The day after Christmas, 1953, I broke out of the rippled aluminum siding of our Iowa house for three Chicago days of MLA.* City lights, city sights, old friends, old teachers, shop talk, and, first, a job to unlock the aluminum cage for good and all. On the Rock Island Rocket I sat beside the head of the Iowa Music Department, Philip Greeley Clapp, and remembered my friend Higgins, the pianist, stuck in Conway, Arkansas, at “the friendliest college in the south.” Mr. Clapp was off for his own convention, he must be “hiring.” By Moline, I was into Higgins’s talents and misfortunes, sure that I could see rising in Clapp’s gentle bulk the charter of Higgins’s liberation from amical Arkansas. I described Higgins’s encounter with the Englishman who told him that he could not give recitals with such a name, not in England, couldn’t even accompany a soloist, might, just might get work pushing a piano onstage. “Names don’t mean,” groaned Mr. Clapp, “that much.” But of course they did, and that was it for Higgins, and that was the sad omen for that MLA.
The job for which I’d come had been dangled before ninety-six other graduate students in the Midwest. We began assessing the choked stream that afternoon at the University Club where the doorman pointed to the Illinois Chairman’s cold ambassador, a bulletin board upon which our ninety-seven names were linked by dashes to fifteen-minute appointments in various Palmer House suites. Chicago’s wind had never bayonetted more fiercely through the overcoats, scarves, mittens, and fedoras which, like that bulletin board, buried us in featureless brotherhood. We saluted each other in the corridors, waiting for interrogation by the professorial squadrons (“How do you regard yourself, Mr. Stern?” “?” “Ultimately?” “?” “Writer or scholar?” “Mumble.”). Our wire service reported that the Chairman himself was talking in the Grand Ballroom with a man from Princeton, and later, that the search for the fortunate fish had ended in that Eastern mainstream. We moved on to other suites, topping each other with gentle suavity: “Of course I’ve always thought of the Odyssey as a picaresque.” More and more frequently, we met downstairs in the Polynesian Bar and Trader Vic’s or across Michigan at the Art Institute, in front of the antique peace of the Grande Jatte. The last day saw some of us on Clark Street where girls with even bleaker futures than our own waved coffee-colored hips over our watered booze. “At least they don’t wear badges.” The tall and myopic suffered neck pains after hours of MLA lapelgazing: “Excuse me, sir, I understand North…South Dakota’s looking for someone in the eighteenth century.”)
A dozen years later, most of us were back in the Palmer House, though germane proliferations (American Association of Teachers of Slavic, the Mark Twain Society, the Linguistic Atlas) overflowed blocks into the Hilton, the Blackstone, the LaSalle. The forlorn brothers of ’53 now were soliciting the ultimate self-estimations of others. In those same corridors, we excavated still more sweet layers of the years, remarked the same incidence of genteel theft from the publishers’ carnival booths, roughly the same ratio of whiskey and amour which puzzled the chambermaids: “What did you say this convention was?”
Now, though, it was a seller’s market. The appointments, worked out with numbered discs and a Domesday Dossier Book, were at the convenience of the young. Interviewers waited in suites while job-seekers finished Manhattans at publishers’ parties and then came up to ask the questions: “You’re still requiring a section of freshman English?” “What kind of medieval stuff goes on out there?” “How much did you say?”
Even the weather was mild, and small expeditions loped up to the Café de Paris talking of yet finer restaurants in countries combed over on Fulbrights, Guggenheims, and ACLS grants. Overheard remarks went further afield: “In ten years they’ll be teaching Swahili in the high schools.” Though there were staples: “They’re hard to steal from California.” “Nuns don’t like to get out of elevators.” “They fret not at lonely convent rooms either.” There were many more un-nun-like girls, readers of Vogue as well as The Journal of English and German Philology, some attached to ambitious husbands as bait for the great; pursuit was still thickly allusive: “Do I dare to eat a peach?”
Conventioneers seldom admit the worth of papers in years they do not read them, but here and there, one heard of “solid jobs,” of Professor Ehrlich’s dazzling run through Gogol after the Slavic Teachers’ Dinner, of Professor Silverstein’s attack on allegorical simplifications at the Chaucer Section. Probably the same proportion of in-wit and pretense, sense and nonsense which historians were listening to in San Francisco, the scientists in Berkeley, the philosophers in New York.
There was one change though that may mark a turning point for the MLA, and this was the heavy presence of poets, novelists, critics, and editors, mixed in painlessly with the old settlers. It looked as if the convention was the bonfire before which all American literature warmed its hands, New Directions and the University of Pittsburgh Press, MP and The Sixties, linguist, biographer, edition-maker, teacher. There was not yet the scientists’ fusion of experimenter-theorist and professor, but the congregation was at least similar to the American Political Science Association whose membership lists senators and professors, Truman and Hans Morgenthau.
As if to demonstrate the character of the ’65 convention, the American Studies Association invited John Cheever, Ralph Ellison, and Norman Mailer to talk about the relationship of the novelist to the country’s power structures. The session was probably the best-attended in the eighty-odd meetings of the MLA. Perhaps a couple of thousand professors of literature sat waiting the rare teachings under files of hundred bulb chandeliers suspended from enormous carved pools of red lacquer.
Cheever began, nervous, small, elegant, rapidly, brilliantly witty. He machine-gunned a “parable of the diligent novelist” quitting a seminary, holing up in a slum, raping, knifing, buggering, becoming a spy, living, dying, writing on the roller-coaster of experience; an undebateable swipe at the novel as document, the novelist as seared survivor. The audience, ablaze with pleasure, was largely unaware that the session’s supposed subject, the novelist and power, had gone up in smoke. Then Ellison, arrived but an hour before, spoke, as usual without a note, about the attempt of sociologists to impose their statistical distortions of experience on the public and about writers who spread such ready-made anguish over the actual contours of their lives. His talk was oblique and seemed to puzzle the audience.
Mailer, in a fine blue suit, vest lapped in black silk, took the microphone like a bulldog and in a voice which gripped every throat in the room read a corrosive, brilliant, hit-and-run analysis of the failure of American novelists to keep up with a whirling country, their division into the opposed camps of those who fed titillating pap to the genteel and those, like Dreiser, who pointed American Julien Sorels to the doors of power (though his clumsiness could not open them). Down the road were “the metaphorical novelists,” Hemingway and Faulkner, one of whom described the paw, the other the dreams of the social beast; then around a corner, where Dos Passos appeared as a genteel novelist (the author of The Naked and the Dead knows this corner well), to the real object of the analysis, Herzog, Dreiser’s neurotic grandson, a triumph of sensibility despite its failure to depict society and its absorption in a character so foolish “you wouldn’t have him in your living room.” If Herzog stood for the novel’s failure, the absurd novel (whose finest creature was The Magic Christian) was the symptom of the country’s failure.
Breathless with tension under the lacquer, the audience heard a final Savonarolesque call for the novel to redress the brutal inflictions of the times, Vietnam, psychotic rapine, “the motorcycled lions roaring across the land.” The pretty, bespectacled girl beside me released a sigh for that one talent which would suffer no death today. The settlers thundered applause, their hunger for retail violence and perilous survival slaked by a master.
Upstairs, a press conference, largely devoted to Mailer and Ellison’s explaining to the CBS man why they were glad their talks weren’t taped, why television and documentary necessarily distort reality. A Viennese lady reporter requested information about literary influences and was escorted to the elevator by Mailer. Where too, he was a delightful performer. In the carful of goggling professors, sloshing his drink, he called out “Nine” as the elevator hurtled from Ten, and when released at Seven, he fired genially at the uniformed auntie from his fortress of licensed clowning, “You Jew,” and rollicked like a sailor down the mirrored corridor, leaving behind a small carnage of titillated shock. It was the right note for this MLA—the twitting of old mania, the domesticated recklessness, the comic flip to inertia. It was far from the queues in front of bulletin boards, the intellectual mob striving in clerkly treason.
Two hours later, Cheever, Ellison, and Mailer were off to Hugh Hefner’s sumptuous nunnery, swimming, arguing with bunnies, eating dinner from a menu divided into à la carte and Bunny Sections: “Monday—Codfish Cakes, Green Beans, Rice Pudding.” In a few years the settlers may be trailing the Indians down here; the bunnies too wear badges, and the tent is getting bigger and bigger.
February 17, 1966