We’d be rich if we were all to receive a pickle whenever anyone said, The first time I saw Stephen King he was reading a book.
I like the nonfiction of Martin Amis, Vladimir Nabokov, and Stephen King, in part because they aren’t the monsters they wrote. Respectively — Experience, Lectures on Literature, On Writing: all grand good books. Memoir by such writers is always excellent but the blending of subject into good crafting draws and inspires me. I don’t read their fiction.
I’ve been reading Stephen King’s Hearts in Suspension, from the interlibrary loans, a book of memoirs essaying glorious examples. The subtitle is With Essays by College Classmates and Friends. The book is edited by Jim Bishop, one of King’s English teachers at the University of Maine (Orono) in the late 1960s. The book also includes a King novella, Hearts in Atlantis, written out of his experience in the Vietnam protest era of 1966-1970, the year Muhammad Ali refused the draft and its war, saying that he had “no quarrel with the Viet Cong,” had never been called “nigger” by one and wouldn’t kill for “white slave-masters [ruling] over dark people.”
The nearly all-white campus of UMO entered into the turmoil on both sides: stronger pro war, scattered antiwar. My interest in this book of essays is not Hearts in Atlantis but the hearts in suspension on which it was based. The truth is, I’ve no interest in reading the fictive reworking of King’s experience. And I don’t plan to read it as part of this primary reading experience.
But my own writing-love being fiction, with a decided resistance to writing nonfiction (such as in this piece) I find the self-paradox curious if not particularly engaging. Primary experience interests me deeply, the writing it down does not. King had the same problem getting the essay out for this volume. Writing fiction is what lifts and carries him away. It is primary experience. Yet, as reader engaged by this essay, I’m lifted and carried away into what was secondary engagement for him…. His writing here is so good that it is experience in fine.
Like Monica Wood, as seen in her memoir When We Were the Kennedys, Stephen King grew up in mill-supported small-towns, Durham and Lisbon, Maine. Both authors and towns, with their industry, relied on the Androscoggin River; both to provide power and to carry off dangerous chemicals and other filth, making a living for all residents. Some of the protest background of this book includes efforts to prod mill owners: clean, make safe, and restore lost habitat. The river is a living force, gathering water from every earthen pore, every spring and tributary, falls of rain and snow in the far western part of the State of Maine. Water, so necessary to life. Confused and confusing as the sexual idenity crisis of this generation is, how does it compare with the battles fought and won in this cause? Thank you, and we remember, Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, raised in the Androscoggin river valley, who introduced the Clean Water Act in the Senate as S. 2770 on October 28, 1971.
This memoir shows the classic struggle and dishevelment of hardscrabble Maine as opposed to softer college experience where the struggle is solely to avoid the draft, pay attention, study, party, and graduate. King did the manual labor to support himself, worked hard in writing, feeding his passion into it; drank to excess and worked at playing cards, and in poetry seminars with other students. Oh yeah: and he transformed himself into protesting the war. When he started, the pro-war mob was the stronger, when he ended, it had been virtually conquered.
The confusion expressed in this book is palpable — from all sides and from his fellow writers. Confusion is everywhere in Hearts in Suspension, as you knew it would be. These are kids in their formation, an identity crisis involving the campus, but not as it does today. The difference I find is in the stakes. What’s at stake in the 1960s and what’s at stake today? People say there will be a paradigm shift as presidential administrations shift. This, if it happens, is what it might take to change a collegial atmosphere from one of trivial and banal concerns to something approaching the upheaval and power of the 1960s protests when the individual, desiring salvation from the military-industrial complex, desiring to have bureaucratic hands off their lives, made troubling sacrifice to bring a generation out of unjustifiable warfare.
King’s essay is outstanding. You may devour it. But I want to respond here to Keith Carreiro’s essay, “Crisis of Conscience: War and Peace at UMO.” Here is where the most passion and power reside, primary experience, as lived by its author, and crafted into the reader’s own primary experience. Primary. Engaging, because life depended on it. In this accounting, more than any other in Hearts, we realize the crisis, we experience the stakes. And we gain understanding.
One thing I understood:
Keith Carreiro, for all his young adult confusion, was saved from the clutch of draftees being secretly recorded, confiscated then stripped and shipped off. He was given a verbally exacting and brutal list of possibilities occurring in battles he was expected to fight. By a man with stethoscope in medical whites. Naked, standing for three hours, Keith was asked questions: what would he do in each scenario. And all he could answer was the truth: “I don’t know.”
Finally, being asked by this medical examiner if he believed in obeying “the laws of the land,” he casually affirmed, “Sure.” (p. 316)
He was asked the question with greater emphasis. And then committed: “Yes.” Read this essay! Find out what went before and what pursued. My guess on why he was spared is as follows:
The examiner saw a sense of reality in Keith Carreiro, who implied, “I did not even know who I was yet.” My guess is the other draftees gave imaginative scenarios of who they were, what they would do, and how, in any of the given situations. Keith admitted the truth of his being, his identity: I don’t know. Did the doctor spare him for this reason? My guess, he did not. For his humility? No. Again, only my guess: he spared him because of his wisdom, because of his acuity, because of his insight and intelligence. Because he was honest with himself and others.
This is rare?
How I wish it were so with me.
Honestly, I believe he was sent away, in his civilian clothes instead of uniformed, because this doctor, choosing and accepting all the cannon fodder he could — he wanted to ship them all out — was trying to serve his country: he was providing fodder as he was meant to do. He was trying to serve: He saved a man who could contribute in a better way. This is a guess based not on knowing the M.D.’s heart, but on knowing about his job. “First, do no harm.” But in Keith Carreiro he saw something more valuable for this country, the USA. Such were (and are) in short supply.
To understand what high stakes mean to the young, read these essays. To remember the confusions of your own youth, read this book. To recognize the folly of individual and institutional solipsism, read. It is extremely engaging, this essay, this book. Well conceived, well written.
And it is a Maine book. This book will give you a comparative feel for the State at that time, compared to other states and other times. Yet Hearts does not forget the stakes for students across the country, suffering at the close of that decade in May of 1970. See also example, United States armed forces casualties.
And in the US today? We need high stakes to move out of our self-involvement. To go… say… —to the moon! As, in that decade rich in slaughter, rich in martyrs, rich in challenge … as a generation did in 1969. We —our generation—went to the moon.