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Lost & Found: JC Hallman on Kenneth Patchen
J.C. Hallman’s anthology, The Story About The Story, collects essays that approach book criticism from a personal angle. One of his favorite venues for that sort of thing is Tin House‘s own “Lost and Found” section. In our most recent issue (Hope/Dread), Hallman writes about encountering Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight.
I had it pretty good: Big Wheel at six, go-cart at eight, ten-speed at twelve, Volkswagen Rabbit at sixteen, and I ran all of them into the ground. When I was twenty, a motorcycle ran me into the ground, and after two weeks in the hospital and a year of physical therapy I cashed a check for $120,000. I limp a little, like the devil—but he gets around, and so do I, and we’ve both, since our respective falls, signed our share of lucrative contracts.
Which isn’t to say I’ve rolled in dough. I haven’t. In fact, whether a writer should turn a profit—selling his soul to academia or otherwise—has been a live question ever since writers began to prematurely retire and hang out their shingles as teachers instead. I’ve always thought of the writing life as a protracted action of the mind, supported by a body that does whatever it needs to do to pay the bills. But it’s rare anymore to hear of a writer scraping by on this sort of life—of a Kafka in his insurance firm or a Melville on his boats. This is reason enough to consider the career of Kenneth Patchen.
I didn’t come close to dying in my accident, but you couldn’t have convinced me of that when I was kneeling on the asphalt and realized the blood pooled on the ground was my own. That shook me up. A young man who buzzes death and then receives a significant lump payment might be forgiven for taking a while to screw his head back on straight. And when he does, it might not be a surprise if he’s inclined to take stock of who he is and where he might go.
I ws a rich kid who’d never had a job. So when the $120,000 ran out, I went to Atlantic City—not to gamble, but to work. I’ve told the rest of this story elsewhere, but the important part is that I wound up as a table-games dealer with two master’s degrees. I was looking for the education my universities had left out of their core curriculums. I got it in about three months, and then I was stuck.
Well-read people were hard to come by in the casino world. Even literate people were a tough trick to turn. So I was surprised when one day on a high-action craps game—the very same table where a few months later I would watch a player seize and crumble and die right beside me—I realized that another member of my dealing crew, a guy named Tim Gosman, was far better read than I was. Books were not typical cross-table chatter for dealers, but the subject came up, and, like members of some guild who couldn’t simply reach out to see if the other knew the secret handshake, Tim and I at first regarded each other warily, tossing about titles and authors, plumbing the depths of each other’s libraries. Our box man and pit boss listened for a moment, then decided to ignore us, and we were left talking books across the felt bathtub of the craps table, all the while calling the game (“Come out roll! Craps, yos, highs and lows!”) and setting up come bets and proposition wagers for players so hypnotized by the action they were entirely deaf to our discussion.
Tim asked whether I’d read Kenneth Patchen’s The Journal of Albion Moonlight. I’d never even heard of it.
I was at low ebb then. It wasn’t clear that my working-life ploy was ever going to return me to the writing life. The thought had come that dealing might be all there was in store for me, and even this sort of passing concern about one’s fate tends to indicate a loss of gumption and agency.
Kenneth Patchen helped me find them again. So did Tim Gosman. For a few months I refused to leave him alone. I tracked him down on breaks, made him talk books. Tim wasn’t a writer, but he’d read more poetry than anyone I’d ever encountered. He wore delicate Elton John glasses, sported a wrist tattoo that I still covet, and had named his young son Seamus—after Heaney. I followed him everywhere. I think I worried his girlfriend a bit.
I had taken in a lot of books when I first moved to Atlantic City. I read a good deal of Conrad out loud to myself on the deserted beaches of an island just north of the neon skyline. Those stories were meant to be read out loud—they had frame tales in which someone (Marlow) was always speaking the narrative. But that enthusiasm fell away as I began to sink into the city’s pervasive malaise, and I’d stopped reading for almost a year before I met Tim. (Instead I listened, via internet radio, to the San Diego Padres’ miraculous 1998 season—the intense joy I took in this was a reverse measure of my despondency of that year.) When I got my hands on The Journal of Albion Moonlight I returned to my read-aloud strategy. To this exercise—with this particular book—I attribute some degree of salvation.
Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not trying to tell you this is a great book. I’m not sure there is such a thing, and if there is, I’m not sure I’d argue this is one of them. But I am saying it’s a pivotal book—both for me, and, in a way, for you.
As told in Larry Smith’s Kenneth Patchen: Rebel Poet in America, Patchen grew up working class in southern Ohio, in the same town that produced William McKinley (it’s tempting to link this to Henry Miller’s later description of Patchen as a “sincere assassin”), and even early on Patchen seems to have been at the center of a kind of literary nexus. He shared teachers and mentors with Hart Crane and Walter Potashnik, a writer whose bestsellers in the forties saved a struggling Knopf. His high school had already produced Earl Derr Biggers, of Charlie Chan detective novel fame, and it later graduated William Gass.
Patchen only dabbled in college, but he studied with Jean Toomer and Alexander Meiklejohn when he did. His schoolmasters described him as having a “possibly dangerous tendency toward solitude.” He started a diary at twelve and never stopped writing. He produced a book a year for most of his life. He was a large man, described as “Dantesquely handsome.” A tendency toward pacifism came early, although he later found that sustaining pacifism through World War II was a one-way ticket to obscurity. Regarded now as a kind of pre-Beat proletarian-dissident-surrealist poet/novelist. Patchen makes some important links—say, from Whitman/ Blake to Pynchon/DeLillo, from enthusiasm to experimentation—and his career offers a lesson that is useful whether you are a young man staring at purgatory in the form of a croupier’s career or a society whose writers are, more and more, opting for tenure and investment portfolios over experience and productivity.
Patchen started out working in his hometown’s steel mills. In 1930, he wandered America just as the characters of The Journal of Albion Moonlighteventually would. Like many writers, he assembled his list of menial employment—gardener, clerk, odd-jobs man—the difference being that he never settled into some sweet gig from which all that hard work appeared distant and quaint. “I am willing to go anywhere,” he once wrote to an editor, “live anywhere, do anything in order that I may write.”
In 1934, he received his first book contract: Random House gave him one hundred dollars against future royalties on a book of poems. When the money ran out they offered him a job packing books at eighteen dollars per week. It was too much work—he quit so he could write. His wife, Miriam, recalled a day—a month after he signed the contract—when Patchen was reduced to begging. He gathered enough for a “heavenly meal” of peppers, bread, coffee, and apples. When the book was finished, it sold two hundred copies and went out of print.
In desperate times Patchen wrote to other writers for help. He had well-placed friends—Lewis Mumford and E. E. Cummings— but he cold-called others as well: Thomas Wolfe, Wallace Stevens. In 1936, he won a Guggenheim and used the first $108 check to move to Santa Fe. He followed the Joads to California for work and met James Agee, William Faulkner, and William Saroyan in Hollywood. The mid-thirties was a relatively flush time with ghostwriting, script doctoring, and federally funded writing programs, which kept him going while his poems began to attract national attention.
In 1939, he began a correspondence with James Laughlin, then still a student at Harvard but soon the founder of New Directions Press. The Patchens moved to Boston to work for Laughlin while New Directions published Patchen’s poetry. They earned twenty-five cents per hour for the “grubby work” (packing books, proofreading), while Laughlin bragged that he punished slip-ups with “sarcasm which is almost hostility.” A year later they moved to New York, where Patchen began work on a novel, The Journal of Albion Moonlight, in reply—it is safe to assume—to the nation’s steady march toward war. If Norman Mailer saw World War II as a good opportunity to launch a literary career, then Kenneth Patchen saw it as a viable end-times scenario.
In March 1940, Patchen met Henry Miller at a Greenwich Village meeting on free speech. The two had already corresponded, but now a friendship erupted. Miller later wrote a short book, Patchen: Man of Anger and Light, about their conversations during the writing of The Journal of Albion Moonlight. And Miller did more than blurb the book. He called Patchen “America in person, the best it has to offer,” and compared the novel to Blake, Lautréamont, Picasso, Jacob Boehme, Savonarola, Grünewald, John of Patmos, and Hieronymus Bosch.
Which didn’t mean it found a fast track to publication. Laughlin rejected it, and complained that he wasn’t in the habit of giving “handouts” when Patchen asked for money to finish the book. “Handouts!” Patchen raged. “You better just sit down and work your head a bit before you say such richboy horseshit to me.”
Battle lines formed over Moonlight. Miller and Patchen were on one side. Those who worked to prevent its publication included Delmore Schwarz, Anaïs Nin (who may have been upset over an episode in which Patchen appears to have taken insufficient care of her pet gibbon), and Edmund Wilson (who called the book “pretty juvenile”). Moonlight was eventually published with the assistance of a variety of donors and friends who helped to typeset a handwritten manuscript resembling the love child of a flow chart and the confessions of a serial killer.
William Carlos Williams gave the book a positive review in 1942, but it wasn’t until the sixties that Moonlight found a cult following among those who finally came back around to pacifism. That’s why it was there for Tim Gosman to find and pass along to me. Patchen kept writing, eventually dabbling in painting and “poetry jazz” until he died, in Palo Alto, in 1972, though to be honest my interest in him begins and ends with Moonlight.
The cover image of the New Directions paperback of The Journal of Albion Moonlightis one of the manuscript pages—now archived at UC Santa Cruz—and even a quick glimpse suggests that maybe Nin wasn’t just upset about her monkey when she described Moonlight as the “mumblings of a prisoner.”
In 1998, I took my copy to the beach near Atlantic City. I read it out loud to myself. What was it about the book that saved me? I want to say the sentences. I want to say that Patchen did things with sentences that I didn’t know, or had forgotten, one could do. Or maybe it was simply that my working-class plan had finally clicked, and Patchen’s proletarian message saved me from spouting richboy horseshit for the rest of my life.
The book has just the faintest outline of a plot, and it’s been suggested that Patchen used the anonymous pre-Shakespearean epic poem Tom O’Bedlam as a model. I can’t tell you about that. What I can tell you is that at certain key points the book has the loud allegory of a zombie movie. It’s the diary—sort of—of the leader of a band of archetypes and historical figures wandering through an America at war, a landscape we would now call post-apocalyptic. Except it’s not particularly realistic, even within the parameters of its fantasy. Characters routinely die, return, change sexes, or are elected President of the United States. I say zombie movie because the troupe, such as they are, are forever pursued, on the run from a “new plague,” suffering from “a cancerous fear of [their] own species.” Sometimes it’s more direct: “For the first time I saw that her face was fleshless, eaten away. She advanced to my side and her fingers closed on my throat. I threw her off—dry bones clattering to the floor.” And: “In the depth of the earth I hear them stirring: the countless, unliving dead.”
There’s more of that kind of thing, but Patchen reminds us too that long before apocryphal ghouls embodied the nation’s moral apocalypse, it was Christ who was first to claw his way out of a tomb. The Journal of Albion Moonlight is the gospel according to George Romero. It pits the living dead against the resurrected, the latter wandering a backward landscape in search of someone called Roivas (savior), and you sort of know from the beginning that they’re never going to find him.
Not that they have a chance. Long before the plot can make any significant forward progress, its narrative strategy, not to mention its sentences and paragraphs, begins to break down. There are novels within novels, whole short stories reprinted as margin notes. Handwritten scrawl and pencil drawings crop up, mysterious symbols and a range of font sizes appear, and eventually the text is reduced to lists of aphorisms and finally to something like language poetry. Moonlight plummets through everything that can amount to a book.
I liked the aphorisms best (perhaps because I had yet to read Barthes and Cioran):
Dogs with broken legs are shot; men with broken souls write through the night.
I tell you that I do not like the pain that is in me. If my thinking cannot alter the fact of our mortality, of what good is it? what use?
“You’d like to try your hand at being God.”
“I’d like to try my hand at being.”
What a tight-fisted bitch this little matter of writing is.
So what does The Journal of Albion Moonlight mean? Perhaps it means a nation considering war ought to consider its priorities first. That seems trite, but recent history proves it’s a message worth repeating. And what did it mean to Tim and me working as dealers, hustling tokes instead of begging? Maybe ours was its own plague summer, one in which our hypnotized players came at us like zombies and our role as croupiers was to keep on knocking them back—like the man who asked me for seventeen dollars on the inside numbers before his face twisted into a rictus and he dropped dead on the floor.
What does it mean? When Laughlin asked the same question, Patchen offered, as writers should, a reply as cryptic as the book itself:
I have I think kept the reader on his toes—I have made him a participant— I have removed the obvious landmarks and encouraged him to accept the book for what it is: an attempt to evaluate the world in the precise terms by which the world will force its will on him…The meaning of my book? It means a thousand and a thousand things. What is the meaning of this summer?
Of course books mean things. But it’s a mistake to think you can definitively articulate whatever that is. Every bit as important as what a book means is what itdoes. In fact, I think I’d like to say that what it does is what it means. The great irony of literature is that our inability to describe what happens to us when we read a book is compounded by our intense desire to do just that, to share the experience with another as soon as we’ve had it. Books are private experiences, but we never want to leave them private. Stories are the salve applied to the wound of self-consciousness, the laceration that leaves us discrete and lonely in our skins. We read to close the gap. When we’re done, we stumble after one another, inarticulate, hypnotized, hoping to spread the virus of our inspiration.
I kept chasing after Tim Gosman for a few months, to share my experience of Moonlight with him. I could barely find words for what it had done to me. Moonlight might not be a great book, but Patchen helped me leave Atlantic City, claw my way back to the writing life. I even survived just on book advances for a few years. Eventually, though—God help me—I started teaching.
The other great irony of literature is that books are temporary—like people. You lose them, you forget them. I forgot a lot of Moonlight, and I lost Tim Gosman. I don’t know where he is, what he’s doing. Do me a favor. If you run into him, tell him to find me. Tell him to call. I’d like to hear what he’s been up to. I’d like to hear what he’s been reading lately.