Daily Book Excerpt: Memoirs:
Next book on the Memoir/Letters/Journals shelf is Bring Me a Unicorn: Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, 1922-1928
I went through a pretty intense Anne Morrow Lindbergh phase, but unlike a lot of people, it wasn’t Gift From the Sea that brought me to her (although I’ve read it, of course). I first read her journals (five volumes in all) in high school. I had always been fascinated by Charles Lindbergh, and had seen the Billy Wilder movie about his flight over the Atlantic, and I was a page in a local library (my first job) and they had all of her journals. That’s how I learned about his wife. The journals are incredible, and, in my opinion, she is one of those people (like Katherine Mansfield, whom I’ll get to) who is, primarily, a memoirist. Or Anais Nin, I suppose. These random people who are writers, yes, but whose journals reveal their true gifts. Anne kept a journal throughout her life, but the published volumes only go up to WWII. I suppose she was so battered and bruised by her husband’s controversial position in WWII (and the last volume is obviously somewhat of a defense of him) that she retreated from wanting to publish anything further (at least not further diaries). These are rich volumes, which cover an extraordinary time in America – and she, being married to the man who flew the Atlantic – was in a prime position to witness the technology revolution and what it signified. Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of State from 1921-25, responded to Lindbergh’s flight across the ocean with the words, “We measure heroes as we do ships, by their displacement. Colonel Lindbergh has displaced everything.”
By marrying Charles Lindbergh, the young Anne Morrow would sign up for a lifetime of blazing publicity and celebrity. They were the Brad and Angelina of their day, with a kind of white-hot attention on them which is experienced only by heads of state or people like Michael Jackson. It had to have been insane. Especially after the blitzkrieg of attention on the kidnapping of their child. She married him in 1929 after knowing him only a short while. The young Anne Morrow grew up in a family of high achievers. She went to Smith (her mother had gone there, and also was acting president). Anne Morrow graduated from Smith in 1928. In such a family, it was not expected that you would just get married – that would not be enough for the Morrow children … You needed meaningful work as well. It was a very competitive family (there were four kids in all). Anne seems to have been a breathlessly “sensitive” young girl (the earliest entries in this particular volume are nearly unreadable they’re so adolescent – raving about the beauty of the flowers and the trees, interspersed with verses of poetry), but she had been a very good student at Smith. Who knows what would have happened to her if she hadn’t crossed paths with the young Colonel Lindbergh. She wanted to be a writer, that was clear to her from the getgo. She had won prizes at Smith for her writing. Her father was the Ambassador to Mexico in the 20s, and Anne would go down to Mexico to stay during college breaks and summer vacations. She already was quite well traveled, having been to Europe a couple of times. Her father invited Charles Lindbergh to come down and visit Mexico, as the guest of the American ambassador, in the wake of his accomplishment in 1927, and that was how Anne met him. He took her flying. The entire family was GAGA over him, and there is a sense of some competition between the sisters over who was getting closest to him. He was a taciturn awkward kid at the time, who only seemed at home in an airplane, so he took the Morrow girls up flying (one by one). Perhaps there was some sense, from the Morrow parents, that Lindbergh would marry one of their girls? Elizabeth, a brilliant girl, socially adept and vivacious (everything Anne wasn’t) seemed like the obvious choice. She was also older, with a bit more experience. Anne was a college student, and although she was a big thinker and reader, had zero experience with men. However, Anne was the one Charles chose. There was an animal magnetism between the two (something that the Lindbergh children spoke of later – that there was some kind of strange bond between their parents that even they couldn’t enter), and after one day of flying together (Anne’s first time in an airplane, I believe – after all, he had just flown across the Atlantic – NOBODY was casually getting into airplanes and flying about in 1927), Anne was hooked for life. She was in awe of this fresh-faced young man who could …. do THAT. In many ways, she never stopped being in awe of him. Her journals are very romantic. And as she becomes a better writer, leaving behind the breathless naivete of her adolescent prose, honing her skills … the journals take off.
There is much in Anne Morrow Lindbergh to admire. There is a lot to scorn as well. (Wave of the Future, anyone?) She was a sensitive woman who responded to the world personally. This made her an artist. It also made her completely unfit to respond appropriately to the world cataclysm that was coming in the 30s and 40s. Her husband took a controversial position and fell from grace. More like shattered into pieces. The public response to him – generated by his amazing flight, and then deepened by the tragedy of the kindapping and death of their first child – did a 180. The public felt betrayed by him. They hated him now with a white-hot passion. Much of the complexity of that era is now lost in the mists of time. We DID get into WWII, we DID win it, and it is obvious that it was the right thing to do. But in 1933 was it obvious? To Americans? Suffering under the worst economic depression in the country’s history? Not so much. Still. Anne’s justifications for her husband’s views, published in pamphlet-form as Wave of the Future are reprehensible. There’s no way around it. Also, her journals are so emotionally accurate, so questioning, so open. Certainty was not her thing. When she tries to be certain, as she does in Wave of the Future, she comes off as stupid as well as didactic and preachy. A horrible combination, and not her at all. When she tried to make certainty her thing, her writing suffered, and not only that – her thoughts seem to suffer. She is turning herself inside out to justify NOT fighting the Nazis, and in doing so, she comes off looking terrible. History is right to judge her for that.
HOWEVER. Like I mentioned earlier: she is one of those people who is primarily a memoirist and a diary-keeper. Her place, although married to a world-famous man, was not in the clash of politics or even reality. Her place was introspective, emotional, sensitive. But how can one justify these things in a horrible decade (“low and dishonest” to quote Auden) like the 1930s? How can you justify writing about the pretty moonbeams in a year like 1939? Lots of people made lots of mistakes in that decade. It was a terrible time in history, and with shifting alliances (what the hell was going on in Russia? Stalin was our ALLY, don’t forget) very few people came out smelling like a rose. Very few people got ANY of it right.
But Bring Me a Unicorn predates all of that. It’s hard to write about Anne Morrow without writing about what came after, since so much of it is so … well, awful.
And through it all, she came to her diary on almost a daily basis to write it all down.
I have read the five volumes of her journal probably three full times. And I will read them all again. They are astonishing documents of a tumultuous time, but more than that … they’re good writing.
Here is what she wrote in her diary, down in Mexico, after going flying with Charles Lindbergh for the first time, a couple of days after they first met. It’s like she knows what is coming.
December 28, 1927
The next morning – dark – driving through black, empty streets at 5:30 a.m., escorted by motorcycles, to the field.
The two planes in the dusk nosed up in the same direction, like great monsters ready for flight, spitting fire and roaring.
The throb of the engine through one’s body.
Suddenly a tall, stern, helmeted man shaking our hands: goodby.
The engine roared, a cloud of dust and blank gray darkness, then above our heads wings dipping in salute.
And up and out – black wings against the gray of morning, toward that bright star and the mountains!
But these are the outside superficials. I can’t tell the others.
The idea of this clear, direct, straight boy – how it has swept out of sight all other men I have ever known, all the pseudo-intellectuals, the sophisticates, the posers – all the “arty” people. All my life, in fact, my world – my little embroidery beribboned world is smashed.
But gathering as we stray, a sense
Of Life, so lovely and intense,
It lingers when we wander hence,
That those who follow fee behind
Their backs, when all before is blind,
Our Joy, a rampart to the mind …”
The feeling of exultant joy that there is anyone like that in the world. I shall never see him again, and he did not notice me, or would ever, but there is such a person alive, there is such a life, and I am here on this earth, in this age, to know it!
” … When first I met
Your glance and knew
That life had found me —
— And Death too …”
“In youth my wings were strong and tireless
But I did not know the mountains.
In age I knew the mountains
But my weary wings could not follow my vision.
Genius is wisdom and youth.”
[Edgar Lee Masters]
I cannot feel envious of Elisabeth now. People give me so much – I couldn’t possibly repay them or tell them or measure it. They don’t know – it is unconscious – they do not notice me, or speak to me, but they give – they give so much. I am so grateful and feel taller for it.
I remember once, at North Haven, looking at the sky – a great arc – stupendous, and yet with one quick glance you could sweep it all with your eyes, possess it with a glance.
I feel that way now.
I will never look at birds again without a leap of my heart and a keener alertness of my mind and eyes – to look at their wings, the shape as they leave the body, how they soar and glide, wings horizontal, and turn – “bank” like an airplane.
I have never looked so much at the sky, clouds – long horizon ones, and nebulous misty ones, and round packed ones, piling, and a covering of little gray birds-breast-feather (dovetailing) ones.
Clouds and stars and birds – I must have been walking with my head down looking at the puddles for twenty years.