Wellesley College, 106 Central St, Wellesley, MA 02481
Saint Sylvias Cemetery Tivoli, Dutchess County, New York, USA
Emily Holmes Coleman (January 22, 1899 – June 13, 1974) was an American born writer, and a lifelong compulsive diary keeper. She also wrote a single novel, The Shutter of Snow (1930). This novel, about a woman who spends time in a mental hospital after the birth of her baby, was based on Coleman's own experience of spending time in an insane asylum after contracting puerperal fever and suffering a nervous breakdown.
The relationships among Djuna Barnes, Emily Coleman, Antonia White, and Peggy Guggenheim were intense, sexually charged, emotionally intricate affairs that were, in turn, hurtful and inspiring, cruel and nurturing. Ultimately, however, these relationships were the most central to their writing. While men came and went in all of their lives, their relationships, replete with emotional brutality, persevered. Barnes called Coleman "a prima vera with blood on her lips", and White sometimes dismissed Coleman as mad. White and Coleman were fond of telling Barnes that she was shallow and couldn't analyze. However, aside from the black eye Coleman once gave Peggy Guggenheim, the most scathing criticism within the group was reserved for White. Barnes lamented to White that although she tried to like her writing, she just couldn't, and went on to tell White that she was a "bad, bad woman".
Barnes, White, and Coleman speak at later points in their lives of having had sex with and being sexually attracted to other women. Djuna Barnes, of course, went on to have more love affairs with women. Emily Coleman would admit "the only genuine sexual feelings I have had were the Lesbian affair I had in 1929". Antonia White similarly later conceded that she desired a woman more than she had ever desired her husband. Among the four, Peggy Guggenheim was perhaps the most determinedly heterosexual. Even she, however, had female lovers throughout her life, including Djuna Barnes's great love, Thelma Wood, an attachment which would certainly seem to have exacerbated tensions between Bames and Guggenheim.
Coleman was born in Oakland, California, on January 22, 1899. Graduating from Wellesley College in 1920, she married psychologist Loyd Ring Coleman the next year. In 1926 Coleman and her son John arrived in Paris, where she worked as the society editor for the Paris Tribune, a European edition of the Chicago Tribune. While working for the magazine, she contributed articles, stories, and poems. In the process, she become better acquainted with the magazine's writers. Coleman also worked as a secretary to Emma Goldman for a year, while Goldman was writing her autobiography Living My Life (1931). Coleman continued to live in Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.
In 1940, Coleman married the Arizona rancher Jake Scarborough. The marriage lasted only four years, dissolving following her conversion to Catholicism. From 1944 until her death in 1974, Coleman devoted herself to religious life. At the time of her death, she was being cared for by Catholic nuns at The Farm in Tivoli, New York.
Coleman's personal papers reveal her to be a prolific writer. However, her only published works were in the form of contributions to minor magazines such as Transition (literary journal) and New Review. Coleman published her only book, The Shutter of Snow in 1930, which fictionalized her experiences as a patient in a mental hospital. Reviewers praised the novel as authentic and vivid.
The diaries Coleman kept as an American expatriate in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, and in England in the 1940s through the 1960s, are valuable for chronicling her relationships with literary friends such as Djuna Barnes, who wrote much of her novel Nightwood while staying with Coleman and others at Peggy Guggenheim's country manor, Hayford Hall. She also wrote about John Ferrar Holms, Antonia White, Dylan Thomas, Phyllis Jones, George Barker (with whom she had a sexual relationship), Gay Taylor, and a number of others.
But Coleman's diaries and other writings are also fascinating psychological revelations of her "passionate," "impatiently earnest" self on an anxious life quest. Coleman was always striving for something in her diaries, for effectiveness as a writer, for a lucid mind, for passion in love, for a seemingly spiritual grace. On her thirty-first birthday in 1930, she reflected on the "conscious effect" of Dante's simple ending to the Inferno and Goethe's words on putting his life in order, comparing her efforts to write and to live with self-control.
Coleman's "spiritual odyssey" led her to the Catholic church. In her "efforts to discover God" she struck up a correspondence and later a personal acquaintance with French philosopher and theologian Jacques Maritain and his wife Raissa. She converted in 1944, and all of her writing afterwards was focused on her Catholic faith, which has been described as "mystical" and "fanatical."
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