In “Meneseteung” Alice Munro explores a familiar topic with more depth than before and within the midst of an already compelling and complicated story. I’m referring to the vital exercise of exploring the past, despite the lack of concrete evidence, despite the fact that the explorer simply cannot escape the present, despite the fact that any uncovered truth — though truth it may well be — will almost certainly not be what really happened.
Munro begins this story with an objective tone. She adopts the voice of a researcher and tells us about a book of poems from 1873, written by a woman named Almeda Joynt Roth. Inside the book there is a photograph of Almeda taken in 1865. The book has a short introduction, written by the author herself, telling a few brief facts of her life, which had already had its share of tragedy, her family dead after moving to what as then known as “the wilds of Canada West.”
This book of poetry (which seems to relate to the life of the poetess as described in the introduction) is the primary source for anyone seeking to learn about Almeda. Another important source of information about Almeda’s life comes from a local newsletter called Vidette. There the narrator exploring Almeda’s life can see the local gossip, a little of which surrounded Almeda as she aged and, in particular, as she seems to have shown some interest in a man with a salt mine named Jarvis Poulter. Here is a passage, containing no names, but we’re pretty sure who the subjects are:
Among the couples strolling home from church on a recent, sunny Sabbath morning we noted a certain salty gentleman and literary lady, not perhaps in their first youth but by no means blighted by the frosts of age. May we surmise?
There is not much else about this woman who lived from 1840 until 1903. Jarvis Poulter died the next year. They never married. By the end of her life, the Vidette reports, Almeda had become, “in the eyes of those unmindful of her former pride and daintiness, a familiar eccentric, or even, sadly, a figure of fun.” Her death, as it turns out, was probably caused by some savage youth looking for some fun.
Naturally, as the years passed, nothing at all could be “remembered” about Almeda Joynt Roth. Even her book of poems is a curiosity that shows some genuine but mostly untapped talent. And so, the woman exploring this female figure and telling us this story goes on to fill in the blanks. Despite the objective introductory section and the passages from the Vidette, the bulk of “Meneseteung” is explicitly an invented story.
In it, we meet Almeda, alone and single in this old town, on her pathway to some degree of “eccentricity.” We see her start to lose herself, at least, in the eyes of all who beheld her. Munro’s narrator sees her story through the eyes of a woman in the late 1980s. When Almeda goes to her doctor for some help, this is what the narrator has him say:
Don’t read so much, he said, don’t study; get yourself good and tired out with housework, take exercise. He believes that her troubles would clear up if she got married. He believes this in spite of the fact that most of his nerve medicine is prescribed for married women.
I won’t go deeply into the story that brings things to a head. Suffice it to say that there is a brief write-up of the event in the Vidette, and Munro’s narrator creates a story that is deep and rich in its own right. I want, instead, to go to the story’s end where we get this lovely description of the beautiful and terrifying depths of another’s life (or, even, our own).
The name of the poem is the name of the river. No, in fact it is the river, the Meneseteung, that is the poem — with its deep holes and rapids and blissful pools under the summer trees and its grinding blocks of ice thrown up at the end of winter and its desolating spring floods. Almeda looks deep, deep into the river of her mind and into the tablecloth, and she sees the crocheted roses floating.
The narrator sees herself, for a time, as someone with a unique curiosity, someone who is willing to put the time and imagination into creating a biography where one almost doesn’t exist.
I thought that there wasn’t anybody else alive in the world but me who would know this, who would make the connection. And I would be the last person to do so. But perhaps this isn’t so. People are curious. A few people are. They will be driven to find things out, even trivial things. They will put things together. You see them going around with notebooks, scraping the dirt off gravestones, reading microfilm, just in the hope of seeing this trickle in time, making a connection, rescuing one thing from the rubbish.
I believe most writers would end there: “rescuing one thing from the rubbish.” It’s a perfect epiphany for her and for the reader. The entire story is, importantly, an attempt to reconstruct a real living creature from the dust of time. Almeda has been dead for over 100 years. No one remembers her. Probably no one has remembered her in over a century. It’s unlikely many have even considered her name. Perhaps they’ve seen the book of poems. Perhaps they’ve even seen her grave stone. But there is a full life there, and there are some tantalizing clues in the record that allow the narrator to imagine doing something noble: an act of rescue.
But Munro does not end the story there. Rather, the epiphany suddenly gets subverted:
And they may get it wrong, after all. I may have got it wrong. I don’t know if she ever took laudanum. Many ladies did. I don’t know if she ever made grape jelly.
With this subversion, the story reopens just in time for the final full stop. We continue to see the depths of this woman. We see the act of investigation, imagination, empathy, and wisdom in the act of reconstruction. We wonder if we’ve gotten anywhere, and so we not only question the past but we also question our present abilities as we ourselves move forward in time.
This is a masterpiece.
Alice Munro’s “Meneseteung” was originally published in The New Yorker in 1988, and then republished in Munro’s seventh book, Friend of My Youth, in 1990. Munro was in her late fifties when the story was written.
It is a strange, gothic tale set in the nineteenth century: women are taunted and treated with contempt; women go mad; women are nearly murdered or actually murdered, and all within plain sight. Women go dead drunk; or perhaps they’re not drunk at all; women take opiate concoctions for “women’s problems.” In the midst of all this, poetess Almeda Joynt Roth is facing a decision: will she accept industrialist Jarvis Poulter’s proposal of marriage? Her answer to him is shaped by a chance encounter with a woman who has been beaten almost to death in her back alley. Almeda goes to Poulter’s door in her night clothes to ask him for help with what she thinks is the body of a murdered woman. Poulter pokes the body with the toe of his boot and pronounces the woman dead-drunk, not dead, and in no need of a doctor. But he is touched by Almeda’s distress and by her night clothes, and makes a proposal that he walk her to church, which would be a final and open declaration of his intent to marry her. Almeda is repulsed by the situation and by his callousness, goes home, writes a refusal, posts it outside, and locks the door to Jarvis Poulter and to marriage. In the day that follows, she has an extraordinary vision which will shape the rest of her life.
What follows below is a draft that explores some of the elements that appear important in this story. It’s my impression that one could write a book about this story.
Insight as a result of experience
In Munro, change and insight often occur as the result of a fateful, accidental, or even violent encounter or confluence of events. The habits that society instills in us are so strong that only the experience of an upheaval is likely to dislodge them and allow us to think for ourselves.
Experiencing both the near-death of a woman in her backyard and her suitor’s reaction to it allow Almeda the insight that marriage, and marriage to this man, are not for her.
In the topsy-turvy day that follows, Almeda has a pain and drug induced vision of what writing should really be. The uproar in the street behind her house is mirrored by the upheaval in her body as she waits for her period to finally start: she takes some “nerve medicine,” most likely laudanum, a widely used opiate at the time.
She experiences what could only be called a vision. If she had written her ars poetica the day before, and then rewritten it the day after, the two documents would have been very different. Guided by immaturity and a limited experience of life, the earlier one would have emphasized a lyric appreciation of nature that ‘diligently’ overlooked anything that wasn’t pretty.
The second ars poetica would have been very different. It would be like the river. It would aim include everything: the “bliss” of summer, the deeps, the holes, the sweet pools as well as the “grinding blocks of ice” and the destructive, restorative spring floods. It would include the terrible bruise on the beaten woman’s bared backside, and it would include the blood and vomit that matted her hair. And it would include the “silly” hopefulness of her mother’s crocheted roses.
Of course, this ars poetica is similar to Del’s, which appears in the epilogue to Lives of Girls and Women, written so many years before. Del has a “hope of accuracy” that was “crazy, heartbreaking.” What Del wanted was “every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together — radiant, everlasting.”
“Menesteung” is a story that weaves together many elements, but no one element is as important as this particular one: that education and insight are only achieved through painful experience and individual choice. Crucial to Munro is the fact that society’s institutions, especially church and school (but also newspapers and hospitals), are not a source of nurture, but are organizations in the service communities and in the pursuit of control of individuals. It is important that Almeda gathers her insight at home as Jarvis Poulter goes off to church without her. In Munro, insight is most likely obtained outside the walls of church or school or village or any other institution that society has set up to preserve itself.
Experience leads us to situations and choices that can be unconventional to point of appearing to be madness or amorality, but that are, in Munro, the only path to insight.
The meaning of the title
The river that flows through much of Munro’s work is called the Maitland; near its mouth on Lake Huron, a bridge which is called the Menesetung spans the spreading river. In her book, Mothers and Other Clowns, Magdalene Redekop points out that Meneseteung can be pronounced so as to suggest a “tongue that is a menace.” As the story proceeds, it becomes clear that any woman who speaks up (any woman who finds her own voice) is a menace, and needs must be shut up, one way or another.
The name of the river reminds the reader of menses, the word that describes the ebb and flood of women’s menstrual cycles. The river itself ebbs and floods as women do. The fertility of the flood plain is implicitly connected in this story to women’s fertility. These complex associations are meant to denote nature’s variability and creativity, and the story means us to consider the fertility, generativity, creativity, and inspiration specific to women.
Munro is clearly suggesting throughout the story that women’s creativity is a “menace” to society and that society takes great and specific care to lock it down.
Finally, the title represents an ars poetica — that the poet now wants to write a work that can indicate the whole of what life really is — a very various existence. To concentrate merely on beauty or loss will be a thing of the past. Now she will work on representing life as if it were the river, showing its “deep holes and rapids and blissful pools under the summer trees and its grinding blocks of ice thrown up at the end of winter and its desolating spring floods.”
Instantly, Almeda’s mind makes a typically Munrovian shift, a shift from the grandeur of the river to something immediate:
Almeda looks deep, deep into the river of her mind and into the tablecloth, and she sees the crocheted roses floating. They look bunchy and foolish, her mother’s crocheted roses – they don’t look much like real flowers. But their effort, their floating independence, their pleasure in their silly selves do seem so admirable. A hopeful sign, Meneseteung.
There it is: what might be considered silly is also admirable, like the old aunts in Munro who are filled with acceptance and love and jokes and gentle truth. “Blissful pools and desolating spring floods.” Both. All. Life. Meneseteung.
The role of the narrator
The narrator has no name, no occupation, and she is quite self-deprecating. “I may have got it wrong,” she says. The narrator uses poems from Almeda’s 1873 book, Offerings, and the narrator also quotes from the biographical note which Almeda included in the book. The narrator has made the obligatory pilgrimage to the writer’s town, her street, her house, and her gravesite, and she has also done quite a bit of research in the newspaper of the time, the Vidette.
What at first seems like notes, or a letter, or a casual essay turns into a highly imaginative fictional account of what may have been the most crucial event in the poet’s life. The narrator reads between the lines of the facts she has at hand and produces not only Almeda’s thoughts, but also those of an older very stern, well-to-do suitor. In addition, the narrator imagines not only a brawl between a husband and wife in Almeda’s back alley, but also Almeda’s use of a mind altering drug and her evolving philosophy of writing.
Any academic would reject such an essay out of hand. Herself now the subject of graduate students, it is as if Munro is suggesting that intuition is as powerful a tool as cold hard fact or the reliance on French philosophy.
The narrator has, as she says at the close of the story, been “driven” to “put things together.” But she allows she could be wrong. There are people, says the narrator, “who like to rescue things from the rubbish.” The narrator can be seen as a kind of reader, someone who likes to make connections, figure things out. She is an ideal reader, perhaps.
Explorations, investigations, and the importance of “paying attention”
Munro mentions the idea that Samuel de Champlain had gone up the Meneseteung in his travels. Exploration is therefore a concern of the story, although the kind of exploration Munro and Almeda have in mind very different than the masculine push to sail up unknown rivers and drill down into the earth. At one point in Almeda’s exploration, she says she is exploring “the river of her mind.”
The narrator is clearly embarked on an exploration of her own.
Conducting “investigations” is something the women in Munro’s later stories do: Hazel, for one, in “Hold Me Fast, Don’t Let Me Pass,” and Gail in “The Jack Randa Hotel.” These “investigations” expose the women to possible ridicule, so the women are, in the end, right or wrong, very brave to make them. Women in Munro also begin “paying attention” in the later stories. There is the sense that “paying attention” becomes the performance of an almost sacred duty.
I believe Munro allows her readers the same distinction.
The narrator says there are “curious” people who like “to put things together.” She allows that “they may get it wrong.” Her self-deprecation, of course, makes her all the more trustworthy. These readers take time and effort to understand what they are reading, and they are doing something important, even if their conclusions may be wrong or even ridiculous. A certain kind of writer and certain kind of reader, Munro allows the narrator to claim, are driven to try to understand life, even at the risk of foolishness.
When Munro mentions Champlain in the story, she associates the grandeur of Champlain with the “curious” housewife reading in her kitchen and the “curious” searcher and the “curious” writer. I believe Munro values people, especially women, who are brave enough to be “curious” and brave enough to attempt to pay attention. These are the real explorers, and the best are the ones brave enough to explore the “river of [their own] mind.”
Munro stakes out some distance from the entire project of Ameda’s Meneseteung. Maybe the narrator is actually ridiculous or even unreliable. Maybe a lot of graduate students cooking up theses on Munro are also ridiculous or unreliable. But Munro leaves it to the reader to judge for herself. This reader is trusts the narrator’s imaginative exploration and intuition: they represent a possibly truer world view than mere fact could represent.
The Vidette — the newspaper as town “sentry”
The narrator immediately tells us the newspaper treats poetess Almeda with “a mixture of respect and contempt for both her calling and her sex.” The narrator goes on to summarize much of what she has learned from the Vidette, such as the note about “an old woman, a drunk named Queen Aggie” who gets thrown into a wheelbarrow and trundled around by a gang of boys. There is a terrible judgment, disdain, entitlement, and callousness wrapped up in this one short item. A woman being beaten or bullied is an affront to the town’s sense of itself; there is no sense that intervention or assistance is called for. Instead, the paper helplessly complains, “Incidents of this sort, unseemly, troublesome, and disgraceful to our town, have of late become all too common.”
Five items from the paper are quoted, all in written in the same self-assured, entitled and confiding tone. All in all, the paper is an institution which publishes gossip intended to keep the residents of the town in line. So when the paper addresses Almeda Joynt Roth, its contempt is in the service of townspeople who don’t want Almeda getting above herself.
In terms of craft, the use of the Vidette is a riff on the “we” who inhabit Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.”
What happens when women find their tongue
Physical abuse, tyrannical beatings, taunting, and bullying are directed at two women in the story, so when Almeda dies after having been chased into the cold swamp by a gang of boys, we are not surprised. Murder is both explained away and staring right at you. Some of the abuse in the story is performed by boys and observed by witnesses who report it to the newspaper. Legitimized bullying is excused by the unconventional and strange appearance of these women, including Almeda, who had stopped, by then, being interested in “the adornment of her person.” The paper blithely reports that the boys’ “persecution” of Almeda was entirely possible, but that her subsequent illness was very short. The newspaper accepts it that Almeda has somehow called her own murder on herself.
Gossip and rumor are other means of shutting up troublesome women. The newspaper performs this role for the town.
Drugs and alcohol are another route. Almeda herself has been prescribed laudanum, an opiate concoction freely distributed in the nineteenth century mostly to married women for women troubles. Clearly, this is a drug that can shut you up. There is a sense here that women seek out and willingly accept these soporifics, which can, in the end result in being confined to bed. They collude in being shut up.
In other words, we have the gothic tale of the woman in the attic: locked in, confined, and mad.
The fact that Almeda is a published author of a book of poems does not protect her. She could only really be protected, as Jarvis Poulter notes, if she had a husband. Almeda observes that some married women toy with the idea that they can control their husbands by slavishly serving their likes and dislikes. Poulter’s contemptuous refusal to touch the unconscious woman makes it clear that while marriage might protect her from the town, it will not protect her from Poulter himself.
In the third sentence of the story, we learn that the newspaper, the Vidette (the sentry) refers to Almeda with “respect and contempt,” the contempt a necessary maneuver meant to shut down Almeda’s desire to publish any more books.
So from the git-go, we are aware of the fact that Munro is talking about the contempt people have for women who find their tongue, which hypothetically could be not just women writers but also any and all women. Munro sets the story historically in the explicit past, but through the everlasting facts of women’s menses and the wildness of the river she maintains the story’s truths as in the implicit present.
The main character as the writer’s alter ego
Fictional poetess Almeda Joynt Roth (1840 – 1903) reminds me of Alice Munro. First of all, the middle name of “Joynt” suggests the association. The writer and her character spring from the same land of Ontario, and from the same river, the Maitland, although in this story, Munro calls the river the Meneseteung.
Almeda is clumsy with a needle and so turns to poetry. This inability to sew appears in “Age of Faith” (Lives of Girls and Women) when junior high schooler Del prays to be released from sewing. Munro’s daughter, in Lives of Mothers and Daughters, confirms it: “That was my mother.”
In addition, the story suggests that Almeda is a born writer as much as she is a born female: that the conditions are conjoined. “There seems to be a mixture of respect and contempt for both her calling and her sex — or for their predictable conjuncture.” Munro is obviously Almeda’s mirror image: a born female and a born writer. Munro’s odd locution — “the predictable juncture” of being poetess and female — indicates what little regard men have for poetry, especially that attempted by women.
As for Almeda and Alice being alter egos, they both have a brother and a sister, and more important, they both have an incapacitated mother who is confined to her bed. In addition, they both have a beloved father who is admired for his literary interests and knowledge. Thus the things Almeda thinks about writing can easily be construed to represent, at least in part, motives and desires that Munro herself has.
Midway through the story, realizing that her period is causing her great discomfort, or realizing that Poulter himself is causing her great discomfort, Almeda locks the door against him. She takes copious amounts of the nerve tonic the doctor had prescribed to alleviate her discomfort, and she has a kind of visionary experience. She thinks of writing the “one poem that will contain everything.”
Munro remarks: “She has to think of so many things at once.”
Both Alice and Almeda share the intense desire to “think of so many things at once.” Alice Munro’s work in distinguished by a desire to represent all of the perception that reveals any composite reality. The short stories, which are almost always in disjunct sections, seem like an attempt to physically represent the way the brain works, the way society works, the way memory works, and the way we construct reality: “so many things at once.”
Almeda’s poems are similar in style to Emily Dickinson’s: short lyrics that seemingly emphasize nature; short stanzas with lines that are 6 – 8 syllables long; an AB rhyme scheme, with the occasional off-rhyme. The outline of Emily’s life bears an uncanny resemblance to Almeda’s and Alice’s: there are the two siblings, a boy and a girl; there is the incapacitated mother and the educated father. Like Almeda, Emily refuses to marry and withdraws from conventional society, and like Almeda, Emily has a predilection for actively seeking out visionary states of mind. When you compare Emily to Alice, there is the additional commonality of their mutual rejection of conventional religion.
There is also the mutual devotion to task, the steady, regular application of time to writing. As the narrator says of Almeda: “The countryside she has written about in her poems takes diligence to see.”
There is, however, with the conjoint awareness of Almeda, Emily, and Alice, an implicit suggestion that contempt for women is not dead. The woman who finds her tongue still faces danger. Just look at the man at Google, Inc. who recently suggested that women did not have the wherewithal to do computer science, even though they were right there beside him doing it.
Almeda’s writing bears its closest similarity to Alice’s in that it is suffused with yearning and grief. While Almeda searches for her lost siblings in her poetry, Alice searches for her lost mother. Almeda’s subject, in the six poems available to us, is the past, its losses, and the desire to recapture it. One of Emily’s subjects is also loss, in her case the potential loss of God, as well as the loss of love.
In the confluence of Almeda, Emily, and Alice, Munro reaches for the sense of sorrow and isolation that can typify the female writer’s life. The only way to bear the sorrow, as Almeda tells us, is to “channel” it in writing. But Almeda makes it clear that the challenge remains: “She has to think of so many things at once”, which is what also typifies Alice. I just hope that the other is true for Munro as well, that capturing the sorrow in writing is a way to bear the sorrow.
But clearly, in the vision of the Menesteung, Almeda and Alice share a similar artistic vision: not to be limited to the merely pretty or lyric, but to encompass the whole and all the details within the whole.
Escape, intoxication, and the visionary experience
Intoxication and accusations of intoxication suffuse this story. A “drunken” woman is carried about in a wheelbarrow by thuggish children and then dumped in a ditch. A “dead-drunk” wife gets beaten up. Or, while she is very drunk, a wife is almost murdered by her husband. Or, these women are so dislocated by life or society that their disoriented behavior can only be explained if they are judged as drunk.
Almeda turns to laudanum to ostensibly relieve her menstrual cramps, but she is also relieving the pain of hearing the attack on the “drunken” woman and relieving the pain of witnessing Jarvis Pouter’s boorish disregard for her. Laudanum (opium) is a subject in the story, as well as drunkenness.
I also take it that Munro judges intoxication to be one of the few escapes women have from contempt, ridicule, or being stifled or shut up. But there is more to it; I think that Munro means to say that in certain circumstances intoxication leads to inspiration. Surely this is a rebellious and unconventional point of view.
I want to return to Emily Dickinson here and the fact that Almeda seems related to Emily. Note the Dickinson poem, “I taste liquor never brewed,” in which she calls herself, somewhat light-heartedly, an “inebriate of air” and the “debauchee of dew.” But Emily herself is known for staying up all night and deliberately seeking out the ecstatic and visionary experiences that writing through the night can induce. Dickinson had rejected conventional religion and conventional society, but her poetry reshapes religion as a quest and an exploration, and quasi-visionary experiences are part of the exploration.
Munro goes way further. “Meneseteung” recognizes that for some women, the only available withdrawal from a contemptuous society is inebriation or what looks like inebriation. For other women, finding their voice is so unacceptable that society can only explain it as drunkenness. And for elderly women, to be mad or senile may be the equivalent to being drunk.
Almeda is prescribed an opiate, the common nostrum for married women. Marriage is a topic in this story; will the wealthy miner/industrialist marry Almeda? Jarvis (the spear-master of henhouses) Poulter offers Almeda a “declaration.” But Almeda has witnessed the help he was able to give an injured woman — a poke with the boot of his toe, as if he were trying to move a “dog or a sow.” She saw him refuse the help for her of a doctor. She heard him shout at her and dismiss her. Almeda deliberately locks her door against him, thus deliberately refusing his “declaration.” She seeks out a day of intoxication via laudanum, or a day of freedom, or a day of insight.
It is during this day in an exploratory, visionary state that she realizes her poetry must “think of so many things at once.” She thinks that her poetry must be like the great river, with all its tides and changes and deeps. In this state, “she looks deep into the river of her mind.” It is the rebellious withdrawal and the drug’s visionary state that allows her access to “the river of her mind.”
Is being female being a wife? Being a beaten thing? Being confined to your bed? Or being the aged thing trundled around in a wheelbarrow? Being subject to submission and surrender? Being subject to gangs of boys? Being a menacing tongue?
Munro appears to reject all of the above as legitimate, and she instead suggests that we equate the natural cycles of the river with the natural cycles of women’s menses (as opposed to the unnatural mining of salt which is Jarvis Pouter’s business), and in so doing she associates these cycles with access to the flow of insight, creativity, and generativity.
The complexity of this story
Any number of other elements in the craft of this story are important: the significance of the names; the vivid images; the contrasting voices; the use of setting; the photographic treatment of the setting; the importance of submission; the significance of salt mines; the importance of being confined to bed; the literary father; the use of “chapters” in a short story; the use of time and on and on.
An ars poetica
one very great poem that will contain everything and make all the other poems, the poems she has written, inconsequential, mere trial and error, mere rags? Stars and flowers and birds and trees and angels in the snow and dead children at twilight — that is not the half of it. You have to get in the obscene racket on Pearl Street and the polished toe of Jarvis Poulter’s boot and the plucked-chicken haunch [of the beaten woman on Pearl Street] with its blue-black flower.