The Life I Really Lived

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)
ph_0111207213-West.jpg Jessamyn West Published by Salem Press, Inc.

During the course of an interview for Publishers Weekly (April 28, 1969), Jessamyn West declared, “I do not think I have written about a person who is totally defeated. My tendency is to write of people who overcome.” Now, nearly two decades since this positive and somewhat optimistic assertion, West continues to develop characters of stoical stature and strength, who struggle through extreme pain or adversity, seek assurance in faith and love, and above all succeed in their implacable efforts to survive. Such are the compelling characters she again creates in her most recent novel, The Life I Really Lived.

Written in the mode of a confessional memoir, the book is at once appealing in its tone and traditional profession of honesty and authenticity. Thus, the narrative purports to reveal the “real” life of its protagonist, Orpha Chase, whose name—like that of her mythological archetype—prophesies her innate interest in the “music” of words, images, and belles lettres. Also, by juxtaposing flashback sequencing with stream-of-consciousness techniques, the author nostalgically re-creates her narrator’s awakening from adolescence to adulthood, and from fledgling novice to female novelist at home with her art, her life, and herself.

Yet despite the casual spontaneity of the confessional motif, the reader is ever aware of the concerted effort to unify the otherwise episodic events in Orpha’s life into a symbolic structure and cohesive whole. Appropriately, therefore, the first and final chapters—“Morning” and “Eventide”—serve as setting and frame, beginning and ending in present time and allowing the remembered past to intervene. Also, the opening chapter establishes the “Orphic” voice through whose mind, heart, and imagination the past will be recorded and retold. Symbolically, “Morning” initiates Orpha’s quest upon the landscape of her life, for after “forty years of writing and eighteen novels,” she is determined to look inward, to reexamine her past and rediscover her essential self—her raison d’être.

Consequently, the inward journey begins in the East at the turn of the century as the author juxtaposes the bizarre events peripheral to Orpha’s childhood—barn-burning, dog-poisoning, incest, rape, murder, and suicide—with the innocence and beauty of her childlike vision:In the fall when I was young, turkey buzzards held flying circuses above the sycamores and catalpas. It was all done for me, I thought, that drift of black snow across the sky. The snow that never fell. It lived, it was movement, it was the joy soaring, no destination in mind, no food being sought. I was brought up to believe in God and I thanked him when the buzzards danced their airborne autumn ballet above my head.

Intuitively, her youthful world seems worlds apart from the woes besetting adults she knew:All around me, fornication and suicide; children mistreated and hired girls knocked up; cancer treated with poultices of dock leaves . . . boiled in urine. And I didn’t care a whit about the pain and the years and the yelps of agony. Because what happened, happened to grownups. They were a race apart.

In recalling the narrow social sanctions of her own milieu, however, Orpha manifests both a mild humor and refreshing naïveté which enhance the charm and convincing quality of her reflections. Summarily, she diminishes the male-female dichotomy with understatement and ingenuous observation: “down at the crotch” girls are “neater than boys.” And, obedient to the mandates of modesty (and her mother), she records the punctilious soap-and-water struggles to bathe without ever being naked:. . . arms out of your shimmy, so that it hangs around your neck like a cape. . . . Left side of shimmy held away from body while that side is washed; right side exposed next and washed. Old shimmy off and clean shimmy on quickly and quietly until the body has been washed, the clothes are fresh, and nothing has occurred that you would be ashamed to have a neighbor see.

Subsequent chapters (such as “Lon,” “Tom,” “Jake,” “Wanda,” “Joe,” “Marie”) are primarily named for the men and women who played a role or imposed a minor imprint upon Orpha’s life. Each vignette, concise and complete, mirrors a moment of truth or assists to some degree in her prolonged and painful emergence from the world of innocence to the experience of womanhood, life, and love. The “Ormand” episode, for instance, seems almost expendable, except that the handsome face and form of Ormand Slaughter inspired the seminal signs of adolescent infatuation, the symptomatic “heart-thumping and breathlessness” earlier ascribed to the purely physical stress of running and winning foot races. As a result, the “un-kissed old maid” of eighteen will later feel emotionally equipped to meet, love, and marry Alonzo T. Dudley (Lon), a principal at the local normal school where Orpha studies and will eventually teach. Indubitably, however, her innocence proves an obstacle to her complete awareness of men, manners, and morals; and her marital bliss obscures the otherwise obvious indications of Lon’s homosexual interests and emotional unrest. In fact, long after Lon murders the man threatening to expose him, and his suicide precipitates Orpha’s widowhood at the age of twenty, she remains innocently unaware of the “scandalous secret” Lon chose to conceal at the cost of his life.

In some respects, of course, Orpha’s inexperience reflects the satirical thrust of the novel per se; for Orpha is in part the product of the sheltered society in which she lived, the product of a social and moral provincialism which impugned her indulgence of students in the “dangerous” pastime of play production. This same society established the single standard by which she—in fact, any woman—must measure success: “did some man want her? Was she wooed,...

(The entire section is 2428 words.)