Last Refuge of a Rock Critic: A Bicentennial Search for Patriotism

Editors’ note, July 2, 2021: There was so much happening in New York City during the Bicentennial all those years ago that the Village Voice spread its coverage over two issues, spanning June 28 to July 12, 1976. The Big Apple was ready to party: King Kong had just left town and the Democrats were rolling in, preparing for their quadrennial convention two years after a Republican president — a liar, cheat, and bully who attempted to use his office to punish political and personal enemies — had resigned in disgrace. There was some sort of cosmic justice in Richard Nixon flaming out after winning re-election in a landslide but before he could preside over the Bicentennial, that nationwide celebration of American democracy’s survival after one civil war, two world conflicts, and countless cultural battles.

It was in the Spirit of ’76 that Greil Marcus, author of the previous year’s Mystery Train — a monumental collection of essays delving into the heart of rock ’n’ roll to reveal a luminous chunk of America’s soul — undertook a wide-ranging disquisition on the meaning of patriotism in the pages of the Village Voice. (Mark Alan Stamaty’s boisterous, labyrinthine cartoons added to the wild and woolly mood.) As they do in Mystery Train, Marcus’s references, digressions, and footnotes shoot off like fireworks. Radiant as a rocket’s red glare — think of Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” aurally transmuting Francis Scott Key’s “bombs bursting in air” into bombs dropping on screaming Vietnam civilians — Marcus’s Voice article asks us to look at America’s full history, both glorious and savage. He finds beauty in “an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared,” but also quotes Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, delivered shortly before the Civil War reached its bloody end. The president, who would be assassinated just 42 days later, was acknowledging that the carnage was penance for allowing slavery to have been a part of the nation’s founding. “Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’ ”

Marcus also quotes W.E.B. DuBois from 1897, when America’s freed slaves were still waiting for the forty acres and a mule that had been promised to help them start new lives more than three decades earlier. “One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

And in typical Marcus fashion, we get a bonus line of dialogue from Claude Rains, in his role as Captain Renault in 1942’s Casablanca: “Well, Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot.” Marcus was in some ways less concerned with whether patriotism is truly “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” as Dr. Johnson so famously put it, than with the divisions that were fracturing the nation into the broken mirror we gaze further into today. “America may be breaking up into separate ‘patrimonies.’ The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does the widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities.”

In November 1972, shortly after he’d won re-election, Nixon — whose somber Quaker facade in public was belied by the profane conniver heard on the Watergate tapes — discussed cabinet changes with an adviser, noting that he might keep one lawyer on to be the “house Jew” and to “handle the Bicentennial and all that nonsense.” Such nasty cynicism has long permeated the political right — consider Coolidge’s desiccated view, “the business of America is business” — because it cannot reconcile lust for unfettered profit with government’s role of legislating for the common good. Marcus worked on Mystery Train as the Watergate scandal was unfolding. In his author’s note, he points out, “To do one’s most personal work in a time of public crisis is an honest, legitimate, paradoxically democratic act of common faith.” Although this book about the music that bound America together across generational, racial, class, and political divides was not published until 1975, Marcus signed his note with a precise date: “August 9, 1974.”

Certainly not coincidentally, that was the day Nixon resigned the presidency.

So, sometime this week, between helpings of apple pie and baseball games, take a few moments to revisit the 200th birthday of a great, if forever flawed, nation as seen through the typewriter of an ever-thoughtful writer grappling with the meaning of patriotism in these United States. Note how he praises conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who voted for the impeachment of a conservative president whose lies, capriciousness, self-aggrandizement, and intimidation tactics they could no longer stomach: “They made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country.”

My, how times have changed. —R.C. Baker


In America Even the Humblest Harmony Is an Incredible Dream

By Greil Marcus
July 12, 1976

…In America, the humblest harmony is still an incredible dream.
— Edmund Wilson, “Night Thoughts in Paris,” 1922 (1) 

“Rick, you’re not only a sentimentalist, but you’ve become a patriot!”
— Claude Rains to Humphrey Bogart, at the close of Casablanca, 1942 (2)

To claim patriotism in America, where the thing is so undefined, is to claim a very great deal. It is to claim, in one way or another, to embody the republic. So as I thought about what I might say regarding patriotism, which seemed to me an appropriate subject in a week that falls between the Fourth of July and the opening of the Democratic Convention, one conviction that took shape very early was that one could not claim to be a patriot and that anyone who does should be instantly suspected.

This no doubt sounds familiar — patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” (3) as Dr. Johnson put it — but that is not at all what I mean to get at. Rather it is what I mean to get behind me, and to do that it’s necessary to deal at least briefly with the People’s Bicentennial Commission.

The PBC, organized by activist Jeremy Rifkin, presupposes to offer the real, people’s, revolutionary-at-its heart America, as opposed to the official America promulgated for Bicentennial purposes by various hucksters and governmental agencies. The PBC has received some media coverage for its “counterdemonstrations” held alongside various commemorative exercises and dress-up shows.

PBC members are self-described “New Patriots”; you can become a “New Patriot” simply by joining the PBC. According to the PBC line, America is divided into “Patriots” and “Tories” — in fact, all American history, and the American present, can be seen this way. “Patriots” past and present are those the PBC aligns on the side of social and economic justice, defined in the usual radical/liberal manner; Tories are all those who are perceived by the PBC to have resisted such goals. Thus Alexander Hamilton, despite his role in the Revolution, was really a “Tory,” as are Republicans, bankers, factory foremen, and mean high school principals (I’m not making this up).

This approach is indistinguishable from that of the American Legion. There’s nothing troublesome or ambiguous about PBC patriotism; all it takes is a correct stand on the issues, and maybe a membership card. What’s the PBC program? “Patriots” should publicly expose “Tories.” Political candidates should be forced to sign oaths affirming their loyalty to the creed of the revolution.

The PBC makes me think of James Mann of South Carolina, Walter Flowers of Alabama, and Caldwell Butler of Virginia, three conservative members of the House Judiciary Committee who were crucial to the successful impeachment votes against Richard Nixon. In PBC terms they are quite obvious “Tories”; in a PBC America is it irrelevant that in working out their decisions on impeachment they made distinct efforts to trace a line between their particular responsibilities and the founding of the country. (With Mann there was perhaps no “effort” — that line may have always been visible to him, as it clearly has been to, say, Sam Ervin and William O. Douglas.)

Though the PBC is not to be taken seriously (“Have your political club ask that the Declaration of Independence be displayed at the polling place, so that citizens may spend their time thinking about self-evident truths,” they suggest), the PBC mode of thought is to be taken seriously, if only because it is a mode liberals and radicals often fall into. These days especially, we want our political affairs simple, clean and above all pure. Politics may be many things but it is narcissism first and foremost, because there is more safety in the certainties of separation than in the contingencies of wholeness.

The belief that patriotism is a question of the correct stand on vital social and political issues is not only the most hollow but the most invidious version of the concept; it empties the concept of all possible meaning. The truth is that patriotism makes stranger bedfellows than politics.

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Rather than something that can be easily fixed on individuals for the asking or that adheres to issues because of their necessity, and rather than something that can be claimed, awarded, or withheld, patriotism in America is a conundrum. Most who consider themselves sophisticated in their politics think patriotism is something to outgrow, preferably by the age of 12; many more Americans of all sorts, as John Scholar has written, “are simply without patriotism.… They do not think unpatriotic thoughts, but they do not think patriotic thoughts either. The republic for them is a vague and distant thing.” Yet it seems to me that patriotism should be explored, evoked, doubted, acted, and written out. The language of patriotism needs to be retrieved, invented, nurtured, and spoken, but we should not be too quick to decide who is a patriot and who is not, nor be too careful about establishing standards for the virtuous to meet. It isn’t my purpose here to prove my patriotism to you nor to provide guidelines with which you can prove yours to yourself — should you wish to. Instead I simply want to make the idea real; and I will try to do that by focusing on two themes central to an understanding of the possibilities of the patriotic spirit in America: wholeness, or harmony, and division, separateness.


Three texts:

One ever feels his two-ness — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
— W.E.B. Du Bois (4)

When I think of Greenwich Village, it is almost with tears. For there this battered battalion dress their guns against a whole nation… From the darkest corners of the country they have fled for comfort and asylum. You may think them feeble and ridiculous — but feebleness is always relative. It may require as much force of character and as much independent thought for one of these to leave his Kansas home and espouse the opinions of Freud as for Wagner to achieve new harmonies or Einstein to conceive a finite universe. The thought of them makes me respond with a sharp gust of sympathy, precisely because they are ridiculous and yet stand for something noble. And one is touched by something like reverence when one finds among this strange indifferent people, to whom the rest of the world is a newspaper story, history a tedious legend, and abstract thought a form of insanity, a man who really knows on what stage he is playing, for what drama he has been cast. By his realization he makes us realize, too, for what drama our setting is the setting: for the drama of humanity, in a sense, no setting can be trivial or mean. Gopher Prairie itself, in all its ludicrousness and futility when the human spirit rears itself there, has its importance and its dignity. 

And now that a breach has been made what a flood might sweep off the dam! — what a thundering torrent of energy, of enthusiasm, or life! Things are always beginning in America; we are always on the verge of great adventures. History seems to lie before us instead of behind.
— Edmund Wilson, “Night Thoughts in Paris,” The New Republic, March 12, 1922 (5)

…The patriot is one who is grateful for a legacy and recognizes that the legacy makes him a debtor. There is a whole way of being in the world, captured best by the word reverence, which defines life by its debts: One is what one owes, what one acknowledges as a rightful debt or obligation. The patriot moves within that mentality. The gift of land, people, language, gods, memories, and customs, which is the patrimony of the patriot, defines who he or she is. Patrimony is mixed with person; the two barely separable. The very tone and rhythm of a life, the shapes of perception, the texture of its hopes and fears goes from membership in a territorially rooted group. The conscious patriot is one who feels deeply indebted for these gifts, grateful to the people and places through which they come, and determined to defend the legacy against enemies and pass it unspoiled to those will come after. 

But… we are not taught to define our lives by our debts and legacies, but by our rights and opportunities. 
— John. J. Schaar, “The Case for Patriotism,” American Review 17, May 1973

I suggest that to truly “read” these passages, which is what I will be doing for the remainder of this piece, it’s necessary to pay as close attention to the voice of each writer as to his words. Du Bois, meditating on truths that predated his time and which he does not seem to expect to change, is stymied, perplexed, quietly angry, yet full of a sort of determination that perhaps suggests the bridging of gaps he is telling us cannot be bridged. Schaar, with his eyes on the past (not merely the American past, but the past per se, the past as something that constantly informs the present), speaks in tones of regret; his cadences are measured and restrained, and what is measured out is the pain of loss, the loss of the “way of being in the world” he is describing. All this is evident well before his final disclaimer: that we are not taught the rich and complex values that make patriotism possible but cheaper values that imply the separation of each man and woman from every other as the positive basis for American society.

But Schaar and Du Bois speak as realists; their words communicate an almost tragic refusal to grant a single assumption they do not see as justified by the disappointments and betrayals of the American story. They will not speak a word they cannot prove. But they will whisper. Wilson’s “in America, the humblest harmony is still an incredible dream” — and not harmony as consensus, or lack of crucial disagreement, but an essential harmony, a recognition of uniquely American things shared — is at the heart of what both men are saying. They are saying that whatever the American reality, or even the American fate, the possibilities of such harmony cannot be decently abandoned; that harmony is an absolute necessity if Americans are to keep the promises on which America was founded: the promises that flowed instantly from the original justification of America in 1776 as something new under the sun, and perhaps even the promises as they were reclaimed in 1865, with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, when he incorporated the truth that the betrayal of those promises in fact preceded the promises themselves into the fabric of official American thought, where it has been officially buried ever since. (See box.)

To turn from the fundamental gloom of Du Bois and Schaar to late-night meditations of a young Edmund Wilson, thinking of America from a distance, where a good deal of the best of such thinking has been done, is a shock. One may have to read what he wrote carefully to appreciate how bizarre it is.

When I first came to Berkeley, in 1963, a campus veteran told me that Berkeley and Greenwich Village were the only places in America where a person could be really free. Wilson begins with this cozily embattled fallacy; a farther shore from the kind of patriotism Schaar speaks of can hardly be imagined. And yet — or perhaps, “and so” — Wilson then drives straight back into the “darkest corners” of the country, to what Fitzgerald called “the dark fields of the republic,” and embraces them with all the restraint of a Fourth of July orator. Suddenly he has delivered himself from the repression of the American present, as only the future is of any consequence. But there is the slightest hint of condescension in Wilson’s “Gopher Prairie itself” — and, perhaps in flight from doubts that not even the most visionary moment can banish, Wilson abandons the fatal pull of specifics for a virtual manifesto of American mysticism. It’s as if he is seeking, against the terrific odds he has been careful to establish in advance, to fix precisely those things Americans can recognize — those attributes by which they can recognize each other — the feeling that “things are always beginning in America,” blown up suddenly with exclamation points into images of a great dam breaking and a flood of — not ideas, not justice, not even freedom (which was what Wilson started with, but which is somehow no longer exactly the question) — “energy, of enthusiasm, of life!” And this is because what Wilson was working out of in Paris was not a “feeling,” but a leap of faith — a leap straight across what were to Lincoln the almost predestined American crimes and divisions, the crimes and divisions that were the source of Du Bois’s torment.

The desperation in Wilson’s voice is as palpable as the joy. A moment later in the essay he will pull back again; America will become a monster of banality. But he can’t quit with this. He returns as an American St. George come not to slay the dragon but magically to transform it. The passage continues: “Our enemy offers huger bulk than the enemy in Europe, but he is much less firmly rooted. Two generations might rout him. To arms then! Let me return; I shall not cease from mental fight nor shall my sword rest in my hand till intolerance has been stricken from the laws, till the time-clock has been beaten to a punch-bowl!”

In the great tradition of John Wesley Harding, who never made a foolish move, Wilson does not choose a foolish word. The struggle he is lining out is a matter of spiritual life or death for him, and — in the sense that a true patriot, one who truly perceives and accepts a patrimony, embodies the republic — for the country equally so. Thus Wilson’s language is overblown, with every pretension undercut by self-parody (“my sword” a seemingly absurd weapon for a “mental fight”; “till intolerance has been stricken from the laws” taken down a peg by “till the time clock has been beaten to a punch bowl”). Only with a frame of the ridiculous can Wilson get away with the absolute and discomforting seriousness of every word he is speaking. He is dedicating — like Lincoln in 1865, rededicating — himself, and his country, to the liberating destiny that his country, like no other before it, set out for itself; he recognizes and affirms that the republic, along with itself, invented a birthright each American would, in a way of his or her own determining, have to accept, as a burden, before he or she could fully claim to be American.

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This overblown way of speaking is the language, or a language, of American patriotism, and its affirmation also a settling of affairs. It sweeps right by Du Bois’s analysis of what cannot be resolved, even though Wilson’s words do not quite leave Du Bois’s statement of the facts out. “How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country?” Du Bois wrote at another time. “And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?” (7) Here and above, Du Bois speaks of black people, but the question he insists on contains all Americans who have been, and are, systematically refused America’s promises and excluded form its patrimony. That exclusion has been and is more widespread in terms of class than of race — and it is equally as subtle, as debilitating, and as resistant to fundamental change. As Du Bois would have said, the question of racial oppression is also a question of class. My attempt to follow the meaning of Du Bois’s idea applies, as metaphor, to Americans of all kinds who are excluded — and given that America was once known as “a good poor man’s country,” there are many whites who were included in the past who are excluded now.

Du Bois says that any resolution a black man or woman can make of Wilsons’s contradictions will by necessity be very different from and properly fall far short of, the glorious unity Wilson saw. The black American patrimony is separation and division; not simply because the “American” side is so full of horror and crime, but at least partly because it is so alive with promise. As Theodore Rosengarten’s All God’s Daughters, the life of Ned Cobb, a black Alabama sharecropper, makes clear, a full recognition of “the injustice of the laws” does not preclude the deepest recognition of that promise nor the determination to fulfill it precisely on its original, 200-year-old terms. But the laws refuse to recognize Cobb’s claim to his “American” patrimony, and without that double recognition Du Bois’s words hold.

It is very questionable whether the burden I spoke of Wilson accepting, or the debts and obligations of which Schaar writes, can be set forth by me, or anyone, as a necessary part of the patrimony of a black man or woman in America. Black men and women have made their own history in America, which America ignored or did not even see, and the evidence is strong today that it is in that specific history that black men and women are finding their patrimony — their debts, obligations, promises, possibilities — finding what it is they have to live up to, finding a way of being in the world. In Lincoln’s terms of crime and punishment, it is a measure of the price white Americans of any sort must pay for the forced odyssey of black people in America that a black American patrimony, which grows out of an altogether different kind of heroism and resourcefulness than white Americans draw on — different in kind and in quality — may not only be impossible for whites to connect to, but wrong for them to connect to. With Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, Lucille Clifton’s family memoir Generations (which begins with the story of Clifton’s great-great grandmother, born in Dahomey in 1822, brought to the New Orleans slave markets and made to walk to Virginia at the age of eight, whose message to her family, into this century, was “Get what you want, you from Dahomey, women”), Alice Walker’s The Third Life of Grange Copeland, or the film of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a white American may feel that he or she is somehow violating these tales simply by responding to them. To say, this is part of my legacy, my patrimony, too, which is to say that the “American” patrimony is, or should be, that of a black man or woman is to go much farther than any white can decently go.

Because of such history, and because the language of patriotism in America has not flourished — because it is not easily spoken nor easily understood when it is spoken; because the “way of being in the world” of which Schaar writes is foreign to most of us, so foreign as to be hard to imagine clearly — ­America may be breaking up into separate “patrimonies.” The rise of ethnicity and cultural nationalism on all fronts suggests this; so does a widening split between cities and suburbs, between classes, sexes, races, religions, nationalities. I don’t mean such groupings are always in explicit conflict, but that people are locating their primary loyalties away from “America,” as a place, a society, a republic, an idea, a promise, whatever. Historian William Appleman Williams’s recent Bicentennial book, America Confronts a Revolutionary World, takes this movement apart to one conclusion: He argues that America can best be true to its best self by returning to the Articles of Confederation, and fragmenting, by secession (violently if need be; “I will meet you on the barricades,” he says) (8), into regional socialist republics. This is a bad moment in the work of a valuable historian. But there is some truth in the book — as a skewed metaphor for retreats from America that are already well advanced.

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It may be that this is not a problem to “solve” but a reality to accept or struggle against, on an individual level, at least in the beginning. Schaar writes of America, an invented political and moral society, as a place where patriotism is not simply a matter of inheritance or lack of it — in America, patriotism is an earned choice, an earned recognition. Wilson, 51 years earlier, agreed when he spoke as baldly as he dared of a “mental fight,” of a battle he would carry on, in American letters, as a critic and a reporter, to rout the enemy, to make the wisp of American harmony he glimpsed one night in Paris more real.

When we speak of patriotism in America we must recognize an inevitable division of self in the very act of speaking, and in that sense Du Bois’s statement can serve for anyone. America is big, conformist, monolithic, faceless, cruel, and its economic game is rigged. For any sense of freedom the first impulse is to separate oneself, either following the trail of countless American lone-wolfs, solitaries, and Ishmaels, or settling for the homogeneous familiarities and protections of “one’s own”: family, religion, nationality, race, region. Yet America is still astonishing — too big, too complex, and too various for any mind to take in, and in that astonishment, in the realization of an enormous place finally justified and held together by little more than a few phrases from an old document, comes the yearning to make America whole by seeing it clearly; by pursuing that patrimony, discovering it, retrieving it, inventing it, or simply affirming it. What is it that Americans share? In what images, of crime or beauty, do Americans uniquely recognize themselves as no others would, recognize that in an essential way they are linked, that they can carry on certain conversations about certain things that others could not or would not think to enter?

One probably cannot raise such questions without realizing that if they are asked with the utmost seriousness of intent there may be no encouraging answers. But one cannot wear such questions out either. Schaar’s statement, like Wilson’s, points toward a way of being in touch with America; com­bative, suspicious, and yet deeply accepting of something like a common fate, that cannot, and should not be avoided.


There are two ideas around which this piece revolves, no mat­ter how erratic the orbit has been.The first is the idea of the patriot as one who embodies the republic. This is not as grand or pretentious as it might seem. A civil rights worker linking people to the re­public by convincing them to vote is embodying the republic, in many ways. Many of those on the House Judiciary Committee, by what they said and the manner in which they said it, embodied the repub­lic, for a time. James Agee, writ­ing Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, embodied the republic, in all of its mystical and factual complexity. Those who honestly and visibly refuse to let the repub­lic stop short of itself embody it.

Visibly — publicly — is the key word. Wilson spoke almost mys­teriously of “a man who really knows on what stage he is playing, for what drama he has been cast,” who “by his realization… makes us realize, too, for what drama our setting is the setting.” To say that this can mean anything is to point to the strength of what Wilson said, not its weakness; Wilson himself took this conviction to its extreme only 21 years after he first set it down. He wrote of Lincoln, in “Eight Essays”: “It was as if he had not only foreseen the drama [of the war] but had seen all around it, with a kind of poetic objectivity, aware of the various points of view the world must take toward its protagonist. In the poem that Lincoln lived, Booth had been prepared for, too, and the tragic conclusion was necessary to justify all the rest. It was dramatically and mortally inevitable that this prophet who had overruled opposition and sent thousands of men to their deaths should finally attest his good faith by laying down his own life with theirs.” The patriot is a man or woman, who, in embodying the possibilities of American life, dramatizes them in view of others. That is both an instinct — the yearning for and affirmation of wholeness — and a role — the act of wholeness.

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The second idea is that of “a whole way of being in the world.” Schaar has defined it in the lines I quoted; I cannot really set it forth more fully without a long, close consideration of how specific indi­viduals, or a group of people, made their choices and lived their lives. It is both the treasure of patriotism and the key to it. It is a constant, renewing sensitivity to questions I asked earlier: What do Americans share, what is essential and unique, in their history, experience, fate? It is a state of mind that Edmund Wilson caught as well as anyone.

In Paris, in 1922, he began his meditation on America thinking of Futurism, “born in Italy, where the weight of the past lies heaviest.” “But I can scarcely adore the locomotive,” he wrote. ” I know it all too well.” He went on to wonder at his dreams of America, to criticize America as brutally as he could manage, to pull away, back and forth, back and forth, the double vision of the American pa­triot at work, searching for at least a night’s truce with itself. Wilson turned back finally to that image of the rails: “Where there is a petu­lance and a sadness in the piping of the French engines, I shall hear in the American ones an eagerness and a zest: They have elbow room here for their racing; they can drive on as far as they like; they have an unknown country to explore, a country that no one has ever heard of — What sort of men are these who live in nameless towns? At a distance, they seem, neither intelligent nor colorful nor fine — scarcely members of the same race as the beings who have built civilization. But I know that in the wide spaces of all that wilder­ness, in the life of that loose abun­dant world, for all the reign of mediocrity and the tyranny of in­tolerance, there is a new freshness and freedom to be brought to the function of mankind — the function which, in the long run, we shall never be able to get out of: staring out in wonder and dismay at the mysterious shapes of the world, either to ask ourselves what laws move them or, combining those shapes anew, to makeshift to create a nobler world in which our souls may find a home.”


  1. In Keywords, Raymond Williams’s recent book on the etymology of fundamental con­temporary social concepts, the word “patriotism” is missing (so are “roots” and “fraternity”). But because I like Williams’s idea, if not his choices, I have pulled out words from the quotes I refer to that seem to me keys to an Ameri­can language of patriotism — words that in some way signify an aspect or element of “patriotism.” Here, the keywords are “humblest,” “harmony,” and “still.”
  2. Keyword: “sentimentalist.”
  3. Keyword: “refuge.”
  4. Virtually every word in this statement is a keyword. Still: “two-ness,” “souls,” “ideals,” “dogged,” “keeps it from.”
  5. Keywords: “tears,” “against,” “nation,” “corners,” “comfort,” “character,” “inde­pendent,” “home,” “espouse,” “new,” “harmonies,” “finite,” “sympathy,” “stand for,” “noble,” “reverence,” “indiffer­ent,” “history,” “legend,” “drama,” “spirit,” “dignity,” “enthusiasm,” “beginning,” “adventures.”
  6. Again, since essentially Schaar is writing a brief on the keywords of patriotism, only a few of the less obvious: “a whole way of being in the world,” “defines life by,” “one acknowledges,” “men­tality,” “tone,” “rhythm,” “shapes,” “texture,” “taught.” The grace and civility of Schaar’s writing tells one as much about patriotism as any of his words.
  7. Keywords: “how far,” “accord,” “loyalties,”
  8. Keyword: “I will meet you.”     ❖

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BOOKS ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Joseph Campbell, Myth Master

By the time he died last October at 83, he was a little prone to rhapsodies and exhortations. Like a modern Emerson, he let the boldness of his voice drown out the subtlety of his words, sang the praises of the cosmic round too loftily for the tragic sense to bear. He spoke on “human potential” at Esalen and pub­lished books with titles like Myths To Live By and The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. A documentary termed his life “A Hero’s Journey.” And he was eulogized finally as a sort of guru to celebrity, a shaman whose ideas inspired Watership Down and Star Wars

At his best, though, Joseph Campbell was merely one of the greatest popu­lar writers on mythology who ever lived. His effect on modern narratives may not be as central as Jesse L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance; her review of the Holy Grail legend as a record of fertility rites served as a subtext for “The Waste Land” and a virtual plot outline for The Sun Also Rises. But Campbell’s scope is far wider, and his prose approaches liter­ature on its own. 

In fact, Campbell is tough to place among his colleagues. His name does not carry the weight of Sir James Frazer: the Golden Bough remains seminal in its en­cyclopedic comparison of myths and ritu­als. But Frazer skirted the controversial links between ancient rites and Chris­tianity and so, as Robert Graves said, “was able to keep his beautiful rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, until his death …” Graves, on the other hand, leans too heavily on historical explana­tions in The White Goddess and Greek Myths. Each myth to him was the trace of some ancient conquest or migration, and behind them all he saw the con­quered, suppressed but recalcitrant God­dess figure whom, not to put too fine a point on it, he worshipped like a crazy man. Belief also underlies the works of Mircea Eliade, which Campbell consid­ered the scholarly counterpart of his more popular writings. For Eliade, like Campbell, the body of human mythology makes up a metaphysic. But Eliade, un­like Campbell, thought faith in that metaphysic — faith in God, that is — was our only bulwark against despair. 

Which is exactly what makes Campbell so fine, so different. In his best stuff, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces and much of the four-volume Masks of God, he never sinks beneath the powerful spell of his subject; he balks at scuttling no belief in his search for a synthesis of them all. Nor does he argue that the synthesis refers to any extrinsic truth. You get all your favorite gods for free, and no evangelist will call. As a result, these books take on a mythic quality themselves — they produce, at times, the liberating effects they describe. Maybe this places Campbell not with the philos­ophers of myth, and certainly not with scientists like Claude Levi-Strauss, but with the authors of “campus classics”: creators of Self-Help Books for the Real­ly Smart like Alan Watts, Ernest Becker, and Norman O. Brown. But Campbell goes beyond them because he does not, as they do, create a closed system of belief. Reading his books, rather, is like putting your hand out in the dark to find a door­way where you thought there was a wall. They offer, in their moment at least, free­dom not only from faith but from faith-lessness, a third way of thinking for those who will neither kneel down nor be shallow. 

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Campbell’s life, on the surface any­way, seems something other, if not less, than a hero’s journey. Born in New York City in 1904, the son of a hosiery importer and his wife, he was raised a Roman Catholic. His annual visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show inspired an interest in Indian culture, and his studies inevitably turned up the fact that the themes of Catholic dogma recur in Indian lore and other legends around the world. Pursuing his interests at Dart­mouth and then Columbia, Campbell won a traveling fellowship to Paris and Mu­nich in the late 1920s. There, he discov­ered the new world of Joyce and Mann, Picasso, Freud, and Jung — and found that it too was based firmly on the old world of myth and legend. He returned to the States just as the market crashed and spent the next few years jobless, wander­ing and, most of all, reading. By 1934, however, he was teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence, where he would stay for the next 38 years. In that time, he be­came moderately famous as an author and editor of books on myth and religion. His mind, even then, was clearly focused on the spiritual — at least one student compared him to a swami. But after his retirement from teaching in 1972, he be­came more completely a preacher on the uses of mythology in the modern world, rejecting the title of guru yet abdicating any claims to scholarly disinterest. At the end, not only George Lucas and Richard Adams, but the Rolling Stones, John Barth, and Denis Johnson could be counted among those whose work was affected by his. 

It sounds like a nice life. Even, as he used to say, a “serendipity.” But it’s pos­sible Donald Newlove got just a tad car­ried away when he wrote in a 1977 Es­quire piece: “His right eye is a falling blossom, his left a fading ember, his way of seeing is the way of genius, of art, of the world’s eye wrapped in a smile of madness. He weighs suns and shadows. He has a will of steel that works titanic labors. He is not mad. He is mad. His cosmic vision lives in two views of the world at once and is beyond duality … ” His office hours are on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. 

This is not to say that Campbell’s in­sights were less than transcendent, (They would have to be, peering through a fall­ing blossom and a fading ember.) It’s just that the origins and nature of that tran­scendence have been misplaced — and were misplaced even, perhaps especially, by Campbell himself. The Power of Myth illustrates this. The book is edited from a series of interviews Moyers did in 1985 and ’86 at George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch and at the Museum of Natural History; some of these talks will be broadcast in a six-part series on PBS starting May 18. The intelligence and ob­vious decency of the two participants make the book likable enough; Camp­bell’s seemingly bottomless erudition sometimes makes it fascinating. But there can be no mistake: Campbell had by this time followed the path of his study into dogma. It’s a good dogma, as dogmas go, a sort of spiritual humanism, but the limitations and stagnation of such doc­trinal thinking are obvious in pontifical exchanges like this: 

Moyers: What happens when a society no longer embraces a powerful mythology? 

Campbell: What we’ve got on our hands. If you want to find out what it means to have a society without any ritu­als, read The New York Times

Moyers: And you’d find? 

Campbell: The news of the day, includ­ing destructive and violent acts by young people who don’t know how to behave in a civilized society. 

Those young people! Bring back Torque­mada with his powerful mythology, his rituals, his civilized society — and, oh yeah, those hot pincers, too. 

Such flashes of stodginess show up even in earlier lectures. In 1970, for instance, Campbell scolded “those sociolog­ical geniuses that are, these days, swarm­ing on our activated campuses” because they’d sneered, heaven help us, at the first moon walk. And when, over the years, he mixed these bits of jingoism with a doctrine that seemed to offer en­lightenment without social disruption, he began to become a magnet for the furrow-­browed magi of our more genteel media. The wages of fame is banality.

As a result, it now appears that Camp­bell will be remembered as one of those lovable, harmless philosophers who shake their heads at human madness while re­affirming the “civilized society” that pro­duces it and was produced by it. This is a blessed shame, because it undercuts the power and complexity of the man’s great — sometimes visionary — books. And if the vision of those books congealed over time into priestcraft, if their author, among the first to interpret Finnegans Wake, was interpreted at the last by Jabba the Hut, it only goes to prove a portion of Campbell’s own thesis: “There must always remain … from the stand­point of normal waking consciousness, a certain baffling inconsistency between the wisdom brought forth from the deep, and the prudence usually found to be brought from the transcendent deep be­comes quickly rationalized into nonenti­ty, and the need becomes great for anoth­er hero to refresh the word.” 

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That need “to refresh the word,” to revitalize the vehicle of mythic transmission, seems to me the im­plied core of Campbell’s great work. Like Freud, he is far more interesting when viewed not as a guru but as a literary critic: one who tells his tale by giving other tales new life. From this angle, Campbell was a sort of reconstructionist, dedicated to narrative not only as a method of journeying beyond narrative, but also as the place to which silence ceaselessly returns. He was willing to sub­mit to all that narrative implies — causal­ity, authority, and the duality of speaker and listener — but only so that causality would be extinguished, authority re­placed, and the listener metamorphosed into the teller in a round that never ends. Such an outlook, more practically, trans­forms the systems that threaten to crush us into an egress, a way out. The church that makes lapsed Catholics quail, the government that incites revolutionaries, the vagaries of parents and the false stratagems of art are not swept away here, but used as works, as stories that transport us to a place where they cease to exert their power. 

A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, written with Henry Morton Robinson, sets the tone of Campbell’s dialogue with world literature. Still a standard textbook 44 years after its publication, the Key identifies Joyce’s use of generic mythic themes. The protagonist’s tumble from a ladder is linked with the Fall; the many faces of Shem and Shaun are pegged to the recurring Brother Battle; the wake becomes a comic rehearsal of Resurrec­tion; and the riverrun which begins and ends the book is seen as the cycle of the One Mother, who is the life of everything that lives and the death of everything that dies. With these themes as guides, the Key proceeds to distill Joyce’s “root language” into something approaching English, and his massive “dreamwork” into something approaching a linear table of creation, manifold life, dissolution, and promised rebirth. 

This is actually kind of a wicked trick: it joins together what Joyce had torn asunder. Finnegans Wake, after all, oper­ates by dismantling itself. Its referential neologisms smudge the borders between the text and all that is not the text. Virtually no word among the book’s many thousands can be read in a single contextual sense; all evoke a series of connected words and ideas which, as the end of the novel suggests, arise from and fall into a unity of silence. This tech­nique, as the author of “Usylessly” brings into focus the accidental nature of the writer’s role. If all words unite finally into one, why are we reading these words? Why Finnegans Wake with all its difficulties and not Dr. No or Peanuts? Or Star Wars? As in the New Testament, the storyteller has to answer the ques­tion: “By what authority doest thou these things?” Joyce, though a fine gentleman in his own right to be sure, had not quite the recourse of his predecessor. 

Campbell and Robinson believed, how­ever, that Joyce had not abandoned his claims on the reader but simply reestab­lished the seat of narrative authority in the collective unconscious. The universal mythic themes enumerated in the Key are worked together throughout the Wake into a recurring dream of the Jung­ian all-mind, an ever-repeating complex of stories that Joyce terms the “mono­myth.” That story-without-end provides its own authority to the teller because, as actual dreams speak the underknowledge of the individual, the monomyth speaks in the hidden voice of us all. 

So an artist like Joyce, as seen in the Key, takes on the heroic role embraced by Stephen Dedalus when he said, “I go to encounter for the millionth time the real­ity of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated con­science of my race.” That is, he must plunge into the collective unconscious as it is temporarily incarnate in himself and his own life, experience the essence of the monomyth, and retell it afresh, giving his own accidental shape — “a local habita­tion and a name” — to the unchanging human story. 

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The Hero With a Thousand Faces, first published in 1949, is an attempt to decipher that “one shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story.” It is Campbell at his peak, the book people cite when they say Campbell “changed their lives,” and many of its interpreta­tions form the underpinning of the Campbellian spiritual approach. I find this irritating: it seems to me the book delivers its kick not with its mythic con­tent, but with its literary method. Camp­bell does not simply analyze the universal tale of the hero-task, he retells it, reforges it, as it were, in the smithy of his soul. To illustrate the unity of diverse tales, he patches together myths from all over the world. Where the voyages of Odysseus or Jason leave off, the descent into Hell of the Sumerian goddess lnanna takes up only to give way to the reawakening of Kamar al-Zaman in the Arabian Nights or the resurrection of Jesus. “We do not particularly care whether [they] ever ac­tually lived,” Campbell writes of these characters. “Their stories are what con­cern us … ” 

The outline of those stories, which are one story, is simple. First, the hero is called to adventure. If he accepts the call, he encounters a protective figure, usually an old man or woman, who supplies him with charms and instructions. “With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him,” the hero overcomes the guardian of a threshold and moves into “the regions of the unknown” which are “free fields for the projection of uncon­scious content.” Here, “incestuous libido and patricidal destrudo are … reflected back against the individual and his soci­ety in forms suggesting threats of vio­lence and … dangerous delight.” 

These regions, however, are also the womb of the hero’s rebirth. Because now, “the hero, whether god or goddess, man or woman, the figure in a myth or the dreamer of a dream, discovers and assim­ilates his opposite (his own unsuspected self) … One by one the resistances are broken. He must put aside his pride, his virtue, beauty and life and bow or submit to the absolutely intolerable. Then he finds that he and his opposite are not of differing species, but one flesh.” 

If he is fortunate, these trials prepare the hero’s consciousness for the ultimate adventure. This could be his atonement with the Great Father or his own apothe­osis; sex with the mother of all things or with an immortal god. Then, if the hero I chooses to accept the challenge of return — have constructed the sort of — critique he had in Hero, literature studying litera­ture. But even he confessed that Hero had been a uniquely vital moment in his work, and that Masks was more of an ”intellectual stunt.” In Creative Mytholo­gy, we are given only a stolid uncovering of the ”norms of myth” as Campbell finds them almost exclusively in Western writings. 

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From Hero to Creative Mythology, Campbell has shown the history of the monomyth to be the monomyth itself: the story of the human race moving from its sterile unity with a mother-envi­ronment, traveling into the realm of threats of violence and dangerous delight, ultimately to reach the threshold of the holy of holies — where perceiver and envi­ronment meet again — where we must try to embrace the other and bring back the boon … which is a retelling of the mono­myth. In this madness of reflection upon reflection, Campbell saw the best vision of the oversoul, the “controlled and in­tended statements of certain spiritual principles” of mankind. But what if the method to the madness lies not in our relationship to eternity, but in our rela­tionship to the structure of narrative it­self? Because once it is seen that every story, even the history of stories, is a mirror on a mirror, we next begin to question whether it is the form of the story that keeps imposing itself upon the content. That is, we begin to ask: does a narrative, simply by virtue of being a narrative, mold its accidental contents into the One Great Narrative? 

John Barth did a comic turn with this Chinese box version of storytelling in his 1972 novel Chimera, which is an extension of Campbell’s ideas. In it, he writes of the “recycled” hero: “‘Loosed at last from mortal speech, he turned into writ­ten words: … letters afloat between two worlds, forever betraying … the man they forever represent.” Likewise, a few years earlier, Jacques Derrida had discov­ered in Plato the idea of the word as the son of the speaker; the spoken word re­mains close to the father, retaining his living power; the written word is the or­phan or parricide who, as Plato writes, “always needs its parent to come to its aid.” Again, in the Gospel According to John, Jesus is depicted as the Logos emitted by the father God, sent to plant his own logos, his parables, like secJs. Which brings us in a circle back to Barth, whose characters like to talk as if ”writ­ing and reading, or telling and listening, were literally making love.” 

The mythic narrative begins to look a lot like the hero it describes. Once this myth grows sterile and codified in the mind of the true believer, it travels from him into the hearing of the faithless. Overcoming the resistance there, it meets with and embraces its opposite, the si­lence of illumination, and so refreshes the wasteland of the mind in which it lives once again. Small wonder all stories are the same, when the simple process of telling stories shapes the contents in the mold of itself. 

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To go further: “The first thing that confronts us in studying verbal structures is that they are arranged sequentially, and have to be read or listened to in time,” writes Northrop Frye in The Great Code. He goes on to say that myth means ”first of all, mythos, plot, narrative, or in general the sequential or­dering of words. As all verbal structures have some kind of sequence … all verbal structures are mythical in this primary sense.” 

In light of this, Campbell’s work con­tinues into places where Campbell him­self did not go. In his conversation with Moyers, he laments our “demytholo­gized” world (with its wayward youth) and seeks a new universal mythology: “The eye of reason, not of my national­ity; the eye of reason, not of my religious community; the eye of reason, not of my linguistic community.” But this is a myth that misses the point. The universal myth is already with us: Language is myth, and any communication in time partakes of the mythic nature Campbell described so well. 

This accounts for our sense that the more things change, the more they stay the same, our sense of what might be called inclusion — an infuriating realization that our history, our ideas, our very method of thought trap us within them­selves. Inclusion is at work, for instance, when Freud uses objections to his theory to prove his theory. It is inclusion when radical opponents of a system can only work change insofar as they shed their radical values and are absorbed into the system, or overturn the system and take on its oppressive nature. Each approach to the structure, each new dogma, is found finally to be bankrupt, because it is never more than a retelling of the same old story. Each attempt to isolate the story — as Roland Barthes did, for instance, in Mythologies — reiterates the story — as Barthes did with his holy trin­ity of signifier, signified, and sign. Inclu­sion, it seems clear, is an aspect of narrative thought because the method of narrative shapes all contents to its own form. 

Another way to represent that method is as a succession of authorities. The voice of authority implants itself in the listener, a new authority is born in the listener and so overturns the original voice. In short, narrative can be seen as an emanation of the complexes we think of as patriarchal. The sequential ordering of words, linear thought, mythic thought is a “patriarchal” endeavor. It is, after all, a patriarchal system that depends on a verbal or written lineage in conferring power over life and death. 

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These sexual images are only images, of course. Our flesh imposes the meta­phors of duality, even when we’ve learned not to impose the metaphors on our flesh. Following along with them, though, it is possible to find an alternative form of communication that, having what we consider “feminine” or yin features, has been largely devalued in the West. In Zen, it is called I shin den shin, meaning “from my soul to your soul,” i.e. word­lessly. It is central to a way of life in which, as the Tao te ching puts it, “those who know speak not.” A ”fixed world of fixed duties, roles, and possibilities,” stagnant and enraging as it may be, does create a society in which actions speak louder than words. This is the communi­cation of direct transmission, as life is communicated from mother to child. 

But as Campbell demonstrated, that silence, insofar as it partakes of life, ceaselessly returns to narrative thought just as narrative thought is always jour­neying toward silence. Whether the movement represents the motion of hero and cosmos, or lover and lover, or body and womb, or the mind and itself — and who’s to say which is the most pro­found? — every story can lead us to a sense of something beyond words, and from that sense we bring new symbols with which we may tell the story again. 

Campbell saw revelation and societal good in some of the moments when story and silence merge, but all that can really be said with certainty is that the conjunc­tion gives us pleasure, like sex, in and of itself. That, stripped of all other mean­ing, may be ”all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Whenever we speak, we tell stories — stories that sound like myths, stories that sound like scientific theories, stories that sound like religions, stories that sound like interpretations of all the stories ever told. When these sto­ries are well received, we experience a silent sense of pleasure, which satisfies us till we need to hear the tales once more. 

To imprison this pleasure in moral law is to lose a bit of paradise through the knowledge of good and evil. As with sex, our judgment need only attend to the different levels and qualities of physical and emotional satisfaction. By this stan­dard, Joseph Campbell, in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, in the greatness of his prime, was a master mythmaker, a giver of bliss. 

And for that, more than anything else, may the Force be with him. ❖

BOOKS ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Right Stuff: Spaced Out

There’s nothing in this world that certain white, small-town, God-fearing, airplane-flying boys hanker af­ter so much as the right stuff. The right stuff cannot be described or explained. Anyone crass enough to try and put it into words ipso facto probably doesn’t have it. Tom Wolfe is crass enough to try and put the right stuff into words, which ipso facto probably means he doesn’t have it. The right stuff is a man’s “ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and then have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back in the last yawning moment — and then go up again the next day, and the next day, and every next day, even if the series should prove infinite — and ul­timately, in its best expression, do so in a cause that means something to thousands, to a people, a nation, to humanity, to God.”

Like Predestination, there’s no earthly, definitive way of knowing for sure if you’ve got the right stuff, which is no doubt why so many Protestant boys, accustomed to looking for signs of election, spend their lives trying to prove they’ve got it. According to Wolfe, you can even be fairly certain you’ve got the right stuff and then fuck up — at any time — and find out after all that you didn’t have it — usually at about the same moment you are dying, except you’re not caring about dying so much as discover­ing that you probably didn’t have the right stuff and eating your heart out thinking now everyone is going to know.

This business about the right stuff and death is where things get a little mysterious and paradoxical, although people with the right stuff, Wolfe says, usually don’t dwell much on mysteries and paradoxes because thinking like this can foul up the reflexes, the coolness, etc. While a good sign that you’ve got the right stuff is caring more about having it than dying, it is also true that anyone trying to prove he’s got the right stuff has a very good chance (one in four) of dying while doing it, and dying — ­almost more than anything — probably means that you didn’t have it (the moxie, the reflexes, etc. to pull it out, etc.). You fucked up.

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There’s something about thinking about the right stuff and writing about the right stuff that makes you talk like this, like a drawlin’, Appalachia-raised, country-boy — ­like Chuck Yeager, to be precise, the most righteous possessor of the right stuff who ever lived, according to Wolfe, the hottest of the hot-shot test and fighter pilot jocks. Nerveless, rocket-testing Chuck was the first man to fly past Mach 1, the man whose cooler than cool, aw shucks manner — “now folks, we’re just goin’ through a little tiny mite of turbulence” (the plane has just dropped 1000 feet, your heart is in your mouth) — was imitated by every post war pilot until it became standard pilotese: The voice of God, if God were good. But though writing about the right stuff and thinking about the right stuff from the point of view of the men who have the right stuff makes the white-knuckled jet-rider in you especially grateful for the captain-virtues that time and again have put your heart back in your chest, it tends to make you forget for a while that even though these men with the right stuff are brave and capable, they are also colossally infantile chumps. It’s a scary combination.

The reader might lose this complexity from time to time, but Wolfe never lets go of it — it’s his foremost achievement in this long-awaited book — although there are good things and bad things about his method. Wolfe describes the many parts of right stuffness by never allowing the reader to know what, precisely, he thinks of it. He steers our sympathies toward the pilots who seek the right stuff, and then abruptly cuts our feelings off. He writes from everyone’s imagined perspective — even that of rocket-riding chimpanzees — but because Wolfe is ev­erywhere, be is also nowhere. Wolfe does all perspectives in the same, “I am my subject and therefore you (reader) are my subject” style, sometimes using the same phrases to describe very different things; and eventually he winds up counterfeiting his own language.

While writing from the point of view of the first astronaut-contenders who endured grueling, sadistic tests at Lovelace Clinic, Wolfe coins the, phrase “White Smocks.” White Smocks are the cold, clinical, note-­taking dehumanisers. White smocks specialize in humiliating procedures, like giving barium enemas and then making the men walk two flights to a toilet. They “teach” chimps to be “astronauts” by zapping electric current through’ the soles of their feet when they fail to perform correctly. But later in the book, while writing from the perspective of Scott Carpenter — the only one of the seven Mercury astronauts who was at all interested in ex­perimental science — the term White Smocks is as­sociated with an enlightened, humanistic purpose which is foiled by NASA engineers, by pro-operational, anti­-science types whose champion is Wally Schirra.

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The effect is dizzying, and issues get clouded, not clarified. Wolfe’s “stuff” becomes very repetitious — lots of dummy-heads but one ventriloquist. Instead of high­-lighting the nuances of the events and personalities he is chronicling, too often Wolfe’s style homogenizes them, and by making all “the dramas” he writes about sound equally charged, Wolfe sometimes neutralizes rather than heightens their impact.

The essence for Wolfe is not the content of disputes but their disputeness. A particular controversy becomes Any Controversy, with absurdly reductive results. He writes with identical irony, identical identi­fication/alienation, often identical pitch when describing controversies as different in degree (and significance) as Kennedy versus Khrushchev in Cold War strategy, the astronauts’ self-concept as jock pilots versus NASA’s idea of them as “lab rats,” and Alan Shepherd’s “astronauts can fuck around discretely” line versus John Glenn’s “astronauts shouldn’t fuck anyone.” By the end of the book, Wolfe’s “politics” (what are they?) and sense of proportion about events are so askew that, explaining the  public’s diminished interest in the astronauts after 1963, he attributes this to the installation of telephone hot lines and the ban on weapons in orbit. Then the Cold War ended, he says; nowhere in The Right Stuff are Vietnam, the assassinations, or various civil rights movements ever mentioned with relationship to the space program, or American focus on it.

This is dumb. Throughout The Right Stuff, too, the press is “the Victorian Gentlemen,” a herd of toadying mush-peddlers, hawking pure-boy astronauts in the ’60s, possible Watergates-under-every-politician in the ’70s. But the important thing for Wolfe (even assuming he were entirely right about the press as “herd”) is not that these phenomena have had entirely different effects on society, but that journalists hawk. What a piddly thing to get huffy about considering all the shit — like the racism in the space program (let me not mention the sexism) — that Wolfe allows to go flying by.

Well, enough about the good stuff, now for some criticism. Despite the thwack this book ultimately delivers to the soul, a lot is very interesting, a good deal is funny, much is exciting, and there are some Wolfian set-piece gems.

The Right Stuff, a history of the pioneering Mercury missions, was expected about five years ago, but Wolfe’s delay probably benefits the book. Ten years after the American moon landing — 20 since Sputnik 1 — astronauts and space-race lore have receded enough into the past to warrant rethinking. Wolfe tells the early space story as if it were myth, and it is.

In the late ’50s and early ’60s, there was a Russian Menace who made a bid for possession of the heavens. American presidents, senators who appropriated billions to put a man in space, citizens who wept when freckled-face John Glenn talked about the flag — all looked to the astronauts to “represent” them in the sky. During the Cold War, the astronauts were invented to serve as “single combat warriors,” soldiers symbolic of the nation, or, to be more exact, as human sacrifices — since most American rocket-launchings up to this point had ended in ludicrous fizzle-outs or horrific fire storms. Everyone expected that the astronauts would die. Only one incen­tive could make otherwise ordinary American boys will­ing to sit on top of a rocket that was probably going to blow up: the lure of the right stuff, the military ideal of masculine virtue (rockets are dangerous, but we’re used to danger), the scent of glory to “the boys,” the ring in the bull’s nose to Kennedy.

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Wolfe’s descriptions of the evolution of the fighter jock ego are superbly on target, its source in the World War II fighters, its nurturance in the jet and rocket testing programs at Muroc (later Edwards Air Force Base). Wolfe also dramatizes  exceedingly well the way the right stuff mystique trapped the Mercury astronauts in a Catch-22 maze: The testing process was designed to select the most gullible, most serviceable (I would rather die than fuck up), least introspective, least curious pilots; but to the astronauts, their ability to play NASA’s game (there is no shit I will not eat) and get selected was evidence of their possession of “the stuff.”

And what was (is) the kick? First, the life: never growing up, fraternity days forever, living away from the wife and children, flying all day, then drinking, then driving fast cars while drunk (more pilots die in cars than in planes, Wolfe says), and screwing around — although women seem to be very, very low on the pleasure totem pole, and right-stuff women are, as described by Wolfe, “moist labial piping little birds.” (Who’s talking here? Pilots say “labial”?) Second, the glory: ticker-tape pa­rades, moms on national TV. Third, the “goodies,” every military man’s due, but extra for astronauts: money, meeting presidents and rich people, book contracts, etc.

As is probably clear, when they aren’t flying planes or rockets, the astronauts Wolfe writes about are not what could easily be called fun people. Alan Shephard liked to do Jose Jimenez routines, Wally Schirra was a “gotcha” kidder. After Wolfe’s splendid opening chapters on avia­tion history and the birth of the space program, where he freely exercises his eye for grisly detail, the middle of the book sags dully as Wolfe “becomes” each astronaut — Gus Grissom and Deke Slayton being pits in the valley. Their lives all seem pathetically bleak and circumscribed by callow needs. The lives of their wives and children seem bleaker still. Little wonder that “the wives” seldom looked enraptured to see their husbands returned from space. From the stories Wolfe tells, it might even have given a few of the wives some pleasure to see “the bastards,” their husbands, catapulted into the great blue beyond.

But the saga picks up momentum again as Wolfe describes how “the valiant lads” altered the Mercury program, little-by-little turning themselves from ex­perimental subjects into jock pilots who could, and in certain cases had to, control their space vehicles. The descriptions of the space shots themselves are ex­traordinarily exciting, Wolfe showing his journalistic “right stuff” each time, taking the story to “the edge” and pulling it out “with moxie, experience,” the works. It’s amazing, really. We know the outcomes — although not all the details, actual risks, human and mechanical foul ups — and still Wolfe makes the reader wonder, “Yeah, yeah, and then what happened? Did he crash?”

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At several other points along the way, Wolfe is in top form, summarizing and satirizing with wild Rabelaisian excess and grotesque Brueghelesque detail: The scene in which John Glenn, first man to orbit the earth, addresses the Senate, introduces his wife Annie as “the rock,” and the old curmudgeons stand up and shout “Amen.” The scene in which poststroke Joe Kennedy meets Glenn and starts crying, but only half his face can move. The scene of the astronauts’ welcome to Houston amid an indoor barbecue; whole steers are being roasted, and enormous greasy joints are served to the stunned pilots and their families who can barely keep the meat from slipping off the paper plates onto their laps. The scene of Alan Shephard in the first Mercury space capsule after a four­-hour delay in his launch, horrified that his unstaunchable need to urinate, for which no provision has been made, will be broadcast across the wires of the world.

Here is Wolfe on the first assemblage of potential astronauts: “Conrad … flies into a room with thirty-four other young men, most of them with crew cuts … and the unmistakable cocky rolling gait of fighter jocks, not to mention the pathetic-looking civilian suits and the enormous wristwatches. The wristwatches had about two thousand calibrations on them and dials for recording everything short of the sound of enemy guns. These terrific wristwatches were practically fraternal insignia among the pilots. Thirty-odd young souls wearing Robert Hall clothes that cost about a fourth as much as their watches: in the year 1959 this had to be a bunch of military pilots trying to disguise themselves as civilians.”

Here is Wolfe’s description of one of the fiascos at Cape Canaveral: “The mighty white shaft rumbles and seems to bestir itself — and then seems to change its mind … because the flames suddenly cut off … and there’s a little pop. A cap on the tip of the rocket comes off. It goes shooting up in the air, a tiny little thing with a needle nose. In fact, it’s the capsule’s escape tower. As the crowd watches, stone silent and befuddled, it goes up about 12,000 feet and descends under a parachute. It looks like a little party favor. It lands about three hundred feet away from the rocket on the torpid banks of the Banana River. Five hundred VIPs had come all the way to Florida, to this goddamned Low Rent sandpit, where bugs you couldn’t even see invaded your motel room and bit your ankles until they ran red onto the acrylic shag carpet — all the way to this rockbeach boondock they had come, to see the fires of Armageddon and hear the earth shake with the thunder — and instead they get this … this pop … and a cork pops out of a bottle of Spumante.”

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And here is Wolfe describing the grim staging setup by Life photographers when the first three Mercury astronauts were announced: “To show three astronauts having an outing with their families at the same time, even in different locations, would have been stretching the truth considerably. To present such a spectacle at the Cape — which was, in effect, off limits to wives — was an absolute howler. On top of that, if you were going to put astronaut families together for a frolic on the beach, you ­could scarcely come up with a less likely combination than the Glenns, the Grissoms, and the Shephards — the clans of the Deacon, the Hoosier Grit, and the Icy Commander … In fact, they looked like three families from warring parts of our restless globe who had never laid eyes on each other until they were washed up upon this godforsaken shore together after a shipwreck, shivering morosely in their leisure togs, staring off into the distance, desperately scanning the horizon for rescue vessels, preferably three of them, flying different flags.

“As for the Other Four, they might as well have dropped through a crack in the earth.”

There is much, finally, that is touching about the alienation of these men from one another, from their families, and from the images America had of them. There is also something extraordinarily moving about what the astronauts did, regardless of their personal motivations and the politics behind the money that financed their undertaking. I remember watching the launchings on TV (sometimes at school), absolutely spell­-bound by the whole thing, unperturbed by the tech­nolingo of “rogers ” and “a-okays.” I always appreciated the the sensation of speed under control, and I admired and still admire physical courage. I didn’t want the astronauts to die, and l don’t think this feeling had anything to do with Russia. I thought even the most clonelike astronauts were exceedingly brave. Some had more than bravery. Whether this sort of courage and the cool daring the astronauts and test pilots manifested is ever separable from the blockheaded nonsense of right stuffness isn’t answered by Wolfe, and it isn’t asked. For him, they are ineluctably of a piece.

The book ends with a harrowing account of Chuck Yeager’s escape from a careening NF-104 rocket in 1963. He had tried and failed to take it faster and higher than the Russians. He finally ejects. While sailing through the air, a piece of metal from the seat mechanism hits him. His eye is cut; it starts to bleed, then, suddenly, his face begins to burn under his helmet. His eye is bleeding, his face is burning, one finger catches fire as he tries to rip his helmet off, and all of this is happening as he’s parachuting toward earth. He lands, remains cool, and lives to tell about it. Just before this flight, Wolfe tells us Yeager was feeling particularly pissed off about Kennedy’s insistence that a black astronaut be trained. Yeager goes up and comes down, and the Russian record is never broken. And does Wolfe admire the right stuff and what it can get men to do more than he mocks them? I honestly couldn’t tell. ❖

THE RIGHT STUFF. By Tom Wolfe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $12.95.

ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Prison Memoirs: The New York Women’s House of Detention

On October 13, 1970, the FBI ar­rested Angela Davis on charges of murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy to commit murder stemming from her alleged role in the Mann County courthouse shootout. Before being extradited to California — where she was subsequently acquitted of all the charges — Ms. Davis was imprisoned for nine weeks in New York’s Women’s House of Detention. The following excerpts from her forth­coming autobiography describe some of her experiences in the city’s prison.

When the wailing of the sirens tapered off and the caravan began to slow down, I realized that I was somewhere in Greenwich Village. As the car turned into a dark driveway, a corrugated aluminum door began to rise and once again, crowds of photographers with flashing lights jumped out of the shadows. The red brick wall surrounding this tall ar­chaic structure looked very familiar, but it took me a few moments to locate in my memory. Of course; it was the mysterious place I had seen so often during the years I attended Elisabeth Irwin High School, not too far from there. It was the New York Women’s House of Detention, which stood there at the main intersection in the Village, at Greenwich and Sixth avenues.

While the car was rolling into the prisoners’ entrance, a flock of mem­ories fought for my attention. Walk­ing to the subway station after school, I used to look up at this building almost every day, trying not to listen to the terrible noises spilling from the windows. They were coming from the women locked behind bars, looking down on the people passing in the streets, and screaming incomprehensible words.

At age fifteen I accepted some of the myths surrounding prisoners. I did not see them as quite the crimi­nals society said they were, but they did seem aliens in the world I inha­bited. I never knew what to do when I saw the outlines of women’s heads through the almost opaque windows of the jail. I could never understand what they were saying — whether they were crying out for help, whether they were calling for some­one in particular, or whether they simply wanted to talk to anyone who was “free.” My mind was now filled with the specters of those faceless women whom I had not answered. Would I scream out at the people passing in the streets, only to have them pretend not to hear me as I once pretended not to hear those women?

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The women did not even notice that a new prisoner had been thrown in with them. Except for the woman who continued to pace, they each found places at the table in the day room and sat separate from one another, as if there were a mutual agreement that they would all re­frain from invading the others’ turf.

Later I learned that these women received Thorazine with their meals each day and, even if they were completely sane, the tranquilizers would always make them uncommu­nicative and detached from their surroundings. After a few hours of watching them gaze silently into space, I felt as though I had been thrown into a nightmare.

I had loudly protested being kept in 4b (the mental ward) from the very first day. I didn’t belong there — or had I been judged a mental case? The officer said I had been placed in 4b not because I was psychologically unsound, but for my own safety and to keep me from disrupting the life of the jail. I was not persuaded. At last the call came announcing the arrival of the lawyers. Going to meet them was my first opportunity to walk through any part of the jail at a normal hour — when the prisoners were not locked in or sleeping.

When the iron door was opened, sounds peculiar to jails and prisons poured into my ears — the screams, the metallic clanging, officers’ keys clinking. Some of the women noticed me and smiled warmly or threw up their fists in gestures of solidarity. The elevator stopped on the third floor, where the commissary was located. The women who were wait­ing for the elevator recognized me and told me in a cordial, sisterly way, their words sometimes reinforced with their fists, that they were on my side. These were the “dangerous women” who might attack me because they didn’t like “Communists,” had I not been hidden away in 4b.

Regardless of why the women in 4b had been placed there, they were all being horribly damaged. Whatever problems they had had initially were not solved, but rather systematically aggravated. I could see the erosion of their will taking place even during the short time I spent there.

In the cell next to me lived a white woman somewhere between thirty and forty-five years old who had lost all contact with reality. Each night before she fell asleep the cell-bloc shook with her screams. Sometimes her rantings and ravings filled the air long after midnight. Her vile language, her weird imagery be-speckled with the most vulgar kind or racial epithets made me so angry that it was all I could do to prevent myself from trying to break through the steel and concrete that separated her cell from mine. I was convinced that she had been placed there inten­tionally as a part of the jailers’ efforts to break me.

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When I saw this pitiful figure the next morning, it was clear that her sickness was so far advanced — some stage of schizophrenia — that she was beyond the reach of argument. Her illness had become a convenient ve­hicle for the expression of the racism which had grown like maggots in her unconscious. Each night, and even morning before breakfast came, she went through a prolonged ritual which took the form of a violent argument with some invisible figure in her cell. More often than not, this figure would be a Black man, and he would be attacking her with a kind of sexual perversity which would have been inconceivable had not her own verbal imagery been so vivid. She would purge this figure from her cell with a series of incantations. When her imagined attacker assumed some other position, it brought about a corresponding change in her incantations.

One morning in the day room, Barbara, the young Black woman from the cell directly across from mine, broke her habitual silence to tell me she had refused her daily dose of Thorazine. It was very sim­ple: she was tired of feeling like a vegetable all the time. She was going to resist the Thorazine and was going to get out of 4b. She knew about my own attempts to get out, and if we were both transferred she said she would like very much to be my “cellie” in the main population.

In the cell next to Barbara’s was a very young white woman who ap­peared to receive larger doses of Thorazine than any of the others. One day when she was not so spaced out, she wanted to know if I could help her with her case. (She was back from court and evidently had not been drugged so she would look more or less normal for the judge.) When I asked her about her charges, tears streamed down her face as she said repeatedly, “I could never do anything like that. I couldn’t kill my own baby.”

She didn’t understand where she was and had no comprehension whatever of the judicial system. Who were her friends, she wanted me to tell her, and who were the ones who wanted to put her away? She had been afraid to talk to her lawyer, for fear he would tell the judge. Now she was thoroughly crushed because a doctor who had sworn himself to secrecy had just taken the stand and divulged everything she had told him. All she wanted now was just a little Thorazine. She wanted to get away, forget, get high.

Perhaps the most tragic or them all was Sandra — the teenager charged with arson. She was one of the women who had been in the receiving room the night I was ar­rested. I had noticed then that her hair was coming out in patches and had assumed that she had ringworm. My first day in 4b, she came out of the cell for meals. The second day, she ignored the key unlocking her cell gate at mealtimes. She silently and systematically pulled her hair out by the roots. From that day on, whenever I saw her, she was sitting quietly on her bed, yanking her hair by the handful. By the time I left, she was as thin as a wishbone, and all that was left of her natural was a few clumps of hair on one side of her pitiful hairless head.

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A little more than a week had passed when the warden informed Margaret (Margaret Burnham, one of Ms. Davis’ lawyers) that I was to be moved. Sure enough, the very next day I was told that I was about to be transferred to another part of the jail. I protested being bounced back and forth like a Ping Pong ball; but actually I didn’t mind the move, thinking that I was going into the regular population. I had no idea that my longing for some degree of seclu­sion was about to be overfulfilled. The main population I thought I was ­about to enter turned out to be a hurriedly improvised special isolation room separated from all the corridors on the sixth floor.

I decided to dramatize the situation by declaring myself on a hunger ­strike for as long as I was kept in isolation — I would hold my own on this side of the walls while things got rolling on the other side. Through the grapevine I learned that there were women all over the jail who were carrying out a hunger strike in sympathy with mine.

On the tenth day of the hunger strike, at a time when I had per­suaded myself that I could continue indefinitely without eating, the Federal Court handed down a ruling enjoining the jail administration from holding me any longer in isolation and under maximum security conditions. They had decided — under pressure, of course — that this unwarranted punishment was meted out to me because of my political beliefs and affiliation.

There was little time to learn my way about (the main part of the prison) before all the cell gates were locked, but some of my neighbors gave me a guided tour of my 8 foot by 5 foot cell. Because mine was the corner cell — the one which could be easily spied on from the officer’s desk in the main hallway — it was also the smallest one on the corridor; the double bunk made it appear even smaller. The fixtures — the bed, the tiny sink, the toilet — were all ar­ranged in a straight line, leaving no more than a width of two feet of floor at any point in the cell.

The sisters helped me improvise a curtain in front of the toilet and sink so they could not be seen from the corridor. They showed me how to use newspaper wrapped in scrap cloth to make a seat cover so the toilet could be turned into a chair to be used at the iron table that folded down from the wall in front of it. I laughed out loud at the thought of doing all my writing while sitting on the toilet stool.

Lock-in time was approaching; a sister remembered that she had forgotten to warn me about one of the dangers of night life in the House of D. “‘Mickey’ will be trying to get into your cell tonight,” she said, and I would have to take precautionary steps to “keep him out.” “Mickey?” Was there some man­iac the jailers let loose at night to pester the women?

The sister laughingly told me she was referring to the mice which scampered about in the darkness of the corridors looking for cell doors not securely stuffed with newspa­pers.

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It became a nightly ritual: placing meticulously folded newspapers in the little space between the gate and the floor and halfway up the gate along the wall. Despite the preven­tive measures we took, Mickey could always chew through the barricade in at least one cell, and we were often awakened by the shouts of a woman calling the officer to get the mouse out. One night Mickey joined me in the top bunk. When I felt him crawling around my neck, I brushed him away thinking that it was roaches. When I finally realized what it was, I called for the broom — our only weapon against him. Apparently mousetraps were too expensive, and they were not going to exterminate.

Jails and prisons are designed to break human beings, to convert the population into specimens in a zoo­ obedient to our keepers, but dangerous to each other. In response, imprisoned men and women will invent and continually invoke various and sundry defenses. Consequently, two layers of existence can be encountered within almost every jail or prison. The first layer consists of the routines and behavior prescribed by the governing penal hierarchy. The second layer is the prisoner culture itself: the rules and standards of behavior that come from and are defined by the captives in order to shield themselves from the open or covert terror designed to break their spirits.

In an elemental way, this culture is one of resistance, but a resistance of desperation. It is, therefore, incapable of striking a significant blow against the system. All its elements are based on an assumption that the prison system will continue to survive. Precisely for this reason, the system does not move to crush it. (In fact, it sometimes happens that there is an under-the-table encouragement of the prisoners’ subculture.) I was continually astonished by the infinite details of the social regions which the women in the House of Detention considered their exclusive domain. This culture was contemptuously closed to the keepers. I sometimes wandered innocently through the doors and found myself thoroughly disoriented. A telling example happened on my second day in population. A sister asked me, “What did you think of my grandfather? He said he saw you this morning.” I was sure I had misheard her question, but when she repeated it, I told her she must be mistaken, because I had no idea who her grandfather was. Besides, I hadn’t had any visitors that day. But the joke was on me. I was in a foreign country and hadn’t learned the language. I discovered from her that a woman prisoner who had come by my cell earlier in the day was the “grandfather” to whom she was referring. Because she didn’t seem eager to answer any questions, I contained my curiosity until I found someone who could explain to me what the hell was going on.

A woman a few cells down gave me a fascinating description of a whole system through which the women could adopt their jail friends as relatives. I was bewildered and awed by the way in which the vast majority of the jail population had neatly organized itself into genera­tions of families: mothers/wives, fathers/husbands, sons and daughters, even aunts, uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. The family sys­tem served as a defense against the fact of being no more than a number. It humanized the environment and allowed an identification with others within a familiar framework.

In spite of its strong element of escapism and fantasy, the family system could solve certain immedi­ate problems. Family duties and responsibilities were a way in which sharing was institutionalized. Pa­rents were expected to provide for their children, particularly the young ones, if they could not afford “luxury items” from commissary.

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Like filial relationships outside, some sons and daughters had, or developed, ulterior motives. Quite a few of them joined certain families because the material benefits were greater there.

What struck me most about this family system was the homosexua­lity at its core. But while there was certainly an overabundance of ho­mosexual relationships within this improvised kinship structure, it was nevertheless not closed to “straight” women. There were straight daugh­ters and husbandless, i.e., straight, mothers.

Since the majority of the prisoners seemed to be at least casually in­volved in the family structure, there had to be a great number of lesbians throughout the jail. Homosexuality is bound to occur on a relatively large scale in any place of sexually segregated confinement. I knew this before I was arrested. I was not prepared, however, for the shock of seeing it so thoroughly entrenched in jail life. There were the masculine and feminine role-playing women: the former, the butches, were called “he.” During the entire six weeks I spent on the seventh floor, I could not bring myself to refer to any woman with a masculine pronoun, although some of them, if they hadn’t been wearing the mandatory dresses, would never have been taken for women.

Many or them — both the butches and the femmes — had obviously decided to take up homosexuality during their jail terms in order to make that time a little more exciting, in order to forget the squalor and degradation around them. When they returned to the streets they would rejoin their men and quickly forget their jail husbands and wives.

An important part of the family system was the marriages. Some of them were extremely elaborate — with invitations, a formal ceremony, and some third person acting as the “minister.” The “bride” would prepare for the occasion as if for a real wedding.

With all the marriages, the seeking or trysting places, the scheming which went on by one woman to catch another, the conflicts and jea­lousies — with all this — homosexua­lity emerged as one of the centers around which life in the House of Detention revolved. Certainly, it was a way to counteract some of the pain of jail life; but objectively, it served to perpetuate all the bad things about the House of Detention. “The Gay Life” was all-consuming; it prevent­ed many of the women from devel­oping their personal dissatisfaction with the conditions around them into a political dissatisfaction, because the homosexual fantasy life provided an easy and attractive channel for escape.

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On a cold Sunday afternoon a massive demonstration took place down on Greenwich Avenue. It was spearheaded by the bail fund coali­tion and the New York Committee to Free Angela Davis. So enthusiastic was the crowd that we felt compelled to organize some kind of reciprocal display of strength. We got together in our corridor, deciding on the slogans we would shout and how to make them come out in unison — even though we were going to be spread down the corridor in different cells, screaming from different windows. I had never dreamed that such powerful feeling of pride and confidence could develop among the sisters in this jail.

Chants thundered on the outside: “One, two, three, four, the House of D. has got to go!” “Free our Sisters. Free Ourselves,” and other political chants that were popular at the time. After a while, we decided to try out our chants. It was far easier for us to be heard through the windows by the people outside than it was for us to be heard by ourselves, separated as we were by the thick concrete walls dividing the cells. Although our slogans may not have been transmitted in the most harmonious style, we managed to get our message across: “Free the Soledad Brothers,” “Free Erika,” “Free Bobby,” “Long Live Jonathan Jackson.”

While the chants of “Free Angela” filled me with excitement, I was concerned that an overabundance of such chants might set me apart from the rest or my sisters. I shouted one by one the names of all the sisters on the floor participating in the demon­stration. “Free Vernell! Free Helen! Free Amy! Free Joann! Free Laura! Free Minnie!” I was hoarse for the next week.

As the demonstration moved into full swing, an officer unlocked the gate to our corridor and shouted to us to stop all the noise. We refused. They sent a captain to try to halt the demonstration. She approached me in my cell to say there would be sanctions for all of us if we did not calm down. Our exchange was heat­ed. Within a matter of minutes, a confrontation had brewed. Shouts began to come from across the hall — the sisters in the next corridor had decided to join. There was noth­ing this captain could do to make us acquiesce; every word she uttered kindled our combativeness. The more militant we became, the less confident she became, and finally she left the corridor in defeat.

As long as there were demonstra­tors outside, we continued our chants. Even after they left, the floor was throbbing with excitement. We were proud of the staunch position we had taken vis-a-vis the bureau­cracy. In this atmosphere of triumph, it was a cruel letdown for us to discover that the Supreme Court in Washington had just denied our appeal, and that I would soon be extradited to California.

That night, still hot with the ardor of the demonstration, locked up in the darkness of their cells, the women staged a spontaneous de­monstration of support. “One, two, three, four. We won’t let Angela go!’ Five, six, seven, eight. We won’t let them through the gate!” Shoes were banging on the cell bars; chants grew louder. An officer tried meekly to calm them down but had no success. A very vocal sister who was in one of the adolescent corridors was told to keep it quiet, but when she refused and all the sisters came vociferously to her aid, the officers hit her, knowing that all we could do was scream. They dragged her away to 4a — the punitive isolation unit. Frustrated by our inability to help her, we called out threats and beat even more loudly on the bars of our cells.

Someone noticed a sympathetic-looking white couple on Greenwich Avenue staring up in wonderment at the building, which was shaking with the clamor of protests from our floor. We called down to them that a sister had just been beaten and was proba­bly being put through the third de­gree down in the hole. We were bold that evening. We shouted out loud and clear the names and ranks of the officers who had pulled her from her cell. We asked the couple to call the underground press and as many Left organizations as they could to let them know that we were expecting an even more severe crackdown. (I later discovered that they had spent the evening contacting everyone they felt could help us.)

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With the receptionist on one side and the librarian on the other, I walked slowly through the prisoners’ gate onto the cold cobblestones of the courtyard. My anger gave way to pangs of regret at having to leave behind all my friends locked up in that filth. Vernell … Would they drop that phony murder charge? Helen … Would she go home? Amy … so old, so warm … What would happen to her? Pat … Would she write her book exposing the House of D.? And the organizing for the bail fund … Would it continue? Harriet … So committed to the struggle — would they continue to try to break her will?

The police van was waiting in the courtyard, the same van they had used to take me to court. Through the heavy grill on the windows, I could see nothing in the darkness. But suddenly, as the van rolled through the courtyard gates, I heard a thun­derous burst of shouts of support. I could not figure out how so many people had learned I was being taken away that night. Later I found out they had come in response to the calls made by the white couple on Greenwich Avenue. Not a single light illuminated the gigantic courtyard of the Tombs. All I could see was the outline of a collection of cars parked in the center, and the shadows of human figures moving back and forth between the vehicles. The atmosphere was reminiscent of postwar spy movies. A dozen white men swarming around their unmarked police cars, nervously awaiting the end of this transaction, this histrionic ceremony of repression unfolding under the dim glow of flashlights.

New York removed its handcuffs and California produced theirs and locked them around my wrists. ❖

Copyright 1974 by Angela Davis. From the book ANGELA DAVIS: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY Random House, Inc. A Bernard Geis Associates Book


Langston Hughes Rides a Blue Note

The burden of the past plays itself out rather differently in the white and black literary traditions. For the scholar of West­ern literature, the authority of canonized texts and interpretations can hobble cre­ativity. How many years would it take just to read all the commentaries on Shake­speare, let alone make the corpus one’s own — and then to transcend it through a novel interpretation? The scholar of main­stream Western culture quickly collides with an enshrined collective memory that can confine just as surely as it preserves continuity and enables the extension of tradition.

The curse that the scholar of African and African-American studies bears, by con­trast, is the absence of a printed, catalogued, collective cultural memory. Despite the interest in Black Studies since the late ’60s, we still have relatively few reference works — biographical dictionaries, annotat­ed bibliographies, disciplinary histories, and especially encyclopedias, concordances, and dictionaries of black language use. The absence of these tools almost always forces one to recreate from degree zero the histori­cal and critical contexts that mainstream scholars can take for granted (imagine a critic of Shakespeare having to do primary research just to identify the poet’s allusions and his historical contemporaries). The ter­rible excitement that scholars of Black Studies feel stems from the knowledge that virtually everything they see or write can be new — free of the burden of the canonical past, the prison house of tradition. To pub­lish criticism still feels like making a fresh inscription on a large tabula rasa. Too of­ten, African-Americanists must reinvent the wheel, their work forever trapped in the paradox of “repeating themselves for the first time.”

The stories of individual African-Ameri­can lives are not exempted from this dearth of basic information. As Arnold Rampersad demonstrated in the Yale Review a few years ago, very few blacks have written full-­length biographies of black subjects. This is particularly curious because remembering is one of the cardinal virtues of black cul­ture — from subtle narrative devices like repetition of line and rhythm (the sermon, black music, oral narration) to more public commemorations such as the observation of “black” holidays (“Juneteenth,” Black His­tory Month, Kwaanza) or eating “Hoppin’ John” on New Year’s Day or reinterpreting the Fourth of July to make it analogous to Good Friday rather than Easter … from Founder’s Day ceremonies and family re­unions to the naming of institutions and places — Wheatley, Carver, Dunbar, and Washington public schools, Martin Luther King boulevards — to repeated historical concepts or metaphors, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

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Remembering characterizes African­-American culture because blacks have been systematically denied access to their histo­ry, both during and after slavery. Under slavery, of course, they were forbidden the tools of formal memory — reading and writ­ing. They were also denied their native lan­guages and even the drum itself (deemed subversive by many masters, and correctly so, as it was the “home” of repetition and contained a Pan-African language many blacks could understand). The intent was to deprive blacks of their memory, and their history — for without history, as Hegel said, there could be no memory, and without memory there could be no self. An aboli­tionist described in his memoirs this en­counter: he asked after one slave’s “self,” and the man responded, “I ain’t got no self.” Without hesitation the abolitionist asked, “Slave are you?” ”That’s what I is.”

This connection among language, memo­ry, and the self has been crucial to African-Americans, intent as they have had to be upon demonstrating both that they had common humanity with whites and that their own “selves” were as whole, “inte­gral,” educable, and noble as those of any other ethnic group (including, among the historical twists and turns, sundry “white ethnics”). Deprived of formal recognition of their subjectivity in Western arts and let­ters, in jurisprudence, and in all that signals full citizenship, African-Americans sought the permanence of the book to write their rhetorical selves into language. I write therefore I am. The perilous journey from object to subject is strewn with black auto­biographies; “Unscathed by Slavery” could very well be the subtitle of the hundreds of memoirs published by ex-slaves between 1760 and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery in 1901.

This passionate concern with the self makes Rampersad’s discovery — the lack of an individual biographical impulse in the black tradition — especially fascinating. Al­though over 300 collective black biographies were published between the late 18th centu­ry and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the domi­nant genre in the African-American tradi­tion), only a handful of black writers have recreated the lives and times of other blacks.

It is as if the very vitality of autobiogra­phy produced a concomitant nonvitality of black biography; the energy necessary to proclaim “I am” could not be dissipated in making that claim for another. One’s public initiation was a most private act; one crossed, alone, the abyss between nothing­ness and being — positing humanity, self­hood, and citizenship with the stroke of one’s own pen. Only in biographical dictio­naries was this isolation overcome; biogra­phy was collective, a testament to the exis­tence of “the Negro” from A to Z, alpha­betically ordered parts amounting to an African-American whole. Nurses and churchmen, club women and members of fraternal orders, freemasons and free citi­zens of Cincinnati — each group had its own collective testimony.

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Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Lang­ston Hughes has ended this trend. For Rampersad, in elegant but understated prose, has rendered the world that Lang­ston Hughes made and the world that made him.

The recreation of detail is Rampersad’s most stunning achievement. He has ar­ranged volume two in 16 chapters, each of which addresses one, two, or three years between February 1, 1941, Hughes’s 39th birthday, and May 25, 1967, the day of his memorial service at Benta’s funeral home in Harlem. The book opens with a descrip­tion of Hughes’s gonorrhea and its painful cure, and ends with a meticulously recreat­ed account of his prostate surgery, brief recovery, then ultimate deterioration. Be­tween these rather intimate frames we learn who Hughes is, reading over his shoulder as he reveals his likes and dislikes, whom he admires and envies, when he is brave and when not so brave, when he is petty and jealous and when he is noble, when he writes for art and writes to eat, and his concerns and anxieties about his own im­mortality, the place of his icon in African­-American letters.

Of the several rhetorical techniques Rampersad employs, none is more effective than his use of “free indirect discourse.”

Emotionally more content, Langston also spoke now with a clearer voice on politics. Attending a Carnegie Hall memorial to W. E. B. Du Bois, undeterred by the fact that Du Bois had died a communist, he also published a tribute to him in the New York Post and in black newspapers through the Associated Negro Press. To interviewers from Italian televison and the Voice of America, and in an appearance for CORE at Barnard College, he spoke confidently, but in the interests of moderation, about the freedom movement. The present turmoil was a good thing, because it was making people think. Those who did not think, but wailed apocalyptically, were doing little good.

The “voice” in those last two lines reveals thoughts that are those of both Hughes and Rampersad, and, strictly speaking, of nei­ther. Rampersad merges, to great effect, the third-person narrative voice of the biogra­pher with the first-person voice of his sub­ject. He is able to tell us what Hughes thought and felt without resorting unduly to direct quotations from Hughes’s notes or letters The technique is effective preciselely because it is scarcely noticeable amid so much detail.

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I have to confess that in reading this book I fell in love with Hughes, the person, for tht first time. The more I learned of his complex emotions about his peers and ri­vals (Du Bois, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, a mad Ezra Pound sending him fan letters from the asylum) the more I admired him. My respect and affection for Hughes grew so much that I found it difficult to finish the book because I knew he was going to die. I mention these feelings because I think they’re symptomat­ic of a literary-critical generation that rec­ognized Hughes as icon and little else­ — failing, among other things, to read his po­etry closely, a mistake that led to glib asser­tions about a body of work that was actually unfamiliar. Rampersad has removed Hughes’s cardboard cutout from the Black Hall of Fame, and replaced it with a three­ dimensional figure who created a specific vernacular idiom in African-American po­etry, one informed by the blues and jazz — ­by both the classic and the urban blues and early jazz in his two masterpieces, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), and by bebop, the cool, and even postmodern, poststructural, early/transitional Coltrane in Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (1961). Ask Your Mama is to Hughes’s canon as Duke Elling­ton’s longer compositions are to his earlier, shorter, popular pieces — that is, either ma­ligned or ignored. Hughes’s experiments with vernacular music and speech, and their combination into a new idiom of American and African-American verse, in­sure for him a permanent place in both canons.

Just as important was Hughes’s role in mediating among African cultures in the old world and the new. Only Du Bois, as both convener of the Pan-African congress­es and epitome of African intellection, can possibly rival Hughes in being the conduit between black poets and their poetry in Spanish, French, and English. Aimé Cé­saire and Léopold Senghor read Hughes:­ Hughes translated them into English, just as he did Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew (with Mercer Cook). He also translat­ed Nicolás Guillén and García Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads from the Spanish. Hughes’s role in creating a Pan-African literary culture, where poems by black authors in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English directly inform the shape of other poems by other black authors, has no rival in our intellectu­al history. Hughes’s poetry and his transla­tions forged a direct line between the new Negroes in Harlem and the Pan-Africans in Paris, Havana, Rio, Lagos, Dakar, Kings­ton, and Port-au-Prince. He worked to cre­ate a Pan-African intellectual culture just as Latin and the Church forged a Pan-Eu­ropean culture in the Middle Ages, even when peasants in what is now Germany or France knew not one jot about a ”European” anything.

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Hughes preserved his letters and memo­rabilia as if he were his own historian or archivist, with one eye on his correspon­dent, and the other on the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, where Carl Van Vechten had arranged for Hughes’s papers to be housed. Over almost a decade, Rampersad patiently pored over and sifted through the voluminous documentation, supplementing the testimony of the corre­spondence with thousands of hours of taped interviews. The result of such diligent labor, rendered in a highly readable narrative style, is a splendid thing to behold: Ram­persad has published the most sophisticat­ed biography of a black subject, and set the example by which all other biographies of black subjects will be judged. He has in other words, defined a standard of excellence and simultaneously created a field: the success of these books, as measured in sales, accolades, and well-deserved prizes, will certainly make biography a central field in African-American literary studies. Meet­ing the standard he has established, howev­er, will be extraordinarily difficult.

Rampersad’s two volumes have been reviewed extensively, from Greg Tate’s fasci­nating essay in these pages (VLS, July 1988) and Darryl Pinckney’s meditation in The New York Review (February 16, 1989), to two full-length reviews in the Times Book Review by two black women Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove — surely a coup of sorts in the history of black literary criticism. It is a tribute to Rampersad’s skill that each of these reviews has become a basis for dis­cussing the implications of Hughes’s life and art, as if the biographer’s own work could be taken for granted or was, somehow, transparent. Of course, one measure of successful biography as Rampersad practices it is just this “transparency,” this ab­sence of methodological discussion in favor of a full-scale engagement with Langston Hughes, or rather with ”Langston Hughes” as lovingly recreated by this subtle biographer.

Rampersad brings us into Hughes’s world, feeling as he feels, seeing as he sees. Not once do we feel the hand of the author on our shoulder, pushing us to interpret this way or that:

The day was cool, the sky above the Monterey Peninsula murky with rain and winter mists when Langston rode from the hospital to the grounds of his friend and patron Noel Sullivan’s estate, Hollow Hills Farm some five miles away in Carmel Valley. Since September, he had been living there as a guest of Sullivan’s in a one-room cottage built especially for him, where he could write and sleep free from most distractions. Now, however, he unpacked in an upstairs room in the main house where, over the next two weeks or so, he would nurse himself back to health. The room was comfortable, and soothingly decorated entirely in blue. On a side table was a gift sent form New York by his loyal friend Carl Van Vechten — a flowering plant, ”a kind of glowing little tree growing out of white pebbles in a white pot…”

Imagine how much research was necessary to recreate these scenes; the lines read like passages from a novel. Rampersad shows us what it was like to be Hughes as a human being, a human being who smells and breathes and hurts, who dreams and is am­bitious, who can be loving and peevish and jealous, who laughs rather too much when he is most anxious or full of dread, and who cares enormously about maintaining a love affair with the entire race.

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If ever a loving concern for “the race,” and a concomitant concern with its regard for him, defined what it means to be a “race man,” then Hughes was the example of it. Hughes cared passionately about regular Negroes, and about the importance of not appearing distant from them; as Ramper­sad says, “Langston psychologically needed the race in order to survive and flourish.” What’s more, he was “one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspira­tion for black artists.” Hughes earned the right to call himself the poet laureate of the Negro race. And Rampersad’s art as a biog­rapher lets us understand why.

Rampersad explains how the “depth of [Hughes’s] identification with the race” helped free him

not only to understand that the profession of writing was distinct from the “subject,” but also to see his race in a rounded humane way, rather than mainly as a deformed product of white racism. To Langston, Baldwin was tortured by a sense of an “all but irreconcilable” tension (in Baldwin’s words) between race and art because he lacked confidence in his own people and certainly did not love them, as Langston did. To Hughes, only a deep confidence in blacks and a love of them (two qualities that could not be divorced) would allow a black writer to reach the objectivity toward art that Hughes saw as indispensable. Baldwin was undoubtedly more troubled by race than he was, but Langston was far more what blacks regarded approvingly as a race man, far more involved with other blacks on a daily basis as a citizen and an artist, far less willing to estrange or exile himself from the culture, as Baldwin had done in going to live abroad.

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Rampersad treats Hughes’s attitudes to­ward Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and other black peers at fascinating length. For exam­ple, in 1953 a young Ralph Ellison, whom Hughes had befriended early on, emerged almost overnight as the dominant black voice in American letters:

Ellison’s triumph with Invisible Man was crowned when he accepted the National Book Award in fiction. Present at the cere­mony but obviously alienated in spirit, Langston reported to Arna Bontemps [a black novelist and Hughes’s closest friend since the Renaissance] that the proceedings were “mildly interesting,” dull really, with all the speeches stuffily delivered from pre­pared texts. Not long afterwards, at a cock­tail party at the Algonquin Hotel in mid­Manhattan to welcome Ellison as a new member of PEN, he begged the new star of Afro-American writing not to read a long, dull paper when he visited Fisk University soon — long papers were so dull. As he had with Wright almost fifteen years before, Langston was feeling the chill of his own eclipse.

But it was Baldwin with whom Hughes had the most difficult relations:

He shivered again early in February when an advance copy reached him of the latest sensation in black literature, James Bal­dwin’s dramatic first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a black boy’s troubled passage to manhood in the face of raw con­flicts with his domineering father and the terrifying pressures of black “storefront” religious fundamentalism. Worse yet, from Hughes’s point of view, the book was being published by Knopf, who for all practical purposes had dropped him (the reception of Montage of a Dream Deferred had gutted its interest in his volume of selected poems). Criticizing Baldwin’s sometimes unstable blending of gritty realism and refined rheto­ric in the novel, Hughes judged that if Zora Neale Hurston, “with her feeling for the folk idiom,” had been its author, “it would probably be a quite wonderful book.” Bal­dwin, however, “over-writes and over-poeti­cizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them,” in what finally was “an ‘art’ book about folks who aren’t ‘art’ folks.” Go Tell It on the Moun­tain, he concluded, was “a low-down story in a velvet bag — and a Knopf binding.”

In spite of this criticism, Langston duti­fully mailed a blurb for the novel to Knopf.

Nine years later Baldwin still troubled him.

To Langston, there was little that was truly creative, much less visionary, about Anoth­er Country. Privately to Arna Bontemps, he described Baldwin as aiming for a best-sell­er in “trying to out-Henry Henry Miller in the use of bad BAD bad words, or run [Har­old Robbins’s] The Carpetbaggers one bet­ter on sex in bed and out, left and right, plus a description of a latrine with all the little­boy words reproduced in the telling.” In the same letter, Langston linked what he saw as Baldwin’s excesses to the trend of integra­tion sapping the strength of black youth. Paying a stiff price for the modicum of inte­gration allowed them, young blacks were abandoning the old values and practices in the rush to be like whites. “Cullud is doing everthing white folks are doing these days!” Langston mocked … “Integration is going to RUIN Negro business,” he predicted — as it apparently threatened to ruin the finest young writer of fiction in the race.

Rarely have we been privy to the real feel­ings of black creative artists and intel­lectuals toward one other. The disagreement with Baldwin was, sure, one of many. Indeed, Hughes’s reactions to Melvin Tolson, Robert Hayden, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka — in addition to Wright, Bal­dwin, and Ellison — reveal how fraught with rivalry life “behind the veil” is, just as Jessie Fauset’s comments to him (“I’ve suffered a good deal from colored men writers from Locke down to Bontemps­ you know”) begin to suggest the degree of sexism that also has characterized African-­American literary relations.

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I had never realized that Hughes inter­acted with so many major figures in the artistic world between 1925 and his death in 1967. Hughes knew everybody, if almost no one knew him, or was able to penetrate the veils and masks that the truly vulnerable fabricate to present public personas to the world. Leafing through Rampersad’s index, one finds a veritable Who’s Who of 20th century art, from Stella Adler and Toshiko Akiyoshi, Thomas Mann and Dorothy Maynor, to Ezra Pound and Allen Tote, Mark Van Doren, Kurt Weill, Max Yergan, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In so many ways and to so many people, Hughes was “the Negro,” or at least “Negro literature,” its public face, its spoken voice and cock­tail-party embodiment as well as the source of its printed texts. Reading Rampersad’s volumes makes it clear how deeply in­grained American Negro literature was in the larger American tradition, even if schol­ars, until very, very recently, bracketed it into a ghetto apart, the Harlem of the American canon.

In rendering Hughes’s reactions to and interactions with his equally famous con­temporaries, Rampersad’s biography chron­icles almost half a century in the history of both American art and the life and times of one of its most important figures. Through him we see and feel exactly how the great events in black history — the Harlem Re­naissance, the Depression, World War II, McCarthyite repression, the civil rights movement, the emergence of Africa and the larger process of decolonization as the Age of Europe came to a close with the lifting of “the color curtain,” and the rebirth of black nationalism in the Black Power era — how all of these large forces simultaneously de­limit and open up individual choices in the daily events that, taken together, define a life. Never has an account of a black human being revealed more vividly the particular­ities of a life within the context of large, public forces and events. No life, no matter how great, can possibly escape its context, its historical moment. For all his political ambivalences, Hughes saw this clearly, say­ing in one unpublished reflection:

Politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry … Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.

What is poetry? It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words. The ethnic lan­guage does not matter. Ask Aimé Césaire. He knows … Perhaps not consciously — but in the soul of his writing, he knows … The Negritudinous Senghor, the Carib­beanesque Guillén, the American me, are regional poets of genuine realities and au­thentic values. Césaire … takes all that we have, Senghor, Guillén and Hughes, and flings it at the moon, to make of it a space­ship of the dreams of all the dreamers in the world.

As a footnote I must add that, concerning Césaire, all I have said I deeply feel is for me true. Concerning politics, nothing I have said is true. A poet is a human being. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefore, how can a poet keep out of politics?

Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead.

Rampersad deftly creates a sense of the social, the political, and the historical as these are locked in a dialectical relationship with individual choices, determining their range of response yet determined by such responses as well. Nowhere in black biogra­phy has this relation between “text” and context been rendered as sensitively and truly.

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For most of his professional life, Hughes lived hand to mouth, his choices circum­scribed perhaps even more by economics than by racism. He was supported by pa­trons like Noel Sullivan, a dependence necessitated by the insulting treatment he re­ceived from publishers and the pittance he earned for his writings and readings.

Hughes’s books were widely reviewed in mainstream journals by mainstream writ­ers, even if few understood his experiments with black vernacular forms. His newspaper character, Jesse B. Semple (a/k/a “Sim­ple”), who appeared in a regular column Hughes wrote for the Chicago Defender, was remarkably popular; he was the vox populi persona of Hughes the “race man.” Simple once spoke eloquently to an obtuse friend on the meaning of bebop music:

That is where Bop comes from, … out of them dark days we have seen. That is why Be-Bop is so mad, wild, frantic, crazy. And not to be dug unless you have seen dark days, too. That’s why folks who ain’t suf­fered much cannot play Bop, and do not understand it. They think it’s nonsense — ­like you. They think it’s just crazy crazy. They do not know it is also MAD crazy, SAD crazy, FRANTIC WILD CRAZY­ — beat right out of some bloody black head! That’s what Bop is. These young kids who play it best, they know.

Simple’s discussion of bebop shows how rich the Defender columns were, and how crucial jazz was to Hughes. Accordingly, we must learn to read him in new ways, “through” or “against” the African-Ameri­can vernacular.

As Rampersad puts it:

At varying, unpredictable times witty, sardonic, ironic, expository, whimsical, docu­mentary, and tragic, “Montage of a Dream Deferred” is an expansiue poetic statement on the fate of blacks in the modern, urban world. The manuscript was Hughes’s an­swer in 1948 to the overwhelming question of the day in Harlem and communities like it, and possibly, prophetically, of the Afro­-American future: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a rai­sin in the sun?” “This poem on contempo­rary Harlem,” Langston wrote as a preface, “is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.” The poet’s love for the community is paramount, but his brooding intelligence is such that the wooden phrase “community in transition” is really portentous.

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In “Jazztet Muted,” for example, the 11th section of Ask Your Mama, Hughes introduced the poem with a musical cue that called for “bop blues into very modern jazz burning the air eerie like a neon swamp-fire cooled by dry ice”:



Rampersad’s assessments of Hughes’s poetry are always judicious; he never claims more for Hughes the poet than the poetry can deliver, yet his sensitive analyses of the poems should dispel forever the whisper among our critical generation that Hughes’s poetry does not withstand the rigors of for­mal analysis. Quite the contrary, Ramper­sad’s readings of Hughes’s best work — his vernacular poetry, cast in “the idiom of the black folk” and found especially in The Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, and Ask Your Mama — should go a long way toward generating interest in rereading, closely, Hughes’s work, since as Hughes himself recognized, “only poetry can be [the poet’s] resurrection.” As Senghor wrote, Hughes excels in the creation of “images, analogical, melodious, and rhythmical, with assonance and alliteration. You will find this rhythm in French poetry; you will find it in Péguy, you will find it in Claudel, you will find this rhythm in St. John Perse … And it is this that Langston Hughes has left us with, this model of the perfect work of art.”

Hughes was wrong when he wrote that only his poetry could possibly resurrect him, for it is also true that a great biogra­pher resurrects the poet and the poetry, a life and a body of work — the latter “as frag­ile as pottery,” as Hughes put it. One of Arnold Rampersad’s great gifts to Hughes, and to all of us who love literature, is that never again shall the poetry or the poet be silenced.

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Rampersad’s other great gift is that he has made biography a glamorous pursuit within the new black criticism, which has been dominated recently by feminist and poststructural theorizing. This two-volume biography will go a long way toward generating other biographies and thereby build­ing up an African-American cultural memo­ry. We need good biographies of so many figures, from Phyllis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs to Du Bois and Alain Locke, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry — virtual­ly everyone who was anyone in the tradition remains to be written about, honestly.

For far too long, each of us has been imprisoned by peer pressure, forced to rep­resent only certain images of the Negro in order to avoid inadvertent reinforcement of racist stereotypes. This sort of tortured logic has surfaced most glaringly in mis­guided protests against key black feminist texts: Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls … , Alice Walk­er’s The Color Purple. “What will white racists think of black men?” the protesters asked, barely managing to keep a straight face. (Since when does a racist read The Color Purple — or anything at all, for that matter?)

No, we no longer need to sanitize the black past as we set about the complex business of generating our own African­American icons of the near and distant past. For it is our generation of African­Americanists that, at last, has the where­withal to encode the cultural memory in print, in video, on compact disc and on-line, freed at last from forever reinventing the wheel.

Rampersad has made a breathtaking start in treating Langston Hughes, who suffered more than most from the cramped solitude of iconography. Hughes’s public face(s) — and although he sought and found refuge in his beloved Harlem, he was cer­tainly our most public poet, speaking in one week alone to some 10,000 people — were crafted such that his true human substance could not be seen among his carefully man­ufactured shadows. He was a lonely man, and he suffered this isolation in the most private ways, almost never voicing it. The irony did not escape him; he fondly quoted Dickinson’s famous lines — “How public­ — like a Frog —/ To tell your name — the live­long June —/ To an admiring Bog!”

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The ironies hardly end there. Hughes protected — censored — himself as a racial icon; Black Studies scholars have censored their treatment of many figures in the in­terest of positive images; and black artists today, indeed most any black public figure, must contend with the tradition of self-censorship. Consider the impact this had on Langston Hughes’s sexuality. As Ram­persad judges, with great sensitivity:

The truth about his sexuality will probably never be discovered. If Hughes indeed had homosexual lovers, what may be asserted incontrovertibly is that he did so with al most fanatical discretion. On this question, every person curious about him and also apparently in a position to know the truth was left finally in the dark. He laughed and joked and gossiped with apparent abandon but somehow contrived to remain a mystery on this score even to his intimates. His ability to appear to be at ease and defenseless, and at the same time to deny certain kinds of knowledge to those with him, was ex­traordinary. All his life he prized control far too highly for him to surrender it in his most mature years. Control above all meant to him the preservation of his position as the most admired and beloved poet of his race. That position, which he saw as a mor­al trust, and which intimately connected his deepest emotional needs to his function as an artist, may have meant too much for him to risk it for illicit sex.

Rampersad was unable to prove our as­sumption about Hughes’s homosexuality, despite his impressive research skills. Had it been provable, Rampersad would have done so. His bolder conclusion is that this most basic “fact” about Hughes remains elusive after two volumes precisely because of Hughes’s determination to be a racial icon, to be presentable as the public face of the race. “Don’t go to that swimming pool,” my mother used to say, “without that mois­turizing cream. I don’t want you to embarrass the race by turning ashy.” That’s one part of black history we need to bury, the urge to produce a public Negro somehow more palatable to white people than the real thing. In defining the standard by which literary biography in our tradition, and in every tradition, shall be measured, Ramper­sad has helped to do just that. As Hughes and his alter ego, Arna Bontemps, liked to say, Rampersad has “done himself brown.” ❖

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I, TOO, SING AMERICA, Volume I: 1902-1941. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $27.50; $9.95 paper.

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I DREAM A WORLD, Volume II: 1941- 1967. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $24.95.



Langston Hughes: A Genius Child Comes of Age

Warts and all, the Langston Hughes who emerges from the first volume of Arnold Rampersad’s exceptional biography doesn’t suffer badly in comparison with the var­nished Poet Laureate of Negro America that blacks have been raised on for generations. A staple of high-school curricula and home recitation, Hughes figures in African-Ameri­can life as significantly as in its letters, a literary hero the culture cozied up to like a warm hearth. Hughes was the first black American writer many of us ever read, and some of his verses hold the high honor of having been accepted into the canon of black mother wit — “Son, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” is the most famous; “Nobody loves a genius child” runs a close second. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Nicolas Guillen, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott-Heron were all bene­ficiaries of Hughes’s lifelong encouragement of younger dark writers, and his career re­mains an inspiring model for black writers determined to make a living solely from their work.

Well, an inspiring model of sorts. As Rampersad details, Hughes spent the first two decades of an adventuresome life chas­ing fortune more doggedly than literary fame. He was fortunate in having fame thrust upon him early — publication in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Crisis in 1921 brought him the kindness of patrons black and white. Nevertheless, his youth reads like a 20th century guide to writing your way into history on $5 a day. Being a pauper didn’t keep him from covering the globe; much of Rampersad’s volume is spent tracking Hughes’s movements from the Midwest to Mexico, New York, Africa, Russia, and Spain.

Blessed with a facility for cheeriness, Hughes seems to have made it on little more than good vibes and curiosity. In the late ’30s, his veteran-bohemian advice to Man­hattan newcomer Ralph Ellison was “Be nice to people, and let them buy your meals” (according to Ellison, it paid off immediate­ly). Still, the specter of capital, or rather the lack and hungry pursuit thereof, viciously haunts Rampersad’s Hughes. In plying the writer’s trade to serve the race and feed himself, Hughes made considerable artistic, personal, and political sacrifices and com­promises. These form the core of the biogra­phy’s character revelations, though Rampersad appropriately notes how deeply Hughes’s upbringing conditioned his adult persona.

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True to the old saws that artists need unhappy childhoods and bad relationships with their fathers, Hughes spent at least half his life drawing upon the misery fate had doled out to him on both counts. His parents, James and Carrie Hughes, separat­ed not long after he was born, and young Langston thereafter saw little of his mother, who left him for long stretches in his grand­mother’s care. She was out seeking clerical work where she could find it in the poet-to­-be’s birth-state, Kansas. On his mother’s side, Hughes was descended from distin­guished free blacks, the abolitionists Charles and Mary Langston, who’d worked for the underground railroad. Mary lost her first husband, James Leary, in the Harpers Ferry raid. Hughes’s father, the self-educated son of slaves, was anything but a race man. “Detesting the poor, he especially disliked the black poor. He was unsentimental, even cold. ‘My father hated Negroes,’ Langston Hughes would judge. ‘I think he hated him­self for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes.’ Where Carrie’s parents had instilled in her a sense of noblesse oblige, Jim Hughes seemed to look upon most blacks as undeserving cowards.”

Rebellion against his father, as certainly as the race history he got on grandma Lang­ston’s knee (she used to wrap him in her first husband’s blood-stained shawl), played a large part in Hughes’s decision to become a race-conscious bard. Growing up in all­-white neighborhoods throughout his school years, he developed a diplomatic approach to race relations and an intellectual and emotional rapprochement with black work­ing-class culture. Like many subsequent black middle-class writers, he entered into a professional relationship with that culture which derived in equal parts from a sense of mission and a need to work out his own obsessions. The desire to resolve the conflict between responsibility to the race and re­sponsibility to literary ideals informs much black American writing. Hughes’s resolution would both nourish and compromise his art.

In 1915, when Hughes was 13, he was taken to a revival meeting by his aunt and lied about having been saved by the Holy Ghost. While he wept over the lie, he also recognized its necessity in allowing him to keep faith with black culture. “At thirteen, Hughes probably already viewed the black world both as an insider, and far more im­portantly, as an outsider. The view from outside did not lead to clinical objectivity, much less alienation. Once outside, every intimate force in Hughes would drive him toward seeking the love and approval of the race, which would become the grand obses­sion of his life.”

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After high school, Hughes went to Mexico to live with his father, who responded to his wish to write for a living with the advice that he should learn a skill which would take him away from the United States, “where you have lived like a nigger with niggers.” Fueled by his father’s hate, Hughes wrote poems that fused his personal hurts with his desire for love from blacks — black maternal love in particular. Through these poems, he would eventually find a home in Crisis and an empathetic editor in Jessie Fauset, doy­enne of the Harlem Renaissance. After going to New York in the fall of 1920 to attend Columbia, Hughes upped the ante with ra­cial verse aimed as much at unnerving his father as at providing uplift for the masses. According to Rampersad,

At lectures and readings at the Harlem Branch Library on 135th Street, Hughes met the black intelligentsia; but his main interest was the people, of whom his vision was both intensely romantic and cold.. . Fastidious and yet bohemian, moral but determined never to judge his people, Hughes instead celebrated his kinship with these 

Dream singers,
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate­ —
My people … 

Dishwashers, elevator boys, maids, crap­shooters, cooks, waiters, hairdressers, and porters — he sang the ordinary and the low. In this way he met his father’s contempt for black folk and for the poor.

Hughes also wrote his pioneering jazz and blues poems in this period, works that forged the bond between the muse of black poets and 20th century black music:

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway … 
He did a lazy sway …
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.

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In June 1923, Hughes shipped out to Africa as a sailor. As Rampersad notes, he saw Africa before elder Africanists Marcus Gar­vey and W. E. B. Du Bois set foot on the continent. Significantly, his initial observations of Dakar were anything but romantic and bordered on racist. “Hughes’s first im­pression was of crudeness and absurdity. Wandering through the town in ninety de­gree heat, his head spinning from glasses of cheap white wine, Langston that day saw Africa as ridiculous — black men dressed in billowy white gowns, sweating market wom­en with bare breasts, children stark naked to the world. Giddy, he sat down to describe the scene to his mother. ‘You should see the clothes they wear here,’ he wrote Carrie, ‘everything from overcoats to nothing. I have laughed until I can’t. No two people dress alike. Some have on capes, some shawls, some pants, some wear blue cloths fastened around their necks and feet blowing out like sails behind. Some have on preachers’ coats, others knee pants like bloomers, with half-hose and garters. It’s a scream!’ ” But by the end of August, Hughes would see Africa less as a “blur of exotic images” than as a place held in underdevel­opment by colonialism’s grip. For Hughes, Africa had become “ten year old wharf rats offering nightly to take sailors to see ‘my sisters two shillings,’ ” elephantiasis and swollen bodies under palm trees, white men with guns at their belts, inns and taverns with signs up, EUROPEANS ONLY, missionary churches with Negroes in the back seats and the whites who teach Jesus in the front rows.”

“The white man dominates Africa,” Hughes would write. “He takes produce and lives, very much as he chooses … And the Africans are baffled and humble. They listen to the missionaries and bow down before the Lord, but they bow much lower below the traders, who carry whips and guns and are protected by white laws made in Europe for the black colonies.” Hughes had been writ­ing African-identified poetry but found that no African believed him, with his copper-­brown skin and straight Indian hair, to be black like them. In response, he began to write poetry inflected with the Pan-Afri­canist ideal.

The night is beautiful
So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful,
So the faces of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

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Hughes visited Europe before returning to Harlem in 1924, just as the well-engineered Harlem Renaissance was entering full swing. Yet his participation in the many fêtes aimed at securing white patronage and book contracts for black bohemian intellec­tuals would be stymied by a move to Wash­ington with his mother. Life in Washington, as an upstart black poet, brought him into conflict with the black middle class, toward whom he turned up his nose in a bohemian sniff. It’s nearly tragicomic that what Hughes thought about his upwardly mobile brethren and sistren of the day describes a fair portion of their ’80s successors to a tee. “The younger blacks were obsessed by money and position, fur coats and flashy cars: ‘their ideals seemed most Nordic and un-­Negro.’ Lightskinned women coolly snubbed their darker acquaintances. College men boasted of attending pink teas graced by only blue veined belles almost indistinguishable from whites … they had all the manners and airs of reactionary ill-bred nou­veaux riches except that they were not really rich. Just middle class.”

Washington was also responsible for Hughes’s sharpening his knowledge of blues and jazz culture and further developing his working-class consciousness. Hilariously, the anything but mellifluous Hughes once dared to unleash his brand of blues singing on the Rock Creek Bridge. It provoked a passerby to rush to his aid, mistaking his unsoulful moans for agony. Hughes had en­counters with notables black and white in D.C., including famed black historian Carter G. Woodson, and the poet Vachel Lindsay, to whom he slipped some poems while working as a busboy. In Baltimore, he met Bessie Smith. When Hughes asked for her “theory of the blues,” Smith dished how all she knew was that the blues had put her “in de mon­ey.” (Though Rampersad gives this seemingly trivial rejoinder short shrift, it would carry considerable weight with poststructur­alist blues scholars and folklorists.)

In 1926, Hughes’s first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published. Between 1926 and 1939, he would write and publish much of the best and most influential work of his prolific career — his second volume of poems, the controversially titled Fine Clothes to the Jew (“When hard luck over­takes you/ Nothin’ for you to do/ Gather up yo’ fine clothes/ An’ sell ’em to the Jew”), a short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, the novel Not Without Laughter, the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea, several children’s books in collabora­tion with his lifelong friend Arna Bontemps, and the most financially successful of his plays, Mulatto. He also spent time gathering information and soaking up the scenery in Cuba and Haiti, did a foreign correspondent stint in Spain during the Civil War, and spent a year in Russia. The Russian sojourn came about in 1932, when Hughes and a host of young Harlemite writers and activ­ists were entreated by a German film com­pany to star in a fiasco production of a working-class musical.

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His flirtations with socialism were partly out of self-interest — when mainstream pub­lishers wouldn’t come through for him, New Masses would pick up the slack. But his leftist poetry compromised little of his plain-spoken lyricism and engaged some very radical views. While undertaking his Russian expedition, Hughes wrote the most radically strident poem of his life, “Good­bye, Christ,” — all the more blasphemous for its sermon-like cadences.

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day I reckon­ —
But that day’s gone now.

They ghosted you up a swell story, too.
Called it Bible —

But it’s dead now.
The popes and preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many

Kings, generals, robbers, and killers­ —
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s church …
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson.

Hughes never intended for this poem to leave Russia, but it was passed on to black American communist leader Harry Hey­wood, who published it. This was much to Hughes’s later regret when the rabid evan­gelist Aimee Semple McPherson mounted an attack that gathered black church forces behind her.

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There was a profound contradiction be­tween Hughes’s radicalism and his need to be accepted by the black masses. He was neither the first nor the last black intellectu­al to feel tugged apart by the ideological demands of a white-dominated left and his nationalist tendencies, as Harold Cruse’s ep­ochal work on that conundrum, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, makes clear. To his sometime patron of the ’30s, Noel Sulli­van, Hughes confessed that since poverty seemed to be his lot, “the only thing I can do is string along with the Left until maybe someday all of us poor folks will get enough to eat, including rent, gas, light and water.”

Hughes’s disavowal of politics in the late ’30s was influenced by dollar signs more than politics or feeling for the masses. “To a large extent, he gave up on radicalism not on ideological grounds, but as an impractical involvement that endangered his career as a writer. Radicalism paid very poorly in America; it also tended to estrange him from the black masses. Accordingly, he had been returning the needle of his conscience to its oldest and deepest groove, that of race. But instead of attempting to explain or jus­tify this realignment, Hughes had done ev­erything he could to conceal it … he could point to his renewed emphasis on race as proof of his distance from communism, and pass off as deep alienation what was in fact pragmatic withdrawal.”

In 1940, when Richard Wright’s Native Son became a Book of the Month club best-­seller and the best-selling black book ever, Hughes reacted with dismay and envy, not least because he had shelved a project simi­lar to Native Son, fearing it would have no market in New Deal America. Talk about your deferred dreams. Rampersad leaves Hughes still struggling (acclaim and notori­ety notwithstanding) to make ends meet for himself and his mother, whose welfare he assumed like a guilty burden rather than the duty of a loving son. In his need to become the most beloved genius child in black liter­ary history, he had sacrificed his writerly independence and forced himself to bedrock his maturity on filial responsibility. How Hughes’s recurrent conflict with mom, muse, money, and the masses is played out will surely add to the drama of Rampersad’s next chapters. ❖

THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: Volume 1, 1902-1941 I, Too, Sing America By Amold Rampersad Oxford University Press, $22.95; $9.95 paper

[Editor’s note: Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the photographer credit for the illustration at the top of this article is “Griff Davis / Black Star,” while on the original page back in 1988 (below) the credit is for “Greg Davis / Black Star.” We recently learned that this portrait of Langston Hughes was indeed taken by Griffith J. Davis, a storied photographer who was Ebony magazine’s first Roving Editor. Starting in 1949, he became an international photojournalist for the the Black Star Publishing Agency, and was later a U.S. Foreign Service Officer during the early U.S. civil rights movement and the Independence Movement of Africa. More information is available at]


Huncke the Junkie: Godfather to Naked Lunch

My phone rang on a hot morning in July a year ago and it as Allen Ginsberg.

“Do you know Herbert Huncke?” Ginsberg asked. “Have you ever met Huncke?” I said that I hadn’t.

“He’s the oldest living junkie in New York,” Ginsberg said, “and an old sidekick of Burroughs and Kerouac. He turned Burroughs on to junk and he’s waiting in line at Manhattan General to get in so he can cut down on his habit. He’s been waiting for four days and he thinks he can get in in about 20 minutes, and he needs his suitcase which is in his hotel room, so can you go up to the hospital and get his key, and go to the hotel and get his suitcase and take it to him? He’s wearing a white sweater. Hurry!”

I threw on some clothes and rushed to the subway, and in maybe 19 minutes was running down 21st Street to the back door of Manhattan General where the junkies wait in line to save their lives. Huncke met me in the middle of the block. His white cardigan sweater was unmistakable, but so was his face, which was fragile testimony to 30 years on heroin.

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Huncke had decided to save Manhattan General for another day, but he insisted on showing me the junkie’s lobby. The floor behind the door was strewn with cigarette butts, and the air was a dense fog. They leaned against the wall — men, women, white, Puerto Rican, black — and sat on the benches. All the openings, the sign-in windows and such, were caged. It was as hard to get in as it was to get out.

And then as we walked over to Ginsberg’s, Huncke began to rap. Huncke raps beautifully, the sound of his magnificent voice — all that seems intact in his devastated body — as tantalizing as the content. He has so much to rap about, the days with Burroughs, the trials and woes of Ginsberg, the gilded gossip about the beats a decade ago and last week. It is all that he has, his memories and a talent for recalling them. It is not quite enough, but he gets by.

When he arrived, Ginsberg took me aside. “Whatever you do,” he said sternly, “don’t give him money! I’m not kidding. Be careful. He’s very persuasive.”

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And then he took Huncke aside, and asked him to spare me his touch. “He’s just a kid,” he said, “and he doesn’t have very much money.” And then Huncke hit Ginsberg for ten bucks.

Huncke is a master of the touch. It’s his livelihood, and as I walked with him back to the West Side I braced myself to follow Ginsberg’s orders and resist the inevitable climax of the conversation. It never came. Huncke spared me the first time — it would be the last — waved good-bye, and promised to stop by and visit.

And he did stop by, roughly once a week at a punctual nine o’clock in the morning, at an old loft I had on Prince Street that summer. I would try to wake up and make some coffee and we would sit and talk for three hours or so, the same glorious rap, and then he would hit me for $5 or so, always, he said, for a hotel or some other non-narcotic necessity of life. And I would give it to him, because he had earned it.

Toward the end of summer he passed a bad check on me and disappeared. I was sad that he never came back, and, in lieu of an autograph, pasted the check, which he had endorsed in various styles of script, on the title page of his “Journals,” a rambling collection of recollections that had been published by the Poet’s Press. A little while later I heard he was in jail.

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After he had finished six months in jail, he drove to San Francisco with a friend. I suspected that he was intrigued by the talk about a “Love Community” in Haight-Ashbury and the Diggers’ free money.

He liked the city, but was disappointed by the people, and a few weeks ago he was back in New York, but he didn’t get much of a homecoming. Ginsberg was in Italy and Panna Grady, a long-time patron, was in London and Peter Orlovsky was in a surly mood. He had spent the money Ginsberg had left to get him to London, and again, the line at Manhattan General proved to be too long for his patience. He stooped to selling salt pills as Owsley acid. And all the people he supposedly burned were rumored to be waiting for his upcoming reading at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie. It seemed that, for once, the audience would be taking the collection. But, deft as ever, Huncke survived the reading and went off to rap with Neal Cassady.

The other day he came by to visit again, and we sat in a bar on Seventh Avenue and talked. Huncke had a coke — he is repulsed by liquor — and I asked him to recall again how he came to meet William Burroughs.

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“I met Bill in 1944,” he said. “I had just come back from a trip to South America. Bill had met a friend of mine from Cleveland, a guy like something from a Humphrey Bogart movie, with padded shoulders, a felt hat and a flashy tie. He had a job as a soda jerk around Columbia. I think his intention was to case the neighborhood. And Burroughs approached him and asked if he could get rid of a sawed-off shotgun. Burroughs always had a sort of interest in the underworld. So this friend brought Burroughs down to my apartment, with the gun and several gross of morphine Syrettes. When I first saw Burroughs I thought he was a Treasury agent.

“He thought he’d like to try the morphine just once. We turned him on. He was a natural. The next thing we knew he joined forces with us.”

Burroughs was then at Columbia where he had, Huncke recalled, “a coterie which included Kerouac and Allen, who idolized him, and myself. I was sort of introduced as an oddity that should be observed.

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“At this same time, the Kinsey report was taking shape. I had met Dr. Kinsey in Times Square, and I introduced him to Allen and others. We used to get together in the Angler Bar, which was off 42nd Street. We’d sit there and talk and eat and drink. Bill was interested in karate. One of the most interesting things I ever witnessed was Bill trying to give a knockout blow with three fingers to break up a fight. He had gathered his coat around him elegantly, with all the dignity and reserved demeanor he had, and he was trying to reach over the heads in the brawl to hit the guy.”

In 1947, Huncke and Burroughs went to Texas. “It was a beautiful year,” Huncke said. “Just Bill, myself, his wife, and young Bill was born in July. We lived in a little weatherbeaten cabin on the edge of the bayou, and we raised a crop of pot. We were going to try to raise oriental poppies in a hothouse.

“Bill had his pistols and did target practice. He used to stand out there and draw with his pistols strapped to his side and shoot at the barn. Then Neal Cassady and Allen drove down from San Francisco. Neal and Bill and I drove back to New York in a jeep with the pot, and Allen took the train.

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“I didn’t see too much of Burroughs after that. Then Bill went to Tangiers, and I just hung around, hooked all the time, using junk, junk, junk. I’ve been using junk for more than 30 years. I can’t write without it. I can’t live without it.”

He can’t live without it. Herbert Huncke, apostle of junk, immortalized in more than one Kerouac novel, eulogized in Ginsberg’s ravings, godfather to “Naked Lunch.” As he fumbled for a match in the bar on Seventh Avenue, I could see that it was time for him to go again in search of that small bag that holds his bones together.

I gave him the money to buy it, and I hoped that he would find it. ❖

1967 Village Voice article by Don McNeill about the writer and New York Times denizen Huncke the Junkie

1967 Village Voice article by Don McNeill about the writer and New York Times denizen Huncke the Junkie


Jack London’s Endless Journey

The Inevitable White Man

But remember, my reader, whom I hope to have travel far with me through time and space — remember, please, my reader, that I have thought much on these matters … I have been alone with my many selves to consult und contemplate my many selves. I have gone through the hells of all existences to bring you news … 

— The Star Rover (1915)

In his 40 years, Jack London never could stop traveling. Born in San Francisco in 1876, the product of a one-year common-­law marriage between Flora Wellman and the footloose no-account astrologer William Chaney, he was John Chaney for nine months until Wellman married John Lon­don, whose name was given to Jack. He grew up in Oakland and on nearby farms; at 15, he tapped the African American wet nurse who partly raised him, the former slave Virginia Prentiss, for $300 — ”my Mammy Jennie, my old nurse at whose black breast I had suckled. She was more prosperous than my folks. She was nursing sick people at a good weekly wage. Would she lend her ‘white child’ the money?” (John Barleycorn, 1913). She would. Jack London bought the Razzle Dazzle for use in pirating oysters from the beds on the Bay, and he would spend the rest of his short life sailing away.

“I wanted to be where the winds of ad­venture blew” (John Barleycorn), which in London’s adolescence meant the Bay, the scrappy tumbling life of the Oakland docks, the doubled universe of sober hard work and inebriated fancy, “life raw and naked, wild and free … And more than that, it carried a promise. It was the beginning. From the sandpit the way led out through the Golden Gate to the vastness of adventure of all the world … ” (John Barleycorn).

So it did. By the age of 19, London had sailed across the Pacific, via Hawaii, to Japan and the Bering Sea, an able seaman before the mast on the Sophia Sutherland; he tramped across the U.S., briefly with Coxey’s Industrial Army of the Unem­ployed then on his own until Buffalo, where he was arrested for vagrancy and served 30 days in jail, returning west across Canada on a coal car, south from Vancouver as a stoker; he sailed to Juneau for the Gold Rush, wintered on Split-Up Island 80 miles from Dawson City, then rafted down the Yukon and, penniless, sailed home.

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London would draw on his teenage ad­ventures for the rest of his life. But in 1898, back in Oakland, he realized that some travels are more difficult than others. Working at backbreaking manual jobs, sup­porting the family of his impecunious step­father, London decided that life as an in­dustrial worker would make him an animal. “I would be a laborer, and by that I mean I would be fitted for nothing else than labor” (1898). He had to escape: “[I]f I knew that my life would be such, that I was destined to live in Oakland, labor in Oakland at some steady occupation, and die in Oakland — ­then tomorrow I would cut my throat and call quits with the whole cursed business” (1898). He determined to travel out of his social class.

That’s never an easy trip; certainly not when you, as Jack London did, try to make it by becoming a writer. He never really explained why he chose writing over some more likely path; his earliest published let­ters are already full of ambition. In the event, he approached writing as an indus­trial laborer might. He faced down the ma­chine: a borrowed typewriter.

How my back used to ache with it! Prior to that experience, my back had been good for every violent strain put upon it in a none too gentle career. But that typewriter proved to me that I had a pipe-stem for a back … I had to hit the keys so hard that I strained my first fingers to the elbows, while the ends of my fingers were blisters burst and blistered again. Had it been my machine I’d have operated it with a carpenter’s hammer. (John Barleycorn)

His teenage life was a series of bouts, and he remembered it that way, in his letters, in his autobiographical novel, Martin Eden, and his boozer’s memoir, John Barleycorn: bouts of writing, labor, education (brief stints in high school and a cramming acade­my, a semester at the University of Califor­nia, and, above all, feverish periods of inde­pendent study). “If I die I shall die hard, fighting to the last, and hell shall receive no fitter inmate than myself” (1898). By the end of 1899, he had published 24 pieces — essays, stories, poems, jokes.

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Within a few years London was a well­-established writer; within a few more, he ranked among America’s best-paid, most widely read authors. Though remembered now chiefly for his dog novels (The Call of the Wild and White Fang), he was never just a writer of complicated adventure sto­ries any more than Mark Twain was a crackerbarrel tale-spinner. London pushed American literature in new and strange di­rections. He created his own unique land­scape, a combination of Yukon and open seas, utterly American yet utterly bizarre: at once American and bizarre because the emphatic Jack London landscape, with its heartbreaking solitude, its violence, its mo­mentous choices made according to terribly simple codes, its Darwinism, greed, and straightforward racism, was evidently rec­ognizable to white Americans, and yet hardly any of them had or ever would mush their dogs into Dawson or sail the high seas. Many would, like young Jack, be working in jute mills or laundries — in other words, live the life he said he would rather die than perpetuate. He brought his readers on a trip to a landscape that seemed not only made for them but made by them, a peculiarly visceral American place that practically none of them would ever really see. London, the harsh realist, was from the beginning a writer of fantasy.

London succeeded, in a way. He became rich and famous. His travels through social class provided him with The People of the Abyss (1903), a pioneering nonfiction book on conditions in London’s East End; The Road (1907), a fictionalized account of his tramping experiences; numerous stories, sometimes set among the upper classes; the two autobiographical books; and a number of essays, often given as lectures, that ar­gued for the certain demise of capitalism in favor of socialism and a just, rational, healthy society. His radicalism was of long standing — he ran as a Socialist Democrat for mayor of Oakland in 1901 — and had his characteristic intensity.

I saw the picture of the Social Pit as vividly as though it were a concrete thing, and at the bottom of the Pit I saw them, myself above them, not far, and hanging on to the slippery wall by main strength and sweat … I ran back to California and opened the books. I do not remember which ones I opened first. It is an unimportant detail anyway. I was already It, whatever It was, and by aid of the books I discovered that It was a Socialist . … [N]o economic argument, no lucid demonstration of the logic and inevitableness of Socialism affects me as profoundly and convincingly as I was affected on the day when I first saw the walls of the Social Pit rise around me and felt myself slipping down, down, into the shambles at the bottom. (“How I Became a Socialist,” 1903)

London did not like the ruling class. His story “The Minions of Midas” (1900), for example, is a remarkably sadistic fantasy of working-class vengeance. London described The Iron Heel (1908), a sci-fi novel in which we look backward on the 20th century and marvel at its capitalistic idiocy, as “some very excellent socialist propaganda” (1906) in which “I handle … the inevitable breakdown of capitalism under the structure of profits it has reared” (1906).

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Yet London’s socialism was of an espe­cially American kind. It foundered on indi­vidualism. The class struggle was too sharp, and its sharpness too romantically attrac­tive, for London to adopt the reformism through which individual effort is some­times rewarded. Moreover, socialism of­fered London no objective correlative, so to speak, in the world he knew, and thus no imaginative landscape comparable to his Yukon or ocean. The choices that mattered most to him were those made at the limits of real experience — individual choices.

London wrestled with the implications of individualism. He wrote in a 1905 letter of having “recently emerged” from the Nietz­sche “sickness.” The fight against individ­ualism became an article of faith for him. “I have been more stimulated by Nietzsche than by any other writer in the world. At the same time I have been an intellectual enemy to Nietzsche. Both Martin Eden and The Sea Wolf were indictments by me of the Nietzschean philosophy of the super­man” (1915).

But socialism, in the end, provided little more than a placebo for the Nietzsche sickness. London did agitate for socialism, emphasizing the cruelties of the existing sys­tem and the steady empowerment of the ground-down masses. However, he felt these masses would build their power less through organization than through one-by­-one conversion. As seen in “How I Became a Socialist,” London located the power of this conversion in a fear of the Social Pit. In other words, an individual would convert to socialism from terror of remaining in the lower class.

Hatred of one’s class position is probably not the best way to build class solidarity. London’s 1905 statement that he had trav­eled upward in society, then “went back to the working-class in which I had been born and where I belonged,” doesn’t hold up un­der biographical or artistic scrutiny. Lon­don managed to live with an unstated dis­tinction between individual superiority and socialist consciousness. He was not averse to terms such as “herd” for describing the mass of humanity. His heroes nearly always make their decisions alone.

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Socialism leaves little room for tragedy — ­that’s partly the point of it — and London was in love with the tragic. A socialist world, as he envisioned it, wouldn’t be much to write about. “The Strength of the Strong” (1911), which London wrote explicitly as a defense of socialism, features a group of trib­al types sitting around bemoaning their inability to band together. Thanks to this lack of solidarity, they are always being de­feated. But some day, Long Beard says at story’s end, ”all the fools will be dead and then all live men will go forward. The strength of the strong will be theirs, and they will add their strength together, so that, of all the men in the world, not one will fight with another.”

Some day. Meanwhile, the passions that kept London traveling wouldn’t let him an­chor in socialism. The tension between the individual and the collective — between London and the world — that propelled his journey would have to be resolved elsewhere.

London sought the elemental, and the elemental qualities he located in American life were not the inevitability of socialism but selfishness and death. In “The Minions of Midas,” an exceedingly elemental story, the titular minions are a cabal of workers who blackmail a capitalist. He must give them $20 million, or they will kill people. They are, they explain, tired of being drudges and need capital to win life’s battle. The capitalist stands firm; the minions murder innocents steadily and with impuni­ty; the capitalist kills himself. The minions declare their intention to continue killing until the last capitalist generation. And there the story ends.

Despite this tooth-and-claw view of real existing capitalism, or perhaps because of it, London searched for a bedrock collective beyond class. He found one in an imaginary region at least as American as pitiless in­dustrialism: race. (Even in 1900 he wrote, in a letter, that economics only “plays one of the strongest leading parts in the drama of the races.”) The Yukon stories, in particu­lar, present race as central to the human experience. London frequently makes his heroes’ whiteness, their understanding of it and its requirements, the animating fact of their destinies.

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What was this whiteness? Two things, mainly: an inexplicable tribal imperative and a historical force. London saw the white race — sometimes Anglo-Saxon, sometimes Western, often just white — as fulfilling a mission compelled by its special characteristics and taking advantage of his­torical conjuncture. In a famous essay on Kipling from 1901, he wrote: “The Anglo­-Saxon is a pirate, a land robber, and a sea robber … The Anglo-Saxon is strong of arm and heavy of hand, and he possesses a primitive brutality all his own … He loves freedom but is dictatorial to others, is self­ willed, has boundless energy, and does things for himself.”

London felt pride in his own race, or rather in the race he imagined for himself. He hated half-breeds. As a correspondent, he blamed the Mexican-American war on that portion of Mexico’s population he found to be of mixed racial parentage. “Like the Eurasians, they possess all the vices of their various commingled bloods and none of the virtues.” His 1916 letters to a Greek ex-friend, Spiro Orfans, show Lon­don in full cry: “You … who are too heterogeneous through your bastard mixture of uncountable breeds, get up on your little dunghill and announce that all life is mongrel … Your logic is as rotten as your 2000-years degenerate race.”

London’s hatred of the mongrel had a corresponding virtue, namely racial or trib­al purity and the guarding of racial distinctiveness. For example, his most famous rac­ist activity in an American context came in his coverage of Jack Johnson’s heavyweight title fights: against Burns, in Australia, in 1908, then against Jeffries, the Great White Hope, at Reno in 1910. ”Personally, I was with Burns all the way. He is a white man, and so am I. Naturally I wanted to see the white man win.”

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What could be clearer? Many things: Jack Johnson won both fights, and London was delirious in his praise. He went on and on about Johnson’s intelligence, coolness, and grace, his ”pure fun, gentle wit,” this “amazing Negro from Texas, this black man with the unfailing smile, this king of fighters.” After Jeffries’s defeat, he wrote: “Once again has Johnson sent down to de­feat the chosen representative of the white race, and this time the greatest of them all. And as of old, it was play for Johnson.” London admired Johnson as a brilliant fighter; he doubly admired him because he was black. “And he played and fought a white man in a white man’s country, before a white man’s crowd.”

London’s racism may have been ahead of its time. It often sounds like a hard multi­-culturalism. He wanted the races to be true to themselves. This gave him the possibility of a worldview unlike that of socialism, one which accommodated both firm collective identities and human drama and tragedy on a global scale, without end. Life for London had to be a struggle; and racism, racial con­flict, was full of promise.

And yet, and yet: London also wrote, though not often, against racial prejudice. Furthermore, he doesn’t appear to have liked his own race much more than he liked his own class. “The Inevitable White Man” (1908) stands as a racial analogue to “The Minions of Midas.” A typical men-sit-­around-chatting yarn, it presents several white men in a New Hebrides bar debating the white man’s mission “to farm the world,” farming being understood as a met­aphor for conquest and control. One char­acter explains: “Tip it off to him that there’s diamonds on the red-hot ramparts of hell, and Mr. White Man will storm the ramparts and set old Satan himself to pick-­and-shovel work.”

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All the characters recognize this as in some way stupid. And the bulk of the story is devoted to Saxtorph, “the one inevitable white man,” as Captain Woodward de­scribes him to his boon companions: “He was certainly the most stupid man I ever saw, but he was as inevitable as death.” Saxtorph has the brain of a gnat, but he’s a great shot. The story’s central drama con­cerns a black slave revolt. Saxtorph kills the rebels, one by one, in an excruciating slaughter. This is the murdering imbecile whom London presents as the one truly inevitable white man.

And so race does not quite deliver the happy marriage of individual and collective destiny. Where, then, could the lonesome traveler head for next? London’s science-­fiction and fantasy are difficult to find. The Library of America does not include them. Yet here London’s conundrums assume rare and telling form. He allows himself to travel across time and space. He fragments himself, tears himself up, and the joy he feels in this process is palpable. For once he can travel with a coherent pleasure. At last he frees himself from the collective; or rather, he spreads the individual self over time, creating an imaginary collective of selves unhindered by geography, liberating himself for adventures of identity that nei­ther class nor racial solidarity could ever allow.

As far as book-length work goes, the process began with Before Adam (1907, an obscure work today though widely read at the time. He told an editor: “[I]t is the most primitive story ever written … It goes back before the cave-man … to a time when man was in the process of Becoming.” In it, the first-person narrator reveals his special ability to dream himself into an ear­lier existence. “Some of us have stronger and completer race memories than oth­ers … I am a freak of heredity, an atavistic nightmare.”

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Before Adam is a weak, nearly lifeless novel. Only a few passages stand out: the long description of the narrator’s simian father, whom he sees in infancy and never again; and the scenes involving Red-Eye, the youthful narrator’s unconquerable nem­esis, who takes a wife as it pleases him, beats her, then kills her and finds another. It’s hard not to read this novel in the shad­ow of London’s own paternity. All that lives on its pages are the body of the absent father and the inevitable Red-Eye — “Red-Eye, the atavism,” the book’s last words.

In Before Adam London found the dream-device, and he returned to it in his last completed novel, The Star Rover (1915). “All my life I have had an awareness of other times and places,” it begins. Lon­don’s narrator posits an idea of childhood (“You were plastic, a soul in flux”): Chil­dren can dream their previous existences. While still in flux a child will scream in fear — but the fear is not the child’s fear, it is the fear of the child’s “shadowy hosts of progenitors” whose voices scream through the child’s voice. The progenitors’ experi­ences are the child’s reality: “The stuff of our sheerest dreams is the stuff of our experiences.”

And at last the harsh realist London found the imaginary landscape he had been traveling toward, a vast non-place in which his individualism and his collectivism could play at will. In a 1907 letter to his editor he wrote: “[I]n all that I have said and written and done, I have been true. This is the character I have built up; it constitutes, I believe, my big asset.” An asset, but also a burden. In The Star Rover he shatters his character into pieces and scatters it over thousands of years. Where does the proud man choose to travel now that he’s free; now that the only collective is memory? He changes form at will. He is a Roman slave, a medieval European aristocrat. He is a beggar in Korea, and a king, and a frontier boy. He falls in love with nonwhite women, fervently in love, and displays a tenacious loyalty to them. He learns languages easily and merges with other cultures. The Star Rover is the only London novel in which the narrator has much fun. He manages, sometimes incongruously, to remain blue-eyed, male, smart, and physically fit.

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The Star Rover‘s narrator — Darrell Standing, a former professor — is also, how­ever, a prisoner on death row. “They are going to take me out and hang me pretty soon. In the meantime I say my say, and write in these pages of the other times and places.” Standing has learned the trick of time travel from a fellow prisoner. He trav­els under special conditions: when the war­den has him laced into a straitjacket. The warden is torturing him to get information Standing doesn’t have. Unable to move and soon to be dead, Standing tells us:

I am life. I have lived ten thousand genera­tions. I have lived millions of years. I have possessed many bodies … Cut out the heart, or, better, fling the flesh-remnant into a machine of a thousand blades and make mince meat of it — and I, I, don’t you understand, all the spirit and the mystery and the vital fire and life of me, am off and away. I have not perished. Only the body has perished, and the body is not I.

Apparently London, late in his brief life, found a country and a collective big enough that he could roam without feeling bound, without hating or fearing his companions and surroundings. The country was every­thing he could remember about history; the collective was all the people he could imag­ine, and all the people he could imagine himself being. That London was only able to reach this destination through a charac­ter straitjacketed on the floor of a cell, an­ticipating death, is the sort of paradox one comes to expect of him. ❖

THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF JACK LONDON. Stanford University Press, $149.96 (three volumes).
THE LETTERS OF JACK LONDON. Stanford University Press, $149.50 (three volumes).
JACK LONDON: The Novels and Stories. The Library of America, $27.50.
JACK LONDON: Novels and Social Writings. The Library of America, $27.50.
THE STAR ROVER. Westview, $12.95 paper.
BEFORE ADAM. Star Rover: $6.95 paper.

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London

1994 Village Voice Literary Supplement article by Scott Malcomson about Jack London


Vladimir Nabokov, the Professor of Desire

“I want you to copy this down exactly as I draw it on the blackboard,” Vladimir Nabokov instructed us, after explaining that he was going to diagram the themes of Bleak House. He turned to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and scrawled “the theme of inheritances” in a weird arching loop. “The theme of generations” dipped and rose and dipped in an undulating line. “The theme of social consciousness” wiggled crazily toward the other lines, then veered sharply away.

Nabokov turned from the blackboard and peered over the rims of his glasses, parodying a professorial twinkle. “I want you to be sure to copy this as I draw it.”

After consulting a sheet of paper on the lectern, he turned back to the blackboard and scrawled “the theme of economic conditions” in a nearly vertical line. “The theme of poverty,” “the theme of political (the chalk snapped under the pressure, he picked up another piece and continued) protest,” “the theme of social environment” — all leaping and dipping wildly across the blackboard. Some people simply can’t draw a straight line.

Again he peered at us, over his shoulder and over his glasses, in silent reminder to copy this “exactly.”

And finally he scrawled the last “theme” in a neat dipping curve, a half-moon on its side, “the theme of art” — and we suddenly realized he had drawn a cat’s face, the last line its wry smile, and for the rest of the term that cat smiled out of our notebooks in mockery of the didactic approach to literature.

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I think of that incident whenever I read a critical analysis of Nabokov’s novels — all those “thematic lines,” darting wildly over the pages, up and down and criss-crossing, explaining everything, every­thing (to borrow a Nabokovian inflection), but lacking that final neat line, that Nabokovian smile, that “theme of art.”

But the most Nabokovian aspect of the anecdote is that I’m not at all sure it really happened. I “remember” it as clearly as any number of anecdotes from his course (“By the way,” he explained in casual audacity, seeming to exaggerate his Russian accent to heighten the effect, “Joyce made only one error in English in Ulysses, the use of the word ‘supine’ when it should have been ‘prone'”), but it may very well be one of those sharp, bright, crystalline “memories,” lifted from a dream, imposed by imagination, of something that never happened.

Nabokov’s reputation as a novelist, scholar, translator, and lepidop­terist is unassailable, but not many people know that he was also a great teacher (on the other hand, those of us who took his courses in the early ’50s didn’t have the vaguest notion he’d written a single word of fiction). Of course, everyone has had a “great teacher” usually that kindly, white-haired gentleman whose orderly affection for our favorite subject gave intellectual justification to our incoherent raptures, so in jotting down some of my memories of Nabokov as a teacher, I’ve tried to exclude the merely eccentric and personal, leaving only those reminiscences which might illuminate his novels — or perhaps even provide a footnote for that 21st-century scholar who will write a book on the four great novelists of the 20th century: Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, and Fulmerford.

“Great novels are above all great fairy tales,” he would begin, or rather he begins, memory being present tense and already, only a sentence in, and a decade and a half late, I realize that foggy memory and sketchy notes are going to make any kind of systematic development or accurate quotation impossible.

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“Literature does not tell the truth but makes it up. The first literature was the boy crying wolf … ‘Wolf!’ ‘Wolf!'” Nabokov would cry out, then pause. “But no wolf. Something between the nonexistent wolf and the boy … the dream about the wolf … the shadow of the invented wolf … Literature.”

“Art is useful only when it is futile,” we would read (but he was such a superb actor, one of the basic requirements of a “great teacher,” that no one knew he wrote out his lectures word for word, down to the wryest “asides”). “The artist is a sublime liar … Art is not ‘about’ something but is the thing itself … Art is not a simple arithmetic but a delicate calculus … In art, the roundabout hits the center … Life is the least realistic of all fictions.”

And then, in a gambit he was to use as many as three or four times a term, he would refer to “the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist,” pause for a moment as if he hadn’t heard himself quite right, then ask in a mock-baffled tone: “Have I made a mistake? Don’t I mean ‘the passion of the artist and the precision of the scientist’?” Another pausc, peering gleefully over the rims of his lasses, as if awaiting our answer, then, “No! The passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist!” — a phrase which could well stand as an epigraph (if one were allowed half a dozen) for his own work.

“Great writers invent their own world,” but “minor writers merely ornament the commonplace” — and he would also refer to “minor readers,” particularly those who (a unique Nabokovan mixture of delight and scorn would come into his voice) “identify with the characters.”

(One should always hear this special tone of voice in the mind’s ear when reading his sarcastic remarks about philistines, for he seemed even more amused by than disdainful of bourgeois vulgarity, and remarks that seem devastatingly snide in cold print seemed almost affectionate in his warm lectures. He particularly enjoyed reading bad literature aloud — “I can’t stop quoting!” he would chortle in glee as he read from the masterpieces of socialist realism.)

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“There are two million words in this course,” Nabokov would say, explaining that the novels added up to a million words but that we were to read them — “every single one of them” — twice, the first time merely to get such trivial concerns as “plot suspense” out of the way. I seem to recall a comparison to painting — one should approach a novel as one approaches a painting, not going from left to right but taking in the whole, a simultaneous totality of experience. But just to make sure, he made a point of giving away the plots in the first lecture so that the poshlosts among us …

Poshlost? He would look up, mimicking surprise that we didn’t know the word, then explain that it was a peculiarly Russian word (as untranslatable as “corny,” with as many specific instances and as little specific “meaning” as “camp”), a kind of subtle vulgarity, not crude or coarse, but verging on sensitivity, sensitivity with a slight tinge of mold — Olivier’s Hamlet for instance, with its “Freudian staircase,” or “the great ideas,” or the novels of Thomas Mann. (We quickly learned that he was the master of the parenthetical put-down, the seeming “aside” which is all the more devastating because the parentheses give it an invulnerable position in the sentence. Everyone is familiar with his description of Lawrence as “a pornographer,” his disdain for Dos­toevsky (“memoirs from a mouseholed”), but his wittiest assassination was reserved for Hemingway: “I read a novel of his in 1940 … I can’t remember the title … Bulls? Bells? Balls?”)

But to return to the way to read novels: What makes a good reader? he would ask rhetorically, giving us a list of ten to choose from, beginning with “belongs to a book club” or “has seen the movie,” and ending with “likes to browse in the dictionary.” The proper answers, of course, were imagination and memory and the dictionary. And since this list was itself verging on the poshlost (he flirted with philistinism not because he wanted to possess it but simply because he liked to see it having a good time) he would suddenly vocally raise a forefinger utter one of those aphorisms which seemed so eccentric at the time (the weird juxtaposition of words caused, no doubt, by the fact that “he probably doesn’t know English well”) but which linger in the memory precisely because of their odd flair: “Let us worship the spine … the upper spine … the vertebrate tipped at the head with a divine flame!”

(In retrospect, it seems that Nabokov was telling us how we should someday read his own novels, and telling us in a steady stream of aphorisms at that, but of course these are the two spurs to my memory.)

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After the initial lecture on good literature and good readers (the course was taught in Goldwin-Smith Hall, by the way, a fact which might be of interest to anyone doing research into the sources of the names in Pale Fire), we were told to be sure to bring our copies of the novel to the next class, for the first lecture on each novel consisted largely of a long list of corrections of the wretched translation.

“Turn to page 15, line eight — cross out ‘violet’ and write in ‘purple.’ ‘Violet,'” he would blurt out in a kind of disdainful glee. “Imagine, violet,” he would almost quiver in delight at the exquisite vulgarity of the translator’s word-choice.

“Page 18, third line from the bottom — change ‘umbrella’ to ‘parasol.’ ” He would hold up the book like something damp and greenish found under the sink: “This wingless Penguin … ”

I almost remember the translation corrections better than the novels. In Madame Bovary, for instance, “steward” became “butler,” “fluttered” became “rippled,” “pavement” became “sidewalk” — but was Rudolf Emma’s first or second lover? Never mind. The course was about Emma’s eyes, Emma’s hair (“smooth,” to “sleek,” “curved” to “dipped,” “head” to “skull”).

“Caress the details,” Nabokov would utter, rolling the R, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue. “The divine details!” (“General ideas” were anathema to him — because he knew too much about the differences between things to generalize about anything; because, as he wrote in The Gift, the word “cosmic” is always in danger of losing its S.)

And so, studying for exams (which is what college was in the fifties, certainly not “getting an education”), we would simply memorize the colors, telling each other that last year he had asked: “What color was the bottle containing the arsenic with which Emma poisoned herself?” (brown?).

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(And speaking of exams, the mock-horror with which — no, not mock horror, for though “the horrified professor” was one of his many roles, roles always played with a subtly gleeful irony, this time he was genuinely aghast — the horror with which he returned our papers one day, for nearly half of the class, baffled by his accent, had referred to somebody’s “epidramatic,” rather than “epigrammatic” style, a willing­ness to parrot what one doesn’t understand that is still my private, if trivial symbol —along with the fact that his course was called, ap­pallingly, “dirty lit” (Anna Karenina! Madame Bovary!) — for the under-25 generation of the Eisenhower years.)

Vera Nabokov was as legendary as her husband, a breathtakingly beautiful, regal, and dignified (I still think of her hair whenever I hear the phrase “White Russian”), attending all his lectures, always seated in the front row — presumably in order to rush to his side with some sort of pills in the event of a heart attack (recalling, or foreshadowing, in this least autobiographical of authors, the attacks suffered behind a lectern by Timofey Pnin and John Shade). Or at least that was the rumor, and rumor, as someone has written, is “the poetry of truth.”

But “the enchanted eyes of nostalgia” (Nabokov on Gogol) are carrying me far from that pledge to write down only those memories which might illuminate his novels (I wish I could work in that day when a bee flew in the window and the entomologist gently rebuked the fears of his students — “just a humble bumblebee.” But it won’t fit) (And speaking of entomology, it turns out that Gregor Samsa wasn’t transformed into a cockroach after all, as most people, especially New Yorkers, assume, but into a beetle, a domed beetle, a winged beetle, in fact; and Nabokov told us something neither Gregor nor Kafka knew — ­if he’d wanted to escape, all Gregor had to do was fly out the window.)

In summation, then, Nabokov was a great teacher not because he taught the subject well but because he exemplified, and stimulated in his students, a profound and loving attitude toward it. Of course his eccentric personality intrigued us (as a matter of fact, he was considered a kind of Pnin-figure), but his vivid enthusiasms entranced us, and we emerged from the course not so much “educated” as transfigured. Nabokov didn’t “teach” novels, in short, he gazed at them with such joyful and tender devotion that they became for us what they already were for him — “shimmering prisms.”

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Now it seems there was one more thing … Oh yes, Andrew Field.

Skimming through his book, the way it came in the mail, knowing already that it was going to be more or less a pre-text: first of all, the resonance of his ardent enthusiasm (there have been eight masterpieces in the 20th century, he writes, and only Nabokov has written two); then it’s quickly clear that he’s as confident, as audacious as his subject (“Nabokov, I have mastered your themes,” he announces, probably in an intentional echo of a passage in The Gift), that he has nothing but scorn for the pedants and puzzle solvers, that a kind of gossipy nonchalance is not beneath him, and that even his index has a Nabokovian fla­vor (knowing, knowing he would have jokes in his index, I made a point of reading it, and sure enough, “schools of writing, trends and influences” bang and clatter in self-contained isolation from the body of the book, refer­ring to nothing but themselves).  Field even takes up the pronunciation of Nabokov (the accent, please, on the second syllable).  Fine. Fine. This is clearly the book on Nabokov we’ve been waiting for.

After reading it, I realized that Field had written the book I’d long dreamed of writing — and now that it was written, I realized I couldn’t have done it — and now that it was written, I wondered if I necessarily wanted it done in the first place. As in a hand­book on magic, the magic is missing, and after all his acts are explained, Nabokov merely points his finger at the explain­er, goes “poof,” and the explainer disappears in a cloud of smoke.

This is blatantly unfair “false expectations” criticism, of course (expecting, if not a book by Nabokov, at least one vibrating to his tuning fork), but I say that “this is the best book ever written about Nabokov” in a listless, let-down voice.

Field claims two “unusual aspects” for his book: first, it con­siders Nabokov’s entire work (Field reads Russian), and sec­ond, it has an “innovatory na­ture as a work of criticism.” I have no quarrel with the first — in fact, it sums up the book’s primary and considerable value. As for the second, Field writes of his book: ”it is formed (italicized), that is, it is structured in a way roughly corresponding to that of (sic) the narrative in fic­tion … I have treated Nabokov’s novels, poems, stories, plays, and essays as characters in a novel, and each has its role and place carefully prefigured and integrated into the whole.” This is all called “narrative cri­ticism,” and “questions” (the jacket informs us) “the most basic assumptions and practices of literary criticism.”

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Frankly, I wouldn’t have guessed it he hadn’t told me, and even after reading the book one and a half times I’ll still have to take his word for it. I wonder just what “basic assumptions and practices” he’s radically reject­ing — unformed? carelessly unfig­ured? scattered chaotically in fragments? I’m afraid Field has to share some of the blame for “false expectations.”

But with the exception of a few other quibbles (the most impor­tant: Field measures the “truly startling distance” between “art” and “life” by pointing to the astonishing fact that the author of Lolita has actually been married to “the same woman” since 1925!! — who wants Lolita “defended” by this kind of banal argument, by a critic who has this vision of “art” and “life”?, and isn’t it far more likely, even it we accept these terms, that the tenderness and devotion revealed in the novel would make any other kind of au­thor highly unlikely?; the most trivial: if Field is going to illustrate the intellectual vacuity of a character by pointing out that he even misspells “Finnegans Wake,” he’d better learn how to spell it himself) — with the exception of a few quibbles, then, this book seems to me so thorough in its analysis, so balanced in its as­sessments, so “correct” in its conclusions that I’d rather save apace for other things and simply recommend it (but only, and I think Field is a devoted enough reader to agree, after one has read nearly every word Nabokov has written.)

It seems so self-evident that the major themes of Nabokov’s fiction (smile when you say that) are art, death, madness, memory, time, illusion, love, consciousness, and the relationship between the artist and his creation (Field on Pale Fire: “In the relationship between John Shade and Charles Kinbote, Nabokov has given us the best and truest allegorical portrait of ‘the literary process’ that we have or are likely ever to get”), that one wonders why it needs saying. But the misunder­standing of Nabokov’s fiction is so widespread that the self-evi­dent doesn’t merely need saying, it needs insisting upon.

At a recent writer’s conference, a Canadian writer whose verse (he likes to call it “poetry”), though intended to be inflamma­tory, has an unfortunate lulling effect, argued that all great writ­ers were “socially conscious.” When Nabokov’s name was men­tioned, the Canadian denied that he was a great writer (because he wasn’t “socially conscious,” the other half-circle in his argument), whereupon another participant insisted that he was a great writer precisely because he wasn’t “socially conscious” — “ex­cept for all those cute tricks,” he added apologetically, “he does too much of that” (One would like to suggest that these gentle­men stick to fiction; then one realizes the suggestion is un­necessary).

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Now there are hundreds of ways to approach Nabokov: “mi­rage and reality merge in love,” ecstatic nostalgia, the negation of time in art, the choice of pat­tern over meaning, the prefer­ence for the white crayon (precisely because its lines are invisible and one can imagine anything one likes) — but the one way not to approach him, and the one way most readers do, and the one aspect of his work I want to discuss this time around, is as a trickster, a conjuror, a gay deceiver. All those clues, those ana­grams, those “false trails,” those chess games — it’s nothing but verbal adventurism — it’s all a  great pointless joke, with the reader the butt. (The matter is not helped by those admirers who speak only of “keys,” as if his novels were boxes to be un­locked, and inside, another locked box, this one full of puzzles.) All this makes readers uneasy, even “clever” readers — for no matter how clever they are, they suspect, they know, that Nabokov is cleverer. Even the meta­phor game (e. g., the delicate angling of mirrors to capture, if only in fragments, if only in re­flection, glimpses of an unattainable paradise), the second most frequent approach, is less offensive — it’s just as baffled, but at least its ardent.

It can be said flatly: there are no pointless jokes or tricks in Nabokov’s books. In his autobio­graphy, just to give one example, Nabokov writes of himself as a boy of 10 or 12, still in Russia, pursuing a particularly rare and beautiful butterfly; the pursuit continues through marshes and bogs, up hillsides, down into val­leys — until finally he catches the butterfly — near Longs Peak. Na­turalists probably recognized the strange flora and fauna of this pursuit; my own recognition was geographic — Longs Peak is in Colorado! So he started after that butterfly in Russia and finally captured it in Colorado, a third of a century later. The “clever” reader has caught the “joke.”

But the next paragraph begins: “I confess I do not believe in time,” and the “joke” not only has a point, but a profound and moving one —for in emotional value, that pursuit from Russia to Colorado was a single experi­ence; but more than that, it was one of those “immaculate mo­ments” of the simultaneity of experience, the superimposition of memory upon the present, time folding in on itself, timelessness in time — and articulated in such a way that the reader does not grin at Nabokov’s “joke” but shares in his ecstasy.

And when the “clever” reader suddenly realizes the identity of the supposedly uninvolved narra­tor of “Pnin,” he is not rewarded with the lusterless joy of solving a puzzle, but with a glorious arch, lifting back over the book, sur­f using it with the radiant glow of a passionate tenderness.

“It is a pity to disrupt the en­chantment with a hollow excla­mation of ecstasy,” with those spiritual throes and vague raptures and sentimental enthusi­asms Nabokov deplored to his students (“chitchat”) — but it’s a risk I’m willing to take in at­tempting to express what en­chants me in Nabokov’s writing.

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Although he’s generally regard­ed as a “comic” writer, I value his art for its bright, rejoicing tenderness (just as I value Chap­lin’s movies not because they’re funny, but because, even in their funniest scenes, they’re extraordinarily beautiful), because he is matched only by Dickens and Tolstoy in his ability to articu­late joy and happiness, because he shapes and transmits emotions in his prose with such tactility that his books are a physical pleasure to read. As John Updike has said, Nabokov writes prose the way it should be written — ­ ecstatically; and in reading his prose one experiences a kind of sensuality of the mind.

It is currently fashionable to deplore language, to say that words are merely the shadows of ideas, which are themselves merely the shadows of sensations, and so on. “The often repeated complaints of poets (one can hear the affectionate laughter in his voice as one reads his novels) ‘that, alas, no words are available, that words are pale corpses, I that words are incapable of expressing our thingummy-bob feelings … seemed to him just as senseless as the staid conviction of the eldest inhabitant of a mountain hamlet that yonder mountain has never been climbed by anyone and never will be; one fine, cold morning a long lean Englishman appears — and cheer­fully scrambles up to the top.”

“Good-bye, my book!” the writer cries out, at the end of The Gift, and losing a beat of the heart, simultaneously sorrow­ing and laughing (for the lovers have forgotten their keys, and will not be able to get into the house), all the reader’s emotions are equalized, as in the supremest art, as in all of Nabokov’s art, in a burst of radiance — suffering and joy, grief and plea­sure, tears and laughter, all transfigured into the sustained, immortal ecstasy of aesthetic bliss. ❖

A Book by Andrew Field, Little, Brown, $8.95


In Praise of Pulps

Bannon’s Lusty Lesbian’s

“Ann Bannon” — a pseudonym — now teaches college English somewhere in Cali­fornia, but from 1957 to 1962 she wrote and published six interconnecting potboiler nov­els about contemporary capital-L Lesbian life. These pulp stories are simply amazing reads — engaging, sexy, and unexpectedly il­luminating. It is almost impossible to believe they were written when they were because there was — and is — so little like them. Ban­non took the soft-porn/illicit-love genre and, without denying the reader’s expectation of simplistic, unlikely plot and routinely pas­sionate characters, opened up the form to allow a serious study of three women corning to grips with their attraction to women.

Why did Bannon write potboilers and not “serious” novels? Her pulps were read, passed around, but no library carried them, and they dropped out of sight. (A few years ago, the Arno Press “Homosexuality” series, edited by Jonathan Katz, reissued four; now Tallahassee’s Naiad Press has reprinted five, leaving out the one called Marriage.) A couple of books from the same period used similar “coming out” lesbian themes — The Price of Salt by “Claire Morgan” (Patricia Highsmith) and the moving Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule — but these are straight­forward novels, somewhat quiet in tone if you ignore the shock of their woman-loving protagonists. Although Highsmith and Rule were brave, Ann Bannon “got away” with much more rafter-shaking woman-chasing because potboilers aren’t subject to system­atic cultural censorship. Highsmith’s and Rule’s novels lack the protective subterfuge of genre conventions. The potboiler ploy was Bannon’s strategy. Her problem was to sneak guilt-free prolesbian values past the genre’s sniggering or unsuspecting reader: to find her audience within an audience, or to create it.

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Cultural values are found under any rock the culture has produced. Gemstone or flagstone, the various culture-worms are un­derneath. This is not to say that each rock covers the same ground. In the late 1950s, in these United States, the values most often affirmed in novels, TV shows, advertising, you name it, were the goodness of America, the benefits of progress, and the inalienable right to a home, car, and wife. Of course, these assumptions as well as others — like the status quo of blacks — were openly and covertly challenged, for that’s the way values are defined.

Yet in the late ’50s, some worms still dared not speak their name. Both “high” and popular culture evaluated homosex­uality by denying it. A few exceptions were allowed: complete repression (to invoke the psychoanalytic trope) gives the repressed thing totemic power, and we certainly don’t want that. High culture managed this dif­ficulty through a medical paradigm, defining same-sex inclination as deformity, neurosis, illness, or whatever the culture needed to contain the worm and consolidate control over it. When high culture broached the topic outside the hospital, it did so at its own peril. The spate of novels and stories about male-male love that appeared, logically, just after World War II (Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, John Horne Burns’s The Gallery, Ward Thomas’s Stranger in the Land) were pulled off the market, to live on only as dog-eared documents of a sub­cultural underground — at least until they could be revived in more temperate com­mercial times. In the ’50s, if a novel was “gay,” it was not really a Novel. In this way the forbidden subject of homosex was forced to cancel out the high-cultural ambitions of its vehicle.

Popular and ethnic culture, on the other hand, gave homosexuality some living room in jokes, jazz songs, vaudeville, drag shows, pornography, and pulp lit. Homosex was allowed here, but acknowledgment is not the same as acceptance or, heaven forbid, celebration. Although it must have been pleas­antly surprising to hear any mention of the guy with the pink necktie or the horsey butch with the close-cropped hair at a time when isolation and invisibility were major methods of containment, such pigeonholing was not always accurate. More important, it was rarely humane. And culture is never passive; when provided with only these exag­gerated and derided models, the unformed male-loving male or woman-loving woman may feel obliged to conform to them. It’s true that once a woman-loving woman sees the butch-femme possibilities she can get away with, she will take the roles into her own hands: outsiders make tools of their chains. But lesbian inventiveness, lesbian reality, never floated to the surface. Popular culture admitted a tiny “gay culture,” but one over which those we now call lesbians and gay men had little control.

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Control over culture. Attempting to con­trol one’s culture is not as foolhardy as it sounds; culture is neither “natural” nor nec­essarily handed down by one’s betters. Indi­viduals and groups can be destroyed by cer­tain cultural values, just as we can be in vigorated and empowered by others. How does anyone gain entrance into culture? Storming Random House (why bother?) or zapping The Village Voice (as in the ’70s) may simply allow the cunningly compliant target more accurate knowledge of you. On­going pressure — cultural, electoral, eco­nomic, in the streets — is needed. But during the ’50s, when little or nothing honest about gay male and lesbian lives was available culturally, how could a truth teller grab a niche? Others had learned the lesson: not through high culture. So Bannon stormed the low.

College freshman Laura Landon meets junior Beth Cullison in Odd Girl Out, and after reticent testing of emotional waters, Laura falls in love and makes love with the dominant, flirtatious, but possibly nongay Beth. The risks are made clear not only through the lovers’ sensible caution, but through a subplot in which roommate Emmy is thrown out of sorority and school because she is caught making love — with a man. Bannon’s obvious lesson is that women, one way or another, have little power over their loves and lives unless they somehow take control of them. But this is a trash novel! Laura loses Beth to Charlie, though she has loved and been loved by a woman.

In I Am a Woman, the same Laura Landon leaves her cold, violent father — he never forgave her for dropping out of college so suddenly — and travels to New York, where she gets a job and falls passionately in love with Marcie, who flirts, cries, and ma­nipulates but is just not “that way.” Laura also meets Jack Mann, the gay male deus ex machina of the series. He’s sympathetic and intelligent, yet because he falls in love with young, handsome men who don’t always fall in love back, he has a few troubles of his own. Laura matches up with the colorful, free­-drinking Beebo — don’t ask — Brinker, five-­ten in sneakers and pants. In the throes of passion she refers to Beebo as “Beth.” Laura finally faces her cruel father, tells him her secret, and discovers his. She knocks him out with an ashtray.

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In Women in the Shadows, Laura­ — who’s been with Beebo for two years — can’t stand her anymore. She falls for the first woman who crosses her path. After great difficulty and indecision, she agrees to marry Jack Mann and have his baby by artificial insemination. But she is still not happy. Journey to a Woman reintroduces Beth, who married Charlie and had two kids. Beth hates her life. She has an affair with a neurotic alcoholic model named Vega, then leaves for New York to find … Laura, whom she hasn’t seen since college. She tracks down her spurned love, but after a sexual interlude and much interesting dialogue, Beth and Laura understand that they can’t go home again. Beebo, who hated Beth even before she met her, now makes a play for her. Beth, by the way, is introduced to the New York lesbian scene by Nina, a worldly writer of lesbian novels, which Beth read hungrily while trapped in her suburban home.

The final book, Beebo Brinker, is a ram­bunctious prequel that charts the moves of the 17-year-old Wisconsin farm girl after she was virtually kicked out of town for wearing drag at the State Fair. Beebo Brinker is the most ridiculously plotted of the five. It in­cludes a vengeful Beat-looking lesbian named (you guessed it) Mona, a straight but lesbian-attracted overgrown hood named Pete Pasquini who, with his French wife Marie, runs an Italian takeout restaurant on Carmine Street, through which their deliv­ery “boy” Beebo meets (and falls for) post-­Monroe movie queen Venus Bogardus, who falls for her. Toss in a Beverly Hills mansion, the star’s unhappy teenaged son, a well­-timed epileptic fit, and you’ve got the most unlikely vehicle for straight-faced lesbian commentary imaginable.

Yet all these books, however silly they sound, grab you and don’t let go. Imagine them as maps, with all the plot-quirks and dialogue as cities. As you read, the maps seem directionless, but pull up to an over­view and some of the city-dots — forceful conversations, arguments, emotions — just glow by themselves, ready to be connected. Which scenes stand out? Those that reso­nate with shared gay experience: Laura’s slow and steely resistance to Beth’s unknow­ingly sadistic flirting; Jack’s ambivalence about working as a closeted draughtsman in an office of “virile engineers”; and most touching, young Beebo, uncomfortable in a skirt, wandering the streets of downtown Manhattan with only a yellow “Guide to Greenwich Village” to help her.

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I’m not sure Laura, Jack, or Beebo are there to “like.” Laura’s too hot-cold, Jack’s too selfish, and Beebo’s too … well, too stubborn to be easily sympathetic. Yet the emotion a reader can feel for them is strong, and it results from possible identification with their lot. This identification isn’t lim­ited to gay readers — a measure of Bannon’s skill. “Identify” is an unpopular literary verb, but in this case the “I’ve been there” response overwhelms more sensible distanc­ing. These characters are historical victims in the process of becoming fighters.

Bannon’s pulp world for homosexuals is not an easy one. Everyone drinks too much — alcohol is a common medicine to treat unhappiness. These lesbians, gay men, and nongay characters also drink to keep alive dying passions, drink to keep up with a lover on the gay-bar prowl, or drink to lose their dead-end childhood and become mem­bers of the adult, urban world: for coming out is, in Bannon’s terms, growing up. Her characters fly from family tradition but fear its loss as well. This ambivalence shows itself in odd ways. While family people, real peo­ple, have dinner, Bannon’s lesbians eat sandwiches, which can be ordered from around the corner. The books are full of sandwiches. Jack and Laura get married to insulate themselves from the evanescent gay world of the martini and the sandwich. You can almost hear, in Jack’s nightmare, Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away.”

Bannon’s permanent home for lesbian impermanence is Greenwich Village. Most pre-Stonewall lesbians and gay men will know what I mean when I say that the Village is really Bannon’s main character. In the Village the fringe is central, even though Jack Mann, the Village Virgil, notes in pass­ing that the neighborhood is “filled, too, with ambitious businessmen with wives and families, who play hob with the local bohemia. A rash of raids is in progress on the homosexual bar hangouts at the moment, with cops rousting respectable beard-and-­sandals off their favorite park benches; hustling old dykes who were Village fixtures for eons, off the streets so they wouldn’t offend the deodorized young middle-class wives.”

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What’s new and heartening about Ban­non’s sometimes self-pitying Village is that the fear of impermanence, fear of an anchor-­less life that haunts her more cynical charac­ters, is assumed not to be their fault. Rather, it’s the product partly of an ignorant, puritanical, sometimes bigoted world. Ban­non has few scenes of confrontation between lesbian-hater and lesbian because she is more interested in solutions to self-hatred and in the interaction of lesbian characters themselves. But the outside (non-Village) world’s disgust is the foundation on which these lesbians must build their loves. An ­argument between Laura and Milo, a nongay black man married to a black lesbian trying to pass as Indian, is remarkable for its just-short-of-liberation militance and political connection between sexual and racial oppression:

“What makes you queer, Laura? You tell me.”

“What makes you normal, Milo?”

“I was born that way. Don’t tell me you were born queer! Ha!” And he was sarcastic now. 

“I was made that way,” she said calmly.

“By who?” he asked skeptically.

“A lot of people. My father. A girl named Beth. Myself. Fate.”

He snorted. “Why don’t you give up women?”  

“Why don’t you?” she flashed. 

He blinked at her, beginning to feel her stormy intensity. “Is it that bad?” he asked.

“Sure, it’s that bad! Do you think I live this way because I like it? Would you live like you do if you could live like a white man?”

After a moment he shook his head, look­ing curiously at her.

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Fear of impermanent relationships also arises from another given in Bannon’s les­bian world: passion. Physical attraction and love may merge, but lust can happily flower without — and in spite of — love. Passion is part and parcel of the potboiler, to be sure, but where before had anyone seen such firm, promiscuous, demanding, heartfelt lust orig­inating from women, lesbian or not? In the past, sexually active lesbians were in­troduced to the culture as vampires, sucking the life from innocent girls. Bannon sex­ualizes but defangs her lesbian characters, and by doing so helps to create a new lesbian public image: lustful as well as loving. To manage such multidirected passion requires arcane logistics, and much of the trouble Bannon’s heroines face results from their sleeping with one woman while being in love with another: surely a difficulty not un­known in heterosexual climes. The unhappi­ness — and happiness — that results is the human lot, not the lesbian one. Nowhere does Bannon put an old pulp convention, constant sex, to more liberating use.

Her writing style does the job and no more. Sex scenes manage to be erotic, in the tradition of pre-’60s potboilers, without be­ing organ-specific or obscene. Most of the books’ language is the language of melodrama — love, love, love, hate, hate, hate — but once in a while the result is ab­surd and almost poetic: “In the pale radi­ance of the dashboard they gazed at each other.” Typically, after a character’s ex­clamation of why she did this or that, Ban­non the narrator repeats the same informa­tion: Laura did it because of her father, etc. This framing is wooden, of course, but an odd protective tone hangs on, as if the au­thor is afraid to exhibit her people without herself as buffer. Bannon employs little irony — irony could destroy a potboiler, rais­ing it to camp — and except in Beebo Brinker, she uses few exact historical details. The lesbian-bar jukebox plays, but what song? The lovers shop for a dress, but what style? There may be a reason for this. When Los Angeles movie-star details are dragged out for Beebo Brinker, they detract from the impetus of the book: which is to define the nature of love, lesbian love. To accomplish this, everything is pared down to plot, sex, and frequent tearful discussion.

Potboilers use simple exaggeration to ac­complish their tasks, but when Bannon ex­ploits melodramatic conventions something unusual happens: they become realistic. The only explanation I have is that her lesbian and gay characters are influenced by the melodramatic conventions of the culture that excludes them. As Beebo tells Laura, “That’s all the Village is, honey, just one crazy little soap opera after another.” Beebo and her friends were raised on the primacy of family and the sanctity of love, and though they understand the falsity of these better than most, they still carry around and mouth the trappings. I can’t say that melodrama-as-life is realistic pre-Stonewall behavior, though camp with its selective ex­aggerations has for years been used by gay people as a mode of self-definition and self­-defense. I can say that melodrama does throw its arms around the arenas of daily ’50s gay struggle: not the courts or battlefields, but the dormitories, apartments, and bars. No high-cultural language existed to play out “lesbian heartbreak” so truthfully. Through melodrama, Bannon has backed into a kind of gay realism of her time.

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The lesbians I’ve met who chanced to read Bannon’s potboilers in their first in­carnation remember them as special and very important. “I thought no one else knew about these,” one said, with the assumption that something lesbian and valuable was also, in the past, necessarily secret. It is not hard to imagine what lesbian and gay male readers thought about these books when they first appeared — if they saw them. Ban­non’s work creates a community larger than the Village; anyone, anywhere, who reads “her own” story is connected to the others who read it. Even pulp writing is powerful when it vanquishes isolation.

But what about the nongay reader? Did Odd Girl Out or Journey to a Woman cross the border from titillation, fulfilling its genre promise, to become something more? Would he (or she) skip the plot and gab to get to the you-know-what? Didn’t lesbians do you-know-what all the time? Bannon’s books must have worked as regular pulp, and I can’t guess if a straight audience would have seen through the hot stuff to its mean­ing, or to one of Laura’s short, passionate assertions of self-respect:

“No, I’m facing it,” Laura said. “I know what I am, and I can be honest with myself now. I’ll live my life as honestly as I can, without ruining it.”

Are reprinted potboilers still potboilers? Naiad’s jacket notes call these novels “les­bian classics,” and whatever their initial genre strategy, they have become something more than train-station propaganda. Pas­sage of time, and liberating action — for which Bannon may have planted some of the seeds — have pushed Odd Girl Out and the others into history, gay and lesbian history. These stories were brave, original, and sly. They still are. Readers will recognize the ghost of the old potboiler, but the books have won another life. ■

By Ann Bannon, Naiad Press, $3.95 each, paper