Talking to my father about books, it was never just about the story, he read for a sense of place both geographically and culturally. Many of his favorite authors were favorites not only because of what they wrote but the lives they lived. He approached his love of literature the same way he did his love of Modern Art, especially Abstract Expressionism. To him the art and literature were a reflection the cultural politics of the time. Whenever he would suggest a book to me he would begin with a description of the author and where they were in life before giving any sense of the plot.
S: Let’s move into the mid to late 60s and up through the 70s when American politics become focused on things similar to what are going on now. Still staying on books, when did you get introduced to people like James Baldwin and other black writers.
E: Okay this is a whole separate subject which is very important. Which is James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.
S: How did you get introduced to their writing?
E: It was very natural to get introduced to Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Black Boy and Invisible Man. They themselves had a conflict, Ralph Ellison saw himself as a patrician and he actually had a hard time writing another book. He wrote lots of papers and gave lots of speeches and considered himself an intellectual and academic while Richard Wright was more of a fighter.
Wright ended up in Paris in the 1950s with James Baldwin. Wright never came home; he died there. Baldwin came back and advanced the cause of liberal and radical American black writing. Ellison maintained himself as an academic and did not make the contributions that he could have made. It was a pity because he was so respected. He didn’t use the power he had over the American mind and American literary field so it was left to James Baldwin, and Richard Wright writing in Paris. The tensions flowing between Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison were interesting.
S: Would you consider Wright and Baldwin when they are in Paris part of the Paris scene?
E: It was a slightly different scene. There were Americans there at that time. But there was also a group of French and American writers who liked associating with American black writers. The idea of the American black writers being in exile as a copy of the white American writers being in exile during the 1920s and 30s the post World War I writers.
S: So who were the non African American writers in that group?
E: I can’t think of them right now. That would be interesting, white writers in Bloomsbury and the Left Bank in the 1950s and 60s.
S: Was this similar to the way that for decades that jazz musicians have moved to Europe, for the larger audience?
E: Yes, larger audience and more acceptance of them. The French absolutely adored black writers, poets and musicians from America. They accepted them.
S: You’ve skipped over the most important book in our relationship and your connection to it. When did you start reading the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings? I know that you have a different connection to it than most people.
E: I was introduced to the Hobbit in 1958-9, the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit being published in the 1930s. Then Tolkien, a South African who moved to England as a child and went to Cambridge along with C S Lewis. That book you got me the Inklings talks about all these writers. All of these Christian writers.
S: Was Tolkien Christian as well?
E: He was a Catholic, Lewis was actually less of a strong Christian than Tolkien was, he was less orthodox. Tolkien was less orthodox in his personal life.
S: So how were you connected to them, was it an engineering school thing?
E: No we were just married in 1959 when a friend of ours Fred Goldstein who knew literature very well, also knew a lot about hifi and music. He said “Ed you must read the Hobbit”. It wasn’t available here. He told me to go to the British bookstore which was located in a brownstone on 54th or 55th street off Madison Avenue. None of those buildings are there any more. Harper Row used to be in one of those buildings. He told me to get them to import a copy of the Hobbit for me.
So I bought a copy of the Hobbit and I was absolutely amazed and it circulated around the engineering department of Union Carbide. All the engineers where I worked loved the Hobbit. They loved all the Runes and that stuff, in fact we used to write each other messages in Runic.
But then I went back and ordered the three books published in 1959 of The Lord of the Rings, one of the earlier publications of it. It came out roughly then, not a first editions, probably a second or third. I read them immediately in 1959 or 1960. And then I probably read it again, and then I read it to you.
S: What made you decide to read it with me starting when I was five and almost every night until I was almost in high school?
E: It was an exciting book. To me it was a thrilling book with a thrilling setting. Not so much the battle between good and evil which was an acceptable base. I just loved the scenes of them moving around and all the relationships between all the genealogies was just wonderful.
S: Your interest in that never led you to read any other science fiction or fantasy?
E: I didn’t consider it a science fiction. I considered it like Beowulf or Canterbury Tales, I considered it Old English writing. Even though it was mythology, mythology is not science fiction to me. So this was a made up mythology that I absolutely adored. While I liked the other writing I had read I had a personal love for it. Over the years I read the entire thing maybe five times. Last year when I was sick with Legionnaires’ Disease and was feverish I read the whole four volume set.
S: When did you start reading Sherlock Holmes? This was another book that was a connection between us.
E: Sherlock Holmes I read because I loved its English setting. Probably in the 1950s and 60s.
S: So not when you were a child.
E: It was something I started reading in college.
S: You didn’t read any mysteries until you were older.
E: I was reading more books about settings. I wanted to read books about England and France, Left Bank, Bloomsbury, and Greenwich Village. Those were the three places that all came together to me.