The Dead Writer’s Almanac: Clifton Hillegass

The Almanac’s staff has long wondered why Cinco de Mayo doesn’t get the proper respect it deserves. You see, a little more than a century and a half ago, 545 people died during the Battle of Puebla. The Mexican Army secured an unexpected victory against Napoleon’s forces, in large part because General Charles de Lorencez was arrogant enough to believe that the villagers would be sympathetic to the French military. Which is a bit like believing that a rape victim and her attacker will become BFF mere minutes after the brutal penetration.

545 dead bodies! Now that’s a death day to celebrate! But ask any fratboy guzzling down multitudinous margaritas about any of this, and he will intimate to you that Cinco de Mayo is the Mexican answer to St. Patrick’s Day. Then he will attempt to persuade you of his Hispanic roots (much as he attempted to persuade you of his Irish heritage only two months before), before swiftly abandoning the conversation (too intellectual, he may claim) so that he may scan the bar for a fetching mamacita before going home to an onanist’s bed.

Thus, Cinco de Mayo’s original celebratory purpose — founded upon war and death — has been transformed into a needlessly derivative holiday.

So it seems only fitting to celebrate the man who created and published Cliffs Notes — arguably the most derivative series of study guides ever printed. Yes, it’s the death day of Clifton Hillegass, who passed away nine years ago today on May 5, 2001. He died at his home in Lincoln, Nebraska. The cause: complications after a stroke.

Hillegass published study guides which ensured that high school and college literature students were entitled to fake it, even if he didn’t quite believe that these were the reasons why young kids scarfed up his striped handbooks. Or did he? This seems a suspicious stance from a man who started off as an Army Air Corps meteorologist, a man who was accustomed in his early career to predicting things. But he profited quite well on American procrastination. In 1958, while managing a wholesale department, he founded his company in a basement with a $4,000 loan, starting by reprinting summaries of sixteen Shakespeare plays from a Toronto publisher. The publisher was a guy named Jack Cole. Why did the apostrophe in “Cliff’s Notes” disappear? Well, Hillegass broke off ties with Cole, striking it out on his own. Hence, the name “Cliffs Notes” — a suitably ungrammatical concession to the enterprise. In 1999, Hillegass sold his company to IDG for a cool $14 million.

Hillegass was described by one employee as “a very intellectual individual,” and enjoyed mysteries and and the classics. In a New York Times obituary, Hillegass’s daughter claimed that her father “just basically wanted to help them get as much out of their education as they could.”

The inside covers of these bright yellow guides include the sentence: “A thorough appreciation of literature allows no short cuts.” But when a bookstore customer asks for Angry Raisins instead of The Grapes of Wrath, as this overview reveals, one must consider the full extent of Hillegass’s complicity. In a 2007 interview, CliffsNotes shipping employee John Shank revealed that Hillegass (and consulting editor James L. Roberts) “were pretty comfortable that they were being used for what they were intended for, back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.”

Or were they more comfortable with the company’s success? It’s difficult to say. Hillegass’s recent death has produced a great hagiographical response from the people who knew and worked with Cliff. But to be fair to Hillegass, perhaps he can’t be entirely blamed for those who preferred to avoid reading literature, any more than the fratboy can be blamed for forgetting the Mexican Army. An uncommitted student will remain without dedication to the task at hand, even when his sweaty palms rely on a yellow veneer that the teacher has already obtained. If it hadn’t been Hillegass, it would have been somebody else. And if the dipsomaniac wasn’t drawn to Cinco de Mayo, it would be some other occasion. (It’s just too bad that nobody thinks to get inebriated on Arbor Day.)

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac: Jane Bowles

It has been suggested by at least one prominent mortician that the Almanac’s staff has been dead for the past week. Well, the moribund undertaker in question was partially correct. Hans Campbell, our lead researcher, passed away on April 30, 2010, the victim of an unanticipated embolism experienced while putting together that day’s entry. He died at his desk — the way that any good researcher should. And it isn’t every day that you can claim to shake hands with a man who has the bad luck to die on the same day that Hitler blew his brains out (sixty-five years ago, if you’re as interested in the math as we are!). We here at the Almanac promise to not fuck around with a Walther PPK on a shooting range. We have given our small supply of cyanide tablets to a frenemy’s great aunt. So let the similarities between Hitler and Hans (or “HC,” as we nicknamed him in the office) end here. However, should anyone wish to make a Downfall video in HC’s honor, we suspect that his family will be greatly touched.

Now that we’ve got that little bit of housekeeping out of the way, we’re pleased to announce that it’s the death day of Jane Bowles, who passed away thirty-seven years ago on May 4, 1973. You may know Jane as the wife of Paul Bowles (who remains dead, at least as far as we know). What you may not know is that Jane herself was also a writer; indeed, a very good one. A novel, a play, half a dozen short stories, and a partridge in a pear tree. As Stacy D’Erasmo noted in the May 1999 issue of Out, she was one of the great, underrated writers of the 20th century. D’Erasmo compared Bowles to Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes, writing of the “disjunctive, inchoate, sometimes emotionally violent connections between her characters, particularly her quasi-maniacal ‘spinster’ women.” John Ashbery called Bowles “a writer’s writer. Few literary reputations are as glamorous as the underground one she enjoyed she has enjoyed since her novel, Two Serious Ladies, was published in 1943.” But when Ashbery wrote these words (writing about her Collected Stories on January 29, 1967, in the New York Times Book Review, in the days when it was less shallow than it is now, when it still permitted poets to write thoughtful essays), he remarked that Two Serious Ladies had long gone out-of-print. This was something of a surprise, considering that Alice B. Toklas and Tennessee Williams had talked it up. Aside from featuring an original prose style, the novel did, after all, feature violence.

Bowles was born with the name “Jane Auer” in 1917. To the best of our knowledge, she did not contend with any crazy women in an attic. But she did prefer women. At the age of 20, she met her husband Paul — a man who was interested in both men and women. At the time, Paul was a composer. And when Jane began experiencing some success, in true competitive style, Paul himself was inspired to take up the pen. But when Paul found greater success as a writer, producing work much faster than Jane could, Jane grew extremely frustrated. For she worked much slower and with considerable care. According to numerous sources, she often claimed to be dying of writer’s block.

But despite these problems (which weren’t helped by the Bowles’s frequent run-ins with notable literary people), she maintained a graceful wit. Allen Ginsberg once asked Jane if she believed in God. “Well,” replied Jane, “if I do I’m certainly not discussing it on the telephone.”

Jane hasn’t received nearly as much attention as her husband. Even the New York Times, demonstrating its commitment to overlooking literary innovators, waited nearly a month before printing her obituary on May 31, 1973. And according to Virginia Spencer Carr’s Paul Bowles: A Life, even her gravestone was unmarked. As John Hopkins was to note in Tangier Diaries, Jane’s gravestone had transformed into “a refuse dump of broken flower pots and bottles and dead stalks cast aside by the assiduous ladies in black.” This was twenty-three months after her demise.

Perhaps in death, Jane Bowles might find a new life.

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 29, 2010)

It’s the last week of April, and we are still hunting around for writers who have died, particularly those who have died in an unusual manner. But we are finding ourselves unenthused by the offerings. We could tell you about John Cleveland, who died 352 years ago today, but this noted poet and satirist merely died of a fever. Had Mr. Cleveland lived 270 years longer, he might have been able to try out a nifty little thing called penicillin. Alas, the human life span, even in the 21st century, remains quite fickle. It seems absurd to suggest that Mr. Cleveland, who was fighting a bad bout, could not only conquer his debilitation, but somehow live like Methuselah. Mr. Cleveland was doomed to die when he did. May he rest in peace. And there isn’t much we can do to correct his demise except hang our heads in shame at contemplating what might have been, had he had lived for centuries. That would have been one hell of a story.

We could tell you about Charles-Irénée Castel de Saint-Pierre, who died 267 years ago today. Or Wittgenstein (59 years ago). Or we could point out that Hitchcock died today (30 years ago), even though he was more of a filmmaker than a writer. But when you begin to examine how many of these dead writers have penises, well, you have begin to see the limp progress of our humble little operation. So The Dead Writer’s Almanac is now caught within an ethical quandary on April 29, 2010. How does one respond to the vast history of letters (specifically, those authored by dead people), when one is fully cognizant that most of the writers who have died have been white men? That hardly represents a liberal spirit, does it? This hardly represents progress. While those readers now residing in Arizona will scratch their heads in confusion over our dilemma, rest assured that the question of balance is a grave problem for us.

We have flipped through many books in the stacks. We have telephoned librarians. They have reported our names to the appropriate authorities, and we await the knock at the door from the men in white coats. We are repeatedly scanning the headlines, wondering if some rocking writer of the XX variety will kick the bucket before we go to bed. Perhaps a corpse will soon be discovered. It is not that we pine for any specific writer to die. We remain firmly opposed to the death penalty. We do want people to live and not die too early, and have considered trademarking our motto in order to demonstrate the serious nature of our commitment. On the other hand, if a woman writer were to die today, it would really make things much easier for us, and it would alleviate our guilt.

One desperate option that has been suggested to us: the murder of a writer to fit the quota. But the Dead Writer’s Almanac staff has no homicidal experience or a desire to commit murder. This would be ethically and legally wrong, the friends and family of the murdered writer would feel great grief, and, most importantly, all the resultant fuss would create a needless inconvenience for us.

But we may have stumbled on a choice for tomorrow. So we leave you now with our patented signoff to aid you in your struggle with the blank page.

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac: Iceberg Slim

It’s the death day of Iceberg Slim, who passed away eighteen years ago on April 27, 1992. Iceberg Slim is not to be confused with iceberg lettuce (alive, but only for short periods and not exactly the best lettuce) or Vanilla Ice (alive, but often dead on stage). But it is safe to say, that Iceberg Slim was not born with this name. Few parents indeed would name their new children “Iceberg.” He was born in Chicago under the name “Robert Lee Maupin.” But please don’t confuse him with Armistead Maupin (also alive). Iceberg’s tales from the city, as portrayed in Pimp and Trick Baby, were decidedly less comfortable, often involving drugs in less salubrious situations. He spent his early years working as a pimp. He needed a name that would frighten people, that would sufficiently confirm his rep as a badass. So Iceberg arrived at his nom de plume for being “ice cold” — that is, sitting at a bar with cool equanimity after a bullet had pierced through his hat. He was later to impart this vocational advice: “to be a good pimp, you gotta be icy, cold like the inside of a dead-whore’s pussy.”

So Iceberg’s pre-writing career was built upon dodging death, which makes the (now dead) Iceberg especially suitable for The Dead Writer’s Almanac. He remained a pimp until the age of 42, serving several prison sentences during this period of gainful employment. During the last stretch, Iceberg was asked to “square up.” Upon seeing no obnoxious cowboy with a bullhorn and a phonograph asking him to stir the bucket, much less a pencil and a straight edge with which to sketch a quadrangle, Iceberg interpreted “square up” to mean (the previous two options not being common among his circles) taking up the pen.

He then moved to California and found some success writing books in the 1960s. (Pimp was often stacked next to Soul on Ice.) But when Iceberg met the Black Panthers, the Panthers expressed disdain for his former life. As he wrote in The Naked Soul of Iceberg Slim:

As I stood there chattering about the raid and my writings, I had the sobering realization that unlike the hundreds of non-Panther black youngsters who had recognized me on the street and admired me as a kind of folk hero, because of my lurid and sensational pimp background, the Panther youngsters were blind to my negative glamour and, in fact, expressed a polite disdain for my former profession and its phony flash of big cars, jewelry and clothes. Their only obsession seemed to be the freedom of black people.

I noticed a thin, light-complexioned, secretary-type Panther, with a sheaf of paper under his arm, silently scrutinizing me.

He stepped forward abruptly and with curly-lipped contempt said, “Nigger, you kicked black women in the ass for bread. How many you got now?”

But Iceberg had the last laugh. As the Black Panther Party faded in the subsequent decades, Iceberg maintained prominence, selling six million books before his death in 1992. Artists such as Ice Cube and Ice-T would find inspiration in his words and build hip-hop careers. But certain radio personalities in Minnesota, promoting a “literary” culture to unadventurous middlebrow listeners, would never mention his name, terrified of alienating an aging white bread audience.

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 27, 2010)

It’s the death day of Hart Crane, who passed away seventy-eight years ago on April 27, 1932. Hart Crane committed suicide. But it was a cheery suicide, as suicides go. Even if the consequences leading up to the suicide were bizarre and far from happy. You have to credit Crane for his courtesy in shouting “Goodbye, everybody!” to a crowd before throwing himself off a steamship into the Gulf of Mexico. I mean, how many of the hundreds of people who have thrown themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge have managed to even do that? The Dead Writer’s Almanac staff has conducted an informal poll, and it seems that people who shout “Goodbye, everybody!” just before leaping to their needless deaths are now considered exhibitionists who rely upon some crude cry for attention, the equivalent to that annoying guy at the party who complains about the lackluster canapes and the diminishing liquor supply. Suicide victims are now expected to leap to their deaths with a stoic resolve. No commentary. Just the self-immolation itself. But that seems needlessly limited when you’re a talented American poet.

In any event, this suicide arose after poor Crane was beaten just after attempting to proposition several officers. An even more bizarre element concerns his fiancee, Peggy Baird, who had just experienced a freak accident involving an exploding cigarette lighter. With his fiancee bandaged and sedated aboard the cruise ship. it was small wonder that the sexually confused Crane plied himself up with liquor and made bold barebacking suggestions to the ship’s crew.

Crane’s death, as strange as it is, tends to greatly overshadow his ambitions, which can be best enjoyed with his epic poem, The Bridge, which kicked things off with the following stanza (from the opening section “To Brooklyn Bridge”):

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—

It’s probably worth mentioning that Crane had befriended the poet Samuel Greenberg in 1913. Greenberg died even younger than Crane did in 1917 — merely twenty-four, impoverished, overworked, contending with the premature deaths of his parents. Upon receiving a package of Greenberg’s manuscripts, Crane remarked that Greenberg was “a Rimbaud in embryo,” finding his poems “fugitive and incomplete.” But the interesting question of whether Crane saw Greenberg as a model for poetic martyrdom remains mostly a mystery. Certainly, Crane was content to call The Waste Land both great and “so damned dead.”

But we can proud report that Jasper Johns, who was greatly inspired by Crane for a great number of his works, is not yet dead. (Hi, Jasper! Keep painting that canvas!) It is also quite possible to celebrate Crane without being compelled to mimic his exuberant demise. It’s always a good day for poetry. Just be sure that your loved one doesn’t screw around with a lighter on the fritz.

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 26, 2010)

It’s the death day of Hubert Selby, Jr., who passed away six years ago on April 26, 2004. Selby died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which was the sixth leading cause of death in 1990 and is well on its way to earning a solid position as the fourth leading cause of death in 2030. (Go lung disease! And don’t forget, fellow writers. Smoke ’em if you got ’em!) Selby’s wife, Suzanne, claimed that Hubert screamed and broke things when he wasn’t writing. This may explain, in part, the enhanced intensity and the staggered paragraph indentation of his best-known works: 1964’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (which features such street talk as “A couplea creeps wouldnt giveus the packages they got from home so we dumpedem. Im tellinya, we was real tight man”), 1971’s The Room, which deals with a criminally insane man recounting his past in a locked room, and 1978’s Requiem for a Dream, a fun-filled romp that involves broken families, drugs, and ECT. Selby later adapted Requiem with Darren Aronofsky (good man, one of the rare filmmakers who actually enlisted the writer) into an unsettling motion picture that has depressed several people and, for all we know, has inspired several suicides. Which is what great art should do sometimes.

It was thought by many (or at least by the Dead Writer’s Almanac staff) that death would at long last secure the literary respect that had eluded Selby for so damn long. I mean, even a humorless stuffed shirt like Albert Mobilio thought to name-check Selby in (of all things) a 2000 review of a Simona Vinci book. But Selby isn’t quite on the level of Charles Bukowski. Epicene hipsters, often mumbling around in their early twenties, don’t seem to place his slim and gritty volumes upon their coffee tables to atone for a shortfall in streetcred and masculinity.

On the other hand, Selby was often thought “dead” even as he was alive. As he told an interviewer in 2002, “Yes, I’ve been given up for dead many times. In 1988, two doctors said that, according to all accepted medical evidence, I’m dead [enormous laugh].” (Somehow, the “enormous laugh” ensnared within brackets doesn’t truly convey the irony that Selby intended. But if you close your eyes for a smidgen, I’m sure you can imagine being marginalized and misunderstood.)

Selby was very clear to point out to liberal arts grads who skimmed his novels that the great American dream will “kill you dead. Striving for it is a disaster. Attaining it is a killer.” That he offered no alternative to the con is to his great credit. And it seems only fitting to end this installment with a clip of a very nervous Terry Gross attempting to soothe a man (“Because you were very sick….”) who merely needed his typewriter to negotiate the savage American wasteland:

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 25, 2010)

It’s the death day of Wright Morris, who passed away twelve years ago on April 25, 1998. Back in 1910, this famed Nebraskan writer (the second dead Nebraskan writer we’ve celebrated in two days!) had not yet uttered his first word. He then experienced the first death of a loved one. This created a moment for the young Morris to gnaw upon repeatedly in later years. Morris’s mother had died just six days (not even a week!) after young Wright popped out of her womb. In his autobiography, Writing My Life, Wright Morris claimed that, had his mother lived, “my compass would have been set on a different course, and my sails full of more than the winds of fiction.” Well, fellow writers, we must ask ourselves whether Morris’s needle would have been zeroed to an alternative lodestone, had the fates granted him opportunity to mutter “Mama” to the genuine article.

Had Grace Osborn observed her son’s seventh day of life (and many more days beyond), would Morris have become a writer? Grace Osborn was not a deity, but might her mortal sacrifice be perceived as an altogether different form of rest on the seventh day? Would Morris have drifted into another occupation had his mother been hale and hearty? These what-if questions are difficult to address, because all of the involved parties are now dead.

But The Dead Writer’s Almanac’s staff doesn’t view mortality as a liability. Books helped Morris to come to terms with the role that the dead play among the living. In an interview with David Madden, which can be found within the book Conversations with Wright Morris, Morris remarked:

When I began to reread Joyce’s “The Dead,” to see how he achieved — and more successfully than I did — this concept that the dead are always with us, frequently overshadowing the living, I realized that the dead on one level or another constitute our present, whether we will it or not. In certain cultural sensibilities, the dominance of the dead is what constitutes the culture, even to the point of stagnation. Joyce was convinced that the awareness of the presence of the dead with the living is really what makes up civilized behavior and civilized responses. The “presence” of those who are missing, who are physically absent, is the one immortality we can attest to.

And yet a New York Times book reviews search reveals that Wright Morris has not been mentioned once since August 13, 1999. Does the New York Times maintain a policy of not citing a dead writer in its pages after eighteen months of steadfast maggot chewing? If so, this is a great pity. And not just for the maggots. Perhaps the New York Times does not share Morris’s Joycean viewpoint. Perhaps the ostensible paper of record is prejudiced against writers who dare to experiment with photo-text collages. Whatever the Gray Lady’s reasons, we remain quite giddy in celebrating the Cornhusker State’s forgotten literary history two days in a row!

In looking for specific ways in which Morris used the word “dead,” one discovers a concern for capturing “dead” in plainspoken vernacular. “Most of us are dead and gone, think it would be fadin’!” says a character in The Home Place, “Same as me an’ you are fadin’.” And in One Day, Morris writes, “The dead were believed not to matter. Only this immaterial ghost.” On the contrary, Mr. Morris, you matter very much to us! And we hope that our enthusiasm has exhumed you from your needlessly obscure coffin!

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!

The Dead Writer’s Almanac (April 24, 2010)

It’s the death day of Willa Cather, who passed away sixty-three years ago on April 24, 1947. The word “dead” can be found seven times in Cather’s O Pioneers!, which was written when Cather resided in Cherry Valley, New York. According to the 2000 Census, Cherry Valley has a population of 1,266 — a number that might be considered “dead” by self-important urbanites, but that is perfectly respectable in this writer’s humble opinion. Cather also wrote a novel called Death Comes for the Archbishop (more “deads” here than O Pioneers!), which is listed on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list.

Cather died from a cerebral hemorrhage in a Park Avenue apartment she shared with journalist Edith Lewis (also Nebraskan and also dead, but not on April 24). According to Lewis, Cather was “never more herself than on the last morning of her life; her spirit was high, her grasp of reality as firm as always.” Lewis remains mum on whether Cather was “never more herself” after the cerebral hemorrhage. But I suspect that, discounting any religious beliefs some of you fellow writers may have, Cather’s spirit did not quite rise to the previous morning’s apotheosis.

The two women lived together for four decades. Some scholars have speculated that there was more going on than a super-intense friendship. But since the two women are both dead, I don’t believe it’s germane for us to contemplate if they were Sapphic exemplars or friends with really nice benefits. What Cather and Lewis did was their business. And if they wished to take it to the grave, this was their choice.

Lewis wrote a book called Willa Cather Living: A Personal Record, revealing that, as a teenager, Cather read Latin with Billy Ducker. Lewis writes that, shortly after Ducker and Cather had gone for a walk, Ducker was found dead on the couch in his living room, with a copy of the Iliad lying open on the floor. Cather had an innate distrust of modern science, in large part because it had created numerous weapons that permitted human beings to kill each other more efficiently. Let us therefore dispense with reasonable conclusions and narrow the cause of this death to two possibilities: either Homer killed Ducker or Cather killed Ducker. Lewis reported that one of the last things Ducker said to Cather was “It is just as though the lights were going out, Willie.” For those writers wishing to draw further conclusions about this anecdote, I recommend listening to this Journey song, replacing “city” with “Nebraska.”

Stay writing, don’t die too early, and keep in touch!