Novelist Adam Mansbach discusses his relationship with his grandfather and its connection to his writing lifeDecember 1, 2007
After my grandmother died in the winter of 1999, I began spending summers with my grandfather so he would not be alone. It was no great sacrifice; since the early sixties, my grandparents had been spending the warmer months in a beach house on Martha’s Vineyard, the island to which much of their once-wide and now greatly diminished social circle repaired at the close of each academic year.
My grandfather was the kind of man people had theories about, the kind his descendants formed study groups to discuss, as if he were a difficult novel. Some of his accomplishments were matters of public record, though he waved a dismissive hand at them all. He’d graduated high school by fifteen (“soon as you could read and write, off you went”), been the youngest American prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials (“I got there at the end; I didn’t do anything”) traveled to Panama to mediate between the government and the builders of the Canal (“The headline read ‘Kaplan Arrives,’ but the real work was done by others”). He’d taught three future Supreme Court Justices during his quarter decade at Harvard Law School, then sat on the bench of Massachusetts’s highest court. He was ninety that summer. He would not retire for another five years.
But the facts that most fascinated me were those to which history had little access. The silence he forged into a weapon he wielded for weeks at a time when he felt wronged. The year he’d spent chopping wood in Upstate New York after graduating City College and before beginning Columbia Law School. The way his genius had exempted him from so much in life—turned him into the man in the chair atop the hora dance, passed from one protector to the next, and how that had forged and crippled him. My whole life, he’d seemed almost visibly stooped by the weight of his regrets, lamenting his decision to prioritize work over family and wishing he could do it all differently. And yet day by day, year after year, he did not.
That summer, as we sat before a muted television, watching the Red Sox break our hearts again, I asked my grandfather all I could think to. During the days, I holed up in a bedroom seemingly built to avoid the sea breeze, working on a novel about grandfathers and grandsons that had yet to find a reason for existing. I knew only that the generation I was trying to understand would soon be gone, and that when it vanished the world would be stupider and less elegant, absent the force of intellect and character men like my grandfather possessed.
Why he opened up to me, I cannot say. Years before, his four grandsons had partially liberated him from the “do not disturb your father” doctrine that ruled our parents’ childhood, barging into his study and demanding his attention—and he had loved us for it. Perhaps this was an extension of that; twenty-plus years later, I still would not leave him alone.
He was incredulous at my interest in Bronx stickball rules and his experience of being the first Jew admitted to a Cambridge health club, but as the months passed he reached more willingly into the recesses of his perfect memory, and I learned things no one in my family had ever known. He’d written a humor column for the City College newspaper, for instance: twice a week throughout his senior year. I made a trip to New York to find and photocopy them. We read each one together. My grandfather had believed he’d be a writer then, and with good cause: his language was marvelous. He was funny. Suddenly, his marriage to my grandmother, a poet and a legendary wit, made sense.
Little of what I learned found its way into my novel. But in some larger sense, his story was my book; his story was his generation; his story was me. As we spoke and laughed and sat together in silence, I began to understand why I was writing. I was exploring my greatest hope and fear: that my grandfather and I were exactly alike.