Conversations May 15, 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

6:45 AM. From Green Hills Of Africa, nearly the final page:

“We have very primitive emotions,” he said. “It’s impossible not to be competitive. Spoils everything, though.”

“I’m all through with that,” I said. “I’m all right again.”

One thing I have noticed, Papa, is that you don’t use books to make yourself look better. You portray yourself as you remember yourself. That isn’t the same as saying that you remember yourself or even experienced yourself as other people would describe you — whoever does that, or could do it? — but it certainly shows an honest man. Shows me an honest man, anyway. Doesn’t show a poseur.

I remind you of your father.

Yes indeed. Dad didn’t have any Anglo-Saxon reticence about bragging but he didn’t exaggerate what he had done, as far as I know. It was more like he was so delighted, he told you so you’d be delighted on his behalf. My mother disapproved of course, and always made the disapproval clear

I know how that is! But if you can’t ever blow your own horn, you lose something. People get tired of hearing it, so you have to keep it to a minimum if you can, but if you’ve done something excellent, why shouldn’t you be able to boast of it? Or even describe it honestly?

And the people who are criticizing you for boasting about what you did couldn’t do it themselves —

Exactly. Because I don’t care who it is, British reserve or whatever, if you’ve done something excellent, sooner or later you’re going to find a way to talk about it. Not all the time — maybe it will take a drink or two to loosen your tongue, but maybe not, either — maybe you just figured out a way to have people drag it out of you. But if you care about the people’s opinion that you’re with, you’re going to want them to know — and if you don’t tell them and nobody else does either, how are they going to know?

That doesn’t mean you’re going to brag about everything in your life to everybody. But if you’re with fishermen, you talk fish, not books you’ve written or boxing you’ve done or anything else you might be secretly proud of. And with another crowd you don’t talk about fish but about whatever their interest is. It’s normal, it just gets disguised a lot of the time.

Now, it’s one thing to brag about things and never have done them — that’s just being a fake and a blowhard. It’s another thing to shut up because you don’t have anything to say that you’re proud of talking about. And it’s true, I knew people who lived so much inside themselves, they never seemed to talk at all about anything they had done – but I knew, and I noticed that others knew, and we weren’t all eyewitnesses, so how did we know? It stands to reason that they told somebody!

The reason it’s worth talking about this is that it’s just one of the conventions I didn’t follow. It’s like people go to a school and they learn what “is” or “isn’t” done, and they judge everybody else, for the rest of their lives, on whether they know the code and follow the code, or not. If you know the code and don’t follow it, you’re a bounder. If you don’t know the code and you seem to follow it anyway, you’re one of “nature’s gentlemen.” If you don’t know the code and don’t follow it, or follow it in some things and not in others, then you are either someone who can be dismissed from consideration, or you are a “find,” someone to be taken up, or you’re a natural phenomenon who follows his own rules, a sort of professional eccentric.

I didn’t have this so clearly when I was alive. I could see how people acted, but I couldn’t quite see the underlying mainsprings. It’s pack behavior, with a complication that one pack’s rules are extended as if they applied to everybody, whether they naturally belonged to the pack or not.

This explains so many things, you see. You can’t use rich and poor as a divider, you can’t use educated or uneducated. You can’t use culture or uncultured, though it can often look like that. What I experienced was pack behavior, and if you want to, sometime when you aren’t pressed for time we can go into it. Not now, though — it isn’t something to be rushed.

All right. It’s true that I am tempted to continue — always tempting to continue till I run out of gas — but I do have things to accomplish so I can get out of here by 8 AM, and it’s 7:15 now. You took better care of me than I did myself. Thanks.

4:25 PM. Okay, Papa, pack behavior?

The pack versus the outsider or at least the out-lier explains a lot about my relation to the critics and essayists and other authors and reviewers and academics. All my objections to them center on their pack behavior or my fear of it. All their objections to me center on the things I did, said, and wrote that sounded to them to be either deliberate or unknowing violations of what was proper, or fitting, or couth, or genuine, or civilized. This proceeded to their denial of the very quality of my writing that made it impossible for them to ignore me, and impossible for them to destroy me, though they could and did prevent my receiving professional recognition or prizes until I was safely past it.

What could have prevented it?

Nothing, probably. For me to conform to their expectations would have required my giving up the qualities I valued, in writing, a living. I wasn’t “one of the boys” in that sense, and never could have been unless I or they had been willing or able to change.

Writing is a solitary occupation anyway. It means seeing, judging, understanding, weighing, balancing — and how are you going to do that as part of a committee? It means expressing whatever you can find of the truth, and how are you going to do that and stay a member in good standing of a political group, or a “movement” or of any association tighter than good fellowship and the comradeship of fellow strugglers? Writing is hard enough, without trying to write while staying within someone’s fixed limits, or your own fixed limits. The ones who write as part of a “literary movement” are as bad as the ones who write as part of a political movement. As soon as you hook up with a group, the word compromise is right there in the middle of things — and when did compromise ever produce greater literature than political manifestoes, or party platforms? Find a group of writers who define themselves as part of a group, and you’ll find a group of very mediocre writers. (Groups defined by what other people call them are another matter. That may be just similar striving seen to be similar.)

Now, in the 1920s, the “official” literary establishment were huddled around the word “propriety.” They wanted you to be decorous — to not use vivid Anglo-Saxon words, to not describe unpleasant realities, to not exceed the grasp of the genteel reader of the Saturday Evening Post. My novels and short stories offended, and seemed aimed at shocking for the sake of shocking. The critics were so busy assuring their public that they disapproved of my characters that it didn’t occur to them that I sometimes drew what I saw regardless of whether I approved.

In the 30s, it was leftist politics. You could pretty much say that the mainstream of American literature in the 1930s was leftist politics. There wasn’t much that was written of serious literature that didn’t try to describe the social situation or call for the revolution. (Of course, some of those guys would have been the first ones shot if a revolution had actually come.) So there I was. Death In The Afternoon was about bullfighting. Green Hills Of Africa was about safari hunting. Both took place on different continents from America and took place in another world from the social concerns that were New York’s literary world. And, both were nonfiction, both experimental, and both dealt seriously with subjects that the political-literary establishment couldn’t care less about and, if it gave them any thought, hated and despised.

To Have And Have Not could have been my big political book and should have been, but I didn’t put in the extensive time and energy it needed past a certain stage to solve its central problem and produce a unity out of several parts. I had to get to Spain. I felt I had a stake in the Republic and its resistance to fascism. I sacrificed art to politics, or to world affairs, or to resistance to fascism, or something, and in the end the result for the world was a botched book that couldn’t be fixed but could have been a classic. I hope the establishment was satisfied — except, of course, it wasn’t because it had to see the book as my trying unsuccessfully to jump onto the social-consciousness bandwagon. And the rest of the decade was war and politics and then the long silent creation of For Whom The Bell Tolls.

By then it was the 1940s, which started off as a war on fascism and ended as a war on a vastly strengthened communism, with individual liberty that much further behind. But throughout the decade, the literary establishment was cheerleading. It didn’t like the fact that Bell was balanced, although the people did. It disregarded Men At War because it didn’t notice it; didn’t see the work that had gone into it, couldn’t see that it could have had any significance for me or by me as a writer. And then for the rest of the decade I published journalism and worked silently and published nothing.

The 1950s was the most conformist decade of all, probably, and the worn-out soldier Richard Cantwell was not anybody’s idea of a hero, except maybe the soldiers. The Old Man And The Sea was a major hit because it was upbeat, timeless, nonpolitical, had no love interest to make them wonder what I was indiscreetly revealing, and had a protagonist who couldn’t possibly be autobiographical. Plus it had the unity and compression that make a classic. But then they gave me a Nobel Prize and wrote me off, and in fact except for The Dangerous Summer — pseudo-journalism, pseudo-autobiography — and reportage on Spain that Hotchner had to get into shape, I was finished. Even Movable Feast was a time capsule. As I said earlier, I had no contact with the times I was living in, and then I was finished.

If you look at my career in this light, you can see how I was never going to be the establishment’s fair-haired boy. What did any of those grand themes have to do with anything that mattered to me?

That’s a very clear. Why isn’t it clear to history and literature?

Perspective. You have to be able to see it in perspective. Besides, who had any incentive to produce a fair assessment?

Well, your biographers, for instance. You have been blessed with some seriously good biographers — Carlos Baker, for instance, or the man who wrote the five volume bio that I learned so much [from], whose name I am blanking out at the moment.


That’s right, Michael Reynolds. Seems to me they took you seriously, respecting your work and your intention.

You can see the limitations of the genre, now.

Can I not! The biographer doesn’t have the benefit of the inside view that you are giving me. Everything they do is based on secondhand evidence at best.

Of course. But within those limitations, they did as well as they could, I suppose. But trying to get to something reasonably accurate by using dead evidence isn’t the way to get to the truth. They don’t realize it, but they do their best work less by accumulating evidence then by using that evidence as a springboard for their intuition. That is when they get the idea of my life (or anybody’s life) and its meaning. Their judgments of the externals are usually so partial (that is, so fragmentary in the evidence they base them on) as to become more fiction than fact. Yet despite being wrong so often and so thoroughly in detail, an honest biographer paints his subject as he sees him, which is realer than the evidence unless he dislikes him. It is the empathy that carries the portrait from evidence (much of it mistaken or misleading or false) to impression. Reynolds certainly did that. Baker did it. Hotchner did it, though his was as much a portrait of himself as it was of me — which is how I would have done it. There are others, of course. Meyer. But no need to list them. The point we started at is that if you can’t see my mainspring, you can’t sum up my career in the way I would, not [that is, rather than] in the way some survey of American literature would. And you can’t assemble my mainspring by assembling evidence, because you don’t manufacture machines by using items you find on a treasure hunt, and you don’t breed animals by — well, that’s enough of that analogy.

Going to stop for now. Thanks for this very interesting discussion.

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