August 26, 2013

"It's a kind of advance and retreat: maybe it's in free verse or free time, maybe a little bit more like Ornette Coleman."

Paul Harding, Transcendentalist, From Tinkers to Enon

Short form: Tinkers was no fluke — the little gem of a novel that caught a word-of-mouth wave and won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010; it’s the snowy paperback still stacked like bait around the cash register of every bookstore I go into. Enon is Paul Harding’s spooky, Hawthorny and thoroughly worthy sequel three years later. The story lurches into sudden death and a year of dissolute darkness among descendants of that Crosby family of peddlers and mechanics out of the Maine backwoods. Enon is set in the semi-rural suburbs of Boston; it’s a present-day ghost story, a sad one at that. But there’s a strong continuity in the quirky traditions of the Crosby clan, as well as in the uncommonly thoughtful craft of the author. In my reading, Enon cements Paul Harding’s place as a true prince of New England letters, spiritual heir to Emerson and Thoreau, close student of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. As Tinkers revealed, Harding is a Transcendentalist for our time, in Emerson’s definition of the type: “He believes in miracle, in the perpepetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy.” In Enon, the 30-something protagonist Charlie Crosby, unhinged at the loss of his 13-year-old daughter, could remind you of Emerson himself in the essay “Experience,” recounting his soul’s disarray after the death of his boy Waldo, of scarlet fever, in 1842. In an uncannily Emersonian summing up at the end of Enon, Charlie Crosby says: “I am a connoisseur of the day. Sometimes I sit in tears. Sometimes I sit in a wordless, inexplicable kind of brokenhearted joy.” Listening to Paul Harding read, I keep hearing another great teacher, the immortal jazz drummer Elvin Jones of the classic Coltrane quartet. Paul Harding was a touring rock drummer in his time, and an Elvin worshipper. In our first conversation four years ago, Paul observed that the differences between drumming and writing are superficial. “Having been a drummer, I write by ear. I write by rhythm, you know,” he said. So the reader keeps listening for Elvin in Enon, and I hear lots of him — when, for example, Charlie remembers his boyhood rounds learning clock-repair from his grandfather.

I inserted the key into the keyhole and opened the door. The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment… I lifted the lead weight and unhooked it from its pulley wheel. It felt like removing the heavy heart of the clock. I laid the weight on a rug at the foot of the stairs. It thudded onto the wool like an object from another, outsized planet with twice the gravity of our own. A heavy leaded heart, I thought. That has to do, too, with the burning ember in the center of the house.

Charlie Crosby, on his apprenticeship with George Washington Crosby, his grandfather in Enon, Chapter 2.

Isn’t he still writing rhythms, I asked.

Absolutely. I think, going back to Emerson, of fully inhabiting the moment and the idea of improvisation: when you’re a musician or a writer or a painter or a dancer, you translate the experience of that moment into your medium at a high level of improvisation. If you’re Elvin Jones, and you’re trying to make art that will engage the complexity of the human mind, you’re using all four limbs and all sorts of different tempos and textures and juxtapositions to make this elegant whole. That’s what I think of trying to do with writing, and what better medium than language – the medium that has the capacity to hold in itself all the complexity to satisfy an engaged and amenable reader? I’m thinking lyrically, trying to find the time signature, the meter of description. It’s a kind of advance and retreat, maybe it’s in free verse or free time, maybe a little bit more like Ornette Coleman, again it’s the tentativeness, the improvisation. When I read that out loud, sometimes I don’t know where the beats are going to land, because rereading them is just like the process of writing them, and when I wrote them I didn’t know where I was going to land either…

Paul Harding, in conversation with Chris Lydon in Essex, Massachusetts, August 2013.

This is the way a modern Transcendentalist writes. There are hearts in his clocks, and souls in his characters, both living and dead.

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  • Robert Zucchi

    The Concordians entered my imagination before I developed any serious understanding of them. In preparing a term paper on Brook Farm in high school, I was taken, like so many others, with the intelligence and daring and high personal culture of the of the experiment’s principals, whose interest in reordering society seem to befit this new American world and the fresh start it afforded. The non-sectarian character of Transcendentalism, the community’s inspiration and organizing principle, was also very attractive.

    Today I think opinion about the Concordians is more complex. Transcendentalism is congenial enough, but it is also bravely but maddeningly syncretic. (Bronson Alcott’s incomprehensible writings about it may say as much about the creed as the author.) The Concord of the mid-1800s is refracted to us through the literary brilliance of its celebrity intellectuals, but for some (e.g., immigrant laborers?), lived life in that socially claustral community may have merited Abby May Alcott’s denunciation of Concord as “cold, heartless, brainless, soulless.”

    Yet it’s the Concordians who most strongly frame my sense of my now far-away native state and its foundational culture. Deeply respectful of learning but skeptical of doctrinal truths, cultivated and radical both, the Concordians helped create, and usually, personally exemplified democratic liberality. Their writings have influenced the world. (I remember a professor telling us he’d profitably read “your Thoreau” as a student in Pakistan, and can recall the smiles everywhere in the big auditorium that greeted his statement). The antipode?

    Frontier culture and its rough folkways, then and now.

  • Sean McElroy

    Rythym
    transforms, it’s the great
    pulse of change, of distinction,
    that which is,
    that which is not,

    ceaseless. The player,
    immersed in his craft,
    unaware of the sound
    produced, pays into the ever
    increasing
    progression.

    Failing only
    when awareness
    intrudes, then
    redeemed only
    by the next
    pulse. The will
    to continue,
    to incorporate,
    to embellish,

    then the return
    to the realm of
    the unaware.
    That which is,
    that which is not,
    ceaseless.