When Joseph Lelyveld was six years old it occurred to him that he was less important to his parents than he wanted to be, that they might even think him a nuisance. That summer—it was 1943—he found himself living with a farm family of Seventh-Day Adventists in rural Nebraska. Though he was Jewish and his father a rabbi, he spent Saturday mornings in the basement of a country church taking religious instruction in the Seventh-Day Adventist faith.
His memory of this has the bizarre quality of dreaming: his family is “somewhere else, far away.” He doesn’t know why he is here, or why he must learn “a second religion.” It is not quite a nightmare, but soon he will incorporate the memory and come to think of the summer of 1943 as a formative moment in his life. It came to stand for the moment he “inexplicably became a burden to my parents.”
Time’s passing only heightened his sense of having been abandoned that summer. As he grew older he sometimes pretended to be kidding his parents with light banter about the time they “abandoned” him on the farm. “But, of course, I wasn’t kidding,” he writes. Even after childhood was behind him, he continued to use the word “abandoned” in talking to his parents, “out of lingering grievance or spite.”
All this seems familiar territory: “Ah yes,” we think, “another childhood memoir of insensitive parents leaving children psychically mutilated.” But Lelyveld is not so quickly understood. What we have here is a memoirist who distrusts memory, especially his own. Pondering a cherished old memory—the cruel abandonment of 1943, say—his immediate instinct is to investigate it. This sometimes makes Omaha Blues feel less like a memoir than an investigative report on the cunning game with which Lelyveld’s treacherous memory has been distorting his understanding of his own life.
His investigation of that summer on a Nebraska farm has been extensive. It included visits as an adult to the scene of the memory. There he walked the ground again and interviewed surviving members of the family he had lived with. The report on his findings is reminiscent of Proust’s account of his forgotten childhood world suddenly reappearing, full and intact in his mind, under the magical taste of a small cake dipped in tea.
Returned to the scene of his Nebraska exile, the adult Lelyveld is flooded with happy memories of a farm boy’s summer: milking a cow by hand, the taste of warm bread fresh from the oven, pumping the household water at a rusting windmill, the two-holer outhouse, a pigpen, the beheading of chickens destined for the pot, kerosene lamps at twilight on a landscape still not electrified, a scalding August day of old-fashioned country communalism when crowds of neighbors descend to help with the threshing of the oats and revel in the harvest picnic feast.
Barely launched in a tale of childhood desolation, he realizes that memory has betrayed him. He had not been “lonely, sad, and miserable every minute and hour” of that summer. Far from it. At times “I was actually happy, excited by a sense that ‘Joey’ [as the host family called him] had begun to win a bit of acceptance as someone who belonged on the farm.”
Many writers would have been content to leave the original memory uninvestigated. The facts spoil a powerful story line. Worse, they distort the one terrible, painful truth embedded in Lelyveld’s primitive memory. His parents, as his story proceeds to show, really did want to be rid of him that summer. Memory may have dropped out some of the facts, but it had always clung to the fundamental truth.
Memoir writers commonly treat such vivid childhood memories as treasures not to be handled roughly by the fact checkers. If the typical memoirist is not always as slavish to fact as historians, biographers, and journalists fancy themselves, it is because memoir aims to turn a life into a story, and a storyteller requires a strong narrative line. Memoir, with its insistence on a narrative, is responding to a natural urge to make sense of the incomprehensible. A life faithfully told in prose by the person living it would, after all, seem as dull, pointless, and stultifyingly unreadable as a month’s supply of the Congressional Record. By trying to squeeze such a baffling profusion into a coherent story, however, the memoirist produces something very like fiction, and it is the fictional nature of the form that Lelyveld deliberately shuns.
He is a journalist, unskilled, he insists, in the fictional art. He writes like an investigative reporter assigned to take a good close look into his own life, not failing to check out those old rumors spread around by flibberti-gibbet memory. As a good reporter he is wary of information for which there is only one source. Never mind that the one source is his own memory. He wants two sources, and preferably more.
This makes Omaha Blues a curious diversion from the usual memoir of life with parents who did their worst. Lelyveld’s constant testing of assumptions and memories discloses nothing even slightly appalling in his highly respectable household, but only a sad, rather lonely family in which everyone tried hard to do his and her best and seemed surprised to find that it was often just not good enough. Among the Lelyvelds, confusion, misunderstanding, and too much silence at all levels were the makings of an obviously unhappy family, whose members, if asked, Lelyveld says, would have called themselves a happy family. His book is more like life than memoir.
If the Lelyveld family was an unsuccessful organism, individual members were remarkably successful. The father became a figure of great eminence in Reform Judaism and the Zionist movement. Young Lelyveld was admitted to Harvard, graduated summa cum laude, started working at The New York Times as a copyboy, and worked there throughout his entire journalistic career. He eventually became executive editor of The New York Times, maybe the most prized job in American journalism, but readers will not learn this from Omaha Blues.
With a modesty rare among such grandees, he omits mentioning his many honors and achievements, including his term as the Times‘s top man between 1994 and 2001. He stepped down shortly before the mandatory retirement age of sixty-five to make way for Howell Raines, and the book is a product of the retirement years. It is not a celebration of himself, but a search to understand what happened in youth to make him the person he became.
Since retiring, he writes,
I’ve been wandering the land, looking up old acquaintances or their survivors, indulging the urge pathetic old folks baffled by life’s swift passage sometimes feel to find out what actually happened when they were too young or too stunned to take it all in.
The search for the truth behind his memories produces something closer to confession than to memoir. It often feels like a meditation on the morality of family duty. Has he been an undutiful son? Quite possibly. And his father who became such a distinguished and dynamic rabbi—was he as dutiful to his family as he was to Zionism? What of his mother? She was demonstrably derelict, but her record of mental instability is to be weighed in mitigation.
A third of the way into his story Lelyveld introduces Ben, also a rabbi, who at last gave him the attention and warmth his father never provided. It is Ben to whom Lelyveld gives his heart in a long, fascinating digression which goes to the question of filial duty. “Dad” always has his son’s respect, but it is Ben whom the son recalls with unabashed filial love.
In Lelyveld’s boyhood Ben filled a role that his father “was usually too absent or too busy or too preoccupied to fill.” For two years or so, Ben was “the one adult in my life who seemed consistently and reliably available.” If asked, he says,
I would certainly have confirmed that my parents loved me, but I’d never felt as indulged as I did in Ben’s company…. My impression is that I never stopped talking because when I picture Ben he’s generally smiling and nodding, encouraging me to go on.
As he recalls it now, the boy was close to finding a better father. A great part of his book is devoted to worrying and testing that memory.
Though investigations showed that the farm summer of 1943 was a happier experience than memory reported, Lelyveld finds nothing to dispel the old suspicion that his parents had put him there to be rid of a nuisance. This fact shapes his book. As in memory’s dreamlike state when his parents were “somewhere else, far away,” a chilling sense of distance between family members suffuses the book, starting from its opening sentence: “Long before I taught myself to hold them at a safe distance, my parents…”
His parents held their son at a safe distance too. There must have been a stifling feeling of aloneness in that family. Typically, although Lelyveld has two younger brothers, they rarely appear in his book. Even at the end, sitting quietly with his dying father in a hospice room, he is burdened by a sense of old unbridgeable distances:
There was no look of recognition in his eyes, but when I held his hand I felt the comforting pressure of his grip. More for my sake than his, since the words didn’t register, I’d tell him I loved him, but that still left plenty of time for sour-sweet reflection on the paradox of this unfailingly loving father who was almost as consistently beyond reach.
Lelyveld’s mother, née Toby Bookholtz, is worth a book of her own. Ambitious, dreamy, suicidally neurotic, disappointed by marriage as well as motherhood, she is a woman modern feminists might view as a martyred heroine of their struggle for freedom from a patriarchal society. But she too is a resolute keeper of distances. In his researches Lelyveld found it “a little startling” to come upon “evidence in my mom’s own words and hand that she had, in truth, begun to find me unbearable the summer after I turned five.”
It is never quite clear what was happening to the family that summer in Nebraska, but his parents’ marriage was obviously in trouble.
The Lelyvelds were New Yorkers. They had met as students at Columbia, fallen passionately in love, and married very young. They were intellectual, academic, ambitious, driven by an intense desire to achieve. Toby’s interests were literary and theatrical. She was working on a doctorate about theatrical interpretations of Shylock through the years. As a student, Lelyveld’s “dad” apparently never passed a day idly. He was editor of the Spectator, leader of the Glee Club, a member of the wrestling team, organizer of the Columbia Ramblers, a dance band for which he also sang and played banjo, and a superior student who graduated Phi Beta Kappa.