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Time: The Present. Selected Stories by Tess Slesinger

Time: The Present book cover. Image of man and woman kissing
Time: The Present, selected stories by Tess Slesinger. Norwich: Boiler House Press, 2022. Pp. 414.

In 1932, Tess Slesinger published her most famous story, “Missis Flinders,” a bracingly candid look into the mind of a woman in New York City returning home from her abortion. Slesinger’s story—inspired by her own decision to terminate her pregnancy that year—does not fit neatly into the rhetoric that surrounds our ongoing political and legal debate over women’s reproductive rights. During the Great Depression, economic scarcity meant that abortion, if still illegal, was not policed or stigmatized as bitterly as it would be in earlier or later decades. Neither simply “pro” nor “anti,” Slesinger’s tale instead explores the psychological afterlives of this experience for one woman, trying to reconcile her decision with the feelings that linger after, with her identity as an intellectual, and with her husband’s own intellectual insecurities.

In “Missis Flinders,” Slesinger characteristically focuses her creative energy on rendering her protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, on capturing the always-almost-overwhelming medley of guilt, wit, shame, irony, self-righteousness and doubt this woman carries with her as she sits in a taxi beside her awkwardly silent husband, a man who has brought her a basket of fruit as a well-intentioned but hopelessly misguided symbolic gesture of goodwill. Slesinger keeps the story focused on Margaret’s experience, rather than on the couple’s original rationale for undertaking this procedure, providing only a few retrospective glimpses at the couple’s decision-making process. What glimpses we do get, however, make clear that Mr. and Mrs. Flinders justified the decision based on their identities as intellectuals. As Margaret recollects it, “in a régime like this, Miles said, it is a terrible thing to have a baby—it means the end of independent thought and the turning of everything into a scheme for making money” (152). Forced to labor like other middle-class Americans, with no time for “working out schemes for each other and the world,” all their energy would be “concentrate[d] on the sordid business of keeping three people alive, one of whom would be a burden and an expense for twenty years” (152).

In her “Afterword” to a new collection of Slesinger’s short fiction, Time: The Present, Paula Rabinowitz describes first discovering “Missis Flinders” in the 1970s. For her and other early scholars in Women’s Studies, Rabinowitz writes, this frank study of an abortion undertaken “for personal and political, not medical, reasons” felt like it had been left behind by an “avenging angel.” In return, feminist scholars like Rabinowitz organized Slesinger’s first “recovery.” In 1971, Quadrangle Books reprinted a set of stories that had premiered in venues like Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Story Magazine, and Pagany. In 1984, The Feminist Press reissued Slesinger’s lone novel The Unpossessed (1934), reprinted as a New York Review of Books Classic in 2002.

Now Boiler House Press has released a volume of Slesinger’s short stories—some never appearing outside magazines—as part of its new Recovered Books series. Slesinger appealed to feminists in the 1970s, and appeals today, for precisely the same reasons she was all but forgotten after the 1930s: her writing blends modernist style with radical politics and an earnest sentimentalism, an unlikely crossing of literary currents. Her characters plunge obsessively inward, examining the preoccupations of the mind, yet they can never shake the vital feelings of the body, or the stubborn needs of their social bonds. During her ride home, Mrs. Flinders recalls how she and her husband despaired of “the sordid business of keeping three people alive” during the Depression, but also cannot forget that she has “known [her] breasts to swell and harden…unable to sleep on them for their tenderness to weight and touch” (153).

Slesinger was born to a middle-class Jewish family on the Upper West Side. Her mother, Augusta Slesinger, was a psychoanalyst who helped establish the New School for Social Research. Slesinger attended the Ethical Culture School, Swarthmore College, and the Columbia School of Journalism; by the late 1920s, she had joined the Menorah Journal’s circle of intellectuals, which included Lionel Trilling and Herbert Solow, whom Slesinger married in 1928. Soon after they divorced in 1932, she left New York City for Hollywood, where she began a new life as a screenwriter for MGM and Paramount. Before her still-brilliant career was cut short by cancer at the age of 39, Slesinger wrote scripts for The Good Earth (1937), Dance, Girl, Dance (1939), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and the delightfully named comedy Are Husbands Necessary? (1942). Ever the radical, she defended the Screen Writers’ Guild amid a growing communist panic, served as a board member for the California League of Women Shoppers, and fundraised for the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War.

In writing in and about the 1930s, Slesinger enjoyed some brief notoriety. Her contemporaries saw her as a chronicler of the intellectual hang-ups of the age, particularly sensitive to the gendered and sexual dynamics among armchair radicals. This reputation, established by figures like Lionel Trilling, Murray Kempton, and Alan Wald, pigeonholed Slesinger as a mere documentarian of a bygone age, a reputation that lasted until her recuperation by feminist scholars like Rabinowitz. Even after this recuperation, however, almost no attention was paid to Slesinger’s shorter magazine fiction; even those few readers who discovered with joy her lone novel The Unpossessed often missed out on the impressive richness of her fictional output

Boiler House Press has arranged its collection of stories to emphasize Slesinger’s command over an impressive array of dramatic material, even as her writing continually demonstrate how people’s inner lives are shaped by their intimate exchanges with others. Playful ruminations about girlhood at a private school in the City (“Memoirs of an Ex-Flapper”) give way to a bracing look into the lives of two Black schoolchildren, which exposes the racism of those middle-class white liberals cheerily described by the previous tale (“Black on White”). A chance encounter between strangers in a cinema (“The Lonelier Eve”) hints at the strange sociability possible in that space for consuming culture, and the next story pivots to scenes of solidarity among workers at a department store during the holidays (“Jobs in the Sky”). The story of German housekeeper torn between her patronizing but caring family and her anti-Semitic boyfriend Joe (“The Friedman’s Annie”) resounds against those of a newlywed American girl in Austria desperate to feel reassured about her life’s direction (“Kleine Frau”), and a Viennese girl fleeing war for America, only to discover the old friends whose lives she had envisioned as a bastion of tranquility are now divorced (“The Times so Unsettled Are”).

Across all these stories, one can never forget the Depression that presided over Slesinger’s career as a fiction writer. Her stories consistently grapple with bad feelings: loneliness and anxiety, doubt and insecurity, guilt and shame. Yet these stories resonate today precisely for insisting that even in our bleakest moments, we continually reach out to connect with others. As one of her frustrated female narrators puts it, thinking about other people in such moments “formed a link not only with yesterday and tomorrow, but with other women squinting at scales and selecting dinners for strange men to whom they found themselves married; with, if you like, her mother, who had been doing these things every day for thirty years.” Slesinger’s essential pursuit, Rabinowitz concludes, was asking “how to live a decent life in fundamentally awful times,” a question that, for better and worse, remains as meaningful now as it was then.