HLS - The Letters Of Harvey L. Slatin

July 8, I989

Hey, they’re, Udo!–

TIME: 6:42 a.m.

I always began my letters to John with the weather in The Big Tomato, and this useful information will now be offered to you unless you prefer not to receive it. Bear in mind that these statistics do not come from The Bee (ugh), but from my personal “weather station,” a birthday gift from my stepdaughter and son-in-law, purchased in Annapolis when she was taking a “doctors’ wives” tour while he attended a neurosurgical convention (in Washington, D.C. — double ugh). The weather station is mounted over my computer monitor, so I can tell at any time of the day what the time and weather are. This relieves me of the need to turn my head and look out the window which, as you know, is a great time waster.

Your recent letter, enclosing your last letter to John, came yesterday. You are puzzled that he told me about having had “every disease known to man,” but apparently never mentioned his medical problems to you. I learned his medical history on a piecemeal basis, over several years. John did not dwell on his problems. For example, he would end a letter with a short paragraph about going into the hospital the following Monday, and having to put his cat in an animal hotel while he was there. When he came out of the hospital he would telephone and say that he now had “a clean bill of health.” Then he would joke about throwing them into a tailspin because he was an admitted alcoholic and his doctor prescribed three ounces of liquor every day so he wouldn’t get withdrawal symptoms. The nurses were not used to this kind of medication.

Here are the medical problems that I can remember John’s having mentioned (I’m sure he had others that I can’t recall): all his life he had diabetes, which he did not control with insulin because he said it was not serious; at one time he had an operation for cancer, but I don’t know what organ was cancerous; he underwent heart surgery, and after that the main artery to his heart was replaced with 14″ of plastic tubing; he also had a kidney ailment that he said was “under control”; he developed emphysema from having smoked three or four packs a day since adolescence; for the last year he was on portable oxygen.

He said that after he survived the arterial replacement he I decided he was “on borrowed time.” He resigned from his job and moved to Santa Fe. He was apparently there for a couple of year before John V. Young heard about it and sent his address to me. (John had met the Youngs for dinner.) We corresponded pretty regularly after that.

His great love was of course the stage. He said that he moved to Santa Fe because he wanted to perform in community theatre, and he had no trouble getting roles. When his ailments prevented him from taking parts with heavy dialogue, he took smaller parts and joined the theatre board. Eventually he wrote a “newsletter” that was sent to the theatre group subscribers. You mentioned having read it.

That’s a brief rundown of some details that you may not have known. John didn’t dwell on his ailments because he tried to pu them out of his mind and keep going. He may have been able to live longer if he had stopped smoking altogether and cut down on his drinking, but he said that he had done those things all his life, he enjoyed them, and since he was “on borrowed time,” he wasn’t going to stop doing what he enjoyed and feel miserable, just to extend his life by maybe no more than a couple of weeks.

I enclose a copy of my last letter to him, which he never read. It was returned to me by Bill James. You may wonder about the enclosure.

John and I exchanged lengthy letters in which the problems of the world were solved. The world being what it is, our solutions were ignored. Needless to say, the world pays a great price for its heedlessness, as you know full well.

The “Necessary Ingredients” enclosure is an example of our concern over cultural disintegration.

Here’s how this concern arose on my part: you may remember that I left The Forbidden City to take a master’s in English at UNM in Albuquerque. The Korean War started and I could see myself back in uniform, so I dropped out and went to work at Sandia. That turned out to be a needless precaution. At any rate, I never finished the master’s.

What I found out when I immersed myself in the cultural ambiance of literature was that English departments are not oriented toward teaching literature as such: they teach it as a subject for literary criticism. This emphasis is useful for an academic career, but not for the cultural enrichment of a student who is not aiming for a faculty job.

Literary criticism has gone through a dozen stages, most of them now abandoned for the latest fad, “deconstruction.” This approach was contrived by the French, who have an incurable compulsion to analyze and classify everything. It is especially attractive to English faculties because it gives criticism the appearance of being “scientific.” The departments of the arts and humanities are on the defensive because — as you well know — the “hard” sciences get their funding more easily because they can show results. English departments are vulnerable because they seem to pursue goals that contribute nothing to the communities that support the universities. They produce English majors to teach more English majors. They write “scholarly” papers for each other to read. Deconstruction suddenly opens th door to “scientific analysis” of literature, thereby making the budgets of English departments more defensible.

Deconstruction is now sweeping American universities. UCal at Irvine recently hired a “top deconstructionist” away from Yale for a salary somewhere between $125,000 and $150,000 a year. That would have paid for two or three professors of mathematics or physics, which are more sorely needed. On top of that, the French — who started it all — have abandoned deconstruction in much the same way they abandoned Existentialism. So have Oxford and Cambridge. It lives on “only in America!”

My gripe with it is private: I have always enjoyed reading serious fiction, and now there isn’t any new fiction to enjoy because it’s all being written by students in Creative Writing classes in universities, who are brainwashed into being “minimalists.” They write the kind of stuff that The New Yorker prints. (I dropped The New Yorker a long time ago on account of that, plus the prolix and unfocused film reviews of Pauline Kael.)

That’s what lies behind one of the gripping subjects in my last letter to John (with enclosure). He would have answered by advising me to read a spy novel. (Not bad advice.)

I will have to more to come in subsequent letters, but I want to get this in your hands before the Post Office closes down on account of the heatwave. (As if they needed a reason.)

Fred C. (“In From The Cold”) Dobbs

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