Over the Christmas holidays of 2015 I interviewed my father about the influence of books on his life. We planned on having these conversations every few months going into more depth over time. Sadly, the next time I saw my father his illness was effecting his memory. Since then I have held on to that only conversation. But it is something I have always wanted to share. Today I am presenting the first part of the interview. I will write a little more biographical information about him before I share the rest of the interview, I just really wanted to get this out there.
S:What’s the first book you remember reading.
E: That goes back to my childhood going back to second and third grade. As I got older in middle or high school I remember reading Richard Halliburton The Splendors of the Eastern World, where Richard Halliburton, who was the Indian Jones model from the 20s and 30s, went all over the Mediterranean from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Dardanelles visiting all the important ancient Greek and Roman sites and climbing up all the places he shouldn’t have gone. And getting arrested by police and what not.
S: What drew that to you that made it so important?
E: I was very excited about history and geography. Halliburton was an adventure story tied to all the history and geography. And I was very interested in the Mediterranean area because it was also the history of Rome and the history of Greece, and the history of Greece in Turkey. So the combination was wonderful. His adventure stories followed by what became of him.
Later on I was able to find used copies of The Splendors of the Eastern World and I gave them as presents to you. You might have them still.
S: They’re at the cabin.
E: I also have them at home as well and I’m saving them up for Alder when he is ready for them.
Those were my early books. Another early book, again junior, high school, was Lawrence of Arabia by Lowell Thomas which was perhaps an inaccurate and overly romantic view of the role of T E Lawrence during World War One in organizing the Arabs for revolt against the Ottoman Empire, but it was still exciting to a 14 or 15 year old. It kept me going with being interested in the middle east, World War I, and World War II for the rest of my life.
S: Can you remember any books that you read in your twenties that actually changed your opinion about anything or introduced you to something so…I don’t want to use the words mind-bending because I know that is a different era, but something that you read that you suddenly you have a whole new belief or understanding of something.
E: Well, the books I read, more than changing my personal philosophies, they introduced me to new worlds. For example reading Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point that he wrote in England before he moved to the US and then later Antic Hay and Chrome Yellow. Aldous Huxley was a wonderful writer who introduced me to the whole world of Bloomsbury and the British literary world which really became a permanent part of my life both in visiting, visiting friends in England, as well as reading.
From Huxley I drifted on to Albert Camus and Andre Gide. Gide of course before Camus. The two French writers.
S: That was the first book you ever gave me that was an adult book, the Pastoral Symphony. The Immoralist is still my favorite book.
E: So the whole series of books by Gide that proceed Camus and Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre were very very important and the whole context realizing that we are dealing with British literature, French literature, German Literature, and American Literature all coming to the forward together.
S:So you were more interested in that time period than the Isherwood and Waugh time later?
E: You move from the Gides’ and you move into Germany for Christopher Isherwood (British) “I am a Camera” and a lot of German writers, pre-war German writers and of course later the post war German writers.
S: What do you find so enthralling about these subjects?
E: What we did as college students was, on one hand there was New York Greenwich Village and on the other hand there was Bloomsbury in London and the Left Bank in Paris and during college everybody traveled to all these different places. I didn’t have the money to travel to London or Paris like lots of my classmates did. But I was able to read the books.
So you had a combination of the Americans which included Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein and other American’s writing at that time. And Mac Leish writing his poetry, John Dos Passos writing his four book series about the US. On the other hand you had the British and the French and all this came together like a weaving, like a fabric of world literature which really colored for you how you wanted to live in your own world. Which sort of made engineering studies and business studies beside the point, even though I had to excel in those as well.
S: But you were never very interested in someone like Willa Cather and the whole western writers. Were they part of that time period of your life’s reading or later on?
E: Later on I discovered the more interesting American writers. So not so much the Willa Cather’s but you began to discover Wallace Stegner who wrote in Colorado and the Midwest, and at Iowa writer’s workshop. And Peter Taylor who wrote tales from Tennessee, and possibly Richard Ford although I consider him more of a New Jersey writer, and we’ll get into Updike and Cheever later. Their time, meaning the 40s and the 50s, let’s include Cheever for New England.
So we have Cheever for New England and New York City, and we have Wallace Stegner for the Midwest and the western areas and you have Peter Taylor for the south. These three writers really start to bring home the importance of US values, US writing, US scenes that were wonderful for literature.
S: Would you put Salinger in this group or is he a separate topic?
E: Salinger came up early on, the same time as Cheever did. We are talking unfortunately all about New Yorker magazine writers. So we had Cheever writing for the New Yorker and we had Salinger writing. All of Salinger’s books and stories were originally New Yorker stories.
S: Do you look at them differently? I’ve read Salinger but I haven’t read Cheever. What’s the draw to Cheever that I wouldn’t find in Salinger?
E: You’ll find many of the same issues which is middle class snobbery, racism, limited thinking. Salinger was more of a mystic however and because of Catcher in the Rye and its attraction to college students he became more of a cult figure than Cheever, who became more of a literary figure. Even though they both started out writing the same, Franny and Zooey on one hand and the Enormous Radio on the other hand in the New Yorker during the same years, Salinger took on a more mystical feeling for the people who read him. You could also read him as a commentary about society of that time, as Cheever wrote the same things as he wrote The Swimmer or many of his other stories which take place in Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York City.
S: Do you think one of them holds up better now than the other?
E: That’s a very interesting question.
S: I just reread Franny and Zooey, I was fascinated by them, I found them really interesting to me because of where they took place. But they are such a foreign ideas to me. They are things that I don’t have any relationships with, even having gone to a liberal arts college at the turning point in schools.
E: I think you will find that Cheever will have, other than Catcher in the Rye, and possibly Raise High the Roof Beams, which is a New York story. Remember Cheever’s early stories are New York then he moves to Connecticut and Massachusetts, I forget the name of the towns.
S: Is he the… oh no that’s John Updike.
E: I’m avoiding Updike because I don’t like New Jersey. That’s why I don’t like Richard Ford.
S: So when you look at these two different chunks of time in reading, were you reading them simultaneously or did you read the Europeans, the Isherwood and Gide, at a different time in your life than when you were reading Salinger and Cheever?
E: I was probably reading the Europeans who were all writing in the 1920s and 1930s as a starting point and then wrote after coming out of the War Simone de Beauvoir writing the book called The Mandarins, an absolutely wonderful novel opposed to her nonfiction philosophy. I probably read all those first in the 50s and early 60s coming through college and what not. Then I graduated into Wallace Stegner and John Cheever and Peter Taylor and Salinger.