(Peter Anastas, Bowdoin College, Fall 1958)
Interlude: 83 Federal Street
I did not submit myself to her intellectual discipline, during my college years, so faithfully as I ought, but endeavored rather to find out modes of culture for myself, and often went astray in search of them.
Ever since high school I had felt the need for a room of my own, though I didn’t fully attain my dream until senior year in college, when I finally had a place entirely to myself at 83 Federal Street, in a big white 19th century house occupied by the chairman of the biology department. My furnished single room was located over an ell attached to the main structure. It had a private bathroom and a separate entrance, accessed from a walkway off Federal Street, next door to the mansion where the president of the college lived.
Because my room was in an isolated wing I was undisturbed by the radios or record players of those students, who lived in the house with Professor Gustafson and his family. Once I'd lighted the floor lamp behind the easy chair at the foot of my bed, the room was suffused with a comforting yellow glow. Then, after returning at midnight from my work shift at the library, I'd put on my flannel bathrobe and wrap a blanket around me. Keeping myself warm that way, I could study or read for as long as I wished, often until the first light. Usually I slept until noon because I no longer had morning classes. I took breakfast and lunch together at the student union, eating alone or with the small group of students, who, like me, had either quit or never joined a fraternity.
To the right of my old upholstered chair was a dark, polished bookcase with glass doors. It was there I kept the books I owned, the poetry of Pound and Eliot and some paperback editions of the novels I was currently reading, among them Women in Love, Aaron’s Rod and Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. The floor against the adjacent wall was lined with books I borrowed from the library. To the left of the lone unlocked door to my room was my desk. Over it I'd tacked a large street map of Florence cut out of a Baedeker guide I found at a church book sale. Between my desk and single bed there was a window, and another at the foot of the bed and to the right of the closet. Over my bed I had a Vlaminck print of fishing vessels tied to a wharf in Normandy because its murky browns and cerulean blues reminded me of the waterfront in Gloucester. On the opposite wall was a Rouaultesque gouache, by George Dergalis, a Greek artist from Cambridge, whom I’d met on Rocky Neck. It was of an ancient flute player with Byzantine beard and hair locks. A faded Oriental rug covered most of the floor. Between an antique dresser and the bookcase, a hi-fi console sat on a table with cast iron legs. My collection of ten- and twelve-inch long-playing jazz and classical albums was lined up under it. Attached to the dresser was a mirror that reflected my desk and the map of Florence. In the glow of my reading lamp the map appeared to be made of old parchment.
This was the room I had lived in since September of 1958. A solitary floor duct heated it irregularly. Sometimes through the register I could hear Professor Gustafson and his wife, who taught high school English in Bath, talking quietly over dinner. My typewriter and typewriter table were nestled to the left of my desk under the big window. The sound of trailer trucks late at night on the Bath Road connected me to the commerce of highways; while the roar of jet planes taking off from the Brunswick Naval Air Station, a mile from the campus, was a constant reminder that I was never very far from the instruments of war or those who operated them.
Though I had friends on campus with whom I enjoyed talking or listening to music, gradually I separated myself from college life. After class I stopped in at the bookstore to resume the conversation Peter Denzer and I had broken off the previous day. Once a week Peter invited me home for dinner; and sometimes I’d baby-sit for their two sons, Piet and Kiko, so Peter and Annie could enjoy one of their rare evenings out. But it was in this room, the first I had occupied without a roommate since beginning college, that I committed myself to the practice of reading and writing I would pursue for the rest of my life.
D. H. Lawrence was among the writers I began to read systematically during that final year. And I visited and re-visited the novels and plays of Sartre whose Nausea, in the New Directions edition, I would carry with me to Europe the following September. Of Simone de Beauvoir I had only read The Mandarins. But that novel introduced me to the highly-charged atmosphere in which Sartre, Camus and the other French left-wing intellectuals I admired lived, the Paris of cafes and political soirees, and a Europe that was attempting to reconstitute itself politically and intellectually after a devastating war. I read Beckett, too, and Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, and Robbe-Grillet, all of whose works I had first been introduced to in the pages of the Evergreen Review, which I pored over as soon as each new issue arrived in the mail. It was in the Evergreen Review that painter Albert Alcalay had pointed out to me the short stories of Michael Rumaker, “Exit 3” and “The Pipe,” suggesting that if I wanted to write seriously this was the kind of prose I should be reading. Rumaker had been a student of Olson’s at Black Mountain College. Though we wouldn’t meet until after Olson’s death, Michael’s stories, later collected in Gringos and Other Stories, had a profound impact on my own fiction.
Lawrence, the working class intellectual, who was alienated from his own class and from the culture he grew up in, along with the literary society that should have provided a sustaining environment, attracted me, not only as a writer but in the way he lived, restlessly moving from Nottinghamshire to Germany, from Italy to Ceylon, Australia and the American Southwest, ultimately dying in the South of France. The Lawrence who also intrigued me was the Lawrence who wrote, “At times one is forced essentially to be a hermit,” adding: “Yet here I am, nowhere, as it were, and infinitely an outsider.”
My deep study of Lawrence prepared me for the senior thesis I was expected to submit as part of the graduation requirements for an English major. I chose to write mine on The Plumed Serpent, not one of Lawrence’s most successful or highly acclaimed novels, but one which drew me because of its mythic substructure. For as a student of Dante I was also interested in myth and symbol and the creation of anagogic structures of belief.
There were many teachers at Bowdoin to whom I am indebted. But the principal education I received in college was not in the classroom, nor was it at the hands of my fellow students, whom I had increasingly little to do with, except for a small group of friends, who were actors and writers. My true education emanated from the Hawthorne-Longfellow Library, where for four years I read widely on my own, irrespective of course syllabi or graduation requirements, especially during my final two years, when I worked nights at the circulation desk, studying in the library and familiarizing myself with its immense holdings. Each night after work I would return to my room with a new book, which I would read often until dawn. There was hardly a book I sought or needed that wasn’t already in the stacks or in the rare book collection that contained copies of most of the major avant-garde or underground books of 20th century art and literature, bequeathed to the College by an alumnus and rare book collector, Robert L. Swasey.
The books gradually piled up around my easy chair—Edward Nehl’s three-volume composite biography of Lawrence, Broch’s infinitely complex and experimental The Death of Virgil—and I read and read, circling around schools, eras, places, cultures, until I had created for myself a better picture of the birth of European Modernism than I would ever have received had I taken a course in the subject, which wasn’t offered anyway. The fiction I was writing at the time, stories about growing up in Gloucester, didn’t directly incorporate this reading, but the reading inspired it, particularly Musil’s electrifying coming-of-age novel, The Confusions of Young Torless. Mostly I wrote about what I was reading in a journal that I began to keep, inspired by André Gide’s journals, and in daily letters to my girlfriend Leslie, who was studying literature at Boston University.
The Swazey collection was of particular importance for me because it contained most of the published works of Henry Miller, not only Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, in the original Obelisk Press editions, as published in Paris in 1934 and 1938 by Jack Kahane, but the privately printed The World of Sex, The Books in My Life, and, The Colossus of Maroussi, one of Miller’s greatest books and of utmost significance to me as a young writer of Greek-American heritage, planning his first trip to Europe. Exile and expatriation had emerged as significant themes for me from when I’d first started to read about the Lost Generation in Malcolm Cowley’s Exiles Return and John Aldridge’s After the Lost Generation. Thereafter, Miller’s own saga of abandoning New York, followed by years of penury and artistic struggle in Paris, culminating in the publication of the Tropics, his life-affirming stay in Greece just before the war, and his return to travel in America, as chronicled in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, was an enormous inspiration to me, both as a writer and prospective traveler. Of equal importance to me was the fact that Miller idolized Lawrence and had written a major study of his novels that, except for excerpts, remained unpublished until 1980.
As I reflect on the books I read in those intense months, in that single room on Federal Street in Brunswick, Maine, while my classmates were dating girls, drinking beer, and planning the careers that would eventually bring them more money than I would ever earn in a lifetime of reading and writing, I wonder if my life has changed appreciably fifty-eight years later? Am I any different now from that bearded boy in the old bathrobe, reading in a fraying chair under the glow of a rickety floor lamp, on the corner of the Bath Road, as trailer trucks roared by in the night and jet fighter planes took off at dawn, while I was falling asleep, my head full of images from the books I’d read myself to sleep over?
What I’m speaking of is not simply the books I devoured and the room I read them in. It’s about an education that would not have been possible without the library that contained those books and the room in which to read them. After three stumbling years, I had found my own refuge, and that sanctuary, if even for one year alone, constituted the most important aspect of my undergraduate experience. It established a pattern I would follow for the rest of my life, which, you might say, has been a life spent in secluded rooms of old houses, reading and writing.
I attended class during that time I’m describing, reading Dante and Sophocles in the original, immersing myself in Romantic poetry and ancient history, making dean’s list and graduating with honors in English. I had a girlfriend; I went to parties, though I spent most of my time playing piano at them and in other venues around Brunswick. But my room at 83 Federal Street was my sanctuary.
I studied with teachers who made a profound impression on me—Walter Solmitz in philosophy; Stephen Minot and Lawrence Sargent Hall in English; Geoffrey Carre in Italian, and Kevin Herbert in Ancient Greek-opening me to the richness of their own minds as well as to disciplines I might never have been able to master on my own. But at bottom, and certainly due to their guidance, I have essentially become my own teacher.
I’ve lived and written in other rooms; but the one I’m drawn back to is that room on Federal Street, where it all began, and where I often feel it was better than in any other room or in any other time or place in my life.
(I post this chapter from my memoir From Gloucester Out to celebrate the 223rd anniversary of the founding of Bowdoin College.)