Author's Introduction The chief purpose of introductions (I like to say when introducing guest authors to their public audiences at Johns Hopkins, in whose Writing Seminars I preside over advanced, unadvanced, and backward apprentice writers of fiction, coaching the first, instructing and encouraging the second, and gently hoping that the third will find another métier) is to test the public-address system. Introductions ought therefore to extend beyond a single breath, but not much beyond. They also permit latecomers to be seated and the guest author to size up his/her house and perhaps make appropriate program adjustments.
There are a number of Rules for Public Introducing, of which the first is Do not upstage the introducee by introducing him/her with cleverer remarks than he/she is likely to make him/herself and the second is Never introduce either a speaker or a text with an attempted parody of him/her/it, for if your attempt is successful you have broken Rule One, and if it is not you have been at least faintly foolish.
Introduction to a course of study is better done by a straightforward syllabus, to a body of assorted nonfiction by a straightforward table of contents, than by one more nattering text-before-the-text. Eschew introductions wherever possible. What cannot be eschewed, swallow hard and abbreviate. Above all, avoid any version, especially any clever version, of the introduction "This author [course, text, whatever] really needs no introduction."
If you yourself are the author/teacher, and your presentation is after all largely self-explanatory -- an arrangement of your essays and occasional lectures, some previously published, most not, most on matters literary, some not, accumulated over thirty years or so of writing, teaching, and teaching writing, interstitched with little lessons on the manufacture of fiction, presentations to sundry symposia, remarks upon your work and your life as an American writer in the second half of the twentieth century, and other "continuity" material (not to be confused with "filler": Continuity, like discontinuity, has its place in writing which takes its readers seriously; "filler" does not), and here as they say collected for the first time -- you should dispense with introductions and get on with the job.
Ms. Katha Pollitt, reviewing in the New York Times a 1983 volume of essays by Ms. Cynthia Ozick, writes, "This is not your typical collection of essays by an eminent middle-aged writer of fiction. You know what sort of book I mean -- a graceful miscellany of book reviews, introductions, and speeches, all wrapped up and offered to the public less as a book, really, than as a kind of laurel, a tribute to the author's literary importance." Okay: This book is that sort of book, except that it contains no book reviews -- my vows to the muse, made long ago and reasonably well kept, prohibit among other things the giving or soliciting of advertising testimonials and the reviewing of books -- and I offer it to the public after all less as a kind of laurel than as an honest-to-goodness book.
Baltimore/Longford Creek, Md., 1983/84* * James Joyce made these subscripts fashionable with his Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921 at the foot of Ulysses: a kind of navigational fix on literary high modernism. It is a practice of no artistic value whatever and therefore better eschewed, though in the case of American writers the dates of composition may be of interest to the Internal Revenue Service. Table of Contents* The Title of This Book
Some Reasons Why I Tell the Stories I Tell the Way I Tell Them Rather Than Some Other Sort of Stories Some Other Way
How to Make a Universe
More on the Same Subject
An Afterword to Roderick Random
Mystery and Tragedy
Muse, Spare Me
The Tragic View of Recognition
The Literature of Exhaustion
More Troll Than Cabbage
The Role of the Prosaic in Fiction
The Ocean of Story
A Poet to the Rescue
Aspiration, Inspiration, Respiration, Expiration
The Tragic View of Literary Prizes
Praying for Everybody
Doing the Numbers
Western Wind, Eastern Shore
The Spirit of Place
My Two Problems: 1
My Two Problems: 2
My Two Problems: 3
My Two Uncles
My Two Muses
The Future of Literature and the Literature of the Future
Algebra and Fire
Speaking of LETTERS
Historical Fiction, Fictitious History, and Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs, or, About Aboutness
The Literature of Replenishment
The Self in Fiction, or, "That ain't no matter. That Is nothing."
Tales Within Tales Within Tales
The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses
The American New Novel
Don't Count on It
Afterword: Friday, 1997 * But see the caveat regarding even tables of contents, in "Epigraphs," below.
Epigraphs . . . should be avoided. There is something hokey about an epigraph, even a straightforward epigraph: a posture of awe before some palimpsestic Other Text; a kind of rhetorical attitudinizing. Poshlost. It may be true, as the critic Wayne C. Booth has observed, that epigraphs and titles assume a particular importance in modernist writing, where ". . . they are often the only explicit commentary the reader is given. . ." All the same, they are hokey: one more bit of window-dressing before we get to the goods.
Hokier yet are cornier ironic epigraphs. If you must lay on an epigraph, take it from some neutral text of a sort entirely different from your own. To quote other writers in the course of a lecture, an essay, a story -- even writers better than yourself -- is properly to give credit where credit is due and to marshal authority in defense of your argument. But to preface your text with an epigraph from a superior author in the same genre is to remind the reader that he might better spend his time with that author than with you. Such epigraphs are tails that wag their dogs, but from in front, like an awkward figure of speech. They make the works that follow them an anticlimax. Walter Scott did better to fake his epigraphs (e.g., at the head of Chapter XXXVI of Ivanhoe: "Say not my art is fraud -- all live by seeming. . ." OLD PLAY); Ernest Hemingway likewise, without attribution, in The Snows of Kilimanjaro;* F. Scott Fitzgerald best of all, by taking the epigraph to The Great Gatsby from a fictitious poet in his early novel This Side of Paradise. * But see his lapses in e.g., The Sun Also Rises, where, as elsewhere, he compounds the epigraph misdemeanor with the quoted-title one. Do not borrow epigraphs from better works than yours in hand, or from better writers than yourself.
-- J.B.: "Epigraphs," in The Friday Book
. . . worse than an epigraph is a brace of epigraphs, especially when the second is deployed in Tantalizing Ironic Counterpoint to the first, as it will almost always be. Dispense with epigraphs, comrades, as with quoted or kitschy titles, subtitles, printed dedications (unless love and gratitude blow away the rules), acknowledgments, prefaces, forewords, introductions, tables of contents, and all other throat-clearings and instrument-tunings, except where they are quite necessary or very useful* and for the love of God get on with the story.
-- Ibid. * The same, it goes without saying, goes for footnotes.
Some Reasons Why
I Tell the Stories I Tell
The Way I Tell Them Rather Than
Some Other Sort of Stories
Some Other Way The following apology for my life is a Friday-piece of fairly recent date, written for a New York Times Book Review series inaugurated about 1981 and still ongoing under the general and hokey title "The Making of a Writer." Thus its opening sentence. Thus also its counter-hoke title, above, which the editors of the NYTBR kindly permitted me to set under their own when the piece appeared in the May 9, 1982, issue of that organ. The version below is slightly amended. Of the making of writers there is no end till The End unmakes them. Here's how Yours Truly tells his Once upon a time: TWINS It is my fate, and equally my sister's, to have been born opposite-sex twins, with an older brother and no younger siblings.
Much is known about "identical" (monozygotic) twins, less about fraternal (dizygotic) twins, less yet about us opposite-sexers (who, it goes without saying, are always dizygotic). But twins of any sort share the curious experiences of accommodating to a peer companion from the beginning, even in the womb; of entering the world with an established sidekick, rather than alone; of acquiring speech and the other basic skills à deux, in the meanwhile sharing a language before speech and beyond speech. Speech, baby twins may feel, is for the Others. As native speakers of a dialect regard the official language, we twins may regard language itself: It is for dealing with the outsiders; between ourselves we have little need of it. One might reasonably therefore expect a twin who becomes a storyteller never to take language for granted; to be ever at it, tinkering, foregrounding it, perhaps unnaturally conscious of it. Language is for relating to the Others.
Now, most opposite-sex twins come soon to shrug the shoulders of their imaginations at that congenital circumstance; to regard it as a more or less amusing detail. They can do so because it was not their additional fate to have a three-year-older brother who, upon hearing the unlucky news that he had suddenly not one but a team of rivals for his parents' thitherto undivided attention, gamely and fatefully remarked: "Now we have a Jack and Jill."
Poor firstborn: Thy day in the family sun wast shadowed from that hour, but thou hadst in advance thy more than justified revenge; Jack and Jill we became, and up childhood's hill we went -- in scrappy East Cambridge, a crab-and-oyster town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland -- lugging between us that heavy pail. Our grade school teachers oohed and aahed (doubtless privately ughed) at the awful cuteness of our names, while alleywise classmates reddened our innocent ears with every bawdy version of the nursery rhyme. I can recite them still, those scurrilous variations; my ears still redden.
Language, boyoboy, c'est pour les autres: My sister and I were by it not let to forget our twinness. Until circumstance and physical maturation differentiated and tumbled us toward our separate fates -- a fair benchmark is the fall of '43, when we approached both puberty and public high school in an unaffluent, semirural, semi-Southern eleven-year county system further impoverished by the war: no school band, few varsity sports, an attenuated faculty, reduced course offerings, and three curricula: the Agricultural for most of the farm boys; the Commercial for nearly all the girls and some of the boys, those who expected to go neither back to the farm nor on to college; and the Academic for the small percentage of us in that time and place whose vague ambitions did not necessarily preclude higher education (the two or three whose parents were already of the professional class were whisked out of that system and off to private preparatory schools for at least their eleventh grade and a proper twelfth) -- until the Commercial course and biological womanhood befell Jill, the Academic course and biological manhood Jack, we were a Jack and Jill indeed, between whom nearly everything went without saying.
With those closest since, I have had sustained and intimate conversation, but seldom in words except at the beginning and end of our connection. Language is for getting to know you and getting to unknow you. We converse to convert, each the other, from an Other into an extension of ourself; and we converse conversely. Dear Reader, if I knew you better, what I'm saying would go without saying; as I do not, let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, in myth, twins signified whatever dualisms a culture entertained: mortal/immortal, good/evil, creation/destruction, what had they. In western literature since the Romantic period, twins (and doubles, shadows, mirrors) usually signify the "divided self," our secret sharer or inner adversary -- even the schizophrenia some neo-Freudians maintain lies near the dark heart of writing. Aristophanes, in Plato's Symposium, declares we are all of us twins,* indeed a kind of Siamese twins, who have lost and who seek eternally our missing half. The loss accounts for alienation, our felt distance from man and god; the search accounts for both erotic love and the mystic's goal of divine atonement. * It may be that in fact as many as 70 percent of us are. See e.g., the chapter "The Vanished Twin," in Kay Cassill's Twins: Nature's Amazing Mystery (New York: Atheneum, 1982). I have sometimes felt that a twin who happens to be a writer, or a writer who happens to be a twin, might take this shtik by the other end and use schizophrenia, say, as an image for what he knows to be his literal case: that he once was more than one person and somehow now is less. I am the least psychological of storytellers; yet even to me it is apparent that I write these words, and all the others, in part because I no longer have my twin to be wordless with, even when I'm with her. Less and less, as twins go along, goes without saying. One is in the world, talking to the Others, talking to oneself.
My books tend to come in pairs; my sentences in twin members. MARSHES, TIDES Jack-and-Jilling was not easy in Dorchester County, Maryland, of which Cambridge is the seat. Eighty percent of that county is sub-sea level: estuarine wetlands all but uninhabited by men, but teeming like bayous and everglades with other life: the nursery of Chesapeake Bay. No hills down there to go up; and your pail of water will be salt.
More exactly, it will be brackish, turbid, tidal, and tepid: about the same salinity and summer temperature, I am persuaded, as the fluid we all first swam in. Unlike lake water on the one hand or ocean on the other, this will not sting your eyes. Dorchester Countians sensibly nowadays prefer swimming pools, to avoid the medusa jellyfish, or sea nettle (and the watermen, like watermen everywhere, seldom swim at all); but as summer youngsters we played in the natural element for hours and hours, eyes always open. We were often nettled but never chilled; on the other hand, we could see little farther than in the womb.
As a grown-up I've spent agreeable years on a mountain lake and come to enjoy the clear Caribbean, where you can see your anchor on the bottom full fathom five. Yet both seem artificial: the one a backyard pool, be it Lake Superior itself; the other a vast lighted aquarium. Only our warm green semisaline Chesapeake estuaries strike me (strike that: caress me) as real, for better or worse.
North across the Choptank from Dorchester is nearly marshless Talbot, the Gold Coast county of tidewater Maryland. Hervey Allen, author of the bestselling Anthony Adverse, used to live over there; James A. Michener, author of the bestselling Chesapeake, lives over there. A little train nicknamed The Millionaires' Special used to connect its county seat to New York City. Almost anyone with sense and money would prefer Talbot to Dorchester. But my father used to say that the real Eastern Shore begins on the south bank of the Choptank; and Mr. Michener himself, tisking his tongue at population-pressure problems on the upper Shore, once declared to me his confidence that our lower-Shore rivers will survive "to the end of the century."
Eighteen more years.
Nearly all who took the Academic course, and many who didn't, left Dorchester County for good after graduation. Before I joined their number, I used sometimes to stand in those boundless tidal marshes, at the center of a 360-degree horizon, surrounded in the spring by maybe a quarter-million Canada geese taking off for home, and at least by age nine or ten think two clear thoughts -- never clearer than upon our returning from a visit to my one connection with the larger world, a New Jersey aunt who took us marshlings to the top of the Empire State Building and all over the New York World's Fair of 1939/40 -- (1) This place speaks to me in ways that I don't even understand yet; and (2) I'm going to get out of here and become a distinguished something-or-other. My wife shakes her head at the apparent vanity of that latter. But in a landscape where nothing and almost nobody was distinguished; where for better or worse there was no pressure from nature or culture to stand out; where horizontality is so ubiquitous that anything vertical -- a day beacon, a dead loblolly pine -- is ipso facto interesting, the abstract wish to distinguish oneself somehow, anyhow, seems pardonable to me.
In Civil War times Maryland was a Border State. Mason's and Dixon's Line runs east-west across its top and then, appropriately, north-south down the Eastern Shore, which was heavily loyalist in the Revolution and Confederate in the War Between the States. Marsh country is a border state, too, between land and sea, and tide-marsh doubly so, its twin diurnal ebbs and floods continuously reorchestrating the geography. No clear demarcations here between fresh and salt, wet and dry: Many many square miles of Delaware happen to be Delaware instead of Maryland owing to a seventeenth-century surveyors' dispute about the midpoint of a line whose eastern terminus is the sharp Atlantic coast but whose western peters out in the Dorchester County marshes, where the "shoreline" at high tide may be a mile east from where it was at low, when reedy islets muddily join the main. Puberty is another border state; also twinhood, Q.E.D. Your webfoot amphibious marsh-nurtured writer will likely by mere reflex regard many conventional boundaries and distinctions as arbitrary, fluid, negotiable: form versus content, realism versus irrealism, fact versus fiction, life versus art. His favorite mark of punctuation will be the semicolon.
He will also carry a perpetual tide clock in his blood. My father, never a waterman but never far from tidewater, on his one visit to the cottage I owned for years on Lake Chautauqua in west New York, could neither accept nor remember that the water level there remained the same hour after hour, day after day. Three lunchtimes into the visit he would still wonder how it could be high tide now when it had been at breakfast. He was polite about it, but landlocked water bored him, as it does me. How can water that doesn't chase the moon speak to the imagination? I had rather watch tides come and go from the merest muddy fingerling of a cove off a creek off a river off a bay off an ocean than own Golden Pond.
What mattered to me as a boy was the fact that the scruffy water in Cambridge Creek was contiguous with, say, Portugal. Years later, standing where Prince Henry the Navigator's navigators' college was, I was helped to get my bearings by the reciprocal of that fact.
My books and their author first located themselves in tidewater-land, then moved outside it; have lately returned; may drift off again, or not. The tide goes out, comes back, goes out, comes back. As many metaphors as boats are carried on it. MUSIC Between Cambridge Creek and Cape St. Vincent I broke my crown in New York City at the Juilliard School of Music, into whose summer program I tumbled after high school, 17, with money I'd earned playing drums in a homegrown jazz band for the two years prior. No union rules in marshville.
About music my sister knew next to nothing and I less than my sister, though we'd been given piano lessons in vain right through the end of the Depression and beginning of the War; duets were thought especially apt for Jill and Jack, and we went along, she primo, I secondo. Along about V-E Day we were permitted to quit those lessons, and at once I became passionately interested in playing jazz.
Never a distinguished drummer (though a steady), never a soloist (a twin solo?), I was modest and middle-class enough to aspire to neither composition nor performance as a musical career, but too ambitious to consider teaching. In 1947 the big bands were still swinging; orchestration was what I went up the flyway to Juilliard to study, but we jazzfolk knew the word was arranging. My heroes became Pete Rugolo, Sy Oliver, Eddie Sauter, Billy Strayhorn. I would be a distinguished arranger: The term suggested something less glamorous but more dignified, daytime, and regular than jazz drummer, with its aura of sweat, alcohol, and "tea," as marijuana was then called. Though my father's dead brother had aspired to sculpture and my New Jersey uncles to tournament tennis, there had never been a professional musician in the family; yet no eyebrows were raised at my ambition. There is a wonderful freedom in having parents whose schooling ended with the eleventh grade or earlier: Merely to finish public high school is to be successful in their eyes; anything beyond it is a triumph. I could have declared that I was going to be a distinguished metaphysician, even a distinguished poet, and they wouldn't have minded. My New Jersey aunt spoke hopefully of, you know, studio orchestras.
I moved into a cockroach-and-cabbage walk-up where the subway roared out from underground near the old Juilliard on 123rd Street, took the requisite placement tests, and found myself assigned to Elementary Theory and Advanced Orchestration: rather like an apprentice writer's being assigned Bonehead English and a master class in novel-writing. I managed A's in both, learned a little about music, and for the first time confronted my limitations clearly and discovered something useful about myself.
My New York neighborhood, though dirty, was in 1947 wonderfully safe. I spent my best time wandering about it day and night in gritty June and grimy July, listening to black jazz blaring from the record shops on Lenox Avenue and rather enjoying my first acute loneliness. Illinois Jacquet, overblowing his tenor sax, was very big that season. Teddy Wilson was on the Juilliard summer faculty, and a number of my new classmates were young jazz players. They wore pegged pants and lapel-less jackets and saxophone straps, and they spoke hip language in New York accents, which I imitated. It impressed me that several of them were Jewish and some even black: my first real extraethnic acquaintances. They were not unfriendly.
Within a week I came to understand that they would be the professional musicians of their generation. I observed them; I observed me. Theirs was genuine apprentice talent, large or small; mine was makeshift amateur flair. No false modesty here: The news was nowise traumatic, but it was as unequivocal as a high-jump bar that others clear with ease or difficulty but you can't even approach. For this as well as other things, there had simply been no real standards of measurement down there in the marsh. I played with jazz groups for twenty-five years thereafter -- for money in college and early teaching days, for mere pleasure later -- but never after my Juilliard summer took myself seriously in that line.
Anyhow, I was lonely, even commuting in on the E L & W from my New Jersey aunt's house as I did in the latter part of my term. To have gone a whole summer without swimming in the Choptank River, to be as pale in August as I'd been in May, seemed incredible. I went home to think of some other way to be distinguished.
Playing jazz was agreeable for some of the same reasons being twins was: conversation in non-verbal language, the annexation of oneself to the lively organism of the group -- pleasures the opposite of writing's. At heart I'm an arranger still, whose chiefest literary pleasure is to take a received melody -- an old narrative poem, a classical myth, a shopworn literary convention, a shard of my experience, a New York Times Book Review series -- and, improvising like a jazzman within its constraints, reorchestrate it to present purpose. LEARNING I came back crack-crowned down the flyway to find that I'd lost my tidewater girlfriend and won a scholarship I'd forgotten I had competed for, to the Johns Hopkins University. Well, now.
One was expected to select a major; I hadn't thought about it. Career counseling in our high school consisted of a ten-minute conversation with the phys ed teacher some time before graduation. Girls were counseled to be nurses, teachers, secretaries; boys, the farmers excepted but myself included, business administrators. As I'd been going to be a distinguished arranger, I'd dismissed that counsel. Now I shopped through the Hopkins arts and sciences catalogue, ruled out the sciences, and shrugged my shoulders at such academic majors as literature, history, philosophy, economics. A new department called Writing, Speech, and Drama listed a major in journalism; I put down Journalism and took the bus to Baltimore to become a distinguished journalist, understanding only vaguely that journalism meant newspaper work, which I had no interest in. I think I thought it meant, like, free-lancing and, uh, keeping a journal. In a week I found that the Hopkins journalism major (we no longer offer it) was a hasty improvisation consisting of a guest-lecture course by a Baltimore Sun editor and a general curriculum in the arts and sciences, including the department's offerings in the writing of fiction and poetry. No matter: That same week I found musicians to job with for the next many seasons and settled into the task of surviving my freshman year in a serious university for which nothing since kindergarten had prepared me. (My parents had sent their children -- at some sacrifice in those Depression years -- to Cambridge's only kindergarten, a private, one-room affair which we loved at the time and which I see in retrospect to have been quite good. Miss Ridah Collins's Kindergarten was no playschool: we were taught reading and writing there. All my schooling between it and Johns Hopkins was a more or less benign blank of which I remember next to nothing.)
What the aristocrats take for granted, Anton Chekhov wrote to his brother, we pay for with our youth. What my better educated Hopkins classmates took for granted -- especially the good-private-schooled ones -- I paid for with my underclass years, at least. They had heard already about the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the rest; I was lost in the dark ages. They were as it were discussing the architecture while I was trying to find the men's room. Everything was news.
The university was small, the faculty distinguished; all of them taught us undergraduates as well as their graduate students. While looking for the men's room I found the aesthetician and historian of ideas George Boas, the philologist Leo Spitzer, the poets Pedro Salinas and Elliott Coleman, and many another inspired, inspiring teacher: never condescending, nowise palsy, utterly serious, impersonal, good humored, intellectually generous. Splendid role models every one, who can seldom have had in their hands such unformed Silly Putty as my then mind. They were nice about it, if they noticed at all; it was their way, and I approve it, not to talk to us through Homer and Dante and Cervantes and Proust and Joyce, but to talk through us to those great ones, with whom they were at home.
I also found and happily lost myself in the library, a book-filer in the stacks of the Classics Department and William Foxwell Albright's Oriental Seminary, and set about the impossible task of Catching Up. No happier happenstance could have happened to me: not just the physical fact of those canyons of ancient narrative -- which I managed somehow to find more inspiring than intimidating, and which it excites me still to prowl through -- but the particular discoveries upon my cart of Burton's annotated Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, Petronius's Satyricon, the Panchatantra, Urquhart's (misfiled) Rabelais, the eleventh-century Sanskrit Ocean of Story. Tales within tales within tales, told for the sake of their mere marvelousness. My literary education was, excuse me, à la carte: much better for a writer, maybe, than any curricular table d'hôte. I was permanently impressed with the size of literature and its wild variety; likewise, as I explored the larger geography of the stacks, with the variety of temperaments, histories, and circumstances from which came the literature I came to love. Book-filing made me a critical pluralist for life.
Finally, still looking for that men's room, I found my way into an elementary fiction-writing class presided over not by one of the gray eminences but by a gentle marine combat veteran, Poe scholar, and Faulkner fan who permitted us to call him Bob; whose Southern tongue charmed "write" into "rot," our department into Rotting Speech and Drama. Bob's course was a whole year long and repeatable; one simply turned in a story every two weeks. I wrote a story for Bob every two weeks for two years, starting from absolute scratch, trying everything and doing it all wrong over and over and over again. D's, C's, the odd B, C's, D's, through the first of those years at least. Perhaps if Bob had been a professional rotter himself, I'd have been intimidated (perhaps not; perhaps I'd have learned more, sooner, about the craft of rotting). But he was by his own confession a scholar pressed into service by a shorthanded department, and he was an excellent teacher for one who had everything to learn.
By the beginning of my junior year I was writing not much better -- at best I'd climbed from absolute to relative scratch -- but I had by then taken on some freight of literature both curricularly and off the cart. In particular I had discovered Faulkner, Scheherazade, Joyce, Cervantes, and Kafka, and a thing had happened curiously different from what had happened at Juilliard. I was beating my head against a wall, but not breaking my crown; I was toiling uphill with much slippage and misstep, but not quite falling. Almost imperceptibly I had found my vocation, even in that term's religious sense. That I was still doing everything wrong (whereas at Juilliard I'd done some things right) scarcely mattered. As unequivocally as I'd realized I was not a genuine apprentice distinguished musician, I realized I was going to -- well, not be a distinguished writer, maybe; that adjective was losing its importance; but devote my life to the practice of literature.
In retrospect I am impressed at the strength and depth of my then conviction, especially in the face of what I was composing. The work I did even two and three years later, in the graduate-level workshops (we were all reading Finnegans Wake then and had changed the department's name from Rotting Speech and Drama to Writhing, Screech, and Trauma), would not admit me today to the Hopkins seminar I preside over, some of whose members are already publishing their homework. By the time I left Baltimore in 1953 to begin a long circumstantial self-exile from home waters, I had begun to find my general subject matter, but it took me two years beyond that -- of imitating Faulkner, imitating Joyce, imitating Boccaccio imitating the Arabian Nights -- to get a bona fide handle on it: to book Ulysses and Scheherazade aboard a tidewater showboat with Yours Truly doubling at the helm and the steam calliope, arranging language no longer for the Others but for others. TEACHING All of us writhers, screechers, and traumers took for granted that we'd do something else for a living while we practiced our vocation. I make that clear to my students today, at our first meeting, though it would doubtless go without saying: that even the gifted apprentice novelists among them had better plan their economic lives the way poets have had to do since the Romantic period.
I myself chose teaching, by a kind of passionate default or heartfelt lack of alternatives: Though demanding, it was less abusive and exhausting of my resources than the other things I'd tried -- manual labor, office work -- and the hours, pay, and future seemed better for a family man, which I had become, than those of a small-time pick-up musician. One last late afternoon in Baltimore, a like-minded friend and I discussed how we might honorably spend our professional academic lives while doing with our left hands the thing that mattered to us most. Ben decided he would spend his answering all rhetorical questions: If someone should ask, with a bored smile, "Who's to say, after all, what's Real and what isn't?" he'd say "Check with me" and run the questioner rigorously through the history of metaphysics. I decided I'd spend mine saying all the things that go without saying: staring first principles and basic distinctions out of countenance; facing them down, for my students' benefit and my own, until they confess new information. What is literature? What is fiction? What is a story?
One of those things is that some things a writer dislikes (at least wouldn't have chosen) may nevertheless be good for him, as a writer. I am an inert sort who, left to himself, might never have exited the womb -- I was as comfortable there as in turbid-tidal-tepid Langford Creek, off the Chester River, off Chesapeake Bay, where I live now, and, unlike most folks, I had company -- though it is doubtless better for me, as a writer, that I was obliged to do so (a full hour and a quarter after my primo sister). I had as leave stayed on in Baltimore, but the exigencies of the academic job market took me north of Mason's and Dixon's for twenty years: first to Penn State, where I learned to love the vast multifariousness and rough democracy of big American state universities, and got so thirsty for open water that I cleared my throat and published my first three books, all set in Maryland; then to SUNY/Buffalo, where I published the next three and learned to like cities again and to savor (especially in the noisy late 1960s) another sort of border state: the visible boundary of our troubled republic and the comforting sight of great Canada across the river, where the geese come from: haven for dispossessed Americans in every upheaval since the States united. I had rather been back at Penn State (where I had rather been back at Johns Hopkins [where I had rather been back in the womb]), but as a writer I'm glad to have sniffed tear gas and to have heard -- if only like Odysseus tied to the mast -- the siren songs of Marshall McLuhan and my friend Leslie Fiedler.
It goes without saying that what the original sirens sang to that canny other sailor must have been something like "You can't go home again," and that that song ain't so very far from wrong. As with Heraclitus's man standing by the river, into the same which he cannot step twice, it isn't only the Home that changes, but the You, too, and so you can't and can.
I did, sort of, some years back. The tidewater I returned to was not, 30,000 tide-turns later, the tidewater I'd left, nor was the leaver the returner, though to protect the innocent no names had been changed. If between twins as they get older less and less goes without saying, in a good marriage between a man and a woman or a writer and his place so much more every season goes without saying that should I grow as old and wise as Sophocles I'll never get it all said. But I intend to try.