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Charles Andrew Brady


IF A WRITER WERE TO FOLLOW D. H. LAWRENCE'S austere precept, "Never trust the artist, trust the tale," he would never set hand to any such task as autobiography, however skeletal, however informal. And it is true enough that a writer's true autobiography (or biography, for that matter) must be sought for in his books, not in anything he says about himself, or in anything any one else says about him. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, Lawrence was a Puritan. More clubbable men, like Dr. Johnson, were never above gossipy chit-chat. Besides, in the last analysis, there are a few things about oneself and about the genesis of one's own books which only oneself can know. Whether one chooses to tell, of course, is another matter.

I was born in Buffalo, New York, on April 15, 1912, at approximately the same hour the Titanic went down. (It would be Horatian, if not precisely flattering, to say that a whale groaned in mid-Atlantic and, on the American side of Lake Erie, a minnow was born.) I account myself especially lucky that for, say, the first five years of my life the horse, not the auto, still reigned as king of Buffalo streets, in the winter more particularly, and Buffalo can be a very wintry city. And not only the horse, the gaslight, too, at least in the streets outside where the man came to light the lamps each evening with his flame-tipped wand. His name, my mother said, was Leerie. It wasn't, of course. She got the name out of the Child's Garden of Verses by that R.L.S. who was one of the presiding genii of my childhood.

Less than a decade after the Civil War, my father came to this country from County Cavan which was then part of Ulster and not, what it is today, one of the three northern counties gerrymandered to Eire at the time of the Irish partition. As a result of his northern birth, his language-pattern was as much Scots as Irish, and more Elizabethan than either. I grew up thinking that ants were called "pismires," and that "michers" was the normal term for troublemaking boys. Both of these words are, as it happens, in King Lear, but hardly belong to the average vocabulary of western New York first-graders, a fact which made for a few misunderstandings in my earliest school days.

Nor, I soon found out, was "marguerite" the usual word for daisy. It was my mother's usual word, however, because it had been her mother's; and her mother had come to these United States from a part of Yorkshire not more than fifteen miles from the Bronte parsonage at Haworth where, in 1849, just about the time my mother's parents first emigrated to America, Charlotte Bronte had written, in Shirley, of the "last fairish that ever was seen on this countryside." Possibly the reason for this unhappy state of affairs was that the few remaining "fairishes' '-Yorkshire for fairies-had crossed the ocean with my mother's grandfather, a white-haired, Gaelic-speaking old man, born in Mayo, and, apparently, on very easy terms with the Good Folk. Thomas Bartholomew Conroy carried his sovereigns in a silk handkerchief-he carried them to his death in that same handkerchief, refusing to change them because the banks demanded a discount for the transaction in questionkept a Lion and a Unicorn over his mantle, and is, I think, though I never had the good fortune to meet him in the flesh, the chief reason, through my mother, why my childhood was as much environed by the world's great fairy tales as ever Newman's was, or Gilbert Chesterton's. I have many of those volumes with me still, the nucleus of an ever-growing library: the Andrew Lang colored Fairy Books; the Grimm and Andersen collections; the invented fairy stories of Howard Pyle and George Macdonald; the Edwardian "magics" of E. Nesbit that have been so happily revived today.

The great hero-tales came next, always in splendid editions, for my mother respected books and never returned from any one of the many trips she used to take with my father without still another sumptuous volume for my private shelves. It was in this way I came to know Odysseus, Cuchulain, Thor and his somber comrades of Valhalla, Robin Hood, Arthur--these latter two heroes in the wonderful Pyle versions -Robinson Crusoe, Leather-Stocking, Sherlock Holmes, Alain Quatermain. I suppose I would be described today as having been a precocious reader; and my subliterary experience-which, incidentally, began, I should judge, around sixth or seventh grade with Tarzan and Fu Manchu, aided and abetted, naturally, by the elder Fairbanks' cinematic cloak-and-sword ballets. St. Nicholas, it should be duly entered in letters of gold, came each month. I have the bound volumes for those years even now. But, alas, my own children will not read them of their own accord and I am too wise to try to force them.

The poetic experience--not counting that wise old metrist, Mother Goose, who was an early heritage, as she should be for every child-began inexplicably, breathtakingly, utterly without outer prompting, and unmistakably, one summer when I had just turned fourteen. I still remember the time and the place of that epiphany: lunch hour at the Liberty Bank where I had a vacation job as trotter. And the poem: Rupert Brooke's "Grantchester" in a collection of twentieth century poetry picked up at random-why, I don't know, no one had recommended it, and, if anyone had, I should have spurned the pressurein the Buffalo Public Library. I haven't read Brooke in some twenty years, but that chance meeting with him proved to be the most serendipitous of all my literary discoveries. I might add that two years' invalidism in bed and wheelchair, a cardiac aftermath of rheumatic fever in an age that did not know antibiotics, left me plenty of time for solid reading; and I am not the firstnor, I will wager, the last-writer to have found a serious childhood illness thus turn out to be the most felicitous possible felix culpa.

For those afflicted with the strange disease that breaks out in a rash of writing, the personal history of their reading is far and away the most significant part of any personal history. But childhood is not all books. There were my three older and two younger brothers. (I was the eldest boy of a second brood. After the death of his first wife, my father had married again; as a result of this patriarchal energy of his, my youngest brother was actually younger than some of his own nephews and nieces.) There was a woods near our house where deer and raccoon lived. There were the long summer vacations at Crescent Beach, Ontario, in a family cottage of which I am now part owner. There were the many animals-luckily, my wife is, if anything, even madder about animals than I am; we are currently tyrannized by two Siamese cats, Djinn and Puck, with martini-colored fur and chocolate-fudge muzzles. There were sports, tennis especially. I had an absolute passion for tennis which still persists, though, for many years now, it has had to be satisfied on a purely spectator basis. There were the early friends who can never be replaced. There was the aunt of aunts, an epic personality, mansarded on a late Victorian scale with moral values to match, who took me to Europe in 1928, and was careful to include the Folies-Bergères as well as Lourdes in our itinerary.

If the Children's Room of the Public Library was the forcing ground of my imagination--I here pay due tribute to the least acknowledged of American Almae Matres mind and will may be said to have received what discipline they could from the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Jesuit Fathers of Canisius High School and Canisius College, and, on the graduate level, the English Department of Harvard University, together with the Departments of French, Celtic, and the Germanic Languages, in the early '30's when some of the elder giants still walked the streets of Cambridge: George Lyman Kittredge, John Livingston Lowes, Fred Norris Robinson, Paul Elmer More-as a visitor only, but he lectured in the Lowell Institute--and, opening up a new and tonic, because iconoclastic, critical vista, that wind-weathered, sun-cracked, Aztec idol of a little man, Bernard DeVoto. (I was to come back to Harvard for the winter term of 1939-40; but, though the University was still demonstrably our greatest, it seemed to me that there had "passed away a glory from the earth." Could it have been my youth?)

Wordsworth was surely right when he set down the truth that the "Child is father of the Man." Whatever one wants from life, it works out, willy-nilly, that one's days are perforce, bound "each to each by natural piety." And we are lucky-or unlucky, as the case may be-depending on whether or not the object of our pietas is a noble one. I was to acquire broader horizons and new intellectual passions alter high school: a burning love of History; a lifelong absorption in Chesterton; a taste for Balzac, the great Russians and Scandinavians, for Waugh and Greene and Mauriac; an increasing dependence on the comic and melodramatic genius of Charles Dickens whom I had first read through in his entirety between the ages of twelve and fourteen. Harvard taught me the values of intellectual detachment, disinterestedness, and not always being a parti pris. I acquired a kind of cultural method which to this day still owes more-and, I think, not for the worse-to George Saintsbury than to Cleanth Brooks or F. H. Leavis. But, imaginatively speaking, college and university did no more than deepen the original bents acquired in a household where political ambiance had been Irish and Wilsonian Democratic and the cultural bias English to the point where I mistakingly used to think that the British Christmas annual, Chatterbox, fairly represented American life, so closely did it seem to approximate the way my mother ran her life and ours. I did Old Irish and Old Norse in the saga vernaculars at Harvard; Sigurd and the Children of Lir were old friends of mine long before that. I read the Chanson tie Roland in the original with Professor J. D. Ford; years before James Baldwin's version had made me free of Charlemagne's high court. In a sense, the books I was later to write would be no more than further elongations, however unheroic ones, of those same heroic shadows.

The really important things are things that necessarily get left out of all autobiographies and that get put down all wrong in all biographies. To skirt the fringe only of such piercingly personal things, I might point out that some of the same old romantic motifs of childhood and boyhood may conceivably be detected in the maiden name of my wife, Mary Eileen Larson, whom I married in Boston in 1937, and whose paternal grandfather had been a Norse whaler before he settled down as a shoemaker in St. Ansgar, Iowa. It is even possible that it would not be altogether off the mark to spy out something of the same sort in the names of my six children: Karen Janet, Moira Ellen, Sheila Belinda, Kristin More, Eric Larson, and Kevin Charles.

Kristin More was eleven in February of 1960. Her second name happens to be my third-but by no means my latest, to say nothing of my last-salute to the towering personality of St. Thomas More. Not long before her birth I had written my "Ballade of St. Thomas," which has had the good fortune to be reprinted in many anthologies; and a prize-winning More short story, "Weep for a Fool." My full clarion flourish in honor of "God's Englishman" grew out of that same short story by way of a-fortunately -unpublished, unplayed, and, very likely, unplayable play, "My Lord Fool." I called this first of my novels Stage of Fools (Dutton, 1953). One might say that three published sallies into Utopia is a sizable number; and so, admittedly, it is. But, after all, I did not choose my Lord Chancellor More. He chose me. It is a critical commonplace that the mythos can be as compelling as the logos. The compulsion is doubly powerful when mythos and logos come together to form, like a crystal, round the incarnate Logos.

Logos and mythos combined also preside over my poems, Wings Over Patmos (Monastine Press, 1951). Mythos pure and simple, however, must be admitted to dominate my next two novels. Viking Summer (Dutton, 1956) seemed to me, at the time of writing, and still seems to me a fairly subtle experiment. Deliberately fugue-like in movement, overtly autobiographical and set against the changing background of a single year in the 1950's, it represents an attempt to fix the idyllic quintessence of life in the present, not, as is usual with idylls, in the past moment. In addition, it happens to be the most poetic in conception of my novels; and, perhaps, considering the novel's historic matrix in epic and realistic comedy, this is a mistake. At any rate, it is a mistake I shall not make again. This Land Fulfilled (Bruce, 1958)-the title, though no one, to my knowledge, ever caught the reference, comes from the very beginning of Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale-is a long historical novel having, for its main action, Leif Ericsson's voyages to the New World in the first decade of the eleventh century and touching, in a final chapter, on the death of the old North at Clontarf in 1014. This climactic victory of the Irish High King, Brian Boru, over the pagan Norsemen forms the miseen-scene of Sword of Clontarf (1950), a Stevensonian romance designed expressly for the olderyounger reader. This latter book will shortly be capped by a yet untitled volume dealing with the Augustinian mission to sixth century England.

I say nothing here of my two early juveniles, Cat Royal (1949) and The Elephant Who Wanted to Pray (1952); nor of the two volumes I have edited; nor of my literary critiques which go on getting written as a matter of professional course. I do most of my creative writing in the summers, with the winters given over to teaching-I have been a Professor of English at Canisius College in Buffalo for more years than I care to countto lecturing, and to reviewing. As a reviewer week by week I have to read everything, which can be very much of a mixed blessing, though I am also quick to admit that treature-trove does keep turning up. It seems to me that C. P. Snow's Trollopean roman fleuve of our immediate present and J.R.R.. Tolkien's trilogy-essay into the realm of pure story, The Lord of the Rings, is as rich a literary ring-hoard as any reader has a right to expect from a given decade, to single out but one ten-year span, and I have been reviewing much, much longer than that as Saturday Book Columnist for the Buffalo Evening News, and contributor to the reviewing columns of the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, America, Renascence, and others.

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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