Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Rejection and the Poet’s Voice
f ever a writer would be surprised to find herself included in the Women Poets Timeline, it would likely be Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She faced scathing criticism of her poetry throughout her life. This obstacle was not unique to her; literary history is filled with accounts of famous poets who have received savage reviews, Keats and Wordsworth among them. Yet an examination of Lindbergh's poetic forays leaves one with a question that is relevant for every poet: How does rejection shape one's voice?
by Annabelle Moseley
Despite the struggles she faced with her verse, Anne Morrow Lindbergh enjoyed enormous popular success with her memoir, Gift from the Sea, a small collection that employs shells and other beach images as metaphors for a woman’s life. Though written in prose, it is quite poetically rendered. This book, published in 1955, is in many ways a vintage feminist text. Among the gorgeous metaphors, there is a palpable undercurrent of frustration with the challenges of womanhood, balancing the need to cultivate the self with raising and tending a family. In this way, Gift from the Sea is delicately fierce, a paradox like Lindbergh herself. In the words of her daughter, Reeve Lindbergh:
I remember how small and delicate she always seemed. I remember her intelligence and her sensitivity. But when I re-read Gift from the Sea, the illusion of fragility falls away, leaving the truth. How could I forget? She was, after all, a woman who raised five children after tragically losing her first son in 1932. She was the first woman in America to earn a first-class glider pilot’s license, in 1930, and the first woman ever to win the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, in 1934, for her aviation and exploration adventures. She also received the National Book Award, in 1938, for Listen! The Wind, her novel based on those adventures, and she remained a best-selling author all her life. (Lindbergh, Gift, ix-x)
Despite her appeal to many female readers over the years, and her importance as a female writer, the reason Lindbergh would likely be astonished to appear on the Women Poets Timeline is because of the notoriously scathing critique of her poems that scared her away from publishing her poetry for the rest of her life: “She was devastated by the review, wrote very little verse after it appeared, and never published another volume of poetry” (Lindbergh, Wing, 180). Anne’s poetic identity was forever re-written by this review. The critic was the poet John Ciardi. His comments became more famous, and infamous, than any of Lindbergh’s poems.
The new editor of The Saturday Review, John Ciardi, reviewed Lindbergh’s The Unicorn and Other Poems shortly after its 1956 publication. Norman Cousins writes of Ciardi’s tenure as poetry editor, “He was the stern sentry at the gate, permitting no one, however needy, poignant, or appealing, to cross the threshold to the pages of SR who didn’t meet his standards. John Ciardi encouraged no incompetents” (Clemente, 114). Ciardi wrote of Lindbergh’s book of verse:
“…of her poems, I have nothing but contempt to offer. I am compelled to believe that Mrs. Lindbergh has written an offensively bad book— inept, jingling, slovenly, illiterate even, and puffed-up with the foolish afflatus of a stereotyped high-seriousness, that species of esthetic and human failure that will accept any shriek as a true high-C. If there is a judgment, it must go by standards. I cannot apologize for this judgment. I believe that I can and must specify the particular badness of this sort of stuff” (Clemente 114-115).
The response of readers was overwhelming. Anne Morrow Lindbergh enjoyed widespread popularity and “after the review appeared, the roof fell in. Never before or since in the history of The Saturday Review had anything in its pages produced a response of such dimensions” (Clemente 115). Thousands of readers wrote letters expressing their outrage and many cancelled their subscriptions. Norman Cousins wrote a Saturday Review editorial to attempt a peaceful resolution to the controversy. He stood by John Ciardi: “From the moment he joined The Saturday Review he added real salt to our stew. We have never caught him in an ambiguous moment. He lives as he thinks and writes, with vast energy, freedom and conviction” (Clemente 116). However, Cousins disagreed with some of the wording Ciardi used to express his distaste for Lindbergh’s work: “Nor can we accept the adjective ‘illiterate’ when applied to Mrs. Lindbergh or her books. There are few living authors who are using the English language more sensitively or with more genuine appeal” (Clemente 115). Thirty years later, Cousins wrote that he “wished he had it to do all over again,” as, “whatever my personal feelings,” Cousins would have given Ciardi his “unqualified support” (Clemente 116). He does not state why.
One might question what provoked such an emotional response from the many readers who protested against Ciardi's review. Anne Morrow Lindbergh was clearly beloved; her fans rushed to defend her. By the time The Unicorn and Other Poems was reviewed, Lindbergh had won an enduring place in the hearts of Americans. This was due in large part to the victories and tragedies of her very public life.
Born on June 22, 1906, Anne was the daughter of two ambitious leaders: Elizabeth Cutter Morrow and Dwight Morrow. Elizabeth was the first female head of Smith College, and Dwight was first a United States Senator, then an Ambassador to Mexico (Hertog). Anne was raised in an environment that prized education and culture. She thrived in school and received attention and praise for her writing. When she graduated from Smith College she took with her two university prizes in writing.
Shortly after college, she became engaged to Charles Lindbergh, America’s aviator-hero, who was arguably the first American to achieve the status of becoming an icon overnight. Although skeptical of the motives for his proposal, she agreed to marry him after only a few meetings. She felt she would have been a fool to refuse him; she found him extremely good-looking and he was a celebrity: “Stunned and flattered, Anne agreed. His proposal seemed impulsive and absurd— almost laughable— yet Anne knew she was to take it seriously. How could she dare to say no to Charles Lindbergh, coveted by millions of women?” (Hertog 79).
Anne did worry that the pair of them might be incompatible. She described it as a “hideous chasm… Charles, it seemed never opened a book” (Hertog 79). Anne wanted to continue to thrive and grow as a writer. But her attraction to Charles, her awe of him, prevailed and the two were married in Englewood, New Jersey, on May 27, 1929. Under Charles’ tutelage, Anne herself became an aviator and broke barriers for women in flight.
In 1932, her first child, Charles Augustus Lindbergh III, went missing from his nursery. He was one year and eight months old. A ransom note was found in the nursery asking for money in exchange for the boy. Newspapers reported this horrific event as the “crime of the century.” The child’s decomposed body was found a few months later, not far from the Lindbergh’s home. Bruno Hauptmann was charged with the kidnapping and sentenced to death. Some still doubt whether or not Hauptmann committed the crime, or if some conspiracy enshrouded the case.
Anne was devastated by the tragedy, but Charles forbade her ever to speak about their deceased son. They moved overseas to England to escape the American press, where Anne gave birth to two more children, Jon and Land. They returned to America in 1939 to publicly discourage the idea of America joining World War II. They chose a secluded manor house in Lloyd Harbor, on the North Shore of Long Island. It was there that Anne wrote diaries and letters that would become her book, War Within and Without. It was there that Charles first lived as he attended America First rallies, and rumors circulated that Charles had Nazi sympathies. It was there that Antoine de Saint-Exupery, author of The Little Prince, came to visit for a few days. Anne secretly loved Antoine, felt a kindred connection between their souls (Hertog 358). Charles was a remote husband, a deeply introverted man who prized calm strength over emotions. Anne longed to feel understood and Antoine fulfilled that need (Hertog 358).
Though there are many writings about Anne's famous life, and that of her husband, and though Anne is well known for her sea-themed memoir and several other books containing memories and letters from her fascinating times, her poetry has faded into obscurity. She is best known, poetically, for the John Ciardi debacle. This sharp criticism so emotionally leveled Anne that when her own daughter, also named Anne, told her that some of her own poetry would soon be published, the elder Anne “suddenly turned pale. ‘Poetry? By Anne Lindbergh? Oh, Ansy, but what about John Ciardi?’” (Lindbergh, 180)
I ordered a copy of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s The Unicorn and Other Poems and could not wait to read it as soon as it arrived. I was eager to see the poetry of a woman whose former Lloyd Harbor home I occupied with my husband as caretaker, whose Gift From the Sea has never failed to move me and whose verse so enraged Ciardi. To add another level of interest, John Ciardi was the mentor and treasured friend of Vince Clemente, a poet-friend who has been like a surrogate grandfather to me. He always described Ciardi as paternal and kind-hearted. I wondered, based on that description, what sort of poetry would inspire Ciardi to such a public harangue. Then I read Susan Hertog’s assessment of his personality: “Conquest and control defined his relationships with women, and female poets were special targets” (Hertog 441). Hertog’s assessment indicates that Ciardi treated Anne’s poetry more harshly due to her gender. She goes on to write that Ciardi had a political agenda, and had once campaigned for Henry Wallace, 1948 presidential candidate for the Progressive Party: “In 1940, Wallace had condemned Lindbergh as 'the outstanding appeaser of the nation'” (Hertog 441).
I have eagerly returned to Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea several times. When I opened The Unicorn & Other Poems for the first time, I hoped to love each poem, hoped to disagree with Ciardi whole-heartedly. I could not. Instead, I agreed with Susan Hertog: “Although Ciardi’s moral condemnation was absurd, his assessment of Anne’s poetry was, in a sense, right. Her poems were ‘imprisoned…’” (Hertog 442).
On my first reading of Lindbergh’s collection, I found the poetry overly whimsical, more thick with dreaminess than I expected. It lacked the punch to the gut I anticipated, considering the author had known so much pain. However, I thought, the poems showed promise, and had they been written by one of my students, I would have felt the author capable of great things if she could find her authentic voice. I noticed some wonderful writing, great metaphor, as in “Broken Shell.” Lindbergh writes, “Cease searching for the perfect shell, the whole/ Inviolate form no tooth of time has cracked” and later, “these skeletons that lie/ Like scattered flowers,” a fresh way of writing about shells, a subject that was dear to her.
Lindbergh was not a terrible poet. Her biggest mistake was likely publishing the collection before it, or she, was ready. Anne’s trademark is consistent rhyming couplets. Since she is not a master of the couplet, her use of repetition becomes grating to the ear, stilted and occasionally trite. The poems needed more work, more introspection than she had allowed herself. Lacking both depth and mastery of the chosen form, the poems often feel incomplete.
As every poet learns eventually, it is impossible to write one’s best poem without the brave work, like Adrienne Rich reminds, of “diving into the wreck.” That might be what Ciardi sensed when he wrote, speaking of poets, “Everyone is in trouble when he looks at the stars, and under the stars I am as humanly eager to grant Mrs. Lindbergh the dignity of her troubles as I am to enjoin my own” (Clemente 114). If Anne had taken a good poetry class prior to publishing her book, the right teacher might have advised her that she had natural ability but was hiding behind archaic props and should allow more authenticity in her writing.
Another problem was that having her book published was not necessarily an objective vote of confidence in the value of Anne's poetry. She was famous, the wife of a legend, and a bestselling author. Perhaps Ciardi was angered by the inevitability of her work being published before she had fully matured as a poet. It is too bad, however, that his words, so scathing in their pull-no-punches approach, had the effect of scaring her off of poetry forever. “Mrs. Lindbergh’s poetry is akin to Original Sin,” Ciardi wrote, “and in the absence of the proper angel I must believe it is the duty of anyone who cares for the garden to slam the gate in the face of the sinful and abusive” (Hertog 441). This is extreme criticism, indeed, almost to the point of being humorous. But Anne was devastated.
On a second read through Lindbergh’s poetry, I was more deeply moved. It was as though she had tucked away and encoded her deepest pain. It is as though the entire collection is an admission that she has not claimed her voice—worse, as though she has given it up, as many women have done when in relationships with domineering men. When they were engaged, Anne accompanied Charles on a pleasure flight. A wheel fell off the plane, and the couple had a rough, dangerous landing. When reporters asked Anne how she felt she responded by taking shelter behind Charles.
“Augustus will speak for me,” Anne answered, shielding herself behind Charles. In one nearly invisible moment, by using Lindbergh’s royal middle name, Anne had defined her public stance. Her own words would not suffice. From now on Charles would be her voice. It was one more price she paid for her Prince. (Hertog 93).
If one takes this metaphor of giving up her voice as a theme of Lindbergh’s life, it should be no surprise that her poetry reflects that, which makes it all the more poignant. Anne claimed her own voice in her prose, gave other women a voice in Gift from the Sea, but when it comes to poetry, as Ciardi reminds, “everyone is in trouble when he looks at the stars.” The voice of poetry is meant to be honest, or at least, as Dickinson would assert, slant truth, and works best when its beautiful devices support but do not stifle the poet's voice.
In the Hans Christian Anderson story, the Little Mermaid makes a bargain to give up her voice for the prince she loves. Life with the iconic “Lone Eagle,” was often this sort of bargain for Anne. After the loss of their child, Anne was not allowed to speak to Charles of her grief. When Anne suffered from writer’s block and complained of not being inspired, Charles would not indulge her; he would chastise her. Knowing this, I read her poem, “The Little Mermaid,” with new eyes. It begins: “Only the little mermaid knows the price/ One pays for mortal love, what sacrifice…” and in the fifth stanza continues, “The magic sweetness of a mermaid’s song,/ she must abandon, if she would belong/ To mortal world, the gift— O fatal choice—/ That might have won the Prince, her golden voice” (Lindbergh, Unicorn 11-12).
The theme of being without a voice emerges in Anne’s poem, “A Leaf, a Flower, and a Stone.” The poem begins, “Now there are no more words,/ I bring a leaf, a flower, and a stone. A leaf for my mouth, / That can no longer speak.” Interestingly, this poem appears in her section titled, “Love.”
The lack of voice and ensuing deep loneliness continue as running themes throughout the collection. In fact, Anne titles an entire section, “Captive Spirit.” In her poem “Two Citadels,” the poet describes a pair of lovers as “two citadels of stone/ Imprisoned in our walls; two worlds that spin/ Each in a separate orbit, each alone” (Lindbergh, Unicorn 15).
The section “Death,” overall, lacks visceral language. The portrayal of death seems naïve, romanticized at times. It reveals little of Anne’s own horrific experience with the death of her son, except to hint that she has not fully dealt with it. However, in the final poem of that section, entitled “Second Sowing,” the first stanza reveals the intense beauty Anne is capable of and hints of the raw words that she has not yet been able, emotionally, to give voice to. It opens, “For whom/ The milk ungiven in the breast/ When the child is gone?”
One wishes Anne had stayed with the image of the ungiven milk; this could have been a stellar poem. But then, poetry is courageous work, and to do it well often means encountering one’s demons. It is no easy task, especially when dealing with the deepest pain, like the death of a child. As the wife of Charles Lindbergh, it would likely have been all the more difficult for her to be so honest, so bare.
One final poem of note is “The Unicorn in Captivity.” It rhymes like a meal with too much seasoning. However, the symbolism is powerful. Inspired by “the tapestry in The Cloisters,” Lindbergh writes of a beautiful creature who is “in captivity, yet free.” She reminds repeatedly, poignantly, that he could free himself if he chose. The reader cannot help but recognize that the unicorn and the speaker are one. Just as the unicorn gave up his freedom, Anne gave up her voice— not in her glowing prose, but in her poetry, and in many ways, her own life. Morrow Lindbergh’s biographer, Susan Hertog, writes of visiting Anne to interview her. “My life began when I met Charles Lindbergh”, Anne told Susan Hertog.
I spoke of her books; Anne spoke of Charles.
I spoke of her poetry; Anne spoke of Charles.
I spoke of her father; Anne spoke of Charles (Hertog 8).
Despite this tendency to suppress elements of her own voice and life, Anne achieved wondrous things. An award-winning aviator and writer, there is no telling what else she might have achieved in poetry if she had been able to recover from the feelings of rejection that came with the criticism she had received, if she had stepped out of the complicated shadows cast by John Ciardi and Charles Lindbergh, if her voice had consistently been her own, if unlike the fairy tale mermaid, she had not “abandoned” her song so that she could “belong.”
Personal Statement: Why I Chose to Write About Anne Morrow Lindbergh:
I wrote this essay from inside the historic Joseph Lloyd Manor, that same Lloyd Harbor house Anne and Charles Lindbergh rented in 1939. Though the first two floors are a museum, decorated in the style of the eighteenth century and open to scheduled tours, my husband and I occupied the third floor of the Joseph Lloyd Manor as caretakers of the house and property. On the first floor, there is a black and white photograph of Charles Lindbergh crouching with his sons Jon and Land in the Manor garden, the same garden in which my husband and I often had picnics and barbecues. In the summer, if I hiked through the woods up the hill from the garden, I encountered an abandoned cabin. Once built as a small children’s playhouse, it is believed that the petite Anne Morrow Lindbergh used the space as a writing retreat. She also set up a desk in the garage. I published poems about Anne's life at Joseph Lloyd Manor in The Clock of the Long Now (David Robert Books, 2012).
When I came to the Joseph Lloyd Manor as a bride, and set up my own writing room, I could not help but feel Anne’s presence. As my hand touched the same walls and banisters she touched, I came to feel an obligation to take up her story, but wondered how best to do so. Surely, I thought, there must be enough biographies and essays about her famous life, the influence of the author of Gift from the Sea. It soon became clear that what was lacking was information about Anne's poetic life, beyond her run-in with John Ciardi. I was sorry to learn after Ciardi, Anne had given up poetry altogether. It is good that her name rests now among the other poets of the Women Poets Timeline, many of whom, like Anne, have struggled to find their voice.
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