The Bombardier

This novel grew out of an invitation that Bill received in 1968 to spend at term at the University of California, Berkeley, as a Visiting Professor in Modern Literature. He carefully prepared and wrote out lectures on the works of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, James Joyce, Albert Camus, William Gaddis, and Normal Mailer. Copies of many of these are available in the Corrington archives kept in the McGill Library of Centenary College, Shreveport, LA. Bill’s lectures were well received by his students, and he told me that he was rewarded with three standing ovations; and that Dr. James Hart, the Chairman of the Berkeley English Department, told him the previous record had been two standing ovations in a term.

But while Bill was educating the Berkeley students, they were also educating him. Recall that 1968 was a year in which anti-Vietnam War protests were at a high level, and Berkeley was one of the most turbulent sites of protests. Bill, with typical Southern macho, felt that if we were in the war, we should be in to win. He went to Berkeley with something of a chip on his shoulder, ready to defend his opinion. He was surprised at how well he was received by the students. Instead of being hostile, they seemed delighted that someone of his professional level would spend hours in his office debating with them. Bill told me his Berkeley students were the best he ever taught, but they had no sense of history and no sense of humor.

Bill was assigned a grader, graduate student Barbara Steinberg. She was actively engaged in student protests and other liberal political activities. She and Bill became such close friends, that he invited her to join his faculty at Loyola University, and she subsequently did so. It is to Barbara and his Berkeley students that Bill dedicated The Bombardier.

Bill was still in California when Robert Kennedy, having just won the California primary for the Democratic nominee for President on a platform opposing the Vietnam War, was assassinated. He then returned home, only to watch with horror the television coverage of the “police riot” at the Chicago Democratic Convention, when the police and national guardsmen beat and arrested young protesters who were or might well have been Bill’s Berkeley students. It was in an effort to understand and explain the roots of what happened in the turbulent streets and parks of Chicago that Bill wrote The Bombardier.

Dr. Thomas Preston, a friend of Bill’s from Rice University days, who also joined him on the Loyola University faculty for a while, devoted a portion of an article he wrote to The Bombardier. Since Thomas’ article explicates The Bombardier much better than I can, an excerpt from it follows. The page numbers that follow quotations cite the first publication of The Bombardier (New York, Lancer Book, Inc., 1970).

Excerpt from “Achorites in Sodom: John William Corrington’s Secular Urbanism and the Transcendent in These Latter and Perilous Days” (published in John William Corrington, Southern Man of Letters, William Mills, ed., UCA Press, Conway, AR, 1994)

An important corollary to the recovery of transcendence is the restoring of an inner wholeness for which we have no proper modern term—a kind of contemporary version of the medieval concept of contemptus mundi, an interior contempt for or detachment from the pursuit of the secular as a goal or end in itself— however the secular takes form—wealth, power, material possessions, honor, prestige, and, most perversely, efforts to actualize the transcendent itself. This detachment acknowledges the pleasure of the secular and the worth of striving for ideals; it also accepts that neither will morally or spiritually satisfy and that pursuit of either as a final goal inevitably uncovers the stench of the maggot. However abused by Christians in the past, the concept derives from the Biblical injunction to be in but not of the world and expresses, I think, the psychological and spiritual state Corrington advocates in his fiction. In essence it is that of an urban hermit or, to use the more proper medieval designation, an anchorite, a term Corrington introduces in his most shattering novel of secular urbanism The Bombardier.

Michaelis, an Air Force colonel who volunteers to train bombardiers during World War II, believes he can produce expert killers by isolating the men from society and converting them into a community which believe they are “gods, magicians”(139). Throughout the novel Corrington uses the image of magic to indicate the superstition secular urbanism invokes to fill the void left by the loss of the transcendent. He sets up his training school in the barren desert outside Pilsbury, Texas where in the equally barren barracks, Michaelis thinks, “The bombardier in training would be alone.” He plans for almost total isolation.

There would be no radios, no newspapers, no communication with outside. There would be no outside. And as the accustomed was lly evaded, it would be replaced with mystery, with something in which out of their loneliness, the emptiness of all they had known before, they would come to believe. They would be a new kind of anchorites.

Michaelis later expands the ancient religious imagery to include the image of monasticism.

For the next few months these spiritual basket cases would be anchorites, monks chanting mathematical formulas, studying aerial photos as if they were an illuminated Book of Hours. They would bathe in the chill dawn, eat sparsely, genuflect within themselves when they passed the Black Door. And when I was done, they would go overseas. To fly over Germany. To be ordained. (59)

Monastic communities, of course, are groups of monks who live in the world but whose enclosure from the world points to a desire for detachment from the secular. Strictly speaking, medieval anchorites did not live in a community but in a cell and usually in a city, often with the cell attached to a church, a situation even more strikingly exemplary of living in but not of the world.

The novel is designed to restore the ancient values of the anchorite, not as something sought for its own sake, but as a response to encountering the transcendence in the midst. The bombing of Dresden serves as the epiphany for Michaelis, Jacobs, and especially Boileau, who confront their own participation in that notorious World War II event. Dresden was not a military target, but rather, as the various bombardiers ironically point out, the place where “they make the little porcelain figures” (88), the most famous being, perhaps, a pastoral couple, “that laughing piper and the little shepherdess”(88). Corrington describes the fiery hell that constituted the historical bombing of Dresden but turns it also into the moral hell of the major characters, who, through their experiences, perceive Dresden as a new turning point in secular urbanism. Dresden foreshadows the uncovering of urban violence, the stench to gag a maggot, that will plague the post-World War II era and that in the United States is presented as culminating in the Chicago riots of the 1968 Democratic convention. Recalling the Dresden bombing, Michaelis thinks:

I watched Dresden melt and flare and fall into ashes, and I could not stop my mind from announcing like a railroad stationmaster: New York. Philadelphia. Miami. Atlanta. New Orleans. Chicago. Dallas, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles. . . . And behind each name, I saw another shadow image of what I was watching as if second sight were showing me the 1960′s or 1970′s. (99)

The novel envisions the bombing of Dresden as the symbolic incident that “laid the eggs of destruction”(139) that hatched on the streets of contemporary cities, turning them into the place “where the permanent war went on”(136), streets which the ex-bombardier Krepinski, a Chicago policemen in 1968, gleefully claims “belong to us”(207).

All of the ex-bombardiers converge on Chicago for one reason or another, and Corrington vividly details the street war between the police and the young people. Boileau’s short tableau may serve as a summary of his devastating scenes.

That night I left Chicago. You could still smell the acrid stench of tear gas in the air. There were still police and national guardsmen in the streets, and litter, trash, rubble in Grant Park and along the sidewalks. It is said that the morning after the Decembrist uprising in St. Petersburg in 1825, there was not a sign to reveal to the Russian people that dozens had died in Senate Square the night before. In their name. The Romanovs at Chicago had not done so well. (253)

The point of Corrington’s detailed recounting of the 1968 Chicago riots and of the bombing of Dresden is to foreground the valid anchorite life found by ex-bombardiers like Jacobs, Michaelis, and Boileau. The initial “bombardier” anchorites thought that by bombing Dresden they were instruments of God, as Jacobs mused during the event, “God save us just this once more. This is your work, isn’t it? Aren’t we up here doing your work?”( 96). Later, during the Chicago riots, he dreams he is flying again and hears in his earphones Boileau’s voice saying, “This is the last city in the world, and when it is gone, so will be the evil that cities spawned. It will be a world of farms” (165).

The three of them have learned, however, that it will not be the last city, whether Dresden or Chicago, and neither will a world of farms surface. Boileau has finally concluded that “We swim in this river called existence, bumping into one another, dreaming of far countries and fairy cities emerald and cool and filled with singing and the odor of justice. We flounder for a while, somewhere between green Eden and the New Jerusalem, dreaming, dreaming, then we go down”(190). The killing and destruction and butchering are, ironically, often performed for ideals, for absolutes that are really transcendent values but which secular urbanism dreams are pragmatic possibilities. Michaelis later realizes that “idealism is the root of all evil, against nature, the beginning of disorder and the evoker of spirits and powers neither steady sense nor new force . . . can cope with adequately”( 215). Using the image of flying in a bomber, Boileau envisions all of us, entrapped in secular urbanism, dreaming of perfection, “believing that our act will alter the flow of things”( 191). The flow of things is not affected. “We are deceived,” Boileau continues, “and the target is forever our own home, our own people, and we will one day have to land, to walk in the deserts we have made, amongst the ashes of Carthage and Hiroshima, of Dresden and Mine Run”(191). Yet in killing their own home while acting out their destructive fantasies, their ideals, humans unintentionally establish the need for the transcendent: only God can provide meaning to the evil emanating, however irrationally, from human destructiveness.

Michaelis illustrates the pattern. Losing faith in the Democratic candidate he has been supporting, caught up momentarily in the magic, the superstition of politics, he tells his campaign friend, “It’s no good. I’m just not a politician. I’m going to look for a preacher. I want to find God” (163). In an almost shocking image, Michaelis observes that, like greed, “God runs like a spoiled gene through generations”(163), and Michaelis expects to see him soon, wherever the next major act of human de¬structiveness occurs.

I flew back to Chicago. There was a lot to consider. His last manifestation had been at Hiroshima. Before that, Dresden. Before that, the Nuremberg rallies. Before that? Why at the Finland Station, of course. In 1917. Where next? I thought perhaps in Chicago. In 1968. And I would be there. . . . There were a lot of years left. (163)

A lot of years and a lot of Dresdens and Chicagos are possible, for as another ex-bombardier, Poole, discerns, we are all bombardiers: “Been out of work for a long time, ’cause while I was a nigger, I thought only the Army could hire a bombardier. But now I knew a man could go into business for himself. Man can go back to bombing on his own”(236). More than bombardiers we are all, as the ex-bombardier Boyd discovers, accomplices in others’ evil. The youth at Chicago, “unkempt . . . some . . . dirty, their hair long and snagged”(183), he claims, “had no interest in what we called morals, in the clean order of their parents’ lives”(183). Hidden beneath this clean order, symbolized in “sprays and douches and underarm pads”(183), lay the “gangrenous suppurating memories and present knowledge” that many empty seats remained at the Nuremberg trials “that might have been filled with—us, the complicitors, who had followed orders, done what was called our duty, purposely ignoring the question of how one distinguished between gassing Jewish children and bombing German children” (183). Boyd has peered into the depth of the human “solidarity in sin.” As Bishop Jenkins writes, “It is absolutely essential to retain the conviction and awareness that acts which are dehumanizing, inhuman and less than fully human, remain precisely that even when they are politically essential or inevitable or, at least, held to be so.” Even the “attitude of the oppressed,” Jenkins further explains, “in hating his oppressor and the act of the oppressed in imprisoning, terrorizing or killing his oppressor do not become human and humanizing because they are part of a his¬torical process of liberation.”

Our hatred for Nazism, intense and perduring, makes the image of complicity extremely shocking, and the novel is designed through this shock strategy to make us recoil in despair (as do Camus and Sartre) or move through despair to what Jenkins calls the “hopefulness of solidarity in sin.” Jacobs credits Norman Mailer’s Barbary Shore for leading him finally to this state. “That book,” he claims, “had sent me down roads within myself I had not wished to travel, had shown me whatever hope a man dares to possess must be founded once and for all on a pure and unalterable hopelessness, a wisdom composed of the certainty that every wisdom is ashes, every truth a sword that waits for us to fall upon it.”. This hope founded on hopelessness, a species of secular detachment, allows Jacobs finally to accept his wife’s Zionist desire to move to Israel, not because he expects Israel to be morally or spiritually better than the United States. Rather he now sees it simply as his “home,” where, going to “his own people” and “making up for wasting twenty years,” he will “be all right,” “die forgiven” for the earlier bombing of another home—Dresden—realizing that it “doesn’t matter how you live if you find your way at the end”(203).

Finding one’s way, the hopefulness of solidarity in sin, is not an easy matter, for it requires an internal refusal to play the world’s success game. Boileau, for example, returned from the war to spend three years wrestling with the problem of self-identity and integrity. He had considered the priesthood, even the Trappists, but felt he was beyond even that most reclusive religious order. Abandoning also law practice with his father, he chose, instead—to fish (125-26). This three year retreat, he claims, taught him “nothing useful in the world”(126). Rather he learned resignation, coming to see that “dropping that last load of bombs over Dresden,” any more than “not dropping it,” would have had “no meaning”(126). Boileau arrives at the position that our cherished belief that we are independent and that our actions belong to us are illusions. “We belong to movements and to tides and histories,” he reasons: “We can change nothing, and only modesty becomes us”(126). “That is what I learned,” he informs us, along with “not to be hungry, not to resent the way things are. Not to cry or to laugh, not to fall prey to the Faust in oneself—much less in others”(126). This detachment from the secular is indeed not very useful if we are out to play by the world’s rules—either idealistically to change the world, however evil we think it, or selfishly to promote our own secular success. Secular detachment, reached from recognition of transcendence, leads instead to a different game. “And when I felt that I could care or not care precisely as I chose, struggle or give way as I wished,” Boileau declares, “I let my mind come to life again to discover how I should pass the time from now until that God I had learned to love and fear again called me to judgment”(126).

To pass the time Boileau abandons the law to become an historian, an excellent choice of profession, according to his father, because “there was no money in my work. It had no commercial value of any kind” (126). Boileau chooses the history of rebellion as his special field, and although he is neither ideologically in favor of or opposed to it, his clear, accurate, and detached writing makes him “well known in certain quarters”(129) where his objectivity is construed as compassion, and he appears to many as “a champion of revolution”(129). In fact, to the embarrassment of his senior professor, Boileau considers revolution merely another “way of passing time, of occupying oneself—or oneselves—until history came to a close” (127). The senior professor fails to understand how Boileau can be so “detached”(127) about the atrocities of war and rebellion, especially those committed by the Germans in World War II. “You know what . . . they did. Dachau. Ravensbruck . . .”(128), he stutters, and Boileau promptly replies, “Yes. And I know what we did.” Quoting a poem, he continues, “Those to whom evil is done/Will do evil in return”(128). “The Jews, the Slavs . . .”(128), the senior professor falters, his sentence finished instead by Boileau’s calm, “Will have their day and do no differently”( 128).

Speaking from the detachment of a human solidarity in sin, which Boileau’s senior professor obviously prefers to deny or at least to ignore, Boileau is stating the obvious. “A historical situation,” writes Bishop Jenkins, “which requires or enables the oppressed to fight the oppressor and the poor to overcome the rich does not thereby produce a temporary race of privileged humans whose acts of violence, hate and power become human and humanizing because they are fighting for the underprivileged against privileged exploiters”(69). Boileau’s detachment reveals what his senior professor’s sentimental wishful thinking obscures. “Unless sinfulness is recognized as something shared in by all human beings,” writes Jenkins, “then there is no escape from the dehumanizing limitations of false and premature absolutes proclaimed by limited and partial agents of a partially understood historical process”(69).

The Bombardier contains a pervasive wit and humor, much of it black, but its tough anti-sentimentalism may readily discourage some readers. I have dwelled on it, however, because its rich texture of scene, language, and character sets out the implications of detachment from secular urbanism in such detail.

The Upper Hand

Soon after finishing the first draft of And Wait for the Night, Bill began his second novel. He announced this to his friend Thomas Bell in a letter written soon after he finishing the revisions to his first novel requested by Putnam’s:

JWC to Thomas Bell, August 10, 1963
Fumbling with writing scenes from second novel. Tentative title: THE UPPER HAND. About a renegade priest, a professional abortionist, a cop who buggers prisoners, a Westchester young exec type on the lam after being caught as head-man of homosexual-sadistic movie productions in New York. Some book. I’ll show you a few scenes I’ve done when I come over.

That fall Bill and I and our first two children, Shelley and John, went to England so that Bill could complete his D.Phil. at the University of Sussex. He was supposed to be busy writing a dissertation on James Joyce’s Dubliners (and did indeed complete it and won his degree) but still found time to work on The Upper Hand.

JWC to Thomas Bell, November 8, 1963
Second book underway. Not much telling yet what’s happening, but the characters and the ideas are beginning to settle a little. Hope it’ll come faster than the last one.

JWC to Thomas Bell, January 31, 1964
The second novel is taking wild and horrible shape. I’ve finished four sketches and the first chapter. I’ll have Joyce make a carbon of DR AORTA, when she does a fair copy for magazine submission. I want a couple of the early chapters in print quick so as to immediately counteract any tendency to label me a ‘historical’ novelist.’ I think you will find Dr Aorta of the 20th century.

It is worth noting that Bill’s way of beginning a novel was to write character sketches consisting of incidents from the past of the main characters that shaped or reflected who they were. These were then inserted as standalone chapters to the main body of the narrative soon after that character was introduced to the reader. He succeeded in placing two of these character sketched in literary magazines before the novel was completed.

The “Dr. Aorta” chapter was published in Motive (Nashville, Tennessee, Vol. 26, No. 2, November 1965. 12ff) and the Mary Ann Downey chapter, titled “To Carthage Then I Came,” in The Southwest Review (Dallas, Texas, Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring 1966. 110ff).

JWC to Thomas Bell, March 3, 1964
I’ll have some of novel #2 for you to see pretty soon. Hoping to finish it in a furious year’s work this coming August onward. Putnam’s has seen one piece and likes it a lot. It has to be good if I can write at all. It’ll really interest you because it’s a novel about God, I think. Some our own problems will be in it. And maybe even a solution or tow. But don’t count on that.

The Upper Hand is a novel infused with religious symbolism and concerns. Bill had been raised a Catholic and at the time he wrote the novel was practicing that faith. The first line of the novel is: “God Almighty,” the bus driver groans. The reader soon learns that a passenger on the bus, Christopher Nieman, is a young priest who, in the midst of celebrating the mass, reciting “Credo in unum Deum,” realized, “No, I don’t.” This loss of faith drives Christopher to abandon the priesthood and eventually journey into the Hell of the New Orleans French Quarter, “La Bas” as the middle section of the book is titled. There he discovered an array of demonic figures–none worse than Dr Aorta, a former Nazi and an abortionist. (Bill was greatly affected by seeing, as a child, the horrors of the Nazi death camps revealed, and his Catholic rearing caused him to strongly object to abortion, so in Dr Aorta, Bill created a double-dyed villain). Near the end of the book, when Dr Aorta is killed, the marquee light he lies under shows his face as alternately red, yellow and black, like the three faces that Dante gave his Satan. In the last scene of The Upper Hand, Christopher sits looking at a misty street lamp that exhibits a corona of three radiant circles, Dante’s image of God. Christopher experiences a “hunger he cannot bring into focus” and seeks to satisfy his hunger with a glass of Ballentine ale, a “sprit” which has on its label the same three interlocking circles that represent God. Whether Christopher’s journey into Hell leads him to regain his faith is left to the reader to decide for himself, but the last section is titled “Anabasis,” Greek for “an advance upward.”

Fortunately, there was not much difficulty in getting the novel published.

JWC to Thomas Bell, March 18, 1964
Putnam’s is talking about a contract and advance on my second book before they get my first one out. Good. I can use the money now, and won’t need it when I get home and on salary again [as an Assistant Professor on the English faculty at LSU in Baton Rouge].

JWC to Thomas Bell, May 20, 1966
Big news. I’ve been offered the job of Associate Professor and Chairman of the Loyola University English Department in New Orleans, and will almost certainly accept it.

The novel is being typed now, and will, I hope, be off to Putnam’s by 1 June. Very tough book. I have hopes for it, but you never get up for a book if you’re smart. Too much to go wrong.

JWC to Thomas Bell, October 26, 1966
I’ve just ended a long brawl with Putnam’s, have beaten them to pulp and buggered them in the ear. The book will be out early next year and it will be the book I wrote. It may not be very good but will have the earmarks of my own profound, sexy and constipated personality.

But the reception of the book was mixed. I recall that the cashier at the Loyola University Bookstore, where it went on sale while Bill was teaching there, told people who were purchasing a copy that it was a terrible book and no one should buy it. But literary people were more appreciative:

Jim Harrison to JWC, June 12, 1967
I finished your book, and it is sure damn good. I, too, am anxious to see what the reviews will be like. Some of it is awfully strong stuff, even in the days of William Burroughs an those of his ilk and/or habits. The great thing about the book is its linguistic energy and drive (I wonder if Walker [Percy] would agree with me on this. He is such a deceptively mild, understated, particular kind of writer). What you do, I think, is to create a particular kind of speaking voice—several of them, in fact—that are not only convincing as speech (and not just novelistic speech, but real speech) but interesting, consistently interesting, as well. I won’t say any more until I go back through the book and level down on trying to figure out how you do what you do, and then I’ll will write you a very long letter on it, if you like. Anyway, it’s great. Congratulations, indeed.

This kind of mixed opinion about the book is not surprising. The Upper Hand is a serious novel about the difficulty of maintaining faith in God in the corrupt modern world. But the many religious references (Christopher becoming a bread delivery man for Staff o’ Life Bakeries, the pornographer Benny Boundoch making a blue movie about sex between monks and nuns titled “The Question,” Mary Ann Downy becoming pregnant with a child of uncertain parentage, etc.) are humorous, ironic and even sacrilegious. That ambivalence resulted in The Upper Hand never finding a large popular audience in the 1960s. Perhaps the more liberal world of the twenty-first century is more ready to embrace it.

The Writing and Publication of And Wait for the Night

Bill was a graduate student in English Literature at Rice University when we met in the fall of 1967. He was already writing and publishing poetry, but he had always been interested in history. Soon after Bill and I married in 1960, he focused his reading on Civil War history and began collecting a library of books about that era, especially Bruce Catton’s works. But it was Hodding Carter’s book The Angry Scar, which graphically narrates the suffering of the South during Reconstruction, that most influenced him. While not abandoning his work as a poet, Bill determined to write a novel, using the occupation of his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana as an exemplar. This, his first novel, he titled And Wait for the Night.

It was written in the period 1960-1963 and published in 1964, a period corresponding to the centennial observation of the Civil War. Since this was over fifty years ago, my personal recollections of the events are hazy, so I thought I would refresh my memory by consulting copies of correspondence from that time between Bill and his two Rice University friends Larry McMurtry and Thomas Bell. Larry is well known as an author, and needs no further introduction. Tom was a newspaper reporter and the eventual Chairman of Journalism at Loyola University in New Orleans. On reading through the existing correspondence (Bill kept Larry’s letters and Tom’s daughter, Julie Bell Margules, kindly provided me copies of correspondence Tom had saved after her father’s death), I found the history of the writing and publication of And Wait for the Night so interestingly told, that rather than paraphrase it, I decided to just quote excerpts from the letters. I begin with a one from Larry in which he offered to recommend Bill’s nascent novel to his publisher, Harper’s.

Larry McMurtry to JWC, Oct 9, 1960
I’ll ask [John] Leggett [editor at Harper’s] about the Civil War novel, he may leap. Everybody tells me to tell them where there is talent to be bought cheap, so I will give them the name and let you determine the price.

JWC to Thomas Bell, March 20, 1961
HARPER’S HAS OPTIONED MY NOVEL. Yes, yes, yes.
$100 to hold it for them til I complete it. And that on the strength of having seen only seventy pages of the original draft. If they like that portion that much, they’ll flip faced with the whole thing. So will I, when I’ve worked my guts into printer’s ink.

Lerry McMurtry to JWC, March 22, 1961
Well, of course, hurrah! I was wondering what had become of your civil war project and was meaning to ask Leggett about it. Advise you to hook them deep and hard. $100 will spend quick, but then it’s that much less to come out of your advance when you got to that stage.
Leggett is a good honest guy with a heart of granite—I will be curious to see how you react when he puts the editorial full-nelson on you. He and I like each other a lot, but don’t trust each other one bit.
Anyhow, I’m glad you’re moving with prose again. If you’re interested in epic or tragedy I think you have to work in prose these days.

JWC to Thomas Bell, July 7, 1961
The book creeps on. I got to accelerate my pace on this thing, or it’ll be out after the centennial years are over. But I think most of what I have is pretty good. I’ve come to the conclusion that a novel should be full of action, movement, and that introspection, et al, is for dookie. I never did like Henry James, and too much current writing seems to be laboring under her talkative wing.

JWC to Thomas Bell, July 27, 1961
Things go well here. First chapter of the novel has been accepted for separate publication in THE GEORGIA REVIEW. [“Union in the Rain,” The Georgia Review, Athens, Georgia, Vol. 16, No. 2, Summer 1962. 141ff]

JWC to Thomas Bell, October 31, 1961
As much as I hate it, the sea-change is coming. I feel prose getting into my bowels like somebody’s little lever pills. I think I bilked the public and fooled the editors with this poetry crap long enough. I feel no poems, want no poems, like no poems. I feel wads of meaty description, and the need to invent new actions. Leaps of uncanny length. Monumental thrusts. It will probably happen in bits and pieces, but I think the long-awaited transition is underway.

JWC to Thomas Bell, December 6, 1961
Here’s the last of the Vicksberg portion. Let me hear what you think of it. I have now the whole Vicksburg section complete, and it runs 185 pages. Fills a binder. Now for the Shreveport sections. This book will take forever. I only hope it’s publishable when I give up on it.

Thomas Bell to JWC, December 10, 1961
I’ve just finished reading the ms you sent. Maybe I should criticize it a bit, I guess you want that, but right now I’m thinking mostly about how good it is to sit and read something that puts down as it must have been. And the feelings each time something happens that that is the thing which would have happened and that is what a man would have said.

JWC to Thomas Bell, December 13, 1961
Thanks for the comments . . . I’ll send you the Shreveport sections as they get done. In ways, the Shreveport stuff will be harder, and in ways easier. Hardier because of the weaving between scenes and characters, the balance needed. Easier because the stage will be wider than the close constructed area of three men in a falling city.

JWC to Thomas Bell, December 31, 1961
I got about half a chapter done over the holidays so far. Not a long chapter, but something completely unlike anything I’ve done before. No war, no Homeric poses: just a poor-white girl figgering how to get up in the world, and falling in love with the ladder. It’s a pleasure to do some depth-probing, and to start feeling out the edges of the talent. I knew I could do action and such, but I don’t’ know yet whether I can move in on an unspectacular individual and make rich and communicative without a lot of verbal cosmetic crap.

JWC to Thomas Bell, January 22, 1962
The BIG News: Harper’s has offered me a contract for the book. $1,000 advance: $500 now, and the balance on delivery—and 10% on the first 5,000 sold. Now they’re hooked. They got to publish it or lose all that loot. What a break—and on top of that, the writing is going well. I’ll send you a carbon of the Don Juan Cleburne section soon. In a way, I expect it’s the most touching thing I ever wrote. I felt like an observer, and I was hurting for this man even as I wrote.

JWC to Thomas Bell, March 15, 1962
Did I tell you I got a letter from John Leggett at Harper’s? He called the Cleburne thing “great.” Felt too much exposition in Lodge, but liked it basically. No suggestion of change in the Cleburne. Looks like I’m ginning, so long as he doesn’t get the idea that I can make all the book come up to Cleburne. No chance.

JWC to Thomas Bell, April 29, 1962
I’m into chapter one, part two. It’s a general look at what the military occupation and reconstruction South looked like—as capsulated in Shreveport. I am being especially careful in this chapter so that, if attacked by some yankee liberal editor for overstating, I can document everything—including the amount stolen, and the people dispossessed or killed.

JWC to Thomas Bell, May, 1962
Chaz [poet Charles Bukowski with whom Bill corresponded at length] got Cleburne. His comments are too complimentary to repeat. Anyhow, it broke down his distaste for the novel. We had had quite a debate on whether a poem or a novel was the superior form. Of course this is a meaningless debate: a good poem is better than a bad novel, etc. But a great novel seem to be to me a larger achievement than a great poem. I would rather have done ULYSSES than THE WASTE LAND.

JWC to Thomas Bell, May 20, 1962
Glad you liked Amos and Rye—which is more than Leggett did. He feels it’s too expository for a novel, and that the material needs to be made dramatic or sifted into a tight narrative and structure . . . He liked the Mexican War bit. He says I never miss on action. Maybe I ought to write for TRUE magazine. . . . I’m supposed to go to New York in September to discuss final revisions.

JWC to Thomas Bell, November 18, 1962
The trip north was, as you might say, satisfactory. John Leggett is an intelligent and earnest young Yale grad (not too young), and we get along well. I think they’re pretty impressed with the book and want it to go well. They want me to thin it down, but only to make it tighter and more dramatic—they say it’s too talky in places, which is probably true. I think we’ll get along all right.

JWC to Thomas Bell, March 28, 1963
I finished it Sunday night about 10:30. It is about 925 pages and Joyce is typing up final chapter for Harper’s. It’s good to be through, but you feel kind of lost.

NOTE: On submitting the manuscript to Harper’s, Bill received a request from John Leggett to re-write the manuscript adding a female character for each male character since “80% of the book buying public are women.”

Larry McMurtry to JWC, April 3, 1963
I haven’t read the book, of course, and am just whistling in the dark. But I would advise give and take with Jack [John Leggett] as far as you can, until you get a contract. After you get one he will no doubt keep pushing to change this and change that but you can just say politely no. But get the contract.

He may ask for work that you are not enthusiastic about, for changes that bug you. Nobody, once they think a book is finished, likes to have to go back and reconceive characters, put in sexy heroines, etc. But it can be done, without making the book any less good as literature, and Jack does not want it to become less good as literature, 80% women readers or no.

But I don’t think you ought to let his ideas bug you into yanking the book back too soon. That would forfeit some good leverage, for this book and career-wise. You start sending a 900-plus page first novel around unsolicited and it is going to lie in slush-piles at one house or another for a year or two at least, unless you get an agent to do the sendin for you.

Not that you should toady to Jack. You should just distinguish between his desires and his demands. His demands you ought to try and concentrate on; they will be any other editor’s demands. His desires you can ignore or think about as you chose. But if you can get the contract without doing anything to the book that violates your vision of it, I would advise it. First novels that long are damn hard to publish.

JWC to Thomas Bell, April 26, 1963
It’s going sour at Harper’s. They want revisions of a kind and extent I can’t and won’t go along with. I’m getting an agent in N.Y. to deal with Leggett—or to take the mss to another publisher. Too much work and heart in that book to fool with it the way Leggett feels I should.

Larry McMurtry, May 4, 1963
I am sorry, of course, for the abyss of difficulties that’s opened between you and Jack. Judging from Jack’s letter and yours, I would say it was unbridgeable, and that you probably ought to arm yourself with a good agent and go elsewhere.

Jack has his limitations, clearly. But one thing he’s seldom guilty of is beating around the bush. What he says plain out is that if you’re willing to throw away half of what you’ve written and to dramatize the half you keep he’ll talk about where and how. That’s what he thinks it needs—and as he says, he’s only right half the time or less. Obviously you don’t think he’s right about your book, so there’s not too much more to say.

Keep in mind though that the world of publishing is cold and nobody alive or recently dead, not even Mr. Faulkner, gets through it without some frostbite and amputation. The hardy only lose toes and fingers.

Larry McMurtry to JWC, May 8, 1963
Good deal. If you’re in with Elizabeth McKee [a literary agent] you’re in with one of the best. She’s as good as anybody, without being as prickish as most. She handles two other friends of mine. Took one novel that had been rejected all over town and sold it in two weeks. I think your fame and fortune are assured, and you can get your mind off the business and keep it on the writing.

JWC to Thomas Bell, May 25, 1963
You’ll be glad to hear that all things have worked well for the sake of justice and The Southern Cause. Putnam’s has just bought the novel right out from under Harper’s nose. Yes. The chief editor, Peter Israel, is big for it. Putnam’s publishes Norman Mailer, among others. That’s good company. The only kind of revision they want is cutting and stylistic, etc. The kind of thing which I would want to do—have to do—in any case. So we’re back on the rails. Honest men are thus vindicated and the Yankees suffer another defeat.
I have to go to New York in early June to talk over revisions, etc. Will let you know how it goes. This time, we publish a book. Enough crapping around.

JWC to Thomas Bell, June 13, 1963
We’re into the revisions. Rented this IBM typewriter to get it rushed. The Putnam’s editor is, so far, a real great guy. We’ve disputed four or five points: I’ve won all encounters. Looks to me like the book may well be better after revisions than before. Much fat sliced away. Points become barbs.

The re-write is mostly cutting out stuff you love, but which you know you can do without. Then you have to patch and bridge the deleted sections, and the result is some pretty flat and indifferent writing. But the old writing still has flair, and I guess there is some pretty uninspired stuff in every novel.

They plan on [publishing in] February or March if we can hurry. Latest would be June of 1964. My agent says the large advance they paid will tend to make em advertise and promote. I got a feeling that all they’ll have to do is send copies to the liberal reviewers, and they’ll get all the publicity they want.

We’ll be in English, though. [Bill had been accepted into the University of Sussex Graduate Program as a D.Phil. candidate.] Since we have the $2,600 advance coming, we’ve taken the chance and ordered the Morgan sports car. Know anybody who wants to buy a Tr-3?

JWC to Thomas Bell, November 8, 1963
Met the Putnam’s editor-in-chief in London two weekends ago and took last look at book’s prologue. Now at the printer’s getting estimated and proofs will be ready in December. Getting closer all the time. You better get some of your friends and cohorts to review it. I need to sell a lot of copies in order to get home.

JWC to Thomas Bell, January 31, 1964
They sold AND WAIT to an English publisher, Anthony Blond, who has paid £500 advance for it. This is a hell of a big advance in England, and runs up our pre-publication earnings on the book to a point where one more chunk of cash will make it more than a year’s salary at LSU. Wow. There remains the paperback right to peddle, and of course the movie thing. This last seems unlikely, I’m afraid. It’d be awful tough. But there are the book clubs, and AND WAIT is on the A list of the Book of the Month, I understand. Means it’s a high prospect. Here again I expect no dice. Book’s language is too rough. They say the book is leading all others in advance sales on the Putnam’s spring list. This is a good omen. If successful, shit, I’d never work again as long as I live. Only write.

JWC to Thomas Bell, April 25, 1964
I’m sorry the review copy was so late, but it’s a beautiful book, isn’t it? The release date is now 22 May, and Putnam’s is hoping for good things. I’m just holding tight.

The Collected Poems

Having recently made all of the New Orleans Mystery books written by my late husband, John William Corrington, and myself available as e-books and paperbacks on Amazon, I have embarked on a project to make my late husband’s more serious literary work also available.

Corrington began his writing career as a poet in the 1960s, publishing many poems in the “little magazines” so prevalent at the time and in the literary journals published by various universities. In 1962 he submitted a poetry manuscript to a Charioteer Press competition. He won the competition and the reward was the publication of his first book of poetry, Where We Are. The title was drawn from a W. H. Auden quotation: “…Lest we should see where we are,/Lost in a haunted wood,/Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good.”

As Richard Whittington noted of Corrington’s poetry, “…significant qualities…[link] it with the Eliot-Auden lineage. One is its objectivity….an ever-expanding, all-encompassing ‘I’ is alien to Corrington’s temperament, imagination and expression.” While this is characteristic of Corrington’s early poetry, his style changed under the influence of the “Ginsberg-Patchen-Corso-Ferlinghetti-Bukowski group” as Whittington termed it.

In the 1960s, Corrington began a long-running correspondence with Charles Bukowski. On reading Where We Are, Bukowski wrote to Corrington, “A good enough set but not as well as you are doing NOW which is all the more for the good, ya.”

What Corrington was writing NOW was contained in his second book of poetry, The Anatomy of Love and Other Poem, and his third book of poetry, Mr. Clean and Other Poems, both published in 1964. Ralph Adamo wrote that “One thing is certain of The Anatomy of Love: it finds Corrington at the height of his powers as a poet, confident of his themes and his moves, brimming with a molten language, forging ideas that burn and melt as they roll onward.”

Corrington’s last book of poetry, Lines to the South, was published in 1965. Bukowski wrote of the title poem, “The lines of yours. LINES TO THE SOUTH damn near immortal and if this is overpraise, I am sorry.”

Corrington’s poetry earned a few favorable reviews but not as much attention as his novels. Writing in The Massachusetts Review, Beat poet and critic Josephine Miles approvingly noted two of Corrington’s poems from Lines, “Lucifer Means Light” and “Algerien Reveur,” alongside poetry by James Dickey, but her comments were more in passing than in depth. Dickey himself, it should be noted, admired Corrington’s writing, saying, “A more forthright, bold, adventurous writer than John William Corrington would be very hard to find.”

The poems published in these four books total only 61, thus most of Corrington’s poetry which found print in the “little magazine” and journals has not been collected in book form. The Collected Poems of John William Corrington is intended to remedy this.

After this 1960s, Corrington devoted himself largely to prose, publishing four novels and three books of short stories. The Upper Hand, Corrington’s second novel, is now available as an e-book.

Welcome

Welcome to the site dedicated to the New Orleans Mystery series written by my late husband and myself. These books have not been available to the public (except through used book stores in expensive out of print hard cover versions). With the help (actually he did most of the work) of my son Robert Corrington, all five books in the series are now available as Kindle e-books on Amazon. Naturally I am very excited about this development, and have been announcing it to all my friends. This web site is to announce it to all of you who don’t know me, but appreciate good action/adventure mysteries, with bold, fun characters, who live in that historic but crime-ridden city, New Orleans — “the city that care forgot” or as the beleaguered natives sometimes say, “the city that forgot to care.”

Three characters continue throughout the series, though the point of view changes from book to book:

Wes Colvin is narrator of So Small a Carnival and Fear of Dying. He is my late husband’s alter ego (it’s no accident that John Wesley Colvin has the same initials as John William Corrington, and is a redneck from Shreveport, who hates the corruption of New Orleans). Wes is a reporter for the New Orleans Item (a fictional newspaper, let me hasten to say), but is anxious to move on to bigger and better things. But he finds himself deeply attracted to a local girl from a prominent old New Orleans family, whose roots run so deep it’s unlikely she will ever leave.

Denise Lemoyne, Wes’s girlfriend, is the narrator of A Civil Death. She is not my alter ego (I’m a middle-class Texan, not a New Orleans socialite, but we did raise our family in one of those huge old Uptown houses so I know the scene well). Despite her background, I insisted Denise not be “girly,” and her character was written to be smart, bold, and sexy, while still concerned with the social norms she was raised to follow.

Ralph “Rat” Trapp, a NOPD Captain of Homicide, is the narrator of A Project Named Desire and The White Zone. He is modeled on a friend of ours who was, like Rat, an army veteran, but who returned to his home town to become the director of the Desire project rather than a cop like Rat. Rat and Wes are best friends since they share an equal contempt for “rules.” Rat treats New Orleans (and Hollywood when he visits there) like a combat zone, where anything goes.

If you are interested in how this series began, it was like this: My husband said he would like to write an “entertainment,” a mystery story, and had in mind a first scene: a man walks into a bar and finds everyone there has been murdered. But he did not have a plot. I was the story teller in our writing team, so I said to let me think about it. After a time I came back and said, “It was because of Huey Long’s assassination in the 1930s…” The resulting novel became So Small a Carnival. It sold readily to Viking Press, and it was subsequently translated and reprinted in six foreign editions. Thus, we decided to continue with the series. If you read them all, you will discover that the underlying motive in all five books is something from the past. As Faulkner noted: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”