Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hemingway's Death Fifty Years Later

I can remember exactly what I was doing fifty years ago today, on July 2, 1961. I was walking through Piazza del Duomo, one of the main squares in Florence, Italy, on a hot early summer morning when I saw the headline on a newsstand: `E MORTO HEMINGWAY. He was one of my heroes, as the recently deceased Albert Camus had also been, and I stood there frozen in front of the headline. As soon as they noticed it, the people in the piazza around me paused in silence. Those who wore hats took them off; others bowed their heads and crossed themselves. Italians considered Hemingway one of their own. He had been awarded medals for his service on the Italian front in WWI and they loved his novels and stories, especially those with Italian settings.
I was twenty-three years old. I had been living in Florence since the fall of 1959, studying Medieval literature at the University and teaching English at the International Academy, a private school for high school graduates and college students, who wished to pursue careers in diplomacy. Writers like Hemingway and Camus, whose classically paired down French prose was influenced by Hemingway’s, were very important to me as a budding writer. I had already completed my first novel, set in Greece, and I was working on a second, set in Florence, involving a love affair gone awry between a young expatriate couple.
I had been reading Hemingway since ninth grade. There were passages in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, as well as from some of his stories like “In Another Country” and “A Clean, Well-lighted Place,” that I knew by heart. The Hemingway who had inspired me to write was not Hemingway the big-game hunter or Hemingway the adventurer of later years. It was the early Hemingway, the young writer, who had learned his craft in 1920s Paris, surrounded and influenced by important avant-garde writers like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Ezra Pound. I had gone to Europe not so much to study literature as to imbibe the cultural, artistic and intellectual atmosphere that had nurtured the Lost Generation of writers and artists I admired as an undergraduate, reading everything I could find about their lives and their work habits. I chose Florence not Paris because I also wanted to study the poetry of Dante and his contemporaries on the very ground of its creation, in the original language.
Still, I had followed Hemingway’s later life in newspapers and magazines. I continued to read his more recent novels and stories, and I had been thinking of him a great deal as I devoured the novels and stories of the late Cesare Pavese, an Italian writer, who was much influenced by Hemingway’s style and sensibility, and who had committed suicide himself in 1950.
I can’t imagine what sort of impact the death of a master like Hemingway might have on an impressionable young writer today, although I’m aware of how the recent death of the incredibly gifted young novelist and philosopher David Foster Wallace had on many writers of his generation. Though I had not read a lot of Wallace before he died, I, too, was devastated by the news of his suicide, saddened as I also was about the promising life that was cut short.
When Hemingway’s death was first announced, it was suggested that it might have been accidental, that the shotgun that had killed him had gone off when he was cleaning it. But those of us who knew Hemingway through all his novels and stories , though we might not have known much about the depression he suffered in the years leading up to his death, or the terrible bouts of paranoia that his later biographers described, knew, or intuited, that he had ended his own life. His suicide was the stoical act of a Hemingway hero, a man who had pushed himself to the limits of human endurance and, in the process, had understood that when something was over—a love affair, a battle, a life—it was over. Given his depression, exacerbated, as we later learned, by an array of physical and psychological symptoms, not to speak of alcoholism, it could not have been easy for Hemingway that he seemed no longer able to write. Nor that he had been forced to leave Finca Vigia, his great home and refuge in Cuba since the 1940s, and was, at the time of his death, an exile in his native country, while also under surveillance by the FBI. (See today's New York Times op-ed page for a column by Hemingway's friend and collaborator, A. E. Hotchner, which corroborates the FBI surveillance).
After his death, Hemingway’s art was subjected to the critical eye of feminism, an important and perhaps even necessary reappraisal, though today some of the most astute and sympathetic critics and scholars of Hemingway are women like Rose Marie Burwell, Hilary K. Justice, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin and Debra Moddelmog. Nevertheless, his finest biographer, in my view, is Gloucester native James R. Mellow, whose Hemingway: A Life without Consequences is the benchmark against which all future biographical and scholarly work on Hemingway must be measured.
There was much that Hemingway taught us, we young writers, who dreamed of living and writing as he had. He showed us what a perfect sentence looked like and how feelings could be reflected by the things we described or that our character’s encountered. He helped us to understand the importance of place and the equally important precept that you did not need to say more than was necessary to set a scene or describe a character. Indeed, his greatest contribution lay in his teaching that what lay under the surface of things had as much or more dramatic impact as what one could immediately observe or report, and the writer's responsibility was to suggest it not tell it.
On this blog, on July 22, 2009, I posted my own appraisal of Hemingway on the occasion of the publication of a revised edition of A Movable Feast, Hemingway’s masterful sketches of his early years in Paris. "Hemingway Revisited" can be read at While neither complete nor definitive, it is my tribute to a very great writer whose work will live as long as we have literature and whose death, fifty years ago today, I remember with equal sadness.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

"Townie," by Andre Dubus III: A Review

Townie, Andre Dubus III, W.W. Norton & Co., pp.387, $25.95

Andre Dubus III, age 16, was walking through the student union building at Bradford College, in Bradford, MA, where his father, famed short-story writer, Andre Dubus, Jr., taught English and creative writing. Though it had recently admitted men, Bradford, was primarily known as a women’s college.

“So many of them were tall and slim,” the younger Dubus recalls many years later in Townie, his riveting memoir of coming of age in the dying industrial cities along the Merrimack River. “They had long straight hair and straight teeth and straight postures from what I imagined were childhoods spent riding horses and swimming and playing tennis.”

As he made his way to class that day in the early 1970s, a group of these students stood near a picture window that looked out over the well-tended green lawns of the college.

“That’s Dubus’s son,” he overheard one of the young women commenting to her friends: “Look at him. He’s such a townie.”

Though his famous father is dead and Bradford College has closed its doors, Dubus, now the highly acclaimed author of novels like House of Sand and Fog, cannot forget that slur.

“I’d heard it before,” he writes. “They’d used it for the men they’d see at Ronnie D’s bar…plumbers and electricians and millworkers.” Though not yet 18, Dubus was already a full-time college student.

“I enjoyed reading the books,” he writes, “but I was surrounded by people who seemed reared from comfort, most of whom knew where they were headed.” These privileged students all appeared to have aims for the future. “But I didn’t have any,” Dubus admits. “All I wanted to do was bench press 300 pounds and get so big I scared people, bad people, people who could hurt you.”

Townie is the gripping story of what led the son of a professor, who lived in the secluded comfort of a suburban college community, while his former wife and four children endured poverty across the river in working-class Haverhill, to seek strength and self-worth in body building. It’s the account of how a small boy who was bullied became a defender of himself and his siblings in a city where “kids roamed the neighborhood like dogs,” and teen-age girls “just gave it away.”

But this painfully honest memoir isn’t only the story of how a boy who grew up on the mean streets of Haverhill became an accomplished writer; or about how the way he learned to defend himself as a street fighter and trained boxer became both a salvation and potential damnation. It is, most urgently, about how Andre Dubus learned to transform the pain and violence that led him to become that fighter into words, which ultimately saved him. Townie, in all the immediacy of Dubus’s compelling narrative, is at its core a book about the paradoxically redemptive power of violence.

Dubus’s prose, and the distinctive voice it embodies, is the hard-won achievement of the author of three novels and a collection of stories. Its stunning tensions also reflect his father’s precision in matters of the heart, along with Jack Kerouac’s haunting descriptions of the streets of Lowell, so much like those Dubus himself lived and fought on in Newburyport and Haverhill.

Townie is more than a fine memoir. It is the record of a quintessential American life. Its bravura ending, tying together all the disparate strands of an often harrowing childhood and adolescence, is one that only a skilful novelist like Andre Dubus III could have achieved.

“Just go ahead and write,” his father once counseled him. And Dubus has done precisely that—brilliantly.

(This review appeared in the May 2011 "Literary Madness" issue of North Shore Art Throb.)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why I Self-Published Decline of Fishes

There has always been a certain stigma attached to self-publication. When a writer decides to bring out his own book, the unstated but ever present question is: “Why couldn’t you find a publisher?” By a publisher, the asker of such a question usually means a conventional trade publisher. A subsequent, if hidden, assumption is, “If you couldn’t find a publisher—or an agent to represent the book—it can’t be a very good one.” This is the nub of the problem for writers who do not have an agent or who have not published with a major trade publisher.

After I completed a first draft of my novel, Decline of Fishes, I thought about querying agents. I also thought about the current state of the literary market and whether my book would fit into any of the categories—or niches— for commercially marketable books. Each week I read the major book review publications, I visit bookstores, and I scan the “new books” shelves in public libraries, so I have a pretty good idea of what’s being published and who’s publishing it.

Consequently, I asked myself if my novel conformed to any of those categories or if my personal and literary profile matches that of any of the writers currently being published. Aside from the masters like Philip Roth and Thomas Pyncheon, who have their own loyal readerships, or the dwindling number of mid-list writers who remain in print, my work seems to have little in common with that of younger urban-based writers who are publishing today. Surely it has none of the exoticism of post-colonial writing or the linguistic experimentation of recent European immigrants. I don’t write about ethnic subcultures, or about the challenges of contemporary marriage and child rearing. Neither do I write about divorce and the single parent life or the demands on young professionals of corporate culture, so why would an agent be interested in representing me?

Even if I were to find an agent, how long would it take to place my book? And once placed, would it be subject to the kinds of violations a number of writer friends have recently had their fiction and non-fiction subjected to in the editorial process? In other words, would the wait—a long and probably fruitless one—be worth the effort, especially at my age and considering that the subject of my novel—the pressure on traditional cities and towns like Gloucester, Massachusetts to sell out to developers, thereby undermining their indigenous character and culture—is of moment.

On its face, my novel about a group of local activists who oppose the construction of an upscale shopping mall on the city’s working waterfront, just as the fishing industry faces its greatest crisis, sounds like a story that might attract interest. It’s relevant—how many American communities are fighting to preserve the traditional culture and economies of downtowns forced to compete with Wal-Mart or Big Box shopping malls? It’s accessibly written in direct and realistic prose. It has what I have been told are believable characters, who struggle with personal conflicts and a threatened way of life as they fight the mall’s developers. The plot is suspenseful—what kinds of power and money lie behind the attempt to develop the mall? And there is a dramatic payoff. Will the developers get their way? Will the main characters resolve their conflicts; and who will benefit or lose from the final outcome?

I shared my concerns about finding an agent or an appropriate publisher with several writer friends, each of whom had experienced some form of the interventions I have described in the agenting or publication process. One friend had 150 pages cut from her original manuscript and was required to rewrite the book from a more marketable perspective, thereby violating her original intent. Given these concerns and our shared sense of the exigency of my subject, my friends urged me to bring the book out myself.

Five writer friends—one a former senior editor at a prestigious Boston publishing house, another the editor of a national magazine, all of whom have published fiction and non-fiction in major venues—have read and commented upon my book through several revisions. Their comments, criticism and suggestions have helped to shape, sharpen and improve the novel. Considering their experience, I feel that Decline of Fishes has received as much if not more editorial scrutiny than it would have received from a trade publisher. And the book has not been compromised to fit a commercial interest or market.

Fortunately, a local alternative to mainstream publishing already existed. Believing that writers themselves should have ultimate control over the content, editing, design, promotion and distribution of their books, poet and playwright Schuyler Hoffman and I founded the Back Shore Writers Collaborative in 2005. To date we have published two books under the imprint of Back Shore Press, Peter’s Tuttle’s road poem, Looking for a Sign in the West, and my novel, No Fortunes, both of which have been well received and reviewed. We have worked with local artists and designers and regional printing facilities to produce our books and we distribute and sell them through independent booksellers and the Internet.

Along with the incredible support of Janice Severance, owner of the Book Store of Gloucester, two thoughtful and positive reviews (see below) and several local news articles and interviews have helped to launch Decline of Fishes. In the coming months I hope to be doing more public readings. But what has encouraged me the most are the personal communications from friends and readers, who have taken the time to write or email me their responses to my novel. Their helpful and insightful comments have made the years I spent researching and writing this book, often with scant hope of publication, seem worthwhile. I extend to them my deepest gratitude.