Bumping Into the Characters
THE great essayist Roger Rosenblatt once generously reminded me that “good writers have good accidents.” Accident is as much a part of fiction as anything else, symbolic of the grace that along with will conspires to put words on the page. The craftless anarchy of the Beat poets on the one hand, and the extreme control of Henry James on the other, suggest that for most human beings, just as both freedom and discipline are necessary in life, serendipity and design must coexist in a work to make it readable. Fortunately, the world is rich in the interweaving of the two, which can be found almost everywhere, and not least where one lives.
I was raised on the Hudson, in a house that had been the stable of the financier and Civil War general Brayton Ives. In midcentury, we had fire pits in the floor for heating, and rats everywhere, because they nested in the hay insulation.
Accidents began to happen early, when behind the massive beams we found a Kentucky rifle and a Whistler etching, both perfectly preserved. As a boy, I habitually took a path past a house where I could hear what I thought was an old man (younger than I am now) playing the piano. He was pretty good. He was also Aaron Copland.
Next to the New York Central tracks was a factory constructed of the same brick and slate as our house. Faded letters across its front read “Brandreth’s Pills.” What a surprise it was, in 11th grade, to find that Melville, who rode past this spot frequently as he traveled between Albany, the Berkshires and New York, wrote in “Moby-Dick” that to cure dyspepsia in a whale one would need “three or four boat loads of Brandreth’s pills.”
But it was not as surprising as the ancient in his 90s, as thin as a pipe cleaner and with wispy white hair, who wore a black three-piece suit even in the heat of July. He carried a huge sack to help him in collecting (stealing) insulators and iron spikes from the New York Central Railroad. He ran from everyone, including me, until one day he saw a book in my hand. I had taken “Leaves of Grass,” my homework, to read down by the Hudson.
“What’s that?” he asked. “Oh, him. The son of a bitch still owes me eight dollars.”
It might have been another amount, I’ve forgotten exactly, but from the nature and detail of his testimony, not to mention his obviously unfeigned resentment, I knew that it was true.
These were lovely accidents, purely serendipitous, much like what may be the origin of the name Holden Caulfield. In 1965, arriving at college, Google-less of course, I went deep underground and spun The New York Times on microfilm as far back as it went. Around the time that Salinger was working on “The Catcher in the Rye,” a movie called “Dear Ruth” was released, advertised with great fanfare and much space in the theatrical pages. The first names of the two leads, William and Joan, appeared in tiny letters. Beneath the small print, in gigantic type, reading from left to right as if to smack you in the face, were their last names: HOLDEN CAULFIELD. Serendipity. Nice.