An Elegy for Bette Howland, a Writer Who Was Nearly Forgotten

Jacob Howland

This past Sunday, The New York Times reported that Bette Howland, a writer most contemporary readers have never heard of, died at the age of 80, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Howland was the recipient of a MacArthur ‘Genius’ prize. She had a prolific decade, beginning in the mid-1970s, first publishing her memoir, W-3, in 1974, which documented her stay in a mental hospital following a nervous breakdown; it was followed in 1978 by Blue in Chicago, a collection of largely autobiographical stories; and then by Things to Come and Go, a collection of three long stories, published in 1983. When Johanna Kaplan reviewed it in the Times, she called Howland, “a writer of unusual talent, power, and intelligence.”

Howland received the MacArthur in 1984 and never published another book, only sporadically contributing to literary magazines and journals, often responding to editors with resistance to the idea of publishing her work.

Despite having a champion, friend, and sometimes lover in the writer Saul Bellow, who encouraged her spiritedly after meeting her at a writing conference on Staten Island in 1961, Howland was often overcome by a lack of confidence, particularly after winning the MacArthur.

In 2015, Brigid Hughes, editor of the Brooklyn-based literary magazine A Public Spaceplucked Howland’s first book, W-3, off the $1 cart at Housing Works Bookstore in New York City and became intrigued upon reading its very first sentences. Hughes had never heard of Howland, but she took the book home and read it in a night. She had earlier in the year begun to think about an issue of the magazine focused on women writers — perhaps, she had thought, there might be something to include of Howland’s.

Hughes, with the help of Laura Preston, an editor at the magazine, began to sleuth for more information about Howland in order to contact her and see if she had more work. The internet offered few breadcrumbs. There was a Wikipedia page with a photo that was not Howland, and there were a few press clippings, but Hughes said at the time, “She had just vanished.”

Hughes and I talked about Howland during the production of her issue focused on underappreciated women writers at a time when I was renting a desk in the magazine’s office. I also became intrigued with Howland and started to read W-3 myself, as well as excerpts from a large stash of letters between Bellow and Howland that Hughes was publishing after their discovery by Howland’s son. Hughes had tracked down Jacob Howland to enquire after his mother’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, Bette Howland had a tragic car accident only the year before. She was suffering from dementia and not healthy enough to correspond with Hughes, but Jacob stepped in and began to work with A Public Space.

As a freelance writer, I thought Howland’s story and Hughes’s rediscovery would make for a good piece for LitHub. So I began to read and assemble everything I could about Hughes’s discovery, which included the letters. I reached out to her son by email to ask more about her, as well as his interaction with Hughes. “Brigid,” he wrote me at the time, “is the reason we found the letters, My wife and I started looking through Bette’s papers for unpublished material, and that’s when we ran across the letters.”

At some point, as I was reading a draft of that issue of A Public Space and working on my own piece about Howland, I went online and ordered first editions of all of her books. They were all under $10 and easy to acquire. I had recently been introduced to the rare book trade, through rare and antiquarian book dealer Heather O’Donnell, owner of Honey and Wax Books, and had caught the collecting bug. Then realizing I would never be able to afford to become a serious collector of any kind, despite being an excellent hoarder of books, I began to dream that I might start a business of my own focused on women writers.

The idea came about after I visited numerous rare book fairs, which I had begun to realize were run primarily by male dealers, male collectors, and predominantly filled with books by men (this is very broadly speaking), and as a result many women writers’ books were priced far lower than those of their male contemporaries

Howland became the inspiration for a new business I’ve just launched, The Second Shelf, and hers were the first books I acquired to sell, if I can bring myself to part with them. Since I bought them, and since Howland began receiving some attention again, thanks to Hughes, her first editions have increased in value and are difficult to come by at all — a copy of Blue in Chicago costs around $80-100 online.

Earlier this year, Hughes announced a new literary imprint, A Public Space Books, and will begin publication with Howland’s experimental novella, A Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, which was originally published in TriQuarterly in the 1990s.

The news of Howland’s death this past week came with a strange and surreal, nearly uncanny timing. I had only days earlier published a piece here on Longreads reporting on Hughes’s own erasure from literary history — as the first and only female editor of The Paris Review, and the editor to succeed the renowned George Plimpton. The piece was sparked by a series of frustrated tweets I posted upon learning of Lorin Stein’s resignation from The Paris Review, the result of a sexual harassment scandal in which he admitted to taking advantage of women writers and staff in his workplace.  

It was a poignant and emotional bit of news, and adding insult to injury, all the articles about it kept repeating the misreported legacy of the magazine’s editorship. I found myself urgently needing to correct the historical record of Hughes’s erased role at the Paris Review, the sexist treatment she received by the board in ousting her, and the similarly sexist treatment by the news media in its decade-long misreporting.

Although Howland chose to step out of the limelight, I see her disappearance from literary history as evidence of sexism in publishing and literary criticism. Great male writers, whatever their output or mental state, have legacies that far outlast those of women writers because men read books by men and are less interested in books by women. There is a maxim in publishing I have heard dozens of times from publishers and editors: Women buy and read more books. Women buy and read books by both women and men. Men buy and read fewer books. Men read books by men, not women. This is, again, not wholly the truth, but it’s not inaccurate either. Then, you’ve got patriarchal institutions and the academy still supporting a canon that was built by white men. Literary women suffer from this in their own lifetime, as Howland’s disappearance demonstrates, and they suffer even worse in their afterlives.

Hughes has been restored to her place in literary history with a series of corrections in The New York Times and with a correction on the masthead of The Paris Review. Because of Hughes, Howland is back in print in the pages of A Public Space and will soon have new work on the shelves, along with her out-of-print work.

It’s hard to not be discouraged as a woman writer these days. In addition to facing sexual harassment in the workplace, we have the boys’ club to contend with, we have unequal pay, we are asked far more frequently to write only for “exposure.” We are often given gendered book covers, often whether we want them or not. On top of it all, our literary history is written by men who mostly are interested in what men write.

But all is not lost, women are pulling up women, and some of us, like Howland, might be lucky enough to find champions who do not discriminate based on sex. Here is a quote from just one of Saul Bellow’s many letters to Howland, encouraging her back to the writing desk after her nervous breakdown:

I think you ought to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness. I do it. Many do. One should cook and eat one’s misery. Chain it like a dog. Harness it like Niagara Falls to generate light and supply voltage for electric chairs.

Who knows if we would have Howland’s books at all without Bellow’s constant encouragement? If one reads the small bit known about her personal biography, it seems incredible that she was able to accomplish what she did. She had very little support in her pursuits. Bellow’s mentorship appears to have made a huge difference in her life. How many other women writers are gone to us, or, like Howland, are on the precipice of being lost?

There is a secret history of literature, one full of forgotten women. Let’s honor the work of Howland and Hughes, and women like them. Let’s find them, pull them out from the cracks, and begin to balance the bookshelves.