An Okie Tries to Get an Education
If I twisted what Jesus says to Saul on the road to Damascus I could have called this book Kicking against the Pricks, aware that these pricks we will have with us always. This book celebrates Ornery People, mainly the Scottish-Americans Senator James Webb has also celebrated. (Best hundred dollars I ever spent? A donation to his campaign at the end of October 2006, as I was writing this chapter. Put him over the top, that donation did.) My "Ornery People" are not the academics. Professors tend to band together to suppress politically incorrect opinions rather than to fight for free exploration and expression of ideas, and to be malicious, not ornery.
One place to start is Berkeley, California, in November 1977, where I talked to the English Department at the University of California on the "Composition and Meaning of Pudd'nhead Wilson" and the next day on "Aesthetic Implications of Textual Evidence in American Fiction." I had been swimming every day for months and looked good, six three, newly under a hundred eighty. After airing, sunning, or freezing my wrists all my life, I wore Big Fellow shirts with 36 inch sleeves, and from the new Los Angeles Eagelson's I had a blue polyester blazer that, if you didn't glimpse the cerise lining, looked almost like the wool blazers worn by Yalies at Northwestern. I also had astonishing new information and new ideas about the creative process (it begins, it continues, it ends) and the process of reading (evidence about how we all make sense of nonsense or inadvertent meanings). The chairman Ralph Rader (who had put me onto the work of the cognitive psychologist James J. Gibson and his colleagues) and Frederick Crews (famous already for The Pooh Perplex but not yet infamous to diehard Freudians), were both intrigued. The others, young and old, were playing games I recognized from Northwestern, when the senior professors, telling themselves mournfully that in a few more years "all the really eminent men" would be gone, had savagely feasted on a series of young candidates. (What ever happened to that brilliant Mr. Greene? Did he disintegrate entirely on the way back to New Haven?)
No one besides Rader and Crews would talk about the new sort of information I had presented and how profound its implications might be for literary study. At the reception all they wanted to know, these people, second or third generation Americans, hardly visible on Google now, any of them, only a bony elbow poking up, was not about my ideas or even about my new Beverly Hills clothiers but about my accent. What was that accent? I admitted that I was Southern, having lived in Texas, Oklahoma, and Lousiana. I could not say forthrightly "I'm an Okie." I had been trying for too many years to get away from being an Okie.
Now I would answer that my accent is American, and I would give them a history lesson on what an Okie is, based on what I have learned about my Ulster-Scots ancestors, who make up most of the Ornery People of my title. My autobiographical impulse is loosed, and despite the juvenilization and blockbustering of the publishing industry, academic autobiographies do get published, and failing publication I now find, re-reading this in 2011, that you can blog. But why add another, especially when I convince myself that I am keeping all the darkest secrets and telling only stories which redound to my credit? One reason would be that my catch-as-catch-can education and my anomalous career allowed me high, Saturnian objectivity about some major fads and fetishes in English Departments since the 1940s, even some I participated in. I witnessed, up close, assistant, associate, and full professors waste their time, and some even waste brilliant minds, over decades, while defending airy but airless theoretical constructs. It happened that I was better positioned than anyone else to understand how the dominant textual theory of the 1960s reflected the dominant critical theory of the late 1940s. This is a fact: probably no other literature PhD was as well positioned to understand how Yale (and by extension the Ivy League and all the imitative schools) changed from the 1940s beginning in the early 1950s.
My teacher at Northwestern, Harrison Hayford, had been one of the great group of students at Yale whom Professor Stanley T. Williams, the biographer of Washington Irving, had set to learning all they could learn, factually, about Melville. From the late 1930s through the 1940s these students wrote dissertations on individual books by Melville, edited his letters, wrote on special topics such as Melville and philosophy, and, in Hayford's case, Melville's relationship with Hawthorne. As it turned out, my archival work on Melville and politics made me a belated member of the group scholars who in the 1940s had set out to discover what could be known factually about Herman Melville (mainly Williams's Yale students, but also Wilson Heflin from Vanderbilt and the ineffable, elusive Jay Leyda from Ohio, or Russia, or Red China). I found, repeatedly, that no one had asked to see certain documents since the 1940s. At the NYPL Merrell Davis had been allowed to look at some pages of Gansevoort Melville's London diary but not to hold it in his own hands. When I asked to see it I was told it was on hold, but it was handed over to me once I pointed out that the man it was held for had been dead for years. And yes, I could edit it and they would publish it at the NYPL. I was too happy working in the archives to worry about how unfashionable I was, but over the next decades I sat next to fewer and fewer academics at the microfilm readers and more and more bookies and genealogists.
The retirement of Williams in 1953 and his succession by Charles F. Feidelson was revolutionary. As Paul Lauter has described, students showed up for class with notes on history, biography, and bibliography from Williams's old classes and found the notes were useless. Feidelson was talking about cloud imagery in Emerson or some other New Critical fetish. From that date, American literary scholarship was dead at Yale, so that Feidelson's students, among them Richard Brodhead, never learned the basic aims and methods of scholarship, as opposed to criticism. Because of Yale's incestuous policy of hiring its own, students at Yale in ensuing decades were further and further from scholarship, until in 2002 Brodhead, in denying the existence of Melville's volume of poems in 1860, made it clear that he did not believe anything new could be learned from archival research. In the 1950's, critics considered biographical evidence irrelevant to interpretation; by the 1990s their heirs--direct heirs, their students or the students of their students--behaved as if no new discoveries could come from biographical research. Now it is clear that no other American literary scholar working on a major figure performed so much archival research as I did in the face of organized hostility to the possibility that anything new could be learned about the writer's life.
If you misspell my name with a "c" when you Google me you may get my lanky mustachioed doppelganger, the Arkansas country singer best known for "Mama." I would rather have been Waylon, but I could have settled for being that Herschel Parker. If you use the "c" you may also get mentions of me wherever accuracy seems not to be valued, as in textual and bibliographical studies and in blogs. (Last time I looked Northwestern had me on their departmental website, the only NU PhD so honored, but with the "c" in my name.) I had, you can tell from Google, a career. I was Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois 1963-1965 (back when you did not have to specify "at Urbana") and at Northwestern 1965-1968; Associate Professor at the University of Southern California 1968-1970 and Professor at USC 1970-1979; and finally H. Fletcher Brown Professor 1979-1998 at the University of Delaware, where I held an endowed chair. Beginning 1965 I was the Associate General Editor of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville (13 of 15 volumes published as of now). In 1971-1974 I was a member of the Advisory Committee of the Center for Editions of American Authors. In the 1970s and 1980s I was on three Modern Language Association committees--Bibliographical Evidence, American Literature of the 19th Century, Methods of Literary Research, and on the South Atlantic MLA Textual and Bibliographical Studies Committee. I was on the Norman Foerster Prize Committee and the MLA Hubbell Medal Committee. I was a member of the Discipline Screening Committee of the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (the Fulbright Foundation). I was on an NEH panel. I served on several editorial boards. I had a Guggenheim Fellowship in the 1970s, back when you could live for a year on one. I had 1981-1982 off with a Center for Advanced Study Research Fellowship from the University of Delaware.
During four and a half decades I gave more than a hundred talks all around the country and as far away as Austria and Japan. I published around two hundred articles, reviews, introductions, editions (including the 1969 and 2001 Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick), anthologies (notably the 1820-1865 section of the Norton Anthology of American Literature), several collections of historical documents or literary criticism (alone or in collaboration), and wrote some book-books, Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons (1984), Reading "Billy Budd" (1991), Herman Melville: A Biography, 1819-1851 (1996), and Herman Melville: A Biography, 1851-1891 (2002). I collaborated with Brian Higgins on Reading Melville's "Pierre" (2007). I was one of two Pulitzer Prize finalists for the first volume of the Melville biography the year Geneva Overholser gloated about how her attention-deficit crew joyously gave the prize to a much shorter work, Angelo Gets his Ashes Hauled, as I recall the title, a book frankly marketed in the UK and the rest of Ireland as fiction. The Association of American Publishers Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division gave the first Melville volume the top "Literature and Language" award in 1997 and in 2003 gave the second Melville volume the top award in the new, more appropriate category, "Biography and Autobiography." As I admitted anywhere except in Delaware from the late 1980s on, I was overpaid and underworked, at least by the university. But I worked. Maurice Sendak, himself a serious workman, immortalized me in a torn headline of a newspaper a street boy clutches in We Are All in the Dumps: "PARKER WORKS."
I did all right, humble, self-effacing Southerner as I was, even though from the first I was a very unlikely and later on an uneasy member of the profession. Once I became a whistle-blower against fraudulent scholarship sponsored by the federal government, I was threatened with lawsuits, blackballed from an editorial organization I should have served on, smeared promiscuously. Repeatedly attempts were made by different university presses to silence my exposes of fraud in government projects. Anyone following the development of my thought on textual issues would have been at a loss, for a crucial monograph-length article was kept out of print for two decades by threats of lawsuits. One university press suppressed an essay in which as part Choctaw and part Cherokee I expressed politically incorrect views on literature purportedly by "Native American" writers. Taking it for granted that my new research into Melville's life would be welcomed, I was blindsided when reviewers set out to destroy my credibility by claiming that I had invented episodes such as a volume of poems completed in 1860 (the facts of which had been common knowledge since 1922). As I write, three such reviews, by Richard Brodhead, Andrew Delbanco, and Elizabeth Schultz, are still on the Internet, false accusations glittering brightly every day. Only one of these reviewers has yet been visited by any variation of the divine punishment meted out to Ananias and Lee Atwater: Brodhead arrived at Duke just in time to reveal his character by throwing the lacrosse coach and the players to packs of wolves, the corrupt DA and Duke’s Politically Correct Gang of 88. What did I do to deserve all this hostility? All I wanted to do was to play with the white kids.
I'll begin again. I was born near Comanche, Oklahoma, at the end of November 1935 to a white mother and a part-Cherokee, part-Choctaw, part-white father. Times had been bad. At the worst time, during the Dust Bowl, my mother was so hungry that her milk almost dried up while she was nursing Everett, the blonde baby born in 1930, "Sweet Parker." (He grew to be six feet two and a half and muscular; in 1963 he interfered with my movie watching, for he was startlingly like Hud, if only Newman had been blond, half a foot taller, and better looking.) Orpha Lee, the three year old girl, had diarrhea from gorging on fallen mulberries. The two year old boy, Wilburn, was listless. That was the day mother told a lie. Never having driven a car, she got the three children into one and made her way to Spearman (or was it Perryton?) in the vast northern stretches of the Panhandle of Texas (across the border from where she was born, in Guymon, Oklahoma Territory) and told the grocer that her husband had a job. She brought home food on credit, and, after wearing out shoe soles twice that year, looking for work, my father got a job the next day. The grocer never knew she had lied to him. They survived the dust storms that hit hardest in the Panhandle of Texas. Mother's "Uncle Bode," Moses Amariah Costner, and some of his children were still at Guymon, the last she saw of them; one of the cousins was the father of Bill Costner who was the father of Kevin, who in the 1980s ruined my "mother's maiden name" bank password that had been as safe as "Rumpelstiltskin."
In 1934 on the Green place near Comanche, in south-central Oklahoma, my mother was so malnourished that her full term baby was stillborn. As they liked to say, if she had lived I would not have been born. That year my father slaved on the rented Green place, digging post holes, repairing fences, re-shingling part of the house. My birthday was always near or actually on Thanksgiving but that was never a problem: we could not celebrate Thanksgiving then. Early in 1936 Mr. Green told my father the place was so improved that he would have to charge twice the rent he had been charging. Twelve years later, just after I had learned from Hamlin Garland's Boy Life on the Prairie that fiction could be about real life, I read his "Under the Lion's Paw," which told a story just like the story of how we had to leave the Green place.
My father's younger brother Jim got him a job in an oil field near Escobas, Texas. My first memories are of the Rio Grande in flood when I sliced a foot on broken glass in the water and a friend of the older children drowned in it. We lived in an oil field in a clean little foreman's house that had a kitchen and a bathroom with a shower. You saw cactus and oil wells whichever way you looked. My father burned thorns off cactus with a homemade flame-thrower, so the cow could eat the blades. He kept chickens in pens three feet off the ground to protect them from predators; once the wind blew the pens apart and scattered the chickens. The three years at Escobas were good, after hard times earlier. They bought a tall radio that brought in the ravings of Adolph Hitler, which terrified me, and a set of the World Book encyclopedia in a case with slanted shelves, so you could read what was on the spines and see that the books were in the right order. It was a great place to learn the alphabet, which concluded with "Reading and Study Guide." A multicolored fabric covered the top and bright tassels fell down three or four inches all around. Spencer Bryden could form his aesthetic sensibility on black and white marble squares, but for me gaudy tassels on a table cover sufficed.
Then my father was collapsed with what was called rheumatoid arthritis, supposedly brought on when, awakened by a fire outside which he had thought was extinguished, he shoved his foot into a shoe into which a black widow spider had crawled. From San Antonio I remember two rooms. One was a medical office where the dark green wainscotting was twice as tall as I was, the room suffused with darkest agony the cause of which I learned four decades later. The other was a hospital room from the window of which cars and people were terrifying small. I've been afraid of green rooms and heights ever since. My father lost his job and we had to leave the neat little house.
Things were hard again from 1939 until defense plants opened early in 1942. At Hebbronville, Texas, we were all six in one room, no electricity, no running water, in the back half of a tiny Mexican ma and pa store. Once when we were chasing a rat it leapt into the open oven; I don't remember what happened next. When the cow went missing from the common we drove to the pound and backed the Model T this way and that so the headlights could shine on all the cows penned there. We were all panicked, for the milk from that cow was keeping us all alive. We would have risked breaking into the pound if we had to because we could not have paid a fine. The cow showed up, and from then on Wilburn, the eleven year old, walked her down the dirt streets to the common and walked her back to where we were living so she could be tied up for the night. Once Wilburn and the cow came into sight and rescued me as I was being beaten by a gang. A little white boy lived in the barrio, across the street, and he let me in the kitchen once. It was all white. His mother came in and hustled me back out the door. How filthy was I? In dreams I still glimpse a blindingly white kitchen.
After Pearl Harbor the new DuPont smokeless gunpowder plant near Pryor, Oklahoma, needed workers faster than anyone could provide worker housing. We spent early 1942 in a tent on a plywood floor, a pot bellied stove in the center, and a water pipe and faucet outside the tent, a few hundred feet from the entrance to the plant. I kicked and screamed as they tried to make me use a shit-smeared outhouse; I must have been allowed to use a chamber pot after that. I've awakened with snow on my face in a little annex, a fasten-on side tent to the big tent--not from camping in the Sierras. While we were in the tent my father found a doctor in town who would do a tonsillectomy on my sister without anesthesia. We took a bus to school in Pryor until the cyclone turned the sky a putrid green and blew the school open in the process of killing what Collier's later referred to as "seventy-odd Oklahomans." I was baffled and resentful when I read that in 1947 or so, not comprehending why everyone thought Okies were odd. At the University of Delaware I remembered the tent every time I signed myself as the "H. Fletcher Brown Professor," for my chair was endowed by the DuPont executive in charge of smokeless gunpowder.
After the cyclone in Pryor mother and the children waited in Wister, Oklahoma, to be summoned West. Through the late spring of 1942 my father's dark, impossibly tall great granduncle John Glenn, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Scottish, dressed in black and wearing the only tall black stovepipe hat I ever saw in actual use, brought fresh vegetables to the door of the tiny house. (His 6 foot 5 inch father served in the United States Volunteer Service in the Mexican War.) Later in 1942 we were among the tens of thousands of white hillbillies and Southern blacks hauled on special "Kaiser trains" to work in shipyards and live in Henry J. Kaiser's instant city, Vanport (because between Vancouver and Portland).
Vanport in weeks changed from empty flood plain to the second largest city in Oregon. In 1944 and 1945 we were in the new adjunct East Vanport, separated from the Columbia River by a dirt dike. A part of it caved in on three children I knew. The one they dug out in time was hollow-eyed and green afterwards. The state, I see on the Internet, had a history of fierce prejudice against blacks dating back to the Oregon Donation Land Act of 1850, which specified that free land was only for white settlers. My father had once lived where there was a sign on either side of town advising any black man not to let the sun go down on his head there. In the shipbuilding plant where all the facilities were shared he looked hard at a black man who was topping a toilet seat with strip after strip of toilet paper and got a rebukeful explanation: "You never know who's been sitting on these seats." This man's fastidiousness was a revelation to my father, who told the story on his prejudiced self for the rest of his life. I don't know whether he ever applied it to times when he had been discriminated against because he was so obviously part Indian. Like the shipyards, the schools in Vanport were integrated, a first for Oregon. I didn't know to pay attention to integration, and the only prejudice I saw in Vanport was against a child whom I and the other kids taunted for being an Oregonian, but I was afraid of George, a big black classmate, who could throw a rock over the tallest tree the bulldozers had left on the banks of the Columbia and could poke a finger right through your chest so it came out the other side.
Like everyone of mixed races, the older Parkers had been alert to shades of color. I was an old man before I learned why my Aunt Betty was always called Blanket: she came out so dark they might just as well have given her a blanket and left her off at the Reservation. Choctaw humor? Okie humor? It would never have occurred to me that there could be prejudices against Indians. I nOregon my best friend, Billy Shoemaker, was interesting not because he was Indian but because he was Kiowa, not a more familiar tribe. We used to put a rock on a protruding knot on a tree to indicate whether we had already passed there on the way to school. Around June 1945 I learned just how different Indians were: a cousin of a cousin arrived across the river in Washington, puffy, bloated, doughy, listless, rescued just weeks earlier from a concentration camp where German doctors had rejoiced at their luck in acquiring a genuine Red Indian to perform medical (I think chemical) experiments on.
In Vanport and East Vanport the older children all dropped out of school and got jobs. Orpha Lee worked in a shipyard. Everett was a waiter in a big Portland restaurant (where he served Alan Ladd once and brought home an autograph). Wilburn at 14 was assistant manager of a grocery store in Portland. My name was in the Portland Oregonian because in the third grade I came closest to guessing the number of pinto beans in a goldfish bowl. Trust an Okie, used to eyeing and prospectively dividing the available resources, to come up with a good rough estimate. I was on my own with a small radio, a growing collection of Wonder Woman comics, money for movies, absolutely unsupervised at least 90% of the time. I was secretively ambitious, for I wrote in pencil on the bottom of a chalk Superman "this has given me a story." Luckily my mother and my visiting sailor cousin, Ishmael (thin like Grandpa Costner and extremely tall) could not read the words when they turned Superman upside down. I kept my secret. Why did Ishmael have to say he had seen Mickey Rooney turn in a full circle in front of him and other sailors as he urinated on a floor? Stories that could not be true could disturb your imagination a long time.
At nine, a month or two after FDR's death, I was put to work, riding out on the back of a flatbed truck to pick strawberries and other crops. Older workers favored me with the vilest kind of confidential talk that I mostly did not understand. Some of the things I was told, I believe now, were physiologically impossible as well as morally repulsive. We got out of Oregon almost three years before the catastrophe this time, the flood that wiped out Kaiser's whole hastily thrown up metropolis. Somewhere in central Oregon my father discovered my cache of Wonder Woman comics under the back seat and threw all of them out the window. What would they be worth now? We were parked on the bank of the Snake River in Boise where someone had left a pocket knife with broken blades and some feet of fishing line when the older ones looked at a paper that had news about a bomb falling on Hiroshima.
The next years we were on a farm four miles outside Wister, Oklahoma (no electricity at first, no running water ever). The barn was well sited, but the well was downhill from it and the house was below that. You've seen pictures of this house hundreds of times with wheelbarrows out front and Okies and assorted barrels and maybe a washing machine on the porch. The view to the north, I realized in the 1970s, was not unlike the view north from Melville's Arrowhead, Cavanaugh Mountain making an adequate version of Saddleback. No one else paid much attention to natural beauty, although I climbed alone up the foothills regardless of rattlesnakes. I had seldom seen my father after 1941, so he asserted control after we got there. Two young barn cats came with the place, not merely self sufficient but productive. He handed me the 22 rifle and made me shoot them. This was to make a man of me, at not quite ten. The money saved in Oregon dwindled away in 1945, 1946, 1947 and thereafter. In Oregon a teacher had sent home a note about my needing glasses, so I was still wearing them when I got beaten up by Okies (foolishly holding one down while others kicked my head). I'll never know how bad the damage was. When my head outgrew the glasses it was assumed that I did not need them any more. My teeth were a mess. That happens when you are badly nourished and read Wuthering Heights a lot and gnash your teeth whenever Heathcliff and Cathy do. My father found a dentist in Poteau who would charge less by drilling without Novocain. That was also designed to make a man of me, at twelve or thirteen. He pulled over on the way home. I spit blood and stared him down.
Team sports after school? For town kids who did not have chores to do. The best thing about school was that I was kin to more people than anyone in the class because both my parents had folks there. My father's cousins were all dark. One first cousin of his was weeks younger than me, black haired and more Indian than my father because his mother, my grandmother's much younger sister, had married a man even more Indian than she was. (Fifty years later I was shocked to see that this cousin by then looked startlingly like my father.) I had two fourth cousins in the class from my mother's side. Second cousins Edgar Shippey (later called Doc Shippey) and Edgar Lugene Costner in northern Mississippi had delighted each other with their witty greeting of "Hello, Cousin Edgar." Witticisms were to be treasured. One of Doc Shippey's granddaughters, Lottie Cain, owned all the Tarzan books and many of Zane Grey's books, and loaned me all she had. In the eighth grade we wrote a western novel, my first collaboration. A student of Grey's prose could detect in our book some slight measurable debts to the master. A lot of people start novels. Lottie and I finished ours. In 2007 Jon Tuska quoted me in the preface to a new edition of Zane Grey's Shower of Gold. For a co-author of the 1948 Yonder the Whirlwind could there be greater professional happiness than having his name in any book by Zane Grey? Lottie came back into my life after half a century, and late in 2006 unearthed her anamuensis copy of Yonder the Whirlwind. What would the two of us have thought if we had been able to read Tuska's preface in 1948?
On the farm I had been the only reliable slave, not counting my mother. I rode a harrow, standing, at 10, then did everything after that, and by 1951 I was the only one left. A classmate, born prematurely and never quite right, made every English class a hellish contest between him and the hapless teacher. Plotting escape from farm and school, I accumulated gorgeous free brochures on thick paper from the state of New Mexico and longed to finish high school there. My mother intervened. I studied Morse code and after I finished the 11th grade, in 1952, I signed on as a telegraph apprentice on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad at Red Rock, up near Kansas. I was sixteen. After hours I helped put up television antennas. 60 feet high got you Oklahoma City, and if you were lucky Coffeeville, Kansas. In late September we had a rush order for an antenna on an isolated farmhouse, a tall gaunt house occupied by darkly dressed people with tall gaunt dogs. When we finished, the owners invited us to stay, so among snarling dogs and rabid Republicans I got to sit silent and watch the slimiest politician of my generation damn himself, I was confident, by his transparently manipulative Checkers speech. Keeping silent was easier because I was sure the more or less straight-shooting Eisenhower would drop him from the slate.
After a few months I became a telegrapher on the Kansas City Southern Railroad in Louisiana and Texas. At Many, Louisiana (you say it "manny"), I and the clerk, a black man, Bob Sibley, who chain-smoked Fatimas, wetting them half their length, loaded the ledgers and the adding machine into the car trunk of the psychotic bully McCarthy-loving zealot of an agent every night where they stayed untouched until we carried them back into the depot the next morning so Bob could do all the work on the books. A part-white Okie could not have encountered a better man as the first grown up black he ever knew. Sibleys still live in nearby Florien. Is Bob remembered worshipfully by anyone but me? The white Trueblood family celebrated the birth of Jesus joyously downstairs that year oblivious of the seventeen-year-old upstairs in his rented room. A better person would have forgiven them before now. At the end of 1952 and the start of 1953, I was substitute depot agent in Noble, Louisiana, when time stopped. Only the cliché said it right: the South was "plunged into mourning" for Hank Williams. All you heard on the radio, all day long, was one haunting voice. You could have walked for days across any more or less inhabited stretch of the South and never gotten out of the sound of his voice.
In March 1953 I became agent-telegrapher at Singer, Louisiana, a crossroads with a sawmill in prolonged death throes that month and the next, and a post office in a corner of the general store. Singer was roughly equidistant from Marysville, near the Texas border, the Sabine River, and DeRidder to the north and DeQuincy to the south. For a few months after I got there the Long legacy (this was between the governorships of Earl K. Long) kept a bookmobile coming through every week. Living in the depot (no running water again) I took correspondence courses in English composition and in American history from the University of Oklahoma, typing my papers on the all-capitals railroad machine and getting the local Baptist preacher to monitor my exams. For the first history course I acquired Henry Steele Commager's Documents of American History, one of the greatest textbooks ever devised, even though I could not find the Wilmot Proviso in it. I could go to New Orleans for free if I spent most of the weekend riding trains, on the KCS to Shreveport and the L&A to New Orleans, and back. I was in the dining car drinking chicory coffee (not my usual Jefferson Dark Roast) just south of Baton Rouge when the papers brought aboard there announced the decision on Brown vs. Board of Education. All the whites in the car spoke decently, acceptingly, that morning.
Through all of 1953 and most of 1954 I sent all my money home from Louisiana then bought my father an old truck when they gave up and left for California. One of his sisters loaned him money to buy an $8,500 house on the wrong side of the hill in Point Richmond. He got a job building a bridge to San Rafael. When I began coughing blood the railroad sent me to a TB sanatorium west of Shreveport, by the Texas line. The place was called the Pines but only some short scrub oaks were near it. Old men shuffled into the room with their cigarettes, spitting mucous or blood into their Dixie cups and telling how many years they had watched the oak leaves fall. Elvis Presley, whom I had seen at the Louisiana Hayride, sang "Heartbreak Hotel" 8,543 times. After three months I realized that people went to the Pines only to die and gathered my coins and telephoned my mother to tell her I was sick. She ordered me to come home--to Richmond.
I drove out and gave the state of California the choice of letting me infect the family or spend a couple of months in a sanatorium in the East Bay where people went to get well. In California doctors knew about streptomycin. "Folsom Prison Blues" was playing on the radio late in 1955, before the official release date you see on the Internet. I identified with Cash because the same thing tortured me as tortured him, watching as other people move on--the doctors, in my case, who just kept on a moving, zipping into the ward, zipping out. Discharged at the end of 1955, just after I was 20, I settled into an 8 x 9 room on the front of the house. A half century later I verified the size of the room when the owner, a hospitable fellow, said the house had just been appraised at $965,000. The whole of Point Richmond was buffed then, as if spiffed up for a movie shoot and left gleaming still. In the 1990s I wrote a loving, poignant passage about the rooms which were sacred to Henry James because he had inhabited them with his Muse, writing. What I wrote was accurate about James but it was also suffused with my memory of the room in Point Richmond, sacred to me because I learned to read there.
Getting a fresh supply of reading matter was a problem, so on the first of January 1956 I propped up the one-volume Shakespeare I had bought in New Orleans in 1953, the Garden City Books edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent, with preface and little introductions to the plays by Christopher Morley. In high school I had memorized the purple passages from Shakespeare in Louis Untermeyer's A Treasury of Great Poems English and American, and had memorized much of Macbeth in a bowdlerized edition (no porter talking about alcohol and sexual function), and at Red Rock, Oklahoma, in 1952 under the meager shade of a locust tree in a cow pasture, cow patties all around, I had read King Lear for the first time, in a 1947 Pocket Book of five great tragedies, memorizing the bastardy speech. Now in 1956 for five months I read only Shakespeare, over and over, every day. The first time or two through the plays what I understood was hit or miss. Finally while reading Romeo and Juliet I realized that the passage about the natural and his bauble that had baffled me was obscene, and funny. I thought about that a while and decided that maybe everything made sense, or was meant to make sense. Starting then, I put the brakes on, and would not leave a passage until I thought I understood it, not just the famous cruxes but all the text. From that day the way I read was transformed. Later, critics would say I was an unwitting New Critic in my reading of texts. No: the New Criticism of the 1940s had made the natural universal assumption that texts are supposed to make sense, even while failing to realize that many texts did not make sense. I see from my neat notes that, just for examples, I read Henry 6 Part 1 six times; King John 7 times; Hamlet 10 times besides listening to LPs; King Lear 9 times; Measure for Measure, which I was crazy about, 17 times; Coriolanus 10 times; Cymbeline 9 times; The Tempest 16 times.
Still in bed, I took a course in philosophy from the University of California for which I read John Dewey's Human Nature and Conduct, which got me over being terrorized by Baptists. Then for a year, waddling the first days of every week from Monday pneumo-peritoneum (air pumped into the belly through a six-inch long horse needle, to force the diaphragm to restrict the lungs), I attended West Contra College Junior College. The best teacher in the world, an Austrian Jew named Charles Lovy, a refugee, taught French there; he also taught German, and a lifelong regret is that I did not sign up for it too. After a few months the Richmond Insurance Agents gave me an award of $100. In a health education class the instructor turned over bright overlays until one revealed the lungs. My notebook shows the trail of the fountain pen as I fainted and slid off the chair: I had been in denial about the seriousness of the disease. I rested when I could in the afternoons, exhausted from carrying the skin full of air around school, like being always a little pregnant. About that time, early in 1957, I spent eleven afternoons in bed reading Moby-Dick, savoring it, pausing to look at paragraphs as long as I needed to, writing little wonder-struck notes on it. Knowing Shakespeare then as few English professors ever do, I could hardly believe that a nineteenth-century American had read Shakespeare so profoundly.
A long bus ride away in San Francisco copies of the first edition of Howl were on sale at City Lights and people I knew were reading it. I read it, but knew enough Whitman to draw back from anything that seemed so derivative. Buying a season's ticket to the Richmond Community Theatre got me the privilege of sitting in the back during rehearsals. Hang around a theatre and they cast you in something. After a couple of other roles including the lead in Male Animal I got to play Michael Cassio in Othello, which I knew not just from reading but from what I was sure was the best Shakespearean recording ever made--the performance by Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen, and Alexander Scourby. By the Friday and Saturday performances most of the air had seeped out of my stomach, so I didn't waddle or wobble in a sword fight.
In the late summer of 1957 I was healthy enough to stop having air pumped into my stomach every week. By then I had enough seniority to take my chances on a night job on the Kansas City Southern at Port Arthur, Texas. Audrey had just destroyed Cameron, that magical, mysterious island of shrimp fishermen. My friends at Singer had joined the rescue teams and had stories of snakes and human bodies in trees. I rented a room from Ailene Lançon, a magnificent old Louisiana Cajun woman, a professional seamstress for the best men's store in Port Arthur, who had just acquired her fourth hip but soon was driving nightly to church bingo games. A superb cook, she operated under minimalist rules unknown in Oklahoma. She spoke her second language, English, with great force and originality: "It isn't worth it" will never sound as strong to me as "It don't worfs it." My shift, I knew when I left California, was peculiar, 8 at night till 4 in the morning.
If I didn't sleep, I would have days free to drive to Lamar State College of Technology in Beaumont. I signed up for a hesitant ten units the first semester, then full loads or overloads (22 units once). I bought a hundred and twenty-five pound eight-inch reel to reel tape recorder and put myself to sleep with my recording of Racine's Phaedra and other plays I wanted to learn, or Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (taped to save wear on the records), the sound turned low. One neighbor heard, somehow, and complained to Mrs. Lançon about the dull moan, once and once only: by then Mrs. Lançon was a lioness about her lodger. I had time to read at night, up the unlighted stairs in the vast, empty, unlocked KCS Freight House, Paradise Lost and more of Milton for a class, but on my own Troilus and Criseyde, The Faerie Queene, The Anatomy of Melancholy, and the Ernest De Selincourt and Helen Darbishire Prelude with the 1805-6 text facing the 1850. I was still reading the slow way I had learned to do with Shakespeare. Lamar was perfect for me and to me, accepting not only my courses from West Contra College Junior College but also my correspondence courses from Oklahoma and California and later a correspondence course in medieval French poetry from the University of Texas.
In April 1958 in Waterloo, Iowa, a crane hit a highline while Wilburn was unloading metal pipes. He had grown to be perfectly proportioned, nearly six feet, dark haired, very much from the Indian side of the family. The other workers survived, but Wilburn, well schooled by his father, was inadequately dressed, wearing old shoes with nails poking through. The nails did it. He lived almost two weeks, his arms and feet burned so nearly off that some of them were amputated before he died. Even now that I have lost some sense of smell I can't stay long at the Cayucos town barbecue. You want to know what his death did to the family, read about Gansevoort Melville's death in the first volume of my biography. This was too hard. There was no backlog of work at the KCS, but I had an overload of courses to make up after a trip to Iowa and another to LeFlore County, Oklahoma, for the funeral. Recognizing that I needed big medicine if I was going to sleep and study, not to mention telegraphing and receiving "consists" of railroad cars, I read all of "Song of Myself" aloud to myself in the Freight House in the middle of the night, and saw to it that I was good for another year and a summer.
You know I'm old when I say that the only time Dan Rather read my name was on the radio. He did that from Houston, when I graduated from Lamar “with highest honors” in August 1959. I had the offer of a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, $1,800. Newly determined to be a risk taker (after all, I had TB and hadn't died of it yet), feeling pretty nearly invulnerable despite the raw lesson of Wilburn, I relinquished the sure thing of seven years’ seniority on the railroad and drove north. As it turned out, railroad telegrapher would have been a dead end job. My first dead end job, I decided late in the century.
I had that summer taken an intensive course in Yeats, and knew Richard Ellmann's Yeats work well (knew, in fact, that he had it wrong, once, about the poem about a picture by Edmund Dulac). Ellmann's biography of James Joyce was just being acclaimed, notably by Stephen Spender in the New York Times in late October. Somehow the interest of the subject and the deftness of Ellmann prose protected him from New Critical attacks on the very enterprise of writing biography. I was assigned to Ellmann for advisement but I was too shy to approach him. Decades later we chatted familiarly about textbook royalties. Being so shy, I did not learn that at Northwestern Wilson Fellows who kept their noses clean got automatic University Fellowships the next year, so I was looking for a teaching assistantship somewhere until they told us. I got the M.A. in the summer of 1960 then cleared the French and German exams out of the way before I forgot everything.
I found that graduate professors held to a near-uniform policy of not teaching in seminars. Professors who did teach in seminars and especially those who taught passionately soon found themselves bound for a more hospitable department--the one in Madison, or lured away as Ellmann increasingly was. The others assigned reports the first day of class and by the third week students were conducting the classes, however ill prepared they were. That was how Harrison Hayford ran a seminar, but he redeemed himself, I heard in Scott Hall, where I waited tables to pay for meals, by saying he did not want a term paper. Instead he required an article written for a particular learned journal, typed according to the journal's specifications, and handed to him in an envelope addressed to that journal with the proper amount of postage affixed. Virgil Heltzel had brusquely dashed my hopes of working in the Renaissance: I could not study with him because I knew neither Greek nor Latin and needed to know both. So when I heard about Hayford's requirements I signed up for his next course and clove to him until he died.
Hayford had written on Melville and Hawthorne before the full early power of the New Criticism, but in the 1950s when he collaborated with a fellow Yale student, Merton M. Sealts, Jr., on an edition of Billy Budd, he was consciously defying the new proscription against editorial work. I brought to my non-term-paper, "The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating," an understanding of Melville's Calvinist view of total depravity which Elizabeth S. Foster, the most respected authority on The Confidence-Man, one of Hayford's colleagues at Yale, had missed altogether by lumping Christianity among religions which take an optimistic view of mankind. It was plain to me that the 1940s Yale crowd had been too high church to understand Melville's religious absolutism. Southern Baptist doctrine, back then, was a perfect modern introduction to Melville's Dutch Church indoctrination. Hayford had me give the paper at the Melville Society meeting in Chicago in December 1960, and it was published in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, and reprinted at least three times, twice by me in Norton Critical Editions and once by the assembly-line collection-maker Harold Bloom.
Hayford's policy was brilliant, and the promise of publication was dazzling, but the pervasive tone of the graduate courses was so dismal that in late 1961, profoundly saddened, I audited a course in Goethe given in German by Meno Spann, famous to me from a textbook and notorious around campus for sunbathing his corpulent, near naked frame on the sand dunes by Lake Michigan surrounded by cancerous sun-reflectors, and enviously suspected of being successfully lecherous. He was magnificent in the little seminar, a sensual intellectual giant overflowing with love of Goethe and determined to make him live for us. Restored, as I had been by Whitman in 1958, I dropped quietly out of the class, sure I could endure whatever happened on the way to a Ph.D.
I planned to study for the qualifying exams in the fall of 1962 but in the spring Walker Gilmer importuned me to come out for the weekend to Libertyville to prep him for the April exams using his elaborate and laboriously devised flash cards. Saturday evening I called Hayford and asked if I could take the exams with Walker on Monday. He shrugged off the sign-up rules and agreed. Ernest Samuels fumed but did not put up a fight about letting me take the exam, although when I answered a little throwaway Melville question humorously he observed that this was no place for levity. They passed both of us. Good: I would not need to study for exams in the fall and could concentrate on courses as an Instructor at Northwestern for $5,500--a fortune.
So when Jean Hagstrum, the chairman, called me in and asked me to apply for a Woodrow Wilson Dissertation Fellowship I said I couldn't, I was going to teach at Northwestern and make real money. He very patiently explained that as chairman he could assure me that I was not required at Northwestern. Furthermore, the Ford Foundation people were in a bind. They had their hands on money for dissertation year grants restricted to Wilson Fellows who had passed their language exams, as I had done long before, and their qualifying exams, as I had fortuitously and fortunately done the previous week. If Wilson Fellows had been warned a year in advance, more of us would have taken the prelims, but as it was almost no one was eligible. I was going to apply, Hagstrum explained. I had been looking forward so eagerly to the $5,500 that I said, "Well, I have to have $4000." He said, "They won't give that." I was stubborn. He called them and they said, "No, we can't do that." They called back in a few minutes: "The best we can do is $3,990." Hagstrom may have taken out his wallet and offered me a ten spot. I capitulated. I can't explain this story now. I was not arrogant. I was a humble, self-abasing Southerner. I was deeply ignorant and I had been proud of being hired as an Instructor, something new for the English department at Northwestern. This part starting with the invitation to Adlai country I learned not to tell graduate students who were studying for the prelims. Too few of them responded graciously.
Early in 1962 I knew well enough that the dominant literary approach, the New Criticism, discouraged the reader from drawing on any evidence other than that of the words of a printed novel or poem. For one teacher at Lamar I had tried to supply what he requested, "searching" critiques of poems. When I subtitled a paper "A Searching Explication" he brushed off the irony and said the paper really was searching. I was drawn to working with historical documents and to treating treat novels and poems as historical documents. Commager's Documents had marked me. De Selincourt and Darbishire had marked me. The first quarter at Northwestern I wrote on Jonathan Swift's campaign against the Duke of Marlborough and on Wordsworth's early humanitarianism, using the first versions of "An Evening Walk" and "Descriptive Sketches." I did well at Northwestern because most of the professors had been trained in the 1930s, in historical research, in research into literary history, in biographical, textual, and bibliographical research. Already, students were arriving at graduate school with no such training. By the end of 1961 I wanted to write a dissertation with Hayford because publishing was the only test I knew for making real contributions. I went through three literary histories looking for mentions of books, primarily novels, that deserved more attention than they had received, and I wrote little two page reports on some 200 of them, looking for a dissertation topic. I concluded that I wanted to work on Melville, not some lesser writer, and that I wanted to write on something historical. I settled fast enough on the various political milieux he lived through, even if he did not participate in all of them.
In June 1962 I mailed my Melville books to General Delivery, New York City, and got a ride down to Port Arthur so I could see Mrs. Lançon. I had read Walden two months earlier, loathing Thoreau's self-righteous superiority. It was merest coincidence, sheer accident of chronology, that I changed my eating habits while reading Walden and lost the fifteen pounds I had gained in the first weeks of eating slices of pie at Frenchy's, down by the depot and Freight House in Port Arthur, after my return in 1957. In 1962 I was wearing my good Baskin glen plaid wash and wear suit. Sitting at her sewing machine, Mrs. Lançon pointed to the Baskin pants, crotch hanging above my knees, then reached out a long arm for them. I changed and relinquished them for remodeling. Mrs. Lançon was magnificent, still, but Port Arthur was a shock: the gas stations still had three restrooms, White Women, White Men, and Colored. With my satchel and a defiantly unSouthern umbrella (in the days before Totes collapsible), wearing my perfectly fitting wash and wear suit, I hitchhiked east, straight to the panhandle of Florida and the River Styx, up northward then. One night I spent in a cavernous old railroad dormitory in Waycross, Georgia.
At Gettysburg in the rain I gave up and took a bus on into Manhattan, arriving in the middle of the night. I checked my satchel and innocently walked across and up and down Central Park. After I had exhausted the accommodations suggested in my 1960 New York on Five Dollars a Day I telephoned Arthur Frommer (after all, he was in the phone book). He sent me to NYU housing, where I was directed to the Penington, an old mansion on East 15th Street handy to Union Square, a mind-expanding, vertically, horizontally, and diagonally integrated boardinghouse for pensioned or working teachers, superannuated Socialists, a would-be poet, a few motley students including a young man from Hull, a halfway house for recovering addicts, a place of refuge for hopeful Batistas, their bags always half packed for their return, and one former Baptist. Perfect. I could eat breakfast with the other lodgers and guests, work all day in the libraries, return for dinner, then sleep in a 12 feet long by 4 foot wide cubicle vacated by Lavinia, a teacher who was traveling through Europe. That was room enough for reading Clarel, which demanded to be taken in small doses. You did not need a lot of private space in New York City. Once I cut out of the library and joined a theatre full of blue-haired ladies at a matinee to see the great Desdemona, Uta Hagen, in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Afterwards the women and I blinked our way into sunlight, equally stunned. Two black schoolteachers at the Penington sized me up for a couple of weeks then took me to Gene Frankel's production of Genet's The Blacks a few blocks down from the Penington at St. Mark's, where the cast consisted of every great black actor in the world except Belafonte and Poitier. I did not tell the schoolteachers about the signs at the gas stations in Port Arthur. New York said, "Welcome, Okie."
Not all of New York. In the barrio in Hebbronville, Texas, I had longed “to play with the little white boy” across the dirt street. When I began my dissertation I hoped that a Ph.D. would let me do the equivalent of playing with the white kids, whatever the actual color of that enviable set might be. I met two candidates for the PhD at Columbia, white kids if kids ever were white (you wouldn't know their names if I told you), who were amused that Northwestern University was offering doctorates, not realizing that the Northwest Territory needed some excuse for a school. They were curious about what kind of dissertation I was writing that would involve going to New York City. When I told them I was going to the New York Public Library or the New-York Historical Society every day to read nineteenth-century newspapers and copy out nineteenth century letters about Melville and politics they were dumbstruck. They saw they had a great story to regale their fellow students and Richard Chase with at Columbia, this skinny guy from the Midwest in a wash and wear dark gray glen plaid Baskin suit and a subdued narrow rep tie going to the libraries every day and looking at old newspapers and manuscripts! In 1962, a graduate student going to the archives as if the New Criticism had never triumphed! Coming all the way to New York to do it! They were too polite to laugh outright, but the way they kept looking at each other showed they thought this was the quaintest damned thing they had ever heard. It probably was. The research required by my dissertation topic pushed me out of step with my sprightly contemporaries. I just didn't know how far out of step I was.