Paying Homage to Marie of France, Edna of Abilene, and ILLLeave a comment
May 12, 2015 by libroshombre
Let’s pay homage to our library’s interlibrary loan system (ILL). Through its services we can borrow practically any book on any subject from other libraries across the nation. “Homage” is appropriate because my most recent gift from Oregon’s Reed College, via ILL, is “Marie de France: a Critical Companion” by Sharon Kinoshita and Peggy McCracken. It’s a scholarly work about a medieval woman with French connections who wrote at least three literary works in the –mid-1100s.
Only three things are known for certain about Marie: “she was educated, she must have had access to a library, and she was familiar with noble society.” We know she was educated and had a library, because she translated Breton folktales from Brittany, Celtic fables, and a Latin religious work all into Continental French. And she had regal connections because she dedicated her book of folktales to King Henry II.
In those days, the prevailing feudalism system required the “rite of homage (‘hommage’), whereby one noble became the ‘man’ (‘homme’) or vassal of another … Thus in return for protection and a fief (the land providing a means of subsistence) given by his lord, the vassal promised forty days of military service each year and “counsel.’”
Our library’s ILL staff’s satisfied so many intellectual cravings over the years that I’ll willingly become their vassal. They deserve all y’all’s homage, too. Just as we’re glad firemen exist, even if we’ve never personally needed their skill, it’s comforting that almost any intellectual window we want to throw open and explore can be gratified through this amazing library service. Throughout all human history, there have been only two countries with nation-wide public library interlibrary loan service: the U.S. and Australia. That’s worth recognizing and celebrating.
Edna Beasley was another woman writer I wondered about, and ILL enlightened me. Bedasley lived in my buttoned-down hometown, Abilene, Texas, around 1900. Her family, as she described them herself, were “poor white trash.” The Abilene Reporter-News recently wrote that Beasley’s “account of her family history of incest, bestiality, and physical violence is still shocking readers more than 80 years after it was banned in the United States.”
Known in Texas as the “Buckle on the Biblebelt,” Abilene hosts three church-affiliated universities and prefers its scandals to simmer below the surface. Beasley managed to graduate from local Baptist Hardin-Simmons University, taught school in Chicago, and attended grad school and fell in with literary radicals like Carl Sandburg and Emma Goldman. She moved to Paris, made that literary scene, and wrote her autobiography, “My First Thirty Years.” Her publisher said the two writers who gave him the most trouble were “both Gertrudes – Stein and Beasley.” She was in England when her autobiography was banned, most copies destroyed the copies, and she was deported. Beasley sailed to New York City in 1928, her remaining books were seized and destroyed, and she disappeared.
Fifty years later, Alice and Joe Specht, the directors of the libraries at Hardin-Simmons and another Abilene school, Methodist McMurry University, respectively, began unraveling the mystery. According to her daughter, “Alice Specht kept a file of what she and a few others turned up over the years” including an unverified 1930 New York State census that listed someone named Beasely in a mental institution, but the records couldn’t be opened without family approval. Eventually Beasley’s grandniece was located and agreed to request the records. It turned out that Edna Beasley “was institutionalized 10 days after her ship landed in New York. She lived out her last 27 years in gulag conditions, until her death from pancreatic cancer in 1955. She was 63.”
The noted critic H.L. Mencken “hailed Beasley’s book as one of the best coming-of-age books ever and ‘the first genuinely realistic picture of the Southern poor white trash.’” Larry McMurtry described it as “one of the finest Texas books of its era; in my view the finest.” But because of its subject, it was destroyed except for a few rare copies, which are rarer still in Texas. But ILL acquired a first edition copy from a college in Virginia who willingly mailed it 4,000 miles to enlighten a stranger. Our library regularly returns the favor to other strangers. All hail ILL!