Merlin Holland's elegant volume, The Wilde Album, mutes the vivid colors of Oscar Wilde's life, or at least of the popularized caricature's of his life, with the tones of "brown velvet"—a phrase once used to describe Wilde's voice itself. This book reassembles images from the family portrait albums that were dispersed after Wilde's death. The albums themselves are an apt image of the fate of their most famous subject, whose life and art were dismembered—the former irremediably, the latter happily not—by a society and age bent upon conformity in all things. We can be grateful to Merlin Holland for gathering those fragments—those bits of remembered and performed life—and stitching them together with a sensitive and insightful biographical essay. The Wilde Album, like those family albums, provides us with a fuller sense of Oscar Wilde in his time—a fuller sense of Oscar Wilde in our time is surely one of things that we can look forward to this evening.
We can be further grateful to Merlin Holland for taking on the risk of addressing a notoriously tough crowd. For it was just past this date in 1882 that Oscar Wilde ventured into Albany to lecture on the subject of "The English Renaissance." The Albany Evening Journal of the next day, January 28, contains the following report under the headline, "The Apostle of Aestheticism":
There were about two hundred people in the hall, and as Wilde stepped out on the stage unattended, a ripple of amusement passed through the audience at his appearance. He was attired in a black dress coat, double-breasted white vest, white silk necktie, black knee breeches, black silk stockings and patent leather pumps. His long hair was parted in the middle and thrown back upon his shoulders, and a smile that was 'childlike and bland' rested upon his face. He is tall, square shouldered, and rather large bodied, while his legs are long and spare. Such an appearance was well calculated to cause amusement. He immediately commenced . . . his lecture. . . . His delivery was monotonous and his voice droning, two facts that tended to make his lecture as dreary as possibly could be imagined. Many left the hall before he concluded, and those who remained to the end uttered a sigh of relief as they rose from their seats at the conclusion of the last sentence.
Neither the appearance nor the topic of tonight's lecturer, however, resembles those reportedly eliciting the derision or the ennui of Capital District residents over a century ago. Nor, let us hope, will the consequences of Merlin Holland's American lecture tour exactly replicate all of those of his grandfather's. For Holland, alluding to his Oscar Wilde's 140 lectures in 260 days in 1882, notes that: "If his transatlantic trial by fire had given him money and experience, it had also given him a life-long supply of gentle jibes at the Americans" (110).
We should, therefore, consider ourselves forewarned by history—myself and fellow literary critics doubly so, since Merlin Holland's subject this evening, like The Wilde Album itself, takes up the very issue of Wilde and his complex relationship with his many—sometimes hostile, often uncomprehending—audiences. So, if you will, please welcome, in good Albany fashion, Merlin Holland on the topic, "Oscar Wilde: Confounding the Critics and Surviving the Scandal."Randall Craig is Professor in the English Department, UAlbany.
Douglas Starr’s Blood:
An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce
A dispassionate discussion of blood is nearly impossible. Its very color is the color of emergency. It simultaneously suggests "life" and "death." All religious traditions endow it with potent meaning.
At the very same time, blood is a material substance with various properties. In the modern era, it has become an object of scientific investigation, an essential item in the modern medicine chest, and—although we may abhor the thought—a commodity that is bought and sold, often for profit.
Douglas Starr’s Blood: An Epic History of Medicine and Commerce (1998) tells the story of blood with wit and narrative energy. He allows us to participate in the excitement of medical discoveries, the race to develop better life-saving technologies, and the heroic efforts of particular individuals who contributed to the cause. Starr traces the development of transfusion equipment, surgical techniques, blood-typing, anticoagulants, storage methods, and screening for pathogens. The cast of characters—many of them driven, obsessed, eccentric or downright crazy—makes the book as riveting as any prime-time emergency room melodrama. So too, the nail-biting situations.
Consider the British pathologist Janet Vaughn who sets up a wartime transfusion facility in a London bar. During the bombing of Britain she comes across a child so badly burned that she can't find a vein. In desperation, she plunges a needle into the child's breastbone in the wild hope of transfusing directly into the bone marrow. The child lives and Vaughn’s method is later used to transfuse men on boats, where the constant rocking makes pin-pointing a vein too difficult. The method also leads to the development of needles with special flanges that prevent the medic from stabbing it clear through the breastbone, killing the patient.
Other heroes include African-American Dr. Charles Drew, medical director of Plasma for Britain and author of, at the time, the most authoritative text on blood storage. Drew dedicates his life to changing the perception that Negro doctors are qualified to be nothing more than "country practitioners, capable of sitting with the poor and sick of their race, but not given to too much intellectual activity and not particularly interested in advancing medicine." His efforts pave the way for several wartime programs that save countless lives and help win the Second World War.
But Drew’s important contributions in the 1930s and 1940s cannot liberate the subject of blood from its more irrational associations. ‘Blood’ means ‘race’ in the popular imagination, and many whites of the time refuse, without sense or scientific basis, to transfuse black blood into white recipients. Even the major not-for-profits, like the Red Cross, avoid collecting blood from African-Americans, though wartime supplies are insufficient and lives might be saved by the practice. Plasma for Britain welcomes black donors, but the organization gives into pressure to label blood by race so that needy recipients can refuse it if they wish.
The history of blood technology is also rife with foolishness. Starr tells the story of American founding father, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the most respected physicians of his day. Rush accepts the ancient art of bleeding patients as the most effective cure-all remedy in medicine. (Indeed, bleeding does appear to relieve patients of their unhappiness by making them light-headed. Its weakening effects also make it an appealing pre-modern means of "treating" and pacifying the violent and insane.)
In an effort to save the city of Philadelphia during the yellow fever plague of 1793, Rush runs himself ragged in an effort to bleed as many people as possible, "day and night, seven days a week. . . more than a hundred patients a day." While most of the rich and the healthy abandon the city, which deteriorates into a bizarre wasteland of the sick and the dead, Rush remains behind with the sole intention of saving lives. He writes a friend, "At first I found the loss of ten or twelve ounces of blood sufficient. . . but I have been obliged, gradually, as the season advanced to increase the quantity to sixty, seventy, and even eighty ounces, and in most cases with the happiest effects." Needless to say, Rush kills more people than he helps, but he does so with the best intentions and a devotion that is nothing less than saintly.
Some of the book’s most horrifying stories concern the "wildcat days" of the blood business in the 1960s and 1970s—a phenomenon that recalls earlier oil and gold rushes—when unscrupulous profiteers set up blood banks with the principal aim of tapping a resource and getting rich quickly. Starr tells of malnourished Nicaraguans and Haitians allowed to donate life-endangering amounts of blood in exchange for token payments at facilities owned by American entrepreneurs. He also describes "ooze-for-booze" operations in American cities that exploit the poor and addicted, facilities staffed by poorly trained technicians and using unsanitary equipment— places where doctors reportedly double as bouncers.
The later chapters are necessarily devoted to the AIDS epidemic, the biggest blood-related story of the recent era. As in previous decades, science must always contend with blood’s power to inflame superstition. The late 1980s is a period of easily-triggered hysteria, when the efforts to contain a disease threaten at times to become a witch-hunt. Starr cites Conservative doyen William F. Buckley’s call to tattoo everyone who tests HIV-positive on the forearms and buttocks. "Our society is generally threatened," says Buckley. Starr also devotes much of these chapters to the hemophiliac community’s tragic and little-chronicled encounter with AIDS.
Publisher’s Weekly called Blood, "a first-class science book," and named it one of the "Best Nonfiction Books of 1998." The New York Times called it, "A fascinating history," and Business Week, "A brightly written, intriguing and disquieting book, with some important lessons for public health."
Douglas Starr is codirector of the Graduate Program in Science Journalism at Boston University. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian and Audubon. He also served as science editor for the PBS series, "Bodywatch."Mark Koplik is a Program Assistant to the NYS Writers Institute.
Albert Maysles and Direct Cinema
As young documentarians, my friend Charlie and I went out one night to the Film Forum in New York to see a double bill of SALESMAN and GIMME SHELTER. Albert Maysles was going to give a talk and field questions, and having seen a few of the Maysles’ early films we were excited to hear what he had to say. SALESMAN proved to be a revelation, and Albert a magician. He spoke for a long time that night, long enough to delay the last screening of GIMME SHELTER, but he could have talked all night as far as the audience was concerned. One story he told in particular captured my imagination.
"My mother told me the story about how my father and mother used to meet for lunch before they got married. They used to meet at Kennedy’s department store in downtown Boston. But what my mother didn't know is that my father would get there five or ten minutes earlier, place himself across the street behind the window of a shop and just gaze at her lovingly as she waited for him. That is how I like to approach the subjects of my films."
The day after the screening I faxed Albert a letter telling him how inspired I had been by his work and by his words, and would he consent to allowing my friend Charlie and I to make a short film entitled "Albert Maysles Rides the Bus," a verite portrait of his daily bus ride to his studio. Albert called us up the next day and invited us over to his studio in midtown Manhattan, and we went expecting a fifteen minute courtesy meeting, and instead spent the afternoon talking shop with Albert who kept saying "You really have to see this," and bringing tapes of his work into his screening room for us to watch. Three hours later we left Albert’s office filled with a desire to go forth and document.
Since that afternoon, I have come to regard Albert as a mentor, and have had the pleasure of spending many afternoons and evenings listening to his stories: The motorcycle journey he and his brother made from Munich to Moscow in 1956, shooting a film about the Polish student revolution along the way. Documenting The Beatles first visit to the U.S. How making a film on Truman Capote led to their desire to do in film what Capote had done with In Cold Blood, a desire which ultimately bore fruit in their non-fiction film classic SALESMAN. Going on the road with The Rolling Stones, filming a death at Altamont, getting death threats from the Hell’s Angels. Shooting a short dramatic film for Jean-Luc Godard. The collaboration with Orson Welles that never panned out.
The stories flow, and I am left with the feeling that I should always have a camera perched on my shoulder when I talk to Albert. But more than the stories, it is Albert’s sense of humanity and his sense of responsibility to his subjects that I have learned from.
"Most people never get the chance to have themselves truly represented and there’s nothing that they'd rather do than have people. . . somebody, and in the odd circumstance a filmmaker so much the better, pay attention to who they really are, to give them that recognition. It becomes a sacred duty."
Now, when I go out to shoot footage for a show or a film, I find myself holding up Albert’s work as the measuring stick.Hugo Perez is the Producer and Videographer for the NYS Writers Institute's PBS series The Writer which airs on WMHT and WMHQ.
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Albany Times Union Article
Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban:
The Politics of Motherhood
The topography of American literature has undergone significant change in the past few decades. The literature we define as ours, we have come to realize, is in fact a body of literatures whose borders continually shift to include an ever-expanding community of disparate voices, each distinct in its own way, yet all of them integral to a complex American experience that constitutes our common heritage. It is a heritage still in the making in many respects. The works of African-American, Native-American and Asian-American writers, to name but a few of the many, have served to enrich our national literature in ways that are hard to fathom entirely at present. In recent years the contributions of Latin-American writers have stood out in particular, and works exploring the Latin-American émigré experience by women writers such as Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez have served to fuel the growing interest in this important segment of American society and culture. After the publication of her first two novels, Dreaming in Cuban (Knopf, 1992) and The Aguero Sisters (Knopf, 1997), journalist and novelist Cristina Garcia has established herself among the front rank of this new and exciting group of writers.
I was only two years old when I left Cuba but I remember everything that's happened to me since I was a baby, even word-for-word conversations. I was sitting in my grandmother's lap, playing with her drop pearl earrings, when my mother told her we were leaving the country. Abuela Celia called her a traitor to the revolution. Mom tried to pull me away but I clung to Abuela and screamed at the top of my lungs. My grandfather came running and said, "Celia, let the girl go. She belongs with Lourdes." That was the last time I saw her. (From Dreaming in Cuban)
In many ways this brief passage from Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban perfectly summarizes the underlying personal and ideological tensions that serve as the dramatic impetus for the story of the del Pino family during fifty years of turbulent Cuban history. The novel is constructed of interwoven stories that draw us deep into the lives of three generations of women struggling to come to terms with themselves and with each other in the wake of political events that have forced them asunder. The themes of rebellion, exile and loss, as well as of the reclamation of personal and family identity, all lie at the heart of this powerful debut novel.
The novel alternates between the primary settings of Santa Teresa del Mar in Cuba and New York City between 1972 and 1980. In its involved backstory, however, the narrative truly begins in the 1930s and works its way chronologically forward from Cuba's days as an American tourist haven, through the Batista regime and the subsequent communist revolution, culminating in 1980 when Castro opened Cuba's borders to those who wished to emigrate as refugees to other countries.
The focal center of this political family saga is the del Pino family matriarch Celia, a staunch defender of El Lider (Fidel Castro) and the Revolution, a woman of intense passion and conviction for whom "freedom...is nothing more than the right to a decent life."
While she is the most prominent of the female characters (the men pale in comparison to the women), Celia is actually a co-protagonist in this novel--as her two daughters and her American-reared granddaughter are given nearly equal voice and space as lead characters in the novel's multi-voiced narrative.
The eldest of her daughters, Lourdes, has bought into capitalist consumer culture and the American dream lock, stock and barrel. On the one occasion she returns to Cuba during her exile she spends much of her time running around demanding that people tell her how much money they make, only to inform them with gleeful derision how much more they would make for the same work in the United States. In New York, where she has resettled with her daughter Pilar and her gentle and tolerant (but unfaithful) husband Rufino Fuente, she owns a couple of successful Yankee Doodle Bakeries. Often she sends her mother triumphant pictures of her rich pastries: "Each glistening eclair is a grenade aimed at Celia's political beliefs, each strawberry shortcake proof--in butter, cream and eggs--of Lourdes' success, and a reminder of the ongoing shortages in Cuba."
The politics that separate mother from daughter are in one sense symptoms rather than causes of their mutual antagonisms, guises cloaking a deeper-seated inability to find peace with each other and within themselves. Celia first embraces communism as a redirection of the passionate impulses that collectively define her character, impulses that had seen their only complete fulfillment in her youth during a brief but consuming love affair with a Spaniard, Gustavo Sierra de Armas. A series of letters Celia writes but never sends to Gustavo form a journal of sorts, and serve as dramatic bookends between sections in the novel.
When Gustavo returns to Spain Celia settles for Jorge del Pino, an electric broom and fan salesman who spends most of his time on the road, neglecting his wife. His neglect is deliberate, an act of preemptive revenge for the unconditional love he knows he will never receive from her, for the passion she continues to have for her one-time Spanish lover.
When Lourdes is born, however, Celia's dream of fulfillment dies. As she writes in one of her letters:
Lourdes becomes the survivor her mother imagines, but outlasts the hard flames with a vengeance unforeseen even by Celia herself. Born of disillusionment, Celia's lack of intimacy with Lourdes takes root like a weed in the child's spirit. This, as much as the atrocity of a rape she suffers years later at the hands of a revolutionary soldier, give rise to Lourdes' fanatical anti-communist positioning, which itself drives a wedge between her and her own daughter, Pilar.
Pilar is a precocious teenager (artist, anarchist, punk rocker) who finds the reactionary anti-communist politics of the larger Cuban-American community (and her mother in particular) revolting:
Pilar dreams of the land from which she was exiled (literally, as well as culturally and spiritually), imagining it as a panacea for a domestic discontent that is hard to name, but ever present, for it is a discontent of absence, a sense of what is missing in her life. She dreams of returning to Cuba and being reunited with her grandmother Celia, with whom she has a somewhat vaguely defined telepathic connection of sorts. The more derisively her mother speaks of her grandmother, and all for which she stands, the more Pilar becomes drawn to her. What becomes clear in the novel is a sense of history repeating itself from generation to generation, with direct oppositional relationships between mothers and daughters, for which the opposing political orientations are but guises. For all their surface differences, all three women are remarkably alike: headstrong, defiant, unyielding. During their eventual reunion, Pilar interprets their futures using the I Ching. The prophecy for Lourdes could just as well stand for all of them. "‘Examine your motives,’ Pilar reads from her book, translating into Spanish as she goes along. ‘They will be the cause of your problems.’"
Like Pilar Puente, Cristina Garcia was herself whisked away to New York City at the age of two, severed from her extended family and forced into a life of exile by political forces beyond her control. Yet unlike her young narrator, Garcia admits that she hasn't a single memory of her first two years in Cuba.
Dreaming in Cuban received immediate and virtually unanimous critical acclaim, prompting many critics to hail Garcia (a former correspondent and Miami bureau chief for Time) as one of the most promising and gifted new American writers to have come along in many years. Newsweek proclaimed her "a new star in the American literary firmament" while a reviewer in the New York Times expressed an almost incredulous astonishment at the power and maturity of her writing:
To these comparisons should be added another. In its lyricism, its complex use of multiple perspectives and voices and in its deft handling of elliptical narrative, Dreaming in Cuban is reminiscent of a debut novel published 22 years before by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye. Both novels are concerned with themes of loss, history and family disintegration, and each constructs its central motif, as it were, through a kind of reassembling of disjointed narrative fragments as filtered through the eyes, mouths and minds of different key characters. But in its overall composition and effect Dreaming in Cuban is more complete and more seamless than Morrison's first novel. It also attempts (and succeeds in large measure) to weave its characters' personal histories into a larger fabric of social developments and political events that play a defining role in the shaping of those characters' very identities, as well as their destinies.
As young Pilar says: "Most days Cuba is kind of dead to me. But every once in a while a wave of longing will hit me and it's all I can do not to hijack a plane to Havana or something. I resent the hell out of the politicians and the generals who force events on us that structure our lives, that dictate the memories we'll have when we're old." At times Pilar's exasperation and longing for her second-hand native culture find more humorous expression, as in the following meditation on the origin of her own name:
In its many variations and configurations, the political dynamic between the United States and Cuba, between Cubans who stayed and those who fled, form more than just the backdrop for the many stories that intersect and diverge in this novel; they are an integral and indispensable part of the novel's drama. It is quite fitting, then, that even Castro himself appears at one point, not as mere allusion, but as an acting character in a brief yet pivotal scene.
In Dreaming in Cuban Garcia has managed to perform a delicate balancing act. The novel's great allure lies in Garcia's ability to work with and bring to life so many voices and perspectives--no less than seven distinct perspectives are present in the work and her transitions between each (as well as between third-person limited-omniscient narration and first-person narration) are so deftly handled as to be virtually invisible. The humor in the book is convincing, and the moments of poignant pathos are carefully constructed, and selectively chosen. Add to all this Garcia's ability to negotiate confidently between straight realism and magic realism (Jorge del Pino, for instance, plays a larger role as a character after his death than before it), and what you have is a first novel of striking originality and deceptive technical complexity.
The novel is not without its flaws. Young Pilar, for instance, sometimes seems a bit too mature and worldwise for her age, and in one or two surreal scenes the magic realism treads a little more than lightly on the toes of suspended reader disbelief. These cases are more the exception than the rule, however, and they are certainly not worth overplaying, especially when viewed against the long ledger of all that Garcia attempts and accomplishes with skill, confidence and a maturity that first novelists and journeymen novelists alike would envy--and most likely will envy, if they read this book.
Dreaming in Cuban was nominated for a National Book Award and has been translated widely. Since its publication Cristina Garcia has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton and a Whiting Writers' Award. 1997 saw the publication of her long-awaited second novel, The Aguero Sisters, which has been greeted with enthusiasm by critics as a work that follows through on the promise of her much acclaimed debut. Cristina Garcia now lives in California with her daughter, Pilar.
Steven Hartman is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University at Albany and a Program Fellow for the NYS Writers Institute.Top of Page
I have read his poems. I have read his essays and reviews. I have read all I can about him and by him in an attempt to pin him down. I had read him many times before in the prominent quarterlies that have featured his work regularly for more than fifty years, but never had I attempted to approach his body of work systematically.
Inevitably I am unequal to the task, for Hayden Carruth has published more than thirty volumes of poetry and prose since his first volume of poems The Crow and the Heart appeared in 1949. But I have managed what I can over a month of diligent reading, including the National Book Award winning Scrambled and Whiskey (1996), two volumes of collected work, Collected Shorter Poems, 1946-1991 (1992) and Collected Longer Poems (1994), and two books of prose, Selected Essays and Reviews (1996) and Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays (1998), all from Copper Canyon Press.
For weeks I am immersed in the words and in the world, in the mind and memories, of Hayden Carruth. It is an experience that is variously intense and sobering, sad and wonderful, even disconcerting at times, but rich in its rewards. I am trying to prepare myself for the rare opportunity of meeting Hayden Carruth in person when he reads on April 6, together with novelist Barry Callaghan, at the New York State Writers Institute in Albany.
The opportunity is rare not only because Carruth, at 78, is fast approaching an age when most poets find the rigors of readings and public appearances no longer to be worth the trouble, but because for most of his life he has shied away from such engagements with a timorousness uncommon in a figure of his accomplishments, opting instead for a life of quiet seclusion.
A strong case can certainly be made that Hayden Carruth is the major poet-critic of his generation in America. He has received nearly every major award and honor there is in this country, including a National Book Award in Poetry and a National Book Critics Circle Award. As early as a decade ago a number of America's leading poets and critics came together in the 20th Anniversary issue of the Seneca Review to honor him by devoting an entire issue to his poetic oeuvre. In the Act: Essays on the Poetry of Hayden Carruth featured essays by Philip Booth, Wendell Berry, Maxine Kumin, William Matthews and Carolyn Kizer, among many others, celebrating the poet's unique contributions to 20th century American poetry.
Carruth's contributions to contemporary American letters as an editor and critic are also a matter of record. Early in his career he was the editor of Poetry, and later the poetry editor of Harpers. He has edited three anthologies of poetry, among them the important The Voice That Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the Twentieth Century (Bantam, 1970). Few living American poets can be said to have exerted a comparable influence, both directly and indirectly, on the poetry of the past few decades.
What makes this observation even more interesting, however, is the fact that Carruth has lived and worked largely apart from the core community of American poets. For decades he shunned the company of others and lived a life of self-imposed exile and poverty when most of the major poets of his own generation exploited the opportunities of the academic system of patronage and networking to advance their careers and to live and work in relative comfort. Though certainly not without its ideological underpinnings, Carruth's decision to live his life the way he has was never so much politically or ideologically driven as it was determined by the necessities of his unique emotional and psychological temperament. If Carruth has lived apart from the larger community of poets, apart even from society in general, he has done so not out of an aloof wilfulness but rather a deep-seated fear of public gatherings and social interaction, and all that they involve.
The truth, as readers of my work know, is that I've suffered all my life from chronic psychiatric disorders that were acute during my thirties and have been slowly and painfully — and imperfectly — overcome in the years since then. The decade before I moved to Vermont was spent in almost complete invalidism, including a long spell of hospitalization and a longer spell of reclusion. When I married at the age of forty, I was well enough to shift from reclusion to seclusion, but I still could not do what literary people normally do with their lives — work in offices or classrooms, live in a city, use public transportation, go to theaters, literary parties, etc. So I couldn't earn much money and I needed a quiet and private place to live. That's why I found myself in the backcountry of northern Vermont with a young wife...When our friends in the counterculture of the 1960s, many of whom had come from Bethesda or Greenwich and had nice little independent incomes, praised my wife and me for living in "voluntary poverty," we laughed. (From Reluctantly, Copper Canyon Press, 1998)
One hallmark of Carruth's writing is his disarming and ultimately alluring candor; another is the tone of unaffected humility, often bordering on self-effacement, that runs through much of his work without being, or seeming, false and contrived. Poets and critics as diverse as Adrienne Rich, Maxine Kumin and Wendell Berry have praised Carruth's poetic vision for its integrity just as they have admired his ability, as M.L. Rosenthal has put it, to "send out currents of communion to all of us from his intimately personal realm of reverie and emotion, even when the predicaments out of which [his poems] speak are most particularly his own." Galway Kinnell has echoed this sentiment:
One of the most striking things about [Carruth's] work is his ability to enter the lives of other people...I think this is so because he knows them through their speech. There is a reciprocity in all this, however. In telling their tales, he finds a means to express his own inner life. He gives them a voice, they give him a language. (From the "Foreword" to The Selected Poetry of Hayden Carruth, Collier Books, 1985)As his criticism and poetic practice bear out, Carruth himself is deeply skeptical of Romantic sentimentality and egocentricity, not just as features in contemporary poetry but as shaping, and ultimately destructive, forces in American culture. By the same token he spurns nostalgia as "a delusion and an illness."
The care, fidelity and love with which nature is evoked in his poems have led some critics to describe Hayden Carruth as a "nature poet," a designation he neither embraces nor appreciates. It is not so much that he wishes to disavow nature's prominence in his poetry. He is bothered more by the associations and preconceptions terms like "nature poet" and "naturalism" bring to mind.
One spends one's life trying to establish independence, to escape the categorizations others wish to impose. No doubt this imposing is part of basic human necessity, and no doubt we all do it, I as much as anyone: put people into classes and assign them to types. And no doubt most people are always trying to escape — except that I think in fact most people, the immense majority, take comfort from being categorized. I too have envied that comfort from afar.Carruth has defined himself as a pragmatist, a rationalist, a literalist and a cynic. Yet cynicism, he reminds us, "does not mean merely a sardonic attitude toward life, love or any other value." It is, rather, a belief in virtue as the only good, whose essence lies in self-control and independence, "the states of being," he writes, "toward which I strive continually, acknowledging that I'm damn lucky to attain either of them for even a moment."
Carruth's sober cynicism does not preclude wonder or joy, but it most definitely lies at the heart of his unwillingness to embrace Romantic ideals that elevate nature inordinately. The irony inherent in his view is that such reverence inevitably results not in a true elevation of nature, but rather in its debasement, since the Romantic's take on the natural world and our place in relation to it is essentially delusional and destructive.
Carruth may be a rationalist and a pragmatist, but he also considers himself highly spiritual. His poetry is infused with spirituality. He does not go in for the dualistic simplification that makes spirituality and rationalism incompatible. Mysticism, on the other hand, is another matter. In his fascinating essay "Suicide," in which he writes about the aftermath of his attempt to take his own life in 1988, he says:
I have argued for the notion that spiritual and mystical experience are different...Spiritual, as distinct from mystical, knowledge is all knowledge of the human spirit in its surpassing material cause in Aristotle's sense of the word. The human spirit is human, grounded in our bodies, but it is still spirit. Spirituality is an extension of materiality...The differences between spiritual and esthetic experiences, or between either of them and emotional experience...entail discriminations among states or levels of feeling and have more to do with the ways the feelings are evoked or produced than with their intrinsic qualities. (From Reluctantly)In some of Curruth's most affecting and memorable poetry this sober standpoint meshes at times with an almost ecstatic exuberance for all that life holds and means: its joys and sorrows, terrors and wonders. The eye on and within nature that emerges in many of these poems brings to the reader a sense of nature's ineffable multiplicity and wonder without falling back on the threadbare quasi-mystical tropes of what Carruth would term 'Thoreauvian self-delusion.' The result can be a poem like "The Brook":
Murmuring of the brook in late
Carruth's beef with Thoreau is a longstanding one and has been memorialized in his essay "The Man in the Box at Walden" (Selected Essays and Reviews, 1996). In his most recent book of autobiographical essays, Reluctantly, Carruth cannot resist donning the gloves briefly to take another parting shot at the 19th century Transcendental giant:
I have explained my aversion to the lovelessness, arrogance, and egomania of Henry D. Thoreau in his book called Walden...the connection between Thoreau's so-called Transcendentalism, i.e., his flight from reality, and the violence and irresponsibility of the American frontier...are now in a fair way to becoming the national way of life...It isn't that when you pick up the book review section of the Sunday New York Times you will find that half the reviews emit a Waldenesque smell; it is rather that a great number of those who are reading the reviews will, once they put down the paper, go out on Sunday birdwalks with all of Walden's snobbery and righteousness and sentimentalism crammed in their heads. I believe no other book in English has been more widely read by the American middle class, by millions and millions of comparatively well-heeled and powerful people. It is a touchstone even for those who work with nature — scientists, forestry professors, veterinarians...and so on....Everyone ha[s] been affected — and infected. We need a national antitoxin. (From Reluctantly)Clearly, if any literary antitoxin is to be found, it is within such a context, in an impulse running counter to an "egomaniacal sentimentality that cripples us," that Carruth positions his own work, as well as the work of a good many other environmentally and socially conscious writers like Audre Lorde, John Ashbery, Grace Paley and Leo Connellan, to name but a few.
Fragmentary and incomplete as autobiography, uneven as a book of essays, Reluctantly nevertheless is very successful at what it attempts: an account of the life of a poet's mind as seen through the prism of a few key formative and transformational moments. Clearly the essay "Suicide" is the centerpiece of the book, exploring as it does the elating effect of having gone through death and survived to live with a renewed lust and sense of purpose. This essay alone is a major accomplishment that makes the book worth reading.
The book also includes a smattering of the kind of anecdotal material we have come to expect of literary biography, as when Carruth recounts his one meeting, as a young man, with Kenneth Burke.
I met Burke only once, at a party on the south side of Chicago, I think at Harvey Webster's apartment in 1948 and 1949. I had fortified myself beforehand, as usual, but at the beginning of the party I was still very tense. I found myself on a sofa beside Burke. He chatted, I listened. I tried to act as if I were comfortable, as I supposed the editor of Poetry should be, while the party began warming up and getting noisier. People standing in clusters, looming above us, talking loudly, etc. Burke leaned toward me and said: "I wrote a poem this afternoon. Would you like to hear it?" I said: "Of course." (What else?) He recited it in a low voice directly into my ear, and I didn't catch a word — not one. But because the poem was brief, because the occasion was social and cheery, I assumed the poem was funny, some sort of epigram, and I laughed. Immediately Burke drew back. He looked at me with shock, indignation, and injury.So who is Hayden Carruth? I have pondered that phrase, "the mind revealed in the work," many times during my foray into his five most recent books. What they have revealed to me is an extraordinary intellect and poetic talent shaped by a turbulent life. They have given me an inside track to the world and the mind of someone who has exerted an enormous influence on American poetry in the last quarter century, both as a poet and as a critic. Like Spender and Burke and a few others embodying the finest their age had to offer when he met them in Chicago as a young man, Carruth is one of the towering literary figures of our own time, "part of our national treasure," as Adrienne Rich has put it. And yet he is also an enigma, for the circumstances of his life are as foreign from anything I have known, or can imagine, that he holds for me a certain fascination and inaccessible dread. Every time I think that I have him pinned down, a line or thought in one of his poems stops me dead in my tracks, and the process of discovery, of knowing or trying to know, begins anew. And I ask myself: Who is Hayden Carruth? Who is he and how, in this day of cyber-escapism and deadening apathy, can he be — a cynic who finds solace, meaning and sometimes hope in the very act of expressing his cynicism?
The answer is in the work, to which I return with renewed interest, looking further back and forward. When he appears next Tuesday at the New York State Writers Institute I am hopeful that he will read something from his latest book Beside The Shadblow Tree (Copper Canyon Press), to be published later this spring. After the reading, perhaps I will have the good fortune to pass a word or two with him. Though I have no history of anything like the inveterate shyness of Carruth himself, I will probably be sufficiently anxious about what I say and how I phrase it. It's hard to know in advance how such as encounter might pass, even if it were to happen. But one thing I can say. If by chance he leans toward me and whispers a line or two of poetry made unintelligible by the ambient din of voices, I will be sure not to laugh.
Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.
Talking to Hayden Carruth
In presenting the award, the National Book Foundation praised Carruth's poetic voice as "unique in American poetry: disarmingly personal but always informed by an acute historical and political intelligence,'' adding that his work is, "linguistically demotic and direct while prosodically complex and diverse.'' The Foundation went on to cite the poet's "perfect pitch for Northeastern American speech," and his "writer-scholar's intimate knowledge of a plethora of world poetries.''
On October 26, 1993, Hayden Carruth appeared at the Writers Institute for a seminar and reading as part of the Visiting Writers Series. The afternoon seminar was informal. "I don't have anything to say unless you prod me,'' Carruth joked as the session began, but he was generous and genial, addressing a variety of subjects, including his working habits, the importance of jazz in his poetry, and his views on what constitutes a useful education for an aspiring poet. Carruth, his voice raspy and soft, greeted questions with his customary plain-spokeness and erudition; he seemed to be hitting his stride just as the seminar was brought to a close after an hour.
While at the Institute, Carruth was also interviewed by then-associate director Tom Smith, a discussion that, among other topics, had Carruth speaking for what may be the first time about the poems that won the National Book Award. The transcript below contains excerpts from both question sessions. It begins with the afternoon seminar. Carruth has been asked to describe the writing of his book-length poetic sequence, The Sleeping Beauty.
The poem has very little to do with my wife; in fact, it doesn't really have anything to do with her. As it developed, it became a poem in which I was trying to write about the Romantic tradition in a critical way, I was trying to write about the situation of women in history and society; I was trying to write about my ideas of how to deal with the problems of life, which are very much influenced by the mid-century existential writers of Europe, Camus, Sartre and people like that. The thing took shape very slowly and over a long period of time.
The individual sections are written in a form which I invented when I was young, back in the early 50s, which I call a paragraph, and which other people often call a sonnet, although it isn't a sonnet. It has 15 lines, and the lines are of varying length, and the rhymes are not the same as the rhymes of a sonnet. When I invented it I wanted to avoid writing sonnets. I wanted a different form.
Gradually, as I worked on [the poem], it came together. There are no pieces of the poem written in the voice of the poet, except for the very last line. This is a book-length poem in 120-odd sections, each one 15 lines, and the last line is the one I wrote first, and it is My name is Hayden, and I have made this song.' That's the only place in the poem where the word I appears in reference to me. I wanted to write an impersonal poem, a poem that was broader, bigger than any individual's perceptions or attitudes.
Tastes change. Fashions change. One of the things I would say about this is that today, when a change occurs, it takes harder and lasts longer than it did previously, because our educational system is so awful (chuckles from the audience). It's just absolutely awful.
My students, who were graduate students at Syracuse University, had no idea of what was written before 1900. Their colleges, their high schools, didn't give it to them. It was late by the time they got to me. So the fashion that prevails right now, and has prevailed for the past 20 or 25 years, is all they know, and when they sit down to write a poem they can't think of any other way to write it. I think that's very unfortunate. Not because there are not fine poems -- there are many fine poems -- in the contemporary mode; just because it's getting pretty dead, it's worn out, and there needs to be a change, and young people are the ones who ought to be making the change.
But they don't really know enough about the evolution of literature, or the sociology of literature, or the whole process of the way poetry functions in a society and among people. They don't know enough about that to even, I think, in many cases, see any possibility of change. And I do blame schools for that.
I know -- I'm 72 years old, and I know -- when I was the age of my students at Syracuse, there were some things that they knew that I didn't really know, but there was a hell of a lot about literature that I knew that they didn't know, and never will know. They could not read a sonnet of Shakespeare. They could not read a sonnet by e.e. cummings. They did not know how to do it. They had no insight into what makes those poems go. I think all the workshops in the United States ought to be wiped out and replaced by courses in the history of literature -- how to read. It would do young writers immensely greater good than fiddling around with line endings all the time.
I believe there is in my case. I believe that the tonalities of my poems, the timbre of my poems, has been influenced by jazz and the blues. To some extent, rhythmic effects are influenced by jazz, although not very much, because a drum beat is a very different thing from the meter of language. To me, jazz music is the only native American art that amounts to anything, it's separate from all the other arts, it has connections, philosophical, sociological connections with the history of our culture, but it is not the same as poetry and, although more and more poets are influenced by jazz, I still think it would be very difficult with any of them to show the influence except in a very superficial way.
Nowadays, I've changed somewhat, because I get so tired I can't work at night anymore. And also, since I've retired, I don't have to go to work. So I get up in the morning and I turn on some music and I drink some coffee and I smoke a lot of cigarettes and maybe every third or fourth day a poem occurs. That's my best time now. Not when I get up, like some people. I can hardly find my way downstairs when I first get up. I have to have three, four cups of coffee, half a pack of cigarettes, then I can do it.
Sometimes these changes have been extremely deliberate. It's hard to make people understand. When I moved from Vermont, where I lived a long time, I got a job at Syracuse, at the university, and I moved over there and ended up in Liverpool, which is a suburb north of Syracuse. I was living right on the strip. It was a total 180-degree change in my life, from living in the woods, from being self-employed to working for a big institution -- and all that. And when I got there, and I got my apartment, a couple of weeks after I moved in I sat down and I took a legal pad and I wrote down a poem in an absolutely arbitrary new form that I had never written in before. Eight syllables, six syllables, eight syllables, six syllables, the second and fourth lines perfectly rhymed, absolutely perfectly rhymed -- in other words, I rhymed the and a -- I rhyme according to the way people actually pronounce words, rather than how they're spelled -- and I cast against this very, very tight form the loosest conceivable colloquial language that I could find, that I could invent, that I could overhear.
I used to go to the Pizza Hut, and the Burger King, and all the rest of the places along the strip in Liverpool and I'd carry a notebook with me and I'd write down what the people in the booth behind me were saying, then I'd work it into a poem. I don't know if those poems are successful or not -- some people like them quite a bit. I think other people don't. But they are absolutely totally different in tone, structure, even in their objectives, in some degree. But I had to do that. I could no longer write Vermont poems in Liverpool. It would be ridiculous. That is rather an extreme case, but it is, at the same time, similar to the changes I have made in my work any number of other times.
My work started out like most young people's work. I didn't go to any workshops, because there weren't any in those days. I started off imitating poets that I liked, especially Yeats. Also Ezra Pound, and to some extent Wallace Stevens. I did a lot of that kind of work, and they were terrible poems. I wasn't until I was in my 40s that I really began writing with some kind of freedom, confidence. I didn't publish my first book until I was 40. I was a slow driver.
I began writing poetry, I believe, when I was about 4 or 5 years old, and on through high school and college I continued to write. I didn't know what I was doing very well. I had very little instruction. I imitated Shelley, and tried to write what I thought were Shakespearean sonnets, and things like that. I went to college at the University of North Carolina before the war, and it was a wonderful place to be -- very isolated and quiet. I met a great many good people there, but we did not know anything about 20th-century literature. I don't believe I read any 20th-century poets except Sandburg and Frost when I was an undergraduate. And immediately I got married and went into the Army.
I got out after the war was over and I decided I didn't want to work. I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago and immediately became just surrounded by contemporary American writing of all kinds. Many of my fellow students were practicing writers. I quickly became very serious about my writing; up till that time I hadn't been. I began submitting my poems to magazines and things like that. I had some poems published in Poetry , and then was asked to be a reader for Poetry and then, a year later, I became editor of the magazine.
My feeling is that nature is the most beautiful thing we have. I love it, I love to live in it, I love to be part of it, I wish I could be part of it more than I am. But at the same time, nature contains everything. It contains our death. It contains all of our injustices, and all of our pains and anxieties. It is not simply a benign presence in our lives. All we have to do is look at floods and earthquakes. I'm always aware of that, that the blossom on the rosebush contains, by inference, at least, all of this difficulty and burden and hardship that the human race has to sustain.
Auden -- I've always disliked that aspect of Auden. I've written about it, and disagreed with him, his idea that there are these two worlds, the world of poetry and the world of everything else. I don't like that idea at all. I partly don't like it because I don't believe that poets are that different from any other people. I think we do have different skills that are specialized, and we have certain ways of looking at the world which may be specialized, but essentially what we're doing is trying to make sense out of everything, and so are plenty of other people, plumbers and carpenters and all kinds of people.
I think that politics certainly belongs in poetry. It's in all the great poetry -- The Illiad is a political poem, The Divine Comedy is a political poem, and Paradise Lost.
Gordon Parks Sr
Looking For, and At, America
It's the waning months of the old century, and you are, perhaps, a historian searching for a person whose life and work embodies and mirrors nearly a hundred years of America. You want to employ a cornucopia of media--the visual, the auditory, the literary in rendering the vast changes that the country and its culture have seen. You want to work inductively, showing truths of the whole from the perspective of one person. In a country now desperately in need of elders and the wisdom that both experience and compassion bring, you want someone at least eighty years old and still going strong, whose diverse achievements are, of necessity, on par with that vanished entity known as a "Renaissance man"; whose force of character against great odds, coupled with tremendous creative will and vision and commercial success, show him to be "quintessentially American"; whose scope of accomplishment defies hyperbole simply by its having been done.
You choose, with no small measure of admiration, Gordon Parks Sr.
Photojournalist, filmmaker, memoirist, novelist, poet, composer: Gordon Parks has not only succeeded in these fields, he has triumphed. Yet Parks told an interviewer for Parade magazine three years ago, "My goal every day is to stretch my horizons. At 83, I'm a better writer, a better photographer, a better musician--a better everything--simply because I keep an open mind."
Gordon Parks is also African-American. And so his career is all the more hard-won, considering that most of the fields in which he has been commercially successful were, for much of this century, circumscribed for African-Americans. Yet Parks never accepted that reality. "My mother used to say,'You can do anything if you want it badly enough...Nothing limits you unless you allow it to'...She did not want me coming home, complaining about being black...Her motto was, 'If a white boy can do it, you can do it too. And you better do it better.'"
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, in 1912, the youngest of fifteen children, Parks is perhaps best known for his work in two fields at the visual heart of American art and culture: photojournalism and film. He was a staff photojournalist for LIFE Magazine for twenty years, and has directed ten films, including Shaft and The Learning Tree, the latter based on his best-selling autobiographical novel of 1963. But he has also written sixteen books, including five autobiographical works, and composed classical music (a symphony, sonatas, concertos, a ballet libretto), as well as scored many of his films and written blues and popular music. He was a founder and the editorial director of Essence magazine in the early '70s; he has received thirty-nine honorary degrees in literature, fine arts, and humane letters from colleges and universities across the country; and his vita lists a roster of awards and honors that are an embarrassment of riches.
Yet you, the historian in search of the face of America, find that like your own search, Parks' artistic vision is nearly always captured in a specific image, a talisman of time and place and circumstance that, by illuminating the situation of one, speaks for all. Perhaps his single most famous photograph, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., 1942, still personifies this country's heart of darkness for the poor as well as its promise of opportunity and hope. The picture is of Ella Watson, an African-American cleaning woman who worked for the Farm Security Administration in 1942. Parks posed Watson, in a dotted charwoman's dress, like the farmer in Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic, 1930. But instead of a farmer's pitchfork, she holds a broom and mop. Behind her hangs an American flag. "I made it in innocence," Parks recalls of the photograph, "in an impulse of despair. It was a strike against intolerance. But I have come to realize that you don't put everyone in that same pit."
Nearly thirty years later, in the un-innocent late Sixties, at age fifty-nine Parks opened yet another door by writing, directing, producing, and scoring his film The Learning Tree, about racial intolerance in small-town Kansas. It was the first feature film by a black director to be financed by a major Hollywood studio, and in many ways it paved the way for Shaft (1971), the urban action thriller scored by Isaac Hayes which forever (and finally) changed the screen image of African-Americans by portraying its hero as a positive role model.
In a review of the new book Half Past Autumn, representing the first major retrospective show of Parks' work which brings together his films, novels, poetry, music and photographs, Donna Seaman wrote in Booklist: "Parks does not 'take'; pictures; he gives them...he chose his 'weapons' wisely, the camera and the pen, and set out on what became not only an aesthetic quest but also a mission of compassion...whatever his medium, he is always an artist of conscience."
Historian, take note: as we balance on the edge of the millennium, Gordon Parks has plenty to tell and show us about our culture so far: the syntheses of conscience, art, vision, and compassion; the power of visual, musical, and literary art to change culture; what race, poverty, intolerance, and achievement have to do with how we lived then and now. Parks' retrospective, currently touring the country, runs through 2003. That's plenty of time to see where both he and we have been, and time enough to understand, through his eyes, where we're going.
Jeanne Finley, formerly Assistant to the Directors at the NYS Writers Institute, is a fiction writer working on a memoir based on old family photographs.
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Gordon Parks Sr Films
Gordon Parks: Multimedia legend, by Doug Blackburn for the Times Union
First novels are typically autobiographical. The four young novelists featured in "New Voices in Fiction," a series of readings sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute, elect to take a different road. Instead of exploring the familiar, they explore what is far afield. Instead of reimagining autobiography, they often invent protagonists who differ from themselves in striking ways: in age, in gender, in national culture, and in life experience.
Peter Rock's first novel, This Is the Place (1997), is narrated by an elderly, down-and-out card dealer whose life is turned upside-down by his romance with a pious 19-year-old Mormon girl. The novel represents an exploration of the unfamiliar at least to the degree that the author, a Utah native, chooses to inhabit a protagonist nearly three times his age. Carnival Wolves (1998), though centered on a character perhaps loosely based on the author himself (both worked as museum guards in upstate New York), is even more straightforwardly a journey into the strange.
Alan Johnson of Carnival Wolves, an emotionally atrophied young man who never talks to or touches anyone, embarks on a quest from New York to California in search of some remedy for his isolation. The author introduces a number of new characters along the way-the kind of oddballs indigenous to picaresque literature and the monsters that inhabit quest literature. One woman has a tail, another a kinky interest in tigers. One man owns an attack chimp. Another, a taxidermist, builds literal monsters-chimeras-out of mixed animal parts. Rock's exploration of the exotic is given focus by his preoccupation with the boundaries and definitions of the wild and the tame, the human and the non-human. He appears to say that meaning lies not in the self (Johnson's self is a prison, a sensory deprivation tank) but in an engagement with "otherness."
Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called Carnival Wolves, "A beautifully written, funny, deliberately twisted travelogue across the geographic and emotional states of America . . ."
The Foreign Student (1998), a first novel by Susan Choi, tells the story of a romance between a Korean immigrant and an American woman in Tennessee in the 1950's. Although the principal character is based on the author's father, the novel is by no means an exploration of familiar territory. Indeed, Choi maintains that the main attraction of her father's story was its remoteness, its almost unimaginable difference from her own life. Choi, a former fact-checker at the New Yorker, grew up in American suburbia in Indiana and Texas in the 1970's and 80's, whereas her father had survived torture and prison camps during the Korean War. "...it just blew my mind," said Choi in a Newsday interview, "I've never known that kind of experience of extremity at all."
In The Foreign Student, the familiar American landscape is rendered exotic, even threatening, by the perspective of Choi's Korean protagonist. Like Rock's Alan Johnson, Chang Ahn and Katherine Monroe are both loners, isolated souls trying to escape themselves. Their friendship requires a daunting engagement with "otherness," a negotiating of profound cultural barriers during the pre-multiculti era of the 1950's.
Novelist John Gregory Dunne called The Foreign Student, "A novel of secrets that unfolds like the leaves on an artichoke . . . a mosaic of betrayal in peace and war that marks the debut of a gifted young novelist wise beyond her years."
Claire Messud's first novel, When the World Was Steady (1994), recounts the separate adventures of two sisters in their fifties, Virginia and Emmy. Born during the bombing of London, they have chosen different paths through life: Emmy fled her London childhood to marry an Australian rancher, while Virginia stayed in London to care for a cantankerous mother and seek solace in God. But despite their different choices, both find themselves isolated and abandoned as they approach old age. Emmy's husband leaves her for her best friend, and Virginia finds spiritual comfort increasingly elusive.
Virginia and Emmy are driven by dissatisfaction to embark on searches for meaning and self-discovery. In the tradition of quest literature, they head to more or less remote, exotic and reputedly magical places: Virginia to the Isle of Skye, and Emmy to Bali. Neither knows precisely what she seeks, but as in Rock's novel, meaning is sought not at home but elsewhere, in "otherness." Each would prefer to escape the past than reengage it. Their quests are perhaps doomed by the fact that they flee to islands: from isolation to isolation.
Novelist Cynthia Ozick wrote, ". . .Claire Messud's technical hand is so sure, her psychological wisdom so ripe, her narrative so canny, that one imagines the ghosts of E. M. Forster and Barbara Pym somehow still at work, resident in a new generation."
Sandrofo, the central enigma-if not the central character-of Debra Spark's first novel, Coconuts for the Saint (1994), also flees a past life to an island. After the death of his Puerto Rican wife, he abandons his Jewish mother in Brooklyn to begin anew as a baker in Puerto Rico, bringing with him his triplet daughters. In the tradition of travel literature, Spark deliberately heightens the exoticism of the new environment by emphasizing sensory novelties: tastes, colors, smells. Herself a one-time temporary resident of San Juan, Spark extends her personal investigation of a foreign culture into fiction.
In Puerto Rico, Sandrofo becomes engaged to one Maria Elena, who becomes obsessed with uncovering the secrets of her fiance's family. The novel is structured in part as an investigation by Maria Elena into Sandrofo's character and that of his daughters. The triplets present a threefold enigma (made more enigmatic by the fact that one of them never speaks, one lies compulsively and one is preternaturally wise). The baker is even more elusive: he rarely speaks and rises only at night to bake. The bakery is named La Madeleine, an allusion to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, but Spark's novel unlike Proust's is not about the recovery of memory-it is about the recovery of other people's memories, an investigation of "otherness" that resists investigation.
Reviewer Abby Frucht said in the New York Times Book Review, that Spark has "a knack for the unpredictable that makes reading her novel a process of incremental discovery. The openness of her mind, the generosity of her narrative spirit, bring life to the book in . . . a magical way."
The Man Who Would Do Everything: A Look at George Plimpton
Few literary people enjoy the celebrity that George Plimpton has had throughout his career. Fewer yet have indulged in as many fantasies as this charismatic and affable writer-editor. He once escorted the future Queen of England to a ball. He fought the bulls (calves, actually) with Hemingway in Pamplona. He played a Bedouin in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (the first of a long history of bit roles). He boxed an exhibition match with the light-heavyweight champion of the world, Archie Moore, pitched an inning to the line-ups of both the National and American League All-Star teams at Yankee Stadium, played "third-string rookie" quarterback for the Detroit Lions, goalie for the Boston Bruins and forward for the Boston Celtics. He has tried his hand variously as a stand-up comic in Las Vegas, a trapeze artist in the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, a centerfold photographer for Playboy Magazine and as a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic under conductor Leonard Bernstein. The more apt question may be: What has George Plimpton not done?
Mr. Plimpton's many exploits and misadventures as a "professional amateur" have been well documented among the more than seventy articles he has written for such magazines as Harpers, Sports Illustrated and the New York Times, as well as in his books Out of My League, Open Net, The Bogey Man, Mad Ducks and Bears and Shadow Box, some of which have gone on to become best-sellers and the most popular of which, Paper Lion, has been called "the most arresting and delightful narrative in all of sports literature" (Book Week). Originally written between 1961 and 1985, these must-have works of participatory sports journalism were each reissued in new editions with updated introductions by Lyons and Burford in 1993.
At its best Mr. Plimpton's writing is hilarious. He has a gift for understatement and a sense of comic timing that few writers are able to exploit to such advantage. Together with his droll sensibility, his penchant for self-deprecating irony and his seasoned editor's instincts for narrative pacing, these qualities combine to produce writing that is delightfully quirky, as in the following passage from Shadow Box:
When I was on the West Coast I invited myself down to [Archie Moore's] house--he called it, somewhat ingloriously, the Chicken Shack, commemorating the original use of the premises as a fried chicken stand. It had been built on to, and now it was quite grand--a ranch house surrounded by a picket fence. His name appeared on a painted sign above a pair of boxing gloves; another sign on the gatepost itself read THE MOORES, and inside the gate the name appeared once again, this time inscribed in the cement of the paving-stone walk leading to the front door. Off at the corner of the front yard a small swimming pool was framed in the shape of a boxing glove, the steps leading down where the glove's thumb would be. Inside the house Moore took me to a large living room where an enormous picture window looked out on the traffic going by on the freeway. "What I like about this view," Archie Moore said at my elbow as we looked out at the big trucks passing, "is that it is always changing." He showed me the bathrooms, with their gold leaping-dolphin faucets, and in each one he flushed the toilets, which were of purple enamel, and we stood over them and stared down into the bowl as the water swirled. "Very nice," I found myself saying. (from Shadow Box, 1993 ed. Lyons & Burford)
Much of the humor in Mr. Plimpton's articles and books derives from a scenario he exploits time and again to its best advantage: that of the fish out of water. Whether on the football gridiron or the pitcher's mound, under the intimidating eye of the unforgiving maestro or on the receiving end of a looping left hook, George Plimpton is, to steal from the title of his first book of participatory journalism, forever out of his league. The comparison to Walter Mitty has come up many times among his critics, but at least one critic has astutely observed that it does not hold up, for unlike Thurber's unforgettable character Plimpton actually has taken part in these impossible scenarios and also unlike Mitty he fails miserably at them, often with humiliating results, as any amateur would among professionals. It is to his credit that he can step back from his humiliations and offer them to the reader with wry self-effacement.
Much of the charm and allure of these books lies as well in Mr. Plimpton's deft ability to weave threads in and out of the larger narrative fabric that take them beyond mere sports reportage. He has an acute cultural and literary awareness, and when this is combined with the disparate fields of reference on which he draws (first-hand experience among vastly different social groups and walks of life), the result can be a fascinating intersection of the high- and the low-brow, of the privileged and the poor and all that lies in between. The phenomenon of meteoric celebrity in the world of sports seems to transcend social barriers. The sports star as cultural icon, as in the case of Muhammad Ali, becomes the great leveller, eliciting awe from one and all, whether it be Howard Cosell or Norman Mailer, Malcolm X or Marianne Moore. And this observation often implicitly runs through the best of his books on sports, making them critiques--cultural, social, historical--in which sports become significant for what they reveal about our society and culture at all levels.
One fine summer afternoon, when a small group of us were up at the stadium as guests of Mike Burke and the Yankee management, Marianne Moore peered out over the railing of the second-tier box and noticed that [the Yankee pitcher] Monbouquette had a most disturbing habit at the end of his delivery, which was to cup his groin at the jockstrap and give it a little heft, as if to rearrange what was within. "That is interesting, what he does at the completion of his toss," she had said, and our little group stared transfixed as, sure enough, he did it every time. It was an integral part of his pitching motion, surely quite unconscious since it was hardly a gesture one would think of oneself doing in front of twenty thousand or so people, time after time. We discussed whether he should be told, whether an umpire should come out and say, "Hey, don't do that, please...our sensibilities!" or whether the television cameras ever lingered below his waist when he was pitching, and if he was told, what it would do to his pitching abilities...to realize suddenly that for the fifteen years or so of his career he had been displaying across the country this faintly obscene peculiarity of his--like being told one's fly had been open for years. It might have kept Monbouquette from ever picking up a baseball again without blushing and having to drop it. Miss Moore was quite serene about what she had discovered. "There is an insouciance in that gesture which is appealing," she said. "He should not be told. We should keep mum." She wrote his name down in her little book. "Monbouquette," she said, barely audibly. "'My little bouquet.' Absolutely correct." (from Shadow Box).
George Plimpton wears several hats, of course. When he isn't out placing himself in impossible situations he is busy editing what can arguably be called one of the most influential English-language literary journals to have emerged since World War II.
After his Harvard years, while George Plimpton was a student at King's College, Cambridge, he was invited by novelists Harold Humes and Peter Matthiessen to be the editor in chief, at the age of 26, of a new magazine that John Ciardi referred to as an "8th rate imitation of the New Yorker."
Plimpton accepted the offer and moved to Paris, where the magazine was run until it was moved to New York in 1965. Under his directing hand the Paris Review became anything but a knock-off of the New Yorker. In fact, the magazine can be credited with having helped to revolutionize the role (not to mention the shape and feel) of non-commercial literary magazines.
The Paris Review's considerable reputation and influence rest in large measure on the merits of its now famous interview series, but it can also be attributed to Mr. Plimpton's vision and guidance as an editor. When the magazine first appeared in 1953, the major quarterlies of the period (among them the Partisan Review and the Hudson Review) devoted their pages largely to scholarly criticism, leaving space for perhaps a single short story in each issue. From its inception the Paris Review had a different aim: that of publishing as much original creative prose and poetry as its pages would allow, while steering clear of the pedantry of literary criticism and avoiding strong ideological and political stands.
For Plimpton and his editors the sole criterion for including a work of poetry or prose in the magazine has always been aesthetic merit and originality. Writers whose first published creative works appeared in the magazine include Philip Roth, Terry Southern and Samuel Beckett, among a long list of others who have risen to prominence. In the place of critical articles, the magazine did something quite different in its first issue by printing an in-depth interview with novelist E.M. Forster instead. In its historical context, the idea was a novel one and it paid off, tapping a vein that attracted new and interested readers and catching on, eventually, with other budding literary magazines.
In its more than forty-five-year history, the Paris Review has continued its interview series, providing detailed encounters (a forty-page interview is not unusual) with many of the world's most respected and sought-after authors (William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Aldous Huxley, Mary McCarthy, Robert Frost, Carlos Fuentes, Bernard Malamud and Gabriel Garcia Marquez among so many others that it would be absurd to list them). A number of writers well known for their reticence have agreed to give the only interviews of their careers in the Paris Review. Only a few authors have ever declined an interview with the magazine: these include J. D. Salinger, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Thomas Pynchon.
If it did not quite invent the art of the literary interview, the Paris Review Interview Series certainly refined it, and in so doing the magazine has served as a prototype for literally hundreds of other literary journals that have since been launched in America and abroad. The formula may now seem obvious, even requisite among literary journals, but the idea of providing a large space for original creative work while giving established authors the opportunity to bypass critics and speak for themselves was hardly self-evident when the Paris Review first appeared.
Mr. Plimpton has collected these interviews in a series of more than 10 volumes titled Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (Viking). He also edited The Writer's Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit and Advice from the 20th Century's Preeminent Writers (Viking) in 1990, which culls commentary and observations from nearly 200 of the writers interviewed in the first 35 years of the magazine's history, organizing them into four categorical headings (The Writer: A Profile; Technical Matters; Different Forms; and The Writer's Life) and a number of sub-headings. Both the Writers at Work series and the Chapbook are useful resources for writers, students of writing and serious readers.
In a recent interview in Frank, Plimpton had this to say about the two hats he wears the most, that of editor and of writer:
Most of the time I like to think that my "success"--such a relative term--is tied to the magazine, and that I share its success (if a literary magazine can be thought of as being "successful") with the contributors and the other editors. Sometimes I think about [my] writing. Last year I was in one of those little shuttle buses at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, going out to a commuter plane to take me to Tyler or some such place, and a man wearing a cowboy hat kept staring at me until he finally said, "Hey, I know you. You wrote the only book I've ever read!" He was talking about Paper Lion, so that made me feel quite a success for a few days! I have sometimes wondered what sort of a life I would have led had I not heeded [Peter] Matthiessen's call when I was at Cambridge to come to Paris and run the magazine he and Humes were planning. Matthiessen has stated publically on a number of occasions that he "ruined my life." I doubt it. (from "Interviewing the Interviewer," Frank 15 Online, 1996)
George Plimpton's most recent books include his collection of essays The Best of Plimpton (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990), his slim volume The X Factor (revised, W.W. Norton, 1995), a meditation on what sets champions apart from other competitors, and Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career (Doubleday, 1998), an "oral biography" along the same lines as Plimpton's earlier bestselling oral history (together with Jean Stein) Edie: An American Biography (Knopf, 1982), an account of the meteoric rise and tragic life of model and Warhol protégé, Edie Sedgwick.
George Plimpton's latest passion is birdwatching, which he has been doing avidly these past couple years in South America. Articles continue to appear, of course, on this and the hundred or so other interests he is currently pursuing.
Steven Hartman is a Program Fellow at the New York State Writers Institute.Top of Page
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