Jeffrey Meyers, a biographer whose fascination with the literary life is touchingly suggestive of the enthusiasm small boys used to have for the railroading one, is the only person I can think of who would consider it a “privilege” to be led on, toyed with, lied to, and finally betrayed by V.S. Naipaul. Scott Fitzgerald thought that writers were barely human; undaunted, Meyers wrote a biography of him. (Fitzgerald himself was an exceptionally sweet-natured man.) Conceivably, Meyers might even have enjoyed a stay over at Combe Florey with Evelyn Waugh, who was given to making terrible faces at his guests through the window. Less temeritous souls than Meyers would think twice about bearding literary lions in their lairs, less tenacious ones would shy from the pain of disenchantment by acquainting themselves with the crashing personal bores that all too often hide out behind scintillating literary personae. Finally, there are the braggarts and swaggerers—for example, Ernest Hemingway and James Dickey—who make you catch water moccasins with your bare hands, swim the Florida Straits, or try your hand with a cape and a young bull before lunch. Perhaps because fortune favors the brave, Jeffrey Meyers has been surprisingly fortunate in his literary encounters. Naipaul, of course, is inhuman (he could be called a monster, save for the neurasthenic weakness that prompts his behavior), while Allen Ginsberg (contrary to Meyers’ professed admiration) sounds about as compelling as his poetry. Though it might be overstating the case to say Meyers never met a writer he didn’t like, “like” in this context is comparable to the emotion a scientist feels for any one of his specimens. As a prolific literary scholar, Jeffrey Meyers collects authors the way a herpetologist collects snakes and lizards; the only ones he doesn’t “like” are those that got away.
Privileged Moments, which includes portraits of Ginsberg, Dickey, Ed Dorn, Arthur Miller, Iris Murdoch, Naipaul, Francis King, and J.F. Powers, leaves me somewhat at a disadvantage in feeling no affinity for the work of any of these authors. Powers excepted. (I have never read a line by Arthur Miller, while Ed Dorn and Francis King, the English novelist, were previously unknown to me.) It’s a tribute to Meyers’ skill as an interviewer and biographer that I was with him most of the way in his 39th book which, owing to its tight interior design, is not as brief as its 149 pages suggest. Ed Dorn—the late poet, novelist, and nonfiction writer whom Meyers knew when both men were members of the English faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder—turns out to have been an academic version of Ed Abbey, while Miller comes across as an engaging and civilized fellow, despite his naive and objectionable politics. The essay on Murdoch and her husband, John, to whom the Meyerses were close, is good work, a study in genial English eccentricity. However, the final chapter, about the Minnesota novelist J.F. Powers, is an absolutely splendid job, by itself worth the price of the book. For various reasons, I had always been put off by Powers’ stuff, but Meyers’ brilliant treatment sent me back to his last book, Wheat That Springeth Green, a review copy of which I had owned since its publication in 1988.
Jim Powers (1917-1999), born in Illinois of immigrant Irish parents, lived alternately in Ireland and Minnesota, where he taught at St. John’s University in Collegeville; beyond that, as Meyers puts it. Powers “never went anywhere.” He did not involve himself in literary politics, give readings, or engage in other forms of self-promotion. An old-fashioned Catholic, he disliked what the Church as well as America was becoming, and deeply distrusted the materialist impulse. (He never owned his own home but moved 30 times with his wife and five children; when Meyers met them, the Powerses were living in a small, shabby house rented from the university.) A slow worker who frequently suffered from writer’s block, he spent 20 years on one of his five books. In old age, after the death of his wife from cancer, he moved into a still smaller house where he did his laundry on his knees beside a rusty bathtub and wrote at a low table in the one “warmish” room beside a line of books inscribed by Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, and Robert Lowell. Lonely as a widower, he disliked “most social life” and never attended cultural events on campus, while reading books had become a “distraction.” Powers refused Meyers’ offer to interview him for the Paris Review‘s “Writers at Work” series as a means to enhance his reputation; later he wrote:
I no longer (if I ever did, in my heart) believe there is any hope for me as a popular author, even a literary one, and so it’s not as you think, indifference to my career, but simply recognizing reality for what it must be for me.
While one suspects Jeffrey Meyers—whose favorite authors are D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, Wyndham Lewis, Andre Malraux, and Hemingway—might as a general rule prefer more flamboyant subjects, what I believe makes this portrait a stunner is Meyers’ (perhaps reluctant) recognition that J.F. Powers’ is the realest type of the literary life. Meyers seems both appalled and attracted by his late friend’s meager existence, perhaps for the reason that he recognizes him to have been an example of what amounts, by now, to an endangered species.
What has occurred since the 1960’s—beginning maybe as early as the 1920’s—is the coalescence of a shadow literary world that, within the past two decades, has succeeded almost entirely in supplanting the bodied one. The “creative” writer of today, sporting an M.F.A. degree, a sheaf of recommendations by a number of literary lights, and a variety of awards, grants, and other emoluments, is more or less an accomplished professional performer and celebrity; as an author, however, he is no more than a literary amateur at best, at worst a fraudulent poseur whose reputation depends on careful networking and an elaborate mutual-praise-and-admiration society. What has happened to literature in our time is the hijacking of the grimy, sweaty, flesh-and-blood reality by the lustrous antiseptic specter, the replacement of Balzac in his dirty bathrobe with his piled coffee saucers around him by a bimbo beside her swimming pool, fey youths in dark glasses wearing black T-shirts under their designer sport coats, and the latest Asian Firecracker from San Francisco, flown out by her New York publisher to have her photo taken by Jill Krementz. Back in the 50’s, Raymond Chandler wondered how many people there were left in America who could read a paragraph from a novel—any novel—and say whether the man who wrote it was a writer or not. Today, the new breed of publishers, largely interested in videos, movie rights, and celebrity-chasing, can’t begin to tell the difference (not that it wants to, or cares). The “writers”—unskilled or badly skilled, ignorant, vapid, shallow, self-absorbed, and nihilistic; knowing little of life but plenty about ideological fashion and what it takes to achieve celebrity—who swamp the major publishing houses with print-out mss. belong, mostly, to this shadow world, which publishers have learned to accept for the real one. (They think a writer ought to write like Bobbie Ann Mason or whoever it is that wrote White Snow on Dark Cedars!) What has happened here is what has overtaken so much in modern society: A well-organized, well-disciplined, and mutually supportive cadre of eager wannabes set its sights on an institution it considered (for all the wrong reasons) eminently desirable, first infiltrated, then seized it, then—finally—chased the artists and professionals out. As for the publishers’ acquiescence in this Bloodless Revolution, I suppose you really can’t blame them, the impostors having largely supplied the market for their work as well as the means of production and a promotional system (themselves) much more effective than what the publishing houses have in place. The result is that real writers—including many with established reputations—can’t get contracts nowadays.
While J.F. Powers cannot supply the glamour of many writers, the fewer of the genuine article (like Powers) and the more of the pod variety there are in years to come, the fewer privileged moments will be available to the indefatigable powerhouse Jeffrey Meyers (still only 61 years old!) and his successors in literary scholarship. To Meyers’ credit, he does seem to understand this.
[Privileged Moments: Encounters With Writers, by Jeffrey Meyers (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press) 149 pp., $24.95]