Sunday, February 19, 2012

Peter W. Denzer, 1921-2012

I, too, forget

and over years

learned the grammar

of daily ruckus.

Growing deaf to the racket

of our time,

I now hear voices

of leaves and stones and stars.

-Peter Denzer

Peter Denzer and I first met in Brunswick, Maine during the fall of 1957. I was a junior at Bowdoin College and an aspiring writer; Peter had just published his third novel, The Last Hero. He and his then wife, Ann Sayre Wiseman, a painter, writer and illustrator of children’s books, lived in an airy flat in a 19th century redbrick apartment building, a block from the Cabot Mill and the Androscoggin River, which had once been the abandoned factory’s principal source of power. You could hear the roar of the river from the Denzer’s front living room.

Up each morning at first light, Peter was at that time working on his fourth novel, The Diggers, a narrative of hardscrabble life on the coast of Maine, to which Peter and Ann had moved the previous spring from New York’s Greenwich Village. In a study not much bigger than a closet, he wrote until noon on a big green manual typewriter set on a wooden packing crate. After lunch with his family, Peter would leave the apartment and stroll down Maine Street to Fairfield’s Book Shop, directly across from the Bowdoin campus, where from 1 p.m. until closing time he was the manager, eventually transforming an already popular and well-stocked book store into the town’s principal intellectual and artistic meeting place.

Besides working at Fairfield’s, Peter wrote a couple of “potboilers” and a series of magazine articles to make ends meet. He also broadcast a noontime weekly radio talk and interview show from the Harriet Beecher Stowe House, the town’s premiere restaurant and inn. When Grove Press published the first unexpurgated American edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, in 1959, Peter invited me to discuss it with him on the air. I needn’t report on the wave of outraged comments the Bath-Brunswick radio station owners were inundated with in tight-laced Maine!

Tall, handsome and Hemingway-bearded, Peter was the kind of writer I and my literary friends on campus hoped to become. Though his first three novels had been well received (all were favorably reviewed in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle), we admired his honesty about having to make a living in the real world; and we were especially attracted to his savvy regarding agents and publishers and his progressive politics, both an antidote to what we were getting from teachers whom the McCarthy Era had made gun-shy about sharing their own ambitions and beliefs.

Born in 1921 in New York, to a Jewish physician father and an Irish mother from the Mid-West, Peter grew up in the city. He attended public and private schools and entered Oberlin, where he met novelist and conservationist Louis Bromfield, who wrote books and farmed, occupations that Peter would later combine, first on a 100-acre farm he bought with the help of a G. I. Loan, in 1959, in Richmond, Maine, and later with his wife Mary, in Houston, Minnesota. Bromfield proved to be an early influence on Peter’s life-long ecological ethos.

Leaving Oberlin in 1939, Peter worked as a farm and factory laborer, experiences that he would later make use of in The Last Hero. He attended Syracuse University before serving in the U. S. Army Medical Corps until 1941. After military service, Peter embarked on a career in journalism, beginning as a Washington correspondent for Transradio Press, United Press International and Broadcasting Magazine, where he covered all beats, including The White House, Congress and the Supreme Court. Peter also contributed articles and reportage to the progressive New York daily newspaper PM.

In 1945, as a result of his journalistic experience and his command of German, Peter served as a political advisor to the staff of Ambassador Robert P. Murphy at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), in Germany. Following that appointment, he became director of the American News Service, in Vienna, and editor and publisher of The Daily American, the first privately published, independent English language daily newspaper in post-war Germany. Before leaving Europe in 1950 to return to the United States, Peter also served as director of Stuttgart Studio AFN, in Germany. Peter was one of the first journalists to enter Dachau after it was liberated by the Allies and he never forgot what he saw there.

Upon his return home, Peter continued his career in broadcast journalism, first at WWJ in Detroit, where he produced the radio documentary “Listen Detroit,” and then as news director at WPAC-Ann Arbor and WRIT-Milwaukee. During these years Peter was married to the late journalist and TV producer Beryl Schoenfield, and they had two sons, Peter and James.

In 1954, Peter’s first novel, Episode, the story of a young soldier’s struggle with mental illness, was published by E. P. Dutton. It was followed the next year by Find the Dreamer Guilty, also published by Dutton, about two teenage boys involved in a sensational murder. By this time Peter’s desire was to devote himself entirely to writing. Returning to New York in1956, he lived in the Village and Long Island while working on The Last Hero, a searing coming-of-age novel set in Upstate New York, published in 1957 by Henry Holt and Company. A visit to friends in Robinhood, Maine led to a meeting with renowned sculptor, William Zorach, which rekindled a childhood wish to work in wood, stone and clay that would not be fully realized until Peter moved to Italy in 1960. That visit also inspired Peter to leave the city for what he hoped would be a simpler and less expensive life in Maine.

After graduating from Bowdoin in 1959, I moved to Florence, Italy to study Medieval Literature at the university. A year later, Peter, his wife, and sons Piet and Kiko, joined me so that Peter could research and write a novel based on the life of poet Ezra Pound, who had lived for many years in exile in Italy. We shared a small villa in the Tuscan hillside village of Settignano, where Peter completed “The Alien” and I finished my own first novel. In 1962, I returned to America, but Peter remained in Florence, where he met the American artist Mary Alexandra Milton—“Maria”—who would become his wife.

Living in an ancient palace, on Via dei Rustici in the heart of Florence, Peter and Maria shared a remarkable life. Continuing to write and publish, Peter also carved from the native stone and modeled in clay, while Maria produced paintings, drawings and sculpture. In 1969, the couple returned first to New York, where they worked in publishing, and then to Maria's native St. Paul, where Maria was apprenticed to the potter R. Broderson, later teaching Peter the art of throwing and glazing. On Grand Avenue, in St. Paul, Peter and Maria founded Front Porch Pottery and Gallery, where they exhibited and sold their own pottery, subsequently relocating their workshop to the farming community of Houston, where they continued to live self-sufficiently while participating in the life of the community.

Known after his career in journalism primarily as a writer of fiction and essays, Peter had also made a reputation as a poet, publishing poetry in anthologies and literary journals. Poetry, however, was not a second art for Peter, something he’d done with the left hand while writing fiction with the other. From an early age Peter had written poetry in parallel with fiction and essays, each genre inspiring and influencing the other. When I first knew Peter, he would read his poetry to a group of us after dinner in that art-filled apartment on Maine Street, in Brunswick. And later, when we corresponded for many years (I shouldn’t forget Peter’s brilliant, informative and witty letters as yet another of his literary accomplishments), Peter would always share his latest poems.

Peter’s poems are often the compact statements of what he would dramatize in fiction or write critically about in essays and letters. They are at once personal and political, lyrical and didactic. What he felt he couldn’t express in prose he found words, images and metaphors for in poetry, in a voice that is equally as strong and distinctive as his prose voice. Peter’s journalism, which brought him into immediate contact with the world and its workings, informed the powerful realism of his fiction, just as his work in each of those genres informed his poetry. But the poetry is where this man, who was both passionate and rational, went to feel—to express what he couldn’t say in prose. In the end, all of Peter Denzer—his passion, his rationality, his political commitment, and his love for an endangered earth and all its creatures—can be found in the poetry. The poetry is the synthesis of his life and work, a cry, as Peter has written, "against ugliness imposed on the planet’s fragile life system by war, greed, and ego unhinged by fear and the mystery of beginnings and endings.”

Peter, who had been suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, died at the age of ninety of congestive heart failure, on Monday, February 13, 2012, at the Valley View Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, in Houston, Minnesota. Maria, his beloved wife of nearly 48 years, was at his side. Before his death, Peter completed his final book, a memoir on which he had been working for several years. This essay will be part of an introduction to Peter's memoir to which I and other friends have been asked to contribute.