ROGER K. MILLER
on Zona Gale’s Miss Lulu Bett
In 1920 two novels laying bare the monotonous sterility of American small-town life were published and climbed the best-seller lists together. Only one, Sinclair Lewis’ “Main Street,” became lastingly famous. But just as stark in depicting the wretchedness of unfulfilled lives was Zona Gale’s “Miss Lulu Bett.” Both authors based their portrayals of provincial sordidness — part of what, as the editors note, Carl Van Doren called “the revolt from the village” — on their experiences in their midwestern hometowns. Lewis was born in 1885 in Sauk Centre, Minn., Gale 11 years earlier in Portage in neighboring Wisconsin.
Continuing the parallels, both novels were radical departures from what the two authors had produced before. Lewis had published a handful of relatively innocuous, albeit increasingly satirical, novels. Gale had made a good living for a dozen years writing sentimental short stories about life in Friendship Village (the very name gives away their tone) that were the exact opposite of what she began telling in “Miss Lulu Bett” and, shortly before that, in “Birth,” novels that, like “Main Street,” were in the realism mode.
Though “Main Street” is, overall, a more rounded and definitely a more entertaining story, “Miss Lulu Bett,” etched in acid, is in many ways the more searing indictment of village existence, particularly in capturing the hopelessness of frustrated, unemancipated women (“Miss Lulu Bett and Selected Stories, edited by Barbara Solomon and Eileen Panetta, Anchor, $14, 195 pages, paper). Carol Kennicott of “Main Street” is virtually a women’s liberationist compared to Miss Lulu Bett, the “family beast of burden” in the home of her brother-in-law, Dwight Deacon, a man who if it were not for platitudes would have no conversation at all.
Lulu, 34, lives as unpaid cook and all-around drudge — “Nobody cares what becomes of me after they’re fed” — with Dwight, a dentist and town magistrate, and his simpering, clueless wife Ina, Lulu’s sister. There are two daughters, Monona, about 11-12 years old, and Di, 18, the child of Dwight’s previous marriage. Completing the household is Ina and Lulu’s mother, a cackling, senile crone whose image calls up the crazy old ladies in George Booth cartoons. The satire in its spareness cuts right to the bone. The numbing boredom of the Deacons’ dinner is told in the clipped, brief sentences and dialogue that make up the entire novel, barely longer than a novella. “You are a case,” Ina adoringly says to Dwight after he delivers himself of a lame comical bit. “He beamed upon her. It was his intention to be a case.”
Lulu’s inchoate romantic longings are objectified in the amorous carryings-on of Di and her boyfriend Bobby. The longings are answered by the arrival in town of Dwight’s long-lost brother Ninian, and he and Lulu elope. Within a month Lulu is back. Ninian had neglected to tell her that he already had a wife, whom he has not seen for years but who may still be alive. Dwight, worried about the scandal this might cause, tells her it’s not true, merely an excuse Ninian concocted to get rid of her. Lulu is determined to prove Dwight wrong. In finally verbalizing what a total void her existence has been in the Deacons’ house, she says that when Ninian came along, “then I got a little something, same as other folks.”
Dwight’s insufferable condescension is paid back when, in a mirror of Lulu/Ninian, Di and Bobby run off together. They do not get far, either. Lulu — actually the most competent person of them all — goes after the adolescent pair and, in deterring their flight, discovers that Di has been suffering under the Deacon regime the same as she had. She feels that she and Di share “some unsuspected sisterhood.” There is further payback to Dwight in the book’s happy, but not inappropriate, ending. Lulu, asserting her independence, marries Neil Cornish, owner of an unsuccessful music store — a diffident, ineffectual man, but with enough wit to recognize what a trap the Deacon household was, and not just for Lulu.
Encouraged by a Broadway producer, Gale quickly adapted “Miss Lulu Bett” into a play that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Some have found the novel’s style too clipped and compressed, depriving her story of texture and inflection and making it bloodless. I think otherwise. The comparison may seem odious, but the effect of the style is rather like Jim Thompson’s pulp fiction, in which the brutal, unpolished language is part and parcel of the violence it describes. The medium becomes one with the message.
Roger K. Miller, a former newspaper book review editor, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.