Saturday Oct. 3, 2015

0:00/ 0:00

Back Home

The place I lived as a child, the sharecropper’s farmhouse with
its wind-bent mulberry trees and rusted farm machinery has
completely vanished. Now there’s nothing but plowed fields for
miles in any direction. When I asked around in town no one
remembered the family. No way to verify my story. In fact,
there’s no evidence that any of what I remember actually hap-
pened, or that the people I knew ever existed. There was my
uncle Axel, for instance, who spent most of his life moving from
one job to another, trying to “find himself.” He should have
saved himself the trouble. I moved away from there a long time
ago, when I was a young man, and came to the cold spruce
forests of the north. The place I thought I was going is imagi-
nary, yet I have lived here most of my life.

“Back Home” by Louis Jenkins from The Winter Road. © Holy Cow! Press, 2000. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the 25th anniversary of the 1990 reunification of East and West Germany. The two countries had been divided since the end of World War II. The most visible sign of this division was the Berlin Wall that divided the former capital for 28 years.

It’s the anniversary of the 1895 publication of Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage, the story of Civil War private Henry Fleming (books by this author). The story begins late at night around a campfire: “The youth was in a little trance of astonishment. So tomorrow they were at last going to fight. There would be a battle, and he would be in it. For a time he was obliged to labor to make himself believe. He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth. He had dreamed of battles all his life.”

Today is the birthday of American novelist Thomas Wolfe (1900) (books by this author), born in Asheville, North Carolina. Wolfe’s mother operated a busy boarding house called “The Old Kentucky Home.” His father was a gravestone carver whose purchase of an angel statue inspired a key motif in Wolfe’s debut novel, Look Homeward, Angel (1929), which he based on his life growing up in Asheville. Wolfe was a precocious child, enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at 15 years old, where he feverishly wrote plays and worked for the student newspaper.

A stint at Harvard didn’t pan out, so he tried writing plays in New York City. His plays were too long, though, and friends told him his poetic and rhapsodic prose style was more suited to the page than the stage. He sailed to Europe, where he began working on a long, autobiographical novel he called O Lost. He said, “As my book began to grow before me, a wild sense of exultation and joyous elation seized me.” He renamed Asheville “Altamont,” his mother’s boarding house became “Dixieland” instead of “The Old Kentucky Home,” and he named his narrator Eugene Gant. The original manuscript was more than 1,100 pages long, which didn’t bother Wolfe. He said, “I want to put down everything I’ve observed about life. Technique can come later.” His editor, Maxwell Perkins, disagreed. He cut Wolfe’s manuscript to a publishable length and renamed it Look Homeward, Angel (1929). The book was published 11 days before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and was well-received by critics, but the people of Asheville were angry at Wolfe for writing about them. Wolfe tried to laugh off their discontent. He told a reporter, “Episodes which were wholly imaginary have actually gotten me into trouble through people thinking they remembered them.” Nonetheless, he received death threats and didn’t return to Asheville for eight years.

William Faulkner was an early champion of Wolfe’s, calling him the most talented writer of his generation, but they later had a falling out, with Faulkner claiming that Wolfe’s expressive style was “like an elephant trying to do the hoochie-coochie.”

Wolfe was nearly six feet six inches tall, bombastic, and an alcoholic. He wrote all his manuscripts while standing up, using the top of the refrigerator as his desk. And he wrote longhand, so his fingers were permanently calloused from clutching a pencil.

His second book, The October Fair, was even longer than Look Homeward, Angel: it was over 4,000 pages long and more than 1 million words. Maxwell Perkins again cut the book considerably, deleting the Battle of Gettysburg, a somewhat tawdry scene with a boy and his chicken, and a bawdy song about “three whores from Canada.” Perkins also renamed the book Of Time and the River. It became a best-seller, but Wolfe was resentful of the edits and left Perkins for a new editor.

He set out for a long trip through the West, giving lectures along the way and working tirelessly on another book. He got sick in Seattle, though, and had to be transported to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the brain. He died 10 days later, at the age of 38, leaving behind two long novels, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940).

It’s the birthday of novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Gore Vidal (books by this author), born Eugene Luther Gore Vidal Jr. at West Point Academy in New York (1925), where his father was a flying instructor and assistant football coach. His father later founded three airlines, one of which became TWA. Gore detested his socialite mother, whom he described as a bully and an alcoholic, but he adored his grandfather, a Democratic senator from Oklahoma. His grandfather was blind, and young Vidal loved to read to him.

As a teenager, he simplified his name to Gore Vidal, which he thought sounded more literary. At Exeter Academy, he was an often caustic student, excelling at debate but indifferent to his classmates and studies. One of his classmates was John Knowles, who used Gore as the model for Brinker Hadley, the know-it-all conspiracy theorist in Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace. Gore barely graduated from Exeter, admitting that he cheated on every math exam.

He published two novels, Williwaw (1946) and In a Yellow Wood (1947), which earned good reviews and the celebrity friendships of Christopher Isherwood and Tennessee Williams, but his third novel, The City and the Pillar (1948), was a coming-of-age story about a young gay man. It received terrible reviews and was denounced as pornographic. Several major publications, including The New York Times, refused to review Vidal’s next five books and he fell out of favor. To make ends meet, he began writing mystery novels under the name Edgar Box. He also started writing for television and film, which he did for the next 10 years.

Vidal returned to writing novels in the 1960s with Julian (1964) and Myra Breckenridge (1968), which was a campy black comedy about a male homosexual who undergoes gender reassignment surgery. Later in life, Vidal claimed the novel was his favorite. “Myra began with a first sentence. I was so intrigued by that sentence that I had to go on. Who was she? What did she have to say? A lot, as it turned out. The unconscious mind certainly shaped that book.” The book was made into a disastrous movie (1970) starring Mae West and Raquel Welch.

Vidal, never known for his amiable personality, became famous again for his bitter feuds with other writers. William F. Buckley, whom he called a “crypto-Nazi” at the 1968 Democratic Convention, responded by calling Vidal a “queer,” and the two proceeded to sue each other for the next several years. Vidal also sparred with Norman Mailer, whom he compared to Charles Manson. Later, Mailer head-butted Vidal in the green room while the two were waiting to appear on the Dick Cavett show. They quarreled on the air in a memorable exchange that ended with Cavett’s telling Mailer to take a piece of paper on the table in front of them and “fold it five ways and put it where the moon don’t shine.”

Vidal made no apologies for his outspokenness. He said: “I’m exactly as I appear. There is no warm, lovable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.”

He achieved his greatest success late in life as the writer of best-selling historical novels like Lincoln (1984) and The Golden Age (2000). Gore Vidal died in 2012.

On writing, he said: “I love it, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. Whenever I get up in the morning, I write for about three hours. I write novels in longhand on yellow legal pads. For some reason I write plays and essays on the typewriter. I never reread a text until I have finished the first draft. Otherwise it’s too discouraging. Rewriting, however, is a slow, grinding business. For me the main pleasure of having money is being able to afford as many completely retyped drafts as I like. When I was young and poor, I had to do my own typing, so I seldom did more than two drafts. Now I go through four, five, six.”

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®