Too Soon?

Evelyn True Button was a small-town Ohio high school principal and outspoken women’s rights advocate. I think she was probably also the victim of some pretty serious emotional violence. And while reading her marvelously awful book, Out of the Pit, I frequently laughed out loud at the most extreme episodes of that abuse.

Now, that’s wrong, right? But is it wrong even if Button presented the story as fiction? Had I not gone to the trouble of visiting her home in McConnelsville, Ohio, where my pleasant tour guide unknowingly revealed evidence of the novel’s autobiographical nature, I would have been a reader none the wiser. Now that I know what I think I know, how do I suppress my gut response in favor of a more sober analysis?

My acquaintance with Mrs. Button, who died in 1975 at the age of 100, came about because of my interest in Ohio authors. Whenever I can, I try to read their novels and then visit related historic sites. Mrs. Button’s book presented a special fun challenge in that it is very rare, appearing in the holdings of only two libraries in the vast WorldCat catalog. So I took a trip to her alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, and spent a delightful day camped out in a Fatboy beanbag chair devouring one of the most outlandish tragicomic romances I’ve ever come across.

The quick and dirty: an adventurous young heiress of modest fortune (Zell) on a pleasure trip to the Far East reconnects with a dashing acquaintance (Vance), who sweeps her off her feet and into a life of misery interspersed with passion, slapstick, and informative travelogue sidebars. It was the monstrous accumulation of extremes and the jarring narrative shifts required to move the plot along at Button’s cantering pace that caused my outbursts of guffawing. Here’s just one episode, to give you the flavor:

Having birthed one baby that was stillborn because of outrageous medical malpractice, way-pregnant Zell is forced by Vance, on the thinnest excuse, to board a ship unescorted. Her cast of helpers at the inevitable confinement are a bumbling steward who accidentally sets her on fire, a bewildered ship’s doctor who thinks that the baby needs spanking after it starts breathing instead of before, a supposed “nurse” (actually a sex worker devoted to her profession) who announces that she “never works at sea,” and two fellow passengers, one of whom is so overbearing that she names Zell’s new daughter without consulting mama, and another who is so possessive that she comes off as a creepy would-be kidnapper. After miraculously bringing this infant safely into the world, Zell is nearly tossed into the Pacific Ocean during a clownish evacuation from the ship, after which she decides to retain the neonatal services of that bewildered doctor because she “hates to humiliate him by dismissal.”

It didn’t surprise me in the least when, after years of being defrauded of her inheritance and abandoned, Zell finally convinces Vance to sign the divorce papers…and then joins him for a lovely luncheon and some sightseeing.

What did surprise me was when my tour guide at the Button House, having never read Mrs. Button’s book herself, began to narrate a biography that matched in all major milestones the novel’s narrative. Even the photos she showed me of the real-life Evelyn and her real-life husband seemed like implausibly perfect Hollywood casting for the roles of put-upon schoolmarm and dastardly cad.

It took a while for the tragedy of all this to settle in. But then, mining for more gold on these fascinating characters, I came across a note on a genealogy message board. A forum member was seeking information on some ancestors. My happy couple.

Since that message was over ten years old, I assumed that person’s googling skills were probably equal to my own, and I didn’t post a response. But thinking about these characters as real people, with real families—that really made me wonder.

Why would a 90-year-old woman write down such a story? When we tell our own stories, where are the boundaries between catharsis and self-indulgent rationalization? While this story’s bones seem real enough, could the flesh of all these damning details be synthetic? If my great-grandmother had published a novel, even a very amateur vanity press book, is there any chance I would be unaware of it, unless her own children had decided to let that part of family lore go with her to her grave?

And mostly, I wonder about the limits of humor. Steve Allen famously claimed, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Scientists at the University of Colorado’s Humor Research Lab assessed the time factor as a shockingly brief 36 days. It’s now more than 40 years since this author’s death, more than 50 years after her story was published, and a full century since “Vance” perpetrated atrocities against “Zell” that ranged from withholding her personal mail to dousing his elegantly dressed wife with cold water just because she was “so beautiful when she was furious.” A century’s way longer than 36 days. But is it long enough?

Steve Allen later amended his formula to add another factor. “Tragedy plus time plus the will to be amused equals comedy.” Obviously, if I drove a couple of hours and spent a day reading a novel, I possessed the will to be amused. But more importantly, the author herself must have had that same will.

Some cursory genealogical research suggests that the real-life “Vance” continued to roam after the Buttons’ divorce, possibly fathering a namesake along the way, but probably dying alone in Oklahoma. Evelyn, on the other hand, enjoyed the security of the hometown her ancestors had founded, rose to leadership in her profession, developed a reputation as a no-nonsense character who trotted her daughters to dinner at the Blue Bell Diner every day because she couldn’t be troubled to cook, and claimed ownership of her own story.

In writing this ridiculous, completely worthwhile novel/memoir, she was like the pedestrian under the piano whose good fortune, as she strolled along life’s sidewalk, prevented her from being crushed. Looking back over her shoulder at the broken mass of wood and ivory and wire, and hearing that crazy cacophony fade to nothing, how could she fail to laugh from sheer joy at her narrow escape?

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