Poor little Mary MacLane!

Photo of Mary MacLane from the inside cover of The Story of Mary MacLane, Herbert S. Stone and Company, 1902

When first published in 1902, The Story of Mary MacLane was snapped up by an astonishing 100,000 eager readers in the first month alone, its controversial author, 20-year-old Mary MacLane from Butte, Montana, instantly shooting to fame. Her frank, confessional diary entries led to uproar—her sexual openness causing jaws to drop at a time when such things were unheard of, especially from a woman. In some quarters, the book was deemed obscene enough to be banned; but for others, like Mark Twain, her diary was “little short of a miracle.” This was the second entry, written on 14th January of 1901.

The Diary Entry

January 14

I have in me the germs of intense life. If I could live, and if I could succeed in writing out my living, the world itself would feel the heavy intensity of it.

I have the personality, the nature, of a Napoleon, albeit a feminine translation. And therefore I do not conquer; I do not even fight. I manage only to exist.

Poor little Mary MacLane!—what might you not be? What wonderful things might you not do? But held down, half-buried, a seed fallen in barren ground, alone, uncomprehended, obscure—poor little Mary MacLane! Weep, world,—why don’t you?—for poor little Mary MacLane!

Had I been born a man I would by now have made a deep impression of myself on the world—on some part of it. But I am a woman, and God, or the Devil, or Fate, or whosoever it was, has flayed me of the thick outer skin and thrown me out into the midst of life—has left me a lonely, damned thing filled with the red, red blood of ambition and desire, but afraid to be touched, for there is no thick skin between my sensitive flesh and the world’s fingers.

But I want to be touched.

Napoleon was a man, and though sensitive his flesh was safely covered.

But I am a woman, awakening, and upon awakening and looking about me, I would fain turn and go back to sleep.

There is a pain that goes with these things when one is a woman, young, and all alone.

I am filled with an ambition. I wish to give to the world a naked Portrayal of Mary MacLane: her wooden heart, her good young woman’s-body, her mind, her soul.

I wish to write, write, write!

I wish to acquire that beautiful, benign, gentle, satisfying thing—Fame. I want it—oh, I want it! I wish to leave all my obscurity, my misery—my weary unhappiness—behind me forever.

I am deadly, deadly tired of my unhappiness.

I wish this Portrayal to be published and launched into that deep salt sea—the world. There are some there surely who will understand it and me.

Can I be that thing which I am—can I be possessed of a peculiar rare genius, and yet drag out my life in obscurity in this uncouth, warped, Montana town?

It must be impossible! If I thought the world contained nothing more than that for me—oh, what should I do? Would I make an end of my dreary little life now? I fear I would. I am a philosopher—and a coward. And it were infinitely better to die now in the high-beating pulses of youth than to drag on, year after year, year after year, and find oneself at last a stagnant old woman, spiritless, hopeless, with a declining body, a declining mind,—and nothing to look back upon except the visions of things that might have been—and the weariness.

I see the picture. I see it plainly. Oh, kind Devil, deliver me from it!

Surely there must be in a world of manifold beautiful things something among them for me. And always, while I am still young, there is that dim light, the Future. But it is indeed a dim, dim light, and ofttimes there’s a treachery in it.

Further Reading

Mary MacLane’s original handwritten diary/manuscript is held at The Newberry Library in Chicago but as far as I can tell is not available to view online (apart from this single image of the first entry). The 1902 edition of the published book is now in the public domain and can be read online at Project Gutenberg. In 2014 a new edition arrived, bearing its intended title, I Await the Devil’s Coming, and edited by Michael R. Brown. It features the unexpurgated text, an introduction, and notes.

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