henry miller on young writers writing

What few young writers realize, it seems to me, is that they must find—create, invent!—the way to reach their readers.

It isn’t enough to write a good book, a beautiful book, or even a better book than most. One has to establish, or re-establish, a unity which has been broken and which is felt just as keenly by the reader, who is a potential artist, as by the writer, who believes himself to be an artist . . . . The writer who wants to communicate with his fellow-man, and thereby establish communion with him, has only to speak with sincerity and directness. He has not to think about literary standards—he will make them as he goes along—he has not to think about trends, vogues, markets, acceptable or unacceptable ideas: he has only to deliver himself, naked and vulnerable. All that constricts and restricts him, to use the language of not-ness, his fellow-reader, even though he may not be an artist, feels with equal despair and bewilderment. The world presses down on all alike. Men are not suffering from the lack of good literature, good art, good theatre, good music, but from that which has made it impossible for these to manifest. In short, they are suffering from the silent, shameful conspiracy (the more shameful since it is unacknowledged) which has bound them together as enemies of art and artists. They are suffering from the fact that art is not the primary, moving force in their lives. They are suffering from the act, repeated daily, of keeping up the pretense that they can go their way, lead their lives, without art. They never dream—or they behave as if they never realize—that the reason why they feel sterile, frustrated and joyless is because art (and with it the artist) has been ruled out of their lives. For every artist who has been assassinated thus (unwittingly?) thousands of ordinary citizens, who might have known a normal joyous life, are condemned to lead the purgatorial existence of neurotics, psychotics, schizophrenics. No, the man who is about to blow his top does not have to fix his eye on the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, or any other great model; he has only to give us, in his own language, the saga of his woes and tribulations, the saga of his non-existentialism . . .

Such is the picture which doesn’t always come clear through the televistic screen. The negative, in other words, from which all that is positive, good and lasting will eventually come through. Easy to recognize because no matter where your parachute lands you it’s always the same: the everyday life. 

—Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch

  

 

richard yates shows how the child is father to the man


Richard Yates, "A Glutton For Punishment"

For a littlewhile when Walter Henderson was nine years old he thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance, and so did a number of his friends. Having found that the only truly rewarding part of any cops-and-robbers game was the moment when you pretended to be shot, clutched your heart, dropped your pistol and crumpled to the earth, they soon dispensed with the rest of it — the tiresome business of choosing up sides and sneaking around — and refined the game to its essence. It became a matter of individual performance, almost an art. One of them at a time would run dramatically along the crest of a hill, and at a given point the ambush would occur: a simultaneous jerking of aimed toy pistols and a chorus of those staccato throaty sounds — a kind of hoarse-whispered “Pk-k-ew! Pk-k-ew!” with which little boys simulate the noise of gunfire. Then the performer would stop, turn, stand poised for a moment in graceful agony, pitch over and fall down the hill in a whirl of arms and legs and a splendid cloud of dust, and finally sprawl flat at the bottom, a rumpled corpse. When he got up and brushed off his clothes, the others would criticize his form (”Pretty good,” or “Too stiff,” or “Didn’t look natural”), and then it would be the next player’s turn. That was all there was to the game, but Walter Henderson loved it. He was a slight, poorly coordinated boy, and this was the only thing even faintly like a sport at which he excelled. Nobody could match the abandon with which he flung his limp body down the hill, and he revelled in the small acclaim it won him. Eventually the others grew bored with the game, after some older boys had laughed at them. Walter turned reluctantly to more wholesome forms of play, and soon he had forgotten about it.

But he had occasion to remember it, vividly, one May afternoon nearly twenty-five years later in a Lexington Avenue office building, while he sat at his desk pretending to work and waiting to be fired. He had become a sober, keen-looking young man now, with clothes that showed the influence of an Eastern university and neat brown hair that was just beginning to thin out on top. Years of good health had made him less slight, and though he still had trouble with his coordination it showed up mainly in minor things nowadays, like an inability to coordinate his hat, his wallet, his theater tickets and his change without making his wife stop and wait for him, or a tendency to push heavily against doors marked "Pull." He looked, at any rate, the picture of sanity and competence as he sat there in the office. No one could have told that the cool sweat of anxiety was sliding under his shirt, or that the fingers of his left hand, concealed in his pocket, were slowly grinding and tearing a book of matches into a moist cardboard pulp. He had seen it coming for weeks, and this morning, from the minute he got off the elevator, he had sensed that this was the day it would happen. When several of his superiors said, "Morning, Walt," he had seen the faintest suggestion of concern behind their smiles; then once this afternoon, glancing out over the gate of the cubicle where he worked, he’d happened to catch the eye of George Crowell, the department manager, who was hesitating in the door of his private office with some papers in his hand. Crowell turned away quickly, but Walter knew he had been watching him, troubled but determined. In a matter of minutes, he felt sure, Crowell would call him in and break the news — with difficulty, of course, since Crowell was the kind of boss who took pride in being a regular guy. There was nothing to do now but let the thing happen and try to take it as gracefully as possible.

 

That was when the childhood memory began to prey on his mind, for it suddenly struck him — and the force of it sent his thumbnail biting deep into the secret matchbook — that letting things happen and taking them gracefully had been, in a way, the pattern of his life. There was certainly no denying that the role of good loser had always held an inordinate appeal for him. All through adolescence he had specialized in it, gamely losing fights with stronger boys, playing football badly in the secret hope of being injured and carried dramatically off the field ("You got to hand it to old Henderson for one thing, anyway," the high-school coach had said with a chuckle, "he’s a real little glutton for punishment"). College had offered a wider scope to his talent — there were exams to be flunked and elections to be lost — and later the Air Force had made it possible for him to wash out, honorably, as a Bight cadet. And now, inevitably, it seemed, he was running true to form once more. The several jobs he’d held before this had been the beginner’s kind at which it isn’t easy to fail; when the opportunity for this one first arose it had been, in Crowell’s phrase, "a real challenge."

 

"Good," Walter had said. "That’s what I’m looking for." When he related that part of the conversation to his wife she had said, "Oh, wonderful!" and they’d moved to an expensive apartment in the East Sixties on the strength of it. And lately, when he started coming home with a beaten look and announcing darkly that he doubted if he could hold on much longer, she would enjoin the children not to bother him ("Daddy’s very tired tonight"), bring him a drink and soothe him with careful, wifely reassurance, doing her best to conceal her fear, never guessing, or at least never showing, that she was dealing with a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse. And the amazing himself had never looked at it that way before.

 

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short fiction from richard yates

11 Kinds of Loneliness - Original
 

Richard Yates, "Fun with a Stranger"

 

All that summer the children who were due to start third grade under Miss Snell had been warned about her. "Boy, you’re gonna get it," the older children would say, distorting their faces with a wicked pleasure. "You’re really gonna get it. Mrs. Clearys all right" (Mrs. Cleary taught the other, luck­ier half of third grade) "—shes fine, but boy, that Snell—you better watch out." So it happened that the morale of Miss Snell’s class was low even before school opened in September, and she did little in the first few weeks to improve it.

 

She was probably sixty, a big rawboned woman with a man’s face, and her clothes, if not her very pores, seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust that is the smell of school. She was strict and humorless, preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming, frequent trips to the bathroom, and, the worst of all, "coming to school without proper supplies." Her small eyes were sharp, and when somebody sent out a stealthy alarm of whispers and nudges to try to borrow a pencil from somebody else, it almost never worked. "What’s the trouble back there?" she would demand. "I mean you, John Gerhardt." And John Gerhardt—or Howard White or whoever it hap­pened to be—caught in the middle of a whisper, could only turn red and say, "Nothing."

 

"Don’t mumble. Is it a pencil? Have you come to school without a pencil again? Stand up when you’re spoken to."

 

And there would follow a long lecture on Proper Supplies that ended only after the offender had come forward to receive a pencil from the small hoard on her desk, had been made to say, "Thank you, Miss Snell," and to repeat, until he said it loud enough for everyone to hear, a promise that he wouldnt chew it or break its point.

 

With erasers it was even worse because they were more often in short supply, owing to a general tendency to chew them off the ends of pencils. Miss Snell kept a big, shapeless old eraser on her desk, and she seemed very proud of it. "This is my eraser," she would say, shaking it at the class. "Ive had this eraser for five years. Five years." (And this was not hard to believe, for the eraser looked as old and gray and worn-down as the hand that brandished it.) "I’ve never played with it because its not a toy. Ive never chewed it because it’s not good to eat. And Ive never lost it because Im not foolish and Im not careless. I need this eraser for my work and I’ve taken good care of it. Now, why cant you do the same with your erasers? I don’t know whats the matter with this class. I’ve never had a class that was so foolish and so careless and so childish about its supplies."

 

She never seemed to lose her temper, but it would almost have been better if she did, for it was the flat, dry, passionless redundance of her scolding that got everybody down. When Miss Snell singled someone out for a special upbraiding it was an ordeal by talk. She would come up to within a foot of her victims face, her eyes would stare unblinking into his, and the wrinkled gray flesh of her mouth would labor to pronounce his guilt, grimly and deliberately, until all the color faded from the day. She seemed tohave no favorites; once she even picked on Alice Johnson, who always had plenty of supplies and did nearly everything right. Alice was mumbling while reading aloud, and when she continued to mumble after several warn­ings Miss Snell went over and took her book away and lectured her for several minutes running. Alice looked stunned at first; then her eyes filled up, her mouth twitched into terrible shapes, and she gave in to the ultimate humiliation of cry­ing in class.

 

It was not uncommon to cry in Miss Snell’s class, even among the boys. And ironically, it always seemed to be during the lull after one of these sceneswhen the only sound in the room was somebody’s slow, half-stifled sobbing, and the rest of the class stared straight ahead in an agony of embarrassment­ that the noise of group laughter would float in from Mrs. Cleary’s class across the hall.

 

Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own. "When we learn a new word it’s like making a friend," she said once. "And we all like to make friends, dont we? Now, for instance, when school began this year you were all strangers to me, but I wanted very much to learn your names and remember your faces, and so I made the effort. It was confusing at first, but before long I’d made friends with all of you. And later on well have some good times togetheroh, perhaps a little party at Christmastime, or something like thatand then I know I’d be very sorry if I hadnt made that effort, because you can’t very well have fun with a stranger, can you?" She gave them a comely, shy smile. "And that’s just the way it is with words."

 

When she said something like that it was more embarrassing than anything else, but it did leave the children with a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her, and often prompted them into a loyal reticence when children from other classes demanded to know how bad she really was. "Well, not too bad," they would say uncomfortably, and try to change the sub­ject
 

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guardian film critic fears he was interfered with—by paul bowles!


"The next thing I knew was that I woke up in a bed wearing a djellaba with nothing underneath . . . Who had undressed me and put me in a djellaba, and why? Had I been abused? I think I would have known if I had . . . I’ve since read everything I could by him in the vain hope that I would appear somewhere in his writings where the mystery would be solved."

Paul Bowles in his flat in Tangier, 1956

            
            
The sinister Mr. Bowles: “Care for a smoke, dear?”

"Me, Paul Bowles and that forgotten night in Tangier"

By Ronald Bergan

A documentary on the American author triggered a memory of a disturbing night at the writer’s apartment that had been suppressed for 40 years

 

In 1998, at the Edinburgh Film Festival, I was happily watching the documentary Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles, when the weirdest thing happened to me. While the 87-year-old author was being interviewed in his apartment in Tangier, I had a strange feeling of deja vu. An African mask on the wall triggered the sense that I had been in that apartment before. Was that possible? Maybe I had seen a photo of it somewhere. I had come to the film without any pre-conceived notions, nor did I know much about Bowles, merely that he had written The Sheltering Sky, a book I had not read. I had seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s film adaptation of it, which I had not much liked. That was the sum of my knowledge of Bowles.

 

The more the documentary continued, the more I became convinced that I had been in Bowles’s apartment in Tangier and not just seen photos of it. It was too potent a sensation. While I watched the film, I struggled to understand why I had this certitude. Gradually, some images started to emerge from my unconscious mind, and then the whole story came flooding back. I had what I can only call a flashback to an incident that had taken place more than four decades earlier.

 

When I was 17 years old, a friend of mine, known as Frog, and I had decided to take a year off between school and university to travel around Europe very cheaply, hitch-hiking, staying in youth hostels and getting odd jobs where we could. We had managed to hitch rides down through Spain and had crossed on the ferry from Gibraltar to Tangier.

 

On our first night, after getting a room in a run-down hotel, we sat at an outdoor cafe nursing glasses of beer. After a while, two middle-aged men sat down at the table next to us. I immediately recognised one of them as Richard Wattis, a supporting actor in dozens of British films and TV shows, mostly playing officious civil servants. I caught myself staring at him. He smiled at me, and introduced himself as Dickie and his friend as Monty. They offered to buy us more beer and asked if we would like something to eat. As we had been living mostly on bread for the week, we accepted gladly.

 

After our meal, and a couple more beers, Dickie and Monty asked if we would like to visit the famous author Paul Bowles, of whom neither of us had heard. We could hardly refuse. Now rather tipsy, we followed our newfound friends through endless back streets, then climbed some winding stairs. Dickie rang the bell of an apartment. A young Moroccan dressed in a djellaba opened the door. There were a few other young men lounging on sofas and a strange smell in the air.

 

My friend and I were introduced to a tall, thin man in his late 40s. He was sitting in a cane chair and smoking a pipe. An African mask was on the wall above him. Ignoring Frog, whose looks had engendered his nickname, he asked me some questions and seemed to take an unusual amount of interest in my naive answers. Then he offered us some peculiar-looking cigarettes. Though neither of us smoked, it would have been impolite to refuse. I took a few puffs, not knowing then that the cigarettes must have been kif, as hashish is known in Morocco.

 

The next thing I knew was that I woke up in a bed wearing a djellaba with nothing underneath. I looked around and saw Frog, fully dressed, dozing in a chair. My clothes were at the foot of the bed. It was early morning. I remember feeling more confused than shocked. I just knew I had to get dressed and out of there as fast as possible. I woke Frog and we made our way quietly out of the bedroom. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. Luckily, the front door was open. We ran out into the street and tried to find our way back to our hotel.

 

I had no recollection of what had happened between my taking the kif and waking up. I asked Frog if he knew, but he didn’t, having fallen asleep after smoking the kif. I still wonder what took place during those few hours after I blacked out. Who had undressed me and put me in a djellaba, and why? Had I been abused? I think I would have known if I had. All I felt on waking up was a rather nasty headache.

 

It was curious, however, that I had eliminated the episode from my conscious mind until it had been aroused by the documentary more than 40 years later. I had heard about repressed and recovered memory, but had always been rather skeptical about it. There was another peculiar side-effect. Ever since the memory came back, I struggle to remember Bowles’s name.

 

Incidentally, I’ve since read everything I could by him in the vain hope that I would appear somewhere in his writings where the mystery would be solved. Bowles’s best writing drew me into an exotic, perverse, nihilistic world in which one of the dominant themes was the destruction of innocence. What impressed me and disturbed me most was his second novel, Let It Come Down (1952), set almost entirely in Tangier among the louche ex-pat community. It ends with the main character, Nelson Dyar, a soulless American high on hashish, hammering a nail into the ear of his sleeping Arab friend.

 

—from The Guardian, Tuesday, December 29, 2009

 

john cheever on why he wrote short stories in his underwear

"a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear"

Why I Write Short Stories

John Cheever

 

To publish a definitive collection of short stories in one’s late 60s seems to me, as an American writer, a traditional and a dignified occasion, eclipsed in no way by the fact that a great many of the stories in my current collection were written in my underwear.

 

This is not to say that I was evera Bohemian. Hardly a man is now alive who can remember when Harold Ross edited The New Yorker magazine, but I am one of these. The Ross editorial queries were genuinely eccentric. In one short story of mine, I invented a character who returned home from work and changed his clothes before dinner. Ross wrote on the galley margin: “Eh? What’s this? Cheever looks to me like a one-suiter.” He was so right. At the space rates he paid, I could afford exactly one suit. In the mornings, I dressed in this and took the elevator to a windowless room in the basement where I worked. Here I hung my suit on a hanger, wrote until nightfall when I dressed and returned to our apartment. A great many of my stories were written in boxer shorts.

 

A collection of short stories appears like a lemon in the current fiction list, which is indeed a garden of love, erotic horseplay and lewd and ancient family history; but so long as we are possessed by experience that is distinguished by its intensity and its episodic nature, we will have the short story in our literature, and without a literature we will, of course, perish. It was F. R. Leavis who said that literature is the first distinction of a civilized man.

 

Who reads short stories? one is asked, and I like to think that they are read by men and women in the dentist’s office, waiting to be called to the chair; they are read on transcontinental plane trips instead of watching a banal and vulgar film spin out the time between our coasts; they are read by discerning and well-informed men and women who seem to feel that narrative fiction can contribute to our understanding of one another and the sometimes bewildering world around us.

 

The novel, in all its greatness, demands at least some passing notice of the classical unities, preserving that mysterious link between esthetics and moral fitness; but to have this unyielding antiquity exclude the newness in our ways of life would be regrettable. This newness is known to some of us through “Star Wars,” to some of us through the melancholy that follows a fielder’s error in the late innings of a ball game. In the pursuit of this newness, contemporary painting seems to have lost the language of the landscape, the still-life, and—most important —the nude. Modern music has been separated from those rhythms and tonalities that are most deeply ingrained in our memories, but literature still possesses the narrative—the story—and one would defend this with one’s life.

 

In the short stories of my esteemed colleagues—and in a few of my own—I find those rented summer houses, those one-night love affairs and those lost key rings that confound traditional esthetics. We are not a nomadic people, but there is more than a hint of this in the spirit of our great country—and the short story is the literature of the nomad.

 

I like to think that the view of a suburban street that I imagine from my window would appeal to a wanderer or to someone familiar with loneliness. Here is a profoundly moving display of nostalgia, vision and love, none of it more than 30 years old, including most of the trees. Here are white columns from the manorial South, brick and timber walls from Elizabethan England, saltbox houses from our great maritime past and flat-roofed echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright and his vision of a day when we would all enjoy solar heating, serene and commodious interiors and peace on earth.

 

The lots are acres, flowers and vegetables grow in the yards and here and there one finds, instead of tomatoes, robust stands of cannabis with its feathery leaf. Here, in this victorious domesticity, the principal crop is a hazardous drug. And what do I see hanging in the Hartshores’ clothes-yard but enough seasoning marijuana to stone a regiment.

 

Is forgetfulness some part of the mysteriousness of life? If I speak to Mr. Hartshore about his cannabis crop, will he tell me that the greatness of Chinese civilization stood foursquare on the fantasies of opium? But it is not I who will speak to Mr. Hartshore. It will be Charlie Dilworth, a very abstemious man who lives in the house next door. He has a No Smoking sign on his front lawn, and his passionate feelings about marijuana have beenintelligently channeled into a sort of reverse blackmail.

 

I hear them litigating late one Saturday afternoon when I have come back from playing touch football with my sons. The light is going. It is autumn. Charlie’s voice is loud and clear and can be heard by anyone interested. “You keep your dogs off my lawn, you cook your steaks in the house, you keep your record player down, you keep your swimming-pool filter off in the evenings and you keep your window shades drawn. Otherwise, I’ll report your drug crop to the police and with my wife’s uncle sitting as judge this month you’ll get at least six months in the can for criminal possession.”

 

They part. Night falls. Here and there a housewife, apprehending the first frost, takes in her house plants while from an Elizabethan, a Nantucket, and a Frank Lloyd Wright chimney comes the marvelous fragrance of wood smoke. You can’t put this scene in a novel.

 

1978

 

—from John Cheever: Collected Stories and Other Writings (Library of America, 2009), pp 996–998. Originally published in Newsweek, October 30, 1978.

horton foote’s the orphan’s home cycle

 


While in New York I saw Part One of Horton Foote’s The Orphans Home Cycle.
All nine plays are set in the fictitious town of Harrison, Texas, which is based on Footre’s hometown of Wharton, Texas.

 

Spanning the lives of three families over three decades, the plays are based in part on the childhood of Foote’s father and the courtship and marriage of his parents. As a boy in the 1920s, Foote (March 14, 1916 – March 4, 2009) routinely eavesdropped on the adults in his small Texas town. The cycle charts the life of Horace Robedaux from the time he is a young boy whose father has died to when his father-in-law dies and he becomes the family patriarch.

 

In a recent review, critic Brendan Lemon wrote that:

 

All the bouquets being bestowed on Horton Foote’s trilogy The Orphans’ Home Cycle, off-Broadway at the Signature, compel me to try to defend it from the hype. The three evenings, each consisting of three one acts, are not “event theatre”, if that phrase means large-scale projects distinguished by inflated claims rather than by artistic achievements. There are longueurs here, but they are of the littlenesses of life, not of inept stagecraft.

 

Daily existence abounds, while death is more pressing than in the finale of Hamlet. These stories covering life in a fictional village in East Texas called Harrison from 1902 to 1928 offer a true nature’s bounty – and bounty is a key concept for Foote, who in a long career (he died this year at 92) wrote not only dozens of plays but also screenplays for The Trip to Bountiful and To Kill A Mockingbird.

 

Orphans’ ache of prosaic occurrence may suggest Our Town, and the family squabbling may conjure up Foote’s friend Tennessee Williams without the heightened lyricism, but Foote’s method is his own. A co-production with Hartford Stage, the first evening of Orphans’ introduces us to the two families, the Robedauxs and the Thorntons, who stand stage-centre in the cycle.

 

Foote, generally known for his Academy Award-winning screenplays for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird and the 1983 film Tender Mercies, and his Academy Award nomination for writing The Trip to Bountiful. He won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play The Young Man From Atlanta. But his legacy must surely be The Orphans Home Cycle, which he finished shortly before his death. The cycle breaks down as follows:

 

Part One, The Story of a Childhood

Roots in a Parched Ground

Convicts

Lily Dale

 

Part Two, The Story of a Marriage

The Widow Claire

Courtship

Valentine’s Day

 

Part Three, The Story of a Family

1918

Cousins

The Death of Papa

 

Here’s Foote’s forward to the cycle’s opening play, Roots in a Parched Ground:

 

THE ACTUAL WRITING of these plays began after my mother’s death in 1974. My father had died the year before in the very room and on the bed my brothers had been born in. After my mother’s death, I was alone in our house in Wharton, Texas for a week, sorting letters and personal papers, making decisions about what to do with the accumulations of fifty-nine years of life in that house.

 

After I returned to my then home in the New Hampshire woods, I began making notes for these plays. I don’t remember if at the time I thought there would eventually be nine plays, but I am sure that the writing of these first notes was prompted by my thinking over my parents’ lives and the world of the town that had surrounded them from birth to death. Some two years later I had finished first drafts of eight of the plays: Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, Lily Dale, Courtship, Valentine’s Day, 1918, Cousins and The Death of Papa. The Widow Claire , the last to be written, was finished some time later.

 

On a trip to New York, I bought all the records of Charles Ives I could find, playing his music over and over while resting from my work on the plays. It was a time of fuel shortages and exorbitantly high fuel prices, and my family and I kept warm in the New Hampshire winter by burning wood in the fireplaces and stoves. In the spring and summer I would write in a screen house overlooking the woods and a large stone wall. My surroundings couldn’t have been more different from the place and time in Texas I was writing about.

 

I don’t remember now, either, the sequence in which I wrote the plays, but I believe 1918 was the first completed, although an earlier version of Roots in a Parched Ground had been written years before and done on the Du Pont Play of the Month television series, long before I thought of the possibility of there being nine plays or could have imagined the changes that would lead to my living and working in New Hampshire.

 

Change, however, was an early acquaintance in my life. My grandfather, who seemed impervious to all mortal ends, died when I was nine, and the reverberations and changes from that death continued for many years. It was soon after that I was to see a quiet, serene street (in front of my grandparents’ house) begin its slow but steady descent into a metaphor for all the ugly, trashy highways that scar a great deal of small-town America. And these plays, I feel, are about change, unexpected, unasked for, unwanted, but to be faced and dealt with or else we sink into despair or a hopeless longing for a life that is gone.

My first memory was of stories about the past—a past that, according to the storytellers, was superior in every way to the life then being lived. It didn’t take me long, however, to understand that the present was all we had, for the past was gone and nothing could be done about it.

 

I learned, too, how unreliable memory can be, for when members of my family would recount a story from their collective past, I would early on marvel how subtly it would change from storyteller to storyteller.

 

The time of the plays is a harsh time. They begin in 1902, a time of far-reaching social and economic change in Texas. The aftermath of Reconstruction and its passions had brought about a white man’s union to prevent blacks from voting in local and state elections. But in spite of political and social acts to hold onto the past, a way of life was over, and the practical, the pragmatic were scrambling to form a new economic order. Black men and women were alive who knew the agony of slavery, and white men and women were alive who had owned them. I remember the first time slavery had a concrete face for me. I was on a fourteen-mile hike to complete some phase of becoming a Boy Scout. I stopped in a country store for a bottle of soda water and on the gallery of the store was an elderly black man. As I drank my soda water we got to talking and he asked me my name, and when I told him he said he had been a slave on my great-great-grandfather’s plantation. I have never forgotten the impact that made on me. Slavery up until then was merely an abstract statistic that I’d heard older people talking about. "Our family had one hundred sixty slaves, one hundred twenty …" or whatever, but as I looked into that man’s tired, sorrowing face, I was shocked to realize that this abstraction spoken of so lightly ("we were good to them," "we never mistreated them") was a living, suffering human being. The tales of the past had a new reality for me after that.

 

And so with the 1918 influenza epidemic, which causes such havoc in the play 1918 . I was raised on stories of the terror of the flu, what it did to my family and to the families of the town, but it seemed only a local phenomenonto me until I read Katherine Anne Porter’s "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" and I began to understand how far-reaching it was. Since the productions of 1918 , 1 have heard from many people telling me how it affected their lives or the lives of their families.

 

All the plays are based on family stories—stories often of dislocation, sibling rivalries, delopements, family estrangements, family reconciliations, and all the minutiae that make family life at once so interesting and yet at times so burdening, causing a reaction described by Katherine Anne Porter in "Old Mortality": Her mind closed stubbornly against remembering, not the past, but the legends of the past, other people’s memory of the past, at which she had spent her life peering in wonder like a child at a magic lantern show. Oh, but there is my own life to come yet, she thought, my own life now and beyond. I don’t want any promises, I won’t have false hopes, I won’t be romantic about myself, I can’t live in this world any longer, she told herself listening to the voices back of her. Let them tell their stories to each other. Let them go on exploring how things happened. I don’t care. At least I can know the truth about what happened to me, she assured herself, silently making a promise to herself in her hopefulness, in her ignorance.

 

But many of us do care, of course, and we do continue to remember, and we give to our children and their children our versions of what has gone before, remembering always how unreliable a thing memory is and how our versions of what has gone before can only be what we have come to perceive the past and its people and stories to be. To quote Miss Porter again: By the time the writer has reached the end of a story, he has lived it at least three times—first, in a series of actual events that, directly or indirectly, have continued to set up the condition in his mind and senses that causes him to write the story; second, in memory; and third, on re-creation of this chaotic stuff.

 

I have worked on the plays for about ten years, from the first drafts to the forms found here, during various readings, staged readings, andtheater productions, in and out of New York. But essentially the plays have remained the same, some with no revisions whatsoever.

 

Here, then, are the first four of the plays, their stories and characters, I hope, true to their place and time—true at least to my memory of what I was told or have seen.

 

—Horton Foote

March 1988
 

Roots in a Parched Ground may be downloaded here.

 

 

a bit more on stanley crawford’s log of the s.s. the mrs unguentine

Reading Stanley Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine
Ben Marcus

1972 was a difficult year for the novel. This might—and perhaps should—be said of all years and times, since the novel is forever, genetically, finding everything a struggle and all things difficult (I think we’re supposed to be worried when the novel does not do this). But 1972 was particularly special in its overshadowing, domineering, mattering way. It was a year that refused to cede an inch to the make-believe. The merely imaginary might finally have seemed trifling up against some of the defining and grisly moments of the century that collided that year and chewed up every available dose of attention in the culture. 1972, in short, produced the Watergate scandal, the Munich Massacre, and Bloody Sunday. Nixon traveled to China in 1972, and the last U.S. troops finally departed Vietnam. It wasn’t clear that a novel had leverage against all of this atrocity, deceit, transgression, and milestone, let alone a novel posing as a ship’s log, narrated by a widowed ship slave who has witnessed logic-defying architecture, radical ecological invention, and faked a pregnancy while being banished—by her alcoholic, abusive husband—from all land and humanity.

Forget that painting (or sculpture, or the better poetry) was never asked to compete with the news, or to be the news. The novel’s weird burden of relevance—to reflect and anticipate the times, to grab headlines, to be somehow current, while not also disgracing the language—was being shirked all over the place, and Stanley Crawford, already unusually capable of uncoiling his brain and repacking it in his head in a new, gnarled design for every book he wrote, was chief among those writers who seemed siloed in a special, ahistorical field, working with private alchemical tools, producing work just out of tune enough to disrupt the flight of the birds that passed his hideout.

Architectural dreamwork, end-times seascapes so barren they seem cut from the pages of the Bible, coolly-rendered Rube Goldberg apparati, and the crushing sadness that results when you tie your emotional fortunes to a person whose tongue is so fat in his mouth he can barely speak, mark this little masterpiece of a novel. Cast as a soliloquy in the form of a ship’s log, a grief report from someone who has no good insurance she will ever be heard, the novel moves fluidly between its major forms: love song, a treatise on gardening at sea, an argument against the company of others, and a dark science expo for exquisite inventions like a hybrid lichen that makes things invisible. Published by Alfred A. Knopf under the editorial guidance of Gordon Lish, the fiction world’s singular Quixote—a champion of innovative styles and formal ambition—there may have been no better year in which to tuck such an odd, exquisite book. Instead of rushing for relevance and breaking the news, Crawford was taking the oldest news of all—it is strange and alone here, even when we are surrounded by people, and there is a great degree of pain to be felt—and reporting it as nautical confessional. The result, now thirty-six years later, seems to prove that interior news, the news of what it feels like to want too much from another person, will not readily smother under archival dust . . .

—from Ben Marcus’ afterword to Log of the S.S. Mrs Unguentine

The complete text of log of the s.s. mrs unguentine is here