Maggie's Farm, page 1
By John Sherry:
The Loring Affair
The Admissions Chairman
The Basket Case
Again to D.
“In order to discover some of the major categories under which we can classify the infinitely various components of experience, we must appeal to evidence relating to every variety of occasion. Nothing can be omitted, experience drunk and experience sober, experience sleeping and experience waking, experience drowsy and experience wide-awake, experience self-conscious and experience self-forgetful, experience intellectual and experience physical, experience religious and experience sceptical, experience anxious and experience care-free, experience anticipatory and experience retrospective, experience happy and experience grieving, experience dominated by emotion and experience under self-restraint, experience in the light and experience in the dark, experience normal and experience abnormal.”
Alfred North Whitehead: ADVENTURES OF IDEAS.
EX-PE’RI-ENCE (eks-per-i-ens; iks-) (OF.; fr. L. experientia. fr. experiens, -entis, pres. part. of experiri, expertus. to try, fr.. ex out + the root of peritus experienced.) 1. The actual living through an event or events; actual enjoyment or suffering; hence, the effect upon the judgment or feelings produced by personal and direct impressions; as, to know by experience. 2. State, extent or duration of being engaged in a particular study or work, or in affairs; as, business experience. 3. Knowledge, skill or technique resulting from experience, 4. The sum total of the conscious events which compose an individual life. 5. Something that is or has been experienced; as, his hunting experiences.—v.t.; -ENCED (-enst); -ENCING (-ensing). To have experience of or learn by experience; to undergo.—Syn. Know, suffer, have, undergo,—experience. religion. To undergo conversion.
Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary—5th Edition
“I try my best
To be just like I am
Everybody wants me
To be just like them
They say, “Sing while you slave”
But I just get bored
So I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more
No I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.”
—From “Maggie’s Farm” by Bob Dylan
Early in the game, very early, it was clear to me through some process that I do not wholly understand that stardom was to be the touchstone of reality to the members of my generation. Whether in business or art, science or technology, the unspoken understanding was: stardom is the key. The society in which we lived and with whose creation we have been involved clearly was going to settle for no less of a measuring rod. Equally clearly, neither was it much interested in anything more. It did not seriously occur to me as a boy to doubt the validity of such a concept. Like many another contemporary, I simply assumed that it was the way things were and, furthermore, assumed that the day of my own elevation to pre-eminence would be along in due course. That such a day did not arrive must, in some measure, be due to a certain amount of unconsciously ambivalent feelings towards the concept that I accepted so blithely.
On the verge of turning thirty in the year 1953, my attitude toward those matters had not changed appreciably. Nor, I must admit in all honesty as a child of my times, has it changed much to this very day as I begin this account of a rather peculiar and retrospectively blood-curdling defensive action undertaken in company with my wife between 1953 and 1960.
1953 found us in North Africa: My wife ensconced in a flat on the Rue Fernando de Portugal in Tangier, awaiting the birth of our first child; I working in Casablanca to pay for the flat on the Rue Fernando de Portugal and awaiting my own personal act of childbirth; the publication of a first novel, timed, by some oddity of chance, to coincide with the arrival of the child. With the dedicated illogic of the true dreamer, I believed absolutely that these events would have bearing upon each other or to be more precise, that fame and fortune were just around the corner and that the child would grow up secure in all things including the possession of a successful and clever father.
And so, arrive they did, child and book, almost simultaneously. The child, I am happy to say, turned out very well. the book fared less well, disappearing into the deep of oblivion with rude disregard for my hopes and dreams. An immense question of the age descended upon my shoulders in all its intolerable weight. And, despite the objections of those many people who take the opposite view, that question is not, Who am I? It is, What am I going to do?
In regard to the years leading up to that moment in North Africa, I had absolutely no regrets. I had fought in World War II and had been lucky enough to escape unscathed. I had spent a few cheerful, underpaid, hard-drinking years trying not to get ahead in the advertising agency business. And I had been fortunate enough to be taken to husband by a fine woman. Furthermore, on the ever-sound premise of, if not now, probably never, we had sailed away to Europe in time to enjoy what were probably the last three years of exhaust-fume-free Rome and tourist-free mediterranean Spain.
So, for the past, no regrets. But, for the future, profound trepidation. Some instinct warned me, for the moment, to avoid my native shores. I believed then as I do now that the United States is the true sausage meat machine for those who cannot vouch for their intentions in terms of actions. Which was my position in a nutshell. With the failure of my first book, the economics of the precarious trade I had chosen to follow emerged rudely from the warm dream world in which I had kept them hidden; the endearing and terrifying cries of our new-born daughter drove home the message: change, drastic, irreversible change had taken place. A wife who had been heretofore the sturdiest of economic bulwarks would now and hereafter require sustenance and care. By nature non-conformist and rebellious, I had, within the limits of my memory, considered myself free: a state of mind which, no matter how illusory, I was then and am now determined not to see terminated. However, the nature of the freedom which I had enjoyed up to that point was a jerry-built structure designed for the temporary housing of youthful exuberance and hedonism and glued loosely together by a mixture of defiance and lack of discipline. The freedom which exists inside necessity stretched out before me as an inpenetrable paradox. I was scared blue and held myself together almost wholly through the conviction that I must not allow that fear to infect my family. That same fear made me turn my back for the moment on the idea of returning home. I had no plan for survival and no appetite for the bohemian life; without one or the other, life, particularly in America, is thin ice indeed upon which to skate and the waters beneath it are deep and cold. My intention of pursuing a career as a writer did not change, but at that time it provided no help beyond psychic consolation. There were mouths to feed and nests to be built and I was not able to fool myself into believing my pen could immediately solve those problems. Fortunately there was some money. Not much, but enough to grant respite from immediate decision and commitment.
It was not, except inside my head, an unpleasant time. My wife was caught up in the happiness which the categoric demands of a newborn child inspires. After the accouchement, I quit my job at Casablanca and returned to Tangier to stew. When the flat became oppressive, I would walk down through the Medinah and meet Mac at a cafe in the Zocco Chico. He was an acquaintance from Casablanca; a gentle, intelligent pederast whose mode of life made my hair stand on end. He lived, in fact, in a male brothel off the Zocco, a circumstance upon which I did not let my mind dwell at length. Despite our disparate sexual proclivities, we had two things in common: he
At this time also, I thought much of my friends. Friends is not really the correct term to employ but I know of no other. How can I explain these associations which had dominated my life and—I now suspect—stunted it? I must make a beginning of it now for the deadly intertwining of our lives to their virtual strangulation is a tragi-comic thread which will run through the time ahead. I must make a beginning by going back.
O’Hara and I were the first to meet. We could not have been more than nine or ten years old. We were classmates at the public grade school I attended near my parents’ suburban St. Louis house. From this time, no strong physical impression of O’Hara remains except a vague remembrance that he was smaller than I. He was Catholic, a circumstance which I found exotic and disquieting; I remember being repelled by the appurtenances of that religion which adorned his bedroom as I remember a sense of exclusion when he would abandon our play to fulfill some religious duty. I cannot claim enough retrospective sentience to know why we were kindred. But we were so, immediately. He remained in that school for one year, perhaps two. He was then placed by his parents in a parochial school and so passed from my ken.
The school where O’Hara and I first met did not go beyond the sixth grade. I was then entered in a private coeducational country day school where my elder brother was already enrolled and about to begin his junior year. The beginning grade of the private school was the seventh. The normal nervousness of being thrown with a group of strange children was dispelled somewhat by catching sight of O’Hara. We were classmates again and kindred from the day of our first seventh grade assemblage.
Our friendship was undoubtedly strengthened by the fact that we who had something in common were venturing upon unbroken social ground of a complexity hitherto unencountered. It was 1934, a depression year. A large percentage of the parents of my classmates were badly strapped, my own among them. Many of us, I am sure, were there on scholarships of the “accommodation” variety. My elder brother was such a pupil, which was the reason I had been sent to the school. I was not—although I believe some sort of cut-rate tuition arrangement had been made. The financial status of my classmates at the John Burroughs School would have, I believe, broken down something like this: one third came from families which like my own were going through a serious financial belt-tightening due to the depression; one third derived from families involved in a push towards what is now known as upwards social mobility; the final third was drawn from backgrounds of genuine and quite breathtaking affluence. The father of one boy for example, was throughout my time at that school, listed annually in the newspapers as being among the ten most highly paid men in the United States. Another boy’s father was president of the American arm of a large foreign-owned international oil company.
I sometimes marvel at just what an odd group the class of 1941 of the John Burroughs School was; odd and terribly tasty cookery. The eventual disposition of the few I know about frequently makes me smile. Some certainly are dead of war and other diseases; some, I know, gave up their grip on sanity. One girl of whom I was rather fond, ran, at one time, a plantation in Angola. (Her younger brother—in the class below me—outstripped her in reach, doing time later on in life for the murder of a mutual friend.) Another classmate—heir to a good deal of money—was for many years a perfectly contented Greyhound bus driver. Yet another, whose name I see occasionally in the newspapers, is Director of something called “A School for Peace” which is supported by the folk singer, Joan Baez. I know of four commercially published novelists among my former classmates and thank God I do not know all the eccentric works produced by them which remain unseen. Keep in mind that the total number of children gathered together that day we first assembled did not exceed 25.
Besides O’Hara and me, there were two others among that group who will entangle themselves with us in our mutual Gordian knot. (O’Hara’s phrase.) Let me take Kate first. I can see her now clearly in my memory as we gathered in that schoolroom—it was, I remember, a biology lab; O’Hara and I sat together, each estimating our peers.
O’Hara’s eyes, like mine, were, I am sure, drawn first and foremost to Kate. She was unquestionably the female star of the galaxy. Nothing is more purely romantic than the heart of an eleven year old boy and mine was, perhaps, even more so than most. Kate’s appearance and aura fulfilled its sternest requirements. Stick-thin, blonde, uniquely handsome, haughty even then and, forgive me for using such an unfashionable word, patrician. There is no point in being reticent about the truth: both O’Hara and I fell in love with her then. And remained in love with her for many years. Ten, twenty, yes all of those, certainly; and still a few more. Kate and I would not even be close friends for another fourteen years; not until after my marriage. My wife so impressed her that she was forced to examine me, her predatory instincts alerted towards me for the first time in the many years we had known each other. Twice only in our lives did we stand at a point of danger. She came once to our apartment on 12th Street in 1950 for purposes of seduction, although whether conscious or unconscious on her part, I cannot say. My wife was away at work. Twice married by then; once widowed and once divorced, Kate did not have children with her, a rare occurrence. The strap of her slip was broken, she said, and she peeled off her sweater, asking me to pin it. Any old country drugstore cocksman would have had the situation well in hand in seconds, but I had lived with romance so long I could not realize that I was being offered flesh and blood. Thank God, for I had not the requisite knowledge or strength of character for allegiances other than to my wife. The second time we broke lances, we did so for good and Kate gets the credit for generous behavior. It was in 1954. Kate had returned to St. Louis and had been living there during the three years my wife and I (and O’Hara) were abroad. I went to St. Louis on a short trip in search of money to begin the events this book describes. Kate had invited me to stay with her during the few days I would be there. She had devised an odd mode of life which perfectly expressed the fundamental contempt she needed to keep her ego operative. With studied, stud-book hauteur, she occuped a rather proletarian flat in a depressed part of the city. She made, in other words, full use of her formidable social connections, but she made use of them by making them come to her; it was both utilitarian and stylish. The uncle who was then dean of her family frequently had himself driven to her dingy neighborhood in order to present various plans for her rehabilitation, all of which were, of course, rejected. The uncle was of that class of man who goes to Africa to shoot big game. I recall when I stayed with Kate for those few days in 1954, she told me that he had recently returned from a safari upon which he shot an elephant. With a pause of exactly the proper length to let that sink in, Kate added, “Even he knew he had done something stupid.” A stylish lady.
The money I had come for I did not get. I had not really believed that I would; it would be many years before I would
What happened between us on that visit was simple, even prosaic. We ate, we drank, we talked and we drove around the city I had not seen in so many years. The casual physical contacts of old friendship were more than casual and we both knew it. It was not really fair. For either of us. She was very lonely. And I was trying to keep my mind under control in the face of the fear I felt for my contemplated plan of action. I remember that on the penultimate night of my stay with Kate, we went to a concert of eighteenth century music in one of the quadrangles of Washington University. And suddenly the hand holding became sentimental, and having become sentimental became passion. We returned to her flat and faced one of those strange moments which mean commitment to another human being if it is carried to conclusion. I remember standing face to face on the verge of disaster. Kate smiled then and said, “No, we can’t. It would be incestuous.” It was so absolutely true and right that we both burst out laughing. And then inevitably we began to speak of Darroch, who had been her husband and was the father of one of her children, and who had been present in that biology lab in 1934 when we all first laid eyes on each other.