Sunday, August 17, 2008

`Slam-Bang Eccentricity'

Alec Wilder’s admiration for Eric Hoffer shouldn’t have surprised me. The composer, like the longshoreman, was a legitimate eccentric, living away from the center, unmindful of fashion, working at what pleased him at his own pace and according to his own rules. Neither had time for self-regarding nonconformity. As Hoffer writes in Reflections on the Human Condition (1973):

“Nonconformists travel as a rule in bunches. You rarely find a nonconformist who goes it alone. And woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with nonconformity.”

On Saturday, we walked through the crowds at Pike Place Market in Seattle, and I was struck by the similarity in appearance and deportment of street performers, vendors and pedestrians; the desperate urge, indicative of desperate emptiness, to be uniformly different. In jeans and polo shirt I felt pleasantly overdressed. People mindful of their work give little thought to “expressing” their “individuality.” In Letters I Never Mailed: Clues to a Life (1975), Wilder included a fan letter to Hoffer:

“I hesitate to write to you because of, simply, awe. I have read all your published works, but unfortunately missed your broadcasts. It is typical of our tawdry era that you are not as widely acclaimed as you should be. Obviously your wisdom does not meet with the intellectual approval of the dogmatic, academic, scientific mind, nor with the attention and concentrated consideration required by the average reader to absorb your wisdom and incisive intelligence.

“Your clarity, directness, essential simplicity, your wisdom, your constant quest for truth, your quotableness, profound respect for Montaigne, all serve to make you one of the few great and passionate minds I have ever encountered.

“I keep an eye out always for any new book of yours but have failed to find one in the past few years. I sincerely trust that this doesn’t mean you are too ill or too despondent to write. Perhaps, on the other hand, you have said all you wish or need to say. It has been a great, truly great, contribution and I humbly thank you.”

Wilder was a gentleman, as was Hoffer. I’m touched by his gesture of fellowship with another original American mind. On the page following the Hoffer letter, Wilder writes to another original, John Cheever:

“Thank you very, very much for those permanent people in my life and memory, the Wapshots. Their slam-bang eccentricity, their devil-take-the-hindmost insistence on their way reminds me of the Wilder side of my family, though Aunt Emma’s collecting and then gold-painting olive pits isn’t on a par with Honoria’s sitting there drinking and waiting for death.”

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