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Fifty Years to an Early Grave: The Bittersweet Career of Wallace Markfield

By (January 1, 2014) One Comment

MarkfieldEarlyGraveThe line that spun me out of my chair in a fit of laughter came when the VW Beetle packed with New York Jewish intellectuals collides with the taxi. The furious cabbie menaces the VW driver. But one of passengers restrains the cabbie by muttering in his ear: “Don’t be a Shmohawk. He has an in with The Syndicate. He runs with the Trilling bunch.”

Even as Wallace Markfield’s dazzling debut, To An Early Grave, has largely faded from the literary landscape, that Trilling line – and many others – has remained with me lo these fifty years. Markfield’s slim novel was published early in 1964, won rave reviews, was filmed by Sidney Lumet four years later (as Bye Bye Braverman), and was reprinted several times (most recently by the Dalkey Archive Press in 2000). The novel also earned Markfield a Guggenheim Fellowship and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. By all reckoning this writer should have had himself a solid and secure literary career (for what it’s worth, Markfield is the only contemporary writer saluted by name in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint). But lasting fame was not to be for Wallace Markfield. His three subsequent novels showed a steady decline in artistry, critical reception and readership (one of those books would be privately printed). When he died in 2002 at the age of 75, Markfield was, if not quite forgotten, then indisputably overshadowed by such fellow Jewish writers as Roth, Joseph Heller, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, even Bruce Jay Friedman. His was a career that, we cannot refrain from saying, went to an early grave.

For all that, To An Early Grave remains not only a highly polished comic gem, but also something of a seminal work. This novel brilliantly captures a significant moment in American Jewish life and letters. That moment, which may be difficult for the current generation of readers and literati to appreciate, was a transitional stage when the sensibilities of bright and striving second-generation Jewish boys, chiefly from Brooklyn and the Bronx, not only dominated the nation’s intellectual journals but infiltrated and altered the wider culture as well. These fellows – and at the time this company was almost exclusively male – inherited the Talmudist’s talent for and dedication to textual scrutiny and interpretation. They applied these skills to the study of world literature, politics and history at institutions of higher education where the Jewish quotas were not in effect, such as Brooklyn College and the City College of New York. And then they expounded on such subjects in journals like the Partisan Review, The Paris Review, The Nation, The New Republic, Commentary, and numerous other weeklies and quarterlies with readerships of perhaps only a minyan or two.

They did something else in those journals, but we’ll get to that in a moment. Consider the task of reconciling, or if not reconciling then melding, two disparate cultures, one founded in Eastern European academies dedicated to the study of sacred texts, the other a product of the Enlightenment and focused on the aesthetics and psychological insights of western poetry and fiction. Think of Leslie Aaron Fiedler writing on Twain and Whitman. Think of Lionel Mordecai Trilling on Mathew Arnold and E.M. Forster. A similar cohort of clever Jewish young men took on history, politics, sociology, the arts. Indeed, their very names, sometimes bestowed by their parents but sometimes adopted by the bearers themselves, often as not signal the two cultures of these critical thinkers, these intellectual movers and shakers: Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Paul Goodman, Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Delmore Schwartz – we could add a dozen or two more names even before stretching to art critics like Clement Greenberg and Hilton Kramer and Harold Rosenberg.

The four occupants of that VW Beetle – the main characters in To An Early Grave – likewise all bear bicultural names – Barnet Weiner, Holly Levine, Felix Ottenstein and (somewhat puzzlingly) Morroe Reiff – and they are in that VW on the way to the funeral of one of their biculturally named colleagues, the 41-year-old Leslie Braverman. So too of course their creator bears a moniker that points to the two cultures. Like Wallace Markfield, who published his first article in the Partisan Review and whose literary heroes were Joyce and Celine, the four characters are all New York intellectuals. None of them, however, neither characters nor creator, is of the first generation of Jews making a splash in New York’s literary and political journals. This is not the TeitlebaumsWindowTrilling or Rahv crowd of the 1930s and 1940s but their students and descendants. And functioning as they do in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they arrive at a particular moment and make their own peculiar contribution.

The moment was when art began to go pop – when artists like Lichtenstein, Warhol, Rauchsenberg, Oldenberg and many others made celebrated and inconic artifacts of American mass culture and consumerism, when American movies (movies, not “film” or “cinema”) became the subject of intense critical analysis, when other manifestations of popular taste and even kitsch were deemed worthy of intellectual scrutiny. Small wonder that Markfield’s characters – and many of their real-life counterparts – responded with alacrity to these developments. These sharp New York lads, bearing their bicultural names, grew up in somewhat insular Jewish households and were eager to embrace the wider culture. They became obsessive devotees of baseball, comic strips, movies, pulp magazines and other forms of mass entertainment. And when the opportunity arose, they began pontificating in their scholarly and literary journals not only on Oliver Twist and Karl Marx, but on Orphan Annie and the Marx Brothers.

Indeed, one of the great set pieces in To An Early Grave involves a cutting contest between two of the VW passengers. (What was the name of the Green Hornet’s driver?) Another involves movie trivia. (Name the horses of Tom Tyler, Bob Steele, George O’Brien, Hoot Gibson, Ken Maynard and Buck Jones.) Yet another concerns radio serials. (Who was The Shadow’s girlfriend?) Such popular culture references abound on virtually every page of the novel. (Markfield himself was a master of such trivia. For a time he wrote about movies for the New York Times, where he frequently flaunted his knowledge of Hollywood detritus.) It all sounds like amiable nonsense, until one recalls that by now the study of popular culture has become a mainstay at countless universities, with its own learned journals and societies (and leading to the observation that American higher education went down the tubes when it substituted the study of King Lear with the study of King Kong).

At the same time, To An Early Grave arrived at another auspicious moment – the debut of a new post-Borscht Belt brand of Jewish American humor, satiric, slashing, usually more educated and often more overtly Jewish than ever before. In the world of stand-up comedy it was exemplified by Woody Allen, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman and the unaccountably Canadian Mort Sahl. In literature it was foreshadowed by Philip Roth (Goodbye, Columbus in 1960) and Bruce Jay Friedman (Stern in 1962) and would hit its heights in the later 1960s (Portnoy’s Complaint, Heller’s Catch-22, and many others.) In this regard To An Early Grave is unabashedly Jewish. It customarily employs Yiddish words and phrases without bothering to translate them, and its characters adopt the speech patterns and even accents of their less assimilated parents. Markfield’s quartet may have fled Brooklyn and the Bronx for the greener pastures of Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, but they do not deny their Jewishness. They may have shed the religious practices in which they were raised, but they have not adopted any others.

To An Early Grave, then, remains a fascinating literary curiosity, brimming with intellectual energy, crowded with pop cultural references and evoking as much laughter as any stand-up routine. It’s tightly written and economical in structure – four men on their way to a funeral (which some critics have compared to the funeral episode in Joyce’s Ulysses), but it’s packed with carefully crafted “bits,” as the comics might call them. Seven pages depict a literary critic struggling over the first sentence of an essay (“…yield pleasure of a kind… yield a kind of pleasure… but a pleasure increasingly tempered….”). This includes something that will cause not a few writers to wince:

Surely, essays such as these are bound to yield…

Then he went to the refrigerator and tightened all jars, twisted Handi-Wrap around half a tomato, two scallions, a tarnished wedge of Swiss Knight, and with moist toweling wiped a ketchup bottle and a butter dish.

Then he went to the stove and with a wire brush painted Easy-Off into the oven and put scouring powder, steel wool and dry paper toweling into the jets and burners.

Then he went to the garbage pail and lined the bottom with aluminum foil, and with Scotch tape fixed a plastic bag to the sides.

Then he went to the sink and stooped amid the pipes and set up a milk carton that it might be handy for coffee grounds and grease.

Then he went to the bookshelves and at the bottom of the vertically stacked Kenyon Reviews found the one Playboy and, though fighting not to, shook out and inspected from many angles the center fold.

Then he sat.

Then he took up his match again and peeled four more perfect strips.

Then he hummed, hummed and clapped hands to ‘The March of the Movies.’

And he hissed softly, ‘Trilling… Leavis… Ransom… Tate… Kazin… Chase…’ and saw them, the fathers, as though from vast amphitheater, smiling at him, and he smiled at them.

And he typed, with smoking intensity he typed:

“Of course, professor Gombitz’ essays, gathered together for the first time’”

We also get thumbnail sketches of a half-dozen walk-on mourners:

There was Maurice Salomon, the editor of Second Thoughts with his Robespierre profile. He had the air of the oldest of men, as if he had been through the Hundred Years’ War, taken down Sacco and Vanzetti’s last words and seen all movements turn into failure and fiasco. He would be twenty-nine, make it thirty, on his next birthday.

We witness a mourner at the graveside already pitching an article on the deceased to an editor:

“I see, then, not a piece that would definitely pigeonhole Leslie — though the, ah, cultural configurations have critical bearing – but a kind of retrospective reappraisal. In a way that all reappraisals are retrospective. ‘Leslie Braverman: the Comic Vision,’ or ‘The Comic Vision of Leslie Braverman.’” And we get that endless competition over pop culture expertise. (One character boasts: “My piece on John Ford has been twice anthologized. Twice!”

And in a paragraph that captures the love, the jealousies, the resentments, the profound and delicate brotherhood shared by all of his characters, Markfield tells us:

Even after Leroy’s last note went pining upward; even after the coffin was rough-handled by the four diggers; even after they had set it on that evil-looking contraption and jacked it up, and it hung and then slid into the pit; even after he flung his handful of dirt; and even after Ottenstein, Weiner and Levine bawled openly, Morroe held back. Shithead, he labeled himself, horse’s ass, peculiar creature. You could cry when the planes shot King King off the Empire State Building. You could cry when Wallace Beery Slapped Jackie Cooper and then punished his hand. You could cry when Lew Ayres reached for that butterfly.

But even so, nothing wet came from his eyes.

YouCouldLiveiftheyletyouDespite its manic comedy, To An Early Grave ends on a sad and melancholy note, rather like Wallace Markfield’s career. After his brilliant debut, his next novel, Teitlebaum’s Window (1970), both puzzled and disappointed readers. Twice as long as To An Early Grave, an evocation of growing up Jewish in Brooklyn, is exquisitely detailed and often very funny. But it is also plotless, scattered and, perhaps assuming license by the example of Portnoy’s Complaint, which preceded it by a year, is scatological and crude in the extreme. Teitlebaum’s Window received a scabrous review in the New York Times Book Review by Alfred Kazin (also no fan of Portnoy’s Complaint). The book did win some praise but did not sell well – and there was no movie version or paperback reprint. Four years later came You Could Live If They Let You, a short and somewhat confused story of a Jewish stand-up comic that found few readers. Multiple Orgasms was privately printed in a signed edition of 350 (I own copy 148). In a 1978 interview, Markfield said he got bored with both You Could Live and with Orgasms, the latter so much so that he didn’t bother finishing it. Much later, in 1991, Markfield attempted to revive his career with the marked departure of Radical Surgery, a kind of satiric political thriller. This novel pretty much sank like the proverbial stone. Five years later, Markfield died.

“Don’t be a Shmohawk. He has an in with The Syndicate. He runs with the Trilling bunch.” Many today would not recognize that arcane “shmohawk” as a softening variant on the Yiddish schmuck. Many would likewise be puzzled by the reference to a “Syndicate.” Still others would be left blank-faced by the notion of a “Trilling bunch.” Maybe To An Early Grave is both a product of its time and, unlike the works of Roth and Bellow and others, is fatally fixed in it. So be it. I still find it a minor masterpiece.

This is Matt Nesvisky‘s first contribution to Open Letters Monthly.