Diary: Samuel Delany on Crisis and Experiment (Part Two)

Hart Crane with the Brooklyn Bridge; 1924 Aerial view of St. Augustine College, Raleigh, North Carolina (Copyright © St. Augustine’s College, Prezell R. Robinson Library)

Read Part One of this post here

One day, as I was going over the closing movement of Hart Crane’s poem, “Atlantis,” something snagged my attention and came together with a memory of a tale my father had told me several times during my adolescence—one that I’d not thought of for years.

The youngest of ten children, Dad had come to New York City when he was seventeen from a small black college campus in Raleigh, North Carolina, St. Augustine’s, on which he’d been born. By his own admission, his abiding motivation for the trip was to see New York City’s skyscrapers. On his arrival his brother Hubert met him at Grand Central Terminal and took him directly up to Harlem, so Dad’s first view of the city, once they came up out of the subway, was pretty disappointing. Still in quest of skyscrapers, at the suggestion of a friend of his brother’s a few months on, that spring my father took a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. What Dad recalled from that walk, more than the view of the city (which, as I’d taken it many times myself, I knew was quite wonderful), was that the Brooklyn side of the bridge was nowhere near as built up as it is today. The highway decanted into farmland, the road running by some cornfields, practically as if (the simile had been my father’s) it led back into North Carolina.

My dad was born May 6, 1906. He came to New York in 1923. I envisioned his walk across to Brooklyn and back as occurring toward the end of April or the beginning of May 1924, just before his eighteenth birthday: April 1924 was the month Hart Crane moved into his Brooklyn residence at 110 Columbia Heights with his lover, Emil Opffer, just on the far side of the bridge. And there, in “Atlantis,” of which Crane had already written several drafts about his own time on the bridge, were the lines

Pacific here at time’s end, bearing corn,—
Eyes stammer through the pangs of dust and steel.

And

With white escarpments swinging into light,
Sustained in tears the cities are endowed
And justified conclament with ripe fields
Revolving through their harvests in sweet torment.

Suddenly I was sure as I have ever been of anything that there, within Crane’s famously dense lines, nestled references to the same corn and cornfields my dad remembered when he’d told me the story from more than thirty years before, cornfields now gone beneath the concrete of Borough Hall and Brooklyn Heights, even as Crane’s own house (once owned by Opffer’s father) had, by the time the poet Alfred Corn went to search it out, already been torn down years before. There’s an insightful comment by Robert Musil (whose novel The Man Without Qualities I’d taught in a modernist novel seminar the previous spring): There’s a period between your father’s twentieth year and your own twentieth year that you can never fully understand from a historical perspective. You will never understand the first part because you weren’t there. You will never understand the second because you were—but without the tools of logic and analysis honed to negotiate it intellectually.

Suppose, I wondered, on the Saturday before his eighteenth birthday in 1924, my father had gone down to the Brooklyn Bridge, and suppose he had run into Hart Crane (who would have been twenty-four in that year) on the bridge …

Somehow all these notions came together for me. I began writing the text that afternoon.

My reason for undertaking this experiment was, however, not for the results (though, I confess, I’m happy enough with them) but rather to see what it felt like to be on the inside of such a conscientious writing process. To repeat and expand, Ulysses is the paradigmatic art work for our century as Wagner’s Ring was paradigmatic for the half-century before Joyce. I wanted to know what, subjectively, it felt like to write a text at that level of allusive density, demanding that much research, with those particular organizational constraints, dependent on that particular mode of personal material. My novella is a kind of literary Kon-Tiki—you know, could the natives actually cross the sea on their handmade raft? Any observational elegance the piece did or did not display was, for my purposes, secondary.

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Now the question arises: Are the 112 pages of Atlantis: Model 1924 in any way, shape, or form “alternative” fiction? The answer, I assume, is a matter of deciding what it might be alternative to.

Ulysses was certainly alternative fiction at the time it was published in book form in 1922. For practically two decades, it was banned in this country and occasioned a famous court battle. Though hindsight makes its canonization seem inevitable, we know it was a long, slow, and gradual process.

Atlantis: Model 1924 was written in 1992 and 1993. By 1997, its most difficult and least accessible section had been included in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature—without my knowing about it till it was a fait accompli. To the extent the Norton anthologies represent for some people a certain degree of canonization, that’s fast enough to make your head spin! (If only for the speed of its acceptance, I suspect it’ll be forgotten equally quickly, or remain as the most eccentric and marginal occurrence, of interest only to whoever collects such marginal and eccentric literary experiments.) But all this only suggests once more that the structure of the world to which various practices of writing respond has … well, changed.

I write because I grew up thinking, thanks to science fiction, that the end of civilization was probably thousands of years in the future. There seemed to be other people who really thought that if we could put it off beyond their own lifetime and one or two generations that came after them, it would be okay.

It’s not just that I don’t want to believe myself to be this close to the end of the world. I don’t want to believe that nobody is going to be around anymore to enjoy the writers and the art that meant so much to me as a child.


Samuel R. Delany is the author of over forty published works of fiction, memoir, literary criticism, and comics, including the pioneering works of science fiction Dahlgren, Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, and Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand. This post is drawn from his new book Of Solids and Surds, the fourth in the Yale University Press series, “Why I Write.”


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