Autobiography

I resolved at fourteen to become a writer, a serious writer, very much in the mold of my first idol, Sinclair Lewis, and at nineteen resolved never, if I could help it, to be a fulltime employee. Neither of these resolutions has been forgotten.

“Keeping Afloat in New York” (1974-1999)

There is no secret about myself that I am more ready to admit than this: I am New Yorker--a confirmed New Yorker, a profound New Yorker, who was born there and plans to die there. My sense of the world has been visually represented by a classic Saul Steinberg drawing in which the Hudson River is portrayed as halfway across the visible world and everything west of the Hudson recedes into the distant horizon. The truest test of my New Yorkerness is that I do not like to leave New York, and rarely do so in fact, even in the hot summertime. Indeed, as a young man I resolved, after too many disagreeable experiences elsewhere, never to leave New York--the rest of the world was unsafe, I used to joke; and for many years I left only on rare occasions, and then usually to give lectures around America (customarily getting home as quickly as I could), or sometimes to visit on my own initiative one of only two places: San Juan, Puerto Rico, which everyone knows is really a distant suburb of New York, and Jerusalem, which can also be experienced as an extension of New York. Not unlike other over-educated Americans, I do not speak languages other than English, and have neither talent nor inclination to learn. And now that Berlin has persuaded me to leave home, not once or twice but six times--count 'em, six times; that's a new record for me--why don't I propose redrawing Saul Steinberg's map, placing Berlin in New York's East River, on the western edge of Queens, very much in need of a connecting subway.

“A New Yorker's Berlin” (1984)

I was born May 14, 1940, in New York, New York, and grew up there until removed, to my disadvantage, to a Westchester suburb, from which I escaped to Brown University, where I majored in American Civilization and studied with S. Foster Damon, who had also taught Virgil Thomson some four decades before. Rather than go to Vietnam, I returned to my birthplace to continue my education, first at Columbia, in American intellectual history, and then in that New York City cultural world that exists apart from institutions, developing interests in art initially as a critic and then as a creator. Unable to get a doctorate at Columbia, or any of the emoluments promised to holders of that degree, I have since been unemployed, nonetheless publishing articles, books, poetry, fiction, plays, and experimental prose, as well as composing audiotapes and videotapes, and making films and holograms that have been exhibited and broadcast around the world. Such work is acknowledged in histories of both American literature and modern music; my art, along with my critical interests, are customarily characterized as "avant-garde" and "anarchist libertarian." Deliciously single since 1965, I have resided in downtown Manhattan since 1966 and leave home as infrequently as possible. My favorite hobbies are swimming and reading in the sunshine. From time to time I try to disprove characterizations of me as unemployable and unmarriageable; invariably I fail.

“Biographical Note After Virgil Thomson” (1995)

I'm little interested in what I already know, and not at all interested in what everybody knows.

Twenties in the Sixties (1979)

I have by now evolved for myself a plural situation that permits me to do any one or another of several things, depending upon what is asked of me or what I feel most inspired to do; but since I need to make a living and am often inspired as well, there are not enough minutes in the hour or days in the week. So, when I need to get a lot of work done, I get up just before noon, work into the evening, take a nap after dinner and then do another full work load by early morning. This schedule is easier to follow in the winter than in the sunny summer, when I want most of all to go to the beach. Mine is not the sort of life I would recommend to anyone, even myself, with so much work to do and so many projects unfinished--illness is the least of the luxuries I cannot afford; but then it is not for nothing that I have no students, that my regime has no imitators.

“Keeping Afloat in New York” (1974-1999)

Like most prolific writers, I have more outlines and drafts in my files than I could possibly finish, and I feel an intense and steady internal pressure to get it all down and out. Perhaps because there is so much I could write, I simply can't afford to start and then finish anything that does not fulfill a personal commitment and perhaps a sense of cultural necessity. My major problem now is getting enough publishers to support the projects I want to do most.

Twenties in the Sixties (1979)

I'm not really "free-lance," if I can be picky, because my services are not for hire. I rarely do anything on an editor's suggestion--even journalism--in part because it takes more time to research an unfamiliar subject and then think about it profoundly, but mostly because the ideas of another person invite compromise, less of my integrity, than of my initial purposes. Almost everything I've written--from reviews through essays and books--was done on my own initiative

As for overarching ideas, I think you'll find a recurring concern with doing what has not been done before--as a critic and a historian, and perhaps as a poet and fiction writer too; and this ideal would echo a predominant theme of my critical writing. I also try not to do any job that someone else can do better, and if I'm asked to do any writing or editing project, my first question is whether or not it really belongs, so to speak, to someone else. And if it does, I'll offer it to him. I've given away all sorts of assignments, including several I originally initiated.

Twenties in the Sixties (1979)

The critic lacking power must strive for influence, even if only among a few initially. Nothing makes writing more memorable and thus influential than truths—not one but many, especially if unfamiliar. (And that rule is itself a truth.) And so I've come to hear of an admirer telling strangers about something written by me. As a result, an essay appearing in a source read only by a few develops strong enough “legs,” as we say, to gain wider circulation. Person-to-person recommendations (aka “word-of-mouth”) account for why my unique name should appear in several history books (in various fields) and on thousands of web pages available through Google.

Toward Secession (2008)

However, a few years ago the I was invited to spend a year in Berlin, as a guest of the DAAD Kunstler(Artists)programm, which made me the sort of offer that few unaffiliated artists could refuse--not only a modest stipend but a comfortable apartment. However, in my case, this invitation caused not unqualified joy but neurotic anxiety. Oh my God, I thought, how the hell was I, a provincial New Yorker, going to leave my home, with my typewriter, my library, my bed and my toilet seat, to spend more than a week, let alone whole months or even a full year, in some godforsaken place well off Saul Steinberg's map. One friend who knows me very well was prepared to bet me--to bet me against me, to be precise--that I wouldn't stay more than two weeks in Berlin, and in truth I did not have enough confidence in myself to bet on myself.

In East Berlin the volkspolizei have parietal rules reminiscent of those we had in my residential American college twenty-five years ago. Precisely like the housemothers who then supervised the girls' dormitories, these vopos want your butt out of their place by midnight. This nightly housecleaning has advantages as well as obvious disadvantages. Let's say you meet an attractive woman in East Berlin and she takes you home. Or an attractive man and he takes you home. And you are enjoying each other, but you really don't want to spend the night with her or him. You can be sure as sure can be that she or he won't object when at 11 o'clock you leap up and say, "Gotta go home." You can't always do this in Brooklyn or Cambridge.

Berlin, like New York, has always been a promised land, a magnet for adventurers seeking experiences unavailable at home, whether bohemians or homosexuals, and always been a metropolis of opportunity for industrious people from somewhere else, whether Eastern Europe or the Eastern Mediterranean. Even in hard times, like now, this promise of possibility is a spiritual quality you can feel in Berlin, as in New York. So it distresses me double to hear some Berliners speak of wanting not just to restrict the immigration of Turks but to send them home. Such talk reminds me of the fact that Spain in 1492 brought its subsequent decline upon itself by expelling both the Jews and the Moors, leaving nobody to pay the Spanish taxes, because the Spanish nobles did not pay taxes, and no laborers to do the dirty work. Berliners should know better than to usher their own demise; we've never been so stupid in New York, thankfully.

And now that Berlin has persuaded me to leave home, not once or twice but six times--count 'em, six times; that's a new record for me--why don't I propose redrawing Saul Steinberg's map, placing Berlin in New York's East River, on the western edge of Queens, very much in need of a connecting subway.

“A New Yorker's Berlin” (1984)

When asked for a superlative about myself for my class's 25th reunion booklet, I couldn't resist submitting “longest unemployed—24 2/3 years.”

Autobiographies at 50 (2004)

Appreciating a stylish (auto)biographical note written by the American composer Virgil Thomson (1898-1989), I reply that I was born May 14, 1940, in New York, New York, and grew up there until removed, to my disadvantage, to a Westchester suburb, from which I escaped to Brown University, which I majored in American Civilization and studied with S. Foster Damon, who had also taught Virgil Thomson four decades before. Rather than go to Vietnam, I returned to my birthplace to continue my education, first at Columbia, in American intellectual history, and then in that New York City cultural world that exists apart from institutions, developing interests in art first as a critic and then as a creator. Unable to get a doctorate at Columbia, or any of the emoluments promised to holders of that degree, I have since been unemployed, nonetheless publishing articles, books, poetry, fiction, plays, and experimental prose, as well as composing audiotapes and videotapes, and making films and holograms that have been exhibited and broadcast around the world. Such work is acknowledged in histories of both American literature and modern music; my art, along with my critical interests, are customarily characterized as "avant-garde" and "anarchist libertarian." Deliciously single since 1965, I have resided in downtown Manhattan since 1966 and leave home as infrequently as possible. My favorite hobbies are swimming and reading in the sunshine. From time to time I try to disprove characterizations of me as unemployable and unmarriageable; invariably I fail.

“Rejected by Contemporary Authors (Gale)” (2010)

May I mention that some alumni readers of an earlier draft of this Brown memoir found its tone peculiar? Need I remind them that critical autobiographies always sound peculiar, especially if they contain uncommon truths or go beyond others of their kind in skeptical understanding. Do you recall George Orwell's posthumously published classic about his preparatory school? Consider that just as his “Such, Such Were the Joys” reflects the first-rate education he received as Eton, so the critical intelligence informing this memoir reflects my experience of Brown.

Most of my off-campus life at Brown consisted of reading books that weren't assigned in the courses and knowing Foster Damon—that was my “underground Brown” that made me the avant-garde figure I soon became. These extracurricular experiences probably complimented the official courses, especially the honors courses, requiring as they did that we become adept at processing cultural materials, thinking critically, and expressing our thoughts. As a result of my years at Brown, a barely literate, culturally under-equipped, teenager entering in 1958 began publishing in national literary magazines in 1961, before he graduated, and has been making decidedly radical and avant-garde books and art ever since. Amazed I remain that so much that has happened to me since was beyond my vision for myself then, though it is now clear that many roots were probably planted at Brown.

“Brown University, Fifty Years Later” (2010)

A lady friend and I once celebrated New Year's Eve with a dip before midnight, preceding the “polar bears” photographed running gleefully into the ocean on New Year's Day. Prancing through cold water is easier to do than one thinks, if you keep the back of your head out of the water and don't stay too long.

“The Best NYC Beaches Near the MTA” (2003)

American writer, artist, critic, and editor of the avant-garde who is productive in many fields. Britannica.com (since 2000).

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Person of Letters in the Contemporary World (2010)

I have by now evolved for myself a plural situation that permits me to do any one or another of several things, depending upon what is asked of me or what I feel most inspired to do; but since I need to make a living and am often inspired as well, there are not enough minutes in the hour or days in the week. So, when I need to get a lot of work done, I get up just before noon, work into the evening, take a nap after dinner and then do another full work load by early morning. This schedule is easier to follow in the winter than in the sunny summer, when I want most of all to go to the beach. Mine is not the sort of life I would recommend to anyone, even myself, with so much work to do and so many projects unfinished--illness is the least of the luxuries I cannot afford; but then it is not for nothing that I have no students, that my regime has no imitators.

“Keeping Afloat in New York” (1974-1999)