Starting Out in the ’50s

Starting Out in the ’50s

The best memoirs of recent years reveal “The Way We Live Now” as well as or better than most contemporary fiction.

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The best memoirs of recent years reveal “The Way We Live Now” as well as or better than most contemporary fiction. Through telling their personal stories, authors like Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club) and Tobias Wolff (In Pharaoh’s Army) conveyed a deep sense of the times they lived through, the problems and challenges of their situation, using the techniques of fiction–good dialogue, observation of details, dramatic descriptions of crucial scenes. The author’s trials, failures and triumphs provide the plot.

Ted Solotaroff joined the ranks of such artful autobiographers with Truth Comes in Blows, a memoir of childhood and family that won an American PEN award in 1998. Now he has added another volume, First Loves, which picks up where the last one left off, with the author home from naval service in World War II and about to start college on the GI Bill.

First Loves takes place from 1948, when Solotaroff met his first wife, until the breakup of their marriage in 1962. The “loves” of the title refer not only to his courtship, marriage, fatherhood of two sons and eventual divorce but also the love of literature that became his lifework as a teacher, editor, literary journalist and critic. Through writing his intimate experience of each of these loves, Solotaroff conveys a great deal about both marriage and literature during that era.

When one of the partners of a broken marriage writes about it in a memoir, the results are likely to be embarrassing for all concerned–especially for the author giving his or her side of the story. Philip Roth pilloried his deceased first wife (“a hard-up loser”) in his autobiography The Facts, and was in turn castigated by his second wife, Claire Bloom, in her memoir Leaving a Doll’s House. With ironic justice, the two books are offered as a package purchase on Amazon: “Buy Together Today: $27.59.” Read ’em and weep; each creates unintended sympathy for the mate who was poison-penned.

Solotaroff avoids this pitfall by portraying his thirteen-year first marriage with compassion for both the young wife and husband. The portrait is intimate but never demeaning, and the struggles of the couple reflect the marital issues of this transitional era before The Joy of Sex, when the challenges of two-career families were still uncommon. (Ted’s wife, Lynn, won grants to study Russian and eventually became a translator and editor.)

Freud, he writes, “was so much in the air that you seemed to know about him just from breathing,” and the marriage ended when both Ted and Lynn went into therapy to deal with their problems. Both their psychiatrists prescribed an extramarital affair “to make up for the experience we had deprived ourselves of by marrying so young. ‘A little outside sex can go a long way toward satisfying your curiosity and scaling back your illusions,’ was the way [Dr.] Wykstrom put it. [Dr.] McGregor thought that an office affair was one of the better ways to arrange such matters.” After the divorce, Lynn had “a brief, disastrous affair with McGregor and for years contemplated suing him.”

So much for Freudian marriage counseling.

At the University of Michigan, Ted wanted “to be a fiction writer, not a scholar,” but his stories were rejected while his literary essays won prizes and scholarships, and a contest judge saw in his work “a critic in the making.” But Ted was determined to pursue the fiction-writing dream, so instead of accepting a scholarship for graduate school at the University of Chicago, “I persuaded Lynn to go off to New York with me to lead a life that I already had diverse evidence I was not cut out for.” Lynn waitressed and Ted did temp typing and waitered to support his fiction habit, while they lived in a classic bohemian pad: a sixth-floor-walkup cold-water flat on Macdougal Street.

Ted decided that “whatever the Village once stood for, it was now mainly a fashionable place to live, to shop, to date, to cruise, to booze. As the loft and studios were demolished and replaced by high-rise or midlevel apartment buildings, I sensed the ending that was taking place.”

This was the early 1950s, when my friends and I were discovering the Village as the genuine place of freedom for writers, artists and all shapes and sizes of old-fashioned bohemians and newly styled Beatniks–both real and pretend. Ted dropped in “at the San Remo, where I was told the writers in the Village did come–those who weren’t at the White Horse, on the other side of the Village.”

I don’t know how he missed Maxwell Bodenheim, the 1920s poet who still went from table to table at the Remo selling his poems for the price of a beer, or how he failed to run into new writers like William Gaddis. Nor does he explain what prevented him from going a mile or so west to the White Horse, where Michael Harrington held forth at his table in the back room (he wrote in his own memoir that he was there every night for ten years). On Sunday afternoons in the early ’50s he could have found Norman Mailer, Vance Bourjaily, Calder Willingham and John Clellon Holmes at a table there (even Herman Wouk dropped by a few times). From 1955 onward at the Horse I met James Baldwin, back from Paris, Jack Kerouac, Seymour Krim, poet Ned O’Gorman, journalist Meg Greenfield, Nat Hentoff and just about every other writer who lived south of 14th Street.

This otherwise perceptive critic must have had blinders on during this time; he was disappointed that “the wild-looking guys I watched drinking at The Kettle were not painters but mostly neighborhood construction workers or movers.” Had he walked a few blocks to the Cedar Bar, he could have encountered Pollock, de Kooning, Kline and every other painter who was making Abstract Expressionism the hot heart of the art world.

It wasn’t a lack of painters and writers that persuaded Ted to give up his dream but a lack of confidence in his own writing: “There was an imposter in me, a false self that wished to stand above my groping existence and be admired for its artful cunning and grace. No wonder the rest of me had become so unsure, my writing feelings so dried up.”

Back in “The Ivory Basement” of graduate school at the University of Chicago, Ted found “a mission” in his teaching at the university extension in blue-collar East Chicago. He also found a teacher who was instrumental in his development. Norman Maclean, author of A River Runs Through It, warned him, “If you don’t start writing clearly I’m going to flunk you.” It was “thanks to Maclean I had developed some of the directness and muscle of an interesting critic.”

The aspiring writer was also enlightened by playing host to Bernard Malamud, whom he thought of as “one of the gods,” but “seen up close, his modest mustache and careful mien made him seem more like a reliable pediatrician.” When asked by a graduate student about the “Arthurian parallels” in his novel The Natural, Malamud smiled and said, “I threw in everything.” Practical to the end, Malamud gave this final advice to Solotaroff: “You need a better car. This one isn’t safe for someone with a wife and two children.”

In 1957 Ted met fellow student Philip Roth, who confirmed his decision to give up fiction, describing one of his stories as “exhausted Hemingway stuff.” Despite the harsh critique, Roth became a helpful friend, important to Ted’s own development as a literary critic/journalist, alerting him that “Malamud had shuffled the deck, as Phil put it, of the Yiddish immigrant culture and laid out an entirely new hand.” It was, he remembers, “a stirring time for me…there came the faint but unmistakable sound of a klezmer band that grew louder and more distinct as it continued to approach, so the advent of high-quality American Jewish fiction began to draw near and to get my mental fingers snapping, my mind singing along.”

Ted sang the praises of Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus in The Chicago Review: “Throwing academic caution to the winds, I put Roth with Bellow and Malamud at the head of the line that was forming at the dawn of a new day in American fiction.” His judgment was vindicated when Roth’s stories won the National Book Award for 1960. Roth “appealed to the literary critic in me, who had grown weary of the buttoned-down writing that seemed to be the norm of our generation–the discreet stories of suburban or campus or corporate culture and its discontents, the odes to one’s wife or lover’s toothbrush.”

Here it seems the critic who missed the painters and writers in the Village of the 1950s had his blinders on again, for in 1960 that kind of writing hardly seemed “the norm of our generation.” By the time Goodbye, Columbus came out, we not only had the new voices that arose in works like Bellow’s Seize the Day and Malamud’s The Assistant but also Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Kerouac’s On the Road, Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye–none of them very “buttoned down” or “discreet,” while over in what had been the arid land of nonfiction, Gay Talese in Esquire and Seymour Krim in the Village Voice were tearing up the territory.

It was Roth, though, who struck the chord that animated Solotaroff’s critical resources, not only through his fiction but also by suggesting his name to the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who commissioned a 3,000-word piece on “The Jewish role in American writing today,” published as “Rising to the Top.” At first Roth himself was not pleased with the piece, but later wrote its author that “anyway, shy as I was some months back about being grouped in with a bunch of Jewish writers, I suddenly find myself willing to believe that this is something.”

Not only was the advent of Jewish writers writing on Jewish themes a major breakthrough in American literature; Solotaroff’s essay about it was a landmark critical announcement to the world. Like all the writing in the TLS, the piece was unsigned, but the word of its talented young author quickly spread, and opened the door to his career. Soon he was on his way to New York as editor of a collection by one of his heroes, Isaac Rosenfeld, and to meet Norman Podhoretz, the editor who “had turned Commentary sharply left, and made it an exciting, youthful magazine for the bright new decade that the candidacy of John F. Kennedy appeared to be auguring.” Solotaroff left academia to become an editor at Commentary, later founded the New American Review and published books of critical essays (The Red Hot Vacuum, A Few Good Voices in My Head).

Although I take issue with his observations of “the scene” in the 1950s, especially as I knew it in the Village, I admired his personal account of growing up in that period. His coming of age as a writer, student, teacher, husband and father is told with sensitivity and skill. The young man arriving in New York on the brink of his career, “self-conscious about my baggy and too green suit and my too cropped haircut,” might be the closing scene of a coming-of-age novel of the 1950s: “If I looked like a hick, I was a hick of parts who, as in some Frank Capra movie, was about to go up against the city slickers.”

As in any good story, the young man in the too-baggy suit gets the job and begins a successful career in the work he loves. If the author had written it in the era he lived it, the odds are he’d have made it a novel. Today it’s a memoir, and no less moving or artful for being true.

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