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Obsession and Calamity

ISSUE:  Spring 1999
Battlegrounds of Memory. By Clay Lewis. University of Georgia Press. $24.95.

Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders.

—Light in August.

BL. Reid, upon meeting V. S. Pritchett many years ago, asked him if there isn’t “such a thing as a duty to write an • autobiography?” Pritchett, despite being the author of two books of autobiography, “stared at me as if I were a bit mad,” Reid tells us; but he stuck to his conviction, and some years later wrote of his early life in First Acts, as Pritchett had of his own in A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil.

In “Writing an Autobiography” (1969) Pritchett asks “if the present vogue of autobiography has not something dubious about it.” (That vogue is more intense than ever.) He continues: “Doesn’t calamity really make nonsense of the distinctive individual; doesn’t its stamp make us all alike?” In mulling over his own proclivities, Pritchett says that he has a gift for inventing himself but not for self-analysis or introspection, qualities he thinks important for autobiography—the very qualities that Reid found missing in Pritchett’s autobiography. This habit of removing or withholding himself, Pritchett explains, probably resulted from “the violent quarrels in my childhood,” quarrels that caused him “to close my heart for a long time.”

Such an understandable response might have occurred in Clay Lewis. Instead his parents’ quarrels emboldened and even drove him to understand the background of his life, beginning with his mother and father and working back through the generation of his grandparents to their parents. He encounters instances of heartbreak in all three generations sufficient to stop anyone less committed than himself from pursuing family history—a subject and habit fraught with the possibilities of folly.

Most autobiographers, as Pritchett has observed, are obsessed with themselves; Lewis’s obsession is with his family, and only secondarily is he interested in himself. He is a long way from worshipping himself, and family worship—atavism—is not part of his brief when he probes into the hard and sometimes tawdry lives of his ancestors. Pivotal in his approach to this mass of fragmentary lives is his own perspective as a child. Lewis understands that childhood enables the autobiographer’s “pursuit of the self taken back to its roots,” as Pritchett has observed. In general what he tells us of his own life is best when he describes his early memories from his childhood into his early 20’s. Afterward he is more nearly a witness than an actor.

Battlegrounds of Memory is obviously a book that he has been working on—and that has been working on him—all his mature life. Although Mr. Lewis has written fiction, critical essays, and book reviews (including Civil War history as well as the usual literary fare), he has been possessed for roughly four decades by the making of this memoir as he has moved from one compulsion to another that has involved his family—stretching back to the Civil War and its immediate aftermath—with the family apparently always at the heart of his struggles to understand the past.

From the beginning of his narrative it is obvious to the reader that Lewis is more nearly haunted by his family’s history than he is simply interested in it or seriously engaged by it. “My favored biographers,” Pritchett remarks, “are obsessional. They have written out of an obsession that has gnawed at them.” Lewis’s obsession, first and last. is his family; and we wonder if it will ruin him or redeem him. Part of his obsessive search involves his fascination with the South, not only the Civil War but the region’s general history and its geography. He is also drawn to its writers, especially William Faulkner; and he is interested in hunting, farming, manners and morals, and much else. He also has an exceptionally keen sense of how things appear and feel and smell and sound. He exactly describes, for example, how an old bed and quilt in his maternal grandparents’ house felt to him as a boy of 12.

When Lewis became fully aware of the world around him, he was an officer candidate in the U.S. Marine Corps. He then found himself nearly overpowered by a flood of runaway feeling. “The world’s physical beauty was suddenly ravishing. Ordinary sensations now ripped through me. . . . In the mess hall, dark-filled windows murkily reflecting us, the steamy smell of gravy, bacon, sausage, and grits was a knot of overwhelming sensation. Rifle oil’s sweet pungency was almost too much.” My own experience of the same place a little later—Quantico, Virginia, in 1959 and 1960—was far more commonplace. I did not savor the moment but recoiled from it. What I relished most were the rare instances of rebellion—like Lewis’s— that others indulged in.

Some of this testing and training, as it is called in the regiment of the same name, Clay Lewis has recaptured in a remarkable story, “Children of Esau,” published in the Virginia Quarterly Review (1976). It is his version of the same experience explored by Andre Dubus in “Cadence,” which appeared in the Sewanee Review in 1974. The protagonists of both stories are undergoing a fierce initiation into a closed tribal society that is utterly foreign to what they are experiencing at home and in college and elsewhere in the wider world. Lewis’s clash with his platoon commander, a lieutenant who follows his instincts and prejudices in trying to break Lewis and have him sent to Parris Island as an enlisted man, is artfully described in both the story and in this memoir. The author, through grit and persistence and fury, triumphs over his tormentor, a petty bully whose ilk we encounter several times in Lewis’s book.

Clay Lewis, if tested by a bully or anything else, usually lashes out in anger and then redoubles his efforts to continue whatever course of action has been momentarily diverted or stopped. His most successful effort of this land, aside from the battle with his platoon commander, involves his troubles at an unnamed English department in Oklahoma, where he worked before taking up his present job at the National Endowment for the Humanities (which is not mentioned in the book). The author is guarded about his battles in the academy, but we may be sure that his tormentors were the usual inhumane types who have occupied the humanities departments in the academy for the past 30 years. These bullies cannot stand attitudes and ways foreign to theirs, and we may be sure that they hated a former Marine officer, a writer who had published work outside the usual balderdash that now passes for scholarship, and an independent man who refused to knuckle under. At the same time one often sees that Lewis is his own worst enemy, and he candidly suggests as much.

It seems clear, although Clay Lewis says little about his first two marriages (especially the second), that they collapsed partly because he was possessed by his family history, unable to let it go, unable to address his own domestic responsibilities fully because he was enmeshed in the enigmas of the family’s past. Why this is so never becomes wholly clear, even though Lewis reveals various hints along the way. In trying to understand the continuing battle between his parents, both talented but willful people, he became fixated on their pasts and what made them into the spirited but unhappy couple they were during their long unhappy marriage. Mr. Lewis, frustrated in his desire to be a physician, sold medical equipment most of his working life and made a good living; Mrs. Lewis, who had an excellent job in Washington working for Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s aide, had to give up her job to raise Clay and then a younger sister. In the course of this history she dies of cancer, which causes her alcoholic husband to drink all the harder. Before her death she reveals to her son essential details about the marriage. Rather than turning his back on this chronicle of woe and trying to forget it, Lewis has written a powerful confessional story that most of us will hope is far removed from our own family history, our own life story. But the experiences that have caught Clay Lewis in their vise are common to all families at one time or another: alcoholism, adultery, strife within the family between husband and wife, brother and brother, father and son, mother and daughter, parents and child. Most of us, even in the Age of Confession, do not write about our dysfunctional families, going back three generations to find the sins of the fathers (and, less often, the mothers). Lewis is not deterred by any such compunction and hardly seems aware of it. He is a man obsessed by his need to find out what most people would happily remain ignorant about. In his compulsive continuing searches into his family’s past, he is well rewarded as he finds ruined houses (that might have been razed), letters that might have been lost or destroyed, still other documents, and even living witnesses—aside from his parents—in the family.

What this adds up to—aside from a compelling book that is for the most part a study in frustration and sadness—is hard to specify. We may be sure that Mr. Lewis has been confined by this history— trapped by his inability to let it go. In Battlegrounds of Memory he has brought to bear all his knowledge not only of his family but of literature and writing, of Southern history, and of fiction (whose techniques he uses to reconstruct the early life of his family during and after the Civil War). Throughout his narrative he is often a witness, not a participant; and that is as it must be. Occasionally he omits details—about his wives and children, for example—that ought to be provided, if only sketchily. Sometimes, in his headlong charges, we are reminded of the Reverend Gail Hightower in Light in August. Hightower becomes overwhelmed by his own mythic reconstruction of an event in the Civil War involving his grandfather: “It was as if he couldn’t get religion and that galloping cavalry and his dead grandfather shot from the galloping horse untangled from each other.” Unlike Hightower Lewis does untangle one element from another— but never disentangles himself from the whole sorry mess, whether it is his father’s adultery or his mother’s bitterness or the father’s parents’ refusal to allow him to return to the bosom of the family after he has run away or the mother’s mother’s unwillingness to raise her daughter.

Now that he has finished this splendid book, we must hope that Clay Lewis can turn to writing that is less personal and painful—to more stories or a novel, to anything less confining than the dreary round in which he has been trapped for some 40 years. He writes so well and so movingly that it seems a shame he has not written and published more.

Let us hope that Lewis will write another book now that he has been freed of this terrible burden. In the meantime we should be grateful for Battlegrounds of Memory, which is neatly shaped and nicely turned. The prose, always serviceable, often rises to brilliance. We leave the author as the pieces of this agonizing history fall into place for him and the reader: “This world of wounded family that I have constructed out of remnants of the past suddenly turns outside in. What I have built is, in mirror and shadow, what I am at tin-moment, sightings in a vast inner night that I possess more truly than I possess anything. . . . It is a dark sun and one source of every thought, word, and deed I have ever had or ever will have—this giant absence, my inheritance.”


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