Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury
by Honor Moore
(W. W. Norton, 2020, 432 pp. $28.95)
Memoir as biography, biography as memoir: Honor Moore has blended the genres in her heart-wrenching new book, Our Revolution: A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury. The author of two previous memoir-biographies of her prominent family as well as of three collections of poems and a play that was produced on Broadway, Moore seems in this new work to be completing a trilogy. While The White Blackbird: A Life of the Painter Margarett Sargent by her Granddaughter (1996) told the story of her maternal grandmother, the Boston socialite-painter-alcoholic-bipolar Margarett Sargent, and The Bishop’s Daughter: A Memoir (2008) explored Moore’s relationship with her famous father, Paul Moore, the Episcopal Bishop of New York, Our Revolution opens an even more intimate vein: Moore’s recovery of her mother’s life. Jenny McKean Moore, mother of nine children, intrepid campaigner for civil rights, and in her last years, author of a celebrated memoir of her own, died suddenly of cancer at age fifty. It has taken her eldest daughter decades to make sense of this story, and to make sense of her own being in relation to the forceful, complex, generous, and wounded woman who gave birth to her.
Honor Moore somewhat resembles Robert Lowell in the accident of her genealogy. Like him, she was born into the nearest thing the United States has to an aristocracy, and her family, like his, was bound up in significant historical events so that these personal lives could not help being also, at some level, public. “The subtlest memoir is journalism saved by privacy,” Angus Fletcher declared in A New Theory for American Poetry. Moore has achieved a feat of style in teasing from a narration that could easily have devolved into name-dropping an intimate tissue of meanings and shades of feeling, a translation of relics of the past into living presences.
There is something archaic, even Homeric, about the virtues that defined Honor Moore’s family, a form of nobility captured in the Greek word arête. For Homer, the noble man had to be the successful warrior (her father), wealthy (both parents), excellent in beauty, and generous. Paul Moore, wounded at Guadalcanal rescuing a fallen comrade, was awarded the Purple Heart, the Silver Star, and the Navy Cross. Jenny McKean, her mother, was a champion equestrienne as a girl, and a straight-A student at Barnard. Both came from families of fairy-tale wealth, the Sargents and McKeans of old Boston fortunes, the Moores of more recent New York gilded age lucre. Paul and Jenny, even in middle age, were dashingly handsome. And right from the beginning of their marriage, they put their social power to noble service. With two young priests as colleagues they revived a moribund parish in a miserably poor neighborhood in Jersey City into a thriving and racially diverse religious center—an astonishing accomplishment in the segregated society of 1949. After eight years in Jersey City, the Moores moved to Indianapolis where Paul Moore became the activist Dean of the conservative Christ Church Cathedral, later moving to Washington D.C., where he became Suffragan Bishop, and thence to New York City. The Moores were a glamorous couple, friends with Eugene McCarthy and a host of liberal stars.
Yet in Honor Moore’s story the old aristocratic model, which depended on certain stable class assumptions, collides with the revolutionary times she lived through: the storms of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the women’s movement. All these forces come together in her book. Woven through the public commotions is the intense emotional saga of mothers and daughters: Margarett Sargent, the grandmother painter (whatever her suffering and gifts, an appalling mother), Jenny, Honor. It’s a story threaded with pain, and with courageous and often blundering quests for forms of female self-realization. Moore tells these tales—her adolescent fights with her mother, her abortion, the exploitative behavior of lovers, her depression, her mother’s depression and hospitalization, excruciatingly presented—with clarity, and no self-pity.
Jenny McKean Moore holds the book together. It’s a marvel, this woman’s journey, out of the patrician social frame that could easily have smothered her as it smothered so many others. Her daughter pieces together the history from her mother’s and her own diaries, letters, family scrapbooks, interviews, newspaper accounts, college and church records, her mother’s unfinished manuscript of memoirs, and her own memories: a monumental and loving excavation of a life so richly promising, and quenched so early. Jenny McKean rebelled against the chaotic, alcohol-deranged mansion of her childhood, escaping first to boarding school at Madeira, then to college at Vassar and Barnard, and rapidly, to marriage with Paul Moore. Inspired by Dorothy Day, whom she knew, and by her radical courses at Barnard, Jenny Moore threw herself into the idealistic work of rebuilding the parish in Jersey City, cleaning the decrepit rectory, creating an open house and kitchen for the whole neighborhood, starting groups for local women and children, all the while raising her own biblically prolific brood. From champion equestrienne, she became a champion mother.
But her superhuman creativity came at a cost. A cost to herself, in intermittent and eventually severe depression, and a cost to her eldest daughter, Honor, who felt increasingly neglected as more and more babies absorbed her mother’s attention. Mother and daughter had to struggle in their own ways to absorb the meanings of the nascent feminist movement of the 1960s, and to translate theoretical radicalism into the texture and structure of their own lives. What did their “revolutions” mean? What forms would they take? For Jenny Moore, as her daughter discovered only after her mother’s death, gaining her mature freedom meant coming to private terms with learning of her husband’s bisexual infidelities, all the while respecting his privacy and preserving his reputation. At great psychic cost, including a serious breakdown, she finally detached herself from the cathedral hierarchy in New York and moved with her younger children back to Washington D.C., seeing her husband only on weekends, and pursuing a new life as a writer. Just as she was coming into her own, lofted by the success of her first and only book and by allowing herself to experience love with several other men, she died of cancer of the liver and colon at age fifty, leaving her family stunned and grieving.
In Our Revolution, Honor Moore charts her way through these battles, private and public, watching her mother and her younger self emerge through suffering as full-fledged, loving, and whole people. That seems to me the core of the book; it’s about personhood, and how hard it is to achieve. (Not that it’s ever finally “achieved”; it’s more an evolution in those lucky enough not to be stalled or petrified). It’s a victory of awareness and self-distancing, the task of writing in order to see the self. Moore sees without laying about her with the cudgel of blame; she makes sense of a complex history and of complex and intimate relationships in clear, nuanced, and strategically paced prose. The culmination comes in the form of the mutual understanding she and her mother were granted, or rather, granted each other, through remarkable powers of moral imagination—in both women. The daughter writer has made her writer mother live again. And she seems to have located herself, too, beyond injury.
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