Essays - Autumn 2007

Lady of the Lake

Writer Brenda Ueland and the story she never shared

By Alice Kaplan | September 1, 2007
Cedric Dean/Flickr
Cedric Dean/Flickr


Brenda Ueland is someone I can conjure easily: an ancient woman with a gnarled face and white hair walking very fast around Lake Harriet. I must have seen her making her way around that Minneapolis lake a thousand times, hunched over, a funny cap pulled down over her forehead. Today people still go on about her—the eccentric feminist who played tennis in the nude, the legendary writer, the old Norwegian troll who climbed Pikes Peak in her 80s. Connie, my friend who grew up on the other side of Lake Harriet, visited the writer at the end of her life, and got me to read her books. From reading them and talking about her, I’ve made Brenda Ueland part of the landscape I visit in my imagination every day, the landscape of my childhood.

When I was a child in the 1960s, the park board hadn’t yet gentrified the area around Lake Harriet, and the plant life grew at will. The walking paths were muddy and unkempt. Wild branches from the skinny trees growing along the shoreline stuck straight out over the water. Connie and I used them as balance beams. We knew that if we fell, the water would only come up to our ankles or knees—water so clear you could see the minnows and the sand at the bottom. No pollution, no milfoil weeds then.

The three lakes in the southern part of Minneapolis are so close they almost touch. When I was a student, I could walk from home to school in a little over an hour if I followed the boulevards around them. That was my universe. Lake Harriet was my home lake, the lake I liked to swim across. After Harriet came Lake Calhoun, a flat mirror, except on windy days when the waves looked like impressionist brush strokes. This may be why, when I was a child, I thought all impressionist reproductions were scenes of Minneapolis. Finally came Lake of the Isles, the only man-made lake, too muddy and weedy for swimming but civilized and austere, with two islands in it and mansions on the manicured grass slopes that surrounded it on every side. If you lived in that world and even thought about being a writer, the first thing you wanted to write about was the beauty of those lakes.

Brenda Ueland was born on Lake Calhoun in 1891 and spent the last years of her life in a house perched just beyond Lake Harriet, in the neighborhood called Linden Hills. She was the fourth child in a family of four brothers and three sisters. Her father, a Norwegian immigrant who had begun his working life as a day laborer, attended law school at night and rose to prominence as a judge and legal counsel. Her mother, an important public figure in her own right, was the founder of the Minnesota League of Women Voters. Although conversations in her home were lively and progressive, and the atmosphere was warm, young Brenda suffered from her busy mother’s absence.

She could see the lake from her bedroom, and, throughout her long and varied career as a writer, the sentences she wrote about the landscape of Minneapolis are among her most beautiful. She had a lyrical gift that reminds me of Fitzgerald—her effortlessly lovely sentences give you the impression that she wrote as she breathed. The lakes were the medium for all her senses, especially hearing:

And sometimes at night we did hear unutterably sad cries, sad lost cries for help: screech owls. And in spring there were loons calling. And on the other side of Lake Calhoun, a mile and a half away, there were train tracks. On summer nights when the lake was still or there was a slight breeze from the north, we could hear for a long time that incredibly beautiful, soft roar of a train, coming from far away.

Trains for people in the Middle West, she explained, were like ships for people on the coast—they meant “travel, escape, leaving home, sadness, freedom, adventure. . . . They come from the wild plains of Dakota and Montana, and they go on and on and across the world, and you get on one and perhaps you never come back.”

Brenda went by train to college in New York City and returned home in 1913 to start work in the newspaper business. In 1915, she left by train for New York again and stayed there for 15 years. She worked for magazines, lived a bohemian existence in Greenwich Village, took lovers, married and divorced, gave birth to a daughter, Gabrielle, and made a modest living as a freelance writer. After her mother died in 1930, she came home to Minneapolis to her father’s house. At the end of his life, when the weather was good, they walked together:

We walked slowly way around the lake. I think it was spring, for I seem to smell that day and remember that we stepped around soft muddy places occasionally, as though there was still some frost being thawed from the ground. We went to the outlet on the far side, and beyond that to the path that leaves the road and follows the lake along a thicket. Then back.

Walking around the lakes was her ideal setting not only for conversation, but for contemplation. She was convinced that unless she walked long hours every day, her thinking became something petty and dull. Her brain needed good outdoor air. This was a hard principle to stick to in Minnesota, but winter didn’t stop her, or so she bragged in a diary entry from 1936, when she was already 44:

This noon I went around Lake Harriet and two miles farther. It is more than 18 below zero. But I am warm. I wear as always my burglar suit, and under it two layers of wool underwear, and two layers of truck driver’s mittens under horsehide, a Norwegian cap with a visor. I am warm in this cold, though the air is a sword in the lungs. It is very beautiful. The sun is a blare of gold in the pure blue sky and everything is so still, golden, pallidly golden. No one is out except an occasional snow plow or milk truck. The drivers stare at me, smiling through their closed-in glass cabs. Two dogs come out barking at me, but overjoyed to have a human being out and walking, and they frolic around me, their joy overcoming their hostility and their barking indignation.

Even when she was a very old woman, there is something young about her writing, as though she’s still a teenager, figuring herself out. The passage above, along with other diary entries, formed the backbone of her 1939 memoir, which she called Me, a pioneering book, one of the first in an autobiographical tradition, now so central to American writing, that gives value to everyday experience. Ueland wants to account for her relationships, to describe her working life, her endless quest for discipline and for understanding the world. Me shows her lyrical gifts, her penchant for bragging, her self-absorption, and, in the end, a knowledge of her own shortcomings that endears her to the reader.

Ueland’s complaints about the business of writing surface in the part of Me devoted to the late 1930s. This was still the golden age of the short story, when magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, each with over a million subscribers, published new stories every week. In the thick of the Depression, without enough money for books, people bought magazines. Stars like Scott Fitzgerald could make $3,600 from the sale of a single story, and $1,500 wasn’t an unusual fee for a lesser known writer—the equivalent of $12,000 today. You could make enough from selling stories to support yourself over the long haul of working on a novel.

Ueland had had a good run of success in this thriving magazine world: a stint as an editor at Liberty magazine in New York, a dozen or more articles published in Harper’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post. Then suddenly, it seemed, the stories she wanted to write weren’t marketable. She began to teach a class in writing at a branch of the Minneapolis YWCA. And she began writing about her experience in the class, in light of her own disappointing rejections. Most of her students had no writing experience, and the less they had written, or so it seemed to her, the better, the fresher, their stories seemed to be. This was a revelation. She described one student, Mrs. B., who had done a great deal of writing and revising, and whose prose was dull and mechanical. “Stock prose,” Ueland called it, and from Mrs. B’s story she derived a maxim: “The more you wish to describe a Universal the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular.” Don’t try to make it sound smooth, she advised. Write “with exquisite and completely detached exactness and truthfulness. Look at the person and just say what you see, even if it sounds like a catalogue.”

Ueland might have been talking about herself. She had made a name, and a living, writing personal essays about women. Her articles had titles like “Fat or Thin Women” and “Dressmakers, Clients and Husbands.” Her nonfiction opinion pieces already had hints of the uncompromising quality that would become her trademark, but she wasn’t having fun with them. She complained in Me of driven perfectionism, of polishing her magazine submissions 50 times. Much of her fiction was conventional, with artificial society settings, girls fighting with their parents or falling in and out of love. There’s also an anorexic tone to much of her magazine writing on diet and weight, a disgust for the female body and a drive for self-abnegation that would surface throughout her life, aftereffects of an overweight childhood.

But there are also a few wonderful stories, such as her 1927 “I Mean Marriage Is Terrible!” published in The Delineator, where a bohemian expatriate with literary pretensions pities her college friend, who has decided to marry and settle down. The expatriate wastes her time posing as an avant-garde writer in Paris, only to return home to discover that her boring married friend has written two powerful novels and sold one of them to the movies. The story, narrated in the first person, may be a thinly veiled send-up of Brenda’s rivalry with her older sister, Anne, a writer who settled into a conventional bourgeois life with her doctor husband in Connecticut. It’s a hilarious spoof on artistic pretensions that brings out Ueland’s impatience with frauds and her ability to mock herself.

Among Ueland’s nonfiction from the 1930s, one essay stands out for similar reasons. “Grass Widows: as told to Brenda Ueland” (1932, The Saturday Evening Post) takes the point of view and voice of a man describing the devastating effect of alimony payments on his life. By this time Ueland herself had divorced, and you can sense an extraordinary generosity and sympathy in her ability to write from a point of view so opposite her own.

Her writing class at the YWCA made her look back at all her literary efforts during the 1920s and 1930s in a new light. From this retrospection she produced her first book, If You Want to Write. Its credo was straightforward, populist: “All writing is alive and interesting if it comes out freely and truly. What makes it dead and tiresome is the so-called ‘literary effort,’ a kind of striving to be effective, instead of just opening your mouth and telling what you have to say.”

Her advice was simple: Don’t listen to the critics, don’t listen to the teachers, don’t try to be literary. At age 47, this was Ueland’s manifesto, and proof that she had finally come to terms with what she needed to do to be true to herself as a writer.

When If You Want to Write was first published in 1938 by Putnam’s, the few reviews were skeptical. The Saturday Review of Literature attacked the idea that most people can write, complaining that Ueland was “holding out false hopes to the untalented.” Let the mediocre writers stick to reading, they advised. But when Graywolf Press reissued her book in 1987, in an era when more and more Americans were taking writing classes, and when self-help books of all kinds had become a niche in the literary marketplace, it became an instant bestseller. No one remembers Brenda Ueland’s stories or memoir, but the new edition of If You Want to Write has sold more than 300,000 copies, and it’s still selling steadily.

If You Want to Write is a beguiling book, bristling with the energy of Ueland’s voice, which has given thousands of people with no elite education or literary culture encouragement to express themselves and specific strategies for getting down to work. And for professional writers, it’s a healthy corrective to self-conscious prose and perfectionism. At its foundation is a contradiction: Don’t listen to teachers, the author warns, and then she proceeds to teach. This supremely didactic book is full of Ueland’s common sense as well as elegant wisdom from William Blake and Alfred de Musset.

But there is also something missing in If You Want to Write. For all its energy and gumption, it is willfully naïve about literature and the literary enterprise. Ueland is so enthusiastic about feelings and originality in writing that she ignores, or denies, the part of writing that is based on imitation, that derives its strength from literary tradition—the part of writing that involves copying models from the past or imitating what you admire. Despite her admiration for past writers, anything having to do with writing in a specific genre, according to age-old rules, is suspect. Her story of literary creation is especially shallow when it comes to her chapter on Renaissance noblemen, who wrote sonnets, according to Ueland, strictly to express their true feelings for their lady friends. There’s no room in her manifesto for the artfulness of imitation that was essential to Renaissance poetry.

If You Want to Write sets up a dichotomy: On the side of good writing is originality, honesty, spontaneity, and true feelings. On the side of bad writing is the marketplace, conformity, and stock prose. But the reality of writing is much more complicated since, good or bad, it can come from the heart or from the most guileful imitations of age-old conventions. And this takes us to the year 1949 and a chapter of her life that Ueland never included in the thousands of pages she wrote.

A decade after publishing If You Want to Write, Ueland copied, word for word, four or five paragraphs from an essay about a cowboy published in Life magazine and inserted them into a short story she sold to Collier’s magazine. Her copying was discovered and she was exposed. I had heard the story whispered among friends in Minnesota—whispered in parlors, as people used to say. When pressed, no one could tell me exactly where or what she had plagiarized, or even when it had happened, only that her transgression had been revealed in The New Yorker. As far as anyone knew, she had never written about the incident.

I was fascinated by the idea that a writer so committed to originality, a person whose legend is so bound up with spontaneous creativity, had herself once been accused of copying. Here was one of those contradictions in a writer’s life that could go to the very heart of the literary enterprise. I had a hundred questions about what had happened. I remembered the passage in Me where she confesses her penchant for lying: “A life-long struggle,” she wrote, “an ethical struggle that is not over yet by any means.” You could read the 1939 memoir as a promise that there would be trouble ahead.

I decided to investigate. Decided is not really the right word: I was driven. I was filled with the kind of energy that makes me feel like a student again, allows me to spend hours in the library stacks, gives me a sense of urgency that seems to dilate time.

I started with chronology, with the assumption that if Ueland plagiarized there must have been a reason, and that the reason must have had something to do with her own history as a writer, with what had happened to her after the enormous productivity of the late 1930s. Between her banner years, 1938 and 1939, which saw the publication of her two books, If You Want to Write and Me, and 1949, the year of her plagiarism, Ueland published only two national magazine articles, a 1941 essay for Collier’s on the Royal Norwegian air force (“Fighting Wings for Norway”) and an ode to listening for Ladies’ Home Journal called “Tell Me More,” based on a call-in radio show that Ueland did in Minneapolis. Magazines were in trouble in the 1940s, circulations were plummeting. Collier’s, which bought Ueland’s tainted short story in 1949, was on a downward slide, and it would fold six years later.

Ueland was 58 years old in 1949. She had married and divorced, raised a daughter, married again, taught a generation of aspiring young writers in Minneapolis, published two books, and imposed her cheerful eccentricity on her neighbors. Her walking path around Lake Harriet was well trodden by now, the daily walks as long as nine miles, winter and summer. She liked to say she went around the lake twice—once for her body, once for her soul. Her father had been dead for 15 years. Her daughter, Gaby, now 28, had married and left home.

Ueland’s second husband, Manus McFadden, was the editor of the Minneapolis Times, where since 1941 Brenda had written a regular column, “What Goes on Here.” Every column featured a sketch of Brenda in profile, boyish and hawk-nosed with her thick helmet of hair. Then in 1948, the Times went out of business—absorbed by the more powerful Minneapolis Tribune. Seven years of steady newspaper work, then nothing. During the period when she was writing the story that got her in trouble, Ueland was at loose ends. In her 1948 diary, she vowed to write eight stories in eight weeks.

In 1949, after a dry spell of seven years with national magazines, Ueland finally sold the short story “Men’s Tears” to Collier’s for $1,500, which must have seemed like a small fortune to Brenda and her husband, who were strapped for cash. “Men’s Tears” was an oddity—it was, by her own standards, exactly what she advised against: stock prose, the bad old habit she had denounced 10 years earlier in If You Want to Write.

She couldn’t have chosen a magazine whose requirements for stories were more formulaic. Collier’s published at least one romance a week, with either a detective or a society or a western theme. Her version was faithful to the norm: In Dry Root County, Montana, Larry Brown and Bashful Jack Connell, who competed in the rodeo, vied for the same yellow-haired girl, Dolores Olson. Larry Brown was all bravura, but Bashful Jack won the girl in the end because he cried when he told her he loved her. Even the one offbeat touch in “Men’s Tears,” the vision of a weeping cowboy, was as old as Odysseus’s return to Ithaca.

“Men’s Tears” might have been just a weak moment in an otherwise spirited career—if Ueland hadn’t copied from a source as visible as Life.

With the Internet, almost any project can develop in a matter of hours. One person, central to the plagiarism story, came right into view on my laptop screen: Claude Stanush, author of the 1946 Life magazine profile that Brenda Ueland pilfered, is featured today on a Web site he shares with his daughter Michele, also a writer. I called her, and she arranged for me to call him at his home in San Antonio. At 87, he’s still writing. To my delight, he had a vivid memory of the Brenda Ueland incident. He was just beginning his national magazine career in 1946, and after many days of waiting in front offices, he had talked his way into a job in Life’s Hollywood bureau. He was determined to get an interview with the famous rodeo cowboy Bob Crosby. When Crosby didn’t respond to his queries, Stanush and a Life photographer flew over Crosby’s ranch in a helicopter and Stanush lowered a note to him in a Mason jar: “Meet me at the Maxwell Hotel.” Crosby met him, and Stanush spent two weeks living with Crosby on the ranch. He filed his story at Life headquarters in New York, accompanied by a letter in which he described what it was like getting the story. The editors wrote back that they loved his cover letter and asked him to incorporate his personal narrative into the piece. It might have been a lesson in one of Ueland’s writing classes—when Stanush was having fun telling about his experience, his story came alive. All the marks of Stanush’s career as a writer and journalist are in this early profile of Bob Crosby. What Stanush excelled at, and what mattered most to him, was capturing his character’s voice. Here’s an excerpt, one of the memorable anecdotes Crosby liked to tell about the leg he’d broken five times:

When Crosby limped back to Roswell he told his brother, “Harold, Ah want yuh to git me the sorriest doctor yuh know.” Harold said, “Ah know just the man. He ain’t had a case in two years.” The chosen sawbones, who was so sorry he had no office, used Crosby’s kitchen as an operating room. He ripped the bad leg from knee to ankle, “an’ it opened like a Bible.” Then, using a pocketknife dipped in alcohol, Crosby helped him scrape the bone. When the job was done he asked the doctor how much he owed. “Think I done a nice job there,” the doctor said with professional pride. “Two dollars.” Gangrene appeared in the big toe a week later, so the doctor snipped off the end of the toe with a pair of sewing scissors. Crosby dispensed with surgical services when the infection recurred a second time. He simply encased his leg in an old inner tube which he packed full of cow manure, a venerable cowboy panacea. After two days of poulticing, “the red centipedes plumb disappeared.” Crosby was back in competition a few months later. Walking on crutches and with his leg in a cast, he entered and won the steer-cutting contest at Winslow, Arizona.

Ueland copied every sentence of the passage, making only minor changes. “Crosby” became “Jack.” And the steer-cutting contest now took place in Madison Square Garden. There’s a mystery here, which has always struck Stanush himself as strange: why lift entire paragraphs from a 1946 Life magazine article so successful that it was excerpted in Reader’s Digest unless you actually plan to be caught?

And caught she was, in the most public way: on April 2, 1949, six weeks after her Collier’s story appeared, The New Yorker published two columns under the heading “Funny Coincidence Department.” On the left side were five long passages from “King of the Cowboys,” and on the right, the very same words, taken from “Men’s Tears.” By then Claude Stanush was working in Life’s Rockefeller Center headquarters, and his fellow Life writers ribbed him about the plagiarism. As he remem­bers it, he was more flattered than irritated: “I figured if someone wanted to steal from it, and excerpt it in Reader’s Digest, and make a movie from it [Nicho­las Ray later made Lusty Men based on Sta­nush’s story]—there must have been some value to it.”

Soon after the New Yorker exposé appeared, an editor at Collier’s invited Stanush to a fancy lunch at Rockefeller Center. The Collier’s editor promised he would never publish another story by Ueland. He gave Sta­nush a check for $1,500, saying this was what Ueland had been paid for her story. He asked Stanush to sign a quitclaim, indicating that he wouldn’t pursue the magazine in court. And that was the end of it. No moral outrage, no far-flung debates about the obligations of writers—only a wry note in The New Yorker, followed by a gentleman’s agreement. The New Yorker editor and writer Roger Angell recalls that the Funny Coincidence items would come in whenever a reader or subscriber noted some “tainted duplication.” They’d appear at the bottom of a column—a newsbreak in smaller print than the rest of the page. What a far cry from today, when a charge of plagiarism can generate a national scandal. Angell remembered that no one gave the Funny Coincidence columns “any more attention than a knowing laugh.”

But for a freelance writer like Brenda Ueland, the attention was far from innocuous. The New Yorker of the 1940s was the loftiest realm of the magazine world, literary in the worldliest, most sophisticated way, the home for fiction by Cheever, McCullers, Thurber—fiction for the ages—and a place that would never have published her. And now she was appearing in its pages for the first time, not as an author but as the butt of a casual joke. Even the most scathing book review couldn’t have been more wounding.

The insult didn’t stop there. A few years later, Ueland’s plagiarism of “King of the Cowboys” was cited by attorney Alexander Lindey in his classic study, Plagiarism and Originality, as an example of how devastating the column-to-column comparison can be in proving plagiarism, for there is no context left to show whatever differences remain between the two works. And so, in 1952, Ueland entered literary history as a certified literary thief. Claude Stanush kept a copy of Lindey’s book in his garage.

But how much did the plagiarism matter to Brenda Ueland? In the box-by-box inventory of the papers she donated to the Minnesota Historical Society, amidst volumes of her personal writing, there is no reference to any surviving correspondence or diaries from the year 1949—the year of the New Yorker revelation. No mention of plagiarism, Collier’s, The New Yorker, or a scandal. Only the sense, in subsequent years, of a writer plagued with anxiety about money and obsessed with her discipline or lack of discipline—constantly weighing and measuring herself, physically and mentally.

So I’m left to imagine her motives and emotions, writer to writer. Plagiarism today is considered the ultimate fall from grace—it means a failing grade for any student in the university where I teach literature. As for Ueland, in 1952 she published an essay about her family in the Scandinavian American Review, where she announced that she had received two grants—one from the University of Minnesota and one from the Rockefeller Foundation—to write a biography of her distinguished mother, the suffragette Clara Ueland. Although after “Men’s Tears” she never published another article in an East Coast magazine, she had not been blacklisted from the world of grants.

How interesting that she turned to family, and to her mother’s long political career as a champion of women’s rights, after her own mistake. Her biography of Clara (published posthumously under the title O Clouds, Unfold!), a sentimental series of sketches written in the first person, put together with whatever materials came to hand, shows Ueland’s strengths and her failings as a writer. She was headstrong, charming, disorganized, and enthusiastic, without much distance from her own feelings. She submitted the manuscript to 20 publishers, and 20 publishers turned it down. She rejected an offer from a vanity press.

Ueland continued to write short articles for several more decades—polemical pieces where she championed minor causes and underdogs, reflected on health and exercise, dramatized her habits and her self-discipline. In 1960, she published a newspaper column about the cruelty of cowboys and rodeo riders to their horses—as petulant as anything she ever wrote (and perhaps a subtle dig at the genre from which she had plagiarized). Ueland’s gentle lyrical voice, the Lake Harriet voice so reminiscent of Fitzgerald, had given way to something fierce, uncompromising. In her late work, she expressed outrage or approval, she gave advice and she gave permission. She crusaded and pontificated so much that if she had been a conventional person, it would have been intolerable. Eccentric and unpredictable, she was lovable instead.

By the early 1980s, Ueland had become a local hero. Small presses started to reissue her books. Her fame grew. You can follow the Brenda Ueland revival through profiles and interviews with her in the Minneapolis Tribune throughout the 1980s. In 1985, her memorial service was a cultural and literary event.

One of Ueland’s columns reprinted in a collection of her short pieces called Strength to Your Sword Arm—I don’t know if it was written before or after the plagiarism—is entitled “On Making Choices.” Here she tries to spell out all the layers of her personality, her postmodern self: “I seem to be sometimes my mother, sometimes my father, sometimes a whiner, a great queen, or a slob, a mother, a simpering lady or an old rip, a minister, a lion, a weasel.”

Most lives are as weedy as Lake of the Isles. It’s our dilemma as writers to decide what to leave in and what to leave out of our life stories and how to shape the facts about our lives. Brenda Ueland did something stupid. What’s more, she did it of her own volition. Then she got caught in the most humiliating way. But she kept on writing. In her old age, even after 20 rejections of her last book, she settled into a strong, uncompromising voice. Not the voice I love best—the beautiful voice of the lakes—but a voice that grabs the reader by the sleeve and won’t let go, so vivid and present it turns her essays into one-woman shows.

When I think about Ueland in her characteristic mode, walking around Lake Harriet, I can imagine several of her: One is triumphant, nose to the wind, vanquishing her old age with another mile. One is contemplative, noting everything outside of her, feeling connected, breathing deeply. One is driven, nose to the ground, counting her miles anxiously, walking for exertion—and to forget. Brenda Ueland was searching for what she called the True Conscience, our True Self, the very Center, because, as she wrote, “this is the only first-rate choice-making center.” Maybe it takes some bad choices to be committed to good ones.

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