Marlowe's Shade

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Writer's Tale

Mark Helprin is one of my all-time favorite writers and there is a wonderfully balanced profile of him in this month's Harvard Magazine. Politically he is farther right of my comfort zone (I cringed at the way he savaged Bush on foriegn policy), but I believe this stance is principled rather than personal. Needless to say his politics have made him a pariah in the literary world:

Despite his stature in contemporary literature, the cultural mandarins have not honored Helprin. He is indifferent to awards, he says, but can volunteer a theory to explain their absence from his walls. “I try to determine the truth of a question and am not deterred by the damage that will be done to me by moving out of the herd,” he says. “I get into lots of trouble all the time.”

In 1983, for example, he published a piece in the New York Times Magazine arguing for the deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in Europe. This was a hot issue during the Reagan administration’s military buildup, amid calls for a nuclear freeze. “I was pilloried for that [article],” Helprin says. “People refused to talk to me. My agent told me, ‘You’ll never get another award in your life.’ And I never did—I’ve never even been nominated. [Prior to that, Ellis Island & Other Stories won the Prix de Rome and was nominated for a National Book Award.] Around political movements, if you go off the reservation, so many people want to punish you.”

The article included some details of his life with which I wasn't familiar:

Although his family has historically been Hasidic, Helprin’s parents were not. (“They were Democrats,” he deadpans.) His mother, stage actress Eleanor Lynn, was a 1930s-era Communist whom Ayn Rand ultimately convinced to leave the Party. The teenaged Helprin became a “sophomoric leftist” who opposed the Vietnam War and dodged the draft with 4-F status, a choice he later publicly regretted in a speech to the cadets at West Point: “primarily for allowing someone else to go in my place, someone who may not have returned.” During college, Helprin, an English concentrator, was also a “Scoop Jackson Democrat,” he says, adding, “When the Democrats lost the nerve to confront the Soviet Union, I became a Republican. I began to read history and strategic assessment, and the more I read, the more conservative I became.”

I'm tempted to quote the whole piece because it's packed with the same dazzling vistas and insights one finds in Helprin's work. At the risk of sounding like a gushing fan, every aspect of Mark Helprin's existence in supremely interesting at worst. I think this can be attributed to the demonstrable fact that he himself is so interested in everything. As John Gardner said of him, he “moves from character to character and from culture to culture as if he’d been born and raised everywhere."
papijoe 6:26 AM