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Tom O'Grady, The Fire Inside
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PrintTom O'Grady, The Fire Inside

We all know libraries are places where dull, trivial, and even sad scholars live. They thrive there: forging into other people’s lives, probing intangible notions of history and science, digging into dusty pasts—sometimes with passion, sometimes with cold objectiv-ity, sometimes with snobbish indifference. We all real-ize that libraries are places of escape for people who live boring lives, people with neurotic personalities, people with facial ticks, stammering voices, rumpled clothes, thick eye-glasses and sullen, sometimes per-verted, motivations toward life, and even death. Librar-ies can be strange, almost surrealistic places. They can be vague dens of experiment with academic fancies which manifest themselves in the minds of the “library dweller” and fade into often meaningless academic pa-pers—exercises in thought which excite only those who share the same enthusiasm for the library life-style. But, occasionally, by extreme chance, libraries can be places of invention, laboratories for creativity, exciting hostels of imagination. They can be this way if we choose to use them for making art.

John Dos Passos used libraries with a rare passion, and he used them perniciously. He drained them of all their worth. And when the organ was dead, a new life was born of its energy. In the years before his death, Dos Passos could be found almost daily at a small wooden table deep amid the stacks of the Peabody Li-brary in Baltimore. A friendly, quiet, polite man, timid at times and always shy, he was charged with creative energy. It was an energy which produced dozens of books, hundreds of essays; an energy which kept him investigating the past and the present until his death. The ordinary student searching for titles could see him there: bald at seventy, straining to read through thick wire-rimmed glasses, busily taking copious notes from rare and often obscure books and papers on American culture. Many saw him and never realized who he was. Most probably thought him another assistant cata-loguer bringing the index cards up to date.

At least that was all he was to me when, as a sophomore in college trying to compile a research paper from the transcripts of the Medieval trial of propagan-dist Titus Oates, I first met John Dos Passos. Perhaps he was compassionate toward my bungling attempts to read Middle-English prose. Perhaps he understood the naïve frustrations of a first-time scholar. Perhaps he needed diversion from his own work? Whatever the rea-son, Dos Passos really got me through that paper: translating the Middle English into twentieth-century colloquialisms which were comfortable to my ear, making private insights on the subject, and sharing a hypnotic sparkle toward history and ideas and people which stayed with me for quite a long time.

During the next several days, this person, whom I knew only as John (a nice bald-headed man who could read Middle English) smiled whenever he saw me, lo-cated two books which I could not find in the card catalogue and stopped occasionally at my table to ask how things were going. It was a quiet friendship, not exciting, hardly intimate, but mixed with a measured amount of camaraderie, and no complications. Then, at the end of two weeks’ study, I noticed he was no longer working in the library. Later, I went on to another li-brary with less specialized collections, and the friend-ship ended. For the next three years I drifted in and out of all varieties of libraries in my gradual climb toward an academic degree. I wrote my papers, passed my ex-aminations, developed an interest in contemporary American literature, and finally sat down to research a senior thesis on the subject of experimental American fiction. I struggled to narrow my topic down to fifty pages or so: nothing bold, not too much work, and only mildly original.

“Why not Dos Passos?” my advisor suggested. “There’s an experimenter in fiction for you!” I knew of him. I had been introduced to selections from USA, Manhattan Transfer, and an occasional prose-poem or two. I had read a few critics who called his contrapun-tal novels “pure American.” So, why not Dos Passos? After all, Jean Paul Sartre had said that Dos Passos was the greatest writer living. The Europeans liked him. He did try to examine the whole of America. He seemed to identify the characters of complete cities. He might even have tried to locate that mystical American my-thology which great writers are always looking for. And more, I was told that he actually lived and worked somewhere in Baltimore. And so I began to read Dos Passos. Completely. I began to see order in the seem-ingly random movement of his “Camera Eye.” I started to identify symbols, themes, the meanings in his prose-poems. It was fun. He was believable; he was kooky; he was playing with life as art. I compiled a grand bibliog-raphy and began to create a final outline when it struck me that what the paper really really needed to perk it up was an interview with Dos Passos himself.

So, despite the warnings from teachers that he preferred not to give interviews to students and espe-cially did not like to talk about his work, I went to the man. After reading a long, pleading letter about the im-portance of students of literature meeting actual crea-tors of literature and that it was particularly important if those writers were from one’s own town, Dos Passos granted the interview. It was to be three days hence and I could ask any question I wished, but I was to keep it brief. I was excited, dumbfounded. I couldn’t sleep. At this point, I didn’t even have any questions to ask. But, nevertheless, three days later I arrived at Dos Passos’ small, hilltop apartment overlooking an old milltown section of the city. Palms sweating, fidgety and nervous, my eye twitching, small notebook in hand, armed with a hastily compiled battery of twenty-seven questions on such things as fire symbolism and motif, full of apprehension, I rang the bell.

The door opened almost immediately and there he was: He said “Tom?” I said “John!” We shook hands, and he invited me in. I was still in a state of euphoria as I listened to Dos Passos talk of Paris in the Twenties, of friendship with Ernest Hemingway, of good times with the literary set, of trips to the races, drinking bouts, James Joyce singing Irish ballads, “sweet” Scot-tie Fitzgerald drunk and sad in the morning. I could not believe it was the same man I had seen humbled over a deck of index cards. He was all spice and fire now. He cut through my silly questions with hard logic and in-tuitive grace. He playfully toyed and teased my inflated theories about his work and reduced my notions of art to a proper perspective. He asked as many questions about my life as I did about his. He was warm, alive, still ambitious and clear-minded. We talked a bit more about youth and cities and then we parted: Dos Passos to his portable typewriter and I to my library. We never met again.

But the experience stayed with me for quite a time and then gradually lodged itself in some permanent but private sector of my memory. I thought of Dos Passos occasionally, looked for new work from him, browsed through random criticism, but I did not vividly “see” Dos Passos again until I read his obituary in the paper a few years back. After that I knew I could never judge him as a critic judges a writer or even as a writer judges a writer.

I understood that the critics were probably right in saying that he would not be revived or come in fashion again. I realized he would probably disappear under the weight of Faulkner and Hemingway, that the antholo-gies would continue to devote but a few pages to his fiction. And worse, I knew it would take Americans a long time to get over the fact that he was at first a Communist and at last a Conservative Republican. I knew all of these things and yet, as I recently began to research a book of my own, I thought only of John Dos Passos, an artist deep in a dusty library, fired with en-thusiasm, curious like a child, taking in all the experi-ence of life and books and trying to find some order.

Originally published in the Sunday section of the Baltimore News-American