the truth about the opium lady

YOUNG

I knew an opium lady while I was a student at the University of Chicago, and with whom I spent much time, reading aloud the works of Shakespeare. That is how I worked my way through school.

INTERVIEWER

Who was she?

YOUNG

She had been under opium for about fifteen or twenty years and had not walked for at least ten years. She was one of the original patronesses of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, and of Jane Addams’s Hull-House. She was also a friend of Thornton Wilder, Harriet Monroe, and many of the other intellectuals of that day. I was with her during her opium dreams. I was with her when the golden bird, who was the spirit of Heroclitus, perched upon the bedpost. I was literally with her when she had a long conversation with the head of John the Baptist.

INTERVIEWER

After decapitation?

YOUNG

After decapitation. I was also there when she spoke with a little rabbit. I was with her when she entertained an imaginary elephant, and when blue fish would be floating over her bed. I began to write my novel quite unexpectedly. I had planned to write a biography of Toulouse L’Ouverture [sic], the Haitian rebel, but my publisher wanted me to write a novel . . . she was the most fabulous, single person I had ever known. I was interested in her for her dreams and her beautiful personality and surroundings.

INTERVIEWER

And the problems of opium addiction?

YOUNG

No. The doctors in her household were always rushing about with Elizabeth Barrett Browning letters to try to explain this beautiful opium lady who was their patient. She was like an Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whom, of course, I had read, along with DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I had read Coleridge, too.

INTERVIEWER

So that you would understand her?

YOUNG

No. All this was in my background before I ever arrived. Her house was just right for a young poet. There couldn’t have been a better place. I was offered opium every evening. But I always said, “No, thanks,” and for that reason, she used to call me the “prosaic sprite,” because I didn’t need drugs to dream. I stayed with her most of the time. I was offered the bed in which Edna St. Vincent Millay had slept, when she was a visitor in Chicago, and the idea of sleeping in Millay’s bed—it would mean nothing to me now, but at that age . . . it seemed to be the most marvelous thing that could ever happen to any young person. On the opium lady’s bedside was a silver drinking cup which had belonged to John Keats, a little mosaic Persian letter set, and a beautiful bird with a sea shell. I have these things at my bedside now. Her daughter gave them to me when she died.

INTERVIEWER

You did not enter the opium lady’s dreams?

YOUNG

I do not think she dreamed about people. She dreamed about mandarins and human-sized blackbirds standing in the hallways, or invisible elephants. Adlai Stevenson—he may have known her, by the way—talked about the invisible elephant when he was running for office. I don’t know if he ever got a letter I wrote him, telling him about the invisible elephant in the opium lady’s dreams. He had the same idea: that the thing you think is not there may be there.

(Marguerite Young interviewed by Charles Ruas, Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction No. 66”.)

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