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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