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MOVING THROUGH A PARALLEL UNIVERSE

As Jong’s character Isadora Wing observes in How To Save Your Own Life, published in 1977, "Books go out into the world, travel mysteriously from hand to hand, and somehow find their way to people who need them at the times when they need them." Clearly millions of women needed Fear of Flying in the early 1970s. By early 1975 it had hit number one on the New York Times Best-Seller list. Jong became a high-voltage celebrity, and celebrity would be the target of her deft satire in her second novel, How To Save Your Own Life (1977).

Like Fear of Flying, How To Save Your Own Life is narrated by Isadora, who will also be central to Parachutes & Kisses (1984) and will "author" Any Woman’s Blues (1990), a manuscript brought to print by a fictitious feminist critic after a plane Isadora is piloting disappears mysteriously over the South Pacific. But in none of these sequels will Isadora be as much of  "amanuensis to the Zeitgeist" (as she puts it) as she turned out to be in Fear of Flying.

Jong, who in her first book of poems celebrated the multilayered nature of the onion, creates onion-like layers of authorship and authenticity and in her "Isadora" tetralogy. By the time How to Save Your Own Life comes out, Isadora Wing, the fictional heroine of Fear of Flying, is herself the author of the novel Candida Confesses, a book that (like Fear of Flying) contained many autobiographical elements and brought its author celebrity, notoriety, ill-fated movie deals, and kinky mash notes from flakes in all corners of the country. Isadora, who is herself Jong’s creation, spends much time discussing the ways in which Candida Wong (Isadora’s creation) is and is not modeled on Isadora Wing. Meanwhile, back in real life, Erica Jong moves through a distinctly parallel universe during these years spending much time discussing the ways in which Isadora Wing is and is not Erica Jong.

Critical responses to these volumes almost always veered into "did she or didn’t she" speculations about the extent to which Isadora’s experiences reflected Jong’s. As Jong told Playboy interviewer Gretchen McNeese in 1975, "Sure, there’s a lot of me in Isadora, but a lot of characters and events in the book are totally invented. I didn’t set out to write autobiography; I set out to write a satirical novel about a woman in search of her own identity, and I did not stick to facts very closely—frequently not at all." Correspondences between Jong’s life and that of her heroine were striking: both had grown up in a family of painters in a middle-class Jewish home in Manhattan; both had gone to Barnard; both had published poetry before turning to fiction; both had been married to Chinese-American psychoanalysts; and both had published an exuberantly bawdy first novel that triggered endless probing into what, exactly, was taken from life and what was made up. In the family of "portraitists and still-life painters" in which she grew up, Isadora observes in How to Save Your Own Life, "It was family wisdom that you painted what you had at home…. You could learn chiaroscuro, color, composition as well from an apple or an onion or your own familiar face as from the fountains of Rome or the storm clouds of Venice." Isadora tells us that

I had modeled Candida after myself, yet she was both more and less than the real Isadora. Superficially, the likeness was easy enough to spot: a nice Jewish girl from the Upper West Side, a writer of poems and stories, a compulsive daydreamer. Yet Candida was frozen in a book, while I was, I hoped, growing. I had outgrown many of the desires that motivated her, many of the fears that trapped her. Yet my public insisted on an exact equivalency between her and me—because my heroine, astoundingly enough, had turned out to be amanuensis to the Zeitgeist.

This amazing development surprised no one more than me. When I invented Candida Wong (with her wise-ass manner, her outspokenness about sex, and her determined bookishness), I was convinced that she was either unfit for print or else so precious that no one but a few other wise-ass Jewish girls from the Upper West Side could relate to her. But I was wrong. As Candida felt, so felt the nation. And no one could have been more surprised than her creator.

Millions of copies later, I began to wonder whether I had created Candida or whether she had, in fact, created me.

Clearly Isadora had done much to catapult Jong to the celebrity that she chronicled in the sequels—but that celebrity turned out to be a decidedly mixed blessing.

Jong herself was trapped, in some ways, by the success Fear of Flying had enjoyed. First, she was trapped by the impossible demand of coming up with a second act to the revolution: Fear of Flying helped usher in such fresh possibilities for honesty in women’s writing, helped open the culture to so much that had been repressed before, that by the time How to Save Your Own Life came out four years later, it couldn’t help but seem at least somewhat derivative as it continued doing more of the same. Secondly, the sheer enormity of the sales of Fear of Flying led some critics to think of her work as "popular culture" rather than "literature," as if mass appeal somehow disqualified a novel from being taken seriously as art; this classification gave critics an excuse to focus on the heroine’s sexual exploits, or the roman à clef aspects of the book, rather than focusing on Jong’s talents as a satirist of contemporary manners and mores. This is unfortunate, since those talents are considerable.

How to Save Your Own Life finds Isadora still married to a psychiatrist "who regarded life as a long disease, alleviated by little fifty-minute bloodlettings of words from the couch." There was something in her husband’s "very manner, carriage, and monotonous way of speaking" that Isadora finds "life-denying." But she doesn’t have the courage to leave him and set out on her own until he confesses to having had a long-term affair back in Heidelberg with a mutual friend, a housewife to whom he made love in Isadora’s study, amidst her unpublished manuscripts. Outraged by this betrayal, Isadora sets out for Hollywood lured by a possible motion picture deal.

En route Jong paints a gallery of unforgettable figures with walk-on parts, one of whom—Jeannie Morton-- is a thinly-veiled version of the poet Anne Sexton, whose "images (even of God) were kitchen images, plain aluminum utensils to serve the Lord, Pyrex casseroles to simmer the Holy Spirit." Morton, Isadora tells readers, 

was easy to mock. Where a male poet would have been taken seriously—even if he saw God in a hunting knife or the wound of a war buddy—she was mocked because it is harder for many people to understand that the womb (with its red blood) is as apt a vessel for the muse or for God as the penis (with its white sperm).

Another memorable character is Gretchen, a tall, blonde Marxist-feminist lawyer who "has so much life-force that she makes everyone else in the room feel drained." Gretchen is the owner of a loft reserved for romantic assignations and inventor of the "F" Questionnaire "a simple quiz designed for feminists to determine which men are safe to fuck." Then there is Holly, a painter who lives surrounded by African violets, potted avocados, lemon trees, and gardenias, and who has often explained to Isadora, "with considerable passion, that the fern, that ancient botanical specimen, has the ideal life situation. It is self-nourishing, self-fertilizing, contains sexual and asexual life-styles within its own lifetime, and it is actually immortal. Or at least some part of it is always alive." Isadora has "never met anyone who clearly wanted to be a plant, but Holly makes it seem extremely attractive." And then there is Hope, an old family friend "who gave everything away. She was a human potlatch." It is Isadora’s relationships with these intensely-caring, vividly-drawn women-friends that prompted Craig Fisher to describe the book (in the Los Angeles Times) as "a paean to friendship."

How to Save Your Own Life is also a lively satire on Hollywood. Isadora tells, for example, that "there is a certain kind of grayish, stoop-shouldered beaten screenwriter one meets in Hollywood," who once (he says) could have written a novel, but who believes it is now too late. 

He was rich, but he was not happy. He had seen his lifework rewritten by illiterate producers, his best aphorisms mangled by arrogant actors, his philosophical nuggets crushed by directors, mushed by assistant directors, and trampled to dust by the Italian-leather soles of executive producers’ shoes. He was a beaten man, an intellectual derelict, a Bowery bum of letters. They had taken away his words and given him money instead. And it was a lousy bargain. He spent an hour wishing he were me.

 Then there is the self-made "millionaire with a weakness for trendy self-improvement and a tendency to sound like a California Khalil Gibran" who spouts platitudes while joined by Isadora and others "all naked and simmering in a great redwood tub of bubbling water—like kreplach bobbing in a vat of chicken soup." Isadora writes.

We live in a society," Isadora writes, where everyone habitually lies about their feelings—so there is an immense gratitude toward anyone who even tries to tell the truth. I suppose this is why certain authors are worshipped as cult figures. We may disdain truth in our daily lives but we are that much more relieved and exhilarated when we find someone at least trying to express it in a book.

Telling the truth about her feelings is something Isadora does well . "There was all sorts of sex in my life and not very much intimacy," she writes, before Josh Ace, the new love of her life, enters the scene. (As Jong told the Playboy interviewer, "Men consider intimacy as a weakness. That’s part of the sexist brainwashing our society subjects men to.) The movie doesn’t materialize but the new man does. How to Save Your Own Life ends with Isadora enthralled by her new love, an aspiring writer several years her junior who is good at both intimacy and sex.

Seven years later, however, Isadora’s fortunes have changed. When Parachutes & Kisses begins, Josh has left, blaming Isadora for the gap between his modest reputation and her exploding one, and Isadora is a single mother struggling to work, find love and companionship, and raise a bright three-year-old with the help of a motley series of nannies (including one obsessed with hellfire and brimstone and another obsessed with a loutish carpenter). As Jong observed to Gil Pyrah of the (London) Times, the book "is about having it all in the 1980s. Isadora exemplified the 1970s woman and now, in the 1980s, we are trying to be single parents, breadwinners, and feminine at the same time."

There is still a lot of sex in the book despite the fact that, as Isadora tells us, "it isn’t fashionable to write too much about sex anymore."

In the seventies, post-Portnoy, you couldn’t pick up a novel, it seemed without getting sperm on your hands. Not only the hacksters and fucksters, but literary writers, good writers, had to chart the interiors of vaginas as if they were the caves of Lascaux (and all primordial truth were writ therein). Women were discovering the poetry of penises; men were unmasking before the Great Goddess Cunt.

But then the hacksters got hold of sex and ruined it for everyone—like condominium developers ruining Florida. They took the license to explore Lascaux as a license to kill little girls; they turned the poetry of the penis into stag films so loathsome they made you want to become a nun. Before long the puritans were howling—"See! We told you how awful sex is! You should have listened to us! We were right about censorship! Put the mask back on!"

And all the poetry of the penis, the sweet sexuality that peeked out of the fly of the Brooks Brothers pants for a brief decade was in danger of being covered up again….And Isadora’s old buddies, the feminists, are passing out leaflets on street corners protesting pornography, trying to make the world believe that people molest little girls because of pornography (rather than pornography flourishes because people want to molest little girls), and in general doing their best to blur the distinction between sex and rage.

Times have changed since 1973—and not only when it comes to writing about sex in literature. By 1984, feminism itself is increasingly subject to new attacks, and this hostility inevitably rubbed off on the most famous feminist heroine of the previous decade, Isadora Wing.

In Parachutes & Kisses Isadora does much more than jump in and out of bed (she survives single-parenthood, develops a sustaining relationship with a new love, and travels to Russia in search of her roots. One critic, Lillian Robinson, even credits her with embarking on her own version of the Odyssey). She still seeks the same combinations of work and love that eluded her in her earlier incarnation. But if Isadora’s needs remain basically the same, the feminism that helped validate and fuel them had, by 1984, to some extent gone out of fashion. Whether due to changes in the Zeitgeist or changes in Jong’s own style or both (this book, unlike the others, has a third-person, rather than first-person narrator), the book received decidedly mixed reviews. Citing the "postfeminist" political climate of the eighties, Charlotte Templin noted that "A number of reviewers fault Isadora for her failures in family life" and criticize her lack of sympathy for the mid-life crises of men.

Isadora herself is presented as the author Any Woman’s Blues, published in 1990 and introduced by an imaginary feminist scholar who found the manuscript after Isadora’s plane disappeared. Jong told Chicago Tribune writer Lynn Van Matre that 

I knew I wanted to write a fable of a woman living in the Reagan era of excess and greed and avarice, an artist at the height of her powers who is hopelessly addicted to a younger man and goes through all the different states of change to get free.

The book’s protagonist, Leila Sand is a successful artist and a self-described addict, addicted to alcohol, drugs and a manipulative, parasitic younger lover. She embarks on a self-help regime to pull her life together, and to a limited degree, succeeds. Some critics found the main character self-indulgent and shallow and the writing pedestrian; others, however, found the character important and compelling and the narrative structure innovative and fresh.

If the sequels to Fear of Flying won their author the gratitude of readers around the world who appreciated Jong’s willingness to tell truths (about women’s fantasies, realities, aspirations and frustrations), the two highly imaginative works of historical fiction she published during the 1980s, Fanny in 1980 and Serenissima in 1987, won her the gratitude of readers who appreciated her ability to spin such wildly entertaining, lush and vibrant lies.

Fanny: Being the True History of the Adventures of Fanny Hackabout-Jones is a tour de force pastiche made possible by Jong’s impressive command of the conventions of canonical eighteenth-century literature. A heady, zany blend of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, Henry Fielding’s Shamela and Tom Jones, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, LawrenceSterne’s Tristram Shandy, and John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (with more than a few dollops of the Marx Brothers thrown in as well) Fanny takes the reader on an exhilaratingly exhausting romp through country houses, city brothels, masked balls, witches’ covens and pirate ships. In something of the spirit of Virginia Woolf, who imagined "Shakespeare’s sister" in A Room of One’s Own, Jong imagines a female counterpart to these male authors and lets her rewrite the eighteenth-century novel in her own words from the inside out. Jong’s feel for the archaic language is superb, her characters glow with vitality, and her plot perks along with just the right number of twists and turns and spirals to take her exactly where she wants to go.

Fanny, "the Beauteous Heroine" of the novel, is smart as well as stunning. She reads enough to be titillated that Alexander Pope is showing up for dinner—and she’s sufficiently tempting that Pope, along with virtually every heterosexual male who marches across the page, continues marching into her bedroom with high hopes pinned to his flag-at-full-mast. Fanny has her share of major-league trauma: she is raped by her stepfather, she watches her women friends murdered by misogynist cutthroats, and her beloved infant daughter is kidnapped. But she is also a major-league survivor, and her ability to bounce back from these setbacks with resilience and humor make her memoirs "mock-heroical" and "tragicomical" rather than tragic.

Like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Fanny is as much about the joys of language as the pleasures of lust. It is a Nabokovian paean to the pleasure of words. For example, Jong tells us that her picaresque heroine "has been called a woman of the town, a tart, a bawd, a wanton, a bawdy-basket, a bird-of-the-game, a bit of stuff, a buttered bum, a cockatrice, a cock-chafer, a cow….." Fanny herself launches into a Nabokovean riff to demonstrate that "a Man’s Estimation of his own Privy Member" may not be "necessarily infallible":

The Politician who boasts of his Member-for-Cockshire, the Butcher who praises his Skewer, the Poet who prates of his Picklock, the Actor who loves his Lollipop, the Footman who boasts of his Ramrod, the Parson who praises his Pillicock, the Orator who apotheosizes his Adam’s-Arsenal, the Archer who aims his Love-Dart, the Sea Captain who adores his own Rudder—none of these Men, howsoe’er lively these Mental Pars, is to be trusted upon his own Estimation of his Prowess in the Arts (and Wars) of Love!

There is a verbal energy here that surpasses anything Jong has written previously—although there are clear resonances with her earlier novels, particularly when it comes to the way Fanny wears her sense of feminist entitlement with grace and confidence. Fanny says, for example,

In a Day when Girls were commonly thought to need no Education but the Needle, Dancing, and the French Tongue (with perhaps the Addition of a little Musick upon the Harpsichord or Spinet), I was plund’ring My Lord’s Library for Tonson’s Poetical Miscellanies, new Books by Mr. Pope and Mr. Sift, as well as older ones by Shakespeare, Milton, Boccaccio, Boileau, and Molière….I could never understand why Daniel, a rather dull-witted, lazy Boy, but a Year my senior, should be sent to Day School to learn Latin, Greek, Algebra, Geometry, Geography, and the Use of Globes, whilst I, who was so much quicker, was encouraged only in Pastry-making, Needlepoint, and French Dancing and laugh’d at for being vain of my fine Penmanship….

Published after Fear of Flying and How to Save Your Own Life, Fanny demonstrated Jong’s daunting command of both the style and substance of eighteenth-century literature as well as her marvelously inventive gifts as a satirist.

Jong drew on texts like Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 volume, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates from Their First Rise and Settlement in the Island of New Providence to the Present Year, for example, as well as the anthropological research of Dr. Margaret A. Murray on the practices of eighteenth-century English witches, and Norman Himes’ A Medical History of Contraception and  Fanny’s adventures in the "skin trade" to lend accuracy to her reconstruction of the period--although she admits to having "often stretched (though I hope not shattered) historical ‘truth’ in order to make a more amusing tale." Far from being weighed down by Jong’s efforts at historical verisimilitude, however, the epistolary novel Fanny Hackabout-Jones writes for the benefit of her daughter, Belinda, soars with marvelous élan and energy. Fanny, as Jong admits in the afterword "is not a typical eighteenth-century woman…. In many ways her consciousness is modern." But that is part of her charm. Jong expresses the hope that "this book will convey something of the fascination I have had with eighteenth-century England, its manners and mores," but notes that "above all, it is intended as a novel about a woman’s life and development in a time when women suffered far greater oppression than they do today." Along the way the book wittily engages eighteenth-century aesthetics and moral philosophy, and even assigns walk-on roles to such towering figures of the age as writer Jonathan Swift and artist William Hogarth.

The book’s feminism provoked familiar hostility: some male reviewers were evidently threatened by Jong’s efforts to reclaim the eighteenth-century novel’s sexual candor for women. But the book also won the admiration of critics as distinguished as British novelist Anthony Burgess, who found Jong’s reconstruction of the eighteenth century "imaginative and always convincing." Writers who were themselves known for a finely-honed sense of humor, linguistic dexterity, and a fascination with the past tended to appreciate Jong’s achievement. Judith Martin, (a.k.a."Miss Manners"), recognized that Fanny was larger than her "lusty Appetite." For example, she was also a person of "Learning, Courage, Curiosity, Kindness, Wit, and good Chear," a "true heroine" with broad appeal.

Jong wrote in her introduction to an excerpt from Fanny published in Vogue, "Having explored our right to anger and sexuality in literature, having asserted our right to tell the truth about our lives, we must now also assert our right to explore imaginary and invented worlds." The imaginary and invented world of sixteenth-century Venice is the setting of the historical novel Jong published in 1987, Serenissima: A Novel of Venice, which was later reissued under the title, Shylock’s Daughter: A Novel of Love in Venice. Familiar themes surface in the novel—including the challenge of forging a sense of identity as a woman, as well as the nature of love, death, aging, and imagination. Divorced actress Jessica Pruitt, who has traveled to Venice to judge a film festival, finds herself (through magic or the delirum of fever) transported to the sixteenth-century Venice. She meets William Shakespeare (who has fled to Venice to avoid the plague) and his patron/lover the Earl of Southampton, and helps inspire the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets and Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, in The Merchant of Venice (a role the she has been anticipating playing). Jong revels in the opportunity to blend multiple levels of language (actual quotations from Shakespeare, modern English, pseudo-Elizabethan pastiches, snippets of Italian) with the typically fast-moving picaresque adventure plot that by then had become something of her signature. Although the novel did not receive as uniformly positive reviews as Fanny, many appreciated its inventive reach and entertaining energy. (Jong would return to her love affair with Venice in several essays in her 1998 collection, What Do Women Want?)

Jong’s Inventing Memory: A Novel of Mothers and Daughters (1997) tracks four generations of Jewish women from the end of the nineteenth century to the early years of the twenty-first century, reprising a number of the themes that have animated Jong’s earlier novels—particularly the challenge of forging a viable identity as an artist, a woman, a daughter, and a mother.

Although this novel foregrounds Jewish issues more prominently than any of Jong’s prior books, Jewish concerns and themes have, in fact, been central to Jong’s fiction from the start. In Fear of Flying, for example, Isadora often thinks about the residues of the Holocaust in modern Germany and holds forth on modern German amnesia about the Nazi past. Isadora’s sense of herself as a Jew surfaces again in Parachutes & Kisses, she makes a pilgrimage from Russia to Baba Yar. But even when she’s not visiting the sites of anti-Semitic atrocities, Isadora is uncomfortably aware of anti-Semitic stereotypes in all of the novels in which she is a central figure—and she is also prone to pepper her observations in all of these volumes with apt Yiddish phrases. A self-conscious awareness of Jewish history, humor and language surface throughout Jong’s novels. One might even argue that her decision as an artist to reject any reticence about the pleasures of the flesh may owe something to the traditionally Jewish acceptance of the earthy vitality of the body in all its robust physicality. After all, the daily morning prayer prescribed by Jewish tradition makes a point of thanking God quite specifically for having created pores, orifices, hollows, holes, openings, cavities, channels and ducts that open and close according to a brilliant Divine plan.

But if Jewish issues have been germane to Jong’s writing from the start, in Inventing Memory they often take center stage. A pogrom—described in all its brutal rawness—propels the matriarch Sarah Solomon, born in Russia in the 1880s, to flee to America in about 1905, where she will move in and out of the downtown world of Jewish anarchists and bohemians. Four generations later, her great granddaughter, Sara, born in 1978, researches family histories at New York’s Council on Jewish History, searching for a "usable past" that she can both discover and invent. The narrative is punctuated with quotes from the Talmud, wry Yiddish proverbs, and comments on Jews and Jewishness from figures including Leo Tolstoy, Emma Lazarus, and Gershem Sholem.

The four women whose lives Jong chronicles have much in common with previous Jong heroines: they are honest, lusty, and all-too-human in their imperfections, and they aspire to forging new ways of being a woman in the modern world. The journeys on which they embark involve coming to terms with being a mother and a daughter, and plotting those often vexed relationships on a rich canvas that stretches across the entire twentieth century. The novel lovingly savors, in all its sensuous concreteness, the texture of a past whose legacies reach into the present.  


VOLUMES OF VERSE

Although she has become best-known for her fiction, Jong has never abandoned her roots as a poet, publishing volumes of poetry at regular intervals after her two initial books of poems appeared. Indeed, as she notes in her preface to Ordinary Miracles, "I find that the volumes of verse tend to predict themes in the novels to come—almost as if I were distilling my life one way in poetic form, and another way in prosaic." Jong insists that "my poems and my novels have always been very much of a piece…. I am always hoping that someone will recognize the poet and novelist as two aspects of the same soul—but alas, the genres are reviewed by two different groups of people, so no one ever seems to notice this in print."

Loveroot takes its name from an evocative catalogue penned by Walt Whitman, whose joyful corporeality continues to inspire and empower Jong. The opening poem of the collection, "Testament (Or, Homage to Walt Whitman)" is Jong’s celebration of her decision, very much in the spirit of Whitman, to "declare myself now for joy."

I myself have been a scorner  
& have chosen scornful men,  
men to echo all that was narrow in myself,  
men to hurt me as I hurt myself.  

I resolve now for joy.  

If that resolve means I must live alone,  
   I accept aloneness.  
If the joy house I inhabit must be  
   a house of my own making,  
I accept that making.  
No doom-saying, death-dealing, fucker of cunts  
   Can undo me now.  

No joy-denyer can deny me now.  
   For what I have is undeniable.  
   I inhabit my own house,  
   The house of my joy.  

"Unscrew the locks from the doors!  
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!"


Dear Walt Whitman,

   Horny old nurse to pain,  
Speaker of "passwords primeval,"  
Merit-refuser, poet of body & soul—  
I scorned you at twenty  
But turn to you now  
In the fourth decade of my life,  
Having grown straight enough  
To praise your straightness  
& plain enough  
to speak to you plain  
& simple enough  
to praise your simplicity.

The volume’s celebration of simple joy, self-sufficiency, and human resilience anticipate some of Jong’s concerns in How to Save Your Own Life (1977).

The poems in At the Edge of the Body (1979) are more concerned with death than any of Jong’s previous poetry collections—a turn which should not surprise readers familiar with the centrality of the theme of death to the poetry of Whitman, whose rhythms and images still reverberate through Jong’s poems. Like Whitman, Jong embraces death as a part of life, and this move propels her poetry to new levels of maturity and emotional depth.

In its clear, sharply observed attentiveness to the "ordinary miracle" of pregnancy, Ordinary Miracles (1983) may have more in common with the lucid prose of a figure like Meridel LeSueur than it does with obscurantist (male) poets more in favor in academe. Like the LeSueur who, in the 1935 story "The Annuciation," vividly brought to life a pregnant narrator who felt closer to the pear tree outside her window than to any of the beaten-down, sour human beings in her rooming house, the author of Ordinary Miracles etches the mystery and wonder of carrying another human being inside oneself. See, for example, her whimsical lyric to her unborn child in "The Birth of the Water Baby:

Oh avocado pit  
Almost ready to sprout,  
Tiny fruit tree  
Within sight  
of the sea,  
little swimming fish,  
little land lover,  
hold on!  
Hold on!…

Characteristically, here, as in all her other books, Jong tells truths that the rest of society is content to ignore, particularly about women’s bodies and the world’s response to them. In "Another Language," she writes,

The whole world is flat  
& I am round.  
Even women avert their eyes,  
& men, embarrassed  
by the messy way that life turns into life,  
look away,  
forgetting they themselves  
were once this roundness  
underneath the heart,  
this helpless fish  
swimming in eternity…..  
What is this large unseemly thing—  
A pregnant poet?  
An enormous walking O?

In addition to collections of poetry and novels, Jong has published several volumes of nonfiction—Fear of Fifty, The Devil At Large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller, and What Do Women Want? Bread Roses Sex Power. Jong’s nonfiction—both the autobiographical memoirs and the critical essays—shed light on her project as an imaginative writer and highlight her intelligence as a critic. In her essay "Deliberate Lewdness and the Creative Imagination," for example (in What Do Women Want?), Jong probes the links between pornography and creativity by exploring the importance of Mark Twain’s 1876 pornographic sketch, "1601… Conversation as It Was by the Social Fireside, in the Time of the Tudors." Twain wrote this bawdy Elizabethan fantasy during the same summer he wrote the first sixteen chapters of what would become Huckleberry Finn. Arguing that the "pornographic spirit is always related to unhampered creativity," Jong suggests that the "deliberate lewdness" of "1601" allowed Twain to sneak "up on the muse so that she would not be forewarned and escape," and helped awaken his "freedom to experiment, play, and dream outrageous dreams" that led directly that summer to the beginnings of his most lasting triumph as an artist. Here, as in her writing on Henry Miller, Jong champions the freedom necessary for creativity and stakes out a firm position against censorship of every stripe.

Through path-breaking novels, radiant poems, lucid essays and an indefatigable willingness to explain herself, in person and in print, to audiences continually startled by her honesty, her erudition and her ambitious inventiveness, Jong has helped transform the role of the woman writer in our time.

 

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Erica Jong
Photo Credit: Mary Ann Halpin