A Question & Answer with Burton Raffel
Author of the Novel, Yankee Doric: America Before the Civil War
Interview conducted with Tita F. Baumlin, Moon City Press contributing editor
TB: Throughout your career, you’ve been known as a poet, translator, and editor. Is the novel a new interest, or has fiction writing always been in your blood?
BR: In fact, I was first known as a writer of short fiction: I had the lead entry, and 100 pages of fiction, in Short Story 3 (Scribner’s, 1960). And perhaps because my agent, Candida Donadio (now deceased), was at that time one of the leading agents in New York, I was prominently featured in L. Rust Hills’ then infamously famous illustrated diagram on “The Structure of the American Literary Establishment” in Esquire’s 1963 issue. This “chart,” which was splashed on the page, started bright red in the center and paled out as it expanded (and lessened in importance). Hills organized these listings by the agents’ names, under which their chief clients were listed. Candida was then the agent for Phillip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and five others, one of whom was “Burt Raffel.” Me. One early novel, unpublished as yet, but very much approved by my current agent, Donald Gastwirth, is entitled The Importance of Being Ernest, and I wrote most of it in 1949-1950.
TB: Besides writing, you have lived a professor’s nomadic life, teaching in universities in New York State, Colorado, Israel, Indonesia and, finally, Louisiana. And yet, having earned a J.D. from Yale, you had at first meant to follow in your lawyer-father’s footsteps. Did you come from a literate family?
BR: I decided to go to law school when my two-year post as a teacher in the Ford Foundation’s English Language Teacher Training Program, in Indonesia, was coming to an end. I had a wife, two very small children, and an M.A. in English. (I had abandoned the PhD program, on principle, about two-thirds of the way). That would not work. One day, as I was leafing through a copy of my father’s second law book, which I had edited and cleaned up for him (he punctuated, e.g., according to the Elizabethan translation of the Bible), I found myself reading with interest. So I applied to Yale, Harvard, and Columbia law schools, was accepted by all three, and chose Yale. Harvard wrote me a rather whiney letter, complaining that I had actually refused them.
Yes, my father read widely, but mostly in Biblical matters, and often in other languages, largely Hebrew, Russian, etc. My brother who attended Brooklyn College (at that time free for smart kids) read widely. But in literary matters, I had I think out-read them both by the time I entered high school.
TB: Yankee Doric is your first published novel, though you have other manuscripts in the works. Is historical fiction of special importance to you? Do you tend to weave history with fiction?
BR: I do what I always have urged upon my students: I follow my nose. Yankee Doric comes from a period, some thirty-odd years ago, when I was both teaching American literature and filling all the gaps of historical and cultural knowledge from which I suffered, having studied to be either a medievalist or a teacher of comparative literature. El Presidente, the first of my flood novels, is set in Liberia, where I have never been and about which, when I made the decision, I knew only a very little. I spent $200 on a batch of used books, and made myself a sort of expert.
TB: Your book’s complete title is Yankee Doric: America Before the Civil War. How familiar will the novel’s historic time frame be to general readers? What do they need to know, in order to read your novel well?
BR: A novel is not the place for historical scholarship. But every single fact in the book is grounded in well-established knowledge. I have tried to highlight this by setting a brief quotation from the letters of Daniel Webster at the head of each chapter. I have also made use of a good many actual persons: they did not actually say what I put in their mouths, of course, because the people to whom they say them, in my book, never existed. But I have tried very hard to catch their style, their sensibility, and their actual writing and speech.
TB: What research went into the writing?
BR: The research was, in a word, enormous—but, as I noted above, it was not mostly done because of the novel. Rather, it was because I wanted truly to know the period about which I was teaching. When, for example, I had the leading character come into contact with, and be employed by, maritime shipping, I based his work on what I had already learned from other volumes. When, however, I had to deal with highly specific matters—like what was in those ships, in what quantities, etc.—I went back to the books I had already read and scoured their pages for cargo lists. Everything that I mention as cargo was in fact cargo.
TB: Your novel is about two generations of the Bingham family: the elders, Doctor Bingham and his wife Marie, and their three children, Theodore, Anne-Marie, and Jonathan. From one angle, the novel follows the careers of Theodore and Jonathan, who both interact with many of the political luminaries of their time. From another angle, it is a deeply character-driven novel that explores the conflicts, both political and personal, between parents and children, between husbands and wives, between siblings, between friends. How would you describe this book to a reader deciding whether or not to open its pages?
BR: What I tried to do, in this longest of all my novels, was to characterize the actual run-up to a giant historic event, still perhaps the largest ever. I have tried to make my characters, North and South, both historically absolutely real and at the same time of fictive interest. I wanted the people of my time to understand not all the arguments, pro and con, about the Civil War, but how it felt to be feeling them in real time. Jonathan Bingham wanted to be a poet, and I have written him some historically accurate verse. But human beings don't live according to their own specifications. Human time means feeling the pressures and also the vacancies of a particular era, in particular places, and in the particular human beings who, to my mind, best represent how it happened that a sprawling, modest, relatively honest young republic fought itself into the driving behemoth that the U.S. has become, in our post-Civil War existence. The U.S. after the Civil War was immediately, and well-recognized, to have experienced a drastic and unchangeable new existence. I take no stance in this novel. My purpose is to re-experience our slow, then faster and faster fall into Civil War.
TB: I find this book especially appealing in the strong female characters that you’ve created. I don’t know if you’d call yourself a “feminist” author, but I think that I would. How do you respond to this proposition, in relation to this novel?
BR: I have always been a highly vocal feminist. It happened to me in the 1930s, when I was a small boy growing up, as slowly as we all do. Mine was an immigrant Russian Jewish family; we observed many of the most important Jewish holidays by convening, from time to time, at the home of one of our families. All the boys were set free to play, outside or in (the grownups preferred that we be outside), while festive preparations were being made. Girls, however, were all set to work, for hours and hours, on peeling potatoes, washing dishes, etc. We could see them through the windows; they could see, and they enviously watched, us. This seemed to me absolutely an unearned set of punishments on all my cousins who were female. I was really furious, and completely helpless. I can recall trying to sneak a girl or two out into the yard, and how I was calmly squelched—not punished. But the girls were scolded!
TB: This novel has a great geographical sweep. Can we say that “place” is a theme here?
BR: Oh yes! There is no accident to this geographical spread; indeed, I very deliberately constructed it, so as to indicate the actual spread both of our country and, in many cases, of our citizens working or traveling in foreign lands. These scenes, which occupy a good bit of the book, are designed to show not simply how Americans experienced foreign ways, but also how different the rest of the world then was (and still is) from our land and the social structures we live on it. I intended the death of Jonathan's father, in horrible areas of the Middle East, to sharply highlight the range of those differing social structures. Americans, I was trying to indicate, don't live only on our prosperous native lands, nor can we opt ourselves away from those other regions and their very, very different ways.
TB: Without giving away any plot “spoilers,” what would you say is the novel's great crisis?
BR: To me, anyway, the novel’s crisis has always been the death of Jonathan’s musician sister. Instead of making a musical existence, this superbly talented pianist has to become, and to die, a housewife. Her daughter, passionately in love with her uncle Jonathan, moves into the international world of art (as a dancer), and directly contrary to all expectations for women decides not to marry, since the man she so loves will not marry her. This ties directly into Jonathan's belated discovery of his love for the woman who, instead of him, chooses as a husband his dead sister’s widower. This, in its turn, ties him into the highly intense war against slavery, fought all over the land, in pen and ink and in physical actions. He who is not a politician becomes an activist, both as a believer, but even more as a man who wants at least to be near the woman he loves, even though he cannot have her.
TB: We’ve named some aspects of the novel here already. Are there other ways in which you feel the book might appeal to readers? Are there certain readers that you feel might find this book appealing?
BR: I will never forget the picture I had of the house in which I had the Bingham family live (and especially of the front entrance thereto). It was penned up over my writing table, and I squeezed every bit of meaningful detail I could out of it. I did the same thing with old pictures of interiors (which differed regionally), trying to get the feeling of being in those houses, and doing what the people who really did live there had done. This is not a casually historical novel, but a deeply researched and, in the end, loving portrayal of people, places, and events.
TB: Having published more than one hundred books with some of the nation’s most distinguished presses, you likely have some strong views on the current state of American letters. Do you have any observations, admonitions, or words of hope for contemporary readers and writers?
BR: Think: I was born in 1928. T. S. Eliot was still a suspicious “radical” poet. A scholarly book on literary activity in the Connecticut of the 1920s did not so much as mention Wallace Stevens. Ezra Pound was a traitor, a Fascist hireling, a crazy no-good-nik. That was ninety years ago; I am about to turn 82. I cannot help my age, or my dislike for what passes as good writing today, in poetry and in prose. I don't quite belong in the year 2010.
TB: What lies in the immediate future for you? What can readers expect to receive from your pen?
BR: I am whipping through the third of my flood novels, at the rate of about 2,000 words a day. I have a title and a plan for the fourth; I expect when I get into that book, I will start shaping up a fifth one, in my head only. It may be old, but my head still holds rather a lot of things—and there is always space when I need it.
I have collected my poems of the last decade or so in a very large manuscript. The only thing I am even faintly sure of is that I am unlikely to do any more translation. But that has been said by me before, several times, and then along comes a juicy something—and I do it. I have earned a fair amount from some of my work, but very little, or none, from much, even most. I write, as I said above, by following my nose.