Whittemore, (Edward) Reed (Jr.) 1919-
WHITTEMORE, (Edward) Reed (Jr.) 1919-
Born September 11, 1919, in New Haven CT; son of Edward Reed (a doctor) and Margaret (Carr) Whittemore; married Helen Lundeen, October 3, 1952; children: Catherine, Edward, John, Margaret. Education: Yale University, B.A., 1941; Princeton University, additional study, 1945-46.
Home—4526 Albion Rd., College Park, MD 20740. Office—English Department, University of Maryland, College Park, MD 20740.
Poet, literary critic, biographer, essayist, and short story writer. Furioso (literary quarterly), editor, 1939-53; Carleton College, Northfield, MN, professor of English, 1947-66, chair of department, 1962-64, editor, Carleton Miscellany (literary quarterly), 1960-64; University of Maryland, College Park, professor of English, 1967-84, professor emeritus, 1984—. New Republic, Washington, DC, literary editor, 1969-73; Delos (magazine), College Park, MD, editor, 1988-92. Library of Congress, consultant in poetry, 1964-65, honorary consultant in American letters, 1968-71, interim consultant, 1984-85; Bain-Swiggett lecturer, Princeton University, 1967. Former judge, National Book Awards. Program associate for National Institute of Public Affairs, 1966-68; member of National Academy of Arts and Sciences through 1991; director of Association of Literary Magazines of America. Military service: U.S. Army Air Force, 1941-45; became major; awarded Bronze star.
Harriet Monroe Memorial Prize, Poetry magazine, 1954; Emily Clark Balch Prize, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1962, for "The Music of Driftwood"; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1968-69; National Council on the Arts Award, 1969, for lifelong contribution to American letters; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award of Merit Medal, 1970; Litt.D., Carleton College, 1971; Poet Laureate of Maryland, 1985-88.
Heroes and Heroines, Reynal (New York, NY), 1946.
An American Takes a Walk, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1956.
The Boy from Iowa, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1962.
Return, Alpheus: A Poem for the Literary Elders of Phi Beta Kappa, King & Queen Press (Williamsburg, VA), 1965.
Poems, New and Selected, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1968.
Fifty Poems Fifty, University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1970.
The Mother's Breast and the Father's House, Houghton (New York, NY), 1974.
The Feel of Rock: Poems of Three Decades, Dryad Press (Washington, DC), 1982.
The Past, the Future, the Present: Poems Selected and New, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AK), 1990.
(Editor) Robert Browning, Dell (New York, NY), 1960.
The Fascination of the Abomination (poems, stories, and essays), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1963.
Little Magazines (pamphlet), University of Minnesota Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1963.
Ways of Misunderstanding Poetry (lecture), Library of Congress (Washington, DC), 1965.
From Zero to the Absolute (essays), Crown (New York, NY), 1968.
The Poet as Journalist: Life at the New Republic, New Republic Book (Washington, DC), 1976.
A Whittemore Miscellany (sound recording), Watershed Intermedia (Washington, DC), 1977.
Pure Lives: The Early Biographers, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1988.
Whole Lives: Shapers of Modern Biography, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1989.
Six Literary Lives: The Shared Impiety of Adams, London, Sinclair, Williams, Dos Passos, and Tate, University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO), 1993.
Also contributor to periodicals, including New Republic, Nation, New Yorker, Saturday Review, Kenyon Review, Esquire, and Yale Review.
Saturday Review critic Lewis Turco stated that Reed Whittemore "has been one of the more influential poets of his generation.… Early in his career he began to prove …that the best qualities of prose may be a fit vehicle for a new poetry." Expressing his opinion of Whittemore's talents, James Dickey wrote in Poetry that, "as a poet with certain very obvious and amusing gifts, Reed Whittemore is almost everyone's favorite. Certainly he is one of mine. Yet there are dangerous favorites and inconsequential favorites and favorites like pleasant diseases. What of Whittemore? He is as wittily cultural as they come, he has read more than any …man anybody knows, has been all kinds of places, yet shuffles along in an old pair of tennis shoes and khaki pants, with his hands in his pockets."
Apart from his work as a poet, Whittemore has been influential as an editor of literary magazines and as a proponent of poetry through his teaching, his association with the Library of Congress, and as the poet laureate of Maryland, among many other positions. Whittemore grew up in New England and though his family's fortune disappeared in the depression, he attended prep school and Yale University. During World War II he served in the U.S. Air Force and rose to the rank of major. Upon his return to the United States, he enrolled at Princeton University but left shortly thereafter for a teaching position at Carleton College in Minnesota. There he revived the literary journal Furioso, which eventually became the Carleton Miscellany. The position led to his association with the editors of other notable literary journals and ultimately to the formation of the Association of Literary Magazines of America, with which he was involved for many years. This path led to Washington, D.C., where he served a year-long term as the poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, a position in which he attempted to meld politics to an awareness of poetry. He then went back to teaching at Carleton for three years before obtaining a position as the New Republic's literary editor. After four years with the New Republic, Whittemore became a professor at the University of Maryland. He retired in 1985 but went on to serve a second term at the Library of Congress. Apart from his poetry publications, Whittemore's most well-known work is his biography Six Literary Lives: The Shared Impiety of Adams, London, Sinclair, Williams, Dos Passos, and Tate.
In regards to Whittemore's poetry, a Choice reviewer suggested two reasons for its popularity: A free-flowing style and a sense of humor. Whittemore's poetry is marked by "end and internal rhyme …with highly amusing and often subtle results," the critic wrote. "He skillfully organizes and structures his poems on the basis of line length, yet he avoids relying on visuality for understanding." The writer further compared his work to that of Denise Levertov, Edward Dorn, and Ted Hughes, noting that "his skill in truly humorous verse sets him apart." J. T. Demos similarly commented in Library Journal that "Whittemore has the saving face of humor.… Being middle-aged and academic, Whittemore fights both labels as best he can, and then succumbs. When he is at least experimental and most aware of himself he can be charming as so few middle-aged academic poets really are."
Whittemore expresses his own feelings on poetry in his essay in Poets on Poetry. As he once commented, "I think of poetry as a thing of the mind and tend to judge it, at least in part, by the qualities of mind it displays.…The properties of mind I most admire are the daytime properties—those that get us to the store or shop and back, and put us on the radio discussing poetry or arguing about communism and democracy. Most of my poems, therefore, tend to deal primarily with the daytime part of the mind, that is, the prosaic part; only occasionally do they deal directly with the nighttime self."
On the subject of the length of his poetry, Whittemore once stated: "I have been impressed by the insufficiencies of the short-poem art for about twenty-five years; yet I have gone on writing short poems, and I suspect that my reputation as a poet, if I have any, is almost entirely based on a few short poems. I find the genre a congenial one in which to deal with my own insufficiencies, among which is my own rational incapacity to work things out, order them logically, on a big scale."
Reed Whittemore contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
He is in his crib and the crib is in a wallpapered corner. It is nap time but he is not napping. He is standing in his crib, wetting his fingers on his tongue, and rubbing the fingers on the wallpaper. Bits of wallpaper are beginning to come off in little rolls. He is rubbing harder, and now there is a blank place where there is no wallpaper. But Mother is coming. He hears her, lies down in the little rolls, and pretends to sleep.
And now he is in his high chair in the kitchen. His porridge is in his porridge bowl before him. He eats his porridge with his little silver spoon. He picks up the porridge bowl, shouts, "All gone," and throws the bowl over his shoulder.
And now he is in his high chair not eating but reading. He has a large book in front of him and is turning the pages slowly, saying, "Bararum bararum bararum." Lottie the cook is watching and listening. She says, "Look, Reed is reading."
Do I remember these events? The memories I am sure of come later; what I can vouch for is in the yellowing snapshots. I was chubby and round-faced. I was overdressed, and in winter I was invisible behind coats, caps, mittens, blankets. There was often a dog beside me, a white Samoyede. Once there were two half-brothers—twins—beside me, in knickers, with their slicked-back hair. And there was always Mother holding me, smiling at me, Mother in a cloche standing, looking down at me, perhaps beside a Wills Sainte Claire with a metal goose flying on the radiator.
But now I think I remember the Wills Sainte Claire directly. I am in the backseat alone. Mother is in the front, driving and talking endlessly with a friend. I am bored. I am bouncing on the backseat. I am fooling with the door handle. And now, surprise, I am out on the dirt road with scuffed knees watching the car drive on without me. I am running after it, crying.
Where was Father in all this? He could have been at the office for all the early years, except for one day when he had his picture taken holding me on his shoulder. Those years were at 175 East Rock Road in New Haven. The house was an ugly stucco affair with a square, pillared porch sitting in front of a square, two-story facade, but sometime before school began in earnest we moved from that house to Grandmother's more elegant one, up the street at One-ninety-three.
Grandmother was Nangma. She was long silk and velvet dresses. She was an old, stiff body sealed to the chin with "chokers." She was white hair with a bun, a tortoise comb, and pince-nez glasses with a silver chain. She was wrinkled hands with ringed fingers that stroked heads and gave electric shocks. And she was an inhabitant of two rooms, upstairs front, that were off-limits. There is no more of her except the hearsay, the bad words about her from Mother.
And Lottie? Lottie was round and black, dressed in blue with a white apron and black, patent-leather shoes with one strap across the instep. She was at the big black stove, or sitting in the kitchen rocking chair. She laughed, she scolded.
And sometimes John, tall and black in a white coat, was in the kitchen with her. Or he was in the pantry cleaning silverware with paste in a copper sink. Or he was outside sweeping the front walk. Or he was smoking in the cellar. He told me about railroads and winning at the numbers.
So Nangma and Lottie and John were at 193 with Mother and Father and me, and there was Cat too, and Bulldog Bobbie, who had asthma. Brothers Frank and Dick were not there, but at school. Their empty rooms had banners on the walls: Taft, Choate, Lehigh (which was taken down), and For God, for Country, and for Yale.
It was a large house with rhododendrons under the front windows and a heavy brass doorknocker that John made shine. Beyond the doorknocker was a front hall with a tall blue Chinese vase on a long dark table with a silver tray. To the right of the hall was the dining room, with a heavy sideboard and another dark table with a silver tray. To the left of the hall was the living room, with a gas-heater fireplace, bookcases holding uncut books, two stiff couches, and a big blue leather rocking chair next to a table covered with Saturday Evening Post s. In a corner was a grand piano with a player mechanism hidden in a drawer under the keyboard. Next to the piano was a case for piano rolls. "The Blue Danube" had a small, neatly pencilled circle on it, as guide for a prereader.
To the rear of the hall the staircase rose to a landing with a grandfather clock. When I climbed the fourteen stairs, passed the slow pendulum, and walked around the landing, I came to my room, three more steps up, front right. In the hall I did nothing except stroke Cat, who slept on the heat register under the silver tray. In the dining room I ate quietly, though I once dropped a butterball on the floor, and many times tried to refuse Bartlett pears. When I had finished my meal and the others were still gabbing, I was to say, "IhavehadagreatsufficiencymayIbeexcused." I did. Then in the living room I lay on my neck in the leather chair looking at Post s, or perhaps sat at the piano pretending to play "The Blue Danube." But it was in my own room—with clocks, tools, gadgets, and Japanese waltzing mice—that I lived.
My brother gave me the mice for Christmas. They waltzed in a goldfish bowl. In the middle of the bowl was a square cardboard house filled with cotton. During the day the mice slept in the cotton, with just their little red noses showing, and perhaps a skinny tail. At night they waltzed. They spun around chasing their tails for hours, or they raced around the bowl for hours, higher and higher on its banked side. They seemed to go faster in the dark than when the light was on, and when they were really on the move they sounded like heavy beasts, until they squeaked. They were white and clean. My mother hated them, which must have been why Dick bought them for me.
There were radios in the room too. First there was one that Father, who had as a hobby actually making radios, helped me put together. He drew a plan and gave me the parts to fit it. I found a board, screwed the parts into the board, and attached a hard-rubber panel, with holes for knobs, to the front of the board. I strung striped copper wire to each of the parts, put pronged vacuum tubes into the four sockets, fitted tuning knobs, a rheostat knob, and a toggle switch to the panel, hooked up to big round "C" batteries, plugged in earphones. I turned the radio on and the tubes lit up.
But the radio did not play, not even static, and Father was at his office. I jiggled and punched, punched and jiggled. Nothing. Then, looking for the plan that Father had drawn (though it would have done me no good), I lifted one end of the radio perhaps an inch. Lo, static!
I put a screwdriver under that end of the radio, and soon I had WTIC, Hartford.
Father never found out why the radio only worked with a screwdriver under it, so soon he bought me a Philco.
Resume (part I)
(Edward) Reed Whittemore (Jr)
Father. Edward Reed Whittemore, physician, New Haven
Mother. Margaret Carr, North Adams
Schooling: Mrs. Weiss's kindergarten, Canner Street Elementary, Hopkins Grammar School, Phillips Academy Andover, Yale
Events and hobbies: white mice, radios, electric trains, jigsaw puzzles, and finally a black 1937 Ford V8 Roadster, followed by Furioso and World War II
First book: Heroes and Heroines, 1946
At a political party in Washington when I was fiftyfive, a young sociologist tricked me into talking about the past in her terms. She led me to say that my past had been an ordinary middle-class business, at which point she averred it had not been. Had not father been a prominent New Haven medico from a prominent "old" family up there? Was I not a Yale man from a stable of same?—then I had not been a middle-class business, but something patrician.
I spent the rest of the party drinking and trying to be admitted to my class. To be an old New England WASP is to be driven into the role of last Puritan, and does not stop with remarks about what snobs and racists Puritans are. It goes to the quick, saying what the first last Puritan, Henry Adams, said of himself long ago in his Education. He described himself as an eighteenth-century relic, unable to keep up with the raw immigrant blood around him. He said he had an energy deficiency, and was afraid of it. He kept walking up to the new forces around him, then backing away.
And thirty years later George Santayana described his last Puritan similarly, as a spent force in a changed world.
And fifty years after that?
My own writings have shown plenty of spent force, and as if the writings themselves were not enough, I contracted, at age fifty, a muscle disease that made me unable to close fist, lift arm, even walk. It plagued me intermittently for several years, and is even now only in remission. One can easily see a connection between last Puritans and myasthenia.
Yet young social-science persons who tell last Puritans that they are what they are should at least be told how complicated they can be. There may still exist old Puritan families in the country whose hormones have not been eroded, but mostly the last Puritans have been forced into ordinary middle-class business. Not many have been rich enough to fade away ideologically like Adams and Santayana; myasthenia remains a rarity. Usually eating has come first.
Eating came first, even in Nangma's big house, and surrounded by big houses filled with professors (those were the professorial days with private incomes). The Great Depression hit, and soon the hall with the Chinese vase was replaced by a hall-less, two-bedroom apartment into which the player piano fit poorly, so was disposed of, like everything else except the sideboard, the blue leather chair, and three beds. A young sociologist might be driven to compare my father and me with the impoverished lesser nobility in Spain and Poland in the eighteenth century, the ones who starved rather than soil their hands by labour, but she would be wrong. We were quite willing to soil our hands with labour; we simply had strange patrician notions about what to labour at. Father, a stiff Republican reading the New York Herald Tribune and cursing Franklin Roosevelt, knew in his bones that we should never be "in trade," yet making money in the stock market was permissible labour, so he lost our money there.
Thereby making Mother's role in Nangma's house even less tenable.
Mother was a little unmonied girl who had been teaching school in the Palisades across from Manhattan when Father met her, after the death of his first wife. The first wife had died of ptomaine poisoning from lobster at a fashionable dinner party on St. Ronan Street, died while the party was still in progress, in an upstairs room with Father beside her. The death was so scandalous that I was in the dark about it until after both Mother and Father were long dead and I was told the tale by an old family friend. Father married Mother within a year of the poisoning, and Mother entered Whittemore-land as an outsider under suspicion. The sad move to Nangma's house had been made because Nangma said she needed to be taken care of, but of course after the move Nangma had asserted her rule there to her last breath. She allowed Mother to order the meals but little else. Lottie and John were Nangma's servants, the dead living room was Nangma's living room, the Chinese vase her vase, the house her house. Mother's domain became two and a half bedrooms on the second floor—one was mine—plus a small room called the den in the rear on the first floor where bridge was played once or twice a week with just two other couples. When Father lost his capital in a radio stock, Nangma knew what to do. She set up a trust for her money that bypassed Father and Mother, leaving, after her own losses in the Crash, and after several years of gifts to Frank and Dick as they finished college (and Frank law school), a small amount to be divided among Frank, Dick, and myself. Mother went to drinking.
Father lived with her drinking for fifteen years. She died in 1943 when I was overseas in the war; and when Father died in 1946 I found in his papers a long letter to me about drinking. It was a hard letter to live with, a letter about his love for Mother, and about "the complete loyalty of her affections," followed by a close account of what and how much "dear Margaret" drank, followed by reassertions of love. Of course the letter was meant as a warning, but included with it, among his papers, was a pencilled statement by Mother, an informal will, in which she made her position clear:
In case my husband should not be living at the time of my death, all my possessions [she had few] will go to my own son—E. Reed Whittemore Jr. The twins have been given from time to time a great many things and have had the advantage of money which rightly belonged to their father; so I am sure they will not feel slighted if their younger brother is left the remainder. He—ERW Jr—was deliberately left out of his grandmother's will.
What did Father talk about in all those young years? He had words of wisdom on jigsaws and radios, and occasionally he would take me to his office to look at one-celled life under his brass microscope, and to learn how to focus the microscope and keep eyelashes clear. Also, on a long trip to camp he once lectured me, literally, about the birds and the bees, blushing to the tops of his prominent ears when he arrived at humans.
But we were both New England. In New England there is never much to say, or if there is it is not much that is searchingly intimate. Father could recite lovingly the name of a twenty-syllabled lake in New Hampshire (it began "Chugaugugaug, munchaugagaug"). He could also talk about the universe like a Deist, believing that the whole thing was a large Erector Set, but he could not talk about sex, birth, and death except as a medico, and he could not talk of himself, the sadness of his own lost life, what had happened to it, and why the fine medical practice that had been his father's had dwindled to nothing. (I still don't know.) He let his feelings show about matters off in the distance like FDR, not about 193 East Rock Road.
Yet he was affectionate, dependable, unswerving, whole in his New Englandness. And in my own New Englandness I was closer to him than to Mother, who had, though from North Adams, a streak of anti-New England in her. The streak was partly just anti-Whittemore, but anyway she would say to Father, "You are just like your mother," or, "You won't face up to things." And Father wouldn't.
So I was sent off to Andover at age fifteen to develop my New Englandness while escaping some of its gloom. It must have been Mother's hope that at Andover I would turn into a rare bloom that would dazzle East Rock Road, but I didn't dazzle. I listened to my now illegal Philco hate at night (keeping it locked in the day in a strongbox). I also listened, on a windup phonograph, to records of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Ray Noble, Glen Gray, Fred Waring, Red Nichols, Jimmy Lunceford, and, at the end, Benny Goodman.
In my first year I was billeted in the attic of an old frame house with two other boys, each of us with a separate low-ceilinged room. The housemaster was a little moustached man who tried to catch us smoking or listening to the radio, but since he didn't catch us he may have been more on our side than we knew. On weekends that year it always rained, and we were always disconsolate in our crow's nest. One of the boys, Dave Jones, was a good tennis player, but in our rooms there was no room for tennis. When we bounced a ball against the wall the noise brought the little moustache upstairs, so we resigned ourselves just to bouncing the ball up a foot or two from the racket. We did the same thing with Ping-Pong balls and paddles, our scores soaring into the thousands. Eventually the year was over.
In the second year we were all moved to a dormitory where I had a fat chemist-roommate whom I seldom saw. Dave roomed alone, and that year both of us learned to drink. I would go to Boston on Saturday afternoons, consume beer in dives near North Station, then come back to school with a pint of whiskey. One Saturday night Dave drank about half a bottle in the sudden way that the young begin by doing. He was giggly at midnight when our new housemaster, the school chaplain, knocked. I shoved Dave in my closet with the laundry, told him to shut up, closed the door, and we passed inspection. When the chaplain was clearly gone I opened the closet door and found Dave asleep in the dirty shirts. It was a good night, but there were few others.
Nangma died in my last and worst Andover year, which was also perhaps the first year of my education. What did I learn? (At this point The Education of Henry Adams enters my brain and I am tempted to switch to the third person.) During the dismal fall I went AWOL to New York on an overnight bus, thinking to join the world, but learning that joining the world was not easy. Two days later I came back to school, via home, in embarrassment, and learned, as a further part of education, to finish the Andover year. The unexpected reward for my misery was that I wrote two chapters of a novel about being miserable, then destroyed them and switched to writing poems of misery. The poems somehow arranged for me to be put in a seminar conducted by Alan Blackmur in an elegant, leathery room in Bulfinch Hall, and it was there that I had sudden dim insights into my future. Blackmur was the first teacher in my experience to try a bit of positive reinforcement.
Travel is a trick I learned
From my betters
For trifling with the troubles that attend
All that matters.
The pains, the wear and tear
Of living in the closenesses and loving
By the year I forswear
By simply leaving.
The regions in the distance are my homelands.
The cities with the shimmering walls and steeples House my gibbering friends, My peoples.
The whole world I inhabit except the bit
Where I at the moment sit.
The author of that eccentric sonnet (who was then more than a decade out of Andover, but his "travel trick" had started at Andover) is mixed up. The words are and are not speaking for him. He does not mean "betters" except ironically (and the irony is wasted), nor does he believe what he says, that staying home is all that matters. He flogs himself for fourteen lines for his love of homelessness, his failure to settle down, but in the process he shows himself rather pleased about the failure. He is thematically mixed up, for all his irony, but he is aesthetically very very neat. He must have written every line ten times, and been bowled over by such technical triumphs as his tr tetralogy in stanza one, and his long line-short line balancings throughout. For weeks, he remembers, he lacerated himself deciding whether or not to put "chosen" before "peoples" in stanza three. The poem has finish if not wisdom, and is one of the few poems of his own that he has been able to recite without a trot for thirty years. Why?
A little late-life psychoanalysis suggests that though he professed to be scornful of his escapism he really loved it. He learned early the joys of loner projects like cutting an intricate, thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle (he produced several of these before he was shipped to Andover) or a well-made poem. The genre didn't matter as much as the solitude, so that when a disliked godfather amazingly provided $760 for a car, he was sure he had reached maturity (he was sixteen) and heaven too. The car was a mobile one-man workshop. He could travel anywhere in it, yet be more at home in it than at home. He could be a genius with a pencil and pad of paper on top of East Rock.
Aside from my sweet escapism I had, starting at Andover but blossoming at Yale, something of a social conscience. I grew into it naturally with the Depression, the money troubles at home, the Spanish War, the Moscow trials, the Russo-German Pact, Archibald MacLeish's attack on the "irresponsibles," and much else, including the Daily Worker (to which I subscribed for some months) and all the crosscurrents between Stalinists, Trotskyites, and homegrown hawks and isolationists. Four years at Yale helped me into literature and little magazines—especially the magazine Furioso, which I will describe later—but they were issue-ridden years too, ending with the grand graduation-present issue, in 1941, of World War II—together with my 1-A draft card. World War II often provided exotically lonely places to park in a jeep and write, but other times it provided engagement, whether one liked it or not. In Sicily, where we stayed only two wild months, it provided so much that I went up to my colonel one afternoon and told him I couldn't hack it any more and was resigning from our honorable and distinguished Twelfth Air Force Service Command. The colonel was amused but I was not. I hadn't slept for a couple of days and could see that I was personally losing the war for everybody. Out with me.
Ah, but when the war proved not to be lost, our honorable XII AFSC regularized its pace and moved into the sort of quarters that supply officers normally find for themselves, an apartment in Naples with marble tables and a grand piano. For a year I could ignore 100-octane gasoline two or three afternoons a week, and sit in the sun on a sixth-floor balcony looking out over the great bay and Vesuvius, as if I were not only a genuine but a well-paid poet. I wrote several escapist travel poems on that balcony but I also wrote the skeptical lines printed below about the Isle of Capri. (Capri had become an air-force rest camp immediately after our occupation of Naples, and I visited it several times.) Note my heavy suspicion that all is not well in the world's Capris:
There are hells under every mountain, hill
and rock, and under every plain and valley.
It is good you are here as you are
And will stay for only a day or two, and will
Only the worthwhile sights, olives and grapes
And a lovely old Mare. Ships
And clouds and stars in the close of an eye
Will beckon as far and as deep as you'd best wander.
For were you to linger and let the elegant vision
Work, as it were, of a garden scene,
You of a sameness season on season
Fathoms would fathom there sown,
And plumb not so much as a honeycomb hewn
Out of alien stone.
Travel was not, though, my main topic while the war went on. Except for the Naples year the XII AFSC travelled too much for me to like travel, so much that when I couldn't sleep at night I was in the habit of conjuring up all the beds or floors or grounds I had slept on since leaving New Haven—and counting them over and over. So instead of travel I became busy writing about the heroic. Not in my war, mostly, but in all the literary wars. I had in my barracks bag, or could pick up when the culture shipments from the States came in, all that anybody needed in the way of heroic models, ancient and modern. I read novels mostly, and wrote poems about their heroes and heroines. Then I mailed the results to my most resilient teacher at Yale, Arthur Mizener.
I had bothered Arthur steadily for my last two college years, especially on Sunday mornings when he was trying to be alone in his Pearson College office. After the war came and I left the country (he had to leave Yale, but he kept teaching), he was officially liberated from me but continued to accept my intrusions by mail and cope with them. He not only wrote back (he and my father were my chief correspondents for three years overseas) but sometimes he even wrote back to say he liked the stuff.
I had despised much that was Yale, but Arthur had been there to make it habitable, as well as Andrews Wanning and a couple of other instructors who taught me what a teacher was for. (The ones I was indebted to were kicked out by Yale my graduation year.) Arthur and I could argue endlessly about a single word in a young sonnet without thinking the "issue" trivial. Precisions of tone and feeling were our game, with Arthur, about ten years older, backing off from his days as an ideological Trotskyite, and with me struggling to establish, on paper, some connection or other with the world that seemed worldly. Partly because of Arthur the time overseas became for me one of constant mental shuffling, while I physically shuffled air-force supplies. Especially I shuffled between the great big war and the little, but indecently noisy, me.
I suppose that in any memorable private experience there is always a kind of San Andreas Fault lying underneath, to the presence of which the young learner must accustom himself as the Fault intermittently shakes him up, telling him, Watch it, kid, the ground you walk on is not yours. I know that in my own wartime life, even on sunny days on the Neapolitan balcony, the Fault kept speaking to the frivolity of my being where I was, doing what I was doing. And in retrospect it seems clear that if there was one subject that Arthur and I were really working at in our many long letters, it was the Fault: what it did, what it meant, how one reckoned with it. What the War and the Fault kept telling us was that though our correspondence was in some ways ridiculous—who cared about an infelicitous word in the first line of a tiny tiny sonnet?—still, the word was what we had and what we could intelligently care about. Furthermore it was good to care so long as we didn't care too much.
With Arthur's help I scribbled myself through many useful carings. And Arthur? He wasted more time on his ex-student than he could sometimes afford, but perhaps the correspondence helped him live with that larger talent, but not larger ego, than mine, Scott Fitzgerald. He took on a biography of Fitzgerald right after the war, and when he did he brought to the job our wartime assumptions about the self and the Fault underneath. He did not abide by the rising fashions of psychobiography, but moved as diligently out from Fitzgerald as he bored in.
Probably what I chiefly learned as soldier-scribbler was a little about the deceptions of self. For instance I learned that just settling in to study self-deception needs to be a core subject, in our time, in any curriculum devoted to understanding rather than doing. A tangled subject it is. Thus, in the sciences the professional focus is on the obstacles keeping an experimenter's self from making experimental objectivity possible. In psychobiography the focus is on how a biographee leads himself and his disciples astray by mythologizing his own being. And in literary criticism the focus is on the slipperiness of textual meaning, with much heavy argument proceeding out of those who tell us that no literary text has meaning independent of its readers' meaning for it. Tell away. I feel lucky that as a young critic I wrestled with the deceptions of self not in academia but by V-letter, and in the sun in Naples.
Not that I was so lucky as to be an undeceived self. My mind was a smorgasbord of amateurish speculations—a bit of my father's Darwinism, a bit of Marxism, a bit of Mizener, and a large bit of New England me. The me learned to disapprove of American self-glorification generally, but remained a me through all the disapproval, yearning, as a me always does, for glorification.
At least my confusion made me an amateur scholar of self-understanding. Most of my war poems were little studies of it. In a series of sonnets, for instance, I summarized what Emma Woodhouse, Hester Prynne, Lady Ashley, and a number of other well-known fictions learned, or failed to learn, about themselves as they progressed through the lives that their authors had provided. My analyst, if I had one, might tell me that I was not escaping my self by summarizing theirs, but while he wouldn't be wrong, there was more, I think, to the poems than that. All in all they were little verse tentacles reaching out for general truths from their self-cave, doing so in the long tradition of such reaching in poetry (though I did work hard to keep from sounding like Arthur Hugh Clough). I wanted to express the general rather than, or in addition to, the local and private, and being in the war helped; the military is not to be scorned as a self-chastener. I accommodated to it well, and it taught me duties, loyalty. It taught living for something beside a dollar (except when playing poker on payday). And it brought me the difficulties of democracy at a new, telling angle, starting with the first lineup, nude, at the reception center in Fort Devens, Massachusetts, for short-arm inspection. The army had great educational merit, and was cheap too.
But of all the lessons in self-understanding that I had, none was more critical than that of coming home to my lonely father after the war. Sharply I can remember, as I entered, his old bathrobe, his old voice, his telling me to sit in the old leather rocker amid the neat clutter (the neatness was his, the clutter had been Mother's). And as in a deep dream I can remember discovering that his self was no longer a depth to reach for. Four years earlier he had had "interests," but in the leather chair I learned he was now someone else. So there he was, and there I was, and as we sat together producing long silences I could see that I was the only full self in the room.
Now I can say, as if with wisdom, that I was in the process of finding myself, while Father was in the process of losing his self; but that is glibness. So is saying that I had to make decisions, that he did not, and that I had to go on with my life, while he had no further imperatives. What is cleanest to say is that neither of us seems to have been greatly deceived by our respective states. He lay in bed much of the time doing crossword puzzles and reading detective stories. I sat in my room or up on East Rock with books and pads, becoming intense. We both knew we were as we were.
My intensities were indiscriminate but made a kind of sense, at least on paper. In the first few months at home I moved (tentatively) from sonnets to several verse dramas, none of which advanced past a scene or two. I was a nut about Joseph Conrad at the time, and as I struggled to revive, single-handedly, verse drama (I had decided that Eliot had simply been routed by the genre), my main efforts were aimed at converting Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim to the stage. I even became scholarly and wandered off to Sterling Library to see how Conrad (and Henry James too) had fared when they attempted conversion. I found that they had both been routed too by the process, neither being able to do anything, even in prose, but butcher stage dialogue. I marched on undeterred for about a month, but then my labors on Heart of Darkness suddenly emerged as merely more sonnets, and my Lord Jim added up to just a few unrelated soliloquies.
So the experiment did not work but was a useful failure. Half a century later I still know the immensities involved. And aside from the virtue of trying, there was the wisdom gained from simply reckoning with Conrad's characters' complicated selves, especially Jim's.
Two fragments of my work with Jim crept into my first book, one being a sonnet soliloquy by Jim, in which I had ship officer Jim talking tensely about the nasty little fix he had put himself into by abandoning his ship, the sinking Patna, in the middle of the Gulf of Aden (only to find out later that it didn't, with its boatload of Mecca-bound pilgrims, sink). I had personally abandoned no ship, had not even been able to abandon the XII AFSC, yet the heroic chatter I supplied Jim with in the sonnet must have had something to do with me, a modest supply-officer hero from the war who now lay abed, unshaven, feeling like a comic-strip derelict. The sonnet began with Jim crying, "Why this?" and came back to the same tough question at the end. "Why this? / Why are all my bravest plans amiss?"
But the other, longer monologue went further than to have its speaker fret. The speaker was a narrator like Conrad's narrator, Marlow, and he told Jim at some length to stop moping around and do something. Do what? Do something escapist, but do it. Do what Conrad's Jim did in the last half of the novel: go to Patusan (a remote, primitive, Eastern country in the novel, where Jim recovered his self-respect and became the head man). The connection with me seems to have been that I was arranging to go to a Patusan of my own at the time. My Patusan was the Princeton Graduate College, behind the golf course and flanked by bankers. The poem began like this:
Jim, there's a land within this land
(Of parakeets and palms)
Where a man may partly live;
Live and partly die; a land of whispers.
Jungles of greenest wonder crowd the clouds.
Creatures of zoos, flowers for fabulous gardens
Creep to a lush and lazy end.
A man, A man of garden talents
(Looking for long-tailed monkeys, flying frogs)
Might, might, might there, at last
That poem doesn't sound much like Princeton, though the golf course—like the poem—is lush. Anyway I went to Princeton, and went history. For a year and a half I sat on an inflated rubber pillow (the graduate student's balm) in the history-seminar room of the old Witherspoon Library (the Firestone Library was being built next door). Princeton and history were not nearly as educational as the war, but I did learn about the French Revolution, the Haymarket riot in Chicago, and drinking in Colonial New England. Also, from the chairman of the history department, Joseph Strayer, I learned how to read a scholarly book without reading it, a necessity for graduate students and a dubious luxury for reviewers. Princeton was good, in the sense of useful at the time, but its role in my life was pretty well destroyed by the news, after I'd been there three months, of my father's death.
He had wanted me to go, or had said he did. He knew I had to do something. But there it was.
After the funeral and the settlements (my two married brothers and I dealt with the burial of our past with customary New England familial frigidity and communed little), and after sitting in the New Haven apartment (now to be abandoned) for a few days feeling like an empty burlap sack, I went back to Princeton and was instantly invited to lunch, at the old French restaurant just off Nassau Street, by an apparently sane editor, and asked for the manuscript of my first book. It was like a children's game I think I remember called upsy downsy.
The editor's name I forget. The publisher's name was Reynal and Hitchcock, a firm briefly in chips from a best-seller during the war. The name of my book was Heroes and Heroines, and it had in it all the poems that Arthur and I had argued about. I dedicated it to Arthur. Meanwhile he had been called west to be chairman of the English department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and fate was arranging for me to fill in for an ailing teacher out there, for one term only. Way out there in nowhere.
Schooling: One and a half years Princeton Graduate School, interrupted by Carleton offer. Moved to Minnesota. Stayed nineteen years.
Events: Furioso continued. Learned to fly. Married Helen Lundeen of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Stopped flying. Taught, wrote. Family grew to three children (and to four in the late sixties when we moved to Washington). Furioso was replaced by the Carleton Miscellany.
Books: Two more volumes of poems: An American Takes a Walk, The Self-made Man. They were followed by two books mixing poetry and prose: The Boy from Iowa, The Fascination of the Abomination. There was also a pamphlet on little magazines.
The war was one kind of education, teaching another, adjusting to the open spaces of Minnesota another, and magazining still another. And marrying, the education I delayed longest, was the most important other, as well as the one I had most trouble with. Helen was younger, and from the Minnesota I didn't know. She was, and is, fine. She had to put up with what she thought of as a colossal ego, but what she didn't understand was that he was trying to put up with the ego too, busily hating the strident complaints and false impieties he kept trapping himself with. Much later in life he discovered of himself, while seriously ill, that he was really a simpler organism than he had led himself to believe, and could naively struggle for simple survival. But he didn't, then, feel illuminated. He was no D. H. Lawrence, and spent much of his creative breath protesting the easy illuminators. As a poet he had, of course, a steady, sneaky feeling that he ought to be an illuminator, and as a family man he had feelings like that too, but mostly he would sit quiet in his study until the feelings went away. He was a New Englander, and when, once, he wrote the beginnings of a rather "straight" novel of family life, they were rotten.
Still, the family was there, and he knew they were there, and Helen knew that he knew. From Helen—and then from Cate, Ned, Jack, and Daisy—he learned something bigger than the war and the writing, and he is grateful for the learning. But will not report on it.
Northfield, Minnesota, was where Jesse James had his comeuppance, and where all the Jesse James movies came first, to be jeered at by the students of Northfield's two colleges. I learned more about English departments there, and higher education there, than I ever wanted to know, yet the place was a good place and, for me, a good choice, ending the gap that had been Princeton. Princeton was useful but Northfield was a commitment.
It certainly didn't seem so, first term. I taught one course (Arthur told me I shouted in class so that I was heard in neighboring offices) and made six hundred dollars. I was full of the French Revolution when I should have been teaching Wordsworth—cool it, said my elders—and I was most melancholy in the presence of student themes. But I settled in, and cooled it. Soon academia, together with student themes, became my home.
And little magazines became my home too. At Yale Furioso—which my roomate Jim Angleton and I started as sophomores—had been a bright idea full of surprises, like playing host to Ezra Pound in my parents' apartment for a night, and paying E. E. Cummings off in neckties. After the war Jim, who had joined the OSS while I squandered 100-octane in Africa and Italy, stayed with the "Agency," so Furioso fell to me; but certainly the original impulse was heavily his. He had searched out Pound in Rapallo, had played tennis with him, taken pictures of him, and talked Dante with him. Pound in return, in his grand cultural way, had decided that Jim was one of those who were going to save American literature. So Pound visited us in New Haven for twenty-four hours, (this was during EP's short 1939 visit to America, when he tried to persuade several senators in Washington to keep America out of the war) and then let us print in our first issue—Summer, 1939—a one-page economics textbook he had composed consisting of four quotations opposing usury—from John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington (could there have been better evidence that he was, though eccentrically, a patriot?), followed by a bibliographical Pound note telling the reader what to read on the subject. Then, for later issues, he let us have a few light poems, plus a fine prose obituary for Ford Madox Ford.
With Pound came, as part of our earlier-generation stable, William Carlos Williams (who let us print an elegy of his to Ford in the same issue), Cummings, Archibald MacLeish, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and a number of others who were uncommonly kind in letting two undergraduates publish them. Little magazines were different then, partly because there were not so many, and partly because a mystique hovered about them that the contributors in our stable—especially Pound himself—believed in and helped promote.
There have been other magazines, but absolutely none as good as Furioso. Yes indeed, there never was …but as I say this I feel my nose growing longer, for I remember that sometime after the war we Furioso editors, now numbering about a dozen, actually received in the mail somebody else's Furioso. From Australia. An inferior product. Jim, with his partly Italian upbringing, originally chose the name, and Jim was the main driving force behind the early issues. Also, if Jim had not stayed in intelligence he might have made a far better magazine of it, after the war, than we did (though it almost certainly would not have come out regularly). Yet even without Jim it was good, and it certainly was an education. Every poet should have his own magazine. (Perhaps I should withdraw that remark. Too many have!)
In starting the magazine up again in 1947, without Jim (one intervening wartime issue had been turned out by Jim's sister Carmen in 1942), 1 changed the magazine's focus from our elders to my contemporaries and me. The shift was natural enough, since by then we had a few credentials other than having passed Shakespeare and the Romantics. The shift was also necessary psychologically—for me anyway. I wanted to be in the magazine, and have the other editors in it. We printed our own work mercilessly. (The "we" consisted of two complete sets of editors—this was 1946 to 1953. The roll call: Howard Nemerov, John Pauker, William R. Johnson, Ambrose Gordon, Jr., Irwin Touster [art editor], Scott Elledge, John Lucas, Arthur Mizener, Rosemary Mizener, Charles Sham, Edwin Peuet, Liane Elledge.) But we also became more portentously editorial, and with our large, loose, unpaid staff tried to be objective and judicious about what should be accepted, what not. We passed manuscripts around in grocery-store bags, and argued, and took votes, and argued more. Sometimes we agreed, but what impressed us most was how much disagreement we could arrive at. Put an innocent poem in front of us and we would come up with three yes's, three no's, and a maybe. A wilful mind like Pound's may move in and start a culture-saving movement, and may write angry letters to opponents, and make fine critical copy for scholars, but he won't live long with an editorial board. The mystique of little magazines that bred Furioso in Jim's head and mine originally could not survive editorial boards long in any culture or country, and in Furioso's case the mystique did slowly fade into the light of common day. Probably a good change, all in all.
I gave the magazine up in 1953, partly because of the fading but partly also because of money, and when in 1960 Carleton saw its way to backing it—the earlier money had been mine—we started it up again as the Carleton Miscellany. By then I had clearly become an old institutional type, being forty-one and a professor and not represented in an anthology of the new American poetry; and the magazine's new name signalled the shift. Still, we at least managed to be noisy in its pages. We attacked the New York Times Book Review, we had a feminist issue, we bombed the atom bomb, and we printed a socialist-realist diatribe that provoked more diatribes. Perhaps the project most indicative of what my own little magazining had come to by then was an attempt to form a combine, a collective, a harmonious association of little magazines. (The new board was smaller, less cumbersome, consisting of Wayne Carver, Erling Larsen, and myself, with help from Wayne Booth in Chicago, and Helen Lundeen [my wife] and Ruth MacKenzie [her sister]—but many of the projects were group projects.) "Wrong from the start," Pound would certainly have said of it, but fifteen years later it even became something of a success. It was an organizational event, a money event, something of a non-little-magazine event, but, as the first meeting to organize it showed, it was still spiritually attuned to the old mystique.
The project began at a two-week writers' conference in Salt Lake City, where my teacher-colleagues were two other editors, Andrew Lytle of the Sewanee Review and Robie Macauley of the Kenyon Review. For me the Utah conference was a fine extended editorial meeting, and the immediate result was the promoting of a gathering of editors in St. Paul the following winter. Twenty or so magazines sent representatives, about half aged and half fiery. The gathering became formalized as the proceedings of the Association of Literary Magazines of America (ALMA), and the extensive minutes were soon printed in the Miscellany. (Later, after several more meetings in New York and Washington, ALMA changed its name and became an official nonprofit corporation known as the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines: CCLM.) With the snow piling up around us in St. Paul, Allen Tate chaired the two-day event, during which we made speeches to each other that steadily invoked the wonders of the little-magazine tradition. Then we put on paper, aside from minutes and bylaws, a mighty preamble to the bylaws in which the wonders were again flaunted. In effect we said that no great living American writers would have gone any where or been anything if they hadn't first been printed in some Blast or Little Review or Furioso.
After loud arguments the assemblage approved the extravagance, and since we approved little else it seemed to have been written in gold. Yet I can remember the cynical hours or so that the preamble committee—Tate, Whit Burnett, and I—spent in a hotel room away from the general meeting, putting it together. Sentence by sentence we found ourselves hovering on the edge where principle becomes propaganda. Worse, the principle itself kept turning sour. At least for me the trouble with the preamble was that there was nothing in it touching on all those honesties that Arthur and I had wrestled with, nothing, for instance, about how the geniuses created by little magazines coped with the great Fault, what they did with their talents except show them, literarily, off. More and more my own talent, such as it was, had been battling for some time the phenomenon of "self-expression," as so fashionably promoted for health, education, and welfare, or just for its own lovely sake, yet there I was in a hotel room promoting it. There was further confusion to come.
Events: Poetry Consultantship at Library of Congress. Permanent move to Washington, DC. Humanities consultant in urban affairs think tank. Professorship at University of Maryland. Back-pages editor of New Republic. Then the call to be a biographer. Retirement and more biography.
Books: Four more books of poems: Poems, New and Selected, Fifty Poems Fifty, The Mother's Breast and the Father's House, and The Feel of Rock. Also a book of lectures, From Zero to the Absolute; writings from the New Republic, The Poet as Journalist; and William Carlos Williams: Poet From Jersey.
From its infancy in the early 1940s the poetry consultantship at the Library of Congress partook of the early little-magazine mystique, but because the library was not little, and was a public institution, it did so in a suitably complicated way. In effect it mixed the notion of a poet's responsibility to his society, as announced by Archibald MacLeish in The Irresponsibles, and the notion of his private responsibility, as announced by Allen Tate, "to his conscience, in the French sense of the word: the joint action of knowledge and judgment" (in "To Whom Is the Poet Responsible?"). It mixed them as I think no other conspicuous literary appointment in our country does, but the mixture may have been inevitable at the library, with both MacLeish and Tate originally behind the consultantship's conception.
Before MacLeish became the librarian of Congress (in 1939), there had been a less loftily principled poetry consultant on the library's regular staff, a working consultant looking up quotations and sources for congressmen. But when MacLeish came to his duties the time was wartime, MacLeish had been damning the social irresponsibility of American writers and scholars across the board, and was anxious to persuade the literary community of which he had been a part to become engaged. Meanwhile Tate, who had been engagé about being désengagé, decided to disagree publicly with MacLeish in the quarterlies, with the result that they made excellent combatants, seemingly opposed but actually "leaners," each in the direction of the other. It was they who concocted the nonworking, privately funded consultantship we still have (in the last few years it has merely been supplemented by the laureateship role). And it was they too who stirred up the private money for it, and put Allen himself in as the first consultant of the new dispensation.
The dispensation gave the poetry consultant the right to continue to be irresponsible in the way that Tate insisted a responsible poet sometimes had to be, but it also put him in the middle of our whole federal machine. Tate, being full of the engagement principle despite himself, delighted in the position, or, rather, in the problems of the position, the challenges of having for a poetic office an elegant third-floor room with a balcony looking straight at the Capitol across the street. The poets who came after him varied in their opinions of those delights, but when the appointment came to me I agreed with Tate.
I got the appointment because Howard Nemerov was my predecessor, and probably because Tate put in a plug too. I trafficked in public poetry that year—poetry from platforms, poetry saying social things—and I also pushed ALMA hard, gathering together eighty editors for two days of mayhem in the Coolidge Auditorium. Also I became absorbed by the MacLeishian issue of a poet's role in a big bureaucracy, if he had one. One noon in the cafeteria of the Department of Agriculture, for instance, I fired a few salvos at that helpless, hopeless target, bureaucratic prose, to the applause of about fifty paper-pushers. And I had similar, short-lived success at the Department of Interior when I rewrote (and was allowed to sign—a big issue) a government pamphlet describing, for tourists, the Jefferson Memorial. These were indeed delights, and the year at the library was a delight, but as far as my relationship to the literary community was concerned a dangerous one. Soon, serving on literary committees and writing magazine pieces, I began to look like an enemy of all that confused dissidence to which the literary community was committed, or like the unqualified enemy of self-expression, or perhaps like the unqualified enemy of just forgetting social affairs. I wasn't an enemy of that magnitude, but I was certainly becoming an enemy of the inward, isolate, Neapolitan-balcony excesses of the poetry being published around me, so much so that I even wrote a piece that Tate himself delighted in refuting, just as he had MacLeish. It was called "The Poet in the Bank" and made reference to T. S. Eliot's early position in a London bank, one that Pound started a one-man fund-raising campaign just to spring him from. In it I said that a bank might even be good for a poet, which, aside from being heresy, was almost as bad as saying that Washington might be good for a poet. And I believed what I said, mostly. And soon my family and I—having already enjoyed a year of Washington's bright lights and returned for a year of Northfield's dim ones—took the big step of leaving Minnesota permanently.
The step was especially big because when we did it I had only a temporary job to make the switch possible, and the job was in Princeton at that. For one term I commuted to Princeton weekly for a visiting professorship. Then I settled into Washington as a temporary thinker about bureaucracy in a temporarily well-endowed entity called the National Institute of Public Affairs. There, for more than a year, I concocted wild educational proposals, and told visiting mayors and other urban officials how the humanities would help them at their trade, though I was not sure they would. Soon the University of Maryland came along and I was able to go back to ordinary teaching again—but this time near the bright lights.
I thought the College Park campus would be a good place to play my socially dutiful role, it being a big, sprawling phenomenon supported by state money and in need of reform. But what mattered most about it for me was that I was coming on fifty and needed something permanent. The English department there was not as a whole respectful of my reformist ambitions for it (many colleagues thought I was becoming unhealthily interdisciplinary), but it had enough other problems not to be bothered by me, as did Maryland's diffuse faculty generally. An open institution collecting, loosely, many good minds, it had no center at all, no sense of community; it could hardly get quorums for small committee meetings. So I could see plenty before my eyes to reform, and I suppose that I might well have become more of a campus disturbance than I proved to be if I had not, my very first year, contracted myasthenia gravis: an excellently symbolic disease.
First there was double vision and droopy eyelids, then muscular weakness in hands and feet, then lung trouble—so it added up to no-see, then no-write, then no-walk, then no-breathe: a thorough no-can-do syndrome. I was spread too thin. Everything was becoming too much, financially, parentally, professionally, so the disease came along to diagnose my ailment.
Several years of hospitals and futile experiments followed, out of which finally came an unexpected cure in the form of the common hormone drug prednisone, which had been "contraindicated." I emerged nearly whole, and am still on prednisone (every other day), but there were psychic scars that naturally showed up in my poetry. I was led away from the platform poems that the Washington experience, not to mention my dramatic efforts, had encouraged, though the poems of my own that I like best still include some of those—a few narrative poems, a few polemics (especially "Ode to New York"), and a number of fables. But the long-term effect of the disease—or perhaps of aging itself—was to drive me back toward quieter, more introspective verse, like this one reaching back to the darknesses in my father.
When Father Left in the Morning
When father left in the morning
He had the mark of evening
On him, and at evening the evening
Was wholly evening.
He lay with forever
Mother watched him
From the other bed,
Brushing her hair back, looking for slippers,
Somewhere out in the hall
Were the living. She was ill.
The moon revolved
Over East Rock Road.
The Packard sat by the curb.
I lay in my bed in the next room
Waiting for news.
But the news in the evening
Was always the same news,
And in the morning
The drift was to evening.
I was grown
Before morning came.
In the early stages of the disease I crazily took on a second job, a marvelous job, as editor of the back pages of the New Republic. Nancy and Gilbert Harrison were our neighbors in Cleveland Park, and Gil was an extraordinarily kind employer as I became erratically incapacitated. The New Republic was a fine antidote to the casualness of little quarterlies, for though it had been going so long that we could joke about its coming out by itself every week even if we all went elsewhere, it was basically relentless in its weekly discipline, differing from any other writing-editing role I had ever played. Then too, in running the reviews and writing a good many myself, I found it relentless as a maker, for me, of enemies—but at least enmity can be broadening.
And as a dividend, being in hospitals and at the same time trying to function as an editor, I picked up a new profession while just pushing buttons. I lay in bed staring at the tube, and became NR's TV critic. Gil gave me an alias: Sedulus.
Where would the world now be if Sedulus had persisted? Could his reformism have taken hold of the media as a whole, and moved them sullenly away from inanity and Alka-Seltzer? Would they have been, suddenly, a new message? Ho ho. But Sedulus did not persist; he got better.
He also received at that time a different kind of opportunity. He was sitting at home minding his business when a publishing-house editor he did not know called him, and within a week he had a contract to write a biography of William Carlos Williams. The contract loosely coincided with the end of Gil's ownership and editing of NR, and it was also the kind of assignment the Guggenheim people liked. Soon Sedulus was not only not Sedulus any more, but he was not an editor and, for a year, not a teacher either. He was an explorer in the unknown seas of a new genre.
If ever there was a genre in which a practitioner needs to display professional and personal modesty, it is biography. Its obligations are only incidentally to the forms and graces native to other literary struggles, and only minimally to the art of self-expression and salesmanship. Always there is the biographee to reckon with, and even if the biographee is Attila the Hun, he comes first. Nor is he apt to be Attila the Hun. Biographees who are deserving victims of a biographer's scorn are not many; the tradition of biography is largely commemorative, and though our age is one of muckrakers looking for muck, a biographee is not usually chosen if he does not have a few qualities worth honoring. Ignorant though I was, I knew this about biography before I entered upon it, and I also knew that I would not have been approached to "do" Williams if I had looked unfriendly.
Soon I learned that I was an approved or authorized biographer. Williams's widow, Flossie, had blessed me via James Laughlin, who had been Williams's publisher, with the result that the Williams private papers were open to me, as well as the resources, memories, and friendship of the Williams family. Assets, obligations. I was aware of both when I settled in, and thought I understood both my freedoms, which the Williamses insisted on, and the limits to the freedoms. Now, long after the event, I can say that I misjudged those limits, and I sometimes wish I'd been commissioned to write a biography of someone long dead.
Yet I say that, oddly, without reference to the Williams clan itself. The clan itself was fine. It was not the clan but the literary community with a professional stake in Williams that went after me when the book appeared. The community was, I think, wrong, but from Allen Tate (who had never much liked Williams) I at least learned how I had erred, tactically. Tate wrote me a postcard with the simple, courteous intent of praising the book. So he said he liked it, and that was good news, but then he added that the trouble with Williams was that he had no brains. That was, inadvertently on his part, the bad news. The trouble with Williams. I had not meant to describe a trouble so much as a quality. I had meant to reinforce Ezra Pound's comic comment about him that he was the most incoherent bloke who ever gargled. I had thought that if Pound could dwell on the impressionistic urgencies of the man's writings and speech, while still respecting him, I could. I was wrong. For the professionals it was clear I had not shown respect: their kind. So: lesson number one about biography came my way expensively. The book was praised but in the places without clout. It did not make it to paperback.
So I was ready for biography lesson number two, and received that quickly in the form of rejections from several publishers of a partly completed manuscript of six short biographies. What was wrong with it? Everything. In the first place nobody was doing short biographies, they hadn't been done since Plutarch. In the second place my scheme for tying the six biographees together was ridiculous; I was working on social rather than literary connections between them, and was not suitably attuned to the critical infelicity of putting Henry Adams and Jack London in the same room (along with Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Allen Tate, and of course Williams). And thirdly the focus of the biographies was wrong. In them I kept worrying about what my subjects were saying and thinking about their times, their world, their culture, when anybody with half a brain knew that literary people and literary biographers had more important private things to worry about. In other words lesson number two was that biography, though probably the fuzziest of literary genres, was not fuzzy for its merchandisers. They knew its dimensions and purpose.
So with my six-subject manuscript in a drawer I was ready for lesson number three.
But I was also ready to retire from teaching, and did so at age sixty-five, a financial error (there are no golden parachutes in academia, despite all the complaints about tenure). Retirement was also, however, an educational opportunity, since by putting aside my forty English-department years I was an instant free intellect. And by now I was even relatively free of family obligations, with all the children out of the nest and doing strange adult things. Nor was I yet, so far as I could determine, senile. So I entered retirement in 1984 and managed to tie myself up all over again.
Tying myself up seems to be my fate, though the first tying after retirement was not my doing. In June of 1984 Robert Fitzgerald had been asked to be poetry consultant at the Library of Congress, and having accepted had almost instantly learned he had cancer. I was asked to fill in—he died during the year—and so renewed my affair with the library and the Consultantship. Neither, I found, had changed much in twenty years, except that in the interval the Washington Post, that sole arbiter of Washington thought and culture, seemed to have decided that neither existed. My second stint at the library was quieter, but still rewarding, and it was followed by lesson number three, a happier one, in biography.
Lesson number three involved becoming a student of the history of the genre and discovering, among many other things, that my manuscript in the drawer was not intellectually alien to it. Lesson number three also involved writing yet another book, Pure Lives, which is now out in the world and waiting to be accompanied by its sequel, Whole Lives. Pure Lives rushed the history of biography up to Johnson and Boswell. Whole Lives takes the genre up to the here and now. Both books are small. At age seventy one favors small books, especially when tied up with still other affairs.
Yes, in 1987—as if I had not had enough editing—I started another magazine: Delos. Why? I believe that Chaucer's Nun's Priest explained its appearance in my life precisely a few centuries before I existed, when, describing Chanticleer's foolishness in flying down from the beam, he cried, "O Destinee, that mayst not be eschewed!"
POSTSCRIPT: Reed Whittemore contributed the following update to CA in 2004:
To continue, briefly, after a long lapse.
The name Delos had first been settled on, by scholarly editors in Texas, as suitable for a translation magazine. My own colleagues and I appropriated it—with acknowledgments—and tried to show, for ten issues, that we knew what we were about. Thought we might simply put the quarrelsome world back together as, a while back, the Greeks had tried to do on the island of Delos where several cultures mingled. If there was any fault to our enterprise it was perhaps merely this futile integrative purpose, rather than the one of righteously tearing the world apart in the sensible tradition of little mags like those I had grown up with. If Delos had persisted it might even have become (God forbid) a regular establishment magazine—and in fact it seems to have been taken over anew for that purpose, after my aged friends and I tired, by a gentleman at the University of Florida. I know not how long the project lasted there, but a noble one it was and I will not complain about it, only pointing out that in our hands it was not a publication of properly indignant youth.
Yes, like most of my fellow editors I was aging by then though I kept my weight down, exercised regularly, and drank just two vodkas before supper. I kept working at poems plus a few stories and a small collection of fables. And as I write this I am even dreaming of putting together a miscellany of all such labor, perhaps headed by a long poem, Job's Impiety, that had been provoked by the loss of Helen's and my third child, Jack, to an insidious disease at age thirty-seven. Jack and I had even visited Israel healthily together before his trouble set in, and he had started a fine restaurant in Minneapolis where justice—if only it existed—would have prevailed and he would be with us now. The death of children does bring parents into Job's world despite any theoretically Godly compensations later.
For some years after retirement from the University of Maryland I took on informal teaching jobs, mostly inoffensive affairs putting me at a long table in a small room with retired folk like myself who, unlike myself, had not suffered at "Creative Writing" for decades and thought that creation might be fun. I didn't try consciously to discourage them but I'm sure I often did—decades of moping about with pen and ink can greatly reduce the trade's romance, especially when the romance is commercialized (as our country regularly manages to make it). I even tried a couple of informal sessions of discussion about the 1930s, reading (with more retired folk) angry books and magazines of the Depression time and noting how remote, literarily, from our own posh era it was. In that period—filled in my memory with my Republican father's anger at FDR—there was also of course leftist anger of what I thought of as the right kind—futile though it proved to be—anger at the money folk, anger that actually emerged in the period's literature, making that emotion a basic part of, rather than separate from, the labors of pen and ink. Many earnest scribbles then were trying to be a part of the messy world—that is, furioso about it—rather than a best-selling profiteer in it.
But teaching the Depression thirties from the distance of more than half a century proved to be in itself depressing, since so much had happened in between—not just World War II and Vietnam but also the rise of the social sciences in ways that managed, perhaps innocently, to drive the individualism historically practiced in the humanities toward social irrelevance. Poet Kenneth Fearing, poor chap, was one of the last talents in his trade to confront the new condition whereby masses rather than single minds do all the thinking, but one penetrating social-science volume of the 1950s also went at the problem, Whyte's The Organization Man. There the depressing rise of mass, Gallup-poll thinking was complained about, that before his complaint ceased to be a complaint and became accepted as simply a basic social condition. Three decades later in my old age I found myself even serving on a committee where a "social engineer" rose to inform us that an individual could not be complex. So much for the humanities.
While this demotion was occurring, I of course retired from teaching. Helen and I came to live quietly in College Park in a small house overlooking a fine woods that had somehow been preserved by Washington's Metro. There I walked regularly thinking of Thoreau until I fell in a hole and suffered a minor shin fracture. The fracture kept me—though the world did too—from imagining with Thoreau that I could achieve complex independence in my own private cabin. (I can't even stop a leak in the toilet, and our last water bill was frightful). So now we live here as weary old marrieds, sometimes wondering why the people on the trains we can hear tooting in the distance—as Thoreau did—want to go anywhere anyhow. Unlike Thoreau, however, we do of course have TV and the morning paper to tell us what is happening out beyond the woods in places like Baghdad.
Before the Iraq invasion I participated futilely in an anti-war event by writing an anti-war poem (see below), but before even that I sat down (as a hopefully complex individual) to put together one more biographical book describing the "shared impiety" of Six Literary Lives. For it I chose individuals who had been—in their primitive times—impious about the state of the collectively thoughtful world around them when each thought that he was doing the thinking. First there was rich worldly Henry Adams, worried that by 1921 the human mind would not be able to cope with anything any more (he just didn't know about Gallup). Then came Jack London, wandering for a day or two through the slums of London in the 1920s and discovering (a bit sociologically I admit) that the lot of people in general was in need of improvement. Then came his friend Upton Sinclair, who was a solid leftist, hence more businesslike as a problem-solver, but he was followed by a miscellany of persistently complex individuals—William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos and Allen Tate—who obviously didn't really know what the world had come to be about. Looking back now, ten years after the book, I can't say that I knew what it was about either. I can't, that is, say with any confidence that I know, now, of what "impiety" consists, after all, in a world governed by polls rather than individuals. At least, however, I casually took on, in an appendix to the volume, a short history of "naturalists" in which I compared Thoreau with Darwin (among many others, like the mighty Humboldt, who wrote a complete history of the Kosmos), and had individualist Thoreau come out ahead! I proved this by simply providing his private response to a sunset rather than trying to put the helpless sunset in a universal historical context. Unfortunately Thoreau was, as any sociologist knows, quite wrong in imagining that he could keep the context (or the pollsters) out.
Oh well, a simplistically caged condition is what one lives with in old age, with or without TV. The condition is magnified, however, by the helplessness one feels when the outside comes crashing in, because it is deemed to be a wicked outside by the Gallupized forces of freedom at home, forces like those that flew American forces to Iraq in 2003. I therefore became a peacenik for our Iraq invasion and wrote the attached blast. And now, unfortunately, at the caged moment of this writing (with the forces of freedom well mired in their conquered country), I have no angry, Furioso, I-told-you-so editorial to present about our current national condition, but am instead merely depressed by how far the "free" world as a whole has moved away from Thoreau's (and archaic little mag editors') complaints about that world. The archaic condition known as individualism—by which one could at least profess to be, if not alone, at least an entity living quietly outside the monstrous human cage—such a condition no longer exists even when one is living quietly in retirement next to a quiet woods (owned by the Washington Metro).
So I now lie awake at night listening to the distant rumbling and tooting of old-fashioned earthy CSX trains but knowing more than Thoreau—lucky chap—seems to have. I now visit the Maryland campus just to go its fine library and get a helpful librarian to look up a book for me in its incomprehensible new filing machinery. The old books are at least still there, and I can take them home and lie down in my cage as if I were not there at all, but still able to wander about as if free and complex.
Weapons of Mass Destruction*
You should know
That Weapons M.D., Weapons M.D.,
Threatening all mortal beings with instant catastrophe,
Are now being made in more than one evil foreign country,
But oh! oh!
Lucky we are to be making our very own Weapons M.D.
That are bigger and better and much more democratic
Than any weapons M.D.
Made by any evil foreign country,
And oh! oh! oh!
We have our morality,
Our lovely sweet American morality
To fight off catastrophe
Brought on by any bad evil arrogant foreign country
With their weapons M.D.,
*Written before the invasion of Iraq
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 4, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1975.
Contemporary Poets, seventh edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 5: American Poets since World War II, First Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980, pp. 372-378.
Modern American Literature, fifth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Nemerov, Howard, editor, Poets on Poetry, Basic Books, 1966.
Choice, May, 1975.
Library Journal, June 1, 1970.
New Leader, December 4, 1967.
New York Times Book Review, June 2, 1963.
Poetry, November, 1956.
Saturday Review, June 8, 1963; October 14, 1967.
Sewanee Review, Volume 71, 1963, Roger Hecht, "A Note on Reed Whittemore."
Yale Review, winter, 1968.