American Writers at Home

"A theme reflecting the deep American need to move, to be on one's own. Take some of our greatest books. Huckleberry Finn wanting to leave home, Jim escaping from circumstances in the book. All of our books have to do with this American sense wanting to move. The Great Gatsby, as instance. Or, a writer like Eugene O'Neill who goes back to studying a family caught in a moment of time and to diagnose it somewhat.

"I think there's that sense of there being something wrong with a person who stays in one spot and that there's something restlessly right about the pioneer or the self-made millionaire. It's an American type that our writers are fascinated by -- from Hawthorne up to Scott Fitzgerald and on to Tom Wolfe, I suppose. We're a very inward-turning culture. The nature of our culture is continually churning and changing at the same time, and our history is so abrupt.

"Yet within that very short time, we have created a literature of remarkable range and depth and held it up as a mirror to ourselves. It may be that America, the nature of our country, and the way we live in it pushes people to document themselves and to examine our history in ways that may have been more leisurely in the Old World."

I suggested the lines from Eliot's Four Quartets as an interesting comment on American restlessness:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

"Yes. Eliot is someone who left, as so many of our writers do, to find himself. He said later in life that although he had spent his life in England and become an English citizen that the sources of all his work were Native American. Going back to the banks of the Mississippi and the Massachusetts coast. The rhythms of speech that he heard as a child. So there's a way in which you can't escape your home even though one tries to do that. We couldn't find Midwesterners for the book because they had all left the Midwest very quickly.

"In the old days, it was the schooling. Sinclair Lewis wanted to come to Yale; if you were Scott Fitzgerald, you'd go to Princeton. You wanted to move to a cultural city. It was the lack of culture, the lack of appreciation for what interested you."

"Also there's freedom, social freedom."

"Absolutely. The freedom of the big city to pursue your dreams. Which you'd never find at home, usually among unappreciative townsmen and parents who wanted you to work on the farm or in the family business. And that kind of pressure and that kind of suffocation, really."

"And who didn't see art as a vocation."

"Having any value whatsoever."

"Art was a pastime, at best."

"There is, of course," said Professor McClatchy, "a strong streak in American social life as well, that kind of deep suspicion of art as fancy and imported and..."

"French," I laughed.

"French, indeed. But the best American artists, their appetites were huge, and they would gobble up almost everything. And gobble it out of a mix of cultures -- that's the way our American language evolved so remarkably. From Standard English to English Plus. And our writers have been hurriedly taking advantage of that evolution all along."

"Do you use a computer when you write prose?"

"I do. I don't write letters on it, but I write essays on it. I still write poems by hand."

"I find that since I began using a computer that the computer also feels like a home. If you have to get a new computer..."

"It's like moving. As traumatic as that. I hire somebody to make everything exactly the way it was the last time. I'm slightly afraid of computers, having lost things on them and being mechanically incompetent. And I have no imagination. If something goes wrong, I can't begin to think how I might fix it myself. I call up somebody."

"So the computer doesn't feel like a home to you?"

"It feels like living at home, as if I were 20 and hadn't left home yet, and I resent the routine -- dinner at six and no smoking in the front parlor."

I mentioned that writers seemed to live two lives. "There's the part of you that writes, and then there's the part of you who pays the light bill and makes another pan of hideous lasagna. The latter part is the caretaker of the part of you who writes. When I open up the home that is my computer, I feel more at home than I do at the kitchen counter, stirring the sauce for that lasagna."

"I know what you mean. Not a day goes by that I don't sit down and do something. And like you I feel most myself when I am doing this. I like cooking and I don't mind being in the world, but I feel most myself when I'm putting sentences together."

"Recently, I watched you on TV, presenting this book to a group of notables. You wore a wonderful suit and had a grand air about you of confidence. I thought, 'Oh, how much he's able to be in the world and to swan about and not mind it at all, and it doesn't rub off badly on him.' You have not become some egomaniacal idiot."

"No. It's tiring though."

"I thought that, too. I thought you must go home at night and just put your big head on the pillow and sigh."

"After that event, then I had to go to the dinner that was given by whoever. So that's another three hours after that speech of being 'charming.' I tell you, by the time I get home, I'm really ready for my martini. But on the other hand, I feel a sense of responsibility."

"What about the home you've made for yourself, in Stonington, Connecticut?"

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