REMEMBERING ANN L. MCLAUGHLIN
Originally posted on Madam
December 18, 2017
snaps by. It is has been
two days from a year since Ann
L. McLaughlin passed away. How I miss my brave, graceful,
and very wise friend. Ann was a decade older than my mother but,
curiously, that did not occur to me until she had passed: There
was something ageless about her. She was a literary scholar and
later, when I knew her, a writing teacher and an artist, a novelist
of the most seriously dedicated and generous of our kind.
I met Ann in, I think it was
1999, when, having just moved to the area, I read from my short
story collection at the Writer's
Center, in Bethesda MD, just outside Washington DC; as a
founding faculty and board member, Ann did me the honor of so
welcomingly introducing me to that audience. Shortly thereafter,
thanks to a good word from poet and Gargoyle editor and
publisher extraordinaire, Richard
Peabody, I joined a writing critique group. A crackerjack
writing group it was! At various points it included Kate
Currie, Katharine Davis,
Solveig Eggerz, E.J. Levy, Carolyn
Pietrzyk, Amy Stolls,
Paula Whyman, and Mary
Kay Zuravleff, among others and always, always Ann.
When I joined the writing group,
Ann was known for her loosely autobiographical novels Sunset
at Rosalie, The
Balancing Pole, and Lightning
in July. Of the latter, set in Boston polio epidemic
of the 1950s, Publisher's Weekly lauds her "straightforward
narration [that] transforms the events of a prolonged hospital
stay into a richly textured tale."
I. Dayton says it best:
"So deeply tragic. So tremendously
sweet. Ann McLaughlin has captured humanity at its bravest. Artistic,
accomplished Hally Blessing is stricken with polio in the prime
of her youth, only weeks before the first polio vaccine. Within
mere hours, Hally progreses from the elation of her first major
venue as a young flautist to the despair of being diagnosed with
polio. Ovecoming the deep challenges of fear and disfigurement,
Hally struggles to find the inner resources which eventually
enable her triumph. The scenes, the characters (even the minor
characters) are all vividly portrayed. This work is a victory
for the human spirit."
At that time, Ann was out and about
Voyage, a coming-of-age novel set in the 1920s on a newspaper
magnate's yacht. From Mimi Godfrey's review in the Women's National
Book Association newsletter:
"McLaughlin is a clear-eyed
and observant writer, and her evocation of 1920s Washington and
the exotic ports of Julia's tripMadeira, Alexandria, Sicily,
Greece, Zanzibar, Singapore, the South Pacific is fascinating.
But McLaughlin is more interested in charting Julia's mind and
heart, offering a kind of artist-novel of her development as
a journalist and fledgling photographer. Julia wrestles with
questions that were as vital today as they were in 1924: What
is more important for a woman, a satisfying career or marriage
and a family? Do the demands of a woman's work matter as much
as a man's? Julia's answers to these questions are, even more
than the itinerary, what give this engaging novel its lasting
For our writing group, Ann brought
in draft after draft of chapters from The
House on Q Street, her novel set in Washington during
World War II. After The House on Q Street came A
Trial in Summer, set in Depression-era San Francisco.
And although no longer in the
writing group, for I'd returned to live in Mexico City, I had
a chance to read drafts from Leaving
Bayberry House and the proofs for Amy
& George. I was honored to contribute a blurb for
the latter, which takes the reader to 1930s Cambridge, Massachusetts:
"Once again, with charm and
heart, McLaughlin brings to life a tumultuous period of U.S.
history as she probes and delves into a father-daughter relationship
that is sometimes a seesaw, sometimes a dance. This is a wise
Richards Shreve adds her praise:
"George is dean of the Harvard
Law School and Amy is his young, sensitive daughter. McLaughlin's
skill at portraying the quiet dangers of family life which culminate
in an act of violence is tempered by a generosity of spirit and
As a member of her writing group
I had a direct window into the effort it took to write these
books. I was, and remain, in awe of Ann's discipline. No matter
what, and there were whats aplenty, Ann could sit herself down
in the chair every day, fire up the laptop, and do the work.
She had a truly rare dedication to craftsmanship, faith in her
vision, and, at the same time, the willingness and sheer grit
to rewrite, and rewrite again, and again, and again and, Lordy!
as her characters often said, again.
And then whenever one of her
books was publishedthis is especially hard for shy creatures
such as writers, and no easy feat for one with health challengesAnn
would get herself out there, she sent the postcards, kept up
with the torrents of emails, and with smiling aplomb, did the
many rounds of readings and signings for her books. Her book
signings at Washington DC's Politics & Proseone of
the last and most prestigious of the great independent bookstoreswere
always packed, every chair taken, fans standing in the aisles.
Among the many events for her
novel A Trial in Summer was a party at my apartment. Somehow,
my memory of that conflates with another party, for Mary Kay
Zuravleff's The Bowl is Already Broken, when Ann's husband
Charlie, an esteemed historian, was still alive. He was in a
motorized scooter, but he had such joie de vivre, that scooter
might have been a whim of a contraption for floating out of Oz.
The picture I hold most vividly in my mind is of Charlie parked
in the middle of that broad room, beaming, surrounded by so many,
many of his and Ann's adoring friends.
A few years after I had returned
to live Mexico City, it seemed there might be a chance on the
horizon to come back to DC and so, under the wing of Ann's encouragement
and endorsement, I joined the board of the Writer's Center. That
turned out to be a short-lived commitment on my part, alas, but
what I remember so warmly what magical moments!was
sitting at the table in her kitchen in Chevy Chase, petting her
cat pretty Booska, while just the two of us talked writing and
teaching writing and what we could do for that beloved literary
At the Writer's Center Ann's
workshops were legendary. Novelist Frank
S. Joseph told me, "Ann was the best writing instructor
I ever had." Year after year Ann gave her students her all
plus ten. I knew, from our many conversations, how much they
meant to her. In most people's minds "Washington DC"
does not conjure images of literary community, but the fact is,
the Writer's Center is one of the largest literary centers in
the United States, and the capital and surrounding area, deep
into Maryland, Virginia and even Delaware, is filled with writers
who, at some point, took one, two, or several of Ann's workshops.
Even in her last months, her
health failing, whilst in and out of hospitals, Ann kept on writing.
She finished her ninth novel, The
Triangle, and reviewed the page proofs. Her publisher,
John Daniel, describes it thus:
"The Triangle returns
to Boston's 1955 polio epidemic, and combines the theme of coping
with disability with that of struggle in the father-daughter
friction and frustrated love. The author seems to have written
the satisfying resolution to the two overlapping conflicts in
her fictive life. This powerful novel is a satisfying finale
of a brilliant career."
Ann McLaughlin died at home on
December 20, 2016.
I am but one of a multitude of
people who can say that Ann enriched my life, both as a person
and as an artist, immeasurably. Yet how fleeting the time I had
with her, after all. Why did I not take one of her workshops?
Why did I not ask Ann more about her friend and correspondent,
John Updike, or about Janet Lewis, author of The Wife of Martin
Guerre, whom she knew from her years in California? And I
regret immensely that we did not talk more, in the most writerly
vein, as we so easily might have, about the novels of Virginia
Woolf, which she surely knew by heart, every one.
I will miss Ann for the rest
of my life. Her novels, a treasure of a consolation, will always
have a special place here by my desk in my writing room, and
in my heart.
From the Washington Post,
January 1, 2017:
ANN LANDIS McLAUGHLIN
Died at her home in Chevy Chase,
MD on Tuesday, December 20, 2016 after a brief respiratory illness.
The daughter of James M. Landis and Stella McGehee Landis, she
was born in 1928 and grew up in Cambridge, MA. She graduated
from Radcliffe College in 1952 and received a PhD in literature
from American University in 1978. Mrs. McLaughlin began teaching
several courses every year at the Writers' Center in Bethesda
when it was founded in 1976 and continued teaching until the
last year of her life; she also served on the board there. She
had fellowships at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts,
Yaddo, and the Studios of Key West.
Ann was the author of eight novels, all published by John Daniel
and Co., and recently finished correcting the final proofs on
her ninth, to be published in 2017. Her readers were particularly
drawn to her portraits of girls and young women coming of age,
often in Depression-era America.
She wrote with feeling of the intricacy of relationships those
between sisters and particularly those between daughters and
their difficult, if brilliant fathers. Her long and happy marriage
to Charles C. McLaughlin, professor of history and editor of
the Frederick Law Olmsted Papers, ended with his death in 2005.
She overcame many challenges, including polio, which she and
her husband both contracted during the 1955 epidemic in Boston,
which principally affected her speech and swallowing for the
rest of her life. But her temperament was remarkably buoyant
in the face of adversity and she will be remembered as one of
the strongest and kindest of women. She will be missed by generations
of students, her family and a wide community of friends and colleagues
who were inspired by her gallant, bright spirit, her humor, her
gentle wisdom, and her warmth.
She is survived by her sister, Ellen McKee; children, John C.
McLaughlin and Ellen M. McLaughlin; and two grandchildren, Rachel
and Aaron McLaughlin.
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