I published my first book when I was 29, and I was proud of “Island in the City: The World of Spanish Harlem,” my journalistic account of a New York neighborhood. And yet, I hadn’t achieved my most important goal.
Writing a novel was not just a goal; it was my dream. In the 1950s before memoirs became popular (except for statesmen, generals and actors), the novel was like the Holy Grail. All the young writers I knew wanted to write a novel. My friends and I could all recite the lyric last lines of “The Great Gatsby” and bemoaned the tragic fate of Peyton Loftis, the heroine of William Styron’s “Lie Down in Darkness,” as if she were a real person, someone we’d met at a party in Greenwich Village.
Salinger’s “Holden Caulfield,” “Ward Stradlater” and “Old Jane Gallagher” seemed like people we had gone to school with rather than characters from “The Catcher in the Rye.” Movies were for brainless entertainment; novels were the dramas of real life.
After “Island in the City” was published – to great reviews and few sales – I wrote 50 pages of my first novel. I asked my literary agent to send it to my publisher to see if he thought it was good and ask for an advance on the novel, which would give me time to write it (it didn’t cost me much to live on in 1959).
A month or so later, he called to tell me that the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, a distinguished old Boston publisher, said they would pay for me to come from New York to have lunch with them at one of the great restaurants of Boston and discuss my proposal. “Is this good news or bad?” I asked my agent.
“It could be either one,” said James Oliver Brown, that loyal and courtly literary agent of the old school, whose kind will never come again.
Bracing myself but hopeful, I took that magical train ride between the two great cities, immortalized in the short stories of John O’Hara. O’Hara himself, that arbiter of taste, would have approved of the restaurant my publisher chose for our momentous meeting – Locke Obers, tucked away on a cobblestone street behind Tremont, without anything so brazen as a sign to announce or identify itself. One simply knew where it was. (In the following decade, it was known to outsiders as a favorite haunt of John F. Kennedy who was known to request extra lobster in his stew.)
The editor of my first book, only an assistant in the hierarchy of Houghton Mifflin, was not even present at the grand occasion. My host and hostess were the publisher and managing editor of the venerable firm – the loftiest executives. They selected the wine to accompany our lobster thermidor, the specialty of the house. I drank and ate apprehensively, awaiting the judgment.
“We think you’re a wonderful young journalist,” I was told, “and we’d like to publish all your journalistic books.”
After such blessing, the hammer fell. “But you’re not a novelist.”
I thought the worst that could happen was that I’d be told they didn’t like the 50 pages of the novel my agent had sent them. I was not expecting a judgment on my life’s dream, my chosen identity. On the train home, I lost the lobster thermidor, but I did not lose my identity, my dream. It was battered and tattered, but it was still there. I kept it hidden for a long time.
I continued writing articles to pay the rent and feed myself on spaghetti and wine. I only spoke of my novel with two people – a poet and a girlfriend. The “girlfriend,” who became a friend for life, let me use her apartment in the afternoons while she was off teaching school and I could work on the novel – or variations of the novel – away from the apartment where I spent the night and wrote for my daily bread the articles I not only needed for the modest checks they brought in, but that I worked to make as well as I could make them, and for which I was, and still am, proud.
The poet was May Swenson, who I was lucky to meet with other fine writers who also became crucial friends when we were Fellows at The Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont, the first and still the best of its kind. I believed then and still believe that May Swenson was and is one of the great American poets.
I still know and can recite lines from some of her great ones, like the opening of “Mortal Surge”: “We are eager / We pant / We whine like whips cutting the air…” And my favorite, “The Key to Everything:” “Is there anything I can do / or has everything been done / or don’t you trust me to do it or what?…” The last line is “…I could find your name for you / but I’d be gone then, I’d be far away.” She did “find my name for me.” She believed in me. She believed in the novel I would someday write. She said so in one of her books she inscribed for me, inscribing that belief in me and in the novel.
I didn’t write it the next year after I was told I was not a novelist, or the next year, or the next, or the next, though I kept trying; I kept writing and throwing away the writing I knew was not right, and it was not until nearly a decade later that I sat down and said to myself “This is it.” I wrote one whole summer to get the first page, to get it right, and then the pages came one or two at a time. Then after almost a year of writing more and more, the pages began to flow, and it was like I was taking dictation. I finished, and Kurt Vonnegut reviewed the novel in Life magazine. My novel, “Going All The Way” became a Literary Guild selection and made it to the Time magazine Best Seller List. I sent the first copy to the publisher of Houghton Mifflin.
I learned a great life lesson: Don’t let anybody tell you who you are.