perm_identity Robert Phelps: My first guide to writing fiction

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 126 ~ November, 2007

As I start this column, or whatever it should be called, where I can pretty much pontificate on anything I so desire, I can’t help thinking, who the hell am I? It’s a question that hits me from time to time, usually when I’m confronted with problems or situations I don’t like, but am forced to accept until resolved, regardless of the eventual outcome. But why should I be immune to such pedestrian obstacles which so many others face, and much worse than any I have, more than one would like to think.

So, there you go, my initial paragraph is out of the way and now maybe
I can begin to organize my thoughts about what I hope to say, which should probably be about writing, since this is, after all, an online literary journal, and one which makes me feel quite proud.

I suppose it would be easiest and most honest to say that I’m here because whatever else was going on in my life, for many years, the one thing I continued to do was write. I think one definitive point where I actually began to feel somewhat comfortable with my writing was when I stopped saving rejection notices — not the form kind, but the ones with pithy phrases of encouragement, like “Try again” or “Not quite right.” Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, depending on one’s inner fortitude and drive, rejection is part of the life of a writer.

I`m pleased that there are some wise writers in the previous issues of PIF Magazine, writers from which much can be gleaned. In some respects, I wish I had met some of them years before, but then again, I was lucky in my own right to have the influences I did; one, in particular, was a gentle, encouraging teacher at the New School in Manhattan. Luck of the draw, no great thought, I somehow forced myself out of hiding to take a writing workshop, my first ever, and I selected one at the New School based on the title “Available Light.”

I remember waiting nervously that first night out in the hall, eyeing different individuals as they approached to discern if I could tell which one was Robert Phelps, the teacher of “Available Light.” Finally, a man who turned out to be almost exactly 30 years older than me, with a boyish grin and curly brown hair approached with a stack of papers and entered the classroom.
I didn’t know what to expect, but this was the beginning of my ongoing teacher/writer relationship with Robert Phelps for the next eight years.

The classes at the New School were interesting, if not intimidating, at first. It was not unusual for over 50 people to show up initially, but by halfway through the course, the number was down to a reasonable 12 or 15 who worked well with Robert as a first among equals. Robert was content to let the class move along, calling on people to read stories and then encouraging others to comment, but always slipping in a witty remark of gentle authority to prevent any criticism from getting excessive.

Once, a rather pompous, self-proclaimed intellectual challenged Robert over a story and asked if Robert knew about impressionism. Robert calmly replied, “I have heard impressionism defined and described so many different ways over the years, that I’m sure I can handle yours.”

That was it, a smooth verbal rapier had disarmed Mr. Pomposity, and
I don’t think he even knew it, and I’m not even sure most of the class noticed, but I did, and somehow the conversation moved smoothly over to calling on the next person to read and impressionism was never mentioned again for the rest of the evening, or any subsequent evening during the workshop.

“Why do you think we write?” Phelps once asked me during a one-on-one conference in the cafeteria at the New School.

I suppose, though I can’t remember exactly what I said, that
I rambled on about truth and meaning and whatever one tries to discern out of life and the human experience.

Phelps smiled, raised his head across the table from me, and simply said, “We write cause we’re scared shitless.”

I wasn’t part of the flock constantly hovering around Robert, but for some reason he took me under his wing, calling me, “Junior,” and looking at me with concerned empathy whenever I mentioned my father, who was a renowned psychiatrist. At the time, I didn’t know that Robert was one of the few in the early 50s who didn’t regard psychiatrists as the Gods of the mind, far from it.

There were many things I didn’t know about Robert, things I learned from others, because Robert was either too private or too modest, or just didn’t think much was served by talking about himself. He did have curiosity, though. I remember how amazed he was at Russian writer Isaac Babel, telling me a story once about how Babel paid someone just to see what was in her purse.

Robert’s workshops at the New School served as quite an education for me. Generally, the members of the workshop were older, in their late thirties or forties, a few in their fifties or even sixties, and I was one of the youngest at twenty-six. Although the writing wasn’t that good, especially compared to those I was in a graduate MFA program with a year or so later, the stories were interesting, most of the stories coming out of specific experience and life, sometimes maybe being the one obsessive story or theme that someone had to get out. Most weren’t anywhere close to being publishable, of course, but that wasn’t the point. The person writing each story had something to say and Robert was there to encourage them on to say it in the best way they could. Never explain, never complain, the work was the work, now let’s go out for a beer.

Robert’s generosity was amazing. He was a wise elder statesman of literature, though he rarely to never spoke about his own specific personal experiences, or his own writing for that matter. He introduced me to the writings of Colette, though not by promoting his own work, which included serving as editor for Earthy Paradise: Colette’s Autobiography Drawn From Her Lifetime Writings, as well as editing and writing an introduction to The Collected Stories of Colette. As a member of his workshop, I, of course, wanted to know about him, so I searched out his work.

In his introduction to her collected stories, Phelps writes, “As always in Colette’s world, the subject matter avoids any political or metaphysical themes and remains firmly implanted in the private life.” And that’s what Robert was interested in, the private life, not so much his own, but that of others, the tidbits and anecdotes learned through a mixture of curiosity and gossip. Colette, the great observer, as was Phelps, who continued in his introduction, “Essentially, Colette was a lyric poet, and her basic subject matter was not the world she described so reverently but the drama of her personal relation to the world.”

A few years ago, I chanced upon a book, New York in the 50s, by Dan Wakefield, author of the best selling novels Going All the Way and Starting Over, as well as the novel Under the Apple Tree.
I checked the index and was excited when I saw the name Phelps, Robert.
I quickly turned to that section of the book, read Wakefield’s experiences with my workshop teacher and promptly bought New York in the 50s, reading it in two sittings.

Robert was about 10 years older than Wakefield and they met at Yaddo, the writers’ and artists’ colony, during the summer of 1959. Wakefield began calling Robert “Uncle Bobby.” Like Wakefield, I learned things about Robert from other people; that he had written a novel, Heroes and Orators, which was not well received, in large part because of his protagonist’s homosexuality, but some considered the book worthy of high praise and regarded it as perhaps the most neglected novel of the 50s. I also learned that Robert had co-founded Grove Press, which became one of the most avant-garde publishers in America, though Robert sold the company to the son of a wealthy banker from Chicago after publishing just three books.

Reading Wakefield’s account of Phelps, he certainly captured the memory of the man who first guided me in a writing workshop to perfection. Robert’s curiosity, his interest in astrology — in fact, at the beginning of each workshop, he asked everyone to fill out a file card with their names and birth date. I wonder what Robert thought when he saw my birthday was two days after his. I also learned from reading New York in the 50 that the apartment Robert lived in on East 12th Street when I met him had originally been Dan Wakefield’s. In 1964, Dan turned it over to Robert before heading north, eventually to Boston, and stated that Robert “magically transformed it from a bare, dusty, cluttered Village pad to a warm, bright, book-lined haven that surely would have pleased Henry James.”

Wakefield caught Robert’s character completely when he wrote, “Friends flocked to Robert not only for literary advice and counsel but for personal aid and comfort. He was a kind of an unassuming guru whose wisdom and warmth drew people to him instinctively.”

Robert’s literary knowledge was immense. He was considered an expert on Colette, of course, but he also edited Cocteau’s diaries, as well as the criticism of poet Louise Bogan and the Letters of James Agee to Father Flye, Agee’s former teacher, mentor and friend. And finally, for a grand encore, Robert edited the journals of Glenway Wescott, published posthumously, which record several of his literary and artistic friendships, as well as an intimate look into the life of a gay male, best known for his novels The Pilgrim Hawk and Apartment in Athens.

I was aware that Robert knew James Agee, but it was through Wakefield’s New York in the 50s that I learned of Robert’s major editorial contribution to Agee’s posthumous novel, A Death in the Family, which won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1958. Apparently, it had been Robert who came up with the ingenious idea of beginning A Death in the Family with Agee’s lyrical essay called “Knoxville, Summer, 1915”. Wakefield writes, “That lyrical piece established the mood and spirit of the whole work on a different plane, a more universal level of experience,” and he’s absolutely right.

I was pretty sure I’d get a response if I could find a way to locate Wakefield. I did a search and found his e-mail, and then zipped a message off with Robert Phelps in the subject line. Wakefield responded within 24 hours and the next day I was on the phone with him sharing our memories of Robert Phelps.

Wakefield told me that James Salter wrote a lengthy piece of Robert in his memoir, called a recollection, Burning the Days, which I instantly bought. Yes, it was clear Salter knew Robert well and I learned more personal information about Robert, which he never mentioned about his childhood and upbringing. I knew he was originally from Ohio, and at one point he attended Oberlin College, but that was about it as far as his early years until I read Burning the Days.

Salter writes about asking Robert about his years in Cleveland, where he lived briefly, writing obituaries for the Cleveland Press during the summers. Salter persisted and claimed that Robert did know Cleveland, to which Robert responded, as Salter recounts, “I knew certain people who died in the forties,” and that was all he had to say. As I read Robert’s quote in Salter’s book, I could hear Robert’s voice clearly saying those words.

Robert Phelps died of cancer of the colon during the summer of 1989. I learned about it when I read an obituary in the New York Times, which also ran his photo. The headline at the top left hand corner of the page read, “Robert Phelps, Writer Who Edited Colette and Cocteau, Dies at 66.”

I was sad but not surprised. I had last seen Robert the year before when he attended a play in the Village in which one of his devoted fans who took his workshop at the New School semester after semester, though she wasn’t a writer and simply loved Robert, was in the cast. A core group of about eight of us attended, and it was a struggle for Robert who had been suffering from the increasing debilitating affects of Parkinson’s disease since I’d first met him, when his hand already had a slight tremor. In fact, that night, saddened at his weakened state, though his mind was alert as always, a friend and
I pretty much had to carry him out of the theater to a car after the play was over.

Once again, in Burning the Days, Salter captures Phelps’s final descent, writing, “The long, fluttering hand, it’s helplessness becoming worse over the years could no longer write. It was Parkinson’s disease, he knew or at least said, the result of rage, self-condemnation, and self-betrayal, in the end fatal. I could barely hear his voice, a whisper leached away by illness.”

I have interviewed Dan Wakefield and eventually met him in the East Village, where he was with David Amram, an extraordinary musician who has just published a book, Offbeat: Nine Lives of a Cat, to see the screening of a documentary based on New York in the 50s, which is now out of print.

If not for Robert Phelps, I wouldn’t have met Dan Wakefield, and
I would not be able to write that PIF Press, in collaboration with Greenpoint Press, and Charles Salzberg, is republishing New York in the 50s. And so the literary baton continues to be passed, from Robert Phelps to Dan Wakefield, and then on to me, and now, I hope, through the republication of New York in the 50s, to many, many more writers just starting out or already well along in their journey.