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Works and Days

Remembering the Dead, from Selma

August 5th, 2012 - 10:56 pm

I confess this is the first time in my life I will break the old Hellenic rule: ton tethnvêkota mê kakologein (speak no ill of the dead). That Vidal was a cruel person is no excuse for not refraining from criticism after his recent death, but here I sin nonetheless.

 I could never finish any of Gore Vidal’s fiction, even his best, Julian — although I grant that he was ironic, at times shocking, and could be a valuable corrective to unmerited reputations. But Robert Graves (even at his worst with Count Belisarius) and Peter Green were probably superior historical novelists. To compare similar contrarian essayists, the late Christopher Hitchens was a better writer. He was more widely informed and more honest about the public intellectual’s propensity for caricaturing the very ribbons and medals — and cash — that he so covets.

Many praised Vidal’s essays. Some were insightful, but more were self-indulgent, full of pathetic aristocratic references, and tinged with anti-Semitism and passive-aggressive gossip about those with better bloodlines and more money. Among the latter, Vidal eagerly sought opportunities to play the court jester. Somehow all of that was central, rather than incidental, to his arguments.

For all his claims of erudition, Vidal suffered the wages of the public autodidact. I noticed he quoted Latin ad nauseam — and nearly always with his nouns and adjectives not just in the wrong cases (especially the confusion of the accusative and ablative in preposition phrases), but predictably in the fashion of those who like to copy down Latin phrases but cannot read a complete Latin sentence. By his sixties, Vidal had degenerated into a conspiracy theorist, and his embarrassing late-life infatuation with Timothy McVeigh caught the eye of the goddess Nemesis.

Vidal said he was nauseated by American imperialism and gloated over our decline, but his real pique was that the mannered East Coast snobbishness that he loved to shock had given way to a socially mobile, no-holds-barred popular culture that did not so much ignore his world of blue-blood repartee, but had no clue that it had ever existed. He liked being hated; he hated being irrelevant.

Otherwise, it is hard to find any commonality in Vidal’s corpus of work other than a certain disdain for what he would term the “grasping”: the supposedly wannabe Jewish intellectual, the upper-middle class suburbanite who sends his kids to State U, or the American can-doism that sought to “improve” itself through intellectual and artistic awareness — about which brings me to my sole Gore Vidal story.

I met him once. Or rather my family did. In the early 1960s, my father, William F. Hanson, a former teacher, farmer, and then administrator at Reedley Junior College, proposed to the local JC school board “a lecture series.” The Central Valley farming community was innately conservative. But nonetheless, in the classically liberal spirit of those pre-Vietnam times, the farmers on the board not only funded my dad’s proposed lecture series, but encouraged him to invite controversial, and often liberal, voices — over the objection of the careerist president of the college at that time.

There was only a small ramshackle college motel in Reedley (population around 6,000 then). Consequently, often my father asked the speakers whether they wished instead to stay at our Selma farmhouse, 16 miles away, on the night before the lecture. A lot did.

So it followed that, from about age 9 to 15 (e.g., 1962-1968), I listened to every word, at dinner and the next morning’s breakfast, from the likes of Ansel Adams (I remember a short, bearded bald man in cowboy hat who railed all evening against James Watt), Pearl Buck (two strange aides who would not let her out of their sight), Louis Leakey (suffering from terrible dental pain and around the house wearing a blue jump suit), Bernard Lovell (stared out about two feet over our heads when speaking), Rod Serling (refused to answer our constant questions about the Twilight Zone, and instead went on a nonstop invective against Richard Nixon), Mark Van Doren (gracious, polite, and a beautiful speaker of the English language), and about 30 or so others in rural Selma.

My father ran the series himself. He did so as if he were back in the Army Air Force: systematically with checklists, and with minute attention to every detail of the visit.  On a Thursday night, he would drive to the Fresno airport, pick up the speaker in his 1959 ladybug Volvo clunker (we had to buy all Swedish: Electrolux,  hardtack crackers, etc.) — full of lecture posters, microphone wires, and box speakers — and drive them down to Selma, where my mother had dinner and one of our bedrooms ready for the celebrity guest.

At 6 a.m. the next morning, my father rushed over to Reedley, where he had students waiting to help him set up the gym with chairs, arrange the PA system, and put last-minute posters around town. Dad was a one-man production company and used 100% of his budget for the speakers’ honoraria — meals, transportation, and lodging all provided by himself, without charge to the district.

My mom (who was a Stanford law graduate and working as an attorney at the new 5th District Appellate Court) drew up the contracts, legal papers, etc., for my dad, again with no charge to the college. At about noon, she drove down in her 1955 Dodge station wagon from Fresno, picked up the guest at the house (my siblings and I usually got to stay home from school that morning to talk to him/her in the 4-hour interval), and chauffeured the guest over for the early-evening event. We joined my dad up in the bleachers after school. After all that work, Bill was never allowed to introduce the speaker: the college president always broke his promise and, at the last moment, hijacked the occasion to gave a five-minute harangue about his supposedly brilliant effort to “bring culture to Reedley.”

Remember, this was right before the era of the blockbuster advance or lucrative film deal. For a bit longer, American and British public figures would often tour the country, in yeomen fashion, doing 30 back-to-back talks per month. I remember that my father always preferred to host only 3-4 talks per season, rather than the suggested 6-7, in order to pay a top-dollar $1,000 fee, an astronomical sum in those days. He figured that with such financial clout he could lure a big name to detour to the out-of-the-way Reedley, between his scheduled lectures in San Francisco and Los Angeles. And he was often right.

Among those guests in 1964 was Gore Vidal, who was not yet 40. I was about eleven and remember him as a stylishly dressed non-stop hair-toucher. He was also vain and condescending — and a big hit at his lecture with the conservative rural crowd. In those days he acted what was known as “witty.” I recall asking my dad whether he was “English,” given that his nose was angled upward and his accent did not sound American (and that he did not seem to like the U.S.). My dad, in the Swedish fashion of honoring work for work’s sake, answered that I should respect any man who could crisscross the country, giving 30 lectures in 30 days.

Vidal certainly had an instinct for saying outrageous things with such erudite authority that we yokels found him fascinating rather than repulsive. As I remember (it has been 48 years since that evening), Vidal spoke for about 30 minutes, but then he wowed the crowd to a standing ovation in the question-and-answer period (his forte), as he advocated the legalization of drugs and prostitution and went on rants about “small town” values.

The night before the lecture (in an unusual fashion for this lecture) we had driven with Vidal three miles into Selma to my aunt’s house (she taught English at Reedley College) for dinner. After the desert, he “shocked” us by declaring that masturbation was the sex act of choice, and then referred nonchalantly to his male friends. I noted one other thing about the evening. Vidal kept trying to namedrop literary tidbits; but my aunt, the JC English teacher, was of the old school (English literature BA, MA Stanford, where she had mastered the canon of Anglo-American classics) and had memorized verbatim many of Shakespeare’s plays and much of Chaucer and could quote by memory  pages of Milton.

Each time Vidal would say something like “I think it was so-and-so who once said of so-and-so,” my aunt would smile and say something polite like “yes, it was” or “perhaps it was not.” By the end of dinner, he grew more and more sullen with us rubes who were not playing our unenlightened parts. I remember that my mother, the more pragmatic lawyer, sister of the JC teacher, and worshiper of my dad’s efforts, scolded her afterwards with something like “Lucy, he could have gotten mad and given a poor performance.” Sometime in the evening, before slipping away, Vidal showed one flash of sincerity, and remarked to my mother, “Do you mean to say that your old father mortgaged his farm to send his girls to Stanford? Hmmm.” He also said that he had preferred going to war to going to college. (That got my dad’s attention, who had done both, and went over Japan 40 times on bombing runs.)

A far better man — in both the ethical and literary sense — died this last week, Sir. John Keegan. The Face of Battle is the most beautifully written and imaginative military history of the last 50 years. For a period in the 1980s and 1990s, about every two years a new military history followed from Keegan — Six Armies in Normandy, The Price of Admiralty, The Mask of Command, A History of War, etc., as well as general histories of World War I and World War II, and dozens of other titles too numerous for instant recall.

It is true that some of these books were written quickly, but they were written with engaging prose, were full of ideas, and were usually right in their main assessments. Keegan was a British public figure in the best sense of the word, writing newspaper columns, editing volumes, offering pocket biographies, at service to a larger society he loved. As a classics graduate student, who preferred sneaking around military history to the required fare of the manuscript tradition of Aeschylus’s Suppliants, non-literary Hellenistic Papyri, and moods and tenses in Xenophon’s Hellenica, I came across Keegan’s name in the late 1970s in a number of his original, now-obscure academic studies of the Waffen SS and German generals on the Russian front — before the breakthrough of The Face of Battle.

He was a master of the personal voice, but in such a way that was never chatty or self-indulgent. It never seemed to bother him that his unapologetic pro-Americanism, support for the idea of the Vietnam and Iraqi wars, and general British conservatism might imperil his literary career — perhaps because he judged rightly that his historical acumen, innate humanity, fairness toward historical figures, and above-the-fray temperament made him exempt from ideological vendettas. Keegan’s success, fame, and productivity at times earned scorn from academic historians who could spot occasional errors of fact, but usually their nitpicking was not so much over matters of substance, and so their criticism often, in boomerang style, becomes self-reflective.

Here I confess a bias toward Keegan, because I knew him somewhat and owed him much. To know him was to like him. In 1983 a small Italian academic press published my doctoral thesis Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (in elegant but cumbersome folios with the pages uncut) — to zero readership. By that time I had finished graduate school and abandoned a stillborn academic career. I liked farming full-time and had no plans to reenter academia or write again. But when the publisher wrote from Pisa and said I could send 10 free copies to journals, I instead sort of randomly picked the names of ten well-known military historians.

None ever wrote back — except one John Keegan, at the pinnacle of his post-Face of Battle success. A postcard in elegant ink arrived to the farm, with something like “Dear Dr. Hanson. Accept my gratitude for the publisher’s copy of your engaging thesis. Are there plans for more of the same?”

In those dark days (raisins had just crashed from $1400 to $400 a ton, and we were trying to figure out how to repay a $150,000 crop loan shortfall accruing at 15% interest), that brief note seemed to make all the difference in the world. At night after tractor driving, I suddenly started to write what would become The Western Way of War, coming in about 6 p.m.  from hours on the tractor and littering the floor with Greek texts. In my newfound confidence (remember, authors, what a single act of kindness can do for others), I began applying for jobs at local JCs and California State University, Fresno.

The next year I was hired at nearby Fresno State as a part-time Latin teacher (one class, $375 a month), which was a godsend, after peaches and plums hit $4 a lug and our income dipped to about 30% of what it had been in the early inflation-roaring late seventies and early 1980s.

Those were busy years. I would get up in the morning to do farm chores and help with the kids. Then I would drive 30 miles to CSUF, teach, rush home, spray, irrigate, or fix things, and run inside to work on the book until 1 a.m., drinking a six-pack of Pepsi to stay awake. By 1985, I was a full-time lecturer (with a soon-to-be family of five now comfortably living on $22,000 a year) and the book then-titled The Experience of Battle in Classical Greece was finished.

Then what? I wrote to a few publishers, but a farmer who taught as a temporary lecturer at Fresno State and who had one Italian monograph published was not in high demand by academic presses. So I wrote the following note to John Keegan: “Dear Mr. Keegan, You kindly once wrote me a note and asked what was next. I did write a second book. Would you ever be interested in reading it?”

Three weeks later, the following postcard in the same fountain-pen script arrived: “Send it to….. Regards, JK.”

I did. Six months later, another postcard came: “I like it. Would you like me to write the forward? If so resend the ms. to E. Sifton at Alfred Knopf, my editor. Regards, JK.”

I did. Three months later, Ms. Sifton wrote and agreed to publish it for an advance of $5,000, with a forward from John Keegan. The book did very well and everything after it was not so difficult. I had a falling out with Ms. Sifton over the next book, The Other Greeks, and then went to the Free Press and Adam Bellow for The Other Greeks, Fields Without Dreams, The Land Was Everything, Who Killed Homer? The Soul of Battle, Carnage and Culture, and Ripples of Battle. But looking back, a quarter-century later, I realize now that John Keegan was right: she was a wonderful editor, to whom I owe a great deal of gratitude for what became The Western Way of War. And I have been remiss for not thanking her in print for all she did on that book.

As small thanks, I dedicated an academic, edited book of essays (Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience) to Keegan, and we kept in touch over the years. When I later met him in Washington, he was not in good health, but he was alert with a photographic memory of our correspondence over the last twenty years.

The sum of Keegan’s work was a writ against war, although he never editorialized so. The empathy for the wretched suffering of combat soldiers was made all the more poignant by his majestic style. Although I never read so, I always wondered whether he was a student of Greek and Latin, given that he had a certain Asiatic style, predicated on variation in sentence structure, length, and grammar, with a vocabulary that could juxtapose the Latinate polysyllabic term next to a two-syllable Anglo-Saxon slang.

Gore Vidal may not have been as poor a writer as I allege, or John Keegan as gifted an historian as I have argued. I met the former at ten, the latter as an adult. One did nothing for me, the other everything. So be it: I will miss not reading another new sentence from Keegan as much as I am unconcerned about the absence of another 500-page book from Vidal.

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