February House

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

World War II rightfully would cast a large shadow on all events of the early 1940’s, but for a group of English and American writers and artists there was a year that stands alone as a fascinating experiment in communal living. Beginning in June of 1940, and extending until December of 1941, several creative figures lived in a rundown house in Brooklyn, New York. Some of the people who took up residence at the house on Middagh St. include the British poet W. S. Auden, the British composer Benjamin Britten, the Southern writer Carson McCullers, the American authors who also happened to be married Jane Bowles and Paul Bowles, and the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. This mix of American and British personalities made for electric interchanges and combustible encounters. The house became known as “February House” since the majority of its tenants were born in that month. The communal atmosphere led to more than a few wild moments, but author Sherill Tippins has not written February House for shock value.

As the domestic situation sorted itself out in the house, Auden became the person who took charge. He would make sure that everyone contributed their portion of the rent. He also was not above giving advice. Gypsy Rose Lee comes across as the most practical of the group. She was a help to Auden and his young lover Chester Kallman. Since Auden had left England during the war, he was criticized in the press for being unpatriotic. At February House though, Auden was the “father” and Lee was the “mother.” Tippins takes the time to sort out the creative efforts that can be traced back to this house in Brooklyn. McCullers began composing one of her great novels, The Member of the Wedding (1946), during her stay. When not laying down the law, Auden found the time to write some of his most brilliant poetry. Through the turbulence of the time, these talented few found a refuge in which to nurture their creative efforts. Unfortunately, the house on Middagh St. was torn down in 1945 in order to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. With February House, Tippins has done a marvelous service to the memory of a fleeting and rare period of time in literary history.

February House

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Just before the United States’ entrance into World War II, a group of young writers and musicians experimented with communal living in a house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, New York. February House is the story of that experiment and the awesomely creative group of artists who lived there. The title is the name which Anaïs Nin, diarist and novelist, gave to the house because so many of the residents were born in February. Although the communal arrangement was fraught with tension and many disagreements, the outcome was an extraordinary outpouring of creative work. It was here that W. H. Auden first worked out his philosophical and religious beliefs and wrote many of his finest poems, as well as the words for his collaborative effort with Benjamin Britten, the opera Paul Bunyan, and the words to his oratorio, For the Time Being. Here Auden also first met the man who would be his life partner, Chester Kallman. It was the house in which Carson McCullers conceived the ideas for her novel A Member of the Wedding (1946) and the novella The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951). The house on Middagh Street is where Gypsy Rose Lee first learned to write mystery novels, and where many other transients found new inspiration for their art.

To tell the history of this collective living experiment, author Sherill Tippins divides the story of the house into three chronological periods: Part 1 is “The House on the Hill, June-November 1940”; part 2 is “The Bawdy House, December 1940-February 1941”; and part 3 is “The House of Genius, March-December 1941.” In an epilogue, she summarizes the stories of the various artists in the years following 1941, as well as the people who would occupy the house until it was torn down to make room for a highway.

Tippins begins with an introduction tracing her interest in the house on Middagh Street, then proceeds in part 1 to relate chronologically the origin of the communal idea, the dream of the house, its renovation and furnishing, and the gathering of the artists. George Davis, a talented editor at Harper’s Bazaar magazine in the 1930’s, first encountered the house in a dream, then went to Brooklyn to find it. He was superb at recognizing talent but terribly disorganized and quite willing to ignore corporate rules and regulations. Having been fired, he still wanted literary surroundings and figured that he could secure them without the job.

Once he located the house, he approached McCullers, with whom he had worked on her novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). McCullers’s marriage was on the rocks, and she also wanted to expand her circle. Then Davis contacted Auden, who had been struggling financially as well as artistically, and invited him to join in the venture, luring him into the house with the promise of low rent and a top-floor view of the Brooklyn Bridge. The British poet signed onto the project on the condition that he could bring Britten and Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, along. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, perhaps most famous as the author of The Berlin Diaries which was the source for the musical Cabaret, were struggling to survive in New York City, while at the same time dealing with the guilt of not being in Britain at the start of Hitler’s attacks. Auden accepted the offer, and the renovations and struggles for funding began, not to cease until the house was demolished.

The house on Middagh Street was home to an eclectic, constantly changing group of creative people who moved in and out of projects and relationships and who were often at odds with one another. To bring order to this chaos, Tippins focuses on individuals or couples for a portion of each chapter, approaching them biographically, which helps the reader to follow the events in their lives during the years at the house. Thus Tippins describes the creative, emotional, and physical upheavals in McCullers’s life as she moves to the house, leaving her husband, Reeves, behind, develops passions for various men and women, works on what at the time...

(The entire section is 1673 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Booklist 101, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2005): 803.

Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 23 (December 1, 2004): 1140-1141.

Library Journal 130, no. 2 (February 1, 2005): 80.

New Criterion 23, no. 10 (June, 2005): 74-78.

New Statesman 134, no. 4760 (October 3, 2005): 51-53.

The New York Times Book Review 154 (February 6, 2005): 8.

The New Yorker 81, no. 3 (March 7, 2005): 81.

The Spectator 299 (November 26, 2005): 44.

The Washington Post, February 13, 2005, p. T4.