August 13, 1950

A Writer's Quest For a Parnassus


Rome -- Among the many misapprehensions held about writers is the idea that they follow a peaceful profession, an idea that derives from the fact that most writers have a sedentary appearance and that most writing is done in a more or less stationary position, usually seated in a chair at a table. But writing is actually a violent activity. It is actually more violent than any other profession that I can think of, including that of the professional wrestler. And writers, when they are not writing, must find some outer violence that is equivalent, or nearly, to the inner one they are used to. They find it difficult to remain long in one place, for writing books and taking voyages are corresponding gestures.

If the writer is truly a writer and not someone who has adopted the vocation as a convenient social pose to excuse his predilection for various kinds of waywardness, his first concern, when he goes traveling, will be to discover that magic place of all places where the work goes better than it has gone before, the way that a gasoline motor picks up when you switch it from regular to high octane. For one of the mysterious things about writing is the extreme susceptibility it shows to the influence of places. Almost every writer has a certain place that he associates, perhaps through mere superstition, with his periods of greatest fertility. But sooner or later this particular place will be exhausted for him and he must find another.

Often this quest will take him out of America. Often it will take him back to America if he has left there. The interval of seeking may be a long one. It may be six months or a year, or the years may be several, but eventually he will find the new place that looks and feels and smells mysteriously like home, and then he will turn around two or three times in his tracks, the way a dog does, sniffing the air in all directions before he sets himself down for the period of outer oblivion and inner violence that his work demands of him.

British and American writers are more inclined to travel than others. I think the British travel to get out of the rain, but the American artist travels for a more particular reason, and for one that I hesitate to mention lest I be summoned before some investigating committee in Congress. Putting that hesitation at least partially aside, let me venture the suggestion that America is no longer a terribly romantic part of the world, and that writers, all except, possibly, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis, are essentially romantic spirits - or they would not be writing.

Now there are only two cities left in America with a romantic appeal, however vestigial, and they are, of course, New Orleans and San Francisco. Our industrial dynamism has dispelled whatever magic the other great cities may once have possessed. Occasionally an artist may attempt to create a poetic synthesis out of this very dynamism of ours. Hart Crane attempted it, and, in my opinion, he succeeded in it. But one may take warning from the fact that, in spite of his achievement, he jumped off a boat returning to New York from a romantic retreat into Mexico.

Among writers' places there has always been Paris. If you remember the early histories of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Westcott, Stein and so on, you may well have the impression that Paris offers great stimulation to the expatriate American writers. Well, it no longer does. Paris itself has not changed, it is still the most spacious and elegant capital of the world, and there is now a definite upswing of creative activity among the native French: Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, for instance. But the effect on young Americans who go there, ostensibly, to write their first books, is one that appears to be vitiating.

You find these new expatriate writers mostly about the Left Bank district known as St. Germain-des-Pres, sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Caf? de Flore or the Deux Maggots or the Reine Blanche, according to their degree of Bohemianism. And they sit there, literally, from dusk until dawn. At daybreak they disappear with each other into shabby little hotels. They go to bed drunk and they wake up hung over and usually in the company of someone they barely remember meeting who looks much worse in the light of noon than in the blur of an alcoholic dawn. It is mid-afternoon before the company has departed and the typewriter hauled from under the bed. The typewriter, of course, needs repairing. The machine is heavy and the repair shop is far, and presently the whole idea is abandoned and they have repaired, themselves, to the sidewalk tables.

The troublesome question, and the one I find it impossible to answer to my own satisfaction, is whether or not these rootless young people would be better off had they remained in America. Obviously they found something lacking at home, and surely they find something in Paris besides the shopworn sophistication of their caf? circuit. But, whatever it is that they find, it is not a healthy, sustaining center about which their young personalities can form. I did not realize this so keenly when I first knew them in the summer of 1948, but when I came back a year later, and then another year later, and found the same boys and girls sitting on the same sidewalks, circulating among the same changeless cafes, the attritions that they had undergone became starkly evident.

With little effort at cohesion, let's turn sharply south. In Rome there is only one street where people make a social practice of sitting on the sidewalk. That is Via Veneto. It seems, at times, to be given over almost entirely to Americans and street-walkers and boys picking up discarded cigarette-butts. But it's a beautiful street. It winds like an old river among the great hotels and the American Embassy and the fashionable places for Americans to sit in the sun. To some Americans the sun of Rome is stupefying. To others it is merely tranquilizing. To both it is an escape from the feverish, high-pitched atmosphere of a typical urban society.

To me Rome is far more beautiful than Paris. It is not a night city. In Rome there are only two resorts where an American can sit up drinking all night, and I mention that fact because it is entirely relevant. It is what so many Americans seem to want to do in Europe. The two places where they can do it, in Rome, are the Jicky Club and the Caffe Notturno. Most of then go to the Jicky Club, which is on Via Veneto, because it is more like our own American night-spots. The Caffe Notturno is quite another thing. It is where procurers and their ladies get together, about 2 or 3 in the morning to exchange their gossip of the Rialto.

Before I came to Rome I was concerned about the change I feared that the Holy Year might have produced in my favorite city of the world. But in Rome you will find no S.R.O. sign. We came down by way of the Italian Alps and on the road we passed only one set of holy pilgrims. It was a cavalcade of motorcyclists from Holland, and it was headed by a young priest in his clerical garments. No doubt it was the strangest crossing of the Alps since Hannibal and his elephants. I had never before seen a priest on a motorcycle and I must admit that he rode it with dignity and assurance and the look he gave us, as we whizzed past him, was one of grave friendliness.

Rome is actually less crowded than it was last summer. The Vatican has built a lot of new buildings especially for the housing of pilgrims, and that's where they seem to stay. You don't see them in the best restaurants or the interesting worldly places. Since I like to eat well and do not visit churches, I have not seen many of the pilgrims except on the road to Rome.

Rome and Italy cannot be all things to all people, but to me it is the place where I find the sun not only in the sky, where Italy also keeps it, but in the heart of the people. Before I cane here for the first time, in the winter of 1948 - with the fatigue of years suddenly fallen upon me - I had begun to think that a smile was something that people performed by a muscular contraction at the corners of their mouths. In a short while I found out that a smile can be something that happens between the heart and the eyes, and that the muscular spasm about the mouth may be only the shadow of it.

Rome spells peace, which is what I want above all. But it spells it without isolation, which I don't want. I want to have peace in the middle of many people, and here I find it. And I can work here. That's the thing.

If it is not your city - perhaps you'd like Venice. I could not go to Venice, now, without hearing the haunted cadences of Hemingway's new novel. It is the saddest novel in the world about the saddest city, and when I say I think it is the best and most honest work that Hemingway has done, you may think me crazy. It will probably be a popular book. The critics may treat it pretty roughly. But its hauntingly tired cadences are the direct speech of a man's heart who is speaking that directly for the first time, and that makes it, for me, the finest thing Hemingway has done. But the city is sad, to me, as the memory of the deepest loss I could suffer. It seems to be built, the very gray stones of it and the green-gray water, out of a loss that is almost too bitter to still have poetry in it.

Perhaps you might find the Italian islands to be your place to write. You could go to Capri but it is too much of a picture postcard for my taste and it is the only place I know where the human male manages to out-dress the female. Ischia has equally fine bathing at more accessible beaches and the vacationers do not put on such highfalutin airs and outrageous plumage! W.H. Auden lives there, and if you're an American or British writer, you may have to apply to him for your visa.

I have not yet been to Sicily this year. Truman Capote has unfurled his Bronzini scarf above the fashionable resort of Taormina. He is supposedly in D.H. Lawrence's old house. Also there, I am told, is Andr? Gide and the young American writer Donald Windham, whose new novel, "The Dog Star," contains the most sensitive new writing since Carson McCullers emerged ten years ago.

Regardless of where you may go in Europe this summer of 1950, you will find that places have a sadness under the surface. Everywhere the people seem to be waiting for the next cataclysm to strike them. They are not panicky, perhaps not even frightened, but they are waiting for it to happen with a feeling of fatality which you cannot help sensing unless you stay drunk the whole time or keep your nose in museums.

Nevertheless, the people want to survive, they want to keep on living through it, whatever it may be. Their history has made them wiser than Americans. It has also made them more tolerant, more patient and considerably more human as well as a great deal sadder.

If these comments make me seem the opposite of a chauvinist, it is because of my honest feeling, after three years of foreign travel, that human brotherhood that stops at borders is not only delusive and foolish but enormously evil. The Marshall Plan must be translated, now, and amended, into spirit, if the dreaded thing that the Western World is waiting for can still be averted.

Tennessee Williams is one of American's outstanding playwrights. His "A Streetcar Named Desire" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.

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