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  • The Shimmering Maya and Other Essays
  • Patrick Henry
The Shimmering Maya and Other Essays, by Catharine Savage Brosman; 149 pp. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994, $24.94.

When the author was fifteen, she held the rank of “prospector” at Girl Scout Camp. Now, over forty years later, she is “digging down through the layers, sifting through the running stream of memory” (p. 14). Her art of prospecting affords the reader a linear impression of a journey that begins with “The Shimmering Maya,” a recountal of a family move in August 1944 from Colorado to South Texas. “Desert Silvery Blue” describes life in Alpine, Texas, while “Leaving for Good” narrates her experience of displacement as she departs Alpine in 1951 to attend Rice Institute, known then as “the atheist school” (p. 37). From Alpine to Houston, she experiences the greening of America and the shock of Gulf Coast humidity, “a sensation of being hit in the face and smothered” (p. 42). At Rice, she finishes her degrees, travels to France, her intellectual home, and returns, in “Cherry Time”—“Yes, Virginia, there is a Virginia” (p. 52)—to describe her life in full bloom during this relatively short but intense period, spent in and around the state of Virginia, before her permanent move to New Orleans. Two essays conclude the volume even as they bend back toward its beginning. “Winter Light” narrates the life of her grandfather, Edward Hill, newspaperman, teacher, doctor, writer, and formidable learner whom she knew only in the winter of his life but whose light illuminated her being and “whose heir I feel, or wish, myself to be” (p. 130). “Turn My Face Out to the West” recounts a recent camping trip in New Mexico but, more profoundly, a return to the Western land of her youth. Like the Anasazi and Pueblo Indians, she too was born there and, reclaiming their heritage as partly hers, extols their solar-based science, courage, sense of community, independent spirit, and love and respect for the land.

Brosman paints being, however, as well as becoming. Essays six through eleven focus more centrally than the others on her habitual self: her self-portrait as teacher, scholar, poet, traveler, and traditional woman. As a teacher of language, she offers “at once an end and a means” (p. 86) and, as literature teacher, not “entertainment chiefly but the pursuit of truth” (p. 88), undogmatically attempting to elicit self-awareness without imposing a single view. [End Page 136] A traditional woman who has never felt uncomfortable around men and doesn’t consider them her enemies, Brosman thinks Women’s Studies are “regressive” (p. 84), deplores language “barbarisms” such as “chairperson” and “herstory” (p. 75), and holds for a “nongendered intellectual patrimony of arts, letters, and science” (p. 84). While she admits that it’s a miracle that all marriages don’t simply fall apart, the differences between the sexes, she argues, constitute “the whole basis for attraction” (p. 70), and she prefers her cigar-smoking husband “to men who boast about their Hollandaise sauce” (p. 70). Not interested “in valorizing only the male principle” (p. 70), she seeks “vigor of mind” in all persons and considers herself a “feminist in the cupboard,” one who operates within the family but travels freely and enjoys a rich professional life. She links herself to her Aunt Margaret and other “closet feminists” (p. 100) in her family’s history who demonstrated self-reliance and a sense of their own value, and argues, against de Beauvoir’s thesis in The Second Sex, that female work for American women of the nineteenth century did indeed, like male work, go beyond biology “to remake the world through invention (production)” (p. 102).

Brosman demands a metaphysical self-consciousness that recognizes unhappiness, anguish, and disorder but concomitantly posits the good life as the synthetic unity of the mind, body, and heart. This metaphysical consciousness is deeply rooted in the physical world—we are not only in the world but of it—and in a shared sense of place and a commitment to communal enterprises. Her thought is perhaps above all characterized throughout by a sense of “grace” and the “intimation of...

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pp. 136-137
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