Wednesday, October 7, 2015
4 a.m. Difficult nights, now, as Fall weather seats in. It is good to have an occupation that makes use of my inability to sleep or even recline comfortably. It turns a liability into an asset.
F: 4:10 a.m. Okay, Papa. So, after you and Hadley parted ways in Paris, and you and Pauline took up together –
EH: With Hadley I had accomplished what I set out to do initially – that is, I made a place for myself in the world. I proved my worth, I obtained recognition, I learned not one trade but two – first, covering international news events as a feature writer, then fashioning literature as one of the many cutting-edge writers in the most cutting-edge movement. (Not that I would have used the words “cutting-edge” as a modifier, but you do.) I couldn’t any longer be forced back into the Oak Park world.
But – I don’t know if this is clear to you or even if it was clear to me – I could still have been form-fitted into the Chicago Renaissance world, the group of Midwestern writers like Sherwood Anderson and Ben Hecht, whose words and to some degree whose biographies were an affront to Oak Park values but were still firmly rooted in that reality.
F: People have said it of you [that he never overcame his background], and not meant it as an insult.
EH: We never overcome our background, in one sense, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There is a reason why we chose that background, or it was chosen for us, after all. But what we do with it varies, and that makes all the difference. I didn’t want to be like Sherwood, moving half an inch away from where I started and resting on my laurels. And, in fact, even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t have done it. I had already had different experiences that made me deeper and had jolted me more, even if I didn’t know what to do with them at first. I mean, take Sherwood – he was in the Spanish-American War, but nothing happened to him except that participation moved him out of his rut.
F: I can’t recall offhand his details.
EH: No need, any more than for you to remember the other writers of the Chicago movement like Vachel Lindsay. A surface familiarity is enough to oil the works, and that’s what you got. The point is that what Sherwood Anderson got from his war was mostly a little freedom of movement. What I got from mine was a devastating indictment of the lies we had been fed, and a first-hand incommunicable (at first) experience of being spirits in bodies, and an intoxicating experience of first love, and a first-hand education into other people’s lives at the war by listening to their stories and observing their manner. Also a disconcerting gap between inner and outer reality, and a humiliating disillusionment in love, and a few months’ immersion in a foreign culture as moderated by an American atmosphere provide by nurses and the hospital environment. That was quite a lot, and I was still only 19 when I came back from the war.
F: Carl Sandburg, it occurs to me.
EH: Yes, he was part of the renaissance too, and he was also older than me – they all were, it was a slightly earlier movement.
F: You were a little too young for them and were perhaps the youngest of the Paris movement you did become a part of.
EH: The point we are on here, though, is that I had moved away from the risk of being forced into being an insurance salesman or something, but I had not necessarily escaped the danger of becoming a Saturday Evening Post writer, a writer of salable lies. I would have taken it, if I could have gotten it, but fortunately I couldn’t.
F: Sometime we should explore the difference, in your mind, between writing for the Saturday Evening Post – which was good enough for C.S. Forester, after all – and Esquire.
EH: That won’t take any time at all, it’s simple. The question is not what venue but can you write your best, truest, work for it? After you carve out a niche for yourself, if somebody wants to pay you to publish what you want to write, why wouldn’t you?
F: You don’t appear in Playboy, for instance.
EH: By the time Playboy came around, I didn’t need the money or the exposure, or maybe I would have. How does it sully my artistic integrity to have written my letters for Esquire?
F: Didn’t say it did.
EH: No, but others did. I never paid them any attention.
F: All right. So – you had come a certain way with Hadley. So then when you broke up, what?
EH: The divorce itself was punctuation, and remarriage was more punctuation. I had a hard time explaining myself to my parents. In fact, I didn’t really try, just gave them the external facts.
F: Then you announcing that you were a Catholic must have given them a jolt.
EH: You know by feeling it what was really happening.
F: Yes, you were giving them the cold shoulder without coming out and saying so.
EH: That doesn’t look so good, does it? But that’s what it amounts to. I was leading my life, not a continuation of theirs.
F: Plus you had a lot of resentments you hadn’t dealt with.
EH: Yes, of course, and so do you and so does everybody.
F: Does it feel like I’m judging you?
EH: No, not quite. But putting a thing into words points it, you know? So that can feel that way, like an attack or anyway like a careless action that jostles you. Obviously if it wasn’t here inside me, it wouldn’t be here to be jostled.
F: So we always have unfinished business. Discouraging, in a way.
EH: Needn’t be. There’s always something to work on. Would you prefer harps and clouds? Anyway, yes, I was distancing myself from my background, and divorcing Hadley did it even more effectively than I had already done. And it was still necessary. I hadn’t really found my footing – or, no, that isn’t how to say it.
F: I got it. You had found what could have been your footing, but if you had settled for it, most of what you became couldn’t have expressed.
EH: That’s right. Every time your life shakes you up, there’s an opportunity to go deeper. All you need to do is observe what it is that shook, and not allow yourself to pretend it didn’t happen. That doesn’t mean you have to take every opportunity, but it is there if you want to, and if you can.
And even after several years with Hadley – mostly very happy and fulfilled years, too – I was a long way from plumbing the depths that had been shaken up by that mortar shell. Mixed metaphor, but you get the idea.
F: Oh yes. You got free of your old life and you created the basis for an established model – the young writer on his way up – but it wasn’t the end of the line.
EH: And here is an important point that ought to be obvious to people, but somehow doesn’t seem to be: I didn’t plan any of it. My life carried me along the way everybody’s life carries them along. You make your plans and you take your decisions and you do what you can, but you don’t live your life according to your plans. At best you arrange your plans according to where your life is taking you anyway.
F: I suppose some people live their lives according to their own designs.
EH: Maybe so, people whose lives fit into a certain pattern. Can you imagine me – or anybody? – imagining the pattern of my life beforehand?
F: I’ve seen people (second-hand, I mean) trying to model their lives after you.
EH: Much luck to them. If they can move back to my time and my place, fine. Since they can’t, their best imitation of me may or may not be what they need to do, but it won’t be a life according to my plan, because I didn’t have a plan. What I had were a few values, and I clung to those as my life changed around me.
F: And now finally we come to Pauline’s Catholicism and the opportunity it made for you.
EH: Yes we do. If Pauline had been another Protestant, or a functional atheist or deist as so many of our friends were – Hadley’s and mine, I mean – I couldn’t have grown in a certain way that was absolutely necessary for me. I would have had to find other ways to express what I felt within me, or I would have had to bury all that, which I think would have shallowed out my work, which as we keep saying is all I cared about, or let’s say is the center around which I revolved.
F: You’ve seen other versions of your life, presumably.
EH: Let’s stick to this one. The others move us into theory and unreality from the point of view of this reality, which is what we’re working with.
F: Okay. And, like Achilles and the turtle, we keep getting closer but we don’t catch it. Next time, Papa – a couple of days from now, maybe, as I have guests coming.
EH: I’m still not going anywhere.
F: No, and I’m very glad you aren’t.
Wednesday, October 7, 2015