To be like us isn’t easy

Emily Cooke

  • Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker
    NYRB, 185 pp, £8.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 1 59017 577 4
  • Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
    NYRB, 241 pp, £8.99, September 2012, ISBN 978 1 59017 601 6

In 1962, the daughter of a friend of Dorothy Baker’s went up to her house in Terra Bella, California, to interview the 55-year-old novelist. ‘What is your real purpose in this thing?’ Baker said as the tape began to roll. The interviewer replied that the material might eventually be interesting to literary historians. It’s easy to imagine Baker raising her eyebrows at the answer. She could see why one might want to read interviews with, say, Herman Melville, but couldn’t see the point in being recorded herself. She was, she said, ‘not quite good enough’, or at least not ‘good enough to be considered good’. Her name didn’t rank: she was ‘not one of the good writers of the United States’. Her reputation had followed ‘a steady progression downhill’, and all in all she was ‘very sad and considerably depressed’ about her ‘so-called career’.

If critical reception is the measure, Baker’s story of her own decline was not too far off the mark. Her first book, Young Man with a Horn (1938), published when she was 31, was a hit with critics and a medium-sized public – among secondhand booksellers old editions are still a familiar sight – and was made into a movie with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall, but no subsequent book did as well. Her second novel, Trio (1943), had explicit homosexual themes and, according to her, appealed only to a ‘coterie’ audience. A play based on Trio was closed in New York on grounds of obscenity. Our Gifted Son (1948) flopped. Baker moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts to the Terra Bella ranch with her husband and child – and another on the way – and didn’t write another book for a decade. The fourth and final novel, Cassandra at the Wedding (1962), did better, winning the admiration of Alfred Kazin and Carson McCullers. Still, a good portion of the 1962 interview concerns Baker’s sense of failure. Twenty-five years into her career, she was not among the handful of writers considered the very best. The fact desolated her.

Baker’s disgruntlement is hardly unique among novelists, for whom a pathological attachment to reputation and a dread of amounting to nothing are near job requirements. And what writer isn’t a failure when judged by her own private standards? Nobody else knows the imaginary heights of her devising, and nobody much cares. Yet there’s something particularly female in Baker’s diffidence and defeatism, her alternately good-humoured and anguished self-deprecation. She never achieved more fame in part because she was a woman of nebulous sexuality writing about other women in similar clouds, not to mention about black people and Mexicans. She was too much drawn to the margins.

Baker died of cancer in 1968. Her belief in her own unimportance went largely uncontradicted until 2007, when Cassandra at the Wedding was reissued, followed last year by Young Man with a Horn. Originally published 24 years apart, these marvellous books are witty and assured. Her tone is dark but jaunty, the writing off-handedly smart. Writing about thwarted lesbianism and realised musical genius, Baker wasn’t the failure she imagined being. But neither is she precisely a single-minded talent of the kind she writes about. The young men and women who populate her work live intensely and expect much from life in the bohemian way. In Cassandra at the Wedding, Cassie can’t bear ‘marriage, conventions, stodginess, short-sightedness, self-delusion, betrayal’. Baker’s characters are more than usually wary of the ‘menacing mass of clichés that are thrust on us from the outside’. At least one of them considers suicide a serious alternative to a middling life. They feel themselves to be special, and some of them are. Young Man with a Horn follows the career of a jazz prodigy, inspired by the cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, to his early death from alcoholism and pneumonia. Trio features a budding female academic who escapes an affair with an older, celebrated woman professor by running off with a footloose young man. The Mexican aristocrat hero of Our Gifted Son is an exceptional pianist recovering from his mother’s suicide. His musical gift is shared by Judith, one of the twin-sister narrators of Cassandra. Cassie, the other sister, is a troubled but obviously talented writer. Baker’s characters have gifts and they defend them. ‘To be like us isn’t easy,’ Cassie jokes aloud, though she means it: ‘it requires constant attention to detail.’ The irony protects keen sincerity. ‘It’s my whole trouble, but it’s also my one certainty – to know how serious I can be about what I love.’

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