Tickle and Flutter
Terry Castle on the strange career of Maude Hutchins
Leaf through old New York Times reviews of the novels of Maude Hutchins – from the 1950s and early 1960s especially, when her reputation was at its height – and one is instantly struck by it: the old-maid-like embarrassment she aroused in her critics. Not one of them could get through an essay about her, it seems, without a biddyish dilation on the carnality of her themes. ‘Maude Hutchins,’ James Kelly wrote in 1955, does ‘as she pleases’ as a novelist and ‘to date what has pleased her most is s-e-x as observed and enjoyed from the feminine vantage point.’ Hutchins, Maxwell Geismar said, was a writer who went about ‘describing casually all the “taboo” subjects that are perhaps better repressed’. ‘A career of this kind,’ Stanley Kauffmann wrote in 1964,
that takes sexual and other sensory pleasures so seriously, is unusual. Many novelists pass through such a period, but there comes a time when ‘then they went to bed’ suffices; or when the bed is to society what war was to von Clausewitz, a continuation of politics by other means. To remain as interested intrinsically in sex as Colette was all her life long, and as Mrs Hutchins continues to be, requires an almost monastic single-mindedness.
Now some of the coquettishness here – s-e-x – is simply that of the time and place. As late as 1964, as the nervous joking reminds us, many of those unbuttoned attitudes we now associate with the ‘sexual revolution’ of the second half of the 20th century had yet fully to infiltrate the world of American letters. Premarital sex and birth control remained inflammatory subjects. Homosexuality and masturbation were largely unmentionable. Mildly explicit works of art could be banned for obscenity (and were). Nude scenes were proscribed in films and on television. It is true that a number of influential mavericks – from Nabokov and Henry Miller to William Burroughs, James Baldwin, Philip Roth and the Beats – had been chipping away at the old taboos. But it still took courage to challenge the stultifying pieties of middlebrow culture. Being a woman didn’t help. (Does it ever?) Over the course of an admittedly strange and somewhat ill-starred career, Maude Hutchins seems to have provoked more than her share of misogynistic sex-baiting and condescension.
Yet in some uneasy degree one may also sympathise with Hutchins’s first critics. There is something peculiar about the novelist’s erotic preoccupations, her almost queasy-making interest in the sensations of embodiment. Witness the first paragraphs of Victorine, the best of the eight, now mostly forgotten novels Hutchins published between 1948 and 1965. The book opens with Hutchins’s heroine, 12-year-old Victorine, on her way to church:
Victorine felt a lovely thrill in her very bones, a sweet taste in her mouth and along the edges of her teeth, and her thighs felt soft and warm and pneumatic to the touch of her palms, even through her gloves, as she walked to church alone. ‘Please, oh, please, oh, please, I want to go alone,’ and They had let her.
‘They’ are Victorine’s oddly named parents, Homer and Allison L’Hommedieu, upper-middle-class denizens of a staid New England village. As official family changeling, Victorine will ignore them for much of the novel, even as her older brother, Costello (shy and broody and horny, ‘as if there were milk in him’), struggles, rather more defiantly, to escape the banality they represent. During the church service itself, after Victorine sucks down a ‘big swallow’ of communion wine, so quickly and avidly that the startled clergyman, the Reverend Fulton-Peate, is unable to tilt the cup back in his usual mincing manner, she feels ‘the colour hit her cheeks and her insides respond to Jesus’ blood at the same time. She felt it like a hot thread exploring her intestines.’ Yikes. No wonder the pale reverend recoils.
It’s all a bit hysterical, of course, like Victorine herself. (She is on the visionary cusp of puberty and desperately trying to avoid growing up.) Yet at the same time it is hard not to feel – however obscurely – the inward sensations described here. The language itself acts as a weird kinaesthetic prompt. As the novel unfolds – delicately alternating between Victorine’s regressive daydreams and the very real sentimental education of Costello – this flagrant appeal to the reader’s own body-world will be both incessant and disquieting. To read Hutchins with any pleasure, and this is both the good news and the bad news, one must be willing to be aroused, if not embarrassed, by her sensual provocations. The embarrassment is part of the plan: it means that you’re alive.
Why this urge to tickle and flutter? (Even Nature is prurient in Hutchins: walking home in the ‘fresh November air’, Victorine imagines the trees by the roadside experiencing that ‘thousand-felt loss, the pinprick severance of uncountable leaves causing tiny lesions and abrasions, a strange inevitable infinite mutilation, pleasurable perhaps, like a passionate itch’.) The Hutchins back story, a baleful one, sheds some light here, both on the vicissitudes of the career and the frank titillations of style. Like other taboo-breaking writers – D.H. Lawrence and Sylvia Plath come to mind – Hutchins seems to have written for some fairly unpleasant emotional reasons, and the wish to mortify her nearest and dearest was no doubt among them. Such difficult wishing may be far more deeply implicated in artistic creation than is often acknowledged. Hutchins was difficult from the start: proud, incorrigible, intransigent and wedded to revenge.
But against whom exactly? Born in 1899 into an old and genteel New York family – her father was Warren McVeigh, editor of the New York Sun, and her mother one of the Phelpses of Long Island – Hutchins was orphaned at an early age and raised by a grandfather and a wealthy aunt. Like the skittish Victorine, she seems to have been lonely and fantastical from the outset. She was also ambitious, highly intelligent and, to judge by photos, strikingly attractive. Art was her first emotional outlet: she began sculpting in her teens and later earned a degree from the Yale School of Fine Arts. In 1925 she received first prize in a competition sponsored by the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design for a daring draped male nude entitled Disarmament.
Over subsequent decades she would work hard – though never with great success – at being a visual artist. She had solo shows in New York and Chicago, carved portrait busts, and had a book of Beardsleyesque silverpoint nudes published in 1932. (The last, a vanity production called Diagrammatics, was a collaboration with the University of Chicago philosophy professor Mortimer Adler, who contributed Gertrude Stein-like nonsense ‘poems’ to accompany Hutchins’s drawings.) But one also gets the sense that none of this added up to much. While scattered references to her can still be found in old art directories – Who’s Who in American Art and the like – Hutchins never received either the praise she thought she deserved, or recognition enough to relieve her increasingly urgent psychic needs.
Nor are the reasons far to seek. From 1921 to 1948 – nearly the first half of her adult life – Hutchins found herself upstaged, maddeningly enough, by an authentic boy wonder. Shortly before she began her college art studies Maude Phelps McVeigh married the precocious, prodigious, ‘collar-ad handsome’ Robert Maynard Hutchins, a brilliant young teacher and law student who became secretary to the Yale Corporation in 1923 at the age of 24. In 1928, soon after receiving his law degree and a professorship, he was made dean of the Law School – the youngest in Yale history. But that was hardly the end of it. The next year, at the age of 30, he was made president of the University of Chicago – the youngest ever in its history. When he and Maude arrived in Hyde Park in 1929, the news was reported around the globe. Hutchins presided over the university for the next two decades, and at the height of his prestige, in the later 1930s, not only was he regarded as an obvious candidate for the Supreme Court, but his most ardent admirers urged him to run for president of the United States.