On Jan. 13, 1901, a young woman began to pen a memoir in Butte.
“I of womankind and of nineteen years, will now begin to set down as full and frank a Portrayal as I am able of myself, Mary MacLane, for whom the world contains not a parallel.
I am convinced of this, for I am odd.”
And thus began “The Story of Mary MacLane,” published by the Chicago’s Herbert S. Stone & Co. in 1902. MacLane had submitted the manuscript with the working title of, “I Await the Devil’s Coming.” Melville House re-released the book under that name last March.
Describing her oft repetitive day-to-day thoughts, ongoings, and observations, the self-described “genius” and “lit-ry (literary) lady” MacLane would rock the literary world during the first part of the 20th century with 100,000 book copies sold during the first month of its release. She also became a social phenomenon who was both loved and hated by critics.
Her hometown of Butte banned her book from the local library. The Butte Miner newspaper was quick to shun the book as well, describing it as “immoral.” The paper was particularly irked by her vividly negative descriptions of Butte.
“Butte and its immediate vicinity present as ugly an outlook as once could wish to see,” she wrote. “It is so ugly indeed that it is near the perfection of ugliness. And anything perfect, or nearly so, is not to be despised.”
The latter sentence was followed by her description implying that in spite of Butte’s barrenness, its “desolateness” was also an “inspiration.” She took long, leisurely walks every day to stir the creative juices in her mind.
Leery of the bad press Butte received from those back east, The Butte Miner described MacLane as a sensationalist who only catered to pretentious eastern perceptions of those living in the west, proclaiming “... freak productions of a doubtful character do not constitute our highest ideals.”
However, as the Montana Research Center’s Brian Shovers notes, MacLane wasn’t alone in her dim view of Butte’s homeliness during the age of the copper boom.
The noted historian Helen Fitzgerald Sanders – the daughter-in-law of Montana’s first senator, Wilbur F. Sanders, who was also the founder of the Montana Historical Society – described Butte as “the ugliest town on earth.”
By the second decade of the 1900s, Butte had grown to be the largest town between Spokane and Minneapolis with a population peaking at double its current 34,000 residents. It was a town full of brothels, saloons and immigrants, and it was run by Copper Kings. Its underground was a labyrinth of mines employing some 15,000 workers, and smoking smelters operated 24-7.
Helen Sanders said, “The approach to the city from the East bore a startling likeness to Dante’s description of the outlying regions of Purgatory.”
“A tree could not be found in the city,” said Shovers. “One of Montana’s preeminent journalists, Joseph Kinsey Howard, referred to Butte as ‘the black heart of Montana,’ and a city dominated by men, which would have colored MacLane’s perception of the place – especially during that time in Butte’s history.”
In such an environment, it’s easy to see why the “lit-ry lady” MacLane wanted to get out. While many reviewers admired her poetic prose and descriptions written at a skill level beyond her years, others criticized and brushed off her writings as an overwrought, dramatic performance of an angst-ridden teenager. In the days before Freud, however, it was easy to overlook the possibility that she may have been seriously depressed.
Her breaking out of a life of a “misery of nothingness” and dreams of fame would all hinge upon the success of her memoir novel. She had hoped to go to Stanford after graduation, but couldn’t because of her family’s waning finances. Stuck in Butte, she lamented the possibility she’d ever become the “monstrosity” that was a typical “virtuous woman.”
She mockingly wrote of herself, “Poor little Mary MacLane! – what might you not be? What wonderful things might you not be? ... But held down, half-buried, a seed fallen in barren ground, alone, comprehended, obscure – poor little Mary MacLane! Weep world, – why don’t you?”
She also wrote, “I have reached a truly wonderful state of miserable morbid unhappiness.”
The bisexual MacLane daydreamed of making passionate love to her high school teacher of the same sex, whom she dubbed the “anemone lady.” She was also haunted by the untimely death of her father, James, when she was 8, in spite of her best efforts to conceal her pain through feigned indifference.
As Michael R. Brown, who wrote the definitive book about MacLane called “Human Days, A Mary MacLane Reader,” pointed out, “One of her lines that went ‘round 1902’s world: ‘... it is a matter of supreme indifference to me whether my father, Jim MacLane of selfish memory, lived or died. He is nothing to me.’ It can safely be called bravado.”
She may have even held his untimely death against him as well. “She was deeply affected. She never wrote of it, but her father was a frontier empire builder – business starter, town mapper type – and lived large,” Brown said.
Indeed, Mary implied she got her smarts from James and was also proud of her Highland Scotch roots.
“She felt closest to him, was most like him. So at age 19 had to condemn him,” Brown said.
“He left a large estate which was run through by her mine-speculator step-father who killed himself in the 1920’s after much bad luck. So she may have held some difficulties – like not being able to go to Stanford – against her father.”
Young women across the U.S. relating to the hollowness and impediments of being a woman in the early 1900s read MacClane’s book religiously. Others were particularly shocked at the way MacLane pushed buttons by making countless references to the Devil much in the way others would to God.
She wrote things like, “Perhaps the Devil will bring me something in my lonely womanhood to put in my wooden heart.”
In her evening walks, she wandered the cemetery late at night, earning her the nickname “The Centerville Ghost” by locals. She studied a woman who visited the grave of her young child every night for several weeks before she stopped coming and moved on with her life.
“Out in the warped Graveyard her child is forgotten,” MacClane observed. “And presently the wooden headstone will begin to decay. But the worms will not forget their part. They have eaten the small body by now, and enjoyed it. Always worms enjoy a body to eat.
“And also, the Devil rejoiced.
“And I rejoiced with the Devil.”
Brown said of her constant derisive references to the Devil, “She also looked at people’s behavior – Butte was wide open those days – and found it far short of their professed values. The young Mary saw religion as a needless restriction.”
MacClane’s writing was even blamed for the deaths of young women who’d committed suicide. A Butte newspaper reported about a girl in Kalamazoo, Mich., who killed herself and was found clutching MacLane’s novel.
When queried about it, MacLane is reported to have said, “I read of the Kalamazoo girl who killed herself after reading the book. I am not at all surprised. She lived in Kalamazoo, for one thing, and then she read the book.”
McClane quickly grew rich enough to leave the town she wrote about with such contempt before going to Chicago in 1902, then Boston for several years, then New York’s Greenwich Village. Everything the “peculiar” MacLane did was deemed newspaper gold. She wrote a series of columns, and editors asked readers if they thought she was a good writer. Weeks later letters still poured in.
It was rumored she visited Harvard’s Radcliffe college for women and had a door slammed in her face. It was of no significance to her as she found the so-called intellectuals in the east uninteresting and listless after years of having observed the colorful characters of Butte.
However, if home is where the heart is, then MacLane’s heart rested in Butte. In 1910 she moved back there, annoyed by the wasted years she had spent back east that had only served to dull her mind.
“The Wild Woman of Butte,” as she became known, eventually faded from the spotlight and wouldn’t publish her third book until 1917. (Her second book, “My Friend Annabel Lee” in 1903, was an experimental book where she ‘conversed’ with a Japanese porcelain doll about various memories.)
“I, Mary MacLane: A Diary of Human Days” came out that spring. It wasn’t as explosive as her debut in terms of sales, but it was filled with agonizing doubts and questions about the meaning of her very existence. That summer she wrote and starred in a movie called, “The Men Who Made Love to Me.” No copies have been found of it.
“If anyone has it in their attic, let us know!” Brown said. “More seriously, it’s presumed lost, but one never knows. We recently learned it was shown not only in the United States but all the way down in Australia and such, so there’s a chance a reel-set was kept. I have many reviews of the film, stills, some subtitles, her 1910 article the movie was adapted from – but not the film itself.”
Under “obscure circumstances,” MacLane died in 1929 at the age of 48. But like her film, Mary MacLane – once a household name that inspired uninhibited emotions and fierce debates a century ago – would seemingly become lost in time. Indeed, Brown himself had only coincidentally discovered MacLane’s writing by accident while combing through a dusty psychology 1960s anthology in 1985.
At the time of her death, “Some said she was friendless and forgotten, others said she had many girl friends from a managerial job she’d been holding down. We may never know,” Brown said of the Montana author who was once given respects by the likes of Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“And that, to me, is the most tragic – that there is so much we may never know, and that – because she was so radical, and new even for her time of revolutions – she may have died forgotten and alone.”