- Stories, Not History: Laura Riding’s Progress of Truth
When Biographers and Critics Take Up the coherence of Laura Riding’s career as a whole—both her earlier writings, especially poetry, and her later philosophical works published under the name Laura (Riding) Jackson—they inevitably and quite reasonably point to her lifelong commitment to the uncovering of truth.1 Yet Riding’s pursuit of this uncovering—her “endeavor to open up language in its entire breadth and depth to human experience in its entire breadth and depth”—often took shape in polemic against particular forms of untruth (Poems of Laura Riding xxxviii–xxxix); the most famous of these is her polemic against poetry, a genre whose well-meaning enchantments she came to see as malevolent obscurity. This position demanded, in her view, a renunciation of poetry. As Riding told a radio audience in 1962, she ceased to write poetry after the publication of her 1938 Collected Poems, for at that point she had come to realize that
. . . language does not lend itself naturally to the poetic style, but is warped in being fitted into it; that the only style that can yield a natural and happy use of words is the style of truth, a rule of trueness of voice and mind sustained in every morsel of one’s speech; that, for the practice of the style of truth to become a thing of the present, poetry must become a thing of the past. (Laura (Riding) Jackson Reader 204 )
Prior to her renunciation of poetry, however, Riding’s desire for a “natural and happy use of words” was not limited to verse. Before the outbreak of World War Two, Riding also wrote a great deal of fiction, and [End Page 85] there too she sought a form of truth-telling. The failure of this fiction, like the failure of her poetry, was not, in her later view, a literary failure, but was due instead to the limitations of literature as such. “Products of art are things in excess of that which has natural and necessary presence among us,” she wrote in a retrospective preface to her Progress of Stories (xxii). What she wanted were “stories that are products of nature, that come naturally to the mind for telling, reflecting the infinite progression of circumstances in which reality of live being consolidates itself reiteratively” (xxii). Broader, then, than Riding’s polemic against poetry or fiction was her antagonism to artifice, an antagonism extended to poetry and fiction only after she accepted the fact that truth’s naturalness and literature are incompatible. In her earlier work, where literature remained a plausible avenue to truth, Riding’s polemic on behalf of nature was waged instead against the artifice of history. Tracing out this anti-historical argument is important for two reasons. First, it helps to show that the coherence of Riding’s lifelong pursuit of truth is discernible precisely in the persistence of her effort to root out specific forms of untruth—an effort that hardly began with her renunciation of poetry. Second, it helps to explain why storytelling survives in Riding’s late work, even as literature is set aside.
Part of the interest of Riding’s argument with history is the versatility with which she defends her position, as if its necessity could only be established by pressing her thesis in all of the modes of writing that held her attention. In what follows, I will look at several of these modes, beginning with three early critical works that set forth the basic terms of her critique, Contemporaries and Snobs (1928), Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928), and Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (1930)—books that present history as a state of untruth, a fundamental distortion of life’s natural condition. I will then turn to Riding’s fiction, examining in detail her Progress of Stories (1935), a collection of allegorical and philosophical fairy tales that carry the critique of history forward while championing an artistic form that Riding will later uphold as the natural rhythm of the mind, a kind of heartbeat. For reasons of space, I will give only glancing attention to Riding’s two works...