At last, an institution of higher learning that looked the part. Brick buildings two hundred years old, requisite ivy ascending (not flowing down from above like Rapunzel’s tresses, as I’d believed when I was young), grassy quadrangles divided by walkways into skinny triangles. It seemed hardly to matter what went on inside.
In the mid 1970s, Johns Hopkins was one of a handful of writing programs in the country, though I turned to a writing program less for further instruction than as a refuge from the life for which my B.A. appeared to have prepared me: running a cash register at a supermarket, making sandwiches and ladling out macaroni salad in a deli, working as a “home health aide” for a social services agency.
If you were poor, and old, the class in which I had now found myself was teaching me, the odds were good you’d wind up your life in a grim, ill-furnished room all alone. Two decades in school had merely served to obscure this fact. “Forget about the laundry,” a bedridden client commanded, “have a seat.” “Stop fussing in the kitchen and come sit down, girlie!” said another. He wanted to talk about fishing. But bearing too much reality was not what I had been schooled in. I was eager to retreat back to the page.
Back to the world of the fathers, but admitted now to the laboratory where ideas were made and whence they were sent forth into the world. A faculty child masquerading as a graduate student. Had someone stopped me in the hallways and demanded to see my I.D. I would not have been surprised.
The heady moment of the week, when social and academic intensity came together, was in John Barth’s weekly writing seminar, in each of which two student stories were discussed. “I’d give that another turn of the dramaturgical screw,” Barth would say, in his courtly way—this cleverest of writers, whom I’d been startled to see in living color after his black-and-white book jackets, on which he appeared in heavy glasses and what looked like a lab coat. Not only was Barth colorized, he was tall and athletic, speaking in an elegant not quite Southern accent; he liked to sail; he lived in a big brick house in the soigné neighborhood north of campus with his attractive friendly wife. He was a genial host. He invigorated a stifled question-and-answer period by asking Italo Calvino if it was true that Erica Jong had lifted the concept of the “zipless fuck” from him.
After I’d been accepted by Hopkins I found The Floating Opera by this writer I’d never heard of and despite his looking like a no-nonsense high-school chemistry teacher I’d been impressed. I wouldn’t have expected that someone in this day and age could write so well. Once I arrived in Baltimore, my unwittingly self-imposed exile from the twentieth century became even more uncomfortably apparent. I had heard of Thomas Pynchon, upon whose whereabouts other seminar students were speculating. Now giant tomes surrounded us in every direction like the pillars of Stonehenge, waiting to be deciphered. There were Barth’s own lurking large books, Giles Goat Boy and The Sotweed Factor. There was Gaddis’s The Recognitions. Heller’s Something Happened. The Tunnel, which William Gass was known to be assembling. There were Joseph McElroy’s novels to reckon with. He was coming to teach in the spring semester: McElroy, the Writing Seminars’ director Charles Newman told us, was the “best unknown writer in America.” I was nostalgic for the cozy nineteenth century. I’d been happy there.
But here I was, in the midst of a conflagration of postmodernists, alive and well and writing up a bonfire, fueling it with suspect narrative drive. Barthelme, Gass, Hawkes, Elkin, Puig, Calvino, Ashbery—every member of the new canon except the elusive Pynchon, it seemed—came to read to and drink cocktails with us. I didn’t notice that none of them were women. The teacher of the single literature course I’d taken in college had commented on a paper, “You express your twentieth-century woman’s outrage very well.” Outrage? Twentieth century? Who, me?
It wasn’t only long books that demanded to be read. There were the short, pithy, but incomprehensible Barthelme stories, Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, Hawkes’s The Blood Oranges. Newman assigned us stories and critical articles from TriQuarterly, the literary magazine he’d helped to found and still edited. The bafflement many of us expressed in response to the readings appeared to be nothing less than what he’d expected. But why don’t you like it? he insisted. What does it mean to “like” something? The love of story, of being carried away, we were given to understand, was as suspect in our world as it had been after the Russian Revolution, if for different reasons.
It was soon borne in upon me that I didn’t know the first thing about what I was doing; I was like someone who played the piano without ever having learned to read music. God help me, I’d liked Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse for the atmosphere. I was highly sensitive to prose but I didn’t think about it. Something in me strongly resisted thinking about it. I wanted to picture an empty house on bluffs above the sea. To accompany Mrs. Dalloway through the streets of London as she went to buy flowers. It annoyed me to be interrupted by passages about Septimus Smith and his shell shock. Deeper meaning making itself felt, I suspected. The forces of history, with their broad implications. And, beyond history, of course, hulked Ideas, looming, unpleasant tasks waiting to be attended to, like having to clean the refrigerator.
Apparently, I didn’t want to think. After my high-school inability to correctly apply Ideas to my love life, I had retreated from that front. What did Septimus and his shell shock have to do with Mrs. Dalloway and her flowers? I didn’t want to know. I wanted to go to literature to escape my own world, as I’d always done. What was the point, otherwise? I missed every reference. What were references? I objected to the very idea of them. Did I, in my own work, have to be responsible for them too?
Yet it appeared that, story addict that I might be, I had no understanding of story either. Barth emphatically scrawled the word in Greek from which “plot” derives on the small blackboard he kept in his office, as if etymology would promote my comprehension. Plot, so far as I could understand, seemed to mean knowing what you were going to write before you wrote it. What would be the point of that?
I began, however, to find it difficult to write anything. I abandoned the novel I’d begun and concentrated on short stories, about which no one could ask me what was coming next. In writing as in life, I transmogrified from an adventurous child into a mute undercover agent, on the lookout for the received way to do things. This wasn’t new, of course. What else had school ever been to me?
But writing—writing had always been apart, immune to doubt. The one place I could go where no one told me what to do. Now that territory too was infected. A place that had been mercifully free of anxiety about the right way to do things was now more deeply corrupted by it than anywhere. The pleasure I’d taken in invention and in putting words on the page was suspect. I was suspect. The lady in the long dress—clinging among other things to faith in a Dickensian, Tolstoyan, Brontë-esque narrative world—I’d known I had to get rid of her, but now I saw that she was myself. The self, that is, that didn’t want to face—well, that was the problem, wasn’t it? Face what?
In Baltimore I was living with the family of a close friend from college in a middle-class black neighborhood four miles from the Hopkins campus; I got up there in the morning, rode my bike or took a bus to the campus bordering one of Baltimore’s fanciest white neighborhoods, and immersed myself in literature that might from one perspective be described as a swansong of whiteness. My college friend was living at home at the time, having no luck finding any sort of decent job, and we weren’t getting along. He was irritated by my “maple syrup” whiteness, my ignorance of his world—the “stocking hat world,” as he put it; I’d had to have it explained to me why he and his father went around the house wearing cut-off sections of women’s stockings over their hair. I, believing that obliviousness constituted lack of prejudice, thought him unfair. I didn’t see what he had to complain about. Hadn’t he been popular in college (where there were hardly any blacks)? I was no racist; hadn’t I written protest songs when visiting my North Carolina grandparents, who’d maintained that “nigras,” although deserving of kind treatment, were genetically inferior to whites? Hadn’t I been sure that, if we’d had a false room behind our chimney, I’d have hidden escaping slaves there?
But I’d never confronted this abstract egalitarianism with the segregation I’d grown up with—the comfort with “colored” Lottie and Isabel who cleaned our house and babysat for me but lived in their own part of town, the part I and my white friends had been enjoined not to wander into. And hadn’t we been through this already in college, when Lonnie told me we could never really be friends because we were of different races? Retracting, partially, to say that we were “like angels,” beyond or above race, allowing us to skirt the issue. Why did we have to go over this territory again? So, as in Vermont, I dropped the class in racism I could have taken and instead dismissed his skepticism about my uncritical embrace of my new world as irritation or envy; I was too busy with intense new friendships, enjoying the heady intimacy of having companions in a city. I passed beneath the archway into the inner quadrangle with a feeling of great relief. Safe. Brick and ivy. Greenswards. Quiet. Obscurity about what century it was.
And if I didn’t see then how longing to escape the actual world with its unwelcome truths might vitiate the world I was writing about, out of graduate school, my confusions were merely compounded. Having moved to Boston, I found a job with Little, Brown, the publishing house, which was like going to work for the Vichy government after smuggling arms for the Résistance. At Hopkins I’d learned to regard mainstream publishers as bourgeois philistines, interested only in appealing to the lowest common denominator of the reading public in order to make money. I was on my guard. So when I went to work at my first job—sifting through the unsolicited manuscripts: the slush pile—I expected to undergo profound moral conflict, forced, as I would be, to reject one work of misunderstood genius after another.
“I have written eight stories that must be told to the public,” asserted one cover letter, “for they will bring us closer together.” “There is a climax right at the beginning of the book,” another letter noted, “after which are a series of aftershocks.” “Enclosed is the synopsis of a plot that has been written a million times, but never on paper.” “___________________ is essentially a bildungsroman with a setting in an unpopular place.” “In the book I describe myself as an angry young man of twenty-seven, with sufficient reason to be angry, or so I felt.” “This letter is to inquire if you would be interested in hearing about Sylvia, a person sustained by a secret anger which she has sublimated into a working philosophy.” “While all of the characters are wholly fictional, the parrot, January, is actually a combination of three parrots I have known.” “The novel carries two major and a total of five main protagonists, fifteen secondary characters, and twenty-four tertiary characters.” “My novel introduces dead Indians who do not understand their predicament.”
“Go Hug a Tree,” the editor I worked for suggested we write back—send a bumper sticker with the rejection letters—to explain that they were looking in the wrong place for substantiation, reassurance that their lives amounted to something. I laughed but shrank inwardly.
The writers were sincere, even the ones that assured us that publishing their books, such as the one that promised to be a “great mixture of sex, oil, and violence,” would “make us both rich.” So it was hard to know which was the more disturbing—the dawning recognition that publishers were not all genius-eradicating monsters or the growing suspicion that the country was crowded by would-be writers. What did they all want, really? What lack or longing were they sublimating into this desire to be published? They couldn’t all really be writers, could they?
Yet except in the level of education and training it wasn’t clear that my grad school classmates, including myself—sickening thought—with our high-flown plans for doing the next great thing, were unlike them.
To my self-consciousness about my retrograde impulse towards story was now added mistrust of motive. What had once felt as natural as breathing now appeared to be driven by a desire for recognition. What mortifying pretension! The critic who’d demanded, Who are you to think you know something? was now joined by the critic who squeamishly snivelled, Eww, how personal . . . To have needs! And to use one’s work to satisfy them . . . The world doesn’t need what you have to say.
Even broadening one’s subject—to write about war, say, or Christianity—what was this but to dignify personal dilemmas by writing them large? So big deal, said this workaholic censor, you’ve simply realized you live in the world. Go buy yourself an ice cream cone. Glory be.
In the world of publishing, the too unremittingly highbrow (not commercially viable) was disparaged. The editor I worked for was impatient with the pantheon of writers I’d learned to admire in graduate school. They were masturbatory, unconcerned about “the Reader.” The “common reader” we’d scorned in the Writing Seminars was here championed. The first day of our workshop Barth had given us a cautionary handout containing the hard facts about growing U.S. illiteracy. If postmodernists weren’t read, that is to say, it would not be because of their difficulty and self-referentiality but because so few were able to read them.
Some of the books my boss extolled I found thin, second-rate. And yet I had to admit that I’d had to drag myself through Gravity’s Rainbow, cognizant though I was of its brilliance. Did it really have to be so long? Oh, right, I reminded myself: the hope of being “carried away” by a piece of writing was to be mistrusted, and to aspire to it as either writer or reader was to pander to the human longing for a “plotted” life, preferably ending happily. In real life there was no omniscient narrator. The mind wanted to impose sense and narrative, but the impulse had to be resisted. Pynchon and allied postmodernists were holding the barricades behind which more pusillanimous writers cowered like recidivist Fanny Burneys. These bold adventurers had knocked over, like a cowboy a poker table in a saloon, the model of good-host aesthetics, the writer as cordial guide, introducing the unfamiliar in familiar language, with friendly introductory clauses and polite qualifiers, in the caricaturable fashion of English aplomb: “I say, old chap, don’t look now, but there appears to be a rather disgruntled rhinoceros bearing down upon you from the northwest . . .”
In his book about long American novels, The Art of Excess, Tom LeClair argues that readers need to be “mastered” by texts in order for anything really to make an impact, to unstick their stuck thinking. The glut of pseudo-information with which we’re surrounded is so inexhaustible that only a colossus can contend against it; only something that literally alters our neural pathways can enable us to see. An elegant argument, but was it an apologia for self-indulgence? How could anyone really think they had the right to claim so much of another person’s time and attention? When LeClair once asked Alice Walker why no women attempted such “master” works, she said, “Why would they want to?” Were women simply too cripplingly modest and unambitious? Who could arbitrate this question?
During my year in the social services, I’d struggled through Ulysses, the father of all these books. Joyce was spoiling him for other writers, my father had said. He was disparaging about Woolf, whose work I loved and to whose sensibility my own first novel owed a substantial debt.
“Never been able to read her,” he said, unregretfully. The likes of Dickens and George Eliot he found unbearably turgid. So much verbiage, so unallusive. I’d circled around Ulysses, resenting a book that rendered the rest of literature unpalatable. I went at it in stages, as if in a risky mountaineering expedition, feeling as I did when as a child I surreptitiously sipped my parents’ whisky. I responded to Joyce’s humanity; I liked it when Bloom cooked kidneys, feeling most at ease in novels in which people eat with regularity; I recognized Joyce’s erudition, but my inability to respond to much of it made me anxious and—what I would never have admitted—I was bored.
If, over time, I learned the different pleasures of these texts and came to admire some, as a writer I became only more confused. Where did I situate myself along the continuum between, say, Finnegans Wake and Valley of the Dolls? If I freighted my language with references, would anyone notice? But how, now, could I not? If a character murmurs “Yes” more than twice in a row, he or she would be suspected by a coterie of readers of quoting Molly Bloom. And then one would need to ascertain whether it was the character quoting, or the author. Yet wasn’t all this thinking itself a pernicious sign? Real inspiration doesn’t think. It shuts itself up in the tower at Duino and bursts forth with elegies.
And if there were poles of referential difficulty and of hackneyed familiarity between which a writer could stagger, there were also poles of heat and warmth, expansiveness and withholding. Lawrence and Hemingway—either you went all out, balked at nothing, spared no one; no event, no detail, too personal to include. Or else you never explained, never complained.
Certainly I had no trouble growing uneasy when a narrative edged into the admittedly personal, committed the sin of straying from aesthetic distance. In graduate school, when it became clear that Barth had grown up in the area where his first novel was set, I was taken aback, the wizard’s curtain disturbingly wrenched aside again. As with teachers, weren’t writers separate from their books? The writers I’d read whose biographies I knew something of were all dead. My own early fiction, I had recognized, had contained elements of autobiography, but I’d thought one grew out of that.
If those who, like T. S. Eliot propounding what became New Critical doctrine, argued the irrelevance of a writer’s biography to his text (where had I heard that before?), might be concealing behind this proscription the less savory aspects of their own characters; and if, as writers, they desired to be above their handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring their fingernails, it was plain that if you took the aesthetic to the other extreme you’d end with nothing but formless cries and grunts. Not to shape, to refuse to attend to form, showed an absence of generosity, a self-extolling self-concern, a lack of interest in communication. Too self-referential; too messy; possibly too female. Even to wonder such a thing made me feel as if I’d ventured into the ivy-draped halls and taken all my clothes off.
And despite all these harpie-like voices ready to pounce (I hadn’t noticed yet that only the actual act of writing kept them at bay), I still believed that if I really had something to say, it would come pouring out all at once like Rilke’s Elegies or in a wild two months like The Tin Drum. What did it matter that I had to make a living, had friends and relationships, and later a child for whom I was the sole custodial parent? That these supposedly oblivious geniuses were all men; that the few women who’d wedged their way into the upper ranks (Woolf, Stein, Dickinson, for example) had not been mothers, had not had to earn money, had had someone to look after them? Mundane concerns—I wouldn’t stoop to blaming these. Furthermore, ten years in academia ruins a writer forever, Henry Adams had said. Well, God help me, I’d been in it, one way or another, my whole life.
An episode, this time in my own life, came to symbolize for me the beginning of recognizing a way out of this particular impasse. A different way to think about what I was doing: as inventing, instead of rendering, not suborning the invention through comparison to an ideal imposed from without—whatever that might be. It was dim, this sense; inarticulate, perhaps inarticulable. Work that would be itself, neither postmodernically protected by insistence on knowing what it was doing, nor yet refusing to think about itself either. Some heretofore unfamiliar amalgam of thinking and being. Being that was thinking: the mind’s shapes not separable from the world.
After Hopkins, I had kept contact with one teacher, Joseph McElroy. He had, as promised, come down to Baltimore from New York once a week by train, wearing a belted trench coat, like a spy. The best unknown writer in America, Newman had said. There he was, in our classroom, as we carefully scrutinized him (Why “best”? Why “unknown”?), allusive in his talk in a way both authoritative and yet personal; his prose abstract, yet oddly intimate. He was postmodern, presumably (he’d hardly have been permitted into our enclave otherwise), but not easily categorizable. The work could be arrogant in its demands but at the same time was full of wonder and stifled tenderness.
Sometime in the early 1980s, McElroy was in residence at the D. H. Lawrence Ranch outside of Taos and I went up to visit him from Santa Fe, where I was temporarily living. The Lawrence Ranch (owned by the University of New Mexico, with a cabin for a writer’s retreat) is up a long steep dirt road outside the village of San Cristobal, fifteen miles north of Taos, up in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. There’s the house Lawrence lived in with Frieda, and the chapel where his ashes finally came to rest after being fought over by Frieda and Dorothy Brett. To say it’s a peaceful place glosses over the feeling of human insignificance inescapable in that vast bright landscape, with the endless view of the Jemez Mountains to the west and the soundlessness of even the wind at that high altitude. How you react to it depends upon whether you are in the mood to feel exalted by your pending disappearance into the eternal or to cling mournfully to the speck that is your individual particular life.
I sat on the porch of the cabin and read some pages of manuscript of the book McElroy was then working on—typed on yellow newsprint-like typing paper, it today seems relevant to mention—a section of Women and Men having to do with Shiprock, a massive rock formation in northern New Mexico. And maybe because it was typed, not printed, with handwritten corrections in the margins, I felt freer just to read it. Doing whatever it was I did when I read. Skating off the prose at regular intervals, looking out at the pale blue mountains, then back down at the page. The prose didn’t suffer. It was an odd feeling, as if I’d been proofreading and hadn’t located any errors in the landscape. The prose stood up.
Somehow reading it in typescript let me connect the writing to a person, not an Author; it was like McElroy’s attention as a person, that best kind of New York sensibility, nothing a priori excluded from being worthy of interest. Maybe it wasn’t necessary to give up, in writing, whole realms of concern as irrelevant to the matter at hand.
Reading the work had an effect at that moment similar to that of coming across his comments in the margins of my own manuscript. McElroy is a generous and gifted reader of student work, and his remarks had been like Dramamine to my narrative sea-sickness; the rolling vessel stilled. He was uncannily attuned to falsity in writing and though at the time I could see it only very, very faintly in the distance, like an island shrouded by fog, it seemed there might be a kind of narrative authenticity that could guide one through rocky linguistic choices. You might learn to hear when you were quoting, not speaking, and, in time, to speak.
His own prose, at the moment, was having a similarly calming effect, on, I suppose, my multipurpose anxiety about getting somewhere, whether in thinking or in life. It redefined “somewhere.” Glancing up again at the familiar mountains, I felt braced against the magnificence of the beyond. Beyond, I inarticulately felt, was not the point. You could start in your particular speckness but invoke the eternal, or vice versa. How, I didn’t know, only that some different kind of thinking was called for. Or maybe it wouldn’t even be called thinking.
Earlier that day we had met up at the Taos Inn where, for a couple of dollars, the owner would take you into a room covered in D. H. Lawrence’s paintings. There was an illicit feeling about the whole enterprise—so many paintings by such a famous person being kept there in one tight space, not on public view. Expressionistic nudes, banned from a gallery in London when they were shown in 1929, guarded in New Mexico by this self-appointed Cerberus. Back up at the ranch that afternoon, Joe said mysteriously that he had something else to show me as well, but we had to be careful not to be observed by the caretaker, an irascible reincarnated Mellors (without, presumably, the sex appeal of Lady Chatterley’s).
So we made a wide circle around the caretaker’s cottage, scrabbling uphill, ducking beneath low growing piñon and juniper. I couldn’t imagine what we were going to see. Joe had been uncharacteristically cryptic. Was it safe? I wondered. Maybe I didn’t really know him all that well, in fact. There I was, creeping through the New Mexico trees like a guerrilla on an ambush with the “best unknown writer in America.” A heavily symbolic experience, I began with my usual anxiety to suspect, but like all the others in my life that had escaped me, I probably wouldn’t grasp this one either.
Then we came upon the symbol, and it was a mountain lion in a cage. A wounded mountain lion. The caretaker had captured it and was keeping it there, presumably until it was cured. Could it be, though? Should he, Joe, do something about it? If so, what? What did I think? I didn’t know. I thought there might be somewhere we should report it, but there was antagonizing the caretaker to be avoided.
Cautiously we circled the cage, not wanting to alarm the mountain lion, either to distress it or to provoke a noise which might alert its keeper to our presence. There were alternating intervals of light and shade, heat and coolness, as we ducked through the juniper and piñon. There was the oddity of following a wiry New Yorker I’d seen before this only sitting at tables or walking on sidewalks, now crouching beneath low-hanging branches. And expectation—the build-up of wonder and amazement—so queerly resolving itself into the thing you hadn’t foreseen. So that—in an enthusiastic moment of self-defense and congratulation—you tell yourself that yes, after all, of course you had.
Though what I had seen, I didn’t know, only that I recognized it. It would be another of those images that stayed intact in my memory, preserved in its opacity. Though if some of those earlier memories had been about the outside without the inside, this was the reverse: the inside without the out-, experience without the ratifying label. Experience pure. But could it be pure if it was so complicated? It was already so replete with reference. But maybe there was something, not beyond reference, exactly, but eclipsing it. Or dissolving it. Maybe you could go, not onward and upward to revelation, but in, down, reclaiming the symbolic, taking it back—back from the idealists, the philosophers, the preachers. There was meaning already in things—“no ideas but in things,” famously said William Carlos Williams; I have no idea if this is what he meant, but it was apt.
The hotel owner’s keeping Lawrence’s erotic paintings under lock and key, turning them if unwittingly into a risqué peep show; the lion crouching sullen, powerless; us mesmerized and inadequate, almost embarrassed—looking at it together, talking about it, not knowing what to do but feeling companionable in the mystery of it, like children who’d opened a parents’ drawer to find a loaded gun—I was just on the verge of understanding what it all meant.
On the verge: if I’d looked that word up, I might have learned how risky a place it is to be. The outer limits of someone’s jurisdiction.
It wasn’t our doing, that the mountain lion had been caged; yet here we were, within a stone’s throw of all that was left of D. H. Lawrence, who would have had no hesitation about how to think about that lion: American writers, circling, baffled, around wildness, caged. A scene rich with implication. You could do a lot with that scene, I thought.