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Hale, "Swell Suffering" (reviewed by Marilyn Brown) Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2011 8:15:07 PM

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Review
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Title: Swell Suffering
Author: Veda Tebbs Hale
Publisher: Kofford Books
Genre: Biography
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 456
ISBN: 978-1-58958-122-7
Price: n/a

Reviewed by Marilyn Brown for the Association for Mormon Letters

If we didn’t get the sequel to Maurine Whipple’s “Giant Joshua,” we are now privileged to have her own story, an amazing tour de force biography from Kofford Books, “Swell Suffering,” written by a talented author in her own right—Veda Hale.

What an amazing tale! Yes, Maurine was married, although briefly. Yes, she was raped and had an abortion. Yes, she fell in love with the “Vitamin King,” Tom Spies. Yes, she wrote for Life magazine, Colliers, and other national publications. And yes, it was true that she worked on the never-completed sequel to “The Giant Joshua” all of her life.

But it is not just the revelations of this secretive writer’s life that stun us, but the acute analysis and deeply perceptive commentary of the sensitive biographer that give us reason to rejoice in this work. Credit is due to Lavina Fielding Anderson for her input, and Kofford Books for their professionalism in publishing it, but the investigation, the interpretation, must all be attributed to the intuitive surveillance of a talented biographer who, although low-key in the Mormon literary world, has always been an artist to watch.

I first met Veda when Clifton Jolley hosted the Association for Mormon Letters evening in Salt Lake City at least thirty years ago—when my “Wine-Dark Sea of Grass” was still “Stones of Blood” and I was soliciting Lavina Fielding Anderson’s help with it. Since Veda was the great great granddaughter of my novel’s main character, John D. Lee, Lavina insisted, “You two ought to know each other.” And so all these years we have been friends, sharing many conferences, luncheons, and conversations. When Veda moved to St. George, I urged her to look up Maurine Whipple. Together we paid her a visit in her St. George nursing home. I toyed with the idea of writing a biography. But since Veda was right there I coaxed her to haunt Maurine until she unearthed all the secrets. And she has!

How many of us “Mormon writers” would like to have had even one novel published nationally and touted with the amazing critical success of “The Giant Joshua”? Yet writing success was not really what Maurine craved. What she really wanted was emotional fulfillment—a husband and a family. Her amazing life story takes place in the Mormon culture’s transition from the difficulties of polygamy to the life-style of the monogamist. Her grandfather was a successful polygamist, but her father was “confused.” Though he stayed married to Annie, Maurine’s mother, he conducted many affairs outside of marriage. And Maurine suffered—from lack of attention her father should have been giving her, from embarrassment, and from despair that her mother seemed weak. Unable to straddle this cultural transition successfully, she became one of the “single girls” left to dangle without a home or children because she would like to have married one of the “great men.”

Maurine’s emotional needs drove her life. Veda cleverly defines the “pacing” that Maurine was never able to maintain in her relationships. ”When a man she found attractive showed interest in her, all of her romantic sensibilities flared into blazing life. She became obsessed, unleashed her hopes, dreamed unchecked of a future of rosy domesticity, lavished unstinting adoration upon the object of her affection, willingly remade herself in the image she thought he desired, and was, in short, willing to do anything but allow the relationship space in which to develop naturally and slowly (56).” In short, she talked too much, spilled too much. She scared men to death.

It is Veda who is able to extract from one of Maurine’s letters a paragraph that suggests Maurine knew of her effusive emotional outpourings. “It’s as if in the beginning there was a pleasant little stream which dared to go adventuring into unknown lands; but there it met obstacles, boulders, cataclysms which changed and re-made its very soul; so that today it is a mad torrent flowing in a precipitous canyon capable of doing great damage, and hard to control.” Veda writes: “Was she likening herself to the little stream (114)?” If these words of Maurine’s were about herself, the passage also demonstrates her lifelong stance that she was a victim of the “cataclysms” that changed her. “Victimhood” was one of her favorite roles.

She grasped at anything that gave her emotional sustenance. Instead of getting out the sequel to her book, she immersed herself in magazine writing for quick companionship and money—and she always needed money. She frittered away her time. As a member of the Life Magazine team for the Mormon Centennial Tour of 1947, she found herself basking in the “glory” she needed. Veda writes: “It was easy to feel the poignancy of Maurine’s pride at being one of the Life team, flashing her Life badge at awestruck locals, and impressing these important journalists with her skill at hunting up interesting people, unusual territory, and newsworthy situations. Obviously, in comparison, the sequel had no charm. Writing would have involved sitting alone, day after day in some dreary room, straining to attune her prose to an elusive historical note on a long piece of fiction that she must have feared would make little money (295).”

But even Life could no longer “suffer along” with Maurine. (Is this wording metaphorical?) “It seems that Life was no longer interested in working with someone who, though competent as a researcher and writer, brought emotional chaos in her wake. Pathetically, Maurine was the last to realize this situation (300).”

As she threw herself headlong into the quest for security, and found herself “rebuffed,” she certainly did become a victim “. . . enmeshed in an adversarial contest with the publishing world, a world she increasingly saw as hostile to her. Her chief energy was not going into the renewing and replenishing—though difficult—labor of creation, but into the negative struggle to get people to acknowledge her worth as a writer. Ironically, it only made her increasingly incapable of producing work upon which her worth could be acknowledged (323).” This kind of precise analysis, found often throughout the biography, can be made only by a sensitive and aware author. Veda hits the nail on the head—perhaps for all of us “would-be” writers?

In another spot, Veda uncovers a letter Maurine wrote to Ted Strauss of Colliers. In a short story she wanted to send him about a little girl (really herself), her exact words were, “It seemed that all her life had been one long rejection and the pattern kept repeating itself.” Perhaps her most tragically failed romance was with the “Vitamin King,” Tom Spies, who was married to his work. He did take her on a romantic evening horse and buggy ride through New York. He did hold her cold hands. She soared, only to crawl after him later in an embarrassing way.

A Salt Lake City journalist, Lorna Clayton, who at first promoted Maurine, finally lost faith that she had the discipline to do good work. Her words sum it up in a “stinging rebuke.” “Your writing is your passport and when you don’t get things done everyone loses interest. . . . Don’t kid yourself anymore, Maurine, face reality and do something. Don’t just wait for that magic someone to subsidize you again. You have been your own worst enemy and you should think it over and try to change the pattern of your own private life in such a way as to bring you success which you should have with your heaven sent ability (396).”

After so much rejection, it was natural that Maurine learned to take offense quickly. It was only toward the last of her life that she softened. The movie rights for her only “knight in shining armor,” “The Giant Joshua” (purchased by an associate of Robert Redford's ex-father-in-law Sterling Van Waggenen), gave her a few years of support until she was taken care of by the government. A wonderful nurse, Carol Jensen, also stepped in. A statement Maurine made about death is very poignant: “I’ve had no fear of death at all. I learned . . . to laugh at what men call death. . . . Instead, why not go forward? Tomorrow is a new day; who knows what rapture it will bring? I guess I must have been born with an abiding curiosity, because I just can’t wait, even now to see what happens next! (379).”

It was very touching that at the “meet Maurine” picnic at the Brown’s Hobble Creek “Watercress Farm” on June 21, 1991, Maurine in her purple dress was able to shine for the Mormon literary elite: Richard Cracroft, Clinton Larson, Don Marshall, Bruce Jorgensen, Eugene England, and many others. And it was especially satisfying to know that afterward she was able to say. “It was the most wonderful weekend of my life (421).”

Veda’s amazing “Postscript” to the biography offers a metaphor of rain and clearing skies that symbolize Maurine’s peaceful death. And, appropriately, Veda ends with Maurine’s own special phrase, “The Great Smile (422).”

This is a “must read” for anyone interested in the history of the struggle Mormons have had to create good literature. If it is true that “religion” and “literature” do not mix, Maurine’s life is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Yet there are still some of us who will not give up easily.



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