I heard John Aldridge speak only once. It was in 1956, during the spring of my freshman year in college, when he delivered a major address on the role of the writer in the university at an American literature conference held at Bowdoin. Renowned as a critic, though still young, Aldridge was an imposing figure. Looking more like a Southern aristocrat than a literary critic (born in Sioux City, Iowa, he’d grown up and gone to school in the South before graduating from Berkeley), Aldridge was tall and well built, dressed in a beautifully tailored dark blue suit. His hair was long for the time, though well cut, and he smoked a pipe constantly during the discussion period. Actually, I heard him speak twice that weekend because he also delivered a paper on Robert Frost during a session on the poet, a brilliant essay that advanced a reading of Frost's enigmatic poem "Neither Out Far Nor In Deep" that was so complex and densely argued that I missed its point entirely, though other scholars attending the conference challenged its premises during the often contentious discussion that followed.
But it was Aldridge’s keynote address on the growing phenomenon of creative writers—novelists and poets—as college and university teachers, and the rise of graduate writing programs, that forced me to confront an issue I had never considered before, especially since I myself had, that past year, begun to dream about becoming a writer with the expectation that I would also be teaching.
The substance of Aldridge’s presentation, based on two of his most important and controversial essays, “The Young Writer in America,” and “The Writer in the University,” was that academic life was no place for a creative writer. Not only was the teaching of literature counterproductive for a writer, who hoped to produce imaginative work of any originality or distinction, the life itself—faculty parties, departmental meetings, the seemingly endless grading of student papers, and the intellectual careerism—was deadening, he argued. Aldridge himself was a teacher. At that time he was an associate professor in the English department at the
. He had also taught at Princeton, and he would continue to teach, beginning a long career, in 1964, at the University of Vermont University of Michigan at that would last until his retirement, in 1990. But, as he later wrote about his own teaching, “I do not see that any purpose is served in attempting to make a virtue of the necessity which impelled me to teaching, nor in remaining blind to the many dangers inhering in it for the writer.” Ann Arbor
Aldridge continued: “I am specifically concerned with the tendency now rapidly accelerating in the intellectual world to endow the university with creative powers and advantages which it cannot and does not possess, and I am particularly opposed to the development which has made the university the seat of literary politics and power in our time and which has transformed so many of our younger intellectuals into university apologists and literary politicians.”
Aldridge wrote these words in 1956, shortly before his Bowdoin address. They also formed the core of the presentation I heard. I needn’t point out how prophetic they have become to readers with any knowledge or understanding of academic life or literary politics today, when writing programs are centers of power and their faculties and graduates produce most of what’s published today as literary fiction and poetry.
All this was new to me as an eighteen-year-old with literary aspirations. But when Aldridge set the text of his talk back down on the lectern, looked out over the audience, and said, in effect, that if there were any aspiring writers among the students in the hall they shouldn’t be listening to him, they should be on the first train out of Brunswick, I was stunned.
“You will not learn how to write by first studying the writing of others,” he said. “That can come later—most good writers do it on their own anyway.” “What is primary,” he insisted, is that the young writer gain “a fund of experience in the world outside of the academy.” He didn’t say “real world.” It was not a term used then. Travel the country, Aldridge advised, like Jack London, Dreiser and Hemingway; take a series of jobs; do manual labor; work for a newspaper. Get the feel of the country. Come to know a diversity of people, men and women you will never meet in college. “Saturate yourself in the particulars of daily life—that’s where art comes from,” not from “an artificial environment,” like the university, where, Aldridge insisted, “more ideas are conceived than are ever put to use,” and “more passions are analyzed than are ever felt.”
As for those writers who were already teaching, Aldridge warned: “Remain here at your own risk and the integrity of your work, if not of your lives.” Writing and teaching about writing or literature were mutually exclusive practices, he concluded.
I left Aldridge’s talk reeling. A friend, with whom I had published in the college literary magazine, dropped out immediately and hitchhiked to New York, where he got a job and began living and writing in the Village, subsequently producing a remarkable series of plays. Another classmate left in June, heading for
, from which he sent me some poetry that made what had been published in our undergraduate magazine seem the merest imitation. Overhearing my own writing teacher, novelist Stephen Minot, in discussion with Aldridge and speaking with Steve later, I realized the impact Aldridge’s talk had on him. “It forced me to re-think my own choices,” Steve said. San Francisco
I finished college, largely because I was afraid not to. I think it was also because I couldn’t bear to disappoint my parents. But my deepest wish had been to drop out, to travel across the country with my friend Mark Power, who’d gone ahead to
, and begin the living Aldridge posited as the primary consideration for a writer. I finished college and I went to graduate school, two in fact, though I was never a committed scholar and I always felt that writing was the principal focus of my life. Yet, as I struggled with remaining in school, I returned often to that warning Aldridge had issued to hopeful writers and to the books he’d written, which advanced and deepened his own critical thinking about writing, its making and function. San Francisco
Until I’d heard Aldridge speak, I hadn’t read much literary criticism or even thought about it as a separate genre. I began by reading two books by Aldridge that had recently been published, After the Lost Generation (1951) and In Search of Heresy: American Literature in an Age of Conformity (1956). I can’t begin to describe the impact of those books on me. In fact, it can be said that if anything helped me ultimately decide to become a writer it was reading Aldridge, who had written so poignantly about what it meant to be an American writer, first in Paris in the 1920s, when he focused on Hemingway, Fitzgerald and other members of the Lost Generation, and then in post-war America, in his no less powerful chapters on Norman Mailer, John Horne Burns, Vance Bourjaily and Gore Vidal. Aldridge gave me American writing as it was then being practiced, more directly than from any course I might have taken; and he also gave me the first means I had of evaluating that writing beyond the narrow New Critical precepts that were built into our English instruction. After reading Aldridge I went on to read Malcolm Cowley’s Exile’s Return, his first-hand report on the Lost Generation, and then Cowley’s The Literary Situation, about writing and publishing at mid-century. From Cowley I moved on to read Edmund Wilson’s literary criticism (it would be some years before I found To the Finland Station and Patriotic Gore) and Alfred Kazin's seminal study of American prose, On Native Grounds. By sophomore year I had begun to read formal criticism of a more academic nature in my literature courses; and then I took a year-long seminar from Lawrence Sargent Hall in the theory and practice of criticism. But it was Aldridge who got me started, and I have been reading criticism ever since, not only for what I can learn from it about writing, but also because I find the best criticism incredibly stimulating on a purely intellectual level.
I bought and read every one of Aldridge’s subsequent books, and there were many, including, A Time to Murder and Create: The Contemporary Novel in Crisis (1966), The American Novel and the Way We Live Now (1983), and Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction (1992). There were further collections of his critical essays, Classics and Contemporaries (1992) and The Devil in the Fire: Retrospective Essays on American Literature and Culture, 1951-1971 (1972), an omnibus of his career. Aldridge even published a novel, The Party at Cranton (1960), which was coruscating in its criticism of academic life, especially English departments. He also published a book of social criticism, In the Country of the Young (1970), an attack on the inherent anti-intellectualism of the growing youth culture of the 1960s, which I disagreed with at the time, but have since come to appreciate for its prescience, the same clairvoyance that obtained in Aldridge’s essays about the danger of academic life for the creative writer.
As Aldridge aged his focus narrowed, as one might expect. Just as he had called for “heresy” in 1956 and when it arrived in the persons and work of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs he didn’t like it, Aldridge later rejected the fiction of Raymond Carver, who, like Hemingway before him, had given new voice and form to the American short story. Yet it was thrilling to see how Aldridge penetrated the stilted preciosity of John Updike’s prose and over-determined plots and the pseudo-portentousness of William Styron's "big" late novels, while being among the few critics to have understood the kinds of risks Norman Mailer was taking in books like An American Dream and Armies of the Night.
It is said that Aldridge was working on a memoir—he called it “a literary biography”— before his death, in
, on February 7, 2007. I once saw a chapter about his early life and family in The American Scholar and found it hauntingly beautiful ("Hostages to Fortune": A Memoir," The American Scholar, Vol. 58, No. 1, Winter 1989). I’m posting this essay in part because, aside from a death notice in the June 2007 newsletter of the Hopwood Writing Awards program at the Madison, Georgia , which Aldridge once directed, I was unable to find an obituary for him anywhere on the Internet, though I can’t imagine a writer and critic of his importance not having been memorialized. I’ve also written these words of tribute because had it not been for hearing John Aldridge speak in 1956, and having then discovered his books, I would not be writing today. I would probably not be the person I am either. University of Michigan