Carelessly tossed into the bargain bin of a New York City bookstore, the words of Bette Howland were subjected to the quick thumb through of prospective buyers. Until Brigid Hughes, the editor of the literary journal A Public Space dusted off a copy of W-3, an evocative tale of Bette’s time in a psychiatric hospital. Hughes did not close the book on Bette. Inspired by Bette’s compelling writing, Hughes started an investigation, which led her to the office of Jacob Howland, TU McFarlin Professor of Philosophy, and concluded in the discovery of 40 years of correspondence between Bette Howland and her friend and occasional lover, Nobel Prize-winning author Saul Bellow.
“I got an email out of the blue asking, ‘Are you related to Bette Howland?’” the professor said. After months of searching for Bette Howland, Hughes found Jacob’s name in his grandmother’s obituary. “Brigid had the idea of doing a special issue of A Public Space on forgotten women writers,” Jacob explained. “My mother’s work would be an anchor for that issue.”
Bette’s family escaped Russia’s mounting anti-Semitism, and her father made a home in Chicago, where Bette was born in 1937. Quite bright with early signs of writing talent, Bette was the first in the family to attend college. “She went to The University of Chicago at the age of 15, mostly to get away from her parents,” Jacob laughed.
A few years later, Bette was divorced with two sons living in poverty, but from the depths of her depression, her soul sought asylum in her writing. “She knew the gritty squalor of Chicago,” the professor said. “Her writing is about the struggle to make a life in this difficult cold city.”
“The streaked grime—melting snow—characteristic of the bricks of Chicago in winter, can be seen here even on the faces. Mexican, Korean, black, Puerto Rican, pensioned-off Jew: They get along more or less without racial strife. To tell the truth, that’s the least of their worries.”
– Bette Howland, Blue in Chicago (1978)
In the 1960s Bette studied at the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought with Bellow. Despite their 26-year age difference, their friendship blossomed from an appreciation of their craft. Bellow and Bette encouraged and critiqued each other’s writing. Bellow would visit to read aloud his manuscripts, including his novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet.
“One of Bellow’s postcards says something like, ‘You should turn your misery into electricity,’” Jacob said. But Bette’s misery nearly enveloped the young author as she attempted to take her own life. “When she tried to commit suicide, she was in Bellow’s apartment, while he was out of the country,” Jacob said. “That is not a mistake. She was saying something there. I think that relationship was really important to her.”
In 1968 in Illinois, attempting suicide was illegal, and Bette was forced to choose between jail or a mental institution. While in Ward Three, Bette’s pen documented her experience, which became her book W-3 and launched her literary career.
Bellow maintained his status as Bette’s cheering section, and his palpable concern is evident in a series of postcards:
Bette published three books, including Blue in Chicago and Things to Come and Go, and won the John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship along with the MacArthur “Genius” Award. Her character portrayals are sharp and crisp with poignant realism, as if the reader could reach out and hold their hand. Jacob describes his mother’s writing as missed connections between people. Bette’s mother and father did not understand their daughter or her desire to write. “Sadly, I would say she was most expressive of her love and connections in her writing. It was painful for her because her parents . . . didn’t show loving kindness and attention to their daughters,” Jacob explained. “It’s in her writings that her deepest feelings for her father or her mother really come across.”
After winning the MacArthur award, Bette’s writing slowed considerably. Always a perfectionist, she produced one more novella and several unfinished book manuscripts. “It was the literary equivalent of stage fright,” Jacob said. This highly acclaimed author was largely forgotten.
A Public Space not only shares several of Bette’s stories and essays as well as color photos of her postcards from Saul Bellow, but also will also be reissuing her books. In 2018, her novella Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Jacob’s favorite piece) and a few short stories will be printed in the first of several volumes. The University of Chicago opened up the Bellow archives for Hughes, and a forthcoming issue of A Public Space will publish Bette’s side of her correspondence with Bellow.
Channeling his mother’s muse, Jacob wrote an article for Commentary on rediscovering his mother’s work and unveiling the depth of her relationship with Bellow. “I wanted to write up my own little reminiscences and go through the postcards and letters. My piece is called Chicago Love Letters: Bette and Bellow,” he said.
Throughout this process, Jacob came to recognize a different side of his mother, who recently passed away on December 13. Multiple sclerosis and a brain injury from a car accident rendered Bette unable to speak. While visiting her at a nursing home, “We would read to her, it brought back memories of her family, her writing, her stories … It’s was a way of reconnecting with her,” he said.
With the vision from A Public Space, Jacob is able to share his mother’s words with a new generation of readers. “At the core of her writing is really a moral endeavor,” he said. “She wants to tell it like it is: the difficulty, the tragedy and triumph of everyday human life.”