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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. ■

ODD GIRL OUT; I AM A WOMAN; WOMEN IN THE SHADOWS; JOURNEY TO A WOMAN; BEEBO BRINKER
By Ann Bannon, Naiad Press, $3.95 each, paper

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Frontierswomen in Love

“Patience and Sarah,” the story of women in love — with each other — in America early last cen­tury, is a novel with a past. Unable to find a publisher for the book when it was completed in 1968, the author published it herself as “A Place for Us” in a “Bleecker Street Press” edition and sold 1000 copies out of a shop­ping bag. Last year the American Library Association honored it with the First Annual Gay Book of the Year Award. I understand that it has been an underground classic in the Women’s Movement and that many young gay women cherish and find support in it. Its surfacing in bookstores now is welcome because the book was doubtless intended to move and delight a more general audience as well — and I am sure it will.

The novel was inspired by a few facts about the life of Mary Ann Willson, an American primitive painter of the early 1800s, who settled with a “devoted female companion” in Greene County, New York. Miss Miller writes in her afterword: “We know about their ‘romantic attachment’ to each other, their quiet peaceful life, the respect and help of their neighbors, and their dooryard full of flowers, their plowing and haying, their cow, the improvised paints — berries and brick dust­ — the paintings sold for 25 cents to neighbors who carried them all over eastern North America, from Canada to Mobile. We are provoked to tender dreams by a hint. Any stone frorm their hill is a crystal ball.”

Although we learn little of Patience’s paintings, the idea of them infects and unifies this remarkably original book. The writing has the directness and whimsicality of primitive paintings — it is like spiked ginger­bread or surprising samplers. The tone is sweetly bold. And the tale evokes many kinds of frontier at once. Although the women live in a churchly community in Connecticut where they feel restrictions, it also feels like the frontier. And their dream is to go west to York State and the wild, authentic fron­tier. It is refreshing and wonder­fully suggestive for a new women’s love literature to be an­nounced from the pole of civilized history opposite decadence. And it is a witty pleasure to read a frontier tale where the explorers, the pathfinders, the hunters, the new builders are there, but meta­phorically — as gay women!

As in other frontier stories, ev­erything between these pioneer lovers is improvised and fluid. Experience is sometimes so new it precedes language — in loving, their bodies tell them what to do and they invent names for their sensations. And social custom is so young that public censure is fumbling. Patience decides their first kisses will not show: “Her face showed glory so bright I might have worried except that I was sure no one else had any basis in experience for recog­nizing it.” Though Patience’s fa­ther beats her painfully when he knows, her mother and many sisters are moved by their love. Martha — caught in a marriage of murder by pregnancy to Pa­tience’s brother Edward — dis­covers the unlaced lovers, wonders and envies a sweetness and eros she never knew. And their heat sometimes makes even righteous Edward glow.

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All this makes me muse on Leslie Fiedler who, beginning with his essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey,” argued that men in the crucial 19th centu­ry American literature turned from heterosexuality toward each other to know their deepest selves. So here do women turn. But if those American writers were able to imagine only sexless idealized women, Isabel Miller re­troactively gives them the lie and creates women so strong and juicy no men or marriage will answer.

The love between the two women here would be mythic were it not for the reality of the lovers. As in a myth, Sarah’s first kiss brings immediate recognition to Patience: “I knew why she’d been afraid and wondered why I hadn’t been, why I had lured this mighty mystery and astonish­ment into the room, into our lives. I turned my head to save my life.” Then she turns it back, thinking, “Whatever this was, I would live it.”

True, there are retreats. There are moments of confusion as love defines itself. There are alternat­ing initiatives — they take turns getting lost in the present, leaving the burden of their future to the other. Sarah, 21, raised by her fa­ther as a boy, is all honest im­pulse; she first wants to rush with her love to the wilderness, then seeing something of the world’s complexity, would drug herself with a life of secret Sundays in Patience’s room. Patience, 27, is intuitive and in many ways artful; she first fails her love in boldness, refusing her flight, then insists on it, arranging it so her brother will finance it. Strategic retreats, but no doubt about the love, after that first moment no fear of its nature, no pain given or got in it, no en­during loss felt for the exile it causes, almost no cost. Not mythic, it is love in its pastoral phase. The reader doesn’t really want it different, because the book has authority on its own terms, as does the wrought love of the women.

Some of the best adventures in the book yield bemusing commentary on women. When Patience’s nerve fails her, Sarah tries to go west alone, cutting her hair and calling herself Sam. But when her lack of beard makes people stop her for a runaway apprentice, Sarah concludes, “I began to see how boys aren’t much better off than women. Men are the ones who get their way and run the world.”

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She takes refuge in the wagon of an itinerant bookseller. A New York family man, a restless intellectual, the defrocked Parson Peel shares his dreams, his learning, his curiosity, his alphabet with Sarah. Believing her to be a boy, he eventually touches I her knee, assuring her that “men have loved and embraced each other since the beginning of time.” With her unmasking he drops his pursuit and “differences came creeping in, like Parson started helping with the book boxes, and he never said another cuss word in my hearing, and I think a little at a time he stopped educating me. I mean, he seemed to stop saying whatever came into his head. There’d be little waits, it seemed to me, while he thought out what it was fitting or useful for a woman to know.”

Patience had been educated and finished and knew the secret merits of these things. When Sarah was being beaten by her father for trying to see her lover, Patience thought, “It is a sin to raise a girl to be a man believing in strength and courage and candor. We can’t prevail that way.” When they are finally trav­eling together and a man accosts Sarah on a Hudson steamer because of her frank smile, Pa­tience regretfully gives her lessons in being a lady. It’s not that Sarah hadn’t learned holds and throws when she was Sam on the road. But she can’t prevail that way and has to learn to gaze idly into space and not to hear men’s remarks. Patience sums up her method: “You are a very rich, very ill-tempered 50-year-­old lady who has always had her ­own way in everything. You do as you please, and you walk like a lord, and you are deaf.”

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It is the 19th century, after all, and ladies’ accomplishments were still more appropriate than karate. When she was born, Patience’s father, “wondering how someone with all that go could stand to be a woman,” said “he’d half hoped naming me Patience would help a little.” It did. One wonders what helped Isabel Mill­er and other writers like her stand the arcane, early American taboos of the publishing industry so long. Well now the territory is opened, and we can watch the settlers fill up the frontier.

***

An afterthought — two tests for the uncertain buyer. (1) If you like the cover, the primitivesque rendering of Sarah and Patience in formal marital embrace, you’ll like the book, because it fits. (2) Did you like Charles Portis’s “True Grit”? Some of the droll ingenuousness when Sarah speaks is like that. Better buy it — this is not so likely to be made into movie. For one thing, there’s no part for John Wayne. ❖

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The Beats: Mailer Vs. Kerouac

Books: The Beats

The idea that Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer are mutually excludable from each other’s Beat Generation is, of course, one that is engendered by and subject to many doubts. Now, however, Seymour Krim dispels the idea entirely. At least, he finds both Kerouac and Mailer mutually includable in his Beat Generation, which he defines in broad proportions in his new anthology, “The Beats.” But actually Kerouac and Mailer have long been literary brothers, even if under each other’s skin. Which one founded the Beat Generation and which one merely found it is just a matter of semantics. Kerouac named it Beat and Mailer calls it Hip, but both have been equally perceptive and outspoken in their presagement, reporting, and defense of it, if not equally maligned.

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Mountains of Abuse

One has only to read the reviews of Kerouac’s works to see the mountain of abuse heaped on him. But one also has only to read his works to see the capability his soul has for suffering such abuse. “Kerouac is beautiful! Don’t you see that?” asks Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac’s close friend. “… I mean he has a real quality of soulful magician and artful kindness, a willingness to be talked to and communicate, even drunk, knowing the lie of fate — he comes through anyway — ” And it’s true. Despite a sensitivity of criticism which is painfully manifest, Kerouac continues to stand, unhidden, as he really is, in his writing and in his person, the butt of derision which comes from deep and rigid misunderstanding. Even in the face of the most hopeless and intransigent laughter, he presents his own true face, inviting more.

Mailer, although his own suffering is no less apparent, has the lingering reputation of a more traditional success to buffer him. Not that he is any less outspoken.

A Trend

In any event, Kerouac went on the road to discover that the Beatness he had encountered in New York has what the less ethereally inclined would call a trend. He found it everywhere that his thumb and various other vehicles would take him, and the distances he traveled are well documented. Kerouac’s discovery of the Beat Generation was at a grass-roots level, a term that seems strangely compatible with trend.

As for Mailer, although his research probably was no less empirical, it seems to have been at other levels. Perhaps it might be concluded that, in one way, Mailer found in his own mind what Kerouac found throughout America.

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First Wind

This does not detract from the value of either Kerouac’s “On the Road” or Mailer’s “The White Negro,” both of which were the first wind of a second revolution in this century, moving not forward toward action and more rational equitable distribution, but backward toward being and the secrets of human energy,” to borrow a phrase from Mailer. With due consideration given to John Clellon Holmes’ novel, “Go,” and his subsequent article, “This is the Beat Generation,” printed in the New York Times as long ago as 1952, it was these two works, “On the Road” and “The White Negro,” which were the first cogent explanations of the strange new Hip mysticism of the Beat Generation of any length and of any significant audience, (Ginsberg’s “Howl,” more of a manifesto, was something else again.) So close, in fact, were Kerouac and Mailer in their thinking that Kerouac, until he learned “The White Negro” was published prior to “On the Road,” considered Mailer’s work a precis of his own. But then Kerouac has had good reason for his anxiety over the proprietorship of his ideas. One of his most bitter complaints is that not only has his meaning of Beat been corrupted but his authorship of the term has even been challenged.

Kerouac and Mailer, of course, have been between the same sheets before. They appeared together in another anthology, “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men,” edited by Gene Fledman and Max Gartenberg, which included “The White Negro” and selections from “On the Road.” Unhappily, but probably necessarily, “The Beats” doesn’t include “The White Negro.” Instead it includes a piece from “The Deer Park,” which is somewhat less than Beat in its message and much less in its style, but which is from a body of writing upon which Mailer is willing to stake his reputation with prosperity. (This seems to be a good point to note that “On the Road,” if it hasn’t already been recognized as a literary landmark, soon will. It is the turning point of the 1960’s.)

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The chief complaint against the Feldman and Gartenberg anthology was from the Beats themselves, who insisted that the selections were not entirely representative of them and, in some cases, misrepresentative. The same criticism might apply to Krim’s anthology. But then, one of the selections under attack is “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Man” was that of Mailer.

The difficulty is that there are many who claim that they are Beat and many who claim they are not with equal emptiness. And then there are those like Chandler Brossard and Anatole Broyard who are neither Beat nor claim to be and who were included first in Feldman’s and Gartenberg’s book and who now are included in Krim’s. Brossard may have, as Krim says he has, “a cool eye.” Broyard may be, as Krim says, “a white-collar Beat.” They may both even be Hip. Certainly their writing make them see so. But the same might be said for J.D. Salinger and he’s printed in the New Yorker. 

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Best and Worst

Otherwise Krim presents some of the Beat writing such as selections from Kerouac’s “Visions of Cody,” and some of the worst, such as Dan Propper’s “The Fable of the Final Hour.” It is “Visions of Cody” alone that might make the book worth its 35 cents, although “Cody” will soon be out in its entirety, as all of Kerouac eventually will. “Visions of Cody” is his greatest book, according to his own opinion, and its music is testimony to the verbal inventiveness and virtuosity of Kerouac, which all too few among Kerouac’s all too many readers seem willing to acknowledge. In the circles of reviewmanship, Kerouac is continually compared to hashed Wolfe or reheated Faulkner, and yet the range and variation of style within his remarkably growing bookshelf is just as remarkable. (It would seem that the differences among, say, “On the Road,” and “The Subterraneans,” “Dr. Sax,” and now “Visions of Cody” are even more obvious than the similarities.) Not only that, but there is a grace, a majesty, and a tenderness to his language, even in Hip talk, that is abjectly lacking among many of the younger Beat emulators, such as Propper. Kerouac is not along in his command of words; Ginsberg and Corso are similarly commanding. Even Burroughs, with his unredeemed style, is, too. It makes no difference that both the inspiration and the content of this literature is of an intuitive, emotional, and mystical nature. For these who love language, it is still literature.

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There are other portions of “The Beats” which in themselves are well worth the book’s 35 cents. (My God! For 35 cents, how could you go wrong!) Ginsberg, Corso, Holmes, Lamantia, Bremser, Snyder would be more than worth the price even without covers. And Diane Di Prima’s contribution is especially overwhelming. (The selections from Burroughs and Ferlinghetti, however, seem somewhat random.) And Krim provides a new eye. There has been some comment about his own comments, offered at the beginning of each selection. But those are short notes written by a man who says that Beatness has liberated him from himself, or at least from his psychoanalysts, and he proves this freedom with his language. Why should he be denied his own vision? ■

1960 Village Voice article about the Beat writers

1960 Village Voice article about the Beat writers

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

James Fenimore Cooper’s Brave Old World

The Father of Us All

James Fenimore Cooper, once the most familiar of American writers, has by now become very nearly the strangest. He is an ancestor just remote enough to be im­penetrable, the voice of an origin to which we no longer feel intimately linked. Only a generation separates him from Melville, but that generation marks a great divide: in our perspective Melville seems the first of the moderns, and Cooper the last of the ancients. Yet this alienation from Cooper will perhaps enable us to read him fully for the first time. For Cooper’s scope is vast, and only a portion of his work — The Leatherstocking Tales, The Spy, a handful of the sea stories — was ever assimilated into the national canon. His extraordinary range en­compasses tendentious novels of ideas (Home As Found, The Chainbearer), idyllic regional chronicles (Satanstoe), grotesque satire (The Manikins), ideological dissec­tions of European history (The Bravo), travel books (Sketches of Switzerland), controversial political treatises (The Ameri­can Democrat), and increasingly experimental flights of social and religious allegory (The Crater, The Oak Openings). Taken as a whole, his work reveals him as a primordial inventor of genres, the cosmogra­pher of a new literature and a new mind. Traditionally, however, his books have been valued not so much on their own quirky terms as for their wealth of suggestive and infinitely plunderable images and situ­ations. He has functioned as a psychic com­post heap; until recently, any American writer could be counted on to have passed, usually at an early age, through Cooper’s primal landscapes of sea and forest. The glades and rapids and rocky barricades of The Last of the Mohicans and The Deer­slayer have served American literature as an internalized theme park, a terrain where every cranny became absorbed into the col­lective unconscious.

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Yet despite his penetration of the nation­al psyche, and his status as more or less the George Washington of American letters, the respect Cooper has received at home has rarely been more than grudging. The writer who so profoundly affected Balzac and Schubert and Belinsky was definitively classed by his compatriots as a maker of children’s adventures. There is hardly a lit­erary sin of which he has not been accused. His conception of novelistic form was said to be clumsily appropriated from Sir Walter Scott; his characterizations were wooden, his plots perfunctory. Worst of all, he was — ­and is — widely considered the most incom­petent of stylists. His prose, more than any­thing, has kept readers away from him — a style usually described as inexpressive, stilted, convoluted. It isn’t simply that his writing is old-fashioned; Cooper’s prose has been making problems for people right from the start. Early on, Poe took aim at “an awkwardness so remarkable as to be a matter of absolute astonishment, when we consider his long and continual practice with the pen,” and Mark Twain, elaborating irritably on the thesis that ”Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,” testified to the queasiness that Cooper’s style can induce: ”When a person has a poor ear for music he will flat and sharp right along without knowing it. He keeps near the tune, but it is not the tune. When a person has a poor ear for words, the result is a literary flatting and sharping; you perceive what he is intending to say, but you also perceive that he doesn’t say it. This is Cooper.”

I have my own rueful associations with that style, since Cooper was the first grown­up writer I ever attempted to read. Driven by a childhood obsession with war-whoops and musket-fire, and having exhausted ev­ery available synopsis, retelling, and comic book adaptation of the Leatherstocking novels, I felt it was time to enter the real forest. No doubt I envisioned some fabulous intensification of experience: the wooded playland glimpsed in N.C. Wyeth’s splendid illustrations would, if I could read the original, be brought to life. The disappoint­ment that ensued sent me back to Dr. Seuss and Little Lulu for another year. Where I had anticipated lakes and clearings and bracing wilderness air, I was assailed by thickets of subordinate clauses, labyrinths of circumlocution, and the meanderings of a syntax that seemed to move away from the reality I wanted it to reveal.

Cooper’s literary mannerisms can un­questionably be a trial. Despite his almost somnambulistic methods of composition —­ he wrote rapidly and prolifically, often without pausing to revise or even read over what he had done — his language is remark­able not for its fluency or forward drive but for its tentativeness, its tortuous entangle­ments, the sense of heavy lifting which in­forms its minutest transitions. Repeatedly we encounter the sentence that turns back on itself, the sentence that struggles to es­cape from its own beginning, the sentence that hauls itself breathlessly to shore: “Mabel was becoming used to a situation that, at first, she had found not only novel, but a little irksome, and the officers and men, in their turn, gradually familiarized to the presence of a young and blooming girl, whose attire and carriage had that air of modest gentility about them, which she had obtained in the family of her patroness, an­noyed her less by their ill concealed admira­tion, while they gratified her by the respect which, she was fain to think, they paid her on account of her father, but which, in truth, was more to be attributed to her own modest, but spirited deportment, than to any deference for the worthy serjeant.”

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Cooper’s admirers tend to get around such sentences by calling him a great or near-great writer who by chance wrote bad­ly — in which case he would seem to achieve by sheer ineptitude that discomfiture with language that some postmodernists inten­tionally induce. But I don’t think the sub­liminal implications of his style can be dis­missed as accidental side effects. The smoothness he lacks may be a smoothness that on some level he rejected; the torsions of his syntax may denote not a technical failure but a deep and unresolved debate over what is to be seen and what is to be said. This would make Cooper the first of a long line of American writers who have sought to crash through the web of “fine writing” to reach a rawer sense of things as they are. The unease and incompleteness of Cooper’s sentences are associated with an opening up to the things of the world, a desire to include everything.

In all his writings, Cooper is aware that he is the first full-scale imaginer, the progenitor of a literature. He has a blank book in which to transcribe a new world, but the only language available to him is that of the old world. The struggle starts there. He must shift that language around so that it can show something its makers never saw: a task, all the harder in that Cooper wasn’t much of a literary type to begin with. (An ex-Navy man living the life of a gentleman farmer, he had backed into a writing career at 31 — supposedly out of exasperation on reading a popular novel.) He becomes visi­bly frustrated at the difficulties of saying exactly what he means, but he persists, sac­rificing grace to honesty: Writing of a young girl unable to draw her lover’s face from memory, he compares her to “the author, whose fertile imagination fancies pictures that defy his powers of description”: a simi­le from the heart. In Cooper’s temperament one senses a rough impatience, an urge to seize hold of language and push it where he wants it to go. His prose is a battlefield, and sometimes the author himself seems to feel he is losing the battle. At such moments there is an impression of something just missed, an equation not quite completed, a mental flailing in which the boundary be­tween words and what they describe is momentarily smudged. His rocks have commas in them; the trees are made of paper; you part the glistening branches and find an unwieldy cluster of abstractions staring you in the face.

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“The season and the night, to represent them truly, were of a nature to stimulate the sensations which youth, health and hap­piness are wont to associate with novelty.” This might be a snapshot by John Locke, and it requires a leap of faith to find in it the weather of Lake Ontario on an autumn evening. Nevertheless the underlying sense of physical reality is so strong in Cooper’s books that some readers make the leap. We never doubt that there is a world there; its dynamics are evident in the very inarticulateness to which he is sometimes reduced. Seeing is rarely a simple process, least of all for Cooper. When he tries to say what is in the woods he finds himself caught between conflicting systems: there is the tree in it­self, the tree as the Indians see it, the tree as the whites see it. Cooper charts contradictory viewpoints with cumbersome preci­sion. Judge Temple, in The Pioneers, sees the woods with the foresight of a real estate developer: “To his eye, where others saw nothing but a wilderness, towns, manufactories, bridges, canals, mines, and all the other resources of an old country, were constantly presenting themselves.” The mental baggage people bring to the wilderness is part of the scene, and the abstract nouns which haunt Cooper’s landscapes can be seen as the ghostly harbingers of the civili­zation which has come to despoil the lakes and forests. A phrase such as “vast sublimi­ty” hovers above the treetops like a malevolent helicopter.

We should take nothing for granted about Cooper’s writing; it’s too easy to focus on what he fails to do and thereby miss what he does. Even to think of his books as novels may be misleading. While they bear a close external resemblance to the romances of Sir Walter Scott — complete with poetic epigraphs and orotund expository preludes — their internal workings are en­tirely different: looser, more open to digression, more various on texture. A Cooper nov­el can be as much a hodgepodge of disparate elements as The Cantos or The Maximus Poems or any other example of that most American of genres, the universal collage, the Book of Everything. Although he was demonstrably capable of writing a polished, unified novel — The Bravo, his claustrophobic exercise in Venetian in­trigue, is a superb example — he often didn’t choose to do so. His books, become clearer if we read them as a succession of scenes,

sentences, fragments. Some are fragments of novels, some of other things: a descrip­tive geography, a manual of carpentry, a dialect comedy acted by off-duty militia­men, a pamphlet on land rights, a philosophical disputation, a demonstration of the art of wooing, a sermon, a bill of lading, the rant of a bearded prophet spawned by the wilderness. Cooper discon­certs by his unpredictability. One minute he evokes, with reverent awe, the glories of God; the next he’s muttering about the money-grubbing habits of Connecticut men or discoursing on the fine points of canoe construction. Jokes and massacres are found side by side. The balance is always uneasy, always improvisational.

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Essentially Cooper wants to do far more than his chosen form will let him. The stan­dard novel imposes standard destinies, but Cooper is trying to talk about things that have never happened before. His own origi­nality undermines the structures of his books, so that they are often most powerful just where the cracks in the design begin to show. How else account for the undeniable impression of reality he creates out of the most unreal elements? The Prairie, for, in­stance, features a plot that is clumsy to the point of incoherence; its characters shift about like peculiar operatic marionettes, and its scenes of comic relief are tedious even by Cooper ‘s standards. Yet the stagi­ness and the static rhythms fuse into an insistent solemnity. The melodramatic epi­sodes open up to reveal other scenes latent within them, the flowery speeches reverber­ate against an arid silence, and the stereo­typed characters startle into sudden life, as if without warning a mask became a dis­turbingly real face. Rocks and vegetation work their way into the story and somehow take it over: ”A solitary willow had taken root in the alluvion, and profiting by its exclusive possession of the soil, the tree had sent up its stem far above the crest of the adjacent rock, whose peaked summit had once been shadowed by its branches. But its loveliness had gone with the mysterious principle of life … The larger, ragged and fantastick branches still obtruded them­selves abroad, while the white and hoary trunk stood naked and tempest-riven. Not a leaf, not a sign of vegetation was to be seen about it. In all things it proclaimed the frailty of existence, and the fulfillment of time.” Such are the gnarled epiphanies of Cooper’s art.

If we assume that Cooper wrote the way he intended to write, even his most annoying traits begin to look like meaningful strategies rather than the result of haste and slovenliness. Take, for example, the verbiage he lavishes on the most fleeting of incidents. In The Deerslayer he spends nearly a page analyzing the way Natty Bumppo lifts his rifle and fires at a concealed target. In the midst of this split-second action, Cooper even finds time for a flashback, recalling “the long practices Deerslayer as a hunter” which enables him to aim without sighting; and when, an instant later, a wounded Mingo comes hurt­ling out of the bushes, Cooper informs us that Natty stands there “steady as one of the pines in the calm of a June morning.” He deliberately dilates the moment, creat­ing an effect curiously like slow motion by introducing images which crudely insert the idea of long duration.

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When his scenes of action really get rolling, Cooper’s methods sometimes anticipate cinema. In The Pathfinder, the lone survi­vor of an Indian massacre hides in an attic and stares helplessly at its open trapdoor: “As yet nothing was visible at the trap, but her ears, rendered exquisitely sensitive by intense feeling, distinctly acquainted her that some one was within a few inches of the opening in the floor. Next followed the evidence of her eyes, which beheld the dark hair of an Indian rising so slowly through the passage that the movement of the head might be likened to that of the minute hand of a clock. Then came the dark skin and wild features, until the whole of the swarthy, face had risen above the floor.” Again the effect is obtained by a distension of time, here made intolerable by the deadly simile (and time-consuming, with so little time to spare) of a minute hand. At moments of crisis Cooper evokes those dreams in which one cannot run. A kind of stupor overtakes him in the heart of the action, a suspended lurch, like the feeling of being in the top car when a ferris wheel stops turning. The apparently halting rhythms of his prose can also be experienced as a vibrant stasis.

This uncertain relationship to time is perhaps what is most American about “the American Scott,” as his contemporaries in­sisted on calling him. In Scott the perspec­tives and durations are of a piece; he preserves a fixed distance from the events depicted, an undisturbed frame; he has made his peace with space and time. The result is harmony, balance, unity of tone. But no terms had been set for what Cooper was trying to do. “On the human imagina­tion,” he notes at the beginning of The Deerslayer, “events produce the effects of time.” The opening up of the American wil­derness was a rent in the spatio-temporal fabric, and the coordinates by which the event could be measured remained indeter­minate. As a consequence, point of view and depth of focus shift erratically in Cooper’s fiction, and the unfolding of events is some­what random. Nothing is given to him; he has to work out on his own where he’s standing and where he’s going.

The groping, lumpy quality of his plots has often been criticized, yet their awk­wardness — like the awkwardness of his lan­guage — is what saves them from petrifac­tion. The Last of the Mohicans, for instance, consists largely of circuitous criss­crossing movements through different kinds of space: sieges, concealments, infil­trations, pursuits. Characters are defined by how they get from one point to another, which in turn is determined by their con­ception of place. In a typical scene, Cooper assembles his beleaguered protagonists in a clearing and for a few pages sustains a box­like little tableau — a hermetic salon — only to have an alien presence intrude from the underbrush and shatter the frame. The sweetly soporific tinkle of civilized chitchat is interrupted by “horrible cries and screams, such as man alone can utter, and he only when in a state of the fiercest bar­barity.” The woods become a collage of dis­similar noises. The Indians are acquainted with “the extremes of human sounds,” have access to shrill or guttural limits unknown to the whites, who cautiously stick to the middle register of the larynx, just as they hew to the main path through the woods and try not to think about the tangled shadows that border it.

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Cooper is mapping a wilderness, and to do so he must stand a little outside his civilized Christian heroes and heroines: he must spy on them like an Indian hidden in the branches. The whites carry a mental theater with them through the forest, a dia­gram of boundary lines and focal points which keeps them sane by giving them a false sense of security. The Indians, mean­while, inhabit a distinct space which happens to occupy the same ground. The colo­nists can’t see a thing, blinded by their notions of background and foreground, in­side and outside. The berries that Captain Heyward notes along the fringe of the trail are in fact “the glistening eye-balls of a prowling savage”: in other words, what seems a fringe to him is the center of a separate world.

The Indian’s relation to space is a dis­course the European cannot decipher. The eye of the treacherous Magua — “like a fiery star … fixed, as if penetrating the distant air” —  discerns invisible paths where the whites see only “thickening gloom … a dark barrier along the margin of the stream.” Civilized modes of perception be­come a positive drawback, an encumbrance like the elaborate skirts of Cooper’s endan­gered females. “What right have christian whites to boast of their learning,” cries Nat­ty Bumppo, “when a savage can read a lan­guage, that would prove too much for the wisest of them all!” Whatever can he said about Cooper’s depiction of Indian culture, he at least acknowledges that it exists and that its terms are valid within their own sphere. Much has been made of the Good Indian/Bad Indian dichotomy embodied by his Delawares and Hurons, but even the ferocious Magua is allowed a perfectly rea­sonable justification for his actions. In fact his eloquent fulmination against the whites reflects some of Cooper’s enduring preoccu­pations: “With his tongue, he stops the ears of the Indian; his heart teaches him to pay warriors to fight his battles; his cunning tells him how to get together the goods of the earth; and his arms enclose the land from the shores of the salt water, to the islands of the great lake. His gluttony makes him sick. God gave him enough, and yet he wants all. Such are the pale-faces.”

What Cooper admits through the speech of Indians is an alternate description of the world, a description suffused, like the war­-song of Uncas, with “depth and energy.” When Chingachgook discourses on the history of his people, it isn’t simply an exercise in exotic diction. Cooper attempts to convey a different way of thinking about place and personal identity and the passage of time: “We came from the place where the sun is hid at night, over great plains where the buffaloes live, until we reached the big riv­er.” Cooper’s images often seem more re­ductive than they are. It’s true that he com­pares the cave dwellings of the Hurons to “the shades of the infernal regions, across which unhappy ghosts and savage demons were flitting in multitudes.” But he isn’t saying that the Hurons are demons, only that they look that way to the whites. A troubled relativism eats away at the moral certainties of his fictions. In the end little is left unquestioned.

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It was natural that his great saga should shape itself around the figure of an outsid­er, a detached onlooker. Natty Bumppo, Cooper’s infinitely serviceable hero, is both marginal and fundamental: the mystical frontiersman, Saint Francis of the Venison, “simple-minded, faithful, utterly without fear … a sort of type of what Adam might have been supposed to be before the fall.” Only Natty, of all the whites, understands the shape of the land and the code of its native inhabitants. Since he alone knows what’s out there, only he can assess the value of any particular action. The other Europeans simply flounder. Natty’s job much of the time is to conduct them from one controlled enclosure to another, the iro­ny being that the new imperial owners of the wilderness are powerless within it. They literally do not know where they are until they find themselves once again within a fortified zone. Natty is the indispensable conduit, the medium of translation, the Pathfinder who opens up connections be­tween alien cultures while fully belonging to none. Instead of being centered in one frame of reference, he stands at the edge, at the point where turfs collide.

To the hapless whites he materializes like the woodland sprite of a fairy tale. The multiplicity of his names — Deerslayer, Hawk-eye, Pathfinder, Leatherstocking, La Longue Carabine, or, in his transcendent old age, simply ”the trapper” — gives him the air of a mercurial being, and his powers of adaptation and camouflage are little short of magical. It takes all his serpentine litheness to save the whites from the conse­quences of their physical and conceptual rigidity. At the same time, the mythic ener­gies that Natty’s presence unleashes save Cooper from the stylistic rigidity into which he is ever in danger of lapsing. “His feelings appeared to possess the freshness and na­ture of the forests in which he passed so much of his time”: he is the Green Man of the American woodland, the Ariel of the vast and trackless island on which the Europeans have stranded themselves. He goes and comes silently and as he pleases. Natty might be said to embody Cooper’s imagina­tion, so much more rapid and flexible than the inherited mechanics of his storytelling.

Mostly, Natty passively endures. Like a rock or an oak he weathers the storms of history. Cooper first presented him, in The Pioneers, as a crotchety half-comical old man; brought him to his death in the mid­dle novel of the series, The Prairie; and then moved with him progressively back­ward in time, rejuvenating Natty until he recedes into a verdant prehistoric alcher­inga teeming with fish and game. From first to last he exists outside of historical progression; he carries about his person his own nimbuslike Golden Age; wherever he walks is the transient Eden that preceded the trauma of settlement. His heroism consists of refraining from action, and through all his adaptations he changes without chang­ing his surroundings. Like the Indians, he leaves no trail, and he hunts without deplet­ing: “If a body had a craving for pigeon’s flesh, why! it’s made the same as all other creaters for man’s eating, but not to kill twenty and eat one.” His experience of the new civilization is a slowly gathering sor­row: “I have lived to see what I thought eyes could never behold in these hills, and I have no heart left for singing.” The more deeply we are drawn into Natty’s view of the world, the more we understand why Cooper’s narrative halts and draws back, why he lingers so naggingly over uncompleted actions. It’s because he wants time to reverse, or to stop altogether. He doesn’t want the story to reach its appointed conclusion; he doesn’t want history to happen.

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The reasons were clear from the outset. In the first book of the series we have al­ready seen the end: the regulated streets of Templeton, the tree stumps testifying to decimated forests, the heaps of wild pigeons slaughtered to no purpose, the slow stran­gulation of liberty by lawyers and bailiffs. This was the world that Cooper’s father made. William Cooper established Coopers­town in the wilderness of upstate New York, and reigned there — as squire, judge, and congressman — in baronial style. Tem­pleton is Cooperstown, and The Pioneers, that jaggedly elegiac book, is Cooper’s at­tempt to project himself into what existed just before his own birth. That region be­yond memory is his paradise, but a paradise already hopelessly tainted. The noble Chingachgook has become Indian John, re­duced by civilization to alcoholism and a debased Christianity; he sells baskets for a living and when drunk lapses into ancient chants. Natty Bumppo, unable to fend off the encroaching “troubles and divilties of the law,” goes to jail for hunting out of season. The first American novelist writes, at bottom, of the death of America: a death, as it were, in embryo. All that might have been had already been uprooted, cast aside, trampled on. The Leatherstocking Tales spring from a rankling and obsessive nostal­gia, and they oscillate restlessly between the lost paradise of the virgin woods and the “vast and naked fields” of the prairie land to which Natty is finally driven “to escape the wasteful temper of my people. The Prairie as it progresses becomes more and more an apocalyptic recitative, the bitterly resigned death-song of Natty Bumppo: “It will not be long afore an accursed band of choppers and loggers will be following on their heels to humble the wilderness which lies so broad and rich on the western banks of the Mississippi, and then the land will be a peopled desert from the shores of the Maine sea to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, fill’d with all the abominations and craft of man and stript of the comfort and loveliness it received from the hand of the Lord!”

The inward agony of the novels lies in Cooper’s inability to detach himself either from the land or from the civilization that rips it apart. They are all in him: his father the builder of towns, Natty the magical woodsman drained of his powers by prog­ress, and Hard Heart, the Pawnee chief, who exclaims: “Is a nation to be sold like the skin of a beaver!” The warring elements can arrive at no real harmony. Each novel culminates in a retreat; the pieces will not fit together; one of the parties must with­draw or die. Cooper’s Romantic tastes failed to alleviate the painful objectivity with which he was cursed. He was stuck with an aesthetic of discomfort. The simplest of longings — for some stability, some respite from America’s dizzying and horrifying se­quence of transformations — could find nowhere to nest. Not in the culture of the Indians, which Cooper might in some re­spects admire but could never emulate; not in the rapacious culture of oligarchs and demagogues toward which he saw America evolving. His imagination took refuge in a sliver-thin interval of time that had already ended, or had perhaps never existed. He transcribed its dense unsettled woods into a fictional language equally dense and equally unsettled. ■

THE LEATHERSTOCKING TALES
Vol. 1: The Pioneers, The Last of the Mohicans, The Prairie.
Vol. 2: The Pathfinder, The Deerslayer
By James Fenimore Cooper
Library of America; $27.50 each

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

A Fierce Attachment

A Mother and Daughter, Living Their Lives

I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second­-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette. My mother locks the door and says to her, “What are you doing here?” Mrs. Drucker jerks her head backward toward her own apart­ment. “He wants to lay me. I told him he’s gotta take a shower before he can touch me.” I know that “he” is her hus­band. “He” is always the husband. “Why? He’s so dirty?” my mother says. “He feels dirty to me,” Mrs. Drucker says. “Drucker, you’re a whore,” my mothers says. Mrs. Drucker shrugs her shoulder. “I can’t ride the subway,” she says. In the Bronx, ride the subway was a euphemism for going to work.

I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and 21. There were 20 apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly re­member the men at all. They were every­where, of course — husbands, fathers, brothers — but I remember only the women. And I re­member them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as though they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew. Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I — the girl growing in their midst, being made in their image — I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me 30 years to understand how much of them I understood.

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My mother and I are out walking. I ask if she remembers the women in that building in the Bronx. “Of course,” she replies. I tell her I’ve always thought sexual rage was what made them so crazy. “Absolutely,” she says without breaking her stride. “Remember Drucker? She used to say if she didn’t smoke a cigarette while she was having intercourse with her husband she’d throw herself out the window. And Zimmerman, on the other side of us? They married her off to him when she was 16, she hated his guts, she used to say if he’d get killed on the job it would be a mitzvah.” My mother stops walking. Her voice drops in awe of her own memory; “He actually used to take her by physical force,” she says. “Would pick her up in the middle of the living room floor and carry her off to the bed.” She stares into the middle distance for a moment. Then she says to me: “The European men. They were animals. Just plain animals.” She starts walking again. “Once Zimmerman locked him out of the house. He rang our bell. He could hardly look at me. He asked if he could use our fire escape window. I didn’t speak one word to him. He walked through the house and climbed out the window.” My mother laughs. “That fire escape window, it did some business! Remember Cessa upstairs? Oh no, you couldn’t remember her, she only lived there one year after we moved in, then the Russians were in that apartment. Cessa and I were friendly. It’s so strange, when I come to think of it. We hardly knew each other, any of us, sometimes we didn’t talk to each other at all. But we lived on top of one another, were in and out of each other’s houses. Every­body knew everything in no time at all. A few months in the building and the women were, well, intimate.

“This Cessa. She was a beautiful young woman, mar­ried only a few years. She didn’t love her husband. She didn’t hate him, either. He was a nice man, actually. What can I tell you, she didn’t love him, she used to go out every day, I think she had a lover somewhere. Anyway, she had long black hair down to her ass. One day she cut it off. She wanted to be modern. Her husband didn’t say anything to her but her father came into the house, took one look and gave her a slap across the face she saw her grandmother from the next world. Then he instructed her husband to lock her in the house for a month. She used to come down the fire escape into my window and out of my door. Every afternoon for a month. One day she comes back and we’re having coffee in the kitchen. I say to her, ‘Cessa, tell your father this is America, Cessa, America. You’re a free woman.’ She looks at me and she says to me, ‘What do you mean tell my father this is America? He was born in Brooklyn.’ ”

My relationship with my mother is not good, and as our lives accumulate it often seems to wors­en. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding. For years at a time there is an exhaustion, a kind of soften­ing, between us. Then the rage comes up again, hot and clear, erotic in its power to compel attention. These days it is bad between us. My mother’s way of “dealing” with the bad times is to accuse me loudly and publicly of the truth. Whenever she sees me she says, “You hate me. I know you hate me.” I’ll be visiting her and she’ll say to anyone who happens to be in the room — a neighbor, a friend, my brother, one of my nieces — “She hates me. What she has against me I don’t know, but she hates me.” She is equally capable of stopping a stranger on the street when we’re out walking and saying, “This is my daughter. She hates me.” Then she’ll turn to me and plead, “What did I do to you you should hate me so?” I never answer. I know she’s burning and I’m glad to let her burn. Why not? I’m burning, too.

But we walk the streets of New York together endless­ly. We both live in lower Manhattan now, our apart­ments a mile apart, and we visit best by walking. My mother is an urban peasant and I am my mother’s daughter. The city is our natural element. We each have daily adventures with bus drivers, bag ladies, ticket takers, and street crazies. Walking brings out the best in us. I am 45 now and my mother is 77. Her body is strong and healthy. She traverses the island easily with me. We don’t love each other on these walks, often we are raging at each other, but we walk anyway.

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The apartment was a five-room flat, with all the rooms opening out onto each other. The kitchen window faced an alley in back of the building. There were no trees or bushes or grasses of any kind in the alley — only concrete, wire fencing, and wooden poles. Yet I remember the alley as a place of clear light and sweet air, suffused, somehow, with a perpetual smell of summery green.

The alley caught the morning sun (our kitchen was radiant before noon), and it was a shared ritual among the women that laundry was done early on a washboard in the sink and hung out to dry in the sun. Crisscrossing the alley, from first floor to fifth, were perhaps 50 clotheslines strung out on tall wooden poles planted in the concrete ground. Each apartment had its own line stretching out among 10 others on the pole. The wash from each line often interfered with the free flap of the wash on the line above or below, and the sight of a woman yanking hard at a clothesline, trying to shake her wash free from an indiscriminate tangle of sheets and trousers, was common. While she was pulling at the line she might also be calling, “Berth-a-a. Berth-a-a. Ya home, Bertha?” Friends were scattered throughout the buildings on the alley, and called to each other all during the day to make various arrangements (“What time ya taking Harvey to the doctor?” Or, “Got sugar in the house? I’ll send Marilyn over.” Or, “Meetcha on the corner in ten minutes”). So much stir and animation! The clear air, the unshadowed light, the women calling to each other, the sounds of their voices mixed with the smell of clothes drying in the sun, all that texture and color swaying in open space. I leaned out the kitchen window with a sense of expectancy I can still taste in my mouth, and that taste is colored a tender and brilliant green.

For me, the excitement in the apartment was located in the kitchen and the life outside its window. It was a true excitement: it grew out of contradiction. Here in the kitchen I did my homework and kept my mother company, watched her prepare and execute her day. Here, I learned she had the skill and vitality to do her work well but that she disliked it, and set no store by it. She taught me nothing. I never learned how to cook, clean, or iron clothes. She was a boringly competent cook, a furiously fast housecleaner, a demonic washerwoman.

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Still, she and I occupied the kitchen fully. Although my mother never seemed to be listening to what went on in the alley, she missed nothing. She heard every voice, every motion of the clothesline, every flap of the sheets, registered each call and communication. We laughed together over this one’s broken English, that one’s loud­mouthed indiscretion, a screech here, a fabulous curse there. Her running commentary on the life outside the window was my first taste of the fruits of intelligence: she knew how to convert gossip into knowledge. She would hear a voice go up one octave and observe: “She had a fight with her husband this morning.” Or it would go down an octave and “Her kid’s sick.” Or she’d catch a fast exchange and diagnose a cooling friendship. This skill of hers excited me. Life seemed fuller, richer, more interesting when she was making sense of the human activity in the alley. I felt a live connection, then, be­tween us and the world outside the window.

The kitchen, the window, the alley. It was the atmo­sphere in which she was rooted, the background against which she stood outlined. Here she was smart, funny, and energetic, could exercise authority and have impact. But she felt contempt for her environment. “Women, yech!” she’d say. “Clotheslines and gossip,” she’d say. She knew there was another world — the world — and sometimes she thought she wanted that world. Bad. She’d stop dead in the middle of a task, staring for long minutes at a time at the sink, the floor, the stove. But where? how? what?

So this was her condition: here in the kitchen she knew who she was, here in the kitchen she was restless and bored, here in the kitchen she functioned admirably, here in the kitchen she despised what she did. She would become angry over “the emptiness of a woman’s life,” as she called it, then laugh with a delight I can still hear when she analyzed some complicated bit of business going on in the alley. Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator. How could she not be devoted to a life of such intense division? And how could I not be devoted to her devotion?

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We’re walking up Fifth Avenue. It’s a bad day for me. I’m feeling fat and lonely, trapped in my lousy life. I know I should be home working, and that I’m here playing the dutiful daughter only to avoid the desk. The anxiety is so great I’m walking with a stomach ache. My mother, as always, knows she can do nothing for me, but my unhappiness makes her nervous. She is talking, talking at tedious, obfuscating length, about a cousin of mine who is con­sidering divorce.

As we near the library, an Eastern religionist (shaved head, translucent skin, a bag of bones wrapped in faded pink gauze) darts at us, a copy of his leader’s writing extended in his hand. My mother keeps talking while the creature in gauze flaps around us, his spiel a steady buzz in the air, competing for my attention. At last, she feels interrupted. She turns to him. “What is it?” she says. “What do you want from me? Tell me.” He tells her. She hears him out. Then she straightens her shoulders, draws herself up to her full five feet two inches, and announces: “Young man, I am a Jew and a socialist. I think that’s more than enough for one lifetime, don’t you?” The pink-gowned boy-man is charmed, and for a moment bemused. “My parents are Jews,” he confides, “but they certainly aren’t socialists.” My mother stares at him, shakes her head, grasps my arm firmly in her fingers, and marches me off up the avenue.

“Can you believe this?” she says. “A nice Jewish boy shaves his head and babbles in the street. A world full of crazies. Divorce everywhere, and if not divorce this. What a generation you all are!”

“Don’t start, Ma,” I say. “I don’t want to hear that bullshit again.”

“Bullshit here, bullshit there,” she says, “it’s still true. Whatever else we did, we didn’t fall apart in the streets like you’re all doing. We had order, quiet, dignity. Fam­ilies stayed together, and people lived decent lives.”

“That’s a crock. They didn’t lead decent lives, they lived hidden lives. You’re not going to tell me people were happier then, are you?”

“No,” she capitulates instantly. “I’m not saying that.”

“Well, what are you saying?”

She frowns and stops talking. Searches around in her head to find out what she is saying. Ah, she’s got it. Triumphant, accusing, she says, “The unhappiness is so alive today.”

Her words startle and gratify me. I feel pleasure when she says a true or a clever thing. I come close to loving her. “That’s the first step, Ma,” I say softly. “The unhappiness has to be made alive before anything can happen.”

She stops in front of the library. She doesn’t want to hear what I’m saying, but she’s excited by the exchange. Her faded brown eyes, dark and brilliant in my child­hood, brighten as the meaning of her words and mine penetrates her thought. Her cheeks flush and her pud­ding soft face hardens wonderfully with new definition. She looks beautiful to me. I know from experience she will remember this afternoon as a deeply pleasurable one. I also know she will not be able to tell anyone why it has been pleasurable. She enjoys thinking, only she doesn’t know it. She has never known it.

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A year after my mother told Mrs. Drucker she was a whore, the Druckers moved out of the building and Nettie Levine moved into their apartment. I have no memory of the Druckers moving out or of Nettie moving in. People and all their belongings seemed to evaporate out of an apartment, and others simply to take their place. How early I absorbed the circumstantial nature of most attachments. After all, what difference did it really make if we called the next-­door neighbor Roseman or Drucker or Zimmerman? It mattered only that there was a next-door neighbor. Nettie, however, would make a difference.

I was running down the stairs after school, rushing to get out on the street, when we collided in the darkened hallway. The brown paper bags in her arms went flying in all directions. We each said “Oh!” and stepped back, I against the staircase railing, she against the paint-blis­tered wall. I bent blushing to help her retrieve the bags scattered across the landing and saw that she had bright red hair piled high on her head in a pompadour and streaming down her back and over her shoulders. Her features were narrow and pointed (the eyes almond­-shaped, the mouth and nose thin and sharp), and her shoulders were wide but she was slim. She reminded me of pictures of Greta Garbo. My heart began to pound. I had never before seen a beautiful woman.

“Don’t worry about the packages,” she said to me. “Go out and play. The sun is shining. You mustn’t waste it here in the dark. Go, go.” Her English was accented, like the English of the other women in the building, but her voice was soft, almost musical, and her words took me by surprise. My mother had never urged me not to lose pleasure, even if it was only the pleasure of the sunny street. I ran down the staircase, excited. I knew she was the new neighbor.

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Everything about Nettie proved to be impossible. She was a gentile married to a Jew like no Jew we had ever known. Her husband was a Merchant Marine, away at sea most of the time. (“Impossible,” my mother had said, “what Jew would work voluntarily on a ship?”) Alone and apparently free to live wherever she chose, Nettie had chosen to live among working-class Jews who offered her neither goods nor charity. A woman whose sexy good looks brought her darting glances of envy and curiosity, she seemed to value inordinately the life of every respectable dowd. She praised my mother lavishly for her housewifely skills — her ability to make small wages go far, always have the house smelling nice and the children content to be at home — as though these skills were a treasure, some precious dowry that had been denied her, and symbolized a life from which she had been shut out. My mother — secretly as amazed as everyone else by Nettie’s allure — would look thoughtful­ly at her when she tried (often vaguely, incoherently) to speak of the differences between them, and would say to her, “But you’re a wife now. You’ll learn these things. It’s nothing. There’s nothing to learn.” Nettie’s face would then flush painfully, and she’d shake her head. My mother didn’t understand, and she couldn’t explain.

Rick Levine returned to New York two months after Nettie had moved into the building. She was wildly proud of her tall, dark, bearded seaman — showing him off in the street to the teenagers she had made friends with, dragging him in to meet us, making him go to the grocery store with her. An illumination settled on her skin. Her green almond eyes were speckled with light. A new grace touched her movements: the way she walked, moved her hands, smoothed back her hair. There was suddenly about her an aristocracy of physical being. Her beauty deepened. She was untouchable.

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I saw the change in her, and was magnetized. I would wake up in the morning and wonder if I was going to run into her in the hall that day. If I didn’t I’d find an excuse to ring her bell. It wasn’t that I wanted to see her with Rick: his was a sullen beauty, glum and lumpish, and there was nothing happening between them that inter­ested me. It was her I wanted to see, only her. And I wanted to touch her. My hand was always threatening to shoot away from my body out toward her face, her arm, her side. I yearned toward her. She radiated a kind of promise I couldn’t stay away from, I wanted … I want­ed … I didn’t know what I wanted.

But the elation was short-lived: hers and mine. One morning, a week after Rick’s return, my mother ran into Nettie as they were both leaving the house. Nettie turned away from her.

“What’s wrong?” my mother demanded. “Turn around. Let me see your face.” Nettie turned toward her slowly. A tremendous blue-black splotch surrounded her half-closed right eye.

“Oh my God,” my mother breathed reverently.

“He didn’t mean it,” Nettie pleaded. “It was a mis­take. He wanted to go to the bar to see his friends. I wouldn’t let him. It took a long time before he hit me.”

After that she looked again as she had before he came home. Two weeks later Rick Levine was gone again. He swore to his clinging wife that this would be his last trip. When he came home in April, he said, he would find a good job in the city and they would at long last settle down. She believed that he meant it this time, and finally she let him pull her arms from around his neck. Six weeks after he had sailed, she discovered she was pregnant. Late in the third month of his absence, she received a telegram informing her that Rick had been shot to death during a quarrel in a bar in port some­where on the Baltic Sea. His body was being shipped back to New York, and the insurance was in question.

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Nettie became intertwined in the dailiness of our life so quickly it was hard for me to remember what our days had been like before she lived next door. She’d slip in for coffee late in the morning, then again in the afternoon, and seemed to have supper with us three nights a week. Soon I felt free to walk into her house at any hour, and my brother was being consulted daily about Rick’s insurance.

“It’s a pity on her,” my mother kept saying. “A widow. Pregnant, poor, abandoned.”

Actually, her unexpected widowhood made Nettie safely pathetic and safely other. It was as though she had been trying, long before her husband died, to let my mother know that she was disenfranchised in a way Mama could never be, perched only temporarily on a landscape Mama was entrenched in, and when Rick obligingly got himself killed this deeper truth became apparent. My mother could now sustain Nettie’s beauty without becoming unbalanced, and Nettie could help herself to Mama’s respectability without being humbled. The compact was made without a word between them. We got beautiful Nettie in the kitchen every day, and Nettie got my mother’s protection in the building. When Mrs. Zimmerman rang our bell to inquire snidely after the shiksa my mother cut her off sharply, telling her she was busy and had no time to talk nonsense. After that no one in the building gossiped about Nettie in front of any of us.

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My mother’s loyalty, once engaged, was unswerving. Loyalty, however, did not prevent her from judging Nettie, it only made her voice her reservations in a manner more indirect than the one to which she was accustomed. She would sit in the kitchen with her sister, my aunt Sarah, who lived four blocks away, discussing the men who had begun to appear, one after another, at Nettie’s door in the weeks following Rick’s death. These men were his shipmates, coming to offer condolences. There was, my mother said archly, something strange about the way these men visited. And Nettie herself acted strangely with them. Perhaps that was what was most troubling: the odd mannerisms Nettie seemed to adopt in the presence of the men. My mother and my aunt exchanged “glances.”

“What do you mean?” I would ask loudly. “What’s wrong with the way she acts? There’s nothing wrong with the way she acts. Why are you talking like this?” They would become silent then, both of them, neither answering me nor talking again that day about Nettie, at least not while I was in the room.

One Saturday morning I walked into Nettie’s house without knocking (her door was always closed but never locked). Her little kitchen table was propped against the wall beside the front door — her foyer was smaller than ours, you fell into the kitchen — and people seated at the table were quickly “caught” by anyone who entered without warning. That morning I saw a tall thin man with straw-colored hair sitting at the kitchen table. Opposite him sat Nettie, her head bent toward the cotton print tablecloth I loved (we had shiny boring oilcloth on our table). Her arm was stretched out, her hand lying quietly on the table. The man’s hand, large and with great bony knuckles on it, covered hers. He was gazing at her bent head. I came flying through the door, a bundle of nine-year-old intrusive motion. She jumped in her seat, and her head came up swiftly. In her eyes was an expression I would see many times in the years ahead but was seeing that day for the first time, and although I didn’t have the language to name it, I had the sentience to feel jarred by it. She was calculating the impression this scene was making on me.

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It rained earlier in the day and now at one in the afternoon, for a minute and a half, New York is washed clean. The streets glitter in the pale spring sunlight. Cars radiate dust-free happiness. Storefront windows sparkle mindlessly. Even people look made anew.

We’re walking down Eighth Avenue into the Village. At the corner of Eighth and Greenwich is a White Tower hamburger joint where a group of derelicts in permanent residence entertains visiting out-of-towners from 14th Street, Chelsea, even the Bowery. This after­noon the party on this corner, often raucous, is definite­ly on the gloomy side, untouched by weather renewal. As we pass the restaurant doors, however, one gentleman detaches from the group, takes two or three uncertain steps, and bars our way. He stands, swaying, before us. He is black, somewhere between 25 and 60. His face is cut and swollen, the eyelids three-quarters shut. His shoes are two sizes too large, the feet inside them bare. So is his chest, visible beneath a grimy tweed coat that swings open whenever he moves. This creature con­fronts us, puts out his hand palm up, and speaks.

“Can you ladies let me have a thousand dollars for a martini?” he inquires.

My mother looks directly into his face. “I know we’re in an inflation,” she says, “but a thousand dollars for a martini?”

His mouth drops. It’s the first time in God knows how long that a mark has acknowledged his existence. “You’re beautiful,” he burbles at her. “Beautiful.”

“Look on him,” she says to me in Yiddish. “Just look on him.”

He turns his bleary eyelids in my direction. “Whad­she-say?” he demands.

“She said you’re breaking her heart,” I tell him.

“She-say-that?” His eyes nearly open. “She-say-that?”

I nod. He whirls at her. “Take me home and make love to me,” he croons, and right there in the street, in the middle of the day, he begins to bay at the moon. “I need you,” he howls at my mother and doubles over, his fist in his stomach. “I need you.”

She nods at him. “I need too,” she says dryly. “Fortu­nately or unfortunately, it is not you I need.” And she propels me around the now motionless derelict. Para­lyzed by recognition, he will no longer bar our progress down the street.

We cross Abingdon Square. The gentrified West Vil­lage closes around us, makes us not peaceful but quiet. We walk through block after block of antique stores, gourmet shops, boutiques, not speaking. But for how long can my mother and I not speak?

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“So I’m reading the biography you gave me,” she says. I look at her, puzzled, and then I remember. “Oh!” I smile in wide delight. “Are you enjoying it?”

“Listen,” she begins. The smile drops off my face and my stomach contracts. That “listen” means she is about to trash the book I gave her to read. She is going to say, “What. What’s here? What’s here that I don’t already know? I lived through it. I know it all. What can this writer tell me that I don’t already know? Nothing. To you it’s interesting, but to me? How can this be interest­ing to me?” On and on she’ll go, the way she does when she thinks she doesn’t understand something and she’s scared.

The book I had given her to read was a biography of Josephine Herbst, a ’30s writer, a stubborn willful raging woman grabbing at politics and love and writing, in there punching until the last minute. “Listen,” my mother says now in the patronizing tone she thinks conciliatory. “Maybe this is interesting to you, but not to me. I lived through all this. I know it all. What can I learn from this? Nothing. To you it’s inter­esting. Not to me.” Invariably, when she speaks so, my head fills with blood and before the sentences have stopped pouring from her mouth, I am lashing out at her. “You’re an ignoramus, you know nothing, only a know-nothing talks the way you do.” On and on I’ll go, thoroughly ruining the afternoon.

However, in the past year an odd circumstance has begun to obtain. On occasion, my head fails to fill with blood. I become irritated but remain calm. Not falling into a rage, I do not make a holocaust of the afternoon. Today, it appears, one of those moments is upon us. I turn to my mother, throw my left arm around her still solid back, place my right hand on her upper arm, and say, “Ma, if this book is not interesting to you, that’s fine. You can say that.” She looks coyly at me, eyes large, head half-turned; now she’s interested. “But don’t say it has nothing to teach you. That there’s nothing here. That’s unworthy of you, and of the book, and of me. You demean us all when you say that.” Listen to me. Such wisdom. And all of it gained 10 minutes ago.

Silence. Long silence. We walk another block. Silence. She’s looking off into that middle distance. I take my lead from her, matching my steps to hers. I do not speak, do not press her. Another silent block. “That Josephine Herbst,” my mother says. “She certainly car­ried on, didn’t she?”

Relieved and happy, I hug her. “She didn’t know what she was doing either, Ma, but yes, she carried on.” “I’m jealous,” my mother blurts at me. “I’m jealous she lived her life I didn’t live mine.”

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Mama and Nettie quarreled, and I entered City College. In feeling memory these events carry equal weight: Both inaugurated open conflict, both drove a wedge between me and the un­knowing self, both were experienced as subver­sive and war-like in character. Certainly the conflict between Nettie and my mother seemed a strategic plan to surround and conquer. Incoherent as the war was, shot through with rage and deceit, its aims apparently confused and always denied, it never lost sight of the enemy: the intelligent heart of the girl who if not  bonded to one would be lost to both. City College, as well, seemed no less concerned with laying siege to the ignorant mind if not the intelligent heart. Benign in in­tent, only a passport to the promised land, City of course was the real invader. It did more violence to the emotions than either Mama or Nettie could have dreamed possible, divided me from them both, provoked and nourished an un­shared life inside the head that became a piece of treason. I lived among my people but I was no longer one of them.

I think this was true for most of us at City College. We still used the subways, still returned to the neighborhood each night, talked to our high school friends, and went to sleep in our own beds. But secretly we had begun to live in a world inside our heads where we read talked thought in a way that separated us from our parents. We had been initiated, had learned the difference between hidden and expressed thought. This made us subversives in our own homes.

As thousands before me have said: “For us it was City College or nothing.” I enjoyed the solidarity those words in­voked but rejected the implied depriva­tion. At City College I sat talking in a basement cafeteria until 10 or 11 at night with half a dozen others who also never wanted to go home to Brooklyn or the Bronx, and here in the cafeteria my edu­cation took root. Here I learned that Faulkner was America, Dickens was poli­tics, Marx was sex, Jane Austen the idea of culture, that I came from a ghetto and D.H. Lawrence was a visionary. Here my love of literature named itself, and amazement over the life of the mind blos­somed. I discovered that people were transformed by ideas, and that intellectu­al conversation was immensely erotic.

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We never stopped talking. Perhaps be­cause we did very little else (restricted by sexual fear and working-class economics, we didn’t go to the theater and we didn’t make love), but certainly we talked so much because most of us had been read­ing in bottled-up silence from the age of six on and City College was our great release. It was not from the faculty that City drew its reputation for intellectual goodness, it was from its students, it was from us. Not that we were intellectually distinguished, we weren’t, but our hungry energy vitalized the place. The idea of intellectual life burned in us. While we pursued ideas we felt known, to ourselves and each other. The world made sense, there was ground beneath the feet, a place in the universe to stand. City Col­lege made conscious in me inner cohesion as a first value.

I think my mother was very quickly of two minds about me and City, although she had wanted me to go to school, no question about that, had been energized by the determination that I do so. “Where is it written that a working-class widow’s daughter should go to college?” one of my uncles said to her, drinking coffee at our kitchen table on a Saturday morning in my senior year in high school.

“Here it is written,” she replied, tap­ping the table hard with her middle fin­ger. “Right here it is written. The girl goes to college.”

“But why? What do you think will come of it?”

“I don’t know. I only know she’s clever, she deserves an education, and she’s go­ing to get one. This is America. The girls are not cows in the field only waiting for a bull to mate with.” I stared at her. Where had that come from?

The moment was filled with conflict and bravado. She felt the words she spoke but she did not mean them. She didn’t even know what she meant by an education. When she discovered that upon graduation I wasn’t a teacher, she acted as though she’d been swindled. In her mind a girl child went in one door marked college and came out another marked teacher.

“You mean you’re not a teacher?” she said to me, eyes widening as her two strong hands held my diploma down on the kitchen table.

“No,” I said.

“What have you been doing there all these years?” she asked quietly.

“Reading novels,” I replied.

She marveled silently at my chutzpah.

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But it wasn’t really a matter of what I could or could not do with the degree. We were people who knew how to stay alive, she never doubted I would find a way. No, what drove her, and divided us, was me thinking. She hadn’t understood that going to school meant I would start thinking: coherently and out loud. She was taken by violent surprise. My sentences got longer within a month of those first classes. Longer, more complicated, formed by words whose meaning she did not always know. I had never before spo­ken a word she didn’t know. Or made a sentence whose logic she couldn’t follow. Or attempted an opinion that grew out of an abstraction. It made her crazy. Her face began to take on a look of animal cunning when I started a sentence that could not possibly be concluded before three clauses hit the air. Cunning sparked anger, anger flamed into rage. “What are you talking about?” she would shout at me. “What are you talking about? Speak English, please! We all understand En­glish in this house. Speak it!”

Her response stunned me. I didn’t get it. Wasn’t she pleased that I could say something she didn’t understand? Wasn’t that what it was all about? I was the advance guard. I was going to take her into the new world. All she had to do was adore what I was becoming, and here she was refusing. I’d speak my new sentences, and she would turn on me as though I’d performed a vile act right there at the kitchen table.

She, of course, was as confused as I. She didn’t know why she was angry, and if she’d been told she was angry she would have denied it, would have found a way to persuade both herself and any interested listener that she was proud I was in school, only why did I have to be such a show-off? Was that what going to college was all about?

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I was 17, she was 50. I had not yet come into my own as a qualifying bellig­erent but I was a respectable contender and she, naturally, was at the top of her game. The lines were drawn, and we did not fail one another. Each of us rose repeatedly to the bait the other one tossed out. Our storms shook the apart­ment: paint blistered on the wall, lino­leum cracked on the floor, glass shivered in the window frame. We barely kept our hands off one another, and more than once we approached disaster.

One Saturday afternoon she was lying on the couch. I was reading in a nearby chair. Idly she asked: “What are you reading?” Idly I replied: “A comparative history of the idea of love over the last 300 years.” She looked at me for a mo­ment. “That’s ridiculous,” she said slow­ly. “Love is love. It’s the same every­where, all the time. What’s to compare?” “That’s absolutely not true,” I shot back. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s only an idea, Ma. That’s all love is. Just an idea. You think it’s a function of the mysterious immutable be­ing, but it’s not! There is, in fact, no such thing as the mysterious immutable be­ing … ” Her legs were off the couch so fast I didn’t see them go down. She made fists of her hands, closed her eyes tight, and howled, “I’ll kill yew-w-w! Snake in my bosom, I’ll kill you. How dare you talk to me that way?” And then she was com­ing at me. She was small and chunky. So was I. But I had 30 years on her. I was out of the chair faster than her arm could make contact and running, running through the apartment, racing for the bathroom, the only room with a lock on it. The top half of the bathroom door was a panel of frosted glass. She arrived just as I turned the lock, and couldn’t put the brakes on. She drove her fist through the glass, reaching for me. Blood, screams, shattered glass on both sides of the door. I thought that afternoon: One of us is going to die of this attachment. ■

This article is an excerpt from Fierce Attachments, a memoir by Vivian Gornick that will be published later this month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 

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Elvis Presley as Moby Dick

Writer Greil Marcus, a passionate student of our nation’s past and a madman for rock ‘n’ roll music, has in Mystery Train: Images of America In Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (Dutton, $8.95), set out to define that heady space where our history and our art merge into a single, durable vision of our country — a vision that is capable of illuminating the deepest and darkest recesses of our collective democratic soul. Mystery Train is determinedly and proudly in the tradition of such ground­breaking works of American cultural criti­cism as Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and F.O. Matthiessen’s American Renais­sance (the first two of which Marcus draws from in his work); as his predecessors sought to understand Poe’s nightmares or the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in terms of our most substantial national myths, so Marcus attempts to place such songs as Randy Newman’s “Sail Away,” The Band’s “Across the Great Divide,” and Elvis Presley’s early efforts for Sam Phillips at Sun Records into the same broad cultural context.

Marcus believes that rock ‘n’ roll no more deserves to be pigeonholed as a transient manifestation of “youth” culture than Huckleberry Finn deserves to be thought of as an adventure tale for 10-year-old boys. To prove his case, he forces his chosen musicians to carry the weight of much of American history, literature, social thought, and even geography to see if they can do so without collapsing under the stress. To a great extent, Marcus’s heroes come through very nicely indeed, and Mystery Train, which runs the risk of reading like a literary man’s pretentious effort to rationalize his craving for pop, instead has a humbling effect. At the end of the book, we, like Marcus, appreciate that we have only begun to hear what the most popular music of our time is telling us.

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Marcus has chosen to organize his book around a handful of artists who “share in their music and in their careers … a range and a depth that seem to crystallize naturally in visions and versions of America: its limits, openings, traps”; after giving Mystery Train a “backdrop” in the form of brief essays on two rock ‘n’ roll ancestors, “howling tomcat” Harmonica Frank (Marcus’s quintessential Huck) and bluesman Robert Johnson (his Ahab), he goes on to The Band, Sly Stone, and New­man, before wrapping up with his climactic (and lengthiest) section, “Elvis: Presliad.” Throughout Marcus writes in a forceful, enthusiastic, almost driven style — he grabs his subjects by the lapels and shakes them until their vital organs tumble out — and his frame of reference is so vast that he never runs out of connections worth making between the music he loves and just about anything else that matters in American art and life.

Marcus finds (brilliantly, I think) an aesthetic link between Music from Big Pink and Robert Altman’s film McCabe and Mrs. Miller; he traces the legend of Staggerlee beyond the music of Johnson and Stone to the lives and politics of Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, and Eldridge Cleaver — and then even further, into the black Superfly exploitation movies of the ’70s; Raymond Chandler is brought to bear on New­man, and all over the book there are whispers from Tocqueville, Perry Miller, and Scott Fitzgerald, not to mention graceful invocations of the Great Awakening, the Civil War, and the Gilded Age. It’s a measure of how long and rich a view Marcus takes of these musicians and, concurrently, a vindication of the value he places in their work, that it never becomes necessary to shove Water­gate or Vietnam into our faces to give the rock of Mystery Train its share of meaning.

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In all of his subjects, Marcus finds both a quest for that freedom that Americans regard as a birthright and a realization (tragically late in some cases) of the dread and terror that lie behind the face of that dream. Each of the book’s protagonists have, in their music, reinvented unique pieces of the American mythos that set them apart from each other (from The Band’s vision of a joint-stock American community to Newman’s synthesis of the Southern California polarities represented by the Beach Boys and Nath­anael West). In the end, it is only Elvis who can bind Marcus’s entire litany of images together.

That’s why the “Presliad” is the knockout section of the book; if Newman is, as the author indicates, his Bartleby, then Elvis is most certainly his Moby Dick. “Beside Elvis,” Marcus writes, “the other heroes of this book seem a little small-time. If they define different versions of America, Presley’s career almost has the scope to take America in.”

Marcus’s writing about Presley reaches a pitch of ecstasy, horror, and understanding that diminishes the prose of the book’s previous chapters as effectively as Elvis diminishes the subjects of those chapters. For Marcus, Elvis is the man who has best redeemed “the grandest fantasy of freedom,” but he has done so at the expense of resolving all the vital American tensions (“it is rather Lincolnesque; Elvis recognizes that the Civil War has never ended, and so he will perform The Union” ) — finally to end up in “a world that for all its openness … is aesthetically closed, where nothing is left to be mastered, where there is only more to accept.”

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It’s a frightening dramatization of the ultimate bankruptcy of what this country teaches us to live for. But even now, as Elvis goes through the motions in Vegas, Marcus catches flashes of hope: “And so Elvis Pres­ley’s career defines success in a democracy that can perhaps recognize itself best in its popular culture … success so grand and complete it is nearly impossible for him to perceive anything more worth striving for. But there is a horror to this utopia — and one might think that the great moments Elvis still finds are his refusal of all that he can have without struggling. Elvis proves then that the myth of supremacy for which his audience will settle cannot contain him … “

The electrifying beat of the “Pres­liad” aside, Mystery Train is not without its problems. Marcus has a tendency to repeat himself and to oversell a beloved song with superlatives; he has included some cutely labeled digressions that don’t successfully sidestep the fact that the book often doesn’t work as an organic piece of writing. (To his credit, however, he has thrown most of his more conventionally inbred rock criticism into the annotated discography that follows the main text.) At the most substantive level, he has neatly avoided taking on any American myths that might raise the disturbing, Fiedler-esque questions about our culture’s peculiar relationship to sex. I also wonder whether rock fans who are not well steeped in what universities call American Studies (which Marcus has taught at Berkeley ) are going to have a lot of fun with Mystery Train — the book isn’t written down to anyone — but maybe the very success of Marcus’s mission makes that beside the point. While our literature undoubtedly adds resonance to the best of our popular music, and vice versa, Mystery Train just as strongly suggests that, for many Americans, rock ‘n’ roll on its own, even when it’s heard in a cultural vacuum, may not be doing such a bad job of keeping our democratic vistas intact.

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The Unbearable Whiteness of Publishing, Pt. 2

The Unbearable Whiteness of Book Publishing

On the surface, book publishing seems a world apart from the realm of newspapers and magazines — and certainly it has different rhythms, scales, and ownership. Book publishing also ap­pears to be more integrated, at least judg­ing by the slew of nonwhite writers who’ve made the bestseller list over the last sever­al years: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Cornel West, Marian Wright Edelman, Amy Tan. But for all the millions of copies and dollars those names represent, the industry remains almost completely white. As black mystery writer Walter Mosley wrote last year, “American publishing, the very bastion of liberalism, the benefactor of the First Amendment, has kept any hint of color from its halls.” 

Although most houses today are an arm of some entertainment conglomerate, publishing clings to several traditions that harken back to an age of tweedy gentle­men. Editors still conduct business over two-and three-hour lunches, often several times a week. During the summer, many houses give their employees every Friday afternoon off, the quicker, presumably, to get to literary hideaways in the Hamptons or Berkshires.

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These informalities, the intertwining of business and friendships, also extend to publishing’s talent pool. “They hire their friends, or the children of friends,” says agent Faith Hampton Childs, who is black. Lit people always mention Erroll McDonald and Sonny Mehta, but the list of editors of color generally ends there. “You won’t get arthritis counting them on both hands,” says Childs, adding that pub­lishing “is much less integrated” than her last profession — the law. 

Thus the number game in the maga­zine or newspaper business — a higher or lower percentage of people of color­ — can’t even be played in book publishing. A handful of publishing houses — Ran­dom House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, Berkeley/Putnam, Warner Books — together with their subsidiaries account for a majority of the books published in the United States. In these companies, the question is not how many people of color they employ at decision-making levels, but whether they have any at all. 

The mere request for data is met with a wall of silence. “We don’t give out those statistics,” says Andrew Giangola of Simon & Schuster. “We don’t keep them, and if we did, we wouldn’t make employment figures public,” says Stuart Appelbaum, a spokesperson for Doubleday. “It’s almost impossible that we can get you that kind of information,” says a publicist for Random House and Knopf. In 1994, the authors’ group Poets, Essayists, and Novelists (PEN) announced the formation of an Open Book Committee, to pressure publishers to open their corridors to more people of color. Headed by Walter Mosley, the committee has commissioned a research firm to find out just how many — or few — people of color work in the book trade. The theory, according to one committee adviser, is that “these publishing people have to be shocked or shamed into doing something.”

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There are a few white editors on the inside who are grappling with the problem. Eamon Dolan has been an editor at HarperCollins for three years. He meets informally and semiregularly with about a dozen similarly placed book editors in various New York publishing houses. Recently, the topic of book publishing’s overwhelming whiteness came up. Dolan says that in his own shop, there are “15 or 16” acquiring editors who are responsible for HarperCollins’s 250 titles a year. All of them are white, a situation he says is true at every major house. “If anything, Harper may be slightly ahead,” Dolan says, citing one lower-tier editor who is half Latina. 

In Dolan’s view, the shortage is partly attributable to publishing’s economics. Book and journalism editors repeatedly explain that their internship programs are a prime recruitment pool; for reasons few seem interested in exploring, intern applicants are overwhelmingly white. “I looked at more than 100 resumes for this summer’s internship program,” one New York editor told me. “As best I can tell, four of those people were black and two were Asian. By the time I phoned them, they had made other plans for the summer.” 

Of course, it’s understandable that many potential interns would make other plans — the pay of publishing internships is low or nonexistent. One of publishing’s grand traditions is to make interns bust their asses for months, receive no pay until they get some first “break,” and earn the right to a scandalously low entry-level salary as an editorial assistant. How low? Through the late 1980s, a starting position at the prestigious house of Farrar, Straus & Giroux paid just around $10,000 a year — below the poverty line for a family of four. Today the position pays $16,000.

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And yet there’s never a shortage of people who want to take a job at FSG, or indeed to take just about any position in publishing. Gerald Howard, an editor at W. W. Norton, says: “When one of my editorial assistants announces that they are leaving, I’ve never seen an ad to fill that spot. I lift my pinky and the most staggering résumés hit my desk. They come from a network of agents, writers, and academics … It’s not really an open process. It’s not closed consciously, but it doesn’t seem to have to open.” What this means, though, is that a lot of people who’ll fill those slots are “children of privilege,” as Dolan says — which in America means overwhelmingly white. Alter­nately, they are people willing to be very poor for a period of time — and that too may act as a screen against many people of color.

In fact, the low pay of publishing can be a hurdle for many among the working class, regardless of race. In Dolan’s case, he calls him­self “the child of immigrants,” that is, Irish immigrants, for whom “book publishing doesn’t have much cachet … My family looks askance at my career. They made huge sacrifices to send me to a big, fancy college — and what’s the re­turn on their investment? Eight years into my career I’m making in the mid five figures. My brother maintains mainframe computers … and makes a lot more money. He’s considered the success of the family.”

Dolan’s theory of how publishing economics — in both books and journalism — keep out people of color is borne out in the experience of Rosa (not her real name), a 25-year-old Cuban woman who recently left book publishing. Upon graduating from college, Rosa took an entry-level job in a firm that published legal directories. This was dull work, but Rosa hoped it would open an avenue into publishing fiction. “I thought it would be a lot of fun, and challenging,” she explains. “I’ve always loved to read, and I wanted to learn how a book actually goes from being an idea to a finished book.”

In 1993, a coworker of Rosa’s from the legal publishing firm got a job as an editorial assistant at Pocket Books. “She was always telling me about how great it was, and encouraging me to make the same move,” Rosa said.

Through her former colleague, Rosa heard about an opening at a similar mass market publishing house, whose paperback writers include several best-selling authors. In the fall of 1994, Rosa was offered an editorial assistant position there. The job required her to take a sizable cut in pay, to $19,000 a year. This, Rosa says, “upset” her parents, with whom she rents an apartment. “They couldn’t understand why I was doing it, because I do need to pay a lot of the rent.” Her parents, who have lived in the United States for 20 years, “don’t make much money … They really are worried about the financial side of things.”

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Nonetheless, Rosa understood that to succeed in book publishing, she had to endure what is essentially an apprentice track, from editorial assistant to assistant editor to — for the lucky — acquiring editor. She took the job.

Rosa found herself one of two people of color in an office of about 30 people. “It was pretty white,” she recalls. Rosa says that she found the atmosphere somewhat intimidating. Although she says she was well treated by her immediate boss, the rest of the white people in the office were less than welcoming. “No one ever said anything that was racist, not at all,” she recalls. “But I had a feeling like they didn’t know what to do with me. Mostly, I didn’t talk to that many people.”

Rosa also found mass marketing not to her taste. “It wasn’t what I expected,” she says. “Really, I didn’t have the temperament to be in that business. It was a lot more selling than I realized. I couldn’t see myself being successful.” 

Key to this revelation was an aversion to the publishing class. In Rosa’s view, the other people in her position dealt with the low salary in very different ways than she did. “Their parents own a house, or most of them do … A lot of kids think  it’s fun, to be just getting by for a couple of years. It’s sort of like an adventure. I had to explain to my boss that we’ve been struggling like this 20 years. It’s not fun any more.”

After just five months, Rosa left her publishing job, began taking predental courses, and took a job as a secretary. “It’s much easier work, and I’m making $5000 a year more.” She plans to be­gin dental school in the fall, and her family is pleased at the extra money.

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If the economics of publishing is a chief barrier to hiring people of color, then the dismal situation is not likely to improve soon. For at least a decade, hiring and wages in the industry have been stagnant at best. As Dolan points out, most books lose money, which means that the portfolios of most editors lose money, which means in turn that publishers are loath to hire more or pay more. Magazines and newspapers, up against soaring costs and flat circulation, are in the same boat. Cutbacks are inevitable, and peo­ple of color — often the last hired — will be the hard­est hit.

But maybe this ironclad logic is wrong. Maybe the only way for publishing to return to its previous economic strength is to learn to serve markets of color more quickly and deeply. A quickie biog­raphy of slain Tejano singer Selena shot to the top of the bestseller list this spring, surely in part be­cause it was one of the first mass market books published as a bilingual volume. To institutional­ize such successes, however, publishers need to expand traditional methods of marketing and distri­bution.

Susan Bergholz, an agent who represents sev­eral Latino authors, says that some of the most suc­cessful readings her clients have had took place not in a bookstore or auditorium but in a hairdresser’s shop in Santa Ana, California. “This guy started bringing in books for the women while they were getting their hair done, and he’s turned into a bookseller.” She cites Latino novelist Luis Ro­driguez who says, “Not all Latinos are going to buy their books in bodegas, but some will, and you’re missing a lot of sales if you’re not there.”

Marketing people throughout the industry ought to be studying these facts and a thousand like them. As the city and country continue to get darker de­mographically, hiring editorial staff people who are in touch with the new populations should be­come a competitive necessity.

While few in the book industry seem to appre­ciate this incentive to dismantle the white mo­nopoly, one magazine company offers a promis­ing plan. A few months ago, when Norman Pearlstine took over the Time, Inc. magazines, the company pledged to begin breaking up the turf. According to Jack White, a black writer who has been at Time for more than 20 years, each of the Time-owned publications — including People, Money, Time, and Fortune — will now tie a portion of management’s compensation to their success or failure at integrating the staff.

White, who also functions as Time’s chief re­cruiter of people of color, said that Pearlstine sur­prised the staffers who’d been pushing for such a program by announcing it before they’d pro­posed it. “He called my bluff,” says White. “Now I’m willing to call his.” In a year, White hopes his newly aggressive recruitment — going after senior people such as bureau chiefs at large dailies — will bear fruit. “These guys [Time management] pride themselves on being the leaders in the mag­azine industry. Let’s see if they can lead in this direction.”

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The publishing industry will not integrate until it recognizes diversity as critical to its mission. The potentates of publishing need to be­lieve that diversity is something to strive for not because it’s mandated by the law or by po­litical correctness or by a handful of cranky mi­norities in the newsroom, but because, in White’s words, “You cannot cover America unless you have a staff that reflects America.”

Author Jill Nelson suggests that a genuine commitment to diversity might mean challeng­ing some of the standards of universalism in­grained in American letters.

“Diversity doesn’t mean, ‘Let’s hire some women, some people of color, some gay people, and some white men with ponytails, put them in a blender and make them come out like the straight white men who hired them,” says Nel­son. “I don’t think that’s good management, and I don’t think it’s a way to cultivate people to do their best work.”

What’s needed, Nelson argues, is a commitment to actually seek out alternative voices, rather than try to adapt nonwhite populations to what are essentially white conventions. “I think we need to hear more from the people who really make up the society,” she says. “When experts are quoted, you would hear more from women, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. [Pub­lishers] need to believe that it’s a good thing that we all bring parts of our culture and ethnicity to our work, instead of listening to the tiny per­centage of white men who have posited them­selves as insiders.”

President Clinton — the ultimate white male in­sider — insisted last week that affirmative action is good for America. When will the industry that controls America’s social and political conversa­tion agree that affirmative action is good for pub­lishing? ♦

Research: Ed Frauenheim and Geronimo Madrid

This article is the second of a two-part series. Read part one here

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Jerzy Kosinski’s Tainted Words

Not a single comma, not a single word is not mine — and not the mere presence of the word but the reasons why as well. This goes for manuscript, middle drafts, final draft, and every fucking galley — ­first page proofs, second and third, hardcover editions and paper-­back editions.

— Jerzy Kosinski, May 13, 1982

None of the trappings — the appearances on Johnny Carson, the adulatory profile in the Times magazine, the featured part in Reds — ­would matter if Jerzy Kosinski weren’t apparently a writer of talent. But he did astonish the world with his first novel, The Painted Bird, in 1965, and followed that triumph by winning a National Book Award for Steps in 1969. Though his fiction has been in precipitous decline since then — Pinball, the latest, is a mess — those first two novels alone would seem to guarantee Kosinski an honored place in the literary history of our time. That place is in jeopardy, however, for Kosinski’s ethics and his very role as author have been seriously challenged, and his many explanations lack the ring of truth.

There are, in the world of publishing, certain conventions. Informed readers are not surprised to discover that cabinet ministers or major league pitchers have re­ceived professional assistance in preparing their books. We assume, too, that even “literary” novelists — Updike, Barth, Tyler — are edited by the people who pub­lish their work. But no novelist with any claim to seriousness can hire people to do without acknowledgement, the sort of composition that we usually call writing. To purchase another’s words is to cheat the reader, to trash the tradition. For al­most 10 years now, Jerzy Kosinski has been treating his art as though it were just another commodity, a widgit to be as­sembled by anonymous hired hands.

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He evidently grew used to this mode of work during the late 1950s when, under the pen name of Joseph Novak, he published the first of two anti-Communist tracts in which the Central Intelligence Agency ap­parently played a clandestine role. It is perhaps this dirty little secret that ex­plains the fast shuffle of autobiographical tales making up the Kosinski myth.

Kosinski is, it should be noted, an abso­lutely spellbinding teller of tales. Whether he is providing after-dinner entertainment to the de la Rentas or charming the brains out of a reporter, he is a pleasure to be with. But in the frantic manufacture of fables, as if to cloak his hollowness, Kosinski is, if anything, too inventive. He has made it a central fact of his biography that at some point during his lonely youth­ful flight from the Germans, he was struck dumb. Yet even though he, like many children of the Holocaust, is the sole source for our knowledge of that time in his life, there is more than one story about how the trauma occurred.

Barbara Gelb in a recent New York Times Magazine profile writes that “Kosinski’s dreadful journey reached its climax when, aged 9, he was flung for pun­ishment by sadistic peasants into a pond of human ordure that closed over his head. Something in his mind clicked off and he was struck mute.” But in an interview in the current Penthouse, Kosinski says the key incident happened “in June 1942, while I was serving in a Mass as one of the altar boys. I was supposed to transfer the Bible from one side of the altar to another but fell with it … I am convinced I lost my speech from the tension before the actual fall.” Kosinski, who called the Times and had the paper run a correction of the date his mother died, let the lurid Gelb nar­rative stand unchallenged.

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The point here is not to question which (if either) version is true, but to note that Kosinski encourages the conflicting stories which surround him, that he denies the notion of truth. To some extent, this may be the almost reflexive desire of a Holocaust survivor for disguise — a habit of con­tinuous self-invention — but it may also be a sophisticated smokescreen laid down to obscure objective truths Kosinski would rather hide.

Consider, for instance, the question of precisely how Kosinski came to this coun­try in 1957. A reporter who interviewed him for Life magazine shortly after his arrival now says that “there was no mys­tery. He just came over on a student visa and decided to stay.” A few years later, he told the editor of an early novel that he’d “escaped ” from Poland by adding a zero to the check he’d won in a photography con­test and increasing his prize tenfold. The notion that he’d created fictional professors in Poland to write recommend­ations for him and thus fooled the bu­reaucracy into giving him a visa seems to have appeared for the first time six years later, in a 1974 interview with Professor Jerome Klinkowitz. The same story appeared a year later, as straightforward fic­tion in his novel Cockpit, but it is alto­gether absent from Kosinski’s first Eng­lish-language “autobiography,” a 1958 let­ter he wrote to the Ford Foundation apply­ing for a grant.

The Ford grant is itself the subject of yet another confusion. In his second inter­view with the Voice, Kosinski ridiculed the notion that he had a multiyear grant: “Nonsense,” he said, “I had a grant for a year.” The Ford Foundation’s press office reports that he had grants totaling about $8000 from 1958 through ’61, a very re­spectable stipend for a full-time graduate student. Indeed, working thorough the var­ious accounts of that period in his life, one is led to the inescapable conclusion that Kosinski was uniquely favored. According to the most thorough academic biography, Norman Lavers’s Jerzy Kosinski, pub­lished in 1981 by Twayne Press, Kosinski arrived in the United States on December 20, 1957, without having any prior contact with any U.S. institution, with only a rudi­mentary knowledge of English, and $2.80 in his pockets. A few weeks later, he was accepted as a doctoral student at Columbia; a few months more and he received a generous foundation grant; less than two years after that, he had signed a contract with Doubleday and Company for a non­fiction book about daily life in Russia. (In his final interview with us, by the way, Kosinski denounced Lavers’s book, saying he had never heard of it until it was done, and could correct it “only on the phone, never in letters.” Emily McKeigue, the book’s editor, reports that Kosinski was sent a manuscript which he corrected heavily. Not all of the changes were ac­cepted, but when he was sent a copy of the finished book, Kosinski “told us that he was fairly pleased with it.” According to McKeigue, there were “many” exchanges, but Kosinski never objected to the book’s description of his 1957 English as “rudimentary.”)

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•••

Kosinski, it appears, has a habit of say­ing anything that he thinks his listeners will find interesting, or attractive, or flattering. The net effect is that almost noth­ing he says can be relied on; everything must be checked (as the Times magazine should have done before it awarded him a nonexistent Columbia doctorate). In an interview with Eliot Fremont-Smith a few weeks ago, Kosinski was utterly plausible, even winning, as he discussed his hiring of assistants.

Yes, it happened regularly, but always with the knowledge and approval of his present publisher, and only after that publisher had set the original, Kosinski-pre­pared manuscript in type and returned the printed galleys to him for correction.

“The book doesn’t end with galleys,” Kosinski explained. Instead, that’s when revisions begin — “and I pay for it.” First galleys are worked over, then retyped into a “new manuscript,” and sometimes this process can be repeated through several successive sets of galleys. Since, he says, house editors can’t spend the effort and time necessary to satisfy his bent toward the meticulous or his urge to perfection (“Hardly anybody can spell better than I can”), he hires free lancers to collate corrections, check galleys against retyped manuscript, and watch for errors (e.g., a word used too many times, an action inadvertently repeated).

As he described the process in a later interview, the job of his assistants was mechanical. Sitting on the couch and dis­playing the two colors of pencil scrawl all over an early galley of Cockpit, Kosinski said, “This has to be now retyped, all retyped, once again. Now imagine how many things can go wrong, do you realize? For instance, let’s say I write ‘I also have also,’ … Little things like this, nobody is going to catch. This would be retyped by Kiki [von Frauenhofer, his assistant and companion] to a new manuscript, then Hackett [the assistant in question] would be given the new manuscript to make sure that all this was properly transferred.”

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Earlier in our discussion, Kosinski had insisted that Cockpit had been put to­gether without any outside assistance, but when I mentioned the name of John Hackett, he relented and allowed that Hackett had done some proofreading. He further minimized Hackett’s work by de­scribing him as “a student, who needed money … it didn’t work out … he couldn’t sit still … there were drugs.”

I was stunned. I first met John Hackett, now an English professor at the University of Texas, more than 20 years ago, when he was my best friend’s roommate at Holy Cross College, and I had believed him ab­solutely when he’d insisted that his work for Kosinski had been strictly editorial. Though there is an ethical question about a novelist secretly retaining a private editor as his own employee before showing his manuscript to a publisher, it seemed to me clearly a venial rather than a mortal sin, and I’d been expecting Kosinski to be as generous to Hackett as Hackett had been to him. The assault on his former friend’s character seemed senseless.

Perhaps, being as kind as possible, one could assign this casual calumny to ten­sion. (Kosinski, in a bit of manipulation so clumsy as to be nearly winning, had asked if he could have an observer attend our interview. Thinking it was his lawyer, who had already called the Voice, we agreed. “Good,” he said. “It is a woman examining victims of the Holocaust under situations of stress.”) But it also seems that Kosinski has a great deal invested in maintaining the image of absolute veracity, as though any chink in the armor, however small, would render him suddenly and com­pletely vulnerable

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In any case, Kosinski’s character as­sassination didn’t work. Hackett, told of the conversation, coldly remarked, “I was at that time an assistant professor of Eng­lish and Master of East College at Wesleyan. I was not the sort of person you would hire as a proofreader.

“Jerzy asked me as a friend and col­league to come down and help him because he’d had an accident and was worried about his ability to function efficiently. I came as a friend, and I am disappointed in him.” The drug use charge, he added, “was absurd.”

Despite Kosinski’s claim, Hackett did apparently work on the manuscript and not on galleys. Their joint efforts were spread over about a month during the summer of 1974; Houghton Mifflin archives show that the manuscript of Cockpit wasn’t even received at the pub­lishers until October 10.

But Hackett was just brought up to give Kosinski a chance to be gracious. Barbara Mackey is a different story. She met Kosinski in 1971, when she was a graduate student at Yale, while Kosinski was on the faculty. A friend, Rocco Landesman, who was working with Kosinski during the final revisions of Being There, introduced them, and a year later, when Mackey was in New York working for Joseph Papp’s Perform­ance and Scripts magazines, she began to help Kosinski on The Devil Tree.

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As she describes their work situation, “We were in [his] apartment on 57th Street. He would give me a sentence, talk philosophy, then come out with an idea that he wanted crystallized in a paragraph, a page, a chapter. Sometimes it was a little like taking dictation, at others, I was more like an instant editor. I prepared a first, handwritten draft that was then typed out by Kiki.

“The ideas were all his — I think he is a brilliant thinker, central in the world and in American culture — but the words were often mine. The term ‘collaborator’ isn’t right — I shouldn’t say that, anyway — it was more organizational. A collaborator would have a roughly equal input, but the intellectual notions are all his. If I had been a collaborator,” she added wryly, “the book would have been very dif­ferent — especially about women.” (I had agreed to get back to her to verify these quotes, but Mackey, now assistant director at the Denver Arts Center, suddenly stop­ped returning phone calls.)

Asked again to clarify the work pattern, to make certain that galleys were not in­volved, Mackey reiterated that her “hand­written copy was typed up overnight so that we could work on it again,” and that all the ideas were Kosinski’s. “All I did was put it into English.” (On the other hand, putting a novel “into English” is what writing is all about.)

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Mackey also worked on the early stages of Cockpit, and was eventually succeeded by Hackett. On the next book, Blind Date (1977), Faith Sale, now an editor at Put­nam, worked with Kosinski at what he calls the “proofreading” stage; we have been unable to reach the woman alleged to have been of earlier assistance. For 1979’s Passion Play, however, Kosinski retained Richard Hayes, a former professor of drama at NYU and Berkeley. Hayes, whose name Kosinksi brought up only in his final interview with us last week, says that his association with Passion Play be­gan when he “met Jerzy, in full military regalia, on the corner of 88th Street and Broadway one hot August night.”

Unlike Mackey, who worked sometimes from typescript, sometimes from conversa­tion, Hayes invariably worked from lengthy sheets of typing — “triple spaced and with wide margins, so there was room for my work.” Though he is emphatic that his work was not mere proofreading, he too rejects the “collaborator” title. “I would say instead that I combed, fileted, elevated or amplified his language — that I invested it with a certain Latinate style which was sometimes more Hayes than Kosinski” (and on which style, indeed, the Village Voice reviewer remarked when the book was first published).

As an example of a typical working exchange, Hayes (who like all of Kosinski’s assistants was paid by checks drawn on Kosinski’s corporation) says, “Often I wouldn’t see him for several hours; it would be just Kiki and I there in the living room, but I recall his once coming out with a rather exotic passage and jauntily drop­ping it down in front of me. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘Poeticize this sex.’ ”

Suppose, I asked Hayes, he had not worked with Kosinski. What would Pas­sion Play have been like? After some thought, he responded, “That’s really im­possible to say; the initial manuscripts were so raw they could have led in many directions. All one can say for certain is that it would have been very, very dif­ferent.”

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•••

A number of people scattered across the geographical and age spectrums — without any discernible axe to grind — agree that they have “assisted” Kosinski. Beyond that, one of us has actually seen xeroxed sheets of reworked manuscript. Thus the question is how an author whose grip on the English language and on himself was so attenuated that he needed help putting early drafts of his novels together, ever managed to write — all by himself, and as claimed, in English — the book that stands out among all his works, The Painted Bird. Despite his frequent moving pleas that he could only have written it in English be­cause he remained inhibited by his native languages of Russian and Polish, he proba­bly wrote it in Polish.

Early in 1973, one Halina Bastianello, a translator, wrote a letter to a New York Times reporter claiming that some years earlier she had answered an ad for a Polish to English translator placed by Kosinski in the Saturday Review, and that he had wanted to hire her as the translator for The Painted Bird. (Though the Times never followed the story up, Bastianello retains a copy of her letter.) After a three­-and-half-hour interview, she wrote, Kosinski “found me ‘perfect.’ ”

“There was one hitch, unique in my experience: he was adamant about his re­fusal to give me credit for the translation, or have my name mentioned in connection with the preparation of the book. (Query: Who WAS the ghost?)”

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Pressed in an interview to confirm this story, Bastianello was adamant that the man who had interviewed her was Kosinski, that the work to be translated was in manuscript form in Polish and in no way a collection of documents or of previously printed materials, and that “be­fore I did sight translation, I asked him for a scenario of the book, and he gave me, as though he was a book reviewer, the plot of Painted Bird.” When the novel subsequently appeared in English, she read it and reports that it appeared to be substan­tially the same, though she cautions that “without that original manuscript before me, there is no way I could swear to its being identical.”

Asked, in his first interview with Fre­mont-Smith, about a time when he might have advertised for a translator, he said that after Painted Bird was published (in 1965), there were challenges to its factual veracity. In order to counteract these charges, he acquired two collections of documents by and about children of the Hitler era published in Polish. The project was dropped, he said, when Paul Brooks, one of four editors he worked with at Houghton Mifflin, said that since The Painted Bird was fiction, the defense was unnecessary.

Subsequently, however, perhaps realiz­ing that the date of an advertisement could be checked, Kosinski moved the date of his search for a translator back a year, claim­ing that it took place while he was having difficulty finding a publisher for Painted Bird. His fall-back notion of a nonfiction book about children of the Holocaust was, he says, dropped once Houghton Mifflin accepted the book in the late fall of 1964.

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All things considered, this was a pru­dent alteration. During the five-year pe­riod from 1962 to 1966, research shows that only one advertisement seeking a Polish-English translator appeared in Sat­urday Review. That ad, which reads ”TRANSLATOR WANTED, Polish to English, for full-length fiction to be translated in short time. Must be thoroughly experienced in both. Box F-9-35,” is dated March 7, 1964, more than a year before The Painted Bird was published.

In his follow-up interview with the two of us, Kosinski claimed that Fremont-Smith had asked whether Kosinski had consulted translators’ ads (an odd question, given Fremont-Smith’s knowledge of Bastianello’s letter) and said, “I don’t recall advertising certainly not for fiction.” The qualification seemed disingenuous since we had politely agreed that our conversation was solely about that slippery time when he was seeking a translator for nonfictional documents.

Kosinski’s attempts to distance himself from the ad lend credibility to Bastianello’s claim. Absent his strange response in the second interview, one might be tempted to think that her memory had grown confused over the years especially since an English manuscript of The Painted Bird was submitted to Farrar, Straus & Giroux (which declined it) less than two months after Bastianello says she met with Kosinski. This is very close to the absolute minimum time it  would take a translator to handle a work of that length. (After five different owners, two transcon­tinental moves and one bankruptcy, Sat­urday Review‘s box-holder records for that era are no longer available.)

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•••

These discoveries further complicate the murky history of Kosinski’s early American years, for now we must ask how a man who needed assistance and transla­tion through his novelistic career managed unaided to turn out two early and ex­tremely smooth books of journalistic prose in 1960 and 1962. Once again, it appears more than likely that he didn’t.

As Kosinski has told other interviewers, and as he told us last week, the “Joseph Novak” books began when a fellow student in the Columbia doctoral program read some of his papers and thought they would make a book. Since the student, Roger Shaw, was a junior editor at Doubleday, this judgment was more than cafeteria conversation, and ultimately led to a profitable contract for Kosinski. The first of the two books, The Future Is Ours, Com­rade, was promptly serialized by the Sat­urday Evening Post, condensed and trans­lated by Reader’s Digest, and sold to many foreign publishers. Eventually, it earned its author over 150,000 pre-inflation dollars.

There are, however, a couple of prob­lems with the Kosinski version of this lucky tale. First of all, Doubleday’s person­nel files for the period show no record whatsoever of any employee named Roger Shaw. Second, the Doubleday editor who did handle the book never met Kosinski. Adam Yarmolinsky, at that point Double­day’s public affairs editor, says he was told the author’s identity needed to be pro­tected and recalls that “all work on the book was handled through an in­termediary.” He professes to be unable to recall who that figure was, but at the time he told colleagues it was Frank Gibney. (Prompted, Yarmolinsky now says he suspects it might have been Gibney, but is not sure. Gibney has denied both to us and to Yarmolinsky that he was the conduit for this book).

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Gibney, a Time-Life correspondent who worked with the CIA in publishing The Penkovskiy Papers through Double­day, was one of many figures involved in what the USIA described to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1967 as its “book development” program. Under this scheme, which began in 1956, at least 104 titles were published — some with direct subsidies to the author, others with purchase guarantees to the publisher — by American companies and distributed abroad by USIA. At least some of these titles were later discovered to have been chosen — and funded — by the CIA. All the books were sold through domestic book stores and book clubs as well — with, of course, no indication whatsoever of government subsidy or sponsorship.

The program was extensive — Praeger was the most notorious publisher involved; Farrar Straus the most prestigious — but Doubleday was a highly enthusiastic par­ticipant. Though many publishers drop­ped out as Vietnam heated up, Doubleday continued to participate at least through 1966, when it published Time correspon­dent Jay Mallin’s Caribbean Crisis: Subversion Fails in the Dominican Re­public. It is just barely possible — though it would require prodigies of naiveté — that neither Kosinski nor Yarmolinsky suspected that “Joseph Novak” was re­ceiving a helping hand from Uncle Sam. Yarmolinsky, carefully drawing no in­ference from the fact, points out that the manuscript “came in clean. There was virtually no editing to be done on it.” Cer­tainly, based on a comparison of Kosinski’s 1959 letters to the Ford Foundation (which he showed us, but refused to let us copy) with the text of the book he allegedly wrote at the same time reveals so vast a gulf in language and style that it appears virtually impossible for him to have written The Future Is Ours, Comrade without substantial editorial help — which, all parties agree, he did’t receive from Doubleday.

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•••

Jerzy Kosinski has a lot of questions to answer. But though he promised effusively at the end of our second interview that he would answer follow-up queries left with his service over the weekend and would even call us on Monday during a change of planes from La Guardia to Kennedy, he did neither.

The silence is not because he takes our probing lightly, however, for a number of the people we talked to over the past few days reported they’d just heard — for the first time in years — from him. He is, I think, right to be worried, for unless he can come up with some answers to the obvious questions, it appears that he has betrayed his own talent along with his craft. No one thinks less of Italo Calvino because he writes in Italian (though one praises his translator, William Weaver), and Italians presumably don’t complain that they get twice-translated Beckett. And even the compositional help, though it is obviously more problematic, would seem less of­fensive if it hadn’t been screened behind a passionate, believable — and therefore ultimately repugnant — wall of denials.

But even without Kosinski’s answers, one can construct a scenario that explains his odd behavior and his contradictory stories — and Novak is at the root of it. Not only did the book bring him considerable wealth, it brought him a wife. In 1960, Mary Weir, the millionaire widow of steel magnate Ernest Weir, wrote “Novak” a fan letter and ultimately married him. When the sequel, No Third Path, which reworked much of the same territory, failed to do as well, Kosinski turned to fiction.

With the success of The Painted Bird, and his wife’s death (and the reversion of her trust to her late husband’s estate), Kosinski was virtually “trapped” into the life of an author — which at least in its talk­show and charm-the-Times aspects, he has carried out with quite spectacular success. But though his work for human rights is unassailable, the books grow worse and worse, the tales of his derring-do more and more farfetched. Finally, without at all forgiving him his lies, one feels sorry for Kosinski.

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•••

“When I was a little girl,” says “Vavara” in No Third Path, “I wanted to learn all I could about the behavior of various animals. I remember how once a group of us kids caught a sparrow in a trap. He struggled with all his might — tiny heart thumping desperately — but I held on tight. We then painted him purple, and I must admit he actually looked much bet­ter — more proud and unusual. After the paint had dried we let him go to rejoin the flock. We thought he would be admired for his beautiful and unusual coloring, become a model to all gray sparrows in the vicinity, and they would make him their king. He rose high and was quickly surrounded by his companions. For a few minutes their chirping grew much louder and then a small object began plummeting earthward. We ran to the place where it fell. In a mud puddle lay our purple sparrow — dead. His blood mingled with the paint … The wa­ter was rapidly turning a brownish-red. He had been killed by the other sparrows, by their hate for color and their instinct of belonging to a gray flock. Then, for the first time, I understood …”

This “nonfictional” account, which eventually became the central metaphor of The Painted Bird, is compelling, but checks with the Museum of Natural His­tory, the Audubon Society, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveal no variety of sparrows that would possibly behave in such a way. Besides, as a Fish and Wildlife special agent said, “If you paint a bird, it won’t fly.” ■

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Was Walt Whitman Christ?

Whitmaniacs at Large

The big embarrassment of Walt Whit­man’s later years was not his poverty (groups of writers in England and America had to take up a collection) but the cult that arose around him. Ardent followers celebrated him as Messiah, Christ, maybe a god. Some of these followers were individuals of genuine distinction, not exactly in the first rank of intellectual life, but not without talent either. William D. O’Connor, who wrote the pro­-Whitman tract, The Good Gray Poet, was a formidable polemicist. More formidable yet was the poet’s doctor, R.M. Bucke, an ac­complished figure by anyone’s lights. Dr. Bucke was a leading Canadian psychiatrist, superintendent of a lunatic asylum in On­tario, and president of various psycho-medi­cal societies. He was also a man of worldly experience. Five years of his youth were spent in the American West, prospecting and driving a wagon train. He fought Indians, almost discovered the Comstock Lode, lost one foot and part of the other to frostbite.

And yet as a result of two strange ex­periences that he associated with Whitman, Bucke subscribed wholeheartedly to the cult. The first experience occurred during a visit to London. While riding a hansom after reading Whitman and other poets, Bucke was suddenly enveloped in a flame-colored cloud, which he thought was a fire in the city, but then realized was an inner illumination. A drop of “Brahmic Bliss” fell on his heart. The second experience came when he presented himself to Whitman in the flesh. A few minutes of chat, and Bucke ascended into a “spiritual intoxication” that lasted six weeks. Un­der these circumstances it was natural that he would wonder about Whitman’s more than human powers and qualities and begin referring to him as “the Christ.”

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Dr. Bucke’s great achievement was to come up with a scientific theory to explain Whit­man’s messianic role. You can see this theory in his biography of Whitman (1833), his let­ters, and his tract Cosmic Consciousness, which is regarded as a classic in certain circles and is still in print (Dutton, $6.25 paper). Eons ago, the theory went, mankind made a dramatic evolutionary leap from animal con­sciousness to human consciousness. Now the human race was about to make its next great leap, from ordinary human consciousness to Cosmic Consciousness, which means full awareness of eternity and the universe. Dur­ing the last couple of thousand years, a hand­ful of superior individuals anticipated this evolutionary development. These individuals, who stand in relation to ordinary people as humans do to dogs and cats, included Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammed. Also Balzac. Greatest of all was Whitman, the harbinger of evolution’s next step, who of­fered in his own person the fullest picture of what the future of the race would be like. That future was on its way and would take hold initially in the United States. Wealth and poverty would be abolished, and demo­cratic socialism would reign. Whitman, who had absorbed the entire human race, would in turn be absorbed back by every individual who attained the higher spiritual level. Bucke wrote in the biography that, just as the gospels and Pauline writings were the Bible of Christianity in the past, so Leaves of Grass would be the Bible of Cosmic civilization in the future. This, however, was a disputed point. In his later tract Bucke said that Cos­mic Consciousness would have no Bible.

All in all, it was an excellent theory, and commendable particularly for its optimism. “The immediate future of our race,” Bucke wrote, “is indescribably hopeful.” What was not indescribably hopeful, indeed was hope­lessly bleak, was the future of Walt Whitman so long as his reputation rested in the hands of Dr. Bucke and the other cultists.

Bliss Perry, the eminent editor of the At­lantic Monthly, addressed this situation with a biography of Whitman in 1906. (Perry’s book, not Bucke’s, has been reprinted by Chelsea House.) Dr. Bucke was mildly cracked, Perry implied. Whitman was a mere human — a very talented human, even a ge­nius, but a mere human nonetheless, and with too many objectionable flaws. Perry’s account of these flaws reflects the literary sensibility of turn-of-the-century Boston, which readers may find irksome and prissy. But one can salute him for the role he played in the history of Whitman criticism. He was the great de-Bucker and he brought the age of cultism to an end. So far as Whitman’s literary reputation was concerned, the dra­matic evolutionary leap was right here. Whit­man could be celebrated as a mere poet, not a messiah.

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Only the problem with Perry is that Bucke­-ism won’t entirely go away, no matter how much you want it to. It’s not just that in his old age Whitman tolerated the cult and se­cretly collaborated with Bucke on the 1883 biography (all the while protesting against Bucke’s overenthusiasm). The messianic urge had been with him all along, ever since his emergence as a poet in the 1850s. Messianism exuded from the deepest struc­tures of his thought, indeed something very much like it exuded from his person, and Bucke was not the only one to make the observation. “You can’t confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York,” Thoreau reported after a visit to Whitman. “He occasionally suggests some­thing a little more than human.” Exactly.

Something a little more than human exudes even from Whitman’s occasional prose writings, at least the prose writings of the 1850s. You can see it in the reviews of his own book that he wrote and published anonymously in the press, where he described his whole purpose in life as “to stamp a new type of character, namely his own,” on American civilization. Or better still, look at his strange 1856 political manifesto, The Eighteenth Presidency!, which you can find by thumbing through back pages of the fat Library of America volume (thumbing through is your only chance: the Library of America edition is the most complete one-volume Whitman ever published, and a handsome book to boot, but has an almost useless table of contents, and no prose index at all). In this manifesto Whitman denounced the two political parties as a collection of pimps, malignants, VD suf­ferers, and body snatchers, along with murderers, kept editors, carriers of concealed weapons, and similar undesirables. And then unexpectedly the name “Walt Whitman” pops up as a possible alternative. You can’t confound this with other political manifestos.

Or turn to the front of the volume and read the celebrated Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, where he called for an American “bard” or “seer” who will incarnate the nation, be more popular than the president, and be the universe’s greatest lover. The preface was written in a peculiar exalted prose that almost lifts off into poetry. In his own edition of this preface, the poet William Everson has abolished the almost by setting Whitman’s sentences into verse-a clever stroke which improves the readability. But I think the reason Whitman wrote in prose was to sug­gest a prose degree of literalness. He was being sober here, more or less. The preface was relatively restrained.

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Where he let fly was in the poems that he intended as poems. Messianism was at the heart of the Leaves central character, “Walt Whitman, a kosmos,” who is the brother of Jesus, who sometimes becomes Being itself, and who promises to return in 5000 years. More especially it was part of the book’s technique and tone. I mean the King James­-style bombast and bluster, but also the half-­spectral, half-sensual intimacy that certain passages achieve — and the way one tone plays against the other. An example is “So Long!,” the last great poem in Leaves, which begins with bombastic Buckean prophecies: “I announce natural persons to arise,/I an­nounce justice triumphant,/I announce un­compromising liberty and equality,/I an­nounce the justification of candor and the justification of pride.” But then the big guns fall silent and he shifts to an infinitely more powerful tender intimacy:

My songs cease, I abandon them,
From behind the screen where I hid I advance personally solely to you.

Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?) It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms — decease calls me forth.

The opposed tones correspond to the two elements of a messiah. On one hand a messiah must be a spiritual teacher who converts you to his doctrine by broadcasting what he has to say through sermons or poems. Those are the first lines, in which Whitman hurls his bombast. On the other hand a messiah must go beyond being a spiri­tual teacher. He must aim at redemption, and for this he needn’t broadcast at all. Instead he must establish an almost physical pres­ence, and let his message flow from him to you in direct communion, without any me­dium at all. As Whitman says in another poem, “I and mine do not convince by argu­ments, similes, rhymes,/We convince by our presence.” That is what he does in these second lines from ”So Long!” he establishes direct communion by springing into your arms, on the occasion of his death, in a vaguely sexual embrace.

Whitman does this so casually you may barely notice what he is about. The casual­ness is characteristic, and might lead you to think he is merely being chummy or touchy­feely. You might not think of sacraments at all. No matter: Read with an open heart and your hair will stand on end. Bliss Perry, confined by the mere-human conventions of secular criticism, cannot explain this. But a reader beginning with Dr. Bucke’s pre­posterous assumptions will realize that here is the more-than-human moment of redemp­tion. The messianic vocation is not just prom­ised, it is fulfilled, and Leaves of Grass is its fulfillment.

***

 

The authenticity of Whitman’s vocation accounts for why his admirers have always responded in extraordinary ways to him. He seems directly at hand, his lips pressed to yours in casual communion, and it would hardly feel right to experience this and not respond in some way. Dr. Bucke’s circle of Whitmaniacs (the term came from Perry) was one response, though not a very good one, and not fated to last. Better responses, liter­ary ones at any rate, were bound to emerge. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, a remarkable anthology edited by Jim Perlman, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, is a record of precisely this. These editors show that from Swinburne to Dave Smith, scores of poets have responded to Whitman by talk­ing to him in their writings, as if in a con­versation across the ages. Some of this talk has been in essays, more of it in verse. Whit­man has been addressed directly in the sec­ond person, as when Hart Crane said, “My hand in yours, Walt Whitman”; and in the third person, as when Allen Ginsberg de­scribed him eyeing the supermarket boys. There have been so many invocations of Whitman by so many poets that one might say they constitute a modern genre. Call it the Walt-iad. Ed Folsom observes, “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in English or American poetry — a sustained tradition, a century old, of directly invoking or address­ing another poet. It has become a litany running through our poetry.” Not just ours, as the anthology shows, but poetry in Span­ish and Portuguese as well. The Walt-iad is an Anglo-Hispanic phenomenon.

Unsurprisingly, the Walt-iads have fol­lowed several of the major themes of the original Whitmaniacs — the celebration of Whitman as sexual liberator, for instance, which was a concern of O’Connor’s The Good Gray Poet as early as 1865, and later ap­peared in Bucke ‘s biography. Something of the same celebration can be seen in “Saluta­tion to Walt Whitman,” a 1915 poem in Portuguese by Fernando Pessoa, who struck a Ginsbergian level of sexual exuberance and humor: “Walt, my beloved old man, my great Comrade, I evoke you! … Open all the doors­ for me!/Because I have to go in!/My password? Walt Whitman!/But I don’t give any password … /I go, in without explaining … ” Or in a completely different fashion, the same response can be seen in the title poem of John Gill’s 1982 book, From the Diary of Peter Doyle (Alembic Press, $4.50). Peter Doyle was Whitman’s real-life companion for a number of years, and the poem is a fictional homosexual love letter, dry and restrained but still tender, to Whitman by Doyle.

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The old Whitmaniac democratic and so­cialist themes survive in any number of Walt-­iads. Hart Crane celebrated Whitman for his democratic vision of America. Langston Hughes credited him with a definition of America that included everyone. June Jordan echoes Dos Passos (who is omitted from the anthology) by declaring, “I too am a descendant of Walt Whitman,” then further declares that Whitman is comparable to Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, which is a dreadful thing to say. Another horrendous left-wing Walt-iad is by the Dominican poet Pedro Mir, whose idea is to convert Whitman’s individualist “Song of Myself” to a collec­tivist “Song of Ourselves.” On the other hand Thomas McGrath’s Walt-iad wittily places Whitman at a Marxist meeting. Kenneth Patchen in a poem and Meridel LeSueur in an essay place Whitman in the old American socialist tradition by remembering the Haldeman-Julius Little Blue Books editions of Whitman, published by the old Socialist Party. A Walt-iad by Neruda, a true son of Whitman, invokes him for a militant protest: “Because I love my country/I claim you, essential brother,/old Walt Whitman with your gray hands,/so that, with your special help/ line by line, we will tear out by the roots/and destroy this bloodthirsty President Nixon.”

What seems to have departed since Bucke’s day is a sense of Whitmanian op­timism. Not a single contributor to the anthology regards the future of mankind as “indescribably hopeful,” except possibly Henry Miller, who in a 1956 essay took the Buckean position that Whitman was a harbinger of a future golden age. A major theme of democratic Walt-iads is instead to contrast miserable present-day America to the fine democracy that existed in Whitman’s time. I’m not sure this Walt-iadic theme is fair to Whitman, since he never thought that Amer­ica in his own time was all that wonderful — ­on the contrary, he thought the country was ruled by pimps, malignants, VD sufferers, and body snatchers. Democracy was going to triumph in the future. Anyway, many Walt-­iads offer the contrast, beginning with a De­pression-era “Ode to Walt Whitman” by Ste­phen Vincent Benet, a dreary poet, who ex­plained to Whitman that things were not going well in these States. Dave Smith, in “With Walt Whitman at Fredericksburg,” dilates on nearly the same theme: “I want/to tell you how progress has not changed us much.” But traffic booming in the distance chants: “wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.” End­less variations of this sort have been worked on the Open Road. In “A Supermarket in Cafifornia,” Ginsberg quietly contrasts the supermarket’s open corridors to the in­vigorating open road. Louis Simpson asks: “Where are you Walt?/The Open Road goes to open the road used leads car lot.” Ernest Kroll says: The “The open road leads only into space … The love of comrades is a hopeless case.”

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Some poets look to Whitman for technical reasons, which is a decidedly unBuckean theme. William Carlos Williams cited Whitman for blazing the trail toward that dubious technical concept, the variable American foot. Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan praise the long line, and Galway Kinnell de­livers up the opinion that Whitman’s break with counted meter is the culmination to­ward which all prosody has been striving since the King James Bible. In a brilliant essay Muriel Rukeyser observed that Whit­man’s sensuality was a technical matter: “He remembered his body as other poets of his time remembered English verse.” By no means are all the selections in the anthology wild about him. Poets as different as Edwin Markham and Ezra Pound stressed their objections in verse, before agreeing to admire him. Pound wrote: “I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman — /I have detested you long enough.” Louis Simpson and Robert Bly have contributed essays expressing reserva­tons not so different from Bliss Perry’s complaints in 1906.

And yet nestled among these varied selections are a couple of contributions that do suggest the continuation of an almost religious current of Whitman worship. A single Chistological Walt-iad from 1901 by a minor British Whitmaniac stands for the old cult of Bucke’s day. From the new day Michael Kin­caid, in a shrewd essay, declares himself an adherent of Whitman’s poetic religion — care­fully keeping the quotation marks around “religion.” Patricia Hampl explains that she turned to Whitman for solace during the evil days of Vietnam and still reads him as gospel, or “good news.” This is different, less silly, than what the old Whitmaniacs had in mind, though I don’t doubt that a community o£ emotion stretches from them to more than a handful of contemporary writers.

In one respect the whole anthology can be seen as the continuation of a Whitmaniac custom. The Camden cultists used to repeat stories about Whitman’s amazing effect on certain individuals. Dr. Bucke’s flame-colored cloud and spiritual intoxication was one such story. Another, passed along by Justin. Kaplan in his biography, was the experience of a British Whitmaniac who paid a call in 1891 and underwent a palpable vision of his late mother. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song is in a sense a 400-page collection of stories like these, only told by poets, each to his own fancy. The old Whitmaniacs published a volume of birthday greetings to p their idol; here we have a volume of poetic greetings from our own day. What is striking is the continuity of love expressed in all this— gushing, reserved, off the wall, begrudging, levelheaded, scholarly, ecstatic, yet love nonetheless. ❖

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Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat

Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat
April 16, 1976

Outside of a bimonthly find, I can’t read books. Three hundred pages in two weeks usually means pick up book, page 30 stop, pick up next book, page 40 stop, next book, etc. for 10 books, dropping off into People magazine and lethargically thumbing back issues of National Lampoon. This anorexia nervosa around the printed page has been a life-long affliction. I don’t know how to prove this statistically, but empirically I’ve discovered that what I go through around books is a common dyspepsia among my generation (b. circa 1950) — which is to say, not many of us pleasure-­read anymore. And friends, what’s coming up after us is worse. I’ve taught, lectured, and read at roughly two-dozen colleges, and the amount of ignorance of, and indifference to, both fiction and nonfiction is devastating except for an occasional cult book, the leaders of tomorrow couldn’t read their way out of a Glad Bag. What’s more, they wouldn’t want to.

Consider: Every American born since 1947 cut his teeth on the tube seven days a week, with Saturday afternoons off to go to the movies. TV and cine are faster than Wonder Books, My Weekly Reader, Landmark Books, The Red Pony, and whatever’s on the cover of the NYTBR next week. TV is easier. It’s multisensory. Mov­ies, (on top of) being easier and multisensory, are also bigger and on top of bigger they happen to be group experiences. Relatively, books are hard work, static, one­-dimensional. Reading is an isolat­ed activity. We’re lazy — we seek the easiest information source, the most entertainment for the least effort. One picture is worth a thousand words.

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Whenever I do a talk or a reading at a college, I always ask how many people have seen the film Dracula or one of its offspring, usually 90 to 100 per cent. Solid. Now how many here have heard of Bram Stoker? On a good day, five to 10 per cent. And for the preschoolers it’s Count Chocula, a Chocolate Marshmallow breakfast atrocity… Do you know who Bram Stoker was? And so it goes. In other words, I would guess that most eight-year-old kids faced with a choice of watching an animated version of Treasure Island on Home Box or reading Robert Louis Stevenson will go for the Box. And once you start out that way, it’s all over. TV and movies are like Wonder Bread in reverse for the book-loving part of the brain.

Now, all this upsets the shit out of me. I’m a novelist. I’m a good novelist and I’ll get better. I’ve found my calling and if I have my way I’ll be turning out books for the next half-century, books that will blow people away. But right now all I want is to be read and not just by critics and grad students. I’ve got things to say to everybody. I won’t reduce my books to “Popcorn Lit” (whatever one critic called an addicting page-turner with no nutritional value) to get my audience, but I am gunning for that kid who hates to read but can memorize every cereal jingle in a four-hour sitdown with the tube. Because I’m on his case. I’ve been there, mainlining TV ever since I could say “Clarabell.” I’ve been bored by as many books as he and when I started writing I automatically screened out whatever bored me in others’ books. What you can’t read, you can’t write. My writing is a product of being a tube child and is geared towards other tube children, at least stylistically. In other words, even though that jingle-drenched kid might not care a rat’s ass about books right now, I’ll hook the little booger before I’m through. Ex-junkies can make good drug counselors.

Storytellers who will be writing for this generation and for genera­tions to follow and who care about being read by more than a select few thousand will have to acknowl­edge that they are walking around in a world where people’s brains are being wired for holograms and sensurround and the competition is not whatever was reviewed in the Sunday Times but what’s playing down the block and whatever’s on CBS (or WNET) tonight.

This doesn’t mean writers should take a workshop with Peter Lemongello, or that they should start churning out Popcorn and go “commercial” (who me? whata you, serious?). What it does mean, in storytelling fiction at least, is that there has to be a great streamlining, a stripping, a clean-to-the-bone eloquence projected. The writer has to go for the throat from page one, word one.

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To nail this generation coming up, there will be a need to be direct as a heart attack; there will be a need for passion and integrity, an immediacy and urgency as if the writer were sitting naked on a hot stove and couldn’t jump off until the story was finished.

Spit has got to fly.

Books must be written that are alive with people who breathe. Literary characters must cease and be replaced by human beings. Novels must become three-dimensional. The print on the paper has got to crackle with life. There has got to be a direct line between the heart and the hand. An absolute guilelessness, a terrifying hon­esty.

To me, writing is acting on paper. I try to visualize everything, limit my narration to the surface of things — what a reader can see in any moment. Exposition is spare, simple, and direct. I don’t try to transcend my people but rather, to become them. If I can trance myself into becoming my character, I can load every gesture and interaction with enough information for a book in itself. It’s a simple matter of show and tell. There is a way to “show” every “tell.” There is a physical action, a mannerism, a tone of voice, a phrase that will nail down every conceivable experience, and when the writer matches up the perfect gesture for that human moment, the results are sublime.

Both my novels took two years. The first was spent talking to my characters, the second, writing. Creating characters with any substance is an evolutionary process, and I had to live with them dawn to dusk. The first year, I was a stone lunatic. I had all these people setting up shop in my brain. But by the time I was ready to write I could take a battery of MMPI and Wonderlic personality tests for each of my people and answer hundreds of questions with as much intimate knowledge as if they were taking the test.

Plot always comes automatically once I know who my people are. The inevitability of their personali­ties makes the “story” a natural projection of what drives them from day to day. In a given scene I may know nothing more than how it’s supposed to end, most of the time not even that. Scenes are improvised. A character does or says something, and with as much spontaneity and schizophrenia as I can muster, another character responds. In this way, everything I write is spontaneous chain reac­tion and I’m running around play­ing leap frog in my brain trying to “be” all people.

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If art does imitate life, the most “authentic” fiction has to progress moment to moment in the mind of the writer. When I write, my only notes are a tentative shopping list of prospective interactions vaguely formulated in my head. They can range all over the book and be based on anything from an an­ecdote out of my past to a con­trived plot device. With this mosaic pattern of writing, I can address myself to the scene on the list which is most in tune with the mood I’m in at that moment. If I am writing a jealous rage, odds are I’m in a jealous rage at the time. In this way my writing is always “hot.”

A crucial part of that essential sparseness I strive for is keeping morals and messages out of my consciousness as fastidiously as possible. For the sake of immedia­cy, for the sake of creating a world without station breaks, the only thing that exists are my people. When I create a character, I grant that character enough respect and elbow room to dig his own grave or build his own monument. When I read, any intrusion — any editorial by the author — breaks my concen­tration, takes me out, makes me put down the book and pick up People.

As much as I dislike the majority of novels that come into my hands, there have been some that made me delirious with pleasure and hip to the fact that no matter how fantastic other art forms might seem, there is an ineffability, a sublime punch/counterpunch in the written word that can be duplicated in no other medium. And for the little that I value much of what’s in print I’d hate for a whole generation to miss out on even that small amount. And if I didn’t mean that I’d be at the damn movies right now.

At 26, Richard Price is the author of The Wanderers, a highly-­praised novel about a teenage gang in the Bronx. His new novel, Bloodbrothers, concerns a fam­ily of hardhats in Co-op City.