Janet & her dear Phebe

a novel by Clarrisa Dixon (mother of Henry Cowell)

Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1909

Frog Peak Music online edition, 2005


By Michael Hicks

Four years after his mother, Clarissa Dixon, died, Henry Cowell was still shopping her poetry to publishers. Although he had set sixteen of her poems to music and performed them, he still wanted to get a book deal for his single mom's collected poetry--so long as he could avoid a "slippery" publisher, he said. He remembered how the Frederick A. Stokes Company had treated her first book, Janet and Her Dear Phebe..

Stokes's 1908 contract for that book gave Clarissa $100 and twelve complimentary copies. She would earn royalties only after a thousand copies were sold. And Stokes would have first right of refusal on her next five books--a right they sternly exercised on the three book manuscripts she sent them in the next four years.

When Janet and Her Dear Phebe came out in February 1909, Stokes advertised it in the New York Times as a chronicle of "two natural, healthy little girls who have for each other an intense affection." The publisher proudly called it "a revelation of love between children that will touch every woman's heart."

Reviewing the book, the Times praised it, mildly. It was, the paper said, ""a very intense sort of a love story in which the lovers are two little girls who are devoted to each other with that fervency known only to feminine childhood." Yet, as the review observed, "the fates, with their usual malice toward true love, do not allow the course of even their innocent affection to run smooth." The plot was simple: "A feud divides their families, the children are torn apart and for many years are lost to each other, until they meet again in their womanhood." But they write letters to each other, and in "the letters and verses of the children the author has kept very close to the child heart and the child mind. They are credited with neither that overwise thought nor that maturity of feeling with which too many authors endeavor to interpret childhood and succeed only in falsifying it." Overall, "A sweeter, truer picture of childish philosophy and childish feeling has not been made in a long time."

Some readers may have wondered how platonic this "very intense sort of love story" really was--the girls gush over each other in ways that transgress Victorian propriety. But no reader could overlook the progressivist ideology woven into the girls' homespun dialogue. Despite their dependence on each other for assurances of love, both girls celebrate individuality, uniqueness. What distinguishes weeds from flowers, Phebe explains, "isn't the smell; it's the plentiness É If there was only one dog-fennel and only one blossom on it, people'd call it a flower and walk a mile to look at it."

The girls converse often at the local spring, discussing nature, mythology, philosophy, and literature. When their fathers determine to end the girls' friendship, Janet and Phebe communicate by leaving letters for each other at the spring: "Let's write as we would talk if we were sitting on the grass near the spring with our feet bare and our dresses patched." But the letters that follow belie any sense of informality. Indeed, they become, in part, an anthology of poems. Some of these are childhood doggerel, others small tracts on liberty and non-conformity. The first of Janet's poems, "What Ime Tired Of," is typical, playful yet defiant:

Ime tired of molasses and rye bread
Ime tired of Shaker bonnets on my head,
Ime tired of The College
I hate knowledge.

Phebe's "Love of Freedom" describes three creatures--a dog, a pig, and a man--each of whom digs himself out of imprisonment. In the final stanza, she writes:

I think I should not like to be
A thief nor dog nor a pig,
But I'd like to be free
As the whole of the three
To love my Janet when I'm big.

Of the four poems from the book that Henry Cowell set to music, the most potent was Phebe's "My Aunt." In five eight-line verses it tells how the poet's aunt prefers living outdoors to indoors (where one has to clean and sweep), prefers dressing in animal skins to wearing gowns, prefers walking to riding, and prefers anything wild and uneven to their opposites. The fourth verse reads:

My auntie has a garden
Laid out in rings and rows
All pruned and kept in order,
With walks that you'd suppose
Were made with wax and rollers,
And yet, my aunt declares:
"Ide rather have a forest
Where things don't grow in squares."

The poems gradually mutate into prose poems. In her last of these, Janet meditates on Phebe: "She is always new. Every day her face is different and every day it is beautiful, like flowers that are never two alike but every one is loveliness and delight." Uniqueness, individualism, novelty, difference--those are the constant themes of the book.

Despite Stokes's assurance, not every woman's heart was touched by Janet and Her Dear Phebe. After slow sales, in the fall of 1910 the publisher reissued it (with a new jacket) as a "juvenile" title. But the marketing ploy failed. By December 1913 the book had still sold a total of only 538 copies. The hundred dollars Clarissa had received--payment in full--was long gone, of course. It had barely kept her and her son from starving.

n 1914, two years before her death, Clarissa wrote yet another short book manuscript. It was a biography of teenage Henry, whom she had determined must fulfill her progressivist ideals. In the biography's opening pages, Clarissa listed the three great forces in the cosmos: Love, Wisdom, and Freedom. Those three, the holy trinity of a New Age, had inspired her intimate manifesto (disguised as a novella) Janet and Her Dear Phebe. It remains her only published book. Reading it, one wonders how her dear Henry could ever become anything less than he did.

Biography of Michael Hicks

Born in San Jose, California, Michael Hicks (1956- ) received a DMA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1984 and has been teaching at Brigham Young University since 1985. His chamber and solo works have been performed by artists around the country and recorded on three Tantara label CDs, most recently, Ritual Grounds (2003).

Hicks has authored three books: Mormonism and Music: A History (1989), Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions (1999), and Henry Cowell, Bohemian (2002), all published by University of Illinois Press. He has also published historical and analytical articles in many books and journals (including American Music, Journal of Aesthetic Education, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Musical Quarterly, and Perspectives of New Music). His Mormon-related articles and poetry have appeared in several books and in the journals Dialogue, Sunstone, BYU Studies, Journal of Mormon History, and Utah Historical Quarterly. His awards include the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award (1994 and 2003), the Frances and Emily Chipman Award (Mormon History Association, 1989), and the Morris S. Rosenblatt Award (Utah Historical Society, 1991). He and his wife Pamela are the parents of four children.