Thursday, January 31, 2008

John W. Aldridge, 1924-2007

I heard John Aldridge speak only once. It was in 1956, during the spring of my freshman year in college, when he delivered a major address on the role of the writer in the university at an American literature conference held at Bowdoin. Renowned as a critic, though still young, Aldridge was an imposing figure. Looking more like a Southern aristocrat than a literary critic (born in Sioux City, Iowa, he’d grown up and gone to school in the South before graduating from Berkeley), Aldridge was tall and well built, dressed in a beautifully tailored dark blue suit. His hair was long for the time, though well cut, and he smoked a pipe constantly during the discussion period. Actually, I heard him speak twice that weekend because he also delivered a paper on Robert Frost during a session on the poet, a brilliant essay that advanced a reading of Frost's enigmatic poem "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" that was so complex and densely argued that I missed its point entirely, though other scholars attending the conference challenged its premises during the often contentious discussion that followed.
But it was Aldridge’s keynote address on the growing phenomenon of creative writers—novelists and poets—as college and university teachers, and the rise of graduate writing programs, that forced me to confront an issue I had never considered before, especially since I myself had, that past year, begun to dream about becoming a writer with the expectation that I would also be teaching.
The substance of Aldridge’s presentation, based on two of his most important and controversial essays, “The Young Writer in America,” and “The Writer in the University,” was that academic life was no place for a creative writer. Not only was the teaching of literature counterproductive for a writer, who hoped to produce imaginative work of any originality or distinction, the life itself—faculty parties, departmental meetings, the seemingly endless grading of student papers, and the intellectual careerism—was deadening, he argued. Aldridge himself was a teacher. At that time he was an associate professor in the English department at the University of Vermont. He had also taught at Princeton, and he would continue to teach, beginning a long career, in 1964, at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor that would last until his retirement, in 1990. But, as he later wrote about his own teaching, “I do not see that any purpose is served in attempting to make a virtue of the necessity which impelled me to teaching, nor in remaining blind to the many dangers inhering in it for the writer.”
Aldridge continued: “I am specifically concerned with the tendency now rapidly accelerating in the intellectual world to endow the university with creative powers and advantages which it cannot and does not possess, and I am particularly opposed to the development which has made the university the seat of literary politics and power in our time and which has transformed so many of our younger intellectuals into university apologists and literary politicians.”
Aldridge wrote these words in 1956, shortly before his Bowdoin address. They also formed the core of the presentation I heard. I needn’t point out how prophetic they have become to readers with any knowledge or understanding of academic life or literary politics today, when writing programs are centers of power and their faculties and graduates produce most of what’s published today as literary fiction and poetry.
All this was new to me as an eighteen-year-old with literary aspirations. But when Aldridge set the text of his talk back down on the lectern, looked out over the audience, and said, in effect, that if there were any aspiring writers among the students in the hall they shouldn’t be listening to him, they should be on the first train out of Brunswick, I was stunned.
“You will not learn how to write by first studying the writing of others,” he said. “That can come later—most good writers do it on their own anyway.” “What is primary,” he insisted, is that the young writer gain “a fund of experience in the world outside of the academy.” He didn’t say “real world.” It was not a term used then. Travel the country, Aldridge advised, like Jack London, Dreiser and Hemingway; take a series of jobs; do manual labor; work for a newspaper. Get the feel of the country. Come to know a diversity of people, men and women you will never meet in college. “Saturate yourself in the particulars of daily life—that’s where art comes from,” not from “an artificial environment,” like the university, where, Aldridge insisted, “more ideas are conceived than are ever put to use,” and “more passions are analyzed than are ever felt.”
As for those writers who were already teaching, Aldridge warned: “Remain here at your own risk and the integrity of your work, if not of your lives.” Writing and teaching about writing or literature were mutually exclusive practices, he concluded.
I left Aldridge’s talk reeling. A friend, with whom I had published in the college literary magazine, dropped out immediately and hitchhiked to New York, where he got a job and began living and writing in the Village, subsequently producing a remarkable series of plays. Another classmate left in June, heading for San Francisco, from which he sent me some poetry that made what had been published in our undergraduate magazine seem the merest imitation. Overhearing my own writing teacher, novelist Stephen Minot, in discussion with Aldridge and speaking with Steve later, I realized the impact Aldridge’s talk had on him. “It forced me to re-think my own choices,” Steve said.
I finished college, largely because I was afraid not to. I think it was also because I couldn’t bear to disappoint my parents. But my deepest wish had been to drop out, to travel across the country with my friend Mark Power, who’d gone ahead to San Francisco, and begin the living Aldridge posited as the primary consideration for a writer. I finished college and I went to graduate school, two in fact, though I was never a committed scholar and I always felt that writing was the principal focus of my life. Yet, as I struggled with remaining in school, I returned often to that warning Aldridge had issued to hopeful writers and to the books he’d written, which advanced and deepened his own critical thinking about writing, its making and function.
Until I’d heard Aldridge speak, I hadn’t read much literary criticism or even thought about it as a separate genre. I began by reading two books by Aldridge that had recently been published, After the Lost Generation (1951) and In Search of Heresy: American Literature in an Age of Conformity (1956). I can’t begin to describe the impact of those books on me. In fact, it can be said that if anything helped me ultimately decide to become a writer it was reading Aldridge, who had written so poignantly about what it meant to be an American writer, first in Paris in the 1920s, when he focused on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation, and then in post-war America, in his no less powerful chapters on Norman Mailer, John Horne Burns, Vance Bourjaily and Gore Vidal. Aldridge gave me American writing as it was then being practiced, more directly than from any course I might have taken; and he also gave me the first means I had of evaluating that writing beyond the narrow New Critical precepts that were built into our English instruction. After reading Aldridge I went on to read Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, his first-hand report on the Lost Generation, and then Cowley’s The Literary Situation, about writing and publishing at mid-century. From Cowley I moved on to read Edmund Wilson’s literary criticism (it would be some years before I found To the Finland Station and Patriotic Gore) and Alfred Kazin's seminal study of American prose, On Native Grounds. By sophomore year I had begun to read formal criticism of a more academic nature in my literature courses; and then I took a year-long seminar from Lawrence Sargent Hall in the theory and practice of criticism. But it was Aldridge who got me started, and I have been reading criticism ever since, not only for what I can learn from it about writing, but also because I find the best criticism incredibly stimulating on a purely intellectual level.
I bought and read every one of Aldridge’s subsequent books, and there were many, including, A Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis (1966), The American Novel and the Way We Live Now (1983), and Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction (1992). There were further collections of his critical essays, Classics and Contemporaries (1992) and The Devil in the Fire: Retrospective Essays on American Literature and Culture, 1951-1971 (1972), an omnibus of his career. Aldridge even published a novel, The Party at Cranton (1960), which was coruscating in its criticism of academic life, especially English departments. He also published a book of social criticism, In the Country of the Young (1970), an attack on the inherent anti-intellectualism of the growing youth culture of the 1960s, which I disagreed with at the time, but have since come to appreciate for its prescience, the same clairvoyance that obtained in Aldridge’s essays about the danger of academic life for the creative writer.
As Aldridge aged his focus narrowed, as one might expect. Just as he had called for “heresy” in 1956 and when it arrived in the persons and work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs he didn’t like it, Aldridge later rejected the fiction of Raymond Carver, who, like Hemingway before him, had given new voice and form to the American short story. Yet it was thrilling to see how Aldridge penetrated the stilted preciosity of John Updike’s prose and over-determined plots and the pseudo-portentousness of William Styron's "big" late novels, while being among the few critics to have understood the kinds of risks Norman Mailer was taking in books like An American Dream and Armies of the Night.
It is said that Aldridge was working on a memoir—he called it “a literary biography”— before his death, in Madison, Georgia, on February 7, 2007. I once saw a chapter about his early life and family in The American Scholar and found it hauntingly beautiful ("Hostages to Fortune": A Memoir," The American Scholar, Vol. 58, No. 1, Winter 1989). I’m posting this essay in part because, aside from a death notice in the June 2007 newsletter of the Hopwood Writing Awards program at the University of Michigan, which Aldridge once directed, I was unable to find an obituary for him anywhere on the Internet, though I can’t imagine a writer and critic of his importance not having been memorialized. I’ve also written these words of tribute because had it not been for hearing John Aldridge speak in 1956, and having then discovered his books, I would not be writing today. I would probably not be the person I am either.

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Canticle for Bread and Stones: Emilio DeGrazia's novel of Italian-American life

Growing up in immigrant families one hears stories. These stories are one of the ways we make sense of our histories, of each other, ourselves. When we are very young we can’t get enough of them. As we become acculturated we can’t seem to put enough distance between ourselves and the stories. And then there comes a time when we must have them again, a time when these stories are so essential to us that, at any risk, we must recover them, even though the original tellers may now be dead or suffering from the attrition of memory that comes with age.

A Canticle for Bread and Stones is a novel about stories; it’s a novel of stories. More specifically, it is a beautifully imagined narrative of the Italian experience in America, and as such it is a response to what Gay Talese asked for in his 1993 New York Times Book Review article, “Where Are the Italian-American Novelists?”

In that controversial article, Talese, a novelist-turned journalist, asserted that “it is a fact that there is no widely recognized body of work in American literature that deals with this profound experience.” While there may not yet be Italian-Americans who have produced an oeuvre like that of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow or Bernard Malamud--and Talese offers some of the reasons for this disparity--there are both established novelists like the late Pietro di Donato and Gilbert Sorrentino and emerging writers like Joe Torra, Maria De Marco Torgovnick, Frank Lentricchia and Rita Ciresi, who have written trenchantly in memoirs, stories and novels about what it feels like to grow up Italian in America. With the publication of A Canticle for Bread and Stones Emilio DeGrazia, already the author of two prize-winning collections of stories, Enemy Country and Seventeen Grams of Soul, and the Minnesota Voices Award novel, Billy Brazil, joins their company.

The drama of this luminous novel involves not only the telling of stories about four generations of an Italian family’s experience in a mid-Western city, but the very quest for such stories. Its narrator-protagonist Salvatore “Sal” Amato, is an unemployed 28-year old “BA in History, City University” whose marriage is dissolving even as he and his non-Italian wife Sandy cling to each other sexually. As Sal half-heartedly looks for work, entranced by the women he encounters on the street and in shops (“God, what a lovely woman the stranger was!”) he becomes obsessed with a family legend.

The legend is about his great-grandfather Raphael, an accomplished stone mason, who left his native village of San Giovanni, south of Naples, to travel with the famous French architect Pierre Vente to America There, in a city bisected by a wide river, they were commissioned to build a great cathedral to be called St. Paul’s through which Raphael could make concrete his and Vente’s dream of a structure symbolizing faith, love and the redemptive nature of work (“He was in charge of the stones,” Sal’s mother says of Raphael. “He built the walls.”) The cathedral was completed to wide acclaim, but Raphael did not remain on the job to see his vision made manifest. Depending upon who tells the story, the family or the local diocese, Raphael was either dismissed from his job or left of his own volition because of irreconcilable differences about the details and design of the structure. The family’s version is one of betrayal, dismissal and regret, and it sets the theme for the family’s sense of its unsuccessful history in America. For in the next generation Raphael’s son Guido, Sal’s grandfather, was forced out of business, according to the family, by an unscrupulous landlord who sold him the building that housed his grocery store and then foreclosed on him when he was unable to make two mortgage payments.

The sense of betrayal and a concomitant loss of the promise of America emerges again in Guido’s son Paul, Sal’s father, recently retired after thirty-three years of hard labor in an automotive factory, where he made “the side part for carburators…three hundred a day.” Yet Paul reminds Sal, whom he calls a bum for not working, “Who ever said you were supposed to like work? We all hate work. That’s life.”

So it falls to Sal, who, with his pianist-composer brother Bruno and his “little sister” Bea, still an undergraduate, are the only members of the family to have had a college education, to get to the heart of the mystery of the family’s betrayal by America and the dream of success which has eluded them, and to find some way beyond their ambivalence about the very work that was to make the dream come true. Paul tells Sal, “Our people came here to this country to get out of the jungle, and we worked like animals all our lives. We came because we didn’t have washing machines and cars, because we were tired of living from hand to mouth, because we worked in the field all our lives.” Yet Paul, like his father Guido, yearns less for success or wealth than for a small plot of earth where he can grow beans and tomatoes; and Guido, long bereft of his store, returns daily to its empty rooms and backyard to brood over the lost business and his ruined garden. What are Sal and his siblings to make of this legacy of betrayal and ambivalence, of the conflicting and conflicted feelings about the new country the family has uneasily settled in, the nostalgia for the one that was abandoned (Sal’s mother’s mother Serafina had left America for Italy, never to return; while Guido, in his 90s, talks constantly of “going home” again—“It’s all in my mind, just the way everything was.”)?

Bruno’s choice is to make a precarious living playing piano in nightclubs and dives. By day he composes music (“some crazy blue tune”) in the vacant storefront of Guido’s old grocery, his grandfather constantly brooding outside in the garden. His lover Kate, born Protestant like Sal’s wife Sandy (“You Catholics are really weird.”) runs the Socialist Workers Party headquarters across the street. Kate idealizes work, but Bruno remains a drop-out from the Great Society, and Sal refuses to spend a life doing “stupid useless things.” Of himself and Bruno he says, “Bruno and I were alike: We both wanted to find a habitable hiding place away from a world growing too ugly for words.”

Under pressure from wife and parents, Sal searches desultorily for a job. He also searches for the elusive woman, the “soul,” which his father tells him is counterpart to man’s “flesh,” embodied in the unknown women he encounters in the ever more alien streets of his native city or the waitresses who serve him coffee along the Via Crucis of his quest. But his real search is for the truth of Raphel’s abandonment of St. Paul’s and for the man, Waldman, who cheated Guido out of his store, a German immigrant, now Catholic, now Protestant, who became a self-made millionaire. In getting to heart of Guido’s dissapointment and in finding and perhaps even punishing the mysterious and contradictory Waldman, Sal hopes to live up to his name and become the Savior of his family’s honor and history. Only this, he feels, will provide release from the uneasy tension he experiences in his marriage and from the taunts and exhortations of his family to become a man, that is, a worker, and a father himself.

The quest will not be an easy one. It will end with his mother’s death and the demise of his marriage. Sal will find a job briefly as an apprentice wood worker and uneasy comfort in seeing Bruno and Kate married and the parents of a child. He will watch his father entering a new life with Edna, a born-again Christian Pentecostal whom his mother befriends before her sudden death. Bea will settle down with Kate’s hippie-musician brother Dylan, and Sandy will move out to live with another man. Equally, Sal will come closer to an understanding of Raphael’s relationship with the church heirarchy under whom he was to build St. Paul’s. He will even confront Waldman, who emerges less an exploiter than a recluse whose wealth has brought him only confusion and isolation. But, more ominously, Sal will witness the destruction of his neighborhood as the city evicts his father, Bruno, Kate, and himself from their houses to make way for a gigantic sports complex. And with the razing of the places where the family has lived out its history the visible monuments of that history will dissolve.

All that will remain will be the stories and versions of stories, which Sal has patiently listened to, gathered, sifted and compared, his family’s stories and those of his mentor and ex-professor of history, Seymour Markels, who guides Sal’s work as family historian. All that will remain is what Sal has learned from the attempt of others to make sense of the myths of belief, labor and family they have accepted largely on faith and under the pressures of tradition. Sal’s own education, warily assented to by his parents, for they know it will eventually take him away from them, provides no key to his enlightenment, nor even a well-paying job in a city that renews itself by destruction as racial tensions mount and public space becomes privatized.

If A Canticle for Bread and Stones is a novel of stories it is also a novel of voices. Just as DeGrazia shows exceptional skill in weaving the stories told by and about the novel’s characters throughout the narrative, he is equally skillful in giving us the voices of the characters themselves. There is the sound of Sal’s father’s rough resignation: “Thank God I’m through. Thank God I’m almost dead myself.” Of Guido’s feisty hatred of the land that he never made his own: “Don’t talk to me about Amerdica!” Of his wife Rosina’s fluent piety: “All these years and no baby comes. What do you expect? Don’t forget to say the rosary every morning and night by your bed. You’ll see then a baby will come.”

If the bread of the novel’s title is what Sal’s family has lived on, the warm, sustaining, sacramental homemade loaves his mother has baked and served in spotless white napkins since his childhood, whose recipe will die with her, it is the stones of the world the men must ultimately shape and master in work in order to feel that their lives have purpose. The women have faith in prayer and song, the men seem to need something more concrete, those three hundred carburetor parts hatefully turned out or the plot of tomatoes lovingly tended after a day on the assembly line.

Canticle is song or psalm, celebration. In the book’s division into thirty-three chapters or cantos, each with its own theme or refrain, Emilio DeGrazia has given us more than a novel of Italian-American culture. A Canticle for Bread and Stones is also hymn to a vanishing way of life, to the once vital ethnic communities now disappearing everywhere in the face of mass culture and consumerism, and to love in all its exalted or perverted forms, especially, as Sal re-discovers as an Italian and Roman Catholic, the love of woman—Queen of Heaven, mother, sister, wife, stranger:

“What did I know about Her? Maybe even less than she knew about Me. But this I felt deeply and therefore knew all along: That she was vital to my work, that she who could bring new life out of passion (call it love) had the power to create and conserve I craved, that in her absence all work went wrong.”

(Emilio DeGrazia. A Canticle for Bread and Stones. Rochester, MN: Lone Oak Press, 1997. 312 pp. The author's photograph is reproduced from the dust jacket.)