New biography reveals major role for poet's mother

Linda Leavell

The mother of poet Marianne Moore once mused that if only Thomas Hardy were to take the Moore family as a subject for a novel, he “might have a ready made story needing no adjustings or additions.”

Though a scholarly work is a different creature from a novel, the material that Linda Leavell draws on for her biography of the poet is as rich and startling as fiction. Despite fame that reached popular icon level during her lifetime, Moore lived for many years with her mother in a Greenwich Village basement flat so small that the cooking was done on a hotplate balanced above the bathtub.

“Despite the availability of evidence and the unflagging interest in women’s lives among both academic and general readers,” said Leavell, a Center Research Fellow and professor of English at Oklahoma State University, “Moore’s life has attracted far less attention than it deserves.”

In suggesting an explanation, Leavell quoted a review of an earlier book about the poet: “Moore lived with such sobriety, chastity, regularity, rectitude and sedentariness that perhaps only a Chekhov or Virginia Woolf could have found a way of opening its many dark and narrow alcoves.”

As the first biographer authorized by the Moore family, Leavell has dug deeply into archival material, including 35,000 pieces of correspondence that were in Moore’s possession when she died in 1972. Among other revelations was the tremendous significance of Moore’s mother in her work as well as her life; for the unmarried poet, her mother was her life partner.

“Except for Marianne’s four years at college, she lived with her mother her entire life until her mother’s death when Marianne was almost sixty. A self-righteous, moralizing mother seems an unlikely companion for an avant-garde writer, and yet partners they were. A full portrait of Moore is not possible without one of her mother, whose curious role of censor and collaborator gave impetus to Moore’s art.

“Not only is Mary Warner Moore a powerful storyteller, providing in her letters detailed and witty accounts of the family and domestic life, she is herself a dramatic, almost tragic, character torn between high Protestant ideals and her own dark yearnings.”

Moore also was extremely close to her brother, Warner, and was devastated when he “left” the family by marrying.
“I want to present Moore not only within a family context but also within historical and cultural ones . . . Like the exotic animals she admired, Moore adapted to her world, yet her survival strategies could take surprising turns. How to explain, for instance, her various personae, from ‘Rat’ within the family to the adorable wizened baseball fan of the 1960s?”

Though Moore was among the most innovative of the deliberately innovative modernists, she was simultaneously a beloved celebrity known for her tricorn hat, her love of baseball and her published correspondence with the Ford Motor Company as she suggested nineteen possible names for cars, at their request. The New York Times marked her death with a full-page obituary.

“Her early poems appeared alongside those of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, H.D., William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens in the avant-garde ‘little magazines’ that emerged just prior to World War I. Although her readership remained small throughout the first half of the century, among her fellow modernists she was arguably the most esteemed poet writing in America.”

During the second half of the century, Moore continued to gain admirers among the next generation of poets—W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath—and won every significant literary honor that America had to offer.
Leavell is the author of a previous book about the poet, Marianne Moore and the Visual Arts: Prismatic Color (Louisiana State UP, 1995), and it was while reading family correspondence for that book that she realized that “key events and issues had been misinterpreted or ignored” in earlier work about the poet.

Her proposal to do a biography was received with enthusiasm by Moore’s niece, Marianne Craig Moore, and her sister who together manage Moore’s estate. The sisters met with Leavell in New York and gave her the full support of the estate as the official biographer. The greatest challenge for a biographer of Moore is not accumulating facts, said Leavell, so much as gleaning from the profusion of facts an imaginative portrait.

“While I do not presume to be a Chekhov or Woolf nor to rival Moore’s own ability to transform the quotidian into poetry, it is Moore herself who has taught me most about how to face this challenge. Her poetry insists upon ‘relentless accuracy’ as a means of avoiding stereotype, of granting one’s subject the freedom to be itself. And yet only with imagination can one avoid, in her words, ‘the haggish, uncompromising drawl of certitude.’”