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The American H. D. by Annette Debo (review)
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In The American Ezra Pound (1989), to which the jacket blurb compares this book, Wendy Stallard Flory defends her poet, who had been confined against his will to St. Elizabeth's Hospital as a result of his treasonous wartime broadcasts, by placing his writing in the tradition of the "American jeremiah" and showing him to have sincerely, if psychotically, believed himself a patriot. By comparison, The American H. D. feels oddly calm and apolitical. Certainly H. D. was an American writer—she was born here, she sometimes said she felt American, she took back her citizenship at the end of her life—but although Debo begins by rehearsing the critical "nation theory" of Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm and others, she does not really problematize the idea of "American-ness," even to the extent H. D. herself did. She seems aware that nationality for H. D. was not a simple matter of exile and return. Her introduction opens, "In her short story 'Two Americans,' H. D. stresses the arbitrary nature of nations" (p. 1). By the end of the paragraph, however, she claims H. D. has repudiated that insight: "Nationality has become an essential identity characteristic" (p. 1).

If that is Debo's general argument, the evidence seems mixed. The overall message of H. D.'s mature poetry surely is a transcultural, even anti-nationalist, one—the grafting together of apparently disparate traditions that thereby miraculously survive. It still seems fairer to speak, as Madelyn Detloff does, of H. D.'s "profoundly metic sensibility," or to stress, as Diana Collecott does, that she described herself as "divided in loyalties," or to stick with Susan Stanford Friedman's earlier view of the "borderline" as a governing trope for her writing as well as her life. However, Debo's project may be more modest than a word like "essential" would suggest; she may simply mean to "position . . . H. D. in the history that shaped her as a writer" and make the case that "American identity plays a pivotal role in H. D.'s literary imagination" (p. 2). If what that amounts to is that H. D. never put down real roots anywhere else, continued to experience the practical and emotional dislocation of the expatriate, and drew throughout her life on memories of her early years in Pennsylvania, one cannot disagree.

The American H. D. brings forward some interesting archival material. That young Hilda "earned a Friends' Central letter for playing center on the '05 basketball team," was socially successful—"a perfect hostess," adept at organizing informal supper parties for ten or twelve friends—and published some ultraconventional lady-like stories between 1909 and 1912, are points provocatively at odds with her self-presentation later as an awkward, inept fish out of water in Her (1981) and Asphodel (1992) (pp. 33, 12). It is helpful to have our attention drawn to the unsuccessful attempts that Marianne Moore, Bryher, and H. D. herself made to get reports of Nazi atrocities published in the New York Times and convince the United States to enter the war (p. 47). Thought-provoking too is Bryher's enthusiasm for all things American, including what struck her as "American" about her lifelong companion. Bryher seems to have seen the United States as somehow sexually freer—which to me ironically parallels how H. D., like many other Americans of her generation, thought about Europe, at least before she tried to live there (although each woman knew the other was at least partly wrong).

Debo rehearses the story of H. D.'s relationship with Bryher, and with Moore, and covers other familiar ground, sometimes reporting in a straightforward, almost textbooky manner, on such historical happenings as the expansion of the frontier, the Irish immigration, the Harlem Renaissance, the fraught situation of the New Woman, and "the peculiar relationship disenfranchised women have with nation," which are then said to have "impacted" H. D.'s work and life (p. 20). Readers new to the field will find these discussions helpful and clear.

For the specialist, the most informative part of the book deals with Yale professor Norman Holmes Pearson, who turns out to have been not only H. D.'s faithful helper and friend...

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