Checking In With The Imaginary Summer Book Club: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept By Elizabeth Smart

(Click here for information on the 2013 edition of Molly’s Imaginary Summer Book Club Featuring Classics of Women’s Literature.  This month, the August selection, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.) 

Trying to describe Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 “prose-poem” is an impossible task: it has to be read to be believed, a novel-length description of a love affair gone wrong in which the pleasure of reading it lies in its audacity.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

Reviews tend to use language like “hallucinatory” “feverish” “emotive” and “operatic”, and it piles on allusions (Classical! Biblical! Shakespearean!) at a frenzied pace. However, the genesis of the work is the sordid sort of situation that these days would gain one an audience with Dr. Phil.

In the late 1930s, Smart, a journalist from a prominent Ontario family, discovered the poetry of British writer George Barker and fell in love with his work, vowing to meet and marry the man behind it. Barker was married, but Smart doggedly used her society connections to pursue him, eventually bringing both Barker and his wife to the U.S., where they began a long-term affair. Smart would go on have four children with Barker… who never left his wife.

In the midst of the affair, Smart wrote By Grand Central Station…, a fictionalized version of the tumultuous affair (“tumult” and “turmoil” are other adjectives that get thrown around a lot in trying to describe the book).

The book’s most famous passage juxtaposes Song of Songs with the banal details of couple’s 1941 arrest at the Canadian border on charges of “moral turpitude”, which is altered to being picked up on a Mann Act violation in Arizona in the book:

But at the Arizona border they stopped us and said Turn Back, and I sat in a little room with barred windows while they typed.

What relation is this man to you? (My beloved is mine and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies).

How long have you known him? (I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies).

Did you sleep in the same room? (Behold thou art fair, my beloved, yea pleasant, also our bed is green).

Did intercourse take place? (I sat down under his shadow with great delight and his fruit was sweet to my taste).

When did intercourse first take place? (The king hath brought me to the banqueting house and his banner over me was love).

Were you intending to commit fornication in Arizona? (He shall lie all night between my breasts).

Behold thou art fair my beloved, behold thou art fair: thou hast doves eyes.

Get away from there! cried the guard, as I wept by the crack of the door.
(My beloved is mine)

Better not try any funny business, cried the guard, you’re only making things tough for yourself.
(Let me kiss him with the kisses of his mouth).

Stay put! cried the guard, and struck me

“Prose-poem” seems woefully inadequate to describe what is going on here.

For the reissue in 1966, novelist Angela Carter described the works as “Like Madame Bovary blasted by lightning”, which is the blurb that has appeared on the cover of subsequent editions, although reportedly Carter has expressed mixed feelings about the subject matter, later writing:

“…desire that no daughter of mine should ever be in a position to be able to write By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, exquisite prose though it might contain.  By Grand Central Station I Tore Off His Balls would be more like it, I should hope.”

So. Strong reactions all around.

There is one comparison I did not come across regarding final lines, in which the heroine finds herself again abandoned by her lover

My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?

and that is that it recalls the final lines of Dorothy Parker’s “War Song”, coincidentally published the prior year and directed at her husband Alan Campbell (they would divorce in 1947, then remarry in 1950):

When in sleep you turn to her

Call her by my name.

In conclusion: this is the review that gets written when I really do not know what to say about the book in question. Is it good? Bad? Overblown? “One of the half-dozen masterpieces of poetic prose in the world”?

Did I enjoy reading it?

I did, with the reservations of a creeping discomfort that the reader is being asked to endorse Smart’s exceedingly destructive definitions of “love”.

Stray Thoughts:

Would some poetic-prose family members care to weigh in on the subject?

‘I’ve never met this guy, but he sounds to me like a cad.’

In 1950 Barker wrote his own account of the affair the novel The Dead Seagull, and the contrast in the two titles alone is making me chuckle.

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