Saturday, May 30, 2015
All I can say right now about Brian Higgins
I wrote memorial tributes to the great Melvilleans Harrison Hayford and Walter E. Bezanson but I never thought I would write about Brian Higgins, younger than me, not older, my student at the University of Southern California in 1968 then my collaborator on many projects for four decades. Can I compose a third in the conventional memorial genre? No. No. I protect myself in this piece by starting with Henry James, whose late works were beloved by both Brian and me. Perhaps the best thing I ever wrote alone was an article on James’s prefaces to the New York edition. It did not make much of an impact, although a very famous novelist said it “ennobled” him. No one guessed that a particular section was autobiographical, based on my collaborations with Brian. In talking about it and Brian, I will sound more than a little vainglorious. But, then, one of the things Brian explained to me was, “They just don’t comprehend the level we are operating on, Hershel.” That, of course, became one of the many catch-phrases we laughed about every time an occasion arose, year by year, for one of us to recall it.
In that article on the prefaces the submerged autobiography is the paragraph about James’s memories of the places where he wrote his novels and stories, places where he had performed acts of heroism: “In writing the prefaces James remembered the details of what he had written years before far less clearly than he remembered the rooms in which he had labored over his fiction and the sounds outside those rooms and (less often?) the sights from the windows in those rooms. For monument to his high achievement James might have been content with his randomly sized books in their range of colors and their diverse stamping and lettering, the hodgepodge figuring for him what the slab of marble in the suburban cemetery figured for John Marcher. Instead, in his sixties he saw his writing rooms as his monument. The remembered rooms, the scenes of his labors and of his triumphs, he enumerated lovingly.” I listed a dozen or so of the rooms, starting with “‘the high, charming, shabby old room’ that looked out at the Piazza Santa Maria Novella” and ending with, in Bad-Hamburg, “‘a dampish, dusky, unsunned room,’ so dark that he could see his way to and from his inkstand ‘but by keeping the door to the court open.’” In writing the prefaces, I said, James “rejoiced in his sense of his own bravery in these rooms, where he had encountered more dangers than in the nocturnal marches down the London streets during which he conducted his investigative researches for The Princess Casamassima. Nostalgia is a secondary emotion in these memories: these rooms, for the duration of James’s own courageous occupancy, had been inhabited by the Muse herself, and now in his memory they were sacred places.” When I wrote the paragraph in the early 1990s I was thinking, already, of the rooms in which Brian and I had worked, where we had struggled with an array of aesthetic challenges.
When I taught summer school at Northwestern in 1973 Brian came up from Chicago to work with me at night in the English department, where we could use typewriters to lay out about what was wrong with the Cowley reordering of Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. (Later Hayford loved hearing that the piece “was aborning in old University Hall.”) Two years earlier, I had extemporized for 50 minutes when I arrived at a USC class to find the students holding paperbacks of the nonsensical Cowley edition. More recently, Brian had proved his worth by meticulously locating in it small accidental losses along with big inadvertent ludicrousnesses. The article, published in August 1975, was in due course treated briskly in American Literary Scholarship as a “bibliographical” piece, not a critical article, when of course it was a worthy piece of criticism (however much we could have improved it in later years) and, more than that, a piece that in a rudimentary way engaged basic seldom-explored problems in literary aesthetics. Then an eminent purblind Eastern professor, now dead, denounced it at length in a collection of essays on the novel without reprinting it there. (Pursuing his monomaniacal feud across international borders, decades later he challenged me to come to his hotel room, strip at least to the waist, and settle the issues once for all. This invitation gave Brian and me cause for two decades’ worth of laughter.) It was the response to our Tender article that elicited from Brian the comment about the level on which we were working. We published a bit of our mid-1970s work on Stephen Crane’s Maggie in a Norton Critical Edition, but our long essay proved unpublishable in the United States because it exposed the editorial and aesthetic incompetence of the all-powerful bibliographer Fredson Bowers. Honest reviewing of the grand national editorial project simply ceased after every editor of a textual journal had seen our paper and bowed before Bowers’s threats of legal proceedings against anyone who published it. Starting then in the mid-1970s timid textual journals stifled any inquiry into the necessary relationship between editorial principles and what cognitive psychologists were learning about the creative process. Our inability to publish this study damaged our careers and our psyches and taught us bitter lessons about doing original work and challenging authority. Brian and I wrote other articles and edited significant collections, never giving up hope of triumphing over the censorship of the monograph-length study of Maggie. How did we survive and flourish, until that article was published--not in the United States but in the Antipodes, in the 1990s? Might as well ask how we survived so many “Higgins breakfasts” as long as we did! Or how we survived the century’s coldest day yet in Chicago then later worked through the century’s real coldest day, again, toting a dead car battery and a living bundle of typescripts inch by icy inch past the Moody Bible Institute. Decade by decade we got better together as readers, teaching ourselves, and had more private fun, as when we satirizing ourselves with pretentious terms like “Flawed Grandeur” and “Fair Augury” in titles. And we laughed. Now I will never have anyone to laugh with the way I laughed with Brian.
One workroom followed another. Perhaps the most heroic site of all was a kitchen in Ladera Heights where for two weeks in July 1975 (a month before the Tender article was published) we read Pierre, talking through the functions of passages and recording our conclusions in typed notes, many of which ultimately informed the 2006 book. In those sessions Brian and I pushed ourselves day by day into the most rigorous literary analysis either of us had ever done, the result better than either of us could have done alone, for Brian’s great strength, nourished by John Plumb and other British tutors, was as a reader, and I had been transformed as a reader by five months in bed with a one-volume Shakespeare as I recovered from tuberculosis. There were many other work spaces, thought spaces, for the later articles, the collections we edited, and the much-interrupted, Pierre book which lured us like a Spirit-Spout. We wrote together in a slightly shabby 1930s Spanish house in Brentwood (recently appraised on the Internet for $3,700,000); the marble Newberry Library Melville Room (the Melville books now dispersed and the room repurposed); Brian’s rental apartment in Chicago; a dark narrow unsunned row house in Wilmington, Delaware, on a cliff above the Brandywine; a motel room in New Bedford where Brian kept silent about the poisonous, insidiously flattering invitation he had just heard from a great Harvard psychologist; the third floor of a Victorian on the flats in Wilmington where we worked with both lapboards and, for the first time, a computer; the very last house in southeast Pennsylvania, where a few steps into the woods the man from Leicester got to stand in three American states at once; the Public Library in Troy, New York; the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and finally another Spanish house, in Morro Bay, California. For some of the sessions, photographs of Brian or me holding galleys (a textual stage now unknown to writers) or page proofs or posing with books convey something of the pleasures of working together, but nothing except our printed words, especially in the Pierre book, comes close to capturing the sense of exhilaration and joy that suffused us as we did our best thinking and writing. Taken all in all, our collaborations record for me a huge, powerfully moving part of both our working lives, and our work rooms are as sacred to me as James’s were to him. Now talking about the rooms in which Brian Higgins and I taught each other for almost half a century keeps me from acknowledging what his silence is going to mean and what I am going to do without the laughter.