Monday, December 14, 2015

`The Ghosts of Influences Past'

“My bookshelves, like my writings, are haunted by the ghosts of influences past, all remembered with great tenderness, much as one recalls an old flame from college days: Whitney Balliett, Edmund Wilson, William F. Buckley, Jr., A. J. Liebling, Somerset Maugham, Diana Trilling, Randall Jarrell. Otis Ferguson, Joseph Epstein, Neville Cardus.”

I remember thrilling to these words in 1999, when I first read them in the Times. The headline was the rather bland “Literary Crushes,” revised and much improved when collected in The Terry Teachout Reader (Yale University Press, 2004) as the Gershwin-esque “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” I was pleased that Terry shared some of my enthusiasms – Balliett, Liebling and Epstein – and that he introduced me to Cardus, the English critic who wrote about music and cricket. Writers are obligated not to merely recognize their mentors but to honor them. At first we do it silently, incorporating without acknowledgement their rhythms, tone and even choice of words. Eventually, when our own voice is achieved, we express our gratitude overtly, as celebration. Like Terry, I’ve always thought Harold Bloom’s “anxiety of influence” was a crock. 

A few years later, at the website Jerry Jazz Musician, one of the writers on Terry’s list, Whitney Balliett, said of his literary forebears: “The real non-musical heroes came along later: Edmund Wilson, Joe Liebling, James Gould Cozzens, J.D. Salinger, V.S. Pritchett.” Two of the names show up on Terry’s list. In 2005, Terry was interviewed at the same site. Asked about his heroes, he named Dr. Johnson: 

“At first I was fascinated by the way he talked in Boswell’s Life, but as I learned more about him I came to understand that he was infinitely more than just a great talker. Dr. Johnson went to battle each day with crippling handicaps, some physical and others psychological, in his never-ending struggle to be as good a man as he could possibly be. Some days he won, others he lost, but he never gave up. I was stunned by that aspect of his courage — the everydayness of it. He’s been my personal hero ever since then, and still is.” 

Terry puts it better than I could. Johnson heads my list; a combined list really, heroes and influences, writers whose sensibilities, through their work and their lives, have changed me and earned my gratitude. They have become advisers, consultants of conscience. The short list would certainly include some of the names already mentioned – Johnson, Balliett, Liebling, Epstein, Pritchett – plus George Santayana, Whittaker Chambers, Philip Larkin and a handful of others. In George Meredith and English Comedy (Random House, 1969), Pritchett likens writer to sculptors: 

“He is in the position of the sculptor who chips away at the stone in order to find the figures, his figure, a true self, inside it. The writer’s work is a perpetual business of chipping off, a long process of rejection. Scores of obstructive sentences must be chipped away, until the desired sentence or self is made clear. A story or a novel is the residue of innumerable rejected words.”

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