Summer Reading: Moonflower Resurrection

Near the end of Jetta Carleton’s first — and only — published novel, an old Missouri farm woman named Callie Soames pauses during her round of morning chores to examine a moonflower vine that grows near the smokehouse.

“The flowers were so lovely and they lasted so short a time,” Callie reflects. “It was … something you looked forward to all year, then it came, and you enjoyed it so much, and then it was over, in no time.”

For a few months after its publication in December 1962, Carleton’s novel was one of the flowers of the literary world. The Moonflower Vine spent four months on the New York Times Best Sellers list, alongside J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and John Updike’s The Centaur. A main selection of two major book clubs, it was published in eight other countries and appeared as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book, a sure sign of mid-20th-century literary success.

The reviews were rapturous. After the excitement of its first publication, though, the book faded into obscurity. Carleton died in 1999.

Aside from two brief paperback revivals in the late ’70s and ’80s, The Moonflower Vine was largely forgotten, except among the few readers who discovered musty copies at library sales. One of these acolytes: novelist Jane Smiley, who included The Moonflower Vine on her reading list of 100 novels in 2005’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

This spring, Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, has reissued The Moonflower Vine as part of its “Rediscovered Classics” series.

“Books are like viruses,” Smiley says. “They’re passed from hand to hand. Some take hold and infect the whole society. When a book gets revived, it has another chance to infect society. If society is susceptible, it will succeed.”

In 1962, Jetta Carleton was nearly 50 years old, a self-described “glad old girl” and well-established in New York’s advertising world: She wrote TV ads for Ivory soap. A former dancer, she was slender and red-haired.

“She was an extraordinary person,” remembers Charlie Langdon, a longtime friend. “She was so excited about life. She had a wonderful way of talking, very precise.”

Every Thanksgiving, Carleton and her husband, Jene Lyon, would return to her parents’ home in Nevada, Missouri, roaring into town in a rented sports car with their two cocker spaniels.

“We were so impressed,” remembers her great-niece, Susan Beasley, who now lives in Torrance, California. “She was so fashionable. She was just different, in a good way. She didn’t have airs. She kept that farm quality. She loved earthy things, like good homegrown tomatoes. She never talked about her writing.”

In Nevada, Carleton slipped back into the family routine, joining her two older sisters, Truma and Yana, in the tiny kitchen to prepare elaborate meals, and later, when the dishes were done, playing canasta with her nieces and nephews.

This sense of family pervades The Moonflower Vine, along with vivid descriptions of the farm between Leeton and Calhoun, 50 miles southeast of Kansas City, where the Carletons often spent summers.

In the opening pages, Carleton describes the land as “a region cut by creeks, where high pastures rise out of the wooded valleys to catch the sunlight and fall away over limestone bluffs. It is pretty country. It does not demand your admiration, as some regions do, but seems glad for it all the same.”

Carleton was born on the farm in 1913, in a house that never had indoor plumbing. Her father, P.A. Carleton, was superintendent of schools in Nevada. Her sisters, who were nearly 20 years older than she was, were schoolteachers, too. Jetta was expected to follow in their footsteps. But, Beasley says, “Jetta didn’t want that life. It wasn’t her choice.”

As a student at Cottey College in Nevada and later at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Carleton studied English literature. She also danced and acted in student productions and, in 1936, was named Mizzou’s Poet of the Year.

After getting her master’s degree in English in 1939, Carleton dutifully taught English at Joplin Junior College, but that didn’t last long. “She didn’t fit into anyone’s mold of a teacher, not in her thinking or how to behave,” Beasley explains. “She loved to have a good time.”

Instead, Carleton moved to Kansas City and found a job at WHB 810. She wrote radio ad copy and jingles and eventually hosted her own 15-minute show about events going on in the city.

Here, she met Jene Lyon, whom she married in 1943. Their marriage, Beasley remembers, was a long and happy one. “He took care of her, and she took care of him. They weren’t quite the same when they were separated.”

Sometime in the late 1940s or early ’50s, they moved east. Carleton went to work in advertising and Lyon took a variety of jobs: a translator of scientific documents for the U.S. State Department, a production supervisor for a book publisher.

They settled in a big, drafty house in Hoboken, New Jersey. But every summer, they took the annual two-week sojourn back to Missouri.

“We lapsed easily into the old ways, cracked the old jokes, fished in the creek, ate country cream and grew fat and lazy,” she wrote. “It was a time of placid unreality.”

Sometime in the mid ’50s, during chilly nights in Hoboken, she began to re-create a series of hot summer afternoons in western Missouri.

“Of all the hundreds upon hundreds of novels I’ve edited,” said Robert Gottlieb, The Moonflower Vine‘s editor, “this is literally the only one I’ve reread several times since its publication. And every time I’ve read it, I’ve been moved by it again and again — by the people, by their lives, by the truth and clarity and generosity of the writing and feeling.”

Gottlieb is a publishing legend, the former editor-in-chief of Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker. He has worked with such literary luminaries as Joseph Heller, John Cheever and Toni Morrison. So when his encomium appeared in 1978 on the back of a paperback edition of The Moonflower Vine, Smiley, then a young unpublished writer browsing in a bookstore, paid attention.

“It appears, on the surface, as the story of a classic American family,” she says. “Then the layers unfold, piece by piece, and you realize that in spite of [the Soames’] love for each other, they are really quite disparate.”

In 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Smiley writes that the main source of dramatic tension in The Moonflower Vine comes “from secrets that the characters are required to keep to maintain respectability in the towns where they live.”

She sees the same serious consideration of women’s lives that would become central to the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s.

“It’s fairly frank in its discussion of sexuality,” she says. “The women, although they do things secretly, more or less do what they want to do.”

Beasley had just graduated from high school when The Moonflower Vine appeared. “I thought it was wonderful,” she remembers. But Carleton’s sisters “were a little shocked,” she says.

“I think she never thought they would think it was about them,” Beasley continues. “In her mind, she’d separated it. But it was so real — the descriptions of the family and the farm seemed so real — for a moment I thought, Could this have happened? And because they recognized themselves, they thought everyone else would think it was them.”

Carleton’s characters sin enough to keep gossips in a town like Nevada busy for decades. One daughter runs off with the hired hand. Another drops out of school to marry a dashing aviator. Matthew Soames, a teacher, has trouble keeping his mind, and occasionally his hands, off his teenage students.

The book caused a rift between Carleton and her sisters, though they eventually got over it. “They never stopped loving each other,” Beasley says.

But Carleton may have felt a greater distance from her family than she let on to her great-niece. In The Moonflower Vine, the youngest Soames daughter, Mary Jo, lives in New York and works in television.

“Mary Jo was the hardest of all them to reach,” her mother, Callie, thinks. “The child felt so worldly-wise … Sometimes Callie felt like a stranger to her youngest. Every year there was less they could say to each other.”

“Novelists who write a single, excellent novel are a rare breed,” Smiley writes in her foreword to the new edition of The Moonflower Vine. Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), she writes, “seem to have balked at their huge success. … Lee is reported to have said that the reception of To Kill a Mockingbird was ‘in some ways … just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I’d expected.’ Ellison even went so far as to report that a house fire had destroyed hundreds of pages of his second novel, when, as it turned out, those pages did not exist.”

Carleton never explained why she didn’t produce a second novel. In 1970, she and Lyon moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and, with the money she had earned from Moonflower, set up their own small publishing house, The Lightning Tree. They specialized in poetry, cookbooks and regional history.

The venture was never profitable; Carleton considered it “an affair of the heart.” Still, it kept her too busy to do much writing, except during her summer visits with her family on the farm.

The Lightning Tree shut down in 1991. Lyon died two years later.

She began work on a new novel, which she called The Back Alleys of Spring. The work had a special urgency. She had composed The Moonflower Vine in longhand over the course of six years, but she wrote Back Alleys on a computer.

Carleton based it on her experiences teaching in Joplin. It’s about a young woman named Allen who becomes close, possibly too close, to some of her students on the eve of World War II.

“The theme of the book is the loss of innocence,” Langdon says. “All the students are going to be leaving. The whole world is about to change, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

By 1997, Carleton had nearly finished the book. “She told me she was getting ready to shop around for a publisher,” Beasley remembers.

A few months later, though, Carleton suffered a stroke. She fell down and hit her head on the stone floor of her house. She lay there for several hours until a neighbor found her. She was never able to speak again.

When she died, just after Christmas of 1999, her friend Larry Calloway, a newspaper man in Santa Fe, became her literary executor. Most of her books and papers went to her nephew, Carleton Beasley, Susan’s father, who lived in Pierce City, just east of Joplin. In May 2003, a tornado swept through Pierce City and destroyed most of the town, including Carleton Beasley’s house. Carleton’s papers were lost, including the manuscript of the mysterious second novel — or so the family thought.

As it turns out, Calloway discovered the lost manuscript while sorting through Carleton’s papers after her death. Langdon says it’s a good book. “It’s not as well-written as The Moonflower Vine, but it’s publishable.”

Literary revivals, Smiley observes, are nothing new. Few people read Charles Dickens in the decades following his death. George Eliot was largely forgotten until the 1920s, when Virginia Woolf wrote an essay in praise of Middlemarch.

Brad Bigelow, who lives in Brussels, Belgium, and works for NATO, has made a hobby of tracking down forgotten books and writing about them on his Web site, The Neglected Books Page. Soon after he read Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, he sought out The Moonflower Vine.

“It’s had the most consistent reaction,” he says. “A number of readers who come across it rate it as one of their favorite books.”

Yuval Taylor, an editor at Chicago Review Press, read about The Moonflower Vine and became curious. “We’ve reprinted a lot of out-of-print books,” he says. “We look for people who say they love a book, who’ve read it every year and give copies to their friends.”

In the fall of 2007, Taylor contacted Susan Beasley, who, along with her sister, owns the rights to The Moonflower Vine. He offered her a modest contract for a new edition. Beasley had no experience with publishing and talked to a neighbor who was also a writer. He referred her to his agent, Denise Shannon. Ultimately, three publishers bid for the rights, which finally went to Terry Karten, an editor at Harper Perennial.

Karten was impressed both by the book’s early history as a bestseller and by the devotion of its fans. She enlisted Smiley to write a foreword and reprinted Bigelow’s Neglected Books Page essay in the back.

“There’s a lot of buzz percolating out there,” Karten says. “The book is really selling.” Despite a substantial first printing of 18,500 copies, Harper has had to go back to press.

“Everywhere we go, we meet booksellers who know the book,” Karten says. “It has legions of readers across the country, and it will have many more.”

Categories: A&E