Though New Haven is rich in intellectual history and, as a corollary to that, has a small place in literary history, one hears little of writers who've actually lived here. By writers I mean not writers who had to take teaching posts to get by but writers who grew up here and went on to Great Things (or even Greatish Things), or who just happened to wind up living here. It does happen. Sometimes.

One of my parents is a huge sci-fi/fantasy fan from way back and so I grew up in a household that had ridiculous numbers of those cheap mass market paperbacks with lurid covers. I did not inherit the sci-fi/fantasy gene, so I was and am uninterested in this stuff, but there's one writer in that genre who fascinates me: Bernard Wolfe. Wolfe's stuff came to my attention maybe ten or fifteen years ago. It's not that I was so interested in his writing but I was intrigued by his writing career. He wrote a number of novels, and his subject matter was all over the place. His best known novel -- and a book that is, I understand, a sort of classic in the field -- is called Limbo. I'm sure if you like this kind of stuff it's great; I've tried to read it twice, been bored to tears each time, and don't expect to ever get through it.

But Wolfe wrote a lot of other stuff, too. He wrote a classic of jazz lit -- co-wrote, really with Mezz Mezzrow -- Really the Blues -- and he wrote a Hollywood novel (Come On Out, Daddy); he wrote political novels; and, as one can glean from the title of his memoir, Confessions of a Not Altogether Shy Pornographer, he wrote pornography. It was this book that I read from cover to cover, and which made me wonder: What the hell?

Because it turns out that Bernard Wolfe was a townie. The guy grew up in New Haven. Went to Hillhouse. Went to Yale -- an unusual thing for a Jewish guy of his generation. He graduated from college and was sure that he'd kick some ass in publishing only to find that no one would hire him. So he started out writing porn. (His being a Trotskyite was probably an issue, too, but what can you do.) He had worked as Trotsky's bodyguard, at one point. But he became a real literary figure in his day, and published many works which got reviewed by, you know, professional book reviewers. The New York Times Book Review knew who he was.

So how is it that no one I've talked to around here knows anything about him? Back when I had daily contact with literary geeks of many stripes, I would ask, periodically, "So tell me what you know about Bernard Wolfe." And I'd get very little back. People of a certain generation recalled the name, and that was pretty much it.

Even if Wolfe was just a hack, wouldn't you think that his name would be mentioned more often in New Haven? I mean, as a famous hack? Let's face it, this is a town that will grab desperately at any straw that seems like it'd be good p.r. ("We got restaurants! Boy, do we have restaurants! We got some damn good restaurants! No, don't go over there.... come over here, where there's some good restaurants!"). You'd think maybe that places like, oh, I don't know, the New Haven Free Public Library, for example, might have some Bernard Wolfe stuff sitting around. Well, they've got a copy of Limbo. That's it. The Institute Library has a copy of The Magic of Their Singing, which is Wolfe's take on Beat culture (and pretty entertaining at that). Yale, of course, has tons of stuff, but most of it is in the Beinecke (i.e. not circulating), and I think was mostly given to the place by Wolfe himself (though I may be wrong on that point). They have some of his papers, and I've read them, but it's a spotty collection. It's like the guy evaporated shortly before he died, leaving almost nothing behind. Spooky.

So come on. There's more to this. Wolfe was obviously something of a wonderful maniac in his day. Why don't we know more about him? There was clearly a bunch to know... and I, for one, would like to know it.

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11 Responses to Bernard Wolfe: Anyone? Anyone?

  1. BenjaminL says:

    There should be a list of these people somewhere - such as a Wikipedia page.

  2. There's also Joseph Payne Brennan. I think I'll write something about him in one of my forthcoming posts.

  3. Donald Brown says:

    I like the 'whatever happened to' nature of this post -- but here it plays out more as 'why isn't a town more interested in a local who made good'? What interests me is what might be called the more lingering implication: those who the NYRB know about today may be tomorrow's forgotten writers without even a shrine at the library. I suppose the local pride issue is really the point here, but I have to admit to feeling that it's somewhat depressing when a writer is remembered primarily in his hometown for being from that town. And I always take heart from the idea that there's no telling what time will do to us: "for the great sea awaits us which will then us toss and endlessly us undo," as Berryman says.

  4. Eva says:

    Joseph Payne Brennan - yes; I have a friend who often talks to me about his books, but I have to admit... I've never read one.

    He's on my list, though.

    I guess I was just miffed because we're all supposed to know that Thornton Wilder lived here (all right, all right, "Our Town," I get it), but that's basically it, even though there are other people worth knowing about. People who, in my view, wrote much juicier stuff. (Sorry, I think Wilder's kind of a snore.) Especially in the case of Wolfe, whose personal history seems to've been really unusual. Brennan's personal life was maybe a little odd in its lack of weirdness (if you see what I mean). But Wolfe sounds like he was basically a loudmouth loony -- someone fun to read about in his own right.

    Maybe it's just me.

  5. paul b. dieman says:

    I took a course from Bernard Wolfe in 1969 at UCLA. It was called The Proletarian Novel. I remember him talking about his book Confessions... and the fact that he worked for Trotsky when he was in exile in Mexico. I also remember him as a short lean man who smoked cigars. I don't remember the novels we read but I didn't think they were very good. That may have been the theme. That semester I also took a course called "Philisophical Themes in Black Literature taught by Professor Angela Davis who was a fantastic lecturer.

  6. LB says:

    Sorry to be late to the party, but wanted to let you know that Westholme Publishing has reissued Wolfe's book Limbo, and it's available in stores and online now!

  7. david thoreau says:

    Brrnie was my creative writing teacher at ucla. wonderful man. original and classic writer( limbo top 100 sci fi. novels and blues top jaz book re woody allen and kieth richards). excellent teacher.

  8. Gregory Feeley says:

    Eva, I just came across this page. Glad you posted it.

    As I think I mentioned to you once, I met Wolfe's older brother Al in a bookstore once, and we became friends. He was Bernard's biggest champion, although he was withering in describing the man's personal failings.

    I published an essay in 1998 on "Bernard Wolfe and the Novel of the Fifties," but don't know a great deal about Wolfe and New Haven save what you have already posted. I will say that Wolfe's memoir of writing pornographer for a rich patron has always struck me as slightly suspect. Was there really such a market as he describes: Writing softcore porn to be bound and read by one rich reader?

  9. Gregory Feeley says:

    Let me add that I have always loved the title of Wolfe's short story collection Move Up, Dress Up, Drink Up, Burn Up.

    • Eva Geertz says:

      Hi, Greg!
      I didn't remember your essay on Wolfe -- where can it be found? I'd love to have a look at it.
      Wolfe's tale of the pornography collector is true, and it's a big, fascinating story others have written about.... Get in touch if you want to discuss Wolfe further...

  10. Bernie taught creative writing during my undergrad career at UCLA and I stayed with him through three consecutive quarters. While he taught me little that I can recall, he was entertaining and a droll raconteur. For one with time and inclination, his life story would probably yield more intriguing material than his books. I remember Logan's Gone and his long gestating ( but never finished) tome about the Delano grape strike as being pretty ponderous and inaccessible prose, but boy could he spin a yarn over a couple glasses of wine. Here's to you Bernie. You lit the way in your own way, even if your own voice appears to have expired when you did.

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