I was to meet Cap Pearce at his office at 12:30, for discussion of a book contract and for one of our lunches at a small Italian restaurant in the East Thirties where the veal scallopini was well pounded and the wine muscular. But Cap called and said, “Come early. Conrad Aiken will be here to pick up copies of his new book, and I’d like to see you being tongue-tied in the presence of greatness.” The world has forgotten Charles A. Pearce, although his letters to writers he edited turned up in this or that collection. He was the kind of editor who could work with a T.S. Eliot and a John O’Hara, as he did when he was with Harcourt, Brace; mollify and extract the best from young and over-assertive writers on their first books; and get a best-selling author (as I was then) to acknowledge that Cap had the finest and most perceptive copy pencil in the business—and don’t Maxwell Perkins me!

I always listened to Cap because he was the only real editor I have ever known, and because of the mutual affection and respect which bound us together. At the time, I knew that his publishing house, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, was being destroyed by a liberal whispering campaign which marked him “fascist” and beyond the pale because he had rejected on grounds of simple incompetence one of Howard Fast’s “historical” novels. For this he should have received the plaudits of the literate in the book trade—for even Grub Street had given Fast, whose potboiled work gave off a mackerel aura, a bad name.

And Conrad Aiken? In prep school I had read and reread his poems, gone through all the critical writing by and about him on the school’s library shelves, and had somehow begged or borrowed the money to buy his Selected Poems. I had typed and made carbon copies of two of Aiken’s lyrics, When Trout Swim Down Great Ormond Street and Music I Heard With You, which I distributed to good friends and to my English teachers. And I had learned more about the poet’s craft from studying Aiken’s work than a year with George Saintsbury’s great study of prosody. Few poets knew so well the exquisite use of language and the meters and pauses, the rhythms of verse. As I rushed to Cap’s office, I felt slightly embarrassed that I possessed at the time only two of Aiken’s novels—Blue Voyage and Conversation—which I had read and reread with absorption and envy.

In those years—as reporter, editor, and writer—I had met more than my share of the great and near-great in politics and letters—even to making charitable (and unrepaid) “loans” to an unwashed James Baldwin. I had read substantially in the works of living and dead poets, trying hard to seek the essence of their ars poetica while escaping entrapping mannerisms to confuse my own verse—tremendously difficult in the case of T.S. Eliot who penetrated like a dog beneath the skin. But Aiken had, for some reason, posed no such problem, and the ineffable seriousness and delight of reading him had not encumbered me—this though to everything he touched he gave significance and a special patina. His use of the denotative and connotative in language, his control of emotion while giving it freedom, and above all his sense of form and sense of the line, were not to be found anywhere in the verse of his time and mine.

Alain, in the essays he published in the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, had once written a defining sentence, “Le style est le style”—which can be read as “the style is the stylus” or vice versa. Aiken’s stylus had cut through to the essence of French symbolism and the experiments of the pre-World War I literary breakthrough without affecting his style, which was purely Aiken during a period when so many American poets were plagiarizing each other’s method. And his good sense had pierced the mass—some would say the mess—of Freudianism, separating from it those elements which were relevant to his life, his thinking, and our contemporaneity.

The book by Conrad Aiken which Cap Pearce had published was Ushant, an autobiography in the form of a novel, couched in a flowing stream of consciousness which no other writer had achieved. Over the months, as it moved from manuscript to bound book. Cap had spoken to me of the impact it would have on the literary world and on writing in general. “It is sui generis,” he would say, “and yet in the great tradition of English letters. It is a book about life and tragedy. No, it is none of these things, but it is probably the most important book I have ever published, and the closest to me.” Cap expected great things of Ushant, but they never happened. I thought then that at least Malcolm Cowley—who had once written that Aiken was “perhaps the greatest master that we now have”—would speak up for it, and to give it the discussion it merited. But Cowley was busy fighting the wars of the left—diving like a loon for the “meaningful,” in William Hazlitt’s phrase, and coming up with his pocket handkerchief—and Ushant was dumped by the critics, when they simply did not ignore it, into the cauldron of the who-shot-John of “proletarian” literary politics, then dominated by a crypto-Marxism which is still with us—and to Cap’s sorrow, it neither made the best-seller lists nor opened doors of the art. There is nothing in Edmund Wilson’s “diaries” for roughly that time except a note: “Conrad Aiken is back at Brewster [New York] and suffering from poison ivy.”

For some strange reason, there are three men who, in my mind’s eye, share physical characteristics—John Dos Passos, Pablo Casals, and Conrad Aiken. Dos Passos I got to know quite well when we served together on the board of directors of the American Conservative Union. I had spent several hours interviewing Casals and been the only newsman present when he suffered a heart attack while rehearsing the orchestra for the Festival Casals in San Juan. Aiken I only know from that one meeting in Cap Pearce’s office in 1952. Perhaps for me the aura of greatness materializes only in one form. But that is how I remember Conrad Aiken as we sat in a second-floor office of a converted townhouse on a tree-lined street in New York’s East Thirties. He was already there when I walked in, and Cap had said some kind things to him about me as a writer and poet— enough perhaps to convince Aiken that I was no questing newsman seeking to catch him in a misspelling.

I was not there to ask questions. Aiken spoke about Ushant with a friendly impersonality, as if it were a novel he had read, and not a deeply probing autobiography, in a third-person-singular mode, reaching into himself. He was matter-of-fact when I spoke of student days when I carried a volume of his Selected Poems under my arm on the Columbia campus—matter-of-fact but with no false modesty or condescension. I had a copy of Ushant in my hands—I desperately wanted it autographed but never had the gall to request it—and thrust it a little forward as I asked, almost biting my tongue immediately after, how far back into his childhood he went. I had in mind the opening of Tristram Shandy, a book whose spoor is visible in Ushant, and in Laurence Sterne’s did-you-wind-the-clock opening. There was a slight stiffening, but no resentment that it had touched on a terrible memory—the finding of his mother and father, horrible dead in their bedroom. I rushed to some technical question, and Aiken smiled. “But you are a writer, you must know,” he said.

I took Ushant home and spent much of that night and the next reading it. For those who will seek it out and turn to it with seriousness of purpose, it is a unique yet universal autobiography and a roman a clef—a memoir of literary worlds before my time and a penetrating inward view of the life of a man who lived for himself, for his art, and for those women and men who impinged on his existence. But as Cap put it in the jacket blurb he so lovingly wrote, Ushant is a mix a nu of man and of men moving in these misbegotten times. That is the only way it can be read today or by later generations not keyed in to memoirs of the literati who existed between the two World Wars. And it is a kind of epilogue and binder to the four novels he wrote, as well as to his poems—novels about Conrad Aiken and his wives and his anguish and life itself. They have been brought together in one volume, with an ultraliterary introduction by R.P. Blackmur. They should be read today so that the seeking may discover that a novel is more than a sexual limepit.

It has been many years since I read Conrad Aiken’s critiques of literature and the arts—to be found now only in such storage places as the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. But it is the poetry that counts, and the poetry which should be on the reading list of every college course in American literature—though I am certain it is not. I have tried to find out what undergraduates read today in their “survey” courses beyond Erica Jong and Stephen King—and I have come to the conclusion that the mimeographed lists are little more literate than “gangsta” rap. In my youth, we could follow the argument: Did Aiken want the colon in the title of Punch: The Immortal Liar—left out in the first printing—or did he invite the implied mayhem? “If is morning, Senlin says”—a morning enwrapped. The poem was read to us in class, and we read it ourselves. Perhaps what reached out to mc, as an adolescent honing his poetic skills, was Aiken’s striving to merge the spoken word with musical utterance—his “symphonies,” as he put it, which predated Eliot’s “quartets”—and his realization that English speech in its heightened forms flows in and out of the iambic, even as that flow is encouraged by anapests and dactyls. He could move from the discipline of meter to the greater discipline of free form, avoiding always the dangers of the unrestrained adjective which lie in wait for careless or overenthusiastic writers, and never allowing emotion to overcome sensibility.

I took down from the bookshelf the Collected Poems, published in 1953, which I bought after a friend had walked off with the 1929 Selected Poems, and a single volume of that curious work, The Coming Forth By Day of Osirus Jones (1931), wondering how sunlight had faded its green cover, and as always was lost in it for several hours. Turning the pages, I remarked the strength of his selfcriticism in throwing away much of the earliest work. The poems are arranged not according to publication date but when they were written, delineating his development as man and sufferer and poet. The language becomes less compressed and more conversational in the later work, yet never descends into the prosaic, which has yanked down so many contemporary poets. And always it targets the sadness and the experience of living, of attempting to reach to the core of what that living is, without indulging in the ironic cerebralism of an Eliot or an Auden. The ironies are there, for what is more ironic than man’s determined clutching at what he is doomed to lose?

Do the new generations, as they break through the shell of their adolescence, read Conrad Aiken today? Do they in fact read anything at all—or do they wander in the vast cultural wasteland of our times? What evidence we have seems to say that the drive which led some to write and others to read what was written has been anesthetized by the getting and spending of a computerized, vulgarized, and televised world. The immortality achieved by poets and writers, by artists and composers, may well have come to an end in an ambiance which speaks loudest from the muzzle of a gun. But for those of us, the detritus of an earlier time, there is still a refuge in the transcendent spirit of poets like Conrad Aiken, in the music that filled the void of centuries. It may end with us, for a time, but it will return before trout swim down Great Ormond Street, for it is music that is more than music.