Toward the end of her ego-shredding new memoir, Art and Madness, Anne Roiphe tells the jaw-dropping story of the day her first child was born. It was 1960, and a snowstorm was raging in New York City. Roiphe, nine months pregnant, has shuffled over to a Third Avenue repair store to pick up her husband's typewriter. That husband, a playwright named Jack Richardson, is snug at home, sleeping off a night out on the town. Roiphe wants him to have his typewriter nearby, should inspiration strike when he awakens. So she picks the machine up at the store, balances its weight against her swollen belly and starts trudging through the snow, 15 blocks back to their apartment. On the way, her water breaks. She reaches a pay phone and calls her husband. He doesn't wake up to answer. No taxis are around, so Roiphe stumbles on, all the way to the hospital, typewriter clasped like a religious relic in her arms.
I say that anecdote is "jaw-dropping" because it is — viewed through the feminist-inflected lens of 2011. But here's how powerful a writer that masochistic young woman came to be. Because even as we contemporary readers may be tsk-tsking over Roiphe's martyrdom, she also transports us deep into the mindset of a handmaiden of literature, circa 1960. Reading that passage, I was anxious at the thought of Roiphe going into labor in a snowdrift; but, because of how she draws me into the story, I was simultaneously anxious about that damn typewriter and wondering if maybe Roiphe shouldn't have dropped it off for safekeeping with the doorman at her apartment house before she lumbered on alone to the hospital.
Art and Madness is a particularly hard-boiled addition to a distinct subgenre of female autobiography — memoirs written by women who came of age in the 1950s and who sublimated their own ambitions by attaching themselves to literary men. I'm thinking of testaments like How I Became Hettie Jones by the eponymous former wife of LeRoi Jones, later Amiri Baraka; Manhattan, When I Was Young by Mary Cantwell; and the especially magnificent Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, onetime girlfriend of Jack Kerouac. Educated at Seven Sisters colleges or their like, these young women wanted to live for Art — which, in the 1950s translated into living for a man who thought of himself as an artist. They found a place for themselves in the New York boho scene of the time, pouring drinks or tending to the other appetites of the resident drunken geniuses. Roiphe, who married right after graduating from Sarah Lawrence and was divorced from her playwright about six years later, was a smart party girl in the Norman Mailer, George Plimpton literary lion pack. Analyzing the marriage of Doc Humes (who co-founded The Paris Review) and his wife, Roiphe coldly illuminates the 1950s allure of the Great Man:
[H]e was a writer, a famous writer, with famous writer friends and that made him special, far more appealing than a banker or a lawyer. ... He was an artist and she would bear his children and wash his clothes and care for him because there lay her own immortality, there lay her own contribution to the great effort to speak the truth, to shape the words, to write the novel that by existing would justify the human endeavor. ... I know this because I felt it too, all of it.
Art and Madness is presented in shards of memories dating mostly from the 1950s and early '60s. Roiphe evokes the limited courage of her younger self: She was gutsy enough as a college girl to drive alone into New York to perch herself on bar stools at writers' hangouts like The West End, but not yet brave enough to respect her own talent. What especially sets Art and Madness apart from its autobiographical sorority sisters is its mercilessness. After Roiphe describes her husband leaving her for good, she says: "I have no pity for her, the still-young woman helping her fleeing husband pack his shirts into a suitcase. ... I have no pity for that about-to-be-divorced woman who had been ready to live off the written words of someone else."
Searing words that attest to the courage Roiphe eventually did discover in herself, thanks, in part, to the second women's movement. And yet, reading Roiphe's tough comments, I can't help but feel that she's still lugging around more than her share of the historical burden.