Mostly Literary Memoirs

By Richard Elman

Subjects: Autobiography, Biography And Memoir
Paperback : 9780791438800, 277 pages, June 1999
Hardcover : 9780791438794, 277 pages, July 1998

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Table of contents


Preface: Post Time

Part I. In Addition to George Spelvin

Motke Kaplan

Alexander Kerensky

Yvor Winters, Thom Gunn, and Others

Aldous Huxley

Tillie Olsen

Dan Jacobson

David Lamson


William Bronk

Bernard Malamud

Part II. New York, N.Y.

Sy Krim

Wally Markfield and Others

Matthew Josephson

Max Margulis

John Hall Wheelock

Walker Evans

Randolf Wicker

Willard Trask

Herbert Biberman

William Butler

Morris Renek

Alfred Kreymborg

Doug Ward: Peers and Tears

Robert Lowell: A Life Study

Hunter S. Thompson

Saul Newton: Newton's Laws

Richard Price

Fred Busch

Joel Leiber

Jules Olitski

Lucinda Childs

Allen Ginsberg and Others

Lore Segal

Elie Wiesel

Charlie's Bird

Part III. Relaxing at the Touro

Elman: The Man and the Masks—A Night in Evanston


Studs Terkel

Nuruddin Farrar

W. H. Auden

Little Richard Penniman

Grace Paley

Gil Sorrentino

C. P. Snow: The Name of the Game

Stanley Edgar Hyman

Faye Dunaway

Louise Varese

Pete Martin

George William Booth

Lyndon Johnson

Bill Kennedy

Roberto Sosa

Susan Meiselas

Ernesto Cardenal

Tomas Borge: "Falta Nada!"


Afterword: Homage to Isaac Babel

Candid snapshots in prose of literary and other figures--ranging from Aldous Huxley and Isaac Bashevis Singer to Faye Dunaway and Hunter S. Thompson--whom the author encountered during four decades as a working writer and journalist.


In the course of the same old race I find myself writing about knowing some people—how fame seems to set some people apart from us, once known: I was astonished by Ernest Hemingway's small, weak handshake when we were introduced at Scribners by John Hall Wheelock and by the jolt of force with which Elie Wiesel squeezed my hand.

How long ago seems knowing, too: when I first meet Isaac Singer he asks me, "Who is Mr. Saul Bellow?"

We're on the Upper West Side in his apartment next to the funeral parlor. A yellow parakeet hops around on Singer's bald forehead. Singer's great comic story of faith, "Gimpel the Fool," has only recently been published from Yiddish into English in a translation by Saul Bellow. They're both still a long way from Stockholm.

"Do you know him? Can you tell me who this Mr. Bellow is?" he asks. It was not always possible to guess Singer's motives in acting as though he was not impressed with worldly reputations. His features of a medieval Polish saint, even to a faint white-haired tonsure effect around the crown of his skull, were backlit by the glowing monitor from his mischievous incubus.—from the Preface

These are Richard Elman's candid snapshots in prose of the various, mostly literary celebrities he encountered during his four decades as a working writer and journalist—among them Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tillie Olsen, Bernard Malamud, Faye Dunaway, Hunter S. Thompson, and other important artists and writers who were Elman's teachers and, occasionally, adversaries. Engagingly written and never superficial, these portraits and anecdotes in many cases strike to the center of each subject's art. To many readers, these persons are just "names"; Elman brings them to life while never simplifying or overdramatizing their work.

Richard Elman was the author of twenty-five books, including Fredi&Shirl&The Kids, The 28th Day of Elul, Cocktails at Somoza's, and Tar Beach, and was Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at State University of New York, Stony Brook. Under the pseudonym John Howland Spyker, he was the author of the much praised memoir of life in upstate New York, Little Lives.


"Elman's impressions are sharp, strongly drawn, and quite revealing." — Kirkus Reviews

"What sets this work apart from other recent memoirs is that Elman (Tar Beach) is finally less revealing of himself than of his cultural milieu. Through brief essays, Elman records his encounters with a range of important and interesting public figures-mostly other writers but also musicians, actors, and politicians. Elman is both poignant, as when he recalls finally meeting the other, better known Richard Ellmann-a gathering that included Hannah Arendt, Dwight MacDonald and Daniel Bell-and bawdy, as when he describes how Little Richard masturbated twice during an interview. Not all the anecdotes in this collection are substantive enough to stand alone, but read together they are engaging and enlightening." — Publishers Weekly

"On the basis of these astute and entertaining pieces, it's clear that Elman had what Keats called negative capability--the ability to enter into other people's moral natures while suspending moral judgment--in abundance. ... Namedropping is a slight but mostly absorbing collection. On the one hand, it offers some delicious gossip as a form of social history. ... Mingled in with the gossip are tart and satisfying remarks like this one about Hunter Thompson, who once took Elman on a terrifying nighttime motorcycle ride: 'All I ever learned from his depictions of Las Vegas and political conventions I knew in kindergarten.' ... The really peculiar and riveting and exasperating quality to this collection is that for all Elman's many disappointments, he seems never to have lost his illusions. There are penalties for that, and though they might be unfair, they are not always undeserved." — The New York Times Book Review

"...offer[s] budding critics a more rewarding path to follow than the yellow-brick road of theory-mad speculation and obscurantist jargon, that has pretty much shut out the educated reading public from contemporary literary criticism." — The Washington Post Book World

"Incisive and irreverent, these tales of a writer's travels in the literary world intrigue, amuse, and, paradoxically, create a fascinating self-portrait—warts and all."— Kelly Cherry, University of Wisconsin

"I think it a remarkable collocation of memories—an original work of words, as well as a series of sharply limned portraits of those whose names are dropped. Both the narrative vantage deployed and the attitudes displayed are worth disseminating widely; there's a freshness to the observation even of men and women long dead that brings them to life on the page." — Nicholas Delbanco, University of Michigan

"It really isn't an effective curse to 'live in interesting times.' Richard Elman has, and his interest has been directed to capturing the leading literary and artistic figures of his age in uncommonly revealing episodes. He is honest about these people and about himself, a balance that other memoirists have not always so nicely achieved.

"One of the book's advantages is Elman's range; whereas other literary memoirists limit themselves to a specific gathering, Elman includes a lifetime of contacts, and it is the value of this very observant and interactive life that comes through. I know of no one else, for example, who was close to both Isaac Bashevis Singer and Hunter S. Thompson, much less anyone who could understand the genius of each writer equally well. That Elman does speaks for his broad grasp of our literary era, and that he can be just as intimate and insightful with both suggests that our times may not be as fragmentary as we've feared." — Jerome Klinkowitz, author of Keeping Literary Company: Working with Writers since the Sixties

"Richard Elman obviously has had a talent for friendship, especially with writers whose work he admired. He seems to have known or met everyone, from Tillie Olsen and Robert Lowell to Faye Dunaway, and his recollections usually capture something essential or unexpected about them, and finally about himself. Many of his idols were bound to disappoint him, as he sometimes disappoints himself, but his plain-spoken honesty is bracing. The rueful, bittersweet sketch of I .B. Singer is itself worth the price of admission." — Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English, City University of New York

"Richard Elman's Namedropping is the most refreshing of rogues' galleries, for all its rogues are articulate and accomplished. Here is a memoir in the form of biography, in the tradition of Ford Madox Ford, another learned and provocative man of letters. Elman is funny, irreverent, and, most of all, generous of heart." — William O'Rourke, author of Signs of the Literary Times: Essays, Reviews, Profiles 1970-1992