Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

by Bette Howland
postface by Honor Moore
May 2019 – A Public Space Books (US)

Bette Howland wrote three highly regarded books in the 1970s and 1980s—W-3, a memoir about her imprisonment in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt; and the autobiographical story collections BLUE IN CHICAGO and THINGS TO COME AND GO—then faded from the literary scene until the magazine A Public Space rediscovered her work in 2016, publishing a portfolio of her fiction, essays, and letters from a forty-year correspondence with Saul Bellow.

Now CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE collects the best work—including previously unpublished stories—of this singular writer, who transformed tangled and chaotic inner emotions into literature. These are stories about women detached from ordinary social responsibilities and expectations, and about connections made and missed. With an eye for the meanings of everyday life in all its grit and splendor, Bette Howland draws from her native Chicago and her own experiences—as mother, daughter, lover, writer—to make sense of life by observing its concrete moral realities.

As Bette Howland described her work: “When people worry about whether something is fiction or nonfiction, they are worrying about how much invention there is. They should be worrying about how much imagination there is. Imagination is the only way of experiencing life.”

CALM SEA AND PROSPEROUS VOYAGE restores to the canon the work of an extraordinary writer.

Bette Howland (1937-2017) is the author of three acclaimed books: W-3—a memoir about her imprisonment in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt; and the autobiographical story collections, BLUE IN CHICAGO and THINGS TO COME AND GO. Born in Chicago, she was the recipient of a 1984 MacArthur Fellowship.

Press & Reviews

“Her sheer gifts as a writer… place her in a lonely league of achievement.”—New York Times

“A remarkable literary voice rediscovered. Many readers have probably never heard of Howland. This selection of her work, the debut title from literary magazine A Public Space’s new book imprint, aims to change that. Born in Chicago in 1937, Howland was raised in a working-class Jewish home on the city’s west side and went on to publish three books—W-3 (1974), BLUE IN CHICAGO (1978), and THINGS COME AND GO (1983)—and become a protégée, muse, and sometime lover of Saul Bellow. Along the way, Howland married, had two sons, divorced, and, in 1968, spent time in an asylum, being treated for depression following a suicide attempt, prompting Bellow, in one of his many letters to her, to urge his friend “to write, in bed, and make use of your unhappiness.” Having apparently followed that advice, she found acclaim, winning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1978 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1984. After the latter honor, however, Howland mostly stopped publishing and faded into literary obscurity only to be rediscovered shortly before she died in 2017. This collection, which blends memoir, essays, and fiction, is intended to introduce Howland’s work to a new generation of readers, and it is an introduction well worth making. Her words and observations shine like buried treasure, each story a glinty, multifaceted gem that, despite the passage of time, has lost none of its luster or clarity. In stories like “Blue in Chicago”, about a University of Chicago graduate student who spends a day traveling from gritty, crime-ridden Hyde Park on the South Side to a family wedding in the city’s safer, more affluent North Shore suburbs, and “Public Facilities”, about the workers and patrons who populate a branch of the Chicago Public Library, Howland captures not only a particular locale and era—dreary, decrepit, dilapidated, yet lovably familiar—but also the connections between members of families into which we are born and those we find in unlikely, even inhospitable places. In works like “Aronesti”, the first story she ever published, “To the Country”, “German Lessons”, and the collection’s title story, essentially an extended note to a dying friend, Howland takes us further afield, turning her acute eye to areas outside her hometown. Throughout, she proves herself to be a stellar observer of worlds external and internal and a master of description. This achingly beautiful book throbs with life, compassion, warmth, and humor; hums with an undercurrent of existential despair; and creeps into your soul like the slushy-gray-yellow light of a wintry Chicago morning.”—Kirkus, starred review

“This stellar posthumous collection of stories from Howland (1937–2017) brings together works that span her career. Largely autobiographical and incredibly self-aware, Howland’s stories conjure vivid portraits of her home city of Chicago and bring to life the hypnotic thoughts of her narrators among their wide casts of vividly drawn characters. In “Blue in Chicago,” the narrator attends a wedding with her eccentric extended family, which is juxtaposed in the story against moments of peace on her own as a single mother living on the city’s South Side. “To the Country” follows the same character to a summer rental house, but its charms are marred by the neighbors—including a family of farmers she has known since her own childhood. Within these straightforward setups, Howland creates stark and strange works of genius, portraying the complexities of family relationships as beautifully as she portrays her narrators’ insecurities, judgments, and anxieties. Her descriptions are darkly funny and delightful (“Up went my mother’s head, straight as a barrel rifle. Loaded, of course”). The collection’s masterpiece title novella is written from its heartbroken narrator to a “you,” a recently deceased love, following his last days living as an academic legend, famed lover of women, and devastating alcoholic. This character, Victor Lazarus—“your long arms, your long legs, your rigid upright drunken dignity”—comes alive through his death in this potent, heartbreaking, often hilarious showstopper of a story. This is a collection to savor, and Howland is an author to celebrate.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“This story collection reinstates a long-overlooked artist of live-wire incisiveness, shredding wit, and improbable beauty… Howland’s intrepidly autobiographical stories feel brand-new.”―Booklist, starred review