Remembering Harold

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I first met Harold at a dinner party at R.W.B. (Dick) and Nancy Lewis’s home twenty-six years ago.  The Lewis family would become dear friends, but I had only known Dick for a few months. We had met at the University of South Carolina for a celebration of James Dickey’s 70th birthday. It was a star-studded event.  George Plimpton served as the master of ceremonies.  Dick, Richard Howard, and William Styron were the headline speakers.  I was scheduled to be on a panel of scholars discussing Jim’s writing, but less than two weeks before the event Styron became ill and cancelled.  Matthew Broccoli—Dickey’s literary executor and the event’s main organizer—called and asked me to step in. I had a book on Dickey about to see daylight, so Matt knew I had material at hand.  I was a longhaired assistant professor and nervous. Styron’s name was on the program but Dr. Nobody stepped up to the podium. Dick Lewis had mercy on me, took me everywhere with him all weekend, and invited me to Yale.

During my visit, Dick and Nancy put together a dinner party—the other guests were Harold and Jeanne Bloom and John and Natalie Hollander.  I was nervous to be in such illustrious company, and while we were having drinks before dinner, I made my way over to Dick’s bottle of Grey Goose and mixed a vodka and tonic that was almost all vodka.  I drank it much too quickly and the room felt a bit unsteady. “Keep your mouth shut, you fool,” I thought to myself, “You’ll say something stupid.” I listened to the others speak about Whitman, Browning, and a host of others. Dick and Nancy tried to bring me into the conversation, and everyone was more than kind, but I said as little as possible. Then Harold started speaking about the New York Yankees.  I had loved the Yankees since I was small boy living in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and had played baseball for many years before coaching. It was my point of entry. Harold had seen the likes of Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio play, and I noticed his eyebrows rise when I could name the lineups that surrounded them and who the Yankees had played during the team’s many World Series in the 30s, 40s, 50s, and early 60s. I possessed a head full of endless statistics and lineups—and so did Harold and John, who also loved the Yankees, and Dick, who was devoted to the Red Sox.  The booze gradually wore off and our conversation moved between baseball and literature all evening, a pattern we repeated over the years.

Harold was generous and kind whenever we met, and occasionally would surprise me with a phone call. He loved hyperbole and rejoiced in how it could spark conversation, laughter, and insights. He was playful—Dick was “Ricardo,” John was “The Colonel,” I was “Ernesto.” That first evening I realized something endearing about him: he loved to love things—baseball, food, people, and of course, literature. For Harold reading and interpreting literature were supremely creative acts—most of us would embarrass ourselves if we approached literary interpretation in a similar manner. But Harold was rare: a critic who became part of the literary canon, yet wasn’t a seminal poet, novelist, or playwright.  His impatience with professional schools of criticism—especially with sociologically oriented, deterministic theories—sprung from his embrace of the imagination and creativity as life-giving forces. Existing literary forms couldn’t contain William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf or Ralph Ellison’s fiction, or T.S. Eliot’s early poetry, or Robert Penn Warren’s late poetry. And existing forms of criticism couldn’t—and can’t—contain Harold’s responses to great literature. All of these writers had precursors, of course, but the power of their imaginations, their mastery of language, and engagement with their materials gave birth to works singular and fecund. Harold was a genius who understood genius, and who cherished how great literature deepens and extends humanity. When I read his work, my understanding of literature is strengthened and I’m energized, even when I might quibble or disagree.