My Touchstones

Alan Cheuse | March/April 2008

Alan Cheuse

The book is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I first read it somewhere during that hazy border-time between boyhood and young manhood, that period when, as Frost remarks in a poem about the progress of the New England calendar into April, you're sometimes two steps back in the middle of March.

Young writers, with very few exceptions, begin as young readers. Each of you reading this can cast your mind back to something close to the first time you picked up a book and read a story or novel that picked you up and carried you off to some imagined, or imaginary, place. Although it would be years and years before I could connect the two acts—reading and writing—I remember reading every installment of the annual Christmas serial in my hometown New Jersey newspaper as though it were some holy scripture, and I remember spending hours, days, weeks, years as a child buying, trading, trafficking comic books. Holy Scripture itself took a distant third place to all this. Like the medieval church windows of European cathedrals that told Bible stories in images to the illiterate peasantry, comic books gave me entry to a world much larger, and of course much more wildly imagined, than my own. The worst I could come up with in my own young life with respect to darkness was a Krazy Kat-like figure who, I was sure, lurked in the pantry of our second floor apartment on State Street in Perth Amboy, New Jersey; now and then, while trying to fall asleep, I would lean to my right and see, through the open bedroom door, through the kitchen, to the entrance to the pantry where the Kat sometimes peered around the corner, looking back at me. Comics gave me much more to worry about, monsters such as The Heap, and evil masterminds out of Superman and Batman and Robin comics. And as we all know, nothing stimulates the imagination more than worry. Monsters live in basements. There's a basement in our house. Therefore... And applied to oneself: I feel this odd sensation. What if it is...? Which means that.... Here, in fear, and later in neurosis, begins the emergence of plot.

(Perhaps the origin of fear goes back even further. We lose our mother's nipple. We cry out. There's our first instance of cause and effect. Mother or father puts us to bed. The room goes dark. What if they go away and leave us alone in the dark? If I had a psychoanalyst, I would ask him, or her, about this primal fear and the origins of plot. Perhaps I should get one, if only just to inquire about this.)

After a while, when I graduated to a higher form of comics, the illustrious Classics Illustrated series, I (sublimally of course, since I wasn't thinking about it in any rational way, because who, at ten or eleven, could?) began to notice the glories of story. Although, the Classics Illustrated versions of the greatest books in their series often offered slight distortions. For example, the opening of Huckleberry Finn, in the 1945 comic book version, comes out a ways past the classic opening. On the title page we see a drawing of the widow Douglas standing by while her "old maid" sister Miss Watson points a scolding finger at a seemingly ashamed Huck: "It was rough living in a new house all the time," the story opens, "wearing new clothes, and doing lessons, especially since I'd lived in the woods with pap for so long but when he disappeared, the widow Douglas, she took me for her son and allowed she would civilize me.

"She was decent enough, but her old maid sister, Miss Watson, kept pecking at me...."

Not much hope here to catch the Twain music in his original opening paragraphs, but certainly enough to plunge a naïve reader into the story.

The same thing happened with my reading Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography appeared in this series.

And with Melville.

Typee, the title reads. By Herman Melville. Illustrated by Ezra Whiteman. Adapted by Harry Miller.

The first few boxes of text suggest a movie treatment, in advance of the story itself.

1: Here is a thrilling tale of two roving seamen who find themselves at the mercy of a primitive tribe of cannibals, prisoners of fate and the savage tribe of typees in the islands of the Marquesas...The 'Dolly,' a battered old whaler, bearing the author and its motley crew, has been pounding the wide Pacific for six months without sight of land...


2: (Illustration of a huge sun, with a whaling ship on a calm sea, a small image in the sun's lower left quadrant) Six months at sea! Six months out of sight of land, cruising. After the sperm whale beneath the scorching sun of the equator... the sky above, the sea around, and nothing else...

3: A sailor, Toby the narrator leans against the railing, staring out at the sea. The caption states: With hope still beating in my heart, I addressed myself to the poor, old ship. (in a speech balloon, he says: Courage, old lass! I hope to see you soon within a biscuit's toss of the merry land, riding snugly at anchor in some green cove!)

The list of other great works in this series is an impressive one: Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe, Oliver Twist, The Pathfinder, Jane Eyre, The House of the Seven Gables, and many others. Toward the end of the series, which lived on into the nineteen sixties, there's a version of The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells's classic science-fiction novel.

After spending years with the Classics Illustrated Series, it was the other Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's prize-winning classic, which boosted me up to a higher level of understanding.

I was in sixth grade at the time, and engaged in a tense reading contest with a kid named Spiro Georgiu. Every day that year, after school, I showed up at the Childrens' Book Annex to our local public library and pulled another work of fiction off the shelf. But even at forty books, I was still trailing behind Spiro. That didn't stop me from trying, and each day I'd walk in through the front door of the library determined to catch up with him.

To reach the Childrens' Book Annex, situated at the rear of the main library building, you had to come in through the front entrance of the main building and pass the main desk and a revolving shelf with copies of new and recommended adult books. There, I first saw the cover of Ellison's novel, and picked it off the shelf. Not that I understood the book at all. But the first time I saw it, for some reason, it called out to me, perhaps because I confused it with the H.G. Wells novel.

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids-and I might even be said to possess a mind....

I had no idea what any of this meant beyond what I took to be a literal statement of the narrator's invisibility. Poe I'd heard of. Hollywood, too. But "fiber and liquid"? And "mind"? Shaking my head, I put the book back on the shelf and headed to the Childrens' Annex.

Now and then, as I passed that shelf, I picked the book up and read a little further. A year or more went by, and I had finally read my way through the Prologue and the brilliant "battle royal" of the first chapter. The more I understood Ellison's 'invisible" man, the more visible I became to myself as a reader. Years later, when for a time I shared an office with Ellison in the Comparative Literature house on the Rutgers, New Brunswick campus, I told him about this story from my childhood.

He laughed his rich, liquid laugh, and shook his head.

"Not much of a kid's book, is it?" he said.

But I suppose I mark the time that I stopped being wholly a child by my encounters with that novel.

These were my touchstones as a reader, and so, I have to assert, as a writer as well. Though one more novel comes to the fore, a choice that is by now so traditional that it might even be interesting to mention it. The book is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and I first read it somewhere during that hazy border-time between boyhood and young manhood, that period when, as Frost remarks in a poem about the progress of the New England calendar into April, you're sometimes two steps back in the middle of March.

The story itself romanced me, that spinning up out of the earliest recollections of infancy and childhood into the gangly noise and news of adolescence and beyond. But first and foremost, it was Joyce's fusion of word and emotion that captured my mind and heart. I had never read anything like it before.

It happens, this recognition, early for Joyce's young hero Stephen. Taking the wine in the mass, he muses: The word was beautiful: wine. It made you think of dark purple because the grapes were dark purple that grew in Greece outside houses like white temples. Taking his romance with language out of the mass and carrying it with him on his various chores and journeys as a young fellow, he lends "an avid ear" to the conversations of his elders about Irish politics and of the legends of their own family... Words which he did not understand he said over and over to himself till he had learned them by heart: and through them he had glimpses of the real world about him...

It's remarkable, as you go back and reread the novel, how much has to do with sound effects, a gurgling sink, shrill whistles in the street, shouts in the air. I lent as avid an ear as mine was in those days, and tried to hear the story as I read it. And like a glacier pushing old ice off into the ocean to break up and float away, art language began to displace ordinary talk—and you can imagine how ordinary talk was in Jersey in those days!—or purify it. The diction of poetry came to life in a story about the real world around us all.

The lane behind the terrace was waterlogged, a passage late in the book begins, and as he went down it slowly, choosing his steps amid heaps of wet rubbish, he heard a mad nun screeching in the nuns' madhouse beyond the wall...—Jesus! O Jesus! Jesus!... He shook the sound out of his ears by an angry toss of his head and hurried on, stumbling through the mouldering offal, his heart already bitten by an ache of loathing and bitterness. His father's whistle, his mother's mutterings, the screech of an unseen maniac, were to him now so many voices offending and threatening to humble the pride of his youth. He drove their echoes even out of his heart with an execration: but, as he walked down the avenue and felt the grey morning light falling about him through the dripping trees and smelt the strange wild smell of the wet leaves and bark, his soul was loosed of her miseries..."

This fusion of words and the internal music of language outside of normal speech humbled me in the pride of my own youth, and pushed me hard over the line into the world I have lived in ever since. I wanted to do this, to articulate sweet sounds together, as Yeats tells us is the job of the poet. I had never read anything like Portrait before, and ever since I have tried—oh, I have tried!—to create that fusion on my own pages again and again.


Alan Cheuse is the author of three novels, three collections of short fiction, one nonfiction work, and the recently published The Fires (two novellas). He is co-editor of Writers Workshop in a Book: The Squaw Valley Community of Writers on the Art of Fiction, and editor of Seeing Ourselves: Great Early American Short Fiction. He is book commentator for NPR's All Things Considered and teaches in the MFA program at GMU.

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