Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Why I Wrote "No Fortunes"

Set at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, during the winter and spring of 1959, No Fortunes tells the story of four friends on the threshold of adulthood. Though it resembles a memoir in shape and content, No Fortunes, is both a novel of sentimental education and the story of a young couple driven to love each other while compelled to grow apart. Narrated by its protagonist Jason Makrides, son of a Greek immigrant, the novel is also the record of an aspiring writer’s struggle to achieve artistic and political integrity. Looking back to the Cold War era and the Beat rebellion, it documents the emergence of some of the seismic social and cultural shifts that would define the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

For years I had been waiting anxiously to read a novel by a member of my own generation about the experience of having attended a small New England liberal arts college at the height of the Cold War. When none appeared that seemed to speak to my sense of what I and my friends had lived through, I felt compelled to write that book myself.

Beyond documenting my own experience at Bowdoin College at the tag end of the McCarthy years, I had another and perhaps more important reason for writing No Fortunes. In a time like our own, when higher education would seem to have abdicated its primary calling to preserve and enhance the life of the mind, and scholars like Andrew Delbanco have warned about “the waning possibility of contemplation in American life,” I wished to trace the development of a young consciousness avid for books and art and open to new intellectual experiences. In an age of declining literacy, I wanted to describe the desire to read, write and think, and the delight of discussion stemming from those activities, that I and many of my classmates felt when we were in college, an aspiration that was supported not only by our teachers, but by an institution like Bowdoin, which had always enjoined its students to lose themselves in “generous enthusiasms,” to “count art as an intimate friend; to gain a standard of appreciation for other men’s [sic] work and the criticism of your own; to carry the keys of the world’s library in your pocket, and feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake.”

I took those words from the Offer of Bowdoin College to heart and they have stood me in good stead throughout my parallel careers as a writer, teacher and social worker.

But along with the life of the mind we 1950s students engaged in, there was also the life of the senses, particularly sexuality. I didn’t want to omit that aspect of our lives--our struggles to express erotic feelings, to explore relationships with men and women, to love and be loved--from my novel, for in doing so, I would have falsified the record I hoped to leave of our experiences in those transitional years before the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 70s challenged the way most of us thought about or experienced sex. I wanted to write about that dimension of our lives, at least as I and some of my friends had struggled with it, hoping that my fictionalization of our experiences would have some ring of truth for readers, who had either been in college during the Fifties or were looking back on the period through the lens of my narrative.

Since there were many aspiring writers and fine teachers of writing at Bowdoin during my undergraduate years, writers who have since produced distinguished work in prose, poetry and drama, I also wanted to talk about the ambition to become writers that many of us shared. I wanted to dramatize the process we underwent, as well as sharing with the reader the mystique of the writing life as we were learning about it in the classroom, through the media, and from our independent reading in such seminal texts as John W. Aldridge’s After the Lost Generation and In Search of Heresy: American Literature in an Age of Conformity. Recently, Paul Theroux has written that “it is impossible now for any American under the age of sixty or so to comprehend the literary world that existed in the two decades after World War II, and especially the magic that fiction writers exerted on the public.” Those of us who began to write in college soon understood the impact of imaginative writing on the society at large and the growing importance of the role that writers were playing as social critics and public intellectuals, and we wanted to become part of that literary life as we saw it.

In preparing to write No Fortunes, I jotted down some questions I thought potential readers might ask about the time I was attempting to describe. What did it feel like to live in the mid-to late-1950s from the point of view of a liberal arts student? What were students thinking then? How did we live in college? What did we look like, talk about, wear? What kinds of music were we listening to? What did we learn? Which books did we read, and what did we say about them? How were we reacting to the social and political changes and events around us? Specifically, how were students responding consciously or unconsciously to the threat of nuclear annihilation, or to the anti-communist hysteria that was rampant at the time? And what impact did emerging transgressive lifestyles and art forms, like Beat culture, avant-garde painting and theater, and the growing anti-nuclear movement, many in response to a Cold War ethos, have on students otherwise cloistered in the academy?

With those questions in mind, I decided that the only way to offer some answers with any immediacy would be to imagine my narrator back into the late-1950s as a twenty-one year-old college senior. I wouldn’t write retrospectively, as one might in composing a memoir, from the distance of age or greater wisdom. Instead, I would try to write as if my protagonist, Jason Makrides, were actually living the experiences and events he was describing—the late-night bull sessions, the give and take of classroom discussion, house parties and dates, weekends away from the campus in Boston or New York, and the life of a college town, in my case, the often volatile environment of Brunswick, Maine, where its beleaguered industrial working class contended with the encroachment of students and a nearby military population, creating a rich microcosm for the novelist.

With such an approach there would be no classical denouement, nor the sense of a life, or part of one, looked back on with anger or regret, or with a tragic sense of lost or squandered opportunity. I would have to forego that dramatic gain. In exchange, I hoped to have recreated a time and a place in their own terms, or at least as I could remember or imagine them. I hoped to derive the novel’s tension, its narrative conflict and energy, from the pressures of daily life—students as they meet and interact in situations circumscribed by the rules and boundaries of an institution, the struggle of young minds with provocative new ideas, indeed, the innate rebelliousness of youth coming of age in a world that was changing before our very eyes, even as we were immersed in the study of events and societies that seemed frozen in time.

No Fortunes is not a memoir, nor should it be read as such. It is a novel, a work of the imagination, for I felt that only through fiction could I tell the story I wanted to tell, only through fiction could I attempt to repossess something as irrecoverable as one’s youth and the people and places one knew. Yet I wanted to avoid a romantic view of the experiences I was attempting to recover, and of youth itself. I did not want to idealize that time in my life or my experiences as an undergraduate; and I hoped that my decision to write as if I and my reader were actually living in 1959 would help to situate my narrative in a lived reality rather than one perceived through the distorting haze of memory.

Finally, No Fortunes is a novel one might ordinarily have written upon graduation, or shortly thereafter. It would have been an apt first novel for a young writer, newly liberated from the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a small, isolated college in which there were no female students. I thought about doing it even as I was still in college. But life intervened, and I wrote other books, often under the pressure of issues and events I was then immersed in, though I never abandoned the idea for a novel based on my years in college. When I finally sat down to begin No Fortunes, thirty-five years after I’d left school, it would be a very different novel from the one I had originally conceived, more “historical” than actual or autobiographical, more informed by the experiences of the passing years, though such a perspective might remain covert, lying perhaps under the surface of my narrative. In any event, this is the book I have written. It is different from the one I might have written in 1959 or 1962; and in waiting so long to have written it I hope I have been able to take advantage of what I’ve learned since then, while retaining my original impulse to make art out of what had once been lived.


Shortly after completing this essay, I read an article by Mark Danner in the June 23, 2005 issue of the New York Review, based on Danner’s commencement address to graduates of the English Department at the University of California in Berkeley. To be an English major and recent graduate entering “American society—in all its vulgar, grotesque power,” Danner writes, “is to live not only by questioning, but by being questioned. It is to live with a question mark placed squarely on your forehead. It is to live, at least some of the time, in a state of ‘existential dread.’ To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget.”

I can’t conceive of a better description of a humanistically trained student, or of the dilemma that any of us who received a liberal arts education, whether in the 1950s or today, face as members of society. It is precisely this dilemma that I attempted to address in No Fortunes.

Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

Sunday, October 2, 2005

Giving voice to Bowdoin's young men of the '50s

Copyright © 2005 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

Some generations fare better than others at labeling. Tucked in between "The Greatest Generation," which won World War II, and its "Baby-Boomer" children is one of the losers - the generation that grew to adulthood in the 1950s.

But if the young people of that era - and the grandparents they have become - lacked a defining label, they do not lack defining voices. One such voice belongs to Peter Anastas of Gloucester, Mass., whose new coming-of-age novel, "No Fortunes," winningly portrays a boy stretching his way to manhood at Bowdoin College in 1959.

It's one of the best books I've read all year.

For anyone reading "No Fortunes" in Maine, the sense of place is overwhelming. Brunswick lives and breathes on its pages, not just in the street names but in the tensions and pleasures of campus life and the sense of a community divided between the college boys (students are male only in 1959) and those who live in the "other" Brunswick.

Beyond that, if you remember the '50s on a college campus like Bowdoin, you will see its young people again, hear their voices, feel their passion and share their impatience as they wait for the world of the Eisenhower Era to catch up to their inchoate ambitions.

If you don't have memories of your own, Anastas will create them for you, giving readers a compelling look into the life of high-achieving Bowdoin seniors and, through his eyes, tells the stories - some loving, some tragic - of his closest friends.

Anastas, a scholarship student from Gloucester, attended Bowdoin during the time of his story and he remembers its outer - and inner - workings well. Always, too, there are intimations of world-changing events that will come after these young men leave the Brunswick campus.

At a memorial service for a Bowdoin friend, who thought and felt his way through mysticism to revolution, Anastas' hero, Jason Makrides, speaks of the years ahead:

"Ours is not a very political generation," he tells the audience of friends and family. "We came to college to prepare ourselves not for a life of learnng how to change the world, but for one of earning a good living in the world as we found it. If we are ever going to become political, I suspect that it will not be in the conventional way of ballots and elections, but more like the way Frank had the courage to choose, the way of direct action."

Welcome, folks, to the 1960s, the 1970s and all the years since.

Even as the young men of Bowdoin look at the world, however, they also look into themselves, weighing their loves, their duties and their longings.

"My father will probably never speak to me again," moans a young man named Henri St. Pierre. "All he's talked about for four years at the fire station is me going to medical school like my uncle did, a poor French Canadian boy making good. Now I've dashed his dreams. How can he tell those guys his son wants to be an actor in New York City?"

It's a them-or-me choice several of the young men, the first in their working-class families to go to college, must confront. Before they can tell anyone else how they plan to live their lives, however, the young heroes of Anastas' book must tell themselves.

They must confront the pressure of choice - how much to sacrifice to help a friend, whether to stay with a soulmate or pursue study in Europe, how to confront time and the threat it poses to fulfillment, and, most of all, how to know with any degree of certainty the adult they're meant to be and the world they're meant to live in.

Anastas gives them a vibrant world in which to make their choices. He arms them well with characterization. And he places them in beautifully evoked settings, from make-out parties and the rigors of scholarly exams at Bowdoin to the glow of Cezannes at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the noisy working wharves of Gloucester and the quiet of that hushed memorial service.

If I have any quarrel with "No Fortunes," it is a small one. The title strikes me as a needless barrier to the book. Read as part of a powerful thought by Henry James, "There are no fortunes to be told; there is no advice to be given," the comment has meaning. Used alone, however, it hangs on the book's cover like a "No Trespassing" sign, evoking little and enticing a reader even less.

That's too bad. What's inside these pages is a delight as a generation worth knowing speaks for itself.

Nancy Grape is a freelance writer from Freeport.

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel

July 23, 2005

No Fortunes

By Peter Anastas

Press, 2005

275 pages, $15.

In 1959, Bowdoin College senior Jason Makrides’ last year of school is a heady mixture of Sartre and Camus, Cold War tension, and Beatnik bongo drums. For Jason, it is also a defining year of sadness and tragedy, heartbreak and hope.

No Fortunes is Bowdon graduate Peter Anastas’ tender novel about four college friends who smoke too many cigarettes, drink too much beer, and argue too loudly about existentialism and revolution.

Jason and his pals like college life, but they will graduate soon, and they become increasingly unsettled by the dim prospects of what life might really be like. Anastas does a masterful job of portraying their triumphs, fears, and failures, from classwork to girlfriends, especially their relationships with each other.

Jason is the only one whose plan for life after college has some direction. He will go to Italy and study Italian literature in Florence, but even his plans will have unintended and unpleasant consequences. During the last few months of school, Jason learns hard lessons about pain and suffering. His girlfriend breaks up with him, a close friend is killed in Cuba, another friend announces he is a homosexual, and a favorite professor commits suicide.

Still, Jason endures the pain and loss and somehow works his way through this confusing period of adjustment, even after acting like a jerk and making a fool of himself many times. Three of these young men will make surprising post-college decisions, and one will be stunned by his future’s potential.

Although Anastas loads up too much on obscure literary name-dropping and Zen hocus-pocus, his depiction of Brunswick’s 1959 college life is vivid, colorful, funny, and bittersweet. These kids think they know everything, but silently realize they’ve experienced nothing. As one friend prophetically tells Jason, “My ultimate necessity is to choose to be what I am.”

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.


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