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Finally, Marianne Moore has a biography that does justice to the richness, complexity, and significance of her writing career. Although Charles Molesworth’s Marianne Moore: A Literary Life (1990) contributed importantly to Moore scholarship in its earlier days—before the Selected Letters (1998) was published and before many critics had begun to plumb the depths of her extraordinary archive—Linda Leavell’s Holding on Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore is the first authorized biography of the poet, and it is superb. It is insightful, revelatory, and insofar as I can judge, absolutely accurate (I say this, having probably read more of the family letters than any critic but Leavell herself). One might disagree with an interpretation here and there, but the quality of detail is dazzling. This biography is a must-read for anyone who cares about the development of early modernism, and it will change the state of Moore studies.
Leavell tells the story of a brilliant poet who is (to use Moore’s words from “The Paper Nautilus”) “hindered to succeed” by a domineering albeit loving family, and particularly by her mother, with whom Moore lived for thirty-seven years of her adult life until her mother’s death in 1947. In Leavell’s account, because of financial exigencies, but even more because of her own emotional neediness, Moore’s mother gave the poet no privacy except that which she found in writing poetry. While Moore herself promulgated the myth that her mother was an indispensable help to her in her writing, Leavell persuasively argues that Mary Warner Moore did not understand her daughter’s poetry nor much like it, although she took great pride in her daughter’s success. Poetry became Marianne’s only outlet for individuality and ambition. Leavell also provides convincing evidence that Moore resisted eating as a strategy of resisting her mother’s domination: when Moore was away from home she gained weight; at home, she did not, at one point weighing only seventy-eight pounds. Mary was a bad cook and so frugal that she provided little in the way of nourishing meals; Marianne associated food with her mother’s control of her body. Especially when the two women spent eleven years in a one-room apartment (with no kitchen), there was literally scant opportunity for privacy, except in work.
Leavell proceeds from extensive research in Moore’s vast archive, public records, and private conversation with the surviving family, thereby finding answers (sometimes definitive, always reasonable) to questions that have long puzzled Moore scholars. For example, she is the first to procure information about Moore’s father and the psychological condition that caused Mary to cease all contact with him before the poet’s birth. Leavell also establishes the record of Mary’s emotional insecurity, caused by her mother’s early death, her lonely childhood spent among various relatives, and her short-lived marriage. Leavell writes frankly about Mary’s lesbian relationship with Mary Norcross during Marianne’s growing-up years in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, during the 1890s and 1900s. Marianne and her older brother Warner worried frequently about their mother’s health and happiness, especially after Norcross took another lover in 1909, just as Moore graduated from college. Warner had become relatively independent of his mother’s most controlling demands—although, as Leavell argues, he dealt with them by agreeing with what she said and not telling her about activities or ideas that would disturb her. This is a transformative portrait of Warner, who has been portrayed as pathologically connected to his mother and sister. In effect, Warner pushes Marianne to sacrifice her adult independence to their mother’s needs when he chooses a career and marriage that put him frequently (as Navy chaplain) at a distance. Not surprisingly, as Leavell shows, Marianne’s relationship with her brother involved some resentment and her own mode of emotional distancing as well as deep love and trust. [End Page 602] Leavell’s biography demonstrates not only that Marianne developed strategies...