The Conversation Continues
Welcome to Page 9 of my “forum.” The subject matter here is anything to do with literature, books, reading, and writing, with a little philosophy thrown in, as well as other tangents and revelations that spring naturally from “intelligent” conversation. To participate, send an e-mail. That’s all there is to it. When I receive your message, I will add it to the bottom of the newest page — unless, of course, it is rude or crude, in which case I retain the right to not post your message. The same goes for blatant advertising. Pertinent recommendations of reading material and related websites, though, are welcome within the natural context of our conversation. We all have plenty to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience. So, whether you are just reading or actively participating, enjoy your visit. I will post new messages as soon as possible after they are received. Be sure to check in often for the latest responses.
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To return to my December 2002 Barbaric Yawp interview with John Berbrich, click here.
To read our original 2001 interview, click here.
William Michaelian: My, my. It’s hard to believe we’re on our ninth page already. On one hand, we’ve covered a lot of ground, but on the other, I know we’ve only scratched the tip of the iceberg, as was apparent when one visitor popped in with his impressions of Henry Miller, Blaise Cendrars, and W.G. Sebald, and then popped out again, or when Judy introduced us to Montana’s literary landscape, followed by her discussion of chimps. Then, at the end of the page, came Nabokov, whose Pale Fire, if I’m not mistaken, is the next selection in Judy’s book club. Since John hasn’t read any Nabokov, and since I’ve read only a few short excerpts from his stories, we’ll have to count on Judy to enlighten us. Or we could forget Nabokov altogether and pour yet another drink, despite the fact that our kidneys are swimming in gin. Gin. That reminds me. I remember a little magazine called Bathtub Gin. I wonder if it’s still around?
John Berbrich: Yes, it is. I’m holding the Fall/Winter 2004 issue in my hand. Good work, as usual. In his editor’s intro, Christopher Harter says that they will be relocating soon but he doesn’t know just where to. Were you published in there once upon a time?
William Michaelian: Nope. I bought an issue at least six years ago, but didn’t submit anything. I don’t remember if I had a reason, or if the thought was buried in a heap of other things. It might take an archeologist to figure it out. But I see Mr. Harter has a website with all the pertinent information. Bathtub Gin is moving to Erie, Pennysylvania, in August. How about you? Has any of your work been soaked in gin?
John Berbrich: Erie, great name. No, I’ve never sent him anything. Chris was a subscriber to the Yawp for awhile, and periodically sends me new chapbooks for review. I reviewed one in the issue I sent you two weeks ago, The Levelling Wind by Kell Robertson, a really good chapbook, as I mentioned in the review. Anyway, Bathtub Gin is a solid periodical, with both visual and aesthetic appeal.
William Michaelian: I did read about The Levelling Wind in your “Book Beat” section, but didn’t make the connection with Bathtub Gin. The chapbook sounds appealing. I like your comment: “These are GOOD cowboy poems.” To further quote from your review: “The poetry is sweet and sad and reflective; it laments unappreciated beauty and the past buried under asphalt. The setting is the spine of the country, Oklahoma up to Montana via Kansas and Colorado.” So. The Levelling Wind can be purchased directly from Chris Harter’s Pathwise Press, for only $5.95. Let’s see. The address, at least for the time being, is P.O. Box 2392, Bloomington, Indiana, 47402. And of course Kell Robertson’s book is but one of several Chris has published, according to his website. What about Moon Pie Press? Is Maine poet Nancy Henry just starting out with that, or has she published other titles?
John Berbrich: Nancy’s in that enterprise with Alice Persons, both of whom have appeared in Barbaric Yawp several times. I think Moon Pie Press has eleven chapbooks in print now, of which I’ve seen about half. Again, they are appealing both visually and poetically, although the price is a bit high. In fact, Garrison Keillor read four Moon Pie Press poems on his The Writer’s Almanac radio show in the middle of May — one poem by Jay Davis, another by David Moreau, and two by Alice Persons. That was pretty exciting for the girls.
William Michaelian: I’ll bet it was. That’s great. I’ve heard The Writer’s Almanac quite a few times, though always by accident when I was on the road. Garrison Keillor strikes me as someone who isn’t quite in his right mind — a good thing. I suppose ten dollars is a bit high for a chapbook. But when I think of the amount of money people are willing to shell out for all sorts of worthless throw-away items, ten dollars seems cheap. The pricing thing has always been hard to figure. I traded books with someone — my Among the Living for his 100-page perfect-bound book of poetry. As soon as I opened it, the thing started to disintegrate. The cover is permanently curled, and kind of wavy. The price: $13.95. In this case, definitely too much. But usually, saddle-stitched chapbooks for four or five or six dollars are a great bargain.
John Berbrich: Yes, I have to agree. Our standard price for a chapbook was $3, but I’m raising that to at least $4 and even $5 for snazzy full-color covers. Everything costs — ink, paper, postage. That doesn’t include actual machinery like printers and copiers, and we won’t even begin to talk about seconds, minutes, and hours. Anyway — I like the look and feel of a professionally bound paperback, but glue sometimes gives and spines crack. A chapbook printed on good 24 lb. paper and secured with heavy staples should last at least as long as a paperback. And of course, good words are imperishable, in whatever form.
William Michaelian: How true. And I think you’re right to raise your price a bit. At least that way you can keep pace with expenses. I’ve always liked being around ink and paper and the whole printing process. Every once in awhile I think it would be nice to have an old creaking press and turn out my own hand-set books. But it isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. I’ll just have to content myself with reading about Virginia Woolf’s — what was it? Hogarth Press? Or am I mixing her up with someone else? Anyway. I like chapbooks. The format is ideal for reading on the bus, at lunch, or on a long hike. Properly made paperbacks are also nice. One advantage they have is their printing on the spine. But hardcovers are my real favorite — the older the better.
John Berbrich: Well, yeah. They all seem like scripture. The oldest book I have is The Life of Byron by Thomas Moore, published in 1830, only six years after Byron’s death. It is dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, who was still alive at the time. This book is like a relic from another world.
William Michaelian: I don’t think I have a book that old. I do have a few from the late 1800s, like my copy of Emerson’s essays published in 1892. My mother has several that are older, that were handed down from my grandmother’s collection. Those are printed in Armenian. But in Armenia I saw ancient illuminated manuscripts that are truly a wonder. The colors are still vivid and bright, arrived at by the old formulas of grinding various roots and plants and worms, some acting as a preservative. Bibles, astronomy, historical works translated from Greek and Latin. Magnificent.
Judy: Did any of you see the PBS special about the illuminated Bible they are hand-making in England? The project will take about seven years all told; perhaps it is done by now. It was in honor of the year 2000, but I believe the planning didn’t start in time to get it done by 2000. The documentary talks about selecting the calligraphy style, illustration style, and finding a team of calligraphers and artists. At least some of the illustrations are somewhat contemporary in style; one makes reference to 9/11/2001. It’s pretty much taken over the life of the man whose brain-child it was. I can’t remember if they told how the colors for the illumination were made, so don’t know if it’s worms or acryllic. Sad to say, who knows what the future of public broadcasting is now, thanks to the powers that be. . . . By the way, I ran across the word farrago again in Nabakov’s Pale Fire: “a fantastic farrago of evil.”
John Berbrich: This may be nothing more than a coincidence, but I have a dentist appointment tomorrow afternoon.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha, so Farrago returns. Coincidence, my eye. I urge you not to go. Better to lose your teeth, than to walk right into his trap. I wonder if there are any references to Farrago in the Bible Judy mentioned. I wonder if your dentist now has illuminated manuscripts in his waiting room. I wonder what Nabokov was thinking. I wonder who Nabokov really was — or is. . . .
John Berbrich: Willie, you’re scaring me. I’ve been going to this dentist for years. If he’s really Farrago, then I’m in big trouble. Unless his cute dental hygienist is really the mad one. She works on my choppers.
William Michaelian: Choppers? How many motorcycles do you own?
John Berbrich: None, Willie. That’s teeth, teeth. Choppers are teeth. But let me get this straight. If the cute little dental hygienist — Sherri — is really Farrago, then s/he’s a master of disguise. Or perhaps she’s merely one of his flunkies. I seriously hope that she’s not Muddle. I’m having a real bad feeling about all of this.
William Michaelian: Well, there he goes, ladies and gentlemen. A brave soul, prepared to meet his end. . . . sniff.
John Berbrich: Well, I got to work today and checked my calendar — my dental appointment is next Monday. So I have a whole week to think about it. Any suggestions, Willie, Judy, anybody?
William Michaelian: Excellent! My first suggestion is, quit work and move to Oregon. You’ll be safe here, and we have plenty of garbanzos. And then there’s the lively literary scene — after all, don’t forget our dead poet laureate. And we have the St. Paul Rodeo coming up on July Fourth, where every year they crown a new poet lariat. As for a new job, don’t give it a second thought. You can be a burnt elf. I posted the job description recently at the employment department, but no one I’ve interviewed has the necessary, uh, qualifications. Imagine — one nut even asked if I offered benefits — as if the benefits of being an elf weren’t enough already. So. What do you think? Pretty tempting, huh?
John Berbrich: Yeah, but if I move out there, then I’ll miss my dentist appointment for next Monday. You know how hard they are to reschedule. Things just aren’t working out.
William Michaelian: Still in the grip of reality, I see. Further proof that Oregon is exactly what you need. We’ll get your room ready. For your added comfort, we’ll leave a copy of Pale Farrago — I mean Pale Fire — on your night stand.
John Berbrich: Yeah, but Willie, consider this — You have to leave any day now if you’re going to walk to Russell and arrive on the evening of September 18th. I’ll have to leave now to make it to Oregon any time soon. So we’ll pass in — where? — Iowa? — sometime around early August. I’ll be the guy with the aching tooth. Tell your wife I want chicken and beer when I get there. Don’t forget, Nancy will be enduring a headache, but I’ll leave instructions before I depart that you want a big bowl of garbanzos when you arrive. And a glass of water.
William Michaelian: Finally, you’re starting to make sense. For a minute there, you had me worried. But since you’re coming, I’ve decided to change my plans. I’ll wait until you get here and we’ll have chicken and beer together, then after resting up for a day or two and putting out a few issues of Burnt Elves, we’ll walk back to your place for the garbanzos. That’ll give Nancy plenty of time to recover from her headache, and to do any remodeling she might have in mind. Do you want the chicken fried, roasted, or baked? Or would you like to try our specialty, Chicken Farrago?
John Berbrich: Any sort of chicken is good. I prefer it fried and have a special fondness for dark meat. Suddenly, things are looking better. And I’m getting hungry. So you’re really gonna do Burnt Elves, huh?
William Michaelian: I don’t know. That would take an awfully big pan. . . . Oh! You mean the magazine! Well, uh . . . I’ll have to take care of a few preliminaries first. I’ll need a much larger mailbox, some file folders, a desk the size of a football field, and little beds for the elves. The good news is, I just thought of another elf illustration: eager elves in a garbanzo-pushing race. In the first panel, there is a big crowd of elves at the starting line, each leaning against a garbanzo and ready to go. In the second panel, there are several trampled elves, and elves trapped under squashed garbanzos. In the third panel, there are half a dozen elves in the open field, their little legs churning, their faces spattered with hummus. In the last panel, the same fierce competitors go off the edge of a cliff and into a frying pan full of hot olive oil, basil, and simmering garlic. Mediterranean Burnt Elves. Scrumptious!
John Berbrich: Please send Nancy the entire recipe, with photos if possible. Sounds like something that could feed a lot, like a church dinner or a little league fund-raiser. You West Coast guys are cutting-edge when it comes to food!
William Michaelian: Yep — when it comes to elves, we think big. But there’s more: I just received a call from the Federation of Fortified Elves, and they’re hopping mad about my cartoon idea. I wouldn’t have known, but my telephone is equipped with a Universal Elf Translator — their voices can be awfully high, you know. They demanded a retraction. I laughed and told them the matter is out of their jurisdiction. Fortified elves, indeed. Burnt elves, as you know, have all come up the hard way, and don’t rely on steroids. In other words, they have their pride. Imagine a magazine called Fortified Elves. It could never happen. Maybe a cereal, but not a magazine. I also pointed out that burnt elves have a sense of humor, and don’t mind poking fun at themselves — something I will stress in my writers’ guidelines.
Judy: Where is FoFE headquartered? The North Pole? Little Chute, Wisconsin? Short Pump, Virginia? Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey? Little Canada, Minnesota? Little Sioux, Iowa? Short Acres, California? Elfrida, Arizona? Elfin Cove, Alaska? Also, elf is the German word for eleven. Will there be precisely eleven elves in the cartoon?
William Michaelian: Precisely? Something tells me you’ve never tried to count elves. It’s tough. They’re quick, and they have a tendency to overlap. You left out Bug’s Ear, Maine, and Knee High, Louisiana. Or is it knee deep? If there are no towns by that name, there should be.
John Berbrich: Not to change the subject, but there’s a place in Connecticut called the The Devil’s Hopyard. I don’t know exactly what it is, but driving by there always gave me the creeps.
William Michaelian: Are you sure it isn’t a small brewery? It’s a good name for one.
John Berbrich: You’re right, it is. But I think not. The sign had the look of a State Park kind of thing. I always got the strangest image in my mind, like a sort of abandoned train yard inhabited by sporadic, hopping demons. Like some insane and terrifying video game. There was another place in Connecticut, northwest of Hartford, where a sign by the roadside read: “Now entering Satan’s Kingdom.” This was a real, honest-to-goodness Department of Transportation road sign. I couldn’t see how anything changed when we entered. Maybe that was the point.
William Michaelian: Could be. So, then. You figure the Hopyard might be a recreational area for demons, specifically sporadic ones. Interesting classification. But it does make sense. Even demons need a place to get away from it all — unless it’s a training ground for young demons trying to get into Satan’s Kingdom. Or are these merely titles that Stephen King once thought of using, then decided against?
John Berbrich: I’m not sure. I know that King stole the name for his novel Carrie from the movie of the same name that came out a few years after the book.
William Michaelian: The beauty of that statement is, you made it with a straight face. But that’s just like King, stealing ideas from himself. Have you read, or do you know anything about Ambrose Bierce?
Judy: Well, I peeked at MSU’s Gale database and learned that Mr. Bierce was born in Elf Cave Creek, er, make that Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio, and disappeared in Mexico in 1914. The name is vey familiar, and if I’d been listening closely this morning to NPR, I probably would have heard it then, because the Writer’s Almanac fella talked about his Devil’s Dictionary. I loved the two examples of definitions that Keillor gave; I think there was a great deal of truth in them. It looks like he wrote in various formats: short stories, novels, essays, poetry, criticism; worked a variety of jobs and used a few different pennames. He married and divorced, and two of his three children preceded him in death. Sounds like he had a rather dark outlike on life. It was interesting to see he wrote a satire named Dance of Death under the name William Herman, and a book entitled Dance of Life with the penname Mrs. J. Milton Bowers. I haven’t read any of Bierce.
John Berbrich: My knowledge of Bierce is limited to a basic adumbration of Judy’s statement, without the details. I don’t have any of his books. But I do have a marvelous collection of cynical definitions called the Devil’s Collection, in which Bierce’s insights figure prominently. Here are two examples chosen at random: “Dog” — A kind of additional or subsidiary Deity designed to catch the overflow and surplus of the world’s worship; & “Property” — The distinction between a whiskey-drinking tramp and a champagne-guzzling millionaire.
William Michaelian: That’s a good one. How about this: “Homicide” — The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable and praiseworthy. And to Judy’s fine background and your basic adumbration, we can add another fascinating tidbit: Bierce was the tenth of thirteen children, and each had a name beginning with A. There were Abigail, Amelia, Ann Maria, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, and the twins, Adelia and Aurelia. Beyond that, when it comes to reading Bierce, we are a club of three. Who else and what else is lurking in that Devil’s Collection?
John Berbrich: Lots of Mencken: “The Creator” — A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh; & Twain: “Natural Death” — Where you die by yourself without the aid of a doctor; & George Bernard Shaw: “Dancing” — A perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire. Plenty more, including wits as diverse as Voltaire, Aldous Huxley, and Woody Allen.
William Michaelian: Sounds great. A book like that is good to have around. Be sure to bring it when you come to Oregon. One of us can read quotes while the other is counting garbanzos. Another of my favorites is also by Mencken. “Puritanism” — The haunting fear that someone, somewhere might be happy.” Mencken died in 1956. Wouldn’t he be gloriously disgusted with society and politics today?
Judy: I love the Puritanism definition. The thrust of some of the letters to the local newspaper is that if one is happy and enjoying life, one is not living right.
John Berbrich: That’s like Bach’s ecclesiastical music being banned from churches because it gave pleasure. The contention that our lives should be unhappy and miserable is indefensible. I suppose that Christians wrote these letters. No wonder some people prefer Hell.
Judy: Yeah — wouldn’t you rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints? The definition of saint was one of the definitions that Garrison Keillor read the other day. Something like a sinner who has died and whose memory has been edited by the living.
William Michaelian: The end is near! Oops. Sorry. Don’t know what came over me. As it happens, I’ve just added a page about Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth, a work of his that I highly recommend. Here is a tasty morsel on the subject of Hell:
“. . . In time, the Deity perceived that death was a mistake; a mistake, in that it was insufficient; insufficient, for the reason that while it was an admirable agent for the inflicting of misery upon the survivor, it allowed the dead person himself to escape from all further persecution in the blessed refuge of the grave. This was not satisfactory. A way must be contrived to pursue the dead beyond the tomb.
“The Deity pondered this matter during four thousand years unsuccessfully, but as soon as he came down to earth and became a Christian his mind cleared and he knew what to do. He invented hell, and proclaimed it.
“Now here is a curious thing. It is believed by everybody that while he was in heaven he was stern, hard, resentful, jealous, and cruel; but that when he came down to earth and assumed the name Jesus Christ, he became the opposite of what he was before: that is to say, he became sweet, and gentle, merciful, forgiving, and all harshness disappeared from his nature and a deep and yearning love for his poor human children took its place. Whereas it was as Jesus Christ that he devised hell and proclaimed it!
“Which is to say, that as the meek and gentle Savior he was a thousand billion times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament — oh, incomparably more atrocious than ever he was when he was at his very worst in those old days!
“Meek and gentle? By and by we will examine this popular sarcasm by the light of the hell which he invented.
“While it is true that the palm for malignity must be granted to Jesus, the inventor of hell, he was hard and ungentle enough for all godlike purposes even before he became a Christian. It does not appear that he ever stopped to reflect that he was to blame when a man went wrong, inasmuch as the man was merely acting in accordance with the disposition he had afflicted him with. No, he punished the man, instead of punishing himself. . . .”
Interesting, isn’t it?
Judy: There was certainly more to Mark Twain than just the humorist, that’s for sure. Like Ambrose Bierce, he survived two of his three children, and after someone made a comment to him about God, Twain said, “Relations between God and myself have been somewhat strained lately,” or something like that.
John Berbrich: My, aren’t we cynical! Try to top this one: Bierce said that a Cynic was “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” Awful man! A clear-eyed prophet!
Judy: Can’t top that one, John.
William Michaelian: That’s right — you should be given the Bierce-o-Matic Award. You know, this might come as a surprise, because I am such a tremendously cheerful and upbeat person, but every now and then someone will accuse me of being cynical. And yet ask me if I see hope for the human race and the answer is a resounding Yes! Granted, I don’t see much hope, but hope is hope. Or is it? Oh, well. What’s the use?
John Berbrich: Willie, cheer up! You’ve got to be more optimistic! Look, anything can happen, even good things. It might all get better, it might.
William Michaelian: You’re right. Ha-ha-ha-ha! Jeez, that sounded a little forced, didn’t it. Say, here’s something cheerful. I read yesterday that Don Quixote is now 400 years old. Imagine that. The book came out in 1605. Shortly after, Cervantes was arrested for a murder that took place in front of his house. The matter was soon cleared up and he was released. If something like that happened today, you’d have to assume it was a publicity stunt. And speaking of Don Quixote, I am presently reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America. The connection: Steinbeck named the pickup he traveled in Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse.
John Berbrich: And is Charley the dog supposed to be Sancho Panza?
William Michaelian: Of course not. Charley was French. Actually, Rocinante doesn’t play too big a part in the story until its under-sized tires blow in Oregon. That’s when Steinbeck had to practically swim under the pickup to change tires. I can’t remember — did you read the book?
John Berbrich: Yes, maybe ten years ago. About one year before I started reading Travels with Charley, I had begun a prose account of some of my hitchhiking adventures. Some of it was imaginary, but most of it was real, with names changed to protect the guilty/innocent and so on. I wrote roughly 300 notebook pages. Anyway, when I picked up Steinbeck’s book I discovered that oddly and unknowingly I had selected almost the identical route for my travels that he had. So I decided to call my account Travels Without Charley, since I didn’t have a dog (or anyone else) for a sidekick, and which would also acknowledge Steinbeck’s far superior book.
William Michaelian: Good title. Is the account of your travels still in notebook form, or did you print up a few copies? If so, I’d like to read it. I’m enjoying Travels with Charley. I wouldn’t exactly call it an inspired work, but it contains eloquent passages and good observations.
John Berbrich: Exactly. But you can find plenty of inspired Steinbeck elsewhere. My own writings are still in the notebooks. I’ve often thought of putting them in some kind of publishable form, and perhaps I will. Of course, I haven’t really finished with the narrative — right now I’m down near San Diego and still have to make it back to New York. Which I suppose I could do in a hurry, much as Steinbeck does. I should try to find those notebooks and re-read that old stuff. I remember parts of it fondly.
William Michaelian: You should. I’ll bet you’d be pleasantly surprised. Steinbeck does speed things up toward the end, after his return to Salinas and when he moves on from there. I think the Salinas and Monterey scenes are the best in the book so far. As a matter of fact, what he wrote about that part of his journey was inspired. As he said, in the eyes of some of his old friends there, when he left it was as if he had died, leaving them free to remember him the way he was. By staying, they had changed along with the towns, and so they were troubled and saddened by his presence.
John Berbrich: Steinbeck does strike a somber tone pretty often. Of course, some of his work contains hilarious parts, like Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. He touches everything with gentle fingers — you swear he loves all of his characters. I believe it was somewhere in Travels With Charley that he talks about himself as a man of huge appetites, sometimes staying up forty-eight hours straight writing. I am bushed after wielding a pen for sixty minutes. The man was dedicated, and his hard work paid off.
William Michaelian: He definitely felt he had a job to do, and approached it with a great sense of responsibility. How right you are when you say he touches everything with gentle fingers. He has great compassion. In Travels with Charley, he said that during his entire trip, he met no strangers. That says a lot about him. And he did live hard, and willingly suffer the consequences — the mistakes, the hangovers, the aches and pains. One thing for sure, you can’t argue with the results.
John Berbrich: One of the giants of 20th century American lit. Name another.
William Michaelian: Rocinante? You know, there are several very good writers who have had some very good moments, but when I think of giants, it is in terms of people like Whitman, Dostoevsky, Balzac, and so on. I don’t see Hemingway and Faulkner, for instance, in that light. I think Saroyan contributed a great deal to the American short story. For some strange reason, F. Scott Fitzgerald is highly regarded. I thought The Great Gatsby was mediocre. But I haven’t thoroughly read most twentieth century American authors, so you have to take this all with a grain of salt. Then again, over the years, I’ve tried several of them, only to come away disappointed. Just as one example, I had a go at Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, only to be irritated by the way he describes his characters. This kind of experience has been repeated many times over. How about you?
John Berbrich: Big names that have irritated me, huh? I have always avoided certain big names on purpose, I’m not sure why. Then I’ll reach a point in my life where I think — “Oh, it’s time to read Nietzsche,” or “It’s time to study Zen.” I’ve avoided Bellow thus far, and Faulkner. And Roth and Updike, although I confess I’ve read some Roth short stories and literary criticism by Updike. But not novels. I find some value in most authors, even minor ones. Vonnegut used to annoy me — then one day he caught me, and I’ve been a fan ever since. Pound is sporadically transcendent — I love his rough bitter laugh and growl. Wallace Stevens: some of the poetry is riveting, but his prose often eludes me. I’m digressing here, I know — but I feel like a good ramble. Eliot is dry and sophisticated, but his sere lines contain a primitive, melancholy wildness. Like he could bite off your head while he serves the crumpets.
William Michaelian: Ha! I like that. So let me ask you this: Are there any giants of twentieth century American literature? And do you think we need to use a different yardstick than we would for someone like Dostoevsky, who wrote several masterpieces?
John Berbrich: There’s always someone who stands taller than his neighbors. Steinbeck. Eliot. Pound. Hemingway’s close. Stevens. W.C. Williams. Cummings is close — his influence is huge. Are we talking about giants or personal favorites — not the same thing. I like science fiction too, and lots of obscure poets.
William Michaelian: Are any of the poets giants? There is certainly more to it than fame.
John Berbrich: Most of the poets I really like from this century are obscure, as I said, and also small press, meaning small potatoes. Mike Kriesel, for one. Robert Frost is a big favorite, a fellow who casts a lengthy shadow. I find Frost more accessible than Wallace Stevens, and deeper — but Stevens goes to fantastic regions untrodden by Frost. Another outstanding poet is Donald Justice. Here’s a sample of Justice:
Memory of a Porch
What I remember
Is how the wind chime
Commenced to stir
As she spoke of her childhood,
As though the simple
Death of a pet cat,
Buried with flowers,
Had brought to the porch
A rumor of storms
Dying out over
Some dark Atlantic.
At least I heard
The thing begin—
A thin, skeletal music—
And in the deep silence
Below all memory
The sighing of ferns
Held asleep in their boxes.
William Michaelian: Very nice. Thank you. And of course if Frost or Sandburg had written it, it would have been good. Too bad Justice is small potatoes — though it’s wise to remember that potatoes are the backbone of the human diet. Do you have anything handy by Stevens or W.C. Williams? I’ve read neither that I can recall.
John Berbrich: Okay, here’s one by Stevens:
Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
William Michaelian: Hmm. So a guy is walking down the street at night and the curtains are drawn, except for a few, where people have fallen asleep in their chairs and are visible from outside. It’s a beautiful, enchanted time, yet most of the inhabitants are oblivious to it. Or am I missing the point? What is a ceinture? My French is what it used to be.
John Berbrich: It’s sort of a sash. To me this sounds like a dreadful clockwork existence, devoid of imagination and individuality. The people don’t even dream — this milky nullity is all they can think of; except the sailor who has lived a life of adventure and still looks forward to more. So he’s a drunk — at least he’s still alive in his dreams. This is good for a start.
William Michaelian: Okay, and here’s an interesting short biography of Stevens. What about W.C. Williams?
John Berbrich: Okay, this will take me some time to type.
I will teach you my townspeople
how to perform a funeral
for you have it over a troop
unless one should scour the world—
you have the ground sense necessary.
See! the hearse leads.
I begin with a design for a hearse.
For Christ’s sake not black—
nor white either—and not polished!
Let it be weathered—like a farm wagon—
with gilt wheels (this could be
applied fresh at small expense)
or no wheels at all:
a rough dray to drag over the ground.
Knock the glass out!
My God—glass, my townspeople!
For what purpose? Is it for the dead
to look out or for us to see
how well he is housed or to see
the flowers or the lack of them—or what?
To keep the rain and snow from him?
He will have a heavier rain soon:
pebbles and dirt and what not.
Let there be no glass—
and no upholstery, phew!
and no little brass rollers
and small easy wheels on the bottom—
my townspeople what are you thinking of?
A rough plain hearse then
with gilt wheels and no top at all.
On this the coffin lies
by its own weight.
No wreaths please—
especially no hot house flowers.
Some common memento is better,
something he prized and is known by:
his old clothes—a few books perhaps—
God knows what! You realize
how we are about these things
something will be found—anything
even flowers if he had come to that.
So much for the hearse.
For heaven’s sake though see to the driver!
Take off the silk hat! In fact
that’s no place at all for him—
up there unceremoniously
dragging our friend out to his own dignity!
Bring him down—bring him down!
Low and inconspicuous! I’d not have him ride
on the wagon at all—damn him—
the undertaker’s understrapper!
Let him hold the reins
and walk at the side
and inconspicuously too!
Then briefly as to yourselves:
Walk behind—as they do in France,
seventh class, or if you ride
Hell take curtains!
go with some show
of inconvenience; sit openly—
to the weather as to grief.
Or do you think you can shut grief in?
What—from us? We who have perhaps
nothing to lose? Share with us
share with us—it will be money
in your pockets.
I think you are ready.
William Michaelian: Oh, my — yes! I love it. Thanks for typing that in. What can you tell us about the poet who produced such a fine, humorous, serious work?
John Berbrich: Williams wrote a LOT. He was born and raised in northern New Jersey and studied medicine in Switzerland, Germany, and Pennsylvania before settling down in Jersey as a pediatrician. My impression of him is that of a sane and generous fellow — not an inspired madman. His most famous work is Paterson, a lengthy poem filling five separate books.
William Michaelian: Oh? Have you read that? When was it written?
John Berbrich: Yeah, I have read them all. The volumes were published separately during the 1940’s and 50’s. Collected all together, along with notes, they fit into a nice 300-page book. I need to read it again as the images are fading. Many of the scenes are like snapshots woven into the life and history of the city of Paterson and, at the same time, woven into the life and history of a man. Yeah, I need to read it again.
William Michaelian: And I need to read it the first time. Was Williams ever well known, like Frost or Sandburg?
John Berbrich: Oh, yes. I don’t think that William Carlos Williams was ever the favorite with the general reading public that Frost and Sandburg were, but he certainly had a vast following among students and serious poets. In fact, there was a sort of rivalry between Stevens and Williams, mostly among their followers. Stevens was the poet of wordplay and philosophical imagination, while Williams relied more upon plain speech, although his work was fancier than some people say. Here is his most famous poem:
The Red Wheelbarrow
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
William Michaelian: How about that. From personal experience, I know this to be true. The funny thing is, not until you said “William Carlos Williams,” did I realize that’s who you meant when you introduced the name “W.C. Williams” before. Being dense, it just didn’t dawn on me who you were talking about. Imagine how dense I’d be if there were a garbanzo shortage. A frightening thought. Anyway, this page has a short biography of the poet, which emphasizes the everyday nature of his language and subject matter, and the influence his work had on Ginsberg and others. Tell me — do you think it’s still possible, or likely, in this day and age for a poet’s name to become a household word? If you feel the question is foolish, feel free to answer another.
John Berbrich: It’s a valid question. I can’t really imagine it happening, unless the poet was already a well-known celebrity — a sports figure or actress — and then I can’t imagine the poems being any good. Poetry takes work, both the writing of it and the reading, and very few people I know are into that kind of effort. In my office, the girls read a lot, all novels — westerns, romances, thrillers, horror. The guys read nothing. Poetry never comes up. It’s like a secret club, and that’s okay with me.
William Michaelian: I know what you mean. Poetry hardly figures in with a corporate-run media that literally dictates to the public in order to create and maintain a market for its products. What’re they going to sell — poet laureate T-shirts? Or maybe they can have an “American Poet” TV show instead of “American Idol.” The search for America’s next poet continues, right after these messages. On a semi-related note, going back to Steinbeck for a moment, he said in Travels with Charley that because of radio and television, regional speech was rapidly disappearing, and would inevitably be replaced by a national speech. This was back in 1960. A few decades later, we have millions of people saying things like, “I was like, and I am so whatever,” completely unaware that they are parroting what they hear on TV. What this means, among other things, is that poetry and good reading material in general — words with substance because they have thought and living behind them — have become a precious commodity. A good book, from the past or the present, is a treasure.
John Berbrich: I remember that part of the book. I think Steinbeck said that the only place where he found a pure regional accent was Idaho. Personally, I love listening to someone from Maine or Boston or Brooklyn or Georgia talk — the variety of pronunciation, of inflection, of strange regionalisms all conspire to keep me awake — and all remind me of poetry because the language is new and interesting, not the same old boring thing. And yes, I am pretty disheartened by big national anything. When I lived in Kentucky, I was struck by the fact that all the radio DJ’s sound exactly like the ones in New York and Connecticut. Why is this happening?
William Michaelian: Well, for a few reasons, I suppose. Mass communications. The natural inclination of humans to imitate. The utter lack of imagination of corporate big shots and their bean counters. Once upon a time, not all that long ago, before cars and airplanes and so-called modern technology, speech and culture varied from village to village and region to region, thriving independently, protected by natural physical barriers, mountains, rivers, deserts. In any given land, there were dozens of dialects, a great many of which have since been lost around the world, much like species of plants and animals. Besides the obvious loss of spice, color, and personality, it seems to me that as diversity dwindles, the toughness of the human fabric is compromised. The people of a mass culture can’t even entertain themselves. They must pay someone else to do it, and, in all likelihood, that entertainer is a commercial clone with no originality whatsoever. The thing is, people in this condition and state of mind have a hard time distinguishing between the real and the unreal. They don’t realize that so much of what they worship is merely a superficial-artificial imprint. If they are too warm or too cold or too anything, they simply flip a switch or take a pill. In the process, they lose touch with themselves and with the real world, the old rugged natural world that is simultaneously violent, beautiful, and kind.
John Berbrich: Well said, Willie. I find it discouraging. They talk about diversity, but all that really seems to mean is that everyone will be the same — a bland, watered-down milky drink. Not much nutrition, even less taste. Bland, bland, bland. Discouraging. I can’t keep talking about this — too depressing. Say, I’ve just finished a book by Saul Bellow, Seize the Day.
William Michaelian: Oh, really? You finally decided to stop avoiding him? I haven’t been avoiding him, but I haven’t read him, either. How was the book?
John Berbrich: It is a good short novel. Almost entirely dialogue. About this guy who’s a loser in Manhattan. It’s interesting to compare this fellow with the other guys around him, mostly older, who seem to fit nicely into life. He just doesn’t seem to get it. I love some of the description: “How old — old this Mr. Rappaport was! Purple stains were buried in the flesh of his nose, and the cartilage of his ear was twisted like a cabbage heart.” Pretty easy to picture the old guy!
William Michaelian: Yes — well, at least his nose and his ear. Did he have only one? When was the book written? Does it make you want to grab another?
John Berbrich: I presume the fellow had two ears — the text isn’t specific. Seize the Day was published in 1956. I have another of his, The Dangling Man that I’ll probably start soon. I also will read his Henderson the Rain King — I love that title. Between 1998 and 2000, novelist Philip Roth conducted a casual interview with Bellow through the mail. Regarding Seize the Day, Bellow said: “I don’t like that book, Seize the Day. I never think about it, I never take it up, I don’t touch it.” I read about this in the New Yorker.
William Michaelian: That’s great — “I don’t touch it.” This is all very interesting — the fact that you’re finally reading Bellow; the fact that Roth and he spoke through the mail; and the fact that you presume the old guy had two ears. Bellow’s description reminds me of the third entry I made in my journal, One Hand Clapping, way back in March 2003. Here it is:
I just finished reading a humorously sarcastic and repulsive little story by Scottish writer Hugh MacDiarmid — MacDiarmid being the pen name of C.M. Grieve, who passed away in 1978. The name of the story is “Five Bits of Miller.” In trying to remember “Miller” — a person we can only hope is dead — the narrator can dredge up only five things: the way Miller blew his nose (like an abortive conjuring trick in which, transiently, certain empurpled and blown-out facial data meaninglessly escaped); the way he cleared his throat (a shuttle of phlegm sliding unaccountably in a derelict loom); the way he used his fingers to clean his ears (uncorking himself by degrees); what happened when he trimmed his diseased, brittle nails (he blew them off with his eyes); and his method of squeezing black-heads, which process “gave him some strange dual effect of martyrdom and ceremonial purification.” But these five things, or “bits,” are enough to convince me that the narrator is the one with real problems. He is, though, admirably thorough in his observations — as we all must be, if we hope to get anywhere.
Isn’t that wonderful? I found that story in The Giant Book of Scottish Short Stories. So, what about Roth? Have you read anything by him? I seem to remember you mentioning him before, but it’s lost in the alcoholic haze.
John Berbrich: I’m in agreement with you in that I too hope that that Miller person is far deceased. Yuck! As for Roth, well, he’s of course written lots of novels. I’ve read only a few of his short stories. The one that stands out is “Very Happy Poems” which I came across in a collection of stories from Esquire Magazine. Roughly, the first half of the story concerns an unhappy housewife trying to convince a stranger that she writes very happy poems. In the second half, she's explaining her unhappiness to a shrink. The story is funny, with good crackling dialogue.
William Michaelian: Sounds a bit odd. You write happy poems. You know that, don’t you? You really do. I love them. Bug off, lady — I’ve never written a poem in my life. Anyway. I haven’t read a word by Roth, though one certainly bumps into his name from time to time. I’m sure it would happen more if I became a regular reader of The New York Times Book Review. Do you read that?
John Berbrich: No, I don’t. Wouldn’t mind but as usual lacking the time. The only non-small-press periodical I read consistently is the New Yorker. Curiously, I read everything in there except the political articles & the fiction & the poems. I love the film and book reviews, the cartoons, and the news about New York. Occasionally one finds an outstanding poem in the magazine’s pages, but not often. Some of the essays are hilarious.
William Michaelian: I haven’t picked up a New Yorker in quite some time, though I did subscribe to it for a couple of years way back in the late Eighties, when it was still thin and relatively ad-free. The fiction is predictable and dull. But I don’t mind the other stuff. In general, I find all of the big magazines to be torture, simply one big bore. So many of the articles are padded, and could be summed up in one-third the space. As for the Times book review, that, too, gets on my nerves, for much the same reason. I like shorter reviews that dwell less on the reviewers’ wonderful qualifications and more on the books themselves.
John Berbrich: Years ago you sent me a copy of Rain Taxi. I was impressed with the number of intelligent, well written reviews. Have you ever had anything published in there?
William Michaelian: No, it’s something I’ve thought about, but never pursued. I just received the summer issue, in fact. Haven’t had a chance to plow into it yet. I get far more out of their short reviews than I do out of the mainstream windbag pieces, which by and large are only meant to promote what doesn’t need promoting. Rain Taxi has been at it for ten years now. Their aim is to cover work of merit that’s more likely to fall through the cracks. The current issue is fifty-five pages, well designed and appealing. I’ll send you the spring issue. I think that’s the one that has the article about Cendrars. And there are always a couple of interesting interviews, so you can’t go wrong.
John Berbrich: Well, thanks Willie. I’ll write a little review of their reviews & send them a copy. Perhaps they’ll review my review of their reviews. Are you getting this?
William Michaelian: Absolutely. And when their review of your review of their reviews comes out, I will review it, then pass it on to you for review. Now, do you think we should review our plans, or are we ready to move on?
John Berbrich: Wait till I finish laughing. That’s better. Okay, now — how’s your investigation of Twain coming? Or what are you working on now?
William Michaelian: My investigation of Twain stalled after I finished reading “Letters from the Earth.” I finished reading Travels with Charley, and as soon as my son is done reading my copy of Thomas Wolfe’s The Web and the Rock, I want to get started on that. He’s a hundred or so pages into it and says it’s quite good. Wolfe — definitely a giant of the twentieth century. I’m basing that on Look Homeward, Angel, and the bits and pieces I’ve read about him. In the meantime, I’m jumping around, taking things off my shelves at random and reading a page or two here, a chapter there, wondering about the mystery of it all.
John Berbrich: I can dig it. Right now I’m just past the middle of a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson written by James Pope Hennessy. Stevenson was an amazing wanderer. He liked to strap on his backpack and head off into the unknown. Have you read much by him?
William Michaelian: Yes and no. I read Treasure Island when I was a kid, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and A Child’s Garden of Verse. It was so long ago that I don't remember a thing about them. All that lingers is a pleasant feeling, especially regarding A Child’s Garden of Verse. Didn’t he die in Samoa?
John Berbrich: Yes. But I haven’t gotten to that part of the bio yet. Right now he’s living in the Swiss Alps as a health cure along with his American wife. Although his novels are fun and adventurous, I really love his two travel books: Travels with a Donkey (France) and An Inland Voyage (Netherlands to France via canal). Those two accounts are filled with weather — rain, sun, stars — strange villages, scowling gendarmes, splashing rivers, beautiful foggy mornings. Stevenson also wrote lots of essays, most of which are graceful, amusing, and even wise. He didn’t even make it to age 45. Was a big fan of Whitman.
William Michaelian: Really? I wonder if that was reciprocated. Those travel accounts definitely sound good. It all does. Is the biography a recent one?
John Berbrich: The book was published in 1974. And get this — the author was murdered before the book actually came out. In fact, here’s a quote from the back jacket: “This posthumous biography by James Pope Hennessy, himself the victim of a murder as macabre as anything Stevenson could have imagined, is a brilliant book which will not be readily superseded.” Kind of makes you wonder what happened, huh?
William Michaelian: The question is, has anyone done a biography on him, and was that person also murdered before the book came out? How do you like his writing?
John Berbrich: It’s pretty lively. He slips in a bit of humor here and there, and generally makes allowances for the often strange behavior of the players. The guy who wrote the introduction, last name Nicolson, knew Hennessy and considered him a remarkable man, one of those brilliant eccentric Englishmen.
William Michaelian: Indeed, the law should require that small towns have at least one eccentric Englishman, and that he be given a stipend so he isn’t burdened with everyday mundane labor. This would leave him free to pop up unexpectedly and put his peculiar stamp on local events — funerals, marriages, family reunions, church potlucks, rodeos, you name it. With any luck, young people would pick up on his accent and behavior, and use them to irritate their parents when they are trying to make a point. Larger towns and cities would need more Englishmen, of course — quite possibly an organizational nightmare, but worth it in the long run.
John Berbrich: It sounds as though you’re trying to resurrect a 19th century idea. The English sure did spread themselves around the globe. No one around here speaks with an English accent. We do get some French from Canada, but not much. Some Indian from the Mohawk reservation, but not much. It’s all pretty much depressingly bad-language-skills American. About the only exception are local doctors and college professors from India who speak almost no English.
William Michaelian: The languages we hear most in Salem are Russian and Spanish. Quite a few Russian Old Believers have settled near a town about a dozen miles north of here — there are even a couple of modest onion domes surrounded by fields, glinting in the morning sun. The older men have long beards, the younger men are in the process of catching up, and the married women wear a head-covering. Somehow, I can’t imagine them tolerating an officially installed eccentric Englishman in their midst, teaching strange habits to their sons and daughters. But maybe the next generation would pick up on the idea, if they aren’t too busy watching “American Idol.”
John Berbrich: Russians, cool. Sounds almost like the many hundreds of Amish we have here in St. Lawrence County, with the long beards & head-covered women. They don’t watch TV though, no electricity. Come to think of it, we don’t watch TV. We don’t get TV. I was privileged to watch one part of one episode of “American Idol” several years ago on someone else’s TV. Kelly Clarkson was gorgeous and probably still is.
William Michaelian: Ah-ha. When she reads this, she’ll be flattered. And now here’s a delightful anecdote I read yesterday about Arthur Conan Doyle. When he was being dropped off by a cab driver at one stop during his lecture tour in America back in 1894, the driver asked for a ticket to that night’s lecture instead of his fare. When the author asked the cabbie how he had recognized him, he received this response:
“If you will excuse me, your coat lapels are badly twisted downward, where they have been grasped by the pertinacious New York reporters. Your hair has the Quakerish cut of a Philadelphia barber, and your hat, battered at the brim in front, shows where you have tightly grasped it, in the struggle to stand your ground at a Chicago literary luncheon. Your right shoe has a large block of Buffalo mud just under the instep; the odor of a Utica cigar hangs about your clothing. . . . And, of course, the labels on your case give a full account of your recent travels — just below the brass plaque reading ‘Conan Doyle.’”
John Berbrich: Beautiful. Cabbies are a sharp breed. I wonder if he got his ticket; I’d say he certainly earned it. About ten years ago I took my wife to Manhattan for her first and only trip to the city. We caught a cab from Greenwich Village up to the Empire State Building, a trip north of about 25 blocks. The cabby didn’t speak English, at least not much. After we climbed in the cab, he cut off a car full of Puerto Ricans, who began swearing vociferously at us. The cabby shouted back, “No, you!” and sped off. He got us close to the Empire State Building, but he couldn’t find it. “Okay, just let us out here,” I said, as we were only a block or two away. I even gave the guy a tip, but tell me how can you not find a building that is nearly a 1/4-mile high?
William Michaelian: I don’t know, but I’ll bet he could’ve driven you straight to the Walt Whitman mall — you know, a real landmark. My brother and I had some fun in cabs back in 1982, when we went to Armenia by way of Paris and Moscow. When we gave one driver in Paris the address to a certain hotel that turned out to be barely large enough to accommodate its own elevator, he sat studying his map of the city for at least fifteen minutes before starting his engine. We got there eventually, by way of dark narrow streets that could not have been the most direct route. We were completely at his mercy — or is it merci? And then in Armenia, especially early on in our visit, we were being cheated left and right. Our first ride cost us twelve rubles. Later we found it should have been two rubles. There were always arguments, and this was expected, even relished by the drivers. A relative of our grandfather’s nearly boiled one driver alive for trying to overcharge us — yet neither was offended in the least. At busy locations where cabs would gather in a line waiting for fares, there would be a great deal of commotion as potential passengers approached. Drivers would jump out and try to herd you into their cars, even though there were other cars ahead of them that had been waiting longer — bowing, shouting, gesticulating, ridiculing the other drivers. And of course they all knew each other. Very entertaining. It started to snow. The cab we were in had windshield wipers that didn’t work. The driver kept stopping to clean off the glass. But we always made it to our destination. There’s a slightly longer account, about 800 words, of our travels in my Notebook section that includes our cab trip through a blizzard from Moscow’s international airport to the Sheremetevo airport. Here’s a link to that page. One thing we got a kick out of in Moscow and Armenia was that once we were settled and under way, cab drivers would turn around and offer you a smoke. A nice touch.
John Berbrich: Great description, Willie. The scene comes to life because the people seem alive, not drones dully trudging from one inanity to another, but people in hot competition for something, anything. And they know it’s all an enjoyable game. By the way, I was reading that Stevenson biography last night (almost finished) and came to a point where he and his little party were sailing in the south seas. In a letter written in June 1889 to a friend in London, Stevenson says: “By the time I am done with this cruise, I shall have the material for a very singular book of travels: names of strange stories and characters, cannibals, pirates, ancient legends, old Polynesian poetry — never was so generous a farrago.” I hadn’t realized that the influence of the evil dentist had made it to the South Pacific so long ago.
William Michaelian: Yes. And just imagine poor Stevenson, being lured to his death by the cannibalistic Polynesian pirate-poet Farrago. R.L.S. was a brave, adventurous soul. I must find some of his travel writings, and maybe even this biography you’re reading. You know, it would have been great if he and Mark Twain could have traveled the Mississippi together. Wasn’t Stevenson in this country for a short time? I seem to recall he lived in the Southwest, as did D.H. Lawrence — unless it’s Lawrence I’m thinking of.
John Berbrich: Well, Stevenson lived in the San Francisco area while courting his future wife. Years later they lived in upstate New York, at a frozen hamlet called Saranac Lake in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains, about a two-hour drive from here. He moved there for his health. The beautiful lake and deep pine woods were loved by the entire family until the temperature hit 40 below zero and the stuff in their cabin was freezing solid. I don’t know if Stevenson ever met Twain, but in England he was a good friend of Henry James. It would be fascinating to trace the paths of contemporary authors like Stevenson and Twain, and find out if maybe they just missed each other by a few miles on a certain day, Twain riding a locomotive in one direction and Stevenson galloping on a horse in the other.
William Michaelian: I agree. If the stars were properly aligned, for instance, Twain, Stevenson, and Whitman could have gotten together and formed a jug band. Say, I read an interesting quote from Emerson today. Maybe you’re already familiar with it. It’s from his 1838 address to the graduating class of Divinity College in Cambridge:
“I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. Men go, thought I, where they are wont to go, else had no soul entered the temple in the afternoon. A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, and then out of the window behind him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined. If he had ever lived and acted, we were none the wiser for it. . . . This man had ploughed, and planted, and talked, and bought, and sold; he had read books; he had eaten and drunken; his head aches; his heart throbs; he smiles and suffers; yet was there not a surmise, a hint, in all the discourse, that he had ever lived at all.”
Isn’t that a sad way for a man’s life to be summed up and remembered? And then on the other end of the spectrum you have light-seeking forces like Twain, Stevenson, and Whitman. Amazing.
John Berbrich: That’s great, Willie — “light-seeking forces.” Some writers are worth reading simply for their energy and spirit. Yeah, I’m familiar with that Emerson address. I can’t read his poetry, but love his essays and journals. He seems so placid and happy, yet so alive. And he directly influenced so many of my favorites: Thoreau, Whitman, and Nietzsche. Which I didn’t realize until years of reading those three — they all absorbed a great deal of Emerson. I don’t know if he was “America’s Plato,” as he’s been called, but I do know that he’s had a tremendous influence on American literature.
William Michaelian: I’ve read only a few of his essays. But it’s possible to pick almost any page at random and find gems of clear thinking that are fresh and to the point. And yet I can’t imagine him smoking cigars and rambling down the Mississippi — just as I can’t imagine Whitman addressing the graduating class of Divinity College, or Thoreau being a powerful railrood tycoon. Or, rather, I can imagine it, and it seems pretty ridiculous. Isn’t it funny how we say I can’t imagine this or that, when in reality that’s exactly what we are doing?
John Berbrich: I think what we mean is, “I can’t imagine this happening in the real world.” It’s true though, we’re sloppy with our speech. Have you ever read the letter Emerson wrote to Whitman after he first read Leaves of Grass? Well, I’ll type it in. Almost exactly 150 years ago.
Concord, Massachusetts, 21st July 1855
Dear Sir,—I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seems the sterile and stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament were making our Western wits fat and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment that so delights us and which large perception only can inspire.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.
I did not know, until I last night saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real and available for a post office.
I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks and visiting New York to pay you my respects.
How’d you like to get a letter like that? Emerson at the time was the unquestioned dean of American intellectuals and writers. What a great way to start the day.
William Michaelian: Fantastic. I have read that, but thanks for typing it in. What a classic. I’ll say this: If I did receive such a letter, I’d finally be able to stop writing ones like it to myself — a relief, because it’s so darn time-consuming. I remember reading how Whitman had the “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” statement printed on the spine of his second edition. Emerson says great things even in that short letter, such as, “It meets the demand I am always making of what seems the sterile and stingy Nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament were making our Western wits fat and mean.” Do you happen to know if there is a collection of Emerson letters available?
John Berbrich: I don’t know. I have several biographies on Emerson and one collection of his journal entries, as well as lots of collections of essays. Plus his book English Traits, based on several of his trips to England. That last is a fascinating account of the impression the inhabitants of the British Isles made on him. He discusses English habits, characteristics, literature, plus his visit to Stonehenge and his meeting with Thomas Carlyle in Scotland. All presented in that pointed, pithy, aphoristic style. It’s really a feast for the eyes and mind.
William Michaelian: Sounds like you have a nice little Emerson library. Speaking of influences, I’ll bet you can tell us who Emerson’s were. But before you do, let’s move on to a new page. This one is bursting at the seams.