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.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine.

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