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How Tom Sawyer changed my life

Episode 7: Larry Goldstein — “How Tom Sawyer changed my life”

Larry Goldstein: Everyone has read all the poems about London, and New York, and Paris and places like that. But Los Angeles has never been given credit for the number of poems by wonderful poets who have written about it. Pleasure. Sensual pleasure, intellectual pleasure. That’s really what the city is about. That was the lure of course especially because of the movie industry. The glamour, and a lot of artificiality, and a lot of the concern now about image and about how we’re giving up a lot of our intellectual freedom to follow what Hollywood wants us to where they want to take us. It really gives Los Angeles a uniqueness that I was always conscious of in Culver City especially when I was growing up there.

MGM Studios was the anchor for all the industry in Culver City. Hal Roach Studios was there. That’s where Laurel and Hardy did all their films, which I loved so much when I was growing up. I think poets realized they have there some aspects of contemporary life that you don’t find when you read poems by people in New York or San Francisco.

For example, I have a chapter on poems about the freeway. And the freeway which started in Los Angeles of course now all cities have something like it. But when it came along in the 1950s is and then grew in the 1960s, it was one of the aspects of life in Los Angeles that was most fascinating. You would get in your car. This is when there were millions fewer cars on the freeway, and especially late at night, you would just drive around for an hour or two just for the thrill of driving.

This is by Eloise Klein Healey who was until recently the poet laureate of Los Angeles and I think this is a poem from the 1950s talking about the pleasure or the mystical pleasure of driving the freeway. It’s called “This Darknight Speed.”

“Sometimes I feel about love like driving places at dark night speed with the radio on doing what that saxophone was barking in the bar. ‘Better yet, better yet, better get in the car.’ Sometimes I forget simple words like “rapture” for this animal joy. The sense of being up to speed emerging from a ramp knowing the driver in the mirror is already adjusting to meet me and wants it to go smooth. Wants me to have my turn, not break acceleration, or miss a beat. Wants to meet and make a dance of it at such a speed. If you can imagine, at such a speed that eyes tear from wind blowing music out the windows. I always believe I could start pacing with somebody on a long highway playing all the fast songs and looking at the truck stops for that one car. Because sometimes, I’m lonely or I need to feel alive or I just like being on the road in a car in a marvelous monstrous killer machine that fills a human body crazy high on landscape flying by the windows, just a blur, just a shot of speed. I always believe I could get myself in somebody’s eyes, wide and interstate steady, just flat out speeding along and scanning the road ahead, wanting to drive like that forever. And if I could keep it up, God if I could keep that up, I’d go absolutely right straight crazy to heaven.”

That really captures the ecstasy of speeding, fantasizing that the cars that are speeding along with you contain people just like you who would fall in love with you if they knew you if you’d stop the car, but you never want to stop the car because the sensation of speed is so thrilling. That is something at the heart of Los Angeles consciousness that you don’t find in the poetry of any other place in the country I think.

The only analogy would be the pleasure of surfing, and there’s a number of good poems which I have in a chapter about surfing, about living at the beach, about spending the whole day with your friends out in the waves sitting on the surfboard, waiting for that perfect wave to come in. And then the ecstasy when a big wave comes and you ride it all the way into shore. These moments of ecstasy which poets have always specialized in. You find again in the poetry of Los Angeles to have all of that feeling in a city poem, in an urban poem. You had to wait, everyone had to wait for Los Angeles to develop to get that interesting mix.

And then Hollywood, of course, would be a third example. The ecstasy of going to the movies, of losing yourself in the pleasure of the acting and the cinematic rush, the montage scenes one after the other. It involves the same sort of “rapture,” as Eloise Klein Healy calls it, in which you feel lifted out of your ordinary self into some “super self,” some great mystical self. Plenty of sex, plenty of money, all the elements of good narrative is there. And often the intention is to shock you. Shock you in bad ways, but shock you in good ways too. Shock you out of your kind of old-fashioned ideas into an acceptance of a certain liberated mentality, liberated maybe in good ways and bad.

I have analyzed a couple of poems about Charles Manson and about crime and about corruption and the corruption of Hollywood, the excesses of Hollywood. So all of that turmoil is going on at the same time. You can go to Los Angeles for the leisure, in the happy recreation. You can go there to participate in rituals and ceremonies which are destructive and involve drugs of dangerous kind and so forth. So you’re always being surprised by what you find there.

This is a good poem to conclude on. It’s by Joy Harjo who’s a Native American poet. And it’s titled “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles.” It’s a pro-Los Angeles poem of a different kind than the Eloise Klein Healey’s.

She says, “There are strangers above me, below me, and all around me. And we are all strange in this place of recent invention (for a Native American, that is, this would be very recent invention). This city named for angels appears naked and stripped of anything resembling the shaking of turtle shells, the songs of human voices on a summer night outside Okmulgee. Yet it’s perpetually summer here, and beautiful. The shimmer of gods is easier to perceive at sunrise or dusk when those who remember us here in the illusion of the marketplace turn toward the changing of the sun and say our names. We matter to somebody. We must matter to the strange God who imagines us as we revolve together in the dark sky on the path to the Milky Way. We can’t easily see that starry road from the perspective of the crossing of boulevards, can’t hear it in the whine of civilization or taste the minerals of planets in hamburgers. But we can buy a map here of the star’s homes, dial a tone for dangerous love, choose from several brands of water, or a hiss of oxygen for gentle rejuvenation. Everyone knows you can’t buy love, but you can sell your soul for less than a song to a stranger who will sell it to someone else for a profit until you’re owned by a company of strangers in the city of the strange and getting stranger. I’d rather understand how to sing from a crow who was never good at singing or much of anything but finding gold in the trash of humans. “So what are we doing here?” I asked the crow parading on the ledge of falling that hangs over this precarious city. Crow just laughs and says, “Wait, wait and see.” And I am waiting and not seeing anything, not just yet. But like Crow, I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.”

Los Angeles poetry is full of poems like that. Imagery of fire, of course, there’s always fires in Los Angeles, and the terror of fire may be coming down into the city from the foothills of the mountains is always strong there. And all the of fire, water, air. The air, either smoggy or that incredibly crystalline air that you get when the wind is blowing the smoke or smog away and you have that light which everyone agrees is unlike the light anywhere in the world. Especially when you get up in the morning, you look outside, and you really feel like your soul is moving straight up into heaven because it’s just so clear, and there’s nothing like it.

When you put all of that together, and you put it together with the historical circumstances of the way Los Angeles was created. In the midst, it was originally a Native American village, and then was taken over by Hispanic military forces coming from Mexico, and then they were thrown out by the pioneers, the white civilization moving across the country to the frontier. And the wonderful complexity of living there amidst every minority group. There’s an intuitive understanding of what’s going on in the world that settles in Los Angeles because of that mixture.

Remembering Tom Kelly

For most readers of the New York Times obituary on Feb. 14, 2016, it was a case of “title tells all.”

“Tommy Kelly, 90, Hollywood’s Tom Sawyer” specified the one fact about the deceased likely to be of general interest. In 1937, after a prolonged search for the perfect Tom in his adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic novel (a forerunner of his later search for the perfect Scarlett O’Hara), David O. Selznick selected a 12-year-old “stickball-playing Cinderella” from the East Bronx for a short-lived acting career in the movie capital.

For this reader, though, the point of contact was a sentence about the child-actor’s afterlife: “He taught high school English in Culver City, Calif.” (Culver City was the location of Selznick International Pictures, which produced The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.)

I was a student at Culver City High School from 1957-60 and had an encounter with Tom Kelly that changed my life profoundly — and by doing so, altered the lives, slightly or significantly, of some portion of my future students.

The stranger

Tom Kelly, 1960

Tom Kelly, Culver City High yearbook, 1960.

Like many high schools in America, Culver High featured a “career day” for seniors in their last semester before graduation. Students filled out a form asking about their aspirations for a permanent occupation, with the promise that each senior would have an opportunity to hear from an adult in the field who could provide useful information about how to navigate toward that goal. I wrote down that I wanted to be a writer.

Some weeks later I received a notice that Mr. Kelly, administrator of the program, wished to see me in his office. I knew him by sight but had never met him. I had no idea of his movie background. When I entered his office he flashed me the kind of unhappy grimace that signaled unwelcome news to come. Reserved in manner, he clearly wanted to make this meeting as subdued and brief as possible.

Of the nearly 400 graduating seniors, he informed me, I was the only one who requested a writer for the career day interview. The school had no writers from the community signed up to meet with students. “And I don’t know what to do about it,” Mr. Kelly audibly sighed. He was not acting; he genuinely suffered from the disappointing news he had just delivered. I told him, with obvious regret in my voice, that I had anticipated this outcome and that I would be willing to join one of the large groups that would meet with adults in business, teaching, or government service — the three largest categories.

Between yes and no

A brief interval ensued and we simply stared at each other. Seemingly even the best-laid plans in an efficient educational system left victims behind. “Let me think about this,” Mr. Kelly said as he turned his swivel chair to gaze out the window.

I was one of a dozen students in the college-prep seminar in humanities and would be chosen at the end of the term as valedictorian. I had just published an essay I hope never to see again on modern fiction and painting in the school’s literary magazine. As I watched Mr. Kelly wrestle with options and ethics, I appreciated for the first time the everyday pressures on a high school administrator.

After the kind of long pause sometimes described as “pregnant” he swiveled back to face me and said, “It’s not fair that every student should get their choice except you. If you want to be a writer, you should meet a writer.

“Here’s what I can do. Robert Kirsch, who’s a novelist and book editor of The Los Angeles Times, is a friend. I can ask him if he would let you visit him at his office. He may only be able to give you 20 minutes — you have to expect that. But he’ll tell you firsthand what it’s like to be a writer. Could you get downtown on your own steam?”

Yes, I said. I frequently rode the bus to the Los Angeles Public Library on 5th Street, which gave me easy pedestrian access to the Times building at 1st and Spring.

“I’ll let you know what he says.” Mr. Kelly walked me out a ways into the school. “Don’t be surprised if he says no,” he warned me again.

Kirsch said yes.

Another stranger

Poetry Los Angeles book cover, Goldstein
I found the editor in a cramped office with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and piles of books for review on rugs and desks. He showed little enthusiasm for the meeting and barked abruptly as I was seating myself, “You want to be a writer. Which writers are you reading?”

I thought afterward that he was braced for some gushing comments about The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road. I told him the truth: that I had read everything in print by Albert Camus.

Kirsch gave me a startled look. “He’s my favorite writer too! Which books do you like best?”

We spent an hour talking about Camus’ brilliant work in fiction, essay, and drama, and his tragic death by car accident a few months earlier.

Finally, Kirsch said he had to get back to work. We shook hands and he held onto mine in a firm clasp. “Wait a minute,” he ordered. There was another one of those contemplative pauses that seemed to come with adulthood. A long gazing away and then an earnest looking back. A sense that the scaffold of one’s future identity was being erected of durable possibilities, plank upon plank.

“Are you willing to try your hand at a book review for our weekend section?” he asked. “If you are, I’ll give you a book right now. If I like your review I’ll publish it. If I don’t you’ll never hear from me again.”

Of course I said yes and he put John Masters’ novel of Victorian India, The Venus of Konpara, in my hand. I left the building exhilarated, certain that I would write a publishable review and that my glamorous life as a writer would begin from the day it appeared in print.

Poetry Los Angeles

Editor’s note: Listen to this mini-podcast as Goldstein showcases work from his book of literary criticism, “Poetry Los Angeles: Reading the Essential Poems of the City” (The University of Michigan Press). The book features 40 poems about L.A., with chapters on Hollywood, the freeway, the Pacific Ocean, and more. Goldstein provides historical, critical, and cultural context throughout. Eloise Klein Healy, Joy Harjo, and Ice Cube are among the artists represented.

The artist at work

A Room in California, book cover

A longer memoir would follow my steps forward, all of them proceeding from Tom Kelly’s refusal to make it easier on himself by turning a blind eye to a student’s ambition. It would include my showing my Times reviews to the arts editor of the UCLA Daily Bruin and being given the job of bi-weekly book reviewer, which I held for two years before becoming arts editor in turn.

In that same magical year of 1960, my freshman composition instructor, the novelist-to-be Carolyn See, worked overtime to help me chasten my prose style and realize my goals as a writer. The republic of letters, she taught me, is welcoming to the young candidate who never loses faith in ultimate rewards.

My hypothetical memoir would sketch my progression from chance to chance (good and bad luck blended, as in every career), publication to publication, till the blessed day in 1970 when I began teaching at the University of Michigan.

Here I replicated Mr. Kelly’s encouragement of young talent, in the classroom, in committees and workshops, and as editor of the University’s flagship journal of scholarly and creative writing, Michigan Quarterly Review. During my 32 years in that position I selected abundant manuscripts from beginning authors, some of them now eminent, to share space with established writers. Always, I was aided by undergraduate and graduate student interns whom I mentored as they worked at shaping their own paths toward literary distinction.

Past and present

Tom Kelly’s Times obituary has caused me to look far backward during this retirement year. How to account for the vividness and emotional power of those scenes in 1960 involving a teenager bent upon mature achievement and the gatekeepers who may have recalled episodes of grace in their own seedtime and opened a gate to let me pass through? (Genesis 8:22: “While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest shall not cease.”)

The full force of one counselor’s seminal act makes me as grateful in retrospect as it did on that fateful day 56 years ago. Tom Kelly was no trickster like Tom Sawyer. He listened and he cared. As an educator he took pains to create an opportunity not just for me but, I discovered later, for many others, male and female, year after year.

I mourn his passing and celebrate his life in the Hollywood studio lights and the offices of Culver High. In the crucible of one small room I learned from his good deed the golden rule I have passed on to my students in Ann Arbor during a long academic career.

(Top image: Child actor Tommy Kelly as Tom Sawyer in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” 1938.)

Comments

  1. Judy Stonehill Labensohn - 1967

    I so enjoyed this Laurence, for two reasons. The first is that I also wanted to be a writer in high school and at our career’s day in 1963 the option did not appear. Unfortunately, I was more passive than you and did not ask for what did not appear on the list, so I became a social worker first. The second reason I loved this piece is because I was one of the youngish writers whose work you read and rejected nicely and eventually accepted. I’m trying to pass on that goodness to my own students in Israel. All best and thank you, Judy

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  2. ROGER lowenstein - 1964

    laurence: we are the same generation — freshmen in 1960. except i was lucky enough to have the english department at u-m — g.b. harrison, donald hall, herb barrows, jim gindin, etc etc……i am now semi-retired from running the charter school in los angeles i founded, and i am absolutely loving the free time, busier than ever……..best of luck! roger

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