When a friend handed me I Await the Devil’s Coming, a slim and red-covered volume, she was fairly reticent about its content. “Looks cool,” I commented. “What’s it about?”
She stammered for a bit, and finally settled on her answer: “Just give it a shot. It’s hard to explain.”
Intrigued and vaguely mystified, I slipped the book into my backpack for later consumption. Two evenings later, I sprawled out in my favorite place to read (on my bedroom rug), cracked it open, and understood why my friend had found the book so difficult to summarize. I did not move until I had finished it, pausing only to send brief updates to a different friend I was messaging at the time.
I Await the Devil’s Coming is a Portrayal. I use here the words of its author, Mary MacLane, who in 1902 endeavored to write a memoir depicting her own full and flawed character, despite having done nothing particular of notoriety, and despite being of a gender presumed to be incapable of notoriety. At nineteen, MacLane is a self-proclaimed genius, and in full bloom of a sexual awakening; her prose radiates from the page as she philosophizes about the state of morality, religion, and herself. I Await the Devil’s Coming is the best confessional book you’ve never heard of.
The simmering energy produced by Mary MacLane’s tamped-down rage could probably power a small Midwestern town. However, by her own admission, in the company of others (be it her family or various citizens of her Montana hometown), she has been well-trained to adopt a quiet and demure nature, able to hold attention and intrigue without taking up too much space (which a good girl avoids at all costs). Only when she is alone, scribbling in her diary that later became this memoir, does she allows the wild girl to surface. According to Goodreads, in the early twentieth century, Mary’s photo was practically printed above the dictionary definition for “sexuality.”
Entire swaths of text are devoted to MacLane’s taboo attractions, whether to her (female) high school English teacher, long-dead Napoleon Bonaparte, or Satan incarnate. She often punctuates these with lamentations of the limits placed on her by virtue of her sex, invoking feminist rhetoric before it really became to be known as “feminist rhetoric.” She condemns hypocrisy by the staunch religious community in which she lives, and soliloquizes to herself about why it is considered wrong for a woman to love another woman.
Don’t get me wrong; Mary MacLane is very self-involved. The book opens with her declaration of her own genius, which she refers to constantly throughout. She reminds the reader of her fine feminine form and her arresting way with words, though she calls her face “plain.” For some reviewers, this is a turn-off—who wants to read what essentially amounts to a hundred and seventy pages of vanity? To that, I respond—“I do.” So much of the literature that we as Americans laud centers around male ingenuity and prowess, with women and girls (especially young ones) reduced to narrative tools, incomplete character sketches, and/or romanticized ideals. I struggled through enough of that in high school English class. Therefore, I found it truly delicious to read about a woman romanticizing herself, celebrating her body and her ideas, then boldly delineating her flaws to prevent the reader from getting any ideas about her being perfect.
Why, then, has this book fallen into obscurity? I had never heard Mary MacLane’s name before, despite spending years reading and studying feminist literature, history, and scholarship. My friend who lent me the book in the first place had picked it up from a bargain bin. When the book was actually published, it made a splash, selling 100,000 copies in a mere month after its publication. MacLane went on to write one more book, nurturing her uncontrollable beliefs, sexuality, and reputation until her death in 1929, which was only quietly reported on.
We can only speculate. My personal opinion may be wildly off the mark, but I think, at least in part, that MacLane’s missed place in women’s history is due to the simple fact that she was ahead of the popular ideas of her time. When we learn about movements, whether they be social or artistic, we tend to group together folks who were influential and thinking about the same ideas around the same period of time. I never learned about the people writing raw and lyrical fiction before the so-called “Beat Generation,” but I had to read enough Ginsberg and Kerouac to make me choke. Mary MacLane wrote this firework of a book between major pushes in feminism and women’s rights; the Seneca Falls Convention had taken place fifty years earlier, and the suffragette movement was not to begin in full force until fifteen years after the publication of I Await the Devil’s Coming. That being said, while the book can certainly be considered a feminist text, it is hardly in alignment with the respectability that many early women’s rights activists commanded as a strategy for progress. I have no doubt that Elizabeth Cady Stanton would have choked on her tea, reading a particular section where MacLane beseeches the Devil to crush her and consume her with hot love.
I can only do my small part to usher this book back into the limelight it deserves. If you have a few afternoons stretching out in front of you, check out I Await the Devil’s Coming. Any book that can make a three-page entry on eating olives captivating and sensual deserves your time.