August 29, 2018

Outside Looking In With Mary Shelley and the Parkers, Dorothy and Charlie

There’s too much in my head for this horn— Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

By Stuart Mitchner

And there’s too much in my head for this column.

One of the pleasures of writing a piece every week is being able to put fresh-in-the-moment impressions in play even if they don’t always mesh with the subject. Like when the pennant race is heating up and the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly come back from the dead with a new manager, an injection of young talent, and the magical properties of their hottest hitter’s homemade salsa. Being attached to a team is like being lashed to a runaway train; full speed ahead one day, off the rails the next. I was so blitzed by the too-muchness of last week’s after-midnight sweep of the Dodgers in L.A. that I almost forgot we were coming out on Charlie Parker’s birthday.

On top of that I’m still dealing with an overflow of Dorothy Parker from last week’s column while on my way to Mary Shelley, who was born tomorrow, August 30, give or take 221 years, which is why I’m reading Frankenstein ahead of the bicentennial Halloween marathon recital at Chancellor Green, named for Princeton graduate Henry Green, who graduated in 1820, two years after the Creature made his literary debut.

The Other Parker

I didn’t know that the other Parker had the equivalent of a jazz musician’s command of her instrument until I read “The Little Hours,” where she wakes up at four in the morning, “the zero hour … the time the swooning soul hangs pendant and vertiginous between the new day and the old … when all ways, traveled or virgin, fall away from the stumbling feet, when all before the straining eyes is black. Blackness now, everywhere is blackness.” From the sound of it so far, she could be sharing the zero hour with 19-year-old Mary the night she envisioned her creation, but Parker prefers to keep it fast and light, riffing throughout on “that lovable old cynic” La Rochefoucauld and  scattering outlandish puns in her wake (“I’ll stay off Verlaine, too; he was always chasing Rimbauds”), and refusing to count sheep (“Suppose they never get counted — what’s the worst that can happen? If the number of imaginary sheep in this world remains a matter of guesswork, who is richer or poorer for it? No, sir; I’m not going to be the patsy. Let them count themselves, if they’re so crazy mad after mathematics. Coming around here, at this time of day, and asking me to count them! And not even real sheep, at that.”). Parker winds up swirling in a maelstrom of sleep-inducing quotations, from “To thine own self be true” through “Silent upon a peak in Darien” and back to her solo performance’s launch point, LaRochefoucauld’s line, “If nobody had ever learned to read, very few people would be in love.”

A Kick in the Head

Charlie Parker’s female namesake is so caught up in the rhythms of invention, you can almost hear her yelps of joy above the tapping of the typewriter keys, and if you live to write, it’s hard to resist having a little free-association fun yourself.

Like today, crazy with cabin fever, I hop in my millennial CRV, put a Charlie Parker CD in the slot, and breathe in the warm mellow energy of “Barbados.” Instant gratification. A kick in the head. A jolt to the spirit. As Dorothy Parker puts it, “Any stigma will do to beat a dogma.” By the time I get to the back door of the library I’m wide-awake in the freshness of the recorded moment, savoring even those sudden breaks where Bird shouts “Hold it!” at the engineer, the train stops, they dive into another take and move maybe four bars further before he gives a cease-and-desist whistle you could hear in Wichita. Blessed be the retakes. They put the man right there in the car.

As I pull out of Sylvia Beach Place, I’ve got biographies of Mary Shelley and Charlie Parker in the passenger seat and Charlie’s knocking on heaven’s door with “Parker’s Mood.” If there’s a “song is me” moment in his music it’s in the fanfare that says Here I am, here we go, now’s the time, and then softly as in a morning sunrise comes John Lewis’s piano, a deceptively pastoral transition to sheer sorcery, Kansas City lightning (as in the title of Stanley Crouch’s biography), fiercely flashing right up to a repeat of the fanfare and a return to summer with John Lewis as a gust of sunny air blows through the window.

Something About Mary

And here she is, staring elegantly up at me from the cover of Miranda Seymour’s biography (Grove Press 2000), except this face belongs to a handsome middle-aged woman, not the miracle girl I imagined in these pages a decade ago, barefoot in a white gown shaking a tambourine and singing back-up to Keats and Shelley on “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” with Lord Byron performing Don Juan rave-ups on lead guitar. It’s hard to find images of such a Mary among the illustrations in Seymour’s biography, where she’s remembered by her Scottish friends for “her large hazel eyes and the crowning glory of her astonishing hair.” In later years, the “waving red-gold hair is pinned up” above “a high intellectual forehead.” As a young girl, along with sisters Jane and Fanny, Mary charmed the exiled ex-vice-president Aaron Burr, Princeton Class of 1772 (buried in the cemetery across from Sylvia Beach Way), who remembers the Godwin sisters fondly in his journal as “les goddesses … the three flirtatious nymphs who brightened his loneliness with invitations to take tea in their schoolroom at the top of the house.”

That was in 1812 when Mary was 15. Less than two years later she and sister Jane are running off to Europe with Shelley, credited by Seymour with putting the seed of the Creature in Mary’s mind with his stories of magic and chemical experiments. But then it would seem that she was fated to write the tale, having been born on the cusp of a new century, the same year the poem that haunted her girlhood was being talked to life by Wordsworth and Coleridge on the rocky beach at Watchet. Little Mary was 13, hiding with her siblings under the parlor sofa the night Coleridge arrived chez Godwin and delivered a chilling recitation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Walking Behind Her

The Rime actually follows Shelley into her novel, in the aftermath of the moment Victor Frankenstein comprehends the horror of the “miserable monster” he’s created, “a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.” Describing his walk through the streets of Ingolstadt on a wet dismal morning as he seeks to avoid “the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view,” hurrying on, “not daring to look about me,” Shelley morphs into Coleridge’s Mariner: “Like one who, on a lonely road,/Doth walk in fear and dread …. Because he knows a frightful fiend/Doth close behind him tread.”

Words like miserable and thing and wretch take on another, more poignant meaning when you’ve read far enough to begin to see the creature not as the 20th-century cliche of horror embodied by Boris Karloff but as the embattled alien gazing into the cottage window at a scene he devoutly wishes to be a part of, having first been enchanted by the music the old blind man plays on his guitar and then by the communal society of the other cottagers from whose example he learns to speak and read and think, albeit at a safe distance and with the aid of an abandoned portmanteau containing Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and The Sorrows of Young Werther. In his afterword to the Bantam edition of Frankenstein, Harold Bloom suggests that the creature is “more imaginative than his creator, more intellectual, more emotional,” the novel’s “most astonishing achievement” being that “the monster is more human than his creator.” For Bloom, Frankenstein “contains one of the most vivid versions we have of the Romantic mythology of the self.”

Outside Looking In

Gaze long enough into Mary Shelley’s eyes in the Richard Rothwell portrait, and the veneer of middle-aged austerity begins to fade until you can imagine that she’s still outside looking in, still the outsider, the girl who ran away. Two hundred years later, her achievement resounds beyond the mythology of the self to the mythology of the outsider, whether it’s the immigrant looking in the window of America, the refugee being denied asylum, or the solitary artist, like the writer living out her days in a New York hotel whose favorite epithet was “What fresh hell is this?” Or the great musician banned from the nightclub that was named for him, as Charlie Parker was from Birdland.


One of the truest portrayals of the Creature we’ll ever see is Rory Kinnear’s in the series, Penny Dreadful. Mary Shelley herself turns up (briefly) in The Frankenstein Chronicles, played by Anna Maxwell Martin. The 2017 film Mary Shelley, which stars Elle Fanning, suggests the need for a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Shelley and Byron.

The 200th Birthday Frankenread Festival will take place in the Chancellor Green Rotunda on three nights, October 31-Nov. 2, one for each volume of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus. There will be 62 readers from the University and the Princeton community, part of a worldwide marathon reading. For information, visit or contact Susan Wolfson, the event’s organizer, at