People lived differently then, did things for life, they made gestures that lasted for life . . .
Whose story is I Lock My Door Upon Myself
? The fiction chronicles the life of Edith Margaret Freilicht, born 1890 and called "Calla" by her mother who died birthing her. Elusive, willful, eccentric, Calla is an enigma to the town of Shaheen, Eden County, New York, to her family, her husband, her children; a flame-haired beauty who views her surroundings and circumstances as a sleepwalker moving through a dream landscape. A woman whose life comes to be defined by her association with a black itinerant water diviner, Tyrell Thompson. The fiction is told by Calla's granddaughter, in part to reach an understanding, a recognition: Because we are linked by blood, and blood is memory without language.
One of the magical things about Joyce Carol Oates's talent is her enduring ability to reinvent not only the psychological space she inhabits when writing, but herself as well, as part of her own fiction. She is one of the most talented and versatile writers of our time. This brilliant and mysterious work is the first in a series of fictions in imaginative collaboration with works of art planned by The Ecco Press.
Afterword: On the Composition of I Lock My Door Upon Myself
From the high-prowed, grandly ugly iron bridges of my childhood whose rattling plank decks or, worse yet, open metal grid decks had the power to terrify, I would observe individuals at a distance in small boats, rowing, "bucking the choppy waves" as in the opening scene of I Lock My Door Upon Myself, and in the reprise of that scene in Chapter 35, and was seized with a sense of mystery underlain with apprehension: who were these strangers, these adults so confident, or perhaps so reckless, in their secret lives; what had brought them to this, that seemed to me as a child, and perhaps still seems to me, a romantic action, a gesture that might be playful, or adventurous, or simply what one does, living in the vicinity of a river? As a child I grew up virtually on a bank of the Tonawanda Creek, and within a few miles of the Erie Barge Canal and the notoriously treacherous Niagara River; even the canal, placid for much of its length through the countryside became, in Lockport, New York, where formidable locks allowed the waterway to drop sixty feet within a short distance, a scene of hissing, churning, cascading power. These very different waterways coursed through the fevered imagination of my childhood, and have found their inevitable place in much of my fiction and some of my poetry. All my upstate New York novels are traversed by canals, rivers, creeks, like arteries. What these waterways "mean" is impossible for me to say.
For where works of non-fiction tend to begin with ideas, if not arguments, works of the imagination tend to begin with images. You find yourself "haunted" by something you've seen, or believe you have seen; you begin to create, with varying degrees of consciousness and volition, an entire world around this image, a world or more precisely an atmospheric equivalent of a world, to contain it, nurture it, enhance it, "reveal" it. But the revelation is likely to be purely emotional, purely felt.
In my exile of a kind in Princeton, New Jersey where I wrote, in intervals of fevered inspiration, the forty-four prose pieces that make up this novella, in the spring of 1989 and in the emotional aftermath of my long novel Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart, I was light-years from its origins; I was farther from the "Chautauqua River Valley" and from "Milburn, New York" than I could ever have imagined myself when I'd lived in the real-life equivalents of these regions, as a girl. (These are rural, northern Erie County and southern Niagara County, specifically a small farm in a crossroads called Millersport, New York.) In Princeton, I evoked upstate New York and the past; not my past exactly, but a past known to me through my parents and grandparents, by way of whom it had acquired a semi-mythical, legendary aura. Approximately, this is the world of my parents Carolina and Frederic Oates, who were born in 1916 and 1914 respectively; it's the world, too, of my father's mother Blanche Woodside, who was not a recluse but whose life has always fascinated me, in its mystery and willful, perhaps even tragic subterfuge. (My grandmother was not Calla Honeystone, though Calla Honeystone is, for me, an emblem of my grandmother.) For the writer, family secrets throb with intensity and heat; you may never know what the secret literally is, only that it exists beyond your child's comprehension. Obsessive speculation about family secrets has fueled many powerful works of fiction and poetry, where very likely the outright revelation of mere fact might have killed inspiration at its source.
All intensely realized works of the imagination are generated by personal emotion, personal experiences; but these are generally so encoded in the final work, given a formal resonance so lacking in real life, that the art-work breaks free of its biographical origins and comes to seem, even to the creator, autonomous. Ours was not especially a family of secrets, yet all families harbor memories too painful, too embarrassing, perhaps too bizarre to be spoken of freely, and so they become not-acknowledged, and by degrees not-known. I Lock My Door Upon Myself is an attempt to replicate the fascination of contemplating a family secret, and its frustration. We want so desperately to know—what? Others' lives are forever veiled from us, we can only hope to honor them in their complexity and remoteness.
I Lock My Door Upon Myself is formally bracketed by two images: the rebellious lovers in a rowboat on the swift-flowing Chautauqua River, bent upon romantic self-destruction; and the children returning home from school along a country road in the early dark, in winter, carrying lanterns that resemble, from a distance, fireflies. The one is an image of self-consuming passion, the other an image of reassuring conformity, predictability. The river image is swift-moving and lethal, the lantern image seems to promise the comfort of a kind of ritual, that will be repeated. Both images, of course, are ephemeral, and have happened, as Calla Honeystone tells her granddaughter, "a long time ago."
Henry James described the novella as the "blessed form." It is also a very difficult, even hazardous form, neither a novel in miniature nor a pumped-up short story, but something quite distinct, if indefinable. My sense of the novella is that of a rapturously extended prose poem driven by a narrative; the more suspenseful the narrative, the more dreamlike and obsessive the atmosphere of the novella. All prose fiction aspires to make the reader think This is real! but to succeed in this, the writer must so hypnotize him- or herself, must so wholly enter the atmosphere of the fiction, that he or she believes utterly in its reality. The ideal for fiction, it has always seemed to me, is to render physical settings (landscapes, cityscapes, houses, interiors) with such oneiric clarity, you never doubt their actual existence, and enter them as if they were your own. As a fiction writer I'm unable to write, nor even to wish to write, without a vividly evoked visual world. For what would be the pleasure of it, what would be the point? Writing is transmitting by way of language a kind of reportage of emotion, and emotion must be linked to its specific place, time, drama. Otherwise it's merely notional, and can't move us.
The cover art, Fernand Khnopff's masterpiece of Belgian surrealism whose full title is After a Poem by Christina Rossetti: I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1891), is rather more Pre-Raphaelite in its symbolism than upstate New York, yet the atmosphere, the mood of resigned introspection, and the brooding young woman herself, are beautifully evocative and expressive of Calla Honeystone's strange fate. Mutinous in girlhood, a celibate and a recluse in adulthood—who could imagine such a reversal of expectations? Yet in the "old world" of rural upstate New York it wasn't so rare that women and men of older generations might live out decades of their lives within a single household, just as it was fairly common that people lived out their entire lives within the radius of a relatively few miles, never leaving home, in a sense. There were tales of individuals—not exclusively women, but mostly women—who became recluses (the clinical term today would be "agoraphobics") and who never left their houses voluntarily. Calla Honeystone isn't an agoraphobic, and I didn't intend her portrait to be a psychopathological one, exactly. She withdraws from the world out of hurt, anger, stubbornness, and a need to do penance, but her isolation seems to her granddaughter to be a sign of "madness"—by which the granddaughter, the narrator, really means the distance between herself and Calla, an unnavigable leap across an abyss.
"It was a happening"—as Emily Dickinson's younger sister Lavina said of the poet's gradual withdrawal from life outside her father's household in Amherst, Massachusetts, that has become so much a part of literary American legend. Biographers have quoted a niece of Dickinson who recounted how the poet took her upstairs to her bedroom and made a gesture as if locking herself in with her thumb and forefinger closed on an imaginary key, saying, "It's just a turn—and freedom, Matty!" So too Calla Honeystone might have summed up her life of interior exile—just a happening that nonetheless strikes us as utterly mysterious yet in some way emblematic of all of our lives.
—Joyce Carol Oates, 20 May 2002
- Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 1990, p1196
- Library Journal, October 15, 1990, p105
- Atlantic, November 1990, p173
- New York Times Book Review, November 11, 1990, p68
- Boston Globe, November 25, 1990, A17
- Washington Times, November 26, 1990, F2
- New York Times, December 11, 1990, C19
- Atlanta Journal Constitution, December 16, 1990, N3
- Detroit News & Free Press, December 16, 1990, G7
- San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, December 23, 1990, p10
- USA Today, January 3, 1991, D6
- New Yorker, January 7, 1991, p76
- Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 13, 1991, p6
- Washington Post Book World, January 27, 1991, p11
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 3, 1991, C5
- Belles Lettres, Summer 1991, p12
- Georgia Review, Summer 1991, p363
- World Literature Today, Autumn 1991, p709
- Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 1992, p40+
- Spectator, June 7, 1992, p29
- Times Literary Supplement, July 17, 1992, p20
- Observer, August 9, 1992, p51