Small Moments of Joy: The Millions Interviews Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1969. At the age of 12, she moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., where her mother worked in a factory and her father drove a taxi. Danticat’s 16 works of fiction and nonfiction have won numerous awards. She now lives in the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, and she will be at the Miami Book Fair with her new collection of short stories, Everything Inside. We caught up with the bestselling author and MacArthur Fellow to talk about her latest book, the Haitian-American experience, and small moments of joy.

The Millions: Haiti is a presence in all of these new stories. Tell me about the pull Haiti exerts on you and your writing.

Edwidge Danticat: Well, everything I’ve written is either about Haiti or about the Haitian-American experience. I still have a lot of family in Haiti, so it’s sort of what interests me as a subject. Also, migration to the U.S. and the Haitian-American community in New York and, in this book, in Miami. A lot of the book is set in the area where I live now.

TM: Do you return to Haiti often?

ED: Yeah, I go back a couple of times a year for weddings, funerals, family gatherings, and book-related things. They have one really famous book festival called Livres en Folie, so I go back for that and for conferences. But mostly for family things.

TM: A lot of the characters’ lives in these new stories have not worked out well. I’m thinking about the woman who’s swindled into paying ransom for the bogus kidnapping of her ex-husband’s wife; the woman with AIDS who gets placebos from a shady doctor; the woman who’s summoned to the bedside of the dying father she never knew, only to find he’s dead when she gets there. Yet these characters seem to find consolations.

ED: Some of the stories are based on the experiences of people I know. Not everybody comes out with a happy ending, you know? And that’s one of the things that interests me—how people deal with difficulties. Maybe I just happen to be a melancholy person. I think also, these days, the experience of poor immigrants is a lot more precarious and terrifying because the rules are always changing. But I hope there are consolations. I think people in very difficult circumstances figure out a way to have moments of joy, you know, moments of appreciation.

TM: In your memoir, Brother, I’m Dying, you talked about the “generational sacrifice” that a lot of immigrants make so that their children and grandchildren can thrive in a new country. Is that sacrifice still an influence on your work?

ED: Oh yeah, absolutely. When I was writing that memoir, my father had just died and my uncle who raised me had died in immigration custody. Both my parents, at the ends of their lives, got terminal diagnoses, so we had a lot of time to reflect. And for both my parents, the marker of success was how their children had done. And they felt a kind of consolation, like you were saying before, in the fact that we were doing okay because they had made these great sacrifices. If things hadn’t worked out, that would’ve been devastating to them. So the fact we were doing okay, we’ve done better financially, we’re in a relationship, we seem happy—that, to them, was proof that everything had been worthwhile.

There’s a sense of forward-looking about it. The people who are traveling with their small children, leaving places because they feel like their children will be in danger, the people arriving in Europe from Syria and other places—I think there’s an element to immigration that is so forward-looking. And then the younger person has the burden of dealing with it, figuring out what to do with it. I’ve spoken to young people who feel like it’s such a big responsibility.

TM: Do you feel that burden yourself as the child of immigrants?

ED: I felt that much more when I was younger. My mom worked in a sweatshop in Manhattan, my father was a taxi driver and also left in the dark and would come back exhausted. I could see the wear and tear on their bodies. And so I always felt like I had to do something to make all of this worthwhile. I wanted to help out as soon as I could, drop out of school. But my parents never allowed that. School was our job. They wanted me to be a doctor, and at times I felt like maybe I should be a doctor to please them. But that didn’t happen.

TM: Well, you turned out pretty well.

ED: Yeah, I did OK.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and the Miami Book Fair.

True Fake Fact: Donald Trump Is Andrew Jackson

Sometimes we open a book hoping to learn one thing and wind up getting bushwhacked by something completely unrelated and unexpected. I’m having that unnerving experience right now with Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.

I started reading the book as research for a nonfiction book I’m writing about a man who was born into a slave-owning family in Virginia during the Civil War and died at the age of 92 at the peak of the Cold War. I was looking for insights into the origins and evolution of Virginia’s (and America’s) class system and, specifically, for evidence supporting my long-held belief that the United States never was and never will be a classless society.

Though Isenberg has solid credentials—she wrote the well-received Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, coauthored Madison and Jefferson, and teaches American history at Louisiana State University—I’ll admit I approached White Trash with some trepidation. That “400-Year Untold History” claim in the subtitle smelled of over-reach, and the early chapters failed to convince me that my nose was malfunctioning. Then I came to chapter five, “Andrew Jackson’s Cracker Country: The Squatter as Common Man.” After a meandering description of the landless, uncouth “crackers and squatters” who led the young republic’s expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains, Isenberg comes to her central character: Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory, the raw-boned Tennessee scrapper and warrior who would become the seventh president of the United States. Isenberg’s sketch of Jackson opens hot and quickly catches fire: “Ferocious in his resentments, driven to wreak revenge against his enemies, he often acted without deliberation and justified his behavior as a law unto himself…Jackson’s personality was a crucial part of his democratic appeal as well as the animosity he provoked. He was not admired for statesmanlike qualities, which he lacked in abundance in comparison to his highly educated rivals…His supporters adored his rough edges…Using violent means if necessary, and acting without legal authority, Jackson was arguably the political heir of the cracker and squatter.”

That was when the gong went off. It was impossible to miss. Isenberg was not merely sketching Andrew Jackson; she was, chapter and verse, sketching the personal and political biography of…Donald Trump. As I continued reading, I found myself subconsciously substituting Trump’s name for Jackson’s, and other players in our contemporary political shitshow for the 19th-century actors in the Jacksonian soap opera. The parallels were so precise they were spooky. Here, with italics marking my mental edits, was what I read:

“Trump’s was a career built on sheer will and utter impulse…Controversy, large and small, seemed to follow the man. Because Trump had relatively little experience holding political offices, his run for the presidency drew even more than the normal amount of attention to his personal character. A biography written for campaign purposes…focused on his volatile emotions. He certainly lacked the education and polite breeding of his presidential predecessors.”

At this point, a suspicion sprang to life. Could it be that Isenberg was writing a cleverly coded takedown of Donald Trump? But I soon learned that this was nearly impossible because White Trash was published five months before the 2016 election, when just about no one, least of all Hillary Clinton and The New York Times, thought Donald Trump had a snowball’s chance of winning the presidency. So Isenberg was not writing in code. The uncanny parallels between our seventh and 45th presidents are the fruit of deep scholarly research. They are actual facts. Isenberg continues, again with my italics:
Prominent critics insisted on a congressional investigation. The powerful Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, demanded the president’s censure. Trump damned the established legal authorities…Confirmed rumors circulated that Trump had threatened to cut off the ears of some senators because they had dared to investigate—and humiliate—him on the national stage.
Of course, both besieged presidents had their defenders:
Trump’s nomination provoked “sneers and derision from the myrmidons of power at Washington,” wrote one avid Trump man, who decried “the degeneracy of American feeling in that swamp.” Trump wasn’t a government minion or a pampered courtier, and thus his unpolished and un-statesmanlike ways were an advantage. In 2019, in a speech before Congress, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky used this kind of language to reproach members of the House for investigating Trump’s activities…The men and women censuring Trump, whom the Kentucky senator mocked as the “young sweet-smelling and powdered beau of the town,” were out of their league. With this clever turn of phrase, McConnell recast Trump’s foes as coastal elites, the classic enemies of flyover country.
Just when I started thinking it was time to get some sex into this parallel-universe narrative, Isenberg obliged: “The candidate’s private life came under equal scrutiny. His irregular marriage became scandalous fodder during the election of 2016…In the ever-expanding script detailing Trump’s misdeeds, adultery was just one more example of his uncontrolled passions. Having affairs with porn stars and then paying them hush money belonged to the standard profile of the backwoods aggressor who refused to believe the law applied to him…He simply took what he wanted, and was even willing to, by his own admission, ‘grab them by the pussy.’”

Even staggering ignorance of international affairs was seen as a virtue by these presidents’ supporters, as Isenberg notes: “If his lack of diplomatic experience made him ‘homebred,’ this meant he was less contaminated than former ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch by foreign ideas or courtly pomp. The class comparison could not be ignored: Hillary Clinton had been a first lady and a secretary of state, while Trump was ‘sprung from a common family,’ and had written nothing to brag about. Instinctive action was privileged over unproductive thought.”

That “common family” claim required a little more massaging in Trump’s case than in Jackson’s, and Trump’s minions have been happy to oblige. “Partisans of Trump claimed that he was from backwoods stock,” Isenberg writes. “This was untrue. Trump was born into an elite New York real-estate family, and though he had briefly been a resident of Queens, that five-bedroom Tudor had been abandoned long ago in favor of Trump Tower.”

It’s likely that Trump, like Jackson before him, has brought lasting changes to the American scene. As Isenberg puts it: “Trump’s candidacy changed the nature of democratic politics. One political commentator noted that Trump’s reign ushered in the ‘game of brag.’ Another observer concluded that a new kind of ‘tweeting country politician’ had arisen, who could tweet for hours before having finally ‘exhausted the fountain of his panegyric on President Trump.’”

As I reached the end of chapter five in White Trash, I dimly remembered hearing that Donald Trump is a big fan of Old Hickory. A little digging reminded me that early in his presidency, in March 2017, Trump had visited Jackson’s estate, the Hermitage, near Nashville to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth. In one of his keener readings of history, Trump declared, “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War.” Hard to fact-check that whopper because Jackson died 16 years before the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter. No matter. Trump added that he admires Jackson—and he has Jackson’s portrait on the wall in the Oval Office—because he was “a very tough person” with a “big heart.” Tell that to the 150 human beings Jackson owned at the time of his death, some of whom he hunted down personally when they tried to escape from bondage. Or tell that to the thousands of Native Americans and black slaves who perished during Jackson’s enforced relocation known as the Trail of Tears, an act of genocide by any other name.

But let’s not get bogged down with true facts when the world is bursting with so many fake facts. And let’s not lose sight of the completely unexpected lesson in Isenberg’s book. The republic survived Andrew Jackson—and Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Surely it will survive Donald Trump? We might get the answer to that question sooner than anyone expected, shortly before the swearing in of President Pence.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I’m a Stained-Glass Guy: The Millions Interviews Kevin Barry

The Irish writer Kevin Barry is no stranger to literary laurels. His debut novel, City of Bohane (2011), won the European Union Prize for Literature and the IMPAC Dublin Award. His two collections of short stories have been awarded the Rooney Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. His second novel, Beatlebone (2015), won the Goldsmiths Prize. Now Barry is out with a wicked little rabbit-punch of a novel, Night Boat to Tangier, that’s on the longlist for this year’s prestigious Booker Prize. From his home in County Sligo, Ireland, Barry spoke by phone recently with The Millions staff writer Bill Morris.

The Millions: The last time we spoke, you were in New York flogging your novel Beatlebone. Remember?

Kevin Barry: Yes, of course, in Washington Square Park. October of 2015 it would have been.

TM: I remember a couple of things about that day, Kevin. First of all, we talked about places, and you said your books come from the reverberations given off by a place, and a specific place is the beginning of all your books. In Night Boat to Tangier, the most prominent place is the Spanish port of Algeciras, where our Irish drug-runner buddies Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are waiting for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly. Have you been to Algeciras?

KB: I have, I have. The first time I passed through was 1991 en route to Tangier, for largely William Burroughs-related reasons. I would have been 20, 21, and big into the whole Burroughs thing at that age. So I went to Tangier and stayed in the hotel where he wrote Naked Lunch, and all that. Afterwards I had a much stronger memory of Algeciras, which is a gloriously seedy kind of town. Something about the place just seemed to offer itself up to fiction. I’ve been back many times; I go to Spain a lot. I go during the winter here. January and February, the west of Ireland is just a fucken swamp and it’s gray and dark and creative energy goes down. Since the winter of 1999 I’ve been escaping for however long I can afford, for a few days, a few weeks, even a coupla months to the south of Spain, just kind of mooching about these little cities.

TM: What was it about Algeciras, though? The seediness of it? The history? The bones in the ground?

KB: Like with all novelists, it was two things combining. I had these two characters in my mind that kept showing up, Maurice and Charlie, and I knew that having gone to Spain so often for so many years, I wanted to write a Spain book, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it—until I had a blinding flash of inspiration one day: what if I just put those two Cork gangsters down there? So I just sent them down there. It’s weird, you only figure out stuff about a novel after you’ve finished it and start talking about it. It strikes me that the movement of this book is directly the reverse of my earlier novels, City of Bohane and Beatlebone. Both of those books started out offering a kind of realism but then very quickly went into fantastical territory. This one is the opposite. It starts out with this highly theatrical premise, but it kind of moves toward realism as we go through the book. You become kinder to your characters as you get older. This is a very different treatment of this story than I would have written 10 years ago. I guess that’s the start of any long story or novel or script or whatever, what you’re doing really, as a writer, is you’re giving yourself a problem and asking yourself if you can fix this problem in 220 pages, or whatever it is. And the problem I gave myself at the start here was, I have to make the reader not just vaguely sympathize with these two guys, but I want to make the reader love them and buy into their world. As desperate and as dangerous and as dark a pair of individuals as they are, I want to see if I can sell their soul and their spirit to the reader.

TM: Another thing I remember from our conversation in Washington Square Park was that I asked you that obligatory, ridiculous question: What are you working on next? And you told me you thought you were going to head back to the fictional City of Bohane. And yet here you wind up in Algeciras, Cork, Cadiz, Malaga, Barcelona, London. Why the detour?

KB: I gave a reading from City of Bohane last year for the first time in eight or nine years. The reading was at the university in Athens, Ga.

TM: My father’s hometown!

KB: It’s a great town. I saw Michael Stipe on the street when I was there. But as I was reading from the novel I thought, wow, there’s great vitality in the language here, but it’s hard to go back. It felt to me very much like a first novel, in terms of the way it was structured. What you have to figure out as a writer often is what projects should be on your desk at a particular time in your life. I had thought vaguely of going back to the City of Bohane, but I thought, no, let’s do other things. Somebody said once that the great enemy of a good idea is another good idea. I get that a lot. Notions pile up for stories and books and I kind of jump around. I’m not ruling out going back to Bohane. I’ve talked to people about developing it for TV, but I don’t know that I’d have access to the same language that I had when I was writing that book. It’s quite a young man’s book [laughs]. As fond as I am of it, you change as a writer.

TM: You mentioned the vitality of the language when you were giving the reading in Athens. Night Boat to Tangier certainly has its own vitality. I’d like to read you a couple of short sentences from the novel and then ask you a question.

KB: Okay.

TM: A character walks into a bar here: “The barman is as stoned-looking as a fucking koala.” Here’s a woman: “She had a smile like a home-made explosive device.” And here are two lovers: “They fought like drunk gorillas.” So here’s my question: is there a little workshop at the back of Kevin Barry’s writing studio where he has little tiny precision tools that he uses to carve out these crazy fucking similes?

KB: You did manage to pick one of my favorites in the book, and that’s the home-made explosive device. I think I might have given myself an afternoon off after that one [laughs]. If there’s any writer I sometimes go to for that kind of thing, it’s the very late V.S. Pritchett, who comes up with these really unexpected images all the time. I remain a devotee of his. You know that overused expression, being “on the nose”? And I probably err in the opposite direction because I try to go as off the nose as possible. The reader has to say, “Okay, I can see a smile that could go off like a home-made explosive device.”

TM: You mention Pritchett. As I was reading the book I was thinking of Samuel Beckett, of course.

KB: Sure, Irishmen waiting.

TM: Tell me some other influences on this book.

KB: The playwright I was thinking about mostly wasn’t Beckett, believe it or not, it was Harold Pinter. I really like those early Pinter plays from the early ’60s, The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. They’re really funny, but they’ve got great menace like a thread going through them. Those books were close to my desk as I was writing. I was also reading Don DeLillo’s Libra, his Lee Harvey Oswald novel.

TM: I remember we talked about that before—how the Jack Ruby character spoke to you.

KB: Exactly right. Sometimes as a writer you have books that you use like tuning forks. You come across favorite books by favorite writers where you know that the writer’s ear is just completely in. I often go back and read those Jack Ruby sections from Libra because there’s beautiful unexpected comedy in them, and great characterization, and just brilliant dialogue. Sometimes when you’re feeling flat or kind of slow you want to pick up some of the good stuff and remind yourself what the mountain looks like.

TM: You also mentioned that Elmore Leonard is another writer whose dialogue speaks to you.

KB: Oh, for sure. I love Elmore Leonard’s golden period, I’d say from the early ’70s to the early ’80s where he was just on fire, beautiful economy of storytelling and killer dialogue. I’ve always been a reader of crime fiction. I had a long period in my 20s of reading nothing but James Ellroy, which isn’t recommended [laughs]. The problem with reading a writer like Ellroy when you’re starting out as a writer is that the style is so strong and pronounced that you can’t help but ape it on the page. It’s funny, Night Boat to Tangier has elements of a crime novel. My U.S. editor describes it as a book with criminals in it rather than a crime book, and I think that’s kind of right. Especially in the title I was thinking about stuff like Graham Greene’s entertainments, things like Stamboul Train, that vaguely noirish, thrillerish atmosphere rather than plot. I was happy when I came up with the title Night Boat to Tangier. That’s Graham Greene-ish.

TM: Speaking of Graham Greene, I’ve got a question about Catholicism. There’s this description of a bartender in your novel: “He looked as if it were all turning out just as he’d been warned. A Catholic, in other words.” Having been raised Catholic, I can attest that you nailed it there. Were you raised Catholic?

KB: I was, of course. When I was growing up here in the ’70s and ’80s, Ireland was still almost a Catholic monolith. It’s very different now in lots of ways. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but if there’s any Catholicism left in me it’s in my prose style. I’ve got a stained-glass-window of a prose style. I would sometimes love to have a lean, austere, stripped-back Protestant style, but it’s just fucken not in me, man [laughs]. I’m a stained-glass guy.

TM: Your novel’s protagonists, Charlie and Maurice, these guys are a load, and they carry the book on their beat-up backs. But I really fell for Maurice’s daughter, Dilly, when she said she’s been listening to the reggae singer Lee Scratch Perry. That man’s a genius. Are you a fan, by any chance?

KB: Absolutely. I would argue strongly that one of the great cultural acts of the 20th century was when Lee Scratch Perry burned his Black Ark Studio (in Kingston, Jamaica) to the ground on the basis that it was possessed by duppies, by evil spirits. And he said, “Okay, I’m going to burn this thing to the ground and move to Switzerland.” I think that’s one of the greatest artistic gestures of our time. I listen to Scratch Perry all the time. But I’ve gotten quite jazzy with age. I listen to a lot more jazz than I used to, one of the reasons being I finally got a nice new record player, so I’ve been buying vinyl a lot and the jazz stuff sounds so good on vinyl. And it’s something I can listen to when I’m working without the distraction of lyrics.

TM: I went to see Scratch Perry perform in New York a few years ago, and I was afraid he was going to be gaga—but he was great! The band was tight, he was coherent, he was on his game.

KB: Yeah, he’s sober. He got off the weed.

TM: Let’s talk briefly about your novel’s form. You mentioned that is starts off in a kind of fantastical way and then becomes more realistic. Throughout, the paragraphs are short, very little punctuation, no quotation marks or dashes to denote dialog. Tell me about these decisions.

KB: This often, for me, is the fun of it and the enjoyment of it. I hate the first draft, it’s really slow and laborious, dragging the stuff out of your darkest recesses. What I tend to do is write long in the first draft so I have a lot of material to start playing with. For me, the fun of it is seeing how much scaffolding I can take away. At least that’s the way I am now as a writer. I probably had more of a maximalist approach when I was writing my first novel. Now I like to see how much of the traditional scenery of a novel I can remove and still keep the heart of the thing beating. I’m moving more toward subtraction than addition at this stage. Which isn’t to say that the next novel won’t be a big and baggy monster. You change all the time.

TM: How old are you now?

KB: I just turned 50. I had that significant birthday in June, and the novel is all about these two guys in their early 50s. It’s about one of those weird constellations that as you age you start to realize that the past isn’t a fixed entity. It keeps moving and shifting and rearranging itself back there. And this is the realization Maurice and Charlie have in the book—that things you thought meant one thing in your life meant something else. And it’s all going to keep moving. In a weird curious way, that’s one of the consolations of age. And also the book is about male friendship, which is written about weirdly rarely. It’s a really interesting subject, and when you’re doing two male friends talking a lot to each other, if you listen to what’s going on just beneath the surface, there are all these power battles.

It became clear to me after a while that what I was really writing was this portrait of a very strange extended family. When these two characters first showed up, they kept trying to get into short stories and they would immediately destroy the story because they’re too big. They were annoying me. I eventually realized I have to give these two fuckers their own thing and figure out who they are. I started off writing a play script but very quickly realized, no, it needed the kind of space a novel allows.

TM: The novel is on the longlist for the Booker Prize, and the shortlist comes out Sept. 3. I’m wondering, are you having kittens or is this just another day in the life of Kevin Barry?

KB: It’s a big prize, and when I was put on the longlist there was a lot more noise around it, much more so than with other book prizes I’ve been involved with. I’ve been mostly managing to distract myself and not think about it too much, but it certainly does creep into one’s thoughts. But it’s really cool for the book. It gives it a good push.

Bonus Link: Bill Morris’s 2015 interview with Kevin Barry that appeared in The Daily Beast.

Fairfield Porter: Artist, Writer, Heretic

In the early 1950s, during the high noon of Abstract Expressionism, the painter Willem de Kooning did something heretical. He started incorporating the recognizable figures of women in his lush, muscular pictures. One fine boozy evening, Clement Greenberg, the don of New York art critics, walked up to de Kooning in the Cedar Tavern and issued what amounted to a fatwa. “You’re dead,” Greenberg told de Kooning. “You can’t paint this way nowadays.”

This decree from on high had an unintended effect on one of de Kooning’s friends and early champions, the figurative painter Fairfield Porter. “I thought, ‘Who the hell is he to say that?’” Porter wrote later. “He said, ‘You can’t paint figuratively today.’ I thought, ‘If that’s what he says, I think I will do just exactly what he says I can’t do! That’s all I will do.’ I might have become an abstract painter except for that.”

Porter did not become an abstract painter. In fact, he never painted an abstract picture, choosing to avoid the revolving fashions of his age—Abstract Expressionism, Pop, color field painting, Minimalism, Conceptualism—and produce figurative paintings with a rigor and single-mindedness that now make him look nearly heroic. As one critic put it, “Porter was not only a maverick, deliberately out of step with his time, but a heretic, who dissented from the central tenet of the credo of his age.” Rather than tapping into the ferment inside him, Porter painted the world around him as he found it—landscapes, houses, the ocean, people, domestic scenes. Rackstraw Downes, a fellow figurative painter and a sharply perceptive writer on art (and a 2009 MacArthur fellow), describes Porter’s still lifes as “the art of painting whatever was left on the table after breakfast, just as it is.” Porter had a maxim that explains this approach: “When you arrange, you fail.” He added, “An artist who seeks subject matter is like a person who cannot get up in the morning until he understands the meaning of life.” Porter’s concerns, as Downes put it, were “informality and the everyday,” not the formal, the composed, the spectacular. Downes notes that Porter admired Boris Pasternak’s poetry, which spoke to “The endless repetition/Of unrepeatable days.” And so, Porter painted what was in front of him, producing a body of work that amounted to an elegant rebuttal of Clement Greenberg’s claim that it was no longer possible for a figurative painter to say anything new. As Porter said of what motivated him: “When a critic suggests that something is not worth doing because it has been done before, he is in effect urging the artist toward one of the more exciting aspects of art, the attempt to achieve the impossible.”

Yet it would be wrong to suggest that Porter’s artistic and literary output was merely a reaction to Clement Greenberg. Porter’s work was much more ambitious and organic than that. A telling glimpse of it is now on view (through May 24) at the Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York. This intimate show is most notable for eight smallish oil paintings on canvas board, never exhibited before, that Porter produced late in life while on a teaching assignment at Amherst College. One of the paintings, characteristically, is the unspectacular view out of Porter’s studio window—a snow-covered slope leading up to brick campus buildings fronted by naked trees. Another is a view across a parking lot to a plush carpet of fall foliage. Both are studies for large, major paintings, and as such they provide a window into Porter’s creative method, the way he worked up ideas.

They’re lovely pictures by themselves, but they’re made more lovely by the fact that they are in the act of becoming. The Amherst paintings include a couple of female nudes, plus landscapes and still lifes that verge on the abstract. Rounding out the show are some underworked drawings and a pair of richly worked late paintings—a forest, and a rambling house on a cold spring day—and a portrait of Porter’s son from 1955. The sitter does not look like he’s enjoying himself, but the portrait is a delight.

Porter died in 1975 at the age of 68, but it was not until 1984 that he received his first career retrospective, a massive show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts subtitled “Realist Painter in an Age of Abstraction.” Though he may have been underappreciated during his lifetime, Porter was not exactly unknown. He began exhibiting in the early 1950s, and he was an avid museum- and gallery-goer, producing a large body of insightful writing for ARTnews and The Nation that was collected in the 1979 book Art in Its Own Terms, edited and introduced by Downes. In the estimation of curmudgeonly Hilton Kramer of The New York Times, the book placed Porter “among the most important critics of his time.” It’s hard to argue with the assessment. Reading the book is like hanging out with a tuned-in uncle who knows the score and delights in sharing it with you. Porter wrote effortlessly, voraciously, enthusiastically about artists who were then showing—de Kooning and his wife, Elaine; Jasper Johns; Alberto Giacometti; Jane Freilicher; Joseph Cornell; Isabel Bishop; Alex Katz—and he wrote with equal ease and authority about Cezanne, Rembrandt, Whistler, and his personal favorites, Vuillard and Bonnard. Porter exhibited none of the contempt for abstraction that Greenberg and Company exhibited for figurative art. Porter’s tastes were catholic, free of cant and snobbery. He loved making and looking at art, and his writing makes his love infectious. Here’s a typically clear-eye Porter sentence: “A genuine and ordinary reaction to paintings and sculpture, like one’s first impression of a new person, is usually very much to the point.” Here’s another: “The best criticism is simply the best description.” The clarity of his writing style may have come, in part, from the company he kept: among his close friends were the poets James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, and Frank O’Hara. Porter’s wife, Anne, was a finalist for the 1994 National Book Award for poetry.

Betty Cuningham was kind enough to give me a tour of the current show when it opened, and we started off talking about Porter’s achievements as a writer. “His wife, Anne, told me that Fairfield thought he was a better writer than painter,” Cuningham said. Then she led me to the wall of pictures from Porter’s Amherst sojourn, and she said, “They’re slow paintings. I think it takes a long time to see him—the richness of the paint, the clarity, the way he works.” I mentioned the affinities between Downes and Porter—accomplished artists and writers, unapologetic iconoclasts—and she said, “They’re painters who know how to express themselves in words. They’re taking you on a trip through the painting—while trying to find their own way. They both go to a painting with tremendous humility.” Finally, I asked her if she thought Porter’s posthumous reputation has finally caught up with his achievements. “Yes, I do,” she said, “I think he is appreciated.”

I think—I hope—she’s right. The first signs of a reassessment of Porter were the publication of Art in Its Own Terms and the Boston retrospective. They were followed by a well-received biography by Justin Spring, Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art, which revealed that Porter, despite his privileged upbringing, was no stranger to trauma and misfortune. He was also an avowed opponent of big government, nuclear power, the dehumanizing effects of technology, and, of course, the gospel according to Clement Greenberg. Then came a collection of Porter’s letters edited by Ted Leigh, with an illuminating introduction by David Lehman. And in 2010, the Parrish Museum in Southampton, N.Y., put up a show called “Fairfield Porter: Raw—The Creative Process of an American Master,” a mix of finished, unfinished and abandoned works that revealed how Porter worked. It all adds up to buttress Cuningham’s belief that Porter’s achievement is, at last, appreciated.

Late in the run of the current show, I sat in the gallery and watched people walk in off Rivington Street. They were all shapes and sizes and ages, but I noticed that they all took their time taking in the pictures on the walls. They’re slow pictures. They reward close attention. They’re the work of a heretic who dissented from the credo of is age and, in doing so, gave us art that will last because it is timeless.

Martha Cooper: A Reluctant Icon

1.
This year’s Tribeca Film Festival featured a new category called “This Used to Be New York.” One of the category’s three entries was the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles’s debut feature-length documentary, Martha: A Picture Story, about the renowned street photographer Martha Cooper. As I settled into the screening room, I was feeling anticipation tinged with dread. The anticipation came from my unquenchable hunger to time-travel back to the bunged-up, brawling, beautiful New York City of my youth; the dread came from my fear that this movie was going to be another work of misty-eyed nostalgia. The category title “This Used to Be New York” was the first red flag, and the description of the movie in the festival catalog was the clincher. It read:
Selina Miles’ film is a portrait of photographer Martha Cooper, who, with inimitable energy and a sharp eye, recorded images of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s—eras when the city’s vibrancy was deemed dangerous. Cooper’s images of graffiti and hip hop culture showcased a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.
Wow. I trust you’re beginning to understand my dread. The writer of the above paragraph claims that the city’s vibrancy of the ’70s and ’80s “was deemed dangerous.” Anyone who lived in the city in those years knows there was no deemed about it. The city was dangerous by any definition of the word, whether you define it by the murder rate, street crime, the onslaught of AIDS, the city’s teetering finances, or the countless abandoned and burning buildings. Of course there was an upside to that danger—an untethering of old sexual, social and artistic restraints, a sense that anything goes, a flowering of creativity that Martha Cooper chronicled and that continues to inspire artists today, from those who lived through it to those who were born after it had passed, from Patti Smith to Colum McCann, Will Hermes, Garth Risk Hallberg, and many others.

The writer of the paragraph in the catalog concludes that Martha Cooper’s photographs showcased “a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.” Now we’ve arrived at the true source of my dread: this movie was being offered up in service of the facile cliché that New York City used to be an interesting place but it got bled dry by big money, and all the artists got pushed out when the hedge-funders moved in. As someone who has been struggling to cover grand-larceny New York rents for most of my adult life, I can certainly corroborate that the city is—always has been, always will be—awash in real estate greed. As I write these words, I can look across the street at an ugly new 60-story glass condo tower and, next door to it, a construction site where another one is clawing its way into the sky. These abominations will never stop coming. There are more than 60,000 homeless people in the city today, and a hedge-fund gazillionaire just paid $240 million for a penthouse on Billionaires’ Row near Central Park. So, yes, there is real estate greed and there is obscene money and there is inequality in New York City today, and there is no denying that these forces have had a chilling effect on people struggling to make art. But to say that everyone is wearing a “frozen smile” is just lazy and wrong, and it feeds the blooming cottage industry of nostalgia, which I define as the yearning for a time that never existed, a time when everything was supposedly cheaper, freer, better.

This nostalgia is nothing new. It dates back at least to the 1920s, when Edmund Wilson lamented that rising rents were driving writers and artists out of Greenwich Village, and a much-loved cultural gathering spot called Frank Shay’s Bookshop closed down, possibly because rents were rising and demographics were shifting. The ür-text of disillusionment with New York might be Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” from her nonfiction masterpiece, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The essay was Didion’s take on an old story—how a young person’s infatuation with New York, “the shining and perishable dream itself,” slowly unravels. In 2010, Patti Smith declared, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find another city.” Three years later, the musician David Byrne wrote a widely read essay bemoaning the way great wealth in the hands of the few was making the city untenable for the many, especially creative people. “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore,” Byrne wrote, “so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.” He described the city as pockets of gated “pleasure domes for the rich” surrounded by the striving 99 percent of the rest of us.

That same year, Sari Botton edited a collection of essays by 28 women that borrowed its title from Didion’s essay (which was borrowed from Robert Graves’s memoir about his life through the First World War). Botton’s book, which carried the subtitle Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, was a string of bittersweet farewells in the Joan Didion mode. Perhaps a tick too bitter, because a year later Botton followed it with a more upbeat collection called Never Can Say Goodbye, which was a string of unabashed mash notes to the city, bearing the subtitle Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. I was particularly taken by Rosanne Cash’s essay, “New York, in the Mirror,” which catalogued the many downsides of New York life today—the crippling cost of living, of course, plus the demolition of cherished places to make way for franchise restaurants and nail salons and condos, the influx of obscene money, the hordes of tourists clogging the High Line. But in the end, Cash realizes she still loves living here. I agree with her conclusion about the recent changes: “It’s too bad, but it’s the way it is.” She might have added: It has been this way since forever, so quit whining and get on with it.

2.
When Martha: A Picture Story started rolling, my dread gave way to delight. Miles had wisely steered clear of the cockeyed nostalgia promised by the catalog notes and instead focused on her subject, a young woman with an unkillable dream of making it as a photographer in New York in the 1970s. There is home-movie footage of a young Martha Cooper in Japan with her husband, where she became fascinated by the subculture of tattooing, then more footage of her prowling the bunged-up and beautiful streets of New York’s Lower East Side and the Bronx in the 1970s, camera in hand. Eventually she got hired by the New York Post, which gave her a license (and a paycheck) to chronicle the life of the streets, from the slums to Central Park. She gained entrée to the crews of artists who were coating subway cars with their rococo, loopy dreams, most notably the underground star Dondi. This, in turn, led her into the nascent world of hip hop, the deejays, break dancers and b-boys who had such an implausibly large hand in shaping today’s global culture. Economic hardship was a constant for Cooper, but she had found her place in the city and you get the feeling she wouldn’t have given it up for anything. Interviewed on camera, Cooper, now white-haired, comes off as intrepid, self-deprecating, very funny, deeply private, and nearly monastic in her devotion to chronicling the life of the streets. “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or an icon,” she says at one point, though she has clearly become both, with fans all over the world. As for New York back in the day, yes, it was dangerous, she says, “but it was actually a great place to explore.” As for what drove her to turn street life into art, she says with a shrug: “I believed in it.” And the subject of her art? “It’s about people who are making New York City their own.”

3.
As it happened, both Miles and Cooper were on hand for the screening I attended, and after the credits finished rolling, they stood at the front of the theater to take questions. A man in the audience asked Cooper if she had visited Brooklyn recently and seen all the fabulous street art sprinkled between all the obscene new condo towers. To her credit, Cooper didn’t take the bait. She said, “I don’t like to look backward. Yes, this city is getting iffy, but there are still interesting things out there. I don’t think gentrification is all good or all bad. I just wish I had gone to Williamsburg and Bushwick and taken more pictures.”

This drew an appreciative laugh. The next questioner asked Cooper if she saw herself as an artist or as an historian and anthropologist. “Now that’s a good question,” Cooper said, clearly implying that the leading question about gentrification was not. Cooper, in her humble way, said she never considered herself an artist. She said she was always more interested in documenting and preserving subcultures that were destined to blaze and then vanish. If nobody documents them, they will not only vanish, they will also be forgotten. History can’t live on memory alone. Without a whiff of pretension, Cooper made her life’s work sound almost like a holy calling. And in doing so, she implied that nothing—not money, not gentrification, not the corporate ooze now overtaking New York—has the power to keep her and her kind from pursuing their calling. I had walked into the theater feeling anticipation tinged with dread. I walked out feeling recharged and reborn. Thank you, Selina Miles. And thank you, Martha Cooper.

Mama Was a Number Runner: On The World According to Fannie Davis

Louise Meriwether’s 1970 novel, Daddy Was a Number Runner, is an unflinching portrait of life in Harlem in the starkest year of the Great Depression. Seen through the eyes of a remarkably buoyant 12-year-old girl named Francie Coffin, it’s a world of violence and tenderness, indignities and joys, where despair lives alongside the dream of a big score. In a foreword, James Baldwin, a son of Harlem, wrote that the black-owned daily numbers game that animates the novel “contains the possibility of making a ‘hit’—the American dream in blackface, Horatio Alger revealed, the American success story with the price tag showing!”

Weird words. Yet weirdly apt, I realized while reading Bridgett M. Davis’s scintillating new memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis: My Mother’s Life in the Detroit Numbers. The book chronicles the journey of the author’s mother from the Jim Crow South to the industrial cauldron of Detroit, where she arrived in the mid-1950s with an ailing husband and an iron determination to figure out “how to make a way out of no way.” While her husband got erratic work in the city’s auto plants, including a hellish stint as a furnace tender at a General Motors factory, Fannie charted her own course. In 1958, after a harsh introduction to the frigid and unforgiving city, she borrowed $100 from her younger brother to start her own numbers operation, the underground three-digit daily lottery that had spread from Harlem to black communities nationwide, fueled by the Great Migration. That same year, a Detroiter named Berry Gordy borrowed $800 from his family to start a record label that would become Motown.

The World According to Fannie Davis is partly a love letter to a larger-than-life woman and partly an explanation and defense of the “lucrative shadow economy” of the numbers game, which was an ingenious way for African Americans to circumvent the economic barriers white society had placed in their path. Black Detroiters were the last hired and the first fired from the city’s factories, and they were often forced into ratty housing with exorbitant rents. “It’s impossible to overstate the role of Numbers in black culture,” Davis writes, adding that the money generated by these black-controlled enterprises stayed in the black community to help launch “insurance companies, newspapers, loan offices, real estate firms, scholarships for college, and more.” Fannie Davis was known to her loyal customers not only for her honesty—she always paid winners, even when the hits were big—but also for her generosity. She was, in her daughter’s words, “consumer, lender, employer, philanthropist.” She was also a big believer in the importance of dreams, always a rich source of inspiration for players of the numbers.

But the numbers were illegal, and running an operation came with stress. There was the perpetual fear of big hits, of police raids, and, since it was an all-cash and no-tax business, the fear of robbery. Fannie owned two guns, and since secrecy was vital to survival, she drummed an edict into her children: “Keep your head up and your mouth shut. Be proud and be private.” Ultimately the biggest fear came to pass when the state of Michigan decided it wanted in on this lucrative action and, in 1972, created a legal lottery. It’s a testimony to the loyalty of Fannie Davis’s customers that they continued to bet numbers with her, and her operation survived this monster hit. It also offered Fannie an opportunity to philosophize: “Well, we already knew that when white folks want to do something bad enough, they can just create a law to get away with it.” Amen.

The proceeds from Fannie’s flourishing numbers operations allowed her family to live in a rambling house full of fine furnishings and friends and good times. Fannie and her husband John drove nice cars—Buicks, because flashy Cadillacs would have drawn the wrong kind of attention. Bridgett M. Davis describes herself as “a very privileged and spoiled little girl,” a member of what she calls “the blue-collar black-bourgeoisie.” Their west side neighborhood was solid. Diana Ross and her fellow Supremes owned houses just around the corner.

But trouble was in the air, and Davis doesn’t try to sugarcoat her hometown’s exhaustively documented ills. She witnessed the ravages of a declining population and job base, white flight, vandalism, arson, drugs, and violent crime. In the decade after the bloody rebellion of 1967, which left 43 people dead and much of the city in ruins, the murder rate quadrupled to more than 800 a year. The Motor City became known worldwide as Murder City. One of Davis’s brothers slid into heroin addiction, and the entire family felt the “pervasive sense of danger” pulsing in the streets.

This book, for all its abundant strengths, does have flaws. Davis writes that her mother drove a Pontiac Riviera, while GM’s Buick division produced the elegant Riviera. And she describes trips across the Ambassador Bridge to eat at Chinese restaurants in Quebec, while the Ambassador Bridge connects Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A competent copy editor would have caught such slips, but that doesn’t mitigate the damage they do to a writer’s authority. I’m speaking from experience. In my first novel, a work of realism, I placed the University of Notre Dame in Terre Haute, Indiana, while I’ve known since boyhood that the school is actually located in unincorporated Notre Dame, near South Bend. Nearly 30 years later, the gaffe still rankles.

Davis makes a more serious misstep when she describes “booster” shops, where Detroiters sold shoplifted clothing and accessories in makeshift stores in their basements. “In a city of hustlers,” Davis writes, “where the lines of legality and illegality stayed smudged, these boosters—all women—made good livings, with numbers folks as their key clients. (One booster named her store Jackie’s Finer Designs and she had guards watching customers, to make sure no one stole the merchandise that she had stolen.) I visited a booster’s shop with Mama at least once, but she preferred store-bought clothes.” This passage unsettled on several levels. Yes, Detroit is a city of hustlers where the line separating legality from illegality has always been smudged, but this story seems to elevate booster shops to the level of the numbers game, which fed its wealth back into the black community. Sorry, but boosters were petty thieves looking to line their own pockets. And Davis misses the opportunity to explain why her mother preferred store-bought clothes over boosters’ offerings. Was it a moral stand? Merely a matter of taste and class? Unfortunately, Davis doesn’t say.

But such slips do nothing to dull the luster of this important book. It’s worth noting that Davis’s achievement isn’t arriving in a vacuum. It’s part of a recent crescendo of inspired writing by African Americans about African-American life in Detroit, including Herb Boyd’s superb blend of memoir and reportage, Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination, Stephen Mack Jones’s bracing debut crime novel, August Snow, Angela Flournoy’s decorated debut novel, The Turner House, and the revelatory plays of recently minted MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau. With her new book, Bridgett M. Davis has started running with some very fast company.

Ferlinghetti at 100: An Appreciation

Yes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still alive. And yes, he’s still writing, superbly. On the eve of his 100th birthday—it arrives Sunday, March 24—the poet laureate of San Francisco has produced a delightful little mongrel of a book called Little Boy. It opens by lulling the reader into believing it’s going to be a conventional memoir and then–blammo!–it veers into a scintillating free-form riff on…on…on what, exactly? Youth and philosophy and aging and death? Kerouac and Cervantes and Ginsberg and Henry Miller? Yes and no and I can’t say for sure. Here’s a sample that will give you a taste of this autobiographical novel’s delicious heedlessness:
Jack Kerouac and his merry band and not so merry as all that in fact quite the opposite in their imagined quest for you name it an America that no longer existed even as he embarked to find it with his crazy crew oh and it wasn’t just America they were looking for driven as they were by testosterone and the rage of living personified by one Neal Cassady the driven driver of their beat jalopy…
Maybe the best way to appreciate this bawdy, ebullient book’s nearly punctuation-free river of prose is to dip into it at random. Here’s Ferlinghetti on Henry Miller, another writer who lived a very long life:
AND it’s our last Hurrah and keep your pecker up for if you outlive your pecker where does that leave you like Henry from Brooklyn with the great gift of gab who all his life kept it up and wrote great books with it but then kept writing when his pecker couldn’t write anymore like an old fountain pen run dry oh daddy call me a cab…
Here’s a confession: “I was never much of a rebel back then or now.” And here’s a lament: “Oh the time lost and no other memory of it…”

For all its verbal sparks and wordplay, the book provides solid documentation that Ferlinghetti’s was a rich and eventful life. His father died before he was born. His first language was French. “I thought I was Tom Sawyer catching crayfish in the Bronx River and imagining the Mississippi,” he writes, “I delivered the Woman’s Home Companion at five in the afternoon and the Herald Trib at five in the morning…I saw Lindbergh land…I chopped trees for the Civilian Conservation Corps and sat on them, I landed in Normandy in a row boat that turned over…” He also witnessed the devastation of Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb was dropped, an experience that turned him into a lifelong pacifist.

After surviving the Second World War he made his way to California, where he was reborn as a poet and publisher, translator and social activist, promoter of Beat writers but, he insisted, not one of them. “I was never a Beat poet,” he declared in a documentary. But he was certainly a fellow traveler. He was arrested, and later acquitted, on an obscenity charge for publishing a 75-cent paperback copy of Allen Ginsberg’s monumental Howl.

Ferlinghetti, founder of San Francisco’s revered City Lights bookstore, has written more than 50 volumes of poetry, fiction, art criticism, and translation. His best-known book of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, has sold more than a million copies, a staggering number. Along the way, Ferlinghetti has become something much larger than a poet or a writer, a Beat or a Buddhist. He’s our longest-living ambassador of the written word, a relic from a time when a certain type of person treated books as sacred objects rather than as products that could be sold at a profit. I realized this way back in the early 1970s, when I was wandering up and down the coast of California, working odd jobs, traveling in a retrofitted pickup with my dog, trying to write an apprentice novel, living out my own Travels With Charley meets On the Road fantasy. Whenever I passed through San Francisco I went straight to City Lights, where I spent countless hours doing something that went way beyond any definition of browsing. I read entire books, in installments, but rarely spent any money because I was always broke. Yet I never once got a filthy look from a clerk when I exited the store empty-handed. It was that kind of place. Amazing to realize the store was already two decades old and that it’s still in business today, nearly half a century later. Only a true believer could create such a cathedral of the written word. Given the staff’s forbearance, it’s a miracle the place ever turned a profit.

That miracle is the doing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for it. I’m also grateful for his wondrous new book Little Boy, a valediction, a summing up, a rosy exclamation point at the end of a life well lived.

Image credit: Flickr/Christopher Michel.

Literary Obituaries of 2018: Let Us Now Praise the Under-Sung

We’re all aware of the big fish of the literary world who died in 2018—Ursula K. Le Guin, V.S. Naipul, Philip Roth, Anthony Bourdain, Tom Wolfe, Stan Lee, Neil Simon, Harlan Ellison and Amos Oz, to name a few. Let us now praise some of the under-sung literary figures who left us. They may have lacked the name recognition of the big fish, but they made rich contributions of their own and they deserve to find new generations of readers. Here, in chronological order of their deaths, is a highly selective list of a handful of these wonders, several of whom touched my life in deeply personal ways.

Nicholas von HoffmanWhile researching a nonfiction book about the 1970s, I became enamored of a now-forgotten media magazine called MORE, which was a showcase for the acidic journalism of Nicholas von Hoffman, who died on Feb. 1 at 88. The ’70s was a golden age of American journalism—and New Journalism—and von Hoffman was a sort of tarnished knight, always marching against the grain, always pissing people off, from his unlucky targets to his long-suffering bosses. He spent the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, where he insisted on wearing a suit to interview hippies who were zonked out of their skulls on acid. He went on to write for newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, he wrote books and plays, even a libretto. He was famously fired by 60 Minutes during the Watergate fiasco for describing President Richard Nixon as “a dead mouse on the American family kitchen floor. The question is: Who is going to pick it up by the tail and drop it in the trash?” A question worth asking again today! Yet for all the furor he caused, von Hoffman had a refreshingly modest view of what he did for a living. “I think you’re mad if you come into journalism with the idea that you’re going to change things for the better,” he told an interviewer late in life. “I write because I enjoy it.”

William ProchnauBefore writing a novel built around the coup in Saigon in 1963, I immersed myself in the work of a dedicated band of young war correspondents who were telling a very different story from the rosy fantasy the Pentagon and the White House were pedaling about the early progress of the Vietnam War. While doing this research, I got an unexpected gift: a magisterial book called Once Upon a Distant War: Young War Correspondents and the Early Vietnam Battles by William Prochnau, who died on March 28 at 80. Himself a war correspondent for the Seattle Times, Prochnau told the story of his colleagues who brought down the wrath of Washington—and, in some cases, the wrath of their own bosses—for daring to tell battlefield truths they were seeing with their own eyes. Prochnau’s book is a portrait of one of American journalism’s finest hours, when Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, David Halberstam, Horst Faas, Charles Mohr, Neil Sheehan and other courageous correspondents were sounding the earliest alarms that the American misadventure was built on lies and doomed to fail. Their prescience and courage are worth remembering today, when Donald Trump repeatedly derides the press as “the enemy of the people.” As a New York Times reviewer said of Prochnau’s masterpiece: “When all was said and done, in Mr. Prochnau’s view, blaming the journalists was simply a case of shooting the messenger.”

Bobbie Louise HawkinsFor all their wild sad dramas in the spectral American night, the Beats were, with few exceptions, a great big moveable boys’ club. One woman who kicked down the club’s door was Carolyn Cassady, who was married to Jack Kerouac’s roadmate Neal Cassady and wrote about her life. Another was Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who died May 4 at 87. From an impoverished, book-drenched Texas childhood Hawkins joined the Beats’ orbit, spinning out more than 20 books of poetry, fiction, nonfiction and monologues. In 1978, Allen Ginsberg recruited her to join the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colo., where she taught until her retirement in 2010. All along, Hawkins refused to sit in the back seat while the boys did the driving. “People are absolutely willing to let a woman be a muse,” she said, “and that has to be the worst job description in the world. Being a muse means you sit someplace and watch this other person have all the fun.” Among her other achievements was to walk away from an 18-year marriage to the venerable poet Robert Creeley, who dismissed her writerly ambitions. She claimed he tried to convince she was “too married, too old and too late” to make it as a writer on her own. “But,” she added triumphantly after the divorce and the flowering of her career, “he was wrong.”

Elaine MarksonFew writers forget their first literary agent. Elaine Markson, who died on May 21 at 87, was mine. She was the first person in New York to say she believed my writing had the potential to make money, the one thing every writer must hear if he or she is going to continue doing the work. Elaine’s belief meant the world to me—and, I have been told, to the rest of her clients. She was among the first women to own a literary agency, and she became known for promoting feminist authors, though her roster of clients was eclectic. At various times it included Grace Paley, Alice Hoffman, Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Peter Carey, and her husband, the experimental novelist David Markson. After Elaine’s death, Hoffman wrote on LitHub: “I was Elaine’s second client. I was a nothing kid from New York, living a hippie student life in California, but to her I was a novelist. Considering Elaine’s faith and confidence, what choice did I have? I came to believe it, too.” And so, thanks to Elaine Markson, did I.

Tom ClarkOne of the unlikeliest pairings in the history of American literature had to be the collaboration between the high-minded poet Tom Clark and the Detroit Tigers’ eccentric pitcher Mark “the Bird” Fidrych, who worked together to produce a book about the pitcher’s sensational but short-lived career called No Big Deal. Then again, maybe it wasn’t all that unlikely. Clark, who died on Aug. 18 at 77, was a serious baseball fan who once said that “the best poems and the best baseball games share a dramatic tension you can’t find in very many other places.” And Fidrych was deliciously nuts. “I’m supposed to be writing a book,” he joked to Sports Illustrated, “and I can hardly read.

But that book was a small piece of Clark’s output. He wrote two dozen books of spare unfussy poetry; biographies of several poets, including Robert Creeley (see the Bobbie Louise Hawkins obit above); a biography of Jack Kerouac. Clark was also a revered teacher, and one of his own teachers, the poet Donald Hall (who died in June of 2018), called Clark “the best student I ever had.” To round out his résumé, Clark served as poetry editor of The Paris Review and once hitchhiked across England with Allen Ginsberg. Much can be gleaned from the admonitions in three spare lines of Clark’s poetry:

Be kind to animals no matter whatListen to the angelTry to look upon death as a friend

Thad MumfordAt a time when nearly all network television writers were white, Thad Mumford crossed the color barrier. Mumford, who died Sept. 6 at 67, started out as a page at NBC while in college, sold jokes on the side to Johnny Carson, and went on to become an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer for shows like M*A*S*H to The Cosby Show, Sesame Street, NYPD Blue, That’s My Mama! and Maude.

Mumford was also hired to write for the ABC mini-series Roots: The Next Generation, a follow-up to Alex Haley’s blockbuster book and TV series. Mumford hoped to work with his long-time collaborator, Don Wilcox, who is white. But the producers fretted, in Mumford’s telling, that having Wilcox on staff would be seen as politically incorrect. Wilcox was willing to forego the on-screen credit and split the money, but Mumford insisted that both writers’ names appear on the credits, and wound up carrying the day. In a later interview, Wilcox called Mumford’s insistence “the bravest thing I ever saw a human being do.” Mumford had a simpler word for it. He called it “decency.”

Ntozake ShangeShe was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., but when she died on Oct. 27 at 70 she was universally known by her adopted Zulu moniker, Ntozake Shange. She will be remembered primarily for her incendiary, earth-shaking play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, an astonishing performance for seven black female characters dressed in the colors of the rainbow as they deliver scorching monologues on trauma and abuse. The play started downtown before moving to the Public Theater, then Broadway, then PBS and finally became a star-studded film directed by Tyler Perry. No one who saw it will forget it; but not everyone loved it. As Shange said of the uproar surrounding the play’s original run: “I was truly dumbfounded that I was right then and there deemed the biggest threat to black men since cotton pickin’, and not all the women were in my corner, either.”

Shange was no one-hit wonder. She produced 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books and three essay collections. While all women were not in her corner, many were. Shange became an inspiration to a new generation of female African American playwrights, including the MacArthur fellow Dominique Morisseau, the Pulitzer Prize winners Lynn Nottage and Suzan Lori-Parks, and Anna Deveare Smith, who said of Shange: “She ran her mouth… And even if people thought it was an indictment of men or an indictment of white people, what she brought with her was an incredible love of human beings.”

Jerry ChesnutNo list of literary obituaries would be complete without at least one songwriter. Last year it was Gregg Allman, and this year it’s Jerry Chesnut, who grew up poor in the Kentucky coal fields and went on to write songs recorded by more than 100 artists, including both Elvii—Presley and Costello. Few writers in any genre of pop music have written more bitingly about heartache than Chesnut, who died Dec. 15 at 87. But he also wrote songs about other facets of blue-collar life, including factory workers and truck drivers and a bereft soul who feeds his last dime into a jukebox.

Chesnut’s greatest song might be “A
Good Year for the Roses,” a country hit for George Jones later covered by the
punk star Elvis Costello. It’s told by a man watching his love pack up and
leave:

I can hardly bear the sight of lipstick on the cigarettes there in the ashtrayLyin’ cold like you left them,But at least your lips caressed them while you packed.Or the lip print on the half-filled cup of coffeeThat you poured and didn’t drink,At least your thought you wanted it,That’s so much more than I can say for me.

Late in life, Chesnut admitted that he had never heard of Elvis Costello before the song appeared on his Almost Blue album. But when a $60,000 royalty check arrived from the British Isles, Chesnut allowed, “Punk rock? That may be what I am!”

Rest in peace, all of you—the big,
the obscure, the brilliant and the under-sung. Through your words you will live
on.

It’s Time We Started Stressing: The Millions Interviews Earl Swift

With his seventh book, Chesapeake Requiem: A Year With the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island, Earl Swift has hit the trifecta sought by all writers of nonfiction but achieved by very few. The book is the fruit of deep-dive, immersive research; it is deftly written, and it raises questions that affect every person on the planet. Does the human race have the will, or the intelligence, to address the irrefutable fact of climate change? If so, which places should be saved and which should be written off? Who should decide? Who will pay for it?

Swift’s research included living for more than a year on tiny Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, one of the most remote, insular, eccentric—and vexed—places in the United States. During his stay, Swift watched rising sea levels nibble away the island at an alarming rate. Without major governmental intervention—a costly and politically fraught prospect—the island will probably be gone in a few decades. Yet the deeply religious people of Tangier Island, who have lived off the bounty of the bay for centuries, are now staunch supporters of Donald Trump and stubborn skeptics about the science of climate change. They believe their island is succumbing to erosion.

Swift, to his credit, doesn’t judge the 460 citizens of Tangier Island or take sides in the hot arguments over how to address climate change. His book manages to be both dispassionate and full of passion, a soulful portrait of a complicated, endangered slice of America.

Full disclosure: Swift and I worked as reporters at the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk in the 1980s, and I’ve followed his career with growing admiration ever since. He spoke by telephone from his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

The Millions: You lived on Tangier Island for, what, a year or so?

Earl Swift: Fourteen months.

TM: So you were embedded, I guess you could say.

ES: Yeah, exactly.

TM: I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the Eastern Shore, and I know just how insular things are there. Tangier Island is the most insular of the insular. People have lived there for generations, everybody knows everybody, everybody’s related to everybody. Did you find a lot of resistance to you as an outsider when you first got there?

ES: This is a pretty media-savvy place. There’s been a steady stream of reporters visiting since the 1890s, and the people are accustomed to them visiting for a day or two and writing kind of the same story over and over again. So it took about a month and a half for me to figure out who my main characters were going to be and for them to figure out that I was not a tourist, that I was actually going to stick around and I was going to do something different. Once they made that turn, they were fully on board.

TM: What was your approach—were you sort of a fly on the wall, like Gay Talese? Were you invisible? Were you participating? I know you went out on the crab boats, but how would you describe your reporting?

ES: I would say it was fly on the wall, but if there was a conversation in the Situation Room (a popular meeting spot), I’d ask questions, and that’s reflected in the book. I wasn’t utterly silent and off to the side and refusing to participate. I lived in Tangier and lived as close to the Tangier lifestyle as I could, tried to insinuate myself into daily life. So I went to church a lot, I went to the Situation Room every weekday and shot the breeze with the old-timers, I went out crabbing and oystering as often as time would permit. I rode my bike around the island talking to people—and that was maybe the most important thing I did, because communication on Tangier is face to face. It’s a place where everybody gets around by golf cart or scooter or by walking, and so a lot of the communication that you participate in is in the form of conversations you have serendipitously when you’re on the road. It’s a society that lends itself to stopping go chat.

TM: And people opened up to you?

ES: Yeah, again it took that month and a half for them to be convinced that this wasn’t the same old same old. Once they became convinced of that, they treated me as a Tangierman. And that was pretty wonderful.

TM: You make a point that I find interesting, that Tangier Island is in effect a factory town, where disciplined people get up at three in the morning, they punch a clock, they produce a product that sells in the market. There’s a great deal of drudgery and physical danger involved, and I got the feeling you developed a lot of respect for the work these people do.

ES: Oh, absolutely. It’s a cross between a factory town and a farm town—maybe farming is just factory work when you get down to it. There’s physical prowess involved in what they do, and no shortage of courage is necessary as well. These guys are going out on big water in little boats, and the weather is not something that can stand in their way, or they don’t eat.

TM: You mentioned going to church a lot. Two things in the book surprised me. One was the deeply religious nature of the people, which probably shouldn’t have surprised me. They’re at the mercy of this tempestuous body of water, so it’s a natural that they would be religious. The other thing is their love for Donald Trump, which led to another surprise—the reaction of outsiders when CNN interviewed the mayor and several Tangier people and it came out that they love Trump and they’re climate-change deniers and they support Trump policies that contribute to climate change, and on and on. One typical reaction was, “They should learn to swim.”

ES: Hateful. Nothing short of hateful.

TM: Did that surprise you?

ES: It shocked me. And I think it shocked them. My politics differ from those of my neighbors on Tangier, but I was surprised by the ferocity, by the petty meanness of the comments. Considering that they were coming from folks who like to think of themselves as the enlightened side of the political divide, it was disappointing as hell.

TM: As I read the book, I sensed three threads. There’s a lot of history of the Chesapeake Bay—even history of the Ice Age, for that matter, and then there’s a snapshot of daily life on a remote, insular place. And the third thread, the elephant in the room, is the challenge of climate change and what’s going to happen. I think the reason the book’s catching on is because it’s raising these questions. I’d like to read a little quote from the book. As sea levels rise and the land sinks, and here’s the quote: “little Tangier is likely to be the first to go. That experience—and the uncomfortable questions it forces the country to confront—will inform what the rest of us on and near the coasts can expect in the decades to come. What makes a community worth saving? What, in short, is important to us?” Have you or anybody else worked out answers to those questions?

ES: I certainly haven’t. We’ve got an issue here that’s going to affect not only everyone in the United States, but virtually everyone in the world in the next 50 years. And there seem to be very few people stressing about it. It’s time we started stressing. The question of how we go about deciding which communities we save and which ones we surrender—and how we decide how to decide, because that’s the truly ugly decision—it’s something we should have tackled years ago. We need to tackle it pretty soon, otherwise it could lead to a great unraveling.

TM: Do you see people asking these questions?

ES: Not at all. And that makes me pretty damn worried.

TM: What do you hope happens with Tangier? Do you think it’s savable?

ES: Sure, it’s savable—with the necessary political will and money. What makes this difficult is that you’ve got to be consistent when you develop a rubric. We don’t have the means to save every place. We’ve got hundreds if not of thousands of towns along the American coastline that are going to be threatened by climate change—not as soon as Tangier, possibly not to the same degree as Tangier, but it’s coming. So we’ve got to come up with a rubric to figure out what do we save, what do we surrender to the sea? We have to be consistent. If we save Tangier, that has to inform what we do in other places. Clearly, there are some places that have the population density that make them no-brainers, like Miami, New York, Norfolk. Then you’ve got other places that are key to who we are as Americans, that we consider sacred ground but don’t have that kind of population. Do we surrender them? Maybe so. Maybe head count is our sole criterion. If it is, it has to be applied uniformly, and we have to go into it knowing we’re going to kiss off a lot of places we hold dear.

TM: Do you put Tangier in the category of sacred ground?

ES: I put Tangier in a category of a place that’s so much an outlier in the American experience that it helps define the limits of what it means to be American. And therefore it’s of great value to us. It’s out there on the edge, the frontier, and because it’s so far out, America’s a more interesting place, more inclusive. It’s part of the spice of the national dish.

TM: There isn’t much time left for Tangier, is there?

ES: I’m guessing by 2038, 2040 it’s going to be a very difficult place to live—if nothing’s done.

Is Baseball What’s Wrong with America?

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I managed to vanish unnoticed from my day job in an office in midtown Manhattan and materialize in the lovely little ballpark on Staten Island, where a minor-league affiliate of the New York Yankees was taking on the Lowell Spinners, a Boston Red Sox farm team. Beyond the outfield wall, the Statue of Liberty rose green and glorious out of the harbor and, in the distance, the glass forest of downtown Manhattan shimmered in the afternoon sunshine. The outfield grass sparkled, the foul lines glowed. This was heaven—or at least a major upgrade from my 9-to-5.

The crowd that afternoon was thin. It was, after all, a workday. The box score would claim the attendance was 1,664, which struck me as optimistic, and as I scanned my fellow diehards, I noticed something peculiar: Nearly every fan, myself included, was white. Among the wannabe Yankees and Red Sox down on the field, about half were white and half were Latino. There was only one black player on the field that day.

Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this imbalance if I hadn’t recently read a column in the New York Times under the headline “With a Loud Ovation, Baseball Shows Its Whiteness.” The column told an unsettling story. During this summer’s All-Star Game in Washington, D.C., it had come to light that one of the participants, a 24-year-old white pitcher with the Milwaukee Brewers named Josh Hader, has a Twitter account laced with ugly statements written when he was 17 and 18, including “White Power, lol” with a clenched-fist emoji, “KKK,” “I hate gay people,” and repeated use of the N-word. Confronted with the tweets immediately after the game, Hader sort of apologized: “I was 17 years old, and as a child I was immature, and obviously I said some things that were inexcusable.”

The Times columnist, Michael Powell, rightly pointed out that no 17-year-old qualifies as a child. Then Powell delivered his kicker: When Hader strode to the pitcher’s mound in Milwaukee in his first appearance after the All-Star Game, thousands of white fans rose to give him a standing ovation. Powell went on to point out some facts that seemed to jibe with what I was seeing in the Staten Island ballpark. Baseball has fewer and fewer black players, few people of color in its executive offices, and it has the oldest and whitest fan base of America’s three major sports. Black and Latino players are routinely excoriated for wearing a cap backward during practice or flipping a bat in celebration after hitting a home run, while a white player receives a standing ovation after making racist and homophobic remarks. “For far too long,” Powell concluded, “too many baseball controversies have centered around older, white baseball men complaining about so-called insults to the game.” And, by extension, too few baseball controversies have centered around insults like Josh Hader’s—and fans’ reaction to them.

The problem, of course, is that so many of those fans are white and, more to the point, so willing to excuse an offense like Hader’s. Powell quotes Curtis Granderson, a gifted black outfielder now with the Toronto Blue Jays, who sees on a daily basis what I saw that Wednesday afternoon in the Staten Island ballpark: “We play this game, me and other black players, counting the black people in the stands who weren’t working at the game. ‘I see one! No, he’s Latino.’ You’re panning, panning, and sometimes it would take us seven innings to count ten.” With the jury stacked like that, what kind of verdict do you expect for infractions, large or small?

At the time I was learning about Josh Hader, I came upon a book called Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, which provided unexpected context for my uneasy thoughts about baseball’s whiteness. One of the book’s contributors is Ayana Mathis, author of the acclaimed novel The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. In an essay called “Against Unreality,” Mathis revisits her first encounter with the writing of James Baldwin—the long essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind” from Baldwin’s incendiary 1963 masterpiece, The Fire Next Time. Baldwin asserts that the only fact humans have is the fact of death, and that humans should rejoice in the fact of death, should earn their death “by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.” Then, stunningly, he adds: “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return… But white Americans do not believe in death.”

Mathis points out that Baldwin is using white America’s denial of death as a metaphor for a larger and more complex denial: “the denial of reality, racial and otherwise.” And this denial leads to deaths of an even worse sort than physical death because these deaths continue to afflict the living: “political death, spiritual death, psychic death.” This larger denial, Mathis posits, leaves white America prone to nostalgia, which I define as the misguided yearning for a time that never existed. We’ve come, unexpectedly, back to baseball. “The country is prey to nostalgia,” Mathis writes, “which is the ultimate, backward-looking unreality. And also prey to a kind of preservation of a status quo that is also based on a fantasy of the past: a moment in time in which you could keep your factory job forever, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks. Well, that was never the reality of America, certainly never for all Americans. But we move forward, politically and psychically, as though that nostalgic reality was in fact real.”

Yes, that’s precisely how we move forward. This was brought home to me during the seventh-inning stretch at the ballgame on Staten Island. After the fans stood and belted out that harmless bit of doggerel, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the announcer asked everyone to remain standing and remove their hats. Everyone, players included, turned toward center field, where an image of Old Glory started fluttering on the Jumbotron above the outfield wall. Suddenly we were being bombarded by that blast of jingoism, Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America.” This sent me over the edge. I left my hat on and bolted for the nearest beer stand and stayed gone until the game had resumed. I couldn’t stop the nonsense, but at least I could refuse to participate in it.

As I rode the ferry back across the harbor after the game, I performed an autopsy on my day, which had begun in high spirits and ended in something close to despair. It occurred to me that it was inevitable—and almost too easy—to see the day in the context of our national moment. The standing ovation for Josh Hader comes at a time when the president of the United States refuses to condemn murderous white nationalists—and urges the owners of NFL football teams to fire any player who kneels during the playing of the national anthem to protest police killings of unarmed black people. That president has declared that poverty no longer exists in America. The millions who lap up his exhortation to Make America Great Again are the people who yearn to preserve a status quo that is based on a fantasy that never existed, a time when “life was all baseball and Cracker Jacks.” I have loved the game of baseball all my life, and still do. I object to the uses the game is now being put to—as booster of patriotism, as a smokescreen for “traditionalists” to treat people unequally, as a safe haven for abhorrent behavior. Meanwhile, beyond the outfield wall, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the nation is mired in the two longest wars in its history.

So this is what we as a nation have come to, I told myself as the boat slid past the Statue of Liberty: a nation lost in dreamtime. James Baldwin and Ayana Mathis nailed it. Nostalgia is the ultimate unreality, and yes: The nostalgia-drenched game of baseball is definitely a symptom of what’s wrong with America. But it’s just the beginning of a much larger story.

Image: Flickr/Andrew Malone