It was my freshman English teacher at New York University who inspired me to become a writer. His name was Don M. Wolfe and he hadn't a clue that he had lit the fuse that set me on my lifetime path.
I was seventeen years old. In those days New York University had an uptown facility in the Bronx, overlooking the East River, a beautifully landscaped campus with a number of Georgian type buildings and a famous promenade called "The Hall of Fame." I lived with my parents and brother in a two-bedroom apartment in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, an hour and a half subway ride from the campus.
Each morning my mother would rise, cook my breakfast and prepare two egg salad sandwiches for my lunch. In those days such motherly conduct was not considered pampering or female exploitation or fear of not being loved by her offspring. Mothering was a deeply respected, sincere and accepted occupation and to me, loving one's mother and father and visa versa was an inbred fact of life.
The savory and memorable sandwiches never lasted until lunch. In those days, I was always hungry, not by deprivation, simply an irresistible appetite. The cost of college was twelve dollars a point and since my father's employment was sporadic and we were always short of money, my mother had prevailed upon one of her successful brothers to pay my tuition.
After classes I would work at odd jobs for pocket money. I did not consider it a hardship. I get a laugh out of people who cite their humble beginnings. Never once did I feel humble or deprived or poverty stricken. In fact, life growing up in New York City was a never-ending carousel of excitement and wonder.
Dr. Wolfe would assign us compositions to write and comment in red ink on our various literary efforts. His emphasis was on imagery, originality, and language. It was these comments of encouragement and criticisms that lit the fuse and confirmed what I barely suspected, that I had, indeed, found my calling. Or, by chance, it had found me.
Although I had to take the required science and math courses, it was my English courses, particularly the European Novel class taught by another inspiring professor, Professor Ranney, which further buttressed my ambition. In that three hour back and forth subway ride to the Bronx campus, I lived in the dazzling imaginary world created by the great novelists and peopled by an extraordinary cast of characters who seemed more real than my fellow commuters. This total immersion, which transported me far from the cacophony and tumult of the speeding underground train, convinced me that the only occupation I would ever aspire to or cared about was to write novels.
Burning ambition is a glorious but debilitating affliction, especially to a college graduate barely out of his teens facing a formidable and fiercely competitive post war environment. The only job I was able to get was that of a copy boy at the New York Daily News, nightside, fourteen bucks a week. Jobwise, it was just about as close to the written word that I could get at the time.
All this biographical trivia is by way of introduction to the defining moments of my career validation, the quintessential flowering of my sworn and absolute fealty to the notion that I must become a writer, whatever the odds, however many detours or forbidding obstacles I must face.
After graduation, I registered to take an evening course in creative writing at the New School in Manhattan, given by Dr. Wolfe, that same professor of English that had defined my calling. The classes attracted a disparate group of all ages and income levels, of both genders, a number of returning veterans, some with jobs, some unemployed. I think I was the youngest of the class of thirty odd students. We had one thing in common, the burning urge to create works of the imagination, novels and short stories, to learn the craft, be guided and inspired by a wise mentor and, perhaps, by each other.
We were truly birds of a feather. To a man and woman, we knew exactly what we wanted and dreamed about. All were serious and determined people bonded by a single unquenchable ambition, to express our deepest thoughts and desires and communicate them through characters and environments of our own creation. I know it sounds a bit lofty and ethereal, but we had this palpable obsessive need to tell people what was inside of us. A real writer knows in his soul what I mean.
The format of Dr. Wolfe's class was simple. We were to submit a piece of work each week. Dr. Wolfe would read and evaluate our efforts, write his red inked comments of suggestions or praise on our papers and choose a few of these works to be read in class each week. Throughout the course everyone had his or her chance at reading to the class. We would discuss the work and offer our own comments. Most of the criticism was supportive and kindly and there was the sense that our fellow students recognized that each individual voice was original and to be respected and it was our profound duty to encourage each other.
One thing a course in creative writing cannot teach was talent. In my entire life I have never before or since been exposed to so much rich writing talent. It was truly extraordinary, an awesome literary explosion.
Some of us developed strong bonds. Once a week was not enough. We broke up into groups that met at other times. We'd sit around each other's kitchens and read our work to each other, comment and criticize, always supportive, always in pursuit of the great goal, to be published, recognized, make our mark. One of my fellow students was Mario Puzo. Others, I remember were John Burress whose first novel was headed to publication and Harold Applebaum, whose poetry appeared frequently in the New York Times when that paper used to published a daily poem. Another was an ex-wife of Ira Gershwin whose name escapes me and others whose work was, in my opinion, of equal merit or better than those who captured the golden ring of fame and fortune.
Another class at the New School was taught by Charles Glicksberg, a professor of English at Brooklyn College. Among his writing students was William Styron. In my second year I took Professor Glicksberg's courses and found him and my fellow students equally inspiring.
Some of the material in those years found their way into anthologies published through the New School. You cannot image the joy we took in being published, many of us for the first time. We are talking about the years 1949 and 1950. The books were entitled American Vanguard 1950, Which Seed Will Grow, and a paperback whose title I can't remember.
A number of the writers in these classes became published novelists, most of them within a decade of their courses. We all know what happened to Mario Puzo and William Styron. Others published as much as a half a dozen novels of great merit. The "star" of those years was the late Leonard Bishop, who published a number of novels and eventually became a teacher of creative writing. Another was Sigrid DeLima, a fine writer who also published a number of novels. There were others whose names escape me and their books are probably gathering dust in attics or disintegrating on bookshelves.
I had to struggle through two more decades of frustration and rejection before my first novel was published. Other considerations intervened. I had married young and the priorities of family support intervened, although I never really put my dream on hold, writing my novels and stories each morning before going to the office. But that is another story to be told at a later date.
In a sudden burst of nostalgia, I recently went back to those books published through the New School, mostly to see if I recognized any other names of those fabulously talented aspiring writers. Fifty-five years have elapsed. Except for Puzo and Styron, and those mentioned above, I could barely recognize the names of any of the others. Some I remembered only vaguely. If author name recognition is a test of popular success, I am sorry to say that except for the two mentioned above, none of the authors in those books have withstood that test. In no way does that imply that their writing talents were lesser than those whose names are more recognizable. It does, however, imply that lady luck, the favor of the publishing and movie Gods and the lottery nature of timing and coincidence have more to do with authorial success than talent.
Through a gauze of tears I looked over each name and read their one-paragraph bios. All of them had this great need, this grand obsession to write, publish, be read, tell their stories. They are, for me at least, all lost to the mists of time.
Were those who were published disappointed in the public reaction to their work, unable to take the blows of pompous critics long forgotten? Did the publishers abandon them because of poor sales? And what of those who were unpublished? Did rejection destroy their incentive, discourage them from continuing, defeat them? Did they live their lives with their dream still intact? Did fear of failure take hold on their psyche?
Since I was the youngest of this group, I can only assume that many of them are dead. Did they die with their obsession still resonating in their souls? Or did they turn away in despair and frustration?
The writing life is a tough, cruel game, as is the life of every artist. To a real writer, the kind I met at the New School, commercial success was both tantalizing and suspect. The fear of "selling out" was the subtext of their striving. Was "making it" really about money and fame? Or something less tangible and mysterious, like some secret and impossible longing for immortality? I mourn for them, especially for the ones whose names I do not recognize.
To one for whom the dream is still pulsating and very much alive, I can only speculate about my fellow writers of those halcyon days. However their lives turned out, to me they were among the best, if not the best of their generation.