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As a child, she was sickly, and her parents were afraid she wouldn't live to adulthood. "Maybe all that time she was sick gave her more time to read and expanded her horizons," Beasley speculates. "It gave her the urge to explore, to have a bigger life. She had talent, but I'm not sure where her drive came from."
In a prose-poem she composed as a Camp Fire Girl, Carleton wrote that the magic of woodsmoke "brings the desire to want to find beauty, to know it and breathe it, and to live it." Perhaps this same desire drove her to become an artist.
As a student at Cottey College in Nevada and later 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 AM) radio. She wrote ad copy and jingles and eventually hosted her own fifteen-minute show about events going on in the city.
"She was a woman in a man's world," says Beasley. "She was able to maneuver in that world with her talent and uniqueness, and the way she related to people. She didn't have barriers — or at least she didn't think of it that way."
In Kansas City she also 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. They were better together — they had that kind of relationship." Apart from their dogs, it was always just the two of them: The inscription on the inside of her wedding band read, "We are each other's children."
Sometime in the late 1940s or early '50s, the Lyons moved east. Jetta went to work in advertising and Jene 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, where they would spend the cold evenings reading in front of the fire. But Carleton could never escape Missouri completely. Every summer brought the annual two-week sojourn to the farm.
"To me, and somewhat to my sisters, these visits were like income tax, an annual inconvenience," she wrote. "Once we got there, we were happy enough. We lapsed easily into the old ways, cracked the old jokes, fished in the creek, ate country cream and grew fat and lazy. It was a time of placid unreality."
Between visits, the farm, and her family, lingered in her imagination. Sometime in the mid '50s, during those chilly nights in Hoboken, she began to re-create a series of hot summer afternoons in western Missouri that would become The Moonflower Vine.
"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 re-read 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's 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, Jane Smiley, then a young unpublished writer browsing in a bookstore, paid attention.
"It has lyrical descriptions of a particular landscape," says Smiley, who was in St. Louis last month to discuss both The Moonflower Vine and her own Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, this year's selection for ReadMOre, Missouri's "one-book" program. "It's very local, specific to Missouri. It's not like Kansas or Arkansas; it's not like Iowa.
"It appears, on the surface, as the story of a classic American family," she continues. "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."
Unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, to which it is still often compared, The Moonflower Vine ignores larger social and political issues and stays tightly focused on the Soames family, which, as Smiley observes, "thinks only of religion, love, nature and sometimes music." This may be one of the reasons why it never attained Mockingbird's status as an undisputed classic.
"To Kill a Mockingbird is straightforward, easy to read, from the point of view of children," Smiley says. "The unfairness of the situation is evident to us. It's not a multilayered or difficult book. The Moonflower Vine is more layered and subtle. It's not one of those books they're going to teach in eighth grade to learn a lesson about American life."
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