By Joyce Carol Oates
New York: Dutton, 1998
My Heart Laid Bare is a striking departure for Joyce Carol Oates: a sweeping epic novel of the fortunes and misfortunes of a family of enterprising confidence artists in 19th-century America. Mythic in scope, it is Oates’s most daring work yet—a stunning tale of crime and transgression, and of a mysterious and tragic woman whose secret history resonates from one century to another—with profound moral consequences.
“I am a paragon of manhood. A gentleman-stallion in the prime of my life. A man of sparing charm, sly with secrets, flushed with modesty. Am I like other men? I am not.”
The time is 1891. The man is Abraham Licht, a confidence artist who has arrived in Muirkirk to establish his criminal dynasty: Thurston and Harwood, the sons who emulate their dashing father—only to be drawn into murder; beautiful Millicent, her father’s equal in The Game, his superior in the more dangerous game of familial control; and Elisha—the adopted son—Abraham’s true heir in talent and ambition, cruelly banished from his father’s affections. Like a biblical patriarch, Licht sees his immortality in his children. But his own mortality lies in the far-off, forgotten past, in lady’s maid Sarah Licht. Masquerading as nobility in stolen jewels and finery in 18th-century England, exiled to America to avoid the hangman’s noose, she would undergo many transformations—belle of the Carolinas, widow, governess, and midwife—before meeting her fate in the marshy wilds of Old Muirkirk.
It is Sarah’s spirit that haunts their story, as Abraham and his clan move with consummate ease through the newly expanding country, from scheme to dazzling scheme. Caught between the ghosts of the past and those that await him in the future, Abraham will live to see the dark, unholy secrets of the soul bared at last, as brother turns against brother, lover against lover, blood against blood.
From the virgin provinces of New York State to the rough-and-tumble western frontier…from the political backrooms of Washington, D.C., to the Atlantic City of the Gilded Age…from Carnegie Hall to Harlem in the twenties and thirties, My Heart Laid Bare is a sumptuous, sinuous novel of ingenious invention—one imbued with a mesmerizing narrative voice. At its center is an unforgettable family, as strongly possessed of the power to deceive as they are of the power to love.
If any ambitious man have a fancy to revolutionize, at one effort, the universal world of human thought, human opinion, and human sentiment, the opportunity is his own—the road to immortal renown lies straight, open, and unencumbered before him. All that he has to do is to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple—a few plain words—”My Heart Laid Bare.” But—this little book must be true to its title. No man dare write it. No man could write it, even if he dared. The paper would shrivel and blaze at every touch of the fiery pen.
—Edgar Allan Poe, 1848
Prologue: The Princess Who Died in Old Muirkirk
- “Midnight Sun”
- “The Lass of Aviemore”
- “A Bird in a Gilded Cage”
- In Old Muirkirk
- “In Adam’s Fall . . . ”
- The Pilgrim
- The Forbidden
- The Catechism of Abraham Licht
- “The Mark of Cain”
- The Mute
- The Grieving Father
- The Fate of “Christopher Schoenlicht”
- “Little Moses”
- “Gaily Through Life I Wander”
- Secret Music
- The Desperate Man
- The English Reformer in AmericaThe Condemned Man
- The Guilty Lovers
- The Ingrate Son
- By Night, by Stealth
- The Society for the Reclamation & Restoration of E. August Napoléon Bonaparte
- Fools and Knaves
- The Betrayal
- “I Have No Feeling of Another’s Pain”
- “I Bring Not Peace but a Sword”
- The Death of “Little Moses”
- Venus Aphrodite
- A Charmed Life
- “The Lass of Aviemore”
- “The Bull”: L’Envoi
- “Albert St. Goar, Esquire”
- A Blood-Rose!
- The Wish
- “And the Light Shineth in Darkness”
- “The Lost Village”
- “Prophet, Regent & Exchequer . . . ”
- The Enchanted Princess
- “The First Annual Universal Negro Confraternity Rally”
- In Old Muirkirk
- The Pilgrim
“America as viewed through the prismatic lens of its most popular genres”
The novels in this series are written in the styles of genre fiction popular in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and are “linked by political, cultural, and moral … themes, set in a long-ago / mythic America intended to suggest contemporary times.” Each book is the story of a family intersecting, variously, with America’s troubled history of the treatment of women and children, and its battles over race and class divisions. These concerns are frequently translated into Gothic story elements (to varying degrees, depending on the novel), which is why these books are sometimes referred to as the “Gothic Series,” or the “Gothic Saga,” or the “American Gothic Quintet” Though thematically linked, each novel tells an independent story.
The Novels of the Genre Series:
- Bellefleur (1980) — Genre: historical novel / family saga 1770s–1980s
- A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) — Genre: historical novel / romance 1879–1899
- The Accursed (2013) — Genre: historical novel / gothic horror 1900–1910
- Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984) — Genre: historical novel / detective mystery 1880s–1910s
- My Heart Laid Bare (1998) — Genre: historical novel / con artists and confidence games 1909–1932
“The opportunity might not be granted me again, I thought, to create a highly complex structure in which individual novels (themselves complex in design, made up of ‘books’) functioned as chapters or units in an immense design: America as viewed through the prismatic lens of its most popular genres.” —Joyce Carol Oates, 1985
The Catechism of Abraham Licht
Crime? Then complicity.
Complicity? Then no crime.
No crime? Then no criminal.
No criminal? Then no remorse.
All men are our enemies, as they are strangers.
Brothers and sisters by blood are brothers and sisters by the soul.
Do you doubt, children? You must never doubt!
To doubt is to already lose The Game.
Covet where you wish, but never in vain.
Would this earthly globe were but the size of an apple, that it
(By one who has the courage to pluck, and to bite hard.)
You cannot measure a live wolf.
Past?—but the graveyard of Future.
Future?—but the womb of Past.
It is never enough to have confidence in oneself; one must be
the means of
confidence in others.
The first refuge of the clever man is God—their God.
The final refuge of the clever man is God—our God.
Never discover a strategy if another can be made to imagine he
The world has been divided into fools and knaves?—yes, more
fools, knaves, and those who so divide the world.
To penetrate another’s heart is to conquer it.
To penetrate another’s soul is to acquire it.
Pity?—why, then cowardice.
Remorse?—why, then defeat.
Guilt?—the fool’s luxury.
A gentleman will not soil his gloves, but will soil his hands.
A lady will not reveal her secret, except for the right price.
To us who are pure, all things are pure.
No success without another’s failure.
No failure without another’s success.
To feel another’s pain is defeat.
To turn the other cheek, a betrayal.
In Aesop, the foolish vixen boasts of her numerous progeny
and challenges the
lioness how many offspring she has had. The proud
lioness says, “Only
one—but a lion.”
The Game must never be played as if it were but a Game.
Nor the Game-board traversed as if it were but the “world.”
Out of Muirkirk mud, a lineage to conquer Heaven.
To suck marrow, children, is our nourishment.
To suck marrow, yet be heaped with gratitude.
Yet never seduced, children, by the music of your own voice.
Control, control, and again control: and what prize will not be ours?
Die for a whim—if it is your own.
Honor is the secret subject of all catechisms.
For where there is love there can be no calculation.
For where there is calculation there can be no love.
And where The Game is abandoned, mere mortality awaits.
“As above, so below”—all on Earth is ordained.
And where ordained, blameless.
For, children, I say unto you—
Crime? Then complicity.
Complicity? Then no crime.
And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness becomes light.
- New York Times Notable Books of the Year
- International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award, 2000 (Longlist)
All manuscript images are in pdf format.
Images may not be reproduced without permission of Joyce Carol Oates.
A plan for part 1 of the novel, at this point titled “My Heart Laid Bare: A Chronicle of the Infamous Lichts of Old Muirkirk.” Typed and heavily annotated in multiple colored pens. Included in the margin are sketches of women’s faces and repeated names of characters and places; both elements appear in many manuscript pages, with the repeated names often taking the form of variations on JCO’s own name.
The rules of The Game. “Past?—it is but the graveyard of the Future.”
More manuscript Images
Jeff Turrentine, Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 26, 1998, p2
Novels of a size and scope this ambitious can easily collapse under their own weight, unless constructed by a skilled architect of tone and narrative. Fortunately, the author’s instinct is sure and solid, audaciously original but rooted in an idiom linking it with the towering influences of past geerations….she leaves us to reflect on the startling contemporary resonances of her grand historical saga.
Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor, June 18, 1998, pB7
Although Joyce Carol Oates is recognized as one of the finest short story writers, “My Heart Laid Bare” reminds us that she’s also a spectacular novelist.
Publishers Weekly, April 20, 1998, p45
…it’s impossible to resist the pull of Oates’s lush narrative. Abraham Licht is unforgettable. As chief orchestrator of a family’s misbehaviors, he becomes the quintessential silver fox, a rogue to remember.
Kirkus Reviews, May 11, 1998
Oates juggles all this high-concept hugger-mugger expertly, springing one amusing narrative surprise after another while also working an impressive amount of US history into the fabric of her extravagantly colorful characters’ adventures. Nor is her manifest (though never obtrusive) theme neglected: This being a persuasive vision of an America founded on violence, miscegenation, and rapacious self-interest. That the result is also irresistibly comic is so much frosting on a sumptuous cake and one of the most inviting products of Oates’s incomparably rich imagination.
Joshua Cohen, Library Journal, May 15, 1998, p116
Oates explores America’s meeting the Fricks, Morgans, and Rockefellers while facing the Great War, the roaring Twenties, and the stock market crash. With a smooth, stylish narrative, she investigates the relationship between deception and morality and in the process paints an alternative vision of that period.
Kathleen S. McFall, Book Page Online, June 1998
…her technique is wonderfully successful, resulting in rich layers of actions and emotions….Joyce Carol Oates has, yet again, written a richly textured and exciting book.
David Kirby, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 7, 1998
“My Heart Laid Bare” is so fresh, so spirited and so full of zestful criminality that it reads like a first novel by a talented young writer with many, many more books in her.
Paula Chin, People, June 8, 1998, p49
Oates paints a dark vision of America as a land where love of money is the root of everything and people are doomed to repeat their crimes. Oates, who rarely falters throughout this epic, does offer glimmers of justice and hope. But ultimately she has written an American tragedy.
Mary Ann Horne, Orlando Sentinel, June 14, 1998, pF11
While My Heart Laid Bare can be maddeningly elusive, it is a fascinating story of power and betrayal, and the nefarious Lichts are a welcome addition to the enormous collection of memorable Oates characters.
Michael Upchurch, San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, June 14, 1998, p4
Oates’ purpose here — apart from having great fun romping through U.S. history, from the heyday of the robber barons in ’09 to the economic disaster of the 1930s — is to trace the shadow side of American opportunism, and to test the limits of the American capacity for self-transformation…. She also zeroes in, with shrewd accuracy, on an eternally aggrieved strain in our national character, or, as she dubs it, “the American credo — I’m being cheated!”
Elizabeth Judd, Salon Magazine, June 26, 1998
By the end of the novel, Oates’ overheated prose seems oddly fitting for a dark comedy about our national preoccupation with self-invention.
John Hanchette, USA Today, June 25, 1998, p9D
The book is most ambitious, both for the writer and reader, but once one views it as a morality story about the capacity of crime and consequence to span generations, it all falls into place.
Lee Milazzo, Dallas Morning News, July 5, 1998, p8J
When the last few pieces of the puzzle are put in place, we see that Ms. Oates has created more than a memorable character and a riveting story. She has formed a compelling history of the Gilded Age, expanding it to include the war years, the Roaring ’20s and the beginning of the New Deal – in other words, the defining decades of our time. Her confidence man adroitly adapts to these changing circumstances, until in the end he, too, must abide by the immutable laws of The Greater Game.
Kathleen Daly, Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), July 12, 1998, p7
Fans of Joyce Carol Oates tend to find themselves disappointed with the output of one year or another. But they will celebrate 1998 and “My Heart Laid Bare” if they approach the book with a whimsical spirit. It’s wonderful.
Judi Goldenberg, Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 19, 1998, pF4
MS. OATES guides us through New York landmarks, Philadelphia high society, and Washington politics, all excellent locations for a cultured fraud. She captures the manners, dress, and architecture of former times, but her real triumph lies in her construction of a family with all its love, hate, secrets, and rivalries.
Jim Bartley, Ottawa Citizen, August 30, 1998, page C16
Oates’s vaulting imagination is in top form here, her deft plotting feeding rich themes and radiating sparks of perception: meditations on family and its dovetailing with the world of strangers, on trust and betrayal, on the very nature of identity and achievement in an American society racked by hucksterism and sanctioned greed, race and class inequities, war profiteering, the consuming myth of boundless prosperity.
Steven G. Kellman, Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 1999, p487-495
Yet not only does Licht recall the confidence men and tricksters created by Herman Melville, Mark Twain, John Barth, and countless other American authors, but he bears passing resemblance to the elusive Oates herself. Both have written a book called My Heart Laid Bare, though in Licht’s case it is a memoir that grows to two thousand pages and covers sixty years of a mercurial life. A genius of deceit, he largely succeeds in camouflaging himself behind diverse deeds and disguises, and, like Oates herself, employs an array of aliases to paint himself invisible. In an online interview at the Barnes & Noble Website arranged to publicize her novel, Oates affirmed further similarities with her protagonist, likening the cunning Licht to “a mastermind novelist creating any number of scenarios.”
Lonnie Burstein Hewitt, San Diego Union-Tribune Books, June 7, 1998, p1
In Oates’ grim universe, everyone suffers, the innocent and the guilty alike. And sad to say, the reader may not really care. Because, though the book is a triumph of style and structure, portraying vast panoramas in exquisite detail, weaving a pattern of incredible depth and complexity with not a loose plot thread in sight, it lacks human warmth. There are no characters who completely engage us, and stay with us, long after the last page is turned. This is, in the end, a tale of mystery and imagination that impresses the mind without ever touching the heart.
Sarah Kerr, New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1998, p6
After a while, it’s hard to tell when the exhausting highs and lows are parody and when they’re Oates’s natural style. She’s so good at making her characters ethereal, it seems, that she entirely forgets to make them real. Abstraction is her strength, but it’s a strength that fares poorly over 500-plus pages. “My Heart Laid Bare” is an odd grab bag of a book, challenging and silly — and, in the end, curiously remote.
Peter Waldron, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 12, 1998
The characters carry so much emotional and symbolic baggage, and are so obviously doomed from the start, that it’s hard to drum up the energy needed to care about them over such a long, hard road. Reading Oates’novel is a bit like the literary equivalent of watching the movie “Titanic” – you know from the start that the Lichts’ship is headed straight for an iceberg. The main enjoyment, if you can call it that, comes from watching the technical skill with which Oates engineers the crack-up. And from hoping that some of the characters, at least, might get picked up by one of the lifeboats.
Sherie Posesorksi, The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec), August 8, 1998, page J4
Abraham Licht claims to be baring his soul and the soul of his family in a memoir he is writing, titled like the novel. But Licht and his discontented children are so well versed in the art of camouflage that they are incapable of facing who they are and end up as tragically deluded as their victims. Ultimately, there is too little honest baring of the heart, and too much artifice for artifice’s sake, in Oates’s ambitious yet unsatisfying novel.
Matthew David Surridge, Black Gate, October 22, 2012
The book seems to me to be about the conflict between society’s insistence on making choices for the individual about their identity, and the individual’s freedom to choose identities for oneself. The shifting identities of the Lichts are profoundly threatening to established society. But society’s determination to make people’s lives fit into specific shapes is yet more threatening. Ultimately, the book seems to argue for reinvention as an American trait: people came to America to remake themselves, and so still today America has a heritage based in that freedom of identity — even as power structures have emerged, or were implicit from the beginning, which seek to limit that freedom. But those structures are not all-powerful, the book tells us. Even physical reality is not absolute. Throughout the book, characters die and are reborn in various forms; even the body (subject to disguises) is not the final arbiter of identity.
Brad Hooper, Booklist, April 15, 1998, p1357
Oates’ old problem, prolixity, rears its particularly ugly head in her latest novel, a big, sprawling story more maddening than engaging.
Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, June 16, 1998, pB7
Although Ms. Oates speaks repeatedly in this book — as she so often does — of destiny and fate, the trajectory of her characters’ lives feels less like the inevitable working out of familial and societal imperatives than the poorly thought-out manipulations of an author bored by her own pallid creations.
Globe and Mail, June 27, 1998, pD16
Boston Globe, June 28, 1998, pC3
Grand Rapids Press, July 19, 1998, pJ
Chicago Tribune Books, August 2, 1998
News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), June 14, 1998, pG4
The Sun (Baltimore, MD), June 7, 1998, p13F
Image: Nikos Koutoulas — “Piano bokeh”
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