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  • Curious Self-Evidence:Graphology and Gusto in Marianne Moore's Critical Prose
  • James Jiang (bio)

Few things elicited self-consciousness in Marianne Moore as much as her handwriting. Linda Leavell's recent biography of Moore offers a telling anecdote in which a handwriting analysis book disclosed to the then-sophomore that while she was "'ostentatious and loved cheap jewelry,'" her friend Margaret Morison was "'artistic and direct about things.'"1 "By the spring," Leavell notes with all the conclusiveness of a punchline, "Marianne's handwriting had become remarkably like that of Margaret Morison" (Leavell, Holding On, 75). We are invited to take this moment of scribal imitation as both a token of affection and a sign of ambition: according to Leavell, Moore's "infatuation" with Morison, who was on the editorial board of the Tipyn O'Bob, the Bryn Mawr literary magazine, was "part of [Moore's] growing desire for a certain kind of identity and recognition" (75). Encapsulated in this anecdote is a conflict between the fear of being exposed and the desire for exposure that would persist throughout a career inaugurated by the publication of Moore's first collection, Poems (1921), without her explicit consent.2 If the cost of being in print was submission to an editorial and publishing process that alienated the poet from her labor, then the practice of handwriting perhaps offered a more stable ground of self-possession—even as it opened the self up to more intimate forms of scrutiny.

Moore's susceptibility to the promises of graphology, the practice of divining a person's character from their handwriting, outlasted her susceptibility to the charms of her sophomore crush. Throughout her career, Moore submitted her own handwriting [End Page 375] as well as the scripts of family members, acquaintances, and the staff at The Dial during her editorship to the scrutiny of DeWitt B. Lucas, the self-appointed "DEAN of American [h]andwriting and character analysts."3 Leavell's biography of Moore is the first work to pick up on the extent of the poet's engagement with graphology and in this article I want to suggest that far from being an isolable quirk, this fascination with handwriting offers an oblique yet revealing point of access to Moore's critical intuitions. The habits of mind that make Moore's style of criticism so peculiar are brought out all the more clearly if we attend to the psychodynamic mechanisms that underpin graphological analysis.

One peculiarity of Moore's critical practice is immediately salient: while attuned to the finer points of rhythm, cadence, and tone, it frequently invokes formal accomplishments as characterological virtues. We need only note the rhetoric of Moore's essay and review titles: "Courage, Right and Wrong"; "A Modest Expert"; "Humility, Concentration, and Gusto"; "Impact, Moral and Technical; Independence versus Exhibitionism; and Concerning Contagion"; "What So Wise As Simplicity!"; and "Reticent Candor."4 For Moore, every piece of writing and body of work was replete with gestural cues that could be read as clues to the author's probity. Criticism in this mode was primarily a diagnostic procedure in which the perfection of style was an ethical as much as a technical accomplishment. In this Moore was not alone. The terms of technical stringency set by Ezra Pound could be seen to amount to a program of applied ethics, as in his "Credo": "I believe in technique as the test of a man's sincerity."5 The idea that technical mastery was the refinement of sincerity must have been congenial to Moore, who vindicated "feeling" as the best guide to "precision" (Prose, 396). What Moore shared with not only Pound but also T. S. Eliot was the conviction that the more technically accomplished writer was, in most cases, the more emotionally sincere and morally perceptive individual. That they each should have esteemed Henry James so highly is perhaps no coincidence.

In spite of the substantial body of prose Moore produced throughout her career, scholarly attention to her oeuvre has been skewed toward her poetry. The reluctance to write about Moore's critical prose stems (at least in part) from her curious disavowal of modernist styles of literary-critical polemic. As Evan Kindley...


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