The Case for Cyrus Colter

Last weekend I was in Springfield, Illinois, attending a wedding, and pre-reception photos were taken on the grounds of the state capitol building. Luckily, I didn’t have to be in the shot as the bridesmaids and groomsmen tossed autumn leaves on the heads of the new couple, which left me free to consider the facade of the Illinois State Library across the street. The building’s frieze is etched with the names of 35 authors who were either Illinois natives or were closely connected with the state. Most of the selections are no-brainers—Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, Ben Hecht, etc—but a few I had to look up later. My most embarrassing blind spot, easily, is Cyrus Colter.

Colter lived to the age of 92, but his writing career was relatively brief. He began writing fiction at 50, shifting from a career in law to write stories and novels about the lives of middle-class and working-class blacks, mostly in Chicago. When he published his first books in the 70s he was considered an inheritor of Richard Wright‘s themes, but he was actually a contemporary: Reginald Gibbons, speaking at a memorial service for Colter in 2002, noted that “Cyrus belonged to the generation of Richard Wright (who was born two years earlier), but Cyrus did not publish his first book until the year Richard Wright died.”

I bring up this homework-y biographical stuff partly because its new to me—I was tasked with absorbing lots of “celebrate Illinois authors” material in school, and I don’t recall a single mention of Colter—and partly because what I’ve been able to track down of his work online makes me wonder why he doesn’t have a stronger reputation. (Best as I can tell, all his books are currently out of print.) True, The Hippodrome has an impossible premise—it opens with a man on the run carrying his wife’s severed head—but the opening pages capture all the delusion and rage that might come along with that predicament. Less lurid and more effective is “Overnight Trip,” which follows a stable working-class man—he sets linotype at a Chicago daily newspaper—who’s anxious about letting his wife leave for a shopping trip to Saint Louis. The opening paragraphs, describing Chicago in early winter, do as fine a job describing he city as Algren or Hecht or Bellow or anybody else whose name is chiseled on that frieze:

The street lights and the lights from the store windows shone gauzily through the rainy mist, as Amos slouched up Michigan Boulevard, peering now and then across the Chicago River to the matriarchal old Wrigley building, solitary, stark-naked white, and wet, against its glaring floodlights bursting up from the south bank. For just an instant the Taj Mahal flashed to his mind out of colorful travelogue movie, but right off he realized it was very, very different; it had a soft glow—with placid, waxen tints. Ducking his head, squinting, and turning up his coat collar at the same time, he leaned his long skinny Negroid frame shrinkingly into the weather.

All day long, at his linotype machine, he had been in low spirits, and the miserable night didn’t help any. Sometime during the afternoon he had vaguely decided to take the bus home, instead of the El. That way he wouldn’t have to transfer; and, too, there wasn’t so much commotion on the bus. He could think. Lately, he was always looking for opportunities to isolate himself—in order to think, to persist in this constant mulling over in his mind of matters that had, so far, completely foiled him.

The Chicago Writers Association is in the midst of launching a Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, and Colter is among the first group of nominees for selection. Online trawling probably isn’t the best way to get a grip on his work—for one thing, it suggests he’s got women issues—so any recommendations about where to start are welcome.

Have Memoirs Won?

Speaking with the Philadelphia Inquirer recently, Ben Yagoda said this:

“When it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction’s day is done.”

Yagoda, a longtime journalist who’s written intelligently about the virtues of narrative nonfiction, has book coming out soon on the history of the memoir, so he’s clearly been studying the matter. I’ll be curious to see how he makes this argument, because it seems hard to defend. It may be that fiction is dying in comparison to memoir as far as sales go. But the point of fiction isn’t to “prove points” or “make cases,” at least not in any journalistic sense. Sure, sometimes it has a relevant message to deliver about current affairs, but if that were fiction’s chief virtue then fiction’s day has been done for a very long time. And yet the novels and story collections keep coming.

Inquirer reporter Dianna Marder spoke with a few other people for the story, shedding light on what Yagoda may mean in saying fiction’s day is done. One editor at a publishing house says that memoirs are appealing because Americans like “pulled up by your bootstraps’ stories in which odds or adversities are overcome.” So it may just be that Horatio Alger‘s day is done. One professor says that “People don’t believe they can learn anything from fiction anymore,” while another says that “We’ve lost our faith in history books”; both imply that memoirs can give us our teaching moments and our faith back. Or, as Georgetown’s Maureen Corrigan puts it, “Memoirs are easier for book groups to discuss.”

None of which speaks to the elephant in the room: If memoir has overtaken the role of fiction, why are so many memoirists tempted to fictionalize and embellish their work? In the case of the most infamous fraud, James Frey, he added a note about his embellishments to later editions of A Million Little Pieces: “I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require,” he wrote in a note to the reader (PDF). What better way is there to prove points and make cases about yourself?

Yagoda doesn’t discuss fabrications in the Inquirer interview, and the Publishers Weekly review of his book suggests he doesn’t spend much time exploring the matter between hard covers either. (“Without dwelling too heavily on the genre’s most recent scandals….”) I can’t criticize a book I haven’t read, but hopefully Yagoda spends some time addressing the matter head-on, because those fabrications aren’t odd little outliers in the history of nonfiction narrative: They speak to what we expect out of both novels and memoirs.

The Whale That Wouldn’t Die

The latest issue of Soundings, a magazine published by MIT’s School of Humanties, Arts and Social Sciences, has a fine feature on MIT English professor Wyn Kelley, a longtime scholar of Herman Melville. Kelley positions Melville as an author who anticipated many of the social concerns of not just the 20th century but the 21st as well, and considers Moby-Dick as a novel that (paging Matt Yglesias!) speaks to a host of contemporary concerns about multiculturalism, environmentalism, religion, and more.

For instance, Kelley argues that Melville, via Ishmael, was more attuned to the cultural diversity of the city than he’s been given credit for:

Ishmael, she notes, serves as Melville’s guide to urban studies in Moby-Dick. “The presence of savages on the streets of New Bedford reminds Ishmael that cities grow out of conflicts between colonizers and natives. At the same time, the town’s shipping industry gives it a diverse, ever changing population; it remixes itself every day,” she writes in Melville’s City.

But Melville’s appreciation for multicultural urban life, as expressed by Ishmael, was viewed narrowly in literary criticism in the 1990s and early 2000s, Kelley says. At that time, “people were talking about Melville’s multicultural perspective in terms of race: the white male author who turns out to be a keen observer of racial divides and politics in the US. And Melville wasn’t alone. Read Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, and you’d think there were only two races worth talking about.

“My MIT students of other backgrounds have put up with this politely for years, but globalism, as economic and cultural and now literary theory, has made those ways of thinking passé,” she says.

Kelley spent a sabbatical year retracing Melville’s travels through Jerusalem and the Galapagos Islands to better understand the author, but she’s has also taken some lighter approaches to her work—including screening Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in class to show how long Moby-Dick‘s shadow is. These days, she says, the book functions much like a wiki for American culture: “In the 19th century, the novel was a new genre, and Melville borrowed from other forms. Today, we add new science, new insights, and new media. Then as now, the text is a whole world.”

Philip Roth’s Art of the Deal

Maybe the reason critics seem so uncertain about Philip Roth‘s new novel, The Humbling, is that it’s about uncertainty. Its hero is an aging actor, Simon Axler, who discovers that he has lost his ability to act. Actually, the first sentence says that what he’s lost is his “magic,” signaling that the novel will be about a search for a whole host of things that he’s trying to recover. Perhaps he’s lost his will to live, so he briefly checks himself into a psychiatric institution; perhaps he’s lost his capacity to love, so he pursues an affair with the 40-year-old daughter of two of his old friends in the theater.

It’s not giving away too much of the story to say that those two efforts don’t resolve Axler’s anxieties. The question for Roth is how to describe Axler’s inability to affect that resolution—how to evoke the ever-shifting instincts in Axler’s head without making him a merely wishy-washy or pitiful character. Some of this is taken care of by the plot; there’s sex and there’s violence, and both relate to Axler’s conflictedness. But Roth also tries to stress it by routinely describing relationships as transactional, having Axler regularly assess where he stands in an emotional ledger. As his (relatively) young lover Pegeen puts it: “It’s pursuing what you want. And not pursuing what you no longer want.” Pegeen herself is coming off a bad relationship with a woman who’s decided to have a sex change, and Roth wryly describes the shifts they’ve made: “If Priscilla could become a heterosexual male, Pegeen could become a heterosexual female.”

For a while, Axler figures he’s in the black, reveling in what he’s taken when he thinks about Pegeen’s father’s disapproval: “[M]y fame stole away his only daughter, the fame that Asa himself could never garner,” Roth writes, in a rhyme that echoes Axler’s kid-like giddiness. Later, though, as it becomes clear that he may have made a mistake, he thinks to himself, “I miscalculated—I didn’t think it through.” From there it’s a short trip through the see-sawing emotions that propel The Humbling to its end.

That ending is predictable—you know that old line about what needs to happen in the theater if a gun is introduced, and The Humbling involves the theater and a gun. And anybody who’s read Roth’s recent run of brief novels won’t be surprised to hear that this one is about aging and death as well. But his strategy this time around is different than it was in, say, 2006’s Everyman, which emphasized the grim finality of dying. “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre,” he wrote in that book, which also contains one of Roth’s most brutal bits of dialogue, spoken by a gravedigger: “This is nice diggin’. No rocks. Straight in.” In Everyman, Roth suggests, we’re all speedily tunneling toward our inevitable end, and there’s little point in fighting against it. The Humbling is about the attempt to fight back, about desperately making bargains in the hopes of avoiding that end. But the only reward for that, Roth suggests, is humiliation.