Moonflower Resurrection: Jetta Carleton's long-forgotten bestseller about the secret desires of a Missouri farm family blooms again

May 13, 2009 at 4:00 am

Near the end of Jetta Carleton's first — and only — published novel, an old Missouri farm woman named Callie Soames pauses during her round of morning chores to examine the moonflower vine that grows near the smokehouse.

For a few short weeks every summer, Callie, her husband, Matthew, and their three grown daughters, who have returned to the farm for a visit, gather in the evenings to watch the moonflowers bloom. "The flowers were so lovely and they lasted so short a time," Callie reflects. "It was...something you looked forward to all year, then it came, and you enjoyed it so much, and then it was over, in no time."

For a few months after its publication in December 1962, Carleton's novel, The Moonflower Vine, was one of the flowers of the literary world. It spent four months on the New York Times bestseller list, alongside Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J. D. Salinger and John Updike's The Centaur. A main selection of two major book clubs, it was published in eight other countries and appeared as a Reader's Digest Condensed Book, a sure sign of mid-twentieth-century literary success.

The reviews were rapturous. "Once in a great, great while comes a new book that makes you thankful you know how to read," wrote one besotted critic in the San Francisco News-Call Bulletin. "The Moonflower Vine is just such a book." The Denver Post compared it to To Kill a Mockingbird, published two years earlier.

The Moonflower Vine's season in the sun, however, was brief. After the excitement of its first publication, the book faded into obscurity, like so many other former bestsellers. Carleton died in 1999. She never published another novel.

Aside from two brief paperback revivals in the late '70s and '80s, The Moonflower Vine was largely forgotten, except among the few readers who discovered musty copies at library sales or abandoned in vacation-rental homes. They formed a small, but passionate, cult. One of these acolytes was the novelist Jane Smiley, who included The Moonflower Vine on her reading list of 100 novels in her 2005 book, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel.

This spring, in large part because of the attention brought to it by Smiley, Harper Perennial, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, has reissued The Moonflower Vine as part of its "Rediscovered Classics" series.

"One of the great things about the time we live in is that so many books get reissued and return," says Smiley. "Books are like viruses. They're passed from hand to hand. Some take hold and infect the whole society. When a book gets revived, it has another chance to infect society. If society is susceptible, it will succeed. If not, it won't."

In 1962 Jetta Carleton was nearly 50 years old, a self-described "Glad Old Girl" and well established in New York's advertising world: She wrote TV ads for Ivory soap. A former dancer, she was slender and red-haired — "quite elfin-looking," in Smiley's words.

"She was an extraordinary person," remembers Charlie Langdon, a long-time friend. "She was so excited about life. She had a wonderful way of talking, very precise."

"You get a feel for Jetta from the book," her great-niece, Susan Beasley, says by phone from her home in Torrance, California. "If you read the book and then talked to her, you would know it was hers."

Every Thanksgiving Carleton and her husband, Jene Lyon, would return to her parents' home in Nevada, Missouri, on the state's western edge, roaring into town in a rented sports car with their two cocker spaniels, one blond and one black.

"Those were things we'd never seen," Beasley remembers. "We were so impressed. She was so fashionable. She was just different, in a good way. She didn't have airs. She kept that farm quality. She loved earthy things, like good homegrown tomatoes. She never talked about her writing."

In Nevada, Carleton slipped back into the family routine, joining her two older sisters, Truma and Yana, in the tiny kitchen to prepare elaborate meals, and later, when the dishes were done, playing canasta with her nieces and nephews.

This sense of a family who loved each other and enjoyed each other's company pervades The Moonflower Vine, along with vivid descriptions of the farm between Leeton and Calhoun, Missouri, 50 miles southeast of Kansas City, where the Carletons often spent summers.

In the opening pages of The Moonflower Vine, Carleton describes the land as "a region cut by creeks, where high pastures rise out of the wooded valleys to catch the sunlight and fall away over limestone bluffs. It is a pretty country. It does not demand your admiration, as some regions do, but seems glad for it all the same...The farm lay in its heart, two hundred acres on a slow brown stream called Little Tebo."

"The moonflowers were true," says Beasley, "and the creek and the food, the jumping into the creek on a hot day. Also, the morality, the worrying about the opinions of the church and neighbors."

Carleton was born on the farm in 1913, in a house that never had indoor plumbing. Her father, P.A. Carleton, was superintendent of schools in Nevada. Her sisters, who were nearly twenty years older than she was, were schoolteachers, too, and Jetta was expected to follow in their footsteps. But, says Beasley, "Jetta didn't want that life. It wasn't her choice."

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."

But buried deep within The Moonflower Vine's seeming indifference to the world outside the family, Smiley finds the same serious consideration of women's lives that would become central to the feminist movement of the 1960s and '70s.

"It's fairly frank in its discussion of sexuality," she says. "The women, although they do things secretly, more or less do what they want to do. The family is patriarchal on the surface, but the real power is Mom. A good way to think of [Carleton] is as a novelist of the 1930s who happened to publish in the 1960s."

It's unlikely Carleton intended the book to be read that way. "All she ever wanted to do was write a book," says Beasley. "She was so thrilled when it was originally published. She did it!"

Beasley had just graduated from high school when The Moonflower Vine appeared. "I thought it was wonderful," she remembers. "But Jetta's sisters, needless to say, were a little shocked.

"I think she never thought they would think it was about them," Beasley continues. "In her mind, she'd separated it. But it was so real — the descriptions of the family and the farm seemed so real — for a moment I thought, 'Could this have happened?' And because they recognized themselves, they thought everyone else would think it was them."

The members of the Soames family sin enough to keep the gossips in a small town like Nevada busy for decades: One daughter runs off with the hired hand. Another drops out of school to marry a dashing aviator. Matthew Soames, a teacher, has trouble keeping his mind, and occasionally his hands, off his teenage students. ("Baldly summarized," Smiley writes in 13 Ways, "[it] sounds scandalous and best-sellerish, a Peyton Place of the Midwest.")

The book caused a rift between Carleton and her sisters. "Their first reaction was shock and being upset with Jetta," Beasley recalls. "I never got the details. My family didn't talk about those things, especially not to young people. But they talked to her about it, and then they got over it and put it behind them. They never stopped loving each other."

But Carleton may have felt a greater distance from her family than she let on to her great-niece. In The Moonflower Vine, the youngest Soames daughter, Mary Jo, lives in New York, like Carleton, and works in television.

"Mary Jo was the hardest of all them to reach," her mother, Callie, thinks. "The years between them were so many, and the child felt so worldly-wise...Sometimes Callie felt like a stranger to her youngest. Every year there was less they could say to each other."

In the mid '90s, after the death of her husband, Carleton began a new novel. In the 30 years since The Moonflower Vine, she had published nothing aside from a few cookbooks. She seemed destined to become one of those writers like Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) or Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) or Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) who would be remembered for just one great book.

"Novelists who write a single, excellent novel are a rare breed," Smiley writes in her foreword to the new edition of The Moonflower Vine. "Lee and Ellison seem to have balked at their huge success, however. Lee is reported to have said that the reception of To Kill a Mockingbird was 'in some ways...just about as frightening as the quick, merciful death I'd expected.' Ellison even went so far as to report that a house fire had destroyed hundreds of pages of his second novel, when, as it turned out, those pages did not exist."

Carleton never explained why she didn't produce a second novel. Instead, she quietly faded away. In 1970, she and Lyon moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and, with the money she'd earned from Moonflower, set up their own small publishing house, the Lightning Tree. Carleton edited the manuscripts and Lyon typeset, printed and bound the books. They specialized in poetry, cookbooks and regional history.

The venture was never profitable; Carleton considered it "an affair of the heart." Still, it kept her too busy to do much writing, except during her summer visits with her family on the farm.

The Lightning Tree shut down in 1991. Lyon died two years later.

There was a special urgency to Carleton's work on the new novel, which she called The Back Alleys of Spring. She had composed The Moonflower Vine in longhand over the course of six years, but she wrote Back Alleys on a computer. She didn't have one of her own, so she went to a friend's house every afternoon and borrowed his.

"I don't know why she used the computer," says Charlie Langdon, a columnist for the Durango Herald in Colorado, who got to know Carleton through their mutual friend, Larry Calloway, a Santa Fe newspaperman.

"Maybe she was in a hurry," Langdon speculates. "She didn't feel well. She could get it done that way. She was not accustomed to the computer. Larry said she missed having the feeling of a pencil or pen in her hand."

Carleton based Back Alleys on her experiences teaching in Joplin. It's about a young woman named Allen ("she always had the funny name," Langdon jokes) who becomes close, possibly too close, to some of her students on the eve of World War II.

"The theme of the book is the loss of innocence," Langdon says. "All the students are going to be leaving. The whole world is about to change, and there's nothing anyone can do about it."

By 1997, Carleton had nearly finished the book. "There was a lot of writing and rewriting," recalls Langdon. "She was an intense rewriter, very fussy with word choices and all that."

"She told me she was getting ready to shop around for a publisher," Beasley remembers.

A few months later, though, Carleton suffered a stroke. She fell down and hit her head on the stone floor of her house. She lay there for several hours until a neighbor found her. She was never able to speak again.

When she died, just after Christmas of 1999, her friend Calloway became her literary executor. Most of her books and papers went to her nephew, Carleton Beasley, Susan's father, who lived in Pierce City, Missouri, just east of Joplin.

In May 2003, a tornado swept through Pierce City and destroyed most of the town, including Carleton Beasley's house. Carleton's papers were lost, including the manuscript of the mysterious second novel. ("It makes any writer think about storing their papers in two different places," comments Jane Smiley.)

Or so her family thought.

In March of this year, Charlie Langdon wrote about the reissue of The Moonflower Vine in his column in the Durango Herald. He also reported that, while sorting through Carleton's papers after her death, Calloway had discovered the lost manuscript.

On his way down to Mexico for an extended vacation, Calloway left a copy of The Back Alleys of Spring with Langdon, who read it immediately. In his opinion, Back Alleys is "a good book. It's not as well-written as The Moonflower Vine, but it's publishable."

When Calloway returns from Mexico, says Langdon, he plans to search for a publisher or, if necessary, publish it himself.

Beasley is eager to read The Back Alleys of Spring. Reading Carleton, she says, is almost like talking with her again. "I finished re-reading The Moonflower Vine last night," she says. "It made my heart sad, in a good way. It made me miss her all over again."

Literary revivals, Smiley observes, are nothing new. In the decades following his death, few people read Charles Dickens. George Eliot was largely forgotten, at least until the 1920s when Virginia Woolf wrote an essay in praise of Middlemarch. Smiley and 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel may have the same effect on The Moonflower Vine.

Brad Bigelow, who lives in Brussels, Belgium, and works for NATO, has made a hobby out of tracking down forgotten books and writing about them on his website, the Neglected Books Page. Soon after he read Smiley's book, he sought out The Moonflower Vine.

"It's had the most consistent reaction," he says. "A number of readers who come across it rate it as one of their favorite books."

Yuval Taylor, an editor at Chicago Review Press, read about The Moonflower Vine in 13 Ways and on Bigelow's website and became curious. "We've reprinted a lot of out-of-print books," he says. "We look for people who say they love a book, who've read it every year and give copies to their friends."

In the fall of 2007, Taylor contacted Susan Beasley, who, along with her sister, owns the rights to The Moonflower Vine. He offered her a modest contract for a new edition. Beasley had no experience with publishing and talked to a neighbor who was also a writer. He referred her to his agent, Denise Shannon. Shannon Googled the book and found herself at Bigelow's site.

"I said, 'That's extraordinary!'" Shannon remembers. "I went online and bought a copy. It's a very modern-style book that people would enjoy reading today. I told Susan, 'Let's try something here; let's go for a bigger press.'"

Three publishers bid for the rights, which finally went to Terry Karten, an editor at Harper Perennial. Karten was impressed both by the book's early history as a bestseller and the devotion of its fans. She enlisted Smiley to write a foreword and reprinted Bigelow's Neglected Books Page essay in the back.

Karten has high hopes for this latest incarnation of The Moonflower Vine. "There's a lot of buzz percolating out there," she says. "The book is really selling." Despite a substantial first printing of 18,500 copies, Harper has had to go back to press.

The book has received favorable reviews in the Chicago Tribune and the website the Daily Beast, and has been chosen for the American Booksellers Association's Indie Next List and as a Midwest Connection book by the Midwestern Booksellers Association. Shannon has sold the foreign rights in five countries and plans to pitch the book to Oprah's Book Club.

"Everywhere we go, we meet booksellers who know the book," Karten says. "It's a classic and a cult book. It has legions of readers across the country, and it will have many more. It's a book that travels. It has a longer life than most books that get published. Somehow it keeps popping up."