Of the various ways I read, it is always as a magpie, never programmatically, except for a few times when I depended on an affiliation with some institution of higher learning, a magazine or newspaper, or a publisher. Left on my own, I am everywhere and nowhere, a jackdaw of reading. Invariably books accumulate everywhere I inhabit space, whether next to the bed, in the bathroom, or beside a reading chair or couch. When asked what I am reading, an honest answer would be complex. I am more often than not into ten, twenty, fifty, or even a hundred books at once, particularly if I am writing nonfiction and have the need to check my quotes, facts, or find some passage which singularly verifies my own utterly refined prejudices and tastes. I like to write in books that I own, so that my books rarely are of use to anyone except me and some wayward scholar with an interest in what I do. Herman Melville—just to pull a name out of the air—famously wrote in his Shakespeare tome, and it would become the portal, many years later, into the world of Melvillean scholarship. I often try to imagine the astonishment on the faces of the first Melville scholars who unearthed this author’s treasure trove of insight. Now there was a direct link between Ahab and Lear. My own notes are not as copious as Melville’s or, for that matter, many of my contemporaries, such as David Foster Wallace, or even a more minimalist writer such as playwright David Mamet, a copy of whose marked up volume of Waiting for Godot I happen to possess. An old girlfriend was a close friend of his from high school and years later, when she and I went our separate ways, she walked off with my copy of Godot and I walked away with hers, which was really Mamet’s. I had to introduce him once, and beforehand I mentioned how I had acquired his copy of the Beckett play, offering to get it back to him. But he did not seem at all interested in the volume, so it is still mine, until further notice. I suppose if some library offered to buy it from me for an extravagant sum, I’d part with it. Until then, it remains a part of my library, which is filled with scribbled-on books. But this is about writing in books, not collecting them per se. Writing in books is the habit of a writer, not a general reader.
I have written nonfiction and fiction books and much of what I have read no doubt is reflected in those works. I have been labeled an Irish American writer, but as with most labels, it is misleading. I am also French, Swiss, possibly Italian, English, African-American, and probably native American. My father was the Irishman, but even his own family came from elsewhere before Ireland. I have been told by relatives in Clare and others in London that the Stephenses came from Essex, in the southeast of England, migrated to Northern Ireland and then eventually wended their way to County Clare. I am actually Essex on both sides, my mother’s American family tree going back in the early 17th century to Essex. I did not know either fact when I, a mature learner, as they call it in the UK, undertook to research and write a doctorate at the University of Essex in Wivenhoe. I was in my late fifties, so this was hardly a smart career move, but rather something on a bucket list that I had to do before I died. My books from those years were more scribbled in than ever, particularly ones by the authors whom I assayed for my doctoral manuscript. I have always been a writer looking at the world as an outsider, despite all of my education, including a graduate degree from Yale. Oddly enough, my Yale degree often seemed like an impediment or hindrance to employment, not a door opener. It was best left unsaid. There was a time, when I was teaching creative writing at Princeton, that Joyce Carol Oates talked to me about our working class back grounds. But I could see that the moment she found out that I had a graduate degree from Yale, suddenly my working-class credentials were tarnished. I would respectfully disagree. I could have ten degrees from Yale, and it would not matter one bit. One’s education is not enough to open certain doors, as if the degree were not the thing, but the people you associated with while affiliated with an institution. No Skull and Bones I. This has been a bitter truth for me because, when younger, I believed that by getting a good education, a lot of my financial and work problems would be solved. The one great thing I received from my various strands of education was further self-esteem. To study is a very self-esteemable act, it turns out. Oates is long gone from her working-class roots, but that early experience, like Dickens’ as a boy working in the blacking factory, stayed with her into adulthood, even after a long, illustrious career in literature and a professorship at Princeton. Most of us have these early life experiences which color who we are. I am forever attached to Brooklyn despite failing the two major criteria for defining one’s Brooklyn credentials: I was not born there and I did not go to high school there. But fifteen of my siblings were born there, my parents and grandparents lived there, and so did I as a young child, returning often to stay at my grandmother’s place in Bedford-Stuyvesant or my other relatives in Flatbush. My mother’s family traces its origins to the earliest days in Brooklyn. My father, though Irish, came to Brooklyn quite young, and was orphaned on its streets after his mother died and his father disappeared. He became a pool shark to survive. I have a Brooklyn attitude, which really means a chip on my shoulder. I have tried, as an adult, to remove the chip, and put it away somewhere safe, to take it out when needed. I have noticed that everyone in my family has this chip too. It is not a charm but a burden, more often than not separating us from other people. Besides, we were not the poorest family in Brooklyn or, later, even out on Long Island. Our father had a well-paid federal job. But my parents had far too many children, and so the money was stretched to the breaking point. I recently returned to these old resentments of poverty while reading a fat biography about Albert Camus. He grew up in Algiers, at that time a French colony across the Mediterranean Sea to the south of mainland France. His own poverty was quite compelling, involving his widowed mother and grandmother, both of whom were illiterate. His grandmother was Spanish, his mother, like himself, pied noir, the indigenous non-Arab French population. There were very few amenities in Camus’ life, but thanks to teachers who noticed his gifts for learning, the two widows were convinced not to send Albert off to work in a barrel factory, but to continue his education at the lycee, which he did, going on to university and eventually a great literary life in Paris. Camus was a genuine street kid, a bit tough, surly, and by all accounts, a fine footballer (soccer player), his position goalie. What changed his trajectory towards the Algerian streets was illness, specifically tuberculosis, which made sports impossible but the life of the mind more of a certainty. By all accounts, Camus never lost sight of his upbringing. In fact, the book he was writing at the time of his death in an auto accident—he was still in his forties—was about that Algerian boyhood, and while never completed, it was published many years after his death, and it magnificently describes in great detail the life of a poor pied noir in Algiers between the two world wars. I am writing about this now because reading Camus’ works and also the biography about him, I realized how much I identified with how he grew up. Nothing was taken for granted in such an elemental life. Every kindness, every bit of help seemed like tiny miracles. I really liked how Camus describes ruining his shoes while playing football. His grandmother would beat him mercilessly for ruining the shoes too. I can remember similar events in my own life in Brooklyn and Long Island, the rituals about how things like shoes were acquired and had to be preserved. Shoes came at Easter, other clothes at Christmas, nothing fancy, everything essential. I once received a pair of cowboy boots from one of my Irish aunts, and I remember thinking I was the luckiest person on earth, the gift seeming like a noble behest. It was such an extravagance, and yet I never lost sight of my gratitude for the gift. There are so many ways of forging our links with others writers, through sensibility, ideas, the way characters are evoked, the moods laid down, the storyline itself some point of identification too. Besides their poverty, I often identify with authors from large families as I think all large families share common miseries, whether they are rich or poor. Over the years, I have been introduced to some of the late Robert Kennedy’s children, and their upbringing, though privileged, very much paralleled my own upbringing in a large Irish Catholic family. What we shared were childhoods deprived of nurture, intimacy, and attention, these being what gets discarded in big families. But I would hasten to add that I believe that coming from a big family is good for a writer because you get to see a lot of the world in ways that smaller and more intimate families don’t encounter. In a large family, there really is no place to go for privacy, so you get to see the world in all its arbitrary ugliness, besides its moments of beauty and charm. I have met people from big families who don’t have these problems, but they often strike me as being aberrant, exceptional, or simply they were lying. Not having your needs met on a regular basis is never a good thing. I can’t feel nostalgic about such circumstances in my own or anyone else’s life. Yet coming from a big family is often the trigger for someone to become a writer. Here are some writers who did come from large families, all of whom seeming to be better writers, if not better humans, from these deprivations: James Baldwin, James Joyce, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. These writers grew up in households with approximately nine or more children. All of their mothers gave birth or carried to late terms a lot more children than the head-count at the dining room table for supper. These big-family writers seem to have a kind of choreography of the mind which allows them to move great numbers of people in the space of their writing. Garcia Marquez is the true master of this technique, his writing peopled with hundreds of souls, something only a writer from a big family seems capable of doing properly. But there is something even more important than this choreography that writers from big families possess; they are somehow incapable of putting themselves at the center of their narratives. The center is inhabited by characters who often bear no resemblance to the author. I am thinking of someone like Anton Chekhov, arguably the greatest short story writer, by the quality and sheer volume of his works, who also possesses this ability to keep himself out of the center of things. What he shares with the writers from big families is often a grinding poverty. Chekhov, like Camus, was transformed by his own education. Neither Camus nor Chekhov lost their sense of compassion for the underdog, something I greatly admire and aspire towards in both writers. More recent examples of this kind of selfless writing—which is more the hallmark of short story writers than anyone else—are Alice Munro and William Trevor, two contemporary writers who carry on the legacy as it was laid down by Chekhov. Neither Munro nor Trevor come either from poverty or particularly large families, as far as I know. Thankfully my theory doesn’t need to be air-tight and, besides, it is not even a theory at all, but a personal observation about poverty and big families. Obviously these are not criteria which necessarily produce great literature. In fact, poverty more often than not produces nothing like literature. It is a self-perpetuating misery, more often than not producing nothing more than further poverty. Poverty’s offspring are universal villains, including crime, violence, ignorance, and death. Literature is the opposite of poverty’s legacy. All of this leads in the end to a question that has been nagging me for a long time. Poverty and big families have produced some great fiction writers. But what about poetry? Is there a great poet, American or otherwise, who survived a big family and poverty, and went on to great achievements? I am not for one moment suggesting there is not someone or even many someones who fit the bill. The one who comes immediately to mind is Sherman Alexie whose stories and poems are filled with such instances of a teeming life of witness. If he doesn’t come from a big family, I would be surprised. If he doesn’t, then I presume that the tribe is his big family, the reservation where he witnessed the drinking, the fights, the melt-downs, and the breakings apart—the atomization of the child’s world. Is there a poet who had one pair of shoes that could not be ruined by playing football in the schoolyard? Did any poet go hungry and then write about that hunger? Did she or he witness the chaos of the world around them in crowded rooms filled with desire and anger? I am not picking a fight but asking a question or a series of questions? I am questioning whether such a poet even exists in our contemporary world. Does such a poet exist?
M. G. Stephens is the author of eighteen books, including the novel The Brooklyn Book of the Dead (“a great, great book,” says Roddy Doyle), and the essay collection Green Dreams, which Joyce Carol Oates picked as one of the notable nonfiction books of the 20th century in Best American Essays of the Century.