Peter Birkerts

              An old acquaintance in 2002 published a memoir; this was someone I had known as Peter Birkerts in the E0s.  We both still lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, then.  I kept in touch with Peter for some years later, as he was well on his way in a literary career in Boston.  But there he began signing his name Sven on the reviews and essays for which he soon began earning national distinction.  The years passed.  And now his memoir, My Sky Blue Trades, returns to his student and getting-started time back in Ann Arbor.  It narrates a youth in Detroit suburbs, when he still felt the tug between an American identity he wanted, and another identity Ea Latvian Sven Elingering in his family’s Old World past.

His family, as his memoir shows, bore many secrets and silences which both tantalized and impinged on an otherwise happy boyhood in his 1950s and E0s suburbs north of Detroit.  One large part of Peter EI’ll use the name he asked friends to call him Elonged to shed the Latvian identity because it so contrasted with the simple and sunny mythologies of “I Like IkeEsuburbia.  Old World roots, contrarily, had too many serpentine strings attached.  The dualism persisted, however, and My Sky Blue Trades shows him grappling with it through boyhood, adolescence, and university years EPeter both drawn to and repelled by the palimpsest layers of his family’s past.  His father apparently had no such problems. Though born in the strangest of Old World circumstances, Peter’s dad neatly resolved his own originating issues.  He became an American architect entirely focused on the clean,  geometric designs which so fit the straightforward world of Doris Day, Lawrence Welk, plastic wrap, Tupperware, tract houses, and crabgrass-free lawns.  Millions of vets and their baby boom families aspired to this homogeneity nation-wide:  a white-bread America united in the streamlined styles of cars, toasters, frozen-food packages, and drive-in restaurants.  Madison Avenue had us all placed in our separate demographics E frats, greasers, Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, housewives happy with their automatic washers, coonskin-capped boys, and smiling girls twirling hoola hoops as they sported their buckle-back bermuda shorts, saddle shoes, and peddle-pushers.  Four years older than Peter, I knew this same world in suburbs elsewhere adjoining Detroit, where my parents, too, had shed their respective pasts for cul de sac subdivisions, neon strips, clover leafs, and spacious parking lots moating those earliest incarnations of climate-controlled supermarkets and shopping malls.

              Peter didn’t resolve things so easily as his father.  My Sky Blue Trades shows an affluent but painful youth as he early felt some falsity in his family accommodating such clear-cut roles as if directly out of Life magazine.  Peter describes these popular scripts and clichEposes and calls them mythologies.  Unable to deal with the  personal debts, guilts, and compromises that stretched back from the Old World, his family members all assumed what he later understood as performance guises.  But Peter learned to play, too Ethus the importance of an all-American boy’s name for him.  He exulted in his childhood readings of the Hardy Boys sagas and in his own imitative larking about the wood lots, lakes, creeks, and meadows of the new suburbia that was then still residually rural.  Later he bought into the angry young man persona fed by rock’n’roll, long hair, and fists-punching-the-air of the Vietnam era.  Peter fit perfectly, his memoir shows, into the sequential niches of our mass culture. The first two-thirds of My Sky Blue Trades follows the tracks of how, in our yearning for mythologies, we find them in roles packaged for us.

              The memoir peters out EI can’t resist the pun Ein its final one-third. He makes one error that subverts a story that has been wry and poignant till then.  The misstep comes just prior to the beginning of his university life.  Still in high school, he and a chum seize an impulse one night to drive over to Ann Arbor just to see the house where they know that a distinguished faculty poet lives.  Late though it is when they get there, they see a light yet burning in one room of Donald Hall’s place.  They knock at the door.  Hall receives the boys courteously, gives them something to drink, and for a while regales them with tales of real poets Eincluding anecdotes from his own times years earlier with the renown Dylan Thomas.  The boys leave, buoyant, eager for their own university life.  And with this incident his story ratchets up interest for more of what may happen with the poet Hall upon Peter’s matriculation at Michigan.  But his narrative drops Donald Hall.  Although Peter enrolls at this fabled university, and graduates from it, he has nothing further to say about Hall or anyone else teaching him.  He divaricates Ebranches off.  My Sky Blue Trades divagates into drugs, music, all-night bull sessions, skipped classes, incomplete grades, and sex, but ignores all education putatively going on.  Doesn’t even mention the Hopwood creative writing award he won as an undergraduate.  Not only does Peter drop the beacon that Hall has signaled Eand any influence of any other professors Ehe also drops the theme of identity tension that until now has preoccupied him.  His story trundles on in chronologies of bittersweet wanderings, employment dead ends, and abortive relationships, as if now he were swallowed up in counterculture mythology as wholly as his family had been in their suburban roles.  A meeting with the transplanted Russian poet-in-residence of the mid-E0s, Joseph Brodsky, occurs, but extra-curricularly, and Peter seeks this meeting only after he has finished his undergraduate career, when he lives in the campus’s second-hand and used-book shop periphery.  Joseph Brodsky would figure vitally for him Ehis first published article dedicated to Joseph Enbsp; but the memoir provides only a couple anecdotes.  Neither anecdote connects with the theme from the book’s first two-thirds.  Neither locates Joseph as any light upon any imaginative transit of Peter’s between the values of innocent American and more problematic Old World.

By jettisoning Hall and all other instructors Eby short-circuiting the fact that we grow by resolving the pulls of those we perceive above us EPeter emphasizes regression.  He aborts the dynamics of stories and story-telling central in each of us.  His own story ends instead in consumerism Ea scenario of himself joining so many other baby boomers in demographic niche Eas if a generation could grow merely by everyone buying into tie-dye, bell bottoms, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, back packs, water pipes, tofu, underground papers, and cult films.  So the two anecdotes of Joseph Brodsky jar for their disconnect, in parallel with the set-up and dropping of Donald Hall.  Joseph Brodsky’s verse famously posited New World locales and incidents within the mesh and gravities of Old World themes.  Notoriously this verse of his introduced notes discordant to a journalistic, socially-conscious, confessional, and free verse American literature.  It did this partially by how Joseph laureled old Eancient Eclassic forms.  He also forced wider perspectives often by clunking-together excesses of heterodox reference.  Every one of his poems, too, invited the challenge to ourselves that are all implicated Eeven in evils, processes, forces and histories good Americans like to imagine severed by 1776 signature.  We start out, he says over and over, subscribed to myths, lies, imaginative evasions, and false orthodoxies.  We never jettison them Ecertainly not as easily as my parents and Peter’s imagined they could in their happy suburbia.  This Russian emigre instead and always delighted in a necessary tension Ein us and in art.  He loved verse to court not only the newest and freshest truths for each of us of emotional discovery, but the equally compelling pathways of how we also let clichE formulae, and repetition pull us.  It’s a complicated world out there.

Peter’s sink into the generational malaise of the E0s takes up the last third of his book.  As narrator, he is of course free to shift.  He can ignore the influence questions that he initially set up for Donald Hall, and pretend this issue didn’t exist for other institutional academics, or for the Russian poet who arrived in Ann Arbor between Peter’s junior and senior years.  He can subside into the bubble culture of the time.  This both distances himself from the thematic pull of the book’s first two-thirds and absolves all his instructors from any bearing on him Eon either his developing or floating self.  But Peter doesn’t use the present tense to emphasize the drift of getting lost and being lost.   He writes of these things twenty-five years afterwards, and does so having perspective on those times Ea perspective he emphasizes by using past tense to look back on them.  But still he drifts, even in past tense.  He allows the clouded miasma to remain.  Its narcissism sticks.

Acknowledging more of Donald Hall, Joseph Brodsky, and other U-M instructors need not have falsified his life then, nor pretended more about his energies, attentions, or capacities at the time.  Even before he goes to Ann Arbor as full-time undergraduate student, we know two things about his draw to the place:  1) literary personalities such as Donald Hall act as magnets for reasons he anticipates pursing; and 2) the intellectual aura emanating from Ann Arbor also represents Old World culture in tandem with a Latvian-Sven heritage tugging at him even in youthful float of suburbia U.S.A.  The latency of this gap between classic old culture and our new consumer scenarios gives primary force to My Sky Blue TradesE/i> first two-thirds.  Why couldn’t Peter sustain it?

We might say, looking back for him, that perhaps it was the very characters who drew Peter to Ann Arbor who failed him.  One of his two anecdotes about Joseph Brodsky, for instance, concerns Peter’s and his sister’s first meeting with Joseph.  In those days Joseph was still at a primitive level in speaking English, and one aspect of his progress had him asking everybody please to inform him as to choice nuggets in the linguistics of sex.  So when he in turn met Peter and his sister, Joseph delighted in learning of their ethnic heritage, and railed in ribaldry with the one mocking sexual vernacular that he happened to know from Latvian.  He’d apparently made a small career back in Russia learning all he could in the idioms of sex Efrom any and all tongues accessible to him in that otherwise closed socialist sphere.  But this sideline didn’t amuse Peter or his sister.  The memoir shows their discomfit Eas if this incident sufficed to freeze Joseph out of ongoing narrative.  Eventually though (the memoir doesn’t describe this), Joseph and Peter would cement a warm friendship.  The former would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987.  Shortly before that the latter won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism Eand would go on to further critical renown.  But in the middle 1970s Peter wasn’t close to what would be his Sven self, let alone ready for any sex guffaws in Latvian.  He was as perplexed as most of us Midwesterners in the face of Joseph’s frenetic linguistics Eto say nothing as to the wide and wild palette of reference already then appearing in the English translations of his verse:  allusions to sports, classical mythology, landscape, mathematics, history, clothing fashion, interior design, botany, zoology, geology, complex systems physics Eand sexual puns, too, glaring and subtle.  His registers clashed: high and low, elegant and vulgar.  Lines rhymed and buoyed in musicality of meter. But when in the middle E0s he reached into his bag to pull up the one scatology he knew from Latvian, Joseph was touching Peter, not Sven.  He was touching an American who, like most of us, dwelled more deeply than it seemed we could know in a culture that had us in its grip.

David Reismann described this culture.  He had done so more presciently than anyone else at the time or since, when in 1950 he published The Lonely Crowd.  This classic made him instantly famous.  But as everyone zeroed in on the cute categories of “inner-directedEand “other-directed,Emost missed his most original perception.  A few more years had to pass.  Then, in 1955, two things happened.   On February 23 Walt Disney presented “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,Ethe final part of a three-part series that had begun the previous December.  With it a merchandising frenzy ensued unlike anything in American history.  Later in spring of the same year Bill Haley and the CometsE“Rock Around the ClockEcame on over the opening credits of Blackboard Jungle.  The song had appeared a year earlier, spent one week at mid-list, and tanked.  But now, coupled with the film’s electrifying portrayal of juvenile delinquents and a new, menacing adolescent class, the song hit mega sales, aided by the alarm punched by preachers, politicians, and pundits in every newspaper and magazine.  They had all missed Reismann’s main point back in 1950 Ebut Madison Avenue awoke to it now:   that we had all slipped into a new history shaped entirely by mutually separate demographics of race, gender, class, and age.  Teens with enormous appetites and buying power for newly libidinous-tinged consumer items could match and tower over that swollen pre-teen market of cute Davy Crockett merchandise.  Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and others in 1955 may still have been regionally isolated deep in the South, at Sun Records, but their energies in the very next year were going to shake, rattle, & roll an entire nation.  As Reismann had seen, we were about to find ourselves in historically new demographics.  The borders of coming identities were going to depend on merchandise, infinitely varied, all cleverly packaged and marketed, and now promising the empowerment solutions to which Eadvertising said Ewe were all entitled.

Educated, mannered, comfortable people serving in our institutions Ethose my old acquaintance Peter chose to ignore in his Ann Arbor years Emay be as blind as the rest of us.  They may be even more willing to accept the lies woven into the departments of corporate culture they inhabit.  Peter may have been as right Eor as helpless Ein neglecting this class of people in his 2002 memoir as he was in his college years 1969-73.  Even then those professors did not stand as most-quotable models of communication.  Another group of people did.  Those who best modeled the charged possibilities for widening one’s world to that of “othersEwere not our white, middle class, comfortable professors, but, instead, typically poor whites and poorer blacks who had grown up in the 1930s and E0s.  Most had acquired little official schooling.  In the rural south and northern ghettoes, however, these people learned to listen to each other’s music.  Kentucky bluegrass listened to the Delta blues, Delta blues heard New Orleans brass, New Orleans brass imbibed Texas swing, which took in notes and harmonies from barbershop quartet, which acknowledged gospel, which connected to Chicago jazz, which wandered into Broadway show tunes, and Tin Pan Alley, which borrowed from hillbilly folk, until the whole circle pulsed with borrowings, everyone quoting everyone, opening up borders Enot a closing of demographics but a revolution in them Ewith different races and classes listening to each other, changing and evolving  styles to quote, use, and further surprise Eand then Sam Phillips put it all together at Sun Records just about exactly 50 years ago.

Rock’n’roll pulsed with energy for two reasons which add up and fuse together.  One:  its writers, performers, and producers quoted widely from adjoining styles.  And two:  the music always expressed desire.  Somebody always wanted the girl or the car.  Or somebody wanted not to be lonely, ignored, or dumped.   The desires rose into art  by genre miscegenation. 

Teachers seldom mixed categories like this Eor showed desires in public Eback then, or now.  Peter may have wanted to cross the gap between his electrically-fun American self and whatever he felt more sinisterly odd or latent in that Old World culture.  He may have felt the need for more imaginative alignments. Poets like Donald Hall, and other intellectuals at U of M, may have been able to draw out the submerged Sven.  But as My Sky Blue Trades doesn’t say, maybe all but lived in respective insularities Ewhat Reismann called, in market terms, “niches.Enbsp;

              After many years, I got back in touch with Peter EI’d lost touch with him and too many others as my time in central Europe went past ten years.  I wrote to him in 1998 of my program, Essaying Differences.  This arose out of the nationalisms I’d seen, the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides, and my feelings that peoples need not continue so in imaginations stuck in stereotyping, suspicion, war, hatred, and institutionalized evils.  Peter sympathized with me, but saw my program not as any particular redress for race, nationalism, or ethnicity poisons, but merely another Ethough nice Edefinition of civilization.  He had, moreover, distilled his own life into a most civil equanimity E25 years after Ann Arbor a balanced blend of Peter and Sven.  He had a home in a leafy Boston suburb, a wife successful with her career, two healthy children, and jobs teaching writing at the best schools of his choice in New England Eincluding stints at Mt. Holyoke, the private college in western Massachusetts where late friend Joseph Brodsky had enjoyed teaching.  Peter had nearly the fame of Joseph, too.  Esquire featured him with three others in a handsome black-&-white photo spread as the best exemplars of the literate critical arts for the entire English-speaking world.  His collected reviews and essays had appeared in three volumes.  And our best monthly magazines liked to refer to him for one particular contemporary issue Ethe way technology was affecting us, our imagination, and literacy.

              In fact, despite the insight, range, and articulate deftness of his writings, Peter ever came close to passion only on this one issue.  Prior to his 2002 memoir, he had published two books on it, Tolstoy’s Dictaphone:  Technology and the Muse and The Gutenberg Elegies:  The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.  He averred against the modern world’s resort to technology.  Rather than bringing us closer together, as many assumed, he thought it helped us distance ourselves from each other.

I had come to believe, contrarily, that it was our teachers who helped distance us from one another: especially our nice, erudite, comfortable, specialist professors.

When I lived in New York in the mid-1980s, I quit teaching for some year.  I’d come to abhor its ethical terms Ehow educators joined in an exploitation as gross and unrelenting as that of our worst large corporations.  General Motors routinely closed down its American plants and laid of workers by the thousands Eto take advantage of low-paid labor, minimal workplace safety considerations, and even fewer environmental regulations in the Third World.  GE did it.  Nike did it.  RCA.  They all did.  Their CEOs got rich.  Shareholders got jumps in stock value.  A middle class was being squeezed out across America Eand our colleges and universities joined in the killing.  Everywhere, emulating the lowest corporate ethics, administrators of “higher educationEwere also systematically out-sourcing labor –clerical and custodial workers, and teachers, too.  Every year our colleges and universities were hiring a higher and higher percentage of temporary, part-time, adjunct instructors.  With no job security, no health insurance, and few benefits beyond maybe a free library card and department phones for local-calls-only, ranks of gypsy academics were now getting pay three, four, and five times disproportionate to that of full-timers for teaching exactly identical classes.  As CEOs and shareholders were enriching themselves by WAL*MART ethics, so academic administrators and the tenured class relied on underpaid, uninsured, revolving part-timers to subsidize them.  Nowhere in America would our associate and full professors ever go on strike to protest this situation.  Tenure insulated them.  Professional habits invoked righteousness for specialization as a religion sufficient in itself.

Tenure, a system that grew in America a hundred years earlier, during the progressive era, originally served to protect professors who used to use their positions to speak out on wider issues of public concern.  This system had now turned upside down.  Tenure any more served only those who had learned never to take any risks.  Full-time, tenure-slot positions were declining, moreover, for the sake of exploiting a growing over-supply of adjuncts.  To be considered for any full-time academic positions, all aspirants had more pressure on them to evidence an ever-narrowing fit to specialization.  Jargon, texts arranged by modular, segmented methodologies, and orthodoxies of reference all marked specialization borders.  Literacy declined Eat all levels of American schooling Ewhich of course boonletted new reservations of literacy ghettoes.  Writing, composition, and essaying experience got further demeaned as more-isolated eruditions.  Part-timers typically staffed all these mandatory comp and remedial writing courses Enew mega profits for administrations.  Teaching assistants got assigned them, too, as part of matriculation into graduate programs designed to keep the tenured in comfy, small classes, as far as possible from undergrads.  The tenured in all departments increasingly resorted to multiple-choice exams as they modeled education outside of literacy.  These trends continued for over 25 years, so part-timers as adjuncts and teaching assistants now did nearly half of all undergraduate teaching in the country.  Full-time faculty could attend to more time writing grant applications for themselves, seeking funds for federal and state research projects, corporate text editing, and Defense Department, pharmaceutical, bio-tech, agri-business and other contracts.  American academia became a taxpayer-subsidized herbaria of mutually isolated, self-flattering specialization entitlements.  Departmental imaginations common to them all now correspond to the demographic divisions Reismann saw coming for us.  Information consumerism in one meshed perfectly with niche consumerism in the other.

Essaying Differences says no to these Towers of Babel Esays that we could have real literacy Eand that literacy necessarily combines human desire and wider webs of combinations, like that music that began in the E0s.  Yes, the daemon of sex and the confusions of sexuality dwell in us.  From puberty on we wear masques, guises, and styles our culture ever has us in.  Peter’s memoir, My Sky Blue Trades, caught this predicament and sustained it better and longer than most.  Essaying Differences says we can keep examining Ekeep crossing the gaps we all inhabit Ein all our divisions of nationality, ethnicity, religion, race, academic specialization, and consumer demographics.

 

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