Marianne Moore was born in her mother’s childhood bedroom; grown up, she lived with her mother – most often shared her bed – until her mother died. She was then 59 and her mother 85; she lived another 25 years and died in 1972 a happy spinster, a famous poet and a grande dame.
Mary Warner Moore – the mother in question – had scarcely had a mother, which must be to the point. The one she was born to died two years later and the aunt who replaced her was judged unsatisfactory and dismissed after less than a year – two mothers lost before she was three. The family was Scotch-Irish, stern, devout and patriotic. Her father, Reverend Warner, was pastor to the Presbyterian church in Gettysburg; he watched the battle from a trapdoor in his roof and when it ended delivered his eyewitness account not only in churches and lecture halls up and down the East Coast, but in the House of Representatives with Lincoln himself in the audience.
It was said that Mary was ‘a beauty’ with many young men to choose among. That the one she decided on, John Moore, was known only for his sense of humour and love of the theatre is puzzling at first – she has seemed so earnest – but it turns out that performance was something she too enjoyed. Pretending to be someone or something else, preferably a small fluffy animal or a character from The Wind in the Willows, suited her well. Speaking in her own voice never got her as far. She married John Moore in 1885 in her father’s church and settled down in a Boston suburb where Moore thought he had prospects. Marianne’s brother, Warner, was born the following year. The prospects didn’t materialise and by the time of Marianne’s birth a year after that, John Moore was in an insane asylum. Mary left him to the care of his family and, children in tow, returned to her father.
Marianne never met her father and claimed not to know what he looked like until she was practically middle-aged (had no one told her about the red hair that the two of them shared?); asked what he did, she said she couldn’t remember. There were no recriminations. Mary had what she wanted: her children to herself; and if either child gave any sign of minding we’re not told of it here. ‘We are the happiest people in the world,’ the young Warner told his mother, who wasn’t in the least surprised. The March sisters could well have said the same: happiness was a duty as well as a right in pre-Freudian America, an acknowledgment that God wished America well. But God, as Mary told her children, wished them and their mother especially well. ‘Don’t forget that we three are “a peculiar people”,’ she used to tell them. ‘That is, according to the Scriptures, a people set apart.’ A family, she would also say, whose members were so close to each other that ‘we are like people interrupted in love-making the minute any outside persons come in.’ It sounds ominous – Helen Vendler refers to ‘the dreadful pathology’ of the Moore household – but Linda Leavell speaks of a ‘family idyll’ in her illuminating biography and describes a memoir Marianne began many years afterwards as making ‘a utopia of her childhood’. Being ‘set apart’ had its uses; and while Marianne sometimes chafed, she didn’t complain. Her mother, she said many years later, was ‘the least possessive of beings’. It’s hard to know how she can have meant it but clear that she – sort of – did.
In that utopia nothing was straightforward. Words had their own usages, and ages and genders were never quite settled. Make-believe was pervasive. Early on Marianne decreed that she was Warner’s brother not his sister, and in family letters (there are more than 30,000 in the Rosenbach archive in Philadelphia) she is consistently, and at all ages, referred to as ‘he’. ‘Although they assumed many different personae over the years,’ Leavell writes, ‘the one constant past childhood was Marianne’s insistence that she be Warner’s brother and hence he in the home language.’
Leavell doesn’t speculate about these things. Freud and Co aren’t called on: the story tells itself. Warner, the sturdy male, was a less agile shape-shifter, but Mary was interchangeably Bunny and Fawn and on occasion stay-at-home Mole – always a delicate creature who had to be humoured and looked after by her ‘two uncles’. ‘If you had a family, you might go home, but as you’re an orphan fawn I’m obliged to keep you, and do for you,’ Marianne wrote in 1904. It’s one instance among hundreds. Indulging their mother – making it a rule to put her concerns first – allowed Mary to get her own way and at the same time helped Marianne and her brother to bear it.
Adapted from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v37/n23/mary-kay-wilmers/what-a-mother