Since our first issue, back in 1999, we have prided ourselves on recognizing new voices. It has been a thrill to discover writers such as Victor LaValle, Justin Torres, and Dylan Landis, and then to watch their careers unfold and blossom. It speaks well of the current literary climate that we are continually surprised and excited by previously unknown writers. For this issue, five New Voices caught our eye. Poets Diana M. Chien and Cody Carvel dazzled us with their energy and wit, while Mary Barnett grabbed our attention with her essay about a decades-old trauma and her continuing struggle to heal. We admired the confidence and precision of the prose in the short stories of Sarah Elaine Smith and Matthew Socia—Smith’s “Pink Lotion” following a problematic addiction recovery, Socia’s “American Tramplings” being the tale of a stampede epidemic.
While discovering emerging writers is always a thrill, it is a different excitement reading the work of masters who are in full command of their powers. For readers unfamiliar with the latest Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano, his “Page-a-Day” (beautifully translated from the French by Edward Gauvin) is an ideal introduction, wherein the author explores his favorite subject—Paris—and obsesses on time, memory, and the legacy of World War II. In “Forgetting Mississippi,” Lewis Hyde revisits the brutal 1964 murder of two young black men. Hyde, who was a civil rights activist at the time, not only puts the crime in context but also does the seemingly impossible—searches for forgiveness. Kimiko Hahn, the author of seven volumes of poetry and winner of numerous awards, demonstrates in her four poems how she continues to push her art, reminding us that no matter how accomplished, discovery is experienced poem to poem, word to word. Here’s to renewal and discovery.
Current Issue #64
Fiction:Patrick Modiano, Jodi Angel, Tara Ison, Greg Hrbek, Smith Henderson, Jennifer S. Davis, Sarah Elaine Smith NEW VOICE, Matthew Socia NEW VOICE
Harold was off his meds again and we were bored, so we went over and pounded on his door until some guy we’d never seen before opened up and said yeah, Harold was around, and we went in and went looking for him and finally found him out behind the garage, smashing up garden snails with a hammer. There was a shitload of wreckage in front of him—all kinds of shattered pieces and bodies thick and wet as snot—and he was lining more up, one after another, like small brown stones on a junk piece of board, and he would say something, something so quiet and personal that he had to lean in close to the snail to reveal it, and then he would smile and step back, cock his right arm and swing from the shoulder so that we could almost hear the hammer cut through the air, and instead of the sound of metal on wood there was a squelch and shower of shell, and we watched him do this for a while, nobody saying anything, and somebody whispered that maybe we should go find something else to do, but it had rained not that long ago—rained for what felt like weeks—and the sky was still untrustworthy and everybody was broke, and watching Harold bust up snails was about the only thing left to do.
So we just stood around with our hands stuffed deep in our pockets, and somebody had a half-crushed pack of stolen Merits, so we lit a couple up and passed them around and watched the dull sky and Harold, and wiped absently at wet flecks that hit our bare arms or faces because they could have been raindrops or shrapnel. Nobody said anything, and then the sound of the hammer stopped and Harold stood upright and stretched his back and looked at the group of us, gathered around, and Harold said hey, you guys wanna go walking? and we all nodded and Harold rubbed his hammer clean on the patchy lawn and shoved the head into his back pocket so that the handle stuck out like a comb, and we all followed him to the front of the house, and then we were on the street and Harold was in the lead, and we fanned out behind him and when he broke an antenna off a parked car, we all laughed, and then he did it again—snapped one off a green Chevy so that he had an antenna in each hand, and we wondered how many more he might take because there were a lot of parked cars on the street—and we kept laughing until he started whipping at our arms with them—hard—so that the thin metal left behind welts and it was impossible to fend him off—he had one in each hand—but nobody said anything because we were pretty relieved that Harold had forgotten about the hammer, and Harold was heading toward the 7-Eleven and somehow he was always the only one with some money, so we kept walking because we figured it was just a couple of car antennas and Harold was just a guy off his meds, and it was a Saturday in March, and it was getting too late in the afternoon to do something different.
We beat Harold through the store door and we were already grabbing shit to buy because at the very least we should each get one thing, and then somebody said where the fuck is he going? and we all looked up in time to see Harold round the corner outside and cut behind the building—he hadn’t even come in—and we stood there for a second, waiting, and then we had no choice but to drop what was in our hands and head out, and there were a couple of eighth-graders on bikes in the parking lot, and we thought about punching them for fun, so we hassled them for a little while and tried halfheartedly to take one of their bikes, but they got all red-faced and rode off, and by the time we crossed the asphalt, Harold was a good block ahead of us and we had to pick up the pace.
The wind had come up in the time it had taken us to walk from Harold’s house, and there was a loneliness in it, and we ducked our heads. We used to know Harold when he lived someplace else with his grandma and his dad, but then his grandma died one day and maybe Harold’s dad took his dead mother to the bank to sign over a check, and there had been sort of a thing about it in the papers—Harold’s dad putting his dead mother in a taxi and then wheeling her through the bank in her chair—her feet falling off the footrests and dragging limp across the floor—and then Harold’s dad up and disappeared and Harold stayed in his dead grandma’s house for a while, but we figured that probably got boring because Harold moved across town into the house he lived in now with some older guys we didn’t know so well. We didn’t really know much about Harold either, when we got right down to it—other than what we had heard or seen—but he was sometimes fun to talk to, and he always had some money, and he was willing to do just about anything, and when we went behind the building and walked through the vacant lot, Harold was still swinging the broken antennas ahead of us and he was crossing Jackson Street in the middle of the road.
Get the fuck out of the road, somebody yelled and laid on the horn, and we cut through the tall wet grass and trash that clumped together in the weeds and waited on the sidewalk while Harold kept walking and crossing and then he was on the other side and he was on the bridge now, the one that elevated Jackson Street over five hundred feet above dry riverbed, and he dropped the antennas suddenly, as though he had just realized he was still carrying them, and we could not hear the antennas hit the ground—we just watched them fall and bounce while he kept walking, and then Harold stopped and leaned against the cement guardrail that separated the pavement and the city from the air and the trees, and we figured he was waiting for us to catch up, and maybe he was, but then he jumped up on the rail and stood on the ledge, and there was Harold with his arms out, balanced on the guardrail, walking back and forth, heel to toe, arms extended like wingspan, and a car went by and honked its horn and then another did, too, and Harold shot them both the finger and kept balancing and there was the wind again, pushing us forward so that we crossed Jackson without thinking and we stood there, at the end of the bridge, watching.
Somebody shouted from across the street and we all looked over and saw Hooker Stacy walking on the other side, hands on her hips, and she yelled hey you got a cigarette or hey you want your dick sucked, we weren’t sure which, and then she stopped, too, across the street from us, on the other side of two lanes of steady traffic, and she dug through her dirty purse for a minute until she pulled out something and inspected it, put it in her mouth, and then fished a lighter out of the front pocket of her jeans and lit it up, and even though there were cars and noise and she wasn’t on our side of the street, we could smell the cigarette within seconds after she exhaled and we all got a craving, but the stolen pack of Merits was long gone.
You should get him down from there, Hooker Stacy yelled. And we all watched her and she was leaning back against her own guardrail now, enjoying the show, and we all tried to ignore her because we had been ignoring her for years.
Go fuck yourself, somebody from our side yelled, and we laughed because it was an old joke, but Hooker Stacy didn’t even flinch, and she just stood there, leaned back against the guardrail, pulled on her cigarette, and watched us while we watched Harold and Harold watched the narrow platform underneath his feet.
He’s gonna fall, Hooker Stacy yelled back, and we watched her now, took our eyes off Harold for a minute because Harold was Harold and Hooker Stacy was something else. She was older than us, or maybe the same age, but she had never gone to school, and she looked thirty-five on a good day and maybe fifty on a bad one, but there was no sun out today and she was at a distance and from where we stood she could have been clean and young and fresh and we could have pretended that she was somebody different for a while if we wanted to.
We started to cross the bridge to catch up with Harold, but then he changed directions and walked back our way, just turned his feet and spun himself around, left foot over right and he was facing us again, and there was a little bit of dust and a scatter of small rocks as his rubber soles gripped, but we didn’t doubt them for a second, and we had only taken a few steps onto the bridge so we shuffled to where we had been standing before, where the ground was still solid, and we waited for him to get to us, but just before he did, he spun around and headed toward the far side again. There was a look on his face that we could not recognize, but it wasn’t like we tried, and if it had been a test question, name the look on Harold’s face, we would have left the question blank and opted for the next question, about what Hooker Stacy said next, because we all heard it loud and clear—I hope he falls and dies—and her face was an easy read, all smiles—even from this distance—and she kept sucking on the never-ending cigarette and watching us from across the street.
Harold was on the far side now, almost to the other end of the bridge, and we could see the hammer in his back pocket still, the handle against his lower back, tapping in time with each step, and we huddled together and waited to see if Harold would jump off the guardrail when he got to the far side and head toward something else, but he came to a stop long before he got to the end, and we all waited.
He’s gonna jump off, Hooker Stacy yelled, and we looked for something to throw at her, but we couldn’t find anything except a rock, and it was one thing to hit her, but another thing to hit her hard, so we turned our backs on her and huddled together and waited for Harold to get done because we were hungry and it was getting later and pretty soon it would be dark and there would be better things to do.
Just jump, Harold, Hooker Stacy yelled from across the street, and even though our backs were to her, we could still hear her loud and clear, and we wondered if Harold could too because he was stopped now, completely, and he was almost to the other side, and there was probably enough soft ground to save him even if he did listen to Hooker Stacy and did what she said.
And then it was as if the clouds had been stretched until they were thin and then they split and the rain came suddenly, in big heavy drops, a few at a time, and then the drops halved and separated and halved again so that the small drops pelted us at all angles and we ducked our heads against it and the wind got serious and there were sirens in the distance and part of us wondered if maybe somebody had called them on Harold, and maybe they had, but we could barely see him now, through the rain, and he had gone statue still on the ledge, and we thought maybe he was just waiting it out, and then we saw him reach for the hammer in his pocket and he pulled it out by the handle and held it against his side, and then he took a few steps backward toward the center of the bridge, and then a few more after that, and we watched him, and we thought maybe he might throw his hammer at a passing car, and they were still moving, the cars, with their lights on now, and the sound of their tires sucking wet pavement for grip, and there was a gust of wind and for a second Harold stutter-stepped and we thought we heard Hooker Stacy laugh, but then he caught his balance and there was lightning so that everything lit up quick and this time there was no mistaking it—and then a pickup passed us, going too fast, and we felt ourselves get pushed into each other by the wind and we heard brakes lock up and a squeal and a skid, and we had to turn and look and wait for the satisfaction of metal on metal, but it was nothing but a near miss, and then there was thunder, loud and long, and when we looked back, Harold was gone.
We stood there for a long minute, all of us getting wet and cold, and the traffic kept moving beside us, and across the street, Hooker Stacy had slung her dirty purse over her arm and she was walking in the opposite direction, back toward where we had already been. We yelled to her where’s Harold? but she just kept walking as though she couldn’t hear, and then she stepped off the sidewalk and onto the vacant lot, walking through the grass and the trash, and we watched her until she got too far in the dark to see.
So for a while we just stood there, thinking maybe that Harold, being Harold, would appear someplace else, someplace farther down the street, and we would hurry to catch up with him, because even Harold was different at night, and it was Saturday night, the best one of the week, and we stood there while the light faded and the rain got weak, and in the splash of headlights we could see everything around us despite the dark—the street and the bridge and the ledge—and we were surprised at so much movement everywhere—it was as though nothing could stay still—even as we stood there and tried as hard as we could to keep the earth from spinning beneath our feet.
She knits as a clumsy, pudge-fingered child, because her mother loves to tell her once-upon-a-time story of knitting socks for her college boyfriend, painstaking argyle wool socks for the princely young man who carelessly thrust his foot through the sock toe after all that labor the mother did to show and prove her love, because that was how. She knits because her mother is at a luncheon or antique show or mah-jongg and Can’t the child occupy and entertain herself, and so after school the child trudges to the craft shop and spends her allowance coins on a Let’s Get Knitting! booklet, and fuzzy pink yarn like a long bubble gum worm, and a pair of pointy twig-thick needles she is a little frightened of, because if you walk around with them and trip you could poke out an eye, and on the floor of her canopy-bed bedroom she teaches herself how to cast on, how to loop little nooses of yarn through other loops, scoop the alive loop through, and let the old loop fall away and die, loop loop loop, your rows like little crooked cornfields growing, and then you cast off and are done and look what you have made and can do, ta-da!
She knits gifts for her mother—a pot holder, a hot pad, a long tubular scarf, everything a wormy fuzz pink—because that is how, and her mother exclaims with joy at their sweet misshapenness, and spills bloody meat juice on the hot pad and scorches the pot holder and cannot wear the scarf because of its so-beautiful but impractical color, but is so very proud and What else can the child make, What else can she do?
She knits because she grows absorbed by the taming of chaotic string into structure, the geometry of a messy line turned to a tidy grid, and her fingers slim to deft and she buys slenderer needles and more elegant yarn and her after-schools and weekends are now so very busy herself, in her room with all those squares. Square, square, square, a big gifty pile of them, this is what she can make and do.
She knits because it is precious of her, because grown-ups find this little knitting girl adorable.
She knits because her best friend in high school has prettier ringlet hair and wears girlier, more impractical shoes, and so she teaches her best friend how to cast on and loop loop and cast off, and they both make the now-perfect pot holders, the precise hot pads, the scarves that lie flat, and then the best friend goes away to an expensive college in an icy state and returns at her first Christmas holiday with magical sweaters, glorious garments with plackets and cables and set-in sleeves and stitches like vines and popcorns and the holey appearance of lace that everyone goes ooh and aah for, and the best friend explains it is not enough to just Let’s Get Knitting! the same childish stitches over and over again, for row after row gets you nothing but a pile of meaningless squares that no one wants or loves, you must follow a pattern in order to create an actual ooh and aah thing, and she is angry and ashamed that the prettier, better-shoed, and effortless-at-everything best friend had understood this and she had not.
She knits to perform the trickery with cable needles and yarn overs and ribbing and moss stitch and basket weave. She knits to tame sloppy loose skeins into tidy submissive balls in her hands, at her feet. She knits to exhibit mastery. She knits in public, at coffeehouses and airports and parties, her crafty hands blurred with speed, and people look in approving wonder at her industriousness, her occupying and entertaining herself, her un-idle hands, no lazy devil’s handmaiden, she.
She knits because her kneaded dough will not rise into a proper loaf.
She knits because it frightens her to read.
She knits because she can rip out what is imperfect and do frogging, the unraveling of the completed or semicompleted thing to an again loose scribble, because you rip it rip it rip it out, like the ribbiting frog, who is only an ugly sticky frog and not the perfect prince and then you can start all over.
She knits for the first grown-up man she falls in love with, a damaged man whose flattering cruelty sends her to study a library of patterns, swatch multiple yarns, debate even in her sleep the best fiber content and thickness, because the right sweater will heal him, the correct cotton merino or cotton cashmere or cashmere-merino blend will basket weave and moss stitch and cable this man to her, the ribbing will cleave him unto her and keep her at his side, because look at this, her handmade healing labor of love, so she obsesses over this yarn’s slight scratch and will it irritate him or keep him sensitized to her, or that yarn’s lack of elasticity and will it make of her precious gift a saggy and shapeless thing? She knits because his flattering cruel attentions are trickling hourglass sand, his growing coolness stiffens her fingers, and so she knits faster and even faster, like the princess in the fairy story who races to knit sweaters out of stinging nettles for her twelve beloved brothers turned into swans from a witch’s curse and thus turn them back again before they are stuck that unmanly swan way forever, knitting with bleeding fingers to save them into complete-again princes by this show of her love. She knits feverishly, her fingertips pricked into splits, but the sand-gritty time’s-up man carelessly thrusts her away before she can finish the last magic stitch, like the fairy tale princess ran out of time and had one sweater with only one sleeve for the swan brother who would now be stuck with one wing instead of an arm forever, and she is consumed with guilt and fury at her failure to craft the perfect healing thing in time, and so she frogs the finished sweater, erasingly, wishing a witch’s curse on him, an eternal hair shirt of stinging nettles, a next-in-line indifferent and cruel woman who will brutally cripple and leave him an open, forever-after wound.
She knits wedding-present blankets for fiancé’d friends, the Victoriana-flowered or Aran fisherman afghans to adorn the feet of marital beds or drape across the Mission sofas in the den or warm their couples’ embrace. She knits to soak the DNA from her sweaty fingers into their lives, as they TV cuddle or fuck or share nighttime tales of their tedious stitched-up lives.
She knits because she doesn’t like the smell of children.
She knits because she is afraid of her career.
She knits because she is not allergic to cats.
She knits for another man, who is gentle and loving and neither frog nor prince, and she grows impatient knitting for the pattern of his gentle lovingness, she knows nothing she knits will shape him well or into the right thing, so she stealthily unravels her work by night like Penelope’s secret unweaving to forestall the choice of a suitor, but by day she keeps on knitting for the gentle loving man, because that is what you do, that is how. She knits like the spider at the center of the web disdains the ensnared fly even as it feeds, she knits in her mind while the gentle loving man makes love to her and she comes only when she imagines herself stabbing her shiny needles into his soft flesh, into the wet submissive ball of his heart, and so she hurries to cast him off and away before she destroys him with her hateful, unmagical knitting, for real.
She knits for pregnant friends’ future joys, knits whimsical peapod snugglies and pumpkin hats and the treacle-pink or frozen-waste blue or gender-neutral blankies to be soon covered in apple-juice vomit and leaked urine. She knits for the ooh and aah baby shower moment of applause, and then it is time for the next, less-wondrous, gift to be opened, and she knits to pity them all.
She knits while watching a television program about people who choose to be cast away on a desert island and contest with each other in mock tribes to remain there, castaway and useful to their tribe in some mysterious strategy for survival, and she knows she would knit hammocks from palm frond strings so everyone might sleep hammock’d up and away from the sand fleas and snakes and rats, she would knit to keep everyone else clothed, she would knit nets to catch fish, and then when all her tribal friends were well-slept and fed and clothed and warm, they would cast her away, cast her off, throw her in a volcano and be rid of her forever.
She knits vests for the shivering soapy penguins newly cleansed of oil-spill oil, because she is nurturing.
She knits sweaters for the naked baby pandas in a Chinese zoo nursery, because she is internationally engaged.
She knits a cardigan for her elderly father, who is already shrinking and shivering inside his closet of clothes meant for a full- and warm-muscled man, but she knits slowly, for she knows that once the sweater is finished he will be too, so she knits stitch by stitch as if patiently teaching a clumsy, pudge-fingered child she doesn’t have, until there are no more stitches to stitch and she wraps her father’s loose bones in the sweater and buries him in it, because that is how.
She knits security blankets of bargain-bin yarn for homeless abandoned infants, because she is maternal.
She knits chemo caps soft as kitten’s bellies for brave, hair-shedding friends with translucent skin, because she is supportive and merciful.
She knits because studies show knitting reduces the risk of dementia, and she will not become a fogged, unraveling person who must rely on mocking, merciless tribal friends for survival.
She knits until her hands are swollen and carpal tunnel’d into witchy old lady knuckle knobs, into burning nerves. She knits into numbness, into scrim.
She knits and knits like Madame Defarge in her chair, content in the breeze of the blade, knits until she feels the blood has risen warm to her ankles and it is suddenly, surprisingly, her turn now, sees she has blindly knitted herself into the wooly smothering thing that will bag her own cold twiggy bones, and that is all she has ever made, or done.
Poetry:Catherine Barnett, Kimiko Hahn, Jenny Xie, Rita Gabis, Ed Skoog, Robert Duncan Gray, Diana M. Chien NEW VOICE, Cody Carvel NEW VOICE
LIKE WOOLY WILLY
RESPECT THE FACE
Features:Paul Kirchner, Lewis Hyde, David Gessner, Mary Barnett NEW VOICE
It began the day I was almost electrocuted by the novelist, poet, and nature writer Wendell Berry. If you don’t know who Wendell Berry is, suffice it to say that he is a demigod in the nature writing firmament, but for a demigod he was quite friendly, refilling my iced tea and offering me crackers and laughing at my jokes. I may have been deluding myself, but he seemed to actually like me.
We had been sitting around Wendell’s kitchen table—he insisted I call him Wendell, though I was having a hard time with it—talking about—what else?—literature. The high point came when he mentioned the importance of water for our country’s future, and I began to clumsily quote Robert Frost’s poem “Directive”—getting some of the words wrong but getting the gist of the first line or two, which go “Back out of this all now too much for us/Back in a time made simple by the loss”—and then Wendell took over and, in a kind of Southern lilting baritone, quoted the entire rest of the poem from memory. I joined in for the last two lines, as if it were a sing-along: “Here are your waters and your watering place. / Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”
This was literary nirvana, of course, but there were also practical matters to attend to. It was a one-hundred-degree day in early July but by midafternoon the world outside the kitchen window had darkened and it started to sound as if some giant were ripping apart the fabric of the sky. Wendell interrupted our highfalutin talk to say he had to take Maggie, his border collie, to the barn to get the sheep in, and he invited me along. We climbed into his truck and drove to the barn with Maggie in the truck’s bed and I stared down at the Kentucky River and at the land along its banks that Wendell had been farming for close to sixty years. When we arrived at the barn, Wendell asked me to hold open the metal gate, but then, glancing up at the lightning, said, “On second thought, you better not.”
I should back up and explain how I happened to be at Wendell Berry’s farm in the first place. A year before, in the fall of 2011, I had set out to write a book that would braid together the lives of the writers Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. The idea was to learn everything I could about Abbey and Stegner and then launch myself on a trip to the places that mattered most to the two men, while creating a kind of woven biography. Since both of them were dead, I would have to rely on people who had known them, and Wendell had been a classmate and defender of Abbey’s, and a student of Stegner’s. And since I would start my trip from my home in North Carolina and head west to the places where Abbey and Stegner lived, Wendell’s Kentucky farm was a logical first stop.
But a funny thing happened at the kitchen table that morning. We talked about Abbey and Stegner plenty, sure, and Wendell described the many ways that Stegner had influenced him. But another name kept barging into the conversation like an uninvited guest. For a good hour (I have the tape, so I know), we talked not about the men I’d come to learn about, but about another classmate of Wendell’s, one I hadn’t really thought about in years and one whom, frankly, I wasn’t that interested in at first. Like most people, I knew Ken Kesey as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and the subject of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I’d developed a kind of mental CliffsNotes summary of his career, the way we do with writers whom we don’t delve that deeply into, and my notes went like this: early success, leader of the hippie group the Merry Pranksters, lots of LSD, later burnout. It’s true I had loved Wolfe’s book, but the man at its center—not so much. I’d even seen Kesey give a reading sometime back around 1992 and he had come off as dull and dated, thick of body and seemingly of mind, uncomplicated and unsubtle and straining to still be groovy.
The Kesey that Wendell described, however, was a different sort of animal.
“He didn’t like to drive in non-convertibles because they cramped his aura,” Wendell said with a laugh. But if Kesey was eccentric and wild, he was also compassionate. Wendell told me a story about arriving at Kesey’s house in Oregon, exhausted after a cross-country trip, to find everyone sitting in a circle, passing around a joint. What impressed Wendell was how solicitous Kesey was, understanding Wendell’s exhaustion and his desire not to join in, and so ushering him off to a well-made bed in the guest room.
Wendell pointed out a similarity between Kesey and Stegner.
“Ken stayed married to the same woman his whole life,” he said. “He was a curiously devoted man.”
This did not sound like the Kesey I’d seen or the one I remembered from Wolfe’s pages, the one who took acid and fooled around in the woods with a fellow Merry Prankster called Mountain Girl while back at the house his wife, Faye, made cookies and raised their three children. The one who rejected tradition and embraced LSD, and the one who would come to represent, in Stegner’s mind, all that was wrong with the 1960s.
Books have plots, of course, but so too the writing of books: the creation of narrative follows its own narrative arc. I didn’t know it that day at Wendell’s, but that was the beginning of a significant subplot in the writing of my own book. Though Kesey would play only a minor role in the actual finished product, he lurked like a shadow, sometimes just out of sight, as I went about gathering material on the life of Wallace Stegner.
Stegner believed in tradition. On the surface, that sounds like a trite sentence. It isn’t. Stegner grew up with a father who flouted the rules, and who often ditched his family as he went running off in search of a magic land that would become the title of one of Stegner’s early novels, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. A big, strong, vital man who was never satisfied, always looking elsewhere, George Stegner seemed to his son to value imaginary riches over the well-being of his family, including the wife he abused and the little boy he bullied. To the son, the father embodied a type of Western character that Stegner would write about all his life, the “boomer,” who searched for the quick strike whether in oil, gold, land, or tourism. In contrast to the boomer, Stegner idealized his mother as a “sticker,” one who tried to settle, learn a place, and commit to it. These latter qualities comprised the platform from which Stegner both wrote and preached: commitment to place, respect for wild and human communities, responsibility for and to the land. Having grown up with a man who was the classic Western “rugged individualist,” Stegner spent a lifetime debunking that myth.
In the face of his rootless past, Stegner deeply valued roots and the rooted. Along with novels that won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, he wrote histories and biographies, and extolled what he called “the historical imagination,” the ability to think back in time, throwing off the prejudice of our own eras and seeing those trapped in their eras for who they were. Loyalty was another attribute that took on almost mystical importance: while his father was disloyal, Stegner stayed married to his wife, Mary, for almost sixty years, until the end of his life. At least one friendship ended because a friend was not equally loyal to his own spouse, a woman who was also Stegner’s friend. He strove to be large; one of my favorite of his quotes is “Largeness is a lifelong matter.” But if he lived a moral life he could not help but sometimes use the same standards to judge the lives of others. He was aware of this and tried to keep it in check but did not always succeed. During a visit to Stegner’s former summer home in Vermont, I asked his son, Page, if Stegner could be intimidating. Page Stegner clearly loved and respected his father, and characterized their relationship as a good one, but he admitted it was sometimes challenging having a monument for a dad.
“It wasn’t always easy growing up with a father who spoke the King’s English,” he said.
During our talk Wendell had called Stegner “a decided man.”
While Stegner might have been “decided,” Wendell’s description of his teaching style, which matched other descriptions I’d heard, was that he was low-key, a great listener. But he could also be tough, and grew to be especially tough on Ken Kesey.
“It was like playing football under Vince Lombardi,” Kesey would later say with more than a little admiration. Like Lombardi, Stegner did not tolerate bunk. In The Uneasy Chair, Stegner’s biography of his friend, mentor, and fellow Western writer Bernard DeVoto, Stegner wrote: “He marshaled facts with great swiftness and made them into generalizations, and he discriminated among ideas with the positiveness of one discriminating between sound and rotten oranges.” There was something of the same briskness, the same intellectual vigor and sweeping aside of the inessential, about Stegner. He was an unrepentant workaholic who delighted in crossing items off his lists, always working at the multiple tasks of writing, teaching, and environmental advocacy.
As the 1960s began, Stegner, now in his fifties, found himself at odds with some of the young mavericks in the program he’d founded, the Stanford Creative Writing Program, and notably with Kesey, who later said of their split: “I took LSD and he stayed with Jack Daniel’s; the line between us was drawn.” But it wasn’t the superficial differences that increasingly irritated Stegner. He believed that the hippie philosophy was essentially phony, a false and easy view of life that ignored its hard realities and responsibilities, and when he sorted through the fruit, he knew it to be a particularly rotten orange.
Kesey was a wrestler at the University of Oregon, a country guy with, as Wolfe famously put it, a “hell of a build,” when he applied to the Stanford program. As it turned out, it was Edward Abbey, a student in the program at the time, who read the Oregonian’s application, writing this comment on Kesey’s novel about college sports: “Football has found its James Jones.” Stegner read this comment, apparently found the work to his liking as well, and admitted Kesey.
But at Stanford Kesey didn’t exactly follow a traditional route. Soon he was working at a psych ward while also volunteering at a local veterans hospital for an experiment, conducted by the CIA, that required him to take a series of drugs that included mushrooms, mescaline, and a then still legal but unknown drug that we now call LSD. At the same time, Kesey was submitting parts of a novel called One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to his creative writing workshop with Stegner, a workshop in which Stegner stressed, as one of his great tenets, the importance of point of view. In fact, it was a breakthrough in point of view that elevated Kesey’s novel above the ordinary, but that breakthrough came in a most un-Stegnerian fashion. While munching on peyote, Kesey created his Indian narrator, Chief Bromden. “It came from nowhere,” he said later. “I didn’t know any Indians.” According to Wolfe, and to Kesey himself, many of the pages of the book were written under the influence of LSD, and though most of those pages were eventually thrown out, it seems obvious that the insights from the drug, combined with his job in the psych ward, gave Kesey an insider’s look at madness.
While Stegner valued tradition and restraint, the star of Kesey’s novel, Randle McMurphy, is the embodiment of rebellion. Who could be a more perfect symbol for the ascending ’60s than McMurphy? And who could better represent all the things that Stegner was coming to despise about that rebellious decade?
As for Kesey, he had discovered a new world through LSD and had no use for the old world that Stegner represented. He soon kissed the institution of the university goodbye and took his show over the hill to his mountain retreat in La Honda, where he began his experiment in communal living with the Merry Pranksters, a kind of religious life with LSD as its central sacrament. He left Stanford even further behind when he and the other Pranksters climbed on their Day-Glo bus for a cross-country trip, with Kerouac’s old sidekick Neal Cassady at the wheel. But even then his former teacher was not fully exorcised from Kesey’s thoughts, and Kesey would later say in a Paris Review interview that Stegner may have played a part in the launching of that famous bus ride:
At one point, I read that he had said he found me to be ineducable. I had to stew for a long time over what Stegner didn’t like about me and my friends. We were part of an exceptional group, there’s no doubt about it. There was Bob Stone, Gurney Norman, Wendell Berry, Ken Babbs, and Larry McMurtry. All of us who were part of that group are still very much in contact; we all support each other’s work. Stegner was the great force that brought us all together. He put together a program that ruled literature in California and, in some ways, the rest of the nation for a long time. Stegner had traveled across the Great Plains and reached the Pacific but, as far as he was concerned, that was far enough. Some of us didn’t believe that it was far enough and when we went farther than that, he took issue with it, especially when it was not happening in the usual literary bailiwicks that he was accustomed to. I took LSD and he stayed with Jack Daniel’s; the line between us was drawn. That was, as far as he was concerned, the edge of the continent, and he thought you were supposed to stop there. I was younger than he was and I didn’t see any reason to stop, so I kept moving forward, as did many of my friends. Ever since then, I have felt impelled into the future by Wally, by his dislike of what I was doing, of what we were doing. That was the kiss of approval in some way. I liked him and I actually think that he liked me. It was just that we were on different sides of the fence. When the Pranksters got together and headed off on a bus to deal with the future of our synapses, we knew that Wally didn’t like what we were doing and that was good enough for us.
I took the River Road along the Kentucky as I left Wendell’s house. I remember being startled by what I at first thought was a smear of blood on the road. It turned out to be a dead cardinal. A little later a big deer, dark and tawny, ran in front of my car, crashing into the woods on the other side.
“I loved him but I never felt equal to him,” Wendell said of Stegner. “We became friends but it took me a long time to call him anything but Mr. Stegner.”
I knew what he meant. Two years of studying Stegner had done little to diminish my initial impression that he was a great writer and a good man, but he remained intimidating, even posthumously. When I interviewed Stegner’s son and daughter-in-law they had referred to him as “Wally” and suggested I do the same. I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Before I left Wendell’s, Kesey snuck into the conversation one last time:
“I got in between Stegner and Kesey,” he told me. “I liked them both. What Stegner didn’t understand about Kesey was how ambitious he was. They were of course alike in that way.”
Wendell described a poetry reading he did at Stanford, an event that Stegner attended. He read, among other things, a poem called “Kentucky River Junction,” which describes a visit that Kesey and fellow Prankster Ken Babbs paid to Wendell’s house. “It was such a sweet meeting,” Wendell said.
After the reading Stegner came up to him and said of the poems: “I liked them all but one.”
When Kesey visited Stanford to read, Stegner refused to attend.
From Wendell’s hometown of Port Royal I drove to Lexington, where I planned on interviewing Ed McClanahan, who had been Stegner’s office mate in the ’60s. This time I wasn’t as surprised when Kesey barged into the conversation. McClanahan had been one of the original Merry Pranksters.
McClanahan was eighty years old at the time of our meeting but certainly didn’t seem it. The bar where we met was loud and required if not yelling then good volume, and as we drank beers he proved up to the task. He told me that during his time, Stanford had been a stimulating environment and that at the beginning of the year, and sometimes during the year, Stegner would have the students up to his house on his then-secluded hilltop. He recalled a particularly stunning afternoon up at the Stegners’ when he and the other members of the workshop were having drinks out on the back patio in the late afternoon and someone looked up and noticed a hawk with a big rattlesnake in its talons circling above. While not every day could have been that dramatic, it occurred to me that those visits to the house on the hill must have been as stimulating for the students as the classes themselves. They got to experience a working writer’s home with a studio out back and a book-lined living room, a place of the sort they might perhaps one day inhabit and a writer’s life they might imagine one day leading.
McClanahan was one of the first to follow Kesey over the hill to his La Honda getaway, and was one of the first to take LSD, but he was not part of the cross-country trip in the bus named Further. “You’re either on the bus or off the bus” is the refrain of Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, referring to those who got it and those who didn’t. The great tragedy of McClanahan’s life was that he was off the bus. By choice. In fact, he was there as the bus pulled away, a moment he has always regretted.
“I stood in Kesey’s yard and waved goodbye,” he told me. “And I’ve kicked myself ever since.”
As we sipped beer, McClanahan described the origin of the conflict between Stegner and Kesey, an event at which he had a front-row seat.
“Stegner was a buttoned-down fellow,” McClanahan said. “A very tightly controlled person. Which is not to say he was not a kind man.”
According to McClanahan, the split between Kesey, the student, and Stegner, the teacher, began when Kesey gave an interview to Gordon Lish for the magazine Genesis West.
“In the interview Gordon asked him what his experience in the writing program had been like and Ken said he felt that Mr. Stegner—I imagine he was pretty respectful and might have called him ‘Mr. Stegner’—had been too much lionized by his students and other people, and that it had gone to his head. And I don’t know what the exact words were but the drift of it was that this had badly affected Stegner’s writing in some way or other. A pretty thoughtless comment.
“Kesey felt bad about it. Felt it had been taken out of context. That’s everybody’s excuse these days, but it probably had been taken a little out of context. Gordon would do things like that. Ken felt awful. And he came to the office one day carrying a big red shiny apple. He brought it in there to see Stegner and Stegner wasn’t in. But Dolly Kringle was there; she was the secretary, a kind of institution, and he left the apple with her. And when Mr. Stegner came in—you know I sometimes think I was there in the office when this happened. I think, but I’m not sure. I think I was. But it may have been just what Dolly told me afterward. Anyway, Stegner came in and Dolly told him that Ken Kesey had been in and was very apologetic and that he left this big apple. I don’t know what he did with the apple—threw it at Dolly?—but he wasn’t in a forgiving mood. He just looked at Dolly without smiling and said: ‘Well, he said it, didn’t he?’
“It was pretty cold.”
After that, Kesey came to represent for Stegner all that was wrong with the ’60s: the drugs, the anarchy, the recklessness, the trashing of hard-won traditions. Over the next decade, “radical” was a word Stegner came to despise. He believed, along with his fellow hard-nosed realist, Samuel Johnson, that most of the cures for humanity are palliative, not radical. He had little patience for anything extreme. On more than one occasion he said that he disliked writing that “throbbed rather than thought.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published to nearly universal acclaim in 1962. Two years later Kesey published Sometimes a Great Notion, a sprawling novel about an Oregon logging family, and while this time the acclaim was less universal, it is considered by more than a few critics to be his greatest novel. After that, he effectively stopped writing for ten years and his later fiction and essay collections, published decades after the first two novels, do not hold up to his earlier work. The standard take is that his brain was fried. But what seems more relevant, and what Wolfe details in his book, is that Kesey had lost interest in the idea of sitting alone in a room and typing. When reading Wolfe’s description of the magic bus trip today, with all the filming and taping of every moment, it is hard not to think of the Internet and iPhones and the fact that the Pranksters were decades ahead of their time. Wolfe makes the argument that the Pranksters virtually invented the ’60s, from psychedelia to tie-dye to the font used on contemporary posters. But what Wolfe couldn’t see, locked as he was in his time, was that they also invented, or at least anticipated, the future we now inhabit.
While doing research for my book I happened to run into John McChesney, a filmmaker who was making a documentary on the Western fracking boom. I asked him about his project and then he asked me about mine.
He laughed out loud when I told him.
“I lived in the cottage behind Stegner’s house in the 1960s,” he said.
“No fucking way,” I said.
He then told me a story from that time. McChesney had been a student activist at Stanford, and was part of a group that occupied University Hall. It was pretty tense for a while, the police were called in, and it looked like the situation would turn violent, but the faculty senate granted the protesters amnesty and the students went home after two or three days.
“When I got home, Wally was sweeping off his patio. That was my regular job, part of my rent. He wouldn’t look at me. But I did hear him mutter one phrase: ‘Ruined a great university.’”
Stegner quit teaching at Stanford in 1971. Though he was, by almost all accounts, a great teacher, he showed some cracks by the end. He said this upon his retirement: “I am never going to miss teaching . . . I never gave it more than half my heart, the ventricle, say.” Once he quit, he felt that for the first time in his life he was able to concentrate fully on individual projects. Over the next twenty-two years, until his death at eighty-four, he produced six books of nonfiction, including his underrated biography of Bernard DeVoto, and three of his best novels: Crossing to Safety, the National Book Award–winning The Spectator Bird, and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Angle of Repose.
Just as it had been for Kesey, and just as he had always advised his students, it was a breakthrough in point of view that elevated Stegner’s later work. The first hints of where things would go showed as far back as 1952 with the creation of Joe Allston, the narrator of the short story “A Field Guide to Western Birds.” Joe is a literary agent who has retired to his home in the California hills, where he lives with his wife, Ruth. More importantly, he is the prototype of the classic first-person old-man Stegnerian doppelgänger, what I came to call the “grumbling grandpa” narrators who are crucial to his later novels. Through his use of these exaggerated fictional stand-ins, Stegner created some of his best, and certainly most readable, fiction. Joe Allston came back for the novels All the Little Live Things and The SpectatorBird, and a similar, if less jokey, narrator named Larry Morgan took over for Stegner’s last novel, Crossing to Safety. Both of these men are opinionated, gruff, and none too happy about the way the world has been hijacked by its at once softheaded and dogmatic young people. To the contemporary ear, there is an aw-shucks manner that takes some getting used to, particularly with the Joe Allston narrator, who has a little dash of by-golly Ronald Reagan jargon in his vocabulary (if not his politics). But all three protagonists have a barely disguised old-fashioned agenda. They embody continuance and rootedness, though they are not mere symbols of those qualities. These are novels, after all, not sermons, and the beauty of the books is that the old “decided” men who narrate them are actually full of uncertainty, anxiety, and questioning. Luckily, all of these men are also sharp, smart, and articulate, and it is the articulation of that uncertainty that brings the books alive.
Lyman Ward, the narrator of Angle of Repose, is a darker version of Joe Allston and Larry Morgan. He has reason to be dark: he is literally truncated, his legs amputated by the same doctor who has since run off with his wife. Meanwhile, his politically radical son doesn’t think his father can take care of himself and hopes to put him in a nursing home. Stegner began this book at the height of his troubles with the young radicals who had “ruined” Stanford, and there is both some serious venting about the state of the rootless young and something close to conscious self-parody in the hippie-hating Ward. Tired of the shallow present, the narrator, a historian by trade, tunnels into the past, specifically into the lives of his pioneering Western grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward. These excursions into the past are first presented as artifacts, the transcripts of letters. But they soon segue into a third-person re-creation of the past, dramatizing the lives and many moves of Susan and Oliver. In the course of empathizing with his grandparents and imagining their lives, the historian narrator becomes something else, something very close to a writer of fiction.
The Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose is Stegner’s greatest novel, but for our purposes it is worth dwelling on a lesser, earlier work, All the Little Live Things, which came out in 1967, a year before Wolfe’s book launched Kesey to new heights of psychedelic fame. There is a character in that novel named Jim Peck, who lives in a tree house in the woods near the Allston/Stegner property and who spouts about free love and peace and who has followers who are drawn in by his raw charisma. He is a freeloader and “a fool,” according to Allston, the type of Caliban character who throbs rather than thinks, and most scholars have seen him as a fictional representation of Kesey. Stegner denied this. His biographer, Philip Fradkin, writes that Stegner considered Kesey more dangerous than Peck and quotes him as saying that Kesey was “a person of more force than mind. I think Kesey is crazy as a coot, and dangerous, and rather special in his charismatic qualities, and with what was once a fairly big raw talent.”
Even if Jim Peck is not based directly on Kesey, it stands to reason that parts of Kesey found their way into the various radical characters Stegner created during the ’60s and ’70s. As a writer it is natural to process one’s own conflicts in one’s imagination and on one’s pages.
And what of Kesey turning Stegner into fiction?
Well, there was enough of a rift between the two men to lead at least one scholar to suggest that Kesey actually based Nurse Ratched, one of the most (if not the most) notorious authority figures in all of American literature, at least partly on the man running the program where he studied. Stanford professor and literary scholar Mark McGurl, whose book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing is a brilliant treatment of the rise of creative writing programs and their impact on postwar literature, writes: “It is hard to read about the bad behavior of McMurphy in the Group Meeting, his too evident disrespect for Nurse Ratched, without connecting it to Kesey’s well-documented antagonism toward his teacher Wallace Stegner, whom, as John Daniel reports, Kesey saw as the ‘epitome of economic staidness and convention’ even as Stegner found Kesey ‘irritatingly half-baked.’”
But wait a minute here. Nurse Stegner? Are we meant to imagine Stegner, white-maned novelist, environmental hero, and dean of Western writers, in a nurse’s uniform and little hat, enforcing order on a group of patients in a psych ward? Perhaps it’s a little easier to see Kesey, the Merry Prankster himself, in the role that Jack Nicholson later made famous (in a movie Kesey claimed to hate), the leering, jeering, sniggering Randall McMurphy, the great disrupter of the ward’s peace and archenemy of the feared Big Nurse. And maybe in Kesey’s mind this made some artistic sense: a crazy dance of authority and rebellion, Kesey trying to avoid the fate of his character, drugged and electroshocked into conformity, and Stegner trying to retain control of the institution he runs.
Malcolm Cowley was another teacher of Kesey’s at Stanford, and he had this to say about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “It’s interesting how the judgments on that book divide along age lines.” So too our reactions to Kesey and Stegner. I remember reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as a young man and being caught up in the wildness and charisma of the chief Prankster, and not long after that gobbling down some LSD of my own. But as I grew older, and especially as battles with mental illness became part of my family life, I began taking notes for an essay called “Some Words in Defense of Nurse Ratched.” The piece had nothing to do with Stegner, at least not intentionally or directly, but was about the romantic and fuzzy picture the public seems to have of schizophrenia, as opposed to the tougher and more hard-eyed ideas that I had developed through personal experience.
As he grew older, Kesey, to his credit, came more fully to appreciate and understand Stegner, and in at least that one way he was perhaps his old teacher’s moral superior: he was no grudge holder. If Stegner held grudges he was large in many other ways: he was a steady loyal friend, a great fighter for the environment and the underdog, a big thinker whose ideas have never been more relevant than in today’s warming and overconnected world. As a man, he strove to overcome his own smallness and as a novelist he possessed empathy to an extreme degree, constantly entering the worlds of others, priding himself (for good reason) on his “ventriloquism,” his ability to speak for others in his fiction. That’s what made his inability to see Kesey’s world striking. It wasn’t like him.
So why did this empathy stop at Kesey’s door? For one thing, bad timing. Bad timing that the generation Stegner encountered just as he entered later middle age reminded him in its looseness and lack of commitment of his bootlegger father. And suddenly here was this young star of this new generation, a big, charismatic, physically strong dreamer-schemer, a man who liked to break the law and the rules and who said to hell with the past, give me the future. A later model George Stegner, in other words.
It must have seemed to Stegner that the myth of the rugged individualist, whether in the form of a prankster or a cowboy, just wouldn’t die. The costumes of hippies were just a new disguise for an old irresponsible type.
As for Kesey, rebelliousness was ingrained in his nature and who better to rebel against than the ultimate father figure, Stanford’s very own Old Testament God?
In his essay “The Prankster Moves On,” John Daniel, who knew both men, writes:
The trouble between them, I think now, may have stemmed as much from their likeness as it did from their differences. Each made his way to literary fame from inauspicious beginnings in the rural West, and each arrived with an attitude stamped into his soul. Stegner’s was: When you start with nothing you’d better work, work, work. Kesey’s was: Watch out or high culture will suck out your life.
There’s validity to both.
As I get older I find myself more often on Stegner’s side of the divide, and like him and his friend Bernard DeVoto, I find myself tossing aside the rotten oranges of soft and romantic thought. But just because the years have separated me from my own earlier experiences, I don’t want to forget the energy I once drew from books both by and about Kesey.
I remember something that Wendell Berry said as we sat at the kitchen table on that hot July day.
“We all have our personal ecosystems,” he told me. “An ecosystem is full of dependencies, and nothing in it knows what it is dependent on.”
That made great sense to me then and still makes sense to me now. We never know what we are getting from others. If we are lucky, our reading and influences are like a vast underground root system, and about as easily deciphered. I know I could never map where most of what I have gotten has come from.
“The personality stuff isn’t important in the end,” Wendell said. “People die out of it. It goes away. There’s nothing to it. The books and ideas remain.”
In setting out to write my book, I had chosen Wallace Stegner as one of my subjects, at least in part because he was a great model, not only as a man but also for all that he had achieved in his older years. This seemed particularly relevant for someone like me, who had just crossed to the other side of fifty. But models are never so clear-cut. If my choice of Stegner was a conscious decision, my choice of Ken Kesey was not. He had, as was his habit, appeared unexpectedly, butting in, a Prankster till the end.
As it turned out, there was room at the party for both. While I cannot tell you exactly how they have acted on me, I do know they are each in their own way good company. Their old antagonisms long faded, something of them each still remains, and it is a something that I am deeply thankful for. These days Mr. Stegner and Mr. Kesey can mingle without acrimony, and they are there, waiting together, for those of us who would seek them out.
Lost & Found:Rachel Riederer, Jonathan Russell Clark, Jessica Handler, S. Shankar, John Reed
I read Barbara Grizzuti Harrison’s essays for the first time when I was in a creative writing graduate program where I regularly sat through conversations about my classmates’ admiration for Joan Didion. One friend saw Didion on the street and had a quasi-religious experience; another typed and retyped her favorite Didion sentences to internalize the great stylist’s spirit. I could never join in the ecstatic reverence, but could also never put my finger on precisely why.
Then I read Harrison’s 1980 essay collection Off Center. Like Didion, Harrison was writing personal essays and cultural criticism in the seventies, eighties, and nineties. Harrison is often remembered primarily as Didion’s detractor—her New York Times obituary mentions that she once called Didion a “neurasthenic Cher.” This epithet comes from her scathing takedown of Didion, “Joan Didion: Only Disconnect,” originally published in the Nation in 1979. “My charity does not naturally extend itself to someone whose lavender love seats match exactly the potted orchids on her mantel,” writes the ever class-conscious Harrison, who grew up in Queens. But the essay is not a lumpy person’s attack on elegance. Instead, it rails against the idea that style (in prose) is argument, the idea that style (in life) is everything. Harrison critiques Didion’s 1966 essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” in which Didion reports on the case of Lucille Maxwell Miller, a California woman found guilty of killing her husband by setting him on fire. “Lucille Maxwell is convicted—by Didion—of wearing polyester and Capris, of living in a house with a snack bar and a travertine entry, of speaking in clichés . . . of frequenting the Kapu-Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee Shop, and of never having eaten an artichoke.” Didion convicts Miller of being tacky. Harrison convicts Didion of being shallow: “It isn’t Didion’s sense of morality that has suffered a blow,” Harrison writes, after describing the burnt body of Miller’s husband, “it’s her sense of style.” At a moment when I was trying to figure out my own writing voice, I found Harrison’s philosophy liberating: a writerly presence could—should!—be made not just from aesthetics but also from morals.
I returned to this essay recently, reminded of it by the new Céline ad that features an elegant eighty-year-old Didion sporting a silver bob and giant black sunglasses. I was shocked, this time, by how very mean the essay seems. The dismantling of Didion’s style is, for a writer, the stuff of nightmares: Harrison notices several categories of sentences that Didion uses, names them, lists examples of each. Her tone oscillates only between fierce and mocking. The clarity of the analysis is obvious, but so is its spite.
Harrison’s analytical mind is so razor-edged, her ability to connect details with their meanings so precise, that it seems almost unfair for an individual person to be the object of her gaze. More often, and to better effect, her eagle eye is trained not on a person but on an institution. In these situations her scrutiny feels not just appropriate, but essential. In her 1976 essay “Invasion of the Mind-Stealers,” Harrison chronicles a weekend est (Erhard Seminars Training) conference. Est taught adherents that they could create their own experiences and “disappear” the obstacles in their lives. Harrison wrote the piece at a moment when est was attracting thousands of trainees, but she, predictably, is having none of it. After her first day of training she asks a classmate: “Does a napalmed baby ‘cause his own experience’?” When she sees that the weekend training requires her to sign a form agreeing to keep the material confidential, she tells an est trainer that she needs to call her agent and editor before signing. It is Friday afternoon, though, and a holiday weekend, so she doubts that they will be in their offices. The est trainer suggests that if she calls with the intention of finding them at their desks, then at their desks they shall be. “Can she be suggesting that I can cause them to be in? That my thoughts are a magic carpet that will transport them from East Hampton to midtown Manhattan?” This is funny, but it’s the next line that perfectly captures Harrison’s worldview: “I would find that kind of power abhorrent.”
Her essays are at their best when she turns her analysis inward, and Harrison is as unsparing with herself as she ever was with Didion. In “Growing Up Apocalyptic,” published in 1975, she recounts her childhood conversion to “a fierce messianic sect”—she and her mother became Jehovah’s Witnesses when she was nine. She captures both the religion’s pernicious influence on her adolescence and her own complicity in the process: “I wished to be eaten up alive; and my wish was granted.” Echoes of Harrison’s messianic childhood can be found throughout her writing. She frequently uses the categories good and evil, applying them to politics and popular culture in a way that seems not just dated but archaic.
Harrison moved to Bethel, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ organizational headquarters, at age nineteen. For three years she lived there, one of twelve women who served as housekeepers for the two hundred and fifty male church leaders. When she was promoted from making beds and cleaning bathrooms to proofreading the Watchtower publications, a church elder reminded her that the new position would come with temptations to pride—she must remember to defer to the brothers even as she corrected them. “There were days when I felt literally as if my eternal destiny hung upon a comma: if the brother with whom I worked decided a comma should go out where I wanted to put one in, I prayed to Jehovah to forgive me for that presumptuous comma,” she recalls. “I denied and denied—commas, split infinitives, my sexuality, my intelligence, my femaleness, my yearning to be part of the world.” At age twenty-two she left Bethel, and the Jehovah’s Witness organization, and embraced all the elements—grammatical and personal—that she had been denying herself.
Reading Harrison in 2015 is jarring. Her unapologetic morality feels strange and at the same time is a tonic for pervasive irony. At a cultural moment when there’s perennial discussion about whether negative book reviews should ever be published, yet Internet comments spew anonymous vitriol every second of the day, her willingness to offer harsh criticism while maintaining eye contact seems almost alien. Her insistence that style not be mistaken for substance is more important than ever, as our lives become more and more curated and we internalize the idea of the personal brand. Harrison died in 2002—how I wish we had just one essay from her about this new marketing of the self. Her way of looking at the world is deeply unfashionable. That’s part of what makes it indispensable.