Form and Content
Out in the World contains one hundred and thirty-three letters written by Jane Bowles between 1935 and 1970. They were edited by her biographer, the writer Millicent Dillon, whose understanding of her subject informed her decision to intersperse the letters she chose with brief excerpts from Bowles’s unfinished novel. Jane Bowles had hoped to call her second novel Out in the World.
Jane Bowles produced a relatively small but powerful body of work. Her first novel, Two Serious Ladies, was published in 1943. Her play In the Summer House had three productions from 1951 to 1953, including one in New York. Plain Pleasures, a collection of stories, was published in England in 1966, the same year in which The Collected Work of Jane Bowles was published in the United States. Her letters underscore her obsession with verbal precision as well as concerns in her life that prevail as themes in her writing: her search for a place to feel at home in the world, and her experience as a woman living at times independently of men.
The first few letters are high-spirited, stylish narratives that reflect her youthful bohemianism and her determination to write. Bowles wrote them in her late teenage years to friends in New York City, where she was living with her mother. The opening letter to George McMillan, a young man who worked in a Greenwich Village club, shows her talent for narrative and flair for dialogue. After having run away from home and come back, she describes with compassion and merciless humor her mother’s and her aunt’s distress over her defiance and her lesbianism. The letter shows that she did not mind revealing her foibles to her friends: “George, pardon the tone of all this but I’m trying to counterbalance all the emotion and drama that’s been hanging between us so that we could hardly see each other.”
There follows a group of letters that were written during the early 1940’s when she was working on the novel Two Serious Ladies in Mexico, after her marriage to writer-composer Paul Bowles. These letters are written primarily to composer Virgil Thompson and Jane’s best friend, Miriam Levy. After Paul Bowles traveled to Tangier, Morocco, in 1947, Jane Bowles wrote him many letters, trying to decide whether and when to join him there. She was also struggling with her writing and her sense of accomplishment, and she spent many pages explaining to her husband what she was trying to do with her writing and how she saw herself in comparison to her literary contemporaries. She wrote about her second novel to Paul: “The more I get into it . . . the more frightened I become at the isolated position I feel myself in vis-à-vis of all the writers whom I consider to be of any serious mind.” This is the period in which her struggle with writer’s block began: “My slowness is appalling and the number of hours when I simply lie on the bed without reading or thinking would shock you.”
Most of the letters in the collection were written to Paul Bowles. Many of the rest were addressed to Libby Holman, a close friend of Jane and Paul Bowles. She was a star of the musical stage and was perhaps Bowles’s closest friend in America. Bowles’s letters to Libby Holman are especially long and full of details. They discuss her excitement and anxieties about her work, its critical reception, Paul and his doings, those whom she has been seeing, and plans and arrangements for voyages and visits. There are a few letters to Cherifa, Jane Bowles’s Moroccan lover, and a few letters, some using pseudonyms, addressed to other women she took as lovers.
After suffering a stroke at age forty, Jane Bowles was left with residual aphasia. For some time, she could barely compose simple sentences, and she was unable to read back her work. For years afterward, she struggled to write and to remain independent, despite increasingly severe depression and the terrifying loss of her ability to carry out simple routines. Her letters to Paul Bowles and Libby Holman...
(The entire section is 3,566 words.)