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Thursday, April 23, 2015

A STRANGE AMBITION

In my last post I attempted to speak of my lifelong fascination with history and the strong connection I have always sensed between past and present.  Night before last, while reading for the second or third time MacKinlay Kantor's magnificent Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War novel Andersonville I happened across a description of a character who might have been, at least in one particular, myself. That character--Nathan Dreyfoos, a Jewish Union soldier, intellectual and world traveler--has, by ill fortune, ended up a captive in the horrendous Confederate prison.  While it should be obvious that I share few traits with such a redoubtable and civilized person, Kantor's account of him, which I had not remembered from my previous readings, this time struck a chord of kinship.  Kantor wrote:  "He owned no ambition in life except to worship the better elements of the past and (in some vague manner as yet undecided) to acquaint people with the lessons and glories of the past, to the eventual comfort and enrichment of humanity."

In but one respect does this account differ from my own long-held intention; unlike Nathan's, my personally decided manner of celebrating the past has been by way of the written word.  All my novels and my one nonfiction work are set in the past, and were composed with a conscious intent to bring that past as alive for the reader as it was to me.  The degree to which I may have been successful in that intent is of course debatable; but the sincerity of the intent is not.  It was, and is, literally, the ambition of my life.  That it is a strange ambition cannot be doubted.  But it has been in me for as long as I can remember.  As a child, and still even now, as I travel the highways of my mountain South, I see not only the forests and mists and uplands and landscapes but, almost superimposed on these views, I see also an imagined vision of what they must have looked like long ago.  Sometimes, on the rare occasions when a vestige of the past actually remains--an old farmhouse, a half-collapsed barn, the lonely sentinel of an ancient chimney whose house it once warmed but has long since vanished--there is a delicious shock of actuality to give power to my imaginings.  And I wished to communicate that sublimity to others.

As anyone who has recently visited this blog will know, I have entered into a retrospective, not to say valedictory, stage of life; and that, at the age of seventy-six I now gaze back over my existence with the realization that my life has very largely been lived and the work of my life has for the most part been done.  Inevitably, one who has attained such a perspective will impose a judgment on that life and that work, and I suspect that for many who do so, the judgment will be a disappointing one.  It is for me.  Like Nathan Dreyfoos, I wanted to do more.  But again like Nathan, who fell into the hands of an enemy and ended his days, not bathed in contended satisfaction at having accomplished his mission of acquainting people with the magic of the past but as the random victim of a prison guard--an idiot child drafted into Confederate service who simply wanted to shoot someone to see how it would feel.  No such dramatic exit awaits me, of course.  But the loss of the cherished dream, or of the possibility of a long and distinguished life, in Nathan's case at the hands of a pitiable illiterate ragamuffin or in mine, because of a failure to have achieved what I hoped was in me to accomplish, there is a certain poignancy.

MacKinlay Kantor was, in my opinion, simultaneously a masterful and a vexing writer.  He wrote of the past in a way that both invited the reader intimately into the mysterious milieu of the past and rendered that past in a fashion so minutely observed and so lushly invoked as to strike the reader with both its strangeness and its deep familiarity.  Conversation was rendered in the stately, formal style of the Late Victorian period, replete with allusions and formulations of that time which rang oddly in modern ears.  As one who has striven hard to make the past accessible to latter-day readers I am amazed and mystified, not only by his ability to accomplish this but also by his bravery in attempting it, because the result was often a dense, challenging style of writing that could easily be mistaken as inartful.  But I also know that he achieved his own strange ambition to make the past live on its own terms.  I salute that, and envy it.

  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

OF TIME AND PLACE

For twenty years I lived where past and present visibly intersected.  You might legitimately protest that we all do; that natural and man-made artifacts from prior times always surround us, if we are alive to their presence.  But I stress the modifier visibly.  I could literally see the past, and feel it too. My home was in Arlington, Virginia, a busy suburb of the nation's capital, crisscrossed by highways and Metro lines, occluded with residential developments, buttressed by the glittering high-rises of Crystal City.  But only a few steps from my front yard was a system of old earthworks, since overgrown with forest, which had been dug by Confederate troops during the Civil War to defend Northern Virginia from the then-enemy city of Washington, D.C., just across the Potomac River. Often I strolled among the old ivy-choked fortifications, imagining the trenches filled with soldiers in gray and butternut anxiously gazing across the broad river for signs of troop movements amid the docks of Georgetown.

The office where I worked was located on the other side of the Potomac in an old Washington neighborhood near the Capitol that has come to be known as Chinatown.  There I often lunched in an Asian restaurant that had once been the home of Mrs. Mary Surratt and her boarder John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln.  Within a few blocks stood Ford's Theater, where Booth shot Lincoln.  Also close by was the Old Patent Building whose top-floor gallery had once served as a hospital for Union wounded; it had also hosted Lincoln's second inaugural ball.  Although my work as a lobbyist engaged me in the comparatively trivial, certainly perishable and unhistoric business of securing federal funding for various clients and projects, I was also, in the privacy of my home, a writer and historian, and I found the proximity of these landmarks fascinating and stimulating.  I spent many a lunch hour exploring them and, given my bent, was profoundly aware of, and even ashamed of, the contrast between my inconsiderable daily strivings amid surroundings where such momentous and tragic events had once occurred.

Furthermore, Lyon Village, the residential neighborhood where I lived, was in easy driving distance of Northern Virginia's Shenandoah Valley and battlefields like New Market, Cedar Creek, Port Republic and Winchester.  Not far away lay the sites of First and Second Manassas, Sharpsburg, Gettysburg and others.  At convenient distances in different directions lay the preserved battlefields of Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Seven Days, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House and Cold Harbor; and westward was Appomattox, where Lee surrendered to Grant.  I often visited these places too.  They brought me nearer to the experience of the past, though that closeness was always darkened by an awareness of the immeasurable tragedy they had seen.  And I felt sure that some essence of those events still lingered, like a very faint reverberation, even as I walked on the same ground.

In intimate contact with this deep, deep, still-living history, I sensed my own, if transient and unimportant, position in the long flow of time.  I also felt the fixity of physical place in time; time had flown but the ground remained.  The very earth I trod, men long dead had also trod; I lived where they had dwelled, where some of them had died.  They and I were in intimate communication across the gulf of time.

More recently I sensed the immediacy and danger of the past on a visit to the old silver-mining boom town of Leadville in my wife Ruth's native Colorado.  We were touring the home of some mining magnate of the 1870's whose name I no longer recall.  In a dim hallway hung photographic portraits of the former residents, a bearded gentleman and his wife.  As I studied their pictures I received a sudden, disorienting, near-nauseating shock--an impression so powerful that I knew it to be true--of some appalling unhappiness that had afflicted them.  The sensation was so overwhelming and so disturbing that I feared I might faint; I had to leave the mansion and sit on the porch so the impression of their pain would dissipate.

I never learned whether in fact the couple had experienced such distraction and sorrow.  I didn't need to confirm it; I had felt it.  Later that night I experienced something else--a waking dream, a nightmare, a vision, I know not what, I know only that it was as palpable and as frightening as actuality--of being in a smoky, dimly-lamplit nineteenth-century saloon.  A hulking man in a bowler hat and heavy clothing approached me and I saw in his face an implacable, irresistible hatred and sensed that he was intent on doing hurt to me--possibly lethal hurt--and I could not under any circumstances turn aside this inexplicable wrath; it was a glimpse of pure, reasonless, merciless hostility.  And it came to me that this was the face of irresistible danger of a kind natural to the frontier where one could rarely rely on law or decency--it was the causeless violence I often wrote about but had never confronted for myself.  What made the experience even stranger was that, even as I had this vision, through an open window in the house next door I heard a man's voice roaring with rage and, stranger still, his voice was accompanied by a high-pitched keening sound, a kind of hieratic, dirge-like chanting that told me the past was beyond any reasoning or safety, was in fact unapproachable and past any understanding.  The impression soon passed, but I knew that I had received two glimpses that day into a past that I understood I would never have survived, had I lived then.  The past then became for me a place to be respected and perhaps feared and that I would probably never completely understand no matter how long I tried, in my writing, to imagine its reality.



Monday, September 1, 2014

RIDING THE HEARSE - AVAILABLE NOW

As you must know if you've visited this blog before, the above is the somewhat baleful-sounding title of my new e-book, available from today on amazon.com.  Its sinister implication is, I think, justified, because its subject is the bloody struggle between Old West lawman Wyatt Earp and his formidable brothers against a dangerous cartel of rustlers and outlaws in and around the silver-mining camp of Tombstone in the Arizona Territory of the 1880's.  Yes, I know, Hollywood and the various outlets of the popular media have already given us multiple versions of this tale, very few of which have been worth the reading or viewing.  Usually the story is cast as a simplistic conflict pitting stalwart agents of law and order against evil cowboys, but I have always been fascinated by the human dimension--call it the tragedy, if you will--of that struggle.  These were, after all, real people, engaged in a grim contest for survival in an unforgiving frontier environment.  On both sides they were not only swaggering, gun-toting males but also innocent wives, sweethearts, children and step-children; and I prefer to think of them all not as familiar Western stereotypes but as frail, flawed human beings thrown into opposition by forces beyond their control and often beyond their understanding.  If I had not seen the story this way, I don't think it would have been worth my while--or the readers'--to revisit it.  I hope you will agree with me.  Whether you do or not, I would appreciate hearing from you.

The cover of the e-book was designed by my friend Britt Kaufmann, who has created the covers of all my e-books.  It appears below, for the second time.  I repeat it because I think she has done such a masterful job.  You would be well advised to check out her own website at www.brittkaufmann.com; she is amazingly talented in several artistic media, not least as a poet and playwright.  I'm also deeply grateful to my dear wife Ruth for navigating the maze of electronic publishing to get this book online, a task I could never have performed myself, Luddite that I am.

Monday, August 25, 2014

RIDING THE HEARSE

Those of you familiar with the lore of the Old West will recognize Riding the Hearse as a term from the gambling game of faro, which was all the rage on the frontier.  I've borrowed it as the title for my historical novel about the Earp-Clanton feud in 1880's Tombstone, Arizona Territory, which will be posted in the coming days as an e-book on amazon.com, thanks to my lovely and tech-savvy wife Ruth.  The book features a cover designed by Britt Kaufmann, our gifted neighbor here in Yancey County, North Carolina (she's a mom, wife, poet, blogger, playwright, writer in many genres, and good friend). Britt has designed the covers for all my e-books, and each of them (the covers, that is) is a compelling work of art.  I hope the content of the books measures up to the quality of the covers but I won't claim that. Her website is well worth checking out at www.brittkaufmann.com.  Here is an image of her Riding the Hearse cover, assembled from 19th-century photos. I'll post an announcement when the e-book goes online.  Meantime, take a look:

                                                                       

Monday, May 26, 2014

THOSE WHO HAVE GONE BEFORE

In my last post I hazarded some remarks about my nearly lifelong and possibly mistaken effort to elevate the Tombstone/ OK Corral story into art via an immense novel I recently completed which I call Riding the Hearse. In that post I acknowledged at least one major writer who made the same effort some years ago and who enjoyed a deal of success and prestige as a result.  This was the late Oakley Hall, whose 1958 novel Warlock, a masterfully fictionalized retelling of the Tombstone story, earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination; and, in case any reader continues to doubt its merit and desires higher proof, I might mention that Hall's novel was republished in 2006 by The New York Review of Books as a classic of American literature. Thomas Pynchon has called Warlock an "agonized epic" whose "deep sensitivity" makes it "one of the best American novels."

It was Warlock that caught my eye when I was a college freshman visiting a bookstore in High Point, North Carolina, in the far-off year of its publication.  It in fact was the very work that lit the improbable fire in me which has yet to flicker out, which led me inexorably over the many years since to return again and again to what became Riding the Hearse.  And while I am ready to admit that my book may not be all I wish it to be, I can unhesitatingly agree with Pynchon that Warlock is one fine read, a tragedy of epic dimensions and probably one of the finest novels ever published in America.

I mention Hall's book because he not only wrote Warlock but also many other novels, plus a libretto for an opera based on Wallace Stegner's classic Angle of Repose.  Further, he was director of the writing program at the University of California at Irvine and a co-founder of the respected writing conference known as the Community of Writers at SquawValley.  New York author Robert Stone, himself a Pulitzer finalist, has written, in his introduction to the new edition, "rereading Warlock I found again the light I remembered, an afternoon brightness, a clarity that is, I think, the essence of good realism.  In an almost literal way it illuminated the characters.  When it focused on individual lives it seemed to vary its distance from each...as though there existed a different extension of sympathy or withholding of it for different individuals in the narrative.  The light I...recognized...as western light. Big Sky light. This is good realism."

Hall was not alone among major literary figures who in one way or another have taken up the Tombstone story as a pattern for profound examination of large and important themes. In 2000 British-born novelist, poet, essayist, critic and memoirist Paul West, known for his startling erudition, marvelous working vocabulary and winner of numerous international literary awards, published OK: The Corral, the Earps and Doc Holliday.  Though it earned mixed reviews, OK at least illustrated how the Tombstone tale could lay hold of the imagination of one of the finest writers of our time.  Similarly, Bruce Olds, in the front rank of America's postmodernists, in 2001 published Bucking the Tiger, a densely-imagined, challengingly written account of Wyatt Earp's friend Doc Holliday, set in the Tombstone period.

Like OK, Bucking the Tiger had a style that was probably too daring to win widespread popular approval, but it underlined the fascination the Tombstone tale can have for a recognized literary artist. Nor were West and Olds the last to pick up the baton, or--figuratively--the six-shooter.  Just this year, Larry McMurtry, in The Last Kind Words Saloon, retold the Earp-Clanton-McLaury saga in his inimitably terse and acrid style.  And Mary Doria Russell, widely-acclaimed author of 2011's Doc, a novelized account of the life of Holliday up to his time in Dodge City, Kansas, is reported currently at work on a novel about the OK Corral affair.

I think the fact that some of our best writers have considered the Tombstone events as somehow fundamental to an understanding of not only the American character but the universal human experience gives testimony to its value as a subject of serious literature.  While Riding the Hearse may not be worthy of mention in the same breath with the works I have cited, I hope at I have at least made a case for revisiting that tragic and compelling drama.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

A TRIUMPH - OF SORTS

Recently--last Friday, actually--I completed several months' work editing and rewriting a novel I first began sometime in the summer of 1962 when I was a 24-year-old cub reporter for The Greensboro Record, a now long-defunct afternoon daily.  It is perhaps a measure of my obsession with the writing life, even so early, that I was spending after-deadline time on my very first paying job hammering out--on sheets of the same copy paper I was supposed to be using to report current events--a novel which, even then, at such a tender age, I conceived as the work of my life.  I still have, in my files, some of those very same sheets, yellowed now and crumbling around the edges, bearing the lines I pounded out in my halting hunt-and-peck style on my manual Remington typewriter fifty-two years ago.

I can still conjure up a clear mental image of that city room, with its dark oiled wood flooring, its tall frosted windows reinforced with what looked like chicken wire, its rows of metal desks and, at the front, the desks of the city editor and the wire editors, each with its steel spike on which were impaled sheets of our edited reportage waiting to be sent by vacuum tube to the composing room.   In back was the glass-enclosed office of the managing editor, a lofty presence who seldom deigned to speak to any of us.  On deadline the roar of our dozen or so typewriters, punctuated by the occasional ringing of someone's phone, filled the room.  But now, at midafternoon, the day's edition had been put to bed and the noise was more sporadic, less intense.  Still, though the worst of the day's anxiety was over, a cloud of cigarette smoke hung heavy in the room; all of us were four-pack-a-day smokers, on deadline or not. And some of us--I shan't say who, even now--kept fifths of bourbon in our desk drawers whose purpose was to soothe our nerves or fuel our creativity.  Yes, we were a dissolute bunch, and I've never enjoyed a job--or my co-workers--as much in all the years since.

I was convinced that my novel would be the sensation of the twentieth century.  I knew it was my destiny to achieve the heights of fame where dwelt my literary idols Faulkner, Welty, Wolfe, Hemingway, Agee and Mailer.  It never occurred to me that I wouldn't realize this dream; all I had to do, I thought, was perfect my craft, hone my skills to make them equal to the task I'd set myself.  I believed this as fervently as I believed anything.  Why?  Because the novel I had conceived was going to be, in my mind, entirely unique.  I was going to take a subject that had been done to death in the popular media over the previous decade--that had been reduced to formulaic triviality--and transform it into high literature.   What the popular media had treated as a simplistic clash between good and evil in the Old West--the story of Wyatt Earp and his brothers in their conflict with the Clantons and McLaurys in the Tombstone, Arizona of the early 1880's--I saw instead as a tragedy of almost Shakespearean dimensions, bringing into confrontation different family dynamics, economic forces, political beliefs, philosophical concepts, historical forces and personal traits which, if clearly enough delineated, might rival Oakley Hall's magisterial, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Warlock or Faulkner's own Absalom, Absalom in its grand complexity.  No writer, filmmaker, TV producer, or artist of any sort had dared take such a topic to such an ambitious level; yet it seemed to me obvious that this story deserved just such a treatment.

Excessively ambitious?  Certainly.  Foolhardy?  No question.  But then, I asked myself, what great art, at its inception, did not seem excessively ambitious and even foolhardy?  Did Faulkner balk before the staggering scope of his Yoknapatawpha County novels?  Was MacInlay Kantor dissuaded from Andersonville because of its weighty theme and multitude of characters?   Did Mailer turn his back on The Naked and the Dead?  Wolfe on Look Homeward, Angel?  No, the very size and challenge of these works were what called forth the genius needed to create them.  One thinks that way when young; and so thought I.  It didn't occur to me then--and doesn't now that I am old and jaded--that a tale many would dismiss as a Wild West adventure would encounter difficulty being taken seriously as a work of literature.  Or that the Earp-Cowboy feud was hardly as elevated a theme as Faulkner's explorations of Southern Gothic or Kantor's meditation on the Civil War or Mailer's on World War II or Wolfe's anthem on provincial Southern Appalachia and the call of the artist's life.  I believed I could transform this unlikely subject into worthwhile art.  So what I saw then, and still see, as the Tombstone tragedy became the work of my life.  I'm seventy-five now, and have only just completed that work after more than a half-century of on-again, off-again effort.  Was it worth that effort?  I can't know yet.  I do know that the odds are against its acceptance.  I haven't been a writer since 1995 without learning that much.

Some of you who periodically visit this blog may know that I posted here, a couple of years ago, some excerpts from my Tombstone novel, which I now call Riding the Hearse.  Those postings drew no comments.  Of course I can't tell whether this is because the excepts were considered unworthy of remark or because no one visited the blog to read them.  I, of course, remain convinced that the work is an acceptable one and measures up fairly well to the goal I set for it all those years ago. But much stands in the way of its acceptance for publication.  There is the question of whether the treatment is worthy of the elevated theme I imagined for it.  There is the question of its size--550-odd typewritten pages, far too large, perhaps, for its subject.  As always there is the question of the quality of the writing.  But the work is done at last.  Toward the end, over the past few weeks, I began to wonder whether I would be able to complete the editing and the rewrite.  As I've mentioned on this blog before, I now struggle with cognitive impairments, vertigo and several other complaints of aging; and as I approached the end of my work on the novel I began to think of the effort as perhaps the last of my writing life--and thus as the actual work of my life, since I have been at it for so long.  One would very much like to have offered up a last work which might be considered a worthy summation of one's lifelong strivings.

Friday, April 11, 2014

MISPLACED PERSISTENCE?

If art was what I so diligently pursued all those years, was that pursuit subverted by the strangely selective way I went about it?  For the truth is, in the act of becoming the writer I wished to be, I insisted on setting my own terms for publication rather than acceding to the realities of the market. Strange, is it not, that an aspiring author should pick and choose his own notion of what to write and where to seek publication, rather than try to conform to the dictates of reality?  I knew what I wished to write, and knew furthermore that what I wished to write was not the sort of material most publishers sought.  Yet I not only flew in the face of economic reality, I did it knowingly and even defiantly. Why?  Ordinarily the fledgling writer trims his/her work to fit what he/she knows the reading public, and hence the publishing world, desires.  Not I.  Perhaps this approach was a variant of the motive I have previously mentioned, that I only wished to have fun--the fun of indulging my own tastes, my own preferences, above those of the industry I hoped to penetrate.

I must have told myself I refused to compromise my own vision of my destiny as a writer--a laudable thought perhaps, and one no doubt commensurate with my immature dreams of becoming known for the daring and dedication of my artistic goals, much as were Faulkner and Joyce and certain other literary giants of the 20th century.  I suppose I didn't wish to serve a long and dreary, if salutary and instructional, apprenticeship of submission and rejection.  It didn't matter to me that the historical fiction I longed to write no longer held the high place it had maintained in the 1940's and 1950's when my literary ambitions were formed.  I wished to imitate the successes of the historical novelists of my youth--Thomas B. Costain, Mika Waltari and the like--writers, incidentally, known not for the high literary quality of their books but for their popularity with middlebrow readers, and hardly comparable to my idols Joyce and Faulkner.  Furthermore, by the time I began to submit my work, the historical fiction genre had fallen quite out of favor.  Speak of a confusion of motives!

Yet I did, to a small degree, succeed.  I was published, against all the odds.  Was published five times in fiction and once in nonfiction.  This is a fact which still astonishes me and for which I remain deeply grateful.  When I think how many persons have nourished the burning ambition to write and be published, only to have those hopes dashed, I know how fortunate I have been.  But then, perhaps inevitably now that I am in the twilight of my writing career, I also begin to wonder how much my stubborn insistence on writing only what I wished to write rather than what the market desired may have limited my prospects.  Had I paid more heed to reality than to my own preoccupations, would I have been more successful?  And what, after all, is success?  How should it be measured?  By my own satisfaction at having maintained my selfish preferences?  For in having done so, have I not in a sense limited my own success and prospects for recognition?  And how important, in the last analysis, are success and recognition?  Large questions.  Questions without answers.  One thing I do know.  There are readers in the world who have told me my books have mattered to them.  And is that not reward enough?