Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Lights are Still on at Gloucester's Waterfront

(Photograph by Ernie Morin)

The industrial waterfront is the defining characteristic of the city we all love and cherish. It is an engine that drives a significant part of our economy and brings people to Gloucester from all over the world, visitors who are fascinated by the work that goes on here and by the beauty of the harbor and the city itself. Without a working waterfront there really is no Gloucester, at least as those of us who have spent our lives here understand it, including residents who have arrived more recently, drawn by the city’s special quality of light, a rugged granite-girded landscape, our stunning architecture reaching back to the town’s colonial origins, the diversity of our people, an experienced workforce, broadening employment opportunities, two thriving industrial parks, and a quality and authenticity of life that only a real place like Gloucester can offer.

Fishing has been a way of life in Gloucester since the Dorchester Company of Puritans landed here in 1623. For almost 400 years, Gloucester Harbor has been the center of one of the country’s most important commercial fishing communities. Even with the strictest federal regulations ever imposed on the ground fish industry, Gloucester is still a vital working port and a regional hub for the New England fishing industry. Many millions of pounds of fish and shellfish are being unloaded every year in Gloucester—last year alone 94.4 million pounds, bringing in 46.8 millions dollars; and the year before, 117.4 million pounds at 47.3 million dollars. Boats from Gloucester and from other ports in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island are unloading in Gloucester (and some seek temporary dockage here, to fish from Gloucester for periods during the year); there are two fish auctions, many critical shore side support businesses, other key elements of commercial fishing infrastructure; businesses like Neptune’s Harvest are thriving and growing, while new businesses are starting up.

Gloucester is not a dead seaport; neither is the fishing industry “moribund” or the waterfront “stagnant.” In 1978, the Gloucester harbor became a “Designated Port Area” in order to protect the viability of the harbor for marine industrial usage. Given the ongoing intensive efforts to rebuild ground fish stocks by 2014, the evolving character of the fishing fleet, modernization of the shipping industry, seafood processing trends, growing demands for boat repair and construction of energy efficient vessels, and other marine trends, the Port of Gloucester will continue into the future to be an important regional hub port for commercial fishing (for ground fish and other species) and for other marine related industries and activities. Essential to this is the maintenance of the Designated Port Area, which Vito Giacalone will be addressing tonight, in order to ensure a continued, expanded, and re-invigorated commitment to marine related industries and activities, and, in particular, to commercial fishing, in the port of Gloucester. But, it is a fact that Gloucester also faces new challenges and opportunities.

Existing infrastructure needs to be modernized, including commercial fishing infrastructure. Investment in new docking and processing facilities is necessary, not only because they are needed now—every docking space assigned to commercial fishing is currently in use and we need more–but also because when ground fish stocks rebound, which scientists tell us will be six years from now, we want Gloucester people fishing for them, landing, and processing them, not some other community or country. In addition, Gloucester is well positioned to become a world leader in marine research and technology in some or all of the following areas: climate change, fish and fisheries, marine biotechnology, marine electronics, marine sources of alternative energy, and others. Gloucester’s large natural harbor, its proximity to Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, the extent and variety of the marine know-how of its residents and the people it draws to it, the work ethic prized and practiced here—all these and more are elements from which to forge highly successful collaborations between fisheries and marine science and technology. Valerie Nelson will be speaking about this tonight.

Since federal regulations began to become restrictive fifteen years ago, Gloucester Harbor has still seen the following developments on the waterfront, among others:

• Restructuring of the State Fish Pier and new dockage
• Rebuilding of North Side of Fish Pier
• Building of Stalls Building on the State Fish Pier
• Creation of Fish Auction by the Ciulla Family
• A rebuilt Captain Carlo’s Restaurant
• Intershell wholesalers and processors; development of products from by-products
• New England Marine Industrial
• Intershell expanded down the Fort – bought the old bait company, D & B Bait
• Pigeon Cove Trading Company bought out by Whole Foods Market
• St. Peter’s Park Marina rebuilt with State Funding
• Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center
• Development of Latitude 43 from the popular McT’s and Captain’s Courageous
• Expansion of Gloucester House (function room)
• Cruiseport (2007)
• Connolly’s Retail Store
• Neptune’s Harvest
• National Fish
• Paint Factory – purchase and preservation by Whale Ocean Alliance (2008)
• Playgrounds at the Fort and Cripple Cove
• Expansion of Cripple Cove Marina
• Expansion of Whale Watch Industry (Yankee Fleet bought by employees)
• Thomas P. Lannon Schooner
• East Gloucester Marine – gigantic new wharf facility
• Development of Herring Fleet

Here are some longstanding businesses which are still a vital part of the industry:

• Rose’s Marine; vessel repair, machine ship, dockage facilities
• Gloucester Marine Railways
• Felicia Oil, and dockage facilities
• Cape Pond Ice
• Mortillaro Lobster
• North Atlantic Fish
• Ocean Crest Seafood, Inc.

Other developments in the last fifteen years:

• Fishermen’s Health Plan
• Northeast Seafood Coalition
• Use of LNG money for development of harbor entities, e.g., Permit Bank, Gloucester Maritime Heritage Museum.

Just this year alone:

3 million in new capital spending on the Fort
80 million worth of business on the street
Jobs in the hundreds
Wages in the range of 5 million

Further needs for the waterfront:

1. Gloucester needs pre-treatment infrastructure to prevent continued exporting of revenue streams and jobs.
2. Protein recovery is another key infrastructure that is lacking in our port.
3. Dock and piers could be a good collaborative effort between the city and property owners that do not currently utilize their entire water sheet area.
4. Pre-treatment and short haul shipping and truck and bus parking.
5. A community boating facility; sailing and rowing for all

This is just a brief snapshot, but I hope it will help to dispel the myth of a dying industry and a waterfront on which “the lights are out.” This is not to say that we have laurels to rest on, or that there hasn’t been a painful downside to the collapse of stocks and the imposition of severe federal regulations, a downside acutely experienced not only by fishermen and their families but by waterfront property owners and their employees and families. It is only the beginning for a revitalization of our waterfront that will continue to make Gloucester one of the region’s most significant hub-ports as well as becoming a center for bio-marine research and development. And that brings with it the added benefits of increased tourism and the growth and expansion of downtown businesses—and yes, a centrally located hotel, but not on the Fort—more jobs, and an expanded tax base, all driven by the waterfront itself.

The economic question is important, indeed vital, and we must all work together to support the fishing industry and to sustain a 21st century waterfront. But there is another issue of equal importance, another dimension we need to include in the conversation. We all live here because of that quality of life I’ve spoken about. But we also live here because of our attachment to the place itself, to Gloucester, to Cape Ann. Place is not only where we live, but also where we get our bearings from. Place is who we are and how we feel about ourselves, how we’re anchored in the world. Place is our very identity, “the geography of our being,” as Charles Olson, who lived down the Fort, put it. And if we lose place, or undermine its character, whittle it away year by year by inappropriate development—chopping up neighborhoods, driving people away from the houses they were born or grew up in— we destroy the very basis of our lives.

Author Mark Kurlansky, who has traveled the world and written many books about his encounters with some of the most exotic places and people, warns us in his latest book, The Last Fish Tale, not to undermine our identity as “American’s oldest fishing port and most original town.” Don’t go the way of so many fishing ports that sold their souls, bartering away their heritage, to become resort communities, only to regret it, Kurlansky cautions us. Don’t let tourism with its service economy overwhelm Gloucester’s gritty blue collar marine industrial character; for tourism is only the icing on our economic cake, not the cake itself. Or to shift the metaphor: the waterfront is the goose that lays the golden egg that feeds our economy and brings people to Gloucester. Kill the goose and there will be no more egg.

Kurlansky writes that we must celebrate the fact that even in the face of the strictest federal regulations Gloucester has remained a major port, second in New England only to New Bedford, with five hundred working fishermen and an annual catch that made us the nation’s tenth largest port. This is not a fish tale, Kurlansky asserts, “nor a (fictional) Gloucester story,” but, as he says, “an improbable and remarkable story of survival.”

We need people like Mark Kurlansky, who writes from outside the city, and photographer Ernie Morin who documents Gloucester’s daily life from the level of our own streets, to remind us who we are and what we mean, both to ourselves and the world, because living here, caught up in the stresses of daily life, the place often become invisible to us. We take Gloucester for granted. Living here daily, knowing each other, working together, even arguing together, we have been given an enormous gift, the gift of Community and of the ocean that surrounds and sustains us. Even if we do not fish ourselves or our families did not follow the sea, living in Gloucester, brought up at the ocean’s margins, we all follow the sea; and as the waterfront, which is the very heart and soul of Gloucester, stands or falls, so do we all. Let’s commit ourselves to working together to keep our waterfront working. This is not romanticism; it’s not a yearning for the past, as some have argued—it’s not obstructionism. It’s who we are and what we are. Lose it and we lose ourselves and everything else that matters about our lives here.

(Delivered as an address at Citizens for Gloucester Harbor's public forum, "Fresh Ideas for Gloucester Harbor," Monday, December 8, 2008, City Hall, Gloucester)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Barack Obama's Victory and the Bush Legacy

Maybe the worst isn't what George W. Bush took from us. The worst is what he gave us. All the farewells from him, from Washington, from America are nothing but losses of our illusions, helplessly postponed. And the losses themselves are an illusion. For we won't be able to free ourselves from the core of things he leaves us. Conceptually, Bush has put democracies into slavery by using its constitutional vocabulary, be it “freedom” or “dignity of man“, as an instrument of his exercise of power. Farewells from the loyalty to the United States, from its apotheosis of the good life and its might, as we can read in all newspapers? Instead, we have received something we cannot say farewell to: the shameful experience of a deep unfaithfulness towards ourselves, the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, a dislocation of identity unknown in the annals of free societies.

--Frank Schirrmacher

Frankfurter Allgemeine, October 6, 2008

Barack Obama’s victory on November 4 is very real and very beautiful. It goes a long way toward helping to restore our faith in the American electoral system and in our democracy itself. It was a faith sorely tested in the last two presidential elections and especially during eight years of what may arguably have been the worst presidency in American history.

While many will feel relief that we will soon have a new president, who will hopefully restore a social contract badly tattered by the Bush administration, and that the Democratically led Congress may have the opportunity finally to do the right thing by the American people, the social, economic and psychological wounds of these past eight years will not heal so quickly or so easily.

We have been a badly abused and misguided multitude, as John Milton once described the English people under King Charles. Both as individuals and as a people we have found ourselves greatly diminished during the Bush presidency, our civil liberties, our self-esteem and our once great reputation abroad equally eroded. While the joy we may feel over our new president elect, whose intelligence, articulateness and authentic spirituality we can embrace and rejoice in, we will be compelled to confront the aftermath of the Bush years. Not since the presidency of Richard Nixon has an administration treated the American people with such contempt or exploited our good will for its own purposes, marginalizing its critics, while attempting to demonize them or destroy their reputations, and always impugning their patriotism.

The legacy of George W. Bush includes two horrific and inconclusive wars; rendition of captives to secret prisons; torture carried on and lied about in violation of the Geneva Accords and American law; invasion and occupation under false premises of a country (Iraq) that was no threat to us (WMDs never found); the prison scandals of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; mishandling of hurricane Katrina and its aftermath; reckless fiscal policies that caused the collapse of our economy; an anti-science, anti-intellectual bias with regard to social, scientific and educational policy; denial of the threat of climate change and environmental degradation; refusal to sign the Kyoto Treaty on global warming initiatives; refusal to participate in the World Court; a Justice Department that protected the Administration and worked against the interests of the American people; lack of transparency in government dealings with Congress and the public; assertion of presidential power and privilege as never before practiced, leading to an imperial presidency; withholding of documents from Congress; an unprecedented policy of preemptive wars; alienation of friends and allies all over the world; instilling fear and terror in our own people; using the tragic attacks of 9/11 to create and sustain an atmosphere of fear in the nation to enable the passing of laws that undermined individual and civil rights; rule of fear; elections based on the generation of fear; massive government spending in the face of fiscal crisis; cuts to education and human services; greatest increase in poverty levels since the 1960s; an attempt to privatize Social Security that would have created a disaster given the current market collapse; a Medicare Prescription bill that provided millions of dollars in subsidies for drug companies while offering only limited coverage to elders in need.

These are just a few of the initiatives, actions and biases that have come to define the Bush administration, as arrogant in its attitudes as it has been punitive in its behavior. Their effects have left us traumatized, not to speak of the impact upon the lives of thousands of men and women, who have served honorably, fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq, sent back on tour after tour of duty without proper equipment, returning home disabled or mentally ill, only to be mistreated in government hospitals and by federal agencies. In fact, the treatment of our veterans and their families under this administration is a scandal unprecedented in our nation’s history.

How do we go about healing ourselves after such trauma? How can a deeply divided country come together again? More especially, how can we allow the perpetrators of this trauma and violence—these crimes—against their own people and others, leave office without suffering any consequences or being brought to justice? These are questions of tragic proportion and their effects will not diminish or disappear merely because we have a new president and there has been a sizable power shift in Congress. The political consequences of the past eight years are, of course, enormous, but the less obvious psychological effects are and will be more subtle and therefore all the more difficult to confront. But confront them we must if we are to heal as a people.

Melanie Wallace, whose mesmerizing post-Civil War novel, Blue Horse Dreaming, was published in 2003, during some of the worst conflicts in Iraq, has written that “postwar periods reveal the ravages of what came before in extraordinary ways, for in them the changes wrought by the experience of war—individual, collective—become apparent.”

Wallace contends that “The Civil War’s most violent aftermath was played out on the western American frontier; it was the ultimate reach of nation-building, which was overseen and directed by a government whose military, whose officers had, by and large, fought in the Civil War on the side of the victors.” She says that she was drawn to this particular period “because of its haunting complexity—it was a time of violent, imperial confrontation—and because the parallels with today are subtly transparent.”

When I speak of war here or allude to it in describing the Bush years, I do not only mean the actual wars we have fought and are continuing to fight in the Middle East, I refer also to the state of war we have lived under during the entire administration of George W. Bush. For Bush and his advisers have not only taken us to war, they have governed under an atmosphere of war, which they themselves have created, a war against both perceived enemies and the American people themselves. This has been an adversarial presidency, perhaps the most contentious one in our history, and we, the American people, have been both the target and the victims of an often take-no-prisoner approach to governing.

“All wars,” Melanie Wallace writes, “leave in their wake a form of devastation that is immeasurable, for those who fight them—victors and vanquished, both—and those caught up in them are always diminished, in some way, by the experience.” I can only hope that the healing begun by the election of Barack Obama will continue, for we Americans are deeply in need of it.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hold the Fort: Planning Before Rezoning

(Current zoning map of the Fort neighborhood of Gloucester, MA)

There are two questions about the proposed rezoning of the Fort—and of the waterfront itself—I’d like to address briefly.

The first is about the language we’re using. Slogans like “putting the harbor back to work” or “turning the lights back on on the waterfront” presuppose that the harbor isn’t working and that the lights of commercial activity are out. Neither statement is true. Even with the worst federal regulations ever imposed on the fishing industry we’re still working on Gloucester harbor. Millions of pounds of fish are being landed, boats from other Massachusetts ports, Maine and Rhode Island are unloading, there are two fish auctions, businesses like Neptune’s Harvest are thriving and new businesses are starting up. This is not a dead seaport; neither is the fishing industry moribund or the waterfront “stagnant.” These negative myths need to be refuted because they don’t provide the facts on the ground we need for intelligent planning. Instead, they create a crisis atmosphere that allows only for knee-jerk solutions.

What I’m suggesting is that we reframe the issue, from crisis to opportunity. The collapse of stocks and the advent of restrictive federal regulations to ensure they recoup has forced the industry to downsize, creating hardship for boat owners, processors, ancillary businesses and individual fishing families. Fishing is not what it was thirty years ago. But Gloucester, a city of courageous, inventive people accustomed to hardship, has kept its waterfront working, knowing that our city still is and will continue to be an important hub port. We want to renew existing infrastructure and invest in new docking and processing facilities, not only because we need them now (every docking space assigned to fishing is currently in use—and we need more, right now) but because when the stocks recoup (scientists tell us they will by 2014—only six years from now) we want to be the people fishing for them, landing and processing them, not some other community.

Meanwhile, we’re all working together, planning together, to protect our maritime heritage, our hardy character, and to bring in new marine industrial business, creating by-products and value-added commodities and encouraging hi-tech, research and bio-genetic facilities, all related to the sea. What we want to tell the world, and ourselves, is not that Gloucester is on the way out, but that we’ve turned crisis into opportunity and we’re on the way up. Come and see for yourselves!

This is just a sketch, but I can envision it as the basis for a whole new pitch for Gloucester—re-branding the city, if you will, from a negative image of “the town where fishing once was,” as so many people around the country have been led to believe by the Media, to a positive picture of Gloucester as “one of the premiere hub ports in the country,” where citizens have taken their future into their own hands while preserving the best of their historic past.

With this in mind, let me turn to the zoning. The current proposal for the Fort puts the cart before the horse. It doesn’t look at the fact that there are currently thriving businesses on the Fort, with the potential for more to come (how do we help them to stay here and grow); or the fact that real people with real lives live on the Fort, people who pay their taxes and are committed to their neighborhood. It is really an "urban renewal" proposal that would primarily open the way for a hotel with condos to be developed, no matter what negative social or economic impact they would have on the residents and business owners of the Fort. It is disingenuous to think otherwise. It’s a case of development driving planning. Jam in a hotel and let the chips fall where they may.

This is not good planning. Real planning lets the community say what it wants where it wants it, and from there we go out and get what we need. Real planning looks at what’s currently working, what is its history and how does it fit into the total ecology of the community. Real planning is not a knee-jerk response to a myth: fishing is dead, the waterfront is stagnant, let’s sell it out for a hotel.

Real planning asks what should we be doing to promote Gloucester as a place to move or start a business in. Real planning asks how can we make it easier to get permits to fix up and maintain current properties. Real planning asks if we need to change the DPA, or if under the current DPA we already have the flexibility we need to keep the waterfront working. Real planning answers the question of how we get businesses to come to Gloucester right now, businesses that are compatible with the economic, social and physical character of the city; business that create year-round jobs with good pay and comprehensive benefits, not the service jobs of hotels that depend on the ups and downs of tourism.

Let’s address these questions before we start rezoning the Fort and the rest of the waterfront out of existence.

I received an email last week from a close friend, a Gloucester native, who lives with her family now in Florida. She writes: “If Gloucester becomes soulless, then what hope is there for the rest of the country? This is what is wrong with the place where I live. It doesn’t have a soul, and there is no one I’ve met who would even know what I’m talking about. It’s heartbreaking.” The Fort is the heart and soul of Gloucester. Let’s keep it that way.

(Presented as testimony at a joint public hearing of the Gloucester Planning Board and City Council Planning & Development Sub-committee, at City Hall on September 22, 2008.)

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Fort and our Sense of Place, by Ernest Morin

Unloading the Day's Catch Aug 2008 - 4 am Ocean Crest - the Fort
(Photograph by Ernest Morin)

A few weeks ago, I presented a slide show at City Hall to a few hundred people on a stormy Thursday night.

That show is rooted in a deep sense of place — the place being the Fort section of Gloucester. It is a part of town you could drive past and never really notice on land, yet it is quite prominent by sea or from the Boulevard.

One of the points I made during the introduction was that you could cut the Fort away from Gloucester and it would still be Gloucester.

It would still contain all the essential elements we have come to hold together as our notion of place.

It has industry, a tight-knit neighborhood with economic diversity, fishing boats, fuel docks, ice company, lobster sheds, a beach, the greasy pole, a brewery, a deep freezer, a playground, artists in residences, even a synagogue now, the Chamber of Commerce, Tally's Towing, St Peter's square ... How much more Gloucester could it be?

But if you take the Fort out of Gloucester then what does she become?

It is a valid question to pose because the mayor has asked the city to "fast track" a rezoning proposal for the area which inevitably will foster a lot of change.

What type of change is a matter of concern and deserves far more public debate.

The city wants to grow tax base, which is understandable; the question is how can you move forward and yet retain your sense of place?

How do you allow for change and yet retain your core values? How do we do it without selling our soul?

The fort is the most interesting place in the city — visually, economically and culturally it is a major contributor to the life of Gloucester.

The businesses on Commercial Street work at night or in the wee hours of the day while we sleep.

They generate more revenue and jobs than the State Fish Pier does for the city and they are family owned and operated local businesses.

They ship product world wide every day. If you drive down there though, you would swear it is empty because the activity is not visible on the street side — you have to go indoors to see the action.

The neighborhood has a long and rich history and a way of life and quality of life that is hard to match. It is perhaps the last working class neighborhood with ocean views and reasonably priced apartments on the entire East Coast.

The people are very real, know each other, help each other and look out for each other, which is rare in 2008. It is not a gated community of cookie cutter condos.

It is the neighborhood that contributes strongly to produce the Fiesta — that has a real cultural and economic value for Gloucester.

Can the area use improvements? Sure it can. Is there a way to move forward without clearing the decks and gentrifying the area? That is a real question for Gloucester.

So please go read the proposed changes for zoning on the city Web site and think about what the city is wanting to fast track. Are we indeed going to go forward in a way that retains our sense of place? Or are we going to begin the end and become another Newport, R.I., Monterey, Calif., or future bedroom community?

Will the rezoning affect and act to push out the waterfront business? Will they move to lift the DPA once they rezone?

We have real advantages as a regional hub port with our own fish auction.

We should not give up on our working waterfront quite yet, nor do anything that would serve to weaken our most economically viable area of the waterfront, either.

We are now truly standing at the crossroads, Gloucester. What is a city or its people without a deep sense of place?

This city is a very real place. We should be working to keep it that way.

(Ernest "Ernie" Morin is a Gloucester photographer, engaged in documenting the American experience, focusing first and foremost on the working life of his native city, especially Gloucester's marine-industrial waterfront, which is endangered by a fishing industry in transition and current plans for rezoning that could, if not carefully undertaken, threaten the heart and soul of the city. The above essay by Ernie appeared in the Gloucester Daily Times and the Cape Ann Beacon just as the city is poised to consider new zoning proposals for the Fort area of Gloucester Ernie writes about and has documented in individual photographs and a highly acclaimed slide show. Below is a review of Ernie's slide show by artist and critic Greg Cook, from his blog The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.)

Watching my Gloucester photographer pal Ernest Morin’s “Sight Lines” slideshow at Gloucester City Hall Thursday night, I was struck again by how comprehensively and richly and honestly he has captured the city of Gloucester. It starts with his sharp eye (note the careful arrangements of lines and shapes, the use of signs to comment on the scene) and technical excellence, and winds up with him getting so deep into the marrow of the community that his photos, as a group, seem (even to Gloucester’s residents) like some essence of the city itself.

We don’t have artist laureates, but if we did, Morin would have to be the artist laureate of Gloucester. It is rare for an artist to be so thoroughly and successfully engaged with the nature of a community. In Gloucester, it’s something of a tradition – from painter Fitz Henry Lane to poet Charles Olson to photojournalist Charles Lowe to poet laureate Vincent Ferrini (a great character, excelling more as a laureate than as a poet, who died last December). There is something about Gloucester being big and complex enough to be a city, but also finite because it is ultimately an island (there are only two roads – bridges – in or out of the place) that make it seem both intriguing and possible for a person to know it in its entirety (or at least feel they do). Its artists are drawn to take up this challenge.

Morin grew up in Gloucester, lives downtown, and haunts its streets. He’s come to know the city as a boy and as a man, to know it with his feet and his camera. The result – if I may be allowed a pretentious literary allusion – reminds me of a passage from T.S. Eliot’s (who summered in Gloucester while growing up) “Little Gidding”:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

--Greg Cook, New England Journal of Aesthetic Research

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Revisiting Edward Dahlberg's "Because I Was Flesh"

Because I Was Flesh was the first book I owned by Edward Dahlberg. I bought it in the fall of 1964 from Gordon Cairnie, at the Grolier Book Shop on Plympton Street, in Cambridge, shortly after it was published by New Directions. Until then I had not read anything by Dahlberg, although I recognized his name from Charles Olson’s dedication of the “Christ” chapter in Call Me Ishmael to “Edward Dahlberg, my other genius of the Cross and the Windmill.” But when I caught sight of the book’s distinctive dust jacket photograph of a shoeprint in the sand, as I browsed among Gordon’s “new arrivals” on a small table near the front of his cluttered but welcoming shop; and when I opened the beautiful red, cloth-bound volume with its attractive type faces, laid paper, and letter press format to Dahlberg’s first sentence—“Kansas City is a vast inland city, and its marvelous river, the Missouri, heats the senses.”— I knew I had not only to read but to posses this book.

“Good choice,” the ever attentive Cairnie commented when I brought the book up to his desk for payment. “Just don’t let Charlie know you bought it,” he added, referring to the well known rift between the two writers, who had been competitively close since they first met in an East Gloucester boarding house, on August 9, 1936, while Dahlberg was on vacation from New York and Olson was preparing to enter graduate school at Harvard. By the time I acquired Because I Was Flesh, it had been nearly nine years since the two friends last communicated, when Dahlberg, on November 24, 1955, had written a final letter to his former disciple, a letter which concluded “in a rebuke, in love and sorrow.”

Naturally I said nothing to Olson, who never once referred to Dahlberg during the many years of our friendship. But as soon as I returned home to Rocky Neck, I opened the book and began excitedly to read. Having spent the previous several years immersed in Beat and Black Mountain writing, I found Dahlberg’s richly biblical and classically allusive prose a bracing antidote to Kerouac, Ginsberg and even Olson. As a young English teacher and graduate student, I immediately recognized Dahlberg’s absorption in the stately cadences of Elizabethan prose, particularly that of Sir Thomas Browne, echoes of whose Hydriotaphia or Urne Buriall and Religio Medici I discovered, along with allusions to both the imagery and diction of Shakespeare, Marlowe and Webster, the Euphues of John Lyly and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. But these allusions and occasional direct quotations were no mere borrowings or decorative effects in an otherwise highly original style. Dahlberg had internalized the major works of these canonical writers, along with Homer in Chapman’s translation, the pre-Socratics, and the Latin and Greek texts of Alexandrian philosophy, not to speak of the theology of Origen and Augustine. And when he came to write, what resulted was not affectation, as one might assume, given the range and eclecticism of the texts I’ve referred to, but a prose that was entirely unique—direct, resonant and breathtakingly beautiful:

Would to God that my mother had not been a leaf scattered everywhere and as the wind listeth. Would to heaven that I could compose a different account of her flesh…Should I err against her dear relics or trouble her sleep, may no one imagine that she has not always been for me the three Marys of the New Testament. Moreover, whatever I imagine I know is taken from my mother’s body, and this is the memoir of her body.

It was this language, then, that held my attention, along with Dahlberg’s acute sense of place. Kansas City, where he grew up with his widowed mother Lizzie, a “Lady Barber,” emerges in his pages not only as a quintessential American mid-western, riverine town in all the specificity of its streets, drug stores, slaughter houses, tenements and bordellos, but also as one of the generative places of the earth:

Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas City, as hilly as Eteonus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes…Kansas City was the city of my youth and the burial ground of my poor mother’s hopes; her blood, like Abel’s, cries out to me from every cobblestone, building, flat and street.

Although I was moved by Dahlberg’s account of his and his mother’s many misfortunes in this first reading—the eccentricities of her endless suitors, her struggle to retain what she felt was a necessary “respectability” as a woman who cut the hair of cowboys and traveling salesmen—and though I found the story of young Edward’s horrific incarceration in a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland nearly impossible to bear, what riveted me especially was the language I’ve spoken of. And its music remained for many years in my head.

But now, forty-four years later, when I revisit the book, which critics Alfred Kazin and Allen Tate both called “one of the great American autobiographies,” I’m once again taken by Dahlberg’s language, especially in a time when our own has become increasingly debased and trivialized. In this second reading, I’m even more fascinated and delighted by Dahlberg’s clear mastery of authors and texts once so central to our own self-definition. But what emerges in greater relief for me, though it was always resonant, is Dahlberg’s stunning sense of the social and the political. For when I first read Because I Was Flesh I was unaware of the author’s beginnings as one of our finest proletarian novelists; and it wasn’t until I had read Bottom Dogs, his first novel, published in 1930, with an introduction by D. H. Lawrence, who wrote that Dahlberg’s “directness, that unsentimental and non-dramatized thoroughness of setting down the under-dog mind, surpasses anything I know,” that I began to understand the political underpinnings of Because I Was Flesh in Dalhberg’s early radicalism.

What is Bottom Dogs but a first telling of the story of Edward and Lizzie in the most extraordinary plain American English, so reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s? In 1964 I had read little Anderson, perhaps in college only the deeply affecting Winesburg, Ohio, and I was unaware of how important his novels and stories had been to the young Dahlberg, just as they were to the youthful Faulkner and Hemingway. But when you come upon the opening sentences of Bottom Dogs—“She moved from town to town, selling hair switches, giving osteopathic treatments, going on again when she felt the place had been played out. In this way she hoped to save a little money and establish herself in some thriving city. She had taken Lorry with her wherever she went.”—the echoes of Anderson’s diction and narrative mastery, especially in his masterpiece, Poor White, a stunning novel of small town failures and broken dreams narrated against the backdrop of emerging industrialization, are unmistakable, along with Dahlberg’s sharp sense of outrage over the kinds of oppression that he and his mother and so many others experienced as the country moved from a human-scale agrarian way of life to an alienating market economy.

So in revisiting Because I Was Flesh I find the echoes of Anderson along with Dahlberg’s ever-present social consciousness, though perhaps less stridently expressed than in his first book. It’s as if the two sensibilities, the lovely, direct Andersonian voice of the middle American storyteller and the rueful, politically seasoned awareness of the mature Dahlberg, have interpenetrated in the context of Dahlberg’s exquisite late and more classical style, creating a new dimension of understanding and a greater, more tragic depth to his narrative. Yet the long-suffering figure of his mother Lizzie remains; and in dramatizing the story of their painfully conflicted life together, Dahlberg has given us one of the great accounts in literature of the relationship between a son and his mother:

When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barber Shop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.

(This essay first appeared in the June 2008 issue of Context, published by Dalkey Archive Press, with many thanks to editor Martin Riker.)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Walker in the City: Isaac's First Fiesta

(Photograph by Benjamin Anastas)

It should have been a more joyous occasion. My son Ben and I were taking his 19-month-old son Isaac to his first St. Peter’s Fiesta. My mother had accompanied my brother and me when Fiesta started up again after the war, and I, in turn, took my own three kids, beginning in the 1960s. If you count the fact that my mother, born in Gloucester in 1910, had attended the earliest Fiestas in the1930s, four generations of our family have been celebrating the Feast of St. Peter with our Italian friends and neighbors.

As I’ve said, it should have been a happier time. Though a bit overwhelmed by the crowds along the midway, the music from the rides, and the amplified voices announcing games of chance, Isaac seemed to take to Fiesta. Eyes shining with wonder, he refused to be carried by his father or me, rushing instead among the legs of those on their way down Beach Court to where we could watch the seine boat races and greasy pole contest from the shore.

Returning to Commercial Street, we decided to walk to Fort Square for a better view of the events and so that Isaac, who loves to play in the sand boxes of New York's city parks, where he lives, could fully enjoy Pavilion Beach. On the way there I pointed out the old Birdseye plant with its iconic white tower to Ben, where, from 1928, his grandmother worked as Clarence Birdseye’s secretary. On our way back to Fiesta we walked around Fort Square to Charles Olson’ house, where we got a picture of Ben, Isaac and me in front of the commemorative plaque to Gloucester’s great poet.

That afternoon we walked all over the Fort, from Beach Court to Fort Square. We shared fried dough and Ben shot a few baskets to see if he could win a stuffed animal for Isaac. What came home to me during our walk, along with the powerful sense of attraction I’ve always had for Fiesta and for the Fort itself, where I once worked on fish, was the fact that if we allow a Marriott resort hotel or any other kind of hotel to be built at the Birdseye site without serious design and environmental impact restrictions there could be unforeseen consequences.

Prospective developers have already expressed reservations about this traditional marine industrial neighborhood (one was quoted in the Gloucester Daily Times as saying, “When our guests arrive we want them to know they’ve arrived somewhere”); and one wonders how many of their guests will want to spend a lot of money to stay in a busy neighborhood full of trailer trucks and early risers. What will be the impact of the new hotel on Pavilion beach, which is public and protected as such under Chapter 91? And while I can imagine some hotel guests enthralled by Fiesta, will others on vacation be annoyed by the noise, the crowds, or the smells from the working waterfront—the engines of the fishing vessels, the early morning activity of taking on ice?

During our walk I tried to envision the Fort with a fancy upscale hotel in its midst. All I could think of was that the hotel might ultimately displace the neighbors, the neighborhood, the Fiesta, and all the traditional kinds of single and multi-family housing on the Fort. Once the hotel was in place there could be even greater pressure for gentrification or condos. Then, quite covertly, we would have the beginnings of Newport right in the heart of the waterfront.

I'm not suggesting that a hotel couldn’t be tastefully designed and located in the Fort. One approach might be the concept of a small adaptive reuse hotel that kept the Birdseye tower. These "boutique" hotels have become increasingly popular. Still, I’m concerned about the potential for "collateral damage" in the neighborhood as a consequence of outsize development. I couldn't stop thinking about it as I walked with my little grandson and his father—three generations of Anastases enjoying Fiesta (a forth if my mother, who first took me, were still alive, and a fifth if you include my grandfather Angel Polisson, who also took me)—and suddenly a great sadness came over me, a terrible sense of loss.

What should ultimately have been an occasion of unalloyed joy with my family, my grandson’s first Fiesta, prompted a bittersweet reverie, in which I could imagine all that has meant so much to our family and every other Gloucester family of Fiesta and of the Fort itself, swept away from us if we are not vigilant about protecting our heritage and the very places in which it lives and breaths. Viva San Pietro!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Books in My Life

I don’t ever remember not having books in my life. Each night at bedtime my mother read to my brother and me from Thornton Burgess, the Babar books, Wind in the Willows and the Peter Rabbit series. At the age of five, I taught myself to read. I had picked up the rudiments in kindergarten when I was four; by the time I was in first grade there was no stopping me. My Aunt Helene, who was an elementary school teacher, got me my first library card when I was six years old. This began a lifetime of browsing among what were once the amazing resources of the Sawyer Free Library.

The first books I got out of the library were the Oz series. Once I was in school studying geography and history, I became fascinated with Native American culture. I’d always known about the aboriginal presence in Gloucester and the legend that Vikings touched upon our shores, perhaps even wintering along the Annisquam and Little Rivers near West Gloucester. Elliott Rogers, a family friend who was a local historian and amateur naturalist, told me stories of the town’s settlement in 1623 by “planters” out of England’s West Country. My first sight of his collection of artifacts from the paleo and archaic periods of Indian inhabitation initiated a lifelong interest in these peoples, and I began to read everything I could find in the library about how Indians lived and what they made. The Holling C. Holling books, with their beautiful illustrations, opened windows to me not only on Eastern and Adena cultures but on the earliest inhabitants of the entire North American continent.

When we studied “Cave Men” in school, prehistory also held me. This led to a subsequent passion for the Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks. I found books for young readers about Egyptian religion and the Peoloponesian wars, yearning for the time when I would turn fourteen and be allowed to use the adult section of the library. Meanwhile, teachers lent me more advanced texts or my mother or aunt would borrow what I wanted from the main library using their own cards.

This was when I fell in love with mythology and devoured the Bullfinch books recounting Greek and Roman myths and legends. At the same time, I read about the settlement of the American frontier, about pioneer life, always with an eye on how people survived, how they got their food and cooked it, how they built houses and raised crops. I became fascinated with process and the records of daily life among the various peoples of the earth.

Although I remember a wonderful thick, green, clothbound book of illustrated short stories Aunt Helene gave me when I was recuperating from an attack of the mumps, I can’t recall reading much fiction until sixth grade when we were assigned books in the Illustrated Classics series, including Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans and Stevenson’s Kidnapped. N. C. Wyeth’s dramatically colored illustrations established ur-images for me of Cooper’s characters, bringing woodsmen and Indians to life in a way that was only rivaled by images in the movies we saw each Saturday afternoon at the Strand and North Shore theaters on Main Street, beginning with the last years of the Second War.

In seventh grade a new interest in science, cultivated largely by my teacher Lovell Parsons, sent me not to science books at first but to science fiction. After reading my way through Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I began reading Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles along with some of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy novels of the time like L. Sprague De Camp’s Genus Homo and John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Novels like these seemed to satisfy my need to understand how science entered our lives and my curiosity about social relations, especially sexual ones. I still read simplified versions of Einstein’s theory of relativity, devouring each monthly issue of Scientific American even though I barely understood the technical articles. But reading adult science fiction novels helped me find answers to the things I was beginning to ask myself like, where do we come from and what does life mean? Encountering what was then called “the love interest” in those novels provided analogues to the things I was feeling about my body and this helped me to understand what the crushes I was getting on girls meant.

By high school I was reading serious fiction, not simply the novels we had been assigned to read by Dickens or George Eliot, but all of Steinbeck I could get my hands on. I read an occasional best-seller like The Caine Mutiny; but mostly I stuck to the classics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I didn’t discover these books by myself. As I’ve described in my memoir Siva Dancing, it was my chance meeting with a young woman painter after our family moved from the Boulevard to Rocky Neck in 1951 that opened the world of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to me, along with the novels of Thomas Wolfe that overwhelmed me with their torrents of feeling.

Virginia Whittingham was a contemporary artist, barely out of school herself. I met her at the counter of my father’s luncheonette and S. S. Pierce grocery store, where I began to work during the summer between Central Grammar and Gloucester High School. When she learned that I loved to read, expressing an amazement that I was trying at that time to get through Zimmer’s Philosophies of India, Virginia wrote out a list of novels she thought I might enjoy. It included Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, all of which I eventually read with immense pleasure and interest. Virginia’s list also included American novelists like Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe. Perhaps today it might not be possible to understand the impact on a thirteen year old boy of these texts. Quite literally they changed my way not only of looking at the world but of being in it. Reading the novels Virginia had suggested made me the person I am today, and though I never saw or heard from her again (if she’s still alive I suspect she would be in her eighties) I cannot begin to say how grateful I am to her for taking the time, those many years ago, to write out a simple lists of books for a boy to read, books that changed his life. With her long, ash-blond hair, Virginia was stunningly beautiful, and a fine painter. Discussing art with her throughout an entire summer started me on another lifetime fascination with the visual. Naturally I had a crush on her, but I’ve already written about that.

The novels I began to read that summer before high school and the ones I continued to read throughout my secondary education were crucial to me; but there is another source of my reading that is equally significant. That was the Book Find Club. I first joined the club in 1951, when I saw a membership offer advertised in Scientific American. It was the usual book club offer—if you bought one book and joined the club you got another book or two free. To me, who was just beginning to collect books, this seemed like manna from heaven. Also, the titles of the books intrigued me. Many were scientific; in fact, I began my membership with W. P. D. Wightman’s The Growth of Scientific Ideas and George Gaylord Simpson’s The Meaning of Evolution, both from Yale University Press. But the club also offered literary titles along with its list of political, sociological and philosophical books, all of them new.

It was through the Book Find Club, which I was later to learn had been investigated by the House Un-American Activities committee for offering its members “subversive” books, that I began to branch out in my reading. Henry Steele Commager’s attack on McCarthyism, Freedom, Loyalty and Dissent, was probably my first foray into political analysis. I also read C. Wright Mills’ White Collar, along with Emanuel Velikowsky’s Worlds in Collision (the renegade psychiatrist’s assertion that life on this planet sprung from living matter brought to earth by crashing asteroids, discredited until recently, may well be proven true by the discovery of microorganisms in asteroids found in Antarctica and suspected to be from Mars.)

This may seem like heady reading for an adolescent; but I had nearly ten years of practice behind me when I first opened the pages of these attractively designed books, which arrived regularly each month. I was responsible for scarcely more than $1.98 in costs if I didn’t return the announcement card in time. But I wanted the books—I could certainly afford them out of the small salary my father paid me each week. I wanted them to read and I wanted them to stand side by side in the antique Victorian bookcase my mother had bought for me at an estate auction. I was beginning to love books for themselves as much as for what they contained.

Other books of significance that I got from the club were Carlton Coon’s The Story of Man and C.W. Ceram’s Gods, Graves and Scholars. Although I would later reject Coon’s racist anthropology, his was the first book that gave me a systematic sense of how we came “up from the ape,” in the words of another Book Find author, Ernest Hooten. Ceram’s book, however, opened up an entirely new avenue of interest for me in archaeology and ancient languages, combining my prior fascination with Egyptian and Greek origins with a glimpse into Central American cultures that I knew little about. Ever since, archaeology has been one of my chief loves.

I’ve said that the club also offered more purely literary texts, including autobiographies like Sean O’Casey’s Sunset and Evening Star. It was through the club that I discovered the stories of J. D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect that these two books were among the first literary fiction by living authors I read beyond Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Reading Salinger helped me see that I, too, could write about growing up, using the language that people employed in daily life and not the formal rhetoric we were subjected to in the reading we did for our English classes.

There must have been some dissonance for me then, perhaps a conflict between the demands of the classroom and its more traditional texts and the reading I did on my own that took me right into the heart of my own times—the politics, the literature, the sociology and science. In retrospect, I think I managed the separation because I had always considered my own private reading to be more important than what was assigned to us in school. I did my assignments, and I was a pretty good and competent student; but my real life was always in my own books and in the pursuit of those interests that were never satisfied by any school.

Still, I don’t mean merely to list the books I read in high school that had such an influence on me. What I want to do before I speak about my college reading is to note that encountering these books helped me to establish and explore the social and intellectual themes I continue to pursue today; they helped to lay the foundation of the life of my mind. I’ve never stopped reading in ancient history and archaeology or in science, particularly neuro biology and physics; I still read in politics and political science, even in sociology, although much less than I did in the 1960s. All this was made possible though a simple advertisement in Scientific American that led me to the Book Find Club and those books that helped me move from adolescence into the adult world of ideas.

In college I began the systematic study of literature. Many of the books that were assigned to us for class were also books that had a profound influence on me, although I continued to read on my own even more than I had done so previously. This was made possible because the Bowdoin College library was everything one sought in a library. I can’t recall ever being unable to find any book I wanted in that vast collection. Through an aggressive acquisition policy the library also kept up with contemporary British and American writing, so that I was able early on to read such Beat classics as Clellon Holmes’ Go and novels by the Angry Young Men of Britain like John Wain’s Hurry on Down and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. It was also at this time that I began eagerly to devour the initial volumes of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet as each appeared. Sadly neglected today, their exquisite prose inspired many of us to become writers, indeed, to travel beyond the narrow literary and intellectual confines of America.

The first two books we read in Stephen Minot’s freshman composition course during the fall of 1955, Thoreau’s Walden and Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, have remained books that I return to constantly. Reading Thoreau for the first time, beyond excerpts in our high school textbook on American literature, helped me to understand my own need for solitude and my deep connection with the natural world. Jewett, whom at first I disparaged because of her subtlety, became the first localist who caught my attention, nurturing my love for a Maine landscape I would respond to for the rest of my life and showing me how one might write about one’s home country.

While these books had some immediate meaning for me, it was later in life that I would find their resonance of deeper importance. But the books which had the greatest impact upon me were those I discovered for myself in the library and in the remarkable off-campus bookstore operated by Carl Appollonio, a Korean war veteran and history major, who had returned to college on the GI Bill. At Carl’s I literally found the books that were to have the profoundest intellectual influence on me, books by Walter Kaufmann and William Barrett about the Existentialists that changed the shape of my life and set me on a personal and philosophical journey that continues today.

I can’t begin to describe the impact on me of first reading Sartre’s Nausea in that early New Directions cloth bound edition, which I still possess. Other students were reading Camus in the classroom by then and I read The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall with absorption, later picking up his philosophical essays, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, which had just been issued in the Vintage paperback library. But it was Sartre’s grittier vision of alienation that I ultimately connected with, reading everything I could find in English by him and straining my elementary French to comprehend the original when no translations were available. This is not the place for a digression on Sartre’s philosophical and political influence on me. Let me simply indicate that of the handful of writers and thinkers who have shaped my own mind, Sartre is among the foremost and remains so today.

I should, however, add a note about the paperback explosion that happened just about the same time as I entered college. Although by high school I owned a few books in the Mentor paperback series, notably E.V. Rieu’s fine prose translation of The Odyssey and Ortega Y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses, which I had picked off the magazine rack in my father’s store, I had not begun to purchase other inexpensive editions of classics that were becoming readily available then. What started me on the creation of my paperback library was my purchase during the summer between high school and college of C. Day Lewis’s wonderfully readable translation of The Aeneid in the Anchor Books series, which I had just studied in my fourth year Latin class.

I bought that book at a little bookshop in Rockport called The Mariner’s Bookstall. I mention it because, along with Brown’s Book Store in Gloucester it was the only bookstore I knew. And Mariner’s began to stock copies of most of the new paperback imprints that were then coming on the market, including Anchor Books and the Vintage series. To be able to buy a classic for as little as eight-five cents was a tremendous gift for young people like me, who were just getting started collecting and reading books. And once I was in college I doubt that a day went by during my first year or two when I wasn’t in Carl’s bookstore picking up yet another translation of Homer or Dante or deep in discussion with Carl or certain members of the group of local artists and intellectuals who lived in and around the college community. We talked about Sartre, of course, and Spengler; we read and discussed the new fiction that was beginning to come out of England, novels by John Wain and John Braine, by Kingsley Amis and Alan Sillitoe.

Slowly I amassed a library of books, many of which I still own. By the time I entered college I had stopped my membership in the Book Find Club, which soon ceased operating. Carl gave me a discount on whatever I bought from him. And what I bought was mostly paperback editions of books of such diverse subject matter as Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey and Zeller’s Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy. Naturally I overspent my budget, which consisted of the money I earned during the summer and an “allowance” my parents sent me regularly to help with extra expenses. Needless to say those “extra expenses” were generally for books, for I had little else to buy at the time. By sophomore year I was earning pocket money playing piano during the weekend in a small dance band at the Officer’s Club of the Brunswick Navel Air Station and working at the library, where I continued to work through the rest of my college career, not only because of the pay but also because it gave me unlimited access to more books,

Looking back on my reading between 1955 and 1959, my undergraduate years, I can only say that it was not uncommon for me to read a book a day, many of them not required for any course I took. Certainly I read books that my professors in English, history and philosophy, or in the Greek, Latin, French and Italian literature I also studied, suggested as outside reading. Titles that come to mind would be Lionel Trilling’s book on Arnold or certain volumes in Toynbee’s great series (which I’ve never finished). I also read Clive Bell on the post-impressionists and Herbert Read’s ground breaking essays on Cubism and Surrealism in The Theory of Modern Art.

Then there were the poets we studied in class and those we read on our own—Rimbeau, Verlaine, cummings, Stevens and later the Beats. And the modernist novelists who came to mean so much to me: Joyce, Proust, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Celine. There were books like Arturo Barea’s memoirs of the Spanish Civil War and Hermann Broch’s the The Death of Virgil, books I came across in my wanderings through the library stacks on idle afternoons or late nights when the library was closed and I had its treasures all to myself. These are books I pick out of my memory or as I walk past one of my book cases and catch sight of the actual volume I bought in those years, books like The Recognitions

by William Gaddis or John Rechy’s City of Night. They also include Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, LeComte du Nouy’s Human Destiny and Denis de Rougment’s Love in the Western World, books that our teachers disparaged but that some of us read with interest and excitement. To this day certain eccentric writers or visionary thinkers, like Leo Stein or Marshall McLuhan, not to speak of the great individualists like Henry Miller, continue to hold my interest. It is the rebel in me that attracts me to them and the fact that I take what I need from the books I read no matter what the received critical opinion or judgment might be.

Speaking of rebels, my political education began not with Marx but with John Dos Passos’ USA, which had been assigned to me in a seminar on American writers required for English majors. Reading Dos Passos I first became acquainted with native radicals like Randolph Bourne, whose essays on war and cultural renewal had a profound impact upon me. And my real induction into the most contemporary and avant-garde writing was through the pages of the Evergreen Review, where I discovered the works of Samuel Beckett and the philosopher E. M. Cioran and rediscovered Charles Olson, the poet who was living in my home town at the very moment I read his seminal essay, “Human Universe” in the review.

I should also mention the profound influence upon me of D. H. Lawrence, particularly during my last two years in college when I chose to write my senior thesis on Lawrence and myth, concentrating particularly on his Mexican novel, The Plumed Serpent. Introduced to Lawrence in Larry Hall’s course in modern literature, I began to read everything by him I could lay my hands on, even a splendid copy of the original 1928 Florence edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, housed in the rare book room of the library. But it was not the sexual in Lawrence that attracted me so much—after all, I had read Miller’s Tropics in the Obelisk Press editions friends had brought back from France. What I loved in Lawrence was his evocations of places in the world, his north of England, Italy and the American Southwest, which I would later travel to myself literally because of the way Lawrence had described New Mexico. I was also attracted to Lawrence’s life, to the way he and Frieda traveled like Gypsies from place to place, the way he appeared to write effortlessly at the kitchen table while dinner was being prepared, the way he seemed to penetrate the psychology of human relationships, which I had long puzzled over and began to write about myself in my first attempts at a novel. Lawrence seemed then to me the very model for the kind of writer I wished to be, itinerant and urbane like Hemingway, a linguist like Pound, an expatriate; for I had also read the major Lost Generation writers, Fitzgerald, McAlmon and their precursors in Paris like Gertrude Stein, and the option of living outside of one’s country and culture seemed a compelling one.

Lawrence, the working class intellectual, who was alienated both from his own class and from the culture he grew up in, along with the literary society that should have provided a sustaining environment, attracted me deeply, not only as a writer but as a person, restlessly moving from Nottinghamshire to Germany, from Italy to Ceylon, Australia and the American Southwest, ultimately dying in the South of France. The Lawrence who also interested me was the Lawrence who wrote, “At times one is forced essentially to be a hermit,” adding: “Yet here I am, nowhere, as it were, and infinitely an outsider.”

My deep study of Lawrence in my solitary room on 83 Federal Street, during my final year in college, prepared me for the senior thesis I was expected to submit as partial fulfillment of the graduation requirements for an English major. I chose The Plumed Serpent, not one of Lawrence’s most successful or highly acclaimed novels, but one which interested me because of its mythic substructure. For as a student of Dante I was also interested in myth and symbol and the creation of anagogic structures of belief

By, then, I was already pointed toward Europe. Lawrence’s travel books on Italy and Sardinia delighted me. I also read Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli and Words Are Stones in translation and Paura della Liberta`, his book about the myth of fascism and the fear of the terrible responsibility of freedom that attracts people to authoritarian regimes, in the original. Levi, a doctor, writer, painter and political activist, seemed yet another example of the urbane, multi-faceted European intellectuals I found so attractive. Levi’s descriptions of Italy during and after the war drew me to the country as a whole, just as reading Dante had drawn me in particular to the city of Florence.

I suspect the turn to Europe was already implicit the moment I read Sartre. I knew that my genetic and intellectual roots lay there. It was only a question of how to manage the trip with military service hanging over my head. An announcement posted in the library from the University of Florence offering courses in Dante and Renaissance culture and history in Italian to foreign students caught my attention. I applied and was accepted. So long as I continued to be a student I would be exempt from the draft.

Ironically, it was not in Italy but in my own neighborhood that I first learned about the single most important Italian writer of my life. During the summer before I left for Europe I befriended a young Italian graphic artist named Emiliano Sorrini, who had come to Gloucester to work with the painter Leonard Creo before moving on to New York, where he hoped to settle with his American wife. When Lenny introduced me to Emiliano it was with the hope that we could exchange language lessons with each other. Of course I jumped at the opportunity to practice my spoken Italian, and Emiliano whose English was already good proved to be a challenging student. Like many of the Italian artists I would later meet, Emiliano was also a reader—indeed, he was an intellectual with a deep understanding of the major political and cultural issues of the time. He had met Alberto Moravia and he knew Carlo Levi personally. But his favorite contemporary Italian writer was Cesare Pavese, of whom I knew nothing.

“If you love Moravia,” he told me, “you will die for Pavese.” And he advised me not to seek out translations in English, which he had been told were poor, but to wait until I arrived in Italy to buy and read Pavese in the original.

As soon as I arrived in Rome—even before I looked Lenny up in his studio on the Via del Babuino, I visited a nearby bookshop and bought my first Pavese novel, Il Compagno, initiating one of the profoundest literary and intellectual experiences of my life. Once I was settled at the Pensione Cordova on Via del Corso in Florence, I went out and on the strength of that first novel bought all of Pavese’s works in print, that is everything he had published.

Thus began another of those divided experiences for me. While I studied Dante, Medieval literature and Renaissance culture at the university by day, I read the poems, stories, essays, diaries and novels of Pavese by night. By the time I had arrived in Firenze, just at the time of my22nd birthday on November 15, 1959, my Italian reading comprehension was good. But after a few months of classroom lectures, almost nightly film going, conversations with fellow students and friends in the pensione, not to mention my daily readings of newspapers and magazines, I was able to read Italian practically without the help of a dictionary.

(to be continued)