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Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark

Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 251
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This compulsively readable collection of profiles and essays by James Campbell, tied together by a beguiling autobiographical thread, proffers unique observations on writers and writing in the post-1950s period. Campbell considers writers associated with theNew Yorkermagazine, including John Updike, William Maxwell, Truman Capote, and Jonathan Franzen. Continuing his longterm engagement with African American authors, he offers an account of his legal battle with the FBI over James Baldwin's file and a new profile of Amiri Baraka. He also focuses on the Beat poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, as well as writers such as Edmund White and Thom Gunn. Campbell's concluding essay on his childhood in Scotland gracefully connects the book's autobiographical dots.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94108-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)

    • [PART I Introduction]
      (pp. 1-2)

      The writers in this section have or have had an association with theNew Yorker(with the exception of William Styron, a Southerner who came to prominence as one of a cadre of young Manhattan-based writers and gained force from the alliance). Their grouping here is intended only to display one facet of my literary curiosity—a facet against which the succeeding parts of the book might be viewed contrastingly—and not to set forth a critique of that versatile magazine. TheNew Yorker, through its affluence, its sense of style, its expertise in the skills of editing and presentation,...

    • ONE Sunshine and Shadows: A PROFILE OF JOHN UPDIKE
      (pp. 3-12)

      The name Updike is unusual enough in Pennsylvania to make its bearers self-conscious. It is an “odd name,” according to America’s most famous Updike, that once upon a time “got a loud laugh in the movie theater.” For a chuckle, “Updike” could be parodied as “Downdike” or “Downditch.” When he told people his name, John Updike says, they were inclined to think he was being “fresh.” The book in which he makes this admission of pain is calledSelf-Consciousness. “Hotel clerks and telephone operators would ask you to repeat it, bringing on (in my case) a fit of blushing and...

    • TWO Updike’s Village Sex
      (pp. 13-17)

      Seventy years old when we meet him, Owen Mackenzie, the hero of John Updike’s novelVillages(2004), has attained his allotted span without having come of age. The opening chapter ofVillagesis called “Dream On, Dear Owen”; the penultimate section is “You Don’t Want to Know.” Owen is still addressing his wife in baby talk, still being teased for his “innocent” ways, still going forward under the assumption that the world owes Owen a living, and still not fully awake, even by chapter 13 (helpfully flagged by the author), to the misfortunes he has brought down on others. In...

    • THREE William Maxwell’s Lives
      (pp. 18-27)

      In 1933, when William Maxwell was twenty-five years old and an aspiring novelist, he decided to go to sea, “so that I would have something to write about.” A letter of introduction led him to a four-masted schooner that belonged to the financier J. P. Morgan, at anchor on a bay near Coney Island. When the captain had read Maxwell’s letter, he told him that the ship had been in dock for four years; Morgan could not afford to sail her, and the captain was quitting the next day.

      Maxwell wrote a brief account of this, his first and probably...

    • FOUR Notes from a Small Island: A PROFILE OF SHIRLEY HAZZARD
      (pp. 28-33)

      Meetings with three men changed Shirley Hazzard’s life in the 1960s. One was with theNew Yorkerfiction editor William Maxwell, to whom she sent a short story in the first year of the decade. “I hadn’t ever written a story before. I sent it to theNew Yorkerabsolutely cold, not even bothering to keep a copy.” Maxwell replied with a check and a note: “Of course we’ll publish your story.” The tale, “Harold”—it is in her bookCliffs of Fall—became the first of many works of fiction and nonfiction to appear in the magazine. Three years...

      (pp. 34-40)

      You do not have to travel far into Truman Capote’s writings to reach the lonely interior; no further, in fact, than the opening paragraph of his first novel,Other Voices, Other Rooms(1948), which sets thirteen-year-old Joel Knox on his solitary way to a big house in Alabama to meet the father he has never known. Joel reveals a weakness for telling tall stories (“deceptions”), and he wishes for nothing more intensely than “owning the Koh-i-noor diamond.” Capote’s uncertain hero—“He was too pretty, too delicate and fair-skinned . . . a girlish tenderness softened his eyes”—need not be...

    • SIX Franzen, Oprah, and High Art
      (pp. 41-51)

      When Richard Wright’s first novel,Native Son, was selected for the Book of the Month Club in March 1940, both author and publisher were naturally delighted.Native Sonwas not an obvious choice for the Book of the Month Club. One of the selectors called it a “red-hot poker.” It deals with life in a poor black Chicago slum, and death, by murder, in a wealthy white household. But the choice rocketed Wright’s novel to the top of the best-seller list (displacingThe Grapes of Wrath) and made him, in the words of his agent, a “fixed star” in the...

      (pp. 52-61)

      In their familiar modern form, comic strips were introduced to lighten the content of newspapers. They were sometimes called the “funnies” or, in the case of the ScottishSunday Post, which was bred in the same stable as theBeanoand theDandy, “The Fun Section.” Art Spiegelman is among the best-known living cartoonists, but the drawings that have made him famous are not funny, and they are not intended solely for children. Spiegelman and other comic-book artists of the underground renaissance that occurred during the 1960s are inclined to call their work “comix”—the final letter, perhaps subliminally, endorsing...

    • EIGHT Listening in the Dark: A PROFILE OF WILLIAM STYRON
      (pp. 62-72)

      “I suppose some of us are cursed with a dark view of life,” says William Styron. Tragedy has given him almost all his subject matter, and melancholia has provided the bookends to his career. Styron’s first novel,Lie Down in Darkness, published in 1951, when the author was twenty-six, centers on the suicide of a young woman in America’s Deep South and relates the subsequent damage to those close to her. Almost forty years later, he revisited the territory (and the title) when he wroteDarkness Visible, about his four-year clinical depression in the mid-1980s, which he refers to as...


    • [PART II Introduction]
      (pp. 73-74)

      William Styron was a good friend to James Baldwin, and one of a small number of so-called white American writers to have taken on black-andwhite life, black-and-white history—as Baldwin put it to Styron, “the common history—ours.” In 1968, Styron received a unique “Keep out” notice, in the form of a book,William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond, an early warning of the division of literature into separate fiefdoms based on the modern construction of “identity”—mostly racial and sexual—that later became widespread. As Styron explained during the interview which led to the article in the...

    • NINE I Heard It through the Grapevine: JAMES BALDWIN AND THE FBI
      (pp. 75-102)

      At the turn of 1962–63, James Baldwin was regarded as a writer with the power of healing. He spoke across chasms: male-female, father-son, straight-queer; most of all, Baldwin seemed capable of locating the hurt good white Americans felt at being separated, by crimes too ancient and convoluted to contemplate, from their black countrymen—neighbors, school friends, wet nurses, lovers, even children. The passage most often quoted from Baldwin’s work is the one which occurs near the end of “Down at the Cross,” the essay which forms the larger part ofThe Fire Next Time. It spread over eighty-five pages...

      (pp. 103-111)

      In the spring of 1988, I went to Paris to meet Ellen Wright, the widow of the American novelist Richard Wright, at her home in the heart of St-Germain des Prés. The purpose of the visit was to discuss James Baldwin, about whom I was writing a book and with whom Richard Wright had had a fractious, father-and-son relationship. The Wrights had moved from New York to Paris in 1947, and Baldwin, fourteen years Wright’s junior, arrived the following year. Whereas Wright was the author of several outstanding books, including the novelNative Sonand the memoirBlack Boy, the...

    • ELEVEN The Man Who Cried: JOHN A. WILLIAMS
      (pp. 112-118)

      In the spring of 1960, the year of his death, the novelist Richard Wright wrote from Paris to his friend and Dutch translator Margrit de Sablonière: “You must not worry about my being in danger. . . . I am not exactly unknown here and I have personal friends in the de Gaulle cabinet itself. Of course, I don’t want anything to happen to me, but if it does my friends will know exactly where it comes from. . . . So far as the Americans are concerned, I’m worse than a Communist, for my work falls like a shadow...

      (pp. 119-122)

      Stanley Crouch refers to his study as “the war room.” As a cultural and political contender, he has much in common with the Norman Mailer ofAdvertisements for Myself. Both are energetic polemicists, driven by a desire to speak from “the middle of our time,” in Crouch’s words, combined with a tendency to go against the grain. In Crouch’s time, the grain is identity politics, the cult of victimhood, the race, class, and gender industry bedeviling academe, and the all-around “politics of narcissism” that corrupts the democratic morale. Few contemporary writers, black or white, have the gumption to trace the...

      (pp. 123-128)

      There is an arresting moment in Toni Morrison’s second novel,Sula(1973), in which the heroine is said to be “guilty of the unforgivable thing—the thing for which there was no understanding, no excuse, no compassion. The route from which there was no way back, the dirt that could not ever be washed away.” What is this dirt, this sin for which there is, so emphatically, no forgiveness? We know that Sula has a secret in her life that, with a friend, she has caused the death of a little boy—but that is not it. “They said that...

      (pp. 129-142)

      Springfield Avenue in Newark, New Jersey, is a sloping drag of shops and dismal dwellings, lined with telegraph poles and pitted with vacant lots, a street familiar even to those seeing it for the first time. Springfield does not figure much in literature, but inThe Autobiography of LeRoi Jonesit holds a central place in the action as the area where the city riots—what the author calls the “rebellion”—began. It was 1967, the year that Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka. The poet and some friends were eating a late afternoon meal at the “Spirit House,”...


    • [PART III Introduction]
      (pp. 143-144)

      At the end of the Second World War, in the midst of the threat of destruction by the atomic bomb, the “outsider” replaced the soldier as the credible romantic hero. In Europe, this daredevil of repudiation was called an “existentialist” (whether or not he or she had any adherence to tenets of recognized existential philosophy); in the United States, a little later, they would be known as “Beat.”

      The authors grouped together as the Beat Generation started out as youngsters tempted to steal a little of the fire of blacks, mostly as it sparked off of blues singers and jazz...

      (pp. 145-154)

      Gary Snyder arrived on the San Francisco poetry scene, already in the lotus position, in the early 1950s. The main players there were Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan, and among the conspicuous influences on the younger poets who became attached to them were the linking of poetry to everyday speech (and occasionally jazz), a tendency toward inclusive, “open” forms, and the elevation of spontaneity to an aesthetic value. In October 1955, handwritten posters appeared in the bars and cafés of San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach district: “Invitation to a Reading. 6 Poets at 6 Gallery. Remarkable collection of angels on...

    • SIXTEEN Between Moving Air and Moving Ocean: THOM GUNN AND GARY SNYDER
      (pp. 155-159)

      Thom Gunn’s critical essays on modern American poets are filled with delight. Here is a brief sampling of his remarks on writers whom many of his English contemporaries have dismissed, if not ridiculed:

      Gary Snyder has worked to lay himself open to the feel, look, sound, and smell of things. Attentiveness becomes in him, as it does in William Carlos Williams, a form of moral discipline.

      Ginsberg’sCollected Poemsis an enjoyable book, informed by a constant energy of attack, by humanity of spirit and wild humor, and by aspirations toward ecstasy and vision that may recall to us earlier...

    • SEVENTEEN Was That a Real Poem?: ROBERT CREELEY
      (pp. 160-168)

      In an essay written in 1967, Robert Creeley set out the limits of his particular type of literary nationalism. Placing himself apart from “such allusive society as European literature has necessarily developed,” Creeley situated himself, by way of opposition, in “the condition of being American.” As a poet, he wished to address “the intimate fact of one life at one time”—his own, naturally—in the context of that condition.

      Creeley, who was born in Arlington, Massachusetts, in 1926, was well into a successful career by then, with several books of poetry and fiction to his name (includingCollected Poems...

    • EIGHTEEN Fifty Years of “Howl”
      (pp. 169-177)

      Among the first people to whom Allen Ginsberg sent “Howl” for advice and criticism, when he completed the poem early in 1956, were his mum and dad. Louis Ginsberg was a poet of mild manners and modest abilities, whose neat stanzas were often to be seen in the poetry corner of theNew York Times. “Howl” was as far from the kind of poetry he admired as it is possible to be, but he welcomed any indication of accomplishment in his troubled twenty-nine-year-old son. “It’s a wild, rhapsodic, explosive outpouring with good figures of speech,” Louis wrote to Allen in...

      (pp. 178-187)

      In a strip cartoon drawn by Edmund White’s lover Hubert Sorin, published in a literary magazine in 1991, White is depicted reading aloud from one of his novels, a typically carnal passage: “Lou tried to turn me into the man, but I was too affectionate in a puppy-dog way. . . . ‘You need to focus more on cock and ass,’ Lou said. ‘Pull out further and plunge deeper.’” In the adjoining frame, a member of the audience asks the author, “Do you intend to write the rest of your life?” to which White answers yes. The questioner then turns...

    • TWENTY To Beat the Bible: A PROFILE OF J. P. DONLEAVY
      (pp. 188-197)

      In the summer of 1954, J. P. Donleavy wrote the letter that would determine the course of his life. The recipient was Maurice Girodias, proprietor of the Olympia Press in Paris. “Dear Sir, I have a manuscript of a novel in English called ‘Sebastian Dangerfield.’” The book, later renamedThe Ginger Man, had been rejected by more than thirty publishers, partly on account of its at times baffling stream-of-consciousness narrative, but more because of its ribald content. “The obscenity is very much part of this novel,” cautioned the author. But he took care to add that “extracts . . ....

    • TWENTY-ONE The Making of a Monster: ALEXANDER TROCCHI
      (pp. 198-212)

      Cain’s Book, Alexander Trocchi’s drug-related mastercrime, is a novel to give to minors, a book to corrupt young people. It has been banned, burned, prosecuted, refused by book distributors everywhere, condemned for its loving descriptions of heroin use and coarse sexual content. Trocchi died in London in 1984. Since completingCain’s Booka quarter of a century earlier, he had written hardly anything. It’s not difficult to see why.Cain’s Bookis more than a novel: it is a way of life. The book is autobiography and fiction at once, the journal of a fiend, a stage-by-stage account of the...

    • TWENTY-TWO Travels with RLS
      (pp. 213-216)

      One evening in the spring of 1880, Robert Louis Stevenson dropped into the bar of the Magnolia Hotel in Calistoga, at the head of the Napa Valley. There was little more to the town than the springs, the railway station, and the enticement of a fortune to be made from mining gold or silver. The West was still wild. Inside, someone asked Stevenson if he would like to speak to Mr. Foss, a stagecoach driver; Stevenson, always alert to the suggestion of travel, said yes: “Next moment, I had one instrument at my ear, another at my mouth, and found...

  8. CODA: Boswell and Mrs. Miller A MEMOIR OF TWO TONGUES
    (pp. 217-226)

    When James Boswell took the low road from Scotland to London in 1762, to seek his fortune and eventually to writeThe Life of Samuel Johnson, he required no passport to cross the border; but as he went, he imagined his whole being receiving the stamp of improvement. Boswell’s overwhelming purpose in life was to better himself; in order to do so, he was ready to slough off the rough Scots “Jamie,” and admit the politer, anglicized James. In London, however, Boswell encountered an unexpected and unwanted reminder of home on the southern air. “Mrs Miller’s Glasgow tongue excruciated me,”...

  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 227-227)