Rush-That-Speaks (rushthatspeaks) wrote,

The Singing Creek Where The Willows Grow, Opal Whiteley, ed. Benjamin Hoff (365 Books, Day 277)

The best way to describe the reading experience I had with this book is to say that it resembled what might happen to a perfectly innocent person who does not know much about history while looking up newspaper headlines from 1880s London. Which is to say, there you are researching away, doing nothing particularly ominous, and suddenly all of the scholarship on Jack the Ripper lurches out of its cabinet and starts gnawing on your leg. Up becomes down, dogs and cats start living together, the definitive works on the subject are written by people who do not have a personal interest so much as a personal ideological obsession, and otherwise perfectly rational researchers start yelling at one another "WHAT PART OF PH'NGLUI MGLW'NAFH WGAH'NAGHL CTHULHU FHTAGN DO YOU NOT UNDERSTAND?"

Except weirder. This was weirder.

Okay, so. In 1920, the diary of Opal Whiteley was published, first in serial form in Atlantic magazine and then as a book. Opal was born in 1897, and the beginnings of the diary are (possibly, we'll get into that) from 1904 or so. The diary features extensive description of the landscape around her family's home in rural Oregon, and centers around her interactions with the many, many animals she cared for, observed, kept as pets, and gave extremely long classical names. It became very popular very fast, there was something of a media blitz, and Opal, in her twenties, was accused of having written the whole thing at a later age as a hoax. The book then fell out of print.

Benjamin Hoff, author of such works as The Tao of Pooh, picked it up randomly at a library in the 1980s and devoted himself to getting it back into print-- and to insistently debunking the idea that it is anything other than what it claims to be. He wrote a biography of Whiteley as front matter, edited the punctuation and spelling for publication, and attempted repeatedly to see her in the mental institution in England where she had resided since the end of WWII. (He failed at that; the institution kept throwing him out, and she died in 1992.)

The thing is, Benjamin Hoff is not a historian. He also has a rescue complex about Whiteley the size of a moderate skyscraper. Huge chunks of his biography and afterword are insistences that if only people had not been so nasty to her and doubted the diary, she might have written more books. He quotes extensively from sources who agree with him and says nasty things about the ones who don't. He also has a lovely habit of saying things like 'a friend of mine told me this biography would not be popular in feminist circles because it is written by a man'. I don't doubt the factual things he found-- the birth date, the exact geography, the course of her life after the whole diary publication, the photographs he includes. But the picture he gives is one so imbued with his white-knighting that that alone makes me look at it skeptically, and the amount of data he could not locate draws a portrait of a situation that desperately wants painstaking, objective information gathering and analysis from somebody who has no ax to grind.

Which is exactly what it isn't getting at the moment (saith the internet) and hasn't gotten. Why?

Well, because Opal Whiteley was... well. Upon reading her diary, which I did before reading the biographical preface (always read prefaces after the main body; this rule will take you far in life), I got a portrait of an incredibly intelligent little girl who had spent time in France with loving, caring relatives of some variety, who taught her some French, some Catholicism, and a great deal about the history of Europe, focused around names, dates, and the accomplishments of the great. This little girl wound up living in rural Oregon, forbidden to keep up her French, and under the care of an abusive and insensitive mother. Towards the end of the diary, she says that the French relatives were her real parents, that this is part of the reason for her mother's behavior.

The thing is, as far as anyone can tell she was born in Oregon to the people who raised her. Over the course of her later life, she became more and more convinced that she was French and that she was the orphaned daughter of a particular great French naturalist of the late nineteenth century. This is part of what caused people to wonder whether the diary was a hoax: she insisted so repeatedly that her parents weren't her parents. The belief in herself as French does not seem to have done much harm during a couple of decades of popular nature lecturing and travel in obscure regions of India, but by the 1940s she could no longer support herself writing or in any other way, and was institutionalized after the Blitz because she was found starving in her own apartment and incapable of discussing any subject other than French history.

Hoff believes her to have been schizophrenic, a diagnosis also produced by the institution in which she lived. There are therefore the following currently believed theories out there about the diary of Opal Whiteley:

1) she wrote it as a child and is telling the truth about her family situation and was never psychotic, just not able to cope with the logistics of taking care of herself
2) she wrote it in her twenties but ditto ditto
3) she wrote it as a child, revised it in her twenties, and ditto ditto
4) she was delusional from a very young age, which was also when she wrote the diary, and the delusions intensified
5) delusional from young age, wrote it in twenties
6) delusional from young age, revised it in twenties
7) never delusional but actively escaping into a fantasy life and family because of being a bright child in abusive circumstances; see above re: permutations of when she might have written it and whether she had mental problems later
8) the whole thing came to her as a child because of her status as a religious mystic/person with psychic powers no really that is out there.

And you will find people arguing any of those plus debating the various diagnoses she might have had, if any-- some think autism or something else on that spectrum instead of schizophrenia.

MY KINGDOM FOR A GODDAMN REPUTABLE HISTORIAN. (I told you, this is the sort of thing where people start screaming at each other. See how I just did?)

Of course, the whole thing would be infinitely less complicated if it were possible to prove or disprove any of this IN ANY WAY from the text of the diary itself.

And, though I did not know many of the nitty-gritty details before I started reading the diary (see above concerning prefaces), I did know there was a question about the authenticity, so I was reading it with that question in my mind.

... I have no idea.

The thing is, I don't care when she wrote it, it's certainly unique. The most accurate thing I can say about it is that it is folk art. It is not working by the usual metrics of prose. I have never seen anything resembling Opal Whiteley's prose in any way ever. It is orthogonal to the entire concept of good prose as traditionally considered. This is one reason it's impossible to date. It's too different.

I am not going to be able to adequately communicate this situation to you without excerpting. I will now proceed to open the book at random:

After I did get little brown Oliver Goldsmith and all the rest of the children of Minerva [note: chickens] into their christening robes, then I did take out of my pocket her little white cap with the ruffles on it like the ruffles on the morning-cap of Jenny Strong [note: family friend]. I tied it under Minerva's bill. She was a sweet picture in it, coming down the cathedral aisle by my side. Minerva is a plump hen of gentle ways. It is not often she does talk, but she did chuckle all of the time while her baby chickens was getting christened.

Brave Horatius [dog] stood by the altar, and Lars Porsena of Clusium [crow] did perch upon his back. Lucian Horace Ovid Virgil [toad] did sit on a log close by. And Mathilde Plantagenet [calf] watched from the pasture-bars. Menander Euripides Theocritus Thucydides [lamb] did walk by my side when we went goes to have asks for the blessing of Saint Louis on all Minerva's baby chickens, after they were christened. Then I did sing "Hosanna in excelsis." And Ben Jonson peeped, and so did Francis Beaumont and Pius VII [chicks]. He was wiggling so that his christening robe was most off him. I put it on again. Then I did stop to straighten up Minerva's cap with the ruffles on it. It had had a slip-back. Then we had more prayers. Afterward, we all did have goes back to the chickenyard pen.

Do not ask me to evaluate the age or mental state of the person who wrote this. I freely admit to being unqualified to do so. Yes, this would be sophisticated for a six/seven year old, but it was all scrawled in crayon in capital letters only, each word about an inch high, punctuation non-existent and the spelling more than unique. ... of course, this is also a way an adult with mental issues might write. I don't know. At six I was writing fanfiction of Heinlein's Red Planet in capital letters only and ending every sentence with an exclamation point, except the sentences I really thought needed exclamation points, which I ended with three. I do not think it is impossible that Opal Whiteley's diary was written when she was that young. I simply do not have the data to say whether it is probable, and I don't think anyone at this point does, and possibly enough material has been lost for the question to be simply unanswerable. I personally outright refuse to come to a conclusion.

Anyway so there are two hundred and fifty pages of this. Opal holds her religious observances: saint's days, the births and deaths of famous historical figures, christenings. She doctors, cuddles, and names animals, trees, lichen, and moderately large rocks. She climbs out her bedroom window in the middle of the night, rides the neighbor's horse for miles, and does innumerable things of the sort that small children think are helpful which are not (for instance, on her mother complaining that the milk is not souring fast enough to churn soon, she pours lemon juice in it). Her mother beats her, as far as I can tell, every time they are in the same room, is eternally and with good reason frisking her for small animals, and once ties her to the corner of the house with a clothesline until she collapses with heatstroke. The babies and illnesses of the neighbors are reported with no particular concern or understanding, although she seems to like just about everyone else better than her parents. Opal is also eternally talking about fairies. Everything is fairies: moonbeams, wind in trees, moderately large rocks. And she has a stubborn non-comprehension of the concept of death which pushes at the outer limits of credulity, but. I don't know. When I was that age I held long conversations with telephone poles.

Reading the diary is a continuous wild swing through irritation, deep confusion, incredulity, real emotional involvement, admiration at turns of phrase no one else would or could have come up with, speculation, inability to keep track of the extremely long names of all those animals, fascination, vague boredom, and total surrealist détournement. I have no idea whether to recommend it to anybody, and I totally see why Hoff is so insistent that it has to be real, because if it isn't it instantly loses more than half its emotional credibility and becomes twee as fuck. Nauseatingly twee. Because children can get away with things twenty-year-olds can't. I could actually feel my disbelief hauling itself up and down as I read; it was vertiginous.

I suspect that this particular form of vertigo is what has caused the extant literature to be such an epic slapfight. There are also a lot of people who simply revere her, sometimes literally, which has led to a whole lot of spinoff and subsidiary work-- if you want, you can get Beauty Attends: Heartsongs of Opal Whiteley on CD, which is apparently actual segments of the diary actually set to actual music. The town she grew up in has a terrifying mural of her based on a photograph taken when she was about sixteen. (Many thanks to sovay for being the person to originally Google this.)

It may have gone beyond needing a historian, actually; the person I would really like to aim at it is Errol Morris.

In conclusion: I have no idea. I really, really don't. Do you see what I mean about having the historiography of, e.g., Jack the Ripper fall into my lap? What is this I don't even.

You can comment here or at the Dreamwidth crosspost. There are comments over there.
Tags: 365 books, author: hoff benjamin, author: whiteley opal, editor: hoff benjamin, genre: unclassifiable, genre: wtf
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