I’m not sure why it’s so fascinating – or surprising — to learn that there is some genetic precedent for one’s more questionable habits, but as I find myself in a busy time of life scrapping for bits of time in which to write, and then of course wondering why I do this writing thing at all when there is so much laundry giving me the stink-eye from where it slouches in the corner, it has been a comfort to connect with the other writers in my family.
I think this might be why this feels like just exactly the right time to be welcoming The Little Bastard into the world.
This novella was written by my Frances “Peggy” Schutze, my grandmother, inspired by a heady time in her life when she was a newlywed living in Neighborhood Gardens, a New Deal housing project. Peggy always wanted to write (which I wrote about for The Begats), never found her way to a career in publishing, and yet she always clacked away at her Royal typewriter (which I spoke about in this interview for The Hairpin). The manuscript of The Little Bastard was found, among others, in the trash after Peggy’s death. My aunt fished it and reams of other writing out, and eventually I got it together to retype and combine the drafts, and now, lo and behold, the lovely small press Anchor & Plume is publishing it as a chapbook.
Now, my aunt was uniquely positioned to differentiate the work of an aspiring writer from useless trash (often quite difficult to do!), being herself a writer – Mariana Greene, beloved columnist for the Dallas Morning News. Her husband, my uncle Jim Schutze (Peggy’s son) is also a journalist and author, and as it happens has written a book about his life as a newspaper man. Reading Jim’s book, The Dunking Booth, while working on Peggy’s book The Little Bastard, was a rather surreal experience.
For one thing, before her four children were born, before her husband became a minister, Peggy had entertained hopes of a journalism career herself. She attended the well-regarded Journalism School at the University of Missouri, wrote a gossip column for a local newspaper, worked at a radio station, and had a life-long passion for politics. She was a devout newspaper reader. She carried on a decades-spanning correspondence with the war journalist Martha Gellhorn. (I wrote about Peggy and Martha’s correspondence here. I mean, you didn’t think I could resist that one, did you?)
And I couldn’t help thinking about all this as I read her son Jim’s words in his funny, insightful The Dunking Booth. His passion for journalism leaps off the page (er, screen – in a strange turn of events this love letter to print is an ebook!): “It was the meaning of life.” Today’s journalism students should probably be required to read the opening chapters of Jim’s book, with their wonderfully rich details about pre-computer newspapering: the typewriters, the copy pencils, the glue pots, the intense editorial conversations (complete with physical cutting and pasting) about how “every word had to make sense, had to ‘move the story’” – right up until the moment when the retyped sheet got ripped from the typewriter carriage’s, rolled up, and stuck in a pneumatic tube and zoomed to the linotype machine. It’s a delightful passage of print-media porn, zoomed futuristically to your Kindle in a way that makes its own subject matter seem even more historical.
Then there is the way Jim writes about the so-called “politics gene.” While describing a story he covered in 1980s Dallas, he writes the “thing about people with the politics gene is that relatively few of them go into politics…bright, creative, politically gifted men and women came forward from the neighborhoods and figured out how to solve this maddeningly complex conundrum, but when it was over and done with most of them disappeared right back into their woodsy retreats, far too busy with career, family, glass-blowing or gardening to think about a career in politics. So they are always out there, this enormous reserve of talent and leadership, waiting to be stirred up out of the shrubbery by the next major proximate threat or opportunity.”
I mean, this is precisely plot of The Little Bastard (which, by the way, I don’t think Jim had ever read). In Peggy’s story, idealistic young people are stirred up by a charismatic church dean to vote out the corrupt local neighborhood bosses. The Neighborhood Gardens crew – most of them blue-collar workers and new mothers – discover that they indeed have the politics gene, and with inspiration from the dean, some good advice from the League of Women Voters, and a couple ideas snatched from the mafia’s playbook, they are able to agitate for real change in their city. I don’t know how much of this was taken from real life, but many of the details match up.
Jim writes directly about this Neighborhood Gardens era of his parents’ lives too, describing it as “their great epiphany…They ate spaghetti and drank cheap wine with William Inge, and my mother met Martha Gellhorn…it was clear to me even as a boy that this was the time of their great joy and adventure in the world.”
Something that makes this passage a bit heartbreaking is that, as Jim points out, this was the time when his parents became acquainted with the charismatic, social activist dean of St Louis’s Episcopal cathedral. Peggy writes about this man in The Little Bastard; “the Dean” is the inspiration for the whole madcap political plot. She writes: “I’m trying to remember why the dean was so good to see. He certainly wasn’t like those mysterious, kindly old oracles described in most novels…But he had something other people don’t have. You got it right away when he walked in the door.”
But as Jim notes in his book, this Dean was probably responsible for how his father “got the call,” swept away by the Anglicans’ “elegant marriage of liturgy and the dean’s intelligent progressivism.” So here was this crossroads. And Peggy’s husband chose the clergy, which angled Peggy’s life decidedly away from the bohemian world of progressives and artists that their time in Neighborhood Gardens had been so enriched by (see also the recurring novella characters “the queers”). Read this way, The Little Bastard is, in a submerged way, a story of a tragedy in the life of a creative person. Peggy continued to be a progressive, and that political gene simmered – she became a teacher in a poor, all-Black school; she chafed against the expected role of meek minister’s wife and agitated for racial and social justice in ways that sometimes shocked her straight-laced church lady peers. But that other side of her, the writer side, was subsumed by life. Jim seems to be able to balance the two – the political and the literary. I come out decidedly on the literary side — I barely understand what I hear on NPR, to be honest — so the way this family works my children will be politicians? I’m not great at those pattern recognition things, but there’s definitely something there. Presidents, probably, both of them.
Can you believe I didn’t write a blog post in 5 months and then put up this long rambling description of my extended family’s relationship with the written word? Yikes! What kind of blog is this, anyway? Well, if anyone is still out there, I’ll urge you to buy these two books — both are indie publications, bargain-priced, and PS you’ll be supporting the great Cause of the Written Word (personally, my only real political affiliation).
And while we’re at it, did I ever mention my grandfather’s cousin was a poet, Progressive supporter of Hull House, co-founder of an art colony in Woodstock, and husband to the Photo-Secessionist photographer Eva Watson-Schutze ?
See, there was really never any hope for me.