America's playwright had principle, 'guts' Arthur Miller captured the hope and angst of the American Dream like perhaps no other writer of his generation
By Michael Phillips Tribune theater critic
February 12, 2005
The man who wrote "Death of a Salesman" died Thursday. And as Linda Loman told the sons of Willy Loman, that sad and epic American dreamer: Attention must be paid.
Arthur Miller, 89, died in his home in Roxbury, Conn., surrounded by family, 56 years to the day after the Broadway opening of "Death of a Salesman." He had suffered recent bouts with cancer, pneumonia and a heart condition. The cause was heart failure.
For nearly 9 decades, that same heart served America's pre-eminent playwright valiantly and well, in an active, doggedly prolific career as playwright, essayist and activist.
Weathering critical disfavor at home in recent decades even as his star shone brightly overseas, Miller proved a stouthearted champion of society's underdogs and outcasts, of real-life imprisoned dissident writers and of the fictional but indelible subjects found in his most provocative work.
Across much of the 20th Century and into the 21st, Arthur Miller served as the major social conscience of the world stage. In dramas as formidable and stylistically diverse as "All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible," Miller transformed post-World War II Broadway into a public arena for moral combat, engaging audiences with questions of personal responsibility and political life. In Miller's first Broadway success, "All My Sons" (1947), the son of a middle-American industrialist and war profiteer reminds his mother that "there's a universe of people outside, and you're responsible to it." That became Miller's refrain throughout his career.
"He was the 20th Century," Goodman Theatre artistic director Robert Falls said Friday. "Every aspect of the century affected him: Two world wars, the Depression, the Cold War, the conservatism of our current times. He was in Chicago in 1968, he was at the forefront of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement, and during the Cold War, he was one of the great advocates for writers' freedom.
"He took a much-maligned word, `liberal,' and defined it in the best sense as humanist, activist and artist."
As Miller scholar and biographer Christopher Bigsby said Friday, "He was a private man whose conscience forced him to be a public man."
Late in Miller's career, Falls became a primary custodian of his work. Falls won a 1999 Tony Award for his Goodman revival of "Death of a Salesman," starring Brian Dennehy, which enjoyed huge success on Broadway and is being remounted, with Dennehy and a largely British cast, this spring in London.
Last year Miller's final play, "Finishing the Picture," opened at the Goodman under Falls' direction. The play was inspired by Miller's experiences on the set of "The Misfits," a film for which Miller wrote the screenplay and which starred Miller's then-wife, Marilyn Monroe. For a time they were the most recognizable and star-dusted couple in the country--the owl and the pussycat, as one wag put it.
Miller's death, said "Angels in America" author Tony Kushner on Friday, is "a giant event. The big three [of the American stage] are, and always have been, Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. And to have had Miller amongst us this long was amazing. It was such a gigantic life. No one occupied a role in American culture comparable to his."
In his final years, decrying the Bush administration and what he perceived as its blinkered, bullying foreign policy, Miller remained a citizen and a playwright of the world. In 2002, accepting the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement, he delivered a lecture in which he took after Bush's global image, which he saw as "truculent."
"The truculent image," he said of Bush, "is exactly the wrong one, if what you want to convey is that you are not only a strong leader, but a mature man of reason."
Miller's political views were well-known through his collected essays. In recent decades, in fact, the essays and Miller's 1987 autobiography "Timebends: A Life" overshadowed much of his work for the stage.
Broadway marquees dimmed their lights Friday night. The symbolic gesture rang oddly hollow: Miller's final two plays, "Resurrection Blues" (2002), which premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and "Finishing the Picture" (2004), which Falls staged at the Goodman, have yet to receive New York productions on or off Broadway.
Mark of the Depression
Born Oct. 17, 1915, in New York City, Arthur Miller was one of three children of Polish-Jewish immigrants. His father, Isadore, owned a prosperous women's clothing concern, the Miltex Coat and Suit Co. His mother, Gittel "Gussie" Miller, taught school.
In 1929, the stock market crash wiped out the company. A shaken and humbled Miller clan moved to Brooklyn. The psychic impact of the Depression informed all of Miller's writing.
To earn money for college, he worked as a warehouse loader and shipping clerk. In 1934 he traveled to Ann Arbor to attend the University of Michigan, where he worked on the school paper and began writing plays. Two of them won the Hopwood playwriting award.
In a 1953 essay, Miller recalled his Ann Arbor days as a time when he and his classmates, including his wife-to-be, Mary Slattery, a Catholic girl, "saw a new world coming every third morning." Miller added: "The place was full of speeches, meetings, and leaflets. It was jumping with issues."
As a fledgling novelist ("Focus," about anti-Semitism in America, became a film starring William H. Macy) and struggling playwright, Miller's meager income was supplanted by money provided by his brother, Kermit. Tellingly, Miller's plays are full of uneasy and often guilt-ridden relationships between brothers, from "The Man Who Had All the Luck" (1944) to "All My Sons" (1947) to "Death of a Salesman" (1949) to "The Price" (1968).
Success didn't come easily or quickly to Miller. His first Broadway venture, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," handed the writer a six-performance flop.
"I was lucky," Miller once said. "I didn't get too famous too quick."
His final play, "Finishing the Picture," came 70 years after his first collegiate efforts.
"It's quite startling," said biographer Bigsby, director of the Arthur Miller Center in the American studies department of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. "That's a much longer career than Chekhov, or Strindberg, or Ibsen. And hearing of Miller's death is like hearing of the death of Chekhov.
"He is that significant."
The Broadway success of "All My Sons," a drama about a grimly compromised middle-American airplane parts manufacturer and his family, established Miller as a strong theatrical voice working in the well-made-play mode of Henrik Ibsen, one of his idols. The sins of the father in "All My Sons" cannot be hidden forever.
"He was always concerned with the connection of the past to the present," Bigsby said. "That's the spine of morality in his plays. Cause and effect. What happens has results, and we must accept responsibility for those results."
With that first flush of success, however, Miller drew a literary lion's share of criticism. American anti-communist groups successfully pressured the U.S. Army not to not to allow productions of "All My Sons," a harsh indictment of war-profiteering Americans, to be toured in postwar Europe.
Originally titled "The Inside of His Head," "Death of a Salesman" made Miller a rich man and a cultural figurehead--Abraham Lincoln with eyeglasses, and a Brooklyn dialect. Thanks in large part to director Elia Kazan's monumental original production, "Salesman" made audiences sob with grief. Miller was ambivalent about the emotional response to what he later called "seriously intentioned work."
The play won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize. Miller created an impressionistic portrait of a man, and a society, a little too in love with the Horatio Alger myth. A wonder of form, function and vivid anguish, the character of Willy Loman (based on Miller's salesman uncle, Manny) became the emblem of an economic system based on what Miller memorably called "a smile and a shoeshine."
It sounded anti-American to some, including New York Daily News gossip columnist Ed Sullivan (before he had his variety show).
Miller involved himself in many liberal causes throughout his adulthood. He signed a petition urging the abolishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early days of the communist-hunting era.
That was at a time, as Miller biographer Martin Gottfried wrote in "Arthur Miller: His Life and Work," when the FBI made "few distinctions between [Communist] party members, sympathizers, leftists and liberals."
True to principles
With "The Crucible" (1953), Miller drew an implicit parallel between the 17th Century Salem witch trials and the anti-communist witch hunts of his own time. In 1956, Miller was asked to name names of Communist Party members or sympathizers by the House Un-American Activities Committee. (The Chicago Tribune, among other right-leaning papers of that time, published an editorial urging Miller to comply.)
Unlike his colleague Kazan, the director of "All My Sons" and "Salesman," who gave the committee names and became an industry pariah, Miller told the committee: "My conscience will not permit me to use the name of another person."
For a brief, bruising time in the 1950s and early 1960s, Miller played an uncomfortably visible role of husband to Marilyn Monroe, paragon of glamorous Hollywood artifice. His relationship with Monroe became the inspiration for two of his plays: "After the Fall" (1964) and his final work, "Finishing the Picture." The marriage took its toll on Miller's life and career. After the mid-1950s premiere of "A View From the Bridge," Miller was considered old hat by many.
In his forays into drama criticism, Miller expressed bafflement at the respect accorded Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot." Years later, Miller acknowledged a change of heart on that play's worth.
For much of his career, Miller's critical reputation was far better outside the U.S. than in it. "I'm becoming invisible in my own land," he once said.
Miller scholar Bigsby explains it this way: "Tragedy sits rather uneasily in America, which is more about the pursuit of happiness." This is the theme of "Death of a Salesman," in which Willy Loman is undone by his belief in a capitalist society of glad-hands and small talk.
In a line that owed a lot to Clifford Odets, whose Group Theatre shows of the 1930s thrilled the budding playwright Miller, Willy pleads with the younger man about to fire him. "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away--a man is not a piece of fruit."
More than personal insults and psychological breakdowns are at play here.
"You can't make any sense of Arthur's work if you don't deal with the politics of his work," said Kushner, his own generation's pre-eminent leftist playwright. "He made sure of it in `Salesman.' Strip that one of its politics and it doesn't make any sense."
His most celebrated play became "a burden" to Miller's career, the Goodman's Falls said. "No matter what else he wrote, it was compared to that play. In both his opinion and in mine, `Finishing the Picture' was both neglected and misunderstood critically. Like O'Neill and Williams, I think, Arthur suffered a lack of critical respect in this country, yet helped define serious American drama for the world."
He was no granite archetype, according to Falls.
"I expected to meet a figure off Mt. Rushmore. But he was a guy who rolled up his sleeves. He saw himself as a carpenter, and just as he'd go into his workroom and make chairs and tables--practical things people could use--he'd approach making a new play the same way.
"I used to joke with Arthur that most 89-year-old men couldn't stay awake in the theater, let alone stay engaged in the act of creating a play."
Miller married three times, most recently to the photographer Inge Morath, who died in 2002. Miller had two children, Jane Ellen and Robert, by his first wife, Mary Slattery. He and Morath had a son, Daniel, and a daughter, Rebecca.
In 2002, Rebecca Miller told the Tribune that her father was a "fantastic grandfather." And surprisingly, she said, given his reputation for fierce moral judgments, "he was totally non-judgmental."
An old friend and fellow progressive, Studs Terkel, said Friday: "He was a gifted man of the theater, but something else. He always spoke out. He spoke out for what he believed in, not only when it was unfashionable to speak out, but unsafe.
"Giftedness, and guts: Those are the words for this man."
- - -
Memorable lines from Miller's plays
`Death of a Salesman'
- "Never fight with a stranger, boy. You'll never get out of the jungle that way."
- "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."
- "You don't understand: Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back--that's an earthquake. And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dast blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."
- "I have not moved from there to there without I think to please you, and still an everlasting funeral marches round your heart."
'A View from the Bridge'
- "I am inclined to notice the ruin in things, perhaps because I was born in Italy."
- - -
A giant of the stage
The death of playwright Arthur Miller at age 89 on Thursday marks the end of one of the most distinguished careers in American theater history.
Oct. 17, 1915: Miller is born in New York City to a middle-class Jewish family.
1929: The Millers move to Brooklyn after Arthur's father's clothing business fails.
1934-35: Miller studies journalism at the University of Michigan.
1936: He writes "No Villain" in six days and receives the university's Hopwood Award in Drama.
1938: Miller joins the Federal Theater Project in New York City to write radio plays and scripts.
1940: Miller marries Mary Slattery. The two later have a daughter, Jane Ellen, and a son, Robert.
1944: "The Man Who Had All the Luck" premieres on Broadway but closes after six performances.
1947: "All My Sons" premieres and receives the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award.
1949: "Death of a Salesman" premieres and wins the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award. Miller heads an arts panel at the pro- Soviet Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York. His participation later brands him as pro-Communist in the eyes of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
1950: Miller meets Marilyn Monroe at a Hollywood party.
1956: Miller divorces his wife and marries Monroe.
1957: After refusing to name names for the HUAC, Miller is convicted of contempt of Congress. The conviction is overturned on appeal. 1961: Miller and Monroe divorce. "The Misfits," Miller's screenplay adaptation of an earlier short story, starring Monroe, premieres.
1962: Miller marries Inge Morath, an Austrian-born photographer. The two later have a son, Daniel, and a daughter, Rebecca. The same year, Marilyn Monroe dies.
1968: "The Price" premieres. Miller attends the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as the delegate from Roxbury, Conn.
1984: "Death of a Salesman" is revived on Broadway, featuring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.
1987: Miller publishes his autobiography, "Timebends: A Life."
1998: The Goodman Theatre stages a revival of "Death of a Salesman" starring Brian Dennehy. The following year the production moves to Broadway and wins four Tony Awards.
2002: Miller's wife Inge dies. Miller is awarded the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement.
2004: The Goodman Theatre stages his last play, "Finishing the Picture," inspired by Miller's experiences on the set of "The Misfits."
Feb. 10, 2005: Miller dies at his Roxbury, Conn., home at age 89.
Sources: The Arthur Miller Society; "The Theater Essays of Arthur Miller," edited by Robert A. Martin and Steven R. Centola; Associated Press and news reports
WHY ARTHUR MILLER MATTERS: FOUR ESSAYS
# 1: Even if you missed his plays
By Julia Keller Tribune cultural critic
February 13, 2005
There's a story they tell about a guy who went to see "Hamlet" and then demanded his money back.
"Piece of junk," he snarled. "Full of cliches."
That's the thing about great works of art: We can't imagine a time before they existed, before certain phrases and ideas were part of the very air we breathed. And thus even if you've never seen "Death of a Salesman" or haven't read "The Crucible" since high school -- you're still influenced by Arthur Miller, who died Thursday at age 89.
The world is so suffused with the wisdom of those plays, with their indispensability, that we can't envision somebody actually sitting down and writing them, line by line, and cursing and wadding up sheets of paper and trying again.
Works such as his seem not so much created as unearthed, as stumbled upon, like a brooding Stonehenge of the human spirit.
You are who you are -- and the world is what it is -- because of Miller. Because of what he lived and believed and embraced and repudiated.
This is true of only a handful of writers per century. Some of the best writers who ever lived never attain such a status; despite their talent, their works never become forces of nature. Their works never insinuate themselves so firmly into the culture that gradually they seem to elide with the infrastructure, with rocks and trees and sky, shedding radiance on both the people who know the works well -- the passionate readers and the dedicated scholars -- and on everybody else too.
"Salesman," with its cold shakedown of the American dream, seems hacked out of the side of a mountain. It's all blunt force and ragged edges.
Elia Kazan, the man who directed the 1949 Broadway debut of "Salesman," well understood the play's elemental nature. Miller, Kazan wrote in his 1988 autobiography, "didn't write `Death of a Salesman.' He released it."
When it hit the world, "Salesman" exploded. That crash continues to reverberate today, more than half a century later, and even if you don't know Willy Loman from Willie Nelson, you're living in a world shaped by "Salesman," shaped by its rhythms and its difficult truths, shaped by its pain.
Thunder also still echoes from "All My Sons," the one about betrayal, about what it means to lead a decent life. Or "A View from the Bridge," another one about betrayal -- they're all about betrayal, aren't they, when you scrape away the rust of individual plots and get down to the bare metal of each play's soul? -- or "The Crucible" or "Incident at Vichy."
I remember lying on an ugly brown couch in a small apartment in Ashland, Ky., the first place I'd ever lived on my own, and closing my eyes and listening to a recording of "A View from the Bridge." The characters bloomed in my living room with an urgent force that no mere corporeal presence -- no frail flesh or erector set of bones -- could have hoped to match. You could tell exactly what was going to happen to these people; they marched relentlessly, obliviously, to their dooms, but the ending still was a stunner.
Yet even if I'd never listened to "Bridge" or seen "Salesman," even if I'd never read Miller's first-rate memoir "Timebends" or his sharp, cynical essays about the theater and American life, he would have cast a long shadow over my life, just as he's cast a long shadow over yours, whether you know it or not.
Any serious interrogation of capitalism -- not the spitball-throwing stuff that refuses to admit the tremendous force for good that America has been in the world, but a sincere hesitation -- must begin with "Salesman" and its critique of capitalism's winner-take-all bravado.
If what Miller wrote seems, in 2005, a bit obvious and shopworn and melodramatic, it's because we have so completely absorbed what he taught us. Questions about morality and guilt and duty and community seem almost passe today, but they seem that way precisely because Miller posed them so forcefully, so memorably, in his plays.
T.S. Eliot was always amused when people claimed that classic authors were irrelevant because we now know so much more than they did; yes, Eliot replied -- and they are that which we know.
"When a scholar dies," goes the Yiddish proverb, "everyone is his relative." The same is true of certain writers. The whole world grieves because the whole world is implicated.
If you know Miller's work, then good for you; but if you don't -- well, my friend, you do. You do.
Each day, the men and women of the Chicago Tribune pass through the marble halls of the Tower lobby into which are etched great words of purpose and calling.
The 1st Amendment is inscribed there, as are homages to press freedom from Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster and Louis Brandeis.
Euripides, Voltaire and Camus are recorded, and so is another wise philosopher, Flannery O'Connor, who observed: "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."
Alongside that O'Connor quote is another of my favorites, a concise and inspirational note to remind both my colleagues and our visitors of what we do there each day.
It reads: "A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself."
The words are Arthur Miller's and they are among the last I see as I board the elevator to the newsroom. I have carried them around with me since they were first inscribed there five years ago on the occasion of the paper's 150th anniversary, and have found them especially persuasive this past year as the national conversation has grown so urgent.
I don't suppose that many of you work in offices or live in homes where Mr. Miller's words are etched into the walls, but I do suppose that many of you carry them inside of you nonetheless, inscribed as permanently as if by a chisel into stone.
Think of the time you heard them first, and which ones lingered. For me, it was nearly 20 years ago at the Blackstone Theatre. Kate Reid was playing Linda in "Death of a Salesman" and was speaking to Biff and Happy about their father, Willy Loman, played by Dustin Hoffman.
"I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person."
There is a way your skin feels when you hear that for the first time, and a change that takes place that you carry around inside yourself as undeniably as a strand of DNA.
As a young student at the University of Michigan, I paid a visit one afternoon to Angell Hall, where the school housed winning entries to the Hopwood Prize, then and now the country's most prestigious college literary award. Alas, my aims were neither literary nor noble: My new boyfriend's sister was a recent Hopwood winner, and I sought out her short stories as some window onto their family. The search was fruitful. Her stories were lovely, and their author some years later would prove to make a fine sister-in-law.
But I made another discovery in the Hopwood room that day. Arthur Miller had been a Hopwood winner, not once but twice, for plays he had written as a young student in Ann Arbor in the 1930s. I sat there, all of 19 or 20 years old, mulling this fact, and my knowledge that Miller, now a great Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, had also worked at the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper where I had come to devote increasingly long days. I connected those dots to the Miller the world now knew and felt this surge of purpose. I would read later, long after he wrote his searing "The Crucible," that Miller first learned about the Salem witchcraft trials in his American history class at Michigan. And it confirmed what I realized then in the Hopwood room: that I didn't need to wait to lead a life of purpose and conviction, that I could now be the thing that I would become.
The personal inspirations I have drawn from Miller's writing do not alone explain awarding him the first Chicago Tribune Literary Prize.
In choosing Mr. Miller as the inaugural winner of this award, my colleagues and I returned repeatedly to that theme: the honesty and the honor of his work and his life. He has demonstrated an enormous, fierce literary power and range, spanning more than six decades of work for the stage, novels, memoir, essay and social commentary, including a biting proposal for open-air executions in Shea Stadium, a satiric echo of my own newspaper's crusade against corruption in the death penalty system.
Alongside the writing has been his commitment to free speech, his courageous stand against McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, his crusading defense of foreign writers through the International P.E.N. organization and the strong moral compass that has guided his actions and his art.
In all of these things, he is what we aspire to on our best days.
My young daughter once asked me about Arthur Miller, and I told her that he was a great writer, yes, but that that alone did not distinguish him -- that he was also a great man. We talked about free speech and blacklisting, a term she read in a novel last summer, and then I reached back to the closing chapters of her beloved "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire."
I reminded her of Albus Dumbledore's speech to the students at Hogwarts, all of whom are grieving the death of a brave and courageous young student, Cedric Diggory.
Dumbledore tells them: "When you are faced with the choice between doing what is easy or what is right, think of Cedric Diggory."
There are people like that in real life, I tell my daughter. Think of Arthur Miller.
It's more or less a free country. Anyone can discuss the major themes of guilt, disillusionment, corruption and compliance in Arthur Miller's work, and practically everyone has, judging from the number of scholarly and popular books, high school and college term papers and half-empty reviews of the latest productions of "The Crucible" and "Death of a Salesman."
Or of "A View From the Bridge," a play that succeeds despite its Greek-tragic echoes, not because of them. Or the lean, mean "All My Sons." Or, before he made his name, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," a fable with so many mood swings and tonal change-ups, it's as if Miller were channeling a dozen fledgling and promising Millers within.
To hear the term papers across the globe tell it, Miller's major theme is the individual's relationship with, and debt to, the world at large. Or the major theme is a peculiarly American brand of corruption, private and public. Or the soulless tyranny of the majority. One of Miller's early influences, Henrik Ibsen, said it in "An Enemy of the People," a play Miller adapted for an unsuccessful and largely forgotten Broadway production in 1950. "The majority is always wrong," Ibsen's hero said. If the majority is what Willy Loman, of Brooklyn, or John Proctor, of Salem, is fighting -- right or wrong, to the death -- then in Miller's eye, Ibsen is right.
I wonder if Miller did his plays any favors when he tried to explain their themes and contextualize their meaning. Not long after the roaring success of "Death of a Salesman," Miller wrote an essay for The New York Times, a paper whose influence on the fortunes of much of his work he came to despise. The essay was called "Tragedy and the Common Man." In it Miller answered the charges of a few critics who didn't think Willy Loman had epic, tragic heft as a character. Does too, wrote Miller. The play provokes a "higher order of feeling" in the audience than mere pity, or drama. The essay made him sound like a bit of a pill. His plays, some of them, are like that as well, especially if they are not acted with the right propulsion.
What's remarkable about a play like "Salesman" is that people are still arguing over it. A new production, such as the 1998 Goodman Theatre revival, reacquaints you with its stylistic strangeness and slippery, three-dimensionally knotty characters. It is as bracing as bebop. And it is stunning to consider that Miller was asked to rewrite the play not long before rehearsals began in 1948, in order to "streamline" it by taking most of the flashbacks out, and straightening out the time elements.
Of all things. A person, as Miller proved in everything from "Salesman" to "After the Fall" to his lovely, tactful, insightful autobiography, "Timebends," is that person's past and present intertwined. All anyone can do to make sense of it all is to live as honestly and honorably as possible, as Edward Albee put it.
I interviewed Miller twice in 2002. Backstage at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, we talked about his play "Resurrection Blues," which is about a televised crucifixion in a venal South American country. His final play, "Finishing the Picture," dealt with a more personal matter, that of Miller's disguised experience while making "The Misfits."
A few minutes into the interview, he called someone over.
"Louise." A statement, not a question, not unfriendly, just direct. "Is that restaurant still open?"
"Yes. Do you want a sandwich? If you want a sandwich, we could do that."
"Would you do that?
"You know, a sandwich."
"Maybe with a little onion. Not white bread. Some kind of real bread."
Softening the audience
It may have been Miller's delivery, but this exchange sounded like stage dialogue to me, the sort of thing he'd write in a play's early scenes, when he was softening up his audience for the dramatic kill to come. It sounded like Clifford Odets, whose success with "Awake and Sing!" and others in the 1930s Miller admired and envied. And it sounded like Arthur Miller, who prided himself on tailoring his dialogue rhythms and structure to suit his subject.
I admire many of Miller's plays. Someday I hope I see productions that will make me realize I was wrong about the other ones. It is not hard to be so very wrong in this business. In 1957, critic Tom Driver wrote in the Tulane Drama Review that his problem with "Death of a Salesman" was that it "cannot make up its mind whether the trouble is in Willy or in society." This is called taking a positive and turning it into a negative. The play doesn't make the stupid, reductive mistake of saying it's one thing, or the other.
The rap in recent decades against Miller is that he's a stark, black-and-white moralist, and that his less effective plays are fingers, wagging. The work that will endure, however, is not like that. It is richer and stranger. It is life, mixed-up American life, joyous and corrosive, distilled into dramatic form. His best plays are bottles anyone can take off the shelf anytime, to see if what they have to say about life on this planet has lost any of its flavor.
In modern-day America, where the free-market flourishes along with sincere Judao-Christian moralism, there is one widespread, fundamental impediment to widespread popular happiness. We desperately want to be liked -- loved, even -- by our fellow human beings. Yet our inherently competitive economic system requires us simultaneously to beat them to the punch.
You can see this anxiety-inducing paradox every-where -- the classroom, the church or synagogue, the workplace, even the family room. Government policy -- be it Democratic or Republican -- is shot through with a contradiction that everyone knows but few dare admit. Its fangs inform the debates over taxation, education, Social Security.
Sure, we parse these opposing forces where we can: we argue that love can be tough or that we don't crave anymore success than we already enjoy. We think we can be something other than selfish, or that selfishness can be morally righteous. But most of us fail to fool either ourselves or our God for long.
And we surely failed to fool Arthur Miller.
His "Death of a Salesman," a play about the slow but inevitable destruction of the quotidian foot-soldier of American business known as Willy Loman, is the greatest play ever written about ever-ascendant but ever-nervous America.
At this moment of his early peak at the age of 32 (so early that he had to spend years under its oft-debilitating shadow), Miller had our collective, 20th Century number better than any other dramatist -- before or since.
He wasn't the first to select the salesman -- the man who produces nothing but lives on a wan smile and a fragile shoeshine -- as emblematic of the underbelly of the American dream. But nobody has ever done so better.
As Elia Kazan, the first director of this towering work, figured out during early rehearsals, Willy Loman is indeed a tragic figure. He confuses -- and thus cannot reconcile -- his need to be loved with his need for success. And that failure pulls him apart. Tragically so.
He even poisons -- figuratively but agonizingly -- his own children.
Many of us worry about doing precisely the same.
"All My Sons," the story of a businessman who cuts corners and puts soldiers at risk, was an embryonic probing of much the same issue. Joe Keller was doing what he had to do to thrive in business -- and he forgot what it means to be a human being with a sense of personal morality. All at once, Miller forgave him and refused to forgive him. Within two years, he'd upped the ante to full-blown tragedy.
By traditional standards, of course, "Death of a Salesman" is not a tragedy. In the classical era, the critic Aristotle defined the tragic hero as an imperfect but empathetic figure with "magnitude," someone whose fall impacts others beyond himself.
Thus when Sophocles' Oedipus -- or Shakespeare's King Lear -- rips himself into pieces due to some manifestation of the love-versus-competition paradox, entire nations come crashing down along with him.
Before Miller, tragedy was the elevated province of monarchs and dictators.
By contrast, the death of Willy Loman -- Willy Low-Man -- affects no one outside his tiny personal circle.
His career was insignificant -- even inept. He was never a great salesman, in part because he made the lifelong mistake of believing that business leaders become great business leaders by being loved by all, rather than by doing better than everyone else, which really is the case.
No one has ever paid Willy much mind. That's why Linda, his enabling wife, insists time and time again that "attention must be paid" to this man. "He is not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog," she says, even as that's what happens.
But as he articulated in his famous essay "Tragedy and the Common Man," Miller had come to the brilliant realization that classical notions of tragedy held no sway in mature, capitalist societies. In his white-collar, post-war, ideologically oppositional America, Miller saw tragic heroes on every commuter train -- their regal robes replaced by fading business suits.
These were men -- and they always were men -- whose magnitude was derived from their ubiquity. There were -- are -- millions of Willy Lomans in America. And, for that matter, in China, where they understood this play all too well.
In "Death of a Salesman," Miller argued relentlessly for the brilliant notion of representative magnitude. Why should the nobility of tragedy be reserved for the aristocratic by birth? If millions of people suffer the same fate as Willy Loman, then surely the man has the weight both of numbers and human misery?
Attention, indeed, must be paid.
There are those who find this play to be a flawed melodrama -- or, at best, the ripe tale of a pathetic but not tragic man who sleeps with a floozy, reveals himself to be a hypocrite, and thus sends his kids off the rails.
You can make that case. Many productions -- especially the simple-minded ones -- have emphasized it.
But if you think that this play is a battle between an individual soul and the wolves of the great American marketplace, you must reach the conclusion that it's the great American tragedy.
We've all known Willy Loman -- he has been our co-worker, our friend, our father. We have bits of him inside ourselves.
Miller, friend of the working stiff, said that he mattered. And he was right.
DUSTIN HOFFMAN was playing Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman." I met Arthur Miller backstage after a performance. "Arthur," I said, "it's the oddest thing, but in the scene between Biff and Willy, it was as if I was listening to a play about my own relationship with my father."
I went on a bit, and looked over to see a small, distracted smile on his face. Of course, I thought. He's not only heard this comment thousands of times, he has probably heard it from every man who ever saw the play.
It is the great American Domestic Tragedy.
And "The Crucible" is the American Political Tragedy.
He wrote it to protest the horror of the McCarthy era. The plays are tragedies as each reasoned step brings the protagonists closer to their inevitable doom. We pity them as they are powerless to escape their fate. We feel fear because we recognize, in them, our own dilemmas. This is the purpose of drama, and particularly of tragedy: to allow us to participate in the repressed.
We are freed, at the end of these two dramas, not because the playwright has arrived at a solution, but because he has reconciled us to the notion that there is no solution - that it is the human lot to try and fail, and that no one is immune from self-deception. We have, through following the course of the drama, laid aside, for two hours, the delusion that we are powerful and wise, and we leave the theater better for the rest.
Bad drama reinforces our prejudices. It informs us of what we knew when we came into the theater - the infirm have rights, homosexuals are people, too, it's difficult to die. It appeals to our sense of self-worth, and, as such, is but old-fashioned melodrama come again in modern clothes (the villain here not black-mustachioed, but opposed to women, gays, racial harmony, etc.).
The good drama survives because it appeals not to the fashion of the moment, but to the problems both universal and eternal, as they are insoluble.
To find beauty in the sad, hope in the midst of loss, and dignity in failure is great poetic art.
Arthur Miller's wonder at his country and his time will redound to America's credit when the supposed accomplishments of the enthusiastic are long forgotten. His work and the example of a life lived with quiet dignity are each an inspiration. I spoke at his 80th birthday celebration, my speech a prayer from Kipling that I will, again, offer here:
One service more we dare to ask - Pray for us, heroes, pray, That when Fate lays on us our task We do not shame the day.
David Mamet, a playwright and screenwriter, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Glengarry Glen Ross."
October 3, 2005
THE JEWISH KING JAMES VERSION
James Wood 03 August 2005
When Saul Bellow died in April this year, it did not escape notice that his most vocal appreciators were English. The New York Observer wondered why the most prominent tribute by a distinguished fellow novelist – Ian McEwan’s piece, first published in the Guardian, and then reprinted the following day on the op-ed page of the New York Times – was not by an American. In his moving eulogy, McEwan mentioned essays on Bellow by Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens and myself. McEwan’s most recent novel, Saturday, bears a long epigraph from Herzog.
McEwan gave a fine account of what Bellow had meant to him, and in particular of the joy to be taken in Bellow’s metaphors and similes – Pierre Thaxter, the toes of his feet pressed together “like Smyrna figs”; Professor Kippenberg, a great scholar with bushy eyebrows like “caterpillars from the Tree of Knowledge”; Cousin Riva, a middle-aged woman whose shape has broadened: “She had come down in the knees like the jack of a car, to a diamond posture”. He went on to suggest that English readers and writers may respond to a nineteenth-century amplitude in Bellow’s work that is felt to be lacking in the post-war English novel; we relish the “generous inclusiveness” of these books, their seething variousness – the lawyers (like Tomchek, whose breath “was sourly virile”), the rabbis (such as one whose “soft big nose” is “violently pitted with black”), the crooks, the seductresses and impractical, haughty intellectuals (like the art critic Victor Wulpy, who “wore his pants negligently”). Though we have London, we envy Bellow his Chicago. (And his Manhattan.) These books, heMcEwan continued, are “the embodiment of an American vision of plurality”.
But there may be another reason for Bellow’s appreciative British audience (the Scottish poet John Burnside also wrote lyrically of Bellow shortly after his death). This has to do with what could be called the submerged Englishness of his prose. The claim seems at first eccentric: surely it’s the American otherness, the august raciness, the Yiddish slang, the demotic bustle of mixed registers that beautifully affront our proper sense of Anglican rhythm and measure. Bellow himself, in accounting for his meagre record of publication in The New Yorker, used to say that that magazine’s editors were playing by Fowler’s rules – by implication, a goy dispensation unable to appreciate the Jewish rule-breaker. In this country, indeed, there has been a strain of English disdain for Bellow’s prose, uttered over the years by Kingsley Amis, Auberon Waugh and A. N. Wilson, which seems to represent a Fowler-like recoil from the scrambled Americanness of his writing.
But, first of all, no one has disputed the Dickensianism of Bellow’s gnarled physical portraits. The writer who pictures Cousin Riva as resembling a car jack, or the wooden-legged Valentine Gersbach as resembling a gondolier, is clearly related to the Dickens who likens Uriah Heep’s mouth to a post office. And Bellow also possesses a Dickensianism of sentence: the English influence declares itself at the level of rhythm. Nothing seems, at first sight, more American than The Adventures of Augie March, with its Melville-like onrush. At the novel’s close, Bellow writes about the Atlantic Ocean: “it wasn’t any apostle-crossed or Aeneas-stirred Mediterranean, the clement, silky, marvelous beauty-sparkle bath in which all the ancientest races were children. As we left the harbor, the North Atlantic, brute gray, heckled the ship with its strength, clanging, pushing, muttering; a hungry sizzle salted the bulkheads”. Melville and perhaps early Robert Lowell cluster behind these sentences. But Dickens is there, too, the Dickens who likes to pile up compound phrases: “a bawling, splashing, link-lighted, hackney-coach-jostling, patten-clinking, muddy, miserable world”. Or take a sentence like this description of a hot summer night in The Dean’s December: “It had been one of those choking, peak-of-summer, urban-nightmare, sexual and obscene, running-bare times, and death panting behind the young man, closing in”. And here is Conrad, with his description of the London night in The Secret Agent: “Night, the early dirty night, the sinister, helpless and rowdy night of South London”.
The excitement of Bellow’s prose has to do with its pressing mingle of sounds, a complex of Russian, American, Jewish and English influences. But, above all, the influence of the Bible cannot be overestimated. Bellow grew up reading the Old Testament in Hebrew. As a little boy, and unusually for a Jewish child, he fell in love with the Gospels. (He was in hospital for weeks with peritonitis, where a missionary handed him the New Testament.) And as an adult he became a keen reader of the King James Version, a copy of which was at his bedside in the last weeks of his life. Seize the Day registers all these different voices. On the one hand, it is one of the most Russian of American novellas, filled with Dostoevskian and Tolstoyan metaphysical yearning. But it is also in constant dialogue with English verse; explicitly when the hero, Tommy Wilhelm, recalls stray fragments of Keats, Milton and Shakespeare, and implicitly, in a passage like the following:
"But at the same time, since there were depths in Wilhelm not unsuspected by himself, he received a suggestion from some remote element in his thoughts that the business of life, the real business . . . the highest business was being done. Maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here . . . . And though he had raised himself above Mr Perls and his father because they adored money, still they were called to act energetically and this was better than to yell and cry, pray and beg, poke and blunder and go by fits and starts and fall upon the thorns of life. And finally sink beneath that watery floor – would that be tough luck, or would it be good riddance?"
Behind this intensely Jewish-American entreaty (I reckon that most English writers would not place “still” where Bellow places it – “still they were called to act” – but would render a more normative “they were still called to act”) is “Lycidas” (the “watery floor”), but also Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: “And thus with thee in prayer in my sore need / Oh! Lift as a wave, a leaf, a cloud! / I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”. We may also hear an insistently biblical sound in the way Bellow has adapted the Shelley: the rugged power of those primal verbs “pray and beg, poke and blunder”, and the way Bellow uses “go” (“go by fits and starts”), which recalls the gravity which the Authorized Version accords that commanding verb (“For it was said to me by the word of the Lord, thou shalt eat no bread nor drink water there, nor turn again to go by the way thou camest”, 1 Kings 13: 17; “Go ye up unto this feast: I go not up yet unto this feast: for my time is not yet full come”, John 7: 8) – even if the thorns don’t make us think of the parable of the sower, whose seed, like poor Tommy Wilhelm’s, “fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it” (Luke 8: 7). Something similar occurs when, in the same novel, Bellow delivers this beautiful line about Manhattan: “In full tumult the great afternoon current raced for Columbus Circle, where the mouth of midtown stood open and the skyscrapers gave back the yellow fire of the sun”. The simple but grand diction of a mouth that stood open is matched by the skyscrapers, which don’t just reflect but give back the fire of the sun. Manhattan suddenly sounds 2,000 years old. The Psalmist of the King James Version has a similar fondness for pungent verbs: “All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head . . . . They [the bulls of Bashan] gaped upon me with their mouths” (Psalm 22, verses 7 and 13).
Good English prose often finds itself falling into the great English founding rhythm, iambic pentameter, or something pretty close to it (egfor instance, Virginia Woolf’s “The day waves yellow with all its crops”). Bellow’s prose, with its colloquial interruptions and its habit of mixing high and low registers, rarely sounds exactly English. But it often sounds biblically English. In Herzog, Moses Herzog is about to board a train at Grand Central Station, and remembers family train trips in Montreal:
"The whole family took the car to the Grand Trunk Station with a basket (frail, splintering wood) of pears, overripe, a bargain bought by Jonah Herzog at the Rachel Street Market, the fruit spotty, ready for wasps, just about to decay, but marvelously fragrant. And inside the train on the worn green bristle of the seats, Father Herzog sat peeling the fruit with his Russian pearl-handled knife. He peeled and twirled and cut with European efficiency. Meanwhile, the locomotive cried and the iron-studded cars began to move. Sun and girders divided the soot geometrically. By the factory walls the grimy weeds grew. A smell of malt came from the breweries. The train crossed the St. Lawrence. Moses pressed the pedal and through the stained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing. Then he stood at the window. The water shone and curved on great slabs of rock, spinning into foam at the Lachine rapids, where it sucked and rumbled. On the other shore was Caughnawaga, where the Indians lived in shacks raised on stilts. Then came the burnt summer fields. The windows were open. The echo of the train came back from the straw like a voice through a beard. The engine sowed cinders and soot over the fiery flowers and the hairy knobs of weed."
This is characteristic Bellow, and it would be hard to find a better example of his lyrical richness and his Tolstoyan sensuality of detail: “and through the stained funnel of the toilet he saw the river frothing”. To the English ear, the prose sounds, at first, magnificently improper. To begin with, Bellow loves run-on sentences – or, if not technically run-on, then something like a little gulp, an extra breath, in which the sentence continues where many writers would end it and start a new one. So we have “pears, overripe, a bargain bought by Jonah Herzog at the Rachel Street Market, the fruit spotty, ready for wasps, just about to decay, but marvelously fragrant”. And of course the prose is here mimicking the run-on of memory itself, a Jewish-American version of Joycean stream-of-consciousness. But at the same time, Bellow ends his sentences unexpectedly – or inserts short sentences justwhere you don’t expect them: “Sun and girders divided the soot geometrically. By the factory walls the grimy weeds grew”. Again, it is the Bible we can hear. It is present in the obtrusive lyricism of “By the factory walls the grimy weeds grew”, which gently borrows from Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down . . .”. It is present in the repeated connective “and” (the particle waw of biblical Hebrew): “He peeled and twirled and cut with European efficiency”. And we can hear it in the distinctive internal repetition: “Father Herzog sat peeling the fruit with his Russian pearl-handled knife. He peeled and twirled and cut with European efficiency”. Robert Alter has written about how full both Old and New Testaments are with “semantic parallelism”, also common in ancient Hebrew poetry, which is the art of saying the same thing in a second clause with only a slight variation. This is faithfully carried over from the Hebrew into the King James Version: “He shall come down like rain upon the mown grass: as showers that water the earth” (Psalm 72); “Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee” (Psalm 39); “What is the Almighty, that we should serve him? And what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?” (Psalm 21). Bellow’s habit of circling repetitively around a character, of pouring new but similar descriptions onto the same portrait, seems indebted to the biblical example. “Father Herzog sat peeling the fruit with his Russian pearl-handled knife. He peeled and twirled and cut with European efficiency”: one can imagine a biblical colon between those two sentences.
Repetition is the thing that journalistic editors always try to eliminate from one’s copy; but poets, and prose writers of distinction, understand what repetition does – understand that when you repeat a word with deliberation, the word undergoes a change in coloration. Here is Bellow in his short story “Zetland: A Fragment”:
"Zet and Lottie swam into New York City from the skies – that was how it felt in the Pacemaker, rushing along the Hudson at sunrise. First many blue twigs overhanging the water, then a rosy color, and then the heavy flashing of the river under the morning sun. They were in the dining car, their eyes heavy. They were drained by a night of broken sleep in the day coach, and they were dazzled. They drank coffee from cups as heavy as soapstone, and poured from New York Central pewter. They were in the east, where everything was better, where objects were different."
It was Martin Amis who, in conversation, pointed out to me the beauty of that phrase, “the heavy flashing of the river”. Bellow always knows what to do with the word “heavy”, Amis said. Yes he does, and here he also knows how to repeat it – “heavy flashing,” “their eyes heavy”, “cups as heavy as soapstone”. The English master of repetition is D. H. Lawrence, who has had a greater influence on Bellow than has yet been properly acknowledged. In his Paris Review interview, Bellow confessed to a special interest in two modern writers, Lawrence and Joyce; Sea and Sardinia was one of Bellow’s favourite pieces of English prose. It is also one of Lawrence’s greatest achievements, where biblical repetition is used with the utmost delicacy: “Wonderful to go out on a frozen road, to see the grass in shadow bluish with hoar-frost, to see the grass in the yellow winter-sunrise beams melting and going cold-twinkly. Wonderful the bluish, cold air, and things standing up in cold distance”. Like Bellow’s, Lawrence’s prose, at its best, is an attempt at totality, in which all the elements of writing can be employed; it is why the prose of both writers sounds at once antique (poetic, lyrical, romantic, scriptural) and modern (cranky, individual, self-interrupting, vocal). Lawrence describing a dirty Sicilian farmhouse can sound eerily like the narrator of The Adventures of Augie March:
"And he led the way down the passage, just as dirty as the road outside, up the hollow, wooden stairs also just as clean as the passage, along a hollow, drum-rearing dirty corridor, and into a bedroom. Well, it contained a large bed, thin and flat with a grey-white counterpane, like a large, poor, marble-slabbed tomb in the room’s sordid emptiness; one dilapidated chair on which stood the miserablest weed of a candle I have ever seen: a broken washer-saucer in a wire ring: and for the rest, an expanse of wooden floor as dirty-grey-black as it could be, and an expanse of wall charted with the bloody deaths of mosquitoes. The window was about two feet above the level of a sort of stable yard outside, with a fowl-house just by the sash. There, at the window flew lousy feathers and dirty straw, the ground was thick with chicken-droppings. An ass and two oxen comfortably chewed hay in an open shed just across, and plump in the middle of the yard lay a bristly black pig taking the last of the sun. Smells of course were varied."
One can see why Bellow was so fond of Lawrence – the crooked vitality of the voice (“Smells of course were varied”), the eccentric choices (“a hollow, drum-rearing dirty corridor”), the knuckly adjectives (“lousy”, “bristly”), the sentences at once loose and melodic, rushed and worked-at. Both Bellow and Lawrence are fond of the adjectives “marvellous” and “lovely”. Both writers enjoy omitting the definite article: “standing up in cold distance”; “in full tumult the great afternoon current. . .”. Like Bellow, Lawrence constructs Shakespearean or Dickensian compounds, and uses colloquialisms and slang, and pungently simple verbs (Lawrence’s “things standing up in cold distance” resembles Bellow’s mouth of Manhattan standing open), and big Melvillean onrush: “after such marvellous ringing blue days”, a phrase from Sea and Sardinia, is very close to Melville’s description of being becalmed in Moby-Dick: “the warmly cool clear ringing perfumed overflowing redundant days”. Bellow, too, enjoys amassing gorgeous adjectives: Lake Michigan is seen, in Humboldt’s Gift, as “the limp silk fresh lilac drowning water”. Both writers, of course, see the world with finely estranging eyes: Lawrence notices a fire in a grate as “that rushing bouquet of new flames in the chimney”. Were I to give a single example of Lawrence’s humour and his utterly musical sense of the exact weight of each word, it would be his description of King Victor Emmanuel and “his little short legs”. Short is not the same as little; the two words enjoy each other’s company, and “little short legs” is more original than “short little legs”, because it is jumpier, more absurd, forcing us to stumble slightly over the unexpected rhythm.
Lawrence, the most biblical of modern English novelists, can be seen as the bridge that links the Hebrew-biblical side of Bellow with the English-biblical side, the Jewish with the Anglican (Lawrence, apparently, translates well into Hebrew because of this biblical metre in his prose). And perhaps, too, Lawrence is the twentieth-century writer who most obviously links Dickens to the American master.
GOODBYE SAUL BELLOW
by Michael Bryson
"How does it feel/ to be on your own/ like a complete unknown?" - Bob Dylan, "Like A Rolling Stone"
I've just returned from the used book store around the corner from my house. I went there to look for novels by Saul Bellow, who died earlier this week at the age of 89. I bought Mr. Sammler's Planet and Humbolt's Gift. About a decade ago, I saw Bellow speak at the University of Toronto. At the time, I asked a couple of different friends if they were interested in going; they weren't. "How often do you get to see a Nobel Prize winner?" I asked. Still, no takers. I went alone.
This week seems to be the week of old men dying. The one getting all of the attention is Pope John Paul II. Others I've seen on CNN in the past couple of days: Johnnie Cochrane (best known as O.J. Simpson's lawyer: "if the glove don't fit, you must acquit") and Prince Rainier of Monaco (best known for marrying movie star Grace Kelly).
The Toronto Sun had a short article on Bellow's death, right below a larger article with a photograph and a headline: BRITNEY SPEARS GETS 'REAL' (the pop star and her new husband are going to be the feature of a new reality show on TV ... or is that "reality" show?).
At the University of Toronto a decade ago, Bellow read his short story "By the St. Lawrence" and answered questions. The short story had been published in Esquire. It was a reflective piece about a narrator born in Montreal early in the 20th-century who moved as a young child to the USA, as the author did. Someone asked Bellow if he revised his work much, or did the writing come out nearly fully formed. Bellow said it depended on what he was working on. He said the story he'd just read hadn't been revised very much, though as he was reading it he could see some places where he'd like to make revisions. Someone else asked about the decline of literature. Did it bother him that his audience was small, especially as compared to the audiences of popular TV shows? Bellow said it didn't bother him. His novels, he said, sold in the range of 200,000 copies, which was an audience comparable to that of Charles Dickens in the 19th century. Of course, as a percentage of the population, that audience was significantly smaller. But it was still substantial -- and dedicated.
As the obituaries this week have noted, Bellow is perhaps best known for the optimism that bouys all of his work. The New York Times ended its obituary noting that the author's "approach to his art was that of an alien newly arrived on the earth." The obituary quoted Bellow:
I've never seen the world before. Now I was seeing it, and it's a beautiful, marvelous gift. Enchanting reality! And when the end came, I was told by the cleverest people I knew that it would all vanish. I'm not absolutely convinced of that. If you asked me if I believed in life after death, I would say that I was agnostic. There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.
Another quotation, this one the opening sentences of Bellow's novel Herzog. In my opinion, one of the great openings in literature:
If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
Some people thought he was cracked and for a time he himself had doubted that he was all there. But now, though he still behaved oddly, he felt confident, cheerful, clairvoyant, and strong.
Henry Miller is blurbed on the cover of my copy of Bellow's HendersonThe Rain King, surely one of the strangest, most wonderful, most ecstatic novels ever written. Miller says: "What a writer! I've made a great discovery. It's how I'd like to write myself." That Miller did, in a way, write in a manner similar to Bellow should be lost on no one. The famous beginning to Miller's Tropic of Cancer reads:
I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.
Last night Boris discovered that he was lousy. I had to shave his armpits and even then the itching did not stop. How can one get lousy in a beautiful place like this? But no matter. We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice.
At its heart, Bellow's work, like Miller's, broadcast a powerful belief in the transcendent power of the human spirit. He was not afraid of words like "beauty" and his work resonates with the belief that however dark the day, however long the drought, light will shine, rain will come. The human spirit will prevail. (This is a sentiment, on the other hand, that one struggles to locate -- and wonders why it's so hard to find -- in the novels of this country's preeminent Nobel hopeful; yes, I mean Margaret Atwood.)
(And while I'm out on a tangent here, I'll take a moment to write against myself. Bellow's HendersonThe Rain King  has some stirring, inspiring moments, but it's also highly unselfconscious of the race issues embedded in its narrative -- a rich, urban, and urbane, white American becomes the "Rain King" of a tribe of rural black Africans ... It was written before the race riots of the 1960s -- and at a time when there was an even more stirring transcendent voice rising from black America: that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Bellow has written eloquently about the effects of the anxieties of modern life of the eternal characteristics of the human soul. At the same time, his championing of "universalism," as The New York Times obituary pointed out, put him "in fierce debates with feminists, black writers, postmodernists." As the Times noted, Bellow once asked: "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" Bellow later called the ensuing controversy "the result of a misunderstanding."
What couldn't be misunderstood, was that Bellow stood on the conservative side of the aesthetic ledger. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis tells of a visit to Bellow with friend Christopher Hitchens. Their talk came around to the author of Orientalism, Edward Said, a friend of Hitchens and someone Bellow vehemently disagreed with. Hitchens dug in his heels, while Amis kicked him under the table and tried to get him to cool his jets; never-the-less, a verbal slugfest ensued. Later, when everyone was well battered, Hitchens apologized, saying he would have felt bad if he hadn't stood up for his friend. Bellow asked: "How do you feel now?")
Besides an obituary, The New York Times also published two commentaries on Bellow's fiction. Joseph Berger wrote about how Bellow was "captivated by the chaos of New York." Berger noted Bellow's novels evoked New York's "emigre intellectuals and eccentrics, its connivers and kooks, its complicated women and vacillating men," a theme picked up by Michiko Kakutani in an article headlined: "Saul Bellow, Poet of Urban America's Dangling Men."
Kakutani called Bellow's novels "less plot-driven works than portraits of men trying to figure out their place in the world." Kakutani quoted Herzog's narrator asking what does it mean "to be a man. In a city. In a century. In transition. In a mass. Transformed by science. Under organized power. Subject to tremendous controls. In a condition caused by mechanization. After the late failure of radical hopes."
(Of course, whether those "radical hopes" have failed is very much open to question -- a point that relates to my tangential moment above. Herzog was written in the 1960s, when certain radical hopes were very much alive -- and one only need search "Naomi Klein" on Google to see that the hearts of radicals continue to beat strong -- and always will.)
What I most appreciated about Bellow, was his ability to place his narrators in context of grand themes. In a review of More Die of Heartbreak (1987) on this website, I quoted Bellow from that novel:
There aren't any words for what happens to the soul in the free world. Never mind "rising entitlements", never mind the luxury "life-style." ... Full wakefulness would make us face up to the new death, the peculiar ordeal on our side of the world. The opening of a true consciousness to what is actually occurring would be a purgatory.
This quotation shows, I believe, that Bellow was a critic -- like Pope John Paul II, incidentally -- of the unalloyed consumerism that was rampant in the 1980s, and is even more rampant now. He just approached his criticism in a way we're not used to seeing, in a way different from Naomi Klein -- or any other Toronto Star columnist or social activist. Bellow's narrators turn to ancient philosophy, high-brow literature, and transcendent emotions to assert meaning in the face of our contemporary insanity.
What insanity? Remember BRITNEY SPEARS GETS 'REAL'? What do those quotation marks mean? Reality is a product to be packaged and sold. Bellow's novels remind us that a world fed only on pop culture is a world that cannot sustain the individual soul. They also tell us that individuals will fight against the current. The human spirit cannot be defeated.
I heard one commentator on TV this week refer to the remarks Pope John Paul II gave when he was made Pope 26 years ago. "Be not afraid," the Pope said, quoting the angels who visit the shepherds on the night of the Christ child's birth. "Keep hope alive," is the catch-phrase of one-time US presidential contender Jesse Jackson. "If I am out of my mind, it's all right with me," thought Moses Herzog.
Philip Roth has said that Bellow, along with William Faulkner, was "the backbone of 20th-century American literature." When Faulkner won the Nobel Prize, he noted that, in an era dominated by fears about the atomic bomb, in an era dominated by fears about the death of the human race, what writers couldn't forget was that literature was about "the human heart in conflict with itself." Bellow never forgot that. His narrators dreamed big dreams and eschewed easy, "radical" solutions. His narrators also delighted in the human spirit -- and believed that the possibilities of the human spirit never diminished, no matter what the obstacle, as long as the individual refused surrender.
RIP Saul Bellow. May your soul find other worlds to delight it.
Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.
AUGUST WILSON, THEATER'S POET OF BLACK AMERICA DIES
August Wilson, who chronicled the African-American experience in the 20th century in a series of plays that will stand as a landmark in the history of black culture, of American literature and of Broadway theater, died yesterday at a hospital in Seattle. He was 60 and lived in Seattle.
The cause was liver cancer, said his assistant, Dena Levitin. Mr. Wilson's cancer was diagnosed in the summer, and his illness was made public last month.
"Radio Golf," the last of the 10 plays that constitute Mr. Wilson's majestic theatrical cycle, opened at the Yale Repertory Theater last spring and has subsequently been produced in Los Angeles. It was the concluding chapter in a spellbinding story that began more than two decades ago, when Mr. Wilson's play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" had its debut at the same theater, in 1984, and announced the arrival of a major talent, fully matured.
Reviewing the play's Broadway premiere for The New York Times, Frank Rich wrote that in "Ma Rainey," Mr. Wilson "sends the entire history of black America crashing down upon our heads."
"This play is a searing inside account of what white racism does to its victims," Mr. Rich continued, "and it floats on the same authentic artistry as the blues music it celebrates."
In the years since "Ma Rainey" appeared, Mr. Wilson collected innumerable accolades for his work, including seven New York Drama Critics' Circle awards, a Tony Award, for 1987's "Fences," and two Pulitzer Prizes, for "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson," from 1990.
"He was a giant figure in American theater," the playwright Tony Kushner said yesterday. "Heroic is not a word one uses often without embarrassment to describe a writer or playwright, but the diligence and ferocity of effort behind the creation of his body of work is really an epic story.
"The playwright's voice in American culture is perceived as having been usurped by television and film, but he reasserted the power of drama to describe large social forces, to explore the meaning of an entire people's experience in American history. For all the magic in his plays, he was writing in the grand tradition of Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller, the politically engaged, direct, social realist drama. He was reclaiming ground for the theater that most people thought had been abandoned."
To honor his achievements, Broadway's Virginia Theater is to be renamed the August Wilson Theater. The new marquee is to be unveiled Oct. 17.
With the exceptions of "Radio Golf" and "Jitney," a play first produced in St. Paul in 1981 and reworked and presented Off Broadway in 2000, all of the plays in the cycle were ultimately seen on Broadway, the sometimes treacherous but all-important commercial marketplace for American theater. Although some were not financial successes there, "Fences," which starred James Earl Jones, set a record for a nonmusical Broadway production when it grossed $11 million in a single year, and ran for 525 performances. Together, Mr. Wilson's plays logged nearly 1,800 performances on Broadway in a little more than two decades, and they have been seen in more than 2,000 separate productions, amateur and professional.
Each of the plays in the cycle was set in a different decade of the 20th century, and all but "Ma Rainey" took place in the impoverished but vibrant African-American Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Mr. Wilson was born. In 1978, before he had become a successful writer, Mr. Wilson moved to St. Paul, and in 1994 he settled in Seattle, where he died. But his spiritual home remained the rough streets of the Hill District, where as a young man he sat in thrall to the voices of African-American working men and women. Years later, he would discern in their stories, their jokes and their squabbles the raw material for an art that would celebrate the sustaining richness of the black American experience, bruising as it often was.
In his work, Mr. Wilson depicted the struggles of black Americans with uncommon lyrical richness, theatrical density and emotional heft, in plays that gave vivid voices to people on the frayed margins of life: cabdrivers and maids, garbagemen and side men and petty criminals. In bringing to the popular American stage the gritty specifics of the lives of his poor, trouble-plagued and sometimes powerfully embittered black characters, Mr. Wilson also described universal truths about the struggle for dignity, love, security and happiness in the face of often overwhelming obstacles.
In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans' honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation. For Mr. Wilson, it was imperative for black Americans to draw upon the moral and spiritual nobility of their ancestors' struggles to inspire their own ongoing fight against the legacies of white racism.
In an article about his cycle for The Times in 2000, Mr. Wilson wrote, "I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves."
Mr. Wilson did not establish the chronological framework of his cycle until after the work had begun, and he skipped around in time. Although "Radio Golf," the last play to be written, was set in the 1990's, "Gem of the Ocean," which immediately preceded it in production (it came to Broadway in the fall of 2004), was set in the first decade of the 20th century.
His first success, "Ma Rainey," which took place in a Chicago recording studio in 1927, depicted the turbulent relationship between a rich but angry blues singer and a brilliant trumpet player who also wants to succeed in the white-dominated world of commercial music. From there Mr. Wilson turned to the 1950's, with "Fences," his most popular play, about a garbageman and former baseball player in the Negro leagues who clashes with his son over the boy's intention to pursue a career in sports. His next play, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," considered by many to be the finest of his works, was a quasi-mystical drama set in a boardinghouse in 1911. It told of a man newly freed from illegal servitude searching to find the woman who abandoned him.
The other plays in Mr. Wilson's theatrical opus are "The Piano Lesson," set in 1936, in which a brother and sister argue over the fate of the piano that symbolizes the family's anguished past history; "Two Trains Running," concerning an ex-con re-ordering his life in 1969; "Seven Guitars," about a blues musician on the brink of a career breakthrough in 1948; "Jitney," a collage of the everyday doings at a gypsy cab company in 1977; and "King Hedley II," in which another troubled ex-con searches for redemption as the Hill District crumbles under the onslaught of Reaganomics in 1985.
As the cycle developed, Mr. Wilson knit the plays together through overlapping themes and characters. Many of the primary conflicts concern the dueling prerogatives of characters poised between the traumatizing past and the uncertain future. The central character in "Radio Golf" is the grandson of a character in "Gem of the Ocean." The guiding spirit of the cycle came to be Aunt Esther, a woman said to have lived for more than three centuries, who was referred to in several plays and who appeared at last in "Gem." She embodied the continuity of spiritual and moral values that Mr. Wilson felt was crucial to the black experience, uniting the descendants of slaves to their African ancestors.
A Fruitful Partnership
Mr. Wilson's career was closely linked with that of Lloyd Richards, who became the first black director to work on Broadway when he staged the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway, Lorraine Hansberry's "Raisin in the Sun," in 1959. Ms. Hansberry's warmhearted but clear-eyed play about the struggles of a black family to move up the economic ladder in Chicago shares with Mr. Wilson's work a focus on the daily lives of black Americans, relegating the oppressions of white culture to the background.
Mr. Richards, the dean of the Yale School of Drama and the artistic director of Yale Repertory Theater from 1979 to 1991, was also the head of the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in Connecticut when Mr. Wilson submitted "Ma Rainey" to the program. ("Jitney," begun in 1979, had been submitted and rejected twice.) When it was accepted, Mr. Richards helped refine the work of the then-unknown writer and first produced and directed it at Yale Rep, where its success instantly established Mr. Wilson as an American playwright of singular talent, perhaps the greatest American stage poet since Tennessee Williams.
Mr. Richards would help shape and direct the next five plays in Mr. Wilson's cycle, ending with "Seven Guitars," which arrived on Broadway in 1996. Each play was refined through a series of productions at Yale and other regional theaters before moving to New York. (Most grew significantly shorter along the way: Mr. Wilson's work was most often criticized for excessive length and sometimes belaboring its ideas. In a celebratory review Mr. Rich wrote when "Joe Turner" opened on Broadway, he nevertheless noted, "As usual with Mr. Wilson, the play overstates its thematic exposition in an overlong first act.")
This formula replicated in a noncommercial arena the tryout circuit that had once been commonplace for plays aiming for Broadway, a method of development that ran aground as the costs of theater skyrocketed. The process, which also involved Mr. Wilson's longtime producer, Benjamin Mordecai, the managing director of Yale Rep during much of Mr. Richards's tenure, was important in defining a healthy and mutually beneficial relationship between the country's not-for-profit regional theaters and its Broadway-centered commercial establishment. (Mr. Mordecai, who was involved with all of Mr. Wilson's plays in one capacity or another, died earlier this year.) More significantly, the collaboration between Mr. Richards and Mr. Wilson was the most artistically fruitful in American theatrical history since Elia Kazan's association with Arthur Miller and Williams.
An Atypical Education
Mr. Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, in Pittsburgh. He was named for his father, a white German immigrant who worked as a baker, drank too much and had a fiery temperament his son would inherit. He was mostly an absence in Mr. Wilson's childhood, and it was his African-American mother, Daisy Wilson, who instilled in her six children a strong sense of pride and a limited tolerance for injustice. (She once turned down a washing machine she had won in a contest when the company sponsoring the event tried to fob off a secondhand item on her.) Mr. Wilson legally adopted her last name when he set out to become a writer.
Eventually Mrs. Wilson divorced Mr. Wilson's father and remarried, and the family moved to a largely white suburb. As the only black student in his class at a Roman Catholic high school, Mr. Wilson gained an awareness of the grinding ugliness of racism that would inform his work. "There was a note on my desk every single day," he told The New Yorker in 2001. "It said, 'Go home, nigger.' " Mr. Wilson attended two more schools but gave up on formal education when a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. At 15, he chose to continue - but essentially to begin - his education on his own, spending his days at the local library absorbing books by the dozen.
Mr. Wilson acquired an equally valuable education outside the library walls, hanging out and listening to the Hill District denizens pass the time on stoops, in coffee shops and at Pat's Place, a local cigar store. Eventually the voices he absorbed while hanging loose with retirees and sharpies in his 20's would re-emerge in his plays, sometimes with little artistic tampering.
Mr. Wilson acquired his first typewriter with $20 he had earned writing a term paper for one of his sisters at college. But he preferred to write in public places like bars and restaurants and had a particular affinity for composing on cocktail napkins. Only when he settled into his career as a playwright did he become comfortable writing at home, in longhand on yellow notepads.
By the time he was 20, Mr. Wilson had decided he was a poet. He submitted poems to Harper's and other magazines while supporting himself with odd jobs, and began dressing in a style that raised eyebrows among his peers. While most of the young men of the time were dressing down, Mr. Wilson was always meticulously turned out in jackets, ties and white shirts selected from thrift shops. Later he would be known for his trademark porter's cap.
Inspired by the Black Power movement then gaining momentum, Mr. Wilson and a group of fellow poets founded a theater workshop and an art gallery, and in 1968 Mr. Wilson and his friend Rob Penny founded the Black Horizons on the Hill Theater. Mr. Wilson was the director and sometimes an actor, too, although he had no experience, and learned about directing by checking a how-to manual out of the library. The company was without a performance space and staged shows in the auditoriums of local elementary schools. Tickets were sold, for 50 cents a pop, by chatting up people on the streets right before a performance.
But Mr. Wilson's aspirations as an author were still being channeled into poetry; after an abortive effort to write a play for his theater, he set aside playwriting for almost a decade. He came home to drama almost by happenstance. Mr. Wilson moved to St. Paul in 1978 and started working at the Science Museum of Minnesota. His task: adapting Native American folk tales into children's plays.
Homesick for the Hill District and growing more comfortable with the playwriting process, he started channeling the Hill voices haunting his memories as a way of keeping the connection alive. "Jitney," begun in 1979, was the result. It was produced in Pittsburgh in 1982, the same year that "Ma Rainey" was accepted at the O'Neill Center. (Mr. Wilson's first professional production was of a prior play adapted from a series of his poems, "Black Bart and the Sacred Hills," staged by St. Paul's Penumbra Theater.)
In a 1999 interview in The Paris Review, Mr. Wilson cited his major influences as being the "four B's": the blues was the "primary" influence, followed by Jorge Luis Borges, the playwright Amiri Baraka and the painter Romare Bearden. He analyzed the elements each contributed to his art: "From Borges, those wonderful gaucho stories from which I learned that you can be specific as to a time and place and culture and still have the work resonate with the universal themes of love, honor, duty, betrayal, etc. From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don't write political plays. From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality." He added two more B's, both African-American writers, to the list: the playwright Ed Bullins and James Baldwin.
Although his plays achieved their success in the white-dominated theater world, Mr. Wilson remained devoted to the alternative culture of black Americans and mourned its gradual decline as the black middle class grew and adopted the values of its white counterpart. He once lamented that at convocation ceremonies at black universities, the music would be Bach, not gospel.
When a Hollywood studio optioned "Fences," Mr. Wilson caused a ruckus by insisting on a black director. In a 1990 article published in Spin magazine and later excerpted in The Times, he said, "I am not carrying a banner for black directors. I think they should carry their own. I am not trying to get work for black directors. I am trying to get the film of my play made in the best possible way. I declined a white director not on the basis of race but on the basis of culture. White directors are not qualified for the job. The job requires someone who shares the specifics of the culture of black Americans." (The film was not made.)
He was a firm believer in the importance of maintaining a robust black theater movement, a viewpoint that also inspired a public controversy when Mr. Wilson clashed with the prominent theater critic and arts administrator Robert Brustein in a series of exchanges in the pages of American Theater magazine and The New Republic, and later in a formal debate between the two staged at Manhattan's Town Hall in 1997, moderated by Anna Deavere Smith.
The contretemps began when Mr. Wilson delivered a keynote address to a national theater conference in which he lamented that among the more than 60 members of the League of Regional Theaters, only one was dedicated to the work of African-Americans. He also denounced as absurd the idea of colorblind casting, asserting that an all-black "Death of a Salesman" was irrelevant because the play was "conceived for white actors as an investigation of the specifics of white culture." Mr. Brustein referred to Mr. Wilson's call for an independent black theater movement as "self-segregation."
At the sold-out debate at Town Hall the friendly antagonists essentially restated their positions publicly. "Never is it suggested that playwrights like David Mamet or Terrence McNally are limiting themselves to whiteness," Mr. Wilson said. "The idea that we are trying to escape from the ghetto of black culture is insulting."
A Legacy of Stars
Mr. Wilson was dedicated to writing for the theater, and resisted many offers from Hollywood. (His only concession: adapting "The Piano Lesson" for television.) He didn't even see any movies for a stretch of 10 years.
But the list of well-known television and film actors who first came to prominence in one of Mr. Wilson's plays is lengthy. Charles S. Dutton scored his first success as the trumpeter Levee in the original production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," a role he reprised nearly 20 years later when the play was revived on Broadway in 2003, with Whoopi Goldberg in the title role. S. Epatha Merkerson, now known as Lt. Anita Van Buren on "Law & Order," appeared opposite Mr. Dutton in "The Piano Lesson" on Broadway.
Mr. Wilson's first two marriages, to Brenda Burton and Judy Oliver, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Constanza Romero, a Colombian-born costume designer he met when she worked on "The Piano Lesson"; and two daughters, Sakina Ansari (from his first marriage) and Azula Carmen Wilson (from his third). He is also survived by his siblings Freda Ellis, Linda Jean Kittel, Richard Kittel, Donna Conley and Edwin Kittel.
Mr. Wilson did not write plays with specific political agendas, but he did believe art could subtly effect social change. And while his essential aim was to evoke and ennoble the collective African-American experience, he also believed his work could help rewrite some of those rules.
"I think my plays offer (white Americans) a different way to look at black Americans," he told The Paris Review. "For instance, in 'Fences' they see a garbageman, a person they don't really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy's life, white people find out that the content of this black garbageman's life is affected by the same things - love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with black people in their lives."
In describing his own work, Mr. Wilson could be analytical or offhand. A soft-spoken man whose affability masked a sometimes short temper, he was a connoisseur of the art of storytelling offstage and on. Here's the story behind all his characters' stories, in his own words: "I once wrote a short story called 'The Best Blues Singer in the World' and it went like this: 'The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.' End of story. That says it all. Nothing else to say. I've been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I'm not sure what it means, other than life is hard."
DISCOVERING A PLAYWRIGHT WITH CLASS
By Julia Keller
October 9, 2005
For most of us, our real first taste of literature comes when our keisters are fixed firmly, if reluctantly, in the hard chairs of a high school English class.
There's the smell of sweat and hair spray and the hip cologne in which someone has vastly overindulged, and that funky odor from a book bag in the third row that might be attributable to a week-old burrito -- but who really cares to speculate? -- and there's the turgid feel of time as it slows to an arthritic crawl while you wait . . . for . . . the . . . final . . . bell.
In the midst of all that misery, however, there's also the rare, glorious moment when homework turns into an epiphany.
That's how it is sometimes for students who read an August Wilson play, say two teachers who have introduced hundreds of high schoolers to the earthy rhythms of the late playwright's works, to the explosive power of his plots and brittle verisimilitude of his characters.
"These kids have a wide reading experience, but August Wilson is something new," says Bill Lovaas, an English teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School.
A teacher for more than three decades, Lovaas assigns "Fences" and "The Piano Lesson" in American literature and American studies courses.
His colleague, Mike Dorame, also teaches Wilson's plays and reports much the same reaction: Students often are surprised by the works.
"It takes a while for the characters to grow on them," Dorame adds. "Wilson's characters are abrasive.
"But by the end, they really like it."
Wilson, who died last week at 60, is naturally the focus of a great deal of scholarly attention. The critical essays in the wake of his death appeared in all the usual places and said all the usual things -- he's a major figure in the American theater, he won big prizes, his language is authentic and inspired, his epic cycle of plays about the black experience in 20th Century America will long endure, he's a giant of a writer in an age of diminished expectations.
But there's another side to Wilson's work. There's the moment in a high school English class when a kid reads aloud from "The Piano Lesson," and even though he's not a professional actor and even though he might utter the words in a shy, halting way, so as not to be embarrassed in front of his peers, something special happens, and the classroom is transformed, and none of the kids sitting there is ever quite the same again.
It might be the moment when Boy Willie, the character who wants to sell his family's piano and buy the land upon which his ancestors worked as slaves, declares:
I ain't gonna just take my life and throw it away at the bottom. I'm in the world like everybody else . . . I'll tell you something about me. I done strung along and strung along. Going this way and that. Whatever way would lead me to a moment of peace. That's all I want. To be as easy with everything. But I wasn't born to that. I was born to a time of fire.
Both Dorame and Lovaas ask their students to read the plays aloud in class, and that's when the magic happens, they say. That's when Wilson's language -- which is, to put it charitably, a bit blunter and more profane than what you're likely to hear in your average classroom -- really grabs hold of the students, and what seemed like mere words on the page suddenly becomes something different. It becomes the love and rage and tenderness and woe of the African-Americans whom Wilson chronicles in his plays.
First and last time
Because not every student will continue to study literature in college, this is, for many, the first and last time they'll be dealing with a Wilson play.
It's a moment beyond the reach of critics, outside the province of theater historians.
"Prose can be so passive," Lovaas says. "If you can have the kids master a few scenes, act it out, it adds more to the study of literature. You can lend your voice to the page.
"The plays are difficult in terms of subject matter, but when we read them aloud, the students really rise to the occasion and grasp what Wilson is doing."
Students often think of "literature" as something marked by stilted, pompous-sounding language -- the kind of dialogue you'd never hear spoken on the street. But with Wilson, what you hear in the world is what you get on the page.
"They enjoy the change," Lovaas says. "They like the freshness in the language and the characterizations. Students connect with the characters through the music of the language. His plays add to their knowledge of the world they're experiencing every day."
And for a teacher, reading the plays over and over again for each succeeding class is not a chore, Lovaas adds. "Each time you do it, you catch a nuance. You find something different about the character, a different lens."
When Lovaas arrived at his office last Monday, several students were waiting for him. They wanted to know if he'd heard the news, which he hadn't -- the news that the playwright had died.
But in a larger sense, Wilson is still talking, only now the words are coming from the kids who read his plays and find the familiar rhythms, feel the patterns and echoes of the things they already know.
"In a diverse high school," Lovaas says, "Wilson's work offers opportunities for students from other backgrounds to talk about their lives."
IT WAS OUR GREAT PRIVILEGE TO HAVE WILSON AMONG US
By Michael Phillips
October 9, 2005
He called them "moments of privilege," the hard-won times when the writing became less like work and more like channeling the spirits.
"You have to be able to recognize moments of privilege," August Wilson told me last year. "Sometimes you walk right by and miss 'em." The playwright lived his restless and very full life searching for those moments.
He was a man given to the poetic gesture. He said he'd started buying first editions of books that might matter, in his estimation, to his younger daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson, then 7. (The titles weren't all peaches and cream: One of the first he bought, Wilson said, was "Hitler's Willing Executioners.")
"The time goes by, it goes by so fast," he said last year.
He was on the road all the time: One more trip to one more city for one more production of one more August Wilson play. If it was a new play, he'd be rewriting. If it was a revival of an older Wilson play, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" or "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" or "Jitney," he'd be doing an old friend or a group of longtime colleagues a favor by being there in person.
So many Wilson characters cannot find their song without a literal journey to go with the poetic one. Wilson, who died Oct. 2 of liver cancer at age 60, was no less a Wilson character than the ones he wrote.
The ones he wrote became meat and drink for a formidable array of actors on Broadway and elsewhere: Charles S. Dutton, Phylicia Rashad, Angela Bassett, Brian Stokes Mitchell and Roscoe Lee Browne. In Chicago, he won't lack for celebration. "Two Trains Running" continues at Pegasus Players through October. The Court Theatre revives "Fences" early next year. The Goodman is working on a festival of his 10 major works for the 2006-07 season.
The eight Wilson plays that made it to Broadway before his death garnered more than 50 Tony Award nominations. Those who won Tonys include Ruben Santiago Hudson ("Seven Guitars"), Laurence Fishburne ("Two Trains Running"), L. Scott Caldwell ("Joe Turner's Come and Gone") and in a ferocious performance seen at the Goodman prior to New York, James Earl Jones ("Fences").
The first time I saw the man behind the plays, I was 21 and reviewing, for the Minnesota Daily, the craziest damn show I'd ever seen, an African-American Wild West fantasy, with songs, called "Black Bart and the Sacred Hills." Wilson by this time had moved from his native Pittsburgh to St. Paul, where he hooked up with the good people of Penumbra Theatre. I cannot stress to you how little cultural context I had at that age, as well as being the palest whitey in Honkytown, to properly assess what Wilson was up to in that promising mess of a play. I remember seeing the author sitting in the back, laughing, checking out the audience, in Penumbra's bare-bones community center space.
Two years later, in 1984, Wilson attended the O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference with a new piece, the one that followed "Ma Rainey" and "Fences": "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." The staged reading of his play took place in the outdoor theater, in thick hot July air. Breezewise, nothing that night was coming up from the vicinity of Long Island Sound. But the play would've melted an iceberg. When the actor playing Herald Loomis, thunderstruck and wild-eyed, described his vision of bones of his Middle Passage ancestors rising up out of the water, you thought to yourself: Here is a moment of privilege.
The third time I saw Wilson I was in New York to interview him for the Broadway premiere of "Fences." He was staying, as usual, at his affordable lodging option of choice, the Edison. He talked all night, and the three bottles of Bulgarian red wine lasted from 11:30 p.m. or so until about 4, when we went out for coffee and ended up at the Times Square McDonald's, which in 1987 was the only place open at that hour in the theater district.
I couldn't get enough of the way the man sounded when he talked. His voice was all cigarettes and Bessie Smith and Charles Mingus. Wilson's debt to the blues is legendary, but of the Mingus album "The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady," he told me last year: "That's it. That's the whole universe in one album."
An open book
Wilson gave freely of his time to the newspaper and magazine writers with tape recorders. Too freely, surely, if his immediate family had been given more of a vote in the matter.
He said he wanted to act; he certainly had the presence and the voice for it. He did act, in fact. At last year's Chicago Humanities Festival, Wilson ditched the usual speechifying for an excerpt from his autobiographical solo show, "How I Learned What I Learned." Those in attendance learned plenty, and listening to Wilson's gliding reminiscence was like hearing a Coltrane tenor line for the first time.
Also last year, at a dinner at Crofton on Wells honoring Wilson's receipt of the 2004 Tribune Literary Prize, the writer was joined by his older daughter, Sakina Ansari. Wilson had by then attended a lion's share of such dinners. Even as his fortunes on Broadway waned in recent years, even with the wobbly quality of his later efforts, his presence and value on stages around the world never abated. And the prizes and huzzahs rolled in like waves.
When it was time to go, Wilson stood up at the dinner table and said he'd like to read a short speech from "Fences." In tones at once hushed and vivid, he spoke from memory the lines of Troy Maxson, talking about the time he wrestled Death for three days and three nights.
"I can't say where I found the strength from. Every time it seemed like he was gonna get the best of me, I'd reach way down deep inside myself and find the strength to do him one better.
"I ain't going easy," he said. His audience's collective moment of privilege came and went. Nobody at the table missed it. Then August Wilson said thank you, and goodbye.
Installed at his regular table at his regular cafe in Cairo, a daily rendezvous that only illness could cancel, Naguib Mahfouz observed the anonymous crowd swarming the city streets with an eye that was tolerant, humane, sometimes ironic or arch, but never malicious. He was the voice and the memory of these lives, complex, small, grandiose, magnificent or modest — from the students who came to consult him to the waiters who served him his habitual coffee.
Balzac said that because the novel is the private history of nations, a real novelist must be able to plumb the depths of society. Mr. Mahfouz fit this description perfectly. You can’t understand Egypt without Mr. Mahfouz — without his characters, with whom every reader, Arab or not, can identify. In the days since his death, many have noted how Mr. Mahfouz helped Western readers understand the Arab world. But perhaps even more important, he helped the Arab world understand itself.
Before Mr. Mahfouz, the novel as literature — literature as map to understanding — was not part of Arab culture. In fact, until the beginning of the 20th century, Arabs didn’t write novels, in large measure because Arab society didn’t recognize the individual. Only in 1914, with “Zainab,” by Hussein Haykal, published as a serial, did what is considered the first real Arabic novel appear.
And it really wasn’t until the 1950’s, and the publication of Mr. Mahfouz’s “Cairo Trilogy,” that the Arab novel arrived as a major genre of literature. In the trilogy — “Palace Walk,’’ “Palace of Desire” and “Sugar Street” — Mr. Mahfouz described the lives of three generations of a family that stood in for a country making an epic transition of its own, from tradition to a halting form of modernity.
From a Western perspective, it is difficult, I imagine, to understand the cultural power these novels exerted. Even before Mr. Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize in 1988, the trilogy had the effect of liberating a generation of Arab writers. Young writers like Haydar Haydar and Fadhil al-Azzawi didn’t write like Mr. Mahfouz, but his books and his stature gave them the confidence to persevere in examining everyday life.
In his own generation, there is Yahya Haqqi, whose 1954 work “Good Morning!,” about an isolated Egyptian village’s passage into modern life, is a milestone in the history of the Arabic novel. There are also Taha Hussein and Tawfik al-Hakim, two important observers of their society who critiqued Western culture.
Like the characters in his novels, Mr. Mahfouz found himself at times trapped between tradition and modernity. His 1959 book “Children of the Alley,” which was not anti-Islamic but took liberties with the histories of the founders of the three monotheistic religions, was condemned by clerics, and after they complained to President Gamel Abdel Nasser, Mr. Mahfouz promised to not allow its future publication. (To Mr. Mahfouz’s dismay, a pirated edition of the book showed up on the sidewalks of Cairo.)
His relationship with Islamic militants continued to be an uneasy one. In 1994, they tried to stab him to death. Still, he had no hatred for them. He knew that their actions were dictated by ignorance, and as he said from his hospital bed, they had nothing to do with Islam. He hated conflict and supported the 1979 peace accords with Israel, a stance that led to boycotts or bans of his books in some Arab nations.
Mr. Mahfouz tried all styles of writing, including experimental novels. This amused him. His language, classical and conservative at first, became more inventive, incorporating what he heard in his neighborhood, which he never left. He didn’t travel. It’s said that he left Cairo once or twice, no more. He was an immobile voyager, an explorer of the human soul seated in a cafe.
It’s also been said that Mr. Mahfouz was a realistic novelist. This is not the case. Realism doesn’t exist, because life, especially life in Cairo, is itself a fiction, unfathomable, inexhaustible, where drama jostles with comedy, where tears run from joy or chagrin. Mr. Mahfouz didn’t have to invent situations or characters; it was sufficient for him to observe the people around him.
In “Sugar Street,” the death of a main character is signaled in a few words: “The master has left the house.” The same words apply today, to Naguib Mahfouz, master of the Arabic novel.
Tahar Ben Jelloun, the winner of France’s Goncourt Prize for “The Sacred Night,’’ is the author, most recently, of “The Last Friend.’’ This article was translated by The Times from the French.
ROME -- She cornered ayatollahs and challenged dictators. She was glamorous, fearless and always provocative.
Oriana Fallaci, Italian author and globe-trotting journalist whose interviews produced piercing portraits of world leaders for decades, but who in later years channeled her energies into bitter denunciations of Islam, died Friday in Florence, her publisher said.
She was 77 and had been suffering from cancer.
Raised in a family of rebels and anti-Fascist resistance fighters, Ms. Fallaci went on to become one of the most renowned journalists of her generation, conducting remarkable interviews of the world's most powerful people, from Deng Xiaopeng to Henry Kissinger, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Golda Meir.
One of the powerful threads sustained across many years of Ms. Fallaci's work was a deep skepticism of authority. "Those who determine our destiny," she said, are "not really better than ourselves," and more often than not, those in power do not deserve to be there.
Accolades poured in Friday for the combative writer, some with caveats because of the vitriolic nature of her final essays on what she called the Islamic assault on Western values. Even so, she won praise in some quarters for daring to articulate the visceral fears of Europeans and Americans confronted by Muslim immigrants who refuse to assimilate.
"We have lost a journalist of world fame, an author of great editorial success, a passionate protagonist of lively cultural battles," Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said.
"Oriana Fallaci was the greatest Italian journalist of the last century," said Pier Ferdinando Casini, former speaker of the Italian Parliament. "She was an extraordinary woman, an unsettling witness of the West and its values."
Ms. Fallaci was born June 29, 1929, in Florence. Her father, Edoardo, was a member of Justice and Liberty, an anti-Fascist resistance movement, daring work that landed him in prison. As a teen Ms. Fallaci joined the underground resistance as well, helping to guide escaping Allied soldiers to safety.
She became a journalist in her late teens while attending the University of Florence and was hired by a top Italian magazine at age 21. She was dispatched to Hollywood, where she wrote about stars such as Clark Gable into the 1960s.
In the mid-1960s and for two decades that followed, Ms. Fallaci covered wars, starting at a time few women entered the battlefield, and wrote the interviews that brought her international fame. Just her name came to represent a kind of interviewing style.
Her cancer struck in the 1980s, slowing her down. But it was the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington that jerked her out of semi-retirement and launched her on her final crusade, against Islam.
She saw radical Islam--and argued there is no such thing as moderate Islam--as the new brand of Nazi Fascism, "SS and Black Shirts who wave the Koran." In the book that emerged, "The Rage and the Pride," she railed against Islamic terrorists and fundamentalism.
HAROLD PINTER: INDEPENDENT AND CRITICAL TO THE LAST
The World Socialist Web Site has commented several times on playwright Harold Pinter, who died last week aged 78. He was a courageous and consistent voice of opposition to the military policies of British and American imperialism. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 2005, to his credit, not a single party leader in Britain congratulated him on it.
Pinter's opposition to their criminal policies in Iraq and the Balkans was deeply embarrassing to them. He had long been recognised, in the words of the Nobel citation, as "the foremost representative of British drama in the second half of the 20th century." The actor Michael Gambon, currently appearing in a West End revival of No Man's Land, has gone further, calling Pinter "the iron rod of English theatre." A new adjective, "Pinteresque", was coined to describe his groundbreaking writing for the theatre. His outstanding body of theatrical work was only one facet of his work, which also embraced writing screenplays, directing, acting, and writing occasional verse.
What is remarkable about Pinter's life and career is that his later political positions were of a part with the earlier work, which established his reputation. The Nobel citation noted that his opposition to imperialist war and his dedication to democratic rights and freedom of speech had developed from his early analysis of "threat and injustice." Fiercely independent and critical thinking marked all of his writing.
Much of the grounding for this can be found in Pinter's childhood. He was born in 1930 in Hackney, northeast London. His grandparents were Ashkenazim Jews who had fled persecution in Poland and the Ukraine. His father Jack, a quiet determined man, was a ladies' tailor. His mother Frances was a more extroverted and generous figure. Pinter was a much-loved only child.
His evacuation to Cornwall in 1939, separating him from this warm and loving environment, was a difficult experience, although he returned to London during the Blitz. Many critics have pointed to his experiences of isolation, tension, violence and fear during this period as a formative influence on his imagination. Pinter himself spoke often of his experiences of anti-Semitism in this predominantly Jewish area. During the 1930s, and again after the Second World War, the area was a recruiting ground for fascists, and there was bitter resistance from migrant workers, leading often to violence. Pinter was also struck by the anti-Communism under the post-war Labour government.
Such experiences shaped the development of a group of Pinter's friends at Hackney Downs Grammar School who remained close throughout his life. One in particular, the actor Henry Woolf, was an important supporter, collaborator and interpreter of his work. Pinter read widely, and there was a real intellectual ferment in their discussions.
He was also inspired by teacher Joe Brearley, who encouraged his passion for poetry and the theatre. Pinter was determined to become an actor. He was good enough to get a grant to RADA, but he found it class-bound and hated it. He left.
There were other indications of his emerging independence of thought. In the autumn of 1948 he was conscripted for National Service. He registered as a conscientious objector and refused to wear what he called the "shit-suit". He was arrested twice, and went through a series of military tribunals at which his objections were misrepresented and distorted. He expected to be imprisoned, taking his toothbrush to one tribunal. He was fined.
After a second spell at drama school he worked with two classical repertory companies, touring with Anew McMaster's Shakespearean Irish company and appearing with Donald Wolfit's company in Hammersmith. From these two rather grand actor-managers he learned a great deal. He was a fine actor, who continued to work in films and in revivals of his own plays. Donald Pleasence described him as "by far the most frightening" Mick he worked with in Pinter's own The Caretaker. He learned from Wolfit, in particular, the power of silence and the intense gesture.
Throughout this period of work as a jobbing actor he experimented with writing. He wrote hundreds of poems, prose sketches, and a partly autobiographical novel, eventually published as The Dwarfs, which he described as "rather a hotchpotch."
It is not surprising that he eventually found his voice writing for the theatre. Working in repertory theatre had given him, he said, "a feeling for construction ... and for speakable dialogue." He said he wrote for proscenium arch stages because they were the ones he was used to as an actor.
Pinter never forced a piece, saying that "you write because there's something you want to write, have to write." Asked by Woolf to write a play for Bristol University's newly established drama department, Pinter began The Room (1957). He had "started off with this picture of the two people and let them carry on from there". Thoroughly grounded in the theatre, the only way he could express the image was dramatically.
The play was not realistic like John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, but it used a new kind of realistic dialogue that sounded the way people spoke in real life, with concealed meanings and unspoken texts. Hidden pasts lurked in characters' silences, and the world outside the closed room was always threatening to burst in.
He was heavily inspired by Samuel Beckett's prose. Pinter dissolved the imperilled post-war world in small domestic scenes. He said that he liked the way Beckett created his own world, but one which "had so many references to the world we actually share." Pinter denied that he wrote symbolically. He would later say that he was not a realistic writer, but what happened in his plays could happen "anywhere, at any time, in any place."
The Room set out many of the themes that dominate his best work. A housebound wife and her silent husband find their home mysteriously threatened by a domineering landlord, a pushy couple, and a blind man. There is an unspoken sense of threat, of impending catastrophe. The air is thick with sexual violence, and the greatest threat is to the certainties of their home. It was a successful debut, and led to The Birthday Party being premiered at the Lyric, Hammersmith in 1958.
Set in a seaside boarding house run by a childless couple, a lodger (Stanley) is confronted by two outsiders (Goldberg and McCann). They terrorise him, interrogate him and eventually take him away. It is never stated who or what they represent. The play has been described as a repertory thriller written by someone who had read Kafka, but this is not a paranoid Cold War period piece. The play is clear and unambiguous, with taut, spare dialogue. In a world of political anxieties, Pinter's play represents a confused world in the clearest possible way.
This is directly linked with his knowledge of earlier dramatists. In an early essay on Shakespeare, he wrote that he "amputates, deadens, aggravates at will, within the limits of a particular piece, but he will not pronounce judgment or cure." It is this same quality that makes Pinter's plays so understandable, and thus so terrifying.
The Hammersmith run of The Birthday Party was a disaster. The critics were hostile, and the play had closed before its one good review, by the influential Harold Hobson, was published in The Sunday Times, although that played a greater part in securing Pinter's future than the cancelled run. Over the next two years Pinter worked on a revival of the play and a television adaptation, as well as directing London premieres of The Room and The Dumb Waiter.
He also wrote revue sketches and a radio play, as well as other plays. Most importantly, he did not abandon his vision of theatrical writing. Trusting to the necessity of artistic expression he continued to "take a chance on the audience." As he said later, he gave the audience not what they wanted, but what he insisted on giving them. In The Birthday Party, when Stanley is being taken away, Petey cries out, "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do." Pinter called this line "the most important ... I've ever written."
His critical reputation was finally established in 1960 with The Caretaker. Again, a home is under threat from an outsider. Davies, a manipulative tramp, attempts to inveigle his way into the slow-witted Aston's flat. The play is vicious and funny, and Pinter elaborates poetry from everyday language. Alan Bates, who played Aston's brother Mick in the first run, described it as "the only play I have ever done in which I have not for one second thought ‘Oh, god, I've got to do this again next week'."
It heralded an extraordinary period. He wrote one of his greatest plays, The Homecoming (1965). The upwardly mobile son Teddy returns from America with his wife Ruth, whose presence creates a sexual tension that undermines the position of Max, the Jewish patriarch. During this period Pinter also began an enduring professional relationship with director Peter Hall.
Pinter began directing in 1962. Michael Gambon has attributed Pinter's skills as a director to his abilities as an actor. He liked to give actors room to "play around" in their role, said Gambon. He was an extremely sympathetic director, a good interpreter of playwrights completely different from himself. There was a longstanding and fruitful admiration between him and Simon Gray, for example.
He also began working as a screenwriter. As well as adapting his own plays, he collaborated outstandingly with director Joseph Losey on four films. Like Pinter, Losey was fascinated and appalled by English class structures and claustrophobic social relations. The Servant (1963), adapted from Robin Maugham's novel, dealt with another social intruder (Dirk Bogarde) preying on his weaker master (James Fox). Another collaboration with Bogarde, The Accident (1967) dealt with characters trapped in a network of affairs and professional relationships.
By the early 1970s Pinter was struggling with how to develop his theatrical work. He became a director of the National Theatre in 1973. He was conscious of a new generation of more directly political playwrights (David Mercer was a friend), and, perhaps driven by his screenwriting, was already moving further away from the trappings of realism. He began looking at memory, spending a year on a screenplay of Marcel Proust's À la Recherche de Temps Perdu. It was never filmed, although it was eventually staged in 2000.
He did not allow this to become an introspective rejection of the outer world. He expressed concerns that lyricism can create problems in expressing "what is actually happening to people." Instead he brought this theme to play alongside other familiar ideas. In No Man's Land (1974), the shabby poet Spooner is invited up to an expensive house after a night in the pub. This is another sinister intrusion, but also played out on the battleground of memories. Betrayal (1978), dealing with infidelity, is presented in reverse chronological sequence.
Pinter was also becoming more directly involved in politics. In 1973 Peggy Ashcroft had encouraged him to speak out against US involvement in the overthrow of the Chilean President Salvador Allende. His affair with Antonia Fraser, which began in 1974 and saw the ending of his first marriage a year later (and vilification in the right-wing press), also marked a more immediate involvement in political questions. With Fraser and others he began a number of discussion groups. Politically these were of a somewhat limited character, but they indicate the seriousness with which he was considering such questions. Their limitations can perhaps be seen by his vote for Margaret Thatcher in 1979, a decision he later described as "shameful" and "infantile."
He did not withdraw from political life or discussion. He drew certain conclusions from attacks such as the press campaign, which finished, off his liberal June 20th discussion group. He was, from this time on, a regular target for press attacks. He continued to direct and write screenplays, notably The French Lieutenant's Woman for Karel Reisz, but he became more openly involved in campaigns for freedom of speech, and his theatre work became more explicitly political. One for the Road (1982), for example, was a short piece about state-sponsored torture.
In 1985, on a PEN tour of Turkey with Arthur Miller, he erupted furiously at a journalist during dinner at the US Embassy. They were subsequently barred from the country, but were proud at having drawn attention to the torture of political prisoners. The experience also prompted Mountain Language (1988), a play about the suppression of minority cultures. Right wing critics regularly point to Pinter's ability to criticize the British government openly as "the most powerful rebuttal" of his politics, in Tory MP Michael Gove's words. Works like Mountain Language have, in fact, shown a remarkable astuteness. Kurdish actors in London rehearsing a revival of the play in 1996 were arrested by armed police for carrying prop weapons, and were forbidden from speaking their own language. This is the theme of the play.
Pinter brought his articulate rage to bear on the bloody crimes of British and American imperialism in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Detractors accused him of incoherence, but he maintained his expressive clarity, saying about the Gulf War, for example, "We were assured that was true. It was not true." His output of occasional and political verse increased. Talking about the line "Stan, don't let them tell you what to do," Pinter said that he had lived it "all my damn life. Never more than now." He wrote pieces like New World Order (1991), a ten-minute play about political torture and interrogation, which makes concrete and contemporary many of the themes in his earlier work.
The last years of his life were marked by a flurry of retrospectives, festivals of his work, recordings, and further directorial efforts. As the actor Michael Pennington suggested, this marked some kind of summing-up of his whole career. The fury and extent of his work in these years is all the more striking given his ill health. Diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in 2002, he told an audience in Edinburgh, "I am no less passionately engaged, nevertheless I think I have come out of this experience with a more detached point of view." He recognized that his political work had been considered by the Nobel Committee, who acknowledged its links with his art. There were, he said, ambiguities he stood by as a writer but could not stand by as a citizen, so his political writing must be more uncompromising than the obliqueness of his creative writing.
Harold Pinter would be worthy of celebration if only for the dark, innovative plays he wrote in the early 1960s. It is unusual to find an artist of his standing who not only retained the critical independence of those early works, but also continued to pursue it with the same vigour and determination throughout his life. Such independence is increasingly rare, and must be recognised and applauded.
J. D. SALINGER, FAMED AUTHOR WHO FLED SPOTLIGHT, DEAD AT 91
By Charles McGrath
J. D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.
Mr. Salinger’s literary representative, Harold Ober Associates, announced the death, saying it was of natural causes. “Despite having broken his hip in May,” the agency said, “his health had been excellent until a rather sudden decline after the new year. He was not in any pain before or at the time of his death.”
Mr. Salinger’s literary reputation rests on a slender but enormously influential body of published work: the novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” the collection “Nine Stories” and two compilations, each with two long stories about the fictional Glass family: “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.”
“Catcher” was published in 1951, and its very first sentence, distantly echoing Mark Twain, struck a brash new note in American literature: “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
Though not everyone, teachers and librarians especially, was sure what to make of it, “Catcher” became an almost immediate best seller, and its narrator and main character, Holden Caulfield, a teenager newly expelled from prep school, became America’s best-known literary truant since Huckleberry Finn.
With its cynical, slangy vernacular voice (Holden’s two favorite expressions are “phony” and “goddam”), its sympathetic understanding of adolescence and its fierce if alienated sense of morality and distrust of the adult world, the novel struck a nerve in cold war America and quickly attained cult status, especially among the young. Reading “Catcher” used to be an essential rite of passage, almost as important as getting your learner’s permit.
The novel’s allure persists to this day, even if some of Holden’s preoccupations now seem a bit dated, and it continues to sell more than 250,000 copies a year in paperback. Mark David Chapman, who killed John Lennon in 1980, even said the explanation for his act could be found in the pages of “The Catcher in the Rye.” In 1974 Philip Roth wrote, “The response of college students to the work of J. D. Salinger indicates that he, more than anyone else, has not turned his back on the times but, instead, has managed to put his finger on whatever struggle of significance is going on today between self and culture.”
Many critics were more admiring of “Nine Stories,” which came out in 1953 and helped shape writers like Mr. Roth, John Updike and Harold Brodkey. The stories were remarkable for their sharp social observation, their pitch-perfect dialogue (Mr. Salinger, who used italics almost as a form of musical notation, was a master not of literary speech but of speech as people actually spoke it) and the way they demolished whatever was left of the traditional architecture of the short story — the old structure of beginning, middle, end — for an architecture of emotion, in which a story could turn on a tiny alteration of mood or irony. Mr. Updike said he admired “that open-ended Zen quality they have, the way they don’t snap shut.”
Mr. Salinger also perfected the great trick of literary irony — of validating what you mean by saying less than, or even the opposite of, what you intend. Orville Prescott wrote in The New York Times in 1963, “Rarely if ever in literary history has a handful of stories aroused so much discussion, controversy, praise, denunciation, mystification and interpretation.”
As a young man Mr. Salinger yearned ardently for just this kind of attention. He bragged in college about his literary talent and ambitions, and wrote swaggering letters to Whit Burnett, the editor of Story magazine. But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of “The Catcher in the Rye” and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail. In 1953 Mr. Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden’s desire to build himself “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”
He seldom left, except occasionally to vacation in Florida or to visit William Shawn, the almost equally reclusive former editor of The New Yorker. Avoiding Mr. Shawn’s usual (and very public) table at the Algonquin Hotel, they would meet under the clock at the old Biltmore Hotel, the rendezvous for generations of prep-school and college students.
After Mr. Salinger moved to New Hampshire his publications slowed to a trickle and soon stopped completely. “Franny and Zooey” and “Raise High the Roof Beam,” both collections of material previously published in The New Yorker, came out in 1961 and 1963, and the last work of Mr. Salinger’s to appear in print was “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a 25,000-word story that took up most of the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker.
In 1997 Mr. Salinger agreed to let Orchises Press, a small publisher in Alexandria, Va., bring out “Hapworth” in book form, but he backed out of the deal at the last minute. He never collected the rest of his stories or allowed any of them to be reprinted in textbooks or anthologies. One story, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” was turned into “My Foolish Heart,” a movie so bad that Mr. Salinger was never tempted to sell film rights again.
Befriended, Then Betrayed
In the fall of 1953 he befriended some local teenagers and allowed one of them to interview him for what he assumed would be an article on the high school page of a local paper, The Claremont Daily Eagle. The article appeared instead as a feature on the editorial page, and Mr. Salinger felt so betrayed that he broke off with the teenagers and built a six-and-a-half-foot fence around his property.
He seldom spoke to the press again, except in 1974 when, trying to fend off the unauthorized publication of his uncollected stories, he told a reporter from The Times: “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”
And yet the more he sought privacy, the more famous he became, especially after his appearance on the cover of Time in 1961. For years it was a sort of journalistic sport for newspapers and magazines to send reporters to New Hampshire in hopes of a sighting. As a young man Mr. Salinger had a long, melancholy face and deep soulful eyes, but now, in the few photographs that surfaced, he looked gaunt and gray, like someone in an El Greco painting. He spent more time and energy avoiding the world, it was sometimes said, than most people do in embracing it, and his elusiveness only added to the mythology growing up around him.
Depending on one’s point of view, he was either a crackpot or the American Tolstoy, who had turned silence itself into his most eloquent work of art. Some believed he was publishing under an assumed name, and for a while in the late 1970s, William Wharton, author of “Birdy,” was rumored to be Mr. Salinger, writing under another name, until it turned out that William Wharton was instead a pen name for the writer Albert du Aime.
In 1984 the British literary critic Ian Hamilton approached Mr. Salinger with the notion of writing his biography. Not surprisingly, Mr. Salinger turned him down, saying he had “borne all the exploitation and loss of privacy I can possibly bear in a single lifetime.” Mr. Hamilton went ahead anyway, and in 1986, Mr. Salinger took him to court to prevent the use of quotations and paraphrases from unpublished letters. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and to the surprise of many, Mr. Salinger eventually won, though not without some cost to his cherished privacy. (In June 2009 he also sued Fredrik Colting, the Swedish author and publisher of a novel said to be a sequel to “The Catcher in the Rye.” In July a federal judge indefinitely enjoined publication of the book.)
Mr. Salinger’s privacy was further punctured in 1998 and again in 2000 with the publication of memoirs by, first, Joyce Maynard — with whom he had a 10-month affair in 1973, when Ms. Maynard was a college freshman — and then his daughter, Margaret. Some critics complained that both women were trying to exploit and profit from their history with Mr. Salinger, and Mr. Salinger’s son, Matthew, wrote in a letter to The New York Observer that his sister had “a troubled mind,” and that he didn’t recognize the man portrayed in her account. Both books nevertheless added a creepy, Howard Hughesish element to the Salinger legend.
Mr. Salinger was controlling and sexually manipulative, Ms. Maynard wrote, and a health nut obsessed with homeopathic medicine and with his diet (frozen peas for breakfast, undercooked lamb burger for dinner). Ms. Salinger said that her father was pathologically self-centered and abusive toward her mother, and to the homeopathy and food fads she added a long list of other enthusiasms: Zen Buddhism, Vedanta Hinduism, Christian Science, Scientology and acupuncture. Mr. Salinger drank his own urine, she wrote, and sat for hours in an orgone box.
But was he writing? The question obsessed Salingerologists, and in the absence of real evidence, theories multiplied. He hadn’t written a word for years. Or, like the character in the Stanley Kubrick film “The Shining,” he wrote the same sentence over and over again. Or like Gogol at the end of his life, he wrote prolifically but then burned it all. Ms. Maynard said she believed there were at least two novels locked away in a safe, though she had never seen them.
Jerome David Salinger was born in Manhattan on New Year’s Day, 1919, the second of two children. His sister, Doris, who died in 2001, was for many years a buyer in the dress department at Bloomingdale’s. Like the Glasses, the Salinger children were the product of a mixed marriage. Their father, Sol, was a Jew, the son of a rabbi, but sufficiently assimilated that he made his living importing both cheese and ham. Their mother, Marie Jillisch, was of Irish descent, born in Scotland, but changed her first name to Miriam to appease her in-laws. The family was living in Harlem when Mr. Salinger was born, but then, as Sol Salinger’s business prospered, moved to West 82nd Street and then to Park Avenue.
Never much of a student, Mr. Salinger, then known as Sonny, attended the progressive McBurney School on the Upper West Side. (He told the admissions office his interests were dramatics and tropical fish.) But he flunked out after two years and in 1934 was packed off to Valley Forge Military Academy, in Wayne, Pa., which became the model for Holden’s Pencey Prep. Like Holden, Mr. Salinger was the manager of the school fencing team, and he also became the literary editor of the school yearbook, Crossed Swords, and wrote a school song that was either a heartfelt pastiche of 19th-century sentiment or else a masterpiece of irony:
Hide not thy tears on this last day
Your sorrow has no shame;
To march no more midst lines of gray;
No longer play the game.
Four years have passed in joyful ways — Wouldst stay those old times dear?
Then cherish now these fleeting days,
The few while you are here.
In 1937, after a couple of unenthusiastic weeks at New York University, Mr. Salinger traveled with his father to Austria and Poland, where the father’s plan was for him to learn the ham business. Deciding that wasn’t for him, he returned to America and drifted through a term or so at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa. Fellow students remember him striding around campus in a black chesterfield with velvet collar and announcing that he was going to write the Great American Novel.
Mr. Salinger’s most sustained exposure to higher education was an evening class he took at Columbia in 1939, taught by Whit Burnett, and under Mr. Burnett’s tutelage he managed to sell a story, “The Young Folks,” to Story magazine. He subsequently sold stories to Esquire, Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post — formulaic work that gave little hint of real originality.
In 1941, after several rejections, Mr. Salinger finally cracked The New Yorker, the ultimate goal of any aspiring writer back then, with a story, “Slight Rebellion Off Madison,” that was an early sketch of what became a scene in “The Catcher in the Rye.” But the magazine then had second thoughts, apparently worried about seeming to encourage young people to run away from school, and held the story for five years — an eternity even for The New Yorker — before finally publishing it in 1946, buried in the back of an issue.
Meanwhile Mr. Salinger had been drafted. He served with the Counter-Intelligence Corps of the Fourth Infantry Division, whose job was to interview Nazi deserters and sympathizers, and was stationed for a while in Tiverton, Devon, the setting of “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,” probably the most deeply felt of the “Nine Stories.” On June 6, 1944, he landed at Utah Beach, and he later saw action during the Battle of the Bulge.
In 1945 he was hospitalized for “battle fatigue” — often a euphemism for a breakdown — and after recovering he stayed on in Europe past the end of the war, chasing Nazi functionaries. He married a German woman, very briefly — a doctor about whom biographers have been able to discover very little. Her name was Sylvia, Margaret Salinger said, but Mr. Salinger always called her Saliva.
A Different Kind of Writer
Back in New York, Mr. Salinger moved into his parents’ apartment and, having never stopped writing, even during the war, resumed his career. “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” austere, mysterious and Mr. Salinger’s most famous and still most discussed story, appeared in The New Yorker in 1948 and suggested, not wrongly, that he had become a very different kind of writer. And like so many writers he eventually found in The New Yorker not just an outlet but a kind of home and developed a close relationship with the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, himself famously shy and agoraphobic — a kindred spirit. In 1961 Mr. Salinger dedicated “Franny and Zooey” to Shawn, writing, “I urge my editor, mentor and (heaven help him) closest friend, William Shawn, genius domus of The New Yorker, lover of the long shot, protector of the unprolific, defender of the hopelessly flamboyant, most unreasonably modest of born great artist-editors, to accept this pretty skimpy-looking book.”
As a young writer Mr. Salinger was something of a ladies’ man and dated, among others, Oona O’Neill, the daughter of Eugene O’Neill and the future wife of Charlie Chaplin. In 1953 he met Claire Douglas, the daughter of the British art critic Robert Langdon Douglas, who was then a 19-year-old Radcliffe sophomore who in many ways resembled Franny Glass (or vice versa); they were married two years later. (Ms. Douglas had married and divorced in the meantime.) Margaret was born in 1955, and Matthew, now an actor and film producer, was born in 1960. But the marriage soon turned distant and isolating, and in 1966, Ms. Douglas sued for divorce, claiming that “a continuation of the marriage would seriously injure her health and endanger her reason.”
The affair with Ms. Maynard, then a Yale freshman, began in 1972, after Mr. Salinger read an article she had written for The New York Times Magazine titled “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life.” They moved in together but broke up abruptly after 10 months when Mr. Salinger said he had no desire for more children. For a while in the ’80s Mr. Salinger was involved with the actress Elaine Joyce, and late in that decade he married Colleen O’Neill, a nurse, who is considerably younger than he is. Not much is known about the marriage because Ms. O’Neill embraced her husband’s code of seclusion.
Besides his son, Matthew, Mr. Salinger is survived by Ms. O’Neill and his daughter, Margaret, as well as three grandsons. His literary agents said in a statement that “in keeping with his lifelong, uncompromising desire to protect and defend his privacy, there will be no service, and the family asks that people’s respect for him, his work and his privacy be extended to them, individually and collectively, during this time.”
“Salinger had remarked that he was in this world but not of it,” the statement said. “His body is gone but the family hopes that he is still with those he loves, whether they are religious or historical figures, personal friends or fictional characters.”
As for the fictional family the Glasses, Mr. Salinger had apparently been writing about them nonstop. Ms. Maynard said she saw shelves of notebooks devoted to the family. In Mr. Salinger’s fiction the Glasses first turn up in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” in which Seymour, the oldest son and family favorite, kills himself during his honeymoon. Characters who turn out in retrospect to have been Glasses appear glancingly in “Nine Stories,” but the family saga really begins to be elaborated upon in “Franny and Zooey,” “Raise High the Roof Beam” and “Hapworth,” the long short story, which is ostensibly a letter written by Seymour from camp when he is just 7 years old but already reading several languages and lusting after Mrs. Happy, wife of the camp owner.
Readers also began to learn about the parents, Les and Bessie, long-suffering ex-vaudevillians, and Seymour’s siblings Franny, Zooey, Buddy, Walt, Waker and Boo Boo; about the Glasses’ Upper West Side apartment; about the radio quiz show on which all the children appeared. Seldom has a fictional family been so lovingly or richly imagined.
Too lovingly, some critics complained. With the publication of “Franny and Zooey” even staunch Salinger admirers began to break ranks. John Updike wrote in The Times Book Review: “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.” Other readers hated the growing streak of Eastern mysticism in the saga, as Seymour evolved, in successive retellings, from a suicidal young man into a genius, a sage, even a saint of sorts.
But writing in The New York Review of Books in 2001, Janet Malcolm argued that the critics had all along been wrong about Mr. Salinger, just as short-sighted contemporaries were wrong about Manet and about Tolstoy. The very things people complain about, Ms. Malcolm contended, were the qualities that made Mr. Salinger great. That the Glasses (and, by implication, their creator) were not at home in the world was the whole point, Ms. Malcolm wrote, and it said as much about the world as about the kind of people who failed to get along there.
IN HONOR OF HOLDEN, WHO NEVER HELD BACK
By Mary Schmich
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is whether I liked "The Catcher in the Rye" during my lousy childhood and all that kind of crap that people are talking about just because some famous writer died, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
In the first place, I didn't even read the whole book, and in the second place, I was not totally bawling when I heard about J.D. Salinger. Am I supposed to commit suicide or something because an old guy died?
And if you're not sure why I'm writing like this, go read the first page of "Catcher in the Rye" and you'll figure it out.
Anyway, to tell you the truth, I was a little sad about Mr. Salinger.
I'm always sad when artists die because it's like they create this secret world in your mind and when they're gone, a little of your world—your moment in the world—dies too.
Another reason I'm sad is because I missed out on this big "rite of passage" thing the obits keep boring me with.
I'll tell you more about that in a minute, but first let me say that if you don't know what I'm talking about, you must be wasting your life thinking about Leno and Oprah.
Talk about phonies. The whole "Tonight" show thing makes me puke, and don't get me started on John Edwards.
Anyway, this guy, J.D. Salinger, wrote this book, "Catcher in the Rye," which almost everybody since 1951 had to read in school, except in the schools that banned it — and those kids especially wanted to read it.
And then Urban Outfitters makes it into a T-shirt, which is phonier than Jay on Oprah but still better than just selling lava lamps.
Anyway, "C in the R" is about this cynical adolescent named Holden Caulfield, and he writes sort of like this, only better, and he's a poor role model due to his vulgarity, blaspheming and sexual stuff, which is why he's an icon of teenage rebellion.
Not that you care, but I've been reading amazon.com and Wikipedia, which is where I stole "cynical adolescent" and "teenage rebellion." Totally phony terms.
Personally, when I tried to read this book in high school, I hated it. Holden reminded me of my little brothers, and I did not need any more of that gross behavior.
Another thing is that he went to prep school, which was so not my life.
But when I hear people talk about this book as a rite of passage, I get it, even though that phrase is also phony. I respect any book that puts into words stuff you didn't even know you were thinking or didn't think you should think, or reveals weird stuff you didn't know anybody else but you was doing.
I know some girls who liked "The Bell Jar" or Judy Blume books better, but who cares?
I heard this one guy Thursday wonder how a miserable recluse like Salinger could write such great stuff. Personally, I think 95 percent of great writers are probably jerks because writing, especially writing the truth, is kind of anti-social, which is another thing that makes me sad.
Anyway, even if Mr. Salinger was the worst boyfriend ever, it is damn hard to write something that 59 years later is loved equally by people who are 16 and people who are 60.
You don't have to adore the man to admire the thing he left behind.
OF TEENAGE ANGST AND AN AUTHOR’S ALIENATION
By Michiko Kakutani
What really knocked readers out about “The Catcher in the Rye” was the wonderfully immediate voice that J. D. Salinger fashioned for Holden Caulfield — a voice that enabled him to channel an alienated 16-year-old’s thoughts and anxieties and frustrations, a voice that skeptically appraised the world and denounced its phonies and hypocrites and bores.
Mr. Salinger had such unerring radar for the feelings of teenage angst and vulnerability and anger that “Catcher,” published in 1951, remains one of the books that adolescents first fall in love with — a book that intimately articulates what it is to be young and sensitive and precociously existential, a book that first awakens them to the possibilities of literature.
Whether it’s Holden or the whiz-kid Glass children or the shell-shocked soldier in “For Esmé — with Love and Squalor,” Mr. Salinger’s people tend to be outsiders — spiritual voyagers shipwrecked in a vulgar and materialistic world, misfits who never really outgrew adolescent feelings of estrangement. They identify with children and cling to the innocence of childhood with a ferocity bordering on desperation: Holden wants to be the catcher in the rye, who keeps kids from falling off a cliff; Seymour communes with a little girl on the beach about bananafish, before going upstairs to his hotel room and shooting himself in the head.
Such characters have a yearning for some greater spiritual truth, but they are also given to an adolescent either/or view of the world and tend to divide people into categories: the authentic and the phony, those with an understanding of “the main current of poetry that flows through things” and those coarse, unenlightened morons who will never get it — a sprawling category, it turns out, that includes everyone from pompous college students parroting trendy lit crit theories to fashionable, well-fed theater-goers to self-satisfied blowhards who recount every play in a football game or proudly wear tattersall vests.
Like Franny, Mr. Salinger’s people feel that “everything everybody does is so — I don’t know — not wrong, or even mean, or even stupid necessarily. But just so tiny and meaningless and — sad-making.”
Mr. Salinger was able to empathetically limn the nooks and crannies of his youthful narrator’s psyches, while conjuring up a sophisticated, post-F. Scott Fitzgerald, post-World War II Manhattan — a world familiar to his New Yorker readers, bounded by Radio City Music Hall and Bergdorf Goodman and Central Park (where Holden wonders about the ducks on the lagoon and where they go when it freezes over in the winter). In doing so, he not only domesticated the innovations of the great modernists — their ability to manipulate stream of consciousness, to probe their characters’ inner lives — but he also presaged the self-inventorying characters of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, and the navel-gazing musings of the writers of many Me Generations to come.
Some critics dismissed the easy surface charm of Mr. Salinger’s work, accusing him of cuteness and sentimentality, but works like “Catcher,” “Franny and Zooey” and his best-known short stories would influence successive generations of writers. His most persuasive work showcased his colloquial, idiomatic language, his uncanny gift for ventriloquism, his nimble ability to create stories within stories, as well as his unerring ear for cosmopolitan New Yorkese (what he called an “Ear for the Rhythms and Cadences of Colloquial Speech”) and his heat-seeking eye for the telling gesture — the nervously lit cigarette, the X-ray look, the inhibited station-platform kiss.
Like Holden Caulfield, the Glass children — Franny, Zooey, Buddy, Seymour, Boo Boo, Walt, Waker — would emerge as avatars of adolescent angst and Mr. Salinger’s own alienated stance toward the world. Bright, charming and gregarious, they are blessed with their creator’s ability to entertain, and they appeal to the reader to identify with their braininess, their sensitivity, their febrile specialness. And yet as details of their lives unfurl in a series of stories, it becomes clear that there is a darker side to their estrangement as well: a tendency to condescend to the vulgar masses, an almost incestuous familial self-involvement and a difficulty relating to other people that will result in emotional crises and in Seymour’s case, suicide. “Neither you nor Buddy know how to talk to people you don’t like,” Zooey’s mother says, adding, “You can’t live in the world with such strong likes and dislikes.”
Over time, Mr. Salinger’s work grew more elliptical. Tidy, well-made tales like “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” gave way to the increasingly prolix “Zooey” and the shapeless ruminations of “Seymour — An Introduction.” And as his Glass stories grew more and more self-conscious and self-referential, readers became increasingly aware of the solipsism of that hothouse family of geniuses.
“Seymour” is a long, vexing monologue by Buddy Glass about his late brother that coyly conflates the identity of Buddy and Mr. Salinger (playing the sort of mirror games that Mr. Roth would play with his semiautobiographical heroes). And “Hapworth 16, 1924” (which appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1965) takes the form of a verbose, digression-filled letter ostensibly written from summer camp by the 7 -year-old Seymour. The story actually serves as a revisionist history of the Glass family and a sort of defensive gibe by Mr. Salinger at his critics. Having been accused of loving his characters too much, of being too superficially charming, the author gave us a new take on one of his heroes, turning the once saintly Seymour — the family’s “blue-striped unicorn,” “consultant genius” and “portable conscience” — into an obnoxious child given to angry outbursts and implausible intellectual boasts.
That story — the last work published during the author’s lifetime — not only reflected Mr. Salinger’s own Glass-like withdrawal from the world but also underscored his own fear that he might one day “disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms.” Yet however sour and self-reflexive that tale was, it would never eclipse the achievement of “Catcher” in the minds of Mr. Salinger’s fans — a novel that still knocks people out, a novel, if you really want to hear about it, that is still cherished, nearly six decades after its publication, for its pitch-perfect portrait of adolescence and its indispensable hero.
SEAMUS HEANEY: WALKING ON AIR AGAINST HIS BETTER JUDGMENT
By Kevin Cullen
Like everybody else who grew up around Boston, I always thought Harvard had very high standards, until they let me in.
When people ask me what I studied during my Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, I usually reply, “The ceiling at the Plough & Stars.” But the truth is it was a once in a lifetime, enriching experience. I took constitutional law with the incomparable Larry Tribe. I took an extraordinary class about the Vichy regime taught by the extraordinary Patrice Higonnet. I got to watch a young Samantha Power, now the US Ambassador to the UN, get her bearings as a journalist-turned-academic. And the friendship of my Nieman classmates, American and foreign-born, is priceless.
But, for me, the indisputable highlight of that year was being able to sit in on Helen Vendler’s seminar on Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, the great Irish poet who died Friday at the age of 74, Vendler is an international treasure. No academic or critic gets Heaney the way she does. At least that’s what Heaney told me.
And that is why getting a spot in her class on Heaney was like hitting the lottery. So many students want in, but she kept it to a cool dozen, because for her digesting the words of Seamus Heaney is akin to a plate of fine oysters: too many and you’ll miss the briny magnificence of those words.
“I’ll let you audit the class,” Helen told me, “but I’ll have to ask you not to speak, because so much of the grade is based on participation that it would take away from the students.”
I assured Helen I’d keep my mouth shut, and frankly I was far more interested in what Helen and the undergrads, most of them English majors, thought of Heaney.
All bets were off, though, when the great man from Bellaghy himself walked into the classroom at the Barker Center one day 11 years ago. He looked at me, sitting there like a slob with a baseball cap on my head and shook his. We had met a number of times before, most memorably at a Christmas party at the Irish embassy in London, and had what the Irish euphemistically refer to as a session. We had also sat next to each other on more than one Aer Lingus flight, when a wonderful woman named Noreen Courtney used to take pity on me, the poor journalist, and he, the poor poet, and bump us up to first class.
Heaney was his usual self during the class: self-effacing, funny, perceptive, and genuinely interested in the students. Before he won the Nobel Prize, Heaney was a regular fixture at Harvard, traveling to Cambridge with his wife, Marie, to teach. In 1983, Bob Kiely, then the housemaster, gave Heaney a modest guest suite adjacent to the I-entry door at Adams House. Heaney loved his regular sojourns to Cambridge, saying his charges belied the stereotype of privileged Harvard students, because they were earnest, down to earth kids. Who just happen to have scored a zillion on their SATs.
As class broke up that day 11 years ago, Heaney was eyeing me, no doubt in shock that I had kept my mouth shut for an hour. Helen leaned in and explained the arrangement. He meandered over.
“What are you doing this afternoon?” he asked, suspiciously.
“Nothing,” I replied, shrugging.
“Stop by my office at half 5,” he said, conspiratorially. “We’ll take it from there.”
This was typical Seamus: when I went to his office just off Quincy Street, he insisted on introducing me to every secretary and custodian within an arse’s roar.
“Kevin,” he said, shepherding me over to some lady carrying manila folders, “this is Sheila. Sheila, this is Kevin. He’s a journalist. Tell him nothing.”
It was a sly reworking of his 1975 poem about the menace in his native Northern Ireland, “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing.”
I suggested we retire to Daedalus, the Joycean-themed restaurant on Mount Auburn Street, sandwiched between Adams and Quincy houses.
“Perfect,” Heaney replied. “I have to be at Adams House for dinner with the masters at 7:30, sharp.”
No problem, I assured him. You’ll be there in plenty of time.
Aside from the restaurant’s name, I knew Heaney would like the owners, a pair of Galway-born brothers, Laurence and Brendan Hopkins. And of course, the three of them were talking like old friends in no time. Seamus informed them how much he admired Gerard Manley Hopkins, a 19th century poet and Jesuit priest.
“Ah, Jayziz,” Laurence said, clapping Seamus on the shoulder, “he’s not one of our lot.”
Like most Irish, the Hopkins brothers learned Heaney poems by osmosis. Like Yeats’ verse, Heaney’s words are internalized, memorized, from a young age in Ireland, murmured, as Yeats might have put it, “as a mother names her child when sleep at last has come on limbs that had run wild.”
Over the course of nearly two hours at Daedalus, what was noticeable was how many people Heaney said hello to, either he recognizing them as they walked past or when they approached and said they hadn’t seen him for a while. After the Nobel, Heaney’s international obligations soared, and his Harvard teaching gig got more and more sporadic. What I’ll always remember is that most of the people who Heaney recognized that night at Daedalus were what you would call ordinary people: guys from the Harvard maintenance staff, custodians, a cook from Adams House, a secretary in one of the dean’s offices, and a librarian from the Widener.
Seamus Heaney the person was, like his poetry, remarkably accessible. And while, as a Nobel laureate, he consorted with the great and the good, he was more comfortable with the not so great and the not so good. If writing, especially poetry, is a lonely, solitary pursuit, Seamus was the most sociable of poets. He loved people as much as words.
He grew up in humble circumstances, in County Derry, in the north of Ireland, and that’s what we talked about mostly when we shared some time. I spent many years covering Northern Ireland, and I had been to many of the places where Heaney had spent his youth. When we used the word Toomebridge in conversation, it didn’t evoke the place near Heaney’s birth as much as it reminded us of the killing of Roddy McCorley, the radical Presbyterian who was a leader of the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798. Heaney saw that as such a lost opportunity, when Irishmen — Protestant, Catholic and dissenter — rose together against British oppression. And it was at Toome that civil rights demonstrators were beaten by police, presaging the Troubles that would engulf Northern Ireland in 1969 and last for the next four decades.
So much of Heaney’s life, and so much of his poetry, unfolded against the backdrop of the Troubles, when Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists were engaged in murderous tumult. Heaney was a Catholic nationalist. He famously declined honors from the Queen. But he was not sectarian, and he lost friends to both sides. His poem, “Casualty,” was about a friend, Louis O’Neill, who was killed by a bomb in 1972.
That evening at the bar in Daedalus, Seamus and I talked about a murder I had covered, a murder that deeply affected him. It happened in 1997, just as the Troubles were winding down, just as it appeared that, as Seamus put it, hope and history would rhyme. It happened in Bellaghy, a sleepy little village in County Derry where Seamus Heaney grew up, and it happened to a man, Sean Brown, who Heaney knew and admired.
Sean Brown was a teacher by profession, but his passion was Gaelic games, especially Gaelic football. He was chairman of the Gaelic Athletic Association in Bellaghy, which is why loyalist extremists murdered him. To them, Gaelic sports were a badge of Irish nationalism, something they hated. But to Sean Brown’s Protestant neighbors, his murder was an obscenity, because he was a kind and generous man to all his neighbors, without regard to their religion. There was a poem read at Sean Brown’s funeral. It wasn’t written by Heaney, but by Brown’s 12-year-old neighbor, Fiona Smyth, a Protestant. In it, she recalled that Sean Brown greeted her every day the same way: “Hello Fiona, how was school today?”
“I remember that,” Seamus Heaney said, almost to himself, that day in Cambridge, nodding his head almost imperceptibly so that Laurence Hopkins would pour a shot of Jameson’s. “The murder of Sean Brown hurt my soul.”
I’ll never forget what he said, and how he said it. It hurt my soul.
He was in Greece when he learned of Sean Brown’s murder, just after visiting the stadium where the first Olympic games were held, and it struck him that it was a crime not just against humanity but against the ancient Olympic spirit, where sportsmen confined their battles to the athletic field.
When Seamus returned to his hometown after winning the Nobel Prize, Sean Brown presented him with a painting of Lough Beg, and the celebration, organized by Brown, was noteworthy because everybody, Protestant and Catholic alike, turned out to greet a local boy made good.
“He represented something better than we have grown used to, something not quite covered by the word ‘reconciliation’, because that word has become a policy word,” Seamus Heaney wrote in a tribute to his friend Sean Brown. “This was more like a purification, a release from what the Greeks called the miasma, the stain of spilled blood. It is a terrible irony that the man who organized such an event should die at the hands of a sectarian killer.”
I think of Seamus Heaney the same way. He represented something better than we have grown used to. He was, without doubt, as Robert Lowell said, the greatest Irish poet since Yeats. But it’s only partially accurate to describe Heaney as an Irish poet, because while his Irishness informed his work and certainly his identity, he was a citizen and a poet of the world. For all his nationalism, he loved English poets. He loved Keats as much as Yeats. He believed that if countries were run by poets instead of politicians, we’d be much better off. He loved Vaclav Havel, the poet who led the Czechs to freedom, and he really loved Michael Higgins, Ireland’s current president and a poet of some regard himself.
And, it goes without saying, he loved above all his Marie, his wife. Marie and the land were the twin loves of his life, and his ode to Marie managed to evoke both of those loves:
Love, I shall perfect for you the child
Who diligently potters in my brain
Digging with heavy spade till sods were piled
Or puddling through muck in a deep drain.
It was getting close to 7:30 that night in Cambridge 11 years ago. I was checking the clock. Seamus, as the Irish say, couldn’t be arsed. He had a dinner with the Adams House masters, Sean and Judy Palfrey, and I knew there would be hell to pay if I delivered him late. Sean and Judy are pediatricians, working with some of the most vulnerable kids in Boston, and they’re also my pals. I wasn’t going to diss them by keeping their distinguished dinner guest at a bar around the corner all night.
But when I told the great man from Bellaghy it was time to go, he squinted up at the clock, nodded toward Laurence Hopkins, leaned into me and said, in that delicious south Derry sotto voce, “Ach, we’ll have one for the ditch, will we?”
So he was 15 minutes late. We said our farewells outside Adams House.
“God bless you, St. Kevin,” Seamus Heaney said, bowing gallantly, and I laughed because I remembered how often he had mentioned St. Kevin during his Nobel lecture in Stockholm in 1995. Seamus and Marie had lived in County Wicklow, not far from Glendalough, the monastic site where St. Kevin lived in the 7th century.
In his lecture, Seamus recalled the story of St. Kevin kneeling and praying at Glendalough with his arms stretched out in the form of a cross.
“A blackbird mistook his outstretched hand for some kind of roost and swooped down upon it, laid a clutch of eggs in it and proceeded to nest in it as if it were the branch of a tree,” Seamus told the audience in Stockholm. “Then, overcome with pity and constrained by his faith to love the life in all creatures great and small, Kevin stayed immobile for hours and days and nights and weeks, holding out his hand until the eggs hatched and the fledglings grew wings, true to life if subversive of common sense, at the intersection of natural process and the glimpsed ideal, at one and the same time a signpost and a reminder. Manifesting that order of poetry where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.”
Seamus Heaney was very much like St. Kevin in that he held out his hands until the eggs that was his verse hatched, grew wings and flew away, all over the world. He dared to leave the bog. He made words a weapon of wonder and tolerance. He walked on air against his better judgment.
SEAMUS HEANEY, IRISH POET OF SOIL AND STRIFE, DIES AT 74.
Seamus Heaney, the 1995 Nobel laureate in literature, who was often called the greatest Irish poet since Yeats, died on Friday in Dublin. He was 74.
His publisher, Faber & Faber, announced the death. The Irish poet Paul Muldoon, a longtime friend, said that Mr. Heaney was hospitalized after a fall on Thursday. Mr. Heaney had suffered a stroke in 2006.
In an address, President Michael D. Higgins of Ireland, himself a poet, praised Mr. Heaney’s “contribution to the republics of letters, conscience and humanity.” Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, said that Mr. Heaney’s death had brought “great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature.”
A Roman Catholic native of Northern Ireland, Mr. Heaney was renowned for work that powerfully evoked the beauty and blood that together have come to define the modern Irish condition. The author of more than a dozen collections of poetry, as well as critical essays and works for the stage, he repeatedly explored the strife and uncertainties that have afflicted his homeland, while managing simultaneously to steer clear of polemic.
Mr. Heaney (pronounced HEE-nee), who had made his home in Dublin since the 1970s, was known to a wide public for the profuse white hair and stentorian voice that befit his calling. He held lectureships at some of the world’s foremost universities, including Harvard, where, starting in the 1980s, he taught regularly for many years; Oxford; and the University of California, Berkeley.
As the trade magazine Publishers Weekly observed in 1995, Mr. Heaney “has an aura, if not a star power, shared by few contemporary poets, emanating as much from his leonine features and unpompous sense of civic responsibility as from the immediate accessibility of his lines.”
Throughout his work, Mr. Heaney was consumed with morality. In his hands, a peat bog is not merely an emblematic feature of the Irish landscape; it is also a spiritual quagmire, evoking the deep ethical conundrums that have long pervaded the place.
“Yeats, despite being quite well known, despite his public role, actually didn’t have anything like the celebrity or, frankly, the ability to touch the people in the way that Seamus did,” Mr. Muldoon, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the poetry editor at The New Yorker, said in an interview on Friday. “It was almost like he was indistinguishable from the country. He was like a rock star who also happened to be a poet.”
Mr. Heaney was enraptured, as he once put it, by “words as bearers of history and mystery.” His poetry, which had an epiphanic quality, was suffused with references to pre-Christian myth — Celtic, of course, but also that of ancient Greece. His style, linguistically dazzling, was nonetheless lacking in the obscurity that can attend poetic pyrotechnics.
At its best, Mr. Heaney’s work had both a meditative lyricism and an airy velocity. His lines could embody a dark, marshy melancholy, but as often as not they also communicated the wild onrushing joy of being alive.
The result — work that was finely wrought yet notably straightforward — made Mr. Heaney one of the most widely read poets in the world.
Reviewing Mr. Heaney’s collection “North” in The New York Review of Books in 1976, the Irish poet Richard Murphy wrote: “His original power, which even the sternest critics bow to with respect, is that he can give you the feeling as you read his poems that you are actually doing what they describe. His words not only mean what they say, they sound like their meaning.”
Mr. Heaney made his reputation with his debut volume, “Death of a Naturalist,” published in 1966. In “Digging,” a poem from the collection, he explored the earthy roots of his art:
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
Though Mr. Heaney’s poems often have pastoral settings, dewy rural romanticism is notably absent: instead, he depicts country life in all its harsh daily reality. His poem “A Drink of Water” opens this way:
She came every morning to draw water
Like an old bat staggering up the field:
The pump’s whooping cough, the bucket’s clatter
And slow diminuendo as it filled,
Announced her. I recall
Her grey apron, the pocked white enamel
Of the brimming bucket, and the treble
Creak of her voice like the pump’s handle.
Mr. Heaney was deeply self-identified as Irish, and much of his work overtly concerned the Troubles, as the long, violent sectarian conflict in late-20th-century Northern Ireland is known.
But though he condemned British dominion in his homeland (he wrote: “Be advised, my passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/To toast the Queen”), Mr. Heaney refused to disown British tradition — and especially British literature — altogether.
The writers who influenced him deeply, he said, included not only the Irishmen William Butler Yeats and James Joyce but also the Englishman Thomas Hardy.
In his poem “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,” whose title became a byword in Northern Ireland for the linguistic subterfuge that underpins biographical conversations, Mr. Heaney wrote:
Smoke-signals are loud-mouthed compared with us:
Manoeuvrings to find out name and school,
Subtle discrimination by addresses
With hardly an exception to the rule
That Norman, Ken and Sidney signalled Prod
And Seamus (call me Sean) was sure-fire Pape.
O land of password, handgrip, wink and nod,
Of open minds as open as a trap,
Where tongues lie coiled, as under flames lie wicks,
Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
Were cabin’d and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.
As a result of Mr. Heaney’s inclusive stance, some supporters of the Irish Republican cause condemned him as accommodationist. His rejoinder can be found, for instance, in lines from his 1974 essay on the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who was exiled to Siberia by Stalin’s regime and died there in 1938.
In the essay, Mr. Heaney set forth an observation that could be applied with equal force to contemporary Ireland:
“We live here in critical times ourselves, when the idea of poetry as an art is in danger of being overshadowed by a quest for poetry as a diagram of political attitudes,” he wrote. “Some commentators have all the fussy literalism of an official from the ministry of truth.”
The eldest of nine children of a cattle dealer, Seamus Justin Heaney was born on April 13, 1939, at Mossbawn, his family’s farm in County Derry, west of Belfast. The farm’s name would appear throughout his work. Mr. Heaney’s intoxication with language, he said in a 1974 lecture, “Feeling into Words,” “began very early when my mother used to recite lists of affixes and suffixes, and Latin roots, with their English meanings, rhymes that formed part of her schooling in the early part of the century.”
Later in the lecture, he ventured an alternative scenario: “Maybe it was stirred by the beautiful sprung rhythms of the old BBC weather forecast: Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Shetland, Faroes, Finisterre; or with the gorgeous and inane phraseology of the catechism; or with the litany of the Blessed Virgin that was part of the enforced poetry in our household: Tower of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Health of the Sick, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted.”
In 1961, Mr. Heaney earned a bachelor’s degree with first class honors in English language and literature from Queen’s University of Belfast. He wrote poetry as a student, publishing under the modest pseudonym Incertus, the Latin word for “doubtful.”
He went on to earn a teaching certificate in English from St. Joseph’s College in Belfast and was later appointed to the faculty there. He began writing poetry seriously in the mid-1960s, joining a workshop led by the noted Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon.
Mr. Heaney followed “Death of a Naturalist” with collections including “Door Into the Dark” (1969), “Wintering Out” (1972), “Station Island” (1984) and “The Midnight Verdict,” published in 1993.
In 1995, he became the fourth Irishman to win the Nobel in literature, following Yeats, who received it in 1923; George Bernard Shaw (1925); and Samuel Beckett (1969).
In awarding the prize to Mr. Heaney, the Swedish Academy cited his “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past” and also commended his cleareyed analysis of the Northern Ireland conflict.
Though Mr. Heaney was lauded throughout his career, a few critics condemned his work as facile.
“If Heaney really is the best we can do, then the whole troubled, exploratory thrust of modern poetry has been a diversion from the right true way,” the poet and critic Al Alvarez (also known as A. Alvarez) said in The New York Review of Books in 1980, reviewing Mr. Heaney’s collection “Field Work.” Mr. Alvarez continued:
“Eliot and his contemporaries, Lowell and his, Plath and hers had it all wrong: to try to make clearings of sense and discipline and style in the untamed, unfenced darkness was to mistake morbidity for inspiration.”
Among Mr. Heaney’s other volumes of poetry are “The Spirit Level” (1996); “Opened Ground: Selected Poems, 1966-1996” (1998); “Electric Light” (2001); “District and Circle” (2006); and his last, “Human Chain,” published in 2010.
Mr. Heaney’s survivors include his wife, the former Marie Devlin, whom he married in 1965; two sons, Christopher and Michael; and a daughter, Catherine, The Associated Press reported.
His other writings include critical essays on Yeats, Joyce, Joseph Brodsky, Ted Hughes, Stevie Smith and Italo Calvino; “Finders Keepers: Selected Prose, 1971-2001” (2002); and a verse translation of “Beowulf” published in 2000.
In “The Cure at Troy,” his 1991 verse adaptation of Sophocles’ play “Philoctetes,” about the Trojan War, Mr. Heaney wrote these evocative lines:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
In April, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, citing Mr. Heaney as “one of my favorite poets,” quoted those lines at the memorial service for Sean Collier, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer killed in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.
In a 1991 interview with the British newsmagazine The Economist, Mr. Heaney described his essential professional mandate.
“The poet is on the side of undeceiving the world,” he said. “It means being vigilant in the public realm. But you can go further still and say that poetry tries to help you to be a truer, purer, wholer being.”