bellow’s. Two defining characteristics of a life. Equally weighted, side by side. Bette Howland has been known, when she was known, by her proximity to male greatness. Just as Sylvia Plath is rarely mentioned without the appendage of Ted Hughes, Howland’s name, and her writing, reach us within the context of her position as protégée, friend to, and occasional lover of Saul Bellow.
Howland’s life off the page mirrors Plath’s in that she, too contemplated suicide, making one documented attempt that resulted in her confinement in a psych ward. Both wrote semi-autobiographical work that confronted mental illness, challenged traditional conceptions of domesticity, and probed the underbelly of class difference. Unlike Plath, Howland lived, though she stopped publishing and her work all but disappeared from circulation. That is, until it was unearthed recently in a bargain bin.
In Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, the collected stories of Bette Howland, we encounter a writer questioning the meaning of existence, playfully knocking over a sacred jar and watching the contents slowly spill across the counter. The book opens with “A Visit,” a startlingly frank story about what happens when we die, which ultimately, in the span of four short pages, becomes a meditation on how it is we live.
Howland’s stories all interrogate living through varying degrees of explicitness: in the title story, overtly, in an interlocution with the dead, or, more subtly, in libraries, apartment buildings, movie theaters, and court rooms throughout the rest of the book. Commonplace environments that take on immense meaning when Howland’s narrator interrupts herself to posit: “Let us speak frankly. Where are people to go? People, I mean, who have no place to go.” It is in these disquieting moments of candor when Howland’s prose holds a magnifying glass up to a room we’ve all inhabited before and reveals something staggering and obvious that the privileged among us may have chosen not to look at. “This was supposed to be a library, wasn’t it? People had a right to expect quiet. They knew their rights. Where else could they hope to enforce any?”
These spaces become parables for class inequity, racial discrimination, and societal division, rampant at the time of Howland’s writing and still present more than thirty years after. Many of the stories are set in Chicago, where race is seen as a geographic partition: “The fear of crime is profoundly a class fear: the fear of becoming a victim, of joining the ranks of the expendables—those spewed up by the system.” We are continually reminded of racial, ethnic, and religious identities at such a noticeable frequency that one must consider the absence of these distinctions in a majority of contemporary literature (though a shift is occurring) and what that absence means.
When a writer does not name a character’s ethnicity or sexual orientation or religion, a reader enters the text and makes an assumption that fills in the blank. All too often the presumed identity is the dominant identity: white, heterosexual, cis-male, Christian. Howland’s insistence on naming feels at times gratuitous, but it draws our attention to latent biases and our presumptions of who is the default speaker; who gets to tell their story, who gets to take up space.
These questions take on renewed importance in light of Howland’s legacy: prior lover of notable male writer, temporary inhabitant of a psychiatric facility, and perhaps most importantly, woman writer in the 1970s. A divorced Jewish woman raising two children, confronting depression and channeling that pain into her art. Throughout Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, female characters face constant bombardment when their existence does not conform to the established narrative: “All the mothers were murmuring indignantly. They had a common protest. Their daughters were having cats instead of children.”
Howland’s insights into the shifting gender dynamics that would reshape, or at least disrupt, the patriarchy, are just one facet of the revolutionary nature of her work. Why then, did it disappear from the discourse? When we consider legacy—whose work is canonized, taught in universities, anthologized, widely accessed—it’s perhaps more important that we recognize whose work is absent. All too often women. All too often members of marginalized communities, of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender binary, or class status, whose art must fight for recognition, whether due to categorization or due to the dominance and presumed default of the white heterosexual male.
The recent celebration of fellow forgotten female artists, the short story writer Lucia Berlin, championed by Lydia Davis, or the painter Himla af Klint, showcased at the Guggenheim, reminds us how necessary it is to restore these visionaries, to help reshape our collective artistic history. Examining the work these women created, and the context in which they were creating it, deepens our understanding of their artistic influence.
Expanding the canon to make room for Howland enhances our reading of the literature she’s in conversation with. This includes, notably, the stories of working-class America by her contemporary Raymond Carver, with whom she shares a considerable thematic overlap, though stylistically, their work differs greatly. Similarly, encountering an exploration of the slipperiness of Jewish identity from Howland is intensely refreshing given the hold Philip Roth has on much of our Jewish literary discourse. The more layered, diverse narratives we have from diverse voices, the more nuanced our understanding and appreciation for those stories will be.
On the level of language, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage is filled with sentences of such astonishing poignancy that Howland’s prose feels as exacting as it does resonant. “What fragile vessels we put our feelings in,” she writes. “Our vocabulary of suffering is so limited.” Howland is a master of silences, of the unsaid, of what cannot be addressed. In “Blue in Chicago,” an uncle, unable to communicate his love verbally, asks his adult niece: “You need light bulbs? Here, take some light bulbs… What do you need? Forties? Sixties? Hundreds? They’re all here; take what you want.” It is with the subtlest, and often humorous, touch of intimacy that Howland wounds her readers. “I was feeling very sad. I think maybe it was the light bulbs.”
In the final story, the eponymous “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage,” the narrator speaks to a dead lover in the second person, continually asking: “What am I to you, Victor? What are you to me?” This question becomes a dance with the liminal space of living and dying, with loving and avoiding, with believing and denying. Here, Howland does her best work, questioning the existence of God through her playful and imaginative wit: “How would it be, Victor, how would it be? If they changed places, the healers? If the doctors let the rabbis remove the gallbladders, and the rabbis asked surgeons to look after their souls? Would we ever know the difference?”
The hole that was left by Howland’s absence was glaring. A gushing wound on an empty shelf. Now that her work has returned, we know the difference. Perhaps we always did.