The following article includes reviews of “John Fante, Selected Letters 1932 to 1981, edited by Seamus Cooney” and “An Accidental Autobiography, the Selected Letters of Gregory Corso, edited with commentary and introduction by Bill Morgan, foreword by Patti Smith, both of which may be ordered online or found in Denver’s new or used bookstores.
Reading the selected correspondence of admired authors always seems slightly disrespectful, since it wasn’t intended for public consumption, but often provides an excellent look at the visceral, unrefined creative faculty. John Fante was born in 1909, into Denver’s then-thriving Italian-American community. He spent most of his youth in nearby Boulder, and moved to Los Angeles in the early thirties, where he died of diabetic complications in 1983. From him I learned the tack of “hospitality” in writing, or narrating as would a host or tour guide, an approach I still cultivate in my fiction. Fante was an up-and-coming writer in the late 30’s and early 40’s, a pick of H.L. Mencken and contemporary of Nathanael West, whose first two published novels, Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust, both met with favorable reviews and respectable sales when released, after which he was driven by economic pressures and a growing family into full-timee screenwriting, as a result of which he remained generally unknown to the reading public until the revival of his work spearheaded by Charles Bukowski towards the end of his life. His Selected Letters 1932 to 1981 is remarkable for its variability of tone, depending on the subject addressed—from his mother to his wife to his friends to producers, Fante shows a sensitivity to his audience that bespeaks an inherent gift of telling—and for the previously unpublished short, The First time I Saw Paris, detailing his encounter with a strange woman weeping in public, and the apparent heedlessness of mankind to a fellow in trouble:
“I crossed the street and stood before her, and my masterful French took over, and I said is there something wrong Madame, can I help you, Senora, no Francais, Ma’am, parla un poco Italiano, you need—I give, what’s wrong, old girl? And I touched the skin of old Notre Dame, my hand softly upon the gargoyle, and wondered suddenly frightfully could she be a saint, because it was possible because saints can be the strangest of people in the damnedest of places.”
I was fortunate to strike up an ongoing email exchange with Fante’s son, Dan, also a writer, who has just released the family memoir Fante: A Family’s legacy of Writing, Drinking, and Surviving, detailing his father’s influence on his developing mind, the series of jobs—from carnival barker to telemarketer—that preceded his literary debut with Chump Change in. 1986.
Gregory Corso remains my favorite voice among the Beat poets for his skillful reintegration of humor to a form grown staid and mirthless by the time of his arrival. His poem “Marriage” remains the most lighthearted tribute to wedded life I’ve yet seen, and his “Bomb” is fueled by a sly wit far bigger than nuclear fear. Besides which, when I crashed Boulder’s Naropa campus years ago to meet him and Ginsberg, Corso was far the nicer of the two. When the idea of a book of selected letters was first proposed, Gregory at first had reservations. Would such a book reveal too much of his private life? But then with characteristic ambivalence he decided to flaunt the aforesaid. Since Corso’s death by prostate cancer in 2001, his selected letters have been published as An Accidental Autobiography. Where Fante bedded down in the security of a paying job which deadened his output as a novelist, Corso literally lived a vagabond’s existence, often spending years at a time in Europe, never holding down a paying job and rarely staying under one roof for a noteworthy stretch. The perfect crime as an accomplished victory. Consisting mostly of letters from the period 1956-1961, when the Beats were burning most brightly, due to the smash hits of Kerouac’s novel, “On The Road” and Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl”, this collection is a treasure of literary and personal soul history.
From a letter to Allen Ginsberg, Oct. 1st, 1958:
“You nor Jack nor [Gary] Snyder can’t deny that the three of you are bred with LOGIC, and logic is a Western invention; the Orientals are bereft of logic. Didn’t you ever consider that you with your logic are incapable of comprehending the illogical? Buddhism is alien to your way of thinking. And you are alien to it. You THINK. Meditation is the absence of thinking. But when a Zen meditates, he meditates to THINK, and he succeeds, he thinks ‘imagines’ Nirvana. You, jack, Gary can never ‘imagine’ Nirvana no matter how long you lotus because you erroneously eliminate thought from your meditation; a blank mind is a blank mind. And besides you angels are too New York and life and worry or no, and drinkers, eaters, livers, girl man mad, to ever see Nirvana.”