July 5, 2005


Literary Warrior: Mark Helprin's fictional marvels and political heterodoxies (Craig Lambert, May/June 2005, Harvard Magazine)

The study looks out onto a rolling 56-acre farm in the Virginia countryside near Charlottesville, not far from Monticello. Bestselling novelist John Grisham resides nearby, but Helprin lives much closer to Thomas Jefferson than to Grisham. Most of the homestead and landscape would fit gracefully into the eighteenth century; Helprin (’69, A.M. ’72) would be comfortable in that time as well and, unlike many contemporary authors, would probably survive. His father and grandfather had farms before him and Helprin does much of the work on his land—“half the time, getting bloodied by the machinery,” he says—where he and his wife, Lisa (Kennedy) Helprin, grow hay and keep a horse and two goats. (Their two daughters—Alexandra is a Harvard sophomore and Olivia will matriculate this fall at Johns Hopkins—focus more on academics than agriculture.)

Rural self-sufficiency is a time hog, but Helprin considers it a good investment. It takes four and a half hours on a John Deere mower to cut his six acres of grass, followed by half an hour of machine maintenance. “I’ve always believed in doing things for myself—it has two advantages,” he says. “First, you save money. Second, you don’t insulate yourself from the world. And there’s the matter of self-reliance: you learn to sail a boat, chop down a tree, build a house, shoot a gun, make a campfire.” Indoors, says Helprin, he fixes everything, too—the washing machine, refrigerator, photocopier, and computer. “Until I was 33 I did lots of different jobs.” he recalls. “Dishwasher, surveyor, day laborer.”

Hence, consistent with his experiences and philosophy, he does not view writing fiction as anything more exalted than, say, felling trees. But many critics place Helprin’s oeuvre on a lofty perch indeed, comparing novels like Winter’s Tale (1983), A Soldier of the Great War (1991), and Memoir from Antproof Case (1995) to the likes of Kafka, Mann, Hemingway, and Tolstoy. In artistic terms, Helprin is the real thing: an immensely talented, dedicated author who aims for the highest literary goals.

His novels have a grand sweep. The magical, romantic Winter’s Tale, set in Manhattan during the Belle Époque, launches its love story when the protagonist, while burglarizing an Upper West Side mansion, discovers the family’s dying daughter at home. In Helprin’s favorite, A Soldier of the Great War, an elderly Italian looks back on his life, particularly his vivid experiences during World War I. Memoir from Antproof Case, told by an American octogenarian living in Brazil, draws us through much of the twentieth century on the wings of fascinating, improbable tales from the narrator’s extravagant life.

Critics have summoned rarely used superlatives for Helprin’s fiction. “I find myself nervous, to a degree I don’t recall in my past as a reviewer,” wrote Benjamin De Mott, “about failing the work [Winter’s Tale], inadequately displaying its brilliance.” Schindler’s List author Thomas Keneally described A Soldier of the Great War as “Vast, ambitious, spiritually lusty, all-guzzling, all-encompassing...in the best traditions of Pasternak.” Readers have heaped comparable praise on Helprin’s short fiction, collected in A Dove of the East, & Other Stories (1975), Ellis Island, & Other Stories (1981), and last year’s The Pacific.

No living authors influence his writing, Helprin says. Instead, his lodestars include Dante, Shakespeare, Melville, Mark Twain. There are indeed echoes of Twain in his new novel, Freddy and Fredericka, due out this summer. It narrates the journey of a wayward British royal couple rusticated to America, where they travel incognito and survive hilarious adventures that read, as the dust jacket has it, “as if de Tocqueville had been rewritten by Mark Twain (with a deep bow to Harpo Marx).”

Helprin is a classicist. He believes in history, tradition, and eternal verities. He values aesthetic symmetries and the literary forms the centuries have passed down to us. To Helprin, the principles of modernism are fatal to art, and he has no truck with the avant-garde. “The avant-garde are frauds,” he bluntly declares. “Modern literature is all cool and detached, even though a lot of modern writers are passionate about their politics. To me, passion should be for literature, and reason and detachment for politics.

“A lot of people hate heroes,” he continues. “I was criticized for portraying people who are brave, honest, loving, intelligent. That was called weak and sentimental. People who dismiss all real emotion as sentimentality are cowards. They’re afraid to commit themselves, and so they remain ‘cool’ for the rest of their lives, until they’re dead—then they’re really cool.”

Literary creation, for Helprin, “always starts with something very small,” he explains. “I can sit down to write a story just by thinking of the first two words of a Scott Fitzgerald story: ‘This Jonquil’—it’s a woman’s name. This always gets me in the mood to write. We create nothing new—no one has ever imagined a new color—so what you are doing is revitalizing. You are remembering, then combining, altering. Artists who think they’re creating new worlds are simply creating tinny versions of this world.

“What comes to me is a diamond, found on the shore of a lake,” he continues. “Not a cut diamond, just the raw stone; it could be the last line of the story or the image of the last line. A poet might pick up that diamond and that will be his poem. But as a writer of prose I pick it up and throw it as far into the lake as possible. And then, perhaps in a zigzag course, go swimming toward it.”

Several years ago NPR read a story of his called Chanukah in the Age of Guys and Dolls that I've never been able to find anywhere but it contains the unforgettable line: "It should not be necessary to explain a praiseworthy revulsion."

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 5, 2005 12:08 PM

The full article mentioned how Helprin practices "straight-line " walking -- traveling on foot point-to-point by going through, under, over, but never around obstacles. Interesting that Teddy Roosevelt had the same hobby and had his children practice it as a character-builder.
Both men share a rare combination of intellectual, physical and moral energy.

Posted by: Jeff Marr at July 5, 2005 3:26 PM