Sunday, September 21, 2014

Growing Up on Stacy Boulelvard in the 1940s

                                      (Charles Olson and Ann Charters walking on the Boulevard in 1967)

And as I go down
the boulevard toward
town …
the bridge sounds
rising like
a light thunder…
and bang
as I go by the Fisherman’s
the bridge gates open
the last sound I shall hear
& here report

Charles Olson, “Oceania,” The Maximus Poems

When I walk along the Boulevard these days, I have a sense that I’m moving in two directions.  One is forward through the present and into the hoped for future of Gloucester’s sadly neglected crown jewel.  The other is backward in time into my childhood and pre-adolescence, when life on the Boulevard, the city’s major entrance and community gathering place through every season, was the focus of the only life we knew.
            Between the Tavern, once Gloucester’s premiere lodging and restaurant, to the pumping station near the Blynman Bridge, men fished from the railings that lined the waterside concrete walkways.  If you weren’t fishing you were watching to see who caught what, usually the ubiquitous perch, which natives called “cunners.”  Mothers wheeled baby carriages or strollers, stopping to exclaim over how big their children had grown from winter to spring, as the sun reflected off the water of the outer harbor brightening the facades of houses that lined Western Avenue in that vanished era “when Gloucester was Gloucester and all the houses were white and green,” as an old fisherman told Peter Parsons and me; the green, I suspect, relating to the shutters.
            I was born at the Addison Gilbert Hospital in November of 1937 and was taken immediately to 3 Perkins Road, where I remained until I turned 13, the front windows of our second floor apartment facing Ten Pound Island.  My father owned the Boulevard Sweet Shop, on the corner of Western and Centennial avenues.  There was variety store a block away toward Main Street, Nick’s Grocery, owned by another Greek, Nick Cocotas.  Irving Morris’ First National Store was on the corner of Western Avenue and Perkins Road, a few steps from the bridge.  Our mothers did not have far to go to shop, unless they went “upstreet,” as we called the trip from our house to Saul Bloch’s National Butchers on Main Street, next to Henry the Hatter’s, where my mother bought the meat—when there was any during the war; or at Shepherd’s Market, which was part of Brown’s, even further upstreet, a store of unimagined delicacies like tomato aspic, pickled chestnuts, and sardines in mustard sauce.
            The Boulevard was a microcosm of city life.  As we lived our lives daily in its precincts we came to know the city of our birth in the variety of its ethnic residents, the panoply of languages we heard around us from Sicilian and Greek to Finnish.  The Bloch brothers spoke Yiddish to each other as they cut my mother’s lamb chops behind the counter in the store whose floors were strewn with sawdust to keep them dry.  On the Fort, where my grandfather Angel Polisson took my brother Tom and me to watch the fishing vessels being unloaded, everyone spoke the Teresinian dialect.
My grandfather, who had attended seminary in Greece before eloping to America with my grandmother, first to Lowell and then to Gloucester, read and wrote Greek, English and French, picking up Italian and Portuguese from the customers in his shoe repair shop on Stoddard Lane (I still have his Greek and English dictionaries and his Bible in Greek).  They called him “The Consul,” because he was often asked to write letters for those who could not read and write.
It was a cosmopolitan world, the one I grew up in on the Boulevard, although there were some in that xenophobic war era, who did not like what Gloucester had become, among them old Mr. Henderson, whose family had founded the Henderson and Johnson Paint Company, on Duncan Street, near what is now called Harbor Loop.  He referred to my brother and me and the Bloomberg brothers, who lived in the big stucco apartment house on the corner of Centennial and Western avenues as “those goddamned Greeks and Jews,” and he refused to enter my father’s store, though his grandson, Russell Baxter Henderson, our best friend and the neighborhood trickster, did not share those prejudices, openly flaunting his friendship with us, the Bloombergs, and little Joey Nicastro, who died of “ammonia” when we were in second grade.
Not that our own families were without prejudice.   My brother and I were not allowed to visit the homes of our Catholic friends, as if once inside our own strange (to us) Greek Orthodox beliefs would either be threatened or expunged .  Of course, we paid no attention to our mother, freely entering the houses of our Italian friends to eat the meatballs and anis cookies whose aromas tempted us daily on the way to and from the Hovey School.  Naturally we walked to school in those days, rain or shine, twice a day: home for lunch and back to school—I do not remember too many overweight kids.
We got to learn the routine of life on the Boulevard, not just mothers and baby carriages or the fishermen who preempted the railings along the concrete walk; painters painting during the summer, and the Coastguardsmen drilling in formation during the war.  We played up and down the river bank and at Newell Stadium, watching the fishing vessels, glazed with ice in winter, negotiating the way through the canal. We even had two beaches, Pavillion at the Fort and a smaller beach to the right of the canal, which everyone called Crab Beach because of the profusion of crabs in its tidal pools. As soon as we got older we were allowed to walk to Stage Fort Park, where we swim at Half Moon Beach or Cresseys.  The Park was also the place for carnivals, which returned after the war, and a real circus, with a parade down Main Street and along the Boulevard.  You can imagine our excitement when we actually saw real elephants and lions!
   The neighborhood men gathered at the Blynman Bridge House to keep the bridge tenders company with games of cards or listening to ballgames on the radio, or even more essentially the talk, we kids who always eavesdropped, could not get enough of: stories about the fisherman who had killed his wife and cooked her liver in a skillet; Irving Morris mugged on Middle Street, on the way home with the day’s proceeds from his market; the city worker whose leg was mangled by the snow removal machine (we rushed upstreet to see the blood, still on the snow banks); or, during the war, the nighttime monkey-business of the sailors billeted at the Tavern that had been taken over by the Coastguard .
It was the war especially that left its mark on us Boulevardiers.  Everyone whose house faced the water was required to have black shades to be pulled down at night so that not even a slit of light was showing.  If the helmeted air raid wardens, who roamed the Boulevard and Perkins Road each night, saw any infractions, they immediately knocked on your door.  The point of the shades and the doused street lights was not to allow potential enemy subs or planes to see exactly where the city lay.  Threats of planes and subs were real, as was the war itself we saw on the newsreels at the Stand and North Shore theaters during Saturday matinees: troops storming the beaches of Normandy or the Pacific, planes dropping bombs—the sounds of explosions, the smoky air.  German submarines had been spotted off Cape Elizabeth, Maine or from fishing vessels closer to Gloucester, the thought of which terrorized us kids, so that each night we hid under our blankets in rooms so dark that you could not see your hand in front of your face.  To this day I can only sleep in a pitch black room and I still have nightmares of objects falling on me from the sky.
The war’s end was celebrated by two parades along the Boulevard, on VE, or Victory in Europe Day, May 8, 1945, followed by VJ Day, August 15, 1945, the day to celebrate the end of the war in the Pacific.  Soon our uncles who had been fighting those wars came home and went back to work, and life seemed a lot brighter along the Boulevard.
On Sunday strolls people wore new clothes for the first time in years. They’d be snapping pictures with their “Brownie” box cameras.  Or they’d be getting their own pictures taken by Louis Blend, who held onto his post in the circle in front of the Fisherman’s Monument until the days grew cold and the rains washed down Stacy Promenade, and the wind blew the leaves out of all the trees along Western Avenue.
Louis would snap your picture—it couldn’t have cost more than a quarter in those days—and the most fun would be watching him develop it right there, dipping the print into a little tank of chemicals, washing it off (you could smell the “hypo”), and handing to you in a stiff gray cardboard “Souvenir of Gloucester” frame.
How many of us have had our childhoods recorded in a series of images by Gloucester’s only street photographer?  Can you see yourself now in bathing suit or shorts, or even in your Easter finery, in front of the statue, the backdrop always a row of Western Avenue houses?
To look through Louis’s pictures today would reveal a Boulevard life that is not so terribly different from the era I am describing.  Though the people we knew and who knew us and watched over us as closely as our parents would—Gardiner Deering, the Blatchfords, the Crowells, the Wallaces, Doc Barron, Larry and Merille Hart, old Doc Pettingill, who lived on the bottom floor at 103 Western Avenue, where the Barrons and the Harts also lived, the Perrys next door—are gone today, along with our parents, and even some of the kids we grew up with, the atmosphere of the Boulevard seems hardly to have changed.  It is still the city’s principal place to take the air or to walk your dog.  Kids play catch and toss Frisbees, old timers, like myself now sitting on the benches when not exercising.  Who could have imagined those of us who laughed at our grandparents’ impaired mobility now making our way along that same Boulevard at a far slower and more laborious gate, with canes even!
The Boulevard is the place of my first socialization.  It is the larger neighborhood where we learned what it felt like to live beyond the confines of our family homes—the place where, to us at least, a more ample life was being lived, especially after the war.  A place, too, where events happened, where people said and did things that shaped our lives, remaining forever in our memories.  Like the day when Russell Baxter Henderson, my brother Tom and I wandered off Centennial Avenue into Mrs. Anderson’s back yard by the incinerator, where everyone in the neighborhood burned their trash.  Hanging on her clothesline to dry were her girdle and an enormous white brassiere.  Immediately Russell took them down and began to put them on.  Just then Mrs. Anderson, who only had one arm, appeared at her back door.  She waved that single right arm in the air and began shouting our names.  Leaning against the side of her brown clapboarded house were three pairs of stilts that belonged to her grandsons.
“Let’s get out of here,” Russell yelled, mounting a pair.
I grabbed another and my brother Tom took the last pair of stilts.  Quickly we followed Russ out of the yard and onto Centennial Avenue.  With Mrs. Anderson chasing us, we started clopping up the street on the stilts.  At the sound of the commotion some of the other neighbors came out onto their porches. By that time we were well ahead of Mrs. Anderson, who was clearly out of breath.  Russ held the lead dressed in Mrs. Anderson’s girdle and bra.  Tom and I followed, and the neighbors stood there watching.  Then Russ turned the corner across from my father’s store onto Western Avenue.  People in cars stopped to stare at this kid on stilts wearing old ladies’ underwear over his T-shirt and jeans.   All the traffic along the Boulevard was held up, as Russell danced and pranced on those stilts all the way up Western Avenue, finally turning into Babson Court near Nick’s grocery store, where he disappeared among the narrow houses.

(This is the text of a talk delivered on September 20, 2014 at the Cape Ann Museum as part of a program celebrating the Stacy Boulevard.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

Joyce Johnson's "The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac"

Joyce Johnson, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac (Viking, 2012), 489 pp.

            “Jack’s true life novels do contain much verifiable fact, but the truths he would seek to recapture above all would be the texture of his experiences, the feelings associated with them, the Proustian epiphanies he’d had rather than the precise factual details surrounding each event.  The crucial element in his work would not be the invention of plot or the creation of composite characters, but the alchemy that turned his memories into art, shaping, altering and refining the raw material he worked from.”
                                              -Joyce Johnson, The Voice is All

Joyce Johnson’s groundbreaking biography of Jack Kerouac, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, deserves closer attention than it has received since it was first published.  Focusing on his early years, this much-needed study is packed with new information and valuable insights into the evolution of Kerouac's method of writing and his personal and family traumas.  Johnson is the first biographer to have dug even more deeply than Paul Maher (Kerouac: His Life and Work, 2007) into Kerouac's childhood and French-Canadian heritage.  What she has unearthed explains a great deal about the Lowell-born writer’s psyche and his approach to writing; especially about the fact that he remained bi-lingual.

  Johnson is particularly helpful on Kerouac's early reading and writing, more so than his previous biographers, because so much more is now available from Kerouac’s letters and journals preserved in his archive at the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library.  Though it is practically a cliché that he was strongly influenced by Thomas Wolfe, one tends to forget about the impact of William Saroyan’s fiction on Kerouac, especially The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, which Kerouac read while still in school, along with Saroyan’s many stories.  According to Johnson, Saroyan’s use of a conversational voice in his narratives clearly made an impression on the high school athlete, who had begun writing at an early age.

               Johnson writes about Kerouac's prose from the inside, not only as someone who once knew him and lived with him (see Minor Characters. her clear-eyed memoir of their relationship during the time Kerouac had just published On the Road), but also as someone who has read him carefully and intelligently over the years.  In addition, her book offers a more in-depth analysis than earlier studies of the impact and influence on him of the writers who helped him to shape his style and find his voice, beginning with Wolfe, Saroyan and Albert Halper, now little known, but whose social realist novels of the 1930s and early 40s Kerouac avidly absorbed.  But it was Joyce and Proust that “he had come to value above all other writers,” Johnson stresses. 

               Together with the first complete biography by Ann Charters (Kerouac, 1973) and Tim Hunt's pioneering critical study, Kerouac's Crooked Road: The Development of a Fiction (1981), Johnson’s life is essential to an understanding of one of our most underrated writers.Reading her often harrowing descriptions of Kerouac’s drunken binges, his first two dysfunctional marriages, his difficulties fitting in as a merchant seaman, and his brief though tumultuous career in the Navy, during which he was erroneously diagnosed with schizophrenia and admitted to a psychiatric facility, it’s possible to speculate that Kerouac may have suffered from an oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD), coupled with alcoholism.  Both his parents drank heavily and his father exhibited most of the major traits of an alcoholic, especially the characteristic secretiveness, paranoia and explosive anger, accompanied by depression.  Leo Kerouac’s right-wing politics, which prefigure his son’s later reactionary views, were an enactment of his own pathology.  Leo couldn't keep a job—Kerouac resisted working, eventually compressing his own life into writing and drinking, especially when he was not writing.  But how he wrote, even from a young age!  His early family novel, The Haunted Life, impeccably edited and introduced by Todd Tietchen and published this year for the first time, though completed before The Town and the City (1950) and looking ahead to the more experimental Lowell novels, is more accomplished than many of today’s first novels, while containing the seeds of everything Kerouac was to achieve as a writer.

               Oppositional defiant disorder is an anti-social condition.  A person with an oppositional defiant disorder refuses to obey rules, can't abide structure, has difficulty making and keeping commitments, especially emotional ones, and is also argumentative and disruptive with authority figures.  This is the kind of person who often becomes involved in brawls, especially when drinking.   While artists and writers, particularly those who favor transgressive modes, may have some of this tendency in them, most are able to channel or sublimate it into their work or political activity.   However for Kerouac, there were occasions beyond his writing when he seemed unable to achieve this necessary sublimation.  He had trouble keeping a job—in fact, he often refused to work, allowing wives, girlfriends or his mother, to support him until he began to earn enough from writing, though the emotional dimension of the support continued through his entire brief life (he died at the age of 47, on October 21, 1969, of cirrhosis of the liver, in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he lived with his invalided mother and third wife, Stella Sampas, the sister of his boyhood friend Sammy).
               Kerouac's life after sports, which could be considered a form of self-medication (the violent physical aspect of sports, the risk taking, the competition, the speed of football), gradually evolved into writing and drinking, until toward the end of his life he would basically sit around the house and drink, writing less and less, television constantly in the background.  He painted too, and quite beautifully, even toward the end of his life, so that the creative spark was not entirely extinguished (see Departed Angels: The Lost Paintings of Jack Kerouac, 2004).

               His political conservatism and Anti-Semitism, in the face of so many liberal or left –leaning Jewish friends like Ginsberg, appears to have been an expression of his ODD.  In the end, he became like his father, with his father's unwavering right wing prejudices and his drinking; also, his paranoia.  Most people have generally been able to live within accepted parameters or interpersonal and societal limits.  Kerouac, like many who suffer from drug and alcohol addictions, seemed unable to abide limits of any kind.  For Kerouac, however, there was creative gain because he broke through many of the conventions of writing, not only in questions of plot, character and structure, but also in terms of language; as did Joyce, who had his own forms of defiance, and also drank heavily, according to biographer Richard Ellmann.

               Returning to the question of ODD, the disorder is thought by some researchers to be genetic in origin, while others see it as a biochemical disorder.  The analytical view is that it is a consequence of childhood trauma.  Kerouac’s potential ODD may well have been a reaction to his Catholic education among nuns who abused him and his classmates both verbally and physically, causing him to have a lifelong hatred of authority of any kind.  He was also beaten by his father whom he both hated and loved.  Leo Kerouac, who meddled unhelpfully in his son's troubled relationship with Columbia football coach Lou Little, may also have suffered from ODD, and it is well known that styles of coping with conflicts are conditioned by families, passed down, or mirrored.
               But Kerouac should not be reduced to a diagnosis. 
There is so much more to be considered as we try to come to terms with the forces that shaped him—the pressures Leo was under as an immigrant, the language conflicts in the family, the ethnic struggles in Lowell that my Greek father and grandfather also experienced, the repressive role that the Church played in the family’s and the culture's life, and the deeper reasons for the drinking, which can also be understood as a defense against a hostile and uncomprehending society and the literary culture that embodied it.  No matter what the basis for Kerouac’s personal struggles may have been, he was a major writer, as Johnson amply documents, who brought enormous gifts and strengths to the writing of fiction.  Like Henry Miller, Celine, who also influenced him, and William Burroughs, he revolutionized the practice of writing fiction, in tandem with near contemporaries like Gilbert Sorrentino, Michael Rumaker and Douglas Woolf, all of whom became part of the movement known as “The New American Writing.”

            Most people have read Kerouac's road novels, On the Road and The Dharma Bums, bypassing The Subterraneans and Desolation Angels, which are equally important and may be considered part of the “road sequence.”   Related to but set apart from this sequence is Kerouac's masterwork, Visions of Cody (1972), the story of his friendship with the legendary Neal Cassady, whose stream-of-consciousness letters are equally considered to be an influence on Kerouac’s emerging prose style.  This is Kerouac’s most experimental book, which was not published until after his death.   Still, if Kerouac had published nothing but Visions of Gerard, Maggie Cassidy and Dr. Sax, the three seminal books in his Lowell series, he would still be considered a major American writer, clearly on a par with Sherwood Anderson.  The last novel he published before his death, Vanity of Dulouz (1968), is also masterful.  Harvey Brown, the late publisher of Frontier Press books in West Newbury, MA, had obtained an advance copy and had immediately gotten on the phone to read parts of it to Charles Olson in Gloucester.  Olson told friends he was pleased that Kerouac was again writing about what was closest to him, his origins and his life in Lowell—and he was doing it in Lowell.  Olson also said that he believed Kerouac was producing some of the most significant prose in America. 
               Johnson is extremely helpful in describing how Kerouac broke free from conventional narrative techniques and expectations, forging what Kerouac himself referred to as “wild” or “deep” form and Allen Ginsberg called "spontaneous bop prosody,” influenced by the breath, rhythms and extended musical “sentences” of be-bop.  Johnson’s narrative takes Kerouac up to the publication of On the Road.  She describes how he wrote an earlier beginning to On the Road in his Lowell French Canadian dialect, joual, and how writing in French helped to liberate him linguistically and formally. 
 After translating what he had written into English,  he knew he had found the loose, free and open personal voice in which he had been struggling for years to write On the Road.  It became the voice for the rest of his life in prose.  Other critics have written about his struggle to find that voice, but only Johnson takes a hard look at the fact that Kerouac's first language was joual, the language he and his mother always conversed in and that he thought in.  Johnson also demolishes the myth that Kerouac was undisciplined, sitting down high on amphetamines at the typewriter to tear through his novels at breakneck speed (“It’s not writing, it’s just typewriting,” Truman Capote complained).  Nothing could be further from the truth.

                Of equal importance as jazz and joual in an understanding of Kerouac’s attempts to arrive at what he called “a vast subjective form” is his discovery while working on On the Road of what he came to call “sketching.”  His friend Ed White had showed Kerouac some pencil sketches of New York buildings that attracted White and, according to Johnson, he suggested to Jack, “Why don’t you sketch in the street like a painter, but with words?” 
               Johnson continues:

               Sketching immediately gave Jack what he most needed—the freedom to write his ‘interior music’ just as it came to him, removing the inhibiting presence in his mind of the editor or reader whose needs and conventional expectations must always be taken into consideration.  He was about to discover what he had been looking for—a way to write passages in which he would seize the peak moment and ride it through to the end, without interrupting the flow of imagery.  Sketching would dissolve the barrier between poetry and prose.

               Johnson concludes:

               Although his need to get published had never been more desperate, he would soon be in the grip of an unstoppable rebellion against the conventions of fiction that would threaten the marketability of his work and his ability to survive.

Such is the path of an artist like Kerouac, who refuses to compromise his style or his vision.

                Kerouac’s development as a writer, as Johnson painstakingly documents, included a long, careful and often agonizing apprenticeship, culminating in a brilliantly ambitious first novel, The Town and the City (1950), in which Kerouac said he wanted “to explain everything to everybody,” followed by an equally committed struggle to find an appropriate voice in which to write more deeply about his childhood experiences in Lowell, as well as what he had lived through during and after the writing of his first novel: the experiences that would inform subsequent novels like On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Visions of Cody.  The publication of the original “Scroll Version” of On the Road by Viking in 2007 should put to rest any arguments about Kerouac’s presumed lack of discipline or damaging haste as a writer, given the magnificence of much of the writing and the clarity and coherence of the overall structure of the extended narrative.  As his friend John Clellon Holmes wrote: “I would have given anything I owned to have written such tidal prose.”

               While Tim Hunt analyzes the development of Kerouac's fiction, his voice and style, from a literary-critical point of view in Kerouac's Crooked Road, Johnson approaches it from a biographical perspective.  She is stunning in the way that she demonstrates the emergence of his voice and his determination to write the way he finally wrote, against novelistic convention, directly from the way he was living each day, the people he knew, the books he was reading and his emerging courage to plumb his own depths.  Her careful analysis of the several abandoned versions of On the Road, each one making clear that Kerouac was moving closer to what he would achieve in sitting down to write the mesmerizing complete draft of the novel in 1951, on that legendary roll of drawing paper, the version in which he began at the beginning of his journey, not only to experience America but more importantly to “heal himself spiritually,”— the ur journey that combined several trips, using himself and his road companions not only as who and what they actually were, but also as what they represented of an emerging culture of American refuseniks—is a breathtaking critical performance.  At the culmination of that process, in which his writing and life, the prose itself and the shape of the landscape he had traversed, were fused, Johnson concludes that Kerouac had “finally become the book he was writing.”

               “I’m lost but my work is found,” he said.  The rest is history.

 (This review appeared in House Organ, Number 88, Fall 2014)