Friday, April 27, 2007

David Halberstam: Ave atque Vale

The tragic accidental death, on April 23, of Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and writer, David Halberstam, brought back to me with incredible poignancy the impact of his influential book, The Best and the Brightest, a gripping narrative about the misuse of power that led to the war in Southeast Asia. Published in 1972, just three years before that futile conflict came to an end, it was the one book in a time of many extraordinary books about the war that got to the heart of the conflict while brilliantly profiling those who had planned and executed it in the name of yet another Cold War crusade to "contain communism."

Then it was the “communist menace,” in opposition to which we appeared to be engaged in a them-or-us struggle. Now our new enemy is "world terrorism." But underlying both conflicts, real or imagined, is a Manichean world view, which demonstrates that Puritanism has never died in the American psyche, coupled with the same kind of fear-mongering that our government deleteriously engaged in during the Vietnam era and has been again deploying to stifle dissent since September 11, 2001.

Both wars were sold to us and prosecuted using equal, if ever more sophisticated, forms of disinformation, coersion, and threats against those who opposed them of traitorous behavior, of giving aid and comfort to the “enemy.” The list is endless, just as the comparisons are. But Halberstam was, with the late Bernard Fall, one of the first reporters, who, from the very beginning of our involvement in Vietnam, saw through the lies and the distortions of information (especially the claim that we were winning the war), and, in articles for the New York Times and Harper’s magazine, brought the war in all its violence and brutality home to a country largely taken in by our government’s propaganda about why we were fighting a “do or die” struggle against a peasant population that was of no threat to us, just as the Iraqi people presented no danger to our country before we invaded them in 2003.

A year or two before I read Halberstam’s masterpiece, I had attempted to pour my own anguish about the war in Vietnam into a Maileresque novel, which I called “Reunion.” It was not a successfully achieved book, as I soon realized. There was too much anguish and outrage in it and too little art; too much of it was overtly political, and there was not much subtlety in the narrative (two publishers rejected it). So I put the typescript away in my safe deposit box with other rejected or unpublished manuscripts. Only recently, as I’ve been agonizing over our subsequently failed war in Iraq, did my work on “Reunion” come to mind; and when I took out the yellowed manuscript, carefully typewritten on “Corrasable Bond,” which was beginning to crumble at the edges, I discovered that I had, in addition to the novel, written a personal essay, as a postscript to the book. Dedicated to my son Jonathan, who was five years old at the time, the essay was an attempt to explain why I had written the novel and how our insane involvement in Vietnam had affected me. It was, as I discover now, also an attempt to describe my own condition, the state of my soul, as my country spilled the blood of its young, while pouring billions of dollars into a colossal failure of vision and intelligence.

In re-reading my essay, it occurs to me that there remain many parallels between the war in Southeast Asia and the war in Iraq—the political and military blunders that led to a sense of our being stuck in a “quagmire,” the stupidity masked as arrogance on the part of our leaders, the lack of historical understanding of other peoples and their cultures, the abuses of power, and the utter disregard of our government then and now for truth—not to speak of the fact that we appear still to believe that wars can be won by massive firepower alone, by “shock and awe.” Written thirty-seven years ago, when I was in my early thirties and was still two years away from publishing my first book, this essay reappears to me as though from a time-warp.

I post it in remembrance of those years, and particularly, as a tribute to the memory of David Halberstam, who was one of the writers whose own search for the truth encouraged me to seek truth in my own life and to attempt to uncover the untruths in my country’s actions and behavior in the world. As writer Gay Talese, a former colleague of Halberstam’s at the New York Times, has said in memory of his friend, “If we’d had just one young reporter like David Halberstam covering the White House or the Defense Department [during the run-up to the war] we would never have gotten into the mess we got into in Iraq.” In
The Best and the Brightest, Halberstam writes, "When I began work on the book I did not realize how pessimistic the intelligence people both at State and CIA had been about the proposed venture...if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the press and the public had known of the extent of the intelligence community's doubts, there would have been a genuine uproar about going to war." Sound familiar?

Reunion: postscript

For my first son, Jonathan Peter, who, when he saw the newsreel photograph of a North Vietnamese child standing by the body of his mother, killed during an American air-raid, asked me, “Dad, why is that boy crying?”

I began “Reunion” during the heaviest snowfall in the recorded history of my part of New England, and while my wife was pregnant with twins (Charles Olson had called to remind me that among the Algonquians, whose land we now call our own, the man himself always worked while his wife was in labor). I actually finished the first draft a few hours before my wife decided it was time to leave for the hospital. Months later, in the midst of a terrible late-June heat-wave, I thought to wrap up my story, with that accompanying sense of dissatisfaction, which seems always to lie at the edges of any elation you might feel upon the completion of a not insubstantial piece of work, or, for that matter, a piece of work, any piece of work, in a time when few of us are able to get out of bed in the morning let alone walk to the typewriter.

Yet, as I prowled in shorts through the upstairs rooms of our rented house on Vine Street, in Gloucester, feeling the sweat cool as it ran down my back and listening to the voices of my family picnicking under the locust trees below, the issue of that pregnancy, a boy and a girl, already crawling on the grass, wishing to be out there, rather than having to tinker with my own prose at the moment so unbearable to me, I realized that something was missing from “Reunion;” something further had to be said, else the record was incomplete.

Luckily Noam Chomsky’s magnificent book of essays, American Power and the New Mandarins, came to hand while I was looking over my winter’s work. Just to turn the pages, to live again in Chomsky’s controlled yet no less powerful moral indignation, his anger and his dismay, was to be plunged again into my own rage. I forgot the heat, which continued to smelt away the first days of July in a furnace of blinding light, in the excitement of reading, my fingers stained with the blue ink of the binding.

How could I have let myself forget?

Speaking of himself, Chomsky said that no person who had involved himself in anti-war activities as late as 1965 could claim any moral superiority. What had I done? True, I had dashed off scores of letters against the war to President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, to almost everyone in the Administration and those representing us in Congress; but surely I did not hurl my own body into the struggle. Aside from some teach-ins and a few demonstrations on Boston Common my wife and I had attended when I was in graduate school, I don’t believe I left Gloucester during the most difficult days of the resistance. And it was not for cowardice or fear. One who had not seen the police beat young women senseless had no idea of the kind of violence which awaited demonstrators in New York or Washington. No, I did not march against the war in Vietnam. I sat out—and am continuing to sit out—the war as it widens into all of Southeast Asia. So Chomsky has nothing to be ashamed of, considering his record. Still, I refuse to let myself off the hook, even though I believe there are thousands like me in America, some of them no less like the characters in “Reunion.”

Of course, I didn’t go to that tenth college reunion I’ve attempted to dramatize in the novel. I heard later that only a few of my classmates attended (my class was not particularly known for its cohesiveness). But in focusing upon my own school experience I had hoped to put into some form, to reflect, my growing disillusionment with all liberally conceived institutions. And in choosing a particularly common moment in real time (in this case a rite or ritual in which such institutions as colleges celebrate their success if not their existence), I sought to recreate or at least make dramatic use of a situation, common enough in my own social experience and that of my generation, for the purposes of a limited fictional examination of certain problems, attitudes, habits of mind I believed to be exemplary of my generation.

There had been so much talk of the “novel as history” and of the novelist as a historian or journalist of events, who, using the techniques and insights gained in the making of fiction as a means of revealing the workings of events and the characters of their participants, recreates an event and calls it a “novel,” that I wanted to do the reverse (like Camus, I seem to have an almost organic intolerance for the modish). That is, I wished merely to continue to do what most writers of fiction have always done—namely, imagine the events and the persons involved in them, create them out of the whole cloth of my imagination. I did not wish to go to a college reunion, but rather to imagine that I had gone. I did not wish to report the real imaginatively, but to invent such a situation. So I make no claim about the accuracy of historical or social events…the only accuracy I claim is my attempt at what Goethe called “exact imaginative fantasy.”

Above all, I was seeking a means of setting down in cold type, hopefully in a dramatic way, some of the effects upon myself at least, of the most tragic moment in my country’s history since the Civil War. I cannot truthfully call the Vietnam Adventure a necessary war (as if wars ever are) or even, as some have suggested, a historical or political blunder—a mistake!—for that might seem to validate what I believe to be one of the most reprehensible acts of human aggression in the history of mankind (the total effect of that aggression in terms of human lives, destruction of land, annihilation of practically an entire culture, is to my mind a far more serious act of aggression than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki because it has been done with a calculation far more intelligent of its results, and with a deep foreknowledge of its long-term consequences, not only for the Vietnamese people but for all of us, all over the world). I wanted to put down on paper almost exactly how I felt, what I did and thought, while this country I still love for what she could yet be was shipwrecking herself on an obscenity so profound and terrible as to drive any American who called himself a moral person to despair for his or her own implication in it.

In anguish a dear friend once hurled at me:

“How can they let men like McNamara, Rusk and Bundy go out of office as though they were crossing the street, rewarded by being simply transferred to other prominent positions within the same Establishment? Those men are responsible for the deaths of thousands of people! They’re murderers, war criminals! Don’t talk to me about Eichmann!”

I replied:

“How can we go on from one day to the next untroubled by our own complicity? We did nothing to stop Rusk and McNamara! We’re war criminals, too!”

How familiar it must all sound to you…

Most of all, I wanted to leave my children a record of how I felt during these terrible years, something on paper to add to their mental picture of an over-weight, heavily bearded ogre in dungarees and faded blue work shirt, who barked at them from the dark, guarded caverns of his depression, if they so much as laughed while he was listening to the latest body-count, or talking back to Spiro Agnew in the hermetic, and stacked, courtroom of his mind, where all the scores were settled in favor of justice and freedom—justice and freedom for his people, not for their adversaries, real or imagined.

I suppose none of us will emerge (if indeed we do) the same from Southeast Asia. I do not mean that one had to be in Vietnam, to go there, to fight or to kill there, or to observe the killing. Vietnam is in the soul of each one of us, as well as in those daily body-counts we all came to feed on in our different hungers. Each man, woman and child in America is a murderer. Lyndon Johnson and his Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Nixon and his Madison Avenue crew, are not the only war criminals: every one of us appears before a Nuremberg Tribunal when we come to consciousness each day. A hundred years from now, if there is an America, if there are human beings as such left on this earth, people will shake their heads in dumb disbelief that the most enlightened, the richest, the freest, the most powerful nation on earth could have stooped to Vietnam.

Yet I thought to write my story, to leave it as it was. There wasn’t much hope of publication. The market was already glutted with every conceivable “topical” book, novel, memoir, pamphlet or polemic. Besides, I’m so reluctant a purveyor of my own work that by the time I even got round to showing it to an editor [as of November 1970 two major publishing houses had rejected it] what was left of any reading public for “Reunion” would have long tired of such stuff, the urgency, perhaps even the stridency, of its tone and content, if not of the fictive act itself. Certainly I had hoped to transcend immediate political and social issues in the story, but they got in through the back door and a couple of open windows. What could I do? I suppose I could have rewritten the whole thing from scratch; but I didn’t really want to disturb the original impulse behind the book, and the rush of feeling that made me hurl it all down on paper morning after morning, as the snow fell softly outside and my little boy made angels in it or sang quietly to himself as he made a ship of a piece of granite ledge protruding blackly from snow so white it was blue, his own secure world about to be shattered by the arrival of two siblings. So I would touch it up, stick it in my safe deposit box at the Cape Ann Bank and Trust Company, leave it for the kids. I thought to turn my back on Vietnam, to get on with other work, my conscience salved, my statement “made,”—my existential act, enacted. But I suddenly realized how impossible that would be.

I wish I could say that the war and its attendant events and circumstances have so paralyzed me that I have been unable to act physically, to show my anger: if not to translate it into effective political action, then at least, as Frantz Fanon advises Blacks, to use rage therapeutically. But the truth of the matter is that I have continually put the war out of my mind. Yet, paradoxically, I have found myself almost compulsively reading every magazine article or book on Vietnam I come across—and major books like Chomsky’s have been spawned by this atrocity. I have found myself following campaigns, search and destroy missions, by maps in the Sunday New York Times and on nightly televised news programs. I discover that scores of place-names in a nearly unpronounceable tongue are as familiar to me as the those of generals Mark Clark and Matthew Ridgeway. How can this be, I ask myself—an isolato?

I’ve seethed in my arm chair watching what passes for the war itself on TV, or in violent arguments about it with relatives and friends (and one’s presumably closest friends have by no means all reviled this war). But it has ended there. Next morning I have been back at the typewriter, or with my nose stuck in Havelock’s Preface to Plato, Thoreau’s Maine Woods.

So my war record is an atrocity itself, which is why reading Chomsky has made me want to record this spill-over from “Reunion.” Without it, the evidence I leave my children (small as it is, insignificant as it will seem) of myself in these years, in which my son wanted continually to know why people were “shooting at each other,” in Vietnam, and “where is Vietnam, Dad-0, a long way from Gloucester?” would be distorted. Indeed, I would seem to have falsified it in living through my protagonist, Jason Makrides, in expressing in his words all the things I myself wanted to say to other people, in the way that you can write them, away from the battle, its heat. I suppose ultimately I have assigned to my protagonist the kind of sustained moral fervor I did not possess. But I wanted my three children to have this record, too.

For art is a record of sorts, even though I believe present “reality” may well have obviated the necessity for most, if not all, of the forms and uses of art we have previously known. Perhaps “art” itself is no longer possible of creation, or even useful. At any rate, I do not think it possible, for a long time anyway, to consider the creation of a novel or poem in any kind of purity of thought (perhaps I ought to write “moral vacuum”) or retirement from the world. The world touches us at every moment as Vietnam has lacerated our consciences, and it is no longer possible to escape; for the very forms of escape will have been conditioned by the objects and events from which we seek to escape, in an irreversible pornography of violence.

Chomsky writes that “those who were opposed to the war merely because of its costs or its atrocities will fall away.” I agree. They will not be able to fall away soon enough. A few will remain. Survivors, in a way, of Vietnam—veterans. I believe myself to be one of those people…

In 1959, I traveled to Florence, Italy thinking to study Dante and Romance Philology. Instead, I discovered the work of Cesare Pavese, whose earthy Piedmontese localism reinforced what I was learning about my country from Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, which I had propitiously chosen to place in my suitcase at the last minute. Both writers, the Italian Marxist, infatuated with what he thought were the limitless possibilities of America, and the American Poundian, who read his own writers partly through Dante’s eyes, led me to discover America as lying inside me as well as in Olson’s and my home town. When I did come home again to Gloucester, I was ready to dedicate myself to the study of America, her history, as it declared itself in the words of her writers and poets and in the accounts of her explorers.

By then the very name “America” began to fill me with a kind of awe. I could wander in the stacks of any library in Europe looking for Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. Those names and the magical titles of their books—Walden, Leaves of Grass, Nature—were so precious to me that I was afraid of violating them by the act of reading. But read I did, and I found those books held treasures every bit as rare and valuable to me as the contents of the Florentine palaces and museums I visited daily.

In the intervening years I tried to imagine, if not to make, the kind of life I wanted: independent, deeply familial, local. Possibly literary. I knew I did not ultimately wish to join my life with that of institutions. After only a few years of teaching, I found that I could not stand even to pay lip service to bureaucracies or administrations. I had a kind of visceral desire not only to harass but to subvert them. They seemed always to want to get between me and my students, to disrupt the real process of learning, the endless talk, the dialectics, the living together. Naturally, the chief criticism I received as a teacher was that I encouraged my students in what some considered their “worst traits,” notably their rebelliousness. So I suppose my own character would not permit me to realize what I had been led to believe was the ideal intellectual and artistic life of my own teachers in the 1950s, that of the academy.

Incidentally, I discovered, like many other writers, that writing, and teaching about writing or writers, were, if not mutually exclusive, at least, to me personally, incompatible. Yearning for independence, or perhaps simply a liberation from institutions, I left the academic world on the threshold of what my colleagues would have called a “promising career.”

I had already finished my second novel at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, and I revised it as we began the insane bombing of North Vietnam. I was pleased about my work. I thought I had written a quite careful, workmanlike novel about expatriates, based on nearly three years’ experience and observations in Europe. It was tight, accurate, symbolistic—in a word, “well made,” exactly what I’d been taught to regard as the essence of contemporary writing.

But one morning it occurred to me what a fraud my book was. Around me was a society—a world!—in turmoil and all I could do was describe people sitting in canvas beach chairs at the Lido, sipping Tokay and reading dated novels. It was decadent. Worse, it was reactionary—I mean not only politically (for any absence of political vision in our own time is reactionary), but reactionary in the manner of those academic novels and stories of the 1940s and 50s, which were not responses (hopefully experimental) to social and political realities in America, but were instead re-castings of an already dated European avant-gardism. Not the novel as “news” then, as an active engagement with the literal in all its guises, but the novel as fable, myth, allegory—the novel as “literature,” as though the writers were obeying Northrop Frye’s stultifying orthodoxy that poems and novels can only come from other poems and novels. It was writing manufactured from the inside; you might almost say with next year’s college reading lists, departmental budgets, and graduate theses in mind. It was what you might have predicted post-industrial capitalism would produce, given mass education and the ultimate institutionalization of all the arts. It was a dangerous and unhealthy drift, and like many in my generation, who’d gone to college and graduate school under the aegis of the New Criticism, I found myself in it almost absentmindedly. You turned your back on life, you got absorbed in “art.” You lost the world.

Then came Vietnam.

It’s as though I’d been asleep for ten years—maybe all my life!

The Class of 1969, rightly called “the finest graduating class in America’s history,” has left the platform, like my own, to scatter to the four winds. The best of them (I have known many, and even taught some, although I had everything to learn from them and next to nothing to teach) are everything I wished myself to be ten years ago but did not know how to go about it. They would not stomach the lies of Lyndon Johnson and Dean Rusk. They dubbed Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, “The Mad Bomber,” called him a war criminal, and rightly so. That the inventor of war “with moral restraint” (the term could have been coined in the defendant’s boxes at Nuremberg) now directs a “humanitarian” World Bank is no surprise to them. They view American Imperialism as a reality, not a term of “leftist” propaganda; to them enslaving a person economically is only another method of killing him.

They know that Richard Nixon, whose name was engraved on the moon while millions starved on earth, is nothing more than a cynical politician, and that in his heart of hearts he has only contempt for the “forgotten Americans,” that Silent Majority, who put him in office and upon whose ignorance and fear he daily plays.

They know, too, that things are not going to get better, that the Nixon Administration has no intention of stopping the war in Southeast Asia until it will reap the greatest political benefit from such an action. They know that not one finger will be lifted in Washington, beyond the nominal rhetoric which displaces action, to feed those who are dying in rural America and the inner cities, to confront the vicious racism of the ruling classes and their minions, to educate the young beyond the cant and propaganda of the new American Imperialism, or to ensure each American of the best medical care available as a human and civil right and not a privilege. They know, as well, that alcoholism and drug addiction are not sicknesses in themselves, as the President implies, to be eradicated by punishing their victims in a repressive legal system, but rather they are symptoms of a national disease, emanating from the very centers of corruption and privilege.

They know, also, that it will be practically impossible to turn back the course of American militarism, the support of which has made us a captive people in our own land, and subjected a tiny country like Vietnam to a destruction far greater than that visited upon Nazi Germany.

Because of this, many of the Class of 1969 and 1970—and how many more?—will lie dead in Southeast Asia before the year is out. Some will go to prison, others into exile; many will be forced underground. Doubtless the great majority will “settle down when they get married,” as one condescending commentator noted; but do you recall this moderate voice speaking from the Harvard platform?

For attempting to achieve the values which

you taught us to cherish, your response has

been astounding. It has escalated from the

presence of the police on the campuses to

their uses of clubs and gas. I have asked many

of my classmates what they wanted me to say

today. “Talk with them about hypocrisy,” most

of them said. “Tell them they have broken the

best heads in the country. Tell them they

have destroyed our confidence and lost our


What had I to say ten years ago? In my commencement address, I quoted Yeats—a fascist!—in the First Congregational Church of Brunswick, Maine: “The center cannot hold…” What did I know of centers, of social cohesion and dissolution? No one in my class had wanted to make a better world and got his head broken for it. No one in my class lay dead in a rice paddy. Lamely I spoke of the duty of the artist to make art “with the validity of a philosophical basis,” though I have suffered ever since in trying to hold myself to such a task. Under the deadening influence of an English department that viewed literature as a closed system of images, symbols, myths and allegories, hopefully with a Christian or humanistic message, which you dutifully decoded with the help of the New Criticism, I faulted the Beat Generation writers (the only vital voices of the time) for what I called their “minimal protest.” I made a few token remarks about the vulgarity of the big cars then crowding the highways—“chrome-plated egg cartons,” I called them, receiving, in response, a few indulgent graduation-day chuckles from some of the very parents who had arrived in those cars. I remarked on the stultifying conformity of the Eisenhower years; yet I shaved my beard off the night before commencement. Tail between my legs, I escaped to Europe that fall.

And now, it seems, I am back where I began. The two American writers I most loved and respected are dead: Olson, of cancer; Kerouac, of drink. Reading Dr. Sax and Maggie Cassidy (Kerouac’s two neglected Lowell novels) had freed me of the old prose stance and taught me the possibilities of a lyric repossession of the authentic past, while Olson pointed me into the future with the tools of mythology as epistemology not art-form. It was a good feeling to sit up here on Thomas Riggs’ hill in Gloucester, knowing that Charles was down in his house at the Fort overlooking the harbor, and that Jack might well have been working away in his bedroom in Lowell, not far from the woods where Thoreau had lived and walked. I often thought of us as “spies of all the gods,” in Allen Ginsberg’s phrase, a kind of Massachusetts brotherhood of the Craft, though we were never together in the same room and I had not met Jack.

With their death a force seems to have gone out of my own life, a pungency from the very air of New England. From my study window I watch the year turn: the lush green hills in their summer volupte` of lemon-colored light; elms suddenly gray naked witches with a thousand bony fingers; red sun bleeding out of the winter sky into the cold dark mountains. I sit here reading Thoreau and Melville—and now John Winthrop and Thomas Morton. But something has happened, something deeper than disillusionment, loss of youth, disappointment; something more tragic. Something is broken in America, in me, too. This I do not think I was able to write about in “Reunion.” But I want to try in the time that’s left. For now I offer this story, faulty, incomplete, tentative, as part of the process, as beginning, or just simply entry.

Gloucester, 1970

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Goneboy: In Memoriam April 16, 2007

The following is a review of my friend Greg Gibson’s book, Goneboy, published in 1999, by Kodansha International. The book documents Greg’s attempt to come to grips with the murder of his son Galen, a student at Simon’s Rock College, by another student, who went on a shooting rampage on December 14, 1992 that left Galen and a professor dead, while wounding three other students and a security guard. “After Galen died,” Greg told reporter Gail McCarthy of the Gloucester (MA) Daily Times, “I was so full of anger at all the conditions that caused his death. So I started investigating the story of what happened to my son, about America, about guns, about violence.” My review of Greg’s book appeared in the Gloucester Times of September 22, 1999. I post it here in the wake of yet another mass murder on a school campus. Greg’s courageous inquiry into guns, violence and manhood in America still has much to teach us.

What is a parent’s greatest fear? If my own dread is any indication, it’s that something terrible will happen to one’s children, something disastrous like an incurable illness or fatal accident. It’s bad enough when the kids are near us, at school or playing with their friends, even off on a date. But once they leave home, a parent is often haunted by the fear of that late night telephone call, delivering news of the unthinkable.

On the night of December 14, 1992, Gloucester bookseller Gregory Gibson and his wife Anne Marie Crotty received such a call. It came from the dean of Simon’s Rock College in Western Massachusetts, where the Gibson’s oldest son Galen was an undergraduate. The dean told them, in Gibson’s words, that “there’d been a terrible accident at the college, and my son had been shot and killed.”

Gibson continues:

“Somehow, on the small sleepy campus of Simon’s Rock College, a student had gone crazy. Somehow he’d ordered bullets thought the mail. Then he’d gone to a local gun shop and bought a military style semiautomatic rifle. Somehow he got the gun back onto school grounds, undetected. At about 10:15…he began walking through the campus, shooting people.”

The student’s name was Wayne Lo. Six years earlier he had emigrated with his family from Taiwan. First he shot and seriously wounded the guard at the college’s front gate. Then he murdered a professor who was driving past. Next, he walked to the library where he murdered Gibson’s son and wounded another student. Before surrendering, he wounded two more students. Unharmed, he was finally arrested.

What is a parent to do with this devastating news? How can a family face the unthinkable suddenly made manifest? What happens to them? How do they go on living in the face of such a stunning loss?

Greg Gibson answers these questions, and many more, in Goneboy, his powerful account of a parent’s search for the truth in his son’s murder, published this month by Kodansha International.

As anyone who has suffered loss can attest, the real grieving sets in after the funeral, once the friends and relatives who have come to comfort you have returned to their own lives.

After Galen’s funeral and his burial near the Gibson home in Lanesville, after the “huge, sad memorial service” that most of Gloucester attended (we felt that Galen was our child too), the Gibsons began their grieving. “And for three years or more,” Greg writes, “Annie and I gave a good part of our lives over to grief… We knew that if we did our grief sincerely enough and well enough we’d come out on some other side where we wouldn’t constantly need to be doing it.”

The fact that the Gibsons had two other children, their daughter Celia and son Brooks, played no small role in the family’s recovery.

“At first we simply assumed our lives were over,” Gibson writes with the poignant honesty that marks his entire narrative. “It meant little to us personally, if we lived or died. Then we remembered that we still had two children who were dependent upon us and who had lives that were not over. Brooks and Celia still needed to be hugged, yelled at, played with and driven around. We still had important things to do. We did indeed have something to live for. Therefore our lives were not over.”

It was this powerful sense of family, of every member’s need to survive the loss of Galen, each in his or her own way, that set the Gibsons on the path to healing. But there was another dimension to the healing, as Greg tells it:

“Annie and I had a deep-seated need to learn all the facts surrounding Galen’s murder. Although we were very different people in many ways, we shared the same basic values. One of these was a belief in the redemptive power of truth. If the truth didn’t always set us free, at least it kept us clean and made our lives less complicated.”

The Gibson’s had already learned enough about poor decisions made by college officials, which contributed to the murder of their son. This led to their initiating a civil suit. “Part of our anger at Simon’s Rock College,” Gibson writes, “and one of the main reasons for the lawsuit, was our belief that they had failed to respect our need for the truth.”

But the Gibsons also knew that important factual information they needed, in order to gain a fuller understanding of the events and decisions that led to Galen’s death, might better emerge from the criminal trial that was slated to begin in Springfield, MA. With this in mind, along with an understanding that their own psychic survival of Galen’s death depended in large part on the resolution of a number of vexing questions about both the murderer and the context of the crime, the Gibsons moved temporarily to Springfield to begin the ordeal of listening daily in court to the details surrounding the loss of their son.

Still, it wasn’t enough for Greg to attend passively. Each morning he brought a notepad to court, recording as much as he could about what was going on. Then at night he’d transcribe his notes into the computer.

“It felt surprisingly good to work up these courtroom notes, to get some sense of the form of the proceedings, to be doing something with what was going on,” Greg writes. “In fact, the activity transformed me. Instead of being a victim of the trial, instead of being a passive recipient of all this painful and difficult information, I could take an active role. I was reporting the trial.”

Unhappily, the trial didn’t provide the resolution Greg devoutly wished for, nor did the civil suit, which got bogged down in technicalities. Even though he pled insanity, Wayne Lo was finally convicted of murder and sent to prison for life. Yet Galen was still dead and many of Greg’s questions remained unanswered. At that point he decided to take matters into his own hands.

“Wayne Lo was locked up,” he writes. “There was nothing more I could do about him.” But Gibson continued to be furious at Bernie Rogers, the college dean, who he felt “had mishandled things on the day of the shootings, and for the way he tried to avoid responsibility for what I considered to be his bad decisions. I was furious at the college for trying to slither out of the lawsuit.”

It was then that Greg decided to use the hundreds of pages of notes he’d taken at the criminal trial. But he’d go beyond the trial. He’d conduct his own personal investigation of the case. He’d make his notes the basis of a far more thorough study. Gibson also knew, or intuited, that the truth, if he were to grasp it, lay beyond legal documents or court testimony. If anything, it lay somewhere out there in the nation itself.

“Now I thought I could see a solution,” he writes. “I’d write a book. If I couldn’t make it into a book, if it didn’t fit, or organize, or turn out that way, at least I’d be the world’s expert on the case…and I could say, ‘There. I’ve given it my best. Now I’m done.’”

That’s when he concluded “the story was out there on the road; right where I’d be all the time anyway. Finding those fugitive pieces of the story would be like discovering and snagging rare books.”

Gibson knew that his quest “would take long road hours, time spent in strange places with strange people, close attention to detail, and a good memory for odd bits of information.” Indeed, Gibson would become a detective in the storied American tradition of the “private eye.” He even imagined himself as a sort of Clint Eastwood character, or Lee Marvin in “Point Blank,” relentlessly searching for evidence. “All I wanted was a drink and some information. The evening had bad news written all over it.”

It’s here that the book’s adventure begins, and Gibson’s search for truth, his “walkabout” in the aboriginal sense of a vision quest or rite of purification, takes the reader to places one would not expect to travel.

Fearlessly, Gibson will track down direct or tangential participants in the case. He will enter the world of gun dealers and collectors, of anti-government conspiracies. He will literally gaze down the barrel of the weapon that killed his own son. Unflinchingly, this antiquarian book dealer will travel much of the length and breadth of America in search of knowledge that he hopes will set him and his family free.

In the process, Greg will retrace his own history and that of his nuclear family, and he will show us an America of small town hunters and big time shopping malls, an America, as he says, in which one place could easily be taken for another. “And if that was true, where did it leave me?”

Goneboy is ultimately about more than a man’s search for the truth in his son’s murder. It is a book about who we are and how we become that way. The journey it describes is one only the most courageous among us could undertake, whether outwardly to explore the vastness of the continent, or inwardly to seek those spaces where self-knowledge is born. In its form and its extraordinary prose; in the risks Gibson has taken, and in its searing record of what he has learned, Goneboy is a profoundly American book, a book in which the journey into the heart of the country leads to the discovery of oneself. It is my belief that it will also become a classic, redeeming the author and his family in their loss and pain, and the reader for having shared in the gift of its insights.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Writing Against Loss: Self-Interview

Peter Anastas was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1937. He attended local schools, graduating in 1955 from Gloucester High School, where he edited the school newspaper and was president of the National Honor Society. His father Panos Anastas, a restaurateur, was born in Sparta, Greece, and his mother, Catherine Polisson, was born in Gloucester of native Greek parents.

Anastas attended Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, on scholarship, majoring in English and minoring in Italian, philosophy and classics. While at Bowdoin, he wrote for the student newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient, and was editor of the college literary magazine, the Quill. In 1958, he was named Bertram Louis, Jr. Prize Scholar in English Literature, and in 1959 he was awarded first and second prizes in the Brown Extemporaneous Essay Contest and selected as a commencement speaker (his address was on “The Artist in the Modern World.”) During his summers in college, Anastas edited the Cape Ann Summer Sun, published by the Gloucester Daily Times, and worked on the waterfront in Gloucester.

After graduating from Bowdoin in 1959, Anastas lived in Florence, Italy until 1962, where he studied medieval literature at the University of Florence and taught English at the International Academy. While in Florence, Anastas worked as an interpreter-translator at the university’s Institute for Physical Chemistry. His translation of Prof. Giorgio Piccardi’s The Chemical Basis of Medical Climatology, was published in the U.S. in 1962.

Returning to Gloucester in 1962, Anastas taught English at Rockport High School and Winchester (MA) Senior High School before winning a graduate teaching fellowship to Tufts University, where he studied English and American literature, receiving a master’s degree in 1967 with a thesis on the concept of place in the works of Henry David Thoreau.

Between 1967 and 1972, Anastas worked as a free-lance writer, publishing his first book, Glooskap’s Children: Encounters with the Penobscot Indians of Maine (Beacon Press, 1973), with photographs by Bowdoin classmate Mark Power. As a result of his experience of poverty in rural Maine, in 1972 Anastas joined the staff of Action, Inc., Gloucester’s antipoverty agency, where for thirty years he was a social worker and Director of Advocacy & Housing. For twenty years he was also an adjunct faculty member at North Shore Community College, where he taught English and literature.

During these years Anastas continued to write and publish, contributing a weekly column, “This Side of the Cut,” to the Gloucester Daily Times and publishing When Gloucester Was Gloucester: Toward an Oral History of the City (with Peter Parsons and photographs by Mark Power), Siva Dancing, a memoir, Landscape with Boy, a novella in the Boston University Fiction Series, and Maximus to Gloucester, an annotated edition of the letters and poems of Charles Olson to the editor of the Gloucester Times. In 2002, At the Cut, his memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s, was published by Dogtown Books; and in 2004 Glad Day Books, founded by authors Grace Paley and Robert Nichols, published Broken Trip, a novel of Gloucester in the 1990s. His most recent novel, No Fortunes, set at Bowdoin College and in Gloucester in 1959, was published in 2005 by Back Shore Press, a writers’ collaborative, which Anastas co-founded. Anastas has also published fiction and non-fiction in Niobe, The Falmouth Review, Stations, America One, The Larcom Review, Polis, Split Shift, CafĂ© Review, Sulfur, Architecture Boston, Art New England, and Minutes of the Charles Olson Society.

Anastas is the father of three, Jonathan, an advertising executive in Los Angeles, Rhea, an art historian currently teaching at Bard College, and Benjamin, a writer who has published three novels. Having retired from social work in 2002 to devote full time to writing, Anastas continues to live in Gloucester.

Q: When did you begin to write?

A: I’ve been writing consciously ever since I was twelve years old. That’s when I discovered I didn’t have to be given an assignment by a teacher—“My Favorite Pet,” “What I Did on my Summer Vacation”—in order to put words on paper, although I waited anxiously for those occasions each year when we’d be asked to write a personal essay.

Q: What did you write about?

A: I can’t remember exactly what my first piece of independent writing was about, but in junior high school I wrote a skit about Captain John Smith and a one-act play about Julius Caesar, using my Aunt Harriette’s Royal manual typewriter. These plays were performed in English and history classes. Then I wrote a two-act British murder mystery, which was produced for the entire assembly of Central Grammar School’s students and teachers.

Playwriting was never to be my forte, although I had another chance at it in college, where I won second prize in an annual student one-act play contest, later abandoning drama for fiction, essays and journalism. Yet I continue to be struck by the revelation, that moment of liberation, when I realized I could actually write on my own, whenever I felt like it, about whatever I wished. It was a key moment in my life, perhaps the singular one, the moment in which I began to be myself.

Q: Where did you write?

A: I still remember the atmosphere of that early writing. Sometimes I wrote in my Aunt’s bedroom in the apartment building next door to our house, where she kept the Royal typewriter. Other times I wrote in the basement of our duplex on Perkins Road, having lugged my aunt’s typewriter down several flights of stairs to be able to work in greater privacy. I recall how I set up a workspace in a whitewashed section of the basement that was used by my parents to store canned goods during the war. It consisted of a bench on top of which I placed the typewriter and a wooden tonic case I’d borrowed from my father’s store, located just around the corner from where we lived. The bench was my desk, the tonic case my chair. And the paper I used was some yellowed bond my aunt brought home from the Gloucester Gas and Electric Company, where she worked as a clerk. Once I started composing on the typewriter, I could never comfortably write another way. Happily, my parents soon gave me a portable Smith Corona, which I wrote with from high school through college.

Two things continue to strike me about my first writing space. One is the sense of isolation and privacy it afforded me. The other is the pleasure I experienced remaining utterly alone for long periods of time. It was like the pleasure I’d enjoyed for years when I sat by myself to read on the back porch on long summer afternoons, or in a living room corner after I’d finished my schoolwork. Essentially I’m a solitary person and I suspect that my writing has always been a function of that condition.

Q: What role has your birth and residence in Gloucester, Massachusetts played in your life and work?

A: Thoreau said that he had “traveled a good deal in Concord,” and I might say the same for myself in Gloucester. Though I have also traveled in Europe and the United States, in many respects Gloucester has been my world, the place I know the most about, the source of practically everything I have written.

Q: Didn’t Henry James call Thoreau “worse than provincial—he was parochial?”

A: As an internationalist James had to escape the localism that so much of American literature was saturated in during the 19th century-a localism and a regionalism that emerged as Americans broke away from England and Europe both intellectually and culturally in order to embrace their own history and identity. Thoreau was in the forefront of this movement of self-declaration, when town histories began to be written and local historical associations were formed. It was only natural that American writers began to write about where they lived.

Q: Is that why Thoreau has meant so much to you?

A: We read selections from Walden in high school during sophomore English with our teacher, Miss Claudia Perry, who was a Radcliffe graduate and an inspiring Americanist. But I wasn’t ready then for Thoreau’s understanding of the natural world, his practical Transcendentalism, though I had been fascinated by his descriptions of living through the seasons at Walden Pond when I came across his writings while browsing in the library years before high school. By high school I was immersed in the novels of Steinbeck and Hemingway, and when I wasn’t reading fiction I was listening to jazz or trying to play it. When I entered college, Walden, was part of the required reading in English 1. Our instructor Steve Minot, who was himself a writer, helped us to appreciate the precision of Thoreau’s prose, rooted as it was in the phenomenal world, just as Thoreau had immersed himself in the history of Concord and New England. Since then Walden has been a key text for me. Every year I read a few pages or a chapter from it. I might add that writing my master’s thesis on Thoreau’s concept of place also helped me to understand the nature of place itself-historically, culturally, politically and symbolically-and my own birthplace as one of the first American places.

Q: There must have been some other attraction for you in this strange man who lived mostly in the same house with his parents when he wasn’t traveling in the Maine woods or Cape Cod.

A: I loved Thoreau’s eccentricity, but I also admired his politics. I was writing my thesis in the mid-1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the opposition to the war in Vietnam. “Civil Disobedience,” “Slavery in Massachusetts,” “Life without Principle,” and “The Last Days of John Brown,” were essays that electrified me, showing me a side of Thoreau that I hadn’t recognized before. Reading those incendiary tracts was an important part of my own radicalization. Who could have guessed that the quiet hermit of Walden Pond had once declared, “I need not say what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up”? After reading that, who needed Abby Hoffman or H. “Rap” Brown?

Aside from Thoreau’s bracing anarchism and his Abolitionist politics (I’ve come to understand Transcendentalism as the single, great, native intellectual and political movement in America), Thoreau was a loner. As I’ve said, I’ve been a solitary, too, all my life, from the days when I wandered the riverbanks of my neighborhood collecting butterflies and studying the weeds and wildflowers to the hours I spend by myself today walking, reading or writing in my journals.

Q: Was it a difficult transition from Thoreau’s localism to that of Charles Olson’s in The Maximus Poems?

A: Actually, it was Olson who led me back to Thoreau. Not personally, because Thoreau wasn’t a great favorite of Olson’s-he once wrote on a postcard to Gerrit Lansing, “Thoreau is not thorough”-but in terms of Olson’s focus on the multi-dimensionality of place. I began reading The Maximus Poems seriously in 1962, when I returned from Italy to Gloucester. I was also seeing Olson and his wife Betty almost daily. His deep study of local history and the way he explored the past and present life of Gloucester in the poems helped me to realize that it was possible to write about the place one came from in a way that didn’t merely evoke “nostalgia” or “local color.” Gloucester, her streets and people and the extraordinary quality of the natural environment, came alive in Olson’s poems and in the letters he was writing to the Editor of the Gloucester Times slamming development that threatened to destroy the city’s historic buildings and valuable wetlands.

When Olson wrote in his powerful, “Scream to the Editor,” “Oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition, destroying its own shoulders, its own back greedy present persons stood upon,” he wasn’t romanticizing the nation’s oldest seaport, as many writers and painters had done before him; he was warning the community about what it would be losing in its rush to make a Faustian pact with Urban Renewal. The local came alive with Olson, both in his poetry and his activism, so I had a living example in him of what Thoreau had been writing and enacting in Concord in the 1840s and 50s.

When I went to graduate school, one of the first courses I took was Wisner Payne Kinne’s seminar on Thoreau. As soon as I started reading A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, I began to view Thoreau through an Olsonian lens, and I was on my way to a study of the significance of place that led to my thesis on Thoreau’s approach to it. Conversely, reading Thoreau helped me to understand Olson more deeply, though they were very different writers. This concentration on place-what it means, how to know it, how to live in it knowledgeably and write about it lovingly-became the focus of my work. It also helped me to understand why I had returned to Gloucester.

Q: There had to be some more practical reason for why you chose to return to your birthplace and remain there.

A: In order to stay out of the draft I had to find a teaching job. Fortunately, there was one ready to hand in Rockport, MA, the town with which Gloucester shares the island of Cape Ann. My brother Tom, who’d been stationed in the Pacific during his service in the army, came home after being discharged in January of 1963 to warn me that we were preparing for war in Vietnam. “It’s going to be hell,” he said, “and you should do everything you can to stay out of it.” I lost my educational deferment when I decided not to pursue the fellowship in Italian I’d won at Berkeley in 1960 and had delayed for two years while still in Florence; so all that remained was teaching, which offered an occupational deferment. Having already taught English for two years in Florence to finance my stay, I discovered that I loved helping others to learn, so it seemed natural to continue in the US, first in Rockport to fill a vacancy and then permanently in Winchester, MA, where I was subsequently hired to teach English and literature. At that point, living in Gloucester, first with my parents, and then on my own while commuting to Winchester, was a practical decision.

But there were other reasons why I chose to remain in Gloucester. I found there was an incredible community of writers and artists around Olson. There was my old friend and mentor from my early teens, the poet Vincent Ferrini, who had lived in Gloucester since 1948. Through Olson and Ferrini I met Jonathan Bayliss, a Harvard and Berkeley educated business analyst and writer, who become a friend, confidante, and intellectual inspiration. Stimulated by Jonathan’s work on ritual and dramatic poetry, I returned to the study of the Greeks I’d begun in college, and that fascination with ancient history and culture continues. I also met the poet and scholar Gerrit Lansing, who had important ties to the New York School, and whose studies in Jung and the occult opened me to other ways of looking at the world. Gerrit is also the best read person I’ve ever known, making him an invaluable resource. Among local visual artists, there were painters like Mary Shore and Celia Eldridge, and later Thorpe Feidt, whose diversely experimental work helped me to continue an interest in contemporary painting that began when I was growing up on Rocky Neck.

Olson was continually being visited by writers like Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Diane DiPrima, Michael McClure, Robert Kelly, Joel Oppenheimer, and Allen Ginsberg. Even Jack Kerouac showed up once at his back door. I met the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage in Olson’s kitchen and had a chance to see several of his groundbreaking works at Mary Shore’s during Brakhage’s visit. There were scholars and archaeologists who came to Gloucester to pay their respects to Olson, along with the curious and the adulatory. An evening at Olson’s could entail impassioned talk about everything from John F. Kennedy, whom Olson had taught at Harvard, to Joyce, whom Olson didn’t like, or Dostoevsky and D. H. Lawrence, both of whom Olson adored. And Olson often read to us from his poems in progress about Gloucester or his brilliantly speculative essays, many of which were published in Human Universe.

“Why go to Berkeley when there’s graduate school right here at my kitchen table?” the poet once remarked. And I knew he was right.

Meanwhile, living in Gloucester, first in our family house on Rocky Neck, then nearby in my own waterfront studio at the Beacon Marine Basin, I came to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of my native place. As America’s earliest art colony, Rocky Neck was a miniature Provincetown. Painters like John Sloan, Edward Hopper and Marsden Hartley had lived and worked here. And in my day, the European-born painter Albert Alcalay, in whose studio I’d met Olson during the summer of 1959, was a powerful presence. Albert and his wife Vera had met and married in Rome just after the war, and they introduced me to contemporary Italian painting and writing. They also encouraged me to speak Italian, which I’d just begun to study in college.

After living in Europe, Gloucester seemed more to me like an Italian or French Riviera town than the run-down resort I’d tried to escape from. Everyone had a garden, and in the morning light the houses of Portuguese Hill glowed from the water like villas clinging to the hills of Liguria. You could hear Italian or Portuguese spoken on the streets and buy fresh bread and pastries in the shops, along with homemade pasta and sausages.

If, when I was in high school or college, anyone had predicted that I would return to my home town and remain there for the rest of my life, I would have been incredulous. It was fully my intention to live elsewhere in the US, in Berkeley, for example, where I’d once had fantasies of teaching, or in Europe, as I’d been inspired to do by my readings in Joyce, Lawrence, Pound or Hemingway. But when I came home to find the rich intellectual and artistic life inspired in part by Olson’s presence (though there had always been writers and artists on Cape Ann) and the natural beauty I took for granted when younger, I found it hard to let go of. My brother was living in Manhattan and that seemed exciting; but I had no real connection to the city, or any chance of a job without getting drafted.

Q: Are you sure that wasn’t something else that kept you in Gloucester beyond the lure of place?

A: I’ve since wondered if it wasn’t also fear that rooted me here, fear of having to establish myself somewhere I wasn’t known or didn’t have friends or family, fear of failing or of loneliness. But I seem to have settled easily in Florence, and before that in Brunswick, Maine during my college years, so fear seemed less the case, though for a good part of my early life I suffered from separation anxiety, which I write at length about in my memoir At the Cut. I’ve wondered, also, if I didn’t have some abnormal emotional attachment to my birthplace or my family, an attachment I feared breaking. Gloucester has been experienced by many natives as nearly impossible to leave-we call it the “island mentality.” Once people succeed in getting away, they often rush back or never feel fully at home in any other place. There are even some residents who boast that they’ve “never crossed the Cut Bridge,” which was once the only way out of town. I’ve yet to explore these issues fully, but I hope to in future work.

Q: If there was so much stimulation and intellectual company in Gloucester, why did you return to graduate school?

A: Again, it was Olson who encouraged me. Not directly. He never said, “It’s time now for you to return to your studies.” It was more the consequence of two years of dialogue with Olson about American literature, American history. Aside from a course in contemporary literature at Bowdoin, in which we’d read the major novels of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and a seminar for English majors where I encountered Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, and Dos Passos’ USA for the first time, I had read very little native writing. I’d read Moby-Dick in high school and then again on my own in Italy after reading Olson’s seminal Call Me Ishmael, on the mythic and Shakespearean sources of the novel; and, of course, some Hawthorne, which we were all required to read in high school. But I had no real sense of the continuum of our literature, no feel for its history until I began discussing it with Charles.

One day he suggested that I take a look at the “Custom House” preface to The Scarlet Letter. “American literature really begins with that essay,” Olson said. I rushed over to the Sawyer Free Library and signed the book out. I remember that it was the 8th of May in 1963 and the whole town was fogged in. I sat reading near the French doors of my studio, barely able to see the harbor below. I couldn’t take my eyes off Hawthorne’s text as I went on to read the novel, which I hadn’t opened since high school, when I couldn’t possibly have understood it.

As soon as I’d finished reading The Scarlet Letter I knew what I wanted to do. I would study American literature. Immediately, I began making applications to graduate school. I expected it would keep me out of the draft. I also hoped to gain some experience teaching at the college level. Tufts awarded me a three-year renewable teaching fellowship in English, allowing me enough money to live on after tuition remission, so that I could pursue both the MA and PhD degrees.

Q: Why didn’t you complete the doctorate and begin a teaching career?

A: After three years in graduate school it was clear to me that I was not interested in scholarship purely for its own sake. I loved the detective work it entailed, but I didn’t have the desire to devote my life to academic pursuits. I discovered that I really wanted to write fiction, and I worried that teaching and scholarship might undermine the imaginative work I yearned to do. I had seen too many classmates and friends, who also wanted to write, fall into what I felt at the time might be a trap, teaching with little time for one’s own work. Olson had left Harvard before receiving the doctorate, and his remark in a letter to Bob Creeley that it was “difficult to be both a poet and an historian,” came home to me.

Q: What about the draft?

A: By the time I left graduate school in 1967 I was thirty years old and our son Jonathan was two, so I’d effectively avoided the draft. I’d also enhanced my knowledge of English literature by studying Renaissance drama and Milton’s poetry and prose with Michael Fixler, who was one of the best teachers I ever had. And on my own I’d steeped myself in English and American Puritan theology and writing in an attempt to understand the basis of the American mind.

Q: Have you ever regretted not completing work for the PhD?

A: I have. But my solace is that I did complete a very rigorous master’s thesis, which one of my advisors called the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. This showed me that I could do scholarly work and that I’d at least mastered its techniques, which I could employ on my own. But in my heart I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the academic world. The backbiting I’d witnessed at Tufts, the competition for grants and honors, the professional jealousies, were not for me. Tough as survival in Gloucester often seemed-drugs, drinking and violence, the ups and downs of the fishing industry, the battles we entered time and again to stop deleterious development-life in my hometown seemed a lot realer than life on a college campus. I felt that if I were going to write seriously I had to be in an environment that fostered writing itself, not writing about writing. I’ve never looked back.

Q: But you have taught.

A: I taught humanities for two years at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA. And I taught English composition and English, American and World Literature part-time for over twenty years at North Shore Community College. I loved every minute of that teaching because it was pure pedagogy, mostly with adult learners, blue collar men and women who were coming back to school as serious students, not because they were compelled to be there. We read everything, from the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer, Dante and Goethe to Death of a Salesman, and the students brought a lifetime of hard experience to the examination of those texts. Working with them was one of the great experiences of my life. I’ve never forgotten reading Crime and Punishment with a roomful of Gloucester cops, who would take me out drinking with them after class and share with me the details of the latest murder case they were working on. And in that same class, Ken Joyce, the acting chief of police, one of the most literate persons I’ve ever met, wrote a masterful paper on “The Compulsion to Confess in Dostoevsky.”

Q: Have you ever taught writing?

A: I enjoyed teaching expository writing at Tufts and North Shore Community College. I’ve always taken pleasure in helping students learn how to express their thoughts and feelings with sharpness and clarity. I’ve even facilitated writing workshops and writing groups, but I would never presume to teach the writing of fiction. I’m still learning how to do it myself!

Q: How did the writing go?

A: For five years after I’d dropped out of graduate school I stayed home and wrote, largely due to the support and understanding of my then wife, who went out to work as a computer programmer and laboratory technician so I could devote myself entirely to writing. I also shared child care with her, as the children came along, first our older son and then his twin brother and sister; and I did my share of the cooking.

It was rough going, the transition from graduate school with its assignments and deadlines to writing on my own, at first without a contract or delivery date. I also discovered that the desire to write doesn’t necessarily presume having something to write about. So I spent a lot of time trying to find a subject for a novel I wanted to write beyond my first two attempts, each set in Italy, “From What Bone,” which I completed in Florence, and “Until the Axle Break,” finished after I returned to Gloucester.

Q: Couldn’t you have written about Gloucester?

A: I made my first try in college when I began a cycle of stories set in Gloucester that I hoped might be an honor’s project. I soon discovered that I didn’t possess the narrative skills to write those stories, and I really didn’t have an authentic fix on Gloucester, so I gave the project up, hoping that someday I could return to it.

The stories I was writing between 1960 and 1967 were set mostly in Europe. Then I wrote Landscape with Boy, a novella set in Italy and Salem, Massachusetts. The American parts really took place in Gloucester and they were about my childhood, but I didn’t have the courage to name the place then. While subsequently published, those stories and the novella seem in retrospect too literary, based more on my reading than naturally conceived and written. Looking at them now, I recall what Olson had said to me after listening to a chapter from my first novel, which I’d read publicly after returning to Gloucester in 1962:

“The literal, not the literary,” Olson had warned, and I was just beginning to understand what he meant.

After that, it occurred to me that if I attempted a short memoir set in Gloucester I might begin to enter that part of my experience I was having trouble fictionalizing. So I sat down and in two or three days I’d composed Siva Dancing, the story of my first summer on Rocky Neck, when I was thirteen years old and had met a young painter who gave me a list of novels to read that changed my life. I was also in love with this young woman, and I told the story of my frustrated attachment to her, along with that of my discovery of the power of jazz.

In that memoir, in which I described the streets and houses of Rocky Neck and wrote about an unfortunate lawsuit my father had become involved in, along with my crush on the young painter, I began to find my own voice. I wrote a third novel, “Reunion,” about a writer who writes about attending his tenth college reunion instead of going to it. This book gave me an opportunity to write about my emerging political self, having spent most of the 1960s opposing the war in Vietnam. I had a near miss with the novella and the stories at Atlantic Monthly Press before receiving a contract and advance from Beacon Press to research and write what became my first published book, the documentary Glooskap’s Children: Encounters with the Penobscot Indians of Maine.

Q: Maine Indians? That seems far afield from Gloucester.

A: It turns out that groups of Penobscot Indians, who rotated their habitations seasonally, camped in West Gloucester every summer until just after the First War, living off clams from the marshes and the sale of exquisite baskets they wove from sweet grasses gathered locally. The background work I did on them and their world included a lot of research on colonial New England, which has since stood me in good stead. Having spent four years of college in Maine and several summers on Gotts Island, near Bar Harbor, with my family, I’d become as interested in Maine as I was in Gloucester.

In any event, I came to see the Indian book as my book about going away from Gloucester, like Thoreau’s Week, the trip you take out into the world in order to help you understand that larger world before you can begin to know your own small world.

Q: And your Walden?

A: My Walden, if I won’t seem too presumptuous, is At the Cut, a memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s. That of course was preceded by When Gloucester is Gloucester, the oral history of the city Peter Parsons and I did for Gloucester’s 350th anniversary, which was published in book form by the city in 1973, with photographs by my Bowdoin classmate Mark Power.

Q: Up till now you’ve spoken about non-fiction, a documentary book set in Maine and a Gloucester memoir and oral history? What about fiction?

A: After the novella and stories of the 1960s and the novel of the early 1970s, the fiction came slowly. In fact, I didn’t or couldn’t write fiction for nearly 20 years, from my divorce in 1972 until 1991, when I stopped teaching and gave up the weekly column I had been writing for twelve years in the Gloucester Daily Times.

Q: Say something about that column.

A: I began writing the column, which I called “This Side of the Cut,” in 1978 at the urging of my friend Peter Watson, editor of the Gloucester Daily Times. The previous summer I’d responded to a request Peter made of me and three other Cape Ann writers to describe what we felt was “the real Gloucester.” For my contribution I’d submitted an essay about growing up on Perkins Road and about the complex ethnic and class structure of the city as I’d experienced it personally. On the basis of that column, Peter asked me to become a weekly contributor to the editorial page. “Write anything you want about Gloucester, anyway you want to,” Peter said. So I began to write more about growing up here. I branched out to deal with local political issues like opposition to a fast-food chain or the closing of neighborhood schools. I wrote about Cape Ann artists and writers. I took on national issues as well. Peter, and my subsequent editor Nan Cobbey, let me say whatever I wanted to say. There was no censorship and my columns were never cut.

Q: That must have been a significant experience.

A: Writing the column and interacting with people on the street about what I’d written each week changed my entire relationship with Gloucester. It also got me writing regularly again, though I never ceased keeping a journal. People who hadn’t read anything of mine, indeed, who didn’t even know I wrote because I’d published in such arcane magazines, began to think of me as a writer. Suddenly I had an audience. I also had the responsibility to produce seven or eight hundred words a week. I found the pressure exhilarating. Yet I never pulled any punches. I refused to write down to my audience. I wrote as if I were publishing in any mainstream publication. I worked hard on those columns and I learned a lot about writing from them. The kids would come for the weekend and want to see what I’d said since their last visit, especially if I’d written about them, as I occasionally did in essays about the tribulations of parenthood or the stages of growth one shares with one’s children. People told me they would clip and save my column each week; others responded by writing their own essays as the paper opened its editorial pages to the community. It was a heady time for me and for Gloucester. Our newspaper won prizes as one of the best and most responsive dailies of its size in the US. All during the 1960s it had published Charles Olson on the editorial page, and in the 70s and 80s I had the privilege of appearing with several other regular columnists, who wrote about an array of issues. Now the Times has been sold—twice-and it’s only a shadow of its former self, albeit splashed with color as newspapers are today, as if to mask their lack of content or a serious commitment to journalism.

Q: There’s the book on Olson, your annotated edition of his letters and poems to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, with a long biographical and critical introduction. How does that fit in?

A: Maximus to Gloucester is my homage to Olson, to our friendship and what I learned from him about the importance of place in our lives and our responsibility as citizens to preserve and enhance the places in which we make our lives. I saw Olson’s letters collectively as a handbook for living in and caring for one’s own community, one’s place in the world, and the earth itself, which Olson called “the geography of our being.”

The book comes out of my academic training. Establishing the texts for Olson’s letters and editing and annotating them called upon the bibliographical and research skills I’d acquired in graduate school. The book comes equally out of my growing understanding of Gloucester’s history, my love of my birthplace and my years of activism on behalf of preserving the town’s rich historical and architectural heritage.

Q: Your activism would seem to have been in integral part of your life in Gloucester.

A: I spent nearly forty years active in social and political issues, mostly in Gloucester and having to do with Gloucester. My activism was partly a function of my job at Action, Inc., advocating for decent, affordable housing or for jobs that paid living wages and assured people of health benefits, and partly a result of having come of age politically in the anti-war and civil rights movements in the 1960s. Following Olson’s example, I was involved in many campaigns and struggles against what those of us who joined forces believed was inappropriate development for Gloucester—luxury condos in working class neighborhoods or in unspoiled wooded areas; a shopping mall with underground parking that had been proposed for the last open parcel of land on the working waterfront; extreme gentrification.

Though I never ran for public office, I served in a variety of appointed capacities, as chairman of the city’s fair housing committee and as a member of several affordable housing task forces and civic commissions, including the Downtown Development Commission and the Gloucester Historical Commission. I also served as chairman of the mayor’s Dogtown Advisory Committee. This was a body created to monitor the management plan for the city’s treasure, Dogtown Common, 4000 acres of unspoiled terminal moraine wilderness in the center of Cape Ann. Taking its name, as some believe, from the packs of wild dogs that continued to roam there after its original settlers left--or perhaps because it had literally "gone to the dogs"--Dogtown had been saved from development in the 1980s by one prescient mayor and a private citizen, Bob French, who spent his life in public service.

My first campaign was the one I organized in 1967 opposing the placement of a Sentinel anti-ballistic missile site on Dogtown. It was at the height of the Vietnam War and many natives were shocked that anyone would dare speak out against a government initiative to protect us from enemies, actual or perceived. As a town full of veterans of several wars, Gloucester was a patriotic community, so you can imagine how I and the group of protestors who joined me were viewed. At one point the Pentagon sent a team in to “brief” the city about the proposed site, creating even more animosity against us. But we persevered, joined by an unlikely coalition of environmentalists and old-line Republicans from Rockport who loved Dogtown, part of which was in Rockport, and wanted no part of a missile base near where they lived. Once they were on board—and they had excellent connections in Washington-the Pentagon scratched the site. Eventually, the Johnson Administration gave up the system. But this campaign helped to spawn a grassroots organization called Cape Ann Concerned Citizens, formed first to educate the community about civil rights and the war in Vietnam and then openly to oppose the war. The group contained seasoned activists, who had worked in anti-nuclear campaigns in the 1950s and early 60s, and I learned a great deal from them about organizing.

Mostly, though, it was ad hoc activism. Neighborhood associations would form alliances with environmental activists to save wetlands or woodland tracts from being subdivided; or citizens would rise up to protect the waterfront from zoning that would allow new housing, thereby undermining marine activity.

A particularly poignant battle we fought in the late 1970s and early 80s was a protracted one to stop the closing of several neighborhood schools in Gloucester’s inner city. Those of us who joined forces—parents, teachers and some public officials-believed that the schools, many of them architectural gems, were an integral part of their neighborhood’s character and social ecology; and if you closed them you would be undermining that cohesiveness. We lost, and the neighborhoods in which the schools were closed have never been the same. The Gloucester School Department later admitted that it had been a mistake to close what people had referred to as “the little schools.” But by that time it was too late. The school buildings had either been razed or made other use of.

All through the 50s and 60s it was quiet in the city, if you discount Urban Renewal, which most people, except for Olson, had been hoodwinked into thinking was good for the community. Gloucester hadn’t been discovered. People went about their business undisturbed. All of a sudden, in the 1970s outside developers began to eye Cape Ann. The proposals started coming thick and fast—a mini-mall at the entrance to town; a supermarket near West Gloucester’s marshes; the mall I spoke about for the waterfront. These were followed by plans for condos above Good Harbor Beach, then more condos in the woods of Magnolia abutting Ravenswood Park, another pristine preserve. An industrial park was proposed for land abutting the city’s priceless watershed. There were so many proposals, so many developers, so much struggle for years! People suddenly realized that if we didn’t act we’d lose the community we loved. The face of Gloucester would literally be transformed.

Q: How successful were you?

A: On balance, I’d said we were moderately successful. We managed to halt or stave off the most radical proposals, the waterfront mall, luxury condos at the Paint Factory, an iconic 19th century complex that greets everyone who enters Gloucester’s inner harbor. And we fought for and won comprehensive plans for the city’s orderly growth and development. After all, there is some change that is both necessary and inevitable. People need to build houses to live in; and the creation of an industrial zone, once measures were put in place to protect the watershed it borders, has turned out to be an economic benefit, offering hundreds of jobs to local workers. There were also a number of non-profit groups and private individuals who offered truly innovative adaptive reuse proposals; for example, turning abandoned public or industrial buildings into elderly or cooperative housing or office complexes, and converting former churches into apartments or condos that would enhance the downtown economy. There has been a lot of positive and productive growth in Gloucester as well as some truly horrific development that has sadly changed the city, making it visually less attractive and far more expensive to live in.

Q: Isn’t that happening everywhere?

A: It is. But when you consider that Gloucester had held out for so long-call it benign neglect or just that Yankee resistance to change, which I have come to love-it was all the more tragic to see the change when it came, especially when it could have been better controlled or managed.

Q: What’s it like living in Gloucester now, 2007?

A: In a word, depressing. So much of the Gloucester I grew up in, the city I loved, has been transformed almost beyond recognition. In place of the solid housing stock of the 19th and early 20th centuries, we’ve now got cheap modular houses jammed into pocket-sized lots. “McMansions” dot the once-open coastline. And a 1950s retro drive-through bank has recently been approved for the heart of the city’s historic district, over the objections of many merchants on Main Street. What’s more, there is an initiative underway to rezone parts of the waterfront from marine-industrial to what its proponents call “mixed use,” a euphemism for allowing developments like commercial and office space, maybe even boutiques or a hotel, that essentially don’t need the proximity of the harbor to function except to attract tourists. Should it happen, it could mark the end of Gloucester as we know it. Those who want to replace a marine industrial way of life with a tourist economy don’t understand that they may be killing the goose that laid the golden egg. But, sadly, Gloucester has always had a will to self-destruction. Furthermore, as if what I've already mentioned isn't bad enough, there's a new project on the horizon for a 20-store shopping mall just off the Route 128 Extension into Gloucester, a complex that will include an assisted living facility, a 100 room hotel, and a big discount store as anchor. If that doesn't drive the final nail into the coffin of Main Street I don't know what will.

Not only the physical attributes of the community have changed; the institutions are changing too. The Sawyer Free Library where I read my first books, the library that was my Harvard and my Yale, no longer has the atmosphere, the feel, of the library I grew up with, the intimacy of its small rooms and hallways decorated with exquisite murals of local land and seascapes, the extensiveness of its collection. Many of the books that meant so much to me were thrown away, literally tossed into a dumpster or put on sale for a dollar a bag, as a result of some overzealous weeding—first editions of novels by Richard Yates and Wright Morris, irreplaceable copies of Harold Acton’s Memoirs of an Aesthete, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s searing indictments of Stalinism, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats— to make way for shelves of best sellers, video tapes and CDs, and banks of computers. The collection that took generations to build, and that educated and delighted so many of us, is sadly depleted. When I confronted the former library director, who was responsible for this dereliction of stewardship of the community’s heritage, his response was, “I’m not running an archive.” Fortunately, a new director has been appointed, who is working with the board of directors and community volunteers to enlarge and upgrade the institution and its collections, with a view not only of expanding the library but of making it the community’s primary cultural center.

The Cape Ann Food Cooperative, which I helped start in the early 1970s, has closed, victim to agribusiness monopolies and their chains of supermarkets that blanket Cape Ann. Even the Gloucester Daily Times has been sold, twice, as I mentioned, each time to owners more conservative and less committed to maintaining a community newspaper with its irreplaceable institutional memory. And that’s just for starters.

What I’m feeling besides anger and dismay is an enormous sense of loss; a sense that not only the city I knew and loved but the larger world I cared about is gone forever, replaced by a degraded environment and a dumbed-down culture with little respect for the past, for institutions that nurtured the community. Olson would turn over in his grave if he could see what’s happened to the place he memorialized in one of the greatest poems of the 20th century. As for me, I think it could be said that the writing I do now, perhaps all the writing I've ever done, is against this loss. Christa Wolf said that "Writing is a way of resisting the inexorable loss of being." I would only add that part of that being she alludes to consists not only of our own existence, but the persistence in our memories (and hopefully in our works) of the people and places we've loved and lost.

Q: In the end, how did you square your activism with your writing?

A: Olson once said to me that a writer has two choices. You either oppose the destruction of the things you love, or you describe the tragedy of their loss. He tried to do both, as I did, and we each eventually gave up. Olson retreated even more deeply into The Maximus Poems. And when I retired from social work three years ago, I committed myself entirely to writing. The liberation was enormous, though I assuage any quilt I may feel about reentering private life with the knowledge that a whole new generation of activists has taken the place of those of us who were at the barricades for so long.

Q: What happened after Maximus to Gloucester appeared?

A: The publication of Maximus to Gloucester seemed to open a floodgate. In quick succession I wrote No Fortunes, a novel based on my experiences at Bowdoin that I’d been wanting to write ever since graduation. Then I completed At the Cut, which I had actually started working on around the time of my father’s illness and death in 1975. That was followed by Broken Trip, a novel-in-stories, set in Gloucester in the 1990s and based on my life as a social worker.