On the opening page of her short firecracker of a memoir, I Await the Devil's Coming, Mary MacLane declares herself “odd,” “distinctly original,” and “a genius” -- and it’s hard to argue with any of those claims. It’s 1901 and she’s nineteen years old, stuck in Butte, Montana, and bored to the point of desperation. Her memoir, or “Portrayal,” was written to get noticed, and get out. It became a bestseller, earning her a devoted following of bored, passionate, lonely girls just like herself. The book crackles with its author’s outsized personality and outrageous proclamations, yet its shock tactics are rooted in genuine feeling, of being an outsider and longing for more.
The memoir covers just three months, from mid-January to mid-April of 1901: three cold, dull months in which nothing much happens. Mary takes long walks, eats ravenously (plates of fudge, olives, Omaha steaks with “fresh green onions”), does housework, and writes. No doubt because of the unchanging rhythm of her days, she is an expert in the art of repetition in writing -- certain phrases rattle and resound in these pages like incantations: the “sand and barrenness” of her Butte world, her own “wooden heart,” the “Gray Dawn,” and the Devil.
MacLane lives with her mother and siblings, but they merit just a sentence here and there; she is primarily interested in herself. However, some of the most intriguing passages in the book evoke the wider world of Butte, a populous mining town with an established social hierarchy. Unlike many restless writers who condemn their hometown for its dull sameness, MacLane describes Butte as various and endlessly intriguing to a “student of human nature.” While dominated by those of Cornish and Irish descent, the “heterogeneous herd” that turns out for festivals like the Fourth of July includes “greasy Italians”; “starved-looking Chinamen”; “swell, flash-looking Africans,” and “soft-voiced Mexicans.” Despite all this ethnic variety, Butte remains a place of “sand and barrenness,” where people are gossipy and conventional, and their souls are “dumb.”
Marriage, which might have seemed a natural preoccupation for a nineteen-year-old girl at the turn of the century, is treated with contempt. Based on her observations of the world around her, marriage to Mary is a mere cloak of convention that allows people to judge others while concealing their own vices. There is love in perhaps two of a hundred marriages, she decides, and tests the logic of her conviction with an inversion of convention: “When a man and a woman love one another that is enough. That is marriage. A religious rite is superfluous. And if the man and woman live together without the love, no ceremony in the world can make it marriage.”
Of the few people who venture closer to MacLane’s tempestuous orbit, the most important is the woman she calls the “anemone lady” -- an older English teacher at her high school who once showed her some kindness, but who has moved away. At this safe distance, Mary lavishes her love on the older woman, in terms that seem -- as with much of the memoir -- to be both heartfelt and designed to raise the eyebrows of those married gossips in Butte. “I feel in the anemone lady a strange attraction of sex,” she says bluntly. “There is in me a masculine element that, when I am thinking of her, arises and overshadows all the others.”
Elsewhere in the book Mary’s sexual passion is directed at an even more inflammatory object: the Devil. She addresses him as a combination of salvation and suitor: “an extremely fascinating, strong, steel-willed person in conventional clothes -- a man with whom to fall completely, madly in love.” He represents escape, and his arrival a longed-for consummation. In her anticipation of the Devil, MacLane sounds like a modern version of those medieval female saints, like Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, whose spiritual autobiographies appeal to Jesus in similarly personal, impassioned terms. Yet MacLane is no saint, nor even a fully committed sinner; she’s too down-to-earth for spiritual transcendence. Sure, she begs the Devil to take her immortal soul, but she also implores him to deliver her from all kinds of mundane frustrations: “women and men who dispense odors of musk”; “round, tight garters”; “unripe bananas”; “weddings”; and “any masculine thing that wears a pale blue necktie.”
MacLane’s early fame did not last, and perhaps because she was so popular with her teenage-girl readers, her writing did not earn critical respect. As Jessa Crispin’s thoughtful introduction points out, while MacLane was “ahead of her time at nineteen,” the twentieth century grew up fast. The social constraints that seemed as immovable as the mountains of Montana to Mary MacLane in 1901 were blown to pieces in the decades that followed. MacLane went to the Devil for good in 1929, obscure and alone, but anyone who reads her will never forget her voice.