Laura Riding Jackson rode one of the most mercurial careers in twentieth century literary history. The formative Fugitive poets called her the “discovery of the year” in 1924, when she was only twenty-three. In the following twenty years, she published more than two dozen books of poetry and criticism, often in collaboration with the English writer Robert Graves, with whom she lived in the 1930’s in Deya, Mallorca. In the 1940’s, she moved back to the United States, married and settled in Florida, and renounced poetry but continued her work on language. As the reputation of Graves grew, Riding’s fame shrank, until she was omitted from the literary histories. In the last twenty years of her lifeGraves died in 1985, Riding in 1991the tide was reversed. Readers began to rediscover her earlier poetry, and critics began to reassess her role in twentieth century Anglo-American literature and criticism.
Elizabeth Friedmann’s biography A Mannered Grace is clearly part of this latter effort. Researched and written over a period of ten years, the book draws on a number of literary archives and Riding’s voluminous correspondence. (“According to her record-keeping, from early 1974 through mid-July 1986,” Friedmann notes at one point, “Laura wrote more than eight thousand letters.”) Friedmann herself began corresponding with Riding in 1980, began visiting her in 1985, and during Riding’s final years worked with her and kept notes on their activities and conversations. By the time Riding died, Friedmann was a member of the board Riding had appointed in her will to oversee her literary estate. Such intimate knowledge of her subject means that Friedmann’s biography gets as close to this creative life as is possible. Unfortunately, the result is more a detailed compilation of biographical facts and figures than the literary history and analysis readers might expect in the study of such a pivotal creative figure.
Laura Reichenthal was born in New York on January 16, 1901, and was a student at Cornell University by the time she was seventeen. She flourished in the academic environment and produced a great deal of poetry. She married a graduate student in history, Louis Gottschalk, and at the same time started using the name Riding, considering it softer sounding than Reichenthal, as her middle name. By 1924, she had dropped out of Cornell, followed her husband to several teaching posts, and started to publish her work in magazines such as Poetry, the important journal edited in Chicago by Harriet Monroe. Riding’s real success came with the Fugitives, the seminal group of southern writers centered in Nashville around Donald Davidson, John Crowe Ransom, and their magazine, The Fugitive.
As her marriage foundered, Riding became a contributor to The Fugitive. At the time . . . only three women had been published in the seven previous numbers of the poetry journal. She also began an affair with one of The Fugitive’s young stars, the poet and critic Allen Tate. From the beginning, Riding’s poetry was preoccupied with the metaphysical questions raised by the nature of human existence. “Though technically unpolished at times, her poems startled with their originality, their unconventionality, their verbal audacity.” She also began to publish criticism with the essay “A Prophecy or a Plea” in The Reviewer in 1925.
One of the first people to notice her was the English writer Robert Graves, who wrote the editors of The Fugitive from London after they published her poem “The Quids.” When her marriage and her affair both had ended, Riding found herself in the heady world of Greenwich Village in the mid-1920’s, where she met many of the writers responsible for the recent renaissance of American literature, most notably the poet Hart Crane, whose poetry had much of the same intellectual intensity as Riding’s. She tired of Village life rather quickly, however, and when Graves wrote and invited Laura to accompany his wife, four...
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