Mary MacLane's searing self-portrait, the 1902 I Await the Devil's Coming, sold 100,000 copies during its first month in print and scandalized readers. The Canadian-born author was 19 and living in Butte when the collection of diaries was published. The memoir revealed a new voice; MacLane was openly bisexual, actively against marriage, wild in her writing style and a blunt feminist. The book showed up on the New York Times summer reading list and was praised by the likes of Mark Twain and Clarence Darrow, though it was banned in libraries. By 1929, however, after MacLane left Montana and died in Chicago, she and her book fell into obscurity. There was a reprint of some of her work in 1993, plus biographies that were published over the last decade. And now, thankfully, Brooklyn's Melville House Books has resurrected the original book.
"I of womankind and of nineteen years, will now begin to set down as full and frank a Portrayal as I am able of myself, Mary MacLane, for whom the world contains not a parallel." So begins MacLane's misanthropic evaluation of her hermetic life, surrounded by the "sand and barrenness" of Butte. Her story, taking up just three months of diary entries, seems not so much composed as unleashed. Constricted almost entirely to charting the author's weird thoughts and her constant, joyful anticipation of the devil's arrivalto be her husband, no lessit takes juvenile self-expression to a new level. Mixed in with a litany of diabolical prayers and her struggle against oblivion, MacLane expresses her unrequited love for her only friend, the "anemone lady," and carries on dialogues with nature and with herself. Suicide is dreamily contemplated while strolling through the woods. She refers to herself as a "peripatetic philosopher" and a "genius" far more times than I could count.
I Await the Devil's Coming is not some frilly, affected 1900s memoir with loquacious verbiage and swooning. It's something more seriousan extreme rant with a smirk. MacLane's angst makes The Perks of Being a Wallflower read like a letter to Santa Claus. Her fancied pillow talks with the devil are entertaining, but there is very little respite from the despair and longing that drown the short book. Less depressing tangents do crop up here and there, as when the author muses on the merits of Charlotte Brontë or Charles Dickens and fires off a brilliant stream-of-consciousness regarding Butte's turn-of-the-century melting-pot dynamics. There's also a four-page tutorial on the art of eating an olive.
MacLane's narcissism makes for a solipsistic funhouse. She has a very literal Napoleon complex, keeping 17 little portraits of him in her dresser. She has an aversion to God, but also odder complaints with minutiae, such as how upset it makes her to see her family's toothbrushes next to hers. ("Never does the pitiable, barren, contemptible, damnable, narrow Nothingness of my life in this house come upon me with so intense a force as when my eyes happen upon these six tooth-brushes.") A bold intelligence lies behind her laconic prose, using the trivial to illuminate the universal and vice versa, with unanticipated humor coiling at the edges, intended or not. Rather than alienating, the egocentrism that ripples through I Await the Devil's Coming is cathartic and gripping, told with the ebullience of a Gilded Age protagonist on a sugar high.
MacLane's story is the bitter testament of a young woman's rage, bottled up creativity and barely concealed lesbianism pouring out in every word. It's penned in repetitious poetics worthy of Allen Ginsburg, with a touch of Rimbaud's derision and an egotism unsurpassed this side of Nietzsche. Language here becomes not merely an act of communicating, but a mode of analyzing her desperation and womanhood. Had Jean-Paul Sartre been an avid LiveJournal user, his threads may have been something like this book. MacLane's originality cannot be denied, though; her diary is like nothing else.
The question arises throughout: What is this hateful thing I'm reading? Is it the satire of a teenager's melodramatic diary? An intermittently funny joke? A genuine confession? But, whether read as a feminist tract, an ontological snapshot, or, simply, a curiosa of youth, MacLane's words are riveting. Speaking of the things she would like to write, she announces that "they would be marvels of fire and intensity." Her summary is a spot-on description of I Await the Devil's Coming. Even now, more than a century later, this tiny irreverent work manages to keep its shock value.