Thursday, December 31, 2020

R.I.P. in 2020: The Write to Remember


  Just as day is done
 we exhale our perfumes

   into the night
      we’ve won

 --Michael McClure

 Every December I devote some time to seeking out the names of people who died during that year that I want to particularly remember and honor at year’s end. I go through the lists of the most prominent compiled by major media, plus a few specialized lists. And then I even scroll through Wikipedia’s day by day lists, which tend to be heavy with the names of European soccer stars. This year my eye stopped on at least 20 names that turned out to not be the person I remember, but someone else with that name. The person I remember usually had died years before. 

 But I also come across names I am dismayed to see: people I admire who didn’t make the big media lists, but who I regard as especially important.

 Most of the time, those names turn out to belong to writers. Not to surprise anyone, but writers aren’t valued much in this society, though what may surprise many is that this is very unusual in human history. Their storytelling counterparts in Indigenous societies were vital, and writers and artists were central to most cultures since. Their status even in America has been higher, including in my lifetime.

 These days writers are central to a largely self-selected segment of the population, but to these individual readers and listeners (for readings and audio books have revived the aural tradition), individual writers are very important. And though they may no longer be recognized for doing so, they may influence the culture and even the course of history. 


One writer who died this year and didn’t make most national media cuts but who clearly was a big time player in how American culture changed in the past sixty-five years was Michael McClure.

 McClure was one of the poets featuring in the San Francisco poetry reading in 1955 that exploded into the culture as the Beat movement. The event is famous for Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” but Gary Snyder also read for the first time that night, and Jack Kerouac was prowling the audience, passing jugs of wine and cheerleading. (McClure became a character in several Kerouac novels.)

 Steeped in the literature of the past, McClure was a fearless innovator. His first public writing was poetry, but he achieved more fame as a playwright, particularly for The Beard, which got its lead actor and actress arrested—twice-- for indecency, and went on to win awards in New York. 

 Mating poetry and theatre was only one of his many cross-fertilizing adventures. He became friends with Jim Morrison and Robbie Robertson, and wrote a song with Janis Joplin—her “Mercedes Benz” hit. In more recent years he performed his poetry many times accompanied by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

 He was friends as well with avante garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage and actor/director Peter Fonda, and contributed to and appeared (sometimes as an actor) in several Fonda films. (He’s also in Scorcese’s The Last Waltz, a film of the last concert by the Band.)


He was passionately interested in painting in the 50s, and considered himself a naturalist, and so became a point of connection between literary artists and scientists like his friend, DNA-decoder Francis Krick. McClure consciously connected the vertical—the older literary gurus like Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer, and connected horizontally with literary contemporaries, like Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder and poet Diane DiPrima (who also died in 2020) but also Robert Creeley and his mentor, Charles Olson.

 He was an early and close friend to Richard Brautigan, who became the most famous of the San Francisco writers in the late 1960s. In the 60s McClure was an active facilitator, not only introducing Creeley to Jim Morrison, but literally introducing Marshall McLuhan to Bob Dylan.

I recall having this 
early 60s book, so
probably my first
dip into McClure's 

He also wrote essays and newspaper journalism, eventually becoming a kind of elder statesman, an embodiment of recent history, as well as a teacher to later generations.

 Earlier this century I interviewed Michael McClure on the phone for a piece I did for the San Francisco Chronicle on Buddhism in the Bay Area. He explained how Asian a city San Francisco was in the 1950s, and so how naturally it became the first center for Buddhism in America. He mentioned his own meditation practice as part of his “Hummingbird Sangha,” a group that meditated together facing a garden where hummingbirds hummed. He was generous and personable, making sure I had good quotes for the piece. After it was published, he emailed me his delight, saying that the article had advanced or contributed to “the Dharma,” probably the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. 

 In recent years, McClure emphasized how different the 1950s were when the Beats emerged: how repressed and conformist and reactionary, with little tolerance for anything different. When asked by a young man where the Beat Generation spirit, the 60s spirit had gone, he answered: look at yourself. You’re wearing jeans and an organic cotton t-shirt, a hemp cap. You care about the environment, you’re aware of racism and you’re against war. Where has it gone? It’s you.

 Today in America there are occasionally groups of writers in the same place and a community that knows them. It doesn’t seem to happen a lot anymore but when it does, it owes something to the San Francisco that McClure saw over decades, and in large measure nurtured and helped to live. Michael McClure died in May at the age of 87. 

 William Kittredge
died in December. He lived and taught in Montana for many years and wrote about that part of the country (and he was a co-producer of the movie A River Runs Through It), but the books of his I have and know are about the country in Oregon where he grew up: a book on the Klamath River to which he contributed text, and the books that evoke his youth.

 A Hole in the Sky is pretty much devoted to his experiences growing up on the ranch his father owned. I had never read anything quite like it: at once a braided memoir of exaltations and mistakes in dealing with the land, and a evocation of the landscape as eternally sacred, written in cadenced prose like crystal.

 The Nature of Generosity is more various and ambitious but the prose is just as mesmerizing. The introduction alone makes it an American classic. Language and story are themselves themes. “Narratives may well be our fundamental survival strategy, from which all the complex rest of our schemes follow.” His ecological vision is broad, deep and original. William Kittredge deserves to be read and remembered.

first encountered the work of Eric Bentley in the 1970s in connection with the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee—probably his 1972 play based on transcripts of hearings. But it was his writing on theatre that captivated me in the 1990s. I believe the first book of his essays or reviews I read was The Life of the Drama (1983.) If it wasn’t, it should have been because that’s what his writing did for me—it brought life to drama and dramatic criticism that motivated me to go deeper into the subject. All of which came in handy when I started writing regularly on theatre. 

 Bentley was a playwright and a singer, but most of that work was in New York when I wasn’t. But I could read his essays in a half dozen other collections, plus some specialized works, particularly on Brecht. Just as Michael McClure embodied ideals, accomplishments and change in American culture since the 1950s, Bentley embodied the ideals advanced in western theatre since the 1940s. He died in August at the age of 102.

Le Carre

ther writers who died in 2020 include playwrights Terence McNally (of Covid), Israel Horovitz and Murray Schisgal, poets Ernesto Cardenal and Ann Stevenson, and another poet (besides McClure and DiPrima) associated with the San Francisco Beat era, Ruth Weiss.

 The premier novelist John Le Carre died in 2020, as did fictionists Alison Lurie, Tim O’Brien and the last of the science fiction magazine generation, Ben Bova. Two novelists whose stories achieved almost mythic status when transformed into films were Charles Webb (The Graduate) and Winston Groom (Forrest Gump.)

 Barry Lopez wrote about the natural environment, often as reports of his travels, as in his most famous book, Arctic Dreams. Michael Soule co-edited The Re-Invention of Nature to counter the devaluations of deconstructionists. 

Stanley Crouch

 Freeman Dyson
was an esteemed physicist (with some blind spots on the environment) who also wrote well—I enjoyed several of his books. Stanley Crouch wrote about jazz and black culture; he was a poet and novelist and raconteur. On television he radiated charm and intelligence and originality—every time I saw him I wished I knew him so I could listen to him for hours more.


I first knew of Jan Morris when she was James, an acclaimed writer about people and places whose gender reassignment surgery was pioneering and therefore prominent news. While she remained a symbol for some, eventually her transformation was all but forgotten by many—I’ll bet some of her readers over these many decades didn’t even know.

 Pete Hamill was an exemplary New York journalist who bridged old school and new. Richard Reeves was a columnist I read and listened to, and subsequently the author of books on political history.


Gail Sheehy was a magazine journalist associated with the New Journalism of the 60s who became famous for her book Passages. Robert Sam Anson was a hot commodity as a magazine writer when I was prowling editors’ offices in New York in the 70s and 80s.

 Bruce Jay Friedman is another name associated with humor in the 60s, especially for his screenplays. George Steiner wrote fiction and literary criticism of breadth with an individual and moral point of view. A.E. Hotchner was a novelist and biographer best known for his books on Hemingway. 


And finally—because I am most familiar with her name after the end credits of PBS programs I loved—Rosalind P. Walter, known as a philanthropist especially in humanities and great PBS funder, who in her youth was the model for that World War II icon, Rosie the Riveter.

May they all rest in peace.  Their work lives on.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

History of My Reading: Winter Dreams With F. Scott Fitzgerald

Although we agreed on a number of things, students I knew at Knox College in 1967 had a few points of opposition.  Besides more consequential conflicts, one was the Beatles vs. the Stones.  Another was F. Scott Fitzgerald vs. Ernest Hemingway.

To Stones loyalists, the Beatles were too superficial and naive, simplistically idealistic and romantic, too elaborate and pandering.  Their Stones on the other hand were primal and earthy, and recognized the power if not supremacy of the dark side of human nature.  Hemingway adherents felt more or less the same way about Fitzgerald.

The opposition was itself simplistic and superficial in many ways.  But in our early 20s, the end of our partial protection from the determining power of the outside world hovering over the horizon, we read for signs, for clues, for answers, or at least ways to be.  Every book was a guidebook to the future, though in an obscure language and with lots of filler.

Old books as well as new music offered interpretations of the world but more than that, they suggested new paths, or confirmed and defined our feelings and beliefs, providing us with something--images, characters, metaphors, catch phrases, melodies--we could use in action and defense.

Hemingway was the preeminent figure of the writer even in the 1950s when we were growing up.  He was on the cover of Life magazine in 1952 when I was six, and again in 1960.  I remember having read the short novel that took him to the height of his fame in the mid-50s: The Old Man and the Sea, before I saw the 1958 movie starring Spencer Tracy.  I read his memoir of Paris, A Moveable Feast, probably at Knox, and I recollect reading In Our Time there and admiring it.

But my serious immersion in his work would happen only after college, first in 1969, when I read his First 49 Stories accompanied by oreos and California white wine as I lay on a mattress in a former kitchen pantry in a Berkeley house, covered with a baking soda paste, a supposed hippie cure for poison oak.  Then in Cambridge and back in Greensburg in the 1970s, partially inspired by the post mortem publication of his unfinished novel, Islands in the Stream.

On the other hand, when I was born F. Scott Fitzgerald had been dead for a half dozen year.  His reputation had faded quickly by the 1930s--about as fast as he achieved fame in the 1920s. Even in his lifetime his books were mostly out of print.  However, after his death in 1940, his literary status rose again in the 1950s, and the public began to rediscover him, both in his writings and his life, throughout the 1960s and into the 70s.

I likely read something of his in high school, enough to recognize him in the 1959 film, Beloved Infidel (probably on TV), which chronicled his final years in Hollywood with the entertainment writer Sheila Graham.  He was played by Gregory Peck, one of my favorite actors (the film was made the same year as On the Beach.)  I remember getting inside Peck's doomed, brooding stares into space as Scott, which the girls in high school tended not to interpret correctly.
In 1962 a film was made of Fitzgerald's last completed novel, Tender is the Night.  I saw it on television early in the summer previous to my junior year of college in 1966-67, attracted as much by the lead actor Jason Robards. Jr. who I'd admired in several viewings of A Thousand Clowns (1965.)  The movie used a single line from the novel ("It's about half-past one... It's not a bad time.  It's not one of the worst times of the day") and turned it into a catchphrase, which I adopted for awhile.

When I came down with mono during Christmas break in Greensburg and was told I'd miss the beginning of the winter 1967 term, I came up with the idea of doing an independent studies course on Fitzgerald, so I could use the enforced time at home.  I don't remember why I chose Fitzgerald, except that I probably had a paperback collection of his stories with me, and had read enough of them ("The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" in particular) to be intrigued,  which is not to discount the residual effects of those films. While I was still in Greensburg, Doug Wilson agreed to be my adviser on this project.

I don't remember reading these stories during my hospital stay (I do recall reading John Barth's new, highly praised and huge epic novel, Giles Goat-Boy, straight through, and forgetting everything I read the minute I put the enormous book down.)  But I do recall reading Fitzgerald's stories at home.  I'm not sure about the novels.  In any case, it appears I acquired them that year, in the Scribner Library paperback editions.

Upon my return to campus, I got the New Directions paperback of the crack up, a collection of Fitzgerald's essays, plus excerpts from notebooks and some letters, edited by the literary critic and long-time Fitzgerald confidant, Edmund Wilson (I thoughtfully dated my purchase as February 1967.)  I got the Dell paperback edition of Fitzgerald's letters, edited by Andrew Turnbull. I remember especially his letters to his daughter, Scottie.

I definitely used two biographies: Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (this bio was also a Scribner Library book, an exact companion to the novels)  and The Far Side of Paradise by Arthur Mizener (in a unique Houghton Mifflin Sentry cloth-bound edition that, true to its intent and claims, has held up very well over half a century.)  I also had the Prentice-Hall selection of essays about Fitzgerald, which Mizener edited.

I evidently read Lionel Trilling's essay on Fitzgerald in his book, The Liberal Imagination, which I acquired. I suspect I consulted other sources in the Knox library. I know I read the alternate version of Tender is the Night, edited by Malcolm Cowley from revision notes left by Fitzgerald. (The main difference is placement of the opening section.  Most but not all editions today keep to the original version.)  I probably saw the collection of essays edited by Alfred Kazin in 1951, which more or less started the upward swing of attention to Fitzgerald, along with the Mizener biography.

By the end of the term I had produced a long manuscript which covered Fitzgerald's entire opus, though I believe it did so through more detailed treatment of at least three of his four completed novels.  Unfortunately for me, the manuscript in its blue binder has disappeared.  I lent it out once that year and forgot to whom; it was accidentally found in a pile of magazines in the Post Hall lobby and returned, only to be lost again.  So I have only scattered memories and the notes and underlinings in the books themselves to suggest what those pages said.

Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920, and together with his popular short stories, it made him famous at the age of 24.  Andrew Turnbull wrote of this book, "as a picture of American college life it has never been surpassed."  I think I sensed that if this were true, there was a prime opportunity for a new college novel that reflected the great changes on campus beyond  1917 when Fitzgerald dropped out of Princeton, or even 1942, when Turnbull himself graduated from Princeton.  The GI Bill and the Baby Boom, among other cultural phenomena, transformed higher education beyond the province of Ivy League affluent white males.  My college experience in the 1960s--even back then--was greatly different, though I did recognize elements of the youthful search for identity and meaning.

Even though Fitzgerald's own college experience was a little earlier, this novel (and his early short stories) became emblems of the 1920s.  And there were discernible parallels with the 1960s: disillusion with a warfare society, a rebellious new hedonism, changes in sexual mores, and the sense of a generation gap with a distinct self-identified Younger Generation.  There was a common alienation from the established political, economic and cultural order. The most vocal elements of both the 20s and the 60s young saw themselves as a generation, distinct from what came before.

The Lost Generation emerged just as standardized education across the country took hold and the consumer society began: consumer credit, advertising and with radio a diminishing of regional differences and a national consciousness, with national brands and products.  Describing the most rebellious, Malcolm Cowley observed, "Feeling like aliens in the commercial world, they sailed for Europe as soon as they had money enough to pay for the steamer ticket."  So began the expatriate 20s.

By the 60s of course, the consumer society was even more extensive and dominant. There were differences in response--the 60s generation was probably more political, more like this generation became in the 30s.  There was also the feeling of doom in my 60s generation shared with the Lost Generation, and a sense that we weren't going to live long.  The post-Great War generation felt they'd inherited a bankrupt civilization, while we saw we were inheriting as well a ruined planet.

While in the end both decades became known for their excesses, they were also propelled in large part by ideals, both visceral and thoughtful.  "We were young, we were irreverent, we were arrogant," Abbie Hoffman summarized the 60s, "but we were right."

In any case, what I saw in Fitzgerald's work was also a theme of the 1960s: the desire for fulfillment, in life and society, expressed for example in romantic union and realizing potential in art and life.  It was the conscious quest to maintain and renew spontaneity, a direct relationship to the world, against the ravaging forces that poison and paralyze with despair.  It was an assertion of innocence against cynicism and corruption, and a desperate embrace of idealism and hope. Sometimes defeated, often self-defeating, Fitzgerald's characters became mythic in their fates.

This struggle often began from a place I knew well--like Fitzgerald, from a provincial upbringing (in his case, Buffalo and St. Paul) with a Catholic background defining a moral perspective.  In any case, this is likely the direction I took in my paper--especially in the section I recall most clearly.

I was especially pleased with writing the section on Fitzgerald's most neglected novel, The Beautiful and Damned, which was his second.  If he narrated a struggle to maintain and educate innocence in college in his first, in this novel his protagonists are taking that struggle into their first confrontations with the world in their 20s.

One thing I remember doing is following certain imagery throughout the novel.  I believe I'd followed water imagery in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man for my Modern Fiction course in the fall.  This time I followed variations of "clean" as an image for innocence as well as beauty, as one seems to depend on the other in this narrative.

Notes and underlining in my copy of The Beautiful and Damned suggest that I caught onto other themes.  The male protagonist's name is Anthony Patch, and I heavily underlined a passage in which Anthony refers to "the sense of life as a mysteriously correlated piece of patchwork..."  And his thought that he isn't a realist.  "No, only the romanticist preserves the things worth preserving."

Judging from underlinings in one of the biographies, I traced incidents in the novel to the riotous exploits of Scott and Zelda in the early 1920s.  Anthony Patch is quite different from Fitzgerald however, and while Gloria is partly a glorified Zelda, she is also less complex.  It's never quite clear whether they are meant ironically or sincerely (probably both, at different times), or whether they simply personify and test an idea, a theme.

In examining Fitzgerald's other novels and his stories, I had the analyzes of published critics to consider.  But at that time very little was available on this book, apart from the consensus that it is a muddle, a transition from the mostly autobiographical Paradise to the transmutations and mythic themes of The Great Gatsby. And it is these things.  As a story it is awkward and the characters are maddening at times.  But what I found, and find again now, is that it contains complex observations and some beautiful and courageous writing.

What did I find to say about the book then considered a Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby?  I know I agreed with that assessment: it is an indictment of America through the corruption of its dreams and destruction of its natural legacy, as well as a tragic view of human life, at least in the determinative epoch of money.  Yet the dreams remain its most memorable feature.

Probably I considered Fitzgerald's short stories, "Winter Dreams" (which he said was the first draft of "the Gatsby idea,") and "Absolution," meant for a time to be Gatsby's back-story.  I may not have known of Fitzgerald's devotion to T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," but I couldn't have failed to notice its imagery in "Gatsby" (although some of it is also found in H.G. Wells, a writer Fitzgerald greatly admired in his "Paradise" years.)

But I am certain that I noticed this passage in the Turnbull biography: "In 1934 Fitzgerald would say that never had he tried to keep his artistic conscience so pure as during the ten months of writing Gatsby.  Before beginning it he had reread the preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, and Conrad's dictum that a work of art should carry its justification in every line had been his guide."

Conrad again.  I remember reading that preface then, which is itself the purest expression of a certain approach to fiction as has ever been written.

There is some highlighting in my copy of Gatsby, but not much.  How can you select sentences in a book that carries its justification in every line?  There's a gold line beside the paragraph on the last page about the "Dutch sailors" who first gazed upon the American continent, " (no mention of Indians--here as elsewhere, Fitzgerald partook of the casual racism of his times): "the fresh green breast of the new world.  Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house..." It ends with the contemplation of those European eyes, "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

And earlier, each line highlighted in the paragraph about Tom and Daisy, who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness..."

But I'll bet in my paper I emphasized two sentences from the first two pages of the book: Nick Carraway, explaining why he tends to reserve judgment, adds: "Reserving judgment is a matter of infinite hope."  And Nick's impression of Gatsby and his "extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness..."  That's the carry-away.

It is Fitzgerald's best structured book and his richest in theme and meaning.  But especially, large sections of The Great Gatsby remain, word for word, sentence for sentence, among the most nearly perfect pieces of writing I've read.

But was it even Fitzgerald's best novel?  Upon publication, The Great Gatsby was widely praised, though it did not sell particularly well.  His next novel, Tender is the Night, published almost a decade later, was not praised, sold badly, and was quickly forgotten.

Its literary reputation soon began rising, and by the 1960s some critics ranked it ahead of Gatsby. Today, even more do. I'm sure I did not go that far (and still don't) but I recall exerting considerable effort defending it in my paper.

Fitzgerald made his living as a popular writer, mostly by short stories in large circulation magazines.  In his novels there remained a tension between his artistic efforts and his crowd-pleasing instincts.  From the partly satiric religious imagery applied to the rituals of the rich on a Riviera beach in the opening pages, his emphasis in this book was more fully artistic, though perhaps not so obviously as in Gatsby.  It is a longer book with more characters, and a more complex structure--meant to be more of a Vanity Fair than The Heart of Darkness.

I knew that the expatriate life the books describes derived from the people surrounding Americans Gerald and Sara Murphy, and I acquired Calvin Tomkin's book about them, Living Well Is the Best Revenge, when it came out in 1971.  It was around that time that I more consciously collected books on Paris in the 1920s, with a growing emphasis on the artists and poets.

But the protagonist, Dick Diver (I'm sure I made much of that "diver"), is a psychologist, caring for his mentally ill wife Nicole. This reflects Fitzgerald's experience as Zelda slipped into mental illness.  Diver's attempts to heal Nicole, and to redeem his aimless friends, constitute his heroism, but he fails to survive the ordeal intact.  When he loses his vitality and self-discipline, it is the final end of innocence, yet even that is ambiguous.

The last section of The Great Gatsby begins with Nick Carraway's memories of returning from college by train to the Midwest.  The elusive magic and mystery, the beauty he recalls were easier for me to feel, as I was in the midst of similar experiences.  He even mentions Union Station in Chicago, the starting point for trains to Galesburg.  Returning from vacations, there were often other students I knew scattered through the train, eager escapees from the constraints of family and the selves they had shed, who would find each other and gather in the club car.  Once I was welcomed into a group of faculty on their way back.  The lights in the train brightened, as we moved through a softening landscape.

Fitzgerald captured and described the ineffable beauty as well as the moodiness, confusion, delusions and ardent emotions of being young.  I can forgive myself for focusing on this aspect of his work, especially since his ability to evoke it remains unique.  But he saw more, and all of his books end sadly.

Probably Fitzgerald's best known quote is almost always cut off before its meaning is made clear, and its context is seldom named.  It comes from the second paragraph of his 1936 essay "The Crack-Up," one of several magazine articles he wrote on the subject of his own nervous breakdown.

The most quoted section is this: "...the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."  But the rarely quoted sentence that follows is this: "One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise."

Fitzgerald read Keats and knew of his similar idea of "negative capability."  But he took it further, to define a certain kind of romanticism that is more than a perspective.  It is a commitment.

I finished my paper, and put away the books.  It was months later--perhaps that summer or the next fall--that Fitzgerald's direct influence showed up in a piece of my writing.  That spring of 1967 I became involved in a brief but intense love affair, that, as the saying goes, ended badly.  To the usual emotions of being left waiting past dark on the Gizmo patio with "a comical look on my face" like some young Rick Blaine in Casablanca, I had my first taste of finding myself an incident in someone else's relationship.

The young woman in question was a professed romantic, a Keats ("the holiness of the heart's affection") and Fitzgerald partisan; I recall that she was particularly taken with the scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby shows Daisy all his beautiful shirts, and she is overcome.  Perhaps that was part of the motive, plus the triangle aspect, but when I wrote a short story about this affair, I deliberately adopted a kind of Nick Carraway voice for the narrator.  The difference was that it was my narrator's affair of the heart he was observing.  I tried to be as precise and economical as The Great Gatsby.

This was the one story of mine that a few people remember, that the New Yorker fiction editor wrote to me that they could "hardly bear" not publishing, called "Diamond in the Sky" (another glancing reference to Fitzgerald.)  Re-reading it recently, I was impressed by how thoroughly I transmuted the actual affair, and layered questions of faith and community that weren't Fitzgerald themes.  It has a Fitzgerald kind of ambiguity, though without nearly the same depth.

 (I also found a note, which indicates that the narrator's early remark-- that his mother had told him that fiction is that which is not true-- came from something David Axelrod said.  It resonated with me because I remembered that I startled my fourth grade teacher who asked the class for examples of opposites, and I came up with "fact and fiction." I learned of course it's a more complex relationship, as did my narrator.)

At this remove I can't recall which events in "Diamond in the Sky" story were based on real experience (I suspect the visit to the church was) and which were wholly or partly invented.  The central metaphor of the UFO was probably inspired by the report of one in January 1967 in Galesburg.  The Student of 1/27/67 carried an interview with a man who claimed he'd seen a craft land near the Gates plant (the box plant in the story), with news of a similar sighting near Green Oaks.  If I recall correctly, there was news some time later that a kite rigged with lights had been identified as the hoax UFO, but (as in the story, in which general skepticism turns to general belief), not everyone felt this explanation was credible.  (The Student interview was co-written by Ron Zager, one of my third floor Anderson House compatriots of freshman year.)

Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro and Theresa Russell in
The Last Tycoon (1976)
Fitzgerald was working on another novel, The Last Tycoon, at the time of his death.  I don't think I dealt with the completed sections of it in my paper, but I did read them around then, and again later.  The writing has a charm like the early pages of Gatsby and Tender is the Night.  The text as published includes his extensive notes for the unwritten chapters, including the ending.  But the most convincing version that completes the story was the 1976 film adaptation written by Harold Pinter. It was the last film directed by Elia Kazan.

This The Last Tycoon failed critically and at the box office.  But when I saw it on a cable TV channel I loved it.  It stars Robert De Niro in a unique role in his career, that of the boy genius moviemaker Monroe Starr, a character based on Irving Thalberg, the legendary MGM impressario.  Fitzgerald was himself almost unique among novelists in becoming a student of film when he went to Hollywood to write screenplays, as so many novelists did. Fitzgerald's fascination with Hollywood was already evident in Tender Is The Night.

 This movie version is rich in detail and insights about moviemaking and the movie business in the 1930s sound era of the big studios. The cast is full of famous actors, future and past.  I saw it again recently and still enjoy it.

Scott Fitzgerald's image since the 1960s probably reached its apex shortly before that film, but with another movie: the 1974 lavish Hollywood version of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford as Gatsby, Mia Farrow as Daisy, Bruce Dern as her husband Tom, and Sam Waterston as Nick Carraway, the narrator and participant/observer.

 (After the casting was announced but probably before the film was released, I was one of a group that had lunch with director Joan Micklin Silver, who would soon go on to successfully adapt one of Fitzgerald's short stories for television.  We were suggesting our own ideal casting of the Gatsby movie, when Silver said that she would have cast Bruce Dern as Gatsby, and Robert Redford as Tom.  A Hollywood impossibility, but a provocative bit of casting--which was a particular Silver talent.)

The movie, criticized as "lifeless," did respectable business, and after a brief vogue in 1920s fashions, the Fitzgerald boom began its decline.  I still have a few books from this period: Crazy Sunday: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood by Aaron Latham (1972 paperback), F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald: Bits of Paradise (1973), a collection of previously unpublished stories by both of them, and especially one slim collection of critical essays edited by Kenneth E. Elbe in 1973 (F. Scott Fitzgerald, McGraw Hill's Contemporary Studies in Literature series.)  These essays are by critics who were just a bit older than me, and it's interesting to see how often their readings comport with what I remember about mine in 1967.

 These days however it seems that Fitzgerald is chiefly remembered for his drunken sprees.  In this age they seem inexplicable unless seen as expressions of a disease, an addiction.  Granted that they were pathetic and, especially in what they did to his health, tragic.  Yet for someone with such natural ebullience and such powerful feelings and acute sensitivities, the intensity of writing novels (never as lucrative as stories) would naturally entail powerful reaction.  (The depression after finishing a book is now a known phenomenon among writers.)  That's an element seldom mentioned.

For all the dissipation, the sense of waste that haunted his later years, consider that it was only five years between Fitzgerald's college novel and The Great Gatsby. His entire writing career was scarcely more than twenty years.  He'd lived haunted as well with serious chronic conditions that might have included tuberculosis.  His character Anthony Patch cavalierly says he doesn't expect to live past 40.  Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44.

Thursday, November 05, 2020

History of My Reading: Eastlake Winter

William Eastlake, undated photo but
probably earlier than 1967
When the fall 1966 term was over in December, I flew home to Pennsylvania for the holidays.  After I experienced some odd symptoms, our family doctor concluded that I had a case of mononucleosis.

It was known that mono is an infectious disease, and though the length of time between infection and manifestation aren't known, I almost certainly was infected at Knox.

The virus is passed along through saliva, which earned it the nickname of the "kissing disease."  So in addition to sore throat, swollen glands and fatigue, I had to endure the same jokes over and over.  While I couldn't entirely rule out that specific mode of transmission, it's more likely that sharing a glass or bottle did it (although I didn't hear of any other cases at school when I went back.)  I was probably run down enough--especially by participating in Macbeth--to be susceptible.  But who knows?

This section of the present day hospital was pretty
much the entire Westmoreland Hospital in 1966
What was unusual is that our family doctor admitted me to the county hospital for treatment.  I received large injections of vitamin C, or at least that's what he said.  He tended to talk to my parents but not to me.

But in another way, being sent to the hospital wasn't unusual then. At the time the most common form of medical insurance was called "hospitalization" because it paid for everything if you were hospitalized.  In fact, I was hospitalized three times (twice in high school), for treatment that today would not require a hospital bed.  It was done then, as such decisions are made now, according to what insurance covered.  In any event, vitamin C injections would likely be considered nonsense today.

In most cases, as in mine, mono isn't very serious.  It mostly goes away by itself. But in addition to a week or so in the hospital, I was told I needed several weeks of rest and recuperation before the fatigue lifted.  (In fact, fatigue drags on for months, though less acutely.)  This meant I would miss the beginning of the winter term.  I arranged to drop one course--Brady's Shakespeare, ironically--and took on an independent study with Doug Wilson on the fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I was signed up for a writing course, and could do some of that work at home, too.  My transcript for the winter says my third course was Literary Criticism, but I have no memory of it.

I don't remember how much of the winter term I missed.  I do know however, that when it was over, I had aced all my courses.  For the first and last time, I made the Dean's List.

My fiction writing course was with William Eastlake, writer in residence for the winter term.  At that moment, Eastlake was best known generally for his World War II novel Castle Keep, which was going to be made into a Hollywood movie.  It had the same skepticism, the witty dialogue, the irony and paradox and sense of the absurd that appeared on every page of the World War II novel we were all reading on our own, Joseph Heller's Catch-22.

Eastlake's novel is about U.S. soldiers defending a castle full of art treasures during the Battle of the Bulge, in which Eastlake had participated. (It was during the early stages of this same battle that William Spanos was taken prisoner, but he was no longer at Knox.)  Eastlake had been wounded and received the Bronze Star, but did not talk about his own experiences.  Later he reportedly said that his wounds came from his own gun misfiring, which, if true, is enough to suggest an ironic perspective.

Eastlake had published three previous novels, about Indian Country in the Southwest, including Navajo characters.  (The first--Go In Beauty--centered on the owner of a trading post, a character who might have been based on Henry Goulding, the trading post owner that Sam Moon later wrote a book about.) Eastlake's imminent arrival at Knox was known during the fall term,  and Doug Wilson had copies of these hardback novels.  I read at least one while babysitting in his house on W. Tompkins. They were later collected in a single large paperback--3 by Eastlake: The Early Fiction (1970), which I acquired and still have, and still later republished together as Lyric of the Heart (1996.)

One connection that may have brought Eastlake to Knox was Robert Creeley.  Creeley for a time lived near Eastlake's New Mexico ranch, and included two sections of Eastlake's Indian country novel Portrait of An Artist with 26 Horses in the fiction anthology Creeley edited with Donald Allen titled New American Story.  (Creeley wrote stories and a novel in these years, as well as poetry.)  The ultimate connection  was of course Sam Moon, still pretty much the entire Knox writing program, who had brought Creeley to Knox two years before.  In addition, he had himself visited New Mexico during a sabbatical, and may have known Eastlake's books independently.

 Donald Allen had also edited The New American Poetry, which sported a similar cover, but the connection implied between new poetry and this new fiction was made explicit in another anthology that had preceded this one by a few years, The Moderns: an anthology of new writing in America.  Its editor, LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) writes in his introduction of the "definite connection" between the new poets and these new fictionists.

I bought both of these anthologies around this time.  The writers represented with at least one story or excerpt in New American Story were Creeley, Eastlake, Kerouac, Burroughs, LeRoi Jones, Edward Dorn, John Rechy, Michael Rumaker and Douglas Woolf.  Eastlake and all these authors were also represented in The Moderns (though only two stories were in both anthologies), as well as Fielding Dawson, Diane DiPrima, Russell Edson and Paul Metcalf.

So William Eastlake arrived with both artistic cred and popular appeal.  He was also a writer of the West (meaning anywhere west of Manhattan, or at least Chicago), which was a real bifurcation in American letters, and still is.  In addition, he was a living connection to an older generation of writers we might be studying.  As a young man he'd worked in a Los Angeles bookstore frequented by John Steinbeck, Nathaniel West, William Saroyan, Theodore Dreiser and Clifford Odets.  As a reporter he met William Faulkner.  His own writing shows a Hemingway influence, though he was quick to criticize Hemingway.

As emphasized in this interview, he also admired Joseph Conrad.  I don't remember what writers he talked about in class, or what he said about them (although at one point he told me privately which bars writers frequent when they are in New York.)  He might have talked about Conrad. In any case, in not too many years I returned to reading Conrad.  Perhaps Eastlake's was one of the voices I heard in the sound of Conrad's name.

Between 1965 and 1970, I took a number of writing courses and workshops.  Some were more helpful than others, and the effects on my writing of most of them are unknown to me, which doesn't mean they weren't useful.  Nor do I recall many pronouncements on writing that stayed with me.  In fact, I can recall only two, and they were both made by William Eastlake.

I read the first even before I began his course, in an interview in the Knox Student conducted by Bill Barnhart.  Eastlake said that writers were born writers, but "shaped by rejection."  This impressed me at the time, and a half century later it remains both profound and retrospectively factual.

Eastlake in 1970
The second is a statement that Eastlake made in class, and it is possible that only I heard it. In worn jackets and carrying a pipe, Eastlake was friendly and funny. But except for occasionally holding forth, he was somewhat taciturn, rarely speaking beyond an ironic murmur.  So when we assembled along the long table--there were only 10 or 12 of us-- I tried to sit as close to him as possible, while keeping him to my right, so I could hear him with my functional ear.

 I think we were just getting settled for one class fairly late in the term.  Apparently some of the class wasn't turning in much work.  In urging them to do so, he observed, "The great writers all have one thing in common: they wrote their books."

As I recall there was no reaction from the class.  But that's one of the seductions of writing courses: a lot of talk, and even competitive critiques of others' work, as a replacement for actual writing.   But that statement is one of the few pearls of wisdom about writing that I always remembered.

Another aspect of this class I recall was how some of us (myself included) tried to describe the projects we were working on as "picaresque" or "episodic," somewhat in the manner of Eastlake's books.  With us, however, it mostly meant we didn't know what the hell we were doing.  Also, I think it was this class in particular that exemplified the competitive nature, the rivalries and even hostility that can characterize the writers workshop (much of it in this case, it seems in retrospect, testosterone-driven, though that may be oversimplifying.)

Eastlake also provided a particularly useful comment on my writing. By the end of the term I'd turned in probably a hundred pages or more of what was trying to be a novel, a 60s college novel.  He expressed appreciation for the amount of work (intimating that it made him look good, and indeed, after his Knox experience he secured a series of university writer-in-residence gigs.)  He mentioned a few things that he liked, then noted that some of it was not working, placing in parenthesis the word "boring."

A comment that led somewhere! Positive comments are encouraging, but often don't tell you anything specific, or at least that you can consciously replicate. Negative comments can be destructive or chastening, but are rarely useful either.  But "boring" is useful, if it's specific.

 So much more useful that the comments I got from another professor (not named in any of these posts) to the effect of: what are you trying to prove?  That's an academic comment (as well as an equivalent of the contemptuous question many children of the working class hear all too often: who do you think you are?) Academic comments, comments that come down to adherence or deviation from a theory, aren't helpful.  Nor are cute abstractions, like a comment I once got on a rejection slip by a Harvard-educated asshole who noted my poem did not "beguile or entwine."  Is this the poetic version of "boring?" Maybe, for precious jerks.

Would a writing professor ever say something is boring, especially in the age of teacher evaluations?  I don't know-- I know little about writing classes or workshops other than the ones in which I was present.  And I may be misremembering my response to Eastlake's comments, though at least emotionally, I don't think so.  The point is that it was a practical comment--you can evaluate the judgment, and if you agree something is boring and you don't want it to be, you can fix it: speed it up, elide it or otherwise rewrite it, or cut it out. First drafts in particular can be a horror: a response you can do something about is golden.

After his term at Knox, Eastlake went to Vietnam as a war correspondent, and his short absurdist pieces appeared in the Nation magazine.  In 1969 he published his Vietnam war novel, The Bamboo Bed.  

We corresponded for several years.  He wrote a short but very strong recommendation for me to the Iowa Writers Workshop.  I gleaned practical wisdom from his letters; he was my only connection with the non-academic world of writing and publishing.

I believe we'd lost touch by the time my (positive) review of his book, A Child's Garden of Verses About the Revolution was published in Rolling Stone.

In my copy of New American story, I marked the following passage in Warren Tallman’s introduction:

“The chief difference, then, between the older American writing and the new is that between writing considered as the means to an end, sentences used as corridors leading to further rooms, and writing considered an end in itself. The latter will seem limited only to readers who fail to realize that [and here the marking becomes underlining] books contain not persons, places and things but words.” 

This in one sense is obvious, and in another is an obvious overstatement. William Eastlake said that what counted was the writer’s emotional connection to what they are writing about. Older generations also cared about words, and younger generations about characters, place and story.

Nevertheless it does indicate a tension in my reading that year, and in my writing. I was reading these new stories, selected in large measure for their relationship to this poetic approach.  Some of them were very different in form and expression (as well as subject matter, which bothered me less) from fiction I'd read previously. Some of these stories I grasped, some were (and still are) impenetrable to me.

But I was also reading literary criticism with very different concerns, that referred to work from earlier generations.  And especially that winter term I was engaged in extensive and intensive reading of an author of the last classic generation (according to academia at the time): F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

History of My Reading: A Modern Ecstacy

Greater Pittsburgh Airport 1960s
I’d arrived at Knox College for my first year in my family station wagon, a black Mercury. After that my trips were by train—from Greensburg or Pittsburgh west to Chicago; Chicago southwest to Galesburg, Illinois. This year--fall of 1966-- my transport from Pittsburgh to Chicago was different.  I flew.

 It had always been expensive to fly, and a lot of people were wary of it—too many airplane crashes in the headlines. There were lots of airlines competing and rapidly expanding in the 1960s, but they were regulated, so prices were pretty much the same for all the airlines, and they didn’t change very often.

 In 1966, they started offering half fare standby tickets for passengers under age 22. That made a flight cheaper than the train—about $15. (Remember the era-- just the year before the Gizmo had doubled the price of a coke from a nickel to a dime.)  Part of the idea was to get a new generation used to traveling by plane, and it pretty much worked.

 I left from the Greater Pittsburgh Airport, the largest air terminal in the country when it was built in 1952, just 14 years before. It had a huge Alexander Calder mobile, and a movie theater—after my return flights on later trips, I saw films there while my father drove the 90 minutes to the airport, since I never knew which flight I would get standby.

 My destination, O’Hare Airport in Chicago was even newer. It had become Chicago’s main passenger airport only four years before, in 1962. My first flight was probably in a four engine propeller plane. The airlines had started using jets but still mostly for longer distances. When I was growing up, my friends and I spotted planes flying towards Pittsburgh, and learned to distinguish the two engine DC-3s from the four engine DC-6s. Now there were DC-7s, the last big prop planes. I probably made the transition to 707 jets at some point in my standby career.

 In those years, TWA had a major presence at O’Hare and a smaller hub in Pittsburgh, so it’s likely that was the airline I took. But if you bought a TWA ticket, that was good for stand-by on Eastern, American, United and Northwest flights—on all the airlines.

 Though the prop planes held around a hundred passengers, the average flight left with 40% of the seats empty, so standby was easy, at least at first. Once the college students of America caught on, though, it got harder, especially out of O’Hare. It involved keeping track of upcoming flights and running from airline to airline, gate to gate.  But it became the way I traveled to and from Chicago.  I still took the train from there to Galesburg.

 All I remember about the cabins is that there were just two seats in a row. The cabin was the province of the stewardesses, mostly tall young women in their 20s and early 30s, in official looking uniform jackets and matching skirts. (This was a few years before some smaller airlines began featuring stewardesses in bright colored miniskirts and go-go boots.)  They were friendly and had an air of glamour and competence.  One of their jobs was to calm and reassure passengers not used to flying, and there were a lot then.

The stewardesses were nice to me. Besides meals and drinks, they distributed small packs of cigarettes. Once one of them surprised me by giving me all the extras in her basket at the end of the flight. I had just turned 20 but they seemed in another category somehow, no matter how close in age they were. Whatever was going on with older businessmen, to me they were the vestal virgins of these temples of the sky.

 I may have flown back to Pittsburgh from Chicago the previous spring, but in any case, my first airplane trip was in 1966. The flying itself fascinated me. I always tried to get a window seat. As a child, I pressed myself against the sofa cushions to gaze fixedly out of the picture window at the clouds, imagining myself riding across them, like Hopalong Cassidy. Now I was riding through them, over them, in them...

 Then I arrived back at Knox to an unwelcome surprise.  I thought I was taking over another student's rental, but his landlord was advised by his lawyer not to rent to me.  (Eventually, the other student's lease wound up in court and I spruced up my old suit to give my paltry evidence.)

 So I was back at West Berrien while I looked for another place.  I found one, and extolled its merits in a letter home: large bedroom and large kitchen, mostly furnished, with stove and refrigerator, not too far from school, and very cheap.  I mentioned but glossed over the fact that the bathroom was shared.

 What I didn't say was that the apartment was on the second floor, with the bathroom at the foot of the stairs.  Using it required latching two doors, and not forgetting to unlatch the one to the first floor apartment, which I assumed belonged to the semi-fierce old landlady. The apartment was in a sagging wood frame building on West Simmons, with my more or less private entrance around the back. The kitchen was indeed pretty large, but the tiled floor bowed a little alarmingly.

 The bedroom however was cozy.  The landlady's rules included no parties or guests, and though I didn't tempt fate with a social gathering I did have individual visitors, from pretty much the first week.  However dubious, it was my first place living on my own.

  That fall was the beginning of the trimester system (I don't think they called it that, but in effect that's what it was.)  It meant fewer courses in a shorter period of time.  For me, that fall was very short of courses.  I made yet another attempt at the distribution requirements in language, but it quickly became apparent that I couldn't bluff my way through upper level Spanish.  I detected among my fluent classmates a familiarity with spoken Spanish I didn't remotely have.  I got the sense that they'd taken years of Spanish in high school, or otherwise learned it. They were starting out at a level I couldn't even aspire to reach by the end of the course.  So I dropped it.

 That left me with but two courses: Romantic Literature with William Brady, and Modern Fiction with Howard Wilson. William Brady's signature courses were in Shakespeare, but he also taught several other historical English lit courses.  Tall, bearded and with a theatrical voice and manner, he was affable and acerbic, and it was hard to tell which was the more sincere aspect.

We were both on the Faculty Committee for Student Affairs, and we had our run-ins this year and the next.  Perhaps we wound up friendly enemies. I liked him in spite of myself, and like to think the reverse was also true, but maybe not.  For as outspoken as he could be, including public insults, he was not a transparent sort of person.

 I remember little of his Romantic Lit course, which surprises me since I'd been drawn to the Romantic poets in high school, and remained interested in that approach as it developed in America.  I've since been curious about that period in England and all the relationships of the Byron/Shelley/Keats circle, and both the Romantics revival of attention to nature and their keen interest in science and technology.

For example, among my books are Nicholas Roe's revisionist biography John Keats (Yale 2012),  Daisy Hay's delightful Young Romantics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2010), and a book that would have been of particular (and subversive) interest in 1966, Mike Jay's The Atmosphere of Heaven (Yale 2009), which tells of the influence of experiments with the mind-altering nitrous oxide on some of the founders of the Romantic movement, and on their key ideas such as the permeability of objective and subjective knowledge.  Psychedelic, man.

 I don't remember our books for this course.  By this time, I had a paperback collection of The Major English Romantic Poets (ed. by William H. Marshall) but I doubt this was the text.  All that's survived of this course is a short paper on "Romance and Realism in the Bride of Lammermoor," a novel by Walter Scott I don't remember reading. (Maybe I didn't, but the paper indicates at least a very skillful skim.)

 All that I remember is sitting in class one day--a large Old Main classroom-- bargaining with a female student.  In exchange for a look at her notes I'd make her laugh.  So I scribbled her some verses on Romantic Lit topics in a kind of blues form, based on the Salty Dog Blues.  I remember two:

Wordsworth was the Poet Laureate of the Nation
Until he lost his Imagination
Honey, let me be your salty dog

Keats got Shelley, Shelley got Byron,
I got a shirt that don't need ironin'

Howard Wilson, spring 1967.  Leonard Borden photo.
Howard Wilson, chair of the English department and one of its senior members, taught Modern Fiction that term.  He didn't confine his choices to English and American authors but had a hefty representation from Europe.

 I have three levels of confidence in my list of the books we read.  The highest level goes to only one--Andre Gide's Lafcadio's Adventures, because I wrote a paper on it that's survived.
The second level of high confidence is based on memory, bolstered in some cases by at least a shred of evidence (such as I still have the book, and can date the purchase to that year.)  In this category are A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce, The Plague by Albert Camus, The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence and Bread and Wine by Ignazio Silone.

 My third level of confidence includes Gide's Strait is the Gate, Camus' The Stranger, William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom.  We probably read Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" and other stories--my list of books from 1966-7 includes the Modern Library Selected Stories of Kafka.  I no longer have that volume, replaced by a 1971 edition of Complete Stories.

Perhaps we also read Joyce's stories in Dubliners.  Maybe Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It's possible we also did Confessions of Felix Krull by Thomas Mann, but I don't remember.  I also had Mann's Death in Venice and other stories, but I think I got it the year before.  Besides I can't imagine we discussed Death in Venice. We simply did not talk about homosexual themes. Beyond these I can think of likely candidates but have no confidence they were included.

I don't know if Camus' nonfiction book, The Myth of Sisyphus was required but I clearly bought it at the same time as his novels.  Though it is best remembered for its central myth (pushing the rock up the hill, only to watch it tumble down, pushing it back up in an endless cycle) as a metaphor for life, it functioned also as a primary text in postwar Existentialism, particularly in its definition of the absurd.

Existentialism and the absurd were in part responses to the helplessness, violence and disorder of two world wars and a Depression between them, topped off by the atomic bomb.  The 1960s were providing events and pressures that evoked these critiques.

 This book also has the most attention-getting first sentence I'd ever read: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."  Philosophical or not, suicide was a live issue and anxiety for many of us, and the absurd was all around us, particularly as the Vietnam War intensified other cultural dislocations.

One of the few passage I marked at the time was this: a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger.  His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land."

 At this point in my young life I hadn't yet recovered the memory of a lost home, and the hope of a promised land was fading fast, as Vietnam and the nuclear age sharpened awareness of the culture's cynical folly, and its plentiful methods of forcing compliance, unto death.

Exile, but artistic exile, was a theme of Joyce's Portrait, the only one of these books I'd already read, which had been important to me with a slightly different emphasis in high school.  Now I look at these two books, by Camus and Joyce, and I see much of what I felt about the world and the future, for the rest of my college time and beyond.

 I might have found some sense of a lost home in Silone's Bread and Wine, which was set in the Abruzzi region of Italy. But the fact that this was the region where my mother and her family were from had not yet impressed itself on my consciousness.  (I've since read Fontamara, the first in his Abruzzi trilogy.)

 Of the class, I recall only one moment.  It was a small class, that may have met in Wilson's office.  He once asked, very cautiously, whether something we were discussing from one of the books was perhaps "blasphemous."  I was shocked and offended that the word was even used in an English class, such was my continuing rebellion against my Catholic schooling.

 On the other hand...both Lafcadio's Adventure and The Stranger involve the protagonist killing someone, raising various philosophical issues.  Gide's protagonist kills an old man as an expression of his freedom.  I struggled to follow and to justify their actions based on ideas of existentialism.  But I soon rejected it all as bullshit, first just rejecting Gide's justification, but gradually losing interest in existentialism, as well as any excuse for killing people.  The sense of the absurd, however, remained and dominated.

Of these books I remember reading Camus' The Stranger and then The Plague (very different narratives.)  I remember getting through the Faulkner, but though I could admire the writing, it didn't speak to me.  Since grade school, the prevailing image of white southerners I saw was the arrogant racist with a face twisted with hate.  (That didn't include southerners I actually knew.)  Faulkner's characters didn't interest me. I've still read very little Faulkner; mostly the short stories. Maybe it's time to try again.

 I remember reading Lawrence's The Rainbow, alternately slogging through it and being transported by it.  Perhaps we also read Women in Love, but if not then, I eventually read it after seeing the famous 1969 film, which ignited a small boom in Lawrence film and TV adaptations, and therefore new paperback editions. I was enthused by Lawrence for awhile (short stories, poems, novels and essays) and by Joyce for longer.  But of these specific books, it is only A Portrait of the Artist... that I've read and re-read again over all these years.

That I had only two courses didn't mean I wasn't busy.  For one big thing, I had a part in the Knox main stage production of Shakespeare's Macbeth.

 At Knox in those days, we did not receive class credit for what was an extensive commitment. Even though my part was relatively small, there were a lot of long rehearsals and performances. I played the Thane of Ross, who is the pivot point of the play.  (That's an actor's joke, sort of. In fact, Ross joining the rebellion against Macbeth is a turning point.) A couple of other minor roles were folded into it.

 It was directed by theatre professor William Clark, who talked me into it with the same basic argument he used to get me into his theatre history class: if I was going to write plays, I should experience what it's like to go through an actual production, and to be on stage, required to say the words the playwright wrote.

 Professor Clark was the department's technical director, and he designed the show.  He may have spent time with the principal actors but as I recall the rest of us were left to our own devices, beyond our blocking and cues.  We struggled with how to speak the lines--should we be adapting English accents?  I remember my fellow thane Harry Contompasis wondering "why is everybody trying to sound like James Mason?"

 Memorizing the text was hard enough; figuring out what it meant didn't seem that important.  Which is too bad, because Ross has some choice lines:

Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself! It cannot
Be call'd our mother, but our grave. Where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air,
Are made, not mark'd; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy.

Macbeth program: click to enlarge
Being one of the lesser characters--the workers of the production--was an interesting perspective.  We witnessed rehearsals of scenes with the principals in which our part on stage was equally as mute witnesses.

Other than that, we had little to do with the stars: Richard Newman as Macbeth, Valjean McLenighan as Lady Macbeth.  I had one big scene with Paul Woldy as Macduff.  Most of the time I was hanging out with the other thanes and assorted characters. I don't think I saw David Axelrod at rehearsals but once or twice, before he routinely stole the show as the Porter.

Our costumes were variations on the traditional doublet and hose.  I wasn't the only neophyte who was astonished at the blatant artificiality of the props, and the bold lines of makeup that looked absurd in the greenroom mirrors but were standard for making our faces visible to the audience.  Such is (or was) the theatre.

 We had a number of performances, including some for busloads of high school students.  I managed to get through the run with only one real screw-up.  My first entrance and speech came very early in the play, but for one performance I was still in the greenroom, leaving Richard Hoover as King Malcolm to pace up and down the stage, waiting for me to announce Macbeth's great victory.

 It turned out to be a bit of method acting for me, however, as I tore up the stairs and came on stage running and out of breath, as if Ross ("what a haste looks through his eyes!") is indeed rushing from the battlefield.  I believe however this was the moment that Richard started thinking about switching to set and production design.

 If I embarrassed myself, no one told me about it, and I did get a couple of compliments: someone whose judgment I respected said that I had one of the better Shakespearean speaking voices, and a female student of my acquaintance thought I looked pretty good in tights.

I can't honestly attribute my participation in this play to my subsequent interest in Shakespeare, but it had to play a part. I saw Romeo and Juliet at Stratford (Ont.) in 1968, and Kevin Kline's Hamlet at the New York Public Theatre in the '80s. But my involvement intensified in the 1990s, when I attended the University of Pittsburgh Shakespeare Festival summer productions, and later when I was a theatre columnist, and got prime seats for productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.

I also became fascinated with film and television productions (Branagh's Much Ado About Nothing remains a favorite), and read history of Shakespeare productions and performances as well as works about Shakespeare and (broadly speaking) critical works.  (Favorites among these include W.H. Auden's Shakespeare lectures, Northrup Frye's book of essays, Shakespeare The Thinker by A.D. Nuttall, and Shakespeare's Game by William Gibson, which is also one of the better books on playwriting.)  I must have 35 such books now.

And I've also carefully read many of the plays, often in annotated editions.  As a result of this reading as well as this seeing, I've written thousands of words on Shakespeare's plays.

 And professor Clark turned out to be right about an influence on my playwriting, at least eventually.  Also in the 1990s I wrote a play, Young O, which was a prequel to Shakespeare's Othello.  This Macbeth production dipped us into a myth-ridden past while we remained otherwise immersed in the demanding 1960s.  I wasn't thinking about that when I wrote Young O, but in fact it is set in a mythical stage time that combines 16th century Venice and the 1960s.

 But even if this production of Macbeth wasn't the direct start of all that, it did plunge me into the theatrical world of Shakespeare, and created some opening edge of familiarity.  I've often found that after reading a difficult text straight through, it suddenly makes much more sense on the second attempt.  This production was a little like that.

 It also resulted in strengthening friendships with Rick Newman and Valjean, and a new level of acquaintance with others in the production.  It also may have helped send me to the hospital.  But that's a winter's tale.