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Wake Up, Stupid
By Mark Harris
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1959 Mark Harris
All rights reserved.
If you enjoy reading this epistolary novel you might think about writing me a letter. You might even write one. I have made many friends through the mail over the years, most of whom I have never met.
I grew up a passionate letter-writer, partly because of my mother's teaching. She made me feel dutiful about writing a letter to anyone who had written to me or who had given me something I should be grateful for. Lee Youngdahl's mother sounds quite like mine — "Why don't you write a little note to Dee?" she orders her son on Monday 15 October. I find myself writing now five hundred letters a year on my own machine with my own fingers.
Many people love me for my letters, but some of my letters have hurt people and have come back to cause me trouble. In a letter discharging my feeling upon somebody else I relieve myself of my burden by burdening someone else with my relief, and the injured party fights back: sometimes openly; sometimes roundabout, wounding me without revealing himself. Or sometimes he ignores me, our feelings cool, and my letter drifts to the bottom of things, to be covered over with time.
Seldom do the letters we write form themselves without help into a proper story — the only kind of story to tell: a story with a Beginning, a Middle, and an End. This book, Wake Up, Stupid, tells a proper story from beginning to end (via the middle) about a man confronted with a moral decision. Shall he go for the money or shall he stick by his friends? Will it be fame or love? In this book all the letters bearing upon his story are uniquely arranged, as they never are in life, permitting us to follow matters through every twist and turn, answering every question, satisfying all curiosity without our being conscious of the architecture of it.
In the quarter of a century which has passed since the appearance of this book the question has remained with us in the arts and in all life. Our hero's search for the answer should amuse us: a good book may make us laugh. If you laugh while reading this book you must not worry about yourself, you're quite okay.
It all looks so terribly easy, as it's supposed to look. I can tell you, however, that writing this book wasn't easy. But the idea of writing a book in the form of letters had been in my head since my earliest days. I had loved every page of Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and J.P. Marquand's The Late George Apley, and the epistolary stories of William Hazlett Upson featuring Alexander Botts, resourceful salesman for the Earthworm Tractor Company, in the Saturday Evening Post.
In a story made of letters each letter must speak absolutely truly from one person to another. No cheating. It must develop the character of both the writer and the recipient, even as it advances the plot, shapes Beginning, sustains Middle, and produces the climactic End neither one syllable too soon nor too late. The author of the book must never falsify the authors of the letters; he/she must remain invisible, doing everything, supplying everything, all the while unseen, so that the reader may think, "Who needs the author anyway — the story told itself."
Twenty-four years ago, on the evening of the day this book appeared, it received a tremendous, gratuitous — as far as I know unsolicited — advertisement on television during a broadcast by Huntley and Brinkley, two men who gave the news at once. I never knew if Huntley or Brinkley was the booster, or the grounds of his approval. Of course I was pleased that he enjoyed the book, as many people have enjoyed it ever since, even as the postage rates have risen and we have learned to commit to memory our favorite Zip Codes. Technology keeps threatening us with the idea that nobody ever really writes a letter any more. Nevertheless our mailperson walks the street, even as recently as this morning, with envelopes for me sometimes so ominous I hesitate to open them, but oftener kind letters from friends or relations making me laugh, which I prefer.
I hope you do, too. Write if you can.
Yours very personally,CHAPTER 2
Monday, October 1
[to Abner Klang, New York]
This morning I sent off to you air-mail a four-pound play in one marathon act, which I call Boswell's Manhattan Journal. Notify me of its arrival.
I hope it doesn't bore you, although I don't in the least demand nor expect that you will read it. I hope, too, that you will contrive to gather yourself together long enough to behave toward it in an appropriate manner. Since it is — I remind you — a play, there is no point in submitting it to Reader's Digest or Ring magazine or The Year's Best Crossword Puzzles or Zip or Collier's. Try to discard your absurd notions of where "the top" is. You might try, first, the man who produced Paul Purdy's play, and who is now doing Sweet Girl. I forget his name. What's his name?
After you have done something more or less reasonable, go have your typewriter fixed, you phool, and then telephone Mr. Wenk and tell him not to communicate with me further. He sent me his script, which I glanced at, which appeared to me to be as crude and incomprehensible as he himself, and which I thereupon returned to him. I am divorced from that project, and you may tell him so, though God knows I hate to put two ideas into your head at once.
I have here a series of letters and telegrams from you, dating back as far as April 22, which I have not answered because, as you may now see for yourself, I have been heroically at work. You may always know that when I do not reply to your mail I am at work or dead, preferably the former.
Let me anticipate your immediate question by replying No, I am at work on nothing else at the moment, and I have no plans except to romance my wife, amuse my children, lie on the back of my neck, hold down my job, and consort with select friends until my energies are restored. I worked thirteen months on the play, with scarcely a night's interruption.
Good luck,CHAPTER 3
Tuesday, October 2
[to Harold Rosenblatt, New Haven, Conn.]
Yesterday I sent off to you a carbon copy of the play, which I completed Friday morning at four o'clock, after which I went to bed and slept halfway into Saturday. I woke up hungry. Paul and Willa and Red and Rosemary came in the evening but left early in deference either to Willa's pregnancy or my post-partum exhaustion, although not until after we lamented at length your absence. Paul will produce the play at University Theater, beginning probably after Christmas.
Now I am faced with the task of fulfilling all vows made while the work-in-progress was in progress. I am going to catch up on my mail, an insane resolve which, in the past, far from relieving me of entanglements, has only drawn me into new confusion, controversy, and conflict. Fortunately I am wiser now than in the past.
I am also going to inquire into routes of escape from this wretched profession. Toward this end a sad beginning was attempted yesterday morning as I stood in front of the post- office at 18th & Diamond, my manuscript gone off to the other end of the continent, the American flag waving in the breeze above, and I with empty hands and nowhere to go. I had declared a holiday. Said I, "I shall go whither I am drawn," and I was drawn to school, so that my holiday seems to have lasted only a minute or so.Madly shall I cultivate my Tenure. Madly shall I assume administrative responsibilities. Yesterday I smilingly assumed, pro tem in your selfish absence, chairmanship of The Committee on Freshman Staff, which Mr. Gamble offered. He did not fail, first, however, to observe that I have been denied the privilege of committee service, the result, as he speculated, of my rather irregular attendance (or, to use his quaint terminology, my "rather regular absence") at general staff meetings.
I do not, in any case, expect to hold Mr. Gamble, and probably not Harbidge, but I do depend upon Paul, and Paul's influence over the cowardly Clinch. This, coupled with support I hope to enlist from Mr. Outerbridge, should give me at the critical instant the necessary majority, to wit:
Definite For Me:
Clinch (cowed by Paul)
Definitely Against Me:
I have your note of the 16th, and Beth and I are pleased that you are settled in. Did I tell you of my Harvard offer? Of course I shall not go, but it is a mouse with which to tease the local cats: dare Mr. Gamble let me be dropped if it be known that Harvard wants me? Beth and I agree that the chief advantage — indeed, the sole and single advantage of the possibility — is Harvard's proximity to the Boswell papers at Yale. Now, tell me what you think of the following proposition, which arises from my present indolence. I propose that you and I keep a Journal, mailing, say once a week, our entries to each other. Pending your reply, I am vowed to write each night at least one useful letter to a friend or enemy. I must write a little something every night, as a fighter punches the bag a little every day. It may be that in the end my fame shall rest upon my letters, or our Journal, and it will be seen that, although I was surely a fool, I had desirable friends and nasty enemies, and I always wrote a crafty prose. These letters, or our Journal, will be the history of the way a certain kind of man lived his life in a certain year in a certain age on a certain planet.
Dots-and-dashes-and-lots-of-flashes-from-border-to-border-and-coast-to-coast: Peggy Chambliss and Oliver Thompson are become illegal man and wife ... Clinch has written his 14,547th quatrain commemorating the villainy of his father ... Red Traphagen says the reason for their September failure was angry gods and bad pitching ... George Cofax grew a mustache over his lip over the summer ... The Foghorn will henceforth be published twice a week ... I have been very nearly excommunicated from the Church ... the beat generation is bleeding all over North Beach ... I am going to murder Cecile.
Love and kisses,CHAPTER 4
Wednesday, October 3
[to Clinton W. Blalock, Harvard University]
Once upon a time you expressed the thought that Harvard might want me if I wanted it, or her, or him, or them. Tell me now what you think.
You know, I long for the variety of seasons, which we do not have here. This city offers no nostalgia, and a writer cannot live without nostalgia. I am nostalgic for nostalgia.
I have just finished my Boswell-Johnson play, upon which I labored for many months. It has been, for me, the major effort of my life, and I have hoped, as I have written it, that it might satisfy the demands of the best taste, such as yours. Perhaps, if we are all lucky, we will have the opportunity to see it somewhere played.
If you should get over to Yale, look up my friend Harold Rosenblatt, on a year's leave there. You will find him up to his hips in the Boswell papers.
My best wishes to you,CHAPTER 5
Thursday, October 4
[to Whizzer Harlow, Santa Fé, New Mexico]
Are you there? I have your several letters from remote points of the globe. It is too bad I am not a stamp-collector. I was wondering what you were doing all of a sudden in Hawaii, and now you make me wonder what you are doing in New Mexico, where I am glad I am not at. "Having," as Boswell said, "no exquisite relish of the beauties of Nature ... being more delighted with the busy hum of men," I prefer it here, where Nature leaves a man at peace with the illusion that he is large. I have finished my play, I am schoolmastering again, and I am sitting around thinking up mischief.
I acknowledge receipt of the key, and I have no objection to performing the errand, but I am wondering if it might wait until after I have stood my trial for Tenure here. You will say that I am a moral coward.
Anyhow (by way of easing into braver word of myself), Tom Katt asked me some time ago if I'd care to jump, and I said I would, as soon as I finished my play, whereupon, last Saturday, he and I and Earl went aloft. The plan was for me to jump, and Tom and Earl to meet me below. Earl wanted to jump, too, but his mother expressly forbade it.
But now — on and up into the realms of pure telepathy — I must tell you that, as we climbed, Earl insisted upon jumping, refused to stay in the plane with Tom, and this I could not deny him, however Beth might rage; and so, together, his arms about my neck, we leapt, and Earl said, "The family that leaps together keeps together," and we fell and opened and drifted.
Earl said, "Now we are ready for Lesson Two. What do we do when we hit?"
"Just stay loose," I said, "and keep your knees wiggly." He was confident because I told him he was confident. It is how my father raised me. A man can do anything his father tells him he can do. My father always told me (killing time here, while Earl and I are drifting) I could be, if not Heavyweight Champion of the World, the world's most courageous liar. Once we received a visit from the Salt-Lake Youngdahls whom, because of my father's antipathy to them, I also hated; when they arrived I informed them that I had lately become blind, and I walked about the house with my arms outstretched, shuffling my feet, asking each speaker to "identify himself" until my ears should compensate my loss of vision. I regularly insisted upon people's telling me the time, enumerating the contents of dishes set before me, reading aloud to me; all this quite enraged the Salt-Lake folk, and the visit deteriorated into an argument between them and my father as to whether it was not over-indulging a child to allow him to play at tragedy. "God," said my Uncle Hock, chief of the Salt-Lake clan, "gave him sight." "God gave him also," my father argued, "the power to imagine otherwise," and so they all disputed while my brother and my cousins, so persuasively blind I was, led me about by the arm, told me the weather, and wondered how I should earn my living.
It is one of the large moments of my life — drifting, I mean, with Earl, his arms about my neck, and he held tight and stayed loose, and we hit and rolled and laughed, and Tom hit, too, hit something, I don't know what it was nor how it happened, but he couldn't stay up, and there was bound to be Tom's day — wasn't there? — and the crash was loud, and a brief, bright flame, but loud enough and bright enough to have made Tom proud, and which he might even have admired, even then, in the final moments of his final Saturday.
Friday, October 5
[to his mother, Ogden, Utah]
I'm in a state of nervous prostration as a result of finishing my play, and now school is upon us again, but I take this evening to acknowledge your several letters, as well as to add to Beth's note to you my appreciation for the lovely gift for Tetsey's birthday.
Mainly I want to clarify the matter of Bishop Veenstra's visit. I did not — and how the phrase has come into existence I am perplexed to know — "throw him out of the house." Although he interrupted me at my labors, I was as cordial as ever a man could have been under the circumstances. We served him tea, and we inquired the state of the domestic Church and its missions overseas, whereupon he itemized for us, by no means hurriedly, the number of converts baptized this year, nation by nation in Europe, and bath-house by bath-house throughout heathen Asia.
He informed me that my excommunication is far from final. I might, if I wish, protest the action and apply for suspension of so harsh a punishment to the proper authorities in Salt Lake. I told him, however, that I accept gracefully my punishment, that I have done the Church no good in all my years, that the devil is in me, and that the best love I can demonstrate is to allow myself, in the interest of the Church's reputation, to be dropped without fuss.
This issue being soon and clearly defined, an impasse was acknowledged, regret was expressed upon all sides, and he departed. The discussion was entirely amiable.
You ask me if I wrote the TV play. No. It is scheduled for the 26th, New-York time. It is to be, as the TV people say, "live," although the adaptor, who was here for a week and asked the same silly questions every day, appeared to me quite dead. As for the Ogden papers, you may give them material from the book-jackets, or you may speak to them from memory, for you know even better than I my dates. I'm sorry I can't oblige with a recent photograph, but I have none.
Tell Dad and Dee they may see Garafolo's new fighter on TV on the 12th.
Harold and Sylvia are settled at Yale for the year. I am jealous. The Purdys are expecting again. Red is back from the baseball wars. Whizzer Harlow is living in New Mexico, and the Outerbridges are coming to dinner tomorrow night.
We'll be home for Thanksgiving. Until then,
Much much love,
p.s. Maybe Dad would care to drop a friendly little note to Mr. Outerbridge, whom I see almost every day and who never fails to ask for you-all. Just address him @ the English Department.
Excerpted from Wake Up, Stupid by Mark Harris. Copyright © 1959 Mark Harris. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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