Thursday, July 2, 2015

Skip Gates: Consummate Insider--With a Hollow Where Integrity Should have Grown

Here is something in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE which I wrote around 2011.

          After complex negotiations in which Hayford egged me on to tell the full story, whatever the length, in August 1995 I abrogated the contract with Norton and proposed to return the advances (although I was not legally obligated to). The new Norton editor advised me on the phone that I should “shit can” my letter. If I approached another press, he muttered darkly, I was “in a bad way.” In fact, when word got out that I was writing a biography, I had begun receiving inquiries. When I received one from Eric Halperin at that Deconstructionist haven Johns Hopkins University Press, I was amused enough to reply tersely, “Do you know what kind of work I do?” On August 18, 1995, just as I broke with Norton, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) asked me to recommend Skip Gates (whom John Benedict had adored) for still yet another million-dollar-plus NEH grant. Stuck for several days with no publisher for my near-decade’s worth of a privately financed do-it-yourself Politically Incorrect Unfit-for-NEH-Funding biography of a dead white man, I reveled in an hour of miserable jealousy before running the megrims off in White Clay Creek. That was a low point. Running that day, in one or another of three states on my route, I remembered Eric Halperin. He was away and by design unreachable. Lindsay Waters at Harvard University Press, his priorities in good order, kept a weekend play-date at the Cape, as I understood it, instead of seizing the chance to read my sample chapters. Monday? Too late. Other presses offered contracts sight unseen. Halperin returned, leaving Johns Hopkins but replaced by Willis G. Regier, who drove up to my house, contract and cash at hand (the cash to pay off Norton). The Johns Hopkins book was beautiful—a new drawing by Maurice Sendak on the cover. The critics, of course, would be as happy as I was.

The jealousy was real--and only someone who had been on NEH panels in the 1980s or 1990s would understand how skewed the grants were toward politically correctness.  The postscript to this is that NEH demanded that I (and all reviewers) sign a paper saying we were white, black, red, yellow, or whatever. We were not allowed to say we were of mixed race.  (This is decades before Gates found he was more than half white!). I wrote an angry letter to NEH saying this was not racial, it was racist--because it demanded that we suppress one race or another if we had ancestors of more than one race. This was half a dozen years before figures from sports and music made being bi-racial or multi racial OK. I resigned from the NEH panel rather than deny being part Choctaw and part Cherokee. 

But, to say what I did not say in MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY, what lay behind my comment about still yet another million dollar grant was my knowledge that no human being could do the work Gates was getting money to do. Now, with the embarrassing emails from Gates out on the Internet, showing him deciding to trash the integrity of FINDING YOUR ROOTS, showing him begging to be made a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, we see him as master of ceremonies for an entertaining TV show, not as scholar. Now someone could look at how much the NEH got from its grants over the years. How much was self-promotion?

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