Her mother took advantage of her friendship with Primeminister Mackenzie King to have Elizabeth Smart’s book By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept banned in Canada when it was first published in 1945. Despite her mother’s efforts Elizabeth’s book found a readership in London and New York. The release of new editions in 1966, 1977 and 1982 established By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept as one of the greatest masterpieces of poetic prose.
I read the book recently to prepare for seeing Winnipeg’s own Heavy Bell perform a song cycle based on Elizabeth’s Smart’s book at the West End Cultural Centre on January 13.
The reason Elizabeth’s mother wanted the book banned is because it describes her daughter’s affair with a married man, a poet named George Barker. Elizabeth would carry on a lengthy tempetous relationship with him and bear four of his children. Barker was not faithful to Elizabeth, was often abusive to her, and fathered fifteen children with other women during his lifetime, but Elizabeth adored him. George and Elizabeth’s son Christopher says love made his mother blind and that included being blind to her children’s needs, which in the case of her youngest daughter may have led to her death. Elizabeth’s reputation as a writer far outshone that of her lover George yet she always contended he was the far better poet, even though critics begged to differ.
Elizabeth’s life certainly proves it is possible to have a love so passionate and all consuming that the practical affairs of life and one’s responsibilities to others pale in comparison. Some people think you haven’t really lived without experiencing such a love. I disagree. Reading Elizabeths’ book made me think that love must be always be tempered with a good dose of reality. A passionate love for another adult that destroys your self-esteem, or hurts your children, or leaves you broken or bereft mentally, physically or financially isn’t healthy or in your best interest.
Yann Martel says in his introduction to the latest edition of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept …“A love that is lived has its prosaic aspects. Sure there’s love to be made, but there are also bills to be paid and groceries to be bought.”
Christopher Barker who wrote a book about his parents called In the Arms of the Infinite says when his mother was asked to declare who she thought one should give most love and attention to in life, your children or your man. ‘Your man!’ came back the firm reply. I don’t agree with this, certainly not when your children are younger.
Do I believe in a passionate, all consuming kind of love? Elizabeth Smart’s book proves it does exist. But like Yann Martel I am happy I have a love for my partner that allows me to maintain a kind of balance, one that doesn’t make me denigrate myself past the point of self-respect, or ignore the other important people in my life. Perhaps a great passion can be healthy but I don’t think in Elizabeth’s case it was.
I am looking forward to hearing Elizabeth’s words set to music on January 13th . Her book intrigued me and I suspect that the song cycle based on them while help me see her writing and her ideas in new ways.