The Boston Globe: A Reading Life
Calder Willingham and Hamilton Basso: Dimly remembered, works that disturb and enlighten
Lately I've been thinking a lot about forgotten writers.
Nothing self-referential or self-serving in this, mind you, but one has to wonder. All these toilers. Why should Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) be remembered and Kenneth Fearing (1902-1961) wholly lost? What immortal hand or eye laid the blessing on Scott Fitzgerald while passing over John O'Hara? Why Thomas Wolfe and not Dawn Powell? And what ever happened to Philip Wylie?
How many of us, for instance, inveterate readers all, know the name Calder Willingham?
Not that he's wholly one of the disparu. Go online and rev up one of many search engines, you'll get hit after hit. This will all be about his movie work, since he wrote scripts for The Strange One, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, The Vikings, One-Eyed Jacks with Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, The Graduate, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man, Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us. Search as you will, though, you'll find next to nothing about his novels, novels once widely heralded as those of "perhaps the outstanding talent" of a generation that included James Jones, Norman Mailer and William Styron. "A dangerous sort of writer," Book World said, "mucking about with all sorts of taboos, his dark humor not always covering his tracks.".
"Look at us," Willingham once remarked to a fellow Hollywood writer. "We're writing scripts that are not getting made so we can do books that are not getting read." He always insisted that he did the screenplays for money and recreation, that all his best and most serious work went into his novels.
Ten books all told. End as a Man, about military schools, later the basis of the movie The Strange One, "a fearful book, a hard and angry book" (Saturday Review), came out in 1947 when Willingham was twenty-three, establishing him as a figure to be reckoned with. 1963's Southern gothic Eternal Fire may well be a lost masterpiece. Over past weeks I've read most of the rest as well, and am given to wonder why they seem so dated.
It's a much larger question, of course. Why is it that we can so freely read Chandler or Nathanael West and not be brought up short? For all his brilliance and innovation, Dos Passos somehow seems mired in the past, even as we go on listening to the same music he listened to and reading much the same writers. Salinger, who once seemed so relevant, has become all but unreadable.
Something about attitudes, I think. Like that of O'Hara, whose name deserves to top the list of underrated American writers, Willingham's work clove close to the surface of his time. It's only when he breaks out of the hardcast realist mode — certain passages in Reach to the Stars, the whole of Eternal Fire that we begin to hear the thrum of something eternal and disturbing come up beneath his words. Otherwise we read his work today much as though peering into rear-view mirrors. Maybe we should have stopped back there for food or gas. The supposed sexiness of Geraldine Bradshaw, with its portrait of a "liberated woman," is little more than a Fifties domestic fantasy; we read it today marveling that it ever got written and published. Yet in each of Calder Willingham's books there are these amazing moments.
Amazing moments, too, in the second defendant brought before the bar today: Hamilton Basso.
With The View from Pompey's Head, a novel sharing themes with earlier work though palpably inferior to same, he became a bestseller. A major film ensued. If anything of Basso's is in print today, I'd be surprised. If Globe readers even know his name, I'd be surprised.
Were it not for Inez Hollander Lake's fine biography of Basso, The Road from Pompey's Head (Louisiana State University Press, 1999), I myself would know little more than his name and that one novel.
Born of Italian immigrants in New Orleans in 1904, Basso went on to publish eleven books, the first in 1929, the last in the year of his death, 1964. In his time he wrote extensively, as well, for the New Republic and, later in life, for the New Yorker. He was a friend of Thomas Wolfe and a pallbearer at his funeral. Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1954, he was instrumental in pushing for Ezra Pound's release from the psychiatric hospital where he'd been interred.
"Comfortably placed on the New York Times best-seller list for forty weeks," Lake writes, "selling more than 75,000 copies, and sold to the movies for $100,000, The View from Pompey's Head was the breakthrough that Basso had been waiting for. However, just as one cannot argue that Melville's Typee (1846) was a better book because it sold more copies than Moby-Dick (1851), so it is equally impossible to claim that The View from Pompey's Head was a masterpiece because it was so popular."
What it did was gather up, like a self-anthology, themes and preoccupations from Basso's earlier work: the return-of-the-native motif so important to at least three previous novels, his ongoing investigation of old vs. new South, his penchant for both the novel of character (Relics and Angels, Courthouse Square) and the novel of ideas (Days Before Lent, Wine of the Country). Its tale of a lawyer defending a black man is a direct precursor of, almost certainly a model for, To Kill a Mockingbird.
Calder Willingham and Hamilton Basso. Two men who struggled to bend the light and dark of their own lives and the world as they knew it, everything they had learned, intuited, felt and thought, into shapes we as readers can apprehend, shapes we can hold in our hands.
Gone they are. But not — for this one moment at least — forgotten.
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