Monthly Archiv: September, 2014

AND THEN THERE’S ISAAC (This is the House)

Let’s talk about Isaac Warden. [When This is the House was under discussion before, Molly and Elijah were visiting Mother Merrick, Elijah was off to his first command and Molly was being taught all kinds of household things by Elizabeth Warden.] Then Isaac comes home, lying to his mother, hoping to escape to London before his father gets back from sea. But Mistress Warden is too canny for that. I think she already knows he’s a bad apple…

So he works his way around her, sets up to study law in the parlor, gets sick and is nursed by Molly and everyone else in the house, and by then Molly is totally besotted. This is a modern image of him.



He lures her, bit by little bit, knowing full well that women find him irresistible. Indeed, I do, myself, even while I hate him! But then I rethink him, and consider:

That he is spoiled by his parents and the household staff as the younger son and well able, from the sound of it, to beguile adults into giving him what he wants. (He was his father’s toy.)That he can’t compete with his brother. John had what it took to be a leader; he mingled easily with the other children at district school (while Isaac, more reserved with these young folk of lesser rank, held back). John took easily to deep water; the expectation is that Isaac, too, will do well at sea, yet it never really worked for him. He seems not to fit anywhere.

But he’s the very devil with the girls (so says Ellen, the cook). In this arena he excels. And loves life in the fast lane — gambling, cards, drink, etc. When Captain Warden gets home, he threatens to send Isaac to Mr. Franklin’s college in Philadelphia, under the supervision of Quaker family members who will see to it that he behaves. So Isaac knows he has to do well in London and behave himself, or this fate will befall him.


If I choose to, I can feel sorry for Isaac, though my loyalty is with Molly and I am appalled at what he does to her without so much as a loving word. He ruins her, and thinks he can bully her into coming to England with him, where she will surely have to turn to prostitution once he’s done with her. Whatever sympathy I might have had for him disappears, and despite his struggle for identity in the wake of his older brother, and despite the fact that many a young man proves himself in the ways Isaac also chooses, I am unable to give him a whole lot of leeway.

And yet, he loves women. I don’t think it’s all about proving himself, or even amusing himself. I think he really loves them, and I think he really loves Molly – to the extent that such a man can. And face it, he IS pretty cute!


Could I write something that stirred up a Great Idea? That suggested an answer to a Great Question? That could change the reader into someone he/she hadn’t been before reading my work?

Graduation approached. I asked one of my professors – one I respected a lot – if I had enough talent to pursue writing as a career. He told me that I could write well enough, but as yet had nothing to say. He recommended waiting a few years. I knew perfectly well that my understanding of life wasn’t sufficient. But I spent half a year trying to prove him wrong. I didn’t particularly like slick ladies’ magazines, but they were the one of the places that published short stories. I couldn’t hope to complete with Salinger in the New Yorker, and my fellow creative writing majors and I scorned Pearl Buck for publishing in the Ladies Home Journal. (I cringe to remember this!) But I figured none of the other Creative Writing majors would know, so I tried writing and submitting short stories to the Journal and other women’s magazines that published fiction. They were unimpressed.

So I turned to the world I’d discovered – the world of ideas, and did post graduate work in philosophy, which, as it turns out, I was very good at. socratesGotta love that Socrates!

I worked part-time at a nearby library, too, which reminds me that it’s always possible that even the least detail can work to your advantage. My job was at Haverford College, a Quaker college, and I learned a lot about Quakers by default – and used what I’d found to give the character of Elizabeth Warden (This the House) an individuality quite different from most women in the late 1700’s. Or at any other time, for that matter.

I should make mention of Potts’ Plots, too, a detail that turned out to be quite valuable. We Creative Writing majors didn’t just write short stories. We did journalism and poetry  and playwriting. Now that was fun! Professor Potts was the teacher, a benign older gentleman who was willing to lend a hand to students in the new major. Of course we dubbed it “Potts’ Plots” and found that we were awful at writing plays. Yet it was instructive, and I recommend all aspiring writers of give it a try because your characters can let the audience know how they are reacting to whatever crisis is at hand only by their actions and tone of voice (which you need to include in the directions). Likewise, they move around according to those directions, and as the author, you’re watching their every move to see if it makes sense. A very important part of writing is that you don’t tell the reader what the character thinks, you communicate it by gestures, actions, and dialogue. It makes for a much stronger style. So Professor Potts actually contributed a lot to my “skill set”.

Meanwhile, having failed as a writer, being too young to be a philosopher, I slogged along at the library until the summer I went windjamming on Nantucket Sound.



Once again I abandoned my career as a journalist and went off to college, starting at Wittenberg in Springfield Ohio, then transferring to the University of Pennsylvania when my parents pulled up roots and moved to the Philadelphia area. At Penn found I writing again.

Penn                                                                                              (Mr. Franklin, of course! It’s his college, after all.)

I hadn’t started college with writing in mind, but Penn had recently set up a Creative Writing major at the time my family and I moved there, and its course requirements bypassed almost all my weaknesses except for French (which I’d rather not think about.) We creative writing majors had a broad choice of electives and were required to write a short story every week, leaving them in a folder at the library so that classmates could access them. In class, everybody got to make comments about the stories they’d read. Out loud. When the time was right, you had to read your story. Out loud.

It was sheer agony. It’s no secret that the author reveals himself or herself in their writing – but who are you when you’re young? Peggy Anderson, of “Peggy’s Troubles” was obviously “me” as a sixth grader. The failed novel I started the following summer couldn’t tap into “me” because “I” hadn’t begun to build an adult identity, and wasn’t a child any more, either. But in college, that identity is gathering, and it is going to be discovered by your readers. Naturally no one knows what part of the writing is “you” and what part has been “made up” – but somewhere in that tangle, “you” are there. What if “I” wasn’t OK? And what if I wasn’t a very good writer? My pretense to talent would be found out. Everyone would know I wasn’t good. Perhaps they’d think I was mediocre, the worst curse of all.

But despite my agonizing, the free range of course selection did serve to broaden my perspective, just like it was supposed to, and my outlook on life was altered. There was more to it than looking nice, being nice, and finding someone to marry. The Great Questions were out there, waiting to be answered. There was Great Art to discover, and Great Music, and Great Ideas. I was definitely unequal to the task, having not been exposed to intellectual excellence before, but it was so exciting that I didn’t even mind being so far behind. At least I was there, where all this stuff was going on, and it was like walking into a greenhouse, where the very air vibrates with growth and moisture lies in layers. If I failed as a writer, perhaps I could be a thinker. Penn was the place to learn how, that was for sure.



So, having concluded that writing was tedious and desks and offices didn’t relieve its tedium, I gave up my career as an author and went on to become a teenager which, in the 50’s, meant saddle shoes and bobby sox, skirts down to our ankles and sweater sets (preferably cashmere, but who could afford them?) and a single strand of pearls.

Like a teenager at any time, I wanted to be important in the general scheme of things. Some of my friends and I chose the school newspaper as our route to fame. It was called The Crystal, and was published once a month on glossy paper. It was very large (like 14×20) and took a lot of work to fill up. Many reporters were needed, and when I asked the advisor if I could join the staff, she said I could, but only provisionally. If I could manage not to run in the halls or on the stairs, be on time for my classes and get decent grades, yes, then I could join the staff.

It worked. From that point on I was careful to stay within the rules, and in my junior year I became the features editor, responsible for humorous and/or interesting stories. And so, I began writing creatively again. Then was when I realized that editing and reworking a piece was where the fun lay. I did features and editorials right through senior year, and then was off to college without thinking much more, for a while, about my writing career. Here’s my high school: Libbey.

On the National Register of Historic Places. But there weren’t enough kids in the district living nearby to keep it open, so they recently blew it up.