Masters, Hilary 1928-
MASTERS, Hilary 1928-
(P. J. Coyne)
PERSONAL: Born February 3, 1928, in Kansas City, MO; son of Edgar Lee (a writer) and Ellen Frances (Coyne) Masters; married Polly Jo McCulloch, March 5, 1955 (divorced, 1986); married Kathleen E. George, June 7, 1994; children: Joellen, Catherine, John D. C. Education: Attended Davidson College, 1944-46; Brown University, A.B., 1952.
ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Department of English, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.
CAREER: Bennett & Pleasant (press agents for concert and dance artists), New York, NY, member of staff, 1952; self-employed theatrical press agent for Off-Broadway and summer theaters, 1953-56; Hyde Park Record (newspaper), Hyde Park, NY, editor and publisher, 1956-59. Visiting faculty member, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1974; visiting writer-in-residence, Drake University, 1975-77; also affiliated with Clark University, 1978, Ohio University, 1979, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, 1980-81, and University of Denver, 1982; Fulbright lecturer to Finland, 1983; Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, professor of English and creative writing and director of creative writing program, 1983—. Former Democratic candidate for New York's 100th Assembly District, 1965-66; member of advisory committee to speaker of New York Assembly, 1967-68. Freelance photographer for Image Bank and exhibits. Military service: U.S. Navy, 1946-47; naval correspondent.
MEMBER: Associated Writing Programs, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, PEN, Players, Beachcombers.
AWARDS, HONORS: Yaddo writers' colony fellowship, 1980, 1982, and 2000; Fulbright fellowship, 1983; Balch Prize for Fiction, 1998; Monroe Spears Award for Essay, 1997; American Academy of Arts and Letters award for literature, 2003; short stories cited for honorable mention by Best Short Stories, Best American Essays, and Pushcart Prize anthologies.
The Common Pasture, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1967.)
An American Marriage, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1969.
Palace of Strangers, World Publishing (New York, NY), 1971.
(Under pseudonym P. J. Coyne) Manuscript for Murder, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1987.
Home Is the Exile, Permanent Press (Sag Harbor, NY), 1996.
"HARLEM VALLEY TRIO"; NOVELS
Clemmons, David Godine (Boston, MA), 1985.
Cooper, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1987.
Strickland, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1989.
Last Stands: Notes from Memory (biography), David Godine (Boston, MA), 1982.
Hammertown Tales (short stories), Wright (Winston-Salem, NC), 1986.
Success: New and Selected Short Stories, foreword by George Garrett, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1992.
In Montaigne's Tower, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 2000.
Contributor to anthologies, including Brand X Anthology of Fiction, edited by William Zaranka, Apple Wood (Cambridge, MA), 1983; Ohio Review Anthology, edited by Wayne Dodd, Ohio Review (Athens, OH), 1983; Best Essays of 1998, edited by Philip Lopate, Anchor-Doubleday (New York, NY), 1998, and Best American Essays of 1999, edited by Edward Hoagland, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1999. Contributor of stories and essays to Greensboro Review, Kenyon Review, Massachusetts Review, Michigan Quarterly, Ohio Review, Prairie Schooner, Sports Illustrated, Texas Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Sam's Place, a novel.
SIDELIGHTS: Novelist, essayist, and short-story writer Hilary Masters is the recipient of the 2003 Award for Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The award recognizes Masters's contribution to American letters through his fiction, memoir, and essays, all of which deal with aspects of coming to terms with the past and reconciling family differences. Masters writes in a realistic mode, introducing characters who examine their current longings through connections to past events. To quote Sigrid Kelsey in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the author's work "evokes nostalgic feelings and a depth to his characters as he shares a morsel of Americana with his readers."
Masters is the son of poet Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote the acclaimed Spoon River Anthology, and the grandson of Indian Wars veteran Tom Coyne. Masters recalls these men, as well as other members of his family, in his best-known book, Last Stands: Notes from Memory. In the book Masters recalls his happy but unconventional upbringing, in which he divided his time between his beloved grandparents in Kansas City and his busy, working parents in Manhattan. But the work "is much more than a documentation of [the author's ancestral history]," noted Chicago Tribune Books critic Ross Talarico. "It is a beautifully written rendering of no less than a century of American life—more specifically, of the myths and realities of family life in America as we pass from Fort Custer, after the massacre, to the burial of Masters's colorful, adventurous grandfather … in Arlington in 1954."
Edgar Lee Masters was sixty years old, and long past his artistic prime, when his son was born. "The aging writer needed peace and quiet to salvage his dwindling reputation," recounted Paul Gray in a Time review of Last Stands. "His wife, nearly 30 years his junior, insisted on working toward a graduate degree at Columbia University." Although the memoir mainly focuses on the relationship between the author and his father and grandfather, New York Times Book Review critic Donald Hall observed that "by the end, in a gradual, convincing shift, the book finds its hero—and it is not the old Indian fighter … or the famous writer living out neglect. It is the author's mother. She determinees to live her own life against her husband's discouragement, determines to rule and remain herself despite a famous husband and a powerful father. She manages to make a career, to remain helpful, to raise her son and take care of old parents and a husband almost her parents' age. She manages: Ellen Coyne Masters is an admirable creature of true dignity."
Last Stands "is a fitting title, alluding to Custer, to [Coyne's] last visits to another era, [to Edgar Lee Masters's] last attempt at being a writer in the heroic, romantic tradition—to Hilary Masters's last chance to assimilate it all, to record it, to give it the truth and honor of the written word," declared Talarico. Jonathan Yardley concluded in the Washington Post Book World that Masters "has not written a narrative but woven a tapestry, in which he moves back and forth in time without any warning to the reader yet without ever creating confusion. He pays loving tribute to his forebears but declines to sentimentalize them. And he never loses sight of the essential truth that we can never know the past, that it can only and always be a mystery, that the most we can hope to do is reinvent it for whatever meaning it offers to the present. This Hilary Masters has done in his small, luminous, consequential book."
Masters followed up his memoir with the "Harlem Valley Trio," a well-received trilogy made up of Clemmons, Cooper, and Strickland. Like Last Stands, Clemmons won praise for its unusual structure as well as its compelling tale. "A major pleasure of Hilary Masters' latest novel," wrote James McConkey in the Washington Post Book World, "comes from the reader's page-to-page involvement in the altering moods of the fiction [Masters] has created; he is a deft craftsman, capable of moving from a sardonic insight to compassion, from satire to rowdy comedy, from sexual passion to a wish for, perhaps even a glimpse of, an order or unity beyond our splintered and violent world." In the New York Times Book Review, William Ferguson described Clemmons as a "well-told chronicle."
While George Core saw Clemmons as "a wonderful comic novel that celebrated life," the critic informed readers of the Washington Post Book World that "Cooper is forged in a darker spirit." According to Core, the novel is no less appealing than its predecessor despite its difference in tone. In reference to the many characters obsessed either literally or metaphorically with flying, Core concluded: "By novel's end everyone has had his flight. … The metaphors of flying and falling are beautifully sustained throughout the action of a memorable book worth rereading, as I have done with relish."
Gordon M. Henry, a critic for the New York Times Book Review, characterized Strickland, the third novel in the "Harlem Valley" series, as attempting to go beyond those Vietnam tales that try to depict the stages of a soldier's journey, from the difficulty of leaving home for war to the bittersweet feelings upon returning after a tour of duty. Masters "takes this process a step further by examining the life lived by a veteran war correspondent years after he has ostensibly reintegrated himself into American Society," Henry asserted. For the critic, however, the attempt was unsuccessful; while conceding that Strickland is not lacking in conviction, Henry concluded that its hero is ultimately unconvincing.
Masters has written several novels outside of the "Harlem Valley Trio." His 1996 novel Home Is the Exile concerns two "men of action" from different eras. Roy Armstrong is a fighter pilot from World War I, bitterly living out an exile in Mexico circa 1940. Walt Hardy is under indictment for his participation in the Reaganera Iran-Contra scandal and has returned to a self-inflicted exile in his hometown of Pittsburgh. The narrative divides between these two individuals but carries a single theme: the fate of heroes and the challenges to integrity that beset Americans in the twentieth century. In Booklist, Thomas Gaughan called the work "a wonderful novel, filled with beautiful writing and rich insights." A Publishers Weekly reviewer likewise observed that Masters "deepens a rousing story with a mist of truth and an aura of heart-felt melancholy."
Masters is also the author of two acclaimed collections of short stories. Of the first, Hammertown Tales, Carol Ames wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "This book of fine stories traces its lineage" to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and beyond to the Spoon River Anthology. Hammertown Tales offers a series of stories, all by different narrators but all set in a fictitious small New York town. Kelsey observed: "Because the short stories are tied together by their setting, Masters is able to provide a sweeping view of Hammertown from various angles. Masters avoids omniscient narration; he tells each story from a different, singular viewpoint, thus providing a broad perspective of Hammertown. With each story, the various levels of reality within Hammertown are added."
In the New York Times Book Review Constance Decker Thompson praised Masters' Success: New and Selected Short Stories, describing the book as "erudite, engaging and lovingly detailed." The stories in Success are "cagey, lucid, and rock-solid tales to engage, challenge, instruct, and delight," according to Harvard Review correspondent Susan Dodd. Comparing Masters' selection with the short fiction of writers Alice Munro and Peter Taylor, she concluded: "The stories of Success yield the depth and complexity of novels. Hilary Masters writes, always, of place and memory, of time and change. His homeground is the rocky yet fertile soil of human connection and the soul's persistent striving toward it, a striving that on this earth's terms must pass, for now, for salvation." Kelsey concluded of Masters' short fiction in general: "While his autobiography and some of his essays have received broader recognition, his short fiction is exceptional, not to be circumvented in favor of his other work."
Some of Masters' essays are collected in In Montaigne's Tower. The title refers to the famous French essayist Montaigne, an author Masters highly admires. In his review of the book for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Samuel Hazo wrote: "Like Montaigne, Masters in essay after essay pursues the dispassionate art of inquiry. He weighs alternatives in a quest to discover what he really knows. He does this not as a scion of his father but as his own man, which any objective reader of his work can see was the case from the beginning. … These are the essays of a brave man. All of them together constitute a brave, keepable and collectable book."
Noting that he has rarely written or discussed the fate that made him a famous poet's son, Masters told CA: "Since my first novel, The Common Pasture, I have endeavored to keep the chance 'acquaintance' with my father, the poet of Spoon River Anthology, off of book flaps and out of publishers' blurbs. This insistence has been the bane of book publicists and marketers, but I did not wish to be looked at as a curio, if not a freak; certainly, my intention was not to claim special privilege or attention. But Cecil Scott, bless him, was then the editor-in-chief at Macmillan, and he insisted this biographical fact appear on this decent, little novel. I had little to say about it. And so the damage, if you will, was done.
"Nor have I written specifically about my father as I could have—another book for the list. He does appear as one of the four characters in my family biography, Last Stands: Notes from Memory; he could hardly be omitted. However, he is by no means the most important character in the book, and as Donald Hall points out in his review, this post was gradually assumed in the course of the narrative by the mother.
"If this relationship has helped me, I will never know, though I worry sometimes that it might have given my work an undeserved interest. It is clear some writers or reviewers have used it to dismiss my work. The most flagrant but amusing attack in this line was the review of my last collection of stories in an important trade weekly in which the writer 'explored' the supposed oedipal relationship, emphasizing for evidence of my particular hang-up, that I called the collection Success. Not a line of description or evaluation was given to any of the stories. A. Dumas, fils, had little trouble with this identity apparently; the salons of Paris welcomed him and his work. As for me, and aside from the respect and tenderness I hold for my father's memory, I think of the 'title' as a mark to be borne with dignity and grace, as any child would want to honor any parent."
Hilary Masters contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
A writer's life has been so picked over and over that what's left for a straightforward telling has become a salvage heap, smudged goods and boring in the vanity of their recycling. Moreover, to look for clues that might explain why one path was taken rather than another one is perhaps an amusement of interest only to the protagonist. Yet, the question as to why one becomes a writer—that question most often asked in public forums—might sustain a legitimate review, and though psychologists, critics and drinking buddies may have their own inventions they should not have the inquiry all to themselves. We've been lectured on psychic wounding, dysfunctional homes; and, lately, sexual abuse makes for a tasty theory. Could the large and continuous enrollments in MFA programs be an indicator of the breakdown of the American family?
Halfway through writing my family memoir Last Stands: Notes from Memory, I realized that I had been abandoned. It was news to me, for I remembered my childhood as a very happy one, warm and secure and with affectionate handling from all sides. At the age of one, freshly weaned, my mother left me in the care of her parents in Kansas City, Missouri and rejoined my father in New York City. It was late coming, this recognition of my desertion, for I was in my forties and, in all probability, the statute of limitations for real anger had expired. But the fourteen years I spent with my grandparents compose the happiest and most secure period of my life.
For one thing, it was an interesting household. My grandfather, Tom Coyne, emigrated from Ireland at the age of fifteen, worked in the steel mills of Pittsburgh and then went west, laying rails for the expanding railroad system of the 1870s. In San Francisco, he joined the U.S. Cavalry to serve five years on the western frontier and thereby acquired his American citizenship. His adventures in the so-called Indian Wars in Montana and Wyoming became my bedtime stories, and this repertoire was enriched by other tales drawn from his experiences in Mexico and Central and South America as a self-taught civil engineer and soldier of fortune. So story telling and listening to stories being told became early obsessions. Tom Coyne was a smallish man but very tough—no one to fool with or cross—and had a fierce sense of justice and responsibility, which I like to think I made part of my persona. With great dignity, he carried the bruise of being an Irish immigrant, never accepted despite his earned citizenship, so the status of an outsider was familiar to me as well.
My grandmother was Mollie Moynihan Coyne. Her family had traveled back and forth between Ireland and America in alternate generations, and she was born here. She was a handsome woman, fully fleshed with expressive eyes and a magnificent speaking and singing voice. Her gift of language was as vivacious and witty as my grandfather's was caustic. The warmth of her love flooded my being, fast healing most hurts that would visit me, as she taught me tolerance and forgiveness for the failings of others. She was a natural and successful politician, and was enlisted by Tom Pendergast to serve as a Democratic State Committee-woman—one of the legitimate "fronts" for his corrupt political machine. If you were Irish then, politics was one way to make your way through the WASP thicket that was America, and in Kansas City in the 1930s it was a rugged path. The Pendergast organization was generous with Thanksgiving dinners as well as with lead for those that got in its way, and I attended many funerals while growing up and assisted my grandmother handing out a lot of turkeys.
It might be noted that bearing my father's name has raised confusion in certain minds that assume I am the product of an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Actually, the Masters were Welsh, but in fact, I came of age in an Irish-Catholic milieu and was early indoctrinated with the rituals of alienation known to that community.
So what do we have so far? A taste for language, an inclination to turn a phrase, a passion for telling stories and the instinctual understanding that the euphoria of achievement can be quickly leveled by the mallet of rejection—all handy tools for a writer's kit. If I incurred any wounds from my abandonment they were substantially soothed in the cozy, secure comfort of that house on Roberts Street. I can still call up the aroma of my grandmother's cornbread and the crackling succulence of chicken roasting in the Montgomery Ward stove.
But starting when I was about three, my mother would return to Kansas City and pick me up, take me east to join my father in a rented farmhouse in Connecticut or parts of rural New York. Or sometimes we would stay in the city, in his suite at the Hotel Chelsea. One summer we spent in the Ozarks while he did research for a novel. Indeed, here was adventure far different and in different neighborhoods from what I knew in Kansas City, and particularly those times at the Hotel Chelsea. It was a magical place with odd characters, elevators and a drugstore off the lobby that served tuna fish sandwiches and chocolate milkshakes. I learned to roller skate and covered miles of the West Side.
Then there was this man, my father, whose forbidding eyes behind rimless glasses could suddenly flame with merriment. He tickled me, pulled my toes until they cracked, rubbed me raw with a whiskered cheek and sang nonsense jingles, lighting and relighting a foul smelling pipe. What exquisite torture I suffered in his embrace. Moreover, he worked. My grandfather had taught me about work—he continued almost to his last days as an accountant for the Kansas City water department—so I recognized this man that was my father as the same kind of person. When I would wake on the couch in the hotel suite's living room, he would already be at his desk in the bay window at the far end of the room. Writing. The fat, black Shaefer fountain pen was held in his right hand and smoothly traveled across the paper on the desk. Instinctively I knew this activity was his job and that it was seriously done, so I breathed like a mouse and clamped down on my kidneys until they were about to burst. "Oh, hell, Mr. It." He would finally notice my attention. "What to do, what to do?"
Also, my mother, father and I ate out almost every night and I caught on to the sense that he was special—other than being my father. People would come to our table and introduce themselves, waiters would pay us extra attention, and I figured there was a connection between what I watched him do in the mornings and this treatment in restaurants. I also reasoned that the same activity kept us apart most of the year. But these brief weeks or months with him in summer were unqualified joy; yet I was always eager to return to my grandparents' home.
So, back and forth, back and forth, I traveled between Kansas City and New York by train or Greyhound bus; by car and one time by plane. My grandfather put me alone on a TWA DC-3 much to the consternation of my grandmother. "I can see his little legs, dangling though the clouds," she said. This shuttling became the structure of my childhood, and eventually appeared in my prose style—a migration within time, the repeated journeys into the past to discover the present in what Donald Hall would call "a narrative (that) thrives on abrupt transitions."
Then there were books. My grandfather was self-educated—he had studied civil engineering through an army correspondence course—and he revered books in his great hunger to best the society that never accepted him. The set of Encyclopedia Britannica was kept in the corner of the living room next to the radio, and I am convinced he read the whole thing, some volumes more than once. One of his favorites was the section on the building of the Panama Canal. He had been there, had helped build and run a railroad to the construction site, and I would often find him studying the photographs that accompanied the piece as if trying to find himself in the blurred images.
In New York my father and mother always seemed to have books in their hands, and I was given them to play with like blocks and then to mimic their study and finally to read them. It's no secret that reading and writing are inextricably bound and so I may have been conditioned. They sent books to me in Kansas City as emissaries of themselves, surrogates to increase my understanding of world history, great achievements in science and art and also fairy tales. I would always identify with the kidnapped prince, spelled to live a commonplace life. Snow White's pathos was known to me and the yearning of Telemachus was more than familiar.
One book that struck me more deeply than the others was Robinson Crusoe. A copy of DeFoe's masterpiece was given me by an eccentric book collector who lived a couple of floors above my father in the Hotel Chelsea. He had befriended me as I rode up and down the elevator, a favorite pastime if poor weather kept me off my skates, and he put an ancient edition of the story into my hands one afternoon that defined, I'm pretty sure, my destiny as a writer.
Crusoe's shipwreck on the deserted isle—the ultimate outcast—seized my imagination, and not just the drama of his fate but how he survived, how he made do with the salvage of his wrecked ship and the found materials of his forced habitat. His making something new and different out of old and various stuff fascinated me and would become a paradigm of what I would attempt to do as a writer.
This halcyon time—and make no mistake, my life seemed to combine the best of two worlds—came to an end when my grandparents signaled my mother they could no longer care for me. I was now in high school and my grandfather was eighty-two, and my grandmother, after a lengthy illness, had given up, worn down by Tom Coyne's iron rule and frontier discipline. My mother had finished her graduate work at Columbia University and had begun her teaching career. My parents were living apart; my father had just entered that downward slope of penury and neglect that seemed to be the fate of poets in America then, and in his case, the degeneration was further accelerated by foolish involvements that sapped his attention and energy.
In all this, I mistook my mother's drive to hold us together as a wrong-headed intrusion into what I had constructed as an ideal childhood. My father's career had clearly foundered. He carelessly hacked together trivial copies of the old magic to pay his account at the Hotel Chelsea while eating pork and beans at the Automat down the street. He applied to several universities for some kind of position as a poet in residence, but none were interested. My mother took a teaching position at a private school on the upper West Side that paid her one thousand dollars a year (this was in the late 1930s) and she supplemented this income by checking hats and coats at night for private parties at big hotels like the Waldorf Astoria. I remember one Christmas dinner the two of us shared at a cheap Italian restaurant in the West Thirties, near Penn Station, that she paid for by hocking a silver pepper grinder that had been a wedding present. She managed to retrieve it from the pawnshop, and it sits on my dining table today.
My adolescent rage made me blind to the reality that imprisoned our lives at this point. I felt victimized, and the agent of this tyranny was obviously my mother, for she was the only one on the horizon that showed signs of life. I suppose this time of hardship, from boyhood into adolescence, may have shaped my work, may have urged me to take the long looks back that evidently appeal to my vision. And if the humiliation of these years as a witness to hard work never becoming more than fruitless toil—and as a companion to round-the-clock bone dead weariness—has edged my sensitivity, the experience has also urged my indulgence of the crush our current culture has on the so-called blue collar poet.
Meantime my mother found a place for me—really only a roof over my head and food on the table—at Brewster Free Academy in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. It wasn't Exeter or St. Paul's or Andover (it was "good enough," she said), but a secondary school funded by local residents, free to Wolfeboro students but charging a modest tuition for others. Somehow, she wrangled a scholarship for me from a small foundation which, in later years, she paid back. I was one of about two dozen "boarders" who lived in two old mansions on the small pretty campus. I learned to ski and lost my virginity. This transition was performed with remarkable style by a classmate, a couple of years older than I, and to this day I wonder where she learned in that remote village near the White Mountains all she taught me on the wooded shore of Lake Winnepesaukee.
When we graduated on June 6, l944—D-Day—my parents had reunited, and my mother had assumed control of my father's daily life, nursing him back to health and a well-being that he was to enjoy for the years remaining to him. Though her efforts sometimes resembled the strong-armed methods of Tom Coyne they still restored to him the dignity, and even some of the recognition, that had been lost to him. She had just been hired to establish an English Department in a Country Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina and she packed us all up and put us on a train going south. This was a new direction for me, and my old neighborhood in Kansas City, the security of that front porch on the terrace above Roberts Street all seemed sadly distant.
However, I had visions of enrolling at the University of North Carolina, but I had just turned sixteen, and my mother determined I was too young for such a place, whereas just a few miles away was this small Presbyterian all-male college called Davidson. "It's known as the Princeton of the South," she told me, which in no way tempered my disappointment. The war had reduced the enrollment so it was composed of pre-divinity students immune to the draft—some Four-F classifieds and kids like me, too young for military service. We were about a hundred all together, and the faculty was similarly decimated. Classes were tiredly taught by emeriti called back to the classroom and they were pretty awful. I was miserably unhappy though I enjoyed playing football and bridge. Also to be enjoyed were excursions to Chapel Hill, escaping the strict, Calvinistic atmosphere of Davidson to savor the enchantments of bootleg whiskey and soft-speaking women. My grades sunk lower and lower, and I hoped to flunk so I could enlist in the service—it was one war that almost everyone wanted to join. But my mother put me into summer school to make up a couple of courses, which only made me resolve that my next semester at Davidson would be a total failure. In February I would turn eighteen, and I calculated that if I flunked out in the fall semester, I would be drafted after the New Year and my mother could do nothing about it.
As it turned out, it was very difficult to flunk out of Davidson College in 1945. I had to spend a lot of time at the Kappa Sigma house in Chapel Hill, mostly drunk. I don't remember much about that fall semester, except that it was a time of unbridled and glorious dissipation. And my strategy worked: I flunked enough courses to become draftable and enlisted in the Navy before the Army could get me.*
Let's get back to the writing; these lurid remembrances have diverted this study from the more sober accounts of a writer's odyssey. The first literary effort I can remember was a poem, written in grade school, about a robin that refuses to fly south for the winter. He freezes to death on the lawn. Some hint of hubris and irony in that lament, to be re-visited and polished up in subsequent works. There were imitations of King Arthur and the Brothers Grimm, but as I grew older, starting in high school, I was attracted to journalism. I worked on school papers as columnist or editor. What my father did at his desk every morning was now clear to me, and I was determined not to do the same. False pride perhaps or some sense of independence urged me away from a literary persuasion. Yes, I would still type out a story now and then, maybe even a novel, in the naïve belief of most journalists who believe they could be another Mark Twain if they chose to be.
So, I became a Naval correspondent, assigned to the Navy's public relations division in Washington, D.C. We wrote speeches and letters for the big brass and put on a good sell for the Navy in the press. We wrote masques and articles—even a book—about John Paul Jones, trying to make that old pirate's birthday into a national holiday. I edited a news service for ship and shore newspapers, liberally distributing pinup pictures of starlets among articles on the latest fighter plane or the goodwill tour of a submarine fleet. Another assignment put me in charge of radio and newsreel cameras to record the launch of a captured German V-2 rocket from the deck of the carrier Midway. It was the Navy's attempt to grab headlines during President Truman's move to unite the armed services, and it came close to blowing the whole ship up.
The Navy also taught me how to make photographs and this activity has become a vocation, a major second to writing. I have had successful shows of my work in galleries, publications in magazines, and for a time earned a little extra by providing stock pictures for an agency. More important, making pictures sharpens my eye for detail as it also refreshes the eye that has been so closely glued to a manuscript page.
After the Navy, I stayed in Washington and got a job as a copy boy with the Daily News, a tabloid run by the Scripps Howard chain. I puttered over my Remington portable trying to imitate the stories by John O'Hara I read in the New Yorker, but I still planned a career in journalism, and considered returning to Missouri to enroll in the university journalism school, which then had the best reputation in the country. A colleague from the Navy urged me to think about Brown University, his alma mater. It had a strong English Department, he said. The name seemed odd to me for a university—I was only vaguely aware of the Ivy League—so on a whim I applied and was accepted, thanks to the G.I. Bill. Of course, my application discretely omitted my career at Davidson.
Brown's program in international relations attracted me, not the English Department. Following my grandmother's deft footwork through the murderous outback of Tom Pendergast's political territory had given me an interest in the sport, and I saw parallels in the cold war maneuvers. I was a member of the socalled last "veterans class," older and worldlier than most undergraduates, and we were a rowdy lot—a mixed bag of backgrounds and interests who lived off campus in ramshackle houses and apartments. We threw all-night parties and worked our professors hard. I became somewhat famous as a cook, discovering that a good meal often assisted a seduction, and joined the staff of the literary magazine. We were so avant that the meaning of our prose and poetry was left far behind. By now I had given myself shamelessly to "literature." I think it was Faulkner who suggested that all novelists are failed poets, and I can speak to that, for my poetry was a total failure.
But in the course of four years we veterans of World War II became less dominant in the student body, and the university administration seemed eager to return to a preppy prewar image. The shift raised our self-righteous hackles. I had become the editor of the magazine and angled its focus more on the political than the literary, so we railed and ridiculed the rules and hypocrisies of the administration, mocked the self-important pulpit of Henry Wriston, the president, and raised alarms when we felt students' rights were threatened.
One such cause centered on an African-American student—he was one of about a half dozen enrolled then—who had been passed over as editor of the student newspaper, the Brown Daily Herald. This young man was an honors student, on a scholarship, and had been the newspaper's managing editor. It was the normal progression for the holder of that position to become, in his senior year, the editor-in-chief, but this time his candidacy was withdrawn and the assistant sports editor was made editor-in-chief instead. What a farce! Our suspicions were later confirmed when it was learned that the university administration, which funded the newspaper, was concerned that the trustees couldn't digest the fact of a black student editing the newspaper and the student was threatened with the loss of his scholarship. He withdrew.
In my senior year, I recognized that I had once again put myself in hostile territory, that I had never belonged in the Brown community and what I had thought had been the actions of a rebel were really the throes of an outsider wriggling against the fence of the establishment. The mechanics of alienation are similar to those of abuse; I am often attracted to the very group or institution that will always reject me.
Meantime, Columbia University in one swoop took away three key faculty in the international relations program because the Wriston administration was spending its money building on-campus residences for the fraternities and not on faculty salaries, so I had to choose another major. I had taken enough courses in literature and writing to satisfy the requirement for an English major, and one of these was the invention of an Edwardian gentleman named Sharon Brown. Brown was a professor of Victorian literature, but he also had become interested in several of us as writers. He organized a yearlong workshop around the premise that each of us was a budding novelist, and we met once or twice a week in his office to review our chapters. So I wrote my first novel under this remarkable man's patient and respectful care—it was a serious construction concerning the loss of a father, my own had just died—and his encouragement gave me the final push into a writer's life. Years later, I dedicated to him the first novel I was to publish, but alas, he did not live to see this expression of my gratitude.
After graduation and in New York, I rented a cold-water flat across from the Chrysler Building (five rooms, no heat and $18 a month) and set up my Remington portable to start this task of being a writer. I supported myself with a series of odd jobs and then joined the small press agentry of Bennett and Pleasant. Richard Pleasant had created Ballet Theatre and Isadora Bennett's clients included Martha Graham, José Limon, Valerie Bettis, José Greco, harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe, and singers William Warfield and Leontyne Price. I was a gofer but I gradually learned the strategies and techniques of Broadway flacking in this heady company. At night I would go back to my apartment, cook up some packaged macaroni and cheese and work on a story to send the New Yorker. Some of my rejection slips were beginning to be signed!
At this time, I also met the young woman who would become my first wife. Our affair was marvelous, crazy, and young in New York, but the marriage foundered after only a year, and I traveled to Nevada to perjure myself for an uncontested divorce. Divorce then in New York demanded proof of adultery, sometimes using photographs faked with a model. I was now working as a press agent with clients in the nascent off-Broadway theatre and summer stock, and one of these led to my second marriage. A woman who was starting a summer theatre in Hyde Park, New York hired me to publicize the venture, and we fell in love and were married a year later. After the birth of our first child, we determined that New York City was no place to raise a child, despite the evidence of millions of successful such endeavors to the contrary, so we moved to Hyde Park to live on the grounds of the theatre. The property had been part of Frederick Vanderbilt's estate, barns designed by Stanford White, and I again set up my portable and started typing on what must have been my second or third novel—happily I do not remember the plot. I also started looking for some kind of job because there was no real need for a theatre press agent in this small river town. So I made up a job by starting a weekly newspaper—the Record—and it would be the first of make-do jobs I created for myself as I practiced my fiction at odd hours of the night and day. My aspiration was to become a country editor and a novelist on the side, but I found the margin on the side becoming more and more narrow. As the paper became more successful, owning its own building and the staff growing, I became more and more engaged by its operation and its coverage of the area.
By now, my wife and I had two children fast approaching school age and the Hyde Park schools had become inferior. A better system was turning out Merit scholars north of us so I sold the newspaper, and its accompanying printing business, and we moved to an old farm in Columbia County within this praised school district. Oddly, I had made a complete circuit, for it was in Columbia County, and just a few miles from our new home, that my father had rented some of those summer places. Here I set up shop again and continued my apprenticeship as a novelist, giving myself five years to "make it."
To feel legitimate, I built stone walls, cut the hay, planted trees, painted house and barns and generally managed the woods and fields of this 160-acre estate that had become our home. Ted Weiss had published a poem and a story in the Quarterly Review of Literature and that was encouraging. An editor at Knopf had almost been persuaded to take a novel. So I started another one.
I had a good feeling about the next one, which was to become The Common Pasture when it was published by the Macmillan Company in 1967, so I felt secure enough as a writer to accept the local Democratic Party's nomination as a candidate for the New York State Assembly. The three-county assembly district had a registration that gave the Republican party a 4-1 edge, so it was clear that the Democrats had only wanted a warm body and a name on the ballot. But I took the nomination seriously and put together a door-to-door, one-man band campaign that is still talked about. Out of some 40,000 votes I lost by a mere 1,200 and became the first Democrat to carry Columbia County for a state office since FDR ran for the state senate in 1912. In fact, no Democrat candidate has turned the trick since. Robert Kennedy, then a senator from New York, took note of my campaign and contributed money. Later, to keep my name "alive," he got me a job in Albany as an advisor to the state assembly's speaker, and I originated legislation beneficial to my area and similar communities. One of these established medical scholarships for rural students and another kept the artist Frederick Church's house and grounds in Hudson out of a developers hands. Kennedy's assassination cooled my ardor for politics.*
But all of these endeavors, as worthy or successful as they may have been, were really only to justify and cover my attempt to put words on paper in a reasonable and likeable manner—to give the appearance that I was legitimately employed while the income from my wife's estate actually paid the bills. Then happily The Common Pasture was published, and then Macmillan did An American Marriage. A third novel, Palace of Strangers, drawn from my experience in New York State politics, was done by World. I was on a roll—three novels published in four years! My years of solitary apprenticeship seemed to be paying off, and I envisioned a life of genteel composition in this rustic bower, but the dream became a cruel hallucination when year after year went by and work after work was turned down. The good reviews had not made for good sales—not good enough—and I could not get anything more substantial into print for ten years. I had become a groundskeeper and caretaker of the beautiful place my wife and I had made of this old farm in the Berkshire foothills, but we lived on her income from family investments. My image before my children—we had now added a third child—had begun to worry me and strains appeared in the marriage. In-laws began to ask, "What does Hilary do?" So, I became a teacher of creative writing, an honest vocation if not dubiously named.
Different colleges and universities had invited me to be a visiting writer, and in 1975 I accepted an offer from Drake University and thereby began a ten-year trek around the country, joining different institutions as I pursued my tattered muse. A used Olympia Standard had replaced the Remington portable, and the work in progress was to be a collection of the wild stories my grandfather used to tell me. I wanted to preserve these delights of my childhood for my children. Also, I was moving around the country again as I did in that childhood, and as I made these journeys, my mind's shuttling into olden times created a shed of memories to house a narrative I had not anticipated. The four histories of my grandparents and parents, as disjointed and antagonistic as they were, wove themselves into a single tapestry.
My wife valiantly accompanied me on two of these jaunts into academia, but she clearly preferred the solitude of the farm. For me, the beautiful country estate had become a beautiful prison, and my sojourns as a visiting writer led me farther and farther away—even to Finland as a Fulbright lecturer. After nearly thirty years of marriage, one with many, many happy times, and the children now grown, we agreed to an amicable separation and divorce. I happily gave the farm to her.
In 1982 David R. Godine of Boston published the memoir Last Stands: Notes from Memory and my career was rekindled. The manuscript had been seen by every major publisher in New York and Boston, some more than once; passed around by them for three or four years and rejected by all because of its eccentric transitions that traveled between the past and present—a method that would be eventually praised and imitated. Other books have followed, short story collections and, recently, essays on which I have tried to fit this elliptical style with the "help" of Michel de Montaigne. In 1983 I accepted an invitation to join the Creative Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University. The vitality and beauty of Pittsburgh appeals to me very much, and I find myself once again living on the banks of rivers. This happiness was made sublime when Kathleen George agreed to share the site with me. She is a superb writer and theatre scholar, and we expect to live happily ever after. My travels are over.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 244: American Short-Story Writers since World War II, Fourth Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001, pp. 239-245.
Masters, Hilary, Last Stands: Notes from Memory, D. Godine (Boston, MA), 1982.
Booklist, April 15, 1987, p. 1249; November 15, 1989, p. 640; March 15, 1992, p. 1337; July, 1996, Thomas Gaughan, review of Home Is the Exile, p. 1803.
Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1986; May 18, 1987.
Harvard Review, June, 1992, Susan Dodd, review of Success.
Los Angeles Times, February 20 1985.
Newsweek, December 20, 1982.
New York Times Book Review, December 19, 1982, Donald Hall, review of Last Stands; January 22, 1984, p. 30; February 24, 1985, William Ferguson, review of Clemmons, p. 22; April 20, 1986, Carol Ames, review of Hammertown Tales, p. 22; September 13, 1987, p. 34; February 11, 1990, Gordon M. Henry, review of Strickland, p. 18; May 10, 1992, Constance Decker, review of Success: New and Selected Stories, p. 16.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, March 12, 2000, Samuel Hazo, "'In Montaigne's Tower' by Hilary Masters: Frank Essays Reveal Hilary Masters' Inner Struggle as the Son of a Famous Father."
Publishers Weekly, January 13, 1992, review of Success, p. 46; June 17, 1996, review of Home Is the Exile, p. 48.
Time, November 29, 1982, Paul Gray, review of LastStands.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), October 31, 1982, Ross Talarico, review of Last Stands.
Washington Post Book World, November 14, 1982, Jonathan Yardley, review of Last Stands; March 17, 1985, James McConkey, review of Clemmons, p. 8; June 28, 1987, George Core, review of Cooper, p. 14.