Dorothy Canfield's The Brimming Cup (1921) is a coming-of-age novel—or, rather, a coming-of-middle-age novel—about Marise, a wife and mother of three young children, who struggles to come to terms with marriage and motherhood and with the realization that her days of youthful passion are long past. A kind of midlife crisis is precipitated with the arrival in her neighborhood of handsome, passionate Vincent Marsh, who offers Marise a return to the passionate life and deep feeling of her young womanhood. Will Marise leave her children and her solid, sensible husband for a more romantic existence with Vincent? It's a simple story, but Canfield excels at elaborating the inner lives of her characters, and bringing out the drama—often the melodrama—of their moral struggles.
Marise is so sensitive, and she feels everything so deeply, that the writing often has a breathless quality. Here, Marise is standing near the hen house with her little daughter Elly, whose favorite baby chick has just died: "Marise looked down on her with infinite sympathy. Her child, flesh of her flesh, meeting in this uncouth place the revelation of the black gulf!" Everything is enormously momentous. There is a climactic scene involving Marise's neighbors, the Powerses, that, for me, marred the novel with overbearing symbolism. But what I love about Canfield is her belief that life isn't a choice between selfish pleasure and self-sacrifice—that ordinary family and community life, a life lived with others, has great beauty and pleasure and meaningfulness.
In the 1930s, the Yale critic William Lyon Phelps wrote of Canfield: "Her faults are a writer usually arise from a superfluous elaboration of mere language [i.e., her occasional melodramatic overwriting], from a concentration of ideas so intense that manner of presentation suffers, and from an invincible desire to leave the world better than she found it." Phelps, dead white male that he is, adds: "In other words, she is a woman first and an artist second." But he praises the sympathy and realism of her novels, and places her in the same rank as Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow. He says: "Her realism is unlike the gorgeous ironical mimicry of Sinclair Lewis, unlike the unassorted heaps of building material dumped by Theodore Dreiser, unlike the shock-for-shock's-sake style of Ernest Hemingway. She creates real people who act and speak naturally, in a way recognizable by all who live in civilized communities."
The Brimming Cup was not my favorite of her novels. My favorite is The Home-Maker (1924), about the dilemma faced by a wife who wants a career and a husband who wants to be a stay-at-home father. It's a wonderful, semi-tragic novel that was well ahead of its time. Canfield's recurring theme is the struggle of individuals to find fulfillment and meaning in ordinary domestic and community life. It's a theme that remains as relevant today as it was in the 1920s.
Note: on the health front, I returned to the clinic today for a neck x-ray and more meds, and have an MRI scheduled for Monday. My blood pressure and pulse were impressively high, probably because of the pain throbbing through me. Flossing may suffer while the pain lasts. Maybe I should change my resolution to "surviving."
My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .
The frontispiece from Countee Cullen's The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929). Illustration by Charles Cullen. Click to enlarge. On...
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