Perspective — March 4, 2013, 9:00 am

On Charles Newman’s Peripatetic Life

In Partial Disgrace, by Charles NewmanFrom the introduction to In Partial Disgrace, a posthumous novel by Charles Newman, out from Dalkey Archive Press on March 5.  

Charles Hamilton Newman — among the best, and best-neglected, of American authors — had intended to write a cycle of three volumes, each volume containing three books, for a total of nine. But when he died, in 2006 at the age of sixty-eight, all that had been completed was an overture — or just the blueprints for a theater, the scaffold for a proscenium.

Arcadia

Charles Newman was born in 1938 in St. Louis, Missouri, city of the Mississippi, of Harold Brodkey, William S. Burroughs, T. S. Eliot — three eminences who’d left. Newman never had that privilege. His father made the decision for him, moving the family — which stretched back two centuries in St. Louis, to when the town was just “a little village of French and Spanish inhabitants” — to a suburban housing tract north of Chicago, adjacent to a horseradish bottling plant. The prairie, the imagination, lay just beyond. A talented athlete, Newman led North Shore Country Day School to championships in football, basketball, baseball. Yale followed, where he won a prize for the most outstanding senior thesis in American history. He befriended Leslie Epstein, novelist, and Porter Goss, future director of the CIA under Bush II (more on “intelligence” later). Study at Balliol College, Oxford, led to a stint as assistant to Congressman Sidney R. Yates (D., Ninth District, Chicago), which lasted until Newman was drafted into the Air Force Reserve, which he served as paramedic. Korea was avoided.

In 1964, Newman returned to Chicago: “I have been forced by pecuniary circumstances to deal with other men’s errors and nature’s abortions, to become . . . an educationist!” He became a professor in the English department at Northwestern, where he turned the campus rag, TriQuarterly, into the foremost lit journal of the second half of the century — weighty words for weighty writers like Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Czes?aw Mi?osz, E. M. Cioran, Frederic Jameson, Susan Sontag, Robert Coover, John Barth. TriQuarterly was the journal that notified the city — New York, publishing’s capital — of the progress in the provinces. Academia would resurrect American letters, at least relicate in library stacks amid the slaughterhouses, the grain and missile silos. The counterculture usurping the culture, standards in decline, artistic degradation — the complaints of Newman’s seminal essays, A Child’s History of America (1973), and The Postmodern Aura (1985), could also be used to rationalize his behavior: the dalliances with coeds, the boozing, the pills. With his job in jeopardy, his journal too, in 1975 Newman moved to Baltimore, where he directed the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.

This is where the account, or just Newman, gets hazy. He quit Hopkins, or was fired again, or quit before he’d be fired, or was fired before he could quit, went off to raise hunting dogs in the Shenandoah Valley (more on the dogs too, in a bit). The failure of that venture, or a feud with a neighbor that left him arrested, or wounded in a shovel attack, or both — either that or a brief bout of sobriety, or its attendant hypochondria that required better health insurance — led him back, by a commodius rictus of recirculation, to St. Louis, city of Brodkey (a stylistic peer), Burroughs (with whom he shared a tolerance for self-abuse), Eliot (whose adoption of a foreign identity prefigured Newman’s own interest in Hungary — about which, again, stay tuned). After Chicago this was his second homecoming, third chance. Fortune smiled gaptoothed. Newman was already the author of New Axis (1966, a novel following three generations of a Midwestern family from Depression striving, through middle-class success, to a striven-for, successful-because-failed, Aquarian rebellion), The Promisekeeper: A Tephramancy (1971, a novel that risks, as its subtitle suggests, a divination of the ashes of the American Dream, forecasting a country unable to communicate except in reference, satire, parody), and There Must Be More to Love Than Death (1976, a collection of three texts, of a series of twelve that would remain unfinished, each in a different vein: a junkie veteran suffers naturalism, an operatic baritone frets over farce, a photographic memory prodigy is worried by the very concept of nonfiction). White Jazz — Newman’s best completed novel, about a computer programmer surfeited, even satisfied, by his function as a mere line of code in the program of this country — had just been published. The year was 1985. Reagan had just been whistled for an encore.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 2
is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

More from Joshua Cohen:

From the June 2015 issue

New Books

From the April 2015 issue

New Books

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Legends of the Lost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“A bond with reality has gone, and sometimes you wonder whether that fosters our feeling that movies are a fleeting art.”
Photograph by Alexander Perrelli
Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

It was revealed that reading material recovered during the U.S. raid of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan included Popular Science, Time, silk-screening instructions, and a suicide-prevention manual called “Is It the Heart You Are Asking?”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today