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A Life Worth Living

These are the books Samuel Hynes wrote between 1961 and 1989: The Pattern of Hardy’s Poetry, The Edwardian Turn of Mind, Edwardian Occasions, and The Auden Generation. Among the books he edited were Further Speculations by T.E. Hulme, The Author’s Craft and Other Critical Writings of Arnold Bennett, Romance and Realism, The Complete Poetical Works of Thomas Hardy, and The Complete Short Fiction of Joseph Conrad. He was an academic gypsy, with a BA degree from the University of Minnesota, and an MA and a Ph.D. from Columbia, which led to a teaching stop at Swarthmore and tenure at Northwestern. In 1976, he moved on to Princeton, where he became the Woodrow Wilson Professor of Literature. Then in 1989, the year he turned sixty-five, Hynes shifted his field of study. His new discipline was war in the twentieth century, both his own military service as a Marine pilot in the Pacific (Flights of Passage) and the conduct of men at arms in the two world wars and Vietnam (The Soldiers’ Tale).

I met him once in the late 1980s, when I was at Princeton on a week-long alumni fellowship that allowed me freedom of the campus. In the university catalog I discovered a course he was teaching on the narratives of war, and walked into one of his lectures. As I recall, most of the undergraduates were bored; war was something they would never have to experience; what they were seeking was a grade and a credit toward a degree, not how to use an entrenching tool, either to dig a hole or to smash the brains of an unwanted intruder into that hole. I was fascinated. “A man does not see much of the world looking down a gun barrel,” he would write a year or so later in The New York Times Book Review. “They have nothing to say about strat-egy or about why men fight, only about how they fight, and where and how they die.” And in that same article: “When you think about it, war is one subject that is continuous in the human story. The history of the world is the history of war.”

In The Growing Seasons, Hynes turns his attention to his experience during the Great Depression, the legacy of one world war, and the recruiting ground for the second. It was, he writes, “a time that seems as distant and as different from our present lives as some foreign place.” In the country of childhood, however, the Depression was a preoccupation of adults. “When I call up memories of those days,” he writes, “the life I recover doesn’t seem hard or narrow, but generous and free and full of opportunities.” Home was lower-middle-class Minneapolis, where “an ordinary curious boy…could find all the world’s temptations around him—the risks to be taken, the rules to be broken, the girls, the cars, the drinking, the sex.” He learned how to steal, not for his daily bread, but for the thrill of it, how to eat in a coffee shop and escape without paying, how to break into empty houses, how to stare unobserved at young girls undressing in front of windows where shades were not drawn.

His memories are sometimes wildly funny. “At about the same time that I got my first long pants, I discovered sex,” he writes. “There’s a connection: you can’t enter the world of sex wearing knickers.” It was an article of faith that playing Ravel’s Bolero would make a girl go mad with desire, as would touching the base of her spine. But when he kissed a young woman in the back of a friend’s car, the kiss was received “politely, as if it were a postcard.” In a local department store, he would pick up discarded carbon sales slips and then charge books to the name on the slip. The first two books he stole using this slippery scam were the Modern Library Nietzsche and The Theater Guild Anthology; Hynes is too restrained to hint that his choices might have indicated his future calling as a scholar.

In his eighth decade—he will be seventy-nine this August—Hynes knows that even the happiest Depression childhood could only imperfectly camouflage the economic chaos outside the cocoon of youth. His mother died when he was five, in the first April after the stock market collapsed, and his father’s job with Standard Oil in St. Paul disappeared; he had been a white-collar salesman working on commission, but now there was no one to buy. He hit the road, a grieving, jobless widower, forty-two years old, with no money, no prospects, and two small sons in tow, Samuel and his brother Chuck, two years older. On the social ladder, the Hyneses were a few rungs above the Joads, and clung to an illusion of lower-middle-class status in a country that was increasingly divided into just two classes—the haves and the have-nots.

Later, when I traced our travels in those hard years on a map, I saw the pattern of my father’s desperation: west and then all the way back east, south and then the whole way north, he had drawn his cross on the country. Seven moves in three years. No stop longer than a year. No steady, lasting job. Living in boarding houses. Taking his family’s charity. And always the two small boys.

Hynes never refers to his father directly by name; he is always “my father.” You learn that the elder Hynes is called “Sam” only by indirection; at one of the last stops in his downward spiral, he runs a filling station called “Sam’s Cities Service,” where he supports his family “by pumping gas and changing oil and patching tires.” The years have not diminished Hynes’s resentment at the patronizing familiarity directed toward the serving class. “There was my father, doing dirty jobs for other men,” he writes, “and being called Sam by every stranger who bought a gallon of gas.”

Hynes’s portrait of his father is haunting, a picture of a man who tried to maintain his dignity in a life pockmarked by failure, rejection, compromise, and defeat. In his determination to keep his family together, he occasionally indulged in harmless prevarication. On job applications, he called himself a “lubrication engineer,” when in fact he was not an engineer and had never gone to college. “What he knew he’d learned by doing it,” Hynes writes. Lubrication engineer was “a title he’d invented to name his skills.” He lived his life according to a few basic precepts: a man should work; a man should maintain his property; a man should have his own tools and know how to use them; a man should meet his obligations; a man should stand on his own two feet. He was a Republican, a Presbyterian, a 32nd-degree Mason, and he literally hated Catholics. In 1928, he had voted against Al Smith because he believed that Smith, had he won, would have dug a tunnel between the White House and the Vatican. His fulminations against Rome extended even to Minnesota’s rolling prairie. Catholics, he told his sons when they spotted a spire rising above the farmland, “always build their church on the highest hill in town.”

His father knew, however, that he could not raise his sons by himself, especially when he was pursuing work. In 1934, he found a farm widow named Nellie with three children of her own, a son and two daughters, all in late adolescence. Nellie wore thick glasses, was as plain as a paper napkin, and just as practical. She was also something else—an Irish Catholic. Nellie’s religion suggested the accommodations his father was willing to make, however demeaning he might have thought them, to maintain the stability of his small family. “My father despised the Irish,” Hynes writes. There were only two kinds, “lace-curtain” and “pig-in-the-parlor,” and he thought “both kinds were awful.” Hynes’s loyalty to his father, even to his worst prejudices, was fierce and absolute. “What was he doing?” he writes:

He might get a home, but there would be crucifixes and bleeding hearts of Jesus hanging on the bedroom walls. He might shift the weight of his two children onto her shoulders, but he’d take on the heavier weight of her three. And worst of all, he’d have to submit to being married by a Catholic priest.

In spite of his father’s injunction, Hynes could never call Nellie “mother.” At home he would place himself directly in front of her so that no form of address was necessary; to his friends she was his stepmother, or just Nellie. In the wedding photograph, with the five children gathered around the bride and groom, the group seems “not a family but two very different families gathered on a street corner almost, it seems, accidentally.” Hynes had read Snow White and Cinderella: “I knew about stepmothers and stepsisters.” At home, there were two graces at dinner, one for the Catholic branch of the family, a second for the Protestant. At holiday dinners, his father called the hindquarters of the turkey “the pope’s nose.” Except on special occasions, he did not go to church. “His Presbyterianism would always be a religion-in-exile,” Hynes writes. “In his mind he was a Protestant who had married a Catholic, and so banished himself from the company of faithful believers.”

The summer his father remarried, Hynes and his brother were dispatched to a farm in Litchfield, in central Minnesota, so that the newlyweds could become acclimated to each other, and reach an implicit understanding about their differences. In those days, Nellie would have had some explaining to do to the priests of her own church. What Catholics called “a mixed marriage” was only barely and reluctantly tolerated, and the non-Catholic had to agree to raise whatever issue came of the union as Catholic. In this case, however, one might conjecture that the marriage bed was seldom the site of connubial bliss, and that any progeny would have been an unwelcome surprise to both parties.

As Hynes’s father drove his sons to the farm, the place names—Indian, French, German, Irish—were like a demographic history of westward expansion, the Chippewa and the Sioux giving way to new immigrants, then newer immigrants pushing beyond the old: the untranslated Indian names first—Esquagamah and Nay-Tah-Waush; then (in English) Medicine Lake and Bad Medicine Lake; Belle Plaine, Lac Qui Parle, and Pomme de Terre; Heidelberg, Cologne, and New Munich; Coleraine and Kilkenny. The farm where the Hynes brothers spent that summer was owned by a childless couple, and did not have indoor plumbing; the privy was part of the learning experience. To pay for their keep, the boys did farm chores—milking, gathering eggs, cutting firewood, killing and bleeding chickens, helping with the haying and the threshing. Once another boy took Hynes into a barn to see a stallion servicing a mare. Only ten, he knew he was witnessing something spectacular. “On such a scale!” he writes. “With such rearing and whinnying! That couldn’t be what ordinary creatures like people did. Only stallions, and maybe gods, would do it that way.”

When Hynes and his brother returned to Minneapolis, it was to a house their father had bought from a Sears, Roebuck catalog, a Langston model, $2,964 FOB. “They’d send it out on the back of a truck, every board you need cut to fit, every nail and screw and shingle, every windowpane,” Hynes writes. “All you have to do is put it together.” Which his father did. He and Nellie ran the house as if it were a farm; no small economy was overlooked. Nellie’s mantra was “Eat it up,/Wear it out,/Make it do,/Or do without.” The end slivers of a bar of soap, mixed with water, became shampoo; the hair was rinsed with vinegar, which was cheaper than lemons, but “left you smelling like a pickle jar.”

The winters were brutal: snow measured in feet, ten below, fifteen, even thirty-six below, these temperatures before the fancy Weather Channel computations of wind chill and RealFeel. Summers were hot, and in the air there was silent evidence of the ravaged Dust Bowl many states to the south, carried on the prevailing winds. Dust obscured the noonday sun, “until it was only a veiled red ball in the sky,” and drifted on the sidewalks like the first snow. “Dust was everywhere,” Hynes writes. “It entered houses like a brown ghost, through closed doors and windows, and covered the furniture and got into the food; you could feel it between your teeth when you ate. Even your spit was brown.”

In the streets, unemployment and the threat of joblessness were like a virus that left the city restive, febrile. In the summer of 1934, while Hynes and his brother were on the farm in central Minnesota, a Teamster strike virtually closed Minneapolis down, as if it were under siege. Bands of strikers roamed the streets carrying bats and clubs and axe handles, stopping all truck traffic into the city and holding up food deliveries to grocery stores. Everyone had seen something—a military tank or squads of soldiers downtown wearing steel pots and carrying rifles—or knew someone who knew of someone who had heard of someone left for dead on a sidewalk. The newspapers carried photographs of pitched battles in the street, actions that looked as primitive as Agincourt, bats and clubs swung like broadswords, heads crushed as if with a mace and chain.

It was only years later that Hynes’s father told his son of the part he had played during the strike summer. He was working as a salesman for Shell Oil, which was determined to make its deliveries, strike or no strike. In his car, Hynes’s father was essentially an escort vehicle for a tanker truck. At one station, the tanker was attacked by a mob of Teamsters, bent on destruction and mayhem, which set about destroying the truck and the pumps. Hynes’s father bolted into the station toilet, and climbed out a back window. “It was a humiliation,” Hynes writes:

He had been given a job to do, and had tried to do it, as a man should. But he couldn’t, he had to run away. He had failed his employer, and that mattered to him. But more than that, he had failed himself as a man…. He was ashamed.

Boyhood passed into adolescence, adolescence into young manhood, middle school into high school. The detritus of the Depression was everywhere, leaving clues that the young noticed but chose not to acknowledge. That a friend lived with a single parent was not out of the ordinary:

In those hard times men lost their jobs, or their courage, or their health, or their will to endure, and just gave up—died, took to drink, or ran away—went west, as Americans always had; women died, or took the children and ran, or ran without them. I never knew what had happened to my friends’ missing parents—you didn’t ask a guy where his father was, he might be crazy, or in jail, or dead.

For Hynes’s family, there was the heartbreaking sadness of being not quite poor, making ends meet, keeping up appearances, waiting for opportunity to knock on the door. With hope that seemed eternal, Hynes’s father thought he might be offered a job as manager of a rural Shell distributorship. It was a dream more than a reality, but he saw himself as a man of property, strolling “Main Street in his good suit, saying hello to the people he met, being Someone…because he was the Manager.” The offer was never tendered, and at the end of the school year, without warning or farewells, the family moved from its Langston model Sears, Roebuck house into a smaller two-family duplex. There Hynes’s father pulled on the grease monkey’s uniform of a filling station operator, among whose duties was cleaning the two toilets at his station, “he who for all the years I had known him had dressed every morning in the white shirt and gray suit of a professional man.”

In the far distance, across the Atlantic and the Pacific, the dogs of war were barking, but the sound was barely heard in Minneapolis. For Hynes, losing his virginity was a priority, and he may have succeeded, although he was not sure. His partner was a young Catholic girl, and when her mother found her out, her doctor said that she was still technically a virgin; her priest, however, maintained she was not, and insisted she say hundreds of Hail Marys and not see Hynes again. Pearl Harbor made such matters seem trivial. High school friends enlisted or got drafted, and then began to die: one was blown up when a live grenade exploded in an infantry training accident; his stepbrother was killed in a bombing mission in the Philippines; another friend was shot down over Europe while Hynes was taking Navy flight training at Pensacola. “I could partly imagine what it must be like to die the way [he] died,” Hynes writes,

how the high plane would break and fall, cease to be a plane and become simply falling wreckage, how it would strike the earth in a splash of flame, the detonation like an exploding bomb, the pieces of men and plane scattered over the ground.

Hynes had skipped a grade in grammar school; he was a year younger than his classmates, and so it was not until early 1943 that he enlisted. “Going to war or not going wasn’t a choice I had to make,” he writes. “Of course I would go—not for patriotic reasons, nothing to do with my country or its enemies, or democracy, or humanity. I’d go because not to go was impossible.” On the day he left for boot camp, his father took him to the train; they did not embrace, they did not kiss. His father had tried to enlist after war broke out—he had gone broke, and the Army seemed a solution to his financial crisis—but the recruiters told him that the military was not accepting fifty-three-year-old men with false teeth. As Hynes boarded the train that would take him to war, he looked back at his father, “far down the platform, moving rapidly away through spots of light and shadow toward the dark street.”

Throughout The Growing Seasons, Hynes is assiduously unsentimental, about himself, about his father, about the generation too often called the greatest, but not by him, about the nation he served in two wars (he was recalled to the Marines during Korea). His prose—spare, distant, contained—is not unlike his father’s life, a life that for all its failures was a life worth living. Hynes was with his father when he died, nearly eighty and racked with emphysema:

That October afternoon he lay motionless and silent in the hospital bed, and I sat silently beside him, watching him trying to breathe. Then suddenly he opened his eyes and spoke. Not to me—he was looking straight up at the ceiling—but to the world, or perhaps to God. “I gave up a lot,” he said. So it hadn’t been easy, or natural to him. He knew what it had cost him to be the man he was; but I never would, because I was afraid to ask him what he was remembering. And then he died.

This is a brilliant book.

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