On Outlaw Excellence ~ Jaimy Gordon


(Editor’s note: Every year, Concordia College hosts the National Book Awards on Campus program.  As part of that program, winners and finalists of the National Book Award give a talk to a lunch group of first year students and various faculty on the theme of academic excellence.  This essay was Jaimy Gordon’s talk.)

There have been many profound exegeses of excellence in these halls. Mine will not be one of them. Mine will be all about me, not because I’m excellent, but because I’m not; or rather, I think I can claim, with no false modesty, that I am excellent at not being excellent, and finally made an art of it – that is, my literary art, such as it is, is all about that – not being excellent. Therefore I am going to take the confessional approach here, arriving in the vestibule of excellence via the non-members’ entrance. I’ll speak to excellence through its own bulletproof window, kind of like the window at the police station – at the police station but not inside the police station ‑ where you go to pay your fine.

When it first made its way to me, the subject of this talk had been narrowed down to academic excellence. This was later corrected, but too late: The damage had been done. I had to wonder whether you should take (or I should offer) advice about academic excellence from somebody who wasn’t all that good in school. Was I any good in school? I was uneven. I was never in that line outside the professor’s office, waiting to ask, Why didn’t I get an A in the geography of Siberia? I knew why I didn’t get an A in the geography of Siberia. I would start reading a text on the geography of Siberia and I might come across the word podzol, and then I would waste the next two hours admiring its weirdness and scrutinizing its usages and etymology. By the way, I finally got the word podzol into a book only this year, 45 years later. It’s in Lord of Misrule, page 96.

So I didn’t put the time I should have into learning the geography of Siberia, but I did learn things along the way. The dirty truth is, I worked hard, but only in areas that came easily to me. What were they? English and languages.  At the same time, I was curious about (just for example) evolutionary biology, anthropology, political thought, the sociology of religion, and especially history, but I didn’t much care about getting an A in them. I did enjoy buying the texts and heavily annotating the opening chapters of them – so heavily that, as previously mentioned, I often ran out of time before I got to the assigned reading for the class.

The trouble about excellence is that it invariably requires some non-excellence in the vicinity in order to show. When I was a child, excellence was a trait largely encouraged by grownups, who used it to separate one kind of child from another. I didn’t much care for grownups, and anyway when I did consciously strive for excellence, somebody else usually got there first. I was the second of five kids of the same two parents, an unheard of number of progeny for one family in the Baltimore Reformed Jewish community I grew up in. We were an outlaw band, raffish, wild and loud, our ethos very much us‑against‑the‑world. None of us respected a closed door. No one of us dared to be excellent. Inside this family, for me to be excellent at anything besides ping pong required furtiveness. Already when I was in high school, such writing as I got done, I did at 2:00 or even at 5:00 in the morning. I might carry a quilt and a bunch of pillows into the shower stall, where I could have some privacy. This resulted in poems as dense as iron ingots, tempered in the smoke of alchemists and practitioners of the black arts. I found them excellent, even if no one else read them. But even then I was aware of a certain tension:  Could excellence be for oneself alone? That seemed illogical and unbalanced, like one hand clapping. Wasn’t this early taste for eccentric excellence actually a form of escape from competition?

Maybe outlaw excellence is a contradiction in terms, but that was the route that appealed to me from the start. Competition at school was aggressive and exhausting and generally required me to assert myself at some activity that didn’t come naturally to me, like writing skits for holidays. And besides I would lose at every open competition. When competition was underway, I usually found it better to find my way discreetly back to my shower stall, book in hand. In high school I discovered an abandoned dressing room behind the study hall, which had once been a theater; and there I repaired, to read of course, read a lot, write a little. Reading is associated with self-improvement, and self-improvement is a route to excellence, but at the time, this was a retreat, a falling back to my personal stronghold, or hideout, lined with books, novels in particular. I didn’t associate this action with excelling, just the opposite, and when I got caught there once by a janitor I came within a hair of being ejected from school —  even though you could say that such vice led to a dubious sort of excellence in the end.

Even in college, where I had excellent instruction, I continued to want to carry books off to my lair, my shower stall, and read them in solitude. Exams seemed senseless: Why commit things to memory by a certain date only to forget them again in a week? What I did instead when exam time was approaching was blow my monthly stipend at the bookstore on a stack of novels not assigned in any class. It may sound like bragging now, but at the time I was in despair of myself. During exam week, when everybody else got a sickly cast from lack of sleep, my skin cleared. I was reading Forster and Elizabeth Bowen. I also walked and walked, like a Romantic poet. I can walk, and often still do, with a book in front of my face.

I don’t want you to suppose I didn’t pay a price for this, in self esteem. I love my life but I’ve never been much of a fan of myself. This is not a joke; it’s a central fact of my existence. I believe I have talent. I’ve squandered most of it. I know I’ve been given opportunities which I not only wasted but met with the most fatuous ingratitude. I am 66 years old but haven’t written 66 years’ worth of books, far from it. Still, what I have written has been noticed by at least a few. Shortly after my second novel, She Drove Without Stopping, appeared, I received an award for my fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters. For the ceremony I was seated on stage next to John Updike, which, I later realized, probably meant that he was on the committee that had chosen me for this award. Instead of taking the opportunity to thank him, and tell him that his novel The Centaur – which won the National Book Award in 1964 — had given me the liberty to write showy metaphors and feel for mythic understructure and otherwise had a tremendous influence on me in my youth, I nervously prattled on and on to him about a male colleague of mine in Michigan who claims to consult Updike’s nonfiction as a Bible on how to cope with premature ejaculation. This was rather a conversation stopper, and there went a splendid opportunity. Later I put a question to myself that I’ve had to ask far too many times: What was I thinking of?

If at the age of 66 I compare my oeuvre to Updike’s, I haven’t done much. Four months ago, despite having been well looked after in terms of honors and awards, I felt, for good reason, largely invisible as an artist and otherwise like a seedy old outlaw on the down slope. And I am still that, in this sense: The kind of artist I am (and was always going to be) is never going to write 60 books, never going to write the whole human comedy, with every order of society represented, from highest to lowest. I do summon the rich language I’ve reaped from a life of promiscuous reading (and listening), and then I write for, and about, the low, the homeless, the failure, the outsider, whose relation to excellence, like my own, is always anguished and problematic.

But then four months ago a strange thing happened: my book about damaged old horses and humans on the down slope won the National Book Award. It’s wonderful for me that it did win, of course. But it is still in every particular the art that a life like mine produces, all about desperate efforts on the margins where excellence is a thing that happens far away, and winning is either small and momentary, or recalled, bittersweet, from the past.

I’ve been oddly comforted to realize that some of the poets and writers most necessary to me have also had small oeuvres, and sometimes lived, as I do, with the sense of what they might have accomplished if they’d had the healthy will and steady industry of an Updike. I was deeply struck by a letter from Baudelaire to his mother, Mme. Aupick – especially because Baudelaire is a writer of supreme importance to me, in his Parnassian alexandrines and nostalgia for the gutter, and I could not bear for him to be different from himself in any way. He has just seen an exhibition of the early papers of Balzac and he reports in despair that not only the prose but even the quality of the ideas progresses, with such regular work and discipline. Some of the other writers whom I thank every day for writing one or two books instead of 60 are Bruno Schulz (who has the excuse that he was not only obstructed by war but destroyed by it); Ralph Ellison and Katherine Anne Porter, who both tried to correct their sparse but brilliant and indispensable midlife output with massive final tomes that no one reads; Samuel Butler, who wrote somewhere that the purpose of life was to get his books into other people’s studies while keeping their books out of his – and he surely wrote 60 books, but now we read only The Way of All Flesh and thank god for it; Richard Hughes, who gave us A High Wind in Jamaica, Darryl Pinckney, who wrote High Cotton, Henry Roth, Call It Sleep, Malcolm Braly, On the Yard, Keith Waldrop, Light While There Is Light, Sybille Bedford, A Legacy, and Jean Rhys, whose three or four novels are all the same book to me.

In the end I both savor and curse this aspect of myself, this outlaw excellence, one name for a mocking Doppelgänger that has dogged me all my life.

I may even have some genetic claim on it, or some genes at cross purposes may have had their claim on me. More than I was allowed to know when I was a girl, I am the product of two usually warring ways of looking at the world – and so, I think, is my novel, Lord of Misrule.

Both my parents were Jewish, the children of immigrants who arrived in America shortly before the turn of the century, but my father was prep school, military school and Ivy educated. His mother, having made a fortune from two elegant hat shops by the time she was thirty, left filthy trade behind her and never worked again, went to lectures and concerts and museums and so at least mimicked the life of the cultured upper class in New York City, where she lived for the rest of her life. She obliterated all trace of a Yiddish accent, if she ever had one. She was literary (in accordance with her will, her funeral consisted of a reading of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar”), indomitably formal, a kind of nun of aesthetic aspiration and a Germanophile. She got rid of her husband early.

My mother’s mother was a garment worker who, like my father’s mother, made hats, but on the factory end, not management. She too parted from her husband early. (She later remarried an alcoholic with a flourishing window-washing business that landed many contracts with the city – a sure sign of corruption, though that never occurred to me when I was young.) My mother was raised by her grandparents on Patterson Park Avenue in East Baltimore, among seven aunts and uncles, none of whom, as far as I know, ever read a book, in a horseplaying household where shabbos ended in a poker game and a number of shady enterprises were tolerated, so that two uncles went to jail and one was eventually murdered. My mother put all this behind her and graduated from Goucher College in 1941, already married to my father who had gone to Hopkins and then Columbia Law. We didn’t see much of her family, except at an occasional seder or bar mitzvah.

I had an excellent education, and never wanted to be anything but a writer. All the same, I was drawn to a wild-eyed horsetrainer and the racetrack where he ran his horses, in Charles Town, West Virginia, in my twenties. Lord of Misrule is a novel about the seediest possible racetrack, created by a writer who has the highest possible literary aspirations, and my language surely shows it. The characters in Lord of Misrule (especially the loan shark Two‑Tie) talk like my Baltimore uncles, except for the ancient groom Medicine Ed, who, being from South Carolina like most poor black folk I knew in Baltimore when I was growing up, talks like my great‑grandparents’ neighbors on Patterson Park Avenue in the fifties, after most white families had departed.

In the end like most people I am not so much true to myself as stuck with myself, but as a writer I find myself in surprisingly good company – for art is so comprehensive and forgiving that even such troubled relations with excellence as my own can make a book – maybe even an excellent book.