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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 11/29/2004
Vol. 2, #149

Something's Still Calling Me

In this entire past century and perhaps even a little earlier, the notion of a "calling" began to disappear as the idea of "the job" took its place. Originally, as everyone knows, a "calling" had something to do with divine fiat. You didn't choose a calling. It chose you. Sometimes this came about by way of inheritance. Like the name Smith, from blacksmith. You were expected to follow, in fact, inherited, your father's calling. Sometimes the calling came from within--out of mysterious urges often in conflict with family wishes. Some were called to the service of God, some to masonry, and various building skills such as carpentry, and even painting and music.

And, even before the printing press, but usually in the solitude of the monstery--to writing. After the Renaissance, without the institution of the church, men were called to the arts in various ways, mostly through inheritance except those who, sensing their own urgings, began to practice arts for which they had no inheritance or clerical foundation. They were called somehow from within.

I can speak best for writers. I cannot remember not wanting to write although there was no writing tradition in my family. There were calls to medicine, to merchanthood, to design, to art and to music. Some were outstanding, especially in medicine, music and the graphic arts. Some achieved high status in pure science.

I remember trying to write stories from the age of six, mostly by emulating stories I was capable of reading at that time. But the written word fascinated me. I even told stories, made them up as I was going along and, at the age of eleven--I made a living with these make em up on the spot stories, because the neighborhood kids would all come sit on my front porch to listen, paying me the price of one marble for the privilege. I grew rich in marbles.

As I grew older, I continued writing, publishing poetry in various places, wrote a very early first novel, then graduated to getting myself a real live agent, Curtis-Brown, still operating today--who sold a story of mine to two separate Conde Nast magazines, one in the UK and the other in the US.

Political reasons, namely Stalinists, kept me off the WPA writers project where many of my contemporaries to be first started (yes--they started as Stalinists and soon wised up and became Trotskyites--the editors of the famous partisan review, the former New Yorker art critic, Harold Rosenberg. I seem to remember only Bellow as not having swallowed the Stalinist line. He was never too political, but accounted himself a Trostskyite--as did also that scion of the far right wing, Irving Kristol, whose son Bill (whom I first met in my writing room on the campus of the U of Chicago) towed thither by his father,Irving, and Saul Bellow. By then, I had already abandoned Trotskyism but never dreamed that so many of my friends, like Kristol, because of his subsequent involvement with the magazine, Commentary, would become so right wing. Nevertheless, most of these people, in one way or another had literary callings.

As for myself, all through the depression, when I held what I considered onerous, difficult and boring jobs that paid anywhere from 12 to the NRA minimum--$15 a week, I contined writing on the side. I became involved with the burgeoning "little magazine" movement and began to publish not just my own work but that of my peers--from Gertrude Stein to the poet William Carlos Williams, various notable critics of the day and, then, as I've explained in these pages before, ran into a comics artist friend of mine, Jack Small, and started scripting Fairy Tale Parade. Then, as I've explained right here in an earlier column, I met Shelley Mayer at Alex's Borsht Bowl and began doing the stuff that soon led to DC and Batman and Superman and Buzzy and Bizarro and Hayfoot Henry and on and on. However, writing comics was not exactly the right response to my calling. Sometimes the medium, when I was allowed full freedom, did offer me some of that, especially the Superman Daily and Sunday--but all along I was working on the novel so that, in the course of time, my first novel, The Blowtop, was published in 1948. Then I had an offer to write my own kind of stories from Arco Press, located in the office next to DC--but on one condition--two actually: They wanted something classier than they were getting, and I'd have to write under a house name, Robert W Tracey. Also, the main kicker--they were supposed to be pornography. Now I had already done a spell of pornography to make a few bucks, along with my friends Henry Miller and Anais Nin. It was dreary, boring work. But with Arco, I had figured out something better. Not that I had any scruples about straight pornography, just a feeling of boredom and dreariness and endless repetition. So for Arco, I found a better way. I turned pornography into literature. I had read William Faulkner and noted how he changed sexual passages into non-literal, poetic transports of rich language in which sexual activity was quite apparent but expressed in poetic prose, rich turns of phrase and sentence rhythm that duplicated the implied action. That was how I did Sword of Desire for Arco. At first, Arco objected. It didn't seem like their kind of book. But they went with it anyhow--and sold out the entire edition--and even won some rather fulsome reviews. They'd never had a review before. In fact, they'd never published a good book before and had me do several more. Then, with a Congressional investigation looming, they pulled out of publishing novels altogether and went into the safer venue of publishing medical books.

During all this time, I was still writing comics. Then I had a contract with Random House for two novels which was abrogated when my editor, himself a novelist, took a position at a rival publisher. But still writing comics, I pushed on, writing articles for a variety of learned journals including Dwight MacDonald's Politics, The American Scholar, The Journal of Marketing, The psychological journal American Imago, and various others including poetry zines. Then, it was 1957, life in comics was a disaster, thanks to Mort Weisinger, and I moved on to various "think tanks" and marketing positions where I was able to support a growing family. But always, my work on the novel continued. I published No Such Mirrors in Montreal to some nice reviews, followed by An Unlikely Prophet. The Blowtop, my first novel reappeared and was hailed as the originator of "the beats'. Then, a long dry period where publishing itself seemed to change and getting published involved complicated marketing machinations among writers, editors and agents So I spent some ten years doing documentary dramas for Canada's very distinguished National Film Board, did a couple of feature films along the way, and, while still churning out novels, I've now got several blockbusters that conditions indicate may soon hit the market. And several other novels have already appeared as ebooks.

These late years have been quite a struggle, however, because waiting time when you're in your late eighties isn't like the waiting time publishers and agents use to run their business. They move in slow motion. My sense of time, on the other hand, is foreshortened. Impatience rules the day. Too much time wasted in selling. But--at this moment, it looks as if doors are opening up after consistent pounding (all serious writers have to do it--and nobody would really ever want to do it--unless it was a real calling, that is, you do it because you have to) In any case, I'm cutting down my activities in this space. No more columns than once a month. However, my Round Table is still open, and I'll keep an eye on it and respond to any of you who wish to discuss things with me. Also, a special note to my dear friend Tony Isabella. I received a very important letter from Tony. It moved me to a point where I have to think about it for a while because it involves the whole business of how you conduct a life and how you deal with the blows it always brings.

Besides, I'm slowing down physically more than I expected. Luckily, I haven't lost any of my driving skills or we couldn't maintain our independence in this lovely quiet hideaway and keep our growing list of medical appointments, mostly in Ottawa, some forty miles away.

But we'll keep doing it as long as we can. And it's still open house for anyone who wants to visit for a few days. My old friend Arnold Drake was a recent guest, and I'm looking forward to more such visits as the spring returns. It's really not a place for winter visiting. We just hole up and call in the local farmers with their big snowblowers to clear our driveway so I can deliver my latest work to the post office and get to the grocery store. But believe me--it's still a great life and a great place to write.

--Alvin

<< 11/22/2004 | 11/29/2004 | 12/06/2004 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.


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