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Greetings! I’m a writer, editor, and teacher, and I enjoy connecting with readers and other writers. From 2017 to 2021, I served as Alabama's Poet Laureate. I call this blog and website "A Map of the World" because I think that, as writers, we each map the world through our own lives and imaginations. Welcome to my particular map! To get in touch, you can email me at forjenhorne@gmail.com or find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/for.jen.horne where I post a Mid-Week Poetry Break every Wednesday.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Eugene Walter and "A Southerner's Story of Life on This Planet"

In the “Southern Memoir and Southern Culture” class I teach in the UA Honors College, we recently finished Katherine Clark’s “as told to” autobiography of Eugene Walter, Milking the Moon. Eugene, who referred to himself as “a thing let loose” and “an educated provincial,” grew up in Mobile, joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, was drafted into the Army for WWII and served as a cryptographer in Alaska, and, after leaving the military, moved to New York City and then on to Paris and Rome. He returned to Mobile for the last years of his life where he livened up any occasion at which he was present.

I feel so fortunate to have known Eugene a little bit through meeting him when my husband interviewed him for Bookmark, a literary interview show on public television. He called me “Blondina,” possibly because he didn’t remember my name—and he may have called any number of people that!—but it always makes me smile to think of it. Perhaps he picked up the name in Italy, where he lived for many years. If it’s the name of a bizarre character in an obscure Fellini film (he also worked extensively in Italian film), just don’t tell me.

On the wall in my study is a framed print I made that reminds me, daily, of one of Eugene’s favorite dicta: “Combat Dailiness!”

Rereading Milking the Moon, I found myself marking a number of other “Eugeneisms” and thought I would share some of them here. I couldn’t bring myself to leave any out, so skim and enjoy as you will.

On living:
“In those days, in Mobile, people weren’t as serious about the eight-to-five world. In fact, there was no eight-to-five world. There was only the twenty-four-hour, ‘live life on this planet’ world. And that’s why I haven’t lasted very long in the eight-to-five world.” (29)

“It’s not true, you know, that we have only one life to live. We are much more like cats than we know, and we have at least nine lives. They say that every cell in our body is replaced within a seven-year period. We shuffle off skin. The blood renews itself. Every seven years we are different. We shed a skin; we start a new life. And I guess that’s how I look at it.” (209)

“You can’t plan a life. So many people think they can, but then, they don’t even see where they are. They don’t see a strange bird in the sky. They just don’t see. It’s those blinders that the American educational system and the big dollar value on everything have put on most people.  . . . Somehow, by pure good luck, by a combination of the nationalities meeting in me, by being triple Sagittarius, I was spared blinders. I haven’t been smashed by the educational system, the financial system, the political system. So many people have. I’m so glad I never wanted to be an adult. I’ve stopped smiling on certain occasions, but I don’t claim adulthood.” (268)

“Sometimes you just have to get up and go. Most people make plans; they don’t understand the importance of impulse. If you have a strong impulse, obviously there are some waves coming at you from way out there.  . . . It may be that people who have not been suppressed by education have some set of shadow instincts, so they just hear something, smell something, feel something. I think everybody has it and they don’t use it. . . .Most people don’t listen to their own bodies or their own supraconscious. They just don’t listen.” (268)

On religion:
I do believe that there is some light, some blinding light, or some deafening noise, or some inconceivable dimension, up, out, way up, way out, way off, way down. We don’t begin to understand anything about it. So, religion should be, for the intelligent person, a conscious seeking to understand everything. Even to understand a little of everything. And I suppose for me RC doesn’t stand so much for Roman Catholic as it does for Rare Comprehension.” (35)

“God is so bored with people who pray to Him constantly for nasty little favors. He just wants them to have a good time. Now occasionally I have asked him to help in moments of crisis. You know, ‘Gee, bubba, I’m having a rough time. Do what you can.’ I call him Skybubba. ‘Hey, Skybubba, if you’re not too busy this weekend, see if the mail can get a check to my postbox.’ But He’s grateful not to hear those stingy prayers all the time. Aristophanes did say it: God is a comic poet.” (130)

On certain teachers:
“We all, if we’re lucky, remember a teacher who ‘opened the door’ for us. They’re not teachers. They don’t teach. The huff and they puff, they squeal and they squeak, they grasp and they hasp, and they open doors and windows, and they slam doors and windows, and they suddenly say, ‘Oh, dear, next week is the last day of school. Write a paper.’ They’re the great teachers. I call them lid lifters.” (47)

On interior decorating:
“When I first moved to New York, I took only the bare essentials: my Remington typewriter, my stuffed monkey in a bell jar, and a box of gold paper stars to sprinkle on the stairways of my apartment building. The place was gray walls with that sense of grime. I couldn’t stand it. After I got there I found some place downtown where you could buy stuff for window displays, so I just bought bales of gold stars. Every two or three days I’d freshen them.” (75)

On being a poet:
“When you say the word poet, there are people who think of something pale, frail, or a college professor with a bow tie writing sensitive verses. Or they think of something slightly mad. But the old Greek word for poet, poiētēs, means somebody who makes things or makes things happen. I make things happen.” (97)

On paying attention:
“These things don’t happen just to me; they happen to everybody. But most people don’t notice. Once I saw George Balanchine hurrying down Fifth Avenue, biting his nails. Nobody seemed to notice him; I noticed him. . . . I think part of it is that I am observant, and most people aren’t. Most people going from one point to another can’t tell you afterwards what they might have seen. They’re in their head. They ain’t free. They just ain’t free. They’re still resentful of something that happened at point A or nervous at what’s going to happen at point B. And being a backwoods little ole Southern boy going out into the wide, wide world, maybe I just kept my eyes open. . . . And I suppose the people I really like are those who have their eyes open.” (107)

 On behavior:
“I think it’s only the second-rate who take pleasure in putting people down. I’ve found that the greater the talent, usually the gentler, kinder, and especially the more humorous they are.” (113)

“[Anaïs Nin] was more often glitter than real gold. She was not fun, and that’s the worst thing you can say about anybody, I guess.” (114)

“[Theodora Roosevelt] was genuinely a lady in the old-fashioned sense. And what is that? you ask. Well, part of it is the generous point of view. You give the benefit of the doubt to one and all until you’re proven wrong, and then you retract your sympathy.” (147)

“I make a weekly shit list, and when it’s finished, I burn it. I consign those names to oblivion.” (188)

 On parties:
“I don’t throw parties. I push parties gently forward.” (121)

“When you’ve done something to banish the commonplace, it’s a party.” (163)

“After all, fun is worth any amount of preparation.” (248)

“One night there were these dreary professors who were sent to me from some university. They were brilliant and had published all kinds of things, but they just weren’t party people. They didn’t realize that unserious is much more serious than serious.” (249)

On sex:
“In Europe, one of the first things you see is that sex is a part of daily life. Like gardening and watching the sky, and gossip. It’s not a secret suddenly. There is something about making it secret which the Puritans and the Baptists have done that just has taken the pleasure out of it, I suppose, and made it like something you have to do to prove you can beat the system. It’s like cheating on taxes. It’s not living.” (122)

“I really don’t know all the details because I wasn’t in the bedroom or the backseat or the barn or the beach or the thicket. And I always prefer not to know too many details. I don’t mind prying into people’s minds, but I’m very old-fashioned about some things, because as a poet and humorist, I can imagine better things than they really do. I mean, my idea of the very best sex is to be in a phone booth, naked, with a lot of butterflies.” (143)

On the ship to Paris:
“They had every kind of Dutch gin. The brand that I’d never heard of before that I really liked was called Wine and Fucking. Wynand Fockink. It was nothing but Wine and Fucking for me all the way to Paris.” (127)

On academia:
“It’s dangerous to fall into the world of academe until you’ve really thumbed your nose three times in all four directions. East, north, south, and west. Three times you must thumb your nose in those directions. That’s an old Gulf Coast charm. Keep you out of trouble.” (140)

On work:
At the Paris Review: “We were doing something; we had a project. But we had no committees. We had no bookkeepers. We had no timekeepers. And we had no business managers. . . . We might have all committed suicide if we thought we were doing something of global significance. Our whole point was the here and now. . . . Here we are making sparks; that’s why it was fun. Who knows what significance something has when they are doing it?” (151-153)

In Rome: “Of course, I stopped everything when the sun went down to have a dinner party or go out to dinner. Because you can’t be a slave to anything. You have to switch buttons. Turn something off, turn something else on.” (228)

“I guess what I consider work is not what other people consider work. And what I consider fun is not what other people consider fun. It’s many a night I stayed up painting scenery or dyeing cloth for something in the theater or writing something for a magazine. But that’s fun. I don’t think that’s work.” (233)

On being Eugene:
“I should have been Boswelling all these years. I’m sure I’ve forgotten as many stories as I remember. I should have had endless Redbird notebooks and number 2 pencils. I should have been Boswelling. But I wasn’t. I was Eugene-ing, which is different.” (174)

On marionettes:
“Only a fool would not like marionettes. The more intelligent the person, the more they enjoy things that are miniature. Everybody of intelligence has something that is miniature.” (210)

On revolutions:
“Most genuine revolutions are quiet, like the radio, the sewing machine, Mozart, Michelangelo, Edison, you know. Someone sitting up late puzzling over things. Blood in the streets is so often not a real revolution. It’s letting the lid off of built-up steam, an outburst of national hysteria and irritation, but it ain’t a genuine turnabout.” (225)

On animals:
“I’ve always had animals. One should never lose contact with growing things or furry things. Never. Because they say, ‘Well, look here,’ you know. ‘You are so busy with your problems and your thoughts, and it ain’t like that. We live in a huge, varied world.’  When I’m feeling at my worst with some of the disasters that have occurred, I only have to look at these darlings to be reassured. Because they say:  ‘You fool.’ They say: ‘You human fool.’” (247)

On the past:
“I’m always thinking much more about next week than I am about last year.” (269)

If you’re inspired to learn more about Eugene, the Southern Literary Trail has a “porch play” set for March 14th in Mobile, “Eugene Walter at Large . . Plus Eugene Talks Truman!” You can scroll down on this page for the details, plus other trail events: http://www.southernliterarytrail.org/events-al.html

You can also do a search on YouTube for clips from the documentary Last of the Bohemians. (The Bookmark interview isn’t online, but some clips from it were used in the documentary.)

A list of Eugene Walter’s books is available on the Alabama Literary Map at: http://alabamaliterarymap.lib.ua.edu/author?AuthorID=61

And finally, a last and grateful thanks to Katherine Clark for getting Eugene’s life on the page.

(Photo courtesy Mobile Press-Register files.)

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