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WHAT IS REMEMBERED

Jim Burns 

Over forty years ago I was looking through the cheap paperbacks and other publications in a seedy backstreet bookshop and came across a copy of Swank, an American men's magazine as they used to be called. Some people used the term girlie magazine, but in those days of censorship you didn't get to see too much of the girls and the magazines filled their pages with all sorts of material, including articles and stories by well-known writers. Swank even let Seymour Krim, a lively New York critic and essayist, edit several sections of poetry and prose of the kind that would normally be in literary journals. And it was in Swank that I read an article by Elmer Grossberg that intrigued me. It was a reflection on returning to America after more than seven years in Europe to find that things had changed beyond recognition and that there didn't seem to be a place for the outsider. And Grossberg clearly thought that was what he had become.

I liked Veterans Without Administration. It was honest and had a slightly bemused air and it said a great deal in a short space about someone who had grown up during the Depression, been conscripted in the 1940s, became an expatriate after that, and hadn't realised how the affluence of the 1950s had affected his homeland. As it said: "The philistine had snapped up culture as her new fetish. A pagan at heart this was her latest adornment, her most recent golden calf of pleasure. It went well with glittering cars, TV and Hi-Fi sets, framed prints, wall-to-wall bookshelves. And all for pleasure. What art did not transmit easily and comfortably through lulled senses was repudiated, unless, like Picasso and Bartok and James Joyce, it was fashionable." And for a man who had scuffled and lived the bohemian life in Paris and elsewhere, it was strange to find that "the artist had prospered and was now respectable." There were great opportunities, if the artist could "tailor himself to suit them", and "foundations, grants, fellowships", if you knew how to cultivate those in control.

A brief note with Grossberg's article said that he'd published his first and only novel, Farewell, My Son, in 1946 ( the issue of Swank was dated May 1961), and I made a mental note of the title and over the years kept an eye out for it as I disturbed the dust in second-hand bookshops. I didn't find the book but I did come across a copy of Reginald Moore's splendid Modern Reading, published in 1944, and it included a story by Grossberg. Black Boy's Good Time was a brutal tale of a young Negro who is accused of stealing a car, beaten up in the cells, and then released when the police catch the real thief. The sheriff warns the boy not to say anything about what happened to him and then treats him to an ice-cream and a free visit to the cinema. That's the good time referred to in the title.

Another find in a second-hand bookshop, an American edition of the O’Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1943, had the same story and with it a note saying that it had originally been published in Esquire. It also said Grossberg had been born in New York in 1925, that his father had died when Grossberg was eight, and that he was a student at Brooklyn College. His favourite writers were John Steinbeck, William Saroyan and Sholem Aleichem.

The trail went cold after that, though I have to admit I didn't follow it too intently. I still looked for Farewell, My Son in London and Glasgow and Jersey and anywhere else I happened to be, but it didn't seem important to pay the kind of prices that book-search specialists charged. I've always had the feeling that books are often best appreciated when they're discovered in a place where you didn't expect to find them. I never thought I'd come across Speed The Plough, a 1923 collection of short stories by Mary Butts, on a barrow bookstall in a side-street in Liverpool, nor a copy of Albert Halper's The Chute on a shelf in a shop in Stockport, and Granville Hicks' Only One Storm in an arcade in Cardiff. But I did and I expected that Elmer Grossberg's novel would turn up somewhere along the line.

It never did though,  until  the days  of the Internet dawned and a friend told me with an excited gleam in his eye that just about everything was now available. All you had to do was tap in a few details and booksellers all over the world would respond with offers of any book you wanted. No more kneeling in corners hunting through piles of grubby novels, no more straining to see what the faded titles on the top shelf are. And the friend did tap in the details and got me a copy of Farewell, My Son. "It was easy," he said, and the old Puritan in me wondered whether things that come easily are always properly appreciated. "Ah," my friend scoffed, "you're still hooked on the romance of hunting for books in unusual places. You can still have that by contacting booksellers in Canada or Australia or Finland." All I could think was that I'd like to actually go to those bookshops to see what I could find by chance. But it seemed churlish to tell my friend that. He also told me it was possible I'd be able to find out more about Elmer Grossberg through the Internet. But I wasn't sure I wanted to know more about him, apart from perhaps finding out if he'd published any other novels. And even that was just curiosity rather than a desire to read them. I've never been addicted to the idea of knowing everything about a writer or even reading everything they wrote. But, for the record, a few taps on the keyboard and nothing else came up other than a book about Castro and Cuba that Grossberg seems to have co-authored in 1961. And that didn't interest me.

Was Farewell, My Son worth waiting forty or so years to read? I think so, though it isn't a masterpiece. It's very much of its time, the late-1930s and early-1940s, and uses an open, emotive style to tell its story. And the story is important, just as stories were important to Steinbeck and Saroyan and other novelists of the period. I'd guess there's an autobiographical element in it, which isn't surprising for a young writer's first novel, and it's about growing up in New York in a fatherless family which is befriended by a strange old man, Polk, who encourages Rudy, the young son, to develop his interest in playing -the piano and extending his outlook beyond the immediate. Polk is often ridiculed by members of the family for his pretensions but Rudy humours him and eventually finds out about the real Polk behind the shabbiness and failed attempts at sophistication. Folk's story is that of the immigrant arriving in America to find it's not the land of milk and honey and jobs aren't easy to come by. Rich men have the police on their side and poor men fight each other for work. Polk gets involved in strikes and demonstrations and is in and out of prison. And he joins the Communist Party. He's a front-line activist and in the Party from its early days, but as it grows in size and influence the middle-class members take over and make all the decisions. Polk realises he's thought of as expendable and good only for contributing money or standing on picket lines. And he notes the rise in personal animosities between Party members and the increase in factional fighting as the intellectuals move in. One wonders whether or not Grossberg had some sort of involvement with the Communist Party when he was young ? His novel does paint a vivid picture of aspects of radical history.

There is an emotional drive to Farewell, My Son which is, as I mentioned earlier, very much of its time. And I was reminded of almost-forgotten writers like Pietro di Donate (Christ in Concrete, 1939) and Michael De Capite (No Bright Banner, 1944) who weren't afraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves, I doubt they're much read these days and would be seen as unsophisticated both for what they wrote and how they wrote about it. But I suppose they thought there was a world to win and how many people think that way now?

So, here I am, and on the desk is a copy of Farewell, My Son, together with Modern Reading, the O’Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1943, and the Swank that started it all off. All of them a bit worn and frayed at the edges and the pulp paper that Swank was printed on cracks and crumbles as the years pass. But there is something reassuring about old books and magazines. They show that the past survives, especially in an age when a kind of wilful amnesia seems to be the norm. And what I have here is virtually all I know about Elmer Grossberg and really all I want know. A novel, a short story and an article. At the end of the day the work is all a writer needs to be remembered by.