Adventures in the Nin Trade

Note: What follows is the first is a series of postings regarding the career, art, and reputation of Anais Nin. This piece was published in the initial volume of A Café in Space: the Anais Nin Literary Journal (2003). However, readers will soon realize that it is primarily a memoir, a companion piece to my remembrance of Nin that appeared in Recollections of Anais Nin by Her Contemporaries (1996) edited by Benjamin Franklin V. I hope to post (republish) that piece as well as several interpretive essays in the near future.

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Some ten or so years ago, at about the same time that I was preparing Anais Nin and Her Critics for Camden House, I proposed a book that would collect my own essays on Nin and weave a career narrative – the story of my own “Nin Career” – around and through them. The book would thus be the illustrated story of one scholar’s engagement with an author’s work over a period of three decades. In thinking about Gunther’s invitation to write “something personal about your long-standing relationship with Anais’s work” (letter of October 18, 2001), I remembered that proposal. In it, I had already prepared some of the story. However, though I am a meticulous file-keeper and document-scrounge, I can find no hint of that proposal or that fledgling narrative. I must begin again – and now it’s a story of over four decades.  I will present it in abbreviated form. It is a story told by a just-retired college professor who met Nin’s work as an undergraduate student and, more or less, fell in love.

It is also a story that began again only yesterday (on December 19, 2001), when I received a call from a total stranger – a man named Steven Fazio – who had discovered that I resided in Naples, Florida and wanted to sit down with me to have some serious conversation about Nin on one of his regular trips to my town from his home in Tampa. He had discovered Nin through my Anais Nin Reader (1973), and he had collected and read and studied her writings ever since. He had found a link to my home page on an Anais Nin web page. The internet provides the latest version of the widening circle impulse, set in motion so many years ago by the Centing and Franklin newsletter Under the Sign of Pisces: Anais Nin and Her Circle. This periodical was the first respectable home for the discussion of Nin’s work, and it launched the careers of most Nin scholars of that generation, including myself. I hope to sit down with Steven soon.

But my story, like Steven Fazio’s, begins with the excited discovery of Nin’s writing, a discovery that quickly led to infatuation.

It began during the academic year 1960-1961 with my discovery of the then-new Swallow Press editions of Nin’s work in Greenwich Village bookshops. At nineteen, I was smitten. In a letter dated some ten years later (May 28, 1971), writing to her from Georgetown University, I told a version of the tale to Nin herself:

Dear Miss Nin,

      Let me begin by telling you a little story: a variation on a theme you’ve no doubt heard many times before.

     After some false starts at the University of Maryland, finally finding my proper vocation to be literary study, I uprooted myself and in the fall of 1960 moved to New York to attend the New School for Social Research. At that school and around Greenwich Village many new vistas opened before me. I began to feel that the psychological approach to literary art was most congenial for me (through courses taught by such men as Gerald Sykes); I began to explore my own potential as a writer; and, in the 8th Street bookshops, discovered the Swallow editions of your works. Intrigued, I avidly read your books as they became available to me, studied them, began to compile notes, and followed your career through the succeeding ten years.

 

I didn’t tell Nin then of the amazing piece of luck that came my way at a used bookstore near the 92nd Street YM/WHA where I found, for 25 cents, a copy of the Gemor Press Under a Glass Bell (1944) that is still in my collection. Was it fate?

       The letter continues:

      Along the way, I obtained my B.A., M.A., and now my Ph.D. This formal study kept my continuing interest from reaching any useful issue, but I knew all that while that part of my career – an important part – would be dedicated to teaching and writing about your work. The first real opportunity came this past fall when I was able to include A Spy in the House of Love in one of my courses. From this came an essay soon to appear [in truncated form] in the newsletter that Mr. Centing has been editing.

 From here, the letter pitches the idea of the Anais Nin Reader, the story of which I have already told in my memoir of Nin that appears in Benjamin Franklin V’s Recollections of Anais Nin by Her Contemporaries, 1996.

 Those ten years between the discovery of Nin’s work and the initiation of a career as a Nin scholar were frustrating years in which I found few people with whom to share my enthusiasm for her writing. I did, indeed, compile an impressive, if informal, bibliography of primary and secondary sources that served me well later on. I read otherwise unavailable titles in the Rare Book Room at the Library of Congress. In fact, sometime during that decade, I went to hear Nin give a talk at the LC. All the while, her poetic prose moved me. It fed the romantic side of my sensibilities during a very late adolescence and through early adulthood. It countered my graduate school studies in 18th Century British Literature – “The Age of Reason.” When Nin’s Djuna struck up vaguely erotic and potentially liberating relationships with young men too mired in reason (or at least “authority”) for their own good, I vicariously joined the entourage. I admired and required the lesson of personal evolution, of change and growth, of stability’s dangers, of the need for a youthful perspective that defies limitation. I still do.

 When the time came, in the early 1970s, to declare myself a Nin scholar, there was little in this identity to commend me to the academic world. Pieces in Pisces, a review essay on Evelyn Hinz’s trailblazing book in The Journal of the Otto Rank Association, a review of Diary IV in the Washington Post – these small efforts led to the Reader and, over time, to a series of Nin projects through which I found myself peculiarly positioned. Meanwhile, the work of other scholars helped build Nin study into a respectable field, though even today a marginal one.

 While I always admired her work-and parts, at least, of her exemplary life in art- I more and more found her writing uneven and limited. I wanted to join with others in praising her worth, but I did not find it possible to be uncritical. I could not deify her. After a while, I found myself a reluctant partisan, locked in battles with people I labeled (privately?) as sycophants. I remember speaking out after a series of enthusiastic papers at a Modern Language Association meeting (one of the New York ones, I believe), and getting verbally pelted by the majority on hand. To raise questions or doubts about the stature of Nin’s achievement or the rigor of argument behind another scholar’s fulsome praise was to be in the wrong room.  But I felt that to over-praise was, in the long run, to do Nin’s art a disservice.

 These issues came up in my own reviewing, both of Sharon Spencer’s book and Nancy Scholar’s. At least with Scholar I had found a “bad guy” whose Nin-bashing far exceeded my own. Next to hers, my reservations seemed (and are) quite tame.

 No career, or even career strand, is without disappointments. Though I feel fortunate to have earned a place of some prominence in the ongoing conversation about Nin’s life and art, I’ve met with several setbacks. There is no need to present a whiny catalogue; I’ll only mention here my failure to complete a project into which I invested considerable time at the UCLA library and elsewhere. I had noticed, imbedded in Nin’s manuscript diaries, a series of letters from Rank to Nin, only a small portion of which had been published. Though I transcribed them and was prepared to publish them with an introduction, I was never able to obtain the necessary permission. Because that relationship had already become a primary concern of my scholarship, I felt an intense frustration. Looking back, this feeling has diminished to a minor irritation.

 In my central writings, I found it useful to pursue my original attraction: the psychological dimensions of Nin’s art. I wrote less – through the seventies and eighties – about her shortcomings as a writer and more about what she drew upon, how her fictions worked, what key personality dynamics they probed, and the genre issues regarding the border between fiction and autobiography. My contributions to the special 1978 issue of Mosaic (“Doubles/Don Juans: Anais Nin and Otto Rank”) and to Sharon Spenser’s 1986 anthology (“The Princess and the Frog: Anais Nin and Otto Rank”) kept me out of arguments about the measure of Nin’s esthetic achievement.  But it wasn’t long before I was gauging my position in the next battle: Nin’s stature as a truth-teller. My comments on the Henry and June volume (“Dropping Another Veil” in Anais 6, 1988) engaged this issue.

 Along the way, I realized that these critical arguments had a much longer history than I had suspected. I discovered that the shape of Nin’s career – her critical reception and its meaning – was a fascinating story in itself.

 One job that had to be done was to pin down certain aspects of that career: those that had to do with networking and self-publishing. This interest in the sociology and economics of literary production actually had its roots in my long-abandoned interest in Restoration and 18th-century British Theatre. Here, I had done work on the situation of the playwright: how plays were selected, how theatrical bills were determined, how playwrights were paid, and related matters. Art has a social and economic context that is often disregarded. In the case of Nin, I prepared a careful study on “The Gemor Press” that appeared in the second issue (1984) of this remarkable annual, Anais: An International Journal. I followed it up one year later with a “networking” story: “Oscar Baradinsky’s ‘Outcasts:–Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Maya Deren and the Alicat Bookshop Press.” Later came “A Delicate Battle Cry: Nin’s Pamphlets of the 1940’s” (no. 8, 1990), which is of bibliographical interest and provides a glance at Nin’s early esthetic self-positioning. She was, in these works and elsewhere, attempting to establish the grounds for the critical debate that would swirl around her. To my dismay, many critics would appeal to Nin’s self-justifications rather than bring other relevant criteria of judgment to bear on the assessment of her work.

 It had become clear by now that one of my major areas of contribution to Nin studies would be to examine the debate itself. The 1993 issue of Anais included my “Issues in Nin Criticism,” a preliminary borrowing from the monograph Anais Nin and Her Critics that appeared the same year. My goal here had been to read everything and act as a fair referee. Nonetheless, I didn’t work too hard, or hard enough, at hiding my prejudices. Having prepared myself to perform the task of tracing Nin’s career by mapping out the history of critical responses, I was more than ready to produce a companion effort. The collection of essays titled The Critical Response to Anais Nin (1996) essentially completed that project. A retrospective gathering, the book is designed to represent the range of positions on Nin’s work over six decades. For me it was the matching bookend to the selection of Nin’s own work published twenty-three years earlier.

 For all of this interest in stepping back to define the Nin story in these ways, I haven’t fully resisted the temptation to return to her works and to comment on them. Two companion pieces of 1997 explore what Nin reveals and hides, where she succeeds and where she (pardon me once again) fails. These are “The Burden of Self: Some Thoughts on The Early Diary of Anais Nin, 1927-1931” (Anais 15) and “The Men in Nin’s (Characters’) Lives,” which is included in Suzanne Nalbantian’s Anais Nin: Literary Perspectives. Also, in my ongoing fool’s errand to have the last word about my topics, I have contributed many entries on Nin to major reference works and written review essays on the full-length biographies by Noel Riley Fitch and Deirdre Bair.

 Yes, it is a fool’s errand and a vain wish: to have the last word. It can’t be done, yet I believe that most of us who work in the Nin trade and in other areas of literary study almost believe it can. In our wiser moments, we know that we are only players and that we contribute to a continuing process. If we didn’t know this truth, even a superficial reading of Nin would set us straight-becoming. That’s all we have, and it is everything: the possibility and power of transformation. The primary creative act of self-making, we learn, is an act that is all process and has no end before our death – and perhaps no end after our death, either.

So, I sit here over forty years a Nin devotee, over thirty years an academic adventurer in the Nin trade. I began reading and writing about a woman who was very much a living author, and as I write this she has been gone for almost a quarter century. But like any powerful and inspiring talent, she is all around. That is why Steven Fazio called me the other day. That’s why just two days earlier, I received a forwarded email note from Dr. Vicki Hufnagel, who cared for Anais during her fatal bout with ovarian cancer and who writes that Anais “served as an angel vision in my own life.” Even on her deathbed, Anais Nin could bring the gift of the journey, the acceptance of flux. To Dr. Hufnagel she brought a new understanding of self, of possibilities for healing that lay beyond the doctor’s rigid, structured medical work. “In time she told me my words would be my knife,” writes Vicki Hufnagel. And so Anais’s story of mutability now becomes Vicki’s, and Vicki will tell her story of Anais, and we will read that, too, and be changed.

December 20, 2001

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