Thursday, April 2, 2015

Un-American Activities: A Review

Benjamin Hollander, In the House Un-American, (Clockroot Books, 2013), pp.150, $15.

Carlos ben Carlos Rossman, Benjamin Hollander’s alter ego in his account of discovering what it is to be, or not to be, an American, describes his father, “a Jew hiding in plain sight,” as living “between false options: as a worker among workers speaking outside his class, or as the quiet American hiding the languages he knew they distrusted, since they insinuated, in phrase or condition, heard or unheard, ‘the un-American,’ the un-welcomed.”

            I spoke Greek before I spoke English.  It was the language of our home, the one I absorbed from the cradle, spoke with my parents and my grandmother, who never learned English.  But when I went to school, one day in second grade (this was during the early years of WWII), our teacher Miss Parks asked each one of us to tell where our parents were born.  When I offered that my father came from Sparta, Greece, a girl piped up—Marie Byrnes: how can I ever forget her name?  “Sounds like a can of grease,” she said.  From then on my brother and I were called “Grease Balls” or “Greasy Greeks.”

            I went home crying.  As soon as my father returned from work at the corner store he owned, I explained to him what had happened.

            “You tell those kids you’re proud to be Greek,” he said. “Tell them that the Greeks invented the democracy they live in!” 

            Of course, my father was right to comfort me, giving me an argument for my defense.  But my brother and I knew that such a response would only lead to more derision, if not physical retaliation.  For in those xenophobic war years in Gloucester, Massachusetts it was the Greeks and Jews against the Italians, Portuguese and Irish, who had arrived in America before our grandparents and staked out their claims earlier as Americans.  As a consequence, my brother and I never spoke Greek again.  We literally expunged our mother tongue from our consciousness for the rest of our lives.

            No wonder I can relate to Hollander’s harrowing account of his own, his family’s, his friends’ and immigrants like them as they attempted not just to live in this country but to become Americans.

            Cut to a 1947 hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, before which Bertolt Brecht is questioned about his possible ties to the Communist Party, by definition believed to be un-American: 
            “Now Mr. Brecht, what is your occupation?”
            “I am a poet and a playwright.”
            “A poet and a playwright?”
            “Where are you presently employed?”
            “I am not employed.”

            About poetry Hollander writes:

“[It] comes like this kind of underwater English to one who speaks like this, because poetry is already the sounding of a second language within an American culture that does not count it among its facts, its culture of evidence.” 

            Equating poetry and alienation, exclusion—poetry and anti-intellectualism, Hollander continues:

            “This is what the un-American feels, his condition, if you care, is that he appears to others like a poem, quizzical, without much use, just standing around.”

            But Hollander, to his credit, does not stop with “the role of the Un-American Committee in determining political alliances or questioning who among the native-born or naturalized among us was or was not a patriot.”  He brings us immediately to the present: “Just as today FBI counter-terrorism media consultant Brad Garrett can warn us about the thoughts of a Muslim citizen of America, who, himself, may not be capable of being a threat to the country, but. . .may be drawn to the ‘bad guys’ who are not citizens but bomb-capable, which is why we have to be in a state of vigilance towards the un-American American’s ‘bad thoughts.’”

            So not only in America do we police what we fear may be potential actions of the putatively “un-American,” we also strive to monitor their thoughts or what we think may be their thoughts from their ethnic and cultural origins, or from those of the individuals or groups they may be associating with.

            It’s an old story for anyone who grew up during the McCarthy anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, or who knew people whose phone calls were monitored, mail read, and movements recorded; yes, and whose family members lost their teaching jobs, as Vincent Ferrini’s Radcliffe honors graduate wife Peg did (a brilliant teacher, incidentally, who had a school building named for her after she was “allowed” to return to teaching).  And it hasn’t ended but only continues with our phone calls and emails collected and stored today, potentially to be used against us, for communicating with each other.

            Hollander’s narrative—part memoir, part fiction, part history and part documentary—is so utterly relevant as to have been written tomorrow.   For In the House Un-American is not only an account of an immigrant’s voyage of self-discovery as he uncovers the very nature of belonging “in an exceptional country that makes no exceptions,” Hollander writes.  There is also sharp social criticism here, much of it as biting as it is humorous, as Hollander skewers the sentimentality that papers over every national excess: “When in America did this start, this ritually honored public sentimentalism as a form of redemption for your violence?”

            I want to conclude with language because language is at the heart of Hollander’s inquiry (or should I say inquest?)— the languages our families arrived speaking, the languages they adopted or abandoned.

            The Dartmouth-educated son of a Jewish immigrant of my father’s generation once accused my father of “murdering the English language” as he claimed his own father did.

            “I’d like to know what you would do,” my father retorted, “alone in a strange country, with no one to understand you and not a soul to turn to.”

            That pretty much encapsulates the condition Hollander opens his account by describing.  I know it well from growing up caught between two languages.  I saw how my father struggled to make himself understood in his second language, and how my mother and her siblings, all well-educated, tried to transcend their own embarrassment at their parents’ imperfect and accented English.  My brother and I joked about how our father called the World Series “the World Serious,” but beneath our laughter was our own fear that we too, even though we could speak the native tongue, did not belong.  To this day I do not feel that I belong.  And yet I wonder, as Hollander calls into question, do any of us belong in a culture that is more fable than reality?

(This review appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of House Organ, edited by Kenneth Warren)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Olson in Love: A Review

After Completion: The Later Letters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff, edited by Sharon Thesen and Ralph Maud, (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2014), pp. 294, $24.95

Charles Olson had things to say and he said them compellingly, but he was also a private person.  He compartmentalized his friendships, so that one friend or group of friends, though aware of the existence of others, was often kept in the dark about the nature of conversations that passed between them, either directly or in the form of letters, which Olson favored as much as the spoken word.

            However, none of Olson’s friends were apparently aware of the poet’s correspondence— or, indeed, his intimate personal relationship—with the Pennsylvania-born artist, book designer, writer and independent scholar, Frances Boldereff, until George Butterick, curator of the poet’s papers at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, discovered their letters during a preliminary cataloging of Olson’s papers at the poet’s 28 Fort Square apartment, in Gloucester, two years before his death, in 1970.  Tom Clark’s 1991 biography, Charles Olson: The Allegory of a Poet’s Life, disclosed the existence of this crucial relationship.  But it was Butterick who initially reached out to Boldereff, whose letters from Olson he was given permission to photocopy for the archive at Storrs, where Clark was then allowed to consult them before meeting personally with Boldereff, in January of 1987 (Boldereff’s papers subsequently became part of the Archives and Special Collections at Storrs).  In 1999, Wesleyan University Press published Charles Olsson and Frances Boldereff: A Modern Correspondence, a major compilation of letters from 1947 to 1950, edited by Olson scholars Ralph Maud and Sharon Thesen, followed in 2014 by After Completion: The Later Lettters of Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff (Talonbooks), which collects the remainder of the correspondence, from late 1950 to 1969, just before Olson’s death from liver cancer (Boldereff died in 2003).

            It is especially intriguing to consider that Olson began his two most extensive and important correspondences, the one with Boldereff and the other with poet Robert Creeley, within three years, between 1947 and 1950, and though Olson spoke about Creeley to Boldereff, he appears never to have mentioned Boldereff to Creeley.  According to Creeley’s biographer Ekbert Fass, “Olson never once in his voluminous correspondence with Creeley referred to his epistolary muse and lover… In turn, he was hesitant to talk to her about his new male associate with whom, before long, he began to exchange letters at a rate exceeding those he traded with her.”  Such was the extent of Olson’s ability—and need—to compartmentalize.

            Who was Boldereff and precisely what is the nature of her importance to Olson?

            To answer this question, there are no better authorities than Thesen and Maud, whose two exemplary volumes of this correspondence add more to our understanding of Olson, especially during his formative years as a poet, than any biography or previous scholarly work. According to the editors, Boldereff, who, on November 22, 1947, initiated the correspondence by writing Olson an enthusiastic response to his first book, Call Me Ishmael, “believed she had found not only a kindred spirit but a lifeline, a persona, a twin.”  And to Olson, who responded with equal enthusiasm, “Frances became muse, sibling and Sybil.”  Thus began a correspondence as intense as it was to become sizable, interspersed with assignations, missed or postponed trysts (“stonewalling,” a frequently stood-up Boldereff would call it), and encounters of equally erotic and frustrating nature.  As the editors write, “This was the voltage that charged Olson’s writing at the time,” when he had completed “Projective Verse,” but not yet begun work on the Maximus Poems.” But what this correspondence “with its responses and challenges” demonstrates, they  stress, “is that an intimacy of two strong minds helped to engender Maximus.  So that, in concert with his sexual desire for his correspondent, Thesen and Maud contend, “[Olson] desired her insight, acumen, scholarship, curiosity and canny knowledge of the direction of the underground stream of his thought,” adding, “there was no one else like Boldereff in Olson’s life.”

            Furthermore, according to Thesen and Maud, “it was Boldereff who encouraged Olson in the notion of a poem as a “construct of energy,” and, therefore, Boldereff who stands behind the ideas in ‘Projective Verse.’”  Learning of Boldereff’s inspiration and the impact of her thinking on Olson at the time does not diminish the poet’s own struggle to come to terms with both a new and open poetry (“stay OPEN at all costs,” Olson wrote Boldereff on October 5, 1950, “stay OPEN and IN”), and, equally a way out of what Olson called “the old soul,” another term for the “humanism and its errors” he and Boldereff  believed had been rendered obsolete by the horrors of the war, ultimately leading to “the deadness of American postwar culture;” not to speak of the debasement of language through propaganda on the part of both the Allies and their Axis enemies, manipulations Olson knew well from his work in the Office of War information.

            It is this struggle to achieve new cultural terms, for “something in poetry,” the editors write, “that [Olson] believed had either been hidden or taken from it;” indeed, a revolutionary new world view, that had occupied the correspondents separately before they met and with renewed engagement as their correspondence and their intimate relationship progressed.   Such is the burden of the initial volume of letters, as Olson became the poet we would know him to be and Boldereff continued to elaborate her “utopian feminism” of “joy not possession,” underpinned by “the gendered gestures that compose an archaic world view,” as the editors characterize what Boldereff  herself referred to as “the task of modern woman.” It was this, along with her powerfully original scholarship on Joyce, that resulted in her groundbreaking 1959 study, Reading Finnegans Wake.

            By the time we approach the bulk of the letters in After Completion, much has happened to the two correspondents, personally and intellectually.  Olson and his first common-law wife Constance had moved from Washington, D.C. to Black Mountain College, where Olson was to teach and eventually lead the experimental community until the college closed in 1956.  They had a daughter Kate and then separated.  Meanwhile, Olson had begun a relationship with Betty Kaiser, a Black Mountain music student and the mother of his son, Charles Peter, moving to Gloucester and then to Buffalo, where he taught at the state university and where, in 1964, Betty died in an automobile accident, after which Olson moved back to Gloucester, from where he traveled to London, Rome, Spoleto, and Berlin as his fame grew.  As Olson’s star was in its ascendency, Boldereff, never affluent, endured serial job loss and excruciating poverty.  While still engaged in major work on Rimbaud and Joyce, she relocated from Woodward, Pennsylvania to Brooklyn, back to Pennsylvania then to Lawrenceville, New Jersey and back to Woodward, re-marrying in the process.   During these years after Olson’s return to Gloucester, the Maximus Poems entered their major phase and Boldereff  published Reading Finnegans Wake, followed by what was to become her masterwork, Hermes to his Son Thoth: Being Joyce’s Use of Giordano Bruno in Finnegans Wake (1968), both of which books, lovingly inscribed to Olson, remained in his library.

            Reading these letters, which are as erotically charged as they are intellectually engaged, one might wonder why Olson and Boldereff never made the move to live together, though they spoke of it often.  In fact, when Boldereff suggests they have a “closer relationship,” Olson demurs, the editors write, concerned that “moving it forward…into closeness,” they quote Olson, would endanger “the depth & power of letters between us, the imaginative wildness of the communication would be disturbed.”  Trenchantly, Thesen and Maud conclude: “Fearing the consequences of a domestication of his relationship with Boldereff, Olson is also trying to protect his marriage—at this point to Connie Olson and then later to Betty Olson—from his attachment to Boldereff,” adding that “the possibility that they might live together was broached and rejected later on, by each of them in different ways and under different circumstances.”  And yet, paradoxically, Olson could write Boldereff in 1958: “I have loved you the whole time—and have hung myself  (not to speak of Con and now, Bet) believing, the whole time, I would one day live with you, at least give over to the love, and let it have life to live itself in, instead of staying bottled up in me, and thus doing the harm such wrong does do.”

            It is possible that Olson, who appeared to be the least domestic of men, felt safer in his marriages, especially from a lover like Boldereff, who challenged him intellectually at every point—and may also have challenged him sexually—a woman who had clearly read as deeply and extensively as Olson had and wrote with equal brilliance.  There were a couple of trysts after Betty’s death, the editors report, “but it seems the lovers decided it was as it had always been: that to live apart was the more productive thing.”  After one particularly difficult rendezvous in New York toward the end of Olson’s life, “where he talked all through the night,” Boldereff remembered to Tom Clark: “He was in terrible psychic suffering, but I couldn’t respond. There was no contact between us. I felt, there’s no human being there, just a husk.  He was experiencing a real loss of his own identity, which he was hoping to get back through me. Alas, it did not work.” 

            The former lovers and correspondents of twenty-two years would never see each other again; and yet Olson was to write Boldereff, on May 28, 1969, seven months before his death: “My dear sweet Frances—Just in another burst of love for you (they come in such gusts my whole nature at this moment (as I write) bursts on you)   Love, Charles      PS I adore you”

            With Connie remarried and Bet dead, a bereft Olson, while assuring Boldereff of his undying love during the final years of their correspondence, is nevertheless engaged in an intense correspondence with a much younger scholar and poet, Joyce Benson, enlivened by assignations  with her in Gloucester and elsewhere, according to Clark.  There is another affair, conducted mostly in London, with an American heiress, who had important ties to Beat and Black Mountain writers, and a relationship in Gloucester, his final, it appears, with a young poet, who shared his Fort Square apartment and continued to live in it after Olson’s death.   While having struggled successfully to integrate his poetic and historical vocations in the Maximus Poems, and his politics through concerted local activism, Olson appeared never to have been able to achieve a lasting union, remaining, at best, conflicted and ambivalent about love, though there is no question that he experienced powerful moments of ecstasy with Boldereff.

            By this time Olson’s health was seriously failing.  A year earlier, during the summer of 1968, after Olson had reported illness, Boldereff had written with concern: “Please tell me what your doctor says; what can he do; what can’t he do?”   Blithely, Olson had replied. “and though I have still to ‘behave’ (the problem seems simply to be to take care to be taken care of—food & that stuff; and equally not ‘socialize’ too much!”)  But those of us who were close to Olson at the time, knew it was more than lack of proper nourishment (when he was not binging late at night in local restaurants, he often ate his food directly from a can—and even wrote about it in a letter to the editor of the Gloucester Times), or Olson’s heavy drinking, that constituted the problem.  Olson suffered from emphysema, yet he continued to smoke; and though often surrounded by friends at home or visitors from many parts of the globe, there was a deep loneliness in the poet, which is evident from the final Maximus Poems, in which he describes walking disconsolately up and down the seaside Boulevard of a community he had once loved and had great hopes for, but which had become, as he wrote in another letter to the editor, a “city of mediocrity and cheap ambition,” in its apparent rejection of its marine industrial heritage, while attempting to chase the tourist dollar:  “destroying/ its own shoulders its own back greedy present persons/stood upon.”  The dejected poet, who left Gloucester for Connecticut in September of 1969, may well have also been fleeing death, for he was soon to be diagnosed with inoperable cancer, dying six weeks later in New York.
            As much as the drama of this unique relationship grips the reader—and the letters are as full of the sting and bite of disappointment as they are of the elation of eroticism—there is something about them that transcends the merely relational.   As writing, they are often incandescent, as Olson, goaded by Boldereff, challenged equally by her ardent correspondent, hones his projective, propulsive prose to perfection.  His essay on Lawrence, “The Escaped Cock: Notes on Lawrence and the Present, or, the Real,” developed during their exchanges, can be taken as a trope for the dialectic at the heart of this correspondence, just as it proposes a revolutionary view of the narrative.
            Olson writes: “I take it that CONTEST is what puts drama (what they keep harping on still as story, plot) into the thing; the writer’s contesting with reality—to see it, to SEE; that climax is not what happens to the characters or things (which is, even at the finest, a rigged puppet-demonstrandum) but is, instead what another, my peer, called “a broken stump,” this contest and its issue, the ISSUE of the man who writes.  The issue is what causes CHANGE (the struggle inside, the contest there, inside, exhibited).  At root (or stump) what is, is no longer THINGS but WHAT HAPPENS BETWEEN THINGS, these are the terms of the reality contemporary to us—and the terms of what we are.”   This, then, is “no bare incoming of novel abstract form,” as Olson wrote in “Letter 27” of Maximus, but instead what was powerfully enacted in the letters themselves, what the two lovers grappled with as they engaged each other to the limit of their abilities, contesting and thereby changing.

(This review appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of House Organ, edited by Kenneth Warren)


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Becoming an Old Man: Thoughts on Turning Seventy-Seven

     (The aspiring author, Bowdoin College, 1959, and the aging writer today)

While shaving one morning recently, I looked at myself in the mirror to discover that I have become an old man.  Since I will soon be 77, I suppose it's only natural to face the reality of aging, though even during these past few years there have been warning signs, like the inability to understand words or phrases uttered at a certain pitch, or a stiffness in my legs that makes getting in and out of my car painful.  Not to speak of the increased difficulty of walking the several miles I once covered easily every day.

             I may look old, but I do not feel old.  I don’t feel cognitively impaired, yet it takes me much longer to absorb a page of densely argued prose and remember the argument.  In fact, I sometimes have to strain to recall just where in the narrative I left the novel I had been reading the night before. Though my former wife claimed that I could remember every meal I had ever eaten, it is now a strain to recall last night’s dinner.  Typically, I forget the name of the most recent film I’ve seen or, more embarrassingly, the author and title of the novel I’d just read a review of in TLS.

             Fortunate as we are to have vital information at our fingertips via the Internet, and in a matter of seconds I can retrieve what I often strain to recall that was once second nature to me, I do miss the fluency of thought I once possessed, or the store of facts and figures, that made argument easier.  During discussions with friends, I’m much slower on the uptake; and I fear it would be harder to teach literature again because I can’t remember the scores of poems or lines of verse I used to enjoy sharing with my students, along with the facts about writers’ lives that help readers to place themselves in the poems.

            What hurts me—or my vanity— the most is that I now look like the old men I used to shrink from as a child on the Boulevard or on Main Street, the ubiquitous elders, who tipped their caps to our mothers and smiled at us through their dentures, men who seemed so old as to have been living in another time; yet they could not have been much older than I am now.  Though retired from post office or bank they seemed always “dressed up” to us kids, many, like our family’s lawyer Elliott Rogers, wearing Tattersall shirts and knitted woolen neckties, while today I and my contemporaries slouch about in worn jeans and ball caps, which, as a high school student in those adamantly hatless days, I would not have been caught dead wearing.  Are we trying to appear younger, dressed like the kids, or is it merely the fashion of the less formal 21st century?

            I wear a beard cut closely to my face and I shave my head, which I suppose made me look younger, until the wrinkles of my facial skin and the wattles of my throat became more noticeable.  Judy, my partner of 28 years, tells me I could stand up straighter and walk without dragging my heels.  She’s right, of course, though it has been hard to let go of that slouching walk we all emulated growing up in Gloucester.  I will never forget when one of my college roommates, who lived in Manhattan, had agreed to meet a Gloucester friend, who was visiting the city.  Though they did not know each other, my New York friend reported to me that he recognized my pal from home immediately.  “He walks just like you do!” he said.

            I now pay more attention to children than I did after my own children grew up, and I am absolutely soppy around babies.  This may partly be due to the fact that I have grandchildren, whom I love and whose growth and development constantly interest me—the way they speak, what they notice, and how they describe it.  I also believe that as I approach the end of life I feel closer to those at its beginning, if, as a consolation prize for aging, we have been granted a pipeline back to youth.  While I’m drawn to my grandchildren's openness to experience, their joy and wide-eyed attention to everything around them, I am fearful of their entry into an increasingly volatile world.  I’m wakeful at night worrying about how they will grow up in a society that spends so much less on education, while placing undue emphasis on materiality rather than on critical thinking or transcendent values.  Mostly, I fear a world of perpetual war.

            Still, my forgetfulness is a concern.  I walk into a room in search of something only to wonder what I am there to retrieve.   I forget where I’ve parked my car.  Worse: the words don’t come the way they used to, especially the precise names of objects or phrases that were once on the tip of my tongue.  This worries me because my mother suffered from dementia, which began to express itself when she turned 86 and could not remember where she had placed the keys to her car, finally losing the car itself when she went to the super market.

            My primary care physician tells me not to worry, I’m in good shape.  A neurologist friend advises me not to be concerned about the loss of details.  “Your brain is more global now,” he says. “All the better to grasp the big picture.”

            The fear of aging brings deeper, more existential worries, less about my physical wellbeing and more about mortality.  I worry not so much about dying as about not being able to complete my work through debility.   I’m haunted by the books I have not yet read and I’m equally fearful about those I still want to write.   How is it that the life of my mind has come into such focus as I never experienced when I was younger?  Is it true that the fear of death concentrates one’s attention?

            When I was in college I hoped to become a writer like D. H. Lawrence or Henry Miller.  I did not see myself as a mainstream author (my early reading of On the Road and subsequent engagement with the Beat and Black Mountain writers put an end to that), and I did not look forward to fame or material success, unlike my classmates, who hoped to become doctors, lawyers or CEOs.  Inspired by Lawrence, I wanted to travel to the American Southwest or live in Europe, writing on the wing or in rented farm houses in the Tuscan countryside (both of which I ultimately did).   Miller’s adventurous life in books inspired me to read beyond the canon.   Since I spent my final years in college living off-campus in unheated attic rooms, buying books with what scant money I earned working at the library or playing piano at fraternity parties, I had learned to live on little.  I wore second hand clothes and let my hair and beard grow long, staying up all night to read novels by Robert Musil and Hermann Broch that were not in the curriculum, while working on stories for the college literary magazine.  I even sent one to the New Yorker, receiving my first rejection. 
            But I knew that I was not a New Yorker writer.  Neither did I want to write like Saul Bellow or William Styron, though I still have a warm spot for the extraordinary prose in Styron’s first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, which I read during a long winter night, as the snow blew against my windows on Federal Street in Brunswick, Maine and I kept warm in a bathrobe and under a blanket.  My dream was to publish in the Evergreen Review alongside of Michael Rumaker and Douglas Woolf.  As for European writers, Sartre became my idol for his political engagement, while Moravia’s analytical depiction of sexual entanglements showed me how one could write about two people and derive a world.  And once I’d discovered Beckett’s novels and plays I could not get enough of them.

            I loved Sherwood Anderson equally for the flatness of his descriptions, not unlike those mid-western landscapes from which his characters were so alienated; and there was always Hemingway.  I had never encountered prose like that of the early stories, “Up in Michigan,” “In Another Country,” or “Soldier’s Home,” or novels like The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, which I have read and re-read over the years, as much for what they taught me about writing as for how those later readings took me back to the original ones and to the person I had been when I first opened their pages.

            There was Joyce, of course: unforgettably.  Though I read the major books, except Finnegans Wake, in college, my real encounter with Joyce occurred when I was living in Florence, where I read Richard Ellmann’s magisterial biography, which led again to Ulysses and to a study of the role Joyce’s life in polyglot Trieste played in its composition.  It was in Italy that I also began to read the novels of Cesare Pavese, who became the single most important influence on my fiction during those years.

            But I do not intend to write about my reading here—I have written at length about that elsewhere.   I mention it only to describe the range of models that were available to a writer coming of age in the 1950s in terms of technique and style and the sense of possibility they offered.

            In the end, I did not become the writer I dreamed of becoming, the author of big, complex novels about the human condition, like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano.  The human condition itself intervened—marriage, divorce, parenting, teaching, social work, writing when I could manage it.  Though I have published several books, I approach my 77th birthday with a sense of incompletion and the wish that I could have more time.  I understand from my long immersion in the lives of writers, that each one of us has his own path.  There are those, like John Horne Burns, who start with a flash and burn out quickly, just as there are those like Thomas Mann, who begin writing early and continue to write well into old age.

As vital as it may seem, youthful ambition comes at an age when we think we know what we want, but we do not yet know who we are.   We can hope that writing—and the living which underpins it—will help to teach us that.   Though I cut my teeth on avant-garde and experimental fiction, I did not become a transgressive writer.  Instead, my politics and my temperament have made me a social realist, influenced more by the Proletarian novelists of the 1930s than by what David Foster Wallace called “The Great Male Narcissists” of the second half of the 20th century.   My friend Charles Olson exhorted me to “stay local,” and local I have remained, writing largely about my home town in fiction and memoir.  I do not regret this.  Living in one place for the better part of one’s life becomes the only life one knows.  And yet, the life of a small town, especially a cosmopolitan community like Gloucester, can be a world unto itself, as well as being a reflection of the larger one.  No one has yet produced the vibrant novels about Gloucester that Jack Kerouac wrote about Lowell, though several of us have tried, especially the late Jonathan Bayliss whose “Gloucesterman” tetralogy may be one of the great American novels.  Those who have best captured the complex nature of America’s oldest seaport have been the poets—Olson himself, Vincent Ferrini, Gerrit Lansing, and Linda Crane.

            So what is left to me as I age?  I have completed a novel set in Italy and a sequel to At the Cut, my earlier memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s.  I’m at work on another novel set in Gloucester.  It will be the last novel I expect to write, encompassing what I have come to know about my hometown and much of what I have learned about the craft of fiction.   I have not written the kinds of novels I envisioned myself writing as an undergraduate.  Instead, I have written the books I was compelled to write, books about Native American conflicts in Maine, about the lives of the disadvantaged in Gloucester, and about the struggle over the soul of my hometown as it attempts to preserve its gritty blue-collar identity in the wake of the collapse of the North Atlantic fishing stocks.  In my final years I would like to concentrate on essays and reviews, believing that these shorter forms will lend themselves more readily to the literary and political issues I still feel pressed to write about.

I want to live long enough to see my grandchildren graduate from high school, and hopefully even college.   I want to enjoy the continued successes of my own children.   I want to travel—I hope especially to return to Florence, where I spent three of the defining years of my life.   But mostly I want to end my days quietly reading and writing in my journal and walking with Judy on our beloved Plum Island.  I ask for no more. For I have just about everything I could want for a sufficient life—love, a comfortable place to work, and family I adore.

(October 23, 2014)