This essay appears in My Poor Elephant, edited by Eve Shelnutt, published by the Longstreet Press. Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1992
Madison Smartt Bell
One Taw, two taw....
My grandmother died last year. Among her last words, often repeated during the last weeks of her life, so my mother told me, was this jingle, which she had learned when she was a child in Mississippi:
One taw, two taw
Three taw, Sal
Spellings are speculative, some of them anyway. I don't think the woman my grandmother learned the rhyme from could read or write. Her name was Aunt Mary, she was born in slavery, lived out her life as a family servant and had a generous hand in the raising of a couple of generations of children in my grandmother's family. I know her only from the stories and from one picture which shows her sitting on a step, a lean, strong-looking woman, dark and hard as a nail, with an apron and headcloth clean and bright enough to cut you.
My mother told me that whenever Aunt Mary reached the end of the rhyme, punching out hard on Boram, buck, she would spit on the ground for punctuation. She also told me, after my grandmother's death, that I had better make sure I remembered the rhyme for the rest of my life. As an aid to my own memory I have been teaching it to my daughter, who is three months old. There is some irony, I guess, in a bunch of white folks enshrining a rhyme of an ancient black woman in this incantatory way, without having any notion of its original meaning. I suspect it may once have been a charm. Anyway, my daughter Celia thinks it does very well as a variation on the pattycake jingle. She puts up her hands and smiles when I sing it to her. Clearly this is one pretty good use for the thing. Eventually it may turn out to be one of the very first things she can remember herself, and something that sets her apart, by the tiniest measure, from others.
My grandmother married a Tennessee man and lived her married life in Nashville. When my parents married, they bought a farm. Land was cheap, then, in the middle fifties, out in Williamson County, or at least cheap enough. What were they thinking? My father was working in a Nashville law firm then; later he started his own practice in Franklin, the Williamson County seat. My mother had always taught riding lessons and she wanted room for horses and to run a summer camp. They bought ninety-six acres, about half of it wooded, with an old saltbox house, built over a log cabin, whose "foundation" consists to this day of round logs balanced on heaps of unmortared fieldstones. On the other end of the property was a tenant house which was soon occupied by Benjamin Taylor, a small, powerful, broadly talented black man known to us as Mutt. This was a nickname his friends had taken from the "Mutt and Jeff" comic strip for him, a comic reversal, since Mutt, our Mutt, was so short.
For the first few years, Mutt and my mother ran the farm. My mother learned a very great deal from him. He could make or repair almost anything, manage most animals, make anything grow. He was a good enough carpenter to raise barns and he built a room on the house when I was going to be born. In that room and on that place I became whatever I am.
I was born in August, during summer camp, and came two weeks late. My mother conducted her campers on seven trail rides, seven hours on horseback the day of my birth. It worked. Soon enough I was out horseback on the trail again, strapped to a papoose board.
In those days my parents had a big red Doberman named Wotan, who was as attached to my mother as a child might have been. How this dog would respond to my appearance was a subject of some concern. My grandmother, both my grandmothers, were upset about it. As it happened Wotan easily transfered much of his love and loyalty to me. He came upstairs for the first time when I was brought home (he hated to climb stairs for some reason). When I was a little older my mother discovered that she could leave me in my playpen out in the yard, more or less under the dog's supervision, while she taught in the riding ring. Wotan would bring me trimmings of horse hoof, his favorite delicacy, and offer them to me through the mesh of the pen. I can remember the taste and texture of them, rather like a fingernail, but softer and chewier-- not half bad for a teething baby, though my grandmothers were greatly distressed. Later on I learned to go out in the barn lot and lick salt with the horses from their block. This practice greatly horrified my grandmothers though it seems to have done me no harm.
By the time I was old enough to walk unsupported the farm had become a quite serious operation. There were fourteen horses in the barn, hogs in the hog lot, two dairy cows. Sixty children in the summer camp, whose proceeds funded fences and upkeep, and my mother taught riding every school afternoon except in the dead of winter. By then she had learned to can and freeze all the vegetables we needed year round. We had fresh milk, churned butter, killed hogs and under Mutt's tutelage cured the meat in the smokehouse.
With Mutt's great abilities and my mother's huge energy the whole thing was kept going at a high rate of speed. Mutt did most of the outside work. He was a master of making do. For transport around the farm he used a drag sled, drawn on runners by a mule called Blue. Mutt also rode Blue in the mule race at the Iroquois Steeplechase every year, and usually won. He plowed with the mule also, and I can remember trying it myself, with his hands guiding mine on the handles, keeping the row straight. We didn't use the tractor much until later, when I was eight or nine and Mutt, undone by whisky, the death of his first wife, an unfortunate marriage to the local bootlegger, whisky again, left the place for good. We found out then that he was irreplaceable, the last of his kind or one of the last. The last who'd ever live with us, for sure. Then much of the work he had used to do landed on my father and on me.
Mine was an atavistic childhood. I knew it at the time, because people told me, and it was obvious anyway. A generation before it wouldn't have been so unusual to grow up as a child of educated, professional parents who were also real farmers. But at the schools I was driven to in Nashville there was nobody else that lived the way I did. The town children lived in their back yards, on the sidewalks, in neighborhoods. For the most part they had less work to do. I might envy them a little, as they would envy me for the horses, the pool, the big territory on which I was free and alone. But mainly I knew I was different from them and already, in my way, I was proud of it.
My mother taught me to read before I started school, which changed my life deeply and forever. I think at first I wanted to learn to read for myself, but I had no idea how hard it would be until my mother sat me down at the dining room table and printed a capital A and asked me to identify it. No problem there. I had learned the alphabet off a tablet and could sing it for my grandmothers. She drew a typeface a and asked me what that was. Now since this character does not physically resemble a hand-printed capital A very much at all, I had no notion. What I began to suspect was that I had got myself in a lot deeper than I had really intended. This episode inaugurated a period of frustration and struggle for both me and my mother, at the end of which I was released into what is probably the greatest freedom I will ever know.
And by the way I can scarcely remember any more what it was like not to be able to read. Certain books will almost bring it back; if I look at an old Babar book, say, I can for an instant feel again how the few simple words were once thorny and irascible objects, so difficult to ingest. And in their absence, the images loom....
Anyway, I mastered print, not without some difficulty, graduated from Babar and Peter Rabbit to books with whole paragraphs in them. I remember a few particularly, a big blue book about Indians, and several by Holling C. Holling, Paddle To The Sea and another about a hermit crab whose name I have forgotten. By the time I started school I could read pretty good. That ability, like our general manner of living, was just slightly isolating. It put me just a little out of sync with the group-- always in the wrong place in the reading circle, and so forth. To my first grade teacher, more than a bit of a martinet, skipping ahead was a crime. She didn't believe I could read anyhow, the whole idea offended her. At the end of the following summer, I hid in the barn to avoid going back. But my next few teachers were kindly.
Well, I was ahead in the book. My classmates knew I could do it and to them it was a mere curiosity I think, like being able to balance a banana on your nose. But for me it was a reflection of the world in which I realized I could go much further, much faster, than I could in the real world. I think it was from learning to read, so early, that I first I learned to reflect. In bouncing off the books I got some sense of who I was, or might be, those possibilities. It was also around this time, first and second grade, that I caught a habit which I still have to this day, of talking to myself, sotto voce but often audibly, rehearsing bits of dialogue and telling myself little stories. This particular bit of eccentricity was a little nervewracking to children who sat me near me in school. Also if some episode or conversaton among school friends struck me as having dramatic possibilities I would begin to finish the lines by muttering "he said," or "she said," under my breath. If asked at that age what I wanted to be I would usually say cowboy, or a lawyer like my father, but I really wanted to be an "author."
I had severe chronic asthma from the age of two, caught bronchitis frequently, and was violently allergic to just about everything around me, especially the horses, which I continued to ride. The problem was serious enough that my parents at one point considered packing it in and moving to town. They had received some medical advice along those lines as I recall. I think they asked me. I said no.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about any of that for me. I couldn't remember not having the asthma, the allergies, the rashes and so forth. It was run of the mill, the way things were. I don't recall feeling sorry for myself or resenting it. Probably that is because my parents managed at least to appear to take it all very easily in stride and never made me feel as though I were pitiable.
The bad asthma attacks brought the doctor, first on house call with an literal little black Gladstone bag, later a trip to town. In either case there'd be a shot of adrenalin, which as far as I was concerned was paradise in a syringe. The amazing thing was that it worked instantaneously, flooding me with a euphoria which was partly the relief of being able to breathe again, to relax, and partly the giddy edge of the drug itself, which seemed to make my thoughts and perceptions rapid and brilliant, and gave me too a false sense of extraordinary physical power.
Other attacks I learned to ride out on my own. The illness was with me like an animal, not a bad animal entirely but one that needed to be broken as one might break a horse. After a good two days of constant coughing I would feel as if somebody had been kicking me steadily in the belly for an equivalent amount of time. I would have to fight the cough, strangle it, swallow it back down the sore muscles of my diaphragm. With bad asthma the problem was I could never lie down. Any pressure on my chest or back seemed to shut off my lungs. I would lie, then, propped up on my elbows, with a book propped in between my arms, reading until I finally lost consciousness some way or other.
Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I felt that many years before I ever heard it. It's no better than a half truth but it certainly does have a ring to it. The odd thing is that with all this illness I seldom ever felt weak, at least, not psychologically speaking. It seemed that I was engaged in a terrific struggle but also that I had the resources to win, and this, in its way, made me powerful.
Sick, I would usually be reading. Illness released me from the whole chore of going to school, and doing school work. Though I would usually work in a book from the school library every day then. My mother got good stuff in front of me. I read most of Gerald Durrell, most of Mark Twain, before I reached eighth grade. I would read these books over and over, sick or well, but sick they were especially comforting, like talismans, charms even.
Also there were the Tolkein books, and C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories. When I was in the fifth grade, my obsession with the latter began to border on the pathological. I trained myself to wake up around two in the morning, when my parents were solidly asleep and unlikely to catch me, and I would reread the books until dawn. At school I was exhausted and for the first time began to do poorly. The reason for all this is still hard for me to grasp. I was rather unhappy that year, when I was awake and outside the books, but I had no real reason to be. I had somehow acquired a distaste for the mundane, for ordinary reality, and all I wanted was to get through one of those magic doorways and enter a world which was magic. I don't really remember how it stopped.
Dream of Power
It was a couple of years later, I think, that I had my dream. It was a dream of a sort that the Indians used to go on dream quests to capture. I had not undertaken any quest, at least, not on purpose, but I got the dream anyway. It was quite brief, emotionally overwhelming, and I saw clearly that its purpose was to give me power, although, in the following days, when I thought about that, it seemed a little silly. It was hard for me to take it with perfect seriousness, but I did take it seriously enough that I told no one. I had read enough to know that if you tell such a dream you will lose it. At times, for a long time, I didn't think about it, but I never forgot it and I never told. It seems to me now that whatever I have been able to do as a writer really has been powered by this dream. So I am glad I never told it, and I never will tell it either, unless, someday, I am ready to surrender the power.
Well, I am grown up now I guess. Ain't no dog going to offer me horse hoof now. If he did, I probably wouldn't take it.
But I am grateful for that horse hoof. Everything else too. It was the making of me, whatever I am. Because I learned to read so early, I lived, all along, in a slightly different mental world than my schoolmates. Meanwhile the way that we lived on the farm ensured that I did not go quite seamlessly into the life of my time but stood just slightly apart from it. From such a separation one may see a little more vividly. Because of these circumstances, accidents more or less, I was enabled to start becoming the writer I wanted to be.
Books and the Land
I had a science fiction phase that lasted two years, when I was twelve and thirteen. I'd buy and read a paperback book every day if I could get away with it. Some good and memorable stuff, and lots of genre junk, but maybe time well spent just the same. As George Garrett would later tell me when I became his student, it's not altogether a good thing for an apprentice writer to be fed a steady stream of masterpieces. In genre you can see more easily how the thing was put together, how the trick was brought off....
But when I started high school I lost interest in sci-fi suddenly and completely and began to read almost exclusively fiction of the Southern Renascence, beginning with Warren's All The King's Men, which I must have read a hundred times since. Then I read most of Warren's other novels, all Flannery O'Connor, Peter Taylor, Allen Tate and Andrew Lytle, a good deal of Faulkner though understanding this rather incompletely at the time, and some novelists of a younger generation, like Madison Jones and Harry Crews.
It made a difference that some of these writers were friends of my parents, members of a Vanderbilt circle to which they also belong. Madison Jones was their close college friend, and they knew Mr. Lytle, Mr Tate, and Donald Davidson very well also. From when I was very small I was in awe of these people because of what they were. Authors. It was Mr. Tate who seemed especially set apart, the swollen head wreathed in smoke with the cool dry voice coming out of it, as if almost already disembodied.
As for myself I knew the Jones family very well, was good friends with several of their children. Mr. Tate died before I could have been much to him other than the child of his young friends. But I have had the good luck to know Mr. Lytle as a grownup and as certainly one of the best and sharpest readers I've ever had, who can cut straight to core of any book I (or anyone else) has written, usually with a single sentence.
The rest of them lived in their work for me, and when I went off to Princeton my great ambition was to be a writer like them. I became a sort of scholar of Southern Renascence literature, writing long papers about all the novels of Harry Crews published up to that time, and a thesis on the work of Madison Jones. A step away from my parents and the farm, I thought I saw that my life and theirs had, by whatever combination of accident and design, been played out as a realization of many of the ideas in I'll Take My Stand. That in taking up what economists call subsistence agriculture they had secured for themselves and for me a great many of the good things of an agrarian described by Mr. Lytle in "The Hind Tit." Not to mention a great deal of hard, grinding, absolutely unceasing work....
When I had this insight, such as it was, I was rather excited, intellectually. It was almost as good as living in a book, which was something I had very much wanted to do with at least a part of my being. But there are drawbacks to success with such a project.
My plan to become a writer was completely unsupported by any attempt to write anything until the end of my senior year of high school. At this point I came down with a spontaneously collapsed lung. My doctor, told me I could go into the hospital and have them cut me open or I could remain in my room without moving much for a couple of weeks and hope the lung came back up on its own. This was an easy choice for me. But it was an odd imprisonment. I didn't feel sick at all. There had been some quite extraordinary pain in the beginning, enough to send me to the doctor, but this stopped. Boredom set in. There was little to do. I was not even supposed to go downstairs. I discovered I could no longer read eighteen hours a day. I began to watch television, something I've never done very much of at a stretch. A strange stultifying experience, like a drug.
Out of desperation I wrote my first real short story, "Triptych," in which the deaths of a peacock, an old man, and a bull were pictorially juxtaposed. The style was imitation Hemingway. I wrote the whole thing out in pencil and hid it in a desk drawer. So much for that.
It was always my notion that once I got to college I would set about becoming a writer. Princeton was known for its undergraduate Creative Writing program, but I didn't realize till I hit the campus that you had to apply to get into it. Intimidated by students I met who had apparently written huge quantities of fiction already, I took this requirement rather more seriously than necessary. There were other difficulties also and I dropped out of school for a semester, returned to Nashville, got a job on the Ingram Book Company's receiving dock, and tried to write some stories. I also got the old "Triptych" out of the drawer and rewrote in the manner of Flannery O'Connor, as best I could manage. The conflation of the two borrowed styles made the derivativeness of the whole rather less obvious, and I knew it was the best thing I had to show.
Later on, after six months at Ingram had helped me to understand that Princeton was not such a bad place after all, I showed the story to George Garrett. It was the end of the semester I had spent in his class. I had done some so-so work for the group but I liked and admired George so much that I wanted to show him the best I could do. When he had read it he nodded and smiled and offered to publish it in Intro, of which he was then the editor. That was my first publication and for quite some time my last. In this way I went on the list which is at least a hundred or more long (no exaggeration) of writers who owe their first good start, and many legs up afterward, to George Garrett.
I had very good luck with the other writing teachers I had also, William Goyen, Stephen Koch, Rosanne Coggeshall and Richard Dillard. They were all good masters, good examples, and there is much I owe them too. Although I was a stubborn student who usually wouldn't listen to anything or follow any advice.
I do not think I would have amounted to much as a writer if I had gone to school down South, or if I had returned there immediately after school, for that matter. I wanted too much to be a Southern writer, and I understood, intellectually, too well what that was. I would have tried to make a career out of embroidering the great themes of others.
Another coincidence kept me from this: friendship with Alex Roshuk, a charismatic Russian of many genius abilities, a child prodigy film-maker who came to Princeton to study engineering, and dropped out after a couple of years, returning to New York where he had come from to become a wanderer there, a sometime street person, sometime street magician, virtually. I would have followed him anywhere, in those days. And I did follow him, for several years, into a great many interesting places. It wasn't my subject I found there-- that's a more complicated matter. But I found a setting wide and deep enough to contain several books, and also, in some way, a context.
The Subject, Insofar As I Am Willing to Discuss It....
For writers to discuss their own work analytically is tempting and dangerous to the precise degree that it is self-indulgent. It's difficult to see one's own work that clearly anyhow. A lucid and complete understanding would usurp the work and take away the point of writing it at all. There is also a great temptation to
lie. I am like most writers, I think, in that I don't want to make myself understood in a précis. I want the work to be read and apprehended as a living whole, in its essence. With these little warnings in mind I will nevertheless have a brief go.
First of all I will say that I have never wanted to write the same book over and over again, though I have lately realized that that is exactly how to make a successful career in American literature today. I have tried to make my six novels as different from one another as possible. But I am far enough away from them now to see some general similarities.
Each book features some slightly or extremely isolated individual in a troubled relationship to a larger group. This person is usually embarked on a sort of spiritual pilgrimage acknowledged or not. Often he will be an apostle of some particular creed: voodoo, santeria, Islam, Russian Orthodox Christianity.... Anyway there is a search going on whose intention is to resolve some spiritual unease or discontent.
Somewhat at odds with this general tendency is Soldier's Joy , my fifth novel, which was written with an explicitly political motive. I never thought I would do such a thing, and was a bit horrified to find myself attempting it. But now it seems to me that it is not quite so much an anomaly in the body of my work.
Many if not all of the problems of American society come from the effort to formulate and live up to a political conception of equality. The effort is continually breaking down because it is, in one sense, based on illusion. The fact is that people are not created equal with respect to their gifts. No matter what opportunities are thrown in my way I will never play the banjo as well as Bela Fleck. But all souls are equal under God. It seems almost impossible for this idea to find any viable expression in our political life. In a society so secularized as ours it becomes difficult to believe in the soul at all. Yet it seems to me that, regardless of whether a belief in God is possible, it remains vitally necessary to believe that we are souls, embarked on a pilgrimage, that this is exactly what it means to be human.
I am not a proselyte of any particular religion, far from it, I am not even a church-goer. But I have sent character after character in book after book on a mission to discover such a religious vision of the world, in accordance with which an ordinary life can be lived in ordinary way. In my last novel, Doctor Sleep , this character actually succeeds. He finds what he is looking for, under his nose all along as it happens, and comes home at last to a kind of wholeness.
What that means, of course, is that I am finished now. Shot, washed up. Done with it.
I am not very interested in Rimbaud really. I had a brief infatuation with him in college, about which I now remember next to nothing. It is the picture of the Rimbaud who abandoned poetry that appeals to me now. He got through and he quit. Renunciation is a most appealing prospect-- to abdicate from the dream of power, what a delirious sense of liberation that would bring! Become a chessplayer, like Marcel Duchamp. I could become a lawyer. Be a farmer again perhaps. A tax collector, even....
Some thirty years after the publication of his last novel, his masterpiece, The Velvet Horn, Andrew Lytle was asked by an interviewer if he planned on writing any more fiction. His answer was the least evasive I ever expect to hear to such a question: "No. It's too hard, and I've said what I have to say."
He also said, in another context, that once you have made one masterpiece you are supposed to go on making them.
I have been hearing it all my life. My father is a bit of a piano player, a bit of a guitarist, can play the accordion too, and is a fine singer. When I was little I heard all the old ballads and folk songs from him. Since then I have been in and out of rock and roll, the blues, jazz, bluegrass, classical, all sorts of music really. I play a little, very little considering the time I've put into it, guitar and banjo. I've even composed a little music. Music has gone into my writing in a number of ways, directly as subject a number of times. It has influenced more subtlely the way I make a sentence or a paragraph or even a whole book.
If I could choose to go back in the egg and come out again as something else I would want to be a real musician. I say that knowing full well that most of the professional musicians of my acquaintance lead much more straitened, vexatious and difficult lives than the one I've been lucky enough to lead as a writer. I know also that I don't have the talent for it, nowhere near enough, and never will. Still it is a great pleasure to me to try to play as well as I can. And it has also put me constantly face to face with failure, an experience I still find extremely valuable.
One Taw, two taw....
Well, I see this thing is about over with and I have left a good deal out. I have not said all I meant to say. There is one ordinary lesson though. If you mean to learn something well, sing it yourself.
To believe in the unity of truth, I must also believe that everything is potentially revealed in any part. If I ever do understand that rhyme completely, absolutely, I will understand everything else in that same moment. The end is in the beginning, the beginning in the end. The angel said, There shall be no more time.