Matthews, John H(arold) 1925-
Matthews, John H(arold) 1925-
MATTHEWS, John H(arold) 1925-
Born July 22, 1925, in Columbus, OH; son of John Harold (an attorney) and Lulu (Grover) Matthews; married Barbara Reese, September 16, 1947; children: Cynthia Ann (Mrs. Wyman Warnock), Barbara Ellen (Mrs. Craig Platt), John H. III. Education: Ohio State University, B.A., 1949, M.A., 1954.
Home—24 Briarwood Dr., Athens, OH 45701. Office—Department of English, Ellis Hall, 209-E, Ohio University, Athens, OH 45701.
Urbana College, Urbana, Ohio, associate professor, 1959-62, professor of English, 1962-64; Ohio University, Athens, professor, 1964—, distinguished professor of English, 1977—. Distinguished writer-in-residence, Wichita State University, 1970-71. Military service: U.S. Coast Guard, 1943-45.
Vanderwater Poetry Prize, Ohio State University, 1953, 1954; Borestone Mountain Poetry Award, 1959, for "From the Uncertainty for Our Dire Predictions," and 1965, for "Summer Dances"; Ohioana Fiction Award, 1965, for Bitter Knowledge; Quill Award, 1967, for "The Hotel"; Florence Roberts Head Award, 1968, for Hanger Stout, Awake!; Guggenheim Foundation grant in creative writing, 1974-75; grants from Ohio Arts Council.
ALL UNDER NAME JACK MATTHEWS
Bitter Knowledge (short stories), Scribner (New York, NY), 1964.
An Almanac for Twilight (poems), University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC), 1966.
Hanger Stout, Awake! (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1967.
Beyond the Bridge (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1970.
The Tale of Asa Bean (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1971.
The Charisma Campaigns (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1972.
(Editor with Elaine Hemley) The Writer's Signature (textbook), Scott, Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1972.
(Editor and contributor) Archetypal Themes in the Modern Story, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1973.
Pictures of the Journey Back (novel), Harcourt (New York, NY), 1973.
(Author of introduction) James S. Brisbin, editor, Belden, the White Chief, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1974.
Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit, Putnam (New York, NY), 1977.
Tales of the Ohio Land (short stories), Ohio Historical Society, 1978.
Dubious Persuasions (short stories), Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1981.
Sassafras (novel), Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1983.
Crazy Women: Short Stories, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1985.
Booking in the Heartland, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1986.
Ghostly Populations: Short Stories, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1986.
Memoirs of a Bookman, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1990.
Dirty Tricks: Short Stories, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1990.
An Interview with the Sphinx, Dramatic Pub. (Woodstock, IL), 1992.
(Editor) Rare Book Lore: Selections from the Letters of Ernest J. Wessen, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1992.
Storyhood as We Know It, and Other Tales, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1993.
Booking Pleasures, Ohio University Press (Athens, OH), 1996.
Reading Matter: A Rabid Bibliophile's Adventures among Old and Rare Books, Oak Knoll Press (New Castle, DE), 2000.
In a Theatre of Buildings, Ox Head, 1970.
Book Collecting and the Search for Reality, privately printed by Library Associates of Wichita State University, 1972.
Private Landscapes (poems), Duane Schneider Press, 1975.
Contributor to anthologies, including Best Poems of 1965, Pacific Books, 1966, Short Stories from the Little Magazines, Scott, Foresman, 1970, The Best American Short Stories, 1970 and 1975, Prize Stories 1972: The O. Henry Awards, Doubleday, 1972, and Prize Stories 1981: The O. Henry Awards, 1981. Contributor of more than 200 articles, reviews, poems, and short stories to Yale Review, Sewanee Review, Georgia Review, Southern Review, Epoch, Today, College English, Commonweal, Tamesis, Southern Humanities Review, Nation, and numerous other periodicals.
In a Dictionary of Literary Biography profile of John H. "Jack" Matthews, Bin Ramke noted that although the prolific writer has published only one book of poems, An Almanac for Twilight, "his technique as a fiction writer is often poetic. The search for the telling emblem, apparent in all his work, implies a concern with presenting the most concise, and thus the most intense, version of a story. Another poetic characteristic of Matthews's fiction is his concern with language. Matthews seems to use linguistic experimentation to keep a freshness in his work and to avoid the dangers of the formulaic approach to fiction; as he himself once said: 'The gift of experimentation manifests itself in stories, poems, and plays as inventiveness, richness and subtlety of metaphor and thematic resonance.'"
Matthews has published in a variety of genres; his writings include poetry, fiction, and essays. Though he earned awards and acclaim for his short stories, he became better known to the public when Hanger Stout, Awake!, his first novel, was released in 1967. The novel tells the story of Clyde "Hanger" Stout, an innocent mechanic who is talented at "free-hanging" by his hands. Challenged by the story's villain to compete in a championship free-hanging event, Hanger trains and ends up as the best, though all this earns him is the laughter of his town. Hanger seems unaffected by how he has been used, however, and maintains his kind and trusting nature, feeling he has proven himself. The novel won the Florence Roberts Head Award, and, according to Ramke, earned its author "a place in contemporary letters."
Matthews followed Hanger Stout, Awake! with the novels Beyond the Bridge and The Tale of Asa Bean. Based on a true story, Beyond the Bridge features a narrator dealing with a midlife crisis. He contemplates making a new start by appearing to have committed suicide. Asa Bean, in The Tale of Asa Bean, is in some ways more like Hanger; he is innocent and trusting, but here the similarities end. Asa is a former Ph.D. candidate who is now working a minimum-wage job, trying to deal with his abundant IQ and over-abundant libido. His intelligence tends to scare off the women he would like to date, but through his misadventures—including a plot he makes to vandalize a painting at the local art museum—he triumphs.
The Charisma Campaigns stars a used-car dealer and con man named Rex McCoy. Rex "the Real McCoy"'s story is told in the form of an American tall tale, and begins when a big city psychologist comes to him to study the effects of charisma. When McCoy realizes he sells more cars than his competitors due to his charisma, he is thrilled; he refuses, however, to make an attempt to utilize his potential, as he is happy as a big man in his small community. The essayist for Contemporary Novelists called The Charisma Campaigns "a superb novel—Matthews's finest accomplishment to date."
Pictures of the Journey Back is a story of loss. According to Matthews, commenting in Contemporary Novelists, those things slowly being lost are "the sacred ideals of one's family and culture, what the Romans termed Pietas." The novel features Laurel, a college girl who is estranged from her dying mother. An ex-rodeo hand and the girl's boyfriend, a hippie aspiring film maker, accompany Laurel on a trip to see her mother so she can make amends before the woman dies. Through their adventures, Laurel is without hope, but with the help of the other two, her fears are resolved.
With Sassafras, Matthews created a work of historical fiction. Set in the 1840s on the American frontier, the picaresque novel focuse on Thad Burke. A phrenologist—a traveling "scientist" who studies the bumps in people's heads to "read" about their personalities and problems—Thad is joined by an odd assortment of supporting characters: an Osage Indian, an escaped slave, and a young Comanche woman masquerading as a boy. "This is the kind of novel that thrives on coincidence—the more preposterous, the better," wrote a reviewer of Sassafras in Publishers Weekly.
According to an essayist for Contemporary Novelists, Matthews's work is shaped by Middle America. "In his six novels (and in many of his remarkable short stories) the reader can sense the wide-open spaces of the Midwest, the often-closed minds of its inhabitants, the limitless possibilities of success and failure, the comic and the tragic in ironic balance. Like Sinclair Lewis, Matthews captures the essence of Middle America. He does so, however, without the didacticism of Lewis and with more of the comic and a surer control of the dramatic."
Tom O'Brien, reviewing Matthews's short-story collection Dubious Persuasions for the New York Times Book Review, found that many of the author's characters "are deeply nostalgic, with a fixation on the past. He maintains an ambivalent distance from their eccentricities, at times treating them like obsessions, at times like reverie, and most intriguingly, at times as normal." This sense of distance characterizes Matthews's novels; according to Ramke, the author's development as a novelist parallels the "increasing complexity" of each work. "From Hanger Stout, Awake!, which concentrates on a single character who tells his own story, to Pictures of the Journey Back, which involves three major characters and multiple points of view, Matthews continues to probe the possibilities of human interaction," Ramke noted. "In his words, 'every story can be viewed as, in varying degrees, an occasion and ceremony of passionate learning.' Thus he has not only developed a patented formula for his work but has allowed his voice to be molded by the demands of his chosen subjects. Matthews is a 'literary' writer … whose works gain by rereading and thoughtful examination. Perhaps that is the reason his readership, though faithful, remains smaller than his champions believe he deserves."
Beginning with his 1977 title Collecting Rare Books for Pleasure and Profit and continuing through to his 2000 title Booking Pleasures, Matthews has written a great deal on the art of book collecting. Penned by an avid collector, these volumes are a mixture of advice on the art of collecting and essays loosely based on books that provide a broader spectrum of interest. Booking Pleasures, for example, features fifteen essays that bring together the novelist's adventures in collecting books with historical events. "Matthews tells a good story and the connections that he makes between those historical events and/or personal adventures are certainly entertaining," wrote Norman D. Stevens in a review for Library Quarterly.
Commenting about literature in Contemporary Novelists, Matthews wrote, "I think of every literary work as a place where three classes of people come together: the author, the reader, and the characters. The work is importantly, if not solely, definable in terms of these three classes and their relationships to one another and to the story (or poem) which is the arena of their convention. Thus, every story can be viewed as, in varying degrees, an occasion and ceremony of passionate learning.
"All stories are philosophical probes, hypotheses, heuristic journeys, maps of powerful and conceivable realities, speculations, ceremonies of discovery. All these, every one. Some attempts to write a good story work beautifully; others prove sadly unworthy, false, flat, silly. Nevertheless, an author should have the courage and energy to experiment constantly and knowledgeably (i.e., remembering and adding to his craft), even in his awareness that he will often miss whatever mark is there, and knowing also that whatever can conceivably happen to him and come out of him will ultimately be found to have taken place within his signature.
"Man's character is his fate, but he should never let this fact inhibit his real freedom of the real moment. I celebrate this truth in my stories, as well as in the act of writing them."
John H. Matthews contributed the following autobiographical essay, updated in 2004, to CA:
THE EYE OF THE HORSESHOE
TO BEGIN WITH BEFORE BEGINNING
Portions of what follows may seem too amiably comfortable for credibility. I am aware that there is no practical, common-sense, "real" perspective from which my childhood, for example, could be viewed as quite so lyrically untroubled. But if the imagination cannot illuminate the past, where is its power? So if I have idealized my childhood, there is a deeper truth in the account; because idealization is natural to me, and what I am is memory.
My title may also need explaining. A horseshoe doesn't have an eye any more than a rope or a pond. But it doesn't have any less than a rope (posing as a lariat, for example) or a pond (a circle with a theoretical center). Here, we find ourselves in the intensely human world of metaphor. My focus is upon the image of a horseshoe, whose center of gravity is empty space—an invisible, unreal eye gazing out at us. This speaks of what I am and where I live, and this twofold focus is central to my title. Both imaginary and real, the horseshoe's eye is a perfect symbol, therefore perfectly human, for as symbol users, we are never quite real or complete in ourselves, and live our lives surrounded by otherness in all directions, including the temporal.
The eye of the horseshoe, then, is the image, the symbol, and the process itself. It is the center of the implement of memory and the ceremony of recall. It occupies time and watches us from out of its center. It is what we essentially are, embraced by past and future and, like the horseshoe, enclosed by the iron brackets of artifact.
I was born on July 22, l925, in my house at l64 Glencoe Road, in Clintonville, a far-north suburb of Columbus, Ohio. My Great Uncle Elwood had built the first four houses on Glencoe, and ours was the fourth. My parents had moved there the year before, so that I could be born in that house. I remember winter evenings when I was asked to stand in front of the fireplace and recite for company. What did I recite? I have forgotten.
Visiting Pappa Matty (this version of his name is, of course, baby talk; but since we're taught baby talk by our elders, it is only respectful to perpetuate it), my grandfather Sam Matthews, in Vinton, a village in the wooded hills of Gallia County, Ohio, I remember singing "The Big Rock Candy Mountain"; and in 1931, when he asked how old I was, I answered, "Eight," which scandalized my parents, because I was six, and I had always been taught that nothing was more important than telling the truth. "Jack," my mother often said, "don't tell stories." But I didn't always mind my mother. Sam Matthews had a feed store in Vinton, and I remember standing amid the thick shafts of grain-drenched sunlight, breathing in all that fragrant, golden warmth.
I also remember visiting Momma Godey, my Grandmother Grover, on her farm near Bidwell, a town later immortalized by Sherwood Anderson (assuming he had that town in mind), in his story, "The Egg." If the stories are true, my grandfather Augustus Grover, known county-wide as "Bub," must have been a legendary, larger-than-life character: a flamboyant cattleman with over l,000 acres of land. He was a passionate baseball fan, and when the home team was losing, he would leave the field and hide out in back, among the buggies and model Ts, asking passersby who was leading. The fact that the home team starred his son-in-law, my dad, along with his own son, Ray, had absolutely everything to do with his attitude. He was not exactly a man of objective views, and once horsewhipped a local democrat in what was presumably a political gesture. I don't remember Bub, for he died when I was two years old; but if the stories are true, he had an extraordinary gift for sentimentality, which I must have inherited.
Some fifty years after Momma Godey died, I was driving by her house and saw a garage sale sign. I stopped and asked if they had any old books for sale; they did not. I told the woman who lived there that my grandmother had lived there a half century before, which did not seem to interest, much less impress, her. However I didn't mention a dark Halloween long before, when my sister and all my girl cousins undertook to frighten me. My cousin Elizabeth put on a sheet and came moaning out of the dark mist of the orchard. Fifty years later, this memory inspired my story, "The Terrible Mrs. Bird."
All my girl cousins were as close and affectionate as sisters. Momma Godey was a wonderful, wrinkled, spirited, and loving old lady, although I was too young to ever tell her something like that. I wouldn't have been capable of saying it anyway, and maybe not even today, except obliquely, in some such translation as this.
My mother taught me how to play bridge when I was eight or nine years old. Everyone was kind enough to exclaim over what a good player I was, but I've long forgotten how to play any card game, except for gin rummy, which I am barely able to stumble through without cussing or starting to sing "On the Road to Mandalay." I remember going to Clinton School, where Miss Wing was my first-grade teacher. I remember the neighborhood families on Glencoe playing bridge and eating pie and cake and drinking soft drinks (never any alcohol) and coffee every New Year's Eve; and at midnight, Jake Meckstroth, editor of the Ohio State Journal, would go get his carbide cannon, set it in the middle of the street and fire it. All of us boys loved it, because of the splendidly loud bang it made.
Speaking of noise, I took trumpet lessons, and in l935 my father bought a seven-foot Steinway grand piano for my mother, who liked to play and sing such popular sentimental favorites as "In a Little Spanish Town" and "On the Isle of Capri." Dad bought the piano from Otto Heaton, a hunchbacked music-store owner who was legendary in Columbus, having placed signs all over central Ohio, saying: TEACH YOUR SON TO PLAY A HORN AND HE WON'T GO TO PRISON. The piano he sold us had been used by Rachmaninoff for practice in his suite at the Deshler Wallick Hotel, while he was on tour as a "Steinway artist." Rachmaninoff signed the metal plate, to signify his approval of the piano's tone. Now, our only granddaughter has that piano, demonstrating a pleasing continuity in our family.
Holding the handle of my trumpet case in one hand on the handlebars, I rode my balloon-tired bicycle three miles into the university district near Ohio State, where I took lessons from Mr. Saumenig. I can remember the delicious odors of their dinner cooking as I blundered through the week's lesson. I almost never practiced, although my mother would occasionally talk me into playing "The Gayety Polka" with her in a duet, which we sometimes did, and which was practice of a sort. That, and "The Bells of Saint Mary's" (Dad's favorite) may have been the only two songs I ever played all the way through without a mistake—something of a rarity, although I could blow as loud as the next boy. My trumpet cost $l25, a whopping amount of money for the depression years.
One day when the weather was bad, I took the streetcar for my lesson at Mr. Saumenig's house. But on my return, showing a talent for absent-mindedness even at this young age, I left my trumpet on the streetcar.
When I walked in the house without it, my mother scolded me appropriately, then drove me to the car barn on Arcadia Avenue, where my trumpet was waiting for me. Some anonymous person had turned it in. This demonstration of honesty was not as astonishing then as it would be today.
We all loved the outdoors, and in summers we would take fishing trips to Michigan, Canada, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. In l937 we visited Fort Ticonderoga and later crossed the St. Lawrence on a rainy night into Quebec, where I was interested to learn they spoke French. After Quebec, we traveled west to the Martin River, north of North Bay, Ontario, and my dad and I fished for great northern pike by trolling with daredevil spoons. We also saw wild bears feeding in a garage dump, and my dad took their picture with our new l6-mm movie camera, which attracted a lot of attention among the people, although the bears didn't seem impressed.
Back home, I remember hiking in the woods and fields north of Acton Road. I also went to Camp Lazarus, situated on the Olentangy River in Delaware County, the same county where my family would one day own a farm. I was interested in Indians and pioneers, and my favorite century was the eighteenth. I liked to draw and can remember drawing a lot of pictures with soldiers wearing tri-cornered hats. I liked books and read Cardigan by Robert W. Chambers, Northwest Passage and Arundel by Kenneth Roberts, and, of course, The Deerslayer.
On hikes I often pretended I was either an Indian or a pioneer; it seemed to make little difference, as if I already had a sneaking suspicion of the truth implicit in the secret attraction and collaboration of opposites, sometimes eventuating in dialectic, and sometimes manifest as enantiodromia. All that land north of Acton Road is now covered with ranch houses, fast food places, and filling stations, as if it, too, had been yearning to change into some theoretical, though hardly conceivable, opposite. Still, there is this version of what it once was that remains in my mind, remote beyond the reach of change.
One is privileged to have survived so many years and to have experienced so many transformations, and I am thankful. I have written about standing at the window of my father's suite of law offices, on the eighth floor of the Outlook Building, at 44 East Broad, directly across from the old State Capitol, looking down upon Armistice Day parades. I remember the old GAR veterans marching in front, and how pathetically their ranks thinned yearly. My father seemed to know everyone in downtown Columbus, and when he would take me to lunch, he would stop often to chat with friends, always introducing me to them and telling me stories about them afterwards.
As a child, I was blessed in many ways: growing up in a stable and loving family—where the word "love" was never used, although it was manifest in every conceivable way—and a stable neighborhood, safe for roaming and irresponsibility; cold winters when the streets would be blocked off for sledding, and we would eat clean snow ice cream; autumns that were fragrant with sunlight and rotting leaves; and the opportunity to listen weekly to "Og, Son of Fire" on our big Zenith radio. I had an enduring egocentric feeling that I was not only liked by most people, but paid attention to.
The adults I knew when I was a small boy seemed generous and courtly and decent. Men joked with me and asked me questions. And I can remember times when I was very young, women grabbing my head and hugging it to their warm bodies, embarrassing me mightily. But I have never forgotten; and it was this gesture that helps explain why I have always loved and respected women and always will.
How could a boy growing up in such a world not be happy?
HIGH SCHOOL JINX
Eventually, I began to take my career as a relaxed underachiever seriously. In junior high school I won a medal from the Daughters of the American Revolution for my essay on the U.S. Constitution, which seemed to catch everyone off guard. Even teachers told me they were surprised, and I believed them. Exasperated, Miss Ashmead said, "Jack, if I'd had any say in the matter, you wouldn't have even been recommended to take the test." I could see her point, because I could never sit still and had a short attention span, so I was pretty surprised myself.
In junior high, I was very short in stature, but also very strong for my size. When I was twelve or thirteen, Miss Ashmead had us produce a play in English class, and she assigned me the role of an evil dwarf, which filled me with a silent and helpless rage. (Evil dwarfs will understand how I felt.) The hero was a tall, weakly, milky-limbed, inoffensive, moon-faced boy who towered over me, but wasn't nearly as strong, so that it seemed incredible that we could be so woefully miscast.
This to me was a grievous injustice; but no doubt it eventually proved useful, for it taught me the valuable lesson that the world had not been created for my private satisfaction, and not all women would want to hug my head to their warm bodies. Furthermore, it is in the heat of such injustices that our souls are forged … or something. And, while these injustices are common to all of us, they have a special plangency for two sorts of people: the dismal tribe of injustice collectors—who receive perverse, ecstatic pride in remembering, and exaggerating, their share of the inevitable, human quota of misfortune—and future writers, who will remember in unique ways and for unique reasons, because such things are material. Very much as I am demonstrating right here.
My days at North High School seem in retrospect to have been happy and carefree. I lounged through classes, indifferent to grades and often, alas, to subject matter. Still, there were moments. Among my teachers were Miss Haynes, Miss Leist, Mr. Schweizer, Mrs. Eberhardt, Mr. Kiefer, Mr. Selby, and Mr. McCoy. It was in Miss Corbin's English class that Joseph Conrad's novel The Rover was assigned; but I read it anyway. Later, I came to believe that it was this book that first inspired me to be a writer. "How wonderful it must be," I remember thinking, "to create something like this!"
North High was a very big school for that time, and a great power in the city football league. I tried out for the team as a senior, and although I was the smallest boy on the squad, I was second-string strong-side guard behind Harry Ackley, who had been in the Civilian Conservation Corps and was nineteen or twenty years old. A few days before the first game, however, our family bought a beautiful old run-down l2l-acre farm in Delaware County. It had an orchard filled with gnarled old apple trees, badly in need of pruning. The boy who'd once read Cardigan and Northwest Passage was excited by the thought of owning all that woodland and pasture; and deciding that somebody had to pick all those apples in the orchard, I dropped off the football team shortly before the first game. My career as a football player ended then, one of the many roads not taken, one of the lives not lived.
Buying our farm was a symbolic return for my parents, who had both grown up on farms in Gallia County. The pattern was familiar, and I believe my father lived it to precision. For a country boy, growing up meant leaving the farm and going to the city, for if the farm was childhood's Eden, the city was adulthood's reality. In an age of sociology and demographics, reality is directly proportional to population. Thus, in leaving the farm, an ambitious boy left his youth; and in the city he grew up and proved himself. Eventually successful, he would buy land and become a "gentleman farmer," closing the loop by returning to the felicity of his first awakening.
The house on our farm in Delaware County was built in l82l, and its stairways and the mantels of its three fireplaces were beautifully carved out of solid cherry. Several years after my father's death, my mother sold the farm. Later, Alum Creek was dammed to create the Alum Creek Reservoir. Now, all of the woods and wild pasture land I had learned to love so well is under water, as if transformed into another world, another realm. Water is the medium of time, so that a remembered time is a sunken empire. I have used this image often in my poems and stories, and thought it was mine alone, until I read and rejoiced in Conrad Richter's strange and beautiful novel, The Waters of Kronos.
At a country auction not many years ago, long after we had last walked upon those hills and pastures, I bought the History of Delaware County (Chicago, l880), in which I read about our farm (originally "the Eaton Place") where, in one of the back buildings, an old black woman with the wonderful name of Sarah Brandy lived. She was said to have once been a servant in George Washington's household, and it was said that she died at the age of l25 years, somewhere on the land where I would one day pitch hay, grow corn and potatoes, and prune apple trees.
Is it any wonder I would become a fiction writer and try to retrieve some small part of those quondam and unlived realities that are now submerged in the water of time?
I can recall some of my own temporary enthusiasms. Even as a hopelessly middle-class boy at North High School in Columbus, Ohio, I could feel the promptings of the Weltanschauung, and once took a summer job as a worker in the Big Bear Warehouse on Ingleside Street, in the Bottoms near Goodale Street. Before that, I had made a couple of half-hearted attempts at delivering papers, which I gave up because of the dreary task of arising in the dark-predawn hours on Sundays to go the sub station and pick up my papers. Also, while I delivered the dailies from my big, balloon-tired bicycle with wide handlebars, I could not manage to roll my papers as tightly as they should have been, so that often when I zinged a hard throw at a porch, the paper would come unrolled and fall flapping into the hedge, like a shot pheasant. I was probably ten years old at the time, and was impressed by the foul language and profanity that I heard.
At about the same age, I tried to sell magazine subscriptions. I can remember walking with a canvas bag slung over my shoulder, carrying sample copies of Liberty, Ladies' Home Companion, and the Saturday Evening Post. Once, on Dunedin Road, an old man tried to thrust a nickel into my hand for a single copy of Liberty, and I remember how difficult it was for me to convey to him that I was soliciting yearly subscriptions, not selling copies. I can remember the distant and pained expression on his face, and later wondered if he might not have been blind, for he didn't seem to be looking directly at me. I've often thought of that old man's befuddled kindness, for I am certain he wanted to help a small boy make a little money. Perhaps he thought I was poor and needed it. This was in the mid-l930s, and such an assumption would not have been unlikely, although the part of Clintonville where I worked was solidly middle-class, with few signs of anything approaching poverty.
Much of the excitement of selling magazine subscriptions derived from the voucher system used, which showed wonderful things that a young boy could receive in return for vouchers. I remember that these vouchers were like a currency system in that brown vouchers were worth five yellow ones, so that we took pride in counting up our brownies and discussing what we were going to trade them in for. I remember the vouchers clearly, and know that I must have traded them in for prizes, although I can't remember what any of them was. In a sense, I remember the money, but can't remember what I bought with it. No doubt this fact explains the fascination money has for most of us, for it is a genuine symbol, evoking a mysterious sense of freedom and possibility. It also symbolizes one of the most mysterious abstractions of all: the future.
At this time my sister—who was ten years older than I—was attending Ohio State University and dating a young man named Phil Stoltz, who wrestled in the heavyweight division for the OSU team. Phil's father was Dean of the College of Dairy Technology, and during the Ohio State Fair in August, I worked at the counter in the Dairy Building, selling ice cream and milk in cardboard cartons. The pay was something like twenty cents an hour, which was very good for a young boy at that time. I clearly remember the powerful smell of milk in the building, along with the dense crowds of people. Often, I would sweep up, and one time an old man stopped me and said, "That's all right, boy: that's the way I got my start."
I'm sure this was meant kindly, although it would have been more encouraging if the old fellow had not been dressed in such shabby clothes. Still, he might have been very wealthy, but either forgetful or otherwise unmindful of his appearance. But the most vivid memory of those summer jobs at the fair was a full-sized cow modelled from pure creamery butter. This cow was one of the great features of the Dairy Building, and it was done every year, attracting thousands of people who would gather around the glass case that contained it and marvel at how lifelike it was. I've often wondered what happened to the butter after the fair ended; I've also often referred to that life-like cow (it was a Jersey) as a perfect image of the novella—curiously interesting, requiring considerable skill, but unpublishable.
Briefly after graduation from North High, I worked on our Delaware County farm; and then I went into the U.S. Coast Guard. Like many eighteen-year-old boys at that time, I had never been away from home. For me, this move meant the U.S. Coast Guard Training Station at Curtis Bay, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. What did I do there? I learned to march in close-order drill, handle an oar in a Monomoy surf boat, disassemble a .45 automatic, and step into a gasfilled shed, remove my gas mask, then give my name and serial number before being dismissed.
After boot camp, I was assigned to the bull gang at the shipyards in Curtis Bay; after that I was a firefighter. There were no fires, but I enjoyed climbing up the gigantic shipyard cranes to inspect their fire extinguishers. Those cranes were so big, I thought you might be able to see Finland and Madagascar from their gear shacks; but I'll have to confess that it all looked like Chesapeake Bay.
I was then assigned to Radio School in Atlantic City, where I learned the Morse Code, typing, radio theory, and Q signals, and got a temporary, after-hours job carrying furs out of the basement of Gettleman's Furriers, on the boardwalk. Those furs had been soaked by the tidal wave of the l944 hurricane. Standing in briny water, Steve Schwantkowski, a fellow coast guardsman, and I were moving a heavy, metal fur drying machine when there was a short circuit, tickling us mercilessly for a few seconds. Steve was wearing metal plates in his shoes and passed out. They brought him around with crème de menthe.
From Radio School I went to Alaska, stationed at Point Higgins, outside of Ketchikan, after which I was assigned briefly to the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Maclaine, a l25-foot patrol boat on anti-submarine patrol. She was a tough little ship, but a rolling and pitching hard rider that always moved in more directions than forward. She alternated week-long patrols with the Aurora, out of Sitka and Juneau, and before I joined her had been credited with destroying a Japanese sub in an Alaskan bay. It was said that the enemy sub had fired a torpedo right on target, but the Maclaine did not draw enough water to catch it, so the torpedo sailed under her forward hull, giving her time to throw depth charges until enough engine oil surfaced to indicate a kill.
In Sitka I heard that there were openings for part-time jobs as orderlies in the Old Pioneers' Home there, and I could have arranged to work on alternate weeks, when we weren't on patrol. I was tempted; but eventually I decided that giving baths to old men wasn't my idea of man's work, let alone fun, so I decided not to apply. Later, however, I saw things differently, and wondered what stories I might have heard from those old men. No doubt some of them had personal memories of the Alaskan gold rush. In truth the sins of omission are hard to bear, especially for someone who wants to be a writer.
I remember anti-submarine patrol, with wonderful days of cool invigorating winds and hard bright sunlight, while the Mighty Mac, with sonar pinging, wallowed sedately in the ground swell off Mendenhall Glacier. I remember the blue dark fissures in the glacial ice, piling away upwards toward the sky—a virtual mountain range in itself; and then, above that, a line of the jagged peaks of real mountains, topped by a cloud bank … above which Mt. Fairweather towered in lonely, breathtaking majesty. I remember how we would stand on the fantail, eating apples and throwing the cores at the sea gulls that squawked and fluttered like blown pennants above the foaming wake of our ship.
I remember reading the Armed Service paperback editions we had in our ship's library. There were H. L. Mencken's Happy Days and Newspaper Days, along with other interesting titles—the most memorable being The Sea Wolf. I found something utterly felicitous in having Jack London's classic to read on shipboard, comfortably seated in the radio shack, as it rolled creaking and groaning in the ground swell, and being able to look out upon the North Pacific and realize that it was somewhere in these waters where the fictional schooner Ghost sailed, with Wolf Larsen as its mad captain.
The Coast Guard motto was Semper paratus, "Always Prepared." And so far as I know, it still is.
SIGNING UP FOR PHILOSOPHER
In l945, as one member of that great tide of veterans returning to college, I consulted the Veterans Administration advisor on the campus of Ohio State University about what I should study. The advisor's name was Mr. Buechler, and he had a small mustache. He asked what I was interested in, and I told him philosophy. He picked up a list of vocations and studied it. After a moment, he put it down and told me that he couldn't find "philosopher" listed.
Both of us contemplated this fact a moment. It seemed to me then, and still seems to me, that in a better world the occupation of philosopher would be listed. But this was not the case in the world that existed then, nor is it today. What Mr. Buechler might have been pondering during our moment of impasse following this revelation, I don't know. But what he asked was as reasonable and to the point as his first question: "What would you like to do in life?"
I thought a moment, then said, "I would like to write philosophical novels, somewhat in the manner of those written by Joseph Conrad." (You must understand that I really talked like that in those days; but at this late date there's nothing I can do about it.)
Once again Mr. Buechler picked up the list of vocational majors and began studying it. After a moment's further study, he came upon something that sounded promising. He looked up at me and said, "How about studying to be a Creative Writer?"
"Creative writer"? It had an odd sound to it. Creative writing courses were scarcely better known in those days than courses in creative fainting or creative mugging. While obviously somewhat honorific, the term "creative" had not yet become the shibboleth it has since become (I am thinking of such activities as "creative chemistry" and "creative dying"), so it occurred to me that my advisor's question might be a put-on of some kind.
But a glance at his earnest face told me otherwise. "Well," I said, "I suppose so."
In so casual a manner was one of the critical decisions of my life made. But I didn't know it. Like many such important events, it happened while I was absent, psychologically speaking. I think it must be like this for most of us, at the great turns in our lives. Such negligence is not limited to our personal histories; it lies at the root of practically every great decision we make as a species. I think our decisions are generally of three sorts: those eventuating from a pure, undiluted stew of mindlessness; those caused by expediency or brute force; and aleatory response, in which chance is factored into the decision in some way. My decision to major in "creative writing" was of the first sort, although there was no question that I was interested in literature.
My first three courses at Ohio State as a freshman were physics ("Introduction to Classical Mechanics"; my advisor had commented upon my test score in physics, giving surprising evidence that my interests and talents might lie there), philosophy (it was a beginning course in ethics), and classical Greek. What an odd trio, people thought when they learned about it. And indeed I thought it was pretty odd myself, but tried not to take too much pride in the fact.
Now I can see that I was already unconsciously committed to warping the world to fit my whims. Like literary texts of great density, which they insistently reflect, human lives possess latent as well as overt meanings; and the latent meaning of my life at that time (and indeed, alas, for much of its subsequence) was that I was one who would insist upon marching to a drummer who was pretty inaudible, at least, if not necessarily different.
So I signed up for and attended most of the classes in philosophy, physics, and Greek, and finished my first quarter with a D in philosophy, and Cs in physics and Greek. A sturdy l.66 grade point average, I don't mind telling you. "Why were your grades so low?" you ask. "Why were they so high?" I answer. For the fact was, I hardly opened a book, pretty much like high school. Maybe I did once or twice, when I wasn't thinking; but like so many who are mired down in youthful self-indulgence and self-absorption, I was far from being a model student.
So eventually, physics and philosophy gasped, sagged, abandoned all metaphorical integrity, and collapsed by the wayside. Still, however, I continued to take courses in classical Greek, as well as in English literature—which, you will note, is a new instrument added to the score. Every quarter, I signed up for the next course in Greek. My grades soared to the B range, and then, for some utterly mysterious reason, upon occasion, even higher.
The point is, I trudged diligently (well, maybe not diligently, but more or less regularly) on. And by the third quarter of my sophomore year, I had exhausted the undergraduate listing of courses in Greek, and had begun taking graduate courses. By this time, I was the only member of the class, sitting at a table with Robert Jones, a full professor of Greek. He was a mild and gentle scholar, a man who struck me as somewhat bewildered by my unlikely persistence. But why shouldn't he have been? If I'd thought about it, I would have been pretty bewildered myself.
The two jokes I was subjected to when people learned I was studying classical Greek were something of a trial. "Was I going to open a restaurant?" was one. "It's all Greek to me," was the other. In their way, these jokes were harder than the study of classical Greek, which everyone concedes to be a very difficult language, a language whose irregular verbs have something like l,500 forms, or ways of disguising themselves. (As I remember it, that there were practically no regular verbs, which could mean that they were the irregular ones.) Thinking of the reputation of the great difficulty in learning classical Greek, I am reminded of Heine's comment about classical Latin: that if the Romans had had to learn it first, they could never have found time to conquer the world.
I remember one day when Professor Jones was late for class, apologizing by saying that he had been invited to the Battelle Memorial Institute, some ten blocks to the south, for a consultation. There, he said, he'd entered a great room, with a dozen or more people seated around a vast table, whereupon he was introduced, invited to sit, then asked what "dry" was in classical Greek. Xeros, he answered. And the word for print? Graphos. The noun? Xerography. And so forth. He was paid fifty dollars for his consultation—not bad for that time, but of course I remember the incident as an historical moment.
Having accumulated enough credits to graduate with what was in effect a dual major of English and Greek, I found upon graduation that I was unemployable. But what had I expected? Had I somehow assumed that someone would hire me simply to Think Great Thoughts? Or perhaps, for less pay (though well within the range of living wages), Pretty Good Thoughts?
Maybe I did think this way, although it's hard for me now, gazing back over the decades upon that foolish though married youth (already a paterfamilias) to imagine that I would ever have been capable of such undiluted folly. But the truth is, I was capable of it; and if I can say so without bragging, not simply capable of it, but capable of it with a certain panache—which is the only way to do it, if you have to do it at all.
But not all my actions were foolish. In l947, I had married Barbara Reese, and we are still married, after fifty-seven years. This isn't bad for the populace at large, but for writers … well, it's damned near unheard of, and I suppose I should be ashamed of it, but somehow I'm not. Barbara continued working for the Ohio State University Research Foundation while I was still in school. Our first daughter, Cynthia, was born a year later.
In l948 we bought an Anglia, an English Ford, which was so startling an anomaly at that time that babies would scream, and their parents would back away and point as we drove by. But that didn't stop us; we drove it everywhere, visiting our farm in Delaware County and travelling all over the beautiful back country roads of central Ohio, eating apples, with me smoking cigarettes or a pipe as we drove (Barbara has never smoked), reciting Wordsworth sonnets which we'd memorized, and talking idealistically about how wonderful it would be if someday I could teach in a university and we could live the academic life—a life rich in culture, stability, and peace.
In those years, one of our favorite movies was The Third Man, and its zither theme song plunked enchantingly through our heads for several months. (Recently, we saw it again on TV; and what a drab experience that was! I guess you had to be there.) I worked at a variety of jobs, to be itemized in the next section, and we read mystery and detective novels. I also remember reading Emerson's essays and Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy in translation.
These were wonderful years. Filled with anxiety and uncertainty, of course; but that's only as it should be, for young people should have to pay something for all the excitement and promise of youth.
ON BEING A HUSBAND, FATHER, AND WORKER AT MANY VARIOUS JOBS
Of course, there were difficulties in those early years, as well. Most had to do with the trouble I had getting my mind in focus. A later generation would have said I was trying to find myself, which can be a pretty hard search when you're supporting a family, although it might be even harder if you're not. I tried a number of jobs in those first years, becoming increasingly frustrated and demoralized, even though I kind of liked the idea of working at a lot of different things. After all, I was participating in the cult of feeling and handling and working at real life, life in all its rich and raw variety. I was doing what young writers were supposed to do in that day, doing the proletarian bit as they travelled about accumulating job experiences the way Comanche warriors used to gather coup marks.
Off and on in those years I worked on the loading docks of the Big Bear Warehouse. I found it easy to get jobs there, when I need one badly, because my aunt and uncle owned the trucking company that served all the Big Bear stores throughout Ohio. So much for my "proletarian" experience, you might say; still, the literal nepotism ended at the loading docks, for I still had to be at work at two or four in the morning, depending upon the loading schedules, and I believe I worked as hard as the other workers.
Maybe there were times when I worked a little harder, for I liked the idea of using my muscles. Mens sana in corpore sano seemed a pretty nifty motto, until I saw it quoted once in an issue of Bob Hoffman's Strength and Health. That sort of took the fun out of it. Nevertheless, I remember sitting on the loading docks and reading a school edition of Aesop's Fables in the original Greek during lunch hour, which was at eight o'clock, therefore a sort of breakfast.
Sometimes we would go to a nearby bowling alley, where we ate breakfasts of such monumental size that it's a wonder the establishment didn't go broke, for the waitress there never charged us over a small fraction of the real cost. Her boss probably wasn't awake. Years later, I would use my work experiences on the Big Bear produce docks to write The Tale of Asa Bean, a novel about a hopelessly quixotic, sexually starved intellectual who lived with his married sister (née Earlene Bean) and brother in law, Roy Scobie, and worked in a produce warehouse, where he quoted Latin to the cabbage crates.
Already married, though still in college, I sold Brittanica Juniors—making two sales the first week, which surprised me. I didn't think money should come that easily; and it turned out it didn't. Then I became a Fuller Brush Man, carried my sample suitcase from door to door, took orders from yawning housewives, and read philosophy and serious literature over lunch. Our district manager was named Leon Wedluga. He was a hopelessly sanguine man who smiled and chewed gum with his mouth open and said "Fine and dandy" so often and with such gusto that I figured it must be a Fuller Brush slogan.
I was still selling Fuller brushes when I worked briefly as a private eye. Guy Houston owned a farm near ours in Delaware County, and he had his own private detective agency. One day he asked if I would be interested in a job that paid one dollar an hour, and since I wasn't doing much good selling Fuller brushes, and since I have always hated to ignore the offerings of chance, I told him I would. Guy's wife was the daughter of the eponym of the once-famous Chase Investigating Agency, and both of them had worked in private detection for years.
So I took on a few cases, and managed to use my Fuller Brush suitcase as a good cover for knocking on doors and finding out things. This was a perfect job for nosy people, or people who are interested in other people … or people who have a vague but sometimes powerful hankering to write fiction, some day, though not necessarily too soon.
In Ohio at that time, private detectives did not have to be licensed. Their basic task was to function simply as hired witnesses (thus, "Private Eyes"), so they had to maintain at least the impression of integrity. The cases I worked on were mostly insurance frauds, although I remember one domestic relations case that required me to sit in my little l948 Anglia and watch a house for eight to ten hours a day. Once I had to tail the man in the case, which must have been pretty hilarious, since my Anglia was so spectacularly noticeable back then. I could hardly have been more conspicuous in a fire engine or flying saucer.
I remember one especially difficult insurance fraud case in Springfield, Ohio, fifty miles away. A woman who'd sued for injuries suffered in a car wreck was said to have chased some neighborhood urchins out of her yard, running after them and waving her crutch. Stories like that get the attention of insurance companies; but our subject wouldn't let anyone in her house, and of course we had no legal right to enter. Guy and several other agents failed to get in. Then I was asked to give it a try, and I failed too. But then, my wife, who became an agent for this single difficult case, tried and was freely admitted. But the results were not expected; not only did the old lady refrain from brandishing her crutch and chasing her off the premises, she gave a very convincing display of physical debility. Since that time I've never taken the word of marauding urchins seriously.
My next brief and largely inconsequential adventure was working as a piano salesman at Lyon and Healy's Music Store in downtown Columbus. Here, I met a woman, the manager of the sheet music department, who was perhaps the most extraordinarily gifted specimen of relentless, perverse, committed nastiness I have ever known. In the cant of a later time, celebrated on TV commercials, she probably didn't feel good about herself. (Of course, a lot of thoroughly vile specimens feel good about themselves; so feeling good about oneself is probably not the answer to every ethical problem.)
I sold virtually nothing at Lyon and Healy's, although I do remember reading Milton while I was seated at my desk trying to look knowledgeable about pianos. Our store was located on Gay Street. This name didn't mean anything to me at that time. For one thing, the word hadn't yet come into general circulation as a term for a homosexual; but even if it had, its significance might have eluded me, because there was a lot I didn't notice in those days. Very much as it is now. I've always felt that this was something of a gift. For example, it had never occurred to me when I was growing up that "Fallis Road," three streets north of Glencoe, was so odd that pronouncing its name in public might be a cause for embarrassment or mirth in those days of strict proprieties.
In short, awareness is obviously admirable; but there's a lot to be said for obliviousness, too.
WHY I WORKED AT THE P.O.
In l950, I settled down and got a job in the United States Post Office. I was assigned as a clerk to the Parcel Post Station on Spring Street in Columbus. It was while working there that I began to write and publish poems and short stories in literary quarterlies in this country. Shortly before that, however, my first published story, "The Lieutenant," had been accepted by Envoy, an Irish quarterly, and was published almost simultaneously with my entering the Post Office in 1951.
Literary quarterlies were the first and have remained virtually the only market for my fiction. (Years ago my agent published two of my stories in skin magazines—rather shocking at the time, but quite domesticated by today's standards; but they are the only exceptions I can think of. Most of my poems have also appeared in quarterlies, although in the '60s, many appeared in the New York Times.) I am loyal to these quixotic little magazines (indeed, one actually named Quixote, edited by Jean Rickhoff, published several of my stories in the '50s) and came early to believe that, in spite of paying little or nothing for contributions, they publish the best literature available. Maybe it's because I have always idealized the academic life, and this idealization carried over to these small magazines, which are overwhelmingly university-connected. I still believe this about little magazines, in spite of their occasional decadence, kookiness, and overly specialized audiences.
Probably my commitment to literary quarterlies has subtly influenced my own work, for I have always believed that this is where literature should happen, and not in the large commercial magazines that with equal or greater seriousness publish articles on diet and ads for youth-enhancing products along with photos of the latest crop of immortal celebrities. If quarterlies and little magazines are sometimes committed to exotic silliness and goofy causes, the great commercial magazines are always more or less vulnerable to the superstitions of fashion and celebrity, which may or may not be compatible with literary value.
Usually I am content to having paid the price (i.e., little or no payment at all) for writing noncommercial fiction. The quarterlies that have published my work have been edited by intelligent, hard-working academics who have spent their lives studying literature, rather than The Market, and are generally idealistic and serious people. I am usually content, that is; but there are times when I am bitter at the neglect of my work. And yet I know that this bitterness is due simply to my not always remaining faithful to my principles, at those moments when I am sufficiently immature to "want my cake and eat it too."
The literary quarterlies of the '50s and '60s were wonderful. My stories began to appear in Accent, Chicago Review, Southwest Review, Sewanee Review, and others. They appeared in issues that also featured the work of J. F. Powers, Wallace Stevens, Babette Deutsch, Wallace Fowlie, Iris Murdoch, Nat Hentoff, T.S. Eliot, Lorine Niedecker, Albert Cook, Donald Hall, Isaac Rosenfeld, and whole hosts of other writers of promise and substance … hosts, I should add, as richly heterogeneous as the sampling given above.
Meanwhile, I continued to support my family by working at the Parcel Post Station. I had eventually accepted the fact that I could make being a postal clerk my life's work, and be happy, for it gave me spare time, which enabled me to write. My wife understood and agreed with my priorities, and was utterly supportive.
Not only did my post office job give me time to write, I also managed to get my master's degree in English from OSU while working there. I wrote my thesis, The Legal Comedy of Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, under Richard D. Altick, a first-rate scholar and an inspiring teacher, whose book The Scholar Adventurers is still treasured by bibliophiles. Although my degree in English literature was almost as impractical as one in classical Greek, it was nevertheless an accomplishment, and it made me proud, for I believed, and still believe, that the world of letters is essentially privileged, elegant, and worthy of our idealism.
It was said that whoever worked five years in the post office would never leave. I think this was supposed to be because of the paradoxical fact that the annual $l00 increments to one's salary were so small that throwing it all over was too demoralizing a prospect. Nevertheless, I quit after working nine years at the post office, when I was offered a job by a neighbor, Ralph Gauvey, who had just been named president of Urbana College, a small Swedenborgian school in Urbana, Ohio, some forty miles to the west of Columbus. Ralph was himself interested in fiction, and because I was a neighbor, he had read some of my work, so he offered me a job teaching English, even though I had never taught.
The next year, my wife, three children, and I moved to Urbana, thus beginning a new phase in our lives. That's the way it always seems to happen, doesn't it? Just one new life after another. But there's nothing wrong with that, if you can look at it in the right way and don't get bored.
While working in the Parcel Post Station, I had begun carrying a small notebook in my hip pocket, and when struck by an idea, I'd write it down. I have kept these tattered old notebooks, and I occasionally take them out to see what my head was doing all those years ago. The notebooks are filled with epigrams, perceptions, story ideas, drafts for poems, jingles for advertising contests, notes I made for writing feature stories for Columbus Dispatch, and a variety of other probes and scrawls.
Some of the notebooks are dated. All of their entries are short, some verging upon a brevity that seems almost mystical. For example, what could be made of this entry, from one of the l958 notebooks? "Broken toe lying there like a bloated corpse of a mouse." Or this one: "Keeping alive the handsome (tender?) logic of the veins"? And what about: "There must be a l00 gals or more 'twixt Santa Fe and Labrador" or "Saurian in the green leaves"? Drunken indulgences (but I didn't drink in those days!) Incipient poems? Perhaps, in a way. Who knows?
Most of the entries, however, are not puzzling at all. In fact, many are simply banal—although I don't see any reason for apology, since everybody seems to go through life more or less constantly losing sight of the obvious. Not only that, the world changes, and ideas that seem too obvious to record today may have seemed fresh enough thirty or thirty-five years ago. In my classes I always require students to keep a notebook; it is an obvious assignment, as well as a most useful and writerly habit to develop; but the only time I kept one more or less regularly was during the late l950s and early 1960s.
Epigrams also populate the notebooks, for I've always thought that one index of what can be called "literature" is the ratio of suggested to explicit meaning. Here are some of those epigrams:
The reason people are dirty is, they're afraid of death.
There are some people to whom presents are given and there are others to whom presents are not given.
One of the purposes of acquiring knowledge is to learn how to be overwhelmed by the complexity of life.
Every man is the victim of something.
We are constantly writing our lives, like an unselective and long-winded novelist.
The poor survive because they're anonymous.
The worst thing to be locked inside is oneself.
It's hard for a man with an orderly mind to write the kind of novels that are popular now.
For most men, it requires courage to be happy.
The time when a man realizes that he is not only an end, but a means—the beginning of his moral life and the end of his innocence.
The end of art is neither tears nor laughter, but understanding.
My notebooks also teemed with suggestions for characters whose stories might be worth telling. Here are some of them:
Man who can't stop sneezing.
College prof, with unhappy family life, "kills" himself (identity) by disappearing and becoming a laborer with his hands.
Brilliant woman married to a sleepy-eyed man who frequently sighs and says, "You're a fool, Martha." She feels she needs this.
Hunched-back girl playing a violin in an amateur show.
Drunken business man always goes to driving range "to hit a bucket of balls."
The Notebooks also have these gestures and mannerisms:
He always had a business-like look on his face … the look of a man wiping the windows of his car.
She walked with her head to the side, as if she had forgotten something.
Professor shoots firecrackers when he sees class drifting off … or some boy looking drowsy.
A ball of black hair bounced on her forehead.
Young girl before summer shower. Afraid that the rain will turn her into a witch?
Little girl sobbing inside vast, grinning Halloween mask.
And then there are simple impressions and perceptions:
Light hums within the eye and sound glimmers.
The moral obligation for self-fulfillment.
Families seen as small, pathetically embattled groups against a world conceived of as hostile.
People get divorced because they have different philosophies.
The mystique of an institution (school)—perpetuity.
Synthesis is at the very core of human experience—to wit, sights, sounds, etc. No wonder, then, man craves unity.
The wicked subtleties of the heart.
It is in the annihilation of the image of man that man arises.
And speaking of images, I liked to play with them in these pages, as follows:
2 butterflies dancing inches apart in the air.
Bricks: cherry red, dirty pink, amber, pastel blue, dull orange, nutty brown, walnut, fuchsia, dirty ivory, cream, purple, tan, gray, lavender, dun, maroon, honey.
A green felt desk pad with two white china mugs with spoons stuck in them.
Piano in an old saloon—nobody knows how to play it.
And then, of course, there were story ideas, key situations—some of them almost breaking out into real stories:
Photog keeps submitting picture of glamour girl named "Brenda Bailey." It's his wife. She has crippled leg & can only be posed in a certain way. Press Agent goes to see her—overcoming man's objections—and discovers truth.
Plodding, hard-working man who's always had an unfulfilled ambition to travel. Finally, wins national contest. Sells trip abroad because of son's illness.
(From son's point of view … feels father's hated him ever since. Son doesn't know?)
(Father leaves home? Mother says he's dead?)
Returns secretly & son finds him drunk in the kitchen with mother, cleaning out his ear with a matchstick.
Says: "The tragedy is we can think of other things."
COLLEGE LIFE AGAIN, WITHIN AND WITHOUT
Founded in l850 as Urbana University, Urbana College was operating as a junior college and had almost expired when Ralph Gauvey was named president in l959. The student body numbered sixteen and the faculty five, when I began teaching there. Within a few years, enrollment ballooned to over a hundred. The campus was beautiful, with plenty of elbow room for the tall oaks and shagbark hickory trees on its rolling lawns. There were three academic buildings and one dormitory. I was the English department.
During my five years there, I taught all the English classes, designing them as follows: the first quarter, rhetoric and composition; second quarter, either general semantics or formal logic; third quarter, literature. I considered this a good system then, and I still do. The abandonment of traditional college composition courses as a freshmen requirement has proved an utter, unmitigated disaster. The craven concession to that old debil shibboleth "relevance" and the skewing of the curriculum to satisfy the perceived prejudices and limitations of women and minorities was a shameful abdication of responsibility.
Essentially, the premise of all formal education is, or should be, a recognition of the stubborn benightedness of the young. (We've all been there, and know about it.) Therefore, the goal of an authentic education is to change their lives, not engage in some silly pretence that they are fully developed and mature human beings whose tastes and prejudices must be ratified and reflected in the curriculum. Make no mistake, these are young barbarians who enroll in our universities, even though they have mastered the arts of watching television, playing video games, and stirring up their glands with the brainless thump of rock music.
And yet, for all its flaws (i.e., ways incompatible with my own preferences), university life is wonderfully idealistic and privileged. All evidence to the contrary (and that can be impressive), it is a place tolerant of civilized values. I once read of a European professor at the end of the nineteenth century who began every lecture bowing to his students, signifying the honor he felt in the privilege of teaching them. I often contemplate that courtly and elegant gesture, thinking I might do the same thing if my classes were big enough and the male students wore coats and ties and the females students wore skirts and dresses.
Many of my students at Urbana were quiet Ohio farm boys who were far more interested in cars than English poetry. I labored at teaching these boys, with varying results. Some of them, even if they were basically intelligent, proved intransigently remote; and in retrospect it seems that I gave an awful lot of Cs and Ds, just to let them pass onto classes with themes and skills more to their liking. I don't know how much they got out of their experiences in my English classes, but I got something from them that I treasure: the inspiration for the hero of my novel Hanger Stout, Awake! Hanger was humble, undemanding, kind, hopelessly non-verbal, and something of a funny saint. Hiram Haydn, my editor at Harcourt Brace, who published the book, referred to Hanger as "all of us before we have eaten the apple."
Before that, in l964, after my first book of short stories was published by Scribners, I was invited to come to Ohio University to direct the creative writing program, a program that would soon consist of Walter Tevis (The Hustler), James Norman Schmidt (novels and books about Mexico), Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon), and Hollis Summers (a Kentucky poet and fiction writer who was already teaching at OU, but was not originally part of the program). We held meetings at our homes, opening a bottle of bourbon and sitting and smoking and discussing matters of curriculum, along with the great issues of time and eternity.
At this late date, I can't remember what we decided about time and eternity; but I do know that our gatherings had an air of relaxed festivity, for we all liked and respected one another. It's easy to ennoble the past, of course; and yet, in our meetings there was a spirit of amity that is probably as rare in creative writing programs as in courts of law. In short, we were blessed by friendship; and as it usually happens with blessings, we didn't quite realize it at the time.
We were all middle-aged white males in those days, and would have been ashamed of ourselves if we'd known better and shared in the enlightenment of more recent theory and policy. Now, three of that amiable group are dead, and another, Dan Keyes, is retired and living in Boca Raton. Although retired, I am still teaching on a post-retirement contract, and grumbling about the current world in the time-honored manner of all old men … who, it turns out, have often proved to be right.
So Athens had become our home. The Jeffersonian elegance of our campus is one of the graces of life here. Surrounded by truly spectacular rural poverty, we are nevertheless part of a university community—the essence of which is a community of scholars and a wealth of books. I remember a colleague, a native Gothamite, who condescendingly referred to the cultural impoverishment (this included poor restaurants) of Athens, comparing our town invidiously to New York, which irritated me so much that I reminded her that for people possessed of a mind, Athens was a wonderful place, for here we could live reasonably in peace and we could read just about any book we wanted. I don't think she realized that she'd insulted me and had been insulted in return, although if she'd been more mindful, she might have caught on.
It's often observed that Athens is a good place to raise children. This is true, which means it's also a good place for family values, generally. These are wonderful virtues, to my way of thinking. I'm aware that writers aren't supposed to talk this way, much less think this way, but that's all right. Striving to meet the expectations of others is always a one-way ticket to silliness.
We now had three children, two girls (Cindy and Barbara Ellen) and a boy. As my father had done with me, I spent a great deal of time fishing and hunting with our son, who is John Harold Matthews III; and now his son is John Harold Matthews IV—thereby satisfying some deep dynastic instinct and all hunters. These were wonderful and wholesome times, although I wouldn't expect the mindless hordes of canting Bambi lovers to understand. When I taught at Wichita State University for a year, we hunted all over Kansas. It was there, at the age of eleven, that our son John killed his first pheasant. Was killing a harmless creature a cause for celebration? Sure. It tasted good; like most people, we're carnivorous.
All our children are married, and today our eldest daughter lives in Georgia, where she teaches school and has the deep satisfaction of being a grandmother. Our younger daughter, Barbie, is married and also a grandmother, and she and her husband are musicians who perform as the Silent Lion. Their music is a unique blend of Celtic and bluegrass, and their gigs take them many places in the eastern U.S. Our son is an area wildlife manager for the state, living in the country and saving far more wildlife than he kills, although he and his two sons do get their deer and wild turkey every year. We have seven grandchildren, all wonderfully gifted, of course, and three great-grandchildren.
My wife is very active in the local county historical society and museum. She also helps me with our rare book business, which really does need a lot of help (more about that, later); and she and I spend many hours in the car, driving on country roads—something we've always enjoyed doing throughout the years. She also loves to read mysteries and detective novels, an enthusiasm I share with her—although she reads more than I do, opening a book whenever I stop at a yard sale or thrift store in my "covetous foraging for old and rare books." This way of collecting rarities strikes some people as stupid, but it isn't stupid, it's foolish—it would be stupid only if I failed to realize that it's foolish.
What does all this have to do with being a writer? Well, it pretty much depends upon the writer. As for me, I think of all these things as reality. For me, the family is not an archaic institution; its genius is inexhaustible and it represents sorts of human fulfillment that are intrinsic and exclusive.
LIFE AS A CIRCUIT WRITER
In the early l800s itinerant preachers rode on horseback bearing the Word throughout the regions beyond the Allegheny Mountains. They were called circuit riders, for obvious reasons, as were judges and lawyers of the circuit courts—a term that is still with us.
Since the l960s, there has been a somewhat similar phenomenon of circuit writers: poets and fiction writers who travel about giving readings of their works at college and university campuses. Their messages aren't Scriptural, of course, although they do embody some token recognition of the power and beauty of the written word as it is published—which is to say, made public—then made further public by being spoken, read aloud, thereby signifying the relevance of literature to whatever one might mean by "Culture."
I have always enjoyed being a circuit writer, which not only feeds the ego but gives exposure to writers whose work is "literary" rather than popular. It can also provide amusing anecdotes and perspectives into the trials and frustrations of the literary life. I can remember facing audiences ranging from two to six hundred, generally preferring the latter, but each with its own significance.
Then there are the anecdotes. I remember a time years ago when I was reading a story at the University of Kansas before some two or three hundred people, when a young mother came in, sat down, unbuttoned her blouse, and proceeded to nurse her baby. When dinner was over, she buttoned up her blouse, slung her tot over her hip, got up and walked out of the room. Having been raised in a culture where a boy could find the sight of a girl's knees exciting, I found this young woman's performance as distracting as it was interesting.
Nevertheless, I was afterwards proud to reflect upon the fact that I had somehow heroically managed to maintain the pace of my reading, without—as I seem to remember—missing a beat.
The word sounds almost like haemophilia or suggests some other rare affliction—which is only proper, for it is a disease, of sorts, having to do with rare books, and it is widely, passionately acknowledged to be so by those who suffer from it most virulently and happily.
When did I first show symptoms? In the summer of l942, on Oakland Park Avenue in Columbus, next door to the North Broadway Methodist Church … the church where I had attended Sunday School and had once won a Bible contest, and where good old Boy Scout Troop 28 had met once a week for several years, during which time I was leader of the Flaming Arrow (that's right, and it can't be helped) Patrol.
However it is not the church but the house we are here concerned with. There was an estate sale there, and on the third floor, filled with hot, stale air and smelling like an attic, there were bits and pieces of things, including several books offered for ten cents each. I found two old volumes and bought them. One was titled A Renunciation of Universalism and the other was the Dayton, l845, edition of Lewis and Clark's journal, in the back of which was a short list of "Indian" words. I have kept the Lewis and Clark title, for it is the first antiquarian book I ever bought.
There would be many more through the years. In the early l960s, in Findlay, Ohio, I bought an entire semi-truck-load of books for ten cents a box. Something like l0,000. I went through them, selecting two or three boxes, after which I sold the remainder for $1.50 a box to a man with the felicitous name of Jacques de la Page, who owned and operated a used book store in Columbus, near Ohio State University.
That was the greatest volume of books I have ever purchased at one time, although there have been other indulgences in the glory of plenitude. At an auction one evening in Athens, I successfully bid on fifty-three boxes of books (approximately l,500), and sold one volume, a first edition of Book Two of William Carlos Williams' Patterson in dust jacket, for more than I'd paid for the entire lot.
Such boasting is fun, but it does not point to the excellence and essential dignity of book collecting. There is energy and style in playing the game of profits and wheeling and dealing for books; but the real genius of collecting is aesthetic, spiritual, bibliophilic. To build a great collection is to enter upon a quest and accept some of the conditions of art. It is an act of quiet elegance, virtually independent of subject matter. If you choose to collect books about fire engines or cathode ray tubes or Victorian underwear, others may understandably wonder at your choice; but if you "learn the field"—and are shrewd, knowledgeable, and patient—you will build a worthy collection and prove honorable in the accomplishment.
I am certain of these principles because my own collecting does not measure up to them, as I will now explain, for collecting need not be elegant to be fun. While I have been a zealous collector of rare books since my days at Urbana College, I have never achieved that entirely admirable discipline and focus that characterizes great collections. Still, this is a limitation I am happy to accept. I collect by spending time instead of money, travelling and responding to whatever books "Fate has in store for me." This aleatory strategy suits me perfectly, for it is a grand adventure, and I wouldn't trade it for any other—even one that has resulted in a collection that has achieved fame and renown in the small but intense and vivid world of bibliophily.
How is my passion for collecting old and rare books connected with my writing? One connection is obvious: since I write about collecting old and rare books; not only should I know something about that odd and intricate world of idealism, greed, and enterprise, but it seems only proper that I should keep fanning the fires of enthusiasm.
And yet, that latter part isn't exactly how it happens; it's too contrived, too calculated. If I kept collecting books merely to keep my interest stimulated so I could write convincingly on the subject, it would be simply a means to an end; and that's not the way it is at all. Building a personal library (which means constantly changing as well as adding to it) is an act of freedom, commitment, and self-definition … and an end in itself.
It is also a scholarly undertaking, and in a unique way, artistic. Furthermore, it can be a form of investment. All of these aspects of bibliophiliy are interesting; all are worthy of mindful and reflective people. Books map all that we can know, and much that we can't. They map time, space, and as much of eternity as we can imagine. In short, they reflect the world, itself, so that no matter how specialized a collection is, it is a microcosm.
Furthermore, all of this is relevant to, and helps explain, why I write books as well as collect them.
MOVING BACK TO THE COUNTRY
In 1993 my wife and I bought an old Federal house on nine-and-a-half acres of hilly, wooded land in the country, eight miles from Athens. The original house was built in 1835, but five rooms had been added when we bought it, to which we added still another.
No doubt we're house-proud, and no doubt that can be disgusting, but we're very happy living in a house that seems to have been waiting all this time for us and the antique furniture, American primitive oil paintings, and, of course, old books that we'd been collecting for years. Our oldest painting is an early-eighteenth-century portrait of a woman whose head does not quite fit her body, suggesting that the limner painted "her body" in his studio, then traveled to her home to pop her head on it. A sensible practice, of course, although there is a slightly odd and subtle discrepancy in this portrait.
Another old oil painting, of roughly the vintage of our original house, shows an angry-looking woman in profile, her little feet dangling above a colorful rug as she has presumably been caught in the act of floating, although walking was obviously intended. Though unsigned, this is unmistakably the work of Joseph Davis, an artist from Maine who was obsessed with painting his subjects in profile standing above, or hovering wraithlike above, a colorful rug. Like the subject of our painting, his women subjects are almost always shown holding a purse in one hand and a small book (presumably a New Testament) in the other.
As for my books: I've written a great deal elsewhere about my booking adventures. I should say, however, that the organization of my books in our house is often more cosmetic than bibliographic, although there are some exceptions, such as my Mark Twain collection, which is pretty much housed in two large cabinets. Twain is especially interesting to collect, because he was so famous for so long; and thus it is that my collection is enriched by such peripheral association Twainiana as postcards, an audio cassette, photos, a specially struck Mark Twain coin, etc.
Although my collection is not as focused as many collectors might desire, it satisfies me. I have a scattering of modern writers, including Edward Dahlberg (with whom I exchanged many letters in the last years of his life), Ambrose Bierce, A. E. Coppard, and others. My oldest book was published in Venice in 1485: Compendium Veritatis Theologicae—attributed (falsely) to Albertus Magnus, or, as he might be called, "Big Al."
I think of our transplantation as "moving back" to the country, partly because my family has deep roots in rural Gallia County, practically next door, but also because the original house reminds my wife and me of our farm in Delaware County, the old "Eaton place," now gone forever and the land upon which it once stood deep under the waters of the Alum Creek Reservoir.
WAITING FOR THE CURTAIN TO RISE
In the early 1990s I became stage-struck, in a manner of speaking—which is to say, I became fascinated with the challenge of writing plays. And challenge it is, for when you launch upon the art of dramaturgy, you're not only competing with Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Shaw, but competing with thousands of living playwrights—most of whom are privileged by being experienced in theatre and having some access to directors and production companies, which is to say, "having connections."
But why bother with writing plays at all? First, I've always loved two things that seem to me especially appropriate for the genius of the stage: dialogue as argument and dialogue as sound. In my master's thesis on Robert Browning's The Ring and the Book, I analyzed the logical fallacies and rhetorical choreographies of the two lawyers, Archangeli and Bottinius. I have always been interested in dialectic—both of me—and argumentation is its display and the stage its natural home. I have also been interested in the logical intricacies of argument as they function and are violated when two people are in conflict.
As for the poetry of stage-talk: I like to hear the words of my dialogue projected almost operatically or chanted in recitatives. The theatre is artifice, after all, and it is a simple-minded concession to "realism" for actors to mumble their lines, because "that's the way people talk." Good-bye, Method.
The structure of the stage, whether proscenium or thrust, is intrinsic to its unique power. The fact that all visible action is concentrated in that small space, while all the world and time are funneled through it by means of dialogue and the evocation of signs, is a splendid artistic challenge precisely as it renders the action of a play symbolically potent.
There is still another explanation for my turning to writing plays so late in my career: writers can have no better readers than directors and actors when they take up the challenge of bringing the playwright's imagination alive, literalizing the text by making the characters live on the stage. I've found that these first readers can be somewhat unsophisticated in some of the literary effects one rejoices in; but that's not all bad, for their innocence in such matters can provide an unexpected shift in meaning, disrupting old closures and occasionally bringing new life to the words.
Furthermore, lest that seem invidious, I should say that their lack of "literary" sophistication is matched by the ignorance of literary writers in matters of stagecraft. My innocence in such matters is a singular disadvantage, of course; and yet, like theirs in the literary subtleties of the silent text, it can paradoxically and conceivably prove to be an advantage, bringing with it some of the energy of the unexpected and adventitious. It is in these ways that the two different complexes of communication can prove to be richly symbiotic.
STILL, THE PRINTED PAGE ENDURES
My recent interest in theatre has not turned me away from fiction, essays, and poetry, however. My latest book is Schopenhauer's Will, which has not been published in English, although a Czech-language translation (Schopenhauerova Vule) has been published by the H&H Publishers in Prague. I've half-heartedly tried to market it, but without success. One editor rejected it, saying that it was "a bit too experimental and cerebral"—an odd reason for rejecting a book by a philosopher, perhaps, but that's what she said. (Of course, her remark might have been a kindly euphemism, meant to conceal her utter boredom with, or disapproval of, the book.)
I have just completed writing a second book on Schopenhauer, a book of poems titled Schopenhauer Agonistes. My interest in the gloomy philosopher goes back to my college days, when I read him with utter fascination. (This was not an assignment, of course.) In spite of his profound pessimism, there is a vitality in his writing that could not derive from despair, whose voice is silence; it is this vitality that appeals to me, along with the wisdom of so much in his work. Living life is impossible, he argues; but witnessing it can be beautiful. This explains his love for the stage, and it helps explain my own fascination with writing plays and fiction.
My most recent book published in English is Reading Matter, brought out by Oak Knoll Press in what I think is a handsome edition. Its sales have been modest, alas, but it has had the interesting fate of receiving some spectacularly numskull reviews. In one of these exercises in virulent ineptitude, the reviewer's first sentence refers to my "noticing" something rather than noting it; I doubt if he, she, or it knew the difference, for whoever it was couldn't even manage to spell my name correctly. Another review, in England, complained of my large and difficult vocabulary.
I suspect that most writers have such complaints, which are natural, as well as amusing, if you don't take them too seriously. I recall a New York Times review of my novel Pictures of the Journey Back in which the reviewer disapproved of the ease with which I employ "a half-dozen universals" (i.e., themes), after which he lists five as examples. I wrote to the Times, saying that I write for people who can count to six; but, of course, they didn't publish my letter.
Whoever said that life in the zoo isn't fun?
OLD AGE HATH YET HIS HONOUR AND HIS TOIL
When I was an undergraduate at Ohio State, I assumed a somewhat lofty posture with regard to the poetry of Tennyson. "He lacks intellectual muscle," I wrote on one paper, and maybe in a sense Tennyson did, but in believing that, I was missing something. It was much later, when I was older, that I learned to take satisfaction from Tennyson's deep sentimentality. His is the sort of poetry that does not require the obligatory, and often gratuitous, subtleties that we have learned to respect in the modernist and post-modernist eras. I now find his poems direct, honest, and, in the way of poetry, true.
One of Tennyson's poems that seems especially meaningful to me is "Ulysses," which celebrates old age in an age in which youth and vigor have usurped understanding and wisdom. Unquestionably, this is a poem written by a young man, by modern standards, and yet it unforgettably captures an ideal of courage and hope in contemplating one's old age, "To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought."
I have always enjoyed writing about old people; it seems to me that we spend our lives in the ongoing process of becoming ourselves. Somewhere, that old windbag, Goethe, says: "Become what thou art." And I have written about it in one of my stories, titled "The River," in which the intricate choices we make as we grope our way in time and grow old are symbolized by the complex of a river's tributaries as one goes upstream, nosing farther and farther into the unknown reaches of one's uniquity. This is one of the only two or three stories I've written without a human character.
AFTER YOU GET THERE, IT ALL LOOKS DIFFERENT
I collect memories as I collect books, and much of my mental life is reminiscence and nostalgia. Recently, it has become fashionable for the sophomorically enlightened to scorn nostalgia as a vaporous and trivial indulgence, but those scorners are mistaken, for nostalgia is part of the rich harvest of the mind. Of course it can be a sentimental evasion, but it need not be; essentially, it depends upon how it's done, whether using it as a substitute for some more immediate version of reality or as a mind game of sentiment.
The oldest memories I have written about reach back to when I was a very small boy, drinking in the world as fast as I could gulp, and innocent of any supposition that I might be "gathering material" as I now think of it in writerly terms. And yet, we all keep our grip on the thread of self as we grope a path through time; and I can remember as a boy trying to communicate with the man I would become … as if, somehow, I needed to clarify and justify what I then was, in all my confusion and ignorance, to some wiser future self, who loomed in my imagination somewhat like another father.
That old man is not what I thought I'd be, for how could I have known? But then, I'm sure the boy I remember—a boy focused through the lens of all those subsequent decades—would seem strange to that real boy, at that time. We can forget, but we can't unremember. And now, I greet him as one tenuous and evanescent reality to another, and confer retroactive blessings upon him, as I feel his proactive blessings upon me. After you get there, nothing looks the same; and yet, none of it looks very strange or altogether different, either. This is one of the great mysteries of time and self; it's one of the things I've always written about, and always will.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Novelists, seventh edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume VI: American Novelists since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Critique, number 21, 1979.
Library Quarterly, April, 1998, Norman D. Stevens, review of Booking Pleasures, p. 219.
New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1982, Tom O'Brien, review of Dubious Persuasions, p. 12; February 19, 1984, Charles R. Larson, review of Sassafras, p. 22; February 1, 1987, Christopher Benfey, review of Ghostly Populations, p. 20; February 8, 1987, Patricia T. O'Conner, review of Crazy Women, p. 38; October 31, 1993, Alison Carb Sussman, review of Storyhood as We Know It, and Other Tales, p. 40.
Publishers Weekly, December 19, 1983, review of Sassafras, p. 20; August 17, 1990, Penny Kaganoff, review of Dirty Tricks, p. 63.
Studies in Contemporary Satire, spring, 1974.