Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thomas Eagleton, the Summer of 1972, and Me

In a Nutshell: A story about Thomas Eagleton on NPR reminds me of what I was doing in the summer of 1972, a bittersweet and melancholy summer that in some ways set the tone for the rest of my life.

I was just listening to a story on NPR's On the Media about the Thomas Eagleton affair, during the presidential election campaign of 1972, when democratic candidate George McGovern chose Eagleton, a senator from Missouri, as his running mate without knowing that Eagleton had undergone electroshock therapy for depression on several occasions in the 1960s. When a tipster alerted both the media and the campaign, the campaign went public with the story; Eagleton of course withdrew from the race, and he was replaced on the ticket by Sargent Shriver. And, of course, the McGovern-Shriver ticket went down in a landslide reelection victory for President Richard M. Nixon and Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew. Reminiscences about the affair have been in the media this week as Mitt Romney prepares to announce his choice of vice-presidential running mate, and the media consensus seems to be that his main concern is to avoid any potential surprises in the current hyperactive media environment.

But what the story made me think about, perhaps not surprisingly, was myself, forty years ago, in the summer of 1972, when I was eleven years old. My father had just died, on July 7, 1972, at the age of 52, of colon cancer. I lived in a middle-income co-op apartment building in the Luna Park housing complex, in Coney Island, just across the street from the New York Aquarium and the Cyclone Roller Coaster, and of course the boardwalk and the beach. And about a 20-minute walk from the Brighton Beach Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. I was an avid reader in those days, but not a particularly precocious one—that is, I enjoyed juvenile literature, including fantasy and science fiction for young readers. That summer I remember reading books in the Mushroom Planet series, by Eleanor Cameron (1912-1996), including the first book in the series, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, written in 1954. Other titles in the series included Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet (1956), Mr. Bass's Planetoid (1958), A Mystery for Mr. Bass (1960), and Time and Mr. Bass (1967). I can't honestly tell you which or how many of the sequels I read, but I know it was at least one or two, and I enjoyed their escapist fantasy adventure very much, especially under the terrible circumstances of that summer.

I believe that was also the summer that I found the Famous Writers Course books at Nostrand Books, the used bookstore on Brighton Beach Avenue (apparently it had been on Nostrand Avenue in a previous incarnation). In seeking to confirm the title of the series just now, I was surprised to find that the course is still in business. I believe I found only the first four volumes of the six-volume series, Principles of Good Writing (Volumes I and II) and Fiction Writing (Volumes III and IV). I devoured those books. I started writing short stories. I wish I could say that my stories were fabulous and I kept on writing and before long I was publishing in literary journals and beginning a successful fiction writing career. But that's not what happened. I was unfocused. I mostly wrote journal entries rather than stories. I had trouble finishing things that I started. I didn't know what to do with any work that I did happen to finish. I had no connection with other burgeoning writers, of my own age or any age. And even though I went on to have some fabulous English teachers (see my post on Post-Punk Pedagogy for a tribute to some of them), none really encouraged me or nurtured me or mentored me with a view towards publishing my work—in their eyes, I think I was just a sensitive, creative, precocious, very bright little boy who would probably go on to very successful careers in high school and college, go on to study law or medicine, and have a brilliant professional career. I always had difficulty getting the kind of mentorship and support I needed for what I really wanted to do and what I really wanted to be.

Well, I want to go for a run now, so I'm going to put this post aside. I'm not really sure what the point of writing this was, but it was nice to write about something other than the Summer Latin Institute.

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