First Interview —
Peter Anastas with Karl Young
Peter Anastas at Action, Inc. 1985
— Karl Young
Interviewer's Introduction and Guide to Format and Organization
This interview begins with a brief biographical summary in italics. I
initially asked Peter several questions in a single paragraph, and we
broke that into parts. Since these and most other questions are short, we've
rubricated the questions so they can be used as guides to the interview. The
interview is long by current standards, and we'll do at least one more. The
rubricated questions should make it easier for readers to find passages that interest
them most. I generally don't do much but ask simple questions. On the few occasions
when I become a little more expansive, I hope the reader will indulge me, and still find
the presentation more manageable than interviews with lengthier questions. I've
reserved most of my editorial comment for the following paragraphs of this introduction.
In some places the questions act as subject heads for longer divisions in the interview.
In other places, they act as subdivisions. When they act as major divisions, a score precedes them.
Peter Anastas likes the interview format. This shouldn't be a surprise, since he has worked
extensively as an oral historian. Interviews have also been an essential part of his profession
as a social worker; and public speaking has been just as essential to his commitment to activism.
At the same time, it is interesting and important to me to note how much of his conversation
makes constant reference to what he reads, suggesting a profound integration of
reading with other activities, which some see as inherently different during this phase of history and
media evolution. It also seems important to me how broad-ranging and free from dogma or bias
his reading has been. One of many ways you could see parts of this interview is as a description of
a long apprenticeship as a writer through reading, performing a partly subliminal criticsm in the
process, and watching language in action — as he used it with the writing of others in his mind,
as he used words himself, as he heard others speak and write, and as he saw the results of such
usage of language. As a running commentary on the role of reading in engaged circumstances: an
application of extensive reading to active life in the heart of a vibrant, if often troubled, community,
Peter's remarks carry more weight than they might under other circumstances.
This helps emphasize several themes in this survey in addition
to the simple presentation of Peter's work as a writer. (I'm certainly not minimizing
that: I published his first major work, "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis,"
in 1972, at a time when a number of these considerations had not taken shape, and,
perhaps curiously to younger readers, we both took a number of social issues
for granted.) Clearly, Peter's "bookishness" didn't get in the way of his social activism,
nor did reading or discussion of what we read act as a substitute for action. In fact,
his activities in the daily lives of his clients as a social worker, and his social and
political activities not only began with reading, but reading and activism did not
lose their interdependency during the decades that followed.
"Role models" have been an essential part of American discourse for decades, and commentators
tend to identify "the millenials," those who have come of age in the last decade (fairly
or not), as more socially conscientious and more responsible than the "generation X"
which preceded them. I would like to see Peter as a forerunner of those who turned
to various forms of social service in the last decade when public demonstrations and
other earlier forms of activism had been effectively suppressed. I'd also like to see him
as an example for the millenials to contemplate, as some of them begin or bring
coherence to their adult lives. It is important not to mislead young people into believing it is
easy to maintain multiple careers. Those who can simultaneously maintain the discipline and
practice necessary to becoming a fully developed poet or novelist while seriously practicing another
demanding profession, be it teaching or social work, are rare. But if young people run into the
wall of responsibility to family and the desire to live a comfortable life while writing, there
are ways they can put their reading to use elsewhere — and perhaps they'll have a decade
to learn basic writing habits which allow them to maintain their skills, collect material, and begin
their most active period of writing after retirement, as Peter has done. Although not given to
complaints, Peter has at times seen his creative life broken, and several decades lost. We can't
know what he would have done if a frivolous law suit had not killed his first major project, and
forced a change of direction. But it may be that the decades of what we might call creative interuption
or extended preparation may have given him — and us — unforseen benefits.
At the same time,
particularly in Charles Olson's centennial year, it seems important to note that Peter's most
important mentor could live in abject poverty and with extreme personal eccentricities,
but still be able to adamantly and unflinchingly carry on the generally unglamorous civic activities
of local politics, from fighting to maintain wetlands at a time when virtually no one in the community
was concerned with environmental issues to the immediate needs of housing for those with
low or no income. AND how he still exerts an influence on local politics, despite the fact that
he, too, went through periods when not only Gloucesterites, but even the writers whom he most
influenced, ignored or belittled what he had to say.
Peter Anastas was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1937. He attended local schools, graduating in 1955 from Gloucester High School, where he edited the school newspaper and was president of the National Honor Society. His father Panos Anastas, a restaurateur, was born in Sparta, Greece, and his mother, Catherine Polisson, was born in Gloucester of native Greek parents.
Anastas attended Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, on scholarship, majoring in English and minoring in Italian, philosophy and classics. While at Bowdoin, he wrote for the student newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient, and was editor of the college literary magazine, the Quill. In 1958, he was named Bertram Louis, Jr. Prize Scholar in English Literature, and in 1959 he was awarded first and second prizes in the Brown Extemporaneous Essay Contest and selected as a commencement speaker (his address was on "The Artist in the Modern World.") During his summers in college, Anastas edited the Cape Ann Summer Sun, published by the Gloucester Daily Times, and worked on the waterfront in Gloucester.
After graduating from Bowdoin in 1959, Anastas lived in Florence, Italy until 1962, where he studied medieval literature at the University of Florence and taught English at the International Academy. While in Florence, Anastas worked as an interpreter-translator at the university's Institute for Physical Chemistry. His translation of Prof. Giorgio Piccardi's The Chemical Basis of Medical Climatology, was published in the U.S. in 1962.
Returning to Gloucester in 1962, Anastas taught English at Rockport High School and Winchester (MA) Senior High School before winning a graduate teaching fellowship to Tufts University, where he studied English and American literature, receiving a master's degree in 1967 with a thesis on the concept of place in the works of Henry David Thoreau.
Between 1967 and 1972, Anastas worked as a free-lance writer, publishing his first book, Glooskap's Children: Encounters with the Penobscot Indians of Maine (Beacon Press, 1973), with photographs by Mark Power. As a result of his experience of poverty in rural Maine, in 1972 Anastas joined the staff of Action, Inc., Gloucester's antipoverty agency, where for thirty years he was a social worker and Director of Advocacy & Housing. For twenty years he was also an adjunct faculty member at North Shore Community College, where he taught English and literature.
During these years Anastas continued to write and publish, contributing a weekly column, "This Side of the Cut," to the Gloucester Daily Times and publishing When Gloucester Was Gloucester: Toward an Oral History of the City (with Peter Parsons and photographs by Mark Power), SIVA DANCING, A MEMOIR, Landscape with Boy, a novella in the Boston University Fiction Series, and Maximus to Gloucester, an annotated edition of the letters and poems of Charles Olson to the editor of the Gloucester Times. In 2002, At the Cut, his memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s, was published by Dogtown Books; and in 2004 Glad Day Books, founded by authors Grace Paley and Robert Nichols, published Broken Trip, a novel of Gloucester in the 1990s. His most recent novel, No Fortunes, set at Bowdoin College and in Gloucester in 1959, was published in 2005 by Back Shore Press, a writers' collaborative, which Anastas co-founded. Anastas has also published fiction and non-fiction in Niobe, The Falmouth Review, Stations One, America One, The Larcom Review, Polis, Split Shift, Cafe; Review, Sulfur, Process and Minutes of the Charles Olson Society.
Anastas is the father of three, Jonathan, an advertising executive in Los Angeles, Rhea, an art historian currently teaching at USC, and Benjamin, a writer who has published three novels. Having retired from social work in 2002 to devote full time to writing, Anastas continues to live in Gloucester, where he is an activist for waterfront preservation and sustainable development.
What were some of your early influences and interests? Let's start with one of your annotated bibliographies, in biographical format.
Steinbeck and Hemingway had a great impact on me in high school, along with my early reading of science fiction in 7th and 8th grade, beginning with Jules Verne, when I was twelve years old, and ending with Walter M. Miller's post-nuclear holocaust novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which I read eight years later, a narrative of intellectual survival I've never been able to forget. I can trace the evolution of my political consciousness back to Grapes of Wrath and my readings in science fiction, Scientific America and popularly written books about Relativity and Quantum Theory constituted the beginnings of my lifelong interest in the world and its workings.
But let me go back to the beginning. I don't ever remember not having books in my life. Each night at bedtime my mother read to my brother and me from Thornton Burgess, the Babar books, Wind in the Willows and the Peter Rabbit series. At the age of five, I taught myself to read. I had picked up the rudiments in kindergarten when I was four; by the time I was in first grade there was no stopping me. My Aunt Helene, who was an elementary school teacher, got me my first library card when I was six years old. This began a lifetime of browsing among what were once the amazing resources of the Sawyer Free Library.
The first books I got out of the library were the Oz series. Once I was in school studying geography and history, I became fascinated with Native American culture. I'd always known about the aboriginal presence in Gloucester and the legend that Vikings touched upon our shores, perhaps even wintering along the Annisquam and Little Rivers near West Gloucester. Elliott Rogers, a family friend who was a local historian and amateur naturalist, told me stories of the town's settlement in 1623 by "planters" out of England's West Country. My first sight of his collection of artifacts from the paleo and archaic periods of Indian inhabitation initiated a lifelong interest in these peoples, and I began to read everything I could find in the library about how Indians lived and what they made. The Holling C. Holling books, with their beautiful illustrations, opened windows to me not only on Eastern and Adena cultures but on the earliest inhabitants of the entire North American continent.
When we studied "Cave Men" in school, prehistory also held me. This led to a subsequent passion for the Ancient Egyptians and the Greeks. I found books for young readers about Egyptian religion and the Peloponesian wars, yearning for the time when I would turn fourteen and be allowed to use the adult section of the library. Meanwhile, teachers lent me more advanced texts or my mother or aunt would borrow what I wanted from the main library using their own cards.
This was when I fell in love with mythology and devoured the Bullfinch books recounting Greek and Roman myths and legends. At the same time, I read about the settlement of the American frontier, about pioneer life, always with an eye on how people survived, how they got their food and cooked it, how they built houses and raised crops. I became fascinated with process and the records of daily life among the various peoples of the earth.
Although I remember a wonderful thick, green, clothbound book of illustrated short stories Aunt Helene gave me when I was recuperating from an attack of the mumps, I can't recall reading much fiction until sixth grade when we were assigned books in the Illustrated Classics series, including Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans and Stevenson's Kidnapped. N. C. Wyeth's dramatically colored illustrations established ur-images for me of Cooper's characters, bringing woodsmen and Indians to life in a way that was only rivaled by images in the movies we saw each Saturday afternoon at the Strand and North Shore theaters on Main Street, beginning with the last years of the Second War.
In seventh grade a new interest in science, cultivated largely by my teacher Lovell Parsons, sent me not to science books at first but to science fiction. After reading my way through Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, I began reading Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles along with some of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy novels of the time like L. Sprague De Camp's Genus Homo and John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids. Novels like these seemed to satisfy my need to understand how science entered our lives and my curiosity about social relations, especially sexual ones. I still read simplified versions of Einstein's theory of relativity, devouring each monthly issue of Scientific American even though I barely understood the technical articles. But reading adult science fiction novels helped me find answers to the things I was beginning to ask myself like, where do we come from and what does life mean? Encountering what was then called "the love interest" in those novels provided analogues to the things I was feeling about my body and this helped me to understand what the crushes I was getting on girls meant.
By high school I was reading serious fiction, not simply the novels we had been assigned to read by Dickens or George Eliot, but all of Steinbeck and Hemingway I could get my hands on. I read an occasional best-seller like The Caine Mutiny; but mostly I stuck to the classics of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I didn't discover these books by myself. As I've described in my memoir Siva Dancing, it was my chance meeting with a young woman painter after our family moved from the Boulevard to Rocky Neck in 1951 that opened the world of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky to me, along with the novels of Thomas Wolfe that overwhelmed me with their torrents of feeling.
Virginia Whittingham was a contemporary artist, barely out of school herself. I met her at the counter of my father's luncheonette and S. S. Pierce grocery store, where I began to work during the summer between Central Grammar and Gloucester High School. When she learned that I loved to read, expressing an amazement that I was trying at that time to get through Zimmer's Philosophies of India, Virginia wrote out a list of novels she thought I might enjoy. It included Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, all of which I eventually read with immense pleasure and interest. Virginia's list also included American novelists like Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson and Thomas Wolfe. Perhaps today it might not be possible to understand the impact on a thirteen year old boy of these texts. Quite literally they changed my way not only of looking at the world but of being in it. Reading the novels Virginia had suggested made me the person I am today, and though I never saw or heard from her again (if she's still alive I suspect she would be in her eighties) I cannot begin to say how grateful I am to her for taking the time, those many years ago, to write out a simple lists of books for a boy to read, books that changed his life. With her long, ash-blond hair, Virginia was stunningly beautiful, and a fine painter. Discussing art with her throughout an entire summer started me on another lifetime fascination with the visual. Naturally I had a crush on her, but I've already written about that in my memoir Siva Dancing.
The novels I began to read that summer before high school and the ones I continued to read throughout my secondary education were crucial to me; but there is another source of my reading that is equally significant. That was the Book Find Club, founded by the progressive publisher George Braziller. I first joined the club in 1951, when I saw a membership offer advertised in Scientific American. It was the usual book club offer — if you bought one book and joined the club you got another book or two free. To me, who was just beginning to collect books, this seemed like manna from heaven. Also, the titles of the books intrigued me. Many were scientific; in fact, I began my membership with W. P. D. Wightman's The Growth of Scientific Ideas and George Gaylord Simpson's The Meaning of Evolution, both from Yale University Press. But the club also offered literary titles along with its list of political, sociological and philosophical books, all of them new.
It was through the Book Find Club, which I was later to learn had been investigated by the House Un-American Activities committee for offering its members "subversive" books,
that I began to branch out in my reading. Henry Steele Commager's attack on McCarthyism, Freedom,
Loyalty and Dissent,
was probably my first foray into political analysis. I also read C. Wright Mills' White Collar, along
with Emanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision (the renegade psychiatrist's assertion that life on
this planet sprung from living matter brought to earth by crashing asteroids, much abused until recently,
may well be proven true by the discovery of microorganisms in asteroids found in Antarctica
and suspected to be from Mars.)
This may seem like heady reading for an adolescent; but I had nearly ten years of practice behind me when I first opened the pages of these attractively designed books, which arrived regularly each month. I was responsible for scarcely more than $1.98 in costs if I didn't return the announcement card in time. But I wanted the books — I could certainly afford them out of the small salary my father paid me each week. I wanted them to read and I wanted them to stand side by side in the antique Victorian bookcase my mother had bought for me at an estate auction. I was beginning to love books for themselves as much as for what they contained.
Other books of significance that I got from the club were Carlton Coon's The Story of Man and C.W. Ceram's Gods, Graves and Scholars. Although I would later reject Coon's racist anthropology, his was the first book that gave me a systematic sense of how we came "up from the ape," in the words of another Book Find author, Ernest Hooten. Ceram's book, however, opened up an entirely new avenue of interest for me in archaeology and ancient languages, combining my prior fascination with Egyptian and Greek origins with a glimpse into Central American cultures that I knew little about. Ever since, archaeology has been one of my chief loves.
I've said that the club also offered more purely literary texts, including autobiographies like Sean O'Casey's Sunset and Evening Star. It was through the club that I discovered the stories of J. D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. I suspect that these two books were among the first literary fiction by living authors I read beyond Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck's East of Eden, both published when I was still in high school (I reviewed The Old Man and the Sea for The Beacon, the school's literary magazine). Reading Salinger helped me see that I, too, could write about growing up, using the language that people employed in daily life and not the formal rhetoric we were subjected to in the reading we did for our English classes.
There must have been some dissonance for me then, perhaps a conflict between the demands of the classroom and its more traditional texts and the reading I did on my own that took me right into the heart of my own times — the politics, the literature, the sociology and science. In retrospect, I think I managed the separation because I had always considered my own private reading to be more important than what was assigned to us in school. I did my assignments, and I was a pretty good and competent student; but my real life was always in my own books and in the pursuit of those interests that were never satisfied by any school.
Still, I don't mean merely to list the books I read in high school that had such an influence on me. What I want to do before I speak about my college reading is to note that encountering these books helped me to establish and explore the social and intellectual themes I continue to pursue today; they helped to lay the foundation of the life of my mind. I've never stopped reading in ancient history and archaeology or in science, particularly neurobiology and physics; I still read in politics and political science, even in sociology, although much less than I did in the 1960s. All this was made possible though a simple advertisement in Scientific American that led me to the Book Find Club, and those books that helped me move from adolescence into the adult world of ideas.
In college I began the systematic study of literature. Many of the books that were assigned to us for class were also books that had a profound influence on me, although I continued to read on my own even more than I had done so previously. This was made possible because the Bowdoin College library was everything one sought in a library. I can't recall ever being unable to find any book I wanted in that vast collection. Through an aggressive acquisition policy the library also kept up with contemporary British and American writing, so that I was able early on to read such Beat classics as Clellon Holmes' Go and novels by the Angry Young Men of Britain like John Wain's Hurry on Down and Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim. It was also at this time that I began eagerly to devour the early volumes of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet as each appeared. Sadly neglected today, their exquisite prose inspired many of us to become writers, indeed, to travel beyond the narrow literary and intellectual confines of America.
The first two books we read in novelist Stephen Minot's freshman composition course during the fall of 1955, Thoreau's Walden and Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, have remained books that I return to constantly. Reading Thoreau for the first time, beyond excerpts in our high school textbook on American literature, helped me to understand my own need for solitude and my deep connection with the natural world. Jewett, whom at first I resisted because of her subtlety, became the first localist who caught my attention, nurturing my love for a Maine landscape I would respond to for the rest of my life and showing me how one might write about one's home country.
While these books had some immediate meaning for me, it was later in life that I would find their resonance of deeper importance. But the books which had the greatest impact upon me were those I discovered for myself in the library and in the remarkable off-campus bookstore operated by Carl Apollonio, a Korean war veteran and history major, who had returned to college on the GI Bill. At Carl's I literally found the books that were to have the profoundest intellectual influence on me, including books by Walter Kaufmann and William Barrett about the Existentialists that changed the shape of my life and set me on a personal and philosophical journey that continues today.
I can't begin to describe the impact on me of first reading Sartre's Nausea in that early New Directions cloth bound edition, which I still possess. Other students were reading Camus in the classroom by then and I read The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall with absorption, later picking up his philosophical essays, The Myth of Sisyphus and The Rebel, which had just been issued in the Vintage paperback library. But it was Sartre's grittier vision of alienation that I ultimately connected with, reading everything I could find in English by him and straining my elementary French to comprehend the original when no translations were available. This is not the place for a digression on Sartre's philosophical and political influence on me. Let me simply indicate that of the handful of writers and thinkers who have shaped my own mind, Sartre is among the foremost and remains so today.
I should, however, add a note about the paperback explosion that happened just about the same time as I entered college. Although by high school I owned a few books in the Mentor paperback series, notably E.V. Rieu's fine prose translation of The Odyssey and Ortega Y Gasset's The Revolt of the Masses, which I had picked off the magazine rack in my father's store, I had not begun to purchase other inexpensive editions of classics that were becoming readily available then. What started me on the creation of my paperback library was my purchase during the summer between high school and college of C. Day Lewis's wonderfully readable translation of The Aeneid in the Anchor Books series, which I had just studied in my fourth year Latin class.
I bought that book at a little bookshop in Rockport, Massachusetts called The Mariner's Bookstall. I mention it because, along with Brown's Book Store in Gloucester it was the only bookstore I knew. And Mariner's began to stock copies of most of the new paperback imprints that were then coming on the market, including Anchor Books and the Vintage series. To be able to buy a classic for as little as eight-five cents was a tremendous gift for young people like me, who were just getting started collecting and reading books. And once I was in college I doubt that a day went buy during my first year or two when I wasn't in Carl's bookstore picking up yet another translation of Homer or Dante or deep in discussion with Carl or certain members of the group of local artists and intellectuals who lived in and around the college community. We talked about Sartre, of course, and Spengler; we read and discussed the new fiction that was beginning to come out of England, novels by John Wain and John Braine, by Kingsley Amis and Alan Sillitoe. And of course we debated the Beats endlessly. I'd read Kerouac and Ginsberg by then and was utterly in the thrall of the Beat rebellion (see my blog essay on the 50th anniversary of Kerouac's On the Road: http://peteranastas.blogspot.com/2007/10/on-road-fifty-years-later
Slowly I amassed a library of books, many of which I still own. By the time I entered college I had stopped my membership in the Book Find Club, which soon ceased operating. Carl gave me a discount on whatever I bought from him. And what I bought was mostly paperback editions of books of such diverse subject matter as Loren Eiseley's The Immense Journey and Zeller's Outlines of the History of Greek Philosophy. Naturally I overspent my budget, which consisted of the money I earned during the summer and an "allowance" my parents sent me regularly to help with extra expenses. Needless to say those "extra expenses" were generally for books, for I had little else to buy at the time. By sophomore year I was earning pocket money playing piano during the weekend in a small dance band at the Officer's Club of the Brunswick Naval Air Station and working at the library, where I continued to work through the rest of my college career, not only because of the pay but also because it gave me unlimited access to more books.
Looking back on my reading between 1955 and 1959, my undergraduate years, I can only say that it was not uncommon for me to read a book a day, many of them not required for any course I took. Certainly I read books that my professors in English, history and philosophy, or in the Greek, Latin, French and Italian literature I also studied, suggested as outside reading. Titles that come to mind would be Lionel Trilling's book on Arnold or certain volumes in Toynbee's great series (which I've never finished). I also read Clive Bell on the post-impressionists and Herbert Read's ground breaking essays on Cubism and Surrealism in The Theory of Modern Art.
Then there were the poets we studied in class and those we read on our own — Rimbaud, Verlaine, cummings, Pound (a special favorite), Stevens and later the Beats. And the modernist novelists who came to mean so much to me: Joyce, Proust, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Celine. There were books like Arturo Barea's memoirs of the Spanish Civil War and Hermann Broch's the The Death of Virgil, books I came across in my wanderings through the library stacks on idle afternoons or late nights when the library was closed and I had its treasures all to myself. These are books I pick out of my memory or as I walk past one of my book cases and catch sight of the actual volume I bought in those years, books like The Recognitions by William Gaddis or John Rechy's City of Night. They also include Colin Wilson's The Outsider, LeComte du Nouy's Human Destiny and Denis de Rougment's Love in the Western World, books that our teachers disparaged but that some of us read with interest and excitement. To this day certain eccentric writers or visionary thinkers, like Leo Stein or Marshall McLuhan, not to speak of the great individualists like Henry Miller, continue to hold my interest. It is the rebel in me that attracts me to them and the fact that I take what I need from the books I read no matter what the received critical opinion or judgment might be.
Speaking of rebels, my political education began not with Marx but with John Dos Passos' USA, which had been assigned to me in a seminar on American writers required for English majors. Reading Dos Passos I first became acquainted with native radicals like Randolph Bourne, whose essays on war and cultural renewal had a profound impact upon me. And my continuing induction into the most contemporary and avant-garde writing was through the pages of the Evergreen Review, where I discovered the works of Samuel Beckett and the philosopher E. M. Cioran and rediscovered Charles Olson, the poet who was living in my home town at the very moment I read his seminal essay, "Human Universe" in the review.
I should also mention the profound influence upon me of D. H. Lawrence, particularly during my last two years in college when I chose to write my senior thesis on Lawrence and myth, concentrating particularly on his Mexican novel, The Plumed Serpent. Introduced to Lawrence in Lawrence Sargent Hall's course in modern literature, I began to read everything by him I could lay my hands on, even a splendid copy of the original 1928 Florence edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover, housed in the rare book room of the library. But it was not the sexual in Lawrence that attracted me so much — after all, I had read Miller's Tropics in the Obelisk Press editions friends had brought back from France. What I loved in Lawrence was his evocations of places in the world, his north of England, Italy and the American Southwest, which I would later travel to myself literally because of the way Lawrence had described New Mexico. I was also attracted to Lawrence's life, to the way he and Frieda traveled like Gypsies from place to place, the way he appeared to write effortlessly at the kitchen table while dinner was being prepared, the way he seemed to penetrate the psychology of human relationships, which I had long puzzled over and began to write about myself in my first attempts at a novel. Lawrence seemed then to me the very model for the kind of writer I wished to be, itinerant and urbane like Hemingway, a linguist like Pound, an expatriate; for I had also read the major Lost Generation writers, Fitzgerald, McAlmon and their precursors in Paris like Gertrude Stein, and the option of living outside of one's country and culture seemed a compelling one.
Lawrence, the working class intellectual, who was alienated both from his own class and from the culture he grew up in, along with the literary society that should have provided a sustaining environment, attracted me deeply, not only as a writer but as a person, restlessly moving from Nottinghamshire to Germany, from Italy to Ceylon, Australia and the American Southwest, ultimately dying in the South of France. The Lawrence who also interested me was the Lawrence who wrote, "At times one is forced essentially to be a hermit," adding: "Yet here I am, nowhere, as it were, and infinitely an outsider."
My deep study of Lawrence in my solitary room on 83 Federal Street, during my final year in college, prepared me for the senior thesis I was expected to submit as partial fulfillment of the graduation requirements for an English major. I chose The Plumed Serpent, not one of Lawrence's most successful or highly acclaimed novels, but one which interested me because of its mythic substructure. For as a student of Dante I was also interested in myth and symbol and the creation of anagogic structures of belief.
By, then, I was already pointed toward Europe. Lawrence's travel books on Italy and
Sardinia delighted me. I also read Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli and Words
Are Stones in translation and Paura della Liberta`, his book about the myth of
fascism and the fear of the terrible responsibility of freedom that attracts people to
authoritarian regimes, in the original. Levi, a physician, writer, painter and political activist,
seemed yet another example of the urbane, multi-faceted European intellectuals I found so
attractive. Levi's descriptions of Italy during and after the war drew me to the country as a
whole, just as reading Dante had drawn me in particular to the city of Florence.
I suspect the turn to Europe was already implicit the moment I read Sartre. I knew that my genetic and intellectual roots lay there. It was only a question of how to manage the trip with military service hanging over my head. An announcement posted in the library from the University of Florence offering courses in Dante and Renaissance culture and history in Italian to foreign students caught my attention. I applied and was accepted. So long as I continued to be a student I would be exempt from the draft.
Ironically, it was not in Italy but in my own neighborhood that I first learned about the single most important Italian writer of my life. During the summer before I left for Europe I befriended a young Italian graphic artist named Emiliano Sorrini, who had come to Gloucester to work with the painter Leonard Creo before moving on to New York, where he hoped to settle with his American wife. When Lenny introduced me to Emiliano it was with the hope that we could exchange language lessons with each other. Of course I jumped at the opportunity to practice my spoken Italian, and Emiliano whose English was already good proved to be a challenging student. Like many of the Italian artists I would later meet, Emiliano was also a reader — indeed, he was an intellectual with a deep understanding of the major political and cultural issues of the time. He had met Alberto Moravia and he knew Carlo Levi personally. But his favorite contemporary Italian writer was Cesare Pavese, of whom I knew nothing.
"If you love Moravia," he told me, "you will die for Pavese." And he advised me not to seek out translations in English, which he had been told were poor, but to wait until I arrived in Italy to buy and read Pavese in the original.
As soon as I arrived in Rome — even before I looked Lenny up in his studio on the Via del Babuino — I visited a nearby bookshop and bought my first Pavese novel, the violently neo-realistic Il Compagno, thus initiating one of the profoundest literary and intellectual experiences of my life. Once I was settled at the Pensione Cordova on Via Cavour in Florence, I went out and on the strength of that first novel bought all of Pavese's works in print, that is everything he had published.
Thus began another of those divided experiences for me. While I studied Dante, Medieval literature and Renaissance culture at the university by day, I read the poems, stories, essays, diaries and novels of Pavese by night. By the time I had arrived in Firenze, just at the time of my22nd birthday on November 15, 1959, my Italian reading comprehension was good. But after a few months of classroom lectures, almost nightly film going, conversations with fellow students and friends in the pensione, not to mention my daily readings of newspapers and magazines, I was able to read Italian practically without the help of a dictionary. I will have more to say about Pavese, when we speak about my time in Italy and about my political education.
Let's start with some major concentrations. What was important to you about reading Pound and studying Dante?
It was Pound who led me to Dante, and that journey began when I was 18 years old, a freshman in college. As a high school student I knew very little about contemporary verse. It wasn't taught in our literature courses, and what I had come up with in my browsing at the library was Whitman's Leaves of Grass, a couple of volumes by Amy Lowell and some poems by Yeats I wasn't yet ready for. Up to that point, the only living poet whose name I knew was Robert Frost. Frost came to Gloucester to speak as part of the Cape Ann Festival of the Arts when I was in high school, and I later met him at the home of Hyde Cox, the president of the Historical Association and a long-time friend of Frost's. We'd read Frost in eighth grade, the usual chestnuts (not unfortunately "After Apple Picking" or "Neither Out Far Nor in Deep," which later excited me); and when I met him face to face I found him repetitive, though I admit to being impressed by his fame and the fact that I, a small town boy, was actually in his company. I was playing jazz and beginning to listen to avant-garde music — Schoenberg, Berg, Webern, some early Elliott Carter — and I was looking for poetry that moved me like the music or the abstract art I was experiencing on Rocky Neck, in East Gloucester, where we had moved in 1951 after my father opened a luncheonette and S. S. Pierce gourmet grocery store. Rocky Neck was America's oldest art colony. At the time we lived there, a number of fine contemporary artists spent their summers painting not far from our house and my brother and I wandered frequently into their studies and galleries and were befriended by them.
It was in one of those galleries that I actually discovered contemporary poetry. Just down the street from our house ceramicists Kalman Kubinyi and his wife Doris Hall owned a gallery and coffee house. Along with their own work and the paintings they exhibited by artist friends, they had a number of literary magazines and reviews spread out for sale on a table. Among them was the first issue of Four Winds, a little magazine of poetry, prose and visual art that had just been published in Gloucester, edited by Vincent Ferrini and his wife Margaret. I snapped it up immediately and took it home, thus beginning my apprenticeship in modern poetry.
That first issue, which I still own, featured a Maximus poem by Olson, which I couldn't understand, along with poems by Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Cid Corman and Ferrini himself that I found both intelligible and exciting. There were a couple of marvelous oblique short stories and reproductions of paintings and drawings, one by the Paris-born Yugoslavian artist Albert Alcalay, who would soon begin spending summers on Rocky Neck with his wife Vera and sons Ammiel and Leor. And it would be Albert who would later introduce me to the most innovative contemporary painting, while pointing me to European avant-garde writing as featured in Botteghe Oscure, the international literary review published in Rome by Marguerite Caetani and highlighting such writers as Giorgio Bassani, Umberto Saba, Eugenio Montale, Carlo Levi and Ewe Johnson that would later be of great importance to me.
Reading Four Winds sent me to Ferrini's picture framing shop, located not far from Rocky Neck, in a shed on East Main Street at the rear of the building Vincent later made his home in. Late one afternoon in early September, on my way home from school, I poked my head in the door and a welcoming face turned from the table saw. Eyes lit up, the saw was shut off, and I received the first of thousands of strong handshakes I would be getting from Vincent the rest of my life.
I told Vincent I'd been reading Four Winds and I was interested in poetry. When he asked me who I was reading, I could only come up with names like Whitman and Yeats.
"Yes, yes," he said, not impatiently, "but who are you reading who's living — who's alive?"
I was at a loss for words.
"Let's begin," Ferrini said, grabbing some volumes down from what I observed were shelves stuffed with books of poetry.
That day Vincent introduced me to the early imagist work of Ezra Pound, to Williams' Paterson, and I began to visit him regularly to talk about poetry and about life. He never asked my name initially. It was first things first with Vincent, then as always; and poetry was Number One.
Later it turned out he knew my father; and even later we talked about our common roots in the Mediterranean, his in Italy, mine in Greece.
Still, I will never forget those early years of our friendship, when I was in high school and Vincent was so accessible, a storehouse of information about poets and poetry on my way home from the very place that was supposed to teach me about those subjects but only ended up boring me.
When I got to college I immediately began searching through the library and the bookstore for new poetry. I bought cummings' i: Six Non-Lectures at Carl's bookstore and learned from cummings about the poets, both ancient and modern, that had shaped his art. I also bought Pound's Personae and Cantos (I still have both volumes). I was getting a small weekly allowance from home for laundry expenses and, as I've said, I would shortly begin earning a couple of dollars playing jazz and cocktail piano weekends in local bars and at the Officer's Club at the Brunswick Naval Air Station, close by the campus. All that money went into books, as my money still does today, fifty years later.
While I can't claim to have instantly understood Pound, I knew from the few poems Vincent had read to me that I was in the presence of important poetry. More than that, I knew Pound was the kind of writer, the kind of mind, I resonated with, as I was later to become close to Olson. I was reading Catullus in Latin class and Pound's versions of Propertius excited me. I was also drawn to Pound's mastery of languages and to his absorption in Medieval literature. I soon discovered The Spirit of Romance, which led me to Dante.
I bought the Portable Dante and began my first reading of the Commedia, resolving
to study Italian, which I did, two years later, finally reading Dante in the original with Jeff Carre,
my Italian professor, who had read Dante with Charles Singleton. I'll never forget those
extraordinary afternoons in Jeff's office when just two of us sat down with him for nearly a year,
reading our way excitedly from the Sicilian School and the Stil Novisti through the entire
Commedia, practically line by line.
By that time, it was clear to me that in order truly to understand Dante I had to immerse
myself in the very ground of his opus, the city of Florence and its history. I decided to travel to Italy
after graduation, to study Medieval literature at the University of Florence. My decision was based
almost entirely on my interest in Pound and the fact that he had lived for so long in Italy and also
on my readings of Hemingway's Italian stories and
A Farewell to Arms. Equally, my reading in the Lost Generation writers and their lives in
Paris during the 1920s, coupled with my own growing sense of alienation from my own country,
kindled a desire on my part to experience the same kind of expatriation that had fueled the
experimental work of Pound and Hemingway's powerful early stories. I felt I needed to get out of
America and away from my family.
I'd studied Italian to better understand the quotations in Italian in Pound's Cantos,
just as I studied Greek and later, in Italy, Romance Philology. I never became a Pound scholar, though
I did visit Pound in September of 1960 at his son-in-law's castle, Schloss Brunenberg, with my friend,
Peter Denzer, who was writing a novel based on Pound's exile in Italy. It's was Pound's life that
drew me as much as his poetry, and of course by then I had plunged deeply into the stream of
Modernism. As much as I loved his poetry, Pound's fascist politics disturbed me, especially after
I'd met Olson, who filled me in on the broadcasts Pound made from Rome radio during the war.
And once I was living in Italy and had met people who'd known Pound it was clear that fascism
for him had not been an aberration but a deeply held belief, though in our brief encounter in that
castle near Merano Pound said little. He and Peter talked of mutual friends like James Laughlin,
who'd finessed Peter's visit to Pound, before Noel Stock, Pound's biographer and gate-keeper,
ushered us out of the medieval castle that dominated the valley. It was late September and I
remember that the vendemmia, the grape harvest, was underway and all around us, as we
made our way from the castle back up the hill to the gasthaus, where we were staying, were
these enormous wooden barrels of white grapes on wagons drawn by oxen out of which the superb
pino grigio wine of the Alto Adige would be made. By the time I had found him, Pound was an
exhausted old man, who had effectively taken a vow of silence, though the Pisan Cantos would
continue to blaze their way through my mind.
At the university in Florence I attended lectures on Dante and his times by the great humanist scholar Eugenio Garin. I also took courses in Medieval literature and Renaissance art and history. But it was the living breathing contemporary Italy, where Dante's dialect could still be heard in the ancient neighborhoods of Florence, that drew me — the politics in the street, as young communists clashed with neo-fascists, the explosiveness of Antonioni's films, Pasolini's novels and films, and the astounding abstract paintings of Vedova and Scanavino — coupled with fact that as soon as I was away from home all I wanted to do was write, not only about what I had left behind but what I was experiencing daily. Relegating my studies to a few mornings a week, I got a job teaching English at night and I began writing my first novel, "From What Bone," about a young Greek-American, who travels to his father's home village in the Peloponnesus in search of his past (see "A Disturbance of Memory on the Acropolis," Stations One, 1972).
It wasn't until I had returned home to Gloucester three years later that I resumed the study of Dante — ironically after I had decided not to pursue doctoral work in Italian at Berkeley. And that was because under Olson's tutelage I began to look at my own hometown, Gloucester, through Dantean eyes, while discovering the underpinning of the Commedia both in the Cantos and Olson's Maximus Poems.
What has been the influence of Charles Olson on your life and work?
There are certain people in our lives, writers we have read or people we have encountered or known personally, who have, in a sense, given us the world, opened us to ways of looking at the world or understanding our own lives in ways that might never have been possible if we had never met them. Charles Olson was one such person for me, both in terms of our friendship and through his writings.
Olson helped me to understand what it meant for someone like me to have been born and grown up in a singular American place like Gloucester, Massachusetts. He had the ability to peel back the layers of time in a locale, a neighborhood, a single house even, a patch of forest, a moraine landscape, to reveal the depths and dimensions of its history. Olson helped me see that Gloucester was not simply the oldest fishing port in America and, as such, an archetypal place of human activity. He also helped me see that Gloucester was a continually evolving ecosphere, and that an understanding of the rich and complex ecology of my home town and the woods and fields that surrounded it led to an understanding of the natural history, geography and ecology of the larger world.
With respect to writing itself, the most important lesson I learned from Olson was that writers, be they poets or prose writers, should pay attention to what he called "the literal" as against "the literary." By this Olson meant that one need not embellish what one encountered in the world. One need only describe it with exactitude for maximum effect, or as Williams put it, "No ideas but in things."
Olson also encouraged me to study the history of my own town, my region and, indeed, the nation itself, as he had, through the primary documents. Court papers, land transactions in probate, property line surveys, wills and testaments and Quarterly Court records of civil litigation were, for Olson, the ur-texts of history, and as significant as the land itself for reading the passage of human habitation in given places. Maps told him more than narrative histories, though when it came to the narrative he said he found more significance in town histories, written by local historians, than in the dominant works of academic history.
His theory of "saturation," — that you concentrated on one place, one writer, one topic until you had absolutely exhausted it for yourself and therefore prepared yourself henceforth to take on any subject — has proved to be immensely helpful to me in approaching not only the study of individual writers but also of larger topics in literature or history.
Most of all, Olson showed me how to be myself, how to ferret out what lay deep inside me. And he did this by his own example of courage and struggle and by giving me permission to be myself in the way that parents aren't able to do for their children, who often need a mentor to show them the path to further growth and development. Olson modeled the life in art I had always wanted to live. He demonstrated by living in a book-filled $28-dollar-a-month cold-water walkup on Gloucester's waterfront that one did not need to have material wealth in order to pursue the life of the mind. Olson counterposed himself and his ideas against the consumerist culture that was growing around us ("in the midst of plenty/walk/as close to/bare"), noting once, in the pages of the Gloucester Daily Times, "One has to have the strength of a goat, and ultimately smell as bad, to live in the immediate progress of this country."
Finally, it was Olson's activism against Urban Renewal (he called it "Renewal by destruction"), against the loss of Gloucester's historic architecture, against the filling of wetlands and all the "erosions of place," as he called them, that inspired my own activism on behalf of the fishing industry, the preservation of Dogtown Common and against overdevelopment and gentrification. For in the end, my activism and that of those I've worked closely with for over forty years, is about the preservation of place, not only as an idea or ideal but as a real, living, breathing community.
Speak about the roots of your activism.
My activism began with some very conventional community involvement. I was a Junior Rotarian (imagine that!) in high school, which go me into volunteer work, canvassing for charitable causes, helping fishing families who had lost members at sea, and raising money for sports events and art festivals, while meeting a lot of people who, while being quite conservative politically, truly cared for Gloucester as a community and as a place of deep history and remarkable physical beauty.
My first taste of political life began in June 1954 at Boys' State, a week-long summer camp event sponsored annually by the American Legion. Each high school in the state would choose a couple of boys to attend the camp at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. We'd form into towns that elected representatives to an imaginary state legislature. Then we'd elect a governor and state officers, so we'd be replicating the political process, learning how to run for office, how to organize and run a campaign, how to make deals and line up support for our positions. Looking back on that experience, it's now clear to me that it was run by the Legion's right wing political allies, who taught classes in "citizenship" and "American ideals," and ideologically driven by the organization's Cold War agenda. They were trying to indoctrinate us — just boys then, no girls — as young anti-communists (I'm certain I was denied admission to Boys' Nation, the next step up the political ladder from Boys' State, when, during the application interview, I said we should withdraw our forces from Korea). But getting away from Gloucester and spending time on a big university campus was important for me, especially since I discovered a huge book store to roam free in. I remember buying the Modern Library edition of The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, which I still own, and sitting under the trees on the campus during free time reading my very first philosophy. The World as Will and Idea, was my introduction to the philosophy of pessimism in tandem with a formal critique of organized religion and it has continued to be a seminal text for me.
Back in Gloucester, each year we also had a student government day in which high school students literally took the reigns of government, from mayor and city council to health agent, for one day. We'd elect our own mayor, city council and school committee and advance our own student agendas. I participated in this activity for several years, learning a great deal about how local government worked. All this stood me in good stead when I began to confront government years later as an activist.
My first campaign, after I returned home from Europe in 1962, was as part of a group of citizens who were trying to stop the construction of a shopping plaza at the entrance to the city, including a bank branch and a restaurant. Some important people were involved in the campaign, including members of the Cape Ann Historical Association, who wanted to protect what had from colonial times been the town's original village green. We lost, and if you enter Gloucester now from route 128, the first thing you see will be a messy parking lot with a drive-through bank, a Friendly's fast food joint and a Chinese restaurant, not the original welcoming green circled by two of the oldest remaining houses in Gloucester.
A couple of years later I joined a group that worked successfully to raise funds to purchase an area of salt marsh slated for development, also near the entrance to town. Our successful campaign, which we called "Window on the Marsh," brought me into contact with the first environmentally conscious people I'd met. Some of them joined me, in 1967, in a campaign to stop the proposed placement by the Pentagon of a radar base for the Sentinel Anti-Ballistic Missile System on Dogtown Common, the very heart of Cape Ann's wilderness. Just think of such an installation among the terminal moraine boulders that Marsden Hartley had painted and Olson had written about in The Mamimus Poems!
Our campaign was met by furious reaction from many citizens who welcomed a military presence in Gloucester. They called us "Commies," and wrote to the editor of Gloucester Times that if we didn't want missiles to protect us from Russia, we should go and live there. In other words, the whole anti-communist scam. In the end we prevailed and the base was scrapped, along with the entire Sentinel system. But this was at the height of the Vietnam War and I learned how deeply anti-communist, indeed how super- patriotic Gloucester was, a town that hadn't balked at sending its young to die in every war since the Revolution.
I was still in graduate school at Tufts at the time and my wife and I became deeply involved in the anti-war movement, just as we'd previously been involved in civil rights issues (I was seen on Boston TV in 1963, as part of a group of teachers picketing a Hayes Bickford cafeteria in Cambridge that refused to hire Blacks, and it led to my not being rehired as a high school English teacher in Winchester, Massachusetts). I have to admit honestly that I did not at first engage in these activities through my own volition. In fact, I resisted political involvement for a long time. All I wanted to do was write, and I fought any distraction from the writing. But the war was an atrocity. I knew it and I saw my students organizing against it. I supported the ideas and tactics of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), just as I'd contributed to CORE and SNIC earlier. We attended teach-ins and demonstrations on Boston Common and anti-war marches, so that when I left graduate school in 1967 I was primed for anti-war involvement in Gloucester. This came in the form of an amazing group I soon joined of teachers, writers, artists, poets, young professionals and Old Left activists. We called ourselves Cape Ann Concerned Citizens.
We leafleted against the war, we demonstrated, held petition campaigns and brought well-known anti-war activists like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Jerome Letvin to Gloucester to speak. At first we received a lot of opposition, but as the war wore on and local kids were killed, as the costs to taxpayers rose, we found many more people on our side to the extent that the Gloucester City Council unanimously passed a resolution we drafted for immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam.
Attending meetings of the group, working with members who had been active since the 1930s in political and social struggles, editing the group's newsletter, Soundings, and writing about political issues in the local paper, provided me with a political education that prepared me for the next thirty years of activism in Gloucester on behalf of the environment, against an appropriate development, for the preservation of the working waterfront and the support of a viable fishing industry.
That was the work on the ground, but there was an important intellectual dimension of my political life that entailed a period of reading and deep study.
Let me go back for a minute to my years in Italy because the roots my activism surely lie there.
In Florence I was in love with a young woman named Rita, who came from the Abruzzi. She was a fiery Communist with coal black hair and riveting eyes, and she was reading political science at the university. We would go out dancing with a group of friends, architects, painters; or we'd sit in the cafes of Piazza della Repubblica or at Rivoire in Piazza Signoria drinking espresso or cappuccino, reading French and Italian newspapers and talking by the hour about the films we'd just seen by Fellini or Antonioni; the American-influenced novels of Cesare Pavese, those extraordinary narratives of post-war alienation, which the intellectual young had such a passion for then, and still do, I'm told. (I first encountered Pavese just after I arrived in Italy and his books swept me off my feet. The story of his life — his imprisonment by Mussolini for anti-fascist activities, his monumental translation into Italian of Moby-Dick, the prize-winning novels and stories he wrote in a pared down, anti-rhetorical Italian, his struggle with and eventual abandonment of Communism, and finally, his suicide in a dingy hotel in downtown Torino — is one the great tragic stories of modern Europe).
It was the time of the Algerian uprising, when the French "paras," who'd been sent in to quell the insurgency, the violent demonstrations, and to frustrate further anti-colonial actions, began to perpetrate unconscionable brutality on the indigenous population. Petitions were being signed all over Europe against the French response to Algeria's natural desire to be independent. There were demonstrations in solidarity with the Algerian people. It was the main topic of the day. Of course, I had no idea what the struggle was about because I had never thought about colonialism. Imagine! My own country had fought a revolution to throw off the shackles of British rule and I couldn't make the connection. I even defended the presence of America bases in Germany and Italy!
One day Rita and I were alone. We'd taken a walk along the Arno after classes and were sitting in a café near Piazza Beccaria, sipping Punt e Mes under a warm spring sun. The night before we'd been to see Il bell' Antonio, with Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale. Based on a novel by Vitaliano Brancati, the film is about a young upper class Sicilian, who makes love easily with working class girls but becomes impotent with women of his own circle. After some strained talk about the film, during which Rita tried to help me see how Antonio's dilemma was a metaphor for class struggle in Italy, she turned to me. By then we'd only kissed on park benches, or fondled each other fleetingly on the couch in my room in Via dei Servi, always attentive to the presence of my landlady on the other side of the wall.
"I like you, Pietro," Rita said. "And I enjoy spending time together. But you remind me of myself when I was in liceo. We're miles apart politically, and you're still very young emotionally."
The Italian students I met were quite mature; and they were very serious, serious about their studies and serious about politics, about the world. I was serious about literature, about things intellectual, but in retrospect it's clear to me that I didn't know how to be in a mature relationship. And I was in kindergarten politically. I'd never really thought through the myths we were conditioned to accept in school and college; you know, that the United States is the great bearer of democracy, that our intentions toward the world are always honorable, that we are committed to protecting the weak. Though they were grateful to us for our war efforts and for the Marshall Plan that followed, Europeans remained skeptical about our intentions. My Italian friends used to say: "Never mind American rhetoric, just look at your government's behavior!" And when I heard stories about OSS agents with suitcases full of dollar bills buying votes for the Christian Democrats after the war, when it looked as if the Italian Communist Party might actually come to power, the scales began to fall from my eyes, though they didn't fall completely until Vietnam, which was the turning point, as I've said.
After the horror — the obscenity of our actions in Vietnam, the secret wars we waged in Laos and Cambodia, the napalm, the burning of villages, the massacre at My Lai of women and children by American soldiers, the lies about the body counts and about our reasons for intervening — I never felt the same about my government again or about America. You can imagine how I feel now with the country engaged in yet another illegal and unnecessary war, two of them in fact, fought by working class kids, Latinos and Blacks; a war which we lied our way into and which has turned the rest of the world against us. Talk about déjà vu.
In any event, Rita broke up with me. We saw each other from time to time, but it was clear she'd drawn a line. Then I stopped going to class so I could have more time to write. I was teaching at night, so I wanted the day time for writing. I also wanted time for travel and for exploring the vast treasure house of Florentine art. But the fact of the matter was that I needed to grow up. I needed to grow up emotionally and I needed to come to some mature understanding of political life, especially if I wanted to write.
Arriving at such an understanding took several more years, until I was smack in the middle of the antiwar movement as a graduate student, when my wife and I began attending demonstrations, as I've said, and going to teach-ins, really at her urging because she was far more politically engaged than I was. That's when I started reading the major political and social texts of the 19th and 20th century, Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Lenin, Trotsky, Edmund Wilson's To the Finland Station, C. Wright Mills' critiques of American capitalism, and of course all of Herbert Marcuse's books. For years I hardly touched contemporary fiction or poetry. All I read was history and politics. I had to teach myself everything I hadn't learned about the world as a liberal arts student during the Cold War — everything that had been withheld from me by my teachers.
It was the most profound education of my life, this reading of Thorstein Veblen and Randolf Bourne, of Georges Sorel, of Gunnar Myrdal's An American Dilemma, Adorno's The Authoritarian Personality, Ray Ginger's masterful biography of Eugene Debbs. I immersed myself in everything from Schlesinger on FDR to Deutscher on Trotsky. I scoured the major books on the Russian Revolution, from John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World to Adam Ulam's The Bolsheviks. I read Henry Adams on the degradation of democratic dogma and Julian Benda on the betrayal of intellectuals. I read Bertrand de Jouvanel and Ronald Sampson on the nature and psychology of power, Elias Canetti on crowds and power, and Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism. Then I turned to Gramsci's Prison Notebooks. I even read Erich Hoffer's The True Believer. I wanted to explore all sides, take in all views, though what drew me principally were the texts on the Left. I read most of the major American proletarian novels along with Rideout's The Radical Novel in the United States and Daniel Aaron's comprehensive Writers on the Left. I studied the Sacco and Vanzetti case, and I read the Lynds' book on Middletown along with David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd. I also read the writers and analysts of the day — Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and their predecessors, Dwight Macdonald and the Partisan Review and New Masses editors and writers. Then I read Frantz Fanon on racism and colonialist psychology, followed by the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I must also mention Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle and many of the other writings of the Situationist International, which have continued to influence my view of the world, providing me with an analysis, which I still find incredibly today, indeed incredible prescient.
I emerged in the 1970s as a very different person, and, I believe, a more thoughtful one, though not an ideologue. Ideology of any stripe is anathema to me. I'm as suspicious of its temptations — and its excesses — as I am of religion's. I no longer viewed the world through purely literary eyes, no longer trusted anything on its face. I'd finally become a skeptic, which is what my teachers at Bowdoin had always exhorted us to become. But most of all, I came away from my reading in history and politics with a profoundly tragic view of life. What I'd only understood intellectually from studying Shakespeare and the Greeks, that life is essentially transitory in nature and human beings seem doomed to repeat their mistakes, I now experienced viscerally. I'd become a pessimist. It's difficult for me not to believe that human beings seem hell bent on destroying our species or the planet that sustains us, and I have little hope for any change in the trend.
What about your activism after the war in Vietnam?
As the war in Vietnam ended, the members of the Cape Ann Concerned Citizens broadened their interests to include issues of ecology and conservation. Some participated in the New Hampshire Clamshell Alliance that was battling the development of a nuclear power plant in Seabrook. I joined a group which opposed the building of an access road across the Babson watershed in order to gain entry to a proposed industrial park (I always thought the name "industrial park" to be a contradiction in terms). The Fishermen's Wives, a group of wives of local fishermen who had become politically active, also opposed it because, they argued, any threat to the city's water supply would be a threat to the fish processing industry. Proposals for high-end subdivisions and luxury condominiums began to surface as Gloucester was slowly targeted as an "undeveloped" community. Neighborhood groups quickly organized to fight these proposals, many of which were fortunately denied at the permitting level, though there continued to be protracted battles. Natives prized the precious open spaces of Cape Ann and we loved the vistas everyone enjoyed of the waterfront and the ocean. Though we understood that there would clearly be development pressures, as Cape Cod and the southern coast of Maine succumbed to the drive for vacation homes and condominium lifestyles, we also argued that the people of Gloucester should be the primary determiners of their own fate, deciding together which kind of development we needed and where it would be located. A Master Plan was created, with important community input, a process which helped citizens to appreciate the value of open space, productive wetlands, and unimpeded views of the ocean. Though updated at ten year intervals, the plan was infrequently adhered to in the rush to develop that grew in the 1980s and 90s.
It's a struggle that continues today, as the city council recently caved in to a proposal for a complex containing a shopping mall, a commercial hotel and an assisted living facility, which those residents who most need it won't be able to afford — a proposal for which the developer requested and received a nearly three-million dollar infrastructure subsidy from the city's taxpayers at a time of severe fiscal constraint. A leading resort consortium has expressed interest in developing a hotel at the Fort neighborhood in downtown Gloucester, once the heart of the city's fishing industry, and there are several proposals in the pipeline for high-end retirement housing, which would create new gated communities and fill even more open space [fortunately the current economic situation has either slowed down or will kill these proposals]. Over the years, many local politicians fell for the entreaties of developers, who argued that condominiums and subdivisions would expand the city's tax base, especially as the fishing industry experienced a series of downturns due to fluctuating stocks and over-fishing by Russian factory trawlers before the 200 mile limit was set. But neighbors whose own privacy would have been undermined by dense housing development fought back, defeating a number of controversial housing proposals, one of which called for an 18-hole golf course in the West Gloucester woods, while another sought to build condominiums directly on Gloucester harbor. It was a contentious time in the community, beginning in 1985 with a campaign ultimately to last for a decade against an initiative to construct a 24-store shopping mall with two restaurants and an underground parking garage on the last undeveloped waterfront parcel in downtown Gloucester.
The proposed mall was to be called Gloucester Landing and it met with immediate opposition. "It just isn't Gloucester," many natives protested, including members of the city council. Five thousand residents signed a petition against the project and over four hundred attended a public hearing to demonstrate their opposition to the mall. But there was money and power behind the proposed mall (we were later to discover that our liberal Democratic state representative lobbied for it, along with Governor Michael Dukakis — and a former Lt. Governor was the project's legislative and environmental consultant). The proposal passed the city council by a single vote, from a councilor, who had previously opposed the mall but had strong ties to the Democratic proponents and political ambitions of his own. Due largely to the efforts of Damon Cummings, a Gloucester native, MIT professor, and naval architect, the permits for the mall were appealed at all levels, resulting in the denial of a license for the project by the state coastal zone management agency that regulates use of Commonwealth Tidelands, under Chapter 91.
The anti-mall fight drew from the community a remarkable range of participants. Beginning with the fight against Gloucester Landing, Lena Novello and Angela Sanfillippo, president and vice-president respectively of the Gloucester Fishermen's Wives, became powerful adversaries of any attempt to undermine the working waterfront. They were joined by Margaret "Peggy" Sibley, who had arrived in Gloucester as an English war bride, married to fishing Captain Bill Sibley. Peg, as we called her, brought a fierce intelligence and a powerful ability for persuasion to the struggle to preserve Gloucester's watershed and our maritime way of life. Joining Peg, Lena and Angela was Carolyn O' Connor, a strong environmentalist and advocate for the preservation of local character and an officer in the Gloucester Civic and Garden Council. Carolyn had been a city councilor whose foresight helped to save the Babson Watershed, named after economist and native son, Roger Babson (Babson had given this land to the city, along with considerable acreage in Dogtown Common, which abutted the watershed). Together, they helped form a flexible cohort of local activists, who could be counted on to organize the members of their respective groups whenever a controversial development scheme surfaced; and there were many, coming one on top of another, as developers seemed to salivate over the open spaces and oceanside properties that remained here.
Following the battle against the mall, in 1985-86, some waterfront owners pushed to revise the zoning ordinances along the working waterfront to include non-marine uses such as commercial space and housing. Another struggle ensued, this time with the Chamber of Commerce on the side of those who opposed the changes. Fortunately, in this instance the council, led by former fisherman John "Gus" Foote, rejected the proposed zoning and Gloucester's waterfront remained protected against the incursion of condos, as the Portland waterfront had not until it seemed too late.
During this time — from 1978 until 1990 — I had been writing a weekly column for the Gloucester Daily Times at the urging of editor Peter Watson, who wanted more community presence on the editorial page. Given carte blanche by Peter, I began to address local issues, using my column to advocate for more comprehensive planning and for a greater understanding of the beauty and value of Gloucester's landforms, our pristine forests, and our social ecology, including the variety of ethnic neighborhoods the community boasted. I advocated for the preservation of neighborhood schools, when the school department moved to close them, consolidating the system into overcrowded magnet schools that soon became unmanageable. Along with teachers and some city councilors, most of us products of neighborhood schools, I argued that the closing of these small but vital facilities would create a social and educational vacuum in the affected neighborhoods. The schools were eventually closed over the overwhelming protests of teachers and parents. A dozen years later the school department admitted that the closings had been a mistake. But by then the classic red brick school buildings had been sold or put to other uses and the city's education system had already suffered from their loss.
I wrote in my column about growing up in Gloucester and about being a parent. I wrote about my job at Action, about poverty and homelessness, which was on the increase in the 1980s. I also wrote about local, state and national affairs, offering close analysis and criticism of what I believed were the incredibly regressive policies of the Reagan administration. Those columns opened up a dialogue between me and my hometown, a dialogue I had never before enjoyed. People stopped me in the post office to praise or disagree with what I'd written the night before. They wrote rejoinders in letters to the editor or in guest columns, as the Gloucester Times opened its editorial pages to the entire community, winning many prizes in the process and increasing its loyal, if often fractious, readership.
Suddenly I had become a public writer, someone people read and responded to. Many had never read a word by me, since most of my writings, except for Glooskap's Children and the oral history Peter Parsons and I prepared, had previously appeared in little known or underground publications. Considering the stinging remark that had been confided to me when we first moved to Vine Street — one of our new neighbors asked another what I did for a living and received the reply: "Nothing. He's a writer." — I realized that for better or worse everyone who now read the paper knew what I did, whether they agreed with my opinions or not.
Gradually my life in Gloucester changed, as I opened myself to the challenges offered by advocacy work at Action, writing a weekly column in the paper, political activism and public service, and teaching. The identity crisis that I was clearly suffering from after I returned to Gloucester and during my marriage, accompanied by a crisis of vocation, was reaching resolution, particularly with the help of my job at Action.
How did you become involved in social work?
Herman Melville's Ishmael claimed that a whale ship was his Yale College and his Harvard. My own education in the real world took place at Action, Inc., Gloucester's antipoverty agency, where I applied for a temporary job and stayed for thirty years. The "Action Years," as I call them, proved to be the most important of my life. It was while working at Action that I truly saw the face of poverty, not in Appalachia or in the urban ghettos of America, but in my own hometown. It was also while working at Action that I came finally into myself, into my own identity and being.
I had some glimpses of poverty before Action. I became unexpectedly acquainted with it in Brunswick, Maine after the Verney Mill closed, in 1955, and most of the town's French-Canadian working population had been laid off. As a freshman, I encountered young men in the streets, unemployed and lounging against the storefronts of pizza and submarine sandwich shops, youths scarcely older than my college classmates and I, wearing tight Levis and leather jackets. Combative and edgy, they seemed continually poised to provoke us with taunts about our putative privileges, our money and our advantages — we who were children of the working class ourselves, on scholarship at an upper class institution, where we were looked down upon by students who'd come from boarding school. I ran into their fathers in the town's bars, no less belligerent than their sons toward fraternity "boys" and their mink-coated dates. I knew their mothers and their sisters, who with apprehension answered doors in riverside tenements, where we ventured timidly to canvas for political candidates, apartments warmed only by space heaters or gas-on-gas stoves in whose cluttered rooms and hallways one became suddenly overwhelmed by the fumes of kerosene.
"We don't vote," they'd apologize.
Growing up in Gloucester, I had already met poverty, though I had no name then for the way some of my schoolmates lived in sprawling, rickety apartment houses like "The Beehive" on Centennial Avenue, crowded into a few rooms with parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, as the war raged and most of the men were overseas. Again, the smell of heating oil and unwashed bodies that I would come to know so well as a social worker. I'd also seen poverty in Italy, in the streets and alleys of the San Freddiano neighborhood in Florence, in Roman quarters like Testaccio, or in the bombed-out ruins on the periphery of the city, which Pier Paolo Pasolini had graphically described in novels like Ragazzi di Vita and Una Vita Violenta: beggars in front of churches; boys offering their bodies, Gypsy children dressed in rags, selling trinkets in public markets. I'd even come across destitution in Greece as I traveled on buses, packed into cushionless seats with peasant women carrying chickens or baby goats. I'd seen it in England, too, as I roamed the streets of Manchester and Liverpool. But never, until I went to work at Action, had I experienced the condition first hand or been forced to confront its consequences in family violence, drug abuse, alcoholism and crime. That was the real poverty, I came to understand, not simply the fact that people didn't have money or jobs or decent places to live, but a poverty of the soul, an erasure in so many instances of every trace of human or transcendent sense of the spirit.
I had experienced a lack of money myself, living alone in a room on Main Street after my wife and I separated, trying to manage child support, rent and food on $100 a week. But the difference between me and my clients was that by virtue of my education I had what was then called "earning power," for I soon found two part-time jobs to go along with the full-time social work — teaching humanities one morning a week at Montserrat College of Art, and English as an adjunct instructor in the Evening Division of North Shore Community College. I drove a 1962 VW bug, which I'd paid $200 for, and my rent was $37.50 a month in the studio I shared with my painter friend George Gabin before Jeane moved to Cambridge with the kids and I returned to Vine Street, largely so that I would have a house they could visit on alternate weekends, a house that was familiar to them and which also gave me some peace of mind as I tried to cope with the radical changes in my own life.
At first the agency didn't want to give me the job I'd applied for as "home visitor" in a new research and demonstration program called "Home Start." The thrust of the program, in terms of the new language I was beginning to learn — the jargon of social programs and human service policy planners — was to explore a home-based option for the popular and extremely effective Head Start pre-school programs, which soon became the signature of President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. The Home Start concept considered the mother to be the primary educator of her children. What the agency hoped to create for the group of mothers who entered the program (there would eventually be a total of 300 families enrolled) with their one- to five-year old children was a base of support that centered on the home visitor, a teacher and resource person, who would visit the family on a regular basis, providing the mother with educational materials, personal and moral support, and parenting skills enhancement. The program would also provide mental health counseling and family therapy for those who needed it, comprehensive health care, nutritional information, further education for mothers who wanted to re-enter the workforce (many were on public assistance), and a steady, helpful, friendly presence in the person of the home visitor for normally young single mothers, who had become isolated as a result of poverty, abuse and abandonment. Most of our client families lived in public housing, which, if more affordable to them, presented its own problems, not the least of which was isolation, as poverty became increasingly ghettoized in the nation.
In reviewing my application for the position of home visitor (as a teacher I thought it would be a perfect job for me, especially with my recent experience of having taught with the other parents at the Cape Ann Cooperative School), the board of directors found me suitable for the agency; but some members, women, I learned, had reservations about hiring a newly single man, who would be entering the homes of what they considered to be vulnerable young women. Wouldn't it be better, they suggested, for me to be given the job of family services coordinator, along with an office of my own, where the mothers could come to me if they wished? On the surface it seemed a good compromise, though I had no experience in social work or counseling and the position paid less than that of a home visitor. The irony, of course, was that, as a "social worker" I'd be thrown into far more intimate situations with the mothers than I would have been as a teacher, for they would be coming to me with a variety of problems and I would be the person to provide them both with referrals and direct services. I would also be the liaison with doctors, therapists, hospitals, school departments, the welfare and public housing offices, and, indeed, often the police and the courts — in effect, with all of the systems in which their lives were enmeshed.
As it turned out, the job was a good fit. I loved the program and its new staff that, like me, had been recruited entirely from the community, based largely on our knowledge of Gloucester and our experience living in the city. For several months we were trained together in the principles of child development and early childhood education by professionals from the Harvard School of Education and other institutions that offered cutting edge approaches to working with parents and children. I was also given training in basic counseling and social work skills. Later, as I took on more responsibilities in the agency, Action paid for social work courses and professional enhancement seminars at the Boston University School of Social work and at several area hospitals that offered intensive training in mental health issues.
As much as I provided referrals and direct services for the families in our program, including trips to the pediatrician for families who had no means of transportation, I also began to advocate for them if they faced eviction, residential health code problems, or issues with public housing. I learned how to deal with the welfare and social security systems, with health insurance providers, skills I had never developed but that were indispensable in helping us to educate our clients about the services and benefits they were entitled to by law and by virtue of their poverty. Empowerment was a term I hadn't encountered before; soon I was discovering what it meant for me as well as our families to begin to feel in charge of one's life in the face of intransigent government or repressive laws. Why hadn't I learned about empowerment while I was opposing the war in Vietnam? Had I been black and in the civil rights movement I'm certain I would have.
There were those in Gloucester who felt threatened by Action or who disliked the agency's presence in the community. City councilors ludicrously insisted that there had been no poverty in Gloucester until Action opened its doors. Indeed, Ken Courtland, a reporter for the Gloucester Times, who had often written disparagingly about the Cape Ann Concerned Citizens during our most active campaigns against the war, taunted me one day for joining the very system he claimed I once opposed. But Action, Inc. was not a government agency by any stretch of the term. Although we received a significant portion of our funding from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity, which was established in 1964 to administer the nation's antipoverty programs, we were a private, non-profit educational and charitable organization, with its own board of directors, consisting equally of members from the public sector, the private sector, and clients of the agency. This tripartite structure was unique to the War on Poverty, allowing maximum feasible participation of the poor in the agency's program planning and the implementation of its policies. Local agencies were not only allowed but encouraged to set their own agendas, so long as they fit under the broad mission of Community Action, which was to advocate on behalf of the poor, while addressing the root causes of poverty in each community.
It was a noble mission, one that has scarcely wavered in the more than forty years of Action's life and the life of Community Action in the nation at large, even in the face of obdurate legislators and the onslaught of an anti-government ideology under Ronald Reagan. And while it may have seemed ironic that an antiwar activist like me, who had railed against the federal government for taking the country into an illegal and unnecessary war, was working in an agency much of whose funding came from that same government (the war in Southeast Asia was still being fought), those of us who became soldiers in the war to liberate the poor (another irony) felt that our mission was part of what government should be doing anyway in its role as intervener of last resort.
For the first time in years I went to work each day feeling good about my job and about myself. My depression lifted, partly through the help of therapy and partly because I believed in what I was doing. I could see daily the results of working with mothers and their children, to empower the mother and help the child with learning and socialization skills. There were mothers, who entered the Home Start program as high school drop-outs on welfare. Today they are teachers with master's degrees or practicing law. Some started their own businesses. Others became social workers themselves or directors of early childhood education programs. And in almost every case, their kids finished school and went on to college. Some who were three years old, when we started the program in 1972, are married today and raising their own families. None of them live in poverty.
Statistics exist to prove the value of Head Start and the Home Start option, which is still offered by many Head Start programs. It's an option that I still feel good about having helped to create, along with fifteen other R&D programs nationwide (for several years, ABT Associates in Cambridge conducted an in-depth evaluation of Home Start, which showed the program to have been both highly beneficial educationally as well as extremely cost-effective). One of the criticisms against some programs was that we were not only giving out birth control information, as part of our educational mission, we were also referring women to family planning services. Our philosophy was to offer our families the broadest range of options so that they could choose freely among those which they most needed to free themselves from the privations of the welfare system. Instead of perpetuating poverty, our mission was to end it. Though we failed to eliminate poverty, and there is a higher percentage of impoverishment in the United States today than when Lyndon Johnson declared war on it, and less money or will to impact it, those of us who spent our lives in Community Action continue to believe that the successes of the program have outweighed its failures.
From 1966 until 2002, the agency's central offices were located in a former elementary school building on 24 Elm Street, in the heart of Gloucester's downtown. Built in 1820, the yellow clapboarded building with Italianate windows had housed the Red Cross after it was closed as the Rogers School. My mother had attended first and second grades in that two-room schoolhouse, in 1915-16, and for a time in her seventies she worked just down the street at the National Marine Fisheries office, in the old telephone company building, while I worked at her old school. Often we'd meet for lunch or I'd drop by her office for a chat on my way back from the post office. I think she was pleased to see me working at the kind of job she was familiar with, rather than stuck at home in a room, writing all day long without much success. I'm certain she was pleased that I was finally earning some money.
For years all the agency's program managers and staff, including the receptionists, secretaries, bookkeepers and community organizers, were crowded into tiny offices on both floors of the old schoolhouse, separated sometimes only by room dividers that were hung from the ceiling by wire. Before the advent of the Xerox machine we used fluid duplicators; and before the agency could afford electric typewriters or computers, before even the advent of the PC, we wrote our reports and composed our correspondence on antique manual typewriters. The furniture consisted of dark green military surplus desks, file cabinets and metal desk chairs of nondescript design. We liked to joke that it had come to us directly from the Philippines, though in actuality we often requisitioned what we needed from the Portsmouth Naval Base. The city of Gloucester had given us the building for one dollar a year in rent, though its upkeep was the agency's responsibility.
Until human services providers were forced into the growing professionalism of the 80s and 90s, we came to work in casual clothes, looking like refugees from the 1960s — blue jeans, work shirts; sandals in summer: the women had long hair mostly, the men, beards or sideburns. And many of us were children of the 60s, or like me, had been politicized then. Young and idealistic, we didn't want to be threatening figures to those we attempted to help, like the women at the local welfare office, who came to work in high heels and nylons — one case worker arriving for home visits in a white Cadillac — so we dressed down and adopted an informal manner with those who came for assistance.
A Neighborhood Youth Corps program provided after school tutoring and part-time work for teens. Jobs 70, a precursor of the CETA employment and training programs, helped out-of-work parents. Head Start was run out of the agency with classrooms in several local church basements, while Home Start was housed in the former Gloucester Daily Times building on Centre Street, where we had offices on the first floor and a day care center with state-of-the art educational materials on the top floor. The agency provided legal assistance to low-income families and home care for elders. There was family day care for working parents with children and an after-school program for school-age kids. Soon after I came to work, in 1972, a volunteer program for retired elders called RSVP would begin, along with programs providing fuel assistance and weatherization to eligible individuals and families. For several years, after the demise of the Gloucester Auto Bus Company, the agency also ran the city's public transportation system, calling into service a fleet of military buses that we painted blue.
But at the heart of the agency were the community development, community organization and advocacy programs. L. Denton Crews was executive director when I first came to work. An ordained minister with years of experience in the civil rights movement, Denton was a bright, articulate manager, who guided Action from its inception, primarily as the grantee for Head Start, to its expansion into a multi-purpose agency addressing a range of community needs. When Denton left to become an aide to Rep. Michael Harrington, in Washington, community organizer Bill Rochford took over as executive director. Bill had a degree in social work from Boston College, and under his direction Action moved in two significant directions, community development and advocacy. Community Development director Dr. Carmine Gorga made a study of the fishing industry with a view to enhancing its sustainability as the city's primary industry. He and the community organizers helped to create the United Fishermen's Wives, a group of women who became fierce advocates for the industry. Carmine also started the first worker-owned business in Gloucester, a small company that made finger foods and other hors d'oeuvres from fresh fish that were flash frozen and distributed nation-wide (I was often recruited to deliver orders to the Wenham Tea House, whose upper class matrons would have blanched to learn that their food came from the hands of poor people). It was at this time that the agency also took over from the city the former Gloucester High School and Central Grammar building on Dale Avenue to develop the community's first private elderly housing complex. Many natives soon found themselves living in rooms in which they'd gone to school.
What was equally important for me and for our mission was what went on behind the doors in that little yellow schoolhouse on Elm Street. For one thing, there was intense discussion — dialogue — that began each morning when those doors opened and continued often far beyond closing time. We talked together about our programs, about the grants we wanted to apply for. We discussed questions of poverty and how we'd address them. All of our program activities were driven by a rigorous planning process, the main document for which was an annual workplan, which laid out exactly what we hoped to achieve with each initiative, how we meant to reach our goals, and how much money and staff participation were required to fulfill our objectives. It was the first time in my life, aside from lesson plans as a high school teacher, that I had ever encountered formal planning. I soon realized that I had a lot to learn about how a significant portion of the world operated.
After three and a half years in the Home Start program, I was briefly laid off when the Office for Child Development in Washington closed the majority of R&D programs. We had hoped to have a permanent program in Gloucester, considering that we received top evaluations from federal and state agencies and evaluators, and that three of us-our director, the education coordinator, and I — had been sent to Arizona and New Mexico, in August of 1972, to help the Navaho Nation establish its own Home Start program, a natural, considering that in their culture mothers were already considered the primary educators of their children. While it was hard to leave an organization in which our staff of twelve had grown close, we gained some solace from having helped to create a program that would live on nationally under the aegis of Head Start.
When Bill Rochford called me back to work in December of 1976, he asked me if I would take over the advocacy program. I was given a rear office on the second floor of the Elm Street building that remained my refuge until I retired twenty-six years later. Like the rooms I've described earlier, my office became a special place for me, not only in which to see clients and work, but also to seclude myself for thinking and writing about work related issues. Settling back into my job after a year of desultory writing and part-time teaching, a year during which I also collected unemployment benefits and felt like one of my former clients, I began to participate in the daily excitement of an agency that had survived an attempt by the Nixon administration to destroy Community Action. Conservative Republicans, adamantly opposed to the War on Poverty, managed in 1973 to force the closing of the Office of Economic Opportunity. However, after friends of Community Action in both parties lobbied strenuously for its continuation, the opponents succeeded only in transferring the Community Action programs to a newly created Community Services Administration, thus preserving pretty much intact the nation's flagship antipoverty programs like Head Start, along with agencies like Action that administered them.
Just when we most needed an attorney to help clients file answers to eviction complaints or to appeal welfare terminations, Marshall Williams appeared. Or rather, his wife, who sat on the advisory board for one of our programs for elders, asked Bill if we could use some legal help. Her husband was a retired lawyer, she explained, and he was looking for something to do. As it turned out, Marshall was both a lawyer and a former Air Force Colonel — he'd been a fighter pilot in the Second World War and Korea and he'd ended his military career in the Judge Advocate General's Corps. Marshall had also served in Vietnam.
At first there was some consternation in the agency about Marshall and me. Bill was well aware of my anti-war activities and he asked me directly if I thought I could work with a veteran of wars that included Vietnam. I told him I was game. At first Marshall came on board as a volunteer. But he proved to be so knowledgeable in the law, so versatile in his experience of dealing with people — we later learned he had often represented men accused of war crimes — that Bill soon offered him a full-time appointment. Marshall and I sat down together and mapped out an advocacy strategy that remains largely in place today.
And we got along. We got along famously. There is a picture of us making a presentation at a board of directors meeting, sometime in the late 1970s. My hair is long and my beard covers the frayed collars of an ancient Brooks Brothers striped shirt. I am wearing a tweed jacket, shiny with age, which I bought for ten dollars at Keezer's used clothing store in Cambridge. Marshall has an expensive if baggy suit on and his hair is cut very short. He is also smoking — Marshall was a chain smoker, who was eventually to die of throat cancer. Half-glasses on nose, he is consulting his notes, written in ballpoint in miniscule calligraphy on one of the yellow legal pads that would become his trademark. I am listening carefully to Marshall. We both look intense, engaged, which was the way we always seemed to people when we were working together.
Marshall was in his early sixties, a native of Maryland and a Princeton graduate with a law degree from the University of Virginia. He'd been in the service for more than thirty years and there was nothing he hadn't seen. From the fire bombing of Dresden and the destruction of the walls of Auschwitz to the bitter winters in Korea or the jungle heat of Vietnam, he'd experienced every horror of war and could talk about what he'd seen and learned with profound understanding. And there was very little we didn't talk about during the hours we spent together at work or after work, including the war in Vietnam, which Marshall admitted he'd always had reservations about.
Marshall prepared his cases so meticulously and argued them so relentlessly that he became the bane of existence of the administrative law judges in Boston, who heard disability appeals, the welfare claims adjudicators, or the magistrates, who sat on eviction cases. More than once he was commended from the bench for his preparation. He won thousands of dollars in retroactive benefits for elderly clients, who'd had their Social Security Disability applications denied or their payments terminated, or mothers on welfare who had wrongfully lost their benefits. Always fair and never judgmental — we often represented people whose histories were checkered — Marshall took on seemingly intractable cases for disabled veterans, who often addressed him as "Sir," some even saluting when they appeared at his office door, though Marshall was the most deferential of people and had long laid aside his military career. He represented women, who had been beaten mercilessly by drug-dealing boyfriends, and little old ladies, who were being evicted from their apartments because they had to make a choice between paying for food and rent or heating oil during severe winters.
I did the intake on all the cases before we were able to hire our intake counselor and associate advocate, Mary Adams. Those who needed legal help were directed to Marshall whose office was next to mine. The rest Mary and I worked with personally, though there were many cases we all shared. Mary and I would find families money for back rent while Marshall drafted their responses to summary complaints for eviction, defending them himself or preparing them to mount their own defenses. Part of our philosophy included a strong self-help provision. Wherever possible we encouraged and trained our clients to represent themselves, arguing their own cases. Most found the experience empowering, even exhilarating, especially if they prevailed, which they often did.
It was during these years that I also became involved in civic affairs, along with my work as a community activist. I was appointed to the Gloucester Historical Commission by Mayor Leo Alper, whose plan to replace the Grand Army of the Republic Hall, a 19th century architectural gem, with a parking lot chairman Greg Gibson and I thwarted. I chaired the Fair Housing Committee, which created the city's first comprehensive housing policy to protect renters whose tenancies were threatened by inequitable raises in rent and encroaching condominium conversion. I served on several task forces for the development of affordable housing; and I became a member, and later chairperson, of an advisory committee appointed by the mayor to oversee the preservation and management of Dogtown Common, 3,000 acres of which had been consolidated and placed under public trust through the joint efforts of then mayor Richard Silva and former mayor Robert "Bob" French, a much-respected environmentalist.
Gradually my life in Gloucester changed, as I opened myself to the challenges offered by advocacy work at Action, writing a weekly column in the paper, political activism and public service, and teaching. The identity crisis that I was clearly suffering from after I returned to Gloucester and during my marriage, accompanied by a crisis of vocation, was reaching resolution, particularly with the help of my job at Action.
The question of who I was and what I would become had dogged me from childhood. Was I Greek or American? Was our family affluent in the eyes of the kids on Perkins Road or poor like them? Should I conceal being a good student so my classmates would like me better, or should I just be my own feisty, inquisitive self? Should I continue spending time with girls, as I enjoyed doing when growing up, or should I force myself to hang out with boys, many of whom seemed insensitive and overly aggressive? Indeed, should I admit disliking sports or open myself to the insults of others when I tried to play ball and did it badly? Truly, was I masculine or feminine?
The questions continued, if often unstated. Would I go to college or would I remain in Gloucester to work after high school like most of my classmates? Once in college, would I be a scholar or a writer? After college, should I stay in America or become an expatriate in Italy? Indeed, after living in Italy, was I an American or had I truly discovered my identity as a European? Coming home, did I want to be a writer or a teacher — a graduate student or an artist? Was I ready to marry and have children or should I remain single? In politics, was I pro- or anti-military, truly radical or merely a liberal with radical yearnings? My despair over this confusion often led me to wonder if, at bottom, I was an authentic or an inauthentic person. The question of who I was and what would become of me continually tormented me.
Underlying these persistent questions was the constant sense of alienation I've written about, the feeling of being an outsider, a misfit and a loner, that complicated any decision I tried to make about the course of my life. Yet after working for several years at Action, publishing my column in the local paper, and teaching at the college, my life seemed to have more purpose and the questions slowly began to resolve themselves. Gradually, I discovered that I could be a writer, a teacher, and a social worker simultaneously. I could also be a parent and a citizen. One role would not take away from or diminish any other. This was a revelation for a person whose sole image of himself for so many years had been that of a single person sitting alone in a room to write.
In retrospect, I suppose it could be said that in bringing the disparate parts of my life together I had discovered a way out of or beyond alienation, a personal solution to my anguish at not belonging. But this did not make living in America any less of an alienating experience. When I was younger I didn't quite know why I felt the way I did; today I can articulate to some degree both the sources and the meaning of my alienation. Even though I can say that I'm put off by a consumer culture, which values material over human life, stressing personal gain instead of the common good, or that I find reprehensible a system, which claims to be a political democracy but in reality doesn't offer economic equality, it still doesn't help me feel any better as an individual. So quite against my will, and in opposition to my deepest need to be alone, I have been forced to enter the arena of civic life. I have been compelled to write about and to argue issues in public, to sit on committees, to take political action. In a word, I've become a citizen.
For this reason I value my isolation and my aloneness even more, though they now seem harder to achieve. Consequently, I walk a line between the public and the private. I'm driven by circumstance and conscience to participate in community life. But the act of participation makes me desperate to return to my privacy. It is a compromise I've struck, and like most compromises, it's an uneasy one. Still, it leaves me free to enjoy enough of the solitude I've come to prize as the very core of my existence and to do the reading and writing, which that solitude makes possible, while also living in the world.
Marshall Williams retired from Action in 1988, leaving the advocacy program bereft, until we hired Ken Riaf, a young attorney, who had also been a fisherman. Ken brought a unique perspective to the agency, as we became more deeply involved with the fishing community, which was then entering the protracted crisis it still faces today, with declining stocks and restrictive federal regulations that have reduced Gloucester's fleet to a shadow of its former greatness. We were also forced to address the deepening housing crisis in the state, as real estate prices rose and landlords were converting apartments into condos, thereby squeezing out low-income families and elders and adding to a burgeoning homeless population. In response to homelessness, the agency joined with Ron Morin, executive director of NUVA, the city's primary substance abuse and mental health agency, and Bill Dugan, executive director of the Gloucester Housing Authority, to create the Cape Ann Coalition for Housing and the Homeless. Ron, Bill and I produced a study of the problem, "Homelessness on Cape Ann," with recommendations for its solution. Two new homeless shelters were created, NUVA's for women with children and Action's for homeless men and women eighteen and over. A number of programs, including counseling, case management and substance abuse treatment, were also initiated to impact the problem, along with recommendations for the creation of more affordable housing.
My last ten years at the agency were years of intense lobbying for funds to implement these programs. In concert with the responsibilities of managing an expanded advocacy and housing program and seeing clients on a daily basis, I also directed the Action Homeless Shelter. We spent hours at city council and planning meetings advocating for the new shelters, and for a soup kitchen and food pantry, which were independently created. New funding regulations from Congress required the adoption of more stringent and sophisticated planning and management tools and an automated information storage and retrieval system, as the agency entered the digital age and we all had to learn how to use computers. Losses in the fishing industry and fluctuations in the economy made it clear to us that Action had to expand our employment and training programs to include those who had been downsized out of jobs or who had lost them in industrial consolidations and takeovers. With the support of Varian, a high-tech consortium whose corporate offices were located in Gloucester, the agency opened a computer training center in downtown Gloucester, at Brown's Mall, the former site of the city's largest department store. Expanding our client base, we trained homeless men and women at the site along with those who had once had well-paying jobs. We added training for medical secretaries and hospital workers, while offering GED and Adult Basic Education courses, including ESL classes for new Hispanic and Brazilian immigrants.
By 2001, when I reached my 64th birthday, it was clear that I was beginning to burn out. The caseload was enormous. There was so much need we could barely stay on top of it. And the landscape of human services had been shifting for some time. It no longer seemed as much fun to go to work each day, confronted, as we were, with the rising animosity of conservative politicians and once compassionate voters toward service agencies and the people we were committed to helping. Constrained also by shrinking government funds and more onerous reporting requirements, agencies found themselves in competition for charitable dollars as a way of ensuring their independence. Some welcomed prominent donors onto their boards, not realizing that their personal agendas might conflict with or undermine the mission of the agency itself; while others held gala fund-raising events that made a spectacle of poverty, exploiting their clients in the process. This new era of self-congratulation and self-aggrandizement made me acutely uncomfortable. I never felt that agencies should blow their own horns or manipulate clients for their own benefit. Long a believer in professional anonymity, especially regarding the confidentiality we owed those who had turned to us in pain and need, it was my deep conviction that we should remain invisible in the community, keeping quiet about our work.
Under Bill's leadership, and with the experience, political savvy, and commitment of Action's veteran program directors — Tim Riley in administration, Gerry Anne Brown at Homecare, Ronna Resnick in Employment and Training, and Elliott Jacobson at Energy — Action charted a cautious passage through these perilous waters, arriving not only safely to port in new headquarters in the former Woolworth building on Main Street, but winning support and funding for innovative youth programs and housing for AIDS patients, while creating public-private partnerships that offered new employment and training opportunities for local residents.
I had already stopped teaching. With the adoption of flex-time policies at the agency, I was able to work four long days, giving me a three-day weekend in which to write. After the publication, in 1992, of Maximus to Gloucester, a collection of the letters and poems of Charles Olson to the editor of the Gloucester Times, which I edited and introduced, a floodgate seemed to open within me and I sat down and wrote three more books. I told Bill and Tim Riley, our deputy director and a close friend at work for twenty-five years, that I would retire on my 65th birthday to devote my time to writing. Together we hired the person who would replace me, a woman with a master's degree in social work and with a great deal of experience in housing. In turn, we hired a new attorney to work with her, also a woman. For nearly a year I worked with the two new staff people to help smooth the transition. On November 15, 2002, after a retirement party generously given in my honor, I left Action with a sense of new expectation but also with great sadness. I knew I was bidding farewell to an important part of my life. Our original headquarters, the old yellow schoolhouse on Elm Street, where my mother had gone to school and I'd had my beloved office for nearly twenty-seven years, was about to be sold by a cash-strapped city — for development, ironically, into luxury condominiums. Had I continued to work, evicted from my office, that loss would have been too much for me to bear.
The next day I sat down and wrote this summing up for my column in North Shore North, a short-lived alternative paper to which I was then contributing:
Suddenly I had as much time as I needed. The dream I'd nurtured all my working days of being my own person, of doing whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted to, had become a reality. I was retired. I should have been happy. Instead, I experienced a strange emptiness, a deep sense of loss. It was the first day of the rest of my life and I felt as if I had fallen though a hole.
It was a hole in time, not a black hole, not even a particularly frightening one. Rather, it was a new space I discovered myself inhabiting, one that made me dizzy, dizzy with the possibilities of freedom.
I had gotten up at my usual time, as if I were ready to leave for the office. There was work on my desk at home to attend to. Bills to pay, and letters to write, thanking friends and co-workers for their kindness in helping me make the transition from work to retirement .There were e-mail messages to read and respond to, some having to do with my 65th birthday, which coincided with my retirement.
I was ready to accept retirement. In fact, a year before, I'd planned it down to the day. It was my own choice; no one was forcing it on me. I had long felt that I needed to make a change, to get back to what my former wife, in a letter of congratulation, had called my "real vocation." She spoke of a mutual friend who had "flunked retirement twice." "We expect you to set an example of success," she said.
The truth is I'd had another vocation, not just a job. For thirty years I'd given my life over to helping others and I loved every minute of it. It was a vocation I didn't even know I possessed. But looking back to high school, to my involvement in Glee Club, the National Honor Society and the school paper— not to speak of the fact that I'd been a Junior Rotarian and gone to Boys' State-helped me understand an early commitment to service. Add to that my matriculation at a college whose mission stressed the elevation of the common good over personal gain. How could I not have become a social worker as well as a teacher, vocations that I pursued jointly for many years?
Yet, deep down, the writing was always there. It called to me at night as soon as I got home from the office. It beckoned to me on weekends, while others raked leaves or played ball with their kids. It absorbed my vacations. It was fun, but it could also be a stern taskmaster. Sometimes I wondered if the writing wasn't the voice of my super-ego, the speech of my conscience, breaking through the orderly surface of my days. It was a voice that often kept me awake at night, a voice that disturbed my leisure, one that kept me distant from friends and family.
"Pity the writer's child," my son Ben, a writer himself, wrote in an essay on J. D. Salinger, "for discovering, early on, that parents don't always want their children underfoot, that love is not always returned in the way that it was given, that fictions are sometimes more prevalent than truth, even in the 'safe haven' of the family."
Ben also wrote (in that same essay, published last year in a book called With Love and Squalor), "I'll always remember, too, how my father, an inveterate journal-writer, took his black ring-binder out from its hiding place and sat at the kitchen table, beginning to write about our weekend (or whatever else was on his mind) before the weekend was over, laying claim to our shared experience by writerly prerogative. Does this explain my failure to keep a journal of my own? Or my reverence for the imagination and its ability to change the personal, to transform experience into something else?"
Why else do we write? And here my son has answered the question neatly. And why else do we pursue whichever vocation we choose, or that chooses us? For at heart we are not on this earth primarily to be economic creatures, though we must earn our own bread however it comes to us to earn it. Neither are we in this life to bully or dominate others. We are in this life, this preciously shared space, to give and to love; to do the work we're called to perform, to nurture each other with the gift of our personhood. I don't know what else we live for. I certainly haven't lived for anything else, especially personal gain.
This was my meditation on the day after my retirement. This is what I wrote in that journal Ben remembers, the journal I've faithfully kept since I was in my early twenties. This is how I made the transition, or tried to, from one part of my life to another; from the lived and known to the new and untried. This is how I spent the first day of the rest of my life.
After thirty years, I had hopefully gotten a handle on myself, as the disparate strands of my life appeared finally to have drawn together.
Social work, especially as we practiced it at Action, Inc., Gloucester's antipoverty agency, where I worked for thirty years as director of advocacy and housing, can be seen as opposition to ruling power, indeed as radical activity. It seemed a fitting segue for me, as a former anti-war activist in the 1960s, to have become a social worker in the 1970s, indeed natural to my temperament and my politics. Just as I helped organize opposition to the war in Vietnam, I helped to bring neighbors together to force local government to remedy conditions in their neighborhoods or mothers on welfare to fight iniquities in the welfare system. Our agency empowered citizens to speak out against slum landlords, who withheld heat, or to demand that the city's regulatory agencies enforce health code regulations that made their apartments unsafe for themselves and their children. We provided legal assistance, family counseling and one-on-one assistance to help low-income families overcome poverty. We created education and training programs for fishermen, who were driven from the sea by onerous government regulations; and we helped displaced workers retrain in digital technologies.
Our work was driven by the need for social change and for self-determination on the part of those who felt powerless — to help the disenfranchised to find good jobs and obtain affordable housing, and to make government accountable to those whom it was designated to serve; indeed to change repressive legislation where we could. We didn't win every battle, and not everyone we tried to help overcame poverty; but we forged partnerships between citizens and interest groups and we brought the public and private sectors together in many instances to build new housing or rehabilitate older stock. We helped formerly homeless men and women create their own businesses and we provided services to elders that allowed them to remain in their own homes with dignity rather than entering nursing homes. Perhaps our greatest success was in helping those we worked with to understand the systems in which their lives were enmeshed — how those systems operated, what their internal dynamics were, and how to overcome the enmeshment. And in the process, we ourselves felt a greater liberation.
You planned to do a trilogy on the underclass, or perhaps we should say examples of underclasses in America. Please give us a sketch of the trilogy, along with the evolution of the idea and the background plans that lead to its inception.
The idea for the trilogy grew out of my initial work on Glooskap's Children and a trip I made in August of 1972 (while G's C was in press) to the Navaho Reservation in New Mexico and Arizona as part of a team sent by the Office of Child Development in Washington, D.C. to help the Navaho Economic Opportunity Council set up early childhood education and intervention programs based on the model we were adapting in Gloucester called "Home Start." The Home Start program viewed the mother as the primary educator of her children, and the basic thrust of the program was to support mothers in that crucial role, providing instruction, educational materials and social services. We felt that since the Navaho culture was essentially a matriarchal culture, in which children were not only raised by mothers and grandmothers, but also taught the Navaho cultural and linguistic ways, the Home Start concept might be an ideal way to extend the Opportunity Council's educational and anti-poverty mandates (not only did the program take well — I understand it is still in use today as a Head Start option).
While working on G's C I traveled in Maine witnessing excruciating poverty, not only among Native Americans but in Maine rural and fishing communities. I had the same experiences traveling by car and Navaho pick-up truck through reservations in the high desert country of Arizona and New Mexico. I hadn't left Gloucester in years, except to spend summer vacations on an island off the Maine coast, so when I started traveling again I began to see how in the midst of all this affluence so many people were living in poverty and isolation. As I worked on G's C I began to think about what it must feel like to live in social and economic isolation. I understood that some groups and individuals had chosen this life style — I had read about and visited communes that stressed self-sufficiency, and I'd met people in Maine who consciously lived at sustenance levels. But the people I was thinking about were those who had not made a conscious choice to live in poverty but were still marginalized by their condition and the social and economic forces in America that had imposed poverty on them. This led me to think not only about the isolating condition of poverty but of the kinds of isolation, social or cultural, others might be experiencing while the war in Vietnam raged, opposed largely by the children of the affluent and their allies in the civil rights movement.
What was happening in America? I asked myself, and could I get a handle on it by learning about life at the margins of the society? Would the lives of outsiders shed some light on what all of us were living through at the time? My model for this work, as it had been for G's C, was the great James Agee and Walker Evans documentary book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I was also learning how to do oral history, which comprises a large part of G's C, so I conceived of the idea of traveling around New England doing oral history among marginalized groups, much as Robert Coles was then doing among the children of poverty. G's C would be a highly localized study of Native Americans struggling with issues of acculturization while attempting to liberate themselves as part of the growing American Indian Movement (AIM). A second book would constitute an in-depth study of poverty in a single non-Native American community. I chose Gloucester for this projected volume, not only because I knew the city well, but also because, as recent staff member of Action, Inc., the city's antipoverty agency, I was getting a deep and quite startling immersion in Gloucester's culture of poverty. I wanted to learn from the people's words themselves what it felt like to live in public housing or substandard tenement apartments on Welfare checks what it felt like for the children. How were they treated in school? What did the larger — community think or feel about them? And of course I wanted to have their lives depicted, both in their own words and mine and in the photographs of my friend and college classmate Mark Power, who had done a series of powerful black and white photographs of life among the Penobscot Indians for G's C. A third volume of my projected trilogy would focus on the lives of people in an isolated ethnic community — and I thought about the Cambodian people who had begun moving into Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town whose traditional working class families had been French-Canadian, Irish and Greek. I wanted to depict what I perceived might be the social clashes. In fact, my father and both grandfathers had first come to Lowell from Greece to work in the cotton mills, so I thought to include that part of my own history in the book. And I wanted to describe the cultural and social conflicts going back to the 19th century. Another inspiration for what I called "the Lowell book," came from my deep immersion in the Lowell novels of Jack Kerouac, his brilliant depiction of French-Canadian and Greek immigrant life in Maggie Cassidy, Dr. Sax and Visions of Gerard. Again, Mark Power would take pictures and I would do oral history and collect relevant social and historical documents to juxtapose against my own prose explorations as I moved among the people and families I wanted to write about. Incidentally, by focusing on communities in Maine and Massachusetts, I wanted to stay as local as possible in my work, believing with Olson that if you could nail down the local you would, by extension, gain insight into the regional and the national.
Sadly, the trilogy never materialized. Glooskap's Children did not sell well, though it was widely reviewed, including major notices in the Washington Star and Post, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic, Harper's, and Maine Times. Native American, an American Indian journal, called it "the best book on Indians by a non-Indian," and Robert Coles wrote that he hadn't seen a better or more innovative approach to the subject. One reviewer in a social sciences journal dubbed it "Gonzo ethnology." But Beacon couldn't afford to advertise the book, following up on the positive reviews. The press was under great financial duress, having publish the Pentagon Papers in five volumes and been enjoined by the Justice Department. Their legal fees were astronomical; and then, after my book came out in 1973, we were sued by the family of a young Penobscot boy whose picture comprised the cover (though his identity was disguised) and whom I had quoted in the book ("Are you white? Then I can kill you.") They claimed that the photograph had been published without the family's consent and that the image itself constituted an invasion of privacy, while my having quoted him, also without the family's permission, could be viewed as an affront to the community. Ironically, this law suit came just as Native Americans around the country were beginning to stand up for their rights. Both Beacon Press and I had hoped that by doing a book, which depicted the struggle of members of one tribe, as well as the conditions of their lives caused by poverty and isolation, it would aid in their efforts to liberate themselves from economic need as well as from the stereotypes that held them down. My quoting the boy was an attempt to show that Native Americans were not themselves immune from stereotypical thinking. Our attorneys viewed the lawsuit as more opportunistic than political, and the judge who heard the case in Bangor Superior Court agreed, dismissing it. However, the legal costs incurred, which Beacon Press generously paid in full, coupled with the poor sales of the book, led to their decision not to entertain my proposal for the rest of the trilogy.
The Lowell book was never done, and I turned the Gloucester book into When Gloucester Was Gloucester, the oral history of Gloucester my friend and fellow social worker Peter Parsons and I did with the help of a grant from the city's 350th anniversary. Mark Power took the photographs and we extended the reach of the book to include interviews with people from many sectors of the city's working life. It was published for the city's anniversary and went into two printings. The first published oral history of an American community, the book was also used as a text book for the teaching of oral history in several colleges and universities as well as in courses in sociology and anthropology.
Can you describe the process of gathering information and writing Glooskap's Children?
Glooskap's Children began as a proposal for a collection of Maine Native American legends, myths and tales I had hoped to compile as a book for children and for use in schools. I had been collecting these stories for years and reading them to my own children, who were enthralled by them, so I thought other children and their teachers might also enjoy them. The book would also be a way to introduce children to Native American culture, particularly in their own region. When I discussed the idea with my friend Ray Bentley, who was at that time a senior editor at Beacon Press in Boston, Ray suggested that I consider doing a book on the actual life of a Maine tribe. My readings in Frank Speck's Penobscot Man (1940), the definitive ethnological study of the tribe, and Fanny Hardy Ecstorm's Old John Neptune and Other Maine Indian Shamans (1945), had introduced me to the richness of Penobscot culture. I had also been subscribing to a newsletter the tribe produced that gave me some insights into the group's current life and political struggles, so I submitted a proposal to Beacon for a documentary book on the present life of a Maine Indian nation (the Penobscots preferred to be called a nation rather than a tribe). I proposed to spend a certain amount of time living on Indian Island in Oldtown, Maine, getting to know the people and doing some oral history among them, which I would incorporate into the book. I also proposed Mark Power as the photographer. Mark's work, influenced at the time by Robert Frank's stunning verite` photographs of American life, was gaining an audience and I felt he would be the ideal photographer for the project. Beacon accepted my proposal and gave me an advance so I could begin the research and writing.
I did a thorough study of both Penobscot and Maine Indian history and culture in the context of colonization, appropriation of tribal lands, and acculturation. I read all the extant history, including wonderful old Maine town histories and the standard works of anthropologists and ethnologists; I even located memoirs by Penobscot Indians themselves. I wrote to the tribal governor for permission to come among the people for the purposes of writing a book on their present lives and permission was granted. So, in the early spring of 1971, I began a series of visits to Indian Island. Mark came with me twice, and as I spoke with and interviewed members of the tribe, Mark took pictures of the people, the land, their houses and the artifacts of their lives. His pictures were stunning, though due to production costs, the press was only able to reproduce twenty-eight in the final published volume. Several were so ineptly cropped that the overall effect of the photographs, which appeared on uncoated stock in the front of the book as a visual panel leading into the text itself, was diminished, both to Mark's and my disappointment.
During my visits to Indian Island from spring, through summer, and into the fall of 1971, I kept a journal of my experiences among the people. I had already collected their legends, myth and folk tales; and I began to gather documents relating to White-Indian relations, going back in time to the arrival of the Vikings in the year 1000. When it came time to sit down and actually write the book, I was confronted with all this material — my notes and journals, the documents, the oral history I had been collecting, and the legends themselves, along with Mark's incredible photographs that he began sending me as soon as he processed and printed them. I was simply stymied by all this richness, and for a time I didn't know where to begin. Should I write a conventional chronicle based on my days among Indians, or should I attempt a book in the manner of Agee and Evans?
Jeane, my then-wife, suggested that I organize the materials I had collected into a mosaic, in which the patterns of the narrative would gradually emerge among texts and pictures. I did this, ultimately submitting a manuscript far longer than my contract had called for. It was then that my editor Ray Bentley took over, suggesting four interwoven subjects or categories for the material — legends, documents, voices (for the oral histories), and journals (for my own subjective version of the events I had experienced or witnessed). Ray helped me shape the book and Beacon's designer suggested that we begin with Mark's pictures. At one point there was some talk about a larger coffee-table format to be able to showcase Mark's photographs, but Ray and I felt that the book should be affordable given its subject, so a conventional format was chosen and a selling price of $6.95 was agreed upon.
My experience with Beacon Press was extraordinary. I was late in meeting my deadline due to a crisis in my marriage, a time in which my wife was ill and the care of my children fell mainly to me as we negotiated our separation and divorce. Through all that turmoil I could barely write. But Beacon was patient. As soon as I got the completed manuscript to them, they moved quickly into production. The design was handsome — and appropriate for the subject and the price was an affordable.
The reception of the book and the problems involved in it have the quality of a fable or cautionary tale. Could you elaborate on the initial response to the book, including who read it, and who reviewed it, including the attack on the cover image,
Beacon Press's reaction — and the nature of Beacon as a publisher at the time? Of course, its relation to The Pentagon Papers seems particularly important. From there, how is the book related to your decision to undertake social work full time?
As I've said, the reviews were consistently positive. Fifteen hundred copies were sold during the first weeks of publication. Beacon, which was then as now a small, independent publisher of progressive books, had only one publicist who was in charge of the entire list. And they had a very small advertising budget. Based on the good reviews, my editor Ray and I encouraged the publicist to place some advertisements in national publications, which she was unable to do, hoping that the reviews alone would sell the book. There were no author tours then, or major book signings. There was an autographing party at Brown's bookstore in Gloucester, where I bought all my books, and I organized a few local and regional readings myself, which sold some copies. The book's eccentric — one might say Modernist — form turned a lot of readers off and infuriated a couple of reviewers. But by and large the book limped along in the trade market, though sales were steady among public and college libraries. After a couple of years Beacon remaindered the unsold hardbound copies, pulping the sheets that had been printed for a paperback edition that never appeared. The book did, however, earn back the advance I was given, and I even received some royalty checks over the intervening years.
There was a long and very positive review in the old Washington Star, not the currently right-wing incarnation of the paper; and a shorter but equally positive one in the Post. Both are lost to me now so I can't recall who wrote them, although I do recall that each review, including the one I mentioned in Native American, remarked on the fact that I, as a white man seemed to show some significant insights into a culture that should have been alien to me. Having long felt alienated from my own culture, I felt a special affinity with the alienated of the earth, especially Native Americans, about whom I had been reading since childhood, and the peasant cultures I had lived among in Italy. I had always been able to establish relationships with people who lived on the margins of society. We seemed to speak the same language and we viewed the world in analogous ways, which was why I had wanted to do the trilogy in the first place.
Ironically, some members of the Penobscot Nation, including those who had sued me and Beacon Press, were unhappy with the book. They felt exposed, some later disclosed; others felt I had violated a sacred trust. They'd let me into their lives and I had betrayed them, the way white people had always been betraying Indians — exploiting them for our own gain. I took these criticisms to heart, for even though I had tried to be as objective as I could, reporting exactly what my confidants had told me, I also realized that tribal politics were complex. There were numerous factions on Indian Island, family disagreements and feuds; and during my brief time among the people I had not completely understood the dynamics of these involvements. In my attempt set down fully what I had heard and seen I had undoubtedly offended some of my subjects, even though my own thoughts and feeling were clearly described in the journals, while in the "voices" sections, the Indians themselves spoke out for and by themselves.
The ensuing law suit and the bad feelings among certain members of the tribe made it difficult for me to return to Indian Island, even though I stayed in touch with the friends I had made among the tribe, families who had taken me in, offering me hospitality and the openness of their thoughts. In the end, I learned some important lessons, not only about doing documentary work and oral history, but about writing itself — lessons about trust, about the conflict between the writer's need to tell the truth as he or she sees it and the discretion one owes those who expose themselves and their lives and histories, trusting that the writer will respect their privacy in certain matters and act discreetly.
I've already spoken about the book's cover image, the lawsuit that followed, and Beacon's principled response to both. As I've said, Beacon's integrity as a publisher was unimpeachable. Though I now understand better their decision not to advertise or promote my book beyond the beginning and, I felt, perfunctory stages of its marketing, I was, like most first authors, angry that they weren't spending any money and not much time promoting the book. Of course, I could have done more to promote it myself. But I knew little about such things then. In the midst of a divorce, I had little time or energy for marketing my work. Self-promotion has always been a problem for me.
When the book came out, I had already been working at Action, Inc. as a social worker for a year. I had applied to the agency in early 1972, not only because as a soon- to-be divorced father of three I needed a job beyond the free-lance writing I was then doing to help support my children, but also because the experience of living among Maine Indians and the poor of rural Maine had raised my consciousness about poverty in America. I wanted to do something about the condition beyond merely describing it in books. I was, after all, an activist, having come of age in the anti-war and civil rights movements, and I wanted to play a more active role in combating poverty. Working at Action, the city's antipoverty agency, where people I admired also worked, would, I hoped, give me that opportunity. I began work in early 1972 and I remained at the agency as director of advocacy and housing for thirty years, retiring in the fall of 2002 to devote my self fully to writing.
Could you describe the circumstances of composition and relation to other oral history projects of When Gloucester Was Gloucester? Also its relation to the works of Pringle, Babson, and other Gloucester historians? What were the responses to the book after publication?
As I've already noted When Gloucester War Gloucester: Toward an Oral History of the City was an outgrowth of my plan to do an oral history of the culture of poverty in my own home town. My friend and co-author, Peter Parsons, worked at Action as a counselor in the Neighborhood Youth Program and provided entrée for me into the agency before leaving to do graduate work at Harvard. A Gloucester native and a descendent of one of the city's earliest families, Peter, who is now a clinical social worker, was trained as an historian and had also attended art school in Edinburgh. We'd each read Studs Terkel's first work of oral history, Division Street, published in 1967 and documenting the lives of immigrants in a Chicago neighborhood, and we thought of applying his techniques to an oral history of Gloucester. The city's 350th anniversary was approaching and one of the committees set up to commemorate the event issued a call for proposals for books celebrating the city's history. Peter and I quickly responded. Our proposal was accepted, though some members of the committee as well as some local politicians, who'd never heard of oral history, were skeptical about what would ensue from "just talking with people," as they saw it — "What kind of history was that?" some asked.
I had long been fascinated by John Dos Passos' description of his masterpiece USA and America itself as "the speech of the people." I thought that if we could get the actual voices of Gloucester on tape and, eventually, on the page, we could document some of the quality of daily life in the community, while also tapping the collective memory of the city, if not the very consciousness of the place itself.
With our grant in hand and a couple of tape recorders, Peter and I set out to interview fishermen and their wives, fish plant workers, Sicilian, Portuguese and Finnish immigrants, retired teachers, people both young and old, who were natives and continued to live in Gloucester. We stayed away from politicians and community "leaders," but we were able to interview a couple of Gloucester's old fishing captains before they died and we found a wonderful retired stevedore or "lumper," as they were then called, who had lived on the road during the 1920s and 30s and actually had a "Wobbly" red card, which he carried in his wallet all the time. Our intention was to stay among the people themselves, working people and their families, believing that history as it had been written previously in America was history from the top down. We wanted to present it from the bottom up. Our motto, and the epigraph to the published book, was Charles Olson's statement to the effect that, "There is simply ourselves and where we are has a particularly which we'd better use because that's about all we got. . . the literal essence and exactitude of your own. I mean the streets you live on, or the clothes you wear, or the color of your own hair."
Our hope was to render that exactitude. We asked our subjects to tell us about their daily lives, to describe their houses to us, the food they ate, what they did when they weren't working — and Mark Power came and took pictures of the people themselves, the interiors of their homes, their yards, and the city itself as it then looked. John Babson had written the premiere history of Gloucester, in 1860, a narrative Olson swore by. But it was history from the point of view of a banker and a member of the ruling class of the community; Pringle's later history, published in 1892, for the city's 250th anniversary, focused on business development. And Joe Garland had by then written Lone Voyager and That Great Pattillo, both of which had described the 19th and early 20th century fishing life in extraordinary detail, touching wonderfully on the waterfront and the people who landed and processed the daily catch. Still, the voices of the people themselves had not been heard directly; and with Joe's support and the help of my friend and Beacon Press editor, Ray Bentley, who was a member of the city's 350th anniversary publication committee, our proposal was accepted.
The book came out in 1973, produced for the city by Harvard University Press. It consisted of the transcribed tapes of our interviews that had been edited and arranged as individual narratives, so the book unfolded as a series of voices, a polyphonic novel of Gloucester, not unlike a prose version of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology. Local readers were fascinated by how people they knew described their own lives and told what it was like to live in Gloucester through several crucial decades, from the 1920s into the 1970s. The first printing was exhausted and a second printing was undertaken by Buck Robinson, a local bookseller, who obtained the copyright from the city and re-printed our book along with two of the other volumes the city had underwritten, Joe Garland's indispensable Gloucester Guide and Gordon Thomas' Fast and Able, a history of Gloucester fishing schooners and the men who sailed them, which has never been surpassed. Just imagine a city publishing with its own funds several books about its history! It would never happen today.
But as much as there was great interest in the book, indeed enthusiasm, and it had been well received in the city, there continued to be skeptics. Some officers of the Cape Ann Historical Association dismissed our book as "not history." One even called it "Beatnik history," probably referring to our appearance — Peter and I both had beards and wore our hair in pony-tails at the time — and the museum refused to sell it in its bookstore. Politicians were offended because they hadn't been interviewed. We were never invited to speak publicly about our work, and the incredible photographs Mark Power had taken for the book were never shown locally. But the book, as I've said, was used as a text in colleges and universities and we were later invited to speak outside of Gloucester about our work as oral historians. It was also the inspiration for several subsequent Gloucester oral history projects, one on Olson's life and local friendships, and another about Gloucester's Jewish community.
Working on the project with Peter, I found myself getting deeper into what Olson had referred to as "the secret history of Gloucester," the stories of those people whose lives and works made the community what it was, but whose memories had hardly been tapped; indeed, whose achievements had gone unrecognized, even as their lives had been rendered invisible. It was this history that I resolved to concentrate on in future work in memoir and fiction, especially since Olson had enjoined me to address it. "Anastas," he said to me before he died, "Your assignment will be to write the secret history of Gloucester." And I've taken that assignment seriously.
What about Maximus to Gloucester?
Between mid-December of 1962 and his death on January 10, 1970 Charles Olson wrote seventeen letters to the editor of the Gloucester Daily Times, five in the form of poems, the rest as letters. These letters took the city to task for allowing Urban Renewal to demolish much of the city's waterfront and marine industrial infrastructure, turning the downtown into "one big truck park," as Peter Parsons recently remarked. Olson spoke out against the loss of historic buildings and the filling of valuable marshes and tidelands for development he felt was nothing but an erosion of the city's character. These letters appeared prominently on the editorial page of Gloucester's only newspaper and they aroused both the anger and the concern of citizens. Those who favored development, those who had sold Urban Renewal to the city as a panacea for its economic woes, thought Olson was out of his mind. But those who understood the city's traditions and valued her history were moved to action by the letters, which described a city that had become invisible to most of us as a result of the daily habit of living in it. Olson opened our eyes once more to the beauty of the morning light, to the return of red wing blackbirds in early spring, to the loss of sacred places, secret woodland paths and streams, as development money poured into the city and it began to change, appearing now "indistinguishable from the USA," as Olson had warned.
These letters, clipped and saved by many, became a sort of handbook for living in Gloucester — indeed for living on the earth because several addressed larger ecological concerns. They also inspired a growing group of local activists, individuals and neighborhood protective organizations that were beginning to raise their voices against unplanned development. I had long wanted to collect them into a book both for local use and as documents for Olson scholars, but I lacked the resources or a ready publisher. It was then, in 1990, that my friend, writer, bookseller and publisher Greg Gibson encouraged me to do the book. He arranged a Massachusetts Arts Council grant that would underwrite my research and travel to the Olson archive at the University of Connecticut, at Storrs, so I could locate and work with the existing original drafts of the letters and poems. He also agreed to publish the finished book with his press, Ten Pound Island Books. Greg was a constant source of inspiration and encouragement as I worked with available manuscripts of the letters to establish the texts we would publish, along with extensive annotations. Greg also encouraged me to undertake a substantial critical and biographical introduction, as he said, "explaining Olson" to those who might never have read him.
This project was a significant challenge. I was working as a social worker by day, teaching English at North Shore Community College by night, writing a weekly column for the Gloucester Times, and serving on several municipal committees. By then my three children were in college or graduate school (my younger son Ben at the Iowa Writers Workshop) and my life in Gloucester was at its busiest politically. Somehow I managed, with the help of the Special Collections staff at Storrs to collate the original letters with their published versions and to complete the annotations and my seventy-five page introduction. The project required all the training I had received in bibliography in graduate school — indeed, when completed it might well have been submitted as the doctoral dissertation I never wrote at Tufts.
This time, upon publication, I was invited to speak at the Cape Ann Historical Association. There was a new president, Harold Bell, who had been a close friend of Olson's, and the museum welcomed the publication of the book, just as they had earlier mounted a major exhibit of the Dogtown paintings of Marsden Hartley, about which Olson had so movingly written in the Maximus Poems, and, prior to that, a show of photographs by Lynn Swigart that had appeared in his Olson's Gloucester. It was a new day in Gloucester, not only in the increasing interest in Olson and his work, but in preserving the city's character and architectural treasures. Maximus to Gloucester contributed to that change in consciousness and I'm proud to have been a catalyst in that change in introducing a new generation both to Olson and to the responsibilities of citizenship he stressed in his letters to the editor. Olson is now quoted as an authority as citizens rise in public to oppose development proposals they feel are injurious to the city and her character. And most recently, Susan Pollack, a local resident and nationally known writer on fisheries and environmental issues, contributed a column to the Gloucester Times referring to Maximus to Gloucester and calling upon citizens to heed Olson's warnings against the loss of our maritime heritage.
Critical response, especially among Olson scholars, was swift and positive and I continue to hear today from members of the international Olson community, who discover the book and find it helpful to their work and to a general understanding of Olson as a poet and citizen of place.
The publication of Maximus to Gloucester in 1992 seemed to open a floodgate. In quick succession I wrote No Fortunes, a novel based on my experiences at Bowdoin in the late 1950s that I'd been wanting to write ever since graduation. Then I completed At the Cut, my memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s, which I had actually started working on around the time of my father's illness and death in 1975. That was followed by Broken Trip, a novel-in-stories, set in Gloucester in the 1990s and based on my life as a social worker.
What is the genesis of At the Cut? Reactions on publication?
At the Cut, my memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the 1940s, began as a series of narratives I started composing in 1975, around the time of my father's final illness and death. In April of that year I had been asked to read at a small press book fair at Boston University, along with Jonathan Bayliss, who was working on his series of Gloucester novels, the first of which Olson had highly praised, and my former Tufts student Danny O'Neill, who had written, Never Get Out of This World Alive, a hilarious coming-of-age novel set in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, based on the "Frankie and Johnny" ballad. I had planned to read some passages from When Gloucester Was Gloucester, along with an excerpt from my novella, Landscape with Boy, which had just been published in the Boston University Fiction series. However, while preparing for the BU reading I was inspired to write out a story I had once shared with my children. Ostensibly about setting a bag of shit on fire on an old lady's porch in our neighborhood, it was a story that, as I thought more about it, began as a childish prank and ended as a turning point in my psychosocial development. I called it "Nature Boy," from a 1940s Hit Parade song that had haunted me since childhood.
I finished writing the story the night before the reading at BU and it was well-received at an early afternoon session, which my children and their mother attended. It was an important afternoon not only because my family was there in support (by then my wife and I had been divorced for three years and she and the kids were living in Cambridge), but also because John Wieners read directly after our group. It was the first time I'd heard John read and I was electrified by his reading of "Night Samba," an incredible Boston poem, his reading of which I've never been able to forget. In addition to this, my father, who had recently fallen and broken his pelvis, was confined to the hospital in Gloucester. Through immobility, he had developed pneumonia and was in intensive care. The prognosis was not good. For this reason, I was apprehensive about leaving my mother alone with him and I offered to forgo the reading at BU. But my mother insisted that I go to Boston. On the way home I called her, only to learn that Dad had died at 2 p.m. that afternoon, the very same hour I was reading my story, which, among other things, pays tribute to my father's tolerant understanding of my often wayward behavior when I was growing up.
So the book that grew from "Nature Boy" had a lot to do with losing my father and coming to terms with his death, and with my life in the neighborhood in the section of Gloucester called "The Cut," where my Dad owned the corner store. One story led to another, and over a period of twenty-five years I completed the book. I had wanted to recreate the neighborhood of my childhood, but I had also hoped to describe the city as I knew it from birth — how Gloucester had changed over time and under the pressure of historical events. Once I had completed the manuscript, I queried some agents and even showed it to a couple of trade publishers; but their responses were not favorable. "Too local," was the consensus. This was ironic because that is exactly how I had envisioned the book to be — a purely local text, which would, in the Olsonian sense, mirror the universal in its archetypal story of a boy's coming-of-age in post-war America.
By 2001 many friends had read the manuscript and encouraged me to pursue publication. No one had written such an intimate book about Gloucester, they said, especially about the 1940s and early 50s — "You must publish it." Luckily, my friend Bob Ritchie, an antiquarian bookseller and the owner of the Dogtown Book Shop, wanted to begin publishing locally-oriented books. Bob read the manuscript and offered to bring the book out immediately. At the Cut was launched at a huge party at Bob's bookstore on November 15, 2002, my 65th birthday and the day of my retirement from Action, Inc. The first printing sold out immediately and a second printing followed. Seven years later, the book is still in print.
The Gloucester Times reviewed the book enthusiastically, sending a reporter to interview me walking around my old neighborhood and pointing out some of the houses and places I had described in the book. It was also sympathetically reviewed by the late Alan Lupo of the Boston Globe, who had grown up at the same time in a similar North Shore neighborhood, and wrote: "Peter Anastas' descriptive powers are as extraordinary as his memory of Gloucester in the 1940s and 50s . . . And Anastas is almost brutal in revealing his inner soul, as he writes about the ghost that haunts those of us who never fit in as well as we wished when we were kids but later gained some modicum of success."
I had some concerns that I might offend local readers with my sexually explicit accounts of individual and group masturbation and other erotic explorations typical of pre-adolescent boys; but I learned yet again that Gloucester people were not only tolerant of such disclosures, they enjoyed a raunchy tale and many then felt free to share their own stories when we met.
At the Cut is for me my most fully achieved book. Inspired by Kerouac's novels of growing up in Lowell — Visions of Gerard and Maggie Cassidy — and by the formalist narrative techniques in Nadezhda Mandelstam's memoirs of the Gulag, along with Henry Miller's tales of childhood in Brooklyn, it still seems to me more inventive than it appears on its face to be. Told from the point of view of the living present, from my own life and that of the city in the here and now, it revisits the past in a way that I had hoped would animate not entomb my memories of growing up— the pain of it, the terror, the intimidation I experienced during and after the Second War and its attendant xenophobia. Even as I described my childhood I was telling the story of my entire life up to the present. My deep reading in Proust had also inspired the book.
There were a few local readers who claimed that the Gloucester I described wasn't the Gloucester they knew. One remarked to a pharmacist friend my brother and I had grown up with, "Anastas made it all up, didn't he?"! But the pharmacist replied, "Hey, I was there! He's telling the truth." Even now I'm stopped on the street by readers who comment that I've "told it like it was," so I feel a sense of achievement about this book.
What is the genesis of Broken Trip? Reactions on publication?
Broken Trip, the book that followed, comes entirely from my thirty-year experience as a social worker. It's a novel told as a series of linked stories, very much as I recreated life in my old neighborhood in At the Cut. The late Grace Paley, who, with her husband novelist Robert Nichols, published Broken Trip in 2004 under their Glad Day Books imprint, always said that you need to have two stories to tell before you can tell one. It's always been that way with me. In fact, I'm usually telling several stories simultaneously. In this case, I began by wanting to tell a story about a young girl whose father, a fine boxer, had been shot and killed by the police for no more severe a crime than defaulting on a bench warrant. I knew the father well, and the girl's mother had been a client in several of our programs, a woman I deeply admired. I knew that my story had to have some context, but I was unable to provide that context until I read, quite by chance Pat Barker's 1982 novel-in-stories Union Street, set in a working class town like Gloucester, only in the industrial North of England during the Thatcher years.
I had never read Barker before, and once I finished Union Street I read her stunning follow-up novel, Blow Your House Down, about a group of unemployed working class mothers who turn to prostitution. Barker's gritty, neo-realist focus on Britain underclass was precisely the approach I had decided upon to tell in fiction the story of Gloucester in the 1980s and 90s, our fishing industry in crisis and the city under siege by developers and the forces of gentrification. Once I'd grasped my form and approach, thanks to Barker and a re-reading of Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn, the book practically wrote itself.
I ended up with twelve interconnected narratives, in terms of related stories and characters. The title, Broken Trip, come from an indigenous expression that refers to a failed or unprofitable fishing trip. In my use of it, it also refers to the "bad trip" of drug users. And in this book I wrote about the drug culture in Gloucester that grew up around unemployment, the sense of despair among the uneducated young, and the indignity of collecting Welfare and having to live in public housing with its social and economic restrictions. In a word, I described the life of poverty in Gloucester, and, by extension, in the country at large, just as the Welfare system was being dismantled under the aegis of "reform" and hospitals, like other corporate entities, were consolidating, making health and mental health services more difficult to access for the poor. The Broken Trip of my book became a metaphor for the entire frayed and failed social safety net in the wake of the Reagan era. So, in a sense, Broken Trip had become the book I had always wanted to write about poverty in Gloucester. In this case, I combined fiction, document (even to Ernie Morin's stark black and white photographs), my own first-hand experience — all inspired by my deep immersion in American proletarian literature.
I sent some chapters from the completed manuscript to an agent whom I had met through Sebastian Junger, whose Perfect Storm, about a Gloucester swordfishing boat that was lost during a fierce North Atlantic storm became a best-seller and was made into a popular movie. The agent appeared to like what he had read but felt there was "not enough redemption" in the narratives to warrant his or a publisher's interest. Since I don't believe in redemption, it had not been my intent in the book to depict it in any form. But I persevered and sent the manuscript to another New York agent, who represented a friend. This agent was more forthcoming. "I love the stories," he told me over the phone. "But I can't sell a gritty, unrelenting book like this in today's market. People want to feel good." He suggested that I try some small presses. All of those I tried turned me down.
When I shared my plight with Janice Severence, the owner of the Bookstore in Gloucester, who has been such a friend to local writers, she suggested that I contact Grace Paley, whose Glad Day Books she had just read about in a publishing catalogue. The press's mission, "bridging the gap between imaginative literature and politics," seemed welcoming of my work. I wrote immediately to Glad Day in Thetford, Vermont telling them about my experience with "redemption." Grace's husband Bob wrote back asking to see the book. "In any event, we're not interested in redemption," Bob added. Thus began a two-year relationship carried out over the phone and through letters from Bob on yellow foolscap — Bob and Grace didn't use email. During this period, from the book's acceptance and through the revision and editorial process I learned more about writing from Bob and Grace than I think I'd learned during my entire life.
We trimmed the original twelve narrative chapters down to ten and I wrote an entirely new first chapter, introducing the city and my principal narrator-character, Tony Russo, a Welfare case worker, who is the son of a fishing captain. Bob and Grace felt that the city of Gloucester was as much a "character" in the novel as the actual characters and I needed to highlight it as such. We also restructured the book so that it began and ended with Tony and his story. But what pleased me most is that Bob and Grace did not flinch at the extreme violence of some of the narratives, as the agents and editors had who'd previously read them. It was not gratuitous violence, for, in any case, I was describing events that had actually happened in Gloucester, including the torture-murder of a homeless alcoholic by teen-age boys, the gang rape of a young man in a detention center bathroom, and the death by fire of a cancerous heroin addict.
Bob and Grace also liked the Gloucester street language of the narrative voice I had chosen to tell the story with. My intent had been, as we wrote on the book's jacket, illustrated by a photograph by my friend Ernie Morin, of Gloucester harbor with a crack down through it, "to penetrate the façade of the venerable seaport depicted in tourist brochures to reveal the lives of and men and women bypassed by the economic boom" (how ironic given the collapse of today's financial markets!)
Even though we sent review copies to major newspapers and literary journals, along with an introductory letter signed by Bob and Grace, we received no reviews beyond the North Shore media, except for an incredibly insightful one from Robert Buckeye in my friend Kenneth Warren's House Organ. Bob encapsulated the entire thrust of my narrative when he wrote, "Compassion is the underlying aesthetic of Broken Trip." And I couldn't have asked for greater understanding than when local reviewer and novelist Rae Francoeur wrote in the Salem News, "Anastas is unflinching in his portrayals of incest, violence, sex, drug use and domestic chaos. Some of his writing about these matters is utterly poetic. And Anastas' way with dialogue is impressive. Not once does he aim for anything other than simplicity of language and brevity in description; yet, by the end of Broken Trip, we are completely absorbed — or is it ensnared? He has us by the heart." With this kind of understanding who needed the New York Times?
Genesis and reception of No Fortunes?
After the publication of Broken Trip in 2004, I decided to publish the book I had completed first after Maximus to Gloucester. This was No Fortunes, the novel I've already spoken of as an attempt to deal with my college years at Bowdoin during the late 1950s. As I've said, I had wanted since my undergraduate days to write a novel about the experience of being a student during the Cold War. I had hoped, in particular, to write about life in a small New England college from the perspective of a student, who never felt at home in such a setting, not only in terms of social class (the college was a haven for private school graduates), but as a budding intellectual and artist among students, many of whom, though from affluent and often prominent families, were decidedly anti-intellectual, not to speak of their political conservatism. In a word, I wanted to write a political novel — but I knew I wasn't ready yet. I needed time to digest and understand those years of agony I spent at a college I should never have applied to and attended. I would have been much happier at Berkley or Reed, neither of which schools I knew anything about when I applied to Bowdoin under the pressure of family friends who had ties to the school. My teachers urged me to apply to Harvard, but I knew from hindsight that if I was uncomfortable at Bowdoin I would never have fit in at Harvard. I was a small town boy and the one thing I liked about Bowdoin was that Brunswick, Maine, where the college is located, was an even smaller town than Gloucester.
My essay "Why I Wrote No Fortunes" explains the genesis of the novel, along with the conditions that prompted me to write it. Soon after completing the manuscript in 1992, I sent it to my son Ben, who was a graduate student in fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Ben gave it a thorough critical reading, offering many helpful suggestions for revision. His enthusiasm for the novel, especially, as he wrote me, for the way I had described the books, paintings, music and theater that I and my small circle of friends were excited by, encouraged me to think about publication, even though for years I hadn't come across a college novel set in the 1950s issued by any trade publisher and had doubts about its potential reception. Consequently, I sent the manuscript to my friend the poet, editor and publisher Peter Davison, who had his own imprint at Houghton Mifflin, in Boston. Peter gave the novel a close reading, copyediting the manuscript meticulously in the process. He thought it was well written — he loved the passages about sex, and, like Ben, he thought I had recreated the intellectual atmosphere of the period with great excitement (reviewers of the published edition concurred). Peter also advised me that there was no market for college novels and that I should try some small and university presses. This I did for a couple of years without success.
Friends were experiencing the same sorts of rejection, so in 2002 poets Peter Tuttle and Schuyler Hoffman and I founded Back Shore Writers Collaborative and Back Shore Press as a cooperative publishing venture. Our first book was Peter's book-length road poem, Looking for a Sign in the West, which sold well and was well received. It had been beautifully designed by Ruth Maassen, who had designed At the Cut, and it was produced for us by Thomson-Shore, in Dexter, Michigan, the same printers who produced At the Cut and were later to print No Fortunes, also designed by Ruth. Our next book was No Fortunes. Experience with Peter's book taught us that we needed a professional distributor. So I asked Enfield Publishing and Distribution, in New Hampshire, which distributed all of Glad Day's books, along with publications from several small and university presses, to distribute No Fortunes.
Enfield suggested that since the novel was set in Maine, we might consider niche marketing it in the region. We did this, targeting Maine booksellers and media. Not only did we sell out the first printing in less than a year, we also received good reviews from all of Maine's major newspapers. We had a website designed for the press and we arranged for sale of the books through online booksellers like Amazon. But our best experience was with the independent booksellers of Maine to whom we sent complimentary copies of the novel, along with a flyer advising them to order directly from Enfield, which they did. The Bowdoin College bookstore turned out to be our best customer, ironically since the novel is quite critical of college life during my years there. I also want to thank Gary Lawless of Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick for stocking and promoting the novel and for maintaining one of the finest independent book stores I know.
What's next on your writing and publishing agenda?
Since the publication of No Fortunes, in 2005, I have completed a sequel to At the Cut, a memoir which I'm calling "From Gloucester Out." It covers my life since high school, with a concentration on the roots of my activism. I've revisited and revised a novel I completed in the early 1960s, set in Florence, Italy, which I'm calling "Inside the Ancient Circle," from Dante's description of Florence. I've also completed a long novel about the struggle over the soul of Gloucester, which I'm calling "Decline of Fishes," from a line in an Olson poem. This novel combines fiction, memoir, document and history, so, in a sense, it could be said that it brings together all of my interests, both literary and political, and the means I've employed to explore and express them.
Let's have a sketch of the current struggle in Gloucester.
I am currently working with a coalition called Citizens for Gloucester Harbor to oppose zoning regulations that have been proposed for Gloucester's historic working waterfront that would, we believe, be detrimental to Gloucester's continuing as a hub port for New England and also to the growth of our fishing fleet as the industry recovers from the most restrictive federal regulations that have ever been imposed on fishing.
Along with these new zoning measures, the mayor of Gloucester has proposed rezoning the Fort area of the city, the home of Gloucester's Sicilian fishing community and a viable marine industrial neighborhood, where, for over a century fish processing has co-existed with residential living. This proposed rezoning would allow the development of a luxury hotel at the historic Birdseye plant, where Clarence Birdseye created the "flash freezing" method for frozen food, thereby revolutionizing the food industry. The Fort is also where Charles Olson lived and wrote The Maximus Poems. The proposed rezoning would also open the door to gentrification of the area, which the neighbors vigorously oppose. What is at stake is the very identity of Gloucester; indeed, the heart and soul of the city. Should the new zoning take effect, the waterfront could be opened to non-marine development that would transform the city from a gritty, blue collar town fishing port into a resort like Newport RI, where fishing would be supplanted by tourism and yachting. The coalition's mission statement is as follows:
Citizens for Gloucester Harbor, is a collaborative of organizations and individuals committed to maintaining and strengthening Gloucester's historic fisheries and working waterfront in such a way as to ensure the DPA (Designated Port Authority), maintain the infrastructure necessary for a sustainable fishery, provide quality jobs, identify and attract new tenants for empty waterfront properties, create a "cluster" of research and development in marine science and industry, support innovative projects in ocean research, boat design, marine biotech, and food product development, protect the historic architecture of the harbor through adaptive reuse of old or abandoned structures, support the arts and creative economy, and increase public access to boating opportunities on the waterfront.
Let's take a look back and pick up on a few things:
What role has your birth and residence in Gloucester, Massachusetts played in your life and work?
Thoreau said that he had "traveled a good deal in Concord," and I might say the same for myself in Gloucester. Though I have also traveled in Europe and the United States, in many respects Gloucester has been my world, the place I know the most about, the source of practically everything I have written.
Didn't Henry James call Thoreau "worse than provincial — he was parochial?"
As an internationalist James had to escape the localism that so much of American literature was saturated in during the 19th century-a localism and a regionalism that emerged as Americans broke away from England and Europe both intellectually and culturally in order to embrace their own history and identity. Thoreau was in the forefront of this movement of self-declaration, when town histories began to be written and local historical associations were formed. It was only natural that American writers began to write about where they lived.
Is that why Thoreau has meant so much to you?
We read selections from Walden in high school during sophomore English with our teacher, Miss Claudia Perry, who was a Radcliffe graduate and an inspiring Americanist. But I wasn't ready then for Thoreau's understanding of the natural world, his practical Transcendentalism, though I had been fascinated by his descriptions of living through the seasons at Walden Pond when I came across his writings while browsing in the library years before high school. By high school I was immersed in the novels of Steinbeck and Hemingway, and when I wasn't reading fiction I was listening to jazz or trying to play it. When I entered college, Walden, was part of the required reading in English 1. Our instructor Steve Minot, who was himself a writer, helped us to appreciate the precision of Thoreau's prose, rooted as it was in the phenomenal world, just as Thoreau had immersed himself in the history of Concord and New England. Since then Walden has been a key text for me. Every year I read a few pages or a chapter from it. I might add that writing my master's thesis on Thoreau's concept of place also helped me to understand the nature of place itself-historically, culturally, politically and symbolically-and my own birthplace as one of the first American places.
There must have been some other attraction for you in this strange man who lived mostly in the same house with his parents when he wasn't traveling in the Maine woods or Cape Cod.
I loved Thoreau's eccentricity, but I also admired his politics. I was writing my thesis in the mid-1960s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the opposition to the war in Vietnam. "Civil Disobedience," "Slavery in Massachusetts," "Life without Principle," and "The Last Days of John Brown," were essays that electrified me, showing me a side of Thoreau that I hadn't recognized before. Reading those incendiary tracts was an important part of my own radicalization. Who could have guessed that the quiet hermit of Walden Pond had once declared, "I need not say what match I would touch, what system endeavor to blow up"? After reading that, who needed Abby Hoffman or H. "Rap" Brown?
Aside from Thoreau's bracing anarchism and his Abolitionist politics (I've come to understand Transcendentalism as the single, great, native intellectual and political movement in America), Thoreau was a loner. As I've said, I've been a solitary, too, all my life, from the days when I wandered the riverbanks of my neighborhood collecting butterflies and studying the weeds and wildflowers to the hours I spend by myself today walking, reading or writing in my journals.
Was it a difficult transition from Thoreau's localism to that of Charles Olson's in The Maximus
Actually, it was Olson who led me back to Thoreau. Not personally, because Thoreau
wasn't a great favorite of Olson's-he once wrote on a postcard to Gerrit Lansing,
"Thoreau is not thorough" — but in terms of Olson's focus on the
multi-dimensionality of place. I began reading The Maximus Poems seriously
in 1962, when I returned from Italy to Gloucester. I was also seeing Olson and his wife
Betty almost daily. His deep study of local history and the way he explored the past
and present life of Gloucester in the poems helped me to realize that it was possible to
write about the place one came from in a way that didn't merely evoke "nostalgia" or
"local color." Gloucester, her streets and people and the extraordinary quality of the
natural environment, came alive in Olson's poems and in the letters he was writing
to the Editor of the Gloucester Times slamming development that threatened to
destroy the city's historic buildings and valuable wetlands.
When Olson wrote in his powerful, "Scream to the Editor," "Oh city of mediocrity and cheap ambition, destroying its own shoulders, its own back greedy present persons stood upon," he wasn't romanticizing the nation's oldest seaport, as many writers and painters had done before him; he was warning the community about what it would be losing in its rush to make a Faustian pact with Urban Renewal. The local came alive with Olson, both in his poetry and his activism, so I had a living example in him of what Thoreau had been writing and enacting in Concord in the 1840s and 50s.
When I went to graduate school, one of the first courses I took was Wisner Payne Kinne's seminar on Thoreau. As soon as I started reading A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, I began to view Thoreau through an Olsonian lens, and I was on my way to a study of the significance of place that led to my thesis on Thoreau's approach to it. Conversely, reading Thoreau helped me to understand Olson more deeply, though they were very different writers. This concentration on place-what it means, how to know it, how to live in it knowledgeably and write about it lovingly-became the focus of my work. It also helped me to understand why I had returned to Gloucester.
What does place mean to you?
Place is not only where we live, but also where we get our bearings from. Place is who we are and how we feel about ourselves, how we're anchored in the world. Place is our very identity, "the geography of our being," as Charles Olson put it. And if we lose place, or undermine its character, whittle it away year by year by inappropriate development — chopping up neighborhoods, driving people away from the houses they were born or grew up in — we destroy the basis of our lives, if not our very identities.
Place is topography, the look and feel of the land, the mapping of streets in a town, the complex of neighborhoods, what has been built by humans or has evolved from nature. A sense of place also includes the history of where we live — who inhabited it before we did and how they impressed themselves and their culture on the land. Place includes our personal and collective history as we live daily in a given place. Place is the life forms we cohabit with, indeed all the biota of our environment.
Place is also symbol and myth, for a single town or city, the history of its founding and growth, as Thoreau believed, can be viewed as an archetype for the origin and evolution of all places on the earth.
S. Y. Agnon wrote that "Every writer needs to have a city of his own, a river of his own, and streets of his own." As it is for writers, so it is also for everyone.
Okay. But presumably there was some more practical reason for why you chose to return to your birthplace and remain there.
In order to stay out of the draft I had to find a teaching job. Fortunately, there was one ready to hand in Rockport, MA, the town with which Gloucester shares the island of Cape Ann. My brother Tom, who'd been stationed in the Pacific during his service in the army, came home after being discharged in January of 1963 to warn me that we were preparing for war in Vietnam. "It's going to be hell," he said, "and you should do everything you can to stay out of it." I lost my educational deferment when I decided not to pursue the fellowship in Italian I'd won at Berkeley in 1960 and had delayed for two years while still in Florence; so all that remained was teaching, which offered an occupational deferment. Having already taught English for two years in Florence to finance my stay, I discovered that I loved helping others to learn, so it seemed natural to continue in the US, first in Rockport to fill a vacancy and then permanently in Winchester, MA, where I was subsequently hired to teach English and literature. At that point, living in Gloucester, first with my parents, and then on my own while commuting to Winchester, was a practical decision.
But there were other reasons why I chose to remain in Gloucester. I found there was an incredible community of writers and artists around Olson. There was my old friend and mentor from my early teens, the poet Vincent Ferrini, who had lived in Gloucester since 1948. Through Olson and Ferrini I met Jonathan Bayliss, a Harvard and Berkeley educated business analyst and writer, who become a friend, confidante, and intellectual inspiration. Stimulated by Jonathan's work on ritual and dramatic poetry, I returned to the study of the Greeks I'd begun in college, and that fascination with ancient history and culture continues. I also met the poet and scholar Gerrit Lansing, who had important ties to the New York School, and whose studies in Jung and the occult opened me to other ways of looking at the world. Gerrit is also the best read person I've ever known, making him an invaluable resource. Among local visual artists, there were painters like Mary Shore and Celia Eldridge, and later Thorpe Feidt, whose diversely experimental work helped me to continue an interest in contemporary painting that began when I was growing up on Rocky Neck.
Olson was continually being visited by writers like Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Diane DiPrima, Michael McClure, Robert Kelly, Joel Oppenheimer, and Allen Ginsberg. Even Jack Kerouac showed up once at his back door. I met the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage in Olson's kitchen and had a chance to see several of his groundbreaking works at Mary Shore's during Brakhage's visit. There were scholars and archaeologists who came to Gloucester to pay their respects to Olson, along with the curious and the adulatory. An evening at Olson's could entail impassioned talk about everything from John F. Kennedy, whom Olson had taught at Harvard, to Joyce, whom Olson didn't like, or Dostoevsky and D. H. Lawrence, both of whom Olson adored. And Olson often read to us from his poems in progress about Gloucester or his brilliantly speculative essays, many of which were published in Human Universe.
"Why go to Berkeley when there's graduate school right here at my kitchen table?" the poet once remarked. And I knew he was right.
Meanwhile, living in Gloucester, first in our family house on Rocky Neck, then nearby in my own waterfront studio at the Beacon Marine Basin, I came to appreciate the intrinsic beauty of my native place. As America's earliest art colony, Rocky Neck was a miniature Provincetown. Painters like John Sloan, Edward Hopper and Marsden Hartley had lived and worked here. And in my day, the European-born painter Albert Alcalay, in whose studio I'd met Olson during the summer of 1959, was a powerful presence. Albert and his wife Vera had met and married in Rome just after the war, and they introduced me to contemporary Italian painting and writing. They also encouraged me to speak Italian, which I'd just begun to study in college.
After living in Europe, Gloucester seemed more to me like an Italian or French Riviera town than the run-down resort I'd tried to escape from. Everyone had a garden, and in the morning light the houses of Portuguese Hill glowed from the water like villas clinging to the hills of Liguria. You could hear Italian or Portuguese spoken on the streets and buy fresh bread and pastries in the shops, along with homemade pasta and sausages.
If, when I was in high school or college, anyone had predicted that I would return to my home town and remain there for the rest of my life, I would have been incredulous. It was fully my intention to live elsewhere in the US, in Berkeley, for example, where I'd once had fantasies of teaching, or in Europe, as I'd been inspired to do by my readings in Joyce, Lawrence, Pound or Hemingway. But when I came home to find the rich intellectual and artistic life inspired in part by Olson's presence (though there had always been writers and artists on Cape Ann) and the natural beauty I took for granted when younger, I found it hard to let go of. My brother was living in Manhattan and that seemed exciting; but I had no real connection to the city, or any chance of a job without getting drafted.
Are you sure there wasn't something else that kept you in Gloucester beyond the lure of place?
I've since wondered if it wasn't also fear that rooted me here, fear of having to establish myself somewhere I wasn't known or didn't have friends or family, fear of failing or of loneliness. But I seem to have settled easily in Florence, and before that in Brunswick, Maine during my college years, so fear seemed less the case, though for a good part of my early life I suffered from separation anxiety. I've wondered, also, if I didn't have some abnormal emotional attachment to my birthplace or my family, an attachment I feared breaking. Gloucester has been experienced by many natives as nearly impossible to leave-we call it the "island mentality." Once people succeed in getting away, they often rush back or never feel fully at home in any other place. There are even some residents who boast that they've "never crossed the Cut Bridge," which was once the only way out of town. I've yet to explore these issues fully, but I hope to in future work.
If there was so much stimulation and intellectual company in Gloucester, why did you return to graduate school?
Again, it was Olson who encouraged me. Not directly. He never said, "It's time now for you to return to your studies." It was more the consequence of two years of dialogue with Olson about American literature, American history. Aside from a course in contemporary literature at Bowdoin, in which we'd read the major novels of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, and a seminar for English majors where I encountered Farrell's Studs Lonigan, and Dos Passos' USA for the first time, I had read very little native writing. I'd read Moby-Dick in high school and then again on my own in Italy after reading Olson's seminal Call Me Ishmael, on the mythic and Shakespearean sources of the novel; and, of course, some Hawthorne, which we were all required to read in high school. But I had no real sense of the continuum of our literature, no feel for its history until I began discussing it with Charles.
One day he suggested that I take a look at the "Custom House" preface to The Scarlet Letter. "American literature really begins with that essay," Olson said. I rushed over to the Sawyer Free Library and signed the book out. I remember that it was the 8th of May in 1963 and the whole town was fogged in. I sat reading near the French doors of my studio, barely able to see the harbor below. I couldn't take my eyes off Hawthorne's text as I went on to read the novel, which I hadn't opened since high school, when I couldn't possibly have understood it.
As soon as I'd finished reading The Scarlet Letter I knew what I wanted to do. I would study American literature. Immediately, I began making applications to graduate school. I expected it would keep me out of the draft. I also hoped to gain some experience teaching at the college level. Tufts awarded me a three-year renewable teaching fellowship in English, allowing me enough money to live on after tuition remission, so that I could pursue both the MA and PhD degrees.
Why didn't you complete the doctorate and begin a teaching career?
After three years in graduate school in the US and a couple in Italy, it was clear to me that I was not interested in scholarship purely for its own sake. I loved the detective work it entailed, but I didn't have the desire to devote my life to academic pursuits. I discovered that I really wanted to write fiction, and I worried that teaching and scholarship might undermine the imaginative work I yearned to do. I had seen too many classmates and friends, who also wanted to write, fall into what I felt at the time might be a trap, teaching with little time for one's own work. Olson had left Harvard before receiving the doctorate, and his remark in a letter to Bob Creeley that it was "difficult to be both a poet and an historian," came home to me.
What about the draft?
By the time I left graduate school in 1967 I was thirty years old and our son Jonathan was two, so I'd effectively avoided the draft. I'd also enhanced my knowledge of English literature by studying Renaissance drama and Milton's poetry and prose with Michael Fixler, who was one of the best teachers I ever had. And on my own I'd steeped myself in English and American Puritan theology and writing in an attempt to understand the basis of the American mind.
Have you ever regretted not completing work for the PhD?
I have. But my solace is that I did complete a very rigorous master's thesis, which one of my advisors called the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation. This showed me that I could do scholarly work and that I'd at least mastered its techniques, which I could employ on my own. But in my heart I knew I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in the academic world. The backbiting I'd witnessed at Tufts, the competition for grants and honors, the professional jealousies, were not for me. Tough as survival in Gloucester often seemed-drugs, drinking and violence, the ups and downs of the fishing industry, the battles we entered time and again to stop deleterious development-life in my hometown seemed a lot realer than life on a college campus. I felt that if I were going to write seriously I had to be in an environment that fostered writing itself, not writing about writing. I've never looked back.
Why do you read and why do you think others read?
I couldn't imagine my life without a book. Since childhood I have read for pleasure, for transport, for the pure delight of getting lost in a story, perhaps a tale of adventure that might take place in a far off country, or in a part of my own country or region, which I enter inter willingly and often breathlessly in the pages of a book. I read to learn about other people and places, about things I know nothing about — particle physics, plate tectonics, Medieval painting. I love to immerse myself in biography, in the stories of the lives of writers, artists, scientists, politicians. Reading biography allows me to learn not only about the people whose lives interest me, but about the times they lived in, the art or craft they practice. Stories of coming of age, of self-discovery fascinate me because we are ever coming of age and finding ourselves, or new facets of ourselves. And I read poetry to immerse myself in the consciousness of another artist, to see other angles of vision on the world, or to enter into the meditative space of a thoughtful person.
I also read to write, as Olson wrote, quoting Melville. I'm inspired to put words down by practically everything I read. If I'm writing fiction, I like to read fiction; likewise, non-fiction. Reading primes the pump for me. It also teaches me how to write, how to approach a particular scene I want to create or a topic I'd like to address. I'll often ask myself, "How would Flaubert describe this encounter?" or "How would Sven Birkerts lead me through this exercise in criticism?"
From early childhood I've loved to sit in a corner by myself and read for hours, lost in words, in images, in the struggles of others. As I grew older I read to learn, as I'm doing just now in reading Orlando Figes' The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, one of the most incredible accounts of survival (or non-survival) in a totalitarian society I've read. While I'm reading Figes at night, at odd moments during the day I'm also reading Roberto Bolano's 2666, a stunning novel that helps me to understand what some of my contemporaries are writing and how they are writing. It's nothing for me to have several books going at the same time. While I'm reading Figes and Bolano I'm also reading a couple of critical studies about Hemingway's lifelong fascination with cross-gender behavior. I read TLS each week, The London Review, the New York Review, the New Yorker and dozens of national and international newspapers and magazines online. But only a book satisfies my deepest need to read.
As to why others read, I would say that they are captivated by narrative as I am. Though fewer people are said to be buying literary fiction today, the rise of book clubs is a healthy sign that reading isn't dead. Literary books clubs bring people together to read and discuss demanding texts. It was by a friend who belongs to a local book club that I was inspired to begin reading Bolano, whom I'd long known about but hadn't got around to reading. Others get their books online by downloading or reading them on a Kindle. Young people are reading the Harry Potter books the way an earlier generation read Tolkein or we read Jules Verne.
To be sure TV and the digital technologies are cutting into the world of books and printed texts, but so did radio and movies for my generation. An immersion in the immediate gratifications of the visual and the digital may inhibit a young person when it comes to the book, undermining the habit of print: but I know a young woman with only a high school education who works as a cashier in my local fruit and vegetable market. She's always reading — good books, too — The Alienist, by Caleb Carr, Tolstoy — and she loves to talk about books, recommending them to customers, eagerly asking others what they are reading. And when I go to the public library I'm always running into people who are either returning or taking out literally stacks of books at a time — and not just mysteries and self-help texts. Many are reading substantial fiction and non-fiction. So I wouldn't write the book off yet, or those who love to read. It's possible that fewer people read poetry — I read it less these days than I did when I was younger; but when books like Jack Spicer's My Vocabulary Did This to Me or Jack Hirschman's Arcanes come to hand, as they recently have, I realize how important poetry is to me and I immerse myself in it with the same fervor and excitement that I read Pound and Williams as an undergraduate.
Yes, the society has been dumbed down by the inanities of TV sit-coms and reality shows, by leaders who lack critical intelligence, by school systems that teach to achievements tests rather than challenging kids to think, read and write for themselves, as I was by my teachers. And trade publishers are tied to the bottom line and the demands of their accounting departments as never before. Their editors seek novelty rather than books that stretch the mind; and if a serious writer isn't making them any money he or she is dropped from their lists. These are hard times for writers, and, by extension, for readers as the flow of good new books is inhibited. A society that doesn't support its best writers and artists, its libraries, is a society in decline.
Not too long ago my local public library junked its card catalogue, which contained records, many of them hand-written, on individual books going back to the 19th century. That paved the way for what the library director called the "weeding" of the collection. This weeding entailed de-accessioning more than half of the collection. Aside from certain "classics," approved by the Library Association for retention in public libraries, books that had not been signed out for five years were tossed directly into a dumpster; others were put on sale at "a buck a bag," including a first edition of The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats and the novels of Wright Morris, also in first editions. When I reproached the director for depriving the citizens of Gloucester of their literary heritage, his response was, "I'm not running an archive." He's gone now, but so are most of the books I grew up on, including Zimmer' Philosophies of India. This has been happening all over the country, so that the public library, once the central place of education for working people, indeed for all Americans who weren't affiliated with colleges or universities, is now a shadow of its former glory, and again, we end up dumbed down further and deprived of our freedom of inquiry.
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