I am pleased that such a small piece has evoked some distinguished attention. I must reply to all, or to none.
I am most grateful for Richard Wilbur’s warm, solidly gracious account, with whose considerations I am much in agreement, not the least with those on the place of the academic community, of which I am now and again a member. I have often defended the university as being as much a part of the “real” world as any other, once concluding: “Fashionably considered, the university is not a part of going ‘life’ at all . . . but I find it impossible to exclude at least from tentative reality any place where so many people are.” Since the narrator in “The long, shining table” was visiting universities, I took as implicit the importance of the university’s function to writers. While I do find that function “at a certain remove,” I also find Mr. Wilbur’s remarks most valuable.
If after reading “The long, shining table” William Barrett is still “confused” as to whether I might hanker for a “corporate” existence as a writer, I cannot hope to reassure him otherwise here. Certainly he does confuse those difficulties and prides of American writers characterized by me as “lone” in relation to their country with what he instructs is the essential “loneliness” of the writer confronted with “the blank page.” Confronting that page, with all literature and all writers at one’s back, is where I feel least lonely of all.
Cynthia Ozick, for whom all roads lead to us Jews and only there, plainly wished to write her own article. I am not always able to follow her argument, whose method is to pose two sides of the question as suitable to herself and then cry “Both sides are wrong.” I believe she thinks herself merely to be applying to others the same severe casuistry she would to her own principles—though perhaps without any notion that we might not be in the same need. She must know that by “honor” I would not mean “honors” or “celebrity” (her bubble gum word) and that by “real” I could not mean either real goods or emoluments. Casuistry is a process which works much by repudiation and by its own tapemeasure. If by her standards the Mandelstams would not qualify for grace, then neither indeed would I. There is a fierce parochialism at work here, ranging beyond the concerns of almost any piece, unless one concedes that to be Jewish with Ozick obsessively measures all ethic, conduct, content, and style. Her intolerance toward other Jews, and indeed other writers, is breathtaking. One is scarcely sorry to hear she holds literature so low in the world—being hesitant to inquire of such general invidiousness what it might love. It has been said that she would have had to repudiate her own early work (Trust) in order to verge so far. If so, those of us who have not had to do such a thing may better understand her zeal. Still, when a writer worries so about how brave people are buried, I tend to give less weight to her judgment on how we any of us live.
Stanislaw Barariczak’s heartening comment is a just reminder that another literature, and writers steadily pursuing it, exist outside officialdom. My account was intentionally limited to what the state visitor sees. That is always oversimplified, both here and abroad. But surely “The long, shining table” implies clearly and often that the existence of such a table and its power was much less than everything. Thoreau in the classroom, disingenuous questions on censorship? Forbidden books appearing out of thin air? And of course, the poet we took to the table itself.
I was naturally most aware in the country I knew best. Though none of my Yugoslav friends handed me samizdat, I knew of books and plays held back or finally seeing the light of day. But the less so could I write about these, or identify writers who were out of favor. Months after our return from Europe, the poet we had taken to his own union came here, reporting that this act, plus our knowledge of his work, had rehabilitated him enough to get permission to stay here for a stated time. We did not feel Samaritan over the fact that American connections had facilitated this, or mull whether he was being gotten rid of or approved. As our doughty friends take these things for granted except to report the outcome, so must we. Some of them sit at that table. Some do not.
I had a book published once in Poland. Small and beautiful, two copies arrived. I never knew what else became of it. Last month a Pole resident here told me he was in Warsaw the week it was published, in what would be a large edition for here, quickly sold out, since the lines at the bookshop had been long. We joked about how people might have joined the line hoping for gloves or coffee and then been fobbed off with a book. But in neither case—either of such a lineup for a book or such cavalier lack of information (much less money) to author —could it have happened here.
One uses irony at risk, but the paradoxes of a writer’s world invite it. Mr. Baranczak’s phrase, “the small, battered desk,” is a far more compelling image than my table. Yet surely he may suspect that the destiny of that desk and its user, and the significance of each to either side of the Atlantic, but perhaps in particular to my own, is what I was writing about.
- “The Writer, Being and Doing,” The American Scholar, reprinted in the autobiographical memoir Herself. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 1 Number 6, on page 39
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