Michael Thelwell: Paging through a life in literature
PELHAM — The best books evolve, they are not contrived. Rather than being the product of “bottom-line” calculations among an agent, editor and the publisher’s merchandising department most good books evolve naturally — in retrospect almost inevitably — out of a life or, rather, a life’s work. They are the product of the abiding concerns, commitments, interests and intellectual preoccupations of solitary, disciplined and original minds.
The above insight, albeit not a very original one, is one direct result of reading Jules Chametzky’s latest — “Out Of Brownsville.” This little book is a cultural memoir consisting of a series of reminiscences of Chametzky’s encounters, over a uncommonly consequential career as editor, literary activist and historian, with 50 or so significant writers of our time.
For the 40 years that I’ve lived in Amherst, Jules Chametzky has been actor, driving force and these days something of a benign institution in the cultural, political and intellectual life of this community. As founding editor of the Massachusetts Review, director of the Institute of the Advanced Study of the Humanities, co-founder and president of the Coordinating Council of Little Magazines, he has contributed greatly to the shape of the literary environment. As scholar and literary historian his oeuvre definitively documents the cultural/ethnic expansion of the national literature and particularly the emergence and effect of a powerful current of Jewish-American writing in the middle of the previous century.
Among the more influential of these works are his pioneering “From the Ghetto: The Fiction of Abraham Cahan,” “Our decentralized Literature: Cultural Mediations in Selected Jewish and Southern Writers” and most recently his editing of the seminal “Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology.”
In a life dedicated to literature and literary activity, and particularly as an influential editor, Chametzky met and worked with hundreds of writers major and minor. For this book, that number would of necessity have to be reduced. But by what process of selection?
The book’s subtitle is “Encounters with Nobel Laureates and Other Jewish Writers.” And that decision would prove an inspired one. It brought important thematic and cultural focus to a work that might otherwise have seemed another rambling, subjective gathering of disconnected literary memories.
Instead, by bringing original literary personalities into conversation with the author and each other, we become eyewitnesses to literary and cultural history. But be not dismayed by this stifling academic terminology. At the hands of Chametzky, you will not be abused by a prose of pretentious erudition that has reduced recent “serious” cultural discourse in academic circles to a hollow mockery.
What we have here are memoirs — fond, astute recollections and finely drawn portraits of some 50 literary characters and events with judicious commentary on the work, rendered with the immediacy of a warm and recognizable human voice.
A raconteur’s timing and wit leaven the author’s perceptive literary intelligence. This combination is so seductive, the stories so entertaining and engrossing that we only gradually come to recognize how gracefully we have been ushered into serious literary history.
After the death of Grace Paley, a writer known and greatly respected in this community, the Massachusetts Review devoted an issue to her work. Chametzky was asked to contribute a tribute. Upon reading it, his youngest son Peter suggested he compile a collection of short pieces. Skeptical but intrigued, his father began to make a list of writers, which grew to over 100 names.
How to intelligently reduce the list? “In light of my professional interests in recent years,” he reasoned, “I decided to focus on Jewish writers I had met and who had made a memorable inpression.” That list had 70 names and was winnowed down to the present book.
The task of writing and organizing the material was well in hand before the question of a publisher came up. By fortuitous coincidence, he mentioned his latest project in a chance discussion with a boyhood friend who lived two houses down in his old Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn.
As boys, these two sons of working-class Jewish families had become close because of shared intellectual inclinations. The friend, David Kantor, had become a nationally recognized systems psychologist who had founded a small house, Meredith Winter Press, utilizing high technology to publish with some success his own and other work in his field.
For some time he had been thinking about broadening the intellectual horizons of his publishing operation. Now his old friend’s project seemed a possible beginning in that direction. Upon reading it, he found it “an important document on the intellectual life of the second half of the 20th century.”
It was a meeting of minds and a marriage made, if not in heaven, in the streets of Brownsville.
Michael Thelwell is a retired University of Massachusetts professor, former colleague of Jules Chametzky and lives in Pelham.
“Out of Brownsville,” published by Meredith Winter Press, can be ordered through Amazon.com.