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Based solely on its title, I Await the Devil’s Coming (Melville House Publishing) sounds like a canonical text for Satanists. In reality, it’s the fiercely feminist, wickedly witty, and decidedly deranged glimpse into the life and thoughts of a transgressive young woman growing up unhappily in the Midwest at the beginning of the 20th century.
These days, the typical response to hearing that an individual at the tender of nineteen has written a memoir is akin to aggressive eye-rolling. And, indeed, I Await The Devil’s Coming includes many well-worn themes of adolescence—boredom, disdain for one’s family and town, self-obsession, hubris, hyperbole—but in this case, they are wrapped in a uniquely over-the-top and often quite-entertaining style of prose.
The book is said to have ushered in the age of the confessional diary, but its true value lies in its testament to the power of words—not merely as a means to strike an emotional chord or reveal an inner life, but to literally lift a woman out of her circumstances. At its heart, the book is the story of a wry, bisexual woman who is miserable with the life she’s been living in 1901 in Butte, Montana. She makes it clear that she’s writing the book not just as an expression of herself, but as a way out: she repeats many times that she’s writing not a diary, but a “Portrayal,” and she lays her intentions bare when she writes, “I wish this Portrayal to be published and launched into the deep salt sea—the world… can I be possessed of such a peculiar rare genius, and yet drag out my life in obscurity in this uncouth, warped, Montana town? It must be impossible!”
Viewed as a tool for raising the capital and fame needed to flee her small-town life— which it turned out to be; the book sold 100,000 copies in it’s first month alone, making her an official sensation—it becomes undeniable that there are incentives for the author to sensationalize her work. Take, for example, the invocation of the Devil. While her longing for the Devil is present on almost every page, it is perhaps the gentlest depiction of Satan to ever appear in print:
Some day the Devil will come to me and say: “Come with me.”
And I will answer: “Yes”
And he will take me away with him to a place where it is wet and green—where the yellow, yellow sunshine falls on heaven-kissing hills, and misty, cloudy masses float over the valleys.
And for days I shall be happy—happy—happy!
You could replace the word “Devil” with any other name–be it of God, a woman, or what have you—and be left with a book that is essentially the same, but not nearly as provocative. Here we’re dealing with more than just a diary; it’s the work of a young woman who understood her audience, how to entice and scandalize them, and then use their intrigue to her own advantage.
And this brazenness is something still worth noting today, more than 110 years after the book’s initial publication. Many modern queer adults and adolescents will find the themes on which MacLane expounds—isolation, difference, etc.— especially relatable. But the real lesson she imparts is to embrace other-ness; at a time when we’re fighting in court to prove that our love is the same as everyone else’s and encouraging teens to just fit in until “It Gets Better,” Mary MacLane’s voice is still loudly proclaiming its uniqueness—and saying to hell with what others may think.
I Await the Devil’s Coming
By Mary MacLane
Melville House Publishing
Paperback, 9781612191942, 162 pp.