Linda Leavell, a long-time Oklahoma State University literature professor, was working away on her turquoise leather chair in her Fayetteville home where she does all of her writing. While browsing her emails, she noticed she had received an email from PEN, an international literary and human rights organization — of which she was a member. Thinking it was just another newsletter or something, she ignored it and got back to her writing.
After a while she came to a stopping point with her writing, and she almost forgot to check her email again. As it turns out, the email was actually pretty ceremonious. PEN wrote Leavell to tell her she had just won the Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for best Biography for her November 2013 book, “Hanging On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore.”
“When I opened it,” Leavell recalled, “I went, ‘Oh my gosh!’ and went upstairs and told my husband.”
When she told her husband, he paused and replied in smart-alec fashion.
“Are you sure?,” Leavell thought she heard him say.
Sworn to secrecy until PEN made the public announcement on July 30, Leavell and her husband celebrated cozily that weekend at their favorite Eureka Springs restaurant, The Cottage Inn.
What started as a dissertation on Marianne Moore, who was a popular modernist poet in the mid 20th century, Leavell spent 14 years working on the biography. She submitted her completed biography of the eccentric poet in June 2012, and it came out last November.
“You spend all this time inside your head with your computer and your books. You go out and socialize and your friends and acquaintances ask you, ‘What’s going on in your life?’ and you go, ‘Well I’m sort of working on this book.’ And they go ‘Oh…,’” Leavell said with a chuckle. “Once the book came out, all of a sudden people wanted to know what I’ve been doing for the past 14 years. That was really exciting.”
The PEN judges, James Atlas, Lisa Cohen, and Wendy Gimbel, all spoke high praise of Leavell’s dedication to research and her adept understanding of Moore.
“For over two decades, Linda Leavell mined elusive veins rich with treasure. Now she has surfaced with a gem polished to brilliance that is a precious addition to literary biography,” the judges said in their citation. “Leavell’s own fierce intelligence gives this biography its rigor.”
Although biographies are novels “under oath,” as Leavell calls them, her writing style in the biography is satisfyingly evocative in its telling of Moore’s personal story. Throughout the narrative, Leavell peppers in facts from her extensive research, creating an ebb and flow of what reads like a long-form profile.
In addition to the Jacqueline Bogard Weld award, “Hanging On Upside Down” has also been awarded the 2013 Plutarch Award for best biography, as well as being a finalist in two other national competitions.
Marianne Moore came from a very educated and literate background, leading her to eventually take up poetry. Her quirkiness and talent for looking at the world helped gain her fame, as innovative artists of her time were looking for modernist, experimental styles of writing. The biography focuses on the family dynamics at play in the Moore family. Moore lived with her mother until her mother died when Marianne was 60. While her mother was dedicated, she couldn’t let go of Moore and wanted her to remain a little girl.
“What I make a story of in my biography is that it was through poetry that Marianne really discovered her autonomy and her own voice,” Leavell said. “Part of the reason her poetry is so hard to understand is that she had to express herself very honestly while concealing herself from her mother. That was the place she could be an adult and an artist in her poetry. T.S. Elliot greatly admired her work.”
After her mother’s death, she became a public icon. Beyond her large body of work, she was an editor of a modernist poetry and cultural magazine Dial and helped promote young poets such as Elizabeth Bishop and Allen Ginsberg. Among her celebrity days, she was asked by the Ford Company to name what would eventually be called The Edsel (potential names included Silver Sword, Utopian Turtletop, and Mongoose Civique). She’s probably one of the few poets to throw the first pitch at a New York Yankees game, too.
“I think of her as sort of like the Betty White of her day,” Leavell said. “She was this cute little old woman. She didn’t have the ‘off-color’ quality that Betty White has, but she was this little white haired lady that said amazing things.”
As for the title, “Hanging On Upside Down,” Leavell said it has to do with Moore’s interpretation of the cave bat, that holds on upside down to survive. She liked the phrase, and she attributes it to how Moore was emotionally handicapped by her mother in many ways.
As for Leavell, after retiring from the academic world at Oklahoma State University, she and her husband decided to retire to Fayetteville because of their love for Eureka Springs and the urban aspects of Fayetteville.