There arrived in my mailbox a billet-doux from my little brother Toby. More specifically, this was a five-page letter to him, from me, with his Post-it self-stick memo stuck to page 1. The letter was dated 13/xi/63—à la European mode—and postmarked Cambridge, England, mailed decades before to an eleventh-grader. Single-spaced elite, without margins, it was typed with such manifest urgency that words fly truncated off the right edge of the tissue-thin foolscap; the keys must have been righteously rapped—“o”s are little holes.
The tone of this document owes much to austere dogma, a religion of literary Art. It answers a letter in which Toby seems obscurely to have offended me by an expression of enthusiasm for his country and for some of its better contemporary and popular prose writers. Now Toby is himself one of our better contemporary prose writers, but at that time he was too young to vote, and I wasn’t, so I took it upon myself to tell the stripling a thing or two.
“We live in an age when contraception and the Bomb and rejected opportunities usurp each other [sic] as negative functions . . . the cliché governs by executive function . . . in the ruined warrens are pockets of beautiful life . . .” The bulk of my letter consists of a suggestion that before Toby read another word of William Styron or Norman Mailer (for whom he had confessed such provocative admiration) he turn at once to Donne, Eliot on Donne, Sophocles, Aristotle, John Jones on Aristotle, Racine, Hegel (on tragedy) and I don’t know who all else. In short: “Begin at the beginning and familiarize yourself with literature.” To this end he was to write weekly essays for me, and I would lead him across the ages, “working through language and time until you learn how to read, and may discover whether you wish to write.”
Jeepers! Or, as Toby noted on the yellow Post-it: “I still don’t know half the stuff in here, and I’m a Full Professor, Mr. Smarty Pants!! (I thought you might want this back.)” Let’s say Toby has me by the shorts on this one: it’s in his archive still—he sent a photocopy, damn him.
For a letter so passionately typed, mine has an oddly distanced air, save for its ad hominem, ad extremum and ad absurdum assertion that “every backward glance at our family tree reveals a body hanging from the withered limbs.” I think I understand the abstracted character of these declarations: whatever the provenance of my athletically typed (and no doubt plagiarized) maxims, all I can now say with confidence is these were thoughts never thunk by me, or never in just these words.
But there’s more too on Toby’s Post-it annotation: “It’s a sweet letter. I was touched by it.” In the spirit of confession may I disclose that I too am touched by my jejune gospel of a literary calling? My correspondence with my brother launched gaudy little vessels of language; my sentences didn’t go forth carrying cargo, but in a hope of netting something out there on the vasty deeps. At the end I signed off: “I’m sorry I have no news; I have little to talk of other than my work. That is everything.”
It’s simple enough to poke fun at the patchwork boy I was, the ill-matched concoction of attitudes and characteristics I aspired to be. I dressed in motley: three-piece blue pinstripe with gravy stains on the vest (a touch of Edmund Wilson in the waistcoat?), suspenders, wire-rimmed glasses to add even more years to my solemn face pallid from bad diet and irregular habits. (My God—I’d already had my first gout attack.) My Cambridge college tie beneath my Cambridge gown offset bohemian footwear, Army-surplus boots. The Greeks, Jacobeans, Metaphysicals shared my bookshelves with modern poets, William Burroughs, Harold Pinter, Jean Genet and Europe on Five Dollars a Day. Parked in front of my digs stood a cherry-red 750-cc Royal Enfield Constellation, with full racing fairing, hell of a bike. George Steiner, my Churchill College tutor, my reason for being at Cambridge, was satisfied by the (literary) books, but sore about the motorcycle. Let’s call the ragout of my conflicting circumstances a mess.
But for all the hotchpotch of my circumstances and styles, for all the egregious posturing and borrowed sentiment and faked-up lingo of my lugubrious letter to my brother, there was also something there I won’t disavow. In those overwrought homilies about the long littleness of life and eternal uplift of Art was a felt passion, a longing for something that mattered, might stay, be firm. To learn something, to master something, anything, is as sweet as first love. In fact, it may be first, preceding memory, the blissed-out grin that seems urged by the nervous system to accompany a baby’s first solo steps, or a kid’s first bicycle ride, or anyone’s first unmonitored, unassigned, discretionary experience of reading. Don’t you remember the first thing you read? Mine was Donald Duck, and I was sitting in the bay window of a boardinghouse in Saybrook, Connecticut, where a drunk husband and his drunk wife hectored my drunk father about a gambling debt unpaid for fifteen years, and the awful noise went through me like silence through space, because I was elsewhere, living otherwise. And like a great whistler, who can entertain himself at will, or a sixteen-year-old with license, car and gasoline, I had the keys to the cell. To read was to escape, at will, solitary confinement.
Later I was forever pressing books on friends (“Have you read this? You must read that!”); now I pitched woo saying poems by heart. I favored, for their periodic drive and lonely outcasts caught in implied sensual contact, the closing lines of Paradise Lost:
The world was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They hand in hand with wand’ring steps and slow
Through Eden took their solitary way.
I knew then that a life lived reading and writing could be a life well lived, in good company. That may have been all I knew, but I would not unknow it now.
I was an eager student back then, avid to please, twenty-six going on sixty. The teachers whose good reports I cherished were cultural and literary critics—R. P. Blackmur, George Steiner, F. R. Leavis—for whom it seemed to me (if not to them) that literature of imagination was a secondary artifact, the rough ore from which the precious alloy of criticism might be fabricated. To me, then, the self-consciously impenetrable essays in Scrutiny, Encounter, Partisan Review and Kenyon Review were primary texts, and to read them was to belong to an exclusive guild whose members shared a dense jargon, a chastening insistence on commitment to text, a call to arms in some arcane combat in which a solemn band of initiates guarded the True Faith’s gates against a vulgar gang of middlebrow, mid-cult vandals.
I wished to stand stringent sentry among the few initiates. Why? I was a sucker for pulpit oratory (as long as it came delivered from a secular pulpit—say, a lectern), and I was a sucker for whatever was inside the place I was outside. Also, I was skeptical of all faiths, save bookishness; I was bone-idle, except around books. Around books I worked like a Turk, reading with a pencil in my hand, reading three or four things at a clip. I had read headlong and helter-skelter since I’d plowed as a kid through Albert Payson Terhune simultaneously with the Hardy Boys. To read compulsively and to write about reading were my only appetites (of too many appetites) sanctioned as virtues rather than condemned as vices.
The poet Stanley Kunitz has remarked, reviewing his life’s work for a collection of his poems, that evolution is a delusion. We change, but always at a cost: to win this you lose that. I feel sharp-witted these days, like to believe I know the score, would as soon laugh at myself as laugh at another, value lowlife idiom at least as preciously as high sentiment. When my brother forwarded to me that old letter, I paraphrased (shame would not countenance full quotation) its rhetoric and presumptions to a friend of many, many years who had herself been on the receiving end of my bygone puffed-up gravitas. I said to my friend, with what I took to be irony, “Boy oh boy, I sure was learned then.”
“Yes,” she said. “You were.”
I paused quite a good pause there, and let this soak in, and realized that I was lingering in the dangerous domain of a truth, and I wanted to laugh my way to a comfier neighborhood. “What do you think happened?” I asked. “Wisdom, or just too much television?”
“Nah,” she said. “You could say car payments. You could blame kids, but basically you eased up is all, wanted to relax.”
She was part right, I’m afraid. To be the Man of Letters I aspired to be, avuncular at twenty-six, a virtuoso of the well-timed harrumph, able to contextualize, perspectivize, plumb the subtexts, incite chums and bully a younger brother to do the same—this was sober work, hard work. My friend was also part wrong, for a plunge into language was never joyless work.
A final note about that letter to my brother: it was mailed a little more than a week before President Kennedy was murdered. I know it’s recollection’s merest commonplace to suggest that what happened to him and to America had something to do with oneself, but it did have something to do with how at bedrock I hoped to regard myself. Fact is, on the stroke of Dallas I no longer wanted to be a knockoff of R. P. Blackmur, John Milton or even George Steiner. I inexplicably and all at once did a U-turn, ambitionwise. I meant to find a voice, apart from the remnants of conflicted idioms in my schoolboy collection, that I might convince myself was truly mine. Moreover, I aspired to act rather than meditate. In brief, an old story: I was an unhappy graduate student, woe was me. So I quit. Graduated. “Commenced,” as they nicely say.
I had what seemed to me a dandy cee-vee: Choate, a post-graduate year at an English public school, Princeton, a couple of years teaching literature in Turkey at Istanbul University and Robert College, Fulbright at Cambridge . . . Moreover, after having decided at Princeton that I was too exquisite to waste on that suburban New World my roughneck country, I was coming home. With arms outstretched. Willing to shake and make up. Put my shoulder to the wheel of American culture where my conspicuous gifts could count, as a journalist, in the nation’s capital. How was it, then, that The Washington Post personnel office imposed on me a typing test, which I failed? Never mind, I taught myself to type fast enough to get an interview “upstairs,” and was tentatively hired by a managing editor who had a soft spot for Turkey (he was building a vacation house there), and soon (despite my failure of a psychological test in which I declared—what could I have been thinking?—I would rather be a florist than a baseball manager, which I wouldn’t rather be, but I had blackened the wrong rectangle on the answer sheet, and try explaining that to an alarmed personnel director while you’re wearing an English shirt of peach broadcloth with a white detachable collar) I was at useful work, making a difference, writing about a dozen obituaries a day.
“I don’t suppose you’re secretly writing a novel during your time off?”
How could Bill Brady, night city editor, have guessed, my first afternoon on the death shift? Was it written on my face? The man was a seer. He saw more than I could possibly show because, yes, while I meant to dream up a novel when I wasn’t retailing the death of civil servants and merchants, and who had survived them, and what kinds of Masons they were . . . while I had every intention—when I wasn’t tracking down pix to accompany my little essays (“Wolff! Have we got art with the Makepeace obit?”)—of doing art, I hadn’t yet done art.
I was not, that is, after all, a Writer. I was a would-be Writer. Today such a distinction cannot exist. To want to be a writer is to be one, done and done. If I ask a dozen students in a fiction workshop how many think of themselves as writers, they are confused by the question. I read what they write, don’t I? What else is writing? What’s the question again? Not that they take everything for granted; quite a few ask, midway through their second semester as artists, whether they will someday be “first-rate.” More than a couple have requested my warranty. Will I certify, if they work hard, read the books I have suggested they read, mend the errors of usage I have located, that they will—soon—become “great”? Because if labor were to make them merely “good,” what’s labor’s point?
In my day we defined ourselves as Writers by no more logical a measure: when you were published by a disinterested, consequential (grown-up) publication, then you were a Writer. By this measure a couple of stories in the Choate literary magazine, a couple of excerpts from a novel in the Nassau Literary Magazine and some polemic from the left in Cambridge Forward did not a Writer make. Lest I seem to claim for Kids Back Then proportion and humility superior to the feral ambition of Kids Today, let me confide that I wanted to be a Writer long before I had the dimmest notion what story I wished to write. Let’s call the phenomenon, then as now, careerism.
For someone not a Writer, however, I had sure done a gang of writing. In addition to piling up pages of all those school papers and independent projects and critical essays and book-length college theses, I had taken a year off from Princeton to complete a half-baked, doleful novel. But until I hit the glory hole of material that is any obituary essayist’s estate, the principal vessel into which I poured my art was the letter. Love letters were best, but any letters would do. Letters were my apprenticeship: I used them as my commonplace book, as tryouts for characters, to get a purchase on what mattered to me and how I might articulate what mattered. I wrote weather reports and geography lessons, how snow touched the black waters of the Bosporus, how the sun bore down on Lindos, what a ninth consecutive day of rain did to Vienna. Hundreds of these letters, most unanswered. What was the recipient to say? This was not correspondence (as my amused brother now realizes); these were finger exercises, and just about as welcome to my audience as a sixth, ninth, fifteenth run-through of “Heartaches” by a first-year student of the tenor sax.
Excerpted from A Day at the Beach by Geoffrey Wolff With a New Introduction by Ann Patchett. Copyright © 2013 by Geoffrey Wolff. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.