The Forgotten Story of Mary MacLane, 1902's Racy, Angsty Teenage Diarist

She wrote about her ambivalence toward marriage and her desire for other women, long before provocative, confessional writing was a genre of its own.
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Melville House

"Had I been born a man," Mary MacLane writes in her 1902 debut The Story of Mary MacLane, "I would by now have made a deep impression on the world." These blunt words of a 19-year-old girl in Butte, Montana, are found in what the The New York Times called the "first of the confessional diaries" in America. Just months after finishing high school, MacLane, a self-proclaimed "genius," sent her manuscript to Chicago publisher George H. Doran, who "discovered the most astounding and revealing piece of realism I had read"—this, coming from the publisher of Arthur Conan Doyle, P.G. Wodehouse, and Theodore Roosevelt—but "clearly, we could not publish it." Doran forwarded the manuscript to Herbert S. Stone & Company, and they published it immediately.

The diaries ignited a national uproar, ushering in a new era for women's voices. In the first month alone, 100,000 copies were sold and it later landed on the New York Times' summer reading list. A baseball team, a cocktail, and "Mary MacLane Clubs" were named in her honor. MacLane's critical reception, unsurprisingly, was wide-ranging. Her book was banned at her hometown library. The New York Herald contended, "It is only charity to think that Mary MacLane is mad." Yet it was praised by Mark Twain, called "little short of a miracle" by Clarence Darrow, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, after a period of depression, wrote: "I now admire myself almost as much as Wm Seabrook, Mary MacLane, and Casanova."

Inspired by the diaries of Russian artist Marie Bashkirtseff, MacLane's prose is lyrical, sharp, bizarre, and anguished. The "barrenness" of existence is at the forefront: "It is not deaths and murders and plots and wars that make life tragedy. It is Nothing that makes life tragedy." Her life is a monotonous routine: "I rise in the morning; eat three meals; and walk; and work a little, read a little, write; see some uninteresting people; go to bed." Ad infinitum.

MacLane creates the "Devil," an imaginary creature who created her "without a conscience," a primary character in her diaries, representing experience, sensuality, and hedonism. She alternates between lust and admiration for the Devil, impatiently waiting to join his world of pleasure. He "constructed a place of infinite torture—the fair green earth, the world. But he has made that other infinite thing—Happiness." MacLane calls on the Devil to release her from mind-numbing, small-town life—and begs for marriage. The Devil asks, "If I were to marry you how long would you be happy?" "For three days." (She also wrote of marrying Napoleon for three days.). "You are wonderfully wise in some things," he replies, "though you are still very young."

But perhaps even more scandalous for the times than MacLane's longing for the Devil—a man—is MacLane's desire for a woman.

"I love Fannie Corbin," she writes, of her former schoolteacher, "with a peculiar and vivid intensity." MacLane doesn't declares herself a lesbian until her third and final "Me-book," I, Mary MacLane, (1917), written when she was "at a lowering impatient shoulder-shrugging life-point where I must express myself or lose myself or break." In I, Mary, she describes being "kissed by Lesbian lips in a way which filled my throat with a sudden subtle pagan blood-flavored wistfulness." Still, her early writing leaves little doubt about her ambivalence towards her sexuality. Towards Miss Corbin, MacLane senses "a strange attraction of sex. There is a masculine element in me that... arises and overshadows all the others." By asking, "Do you think a man is the only creature with whom one may fall in love?" MacLane challenged heterosexual norms.

MacLane's feelings about being a woman, the "plague-tainted name," and her role in society, were complicated. She loved her "excellent strong young woman's-body" and enjoyed the simple physical act of housework. When asked in a 1902 interview by Zona Gale: "What would you rather do with your life than anything in the world?" MacLane answered, "I would rather be a fairly happy wife and mother. There is nothing better in the world."

But, she said, "I never shall be."

Devoted to her work and eager to see its impact on the world, MacLane saw limitations in the roles women were expected to assume. Despite wanting the Devil's hand in holy matrimony, she questioned the institution of marriage. "How many of them love each other?" MacLane wrote of married couples. "Not two in a hundred, I warrant. The marriage ceremony is their one miserable petty paltry excuse for living together." And, sixty years before The Feminine Mystique was unveiled, MacLane warned of the suffocation of a domestic life. A woman is "born out of her mother's fair body, branded with a strange, plague-tainted name, and let go," MacLane writes, "But before she dies she awakes. There is a pain that goes with it."

MacLane did not fall neatly into any category. After harshly criticizing life and society in Butte, she later defended her hometown, telling reporters she found people in Cambridge, Mass., less interesting than those in Montana. In spite of her own rigorous study of literature, she found intellectuals "detestable." And, even with her convictions about women's rights and support of women's suffrage, she wasn't political—"she didn't campaign or march or join groups," MacLane scholar Michael R. Brown told me in an interview. She was, Brown asserts, "completely unapologetic" in standing alone.

MacLane's greatest wish was to be understood. She wanted to "give to the world a naked Portrayal of Mary MacLane: her wooden heart, her good young woman's-body, her mind, her soul." She sent her story to the "wise wide world" in the hopes that her voice would be heard.

In 1929, at age 48, MacLane was discovered dead of "unknown causes" in a Chicago rooming house. In her lifetime, she had produced three books, a handful of articles, and a silent movie. MacLane's elegant, ambitious embrace of full-disclosure had opened a door to what was possible for women; sadly, her work disappeared from national consciousness almost as quickly as it had entered.

Beyond the vivid language and eccentric imagination displayed in LacLane's diaries (republished today under MacLane's original title, I Await the Devil's Coming,), her writing reminds us of the power of personal narrative, honestly told. And, back in 1902, those were rare.

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Hope Reese is a writer and editor based in Louisville, Kentucky. She writes for The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, and The Paris Review. She also hosts a radio podcast for IdeaFestival. Her website is hopereese.com.

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