The Forgotten Iconoclast

As I sit in my black leather chair (purchased and delivered by OfficeMax; assembled with my bare hands after giving up on the incomprehensible instructions) staring into the dusty window pane (uncleaned for many weeks), I find it absolutely disgraceful that nobody remembers the little-known criticism of Gilbert Haverford. It is enough to make me ponder a serious reentry into weekly psychotherapy. If I were an ordinary man, I could hack away at these intellectual frustrations by settling for one of the bigger critical names that a good literary person is supposed to perform ablutions for. Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Leslie Fiedler. Even that scoundrel Christopher Lehman-Haupt, a miserable man who I understand may still be alive. I wonder if he reads blogs.

But it is Haverford who I now pine for, who I now bang my metacarpals against the desk for. He is a man who I think I can shed tears over, if I could find it within my literary heart of hearts to feel. A Jean-Paul Sartre volume had killed my emotional instincts only a few years ago, and I have been a confused man ever since. That there isn’t a Wikipedia page or an intelligible Google search result on Haverford’s considerable output is appalling.

I first encountered Haverford in 1995. It was a drizzly day in San Francisco, and I had retreated to the library in an effort to shake off the munchies, a gustatory state effected after a friend had passed a pipe. I had seen what such sensory states had done in the past (confused sex with a stranger who never told me her first name but who was ticklish and had smooth skin, rabid mastication upon a Costco-sized carton of Pepperidge Farm goldfish crackers, et al.) and I had taken it upon myself to avoid these developments by shifting my ontological operations to the nearest library, making idle perambulations through the stacks, and fixing my coordinates on the least occupied part, where I might find some volume that nobody had else had regarded.

It was during one such journey when I discovered a coverless dark green book, caked with decades of dust and beginning to develop a vague mold. The reference label was torn off and the tome had been placed with books concerning themselves with CP/M and a travel guide on pre-Unification East Berlin. The upshot was that I had come to a book bier of sorts. But this was a funeral without any friends. The Haverford book looked the most interesting. I thought it might be a guide to the college. But it was, in fact, the author who was named Haverford. The book’s title was Literary Transcendentalism. A sleep-inducing title. Nothing to get charged up about. But literary criticism was literary criticism.

I rescued the book, returned home, and began flipping through the pages. I discovered angry screeds against Joyce disciples who frequented the East Village. I encountered a passionate defense of James Gould Cozzens. This was reactionary stuff, but it was entertaining bile. I was particularly excited that Haverford had not once mentioned transcendentalism. But I was forever changed. These were magnificent contributions to culture. Haverford went off on any subject for which he had a deeply visceral reaction. And yet nobody had the temerity to call him a crank. He claimed to write for newspapers. But what newspapers? This was the appealing mystery. And I searched through microfilm in vain.

Unfortunately, I lost the book during a move. And I have never been able to find another copy. Look up “Gilbert Haverford” now and you will find a remarkably absent record. I’ve gone through libraries. I’ve waded through databases. Not one reference to Gilbert Haverford has cropped up. Bad enough that a writer goes out of print. But it’s even more horrendous when his books appear to be erased from the records altogether.

It’s possible that the book I discovered was part of a very small print run, or part of a private collection. I don’t recall the name of the publisher, but I don’t remember it being an academic press. There is one passage of Haverford’s that I do remember:

The critical darlings are frequently subjected to a dichotomous scale entirely at odds with the glorious grays of true human experience. Literature is in trouble because these novelists cannot be bothered to commit their attentions to the irksome grit of regular concerns.

Of course, Haverford’s “regular concerns” were somewhat problematic. He did sometimes celebrate a novelist’s prolix tribute to the pancake, as well as extended passages devoted to realty. But his maxim above remains more or less true today. He said other things that were more profound, but I was not as adept a reader as I am now. So I cannot easily recall them. And I continue to hunt around in vain for a Haverford book, remembering only the dreaded residue upon my imperfect memory banks. But I do know that sometime, when I least expect it and when I am assembling another piece of OfficeMax furniture, Haverford will return to myh reading lair.