Open Canon: Mary MacLane
by E.R. Zarevich. The Canadian-American writer was a prodigious memoirist, and self-promoter.
“I am charmingly original. I am delightfully refreshing. I am startlingly bohemian. I am quaintly interesting—the while in my sleeve I may be smiling and smiling—and a villain.”
Mary MacLane, the author of this confident prose, was born a Canadian, in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 1881, but her family decided to migrate to the States. They would eventually settle in Butte, Montana, which would form the basis of her nickname “The Wild Woman of Butte.” MacLane would identify as an American for the rest of her life. Generally dissatisfied with the isolated and unstimulating existence of her small community and lower middle-class family, MacLane in her adolescence and young adulthood seized upon scraps of happiness found in highbrow literature and long, solo country walks during which she mused on various philosophical queries. These intense inner debates were meticulously documented in a diary she wrote under the working title of I Await the Devil’s Coming.
MacLane’s publisher, fearing the inevitable backlash of this provocative declaration on the cover of a book, changed the title to the more subdued The Story of Mary MacLane without consulting MacLane, who most certainly would have protested this distillation of her individuality. Only in 2013 was it republished under its original and far more intriguing first title. The book, upon its first release in 1902, was an astounding bestseller, and the profits allowed MacLane to escape rural America and dive headfirst into a fast-living, bohemian city life, which she did so with swashbuckling gusto.
At the heart of Mary McLane’s writing style is a profound, unashamed love of the self. She considered herself the most fascinating possible subject she could write about and committed to that notion throughout her career. Her views on everything, from history to sexuality, were mutinous against conventionality. Emperor Napoleon was a brilliant tactician and opportunist, not a tyrant. Her romantic, bisexual feelings for another woman were perfectly legitimate and acceptable, not a glitch in the natural order. And why worship a stern and unforgiving God when you could worship the more attractive and accommodating Devil instead? She went as far as to admit that the Devil was, in her eyes, the only suitable husband for her. “And so here I stand in the midst of Nothingness waiting and longing for the Devil, and he doesn’t come,” she boldly writes. “I feel a choking, strangling, frenzied feeling of waiting—oh, why doesn’t my Happiness come!”
I Await the Devil’s Coming is not so much a typical memoir, relating everyday events in chronological order with occasional insight, but an unabashed mental adventure in which the author, brazenly throwing open the doors of her mind, invites readers into what can only be described as a wild psychological dance party she’s hosting for fun. This form of self-preoccupation and self-marketing can be seen in the titles of her other published works as well, which always include her name. Whether a book or an article, at center stage is Mary MacLane: “Mary MacLane Soliloquizes on Scarlet Fever,” “Mary MacLane Meets the Vampire on the Isle of Treacherous Delights,” “Mary MacLane on Marriage,” and I, Mary MacLane: A Diary of Human Days are just a few examples of her very personalized, trademarked output.
MacLane also dabbled in filmmaking and was, of course, the star of a now-lost film titled Men Who Have Made Love to Me. Based on her previous article of the same name, the film daringly depicts MacLane’s saucy real-life love affairs in the style of a confession made directly to the audience. Ironically, this gutsy experiment was (reportedly) a silent film. Cinematic technology simply wasn’t ready for the full raw power of MacLane’s voice and delivery. Perhaps that is why her film career never took off.
Tragically, the flame of her success eventually died out, and Mary MacLane died in obscurity. She was discovered dead in a Chicago motel room in 1929 at the age of forty-eight, ravaged and ultimately defeated by poor health and the debilitating after effects of her libertine, devil-may-care lifestyle. Though she repeated her own name incessantly in the literary world, it has been almost forgotten. Mention her and you’ll get, “Who was Mary MacLane?” as a response, rather than the more appropriate, “Who was Mary MacLane?”
However, some modern creative minds still draw inspiration from her work. In 2020, Plain Bad Heroines, by American writer Emily M. Danforth, was published. Half of the novel, set in 1902, follows two young women who emulate Mary MacLane’s example by exploring their own rebellious intellectualism and lesbian attraction to one another. As critic Jessica Crispin writes in her introduction to I Await the Devil’s Coming: “But reading her now, we see that Mary MacLane was always more than just an outrage. She speaks to the displaced. The thwarted, the unfamous, the trapped in circumstance, the girl filled with impossible longings.”
I Await the Devil’s Coming is available for purchase on Amazon, but it may be more of a tribute to MacLane’s memory to venture out to your local bookshops and scour the shelves for a copy. As you will discover from reading her work, MacLane was never one to sit still and wait for good things to come to her. She knew from a young age that you have to tap into your willpower and summon them, just like you would the devil.
E.R. Zarevich is an English teacher and writer from Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Fascinated by women's literary history, her biographical articles on female writers have been published by Jstor Daily, The Archive, Early Bird Books, and The Calvert Journal. She is also a writer of fiction and poetry.
It's hard not to wonder how many more Mary MacLanes there were out there who tried to live fulfilling lives and died in obscurity. At least there is this one memoir to stand in for the thousands of others.