Roger W. Smith
review of Dreiser’s ‘Other Self’: The Life of Arthur Henry
by Maggie Walker and Mark Walker
Dreiser Studies 36.2 (2005)
Attached as PDF file (above).
Roger W. Smith
review of Dreiser’s ‘Other Self’: The Life of Arthur Henry
by Maggie Walker and Mark Walker
Dreiser Studies 36.2 (2005)
Attached as PDF file (above).
A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O’Connor
by Charles F. Duffy
Catholic University of America Press
376 pages, $49.95
By ROGER W. SMITH
New York Sun
January 8, 2004
Surprisingly for a writer who occupies a well-defined niche in American literary history — his The Last Hurrah was the most widely read Irish-American novel since James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan — Edwin O’Connor has never been the subject of a full-scale biography until now. Charles Duffy, a professor of English at Providence College, has taken it upon himself to remedy this defect.
The Last Hurrah has been justly termed by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. “the best American novel about urban politics.” It made a legend of Boston politician James Michael Curley (on whom the book’s main character, Frank Skeffington, is partly based) and its title added a new phrase to the American idiom which is now a cliché of political and sports writing.
O’Connor was quoted as having once said to an acquaintance that he “would like to do for the Irish in America what Faulkner did for the South.” He did not live long enough to be able to attempt this, having published five novels of varying importance and quality (only one of which is still in print) at his death in 1968 at the age of 49.
O’Connor died suddenly of a stroke, leaving behind fragments of two novels that he had worked on alternately in the last months of his life. One, tentatively titled “The Cardinal,” was to focus on the Church in the post-Vatican II era; the other, entitled “The Boy,” appears to be autobiographical. O’Connor had also planned to write a novel about Boston’s first Irish immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century.
It was Samuel Johnson who first claimed, in a famous essay on the writing of biography, that “the minute details of daily life” are of the greatest biographical interest. It was also Johnson who, in his Lives of the Poets, provides a model for literary biography in which a conscious effort is made to shed light on areas such as each writer’s moral character, work habits, and the particular concatenation of circumstances and influences (intellectual and cultural) that resulted in an oeuvre.
In true Johnsonian spirit, Duffy has mined every conceivable scrap of information about O’Connor, bringing him as it were back to life. He has made excellent and creative use of miscellaneous source materials and personal reminiscences (O’Connor was notoriously averse to letter writing) to unearth details about O’Connor’s student days at Notre Dame, his early career as a radio announcer and writer, his Boston years and haunts, his newspaper experience (which included a stint as a television critic for the Boston Herald), the circle of literary friends he made at The Atlantic Monthly and Wellfleet on Cape Cod (where he spent his summers), and the writing process as O’Connor practiced and experienced it. He uses O’Connor’s works to illuminate the life and makes interesting speculations, based on autobiographical readings of the novels and unpublished sketches, about O’Connor’s relationship with his father, but at the same time resists the temptation to make easy generalizations in this regard.
Duffy is even-handed and perceptive in assessing O’Connor’s strengths and weaknesses. Chief among the strengths: a gift for characterization (his minor characters, such as the political hangers-on in The Last Hurrah, were said by Clifton Fadiman to be worthy of Hogarth or Daumier), his humor, and his gift for dialogue. A sampling of the critical comments (which are many) regarding O’Connor’s works: his wordiness and frequent neglect of the dictum “show, don’t tell” (resulting in a propensity for making overly explicit what is clearly implied by the narrative), a penchant for nostalgia that can at times seem cloying, and a tendency to enjoy his favorite characters so much that they never leave center stage and the reader begins to tire of them.
One thing I would have liked to learn more about are writers who influenced O’Connor. Duffy mentions the influence of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene, but more information on O’Connor’s literary influences and reading would have been welcome. I would also take issue with an occasional glibness that creeps into Duffy’s prose, as, for example, in an aside in which he dismisses “the half-baked theories of the Doctor from Vienna, most of which are now in the dustbin”; his figure of speech for Kristallnacht, “that vandalic shattering”; and his characterization of mid-twentieth century Boston Brahmins, “Backsliding in finances, resting on imaginary laurels, and underperforming in sex, that class had had its noontime in Boston’s weak sun.”
Duffy thinks (as do other critics) that The Edge of Sadness (1961), a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a priest whose career and inner conflicts are portrayed with unsparing realism, is O’Connor’s best and most finely crafted novel. The book’s understated tone (avoiding what Duffy calls “spiritual histrionics” and a Hollywood-style treatment of the priestly vocation) and narrative style play to O’Connor’s strengths. “At his best,” Duffy observes, “[O’Connor] wrote with great ethical integrity, with an unusual warmth towards his characters, with elegant wit.” Similar qualities are evident in this biography, especially a sincere affection for its subject which it is hard for the reader not to share.
Mr. Smith is a freelance writer and editor based in Maspeth, Queens.
Bill Dalzell was one of the first people I got to know after moving to New York City. I will never forget his kindness to me. My friendship with Bill was a long and enduring one.
If you got to know Bill well, as I did — if you were privileged to know him — you will probably know the following things about him, and, if you do, will know that they are all true.
He never cared about externals. Dressed simply. Lived by intuition. He followed politics closely but was fundamentally an apolitical person.
He believed absolutely in the spiritual, in mysticism, and in bona fide psychics such as Edgar Cayce and the medium Grace Cooke, author of the White Eagle books. He was interested in the writings of mystics such as Meister Eckhart — in the case of Eckhart, in the concept of detachment or disinterestedness: getting outside of oneself to attain spiritual wisdom.
He believed without any doubt that there was an afterlife on “the other side.”
He was skeptical of much of what is considered orthodoxy, used to say, “Science marches backward.” A paradox with an element of truth in it.
He absolutely did not believe in medicine or doctors. He had no bank account, as far as I knew.
He had an interesting mind, in many respects totally unconventional. Was a nonconformist. Yet he was one of the kindest, politest, most civil persons you could hope to meet. He was a true gentleman. He had a warm, mellifluous voice with an inflection, which he never lost, that bespoke his Pennsylvania roots.
He thought for himself and by himself. He had an interesting way of expressing original concepts. For example, he told me that he liked to call cats “fur people.” He said it made it easier to conceptualize having a relationship with them. And, then there was his concept of the “foot philosophy,” which he explained by saying that when he couldn’t decide which bus or train to take, whether to go to a museum or the cinema, or whether to walk uptown or downtown, he would go wherever, instinctually, his feet took him, follow his feet.
He did not put on airs. Just the opposite. He used to say to me, when he was living on East 5th Street between Avenues A and B, “I live in a slum and I like it.” At that time (which was the time when I first met him), urban renewal and slum clearance were in the air.
He was a deeply religious person and, especially in his later years, a churchgoer. This despite the fact that he detested religious dogmatism.
He was a very earnest thinker. He dwelt all day long, every day, in the realm of ideas. He thought long and hard about things. Over and over again. Immortality and the afterlife. What is truth? The truth of art. The spiritual. Past lives. Places.
He did not have much use for formal education, although there was an English teacher at the prep school he attended, Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, whom he never forgot, who taught him to appreciate poetry. He wasn’t impressed by scholarship or academic credentials. He developed his own credo, but it was never set in stone. He would often say, quoting some philosopher: “Truth is like a butterfly. If you pin it down, it dies.”
He had acute tastes in art and loved the arts.
He was an earnest seeker after truth. In a conversation we had a few months ago, he told me something a philosophy professor in a college class he was enrolled in said many years ago: “The question is not whether a philosophy or belief system is true, it’s whether you like it nor not; does it appeal to you, say something to you? The same thing applies to art.” He sent me a postcard of Notre-Dame de Paris on a trip there in the summer of 1969. I remember in essence what he wrote. That he would continue seeking truth wherever he went. That he was in search of truth, repeating the word several times.
Some biographical details about Bill.
He grew up in Wilkinsburg, a borough adjacent to Pittsburgh. He loved the hills. The trolley cars. The movie theatre. How he went to a film once and before the film heard music, which he later learned was Felix Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. He wasn’t expecting it. The music overwhelmed him. It was a mystical experience. Bill’s grandfather had a 78 rpm record of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. Bill played it over and over again and said to me in old age that he had never ever tired of it.
He moved to New York in the 1950’s. He loved his adopted city. He used to say, “Would you care to hear me sing the praises of New York?” He used to marvel at the fact that so many people of all races and nationalities lived cheek by jowl in harmony. At how much the City had to offer by way of culture and places to enjoy at modest prices.
He made friends with many spiritually inclined people and, also, readily made friends with artists such as his lifelong friend Edwin Treitler, an artist, writer, and spiritual healer; the “magic realist” painter Gregory Gillespie; and the Greek-American painter Bill Komodore. He had an affinity for people in the arts. Gillespie’s portrait of Bill Dalzell, “Bill (in Studio),” was painted in the mid-1980’s when Bill was living in Pittsfield and Gillespie was living nearby in Belchertown, Massachusetts. The painting is owned by the Forum Galley in New York City. Bill had befriended Gillespie when the latter was studying at Cooper Union in New York in the late 1950’s.
He would on occasion speak about his parents: his father, who would visit Bill from time to time at his apartment on East 5th Street; and his mother, who died tragically of cancer in middle age. He felt an unnecessary operation led to her death. He never mentioned that his great-grandfather John Dalzell was a congressman from Pennsylvania.
He used to go the Metropolitan Museum of Art every weekend. He said that going to the Met was his equivalent of attending church. He would always begin by sitting in the cafeteria for an hour or so nursing a cup of coffee, lost in thought.
He had his favorite haunts. Besides the Met: the Thalia theater, an art movie house on West 95th Street; the Staten Island ferry; the automat. He loved being able to see two films for the price of one at the Thalia and discovered art films there (as well as at the Museum of Modern Art). He loved to take the Staten Island Ferry to Staten Island and back. We did it together several times. Bill would recommend getting off on the Staten Island side and having a cup of coffee or walking around for a while. In his early New York days, he would get off and see a movie in Staten Island, then take the ferry back.
He had a discerning eye for art. He was an admirer of the painter Edward Hopper. During museum trips we made together, he would point out how Hopper made use of light. “The light is different in America,” Bill would say. By “different,” he meant brighter. More brilliant. An observation which was true.
Bill loved the painting “The Peaceable Kingdom” by the American folk artist Edward Hicks and how the painting depicted visually Quaker principles: the lion lying down with the lamb. He would often go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the painting.
Bill singlehandedly made me into a discerning filmgoer. He got me to appreciate foreign films such as Ivan the Terrible, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet, and The Gospel According to St. Matthew, films that most people would be unlikely to know about.
He loved the D. W. Griffith film Intolerance, which he had seen I don’t know how many times. The film ends with an idealistic vision of a day “when prison bars wrought in the fires of intolerance will no longer prevail” and spectral prisoners in striped uniforms are seen moving through prison walls which disappear. A scene remarked upon by Bill.
He only recently called my attention to a film he loved from his early days in New York City: 3rd Ave. El, which was made in 1955. The music, as Bill pointed out, is a Haydn concerto played by harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Bill thought the music was great and that it made the film. He made an observation to me once that I remember. He said that films work their magic by “sight and sound.”
In the 1960’s, he was kept busy printing flyers for the War Resisters League and Women’s Strike for Peace. Handouts announcing a march or demonstration. They trusted him; he was their printer of choice. “The war is good for business,” he would say to me jokingly.
I remember Bill at 218 East 18th Street like it was yesterday and wish I could bring those times back. The cubbyhole in the cellar where he had his printing press. The pay phone in the hall on the bottom floor on which he would get calls from clients. How Charlie Bloomstein, the executive director of the New York Friends Group, would haggle Bill about paying part of the monthly phone bill.
Bill and his printing press. How he seemed to keep it working with rubber bands and paper clips and would, in his own words, get down on his knees and pray to the press to not stop working. How he would read his New York Times as the press was humming with sheets coming out of it. He had bill pads he had made up with the words: “William Dalzell, Quality Multilith Printing.” He explained to me how a multilith printer worked. The key thing to keep in mind, he said, is that “oil and water don’t like each other.” He loved to observe how mechanical things worked, and he loved old inventions. In a Thanksgiving card Bill sent me in the 1980’s, he wrote about visiting the Science Museum in Boston with Ed Treitler and his daughter Anya. “My favorite thing was the steam engine,” he wrote. I love steam engines.”
Bill was a great traveler. The places he went to (on a limited budget)! Europe. Mexico, where he lived for a while on a Friends Service Committee project. Alaska and Labrador. The Aran and Orkney Islands. The Findhorn spiritual community in Scotland. Russia. The Monastery of Trinity-St. Sergius, which is located near Moscow in what was then known as the town of Zagorsk. Bill had what he described as a mystical, or near mystical, experience there.
His favorite place was Notre-Dame de Paris. He said that Notre-Dame was “the most holy place” he had ever visited.
He was not much of a writer, in terms of output, but he would write occasionally when he was away, always a very short communique — by design — usually a postcard. His writing was notable for its deliberate plainness and its sincerity. And his neat printing which resembled calligraphy. He was a generous and thoughtful giver, on a limited budget, of gifts.
Bill’s favorite poem was Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which ends with the following lines which Bill would recite:
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
— Roger W. Smith
I had an appointment in the City this afternoon. Having been remiss about walking lately, I decided to walk home. It takes me about two and a half hours.
Walking is an excellent antidote for depression. I was depressed over two deaths that have deeply affected me: of a dear lifelong friend and of a relative my age. And I have experienced unpleasantness lately in interpersonal relationships.
The early evening, dusk, is such a peaceful time. Walking eastward on East 48th Street and northward on First Avenue, I felt this. A serenity came over me. The few people out looked unhurried and peaceful themselves. The mean-spirited persons I know seemed irrelevant, a feeling that was welcome.
One often feels a sense of excitement and pulse of unrelenting activity in Manhattan. But at other times, one almost feels a stillness akin to being far removed from what the poet Milton called “the busy hum of men.” It’s like being in the eye of a hurricane.
Don’t go on a cruise or to a remote tourist spot to escape your problems and tormentors. You’ll be walled in like a patient in an asylum. Go instead to a city, get lost in it, and walk it in the early morning or evening.
— Roger W. Smith
I am reading Henry David Thoreau’s essay on walking.
From a recent exhibit at the Morgan Library, I learned that Thoreau, who some moderns may think of as a sort of proto hippie, was very studious and had a very good education in classical and modern languages.
In his walking essay, Thoreau uses the Latin phrase ambulator nascitur, non fit.
After a moment’s hesitation, the meaning came to me: the walker is born, not made.
A curious person as he goes through life acquires all sorts of knowledge. Someone once remarked to me that it is very pleasurable to be able every now and then to USE those scraps of learning.
It was pleasurable to me to think I have retained a little bit of my high school Latin from over 50 years ago, including present passive verb endings.
Back in my high school days I was in a bus station in Boston once, using the men’s room. Some French sailors wearing funny hats with tassels were there too. They were in high spirits. They were teasing one another, joking and laughing. They couldn’t stop laughing. One jest led to another.
They noticed me and seemed friendly. We exchanged glances. I thought, I’m taking French. I can come up with something to say to them. I said, “Vous êtes de la marine française?” They nodded with smiles and seemed to be pleasantly surprised that an American teenager was speaking French to them.
It was very edifying to actually be using the French I had been learning out of a textbook.
–Roger W. Smith
September 30, 2017
On Friday, March 2, riding on the subway, I saw the following advertisement:
“LE SALVÉ LA VIDA A MI AMIGA”
Encontré a mi amiga desplomada en la cama. Se estaba poniendo azul y no podía respirar. Corrí a buscar mi naloxana y se la dí. Creí que estaba muerta. Cuando volvió en si, no sabía lo que había pasado ni por qué yo estaba llorando. Me alegro de haber tenido naloxona; le dio una segunda oportunidad.
La NALOXONA es un medicamento de emergencia que evita la muerte por sobredosis de analgésicos recetadas y heroína.
I was very pleased with myself in that I understood it completely, every word, in Spanish.
It seemed to me again that a little learning can be a good thing.
I have been reading the charming novel Good-bye Mr. Chips (1934) by James Hilton. The following passage struck me:
A pleasant, placid life, at Mrs. Wickett’s. He had no worries; his pension was adequate, and there was a little money saved up besides. He could afford everything and anything he wanted. His room was furnished simply and with schoolmasterly taste: a few bookshelves and sporting trophies; a mantelpiece crowded with fixture cards and signed photographs of boys and men; a worn Turkey carpet; big easy-chairs; pictures on the wall of the Acropolis and the Forum. Nearly everything had come out of his old housemaster’s room in School House. The books were chiefly classical, the classics having been his subject; there was, however, a seasoning of history and belles-lettres. There was also a bottom shelf piled up with cheap editions of detective novels. Chips enjoyed these. Sometimes he took down Virgil or Xenophon and read for a few moments, but he was soon back again with Doctor Thorndyke or Inspector French. He was not, despite his long years of assiduous teaching, a very profound classical scholar; indeed, he thought of Latin and Greek far more as dead languages from which English gentlemen ought to know a few quotations than as living tongues that had ever been spoken by living people. He liked those short leading articles in the Times that introduced a few tags that he recognized. To be among the dwindling number of people who understood such things was to him a kind of secret and valued freemasonry [italics added]; it represented, he felt, one of the chief benefits to be derived from a classical education.
Reminded me of the pleasure I have always taken — when boning up on literature or classical music, doing research, traveling watching films, etc. — in the knowledge I have obtained of several foreign languages, without having mastered any of them.
Know what I mean?
— Roger W. Smith
March 5, 2018