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Remembering John Hawkes

Former colleagues and students pay tribute to the Brown prof and author

John Hawkes

In an age of million-selling memoirs, celebrity novelists, and "write what you know" writing workshops, it isn't hard to figure what might make deceased writer and Brown University creative writing guru John Hawkes, in the words of literary scholar Leslie Feidler, "the least read novelist of substantial merit in the United States today." Operating under the assumption that, as he once said, "the true enemies of the novel are plot, character, setting, and theme," Hawkes composed sixteen novels, one volume of poetry, and four plays that defy categorization. Is he a moralist or a sensualist? An idealist or a pessimist? None of these or all?

An audacious ventriloquist for whom the imagination reigned supreme, John Hawkes is as intoxicating to read as he is impossible to blurb. Hawkesian narrators include a 13-year-old Irish girl (An Irish Eye, 1997), a Navy Lieutenant employed as an inseminator of cows (Second Skin, 1964), and -- yes, really -- an aged horse (Sweet William, 1993). Urged by his wife to take a stab at autobiographical fiction late in his career, Hawkes assumed the persona of a female whorehouse proprietor (Adventures in the Alaskan Skin Trade, 1985).

If popular adulation eluded him, literary honors certainly did not. He received Ford and Guggenheim fellowships as well as grants from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the Rockefeller Foundation.

John Hawkes wrote fiction for 40 years until his death in Providence in May 1998 at age 72. For 30 of those years he taught English and Creative Writing at Brown, where a two-day tribute to his life and work will take place on April 13 and 14. Along with fellow author and Brown prof Robert Coover, Hawkes put Brown and Providence squarely on the map of postmodern experimental fiction. Now, some of that movement's most influential figures -- John Barth and William Gass among them -- will make the trek to Providence to participate in Brown's tribute. Writers who taught at Brown (Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Baumbach, Mary Caponegro) will return to celebrate their colleague and writers who studied at Brown (Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody) will return to celebrate their teacher. Here, six of the tribute's participants reflect on the John Hawkes they knew and the legacy he leaves behind.
-- Gina Gionfriddo

Introducing John Hawkes

by John Barth

John Barth

I had the privilege of association with Jack Hawkes in several ways and capacities over several decades. As comrades in literary arms, we saw our names frequently associated by critics and reviewers, for good or ill: one of the earliest extended critical treatments of my fiction that I can remember was a 1963 issue of the journal Critique entitled "John Hawkes and John Barth: Two Fabulists"; one of the latest such associations occurs in John Updike's recent Bech at Bay, wherein the author's alter ego deprecates John Barth and John Hawkes as "smugly, hermetically experimental." The beat goes on.

Our association was personal as well, if that's the right adjective: on a number of occasions, memorable ones for me, we shared the platform at public readings and university symposia -- always more or less stressful occasions for Jack, despite his virtuosity as a reader of his own prose.

The most extensive of these platform-sharings involved Bill Gass as well (along with Shelly Barth, Mary Gass, and Jack's Sophie, of whom more presently) in a sort of Postmodernist roadshow through Germany in June 1979, organized and ministered-over by Heide Ziegler of the University of Stuttgart: a series of energetic one-night stands that reminded me pleasurably of my younger incarnation as a jazz musician. And since Jack and I were both fulltime university people ourselves, as well as fulltime writers, responsible for bringing literary visitors to our respective campuses, I had the pleasure of introducing him to his live audiences several times -- at SUNY/Buffalo, at Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere -- and he reciprocated here at Brown. Indeed, the last time we shared a platform -- at the 92nd St. Poetry Center in New York City on January 14, 1991 -- each of us introduced the other.

Jack gave that reading at least partly as a favor to me. I was in midst of an abbreviated book tour for The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, which had just appeared; the tour included the 92nd St. Y, where split billings were the general fare, and I asked Jack to please come fill the bill. He agreed, reluctantly, declaring however that this would be his final public reading -- which, in fact, I understand it to have been. The program director then requested that we nominate an introducer for the pair of us; my suggestion was that we introduce each other. Jack went along with this -- on condition that I introduce him first, so that he could get his reading out of the way first and then introduce me and then go sit down, finished with public appearances forever, while I did my number.

And so it came to pass, and of course Jack gave a first-rate reading (from his novel-then-in-progress Sweet William, if I remember correctly) -- a reading to which mine can only have been an anticlimax. And then eight years later (two months ago), in consultation with Bob Coover about his splendid proposal for this Hawkesfest, I hoped I might speak on "Introducing John Hawkes," by saying the things I've just said about introductions past and then reading, with a couple of comments, that final introduction, to Jack's final public reading.

Okay, said good Robert -- and here we are, and here we go. But I want to close this introduction to my introduction by reporting that perhaps the best introduction to John Hawkes that I ever heard (and I've heard some jim-dandy ones) was back at Johns Hopkins, where Jack's and my former coachee Mary Robison wound up her praise of Hawkes the writer, Hawkes the teacher, and Hawkes the person by saying, "What's more, he wears the most adorable clothes, and anybody who doesn't like it can go straight to Hell!"

That's a tough act to follow. But let us imagine ourselves now into the distinguished venue of New York City's 92nd St. Poetry Center on 14 January 1991, where I am speaking warmly of my comrade in (ah!) the present tense:

John Hawkes intro: Poetry Center 1/14/91

What a happy privilege, to share this famous platform once again with John Hawkes: my fellow Black Humorist back in the 1950s, when we were called that; my fellow Fabulist back in the 1960s, when we were called that; my fellow Postmodernist in more recent decades, when we've been being called that; my fellow Whatever-we'll-be-called in our century's closing decade [Smugly Hermetical Experimentalists, maybe?] -- and yet as much my imagination's essential counterweight as its cordial counterpart: the Jack of dark incantatory spades and clubs versus the Jack of, I suppose, airy arabesques. I'll circle back to this pair-of-Jacks business presently.

Everyone in this knowledgeable audience likely knows that John Hawkes was born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1925 and raised in New York City and in Juneau, Alaska. That during World War II he left Harvard to drive an ambulance for the American Field Service, and that in 1947, in his own words, he "began life" at age 22 by marrying Sophie Tazewell, returning to Harvard to commence his writing apprenticeship with Albert Guerard, and hooking up with James Laughlin of the New Directions Press, all in swift succession.

Along with a distinguished collection of short stories and a handful of plays, there have ensued, by my count, 13 novels [the final count was 15. I believe], from The Cannibal in 1949 (the year Jack graduated from Harvard) through his [then] most recent Whistlejacket of 1988 -- and including my two personal favorites: Second Skin and Virginie: Her Two Lives. He is presently big with his 14th, of which a soundscan may be found in the current number of [Brad Morrow's] literary magazine Conjunctions. From the notes on contributors to that number, we learn that the novel-in-progress is narrated in the first person by a 22-year-old former racehorse: a beast of the same age toward the close of his career, we note and presume, as was the author at the starting-gate of his.

When Leo Tolstoy wrote his short story "Kohlstomer" from the point of view of a horse, Ivan Turgenev was so impressed that he is said to have exclaimed, "But Count Tolstoy, surely you must have been a horse, in some earlier incarnation!" Compliments of that high order, from distinguished fellow-writers leery of superlatives, have followed John Hawkes around his literary track. Of Whistlejacket, e.g. (a narrative also featuring horses), Edmund White says handsomely that its author "must be ranked as America's greatest living visionary."

Donald Barthelme adds, "He is an American master, and each new book reveals new colors and depths in his work."

Paul West amplifies: "The most European of our modern American masters, but his own man, one of imagination's bravest and most eloquent pioneers."

Extraordinary praise, which I wholeheartedly second, and to which I would add this: whatever Hawkes's previous incarnations, throughout his latter-day literary metamorphoses he has remained indeed very much the same thoroughbred (by Poe, Hawthorne, and Faulkner out of Mary Shelley and Djuna Barnes, perhaps), foaled full-grown in Harvard Yard 43 years ago and off and running in top form with The Cannibal.

This is not to contradict Don Barthelme's assertion that each new Hawkes-book reveals new colors and depths; like any first-rate artist, Hawkes discovers fresh images for his obsessions and recombines them from evolving perspectives, even at the risk of occasional tut-tutting from Hawkes purists like myself (it was my private shop-rule for Jack, for example, that so erotically charged are most of his great scenes, he must never, never descend to the sexually explicit, as we lesser spirits incline to do -- but I neglected to mention this rule to him until I came upon the blow-job scene in . . . The Passion Artist, I believe it was). Under the variety, however, lies a wonderful consistency: the characteristic voluptuous derangement, the cool monstrosity, the virtuoso violence, all rendered in splendrously crafted Hawkesian English cadences and his "signature" rhetorical questions -- and very often enormously comic.

Hawkes's way, indeed, is to charge the horrific with the erotic, to refract it with the comic, and finally to recompose and project it through a redemptive lens of luminous language. Like Franz Kafka's, his vision is bone-deep, dark, and unwavering from his earliest to his latest published pages. Like Kafka's, too, his imagination is so essentially metaphoric that I, for one, find even the ablest critical commentary on his fiction more or less unsatisfying, like the competent technical analysis of nightmare.

If I may resurrect the shopworn distinction between the metaphoric and the metonymic (which I'm told was borrowed by the lit-crit people from Roman Jakobson's clinical studies of aphasia), here is, I believe, the principal difference between this pair of Jacks, as our readings tonight may or may not demonstrate, while in any case proving nothing. John Hawkes's muse is Metaphor incarnate: the dark magic flash of this-for-that; mine is poor plodding literalistical Metonymy: this and then this and then this, et cetera. The house of fiction, happily, has accommodation for both and for all their hybrids: Let us now begin with the masterful, unforgettable voice of the Jack of Metaphor: John Hawkes.

John Barth's novels include The Sot-Weed Factor, The Floating Opera, Giles Goat Boy and, most recently, On With The Story, a collection of short stories. He was a longtime friend and correspondent of Hawkes.

Displacingly familiar

by Robert Creeley

Robert Creeley

Best put, John Hawkes had the exceptional ability to make his own often surreal vision of the world quite literal and also displacingly familiar. His theme was love, and by that word he meant all the diverse accommodations and desires we manage to include in that simple proposition, "I love you." Yet his work was not remarkably "about love." Rather, it was that enduring landscape, that place we presume we will come to in our transforming dreams. He was the great master of such visionary worlds and all the commonplaces to be found in them. One of his most tender tales is one of his last, Sweet William, the proposed autobiography of a very memorable character, a horse who might well have been human -- and vice versa.

Jack and I were classmates and friends at Harvard in the mid-forties. He was co-editor of the Harvard Wake, an initiating "little magazine" for us all. He was a very dear person, very generous -- and vulnerably slow in reading, so that we'd often kid him about how long it took him to catch up with our own stylish tastes -- "You mean you just now read that?" He's the only friend I ever had who actually wrote a novel in a writing workshop -- and kept right on going, which is what great writers always do. He was terrific and so was what he wrote.

Robert Creeley, former poet laureate for the State of New York, is the author of numerous books of poetry, criticism, and prose. He attended Harvard with Hawkes in the '40s.

Strange and vivid

by Joanna Scott

Joanna Scott

I want to try to create a world, not represent it. And of course I believe that the creation ought to be more significant than the representation," John Hawkes once said in an interview. Now we can look back at the body of his fiction and know that Jack succeeded in his ambition, accomplishing nothing less than a series of creations that dwarf the complacent forms of representation found in much of contemporary fiction. When we go to one of Jack's novels we can expect to find new, unsettling realities rendered in magnificent detail. The simplest actions -- eating a tuna fish sandwich, walking across a room, mounting a horse -- become strange and vivid on these pages. And then the room we're heading into suddenly becomes strange and vivid, the house becomes strange and vivid, the yard, the town, the whole experience of life becomes strange and vivid thanks to the inventive powers of Jack Hawkes.

I first saw Jack Hawkes in Providence in 1983, when he raised his voice above the din at a reception and welcomed new students to the Graduate Writing Program at Brown. What did he say that was so funny? I don't recall. I remember only that right away I sensed he was a supreme comedian, witty and perceptive and with a capacity for empathy that has kept me marveling ever since.

Joanna Scott received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in recognition of her novel, Arrogance, and her collection of short works, Various Antidotes. Her most recent novel is The Manikin. She was a student of Hawkes at Brown.

A unique innocence

by Mary Caponegro

Mary Caponegro

John Hawkes is one of the most significant and original of contemporary American writers. He demonstrated that language and image can supercede plot and character in fiction. At the age of 23, he took the world of literary fiction by storm with his WWII hallucination, the Cannibal, and consistently produced ground-breaking novels from that time forward, moving gradually from the darkest of comic visions to a more effervescent one. John Hawkes's bold, prolific, ceaselessly inventive output would have of itself provided more than sufficient pedagogical value to posterity -- a writer of his stature could easily and justifiably have reserved his energies for the creative process, giving merely adequate attention to his students -- but the man who fashioned world after world in narrative form was also a powerful mentor of infinite generosity.

I should know, since I owe my career, and one of the most important friendships of my life, to that generosity. It is unlikely I would have become a published fiction writer had it not been for Jack's guidance and nurture: his inextinguishable faith in the vision of my prose. He had more confidence in my work than I did; even when peers were squeamish, he was fearless, undaunted by the hypothetical objections of censors or reviewers. (One of the latter had, after all, once deemed Jack's fiction the product of a "con-temptible imagination.") In a universe in which the mainstream flourished, Jack, and Brown's Graduate Writing Program, provided an oasis where the unconventional could be embraced and extolled, and where the realism of the "literary marketplace" was not the only currency. Nor was his style the paradigm; unlike many authors who consciously or unconsciously solicit imitation, Jack instead cultivated the true voice of every individual student.

Moreover, Jack's teaching, to which he brought rigor, humor, patience, enthusiasm, and a unique innocence, extended far beyond the classroom. Workshops, in fact, were never held in classrooms, but in apartments, with wine, and I can't begin to count the times I was hosted by Jack and Sophie Hawkes in their Providence home: the marvelous dinners that were the highlights of my eight years in what Jack affectionately referred to as the "sepulchral city." Well after I earned my graduate degree, Jack championed my work. His faith in me as a writer and teacher allowed me to be those things: to offer some semblance of reciprocation in the hope of one day achieving the impossible goal of living up to his extraordinary example.

Mary Caponegro's books include Tales from the Next Village, The Star Café and Other Stories and, just published by Marsilio, Five Doubts. She was both a student and colleague of Hawkes at Brown University.

A dangerous liqueur

by Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides

Twenty years ago last September, I arrived at Brown University to study with the great, cantankerous John Hawkes. I had chosen Brown chiefly because of his presence on its faculty. Hawkes's books, which I only dimly understood, had nevertheless enchanted me, a kid from the unliterary Midwest. Three years earlier, at a high school teacher's house, I had pulled off the bookshelf an odd-looking paperback. I don't want to be hyperbolic about the moment but it persists in memory as epiphanic. I can remember the strange effect the prose had on me, like a dangerous liqueur.

The narrative voice seized me in a way all the noisy art forms of the time (which have only grown noisier over the years) somehow didn't. I felt right away, reading the first paragraph of Second Skin, that I was in the presence of the qualities Nabokov considered the hallmarks of art: curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy.

It was my great good fortune to study with Jack Hawkes and to know him as a mentor and as a friend, to enjoy his histrionic self-dramatization, his macabre but ultimately comic vision and his pagan vitality. When I graduated, I wrote a note of thanks to him, most of which I've forgotten. The last line, however, comes back to me. "I will always begin with what you taught me." That is as true today as it was in 1983.

Jeffrey Eugenides's debut novel is The Virgin Suicides, the first chapter of which appeared in The Paris Review, where it won the 1991 Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. He was a student of Hawkes at Brown.

An intoxication with language

by Rick Moody

Rick Moody

Jack Hawkes's principal jeremiads in classroom setting (at least when I was in his undergraduate workshop, 1982-83) concerned language and imagination. Befitting his constitution, Jack was for more of each: more and better usage, an astonishment with language, an intoxication with language, a transformation and renovation and revolution with words and syntax and metaphor, and then also more imagination too, go further, down and in, don't settle for the muted palette of contemporary fiction, find what unsettles, what disturbs, what is uncertain, what is paradoxical, what is uncanny, and therefore what articulates character by articulating the limits of character. He also liked comedy a lot, but only if it were genuine and organic. Superficial jokes and manipulations appalled him, and I know this well, as I was the object of some criticism along these lines. He liked anything about desire, anything about Eros as long as it were fearless. His touchstones, in terms-models, were Nabokov, Faulkner, Melville, Nathaniel West, Flannery O'Connor.

As an instructor, he embodied all his perceptions, which is to say, he was generous, cruel, warm, curmudgeonly, he seemed to have total recall, he was not above favoritism, he was passionate, and passionately articulate, he was exasperating, he was incredibly loving, he was disconcertingly normal in some ways (in his appearance, in his moods, at least in class), and in other ways so singular, so much the aesthete, the pleasure-seeker, the huckster, the tactician; I despair of encountering such an intelligence again, even anything close. As others have also said, it has taken me years, in some cases, to parse his aphoristic messages ("No surface comedy!" for example, "Avoid whimsy!"), and that is good, as his memory is still much upon me. I expect it will always be. Fiction seemed to go from the warmth of analogue to the chill lifelessness of digital the moment his lamp was extinguished.

Rick Moody is the author of three novels, Garden State, The Ice Storm, and Purple America, and one collection of short fiction, The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven. He was a student of Hawkes at Brown.

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