Ran in the Family

Larry Polansky is here for a couple of weeks – important composer, prof at Dartmouth, director of Frog Peak Music, a composers’ collective for publishing works by subversive outsiders like him and me. (Although, as he reminds me, we may be considered unspeakably outré by the Pulitzer crowd, but we’re thought old-fashioned by our students – we still write notes on paper.) Anyway, he’s found, and is hoping to republish, a novel by Clarissa Dixon – Henry Cowell’s mother. You always read that Cowell’s parents were writers, but who now living has ever read anything by them? This novel, or rather novella, Janet & her dear Phebe, was published in 1909 by the Frederick A. Stokes Company, when Henry was 12. It’s a poignant and imaginatively written story of two little girls who deeply love each other, wrenched apart when their fathers develop an enmity over a political dispute. Forbidden to meet, the girls communicate secretly through letters and poems:

I s’pose it isn’t nice to stamp

My foot upon the ground

And get into a boiling rage

Because a wheel is round.

I s’pose it isn’t nice, at all,

To rise at night and stand

Beside my window, wishing that

The moon was in my hand.

I s’pose it isn’t nice to want

The whole big world to be –

Like a mud play-thing in my hand –

Made over, just for me.

But worst of all, I s’pose, is this:

To wish that things were nice

When they are not. Good consciences

Cost such a big, high price!

The book’s a little dated, but also not what you expect from early-20th-century San Francisco, and the modern eye can hardly avoid reading feminist and even lesbian themes into it. (Cowell himself would become bisexual.) It’s a haunting and lovely book, and I hope Frog Peak can get funding to reprint it. 1909 was about the time Cowell started to compose, and you can only imagine what effect it must have had to have a parental model like the author of this intensely yearning novel.