All We Know: “If you want the damn ball keep it, don’t throw it away.”*

How many books with lesbian subjects are reviewed—let alone glowingly reviewed—in mainstream publications as diverse as The New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, WWD, The New Yorker, and Business Week? (And for a gem from across the pond, see the London Review of Books.) Very, very, very few as far as I can recollect. In fact, I can’t recollect any off the top of my head. A Jeannette Winterson perhaps? Certainly helps to be published by FSG. Be that as it may, now we can point to Lisa Cohen’s recently published biography of three bold women Esther Murphy, Mercedes de Acosta and Madge Garland (at left), All We Know.

That so many publications have taken notice of Cohen’s work is cause enough for celebration but how satisfying and encouraging to read so many unmitigated raves? Very.

So, if you have any interest in the lives, loves, failures, frustrations, and style of little-known lesbians of the early twentieth century or are an avid reader of biographies, you will find a lot to like here. I sure did. Cohen has done an incredible amount of research and it shows on every page. The original interviews, primary research and period details bring these women and their milieu vividly to life.

But by giving each woman her own section, Cohen created a disconnect between these figures that no amount of cross-referencing could ever bridge for me. And then there is the biggest question—what story is the biographer trying to tell with her subjects? If it’s to simply resurrect them from the tomb of history then mission accomplished. But Cohen seems to be after something much bigger here, reflecting on big themes like the nature of failure, modernism, art, and camp as well as the nature of biography itself.

“By bringing these three footnotes into the spotlight, Ms. Cohen allows us to look deeper into our definitions of failure, identity and modernity, while also reappraising the stature of artfulness as opposed to art.”—Wall Street Journal

I felt she was less successful here, raising issues only to have them drift away without any real conclusion (I hoped, in vain it seems, for a closing chapter to bring these many threads to some cohesive whole). And sometimes, it felt as if the ideas were driving the book, with elements of these women’s lives slotted in to prove a particular point. Cohen is hanging a lot on these women and often, as with Murphy and de Acosta particularly, they shuddered under the weight.

“Cohen’s book itself is one of these odd, wayward, portentous things; you don’t quite know where it’s come from; you are stunned by its depths; and you hope its excellence and pertinence and originality will not lead, doomfully, to its sinking without a trace, as fine things connected with the subject of lesbianism have had a way of doing for so long.”—Terry Castle in the London Review of Books

Despite my reservations, this book passed my “Am I better for having read this?” test with yards to spare (though if you are struggling with writer’s block, do yourself a favor and skip the Murphy section for now. horrifying.) and hopefully, with the kind of review coverage any author would bleed for All We Know will attract enough readers to keep it afloat for a good long while.

*Madge Garland

And the unforgettable Beth Ditto’s memoir, From Coal to Diamonds, comes out Tuesday. Looks like a little jacket presto-chango since the book was originally announced. Common enough but which do you prefer? I like the original one, on the left, better. More personal and intimate.

Either way, happy reading.

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7 Responses to All We Know: “If you want the damn ball keep it, don’t throw it away.”*

  1. I’ll have to check them both out. Thanks.

  2. I’ve been hearing a lot about this book! Can’t wait to read it.
    Also, this post made me remember how many positive reviews Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home got from mainstream publications when it came out. Not only is it queer, it’s a comic book! I was pretty shocked.

  3. Pingback: Link Round Up: Oct 3-9 « The Lesbrary

  4. Suzanne Stroh says:

    Nice summing-up! And I like getting to know you better as a reader through this review. Really enjoyed it. Thank you!

    What do you generally think of Terry Castle’s reviews in the LRB? I’m asking, in the philosophical-enquiry vein of Lisa Cohen, about your take on Terry’s “authoritative” cross-pond analytic voice that can only be read over there as “representing” the Yanks’ take on the state of lesbian letters in this country. She stakes out a lot of territory in her reviews. Do they entertain you? Inform you? Vex you?

    • Honestly, I think I need to read more of her pieces in the LBR in order to come to any conclusions but of the half dozen or so that I have read (like the ones on Thurman’s Colette bio and Malcolm’s Stein/Toklas book), I would say I am informed and often amused by her snarkiness. She doesn’t pull punches which I appreciate and–now this is probably saying more about the LBR than Castle–they are long, thoughtful, and clearly the result of a well-read mind not some of the slap-dash commentary that passes for most criticism these days.

      you?

      • Suzanne Stroh says:

        Whenever I read et reviews I wish Carokyn Heilbrun was still among us. There’s an insider quality to Castle’s reviews that makes me feel like an outsider, and in many cases I have had close involvement with the topics or people at hand and am certainly NOT an outsider, at least intellectually speaking. An academic outsider, yes. I am happy to see this book reviewed in a wider variety of outlets, like WWD, as you so helpfully linked.

        But Castle always presents a lot of information, I agree, which is always food for thought, and although she can go on too longe, sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes her characterization or understanding is just off, though. For instance, she wrote a whole review about De Acosta being a vampire. Acosta was a mystic. I know people who grew uo with her in their sitting rooms. Except for the face powder I could not understand where or how Castle got vampire. I did not enjoy this particular review of hers either. I’d like to hear more informed critical voices out there…and I’m grateful for your blog in that regard. Keep up the good work.

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