An Inner Exuberance


October 1, 2015

An Inner Exuberance

The Little Locksmith by Katharine Butler Hathaway

Neglected Nonfiction Classics


With this review, River Teeth begins an occasional series of essays on nonfiction books we believe deserve to be read, whether again or for the first time.


One of the most poignant, absorbing autobiographical memoirs I’ve ever read is this gem from 1943, The Little Locksmith. I say autobiographical memoir for Katharine Butler Hathaway’s is old school, telling an outwardly undramatic tale about an exuberant inner life: she died at 58 just after this book, the first of several planned, was published. What gives it its memoirish intensity is her probity: she plunges into self-entanglements that would trip up most authors but gives her the freedom to invent herself in prose.

Old school autobiography has about it a fly-over quality. The ego and its accomplishments sees the life’s totality, plainly, in retrospect, as though the author has lain awake, waiting for just this later-in-life moment to reconfigure the whole. Written before the scenic enslavement our show-all memoirists practice today (The Little Locksmith has none of the yeasty worldliness of Eat, Pray, Love), Hathaway courts her own muse and style. Hers is a Thoreau-like capacity to paddle over a clear lake and behold the sandy bottom, the water a lens enlarging the world below. 

The life, in brief. Born in 1890 with spinal tuberculosis, also known as Pott’s disease, or arthritis of the vertebrae, Hathaway is strapped to a board from age five to fifteen, the then-current treatment to correct her “deformity.” Well-off, her family fears she’ll suffer that which a locksmith who occasionally works in their home in Danvers, Massachusetts, has. His stooped frame and peaked back shorten him considerably. Hunchbacks, they were called. Her board fate is awful in itself, but so, too, is the child’s emotional disability, which Hathaway describes with Freudian precision.

The very calmness that grownups seem to bring with them into the fear-crowded darkness of a child’s bedroom too often consists only in a hopeless insulation and imperviousness on their part, making them seem so superior and panic-proof that the child is driven to conceal from them all the really queer and terrible things he thinks or feels.

When Hathaway is unstrapped at fifteen, she finds the straightening regimen has not given her any height. She can walk but she’s topped out, tall as a ten-year-old. Against the grain, children are her boon companions; adults sneer at her misshapenness.

In contemporary memoir such body-horror would be the story (imagine: the lineup of agents! the interviews on “Good Morning America”!). The author’s pain is dramatized in flashcard scenes of prescriptive torture or debilitating neglect by passersby, family, and peers, leading to suicidal ideation and her sexual, romantic, and artistic turmoil, all of it repressed, all of it driving her mad inside that Quasimodo body. Down that whirlpool of despair, however, is not where she takes us.

Instead, the circus of affliction is torn down in favor of her self-mindfulness, which her isolation and difference have liberated. As though ordained, her inwardness flows forth, in part, because, in her thirties and forties, she’s found what she’s meant to be: a writer, an interiorist. The family’s gift of an idyllic home in Castine, Maine, gets her destinal self moving.

My work [as a writer] could be therefore, and was, a fierce contradiction of anything my mother could imagine that I would do. It was the work of a strong other self hidden inside me, a fast-maturing other self that was not even acquainted with the gentle, childish little invalid, not even politely aware of her. The new self seemed even to be trying to show that the little invalid was only made of papier mâché and had never really lived at all.

That admission is mid-book, revealed in a phenomenally lucid chapter. In it, she builds up, like a small city, her emotional core, largely to guard it from a querulous mother who asserts such alone-time will destroy her daughter. Hardly. What precedes and follows this chapter is Hathaway’s celebration of her solitude, unpacking with uncanny precision the mystery of the “childish little invalid.” Some might call this a spiritual search; I call it individuation, our being beckoning us to the undiscovered self we don’t know we have, which, the writing reveals, we do know.

One day, Hathaway stands before the mirror, repulsed by her sunken body. She sees, as if through another’s eyes, the “little, pitiable, hideous figure.” (The word little is used often and only as a curse.) She is ashamed. Worse, she is befuddled that her personhood wears such a costume. Yet her willingness to un-see, or see through, the image, in favor of espying her artistic self, rescues her. So, too, does her brother Warren; he recognizes her uniqueness. She writes that he “acted as if he did not even see my disguise.” Because of his recognition, she falls in “love” with him.

While still in Danvers, Hathaway, devoid of intellectual stimulation, writes to her Harvard-attending brother in hopes of gaining his “emotional intimacy.” In the same letter, she panics; she’s disclosed too much, the too-raw desire for an other. She worships Warren for his kind ear and his attentiveness, their correspondence reading “like love letters.” She decides that since she is sure she’ll have no other romance with a man “it is all right for me to feel as if this were a love affair.”

Hathaway fantasizes about her brother, and he reciprocates, with stunted encouragement, saying, “Sometimes I wish you were not my sister.” This thrills her. But she nixes any involvement and not for the incestuous reason we imagine. She is “very suspicious” of her “own amorousness,” judging it in psychoanalytic terms: her false self “would be always waiting to trick me and betray me and make me believe” she is in love. So she rejects the notion. Still, the “wild animal” released in her, she is surprised by the thought’s obsessiveness, calling the desire for an incestuous love “a queer outlandish memento, like a piece of lava from Vesuvius lying on the parlor table.”

In the end, she is grateful to Warren who has summoned her to a precipice from which she withdraws but only after a microscopic examination of her emotion. Still, she’s Cinderella-ed by “the unbelievable thing, that I could be desired if only I would believe it.” Though she tells us she struggles to believe it, the narrative reveals otherwise.

Such is the great bridge in this book between memoirist and self. The memoirist reports on a targeted part of the self—she who is unaware of particular emotional bewilderments until the writer, her advocate, points them out. The memoirist sees what the self cannot see. Called to action, the writer unmasks the hidden self, whose unwillingness to be examined is, in the end, not very strong. In this penitentiary, there is no single warden that rules the roost—only a relationship between jailer and inmate.

The sooner Hathaway the memoirist realizes she is loved by another, and dreams of a romance that would confirm it, the better she is able to allow this love to be accepted by, and integrated into, a kind of synchronized self. Once attained, she names this wanton condition “the cruel discrepancy between [women’s] desirous heart and their own undesirableness.”

It’s as though Hathaway’s core theme is to measure the force of this discrepancy, preserve the person to whom it happens, alongside her other writerly self who can convey, strangely, that which she can’t understand in life. The writer delivers the self the self doesn’t know can be delivered. Such is the transmutation the best memoirists practice.

If no one can love Hathaway physically, then her loving sensibility must be found elsewhere. The book travels across two realms seeking this sensibility. One is her house in Castine. She devotes many passages to its grumpy architecture, its rehabilitation to its old cottage decor, its proximity to view and venture out into Nature. The house also supports her family’s antiques and the occasional niece and nephew.

The other realm, as I’ve discussed, is her writing abilities. She begins to publish poems and articles in Harper’s, and she grows confident in her artist’s self-reliance.

In one spot, Hathaway writes about an idea she has for a novel: two sisters who live in a yellow farmhouse, whose passions she contemplates like an epic film in her head. She reports on this with a kind of Flaubertian performance, a single periodic sentence, musically erected, which nonfiction writers would be well-served to emulate. Here is a master focused on—and enacting—the writer’s craft.

By keeping my whole heart bent upon their hearts [characters in the novel] and my mind’s eye faithfully and eagerly fixed on them—watching not merely their figures moving to and fro, but also their rooms and their dooryard and their neighbors’ houses and everything else they saw—I was able to build up for myself what appeared to be an invulnerable calmness and joy, and a complete indifference to my own personal life except that it should remain empty and leave me free to live wholly in this new element which was not the real world but a kind of mirror element in which the essence and movement of the real world was reflected, as in a fortune-teller’s crystal.

The Little Locksmith
Katharine Butler Hathaway

$16.95 Paperback  | $9.99 Kindle


Thomas Larson

About the Reviewer:

Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books: The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, The Saddest Music Ever Written: The Story of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” and The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative. He is a longtime staff writer for the San Diego Reader, now its Critic-At-Large, and Book Reviews editor for River Teeth. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. His website is

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