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Lit Matters: Running… and Saul Bellow

humboldtby Michael Henry

Sure, I read some as a kid—mostly science fiction, like Dune and the Foundation trilogy, and for a time I had a subscription to Omni magazine—but it wasn’t something that defined me, or provided escape from the difficult landscape of my boyhood, in a working-class suburb of Buffalo, New York. Believe me, I could have used an escape, being a skinny, sensitive kid in a pretty tough town. Instead of reading, in 8th grade I found a different way to combat the constant, gradual wearing down of my easy-to-crumble psyche. I became a runner. Some bully right up in my face? Run away! Angry and angst-ridden, but afraid to show it? Go for a long run! Until exhaustion. I used up that fear and anger, burned it away, fuel to help me cover mile after mile.

I ran and ran, mostly away from my troubles. At the end of 9th grade, I disappeared from the school I’d attended since kindergarten. I suffered from a focused kind of verbal and physical abuse that most kids in my neighborhood seemed to handle with little trouble, but it decimated me. Which is to say that it was all my fault, not the fault of the other kids. (Okay, not really. Those boys were stupid assholes, and I hate them deeply, still.) So I transferred to an all-boys Jesuit school.

Once there, I became a pretty decent long-distance runner. My senior year, our cross country team was ranked 4th in New York State, and I began to grow into the person I’d always wanted to become. Not a wussy crybaby, but a runner, someone who could endure. Someone who believed he could actually handle difficulty.

Eventually, running’s power to keep me happy and grounded began to wane. I’m not sure why. I can only say that life in college grew increasingly more complicated, and I could no longer bipedally cruise away from my unhappiness—my grief at losing things: my father (divorce); the house I grew up in (my mother couldn’t afford it alone); friends (the few I’d abandoned when leaving that first school, and others); my first love (a naïve, sweet girl with wavy blonde hair, blue eyes, and goofy laugh). There were other losses, too, but that’s another story.

My junior year, I fell into a deep depression, and grew self-violent, and did dumb things. I was angry, so angry, all the time. I punched through windows and mirrors and got stitches. I punched walls and broke bones. (“You know, when you punch a wall the wall always wins,” the ER doc told me. How helpful.) I drank myself into oblivion almost every weekend. I listened to The Clash and Public Image Ltd and wanted to tear down the world. That sort of foolishness. (For more on this, see Ben Whitmer’s recent post on Bullshit Male Sadness.)

At the time I was majoring in biology, but it wasn’t a good fit. My grades were terrible. I was on academic probation. I didn’t look like my fellow students, I didn’t think like them, I didn’t like them, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t like me. Running away seemed impossible. Dropping out of college would have sent my mother into an apoplectic shock. (“I don’t care what you do with your life,” she used to say, “but you are going to go to college and you’re going to get your degree.”)

In the spring of 1987, my best friend Bob—a guy I’d met at the Jesuit school, a person I deeply admired, who was always feeding me books to read, like Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, Catcher in the Rye—gave me a copy of Humboldt’s Gift, by Saul Bellow.

I remember one night, soon after he’d loaned me the book. I was living in a single room off campus and running 50 miles a week, prepping for outdoor track season. A friend and I went to see a documentary on Picasso, in his studio. I was mesmerized by how Picasso got lost in his work, how he didn’t care about whether it was good or not, or who was around, or anything.

After the movie, I walked back to my dorm room in the cool spring air. It was dark out, and the streets were quiet. The trees were almost green, their leaves fresh and modest, new births. I sat down at my desk and opened my population biology book. I skimmed over the homework I had due, the indecipherable questions that meant nothing to me.

I sat there for a long time with the book open, my desk lamp hot and bright. I thought about my life. What I liked, and what frightened me. The things I enjoyed most—art, philosophy, music, literature—scared me witless. They were also the things that Bob and I and our friends had been discussing for years. They challenged my intellect and made me feel alive. I didn’t know much, though, and often felt stupid around people who talked about such things. I guess sometimes the things you fear most are the things you love the most.

Out the window a large pine tree began to sway in a sudden wind. A rainstorm rolling in from the west. I closed the biology book and placed it carefully on a low bookshelf near my feet. I opened my copy of Humboldt’s Gift.

The main character is Charles Citrine, a quirky middle-aged man whose life is falling apart. While this is happening, he’s haunted by his deceased mentor, a failed poet by the name of Von Humboldt Fleisher.

I had only a few chapters left, and took my time. And then I came across this passage, where Charles has arranged to have Humboldt disinterred and re-buried, in style, in New Jersey, alongside his mother:

Two attendants were opening the hearse as we came around to the back, moving slowly. Waldemar was wearing all the mourning he could find in his gambler’s wardrobe. Hat, trousers, and shoes were black, but his sport coat had large red houndstooth checks and in the sunshine of a delayed overwarm spring the fuzz was shining. Menasha, sad, smiling in thick glasses, felt his way over grass and gravel, his feet all the more cautious because he was looking up into the trees. He couldn’t have been seeing much, a few sycamores and elms and birds and the squirrels coming and going in their fits-and-starts fashion. It was a low moment. There was a massive check threatened, as if a general strike against nature might occur. What if blood should not circulate, if food should not digest, breath fail to breathe, if the sap should not overcome the heaviness of the trees? And death, death, death, death, like so many stabs, like murder¾the belly, the breast, the heart. This was a moment I could scarcely bear….

Reading that passage, I realized: you can’t run away from fear, or loss. You can’t run away from sadness, or difficulty. You can only endure. Which is a function of great literature, I believe. It teaches you how to endure those massive checks and failures, and to breathe.

The next day, I went to the registrar’s office and dropped the pop bio class. Then I walked over to the quad and entered the English department offices and changed my major from biology to English. The head of the department, a poet by the name of Jarold Ramsey, helped me fill out the paperwork, and when we were done, he rang a little bell to sound the occasion. “It’s one of our little traditions,” he said. I shivered as its bright music echoed through the empty hall.

Michael Henry is the executive director and co-founder of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. He writes poetry, essays, and memoir.

This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!

14 comments on “Lit Matters: Running… and Saul Bellow

  1. Anonymous
    December 3, 2014

    I changed majors from Biology to English, too, after seeing our college production of King Lear.

    • mjhenry
      December 3, 2014

      Failed biologists, unite! I guess Picasso and Shakespeare can have a powerful effect on a collegian.

  2. andreadupree
    December 3, 2014

    What a terrific post. Love the lines: “You can’t run away from sadness, or difficulty. You can only endure. Which is a function of great literature, I believe. It teaches you how to endure those massive checks and failures, and to breathe.”

  3. Marj Hahne
    December 3, 2014

    I love this heartful window into you, Michael. The good writing is a bonus.

    • mjhenry
      December 3, 2014

      Thanks, Marj! You’re the best.

  4. Jenny Itell
    December 3, 2014

    What a moving story of a journey toward writing. Mike, you’ve convinced me to read Humboldt’s Gift this year. Well, next year. 2015!

    • mjhenry
      December 3, 2014

      Thanks, Jenny! I also highly recommend Henderson the Rain King.

      I was also lucky enough to see Bellow, in person, reading in Boston, back in the day (probably 1989 or so).

  5. dlperkins1
    December 3, 2014

    Wonderful essay, Michael! Do you happen to have a book recco for a mixed-up “at-risk” 16 yr-old boy – who doesn’t read much – that might also address how to endure those sad, massive checks and failures? ~ Petra

    • mjhenry
      December 3, 2014

      Great question, Petra! Let’s see, Catcher in the Rye, of course. I also loved the memoir Stop-Time by Frank Conroy, though it’s a bit dated (he grew up in the 40s and 50s).

      Here are two sort of crazy ideas–Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and The Power of Myth, by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers.

      Anyone else have suggestions? (S.E. Hinton, perhaps?)

      • heather
        December 3, 2014

        Yes, I promise these two will grab him — written by two guys who did jail time and turned their life around by practicing meditation and following Buddhist principals. Dharma Punx by Noah Levine and
        Hardcore Zen by Brad Warner

  6. heather
    December 3, 2014

    Thank you for this — I happen to love stories that share those moments when someone makes a 180 degree change on his life’s journey. It takes courage to really listen and feel our inner selves enough to change our course. Often it is experiencing the desperate sadness and anger that helps pop the lid off.
    And the ringing of bell by the English department head could be nothing less than an angelic blessing that says you surely took the right road.

  7. Roxanne
    December 7, 2014

    Was the Picasso documentary “The Mystery of Picasso,” by chance? One of my mentors, the poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, put that on my reading list the first semester of my MFA program. Like you, I was mesmerized by Picasso’s manner–how bold he was with every single stroke, even the first ones he put on blank canvas! Talk about balls! I love how your piece turns at that moment/after the viewing, and your own clarity and purpose emerge. Seeing Picasso at work is a brilliant way to kill the blues. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • mjhenry
      December 8, 2014

      Yes, I think that’s the one! I too loved it when it showed him painting from the other side of the canvas–you’d just see the brushstrokes, but no hand, no brush.

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