Very Bountiful Bones
Funhouses of Time and Space
Enter any of Robert Coover's fictional worlds at your own risk. Just as with the work of some of the best-known metafictionists of our time, Beckett, Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, Hawkes, Barthelme, or Nabokov, among others with whom he is often compared, reading Coover entails serious and disturbing fun. Whether we are offended or enthralled by the cultic deification of Giovanni Bruno, the unlikable survivor of a small-town mining disaster in The Origin of the Brunists, Coover's PEN/Faulkner award-winning first novel in 1966, or outraged and seduced by the adulterous host and narrator of his 1985 murder comedy, Gerald's Party, or sucked willingly into the vortex of middle-American lusts and life in this year's John's Wife, we can always find, as we can in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, a grimly sardonic spectacle that strikes at the heart of whatever bourgeois spaces we inhabit.
So, in light of this pleasurable discomfort that Coover can provoke in us, what do we make of his suggestion, in the June 21, 1992 issue of the New York Times Book Review, that books, exactly the kind he has spent over thirty years writing and publishing and reading from, are doomed to disappear into hyperspace, and soon?
" . . . hypertext presents a radically divergent technology, interactive and polyvocal, favoring a plurality of discourses over definitive utterance and freeing the reader from domination by the author," Coover informs us. While he concedes that he is, for better or worse, committed, as he eases into his seventh decade on the planet, to obsolescent print technology, he is also clearly intrigued by any literary form which will subvert "the traditional bourgeois novel and in fictions that challenge linearity."
Indeed, much of John's Wife, (whose name we never do learn), seems to work that hypertext way, even while it remains trapped inside a book, leading us into the kinds of labyrinthine, polyvocal motivations and confessions that make us feel interestingly lost, without the reassuring narrative flow we often associate with standard, published fictions. Referring to one of the perceived perils of hypertext, Coover points out its dimensionless infinity . . . more like endless expansion . . . If everything is middle, how do you know when you are done, either as a reader or writer?"
And yet, his books on some level help to establish the bridge to that brave new world of online existence. So many times, in the middle of a Coover fiction, we experience that very expansion, that disconcerting formlessness, not only in terms of time and space, but with our own senses of identity. His characters look and sound and act like us some of the time, but would we really do what they seem to be doing the shocking rest of the time? Do we think or act this way already, in some inchoate form, and just reflect ourselves differently back to ourselves for self-preservation?
That Robert Coover can hit a nerve in all of us, with his postmodern, metaphysical carnivals, is an understatement. That his work interfaces so easily with our inevitable plunge into hyperspace is, for him, perhaps a paradoxical blessing, and what it augurs for the rest of us is, of course, hard to predict. But, whether we experience Coover's imagination in books or online or at a Writer's Institute reading, lost in the dizzying swirl of each of his imaginative funhouses, we often find ourselves appalled and laughing and disgusted and amazed, by turns, compelled to keep watching by what seems so perversely familiar in his ever-shifting hall of mirrors.
Bill Patrick is a visiting writer at the New York State Writers Institute and conducts an Introduction to Screenwriting Workshop, Fall 1996.
“We’ve always told our own true tales,” Veronica Chambers told Essence magazine this past May, referring to the long tradition of African-American storytelling which, more than fable or parable, has contained the history of a people.
On October 2 and 3, that tradition will be on rich display when the New York State Writers Institute hosts a symposium on “African-American Autobiography,” featuring five leading black writers in the fields of memoir, biography, social criticism and cultural history. The panel of the two-day event will include Chambers, author of Mama’s Girl, a memoir of her mother;Shirlee Taylor Haizlip, whose story of growing up in a mixed-race family is recounted in The Sweeter the Juice; feminist theorist and cultural critic bell hooks, author of Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery; biographer Arnold Rampersad, who has written on, among others, W.E.B. DuBois and Langston Hughes; and Clifton L. Taulbert, whose Once Upon a Time When...We Were Colored and The Last Train North are memoirs of growing up and coming of age in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The symposium will include readings from each guest, an open discussion among the authors, and a question period from the audience. Chambers and Taulbert will appear on the first day, and Haizlip, hooks and Rampersad are scheduled for the second.
At 25, Veronica Chambers has already worked as an editor at the New York Times Magazine and Premiere, co-authored, with John Singleton, the screenplay of Poetic Justice, and was a Freedom Forum Fellow at Columbia University. Her new book, Mama’s Girll, compared her professional success with the life of her mother, a secretary who raised Chambers and her brother alone in Brooklyn.
“I never stop feeling that I want to make things up to my mother,” Chambers writes “-- make up for her difficulties with my father . . . for my brother’s failure to do well in school . . . for the ways in which we all left her. So I buy her things.” This schism between her mother, struggling against difficult odds, and Chamber’s own good fortune, becomes a metaphor for the complexities facing a whole generation of young African-American professionals.
In Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, published in 1989, Clifton L. Taulbert discussed a different sort of divide, between the black and white sections of the delta town Glen Allen, Mississippi during the Eisenhower years. Plagued by racism and injustice, the residents of “colored town,” nevertheless enjoyed a sense of closeness that the author says has disappeared with integration. “A bittersweet story about love, community and family,” is how Rosemary Bray described the book in the New York Times. “There is very little about a segregated America that bears nostalgia . . . yet [Taulbert] has evoked such loving memories that readers will come away from [the book] at least a little sorry they didn’t grow up there.”
A film version of Once Upon a Time, directed by Tim Reid, will be presented Friday, October 4th at 7:30 p.m. in Page Hall on the University at Albany's downtown campus.
The sense of division runs through Shirlee Taylor Haizlip’s The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White, as she confronts the mixed-race heritage of her history, and of the United States. “Genes and chromosomes from Africa, Europe and a pristine America commingled and created me,” she writes. “I have been called Egyptian, Italian, Jewish, French, Iranian, Armenian, Syrian, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek. I have also been called black and Peola and nigger and high yellow and bright. I am an American anomaly. I am an American ideal.”
As she searches for a complete understanding of her heritage, Haizlip describes the insurmountable distance between her white and black ancestors, and meditates on the futility of racial purity in our heterogeneous culture. “What happened in my family,” she concludes, “. . . calls into question the concept of color as a means of self-definition.” Self-definition is precisely the concern of bell hooks, the pen name of Gloria Watkins, whose Sisters of the Yam has been described as “a self-help book for progressive black women.” Against the barrage of institutionalized racism and sexism, hooks, who was described by Publisher’s Weekly as “one of the foremost black intellectuals in America today,” describes how African-American women can heal emotional wounds without capitulating to what she sees as the social roots of their pain.
Hooks draws from her own autobiography to describe the processes of wounding and recovery. “Like all the books I have written,” she says early on, “[this book] comes to me from places deep and dark within me, secret, mysterious places, where the ancestors dwell, along with countless spirits and angels. “Hers is a bracing combination, the tender and the defiant, a stance that hooks argues is, by disposition and necessity, the American black woman’s essential nature.
“I think autobiography is much easier to teach,” biographer Arnold Rampersad told Contemporary Authors, “and can go a long way toward satisfying whatever need is filled by biography.” The author of a two-volume life of poet Langston Hughes, Rampersad also collaborated with tennis star Arthur Ashe on his 1993 autobiography Days of Grace. In contrast to bell hooks, Rampersad approaches the meaning of autobiography with the objective distance of the scholar and historian. Their differences suggest the vitality of the notion of “our own true tales.”
Timothy Cahill writes for the Times Union newspaper in Albany and is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.
Language of Truth
In his 1994 memoir The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, poet Philip Levine recalls an anecdote about John Berryman, who in 1954 was teaching at the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, where Levine was an MFA student. Berryman, lecturing on the potency of language, plucked an example from the pages of the New York Times. In an article about Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the waning days of his anti-communist witch-hunts, the senator affirmed his support for his assistants David Shine and Roy Cohn by declaring, "I stand behind them to the hilt. "
"We now know what Mr. McCarthy thinks we do not know," Levine reports Berryman saying, "that he is about to stab them in the back, abandon them both as political liabilities.... Because he is an habitual liar, Mr. McCarthy has blinded himself to the ability of language to reveal us even when we're taking pains not to be revealed. "
Berryman's political prognostication was right, and with it, Levine observed a truth he has applied to his art throughout his writing life. Across the span of his distinguished career, beginning with the 1961 On the Edge through his acclaimed What Work Is and up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning collected poems The Simple Truth, Levine has confronted reality with the tenacity of an investigative reporter. He has trusted "the ability of language," playing upon the quotidian material of his own experience, to reveal not just himself, but all of us, as human beings, as citizens, and as a nation.
Levine has been compared by the Yale Review to Walt Whitman for his "sensibility to all experience" and, by the Georgia Review to William Carlos Williams for "eschewing. . .the silk-covered cushion in favor of the bus-station bench." That this child of Russian-Jewish immigrants from the working sections of Detroit should be identified with such quintessentially American writers conveys precisely Levine's poetic strength, his ability to capture the specific mixture of gritty realism and romantic innocence that underscores our society.
In "Sources," for example, from his 1981 collection One For the Rose, the poet begins with an inventory of decay -- "Fish scales, wet newspapers . . . smoking tires," depicting, as is often the case in Levine's work, a moral rot at the heart of the country. Nevertheless, in the same breath with which he decries the hypocrisy of the nation, at the end of the poem Levine leaves himself space to bear witness to the world's beauty, grace, even wonder, finishing with a lush list of the sources of Detroit-made automobile names "that mean Lover/ of Horses, Hammer, First and Only, Last/ but Not Least, Beloved of God .... "
Levine uses the plain "language" of the American people -- our speech, our actions, our possessions and surroundings -- to "reveal us even when we're taking pains not to be revealed. " His revelations are not purely dark, however, he searches to find the poetry of our lives that corporate America would also have us overlook, as in two 1994 poems -- "Magpiety," which ends, "Everything is speaking or singing./ We're still here. " and "One Day," in which a couple travels "on and on, as far as we could/ into a day that never ended. "
Such poetry aims, as critic Dave Smith has written, for "a visceral rather than a mental response" which, though rife with pitfalls, is profoundly fulfilling. Levine "risks the maudlin, the sentimental, the banal," Smith points out, " . . . because he cannot live in the world fully enough; because the world is so much with us all we must sing or die of its inexpressible presence. "
Timothy Cahill writes for the Times Union newspaper in Albany and is a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor.
Capturing the World's Voices
Between 1951, when Peter Matthiessen co-founded The Paris Review, and April of 1995, when his article on whale hunting with the Inuhuit, using kayak and hand-harpoon off the coast of Greenland, appeared in The New Yorker, he wrote and published twenty-four books -- six novels, one collection of short stories, and seventeen non-fiction works. He has travelled to all the remote areas most of us can only dream of visiting: the length of South America, all the way to Tierra del Fuego, for The Cloud Forest (1961); to central New Guinea for Under the Mountain Wall (1962); to Africa many times, from 1960 to 1992, through Kenya and Tanzania for The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972) and Sand Rivers (1981), to Senegal, the Ivory Coast and then back through Zaire for African Silences (1991), and even far into the ocean off East Africa, following a film crew in search of the great white shark, and emerging with Blue Meridian (1971).
Perhaps Matthiessen's most famous non-fiction book is The Snow Leopard, a remarkable blend of zoology, memoir, poetry, travel adventure, and Zen Buddhism, which won the National Book Award in 1979. Structured as a prologue and four sections of journal entries, The Snow Leopard chronicles Matthiessen's 85-day, 250-mile foot journey through the Himalaya, in search of not only the near-mythic, eponymous great cat of Northwest Nepal and Tibet, but also in personal search of the Lama of Shey, believed by Buddhists to be an incarnation of Milarepa's teacher, Marpa, the revered, 12th Century Lama. That Matthiessen's wife and fellow Zen student, Deborah Love, had died of cancer the winter before his journey, which he tells us quietly in the prologue, adds an undercurrent of tragedy and a healing dimension to an already-riveting story.
To continue on with his international projects would be to forget his extensive travels within the United States, not only as a naturalist author but as a social activist as well. His Wildlife in America (1959) and The Shorebirds of North America (1966) place him firmly and competently in the company of Edwin Way Teale, Roger Tory Peterson, and Edward Abbey. Matthiessen's profile of Cesar Chavez (Sal Si Puedes, 1969) and his book on the commercial fishermen of Eastern Long Island (Men's Lives, 1986), near to his heart because he was himself a commercial fisherman out of Montauk in the mid-50's, as well as his two books about Native Americans, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse and Indian Country, were all seminal works of political conscience. But they were, by his own admission, written to aid specific causes, and didn't "originate in his own oyster", as he described it. They felt rushed to him.
What he wants to write is fiction. In spite of this amazing, diverse parade of eloquent non-fiction, Matthiessen believes his real writing is in his novels. In a 1987 interview with Kate Bonetti, he says, "Non-fiction for me is always, even a book like The Snow Leopard, in some ways labor: it involves research; I have to stick to the facts; it's a piecing together and a construction, maybe like cabinet work . . . and it really drains me. I find fiction does just the opposite. My battery is just re-charged all the time, as I go along . . . it feels much more natural, and it's much more fun." Matthiessen is a slow novel-writer. He says he worked for twelve years on Far Tortuga, his favorite book before he finished his last novel, Killing Mister Watson. Far Tortuga is his dramatic tale of a doomed Caribbean sea-voyage in search of turtles, told in the voices of the Captain and his eight crew members and in a narrator's lyrical fragments of action and description. He would have gone on longer than twelve years but he "started to wreck it. You go stale and it becomes stiff and literary and useless, and by that time you have to quit. That's the only reason I quit with Far Tortuga. I started to do it damage. When you find yourself coming back the next day and erasing more than you keep, you better get the hell out of that book."
Matthiessen's most recent novel took even longer: Killing Mister Watson was "ten years on note-boards" and five more in the actual writing. Once again, it's mostly a novel in voices, a multiple-narrator book that probes the collective murder of the Everglades' most infamous outlaw, Edgar J. Watson, of the Ten Thousand Islands area. But to call this novel, or Far Tortuga, polyvocal, is to obscure their relentless power with an abstraction. They are about language honed into voices that incarnate as moving characters: it's as if Matthiessen has channelled these characters instead of writing them. We can almost hear them breathing inside his pages.
Noting that he feels everything in a non-fiction book has to be the truth, as the author can best remember and represent it, Matthiessen once said, "That's why I like fiction better. You're not trapped by what happened." It's difficult for us, reading his seemingly effortless and moving non-fiction, to agree that this trap of truth has held him back in any way, but perhaps what Matthiessen is really after in his writing is what Lewis Moon, his anti-hero in At Play in the Fields of the Lord, is after: to be, as in the Amazonian Indian myth, a moth trying to reach the moon in the high darkness. Perhaps his fictional ventriloquism gets him closer to that mystical, full light, or maybe it fills him with the longing that reassures him he has not yet found what he is looking for -- that common miracle (water in a pail; rice in a bowl) waiting in the next journey of language.
Walter Mosley, author of five mystery novels in the Easy Rawlins series (most recently, A Little Yellow Dog) and the novel, RL's Dream, spoke at the Writers Institute on February 20, 1996. Affable, witty, and always ready to slip into street slang, Mosley entertained questions from audience members after reading from RL's Dream and A Little Yellow Dog. Mosley's steady informality belies his serious thought about writing as an African American, the politics of culture, and the deeper issues that lie beneath his popular writing. A number of questions refer to both the novel and film Devil in a Blue Dress, the film of which was then in general release. Mosley begins by talking about the differences between his "literary" novel and those in the mystery genre...
RL's Dream is much more serious than the other book A Little Yellow Dog. I like it, but I don't read from it as much anymore. Bill [Kennedy] and I were talking about going on tour -- you go on tour and you read your books until you hate them. I haven't read this in a long time. I'm kind of partial to it; it's my little move outside the genre, which I think is something healthy to do. Otherwise you get stuck in commerce, you know.
"When's the next Easy book? -- Well, we can up that advance."
Q: Why do you use colors in the book titles?
A: I'm often asked that question, and I always have the same answer, which one guy actually got angry at me about and wrote me a five-page letter, rebuking my answer. But my answer is, there must be. You see, I wrote a book, called Devil in a Blue Dress. I thought it was kind of a catchy title. People said, "Ooh, yeah, yeah, I'd like to read that." They wouldn't know why exactly, but they'd think so. Then A Red Death is kind of like a send-up, you know -- "Masque of the Red Death", Edgar Allen Poe, the discoverer of the detective novel in the American world. So I'm working on the third book and my editor, Jerry Howard, says, "So what's the color of this one?" And I looked at him and said, "The color?" And he goes, "Yup, blue, red, got to have a color." And I didn't have a bad reaction to that. I said, "All right, White Butterfly." That's good. I was going to call it Papillon, but he didn't say I shouldn't use a French name. I was going to call it Papillon Blanc, and [then] he said, "No, no, no, no, no, we don't like the French that much in this country. When they translate it, they can call it that." And I've liked it since then.
I was going to write Bad Boy Bobby Brown. [Laughter] No, honestly, this was before that became a popular phrase. Now I'm afraid I'm going to get sued if I use that name, so I'm going to have to change that. Then the next Easy book after that, I'm going to call Ruby, which I really love as a title.
Q: Can you comment on the places and times that Easy Rawlins lived?
A: The times and places that Easy Rawlins lived? You know, he was born in the deep South, lives in the deep South, in a place that's almost magical in its best and worst senses. I wrote a book about that. It hasn't got published yet, but it's going to be published in about 24 months, about Easy and Mouse when they were 19, 20 years old. It's a coming of age novel. You know, you write a coming of age novel about black men in 1989, and you get this kind of response from the publishers:
And they say, "Well, you have to understand. White people don't read about black people. Black women don't like black men. And black men don't read." I once went to a bookstore where I was talking about that once, and I pointed to all of the black men in the audience and I said, "You know, you guys must have all thought you were coming to a video store, right? But that video store's across the hall in the mall." Nobody left, luckily.
I'm trying to write about that wonderful kind of under-discussed migration of black men and women from the deep South after WWII. America -- like if you sold a banana in South America, America got a piece of it. If you sold a pound of rice in China, America got a piece of it. America got a piece of everything. We were rich. We were the Mob. We had everything. And so we needed to build more and more things so we could make more and more money, and there were jobs available. So black people were moving up North, moving into California, moving everywhere, so they could work. Because, you know, all the jobs were taken in the South, and the South was still depressed over the Civil War. So all these black people moved out. They moved to California so they could get jobs so they could work. And that's what I want to talk about, because nobody talks about it. You know they have these maps, these mystery maps? You know, Philip Marlowe was here [in L.A.], and Continental Op was here, and so and so was here, and the one time Nero Wolfe ever came to California he was here. But when you see South Central -- one time Philip Marlowe was on Central Avenue, and that was it.
One of the things is, historically, we [African Americans] haven't written a great deal of popular fiction about our lives, and about our movements, and it's something that needs to be done. So that's why I've done it. But you know, it's like '48, migration, '53, McCarthy, '58, who knows what happened in '58? Then we get into the '60's and we start talking about black violence, we start talking about black revolution, etc. I want to bring Easy up to the '90's. He can go through two riots. I like that idea.
Q: What did you think about the movie of Devil in a Blue Dress?
A: Well, I didn't make it, so I wouldn't change it. It's Carl's [Carl Franklin’s] movie, and I loved it. I thought it was a wonderful movie. It's too bad that we didn't see more of the Daphne Monet character, and that we didn't get deeper into her character, for a few reasons, I think. But you can't do everything, and I think it's a really good movie. And a movie that will stand the test of time. I don't think it will become passe. I was very happy with it. It didn't do very well. But, what can you say?
Q: Where did the story of Devil in a Blue Dress come from?
A: You know, who knows? Speaking again about the unconscious, one time, in Devil in a Blue Dress, I wrote about a guy, owned a bar, was married to a woman. He was messing around all the time. He mistreated her, he had all these girlfriends. And then he got sick, diabetes, lost both of his Legs, lost both Legs, and the wife puts him in a room, and every night she comes in and she sets down a fifth of whiskey in front of him. Then she goes into the next room, next door with some man, and then she has loud sex with that man all night long. Maybe a couple of men. And I thought that this was kind of a wonderful thing.
Well, my father read the book. My father reads that part and he says, "Walter, you know that part, where they were having, you know, the woman and the sex and the man with the Legs?" And I said, "Yeah, dad. You like that?" He said, "Yeah, I liked it, but how did you know that?" And I said, "Well, what do you mean? I made it up."
He said, "No, no, no. I knew that man. I knew that man. He lived right down the street from me." You know, it's an amazing thing, the amount of knowledge that you have. Thing is, what I do -- I wrote this chapter [of RL's Dream]. It's the first thing I wrote in this book. It was Chapter 11, the first thing I wrote. And I didn't do any research at all. None. I just wrote it. And then I went through it to see what was wrong. Like I would talk to people from Mississippi, and I would talk to my father, who is from Louisiana. I'd talk to them and say, "Does anything sound like, wrong, in this?" I think a couple of things were off, you know, and I added the smells, but as a rule, I just wrote it. Because fiction is an amazing thing. Not only is 90 percent of what you learn from fiction what you talk about it, but also, most of what the audience gets is what they bring to it. Your problem is not to mislead the audience. Your problem is to open a world to them, and let them bring their information to it. All you have to do is not lie. And so my research has always been a kind of backwards research. To make sure that the things I said are, one, evocative, and, two, not wrong.
Q: Your characters seem less black or white than simply human. How conscious are you of race when you write?
A:Well, you know what Angela Davis say: Race is a consequence of racism. But believe me, you and I are not the same. We know that in the world, that to be black in the world is to be black in the world. It's not what you look like. It has nothing to do with what you look like. You say, "Well, that man look like a nigger to me. What's that mean? Well, I don't know exactly. But that's a nigger." And that's kind of the way it is. It's the kind of illusion that can get you killed, you know. And when an illusion gets so deep that it can get you killed, it starts becoming reality, I think.
Q: Do you write your father and mother into your books at all?
A: My mother kind of made some appearances in A Red Death. She definitely made some appearances there. And Easy is not becoming like my father. My father's more like Mouse than Easy really. I know you're supposed to write autobiographically, and I've heard very important people say that we all do it, and who else could I be writing about really, than who I know, and me. I mean, who else could I be writing about? Who do I live with? But the thing is that Easy is Easy. He's like a guy I could never be.
Q: Easy relies on Mouse even when he knows Mouse is bad. What's important to Easy about friendship?
A: Yeah, Easy has a thing about friends which is good, I think. But you know, when you come from that rural background and you come to the city, what people do is they relied on friends. Not having money wasn't as important in the country as it is in the city. If you don't have money in the city, you're going to die. You don't have money in the country, well, if you've got friends, what difference does it make?
Q: Do you prefer first or third person narrative?
A: Well, you know, most of RL's Dream is third person. And I didn't feel bad about it when I wrote it. And of all the myriad criticisms that I got for it, like, for instance-- that I didn't like my characters, I don't know the blues, the blues is not the devil's music-- of all the criticisms that I got, one of them wasn't that I didn't know how to do third person. I like third person, but when you're writing a mystery, it's very good to have a . . . because that central character, you got his voice. It's a very hard thing to do, first person. It's easier to write third person.
Q: Some of your language is very poetic. Where does that come from?
A: Well, I studied poetry for about three or four years with Bill Matthews, the poet. And I studied very seriously, with my very bad poetry. The one thing that poets have still is a mastery of the tool, of metaphor, of illusion, of condensation, of meter and of music. They master that. A good poet has to master all of those things. And a good fiction writer, may not [be a] master, but you've got to know it pretty well. So I studied poetry in order to write fiction, but again I'm not consciously going out and saying, "Okay, I'm going to use this thing." I know there are a couple of rhymes, for instance, in the way Soupspoon talks in that chapter [of RL's Dream]. And they came out naturally, and I left them, because sometimes people do talk in rhyme, especially that oral history. It's like we were talking earlier about Raymond Chandler -- I think it was Raymond Chandler. It could have been a Ross McDonald line -- where he said, "He was calm, like an adobe wall in moonlight." That's a very poetic line, but it's also very true. It hits you, and it's like something you probably hadn't thought of before, even though you've seen it, you know?
Q: I wanted to ask you about your feelings about the adoration of Bill Clinton?
A: My feelings about it? It doesn't hurt. I always say that you know I'm very pleased that it wasn't George Bush who liked my books, because I'd have to say -- I mean, I'd be nice -- I'd say, "Well, at least he has one bit of taste in his life." One bit of non-criminal activity. I've been very happy about it. It's a very interesting thing. I'm a very technical guy. I think technically. People ask me a question like that and I think I have to answer it technically -- "What was Bill Clinton's effect?" -- as if like I'm my publisher's accountant, you know? "What was his effect on your career?" And I know. I figured it out. Because it didn't sell that many books, really. It's steadily gotten better, but the reason is, it's because, you know, people in America, they're not illiterate, but they don't like to read. It's just a thing. People in America, they're not dying to go out and read. The people in Germany read as many books as they do in America. People do other things in America. And everybody is a victim of this. And it's funny, you know, but actually black people read more than white people, which is a very weird thing. You wouldn't expect it to be true. Of course, black people have more to learn about who they were than white people think they have to learn.
Q: Where do you go to learn about people for your books?
A: I live in New York. I live in the West Village, and I get around on the subway, and I go walking around. New York is one of those equalizer places, like everybody is the same, and you can't even think that you're special, you know. Because they'll say,
And the neat little couple did, too. They looked at the woman and said, "Martha? Hi." And Martha came up to them. "I haven't seen you since you move out the projects." And she came up and sat down with them and they were talking about their kids and school, and she said, "You know I can't even have my kids in school 'cause I got to go down to the court and they got me on trial," and they said, "What's wrong?" And she said, "Well, you know, I was going to cash my check, and these three niggers, they must have been watching me through the window, 'cause I come out and they grabbed me and took the money right out of where it was. I took my knife out and I got two of the motherfuckers, but the one with my money got away." And then she said, "When the cops come up, I said, 'Get him, get him,'" you know, with the knife, right, "And they arrested me." You have this image, right, of this woman with the blood dripping and these guys dying like in front of her, and she's still confused. This is months later and she's still confused. "Why did they arrest me, when the man who stole my thirty dollars was running?" But that's what life is like, right? I mean, we're all there. It's not that far away and you realize, you know, "I'm not going to steal that woman's money, or say anything mean to her, either."
Q: How did you come to write RL's Dream?
A: You know, I wrote it first to get out the idea of what I wanted to write, like who was this guy, Soupspoon. Because you see, I wanted to write about Robert Johnson, because I think Robert Johnson was one of the great men of this century. I mean, he was a bad guy. He wasn't a nice guy. But he was a genius, in the same way that Marlowe was a genius. He took a form that already existed and raised it to a level of genius. He was a rebel. He was a sexual revolutionary. He was murdered in a bar, in his '20's. He and Marlowe were like the same guy, just in different centuries. And I thought about him and I thought about him and I thought about him and I said, "How can I write about this man?" and I realized that I couldn't, because to try to write about who his girlfriend was or what he did right or what he did wrong would diminish him and you wouldn't see his greatness. And so what I decided to do was to write about this other character, Soupspoon, who now is himself dying, and trying to remember what it was that he had when he was a kid, and the major event was knowing Robert Johnson. And so that's why I wrote that chapter, and that's what I was trying to get there, and I figured it out by writing that chapter.
Q: Will Easy ever find out what happened to Daphne Monet from Devil in a Blue Dress?
A: It's very hard to say, because I discover books as I go along with them. I know he'll see his daughter again. I can't keep him away from his daughter, but I don't know about Daphne. I'm kind of thinking about putting together an outline for a screenplay that would follow a Daphne-like character, because I'm very interested in her racial thing. It's so funny. You know how people like to get mad at you -- it means that they like you. My father used to tell me that when I was in school. That the girl who used to hit me in the back liked me. And I'd say, "I wish she didn't like me so much, Dad." I've had a lot of arguments with black women, who say, "Well, he didn't even like her after he found out she was a black woman. He only was with her because he thought she was white." And they'll be mad at me, looking at me. "But it's not true," I say. "He wanted to marry her. He wanted to go with her. He didn't care that she was black." But people wouldn't believe me, you know. That racial question is so tight -- it's like a little ball of anger. So I would like to deal with it, but I don't think in the Easy books, because you can only do so much with this particular genre, which is one of the reasons I wrote RL's Dream. Some things the genre does wonderfully. Your editor comes to you and says, "You know, you're spending ten pages and all I got is sociology here, Walter. What's going on with the murder?"
Q: What's your perspective on black men as presented by black women writers?
A: Well, it's interesting, you know. We were talking about Terry [McMillan], Toni [Morrison], Alice [Walker], some others. A lot of the time black men argue like, "Well, I don't like the way she talked about it." Well, the first thing is, it's true, right? There's nothing they say which is beyond the realm of imagination. There are a lot of things that their imaginations don't even reach out to. I have an image in my mind, and I have never seen this, but it's there in my mind. It's a guy kind of dressed like Bobby Brown, right, and a woman who works in a hospital, black woman. She's wearing her white thing, you know. He's come up to her, she's just coming off work, and he's saying, "Baby, can you let me have twenty dollars." She's saying, "Why don't you go out there and get yourself a job and make you twenty dollars. I work for my money and you should be working for your money." And he's saying, "Oh, baby, I need that twenty dollars. Give me twenty dollars, I'm gonna go to JoJo, and then we got something together and something gonna be happenin, we gonna have some real money, I gonna make some," and you listen to this, and she keeps on telling him he should work, and you're kind of on her side. But the thing is, she always gives him the twenty dollars, always, and she always complains about him taking her twenty dollars. It's not the first time it happens, it's the fifth that I'm interested in, and that a lot of times when I read these books that you're talking about, I don't see that fifth time. And I would like to. But, I'm not criticizing, because there are a lot of really wonderful women writers now, a lot of wonderful books getting deeply into the characters of women, sometimes deeply into the characters of men, and I think it's wonderful that they're doing this writing. And if I'm going to complain, I should just be writing my own book, and trying to deal as well as I can with that issue, you know.
But the thing is is that you never hear black women actresses complaining about black men actors having all the jobs in Hollywood, though they do. Whoopi Goldberg is the one star, and then ther's a lot of other black women, you know, Angela Bassett, and quite a few other people who, you know, they're working, but they're barely working. They're really struggling out there. But they don't say, "Well, the men are taking our jobs." So I don't feel that either. I do like to enter that dialogue that we're like kind of co-dependent. We're both causing each other's problems. And I think that that stuff is more and more being discussed and talked about, so I have no complaints.
Q: Have you had a lot of criticism for your portrayal of racism in your books?
A: You know, it's funny. Not too much. It's odd. I don't know why. Every once in a while, somebody will write me a letter -- I have a letter that I haven't yet answered. A woman wrote me about RL's Dream. She said, "Well, it's a very good book, but all the white characters are evil in the book." Which is not true. It's just not true. Kiki, this white woman, saves Soupspoon's life, and is like a positive character. She has trouble, but everybody has trouble in the book. So I'm going to respond to that letter. But usually people don't do that to me. I don't know why. I have a good lawyer? I don't know. Two more questions and I've got to go.
Q: Do you feel stereotyped as a mystery writer?
A: It's not just the publisher. It's the genre and the people who read the books. And I agree with this. There are a lot of black mystery writers today, about twenty, twenty-five. Some of them hate the genre. They hate it. They say, "Oh, I'm writing this book, but I have a really serious book I want to write." And I go, "Well, maybe you should be writing that book and not messing with this." And you find as they go on in the genre that they'll have like thirty pages about a community where black people are living and there are issues, da da da, and the plot's just not there. In mystery, you have to stay with the plot. That's why people are reading the books. And it doesn't matter who they are. It's not like black people read my books because they're interested in a lot of sociology. They're reading it because it's fun. They can go read something else if they want to learn something. They're reading my books because they want to see what Easy's going to do next. They want to see how he gets out of the troubles. Because the identity becomes Easy and his moral stance, his issues, so I can do character development on him. I can do sociology on him. I can do where he lives and the people he knows, but as soon as I try to get out of that I'm going to leave the plot of the book. And I don't think that's good. And I think if I want to do something like that, I should go to another genre, which I do, you know. Like in RL's Dream, the plot is very simple: there's a man, he has cancer, he once played with Robert Johnson, he's dying. He wants to remember. Okay, fine. 300 pages of that. If you like that, you can read it, you know. And if you don't like that, you can read something else. One more question.
Q: Do you have any interest in reading your own work on audio?
A: Interest. I would like to do it. Audiotape people, they need a movie star. Really, because what you're trying to do is sell it. I wrote the book, and then they get Paul Winfield to read it. Paul Winfield read four of the Easy books. He did a wonderful job. Gregory Hines read RL's Dream. People may not like me, but they like Gregory. And they may not like me, but they like Paul Winfield. So it will be a while before I do that. I might read the short stories. I have some short stories coming out.
Brenda Wineapple and James R. Mellow
The Art of Biography
In coming seasons the Writers Institute will hold a series of readings and panels on the subject of biography. The first of these includes Brenda Wineapple and James R. Mellow. Brenda Wineapple, professor of English at Union College and a director of New York City’s Center for Biography, is the author of Genet: A Biography of Janet Flanner (1989), and the recently released Sister Brother, a biography of Gertrude and Leo Stein. Both works share American exiles in Paris as a common theme: Flanner, who used the pen name Genet, for decades wrote the New Yorker’s “Letter from Paris” column, and the Steins became foremost arbiters of art and literature during their long sojourns in the “city of light.”
Wineapple shares with Mellow not just an interest in Americans in Paris, but an interest in group biography. Mellow’s trilogy of biographies of Gertrude Stein (The Charmed Circle), F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Invented Lives), and Ernest Hemingway (A Life Without Consequences) overlap and interweave to produce a collective portrait of the lost generation’s life and times. The idea of group biography, of which Mellow is a foremost exponent, was first explored by him in his Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times, which won the National Book Award in 1975. He is now completing the official biography of the great photographer, Walker Evans.
Donald W. Faulkner is the Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute and teaches Contemporary Literature through the English Department.
In 1962 Robert Stone went to Stanford and joined a group of Stegner Fellows in the Writing Program there who, with others just a couple of years before and after that time, have become the mainstay of contemporary American literature. Of the group and the measure of its selection Wallace Stegner later said, "they could be stubborn, mule-headed,selfish, intemperate, anything, so long as they could write." Among them were Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, Ernest J. Gaines, Wendell Berry, Tom McGuane, Peter Beagle, and Judy Rascoe, among many others.
They were, as another student, Ed McClanahan, called them, "the nicest group of bad people I ever had the good fortune to fall in with." Many of those people migrated from Palo Alto to Perry Lane in Menlo Park, the quasi-left-bank of the peninsula. It was where Faye and Ken Kesey lived. Stone and his wife Janice, fresh from New York after a sojourn in New Orleans that provided the germ for Stone's first novel, A Hall of Mirrors, quickly joined what was to become a revolution of social and literary culture.
But this is prehistory to the times that have come in between then and now, times of political idealism and political assassinations, times of political and even cultural deceit, times of liberation and times of constraint, times which led to the cultures of Viet Nam, rock and roll, and apocalyptic visions. In his own estimations of such times, Robert Stone has gone incisively to the cultural core of our society. "He writes like an angel -- a fallen, hard-driving angel," one reviewer wrote of Stone's work, unnecessarily mixing awareness of Stone's craft with Stone's subjects.
Through works such as Dog Soldiers and A Flag for Sunrise, novels which are as politically and culturally astute as they are brilliant, to his bitter social satires Children of Light (about Hollywood) and Outerbridge Reach (about midlife crises, middle class values, and sailing), Stone proves his bond of fealty to the writers he respects the most: Dostoevski and Conrad, Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Graham Greene. A reader will find all of the big themes established by each in Stone's work, but they will be found in unique scale, uniquely Stone. He's an American master, of storytelling, of the novel, and of insight into our culture.
Donald W. Faulkner is the Associate Director of the New York State Writers Institute and teaches Contemporary Literature through the English Department.
New Orleans, Vietnam, Central America, California, the Middle East. Robert Stone's novels take him far afield both physically and imaginatively, even as his themes and concerns-what is happening in American today--remain steadfast.
Stone, the author of five novels, including A Hall of Mirrors, Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise and Children of Light, reads for the Writers Institute Thursday, October 24 at 8 p.m. in Assembly Hall of the Campus Center at the University of Albany's uptown campus.
Robert Stone was born in Brooklyn in 1937, to a family of Scottish Presbyterians and Irish Catholics who made their living as tugboat workers in New York harbor. He attended Catholic schools, which taught him how to read and write "thoroughly and grammatically," he has said. "Always kind of in love with language" he tried to put his experiences into narrative form early on to make sense out of them, and he won a short story contest for high school students.
He did not graduate from high school, however, for drinking too much beer and being "militantly atheistic." In 1955 Stone enlisted in the U.S. Navy and began to travel and, soon, to report on his travels.
Many years later, writing about Havana for Harper's in March 1992, Stone recalled, "Havana was my first liberty port, my first foreign city. It was 1955 and I was 17, a radio operator with an amphibious assault force in the U.S. Navy."
Eschewing their roles as "boozing, wenching buccaneers," Stone and a buddy set out to behave like "proper expatriates." They walked the city, they watched the people, they heard the music of conga bands and African flutes. They drank coffee slowly from small cups. "At the time," recalled Stone, "I was struck less by the frivolity of Havana than by its unashamed seriousness .... All this Spanish tragedy, leavened with Creole sensuality, made Havana irresistible. Whether or not I got it right, I have used the film of its memory ever since in turning real cities into imaginary ones." The film of its memory. Real cities made imagined ones.
Such is the written work of Robert Stone, whether he is recreating New Orleans as a metaphor for America or creating the county of Tecan in Central America, where pine trees grow on one side of a road, palm trees on the other.
After the Navy, Stone lived in New York City for a couple of years and then in New Orleans. In 1959 he married Janice Burr, and they have two children. Today the couple live in Connecticut. Mrs. Stone is a social worker.
But the road to a quiet life in New England was a long one. In 1962 Stone won a Stegner fellowship to the creative writing program at Stanford University.
Living in Menlo Park, California, he fell in with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters. He knew Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and he rode the Merry Pranksters bus across the U.S. in 1964 in the trip made famous by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).
"Pleasant goofing" was how Stone described those days in an interview 20 years later. But through his experimentation with drugs in the early 1960s, he has said, he confronted a deep religious sensibility. "I discovered that my way of seeing the world was always going to be religious--not intellectual or political--viewing everything as a mystic process," he told Curt Suplee in the Washington Post in 1981. Hall of Mirrors was published in 1967, and Stone won the Faulkner Award for a "notable first novel". He wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation, titled USA and starring Paul Newman. Stone had no control over the final film, which despite his and Newman's best efforts, was not successful.
In 1971 Stone spent two months as a correspondent in Vietnam, and out of that experience grew Dog Soldiers, a novel not so much about the Vietnam war as about its corrupting influence on American life. Houghton published Dog Soldiers in 1974, and Stone won the National Book Award that year. Again he worked on the movie script, and again he was disappointed in the final product, a film titled Who'll Stop the Rain (he hated the title) co-starring Tuesday Weld and Nick Nolte.
A Flag for Sunrise (Knopf, 1981) grew in part from three trips Stone made to Central America in the 1970s. While some reviewers took Stone to task for his politics and philosophy, plenty of readers found the book a suspenseful thriller with an alarming theme.
By this time Stone's life was quieter and straighter. His characters served as his alternates, he told Newsweek in 1981. "They go through all that horrendous stuff so I don't have to." And feeling hung over or strung out would interfere with his creative process.
Children of Light (Knopf, 1986), in which Hollywood goes on location to Mexico, drew on Stone's observations of the film world. In 1992 Ticknor & Fields published Outerbridge Reach, in which the journey and the story take place at sea.
Now Stone has finished a short story collection--his first--the working title of which is Bear and His Daughter. He is back at Houghton Mifflin, which plans to publish the book in spring 1997. He is "trying to finish" a novel with a contemporary Middle Eastern setting, he said in July. It too will come out from Houghton, most likely in spring 1998. Stone likes giving readings, he said, because "writing is a lonely business. You're performing solo in an interior space. Externalizing the work and getting a human response is a refreshing change." He gives "a fair number of readings each year, he said, and will even read from works in progress, which many writers will not. "You can learn about the effects of the work that way," he said. In general, then, giving a reading is a pleasant, productive experience for Stone--but not always. Asked what his worst reading experience was, he remembered immediately the time he read to the end of a story, only to find he did not have the last page. "I got to the end and it just wasn't there. I couldn't believe it--I was panic-stricken."
He made a stab at summarizing the last page, "but the whole point of the story was there, and it didn't go over," he said, still with a trace of sadness. But that was 10 or 12 years ago. "The wounds have healed," he said a moment later, a wink in his voice. The film of memory keeps running. Real cities are made imagined ones and the stories keep coming.
Debby Mayer is a freelance writer/editor and Weekend Editor for The Independent. She was previously the Publications Director for Poets & Writers, Inc.
In April, 1991, noted historians and biographers David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin were members of a panel at the Writers Institute called "Writing on Power." The panel, which also included Jean Strouse, Connie Bruck, and Garry Wills, was part of a larger symposium on nonfiction writing entitled "Telling the Truth." The symposium, which brought together more than thirty of the most prominent American writers of nonfiction has been considered a once-in-a-lifetime event. In future issues of Writers Online we will bring you other panel transcriptions. Here, McCullough and Goodwin speak of historical figures ranging from LBJ and the Kennedys to Truman and Teddy Roosevelt. At issue in these anecdotal and professional reflections is the role and working process of the historian/biographer. In this election season we at the Institute find these remarks as topical now as when they were first made.
These excerpts include questions from Jean Strouse, who acted as moderator for the panel.
On the other hand, the problem was these wonderful fabulous, marvelous stories that he told me. I discovered as I went along the way that more than half of them weren’t true, which is a problem if you’re a biographer. My favorite example of that was one time I was swimming with him in his pool at the ranch - - he had this incredible pool that was filled with floating phones that came by on floating desks and floating sandwiches that came by on floating trays. In fact it was so filled with floaties, as he called them, you couldn’t swim in it. But it mattered little to him since he just wanted to sort of side stroke up and down this pool. Anyway, that day he was still President at this time and Hugh Sidey had written this wonderful book on him in which he’d talked about a speech that Johnson gave to the troops, stirring with patriotism about the fact that his great-great-great-grandfather had died at the battle of the Alamo and Sidey said the only problem was that he didn’t have a great-great-great-grandfather that had died at the Alamo, just wished he did so much that he made him up. So as we’re swimming around, I said to him, “How could you do that?” And he says to me, “Oh, these journalists. They’re such sticklers for detail.” And then he goes on to tell me for a fabulous half hour how his great-great-great-grandfather really died at the battle of San Jacinto and I hear why that battle is much more important in the history of Texas than the Battle of the Alamo. By the time he’s finished, he’s so convincing, he’s so overwhelming, I think to myself “Sidey is being a stickler for detail”, until several years later, as I was working on my biography on him, I discover his great-great-great-grandfather didn’t die at San Jacinto either, that he had actually died at home in bed.
So part of the problem was to sort out what this extraordinary character, whom I was listening to for eighteen hours a day, was telling was part of his dreams, his hopes, his desires and what was actually true. The deeper problem, in a sense, was the psychological maneuvering that was going on between us as it went on between everybody he worked with.
I can remember when I first started going down to the ranch , he wanted to make me feel special, and I later learned that he did this with everybody, but he would place me in the front of his car. He had this car that he took all visitors around the ranch with and the Prime Minister of Britain could be there or the Prime Minister of Germany but, during those few months when I was being made to feel special, I would be in the front of the car and the Prime Minister would be in the back of the car and he’d be taking us all on a tour of the ranch saying, “Look, Doris. Look at the jumping antelope. Look there’s my birth house.” And you’d feel terrific. And then finally I remember one weekend I didn’t visit him at the ranch and he got angry with me so the next weekend Dean Rusk was in the front of the car and I was in the back of the car and he’s saying, “Look, Dean. Look at the jumping antelope” and I felt, for this terrible moment, like I’d been exiled to Siberia. I suddenly looked at myself and I said, “What is the matter with me? He has turned this situation of this closed car, which I don’t even want to be in. I’ve seen these stupid jumping antelope a million times. He’s made me feel terrible because I did something wrong, not visiting him last weekend.” And I made a decision that day, that despite the biographer’s desire to be close to the subject, to be too close to Lyndon Johnson would be too dangerous to your own psychic health, and even though, at that moment, he was trying to persuade me to try to work for him full time, and to come down to the ranch, offering me every incentive. He would say, “What’s the matter with you? Why won’t you come down here?” And I’d say to him, “Well. I had grown up on the East Coast”. “No problem. You’ll travel all around the world with me. You’ll see the East Coast. You’ll see Russia. You’ll see China.” Finally he said, “If it’s boys you want, I’ll invite a millionaire down every weekend. If you want to write, there’s a lake and I’ll get you a house on the lake. You intellectuals, you like sky . There’s a blue sky.” Of course, the lake was LBJ. And then, finally, I realized that I could never withstand that kind of power that he exerted. So I said to him, “I can’t do it. I’d love to work for you part-time, but I need to be back in Cambridge.” I was teaching at that time at Harvard. He said,” No way. It’s all or nothing. “ And what seemed to me at that time like, perhaps, a sad decision, I decided I couldn’t do it.
Then the last day of his presidency, he called me into his office, and he was sitting all alone. All the rest of the offices had already been dismantled to make way for Nixon. It was almost like an urban renewal project, just this one character sitting in the office that was still there. He said to me, “Will you come and work for me part-time?” No reference to this previous all or nothing and then, of course, I said I would. For what that meant was that in the next four years until he died, even though when I was with him on the ranch I was subjected to his kinds of manipulations, which were legendary, I still could get away. I could go back. And that physical distance was much more than the thousands of miles between Austin and Boston. My life was not Lyndon Johnson, my life was my own. And with that kind of powerful person, I needed that distance. Even so, I was always in danger of losing the game because, I can remember, he would try to make me feel close to him in ways that were so preposterous that only now I can laugh at them. One morning he woke me up and he said, “We’ve got to talk today about our relationship and all I could think of was when I was in high school I had this boyfriend, Moose, who always wanted to talk about our relationship, so I got very nervous. And, especially, I got more nervous as he suddenly took me to this lake, with a picnic and wine and sandwiches and a red checkered tablecloth, and here it comes, I thought, all these things I’ve heard about him. It’s about to begin. And he says, “More than any other woman I’ve ever known...” and I thought, “Oh, god.” And then he said, “...you remind me of my mother.” I laughed too, at the time, or at least I tried not to laugh in front of him.
Now when I think about it, however, what I saw in those last years of his life, was a vulnerable man who was very lonely and who reached out to me, for whatever reasons. I don’t think I really reminded him of his mother. She was about six feet tall, I’m five foot two. She had this huge breast. She was, however, in his mind, an intellectual and, somehow, he was combining those two things. But in those last years of his life he felt totally bereft of any kind of companionship, exiled to his ranch, no hobbies to take up his time. His family loved him, but that hole in him that needed love was so great that they couldn’t fill it. He needed the applause of thousands, not two or three women or a couple daughters. And somehow, in that period of time when he was so vulnerable, and I think, allowing himself, if not forcing himself, to die, I happened to be there.
Does that affect what you write? Probably. I tried to write a book that was critical of him, where I thought it needed to be critical, and yet there was an overwhelming and sort of central empathy that I felt towards this man, because I saw him at the end of his life. My husband saw him in his life, worked for him during his Presidency, had far more negative views on him, than I did. We both argue, all the time. I took whatever protections I could to get distanced from him. And as I say, they were not simply the biographer’s protections. Johnson, even physically, when he talked to you, ranged himself over you so much, you could hardly breathe. He didn’t even allow that normal distance between human beings. There’s a wonderful story, when George Wallace came to the White House during the height of the Selma Civil Rights struggle. Lyndon Johnson sticks him in a couch that then sinks to the ground, and Wallace is only five feet two, in the first place. And Johnson, at six feet four, sits in this hard rocking chair, and then leans over to Wallace, with his nose practically touching Wallace and saying, “Now Governor, you wanted to see me?” Well, by the end of that time, Wallace comes out and says, “Oh, my God. Thank God I got out of there. He would have had me comin’ out for Civil Rights.” He used every known technique in power, humiliation, and the next day, after he humiliated an aide, he would buy them a car and have it waiting there. And, as I say, I was twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five years old. I only instinctively knew that, somehow, the only way to deal with him, was to be as empathetic as I could, but to get distance whenever I could. And, I must say, to my eternal embarrassment at times, even though he’s now been dead since 1973, whenever I work on something new, I still feel his presence. If he had ever known I worked on a Kennedy book after the Johnson book, he would say, “How could you betray me?” And, even worse, the Kennedy book was three times as long as the book on him. But, there were times when I worked on the Johnson book, and also times, to be honest, when I worked on the Kennedy book, where I also had access, that I would have given anything to have no access. It all seems to the outside world, I’m sure, as if you’re so lucky, because you’ve got internal information someone else might not have. But in this book I’m working on now, on Franklin and Eleanor, where I simply interview people as a historian, where I don’t have to worry if people are wondering what is my relationship with this character and what about my husband’s relationship to the Kennedys and am I really friendly with them? It’s a great relief, but on the other hand, would I ever give up that experience with Lyndon Johnson? Never.
Now I’ve worked with two presidents so far. And politicians professionally need masks even more than the rest of us do. It’s part of their equipment and it isn’t just that they have one, they often have a whole set of them, a whole supply, depending on the situation. One president, Theodore Roosevelt, of course, was long dead and gone. I couldn’t reach him, except through one or two living people. And I never saw him. Truman, I did see one night. I was coming out of the subway station at the St. George Hotel in 1956, at the time of the Presidential campaign, when Averill Harriman was running for President. As I came out, there was a little crowd gathered by the entrance to the hotel, and somebody told me that Harriman was coming. I waited, and up came the big car and out stepped Averill Harriman, very tall, elegant, just like one would expect. And then, out behind him popped, Harry Truman. I had never seen a president before. This was my first president and I will never forget my first impression, my first thought, which was, “He’s in color.” He was in vivid color, a very high color, and his eyes were made quite large by his glasses. He seemed to exude life and a youthfulness that supervised me. He was not grey little Harry that one had been led to believe or the black and white of television and newspaper reproduction would indicate. Now Truman, of course, we all know from Earl Miller’s book, Plain Speaking and from James Whitemore’s portrayal in Give ‘em Hell Harry, is plain spoken, straight from the shoulder, good old Harry from Independence, Missouri. Simple man. Well, he isn’t. He isn’t a simple man, by any means. And, none of us are simple, none of us are uncomplicated. And, I venture to say, no politician who rises to become the politician of the land is ever a simple person. The question is, how do you find out about them? How do you get to know them? The answer is by a lot of hard work and the hard work isn’t just in the research. I love it when a book comes out. Somebody will come up and say, “ I read your book.” “Thank you.” “I’ll bet you did a lot of research.” You do do a lot of research in a lot of different ways, but you also do a lot of hard writing. And one of the ways you get behind the mask is by writing. The reason for that is because writing forces you to think, contrary to the popular impression. Paul Weiss, who taught philosophy at Yale, used to say, “I’m not as bright as my students. I find I have to think before I write.” The masks of a man like Harry Truman can be circumvented by talking to people who worked with him, by talking to people who lived next door, or people who were related to him or people who covered him as reporters. The problem, if you’re dealing with a president who died, say twenty years ago, as Harry Truman did, is that there are a great many people around who can provide that information, a surprising number. And everybody wants interviews. They say, “Have you thought about talking to so and so.” So it becomes a geometric progression. I’ve now interviewed well over a hundred and forty people. I’ve decided that I think I’m going to set my next book in the fifteenth century, when there’s no chance of finding anybody who knew anything about it.
Then you deal with the problem that I have right now, for example, of the same person telling you different versions of the same story. I have interviewed, at great length, Clark Clifford. Now Clark Clifford’s reminiscences, his memoirs are running in the New Yorker and will soon be out in a book. Well, the versions of various incidents that he’s described in his memoirs are not quite the way they are in my interviews, so which do I use? The answer is, you have to make an intuitive judgment call. You’re the umpire at the plate over and over and over again. And you make those judgment calls more accurately and fairly and sympathetically, I think, the longer you’re at the business of being a writer and the longer you’re at work on your subject. I’ve been now working on Truman for nine years. I know so much more than I did when I wrote the first part of the book that I’m going to have to go back and rewrite a lot of the first part of the book because I just didn’t see it quite so clearly then. Letters and diaries, of course, are immensely valuable, and one of the reasons I decided I wanted to do Harry Truman was that Harry Truman poured himself out on paper. He was a 19th century person who didn’t like to use the telephone, never got used to the telephone. He would write letters to his mother and his sister and his cousins and to people who were in his administration or who were in his mind and in his heart. Most of the recipients, interestingly, are women. This man who took up these extremely, in those days, male dominated, if not exclusively male, preoccupations such as the military and politics, never really had any one close to him except the women in his life and the letters to the women were all written from the heart. Among other reasons, he never knew that he was going to be a somebody in history until he was well on in years. He was past fifty by the time he first went to Washington as a senator.
It was all a huge advantage for me. In writing biography like processing ore, you need much, much more than you’re ever going to use. Otherwise, you’re reaching, you’re groping, you’re hypothesizing and saying what if and so forth and that’s a terrible way to write a book, or to understand a human being. People are very hard to know, very, very hard to know. They’re hard to know even if you live with them or if you know them personally. I’ve known Richard Rhodes now for a number of years, for example, and we’ve had dinner and exchanged letters. And it wasn’t until his book came out, Hole in the World, that I had any idea about his childhood and this immensely formative experience. And to discover something like that about someone you think you know, and then discover you didn’t know, is very exciting, and very humiliating, in a way. It reminds you of how hard it is and how important it is and that’s what happens with a character like Harry Truman. He is, by no means, simple. He is, by no means, James Whitmore, nor is he, by any means, the character in Earl Miller’s book. There’s some of that to him, that’s one of his masks, and because people wear a mask doesn’t mean the mask isn’t real. It’s their mask, but they have an assortment of them. To say that the "give ‘em hell Harry" of the forty-eight campaign is not really Harry Truman...sure that’s Harry Truman. But that’s one of many Harry Trumans that there are. And I don’t really think that you can understand what happened in our century without understanding this man.
The times in which history, events, our lives turn on this unfathomable quality called personality, or more importantly and more rarely character, are legion. I don’t think you can understand why certain things happen unless you can understand the people who were there and the order in which information and events came to them. This is a primary reason for the narrative mode, not just because it’s a good way to hold the reader, but because it’s an intellectually honest, realistic way to appraise why people did what they did, when they did, because you cannot assume that they knew all the answers and, of course, the biggest thing they don’t know, which is exactly what we don’t know - - is how it’s all going to come out...
Theodore Roosevelt said very little about power, but what he did say was that it inevitably involves both responsibility and danger. And I think it’s probably the element of danger that makes it so attractive a subject to write about. Tension, danger are the elements, the lifeblood of any good story. Your main character gets in a jam, gets in trouble. Joseph is put down in the hole by his brothers. How is he going to get out? In a character like Harry Truman, I’m blessed because he’s in trouble of one form or another all the time, so I don’t really have to worry too much about how I’m going to sustain this story. The powerful figure is also, of course, in the limelight, and if he’s in our political limelight that means, particularly in this part of our own century, that there is an enormous amount of material about him.
If you’ve ever run your hand through a bin of grain, you know that the deeper you go the more it comes down. And that’s what doing research in some of these presidential libraries is like. The more you dig, the more that comes down on top of you and you think, my God, I’m never going to get out of this place. I’m going to be here for the rest of my life. And one could, literally, spend all of a lifetime, in the Truman Library say, and never get through all of it. There are all the oral histories, for example. Over four hundred transcriptions of oral histories. There is film now, photographs, extremely important sources to get to know your subjects. You can sit there and watch him on camera, see how he moves his hands, how he turns his head. Most active life in any profession is made up very largely of talk. And in politics that’s particularly true. An awful lot of what’s decided and what is agreed to and what goes on is talk, so how can you recover that talk? Where is it recorded? Or who was there and what does he or she remember of what was said? It goes on and on. The surplus, the volume of material that you have to work with, this raw ore is so great that it becomes, in fact, a problem. There is no good, one volume biography of Harry Truman, as amazing as that may seem. The books about Truman are either autobiographical in spirit or they are essentially memoirs, such as his daughter’s book about him. And one of the reasons is because there’s so much you have to deal with. If you’re working with a character who had a long life like Truman, nearly ninety years, you also have the very difficult problem in writing of a lifetime that goes along more or less normally with the usual quantity of raw material to work with and then suddenly they become a figure of power and suddenly there’s this balloon of information. If you could find one diary of one character who worked in the same office in the Independence courthouse at the time Harry was a county judge, let’s say, one diary that would have been a gold mine, a dream find. When you get to the presidency there are eight diaries, wonderful diaries, by very observant, bright careful people who are writing it down every night. One of them was right in the White House. So what happens to the form that you’re working with? How do you keep this banquet you’ve been preparing from suddenly getting different in character, different in taste, quality, everything? Because, if you’re the biographer, you have to sustain, more or less, the same tone of voice, the same problem all the way through. Then in life, unlike in theater, major characters can often appear late in the story. Suddenly on stage comes Dean Atcheson, in the third or fourth act. And, of course, it’s very difficult to introduce an important new character to your audience, to your reader, very late in the game, but you have to do it, because you can’t pretend Dean Atcheson didn’t come on stage. Then, if they are a powerful political person, there is a certain obligatory amount of history that has to be explained, and you can’t assume that your reader, particularly if it’s a relatively young reader, is going to know what you’re talking about when you mention the Marshall Plan or the Berlin airlift. You have to tell them what that is. Whereas, if you’re writing about somebody who wasn’t involved in such momentous history, you can skip right by that.
I feel that in many ways, my earlier books were also exercises in biography but there I was dealing with characters who were not in the political limelight. They were largely people in technology and science, in medicine and civil engineering. And they weren’t on stage, and so they were very candid about their lives and their diaries and their letters. By the way, if any of you want to achieve immortality, I’ll tell you exactly how to do it: start keeping a diary. Write down everything you think, feel, see about the world around you. Do it every day for the rest of your life and leave it with a reputable library. Future historians will be quoting you for hundreds of years. The importance of the diarist, particularly the diarist who is on hand is probably disproportionately large, because there is somebody who’s telling you what was happening.
We might also ask ourselves a very important question. Why bother to read a biography? Why bother to read history? You can look up Teddy Roosevelt or Harry Truman in the encyclopedia. I think the answer is that you only really know something when you feel it. And a good book makes you feel what that story, what that life, that time in history, those moments in Washington, were about. E.M. Forster, in his wonderful book on writing, uses the analogy of the difference between story, plot and just sequence of events. Sequence of events as, let’s say presented in the encyclopedia, would be the king died and then the queen died. Forster said a story becomes a story when you say “the king died and the queen died of grief.” That’s the beginning of biography. That’s the beginning of knowing about the king and the queen because you feel it through the empathy of being a fellow human being. And what everybody in this conference is talking about, and I think particularly the people who are talking about science, is the inevitably fascinating, inevitably impossible subject called people. That’s what history is about, about people, human beings. We want to know about them because we don’t see any reason to confine our experience of being alive to our own time, anymore than we want to confine our experience of being alive to one place. We can go out, as it were, into this great well of human experience called the past which, of course, wasn’t the past at all. It’s unfair to call it the past. It was somebody else’s present. That’s all it is. It has a different name. People didn’t walk around saying “Isn’t it wonderful living in the past? Isn’t this fascinating?”
It is all well and good to talk about reading history and biography in order to better understand our system of government or to be able to predict the future, but what historians were telling us that the Berlin Wall was going to come down? Or that all of Eastern Europe was going to throw off this Communist weight? Not one, anymore than the CIA or the wizards who write for the OpEd page. Nobody knew. Nobody understood. There is no foreseeable future. We read history. We read biography and we write biography, I’m convinced, to enlarge the experience of being alive, to enlarge the experience of being a human being. And it’s going to go on and on and just because one writer does a portrait of Lyndon Johnson or Harry Truman doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be and won’t be and must be many others who will do it. On and on. I never wanted to write about a politician, and in particularly, I did not want to write about a president. That was not going to be my way in my career. That seemed to me was too obvious, too hackneyed. Everybody does it and we make too much of these presidents. But then I began to see what a story this guy is and that he’s a certifiable member of the human race and that he left lots of himself for us to look at, in a way, probably no president’s ever going to do again. It’s wonderful work, too, a wonderful way to live.
I think you’ve touched on what is the most wonderful thing for people who write biographies— that somehow, even though it takes so much of your time, there’s that insight into human nature that affects your own life very deeply and, we hope, the reader’s. I know, for me, that experience of thinking and writing and watching Lyndon Johnson at the end of his life, with nothing to fall back on, because power had been the only thing that mattered to him, made me know that somehow, it wasn’t worth that. He called me two days before he died and he told me that he was reading Carl Sandburg’s biography on Lincoln and trying to make Lincoln come to life and if he couldn’t do that, he said, then no one was every going to remember him, and maybe his search for immortality through the public was a false search, that he would’ve been better off spending his time with his children and his wife and his children’s children in turn. But it was, of course, only a passing thought for a man who all of his life had searched for public immortality. But, I somehow learned from him that if you spend so much time in pursuit of one thing, at the expense of play, at the expense of love, perhaps your life won’t be as balanced as you hope. I know it affected my life as I went along. So, too, as I listen to Rose Kennedy tell me that somehow, even if she could come back again and her children could be born again, that she is convinced they would choose who they were even if they died at forty-three and forty-six and twenty-eight and twenty-nine, because they’d lived such rich adventurous lives, that that was more important than a long mediocre life. I sort of believed her and then I looked back at my own children and my own life and I’ve decided that the dailiness of everyday life matters more, perhaps, than that extraordinary success that some people can achieve in the short run. So as long as you can think about these big things through your biographical subjects, no wonder you have a David McCullough who can be so enthusiastic after nine years. It’s a great treat.
When I was a kid, my brother and I hiked to a top of a mountain. Sometimes we saw a house down below, a long way down, maybe eight, ten miles, with all trees all the way down. He was three or four years older and he’d had some geometry, so he said, “Now when we climb up a tree to see where the house was we have to get this exactly right because if we’re a few feet off when we start up here, we’ll be several miles off by the time we’re down there.” And I always think about that in starting a book, that if we’re a few feet off up here, we’re going to really miss the mark. It’s so important because you establish not just a tone of voice or the beginnings of a story, but you really are establishing a compact, a bond, an understanding with your reader. In a sense, you’re saying, “Come on. Come over here and look at this with me. This is interesting. This is worthwhile. This is going to be quite a ride we’re going on.”
And with biography, which is a very different problem than writing history, you can’t leave your subject very long. You can’t say, “Well we’ve had enough of him for awhile. Let’s go on to something else for a chapter.” I also think that, and I know all of us here have demonstrated this, it’s very, very important, and very little understood generally, how important it is, to understand the surrounding characters who are influencing your main character. So when you’re writing a biography, you’re not just writing about exhibit A, you’ve got all these other people that you must understand, and they can’t be seen as fixed entities on the landscape. You know, this is the strong supportive sister, this is the weak, indolent brother, this is the decorative mother who....they’re not those things. They may have been that on March 5th when he was six years old, but maybe when he was twenty-five years old all that had changed because no one stays the same, everybody is evolving, everybody’s growing, changing, and it’s affecting your main character. So you’ve got many balls in the air and you have to understand all those people, because certainly your main character understood them. The Theodore Roosevelt story, for example, of his childhood, is really much more about understanding that swarm of a family that he moved with everywhere and how hard it was for him to break out of that swarm. And when he breaks out of the swarm, he also breaks out of his asthma, at the same time. It has almost nothing to do with his lifting weights and throwing medicine balls. It has to do with getting out of that family. And so you have to understand that family and why does Elliott, the brother, who’s the one who seems to be the pick of the litter, handsome, charming, and outgoing, take a nosedive whereas this peculiar, sickly and frightened little brother becomes the emblem of masculine, positive turn- of- the- century America. Teddy Roosevelt. How does that happen? Well, I contend that you have to understand Elliott very well in order to understand Theodore. That makes the job harder and a lot more interesting....
Now, of course, they did not include a lot that we take for granted today in coverage. But there’s even an exception to that. The Time-Life system, as you may know, was to have reporters who filed all that they knew, not all that they would print but all that they knew, into the New York office. And then the New York editors would distill that and make it into an article. The system still works the same way, except they do have bylines now or at least credits. Those original files have survived. Now, for example, at the Truman Library there are all the files of a man named McNaughton who covered Capitol Hill and Washington politics in general. And it’s everything that he was hearing, everything that Sam Rayburn was telling him, most of it not for attribution. It’s a gold mine of material. Just to talk about the service that journalists do for us now is to miss the very large point of the service they’re going to do for how this generation is written about a hundred years from now, and what they’ve done for us in times past. The newspapers of the past are one of the greatest of all sources for writing history and biography and its a wonderful thing that most libraries have all this material and it’s there for everybody. This isn’t some strange profession that no one can come into because it’s only for a certain people, the few who know how to do it. Nobody ever told me how to do this. I imagine that’s true of you all. I was an English major in college. I’ve sort of backed into this kind of work and I could’ve been saved a lot of time, I’m sure had I been a history major or had I an advanced degree. But, in a sense I’m glad I didn’t, because I’ve worked out my own way and it’s not according to any prescribed formula. . .
QUESTION: When you’ve got overwhelming personalities who are powerful people, does the vision that the biographer focuses on them obscure the question of how much power they actually exercise during their leadership reign?
Last December when Jane Cooper was awarded the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit and officially named New York State Poet (1995-1997) she joined an impressive and exclusive list of poets who have served in that role. Among them are such notables as Stanley Kunitz, Robert Creeley, Audre Lord, and Richard Howard, Cooper’s immediate predecessor. But at the time of the ceremony illness unfortunately prevented Cooper from attending in person, so she did the next best thing, appearing in a specially produced New York State Writers Institute video. Jane read several of her poems to the audience, graciously (as ever) accepted her prestigious honor and thanked all who had gathered in the Clark Auditorium of the New York State Museum on that snowy December evening. Cooper’s resilient spirit shone brightly in Albany that night. It will be our good fortune to have Jane Cooper appear in person this May as part of the Writers Institute’s 1996 Visiting Writers Series.
Cooper’s most recent book, Green Notebook, Winter Road, appeared in 1994 and is her most comprehensive work to date. "On the Edge of the Moment," the book’s first section, is precisely where readers will find themselves. The book opens with one of the title poems, “Green Notebook,” an inviting, almost beckoning piece.
Cooper’s full and steady presence underpins many of these poems, imbuing them with that felt camaraderie that has come to characterize Cooper and her work.
With Green Notebook, Winter Road Cooper gently folds the energies of the past into a comfortable collaboration with the present. In "The Infusion Room," a starkly "matter-of-fact" look at what Cooper has called the "culture of illness," hideous and relentless medical realities are cushioned by some of the "smaller" realities of patients’ lives, like comic books, walkmans, Cadillacs, colleges, taxicabs and talk-show hosts. Deftly and purposefully paired with "The Infusion Room" is a short prose piece, "The Children’s Ward," which delicately recounts, with the precision of a child’s eye, Cooper’s early childhood encounter with serious illness. Together, these two pieces comprise "Give Us This Day," Green Notebook, Winter Road’s third section.
Since 1969, when Cooper’s first book, The Weather of Six Mornings: Poems appeared, she has published three major works, Maps and Windows: Poems (1974), Scaffolding: New and Selected Poems (1984), and Green Notebook, Winter Road. Scaffolding: Selected Poems which, as its title suggests, draws its readers into the very construction (or "composition" as Cooper would say) of its poems, was recently reissued by Tilbury House, publishers of Green Notebook, Winter Road.
Jane Cooper has served as co-editor of several books of poetry, published two chapbooks and has been anthologized in numerous works including Howe and Bass’s No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women. She has been a recipient of numerous honors and awards throughout her career, among them the Shelley Award of the Poetry Society of America (1978), the Maurice English Poetry Award (1985) for Scaffolding: New and Selected Poems and the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1995). A resident of Manhattan, Cooper is also well remembered at Sarah Lawrence College where she served on the faculty from 1950 until her retirement in 1987. Cooper retains the title of Professor and Poet-in-Residence Emerita at Sarah Lawrence.
Galway Kinnell finds in Cooper’s poems "a pure formal grace . . . they are not products of labor but of inspiration," and Adrienne Rich has noted in Cooper "a passionate commitment to the imagination, a craft which is both subtle and honorable, a continuing inner growth." Cooper’s voice is a celebration of community and cultures in all their dimensions. Richard Howard numbers Cooper "among the most responsible and inveterately rewarding poets of our moment."