Jargon

Another lifetime ago I was the treasurer and vice-president of a nonprofit literary publishing venture named The Jargon Society.  This began in the mid 1970’s, a by-product of my first job out of grad school as managing editor of Aperture.  Aperture distributed Jargon Books. The poet, essayist, photographer and all-around polymath-gadfly Jonathan Williams was Jargon’s publisher.  Jonathan was Jargon; the two didn’t live separately.  Jonathan was from Highlands, North Carolina where he lived all his life when not elsewhere which included Corn Close, his house in the Yorkshire Dales, and in other people’s guest rooms around the country.

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Today, some thirty years later, I’m sorting through hundred’s of Jargon related letters, cards, pamphlets, books, ephemera of all kinds.  I’m donating everything to the State University of New York at Buffalo’s special collections library which maintains the Jargon Society and Jonathan Williams archives.  It appears I saved every scrap that came my way, not least of which being the dozens and dozens of letters from Jonathan himself.  Re-reading them is a journey back to another time and place, familiar yet remote.

How life changes.  How my life has changed since I was part of Jargon.  That was then and now is now and the divide runs deep.  This divide is at the heart of most sessions with my therapist today. What was that other life? Why a divide?  Why different today?

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Jonathan Williams opened the door to a world I had always wanted to enter, a world of writers, poets, book people, people with ideas, photographers and painters, arts people, people with money who paid for all of these things, interesting, fascinating people–people not at all like the industrial people I grew up with it Pittsburgh.  People not at all like my father.

Every year we would gather in North Carolina for the annual meeting of the Jargon Society. Sometimes we would meet in Winston-Salem, home of Jargon’s chairman Philip Hanes; sometimes in Highlands; sometimes in Roaring Gap, again at another of Philip’s houses.  There would be the poet Tom Meyer, Jonathan’s partner; Philip and Joan Hanes, Don Anderson and his wife would fly in from Roswell, NM.  (I remember one time in Highlands Don’s wife mentioned she left the book she was reading on the plane.  When I said that she might call the airline to see if they had retrieved it, she said, no, that wouldn’t be necessary, it would still be in their Lear jet standing by at the local airport.) Mel Edelstein, then the Librarian of Congress, would be there; sometimes  Ted Wilentz, publisher of Corinth Books and co-owner with his brother Eli of the late Eighth Street Bookshop in Greenwich Village, still surviving when I first lived in the Village at 24 Fifth Avenue.  Doug and Bingle Lewis were friends then and fellow Jargonauts.  Doug was headmaster of the Summit School in Winston-Salem, a position he held for thirty-three years.  There would be special guest visitors, too, like the time the English poet Basil Bunting came and we all made a pilgrimage to the grave of Uncle Remus creator Joel Chandler Harris.

 

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Jonathan knew everybody.  It mattered not to Jonathan whether you were a Blue Ridge quilt maker or a Winston-Salem underwear magnate.  His embrace enriched the lives of everyone he touched. He once took me to lunch with New Directions publisher (and fellow Pittsburgher) James Laughlin at his house in Norfolk, Connecticut.  He introduced me to the writer Guy Davenport, the reclusive New Orleans photographer Clarence John Laughlin, film maker James Broughton and Trappist monk Thomas Merton–people I couldn’t have imagined ever knowing otherwise.  One special friendship by way of Jonathan was with Paul and Nancy Metcalf. Jargon published many of Paul’s idiosyncratic books: The Middle Passage, Patagoni, Genoa.  Paul was Herman Melville’s great-grandson and lived in the Berkshires not far from Melville’s Arrowhead.  He and his Southern wife Nancy welcomed me, and in time my young family, with an openness I’ve rarely experienced since. Many happy weekends were spent at their house near Pittsfield.   Both are gone now.  I miss driving through the autumn Berkshire countryside with Paul visiting Melville haunts, or dinner at Nancy’s table where she might be serving roasted cow’s heart, or sleeping in Paul’s writer’s cottage with its well-worn set of the Britannica 11th edition.

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During that time I lived for a while in Salisbury, the northwestern-most town in Connecticut, and then in Pine Plains over the New York state line in Dutchess County.  I rented a tiny shack by the side of the road named the Willow Tree House. Dutchman’s Pipe entwined the front porch sheltered from the summer sun by an enormous, billowing willow tree.  Hence the name.  The tree gave the house charm it would have otherwise been without.  A stream ran through the back of the property, part of an old dairy farm still operated by its weekend New Yorker owners.  Next door was a pasture said once to have been the summer grounds of  Barnum & Bailey’s circus.  An old man down the road said he remembered seeing elephants grazing there.

Jonathan and Tom stayed many times at Willow Tree House, occupying one of the two miniature bed rooms under the eves upstairs from my two downstairs rooms.  Books filled the house along with a horsehair sofa and huge desk given to me by Paul and Nancy Metcalf.  I loved that little house.  Evelyn was then at NYU Law School  and would take Amtrak to the Rhinecliff station to spend weekends there.  It was the happiest time we ever had. I had my Maine Coon cat to keep me company–her name was Ivy, after Ivy Compton Burnett. I had many friends.  Many stories.

Aperture’s publisher Michael Hoffman lived down the road in his splendid 18th century farmhouse.  Michael’s ideal was to have his staff all live on the property, commune style.  This never happened, though we spent much time there.  Every weekend photographers and writers visited, along with Michael’s best friend and benefactor Authur Bullowa (of the watch–with a “v”–family.)  Tragically, Michael’s wife had been killed in an auto accident on the Taconic Parkway shortly before I was hired.  The first time I arrived at the house his two small children asked, “are you the new boss?”  Due to Michael’s impossible behavior, so many housekeepers had come and gone they wanted to know if I was yet another.  Michael was a difficult man, not loved by many.  Yet he treated me only with kindness and generosity and I owe much to what he provided and made possible in my life.  I got to know Paul and Hazel Strand, Minor White, Paul Caponigro–so many photographers I admired.  Michael was never a friend, and I rarely saw him after I left Aperture to move to New York.  I only learned well after the fact that he had died.  He and Jonathan had a respectful if never friendly relationship.  I think both wanted a bit of what the other had.

All of these people are gone now: Jonathan, Paul,Nancy, Philip, Joan, Don, Guy, Arthur, Michael. Most are no longer among the living and those that are, are gone from my life.  Those days are gone, too, not just as time passed but gone, gone, gone as a way of life.  I traded them in, made a left turn, turned my back on all that once gave me a particular kind of meaning.  I became bigger than all of that (so I thought) but smaller, too.  Something almost died inside.  I don’t think it’s gone.

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4 Comments

  1. Josh

     /  July 9, 2014

    Niland, it is such a pleasure getting to know you.

    Reply
  2. Niland – I’m not entirely sure how I ended up at this blog posting tonight (Maybe it was the photo of your 11th grade self and that fabulous car?), but your writing interspersed with images reminds me of one of my favorite authors. Have you read anything by W.G. Sebald? If not, I’ll be happy to lend you a few of his books. See you in the bay… Cheers, Fran

    Reply
  3. Niland- Thanks for sharing your blog and particularly the piece regarding your time at Aperture. Fantastico!

    Reply

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