The Forgotten Writing of Bette Howland

May 8, 2019 | Rachel Shteir
About the author:

Best known, perhaps, for her short-lived romance with Saul Bellow—who remained her friend and confidant for the remainder of his life—Bette Howland, who died in 2017 and is little remembered today, had a promising career as a writer of criticism and fiction. The recently published Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage collects a novella of the same name, some of her short stories, and a previously unpublished work. Calling Howland a “brilliant 20th-century Jewish American woman writer,” Rachel Shteir describes her career and oeuvre:

On paper, Howland seems deserving of . . . new attention. She wrote one memoir, two short-story collections, and criticism, mostly for Commentary magazine. Her books received good reviews and she was awarded both Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. After the MacArthur, she mostly stopped writing fiction. . .

I am reluctant to paint Howland as a victim of her onetime lover—or the “patriarchy.” After the early passion waned, Bellow seems to have been devoted to his friend. . . . It also seems wrong to blame Bellow for the fact that after the breakup, while his exile from Chicago included Bellagio, hers included a remote island in Maine and a farm in Pennsylvania. He was ravished by the world; she lived like a monk. . . .

[Likewise], I don’t see any glimmer of [ravishment] in Howland’s work, which, as her son writes, is mostly about “the indescribable metaphysical bleakness of life in Chicago.” The best of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage describes that city. My favorite story, “Blue in Chicago,” remains among the most accurate descriptions of Hyde Park’s siege mentality that I have read. “You always want to know how close these things come to you,” the narrator begins, describing the shooting of a graduate student. Howland’s cold evocation of that South Side neighborhood only serves to illuminate more brilliantly the sadness she feels when trapped with her sulky Jewish relatives at a wedding. She has nowhere to go.

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