“75 at 75,” a special project from the 92nd Street Y in celebration of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, invites contemporary authors to listen to a recording from the Poetry Center’s archive and write a personal response. Here is Sheila Heti on a Truman Capote recording from 1963 and Jonathan Ames on an Arthur Miller recording from 1955. Both Heti and Ames will take part in The Best of McSweeney’s at 92Y this evening.
Sheila Heti on Truman Capote—April 7, 1963
“Just a minute while I stop being vain,” Truman Capote says, and one can hear the click of his glasses unfolding as he puts them on. He has just introduced his story “Among the Paths to Eden”: “Tonight I want to read a story which I have actually never read aloud, and that’s rather a trick because ordinarily … There are certain stories that you can read aloud and certain that you can’t—some that are written for the eye and some that are for the ear. And I really don’t know about this story at all, but I’m going to try.”
Of course, he would have known this story was fine for the ear; he was too serious a performer to make the blunder of reading a story that’s only “for the eye.” Still, one can discern a curiosity about his performance—we can hear him actually listening to himself as he reads. The story is funny and moving—about a woman trying to pick up a recently widowed man in a cemetery. Although the scenario is absurd, it’s also not. It feels like a time capsule—from an era when a woman so desperately had to find a husband or else she might as well live in some cemetery.
When he’s finished, he asks, “Would you like me to read a scene from Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” the way a famous singer might ask, “Do you want to hear that single that I know you’ve all come to hear?”—equally chuffed and resigned. The applause is not as enthusiastic as one might expect, and sensitive to this—Capote was likely sensitive to every room he was in—he offers, “Either that or a story.” But no one applauds at that line so we hear him turning the pages to finds the part.
This reading took place in April 1963, upon publication of The Selected Writings of Truman Capote. His friend, John Malcolm Brinnin, a poet and literary critic and former director of the Poetry Center, introduces him, marvelling, “In the very curious sociology of these times, the name of Truman Capote has become a household word, his comings and goings treated [like those of] movie personalities and baseball players. So that he no longer has to write a book to make news but simply to be … Truman Capote.”
Nobody would introduce a writer that way today. It’s unremarkable that someone has “simply to be” to make news. Yet Brinnin’s voice is not that of an elitist fearing the soon-to-be-galloping-away horse of mindless celebrity culture—perhaps because what he sees happening to Capote means only something about the remarkable Truman Capote, not the direction of America itself.
Brinnin says, “No one is surprised anymore to read that this young American writer has been quietly dining with Princess Margaret or that he has been spirited off on the yachts of Greeks richer than Mycaenus, or that he has recently flown to Amsterdam to have a tooth filled. But let us be wary of the disguises of genius.” I love this—the disguises of genius—and am reminded of how when Kierkegaard was writing his great religious texts he made an effort to appear in dandified clothes at the theater every night during intermission (the rest of the evening he was home writing) so he would be seen and thought to be that sort of man—a dilettante and idler.
Brinnin wrote intimately about Capote (whom he met at Yaddo) in his memoir Sextet, calling him “the young artist and the cloistered scholar.” After he introduces him, hearty and sustained applause fills the hall. Capote performs in a voice that edges up against the sarcastic—as if there is still some irony in being Truman Capote—but he hardly has to perform, although he hardly performs his selections marvellously. As Brinnin pointed out, the fact that he is Truman Capote does a lot of the work. Clearly, for a certain type of literary genius—as Kierkegaard’s dual labors show us, racing from the writing-desk to the theater, wiping the sweat furiously from his brow, slowing down his heart as theater-goers flood the lobby—one has “simply to be” in order to please the crowd.
Sheila Heti’s latest novel is How Should A Person Be?
Jonathan Ames on Arthur Miller—February 2, 1955
Arthur Miller’s voice reminds me of Al Pacino’s. Same kind of New York accent. Tough, gruff, sort of ugly. Like it’s an accent better served for vulgarities than endearments.
But what if I’m wrong about the origins of Pacino’s accent? What if Pacino is from Chicago? Well, since everything is immediately quasi-knowable nowadays, I just looked up Al Pacino on Wikipedia. Sure enough, like Arthur Miller, he’s from Harlem.
I mean I knew that. I knew in my crossword puzzler’s trivia-filled heart that Pacino was from New York, but then I doubted myself. But it was rewarding to read that he was from Harlem. That I didn’t know. I thought of him as being from the Bronx. But no, Harlem. Just like Miller. Everything connects. Everything comes full circle.
Or do we make things come full circle because we’re all going in circles, dizzy and confused? And so we think we’re getting somewhere in our thoughts and in our lives, but we never really leave the point of origin, we just spin around, occasionally lifting the blindfold, like a child playing a game. What we think is vision or insight is usually an illusion, but since all of life is an illusion—or so I’ve been told—we might as well make it a good one. A good illusion, that is. Didn’t Hamlet say, “Stay, illusion?” Well, he may have meant something else, but I like the way that sounds—“Stay, illusion.”
Personally, I don’t practice what I preach. My illusions are negative. I see my soft, privileged life through a discolored veil. There seems to be only one dictum that makes sense, “Love and be kind,” and at both things I fall short, and yet I get up each day just to fall short again. Life rushes by and everything we love slips through our fingers. But I can’t really complain. My negativity and self-loathing is a privilege. An indulgence. Having a difficult brain—and the time to consider this difficult brain—is like being rankled by the chafing of your silk pajamas or by the bit of caviar stuck in your teeth.
There is mortality, though, and there’s no refuting the dreariness of its circularity—“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” Anyway, I’ve gone off on a tangent, the meaning of which I’m not really sure. My thoughts are like soap bubbles, they dissolve rather quickly and don’t stand up to too much scrutiny, but I think it’s fair to bring up mortality, since I am, in part, discussing Death of a Salesman, which is what Miller is reading from on this recording, accompanied by Mildred Dunnock. Dunnock played Linda Loman, Willy Loman’s wife, in the original production of the play in 1949.
So Miller sounds like a New Yorker and he also sounds a bit aggrieved. Early in the recording, he tells the audience, “I want to thank everyone for coming in this miserable weather.”
There was probably a wet snow, or a cold rain following a snow. When it’s just snow it’s not miserable. The white blanket relieves the city of its sins. It’s a respite from our true selves. So it was probably a wet, miserable rain that had turned the snow ugly. There may have also been lacerating winter air coming off the East River and up the hill to 92nd Street and Lexington. It was February, which in New York is the cruelest month.
This recording happened in 1955 when Miller was thirty-nine, which in 2013 would be about fifty-two, since, like currency, we age differently now and adjustments have to be made for the inflation of life-expectancy. So he was mid-career, surly. Perhaps his shoes were wet. At first he seems to read the play rather flatly, like it’s a chore and he knows that his words would be better served by an actor. But as he goes along he seems to warm up and you can feel his emotions, like a mist, coming off the reading of certain lines, like when as Willy he says to Linda, “I have such thoughts … I have such strange thoughts.”
And what Willy doesn’t say—or so I think—is that the strange thoughts are of suicide. Alluding to them is a form of confession, a need to not be alone with the imaginings of his own destruction, though he can’t make the full confession. He can’t tell Linda what he’s been thinking, partly out of bravery—not wanting to burden his wife—and partly out of pride—not wanting to admit to her (or to himself) how close he is to being absolutely defeated.
Later as Biff, Willy’s son, Miller says, “I just can’t take hold, mom. I can’t take hold of some kind of life.” And in that line, too, I felt the writer peeking through, not just reading his words, but feeling them, remembering what they meant to him when he first wrote them.
Why did I choose to listen to this recording? A random selection of possibilities was mentioned to me in an e-mail—the Y archive is a real audio treasure-trove—and amidst the half-dozen or so authors that were listed as examples, I gravitated immediately toward Miller, which is how I pick flowers for someone I love—the ones that strike me in that moment.
And Miller struck me because ever since I first read Death of a Salesman back in high school I’ve never forgotten it. It hit very close to home. My father was a travelling salesman, his beat was the Northeast corridor, not unlike Willy’s, and Willy’s agonies are something I saw played out not in a two-act drama but over a thirty-year career.
My father always talked of landing “a million-dollar deal,” if he could just find the right angle, the right thing to sell; if his company just wouldn’t hold him back. The deal never materialized, of course, even though we waited for it year after year. At the end, when my father was around Willy’s age, his bosses put him on commission, just as Willy’s bosses had, and when that happens a salesman knows it’s over, that he’s all used up. It was painful to witness and more painful for my father to live it.
Another reason that this play has always stuck with me is that I read it around the time that my grandfather died, which was my first experience of death. And what Linda says at Willy’s funeral put into words my own confused response to my grandfather’s passing: “Forgive me, dear. I can’t cry. I don’t know what it is, but I can’t cry. I don’t understand it … Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you…”
That was how I felt about my grandfather’s death and how I have felt about every death since. It’s like my mind doesn’t accept it, can’t accept it. The person is simply away; we’ve drifted apart for a while; we’re out of touch; certainly I’ll see them again, make things right, tell them I love them.
“It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you…”
Maybe we can’t—or at least I can’t—accept the deaths of others, because it’s like a math problem beyond our ken and to ken it is to fully grasp and understand our own death, which maybe we can’t, just as we’re not supposed to be able to dream of it.
Well, I guess that’s all I have to say about listening to this recording. One shouldn’t write things that are too long if they’re to be read on the Internet. Wait, there’s one more thing. What comes through this tape and in the play is the great love that existed in the Loman family, right alongside the anger and the tragedy. Despite everything, they love each other. They may not be able to say it in the right way or at all but at least it’s there. Attention, as they say, must be paid to that. To the love.
Jonathan Ames’ latest book is You Were Never Really Here.