Angela Carter: Postcards from America
Angela Carter’s second novel, The Magic Toyshop (1967) opens with a quote from Donne’s Elegy 20, “O my America, my new found land.” Twisting Donne’s metaphor in a manner that became a signature with her, Carter turns Donne’s virile eroticism into a figure for a pubescent girl’s auto-erotic discovery; the novel’s young protagonist is “a physiological Cortez.” Yet Carter’s America -- both of its continents -- was only ever “new found” in this borrowed metaphor. Carter’s own writing conjures an America that is ancient, populous and strange. Her mark on British literary culture is indelible: not the least, the prize formerly known as the Orange, now the Women’s Prize for Fiction, was created in part because of the sexist slight of her career-long omission from Booker shortlists. Yet besides a brief, posthumous flurry of interest in her writing, Carter’s American reputation has been comparatively small. She’s cultish; readers discover her as Jeanette Winterson’s predecessor or encounter her revisions of fairy tales in college courses. Recently in the New York Times, Dwight Garner wondered if her Britishness had made her “too tangy and exotic to make much of an impression on American audiences.”
The real-life America that Carter encountered was profoundly different from her London home. In 1980 she wrote to her editor, Susannah Clapp, from Providence: “Everybody tells me not to go out after dark; the Mayor of Providence is accused of having raped a woman at gunpoint, admittedly some years ago in another town.” “In the frozen solitude of New England” Carter wrote that the memory of London “made me weep with nostalgia for the sheer rudeness -- the vile, obscene, funny rudeness -- of everyday life at home… Here, physical violence is tolerated. The crime rates would go down, I think, if Americans stopped saying: ‘Have a nice day,’ to one another.” Carter was an author who exuded a particular brand of Britishness, a profane, working-class, Brixton, pantomime-and-Punch-and-Judy Britishness. Those are the qualities that come through in Clapp’s recent, anecdotal biography, A Card From Angela Carter, which narrates episodes from the long friendship between the two women through postcards Carter sent over the course of her too-short career.
Many of these postcards were sent from the U.S., where Carter served numerous residencies in creative writing programs from Providence to Austin, Texas and points in between. It’s hard to imagine Carter in a workshop in Iowa. Her own stories, in Salman Rushdie’s words, “dazzle and swoop.” According to Clapp, “after reading a contemporary’s meticulously realistic work, she roared, ‘there must be more to life than this.’” Declaring dandyism and irony “the weapons of the dispossessed,” Carter rewrote every century of U.S. history in her own, radical idiom. Her postcards are mementos of her vision of America, and this brief memoir of her life, which precedes a scholarly biography by Edmund Gordon, anticipated next year, suggests that perhaps American audiences might be ready for the exotic tang of her fiction as a heady antidote to the dominant realism of U.S. literature.
In Carter’s 17th century tale, “The Ghost Ships,” the Massachusetts colonists have outlawed Christmas, yet on Christmas Eve, the three ships of the old carol that goes “I saw three ships come sailing in” secretly arrive in Boston Bay. And what do the ships carry?
Not, as in the old song, ‘the Virgin Mary and her baby’; that would have done such grievous damage to the history of the New World that you might not be reading this in the English language even. No; imagination must obey the rules of actuality. (Some of them, anyway.)
Therefore, I imagine that the first ship was green and leafy all over, built of mossy yule logs bound together with ivy. It was loaded to the gunwales with roses and pomegranates, the flower of Mary and the fruit that represents her womb, and the mast was a towering cherry tree.
These three ships, then, carry the old, pagan roots of Christmas, ghosts of Christmases past. Yet when they meet the force of the Puritans’ rejection -- the story is prefaced with a statute enacted by the colonists in 1659 outlawing the celebration of Christmas or “any such day” -- the ships cannot survive and one by one they begin to sink. “A merry Christmas,” Carter informs, “is Cotton Mather’s worst nightmare.” Nothing but a lone Christmas pudding survives.
Food is hugely important to Carter, a teenage anorexic who never had a totally normal relationship with eating. Clapp remembers her as “a generous dolloper-out of food.” And she dolloped-out generously in her writings about food as well, but a 1985 review of an assortment of books about food, including The Official Foodie Handbook and The Chez Panisse Cookbook brought down the ire of London’s intelligentsia. Carter used the review to call out “the unashamed cult of conspicuous gluttony in the advanced industrial countries.” “This mincing and finicking obsession with food opens up whole new areas of potential social shame,” she wrote. Responses were vicious. Her private revenge was to send Clapp a postcard from Austin depicting a pot of Texas chili (and a Lone Star, for authenticity): “Carter’s reply to her critics! Texas chili!…I would like to forcefeed it to that driveling wimp!” Despite pronouncing everyone “loony” in Texas, Carter would go on to write a Western, the extraordinary “John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” which imagines that the two John Fords, the Jacobean revenge dramatist and the director of such films as The Searchers were the same man.
“John Ford” and her American gothics, stories that reread the 19th century, are some distance from that resilient Christmas pudding. In addition to the requisite incest, for John Ford I, and gruesome murder, for John Ford II, Carter’s nineteenth-century interests are Lizzie Borden and Edgar Allan Poe. Carter was something of a dolloper-out of gruesome murder too. “The Fall River Axe Murders” meditates on Lizzie, her family, and the day said murders occur: “’Lizzie is not herself today.’ At those times, those irremediable times, she could have raised her muzzle to some aching moon and howled.” A feminist and a radical, despite the many mothers and moons in her fiction, Carter refused mysticism. Lizzie is no avatar of the goddess, “All the mythic versions of women, from the myth of the redeeming purity of the virgin to that of the healing, reconciling mother, are consolatory nonsenses,” she wrote in The Sadeian Woman, “Mother goddesses are just as silly a notion as father gods. If a revival of the myths of these cults gives women emotional satisfaction, it does so at the price of obscuring the real conditions of life. This is why they were invented in the first place.”
Lizzie, a “girl of Sargasso calm” is typical of Carter’s heroines: a dangerous misfit for whom she has the most generous sympathy. In “Lizzie’s Tiger,” which opened Carter’s final, posthumous collection of short fiction, American Ghosts and Old World Wonders, the four-year-old protagonist looks between the bars of a tiger cage and recognizes a kindred spirit:
Then, oh! then… it came towards her, as if she were winding it to her on an invisible string by the exercise of pure will. I cannot tell you how much she loved the tiger, nor how wonderful she thought it was. It was the power of her love that forced it to come to her, on its knees, like a penitent. It dragged its pale belly across the dirty straw towards the bars where the little soft creature hung by its hooked fingers. Behind it followed the serpentine length of its ceaselessly twitching tail.
Carter’s heroines, new world and old, consort with wolves and tigers and are ferocious.
On a postcard depicting a Geisha Betty Boop (Carter lived several years in Japan, working briefly as a bar “hostess,” and wrote her only novel set in South America there, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. She writes that it “marked the beginning of my obscurity. I went from being a very promising young writer to being completely ignored in two novels”). Carter writes to Clapp a treatment for a Jane Eyre pastiche, “If any Brontë stuff ever comes in, can I have it? Nobody has written about them properly. Everything is crap.” She wanted to pick up with Adčle, Rochester’s daughter, who would fall in love with her headmistress, “the aristocratic bluestocking, Mrs. T, who teaches her many things.” Playing a bit fast and loose with its precursor’s 1820s setting, her novel would take Adčle to the Paris Commune of 1871. This juxtaposition is quintessential Carter: the only comment on the gross sexism and racism of Geisha Boop is the dazzling idea for a new story, and the swoop of a history of women’s writing that Carter always acknowledged without being in the least bit metaphysical about it.
The first half of the 20th century was, for Carter, more vivid in the movies than in the books of her modernist predecessors. Her memorial would be held at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton; Tariq Ali called it a “fleapit.” Carter appreciated the artifice of midcentury movies, and the fleapits where she experienced that artifice. Her inflammatory 1979 book-length essay on the Marquis de Sade interprets Justine and Juliette via the Hollywood film star. Mary Pickford and Mae West become the women of Sade’s writings, “If Mae West has a Sadeian avatar, it is neither Justine nor Juliette but the sterile phallic mother who will succor not Justine but Juliette and teach Eugenie di Mistival the philosophy of the boudoir. Mae West’s wit is castratory, if tender; and the part of her mind which is not scheming for libidinal gratification is adding up her bank accounts.” Sade’s most famous heroine appears in America’s most famous movie star, Marilyn Monroe: “The movies celebrated allure in itself but either denied the attractions inherent in availability or treated availability itself as a poor joke. The cultural product of this tension was the Good Bad Girl, the blonde, buxom and unfortunate sorority of Saint Justine, whose most notable martyr is Marilyn Monroe.” Carter had invoked Marilyn two years before The Sadeian Woman, in Theresa St. Ange, a film star, who, in a post-apocalyptic Hollywood is discovered to have been, anatomically, a man all along. Womanhood, Carter concluded, was a “social fact,” a material, and not an existential condition. For Carter the artifice that defined femininity was a kind of literary disjunction between form and content, and that disjunction was where interesting things happened.
Her postcards from America reflect this: a pickup that’s been turned into a giant chicken, an armadillo, on which she wrote, “the hedgehog of Texas. You see them splattered over roads,” from St. Louis, a group of men with faces painted on their bare bellies and pants made to look like jackets and ties. Carter found in America as old and strange a land as any in the old world. A Card From Angela Carter offers these images as if Carter selected them, as if she gathered pictures that reflected her own taste. But Carter’s readers will know that these postcards aren’t images chosen by her. Rather, they are the eruptions of Carter’s extravagant and spectacular world into our own mundane one.