Michel de Montaigne asked himself famously in his Essays of 1580, “What do I know?” This apparently simple question opened the door to the history of personal and private writing: letters, memoirs, autobiographies, the personal essay, and literary journalism, to name a few of its manifestations.
Montaigne’s question, like his near contemporary Shakespeare’s soliloquies, initiated a Humanist-Renaissance exploration of the interior life that led in time to the English Romantic Movement in the first part of the 19th century and, beyond it, to depth psychology and stream of consciousness (James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) at the turn of the 20th century.
Montaigne is a good example of how world-changing and revolutionary language—even one sentence—can be when it inaugurates or summarizes an epoch of human consciousness. Descartes, Rousseau, Goethe (Poetry and Truth, 1811–1833), Freud, and Marx also come to mind.
I have resolved in an enterprise which has no precedent, and which, once complete, will have no imitator. My purpose is to display to my kind a portrait in every way true to nature, and the man I shall portray will be myself.
(Rousseau, The Confessions, Book 1, 17)
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains. One thinks himself the master of others, and still remains a greater slave than they.
(Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Subject of the First Book, 1)
A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.
All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance
to hunt down and exorcize this specter; Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French radicals and German police-spies.
(Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 55)
Needless to say, it helps—doubtless is necessary—for the thinker-writer to be a superb rhetorician and stylist. The only prize ever awarded to Sigmund Freud in Austria was the Goethe Prize for Literature on August 28, 1930.
Charles Lamb, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Sigmund Freud (The Interpretation of Dreams, 1900), Rainer Maria Rilke, Franz Kafka (Letter to His Father/Brief an den Vater), George Orwell, and James Baldwin are a few well-known practitioners of personal writing or lifewritingwho have helped establish, over time, the genre of what we now call “creative nonfiction.”
These writers, past and present, sometimes are accused of being self-serving, egotistical, and narcissistic; but a close look at the good work in this area usually reveals a balance of subjective and objective elements and of centripetal and centrifugal forces. In fact, these forces often co-exist and constitute a unified field.
In the Preface to his Stories of Three Decades (1936), Thomas Mann says that the chronological ordering of his stories constitutes “an autobiography, as it were, in the guise of a fable.” In his The Freud Reader, Peter Gay, the intellectual historian, says about Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: “It is partly open and partly concealed autobiography […]” (129).
Generational history imprints itself, to say nothing of longer increments of time, upon the individual; whether they are minor or major forces in the world through which they move, people write their signatures micro- or macro-scopically on the scrolls and walls of the “cities” in which they live. In this sense, we all become in the fullness of time, as Emerson puts it, “representative” women and men.
Let me begin at the beginning and move forward in a straight line, or as straight as it can be, through my growing up in New York City—mainly Manhattan—during the 1940s and 1950s from Pearl Harbor to the edge of the Viet Nam War and then draw some generational conclusions from this personal history.
I was born November 5, 1936. The world was quite busy, as it tends to be, a topsy-turvy place with a mixture of positive and negative elements. On the first day of that month, Mussolini demanded that Britain recognize Italian Abyssinia; on November 2, in Adelaide, Wally Hammond became the first English cricketer to score a hundred runs by one batsman against Australia; on November 3, FDR was re-elected for a second term; on November 6, Madrid was bombarded and the Republican government fled to Valencia; on November 12, Eugene O’Neill was awarded the Nobel Prize; a month later on December 10, King Edward VIII announced that he would abdicate the throne. The 11th Olympic Games opened in Berlin on the first of August, forever associated with the feats of Jesse Owens. Frederico Garcia Lorca was shot by the Falangists on August 18.
Opposing forces were at work in the world: sport, art, and terror. Athletics, aesthetics, and aggression wrestled with each other, the eternal struggle of the world. We are all born, in some way, into a dual world and come to enact a version of Laocoon’s struggle. We live at cross-purposes and bear a cross. Doubleness and two-sidedness, structured ambivalence, give shape to our lives.
This was certainly true for me. Although my mother went into labor with me in the Bronx, she had the wit and perhaps wisdom to hail a taxi in order to give birth to me in Manhattan so that I might lay claim to some finesse and panache for the rest of my life. There are five boroughs in New York City, but Manhattan is “The City.” No reader of Clifford Odets (Waiting for Lefty, Awake and Sing) or spear carrier for Liberal-Left Causes (the American socialist legacy of the 1930s), my western Pennsylvania-born provincial mother wanted me to enter a “swank” and “swell” world.
She was more attuned to the sounds of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” than she was to the folk- and work-songs of the Depression and the screams of mothers in Guernica. Willy-nilly, I became a son of the Bronx and Manhattan at birth—a double-man, so to speak, who would be mindful throughout his life of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s well-known dictum in The Crack-Up: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still to retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise” (69).
Although I’m sure that the sounds and rhythms of the Big Band Era (Swing) and Cole Porter are deeply imbedded in my brain, I have only a few images of the years between my birth and the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But I have a vivid picture in my mind of my mother, sitting at a kitchen table, listening to the announcement of FDR’s Declaration of War in his famous “date which will live in infamy” speech delivered to Congress on December 8, 1941: “The United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” I still can hear his voice.
I couldn’t understand “war,” of course, but I knew that something terrible had happened; and I wanted it to stop so my mother wouldn’t be unhappy. I later asked my older brother what war was and when it would be over. He said, “Not soon, so we better get ready for it, and, remember, kid, I’m a Captain and you’re a private.”
So the war became a family matter in some sense: my mother’s sorrow (thinking, doubtless, about the fate and future of her sons) and my brother’s assertion of male authority and superiority always thereafter would come to mind in times of international conflict—just as Pearl Harbor, though it was far from the mainland, always would be there for America as an icon of victimization, never more so than in the semi-paranoid aftermath of “9/11” with its disastrous consequences in Iraq. History always has a personal dimension.
Soon after America entered the war (1942), we moved to the fourth floor of an apartment in Upper Manhattan, Washington Heights, which had a panoramic view of the gleaming George Washington Bridge, the wide Hudson River, and The Cloisters, the impressive museum of Medieval art, in historic Fort Tryon Park. On a clear day, I could see the cliffs of the Palisades across the river, West Point (almost) to the north, and, alas, the Bronx, to the east.
In some ways, location, as much as anatomy in Freud’s geography, is destiny; and in this sense, the move to this part of Manhattan was fortunate for me. Fort Tryon Park and The Cloisters provided more than a glimpse of Europe. There were still, in those days, Sunday painters who themselves might have been the subject of a Seurat painting, and The Cloisters contained literally “pieces” of Europe in America. Many of the stones and columns had been brought from Europe before the war. There was also a café in the park where, I noticed, foreign speakers were gathering, huddled close together, and talking in low voices as if they were afraid of something.
It was painful to think, even at an early age, that a part of the world I was beginning to love—Europe—was being substantially destroyed by the war; that cities with their treasures, to say nothing of innocent people, were being bombed and consumed in flames. I was a patriotic young American and wanted “us” to win the war, but I also wanted Europe to be saved.
Some displaced people began to arrive in our apartment house, and even as I knew that they had suffered in Europe, their names and language pointed back to a civilized Europe that I wanted to experience. One person, who had studied at Heidelberg, told me stories about student life in the early part of the 20th century that inspired me to want to become an accomplished student, if not a “student prince.” He even had a dueling scar. A baby-sitter showed me a photo of herself in a feathered hat, standing on a train platform in Bratislava. I knew that she belonged in a world that was disappearing.
For those of us growing up in New York City in the 1940s, Japan, following Pearl Harbor and the “death march” in Corregidor, seemed to be our most hated enemy. The Japanese were portrayed as grotesque and blood-thirsty on posters. My friends and I were fighting back against the “Japs” in movie after movie: Gung Ho, Back to Bataan, The Purple Heart, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, They Were Expendable, and Flying Tigers, to name a few.
We wanted to be like John Wayne when we grew up. It was only a few decades after the war, when we realized the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that some of us began to understand that the Japanese, whatever else was true, had been dehumanized as a people; that we had annihilated, guiltlessly at the time, hundreds of thousands of non-combatants in a horrific flash. It was only after the publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima(1946), that we began to think about other sides of the war that patriotic propaganda had concealed.
When my friends and I went to summer camp in the foothills of the Berkshires during the late years of the war and sang patriotic songs around blazing bonfires, we weren’t thinking about the firestorms of Europe (Dresden) and Japan. We were worried that our counselors would be drafted and suddenly disappear, leaving us unprotected.
The war in the Pacific overshadowed in many ways the war in Europe, even as we cheered for the democratic and freedom-loving spirit of Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid in Casablanca (1943). Humphrey Bogart was to the war in Europe in his Sahara (1943) and Passage to Marseilles (1944) what John Wayne was to the conflict in the Pacific.
Bogart inspired a belief in the quiet heroism of American individualism against the threats of Totalitarianism and Fascism, but his movies didn’t present us with grotesque images. That came later with the Nuremberg Trials (Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961), the publication of The Diary of Anne Frank (1947), and the return of the historically repressed nightmares of the Nazi era from which we have yet to awaken.
One of the paradoxes of the war for my generation was that—despite the anxieties of the period, the fear that parents and loved ones might be wounded or killed overseas—we emerged after Victory in Europe (May 8, 1945) and Victory in Japan (August 14, 1945) with a sense of American triumphalism.
I entered a privileged private high school in 1950 (Horace Mann School for Boys) during a period of economic boom and world-dominance at the beginning of the Korean War. Once President Truman ordered General MacArthur to stay south of the Yalu River—avoiding a direct conflict with “Red” China—and then relieved him of his command, that far-away “peninsula” war no longer threatened us directly at home. We assumed, post-World War II, that America would prevail everywhere.
America was in the driver’s seat, and the size and design of our cars in the 1950s expressed our confidence as a nation. Those sleek fins showed that we were flashy, bold, and innovative. We found some charm in those small Deux Chevaux we saw in French movies, but we wanted power when we got behind the wheel; we wanted to get our kicks on Route 66.
We were moving en masse in a spirit of togetherness, with a feeling of suburban and corporate solidarity towards a promised land in which the American dream (whatever it was) would be fulfilled. We were happy to be conformists, at least for a while. John Cheever’s New York suburban short stories and J. D. Salinger’s charmingly neurotic vignettes chart and capture the obverse and reverse of this cultural moment.
History, American-style, was on our side. Besides, even the cultural scale was beginning to tilt towards America. Jazz had come into its own as a world-class art form; it didn’t need to seek refuge in the “caves” of Paris; Action Painting, with Jackson Pollack as its star and the Cedar Bar as its Greenwich Village center, was making New York City, not Paris, the international art center. Martha Graham, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham created the New York school of dance, and New York City became the international capital of choreography. And the Bauhaus was asserting itself in glass boxes on Fifth Avenue.
At the same time, the exile and emigration of many European artists, writers (Berthold Brecht, Thomas Mann) actors (Peter Lorre), film-makers (Billy Wilder), art historians, psychoanalysts, scholars (Erich Auerbach), and intellectuals (the faculty of The New School for Social Research, an outpost of the Frankfurt School), made America, Hollywood and especially New York City, more European, in the best sense, than much of Europe itself—at least for a while. If you were anyone, you had a Vienna-style psychoanalyst on Madison Avenue.
The American Express Office in Paris in the mid-Fifties, when I first went to Europe, was still as glamorous to Parisians as the clock at the Biltmore had been to the earlier Fitzgerald generations of Americans. It was where they could observe a new style, the fashion of individual freedom as represented by the Fred Astaire and Jimmy Stewart look, lean and relaxed. Needless to say, we no longer can look to major American corporations with as much confidence; and obesity is a problem.
But there was another side: the U.S.-U.S.S.R. arms race and the fear of thermo-nuclear war. As much as those of us in our upper middle-class school believed that the world would be our oyster, we also feared annihilation, especially during what were called “Take Cover” drills when it seemed possible to imagine the end of the world. Stanley Kramer’s 1959 On The Beach and Stanley Kubrick’s 1963 Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb capture in a surreal and paranoid fashion some of what we felt.
Fear and paranoia were the reverse sides of the generational optimism of my high school contemporaries. Most of them were going to enter the Halls of the Ivy League and expected to lead successful professional lives and none of whom expected to be “losers,” that peculiarly American fear.
We were afraid of a catastrophic conflict between America and the Soviet Union; and then we became intimidated by the counter-thrust to what was called the Red Scare through the repressive, inquisitorial, and unconstitutional tactics of the McCarthy Period. The execution of the Rosenbergs (June 19, 1953) defined the extreme implications of ideology in a traumatic fashion.
This apprehension became more than an abstraction when our high school newspaper (Horace Mann Record) put out a Russian language edition of one issue and tried to send it to Moscow as a peace-gesture. We met stiff resistance from the U.S. State Department and thought we might be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Some of us later had applications for the Foreign Service blackballed by the State Department for our “subversive” act.
As confident as we were as young New Yorkers in that post-war period, we still looked to Europe to add a touch of sophistication and finesse to our new status as an Empire; it wasn’t enough to be a reader of The New York Times and The New Yorker. And, believe it or not, we associated imported coffee with those qualities in the pre-Starbuck era.
One of the places where one could have espresso and cappuccino in those days was the garden restaurant of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). One could discuss existential angst in Camus’s The Stranger as one looked at an emaciated Giacometti sculpture (thinness was in). One even might see a real existentialist or an American version of one. I met one later, an intellectual assassin, as a colleague in Buffalo and was grateful that I hadn’t met him at a tender age. He once called a department meeting in which he suggested that the leaders of Columbia’s anti-war protest should be shot. His motion was defeated.
After two years at Amherst College (1954–1956), I had a chance for a wanderjahr in Europe as a chauffeur for a late uncle of mine who lived, as it turned out, in the Diaspora of his psyche. This uncle later committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a building on Broadway, putting an end to his version of the American dream, but I am rushing ahead of my story.
I left New York City, confident that I was going to expand my horizons and return a worldlier person who would take his place in what Henry Luce had called arrogantly, but with some accuracy, “The American Century.” My year in Europe (1956–1957) turned out to be quite different from what I expected. I had many enlightening experiences at a personal and cultural level, but I saw the ravages of conflict, internal and external, close up: my uncle’s disappointments and remnants of Europe’s rubble and ruin in Austria, Germany, and Italy. One paid for a sheet of toilet paper in Paris and could buy a single cigarette in Rome.
On the island of Majorca in Spain, still the Franco period, I met someone in a bar who regaled me with stories of the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) and whispered to me in a state of alcoholic despondency that “They killed Lorca, Spain died in 1939.” In Paris, I met Hemingway briefly in the bar of the Ritz Hotel who told me to beware of editors who “cut you up.” Aggression was never far from his mind.
When I returned to New York at the end of that year and sailed into New York Harbor on the Queen Elizabeth (it was still the era of luxury ocean liners for transcontinental travel), I was struck by the vertical majesty and safety of the city; it was intact and removed from the traces of devastation that I had seen in Europe.
My grandparents had left Lithuania and Bohemia to escape the limitations of Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Their lives in New York City were hard at the beginning, but there were opportunities for socio-economic advancement and personal development. Manhattan wasn’t the Promised Land, but it was possible to go from Downtown (the Lower East Side of tenements) to Uptown.
In going to Europe at the time that I did, I saw a version of what my grandparents had left behind. Looking at the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building from the deck of the great liner when I sailed into New York harbor on my return, I was aware that the city and America, my contemporaries and I, had been privileged to live in a safe haven, untouched by war on the home front. Many soldiers had been wounded and died overseas, but we had been safe.
I realized that a moral life could not be lived if it were removed from the hardships and complexities of lives lived elsewhere in the world. I had seen some of those hardships—mangled gun emplacements on the French coast, American cemeteries in other lands—and I was now a different person when the ship eased into the Cunard dock on the West Side of Manhattan and I disembarked in June, 1957.
In briefly reversing my family’s history, going back to Europe for something like a not so Grand Tour, I had revised, to some extent, my world-view and my emotional relationship to it. Manhattan’s towers seemed arrogantly beautiful, unlike the flattened rubble and bullet-ridden walls that I had seen here and there in Europe.
My age of innocence had come to an end, and there were signs that an emerging generation was becoming discontented with Madison Avenue’s TV-advertising view of America as a game-show in which everyone could be a winner and some, perhaps, “Queen for a Day.” The benefits of the “military-industrial complex,” as Eisenhower called it a few years later (1961), made the proto-rebels of this generation feel as if they were being enlisted in a civilian war against creative individualism.
The war had called for massive organization, but we didn’t want to become William H. Whyte’s “organization man” (1956). David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950) spoke to a loneliness that we felt in the center of what was supposed to be at that moment the most successful city in the world. Part of the problem was, perhaps, that it was so successful at a time when people elsewhere were struggling and not so much lonely as displaced. Some of us were beginning to feel “lonely” in the crowd Riesman was writing about.
E.B. White, The New Yorker’s defining essayist, captures some of this attitude in the opening sentence of his Here Is New York (1949): “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness […].” The America to which I returned in 1957 was different from the one I had left in 1956. Marlon Brando was establishing a new “method” of acting; Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) called into question the apparent rationality of the postwar period, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness […]”; Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) inaugurated an era of hitch-hiking to the West for young Easterners searching for freedom. In fact, two high school classmates and I hit the road after our commencement in the summer of 1954; our “high” was pitching hay on a farm in Kansas, so there was nothing to write home about.
Arthur Miller’s poignant defeatism in Death of a Salesman, a legacy of the 1930s—set in New York—was giving way to a California dream of escape, a denial of limitations; Elvis Presley’s 1956 album, Elvis, went straight to Number One and stayed there for five weeks. Happily, I don’t remember “Ready Teddy,” but the majority of young Americans were moving to the rhythms of Rock ‘n Roll.
A few months after my return from Europe, I became enraptured of a young actress, daughter of wealthy Park Avenue merchants. She, let me call her “Marcia,” was sensitive to all the new currents. She had what Fitzgerald calls a “heightened sensitivity to the promises of life” (The Great Gatsby,2). But they were not the promises her parents or mainstream American wanted fulfilled. She wanted reality, not real estate. She read T.S. Eliot’s poetry to me as her parents and their cronies played gin rummy in their elegantly appointed Park Avenue dining room. Their voices drowned out hers. They did not “sing” to her. She studied literature for a year at the University of Michigan, but fellow students made fun of her because she read Holderlin aloud and wore black turtlenecks, so she dropped out.
I tried to make her feel normal, but failed. She committed suicide a few years later. Marcia was born a decade too early. Had she lived into the period of the Beatles and the anti-war movement of the 1960s, she might have survived. But as it was, she needed to escape. I once wrote a poem about her: “Later, in Brooklyn Heights,/ facing Manhattan, I heard you chant/a mantra as a freighter slipped by.”
I was pleased to return to college after my “year abroad,” as it was called generically, to be with my friends again, but I was somewhat out of step with their belief that they would glide into an America of unlimited possibilities after college. Having seen some of the ravages of history close-up—my uncle’s personal anguish and Europe’s disaster—I was more attuned now to the position of outsiders and marginal men. My closest friend, sensing some change in me, gave me a copy of Colin Wilson’s The Outsider (1957).
I felt half in tune now with those who had been rejected by Fraternities (the Greeks) and half in sympathy with those institutional men who lobbed Frisbees on smooth lawns, drove MGs, and expected to occupy a high office somewhere, including Wall Street, and to own a co-op on Fifth or Park Avenue. I was, true to my origins and beginnings, a divided man at this point.
Just as I graduated from college (1959), my father, poor guy, had fallen upon hard economic times. Unable to raise money, after filing for bankruptcy, to finance his Garment Center business, he had become, like Willy Loman, a salesman on a downward spiral. Having gone from poverty to prosperity, the father of a would-be professor (the Three Ps), he now was at the terrifying threshold of poverty again. He had been crushed by New York’s competitive engine. His American dream became, for a while, something like a nightmare.
My father was unable to help me attend a graduate school away from home, so I applied to, and was accepted by, Columbia University. If I had known that one day it would be President Obama’s alma mater, I might have felt better about being there; but after Amherst’s pastoral grace, the livable scale of a small New England college and its social intimacy, Columbia seemed to be—as we used to say in the 1960s—as much a part of the problem as it was the solution: cold, impersonal, indifferent to the life of the individual, even as its most famous literary critic, Lionel Trilling, celebrated the importance of individual consciousness in his still relevant The Liberal Imagination (1950).
I couldn’t relate the MA thesis that I was writing—the poetry of Robert Lowell, whose “confessional” poems were situated at the interface of self and history, a drama I was beginning to understand—to the monumental scale of Columbia. I felt anonymous on the Morningside Heights campus and retreated on many days, when I should have been studying, to the café in Fort Tryon Park where I began to write short stories and to know some of the foreigners who sought refuge there. Two of them, one an exile from Franco’s Spain, the other a refugee from Mussolini’s Italy, also were beginning to write. One, science fiction; the other, political drama. I wasn’t sure what I would write, but I knew it would deal inevitably with my family’s life and history in New York City.
When all my thesis advisor could say about my thesis at the end of the year (1960) was that it conformed to the MLA style-sheet, I decided to join the Army for a short tour of duty (six months) because I knew I would be drafted for two years if I weren’t enrolled in an academic program. I didn’t know how I would support myself as a writer, if I was going to abandon an academic career when I was discharged, but I knew that Columbia wouldn’t fan my creative flame. In some sense, Columbia had defeated me as my father had been put on the rack of Manhattan’s Garment District. I had tried to be his opposite growing up, but the city’s large forces had impinged on both of us. I needed to get away.
So I joined in June 1960 a National Guard Combat Engineer Unit whose late 19th century castle-like armory was a short distance from our apartment in Washington Heights. I was sent first to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for Basic Training and then to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, on the banks of the Potomac River, not far from George Washington’s Mount Vernon home.
The comic irony was not lost on me that, like Washington, I was to become a surveyor. I won’t recount here my struggle with Trigonometry and the elusive mechanics of the Transit. I was more interested in finding a quiet spot on the nicely landscaped base—it was Virginia, after all—where I could sit and read after hours and wonder about the identity of the mysterious foreign troops who were on the post.
One group of platoon size, clearly Asian, didn’t eat in a common dining room or frequent the PX. They carried bags of rice to their barracks and kept to themselves or were kept from us. One day I asked the Company Clerk who they were:
“I think they’re from Viet Nam.”
“Where’s that?” I asked.
“Not sure,” he said.
“Why are they here?”
“Beats me,” he said, “but I’m busy, get outta here.”
Later that evening I looked up Viet Nam on a map in the post library. It seemed to be a French colony. I was interested in travel and wondered if I’d ever get there one day. Fortunately, I was too old to get to see it with the help of the U.S. Army by the time I returned to graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1963 and understood who those soldiers were. A great deal was to change in America in 1963 after the assassination of John F. Kennedy (1963) and the later assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968).
As T.S. Eliot says in “Gerontion,” “History has many cunning passages”; and one can be in one of them and not know, for a while, where he is. That is perhaps my theme: our lives are at least two-sided, even as, like Castor and Pollux, we try to become one Gemini of identity. As I was once a son both of the Bronx and Manhattan, as Manhattan has a Downtown and an Uptown, as Comedy and Tragedy divide the Red Sea of Literature, so human experience is always complex. We live in a hemispheric world (left and right brain; North and South America), a world of material contradictions (macro-matter and micro-particles). We need to be wary of simplistic reductions of experience at all levels. As Henry James says in “The Art of Fiction”:
“Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spiderweb of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness […].”
(composed in 1884, published in 1888)
Writers are experts in the field of multi-dimensional experience. Whitman proclaims in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (Leaves of Grass): “I too walked the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,/I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me […].” “I too knitted the old knot of contrariety […].” Barack Obama writes in Dreams from My Father: “I spent a year walking from one end of Manhattan to the other. Like a tourist I watched the range of human possibility on display […].” (222)
And the narrator of my novel Broadway Serenade says about the protagonist Larry Mann who contemplates hang-gliding over Manhattan: “If he could soar, wheel, and swoop from the Lower East Side to The Cloisters, he might be able to make sense of this city of dreams which his grandfather had chosen for himself and his children and his children’s children as a homeland.”
My father’s dream of success had failed, but the money he had made in the canyons of W. 37th and 38th Streets during the good years had made my education and my brother’s possible. He had put us in a position to overcome his reversals. My brother had been able to make a life in Portugal; I had been able to see some of the larger world. I realized when I revisited New York City recently that I had been too hard on my father—I had focused too much on what he took to be his failure, not the renewals of family history that his labors had made possible. He had made our life in New York City, with all its possibilities, possible.
We get into trouble as individuals and nations when we become single-minded, dogmatic, and ideologically rigid. We deny our humanity and imperil the possibilities of survival if and when we try to eliminate the living and changing forms of diversity, if we exchange the multiple vistas of story-telling for the tunnel-vision of propaganda. Too often tunnel-vision at the highest levels leaves real people wounded and dead in real tunnels.
We need to be mindful that today’s certainty may become tomorrow’s ambiguity; that the identity we insisted on when we were twenty-one needs readjustment as we enter deep middle-age (believe me, I know); that what we took to be the meaning of our generation’s experience when we were living through it may turn out to have been chimerical. And we need to be sensitive to reversals, revisions, and renewals. There can be no better example of these healthy necessities than the now-emerging debate today in America about the treatment of prisoners during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
An image haunts me: the disfigured face of Sergeant Merlin German who endured more than 40 surgeries as the result of a roadside bomb-blast in Iraq before he died on April 11, 2008. Honored by the State of California for his “courage and unfailing loyalty […] as an inspiration to Americans everywhere” (The Buffalo News, May 3, 2008, D5), he serves for me as a terrible icon of the disasters of war.
And it comes as a great relief to the majority of Americans that President Obama has condemned a “dark and painful chapter in our history” and has said that unlawful “interrogation techniques would never be used again” (The New York Times, April 17, 2009, A1, A10).
As American history is of transformation, I recall with nostalgia and some sense of hope a United Nations song that we sang at P.S. 187 Manhattan in 1945: “One world, one world built on a firm foundation, built on a firm foundation of peace.” Its melody and utopian words, promising a world beyond contradiction, still haunt me.
A photograph of Fort Tryon Park is mounted above my desk. The campanile of The Cloisters rises above a canopy of trees, and a bend of the Hudson River can be seen beyond it to the north. I was fortunate to grow up in a place in New York City that allowed me to dream of other cities in other countries. It left me with a double legacy: the comforts of home and the allure of away, America and the world.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Crack-Up. Ed. Edmund Wilson. New York: New Directions, 1993.—. The Great Gatsby. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.
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Howard R. Wolf is Professor emeritus of American Literature, journalism and creative writing at SUNY Buffalo. His interests are travel and travel writing, imagination and short fiction, general criticism, literary journalism (creative nonfiction), autobiography, letters and history of American and British Literature. Howard Wolf’s publications include Forgive the Father: A Memoir of Changing Generations, 1978, A Version of Home: Letters from the World, 1992, Broadway Serenade, novel, 1993, The Autobiographical Impulse in America, 1993, The Education of a Teacher, 1987, and The Education of Ludwig Fried, stories, 2006. His most recent publication is Far-Away Places: Lessons in Exile, 2007. Professor Wolf was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for Turkey (1983–1984) and South Africa (1988). He was also a Senior Academic Visitor at Wolfson College, Cambridge University in spring 2007.