Wednesday, January 11, 2017


My fans sometimes ask me whether I have learned from other writers, and if so, what and from whom. This does not elicit easy answers for more reasons than one. The first probable influence is that of Homer Nearing, my English teacher at Perkiomen High School, who solicited my input into an epistolary novel he and his far-away girlfriend were collaborating on. My senior year at the superior Horace Mann School, did not contribute any such influence.

At Harvard, I was a student of Harry Levin, and always admired, on a sympathetic rather than systematic basis, the scope of his erudition, his insight, his acuity and wit. But admiration is not necessarily learning. On a friendly basis in conversation, I probably learned a thing or two from Wilfrid Sheed, whose writing I also admired, though his novel “Max Jamison,” as he often persuasively maintained, had nothing to do with me, however often some thought otherwise. But I may have derived my sense of irony in part from him.

Some will mention Dwight Macdonald as a presumptive teacher. He surely was an admired friend, and wrote the somewhat cool introduction to my first critical collection, “Acid Test.” He did question some of my puns, as I may now the more labored ones, but not such good ones as his comment on Hollywood epics about Christ, in which “Romans were always the fall goys.”

Withal I cannot point to any specific lessons to have learned from him, admiration not being synonymous with influence. If Dwight was a model, neither in his writings nor in our many conversations, could one point to specific lessons. We usually agreed on things, as on a shallow lecture by Alberto Moravia we walked away from.

I actually recall most our one major disagreement, on Fellini’s “8 ½.” which he loved, but I found inferior to some of the earlier masterpieces. (I have since come to espouse  several of his points.) In any case, an admirer is not necessarily a disciple.

Regrettably, much as I bought his books and respected his criticism, I cannot lay claim—more’s the pity—to any serious emulation of Edmund Wilson, except to a somewhat similar, though much less extensive, intellectual voracity. I never met him except as an unintroduced bystander while walking with Renato Poggioli, with whom, at an accidental street-corner meeting, he stopped for a briefest of conversations. I was rather envious of friends who got to sit with him at a late-night Cambridge joint, and somehow mentioned my knowledge of Hungarian, which he, in connection with recent readings in translation, remarked on envying.

In English, I favored a number of poet critics such as Ransom, Jarrell, Charles Simic and Robert Graves, whom I enjoyed, along with such non-poets as Leslie Fiedler, Benjamin De Mott, William Pritchard, and the already mentioned Harry Levin. And a novelist-critic such as Vladimir Nabokov.

But I also read a number of German/Austrians, Frenchmen and women, Italians, Spaniards, Scandinavians, and Hungarians, though for some reason no Yugoslavs or Latin Americans. Yet little of it, and that mostly subconsciously, qualifies as teaching. As an occasional writer of verse (I dare not say poet), I learned from a whole bunch of poets, of whom I only mention Graves, Cummings, Ransom, MacNeice and Wilbur, as well as Erich Kaestner, whom I translated, and Jacques Prevert.

I must however look at one possible teacher more particularly: Kenneth Tynan, from whom I hope to have learned irony (just short of sarcasm) and, in so far as this is possible, wit, which, after all is mostly innate and automatic. I cannot resist quoting some of his boutades—here the French imposes itself, with the English sallies, witticisms, epigrams largely subsumed.

“When you have seen all of Ionesco’s plays . . . you have seen one of them.” “Whenever [Chekhov’s] Platonov deceives his wife, he is stung by an attack of remorse so savage that it can be alleviated only by deceiving her with someone else.” “As Lavinia, Vivien Leigh receives the news that she is about to be ravished on her husband’s corpse with little more than the mild annoyance of one who would have  preferred foam rubber.” “The true objection to [Genet’s “The Balcony”] is that nobody but M. Genet could have written the first half at all, while almost anyone else could have written the second half better.”

Or this: “Synge is often praised for his mastery of cadence, and for the splendor of his dying falls, Dying they may well be, but they take an unconscionable time doing it. Synge seldom lets a simple, declarative sentence alone. To its tail there must be pinned some such trailing tin can of verbiage as—to improvise an example—‘the way you’d be roaring and moiling in the hug of a Kilkenny ditch, and she with a shift on her would destroy a man entirely. I’m thinking, and him staring till the eyes would be lepping surely from the holes in his head.’” These are all negatives, but Ken could also be positive, about which some other time.

I am sorry that I didn’t get to know him better. At my one visit, when I asked him what he thought about my praise in an essay, he responded that it was merely to use him as a cudgel to clobber. George Steiner in the same essay.

Altogether, the question of from whom I may have derived demonstrable teaching is a thorny one, hardly ever fully provable, and except in the cases of full-blown discipleship perhaps not all that important. So much more characteristic and interesting is the innate and perfected independent talent, whatever it may be, and largely derived, however indirectly, from one’s living.

It is as with travel writing. One may get quite a bit from reading other travel writers, but you can truly learn only from your own experience, from your own travels. Even the best teachers are essentially road signs; the true discoveries are based on your own experiences.


  1. I think Wilfred Sheed’s novel PEOPLE WILL ALWAYS BE KIND has been neglected if not forgotten. Title comes from Siegfried Sassoon:

    Does it matter? - Losing your legs?
    For people will always be kind,
    And you need not show that you mind
    When the others come in after hunting
    To gobble their muffins and eggs.

  2. I remember the bad teachers I've had as much as the good ones. I recall my fourth-grade teacher Mrs. Rea who was an ugly hippie/dike/Nazi. She had a man haircut, wore horned rimmed glasses, and drove a blue Volkswagen with lots of peace symbols all over it.

    The only bad grades I ever received in my life were with Mrs. Rea, and she never lost an opportunity to let me know how much better a student my sister had been than I (my sister had had her the year before).

    In college, I had an instructor named Mr. Kirkland. He was the laziest person I've ever known. He took forever to return papers, and sometimes never did. I think half the time he was hungover. He would have us "study our assignments" and he would then leave for 45 minutes and smoke cigarettes in the parking lot across from the lecture hall. Sometimes his girlfriend would join him there and they would argue. I can honestly say I never learned ONE thing from Mr. Kirkland. I still can't believe that guy was collecting a regular paycheck.

    Also, in college, I had an instructor named Miss Fry. Miss Fry was shy. Her hand shook violently the entire time she was giving a lecture, and she never looked you in the eye. If someone asked a question she would stumble and mumble some kind of weird answer no one could possibly understand. We learned not to ask questions because if we did she would ramble on incessantly about something unrelated to anything we were doing. She liked me, though, and would occasionally give me a bashful look as I walked by her desk. Once she told me I had "beautiful eyes!" I thought about sleeping with her but never did.

    1. Wow, excellent writing! Are you a professional writer?

    2. No, I'm a cab driver. The name's Bickle. Thank you, though.


    3. Funny you mention Travis Bickle. I've been thinking lately about De Niro's virulent opposition to Trump -- but hasn't De Niro's coarsening effect on the culture help pave the way for Trump? After all, De Niro recently opened up a commencement speech at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts with the words, "You're f--ked." I know I've been dropping f-bombs for decades b/c I wanna be like Bobby D. (and Jack Nicholson, Ray Donovan, et al.). We help give birth to what we most despise....

  3. Nooch, I know nothing of politics. I think I gravitate towards the liberal side, but I'd never want to pigeonhole myself as being "this or that." Heck, I might want to change someday, and then where would I be?
    I will say, I don't think it was very nice of Bobby to tell those young folks that they were "fucked." I wouldn't have done that. I feel good for young kids just graduating, and I'd never say that to them. Maybe he was just being facetious. Probably was.

    1. Yeah, De Niro was being humorous --- and it's not his fault that he came to stardom in the post-Vietnam era, in which the dropping of multitudinous f-bombs seems the most sane response to events....

    2. Well, that's okay then. I remember De Niro being on Letterman and making a fool of himself. I was afraid the NYU deal was one of those times.

  4. Years ago we had a number of exchanges... tonight my wife and I just finished watching THE EMIGRANTS AND THE NEW LAND and discovered your brief introduction which we saw after. Thank you for the sharp detailed view and the brevity. My wife's first language is Estonian. She is the daughter of older parents and the continuing echoes of the experience of the emigrants. I have suggested she read The Grandmothers by Glenway Wescott as that too is a rare version of this move to the US and the what happens. By the way the mother of the mother of my children used to wait on you at Harvard when she was working her way through Radcliff college when there was really a college with that name