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Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Document: Tim O’Brien’s Archive

October 30, 2012 | by

The Professional, edited by Tim O'Brien, October 11, 1969. Reproduced by permission of Tim O'Brien, courtesy the Harry Ransom Center.

Tim O’Brien was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam on April 5, 1969, to serve with the Third Platoon, Company A, Fifth Battalion, Forty-Sixth Infantry Division. What he saw in battle has been so well documented that while reading his memoir I expected each page to be his last, anticipating the report of his own death. After eight months he secured a coveted rear job where his most onerous task was the preparation of The Professional, “a weekly authorized publication of the 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry, APO 96219,” of which he said this:

 

The newsletter was one of my assigned duties as battalion clerk, the job to which I was assigned after 8 months in the field with Alpha Company. By that point in my tour, as I discussed in some detail in If I Die… I was no longer doing infantry stuff, just the typical things you might expect of a clerk—typing letters and reports, filing paperwork, counting casualties, etc. (I despised the job, and I especially despised that ridiculous newsletter. But it beat getting shot dead.)

After the war O’Brien went for a graduate degree at Harvard, where he prepared his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone. Not much draft material survives for that book, but we never doubt its veracity. In his archive, now ensconced at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, there are letters home, to his parents; there are photographs; there is a uniform; there are medals. There is a lot of material from the nineties as he tracked down fellow members of Alpha Company, and as he revisited Vietnam. And there are two copies of The Professional: October 11 and October 20, 1969. The first issue, two pages from which are reproduced here, includes illustrations, cartoons, Vietnamese-English vocabulary lists, stories, and news. It also prints a story by O’Brien entitled “Trick or Treat,” portions of which appear verbatim in If I Die.

The Professional is a remarkable survival, especially given the handful of specific objects O’Brien mentions in the memoir which have not surfaced: letters from a girl he loves, unrequitedly, who sends him a poem by Auden, and who tells him, he writes, that he “created her out of the mind. The mind, she said, can make wonderful changes in the real stuff.” A letter to his parents, asking for his passport and immunization card, as he considers the appeal of Europe over Vietnam. Escape plans he kept folded up in his wallet. A journal he began, “vaguely hoping it will never be read.” And, perhaps most interesting, two letters from his first army friend, Erik Hansen, transcribed into the book. None of these narrative prompts within If I Die appear to have survived.

Perhaps surprisingly, much more of the more fictional The Things They Carried is documented by material in the archive. Why surprising? He's prepared us to believe it's as true as it isn't. He writes that, “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth,” and “But only to say another truth will I let the half-truths stand.” In the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien writes that a “true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” In the chapter “Notes,” he explains, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened … and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” In “Good Form”: “It’s time to be blunt. I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented.”

And yet, it’s not, not from the opening line:

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl name Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.” Tim O’Brien carried letters from a girl named Gayle, and carried them back to civilization, and preserved them for decades. He also saved a letter he wrote to her on October 17, 1968, but never mailed. In his youthful, tense, inconsistent hand, he is already conscious of the disconnect and unity between reality and his presentation of it:

The very form of the letters and words here (my penmanship is straight & jerky & kinda childlike) conveys wrong things now. Add to that the fact that the thoughts themselves, the substance I put down, is inaccurate to reality, and you have a real problem. … I can go over to Vietnam, set up shop, and try to keep bullets & shrapnel & blood off my body & hands; the other choice is desertion, pure and simple. No, just pure. Not so simple, if you think about it, and I admit that I have done that. All night after getting the news.

Martha of the first chapter, the reader eventually learns, was not Jimmy’s—or even O’Brien’s—first love. That place of honor was held by the nine-year-old Linda of the last chapter: his fourth-grade sweetheart who died of a brain tumor in the summer of 1956, before returning for the fifth grade. Linda, the book version of a girl named Lorna Lou Moeller with whom O’Brien had been in love at the age of nine, incites and dominates the book’s final chapter, “The Lives of the Dead,” which appeared on its own (as did several chapters of the book) in Esquire. After publication O’Brien received a five-page letter from Mrs. Moeller, who had read the chapter, recognized her daughter, and remembered the O’Brien boys. She sent O’Brien a dozen photos of Lorna Lou, and a clipping documenting the too short life of a girl who would occupy space in O’Brien’s consciousness throughout his teens and adulthood. Moeller recalls her daughter’s feelings for the O’Brien siblings, and recounts the course of her illness and death.

In “The Lives of the Dead” O’Brien had written, “It is now 1990. I’m forty-three years old, which would’ve seemed impossible to a fourth grader … And as a writer now, I want to save Linda’s life. Not her body—her life.” These thoughts dated back, though, to the late fifties: two stories, composed in high school, have been preserved, in which he grapples with Lorna Lou’s illness and inevitable death. In “Two Minutes,” composed on seven leaves of his father’s letterhead from the Equitable Life Assurance Society, he recounts his futile attempt to save “Nancy,” who killed herself because “I’d persuaded her—no forced her would be a better word—to come with me to New York from her Indiana farm.” He races home in his car, knowing she is at death’s door, hoping he’ll make it in time to save her. Another story, called “Tulips,” filling twenty-two leaves of letterhead, is about a girl named Linda and a boy named Tim. O’Brien writes in 1990 that he had, in his youth, “saved” Lorna Lou in his dreams, always seeing her alive, sometimes discussing her death with her. In one dream he asks her what it’s like to be dead. She responds, “I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.”

By the time O’Brien came to write The Things They Carried, he had experienced staggering death and loss as an adult, but his mind returned, still, to the nine-year-old girl:

And then it becomes 1990. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, still dreaming Linda alive in exactly the same way. She’s not the embodied Linda; she’s mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name … She was nine years old. I loved her and then she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all.

He can also see his dead Company mates, Kiowa, Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon. “And sometimes I can ever see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy I’ll never die.”

In response to my description of The Things They Carried as “(perhaps marginally) more fictional than If I Die,” O’Brien commented,

by any ordinary standard the vast bulk of TTTC is invented and is fiction. Even the Gayle/Martha material is almost entirely the product of my imagination, both in terms of its detail and in its rendering of events. The Lorna Lou/Linda stuff calls more heavily on actual events, yet 80 or 90 percent of the chapter is completely invented. As a novelist, I have ruthlessly (and joyously) sacrificed the so-called ‘real world’ for the sake of story.

What interests me, then, is the process by which O’Brien cast and shaped and finessed objects, facts, memories, and dreams into a compelling narrative. Working papers for this—though not for If I Die—proliferate in his archive. In addition to raw drafts of individual chapters and two annotated rounds of the complete manuscript, I saw page proofs, with O’Brien’s final autograph revisions throughout.

He put his hand to eighty-five pages, sometimes adding, dropping, or changing a word, other times, revising an entire speech or paragraph or striking through a line or series of lines. He seems to have had the most difficulty settling on text in “In the Field” and its complement, “Field Trip,” but the distribution of the balance of revisions is fairly even throughout the book.

Where we’ve all seen “Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he originally had “Bobby Kennedy.” The “orange glow of napalm” was originally black. Bad breath had been fever blisters, and before that, acne. An aluminum suitcase turned into a cardboard box, and then back, to “a metal suitcase.” A banyan tree became a palm tree. Was it “hot and steamy,” or, better, “cold and steamy?” High school had been college, and a “lacy red blouse” had originally been a pink T-shirt. More substantively, he deletes “I was a coward” and a discussion of gallantry, and rewrites a sentence about losing the Silver Star. Such examples convey the spirit of this final round of revision and show a fair sampling of the sort of changes that could be either alterations to enhance the story, or more simply reversions to accuracy (after all, if Faulkner was right, “memory believes before knowing remembers”).

O’Brien has played so much, and so successfully, with genre that I wonder that we bother to acknowledge some of the distinctions that seem so important to the publishing sales force and the bookstore buyers and the talk-show hosts. Does it make any kind of sense to separate If I Die from The Things They Carried and even Going After Cacciato in the bookstore? Clearly, someone thinks we as readers care. I’d argue strenuously that we should not. We should simply take a page out of one of O’Brien’s books: “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”

Sarah Funke Butler is a literary archivist and agent at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc.

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Phillip’s Dry Cleaners

June 26, 2012 | by

In New York, I did not want to go online and search for a gifted dry cleaner, and so I took the recommendation of a friend. The shop was in Nolita, and the cleaner was skeptical. The stain was unlikely to come out, he explained, and to attempt it, he would need a week. I told him I was leaving in three days, and he shrugged. He apologized.

In Seattle, I went online and found a place called Phillip’s Cleaners. What attracted me was not so much the raves—there were twenty accounts of removals of stains deemed unremovable—but the complaints. One man said that for a year, he had brought Phillip several shirts and two pairs of pants weekly. Then, for no apparent reason, Phillip had said to the man, “I don’t want your business anymore.”

There were several reviews of that sort. And due to a kink in my psychology—one that I believe is shared by many—this indicated to me that I had found in Phillip something very rare: a master.

My mom drove me to his shop. We had trouble finding it; naturally, it was small and not so much nondescript as invisible. She parked out front.

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My Mother’s Love

May 11, 2012 | by

Shortly after fleeing to London from Nazi-occupied France, novelist Albert Cohen learned of his mother's death in Marseille. His grief took the form of a series of personal essays for La France libre, which later grew into Book of My Mother. It was translated into the English by his wife. In honor of Mother’s Day, we bring you this excerpt.

She waited three hours for me in that square. Three hours which I could have spent with her. While she was waiting for me, wreathed in patience, I chose to concern myself, stupidly enthralled, with some poetic amber damsel, abandoning the wheat for the chaff. I missed three hours of my mother’s life. And for whom, good God? For an Atalanta, an attractive arrangement of flesh. I dared to prefer an Atalanta to the most sacred goodness, to my mother’s love, my mother’s incomparable love.

Incidentally, if some sudden illness had deprived me of my strength or merely all my teeth, the poetic damsel would have pointed me out and ordered her maid to sweep away that toothless garbage. Read More »

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Family Matters: Alison Bechdel on ‘Are You My Mother?’

May 9, 2012 | by

Alison Bechdel’s first graphic memoir, Fun Home , told the story of her small-town Pennsylvania childhood, which was dominated by her often tyrannical father. An obsessive home restorer and closeted homosexual, he died a possible suicide just as his college-age daughter was coming out as a lesbian. Six years after Fun Home, Bechdel has published a second memoir in comics form, Are You My Mother? , but it’s more than simply the maternal counterpart to its predecessor. Thrillingly discursive, it’s framed by the artist’s struggle to create Fun Home and broker her mother’s acceptance of its public unearthing of family secrets. Bechdel recounts episodes from her romantic relationships, her beginnings as the cartoonist of the long running Dykes to Watch Out For strip, and her struggles, through fruitful years of psychotherapy, to come to terms with her sometimes difficult relationship with her mother. (The book may be one of the truest accounts of what it’s like to be on the therapist’s couch today.) Throughout, Bechdel plumbs the life and writings of Donald Winnicott, the British psychoanalyst who pioneered the field of object relations and stressed the importance of early mother and child bonding. Over lunch at New York’s Via Emilia, Bechdel confessed her childhood affection for “silly children’s comics like Little Lulu and Richie Rich,” which shows in the clarity and warmth of her artwork.

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Tailor-Made

June 9, 2011 | by

Richard Anderson.

“Wanted,” the advertisement read, “sixteen- or seventeen-year-old apprentice cutter for Savile Row firm. Energetic … Intelligent … Smart appearance …” I was skeptical (what the hell was a cutter?) but Dad made the call and we were granted an appointment at ten the following Tuesday. I had never heard of Huntsman before. For that matter, I am not sure that I had ever heard of Savile Row.”

So began, somewhat ignominiously, Richard Anderson’s career as a bespoke tailor. Today, Anderson is “The King of Savile Row,” as The Independent called him—but in 1982 he was a teenager with failing grades who showed up for an interview in white socks, a short-sleeved shirt, and a school blazer.

Anderson’s memoir, Bespoke: Savile Row Ripped and Smoothed, has been called the Kitchen Confidential of the tailoring world, an insider’s look at the industry and one that exposes a certain amount of its foibles and eccentricity. But what’s even more of a revelation than the ins and outs of cutting and fitting is the sheer thoroughness of the traditional apprenticeship, which Anderson served. Even thirty years ago when Anderson got his start, the kind of ground-up dues paying he describes was on the wane; in an era of overnight success, it’s almost unimaginable.

It’s no shock that, since everything’s ripe for the TV picking, even Savile Row got its own BBC special—a reality program that made it look, says Anderson, “quite glamorous.” And as a result, he now gets some ten or fifteen letters a weeks from prospective employees. However, their notion of apprenticeship doesn’t involve sweeping or cutting, let alone the kind of respect for institutional authority that was the backbone of Anderson’s training. “They tend to think they’d quite enjoy designing,” Anderson explains dryly, adding that they also tend to be older and “there’s a big difference between a seventeen-year-old kid just out of school and a twenty-something who’s seen a bit of the world.” Especially one in today’s England, he need not add.

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Western Reading; Should I Write a Memoir?

April 29, 2011 | by

Dear Mr. Stein,
This summer my husband and I will be taking a train from Portland, Oregon, to Whitefish, Montana. Can you recommend any novels set in that region? I’ve read Jim Harrison, Michael Dorris’s
A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, Stegner’s Angle of Repose and am hoping there are many good novels I’m not yet familiar with set along our route.
Best,
Nora Brzyski

Ms. Brzyski, you’ve landed on a blind spot the size of, well, Idaho. So I’ve asked an expert, Philip Connors. Apart from working as a fire lookout (and many other things), Phil is the editor of New West Reader: Essays on An Ever-Evolving Frontier. He writes:

Happily, the natural beauty along that train trip is matched by the beauty of more books set on or near your journey than I can name. If I were at home, staring at my bookshelves, I’d probably give you a slightly different list, but since I’m on a grand tour of my own, currently in Santa Fe, this will have to be off the top of my head. A list of the great Oregon novels would include David James Duncan’s The Brothers K and Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. The indispensable book on eastern Oregon is a memoir with the sweep and grandeur of a great novel—William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky, a story of paradise found and paradise lost on his family’s Warner Valley ranch. Washington is Sherman Alexie country: check out his novels Reservation Blues and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Crossing over into Idaho, you absolutely must read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, which plays out in the town of Fingerbone, a fictional analogue to Robinson’s hometown of Sandpoint; it’s a masterpiece of twentieth-century American fiction. Finally, perhaps the best book set in western Montana is Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It—two novellas and one story, the title novella being among the most beautiful and haunting tragedies written by anyone, anywhere, in any time.

Finally, if you find your attention for long prose works flagging, make sure to have handy the collected poems of Richard Hugo, Making Certain It Goes On, which contains some of the finest poems of place—from western Washington to western Montana—that I have ever read.

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