Alexander Theroux: My father chose for us the most vivid and wonderful boys tales — Treasure Island, The Corsican Brothers, The Last of the Mohicans.
I have often been asked why in my family four of us turned out to be writers. My brother Paul is both a novelist and travel writer, as I am. We both write essays. I write poetry as well. My brother Joseph, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Western Samoa, wrote a novel in 1983, Black Coconuts, Brown Magic. Peter, our youngest brother, is an Arabic translator of note, but he has also written several books about Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
Alexander: I had taken four years of Latin by the time I graduated from high school and was given to verbal pyrotechnics.
George Orwell in his essay “Why I Write” offers several major reasons, putting aside the need to earn a living, why one chooses to do so, which includes motives as banal as sheer egotism, vanity, the desire to be talked about, the need to prove to your teachers who snubbed you in childhood. He suggests that loneliness has a lot to do with it. (“I think, from the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued,” writes Orwell.) Were we lonely and undervalued? All children are, to a degree, even in large families. Maybe especially in large families. There is also the compulsion to remember, to want to remember, in a very real way to need to remember, to record.
When Paul published his novel The Black House in 1977, my mother found a lot of the sex scenes gratuitous.
Let me mention that not everybody in my family writes, and it is far from the defining identity among us. My older brother Gene, 57, a 25-year partner in Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest law firm, is an international lawyer and has won medals for trade cases from the then-Soviet Union and the Republic of China. A painter, he took his undergraduate degree from Pratt Institute. My sisters, Ann Marie and Mary, both married and each with two children, are a secondary schoolteacher and a registered nurse, respectively. All of us are college graduates, and three have further degrees.
Peter's books can accommodate all kinds of arcane and Arabic lore without his having to descend into dark cellars.
I remember my first attempt at fiction. It was a short story, typed on yellow rectangular paper, when I was in the seventh grade. After school my friend Angelo Corrado and I ran over to his house to use the typewriter. My saga, unnamed, was the story, illustrated with cartoons (another early fascination), of a magical breakfast food, and there was in it enough of a pubescently cheeky, if not slightly risqué, even perhaps scatological theme for his mesomorphic older brother, a shadowy oaf who never spoke to me and only to Angelo in Italian, to rip it up one day. While this does not rank in the realm of literary losses with Hemingway’s leaving A Farewell to Arms in the Gare du Nord or T.E. Lawrence losing The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it hurt.
My first style was characterized by a lot of odd archaisms, exclamation marks, negative participles (“...grasping, lurching, crunching over the leaves, cruel Grippo made his way onward, ever onward...”) and was remarkable for the amount of hyphens I used. I loved hyphenating words. So I would hyphenate “him,” for example, and make it “hi-m” if it came, as often I made sure it would, at the end of a line. Or “them” would become “the-m.” It was also important to keep my right-hand and left-hand margins the same width. Turgidity was one of my most singular failings. I had taken four years of Latin by the time I graduated from high school and was given to verbal pyrotechnics, Ciceronian and orotund, even writing letters home from the one time I went to camp. Fathom sesquipedalian letters about making lanyards and swimming!
What makes a writing style? I have often told my students that it is not incidental to your face, your religion, your name, your schooling, your friends, what you eat and dream about and fear, and so many other variables. Is it coincidence that Steinbeck writes differently than Dickens or Gerard Manley Hopkins or H.G. Wells or G.B. Shaw? Not at all. Style is the autistic stir of language in us and is as mysterious as the ocean and the endlessness of space. Subject matter itself dictates style. I know that in writing Darconvilles Cat (1982), my longest novel, the very subject, disappointment in love, led me into the encyclopedic style and pedantic humor with which I wrote it, because satire is a verbal genre, an aspect of comedy that involves ridicule and a snobbish height, a persona of disdain necessitating the antic and the ironic and the sneering. I fancy I have a toolbox of several styles, making me to some an artificer as opposed to an artist. I find I can ventriloquate various voices when writing poetry and can conjure rabbits from a multiplicity of hats. My brother Peter’s prose has always been unobtrusively fine, even when he was in high school. His books, bright with crystal prose, can accommodate all kinds of arcane and Arabic lore without his having to descend, as often I do, into dark cellars in order to pull out some tool of medieval allusion or antediluvian rhetoric.
Authors to me, even as a boy, were heroes. No one could match them for daring or drama. I believed that they alone were the true pilgrims of the Absolute. I owned and treasured—no small thing in a family of eight — a biscuity little book, Fifty Famous Americans, thumbnail sketches of our country’s illustrious dead, which I read from cover to cover, flashing past the lives of certain secular leaders, great explorers like Daniel Boone and Kit Carson and soldiers like George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant, figures whom I admired but who had small share in my ontological reality, only to pore over once again the lives of Washington Irving, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and my fixation, the raven Edgar Allen Poe, whose terrifying neuroses, like his fascination with black cats and the fear of being buried alive, took all my attention. I wrote a sonnet once, the octave of which ran:
Love, O what if in my dreaming wild
I could for you another world arrange
Not known before, by waking undefiled,
Daring out of common sleep adventure strange
And shape immortal joy of mortal pain...
Art resembles that, you know — the kind of dare
Nestorians of old acknowledged vain... the crux of which was that, in a very real sense, art and life, or better, the ideal and the real, are often at loggerheads. As a kid, I lived much closer to my dreams than to reality, and whatever inroads real life made into my storybooks (Kidnapped, The Swiss Family Robinson, and others) and movies (Boys’ Town, Song of the South) were all for the worse. Walter Mitty had nothing on me. I had an interior life as vigorous as Penrod and Sam’s, as Tom and Huck’s. I subscribed to the existence of things like Black Spots and Laughing Places and Headless Horsemen. I believed in “spunk water” and hair-ball oracles and bread that would float over a drowned man. By the age of six or seven, I knew that Gulliver had been tied down by Lilliputians. I was terrified of Muff Potter. I believed that Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—there was no sexism in our house—were the most interesting girls on earth, next to Becky Thatcher, of course, whom I was going to marry.
The very word author, evoking quill pens, musty books, great cloaks and scarves — did I ever deny that I was never well-adjusted? — even jabots redolent of a kind of dandified handsomeness thrilled me. The nobly syllabified name alone of James Fenimore Cooper evoked for me brave Indians, dark green forests, and the infinite possibilities of the American West. I listened to my father reading “The Highwayman” and fell into long, dreamy stares that removed me from the quotidian world. I am certain I was not prepared for the heartache of real life, even if I had an anodyne to it in what my feverish romantic brain allowed. My reality was for the permanence of art, not life outside my window. It is a heresy to say, never mind think, hut no true reader of books ever opts for Life over Art.
Reading in our family was paramount. I have always been struck by the incongruous fact that young Jack Kennedy, because he was a sickly and often bedridden boy (his mother has always cited this as the main reason he grew up reading) turned to books as an alternative to sailing or football. One looks in vain for literary influences anywhere in this family. The Kennedys were doers, not makers, and unlike us, very unlike us, were never intellectuals. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Kennedy gave a fig for writers; in fact both were anti-intellectual. Concerns among them had to do with politics, civic duty, the speculation of wealth, and attaining profile. (“This lovely land that always sent / Her writers and artists into banishment,” observed James Joyce in 1912.) I make this comparison hot to denigrate that particular family but to point out that our priorities, far less aggressive, some might say softer, were not so much different as opposite. My parents, who for instance wanted us to have after-school jobs, believing such things built character, would have nevertheless considered vulgar and lowbrow the urge to accumulate wealth by way of a chosen profession. We were not allowed to discuss money at the dinner table. Politicians, as far as our house went, were considered yahoos. We were expected to be leaders. Altruism in outlook was assumed.
It wasn’t immoral to be rich. It did make life easier. But that was the point. We considered an easy life, a life pursuing comfort, inane. We were taught the important thing was to help our fellow man; it was the only worthwhile thing to do. None of us went into business. I have always said I was too busy to make money. It may seem overly pious and arch, but for any one of us in the family to publish a book, even early on, was no big thing. And I think I can speak for all of us when I say that it sometimes rankled. It wasn’t that we were expected to be geniuses; we weren’t and we aren’t. We were expected, in doing things, to do things well. Is it that my parents refused to indulge us? Perhaps. Mom and Dad wanted no prima donnas and were inclined to think inordinate praise as bad as inordinate criticism, and in consequence I have grown up to be suspicious of both.
What about the lack of praise? And how did it hurt? We were raised during a different day, I guess, growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, during the postwar years — and of course my parents remembered the Depression — so at such a tentative period, indulgence of any sort was probably considered a misapplied emotion. We didn’t have much in the way of material things, and in the vacuum of such meagerness (not deprivation, I would say), an attitude of responsibility forms, or at least the stirrings of ambition. I would go on to say that rewarding any achievement unduly implies that you were not expected to do such and such. And my parents, in believing, no matter how misguidedly, that we were all from the beginning extraordinary, doubtless felt it logical that, since we were the source, we needn’t be told.
My parents read our novels, usually in galleys, before anyone else. My mother, a college graduate, a teacher, a painter, and of course a serious Catholic, was never a prude — her portfolio from art school was filled with sheets she had done of “life studies”—but she found crude salacities wherever they appeared objectionable, even when they were written by her sons. (I remember when we were kids she once ripped out of a copy of Life magazine a vivid article, with photos, of a stripper in a West Virginia coal town.) When Paul published his novel The Black House in 1977, my mother, who admired the book, nevertheless found, I recall, a lot of the sex scenes gratuitous and — she would have chosen a private moment — didn’t hesitate to tell him so. Paul shrugged. She was tactful, never hectoring, and it was not her reputation as a mother that she had in mind, rather history. I was open to the same charge ten years later when, after I published An Adultery, my mother questioned me about several not just libidinous but she felt uncharitable scenes, making her point, not worrying it to death, saying simply, “The printed word is forever.”
But we had no publishing parties, no fireworks, no camcorders recording books held ahigh. My younger brothers both had to learn upon publication, I’m sure, that there were to be no Broadway parades for high accomplishment. “We’re proud of you,” my father would say and then in the very same breath would ask us, without transition, to help him cut some wood or rake the leaves in the front yard. I get a kick out of it today, although why I wasn’t recognized as the reincarnation of Herman Melville on the home precincts in 1973 when I published my first novel, Three Wogs, was beyond me. I remain convinced it was everyone’s way of getting you started on your next book. Praise an employee and next thing you know, he’ll either want a raise or seek a cushy job on the bales.
I think my assertion will stand up that we are all, for weal or woe, moral writers, which is not to say either good or great writers, merely creators of worlds where the moral consequences of things, no matter how sorely tested, apply, that’s all. It is not a given in literature. I also may be wrong in saying it applies to us. But if indeed it does, I attribute it to the basic concepts of altruism mentioned here, even if it finds its homely definition in such things as a bowdlerized magazine. Is it any surprise we have all dedicated books to my parents?
We have all gone our different ways. (I hold a theory that each child in a family is brought up by different parents.) We have all attended different colleges (University of Massachusetts, Harvard, University of Virginia, Georgetown). We have all had different (and many) publishers (Houghton Mifflin, Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, Henry Holt & Co., Random House, the Dial Press, Gambit, W.W. Norton). We have different opinions and have different friends and have lived in different places all over the world. For our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, Gene had to come from Washington, D.C., Paul from London, Joseph from Western Samoa, Peter from Saudi Arabia, and my sisters from Boston. I was the only one nearby, on Cape Cod, the geographical equivalent of Grover’s Corners to such worldly trekkers. We still all live in different places. (Don’t even grown-up siblings take the psychic spaces allowed them?) We have different cars. We have different politics. We have different faiths — some none that are formally recognizable — different faces, different feelings, and different fortunes.
But in that all brothers and sisters are rivals — who would contest this? — in the fires of competition we are, like all siblings, remarkably alike. From Donald and Frederick Barthelme to Henry and William James, from the Cowper brothers to Lawrence and Gerald Durrell, from the sisters of Little Women to The Brothers Karamazov, where doesn’t enough tension exist to compose whole books? According to Genesis 38:7-10, Onan, the younger son of Judah, married his deceased brother’s wife in accordance with the law of levirate (widow-brother marriage), but instead of trying to make her pregnant as that law demanded, he “spilled his seed on the ground” because he knew that any children conceived of the union would be taken not as his, but as his brother’s, which was something he couldn’t abide. He didn’t want to ensure the survival of his brother’s line at the expense of his own. For this refusal, Yahweh slew him. Johann Sebastian Bach’s own brother hated him. Sultan Mohammed II decreed the ghastly Kanun, which required each new sultan to kill all his brothers— to remove all danger of civil war. In Silas Marner, Geoffrey and Dunstan Cass were bitter rivals. Cara-calla, the Emperor of Rome, murdered his brother (and his father-in-law). Atahualpa, the last emperor of the Incas, drank chicha (a corn-based liquor) from the skull of his half brother Huascar, whom he had executed in a bloody civil war. Saint Wenceslaus, ruler of Bohemia at the age of 15 and a man of deep piety, according to legend, was killed by his brother in A.D. 929. Louis XIV, last of the Merovingian kings, became monarch by murdering his brother. Boston Celtics’ basketball star Bill Russell in his first book, the autobiography Second Wind, refers several times to having a brother and never once bothers to mention him by name. Groucho hated Chico. Movie moguls Jack and Harry Warner loathed each other.
Tales of competing brothers are the beating heart of fairy tales in every country. Battling brothers include Zeus and Poseidon, Egyptian gods Set and Osiris, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Will Keith Kellogg, fat, bald, unsmiling, nearly blind — whose name is inseparable from his famous corn flakes — rarely got along with his older brother, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, whose rights he took over and in 1906 bought out. (W.K. immediately placed upon each box the bold legend: “The Genuine Bears This Signature —W.K. Kellogg.”) They were completely different personalities. W.K. hated people, disliked ceremony, and in his life knew work and no pleasure. Supposedly, he was never seen smiling. Eight years older, John loved to be photographed and in most matters was extremely gregarious. He had often hit his brother when growing up, made him shine his shoes, and this behavior extended into later life when the busy doctor dictated letters while seated in his cabinet de necessite, while humble Will scribbled down notes. Sometimes the doctor would ride his bicycle in wide circles while Will trotted beside him with a notebook. Often they wouldn’t speak. No wonder that when his turn finally came, W.K. was as short as a butter cake with his brother. “W.K. never in the world came to visit his mother,” a niece, Priscilla Butler, remembered, “that he didn’t hunt up J.H. and have a good quarrel.” W.K. ended up owning both the Battle Creek Sanitarium Food Company and the Sanitas Company. “He took most of the glory for the work I did,” said the younger Kellogg. “I have never claimed any glory—the doctor has claimed that.”
I love brother stories — they are Ur-stories, the original genre, old as Cain and Abel. Not one exists without its attendant lesson. According to James M. Barrie, one of the most profound experiences in his life occurred at the age of 6 with the death of his brother David at 13, when his mother, finding in James a consolation for her loss, transferred to him all her love and affection, thus giving him a new identity—and perhaps informing his character Peter Pan’s refusal to leave boyhood, crying, “I’m youth — eternal youth! I’m the sun rising — I’m poets singing — I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg — I’m joy, joy, joy!” Writer George Moore, lord of Ely Place, had primogeniture and treated his younger brother, Colonel Maurice Moore, very poorly. His cruelty, a sprightly sadism to his perhaps oversincere brother, was fruit, no doubt, of an overintensive childhood and generations of life before them rank with the family myth (cf. Hone’s The Moores of Moore Hall).
Unsuccessful brothers often stand as a living reproach to their successful older or younger brothers. Woodrow Wilson had no use for his brother Joseph Ruggles Wilson, Jr., who was born ten years after him. He became a rolling stone and slid into newspaper work. Woodrow wouldn’t hear of his brother having any success, wouldn’t let him be secretary of state, even refused him the position of postmastership. Roswell Martin Field was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 1,1851, one day short of a year after his famous brother, the poet Eugene. His mother died when he was still young, and a cousin, Mary French, brought up the two boys in Amherst, Massachusetts. Roswell was graduated from Phillips Exeter and attended Harvard for one year. Thereafter his career paralleled his brother Eugene’s. He became a writer, journalist, columnist, bibliophile, and even an accomplished pianist. He was overshadowed by his more dazzling and prolific brother but was by no means the less gifted of the two, although theirs was a love/hate relationship all their lives. Senator Huey P. Long of Louisiana, the “Messiah of the Rednecks,” “Hooey the 14th,” the “Kingfish,” etc., constantly fought with his brothers Julius and Earl. While Jimmy Carter was president, his fat, luckless brother Billy often misbehaved as a crass, loud, insensitive ne’er-do-well, getting drunk, urinating against buildings, making crude jokes. Film director Ingmar Bergman hated his brother Dag and wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Lantern, “Dag had maltreated me badly, and I was determined on revenge, whatever the cost.” Roger Clinton, President Clinton’s brother, a college dropout who once served a year in prison for distributing cocaine, is a backslapping good ol’ boy who threatened to go into show business by taking up singing as a public career at the same moment of his brother’s presidential inauguration.
We all greet each other’s work with mixed emotion, I’m sure of it, although I am happy to go on record here as saying I have felt no murderous thoughts toward any of my brothers. One does come to the task of writing, more I think than to anything else, with a great deal of the self-involved, and it is not surprising that it can become such a litmus test of personal worth, so much an epistemology of one’s being, that rivalry is inevitable. I well remember in 1967 when my brother Paul’s first novel, Waldo, was published, I was a second-year graduate student at the University of Virginia—in literature, no less — and sadly felt one-upped, I have to admit, for there is at best a built-in tension in academic life between creative writers and critics, and, like Paul, I was or wanted to be in the former camp, not one of those scribbling eunuches who prefer to believe their thin articles and monographs art. As Yeats notes in “The Scholars”:
Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old learned, respectable bald heads,
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
So while I wished my brother well, it was with a very shaky and diffident self-regard that I, who knew I wanted to write novels myself, looked in the direction of Africa, where Paul was in the Peace Corps, writing fiction! Gene in the ’60s had done time in Saigon and stood up for the war, at least for a while. Paul and I, of course, saw our writing vocations, in the symbiosis of youth and liberalism, especially at that time, linked up to our entire way of looking at things. I have held fountain pens, swung bats, and played the piano, oh yes, but I confess I have never felt anything but momentary glory — how on earth could it be otherwise? — when, in the course of whatever I have done, I have simply to look up to see a Nabokov in literature, a Ted Williams in baseball, a Duke Ellington in music standing there above me, and not even in a sweat!
It is a truism if a sad fact that we have to fight to stake out our own territories as brothers and sisters, and it often takes a lifetime. It was surely difficult for my younger brothers, Joseph and Peter, to follow Paul and me as writers, having to give birth to books and look for admiration when such accomplishments, if not old hat, had at least taken place before. But feelings of comparative inadequacy in competing brothers is a far cry from the competition-to-death syndrome (“Success is not enough, others must fail”) of places like Yale Medical School and the Harvard Law School. No, we are quite human. We watch each others’ batting averages. Who can’t hit a curve. How many doubles, how many triples. Ks for the month. Success against left-handers. Bases on balls.
I read everybody, including Paul, with a pencil, editing his words, and I have no doubt he does the same. For one thing, as I have mentioned, we have different writing styles, which were as different back in high school when we began turning out poems and stories. I know he thinks my work overfreighted, allusional, and a bit too crabbedly latinate for his tastes. Whereas I have always thought he should take more chances with narrative and dynamize the language in original ways. I am criticized as being hard to read. He is thought to be cynical. I should publish more books, it is said. He publishes too much. We used to read each other’s manuscripts and dabble in them, like fingering candies, offering a funnier name for a character, suggesting a better ending, criticizing a passage, but no more. Why? It’s hard to say. Young writers need sounding boards. Partners. Foils. I believe that, in the way families share a particular sense of humor, siblings in a very real sense write for each other. In a magnanimous moment, Paul once told me that if he had read my novel Darconville’s Cat in high school, he would never have started to write. And in a way, I began to write in order to catch up to him. We have often argued over words, sentences, endings, reviews, opinions, points of view. Everything. We grew up that way. Even favorite writers. He prefers Conrad over Melville!
Far more financially successful than I am or will ever be, Paul used to be impatient with my allusive way of writing, symbolic and often too rich. He has a much more lucid, accessible style, which is arguably a prose less demanding to write (though I am certain he would deny it) and one more palatable to the common reader. Many think my work—I hope no one in my family is numbered among them — pretentious, my sentences too long, my word usage arcane and Browningesque. God bless the varieties of prose styles! Why should prose styles be similar in siblings who write? So many variables in so many personalities inculcate different responses. Why should, how could anything ever match? As brothers and sisters vary in tastes, so does their work.
Paul’s financial success— and he was earning large advances on his travel books very early— is well earned. He has written over 30 books, novels, travel books, essays, short stories, Christmas fables, no end of articles. (He did it all on his own, let me add, without anyone’s help, including V.S. Naipaul, who became friends with Paul when my brother was first setting out to write but whose assistance constitutes little more than cheerleading.) Like Anthony Trollope, upon finishing a book on Tuesday, Paul is at another one the following day. I like to believe I am no less driven or zealous, but I am told I write not just inaccessible prose but books that publishers, including my own, Henry Holt & Co., tell me do not fit into easily identifiable genres. As I write, there are six finished manuscripts sitting in my rooms gathering dust, with no place to go to and without having been read. A person devoted to writing popular fiction is not necessarily a sellout — writers all want to be read — but it seems an odd penalty for someone who doesn’t serve up readily identifiable fare to have his or her manuscripts buried in a sepulcher.
I believe a karma attaches to a personality, a book, life, movement beyond explanations and even reason. It applies to places a person grew up as well. A very strong influence on us when we were young was the proximity to what might be called the mystique of writers. New England is old, venerable, literary, the locus classicus of American literature for centuries. On Sunday afternoons, odd days, and holidays, my father took us on treks to historic places, near and far, the way Camille Pissarro brought his own boys through Paris in the 1890s, so that they could discover all the beauties and mysteries and strange inhabitants of such a place. My father was a true antiquarian. He often took us into Boston. We visited the grave of Mother Goose in the Old Granary burying ground, stood before Saint-Gaudens’s famous Shaw Memorial (the black 54th Regiment) on the Common, climbed to the top of the Old North church, walked around Old Ironsides. We went to outlying districts, like Sudbury, to see the Wayside Inn and to John Greenleaf Whittier’s house in Haverhill, where he wrote Snowbound, and Concord, where Emerson and the Alcotts and Henry David Thoreau had lived and whose graves can still be seen in Sleepy Hollow cemetery. I remember one cold Sunday afternoon my father took us to Cambridge cemetery to see the grave of Henry James, a full 25 years before I could even begin to understand his books. History is an old curiosity shop in which you can poke about for a lifetime.
Our hometown is historic. Paul Revere rode through Medford, Massachusetts, in 1775, crying, “The British are coming!” Lydia Maria Child, abolitionist, friend of Edgar Allan Poe, and author of the ditty “Over the River and Through the Woods,” was born in Medford, as was red-haired Fanny Farmer, who wrote the Victorian cookbook and later opened a famous cooking school in Boston. Thoreau lectured in Medford in 1851. Amelia Earhart lived in Medford for three years, prior to the Friendship flight of 1928. The song “Jingle Bells” was written in old Medford by the Reverend James Pairpont. Here was an abundance of riches. Old Salem, city of witches, was nearby where Nathaniel Hawthorne once lived and where stood the House of the Seven Gables and Gallows Hill. The Craigie Mansion, in which Longfellow wrote “The Children’s Hour,” still stood in Cambridge and was where in 1973 I met by chance the granddaughter of “laughing Allegra,” a lady in her 90s.
I have written several times elsewhere of the literary, never mind dramatic influence of my mother on our becoming writers. She was an artist and a schoolteacher before she got married and was a fervent believer in teaching us to draw and to play instruments and to recite poetry. Reading to us at night was important. My father always made it a point, after tucking us in, to read to us by candlelight. He was a born actor and chose for us the most vivid and wonderful boys tales — Treasure Island, The Corsican Brothers, The Last of the Mohicans. Our repeated pleas after dinner for his promise not to forget this nightly ritual always put us on good behavior. We would be waiting for him upstairs, crouching like dormice, Gene in one bed, me in the next, Paul in the next. (We also had a red clunky radio— early radio and Disney had a major literary effect on me — and we savored Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch and The Lone Ranger on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 7:30 p.m.) I well remember my father reading to us Poe’s macabre story “The Tell-tale Heart.” We would wait expectantly to see his face change with the story, his voice going lower and lower. Every movement, lit up from behind by the uncertain glow of the flickering candle that threw on the walls of the bedroom a mural of magnified shadows, put us on notice. Would his affectionate badinage suddenly turn to biting irony? Dread inquiry? Terror? I listened with painful precision to the whole horrible tale. He imitated the wind. He shrieked at “Dissemble no longer!” He held the candle high, and as the book shook, phantom shadows rose above his head on the ceiling, and I heard a voice so full of fright and choked with such delicious wickedness that my throat actually closed.
In childhood, so little suffices to create a mystery. A garden wall. A locked door. A darkened room. A lowered voice. And immediately all the undeveloped love for the unknown and the ungraspable leaps to the fore, the more eagerly because it has so little to feed upon, and because all the emotions are fresh and unplayed. In a sense, nothing of either dream or dreamer is real; everything is imagined, everything is fantasy. But is that so bad? An old Gypsy saying goes, “To want a world is fire, to obtain it, smoke.”
In any case, the hand that raised that candle bred a fever. It fired our imagination, especially for the written word, and later made me curious about all sorts of things like the word diphtheria or Father Isaac Jogues the Jesuit or the way escalators get swallowed under at the top. I am convinced with Albert Camus that a man’s work is nothing but the long, often desperate journey through life to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three great and simple images that first gained access to his heart. Luckily, we grew up before the age of television. Our sole recreation on rainy, snowy, and stay-at-home days was drawing, with crayons, pencils, and paper strewn all over the floor. We composed thank-you notes, wrote letters, and at one point even created a newspaper, mostly satirical, with headlines of note and stories about our friends and neighborhood doings. We kept notebooks of collected essays on things we’d seen of places we’d visited, such as the whaling museum in New Bedford, our visit to Mt. Washington (we climbed it when I was 12), and aspects of the battles of Lexington and Concord. We always drew and wrote. It’s hard to picture kids in the act of writing in this new computer world, never mind sprawled on a floor.
Getting a second chance in life is, at least to me, as strong an underlying motive in writing -— in making any art — as anything else. I am sure few would disagree that writers are, for the most part, generally incomplete or dissatisfied people. Farm your literary histories. Many were drunks. A handful were happily married. Most walked on the edge. Writing a book is, in a sense, the drive to make another world — an activity that is not a great deal different, epistemologically speaking, from putting on puppet shows or shifting furniture around in a doll’s house. The need is to remake. To remake, to be driven to restate, is arguably a criticism of what, waiting unremade, asks, even demands renewal.
“I don’t think anybody has ever felt totally at home in human society,” Gore Vidal once wrote. I am inclined to agree. It is my amateur belief that in living we, more than anything, contrive to arrange a series of refuges, of escapes, of hiding-holes—clubs, travel, our own households, hobbies, work can be one, a big one, reading, maybe even eating, church, politics, the thousand ways we entertain ourselves — and art for me, writing, acts indeed as a very significant refuge. Is it borne of disappointment in society? Maybe. Of disappointment of myself in society? The way society acts on me? More to the point, the way I feel about society and my role in it? No doubt, no doubt. Know that I never think of it as disdaining the life we are given to live. I see it simply as a way of preserving dreams, a way of having vision. I prefer to think of myself as having the steadfastness of Keats, looking at his bright star.