Whether they are readers or writers, the unfinished book can really haunt a person. In my case, I always feel this nagging need to go back and finish Grandma Called it Carnal.

At the time, I simply couldn’t go on reading it. It is highly unusual for me to leave a book unfinished. Especially one by an author that I think writes splendidly. And, for the record, Grandma called everything carnal. She even called the excessive consumption of beet greens carnal. Grandma Griswold is the reason I put this book down, unfinished.

Who is the author? Bertha Damon, and her book of memoir is described as:

‘Her experiences being raised in a Connecticut village by an eccentric grandmother who combined Victorian notions of propriety with a great admiration for Henry David Thoreau and an aversion to modern inventions.’

I should have loved this book. But, truth is, with all due respect to Bertha Damon and her obvious love for her grandmother, this lady was rather disturbing. All that Puritan rigidity, a self-denial that seemed in reality more of a focus on herself than a love for others, became a bit much.

‘The funeral drew to our house a flock of forbidding-looking paternal uncles and aunts from Connecticut, who seemed very big and tall and gloomy. The aunts wore black, hardhearted dresses, with beads and passementerie glittering all over to make it all worse. They looked around and said, ‘They seem pretty comfortably fixed; but she never was a good housekeeper.’ Finally they noticed me.’

When little Bertha’s mother dies a painful death, Bertha and her sister go to live with their Puritan Thoreauvian grandmother. They cannot show any signs of grief, nor are they ever hugged. Bertha soon adopts a sweet old dog and finds comfort, but her grandma ‘disposes of it’,  for breaking the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’. Then the old cow had to die, for ‘fornicating’, apparently.

So Grandma Griswold got jettisoned, and I laid aside an otherwise fascinating memoir. Now, with my winter reading plans being tucked away, this book is coming back out.

Bertha Pope Damon was quite a well-known personality in the Berkeley University social climate in the 1920’s and ’30’s, and, except for this memoir that goes as far as the end of her childhood, there is tantalizingly little to be found out about her.

In the book/transcript ‘Recollections and reminiscences of life in the Bay Area from 1920 onward’ (available online) Berkeley scholar and professor Benjamin Lehman mentions Bertha Damon several times. Often, it is an intriguing comment about how beautiful she was, how witty, how articulate, and how interesting people loved to gather around her because she, herself, was so interesting.

This, as a side note, provides an timely connection to my recent ‘Week of Reading Carlyle’, as Benjamin Lehman was a Carlyle scholar at Berkeley. He, as he puts it, ‘grew up reading Carlyle’. The evenings of entertainment and conversation he describes at Bertha Damon’s lovely hillside home in San Francisco—where writers, musicians, dancers and academics gathered—sound reminiscent of the legendary entertaining at the Carlyle table.

Ernst Bacon, the famous composer, dedicated two pieces of music to Bertha. Significantly, they were named, respectively, ‘Alone’, and ‘I’m Nobody’. (this would have merited Grandma Griswold’s approval, I’m sure, although she might have been suspicious of Ernst).

Composer Ernst Bacon dedicated two songs to Bertha Damon

Composer Ernst Bacon dedicated two songs to Bertha Damon

‘To hide your own crying was the Griswold way of feeling grief. To ignore another’s crying, the Griswold way of curing it.’ — Bertha Damon

Later, she would write that her grandmother felt very badly about those early days, and the truth is, Bertha Damon loved her grandmother very much. She also owed her a great deal. Bertha Damon was an extremely accomplished and talented woman, yet was not considered ‘educated’, in the classic sense. The kind of reading and memorization and mental calisthenics that Grandma Griswold demanded of her two granddaughters was astounding.

The Berkeley academic community welcomed Bertha into their midst, and as Professor Lehman wrote:

‘There was also in Berkeley in those days the divorced wife of a professor of aesthetics named Bertha Pope [later Damon]… [she] was a beautiful and vivid presence…and gathered around herself people who enjoyed a certain spaciousness of life….she was a great contribution to our community.’

Here’s the odd thing: For a woman who was this popular in what you might call an advanced social circle, which we can only imagine Lehman means by ‘a certain spaciousness of life’, a woman who even took road trips with a young, up and coming photographer named Ansel Adams, there are no pictures of her circulating out there. So to put a face to this ‘beautiful and vivid presence’ at this point is impossible.

‘She spoke so well herself of so many things and was so great a wit that we were all delighted periodically into uncontrolled laughter. The evidence was clear that she could write if she wanted to.’ — B.H. Lehman

She did write. Her book A Sense of Humus, (1943) focused on her adult life with gardening as a basis. It became very popular, and was even reprinted into other editions. (in Britain it was published as Green Corners, 1947.) The chapter about her dog, Ruffled Paws—quite serious and moving—also became part of various anthologies. It becomes particularly affecting when you think about the beloved dog that she lost in childhood. (but then I’m obviously a soppy hearted dog owner, so…you’ll understand the humus from which these sentiments spring)

A review of A Sense of Humus is to follow.

‘She valued everything, delighted in everything…she had a kind of gaiety of mind.’ — Benjamin Lehman


For more about Bertha Damon, read the excellent write up on wikipedia by Ann Harlow, and read more about the California art and culture scene of this period on her blog here.

And yes, literarily is a word. A Curious Word, actually.

3 thoughts on “Unfinished Business, Literarily

  1. I have read ‘A Sense of Humus’ several times with enjoyment, each time noting that I really must acquire ‘Grandma’. Haven’t yet, though. But quietly pleased to read more about the author in your post. Intriguing!

    • So nice to find someone who has read and enjoyed A Sense of Humus! Thank you for commenting; as a postscript I did finish ‘Grandma’ and it is, as I thought, a fascinating memoir. Well-written and affecting…which perhaps explains why I got so worked up over the dog..the cow…the chicken…anyway, highly recommend! 🙂

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