…families like mine which owe everything to the Declaration of the Rights of Man. (Rimbaud, “Bad Blood”) Above my cradle loomed the bookcase where / Latin ashes and the dust of Greece / Mingled with novels, history, and verse / In one dark Babel. I was folio-high / When I first heard the voices. (Baudelaire, “The Voice”)
“The Voice” always reminds me that Baudelaire’s father, a former priest, was the Directorate’s Assistant Commissioner “for the selection of books from the libraries of convents, émigrés or condemned persons” – he dissolved, commingled and dispersed private libraries for the revolutionary regime. Osip Mandelstam grew up outside the Pale of Settlement, in Imperial Petersburg, a middle-class Jew enrolled in the “military, privileged, almost aristocratic” Tenishev School (Nabokov went there too). In The Noise of Time Mandelstam wrote that in the jumble of his parents’ bookcase he could discern the strata of their different “spiritual efforts.” His father, a leather merchant born in a shtetl, owned Schiller, Goethe, and the Tieck Shakespeare — “all this was my father fighting his way as an autodidact into the German world out of the Talmudic wilds.” Mandelstam’s mother was “the first in her family to achieve the pure and clear Russian sounds”; the household’s Pushkin set was the prize-book of a proud schoolgirl.
Among my father’s books there were no classics but Bunyan and the Bible – The Pilgrim’s Progress in imitation leather, and a strange paperback printing of the New Testament called Soul Food, whose cover showed black teenagers gathered around a picnic table, grinning broadly under their afros. My father’s library was a collection of atlases, encyclopedias, heavily illustrated histories, and glossy museum catalogues. A library of vicarious travel, famed vistas. All that the photography of the time could capture and relay. The library of a rural youth, one of the last products of segregated Southern schooling; dyslexic, mocked, called retarded, ever-remedial, a Bible college scholarship athlete, a basketball recruit tutored by white girlfriends who upon graduation headed to Los Angeles, there to be startled by California’s commingling of peoples, by revisions of textbook history heard on left-wing radio, by a trip across Europe – Paris to Croatian ports – and ever after given to lament all that he’d not been “exposed to” as a boy. He didn’t hear about the Holocaust until he visited Poland. Whether he acquired his books as souvenirs of his exposure, or guarantees of mine, I could never tell. The gatherer of this expansive knowledge, this explorer’s library, has been for decades remote, or when present, rancorous. He has ranted, and taunted, but he has rarely spoken.
I’ve heard attributed to Winston Churchill the axiom that one develops a taste for history when young, or never. Reading Gibbon in the library of Blenheim Palace is an auspicious way of acquiring the taste. I made due with the kind of library newly middle-class Americans once ordered at a swoop, often as furniture – the Time-Life Books shipped in installments and the illustrated volumes available to subscribers of National Geographic Magazine. My favorite, the book I kept in my room, was Men, Ships, and the Sea, by Alan Villiers. I never needed another adventure book. Between the prologue picture of a naked aboriginal standing on a raft of mangrove logs, and a culminating helicopter shot of the nuclear Nimitz underway, its dress-white sailors formed to spell E=mc2 across the flight-deck, I found an unforgettable album of dangerous poses. Boys need heroes. Mine were calm captains. The whalemen in old engravings never flinch or falter – they are flung, pardonably helpless, or they stand in the monster’s wroth, coolly spearing. The whalemen were white; the image of an American crew as a racial motley of laborers “federated along one keel” would have to wait until I was old enough for Melville. In Farragut at Mobile Bay, by the English naval painter William Overend, the Admiral leans out from the Hartford‘s rigging, looks down on his ship’s meeting of muzzles with those of the rebel ironclad as if it were a cockfight at his feet. Prominent down on deck is a black gunner, his broad back to the viewer; his head is wrapped in a bright kerchief; there’s a cutlass strapped around his narrow waist, and a ramrod in his hands. In the civil war to restore the United States and destroy slavery, the Federal government’s batteries and regiments of foot were segregated, but its warships sailed with mixed crews. I recall asking my father, who won the Civil War? “We did,” he said.
The Time-Life books were little museums. The French Revolution and the American Civil War weren’t slats on a timeline, but chests of coats and weapons. Paging through them now – when I’m sure he won’t be home – I admire the mingling of heroic period prints and forensic photographs of the blunt tools – grim old guns, heavy-looking blades, riddled banners and bloodstained tunics. Such a mingling might prepare young readers for the dissonance of accounts, prepare them to discern hard times in moonlit memoirs, butchery in utopian slogans.
My reading changed in high school. The poem rose above the tale – the mood above the deed. Changing books I changed calm captains for deranging poets, crisp calls (“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”) for doubtful lines; the tight ship for Le Bateau ivre, the adventurous mission – duty always visible through storm and strife – for Baudelaire’s vague voyages to an oblivious Indies. My father’s library, and the volumes of picturesque battles and warplane schematics I had collected in its image, became less important to me, dismissed as remnants of a naïve, merely fact-gathering era of my thinking, and I wondered why we had no literature. The shelves in my friends’ homes displayed distant syllabi, paperback poets, frail, dusty, yellowed, unread for decades and unable to sing before first clearing their throats – the crack of old glued bindings! – but they were nonetheless available to the household, or to any weirdo wallflower invited over. I asked my father what he did with his college classics. He said he tossed them in the dumpster behind his first apartment. This packrat and near-hoarder said he just didn’t need those books anymore. I pretended to accept his explanation. I nodded as if answered. I knew not to press. Literature was a refinement of his humiliation.
Now I like to think I might reconcile the two stages of reading. For me, for many years, history meant society, meant race; meant blackness, that nightmare from which I was trying to awake into some imaginary homeland of apolitical aestheticism. Only recently – well, since 2009, the year a not-inconsiderable number of white Americans lost their minds, or revealed just how racist they are, and also the year I happened upon Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, which illuminates this country’s crazy like a slowly falling flare - have I felt the need to situate my person in history. This is an awkward initial essay.
“If I were asked to name the chief event in my life” – Borges – “I should say my father’s library.” It is my event: the platting of the centuries, backwards from my birth, and the slow peopling of the past, with pioneer images, with facts I would relate to other facts, and soon to memories and dreams. Like the stereopticon slides Holly salvages from her father’s torched house in Malick’s Badlands, my father’s books were cheap glimpses of the faraway and they whispered that I was just a boy, in California – continent’s edge – with just so many years to live.