Peter Anastas was born in
Anastas attended Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, on scholarship, majoring in English and minoring in Italian, philosophy and classics. While at Bowdoin, he wrote for the student newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient, and was editor of the college literary magazine, the Quill. In 1958, he was named Bertram Louis, Jr. Prize Scholar in English Literature, and in 1959 he was awarded first and second prizes in the Brown Extemporaneous Essay Contest and selected as a commencement speaker (his address was on “The Artist in the Modern World.”) During his summers in college, Anastas edited the Cape Ann Summer Sun, published by the Gloucester Daily Times, and worked on the waterfront in Gloucester.
After graduating from Bowdoin in 1959, Anastas lived in
Returning to Gloucester in 1962, Anastas taught English at Rockport High School and Winchester (MA) Senior High School before winning a graduate teaching fellowship to Tufts University, where he studied English and American literature, receiving a master’s degree in 1967 with a thesis on the concept of place in the works of Henry David Thoreau.
Between 1967 and 1972, Anastas worked as a free-lance writer, publishing his first book, Glooskap’s Children: Encounters with the Penobscot Indians of
During these years Anastas continued to write and publish, contributing a weekly column, “This Side of the Cut,” to the Gloucester Daily Times and publishing When Gloucester Was Gloucester: Toward an Oral History of the City (with Peter Parsons and photographs by Mark Power), Siva Dancing, a memoir, Landscape with Boy, a novella in the Boston University Fiction Series, and Maximus to Gloucester, an annotated edition of the letters and poems of Charles Olson to the editor of the Gloucester Times. In 2002, At the Cut, his memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s, was published by Dogtown Books; and in 2004 Glad Day Books, founded by authors Grace Paley and Robert Nichols, published Broken Trip, a novel of Gloucester in the 1990s. His most recent novel, No Fortunes, set at
Anastas is the father of three, Jonathan, an advertising executive in Los Angeles, Rhea, an art historian currently teaching at Bard College, and Benjamin, a writer who has published three novels. Having retired from social work in 2002 to devote full time to writing, Anastas continues to live in
Q: When did you begin to write?
A: I’ve been writing consciously ever since I was twelve years old. That’s when I discovered I didn’t have to be given an assignment by a teacher—“My Favorite Pet,” “What I Did on my Summer Vacation”—in order to put words on paper, although I waited anxiously for those occasions each year when we’d be asked to write a personal essay.
Q: What did you write about?
A: I can’t remember exactly what my first piece of independent writing was about, but in junior high school I wrote a skit about Captain John Smith and a one-act play about Julius Caesar, using my Aunt Harriette’s Royal manual typewriter. These plays were performed in English and history classes. Then I wrote a two-act British murder mystery, which was produced for the entire assembly of
Playwriting was never to be my forte, although I had another chance at it in college, where I won second prize in an annual student one-act play contest, later abandoning drama for fiction, essays and journalism. Yet I continue to be struck by the revelation, that moment of liberation, when I realized I could actually write on my own, whenever I felt like it, about whatever I wished. It was a key moment in my life, perhaps the singular one, the moment in which I began to be myself.
Q: Where did you write?
A: I still remember the atmosphere of that early writing. Sometimes I wrote in my Aunt’s bedroom in the apartment building next door to our house, where she kept the Royal typewriter. Other times I wrote in the basement of our duplex on
Two things continue to strike me about my first writing space. One is the sense of isolation and privacy it afforded me. The other is the pleasure I experienced remaining utterly alone for long periods of time. It was like the pleasure I’d enjoyed for years when I sat by myself to read on the back porch on long summer afternoons, or in a living room corner after I’d finished my schoolwork. Essentially I’m a solitary person and I suspect that my writing has always been a function of that condition.
Q: What role has your birth and residence in Gloucester,
A: Thoreau said that he had “traveled a good deal in
Q: Didn’t Henry James call Thoreau “worse than provincial—he was parochial?”
A: As an internationalist James had to escape the localism that so much of American literature was saturated in during the 19th century-a localism and a regionalism that emerged as Americans broke away from
Q: Is that why Thoreau has meant so much to you?
A: We read selections from Walden in high school during sophomore English with our teacher, Miss Claudia Perry, who was a Radcliffe graduate and an inspiring Americanist. But I wasn’t ready then for Thoreau’s understanding of the natural world, his practical Transcendentalism, though I had been fascinated by his descriptions of living through the seasons at
Q: There must have been some other attraction for you in this strange man who lived mostly in the same house with his parents when he wasn’t traveling in the
A: I loved Thoreau’s eccentricity, but I also admired his politics. I was writing my thesis in the mid-1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the opposition to the war in
Aside from Thoreau’s bracing anarchism and his Abolitionist politics (I’ve come to understand Transcendentalism as the single, great, native intellectual and political movement in
Q: Was it a difficult transition from Thoreau’s localism to that of Charles Olson’s in The Maximus Poems?
A: Actually, it was Olson who led me back to Thoreau. Not personally, because Thoreau wasn’t a great favorite of Olson’s-he once wrote on a postcard to Gerrit Lansing, “Thoreau is not thorough”-but in terms of Olson’s focus on the multi-dimensionality of place. I began reading The Maximus Poems seriously in 1962, when I returned from
When Olson wrote in his powerful, “Scream to the Editor,” “Oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition, destroying its own shoulders, its own back greedy present persons stood upon,” he wasn’t romanticizing the nation’s oldest seaport, as many writers and painters had done before him; he was warning the community about what it would be losing in its rush to make a Faustian pact with Urban Renewal. The local came alive with Olson, both in his poetry and his activism, so I had a living example in him of what Thoreau had been writing and enacting in
When I went to graduate school, one of the first courses I took was Wisner Payne Kinne’s seminar on Thoreau. As soon as I started reading A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, I began to view Thoreau through an Olsonian lens, and I was on my way to a study of the significance of place that led to my thesis on Thoreau’s approach to it. Conversely, reading Thoreau helped me to understand Olson more deeply, though they were very different writers. This concentration on place-what it means, how to know it, how to live in it knowledgeably and write about it lovingly-became the focus of my work. It also helped me to understand why I had returned to
Q: There had to be some more practical reason for why you chose to return to your birthplace and remain there.
A: In order to stay out of the draft I had to find a teaching job. Fortunately, there was one ready to hand in
But there were other reasons why I chose to remain in
Olson was continually being visited by writers like Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Diane DiPrima, Michael McClure, Robert Kelly, Joel Oppenheimer, and Allen Ginsberg. Even Jack Kerouac showed up once at his back door. I met the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage in Olson’s kitchen and had a chance to see several of his groundbreaking works at
“Why go to
Meanwhile, living in
After living in Europe,
If, when I was in high school or college, anyone had predicted that I would return to my home town and remain there for the rest of my life, I would have been incredulous. It was fully my intention to live elsewhere in the US, in Berkeley, for example, where I’d once had fantasies of teaching, or in Europe, as I’d been inspired to do by my readings in Joyce, Lawrence, Pound or Hemingway. But when I came home to find the rich intellectual and artistic life inspired in part by Olson’s presence (though there had always been writers and artists on
Q: Are you sure that wasn’t something else that kept you in
A: I’ve since wondered if it wasn’t also fear that rooted me here, fear of having to establish myself somewhere I wasn’t known or didn’t have friends or family, fear of failing or of loneliness. But I seem to have settled easily in
Q: If there was so much stimulation and intellectual company in
A: Again, it was Olson who encouraged me. Not directly. He never said, “It’s time now for you to return to your studies.” It was more the consequence of two years of dialogue with Olson about American literature, American history. Aside from a course in contemporary literature at Bowdoin, in which we’d read the major novels of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and a seminar for English majors where I encountered Farrell’s Studs Lonigan, and Dos Passos’ USA for the first time, I had read very little native writing. I’d read Moby-Dick in high school and then again on my own in Italy after reading Olson’s seminal Call Me Ishmael, on the mythic and Shakespearean sources of the novel; and, of course, some Hawthorne, which we were all required to read in high school. But I had no real sense of the continuum of our literature, no feel for its history until I began discussing it with Charles.
One day he suggested that I take a look at the “Custom House” preface to The Scarlet Letter. “American literature really begins with that essay,” Olson said. I rushed over to the Sawyer Free Library and signed the book out. I remember that it was the 8th of May in 1963 and the whole town was fogged in. I sat reading near the French doors of my studio, barely able to see the harbor below. I couldn’t take my eyes off
As soon as I’d finished reading The Scarlet Letter I knew what I wanted to do. I would study American literature. Immediately, I began making applications to graduate school. I expected it would keep me out of the draft. I also hoped to gain some experience teaching at the college level. Tufts awarded me a three-year renewable teaching fellowship in English, allowing me enough money to live on after tuition remission, so that I could pursue both the MA and PhD degrees.
Q: Why didn’t you complete the doctorate and begin a teaching career?
A: After three years in graduate school it was clear to me that I was not interested in scholarship purely for its own sake. I loved the detective work it entailed, but I didn’t have the desire to devote my life to academic pursuits. I discovered that I really wanted to write fiction, and I worried that teaching and scholarship might undermine the imaginative work I yearned to do. I had seen too many classmates and friends, who also wanted to write, fall into what I felt at the time might be a trap, teaching with little time for one’s own work. Olson had left Harvard before receiving the doctorate, and his remark in a letter to Bob Creeley that it was “difficult to be both a poet and an historian,” came home to me.
Q: What about the draft?
A: By the time I left graduate school in 1967 I was thirty years old and our son Jonathan was two, so I’d effectively avoided the draft. I’d also enhanced my knowledge of English literature by studying Renaissance drama and
Q: Have you ever regretted not completing work for the PhD?
A: I have. But my solace is that I did complete a very rigorous master’s thesis, which one of my advisors called the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. This showed me that I could do scholarly work and that I’d at least mastered its techniques, which I could employ on my own. But in my heart I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in the academic world. The backbiting I’d witnessed at Tufts, the competition for grants and honors, the professional jealousies, were not for me. Tough as survival in
Q: But you have taught.
A: I taught humanities for two years at Montserrat College of Art in
Q: Have you ever taught writing?
A: I enjoyed teaching expository writing at Tufts and
Q: How did the writing go?
A: For five years after I’d dropped out of graduate school I stayed home and wrote, largely due to the support and understanding of my then wife, who went out to work as a computer programmer and laboratory technician so I could devote myself entirely to writing. I also shared child care with her, as the children came along, first our older son and then his twin brother and sister; and I did my share of the cooking.
It was rough going, the transition from graduate school with its assignments and deadlines to writing on my own, at first without a contract or delivery date. I also discovered that the desire to write doesn’t necessarily presume having something to write about. So I spent a lot of time trying to find a subject for a novel I wanted to write beyond my first two attempts, each set in
Q: Couldn’t you have written about
A: I made my first try in college when I began a cycle of stories set in
The stories I was writing between 1960 and 1967 were set mostly in
“The literal, not the literary,” Olson had warned, and I was just beginning to understand what he meant.
After that, it occurred to me that if I attempted a short memoir set in Gloucester I might begin to enter that part of my experience I was having trouble fictionalizing. So I sat down and in two or three days I’d composed Siva Dancing, the story of my first summer on Rocky Neck, when I was thirteen years old and had met a young painter who gave me a list of novels to read that changed my life. I was also in love with this young woman, and I told the story of my frustrated attachment to her, along with that of my discovery of the power of jazz.
In that memoir, in which I described the streets and houses of Rocky Neck and wrote about an unfortunate lawsuit my father had become involved in, along with my crush on the young painter, I began to find my own voice. I wrote a third novel, “
A: It turns out that groups of Penobscot Indians, who rotated their habitations seasonally, camped in West Gloucester every summer until just after the First War, living off clams from the marshes and the sale of exquisite baskets they wove from sweet grasses gathered locally. The background work I did on them and their world included a lot of research on colonial
In any event, I came to see the Indian book as my book about going away from
Q: And your Walden?
A: My Walden, if I won’t seem too presumptuous, is At the Cut, a memoir of growing up in
Q: Up till now you’ve spoken about non-fiction, a documentary book set in
A: After the novella and stories of the 1960s and the novel of the early 1970s, the fiction came slowly. In fact, I didn’t or couldn’t write fiction for nearly 20 years, from my divorce in 1972 until 1991, when I stopped teaching and gave up the weekly column I had been writing for twelve years in the Gloucester Daily Times.
Q: Say something about that column.
A: I began writing the column, which I called “This Side of the Cut,” in 1978 at the urging of my friend Peter Watson, editor of the Gloucester Daily Times. The previous summer I’d responded to a request Peter made of me and three other Cape Ann writers to describe what we felt was “the real
Q: That must have been a significant experience.
A: Writing the column and interacting with people on the street about what I’d written each week changed my entire relationship with
Q: There’s the book on Olson, your annotated edition of his letters and poems to the editor of the
A: Maximus to
The book comes out of my academic training. Establishing the texts for Olson’s letters and editing and annotating them called upon the bibliographical and research skills I’d acquired in graduate school. The book comes equally out of my growing understanding of
Q: Your activism would seem to have been in integral part of your life in
A: I spent nearly forty years active in social and political issues, mostly in
Though I never ran for public office, I served in a variety of appointed capacities, as chairman of the city’s fair housing committee and as a member of several affordable housing task forces and civic commissions, including the Downtown Development Commission and the Gloucester Historical Commission. I also served as chairman of the mayor’s Dogtown Advisory Committee. This was a body created to monitor the management plan for the city’s treasure, Dogtown Common, 4000 acres of unspoiled terminal moraine wilderness in the center of
My first campaign was the one I organized in 1967 opposing the placement of a Sentinel anti-ballistic missile site on Dogtown. It was at the height of the Vietnam War and many natives were shocked that anyone would dare speak out against a government initiative to protect us from enemies, actual or perceived. As a town full of veterans of several wars,
Mostly, though, it was ad hoc activism. Neighborhood associations would form alliances with environmental activists to save wetlands or woodland tracts from being subdivided; or citizens would rise up to protect the waterfront from zoning that would allow new housing, thereby undermining marine activity.
A particularly poignant battle we fought in the late 1970s and early 80s was a protracted one to stop the closing of several neighborhood schools in
All through the 50s and 60s it was quiet in the city, if you discount Urban Renewal, which most people, except for Olson, had been hoodwinked into thinking was good for the community.
Q: How successful were you?
A: On balance, I’d said we were moderately successful. We managed to halt or stave off the most radical proposals, the waterfront mall, luxury condos at the Paint Factory, an iconic 19th century complex that greets everyone who enters
Q: Isn’t that happening everywhere?
A: It is. But when you consider that Gloucester had held out for so long-call it benign neglect or just that Yankee resistance to change, which I have come to love-it was all the more tragic to see the change when it came, especially when it could have been better controlled or managed.
Q: What’s it like living in Gloucester now, 2007?
A: In a word, depressing. So much of the
Not only the physical attributes of the community have changed; the institutions are changing too. The Sawyer Free Library where I read my first books, the library that was my Harvard and my Yale, no longer has the atmosphere, the feel, of the library I grew up with, the intimacy of its small rooms and hallways decorated with exquisite murals of local land and seascapes, the extensiveness of its collection. Many of the books that meant so much to me were thrown away, literally tossed into a dumpster or put on sale for a dollar a bag, as a result of some overzealous weeding—first editions of novels by Richard Yates and Wright Morris, irreplaceable copies of Harold Acton’s Memoirs of an Aesthete, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s searing indictments of Stalinism, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats— to make way for shelves of best sellers, video tapes and CDs, and banks of computers. The collection that took generations to build, and that educated and delighted so many of us, is sadly depleted. When I confronted the former library director, who was responsible for this dereliction of stewardship of the community’s heritage, his response was, “I’m not running an archive.” Fortunately, a new director has been appointed, who is working with the board of directors and community volunteers to enlarge and upgrade the institution and its collections, with a view not only of expanding the library but of making it the community’s primary cultural center.
The Cape Ann Food Cooperative, which I helped start in the early 1970s, has closed, victim to agribusiness monopolies and their chains of supermarkets that blanket
What I’m feeling besides anger and dismay is an enormous sense of loss; a sense that not only the city I knew and loved but the larger world I cared about is gone forever, replaced by a degraded environment and a dumbed-down culture with little respect for the past, for institutions that nurtured the community. Olson would turn over in his grave if he could see what’s happened to the place he memorialized in one of the greatest poems of the 20th century. As for me, I think it could be said that the writing I do now, perhaps all the writing I've ever done, is against this loss. Christa Wolf said that "Writing is a way of resisting the inexorable loss of being." I would only add that part of that being she alludes to consists not only of our own existence, but the persistence in our memories (and hopefully in our works) of the people and places we've loved and lost.
Q: In the end, how did you square your activism with your writing?
A: Olson once said to me that a writer has two choices. You either oppose the destruction of the things you love, or you describe the tragedy of their loss. He tried to do both, as I did, and we each eventually gave up. Olson retreated even more deeply into The Maximus Poems. And when I retired from social work three years ago, I committed myself entirely to writing. The liberation was enormous, though I assuage any quilt I may feel about reentering private life with the knowledge that a whole new generation of activists has taken the place of those of us who were at the barricades for so long.
Q: What happened after Maximus to
A: The publication of Maximus to Gloucester seemed to open a floodgate. In quick succession I wrote No Fortunes, a novel based on my experiences at Bowdoin that I’d been wanting to write ever since graduation. Then I completed At the Cut, which I had actually started working on around the time of my father’s illness and death in 1975. That was followed by Broken Trip, a novel-in-stories, set in