NEARLY A DECADE AFTER HER DEATH, Patricia Highsmith is finally coming into her own in America. W. W. Norton is reissuing her entire body of work, and the dimensions of her oeuvre continue to impress. Highsmith can no longer be thought of as merely a gifted genre writer; her range of interests and accomplishments far surpasses the limitations of a particular type of fiction. Highsmith resisted being branded, preferring to think of herself as a novelist rather than a crime writer. But American publishers wanted labels. Thus her first book, Strangers on a Train, was published as a “novel of suspense.” And so to avoid another label—“lesbian-book writer”—Highsmith used a pseudonym for her second novel, The Price of Salt, a sensational narrative of an affair between two women.
It is time to stop categorizing Highsmith in either of these terms. Perhaps Graham Greene, a devoted admirer of her work, put it best when he called her a “poet of apprehension.” Indeed she is. To read a Highsmith novel is to suspend one’s moral judgments. She irresistibly persuades the reader to side with killers and other amoral characters. Her world is perverse and curiously animated: As though they were cartoon objects, guns “look” at their targets (in the forties Highsmith wrote copy for comic books); characters are propelled by unstable psychologies. Much of her fiction reminds me of Flannery O’Connor without the theology. Highsmith was a master of the macabre as well, especially in her short stories. A typical one, “The Hand,” opens this way: “A young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box—her left hand.” She published a volume of short stories about pets killing their owners. A wonderful writer, she didn’t believe in anything, and in her free-floating misanthropy she approaches Swiftian levels of disgust toward feelings that most people cherish.
Thanks to Andrew Wilson’s excellent biography, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2003), we now know where all of this anger came from: Texas. According to Highsmith, who was born in 1921, her essential character was formed by age six, and those first six years were spent in Fort Worth. Trouble began early, in the womb. Her mother, who eventually turned into a kind of monster and lived nearly forever, tried to abort her by drinking turpentine. Later both mother and daughter thought it was funny that Patricia grew up to like the smell of turpentine. Jay B. Plangman, her biological father, was not around; he bailed on the marriage several months before Patricia was born, and she did not meet him until she was twelve. Her mother soon married Stanley Highsmith, and although Patricia took her stepfather’s name, she never liked the man himself.
Fortunately there were things about her early years in Fort Worth that were positive. She loved her maternal grandmother, Willie Mae, who gave her the kind of unconditional emotional support that was always absent from her mother’s modus operandi, which consisted of undermining and carpet bombing her daughter’s hopes and dreams. She liked the close-to-nature feel of the frontier city and enjoyed visits to a ranch that relatives owned in Weatherford, where she rode horses, a pastime she once said was “perhaps the only respect in which I resemble a Texan.” Friends disagreed. They found her in many ways Texan to the core. She was “very conservative,” remembered one, and her politics in later life were kind of wacky. She was ardently pro-Palestine and anti-Israel, and in 1992 she voted for Ross Perot for president. She disliked Jews and blacks, but then, as she once said, she didn’t like anybody. Wilson writes that toward the end of her life she dressed like an “off-duty cowboy: 34-inch-waist Levis, sneakers and neckerchiefs.” She liked Southern cooking—cornbread, collard greens, black-eyed peas, and such—until the day she died, in 1995, far away from Fort Worth, in Switzerland.
Highsmith’s mother and stepfather moved from Fort Worth to New York City in 1927, but they returned to Texas off and on over the next few years. Wherever they were, the parents quarreled a lot, creating anxiety and stress in their young daughter. Looking back on her family life, she pronounced it a “little hell.” In 1933 the couple separated for a time, and Highsmith, then twelve, was stashed in Fort Worth with her grandmother to attend school for a year. It was an act of abandonment that her mother never explained or justified, and Highsmith remembered that time as the “saddest” of her life. The next year she returned to New York with her reunited but still squabbling parents. When she was fourteen, her mother asked her point-blank, “Are you a les? You are beginning to make noises like one.” By age sixteen, following heterosexual dates arranged by her mother, she was able to report that a good-night kiss from a boy she’d had dinner with was “like falling into a bucket of oysters.” She also slept with a boy that year, as a kind of experiment, and hated it.
After graduating from high school, in 1938, she spent a few months in Fort Worth with her beloved grandmother, and during this time she got to know her biological father a bit. This
too was strange and unsettling, as Plangman seemed to want to seduce her, and there were, she later wrote to her stepfather, some “lingering kisses.” He also showed her some pornographic pictures. Is it any wonder that Patricia Highsmith had a low opinion of family life and that she possessed one of the keenest senses of perversity of any modern writer?
After high school she attended Barnard College, where she wrote for the student literary magazine. She had some good luck early on. In 1948 her new pal Truman Capote got her into the famed Yaddo arts colony, in upstate New York, where one of her fellow aspiring writers was Flannery O’Connor. There Highsmith spent crucial, formative time working on Strangers on a Train (1950).
She got lucky