Im dying laughing, p.1

I'm Dying Laughing, page 1


I'm Dying Laughing

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I'm Dying Laughing

  I’m Dying Laughing

  The Humourist

  Christina Stead

  Edited and with a Preface by R. G. Geering

  For William Blake, novelist and economist

  My friend and husband, who helped me from the beginning



  Part One

  1 HOW IT BEGAN. 1935



  4 UNO 1945














  17 TRIPS









  The mockeries are not you …

  The pert apparel, the deform’d attitude, drunkenness, greed, premature death, all these I part aside …

  Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what you are picks its way.’

  (Walt Whitman, To You.

  Birds of Passage, 1881)


  CHRISTINA STEAD PAID HER first visit to the US in 1935. In New York she and William Blake (who was an American citizen) were to become associated with the magazine New Masses and to meet writers and others of the radical Left. She and Blake were back in Europe again in the following year but returned in 1937 to the US, where they lived throughout World War II. This second stay was the period in which she wrote and published The Man Who Loved Children (1940), For Love Alone (1944) and Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946). The Man Who Loved Children and Letty Fox were set in the United States, as were the next two novels, which came out after her return to Europe in 1947, A Little Tea, A Little Chat (1948) and The People With the Dogs (1952). This book, I’m Dying Laughing published now for the first time, is the only other novel of hers which grew out of the years she spent in America.

  The decades of the thirties, forties and fifties were critical times, culminating for the radical Left in the McCarthy witch hunts conducted through the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the Trial of the Hollywood Ten in 1947-8. In a radio interview in July 1973 Stead spoke of the ‘terrific convulsion in the USA’ in the thirties, and then of the McCarthy period as follows:

  It was very unpleasant. So many people, good worthy people were being attacked, and it was entirely for the worst political motives, they didn’t care about Reds, there weren’t enough Reds. They were all making their political ways, as some have done of course. Oh, it was a terrific moment, it was worth living through, it was great.

  The novelist shows out in that final sentence. From this period comes I’m Dying Laughing, which is based, in Stead’s usual way, on the fortunes of people she knew at first-hand.

  In an interview in June 1973 Stead described I’m Dying Laughing, which for a time she had dropped, in this way:

  It was all about the passion of-I use passion in almost the religious sense—of two people, two Americans, New Yorkers, in the thirties. They are doing well, but they suffered all the troubles of the thirties. They were politically minded. They went to Hollywood. They came to Europe to avoid the McCarthy trouble. Of course they were deeply involved. And then, they lived around Europe, oh, in a wild and exciting extravagant style. But there was nothing to support it. At the same time they wanted to be on the side of the angels, good Communists, good people, and also to be very rich. Well, of course … they came to a bad end.

  The earliest sketches for I’m Dying Laughing begin in the late 1940s. By September 1950, living in Montreux, Stead was down to serious work on the novel, then entitled The Renegade. ‘UNO 1945’ appeared in a special Christina Stead issue of Southerly in 1962 as ‘Chapter One of an Unpublished novel; I’m Dying Laughing.’ The writing of other books had intervened in the 1950s, Cotters’ England and Miss Herbert, both to be published years later. By 1966 Stead had completed I’m Dying Laughing and sent the manuscript to the United States. Many Americans had by then discovered, with the Stanley Burnshaw inspired reissue of The Man Who Loved Children, originally published in New York twenty-six years earlier, that Stead was a great writer; the time might have seemed right for another big novel. As it happened, she was urged to revise her manuscript, to make the political background of the 1940s and subsequent events clearer. This she set out to do and for the next ten years or more she worked on and off rewriting and revising. She came (rightly or wrongly) to regret this decision and to believe that she should have left the book, whatever its shortcomings, as it was. Working at it for so long she felt that she was being drawn into writing a different novel and into sacrificing some of the force of the original version.

  In a letter of April 1979 to me as her future literary trustee Christina Stead wrote that I was free to publish I’m Dying Laughing after her death if I thought fit. She seemed to assume that the manuscript, after all those years of rewriting, was in a publishable form. What I inherited, in fact, was a huge mass of typescript ranging in finish from rough to polished and in length from page bits to different versions of whole chapters, along with piles of basic and supplementary material. The typescript for the novel presented further editorial complications. The names of characters, their relationships, their ages and (sometimes) their appearances had undergone changes over the years and the pagination was often misleading. The greatest difficulties occurred in what now stands as Part One of the novel. The opening chapter (‘UNO 1945’) of the 1966 version here becomes Chapter 4, since much of the re-working of the early manuscript was designed to provide in an additional three chapters more information about the earlier years of Emily and Stephen in order to account for their difficulties with the Communist Party in the US in the 1940s. In this process the present Chapters 5 to 10 underwent considerable changes.

  Part Two posed fewer problems. I have incorporated wherever possible Stead’s handwritten emendations and have followed the excisions she made in the original manuscript. The first draft of the novel went straight through from Chapter 12 to the end without chapter divisions. As an aid to reading and in order to bring Part Two in line structurally with Part One, I have split this large body of material into separate chapters and have provided headings for what now become Chapters 13 to 24.

  I’m Dying Laughing is the most obviously political of all Christina Stead’s books but it is not a political novel in the manner of Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Given its economic, social and political background I’m Dying Laughing is concerned primarily with character and morality. Stead was quite clear about this in her accounts of the writing and rewriting. Americans, she said, have short memories even for crucial events but she felt that she had neither the talent nor the desire to remind them of their political history. She once described what was originally her first chapter and its relationship to the rest of the novel as follows:

  [It] is full of energy and [a] sort of a picture of the whole book in a way, except that I meant it to go on from fire to more fiery to fierier still; it has a very terrible dramatic end, I wanted it to be a build-up all the way through. But you can’t do that putting in political explanations.

  Emily and Stephen are the true centre, theirs is a story of destructive passion, misguided idealism and wasted talent; of self-indulgence, folly and b
etrayal. Emily now joins the gallery of Christina Stead’s most memorable characters, which includes Catherine and Michael Baguenault, Aristide Raccamond, Henri Léon, Sam, Henny and Louisa Pollit, Teresa Hawkins, Jonathan Crow, Honor Lawrence and Nellie Cook.

  Stead liked to think of her books as her children, to be reared and then sent out to take their chance in the world once the time came. After many years, I’m Dying Laughing is now ready to go. It will attract brickbats and bouquets. Predicting the responses and their justifications would be easy enough but this Preface is no place for such an exercise. This book is the last large-scale addition to the already substantial Stead oeuvre.

  Some anomalies remain after all the assembling and repair work I have done. There is no satisfactory account among the manuscript papers of the Howards’s move from New York to Los Angeles. Hence the gap between Chapters 3 and 4. Lennie drops out of the story when it shifts from the US to Europe, where the family is reduced to two adults and three children. I hope that no other obvious inconsistencies remain in the narrative.

  As with The Man Who Loved Children, the title, I’m Dying Laughing, is ironic. Emily Howard won fame as a writer of small-town American humour. The subtitle ‘The Humourist’, underlines her tragic story. The dedication of the book to William Blake is reproduced from the prefatory pages in Christina Stead’s manuscript papers.

  R. G. Geering, Sydney, July 1986.


  ‘I’m thirsty!’

  (Gargantua, Rabelais)

  1 HOW IT BEGAN. 1935

  THE LAST CABLE WAS off, the green lane between ship and dock widened. Emily kept calling and waving to the three below, Ben, a press photographer, her brother Arnold and his wife Betty. Arnold was twenty-three, two years younger than herself; Betty was twenty-four. Arnold was a dark fleshy man, sensual, self-confident, he fooled around, had never finished high school. From Seattle he came to New York after her and she had helped him out for a while. He now was working on a relief project for the WPA and earning about a hundred dollars a month. Betty was a teacher, soon to have a child. She was a big, fair girl, bolder than Arnold. She had already had a child by Arnold, when they were going together, had gone to Ireland to some relatives to have it. Arnold had never seen it, but Emily regularly gave them money for it. It was a boy four years old and named Leonard.

  This couple badly wanted to go to Europe. They had argued it out with Emily in their rathole in Bleecker Street. They wanted to open an arts service somewhere around Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue. Betty’s idea was to go to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Florence and Prague to collect new notions and curios, Wiener Werkstätte, art objects, Käthe Kollwitz dolls, Raymond Duncan batiks, to sell in their store and by catalogue throughout the United States.

  ‘In the Depression?’ Emily objected.

  ‘All the artists are working for the Government; on projects. They’re spreading art through the Union. Every village has its theatre in a barn; they’re getting to see there’s art in Bowery bums and the old-time oil paintings in Wild West saloons. The Depression is good for art. Besides, the Depression is not so deep now.’

  Their idea was that Emily was to back them and sustain them till the business made money. If they ran out of cash in Europe, Emily would send it; that is, if she stayed in New York at her job; and then there was Lennie. Betty would visit her son while abroad. He lived with Betty’s old nurse outside Belfast. Emily could wait for Europe till next year; but she observed that already, in their plans, were yearly visits to Europe, to see what was new.

  Emily had several times offered to bring Lennie to the States. Why couldn’t she have a photograph of the bambino at least, in return for her support? But no, Betty’s old nurse was a superstitious old darling. She did not believe in photographs.

  ‘But I love Lennie,’ cried Emily, ‘I want to hold him in my arms. I feel as if he’s partly mine.’

  She could not even get his address.

  ‘It would never do. It would so frighten Mary-Martha, the old darling. She would not understand a stranger writing.’

  Emily longed for him. She even shouted at Betty.

  ‘Are you going to plant the next one in Scotland? Maybe with Lindbergh’s dear old nurse, or Lizzie Borden’s dear old servant?’

  This and her longing to see Europe strengthened her: she refused to buy their tickets. Next year.

  ‘But then we’ll have the child.’

  She at once saw they might leave the new child with her. She rejoiced.

  ‘If I’m lucky, kids, and sell articles on “Europe Today—Another Bonehead Abroad” to the Toonerville Times and the Wabash Weekly, I’ll be able to send you and keep the kid with a nurse. But I’ve got to have the material first.’

  ‘Couldn’t you write it up here—read the foreign press?’ said Arnold.

  Emily rolled back on their divan, laughing, ‘Gee whittaker, what crust! I go now, you go later.’

  They gave a farewell party and were now seeing her off.

  ‘I’m glad they haven’t brought their luggage with them,’ she said to her colleague, Ben Boakes, the press photographer; ‘and even now, I’m not convinced. Heigh-ho, you know the famous Hollywood crack, “May you be the richest of your family! Get to Hollywood and wait for the swarm to settle on you.” That’s my fate. Fifty years hence, Ben, I’ll be struggling for a byline, Irish Lennie will be fifty-four and spending my pittance in the dramshop and they’ll be where they are today, feeding from flybitten cans in a Village one-room pleasance. Read your fate in the cloudy crystal, with Emily Wilkes.’

  Now, at the rail, she grinned, pointed to the roses on her arm, shouted, nodded, wiped her eyes, with big gestures, so that they could see.

  ‘Hooray, hooray, I made it!’

  She turned to the lean, dark man standing beside her, a middle-aged man, her height, dressed as a workman. She saw his smile, and said, ‘Sigh, blissful sigh! Until they unhooked that damn rope, I didn’t know if they weren’t going to crawl up the rope, first prize the greasy pig. Me.’

  He looked quickly at her, laughed wider, and said in a low, hesitating voice, ‘Who are they?’

  ‘Family, family! No other explanation necessary. I’ve got the kind of family with gluey toes like that night-animal with big eyes. I’m Big Sis, who works even at the bottom of the Depression. Why should my loved ones work? Nay, nay. They’re good kids. I’m not mean and sour. I’m just so darn glad to get away.’

  ‘Going to Paris?’

  ‘Yes. You’re a New Yorker, I can tell,’ said she.


  ‘I’m West Coast. I was born in Tacoma. But I’ve worked in Portland, St Louis, Kansas City and a little while in Chicago. I thought I’d settle there. I fell for a smiler with a paper-knife on the news desk. Lucky for me, he said no. Lucky for me I was booted out.’

  ‘Lost your job?’

  ‘You ought to be right. But fact is, I won a prize in journalism, that brought me to New York, and here I am a rolling stone looking for moss.’

  He was a journalist also; he was a daily columnist on the Labor Daily, a workers’ paper published in New York. She knew it, a four-page paper.

  ‘Do you really have a workers’ circulation or is it for the intellectual reds in WPA? A daily labour paper is a luxury for workers. They don’t want to be peculiar people: they like to have the paper other people have.’

  They discussed it. She asked if he was going to Europe for reportage, to Russia perhaps?

  ‘I-uh-h’m,’ he murmured with a seductive wrinkling grin sideways on his thin Mayan face. Mayan? Or Micronesian? What? One of those dark, flask-shaped faces sprinkled throughout male humanity. He said, looking at her bouquet.

  ‘Nice pink roses. Girls like roses.’

  In another minute or so, he saluted her, hand to cap, took himself off, ambling brokenly, hands dangling, his face sad and graven, like a prehistoric vase. She noticed his down-at-heel shoes, his old jacket.

  Many had gone below, some were scanning t
he dull shores, trying to feel farewell. She looked down at the three tugs, in her mind scribbling a story. There was a tall, strong boy leaning against the wheelhouse of the nearest tug, smoking, not even lifting his eyes to the dangerous steel monster overhanging him, and that could easily crush him and the sturdy little tug. She threw her roses at him—they hit the water and were sucked in. She said to the woman next to her,

  ‘Typical! Drown my roses like a pup. Probably the only bouquet I’ll ever get.’

  The woman, middle-sized, plump with an oatmeal-coloured skin and big, dark eyes, looked at Emily and turned away. Emily burst into chatter. The woman turned back. Her dark hair was bobbed. She wore a white flannel blouse with a high neck, a grey and white tie and a black skirt. Then, with surprising gentleness, the woman said,

  ‘I’ll take a walk, I think.’

  People had moved up on her left. Emily glanced at them. Two burly businessmen in new, tailored suits were talking about a bargain property in Queens, the owner about to go bankrupt. Depression stories, she said to herself, looking about. Suddenly she laughed and exclaimed, ‘See that! I’ve been here twenty-four years and forty-one days, that is, I was born here, and I never saw her before. And now I’m turning my back on her.’

  They were passing the Statue of Liberty. The men paused and the nearer one turned his head slightly. Emily was fleshy, rosy, wearing a silk dress, tawny background with a big, fruity pattern. He took his elbow off the rail, and their glances slid all over her, fine stockings, small fat feet in purple slippers. She gave them a glance and cheerily said, ‘I won a prize in high school for writing about her. La sforza del destino. Ah, me! I know everything there is to know about that dame. She’s French, their idea of the wheatfed goddess. Her nose is Greek, four feet six inches long; but her waist, oh, her waist, is thirty-five feet round. Mrs Midwest America herself; can you see her in a mother hubbard?’

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