Reclaiming Pamela Moore from the Sisterhood of Sad Literary Girls ‹ Literary Hub

New York Times called the 18-year-old novelist Pamela Moore an “American Sagan” upon the publication of her first novel, chocolate for breakfast, in 1956. But when Moore died by suicide in 1964, just a few years later, New York Times reported the news in a 100-word crime story and did not publish an obituary for the writer. By the end of the decade, her entire body of her work was hard to find in print.

Today, Chocolates for Breakfast has been rediscovered as a cult favorite in certain feminist circles, but the rest of her work remains out of print. When Moore is remembered, she is siloed into our culture’s favorite fetishized sorority, the sisterhood of sad literary girls, and described in popular media as a less-famous shade of other woman writers who died young (for example, “The Sylvia Plath You’ sees Never Heard Of”).

chocolate was an early entry in the canon of novels that delve into the darkness of female adolescence, sex, and the midcentury melancholy of precocious girls. It opens in a boarding school dorm, where two teen girls are gossiping about the crush one of them has on a female teacher. Two hundred pages later, we’ve graduated from dorm rooms to sanitarium cells and ended up in a hotel room, with our protagonist’s innocence, virginity, and illusions shattered, and her friend de ella dead. Along the way, Courtney has harbored romantic affections for men and women and slept with other queer characters.

Years before the feminist consciousness-raising of the 1960s and decades before authors regularly described either depression or bisexual yearning, this novel nonchalantly presented a bisexual protagonist falling in and out of the emotional abyss of depression and adolescent angst—a girl finding herself and then finding the world wanting.

When her book came out in the fall of 1956, Moore was a Barnard College student hoping to become the next F. Scott Fitzgerald, according to her journal. Instead, critics compared her to Sagan, the other precocious “girl writer” who was penning stories about sex and sorrow at the time. Since Sagan had achieved international success, US publishers had been searching for an American analog: a girl with her face upturned to womanhood’s cliff, unsure whether she’ll survive the climb.

When Moore died, she was writing a novel exploring the economic and philosophical gulf between the US and Western European literary culture.

Publishing house Rinehart & Company found their literary starlet in teenage Moore and her bildungsroman, equal parts salacious and sorrowful. Marketing materials for the book played up its sex appeal, as well as its contribution to the burgeoning canon of decadent lost-youth novels, describing it as “the disturbing story of a teenage girl, racing recklessly toward womanhood.” Critics placed it in the fast-growing genre of “youth problem novels, told by the young” (Newsweek). The book was a bestseller in the US, Italy, and France, going through 11 printings and selling more than 700,000 copies its first year in print.

During the press frenzy around chocolate’ publication, Moore was subjected to a genre of journalistic inquiry with which female novelists are all too familiar: questions about her diet, her love life, and how much of her fiction is really fiction. Like the writers she would end up compared to—Plath and Sagan—as well as so many other female fiction writers, Moore was assumed a memoirist more than a novelist, called an “apt reporter” and “confessional” in reviews that obsessed over which details of chocolate’ protagonist’s life were mirrored in her own. Novelists regularly fictionalize aspects of their own lives in their writing, and in the lead-up to the book’s release, Moore, like many authors before and after her, explained that a portion of the material was “drawn from actual life experiences, although the novel is not autobiographical.”

when chocolate came out, Moore traveled to Europe, where she felt critics and readers “wanted to know my politics and metaphysics” instead of her diet tips. She worked with a French publishing house to release a version of her novel including certain vignettes—scenes rife with sexual tension between Courtney and her teacher, Miss Rosen, and scenes where characters question American values—that Moore herself had excised from the American version, in an act of what she called, in the preface to the French edition, “censorship by anticipation.” Moore wrote that authors are constrained by “the preference of the audience about whom they are writing.” Preference is an understatement; she’d grown up in the milieu she was writing for and about, and she knew that what they called preferences were prejudices.

The French version of the novel included explicit descriptions of lesbian desire that had been removed from its earlier printing—in this version, Miss Rosen lingers, stepping into Courtney’s synapses at opportune moments. In one scene, as Courtney gazes at a man, asleep, who just took her virginity from her, she feels “almost embarrassed, with the sensual self-consciousness that she had known… when Miss Rosen leaned over her.” In these deleted scenes, Courtney and Miss Rosen’s earlier interactions are also more explicitly erotic.

Moore’s next novel was rejected by her publisher, who thought it was too much of a departure from the adolescent sex, substance abuse, and general melancholia-infused bad behavior on which she had made a name. Even though chocolate had taken an unsparing perspective on mental health, sexuality, and the destructive impact of gender roles on adolescent girls, its sheen of sex and scandal is what the public remembered—and what the publishing houses thought would sell. As such, Moore’s next two books, The Exile of Suzy Q and The Horsy Setwere written in the same vein as her first, featuring adolescent girls undergoing sexual awakenings and struggling with mental health.

Moore only published one novel that didn’t conform to that mold, and it was published in Europe before the US. A social novel about the clashing communities in one Lower East Side tenement building, the book followed two refugee families, an Upper East Side girl, her ella artist boyfriend, and young beatniks. The novel sliced ​​right through the 1960s culture clashes, covering proto-gentrification, corrupt democratic machine bosses, and the trick ladder of the American dream. The book also portrayed a young female artist caught between her romantic passion and her artistic one.

Bucking tradition, the protagonist kicks out her young husband while pregnant and decides to devote herself to birthing a novel and a child on her own, and at the same time. She may be able to be a writer and a mother, but, she claims, she cannot be a writer and a wife: “she was a poet and removed from her husband now, birthing her monster poem.”

After its British publication, an American publisher picked up the book, re-titling it after the girl from the Upper East Side: Diana. The cover features a blonde in a translucent, lacy nightgown, legs crossed atop a duvet, beckoning the viewer with a sultry gaze and a smokey eye. The text on the back teases that this delicate rich girl will meet a mechanic “magnetic with animal virility.” The book’s cover and promotional vignette are purposefully misleading, insinuating a sex scene that doesn’t happen in the novel. Instead, the scene those two characters share is one of cross-class friendship, where the two find something much more elusive than an orgasm: an understanding.

Moore was a writer unafraid to dive into the gnawing numbness of depression in the 1950s, unafraid to write into the putrid core of female adolescence, or the suffocating veil of depression.

Moore spent the last years of her life working on her final, still unpublished, novel: Kathy on the Rocks, following a former teenage prodigy and celebrity author. In her diary of hers, Moore wrote that she intended the book as a “picture of a prodigy, tormented by silliness and inconsistency from a society which ca n’t comprehend her.”

Throughout the spring and summer of 1964, Moore’s journal entries turned desperate, alternately rage-fueled and plaintive. The script tilts, spiraling down the page as she chronicles her marital difficulties de ella, writing that her husband calls her “irrational” and her career de ella “doomed,” and refused her when she requested help, again and again .

On a late summer afternoon, just seven years after the publication of her first novel, Moore stacked the typewritten manuscript of her final book on her desk and placed it next to her leather-bound journal. At the bottom of her final journal entry, she wrote: “this diary should be added to the unfinished Kathy.” Moore died by suicide that afternoon; by evening a detective had seized both her diary and her manuscript of her as evidence.


Within a decade of her death, all of Moore’s books had gone out of print. Pamela and her protagonist de ella both faded fast from public memory—one dead, the other lost—and when we did remember, we could no longer tell the two apart. The past decade has seen a raft of resurrections of so-called forgotten female writers, who have been receiving write-ups and reissues of once-out-of-print books, from the Paris Review’s “Feminize Your Canon” column to the New York Review of Books’ reissues of fiction by a number of authors, including Susan Taubes and Anna Kavan.

But there seem to be two postmortem paths for the rediscovered “girl writers,” misunderstood by their public while alive, then consigned to cultural memory: martyr or mental case. Both plotlines obscure the work itself, as we get caught up in the riptide of a pretty girl’s glamorous downward spiral. After all, was n’t Moore’s first novel de ella inspired by her own life de ella?

“It’s hard not to read many of the passages in Chocolates for Breakfast as a call for help,” Dina Gachman wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books upon the book’s re-release. Robert Nedkeloff ends his essay on Moore for The Baffler on a similar note of armchair diagnosis, writing that “from a purely clinical perspective” passages in her work “epitomize a classic ‘mixed state,’” a symptom of bipolar disorder.

Fetishizing women writers before promptly forgetting them, or forcing them into a mold they died trying to wriggle out of, is an American tradition that has cost us the legacy of more than one talented woman writer. The impulse to exhume their literary graves is a valiant and feminist one, but too often, these claims reinscribe the same labels to which the women were subjected in their lifetimes—because our culture still remains enthralled by narratives of female self-destruction and wasted potential. .

Moore was a writer unafraid to dive into the gnawing numbness of depression in the 1950s, a woman on the vanguard of feminist consciousness, unafraid to write into the putrid core of female adolescence, or the suffocating veil of depression. But she was also an artist with a far wider range than that description gives her credit for, and shining a spotlight on her debut novel de ella while the rest of her oeuvre de ella remains out of print does n’t do her work justice.

Beyond the sex and sadness, Moore was also a writer of a social novel of the 60s, a keen and canny depicter of American class distinctions and the nuanced, painful experience of assimilation in Eastern European immigrant communities. When she died, she was writing a novel exploring the economic and philosophical gulf between the US and Western European literary cultures, a book that took aim at the very US publishing industry that celebrated her only to destroy her by refusing to allow her to evolve as a writer. Moore lived in a society she felt could not comprehend her; perhaps today’s society could, but only if we read the work we’ve ignored for decades.

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