Most people are haunted by dead relatives – parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings – but the ghosts that haunt me the most, are people I never knew. Since I’m an atheist I don’t believe in real visitors from the other side. I don’t expect my Jacob Marley to come calling on Christmas Eve. On the other hand, there are a number of dead people that won’t leave me alone.
I am mostly haunted by literary figures. The first one to do this, starting when I was a kid was Samuel Clemens. For some reason, reading about Mark Twain was always more powerful than reading his fiction. It started with his autobiography. I was a kid with my life in front of me, reading about a very successful man writing about his life behind him. Samuel Clemens led both a charmed and tragic life. His wife and two of his three daughters died before he did, and Clemens took this very hard. Clemens always had a sharp tongue for the human residents of Earth, but towards the end, his writing turned bitter to the point of viciousness. I was born naïve and became a skeptic by twelve, and Clemens writings fueled my conversion to disbeliever. I have never experienced the tragedies Clemens experienced, so I’ve yet to become bitter, a burden I hope to avoid.
Twain didn’t finish an actual autobiography, but two versions of an autobiography appeared after he died that were heavily edited collections from his voluminous autobiographical writings. Over the decades the University of California Press released various collections of Twain’s writings, with more and more material that hadn’t been published in his lifetime. I first got a taste of Twain’s unpublished writing as a teen with Letters from the Earth, coming out in 1962 that I didn’t read until 1968 or 1969. Over the decades many biographies about Twain have appeared and he would haunt me again and again.
Jack Kerouac was the next literary specter to haunt me, beginning in my twenties. Jack died in October 1969, the fall I started college, the same year as the first Moon landing and Woodstock. That was around the time I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I can’t remember if I read that first, which led to reading On the Road, of if reading On the Road led to reading The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Kerouac was a character in Wolfe’s book.
Kerouac was a writer like Proust and Thomas Wolfe (not Tom), who wrote books that were thinly disguised accounts of their own life. I didn’t know this until I read the Ann Charters Kerouac: A Biography in the early 1970s. That’s when Kerouac really began haunting me. I’d read his books, then another new biography, and then reread the novels, and then another biography. Kerouac became a 10,000 piece puzzle that I’ve never finished.
Even before Philip K. Dick died in 1982 he was a legendary character. I remember reading about his paranoid theories in The Rolling Stone magazine, and stories about him in science fiction fanzines. My college roommate even had dinner with Dick and his wife at a convention in the 1970s. As soon as the biographies came out, I started reading them. Like Kerouac, no matter how many puzzle pieces I found, the image I had of PKD was always shifting. Like Twain and Kerouac, Dick was another troubled soul. Why am I so haunted by people so torn up by their lives?
There is a book of conversations with PKD called What If Our World Is Their Heaven? That title captures PKD’s kind of spookiness.
I read a biography of Louisa May Alcott before I read her famous book Little Women. I started off reading about the American Transcendentalists, and found Louisa. I read two Louisa May Alcott biographies before finally getting to Little Women. Little Women was my mother’s favorite childhood book. She tried to get my sister and I to read it when we were kids but I didn’t want to read a girl’s book. But I was willing to watch Katherine Hepburn and June Allyson play Jo in the movie versions. Over time Louisa May Alcott started haunting me too. Another troubled soul.
Other writers haunt me too, Heinlein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wells, Lawrence, Huxley, but so far I’ve only read one biography each for them. Writers don’t appear truly ghostly until I’ve read several biographies and start reading their letters. I have read many books on Wyatt Earp, but his appeal is different. He doesn’t haunt me – maybe because he wasn’t a writer. Or maybe he wasn’t a troubled soul like Twain, Kerouac, Dick and Alcott. I’ve always loved biographies, they were among the first type of books I learned to read. But most subjects of the biographies I read never lingered in my psyche like these four.
Interestingly, the lives of Clemens and Alcott overlapped, as did Kerouac and Dick. Clemens and Alcott both became successes after the Civil War, becoming famous for writing about their childhoods. Kerouac and Dick both wrote a lot of books in the 1950s that affected readers in the 1960s counter culture. All four of them have had their share of film success – with their fictional work, and as characters themselves. I am not the only person they haunt, not by a long shot.
There is a 1968 Burt Lancaster movie called The Swimmer based on a 1964 short story by John Cheever. The story begins when a man at a pool party tells his friends that he thinks he can swim all the way home because there’s a pool in every yard across the suburbs to his house. I think a wonderful account of American history could be written by just writing a series of biographies of all the American writers that span the centuries back to colonial times. We’re used to history being about politics and war, conquest and invention, economics and industry, but I think there are many ways to look at the evolution of our culture, and the lives of these writers give a much different, and for me, a more real insight into the living through history.
I believe these writers haunt me more than the memories of my ancestors is because my relatives never wrote down their thoughts. If my dad had written about his life, I think it would be a whole lot like Jack Kerouac’s. They were both restless men and died miserable drunks. I’m sure my mother and her mother loved Louisa May Alcott because their lives seemed much like hers.
For some people, the promise of prosperity never lives up to their unfolding lives, and that’s very hard to take. Ambitious idealists usually have a long way to fall. I’m currently reading The Unwinding by George Packer. For all its shiny glory, the American Dream is hard to achieve. Packer chronicles many Americans who have succeeded or failed, or both, in the last four decades. What’s amazing about this book is the diversity of the people it presents. Every American has a different American Dream. I think we’re all haunted by past Americans. I think we’re all inspired by our personal ghosts.
JWH – 9/4/13 – Happy Birthday Janis
9 thoughts on “The Ghosts That Haunt Me”
[Jim, this is a wonderful reflection. Please forgive my barefaced attempt to compose an aphorism in response…]
It’s not what we’ve accumulated; it’s what we leave behind that marks our presence in this world. Like the “Butterfly Effect,” every act—and, not one single intention—changes the world in some way, great or small. That change accumulates in the written record of “time,” making each moment unique and transient. We are a reflection in mind of that moment in the round. Our lives enter and flow with that moment for but a brief period; but, we are not passengers to it; it is as much us as we are it. It is our reality and we are its composition.
Some events leave a great impact, a crater in the Moon, a hole in Lower Manhattan. Some events pass almost unnoticed, such as a simple Augustinian friar cross-breeding pea plants in the mid-1800s. Nobody recognized Gregor Mendel’s work during his life. Still, he patiently recorded his observations. He presented two papers to colleagues at distinguished forums and had one published in a well-respected naturalism journal in 1866. The paper stirred mild controversy, but the gentle monk stood his ground. By the 1870s nobody could remember the future “father of modern genetics.” Not until 1900, as the after-effect of events seeming more a legal investigation than science, did several “modern” scientists rediscover the work—each claiming priority…until none could. Now, we bitch about genetically altered food in our supermarkets.
Some humans make a great and enduring change to our society, be they a Hitler or a Gandhi. The vast majority of us pass unnoticed except by our local circle. But, if the measure of a society is the aggregate of its citizens and the attitudes that shape our acts, then any person who effects another creates a chain of acts projecting from one, finite life into a potentially endless future. That enduring influence, when realized through another’s acts, is the true measure of human immortality.
As little as a gesture or an uttered word can influence history. A misinterpreted wave or call from one side of a de-militarized zone can spark a war or signal a peace. But, if you turn your words into a poem or book, they have the ability to change lives long after you are gone. Such is the influence of a Samuel Clemens that transformed all Americans into iconoclasts, or of a Jack Kerouac that made causeless rebels cause for celebration.
Heinlein, Hemingway, Huxley; we use their names now as bellwethers of where we have been. But, each of them becomes a part of the soul of the person who reads their words. Their biographies are our lives—and, our legacy. Every time I see my beat-up copy of The Old Man and The Sea proudly displayed on my son’s bookshelf, I smile and think: “I passed Hemingway on.” -Nick W.
We live in a sea of culture, and thrive on ideas and thoughts. Everything is interrelated and evolving.