Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 880

Laura Riding was born Laura Reichenthal. Her father, Nathan, a Polish Jew, was largely a self-educated man who had emigrated in 1884 when he was fifteen years old. He was a founding member of the American Socialist Party, and he hoped Laura was destined for a political career. She was the daughter of his second wife, Sadie Edersheim, a German immigrant. Laura attended the Girls’ High School, Brooklyn, but at fifteen years old she rebelled against her father’s wishes and announced her vocation to be poetry. Symbolically, she dropped her family name, calling herself thenceforth Laura Riding. She always revered her father for his goodness, but she saw poetry as a better way than politics to influence society.{$S[A]Reichenthal, Laura;Riding, Laura}{$S[A]Jackson, Laura Riding;Riding, Laura}{$S[A]Vara, Madeleine;Riding, Laura}{$S[A]Rich, Barbara;Riding, Laura}

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From 1918 to 1921 she attended Cornell University, but she did not graduate. Instead, in 1920 she married a professor, Louis Gottschalk, and began her career as a poet. Some of her poems to be published appeared in Fugitive, the poetry magazine edited at Vanderbilt University by John Crowe Ransom. It was the main vehicle of the group of southern poets that included Allen Tate. Riding saw herself as an honorary member of the Fugitive group, and they provided her first appreciative audience, giving her an award for her poem “The Quids.”

This poem also caught the eye of an English poet, Robert Graves, and he included a comparison of her with Gertrude Stein in his 1925 essay “Contemporary Techniques of Poetry.” He and his wife Nancy invited Riding, then living in Greenwich Village, to England. In the aftermath of her divorce, this plan suited her exactly; she also desired to find a more discerning audience. Her arrival in January, 1926, marked the beginning of a turbulent but strong and fruitful liaison between the two poets.

They worked together on A Survey of Modernist Poetry, considered by many to be a model of lucidity, with Riding contributing the material on American poetry. In the same year they started A Pamphlet Against Anthologies. A ménage à trois developed; Riding was more sexually liberated then Nancy Graves, and her strengths seemed to be what Graves, still suffering from shell-shock from his World War I experiences, needed. Although Graves admired Riding’s work immensely and sought to promote it, her poetry remained largely unrecognized. The Close Chaplet, for example, sold only twenty-five copies. In an effort to attain wider sales, they established their own press, the Seizin Press, largely with Graves’s money. In 1928, her essays in Contemporaries and Snobs and Anarchism Is Not Enough brought her into conflict with mainstream modernism, as she attacked as “vulgar” such writers as T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Marianne Moore.

In 1929 Riding jumped from a third-floor window as a result of difficulties with the complicated relationship involving her, Graves, and his wife. Graves’s guilt over this finally broke up his marriage and led to his resolve to leave England with Riding. They settled in the picturesque mountain village of Deya on the island of Majorca in the Mediterranean, where they lived together until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936. They attracted an assortment of literati and artists, and both worked hard on their own projects. Graves was always by far the more successful commercially, but he always insisted that Riding was the better writer and the person who had influenced him above all. Neither Riding’s projects (such as the Epilogue manifesto books and A Trojan Ending, her response to Graves’s I, Claudius) nor the Seizin Press fared well.

After a brief return to England and unsuccessful attempts to spread her idealism, Riding began to think of returning to the United States rather than to Majorca. An American critic and writer, Schuyler B. Jackson, had praised her work highly. She crossed the Atlantic with Graves in 1939 to stay on the Jacksons’ farm in Pennsylvania. Shortly after, she “renounced” poetry. She stated later in The Telling, her 1972 personal statement, that the language of poetry could take her no further toward the expression of truth: It was “failing my kind of seriousness.”

Riding broke up the Jacksons’ marriage. She and Graves parted, and Riding married Jackson in 1941 (becoming Laura Riding Jackson). She began working with him on a “Dictionary of Exact Meaning,” which has remained unpublished. Her views on reality and truth as a moral crusade often seem reminiscent of the first great dictionary maker, Dr. Samuel Johnson. Riding and Jackson eventually settled in Florida, where Jackson died in 1968. Belated recognition came to Riding in 1973 with a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1979 with a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. She died in 1991.

Although she eventually wrote more prose than poetry, it is as a poet that Riding will be remembered, particularly as a poet of the 1920’s. Her religious, even mystical devotion to poetry as a medium of truth, essentially Romantic rather than modernist, came from an unshakable sense of her own vocation and rightness. She had little time for those who claimed that her poetry was too difficult. She was reticent to have her poetry anthologized, so that it remains doubly inaccessible. Kenneth Rexroth has called her “the greatest lost poet in American literature.”

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