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Grub Street: New York

Making a living is nothing; the great difficulty is making a point, making a difference—with words. Here in New York you walk about the shattered, but still unreformed, streets and it seems the city has suffered a scar or wound that has not only changed its appearance but altered its purpose and deepest nature. Outside my house the old Central Park Stables are empty, the windows broken. The warm yellow brick and faded blue trim still glow in the afternoon sun; pigeons tend their nests inside, squatting until the verdict is handed down about this waiting, hurt space. One does not know what to reject, what old alley of desolation to resent, what corner of newness to despise. If one hardly knows what to reject, how much harder it is to be oneself rejected. Is there anyone who hasn’t, as we say in our expressive rhetoric, made it?

Yes, some old grubbers, still suffering. The door bell rings and you are face to face with an outcast who has come on some errand of career that can never be accomplished. He is dark, rather small and thin, hostile and yet briefly hopeful, brightly beaming with suspiciousness. A relief to believe his desperation and obsolescence are somehow closer to literature than to life. He seems to be out of a novel rather than to be writing a novel. Good! True characters, men with a classical twitch, are still alive, old veterans with their frayed flags, creatures such as fiction used to tell of. But the man is not a character in a book; he is himself a writer. His theme is, “If you’re not a pederast, a junkie, a Negro—not even a ‘white Negro,’ ha, ha!—you haven’t a dog’s chance! Just put your foot in a publisher’s office and someone will step on it!” This novelist, in his middle fifties, has known a regular recurrence of literary disaster; and yet he has stayed on the old homestead, planting seeds year after year, like those farmers in drought places who greet each season’s dryness with anguished surprise. Even teaching, our first and last refuge, had closed its heart after the poor writer gave out too many failing grades. With his special beam of despairing self-satisfaction, he said, “The students know no more about punctuation than a fly in the air! No, I will not have an illiterate Ph.D. on my conscience.” Unpleasant, insignificant, intransigent man—born without an accommodating joint, trying to grasp without thumbs. But, indeed, he makes his point; a certain pleasure, or relief, lies in the assurance that a genuine paranoid solidity cannot be absorbed by American life, that it will not break to the crush of the tooth. And that is a sort of role, perhaps.

Age and outmoded purity and patience may kill sometimes. Old lady writers, without means, without Social Security, reading in bed all day—dear old Sibyls, almost forgotten, hardly called upon except perhaps at midnight by a drunken couple from a pad down the street. Failure is not funny. It is cockroaches on the service elevator, old men in carpet slippers waiting anxiously by the mail slots in the lobby, neighborhood walks where the shops, graphs of consumption, show only a clutter of broken vases, strings of cracked beads, dirty feathers, an old vaudevillian’s memorable dinner jacket and decades of cast-off books—the dust of ambition from which the eye turns away in misery.

But the young, the active, rely upon themselves, or perhaps they are desperately thrown back upon themselves, literally. The drama of real life will not let down the prose writer. He can camp for a while in the sedgy valley of autobiography, of current happenings, of the exploration of his own sufferings and sensations, the record of people met, of national figures contemplated. There is beauty to be torn out of the event, the suicide, the murder case, the prize fight. The “I,” undisguised, visits new regions for us and pours all his art into them. Life inspires. The confession, the revelation, are not reporting, nor even journalism. Real life is presented as if it were fiction. The concreteness of fact is made suggestive, shadowy, symbolical. The vividly experiencing “I” begins his search for his art in the newspapers.

From the first the reader is captivated by his surprise that this particular writer should be a witness to this particular event. We are immediately engaged by a biographical incongruity: Dwight Macdonald, the famous radical, with his beard, his “ideas” on Doris Day; Norman Mailer on Sonny Liston; William Styron on a poor convict up for parole; the novelist John Phillips on Teddy Kennedy’s campaign. Truman Capote is writing an entire book on an interesting murder case in Kansas and is even said to have provided the police with an important clue. Capote left his villa in Switzerland and went to the bereft, gritty little town in Kansas to study the drama of the trial. An author’s unexpected marriage to his subject is in many ways the essence of each new plot.

Real events, one’s own vices completely understood, will have a certain, and sometimes, a pure interest. It works, it is convincing. Actuality sustains in a world that does not appear to care very much for fiction writing. In art, the labels from a can of soup, the design of motor cars, the square of the American flag—objects from everyday life put on to canvas—announce themselves as a protest against the idealism and tyranny of abstract expressionism. Imaginary people, fabricated loves and deaths, conclusions not given but to be created in loneliness: are these not also a tyranny from which the writer will some day shrink? Another puzzle: much good writing appears in entertainment magazines other writers seldom read. Circulation without audience. The re-creation of what has truly happened is a self-propelled activity, addressed to no one in particular. Or should we accept the need for money? “What God abandoned, these defended, and saved the sum of things for pay.”

Art as a religion—Rilke—seems to be passing; not the work of Rilke, but the style of life, the austere dedication, sustained by the hope that poems and novels would save us. Those holy pages, produced in pain (Flaubert: “You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word”)—is there time? From patience, at last, they had perfection. And a security, a fringe benefit, a pension fund such as one can hardly imagine nowadays. Think! Richard Ellmann tells us that Joyce thought the worst thing about World War II was that it distracted the world from reading Finnegan’s Wake.

Glass is the perfect material of our life. James Baldwin recently had a long, astonishing essay in The New Yorker. The work began as an unbearable memoir of Baldwin’s youth in Harlem, but it did not remain simply a painful memoir. It became one of those “children in the hands of an angry God” sermons on the Hell of American life for the Negro. Baldwin was determined to make us feel each unutterable day of suffering and humiliation, to make us cringe from the fraud of the democracy and Christianity that had betrayed the Negroes, those most faithful in their devotions. The work was written in a mood of desperation, with full eloquence and intellectual force—and with something more. It was clearly threatening. Baldwin felt the Negro to be approaching a final, revengeful fury.

So there it was. Everyone read it. Everyone talked about it and seemed to feel in some way the better for it. The guerrilla warfare by which the weak become strong, or at least destructive—even the threat of that could be taken, apparently, accepted, turned into glass. Only Russia and Communism arouse—there, writer, watch out.

A peculiar glut, historically interesting. But who wants to be a cook in a household of obese people? The poor, the hungry, fly in by air, brought on official visits, missions of culture. A South American in a brushed, blue serge suit, wearing polished black shoes and large cufflinks of semiprecious stones. His fingernails and his careful, neat dress tell you of all the polish, the care, the melancholy mending done at home by mothers and sisters. This man was one of those whom struggle had drained dry. He had arrived, by hideously hard work, at an overwhelming pedantry, a bachelorish violence of self-control. The pedantry of scarcity. This pale glacier had been produced in the tropics, a poor man in a poor country, trying to lift himself into the professions, to cut through the jungle of deprivation, save a few pennies of ambition from the national bankruptcy. At last with his nervous precision, his aching repression, he declared that the huge, romantic, excessive Thomas Wolfe was the American with whom he felt the closest spiritual and personal connection. He meant to write a book on Wolfe, in Portuguese. He sat looking out of the window, glumly taking in the commercial spires in the distance; his sallow, yearning spirit seemed to have come forth from some mute backland in which his efforts had a bitter, pioneer necessity. Thomas Wolfe! He blinked. “He is my life.”

At the entrance to the subway station, there is often an archaic figure giving out a folded sheet of information about the Socialist Labor Party, or some other small, oddly extant group. In only a few minutes after the distributor takes up his post the streets are littered with his offering. The pages are not thrown away in resentment or disagreement, but cast down as if they were bits of Kleenex: clean white paper with nothing at all written on it, falling into the gutter.

Letters

Letter June 1, 1963

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