The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Destroyer of Myths

They must have made an exotic couple, the small, sandy headed Anglo-Celtic boy from Northeast Texas and the tiny, dark-haired, Brooklyn-born Jewish girl---a contrast made doubly odd by the fact that they were on the lam, hiding from the girl's husband and the authorities so she would not lose custody of her three-year-old daughter. Exotic or not, it was a match that would last until his death some forty-odd years later.

William Humphrey was born in Clarksville, the seat of Red River County Texas, on June 18, 1924 and died on August 20, 1997. He studied at both Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas in Austin, but never completed a degree at either institution. He left Texas for good in 1944 and made his home in Hudson, New York, for the bulk of his remaining years. He taught for a decade and a half at Bard College where he mentored several well known playwrights. The author of thirteen books, one of which was nominated for a National Book Award, he is considered both a minor novelist and a "mere" regionalist. He was neither, facts that he realized and which led, understandably, to some bitterness on his part.

The major event in his life was the death of his larger-than-life father when he was thirteen. According to Humphrey, his mother awakened him in the middle of the night with the news, thus beginning what he called "an anguish that would never end." It was also the end of his peaceful, bucolic life in East Texas. A month later the small family moved to Dallas. Humphrey did not return to Clarksville even for a short visit for thirty-two years. Nevertheless, critics have noted that while he spent the bulk of his life in the North with occasional year-long sojourns in Europe, the creative core of his work was firmly rooted in the first thirteen years of his life and in the social patterns and rituals of Northeast Texas, which is culturally very much a part of the South. In a letter dated 9 August, 1958 he said, "I think of myself as a southerner, my characters as southerners, not westerners, and this is what one can expect to find in Clarksville."

At college he became enamored of the German language, applied himself quite diligently to its study, and grew quite fluent. In the early 1940s, at the insistence of friends, he made his one and only visit to a nightclub, where he was thoroughly out of place. But the evening was redeemed when he recognized the great German novelist Thomas Mann, winner of the 1929 Nobel Prize, who was also less than enchanted with his surroundings. Humphrey approached Mann, was invited to sit at his table, and the pair engaged in an animated two-hour conversation from which they both emerged happy and more than a little drunk.

While still an unpublished young writer, he was helped by Texas novelist Katherine Ann Porter, who became a close friend. One annoyance he mentioned often was that critics frequently compared him to Faulkner. Humphrey was fond of pointing out that both he and the great Mississippi novelist had been born into the small town Southern cotton culture only three hundred miles and a few years apart in time, and that it was no miracle that they would write about some of the same things.

His first novel, Home From The Hill, which was his best and most successful book, was made into a film and released in 1960. It was directed by Vincente Minnelli and starred Robert Mitchum, Eleanor Parker, George Peppard, George Hamilton, Everett Sloane, and Luana Patten. As one might expect from Hollywood, several changes are made to the plotline and the story is given a happy ending. However, the thing was filmed in the Clarksville area, and is well worth watching.

Next came The Ordways, which was less successful. In the decades to come he would write some of the finest short stories to ever flow from the pen of an American author, yet the recognition that he craved eluded him and his bitterness grew as the years sped by.

Something of a malcontent, he was known to have a prickly temperament. Early in his career, his work was actually solicited by a famous editor at The New Yorker---no mean complement for a young writer. However, the editor made the mistake of writing to Humphrey that, "We would like to add you to our stable." Humphrey sent back a one sentence reply: "I am not a horse." Luckily for both, this breach was repaired and several of his better stories would eventually appear in that prestigious journal. A decade or so later, his editor on Home From The Hill marked a sentence and said, "This sticks out like a sore thumb." Humphrey replied, "I told you that when you put it in there, you idiot!!"

Humphrey saw himself as a destroyer of myths---the myth of the hunter, the myth of the frontier, the myth of the Southern aristocrat. If there was any myth that ran like a thread through the whole corpus of his work, it is the myth of community. According to Ashby Bland Crowder, his literary biographer, the true themes are are isolation and suffering: "Humphrey writes about pain. That he does it in prose of great beauty does not mute the impact." He goes on to say:

"The fate that Humphrey's characters face over and over again is that they must live with great loss. In one way or another they lose someone or something that they value greatly---a father, a son, a brother, a wife, a friend, God, confidence, integrity, authenticity, freedom, respect, home. Whatever the loss, 'the grieving heart grieves all alone, in unabridgeable isolation.'"

Humphrey was a reclusive and intensely private person. Even his death is shrouded in some degree of mystery. The cause of his passing has been given variously as cancer, the ravages of alcoholism, and heart failure. A tiny man, when he breathed his last on August 20, 1997 he was reputed to have weighed only 77 pounds.

Yet one wonders. Despite his rejection of the "myth of community," he was buried, at his own insistence, in a plot he had bought years earlier for his wife and himself in the Clarksville City Cemetery. It was, he said, his desire to "lie in peace near the old Hanging Tree and hear the courthouse clock strike the hour until the coming of Judgment Day." The prodigal son had come home at last.

Note: much is available about Humphrey on the web, and I firmly expect his critical stock to rise. If you have not read him, you should. "Home From The Hill" is a good place to start. And do not forget some of his exquisitely-crafted short stories.