In his 1997 song “Highlands,” Bob Dylan reports a conversation between himself and a waitress. “She says, You don’t read women authors, do you?/… I said, you’re way wrong./She says, which ones have you read, then?/I say, I read Erica Jong.”
Erica Jong. The name closes the lyric like a punch line. There is perhaps no more woman-y woman author. Those four jouncing syllables connote a kind of vast female sexuality that seems almost ridiculously overwhelming. Paul Theroux has referred to a Jong heroine as a “mammoth pudenda,” and while that’s an awful thing to call someone, Theroux has hit upon just the squirmy kind of discomfort Jong inspires. As she herself has said, Jong will always be the woman who wrote “that book.” Fear of Flying. It was the great sex novel of the 1970s.
It was also the great divorce novel of the 1970s. Dylan probably wasn’t thinking of it, but his reference to Jong was particularly apt, as he wrote the great divorce album of the 1970s. While Blood on the Tracks was a descriptive portrait of a breakup, Fear of Flying was prescriptive. It was a novel that told women how to leave their husbands.
Between 1967 and 1977, the divorce rate in America doubled. In halter tops and patched jeans, women ran away from home. As a kid, I watched my mother’s friends split with their husbands. Their houses were places of upheaval, with fathers visiting from nearby apartments, wine-drinking at odd hours and mothers going on long vacations. What I couldn’t see was this: As the runaway wives humped along toward what appeared to be freedom, there was a figure beckoning from the other side, a figure who affirmed the decision to abandon the old life and attempt the new. This figure wasn’t a new lover. It was Erica Jong.
Jong, at the time a respected poet, published Fear of Flying in 1973 with no idea of the furor she was about to unleash. By 1974, the book was a bestseller and went on to sell more than 10 million copies all over the world. It is still in print. But the numbers don’t tell the story of the deep attachment women developed to Isadora Wing, the novel’s protagonist, and to Jong herself. Novelist Lois Gould blurbed the hardback: “She’ll take you farther from home than you ever dreamed you’d go.” The idea of being gone turned out to be enormously appealing. A 1975 Newsweek profile of Jong gives an idea of the book’s impact: “Runaway wives appear periodically on her doorstep, announcing their intention to move in with her.”
Fear of Flying‘s success has been attributed to its dirtiness. According to the critics, readers were lapping the book up as a kind of classy pornography. There are plenty of naughty bits: Isadora dreams, famously, of a “zipless fuck” with a perfect stranger, where in the moment of union, clothes fastenings simply melt away. She has capricious sex, in a variety of locations and positions. She reminisces about finger-fucking at age 13. She fantasizes about her husband performing cunnilingus during her period. But it wasn’t sex, exactly, that made women’s hair stand on end and conservatives’ noses wrinkle (after all, bestseller lists at the time were sticky with novels by Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann). It was the unmistakable whiff of real life. Fear of Flying is filled with soft penises, missed orgasms, crabby partners–all the messiness of real sex. Here was someone–a female someone–telling the truth about sex. What was missing was the mythic glandularism of previous sexy fiction. What was missing was the porn. Jong spread not so much her legs, but the pages of her diary.
In fact, Jong’s mining of her life for material has been her literary idée fixe. Fear of Flying–like its sequels How to Save Your Own Life, Parachutes & Kisses and Any Woman’s Blues–closely hews to its author’s life story, as told in her 1994 memoir, Fear of Fifty. Erica Mann was born to a Jewish, upper-middle-class Manhattan family with artistic pretensions. In high school, she engaged in plenty of finger-fucking, along with writing, painting and reading poetry. Isadora, in turn, tells us she “went to school and got better marks than the boys and painted and wrote and spent Saturdays doing still lifes at the Art Students League.”
And so it goes, throughout the novel and into the seeming eternity of the three sequels. Erica married just out of Barnard to a lovely nut who promptly had a nervous breakdown; Isadora did the same. Erica thereafter married the Chinese psychiatrist Allan Jong; Isadora’s second husband is the Chinese psychiatrist Bennett Wing. The Jongs attended a psychoanalytic conference in Vienna, where Erica met a sexy, walleyed British Laingian hippie analyst. The Wings attend a Viennese shrinks’ conference, and Isadora giddily runs off with Adrian Goodlove, a sexy, walleyed etc. Adrian drags Isadora through the grotty campgrounds of Europe, where they discover that freedom’s just another word for licentious sex quickly going stale. (Jong has allowed as how the adulterous camping spree never happened, pushing Fear of Flying from memoir-with-made-up-names to invented fiction.)
The next novel, How to Save Your Own Life, finds Isadora the author of a runaway bestseller, Candida Confesses, and the wife of the son of a famous Hollywood screenwriter. So it was for Jong, who, after the publication of Fear of Flying, hooked up with Howard Fast’s son Jon and bought a Malibu love nest. Isadora tangles with some Hollywood types, while Jong, in a bid for inclusion in the annals of All-Time Terrible Ideas, sued producer Julia Phillips, ICM and Columbia Pictures over the rights to Fear of Flying.
Jong and Fast eventually moved back to Connecticut and had little Molly Jong-Fast. The two split soon thereafter, and Jong went on a single-lady stampede, ushering in a decade of affairs and substance abuse chronicled in Parachutes & Kisses and Any Woman’s Blues. Isadora terminates there, alone but with a new serenity, while Jong went on to marry one more time.
A frank, relentless surveillance makes Fear of Flying Jong’s best book. Her earlier poetry was unabashedly sexual and quite funny. (“Beware of the man who praises liberated women; he is planning to quit his job.”) In Fear of Flying, that unsparing gaze is directed toward herself. The book is preoccupied with feminism and psychoanalysis, and these two great twentieth-century movements were engaged in essentially the same project: the discovery of the true self. Jong knew this discovery could be uncomfortable, as shown in this passage, where Isadora writes a letter to a book editor: “‘Dear Mrs. Jones,’ I began. But was that too presumptuous? Perhaps I should say ‘Mrs. Jones’; the ‘Dear’ might be seen to be currying favor. How about no heading? Just launch into the letter? No. That was too stern.”
It takes a whole lot of feminism, or psychoanalysis, or whatever’s your poison, to be honest about dithering like an insecure fool over the salutation to a letter. Fear of Flying is characterized by this plunging into every aspect of Isadora’s life and making a fetish out of honesty. Most famously, Jong turned this clear eye to sex. But sex is only one aspect of a book determined to blow the lid off, well, everything. Fear of Flying, so beautifully lacking in self-consciousness, was perhaps an unrepeatable performance. It has an adolescent quality to it, a spastic gesturing.
Isadora, like any sensible woman, takes feminism as an assumed good. But, like any sensible woman, Isadora rankles at feminism’s strictures. Talking about her first husband (the crazy one), she sounds liberated: “A good woman would have given over her life to the care and feeding of her husband’s madness. I was not a good woman. I had too many other things to do.” But she’s not quite there yet. Even as she falls in love with Adrian Goodlove, she knows she shouldn’t rely on a man to solve her problems: “A really independent woman would go to the mountains alone and meditate–not take off with Adrian Goodlove in a battered Triumph.” What Erica Jong knew is that most women feel like they ought to want the mountaintop, but really want the Triumph.
Feminism in the 1970s had a hard time reconciling these two ideas. You could have an empowered life, or you could have sex with men, but probably not both. Kate Millett, Andrea Dworkin and other movement leaders were skeptical about the heterosexual dynamic. But most women weren’t. While they might be sick of the tyrannies of married life, they weren’t sick of sex.
Jong’s reflection of this reality won her readers where no one had thought to find them. She describes going on her first book tour and meeting “blackjack dealers in Reno who never read a novel until Fear of Flying.” Itchy women who didn’t know what they wanted found it in Fear of Flying, and what they found was, in the end, feminism. It was a feminism that wanted to look pretty. It was a feminism that gleefully had sex with men. It was a feminism that admitted to not being a tower of strength.
In fact, Isadora’s feminism looks a lot like the twenty-first century. Passages from Fear of Flying sound so current they could be script treatments for Sex and the City. You can just picture Carrie pacing around in her boy-cut underpants, musing, “I could easily see the sterility of hopping from bed to bed and having shallow affairs with lots of shallow people. I had had the unutterably dismal experience of waking up in bed with a man I couldn’t bear to talk to–and that was certainly no liberation either. But still, there just didn’t seem to be any way to get the best of both exuberance and stability into your life.” Then there’d be a subplot where Miranda sleeps with a bike messenger.
Fear of Flying both captured and propelled an important cultural moment. But it did not repeat itself. Jong’s later Isadora books are marked by an obsessive self-regard. Once Jong had a notion of herself as an important representative of women’s true feelings, she was doomed. The feelings she reported on began to seem constructed, premeditated. Critics were generally unimpressed. Here’s Janet Maslin in a 1977 Newsweek review of Jong’s second novel: “Isadora purports to be a fictional character, but she and Jong do seem to have been married to the same Chinese-American psychiatrist and engaged in the same well-publicized feud with that very same Hollywood producer who wants to film her first literary triumph…. ‘How to Save Your Own Life’…is little more than a series of mean-spirited attacks on the author’s own enemies.”
Jong’s historical novels have been more ambitious: Fanny retells Tom Jones, with a female heroine; Serenissima sends a movie star back in time to sixteenth-century Venice. These books are intelligently made, with lots of sprightly writing, but they always seem to be about the same full-speed-ahead, hypersexual woman: Erica Jong. She has gone out of her way to find heroines who embody the Jongian virtues of self-determination, keen sexuality and deep ambivalence, not least in her latest novel, Sappho’s Leap. In Jong’s fictional biography of the poetess, Sappho flees her native Lesbos and travels the ancient world from Egypt to Delphi, encountering seemingly every classical freak on offer, including Pegasus, the Amazons, the sirens and even Aesop. Sappho’s Leap is deeply reminiscent of the Isadora Wing books: Sappho is yet another woman balancing motherhood, art, fame and a letch for younger lovers.
The book, lively throughout, works best when Sappho finds herself among the Amazons. Here Jong takes the opportunity to skewer the feminist debate she herself helped to engender. At first the Amazons seem to live in a kind of womyn’s utopia: the beautiful warriors share childcare, ride winged horses and, like good liberals, cultivate peace within their ranks. But Amazonia holds up to investigation about as well as any collective. Closer examination reveals fissures: The Amazons kill off their boy babies; they’re ruled by a bossy lady dictator; the horses’ wings have lately shrunk to mere vestigial winglets. Sappho’s solution? More lovin’! She tells the Amazons, “When Aphrodite inspires us, flowers bloom and maidens laugh and mares give birth to winged foals…. Without her mischief, nothing flies.” This was the same message Isadora brought to the dour precincts of women’s lib years ago. It’s nice to see Jong still worrying the knot of feminism. On the other hand, recasting the most celebrated female poet of the ancient world as yet another Isadora demonstrates a certain presumption, or at least myopia.
Still, whatever might be said about Jong’s writing, she has shown an uncanny knack for embodying the zeitgeist in her personal life. Reading her memoir you find she is almost hilariously a creature of her time. When Fear of Flying hit it big, she bought a Pacer. A Pacer! A 1976 “Newsmakers” paragraph in Newsweek revealed her “standing on her head and performing other acrobatics as a convert to yoga.” Then she ran off to Malibu and bought a house with a waterbed and a hot tub, overlooking the Pacific. The 1980s found her ensconced in Connecticut, living the suburban good life like the parents in Risky Business. In the 1990s she was full of goddess-worship and AA spirituality. Now, as an aging baby boomer, Jong has developed a typically geriatric interest in antiquity with Sappho’s Leap.
If Jong didn’t get you with her writing, she’d still end up representing you simply by being the world’s most visible liberated lady. My mother, an excellent reader and also a hater of sexy stuff, didn’t like Fear of Flying. “Dull,” she said, when I asked her about it. But get this: Around the time the book came out, my mother left my father for a hippie eight years her junior. Here’s Jong, in a 1977 interview, talking about her second novel: “Many men are outraged by How to Save Your Own Life because it is an instance of a woman actually changing her life, and doing this awful thing of finding a younger man–a man with no money and a beard.” Oh, boy, was that ever Larry, that last bit about no money and a beard. In fact, he had enough beard to braid it, and, what’s more, he did. The four of us–my mother, Larry, my brother and myself–went off to live on a sailboat for the summer. There was a little hammock over my bunk where I kept my Archie comics. There was the smell of pot. There was rolling out my sleeping bag every night. This was freedom.
Now, my mom was not one of those women who read Fear of Flying and showed up on Erica Jong’s doorstep in hopes of tea and sympathy (or white wine and giggly sex talk). She didn’t use Jong as a how-to manual. But Jong normalized such behavior. She was blonde, she was unthreatening, she was featured in Time magazine and she was saying it’s OK to go. Just go, she said. And they all did.
My mother and Larry are still together. It would be hard to say that what she did was a mistake. Larry turned out to be one of the great ones. He became, of all things, a tugboat captain. My brother and I had an adventurous childhood, which sounds like, and sometimes was, a Chinese curse. Possibilities proliferated ahead of us: more parents, more homes, more adventures. Unfortunately, these are not necessarily things children want. And what of my lovely father, left behind?
My mother married at 22; she had my older brother at 24. Reading Erica Jong reminded me that my mom’s generation didn’t hear a word about feminism until it was too late. When liberation began singing in their ears, they already had kids. They were unskilled. They didn’t have careers. They had no idea what they were doing. But so beautiful was the singing, they left anyway. They had to go, once someone told them they could.