“Medical issues” have required a break from Bill’s Blog, sorry (and I will save an account of that “adventure” for another time), yet a treatment program I have undertaken has not prevented me from completing other work I was engaged in. I would like, now–making a sort of “come back,” if I am able–to post, a chapter from a book in progress, a memoir: “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments”—a chapter focused on the year and a half I spent in graduate school at San Francisco State College. That adventure started in the summer of 1962, when I was twenty-six years of age, and it would turn out to be one of the most rewarding periods of my life.
In this blog, I will not attempt to reproduce all of the chapter I have completed on my San Francisco State College days (and nights, for that’s when I attended most of my classes), but focus on my initial experience at the school and one of my favorite teachers: novelist Wright Morris. I will save, for a blog to follow, another favorite teacher—poet Leonard Wolf—and completing requirements for an M.A. degree.
Here, by way of introduction, are photos of Wright Morris and Leonard Wolf (Photo credits: Wikipedia; http://www.sciencesource.com):
By the summer of 1962, I had spent three years working at the “Rad Lab” (Lawrence Radiation Laboratory) in Berkeley, the last year of which was not a fortunate experience (depicted in a previous chapter of the “Unfolding: Aspirations and Attainments” manuscript) and I felt as if I had been released from a prison sentence, a term of incarceration, confinement, and would enter what, by comparison, I felt as monastic bliss. I was “back in school” again—and the very best, most inspirational educational institution, San Francisco State College (now University) I could have found for that time of my life.
In 1962, the Language Arts (or Creative Writing, the section of it I was enrolled in) division and its program were ideal—and the Creative Writing faculty consisted of some of the finest writers of the era, one of whom, Wright Morris (although a reviewer for the Washington Post once wrote, “No writer in America is more honored and less read than Wright Morris.”) was regarded by many sources I found as closely equal to, or “right up there” with, authors such as Willa Cather, William Faulkner (“a voice as distinctive as William Faulkner’s”: Michael Upchurch, The Chicago Tribune), John Steinbeck, John O’Hara, and Norman Mailer. A blurb (by critic John Aldridge) on the back of the first book by Morris I would read (just before I took a directed writing course with him: “one on one,” in his office), his winner of the 1956 National Book Award, The Field of Vision, said: “Wright Morris seems to me the most important novelist of the American middle generation.”
Walter Van Tilburg Clark (author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat) was Division Chairman, and would serve as my primary faculty advisor. Anne Rice (The Vampire Chronicles; her husband Stan was a faculty member) would receive her MA in Creative Writing in 1972. She has provided one of the best accounts I’ve found on what made the school’s program so unique: “What I loved about San Francisco State was the passion. It was a commuter college and most of the kids were working, and it was very hard to go to school. They weren’t being handed an education, they were working for it just as we were working and I respected that passion very much. I loved it … I thought I had some of the best teachers I’ve ever had at San Francisco State. People that were passionate … and showed me a whole new way of looking at literature … I guess what I loved about it was the freedom and the egalitarian quality and the proletarian quality of it all — that we were all working people together … we had all that passion; we had all that warmth. We had people just hungry, hungry to learn and to write, to create and to make something of their lives. I found that incredibly exhilarating.”
Here are photos of Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Anne Rice (Wikipedia; http://www.thewomenseye.com):
I agree, completely with her assessment. I would still be classified as a “working” person (or Proletarian”), closing out my time at the Rad Lab when I first “tested the waters” at SF State in the summer of 1962. I took a single course, and whereas I don’t remember the instructor’s name (He was not one of the faculty members of some “fame”), he was enthusiastic about the art of writing, and re-introduced me to it on an academic level in a manner that felt good, not at all threatening.
A typical assignment was to come up with single sentences that would disclose or reveal an “Instant” of existence (I came up with: “Small rain sacks walk electric wires”; “Two beer caps fell to the floor of Patty’s Place”; “The searchlights crossed, wintergreen, diamond cold.”). We were also asked to provide a “Lyric” moment (“The night we stood on sand and waiting long, beneath the single moon and open sky”; “My father and his rake, his loving arms and leaves”; “Filled with passion by your perfect commonplace”); “Kinesthetic” (“Her body was smooth and white, like the enamel on a refrigerator.”; “Fish, seaweed, leather, a horse blanket”; “The thick wet leather slammed into the socket of his eye.” [I’d done some boxing as a kid]; and “Grandeur” (“Together, they lit the silence of the night.”; “The Assyrian rage of the sky”; “I am my father’s brother, not alone his son.”; “We began, tense with genesis.”).
These exercises taught me an important lesson: every word must count, had to count; should have meaning and purpose, be the work poetry or prose! Yet I also recognized that the short lyric (of the moment) impulse or inclination came most naturally to me, given my temperament and whatever talent I might have.
Another exercise we were asked to complete was a list of “Themes” (from published work we liked) with one-sentence of examples or summaries. I chose” “The Ledge,” by Lawrence Sargent Hall: “A small light life … the Fisherman meant to hold it there, if need be, through a thousand tides.”; “The Maid’s Shoes,” by Bernard Malamud: “These people had endless troubles, and if you let yourself, you could become endlessly involved”; “The Fate of Man,” by Mikhail Sholokhov: “The fate of man, ‘a grain of sand, an orphan,; is to suffer, endure, and prevail” [the last two words lifted from William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech!]; “The Circus Wrestlers,” by Alexander Kuprin: “The wrestler’s perfect body becomes a temple of illness; full circle, boo-me-rang, бумеранг!” (Here, I must have been trying to show off my recently acquired knowledge of Russian!—my instructor didn’t bother to comment on the inclusion).
I’m not sure just what, regarding my creative capabilities, I took away from all this at the time (aside from the “Show, don’t tell” mantra, which I’d heard before) and a sense that I was OK when it came to creating “a poetic effect,” but the course was, overall, an excellent way to ease back into an academic setting (and put the Rad Lab far behind me)–although looking back now, I am puzzled by samples of my writing I chose to submit, once I had completed this “Fundamentals of Creative Writing” course, and began the formal procedure of being admitted to the graduate school program.
The only sense I can make, now, of what I must have had in mind is that, when I learned that Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of The Ox-Bow Incident and The Track of The Cat and Division Chairman, would serve as my primary faculty adviser (the person who would determine the direction my thesis project would take), I must have decided to submit work that resembled his own: literary realism, or what might qualify as “American Literary Regionalism” or “Local Color”—not the “familiar materials of Western Saga” he employed “to explore the human psyche and to raise deep philosophical issues” (Wikipedia) but material grounded in the Midwest I’d grown up in. I was probably more impressed that Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels—The Ox-Box Incident and The Track of the Cat—had been made into movies than with their content—for I was still too “immature” as a writer to have anything truly meaningful to say about “the human psyche,” and in spite of my fascination with philosophy while a student at the University of Hawaii (and my “A” in that subject), I had not yet formed a philosophy of my own which could be incorporated in my prose fiction.
Here are the covers of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novels The Ox-Box Incident, The Track of the Cat, and his story collection The Watchful Gods:
The fiction I’d written while a student at the University of Hawaii from 1956 to 1958 (and I was surprised to discover just how much of it there was!) was sadly lacking in inspiration, was very “pedestrian,” or flat, somewhat boring. The best work I’d done up to 1962 was a Radiation Laboratory-inspired surreal science fiction novel I was still working on (“The Chuckleheads”), and some of the poetry I’d produced, and while I did include a portion of that work in the “portfolio” I submitted, the bulk of what was there was of the pedestrian, flat, “realistic,” boring variety—and Walter Van Tillburg Clark was quick to recognize that. He suggested that I set such prose aside for a while, and concentrate on my poetry, and, perhaps also, prose more stimulating to the imagination. He recommended taking a directed writing course with Wright Morris, as a means of finding a suitable direction for fiction, if I should continue to persist in my desire to write stories.
Which is what I did (take a directed writing course with Morris, simply because he was such a respected figure on campus), but my schedule was focused primarily on poetry: Mark Linenthal’s English 218 (critical papers); The Craft of Poetry with Leonard Wolf, who had us submit poems on the basis of which we would (or would not) be admitted to a class limited to a small very interesting selection of students—and I became one! Not only were we “hand-picked” or approved, but on the first day of class, he suggested we “ditch” the room we’d been assigned on campus and meet at his own home (where we might even drink wine while we discussed our work!), located on a hillside above Kezar Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers played their home games at the time—just a short walk from the apartment Betty and I and the boys had on McAllister Street. But I will save an account of that experience, and the poetry I would write, for Part Two of my account of graduate study at San Francisco State College.
I would come to love the work I did with Leonard Wolf, who would supervise my thesis project: a manuscript of my own poems and translations of poems by the Russian poet Alexander Blok–but I would come to idolize Wright Morris, telling people now that once I had discovered and read his books, I just wanted to kneel down, kiss his ring, and say, “Teach me everything you know!” I was more than ready to learn from these masters, who were not just academics, scholars, but actual living respected writers!
Here are the covers of three of my favorite books by Wright Morris: The Field of Vision, Love Among the Cannibals, and Will’s Boy:
The “facts” of the life of Wright Morris, known as a “writer’s writer,” are intriguing. He came from a humble background, a self-taught man of inclusive talents–gifts he made full use of. According to Wikipedia: “Wright Marion Morris (January 6, 1910 – April 25, 19098) was an American novelist, photographer, and essayist. He is known for his portrayals of the people and artifacts of the Great Plains in words and pictures, as well as for experimenting with narrative forms …Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska … his mother, Grace Osborn Morris, died six days after he was born. His father, William Henry Morris, worked for the Union Pacific Railroad. After Grace’s death, Wright was cared for by a nanny, until his father made a trip to Omaha and returned with a young wife, Gertrude.”
In another favorite work of mine, Will’s Boy, Wright Morris states, “Gertrude was closer to my age than to my father’s.” Gertrude hated small-town life, but got along famously with Wright, as they shared many of the same childish tastes (both loved games, movies, and ice cream). In 1919, the family moved to Omaha, where they resided until 1924. when Morris moved to Chicago—but in 1933, Wright Morris would graduate from Pomona College in California. Following college, he traveled through Europe on a “wanderjahr,” an adventure he later fictionalized in a novel, Cause for Wonder. From 1944 to 1954, Morris lived in Philadelphia. From 1954-1962, he divided his time between California and Mexico. In 1963, he accepted a teaching position at San Francisco State College.
Which takes us to the time of my acquaintance with him—but before I get to my own experience of this exceptional man (whom I feel I was not just fortunate but blessed to know and study under in 1962-1963), I’ll provide an example of a perceptive critic’s response to and appraisal of a book by Wright Morris, for the review cites aspects of his writing that attracted me to his work, and to Wright Morris as a man–a sort of “father figure” to me at the time. In a 2015 Chicago Tribune article, “An appreciation of novelist Wright Morris,” novelist/critic Michael Upchurch wrote: “Nebraska-born novelist Wright Morris was on fire in the early 1950s … In the space of five years, he published four novels that were rich in their ambition and maverick in their sensibility. They were also, in their variety of setting, reflective of his sharp-eyed travels back and forth across the country. One of them, ‘The Field of Vision,’ won him the National Book Award in 1957. But the book that most Morris fans see as his touchstone work (Morris himself described it as “the linchpin in my novels concerned with the plains”) is ‘The Works of Love.’ … Here, in a voice as distinctive as William Faulkner’s or Henry Green’s, Morris describes the desultory eastward drift of a Nebraska railroad man never sharing a marital bed for long and has oddly unconsummated affairs on the side. His one true object of devotion is a boy who isn’t his, but whom he gives his name and raises as his son … Will is as generous in nature as he is befuddled in spirit. He is, as Morris puts it, ‘a father, one who didn’t know what being a father is like, and a lover, one who didn’t know much about love.’ … His travails are at the heart of the book — yet calling them ‘travails’ feels like exaggeration. Will is an unsettling mix of the nondescript and the eccentric, and he slips elusively through even the biggest events in his own life. He acquires houses, spouses and businesses, yet it’s only in hotel lobbies — furnished, inevitably, with potted palms and cigar counters — that he truly feels at home … One peculiar effect of the novel is that the reader winds up feeling far more deeply for Will than he could possibly feel for himself. That’s due largely to the rolling, forlorn cadences of the novel’s prose, starting with its opening: ‘In the dry places, men begin to dream. Where the rivers run sand, there is something in man that begins to flow.’ … Throughout the novel, Morris keeps that steady, chanting beat going, even as he spices it with wry picaresque elements … ‘The Works of Love’ — achingly, quizzically, obliquely — means something.”
Again, I hadn’t seen this high praise of Wright Morris’ work before I took my first directed writing course with him, but, as I mentioned, I made sure to read his National Book Award-winning novel The Field of Vision, and—thinking, “This man is going to be my teacher, my mentor!”—I was first impressed by the blurbs on the back cover alone: “Wright Morris is one of the most gifted and significant novelists at work in America today.” (Chicago Tribune); “Writing that is beautiful, sad, funny, quietly humorous—and as significant as anything you will find in contemporary literature.” (Cleveland Press); “The image of American life that emerges from his whole work is unequalled by any author of his generation.” (The Reporter). And the novel didn’t let me down.
In it, a group of Midwestern tourists witness the “spectacle” of a bullfight in Mexico, and each of them is flooded with memories (a middle-aged wife for whom a stolen kiss from long ago still imposes on her marriage; a flamboyant failure reliving a childhood act that kindled his desire to “touch bottom”: an eighty-seven year old pioneer who is blind to everything but the past and what he hears; a pseudo-psychiatrist accompanied by his only remaining patient, who refuses to speak). The thought, longing, isolation, hidden passions, dreams of each character is depicted by Morris’ mastery of rotated point of view—the prose original and precise at every turn. In the author’s own words: “This bizarre assembly of oddballs, dreamers, and failures might naturally come together in one place only—the bull ring of Mexico City. This least likely of all likelihoods was appropriate to this unlikely gathering.”
As for my actual sessions with him, Walter Van Tillburg Clark had been right. Contact with and being “critiqued” by a writer such as Wright Morris was exactly what I needed to grant new life to my prose fiction. I haven’t preserved the first piece I submitted to him, but I recall that it was one of the stories I’d started for my summer session class—more than likely “The Rope,” a piece overly dramatic, too predictable, “a pleasure ride becomes a nightmare” story about a “young man” on a San Francisco Bay sailing adventure with a married woman named Mrs. Alonzo B. Sturgess III. Wright Morris returned it to me with witty, pithy, no-nonsense, uncompromised commentary I wish I had on hand now (not having the manuscript itself), but he said something to the effect that I could take my place in a very long line of wannabe fiction writers hoping to have their work published in one of the then popular magazines for women, such as Cosmopolitan, McCall’s, Woman’s Home Companion, or Redbook.
He went after my clichés with a vengeance. He seemed to find them everywhere in my work (language that seemed to come quite naturally, too easily to me—but expressions so overused they’d grown boring, unoriginal without my awareness), yet we seemed to get along beautifully, as if not involved in a teacher/student situation, but more the sort of thing you were likely to find in his work: a genuine friendship, but one never acknowledged as such, a “just is” thing, an acquaintance that came about without self-conscious effort—as if, rather than meeting in his office (which we did), we were meeting in one of the many comfortable, companionable hotel lobbies found in his novels: “All the lobbies are more alike than they are different, in that the purpose of every lobby is the same. To be both in, that is, and out of this world … The lobby draws a chalk mark around this unreal world … It prepares you for a short flight from one world to a better one. From the real world, where nothing much ever happens, to the unreal world where anything might happen—and sometimes does.” (From The Works of Love).
His hotel lobby office turned out to be a splendid setting for discussing the art of fiction. This may be just another cliché, but, yes, Wright Morris did become something of a “father” figure to me (I was writing, and talking to him often, about the father with whom I did not get along so well). Whatever his faults on the domestic front, my own father was a first-rate raconteur, and Wright Morris encouraged me to “talk” or tell, to work my stories over well in my head before I set them down on paper, and that seemed to help their presence on the page. He also went after my “sentimentality”–on the page, and elsewhere (in my life). In his excellent book, Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris, Jackson J. Benson writes: “Wright may have been caught up in nostalgia, but at the same time he hated the idea of it. He followed the lead of most modern writers in despising any expression of sentimentality. At heart he was attached to the past and to the process of documentary but was determined, intellectually, not to be captured by a soft view of it.” Wright Morris joked about my attachment to what he called “the good olde daze.”
Here is the cover of Haunted: The Strange and Profound Art of Wright Morris by Jackson J. Benson (an engaging biography)—and the cover for Morris’ own The Works of Love, which became another of my “favorites” (Photo credits: amazon.com; http://www.nebraskapress.unl.edu):
Wright Morris openly advocated writing that, as far as “material” went, maintained an “everyday quality”—concentrating on (again in the words of Jackson J. Benson): “not the action or external circumstances so much as the inner life, the struggles—the guilt, the dismay, and even the pain in the consciousness of his characters … there would be almost as much comedy as darkness. At times reading his work, one doesn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or relax with a smile and be depressed … Morris was a writer who specialized in bringing forth the reality behind and hovering beyond what we commonly take as real and making it tangible, not to our fingertips but to our minds.”
The more specific (‘technical”) lessons—on avoiding sentiment and clichés—were accompanied by the large picture, the “umbrella” view, such as what he would write in his essay on Katherine Anne Porter in Earthly Delights, Unearthly Adornments: “To be fully conscious, to be one of those on whom nothing is lost, is to be aware of the ceaseless overlapping of the past and the present … However vibrant and intense, however lyrically persuasive, however appealing the sound, look and feel of the present, if the dead were not part of the quick [Porter] knew the larger part of conscious life was lacking.”
He liked Henry James’ statement: “Objects and places disposed for human use and addressed to it, must have a sense of their own, a mystic meaning proper to themselves to give out.” With me, he suggested finding that essential “figure in the carpet” (“The carpet wears out, but in the life of the carpet the Figure wears in.”), and then get out of its way writing about it (“You don’t count; only the material does.”)—transforming, transmuting, transcending experience. He liked to mention the ambivalent “Green light” at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby—the promise of excitement and beauty, but also the end of aspirations and dreams: the valley of ashes at the book’s end. Unavoidable ambivalence. Henry James, Wright Morris would write, “contributes the consciousness of image-making itself. The restless analyst will never have done with this impressions, the overlapping and ceaseless reappraisal, and the newly liberated should read him with caution lest they find themselves again in chains. Freedom was one illusion he always treated with the greatest respect.” At the time of our acquaintance, I was definitely “newly liberated” and in need of “caution” as a writer.
Wright Morris emphasized “finding the right voice.” The voice that would fit my intention as a writer, saying, “From the voice like a seed the rest of it would grow.” He didn’t introduce me to, but he showed me how to make best use of providing several points of view, each chapter in a novel given the person telling the story (as he’d done in The Field of Vision) alternating points of view throughout the novel. It was the technique I’d employed on my own in “The Chuckleheads.”
The best way I can illustrate the nature of our “exchange” is to quote some of the comments he posted on a paper I did save from another course I took from him (aside from directed writing sessions), a course called The Craft of Fiction, with a lecture format, and for which we read work by D.H. Lawrence (Women in Love), Henry James (The Turn of the Screw), Thomas Mann (Death in Venice), E. M. Forster (Howards End), Louis-Ferdinand Celine (Journey to the End of the Night), Albert Camus (The Fall) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby). Our “final” was an extended paper on one of these authors, and I chose Fitzgerald. The title of my paper was “The Chinese Wall of F. Scott Fitzgerald”—based on something the character Nicole says about the main character Dick Diver in Tender is the Night: “Let him look at it—his beach, perverted now to the tastes of the tasteless; he could search it for a day and find no stone of the Chinese Wall he had once created around it, no footprint of an old friend.”
I began my paper with some personal reminiscence—something my father once told me about Zelda, Fitzgerald’s wife. “’Zelda?’ my father said. ‘Of course I knew Zelda. I danced with her up at Sewanee—although it was your Uncle Alcorn knew her best.’” Wright Morris had underlined the word “Alcorn,” and wrote in the margin: “A gem. Who else but Uncle Alcorn?” And he gave me an “A” on the paper as a whole (work that, when I read it now, often displays my efforts—successful to a degree, I think, to adopt my professor’s own style of writing!). Of the piece as a whole, he wrote: “Very good. AND readable. How about the Chinese Wall of W.C. Fields? Do the Irish always have 3 initials? JFK, FSF, WCF? Soberly speaking-(Where’s your Mother?)-What part of this wall do you scale next? Should be a good climb.” “Where’s your Mother?” referred to a passage in the opening section of my paper, where I tried to match his own playful nature yet set the overall tone, alluding to my paternal grandfather, who, as a seventeen year old cannoneer in the Confederate Army, had—at Cumberland Church, two days before Appomatax—been shot through the lungs with a Minnie Ball, and woke believing he was “associated with the Heavenly Host” (a “Miss Hobson” was spooning chicken broth into his mouth); and I followed that with: “Where’s your Mother?”, for my father, telling this tale I’d heard so often before, was reaching beneath the drapes for his glass of Early Times, and praising my mother as a “race horse,” saying “You can always tell the difference between a race horse and a mule,” insinuating that he, by comparison, was a mule.
I loved the fun Wright Morris seemed to have telling me that I had, within my paper, provided a “good climb” of Fitzgerald’s Chinese Wall—and I was thrilled by the large “OLE!” he inscribed, in the margin of my paper, beside my words “We don’t really care how Gatsby made his money, but we do wonder just what Dick Diver is doing in medicine.”; and the three even larger “GOOD[s]” he’d written in the margin beside the following: “In Fitzgerald, the Organization Man had no hardened sense of life; he simply swapped the terms of poetry for the terms of commerce.“; “The most striking fault of Tender Is the Night is that it shares in its hero’s dissolution.”; “The novel does have a strong steady tone that tempts one to overlook the fragments of incident and character—in an attempt to lace together many fates, to resolve them with a single theme: beauty that must die.”
Here are the three books by F. Scott Fitzgerald I’d used for my extended paper:
Wright Morris only granted me a B+ (no “A” this time) on a second follow-up paper I wrote on F. Scott Fitzgerald, this one called “Helen and Priam on Fitzgerald’s Wall.” Morris himself wrote: “The tone of this is good and well sustained, but able Carraway Minor might have scratched a bit harder.” Reading the work now, I agree—although I did find seven large “Good[s]” inscribed in the margins, attached to the following observations: (the first referring to Fitzgerald’s “exploitation of himself and Zelda as material”): “What is amazing is that Fitzgerald was so fully on display for the writer who stood constantly at his side.” I also received a “Good” in the margin for (on Fitagerald’s letters to his daughter): “To his daughter he was Polonious and Pope and … Priam, the tired king, who had earned the right to his opinions, and was proud to reveal them to his last and most prized possession.” And on The Crack Up: “There is something in it of grandstand play, and for an unworthy audience, an audience that loves sudden failure as well as it loves success … For him, the redemption of a basically senseless battle lay in a well-conceived and well-constructed book.”
I compared Fitzgerald’s statement that he had been “only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in [his] hands, even of [his] talent”—to W.C. Fields: “Much of the humor of [Fields] depends on the ‘dissolute’ pride to which this statement comes dangerously close: ‘rivers of highballs, lakes of cocktails, oceans of distilled damnation … I think I’ll put on my bathing suit’ … Like Fields, Fitzgerald hadn’t lost his touch, but he’d drunk up his material, and, as The Last Tycoon shows, needed to shop around for more.”
I ended the paper with a bit of fantasy: the hope that Fitzgerald’s “heaven” might turn out to be an Elysium washed with gin-filled waters, a place where he and Zelda, and W.C. Fields perhaps, having performed due service to Helen and reclaimed by Priam (“Fitzgerald, I said, having written The Great Gatsby, was the truest son of Troy.”), are permitted to do more of both [not just write such a book, but also go “into Show Biz, having gone along with Rogers and Hart and ‘that gang,’ to cap the sublime off with a bad commercial.”] In response to this last bit, Wright Morris wrote, “That’s some heaven, man!” But he wasn’t buying this paper as a whole, and in his initial commentary, he employed a favorite phrase of his: “Ahhhhh, the good olde daze!”—adding: “Having browsed in these pastures of heaven, it’s not for me to deprecate the real estate. Nevertheless, it is true (and sad) that the Chinese Wall of Fitzgerald still marks the Continental Divide—on the one flank those who make it, on the other, in the potshards, those who count.”
I enjoyed hearing him “lecture” in the Craft of Fiction course as much as I did spending time with him in our one-on-one directed writing sessions, although some of my fellow graduate students felt he was just a so-so teacher in the former, for he spent nearly as much time relating anecdotes from personal experiences (which I loved!) as he did on the authors we were to have read. Again, in Jackson J. Benson’s words: “He was a great storyteller, and often the stories he told, while entertaining, had little to do directly with the purpose of the class.” True, but I found Wright Morris fascinating in any capacity. What Benson adds to his appraisal is also true: “But one-on-one he was as encouraging as he could be, depending on the quality of the work that was submitted to him.”
At the time, I treasured every word he wrote to me on the papers I submitted, or granted me in person—and still do. We made, I think, an interesting match-up or “pair” in our own hotel lobby, sharing mutual opinions and feelings. He did not treat me as if I were just another “student,” but a fellow writer, and that, at the time, was immensely satisfying. I’m just sorry that, unlike what I wrote for the Craft of Fiction course, I haven’t retained specific pieces he commented on from the directed writing sessions, but I do remember his being intrigued by the character, Honey Foots Cadwell, I came up with for the Chuckleheads novel. What I wrote about Honey Foots has the stamp, the rhythm and tone of Wright Morris all over it, so I know we worked on that piece together: “For as long as he could remember, Foots had waited. Waited, for his father to come home, his mother to go away. For John James Alcorn, his black sheep uncle, to sober up, get drunk, just about anything. He had waited in bars, in pharmacies, in filling stations. On playgrounds, in parking lots. Outside of church, on waterfronts. All night truck stops. In beds … Now, standing on the roof of his friend’s San Francisco apartment building, he waited for Perry, his friend, and the girl … Once, in a bar in Tiburon, he had waited six days for Perry to finish a game of chess. Well, not just a game of chess. The game lasted for a day, morning, and afternoon. But Perry, finished, went to the men’s room, and from the men’s room to Hawaii. Foots, uninformed, waited.”
I would not read Wright Morris’s other National Book Award winner, Love Among the Cannibals, until after I had my graduate degree from San Francisco State, but when I did I wished I was back in his hotel lobby office again, for the book begins “This chick, with her sun-tan oil, her beach towel, her rubber volleyball, and her radio, came along the beach at the edge of the water where the sand was firm”; and that reminded me of the way I began my summer session story, “Hand of Chance,” I wrote just before I met Wright Morris: “Two girls came up the beach to sit in the sun. An entire baseball game stopped to watch them. The ball dribbling into the sea. The girls set up an orange umbrella that looked almost white beneath the open sky. They stripped and sat on the hot sand in their too-small bathing suits. The better looking of the two lit a cigarette and the blue smoke went up her nose and came out again.” The ”chick” character “The Greek” in Love Among the Cannibals lives with “two other chicks” and “they all worked as waitresses at the same Wilshire drive-in.” I don’t know how many drive-ins resided on Wilshire Blvd. in 1956, when I hitch-hiked from New York City to Santa Monica that year, and I ended up washing dishes with an interesting assortment of wineos, I would have loved to have had an opportunity to tell Wright Morris about that coincidence, and hear his reaction, which would have been priceless, I’m sure.
Here’s a sample of the photography of Wright Morris, and the cover of his collection of the same, Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris (Photo credits: Sheldonartmuseum.org; www.leegallery.com; amazon.com):
He would not retire from teaching at San Francisco State until 1975—but even though we returned to The City in 1966 after I taught at the University of Hawaii for two years, I never saw him again—which was a mistake on my part, for he had been, and remained, a major influence on my life, and one of the most interesting, intriguing, engaging human beings I would ever meet.
Because of the long-lasting influence of Wright Morris, I would like (before I turn to a second most important person during my time at the College, Leonard Wolf) to honor him by citing an article I would discover in Poets & Writers magazine in 1997 (Morris would die of esophageal cancer in Mill Valley, California in 1998). The article, or homage, was called “Wright Morris and the American Century,” and it was written by James Hamilton, who happened to be living in a “small town across the bay from San Francisco,” and one day saw “a distinguished-looking elderly man in a floppy white hat walking along the sidewalk in [his] direction.” Hamilton “recognized him as the novelist Wright Morris, whose face [he] had seen on numerous book jackets over the years, but whom [he] had never met.” From that point on, Morris “steadily worked his way into [Hamilton’s] daily thought, because “It saddened me that a man who had graced his profession as he had was living in what I assumed to be fairly total obscurity.”
James Hamilton had actually read very little of [Morris’s] work, but he began to devour it, and “spent long hours in Morris’s small, darkened apartment” within a rest home “just down the street.” Hamilton learned that, at age 87, Morris had stopped writing—explaining: “I have been a workaholic all my life … but what words will not do is what now impresses me. Music is what sustains my life now, Mahler in particular … I had reached the point where, as a work-oriented man, the work was simply not good enough. My imagination seemed to be out of reach of the problem. It was a great injury to discover that my critical judgement had begun to fail. It was very painful.”
Hamilton’s article is rich with reflection, forward and back in time, on the part of Wright Morris, and the younger writer pays loving tribute to the latter’s portrayal of mid-20th century American values (literary historian John Aldrich wrote that Morris “took America as his province. He wrote with a sense of the whole of America in his blood and bones.”). Hamilton included the author’s feelings regarding “our own uncivil age”: “It is the incoherence that bothers me, the wastage. I cannot imagine how this nation is ever going to correct itself, it is so profoundly screwed up … What we’re going through is the real McCoy, not something we can sweep away on down the line. We can’t just ask Mother to come over and clean the table off, just get rid of the spots.”
I will conclude my own tribute to (my fortunate acquaintance with, unique friendship with) this great man, with a “parade” of his still available (Thank God!) work. Wright Morris’s final novel, Plains Song, would win the American Book Award in 1981. Just a partial list of his works is impressive: My Uncle Dudley (1942), The Man Who Was There (1945), The Inhabitants (photo-text) (1946), The Home Place (photo-text) (1948), The World in the Attic (1949), Man and Boy (1951), The Works of Love (1952), The Deep Sleep (1953), The Huge Season (1954: finalist for the National Book Award), The Field of Vision (1956: National Book Award for Fiction), Love Among the Cannibals (1957: finalist for the National Book Award), Ceremony in Lone Tree (1960: finalist for National Book Award), Cause for Wonder (1963), One Day (1965), In Orbit (1967), A Bill of Rites, a Bill of Wrongs, a Bill of Goods (essays) (1968), God’s Country and My People (photo-text) (1968), Fire Sermon (1971), The Fork River Space Project (1977), Plains Song: For Female Voices (1980: National Book Award for Fiction), Will’s Boy (1981, Solo (1983), A Cloak of Light (1985), Time Pieces: Photographs, Writing, and Memory (1989).
A lifetime of work by Wright Morris remains accessible, available, obtainable—throughout an era (ours) in which nearly everything is expendable. Considering his good fortune, I thought of all the worthy authors for whom “survival” (the ongoing recognition and respect they deserve) has not proved true—and then, three of my favorite 19th century authors for whom it has: Charles Lamb ( English essayist, poet, and antiquarian, best known for his Essays of Elia and the children’s book Tales from Shakespeare), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England), and William Hazlitt (English essayist, drama and literary critic, painter, social commentator, and philosopher–now considered one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language). Here are some of their thoughts on literary perpetuity (the quality or state of being perpetual) and the significance of books.
Charles Lamb: “There is more reason to say grace before beginning a book than there is to say it before beginning to dine … What is reading, but silent conversation … I love to lose myself in other men’s minds … Books think for me … A presentation copy is a copy of a book which does not sell, sent you by the author, with his foolish autograph at the beginning of it; for which, if a stranger, he only demands your friendship; if a brother author, he expects from you a book of yours, which does not sell, in return … When my sonnet was rejected, I exclaimed, ‘Damn the age; I will write for Antiquity!’”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward; it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me … Language is the armory of the human mind, and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.”
William Hazlitt: “The world loves to be amused by hollow professions, to be deceived by flattering appearances, to live in a state of hallucination; and can forgive everything but the plain, downright, simple, honest truth … Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own … No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history … Those only deserve a monument who do not need one; that is, who have raised themselves a monument in the minds and memories of men … Fame is the inheritance not of the dead, but of the living. It is we who look back with lofty pride to the great names of antiquity, who drink of that flood of glory as of a river.”
I’ll close out the photo gallery with Wright Morris in the company of Charles Lamb (a portrait by William Hazlitt) and Hazlitt himself (a self-portrait)—excellent company Wright Morris has every right to keep (Photo credits: www.fantasticfiction.com; www.poemhunter.com; http://www.datadeluge.com):
I look back on my acquaintance, my friendship with him with “lofty pride” (or immense gratitude) and to re-reading his work throughout what remains of my life—work that will remain a monument in the mind and memory forever.
Next blog: Leonard Wolf and more reflection on the time I spent at San Francisco State College.