What price glory? The following is a monologue with Dr. Byron Gatling Gunn on the topic "Remunerative Peer Recognition: Friend or Foe of the Artist?" Gunn, a distinguished professor of Obvious Fiction at Harvard University, has rejected scores of prizes during his career, among them the Nobel, the Bollingen, the Thurmidor Seafood Toastmaster Citation, and every Pulitzer since 1951. Here he reveals why.
The decision to turn down a substantial annual stipened from the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation was not one made in haste, nor -- as some have disingenuously suggested -- as in irony of vengeance against my creditors, many of whom appeared in bibs, presumably expecting lobter on the deck, when the so-called geniuses were announced last week.
Twenty-one "exceptionally talented individuals" did accept cash awards ranging from $24,000 to $60,000 a year for five years. I believe I was along in standing first against such a torrent of ignoble oblige, as I have stood fast since 1949, when my self-disqualification from the Cruickshank Crankpole Deed of Merit precipitated that bitter debate in the pages of Prairie Schooner.
Yet still the interrogative resounds: Why, Gum? Porquoi?
Why? The answer is to be found in my life, my work, my gift -- and specifically in Canto XIV of my epic poem "Agamemnon at Vesuvius" (Winesucker Press, 1957. 10 volumes. $660 FOB New Orleans): He strode astride the flaming, steaming stream, His unsalved calves the furious lava cutting into halves.
Oh execrable singularity! But do you think for a moment I could have penned those lines while swaddled in the comfort of a guaranteed stipend?
Was it not instead necessary for the dirigible of my artistic soul to remain steadfastly anchored to the pylon of necessity? To wade shank's mare in the furious lava of experience?
I abhor myself as example, but there are so few of us left. As for these stipened intellects, forcibly weaned from the lactile springs of mothering self-sufficiency -- well, for them I feel a grave pity. They are ruined Agamemnons who have fled the molten magma for the melted butter. And those who have tasted the forbidden lobster are those abandoned by the muse.
It is not easy to turn down money. Oh, you needn't tell me about that. Twenty-one "exceptionally talented individuals" did not turn down the money. One of them, Robert Penn Warren, accepted $60,000 a year for the next five years. He is an honorable man. They are all honorable men. Now let them live with it. What a marvellous capacity for unhappiness we writers have. -- Arnauti, Durrell's "Justine"
And what a capacity to lose!
Four of the MacArthurian knights revealed that their intention, on receiving the cash benefits of their exceptionalness, is to embark upon the novels they had hitherto been unable to get started or finished. With what eagerness the world awaits these books. Ha!
Gentlemen, I give you my axiom: Art Without Suffering is Macrame.
It is necessary to be uncomfortable.
William Dean Howells wrote "The Story of a Country Town" on a kitchen table with legs of uneven length -- a near-intolerable unsteadiness. Thomas Wolfe endured writing standing up, his head lodged painfully in the ceiling. Ernest Hemingway (until the Nobel ruined him) composed with both fists clenched, making the mere holding of the pencil an excruciating trial. Stephen Crane, after the remarkable success of "The Red Badge of Courage," intentionally left off cleaning his house, which became littered with chickens necks and other abominable appurtenances. A fact shielded to us by sloppy scholarship on the part of tenured classics professors is that Homer, while reciting the "Iliad" around the campfire, always balanced a cannonball on his nose. He did it for his art. All of these men suffered willingly for their art.
It is with them that I align myself, for it is the independence of the artistic spirit, and only that, that keeps the lobster away from the portal of the domicile of straw in which little pigs of "exceptional talent" cower while the wolf of financial stability huffs and puffs a devastating gale that will blow them to kingdom come, mark my words Mr. Robert Penn Warren.
How little, really, we understand. An old friend, fresh from a clambake and reeking of mussels and clams and fishes, and of course lobster, bits of that special seaweed they use still clinging to his chops, his finger glistening with butter, accosted me in my study recently.
"Byron Gatling," he said sternly. "Accept one Nobel, and be done with it. "The $165,000 would easily repay your debts, and you could see to it as well that "Agamemnon at Vesuvius" appear in paperback as you have long dreamed!"
He is an old man now, but I cuffed him as you would a game-show host.
No! I will stand with my little band of immutable heroes.With Sartre and Pasternak and George C. Scott and Marlon Brando and with all the conscientious rejectors.
I will continue to write each year to Sweden, and to chicago, and to all the venues where benefactors lie in wait, stirring the sauces of corruption:
Dear Prize Committee: I am not a candidate.
I am proud to say that without exception my requests have been honored.
With regret I leave you now, fellow artists. My wife, Lady Cornwallis LeFleur Lichtensteinberg de Rothschild-Busch, requires me at the opera, and she, like art, must always be obeyed. Should any creditors appear, you may refer them to her.